- 'The Military Orchid’ and Other Novels by Jocelyn Brooke
Penguin, 437 pp, £10.99, August 2002, ISBN 0 14 118713 1
‘An unjustly neglected author’? This was at least how Anthony Powell wrote of Jocelyn Brooke, none of whose books remained in print at the time of his death in 1966. But the neglect was to some degree remedied when, in 1981, Secker and Warburg reissued his Orchid Trilogy as a single volume, with an introduction by Powell, and it is nice to see this trilogy now reprinted as a Penguin Classic.
For his work is oddly appealing, and it is worth probing why. The form, as he invented it in his first book, The Military Orchid (1948), and exploited further in A Mine of Serpents and The Goose Cathedral, as well as in the later The Dog at Clambercrown (1955), was a distinct discovery. What he is writing, one assumes at first, is autobiography, though handled in an innovative way by a curious system of layering. We have a layer from his early childhood, a layer from his year at prep school, during the 1914-18 war, another from his cheerful time at Bedales, as an Aldous-Huxley-and-Yellow-Book-inspired highbrow (with still the vaguest notions about the facts of life); a layer from his service with the Royal Army Medical Corps, venereal disease department, in the desert of Cyrenaica and later in the Abruzzi. But the layers are not arranged chronologically; they are sorted or folded in on one another, creating unexpected harmonies and discontinuities.
Then it begins to dawn on us that it is not autobiography after all, or at least not faithful autobiography. In The Military Orchid the ‘I’ character is sent to a mildly dotty but unoppressive prep school, dedicated to Christian Science and tolerant of his feebleness at scouting and cricket. In The Goose Cathedral, by contrast, the prep school he is sent to is a hell on earth.
As well as contradictions there are gaps and false trails. He is fond of discovering patterns in his life, though the master pattern eludes him. If this could be found, it would be the one that most fully showed his adult life as still ruled by his childhood fetishes and fantasies. These had much to do with frontiers. In his childhood the world seemed to him ‘a place of fixed and changeless categories’. Walks with his family ended at impassable boundaries; ‘Beyond them lay The Country – a country which, in fact, I knew, but which, cut off by that high forbidden barrier, seemed immensely romantic and mysterious.’ Each of the novels in his trilogy – and here is the beauty of his layering method – organises itself around one of his childhood fetishes: the military orchid; fireworks (in A Mine of Serpents); and the ‘goose cathedral’, an absurd pseudo-Ruskinian Gothic lifeboat-house on the cliffs near Folkestone.
What he writes about family walks is, as he well knew, an echo of Proust and of the two walks, the way by chez Swann and the Guermantes Way, that in the young Marcel’s imagination were hermetically sealed off from each other. Indeed, Proust’s novel was altogether a revelation to Brooke, and at one time he dreamed of writing ‘a vast Proustian masterpiece’ to cover his own life and the lives of everyone he knew. Later, he saw through this as bogus. ‘Bogus’ was a favourite ‘Thirties’ word with him, and one that he often inflicted on himself. His adult life was a losing battle with a mass of defeatisms. He was plagued by, as he described it, a ‘dissolution of the self’. Or was it, he would wonder, that he did not have a real self at all? ‘Bovarysme’ was another of the insults he heaped on himself. He had written, intermittently, throughout the 1930s, without succeeding in getting published, and the Second World War rescued him from a morass of neurosis and self-doubt.
One does not suppose that those unpublished writings were ‘unjustly neglected’. Even when, in the trilogy, he discovered a viable and original form, he remained in certain ways fairly amateurish. He is capable of falling into the dimmest dry facetiousness: ‘The late Franz Kafka was never, if his biographers are to be trusted, employed at the Royal Crimean Hospital – a fact which the many admirers of his work cannot but deplore, since the experience would doubtless have supplied him with unique and valuable material for the exercise of his talent.’ His references to Kafka or Freud or Joyce are invariably banal, and he tends to lard his prose with too many, or too hackneyed, tags from T.S. Eliot or Mallarmé. He has a good ear for speech, but he has only rather shopworn devices when it comes to building up characters.
A point of some interest arises here. In A Mine of Serpents, Brooke constructs a lengthy saga round a friend of his elder brother’s, Captain Basil Medlicott. Medlicott appears a hearty, back-slapping, unquenchably loquacious Army type, though there is just a hint that he may be homosexual. As a boy, the narrator hero-worships him, and when they meet again years later Medlicott insists on treating him as an old friend, dining him at expensive restaurants or taking him on exhausting pub crawls. The narrator cannot make up his mind whether Medlicott is, as his brother insists, a ‘most remarkable man’ or just a bore, but he is too weak-willed to refuse him his company, and gradually mystery thickens around Medlicott. He is very rich, the rumour goes; he is related to or friendly with half the English nobility; he had a hush-hush job in Intelligence during the 1914-18 war; he is a foreign spy. Medlicott writes the narrator paranoid letters about his non-payment of a very small loan, and next he makes a highly aristocratic marriage to a lady twenty years older than himself.
Medlicott’s avatars are amusing enough, yet do not really strike us as leading anywhere, and this is an example of an important law. High talent in autobiography (whether fictional or of the real-life kind) shows itself in conveying how the author himself or herself appeared to other people. In this lies much of the greatness of Rousseau and Proust. One thinks of how vividly Proust evokes Marcel’s impact on Saint-Loup’s fellow officers – their mock-amorous rivalry in sitting next to him to hear his brilliant talk.
Of course, an autobiographer may very probably not think other people’s picture of him true, or not the complete truth; nevertheless, a really talented one will render it with objectivity. He does not privilege himself as neutral or all-seeing or a camera eye. Now this is what Brooke’s ‘I’ character fails to do. It is a puzzle to him, just as it is to us, what Medlicott thinks of him and why he is so keen on his company; and for this reason interest leaks away. Other people’s idea of oneself, it would seem, if one can get it into focus, does more for one than the search for one’s ‘real’ self.
What is impressive, though, is Brooke’s unimpeachable modesty and unpretentiousness. He acknowledges that he cannot do the simplest arithmetic or fill in a form or profit from reading a newspaper. He was a habitual scribbler, but it took him the greatest effort to believe in himself as a serious writer; and after his highbrow Bedales days he never even pretended to be a thinker. At most, when he took up the theory that Italian peasants, unlike the chattering classes, had grasped the art of living, he was sailing with the current of the time. How the year of The Military Orchid comes back to one! That postwar moment of ration books and travel restrictions, of the lust for food, and hymnings of garlic, and John Minton’s seductive, and faintly Post-Impressionist, illustrations to Elizabeth David. Brooke, after the war, heads for the Mediterranean as fast as he possibly can, but, being Brooke, he is already deeply nostalgic for his Army days there and strives to reanimate certain epiphanic moments – with no success whatever.
In his largely uneventful life, Brooke did one truly striking thing. A year or so after his demobilisation, and after writing The Military Orchid, he decided that his life was not hanging together and he rejoined the Army, again as a private soldier. It was a bold and highly intelligent move. He realised by now that his relationship with the Army was a sort of love-affair, and servility towards an officer class bothered him not at all – it simplified life. This move was by no means a backing into the limelight, in the style of T.E. Lawrence; it contained the possibility of moments of simple, irresponsible happiness. The rhythm of the life arranged itself round certain fixed points: reveille; the horrid turmoil of the wash-house (‘the steel-cold splashing of water . . . the farts and curses exploding obscenely in the thin, pure air of morning’); then breakfast, a small peak of happiness; a ‘level tract of boredom, sloping up abruptly towards the ten o’clock Naafi break’; more boredom; then at last teatime, when, relaxing and with nothing more demanded of him, he can see his day as a pattern, ‘a framework within which happiness could spring into sudden unexpected bloom, like a flower from the bare rock’.
Jonathan Hunt, who is at work on a biography of Brooke, argues in his percipient preface to the Penguin edition that, for Brooke’s narrator as a child, the Orchis militaris ‘seems to embody all the desirable qualities of masculinity, which he feels he lacks and can never attain’; also, more generally, that the military orchid, with the other orchids mentioned in the text, is one of the devices whereby Brooke ‘alludes to what cannot be directly stated, but is frequently present in the three books: “the love that dare not speak its name”’.
He could well be right; but there is another way of thinking about the matter. The military orchid may have had a coded meaning; but Brooke’s love for wildflowers and for botany in general, acquired in childhood, was anyway a passion strong enough to sustain him throughout his life. It was, essentially, a passion for classification, reminding us of his childhood vision of the world as ‘a place of fixed and changeless categories’. He evidently adored the Linnaean system of orders and families and genera and species and varieties. The passion brought vitality to his prose style. How beautiful this is: ‘And in mid-winter, the meadows near the hospital had been starred with a small lily, bluish-purple and cold as Sirius, flickering like a weak spirit-flame among the drenched grasses.’ You might even say that botany was the centre of his moral life. For it was a perennial temptation to him to declare that a plant he had found was the military orchid, for which he had so long been searching. He could easily prove it to be so from the best authorities; it was only that, if he searched his heart, he would know that it wasn’t. This was a point of honour, and he observed it very faithfully.