Sunday, April 23, 2006

An odd English boyhood

As I’ve mentioned before, I started reading Julian MacLaren-Ross only because he is considered to be the model for X. Trapnel, a louche young writer who figures prominently in the final three novels of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Trapnel is a striking figure; tall, thin, and bearded, he carries a sword cane surmounted by a tiny skull. “The final effect had that touch of surrealism that redeems from complete absurdity, though such redemption was a near thing, only narrowly achieved.” A peerless raconteur, and utterly feckless, he always needs to be stood drinks and fronted cab fare. (The reason he takes cabs everywhere? “Taxis provided a security, denied to the man on foot, against bailiffs serving writs for debt.”) Narrator Nicholas Jenkins, recently moved to a quiet country house, spends many a late night in Trapnel’s company—to some extent reliving his own youth in the bubbly 1920s. Though he enjoys Trapnel’s rackety eccentricity, he can foresee the inevitable dissolution.

According to everything I’ve read, the differences between MacLaren-Ross and Trapnel were minor. Somehow, however, in the midst of a short life spent rambling around the pubs of Fitzrovia at all hours, MacLaren-Ross managed to write a couple of volumes of autobiography and a bunch of short stories. I just finished his memoir of his boyhood, The Weeping and the Laughter, which, in its convoluted, Latinate sentence structure bears a bit of a resemblance to Powell’s writing. Thought it’s out of print in the United States, it’s great fun and has value well beyond the Powell connection.

The opening will give you a sense of MacLaren-Ross’s intentionally overblown sense of drama:

Soon after my birth, which took place at midnight and during a thunderstorm , war broke out, and one of my earliest memories is of being snatched from my cot and carried out in my father’s arms on to the lawn of our house at Ramsgate, just in time to see a German Zeppelin cast its shadow on the rooftop from the vast moonlit menace of the sky.

“Vast moonlit menace of the sky”—that’s the tone in which MacLaren-Ross describes the whole world of his youth; everything is seen through the credulous eyes of young Julian, who has been conditioned by a steady diet of movie thrillers to see lurking mystery everywhere.

His father is obstinate and particular, turning every disagreement into a carefully nurtured feud. When MacLaren-Ross’s sister, Carol, reveals that she is eloping, things do not go well:
When my father wished someone to leave the house, their departure was not long delayed. Carol was no exception to the rule. . . . “We’d neither one of us ever accept a penny of yours,” Carol told him, “but if you must know, we are going to Canada.” . . . “Perhaps your husband imagines the Klondike gold-rush is still in progress? I can assure you that it has been over for many years: your Uncle Reggie was frozen to death there in 1896. Stiff as a board, I remember, was the way they put it at the time.”

Those were the last words he ever spoke to his daughter.

But the other odd relatives bear a share of the blame for the elder MacLaren-Ross’s vexed relationships:
It was owing to the mutual antipathy between Father and Grandma Emily, as she was always called, that they visited us so rarely, to the regret of my mother ,who not unnaturally did not share her husband’s dislike of her parent. Every time they met, my father would make a heroic effort to overcome this, as on the present occasion: the strain of which was reflected in the fixed brightness of his smile while his voice, pitched a tone louder than usual, held [a] spurious and rather ferocious geniality. . . . But Grandma Emily was not deluded, nor did she make any reciprocal attempt to disguise her own feelings: her opening remark, as I recall, prefaced with the eerie cackle that had been in her youth a gay ironical laugh, was: Why, Lambden, you’re looking old.

Uncles (like Uncle Max, who becomes convinced that his business partner is a swindling murderer) and aunts (like Aunt Edith, about whom MacLaren-Ross’s father says, “That woman’s a stormy petrel if I’ve ever seen one.”) shimmer in and out, sometimes living with the family, at other times convincing them to enter into ill-advised financial ventures. Carrying Julian’s naivete throughout the narrative allows MacLaren-Ross to imbue even fairly ordinary details of life with an element of wonder. Disembarking from the Calais ferry, his
first sight of France was of a cloaked man holding an enormous key. . . . He was the subject of [a poster] and advertised not as I thought some super-serial but, as Mother told me . . . a detective agency: even more satisfactory, since I had not imagined such concerns existed outside film or books.

Later, he is enthralled by a French puppet show:
The Judge arrived to try the case, in white wig and black gown. He condemned Guignol to death on the spot. There was no jury, and soon the guillotine was dragged on to the stage, en bloc, by the Gendarme and the Executioner. It seemed Guignol was for it this time, but no: his stick appeared by magic in his arms and he proceeded to murder all the representatives of the law, guillotining personally the Judge and the Executioner after he had stunned them with his stick.

One would have expected this drama of greed and mass murder to conclude, somehow, on a moral note; instead it concluded, oddly, with a paean in praise of drink.

MacLaren-Ross also brings that air of non-judgmental wonder to images and scenes that would otherwise be grotesque, horrible, or affecting, like the beggars Julian finds in Marseilles:
There was a dwarf with a hump on his back and a hare-lip, who apparently lived in the Cathedral de Notre Dame and used to pounce on passers-by from its doorway, pursuing them for some way down the street with curses if he failed to receive a donation. Farther along, a blind woman was stationed, holding a child, also blind, in her arms. The dwarf always stopped short when he reached her territory; so you were safe from him if you got as far as that. . . . After her there was a fairly beggarless stretch of pavement; then came two men in rags, both legless, between the Dames de France and the Galeries de Lafayette. One sat in a sort of box on wheels, exposing the stump of a shoulder like yellow wax, where his arm had seemingly been hacked off with a hatchet. The second man had no box but was propped up on the sidewalk itself and had only sores to exhibit, less interesting than the stump and more repulsive to look at.

And, oh, does MacLaren-Ross love the grotesque. He tells of “a female shark, harpooned off the quay, [that] gave birth to little sharks in her death-agony on the quay.” And of his Uncle Bertie’s pet leech,
which had been employed by a French doctor for cupping my grandmother during a grave illness, Uncle Bertie had become fond of it during the time it was applied to her, and since it had played a large part in saving her life, he felt it should be preserved. Now it lived in a bottle, raw meat was provided daily to supply the blood needed for its sustenance, and he described how, when the meat was sucked dry, it would let go and fall gorged to the bottom of the bottle, where it lay until no longer replete and ready for the next meal: otherwise, to make it loose hold when once anchored to a prey, the best method was to sprinkle salt on it, as with ticks on dogs.

The overall effect is like a mixture of Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, in which siblings form an intense, near-mystical bond in the wake of their father’s self-destructive profligacy, and Flora Thompson’s loving memoirs of growing up in an English country village, Lark Rise to Candleford. Or as if Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, and Jean Shepherd had combined to write a memoir of boyhood.

Ultimately, in The Weeping and the Laughter MacLaren-Ross has recaptured that mistaken sense kids possess that the world is explicable, and that the only reason it doesn’t quite make sense is that they’re not yet adults. By doing so, he simultaneously domesticates the disturbing and renders strange the ordinary, weaving both into an engaging, memorable chronicle of a long-gone world.

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