Thursday, June 08, 2006

Conversation as combat

Simply by chance, I followed Stephen Miller’s Conversation with A House and Its Head (1938) the first novel I’ve read by Ivy Compton-Burnett , who wrote almost entirely in dialogue, telling stories of utterly self-involved, ethically bankrupt turn-of-the-century English families. Compton-Burnett is in her singular way a descendant of Jane Austen, brutally analyzing the gap between what is said and what is meant in polite society, baring the cruelty underlying banal pleasantries. But whereas in Austen there’s always some hope, and a heroine, Compton-Burnett’s world is utterly unredeemed. Power and self-interest trump all.

Anthony Powell, in an obituary appreciation in the Spectator in 1969, wrote:
She saw life in the relentless terms of Greek tragedy, its cruelties, ironies, hypocrisies—above all its passions—played out against a background of triviality and ennui.
Dead-on, but awfully bleak. So why read her? Well, she can be as perceptive as Jane Austen, more brutal than Evelyn Waugh, and, at times, as precise and funny as Wodehouse. For example, in this exchange, some friends are talking about the central family in A House and Its Head, the Edgeworths, which has just lost its matriarch:
“Ellen’s family! What a beautiful and intimate sound! That is how I shall think of them. I shall not feel it presumptuous, kept to the confines of my own mind.”

“It will be narrowly restricted,” agreed her brother.

Later, the widower’s daughter, speaking to the governess about her father’s grief, says:
“Well, I would rather be myself than him just now.”

“Why?” said Cassie.

“Cassie, you must know he was not kind enough to Mother. It does no good to pretend to forget.”

“I should have thought it would do a great deal of good.”

After the father remarries, the neighbors, who serve as an impressively uninformed Greek chorus, discuss the new bride:
”Did Mr. Edgeworth seem very attached?” said Miss Burtenshaw at the same moment.

“Yes,” said the men together.

“As much as to the first Mrs. Edgeworth? “


“How could you tell?” said Miss Burtenshaw.

“Well, you must know of ways, to ask the question,” said Oscar.

That’s more or less how the manner of the whole book. Line after line of cutting dialogue, veering from funny to horrifying to painful, the difference sometimes being as little as a change of a word or two. The dialogue—like the situations themselves—is too stylized to be realistic, yet it has a fractured quality that feels particularly modern, even contemporary. Characters mutter under their breath, interrupt, don’t listen, and talk over one another. With each exchange, even between supposed friends, points are scored—and kept. Barbara Pym, in a 1938 letter to her friend Robert Liddell, asked,
Does one ever make consciously Compton-Burnett remarks in situations where they would be most fruitful I wonder? I must have the courage to try someday.

Instead, she would go on to write some.

Only two of Compton-Burnett’s twenty novels are currently in print, with the New York Review of Books continuing its heroic publishing efforts by reissuing recently her Manservant and Maidservant (1947) and A House and Its Head. Not being part of any real school or fashion has probably played a part in her falling out of favor, as would not being known for any one particular book above others.

But I think the most important reason she is little read these days is that, as Arnold Bennett put it in reviewing her third novel, Brothers and Sisters (1929), she is “by no means easy to read.” Like Jane Austen (or Penelope Fitzgerald, who took after both Austen and Compton-Burnett), she demands that her readers pay very close attention or risk missing everything. Important shifts in emotion—and even key plot points—are conveyed only through dialogue, buried beneath exaggerated late-Victorian indirection.

Yet, as Arnold Bennett argued later in that same review, Brothers and Sisters was “original, strong and incontestably true to life.” Odd and claustrophobic as Compton-Burnett’s vicious, astringent world is, after twenty or thirty pages it comes to seem very real. I think Anthony Powell was right when he wrote, later in that same obituary,
My reason for thinking [the world of her novels] is not wholly extinct is partly on account of the vitality of the novels themselves—if people were ever like this, there must be people always like this; partly because one will suddenly be confronted—in a railway carriage, for example—with a great burst of overheard Compton-Burnett dialogue.

And, as Barbara Pym put it in another letter to Robert Liddell, two years later,
The influence of Miss Compton-Burnett is very powerful once it takes a hold, isn’t it? For a time there seems to be no point in writing any other way, indeed, there seems not to be any other way, but I have found that it passes (like so much in this life) and I have now got back to my own way, such as it is. But purified and strengthened, as after a rich spiritual experience, or a shattering love affair.

It’s worth picking up one of her novels and reading a few pages. You’ll know pretty quickly if she’s for you.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for introducing me to Compton-Burnett. The snippets you provided in your blog were enough to send me on a quest to find one of her books for me to read.