Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Alice Thomas Ellis

If work obligations weren't continuing to take up just enough of my time and brainspace to keep me from being able to form coherent thoughts about other books, I'd have a proper post for you today on Alice Thomas Ellis's wonderfully strange novel The 27th Kingdom (1982). I read it on the recommendation of Gregory Wolfe, who praised Ellis in response to a request from the New York Times for suggestions from readers for good religious fiction. Wolfe described Ellis as "like Muriel Spark but darker!", to which I'd add, "like Barbara Pym, but darker," and "like Waugh, but less misanthropic," and "like Ivy Compton-Burnett, but with a soul."

The 27th Kingdom is funny and clever, its sentences a careful blend of everyday flatness and matter-of-fact lunacy that is almost exactly what I'm looking for in comic writing and satire. Ellis, of whom I'd somehow never heard before, wrote thirteen novels, and if the others are anywhere near as good as this one, you're going to have to hear me championing her a lot in the months to come.

Tonight, however, I'll just share a particularly entertaining passage. I'm quoting at greater length than usual here because the humor of the passage develops so well and along such unexpected paths that it seems wrong to cut it short. The novel focuses on Aunt Irene, who runs an ill-defined not-quite boarding house where her nephew, Kyril, also lives. In this passage, they're chatting about evolution with Victor, a local who frequently stops by to unload some of the antiques and valuables that his sketchy family "recovers" from "abandoned" buildings:
"It's extremely difficult to explain," said Aunt Irene rather pompously, for she knew that if she actually udnerstood this theory it would be easier to propagate. The fact that she didn't believe a word of it herself was irrelevant at the moment. She wanted to convince and educate Victor and wipe that naughty look of amused and superior contempt off his face. It was suitable, she thought, for persons of her background and education to dismiss as potty as many theories as they liked, but it was very annoying when the unlettered did it.

Aunt Irene really inclined to that simplest of all views: the one expressed so cogently in the book of Genesis, which explained everything with appealing clarity. This was the only view that explained, for instance, mayonnaise. It was patently absurd to suppose that mayonnaise had come about through random chance, that anyone could ever have been silly or brilliant enough to predict what would happen if he slowly trickled oil on to egg yolks and then gone ahead and tried it. An angel must have divulged that recipe and then explained what to do with the left-over white. Meringues--there was another instance of the exercise of superhuman intelligence. To Aunt Irene the Ten Commandments seemed almost insignificant compared with the astonishing miracle of what you could do with an egg. As the angel had left in his fiery chariot he must have added, "And don't forget omelettes, and cake and custard and souffles and poaching and frying and boiling and baking. Oh, and they'r frightfully good with anchovies. And you can use the shells to clarify soup--and don't forget to dig them in round the roots of your roses," the angelic tones fading into the ethereal distance.

It was obvious therefore that the egg had come first. There was something dignified about a silent passive egg, whereas Aunt Irene found it difficult to envisage an angel bearing a hen--which, despite its undoubted merits, was a foolish and largely intractable bird. The concatenation of chickens' wings and angels' wings would have had about it an element of parody which would have greatly lessened the impact of the message.

There must have been three eggs, thought Aunt Irene, going into details. One to eat then and there, and two to hatch--a boy and a girl. It was quite possible to hatch an egg in a human arm-pit--it had been proved on various American campuses and went with swallowing live goldfish and putting ferrets in your trousers.

"Why are you looking like that?" asked Kyril.

"I was wondering why people put ferrets in their trousers," said Aunt Irene.

"Thanatos," said Kyril. "An illustration of the death wish."

"What I wish," said Aunt Irene, "is that you'd never read Freud. It's had a very leaden effect on your conversation."
Reading that, can you possibly not want to seek out the book and read the rest?


  1. Oh, wow, you're in for a treat! I came to Ellis via a book which told me that if I liked Penelope Fitzgerald and Beryl Bainbridge then I'd like her--and I did.

    Ellis had a cat named after Bainbridge, I believe. Her collected newspaper columns (which are nowhere near as good as her novels) make much of the the confusion caused by yelling at Beryl for peeing on the carpet, etc.

  2. I love Alice Thomas Ellis, who I came to originally by way of her column in The Spectator. She wrote funny books but also, with her husband, ensured that Penelope Fitzgerald and Beryl Bainbridge found their ways into print. You can read more about that here - like you, I couldn't resist the temptation to quote a big chunk of Ellis: http://zmkc.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/colin-haycraft_10.html
    As well as the novels, I enjoyed the collection Ellis called "Fish, Flesh and Good Red Herring - a Gallimaufry"
    For religious fiction, I suppose you've already read the wonderful Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay? It is one of my favourite books.

  3. I love that Ellis had a cat named Bainbridge! And thanks, zkmc, for the connection to Fitzgerald (another suitable comparable author for Ellis--they seem to share a preference for the oblique and ambiguous) and Bainbridge. I am really looking forward to reading the rest of her books: I have that feeling you get when you meet someone that you realize is going to be a great friend--a feeling that, with both books and people, seems to come less and less often the farther you get from age 18.

    (Bainbridge is another I've mostly neglected. I finally read recently, and enjoyed but wasn't wholly taken by, Every Man for Himself, which I first knew when it was a Booker Prize finalist in my earliest days working at a London bookstore in 1996 but hadn't read. Where should I go after that with her work? Everything I hear about her suggests that should fit in my stable of favorites.)

    1. re Bainbridge, I started with An Awfully Big Adventure, which I think is full of insight. I also liked her one about Dr Johnson, but I've forgotten what it is called. Her work is possibly a bit patchy.

  4. Bainbridge's work (like Fitzgerald's) divides neatly into two categories: the first partof her career consists mostly of fictions spun from personal experience, while the second part consists of anti-epic historical novels. From the first lot, a good start would be 'An Awfully Big Adventure' or 'The Bottle Factory Outing'; from the second, 'Young Adolf' or 'The Birthday Boys'. Don't start with her short stories--she herself said she wasn't a big fan of short stories, and it does show a bit.

  5. Anonymous11:37 AM

    Alice Thomas Ellis deserves a revival and it's high time she was back in print. If you liked 'The 27th Kingdom' I would reccommend 'The Sin Eater' and 'Unexplained Laughter' both short, dark, punchy comic novels.