Wednesday, August 22, 2012

On falling for Ivy Compton-Burnett

I've spent some time the past few days flipping through Memorable Days, a selection of letters between novelist James Salter and critic Robert Phelps, who became epistolary friends after Phelps wrote Salter an admiring note in 1969. Like all good letters collections, it's full of interesting thoughts, quotable lines, and casually well-put judgments of writers and books.

My favorite example of the last of those components comes when Phelps starts reading Ivy Compton-Burnett. I pulled out the best lines from those letters for my Twitter account a few days ago, but in case you don't follow that along with the blog (I know, I know: it's difficult to imagine, but people have been known to make bad choices with their lives.), I want to reproduce it here. It starts with a letter from Phelps of April 27, 1974:
On the other hand, I seem to have discovered a new (for me, that is) author: Ivy Compton-Burnett, whose father was a homeopath, who described herself as sexually a “neuter,” who died in 1969 at 85 leaving 19 books and 15,000 pounds to keep them in print. I have tried unsuccessfully to read her since about 1951. This week, to my surprise and moderate joy, I am about in the middle of A Family and a Fortune.
Either the £15,000 wasn't invested well or Compton-Burnett's sales were poor enough that the publisher burned through it regardless, for few of her books are in print these days, in the UK or the States. Sadly, I suspect it's the latter, for Burnett is, well, not exactly an acquired taste, but a taste that will appeal to few. She's so incredibly astringent, so venomous, so delicate even as she's portraying violence and betrayal, and so adept at hiding her remarkable wit behind a flat delivery that I fear she'll never appeal to most readers.

Including, I'm sorry to say, James Salter. On May 1, he replied,
I’ve read I. Compton-Burnett; it was so long ago I can’t even remember what it was like. I opened one of her books at Peggy Clifford’s last night to have a little reminder and I promptly toppled into deathlike sleep.
No surprise, really: while I could imagine Salter appreciating Compton-Burnett's spare prose, it's hard to imagine him getting much out of her strange, late-Victorian family quarrels and villainies. Violence, danger, and passion in Salter, even where characters are attempting to subject them to iron-willed control, are more explicitly acknowledged and rendered.

By that fall, however, Phelps was trying again, having fallen so far under Compton-Burnett's spell that he seems to have forgotten that he'd already mentioned her--and that Salter had dismissed her. In a letter of September 6, he calls her "my new literary love," and writes,
At Foyle’s I bought 14 of her 19 books (she shrewdly left her publisher 15,000 pounds to keep them all in print), and I reverently passed her apartment in Cornwall Gardens (now the Dominican Embassy) every day. She requires absolute concentration, but every page is like a brand on the memory. She is ruthlessly unsentimental, fiercely true to egotistical side of human nature, and at the same time, funny. She is exhausting to read, but her mind is unique: like a hypnotized child, she speaks the unspoken, the unspeakable, and it’s a constant, curious shock.
That's as good a description of Compton-Burnett's unsettling novels as any I can imagine, and that evocation of "a brand on the memory" is the reason that I simultaneously think of her as one of my favorite, most admired writers--and am reading my way through her work so slowly that I've only read three of her nineteen novels. Taken too quickly, I suspect she could overwhelm.


  1. Back in the 1980s, most of Compton-Burnett's novels were available in trade paperback editions, so it's sad that's no longer the case. She is a writer for truly hard-core readers, and it is always a pleasure to encounter another Compton-Burnett enthusiast. I wonder if she has ever caught on (in the small way that could be expected) in any European countries? I could imagine the French taking to her hard edge. If I knew that someone was a seasoned reader of Robbe-Grillet, for instance, I would recommend Compton-Burnett to them without any hesitation.

  2. I have tried and, to date, failed in more than one attempt to scale the Mountain of Compton-Burnett. I can see why she's so very esteemed by so many very fine writers, but perhaps I've been doomed because of having first been referred to her from reading the letters/diaries (I forget which) of Barbara Pym - a serious ICB fan, but a totally different kettle of fish altogether.

    Perhaps it's time for another go - I noted several of her books on the shelf the last time I visited our largest local (Dubai) bookstore...

  3. Muscato,
    I'm never surprised when someone tells me they didn't like or get Compton-Burnett when they tried reading her. I really did mean what I said: she's not for everyone, because both her sensibility and her prose are just so unusual. She doesn't give readers much to hang onto: most of her characters are essentially horrible and her prose is spare to the point of wasting away. She's very funny, but to get to the humor you have to get acclimated to the whole package, which no everyone is going to care enough to do. You're right that Pym is a completely different type of writer--though they do share a tiny strain of humor. The only writer I've encountered, and that only recently, who feels like Compton-Burnett's heir is Alice Thomas Ellis.

    Good luck if you go back and try her again!