Alan Hollinghurst on Ronald Firbank at the TLS. Novelists and would-be novelists are required to go and read this piece, it's a wonderfully perceptive piece of literary criticism with some helpful hints about voice and sensibility (I can't resist the long paste-in--Hollinghurst in any case is on my short list of fiction-writing geniuses of our time):
Firbank’s books all appeared in uniform format and binding, with off-white jackets, a little coordinated library, so that they made up as they appeared a collected edition of the kind most writers gain only in old age (like Henry James) or posthumously. Here was a “Works”, with the air at least of a classic. But the actual texts of these exiguous but elegant first editions are full of quirks – not only what one early reviewer called “adventures in spelling” but, since the novels consist largely of conversation, the quirks of speech. The page has the aeration of a play-text (“He began to suspect that what he had been seeking for all along was the theatre”), of dialogue interspersed with brief imagistic description of setting and action. Punctuation is deployed on a very personal footing, for rhythm and emphasis rather than in accordance with any strict modern system. Grammar is equally subjective, defiantly improper, as in the opening words of The Flower Beneath the Foot, “Neither her Gaudiness the Mistress of the Robes, or her Dreaminess the Queen were feeling quite themselves”. And the text is thick with capital letters, italics (“I adore italics, don’t you?”) and exclamation marks, of which Firbank was far fonder than a good writer is supposed to be (he uses them in their multiple hundreds, and sometimes makes up unspoken, or unspeakable dialogue entirely out of ellipses, question marks and exclamation marks).
The mannered typographical emphasis of the texts, so integral to Firbank’s view of character and relations, relates to his taste for the camp declarative nature of Restoration comedy and the highly stylized forms of the eighteenth century: the texts of Pope’s Satires or of Tristram Shandy are alive with italics, italics used for proper names, which appealed to Firbank, I suspect, because they seemed also to emphasize them, and to him the name of a character often was emphatic, in an eighteenth-century way: Mrs Asp, Lady Listless, Mrs Thoroughfare. (As so often with Firbank, manner, wit, alertness of cultural reference, seem to fuse with a kind of artlessness. He was in a way untutored, and the dense cultural web of his novels, the talk of theatre, music, ballet, books, is clearly and very welcomely the expression of something instinctive and enthusiastic, not academic or learnt.) When his letters to his mother were published a few years ago, they showed, not of course the polish of the novels, but a certain continuity of manner when it came to evoking people and places. Here was the same uneducated dash, zany spelling and heavy use of the exclamation mark; but here proving capable of many shades of implication. “I suppose one must bear with the monotony!” is a nice example, which could be cheerful, stoical or despairing, read in different ways. Lady Firbank’s own letters seem not to survive, but from Ronald’s own underlined, exclamatory and waveringly grammatical side of the correspondence you get a sense of what she wanted to hear, and of the pitch of the peculiar understanding between a homosexual son and a mother who must of course have known the unstated thing which, as in a Firbank novel, was going on underneath.
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Like other marginalized writers, Firbank has fallen prey to a normalizing urge in later editors. When Duckworth published his complete works, in a sequence of different editions, after his death, they set about regularizing his grammar, spelling and punctuation, stripping out the capital letters and italics, even rewriting passages in ways that changed their meaning and spoilt their music or their wit, and inevitably introducing new errors of their own. When Firbank’s letters to his mother were published (Letters to His Mother 1920–1924, 2001) their editor, Anthony Hobson, adopted the confusing practice of preserving the eccentric spelling for the first two sections of the book, but correcting it thereafter, except for proper names; it was as if a small dose of unadulterated Firbank was amusing enough, but after a while he needed bringing in line. The dashes which lend character and animation in the letters were all replaced by full stops and commas; new paragraphs were introduced. The tops and tails of the letters were docked, making them into bulletins rather than loving and respectful addresses. And at the same time, in the editorial matter, numerous words were misspelt in ways even Firbank would have wondered at. With the novels, there is admittedly some ambiguity, since the pages Firbank passed for the press contain errors that are the result of mere ignorance or oversight; the nice task for the editor is to know where error ceases and the proper wilfulness of the Firbankian text begins. These are other hazards of the non-classic.
But what I want to stress here is all those wilful unclassic things that Firbank insists on, and which seem the intimate and inevitable outcome of his peculiar and dissident personality. By making the novel a structure of bright fragments, Firbank had aestheticized it, and in the aesthetic realm the normative claims of morality are relaxed. Firbank’s difficult inconsequential manner is part of a bigger subversion of the novel, and what is in many ways a homosexualization of the novel. Characteristically, he didn’t do this by writing a “gay novel” of the kind that E. M. Forster had struggled with in Maurice, or of the kind that James Baldwin or Gore Vidal would later write in Giovanni’s Room and The City and the Pillar – novels in which the homosexual condition is itself the subject, with an unusual dominance of maleness. For Forster, the crisis which led him to abandon the novel form altogether was the impossibility of writing about the one thing which most determined his view of life. It wasn’t only or exactly that the novel was an inveterately heterosexual form, since a novel could in theory be about anything you liked. It was just that a forthright novel on homosexual themes was a legal impossibility, something that couldn’t happen “until my death and England’s”, as he put it. Firbank’s dodge, especially in his earlier English novels, was simply not to write about relations between the sexes at all – and instead of making his books all about men, to write almost entirely about women. No other male novelist has so immersed himself in the world of female society, conversation, dress; a world of spinsters, widows, grass widows, the world defined in Jane Austen’s famous diagnosis, “We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us”.