By David Auerbach
Most of the great writers achieve their resonances through a careful, harmonized attunement to a common understanding—they invoke and manipulate those things that we collectively recognize as universals. But there is a smaller, more remote group who work primarily from a private, incommunicable notion of the world. Authors such as Kleist, Emily Brontë, Gogol, Melville, Djuna Barnes, Robert Walser, Wittgenstein, Jose Donoso, Ingeborg Bachmann, and perhaps the most famous and misunderstood, Kafka: each works from a world schema that belongs to him or her alone.
Barbara Comyns, who published her first novel at age 40 in 1947 and ten more over the next forty years, was of this latter type. She stands with one foot in the plain-spoken world of early 20th-century England, and another in a realm of cracked-mirror fairy tales that Gabriel Josipovici memorably invoked in discussing Kleist:
His great novella, Michael Kohlhaas, takes many of the elements that go to make up the Grimm Tales and stands them on their head, bidding an anguished farewell as it does so both to community values and to the power of wishful thinking. But Kleist had no successors.
I would add that Kleist made it impossible to have successors. This sort of maneuver is precisely one that makes imitation futile. The emergence of someone like Comyns seems to be a matter more of chance than of tradition. Having a private vision is not enough—the success of these writers lies in the degree to which they can translate their hermetic world into common linguistic terms that are comprehensible to others.
Recently reissued by the press Dorothy, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is Comyns’ third novel (more or less; she had previously started a fourth novel, The Vet’s Daughter, but would not finish it until a few years after) and her first instance of actively engaging narrative traditions. Her first novel, Sisters by a River, is an unfathomably strange set of autobiographical scenes from her childhood, alternately pastoral and horrific, yet with little change in narrative tone between the two moods. The second novel, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, is an autobiographical chronicle of her pained first marriage. The material is far more normal, but the voice, half-detached from the world, a bit maladapted, and yet absolutely certain of itself, is clearly the same.
That voice persists in the omniscient third-person in Who Was Changed, which was does not rely on biographical details and yet proceeds with exactly the same confidence. With utter smoothness, Comyns blends jarring and sudden narrative twists into what seems to be a naturalistic novel. Looking back after reading, the amount of time events seem to take is wholly at odds with the number of pages they occupy, in one direction or the other. Digressions and seemingly awkward phrases seamlessly fold into whole.
The plot itself is simple. In a small English village, Warwickshire, sometime in the 19th century, still water causes a case of ergot poisoning in some loafs of bread, and those who eat the bread change, die, or both. Mostly we see the effects through the eyes of one family and their two maids. The craven father Ebin, who sees opportunity in the tragedy, is the focus of much of the plot, but at the center of the book are his children. The younger two, Dennis and Hattie, are pre-teens, young enough to not be terrified by events but absorb them through the gauze of childhood. The oldest, Emma, is 17 and stands halfway between their world and that of the adults. Not coincidentally, she most closely resembles Comyns’ other protagonists.
As with Kleist and Kafka, the navigation of the ground between the mystery and common parlance is something more easily experienced than described. All I can do is point out a few mechanisms used by Comyns that help her achieve her sui generis effects.
The Voices. Comyns’ novels frequently have children in them, and their view of the world destabilizes the narrative. For them, the loss of a toy can be as great as the death of half a dozen townspeople, and Comyns’ ability to depict that strange, almost arbitrary agenda is nearly unparalleled. (It ranks with that of Richard Hughes’ brilliant and surreal A High Wind in Jamaica, the only book I can think of even remotely similar to Comyns’, though Hughes uses a great deal more explicit fantasy to achieve this effect.) Consider this passage about the young brother Dennis:
The children were by this time extremely dirty and rather tired and did not want to be hustled home. Then, unfortunately, they came to one of the fields filled with the cows their father had so much admired. Dennis was frightened of cows and, when he saw the great beasts tossing their heads adorned with their curling horns, he knew he could never pass them. Even the ones who were grazing kept slashing at flies with their tails in an alarming manner. He stood at the gate and refused to budge while Hattie coaxed him and his father swore, “You bloody little fool, they won’t hurt you. If you don’t come immediately, I’ll leave you here and you’ll have to face them all alone!” And that is exactly what did happen. Ebin went on, although both children begged him not to, and he forced Hattie to go with him, which she sulkily did, looking over her shoulder every now and then at the sad little figure standing by the gate.
This scene comes after the poisonings and deaths have started, and Comyns manages to make cows as terrifying as the grotesque events around them. The words carefully trace a short change in perspective. Comyns starts by describing Dennis’ feelings as “frightened,” goes into his head with the more exaggerated words of “beasts,” “adorned,” and “slashing,” then returns to a more distanced narration with “alarming.” We next hear Ebin’s quoted irritation among words suggesting Hattie’s sympathetic, weary way: “coaxed,” “sulkily,” “sad little figure,” even “shoulder.” The transitions are so unobtrusive that it’s easy to forget how easily they can go wrong and become stilted, especially so when switching between adults and children.
The Natural World. This new edition unfortunately omits Ursula Holden’s insightful introduction to the old Virago edition in favor of one that makes the mistake of saying that the narration is “democratic.” While Comyns’ voice wanders between characters quite frequently, there is one character in particular (I won’t say who) who never gets an internal voice of any kind, not even third-person articulation of her thoughts. And this is significant, because this rather evil, or more accurately monstrous character is closer to being an impersonal force, a part of nature, than to being a human. But the line is never quite so clear. Like Rhoda in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Comyns makes far less distinction between humans and the rest of the world than most writers. People bleed into the landscape and vice versa. Some of her humans are as impenetrable, soulless, and voiceless as a natural disaster. Others speak as though obscured, their voices channeled through a third-person narrator that cannot be them. And some, particularly children, are so vivid that their voices are pure and unmediated.
This graduated continuity makes Comyns something of an anti-humanist. We don’t hear that one character’s inner voice because, like the wicked characters in fairy tales, she simply doesn’t have one. She is but a force that acts upon others. Being human is not enough to make one a subject, and it’s not really a question of one’s acts either, as those seem to be prescribed by one’s pre-existing nature. Some people just have terrible parts to play, like that poisoned bread.
The Ending. In general, these sorts of disaster stories, be they The Plague or Blindness or what have you, do not have satisfying or significant endings. By their nature, many characters do not survive. And the survivors too often face the reality of what has happened with either deflationary resignation or a hollow epiphanic transformation. Comyns, however, takes a different tack. It’s not a twist and it’s not exactly a “surprise,” but the book takes a turn very close to the end that marks Comyns as extremely savvy about her material and the devices she is using. It is very clever, brilliant even, and I don’t know of an example of it being done anywhere else. (One possible example is Etron Fou Leloublan’s chanson “Christine,” though it is used for very different effect).
It is enough to say that with the ending, Comyns manages to recontextualize what has gone before on several levels: plot, myth, symbol. To call it ironic or fatuous, which it may seem to some, is to miss the point. Comyns evidently has access to creative realms that are intensely private, intensely alien, and the ending is her way of joining them, unexpectedly and perversely, with the world we know, and also with the stories we know. It makes her world vaguely resemble ours, but she is always closer to it, and we are always at bay.
David Auerbach writes about literature and philosophy at Waggish. He has been a graduate student in English and philosophy, a software engineer at Google, and a feuilletoniste. He continues to write fiction and criticism.
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