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Armed With Madness

Drug addict, sexual predator (or willing prey), absentee mother, Mystic Meg, groupie to Modernist giants: Mary Butts had a restless, scandalous career that yielded a small output of fiction and autobiography. Armed with Madness is the best-known of her novels, although that is not saying much. It was re-issued as recently as 2001 with a small fanfare of revival but has never found a large audience. No surprise there. Many of her sentences obey the rules of syntax but signify nothing. The characters are too elusive, or too privileged, to engage with. And the plot, involving a grail-like chalice, draws on Christian and folkloric themes with iffy associations. Yet one feels there is something worth searching for in the maze: a form of truth or of storytelling that might be archetypal, a tilt at the literal world and its limitations. Why do we read, after all? To understand and enjoy, of course, but sometimes to meet an intelligence stranger or more subtle than our own.

The setting is Dorset, where Butts herself was born, a county of hillforts and barrows, of tucked-away valleys and bald, sweeping downs. The uncanny survives here, a throwback to more superstitious times or, as she would have it, an age in contact with primal forces. A brother and sister, Scylla and Felix, live in a house near the sea with their old housekeeper – a sort of Brideshead avant la lettre. Along the coast Picus mucks in with Clarence, a war veteran haunted by his experiences. The two of them might be lovers; Scylla and Picus certainly are, or become so during the story. These names have mythological origins (Picus is the woodpecker, alter ego of Zeus, and so on). Sexual dimorphism, private means, a classical education: this is part avant-garde, part ancient régime.

Two events trigger the plot, such as it is. The chalice is found in the well at Clarence’s cottage and an American, Carston, disturbs the group’s personal chemistry. Sexual tension, a quest to find what the cup means, the volatile pathology of Clarence’s trauma: these elements are woven into an almost abstract design. The archness of the prose is tiresome at times, making us long for plain statements of feeling or fact. And along the way we encounter Butts’ hatred of materialism, which can be viewed as social critique, moral posture or the sour grapes of a landed class. Really, she belongs to a subset of modernists who disliked modernity. Throw in a hint of antisemitism and, yes, this is a hard and sometimes repellent read. Yet I found enough reasons to soldier on, beyond a cussed refusal to be beaten. Curiosity, for one. A wayward boldness of style. The strange, almost ritual quality of the interactions. In fact, when behaviour is explained in terms of normal motives it feels like a loss of nerve. Against all the odds, the fate of Butts’ characters contrives to matter – less for their own sakes than as a form of enquiry into love or life or . . . your guess is as good as mine.

Reading throws up curious juxtapositions. My next book after Armed with Madness is Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time which examines the relationship between Art (personified by the composer, Shostakovich) and Power. I find that Butts’ novel still preys on my mind – a recommendation of sorts. It was written on the eve of the Depression, in a style guaranteed to be of no interest or relevance to the majority (a charge levelled against Modernism in general). And I imagine, in some mashed-up history of the period, Stalin denouncing her as elitist and degenerate, consigning the books and their writer to the flames.  Art can be rarefied, self-serving, a smug, minority pursuit; yet when persecuted on these, or any other grounds it makes the strongest case possible for liberty.

Their Glowing Faces

The American novelist James Salter was a man after my own heart. He took his time when writing, a perfectionist possibly, and it shows in the cool precision of his prose. There are not many words in a Salter story that do not pay their own way. Every effect is intended. Which is why I was struck by a paragraph about half way through his last book, All That Is. At first I thought he had slipped up, when really all that had happened was a reminder of a law that not even he was immune to – in writing or in life.

In my Picador edition of 2013 the passage occurs on page 184. We are being told about the latest stage in the life and career of Philip Bowman, comfortably employed as an editor in a small firm of rather literary publishers. He does the round of work-related parties which are attended by, among others, ‘young women who long to make a life of it in their black dresses and glowing faces’. I doubt if Bowman himself would have approved of that preposition being elided: they might have been ‘in’ black dresses, but are we ever ‘in’ our faces? It doesn’t matter how long Salter slaved over his text, it seems, he was fallible like the rest of us. But that is not my point. What this long subordinate clause lodges in the reader’s mind is the question of how much these anxious-to-please office juniors wanted to get on and what they were prepared to do for it. The world of publishing, we have already learned, was given to casual affairs and slightly mannered adultery. That Bowman, a senior figure with some patronage to dispense, would be a ‘catch’ to someone on the make seems obvious.

This idea enjoys a brief, possibly subliminal existence in the mind of the reader, one of those impressions constantly rising, like scent, from the page before being confirmed, contradicted or simply replaced by the one that follows. The sentence continues: ‘. . . girls who lived in small apartments with clothes piled near the bed and the photos from the summer curling.’ The notion that Bowman sometimes, even routinely, went home with these acolytes gains strength. How else would he, and therefore we, eavesdropping on his existence, know what their rooms were like? How subtle it all is, with nothing having to be said outright (in a book startling for its sudden explicitness and obscenity). Our imaginations, if so minded, linger on the scenes that were acted out. The older man, empowered by gender and seniority but with the curtesy and sometimes awkwardness of a guest having to find where things are; the women sexually obliging but ambivalent or disgusted with themselves; the sense, available to both parties perhaps, of life calling time on their desires, those curling photographs a stroke of genius, a killer.

But this reading depends on one particular assumption: that we are in the territory of free indirect style in which the all-seeing eye of an omniscient narrator has access to the character’s subjectivity, third and first persons somehow combined. That requires a fairly strict adherence to point of view: for the trick to work, the protagonist cannot know something they/we have not experienced or been told. It is, of course, legitimate to play with that convention, to flout it as a matter of style; but not to lapse when in all other respects the rules of the game are upheld.

I cannot speak for the rest of Salter’s work, but All That Is tears up that rule book right from the start. It is part of the expansiveness and humanity that critics have praised. The novel shoots (no, wanders) off at a tangent to follow the lives of secondary and even minor characters, telling us things about them which Bowman could not possibly know. Not because the plot has multiple strands, each consistent with the practice just described, their subjectivity honoured and self-contained, but as what might be called a more democratic, even devolved aesthetic. It takes some getting used to, and each time the narrative’s attention strays from Bowman I find myself having consciously to adjust. But it is a consistent, serious device which is part of the novel’s challenge and charm.

However, the paragraph parsed a short while ago concerning the hopeful girls in their black dresses now takes on a different aspect. The habits of free indirect style being deeply ingrained, I gave it the reading outlined above. But on reflection, our access to the secrets of the girls’ apartments is explicable, not in terms of our leading man’s having been there, but as yet another of the author’s detours into his supporting cast. In other words, the method adopted for the book sacrifices the subtlety that first appeared to be achieved. A discreet, almost averted glance at a series of couplings, with so much implied about everyone involved, is ousted by a generous but passing interest in some walk-on parts’ lives.

As a title, All That Is makes serious claims. All life is here, it seems to say, regarding not just the central character but everyone you are going to meet. And there are benefits to this ambition which the book gracefully, magnanimously exploits. It could even be that Salter wanted it both ways, the more literal inclusiveness of his approach and the interpretative riches of a narrower perspective, presiding like a deity over my weighing of the two. But I prefer to think that in the passage discussed here a basic principle is at work, namely that you must make your stylistic bed and lie in it. Tell me everything about everyone and I have fewer occasions to read between the lines; to indulge in some imaginative empathy; to individualise my response to the book by relating it to my own experience of the world; to work things out for myself.

27 February

Like any repeated action writing about and even walking the lane can get to seem tedious at times. I wake feeling listless after a disturbed night and find nothing to interest me this morning. On my return after lunch, however the world looks a different place. The flashiness of dawn has yielded to a more settled radiance. The air has had time to warm up a little. Even the rain get points for coming out of nowhere. On my approach to the junction with the B-road a cloud half-covers the sun and cars are reduced to vague, rushing shapes save for single points of brilliance on glass or chrome. Then the light changes again and everything is revealed in sumptuous detail: a Tesco van, a timber transport, a high-backed people-carrier with a wheelchair pope.

On my way back I blunder uninvited into a festival of sparrows. Attracted by feeders outside the cottage they tumble about the hedgerow emitting high-pitched cheeps, single notes that playfully slide and bend. Like the pigeon their reputation for being plain is quite undeserved, the richness belied by the adjective ‘brown’ made almost ornate by flecks of black and white. No peacock, certainly, but no strutting either.

Once back into the Spinney I am on naming business. Not the trees that puzzled me yesterday but the plant with the cleft leaf that I comically mistook for convolvulus. Found everywhere along the lane, it is maturing beyond the juvenile stage which deceived me, the leaves bigger, brasher and swarthy-green. Persuaded by these changes to try again I have another candidate to investigate. Arum maculatum (the second word derived from livid spots like birthmarks) is more commonly known as Lords and Ladies or Cuckoo Pint, the former on account of a fancied similarity between the flower and genitalia. That is something I look forward to seeing. The photographs are a good match; its habitat is wet places and although we are miles from a river everywhere is wet this year; and it occurs all over England and Wales, only thinning out towards the north like my scalp. This is good enough for me even if, unlike my prose, there are no purple patches.