19 May 2020

Perpetually drunk.

"Do you find it easy to get drunk on words?"
"So easy that, to tell you the truth, I am seldom perfectly sober.".

Since Dorothy Sayers records these words of Peter Wimsey, it may be that we could suspect her of thereby revealing one of her own her own weaknesses. Certainly, the first half of the twentieth century ... and possibly most of all, the 1930s ...  were the years of the consummate stylists; the men and women for whom deft juxtapositions, sparkling paradoxes, layers of irony, afforded infinite satisfaction. They could even, on occasion, be martyrs to it ... like poor Plum Wodehouse, whose ironic description of the German Army prevented him getting his knighthood until long after the war. We very much lesser epigonoi suffer from the hangover; American friends often gently remind me that most of their fellow-countrymen 'don't do irony', so that my own literary weaknesses and ineptitudes can lead to serious misunderstandings.

It surprises me how many of the Mighty were writers of detective fiction. G K Chesterton; Ronald Knox; Dorothy Sayers; Ernest Bramah ...

Ernest who? Well, Sayers thought that Bramah deserved to be bracketed with Donne and Burton. Wimsey was, apparently, never far from the stories of Kai Lung. And Bramah wrote detective fiction in an age when it was an intellectually respectable recreation (as late as 1957, Dacre Balsden spoke of dons as beginning the new academic year by "changing their detective fiction at the Library in Elliston's").

'Max Carrados' was Bramah's blind detective; but those who still remember the writer most probably remember him best for Kai Lung ... the Chinese Teller of Stories whose mannered diction so often contains menace underneath its flowery courtesies and Mandarin conventions. Let me give you an example. A young woman's lover is about to go on a dangerous journey; she gives him what seems to be a suicide potion, with these words: "This person [i.e.'I'] places her lover's welfare incomparably before her own happiness, and should he ever find himself in a situation which is unendurably oppressive, and from which death is the only escape -- such as inevitable tortures, the infliction of violent madness, or the subjection by magic to the will of some designing woman -- she begs him to accept this means of freeing himself without regarding her anguish ...".

You can't speed-read Bramah; only if you read him with attention, I suspect, will you appreciate that, once the rhetoric and the courtesies are stripped away, what is left is the lady's ruthlessly determined intention that her admirer should die rather than fall into the hands of another woman.

I rather think that Bramah's elaborate Mandarin courtesies were in C S Lewis's mind when he imagined the cruel but endlessly well-mannered Calormenes. As we made our bed-time-story way en famille through The Horse and his Boy, which like all the Narnian books is full laughs for adult readers as well as for children, the line that amused me most ... which I always looked forward to declaiming to those five pairs of little ears ... occurred when the Tisroc has contrived to "send my first born son on an errand so likely to be his death", and concludes business with a para prosdokian, worthy of Aristophanes, "And now, O excellent Vizier, the excess of my paternal anxiety inclines me to sleep."

Many of these writers were Catholic or Anglican; Bramah, I think, was not. But Belloc, no mean stylist, no half-hearted Catholic, thought it worth his while to write an enthusiastic preface to one of the Kai Lung volumes.

I was introduced to them by my 'Gardone' friend Alex Sepkus, a man of rare discernment.


Sue Sims said...

Yes, Bramah is delightful. Two of the Kai Lung books are on Project Gutenberg, so any of your readers who don't already know them and would like to sample them can look there.

Banshee said...

One of the my first and most constant searches on the Internet was for Kai Lung, and I was much delighted when they surfaced on Gutenberg, long ago.

Nowadays, alas, they are provided with many warnings that they are possibly racist. Which is silly.

The Max Carrados stories are also widely available, and of course Stephen Fry did an audiobook.

But of course Americans do irony. They just don't do it the English way.