Autobiography Of A Corpse
John Masefleld MasterStoryteller
Dead Ned. By John Masefield. (Heinemann, 7s. 6d.) The Death of the Heart. By Elizabeth Bowen. (Gollancz, 8s.) Leather Nose. By Jean de la Varende. (Methuen, 7s. 6d.) Reviewed by FRANCIS BURDETT M R. MASEFIELD can tell a story better, I think, than any other novelist today. His stories have a quality of robustness and controlled but mounting excitement that would make them noteworthy even if they were less perfectly told. As it is, the story takes its rightful place, the first place, in the book but it is clothed and enhanced with a rare knowledge of much that is of the greatest interest woven skilfully, beautifully into the whole.
Dead Ned, The Autobiography of a Corpse, must rank as one of the author's most successful books. Ned was the son of an eighteenth century doctor. His life, packed with incident that is amazing enough but never anything but completely credible, began in happiness that circumstances changed into the intensest suffering. It all arose from his father's second marriage; in itself an imprudence it started a chain of untoward events. It led, it is true, to Ned's friendship with and love for the crotchety Admiral Gringle, who returned that love.
The Admiral is an entrancing figure, with his house, his servants and the relics of that incomparable ship, the Hannibal, in which fame and success had been won. But disaster quickly follows and we follow appalled the detailed, complicated, inevit able moves of hidden villainy. Ned is tried, imprisoned, hung, but saved by devoted doctors when removed for dissection. There follow his escape to Liverpool and embarkation as ship's doctor on a slaver bound for the Coast. Such a ship, such a captain, owner, crew and destination seemed to Ned little better than death itself. Every detail is vivid, evil portrayed with a searing knowledge of the period, and the whole controlled into an admirable unity.
It seems impossible to wait with patience for the promised volume that is to tell of Ned's adventures on that villainous ship bound for that villainous trade and coast.
Miss Bowen is known for the subtlety of her appreciation of modern life. In The Death of the Heart she takes a subject that would be unbearably poignant in the hands of another author in another age. That subject is the disillusionment, even the spiritual maiming and destruction of a girl of sixteen by the moral and intellectual disintegration of those about her. Thomas, Portia's half-brother, lived with his wife, Anna, in one of those charming houses that overlook Regent's Park. They were well off, cultured, clever and utterly barren. The mental plane on which they lived was the lowest compatible with an elegant life, and an absence of vulgar demonstration of their interior bankruptcy. Over-aware of themselves, adepts at self-analysis, sensitive to all impressions, yet, as they knew. all spontaneity, all truly human emotion had died within them. Theirs were lives without roots or fruits.
Portia, unsophisticated, starved of love, innocent and clear-eyed came to that elegant, empty house. She is at once aware that she is not wanted, that she is in the way. Her only outlet is her indulgence of that clear sight, that intuitive knowledge, that reveals to her incomprehension the actions and reactions of those around her. She puts into a secret journal something of what she sees. That journal for all its immaturity is touching in its directness and scathing in its unspoken comment. Her emotions are a great deal clearer than her intelligence. Loneliness drives her first to the housemaid who had known her father and then to the unfortunate habitués of the house: Eddie, a modern waster who lived and loved as he could; a well-known but defeated and cynical author; and an ineffectual Major.
The book is clever and as detached from all moral convictions and prejudices as the inhabitants of that house in Regent's Park. It is this cerebal detachment, the atmosphere of isolation from those spiritual and moral convictions that have inspired mankind, that makes it possible to read without emotion what, by rights, should be emotionally intolerable.
Monsieur Maurois contributes an introduction to Leather Nose. He explains how the author belongs both by heredity and spontaneous affection to that Normandy of which he writes. It seems that he need but scan the records of his family to find stories worthy of his books. Roger, Count of Tainchebraye, is therefore a re-creation from the past and all the more interesting for that. He embodied both the grace and the wickedness of the eighteenth century. He fought as a Chouan against the Revolutionaries. He was frightfully disfigured in the face and wore habitually a leather mask that was responsible for his nickname. He had to convince himself, even more than the world, that he had overcome this disability and so, with his intense vitality, was driven into a life of licence and irrespon sible activity. He is an appealing and pathetic figure and far more than a peg on to which to hang adventures.
But what is most interesting in a wellwritten book is the intimate knowledge it shows of society in Normandy at the period, and of its customs. It is clear that Christianity made a mark on the manners of the time that is all too frequently ignored.