By Barbara WALL
FOUR ABSENTEES, by Rayner Heppenstall (Barrie & Rockliff, 13s. 6d.).
I N this book Mr. Heppenstall
scences of four twentieth Thomas.
gives his personal remini century figures, all dead-Eric Gill, John Middleton Murry, George .Orwell. and Dylan
No rounded picture of them is attempted, as the author
points out, and, although bio graphical details drawn from
other sources are sketched in, irl Mr. eppenstall's portraits of his subjects depend almost en
tirely on his personal contact with them in the course of his own life, and especially during
the thirties, when this contact
Hence this book is something of Hence this book is something of
• slice of autobiography. and something of a period piece.
Influences A/R. Heppenstall was very much on the nerve of the anxious, seeking thirties: a
Communist at Leeds University. he came to London with a com mission to write a book in 1934;
flirted with the Catholic Church; caught up by certain French
was associated with Middleton slurry's various idealisms, and "The Adelphi"; was drawn to Gill's solutions, money reform. pacifism, "mucking out"; was
influences Bloy, Maritain,
Peguy, Claude!: wrote about ballet: roomed with George Orwell; got drunk with the young Thomas. It is all here. and it makes a fascinating narrative, told with commendable conscientious accuracy insofar as the present reviewer is in a position to check. Mr. Heppenstall shows a fastidious pieoccupation with exact dates, exact description of decor, exact evoca
don of selected dialogue; and his prose is vivid. economical. and dry.
THIS sense of exactitude means, of course, that the shortcoming of character and the unedifying idiosyncrasies and interests of his four subjects are shown fair and square with the other side. Or
is the other side soft-pedalled, or taken for granted, so as to give greater relief to the " slur " side? I'm not sure.
I felt misgivings about this particularly in the case of George Orwell. and at least so in the case of Dylan Thomas. I felt misgivings in the case of people other than the four absentees mentioned in the course of the book. I felt them a little bit with Eric Gill, but less so: Mr. Heppenstall's basic admiration for him comes through all right.
I don't quarrel with the subjectivity of the portraits of these four dead that is intended: but the author does not sufficiently bring out why he liked them. why they-at least three of themplayed not only an important, but a formative, part in his life at that time.
Inconclusive BUT still, if his individual portraits seem unnecessarily inconclusive, the book makes absorbing reading, as I said, particularly as a picture of a decade. As a slice of autobiography it is absorbing too but, again, unnecessarily inconclusive.