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Inscrutable Genius

Ivy: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett

by Hilary Spurling
Knopf, 621 pp., $22.95

Inscrutable as an owl, Ivy Compton-Burnett sits out on a limb of literature, singular, eccentric, and keeping herself to herself. “Her work…seems to encourage false generalizations…. Though easy to read, she is a hard writer to grasp,” wrote Mary McCarthy; and she went on to compare her to “a giant footprint or a flying saucer,” baffling her critics. “Doubtless by her own wish, she remains a phenomenon, an occurrence in the history of letters. It would appear to be hubris to try to guess her riddle.”1

Pamela Hansford Johnson did not even find her easy to read. “The ease with which the persons of her novels may be confused in the memory,” she complained, “is a genuine flaw, a flaw which above all must make Miss Compton-Burnett always a writer for the ‘few,’ as only few are able to make the concentrated intellectual effort.”2 Compton-Burnett is not so much hard to understand as exhausting. Sometimes one feels like saying, as her friend the actor Ernest Thesiger is supposed to have done when asked about his experiences at the battle of Ypres: “My dear, the noise!! and the people!!!”—only in Compton-Burnett’s novels the carnage is mental, not physical, and the noise is the machine-gun fire of relentless, incredibly articulate, compressed talk. Perhaps finding it wearying is just a sign of British laziness and lack of fiber: Nathalie Sarraute had no such problem and admired Compton-Burnett precisely for “the monotonous obstinacy with which, during forty years of labor, and throughout twenty books, she has posed and solved, in an identical manner, the same problems.”3

To Sarraute, Compton-Burnett was an innovator, carrying on where Proust and Woolf left off. Her most striking innovation was to write almost entirely in dialogue. The dialogue is not remotely naturalistic. “Those long stilted sentences, rigid yet sinuous,” says Sarraute, “are not like any conversation one has ever heard. Nevertheless, though they may seem strange, they never give the impression of being false or gratuitous. That is because they happen not in some imaginary place, but in a real one: on the fluctuating border between conversation and subconversation.” By conversation she appears to mean what people actually say, which is like bubbles rising to the surface of a pool in whose depths thoughts and feelings wriggle about; the subconversation, on the other hand, follows, describes, expresses, or actually is the wriggles. Compton-Burnett’s dialogue is “a close-fought, subtle, ferocious game between conversation and subconversation.” That is what makes it so funny, though Sarraute does not seem to notice.

What strikes her is that Compton-Burnett’s technique enabled her to achieve instant perfection. Certainly the novels give the impression of being exactly what was intended, and if the plots are often hammy, full of locked drawers, lost wills, stolen letters, and suddenly discovered relationships, like incest, that must be due to unconcern rather than ineptitude. Compton-Burnett’s idiosyncratic perfection produces an alienation effect. Readers can never stop noticing how oddly but aptly things are put, and that makes a barrier between them and the characters. They can’t be carried away except by the cleverness of the performance—but that is immensely exhilarating.

All the same, there is something gaunt and gawky about the novels. They reminded Mary McCarthy of “some naive realist: the Douanier Rousseau or Grandma Moses,” Hilary Spurling says that English critics have tended to compare Compton-Burnett with Impressionist and post-Impressionist painters. It is hard to see a resemblance, except perhaps with Cubism in its strictest phase, since Compton-Burnett’s palette is all black and gray. Benjamin Britten said that “if Giacometti sculptures could talk, they would speak like the characters in [Compton-Burnett’s] books.” A brilliantly evocative remark: the voices one hears in the books are sepulchral Dalek voices, even the children’s. Funny and witty though the novels are, they remain bleak and sad.

They resemble one another like members of a family, and families are what they are about—late Victorian families of the upper middle class or country gentry. There are children, servants, tutors, governesses, and celibate, dependent poor relations; sometimes doctors, lawyers, or clergymen make an appearance, but the main characters tend to be rentiers, unemployed except for talking, tyrannizing, and being tyrannized. Occasionally one or the other makes a journey, but only for things to happen behind his back; the reader is never allowed to go along, or indeed to leave the house and grounds except perhaps for a trip to the village post office or to attend a funeral. Sooner or later every critic is forced to use the word “hermetic.”

It is not only the oeuvre as a whole that is monotonous, but each individual novel: the hairsplitting, paradoxical talk never lets up, the stilted speech and abstract diction never vary from one character to another. Even the children have total command of grammar, syntax, and cliché. There is never a change in the measured pace as each player unhurriedly picks up his cue in a relentless stichomythia for any number of speakers whose lines are not always easy to disentangle. Slang, colloquialisms, and even contractions like “don’t” and “he’ll” are banned. The vocabulary is small: “This is not an accident,” Mary McCarthy said. “The same reductive, puritan discipline is at work. She is teaching her vocabulary not to be idle. In the same way, she has boiled down narrative to a few basic plot elements not unlike the statements of symbolic logic…. It is impossible to imagine her coining a word. The fewer the better.” The Compton-Burnett idiom is catching: after putting down a novel one needs a few minutes to get one’s own speech back to normal, like the audience after a Pinter play still conversing by pregnant silence as they fumble for their car keys.

There are no descriptive or contemplative passages in the novels; no character is ever alone, and neither is the reader—another tiring element. Strictly serviceable sketches introduce each character on first appearance:

Ninian Middleton was a tall, almost handsome man of fifty-six, with the family features in another mould, a difference in the same dark eyes, long, supple hands and nervous movements. His voice was high and uncontrolled, in contrast to Selina’s deep and steady one, and he seemed to hear his own words and measure their effect.

The last words amount almost to a stage direction, and it is in these that Compton-Burnett’s brilliance is most artfully encapsulated. Asked about the family’s taste in food, ” ‘I am conversant with their preferences,’ said Cook, with nothing in her tone to indicate that she would be influenced by these.” Or, in a tricky social situation (endemic in Compton-Burnett): “Tilly acted on her knowledge that glancing at her brother would be going too far.” Both of these quotations are examples of Compton-Burnett’s pince sans rire humor—there is no English word that fits, perhaps because there is something un-English about the mordant intelligence of this so insular and insulated writer.

It will be clear by now that Compton-Burnett is an acquired taste. Once it has been acquired one may still feel that a little goes a long way; or else it can become an addiction and even something of a cult, as it did during the last two decades of Compton-Burnett’s life (she died in 1969, aged eighty-five). “For more than forty years,” Spurling writes, “Ivy used the domestic novel, distanced by her ostensibly Victorian style and setting, to explore atrocity, violence, the corruption of language and the totalitarian abuse of power.” In real life she never discussed any of these topics; with her friends she stuck to gossip, and strangers were relentlessly kept at buy with talk about her troubles with her refrigerator or the exorbitant price of strawberries, which she adored—her greed for these and expensive chocolates being legendary.

Of the enormities on Spurling’s list, corruption of language is the most interesting because language is the instrument for committing the others. Compton-Burnett had no interest in abroad and when she went there it was to Italy and France. It is not easily conceivable that she had heard of Die Fackel: nevertheless, she is the English Karl Kraus, shining her torch into dark corners where words are tortured until they tell lies.

Sometimes she takes them by the hand and leads them back into the daylight. In Manservant and Maidservant, for instance, Magdalen has behaved badly to Mortimer Lamb, whom she wants to marry. “We must both forget it,” she says. “People never succeed in doing that,” he replies. “It is only a way of saying that it is a dangerous thing to remember.” Manservant and Maidservant was Compton-Burnett’s own favorite among her novels. The chief figure in it is Mortimer’s brother Horace, a domestic tyrant and miser who takes burning coals off the fire, rations the family’s cutlets, and sends his children to church in shamingly shabby clothes; then, by twisting words, he makes their desire for normal amounts of food and comfort appear to be vulgar ostentation. But they are not deceived and understand perfectly what he does to language. “Shut that book, Tamasin,” he says. “Do not sit apart, just putting in a word when you choose….” “Why do you make things sound wrong, that are not wrong?” says Tamasin’s brother.

Compton-Burnett’s is very much an upstairs-downstairs world. Downstairs the corruption of language is parodied in the way the servants solemnly bandy banalities. Manservant and Maidservant opens with the breakfast-room fire smoking. The butler removes a dead jackdaw from the chimney, and Mortimer teases him gently by asking if he put it there. “So far am I, sir, from being connected with the presence of the fowl, that I was not confident, when I took the matter into my own hands, of any outcome. I merely hoped that my intervention might lead to a result.” It might almost be Jeeves speaking, but in spite of his pompous manner, the butler is one of the good characters in the novel, tolerant, forbearing, kindly. Mortimer is another, a bachelor living with his cousin’s family on an insufficient allowance. “He would have been disappointed not to have a profession, if he had thought of having so expensive a thing.” The Wildean description echoes the way Mortimer himself talks: “I have so often resisted temptation, and always without success. When people resist it with success, I always wonder how they know they have had any.” No wonder someone—it was Princess Bibesco—said about Compton-Burnett, “Wilde is not so much borrowed from as contributed to.”

Mortimer is typical of Compton-Burnett’s good characters, even though he does seduce his cousin’s wife. Cynical, without power or hope, he has no goal to pursue, no will to assert, and therefore hurts no one. He is intelligent—intelligence was Compton-Burnett’s most highly rated virtue. He is kind in so detached a way that his kindness does not oppress. The female good characters tend to be governesses, nurses, or companions, with even less hope or power than the male ones, and perhaps a more active and comforting sort of kindness. Both genders share the fate of having no “full normal life”—as one of them says, and several feel they do not want one. It seems as though Compton-Burnett had a Buddhist streak in her, believing that participation and action can only damage others.

  1. 1

    The Inventions of I. Compton-Burnett,” in The Writing on the Wall (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971).

  2. 2

    I. Compton-Burnett (Longmans, 1951).

  3. 3

    L’Ere du soupçon (Paris: Gallimard, 1956).

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