The African Witch
To Be a Pilgrim
The Horse’s Mouth
Prisoner of Grace
Except the Lord
Not Honour More
The writer, dead or alive, whose work is out of print has one foot in the grave. His books may continue to show a resistant vitality in the dusty marketplace of the secondhand shop, but the fall from mass circulation is an ominous reminder that, in the long run, the long run’s very long indeed. The literary world surely offers few sights more heartening than the reappearance of a worthy book that had somehow dropped out of all the publishers’ catalogues, and New Directions is to be triply commended, then, for reissuing, in a set of three handsome paperbacks, Joyce Cary’s “Second Trilogy.”
The publication of these three novels—Prisoner of Grace (first published in 1952), Except the Lord (1953), and Not Honour More (1955)—would be a welcome event in any case, given the trilogy’s considerable merits. But their return is gratifying for sentimental as well as literary reasons, since they might fairly be regarded as Cary’s final achievement. A posthumous novel, The Captive and the Free, was published in 1959, two years after his death, but this was a book sadly constricted by the degenerative neurological disease, disseminated neuritis, that was diagnosed in 1956 and that left Cary in the last months of his life unable even to use a fountain pen. For some years before his death Cary suffered from “mysterious ailments,” and it may be that he already had contracted disseminated neuritis—already had one foot in the grave himself—during the completion of the “Second Trilogy.” But the reader will find no trace of an encroaching enfeeblement in its lively pages.
If the last, bedridden years of Cary’s career are dismal to contemplate, the early years are not much more cheering. As Malcolm Foster’s useful biography of Cary makes clear,* few successful writers have undergone a more frustrating, painfully protracted apprenticeship. By the end of his life, Cary’s confident and fluent books received a critical and popular success, yet the path to this success was wearisomely tortuous. Cary was approaching forty-five when his first novel, Aissa Saved, appeared in 1932. More than two decades of literary floundering, of false starts and punctured enthusiasms, were required before Cary saw one of his many attempted novels published—to poor reviews and poorer sales.
To appreciate the full extent of Cary’s long artistic pilgrimage, one must add the years during which he struggled as a painter to his two decades of literary struggling. At the age of seventeen, Cary abandoned his schooling in England to study art in Paris, where for a year, having fallen under the spell of the Impressionists, he lived a life of contented bohemianism. He then went to Edinburgh, where he studied painting for two more years. When he decided, at about the age of twenty, that he lacked the talent to pursue painting professionally and would become a writer instead, he was faced with the unpleasant task of explaining his change of plans to his hitherto indulgent father—which he did by letter, with a winsome mix of pluck and nervousness:
So many people—of critical knowledge and some literary standing—advise me to write & since I find I spend most of my time thinking about that kind of work, whatever is going on, and since I seem to be able to labour at it without tiring—as I have done these weeks—I am encouraged to decide for it. Will you then tell me what you think?
Cary was a failed artist even before he became—or for so long seemed to become—a failed writer. At a tender age, when many aspiring writers see nothing but glorious immortality for themselves, Cary was forced to ponder the possibility of his own artistic bankruptcy.
There had been other brutal truths for him to confront in his early years, including his mother’s death when he was nine. Yet his childhood seems to have been happy on the whole. Cary was born in Londonderry, Ireland, in 1888, the eldest child of a branch of an Anglo-Irish family which took great pride in its Irish ties and holdings. But the family’s fortunes in Ireland began to fail early in Joyce’s boyhood. The family was eventually compelled to leave for London, where Joyce grew up; although Cary always took a native’s pride in Ireland, he actually spent a small portion of his life within its borders. Yet it remained for him, as his journals and letters make clear, a land of timeless childhood magic and artistic replenishment.
A turning point in Cary’s life came in his early twenties. After abandoning painting, and Edinburgh, Cary went on to Oxford, where he studied law halfheartedly and eventually graduated with the lowest sort of diploma awarded, a “fourth class degree.” The future looked dim to him. He felt that his poor academic credentials rendered unattainable any sort of reasonable career in England, and he justified many of his wanderings in the decade that followed (which saw him serve as a cook and medic in a Montenegrin battalion in the Balkan wars of 1912–1913, briefly become an assistant to a disorganized agricultural reformist in Ireland, marry a friend’s sister, become a father, and enlist in the Nigerian colonial service) as attempts to overcome or circumvent that fourth class degree. He eventually wound up in northern Nigeria, where his family could not safely follow him. They remained in England and he sometimes went more than a year without seeing them.
The reader of Foster’s biography will sympathize with the hardships of Cary’s early adulthood, and its brutal loneliness, for Cary deeply loved his wife and family. Yet the reader also comes away from it, and from Cary’s novels, with a picture of a driven man steered by often unexamined inner imperatives. Dislocation seems to have been an instinctive way of life to this Englishman who was actually Irish, this Irishman who was actually English. Cary exiled himself.
A reader seeking clues that would explain Cary’s decades of literary failure, as well as his astonishing persistence, might begin with Cary’s third novel, The African Witch, which was published in 1936, after being put aside in an incomplete form for many years. It is a book of considerable verve that seeks with admirable daring to venture into the minds of blacks as well as whites, into the mud huts of a native women’s compound as well as colonial administration offices. Its hero, Louis Aladai, is a young black Nigerian nationalist and a recent Oxford graduate. He is one of several claimants to the throne of the Emirate of Rimi on the banks of the Niger. Aladai is a man of broader sensibility, and greater eloquence, than the whites around him. Aladai’s sister, by contrast, is a sorceress.
One can see why Cary felt, as he explained in an introduction he later wrote for The African Witch, that the figure of Aladai seemed like “rich material.” With his aristocratic education and manners, Aladai is a nonpareil in Rimi, and no one knows quite what to do with him. He inspires widespread unease and distrust—but also an ugly ambitious hopefulness, for it seems that everyone Aladai meets, white or black, hopes to exploit this young man with the brilliant future. Louis Aladai and his sister Elizabeth together bring to the novel a variety of promising tensions—man against woman, modernity against tradition, Christianity against paganism, European paternalism against African resentment. Cary’s imagination seemed to thrive on sharply pitched contrasts, and the book brims with wonderful, ghastly scenes, as when a young Englishwoman of good heart and great naiveté unexpectedly finds herself at the center of an armed struggle that fells the black man beside her:
Judy knelt down to stanch the blood with her handkerchief. She knew nothing about first aid, except that it was good to loosen the collars of fainters. But this old black man, whose face was fixed in a look of sleepy amazement, his mouth wide open, his eyes half closed, was bare to the waist.
Perhaps those years of art study in Paris and Edinburgh were not wasted after all, for Cary’s writing everywhere reveals an eye trained to seize upon imagery so vivid it requires little verbal embellishment.
The African Witch also displays an agile comic touch akin to Evelyn Waugh’s. For all of its hyperbole, there is a dextrous lightness in the scene where a softspoken but quietly judgmental captain named Rubin addresses a fellow captain on the subject of a mutual colleague:
Rubin had said to him: “He’s a good chap, Honeywood—I—like him.”
This was very severe from Rubin, for whom the world was divided into damn nice fellows, first-class lads, real Christians, and real gentlemen (these two titles entirely reserved for blacks or the lower order), people you could trust anywhere (black and white, of a slightly inferior range; murderers, ex-thieves, grooms, bookies, etc.), and lastly, at the very bottom of the bucket, good chaps, whom, after a very slight pause, he liked.
No writer could envision a book as ambitious as The African Witch without experiencing some intimations of his own vast potential, and to read it is to begin to grasp how Cary found the strength to plod along for so many unproductive years. Yet The African Witch isn’t, finally, a very satisfying novel.
The book is simply a case of “too much and too many”: too much shifting of tone and too much preaching, too many asides, too many incidents, and, especially, too many characters. Cary himself tacitly acknowledged this in his introduction, where he spoke of “the eternal [problem] of limits, what to bring in, to give a fair picture, what must be left out, to avoid muddle and incoherence.” The novel is too long for what it tells and too short for what it would tell. The book flies apart under the pressure of the author’s prodigious energies. Aladai’s eventual doomed rebellion gets lost amid the rivalries and foibles of the colonial administration.
Earlier in the same introduction, Cary explained that he’d planned to write only two novels set in Africa. The African Witch was his third. He originally shied from it because he wanted “to avoid the African setting which, just because it is dramatic, demands a certain kind of story, a certain violence and coarseness of detail, almost a fabulous treatment, to keep it in its place.” Yet he returned a fourth time to a Nigerian setting, to tell a story that was indeed “dramatic,” as well as “violent” and “coarse”—but that was also a little masterpiece.
Mr. Johnson has all of the strengths of The African Witch—its generous humor, its boldness and sympathy—but none of its diffuseness. Restlessly innovative in his narrative techniques, Cary decided (in what was at that time quite an unconventional move) to tell Johnson’s story in the present tense. Cary hoped thereby to illuminate “only a very narrow scene with a moving ray not much more comprehensive than a hand-torch.” The book was experimental, too, in its rapid shiftings of time and point of view. Yet the story’s focus stays sharp; for all of its heady exuberance, Mr. Johnson tells a remarkably spare tale. It has, in addition, a pathos lacking in The African Witch; although the reader observes Aladai’s eventual death with an odd, unexpected coolness, he will likely find Johnson’s fate heartbreaking.
Joyce Cary (Houghton Mifflin, 1968).↩
Joyce Cary (Houghton Mifflin, 1968).↩