The book’s title is affectionately ironic, for Johnson is a boy of seventeen who is hardly entitled to the “Mr.” he would carry so proudly. A lowly black clerk in a British colonial office, Johnson aspires to far grander things. And he has tied his aspirations—ingenuously, touchingly—to a white world that regards him at best with slightly impatient bemusement, at worst with utter indifference.
As a literary creation, Johnson is a fairly simple being, unalloyed by many ambiguities or qualifications. He is energetic, optimistic, joyful, and foolish. Yet he never becomes a cliché. Johnson illustrates one of the rarest miracles that literature is capable of: that inexplicable process by which the intellectually simple becomes the emotionally dense, by which stereotype becomes archetype.
True, Johnson can be neatly summed up in a few adjectives—but so could Don Quixote or Sancho Panza. Like so many of literature’s profoundest archetypes, he vibrates with an energy that shatters the taxonomic adjectives that would contain him. Johnson is a pure being, the embodiment of sweet exhilaration. He “swims gaily on the surface of life,” as Cary wrote in his introduction to the book. The painter Gulley Jimson, hero of Cary’s “First Trilogy,” also lives in the moment (“To forgive is wisdom, to forget is genius” is one of his mottoes), and Gulley shares Johnson’s delight in natural beauty. But Gulley is an old man—nearly seventy as he tells his tale—who knows better than to ignore the dictates of prudence and respectability. He knows better, and yet—such is the monomania of his pursuit of art—he ignores them all the same.
Johnson, on the other hand, doesn’t know better. He is beguiled by the world. A fragrant breeze, a blazing tropical sunrise, a pretty girl—such things so overwhelm him that past and future alike momentarily disappear. In the evenings, after work, Johnson likes to drink wine and compose songs. He is an improvisational poet who sings nostalgically of England and king, of railroads and cities—of people and of a world he has never seen and never will see. So great is the bounty of life for Johnson that he cannot consider any mistake irredeemable; surely, some benign force will intervene to ward off whatever evil approaches. Inevitably, Johnson is led from error into greater error until, in clumsiness and uncomprehending panic, he commits an act of violence with a knife. And this act cannot be undone, since it turns out that the victim, a white man, has suffered a mortal wound.
The crime is soon discovered, and the law is unequivocal: Johnson must be hanged. Still, Johnson responds with quivering disbelief. How could the enchanted river of his life have brought him irreversibly to this sudden, roaring cataract? Shaken, sweaty, feverish, he begs his beloved superior, Rudbeck, to circumvent the law and simply shoot him. For the prospect of being hanged stirs in Johnson a terrible fear, one that he has always been able to push aside: the suspicion that he is but a trivial component in a vast, impersonal legal machine. Johnson can deal with rage or treachery, but impersonality is something he cannot endure or understand.
Rudbeck naturally balks at Johnson’s request, and not only because the prospect of killing a friend revolts him. Rudbeck knows that to take the law into his own hands would be to risk official censure and perhaps destroy his own career; he is being asked to subvert the very system his life is dedicated to. The ironies in this final tableau are as brilliant as they are painful: Rudbeck’s humanitarianism is directing him toward an act that others might regard as murder; he can protect himself only by permitting Johnson to be hanged; in either case, trembling Mr. Johnson is not long for this world. And to the reader who has fallen for the boy’s limitless charm, a world without Johnson seems a place of dwindled horizons and tarnished pigments.
Cary’s two trilogies richly complement each other, and it is to be hoped that some publisher will follow New Directions’ lead and make the first trilogy easily accessible again. At present, only its third volume, The Horse’s Mouth, is available in paperback. In England, the first trilogy recently emerged in a one-volume edition as a Penguin Modern Classic, packaged under the regrettably ambiguous title Triptych. (First Triptych? Second Triptych?) And Penguin inexplicably failed to include Cary’s brief but interesting introductions to the novels.
The similarities between the two trilogies are striking. Each unfolds the story of a love triangle in which a woman plays the pivotal role. In each, the woman sets the scene by telling her story in the first volume, the older of the woman’s two lovers offers his side of the story in the second volume, and the younger and wilder of the woman’s lovers narrates the final volume. Each trilogy contains many repeated events, although the trilogy’s overall effect hardly seems repetitive, given the varying light by which these are interpreted.
Structurally, the trilogies have much in common with Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Durrell, too, devoted each of three volumes to a single character, although he added a fourth, “objective” book written in the third person. Each of their volumes offers the reader a coherent and persuasive vision of the world, and yet one not to be reconciled with the visions, equally coherent and persuasive, presented by the narrators of the accompanying volumes. Cary’s touch is lighter than Durrell’s, however, and one finds in his work nothing like the statements of narrative aims which Durrell attached to his quartet: “a suitable descriptive subtitle [for the quartet] would be a ‘word continuum.’… If the axis has been well and truly laid down in the quartet it should be possible to radiate in any direction without losing the strictness and congruity of the continuum.” This would no doubt have struck the level-headed Cary—who was always modest, almost deflatingly so, about his own aims and techniques—as pure claptrap.
Modest though Cary might have been about his own aims and experiments in the trilogies, they allowed him to create literary beings of a memorable complexity. His main characters are “three-dimensional” in a more literal sense than that term usually carries when applied to fiction; the reader sees each of them from three thoughtfully formulated and yet quite divergent points of view. The final effect is both thrilling and disheartening. Thrilling, because it is always liberating to venture by means of a novel deep into other minds. Disheartening, because one comes away from the trilogies with a renewed sense of the distance between people and of the impossibility of their ever perceiving things in harmony. Both trilogies, moreover, conclude with homicide and accidental death, as if to remind us that no peace is to be found on this side of the grave.
The trilogies are remarkable as well for the central role they give to women. Nina Woodville, the narrator of Prisoner of Grace, is by far the most interesting character of the “Second Trilogy” and her book has—more remarkable yet—the most interesting and complex tone. And while the failed painter Gulley Jimson often steals the show in the “First Trilogy,” his sometime lover and wife, Sara Monday, is the more unusual and difficult literary achievement. Both Nina and Sara are sexual creatures of a surprising sort. Although they are presented, quite convincingly, as women of great sexual allure, neither is attractive in the ways we might expect a male author to signal attractiveness. Nina Woodville is a tiny woman, little more than five feet tall, and she enjoys the peak of her most fatal attractions as a gray-haired woman in her sixties. Sara Monday is a very fat, aging woman whose much-broken red nose makes her “look like a char.” Neither of these temptresses has much glamour in the conventional sense. They don’t need it. They have magic.
Cary’s “First Trilogy” appeared during the Second World War. Herself Surprised arrived in 1941, To Be a Pilgrim in 1942, and The Horse’s Mouth in 1944. The reader perceives the gathering storm on the Continent only dimly, as an ominous rumbling over the horizon. The narrators of the first two volumes, Sara Monday and Tom Wilcher, are concerned mainly with the past. And while Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth looks ever to the future, and the great masterpiece he is soon to paint, he remains undisturbed by anything so transitory as world warfare.
Herself Surprised looks at first like a rather familiar tale of the worldly rise and eventual decline of a “woman of loose morals.” Sara Monday begins her adult life as a housekeeper but becomes a lady of property when, early in her story, she marries her employer. The book traces her step-by-step reversion to a humble station in life. She takes up with the artist Jimson, who alternately beats her and lovingly paints her in the nude, and then with Mr. Wilcher, a skinflint whose social conservatism consorts uneasily with an urge toward sexual exhibitionism. In the end, predictably, she winds up in jail—steered there by Wilcher’s conniving relatives, who wish to secure his fortune for themselves. Yet the conventionality of this tale is undermined by hints throughout the novel, and by later revelations in the trilogy, which suggest that Sara is an unexpectedly shrewd and manipulative woman who wields more power than her seemingly hopeless descent might indicate. By the end of the second volume, when Sara is released from prison, she suddenly has the upper hand over Wilcher. She begins to look like a self-destructive but oddly efficient woman.
After only a chapter or two, the reader of To Be a Pilgrim begins to marvel at Cary’s knack for giving life to unpromising material. Wilcher is an old, enfeebled, repetitive curmudgeon, a man of bottomless irresolution and inactivity. He devotes much of his energies to brooding over his will, which he has rewritten more than thirty times. His most sensational characteristic—his sexual exhibitionism—is carefully downplayed throughout, and the book’s tone might actually be described as prissy. Yet the story he unfolds—a mournful chronicle of passing gentility and the thoughtless despoiling of a pastoral countryside—takes on in time its own drive and grandeur. When all of Wilcher’s wistful talk about his need to “break out,” to embark on some bold pilgrimage, takes shape at last, in a pathetic flight that resembles a little boy’s running away from home to play the hobo, the effect is highly comic but also strangely poignant. Who would have supposed that this unlikeable man could prove so affecting?
Gulley Jimson, on the other hand, seems a very promising character for a novel, and the reader comes to the final volume of the first trilogy with high hopes, which are not disappointed. Gulley has a blazing spirit as vast and colorful as the murals he paints, which typically bear titles like “The Fall” or “The Creation.” But while the popularity of The Horse’s Mouth is fully deserved (it has been, with Mr. Johnson, one of only two Cary novels to remain steadily in print in America), one regrets that the book has long been read independently of its predecessors in the trilogy. When Gulley is viewed through his own words only, he looks almost like a romantic cliché, a facile attempt to portray the artist as “another breed of man.” Not until he is meshed into the rest of the trilogy, with its presentation of other, quieter virtues, does his depth emerge; Gulley’s impracticality, monomania, anger, and adaptability need to be set beside prudence, balance, tranquility, and rigidity. And only by following Sara’s story from its outset will the reader appreciate the bitter sweetness of her dealings with Gulley—an extended, troubled love affair that is perhaps the trilogy’s finest achievement.
Cary brilliantly arranges that Gulley’s salvation should depend upon one of his old nude portraits of Sara. A rich buyer has been found, and Gulley’s future looks bright at last. But first he must get his hands on the painting, which is in Sara’s keeping. When Gulley goes to see her, he finds her an old woman with a black eye; it seems her new man, too, occasionally beats her. Gulley offers to split the sale price with Sara, who desperately needs the money, but she unexpectedly demurs. She is strangely reluctant to part with the painting. As Gulley and Sara stand side by side, with the canvas on the floor before them, the reader begins to see, in what is perhaps the most affecting scene that Cary ever wrote, how this painting of herself represents for Sara a time of passion and liberty and love now all but vanished from her world:
“Funny that bit of white just there, how it brings it up,” said Sara, pointing with her toe at her breast. “Yes,” I said, “your left is your masterpiece.” “Well, now you mention, for a woman who’d nursed five and such suckers, too, it’s a wonder I didn’t come out like an old purse.” “I did that bit between the arm and the breast rather well, it’s a lovely bit that, the foothills—” “You’ll admit they were wonderful firm Gulley.” “By God, firm as a Dutch cheese.” “And wonderful white too.” “As curdled cream.” “Well, do you know, Gulley, the monthly nurse used to stare at them till I was quite shy, and then she would say she’d never seen such sweet lovely shapes. And of course she’d seen thousands and thousands. You might say they were as common as turnips to a dairy farmer.”…
And there she was, the old cyclops, making a glad eye at her own image. The tear marks still on her cheek.
She is an “old cyclops” because her black eye is swollen shut. Sara Monday is a pathetic old woman, vain about glories that vanished long ago, and Gulley Jimson is a pathetic old man who, for all his brio, somehow manages to fail at whatever he attempts. But they are Adam and Eve as well, these two perfect lovers, hanging on to each other long after the Fall from the Garden.
The “Second Trilogy” is often called Cary’s “political trilogy,” a somewhat misleading characterization unless one keeps in mind Cary’s broad conception of politics, which he defined in his introduction to the first volume, Prisoner of Grace, as “the art of human relations, an aspect of all life.” He continued: “That is why I wanted to tell [my] story through the eyes of a wife whose marriage needs a great deal of management. I wanted to give the complete political scene.” In Prisoner of Grace, Nina Woodville analyzes her marriage to Chester Nimmo, a politician of impoverished rural origins who eventually rises to become war minister during the First World War (and who later becomes a central figure in the general strike of 1926). Nina remains in love with the cousin she grew up with, Jim Latter, and at various times she seeks to leave Nimmo. Yet she cannot, even though she portrays him as a ruthless, scheming, neglectful tyrant. He is also a “great man” who fights for a “great cause,” and when he asks her to stay she feels ethically bound. She is a “prisoner of grace.”
The reader who approaches Prisoner of Grace through the New Directions paperback will likely feel, after reading Cary’s introduction, a sense of smug condescension toward the anonymous author of the promotional copy on its back cover, where Nimmo is described as “the quintessential hypocrite.” Nimmo (or so Cary laments) was misunderstood by the critics, who mistook him for a liar and a crook. Cary evidently intended him to be seen as a tricky and ambitious but in many ways admirable man. Yet as the reader plunges into the novel, he may find it hard not to call Nimmo a crook—or worse. At least to this reader, he seemed—even when measured against other politicians—an exceptionally brutal, manipulative, power-mad, and self-deceiving man.
The most surprising thing about the second volume, Except the Lord, in which Nimmo re-creates his difficult up-bringing as the son of an indigent lay preacher, is how quickly the reader begins to sympathize with him. He is a man with a reservoir of rage in his soul, and as he documents his early life one grows equally angry about the hardships and indignities he has been subjected to. The reader (no less than that political constituency which Nimmo, the notorious demagogue, handles so skillfully) begins to root for Nimmo, and to long to see him at the head of the government.
Yet one’s newborn sympathies soon dissolve before the massive attacks Jim Latter mounts against Nimmo in the trilogy’s concluding volume, Not Honour More. One is forced again to revise opinions, and to throw off all of one’s laboriously acquired affection for Nimmo. Latter is, no less than Nimmo, a man of titanic fury; but while Nimmo often sublimated his rage, or dressed it up in religious rhetoric, Latter thunders openly and unceasingly. An ex-military man, returned to England in the Twenties after a long stint in Nigeria, Latter is dismayed by the changes he sees everywhere. His hatred of Nimmo (whom he describes as “a miserable old wreck fairly coming to bits with his own putrescence”) is merely a part of a greater dissatisfaction with his homeland (which he describes as “all lies and dirt and grab and the gimmes ready to sell their mothers for loot—monkey-hill at scratch time”).
Although Not Honour More opens wonderfully (“This is my statement, so help me God, as I hope to be hung”), in the end it proves somewhat disappointing. The reader picks up the book with high hopes, eager to see the mysterious, close-mouthed Latter reveal himself at last. But Latter’s story proves simpler than one might have supposed: it is so full of rage that there’s hardly room for subtler emotions.
The book has great appeal nonetheless. Events move briskly; in many ways, Not Honour More is the most powerful book in the trilogy. Cary pulls off a great tour de force simply in maintaining such a high pitch of emotion for the book’s three hundred pages. And rabid reactionary though he may be, Latter, too, grows likeable. He is a man of learning and principle who laces his writing with verse. The book’s title derives from the final stanza of Lovelace’s “To Lucasta, Going to the Warres”:
Yet this Inconstancy is such, As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee (Deare) so much, Lov’d I not Honour more.
If Jim Latter can sound at times almost like a fascist, he is also a man with poetry in his soul.
Cary, too, was a man of lyrical temperament, and his novels are remarkable for the pervasiveness of poetry in their prose. Aladai in The African Witch recites with equal fervor Wordsworth and an improvised native hymn to the Niger. Johnson is a poet of great if untutored beauty, a sort of John Clare of the veld:
Good-bye, my mother sky, stretch your arms all round.
Watch me all time with your eye, never sleep.
Put down your bress when I thirsty; never say give me….
Good-bye, my night, my lil wife- night,
Hold me in your arms ten thousand time.
Sara Monday is a bottomless repository of poetic saws and epigrams, and Wilcher’s brother Edward is a writer of couplets, some of them remarkably deft:
Descent from apes. Quite so. But please to crack
This nut, professor. How long climb- ing back?
And Gulley Jimson, who believes that William Blake was “the greatest English-man who ever lived,” seasons his story with frequent quotations from The Songs of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
The presence of so much poetry in Cary’s novels gives them—and what an indictment of our times that this should be its effect!—an old-fashioned feel. The world in which a military redneck might enlist Lovelace to reinforce his arguments has disappeared. Cary’s landscapes, too, are often elegiac evocations. While still in vigorous middle age, Cary began to write of elderly people, men and women who were born long before he was and whose capacious memories could carry them deep into the nineteenth century. Yet in his narrative techniques Cary was a restless improviser, an admirer of James Joyce who found in modernism his own artistic liberation. Cary often painted in his prose an old English world—the pastoral past—but in a new way. His artist’s eye was quirkily sharp and his touch agile. The colors he chose were warm—earth browns, sunset reds, the yellowish greens of new growth—for in everything he wrote, he was, in addition, a most compassionate man.