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…

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