The Return Of Britannica
Add it to the list of projects on my horizon…
A few years ago I wrote a story in homage to Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’ trilogy, and I was so happy with the way it turned out that I wrote a sequel. The pair became known as the ‘Britannica Castle’ stories. They were ludicrously baroque, fanciful, dark and elegant, but fairly exhausting to write. Once again, I find I’m being drawn back to this world, and am now considering developing them into a full-blown novel, even though the linguistic style is demanding.
One reason for considering the return is that I’ve read a lot more in this fantastical area, including one author who is utterly unique in the literary world, although not to everyone’s taste.
In a world that praises commonplace prose for its realism, it’s nice to have Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank, a sort of polar opposite to Andy McNab. Firbank, born 1886, had an eccentric narrative style that was an extension of his personality. For a man who wrote so much about society he was never comfortable in it, being too alcoholic, inarticulate and downright strange. Nevertheless, Firbank provides a link between Oscar Wilde and T S Eliot. He became a cult figure, which by his reckoning meant that he was read by a dozen clever people, but his work faded from even this attention.
His slim novels appeared in the aftermath of the First World War, but reflect nothing of the time. ‘The Flower Beneath The Foot’ takes place in a vaguely Balkan state, and is as exotic as a poisonous orchid. His plots are dismissable, but the dialogue is a distilled essence of the epigrammatic. ‘Whenever I go out,’ the king complains, ‘I get the impression of raised hats.’ ‘Raised hats?’ ‘Nude heads, doctor.’ This deeply shy, whispily neurasthenic writer is important for a singularity of vision that proved inspirational. Joe Orton certainly absorbed his peculiar speech rhythms, recognising a truth in Firbank’s dialogue; conversation need not sound real to have veracity.
His prose condensed worlds while leaving much unsaid. Asked for his opinion of literature, he admitted that he adored italics; a typically oblique Firbankian remark. His books contain party chatter consisting of disconnected words and phrases, much as we might actually perceive them. Infamously, one chapter comprised nothing but eight identical exclamations of the word ‘Mabel!’. Dilettantes drift dreamlike through his pages, tainting the aesthetic style that Wilde venerated. Firbank could not write or live in any other way. His novels were scribbled on postcards in hotel rooms heavy with flowers, but at a dinner party given in his honour, he consumed a single pea. Being shallow is exhausting work, and makes exhausting reading. These days you would tackle his work like poetry, a page at a time. So, ‘Britannica’ has a touch of Firbank, a ladle of Peake, and my own plotting.
Here’s the opening paragraph from the Britannica stories…
‘The problem with the spiral staircase to the Northeast Quadrant was the plethora of scorpions, small brass ones, set in spiky pairs on either side of each granite step. Their tails tugged at Ginansia’s gown, snagging on the sapphire-sewn hem and snatching her back every few feet. Finally she was forced to run with the silken material gathered at her knee, and run she did because she was late for dinner, and the Great Wound never forgave tardiness when it involved the ruination of sweetmeats.’
If I ever take a run at the full novel, it will obviously be for my own amusement!