Almost ten years ago, I happened upon a book in a used bookstore in Urbana-Champaign, IL with a funny title: Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. I took it home out of curiosity and over the next few days delighted in the discovery of a wonderfully distinct literary voice. I’d never read quite anything like it—breathless like Woolf, but more fanciful, and yet extremely sharp and clear. (Some people might describe Woolf as fanciful, but I think Woolf is too intellectual to be fanciful… she’s playful, but it’s always intellectual. Comyns has a dash of fantasy, of magic, yet her writing is never incomprehensible.) At the same time, there was a sadness to the writing that made it all very interesting and mysterious. I have held on to this first impression of Barbara Comyns’s writing, eager to read more, and yet for some inexplicable reason, hadn’t done so.
So I was delighted to stumble across a NYRB volume of her novel The Vet’s Daughter (begun around 1952, published in 1959) at a used bookstore in Lausanne last week. Nothing gives a better sense of her writing than to read the first two paragraphs:
A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn kneecaps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, “You must excuse me,” and left this poor man among the privet hedges.
I entered the house. It was my home and it smelt of animals, although there was lino on the floor. In the brown hall my mother was standing; and she looked at me with her sad eyes half-covered by their heavy lids, but did not speak. She just stood there. Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so, if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.
That last line is devastating, isn’t it? And this illustration of her father’s cruelty is just one of many to come. Our narrator Alice is a gentle, and somewhat naïve soul. She isn’t naïve in the sense that she isn’t aware of unpleasant realities or even that she is locked up inside herself, a victim, as it were. Instead, she is observant, thoughtful and emotionally intelligent, yet her upbringing has left her sheltered enough to believe she might stand a chance at happiness. The book follows Alice through the death of her mother, a move away from London to work as a lady’s companion for a colleague of her father, possible love and an eventual return to her father’s home. There is also a very gentle supernatural plot line as Alice discovers she has the ability to levitate, a talent that will determine her future.
That Alice can levitate is not without a symbolic function in the story. For without any other viable option, Alice has found the means to free herself from a “heavy” existence. This shows an incredible courage on Alice’s part. I also can’t help reading this as a very sly and perhaps inadvertant social critique—except for Alice’s levitation, the novel is unfailingly realistic, and we all know that levitation is truly impossible. So it is only in fiction that Alice can escape her fate…and well, you have to read the end of the book to know that this escape is not without a high price.
Now that I’ve read two of her eleven novels, I can’t help comparing her to other writers working at the same time: Lessing (The Grass is Singing, 1950), Gordimer (The Lying Days, 1953), Murdoch (Under the Net, 1954), Pym (Excellent Women, 1952). Accepting Pym as the stylistic outlier here, there is still a strong connection between all these writers, especially along socio-political preoccupations. A connection that Comyns does not share. Comyns seems completely uninterested in engaging with the socio-political except in the way that it organically touches her narrators. Her world appears to be completely and dramatically sealed around the narrator’s consciousness. In this sense, and especially with the light touch of supernatural/magical, she reminds me of the Carson McCullers of The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951).
It goes without saying that I’ll be reading more Comyns. A really lovely small press called Dorothy recently re-issued her 1955 novel Who Was Changed and Who was Dead. And I have it on good authority (Jess Stoner, David Auerbach) that this is one of, if not her best…