. . . Heppenstall

. . .

Saturnine by Rayner Heppenstall

Although the paper stock's pure 1943, page five warns us the text won't keep to AUTHORIZED ECONOMY STANDARDS:


Fragments of this narrative have appeared in Harper's Bazaar, Kingdom Come, The New English Weekly and Partisan Review. It is fiction. Outside pp. 130-134, all the characters are imaginary, and no further reference is made to a living or recently deceased person except Messrs. L. N. Fowler of Ludgate Circus, Dr. Pearson of the Middlesex Hospital, the Grand Duke Cyril of Russia, Lifar, de Basil, Balanchine, Nijinsky, Legat and Diaghilev of the Russian ballet, Lawrence of Arabia and D. H. Lawrence, Duke Ellington, the late Canon H. R. L. Sheppard, Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale, Isobel Baillie and Anna Wickham, Lady Astor, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson, Gabo, Miró and Georges Bernanos, Gordon Craig, Heifetz and Rudolf Steiner, a number of all-in wrestlers and Joe E. Brown, Clark Gable and the Chinese naval attaché, Marshal Pétain, M. Stalin and Mr. Winston Churchill, the late Mr. Neville Chamberlain, the Hangman and the reigning house of this realm.

A slip is tipped in:

SATURNINE by Rayner Heppenstall
This First Edition is limited to 1,650 copies,
of which 1,600 copies are for sale in the
United Kingdom.
Erratum: p. 5, line 3, for "pp. 130-134" read
"pp. 124-128."

And yes, while the narrator observes perspectival and temporal bounds, his text otherwise strays. Phlegmy strands of narrative dissolve and re-emerge in a fashion difficult to capture in a short excerpt, but this paragraph incorporates a number of characteristic concerns:

At the age of fifteen, Caroline was physically mature and obstinately shy. This was the fault of her mother who still kept her in very brief, childish frocks, so that she had something of the perverse and rather horrible attraction of the principal boy in a pantomime. She was a large, handsome child, with clustering, fair hair and big, golden legs. Her face had the suggestively Jewish nose and short upper lip of a virgin sheep newly dipped. She was presumably born under Aries. I found her disturbing and was rather ashamed of the fact. Margaret said that I had no need to be, for the child was obviously of an age to be desired or she wouldn't be that shape.

(Margaret is the narrator's wife.)

Later experts reached to the nouveau roman for a parallel; myself, I was reminded more of Italo Svevo and Burroughs's Queer and Baron Corvo's certainty that all his vagaries were projected from heaven in letters of fiery gold Saturnine's most startling literary reference comes when the narrator considers naming his newborn daughter after the boy-toy-gondolier in The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole. (And in a startling biographical coincidence, Heppenstall's wife was also named "Margaret", and she also bore a daughter in 1940, and an unadvisably cumbersome name also seems to have been considered.)

All these comparisons are afterthoughts at best; the reading itself is an "inexplicable tumble." About two-thirds through, Heppenstall belatedly defends his technique in reviewer-friendly terms:

It seems as if I were telling four or five stories at once, but that is how it was. I can imagine this story divided up between four or five distinct novels. There would be the novel dealing with a business man who crashed and upon whom a hitherto suppressed romanticism thereafter took its revenge, causing him to suffer from delusions and eventually to lose his memory. There would be a novel dealing with the London of before the war and during the Sitzkrieg, its decadent intellectualism, its circles of vice, the disintegration of personality later to be remedied by a national risorgimento. There would be novels of simpler theme, the downfall of an erotophile, the errant husband and wife brought together by the birth of a child. More interesting perhaps than any of these, there would be a highly atmospheric novel dealing with experiences in a half-world of death and rebirth. But in actuality these and other potential themes were inextricable, and I cannot truthfully say what effect attached to what cause or indeed which was cause and which effect. Any attempt at all-embracing consistency would be dishonest (and I believe that it is always so in life and that all novel-writing is dishonest in its degree). I can but play upon the surface and hint at underlying depths wherever I am aware of them.

Nevertheless, I am certain that all things do cohere within a pattern, that anarchy and chaos are conditions not to be found in nature and that, if one were possessed of the necessary technique, the whole of a man and a man's life could be read clearly from a single hair of his head, as some claim to read it in the palm of his hand.

The reviewers of 1943 did not return his friendliness. But when we step back a bit, Saturnine's architectural scheme (if not its pattern) appears clear enough: four parts, chronologically arranged, each climbing a bluff of crumbling consciousness and ending on a cliffhanger. The first part might be a bit more obsessed with class hatred, the second with mysticism, and the third with sex I haven't run the stats; vague impressions seem truer to the material and the fourth detaches from an increasingly mobilized world.

In that fourth part we reach pp. 124-128 (not to be confused with pp. 130-134), a long and apparently essential (albeit fruitless) visit with unimaginary Oskar Kokoschka and his young lover, "Mom"; a Google Books snippet tells us that "Kokoschka and Croft also seemed to have had a major argument about Saturnine.... Kokoschka, who features in the book, had tried to persuade Heppenstall, a friend of his, to work Croft 'into the story.' Although in the end no reference was made to Croft in the book, Croft considered Saturnine 'in the very worst of taste.'"

That, at least, is undeniable. The Daily Express particularly didn't care to consider the stink of excrement and putrefaction which rises from the Queen of England and the little princesses "if you stick your nose in the appropriate place," and then there's the company of sailors and the lady sawn in half and the pro wrestling, the new recruit's micropenis and the more fabulous penis of Paradies, the narrator's worm and the Siamese kittens' worms, revulsion towards Christmas and sympathy for "the German cry against encirclement," and this maternity-ward farewell:

‘I expect they’ll start by shaving you,’ I said.

‘Darling,’ said Margaret. ‘They've shaved me already. Kiss me again, darling.’

The nurse went out.

Margaret said:

‘Darling, do you love me?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘At least, I think so.’

All accurate enough, we suppose, but in the very worst of taste. While we would never, ever presume the book was autobiographical ("it is fiction"), we do have to wonder just what his friends and lovers see in the narrator, no Adonis, and a self-iconoclast that destroys his own virtues underneath your eyes. It's small wonder that only 1650 copies of Saturnine were ever printed; the tasteful can thank infinite copyright extension for keeping it (and every other of Heppenstall's books) out of print. May the Guardian of the Threshold preserve us from pirates!


Too late!

. . .

The Monkey Puzzle by Veronica Hull

I draw most of my reading from a decades-old compost pile of decontextualized recommendations. But shuffle play establishes its own narratives, and somehow Eddie Campbell's lifework was followed with a series of forgotten books by great wasters.

First came Saturnine by Rayner Heppenstall, precious documentation of bad behavior in England's finest hour. Then The Crust on Its Uppers by Derek Raymond (all flash and no trousers), La Fanfarlo by Charles Baudelaire (sad stuff), An Anecdoted Topography of Chance by Daniel Spoerri (a less plot-driven Robbe-Grillet), and Minutes of the Last Meeting by Gene Fowler, purportedly a mean-spirited biography of a grotesque old fart once justly loathed by Whitman and Debussy, but more sincerely a shelf of humble-brags honoring the author's parasitism during John Barrymore's and W. C. Fields's terminal declines.

(That last formed a twofer posthumous-character-assassination setlist of its own with Nollekens & his Times by John Thomas "Antiquity" Smith, projected as friendly tribute but executed as vengeance for Nollekens's will.)

Then The Bohemians by Anne-Gédéon Lafitte, Marquis de Pelleport, a 1790 proto-novel formally closer to Thomas Nashe than to Ann Radcliffe. And now The Monkey Puzzle by Veronica Hull a female waster at last!— and, in a way, probably that very way, my favorite of the lot.

* * *

What with The Golden Notebook and The Bell Jar and so on, and between Piper Laurie and Julie Harris and Liza Minnelli and so on, the post-Home-Front pre-feminist era seems like a bloody golden age of feminine breakdowns, bottoming out alongside the post-feminist pre-suffragette era of Alice James and Clover Hooper Adams.

Hull's "Catherine" hits familiar marks: a questing young woman isolated in an aggressively male academic environment (here, the philosophy department of University College London); emotional collapse followed by traumatic institutionalization; substance abuse; joyless sleeping around; unplanned pregnancy; unsupportive marriage; fag-haggery; an old-school try at governessing; and a first experience of political demonstrations, teaching her the first lessons taught by all political demonstrations in every time and place:

‘But what I don’t understand,’ said Catherine, rubbing her head and feeling a bit better for the whisky, the crisis extravagance was still on, ‘is why. Why they charged us. What were we doing?’

‘Existing dear,’ said John, ‘if there are too many people existing in the same place at the same time they have to be removed. On a big scale it’s done by war. On a small scale by the police.’ [...]

‘I find it so extraordinary, when all one’s doing is trying to stop war, and people spit at you.’

What distinguishes The Monkey Puzzle from title onwards is its classically waster attitude, as if the whole mess has been redeemed by providing so many good-humored bar stories and flaring bar rants. It's the Paula Prentiss of young-woman-goes-insane novels.

* * *

Veronica Hull's recoverable literary career consists of a few months in 1958, during which she provided four (unsigned) reviews for the TLS:

The publishers have spared no pains to produce a book that is easy on the eye and has every appearance of scholarship. The writing is often good. But it is as if an intelligent, expert artist were commissioned to paint the portrait of an eminent but stupid general. Unable, for fear of hurting his sitter's feelings, to reproduce the complete vacuity of expression, the artist has instead concentrated on other aspects. The portrait that emerges is a curious one. The man has no face; but on his ample chest is a row of medals depicted, down to the last tedious detail, with the utmost care and accuracy.

This association ended around the time Hull's own book was blasted by (unsigned) Peter Myers in a group review:

Mrs. Hull, however, has succeeded only in being cynical in a juvenile way; she is inclined to rely too much on the merely crude (the dust-jacket delicately describes it as 'outrageous') to create an effect, and the reader, having been suitably shocked, as intended, in the first thirty pages or so, will find the repetition wearisome as he works his way towards the end. The story is told jerkily, in one sudden gush of effusiveness, and this style does not make the heroine's chaotic happenings any easier to follow. Characters are unpleasant and unsympathetic (doubtless they are meant to be) while the occasional flashes of mature wit do little to relieve these loosely packed trivia of an unattractive adolescence.

Mr. Richard Charles, in his enchanting novel, A Pride of Relations, has succeeded in full measure. He writes with real humour of three Great-Aunts, Betty, Frances and Jessica, of Grandfather Quincey Charles, and especially of Great-Uncle Justly....

Others provided kinder blurbs: Time and Tide with "the most promising first novel from a new English writer that I have read since the night I stayed up reading Iris Murdoch's Under the Net," Angus Wilson with "remarkably amusing, frightening, and intelligent," and young V. S. Naipaul with "shrewd, barbed, lit up with delicious perceptions" (albeit including reservations about her punctuation).

The book was not reprinted, however, nor published overseas, and its title lived on only among analytic philosophers. With the "rightly confident" blinkeredness so characteristic of the breed, Lord Quinton even declared her "a pseudonym."

It always puzzled Catherine that they should be able to indulge in this mysterious study of the meta without any reference to the science in question. She supposed she would understand one day, in the meantime the whole business seemed unimportant.

The final word I've found on her (or her editor-bookseller husband Tristram) was dropped in a boast by the aforementioned trouserless fellow.


UPDATE, December 28 2015: Last year I was completely at a loss as to how to find the novel's current rightsholder. Almost exactly one year later, Richard Hull, Veronica Hull's son, sent a very kind email mentioning his hope to find a house who will finally give The Monkey Puzzle the second (and longer-lived) edition it deserves. Go to, publishers!


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.