Review: SOME THINGS FROM THE KING OF A RAINY COUNTRY – Charlie Fox
SOME THINGS FROM THE KING OF A RAINY COUNTRY
The book was grey and so was the sky. Slate grey, to be exact. It came in the post on a damp January morning whilst I was still shaking various gnarly dreams out of my head: The King of a Rainy Country. It’s a chance encounter with an erotic book called The Lady Revealed that sparks the novel to life, though its own revelations (about women, desire, youth) needfully take a far more oblique and unsettling shape. This is also a novel about oddly charged objects – an old photograph, a paper rose, a wedding dress damp with rain – which are collected with a curious reverence. So much is left provocatively submerged in this novel, occurring not only as metaphor but not entirely as physical fact either, that the most vivid route through its contents seemed to lie in compiling a symbol system – that once-hip passion of mid-century psychoanalysts – from those objects.
‘I had been scared for a fortnight.’ Am I reading Jean Rhys? Brophy is merely teasing with her first sentence, stylishly evoking Rhys’s fearful London psychodramas before swerving off into her far droller domain. (Two pages later, we discover, ‘my fear vanished and I never thought of it again’.) Susan is our narrator, a learned bohemian girl of nineteen who seems schooled in camp hauteur. She would have learned this from Neale, an equally erudite bohemian boy. When they first meet, the two of them flirt in an oddball and self-consciously childish fashion with the assistance of transitional objects: a pillow and a golliwog of uncertain sex. (Al Jolson meets Orlando? The hallucination of an androgynous golliwog doesn’t make its presence any less creepy for the contemporary reader.) Fun and games straight from a case study by Melanie Klein – Brophy knows the lore of psychoanalysis inside and out. In a 1982 essay for the London Review of Books about psychoanalysis, Brophy quoted Janet Malcolm describing ‘personal relations’ as ‘a messy jangle of misapprehensions, at best an uneasy truce of between powerful solitary fantasy systems.’1 Perhaps that’s what plays out in Susan and Neale’s first meeting: the weird spectacle of one solitary fantasy system encountering another through these curious little totems.
Or not a cravat, according to Neale: ‘It’s my tie for reading Baudelaire in’. Susan, no sartorial slouch, knows it’s something far more debonair than a mere tie, which would be hopelessly bourgeois. If it were some colour other than black- green or purple, for instance, it would also be the silk equivalent of a wolf-whistle, a coy symbol for those familiar with queer life’s more discreet hints and flirtations, that Neale was a young man eager to be involved in homosexual activity. Quite what Neale is eager for remains one of the book’s more playful conundrums: is his camp acidity just a game, or something more? And is his wholehearted eschewal of seriousness just self-conscious schtick or a dandy philosophy? Perhaps those two things aren’t really exclusive. Neale is affianced (in the parlance of Regency novels) to Susan but their bed sharing seems to be platonic and, consequently, quietly radical in its insistence upon intimacy between a boy and a girl that isn’t set in the cement of marriage or even sex. What Neale also knows is that a cravat, in all its fanciful loops and swirls, always proclaims a decadent heritage. Beyond Baudelaire, a parade of louche fathers suggest themselves as sources of his style: the narrator of Cole Porter’s song ‘I’m a Gigolo’, the raffish characters in Ronald Firbank’s fiction (Brophy wrote a book-length study of Firbank entitled Prancing Novelist)2 and, of course, Oscar Wilde, especially in the form of the avuncular voice from his Phrases and Philosophies for the Young: ‘One should always be a little improbable.’3 Cravat and all, Neale is one of many fabulous figures who treats this as an immortal command.
THE AUTHOR PHOTOGRAPH
There’s a monochrome snapshot of Brophy on the back jacket of the book, looking sly and in shades like the master thief from a Melville film. A poster selling ice-cream peeks over her shoulder, topped by a rocket-like confection with a hungry animal bite taken out of its chocolate architecture. This is an utterly different breed of photograph to the mature portrait of Brophy that circulated in the 1970s, in which she knowingly exudes the regal glamour of a silent movie heroine in the era of A Clockwork Orange. She was unashamedly bisexual and the kind of lettered minx able to mischievously exult – on television! – ‘the sheer sexiness’ of then-Poet Laureate and formidable ghoul Cecil Day-Lewis.4
The ice cream poster photograph is a more eccentric proposition. All the properties of Brophy’s prose are gleefully promised in this little snapshot: comic verve, wit, and a provocatively jesting spirit. Who wouldn’t fall for her? Irrepressible is the word in every sense.
The ice cream photograph is also one of many fragments in a constellation of proto-Pop Art objects surrounding or submerged inside the book. Like that pan of magmatic, syrup-coated Corn Flakes noted below, the ice cream poster would be prized by Richard Hamilton; it’s positively glittering with carefree (and carnal) promise.
THE HAUNTED HOUSE
‘We are all haunted houses’, wrote the American poet H.D. who underwent psychoanalysis with Freud in 1930s in an attempt to comprehend her ‘difficult’ bisexuality.5 One of the most potent sequences in the book comes when Susan recollects their adolescent attempt, inspired by the summer fête, ‘to turn our classroom into a haunted house’. ‘We spent the afternoon in artificial darkness, half scared by our own fabrications: the melons with torches burning inside them; the skeleton, outlined in phosphorescent paint […] Behind the screens we sat breathless, preserving the atmosphere.’ As the afternoon drags on, the original thrill of the game fades. Laughter makes the screens tremble, the atmosphere breaks. Susan spots, beneath the sheet haunted by her friend Gill, ‘the outline of a third arm’ belonging to Cynthia with whom she’s hopelessly enamoured in a way that she’s also totally unable to express. She disturbs this secret party of girls, making Cynthia yowl, ‘Must you follow me everywhere?’ Brophy charts with breathless fascination how desire swims between the edges of the unconscious and waking mind. Sometimes this is achieved with a wicked comic energy but just as often it’s dreamlike and odd. Spelling things out here may be impossible but there’s a heavy mist of suggestion that also ‘preserves’ an atmosphere. When Susan dreams, everything becomes murkier still: ‘I was giving birth to a child, or I was the child; and the process of giving birth seemed to be a nightmarish sliding down something in the dark.’ Is desire a haunted house? Maybe. And if it is that doesn’t mean it must contain the full Hammer Horror banquet of howling ghosts and childhood traumas, but can in turn shelter more obscure phantoms, whispers in the attic, a faint but persistent collection of disturbances at the edge of everyday life.
The ghost of Freud is everywhere alongside the spectre of Henry James, who was just as passionately attentive to everything we left unsaid: What Susan Knew or indeed, Didn’t Know, might be the subtitle of the book.
THE CORN FLAKES
Corn Flakes abound in this book but what do they signify, exactly? For a while I thought of them as a symbol of kitsch and then again as a symbol of purposeful, bohemian impoverishment. Roland Barthes has nothing to say about them in his Mythologies published in French the year after The King of a Rainy Country. Maybe they’re too boring to make into anything meaningful. Susan concocts a pudding of Corn Flakes and golden syrup that forms little more than an unhappy batter. Despite the efforts of Elizabeth David and her best-selling cookbooks, the post-war diet appears in most novels to offer a miserable assortment of alternately lurid and monochrome sustenance. But eating is so often a childlike pleasure in this book. Maybe what Susan and Neale are symbolically trying to wolf down is the refried morality of social realist novels – a glum but ubiquitous fixation from the 1920s to 60s which so often dredge supposedly valuable writing from descriptions of bad meals. (Here I’m thinking, with enormous gloom, about that George Orwell book with its long agony over the trials of making tea.) Maybe they don’t succeed in devouring social-realism whole as Brophy would do in her later work, but Susan is a heroine marvelously lacking in the male-fixated hysterics, or dreary domestic terrors that colour other novels of the ‘conscious’ 1950s. What Brophy also finds here, with an attentiveness to the ephemeral that’s wholly her own, could be defined as an extremely English element of experience: the melancholy of leftovers.
Weather is difficult to do anything unexpectedly energetic with in most writing – small talk doubling as subtext and little more – but Brophy’s world has a rich meteorological decoration: ‘Mist hung from street light to street light like a triumphal swag’, as if the backdrop of South West London had transformed into the tipsily animate scenery of some MGM musical.
To think so deeply about weather does not mean dwelling on the inconsequential. Think, for as long as you can, about the resonant oddity of these two sentences that perform with all the strange grace of Gertrude Stein, a tender buttoning of the hallucinatory and domestic which is the novel’s greatest accomplishment: ‘My life has enough washing-up. We could go next door and look at the sky.’
The answer can only possibly be yes.
Charlie Fox is a writer based in London. His writing has appeared in many publications including frieze, The Wire, Sight & Sound and ArtReview. He is currently at work on a book about recluses.
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1. Brigid Brophy, ‘Transference’, London Review of Books, Vol. 4 No. 7 · 15 April 1982, pp. 3-5
2. Brigid Brophy, Prancing Novelist: a defence of fiction in the form of a critical biography in praise of Ronald Firbank, London: Macmillan, 1973
3. Oscar Wilde, ‘Phrases And Philosophies for the Use of the Young’, The Chameleon, December 1894. Available at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Phrases_and_Philosophies_for_the_Use_of_the_Young
4. Good Evening, ITV, 1967, as mentioned by Jennifer Hodgson in her mighty afterword to this edition
5. H.D., Tribute to Freud, revised edition, Manchester: Carcanet, 1985