Authors: Richard Hughes
(1900â1976) attended Oxford and lived for most of his life in a castle in Wales. His other books include
A High Wind in Jamaica
, a New York Review Books Classic that was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the hundred best novels of the twentieth century, and
is an English novelist, short story writer, and critic. Her novel,
, won the Man Booker Prize in 2009. Her latest novel,
Bring Up the Bodies
, was published in May 2012.
THE FOX IN THE ATTIC
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
THE FOX IN THE ATTIC
was the offspring of writer's block: or, as those in the trade might prefer to phrase it, the child of creative silence. Published in 1961, it was the first volume of what Richard Hughes described as “a sort of
War and Peace
” for the twentieth century: a huge work to be called “The Human Predicament.”
Richard Hughes occupied a singular position in English letters. His 1929 novel
A High Wind in Jamaica
had been a best seller and a critical success on both sides of the Atlantic, and had introduced the world to an unsentimental but intensely poetic sensibility. His oblique, pared-down story about children in the hands of pirates had challenged pious assumptions about childhood sexuality, and had been denounced by one anonymous critic as “horrible and cruel and disgusting.” Others, however, had been dazzled by its perceptiveness and the freshness of its writing. Images of power and wit seemed to bubble from the author's pen.
This was a false impression. Hughes wrote slowly, and with great labor, drafting and redrafting, testing each phrase for balance and euphony, selecting each word for its optimum range of meanings and its penumbral allusiveness. It was not until 1938 that a new novel appeared.
met a more mixed reception. A story of a disabled ship caught up in a hurricane, it invited and perhaps just survived comparisons with Conrad. Ford Madox Ford called it “a masterpiece,” but Virginia Woolf wrote “on the one hand there's the storm, on the other the people. And between them there's a gap, in which there's some want of strength.” The book was an evident metaphor of its author's own spiritual struggles, intense and unresolved, and its long gestation showed what patient and desolating labor it cost him to produce fiction at all.
Richard Hughes was born in 1900 in Caterham, Surrey, in safe-as-houses prosperity and gentility. His father was a civil servant who traveled each morning by train to his work in the Public Records Office. His mother Louisaâwho had been brought up in Jamaicaâconcerned herself with children, servants, and the social round. But his sister and brother both died in early childhood, and his father contracted tuberculosis. Hughes would always remember the day of his father's death, when “I broke like a dam, water and grief bursting out of me.” He would be haunted, too, by what happened immediately afterwards:
Next morning my mouth still tasted salt, and my gummy eyes would hardly open. There was a load of grief on the still house like a heavy fall of snow. And thenâIâ
It was mid-morning and I wanted to ask Father something, so I scampered up to his bedroom, burst open the door. Under the stiff folds of the sheet lay whatâwhat looked like a not very skilful wax copy of him.
How on earth had I forgotten, who loved him so much?
Hughes's biographer, Richard Perceval Graves (
, Andre Deutsch, 1992), believes that the moment was decisive, leaving the child with unresolved shock and guilt. Hughes would grow up physically robust, almost a caricature of the “manly” man, an adventurer in the High Atlas and on the open sea. But emotionally he was vulnerable, suffering a series of nervous collapses during his early life.
He was a child of acute and almost morbid sensitivity. His sense impressions were visceral and overwhelming: “A crowded herbaceous border in June used to make me very nearly sick out-loud.” He decided to become a writer at the age of six. A conventional educationâpublic school, Oxfordâwould do nothing to dampen his unconventional sensibility. He had his share of romanticismâhe was a Welshman by adoption, and called himself Dicconâbut he had an original and rigorous turn of mind which made him interrogate the commonplace, reject the trivial, and avoid the ready-made response. His quotidian world was poignant, potent, dangerous.
Two world wars divided his life. He was already a cadet in training when the 1918 armistice was signed. His generation of schoolboys had expected to go into the trenches and live six months; they were shocked to find themselves with another sixty years to fill. Hughes spent World War II as an Admiralty bureaucrat, and began to store up the material he would use in “The Human Predicament.” He intended it as a complex and expansive work, but how expansive, no one could say. What he wanted, he explained, was “a marriage, in epic form, of the two kinds of storytelling, the fictional narrative, where no one knows what will happen next, and the History everybody knows.” There were precedents, he added, “beginning with Homer himself.” He wrote, “Success and failure depend on the one thing only: on whether I was born with adequate gifts. For I certainly intend to stint neither effort nor time.”
Augustine, the wealthy young Englishman at the center of the narrative, is a semiautobiographical character, a shining, heedless version of the author, with few dark thoughts and a habit of not noticing things. It is as if, in creating Augustine, Hughes has written himself a prescription for an easier life; and yet Augustine's sheltering wealth and natural amiability leave him open to perilous illusions. Augustine imagines his generation as a new kind of human being, singularly unhaunted by guilt; it refuses the notion of sin, since Freud has explained it away. A blithe atheist, Augustine will never understand the anguished spirituality of his blind German cousin, Mitzi, with whom he falls in love just as she falls in love with Christ. An optimist, a healthy hedonist, he leaves England in search of “the new Germany with its broad-minded peace-loving spirit and its advanced ideas,” and finds a sick and shattered society ripe for Hitler.
The early part of the novel offers a social panorama of the world of Augustine's youth. There is the small Welsh town of Flemton with its mad, malicious inhabitants, a country house in Dorset with its masters and servants. The latter, especially, are far from caricature: the butler Wantage deploys a suitable “tone of deferential benevolence” when talking to the “Gentry,” while sticking to his belief that they are “stupid sods.” Augustine's pompous brother-in-law Gilbert inducts us into the world of political party in-fighting, and his niece Polly opens up for us the secret, convoluted world of childhood imagination. Polly is one of the novel's great successes, as is German uncle Otto, with his wooden leg, who reads aloud Thomas Ã Kempis as if it were “musketry instructions.”
But the most remarkable and powerful sections of the book concern the Nazis' rise to power. The writer who decides to mix fictitious characters with real ones takes a risk: if he is too timid and respectful, the real people will lie inert on the page, flattened by the weight of his research. Hughes buried himself in reading, but set a premium on firsthand accounts; his research would be applauded by historians when the book appeared, because he had managed to turn up hidden material. He visited his own German relatives near Augsburg and immersed himself in both their family life and their private papers. He had many private conversations with Helene Hanfstengl, who had been a friend of Hitler's in the early 1920s, and she gave him an unpublished account of her experiences.
Hughes has a great deal of hard information to convey to the reader before he can get his plot underway. But his portrait of Hitler is electric: from his first appearance, “mis-en-scÃ¨ne by Hieronymus Bosch,” it is poised between the comic and the macabre, a portrait of a two-bit Machiavelli, a cream-cake-eating screecher, a solipsist who will devour the world.
The book came into being with great difficulty. With such a large, long-term project on his hands, Hughes needed to keep his family afloat financially, and imagined he would do this with reviews, essays, and occasional pieces. But when he began to write, bureaucrat's prose came out. His war service at the Admiralty had depleted his imaginative resources. For an Englishman of his time and status, the necessities of life included servants and private-school fees, and at times he relied almost wholly on the family income of Frances, his wife. Through years of hard writing he struggled on, often plunging into depression; there were dotty attempts at self-sufficiency at the Welsh seaside, and overdrafts, and near-breakdowns, and finally the salvation of an income from screenwriting.
Hughes was not an author who could plan ahead. “For me,” he said, “writing can never be, like a piece of carpentry, done from a blue-print: it has to growâlike a tree.” He writes in short chapters, many of which are self-contained, miniaturized works of art. Some went through fifty drafts. There were times when most of his daily work was deletion. He would claim to have done 50,000 words, which would “progress” to 10,000. There was no particular reason, except his publisher's natural impatience, for the first volume of “The Human Predicament” to end as it does: with Augustine throwing his possessions into a Gladstone bag and quitting Germany just as the door of a Carmelite convent closes behind Mitzi. But it is a strong ending which leaves the reader with huge expectations. When and where will Augustine grow up, and what will it cost him? How long will his innocence protect him in the dangerous years ahead?
Central to Hughes's ambition for “The Human Predicament” was a fusion of intimate, invented narrative with the “History everybody knows,” but that kind of history becomes more elusive the harder one looks at it. Hughes's research must have shown him the large, drifting cloud-masses between one “fact” and another. Hitler materializes as a demonic lightning flash from one of these clouds, less a personality than a rudimentary flicker against a dark sky. Augustine too is a half-fledged personality, a bundle of instincts at war with a conventional moral code that he has partly internalized but not worked through for himself. Still unconscious of what is going on in the more distant rooms of his mind, how can he begin to guess at what is happening in the unvisited upper rooms of his German family's castle? The end of this first part of his story finds him unaware of the immediate perils that have beset him, protected by Mitzi's courage and superior discernment. He is unaware of the identity and even the existence of the Fox in the Attic, trailing the feral stench of death.
TO MY WIFE
Â and also my children (especially Penelope) in affectionate gratitude for their help
The Human Predicament is conceived as a long historical novel of my own times culminating in the Second World War. The fictitious characters in the foreground are wholly fictitious. The historical characters and events are as accurately historical as I can make them: I may have made mistakes but in no case have I deliberately falsified the record once I could worry it out.
The reader may wonder why a novel designed as a continuous whole rather than as trilogy or quartet should appear volume by volume: the plain truth is I am such a slow writer that I have been urged not to wait.