Sunday, July 24, 2011
Julian Grant Loses His Way (1933) by Claude Houghton
Claude Houghton's obscurity (not even a Wikipedia entry!) must be due to a combination of factors. To begin with, he was one of the first writers who wrote explicitly about the gap between the positivist world view and the things that make life worthwhile. This un-PC approach can't endear him to the consumer. Another reason, perhaps, is Houghton's penchant for modernist subjects without the least inclination for the modernist use of language. The general feel of his books is almost bizarrely old-fashioned. His prose seems almost deliberately devoid of subtlety and nuance, his dialogue is theatrical, stylized, inauthentic, sometimes stodgy. Yet often somehow this comes together to a decidedly hypnotic effect. His sense of language rhythm is there all right.
Admittedly, it works better when this ostensibly naïve and simple writing is attributed to the first person narrator of I Am Jonathan Scrivener than when it's the authorial voice in Julian Grant. Still, it would be wrong to think of Houghton as hopelessly mediocre. His commentary on character and mores is refreshingly direct and often aphoristic. He has a sharp tongue, a sense of humour, and he is observant when he wants to be. Life in Bohemia is described as 'parties where everyone leans on something and discusses Vitality'. Exploring his options in a certain predicament, the protagonist suggests: 'Or I might become an English Communist. After all, I have a private income.' In fact, Houghton is best when he pays attention to detail, to the particular - something that, however, he is least of all concerned with. His main interests are metaphysical.
The novel more or less starts as the story of a sentimental education, in the manner apparently characteristic of the author, but then takes a rather unexpected turn towards an education in perversity. The protagonist begins as a naïve youth hungry for experience; the hunger overwhelms him and leads eventually to an 'emotional suicide'. And then he finds himself in the 'dream world' where he is confronted with a variety of symbolic visions and a lot of metaphysical speculation. This part alone would be enough to make the book unpalatable to a modern audience. Yet this is something that the young Robert Aickman may very well have read (in fact, almost certainly read). The ending boasts a distinctly Aickmanesque frisson: 'The men will want to have a good look at you. The women can't - because they're blind.' Here's another curious thing about Houghton: however much he may go wrong with verbosity or excessive allegory at some points in his narrative, he always seems to make things right in the end. You may be intermittently tempted to skip, but not to throw the book away.
This novel is another proof of how strongly the ideas of J. W. Dunne impressed his contemporaries, or those of them prepared to be impressed. In fact, when J. B. Priestley outlined his concept of the afterlife four decades later, in some aspects he stuck very close to Houghton's symbolic vision. And, of course, the implication of the would as a construct of consciousness would be echoed by Owen Barfield in the 50s. So, yes, the book is a curiosity, but a curiosity lying well within an established tradition. And while it is old-fashioned in form, its subject matter cannot be outdated, especially because so little fiction has been concerned with similar matters since Houghton's time.