Saturday, 12 December 2009

A David Garnett Duo

Blogging definitely opens me up to more obscure titles and A Man in the Zoo and Lady Into Fox by David Garnett both fall into the category of neglected classics; one was a novella that was a gem to discover and the other was more like cubic zirconia that should have stayed unearthed. A Man in the Zoo was brought to my attention by Fleur Fisher and Lady Into Fox by both Simon T and Simon S; upon reading the first and third reviews, respectively, and realising that the writer was one in the same, I decided to purchase an out-of-print volume containing them both. Lady into Fox is in print with Hesperus Press in a delightful-looking edition.

Lady Into Fox concerns John Cromartie who, upon having a quarrel with his fiancée, Josephine, offers himself as an exhibit within the Ape-house of the Regent's Park Zoo.

'You are Tarzan of the Apes; you ought to be shut up in the Zoo. The collection here is incomplete without you. You are a survivor - atavism at its worst. Don't ask me why I fell in love with you - I did, but I cannot marry Tarzan of the Apes, I'm not romantic enough. I see, too, that you do believe what you have been saying. You do think mankind is your enemy. I can assure you that if mankind thinks of you, it thinks you are the missing link. You ought to be shut up and exhibited here in the Zoo - I've told you once and now I tell you again - with the gorilla on one side and the chimpanzee on the other. Science would gain a lot.'

I found the premise to be intriguing and fully expected to be enchanted. Alas, I struggled with this novella and found it inaccessible for the most part in its lofty tone and thought John was exceptionally condescending. I was bored and mildly irritated but then towards then end became thoroughly offended when a "second man, a negro" was exhibited in the cage next to Cromartie, and the latter's subsequent treatment and opinion of his new neighbour, Joe Tennison. I realise that A Man in the Zoo is very much a product of its time but overall the novella left a thoroughly bad taste in my mouth. I imagine that Garnett was attempting to say something original about humanity but his point eluded me.

Conversely, Lady Into Fox was enchanting and I was completely charmed. A country gentleman, Richard Trebick, and his wife, Silvia, née Fox, have been married only a year and are very much in love, when Silvia turns into her former animal namesake. Devastated Richard attempts to keep living as husband and wife, dressing his wife in her old clothes and dismissing the servants; he attempts to control his wife's new carnivorous and cunning nature to no avail (see the bottom quote for a beautiful description of his devotion to them staying together). Lady Into Fox is a tender and poignant novella and is also a very clever tragicomedy; Garnett ingeniously plays on her name Silvia Fox and moreover on the word vixen with the villagers suspecting that she has run off with another man. I shall not spoil the conclusion of this charming and emotive story for you - do you think it will have a happy ending?

He waited till it was quite dark that he might the better bring her into her own house without being seen, and buttoned her inside his topcoat, nay, even in his passion tearing open his waistcoat and his shirt that she might lie the closer to his heart. For when we are overcome with the greatest sorrow we act not like men or women but like children whose comfort in all their troubles is to press themselves against their mother's breast, or if she be not there to hold each other tight in one another's arms.

Then she ran hither and thither a stark naked vixen, and without giving a glance to her poor husband who stood silently now upon the bank, with despair and terror settled in his mind. She let him stay there most of the afternoon till he was chilled through and through and worn out with watching her. At last he reflected how she had just stripped herself and how in the morning she struggled against being dressed, and he thought perhaps he was too strict with her and if he let her have her own way they could manage to be happy somehow together even if she did eat of the floor.


Jeane said...

Oh, how lovely! I've read this pair of novellas. I have to agree with you, Lady into Fox was the better of the two. I did like Man in the Zoo also, it was very curious, but some of the sentiments (especially considering the black man a separate, inferior species) could be offensive.

Aarti said...

This sounds lovely! I read Fleur Fisher's review of it earlier and was intrigued. Another positive note for Hesperus Press :-) Lady into Fox sounds really interesting!

claire said...

Have never heard of the author before. Sometimes it amazes me how so many writers elude us.

farmlanebooks said...

I saw these on the blogs you mention, but I'm not tempted to try them - they don't seem to appeal to me for some reason. At least I can say I hae heard of him thanks to blogging!

Anonymous said...

Lady into fox sounds wonderful, the writing from the snippet you've posted is so fluid and invokes such images.

Anonymous said...

Both of these sound totally bizarre. Can't quite tell if I want to read them or skip them.

Steph said...

I've never heard of this author before, but it's interesting how one of his works wowed you while the other definitely did not! I guess we should all remember that just because one book by an author doesn't work for us, that doesn't mean nothing they write ever will... Often I find that if I really dislike the first thing I read by an author, I will not read more of them in the future, but I wonder if I've been missing out because of this?

Anonymous said...

I shall say nothing on the ending of Lady Into Fox as wouldnt want to spoil either way. I am so pleased you loved it as its one of my favourites this year, it just utterly charmed me I thought it was delightful. Shame the Zoo tale sounds so rubbish. I think I will avoid that one.

Anonymous said...

Both novellas are interesting, and worthy of reissue. And they do have much in common. The themes in A Man in the Zoo are much less platable than those in Lady Into Fox, but sadly no less true. Tehan and today. And maybe there is a touch more contrivance which detracts a little from both storytelling and themes.

Paperback Reader said...

Jeane, A Man in the Zoo was exceptionally curious and perhaps I would have enjoyed it more on another occasion but it really grated on my nerves this time! Usually I am not so easily offended by products of their time but there was something about this one.

Aarti, definitely another plus for Hesperus Press! Lady into Fox is a highly original and unique novella.

Claire, he was-in-law actually Virginia Woolf's nephew ( he married Angelica Bell, daughter of Vanessa Bell)! I had never heard of him either and thought the recent mentions of both novellas so close together was quite coincidental.

Jackie, I don't think either would be something that you would particularly enjoy so probably best that they don't appeal.

Polly, that is such a lovely way of describing the writing and I agree! It is poignantly rendered and very evocative of Richard's dilemma and loss.

anothercookie, they are indeed bizarre! I recommend Lady Into Fox.

Steph, it is something that has occurred to me in the past. I think that I was lucky that these were in the one edition and that I had read such good things about Lady Into Fox as I doubt I would have read it otherwise after disliking A Man in the Zoo. I would have missed out.

Simon, it was such a beautiful read! I really disliked A Man in the Zoo; it's odd that they evoked such different reactions in me.

Jane, they are certainly both interesting and worth studying; I loved Lady Into Fox but A Man in the Zoo disappointed me.

StuckInABook said...

Glad you liked Lady Into Fox - I love it, and it really is moving. A Man in the Zoo was quite good, but not in the same league, I reckon.

Paperback Reader said...

It's such a beautiful novella, Simon, and completely deserving on your list!