The Connecting Door
By Juliet Jacques.
Few English writers have suffered more misfortune with literary politics than Rayner Heppenstall. After moving from Yorkshire to London to immerse himself in Thirties intellectual circles, he found himself sharing a Kentish Town flat with George Orwell; despite the critical success of several fascinatingly original novels, particularly The Blaze of Noon, Heppenstall remains best remembered for his uncompromising anecdote about Orwell’s shooting-stick, published in 1960, ten years after Orwell’s death.
Born in Huddersfield in 1911, Heppenstall studied modern languages in Leeds and Strasbourg, relocating to London in 1934. His criticism (for Eliot‘s Criterion amongst others) and poetry signalled his potential, but he picked the worst time to fulfil it: The Blaze of Noon, his innovative debut novel about a blind masseur, appeared at the very end of the Thirties, lost amidst the declaration of war.
His second novel, Saturnine (1943) fared even worse: war-time rationing limited publishers Secker & Warburg to just 1,650 copies, and Heppenstall wrote just one more before his attempt to reinvigorate his literary life with his revelations about some of Thirties literature’s most deified figures created a far greater furore than he anticipated.
“There stood Orwell, armed with his shooting-stick … He fetched me a dreadful crack across the legs and then raised it above his head. I looked at his face … I saw a look of sadistic exaltation.” The few pages in Heppenstall’s Four Absentees detailing Orwell’s reaction to his noisy entrance perturbed enthusiasts promoting Orwell as twentieth-century literature’s greatest democratic humanist – a problem some critics (such as Reg Groves in The Tribune, quoting selectively) side-stepped by casting negative aspersions on Heppenstall’s character.
Certainly, Heppenstall was no stranger to controversy. The Evening Standard declared The Blaze of Noon “an affront to decency” and the most explicit British novel since Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Heppenstall noted that the novel’s grudgingly acknowledged literary qualities only seemed to worsen matters – inevitably, it sold out immediately. The Standard‘s indignation ensured a brief sensation, and thus some publicity when scant attention was being paid to literature, but this masked its structural innovation, and negated its critical impact.
Heppenstall’s other flatmate, Irish writer Michael Sayers, said he “could never write a novel.” The Blaze of Noon was his response, inspired by a masseur visiting his mother. Heppenstall spent the Thirties, like many of his contemporaries, searching for an intellectual doctrine that suited him, and the absence of dogma separated The Blaze of Noon from much late-Thirties literature.
What really distinguished it, however, was its unique approach to narration. Protagonist Louis Dunkel’s blindness necessitated extensive descriptions of the physical properties of objects, including people, attempting to compensate for the lack of non-verbal communication with ceaseless analysis. This structural experiment led critics, including Hélène Cixous in 1967, to name it the founding work of the nouveau roman, or ‘anti-novel’ – the post-war extension of France’s ‘experimental’ Modernist literature that discarded character psychology and conventional chronology and set its action within the central figure’s reflective consciousness.
Heppenstall’s primary influences were French – Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Henry de Montherlant and Pierre Drieu la Rochelle – and his deceptively simple story of Louis’ love affair with his patient’s niece, Sophie, complicated by the intrusion of blind, deaf and dumb Amity was translated into French in 1947, although Heppenstall recorded that he did not think Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute (for whom Sartre coined the term anti-novel in 1948) or any other nouveau roman authors read it.
The Blaze of Noon was “not the work of a literary theorist,” Heppenstall later wrote; his sole theoretical principle was that film had assumed the nineteenth-century novel’s exteriorised narrative function and that literary prose “would do well to become more lyrical, more inward.” His next novel, Saturnine, did exactly that, blurring the boundaries between Alick Frobisher’s reality and the excesses of his restless imagination.
Saturnine also provoked outrage. Drama critic James Agate, a long-standing adversary, labelled it “a book more dangerous than bosh,” infuriated by a passage reading: “Everyone stinks of excrement and putrefaction. That goes for you and me, for the Prime Minister and the Hangman, for the Queen of England, the little princesses and the Queen Mother, for all the war-lords of Europe.”
Unlike the Standard‘s journalist, Agate had no media platform, so his indignation about a minor character’s untimely iconoclasm roused little public interest. Consequently, Saturnine remains a lost classic, even more so than The Blaze of Noon, falling beneath the critical radar due to its tiny print run and Secker & Warburg’s failure to publicise it, or deliver a promised reprint. Julian Symons stated in one of the few published discussions of Heppenstall’s work that “there is nothing else like Saturnine‘s mixture of philosophical reflection, near-mysticism, triviality and fact in modern literature” – certainly, few novels capture the chaos enveloping late-Thirties London with such verve.
Unlike The Blaze of Noon, which anticipated a movement that rejected the nineteenth-century novel, Saturnine looked further back, consciously reinvigorating a dormant eighteenth-century genre and infusing it with contemporary social science. Heppenstall revived the term ‘picaresque’ (coined in 1810) to describe Saturnine, noting: “The essence of a picaresque novel is … that it is told in the first person by a social parasite, rogue, picaroon or anti-hero and … that it has no formal plot but that the episodes simply follow each other serially.”
Its ‘episodes’ – drawn largely from Heppenstall’s life – encompassed bankruptcy, homosexual acquaintances, the birth of a daughter and a drunk and disorderly charge, peppered with astrological asides and political reflections; its tension (and considerable humour) sprang from the conflict between Frobisher’s tumultuous psychology and the world collapsing around him.
Conscripted in December 1940, Heppenstall served in the Royal Artillery and the Pay Corps in Yorkshire and Northern Ireland before being invalided out of service in April 1945. He described Saturnine as “a very suitable novel to be written by a man in the Army, since he can post off the separate episodes to a friend, wife or typist as he writes them and need not bear the whole thing in his head.”
Saturnine ended with Frobisher voluntarily joining the military, one of its departures from Heppenstall’s reality. Its more autobiographical sequel, The Lesser Infortune, written largely during Heppenstall’s service but unpublished until 1953, documented his time in the army, where he suffered a breakdown. The novel’s circumstances mean many of the correlating narrative and intellectual strands that made Saturnine so exuberant are terminated – Heppenstall retained his delicate prose style but his subject matter curtailed his humour, and he expressed dissatisfaction with The Lesser Infortune‘s ultimately barren narrative.
The late publication of The Lesser Infortune, though, meant that it appeared after the nouveau roman which, although not yet constituted by the Gallic press as a ‘movement’, had begun to infiltrate French critical circles. Its action again occurred primarily within the narrator’s mind, disintegrating in tandem with pre-war society as the façade of Frobisher’s rational evocation of his surroundings collapses, and Heppenstall felt that The Lesser Infortune, more than The Blaze of Noon, anticipated the stark descriptions that characterised Robbe-Grillet’s work.
Returning to London, Heppenstall used his continuing friendship with Orwell to secure a role as a producer on the BBC’s Third Programme, contributing much to the Golden Age of British radio before cuts in 1957 changed both his role and the Third Programme‘s; neither, he felt, for the better. Frustrated as his radio work hampered his literary output (and perhaps slightly unappreciative of his influential position), Heppenstall published a revision of Saturnine, entitled The Greater Infortune, through avant-garde luminary Peter Owen – to Heppenstall’s loss, a revised Lesser Infortune collapsed as it was officially still in print with Jonathan Cape.
Heppenstall’s introduction complained that several critics slurred his character after treating his wartime novels as pure autobiography. Changing his protagonist’s name from Frobisher to Leckie, Heppenstall stated: “Myself the most respectable of men, I now think it advisable to make it clear that my central figure is a fictitious personage, to give him a background more distinctly not my own.” However, the controversy surrounding Four Absentees, most definitely non-fictional, undermined his plea and further polarised Heppenstall against his more formally conventional critics.
By the early Sixties, Heppenstall had discovered the nouveau roman, particularly enjoying Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy. He met Sarraute, who admired The Greater Infortune, as well as Michel Butor and Robbe-Grillet himself, at the London premiere of Last Year in Marienbad, which Robbe-Grillet had scripted.
Heppenstall’s critical comparison of British and French literature, The Fourfold Tradition (1961) lamented that in Britain “there is too little technical enterprise” with “endless conventional novels.” The Connecting Door, the first of two novels published in 1962 as Heppenstall struggled to revive his career, was certainly not conventional, far more consciously avant-garde, structurally, than his previous fiction.
Influenced by Robbe-Grillet, The Connecting Door‘s descriptive prose aspired to ‘neutrality’, Heppenstall eschewing the idiosyncratic asides that characterised his narrators. It challenged the reader to disentangle three simultaneous planes of time, as well as which characters existed in present-day reality and which solely as the unnamed central figure’s memories. Its events, inspired by three trips made by Heppenstall to Strasbourg in 1931, 1936 and 1948, resisted easy chronology in a radical experiment with past-tense narration, which Heppenstall developed across several aborted novels.
The Woodshed also drew heavily upon Heppenstall’s life, starting where The Connecting Door ended. Reassuming Heppenstall’s signature prose style, its tapestry of reflections, prompted by the news that the narrator’s father is dying, engaged with English, rather than French, literary tradition. Heppenstall felt that the Modernist ‘stream-of-consciousness’ technique, developed by Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson, had become “bedevilled with literary politics” as upcoming neo-realist writers like John Osborne and Kingsley Amis strongly opposed it.
His attempted disassociation, though, only solidified his alignment with younger ‘experimental’ authors exploring the technique. B. S. Johnson, fiercely opposed to ‘kitchen sink’ realism, was deeply impressed by The Connecting Door and Heppenstall’s nouveau roman links, naming him a forefather to the neo-Modernist circle he and Alan Burns struggled to constitute. Further typecast after translating French experimentalist Raymond Roussel with his daughter, Lindy, Heppenstall’s relationship with these authors was fractious.
Becoming more conservative, Heppenstall disdained their tendency (particularly, he noted, in Johnson and Burns) to connect formal and political radicalism – the very link he had opposed with The Woodshed. He also decried experimentation “which has recourse to typographical oddity,” criticising the discrepancy between certain avant-garde novelists’ aspirations and their failure to engage with structure, and particularly the possibilities of first-person narration.
Aesthetically and ideologically, Heppenstall had distanced himself from the British avant-garde long before 1973, when the suicides of Ann Quin and Johnson terminated the neo-Modernist movement. Seven years elapsed between The Woodshed and his next novel, The Shearers, which uncharacteristically drew little directly from Heppenstall’s life, its third-person narration and linear chronology representing his break with the nouveau roman.
The Shearers reflected Heppenstall’s new interest in criminology, detailing the murder trial of eight members of a Cleveland family, several conceived incestuously. It attempted, with limited success, to explore the distortion of the family’s psychologies by heightened media interest, punctuating the plot with contemporary news stories, and it soon vanished – an option was taken up but a film version came to nothing, and none of Heppenstall’s works ever produced a cinematic adaptation.
The Seventies treated Heppenstall atrociously. Moving to Deal, Kent, after retiring from the BBC, Heppenstall once again tried to live as a freelance writer, with diminishing critical and financial reward. In 1972, a fall paralysed his son, Adam: this misfortune centred Two Moons (1977), which intriguingly employed two narratives, one on the left-hand pages, the other on the right. This recalled the ‘typographical oddity’ that Heppenstall attacked, and proved unsuccessful – Two Moons again contrasted individual torment with the wider world’s indifference, but this framing device was now a tedious succession of press cuttings, their selection implying Heppenstall, amidst a Britain embracing Thatcher, had shifted further right.
The Blaze of Noon was reissued just before Heppenstall’s death on May 23 1981: five years later, his final novel, The Pier, and his journals provided posthumous explication of Heppenstall’s autumnal conservatism, easing retrospective slurs from critics with formally reactionary agendas.
Now, long after the conflict that obscured his earlier works and the post-war factionalism have dissipated, Heppenstall’s novels can be judged on their own terms. Structurally adventurous, ideologically intangible and often hilarious, Heppenstall’s earlier novels are unlike anything else in English literature. Orwell retains his literary reputation despite problematic revelations about his actions (such as his list of ‘crypto-communists’, handed to the Foreign Office in 1949) – Oneworld Classics‘ forthcoming reissue of The Blaze of Noon will hopefully build a platform for Heppenstall to be accorded the same critical even-handedness.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Juliet Jacques is a freelance writer for The Guardian, The New Statesman and others, who writes about literature, film, art, gender and football. Her Transgender Journey blog for The Guardian – the first to serialise the gender reassignment process for a major British publication – was longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 28th, 2011.