Ivy Compton-Burnett: Modernist, ironic, acid-sharp and clever as all hell

“People who have power respond simply. They have no minds but their own.” Likewise, “A leopard does not change his spots, or change his feeling that spots are rather a credit. Is that enough clever wit for you dear, because I’ve got to write, donchaknow.”  The brilliant, humble, formidable Ivy Compton-Burnett

What makes Ivy Compton-Burnett (abbreviated as CB from now on) such an important modernist writer? Only in the last few years has she begun to regain the recognition and stature she had during her lifetime as a published author. Here’s my nod of the hat to her, by way of an attempt to explain briefly why it matters to read her, what you can by doing so, who she has influenced and what is so distinctive and impressive about her fiction.

1. Her Brilliant Dialogue & Wit

CB is one of the truly remarkable modernist writers, with a span of resonant fiction that she wrote from the 1920s through to the 1960s. Save for her first novel, Dolores (1911), which she later disowned, her 19 other novels are all driven principally by the most amazing, multi-layered dialogue and which she used to convey in a dramatic way her characters’ individual personalities, tensions, complexities, resentments, repressions and, sometimes, truly savage irony. It’s the sort of irony and bone dry wit, scalpel-sharp, that is brutal, slicing and strikes at the receiver’s jugular in an instant. Yet at the same time, CB’s characters talk in a way that is deceptively light in tone and free, it seems, of any anguish or other negative emotions.  Don’t be fooled, however:  Jonathan  Swift and Alexander Pope would have kissed the hem of her skirts in recognition of the devilish humour and brilliance that shines through in her fiction and her characters.

2.  You have to be great to achieve such a broad and deep influence on your novelist peers and those who succeeded her. 

CB had – and continues to have – a significant impact on certain modernists, by the way she constructs and uses dialogue. I expect this influence to gain momentum, albeit slowly, as a result of the efforts of the New York Review of Books editions of her novels. It’s not just that she is incredibly adept at representing distinctive rhythms and patterns of tonality and pacing to show the character’s individual identities; it’s the way the dialogue occurs – most often among family members. There are multiple-threaded semi-conversations going on at any one time, where one of  a group may ask or say something, but it’s not responded to until later down the line, by which time there has been intercessions of other unrelated comments, questions and points of view. But not only that, CB uses pockets of silence, usually representing the one single authority figure in the household (inevitably, the man, who is also, without doubt, a domineering type, a full-blooded patriarch representative of the era her novels portray: the late Victorian/early Edwardian period in England, or just a bit later). Family conversations are usually ‘monologues in a void’; a sort of discordant chorus of discombobulated voices, disassociated and disconnected from each other in terms of empathy and love, yet compelled nonetheless to make such efforts at communication in the hope, later usually than sooner, of getting some sort of answer upon which one can act. If you’ve ever seem a Robert Altman film, you’ll know that what signposts to cinema goers that it is indeed an Altman film, is the way more than one person is talking at any one time; yet the script is so cleverly constructed, the fragmented pieces of unconnected dialogue you hear create a powerful effect of genuinely experiencing real-life conversations as we know they occur in a party or gathering of people; snatches of words, of exclamation and laughter, suddenly a bubble of silence only to be almost instantly popped by the myriad of other voices swirling around the room.  It’s one thing to be able to achieve this in a movie (and that in itself is an art; Altman is the only director I can recall who is able to imbue his audience with this somewhat surreal experience by his creating this ‘wall of sound’ (to quote Phil Spector)).

3. CB has influenced the writing of key authors in the 20th century with whom you can with relative ease discern her influence:

Most significantly is the renowned American writer, William Gaddis (all of his novels are relevant here, but just to cite my favourites, they are The Recognitions (1955, his first and most famous book, the new edition is available from Dalkey Archive Press), Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) and JR (1975)).

Henry Green, the English author of such classics as Loving, Living, Party Going, besides Nothing, Doting and Blindness (these are two volumes of three separate novels each, both sets at very competitive prices and with free worldwide delivery)

These two following I feel are perhaps unfair to cite, given the authors are both playwrights, yet I refer to them because they are both known — especially in their early works — for particular speech patterns, curt, sharp dialogue, and a peculiar estrangement of personality that is conveyed through exactly what and how they say it, and hence my referring to them: Harold Pinter’s early plays, Harold Pinter Plays 1: The Birthday Party, The Room, The Dumb Waiter, A Slight Ache, The Hothouse, A Night Out, The Black and White, The Examina: … v. 1 (Faber Contemporary Classics and The collected Plays of Edward Albee: 1958-1965 and Volume 2, 1966-1977.

Click on the image to buy the book with free worldwide delivery

A Profile of A House and Its Head (1935; this edition by the New York Review of Books was published in 2001, with an excellent introduction by Francine Prose). One of CB’s two favourites of her own work.

As with CB’s 18 other novels she wrote (discounting Dolores, of course), CB has a set of themes she returns to time and again in her work. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to call them obsessions.  Because of these subject matters that, if you will, possessed her and she had to find release through the form of novel creation, I believe that by profiling one of her own personal favourite fictions — the other being Manservant and Maidservant (1947, with an outstanding introduction by the novelist Diane Johnson, which you can read here) — you will gain what I hope is a clear enough overview, a sufficient insight into what mattered to her most.  These include the Victorian repressive household settings, to the patriarchal, remote, powerfully domineering father/husband of the house, to the anaesthetised (dream-state-like) wives, and the children, who are fearful or sometimes wonderfully, mordantly insubordinate (as with Nance, the daughter in this novel), or otherwise self-serving, and monstrously deceptive (as with Sybil, here).

In the Edgeworth family in  A House and Its Head, you discover the archetypal representative CB fictional brood, with the mother twittering away and the father (a domineering, stern patriarch type) effectively ignoring her or rudely answering.  This conversation between husband and wife is so disjointed and senseless, you are put in mind of Pinter’s early work as referred to above (especially The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter).  While Duncan Edgeworth, the father, is without doubt a tyrant, dictating all terms to his family, there are worse things to come, in the form of two snakes in the grass in the apparently-servile daughter, Sybil, who in some ways is far more destructive than him; and Grant, Duncan’s nephew. While admittedly on some occasions you may stumble in realising who is talking, if you just relax into the flow of the novel, you should soon begin to identify the speaker of the dialogue, as CB rarely identifies the person. If that makes you think you won’t understand who is talking to whom, you can rest assured that, over only a matter of a few pages, you quickly come to recognise them through their individual natures and thereby the content of what they say. Rest assured I’m not asking you to take a chance on her; you shouldn’t be disappointed; but you do need to be alert when reading it, otherwise you may find yourself losing your natural focus and that will impact your understanding.  But the joys of such wicked wit and the complex clearly separate psychological and emotional behaviours of the parents and siblings will, I hope, make this and her other works a spellbinding read for you.  Or I’m a kumquat (erm, I’m not a kumquat!).

For those who are keen to learn more about CB, I highly recommend these sources:

  • A dedicated, tremendously helpful and comprehensive website on CB, her work and her critics, is readily available and it is amazingly thorough, giving you everything you could want to know about the author’s life and works.
  • In this edition of A House and Its Head there is also a beautifully written, deeply thoughtful and intelligent afterword by Francine Prose, the National Book Award-nominated novelist. (The underlined text referring to Prose’s afterword takes you directly to a pdf version of it but I just wanted to cite as one tiny example of why to read the afterword, Prose’s wonderfully phrased, apposite comment about reading CB’s modernist fiction, declaring that it is: ‘[…] less like conventional fictions than like the laboratory notes of a meticulous and rather mad scientist.’ She means it in a positive, way, of course, highlighting how radical and remarkable, in fact, CB’s fiction was and remains to this day.)
  • Hilary Spurling’s masterful and, as of 2011, still definitive biography, Ivy: The Life of Ivy Compton Burnett (please note that this title is out of print, so I’ve embedded a link into the title which will do an automatic search for the book at Bookfinder; please also keep in mind this exact title represents the only one which is the combined two-volumes-in-one edition, as originally Spurling published each of them separately).
  • John Waters’ own appreciation of her, to be found in Role Models, his 2011 collection of essays and articles on his favourite role models, within which he includes CB as one of his favourite novelists.  You can see my review of his book, including his reference to and love for CB’s work here.
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Filed under fiction, Ivy Compton-Burnett, literary classics

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