Category Archives: Ivy Compton-Burnett

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.

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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

Divine Waters: Role Models by John Waters

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John Waters is arguably America’s most wonderful, funny, quirky and clever cult film director — after all, who can forget, once seen, the marvels of‘the movie Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble and the amazing Divine!? — and, for those who aren’t already fans of his journalism as well, John Waters is a gifted writer with a grace and tone as smooth as silk: this is demonstrated abundantly in Role Models, his latest collection of journalism/essays. You can hear his voice as he reflects, shares, meditates and wryly comments on a lot of topics, from modern artists to neglected novelists, fashion designers to murderers, singers to fantasy, collecting and much more. He’s widely read and, inevitably I think, his own cultural interests are equally wide-ranging; unsurprisingly, too, the essays are all reflective of his quirky, distinctive — and, I hasten to add — utterly charming – personality.

Only a moment to read this? Then let me say super-quick upfront that this is a great, hugely entertaining collection, and merits buying your own copy. (BTW, if you have the extra dosh to splash out and would prefer the original hardback version, both the US and UK editions — published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Beautiful Books respectively, are truly beautiful in format, dust jacket and design; also each is only a few $£/€ more than the paperback version. But hands off to Giroux, as their US hardback edition does come in at the lowest cost.)

While Waters’ latest doesn’t have the many hysterically funny, genuinely pe*e pan*ties laugh-out-loud moments that run through two of his previous collections of journalism — I’m thinking here of Crackpot and Shock Value, both of which I adore — there’s no harm or foul in this, as there’s a greater maturity and reflective quality to be found in these essays compared to those in the earlier collections.  (And, if you do still rightly insist that you want the original Waters-is-so-frickin funny model as well, then I can gladly inform you that there is one article in particular, ‘Baltimore Heroes’, in which he tells you stories about some of his beloved local city heroes; one of whom had me laughing out, bellywobbling- and boobies-jiggling-style, time and again: Her name? Esther Martin: She ran a bar whose only clients were bums and misfits, alcoholics and troubled, with Esther as ‘keeper of the asylum’; yet all such outsiders were welcome in The Wigwam, or Club Charles as it was later renamed. Esther was clearly an amazing, independent, no-holds-barred Baltimorian version of the Amazon warrior — a remarkable woman, who took shi*t from no one, and swore like a fcukin motherf**ker mofo, bless her. Especially, you get hysterically funny insights and stories about her from her grown-up kids, which they share with John Waters: about Esther’s swearing — including the fact that she swore on yellow post-it notes left around her house for her kids (all of whom loved Esther to bits, and for whom Esther was clearly a responsible parent), that leave you gasping for breath from laughing so hard.)

Ivy Compton-Burnett: “I may have looked and sounded regal, but I was an absolute modernist, darling, and wrote relentlessly about fcuked up families, doncha know.”

In ‘Bookworm‘, he tells you about some of his many favourite reads (in his Baltimore house, he had as of the time he wrote the article, 8,425 books). He shares his love for the very quirky, brilliant fiction of Ivy Compton-Burnett, and focuses on Darkness and Day, one of ‘her strangest novels’, Waters says — which is saying something given its Waters, and too, that it’s about Compton-Burnett, all of whose fiction, save her first that she disowned, are compellingly strange hothouse flowers of modern literature.   He also conveys the wonder of Jane Bowles’ novel, Two Serious Ladies, and the little-known English novelist and artist, Denton Welch‘s novel, In Youth Is Pleasure, and others, besides.  Such essays are fascinating and show his real love of great fiction.

Multiple Maniacs – the movie poster: Only that of The Sound of Music’s can match its innocence & charm

Interestingly, in the essay, ‘Leslie’, he reflects maturely on the Manson murders and his obsession with everything related to them ever since they occurred in 1969, especially in terms of the impact on the lives of the victims themselves, as well as on the life of — and his long-term friendship with — one of the murderers in particular: Leslie being, of course, Leslie Van Houten, one of the original Manson ‘family’, who was involved in the LaBianca murders (‘the night after the Tate massacre’), and who remains in prison to this day.  He acknowledges how at first he was gratuitous and thoughtless in the way he drew upon the murders as fodder for entertainment, directly inspiring and leading him to write and direct the an homage movie to the murders, Multiple Maniacs; besides dedicating Pink Flamingos to the ‘Manson girls, “Sadie, Katie and Les”’.  He acknowledges that he has considered for a long time that she has been rehabilitated and the circumstances of her life leading up to and including the murders, and following them, seem to vindicate his viewpoint (but not, I’m sure, if you are a family member of one of those murdered).  On this basis, he has petitioned her parole board for her permanent release.  The article shares his views and feelings about the history and experience of being a long-term friend to Leslie.  It is fascinating, troubling, moving and intelligent; deeply researched, compelling, and he also pulls no punches with himself or the reader. One of the most insightful interpretations of true crime that I have ever read.

I also want to single out his great article on his collection of modern art, ‘Roommates’ (the roommates in question being the art itself, inhabiting his house and two apartments). And it sounds like a fantastic collection, including pieces by Cy Twombly — probably the best appreciation I’ve ever read on this artist — besides Mike Kelley, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Richard Tuttle, and others. I have read a lot of art appreciation over the years, but none has come close to conveying as well as this article what it means to have and experience a collector’s passion, personal taste, and likewise consistently insightful observations about the art works themselves.

The highly amused Rei Kawakubo

Waters’ fans, I think, will also be delighted that his mainstay obsessions continue in this latest collection, including a piece singing the praises of the fashion designer, Rei Kawakubo; besides great articles on the rock and roll singer, Little Richard (based on an interview Waters did with him); on ‘Outsider po*rn ‘, where he shares his passion for two of his favourite ‘genius’, groundbreaking outsider gay p*orn directors, Bobby Garcia (Be warned if you open this link at work as it’s a video/sound file from YouTube talking about his career) and David Hurles (again, sorry, BUT don’t open this link at a conservative work place; it shows beautiful photography of beautiful naked men and refers to that word that terrifies all conservative voters, even if they may use it: p*orn … without the asterisk, ahem). Sadly, both men were, at the time of Waters writing this essay, absolutely broke financially speaking.

Little Richard, conservatively dressed, as usual

The delightful Tennessee

Classic-cult Waters also appears in the form of his own personal manifesto for cult leadership (of himself), in ‘Cult Leader’ — as you’d expect, it’s an eccentric, funny fantasy about him being a great and charismatic cult leader and what he expects of us in order to become his devoted disciplines.  I am yours, oh masterful one!  (Ahem.)

He also writes beautifully, in a deeply personal and touching way, of his love, respect for and appreciation of Tennessee Williams; ‘he saved my life’, Waters writes in his opening sentence to the essay, inevitably though appropriately entitled ‘The Kindness of Strangers‘; and the equally lovely and charming, always thoughtful and learned essay appreciation on Johnny Mathis (BTW — be warned yet againthis site opens with Mathis singing (albeit wonderfully, bien sur), so probably best not to click on this link at work, unless you work at a fab place, you lucky bstd!); it celebrates his remarkable life and accomplishments, and the article’s opening sentence reads ‘I wish I were Johnny Mathis’. But of course

Oh god, how I wish I were John Waters, if only for a day.

John Waters — charming, as always

He’s a true star, a celebrity in the 1940s/50s Hollywood sense of the word, when it meant something, when it meant something, and not muppets like Paris Hilton; he is Little Richard, Johnny Mathis, Rei Kawakubo and — why yes! — sometimes even a Cy Twombly drawing.  But without any doubt,  he is always, uniquely, irrepressibly John Waters.  I love you, Mr John Waters.

Talking to a conservative: I’m MR Waters to YOU — don’t fcuk with me, motherfcuker!

May you write and direct much, much more, you beautiful, lovely, wicked, funny, clever, perfectly self-described ‘Master of Filth’.

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Filed under Darkness and Day, Denton Welch, fiction, In Youth is Pleasure, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Jane Bowles, John Waters, journalism, Multiple Maniacs, non-fiction, Pink Flamingos, Role Models, Shock Value, Two Serious Ladies