“I’m glad I can still sometimes drug my senses with a book,” Lady Dorinda exclaimed.

You know the phrase “from the sublime to the ridiculous”? Well, Proust’s prose is definitely sublime, and Ronald Firbank’s characters are wonderfully ridiculous, so it certainly applies here! And you couldn’t get two more different books than these – the deep and lyrical “Swann’s Way” and the short, snappy, witty “Inclinations”! It’s quite surprising, actually, how far apart these authors are – actually at opposite ends of the spectrum – particularly as they were almost contemporaries.

I reviewed Firbank’s “Vainglory” here, and published Michael Walmer has been kind enough to supply a copy of his second novel, “Inclinations”. I can see that Michael has a fondness for Firbank, and it’s easy to see why, as he’s such a quirky and witty writer! This is the third Firbank I’ve read (the first being Valmouth, many years ago) and he just gets better and better…

inclinations“Inclinations” is notionally about the experiences of young and bored Mabel Collins, who is whisked off to Greece by the famous biographer Geraldine O’Brookomore. The latter, often referred to as Gerald throughout the book, is on the trail of her latest subject, the female traveller Kitty Kettler, and Mabel comes along as a companion. Mabel, however, is soon being wooed by the dashing Count Pastorelli, and eyed up by the newly married Mr. Arbanel (much to the chagrin of his young wife). Needless to say, Mabel and Gerald encounter all kinds of eccentric characters, prone to spouting strange and witty dialogue, before events reach a crisis (well, actually, several!) – there are Professor and Mrs. Cowsend, the actress Miss Arne, Miss Clint (queen of the ladies’ maids) and the Australian Miss Dawkins. The second section of the book finds Mabel back at home – although many things have changed in her life…

Like “Vainglory”, this book was a real hoot! Firbank’s sharp conversations and constant repartee is quite breathtaking, and it’s amazing how something which is basically woven together strips of dialogue can be so funny and actually be understood; in fact, one short chapter consists of the world “Mabel!” repeated eight times and makes perfect sense in context, and because of what has gone before!

220px-Portrait_of_Ronald_Firbank

Firbank obviously made an art of telling a story in as few sentences as possible, at least in this early part of his career. However, there is a fascinating part of the book which reveals how change would come, and that’s chapter IV of the second section. This particular edition contains an alternative version of that chapter, written much later, and it’s noticeably and strikingly different from his early style: there are paragraphs of description; completely new characters; they are given proper introductions; and the prose feels expanded, altogether different from the early way Firbank tells his tale. However, even in this early work, Firbank can do description with the best of them:

“In the grey cedar crests, from the blue fir-trees of the Kronian hill, the wols flapped gabbling; among the fields of mournful olives the cicadas called; over the fragments of fallen marble, crushing the wild thyme, the fire-flies flashed; and on the verandah of the Hotel de France, the scintillation of her diamonds harmonising equally with the heavens as with the earth, Dorinda, Lady Gaiheart, was finishing a tale.”

“Inclinations” is a worth addition to Michael Walmer’s catalogue. Although slim, it’s as witty and funny as the other Firbanks; and this edition once again features a lovely Aubrey Beardsley cover drawing. Highly recommended for anyone who likes camp repartee and whimsical humour!

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