A Share of the World by Hugo Charteris

As anyone reading this blog might have guessed, I’m a bit of a sucker for forgotten and neglected novelist. So one of my ideal publishers is Michael Walmer, and he’s rediscovered a cracker in the form of Hugo Charteris, whose first novel “A Share of the World” has just been reissued by the imprint. Coming with an interesting introduction by the author’s daughter, it seems a good place to begin!

Charteris is a charismatic-sounding man; of aristocratic lineage (he was the grandson of the 11th Earl of Wemyss), he led a peripatetic life, moving through Eton, Oxford, Malaya, Java, Sutherland, finally ending up in Yorkshire where he died at the age of 48 in 1970.

During his life he wrote constantly alongside a military career, a period in PR and much journalism. Probably nowadays he would be best remembered for his TV work, including the series “Take Three Girls”, and his novels seem to have very much disappeared from the scene – which is a shame, judging from this, his first.

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“A Share of the World” tells the story of John Grant, who narrates; based, I’m sure, on Charteris himself, Grant is an office in the middle of the Italian campaign of the second world war. From an upper-class background, he would obviously be part of the officer class but he seems singularly ill-equipped to deal with his role.

Throughout part one of the book, the elliptical, poetic prose slips between Grant’s present (planning and carrying out a patrol to check on the presence of Germans) and various incidents in his past (nightmares and visions as a child; trials at schools; falling in love with a 14-year-old). And the common thread is that at any point of importance in his life he seems to experience a kind of paralysis, having to force himself to take action.

The nature of the fear felt in nightmares is hard to describe by relating it to other things and hard to remember except by chance. It is akin to hysteria, vertigo, impotence, and for those people like John who sometimes used the word Evil with a capital E, as though it existed outside the mind of man, it is akin to Evil. It seldom breaks through into waking life except in the elusive and transitory taste of a sudden association. In the natural world the commonest similar experience seems to be in the eyes of a rabbit fixed by a stoat, screaming with good reason before it’s hurt, but not able to move easily away as it could.

This paralysis seems strongest when in the company of one of his men, Bright; the latter is an unpleasant, dishonest person and he serves in the story almost as a kind of demon pursuing Grant, who feels trapped in the web of his own existence, unable to act and almost an unreal person.

The patrol, of course, goes horribly wrong, and Grant’s war is over. The second part of the book deals with his life post-war. The old certainties have gone, the aristocracy is crumbling and John Grant has no place in the world, feeling like some kind of un-person. He becomes fixated with Jane Matlock, daughter of Sir Wilfred and Lady ‘Neenie’, and sister of Christopher Matlock, who Grant knows slightly. John is convinced that if he marries Jane he will become a ‘real man’, a person with an existence instead of a kind of ghost presence. However, Christopher, who has been much affected by the war and has taken to drink, believes that Jane is so locked into her role as a kind of Lady Bountiful that she doesn’t exist as a real person either. So John’s attempts to ground himself in the modern world seem doomed to disaster, as he and Jane are at cross-purposes most of the time. Meanwhile, the ancient order continues to collapse, John spends a bizarre Christmas with the Matlocks, and Christopher is refusing to take over the family home, Edgeby.

We have only one life as far as we know. One third sleep. Why make another third even more negative than sleep? ‘Doing something in which we cannot express ourselves, deepens ourselves before death.’

Charteris’ writing is really rather wonderful and individual. The prose is fluid, shifting from one perspective to another in a way that’s almost dream-like. He portrays a man with a tenuous grip on reality who seems unable to take any kind of decisive action at all. I presume that the paralysis he reflects here is meant to be symptomatic of a decaying aristocracy, and certainly the less aristocratic members of the cast are much more capable of deeds than Grant – particularly the devious and malevolent Bright, whose influence runs through the book like a constant and nasty thread, and who turns up most alarmingly when least expected with a very unpleasant smile on his face!

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I enjoyed my first experience of reading Hugo Charteris very much; his individual style of prose, his rather dreamy and troubled characters and the wonderful way he had of conjuring up atmosphere made this a compelling book. So well done to Michael Walmer for re-issuing the title, and I’ll look forward to exploring more of Charteris’ work in future.

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