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A poignant encounter

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Odette by Ronald Firbank

I’ve written about author Ronald Firbank before on the Ramblings, covering two entertaining volumes brought out by independent publisher Michael Walmer – “Inclinations” and “Vainglory“. These witty and original works were Firbank’s first two novels, and now Mike has produced a lovely reprint of Firbank’s early, first published work – and a very different type of story it is too.

Subtitled “A Fairy Tale for Weary People”, “Odette” is a short story which tells of the titular character’s encounter with reality and how it changes her. Odette lives life in a kind of fairy-tale setting; comfortably settled with her widowed aunt, her nurse and an aged butler in an old château in France, she spends her times in dreaming of religious encounters with saints. The visits of the local Curé fuel her imagination and she becomes determined to emulate Bernadette, who saw the Virgin Mary in the mountains.

So Odette sneaks out of the house one night, setting off on what she hopes will be a holy adventure. However, what she encounters is as far from the Virgin Mary as you can get, and Odette’s meeting with reality will not only change her, but also have an effect on the real world.

“Odette” is an affecting little work which stays in the mind despite being only 44 pages long. Odette lives in a gilded cage, and her encounter with reality could have been much harsher than the one which Firbank gifts her. As it is, he seems to believe in the power of good to influence those who’ve gone astray, and there is a strong religious element; certainly, Odette’s innate goodness shines through, and although after her encounter there is a sense that she has grown up and her worldview has been forever changed, there is also the feeling that she will continue along a righteous path and try to bring happiness throughout her life.

Firbank drawn by Augustus John

Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, “Odette” was published when Firbank was just 19, just before he attended Cambridge, and his novels came some 10 years later – which would explain the dramatic difference in style! The book is beautifully produced – a hardback with lovely illustrations by Albert Buhrer which are in the style of Aubrey Beardsley, and the cover also features one of his images.

So another intriguing reissue from Mike Walmer, and one which shows Firbank in a very different light to his later more camp and snarky books. Ronald Firbank died young when he was just 40, of a lung disease which had dogged him most of his life; and I can’t help wishing that he’d lived longer and been able to write more. If you haven’t yet read any of his work, “Odette” certainly might be a gentler way to start with Ronald Firbank, who definitely deserves to be more widely read nowadays!

Many thanks to Mike Walmer for kindly providing the review copy – much appreciated!

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Recent Reads: Inclinations by Ronald Firbank

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“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!

Recent Reads: Vainglory by Ronald Firbank

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Wow! I certainly followed up Verne with a completely different book, didn’t I? I don’t think two books could be less alike than “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” and “Vainglory”!

According to Wikipedia, Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank (17 January 1886 – 21 May 1926) was an innovative British novelist. His eight short novels, partly inspired by the London aesthetes of the 1890s, especially Oscar Wilde, consist largely of dialogue, with references to religion, social-climbing, and sexuality.

valmouth

I actually have a little bit of history reading Firbank – I have somewhere in the stacks a very old-style Wordsworth Classic of “Valmouth” which I know I read (the bookmark is still in the book at the end of that story) but I can remember absolutely nothing about it, apart from that I enjoyed it! This would probably be at least 15 years ago, so maybe that’s not surprising – but I do wonder I would have made of it at the time, knowing nothing much about Firbank and not having any context in which to put him. Maybe a revisit is due.

But on to “Vainglory”, a volume kindly provided by Michael Walmer, an independent publisher I’m happy to support. According to Michael, Firbank is considered a “difficult” writer, but I don’t think he’s difficult – just different! The story here revolves around the desire of the wonderfully-named Mrs. Shamefoot to have a stained glass window built in her honour. She fixes on Ashringford cathedral and much of the action is set there, while she tries to persuade all and sundry that the window would be a good idea. Around Mrs. Shamefoot circle a huge array of wonderfully-named characters, just a few of whom are Mira Thumbler, Julia Compostella, Winsome Brookes, Dr. Pantry, Mrs. Henedge, Mrs. and Miss Wookie, and the three Chalfont sisters, never seen apart and constantly laughing madly about something – laughter that becomes dangerous….

vainglory
However, as Wikipedia astutely points out, “the plot is of minor importance and the interest, as with all Firbank’s work, lies in the dialogue.” And what dialogue it is! I think this is where the accusations of difficulty will come from, because it *is* sometimes not obvious whom the dialogue is coming from or what the character is talking about. The best way to think of it, really, is as if you’re eavesdropping on some wonderfully scandalous, gossipy, witty conversations – you’re not always sure straight away who is being discussed or why, but if you just go with the flow all becomes clear!

And the prose *is* witty and sparkling and very unexpected – Firbank juxtaposes words in his descriptions you wouldn’t expect; his comparisons are often outlandish but surprisingly effective, painting vivid pictures of the rarefied society he’s writing about. Take the picture he paints of Mira Thumbler:

“Mira Thumbler was a mediaeval-looking little thing, with peculiar pale ways, like a creature escaped through the border of violets and wild strawberries of a tapestry panel.”

And then a simple description of the preparations for a soiree contains this:

“In the centre of the room, a number of fragile gilt chairs had been waiting patiently all day to be placed, heedless, happily, of the lamentations of Therese, who, whilst rolling her eyes, kept exclaiming, “Such wild herds of chairs; such herds of wild chairs!”

The risk here is that I’ll pull out so many quotes that it will dazzle you – but just a couple more:

“The world is disgracefully managed, one hardly knows to whom to complain.”

and

“Although there were moments even still in the grey glint of morning when the room had the agitated, stricken appearance of a person who had changed his creed a thousand times, sighed, stretched himself, turned a complete somersault, sat up, smiled, lay down, turned up his toes and died of doubts. But this aspect was reserved exclusively for the housemaids and the translucent threads of dawn.”

ronald
If Firbank is a forgotten novelist at all, it’s a shame. His wit and cleverness should put him up with the Sakis and the Wildes of this world; and his use of so much dialogue does make me think of Ivy Compton-Burnett! I *did* love this book, and I shall return to “Valmouth” with new eyes. This is a lovely new edition of “Vainglory” by Michael Walmer, and I’d highly recommend Firbank to anyone who loves witty dialogue!

In Praise of Independent Publishers

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One of my favourite things as a reader (and blogger) is coming across an obscure or lost book that I’ve never heard of before. I’ve rapidly come to the conclusion that 20th century writing is my favourite era, but alas in these modern days of mass-produced best-sellers, a lot of the type of books I like have disappeared from the shelves and are hard to track down.

So it’s always delightful to follow the current trend of smaller publishers who are bringing back into print lost classics or just lost quirky, individual works! I’ve ranted on a lot about Hesperus here, as they have some wonderful books in their Classic imprint, but also excel in bringing new works to light. They have a book club here, if anyone is interested, and the current book is a new and intriguing sounding Scandinavian crime novel which I’ll be reviewing here at some point.

However, I was very pleased her hear about a new reprint publisher, Michael Walmer, who was featured on Simon’s Stuck in a Book blog recently. Michael is based in Australia and as his site states “Michael Walmer has set about publishing a list where the main ingredient is quality. Authors will be sourced from all over the world, with a love of erudition, be it elegant or rough-edged, simple or complex, poetic or blunt, or all of these!, as the enlivening and guiding principle.” Certainly, the titles published so far are intriguing – wit is celebrated, in the form of authors like Saki and Max Beerbohm, but there are also writers like George Sand and Mary Webb – so an eclectic mix!

Michael has been kind enough to provide me with a review copy of a book I’ve been keen to read for a while – Ronald Firbank’s first novel “Vainglory”. Firbank is possibly something of a forgotten name, but I enjoyed his “Valmouth” very much when I read it many years ago and he’s an author I wanted to explore a little more.

220px-Portrait_of_Ronald_Firbank

As Simon points out, the books are POD, which is actually the way a lot of reprint publishers are going nowadays – Bello Books for example – and this could well be a positive way to use POD, bringing back to life books that the big boys in publishing wouldn’t see as commercially viable but which many of us would love to read. And if “Vainglory” is any guide, these are beautifully put together books with very striking and individual covers – I love the Aubrey Beardsley design.

vainglory

So do give Michael’s site a look and see if there are any titles that grab you. I believe the books are available from The Book Depository, which could be the easiest way to get hold of them – let’s support another independent publisher!

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