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Saturday, 27 September 2008

Major Benjy

I am a snob and I have to thank a guy with a double-barrelled name who wrote a book about snobs for pointing this fact out to me.

But first, a question for the class: What is the purpose of writing? Yes, you at the back.

To educate and entertain, Sir.

To educate and entertain, precisely. Well done that boy. And I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I needed to be reminded of that. Let me elucidate. I received an e-mail from a guy by the name of Guy Fraser-Sampson, the guy to whom I refer in my opening paragraph, in which Guy asked me, and very politely I have to say, if I would be interested in promoting his forthcoming book, Major Benjy, on my website.

My first thought, shallow as it might have been, was: Who in their right mind would write a book called Major Benjy? Titles are like first lines, they're meant to attract the reader not repel them. On reading further I discovered that 'Major Benjy' was in fact a recurring character in the Mapp and Lucia series of novels written in the nineteen-thirties by E. F. Benson. Now, I'd heard of Mapp and Lucia who I had always regarded, rightly or wrongly, as a kind of female Jeeves and Wooster. I had never read any of the six novels nor, strangely enough, had I seen any of the television adaptations of the last three books despite having purchased the first three seasons of Jeeves and Wooster for my wife some years previously. And, I am not ashamed to say, enjoyed with her immensely. But I digress. Soldiering on it transpired that Major Benjy was to be, not a sequel (apparently the novelist Tom Holt has already had a stab at a couple of those), but a midquel, covering the events between Miss Mapp and Mapp and Lucia, the second and third books in the collection. Knowing nothing of the history of these two ladies this did seem an odd place to start.

So I did a bit of research – of the author, his publisher and E. F. Benson – and thought I'd give it a look-see. I replied to Guy and said I wouldn't be willing to plug his book based simply on the contents of an e-mail, however, if he was able to let me have a copy I'd be happy to consider reviewing it. See, I am a snob.

In timely fashion the book arrived. Now, I had two choices here, either a) find a copy of Miss Mapp and familiarise myself with the characters and Benson's style, the better to see if Fraser-Sampson's pastiche carried on in the same vein, or b) take the book on its own merits and then go back and look at other books in the series. I opted for the latter. That said I did take the opportunity of watching a couple of clips on YouTube to get the flavour of the characters. Mapp, on the TV, was played by the redoubtable Prunella Scales and, from all accounts, hairdo aside, there are some similarities between her most famous creation, the draconic Sybil Fawlty, and the jaundiced and crafty Elizabeth Mapp. The thing that worried me a little was that Geraldine McEwan's Lucia had such screen presence I did have to wonder how entertaining Mapp would be on her own.

The purpose of writing is to educate and entertain. We have established that. Education is always to be recommended and raised on high but entertainment is not generally so highly regarded. There are those who would go so far as to suggest that reading purely for entertainment is a complete waste of time. And I have always been towards the front of that queue. This is evidenced by the fact that, although I accepted the thing as gracefully as I could muster, I did turn my nose up privately when a former boss gifted me a copy of Flashman and the Tiger one Christmas; he knew that I was a bookish sort and these were the kind of books he liked to unwind with. I never threw it out or gave it away, it still sits in my bookcase to this day, but I've never even opened the thing to see what's on the inside. I told you I was a snob.

But, far be it from me to refuse a fellow writer trying to plug his first novel. I know exactly what that feels like. A snob I may be but I would hope not an uncharitable one.

The titular hero, Benjamin Flint, a moustachioed, retired military man, golfer and alcoholic, is a long-time resident of Tilling, a picturesque town near Hasting, where he settled after retirement from the army after spending many happy years in India. Much affected by the time serving the Raj, his home is full of moth-eaten tiger skins and other memorabilia; likewise his speech is peppered with Hindustani phrases and references to exotic ailments (not all of which are endemic to the Indian continent) from which he is wont to suffer whenever it suits him to. Essentially he is, like most of his fellow Tillingites, the kind of two-dimensional character often to be found frequenting episodes of Poirot and The Two Ronnies. Even in my own novel I have a character called 'The General' who is a member of this illustrious clan and which probably includes Flashman too. Flint is a flawed character who trades off a past that is nowhere near as illustrious as he might have one believe and this is evidenced by the fact he cannot always keep his stories straight:

After a minute or two the Major could be heard descending the stairs rather heavily. He opened the door to Miss Mapp clad in what had once obviously been a rather splendid Chinese silk dressing gown but which was now somewhat faded and starting to look as threadbare as the tiger skin rug which the Major claimed variously to have killed with a Mauser rifle in Bengal, with an elephant gun in Rajasthan, and with the single sword stroke that famous day in the Punjab which saved the life of a Maharajah, no less, in the process. Indeed, Miss Mapp had been heard to venture that if she had been killed as many times as Major Flint’s tiger then doubtless she would be looking a little the worse for wear herself.

Now, before we proceed too far down this track I should make it clear that, although the book is entitled Major Benjy, this is really an ensemble piece and focuses just as much, if not more, on the conniving Miss Mapp who has, as the saying goes, set her cap in the major's general direction. It was she who first assigned him the sobriquet 'Major Benjy'.

I asked Fraser-Sampson about the book and he admitted happily: "It is pure escapism! I have wanted to write this book ever since I was about 11 years old." So, is this simply fan fiction? Yes, of course it is. He has been intoxicated by these books for the best part of his life. It is also, if you'll pardon my French, damnably good fan fiction and I've read a few Dr. Who novels so I know how bad fan fiction can get.

His literary hero E. F. Benson relishes the sentence. With few exceptions there isn't a sentence I couldn't pull out of this book as an example of how to enjoy English. Okay, these off-the-cuff remarks have been sweated over in just the same way as any uttered by characters created by the Brontë sisters but that doesn't stop people reading them. In fact they delight in their use of language. And Fraser-Sampson has nailed it. After finishing Major Benjy I set about Miss Mapp and, had I not known better, I would have sworn on a stack of bibles that it was the same author.

Okay, he's got the language right but what about the story? Ah, the story. The thing is, the story really isn't that important. This is the kind of claim I would normally make about Beckett and it's true for exactly the same reason. We have a story, a plot and subplots and they're all tied together with great precision in exactly the same way as P. G. Wodehouse would; he is my only point of comparison and the similarities are striking. Evelyn Waugh said Wodehouse's world was one when nothing ever changes and nothing ever will; there is a sense of a lost paradise. Let me allow him a few moments to elucidate:

I am confident that Mr Wodehouse's characters will live. It is the half-real characters of the ordinary popular novelist who disappear. Literary characters may survive either through being so real and round that they are true of any age and race, or through being so stylized that they carry their own world with them. [...] of the second [group] are Mr Wodehouse's characters. They live in their own universe like the characters of a fairy story. [...] Mr Wodehouse's characters are purely and essentially literary characters. We do not concern ourselves with the economic implications of their position; we are not sceptical about their quite astonishing celibacy. Their desperate, transitory, romantic passions are unconnected with the hope or fear of procreation; age in their world is usually cantankerous, extreme youth, obnoxious; they all live, year after year, in their robust middle twenties; their only sickness is an occasional hangover. It is a world that cannot become dated because it has never existed. –

With very little alteration I could say the same about the Cluedoesque characters created by Benson and kept alive by Holt and Fraser-Sampson.

The plot? Oh, fine. Here's what the press release has to say:

Romantic entanglements stir the still waters of Tilling society, cunning plots are laid and unforeseen complications ensue. Who is doing what to whom with a bottle of sesame oil? What is the truth behind the great Tilling chocolate cake mystery? Why does Major Flint need a loaded elephant gun? Did Miss Mapp really poison the Padre? Are Diva Plaistow's days as a single woman numbered? How will Mr Wyse measure up as a man of action? Or Susan as a marriage counsellor? Oh yes … and what really happened to Lucy?

There are a few reasons why Fraser-Sampson chose to write his first book – yes, he plans more – but it appears that Lucy, 'Quaint' Irene Cole's six foot maid, disappears in the narrative gap between Miss Mapp and Mapp and Lucia and he decided to investigate the circumstances surrounding this event. If I was to criticise the book then I have to say that I could see how that was going to pan out very early in the book. But I didn't anticipate the fiasco of the chocolate cake. Or the reason for Mapp's train journey. Or the identity of the rough-looking man who was seeking out the major. But everything is wrapped up neatly at the end and the scene set for Lucia's arrival. And, like all good writing, although there is structure it is not noticeable.

But the main thing about this book is its revelling in language, for example, when the elephant gun is finally discharged:

The elephant gun gave forth a belch of flame and a bang which sounded like the end of the world and rattled every window in Tilling … There was a smash of breaking glass as a heavy calibre projectile entered the bedroom window of the house of the late Captain Puffin, whom some claimed had drowned in a bowl of soup, but who had in reality probably simply suffered a seizure and unfortunately fallen forwards into his soup showing a sad lack of regard for the arcane Tilling etiquette of dying tidily and thoughtfully.

Fortunately the house, and thus the bedroom, were both empty, and the bullet proceeded on its way unimpeded by human flesh through first the ceiling and then the roof. As it erupted through the tiles, a pair of nesting gulls who had been sitting immediately beside the sudden gaping hole rose screaming into the air, followed a second later by every other seabird for miles around, their raucous cries echoing across the marshes. The sound of a dozen of so roofing slates sliding down the tiles and crashing into smithereens in the street below, fortunately without hitting anyone, completed the effect.

Two 'fortunatelys' in the one paragraph? Tsk-tsk. This is precisely the kind of faux pas that any member of the folk of Tilling would pick up on. Their small lives revolve around rules of etiquette and one-upmanship. The currency is tittle-tattle. "Any news?" their war-cry. Every encounter is a dilemma. What do I do here? What the correct procedure? How can I make sure things don't backfire on me? If I may illustrate:

[Miss Mapp's] shortest path to Twistervants the greengrocers lay undeniably to the right but she hesitated and turned left instead, to knock a trifle imperiously at the Major’s front door. There was what sounded suspiciously like some swearing from the innermost depths and then the door was opened abruptly by the Major himself with a peremptory “yes?” It was unfortunate that a combination of a bad hangover and no breakfast should have made the Major forgetful. It was doubly unfortunate that what he should have forgotten were his trousers.

Miss Mapp had always felt herself equal to any social dilemma that might befall her, but even her resolute personality was momentarily nonplussed by the irrefutable fact that she, an unmarried woman of unimpeachable virtue, could be seen standing in broad daylight in the streets of Tilling talking to an unmarried man dressed impeccably in collar and tie above the waist, but below it simply in a pair of long woollen underpants of indeterminate hue. She quelled the instinctive shriek that rose unbidden in her maidenly throat, and decided that by far the kindest thing would be simply to ignore the situation.

“Good morning, Major,” she cooed, her eyes fixed determinedly on his face. “I thought I should just see if everything was alright, as I thought I heard you cry out a little earlier. I wondered if perhaps you had cut yourself shaving?”

The Major’s realisation that he was not wearing any trousers had come a second or two after Miss Mapp’s and roused in him a perturbation that was second only to her own. What on earth could he do? To slam the door in her face was an option, but could be quickly dismissed on the grounds of how rude it would look. To cower behind it with his head poking around the edge was surely unmanly. His eyes met her own fixed and somewhat desperate gaze and he decided in an instant to take his lead from her and pretend that nothing was amiss.

And, yes, this is the second instance where the major has to open his door to Miss Mapp and there are more. Indeed, if she's not at his door then she is perched in her Garden Room, watching his front door … with an eye on the High Street of course.

The pleasure of Mapp and Lucia is summed up, surely, in Alice Roosevelt's bon mot. "If you have nothing good to say about anybody," she is supposed to have said, "come and sit right by me." This sordid and unforgiving tale of unfulfilled bourgeois life in the English provinces portrays characters of quite monstrous selfishness and cruelty, devoted to humiliating each other in public, telling lies, and compensating in heartbreaking ways for the frustrations and narrowness of their lives. - Philip Hensher, Penguin Classics, July 26, 2008

Bottom line, would I recommend this book? Absolutely. As long as you know what you're getting into. The simple fact is I was smiling by the end of the first page and I continued to smile throughout the book. Is it an easy read? Yes and no. You could rush through this book and get the gist but the whole point of a book like this is to stroll through it like any of the residents wandering up Tilling High Street on the lookout for some juicy gossip. If you tread carefully you will be rewarded.

A few links worth checking are the following:

Mapp and Lucia glossary
The E F Benson website
E F Benson webpage
The E F Benson Society
Literature Map for E. F. Benson
Guy Fraser-Sampson's Literary Blog
Troubador Books' website

Guy Fraser-Sampson originally qualified as a lawyer and became an equity partner in a City of London law firm at the age of 26. In 1986 he left the law and has since gained twenty years' experience in the investment arena, particularly in the field of private equity. His is the author of two best-selling non-fiction books. Major Benjy, his first foray into fiction, was published on 11th September 2008.


Anonymous said...

Learning all the time, me.

I never knew 'Mapp and Lucia' were a series of novels - I'm aware to the TV show but have never really sat down to it.

You've done a good review here and also reflected one of my own worst traits - judging the book by the cover - well, not my 'worst' traits, the serial-killing will be harsher-judged by history, one feels. Still it is brave and good to dive headfirst into a book even though the flighty little head is screaming 'No!'

Sounds like you were rewarded this time, Jim, I will surely keep an eye out for the book and I wish the author well.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, the book was quite a revelation to me I have to say. I really didn't know what I'd let myself in for but I was seriously surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I think I'd forgotten that books can actually be fun.

As for the diving headlong thing, I'm trying to work on a review for a book of poetry just now that I said I'd have a look at knowing nothing about the author whatsoever and it's no Major Benjy let me tell you. Still, it's a challenge and I like a challenge.

Anonymous said...

I have found, sadly, that reading has not been as much fun for me in the last several years as it was when I was many years younger. I have a bad habit of editing as I read, and inconsistencies I may not have paid attention to in earlier days will now snap me right out of a story. Which is to say, I haven't read for "fun" in a very long time.

A former English teacher used to tell me, "Give a book a chance. Read to page 50. If you still don't like it, move on." It's been a good rule of thumb.

Great review, BTW.

Jim Murdoch said...

Netta, I have the selfsame problem. This may very well be the book for you then. I got so caught up in the story that nitpicking over editing went by the way (almost) - okay, I found a typo and a missing punctuation mark - but that was it.

Dave King said...

I, too, have Netta's problem: I want to edit as I go, a desire that inflicts itself upon me when reading poetry as well as prose. There is a cure: read something of unarguably outstanding quality, something beyond your own ability to get even close to - I guess I'm lucky there; I have no difficulty finding such works. I found it so salutary recently, reading War and Peace - didn't once even think of editting it!

Enjoyed the post, Jim, though I do not know the Mapp and Lucia books and didn't see the T.V. series.

Conda Douglas said...

Excellent review, Jim. I've always had an addiction for what I've always called "buzz" books--turn off the brain and buzz through 'em and have always loved Wodehouse. Relaxing. There's a place for all novels in my reading...HOWEVER, I find myself agreeing with Netta and Dave, more and more I starting editing and I'm out of the story--gone.

And Dave's solution is hard for me as I become depressed when I read a fabulous piece of writing--the desire to write that well can be overwhelming--and no I don't expect to ever be able to write as well as Tolstoy! But still.

Jim Murdoch said...

I really think with this book, Dave and Conda, that you'd get so caught up with the story that any weaknesses elsewhere in the book might well slip by. I make no bones about it, I wouldn't have chosen this book to read ever and that really would've been my loss. I wouldn't have spent as much time on the review otherwise.


Teach me, Jim, teach me!

Another great review. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

Susan, I'm only one lesson ahead of the rest of the class so don't pressure me, eh?



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