Mr Fox – Barbara Comyns

My Barbara Comyns journey began with The Vet’s Daughter, a strange, off-kilter, brilliant book and I have not looked back after that. Since then I have read and loved The Juniper Tree and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (both reissued by NYRB Classics), but I’ll admit that seeking the rest of the Comyns catalogue has been an uphill task because many of them are out of print. Luckily, she has seen something of a revival in recent times with both Turnpike Books and Daunt Books reissuing some of her titles. I hope that trend continues. Meanwhile, Mr Fox was reissued last year by Turnpike, and as ever it was another excellent Comyns novel.

In terms of tone and style, Barbara Comyns’ Mr Fox is in many ways similar to Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, one of my favourite books in 2020. Both books feature an inexperienced, young woman struggling to break away from the shackles of a bleak existence that makes for fascinating and absorbing reading.

Set in London, in the period immediately before WW2, our narrator is the young, naïve Mrs Caroline Seymour, who having separated from her husband, is now a single mother to her three-year old daughter Jenny.

She lives in an apartment in a building whose lease was handed down to her by her mother. Caroline sublets rooms in the building to an assortment of tenants to maintain a steady flow of income that can support them both. But with the spectre of war looming large, an increasingly uncertain environment compels these tenants to vacate the premises of their own accord.

From thereon, Caroline’s problems only heighten. Government officials and debt collectors come knocking at her door. Having nowhere to go and no one to turn to, in a fit of fright and desperation, Caroline approaches Mr Fox to escape from her predicament.

Mr Fox offers her and Jenny a refuge in his home with the agreement that she take charge of the cooking and other domestic duties. Left with no choice, Caroline accepts his offer, and although they don’t share a bed, Caroline keeps up her end of the bargain as far as housekeeping is concerned.

Mr Fox, meanwhile, keeps the monetary tap flowing by engaging in a slew of dubious projects and black market activities. Characteristic of the men of his ilk, Mr Fox is always dabbling in what he perceives are grand schemes with big payoffs, and yet when it comes to doling out money, he remains a miser. Personality-wise, Mr Fox oscillates between moments of generosity and kindness on one hand and flashes of anger and moody behaviour on the other. This begins to take its toll on Caroline and Jenny.

When air raids erupt in London with rising velocity, Mr Fox takes up a job in a factory located on the outskirts, a place called Straws, and the three of them relocate there, away from the dangerous environs in London.

In Straws, Caroline’s unhappiness only deepens. The house and the neighbourhood are dingy, shabby and dismal, and the dreariness of their existence eats into her spirit. Caroline begins to feel sad and homesick, although she has no place she can truly call her home.

Mr Fox didn’t get drunk or keep string under his bed, but he was very moody and sometimes bad-tempered, usually when he was short of money. Then he used to grumble about my cooking and Jenny chattering and about how much we cost him to keep. When he was like this I felt dreadfully sad and homesick and longed to escape from him, but we had nowhere to go.

These are the bare bones of the story and without dwelling too much on the plot, the rest of the novel charts how Caroline and Jenny grapple with their shaky circumstances and navigate a world that is in continuous flux given the dominance of war. Sometimes the two barely manage on their own, sometimes they are compelled to rely on Mr Fox.

One of the most unique features of Mr Fox is Caroline’s voice – chatty, informal, as if she is confessing and unburdening herself. There’s a child-like quality to the narrative, it is Caroline’s charming naiveté that blunts the impact of the mounting horrors in her life.

Some of the underlying themes covered in the novel are abject poverty, homelessness, and a woman with no prospects having to depend on the generosity of a man. War is as ever palpable, and is vividly captured by Comyns, particularly the air-raids, blackouts, food rationing, profiteering, and an overall sense of fear, dread and uncertainty.

There was Tantivy (their dog) sitting with his ears back looking perplexed and men were strewn about in tin hats, all blowing away and shouting, “Take cover!” I couldn’t take cover so I started to run, and as I ran I heard aeroplanes; the sky seemed to be full of them, but I dared not look and the wailing sirens were still going. “Take cover! Take cover!” they shouted and I ran so fast my shoes fell off; but I couldn’t stop and the pavements were scorching my bare feet. A woman was opening some garage doors and people seemed to think it was a safe place because they were going in, but they wouldn’t let me because of Tantivy, and I had to go on running even faster on my burning feet, and I thought I could hear machine-guns, or perhaps it was aeroplanes backfiring.

Mr Fox, then, is another gem from the Comyns repertoire, laced with her trademark way of looking at the world – odd and offbeat but in a compelling way.

Two NYRB Classics – Natsume Soseki & Barbara Comyns

I read some wonderful books from NYRB Classics in September and because I am rather behind in my reviews, I decided to write about two of them – The Gate and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – in this post. They are as different as chalk and cheese, but excellent in their own way.

The Gate – Natsume Soseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

The Gate is a beautiful and reflective novel of dashed dreams and lost opportunities interspersed with quiet moments of joy.

At the heart of this novel is a middle aged couple – Sosuke and Oyone, who eke out a simple and frugal life on the outskirts of Tokyo. Sosuke works as a clerk in a company and almost never takes a day off. Oyone manages the house. It’s a routine they have been following for many years with little room for any significant variations. They lead a quiet life and seem resigned to their fates, hardly ever complaining.

But this delicate equilibrium is upset when they are confronted with an obligation to meet the household and educational expenses of Sosuke’s brother Koroku. Koroku is almost ten years younger than Sosuke. In stark contrast to his older brother, Koroku is a selfish and brash man, who has had it easy for much of his life and cannot come to terms with his recently reduced circumstances. Koroku wants Sosuke to approach their aunt and come to an arrangement regards his education, but becomes increasingly impatient with Sosuke’s laidback attitude. Sosuke is in no hurry to move things along.

Koroku reminds Sosuke of his own youth, of how confident he once was with dreams of completing university…only it all fizzles away. Subsequently a series of flashbacks offer a glimpse of Sosuke and Oyone’s background, how they marry and become estranged from their respective families and how they lead an existence of isolation with not many ties.

And yet, Sosuke and Oyone are content in their closed world, happy in their marriage in their own way.

Sosuke and Oyone were without question a loving couple. In the six long years they had been together they had not spent so much as half a day feeling strained by the other’s presence and they had never once engaged in a truly acrimonious quarrel. They went to the draper to buy cloth for their kimonos and to the rice dealer for their rice, but they had very few expectations of the wider world beyond that. Indeed, apart from provisioning their household with everyday necessities, they did little else that acknowledged the existence of society at large. The only absolute need to be fulfilled for each of them was the need for each other; this was not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition for life. They dwelled in the city as though living deep in the mountains.  

The one blemish is their inability to have children. On this front, the book is laced with some heartbreaking passages, which elucidates this tragic development in some detail and how it affects both of them.

While Koroku’s predicament is the driving force of the tale, there are also some other smaller moments of tension that propel the narrative along such as Oyone’s illness and the sale of a Meiji period screen the couple possess.

As the novel progresses, while on the one hand Sosuke forges a new friendship with favourable consequences, on the other, the possibility of a chance encounter looms large, which has the danger of raking up a past he is keen to forget.

The Gate is one of those novels which harbours the impression that not much happens, but nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath a seemingly smooth and calm surface, emotions and tensions rage. Soseki’s writing is sensitive and graceful, and he wonderfully tells a story shot with melancholia but also suffused with moments of gentle wit.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths – Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors. I was first entranced by the completely off-kilter The Vet’s Daughter and then followed it up with the brilliant The Juniper Tree which found a place on my Best Books of 2019 list.

In both those books, there was something fascinating about her female characters and their unique narrative voices and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is no different, although this story is more straightforward compared to the other two.

The narrator in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is Sophia Fairclough and when the book opens she is in a happy place, although this happiness has come at a considerable price. Here’s the opening passage…

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried. In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries; he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now. I hardly dare admit it, even touching wood, but I’m so happy that when I wake in the morning I can’t believe it’s true. I seldom think of the time when I was called Sophia Fairclough; I try to keep it pushed right at the back of my mind.

This paragraph is important because we are immediately taken back to Sophia’s grim past filled with poverty and harrowing ordeals that she has to endure, and it’s those opening lines that make some of the difficult moments in the novel bearable.

The story begins when Sophia meets Charles, an aspiring painter, and they decide to marry. Sophia at the time is working at an artist studio with a regular pay, while Charles has not been too successful in selling his paintings yet.

Charles’ parents are separated and both oppose the marriage at first – his mother strongly opines that marriage will greatly hamper Charles’ artistic career. But eventually they come around.

The couple move into their new flat – small but within their budget. Things are hunky dory at first but quickly, it becomes clear that Charles is a selfish man, not capable of taking on responsibilities. The only thing that interests him is his painting. Meanwhile, Sophia is struggling as she juggles her job with domestic duties. And then she finds out she is pregnant, a development which both delights and unnerves her, but greatly horrifies Charles.

What follows subsequently is a tale of abject poverty and daily toils to keep their head above water, the burden of which falls on Sophia’s shoulders, as Charles continues to remain indifferent. Not surprisingly, their marriage begins to falter.

Charles and Sophia’s circumstances are not always bleak though. There are some periods in their life when money does come their way and they are able to enjoy the finer things in life – a better flat, a larger friend circle involving a lot of entertaining, and good food. But the ground beneath them is always shaky, and the prospect of money running out continuously hangs like a sword over their heads.

That’s the basic outline of the story, but suffice to say a lot more happens as the novel moves forward.

The most striking feature about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is Sophia’s voice – frank, captivating and quite child-like. Sophia is naïve about a lot of things, especially birth control, thinking that “if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come.”

Barbara Comyns’ writing is top-notch.  In her assured hands, what might have been a humdrum melodrama about a young woman’s life gone awry transforms into a more unusual kind of novel – a novel way ahead of its time.

Despite her seemingly unending trials and tribulations, it’s the beguiling nature of Sophia’s storytelling that makes the book so compelling. It blunts to a greater effect the sharp edges of her suffering and prevents the novel from being utterly tragic. There’s also solace in the knowledge that she makes it through that difficult period in her life, as clearly shown in the first chapter.

The book also highlights some of the problems that women had to grapple with in the early 20th century. For instance, when Sophia announces her pregnancy to her boss, she is fired – the protection of maternity leave was pretty much non-existent at the time. Also, treatment in public hospitals especially maternity wards left a lot to be desired. There are a couple of chapters focusing on the time when she is in labor – she is shunted from room to room despite being in immense pain made all the more horrifying by the nurses’ obvious lack of compassion.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is Comyns’ earlier work – her second novel in fact – and there are a lot of autobiographical shades to it. Indeed, here’s one of the things displayed on the copyright page…

The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.

It’s another brilliant novel from Comyns and I plan to gradually make my way through all of her books as and when they become available (there are quite a few that are out of print and hard to obtain).