Book Report 007: Ronald Firbank, CAPRICE

New Directions · 1917

One of the most vertiginous kinds of reading experiences is when a writer makes you work hard to understand what's going on (like say a modernist), but what's going on is so frivolous and silly that it doesn't matter (like say a humorist). Ronald Firbank has that quality; and apart from Max Beerbohm in certain moods and maybe Oscar Wilde at his most delirious I can't think of too many others.

But it's not like it's hard work; it's just that shaggy-dog stories told in elliptical snatches of highly allusive dialogue and jewel-like sentences of vivid imagery but almost no connective tissue are scarce on the ground, so the muscles that you exercise in reading the thing aren't used to being worked at the same time.

Is there a plot? I suppose there is; something about an aspiring actress and stolen silver and bohemian relationships — but it doesn't matter in any sense, because the entire thing is so extravagantly artificial it might as well be a Beardsley drawing set in motion, with no relation to the real world at all except in fragmented images and sudden half-glimpses of shadowy depths that the tinkling, brittle prose, skimming along the surface, never sounds.

Firbank was gay; and not in the Oscar Wilde hush-hush-dreadful-shame way or the Max Beerbohm who-cares-died-a-virgin way, but out and flamboyant and promiscuous and rich so nobody could touch him. Susan Sontag included his work in the canon of camp, and though to a Rocky Horror Picture Show-reared ear his silliness may be too understated to register, every sentence here is suffused with a such a finicky cattiness, so mannered and arch, that it practically screams QUEER if you're familiar with the prose styles of the period. Oh, and nearly everyone in the book is coded gay even if there is only one overtly homosexual relationship, a parody of tragic lesbianism.

There's also racism. Or at least he keeps dropping in "niggers" as set decoration; it's never clear whether his references here to jazz and ragtime are meant to be derogatory, since his world is so full of inverted and sideways values. Firbank was a cosmopolitan traveler, and blackness and "savagery" are major themes in some of his other work; this bears further study. (I bet there's a decent paper somewhere on the meanings of black musicians in Firbank, Wodehouse, Waugh, etc.; compare and contrast with selected texts of the Harlem Renaissance, and you've got a university-press book. You're welcome.)

There's little else to say; the book is tiny, a bare fillip of a novella (which doesn't explain why this is being posted so late), a sort of appetite-whetter for more and bigger Firbankery. Which I will get to (I've got a few more of his works lying about); but I'm glad I began with this apéritif.

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