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Firbank: Five Novels Paperback – May 17, 1981
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About the Author
Ronald Firbank (1886–1926) was an acclaimed British novelist whose work was championed by E. M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh. He attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge, although he left before receiving a degree. He traveled extensively through Spain, Italy, the Middle East, and North Africa. He died of lung disease while in Rome in 1926.
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Five Novels by Ronald Firbanks is period writing from the World War I modernists, experimental writers. In length these are more like long, short stories. They are thematically repetitious. There may be plots but of the five the plot line is barely important in first and last stories. Prancing N*g (cannot use that word even if it is the title), has a plot but so predictable as to be unimportant. Character s mostly begin and end as they are, although Convening the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli dose have a nice turn on a main character. Nothing is conventional or esp straightforward. Descriptions are florid, focused on fashion and gardening. The rest is a series of conversations that can float in and out. This is not your basic reading and not for those with any preference for “the usual". There is little violence, some harsh language, racial stereotyping and implied sex. Many major institutions are parodied or insulted esp religion. Consider yourself warned or at least challenged.
Perhaps the two most important things to know before deciding to read these Firbanks novels is that they were written 5 to 10 words at a time on post cards by a man who drank more than he ate. It is perhaps important to know that the author was homosexual and may not have worked to concealed it.
Every novel, novella<?>has certain themes. There are always lots of time on the fashions of his main characters, especially the ladies. Much is given over to lavish descriptions and critiques of who was wearing what made of what materials. Almost as much page space goes to detailing plant life and particulars of interior decoration. Every one of these stories has some combination of a pending royal wedding and a major social event with lots of insider talk about who will and will not be invited. Characters are always of the moneyed and titled set. Religious leaders and institutions always carry a faint or overwhelming order of corruption and except for Cardinal Pirelli no one seems to care so much as to be entertained. There is always at a suggestion of lesbianism, adultery and assorted sordid sexual innuendo.
Mostly stories are not so much stories as conversations strung together with varying degrees of continuity. Firbanks use of language can be over whelming. Fanfare is not good enough if fanfaronade is available. A boy is described " Witching as Eros in his loose flowing alb." <Whitching?, Alb- an ample white garment coming down to the ankles and is usually girdled with a cincture>
Reading Firbanks has to be done from another mental point of view. Individual sentences can be dazzling. Sometimes entire paragraphs can transport. Always you are in a world not quite this one. There is no consistent political view point even if government institutions come in for their share of lambast.
I did not hate this book but I do not know who is likely to enjoy it. Mostly The Five Novels read like they were written a few words at a time, on post cards, but by a person with a vast vocabulary and a keen eye for the ironies of the world around him.
This anthology contains most of Firbank's best work -- the outrageous _Flower Beneath the Foot_, the sublimely scabrous _Valmouth_, and his rueful final novel _Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli_. (Cardinal Pirelli, a closeted boy-lover, is probably the single strongest character in all of Firbank's fiction.) Even at his campiest, Firbank acknowledges the possibility of tragedy -- and this awareness distinguishes his novels from mere social whimsy.
The absence of _Caprice_ from this particular collection is a bit of a letdown, because this short novel is probably the best introduction to Firbank's skewed world view. (On a separate note, the regrettably racist title _Prancing N----r_ was not Firbank's own. Firbank actually called the novel _Sorrow in Sunlight_, and his American admirer Carl Van Vechten retitled the book to titillate U.S. audiences. Although Van Vechten's gambit worked, and _Prancing N----r_ was the only one of Firbank's novels to achieve substantial U.S. sales during his lifetime, the original British title is much better, and ought to be restored.)
But Firbank's writing is not just fancy window dressing. His stories may look like fairy tales because of the whimsical characters and settings, but his narrative technique fractures the linearity of the plots by focusing on external details. In "The Flower Beneath the Foot," for example, the subject of the conversation in the first few pages is not immediately apparent, but disclosure gradually occurs over the course of the following chapters: His Weariness the Prince Yousef's mother, the Queen of some mythical Arabesque realm called the Land of Dates, disapproves of her son's desire to marry the humble convent-dwelling Mademoiselle de Nazianzi instead of Princess Elsie of England. Not until the final paragraph does Firbank dispel the story's genteel facade to reveal a passionately beating, and broken, heart.
Firbank's characters are garish works of art, most of them either impossibly frivolous nobles of theatrically exaggerated primness or paupers with pride and dignity. As in "The Flower Beneath the Foot," a common theme is star-crossed love, a romance between two people of different social stations. This love can be interracial, as it is in "Valmouth," a British colony with a climate so salubrious that the inhabitants live well over a hundred years, as well as in another novel with an evidently Caribbean setting and a controversial title which I refrain from typing so as not to have to wrestle with the Amazon censorship filter. Infatuation can also be grotesque, as it is in "The Artificial Princess," whose heroine, reluctantly betrothed to a foreign Crown Prince, unwittingly encounters the Devil on the night of her debut.
Firbank, one of the first of many English Catholic writers to emerge in the twentieth century, is comfortable setting one of his novels in Spain. "Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli" is self-explanatory, as the good cardinal, who allows aristocratic dogs to be baptized as a favor to wealthy patrons and disguises himself in the street as laity of either gender, risks being defrocked by the Roman church for his perceived sacrileges.
This is humor, but of a less obvious sort; unlike P.G. Wodehouse, who made a handsome living with his comical portraits of the upper class, Firbank doesn't target a specific group of people or stratum of society, nor does he seem interested in such petty substantiality. His fiction, insulated in a world unscarred by war and populated by dainty animated dolls, is an idyllic extension of reality, somehow a reminder of the limitless expanse of literature where formulas lose their validity and time stands still. Toss aside all your preconceptions, because these novellas will surprise you.