18 February 2012

Mr. Fortune (Sylvia Townsend Warner)

Sylvia Townsend Warner's Mr. Fortune is an odd little book--or rather, one and a half odd little books, the short novel Mr. Fortune's Maggot (1927) and its novella sequel, "The Salutation" (1932), collected by NYRB Classics in one volume. I set out to confuse myself by not reading the introduction, so that I assumed it was written in the 50s--and being off by decades in 20th-century literature can really throw one for a loop, believe me. I still can't put my finger on just what it is I don't quite get about the stories, but there's a nagging sense of irresolution. Though not an unpleasant one.

Anyway, enough about my reaction to the book. The first installment (which uses the term "maggot" to mean "fancy or whim," a definition hitherto unknown to me) takes place on the Polynesian island of Fanua, where the title character has spent three years as a missionary with only one convert to show for it--and his relationship with said convert, an adolescent boy, is less shepherd and sheep than vaguely romantic, right on the edge of being unsettling. An earthquake causes a crisis of faith for them both, and leads Mr. Fortune to some strikingly modern conclusions about the imperial exercise. "The Salutation" picks up some years afterwards, when Mr. Fortune, adrift and bereft after his sudden decision to leave Fanua, ends up living on the charity of an Argentinean woman, the widow of an Englishman who feels an obligation to her late husband's countryman.

My favorite thing about the book is feeling the author's attitude towards her own character slowly shift, from satire to affection. Warner starts out, I think, with Mr. Fortune as a comic villain, imposing British society on a people with no need of its strictures; but as time wears on, his basic good nature gets under her skin, and he becomes less a figure of fun than a sympathetic striver, a man prone to rushed decisions who has little to no idea how to deal with other human beings or his own emotions. And that makes Mr. Fortune fascinating to read: lyrical, interior, a portrait of a man who, while hardly unusual in real life, is rarely so deeply depicted in fiction.

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