20 May 2012

The Fox in the Attic (Richard Hughes)

Richard Hughes envisioned The Fox in the Attic as part one of a planned trilogy, or rather one book printed in three volumes, to be called The Human Predicament. The work, Tolstoyan in scope, would follow the Welsh and Bavarian branches of a family (with associated servants, friends, and historical figures) from the aftermath of the Great War to the verge of WWII. His composition was so slow as to make George R.R. Martin look like James Patterson, however, with Fox in the Attic published in 1961 and its follow-up, The Wooden Shepherdess, twelve years later (1973); when he died in 1976, only 50 pages of the final volume had been completed. (NYRB Classics includes these chapters in their edition of Wooden Shepherdess.) Does Hughes's unrealized ambition hurt Fox in the Attic as a stand-alone novel? Ehn, I didn't think so. True, there are some extraneous characters who probably gain importance later, some undeveloped subplots . . . but this is also a novel adept and epic enough to slip into the POVs of everyone from a five-year-old girl to Adolf Hitler without missing a beat, and my awe at that ability more than carried me through the rough patches.

Our Pierre-ish hero is Augustine, an aristocrat born with the century, barely too young to fight in the Great War--one of thousands of young men across Europe who expected to die in the trenches and were marooned by the Armistice with sixty more years to fill. He hasn't found much to occupy them, and he lives alone in an inherited manor, rattling about with his naive and grandiose ideas, convinced that mankind has been reborn from the cataclysm of WWI, that a new, peaceful, godless era is upon Europe. When he finds a little girl drowned on his property, the gossips of the nearby village are convinced (for no good reason) he had something to do with the death, and his older sister convinces him to spend some time on holiday with distant relatives in their Bavarian castle. There, he falls madly in love with blind, pious Mitzi, and remains utterly oblivious to the dark and dangerous politics of 1923 Germany.

The Fox in the Attic is several kinds of story. First, a bildungsroman centered with affectionate mockery on Augustine, who's constantly shocked at the world's incongruity with his worldview, though somehow unshaken in his utopian beliefs. I just wanted to pat him on the head and slap him by turns. Second, a family saga with characters galore: Augustine's brother-in-law Gilbert, a Liberal MP; Gilbert's young daughter Polly; medieval-tragic Mitzi; her monarchist father Walther; her militaristic uncle Otto, all wholly individual and conveniently microcosmic. It's also a historico-political novel of astonishing skill--apparently Hughes dug up primary sources previously unknown, and I learned a lot about the postwar upheaval of Weimar Germany--struggles between fascists, socialists, monarchists, Nazis, republicans, with runaway inflation to oppress them all. Augustine's philosophizing, tested in discussion with other idle intellectuals, make this a novel of ideas, though the ideas are as muddled as those who espouse them--there's a wonderful line about Augustine's drunkenly arguing Art with a Brazilian sculptor who has the advantage of him due to "something always essential for absolute clarity of thought: he had read almost everything which agreed with his theories and nothing whatever that didn't, whereas Augustine's notions were merely an unorganized ten-year deposit from many conflicting sources." I think this happens to me on a regular basis.

And of course, any book that spends time in the feverish brain of Hitler, in hiding after the beerhall putsch in Munich (itself a masterful scene), can be partially classed as a horror novel. The portrait of the up-and-coming Fuhrer is both eerily intimate and well-observed from without--this early in his career, few knew what to make of this weird, low-class little man, prone to violent harangues at dinner parties--and too few took him seriously.

If Fox in the Attic has a dominant theme, I think it's miscommunication. None of these people, fictional or real, makes any effort to listen to or understand each other as independent consciousnesses (to get slightly Hegelian for a second . . . or at least my ten-year deposit of memories of same). One scene in particular highlights this for me: Augustine, full of paternalistic passion for Mitzi, finds her praying in the family chapel and walks her back to the main house through a heavy snowfall--but he does this by hovering silently just beside her, hand floating at her waist but without making any contact. In his head, they form a profound spiritual connection; she, on the other hand, has no idea he's there. And from the attic, a malign presence watches, with a third interpretation as wrong as the others. Only we the readers see the whole picture, with the benefit of time and distance.

1 comment:

  1. Richard Hughes’ prose is masterful, a chapter-by-chapter treat, and his historical insights overcome the confusing structural oddities of the novel.


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