I don’t suppose anyone really understands why some novelists, widely read, even celebrated, are eclipsed when they die. Why is R. C. Hutchinson (1907–75) now almost forgotten? The Unforgotten Prisoner (1933), his third novel and first success, sold 150,000 copies in the month of publication. Rising, his last novel, the final chapter unfinished when he died, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1975. It isn’t that publishers haven’t tried. Allison & Busby republished several of the novels as ‘modern classics’ in the 1980s and 1990s. Testament (1938) and The Unforgotten Prisoner were reissued as King Penguins in 1981 and 1983. And now Faber have reissued five of the novels as Faber Finds: The Unforgotten Prisoner, Testament, Recollection of a Journey (1952), A Child Possessed (1964) and Rising.
In fact, according to Hutchinson’s bibliographer, Robert Green, his career was ‘mysteriously inchoate’: ‘spurts of recognition would be followed by years of anonymity’. Rupert Hart-Davis, in his foreword to the bibliography (there appears to be no biography), thought Hutchinson’s reclusiveness might be the reason: ‘All his life, regardless of fashion, neglect or misunderstanding, he pursued his solitary way, taking no part in what is called literary life, attending no parties.’ His ‘solitary way’ did include what one guesses was a happy marriage, but there are suggestions of long-term ill-health. Hutchinson himself thought his war-service didn’t help: ‘The gap of five and a half years in the very middle of my professional life was no more helpful to me than to people in other callings.’
There may be other reasons
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I don’t suppose anyone really understands why some novelists, widely read, even celebrated, are eclipsed when they die. Why is R. C. Hutchinson (1907–75) now almost forgotten? The Unforgotten Prisoner (1933), his third novel and first success, sold 150,000 copies in the month of publication. Rising, his last novel, the final chapter unfinished when he died, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1975. It isn’t that publishers haven’t tried. Allison & Busby republished several of the novels as ‘modern classics’ in the 1980s and 1990s. Testament (1938) and The Unforgotten Prisoner were reissued as King Penguins in 1981 and 1983. And now Faber have reissued five of the novels as Faber Finds: The Unforgotten Prisoner, Testament, Recollection of a Journey (1952), A Child Possessed (1964) and Rising.In fact, according to Hutchinson’s bibliographer, Robert Green, his career was ‘mysteriously inchoate’: ‘spurts of recognition would be followed by years of anonymity’. Rupert Hart-Davis, in his foreword to the bibliography (there appears to be no biography), thought Hutchinson’s reclusiveness might be the reason: ‘All his life, regardless of fashion, neglect or misunderstanding, he pursued his solitary way, taking no part in what is called literary life, attending no parties.’ His ‘solitary way’ did include what one guesses was a happy marriage, but there are suggestions of long-term ill-health. Hutchinson himself thought his war-service didn’t help: ‘The gap of five and a half years in the very middle of my professional life was no more helpful to me than to people in other callings.’ There may be other reasons. None of the novels I have read is easy to read. They move very slowly – and in an ‘apologia’ published in 1949 Hutchinson insisted this was a necessity:
Hutchinson himself worked very slowly; and the realism of the novels is created by the accumulation of meticulous detail. They are not autobiographical: though the starting-point may have been some personal experience, creating the world of each novel involved what he called ‘donkey work’. Asked how he had obtained the knowledge of Russia he needed for Testament, he wrote: ‘The answer is grievously simple. Municipal libraries contain many books by amateur travellers, naïve autobiographers, excitable diarists and others, which are full of odd bits of information . . .’ In our time, the difference between the novel and the memoir has been blurred, so the novelist who hasn’t found things out from actual experience, but who merely makes them up, is thought in some way to be cheating. Hutchinson’s profound Christianity may also have repelled some readers. Hart-Davis says there is an ‘underlying assumption, which permeates all Hutchinson’s works, that Christian love is the only hope for the world’. Hutchinson himself disdained didactic purpose, but he also wrote: ‘The splendour possible in fiction will never come, I think, except from discovering in every human (good or bad, intelligent or idiotic) a value far higher than that which he derives from having, in the last few hundred millennia, come to surpass the lower animals in sentience and understanding: an individual and unique value, acquired from an extra-natural source.’ Probably the best novel for a reader unacquainted with his work to start with is A Child Possessed, regarded by Hart-Davis as ‘the apogee of his creative genius’. Not only is it shorter than most of the other major novels but the cast of characters is manageable, and the moral passion impossible to gainsay. An exiled Russian aristocrat turned lorry-driver takes his severely handicapped daughter out of the home to which she has been confined so that she won’t have to have the brain surgery that might make her more manageable, and then cares for her while travelling in southern France. In the process, his relationship with the child’s mother, an actress who deserted him and the child to resume her career, is resuscitated. It is an extraordinary book, beautifully crafted and deeply moving. Yet, though I love and admire that novel, I think in the end Hutchinson’s greatest works are those which look at the broad sweep of European history, in particular Recollection of a Journey, about the plight of refugees in post-war Europe, March the Ninth (1957), about the aftermath of a Nazi atrocity, and Johanna at Daybreak (1969), covering some of those same themes, and which Robert Green calls ‘a towering commentary on modern European history that will one day be properly assessed as a classic of our time’. All deserve essays of their own; but here I want to concentrate briefly on an earlier novel, Testament, set in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. A prefatory note by ‘R.C.H.’ purports to explain that his book is based on a faithful adaptation, although with names changed, of a memoir given him in Paris by Captain Alexei Otraveskov, and mainly about his friendship with Count Anton Scheffler, executed in Moscow by the Communists as a counter-revolutionary, although he had for years been regarded as a resolute ally of the proletariat. It is a huge novel, and the list of the more important characters runs to fifty-one names. Some, such as Prince Roumaniev and his wife Tatiana Vascovna, are aristocrats. Others belong to the professional classes: Dr Mishlayevski looks after Ivan, the Otraveskovs’ crippled son, while the Jewish lawyer Strubensohn tries valiantly to get Scheffler released from prison. Then there are the committed Communists – Otraveskov’s sister, for example, who is terrifying in her certainty of rectitude – as well as the crooks and time-servers and servants. This is a work of the imagination, not of history. However, the accuracy of his depiction of the effects of solitary confinement (of which I have a little experience) is undeniable. Similarly the effect of sleep deprivation (of which, mercifully, I have no experience) is described with a dramatic vividness unsurpassed by anything else I have read. The interrogators want Otraveskov to confess that he knew Scheffler was a Tsarist agent and that his support of the revolution was merely a pretence. The lights in the cell are never put out. The guard keeps waking him. An agent provocateur is put into the cell and talks and talks and talks, pretending to implicate Scheffler.
The situations and events of a novel can derive importance only from the importance of the people who take part in them . . . the reader must know those people as he knows his own friends. In life such intimate knowledge is acquired as a rule slowly . . . Indeed, I suspect that slowness (the tedium of which ought to be cunningly alleviated) is an element essential to the novelistic form – as opposed to the dramatic or short-story form . . .
Another interrogator appears, ‘a dignified old gentleman, neatly dressed’ and apparently reasonable. In due course, he presents the confession he wants; he wants it signed only ‘as a formality’. The trial of Scheffler, too, is only a formality. Yet Hutchinson’s skill allows even the most monstrous of the characters enough humanity to make them credible. Mme Druvalov, wife of the secretary of the Political Department of the Judicial Committee, explains why Scheffler is on trial:
Three nights – or was it four nights? – that went on. Sometimes he let me drop asleep, only to wake me a few minutes later. Sometimes I struck out at his face, but it was easy for him to dodge that, and by way of reward he would hold my ears and shake my head rhythmically from side to side, repeating in his tireless, marcato voice, ‘Listen, Otraveskov, listen to me! I only want you to admit that I may be right, I only want you to say that Scheffler may have been a czar-paid man . . .’
Yet a moment later she says to her husband, ‘Pyotr, you are not to go back to the court before you’ve had something to eat.’ The novel gives a vivid sense of the sheer chaotic muddle of the revolution, and its dislocating and destructive terror. For most people, to know what was happening anywhere except in one’s own street – sometimes even in one’s own street – was impossible. The vision in Testament is personal, from the ground up; there is no panorama, no sweep of history. Some of the scenes are almost cinematic set-pieces: the storming of a prison from which Scheffler is rescued, the charge of Cossack cavalry into a barricade, an auction in a palace where the Princess Roumaniev tries gaily and desperately to raise some cash by selling her belongings, including a painting almost certainly by Vermeer. Perhaps most vivid of all are the disjointed final scenes when Otraveskov manages – with forged papers provided with the secret help of his revolutionary sister (who had once described her brother as ‘an epitome of lukewarm intellectual benevolence without direction’) – to escape from prison to join his wife and son on a boat fleeing the revolution. The passengers have to demolish a landingstage to get wood for fuel, and a dozen horsemen follow the boat, firing their rifles from the bank while the boat breaks through the ice on its way to freedom. Count Scheffler finds his own version of freedom. Just before his execution, he manages to smuggle out of the prison a letter to his friend.
With him, it is always the individual who matters. He cannot think of the millions who have suffered and who will go on suffering if we allow the acquisitive and cruel to have their way again . . . a new Russia is not to be made in a single generation – as we are making it – if every small step is to be clogged by petty scrupulosities.
As Otraveskov stands at the front of the boat taking him and his wife and son away from Russia, it is this letter that he reads. Goodness – in this case, heroic goodness, because Scheffler is offered a chance to leave Russia if he will sign a confession – is always harder to depict than wickedness or waywardness. In most of the novel, we see Scheffler very indirectly, even obliquely – he is in custody or in hospital, and the reader merely hears about him. Much of the impression we form is created by his wife, who is as much mystified by him as in love with him. Her realisation that what she loves in him is precisely what makes him unable to compromise makes him credible to the reader. This is not a comfortable or indeed a comforting novel. However, its range and passionate vivacity are such that one hopes its renewed availability will help restore Hutchinson to the pantheon of British novelists of the twentieth century.
It’s fixed for tomorrow now . . . I thought that all I had tried to do was wasted, I thought that every battle was lost and no voice left against the driving power of evil. And now I see that the seed you plant stays in the ground while the grass above it shrivels and burns, and the fire can’t touch it, and the soil made up of old dead things will keep it alive and ready to give new life . . .
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 35 © C. J. Driver 2012
About the contributor
C. J. Driver’s early novels (Elegy for a Revolutionary, Send War in Our Time, O Lord, Death of Fathers and A Messiah of the Last Days) have recently been made available again as Faber Finds. There is more information about his most recent book, So Far: Selected Poems 1960–2004, at www.jontydriver.co.uk