CHAPTER SIX: CARIBBEAN NOVELS
“Of all that is written, I love only what a person hath written with blood. Write with blood and thou wilt find that blood is spirit.”
Friedrich Nietzche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
“Everything that Edgar Mittelholzer writes is blazing with life.”
Pamela Hansford Johnson
Edgar could always write his novels quickly and easily. He said he did not understand why so many authors spoke of “writer’s block”. He probably thought it showed lack of will-power.
“What is this getting ‘stuck’?”
I don’t know whether William Golding suffered from “writer’s block” or C. P. Snow got “stuck”. These are two writers about whom Edgar used to become sarcastic concerning the slowness with which their work appeared; also, some other writers, but these are the two names which spring to mind. All the same, he greatly admired Golding’s Lord of the Flies and although Snow’s work was not to Edgar’s own taste, he recognised it as the work of a writer of stature. However, he used to say that it was the “correct thing” to have work appear as infrequently as possible - to make people wait for it - and that because he could not do this himself, he would never be entirely successful. A trace of bitterness here, even though it was said as a joke. It may be that, in some cases, work that takes longer to write, contains more depth than Edgar’s. Not that Edgar’s writing lacks depth - I sometimes think it is at a half-way stage. The characterisation shows an understanding of how people react and behave, but often without a deepness of sympathy for them. The nature descriptions are beautiful, but somehow guarded - perhaps not consciously. Perhaps the depth of feeling that you would find in some writers is not there, and I am unfairly asking Edgar to be a Henry Williamson or a D. H. Lawrence when he was a different kind of author.
Or I am asking him to be a poet, as indeed he was sometimes, and I wish more of his poetry had been preserved (see Death in Prospect at the end of this biography).
A heroine of his was the novelist, Iris Murdoch who, it seemed, wrote fast - her books coming out at frequent intervals. In a discussion group series he held once at a return visit to the Writers’ Summer School, he used her book, An Unofficial Rose, as his example of what a novel should be.
Edgar’s Guyanese and Caribbean novels were published over a period of nineteen years, from Corentyne Thunder (1941) to Eltonsbrody (1960). Corentyne Thunder centres around a peasant family, but just as much features those who prided themselves on being of “higher” class. A Morning at the Office shows a cross-section of people, imprisoned in a snobbish class system. This book, set in Trinidad, is a social commentary on its time. Shadows Move Among Them , a realistic fantasy, shows Edgar’s early ideal of people of mixed races, living together on a basis of equality, discipline and sexual freedom. Then there is the well-known Kaywana trilogy, tracing the history of the van Groenwegel family, descendents of a “half-breed” Indian woman and a slave-trader. Set mostly in the days of slaves and their masters, this epic work stresses one of Edgar’s favourite themes – strength versus weakness. Other novels are The Life and Death of Sylvia (a tragic tale about a girl of mixed race), My Bones and my Flute (a ghost story), Of Trees and the Sea, A Tale of Three Places and The Weather Family.
Corentyne Thunder, the first of Edgar’s published novels is set on the Corentyne coast of Guyana (then British Guiana). It is about Ramgolall, an East Indian cow-minder and his family. He has hoarded money in a canister in his hut, and slowly increased his herd of cows, while keeping both his wives in poverty. Sosee, his daughter by his first wife, is the mistress of Big Man Weldon, a white planter, and this is a source of financial satisfaction to Ramgolall. He has two daughters by his second marriage.
The story is just as much about Geoffry (sic), the eldest son of Sosee and Big Man. Geoffry is light-skinned. Fascinated by his peasant relatives, he starts a relationship with his half-sister, Kattree, but abandons her when she becomes pregnant, lest this get in the way of his ambitions.
Another peasant, Jannee, is tried for murder. He is cleared with the aid of an expensive lawyer, but with dire consequences to Ramgolall. Beena, his other daughter, who is in love with Jannee, has stolen the money from Ramgolall’s canister.
This book was first published in 1941, reprinted in 1972, and re-published in 2009. It contains much atmosphere and description of landscape. Out of all Edgar’s novels, British or Caribbean, this is, I believe, almost the only published one which has peasants as some of its central characters. There are many slaves, playing central, passionate roles, in the Kaywana series. This could hardly be avoided. However, Edgar rebelled against the constant emphasis on Creolese, West Indian peasants and their dialects, in the work of most West Indian writers. He has not over emphasized them even in Corentyne Thunder, but the peasants are definitely there, solid and even principle characters, so that the story has a particularly balanced effect. Since writing this, I have re-read Corentyne Thunder, and have realised how beautifully it is written – more so, and with more depth perhaps than with many of Edgar’s later works. It belies what I have said when seeming to belittle his feelings for nature, but it was his own country, and I was thinking of his English descriptions.
A Morning at the Office ( published 1950) contains a cross-section of characters of varying race and class. This book has been likened to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves because of the interwoven streams of consciousness – and indeed, A Morning at the Office was produced by Woolf’s publishers, the Hogarth Press. The book is an excellent social commentary of its time and place. It also contains a delightful children’s fairy story.
Shadows Move Among Them, following after, was not accepted by the Hogarth Press. “I think you’ve gone off the rails this time, Mr. Mittelholzer,” said Leonard Woolf (see Edgar’s article, “A Pleasant Career”). It was a question of attitude.
With intensity, yet a certain humorous detachment, the novel (finally published in 1951) involves passion, madness, fantasy - all taking place in a community headed by one of his stern father-figures, a most out-of-the-ordinary parson. The community of mixed races, set in the jungle, practises the religion of Jesus the Man. Not Jesus, however, as most New Testament readers would recognize him - not even those who do interpret him as more man than God. Does Shadows ... reveal something of what Edgar felt Jesus stood for? (see quotation below from The Aloneness of Mrs. Chatham and my comment). But the main scheme of the religion in Shadows ... is to make a fantasy of religion itself - to say that it is a myth and must be enjoyed as such. The book is charged with atmosphere, and has some beautiful descriptions of tropical landscape. The character of the passionate, fanciful child, Olivia, epitomises the atmosphere of the book.
This work contains, in the policy of Reverend Harmston, the parson, Olivia’s father, the author’s crime-and-punishment views, and also his sexual freedom, in addition to unorthodox religion; so this early work already carries three of his main themes.
Interwoven with the atmosphere, is the following interesting piece of information, which I cannot resist quoting:
“Another boat was going past on the river. This time Gregory heard a rhythmical wooden thud that resisted the splash of the water, and Olivia murmured: ‘It’s a woman paddling.’”
‘How do you know?’
‘Women always make that dup-dup noise with the paddle on the side of the boat. Men never. Nobody knows why.’”
Gregory is the neurotic English cousin, intended as a contrast to the community in which he finds himself, and as a representative of modern “sick” civilisation. He seems to be even insane at one stage, but it is an early example of the unconvincing insanity that occurs in Mittelholzer novels, which appears to be a disguise for something else. Gregory finds healing and peace in this community - escape from the past and from memories of his dead wife - and he finds love in the person of Mabel, Olivia’s elder sister.
There shows up in this novel Edgar’s interest in naturism, and I have visited with him a naturist centre, but no longer remember where it was - it might have been “Silverleigh”, still existent, in Kent - nor do I have the article some reporter wrote about us there, headed “nymph and novelist”.
The Mad MacMullocks, written under the pseudonym of Austin Woodsley, shows a more light-hearted, if more bizarre, version of a community like the one in Shadows ... The Mittelholzer style is still completely recognizable in the “Woodsley” tale. It was published in 1959 the year that I met Edgar.
One of Edgar’s fantasies is The Adding Machine (1954), a novella, a grim yet entertaining adult fairy tale. Introducing the book, Edgar states that it is “a fable for capitalists and commercialists”. This is interesting to me as it is the only experience I have of Edgar criticizing such people, but (as stated elsewhere in this biography) he was Socialist, almost Communist, in his younger days.