This post in an exception to the norm on this blog in two different ways.
First, it's about a book written by a man. Shocking, right?
And second, it's the result of my accepting a proffered review copy, something I almost never do. (Apart from the fact that my focus on very obscure authors has limited the relevance of most publishers' titles, this reluctance is also because I'm a cantankerous reader—if I feel pressured to read a given book at a given time, it's almost a sure bet that I'll perversely resist, no matter how interested I was in the book in the first place.)
However, when Michael Walmer sent an email about this recent title, it proved too enticing to resist, and what's more, I started reading it as soon as I received it. (Then, of course, the book sale intervened, so the review has been a bit slower coming along.) And I had such fun with it that I have to stretch the boundaries of the blog for it.
Hugo Charteris wrote nine novels before his tragic death from cancer at age 48. He was a contemporary of such better-known authors as Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, and Angus Wilson, and the new introduction to this edition, by American screenwriter and novelist Frederic Raphael (who won an Oscar for writing the screenplay of 1965's Darling), effectively places Charteris in the context of his period in British literature. The edition also includes a contemporary review from no lesser figure than Elizabeth Bowen, who sums up the novel thus:
Mr. Charteris gives grim situations a witty twist; farce has an edge of sombreness, laughter a note of fury. He is not only one of the most brilliant but one of the most incalculable of our postwar novelists—his generation, viewing the postwar scene, have no use for comfortably blinkered humour. I should call him a romantic anti-romantic. Marching with April offers high entertainment: you may also find that this book bites deep.
The gist of the plot is simple. Lionel Spote is a neurotic London publisher who inherits a Scottish estate. Having no intention of becoming the lord of the manor, he plans to sell, but discovers that the terms of his uncle's will make that impossible. During a stay in Scotland, as much as anything as a means of getting away from his domineering mother, he gets swept up in the grand plans of a local MP, difficulties with his hearty neighbor April (whose property "marches" alongside his own), a bewildering battle with the Corporal of the local Cadets, and a possible romance with April's daughter. On top of which, his mother arrives and threatens to dominate everything.
Charteris's unusual and sometimes dense style took a bit of getting used to (there are still a couple of passages whose exact meanings eluded me), but once I had I frequently laughed out loud. From a brief reference to Lionel's attempts to analyze his dreams ("Sometimes he just lay and didn't say anything for days. Often he went to sleep while remembering his dreams which had a snowball effect on the agenda.") to the following wonderful set piece about his mother arriving to care for him when he falls ill, I thoroughly enjoyed the lot:
She began putting things in order—that is, where she wanted them.
"Perhaps you think I'm going to twiddle my fingers in London while you have pneumonia under horse doctors—who only come up here because they like fishing or bird-watching ten times better than their job. That, or drink got them on the run. Oh, no, Lionel, I know."
That crowing cry—Oh, no, I know. It came repeated out of the primeval infinity of childhood like a medieval cor de chasse motif in a modern symphony. His mise à mort.
With a savage whipping movement he threw back the bedclothes and stood up, shakily and drably in his silk pyjamas. While he was fumbling with his dressing-gown she gave in.
As often in the past he half hoped he might die while engaged in protest against her. Angina while reaching for his Jaeger dressing-gown in order to by-pass her. At the inquest a pause would come in the coroner's voice while he gravely and significantly murmured the word Misadventure—meaning of course murder.
And then there's this late exchange between Lionel and his mother which perhaps gives the reader a better idea of her fundamental personality than anything else in the book.
"Was that April, dear? Why didn't you let me talk to her?"
"No, Mother—it wasn't."
"I've a good mind to go round to her. I'd sort her."
"You'd sort each other."
"She's going to apologise—if it's the last thing I make anyone do."
That last turn of phrase keeps making me laugh, no matter how many times I read it. Perhaps this is because it's one my own mother might have uttered on any number of occasions…
Marching with April has certainly made me think I should check out some of Charteris's other fiction. He published nine novels in all before his sad early death from cancer at age 48. I think some of you would quite enjoy this one.