After reminding myself of the joys of reading Barbara Comyns with my recent foray into A Touch of Mistletoe, I determined to track down all the other books of hers that I hadn't yet read. Like her sixth novel, Birds in Tiny Cages (1964), which I'm planning to read soon, this book, a memoir of her family's time living on a Spanish island, has sadly never been reprinted and is becoming rather hard to find.
It's perhaps not impossible to see why this one, at least, was passed over by Virago when they were rediscovering Comyns' work in the 1980s. It's paced a bit slower than her novels, and it's a bit more muted in tone. Writing about things that really happened—even allowing for a writer's inevitable latitude with the truth—seems to have restrained Comyns' wilder impulses much of the time. Add to that that the circumstances in which the family moves to Ciriaco (presumably a fictional name, as Google finds no trace, and I don't know enough about Spanish islands—alas!—to recognize it), and the conditions in which they live there, aren't terribly festive, and you have a more mundane book than you might expect from Comyns. But odd events undoubtedly followed Comyns and her family wherever they went, and there are enough of those here, coupled with Comyns' quirky perspectives on life, to make it an interesting read.
Near the beginning of the book, Comyns sums up her home life:
We are a small family: my husband Raymond, myself, and two grown-up children—Nicholas and Caroline. Raymond had been working in a government office as a temporary Civil Servant for the last fifteen years, which suited him very well because his salary was slightly higher than it would have been if he had been permanent. I wrote a bit, and had had some novels published, although only one had been successful. Still, the little money I earned was most useful because, whatever economies we made, we were always living beyond our income. Our children lived at home, and at last there were no more school fees, although this did not seem to make much difference, with the cost of living going up all the time.
Presumably, the one successful novel would have been her first, Sisters by a River, which came to fame because the publisher chose, somewhat embarrassingly, to leave her work unedited, spelling and grammar errors intact. Though another of her most famous works, The Vet's Daughter, appeared only a year before Out of the Red, and seems to have earned significant acclaim as well, so perhaps Comyns was merely be modest about her success.
Oddly, in this passage she changes the names of her second husband (Richard) and son (Julian), but not her daughter, whose name really was Caroline. She also glosses over her husband's job a bit—Richard Comyns Carr was an official in the Foreign Office, working under no lesser figure than Kim Philby, whose exposure as a Russian spy was actually the reason for the family's move to Spain. There is considerable discussion of "Raymond's" search for other jobs once his Civil Service position comes to an end, but needless to say no details about the nature of his jobs.
It is particularly when discussing the conditions of the island more generally, or the personalities of its natives, that Comyns is able to really let herself go. For example, the deadly effects of her first winter on Ciriaco might have been lifted from Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead:
It had been the coldest winter Europe had perhaps ever known. On the whole the island had fared better than most places; but the houses were built to keep out the heat, and mostly had no form of artificial heating, and the old and ailing had died off like flies. Every day the black-plumed horses drew the bodies through the streets to the lonely cemetery among the cypress trees. The worst of the winter was over when I arrived because the sun had become stronger, but, as soon as it set, the damp and cold would come creeping back. I thought of it as some malignant enemy, and the lack of proper lighting made it harder to bear. But when the morning came, the horrors of the night were forgotten, and I faced my floppy bun and cool weak coffee with calm happiness.
And then there are the harrowing stories told by the family's first housekeeper on the island, which could surely have made a novel unto themselves:
The idea of having a regular job seems not to have occurred to her until she had Paul, and then she had sometimes worked on farms as a dairy maid. At one time she had been cruelly treated in a home for girls and separated from Paul; and another time she had lost her memory and wandered round the country in a red cloak with straw in her hair, and eventually found herself in a nursing home. Soon after she recovered, she obtained a job on a farm; but the farmer died with his face in a plate of tomato soup soon after she arrived, so she had to leave. She had lived in a place in Chelsea called Squalor Court, where no one was expected to pay any rent, and, if the house was full, you could always sleep in an abandoned bath in the yard. Once a policeman who had the key of a house let her sleep the night there, and she slept in a golden bed with golden hangings, in a room with golden walls, and the policeman brought her a cup of tea in the morning. Every day there was a new story stranger than the last. It was rather like the Arabian Nights, but it did hold up the cleaning quite a lot.
This book is perhaps a bit like having tea with a sorceress, rather than watching her perform. She might, over a warm scone, demonstrate an amazing spell or two, but for the most part she is merely chatting about the oddities of life, with the odd perspective you would expect from someone with her powers. It might not be as dramatic as the tempests in Comyns' best novels, but it's still quite fascinating.
There's not a lot of indication of the passage of time in the book, and I confess to being bewildered by trying to make the book and Comyns' ODNB entry line up. Out of the Red was published in 1960, and ends with Raymond being offered a new job back in England, and the breaking up of the home the family has made on the island. That relatively little time has passed is suggested by the fact that she mentions that only one of her sisters has made time to visit them in Spain, so they have a lot to talk about when they're all reunited. But according to ODNB, Comyns and her husband in fact spent eighteen years in Spain—no small span of time—and seem to have only returned to England in the early 1980s. Now, mathematics has never been my strong suit, but I do know the early 1980s are more than 18 years after 1960, at which time their time in Spain was, according to this book, already ending, so either they moved to Spain more than once or something is a bit wonky in the state of ODNB.
At any rate, it seems that Birds in Tiny Cages may also make use of this period of Comyns' life (she several times mentions that women in Spain liked to keep pet birds in cages, so I assume she drew inspiration from this), and I'm looking forward to seeing what other events and concerns overlap there.
Finally, I just have to quote a single line from a scene in which Comyns is helping a fellow resident set up his things in a new house. It's a self-explanatory line, and one which all readers will understand perfectly:
I helped him arrange books and clothes, which resulted in our taking the books on to the balcony and reading.