Six Lives and a Book, by Claude Houghton

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Editor’s Comments

Even though I found his I am Jonathan Scrivener only a partial success, Claude Houghton’s approach the question of identity was so unusual that I wanted to explore his work further. A few weeks ago, I received a copy of his 1943 novel, Six Lives and a Book, which I had quite honestly ordered for no reason but that I thought the title promised something interesting.

Six Lives and a Book is much more more experimental in its structure than I am Jonathan Scrivener. The first sixty-some pages of the novel are actually excerpts from a fictional work titled The House Not Made With Hands by an author named Oldfield. This novel is set in a residential hotel in London. The narrator, a man named Mavers, encounters the different inhabitants of the house, who range from a good-time, perhaps gold-digging girl to an aging miser. As in I am Jonathan Scrivener, these encounters are usually long conversations in which the two characters seem to probe each other to detect his or her true character, beliefs, or values. But it is on a London bus one evening that Mavers suddenly sees through another man’s public image–literally:

Opposite was an old man leaning forward on a short thick walking stick, who was gazing at me with eyes which might have been concerned with any one of a number of far-away things, but which certainly were not concerned with me. He was a heavy, shabby, lugubrious figure with wisps of dirty white hair escaping under a scarecrow hat. His attitude implied immense fatigue, the face was a record of disasters rather than a human countenance, but, nevertheless, there were hints of stunted grandeur about him–hints which compelled you speculate about this derelict man who leaned on his stick, staring at nothing.

Then–suddenly–I saw this man as he would have been if all his possibilities had been realised. It was as if another man were sitting by his side–the men he would have been if all his stunted qualities had attained maximum growth. And, which was terrifying, there was no doubt whatever that the wreck of a man in the scarecrow hat and the transcendent being by his side were one and the same.

From this moment on, Mavers finds these visions of a person’s potential coming to him again, until he sees the other of six other people in the house he shares. “Every one,” he concludes,

… lives in a strange and haunted house, for our essential lives are concerned with principalities and powers, and our human relationships are a reflection of our combat with those powers and principalities.

And with that, Houghton abruptly switches to the Public Library at Marleham, a small port in Devonshire, where Olga Purvis, during the time of the Blitz. Olga Purvis, a London woman made homeless by the bombing, is staying in Marleham and decides to check out The House Not Made With Hands.

Although a newcomer to Marleham, she has already come to know a number of other temporary residents: a rugged veteran merchant sailor waiting for a new ship after having his last torpedoed; an heiress grieving her lover, an RAF ace recently killed in combat; a radical; a charity organizer also displaced by the Blitz–six in all, just as in the novel.

And just as in the novel, these characters meet, talk, clash and find common bonds. The borrowed copy of The House Not Made With Hands circulates among them. Each has some revelation about his or her true desires or concerns while killing time in this sort-of limbo. In the end, each leaves Marleham for a new destination or undertaking–with a truer understanding of himself.

Or at least I assume so. Frankly, as in Jonathan Scrivener, I found that Houghton is either too subtle in his dialogue for a clod like me to pick up his nuances or just plain obtuse. At the end of Six Lives and a Book, the most interesting character, a nameless, brutish man (not one of the six) who haunts Olga, playing an erotic cat-and-mouse game with her,is about to return the The House Not Made With Hands to the library when he thumbs through the book and comes across the two passages above. He recalls Olga reading them to him. “But then,” Houghton adds, “there had been another entry [in her diary] which she had not read. She had exclaimed: “No, It’s not that! I know that’s nonsense!”

When I read this, I began to wonder if Six Lives and a Book wasn’t just some great shaggy dog tale. I have to admit that I had been hooked early on and kept reading, expecting to come to a climax in which connections among the characters or some event lead to a dramatic revelation … only to wind up with “I know that’s nonsense!” Even now, as I run through the book again for this piece, I half-believe the joke was on me. I find it a little hard to believe, when as reliable a source as the critic and lexicographer Eric Partridge considered it one of Houghton’s best.

But then … having compared Jonathan Scrivener to the works of Paul Auster, particularly his New York Trilogy, it occurs to me that some people think those novels are shaggy dog tales, too. It takes a good storyteller to carry off an effective shaggy dog tale, because the key is to draw the reader or listener along to the point that the narrative pull overrides one’s better judgments.

So is Six Lives and a Book a glimpse into men’s true souls? Or just a bait-and-switch?

Read it and draw your own conclusion.

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Six Lives and a Book, by Claude Houghton
London: Collins Publishers, 1943

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