I have a mild fascination with unreadable books. Mild because I often lack the courage or persistence to take them on, fascination because I often have the nagging sense that I should. By “unreadable,” I don’t mean truly unreadable, like the book of Pi to the millionth digit or whatever length it is, but dauntingly difficult–the sort of book that refuses to fit itself to the molds that make books accessible. Finnegans Wake is perhaps the best known unreadable book, but there are also books like Gaddis’ JR, 725 pages of dialogue with no attribution to its speakers, or Leon Forrest’s 1138-page novel Divine Days, or John Hargraves’ nearly 900-page novel in verse, Summer Time Ends.
At a mere 320 pages, Nigel Balchin’s Lord, I Was Afraid is unreadable not because of length but because of sheer oddity. It is a 320 page play. Balchin’s publisher, Collins, waved off most potential readers with this fly-leaf warning:
This is not a Nigel Balchin novel in the ordinary sense. In fact it cannot be described technically as a novel at all. The subject is one on which the author has meditated and worked for ten years—the subject of his own generation, its nature, its faults, virtues, and direction if any. To say what he has to say Mr. Balchin has composed a kind of super-play, using the devices of the theatre on a scale that transcends the possibilities of any theatre.
Although Balchin provides stage directions and scene-settings along with his dialogue, he certainly never expected any director to follow them. Otherwise, he would have asked set designers to mimic everything from train stations and air raid shelters to mass rallies and the summit of Mount Ararat just before the next great flood, in a production that would easily require a cast of a hundred or more and take something like ten hours to perform.
I picked up my copy of Lord, I Was Afraid at the Strand Book Store while in New York City some years ago. Balchin’s name was, of course, familiar to me–his novels such as The Small Back Room, Darkness Falls from the Air, A Way through the Wood, and Mine Own Executioner often pop up on lists of neglected books–but not this title. The price–$5.50–was so low that I bought the book without taking much notice of its contents. When I did, I thought, “Well, I’ll probably never read this,” and shelved it away in the basement.
When I came across it again while looking for something else recently, I felt my fascination stirring again and thought, “Well, what the hell? If I don’t read and post about this book, who else will?” And here we are.
Balchin’s title comes from Matthew Chapter 25, where Jesus tells the parable of the landowner who gave his servants money before leaving on a long trip–five talents to one, two talents to another, one talent to a third. When the man returns, the last servant says to him, “Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed; And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.”
Lord, I Was Afraid is, in a way, Balchin’s parable of his own generation, the one too young to fight in World War One and a bit older than the average man in uniform in World War Two. It was also an upper-middle-class generation: his boys went to public schools, his girls hovered in limbo–too wealthy to work, not wealthy enough to be independent of potential husbands or public opinion. As his core set of seven characters–four men and three women–sit atop Mount Ararat at the play’s end, Balchin passes judgment on his kind through the voice of Methuselah: “A race that cannot accept death, but merely refuses life. A race that carries snobbery so far that it prefers to die in its own company rather than to live in any other; and which carries conceit and self-esteem so far that it would rather make nothing than make a mistake.” Or, as the voice of one character’s conscience puts it earlier in the play, “The same old mistrust of everybody else, crowned by a complete mistrust of yourself.”
In his excellent essay on Balchin, “The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin”, Clive James described
Lord, I Was Afraid as “the kind of art-conscious, angst-ridden Forties novel that really belongs to the Thirties.” And in many ways, the strongest sections of the book are those set in the Thirties, when Balchin’s characters encounter the anger of organized labor and the unemployed (echoes of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier), the rise of Mosley-like British fascism, religious zealotry (including a scene with a talking burning bush), and the ennui of endless, pointless cocktail parties:
The guests of Sheila and Raymond Murray have extracted the pleasure from three hundred cigarettes, but have not troubled to take with them a thick, blue haze and loaded ash-trays. Of some ten pounds worth of alcohol there remains enough to dirty three dozen glasses; a slight smell; and a sticky patch on the rug where that inimitable droll Punch Hopkins has spilt a glass of Martini.
Our point in time-space is the point at which the room is no longer habitable but is inhabited; at which the desire to move is rather a desire to be still in another place; at which the desire to smoke is merely the desire not to smoke, and at which the present discomfort of being too hot can only be replaced by the prospective discomfort of being too cold.
Yet Balchin’s treatment of the war and its aftermath is also rich in fantastic imagination. He sets one scene with his leading characters in the role of Roman legionnaires bewildered by the behavior of the savages they encounter in their conquest of Briton. It’s streaked with anger and bitterness, as in the scene where propagandists from the Ministry of Defence give a slide-show talk to women in a munitions factory, showing them the results of their work (“We were unfortunately unable to photograph these–er–men until some time after one of this factory’s mines had exploded beneath them as they sat at a meal: But there is little doubt that they are Germans.” And there are moments of absurdist comedy, as in a scene where a zoo is set up in Hyde Park to allow American G.I.s to examine the British public in its native habitat–and vice versa.
Perhaps the funniest moment in the book is the opening scene of the play’s last act, “1947–(i.e., Onward),” set in a department store run by the now-ruling Labour Party and constrained by rationing, lowered expectations, and lingering destruction:
ANNE (entering the lift): Woollen dresses, please.
LIFT GIRL: Woolen dresses, silk dresses, addresses, redresses, third floor new building.
ANNE (making to get out): Oh, I’m sorry. Where is the new building?
LIFT GIRL: It isn’t built yet.
On the other hand, the writing becomes strident and monotonous in an over-long scene set as an episode of The Brains Trust radio program, in which a series of stereotypes (Business Man, Politician, Socialist, Priest, Artist) offer their views of how the world should work. As stilted as their visions sound, there is little that Balchin’s characters can offer as an alternative.
Which points to the artistic problem that undermines the ultimate power of Lord, I Was Afraid. As a Fascist tells one of Balchin’s characters in a scene from the Thirties, “You would have a world without wonder–without imagination–without glorious madness–without fury and noise and colour. And then you wonder why the world rejects you and turns to me.” Balchin and his characters reject all the various dogmas they encounter over the decades and Balchin rejects their lack of beliefs in turn–which leaves us in the end with … what? One by one, in the final scene, they plunge into the rising waters, in a futile attempt to swim to the Ark slowly disappearing on the horizon. Nihilism is perhaps the weakest of all foundations to build a work of art upon.