ronald firbank: novelty and complexity


In the post-war books that Firbank wrote and set abroad, things are rather different. In them the death of England, the imaginative liberation from English custom, indifference, cliché and hypocrisy, is engineered and celebrated in a very personal and defiant fashion. His own gay presence, as observer and admirer of young men, is unignorably strong. One of the concomitants of this change of setting and view is a change in manner, a more conventional handling of narrative, a clearing of texture. He becomes much less difficult. The books are still extraordinary: The Flower Beneath the Foot (1923), a hauntingly funny fantasy of court intrigue in which the jilting and heartbreak of a young woman culminates in a harrowing tragic ending; Sorrow in Sunlight, the following year, Firbank’s shortest, quickest and most brilliant novel, set on an imaginary Caribbean island, and his first to be published in the United States, just as it was the first he was actually paid for; and Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli, his most involved approach to a self-portrait, rejected by his enterprising new American publishers “on moral grounds”, and published, by Grant Richards again, six weeks after Firbank’s death. These books are all masterpieces, and in any full celebration of Firbank they would be the crown. But I have chosen to concentrate on that earlier mysterious period when Arthur Firbank emerged as Ronald Firbank, in his unprecedented novelty and complexity.

more from the TLS here.