About sixty-five years ago Europe reached what may be called its nadir but which, in reality, was a lack of faith in itself. The reasons for such disappointment are obvious and need not concern us; what should gain our attention, however, is how art reacted to proclamations of the death of human feeling. If you bother to read this poet you may understand the fears that hastened his end, although for his defamation of the German language we will never forgive him. Other writers, who shall be thankful for anonymity on these pages, produced opportunistic treatises on mankind and its failings. And a certain segment, centered in France and headed by this writer, decided a return to the most basic of literary plots was the thrust that might restore our faith in art's grandeur (that they termed their movement the "new novel" is not devoid of irony). What is the most basic of literary plots? The mystery, of course. And how are we to take mysteries if not as a guilty pleasure? As perfectly serious works of art, that's how. In this setting, albeit written with forty years of wise hindsight, emerges this superb novel.
Our year in 1949, our narrator is the fiendish Sir Hugo Coal, and our location is Coal's ancestral home, Crook Manor. Coal is a simple snob, an aspiring scientist, and an unabashed alcoholic. Although the family motto may be nil desperandum, Coal twists all his perceptions to do just that, boasting and fretting to no end about his career, his household, and his sanity. How does he find the time to unearth such concerns? Due to a hideous accident, Sir Hugo has for some months now been vegetating and motionless in a wheelchair, and the accident involves (he assures us) his newly hired butler Fledge. Fledge is targeted early on, not only as the perpetrator of Coal's paraplegia but also as the usurper of his entire existence. Coal's self-imposed task is to compose a memoir on his healthy days as an indictment of his manservant. His first entry into Crook accompanied by his skinny, equally alcoholic wife and fellow servant sets the tone for the confrontation:
Fledge himself is difficult to describe. Indeterminacy clings to the man like a mist. He has for so long concealed his true feelings that whatever core of real self yet glows within him, it is invisible to the naked eye. He is neat, of course, in fact he is impeccable, as befits a butler. Slim, slightly over medium height, with reddish-brown hair oiled back at a sleek angle from a peak dead in the middle of his forehead, he could be anything; but the presence at his side of Mrs. Fledge – Doris – situates and defines the man. For Doris is unmistakably a servant. As tall as her husband (and thus a clear head taller than me), thin as a rake, with a sharp, pinched face and black hair scraped back off her forehead and threaded with iron-gray wires, her being is indelibly stamped with the mark of domestic toil. Her nose is prominent and beaky, and her eyes are very dark, iris and pupil both so black they seem fused in a single orb with the merest pinprick of light dead in the center. Those black eyes lend her face a rather opaque, birdlike quality, and though the simplicity of the woman's nature very soon becomes apparent, at first sight she gives the appearance of a large crow, an unblinking alien to human affairs, a corvine transmigrated into woman's form. Only the tip of her nose, enlivened by a network of tiny broken blood vessels, lends color and humanity to her face. And thus they presented themselves, the ghoul and the crow, and then they were over the threshold and under my roof.
Our modern sensibilities dictate that most if not all of a story's loose ends be tied; in other words, we need to know what a work thinks of itself. Something will occur with the Fledges – indeed, in a way, this is the novel's primary event – that is never clarified in full, in as much as clarification could not be derived from languid hinting. Coal thinks the taciturn butler his enemy and is greatly suspicious of the Fledges' having arrived from Africa without any letters of recommendation from their prior employer. An employer who also happened to have been crushed to death by an ox – but here we drift into fruitless speculation.
Apart from whisky, Coal's other abiding interest lies, literally and figuratively, in the bones he keeps in his estate's barn. These comprise the reassembled skeleton of a dinosaur that he, an amateur paleontologist, plans on presenting as the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. As his ideas, first put forth by this evolutionary theorist (also an autodidact), could not be any more radical given the conservative nature of his field, he foresees the rest of his life – he is no believer in much else – basking in eternal glory:
I paced up and down, reciting my revolutionary thesis on the taxonomic classification of the dinosaur and reveling, I admit, in my imagination, in the storm of applause and controversy I expected to arouse. I expected, frankly, soon to be dominating the discourse of natural history – or at least its paleontological strand – I, the gentleman naturalist, the amateur!
That the beast in question has been christened Phlegmosaurus carbonensis is all you need to know. Alas, his expected watershed panel discussion in London is only attended by four people including his elder daughter and grandson. This predictable pratfall acts as the clothesline for sidelights and anecdotes about fornicating Fledge and dipsomaniac Doris, including a wet dream that arouses long lost lusts in the lord of the manor, who has not slept in the same manor wing as the lady for almost twenty-five years. Yet plump and quite unstately Lady Harriet has a daughter of eighteen, Cleo, whom Coal proudly identifies as a "true Coal" – which means that she might be well-nigh deranged. There is also the small matter of Cleo's impecunious fiancé Sidney, who goes wandering off towards the moor one dark and stormy night – never, of course, to return.
It is perhaps ironic that the real restorer of the bird-dinosaur link died of dementia since Sir Hugo, deemed "ontologically dead" by the majority of London neurologists, betrays hints of incipient, well, something or other. What could be troubling Hugo? His African adventures with a very shady fellow named George who just so happens to resemble a soldier of fortune? The prods and pokes of Sidney's surprisingly old mother who does not believe that his disappearance will yield good tidings? Perhaps the best summation of Coal's conscience is a dreadful shock he incurs on the moor:
So one afternoon I set off with a flask of whisky and a stout stick, and after tramping down a soggy cart track between thick growths of birch and alder I found myself beneath a vast gray sky with miles of flat, boggy fen before me and a lake in the distance .... It was when I had settled myself on a hummock of dry bracken close to the edge of the lake, and was casting my eye idly over the gray, wind-furrowed water, that I noticed a bulky horned object half-submerged in a bed of reeds close by. I splashed forward through the shallows to investigate, and discovered to my astonishment that it was a dead cow. I poked at it with my walking stick, then with the crook of my stick I hooked its horn and dragged it further into the shallows, and as I did so I caused the head to rise and water poured from its empty eye sockets as through from a fountain. Then the great body began to turn, began to go belly-up, and suddenly a foul, nauseating stench was released into the air and a pike, a big one, four feet long, slid out of the cow's belly and gazed at me for an instant, its gills quietly lapping, before gliding away into the depths of the lake.
There is always such a scene in McGrath, the finest English-language writer alive today, and the scene invariably suggests that evil's undercurrent enjoys a whirlpool's endless reflections. Doris has some affinities with that old dinosaur that bears Coal's name – as does, in a way, the lanky and rapturous Fledge – although no one could possibly believe Coal's theories about their dispositions. And after all, isn't the test of a scientist whether he has any followers?