David Gascoyne: April
In his notebooks, David Gascoyne says that he planned to write various novels but he only actually wrote two. The first he wrote when he was sixteen. This was the second, written when he was twenty-one. Despite living to the age of seventy-five, he never wrote another one. Even this one was long thought lost. We know about the genesis of the novel from his notebooks. He started writing it in March 1937 and finished it on 17 April 1937. Apparently, he then sent it to his publishers, Cobden-Sanderson, and then it disappeared. He does not seem to have been bothered about its disappearance. Indeed, he seems to have forgotten it and was very surprised when it was found in some of his old files in the British Library, sixty-two years later. It was originally to have been part of a collection of novellas called A Quiet Man. Apart from this one, it seems that none of the others were written. It was based on the idea that there were some people who had A shrinking from life, a desire to preserve peace and quiet at the cost of all vital experience… It’s another manifestation of the European death-impulse, to be detested, analysed, deplored. This novel seems to indicate that it is the English who were shrinking from life, while the French still had the vital experiences.
Judith Irwin is a young Englishwoman living in Paris with her mother. They had gone to Paris when Judith was five, as Mr. Irwin had a position at the British Embassy in Paris. Judith had grown up there and considered herself more or less French, not least because she spoke fluent French. However, one of her problems was she did not know where she fitted in. At school, she was always known as la jeune fille anglaise and did not mix with the French girls. However, when she went on holiday to England, to visit her cousins, she was considered French and did not fit in with the English. But now she lives with her mother, her father having died suddenly of a heart attack. Mrs. Irwin had decided to stay on in Paris, where she had lived for the previous fifteen years but, as her husband had left her little money, she had to get a smaller flat. Judith gets a job, teaching English at the British Institute at the Sorbonne.
The novel is really about the relationship between Judith and Frédéric Delauney. He comes from a well-to-do family and, like his father before him, he has gone to Paris to study law. Needing a better knowledge of English for some English law documents he needs to read, he attends Judith’s classes but, instead of learning English, he sits in the front row and gazes rapturously at her. He approaches her and takes her out for a coffee but it is soon clear that he is in love with her and not just in love with her but he has an amour fou for her. Judith is flattered, enjoys his company and is happy to be seen with him. But she is not in love with him, indeed, she has no idea what that means. In short, she shrinks from life, while Frédéric has the vital experience. This affects him badly. He becomes ill and though he is diagnosed with diabetes and takes insulin for it, we are clearly meant to believe that he is love-sick.
Gascoyne tells an affecting tale though it is clearly a young man’s tale, a tale written by someone in love with the idea of a passionate, life-consuming amour fou. If we take it as such and do not take it too seriously, it is a pleasant tale. It is sad that Gascoyne never wrote another novel after this.
First published 2000 by Enitharmon Press