David Gascoyne: Opening Day
Didn’t the pure intellectualist lose much by refusing to see nasturtiums growing in a tin bath, by refusing to listen to either Beethoven or Debussy, by refusing to love man or woman, ‘because love is merely the ability of two people to be beasts together’?
I am fairly certain that this is the youngest author on this site, at the time of writing the book. Gascoyne was just sixteen when he wrote it and, while that makes him substantially older than Daisy Ashford when she wrote The Young Visiters, it is still young to be publishing a novel. However, while it certainly reads like a young man’s novel, you would never know he was only sixteen. It shows a certain maturity and considerable poetic talent, written by a young man who seems confident in his writing. As the quote above shows, it is a novel by a poet, a man who feels things, rather than a man with a story to tell. And it is this sensuousness, this feeling for what he sees and feels, that make this novel a worthwhile novel, which really should be rediscovered.
The story tells of a day in the life of Leon Brinson, a young man on the brink of adulthood and eager to start a career as a writer. (Leon is the palindrome of Noel, Gascoyne’s father name.) Leon lives with his father and the housekeeper, Mrs. Hutton. He hates both of them, as he makes very clear early on. His mother, whom he loved dearly, died giving birth to his sister, who died soon afterwards. We later learn that it was highly likely that the father of the girl was not Mr. Brinson but Philip Delaney, a man who came to”look after” Mrs. Brinson, when Mr. Brinson was absent on one of his long business trips and whom Philip knew as Uncle Philip. The family initially lived in Bournemouth but later moved to the New Forest. However, after Mrs. Brinson’s death, Philip was sent to boarding school and his father moved to Richmond, in the London suburbs, where they now live. Philip has had to leave school, as he failed his exams – he just wasn’t interested in them – and is now awaiting an office job, probably in his father’s office, something he is not looking forward to. Much of his time is spent in memories, reflections and imaginings, though he does read and write. We learn what he reads – Rimbaud, Walter de la Mare and Arthur Machen, while, in art, he likes van Gogh and Beardsley and, in music, Debussy. At school, he had read, dreamed, had a brief homosexual relationship with Hugh Ashbourne but, as now, did not seem to have fitted in.
His day starts and ends with venom for Mrs. Hutton. She fawns over him when his father is present but, otherwise, is most unpleasant to him, badly preparing his breakfast. He decided to go to the library and Gascoyne give us a detailed account of his bus journey or, more particularly, of his observations from the bus – the Exiles Club (who was exiled? he wonders), the dentist (regarded with distaste), the design of houses and gardens, the carelessly kept shops. His first choice is a book on modern Russian composers but he also chooses a Machen and A Room of One’s Own. Back home there is more venom from Mrs. Hutton and he finally loses his temper with her and insults her. She retorts by telling him that she is about to be his stepmother, which makes him even more angry, so he starts out on another journey, this time to visit his Aunt Sue (his mother’s sister) who works in a publishing office in Bloomsbury. Again we get a poetic account of the journey, this time by bus and train, where he meets a lady he calls (to himself) Miss Bubble, who has taken the wrong train. On the journey from Waterloo station to Aunt Sue’s, we get some slightly surrealist images. There is a man in the tube carrying a watering can, who attracts his attention. He also sees an an image of public lavatories, surmounted by a pedestal on which squatted a draped Victorian virgin marble holding in her hand a box, or a book or a roll of parchment.
Things are better at Aunt Sue’s. When she learns of his fight with Mrs. Hutton and the impending marriage of her brother-in-law, she offers Leon a room in her flat, which he gladly accepts. He is very much taken with the small room she offers him and is worried only that his father might not allow his move. On his journey home he imagines the disagreements and, when he is summoned to his father to account for his behaviour towards Mrs. Hutton, there is, sure enough, a nasty fight, exacerbated by his casual announcement of his imminent departure. However, that night, he packs and, while packing, decides to write a novel about his day, in other words to write the novel we are reading, only this one will be called Study in the Third Person Singular. Sadly, things don’t quite work out.
This is, of course, a young man’s novel, the story of a young man who is a dreamer, who wants to be a writer, who misses his mother, who wants to escape his tyrannical but distant father and his imminent stepmother. But it is also a poetical novel, as the young man sees things with a poet’s eyes, not with the eyes of an office worker. As such, it reads very well, and, for a sixteen year old, is certainly a fine achievement though it does show clear influences of Dorothy Richardson. It is a pity that Gascoyne focused only on poetry and would produce only one further novel in his long life. It is also a pity that this book has long since been out of print and is very difficult to get hold of.
First published 1933 by Cobden-Sanderson