Jocelyn Brooke’s ‘Drawn Sword’ — An English ‘Death in Venice’?

jocelyn brookeI was reading Jocelyn Brooke during a period of thinking again about an old love, the German genius Thomas Mann. Thomas MannBrooke is a serious-minded English writer from the mid twentieth century. He was a fine stylist, and with that went a problem many minor writers suffer from. Brooke had plenty to say, but in fiction he couldn’t get beyond the autobiographical. A trilogy lightly fictionalizing his life was nevertheless acclaimed, and is usually seen as his greatest achievement. It first appeared just after the 1939-45 war that changed Brooke’s life. Before enlisting at the age of 31, he had been an upper middle-class young man with not much idea what to do with his life after public school and Oxford. The Royal Army Medical Corps was so much to his liking that he voluntarily rejoined the army after hostilities ended. But then peacetime changed the barrack-room ethos. So he bought himself out of the military and sat down to a prolific writing life. Starting in middle age he produced fifteen titles, including two volumes of poetry.

Probably his first fiction project after he rejoined civilian life was The Image of a Drawn Sword, and it told the strange story of what the army had meant to him. ‘Told’ though is not the word. This evocative, moody 140-page novella is incantatory, a gem of British Romantic modernism. Painters like Graham Sutherland and John Piper and Paul Nash, who variously combined a Continental-influenced Modernist aesthetic with a jagged-edged, reinvigorated Christianity and a Romantic sense of place, are better-known under that heading.

John Piper Christ between Sts Peter and Paul stained glass panel 1958

John Piper Christ between Sts Peter and Paul stained glass panel 1958

As a sensibility and a style Romantic Modernism is the quintessence of Brooke in this little masterpiece.

The richly poetic text conjures up the bewildering sexual passion suddenly gripping a solitary Englishman when an officer appears at his door.

Where Brooke lived from 1949 till his death, in the Kent village of Bishopsbourne, near Canterbury, England

Where Brooke lived from 1949 till his death, in the Kent village of Bishopsbourne, near Canterbury, England

With its handful of characters, a number of whom recur in mystifyingly different roles, and the tight concentration of the action in contrasting locations, it’s astonishing no has taken The Image of A Drawn Sword for an opera libretto. It has something in common with the Henry James story which Benjamin Britten so brilliantly turned into the opera Owen Wingrave. Both are stories of haunting homosexual loneliness and the fleeting possibility of consummation, at the cost of self-destruction. Love itself, but above all the physical act of love with another man resembles Faust’s pact with Mephistopheles, after which there is no turning back. The Image of a Drawn Sword doesn’t quite take that course, or perhaps it does. The outcome is ambiguous.41LT+6D9rTL._AA160_

I mentioned the term ‘Modernism’. The mid-century novelist Anthony Powell, not straying, on behalf of the ‘English Literature’ critical canon of his day over into the world of art critics,  in his 1983 introduction for the Penguin edition picked up the familiar connection with Kafka, at which Brooke himself had hinted. His alter ego in the novella was Reynard Langrish, and Langrish experienced the military as hypnotic and constantly puzzling. The ways of the army were disorienting and dreamlike; frightening and irresistible. The turbulent inner life of Langrish might indeed make you think of Josef K on trial for a crime he is unaware of having committed, and one possible ending is also that the experience is a death sentence. But Kafka’s world of subjective disorientation in The Trial (1925) is political, not sexual, and it happens in the cultural context of a real, recently Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy (the novel was written 1914-15) which is both comic and the stuff of nightmares.

Der Prozess (The Trial)  Cover of the German 1st edition

Der Prozess (The Trial) Cover of the German 1st edition

One imagines life in the British military had its organizational absurdities and that these could damage individuals who fell foul of them. But Drawn Sword‘s tension, what makes it a story, is not existential-political. It is psychological, between the threat of  personal ‘dissolution’ and the intense lure of sexual pleasure. Yes you could say that the struggle to hold on to an adequate sense of ‘who I am’ could never be bettered after Kafka. But it is his sexuality that undoes Langrish as it emerges out of a state of long repression. The military bureaucracy, though fundamental to his feeling that his identity is unravelling, is only an illustration of his confusion. And so the modern writer who comes to mind is the Thomas Mann who wrote Death in Venice, in 1912.

That novella also tells the story of a repressed man, older this time and eminent in public life, who is reduced to helplessness by a passion for a boy he sees on the beach. Even as the city is threatened by cholera Gustav von Aschenbach refuses, fatally, to leave. The atmosphere in Aschenbach’s head is likewise mythical, in this case beset by uncanny coincidences and portents, even as the real surroundings of Venice remain clearly recognizable. Britten of course made out of Death in Venice his fabulous last opera.

A scene from the first production of Brittens Death in Venice at Aldbrough 1973

A scene from the first production of Brittens Death in Venice at Aldbrough 1973, set design by Myfanwy Piper

Vintage cover of a German edition of Death in Venice

Vintage cover of a German edition of Death in Venice

Mann gave a particular German twist to his story of fatal homoerotic passion, lacing it with visions of Ancient Greece, mythological figures and philosophical discussion of love and beauty. The actual experience of the eighteenth-century Graecophile archeologist and aesthete Johann Winkelmann, murdered by a boy in Trieste, just a short journey north along the Adriatic coast, cannot have been far from his mind.

Brooke’s novella has a similarly rich and period Englishness. Langrish, educated and reticent, always correctly dressed, lives with his mother in a village in the country which has its pub and church and its charming, rolling green lanscape. All along the lanes and through the woods where he wanders, Langrish (whose name seems to suggest ‘languor’) knows the botanical names of the flowers. Employed as a bank clerk in a nearby town he leads a careful, punctual, comfortable existence which strands him as a man in an inner nowhereland. The story opens as he suddenly feels a dread at going home. The land round about,  takes on an unreal aspect. Remembering that his family have been landowners for centuries just about helps to hold his personal identity together, but then Roy Archer knocks at the door, apparently lost. Later that same evening Captain Archer takes Langrish to watcha regimental boxing match and there begins a process of mysterious and impersonal seduction that draws Langrish away from the maternal hearth, and the boring job, into a realm that can only destroy him but feels like love.  The second chapter, in which Archer first appears, presents him as somehow bathed in light. Langrish, who has been foxy, like his first name, perhaps in covering up from himself his sexual needs, is overwhelmed by tenderness and adoration. The army experience, which Archer seems to demand of him, plunges the refined Langrish into the close physical comradeship of other less inhibited men. It is like an ordeal he must pass through in order to test his love for Archer. In the sustained hypnotic atmosphere, despite the realistic detail, of the village, of the bank, of his mother’s house,  of the local paths he likes to walk, the two men seem both to meet and not to meet. Often Archer denies he is the man, or ignores Langrish. Other figures, who may be tramp and a boxer respectively, reappear as military personnel, all of them tatooed with ‘the image of the drawn sword’ which Langrish has now also acquired. Having become an initiate, for Archer’s sake, he finds himself in a menacing environment which has either not heard of Archer or regards him as its guardian angel and unassailable commander, not to be troubled with petty complains. The cause in which Langrish has been forcibly enlisted is never made clear and eventually for asking questions he faces the death sentence.

The devastating finale takes him back to his mother’s house and a final meeting with Archer.

This is really one of the finest works of twentieth-century English literature I’ve read for a long time. I’d just say that on the theme of gay love it finally moves in an opposite direction from Thomas Mann’s Venice story. Aschenbach is overwhelmed by a carnality he has denied all his life, and sinks into physical sickliness and death. The implication is that the German culture based on the high-minded idealization of the classical world, Winkelmann’s ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur’ was always a cover-up for lesser impulses and feelings. But Brooke’s English journeyman of the spirit, albeit repressed and gay, is moving here towards a Platonic light. Langrish believes in his Ideal Love, and, depending on how you read the end, he is bound to lay down his life because what that Ideal Man stood for, who came to the door and asked something from him. As I say, the same jagged revitalised Christianity of the 1940s as infused a new generation of English Romantic painters (shortly to decorate our postwar cathedrals) also seemed to sustain Brooke.

He was only 58 when he died, in 1966.

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