Barbara Comyns is always being compared to writers X, Y or Z “on acid.” The acid part is a cop-out; her voice is clear and direct, even when describing surreal or hyperreal situations, and her crisp descriptions are not kaleidoscopic or druggy in the least. The comparisons to other writers, apt or not, are never a list of her formative influences; she didn’t have any.
Comyns was born in 1909 in a big house on the Avon, fourth of the six children of a drunk father and an indifferent mother. The family managed to be aristocratic and poor at once, but like many aristocrats they became increasingly poor as the 20th century wore on. Third-rate governesses came and went sporadically, none making much of an impact. Sheltered thus from any received ideas about literature, Comyns wrote and illustrated stories constantly.
Her father died when Comyns was in her late teens; the big crumbling house was sold to pay his massive debts. She went to art school in London where, for the first time, she discovered public libraries. “[I] read until I was almost drunk on books, but my own writing became imitative and self-conscious. In the end, with great strength of mind, I destroyed all the stories and half-written novels I’d written over the years,” Comyns wrote near the end of her life.
Her first novel, Sisters by a River, a barely fictionalized account of her strange childhood, wasn’t written until ten years later. She conceived of it mostly as an amusement for her own children. She was at that point living outside London, working as a cook on a country estate to escape the Blitz.
“It was in the middle of a snowstorm I was born, Palmer’s brother’s wedding night, Palmer went to the wedding and got snowbound, and when he arrived very late in the morning he had to bury my packing under the walnut tree, he always had to do this when we were born — six times in all and none of us died, Mary said Granny used to give us manna to eat and that’s why we didn’t, but manna is stuff in the bible, perhaps they have it in Fortnum & Mason, but I’ve never seen it, or maybe Jews’ shops.” That is the book’s first sentence and paragraph.
The way Comyns delivers information seems scattershot, but the questions it raises addict the reader. Who is Palmer, who is Mary, and who is this narrator who imagines that you can buy manna in a jar? “One of our butler’s duties was to bury the placenta after each of my mother’s children were born” wouldn’t have anything like the same effect.
Comyn’s voice has childlike qualities; she looks at everything in the world as though seeing it for the first time. In later books, though, her narrators’ naivety is deployed in order to provoke horror; the gap between what the reader knows and the narrator doesn’t serves to make the reader fascinated and fearful. Often the reader is horrified and amused simultaneously: “I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come. I thought that was what was meant by birth-control, but by this time I knew that idea was quite wrong,” the narrator of Our Spoons Came From Woolworths confesses to the reader. At this point in the novel she is pregnant, 21 and married to an artist who has no interest in supporting her or a child. This novel, a lightly fictionalized account of Comyns’ first marriage and early years in London, contains casually grotesque descriptions of the dawn of medicalized childbirth and the grisly death of an infant, in between a lot of whimsical descriptions of pets and furniture.
There are always lots of pets around in Comyns’ stories. She loved animals but wasn’t sentimental about them; in her books they tend to symbolize happiness, luck and hope, which is often dashed. Sisters by a River is full of dead pigs floating down the Avon, drowned kittens and angora rabbits getting their legs chewed off by dogs. The doomed marriage at the outset of Our Spoons is inaugurated by a chorus of birdsong: “I saw all up in the roof there were masses of little birds, all singing and chirping in the most delightful manner, I felt so glad we hadn’t paid extra for the beastly organ and hoped so much we would make a success of our marriage after the birds being so nice about it.” (They didn’t.)
The Vet’s Daughter is Comyns’ least autobiographical, though its heroine retains Comyns’ eye for bizarre and otherworldly detail. Alice Rowlands is the titular daughter; her father abuses both the animals in his care and his wife. The latter quickly dies and is replaced by an evil ersatz-stepmother. Alice can only escape her wretched life by developing magical powers, but when her cruel relatives discover her abilities they try to exploit them for profit. This ends badly for everyone.
The onset of Alice’s powers is at first indistinguishable from the onset of madness; one of the novel’s most vivid scenes combines the quotidian and the supernatural seamlessly as Alice’s gorgeous visions transport her from her grim reality.
“It was Sunday morning, and old people passed me like sad grey waves on their way to church. The streets smelt of roasting meat cooked by mothers; and the pavement was wet, with crushed brown leaves upon it,” Alice reports, then describes standing in her kitchen cooking her terrible father and his consort a meal of boiled beef and being overcome by steam, which resolves itself into fantastical shapes.
“The dumplings swelled up huge and danced in the boiling gravy, and the kitchen was filled with steam. Water poured down the windows like rain inside out. I began to think I could hear water pouring and falling. Then I thought I could see it, and it was as if floods had come, and everywhere there was water very grey and silvery, and I seemed to be floating above it. I came to a mountain made of very dark water but when I reached the top it was a water garden where everything sparkled. Although the water was rushing very fast, it always stayed in the same beautiful shapes, and there were fountains and trees and flowers all shimmering as if made of moving ice. It was so unbelievably beautiful I felt how privileged I was to see it. Then the birds came, enormous birds slowly flying, and they were made of water, too. Sometimes clouds covered them, but they would appear again, very proud and heavy, and each keeping to his appointed route.”
The reader emerges from a book like The Vet’s Daughter refreshed but crippled; contemporary novels, with their over-deliberate virtuosity and self-referential tricks, are unreadable for a time. Ordinary experience, however, is overlaid with a degree of dazzle. Like Alice Rowlands dreaming in her steamy kitchen, we feel how privileged we are to glimpse Comyns’ visions.
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“The Smartest Thing She Ever Said” is a Tumblr based digital storytelling art project featuring four teams of two-one artist and one story editor-between now and the end of the year. The teams were asked to interpret the phrase “The Smartest Thing She’s Ever Said.” ArtSheSaid.com and its artists are entirely supported by Ann Taylor in collaboration with Flavorpill.