Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Penguin no. 2533: The Last Tresilians
by J.I.M. Stewart

He saw that two people falling in love might be falling in love with somebody who wasn't really there. Ever so neatly as you collared the ball when it came to you, it might be no more than a phantom ball that you carried triumphantly up the field. When they said love was a tragic thing they didn't necessarily mean deserted queens in caves or heroes compelled to seek another shore. They meant that it had its birth in illusion, and disenchantment as its end.

If it had occurred to me to establish a list like Simon from Stuck in a Book of the 50 books you must read but may not have heard of, then this would be the book heading it. It is a long time since I have read anything that captured my attention as this book did, and I am simply stunned that it seems to be completely forgotten. I feel as if I have mined my collection of Penguins and unearthed a rare treasure, as if what is perhaps an unusually constrained way of choosing what to read has been personally vindicated. How can there only be 11 copies listed on LibraryThing, and no reviews anywhere on the web? This is an exceptional  book which deserved a different fate.

 J.I.M Stewart wrote detective fiction under the pseudonym Michael Innes. And this too is a mystery novel, as intricately plotted as any of the Michael Innes' books but with the characters much more fully developed. However here the mystery is an intellectual one, and its solution is uncovered through research by an academic. The eminent English abstract artist Matthew Tresilian, hovering on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Set, had enjoyed a successful career as the painter of interesting pictures with a sense of fluidity, an illusion of movement. But in his final years he produced a series of paintings which were exceptional, and very unlike those he had painted before. They are disturbing, hinting at some darkness, sharply focused on the edges with an illusion of invisibility at the centre.These are the last Tresilians of the title, and they have the young and enthusiastic American professor Thayne Delver intrigued.

But Delver is interested in more than just these paintings. He's in England to pursue the hunch that Matthew Tresilian had other talents. His research interests are in the interrelations of the arts, and he hopes to find that Tresilian was also a writer, and to unearth any remaining letters and notebooks, and bring them to publication. He is undaunted by the lack of any evidence, he simply feels certain that he is right. He is carried forward by his buoyant American spirit, which is sharply contrasted with the reserve and conservatism typical of the British. And he is right. But it slowly dawns on him that he has uncovered something appalling, with terrible consequences for the other last Tresilians, the artist's surviving children. The subsequent events have a momentum of their own, and much of the tension and suspense in the novel comes from a sense of impotence, as nothing can be done to shield these Tresilians from the consequences of his discoveries.

But this is only the smallest part of what this book is about. It is such a rich novel: it provides a lesson in the analysis and interpretation of painting, explores the appeal of the modern art, exposes the small-mindedness and ruthlessness of University politics, reflects on  morality and its relationship with art, and explores the concept of illusion generally in many forms: in art, in dreams, in relationships, in self-perception, in what you can reasonably know about the world. It is not a book to be read passively, it demands something of the reader: he is arguing a case about art and its purpose and its interpretation. And he is revealing his understanding of the world: why things happen the way they do and how people are manipulated

And the writing: time and again I would find myself marveling at the mind that was capable of producing this book, and at the subtle and creative ways in which ideas were expressed. Even without the story, the characterisations, and the lessons on the interpretation of art, this book would be worth reading for the beauty of the prose alone, and right now I want nothing other than to continue reading more of it. Unfortunately , this seems to be the only Stewart I own, so I'll have to settle for Michael Innes. Fortunately two of his books arrived in the mail today.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1299: Stop Press
Penguin no. 1577: Appleby on Ararat
Penguin no. 1578: The Weight of the Evidence
Penguin no. 1640: Hamlet, revenge!
Penguin no. C2201: Hare Sitting Up

Reviewed elsewhere:
Clothes in Books (first post)
Clothes in Books (second post)


  1. Wow, this sounds great. I had heard of Michael Innes but didn't realise it was a pseudonym.

  2. I can't believe it took me 2,533 penguins to find this great blog! Nice work!

  3. Hi Joanne, the Michael Innes' books are fine, though perhaps a little exaggerated for my taste, but this book written in his own name seemed to me in a league of its own.

    And thanks Eric, I'm glad you found it.

  4. Very interesting post. I too have written about both Stewart and Innes (if that doesn't sound too strange).

  5. Hi Guy,

    I read your post on J.I.M. Stewart and I saw that you were disappointed by the books you read. I wonder how you would have found this book; it would be wonderful if you were able to find it and we could compare notes.

    I have read four of the Michael Innes' books which probably isn't sufficient to be drawing any conclusions, but I have been struck by how different from each other they are. Perhaps it is the same when he writes his more serious fiction.

    I enjoy the novels of C.P. Snow, but this book is nothing like them. I would repeatedly marvel at the way J.I.M. Stewart expressed an idea; I have never done that with C.P. Snow.

    And thanks for visiting my blog.

  6. My copy of this novel is one of the 11 on Library Thing, and I agree completely with your assessment. It is a masterpiece, and I can only explain its complete obscurity by the fact that its ideas were too complex and too abstract, perhaps, for what the public and the critics usually expect. Stewart was an extremely modest man, but I think the lack of recognition he got is a tragedy. Many of his subsequent novels never even made it to paperback.

    Thank you for your blog which I've just discovered. It's a very clever idea to give links to further books with every review - I haven't been able to stop reading since yesterday.

  7. Hi Polecat,

    Thank you for commenting. I am delighted to hear from someone who has read this book, and enjoyed it. Since reading it I have come across a few negative reviews of the fiction he published under his own name, including this idea that he was heavily influenced by C.P. Snow, and it is just so difficult to reconcile with the experience of reading this book. Have you read any of his others?

  8. Hi Karyn,

    I've read many by Michael Innes, but so far only one other 'straight' Stewart novel, his first, 'Mark Lambert's Supper'. I was less impressed than with 'The Last Tresilians' - and, speaking of influences, I would say Henry James is the much more obvious one, and much likelier, given Stewart's classical, rather than modern, background. I felt 'Mark Lambert' was definitely from a Jamesian phase, and a bit heavy going. There is one very interesting plot parallel there with 'Tresilians' which may be a spoiler, so I won't reveal it.

    Snow, with his 'two cultures' idea, seems to me a much more straightforward - or, dare I say it, limited - writer. If anything, I think, Stewart is a fine specimen of the earlier 'single culture' period, almost a Renaissance man, compared to Snow who is a sometimes painful illustration of how impossible it is to cross the gap from physicist to artist if you're just not one. In terms of mastery of language, there is no comparison between the two, I feel.

    As you can guess, I am not a big fan of Snow (although a huge fan of his wife!). Or, to modify that statement, I think Snow is fine when he is writing on science - his preface to his mentor G. H. Hardy's mathematical autobiography is excellent.

    I am planning to read more of Stewart in the near future (I am currently, coincidentally, on a big Michael Innes binge). But I think only two more of his books are in Penguin: 'A Use of Riches' and 'The Man Who Won the Pools'.

    Oh, and, by the way, I dedicated a web site to Michael Innes, which I haven't updated for a long time, but there's some curious stuff there, including some critical responses, and, if you're interested, my own brief essay on Stewart the man. Here it is: http://polecat.film.ru/innes/bio.htm

  9. Hi Polecat,

    Thank you for the link to your page: I am slowly working my way through it. Are you planning to update your personal ratings as you read through the books? I see you loved Hamlet, Revenge!, and I understand why, and I will be looking out for Stop Press from now on, based on your recommendation.

    I was very interested in your analysis of the quality of the books, and the fact that the first three were superior to those that followed, with the ones written during the war weaker than the others. Having only read four I am in no position to offer an opinion, but I have noted how the ones I have read are very variable in quality, and Appleby on Ararat, which was one of the war stories, has been the only one I have actually disliked. Having said that, I received a sarcastic anonymous comment today, which I chose not to publish, praising the book and mocking me for my dislike of it, so I am aware that there are readers of Michael Innes who do not share this view.

  10. Hi Karyn,

    Unfortunately, I have long since lost the password for accessing the website to update it, so unless I undertake the effort of moving it to another server, there won't be any more updates. If you like, you can keep track of my ratings on my Library Thing page (same nickname as here), except you should bear in mind that some of those books I read 20 years ago and more. I have also been reviewing my latest reading in my Live Journal blog (nemuri_neko.livejournal.com), the last couple of Innes reviews are in English (and I'll probably keep on doing that). The reviews may be a bit idiosyncratic, though.

    'Appleby on Ararat' had me completely baffled on first discovery, and I couldn't finish it. I'll give it another try one of these days.

  11. I missed this the first time around, so pleased to find the link after you contributed to Kim's best-of list. It sounds wonderful and compelling - at the moment I can't read anything with academics in, as it makes me too nervous, but I'll bookmark this for when I finish studying!

    1. And yesterday I found it in a bookshop in Clevedon, Somerset! They had lots of Penguins, including two others by J.I.M. Stewart.

  12. Nice to see you again Karyn ... fascinating choice. Had no idea Michael Innes was a pseudonym. This book sounds interesting --- for its setting (university, art etc) for a start!

  13. Very interested to find this site. I've been a huge fan of Michael Innes since about 1970 when I first read one of his books, some of which I've read many times. I've read many of his "straight novels" but never thought they were very good. After this review of "Tresilians" which I don't think I've ever read, I'm going to have to get my hands on a copy.

    His survey "Eight Modern Writers" was enjoyable, and I recently reread his memoir "J.I.M. Stewart and Me," a modest and restrained account of his life, yet containing a few revealing bits.

    In the eighties I wrote him a fan letter, which he answered with a kind postcard.

    I consider his masterpiece to be"Appleby's End", far and away his best book but certainly as far as anyone could get from Ellery Queen.

    I think what makes him exceptional is the combination of great intelligence and great learning with a wild imagination and even wilder sense of humor. Of course he has his weaknesses as well, obscure vocabulary, Jamesian convolution, uneven quality.



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