Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Penguin no. 1960: A Use of Riches
by J.I.M. Stewart

Perhaps there was no need to distrust this feeling as much as he found himself doing. It might be called, in either of them, a biologically healthy response to their new situation. When anything firm comes unstuck, when the static turns fluid, when not the sun but a question-mark sails up over the horizon one day; then this undertone of excitement - distinguishably pleasurable even if what one largely faces is calamity - represents simply the knowledge that one isn't dead, that one has powers to call up and perhaps even quite surprising possibilities to explore.

And so I have left behind the cold, the novelty of travel, and days free of responsibilities spent searching for books, and returned to the warmth and the sunshine, but also the mundane (while coping with jetlag which for some reason is always so much worse in this direction). And the question which now greets me everywhere is: how many did you find? Well, somewhere between all those English post offices with their inconsistent procedures I lost track of the count and so I cannot be sure of the answer, except that it was many more than I expected to. It was all so unprecedented: a good day of searching in Perth might turn up five inexpensive old Penguins, whereas everywhere I went in England (and Amsterdam) I could easily find twenty or more, and at prices much much cheaper than I would ever find them here. So now a two month wait until all the books arrive, and as always, vague plans to do it all again.

A Use of Riches was the book I most wanted to find on this journey, and it turned out to be the least expensive one I found (for 25 pence! - it is simply inconceivable that any second hand book would ever cost so little over here.) Even though I have many unread books on my shelves written by J.I.M. Stewart, for he wrote prolificly as Michael Innes, it is his serious fiction I long to find and read. I usually enjoy the complex plots and frequent literary allusions of the crime novels, but I also find them variable in quality and so I hesitate in choosing them, and not one prepared me for the experience of reading The Last Tresilians, which he wrote under his own name.

A Use of Riches is a book best read unprepared. I would suggest that anyone contemplating reading it should avoid any reviews or discussions, including this one. The narrative is initially confusing: it follows the reflections of the banker and art collector Rupert Craine as he walks through the destroyed streets behind St Paul's on the way to his lawyer's office, and like any thoughts his are dynamic rather than linear, influenced by all he observes. In this way the reader is given the background to the story which will be told, but it is a picture painted with the broadest strokes. And then on page 66 an unexpected and shocking revelation brings everything suddenly into focus.

The illustration on the cover of this Penguin edition shows Rupert's two stepsons observing a father they have never known, a man believed killed in the war but now revealed to be alive, living in Italy, and blind. The story is a variation on the plot of Enoch Arden, told from the perspective of Rupert, the second husband, watching as his wife chooses to return to her first husband John Arnander, a man who was unreliable and unsatisfactory, a self-obsessed philanderer, but also an artist of genius. She had been his unhappy muse.

And it is in this decision that there is an allusion to the idea, expressed in sermons and parables, and in Pope's Epistle, of the appropriate use of riches being for the benefit of God or mankind. The riches here are not just wealth; they include happiness, stability, conventionality. Rupert endures the loss of his wife and the break-up of his family; she endures the loss of a stable family life and contact with her youngest children; together they arrange for the medical treatment of Arnander's blindness and the restoration of his sight, all in the hope that it will benefit Art, and through Art mankind. Inspiration is in the image of the donor in medieval painting.

In an interesting post discussing some of the references, Azalea expresses dismay at the resolution of the story, and yet to me it seemed essential: a question of completeness rather than believability. For this is a story set in a contemporary post-war world, but taking its imagery from medieval Italian art. And so along with its references to Lazarus and to rebirth, and to purgatory and Paradise, it ends with the linked concepts of judgement and fire.

It is an enjoyable novel, with interesting characters, though it never reaches the level of The Last Tresilians. And once again it was the unusual and comprehensive way in which ideas were considered and expressed which I most enjoyed.

By the same author:

(as Michael Innes:)
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

(as J.I.M. Stewart:)
Penguin no. 2533: The Last Tresilians

1 comment:

  1. I'm just so glad you like Stewart/Innes — I live in Southern California and am reading all (many!) inherited from my parents and all others I can find — many (most!) are penguins — love your blog (and your shelf!)



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