The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West
Old book reviews are amazing: their analysis is so thin and they more or less refuse to explain a book rather than to judge it. The New York Times review of The Fountain Overflows, Rebecca West’s 1957 novel, belongs in an anthology of Pompous, Platitudinous, and Plain Wrong Reviews. Here is Orville Prescott — about who1 Gore Vidal once said, “since few people seriously interested in writing read him, he can neither harm nor help a literary reputation” — embarrassing himself in public.
It is a pleasant story enlivened by occasional splashes of verbal wit in general and particularly on life among the artistically gifted. But the world of Rose's memories is a fussily feminine one in which the few masculine characters wander about like mysterious strangers just landed from Mars. Papa, "always right when everybody else is wrong," is as handsome as Byron and as feckless as Mr. Micawber, charming and talented and dishonest and thoughtlessly cruel. The very model of an egoistic literary genius with several screws loose, Papa is so conventionally unconventional that he seems absurdly unreal. The women and girls in "The Fountain Overflows" are far more persuasively characterized and in them resides the principal interest of this novel.
Oh god doesn’t he sound tiresomely like a clever teenager trying to throw off bon mots? Later on he farts this out:
Reading about these people is never an absorbing occupation, but it is never a dull one either… She has enriched her book with many matters of almost historical interest. These will surprise her younger readers and leave her older readers afflicted with a rueful melancholy.
You have to wonder if he was giggling at himself as he wrote it. Most telling, apart from all this pro-forma space filler he could have knocked out on a lunch in between spurts of scratching in front of the television, is that he dismisses the occult parts of the novel as “oddly out of place in a novel so basically realistic.” No wonder Vidal said literature was “a category peculiarly mystifying to Prescott.”
(This sub-Lady Bracknell book review style is not at all uncommon. Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Bookshop was called a “nouvelle” in a Times Literary Supplement review that talked about “anguished women’s fiction.” Why is so much literary trash talk French?) So often, the best fiction reviews are written by funny people or expert amateurs. Bernard Levin is usually good value, for example. The Kirkus review ended their short notice with this jumble:
Not always easy reading. Occasionally polemics intervene to turn the story aside. But the end result is rewarding, as Rebecca West's sparkle redeems the erratic process of her tale. An important Fall headliner.
Easy to disagree with at least. The Times Literary Supplement paid her the compliment of a full page review, reviewing her career as a novelist so far, and giving long quotes to set the main points in context, without too much plot summary and practically no judgement. Every sentence is an education. It lays out the premises and dynamics of the novel, giving you a sense of the whole, without awkwardly leading up to cliff hangers and then jumping paragraphs as if the damage wasn’t already done. (Although it does give away some crucial information: strange how unacceptable this is for films and how expected it is for fiction.) A proper ending, however, couldn’t be managed: “a novel of much more than ordinary distinction and seriousness.” Well, sure, but this isn’t a twelve year old getting their school report.
The Fountain Overflows is about a high-minded Edwardian family, living in genteel poverty in south London, and the relationships among them and between them and their neighbours and relatives. The girls are desperate to grow up but also devoted to their exceptionally talented mother. It is a witty account of tragic things, and it plays out a story of demanding artistic excellence in a classic domestic novel. It’s autobiographical, has a strong theme of psychic and occult activity, and is written entirely from the perspective of a child (a grown child reminiscing. The theme is dedication — to art, principle, morals, class, family — and the cost we pay for that.
The dichotomy drawn between the world of music and the world of politics works best when Rose is taken to Parliament by her father. How many other novelists can write compelling, literary scenes with poltergeists and high political drama? It was the first novel West had written for twenty years, was part of a planned trilogy, and if literary standards were not so stubbornly against realism, naturalism, domestic writing, occultism, novels about women, and plenty else, it would perhaps be better rated. It is outstandingly good: you will be astonished you haven’t already discovered it: a quiet masterpiece of the twentieth century. The point of the occult sections is perhaps as an analogy to say that music is a pure, real realm only accessible to some people that has to be revealed or mediated for everyone else. As with this novel, the non-elect will only make themselves look silly when they try.
I don’t use “whom”. Most people who would say “To whom am I speaking?” also say “Who am I speaking to?” But if you really think it’s grammar to say “whom” then you ought to say, “Whom am I speaking to?” I’m not against that sort of thing. It can be a very quick way to learn something about a person. But we don’t do it here. Those of you who were mis-taught and think “whom” really is grammar should consider whether you would actually change “Who can I turn to?” into “Whom can I turn to?” or indeed, “To whom can I turn?” The explanation of all this is that “whom” is supposedly meant to be used as the object of a verb or preposition, but is often used only with fronted prepositions i.e. when the preposition like “to” is moved to the front of the sentence, hence the examples. Those of you still reading will enjoy more here and here. That second article has the wonderful example that must flaw even the strictest “whom” user. “There are situations where even these speakers might balk at whom: A says “I met someone fascinating yesterday”, B replies “Who?”, and probably not “Whom?”” (You can see on Google Ngram, by the way, that “whom” was never that popular to begin with.)
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