My novels have been appreciated, if not always enjoyed, more by critics than the reading public, which shows no sign of enjoying them at all...this must be partly due to my obsession with language and speculation at the expense of narrative, however much I relish narrative in others.
Thus did Peter Vansittart, with characteristic humility, sum up his literary career many years before it was over. The obituaries, after he died last month aged 88, seemed to agree. Or at least, all of the ones that I have read either quote or allude to the paragraph above. Perhaps this is evidence in itself of Vansittart's great skill – what could be better proof of a writer's talent than the fact that they were able to claim the last word on their life's work?
But this critical consensus might also be down to a certain degree of dumbfundity on the part of Vansittart's supporters at his strange lack of commercial success. The other constant in these obituaries was the number 3000; Vansittart's highest sales figure over a career that saw more than 50 published works. Usually, there's no reason for someone to be surprised that a book has 'only' sold three thousand copies in the English language. Indeed, that's rather good when put in context: the huge majority of books published sell less than one thousand copies and fiction sales tend to be especially low. What sets Vansittart apart from your average(ly) selling fiction writer, however, was that he was generally regarded as anything but average. On the back cover of his last book, Secret Protocols (on which I was lucky enough to work as a sales and marketing assistant), there were plaudits from the following writers and critics: Alan Massie, Nina Bawden, Nicholas Shakespeare, Martin Seymour Smith, Alan Hollinghurst, Angus Wilson, AS Byatt, John Carey, Barbara Trapido, Douglas Dunn, Peter Levi, Miranda Seymour, and Mary Renault. On the front cover was a quote from Sybille Bedford: "Let us celebrate Peter Vansittart as a literary treasure."
The list of high profile admirers can be extended indefinitely (and in theory would include the Queen, as he received an OBE last year). On one of the AI sheets (Advance Information sheets distributed to retailers and reviewers prior to a book's publication) I tried to include as many as possible; the font size got lower and lower until it disappeared into squinted redundancy. I was wisely counselled to be a bit more selective: "They'll get the point."
Surely the weight of the overwhelming critical acclaim would alone shame punters into dipping into their pockets - if only to see what the fuss was about? How could bookshops do otherwise than to stock, display and generally support "Britain's greatest living historical novelist"? Surely on the occasion of said novelist's "last book" (his assertion) he would be invited to festivals, events and the like? Surely, over the course of a career so highly rated he would have seen his best novels longlisted, shortlisted, even winning one or two of the major prizes that seem, now, to be the only available short-circuit to literary success? Somehow, it never really seemed to happen. Vansittart had to support himself with teaching, grants and the rents from a house that he, apparently (apocryphally?), acquired from a man in a pub.
Vansittart is held up as that most unfortunate of creatures in the literary bestiary: a "writers' writer." His work was too "high-brow", too "literary", too "difficult to read", too damn clever for this "McEwan and water" (a phrase stolen from an excellent review, by DJ Taylor, of Secret Protocols) world. I remember a telephone conversation with a very pleasant independent bookseller who had graciously agreed to stock Secret Protocols in the light of a couple of favourable reviews. She was very pleased, she told me, to have sold a copy to a regular customer, a retired English teacher.
"I said to him 'You're probably the only person I know clever enough to read this.'"
"No!" I wilted inside. Although I was grateful, in spite of the implication that the rest of the copies she had taken would sooner or later be returned, this is exactly the kind of thing that I feared booksellers and potential readers were saying to themselves and each other.
The perceived difficulty comes both from the writer's knowledge and his intellectual vigour; a single Vansittart paragraph will typically reference about half a dozen separate subjects, arguments, histories and miscellanies, and his distinctive style, which does not go in for descriptive context, forgoing as many articles as it possibly can:
In parodies of a heroic career, I was building a grandiose self: Malraux's confidante, Trilling's assistant, Spender's intimate and rival editor, BBC reliable, almost a new being like Soviet Man, American Youth.
The facts dowsed such mish-mash. Midsummer was approaching, but Destiny refused an appearance. I would receive no curtain calls from posterity, was no more prey to exile's disease: irrational hopes and fears. Alarm at a posse of ambulances ranked opposite the Embassy, vanishing as soundlessly as it arrived. Late-night trains rushing unscheduled through post- midnight London allegedly loaded with nuclear waste. Morbid expectations dripped into dreams, telescoping the years. Rats fled Stalingrad, as forewarned, at fire, earthquake, the voles and martens abandoned Helice, the island crushed by the sea, two millennia ago. My Midsummer Baldur, saviour and friend, princely, what Dutch called deftig, was as unlikely as Her Majesty tattooing on her thigh, "Ban the Bomb".
(Fairly randomly selected. The beginning of the sixth chapter of the second section of Secret Protocols)
Certainly with Vansittart there is always a lot to take in. But does that make him difficult to read? And what does "difficult to read" mean? That we don't know what's going on? That we don't recognise every single reference, that we are caught too much by surprise?
But haven't we been better trained than that? Even a light flirtation with the canon should put paid to such assumptions. The most "difficult" book (in terms of lack of narrative and bizarrely constructed sentences) that I see people reading in the tube is also the most common one: the Bible. And how many people are there that would actually admit to themselves, let alone others, that a book is "too clever" for them?
It doesn't seem a convincing reason for Vansittart's relative obscurity. Next, there is his own proposition to consider; that he eschewed narrative too wilfully to be popular. There is, possibly, some truth in this, the most commercially successful books in his chosen genre of historical fiction (although he also wrote a number of contemporary novels) generally spin a good yarn. But then in truth so does Vansittart. His narratives, although often vast and dissipated, are every bit as ambitious, adventurous and incident filled as anything by Bernard Cornwell or Patrick O'Brien. But the key is, I think, related.
Historical fiction (and much contemporary fiction) is generally written to be read through its characters. The reader is led to interpret the world of the novel according to the characters' successes or failures, strengths and flaws, loves and losses. The character will have an active role in the space of the novel and its historical setting. Actions and choices are paramount; a captain's act of bravery will sink a French ship during the battle of Trafalgar, his determination will eventually win the damsel, etc. The course of History is created, and can be changed, by the individual.
Vansittart's History is different. Far closer to Stephen Deadalus' nightmare, it is malevolent and inevitable. Characters are leaves caught in its gusts and flurries, and happiness is respite. The very worst are the people who believe that they can make an impression upon History, most often through greater or lesser acts of violence. The best tend to be somewhat bewildered: a king is powerless in the face of plague, aristocrats before the Revolution, British Romans before the decline of their empire. Myth is a constant preoccupation, and the context is often telling: so much of our History, our narrative, is myth and so many myths are vague, inhuman and usually quite violent things. The challenge to conventional historical narrative is further enhanced by the liberties Vansittart takes with time; different ages and hundreds if not thousands of years are often conflated as narratives, and especially myths, recur. Vansittart's historical novels are celebrations of the passive, in all its awful slow motion glory, and reading them is like standing outside on a cold clear night: insignificance, albeit a beautiful, pleasurable one, reigns.
I think that this is why the name Vansittart still draws blanks on the faces of even the most literary of my friends -- his art is somehow not something that one necessarily feels like sharing. Not out of possessiveness, but the unsettling idea that it wouldn't really matter either way.