Tuesday 30 July 2019

An Integrated Man

I've been rereading Julia Strachey's An Integrated Man (originally published, in 1951, as The Man on the Pier and subsequently reissued, under the author's preferred title, by Penguin in 1978). Regulars might recall that I've written about Julia Strachey before – e.g. here and here – and I've long been an admirer of the tiny body of work she managed to bring herself to publish: the long-short-story-length Cheerful Weather for the Wedding and the novella-length An Integrated Man. The first is a brilliant comedy with decidedly dark edges, and the second is something very different: indeed, it is shaped like a tragedy, tracing the course of a self-satisfied man's downfall, brought about by an intense erotic fixation – though he is not the principal victim...
  It's set in 1936, so was something of a period piece when it was published, and its feel is decidedly pre-war. A group of friends spend the summer in the country home of two of them, the married couple Gwen and Reamur (what names they had then!). Ned, our 'integrated man', is tutoring the couple's son, known as Co-Co, and preparing to open a new school with his best friend Aron, the other guest. When Ned, in the first paragraph, declares that 'Everything in my life is well ordered and serene ... At the age of forty-one, I'm bound to admit that I have become that fabulous beast an "integrated man"!', then you know for sure that this is a man riding for a fall. The only question is what will bring that fall about, and how hard he will fall.
  For some while the days pass agreeably and more or less uneventfully, with lots of walking and eating and relaxed conversation in which ideas about education, art and such matters are bandied about in a civilised, detached, rather Bloomsburyish manner. It is only with the arrival of Aron's wife, Marina, that things begin to change – especially for Ned – and the tension begins to build. The once integrated man is soon disintegrating, stumbling about in an erotically charged daze as events move towards an unforgettably shocking climax in which, suddenly and dramatically, everything is changed. The whole thing turns on one brief moment of recognition, one startlingly raw paragraph.
 As well as being a thoroughly convincing portrayal of erotic obsession, An Integrated Man offers one of the best evocations I've ever read of an English summer, with all its vagaries of weather and mood. Strachey has a sharp eye, an artist's eye, and her descriptions are often arresting. Here's a taster:
'Once the lesson was over [Co-Co's morning lesson with Ned] one had begun to notice the flies. At ten minutes to one the postman had appeared ... And certain cows, those that had lost their calves, on perceiving his red bicycle from afar, charged joyfully across the field in a bunch, imagining he was bringing back to them their stolen children. When they had realised their mistake, they had stood and trumpeted shrilly as usual for half an hour.
 Then luncheon – and a massed rendezvous of flies!
... After lunch the cows had suddenly begun to bellow again. The flies, however, had dropped off to sleep.'
And here, later, are the flies again:
'All of a sudden the flies on the window-pane woke up and started to rage together with a venomous zizzing. One amongst them began to boom deafeningly and to throw its scaly body repeatedly against the glass. Others, too, began to boom in the same echoing manner, and soon all of them together were hurling their scaly bodies agains the pane. One could imagine that packets of tintacks were being showered again and again at the glass.'
  This high-strung, high-pitched style injects tension into what might otherwise seem placid and uneventful scenes – and, of course, it comes into its own as Ned succumbs to his erotic fixation. It gives the novel a quite unique atmosphere and makes it a memorable reading experience. It's hard to think of anything else quite like it. Julia Strachey was truly a one-off.

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