Books July 2002

As English as God

Ferdinand Mount brilliantly delineates social class
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Ferdinand Mount is a curiosity among novelists—a writer so apparently anachronistic and traditional in manner that it amounts almost to eccentricity. To say that nobody else in England writes novels remotely resembling his is not necessarily to make a point about his originality; there used to be a great number of writers mining a similar vein. Mount is the most alarmingly English of novelists, and his manner is unmistakably English in every sentence. A very amusing play by Michael Frayn, Clouds, begins with a conversation between two English people, each of whom thinks that the other is a foreigner; the sentence that makes everything clear is "We have a certain dogged persistence that seems to go down quite well in some quarters." Mount's style announces his nationality in the same way; he is, in the old joke, as English as God.

The fictional accent is instantly identifiable as the product of a specific national school and, within that national school, of a particular social group. It is both exacting in its portrayal of physical properties and elegantly, Latinately abstract in its account of human motivations. On the exacting side:

Luncheon in village hall: cold ham and corned beef, green salad and pickles, apple tart and custard, two sittings, please be punctual, bring your own knife, fork and spoon. I went to the children's afternoon tea: buttered, or rather margarined, buns, jelly, a few, not very many, cakes with the ineradicable taste of powdered egg.

On the abstract:

If that was indeed the intention, it had the reverse effect because, far from bathing Cod in a eupeptic glow, this assumed geniality merely threw into higher relief the acerbic acuity which he displayed in his business dealings.

The fascination with specific inanimate properties and the Olympian summary of behavior through abstraction have, in the end, much the same effect—of restraint, of distancing the narrator from the rough-and-tumble of human passions. That is not to say that there is no passion here; indeed, the most characteristically English passages deal with a certain sort of physical ecstasy, conveyed in the halting, fumbling rhythms of English speech.

Once, just once, perfection. Like sitting in an armchair, the trainer said. That, yes, but much more, almost as if sitting in an armchair was the best sensation the human body could ever know, shrivelling to nothing the pleasures of love and wine; as if his whole life he had been bumping up and down on camels and switchback railways and pogo-sticks and motor-boats in a high sea, his vertebrae all jangled together.

It is worth saying that an English novelist of this stamp would never write about sex in such a manner. Mount is writing about riding a horse. But the intense Englishness of Mount's fiction is evident above all in an extraordinarily refined representation of social class. Vulgarity, social position, correct behavior, are everything here; a reader uninterested in fine distinctions of this sort will find The Man Who Rode Ampersand (first published in Britain in 1975) as baffling as Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji, and even in England the narrative may now need some amplification.

Mount occupies a curious position in English society, and the non-English reader may need a little explanation of his status. Before embarking on one, however, it is as well to indicate that Mount would almost certainly regard any explanation as itself vulgar in the extreme, and one tenders it only because his status bears directly on the peculiar qualities of his fiction. He is a baronet, which, the reference books will explain, stands above a knight and below a baron in the orders of precedence. In reality there is nothing smarter in English society than a baronetcy. It is a sort of hereditary knighthood, and therefore confers a status that has nothing to do with vulgar effort on one's own part. On the other hand, it has no legislative role of the sort that comes, or used to come, with a hereditary peerage. The ostentation of English dukes and their social responsibilities are quite apart from your baronet; if the ancient English peerage notoriously looks down on the British royal family, the baronetcy rather looks down on the peerage as a lot of show-offs no doubt descended from one of Charles II's tarts.

Mount, however, has paid his way and made a pact with both the intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie. In the 1980s, when most English novelists were writing rather ill-informed and hysterical diatribes against Margaret Thatcher's government, Mount was running her Policy Unit. Subsequently he was, until very recently, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, that august and impregnably self-assured organ of the English intelligentsia. In short, he knows everyone and goes everywhere. His fiction shows it.

The Man Who Rode Ampersand is concerned with social status in an unusually complex way. Harry Cotton, a jockey, is a splendid chancer, a fraud and an opportunist who lives on strokes of luck and gets along by the skin of his teeth. The title is a joke, in that Ampersand is a magnificent horse that a third-rate jockey like Cotton would never ordinarily get to ride. Before one race he takes the horse for a swift gallop over the fields, and for the rest of his career, to various disbelieving pub audiences, he becomes "the man who rode Ampersand."

From the archives:

"An Omnivorous Curiosity" (June 2001)
Anthony Powell, the author of A Dance to the Music of Time, also wrote one of the great literary memoirs of the twentieth century. By Christopher Hitchens

"A Maverick Historian" (Febrary 2001)
Rarely has comedy of manners been so artfully infused with pathos as in Evelyn Waugh's recently reissued Sword of Honour trilogy. By Penelope Lively

"Life's Choreographer" (January 1996)
Barbara Wallraff reviews Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time.

"Evelyn Waugh: The Height of His Powers" (March 1972)
"If I'm not mistaken, Put Out More Flags is the greatest of Evelyn Waugh's great novels. As such, it deserves to be revived and reread as long as we read English." By L. E. Sissman

"Evelyn Waugh: The Best and the Worst" (October 1954)
"There are few contemporary writers of the first rank whose imagination runs to such appalling and macabre inventions as Waugh's does." By Charles J. Rolo

To a non-English reader, Cotton may seem merely a hapless, inadvertent trickster, passing himself off as what he is not and getting into enormously entertaining scrapes. But in fact he fulfills with great exactness the traditional definition of a gentleman: one who is never unintentionally rude. Being rude on purpose, of course, is quite all right. Mount's territory, like that of Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh, is where gentlemen and near thugs meet, and Cotton goes through the worlds of racing, daytime drinking in seedy pubs, and wartime service without ever quite being touched by any of the extravagant, louche behavior he falls in with.

Like Powell and Waugh, Mount dwells on the effect of public events on weak private lives, but he is less the historian than the archaeologist. There is a strand in The Man Who Rode Ampersand about a Jewish woman's experiences in wartime Poland and Germany, but it seems rather half-hearted. The energy lies not in any historical sweep but in the re-creation of historical properties, and Mount's period details are as brilliant and unfaultable as Powell's. The horses are called what they would never be called now—Rubber Band, Robert the Devil, The Last of England. The metaphors, the comparisons, the heroes of pub conversations, are exact reflections of what the age would have dreamed of, and Mount is sometimes willing to sacrifice clarity for period flavor. When he writes "Drinks, cigarettes were wafted to him with the hesitant elegance of Gerald du Maurier fumbling for his lighter," it conveys not a very strong visual impression but a very clear sense of the period's heroes.

The Man Who Rode Ampersand has turned out to be the first in a series of novels, the subsequent volumes of which are about Harry Cotton's son, and the latest of which is the excellent Fairness (2001), but it seems most unlikely that Mount wrote it with that intention. The rhythms all imply a novel of just this length, without suggesting that more is needed. The payoff, too, is final and brutal.

The story of the grasshopper and the ant is grim enough as it is. Think how much grimmer it would be if the grasshopper had given birth to the ant. The ant's revenge would be a terrible thing.

But though it has been succeeded and surrounded by amplifications and expansions, The Man Who Rode Ampersand remains a fine, amusing performance on its own terms. It is unusually chewy, and if its manner appears eccentric now, readers must admit that it has attained that eccentricity by emulating the classic English novel. That is not a bad target to aim at, and there is something admirable even about a near miss.

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