Saturday, September 26, 2015

Alfred Duggan: Family Favourites (1960)

I found this book, with several others by the same author, on a friend's bookshelves. Intrigued by the unlikely choice of title (from a popular radio show) for a historical novel set during the later Roman Empire, and more so by the drily brilliant opening, I couldn't resist asking to borrow it.

The story is related by an old soldier in retirement (he had been first a legionary and then a Praetorian), called Duratius. He eventually becomes a friend and member of the inner circle of the young and flighty Emperor Elagabalus (c. 203-222 - Emperor from 218-222). When the court implodes he is unceremoniously knocked on the head and given an honourable exit. The beautiful Emperor is killed offstage.

Duggan's conception of the historical novel is close to docufaction. Nearly all his characters, except for the narrator, are historical. He introduces only a minimum of additional fictional events, and these additions are characteristically un-sensational. The principal interest, for both author and reader, is in persuasively realizing a time and culture that, in its details, is a mixture of the familiar and the bizarrely different.

Duratius's judgments, for example, tend to be unexpected. On the one hand they are the judgments of a soldier and administrator of the landowning class, evincing recognizably similar attitudes to those of an equivalent gentleman of Duggan's own time. A noticeably broad-minded version of those attitudes; Duratius is remarkably un-judgmental, for example, about the sexual behaviour of Elagabalus and his minions. On the other hand, he places much importance on matters that are alien to us, such as the importance of duty to ancestors, or the delight of worshipping the tutelary gods of a city.

When Duratius attends a gladiatorial show we are, predictably, appalled at what Romans considered sport. Duratius describes it vividly, doesn't notice what we might find objectionable, but finds it a bit dull, though he admits his seat was near the back and he couldn't see the look on the faces of men about to die. On the other hand, when he first sees chariot-racing (a sport followed in the eastern empire, but unknown in the west) he finds it incredibly exciting.

Here, early in the book, is Duratius' interview with the senior centurion of his legion.

'Duratius,' he said, as I stood at attention before him (every soldier is a good deal more respectful to a primus pilus than to a legate), 'within less than a year you can take your pension and go. I won't stop you. But they tell me you are thinking of signing on again, and that I won't allow. When you apply to re-enlist, someone will ask for a confidential report, and I shall advise against you. I'll tell you why, since the regulations don't permit you to ask me questions. I have no complaint against you so far. You are smart on parade, sober, willing when there is digging to be done, and never the first to run from a tight place. You have never been first in the charge either, but that only proves you are a well-trained soldier. In  fact you would be a model legionary, but for one serious fault. We have followed the same Eagle for twelve years and more, and I am still not certain that you are on our side. There's no zeal in you, either for the cause of Eternal Rome or for our glorious Emperor Caracalla. The next time we charge the Germans I don't want you behind me. So now you know the worst. In a few months you leave the army -- for ever.'
    'Very good, sir,' I said, standing stiffer than ever. If he felt like that about me he could have me flogged to death as a malcontent; when he offered to get rid of me peacefully he was being very lenient.
    'That was the right answer,' he said in a more friendly tone. 'I don't like legionaries who argue. I wish I knew what lies at the back of your mind. You are an educated man and a citizen; in the roll they have you down as doubtfully an honestioris. Yet you carry a sword as if you were a labourer digging a ditch at so much a foot. Everyday you earn your daily pay, and never try to do more. . . . And yet you want to stay in the army. I shall offer one more chance. I have been told to pick a draft for the Praetorians. I have put down your name, though of course you may refuse the honour. Take it or leave it. In either case I shall be rid of you. Either you start for Syria within three days, or at the end of the year you are mustered out of the army, with your discharge marked "no readmission". Which shall it be?'
    'The Praetorians, of course, sir. And thank you for the opportunity.'
    'Very well. Tomorrow you will report to the paymaster, for your papers to be brought up to date. Then take a day's leave, to put your kit and baggage in order. On the third day you will parade in full marching order, with your baggage packed and your paybook signed and balanced. You are not entitled to a government baggage-mule, but if you have a mule of your own the government muleteers will look after it. The legate will inspect the parade, so take pains with your turnout. But you always look well on parade, so that will not bother you. I wish I knew why you are content to be a parade-ground soldier. You have never done that little bit extra that would have earned commissioned rank for a man of your stamp. That's all. Dismiss, and never let me see your face again.'

The historical novel is always an anachronism, and the bigger the time-gap between the date in which it's set and the date it was written, the more problematic this becomes, as we Sir Walter Scott fans are well aware. The most pervasive area of anachronism, though not perhaps the most obvious, is the thought-worlds revealed by how the characters speak. I doubt if a centurion would have or could have framed his puzzlement over Duratius' psychology in quite the way that this passage implies.

But if Duggan wanted to limit the effect of anachronism, then the Roman Empire was quite a good era to work with. At least there was a regular army, which he could assume (when he didn't know) was not too unlike Duggan's own army experience during WWII. Army life tends to be practical, psychological conceptions of minimal importance.

Duratius, or rather Duggan, is obviously proud of the numerous "inside knowledge" remarks that pepper his text (such as the one here beginning "every soldier..."). It was a Kipling technique and I suspect late stories like "The Church that was at Antioch" had quite a big influence on Duggan.

The later and longer part of the book, once Duratius has met Elagabalus and become a court official, doesn't quite match up to the quality of the opening. Flamboyant and outrageous as Elagabalus is, his antics lack dramatic development.  And broad-minded as they are, Duratius and Duggan seem to lack real sympathy with either the young Emperor or his opponents. There's a distinctive but slightly unnerving sense of something missing. Perhaps that something is best described as warmth.


But this chilliness may be strategic rather than temperamental. In 1954 Duggan reviewed The Fellowship of the Ring for the TLS, and here he points out the weakness in Tolkien's book of a positive conception of the Good; Duggan specifically mentions romantic love. (It's a positive review, though Duggan had evidently no taste for dragons or trolls. In it he describes the landscape of Middle-Earth in political and economic terms that more recall his own books than Tolkien's: reminiscent, for instance, of the breakdown of Roman civilisation in The Little Emperors.


Alfredo Duggan was an Etonian of Irish/Argentinian background. His family were extremely wealthy. At Oxford in the 1920s he was considered a rake of the first order, spending much of his time drunk, riding to hounds, or driving his Rolls Royce to and from a highly colourful Soho night-life. (His brother was the main model for Anthony Powell's Charles Stringham.)

[Duggan, Powell and Evelyn Waugh were all members of the Hypocrites Club during the era when it was transformed by them, along with Harold Acton and others, from a student club devoted to gentle philosophical musing into something a good deal headier.]

As Waugh later remarked, no-one of that generation of silver-spooners seemed less likely to produce a book than Duggan. But after war service and conversion to conservative Catholicism, and a respectable and happy marriage, he began, at the age of 47, to write his remarkable sequence of historical novels.

Northrop Frye described the novel as an intrinsically middle-class form. That is quite right. Nevertheless, its relations with the upper classes are scarcely peripheral: think of Tolstoy. (Not to mention Laclos, Proust, Trollope, James...)

Nevertheless, the category of aristocratic Conservative novelists, in the 20th century, has always been problematic. Not, of course, that it laid an especially heavy burden on the incumbent's shoulders.  A conservative press and public would, it might be hoped, be reasonably well-disposed. And a ruling-class author would possess, no doubt, enviable contacts outside the literary community. Many doors are open to those who know how to behave. I don't so much mean contacts from the toadying point of view, though that's true too; I'm talking about access to areas of life that can enrich your work and that need to be written about.

The problematic aspect is about connecting with the literary community itself. The vast majority of literary people, as is often pointed out, tended to be vaguely or distinctly left-leaning. Left fellow-writers might read copnservative work sometimes, but they wouldn't discuss it seriously. Instead, it would be talked up by newspaper editors, and that's a very different thing. The literary community can be a horrible snake-pit, but isolation from it has serious consequences. You sense this isolation in the later years of Kipling, Waugh and Amis.

Like many clever well-off young people of his time, Duggan himself had a very brief flirtation with Communism. But class told. Powell had taken the Proustian route, Waugh the satirical one. Since conservative authors were apt to be anti-modernist, unimpressed by fashionable ideas, and -  in literary terms at least - non-elitist, another possibility was popular fiction.

It was in the distant past that Duggan found a literary image within which he could celebrate the military and traditionalist values that he was born to.


Since Anthony Powell got mentioned here, I'd like to to take the opportunity to recommend this lively collection of school-work (by the students of  Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts) on A Dance to the Music of Time .

It's delightful to see the students responding with such evident enthusiasm and sensitivity to Powell's epic chronicle of the upper echelons; a world such as they will soon be entering for themselves, as many of these elite students recognize. Isn't that the best sort of reading, when you're aware of a book's serious relevance to your own life?  Yet from another point of view it's also a little sad. Is this the future of The Dance: to act as an intelligent deb's manual?

There's a notable paucity of references to e.g. feminism, but in one respect this substantial collection of responses does make a profound if inadvertent critique. Almost all the students read the early books in the sequence with a sort of wide-eyed expectation that Kenneth Widmerpool will at some point turn out to have some good in him, something to redeem his self-centredness, awkwardness and pomposity. It amounts to critical comment because what it suggests is that Powell's own loathing for the Widmerpool type had something unexamined about it, something that he couldn't quite communicate.  The students' instinct is sounder than the author's; they see that it's no great surprise that someone so ostracised has become unattractive and selfish, but that it needn't imply that his inner psyche is corrupted and that he is incapable of loving or being loved.

This collection is hosted on the pages of the Anthony Powell Society. The authors I've mentioned in this post tend to have Societies; Kipling does, so does Waugh. In other words, memory of their work is kept alive by people outside the universities.  That has its good aspects; for instance, dedication and detail. The downside is that it's fans talking to fans; the beloved work tends to be discussed uncritically, without awareness of current research into the wider context of its period, and without feeding into the wider conversations of our own.  So in a way the theme of cultural isolation still continues today.

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At 9:28 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

I'm intrigued by the categorization of novelists into conservatives and leftists. While not arguing with your examples, I wonder which slot you would put Conrad, Lawrence (leftist I suppose), Joyce, Iris Murdoch, C.S. Lewis (esp. his anti-modernist novel That Hideous Strength and John Cowper Powys, whose characters mostly walk rather than go by motorized transport, & I don't think they make much use of the phone either. And among American writers, John Updike and a newer writer Nicholson Baker, who's traditionalist in many ways but a pacifist and not I think a Republican supporter.

The other thing I'm interested to know is whether you see conservatives as a leftist or vice versa. Me, I'm a deep-dyed conservative who admires Cuba & thinks it was a mistake to denationalize railways, and think Corbyn is a fine fellow compared with most labourites, though not a proper politician, let alone a prime minister.

In short I wonder how it is possible to categorize top-rank novelists at all, for the wouldn't have got where they are today by fitting into a binary classification.

At 9:52 am, Blogger Vincent said...

The novelist Nevil Shute was certainly a conservative by any measure. See his memoir Slide Rule and particularly the excerpt I published here as “Why did the R101 Crash?”

At 11:17 am, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

I did wonder if you'd comment!

Categorization, like generalization, is an evil, but I wanted to say something about conservatism in the novel, even if individual examples are always contentious. It's a subject that intrigues me, though my own political colours are different. Probably Scott is the key figure in my mind, but there are many other authors - Dryden, Fielding, John Buchan, C.S. Lewis, Kipling - who mean or have meant an enormous amount to me and who could be classed in their various ways as conservative. Shute and Buchan (and Lewis, and Tolkien) are of course great examples of the natural bent of some conservatives towards popular fiction - ...

In this piece I was particularly interested in the upper-class bunch that included Powell, Waugh and Duggan. I'm interested in the unusual perspective this gave them, and the ways in which they negotiated their world.

The greatest novelists transcend their attachments. Conrad's conservatism, such as it was, is something so individual, it's inseparable from his unusual life. It seems a far less important fact about him than his devastating critique of colonialism in Heart of Darkness. Perhaps that critique was so devastating exactly because Conrad knew what he was talking about and was not by affiliation or temperament an enemy of colonialism.

Lawrence is Lawrence. I'd see him as half socialist, half fascist. Never conservative. Maddening, frightening, often brilliant but more often wrong-headed, and, very occasionally, lovable.

At 3:06 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

I meant to add, that I've been a keen Updike admirer in my time, too.


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