Saturday, 24 May 2014

‘The Furnace’ by Rose Macaulay

Novelists get understandably cross when readers make the naïve mistake of identifying them with their characters. There are however some cases where it’s justified: everyone (well, everyone who’s read, or claims to have read, ‘À la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ or its excellent English translation by Scott Moncrieff ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, or even the bad new English translation called ‘In Search of Lost Time’) knows that ‘Marcel’ is Marcel Proust himself.

The protagonists of Graham Greene’s novels are not really Graham Greene, but except in some of the books he called ‘Entertainments’ they are nearly all tormented by the conflict between the things they want to do — often quite natural things, not reprehensible by normal humane standards — and the demands of a strict externally imposed moral code; that of the Roman Catholic Church. I think it’s fair to assume that Greene himself had the same problem.

As did Rose Macaulay. Indeed this torture must be common to all who try to reconcile intelligent independent thought with Roman Catholicism. Macaulay is now best known, perhaps only known, for ‘The Towers of Trebizond’, which starts hilariously with the loan of a camel, contains a surreal episode in which a dog is taught to drive a car, and ends tragically. I have just read her much earlier novel ‘The Furnace’ which, although in a very different setting, shares the moral preoccupations of ‘Trebizond’. Perhaps unfairly — I simply can’t find any other of her books — I’m assuming that whatever came between these two is more of much the same.

The big difference between Greene and Macaulay might be described — forgive the strained metaphor — in terms of cookery. In Greene’s novels, the ‘want’ bits and the ‘must’ bits are cooked together into a stew that even those moral degenerates who rely on their own consciences rather than the Pope’s — protestants, atheists, humanists, nothing-in-particular-ists — find tasty and nourishing.

Macaulay in contrast hasn’t bothered with the cooking: she’s just given us the ingredients. What’s worse, she’s given them to us in the wrong order: first the cloying sweetness of people enjoying themselves  in frankly silly ways, then the very nearly inedible lump of raw meat of the come-uppance.

That said, I did enjoy ‘The Furnace’. The moral conflict is crude, but the incompatibilities of character and class Macaulay uses to present that conflict are subtly, allusively, handled. If you can’t find a print copy you can download it, without charge, from Project Gutenberg.

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