Brigid Brophy (1929–1995) is nearly forgotten today, except by those who wish to claim her for a special-interest subliterature that it would have sickened her to be confined to. The author of seven novels written in what Peter Stothard calls a “sparkling and perfumed prose,” she was better known during her lifetime for her dashing and learned nonfiction books, especially Black Ship to Hell (1962), a wide-ranging study of human self-destructiveness. She also wrote revolutionary reassessments of Mozart the Dramatist (1964) and Aubrey Beardsley (1969), but it is her almost 600-page critical biography of Ronald Firbank, published in 1973, that I cherish most.
Brophy entitled the book Prancing Novelist to play upon the “outrageous title” of Firbank’s 1925 novel Prancing Nigger, a title suggested by Carl Van Vechten, an American admirer. “And, yes,” Brophy acknowledges, “nigger is marked in dictionaries as a term usually contemptuous. But the catchphrase Van Vechten picked from the novel is an efflorescence of the patois, the almost a language of its own, which Firbank so marvellously invents for his Negro world; and the catchphrase is spoken by wife to husband, Negro to Negro.” It is a good question whether she is using the word novelist as she claims that Firbank is using the “term usually contemptuous.”
I first read Brophy’s book, with its delightful subtitle A Defence of Fiction in the Form of a Critical Biography in Praise of Ronald Firbank, before I had opened any of Firbank’s own books. Once I did, though, I could not bring myself to like them very much, no matter how hard I tried. Cyril Connolly lumped Firbank among the “happy entertainers,” a camp that also included Noël Coward. But though Brophy assigned this judgment to “the slide of literary fashion,” and insisted that Firbank was “not ephemeral,” I found that I could agree with neither.
Brophy’s account of Firbank, by contrast, is both entertaining and important. It deserves to be more widely read by “great novel-readers,” in her phrase. According to Brophy, the special problem that Firbank set himself was to find some other means than narrative to organize a novel. She herself is dismissive toward the narrative habit:
So far a more coherent and valuable definition of “experimental” fiction than any I have seen. And, indeed, Firbank himself used word—or at least adapted it to what he was trying to do, Brophy says. But she strongly dislikes the label, even though her own novels were indolently characterized as “experimental” by half-asleep critics. The catchphrase, she warns, is “often a false attempt to give an art the kudos of a science.” She goes on:
In short, art does not “progress in the sense that science progresses.” To assume that it does—to treat the history of an art as a Whiggish history of its forward movement, which requires always an avant garde—is to blunder into the fallacy that Brophy, herself an art collector and married for four decades to the art historian Sir Michael Levey, onetime director of the National Gallery in London, attributed to Giorgio Vasari, the sixteenth-century author of Lives of the Painters:
It isn’t: it is merely a succès d’estime, which is not to be confused with a literary or artistic success. Nor was “progress” Firbank’s own measure of success. Experimentalism is the wrong word for his efforts to find a different method for organizing a novel, because he sought to pioneer the novel backwards. His “earliest stylistic pioneering was into the past,” Brophy explains. “To submit yourself to an idiom unfamiliar through disuse is as pioneering an act as to submit yourself to one unfamiliar because it has never been used before.”
The term experimental writer must be given its unconditional release. A good novelist, whose writing is alive, seeks to pioneer an idiom—a style, a method of organization—by which he is able to complete his novel’s design according to his ideal conception of it. But this is no more than to say that he must devise a style and a method that is perfectly suited to his unique and particular conception. And if he is any good, he must do this whether the critics congratulate him for being “advanced” or sneer at him for being “traditional.” To call him a stylistic pioneer is simply to say that he is a good and artistically successful novelist, and like no one else.