“The Gap in The Curtain”, John Buchan

 

Inspired by this post on The Dabbler , I purchased the slightly incongruously named Sir Edward Leithen Megapack a while back. I was using the comments section of the same Dabbler post to update an indifferent world on my progress:

 

Followed your advice and picked up one of the Kindle “megapacks” of Sir Edward stories. With delight I discovered that within “The Power-House” there lies a quote which I knew was Buchan’s but never knew the original source (or context) – the one about the “sheet of glass” between civilization and barbarism. Like many of the oft-quoted Wilde aphorisms about art and decadence and so forth, it is actually spoken by the villain of the work.

Reading through “John McNab” currently, an enjoyable example of what is now surely a near defunct genre (though naturally there must be a niche of self publishing devoted to it) – the huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ novel. Recently I read Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, a pivotal work of literary environmentalism (from 1948) I am told, and was struck by how unselfconciously Leopold shoots this and that (with a certain amount of philosophising, but not with moral agonising) and refers to the “sportsman” (ie hunter) without automatic moral revulsion.

The lack of comments didn’t stop me persisting:

“The Dancing Floor” is next in my megapack, and just read it through – a good sense of the book can be gleaned from this review: http://www.vintagenovels.com/2012/09/the-dancing-floor-by-john-buchan.html – it is a rather extraordinary cross between a fictive Golden Bough and a sort of proto-Wicker Man. “John McNab” reads rather like a hearty reassertion of the values of huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ after the Great War, but “The Dancing Floor” is close to an exercise in the sort of mysticism that was also a popular reaction to the war – cf the spiritualism of Conan Doyle, the fairy photos championed by Conan Doyle, the [mystical type thing] of Conan Doyle etc.

The comments section on The Dabbler is now closed, so my further Leithen thoughts are now only available here. The Gap in the Curtain is the next Leithen novel. Once again, Sir Edward is struck by ennui and overwork. This was also the case for him at the outset of John McNab, and reminded me of Richard Hannay at the beginning of The Thirty-Nine Steps:

I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick. I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. ‘Richard Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ‘you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.’

 

At a country house weekend, he and some similarly afflicted companions agree to subject themselves to an experiment by a Professor Moe, a Scandinavian physicist whose reputation is puffed as a sort of Einstein. Moe is developing a theory of time and subjects his subjects to a series of psychological experiments intended to enable them to see a page of The Times a year in advance.

The novel has a blend of quasi-mysticism and hard-headed worldliness that makes it something in between the two previous Sir Edward novels. Leithen himself steps back from the experiment just before the decisive moment, but four of his companions have firm visions of The Times. Two have worldly, career-focused visions, while two foresee the announcement of their own death. Moe himself dies at the climactic moment of the experiment.

Buchan’s own experience of the world of business and politics come to the fore in the following two sections – the visionaries pursue the consequences of their vision, but as anyone who recalls Birnam Wood and Dunsinane, or indeed almost any literary prediction, could tell them, foreknowledge is not always fore-wisdom. This is even more the case for the two visionaries whose own death seemed foretold.

In The Dancing Floor there is a quote which I previously used in a blog post  on the Great War:

There has been a good deal of nonsense talked about the horror of war memories and the passionate desire to bury them. The vocal people were apt to be damaged sensitives, who were scarcely typical of the average man. There were horrors enough, God knows, but in most people’s recollections these were overlaid by the fierce interest and excitement, even by the comedy of it. At any rate that was the case with most of my friends, and it was certainly the case with me.

 

Another Dancing Floor quote is also to the point:

You remember that curious summer of 1919 when everybody was feverishly trying to forget the war. They were crazy days, when nobody was quite himself. Politicians talked and writers wrote clotted nonsense, statesmen chased their tails, the working man wanted to double his wages and halve his working hours at a time when the world was bankrupt, youth tried to make up for the four years of natural pleasure of which it had been cheated, and there was a general loosening of screws and a rise in temperature.

The effects seem to have gone beyond the summer of 1919 – possibly indeed they are still with us. Sir Edward Leithin – initially seeming so solid, so Tory-ish – has a mental world characteristic of this kind of restless seeking. Of course, the restlessness of Hannay was in a pre-war setting in a book written during, rather than after the War. And ennui is far from a unique condition of the 20th and 21st centuries. Nevertheless, The Gap in the Curtain seems to capture something of the post WWI era (which we still live in, of course) with its mix of mystic yearning and hard-headedness, thrill-seeking and longing for certainty.

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4 thoughts on ““The Gap in The Curtain”, John Buchan

  1. If you look at JB’s short story collection The Watcher in the Threshold, you’ll find his first use of the ‘sheet of glass’ metaphor, in ‘Fountainblue’, from (I think), 1901.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Kate for that – it is a haunting image. I posted on a companion blog to this one an extract from The Gap in The Curtain describing synaesthesia, while I am aware of plenty of scientific discussion of the phenomenon prior to 1932 I am not so sure about literary depictions: https://amedicaleducation.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/from-the-gap-in-the-curtain-james-buchan-1932/ – I wonder did Buchan describe synaesthesia-like phenomena earlier in his career?

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