By Jonathan Yardley
Friday, October 23, 2009
An occasional series in which the Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
First published in 1960, reissued in paperback in 1982, now out of print but not at all difficult to find in used copies, Noël Coward's first and only novel is a small gem. It must have caught everyone by surprise when it appeared. Coward was in his early 60s and really didn't need to go to the trouble. He was one of the world's most famous and beloved entertainers, the author of dozens of plays and hundreds of songs, an actor of surprisingly broad range and a hugely popular cabaret performer. That he actually wanted to write a novel at this stage of his life is remarkable; that he found the time and energy to do it is even more so.
But write it he did. It is called "Pomp and Circumstance" and it is Coward to the core: a deliciously witty and ingenious entertainment that puts on full display his "talent to amuse" (his own phrase, from the song "If Love Were All") and his deep affection for distant, exotic and preferably sun-drenched parts of the world. It was received with considerable enthusiasm when it appeared, and -- this will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Coward's work -- holds up very well indeed after half a century.
I first read it in the 1982 paperback edition. That I had been unaware of it before then is an utter mystery, for I had loved Coward's work since the 1950s. His famous plays -- "Hay Fever," "Private Lives," "Present Laughter," "Blithe Spirit" -- were staples of the professional and amateur repertory during my youth (and remain so to this day) and I so passionately loved his 1955 cabaret recording, "Noël Coward at Las Vegas," that I had (and still have) every syllable of it memorized. Available on CD in expanded form as "The Noël Coward Album," it too is quintessential Coward, at once openly sentimental ("I'll See You Again," "I'll Follow My Secret Heart") and wickedly naughty ("A Bar on the Piccolo Marina," "Alice Is at It Again"). I can't imagine life without it.
* * *Today, 3 1/2 decades after his death in 1973 at age 73, Coward remains a highly visible presence, so it isn't necessary to give a detailed account of his life. He was born in 1899 into a middle-class British family, showed various talents as a boy, charmed members of the upper crust and soon made himself comfortable among them, poured forth plays and songs in a seemingly endless torrent. He was by all accounts a kind man who was especially generous to others in the theater. He was homosexual but, as a child of his times, kept his private life to himself and his intimates. Like other gay composers and lyricists of the period (Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart), he channeled his erotic impulses into heterosexual settings, which lent the results a particular poignancy.
"Pomp and Circumstance," according to Philip Hoare, one of his many biographers, originated in a play drafted in the late 1940s and eventually presented in the 1950s as "South Sea Bubble." Hoare says the play was written with Gertrude Lawrence, Coward's favorite actress and frequent co-star, in mind for the role of "Lady Alexandra, or Sandra, a Diana Cooper-Edwina Mountbatten figure," i.e., a titled Englishwoman of blithe spirits and an active, highly unconventional amatory life. In the novel, though, Sandra moves away from center stage, which is occupied by its narrator, a 40ish wife and mother with the rather odd name of Grizelda Craigie.
Too much should not be read into Coward's decision to tell the story through the voice of a woman, but it's an interesting choice and Coward brings it off. She lives with her husband, Robin, who runs a banana plantation, and their two children on Samolo, a British colonial possession in the South Seas, a "beautiful but stagnant pond" where almost nothing ever happens and where the natives are, as Coward always preferred them to be, anything except restless:
"There are no dope addicts or nymphomaniacs or pathological sex murderers in Samolo. There is a great deal of sex which goes on all the time with a winsome disregard of gender, but there are very few 'sex crimes.' In England we know that no little girl can hope to get across Wandsworth Common after dark without being 'interfered with,' whereas here she could prattle her way across the whole length and breadth of the island without anything happening to her at all beyond possibly being stuffed with guavas and mangoes by kindly villagers and given indigestion."
Now, however, something is about to happen on Samolo. Something big. Sandra, who is married to the colonial governor, confides to Grizel (as she is called) in a fit of confidentiality: "They're coming in June." Who? "The Queen of course. And Prince Philip. They're arriving in a warship on the twenty-first and going to spend three days. Three whole days and three whole nights, and long long before those three whole days and nights I shall be led away in a straitjacket like that poor beast in 'Streetcar Named Desire.' " The news is supposed to be top secret, but it quickly develops that everyone on the island is telling it to everyone else and saying how wonderfully good it will be for the island: for the economy, for morale, for anything else that comes to mind.
Well, says Sandra, "We must all bend our minds to think of different ways of boring our royal visitors to death," with the result that every amateur actor, director, composer and writer on the island sets about creating a water pageant to regale their majesties. Grizel mostly watches from the sidelines, but she is scarcely a cynic when it comes to the royals. We need to remember that a half century ago Elizabeth and Philip were still young and, respectively, pretty and handsome, and that the disillusionments of the past quarter century had yet to set in. It also should be borne in mind that Coward, for all his irreverence and flippancy, was a devoutly patriotic Englishman. He served his country with distinction during World War II, wrote a heartfelt song, "London Pride," to celebrate the city in wartime, and made the film "In Which We Serve" to help the war effort. There can be no doubt that Grizel speaks for him:
"Royal snobbery, in moderation, is rather a good thing, I think, and I am all in favour of it. The crown is a symbol and as such is, or should be, of tremendous importance. We are used to the tradition of royalty and have been brought up to believe in it and respect it and love it. I, being thoroughly British and sentimental to the core, would hate to live in a country in which there was no royal pageantry and no chance of suddenly seeing the Queen drive by. This I know can be described as reactionary emotionalism which perhaps it is, but reactionary or not I feel it very strongly, and when the gutter press alludes to our royal personages by their Christian names and smears their private affairs with its grubby little clichés, I feel deeply angry and somehow ashamed. I want the symbol to go on shining, to go on being out of reach, and I am thankful to say that in our country and its colonies and dominions, it still does, in spite of all efforts to belittle it."
As preparations progress, Grizel's life is suddenly complicated by a request from her friend Bunny Colville, whom Robin calls "a monster where women are concerned," who asks if his current lover, the very-much-married Countess Eloise Fowey, can stay with the Craigie family while sneaking off to trysts in Bunny's isolated bungalow. Eloise is not very bright but is a total bombshell, "endowed with every conceivable physical attribute that the female heart could ever wish for," though "beautiful and alluring and amiable as she was there was an inherent silliness in her character." Back in London, she inhabits a world that Coward knew well, people who "mostly, as far as I could gather, came under the ambiguous heading of 'The International Set,' who wandered aimlessly back and forth between London, Paris, Rome, Cannes, and Deauville, and wandered, equally aimlessly, in and out of bed with one another and in and out of the divorce courts with their lawyers."
Eloise arrives in good spirits, "obviously well disposed and willing to behave with as much discretion as possible in the circumstances, but the basic trouble was of course that the circumstances never should have occurred. Bunny shouldn't have been idiotic enough to have asked her to come out in the first place, and in the second place she should have had more sense than to have agreed to come. The immediate future bristled with evasions and deceits and appalling complications . . . ," all of which amount to a huge headache for Grizel and loads of fun for the reader. When chickenpox rears its head, everyone is off to the races.
* * *
"Pomp and Circumstance" reminds us, as if any reminder were necessary, that Coward was a master entertainer in the very best sense: an immensely intelligent, witty, resourceful man who took endless delight in the human comedy and managed to make it even funnier than it already is. He brought a great deal of light to what was in many respects a dark century, and that light shines on.
"Pomp and Circumstance" is out of print.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.