WHICH WRITERS of English have the most complicated, artificial, and generally improbable styles? The mannerists, of course. If you put someone like Hemingway, with his aversion to adjectives and love of short sentences, at one end of a spectrum, you would put mannerists at the other. They employ adjectives and adverbs as freely as a maker of birthday cakes employs festoons of icing and small candles, while their sentence structure tends toward the baroque and even the rococo.
Mannerists have been around for some centuries. As long ago as 1578, John Lyly published the story of the young traveler Euphues, his friend Philautus, and the beautiful Camilla. Camilla was in fact the best-looking woman in Naples (which in 1578 was the largest city in Europe). Here is part of how Lyly conveys that information: "For as the finest Ruby staineth the color of the rest that be in place, or as the Sun dimmeth the Moon, that she cannot be discerned, so this gallant girl, more fair than fortunate, and yet more fortunate than faithful, eclipsed the beauty of them all, and changed their colors." There are two metaphors, three alliterations, five adjectives, and eight compositional elements in that sentence, and it's not even one of the longer ones.
Lyly had a huge success -- enough so that it amused Shakespeare to parody him -- Falstaff does a funny imitation of euphuism in Henry IV -- but no one would now read him for pleasure. The case is quite different with the mannerists who flourished at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. People still crowd in to see The Importance of Being Earnest, that very mannered play by Oscar Wilde. Sir Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson continues to give pleasure to many, and there are even those (I am one of them) who hug themselves with delight at the novels of Ronald Firbank. How can one not like an author who writes sentences such as this one from Valmouth? Captain Thoroughfare of the Royal Navy is explaining to his fianc,ee why he has brought a young sailor from his ship home on leave with him. It's an explanation any gay would understand at once. "That little lad, upon a cruise, is, to me, what Patroclus was to Achilles, and even more." What timing! What splendor of commas!
Ernest Bramah was contemporary with Beerbohm and Firbank, and considerably more mannered than either of them. Though himself of the plainest possible background -- his real name was Ernest Smith, and he was born in Manchester, England, of quite ordinary parents -- he spent most of his life writing what can only be described as the Chinese equivalent of the Arabian Nights.
It came about like this. In early manhood Bramah encountered the highly ritualized and super-polite mode of speech employed by well-bred Chinese before the revolution. It involved careful avoidance of ego-display (one said "this person," not "I"), elaborate compliments to the person one was addressing, insincere insults to oneself, and as much circumlocution as possible. All this enchanted Bramah, and he rapidly began to develop an English version, a sort of Anglo-Mandarin speech, which is both extremely comic ("gravity-reducing" you'd say in Anglo-Mandarin) and as supple as a well-made glove. It was then his inspiration to invent the quick-witted and endlessly resourceful storyteller Kai Lung, and enlist him as narrator. Kai Lung plays the role that Scheherazade does in the Arabian Nights.
In the end, Bramah wrote five books of Kai Lung stories, and published them at leisurely intervals between 1900 and 1940. All are worth reading, providing one likes artifice. But the one likeliest to be greeted with actual cries of delight is Kai Lung's Golden Hours, which first began to reduce gravity in 1922.
As the book opens, Kai Lung is on his way by foot from Loo-chow to the city of Yu-ping, where he hopes to earn a few taels telling stories in the marketplace. At noon he stops to take a nap in a small wood. He is woken by the sound of girlish laughter: two young women have noticed his sleeping form, and are standing, some distance away, under a wild fig tree. He gets up, bowing politely. "At this display the elder and less atractive of the two maidens fled, uttering loud and continuous cries of apprehension in order to conceal the direction of her flight."
Kai Lung barely notices her departure, because he is so entranced by the other maiden. They are soon deep in conversation. Having learned that he is a professional teller of stories, she plies him with questions. Among them, she is curious to learn what kind of story pays best, or as she delicately puts it, which is the kind "whereby your collecting bowl is the least ignored?"
" 'That depends on the nature and condition of those who stand around, and therein lies much that is essential to the art,' replied Kai Lung, not without an element of pride.
" 'Should the company be chiefly formed of the illiterate and the immature of both sexes, stories depicting the embarrassment of unnaturally round-bodied mandarins, the unpremeditated flight of concentrically- garbed passers-by into vats of powdered rice, the despair of guardians of the street (we call them policemen) when assaulted by showers of eggs and overripe lo- quats, or any other variety of humiliating pain inflicted upon the innocent and unwary, never fail to win approval. The prosperous and substantial find contentment in hearing of the unassuming virtues and frugal lives of the poor and unsuccessful. Those of humble origin, especially tea-house maidens and the like, are only really at home among stories of the exalted and quick-moving, the profusion of their robes, the magnificence of their palaces, and the general high-minded depravity of their lives.' "
If you find some similarity here to the preferred reading of various groups of English people and Americans, it is no accident. Bramah loved to describe home matters under the elaborate Chinese disguise. I am quite clear, for example, that he was taking a polished revenge on some actual English barber when he has Kai Lung tell the story of Chou-hu, the Peking pigtail embellisher who habitually engages his customers "in diffuse and refined conversation."
Meanwhile, things are progressing in the wood. In due course the maiden asks Kai Lung to tell her a story, and he instantly proposes the one about Princess Taik and the minstrel Ch'eng.
" 'Is it,' inquired the maiden, with an agreeable glance toward the opportune recumbence of a fallen tree, 'is it a narration that would lie within the passage of the sun from one branch of this willow to another?'
" 'Adequately set forth, the history of the Princess Taik and of the virtuous youth occupies all the energies of an agile story-teller for seven weeks,' replied Kai Lung, not entirely gladdened that she should deem him capable of offering so meager an entertainment as that she indicated."
At this point there is a dramatic interruption, and poor Kai Lung never gets to tell the story at all. When he next meets the maiden, he is a prisoner in Yu-ping, momentarily awaiting execution at the hands of the evil mandarin Shan Tien, and she is the favored fair one of the mandarin's inner chamber. (It was attempting to escape this fate that she had come to the wood.) Her name, he now learns, is Hwa-mei.
From here on, the plot of the book is as simple as the style is complex. Egged on by his malicious secretary, the mandarin keeps resolving to put Kai Lung to high- minded torture, and then kill him. Kai Lung's ability to tell stories that are apt to Shan Tien's own circumstances, and even more Hwa-mei's brilliant strategems, keep delaying it. At the end, both of them win free, and go out to eat their rice together.
Meanwhile, Kai Lung has told 10 absolutely glorious stories. (Nine to the mandarin, and one specially for the girl after they have escaped.) He has told the story of Ning, the captive god. The story of Hien, the virtuous youth who has failed the literary examinations 11 times running, and of his arch-rival Tsin Lung, who earns much silver helping people cheat on those same examinations. The story of the young heiress Fa Fei, "whose mind was so liberally stored with graceful accomplishments as to give rise to the saying that to be in her presence was more refreshing than to sit in a garden of perfumes listening to the wisdom of seven elderly philosophers." And many others as good.
This degraded and incapable reviewer doubtless errs through his very discreditable lack of training in contemporary Chinese thought. He nevertheless ventures to assert that reading Mr. Bramah will yield more pleasure than 20 solemn books about politics and industry in the emerging Orient.
A Note on Availability. The Wallet of Kai Lung, the original book of the series, published in 1900, is available as a Buccaneer reprint at $15.95; and Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry-Tree, a late and relatively inferior collection, has been reprinted by Arno at $19. No paperback edition of any Kai Lung is available in America, a sordid circumstance which all right-thinking persons must deplore.