RONALD FIRBANK

Complete Short Stories

Edited by Steven Moore

Dalkey Archive Press. 170 pp. $19.95

IN "Lambert Orme," one of the semi-fictional profiles in Some People, Harold Nicolson memorializes a figure closely modeled afer the young Ronald Firbank. "It would be impossible, I feel, to actually be as decadent as Lambert looked." His walk "was more than sinuous, it did more than undulate: it rippled." He "seemed a walking-talking Max Beerbohm version of himself," one of "the rotted rose leaves of the Yellow Book."

To this day the name Ronald Firbank too often provokes a snicker or a giggle when it is recognized at all. For many, he is only an all-too-gay writer, fiction's pastry chef, the author of airy-fairy tales of randy prelates, creamy altar boys and upper-class matrons who yearn to have their pet dogs baptized or their faces enshrined in the stained-glass windows of a cathedral. The very titles of his finest books suggest the fey and the fatuous: Vainglory (1915), The Flower Beneath the Foot (1923), Prancing Nigger (1924), Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926).

In fact, Firbank (1886-1926) should be honored as a great master of 20th-century literature, one whose books taught narrative economy, lightness of touch and speed to a generation of writers, among them Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green and Anthony Powell. As an innovator and stylistic influence he stands to later English fiction precisely as early Hemingway does to American. "My writing," asserted Firbank, and this hardly sounds like some epicene pipsqueak, "must bring discomfort to fools since it is aggressive, witty and unrelenting." Firbank's work may glisten like spun sugar but turns out to be as strong as chrome steel.

This frankly swishy dandy, constantly on the move (Lisbon, Cairo, Rome, Constantinope, Havana), possessed the iron will and drive of his railroad ties-to-riches grandfather. For 10 years he published a half-dozen small masterpieces, with so little intelligent appreciation that the earth might have been deserted. But in that time he ushered in a literary revolution -- and he did it by simply cutting the dull stuff out of his books. He discarded leisurely descriptions, stripped dialogue of its "he saids" and "she saids," subordinated plot to language, and made his characters, those absurd and ingratiating puppets with names like Mrs. Shamefoot and Madame Wetme, into vehicles for social satire and joyful, imaginative extravagance. Surprisngly, he did this not through some programmatic literary radicalism, but at least partly in the name of realism. For instance, to evoke accurately a crowded cocktail party (in Valmouth, 1919) he set down mere snatches of conversation, just the bits that might be overheard by someone wandering a little hazily around the room with a glass of sherry in his hand:

" 'Heroin.'

'Adorable simplicity.'

'What could anyone find to admire in such a shelving profile?'

'We reckon a duck here of two or three and twenty not so old. And a spring chicken anything to fourteen."

'My husband had no amorous energy whatsoever; which just suited me, of course.'

'I suppose when there's no room for another crow's-foot, one attains a sort of peace.'

'I once said to Doctor Fothergill, a clergyman of Oxford and a great friend of mine, 'Doctor,' I said, 'oh, if only you could see my -- -- '

'Elle etait jolie! Mais jolie.... C'etait une si belle brune....!'

'Cruelly lonely.'

'Leery...'

'Vulpine.'

'Calumny.'"

And so forth, funnier and funnier. As Aldous Huxley wrote -- "Aldous -- always my torture," lisped Firbank once -- of a character similar to the author of Inclinations (1916) and Caprice (1917): "My life . . . is not so long that I can afford to spend precious hours writing or reading descriptions of middle-class interiors." Instead Firbank's nine slender novels -- available from New Directions in two omnibus editions -- are awash in white space, mosaics of sentence fragments, dashes, italics, ellipses. "I think nothing of filing fifty pages down to make a brief, crisp paragraph or even a row of dots." For Firbank unheard music was nearly the sweetest of all.

Firbank's pointillism, his soap-opera storylines, his wit and even his silliness all helped to aerate the weighty fiction of eminent Victorians and earnest Edwardians, and, in particular, allowed him to slice through the Gordian knottiness of a Henry James who aimed to say everything in his novels, and took his sweet time about it too. The iconic moment must have come when the young Firbank met the late James in 1907 at the 21st birthday party of Vyvyan Holland, Oscar Wilde's son. The old world and the new, as the Master himself might have observed.

Still, classic or no, Firbank remains unremittingly, gloriously campy. This is a given, like Beckett's gloom and Borges's scholasticism, and a real reader wouldn't have him any other way. A Miss Missingham, author of Sacerdotalism and Satanism, remarks that the towers of a cathedral at twilight resemble "the helmets of eunuchs at carnival time." Another character's over-elaborate dress calls to mind "a St. Sebastian with too many arrows." Lady Georgia Blueharnis observes that the hills near her estate, "would undoubtedly gain if some sorrowful creature could be induced to take to them. I often long for a bent, slim figure to trail slowly along the ridge, at sundown, in an agony of regret." Even throwaway lines show genius, as when Firbank evokes the "eternal she-she-she of servant's voices" or mentions a tapestry curtain that depicts "The Birth of Tact, in which Taste was seen lying on a flower-decked couch amid ultra-classic surroundings."

Perhaps the apex of Firbankian repartee occurs in his play, "The Princess Zoubaroff" (1920), when two characters are introduced:

"Nadine: 'My husband.'

Blanche {gently}: 'I think we've slept together once?'

Adrian: 'I don't remember.'

Blanche: 'At the opera. During Berenice.'"

Every word of this is perfect, but Blanche's stage direction strikes me as even more drily brilliant than Adrian's reply.

Not unexpectedly, only a small amount of this topnotch work appears in the Complete Short Stories, which is made up entirely of juvenilia, most of it written while Firbank was in his teens, much of it labeled "Not to be published." (Dalkey Archive Press unrepentantly embosses its binding with this phrase in Firbank's hand.) About half the stories are pastels in prose, saccharine bits of wispy fluff like "Odette D'Antrevernes," in which a young girl redeems a fallen woman, or fin-de-siecle fairy tales such as "The Singing Bird & the Moon," which recalls the most sentimental of Oscar Wilde's children's stories. The best pieces -- several previously published in the late posthumous volume, The New Rythum (1962) -- do provide the genuine Firbank tang: "Her weekends were a noted sucess. She arranged a circle of deck chairs under the lime trees on her lawn and everyone slept" ("When Widows Love"). And no Firbank admirer should miss the moment in "A Study in Opal" when a society woman learns that her new husband, a bishop, has "passed on." " 'You cannot mean he is dead?' Lady Henrietta gasped. Her fingers wound about her jeweled crucifix. Surely a stone was missing. She bent her eyes to see."

Ronald Firbank's books, blessed with insouciance and daring, may not be for everybody but they do possess one of the true elements of a classic: They can be read again and again with ever-deepening pleasure. In the right mood they are very nearly the most amusing novels in the world.

Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World