COLLECTED TALES AND FANTASIES

By Lord Berners

Turtle Point. 434 pp. Paperback, $16.95

Last year Turtle Point Press reprinted Lord Berners's memoir of his early life, First Childhood, and its very title hints at the sly, compact wit that characterizes this multi-talented English nobleman. Music lovers know Berners (1883-1950) as a playful, Satie-like composer -- "The Triumph of Neptune" is probably his best-known ballet score -- and fans of Nancy Mitford's novel The Pursuit of Love may remember that he provided the inspiration for the zany Lord Merlin. Recently, Mark Amory -- editor of Evelyn Waugh's letters -- brought out a well-received biography of this eccentric and attractive figure, but so far it hasn't acquired an American publisher. Perhaps Turtle Point can add it to its handsome Berners paperbacks, which include not only First Childhood but also the companion volume about Eton, A Distant Prospect, and -- best of all -- this omnibus collection of six short novels.

Artist Edward Gorey, an omnivorous reader of half-forgotten fiction, once chose The Camel (1936) as a neglected classic in a survey conducted by Antaeus magazine. This slender novel is probably a good test case to determine whether Berners's slightly fey, dry and understated wit is to your liking. Just before dawn, as the Rev. Aloysius Hussey and his wife, Antonia, are asleep, they are awakened by a pounding at the door. To their surprise they discover a camel outside, and suspect that the animal must have escaped from some traveling circus. Soon Antonia grows attached to the creature and persuades her husband to let her keep it as a pet. What neither of them realizes is that the camel can understand English, and always tries to fulfill -- surreptitiously -- the wishes of its new mistress. This soon leads to misunderstandings and various disturbing incidents, some rather macabre. For example, Antonia's expressed yearning to see her dead pet dog just one more time results in the cadaver's reappearance on a silver serving platter during a dinner with the archbishop. Ultimately, matters take a tragic turn when Rev. Hussey becomes convinced that his wife is carrying on with the church organist.

None of this on its own sounds particularly delightful. But one must imagine The Camel as roughly the novella equivalent to an Edward Gorey album, at once witty, slightly off-kilter, a bit camp, and perfectly pitched. To show what Berners can do, consider his capsule descriptions of various characters. The organist "Mr. Scrimgeour was a pale young man with weak knees and the expression of a tired fish." (Rev. Hussey dislikes him, though there was "one good point that the Vicar was obliged to concede in Mr. Scrimgeour's favour. He took a great deal of trouble with the choir-boys.") The vastly rich Sir Solomon Bugle "preferred to live in London where, it was rumoured, he found plenty to keep him busy in the shape of a young lady whose acquaintance he had made at the Promenade of the Empire. Lady Bugle, who concealed beneath a majestic exterior a deeply sensitive nature, felt her husband's disaffection very keenly and whenever she had occasion to refer to him always spoke of him as though he were dead." Through some magic, this combination of deadpan prose, laced with mild Jamesian circumlocution, contrives to make The Camel a captivating work of light comedy.

In Count Omega (1941) Berners relates the disorienting adventures of a young composer who finds himself enamored of the gigantic but still magnetically alluring Gloria, the so-called ward of Count Omega, the "richest man in existence." With the help of the dressmaker Madame d'Arc -- who believes she is the reincarnation of Jeanne d'Arc -- Emmanuel manages to win Gloria's affection and to persuade the never-seen count to underwrite his long projected symphony, "The Last Trump." In it, Gloria will appear at the finale to sound a single note, of several minutes' duration, on her trombone. At the concert Berners describes the motley crowd in the entrance hall, including Gloria's duenna, who sports a gown specially designed by Madame d'Arc: "Her costume, as Madame d'Arc had said, was indeed a macabre caprice. Subtly, without actual definition, it suggested skeletons, tombstones and all the emblems of death. It gave her the appearance of a prison wardress lately arisen from the grave. A terrifying apparition that created a sensation in the crowd. On her face was a look of grim satisfaction with the consternation she was causing. . . Prince Campo Santo, a diplomat suspected of necrophily, enquired eagerly of Mrs. Purdonium, `Who is she? Do you know her?' Mrs. Purdonium, loth to admit her ignorance, moved away." At such moments, one detects more than a soupcon of Ronald Firbank.

Still, my favorite of these novels is the last, Far From the Madding War (1941), a droll evocation of Oxford University life during the early years of World War II. The heroine, Emmeline Pocock, daughter of the Warden of All Saints, "looked like a nymph in one of the less licentious pictures of Fragonard." This withdrawn young woman spends vast amounts of time alone, in a room sealed off from the hubbub outside. "Life," she says, "is so difficult to cope with that I find I can only do so by fortifying myself with long periods of respite from thought." As it happens, though, Emmeline leads us to Mr. Jericho, a professor of the philosophy of history who is also a consummate gossip ("the most trivial, the most anodyne item of personal news was transformed by his exquisite artistry into a little masterpiece of psychological literature"); the romantic Mrs. Postlethwaite, who periodically "elopes" with unsuitable young men; Mrs. Trumper, whose "spartan temperament impelled her always to make herself uncomfortable and, incidentally, others as well"; and -- an authorial self-portrait -- Lord Fitzcricket, "always referred to by gossip-column writers as `the versatile peer,' and indeed there was hardly a branch of art in which he had not at one time or other dabbled. . . . He had a collection of strange masks that he used to wear when motoring. He dyed his fantail pigeons all colors of the rainbow, so that they flew over the countryside causing bewilderment to neighboring farmers. He was always surrounded by odd animals and birds. When travelling on the Continent he had a small piano in his motor car, and on the strength of this he was likened in the popular press to Chopin and Mozart. Someone had even suggested a resemblance to Lord Byron, but for this he had neither the qualifications of being a poet nor a great lover."

Berners's novels are, then, subdued works of humor, soothing rather than hysterically funny, more Beerbohm or David Garnett (Lady Into Fox) than Wodehouse. All of them seem to build, though, to some moment of bloody excess -- murder, accidental death and suicide bring the stories to a close. The other short novels in the Collected Tales and Fantasies include the The Romance of a Nose (1941, about Cleopatra), Mr. Pidger (1939, about a dog that ruins its owners' lives), and a youthful work, Percy Wallingford (1914, about a faultless English aristocrat). Like their companions, they are resolutely and perfectly minor, inconsequential, canonically unimportant -- and extremely enjoyable.

As are the memoirs, First Childhood and A Distant Prospect, which describe Berner's privileged background, his eccentric family (e.g., a half-mad grandfather confined to a darkened room and prey to alarming fits of cursing), and his life at Elmsley, one of those educational institutions presided over by an oily and sadistic headmaster and brightened by the shining presence of a beloved older classmate, the standard golden-boy athlete of English school memoirs. As he grows up, young Berners discovers some reliable pleasures -- chiefly books and music -- but his older self recalls only a few brief interludes of Wordsworthian joy:

"Those who say that their childhood was the happiest period of their lives must, one suspects, have been the victims of perpetual misfortune in later years. For there is no reason to suppose that the period of childhood is inevitably happier than any other. The only thing for which children are to be envied is their exuberant vitality. This is apt to be mistaken for happiness. For true happiness, however, there must be a certain degree of experience. The ordinary pleasures of childhood are similar to those of a dog when it is given its dinner or taken out for a walk, a behaviouristic, tail-wagging business, and, as for childhood being care-free, I know from my own experience, that black care can sit behind us even on our rocking-horses."

That, I think, is a beautifully observed paragraph, and an indication that Lord Berners may have been a dilettante and a practical joker, but he was a wise man all the same. Thank Turtle Point Press for allowing us to make his acquaintance.

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com.