Whenever I read author interviews I always wait eagerly for one particular question: “What are your favorite books?” All too often, though, the replies prove disappointing: “War and Peace,” “Ulysses,” the works of Shakespeare, the novels of Jane Austen. All these are, indisputably, monuments of world literature, but as answers they fizzle. If you’re like me, you want the esteemed writer to show a little originality, a smidgen of daring, by naming, say, Arthur Machen’s “The Hill of Dreams” or Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in Furs” or Anita Loos’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Better still would be rapturous enthusiasm for a work few people have even heard of, such as Dennis Parry’s “Sea of Glass.”
As it happens, this was one of Edward Gorey’s favorite “neglected books.” While that artist’s eclectic taste encompassed both Murasaki Shikibu’s glorious “Tale of Genji” and the mysteries of Agatha Christie, he regularly gravitated toward works rich with something of his own macabre whimsy. “Sea of Glass” fits that categorization, faintly calling to mind Saki’s ironic short stories, Ivy Compton-Burnett’s campy tragi-comedies and the early satirical fiction of Evelyn Waugh. According to Simon Stern, who introduces this first American edition, Parry wrote 10 novels — including “The Survivor,” also available from Valancourt — before he died at age 42 after a car accident in 1955. “Sea of Glass,” his masterpiece, had been published just two months earlier.
The novel takes the form of a reminiscence, in which a now middle-aged David Lindley recalls some holiday adventures in 1928 when he was a young Cambridge law student. Through the good graces of an aunt and uncle, he was invited to spend his vacation in the London home of the rich and sickly Mrs. Ellison. On his first night, he visited some friends and returned to Aynho Terrace at 11 p.m.:
“Turpin, the butler, again opened the door, grinning amiably in spite of the late hour.
“ ‘Good night,’ I said.
“ ‘And the same to you, sir!’ he replied heartily. ‘God wot!’
“Young and innocent though I was, it struck me as an unusual response from a butler. I wondered if he had been drinking. (Not to keep anybody in suspense, the answer was yes, of course).”
It turns out that Turpin is nearly always endearingly drunk and regularly given to quoting fragments of old poetry. In fact, except for our usually sensible narrator, all the characters of “Sea of Glass” are comically over the top, even slightly larger than life, especially the novel’s heroine, the irrepressible Varvara Ellison, only recently arrived in England from Chinese Turkestan. Her father, the scapegrace son of old Mrs. Ellison, was a gunrunner killed by bandits and her mother a volatile Russian beauty, pathetically bitten to death by venomous “barking spiders.” Reared in Doljuk, which means “sea of glass,” Varvara speaks a Russian-inflected English, resembles a Valkyrie and looks at British life with suspicion. David first encounters this force of nature when he grows confused on a dark stairwell and blunders toward the wrong bedroom door. The lights suddenly go on:
“In the gap stood a large girl with tawny hair and fierce blue eyes which . . . were fixed on me with unblinking hostility. In her right hand, raised shoulder-high, she held a long knife with a curved tip. It was pointed towards myself, and it may have been this which prevented me from obtaining full value from another of her circumstances. Never thereafter could I remember how she looked without a stitch of clothing.”
The orphaned Varvara, naturally enough, hopes to be provided for in her grandmother’s will. She soon recognizes, however, that her greedy Uncle Cedric wants all the family money for himself. This fat, vulgar businessman quickly determines to cast doubt on his niece’s legitimacy. Are there any actual documents that prove her parents were married? Meanwhile, Varvara — afraid of being poisoned — insists on drinking only from a rhinoceros’s horn, which she believes neutralizes all toxins. Not surprisingly, mealtimes at Aynho Terrace frequently occur “in an atmosphere of clotted melodrama.”
Before long, David starts to introduce Varvara into London life. For their first promenade together she dons a shapeless garment that, we are told, “was not intrinsically daring, but a piquant effect could be obtained by leaving the buttons which ran down the front open as far as the waist.” That afternoon the strolling couple encounter David’s college friend, Andrew, a sophisticated gadabout and ladies’ man who is immediately smitten with the human tidal wave from Turkestan.
Throughout “Sea of Glass,” sex is regularly alluded to with jolly, good-natured urbanity. In Mrs. Ellison’s house David notices a chair’s back panel “adorned by an inset plaque of two pre-Raphaelite maidens looking into each other’s eyes with an expression which would cause comment nowadays.” Old Turpin remembers once being caught in the cellar “doing the under-’ousemaid a bit of good.” Andrew arranges for Varvara to acquire some new clothes, in part so that he can ogle her in the fitting room. At one moment of crisis, our beautiful heroine actually tells another character, “Tonight, I shall grant you my supreme favours.” He replies: “Good God, where do you pick up language like that?”
No matter what the situation, Varvara acts with a self-dramatizing, operatic intensity. Back in Doljuk, she grew up against a backdrop of insurrections, torture, daily prayers and sudden death. Her nurse taught her the mysteries of heal-alls and more sinister potions. Although she now aspires to become a proper English miss, Varvara remains, in her innately theatrical way, a born survivor. At one point she grows convinced that her grandmother will die and leave her penniless. David says it’s just “nonsense” to think she will starve, to which Varvara replies:
“ ‘Perhaps — but only because I shall go on the streets first.’ She repeated the phrase with relish, adding: ‘In my good new clothes. My grandmother’s ghost will come up behind me, grieving and repenting in the cold.’ ”
At this point, David interjects, “ ‘And interfering considerably with business, I should think.’ ”
Halfway through the book, a death occurs, and Varvara is sure the authorities will arrest her for murder. Nonetheless, she declares, “before the police hang me, I shall save my breath to utter a great cry of innocence.” Later, she decides to run away instead, hoping David will come with her. She reassures him: “If I am caught, I shall poison myself before they can torture me. But I shall leave a letter between my breasts swearing by God that you are innocent.”
“Sea of Glass” is half comedy of manners, half murder mystery, and terrifically enjoyable throughout. Figuratively as well as literally, Varvara dwarfs everyone around her and it is only appropriate that she should eventually pass into myth. Might she have become the sexually liberated queen of a small island off the coast of Guinea? Was she the sharpshooting defender of a small English estate during the Second World War? Did she immigrate to California, where she was revered as the high priestess of a crackpot religion? Anything is possible for the wondrous, irresistible Varvara. Edward Gorey loved “Sea of Glass,” and so will you.
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
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By Dennis Parry
Valancourt. 226 pp. Paperback, $17.99