John Innes Mackintosh Stewart Essay - Stewart, J(ohn) I(nnes) M(ackintosh) (Vol. 7)

Stewart, J(ohn) I(nnes) M(ackintosh) (Vol. 7)

Stewart, J(ohn) I(nnes) M(ackintosh) 1906– (Michael Innes)

Stewart is a British novelist, critic, and short story writer. As Innes, he has written crime novels centering on academic and aristocratic characters involved in remarkably intricate plots. In the fiction appearing under his own name, he often considers the artist in society.

The particular gift of J.I.M. Stewart is a rare if rather minor one: he is a master of pastiche. Mr. Stewart is a witty, literate, sophisticated man—just what one would expect (but doesn't always find) an Oxford don to be. For twenty-five years he has been putting that wit, literacy and sophistication into a series of casual detective stories—signed "Michael Innes"—which manage to be agreeably highbrow without being even slightly serious. The pleasure these stories give is the essentially snobbish pleasure one gets from recognizing what everyone wouldn't recognize—the allusion to a poem by Hardy, the Shakespearian parallel, the parody of Meredith or James, the quotation from Yeats. A rather donnish taste, perhaps, but widespread enough to provide "Michael Innes" with a substantial and devoted following.

Recently Mr. Stewart has taken to writing "straight" novels under his own name. In these the subjects have been more serious, the structure more formal, and the tone less that of a charade party at Christ Church. "Mark Lambert's Supper," "The Guardians," and "A Use of Riches" are all intelligent, stylish novels; yet they have the essential qualities of the detective stories: they depend on melodramatic, "twisty" plots rather than on character and emotion; they are sprinkled with allusions and quotations, and their origins are in literary, rather than human situations. They are more like novels by Henry James than they are like life.

In "The Man Who Won the Pools," Mr. Stewart has turned to a new kind of literary model—the neo-proletarian novel, as exemplified by Alan Sillitoe's "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" and John Braine's "Room at the Top." In this kind of novel, the principal subject is class—its nature, its barriers, its conquests, its expense. Stewart has cleverly set his opening action in his own City of Oxford, and uses the division of the city—half university and half factories—to construct a parody of class divisions….

"The Man Who Won the Pools" will be most entertaining to readers who know their Sillitoe and Braine, for, like Stewart's other books, this one is made out of literary experience, and is rather a novel about class-novels than a novel about class itself. The world of Phil Tombs is an amusing one, but it has, at best, a remote, literary reality: it is the Lower Class as seen from the High Table.

Samuel Hynes, "Con Men and Eccentric Peers," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 7, 1961, p. 3.

The quite Trollopian productivity of Mr. J.I.M. Stewart commands our respect and gratitude. High-powered university teaching, high-fantastical thrillers, urbane, neo-Jacobean social comedies, lit. crit. for the Sundays—this industrious juggler can keep his eye on all these balls at once as they twinkle in the air above a pair of remarkably safe hands. All the same he could with advantage have concentrated a bit harder on The Man Who Won the Pools. This last brainchild is, as the psychologists say, a bit deprived—as though mum had too many other chores to see to when he was in the formative stages. The book is amusing and entertaining enough. Mr. Stewart is never really less than this. But it is a great disappointment after Mark Lambert's Supper and A Use of Riches.

For one thing Mr. Stewart makes the mistake—surprising in someone as experienced as he is—of writing outside his range…. Mr. Stewart succeeds in making [the protagonist] likable but not in making him entirely credible. The conversations Phil has with Artie and George and other friends of his pre-jackpot days are too demotic to be true, and his interior monologues—Mr. Stewart is far too generous with these—spring out of nowhere: echoes of Addison, all deistical and pompous, mingle awkwardly with thoughts about the Auntie he lives with in the two-up-and-two-down near the slums of Gas Street.

The springiness and zest of the narrative—Mr. Stewart's powers in this department are quite undimmed—make up for much. (p. 313)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1961; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 19, 1961.

"The Last Tresilians" is, I take it, a deliberately deceptive novel. Somewhere about half way through, one begins to realize that it is not at all the kind of book it has apparently pretended to be. The title itself is a false lead, suggesting, perhaps, a kind of neo-Victorian family saga. The title page is followed by a list of the characters in order of their appearance: the inclusion of the list with its comic-symbolic names (e.g., Delver for a professor devoted to research) again invites association with the genial, portly novels of an age past….

The aforementioned Professor Delver has just arrived in London, with spade very obviously in hand and an American research grant in pocket, to inquire into the life of the late, distinguished British painter, Matthew Tresilian. The American professor is one of the novel's less original and believable characters. Though Mr. Stewart's portrait is charitable, even sympathetic, the underlying conception does not differ substantially from Graham Greene's tendentious "Quiet American"—Delver is a patchwork of threadbare truisms about American intentness, innocence, eagerness, and so forth. And Mr. Stewart's attempt to "work up" an American character is the only aspect of his novel that betrays real technical ineptitude: Delver thinks and writes a decidedly British English incongruously punctuated with American colloquialisms and with what the literate British must imagine to be American colloquialisms. Fortunately, though Delver triggers the central mechanism of the plot, he is kept out of sight a good part of the time.

After directing our attention through Delver to the enigmatic later paintings and life of Matthew Tresilian, the point-of-view narrative begins to hop about among six or seven characters, some in the London art world, some at Oxford, all of course connected with Tresilian or his paintings. This first half of the novel, a swiftly drawn social panorama enlivened by some highly satirical scenes, is done with considerable competence though perhaps too much facility. At times the craftsmanship obtrudes, as in the neat dovetailing of scenes through cinematic fade-ins (e.g., a group of people around a painting at an exhibition fading into a sketch on the wall of an Oxford dormitory room).

Some of the characters, moreover, exist on an uneasy borderline between caricature and realistic portrayal. When we see a millionaire's wife receiving her guests—"you bowed over the diamonds beneath which her fingers presumably lurked"—we know we are being treated to social satire in the grand Trollopean manner. But when an unpretentious female art critic refers naturally to Oscar Wilde as "poor Oscar," or when her son asks during an intimate family conversation whether Tresilian's paintings "leave unusually large scope for subjective response or conjecture," one is not quite sure where the laughter should be directed. (p. 4)

Tresilian's last paintings become hatches flung open from the sunlit region of Trollopean surfaces into a dark, primordial world of moral chaos. The narrative shifts for long stretches to the bleak seacoast of Cornwall, where black waves pounding against jagged rock mirror the vision of horror at the blurred center of Tresilian paintings. This whole sudden plunge into the abyss is made remarkably convincing. Mr. Stewart's sensitive, lyric recording of landscape, his inventiveness in creating apt symbols, his acute imagination of disaster and artistic tact in reporting it, all make him a more creditable guide through the netherworld than through the upper one.

To be sure, the last part of the novel is not flawless…. [But] momentary defects … scarcely diminish the power of the closing sections of the book, nor do they detract materially from Mr. Stewart's achievement in transforming a clever entertainment into a bold variation on classical tragic themes. (pp. 4, 7)

Robert Alter, "The Picture Blurs at the Center," in Chicago Tribune Book Week (© The Washington Post), December 22, 1963, pp. 4, 7.

Either you like or you don't like quotation-dropping detectives and little literary jokes: personally, I rather enjoy them when I've got the time. But there's obviously always been a novelist inside the writer of whodunits; and An Acre of Grass is his seventh attempt to be let out. It's the first 'straight' Innes or Stewart that I've read; and the retort comes pat—isn't there also a whodunit writer inside the novelist?

In a sense, there is. The plot of the book hinges on a missing manuscript and a literary deception: clues are planted and climaxes heralded; suspense and mystery are maintained till a surprise denouement. Again, the names of the characters—Gabriel Purefoy, John Mandeville, Hugo Renton—smack of the artifice of detective fiction; so does their highly convenient leisure, supported by their careers as novelists and dons. Finally, the clear, well-mannered writing is firmly in the mandarin tradition of which the Innes whodunits are the heirs.

To say this, however, is only to restate the point that Stewart is a traditional writer. Clues, climaxes, suspense, mystery and surprise are the tried ingredients of the classic novel. Fancy names have a pedigree that reaches back to Trollope and forward to Angus Wilson and C. P. Snow. Mandarin prose may be lying down, but it isn't dead—Stewart himself, indeed, is a witness to what it can still achieve. Paradoxically, what that is, I think, is a remarkable naturalness and honesty. The dons and writers here are more self-consciously literary than those of C. P. Snow; but like them—and like so many of us, reviewers included—they encounter with surprise in practical life the truth of axioms they take theoretically for granted. They're stupider, in a highly articulate and sophisticated way, than the sensitive creations of many more overtly ambitious novelists; and if their lives are artificially cloistered from more boisterous concerns, they nevertheless admit an ultimate fineness of perception, a patience and tolerance, that are valuable qualities, and less uncommon in Establishment figures than one might suppose. I should add that with all these quirks and reservations I found An Acre of Grass as absorbing as the Michael Innes books it resembles. (p. 260)

Richard Mayne, in New Statesman (© 1965 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 20, 1965.

Mr. Stewart's most important achievement in this lucid and penetrating little book [Rudyard Kipling] is to analyze the elements that make so many of Kipling's stories immortal….

Mr. Stewart recognizes that Kipling was an uneven writer who produced crude, flat, and inferior stories. He doesn't mention that all productive authors are uneven. What he does emphasize is the narrative power, the technical virtuosity, the brilliance, and the subtlety of many of Kipling's stories. So, in effect, this book is a study of appreciation. As an introduction to a very great writer it is superb. And for lovers of Kipling it should be enlightening, because Mr. Stewart is adept in performing one of the critic's most useful tasks—pointing out the less obvious merits, the nuances, and the true significances which hasty readers can easily overlook.

Orville Prescott, "A Mixture of Logic and Magic," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1966 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 22, 1966, p. 58.

J.I.M. Stewart, Oxford don at Christ Church and, as Michael Innes, a writer of detective novels, is … determined … to wish away the advantages of working in a craft that James, Conrad, and Ford raised to a certain excellence. Moreover, he has been inspired by Lord Snow, of all people, to write blandly and grimly [in The Aylwin's] about the moral problems of dons. He has considerably more juice in him, however, and couldn't write as ashen a page as Dr. Snow if he tried. (p. 479)

Guy Davenport, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1967; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), May 2, 1967.

Mr Stewart (or Michael Innes) is not exactly an unknown figure in the British literary scene, and one cannot deny his mastery of the language. On the other hand, [in Mungo's Dream] his story line and his plotting hover dangerously near that of his detective fiction, and though there is nothing wrong in that, it shouldn't prevent the author from creating deeper characterisations, or, if you prefer, more profound ones. Even if the Oxford college life is used as a mere prop, there is nowhere the bursting-with-vitality scene one had from My Friend Judas by Andrew Sinclair. Of course, this other work is about Cambridge.

There is also what I could only term as an in-game. By these particular rules, the reader's own knowledge must match that of the writer, or he must go from the room, rush to the nearest library or bookshop, and rapidly read all the mentioned books, or at least some of the allusions will be lost, or be just oblique. I'm positive that Mr Stewart did not consider slumboys as his projected reading public, but even with a university education behind me, and with a faint interest in literature, I was at times sadly bewildered.

The other complaint is that there are hints at the way the homosexual uncle occupies a central position, and the way the two boys are grudging-carefully building their friendship, which indicates a red-herring, and because of that, it's rather a poor one.

Still, the sure touch of the writing is unmistakably that of Mr Innes…. (p. 86)

Robert Ray, in Books & Bookmen (© copyright Robert Ray 1973; reprinted with permission), August, 1973.

Mr. Stewart is a storyteller of rare wit and urbanity, and he keeps us entertained even when we suspect that he hasn't much to say or is being high-handed with his coincidences. [In "The Gaudy"] he captures twenty-four hours of an Oxford gaudy (an affair similar to an American reunion) and renders the sentimental musings and canny deductions of an old grad, now a successful playwright, named Duncan Pattullo, as he catches up on news of out-of-touch chums, aging dons, worrisome sons and daughters, and demure (or not so demure) wives. It is a crowded tableau: on and on come the characters, each one bearing the germ of a story—a jam that has to be cleared up, an opportunity that waits to be taken, a delectable stirring of romance—until, with the dizzying profusion of budding actions, we realize that Mr. Stewart is playing a game with us. The name of an ever-helpful college servant—Plot—is a clue. In fact, new characters are introduced almost to the very end, and the novel abruptly concludes with any number of incipient stories but scarcely one that can be called complete. It is a blatant unfulfillment, but not a vexing one, for Mr. Stewart has amused us all the way. In the process, he has created a portrait of a privileged milieu which, though it will strike some readers as too flattering, is nonetheless a skillful accomplishment. (pp. 138-39)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), April 28, 1975.

With J.I.M. Stewart and Young Patullo we are back in the old world. It is the second of the five novels in his Oxford sequence but chronologically comes before The Gaudy. Duncan Patullo, the serious, unworldly, artistic youth from Edinburgh, comes up to Oxford just after the war. Though there is much talk of the old days having gone for ever, it is still a world of deferential scouts, private luncheons, gentlemen and others. There is nostalgia on every page, expressed in elegant, well-made sentences, with no concessions of style or reference: an educated, subtle discourse for readers whom the writer is courteous enough to suppose as educated and subtle as himself. (p. 783)

Victoria Glendinning, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), June 13, 1975.