Nigel Dennis Essay - Critical Essays

Dennis, Nigel

Dennis, Nigel 1912–

Dennis, a British novelist, playwright, poet, and essayist, is probably the best satirist to emerge in Britain since Wyndham Lewis. In America his fame rests largely upon one novel, Cards of Identity, a satirical fable that has been cited as a minor classic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Cards of Identity is an ambitious satire, partly allegorical, which is weakened in the end by the purely negative values underlying it. The Identity Club has its yearly conference at a large country mansion and, using modern techniques of psychological persuasion, the members of the Identity Club persuade the owners of the mansion and the local doctor to accept the roles of old family servants. Papers are delivered, anecdotes about identity-changing or the assumption of fantasy identities are told, and the performance of a mock-Elizabethan play leads eventually to the murder of the Club President and his suppression by a younger and more ruthless rival. The satire is ambivalent; it is partly satire on modern means of mass persuasion, and on the uneasiness which many people feel today unless they can adapt themselves to a stereotyped role. But the cruel and frivolous members of the Identity Club seem to be regarded by Mr. Dennis with a certain Nietzschean complicity, and the ruthlessness of the whole scheme is in the end distasteful. Mr. Dennis lacks that basic sympathy with the human weaknesses which make up human nature…. [His first novel, Boys and Girls Come Out to Play,] remains a disagreeable and rather over-elaborated but powerful and sourly amusing book. (p. 172)

G. S. Fraser, in his The Modern Writer and His World (copyright © 1953, 1964 by G. S. Fraser), Andre Deutsch, 1964.

["A House in Order," a] novella (if parable isn't a better word), comes at a time that is hardly momentous for the literature of captivity and breakaway, a time when all the false uniforms have been moth-eaten into dust. The odds are that now-it-can-be-told no longer finds ears flapping to hear it. Nigel Dennis has written an escape story that is not topical on those terms. On which other terms he intended it to be judged is far from clear.

His pivotal character is an army cartographer ["X"], an unbelievably craven P.O.W., who betrays no one, reveals nothing of value to the enemy, and yet stays alive and unharmed through efforts that ultimately approach the heroic. It is a strange little story….

If the author's object was to prove that they also serve who only shiver and wait, that an accidental valor can be spawned by extreme cowardice, then why the queer, unworldly menace of the formative chapters? The occupational intriguing of the Colonel, the Commandant, and the Deputy Commissioner of Prisoners of War, is presumably relevant to the character of their captive, but it is hard to see how. Indeed the coexistence of the first two officers on the same site—for so long—needs some explaining. Apprehensive though he is, the prisoner himself appears to be wondering who is in charge around here. If he were a theatergoer, he might suspect that it was lonesco….

In readability and general competence the book is up to the standard Mr. Dennis set with his memorable "Cards of Identity." But if we are to take a clarity measurement—temp. approx. 50 degrees.

Frank Littler, "The Ordeal of X," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 30, 1966, p. 73.

In its comic, inventive and somewhat heartless fashion, Cards of Identity probes at contemporary dilemmas: its satirical examination of the way in which the traditional symbols of English identity are losing their validity is an important part of its meaning. Nigel Dennis is one of the most accomplished and idiosyncratic of living English novelists, and in his most recent novel, A House in Order, he continues to dwell on the question of identity in a way that is at once more personal and less culturally specific than in Cards of Identity, though it is an equally distinguished work. (p. 74)

Bernard Bergonzi, in his The Situation of the Novel (reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press; © 1970 by Bernard Bergonzi), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970.