Brigid Brophy Brophy, Brigid (Vol. 6) - Essay

Brophy, Brigid (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brophy, Brigid 1929–

Ms Brophy is an Anglo-Irish novelist, dramatist, short story writer, critic, radio, television, and newspaper journalist, and "propagandist of libertarianism" (including liberty for animals; she is vice president of the National Anti-Vivisection Society of Great Britain). Many believe that her regular contributions to London Magazine and New Statesman are her best work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

The longest piece in Brigid Brophy's latest collection of satirical and allegorical writing [The Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl] is the Shavian story whose title is given to the book as a whole. It was an extraordinarily bold thing to have undertaken, not because Shaw's original was inimitable, but because it was so readily imitable, and to some extent so dated…. [The] whole enterprise does not, perhaps could not, live up to the patches of successful attack which it contains. The simple fact is that the dialogue of the dead, though a famous and well-exploited form, is extremely difficult to sustain. (p. 785)

When Miss Brophy writes in her own style, there is evident both wit and lyricism…. She has an astonishing gift, like some of the best detective-story writers, for evoking incidentally a memorable setting. The epilogue of the present story illustrates this. It is set in the piazza in front of St. Peter's in Rome, and there is a kind of clear, mysterious, supernatural atmosphere which, even apart from the goose which flies over in the last sentence, recalls the early novels of Rex Warner. To say this is high praise.

And yet the whole enterprise is unsatisfactory—or, to be more precise, it is embarrassing. It is hard to say why. It cannot be the embarrassment which comes from being shocked: for surely we are not shocked any more by anticlericalism, nor any kind of attack on Christianity. We cannot any longer, passionately though we may admire Voltaire, expect the same kind of credit that he deserved from writing as he did when he did. Our mode of showing ourselves to be on the side of rationality must be different. Perhaps what embarrasses us is the feeling that we are supposed to be shocked when we are not. The arguments are often clever. But the air of the schoolboy boldly undermining what he takes to be the schoolmaster's presuppositions detracts from our admiration of their ingenuity.

It seems to me, in fact, that satire is more difficult to bring off now than ever before, and this for two reasons. First, there is no satisfaction in it unless the faith to be undermined, whatever it is, is genuinely taken for granted, unexamined by most of the audience. There are too few unthinking Christians at the present time for Christianity to be a good target, any more than snobbishness is a good target in a world in which, far from taking class for granted, we are all of us uneasily wondering whether such a thing exists, and feeling that if it does, perhaps it shouldn't. The second reason is that the literature of the very young—the school magazine and the undergraduate paper—tends to be exclusively devoted to what would earlier have been thought impossibly bold essays in mockery, in sending up this object or that. The result is that grown-up contributors in the same field have to be extremely careful not to seem to be out of the same basket. Moreover, mere familiarity with the genre may make people resistant to it.

The analogue of the school magazine is almost irresistible if we look at the first and shorter pieces in the present volume (of course, their shortness may contribute to this effect)…. Some, like the setting of words to bits of the Elgar Cello Concerto and the Brahms Academic Festival Overture, quite explicitly remind one of the kind of joke with which anyone who has played in a school or university orchestra is familiar. One should not, however, in a collection of this kind, complain that the standard is mixed. What is a bit depressing is that the tone of voice is unvaried: and the one word which suggests itself to describe this voice is not 'savage' but 'complacent'. (pp. 785-86)

Mary Warnock, "A Hard Time for Satire," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1973; reprinted by permission of Mary Warnock), December 6, 1973, pp. 785-86.

The Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl could have been written fifty years ago by Ronald Firbank, and would of course have been more entertaining if it had been. Miss Brophy devoted a long critical book to Firbank last year, Prancing Novelist, which turned into a splendid kind of Defence of Fiction. When she employed tricks of Firbank's style in the writing of that book—the sentences and paragraphs looked like Firbank, and sometimes even managed to sound like Firbank, so that by an effort of empathy one imagined Miss Brophy almost inhabiting Firbank, certainly giving every appearance of breathing with his breath—when she did that in Prancing Novelist one saw the point, and forgave her. I do not see the point of the Firbankian postures adopted in the novel which gives [this] book its title. They are vapid and ghostly. Shaw haunts Miss Brophy in this parable also. Her achievement is indeed to marry Firbank off to GBS—Voltaire, Gibbon, a 'humble Christian', Samuel Butler, Shaw himself, and God, ramble on at each other in a Shavian-Firbankian conversation-piece which indulges itself at whim in the author's obsessions…. With … so many tiny treats provided for the intellect along the way, why is the book boring? Probably because from the outset Miss Brophy has no use for God beyond some obvious joking, and a work of fiction, even an avowedly atheistical work of fiction, ought to give proper employment to the Supreme Fiction. Firbank—who was no atheist—would not have made the tactical error of writing a story in which every character is an author. But supposing that he had made it, then he would quickly have spotted the weakness of having the Author of authors figure imaginatively only for the purpose of denying his authority. To make God a speculative atheist is more than a work of fiction—however old-fashionedly 'experimental'—can achieve. Having said this, I should add that some of the less ambitious fables which the book contains strike me as quite entertaining. The fairy story at the start, 'The Singularly Ugly Princess', for example. But even these shorter pieces are more often good ideas for stories than well-realised wholes, and there is certainly one bad pun too many in the shape of the Minotaur's declaration that he's become a minotaurist attraction. When things get down to this level I admit to wondering if Miss Brophy is worth talking about at all. She can be incredibly infantile—remember Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without? I suppose she is trying to construct fiction upon a grammar of negation, but we do not need her failure where others have already failed more stylishly, or at least with their own style rather than patchwork Firbank. (p. 43)

Robert Nye, in Books & Bookmen (© Hansom Books 1974), March, 1974.

Brophy is liveliest when speaking—or making the illustrious dead speak—of the life of art, of literature, music, architecture, which she thinks about a lot and knows a lot about.

What we have here [in The Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl] is more common in England than America: reading that's at once very light and very intellectual. Consistent with her commitment to artifice and the rococo, Brophy believes in play. It isn't always fun to watch other people play for very long unless they are sublimely gifted, but Brophy and her personae get in some hard hits and some graceful ones. One caution; it's not a novel, and the 20 "fables" which precede it include an indeterminate number we could do without. Start with "The Adventures," lest you use up your receptivity to vegetarian jeux d'esprit. (p. 3)

Clara Claiborne Park, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), August 18, 1974.

["The Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl"] is an example of a venerable genre—the heavenly symposium—and it is generally wise and witty. But, since the main personages are Gibbon, Voltaire, Shaw and a "God" who is an emanation from, not an encloser of, this Trinity, there is a lack of conflict and bad temper. The conclusion of the inquiry is pretty well foregone. God sends a message to earth: "I do not exist. Signed, with divine authority, God."

Foregone? I think so. To an 18th-century rationalist like Miss Brophy, a "great romantic negation" would be in bad taste. But the conclusion is a door arbitrarily closing rather than the point to which the dialectic leads. It is the incidentals that count, as usual, in Miss Brophy. All I remember from her novel "The Snow Ball" is the speculation that Mozart's tympani in the Overture to "Don Giovanni" must necessarily be tuned to D. and G. (pp. 4-5)

In this book there are, besides the very satisfactory main items, a number of pieces which should have been reserved for cocktail parties … and, in a time of paper shortage, to give a full page to each is less arrogance than insolence.

There is also a whimsical essay, which attempts to prove that Jorge Luis Borges is really Ambrose Bierce, who in 1899 discovered a longevity-plant in the Andes. Funny enough, but what do we say to this? "Few if any of Borges's admirers in the outside world show signs of having seen a Spanish edition of his work." There may, says Miss Brophy, be "no Spanish text to stick to." To affirm that there is most certainly a Spanish text is to show one has no sense of humor. It is not playing the game. Now, Miss Brophy's book is full of game-playing, and where it seems most feeble it is probably most deliberately ludic—as in the fitting of silly words to the noble first movement of Elgar's Cello Concerto. If you feel like growling trivial or nonsense you are not making a critical judgment; you are merely disqualifying yourself from participation. Sometimes, as in the God piece, there are very serious statements indeed, where the game-playing seems not to apply; and then there are silly statements, where it does. To know the limits of the ludic is itself part of the game….

Miss Brophy's God trips, his gown rides up, he gives Voltaire what he merely promised to Moses—a view of his hinderparts. He reflects that his name in English is a palinlogue of dog and that the Italians make it sound like the French for idiot. To say that the Italians don't use Iddio much any more is as bad as saying that the best God-games are those of the medieval schoolmen—you know, serious. It means no sense of humor….

With all her silly jokes and flights of arrogance, Brigid Brophy remains a good though very British writer—balanced, erudite, sensible, unsubmissive to shrill sociological shibboleths, above all unscared. There are not many New York intellectuals who could contrive a volume as tasty and nutritious as this. (p. 5)

Anthony Burgess, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 25, 1974.

Brigid Brophy is a lively and refreshing writer, with a reputation for cleverness. This is a limitation, particularly in England where cleverness, especially in women, is rather suspect. She is a superb reviewer, opinionated and witty, and her novels have an unusual precision and elegance. I got great pleasure from Flesh and The Snowball, brilliant little fables about sex whose slightness becomes their strength. In the title story of [The Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl] the main character, God himself, expresses a taste for writing that's sophisticated, stylish, literary. The words apply very well to Brophy's own best work.

But though she's both inventive and imaginative Brophy has a tendency to try too hard—perhaps because of the unsympathetic literary climate—becoming self-consciously whimsical or pedantic. Her last novel, In Transit, sank under the weight of puns and word games; her last critical work—a 600-page, provocative tribute to one of her literary idols, Ronald Firbank—merely proved that prolonged provocation becomes tedious. Now, in The Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl, she pays homage to another clever and nowadays unfashionable writer, George Bernard Shaw. Though she gives a funny, ingenious twist to Shaw's atheism she falls into traps some of which Shaw himself failed to avoid: determined to mock and shock, she's so unrelentingly the enfant terrible that her flashes of genuine wit get lost. (p. 27)

Brophy … dehumanizes ideas—by treating them as static "things," by isolating them from emotion, from opposition. There are moments when she's so self-conscious about her "ideas" that she actually stops thinking. It's most obvious in the shorter pieces—a mixed bag of fairy tales, fables, paradoxes and puns. She never misses a chance to throw us off balance, to discomfit and needle us into questioning our prejudices. But she never questions her own. Her writing is finally too comfortable, too self-assured, and her polemical points—pro-vegetarian, anti-democratic, anti-religion—are paraded too easily and predictably. Bossily, she divides us into sheep and goats. If you disagree you're cast into an irrational outer darkness and convicted of being humorless and non-literate. Ironically I found myself digging my heels in, resisting at precisely those places where I am most inclined to agree with her.

Brophy's feelings only seem engaged when she writes about animals, about man's inhumanity not to man but to other animals. At one point in the title story God, surprised by Shaw's hard-hearted laughter at the troubles in Northern Ireland, is firmly rebuked for failing to see how much passion laughter requires. But it's that human passion that's lacking in Brophy's own wit.

It's not that Brophy is hard hearted. But her jokes these days have the irresponsible brittleness of a precocious adolescent, of a public schoolboy if you like. It's a note that's curiously prevalent in contemporary English letters—a crotchetiness that conceals lack of genuine individuality, a class-based assumption of cultural superiority, a condescension toward anyone who disagrees. Brophy is beginning to sound more and more like writers whom superficially she's opposed to—Malcolm Muggeridge, Auberon Waugh or Bernard Levin. She is picking up the bullying note that lurks behind their liberal reasonableness, the clubman's prejudices that lie at the root of the English "sense of humor." It's a pity that a woman with such a fresh and personal talent should let herself be co-opted in this way. It may be a comment not so much on Brigid Brophy as on the subtly authoritarian atmosphere in which she's writing. (pp. 27-8)

Margaret Walters, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), December 28, 1974.

Yearning to imitate the British wits of eighty years ago, Brigid Brophy imitates [in The Adventures of God in His Search for the Black Girl] only eighty-year-old witticisms. She devotes several pages, for instance, to the story of a girl who, given three wishes by a djinnee (Brophy's spelling), wishes for as many wishes as she wants. Miss Brophy does nothing more with the situation and is evidently unaware that every schoolchild has already pondered this conundrum. In short, the book is rarely rewarding, amusing, or even intelligent. The best piece, "A Literary History," argues that after the mordant American satirist Ambrose Bierce disappeared in 1913, he went to South America, eventually to reappear as Jorge Luis Borges. Nearly approximating Bierce and Borges in tone, this essay is a pastiche of some quality. Generally, however, Miss Brophy deals with ideas, which become extremely brittle in her hands. Though slavishly imitative of Shaw, she hasn't learned a thing from him; she always levels her lance at straw men, scarecrow effigies that have little relation to reality. The title piece, which takes half the book, is a tedious, unreadable symposium whose members include such notables as God, Shaw, and Voltaire…. [In this] God's nature is peculiar only because Brophy has no gift for characterization at all. Here the straw man is an arrogant second banana named the Humble Christian. If Brophy had had the guts to let John Bunyan's Christian into her book, he would have swept the floor with her whole pack of sophomore debaters. (p. 681)

Charles Nicol, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), June 20, 1975.