(John) Rayner Heppenstall Essay - Critical Essays

Heppenstall, (John) Rayner


Heppenstall, (John) Rayner 1911–

Heppenstall is an English novelist, poet, critic, short story writer, playwright, editor, and translator. Often autobiographical, his work reflects the influence of Yeats, Blake, and the French symbolists, as well as the French New Novelists. The Blaze of Noon is considered Heppenstall's most successful novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Derek Verschoyle

The Blaze of Noon is a remarkable and original book. It is the story of a phase in the life of a blind man which, though it is an astonishing tour de force, possesses a depth and certainty of the kind which one does not associate with books whose distinction lies in their brilliance. It is a book of which, whether one likes it or not, time will not change one's opinion, for it is not tied to the tastes of a decade; unlike the average English novel of today, written and read within defined social boundaries, it might as effectively have been written in another language and given an alien setting, it will not date, and a reader coming to it in ten years' time will be in just as good a position to appreciate it or criticise it as a reader now…. The originality of the book lies not in the exploitation of unusual material, but in its fresh approach to ordinary experience…. [The] life, both inner and social, of the particular man who is the central subject of the examination is revealed with absolute consistency and vividness. It is a remarkable achievement.

The book's chief faults, which are irritating rather than crucial, are didacticism and—particularly towards the end—a sense of obsession which creeps through the cool and lucid prose…. It is possible to be irritated by the arrogance with which he makes his statements; it is possible to see in what is presented as realism no more than a disguised form of romanticism; it is possible to object on theoretical grounds to any emphasis being placed in this context on physical love, since it is of human activities the one where in practice the visual element generally counts for least. But it simply is not possible to pretend that the book bears the slightest taint of pornography. The world abounds with books containing passages of an equal "frankness," the majority of them too trivial to penetrate beyond the underworld of the circulating library. It is safe to say that to palates formed on such a diet this distinguished and austere book will seem notably lacking in flavour.

Derek Verschoyle, "A Blind Man," in The Spectator (© 1939 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), December 15, 1939, p. 878.

George Dangerfield

Louis Duncan [the blind protagonist of "The Blaze of Noon"] experiences life with four intensified senses, the fifth being absent; and since he is the narrator, everything in the book is felt not seen.

Certainly Mr. Heppenstall (presumably by shutting his eyes and discovering what it feels like) has done an admirable job of describing a blind man's emotions when he enters a strange room, meets a strange person, takes a walk in an unknown garden, or swims in the sea. But this is not a novel about blindness but a novel about Love—Love as propounded by Louis Duncan—Love without any visual descriptions to aid it…. [The] fact remains that the novel is an obstinate entity; it demands the creation of acceptable characters; and Louis Duncan comes very short of this simple ideal. He is, in fact, rather tiresome. He speaks of Love as if he were a gymnastic instructor, and Love an exercise that must be conducted without gaiety or humor. He is a bit of a prig, and more than a bit of a bore.

George Dangerfield, "Obstinate Entity," in Saturday Review (© 1940 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 25, 1940, p. 22.

Richard Whittington-Egan

Heppenstall, the lately arrived criminal historian of murder à la môde Française, [reminds us in Bluebeard and After] that while we may have our Jacques l'Eventreur, our Crippens, Seddons, Heaths, Haighs and Christies, in the words of Sterne, 'They order … this matter better in France.' Or if not, strictly, better, at least statistically they are our superiors, being on average rather more than twice as murderous as ourselves.

Taking Landru as a kind of sinister marker, Mr Heppenstall proceeds to range about him the grand assassins of three decades—the twenties, thirties and forties….

The account of the misdeeds of all these anti-heroes is set against the march of political, social and cultural events within France, and contrasted with coeval criminalities in other countries. This treatment, while providing a most effective panoramic view of the chronologically unfolding record, does have the intrinsic disadvantage of making for very dense reading, and the result is not one of those books which can be picked up and put down. It requires sustained and concentrated effort on the part of the reader. But the effort is worth making, for there is certainly no better account available of the art and artifice of the practice of murder in the fair land of our new common market partners. (p. 103)

Richard Whittington-Egan, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Richard Whittington-Egan, 1972; reprinted with permission), May, 1972.

Anthony Holden

[George] Orwell pointed to the brutalising effects of war. Rayner Heppenstall, unconsciously showing how murder is absorbed into the fabric of an increasingly violent society, reaches a remarkably similar conclusion after noting sectarian killings in Ulster: 'One began to wonder whether old-fashioned murders took place any more.'

And that's really an epitaph on his own kind of book [The Sex War and Other] (subtitle: A Survey of Recent Murder, Principally in France). In the criminology stakes, Heppenstall is a pro: to him, a buried corpse is not decomposing, it is 'falling to pieces', cremation is 'incineration', a psychopath is 'a nut'. But no post-Freudian criminologist can afford, as Heppenstall thinks he can, simply to chronicle atrocities for the wide-eyed or moist-lipped. With a brief this broad, conclusions are only avoided by those out for not very gentlemanly relish; Heppenstall's impressionistic approach leads merely to some rather splendid (and possibly libellous) non-sequiturs, for example: 'As Sir John Hunt's expedition toiled up the lower slopes of Everest, the bodies were discovered at Rillington Place.'

The book is a thinly disguised manifesto for the return of capital punishment. (p. 589)

Anthony Holden, in New Statesman (© 1973 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 20, 1973.

Eric Korn

[Two Moons] is a carefully constructed, defiantly random paste-up of faits divers—homicides, road accidents, the goings and comings of heads of state, weather reports, and a sports round-up, observed by a mandarin-in-the-moon…. [The] duplex narrative line [is] neither as difficult to follow nor as interesting as you might think.

Gradually, from the sandstorm of occurrences, preoccupations …, charming speculations …, and uncharming prejudices …, a focus and a narrator appears: Harold Atha, a writer preparing a television programme on bellringing, whose son has had a disastrous accident…. Depressingly, [Harold] concludes that "traditional astrology may sometimes adumbrate a pattern where all, at first, seems meaningless", and we are subjected to a barrage of lunations, conjunctions, aspects, and sextiles. For the sceptical reader, for whom fictional events are not evidence, it remains meaningless, though Mr Heppenstall, despite the obstacles he puts in his own path, rarely writes without clarity and sensibility. (p. 682)

Eric Korn, in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), June 3, 1977.

Neil Hepburn

The two moons of Rayner Heppenstall's title [Two Moons] are not the astronomical bodies that might imply a descent into Anglo-Vonnegutism, but those more familiar as patronising approximations of 'savage' speech—the periods of time that we call lunar months or lunations. The two in question are consecutive, those of August and September 1972; their phases frame the events of this extraordinary novel without restricting its temporal scope, which easily accommodates 50-year-old memories, as well as a 'writing present' about a year after the main events.

These events are not in themselves outstandingly strange or momentous. They concern the consequences of an accident—a fall in Croydon—to...

(The entire section is 365 words.)