75. The Flower Beneath the Foot, Ronald Firbank (1923)

When I left home and moved to London in 1978, the first two things I bought for my room were an aspidistra and a copy of the Complete Novels of Ronald Firbank. You could say I was going through a rather Edwardian phase at the time. I’ve tried very hard over the years to love Firbank as much as I think I should: he boasts a fantastically arch style, a cast of wildly eccentric characters and a great ear for absurdly camp dialogue. His life story is even more peculiar than his fiction (see here for a great account of him by Siegfried Sassoon), and there’s enough suppressed homosexuality in his novels to keep a Roman Catholic seminary going for months. I do love some of the books – this being my favourite – even if I can’t read them very often. They’re extremely rarefied, and sometimes they make even me start reaching for the Hemingway. None of them has much by way of story (cardinal sin) and it’s often hard to figure out who’s saying or doing what to whom  (what I call ‘Ivy Compton-Burnett Syndrome’). The Flower Beneath the Foot is typical Firbank: the royal court of a vaguely Balkan country, a lot of gossipy ladies-in-waiting and some sexy boys who seem to be interested in each other, plus, of course, nuns. There’s a wonderful passage set in a florist’s shop in which the cut, wilting flowers talk to each other (‘I can’t feel my roots!’). If Firbank had a bit more oomph about him, he’d be up there with Evelyn Waugh – on whom he was a big influence. It’s a triumph of style over substance, but as I grow older I am less enchanted by that silly Wildean idea.




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Filed under My top 100 novels

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