Rayner Heppenstall

Context N°18

by G. J. Buckell

Rayner Heppenstall was many things during his lifetime: a poet, journalist, critic, translator, and broadcaster; a Catholic and an agnostic, a revolutionary and a reactionary, a pacifist and a soldier. Above all, he was a novelist, and if he is remembered for anything at all, it is his fiction. However, despite being cited as the founder of the nouveau roman by numerous critics, and becoming a spiritual forefather to the neo-modernist circle headed by B. S. Johnson in ’60s Britain, Heppenstall has been completely forgotten by literary critics since his death in 1981, and all of his novels remain out of print.

Born John Rayner Heppenstall in Huddersfield, Yorkshire in 1911 (Rayner was his mother’s maiden name), Heppenstall graduated from Leeds University in 1932 with a degree in English and Modern Languages. This cultivated a lifelong Francophilia that did much to shape the character of his subsequent novels as well as his idiosyncratic critical writing. Moving to London in 1934, Heppenstall quickly became extraordinarily well connected, befriending Dylan Thomas, Herbert Read, Eric Gill, George Orwell, and countless other writers, critics, artists, and dramatists during a fifty-year career as a freelance writer and broadcaster on BBC radio.

As well as studies of John Middleton Murry, Léon Bloy, and Raymond Roussel, and several volumes of memoirs, Heppenstall wrote eight novels, the first of which was The Blaze of Noon (1939). This novel made a considerable critical impact, as did The Connecting Door (1962), which excited British avant-gardists seeking a domestic equivalent to the école du regard of Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Simon, Duras, and others in postwar France, being described by its publisher as an “anti-novel to stand up to the performances of the Frenchmen.” He was name-checked in B. S. Johnson’s introduction to Aren’t You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoirs, and, as Heppenstall recorded in his journals, Hélène Cixous stated that “il [Heppenstall] à inauguré le nouveau roman dès 1939 avec The Blaze of Noon” in an article for Le Monde on “le roman experimental” in Britain, published in May 1967.

Despite this, Heppenstall has disappeared from the critical consciousness, being primarily of interest to Orwell biographers disconcerted by his account (in Four Absentees) of their drunken contretemps. Heppenstall was also the subject of a typically spiteful personal attack in John Carey’s The Intellectual and the Masses, a populist Tory denunciation of modernism riddled with deliberate misrepresentations and simplifications of modernist literary culture, Nazi cultural policy, and the connections between the two—otherwise, very little is written about him, and a sustained, balanced critique of the literary qualities of his novels has never really been attempted. This despite the fact that Heppenstall’s novels can be read in many contexts: the development of the nouveau roman, the reinvigoration of British modernism during the sixties, the transition from modernism to postmodernism in British fiction, the contemporary attempt to find new directions for serious fiction amidst World War II and its aftermath, and, of course, according to their own considerable merits.

After publishing reviews in T. S. Eliot’s Criterion, and two books—a brief study of Middleton Murry and Apology for Dancing, a volume of ballet criticism—Heppenstall began to infiltrate British literary and intellectual circles. Noted as a poet, he was aware of British surrealism, being friends with Dylan Thomas and Herbert Read, who were involved if not fully committed to the movement. He also reviewed Hugh Sykes Davies’s Petron (1935), Britain’s first surrealist novel, for the Criterion. However, it was not the fantastical exterior of Petron’s world that captivated Heppenstall, who expressed doubts over whether one could deliberately be “pre-rational”; rather, it was “the withdrawal from life, by a method directly anti-poetic, into phenomena not yet capable of rationalisation as image and symbol, much less as philosophy or argument” that interested him.

Heppenstall entered intellectual life in a period of crisis: the English modernists, to whom Heppenstall was essentially sympathetic, had often been less socially engaged than their European counterparts; the reluctance of the British government to aid the Spanish Republic and the increasing threat posed by Hitler left many intellectuals feeling obliged to politicize. Heppenstall’s pacifism, which contrasted starkly with the surrealists’ polemics and Orwell’s Spanish adventure, was rooted in opposition to Fascism: “Risorgimento” was an oblique attack on Mussolini, assimilating political critique into an introspective pseudosymbolist poem, with discernable religious overtones. This religiosity dominated Heppenstall’s verse, which displayed more affinity with Eliot and Yeats than Auden or Spender, the self-proclaimed poetic orthodoxy of the decade.

Heppenstall shared the surrealists’ interest in Freud but not their faith in Marxism, and like many other intellectuals of the time, spent the decade searching for an intellectual framework within which he felt comfortable. Throughout the 1930s, he flirted with a number of positions: varying shades of socialism, pacifism, and most importantly, Catholicism, a conversion that was brief but left Heppenstall with a “metaphysical hangover.” This spirituality permeated his epic poem Sebastian (1937), but constituted a notable absence in his novels, which are often infused with a vague sense of pessimistic futility. Heppenstall’s refusal to accept any of the political or spiritual structures proposed as a solution to the turmoil of the decade distanced him from his contemporaries, a distance exacerbated by his constant focus on the position of the Self (usually a cultivated, individualistic bourgeois) rather than the body politic.

The esoteric introspection that characterized Heppenstall’s poetry was integral to The Blaze of Noon. The narrative concerned a blind masseur, staying in Cornwall with a patient, Mrs. Nance, whose niece, Sophie, falls in love with him, with further complications arising from the intrusion of Amity Nance, who is blind, deaf, and dumb. Heppenstall wrote an introduction for a 1962 reprint, supplanting the original one by Elizabeth Bowen, whom Heppenstall did not meet until the mid-1940s. Here, Heppenstall explained how the book had been written in response to a friend (Michael Sayers, an Irish author) who had said that he could never write a novel, and that it was “not the work of a literary theorist.” However, Heppenstall did have one theoretical principle, crucial to the transposition of his self-reflective poetics into prose, which was that “the cinema had taken over the story-telling functions of the exteriorised novel and that prose narrative would do well to become more lyrical, more inward.” It was this inwardness that accounts for critical suggestions that The Blaze of Noon anticipated the nouveau roman, with the narrator’s blindness necessitating the focus upon the properties of objects favored by Robbe-Grillet.

The Blaze of Noon was completed during the Munich crisis and published in November 1939; politics barely impinge on the narrative, which is psychologically and spatially distanced from sites of contemporary political meaning. Narrator and protagonist Louis Dunkel is incredibly self-absorbed, using memory, imagination, and extensive speculation on his other sensory receptions to apprehend the world in the absence of supposedly more trustworthy eyesight. However, he does engage with modern literature, reading Eliot and Nietzsche in braille, displaying an interest in Freud (which manifests itself in ceaseless self-psychoanalysis) and knowledge of avant-garde composers like Auric, Milhaud, and Stravinsky. However, the fragility of Dunkel’s means of interpretation is exposed immediately: the opening paragraph sets the tone, beginning “The handshake and a few words of conversation are enough. I rarely fail to receive the impression of a woman on meeting her.” Sophie Madron is swiftly established as an object of fascination when she does not shake his hand, leading Dunkel to speculate in the absence of his favored clues. There is much conversation between them but the love affair operates on an unequal basis. Sophie falls in love with Louis, but Louis falls in love with his idea of Sophie, seeing her as an extension of himself rather than a person in her own right: perhaps due to his blindness, all of the characters Dunkel meets serve merely to emphasize aspects of his personality, and help him in his struggle to define himself amidst a complex, often hostile environment.

He attempts to do this through his relationships with others; Amity’s arrival heightens his self-awareness to an unbearable degree, and his relations with his hosts in the country house are strained, some beyond repair. His sexual relations cause the most difficulty—and caused difficulty for Heppenstall as well. The Evening Standard labeled The Blaze of Noon “an affront to decency” and called for it to be banned. Inevitably, the novel sold out immediately. It is difficult to see what offended the Standard so much, even in context: other reviewers thought the book to be inventive and serious, and Heppenstall established himself as a novelist of considerable promise.

Circumstances obliged Heppenstall to abandon his pacifism; he was conscripted in 1940 and served in Yorkshire and Northern Ireland, in the Royal Artillery and the Pay Corps. His experiences in London immediately before the war, and in the Army, formed the basis for his next two novels, Saturnine and The Lesser Infortune, as well as two short prose pieces in the 1944 edition of New Road. Saturnine was published in 1943 in a limited edition of 1,650 copies, primarily because the publisher was concerned that its contents were inflammatory.

Certainly, Saturnine offended some critics, particularly James Agate of The Daily Express, an adversary of Heppenstall’s who labeled it “A book more dangerous than bosh.” Agate was infuriated by a passage that read, “Consider merely that everyone stinks of excrement and putrefaction. That goes for you and me, for the Prime Minister and the Hangman, for the Queen of England, the little princesses and the Queen Mother, for all the war-lords of Europe”—particularly controversial at a time when unequivocal support for Churchill’s National Government was demanded, and a contributory factor in the publisher’s decision not to commit to a reprint, which contributed in turn to the novel’s critical disappearance.

This is a pity, because Saturnine is Heppenstall’s most original, most adventurous novel, ceaselessly questioning its own form in playful, delicate prose. With its loose episodic structure, Heppenstall, with typical self-effacement, recorded that it was “a very suitable kind of novel to be written by a man in the Army, since he can post off the separate episodes to a friend, wife or typist as he writes them and need not . . . bear the whole thing in his head.” Describing Saturnine in The Intellectual Part, Heppenstall labeled it a picaresque novel: “it has no formal plot but . . . the episodes follow each other serially.” The process of its construction demonstrates how Heppenstall’s approach to writing differed from that of many postwar avantgarde novelists: rather than establishing a tight set of formal boundaries and writing within them, Heppenstall tended to let his circumstances dictate how he composed his works, and opted to resurrect a traditional form and stretch its limitations, rather than attempting to create an entirely new one.

Saturnine introduced Alick Frobisher, again a first-person narrator who recounts his experiences in London immediately prior to the war, covering bankruptcy, the birth of a daughter, a drunk and disorderly charge, homosexual acquaintances, political reflections, and astrological asides. Once more, the central character is highly introverted, with his many failings laid bare. Frobisher is desperate to escape his destitution and the mundane, oppressive realities of late-’30s life, but rather than advocating any philosophy or ideology as the solution to twentieth-century malaise, he fixates upon “irrational” astrology and mysticism in an exuberant narrative that strains in numerous (apparently contradictory) directions simultaneously.

The Lesser Infortune, published in 1953 but mostly written during Heppenstall’s service, seems the most formally traditional of his novels, being an apparently autobiographical account of Frobisher’s time in the army, during which he suffers a mental breakdown. Although the plot of this sequel to Saturnine meant that many strands of its predecessor’s narrative were terminated, The Lesser Infortune was delicately written, with its detached ruminations on army life, subdued political engagement, and the narrator’s relentless focus on his own consciousness pointing towards the nouveau roman. Here, Frobisher finds that the war consists of a solitary battle to remain sane, and that the end of the war merely substitutes one set of insecurities for another. Its constant focus upon physical properties of objects, occasionally punctuated by reflection on their effects upon the narrator’s psychology, anticipated the relentlessly observational style that characterized Robbe-Grillet’s novels, which in turn bore a crucial influence upon Heppenstall’s next novel.

A revised edition of Saturnine was issued by Peter Owen in 1960, under the title The Greater Infortune, a publication that heralded an increased rate of literary productivity. Heppenstall took pains to distance himself from his protagonist, changing Frobisher’s name to Leckie, primarily because, “A number of readers took both Saturnine and The Lesser Infortune to be more autobiographical than they are and in some cases formed (while one or two critics expressed) conclusions unflattering to myself . . . Myself the most respectable of men, I now think it advisable, if only to make it clear that my central figure is indeed a fictitious personage, to give him a background more distinctly not my own.” This focus upon his personality rather than his works was to hamper Heppenstall’s career from this point onward, as he published several volumes of memoirs during the ’60s that revealed many problematic aspects to his character.

Immediately after the war, Heppenstall’s time with the BBC Third Programme limited and channeled his creativity. He produced a number of radio scripts, both original plays and adaptations (including one of Orwell’s Animal Farm), before reemerging as a novelist and literary critic in the early ’60s. Heppenstall’s fiction took a new direction, anticipated in his critical work The Fourfold Tradition (1961), which attempted to draw parallels between both “traditional” and “counter-traditional” literatures in English and French. Here, Heppenstall bemoaned the fact that “we have endless conventional novels,” exasperated by the popular and critical success of the reactionary Angry Young Men (particularly Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and John Osborne), while praising the nouveau roman more enthusiastically than any other literary movement.

Heppenstall insisted that the French “second tradition,” which incorporated Gide and Proust, and Juhardin’s development of the “stream of consciousness” had culminated in the nouveau roman, which he declared an interesting variation on the technique. Heppenstall became personally acquainted with Sarraute (who was impressed with The Greater Infortune) as well as Robbe-Grillet, whose Jealousy was a vital influence upon Heppenstall’s The Connecting Door. Robbe-Grillet took an interest in the fortunes of Heppenstall’s novel, the English writer’s most consciously avant-garde work to date. While Heppenstall’s earlier novels, particularly his debut, perhaps anticipated certain structural and thematic characteristics of the nouveau roman, The Connecting Door openly demonstrated the influence of the école du regard.

Its “plot” is uneventful: a nameless man in his late thirties arrives in an unidentified city on the Rhine in 1948 on a journalistic assignment; the relationships he develops with two younger men, local officials, and several women prompt recriminations about his previous visits to the area, in 1931 and 1936. The narrative drew heavily on Heppenstall’s own experiences, and reflected his literary influences, both through a range of allusions and its structural experimentation, which was foregrounded to an unprecedented level. It shared its predecessors’ concern with memory and self-definition, but here, Heppenstall’s descriptive prose aspired to a level of “neutrality,” eschewing the narrator’s reflection on the personal relevance of his surroundings that characterized The Blaze of Noon and The Lesser Infortune. The novel was highly mysterious, challenging its reader to establish which events take place in which plane of time, addressed simultaneously by its text, as well as which characters existed in “reality” and which solely in the narrator’s consciousness.

A year later, in The Intellectual Part, Heppenstall refuted an Italian critic who called him “il padre del nouveau roman,” believing that none of the French writers had read the 1947 translation of The Blaze of Noon and that the similarities were, as he put it, “Zeitgeistig.” Heppenstall explained that the unusual temporal arrangement employed in Connecting Door had been developed over several abortive novels, with a section praised by one reviewer written in 1945, whilst he was still in the army. If this is true, it adds weight to the claim that Heppenstall anticipated the nouveau roman, although, as he would doubtless have insisted, this is unverifiable. It was The Connecting Door, more than its immediate follow-up The Woodshed, that impressed the 1960s avant-garde, constituted of a generation of writers mostly born in the ’30s, such as Johnson, Ann Quin, and Eva Figes, loosely unified around a shared opposition to literary conservatism more than a dedication to any defined set of aesthetic principles.

The Woodshed was, seemingly, a more modest novel than The Connecting Door. Harold Atha (again a figuration of the author), traveling from Aberystwyth to his hometown of Hinderholme (a fictional Yorkshire village) after receiving a telegram telling him that his father is dying, is prompted by external stimuli to recall fragmented memories of his inter-war childhood. This was a refined “stream-of-consciousness” novel, intended as a contribution to England’s “second tradition.” Heppenstall felt that this technique, developed in English-language writing by Joyce, Woolf, and Dorothy Richardson, had become “bedevilled with literary politics” as a consequence of the Angry Young Men’s reactionary disdain for it, and The Woodshed represented an attempt to rehabilitate it into a burgeoning literary counterculture that aimed to pick up where Joyce and company had left off before the war.

Four Absentees and The Intellectual Part demonstrated the breadth of Heppenstall’s literary connections. As well as the loose nouveau roman group, he had many links with the survivors of the 1930s, and was now being invited into new avantgarde circles, meeting Anthony Burgess, Alan Burns, Figes, Johnson, Quin, and Stefan Themerson among others. The writers in Johnson’s circle were primarily novelists, a form that Heppenstall was moving away from in order to specialize in criminal historiography—indeed, he only wrote one novel between 1963 and 1977, The Shearers, which told the story of the trial of eight members of an incestuous family for murder, in (unusually for Heppenstall) the third person.

Heppenstall was also shifting politically. He detailed this in The Intellectual Part, saying, “I have not enjoyed this drift to the Right. I hope it will be reversed . . . The outside world seemed bent on provoking it.” A read through his published journals, covering 1969 to 1981, suggests that it was not reversed: indeed, Heppenstall’s political opinions became increasingly reactionary, with his diaries indicating a rapid decline into outright insanity. It was this decline that made Heppenstall such an unpalatable figure to commentators such as Carey, and is largely responsible for his fall into obscurity.

Although Heppenstall’s compositional methods had previously been improvisatory, with form being determined by circumstance and content, his penultimate novel Two Moons (1977) was built upon a given construct, with two narratives printed side by side to contrast the world at large with the personal tragedy of Heppenstall’s son being paralyzed in a fall. However, these narratives consisted mostly of numerous arbitrary details recounted endlessly, in a fashion that becomes tedious almost immediately. Heppenstall, by this time obsessed with death and espousing some frighteningly reactionary ideas himself, was irritated that the reviews focused on the structure, ignoring the content. By now mentally ill and bitterly disillusioned, Heppenstall wrote one more novel, an uncomfortable diatribe called The Pier, indicative more of a psychological collapse than a return to form. He died of a stroke on May 23, 1981, aged 70.


Heppenstall’s earlier novels, then, can be read in several contexts, but above all they should once more be read. While The Lesser Infortune and The Woodshed are not to be discounted, The Blaze of Noon, Saturnine, and The Connecting Door are among the most successful novels produced by Britain’s neo-modernists. They are unique within English literature for their discernable awareness of developments in French writing, finding a radical new direction for the stream of consciousness, and genuinely changing the nature of this technique rather than merely reviving as it as did some of his contemporaries. Rayner Heppenstall is scarcely mentioned now, save for colorful appearances in biographies of his contemporaries, and there are no signs of a critical revival in the near future. However, Heppenstall’s writings are, at their best, witty and provocative, being brutally honest about the failings of man, emphasizing the precarious nature of identity and attendant mental health. They ask searching questions about how the sensitive individual can justify his existence in a world where social circumstances seem always to put his actions just beyond his control.


Selected Works by Rayner Heppenstall:

The Blaze of Noon. Out of Print.
The Connecting Door. Out of Print.
The Double Image. Out of Print.
Four Absentees. Out of Print.
The Fourfold Tradition: Notes on English and French Literatures, with Some Ethnological and Historical Asides. Out of Print.
The Greater Infortune. Out of Print.
The Intellectual Part. Out of Print.
The Lesser Infortune. Out of Print.
The Pier. Out of Print.
Raymond Roussel: A Critical Guide. Calder, £5.99.
Saturnine. Out of Print.
The Shearers. Out of Print.
Two Moons. Out of Print.

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