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GREEK LOVE IN THE NOVELS OF RONALD FIRBANK

 

The following review of Greek love as a theme in the novellas of the English writer Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank (1886-1926) was published in the eleventh issue of Pan, a magazine about boy-love, March 1982, pp. 22-26.

 

“A Bright, Particular Galaxy of Boys”
by David James

His world is peopled by strange characters:  crowned heads, blackamoors, society ladies, ecclesiastics, lesbians and  extremely youthful boys and girls. His highly individual style is all but impossible  to describe - Evelyn Waugh thought it  too intangible to exert a significant  literary influence, although certainly he, and perhaps Ernest Hemmingway and Anthony Powell as well, were indeed affected by it. It would be equally difficult to explain why the novellas of Ronald Firbank are so screamingly funny.

Ronald Firbank, ca. 1917

Firbank was born in London in 1886, son of highly conventional parents who were dismayed when he survived only two terms of school and had to be provided with a private tutor. He went on to Cambridge but did not sit for any examinations, thus frustrating his parents’ ambition that he enter the Diplomatic Service.

At Cambridge Firbank came under the influence of the aesthetic movement of the Eighteen Nineties, saturating himself in the writings of the French decadents, especially those of Huysmans. He also was received into the Catholic Church. When the world went to war in 1914 he was unfit for military service and so set about writing and developing and refining his style.

There are lots of young boys in Firbank’s work. The first to appear is in The Artificial Princess (1915), a page boy who is paid a large wage to “look wilful, and to stand about corridors and pout”. In Vainglory (1915) little Guy Fox, asked what he would like to be when he grows up, replies, “Kept!” to the consternation of his mother, while it is confirmed that Reggie Cresswell, the first of many choirboys in Firbank’s books, “will do anything for a sixpence”.

Much is made in Valmouth (1919) of the farm boy Bobby Jolly whose appearance is lovingly described:

Between his long curly lashes were blue eyes - not very deep: a slight down, nearly white, sprouted below a dainty little nose, just above the lip at the two corners.

At one point Bobby is offered to a middle-aged matron, who rejects him as too young at twelve but agrees that he is “a king’s morsel”. This incident mirrors another, earlier in the book, when, asked to take a boy under her wing, another lady asks pertinently, “But is he ripe?”

The servant boy Angelo, in The Princess Zoubaroff (1920), who is “sixteen, fair, sleek, languishing”, hints so broadly and so often to the house guests that he would like to be taken away that one of them finally gives him a letter of introduction to an American millionaire living in Memphis! Cherif, the young protagonist of Santal (1921), lives in fear of the wealthy procurer, Ibn Ibrahim, “daily expecting a cargo of very young boys from Tunis”, who makes a number of sinister appearances in this, one of Firbank's shorter works.

The three most masterful novellas, however, have boys as central characters. The Flower Beneath the Foot (1923) is quite overrun with them, from Prince Olaf, “a little boy racked by all the troubles of spring”, to the slim Tunisian boy Bachir, who is described as going on excursions “which ended on occasion in adventure”: indeed he is at one point discovered sitting on a garden bench with the Prime Minister.

One of the important relationships in The Flower Beneath the Foot is between the exiled statesman, Count Cabinet, and his “secretary”, the ex-choirboy (of course) Peter Passer, whose amazing habit had been to scatter petals from the choir loft onto the grey heads of the monsignori below.

To watch Peter’s fancy-diving off the terrace was perhaps the favourite passtime [sic] of the veteran viveur: to behold the lad trip along the river breakwater, as naked as a statue, shoot out his arms and spring, the Flying head-leap or the Backsadilla, was a beautiful sight.

The relationship does not last, however, as we later find Peter going to the big city “to advance his fortunes, in ways best known to himself”.

The exuberantly corrupt city of Cuna-Cuna in Prancing Nigger (1924) is one of Firbank’s most colourful creations:

Oh, Cuna-Cuna! Little city of lies and peril! How many careless young nigger boys have gone thus to seal their doom!

One of the principal strands of the plot has the black Mouth family moving to the city, partly to satisfy Mrs. Mouth’s social pretensions. The book documents the inexorable corruption of her young son, Charlie, who has previously been preoccupied only with butterfly-collecting. Having fallen in with a group of more knowing boys, he soon learns their ways:

Ever so lovely are the young men of Cuna-Cuna - but none so delicate, charming and squeamish as Charlie Mouth.

At the story’s end we find him one of the habitués of “a notorious bar with its bright particular galaxy of boys”.

It is in Prancing Nigger also that we first come across a phenomenon which is to figure more prominently in Firbank's next novella: dancing boys. Here we see a corps of them practising for a performance, gliding “amid a murmur of applause”, their privileged audience enraptured by the swaying torsos and their feet fettered with chains of orchids. Their dancing mistress confides that she has warned them to leave out their salacious final dance,

“...on account of the Archbishop. But young boys are so excitable and I expect they'll forget!”

Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926) is in some ways the most remarkable of Firbank’s books. The chief character is the eponymous Cardinal Archbishop of Clemenza who is given to prowling the streets of that city in full drag and, when in the robes of office, particularly savours the respectful kisses of young men on his be-ringed archiepiscopal hand. The other inhabitants of the city seem to share his lubricity: one noblewoman even prays to be relieved of the temptation afforded by her grandson

fifteen, white and vivid rose, and ink-black hair. Heaven defend a weak woman from that!

The cardinal is told that even his acolytes are misbehaving:

At least half of them are absent, confined to their cots, in the wards of the Pistache Fathers.

The Cardinal, perhaps deliberately, ignores the implication. We are quickly introduced to the motley collection of choir-boys, acolytes and dancing boys who inevitably crowd all Firbankian cathedrals. Felix, who luxuriates in the title of “chief dancing-choir-boy”, is accounted the most responsible, in that he confines his dancing to

those slow Mozarabic movements which alone are seemly to the Church.

He is contrasted in this with the opportunist Christobal,

a youngster of fifteen, with soft, peach-textured cheeks, and a tongue never far away. It was a matter of scandal already, how he was attempting to attract attention, in influential places, by the unnecessary undulation of his loins, and by affecting strong scents and attars.

The Cardinal’s downfall is brought about by one of the acolytes, Chicklet,

an oncoming-looking child, with caressing liquid eyes and a little tongue the colour of raspberry-cream - so bright.

His Eminence first comes across Chicklet playing ball against an ancient fresco

depicting the eleven thousand virgins, or as many as there was room for.

He caresses the little acolyte’s hair. At this sign of interest Chicklet decides to try to seduce his master. He serves dinner in the Cardinal’s private apartments, flirts with him shamelessly and finally wishes him goodnight:

“And if you should want me, Sir.”

Chicklet, Firbank writes, possessed the power to convey the unuttered.

The climax to this seduction, a marvellous tour de force, comes when the Cardinal, having locked Chicklet in the Cathedral for “frivolity, is overcome with remorse and decides to visit him there. “I feel quite rompish,” he says. He wakes the sleeping boy, who runs away from him teasingly. The cardinal pursues him, calling him “jewel-boy”, “sunny-locks” and “apple-cheeks”, and declares that Chicklet would not flee if he were really fond of him, to which the boy replies,

“But I am fond of you, Sir. I care a lot.”

The pursuit continues, with the Cardinal becoming increasingly annoyed and frustrated and Chicklet going to the scandalous extreme of asking the prelate's price. At last, with all of his clothes having dropped away from him, the Cardinal's poor heart gives way and he expires.

When Ronald Firbank himself died in Rome in 1926, the year this book was published, he left behind a body of work that is readable, economical, indeed almost cinematic. In true decadent fashion he concentrated on form rather than content. He never considered the serious implications of his characters’ behaviour: they were naughty, irresponsible, but never evil. Boy-love was simply one more quite ordinary and suitable subject for comedy, but boy-lovers will appreciate Firbank’s successful avoidance of the bathos which plagues so much writing on this subject.

The past decades have seen a resurgence of interest in Firbank. His novellas have been published in one volume by Duckworth, 43 Gloucester Street, London NW 1. Biographies have been written by Miriam Benkowitz [sic] (Weiderfeld & Nicholson, 5 Winsley St.,London NW1, 1970) and Brigid Brophy (Macmillan London Ltd, 4 Little Essex St., London WC2R 3LF, 1973).

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