Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Stephen Hudson," _Tony_

"STEPHEN HUDSON" IS the pen name of Sydney Schiff, the real-life prototype of Lionel Kein, a character in Wyndham Lewis's Apes of God.  For reasons not perfectly clear even to myself, I decided to have a look at some of the work of the various artists and writers pilloried in Apes.

I had low expectations going in, amply confirmed by my first foray, Edith Sitwell's novel I Live under a Black Sun, which happens to contain a character based on Lewis. A case can be made for Sitwell's poetry, I would say, though I am not the person to make it, but I Live under a Black Sun was genuinely dreadful.  Real, pure dreck from its first godawful sentence to its last.

Accordingly, I lowered my expectations even further for Schiff/Hudson. He was reasonably well-known in his lifetime--he translated the final volume of Proust into English after C. K. Scott Moncrieff died, and Beerbohm drew a caricature of him--but as far as I know, none of his fiction got much attention after the first ripples dispersed. Tony (1924) seems to have gone to a second edition in 1931, but nothing since. Thanks to inter-library loan, I got a copy from San Francisco State, and lo and behold, it was inscribed to Stella Benson, no less, friend of Virginia Woolf, Winifred Holtby, and Vera Brittain, by "S. H." himself. I was a little surprised they had shipped such an item out--but Schiff/Hudson's stock is just not that high, I suppose.

Turns out, though, that Tony is a very good novel--not an undiscovered masterpiece, but skillful and interesting. Tony--Anthony Kurt--is the narrator, and the whole novel is written as if delivered to "you," that is, his brother, Richard Kurt. Richard was the subject of one of Schiff/Hudson's earlier novels, so immediately we have a bit of Lawrence Durrell Alexandria Quartet-ish things going on (presumably--I haven't read Richard Kurt), well before Durrell had had the idea himself.

We do not find out why Tony is writing, or possibly talking, to his brother at such length, which is a flaw of sorts--but Schiff/Hudson does a great job of conveying the texture of events that Tony does not fully explain because his audience of one already knows all about them.

To say Tony is an unreliable narrator is putting it mildly.  He's boastful, self-serving, unrelievedly cynical, unwilling to give anyone the benefit of a doubt; he's an asshole, in short. But assholes, as we know, can make entertaining narrators. I wouldn't put Tony in the same class as Tarquin Winot in John Lanchester's Debt to Pleasure, but he is well-realized.

Also intriguing is the possibility that the Kurts are assimilated Jews. Not that Tony says this--but his father and uncle came to England from Austria, they are in high finance, their associates have names like Kahn and Thal, and we have this passage of Tony considering his son, Cyril: "He was growing into a splendid youngster, there was hardly a trace of the Kurts in him. Instead of those dark, beady eyes, he had large blue ones, bluest of blue, with long dark lashes, and a nose that tilted up instead of down." Hmm.  Sounds like Tony is relieved to see his son does not look Jewish, doesn't it?

The Kurts, if they are Jews,  are non-practicing; in fact, since Richard at one point goes to church, they have probably converted.  But there is not all that much literature from this period about British Jews written from the inside, as it were--Israel Zangwill is about the only name that comes to mind--so it's interesting to have something even as indirect as Tony.

This leads to the topic of Lewis and Jews...but I'm not feeling strong enough for that today. Or any day soon.

1 comment:

fjgent said...

A pleasure to read. I am busy researching this family at the moment (I only discovered earlier this year that Sydney Schiff is a cousin) and I can say that you are indeed perceptive about the family's Jewish origins- schifffamilytrieste.blogspot.it is my work in progress.