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Walpole, Beckett and the bear

Updated: Apr 10

Earl Fowler


No one reads Hugh Walpole any more. Or hardly anyone.


If he isn’t being confused with earlier man of letters Horace Walpole or Horace’s father, 18th-century British prime minister Robert Walpole (Hugh was distantly related to both, having descended from Robert’s younger brother), he might be best remembered as a closeted gay writer who had a series of discreet relationships with men in the first half of the 20th century.


Sort of Henry Jamesian or E.M. Forsterish or Lytton Stracheyian, except that Hugh Walpole was the only one who wound up settling happily with a married policeman in England’s Lake District and cheerfully accepting a knighthood.


There has to be a Monty Python skit in there somewhere: The Secret Policeman’s Other Balls. “Yes, poofters.”


The thing is, aside from being a discerning art collector and generous patron (eventually bequeathing a fabulous legacy of paintings by such luminaries as Cézanne, Manet and Renoir to the Tate Gallery and other British institutions), not to mention a much-ballyhooed lecturer on literature who made a fortune on four speaking tours of North America, the New Zealand-born son of an Anglican clergyman was one of the world’s most popular authors a century ago.


A quick hit from Wikipedia:


Walpole’s output was large and varied. Between 1909 and 1941 he wrote thirty-six novels, five volumes of short stories, two original plays and three volumes of memoirs. His range included disturbing studies of the macabre, children’s stories and historical fiction, most notably his Herries Chronicle series, set in the Lake District. He worked in Hollywood writing scenarios for two Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films in the 1930s, and had a cameo in the 1935 film adaptation of David Copperfield.


If you’ve seen the Dickens screen adapation, you might remember Walpole’s turn as the Vicar of Blunderstone, who puts the young Copperfield to sleep with a stupefying sermon. He improvised the homily, and when producer David O. Selznick impishly called for retake after retake, just to see what Walpole could do, the vicar delivered different but equally mind-numbing extempore addresses each time. I’m going to guess that there are a lot of children of clergymen out there who could do the same.


The charmed life of Hugh Walpole, struck down by a fatal heart attack in 1941 at the age of 57, offers a good example of the fickle finger of fame. One minute you’re a bestselling author and a minor Hollywood celeb; the next, no one remembers your name.


As a reader with a taste for the eclectic, however, I came across what I found to be a moving description recently in Wapole’s novel Judith Paris — part of his once red-hot Herries Chronicle family saga. In it, a chained bear is being abused and tortured by a gleeful crowd in not so merry olde England, spurring each other and their dogs to new acts of cruelty in much the same way we see people (like our close chimpanzee relatives) pile on today when a victim seems helpless:


He shuffled with his feet; his paw rose and fell again. He began to roll his head. Then he tried to break from his chain, and when he found he could not, he jerked his head toward his master. Then again rubbed the drops of blood from his nose.


The bear raises his head.


Something very grand entered into him, the grandeur of all captured and ill-treated things. He lifted his head and stared from under his jutting brows at the crowd, and was at once in that single movement, finer than all of them.


I realized with a jolt that I’d just encountered that “single movement” when reading a collection of Samuel Beckett’s shorter plays while working on an essay posted to this blog on March 13 (titled The Ultimate Krappshoot). In Catastrophe, which Beckett wrote in 1982 in support of Czech dissident writer Václav Havel (who would miraculously go on less than a decade later to serve as the last president of Czechoslovakia), a humiliated, persecuted, censored and constrained protagonist (designated as “P”) ends the play this way:


[Pause. Distant storm of applause. P raises his head, fixes the audience. The applause falters, dies.

Long pause.

Fade-out of light on face.]


P is a triumphant martyr, not an impotent victim. The pellucid message, as Beckett angrily retorted after a reviewer had complained of ambiguity: “He’s saying: ‘You bastards, you haven’t finished me yet.’ ”


That’s the bear’s stance, entirely, as it was for another chained bruin teased and manhandled by a group of idiotic young men in Leo Tolstoy’s great novel War and Peace. But was the convergence between Walpole’s lighter fare and Beckett’s uncharacteristically optimistic bow to human resilience and nobility a simple coincidence? (After all, that indomitable, we-shall-never-surrender tale of Rocky Balboa rising from the canvas after thorough pummellings by Apollo Creed or Ivan Drago has been a literary trope since David stood before the heavily armed Goliath with only a staff and a sling.)


I was inclined to think so until coming across this bit today, in Beckett biographer James Knowlson’s fascinating book Damned to Fame, detailing the safe haven from the pursuing Gestapo the great Irish playwright had found in a village in southeastern France after his Resistance cell had been betrayed by a profiteering traitor (another vicar, no less) in 1942:


Beckett had, of course, almost no books with him during his stay in Roussillon. But Yvonne Lob, an agrégée in English (also hiding from the Nazis with her Jewish husband), owned a fair number of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novels in English, which he borrowed from time to time. He seems to have read there stories and novels by Katherine Mansfield, Sinclair Lewis, and Aldous Huxley and he certainly read Gone with the Wind. It was in Roussillon, too, that he first read some of the novels and stories of Hugh Walpole, including the complete Herries Chronicle. There is an echo of this experience in (Beckett’s) novel Watt. Describing the “funambulistic stagger” of his central protagonist, Beckett has Lady McCann compare the movements of Watt’s head and those of a bear. “Where had she read that even so, from side to side, bears turn their heads when baited?” she asks rhetorically, replying: “In Mr. Walpole, perhaps.”


Perhaps so. Pretty damn likely, I’d say.


But back here on Ground Zero at the Dawning of the Age of Nefarious, the Nazis are at it again. At a time when democracies are crumbling and the scourge of totalitarianism is on the move at a quickening pace we haven’t seen since the lead-up to the Second World War, the bear’s unwavering steadfastness is manifested even today by the Alexey Navalnys and Mahsa Aminis, Pankaj Mishras and Arundhati Roys, Zhang Zhans and Erkin Emets, who dare to call out the religio-fascist ayatollahs and the predatory oligarchs, the sabre-rattling strongmen and the venal moneychangers at the temple.


(Sixty dollar God Bless the USA Bible, anyone? Why not pair it with a pair of golden Trump sneakers? Hell’s bells, Mercedes or Melody or whatever your name is, we should have gone with waterproof sandals!)


The last footage we saw of Navalny appearing in February in a Siberian court via video link just before his murder by “natural causes”, joking with the judge about running short of money, conveyed his usual vivid persona: fearless, smart, obstreperous, contemptuous of Vladimir Putin’s “Party of Crooks and Thieves.”


Navalny drew strength from knowing he was not alone. Other liberal politicians less known in the West — such as Vladimir Kara-Murza (serving a trumped-up 25-year sentence for treason) and Ilya Yashin (sentenced to eight and a half years for disseminating allegedly fake, hence true, news about the Russian military) — are among the prominent Kremlin critics who haven’t been fatally poisoned or pushed out of hotel windows.


Remember Boris Nemtsov, gunned down a few hundred feet from the Kremlin back in 2015? An ostensibly shocked Putin vowed to get to the bottom of that one. The same bunker grandpa who celebrated his 54th birthday in 2006 by having American-Russian journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya shot in the head in her apartment block elevator after death threats, a near-fatal poisoning, a mock execution and other forms of intimidation failed to scare her off. (Putin’s birthday, by the way, is Oct. 7. Don’t suppose the Tucker Carlson conspiracy crowd has remarked on the Hamas attack coincidence ...)


According to the human rights organization OVD-Info, 19,855 activists have been detained inside Russia for protesting against the war on Ukraine. The political organization Navalny founded to expose the abuses of Putin and his coalition of swindlers has been almost entirely smashed and dispersed, with even some of the lawyers who defended Navalny now imprisoned.


But that’s just Russia, which Donald Trump hopes to reward next year by pressuring Ukraine to formally cede Crimea and the Donbas border region.


Mahsa Amini was the 22-year-old Iranian woman beaten to death for not wearing her hijab in accordance with government standards. Pankaj Mishra and Arundhati Roy have boldly spoken the truth about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu supremacism and campaign to turn all non-Hindus, particularly Muslims, into second-class citizens. Zhang Zhan and Erkin Emet are among the thousands of honest citizens rotting in Chinese jails, she for daring to report as a journalist on the emergence of COVID in Wuhan in 2020, he for being a Uyghur intellectual and activist.


There are courageous, valorous souls like them all across the world. Unafraid to raise their heads above the rest of us and look squarely into the dead, soulless eyes of authoritarian autarchs. Finer than all of them.


In Catastrophe, which features a play within a play, the irritable and impatient director — an obedient “one country, one people, one ideology, one party and one leader” man, straight out of Xi Jinping’s China or any of these tin-pot regimes like the one Trump is determined to impose on the Land of the Ignorant and the Misled — has arranged things so that the play will end with the audience applauding a compliant, quiescent, impotent statue: the ideal citizen of any totalitarian regime. The people, like almost all of us, who keep their heads down. War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.


“There’s our catastrophe! In the bag!” the director exclaims. “Terrific! He’ll have them on their feet. I can hear it from here.”


And yet, the statue moves. The baited bear fixes the audience with its gaze.


The applause falters, dies.

Long pause.

Fade-out of light on face.

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1 Comment


I shrink in horror and sorrow upon reading of the bear; as it took me back to the worst event I’d ever been sent to cover.

From Russia, hockey playing bears at the arena. The poor creatures forced to skate around holding hockey sticks, dressed in jerseys.

Then slumped forlornly in the dressing room. If ever legions of protesters were needed, that would go down in my mind as more than worthwhile. Along with some form of animal rights intervention seizing the bears for a better life and imprisoning their handlers.

Fucking Russians.

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