By Maud Casey
A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else.
I have thought about the first line of Barbara Comyns’ novel The Vet’s Daughter since 1993. I was in graduate school and my wonderful professor, the writer Mary Elsie Robertson, suggested I read Comyns. I did and I have been forever grateful for the recommendation. Comyns is that variety of obscure writer who is a secret literary password. To love her is to enter into a speakeasy filled with levitating teenagers, floods, plague, and the occasional monkey. She authored eleven novels between 1947 and 1989 before her death in 1992, with notably captivating titles, such as Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths. When, in the late Fifties, her original publisher—Heinemann—sent her odd fairy tale of a novel, The Vet’s Daughter, to Graham Greene for a blurb, he responded, “Please, send me no more lady novelists.” I’m not sure precisely which part of The Vet’s Daughter Graham objected to, which part he found too lady-ish—its concern with things domestic? Its girl protagonist? In any case, I’m happy to report, he came around because there’s his effusive blurb on the most recent effort to save it from obscurity, the beautiful edition put out by The New York Review of Books with a foreword by Kathryn Davis and a painting by Louise Bourgeois on the cover that, at first, you might mistake for lovely red stockings hanging on a clothesline but, look closer, those aren’t lovely red stockings, that’s bloody sinew and bone. (The painting’s title is Untitled (Legs and Bones).)
The double-take experience of the cover (Lovely red stockings! Oh, wait, body parts . . .) is an apt introduction to the novel itself, which is simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. If this subtly layered novel is a kind of fairy tale, then Alice Rowland, its seventeen-year-old narrator, is its Cinderella destined to remain in the ashes. Her father, the veterinarian of the title, is a sinister, outsized villain who sports—for real—a waxed-tip moustache. His closest friend is a vivisectionist and, in the name of efficiency, he has his sick wife measured for her coffin while she’s still alive. Alice’s mother, before she ends up in the coffin for good, scuttles about, almost indistinguishable from the injured animals that populate their home, which doubles as the father’s surgery. The sad-then-dead mother is, but of course, replaced by an evil stepmother who tries to pawn Alice off on a pervy friend of hers who “likes them young.” It’s grim. (Please, send me no more lady novelists.) But wait! One night, about fifty pages into this tale of woe, while lying in bed after yet another dreary day of tending to the lame mongoose and polishing the monkey skull her father keeps for display, Alice levitates. She is as astonished as we are. She is also so isolated, so out of touch, that she has no idea if floating above one’s bed in the middle of the night is normal or not. “Perhaps,” she wonders poignantly, “it was something that often happened to people but was never mentioned, like piles . . .” For a long time, this floating is her secret.
Which brings me back to the first line of the novel: A man with a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Comyns introduces us to Alice as she is having a private thought. We never learn what that something else is. In Aspects of the Novel, Forster writes about the way fiction gives us the secret lives of characters. Here, there is a kind of secret life inside a secret life, something so secret even the reader isn’t privy to it. And so Comyns conveys, somewhat radically to my mind, the sense of a character who, even in the deep-space privacy of a first-person narrative, has secrets from the reader. It’s such an important part of Alice that Comyns calls attention to it from the start. This exists, Alice’s most private self, she says, and I want you to consider it too. I want you to consider it first. There is more to Alice and her energetic mind than we will ever know. This more is part of the warp and weft of the fabric of Alice’s consciousness, which is too large, too fluid and mysterious to be captured in a mere novel. Paradoxically, the part to which you don’t have access makes you believe more deeply, more fully in the part of her to which you do. “It is difficult to write about the soul,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, “Looked at, it vanishes.” With her elusive first line, Comyns practices what I think of as the art of suggestion, which involves glimpses and glances; the effect is that you feel you are in the presence of something, of someone. This story in front of you, the line declares (right from the start!) is one piece torn from a whole cloth. It gestures toward that invisible more, that soul, which, if you were to look directly at it, would vanish.
In Milan Kundera’s The Curtain, there’s a section called “The Power of the Pointless,” in which he describes “the everyday”: “It is not merely ennui, pointlessness, repetition, triviality,” he writes. “It is beauty as well; for instance, the magical charm of atmospheres, a thing everyone has felt in his own life; a strain of music heard faintly from the next apartment; the wind rattling the windowpane; the monotonous voice of a professor that a lovesick schoolgirl hears without registering; these trivial circumstances stamp some personal event with an inimitable singularity that dates it and makes it unforgettable.”
Comyns is an author deeply interested in the magical charm of atmospheres, as well as conveying the particularities of Alice’s idiosyncratic eye, which takes in every stark little detail—that slanting bit of sun on the mantle where the weird monkey’s skull used to lie and, along with that almost forensic observation, an eerie, expectant innocence. Like an aura in a nineteenth century spirit photograph, the specter of this sensibility hovers over the sentence: A man with a ginger moustache came up to me while I was thinking of something else. Sure, you don’t know yet that this is a girl who can levitate, but that first sentence suggests she has secrets and the refreshingly strange syntax gives us an odd and nimble mind making its way around an ill-lit corner of the world. There’s a lot of talk about the way fiction unites us, bridges difference, connects us. Only connect and all that. But it is important too to consider the ways fiction divides us. As in: wow, look at this mind moving through this minute in a manner wholly unfamiliar to me. How weird, how delightful it is! What fresh surprise might a sentence yield when it reflects the navigations of a singular mind through an insignificant moment?
When the BBC approached Comyns about making a serial version of The Vet’s Daughter for radio, they told her they wanted to make the levitations happen in a dream. But you can’t do that, Comyns said, they’re real. It’s their realness—the way Comyns lingers in the details of the broken glass mantle and Alice’s chalky hands—that makes them so potently ordinary. Alice doesn’t talk much about her father’s cruelty, never explicitly. In the anxiety over breaking the globe around the lamp is the anxiety of a daughter whose father shows her no love at all. In the levitation scenes, Comyns suggests what Alice is unable to say directly to the reader, what she suggests in the very first line in the novel. Emotion has overwhelmed Alice’s powers of expression and these magical scenes are physical manifestations of the force of her emotions, mysterious even to her. Comyns’ insistence on the realness of them has to do, I think, with her sense that the solidity of the real casts a shadow that contains everything else, everything that’s not on the page but is deeply felt—the rest of Alice.
I worked for several years as a secretary at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute in New York, which included cleaning up after an incontinent dog named Colette and sorting through the detritus of Marilyn Monroe’s estate—shoes, pillboxes, garlic presses (this was before it was all put on the auction block). Part of my job was archiving BETA tapes of Lee Strasberg teaching his acting classes. I only ever made it through half of the 1970s—there was a lot of suede fringe and feathered hair. One of the Stanislavsky-inspired exercises Strasberg taught his students was called the “private moment.” The “private moment” involves performing something you would normally do in private. Looking in the mirror; picking your toenails; one guy really went for it and simulated masturbation (I felt kind of bad for him). The idea is to be as natural as possible, to not perform at all. Sometimes, the actor would just stand there, thinking about something. While I was thinking of something else is a literary version of the “private moment,” in which aspects of Alice are not performed but exist somewhere off stage in a private realm. A realm no less real for being private, a realm in which resides, among other things, Alice’s potential self, the part of her so fierce it will eventually rise up.
What was Alice thinking about when that man with the ginger moustache came up to her? I will think about that something else forever.
Maud Casey is the author of five works of fiction, most recently City of Incurable Women (Bellevue Literary Press, 2021), and the nonfiction book The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions (Graywolf Press, 2018). She lives in Washington, D.C. and teaches at the University of Maryland.
Originally appeared in NOR 15