A Neglected Novelist: J. I. M. Stewart, aka Michael Innes

We are overwhelmed by current events. I keep reading the news, though I should not. If only there were wise women to make anti-reality charms, as there are in fairy tales.

“It is all too much for me,” I said dramatically after seeing brutal film footage on TV.

Avoiding the news is my best advice, but I also made a New Year’s resolution to read more genre books. Cozy mysteries are ever-relaxing. I can feel my breathing slow down as I peruse a Patricia Moyes or Edmund Crispin.

J.I.M. Stewart, aka Michael Innes

Ironically, it was a reading of Michael Innes’ absorbing mystery, A Private Affair, that brought me back to literary fiction. Michael Innes was the pen name of J. I. M. Stewart, a writer of serious novels and non-fiction under his own name.

Stewart (1906-1994), born in Edinburgh, educated at Oxford, and a distinguished critic, lecturer, and professor at Oxford, is forgotten in the U.S. The university libraries have Michael Innes’s books, but Stewart’s books have vanished without a trace. Fortunately, you can also buy cheap copies of the used books online. House of Stratus has reissued them in paperback and e-book format.

I began with Stewart’s The Gaudy (1974), the first in his acclaimed quintet, A Staircase in Surrey. I love this series, mostly set at Oxford, which contains many allusions to Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Stewart’s narrator, Duncan Pattullo, a successful playwright, returns to Oxford for the first time in 20 years to attend a gaudy, which is an annual dinner and gathering for alumni. The administration houses Duncan in his old room at Surrey (a college at Oxford), which has been vacated for the weekend by its undergraduate inhabitant, Nicolas Junkin (a play on the name of Powell’s famous character Nicholas Jenkins, the charming narrator of Dance to the Music of Time). When the two meet by chance, because of a muddle about the dates, Duncan feels paternal and slightly nostalgic for the undergraduate’s idealism. In a way, Junkin is his younger doppelgänger. Perhaps Stewart is also doffing his hat to Powell’s somewhat kinder fictional world.

Powell has a dry humor. At the gaudy, it is difficult to recognize old friends and aged tutors, and this is presented as broad comedy. Duncan’s old tutor, Talbert, is in a fog as to Duncan’s identity.

“Ah–Dalrymple!” Talbert said. “We are very pleased that you have been able to come to our dinner.” His voice held all its own unbelievable degree of huskiness–and its old effect, too, of a gravitas quite beyond the reach of a common scholar’s capacity. He might have been announcing something of the deepest import arrived at that morning in an arcane divan, a hortus conclusus dedicated to the just privacy of the councils of princes, and now by him responsibly divulged to some person of desert and discretion among the world’s profane.

Once Duncan identifies himself, Talbert changes gear and asks if he still writes plays. Almost everybody asks this question, which is mortifying, since Duncan has a play in London right now.

I am delighted by Stewart’s witty portrayal of life at Oxford. But I should tell you, Stewart’s world is grittier and darker than Anthony Powell’s. Duncan’s charming old friend Tony Marchmont, now Lord Marchpane, breaks down after the banquet and asks Duncan for help with his son, Ivo, an ordinary bloke who is flunking out, and also may be shadily involved with a suicide (he made a wager with a boy who killed himself) and possibly involved in a rape. TThe men collude with another old friend, a travel writer who is apparently a secret agent, to whisk Ivo out of the country.

But don’t judge Ivo too quickly, readers. The people at Oxford, even the Provost’s wife, think Ivo is rather sweet, and no more callow than most undergrads. The Provost’s wife explains that the boy who killed himself was already in psychological trouble, and she was trying to keep an eye on him: Ivo could in no way be held responsible. But near the end of the book, after many conversations with fascinating, eccentric academics, Duncan sees Tony again. Now that Ivo is safe, Tony shows his ugly side. The problem solved, Tony has no concerns . He says some things so brutal about women that even Duncan is stunned. And Duncan realizes he no longer knows his friends. Time has changed them to the point where they ARE unrecognizable.

The hope, in this novel, seems to be with the academics. They are sweet, completely absorbed in textual criticism, and definitely hilarious. Talbert’s son, Charles, an editor at OUP, believes he can make money off an intellectual game he has invented, a kind of Scrabble with ancient Greek words on one side of the tiles and Russian on the other. “Do you include a digamma?” Duncan asks, hoping to put off playing the game.

When Oxford offers Duncan a five-year job teaching Western drama, he accepts. We see him, still cynical, but hoping to inhabit a calmer state of mind, living among kind, if distracted academics.

What a brilliant, fun read!

And, remember, there is always Michael Innes, whose books are far easier to find in the U.S.