Archive for the ‘R.C. Hutchinson’ Category

the fire and the wood by r c hutchinson 1940The Fire and the Wood. A Love Story. by R.C. Hutchinson ~ 1940. This edition: The Literary Guild of America, 1940. Hardcover. 440 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Hidden gem alert!

I have just stumbled upon a now-obscure, once-bestselling British novelist. Why have I not heard of  Ray Coryton Hutchinson before?

Seventeen books published between 1930 and 1975. The third, 1933’s The Unforgotten Prisoner, sold over 150,000 copies in its first month. A Child Possessed, 1964, won the W.H. Smith Literary Award, and is the inspiration behind a 2012, 2-act orchestral opera composed by Robert Paterson. The last, 1975’s posthumously published Rising, made it to the Booker Prize shortlist.

The Fire and the Wood, apparently regarded as merely one of Hutchinson’s “average” efforts, is a downright excellent piece of authorial work, being utterly relevent to its period, chock-full of easily absorbed “message”, and, best of all, compulsively readable. I couldn’t put the thing down. The writing flows, the whole transcends its parts. Brilliant work.

In the opening days of World War II, a novel was published in Great Britain with the following dedication:

To M. H. CHURCHILL

My Dear Jeremy,

You will remember that I told you Josef’s story one evening, the summer before last, in the Half Moon at Clare. You thought then that it was worth putting on paper, and I still think it was. But the time, between now and then, has not been a good one for the job: the means by which we know what is happening round the world have become so efficient that it’s increasingly hard to concentrate, for several hours a day, on the fortunes of one or two people. The excuse, of course, is not valid: no excuse is valid. The masters of the trade have done it as well, and sometimes better, when the hubbub was loudest. But I myself find difficulty, with these cold winds blowing incessantly against the mind, in raising it to that temperature which seems to me necessary for work which has the smallest pretension to seriousness; and I fancy that some others among the feebler-hearted brethren may be in the same case.

I mention the handicap as an apology for dedicating such a book as this to you, an amateur suckled by Turgenev and weaned on Henry James. Will you take the gesture as one of gratitude for many kindnesses, and for twenty years of friendship?

Yours ever,

R.C.H.

Infantry Training Centre,

R——

March, 1940.

What follows this elaborately modest introduction is a dense but never staid novel, approaching farce in its humorous opening scenes, darkening by imperceptible degrees into a nightmare scenario, a Kafkaesque dream sequence, appalling reality and delirious fever-dreams ever more entwined.

In the mid-1930s, young Doctor Josef Zeppichmann, newly qualified, joins the staff of a prestigious hospital in a large German city. Coming with glowing references which are at odds with his awkward manner, lumpy countenance, and country-lad ways, Zeppichmann proves to be an exceedingly competent doctor, though his bedside manner is brusque to the extreme, and his concentration on the ailments of his patients with the casual exclusion of all unimportant details such as name (or even gender) soundly shocks the nurses.

For Josef Zeppichmann is at heart a medical researcher, a bacteriologist concentrating on an audaciously risky cure for tuberculosis. Pursuing a pet theory during the latter years of his medical internship, he has progressed to the point of wishing to experiment on human patients – his guinea pig and rat trials have been remarkably successful – in most cases – but Josef runs up against a brick wall in the strict Moltke hierarchy; he is not even permitted to examine the patients in the TB ward, and is restricted to junior doctor duties in the general wards.

But Josef is made of stern, single-minded stuff. He bullies his way into the best room in his new boarding house, and sets up his own private laboratory. And what’s this? Close at hand, the kitchenmaid Minna is showing unmistakable signs of an advanced lung complaint. When she collapses one day while working, Josef is quick to grasp the heaven-sent opportunity of a human guinea pig. He takes advantage of the boarding house owners’ strict economy to offer treatment free of charge in return for exclusive access to the girl, and the real experiment is on.

Meanwhile, on the post-Weimar Republic mean streets outside the hospital, civil unrest is brewing between various political factions. The roving bands of young thugs running under the banner of  the National Socialist German Workers Party are becoming more and more efficient in striking out at anyone they suspect of being in less than perfect sympathy with the cause of Germany’s new Chancellor, a certain Adolf Hitler. Josef inadvertently runs afoul of a group of these young “Nazis”, and repercussions are swift to follow.

For Josef Zeppichmann is a Jew.

As Minna moans in fevered agony, emaciated body struggling to cope with Josef’s escalating injections, a series of increasingly somber blows fall upon our protagonist, culminating in his dismissal from his hospital post and his arrest and subsequent detainment in a political prisoner internment camp.

Luckily for Minna, Joesf has had time to give her the last vaccination in his series, and it has apparently proven successful. She and Josef have also formed a strong attachment, with the doctor-patient bond turning at the eleventh hour from pure need of each other in an elemental sense – Josef needing a subject for his research, Minna needing a cure –  to unanticipated love, just in time for Minna to see Josef dragged away in handcuffs, leaving behind his precious medical notes in her care.

The suspense continues to build, escalating to a daring rescue-escape of the damaged lovers via canal boat to Holland, and thence to England. But their troubles are far from over, for Josef has in turn contracted TB in the prison camp, and Minna herself is still weak from her long ailment.

The mood and style of the novel evolves along with the misfortunes of its two main characters; as the once utterly in control Josef sinks into fevered oblivion we increasingly see the action from Minna’s point of view. Her own grip on reality is far from strong, though, and the ending sequence, seen through her eyes, is decidedly surreal. (I’m not quite sure what’s going on with the bit at the very end, and if you’ve read it and have an interpretation I’d be most interested to compare notes, but the lapse from logical story progression doesn’t really matter – in this case it works.)

R.C. Hutchinson had an agenda, which was to bring the horrific pre-war social conditions in Germany to his reading public’s attention. Fascinating to read what is basically a propaganda novel, published in 1940 before the worst of the Nazi Party’s subsequent excesses became common knowledge. It’s a clever piece of work, brilliant even, and as I mentioned earlier, a page-turner from start to finish.

So, R.C. Hutchinson. Ever heard of him before?

I hadn’t. And I should have, I think. He’s unaccountably fallen by the literary wayside, though Bloomsbury has recently released a number of his novels in e-book format, and his long list of out-of-print bestsellers are easy enough to find in numerous editions through online booksellers.

The quest is on.

R.C. Hutchinson in an undated publicity photo.

R.C. (Ray Coryton) Hutchinson, 1907-1975, in an undated publicity photo.

 

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