BY turns twee and horrific, the adventures of a servant in love show how truthful a fairy tale can be
Patrick de Witt
In the Times Literary Supplement early this year, Anna Katharina Schaffner rather took to task the idea of the “twee”. Belle and Sebastian, The Great British Bake Off, vintage knitwear, being unshaven – all of these things apparently added up to an apolitical abnegation of seriousness.
To paraphrase her argument, all these phenomena were just variations on either M*A*S*H or C John Taylor’s idea that it’s nice to be nice. Perhaps she might change her mind were she to read the new novel by Man Booker shortlisted writer Patrick de Witt.
It has many qualities one associates with the twee – it is fey, slightly smirking, a bit clever-clever – but it is also deeply serious, properly human and profoundly moral. If a film-maker like Wes Anderson is the apogee of twee, then De Witt gifts us the novelistic equivalent of Jan Svankmajer’s animations or Edward Gorey’s illustrations: gothic and soulful at the same time.
The Minor in question is Lucien, nicknamed Lucy, a young man with few prospects and an unusual capacity for lying. Lucy is mortally unwell, so a mysterious stranger appears to exchange his imminent death with that of his father. This precipitates the local priest trying to find Lucy gainful employment, which he does at the castle of the Baron of Aux. The title of “undermajordomo” might imply a vast staff: instead there is just the majordomo, Olderglough, and a cook whose talents do not lie in the culinary. Before he takes up his duties we see Lucy fib tremendously to his former girlfriend, encounter pickpockets on a train and run into a local militia fighting a war which seems to have no objectives, ideology or reason.
Lucy’s duties are less than onerous. He has to serve Olderglough his breakfast and send out the plangent letters the Baron writes to his estranged wife. He is on strict instructions not the read the epistles, which of course he duly does. He is also told to bolt his door at night and not to enquire about what happened to the previous undermajordomo. In his spare time he lounges around with a local criminal, Memel, is tricked into having a puppy, and falls in love with Memel’s daughter Klara, who is regrettably attached to the head of the local soldiers.
In the acknowledgements, De Witt cites a large number of authors who influenced the writing of Undermajordomo Minor. It is not a surprise that Italo Calvino heads up the list. De Witt is similarly fascinated by fabulism, fairy tales and metaphysical conundrums, and includes stories within stories within stories. The faintly Mitteleuropean setting is reminiscent of Robert Walser (whose The Assistant and anti-fairy tales seem a keen parallel) and of Bohumil Hrabal (the author of I Served The King Of England, and another author concerned with servitude). Readers will detect more than a hint of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Roald Dahl, especially in the sections involving an ominous Very Large Hole.
The novel seems an extended exercise in disproving the Latin tag cucullus non facit monachum – the cowl does not make the monk. It is a novel in which clothing and disrobing are of huge importance. Lucy’s gift of a cloak to Klara is the cause of many problems; the question of whether he is an undermajordomo or not is resolved by a uniform; and shoelaces prove to be of great significance. At the outset, Lucy acquires a pipe – not because he has much of a desire to smoke, but because he wants to be the kind of person who has a pipe. In a grotesque setpiece orgy, all the finery in the world cannot conceal the brutally animalistic, the wretchedly naked and the horrific abasement of humanity.
That scene is unspeakably shocking, all the more so because it is surrounded by such gentle and winsome charm. Yet even with a scene where humanity’s degradation and submission are made so explicit, Undermajordomo Minor remains, at heart, a very touching love story. The unreality of the setting – its strange castles, ghastly chasms and steam trains – do not compromise the realism of the emotions. Neither Klara nor Lucy is each other’s first love, but that does not mean their love lacks innocence or wonder. The Baron’s heartbreak is a kind of parable about a love which, by denying nothing, allows everything, even its own breaking.
But it is not just about romantic love. Perhaps the purest love in the whole novel is Olderglough’s dedication to the mad Baron. When he is restored to his senses, Lucy marvels at his graciousness – he even manages to improve the cook’s meals by tiny acts of kindness and little throwaway encouragements. It is no small achievement to create a book which honours these things against a backdrop of pointless warring, murderous jealousy and sexual depravity.
In The Sister Brothers, which earned De Witt his place on the Man Booker shortlist, he twisted the Western into new and unusual forms. Undermajordomo Minor does the same with the fairy story to great effect. It is a book which lingers long in the imagination and is a superb paean to the truthful lie we call fiction. Twee? Perhaps. But bittersweet too.