A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Guest article by Simon Thomas, of Stuck in a Book.
Thank you so much for my lovely welcome last month, foxes and all! I shan’t be quite so split-personality today – well, I’m not planning to be as I start writing this, but who knows what will happen by the end? – but hopefully it’ll work out nonetheless.
Whilst thinking about what to write about for Vulpes Libris, my initial thought was that I could put together a piece on David Garnett’s novella Lady Into Fox. Not only is it about a fox (SEE WHAT I DID THERE), it was the main topic of the final chapter in my doctoral thesis, which I’m sort-of-writing at the moment. “Perfect,” thought I – until I remembered that Hilary had already reviewed it back in 2010. Reluctant to abandon an idea so ingenious (a thought process which, let us not forget, involved both reading the word ‘fox’, and remembering it) I’ve decided simply to widen the net, and go the whole hog. That’s two animal metaphors for the price of one, and neither of them have anything to do with foxes. I think today is going to be a wonderful success, don’t you?
So – as the title foretold – I’m going to be chatting about foxes in literature. And by ‘literature’, I should warn you that I simply mean ‘books I have read’. I imagine there are any number of renowned foxes who will not get so much as a look-in, while I’m going to be making some very tenuous links, so please do not consider this an authoritative examination of vulpine literature. Is that enough excuses, do you think? On with the show.
The word ‘fox’ is mentioned 35 times in the works of Shakespeare. True story. You can see the lot here and that’s about all I have to say about that. It just feels wrong to start a conversation about any topic without seeing what Billybob Shakespeare has to say on the matter – oh, and I suppose we should also have a gander in the King James Version, which includes foxes nine times. So, the lesson we have learnt is that Shakespeare likes foxes about four times as much as the various writers of the Bible did. Thankyouverymuch, Internet, you have today taught us all a useful fact.
But I suppose I shouldn’t leave it at that. Even a cursory mention of Jonson’s Volpone and Aesop, in a shifty I-can-never-remember-what’s-Aesop-what’s-Grimm-and-what’s-Hans-Christian-Andersen sort of manner probably wouldn’t be a neat enough conclusion to a post that hasn’t, in all honesty, said anything at all. I’m crossing my title out, and turning it into: A Very Quick Look at Foxes in Some Fairly Arbitrary Examples of 20th-Century Literature. It looks like all my posts are going to be very quick snippets about several books. That’s fine by me, if it’s fine by you…
Let’s start with Lady Into Fox. It’s a 1922 novella about a lady who turns into a (ten points if you’ve already guessed the answer) fox. At first, Silvia is changed in physical form only: she is still a conscientious, loving wife, keen to dress herself in her nightgown, keen the floor clean, and avoid playing cards on the Sabbath. She doesn’t sound much of laugh, does she? Certainly, the gender roles of their marriage aren’t especially progressive, but otherwise Lady Into Fox isn’t at all the misogynist tale which might be anticipated where a woman is, quite literally, a vixen. Instead, it is a parallel of marital difficulties and anxieties, and the constancy which husband has for wife, even as she becomes increasingly fox-like in character. There is a particularly dramatic moment when he places before her a live rabbit and a nosegay of snowdrops, to see whether her fox instincts or human instincts are paramount… let’s just say that the next paragraph includes the fairly unpleasant verb ‘spurtled’.
Fast forward to 1962, and Vercors writes Sylva – a French response to Lady Into Fox which could equally well have been called Fox Into Lady. Having metamorphosed from fox into lady, Sylva follows the opposite trajectory to Silvia, gradually becoming more humanlike, enacting a microcosm of civilisation. That sounds horrendously worthy, doesn’t it? Well, as memory serves, it’s a fairly fun book. Well, as fun as a French novel could ever be.
Sylva isn’t the only response to Lady Into Fox, incidentally. It’s very difficult to find anywhere, and probably only worth it to big fans of Garnett – but there was a 1920s spoof called Gentleman Into Goose. The wife (a Mrs. Teapot) is rather pleased that her husband has transmogrified, because he’s much less of a nuisance that way – and, it turns out, rather tasty. The text is so-so, but I rather love the spoofs of Ray Garnett’s wonderful woodcuts.
D.H. Lawrence joins the mass of those in the 1920s who were curiously preoccupied with foxes – and picked the most utilitarian of titles for his 1922 novella The Fox, serialised in The Dial. Lawrence’s The Fox is not, please note, to be confused with the actor Laurence Fox – although both have been accused of being preoccupied with atmospheric sexual undertones. Maybe. Please don’t sue me, Mr. Billie Piper. It’s a taught, fairly intense story of how a brooding man interferes with the dynamic two women have living together. He become equated with a nearby fox for one of the women, and the whole thing is a curious, but also curiously good, depiction of silent battles of bleak sexuality and friendship. I recommend it as an entry point for reading Lawrence.
Having almost nothing in common with this, Icelandic author Sjón’s 2004 novella The Blue Fox, does share Lawrence’s intensity. There’s no metaphor here, though; the narrative follows an actual fox, as the priest Baldur Skuggason tracks the elusive blue fox across the snow. Each page only has a paragraph or two of deceptively simple text, which really distorts the reading process. Just as the trigger is pulled on the gun, we jump back a few days, to the world of Fridrik B. Fridiksson and his charge Abba, who has Down’s Syndrome. (Apparently it was rare, in the mid-19th century in Iceland when this is set, for babies with Down’s Syndrome to be left alive.) Telling the story more or less backwards makes The Blue Fox even more disorientating; you will really feel transported to another time and place, simply through being unsettled.
What is it about foxes that makes people write novellas? There is, so far as I’m aware, no War and Peace of the vulpine world. Even Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, for all its highs and lows, could scarcely be considered a philosophical treatise on the nature of mankind, or a thorough Bildungsroman. Perhaps the fleeting, dash-past-you-craftily nature of foxes inspires, in turn, the brief narrative and the sudden glimpse into human nature that comes with it. Perhaps (and this is not impossible) my survey of fewer than half a dozen books can’t be considered exhaustive and authoritative. Who can say? I’m just proud that I’ve got to the end of this blog post without making the obvious pun on ‘foxy’.