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.
If you’ve read any Vita Sackville-West, you might (like me) think of her as a novelist about high society, whether Edwardians in their deviant splendour or old ladies in furs, deciding that they’d get by with only one chauffeur. What I had not expected – until I read the review copy of Grand Canyon (1942) that I was sent probably about two years ago by Bello; sorry it’s taken so long, folks – was a novel about the Grand Canyon, a dystopia future, and a twist that might be more expected in a novel by Shirley Jackson. (Please note: I do give away this twist. Stop at the paragraph beginning ‘All is proceeding’ if you don’t want to learn it.)
Well, I suppose I could have seen the first part coming, given the title. I don’t know if Sackville-West ever visited the Grand Canyon (I remember shamefully little of the biography of her I once read, which doubtless details everything about this novel too) – as I have also not visited, I am willing to take her word for the descriptions she gives of the Grand Canyon.
Having said that, we don’t see all that much of it in Part One (of two). In this section, we follow the various employees and inhabitants of a hotel near the Grand Canyon – named, indeed, the Grand Canyon Hotel. We are not told the political environment all at once, but it gradually emerges that Hitler has conquered all of Europe, and America is both the place to which some have fled and the next place on Hitler’s invasion list. Writing this novel in 1942 was quite a brave choice. Even an author’s note at the outset – which, I suppose, also nullifies any surprise we might have when the dystopia becomes clear – does little to offset the effects that such an imagining might have had. She writes (and my ellipsis covers quite a bit of text):
In Grand Canyon I have invented a cautionary tale. In it I have contemplated the dangers of a world in which Germany, by the use of an unspecified method of attack, is assumed to have defeated Great Britain in the present war. […] The terrible consequences of an incomplete conclusion or indeed of any peace signed by the Allies with an undefeated Germany are shown.
Such a supposition is by no means intended as a prophecy and indeed bears no relation at all to my own views as to the outcome of the present war.
But the war, and its imagined stage, seem really to be a conceit done in order to get the characters to the Grand Canyon and have the area under threat. For, in Part One especially, it is chiefly a backdrop to the burgeoning relationship between Helen Temple and Lester Dale, both of whom are exiled from England and neither of whom are young.
Theirs is not a conventional romance, or perhaps even a romance. They approach each other hesitantly. Each has a horror of a certain ‘type’; a snobbery that seems to include vast swathes of people almost indiscriminately. For instance, had either of them mentioned the grandeur of the Canyon, it would have been over. It is not just that they hate truisms and niceties, they are wary of society at all, it seems. Yet, overcoming these quirks, reluctances, and (it must be said) misanthropy, they become close. It is difficult to see what Sackville-West thinks of them. Their characters and conversations are difficult to convey, as the portraits have the depth and inconsistency of real people. Yet the reader is unlikely to thrill to a man who says:
You’re the sort of woman I should like to marry. Men like to marry women, but seldom like them unless they happen to love them. Women bore men, generally speaking, except in bed. You wouldn’t bore or bother me, Mrs Temple, any time, even at breakfast. You would know when to stay quiet.
And yet I don’t think we, or Mrs Temple, are supposed to be repulsed by this. Both characters seem likely to find everybody else a little ridiculous, and in each other have perhaps found the person they think least ridiculous. This pairing is formed of fascinating writing, albeit maybe a little slow. The surrounding cast offer other moments of action, but they are clearly not the main draw; nor, even, are Mrs Temple and Mr Dale individually, though the past of Mrs Temple’s soldier son is done well.
All is proceeding along these lines until the end of Part One. If you are averse to spoilers, please skip the rest of this paragraph (or maybe review), but I think the twist is more interesting for what it does to the rest of the book than in and of itself; I would have felt even more drawn to read Grand Canyon if I’d known that this was coming…. The area comes under attack, and the hotel explodes. As the remaining residents scurry into the Grand Canyon for shelter, there is an explosion, and Madame de Retz’s beloved parrot dies.
She carried his poor little naked corpse carefully down into Bright Angel Trail. A bird’s body is very light. What Madame de Retz did not realise and what the others did not realise, was that they had all been killed on their way to the head of the trail. Grigori had died outright because he had no soul.
The others went on. They had to go on. They had to complete their fate in spite of their apparent death.
Isn’t that unexpected?! And also somehow unimportant. It dawns gradually on the characters that they are dead, but it becomes an unspoken truth – a social oddity rather than anything more. And, in terms of the novel, it chiefly changes the atmosphere. It feels like Shirley Jackson, or something metaphysical; perhaps how Picnic at Hanging Rock could have been if Joan Lindsay were a better writer.
With this change in tone, Part Two continues to be about the characters and their interactions, even as they traipse through the Grand Canyon, hearing alarming reports on the wireless. A blind man sees; a deaf man hears. But Mrs Temple and Mr Dale are not noticeably changed – they continue to develop that friendship or romance.
I’d love to read more about Sackville-West’s decision to write this novel. It is such a departure from everything else I’ve read by her, except perhaps a short story or two. I can’t say it’s my favourite of hers, but it shows that she was far from a one-dimensional author. It’s just quirky enough to feel very special, without wandering into genre territory too exclusively. I think Grand Canyon is one of those novels I’ll be turning over in my head for years to come.