by Richard W. Strachan

What’s become of Kennaway

March 6, 2015 | by Richard W. Strachan

WHEN James Kennaway died at the age of forty, he left behind five novels (two more were published posthumously), many successful screenplays, and a reputation with enough ballast to ensure that it was unlikely to sink in the fickle tides of critical opinion. His first novel, Tunes of Glory, had been a major success, and its screenplay gained him an Oscar nomination. His second book, Household Ghosts, took him three million words to get right, but when honed down to more manageable size proved that the first success hadn’t been a fluke; an astute study of sexual deceit and aristocratic decline, it is by far his best work. By the late 1960s then, Kennaway’s was a respected name, both in literary circles and in the more remunerative circles of Hollywood. Yet to speak of him now is always to acknowledge what might have been. Did his early death rob the world of future masterpieces, and if he had lived would he have provided a model for a new generation of Scottish writers, even though his own sense of national identity was one that vexed him, when he thought about it at all?

Kennaway drew liberally on his upbringing for the plots and general mise en scène of his first two books. Born to professional parents, his father a prominent Perthshire lawyer and factor for the local aristocracy, his mother a respected GP, he proceeded via boarding school (Glenalmond) to Oxford, with a two-year period of National Service in between. Tunes of Glory, a vigorous and compelling portrait of a Highland regiment struggling with the demands of peacetime, came out of his experience with the Gordon Highlanders, and in the boorish, drunken Colonel Jock Sinclair, a war hero who has risen from the ranks to take temporary command of the battalion, Kennaway created one of the great anti-heroes of post-war British fiction. With its wintry setting and the taut psychological conflict between its two main characters, Tunes of Glory expertly allegorises the decay of personal and professional ambition, and the dangers of over-reliance on a valorised past. This sense of history refusing to relinquish its grip animates his second and most successful novel, Household Ghosts, a near-gothic portrait of a minor aristocratic Perthshire family tainted by the hint of past scandal.

Structurally, with its set-piece scenes and strong characterisation, Tunes of Glory seems almost designed for adaptation into a screenplay. Household Ghosts is similarly cinematic, its scenes proceeding almost entirely through dialogue. With the stylistic pattern of his work reinforced by his increasing demand as a screenwriter, Household Ghosts also introduced the theme of the fraught triangular relationship that would preoccupy him for the rest of his career, and that dominates the two novels reissued here.

Kennaway had initially written The Mind Benders as a screenplay, and it was made into a moderately effective thriller with Dirk Bogarde in the starring role. Due to be novelised by a hack writer to cash in on the film’s release, Kennaway instead decided to do the job himself, fleshing out a story of Cold War espionage and psychological experiment into a study of the torments of sexual jealousy. The novel follows intelligence officer Major ‘Ramrod’ Hall as he investigates the apparent defection of a high-placed scientist, Professor Sharpey. When Sharpey commits suicide, Hall’s investigations lead him to the dead scientist’s colleagues, who are carrying out a series of experiments in sensory deprivation. Dr Harry Longman, in an attempt to prove that Sharpey was no traitor and had instead been unhinged by his work, volunteers to undergo the procedure in the laboratory’s isolation tank himself. When he emerges, it becomes clear that he has been profoundly altered, and that his suspension in the tank has turned him into ‘a kind of echo of a man’. His degradation of his wife Oonagh becomes a source of further torment for his colleague Jack Tate, who has fallen in love with her.

Despite the claims made for the book in Paul Gallagher’s generous introduction, it’s hard to find much merit in The Mind Benders. In frequently clumsy prose (‘They sat, this evening as every evening before, feeling that they had never watched the sky before’) Kennaway’s narrative never fulfils the potential of its original premise. What promises to be a transgressive exploration of consciousness, a phenomenon Kennaway suggests is wholly contingent on the anchor of the physical senses, becomes instead a brisk and melodramatic potboiler, further marred by an unconvincingly redemptive ending that, although clearly demanded by the conventions of mainstream cinema at the time, is awkwardly transposed into the novelisation. In Professor Sharpey’s notes, the isolation tank experiments are meant to unlock ‘the physics of the soul’. In Longman’s case, all they seem to do is make him act like a bit of a shit to his wife, although perhaps this was suitably eye-opening in 1963. Imagine for a moment what Kennaway’s near-contemporary JG Ballard would have made of the idea, and you realise how far he has missed the mark.

If The Mind Benders is a demonstrably minor work, The Cost of Living Like This is far more substantial. Published the year after Kennaway died, it follows Julian, an eminent economist dying of cancer, as he tries to reconvene his earlier affair with the beautiful and independent Sally Cohen, a 17 year-old office junior training to be a professional swimmer. Julian’s wife Christobel, whose infidelities match her husband’s, is determined not to give him up without a fight, and when the trio’s overwrought, drunken ménage decamps to Glasgow, their relationship erupts just as Julian’s illness enters its terminal phase. In a broken, fragmented narrative that reflects Julian’s own physical agony, the novel is a more controlled and successful attempt to define the nature of sexual jealousy than Kennaway’s previous two books, The Bells of Shoreditch and Some Gorgeous Accident, which in many respects follow a similar pattern. Julian’s oddly complicit relationship with his disease is portrayed with queasy skill; ‘the crab’, as he calls it, ‘lying asleep amongst the seaweed of my bowels’. In the unlikely figure of Mozart Anderson, a part-time football referee Christabel meets in Glasgow, the novel has its philosophical centre, a confessional figure who can comment on the self-deceptions of the other characters. ‘We’ve locked ourselves in duologues,’ he says at one point, ‘in boxes. Maybe that’s the sin.’ For Kennaway the monogamous relationship is a deadening trap, but the attempt to break out of it is no real source of freedom either.

The Cost of Living Like This is a tough, elegiac piece of work, and the ménage à trois was a scenario that obviously compelled Kennaway’s imagination. It gave him access to the murky compromises of the emotions, and helped him explore the hypocrisies at the heart of the 1960s. It was a scenario he had even played out himself, in an improbable relationship with his wife Susan and the writer David Cornwell, better known by his pseudonym John Le Carré. (Le Carré’s novel The Naïve and Sentimental Lover is a portrait of this period.) Kennaway never passes authorial judgement on his characters, and this absence of a moralising tone gives his work a refreshingly adult flavour, a sense of experience hard-won and seriously interpreted. In other respects though, he was a typical writer of his generation, particularly in his attitudes towards women. While Mary Ferguson in Household Ghosts is proudly self-aware even in her worst moments, Kennaway’s later female characters can often seem like fantasy figures. There’s no other way to explain why all it takes to lure the vivacious and liberated Sally Cohen back to the middle-aged, cancer-ridden Julian is a savage beating and an attempted rape, or why the Glasgwegian socialist Stella Vass finds it so difficult to tear herself away from the amoral banker Sarson in The Bells of Shoreditch. In The Mind Benders, even after Longman has been transformed into a cruel and heartless brute, Oonagh still martyrs herself to his every barbarity.

If Kennaway is to be seen in any way as a model for other Scottish writers then perhaps it’s as someone who had liberated himself from the need to question his nationality, or his position within its culture. Certainly, Scottish nationalism gets short shrift in The Cost of Living Like This. Matthew Mathieson, the SNP supporter who owns the hotel Sally and Julian stay in when they reach Glasgow, is a superb caricature, smug and self-righteous, and also peculiarly noble: ‘He had attacked Julian for being English; had quoted bogus figures in support of an independent Scotland; then towards the end of the journey he had openly confessed that he was only a Scottish Nationalist because he hated all the other parties.’

Perhaps it was only from this deracinated and culturally self-sufficient position that Kennaway felt free to turn his attention towards larger ideas, and to explore in his fiction more delinquent modes of living. It is ironic then that his two most ‘Scottish’ novels, Tunes of Glory and Household Ghosts, remain his unimpeachable classics, while the remainder of his work, although more personal and formally experimental, have to be considered as honourable failures. With rediscoveries in the 1980s and the early 2000s though, it might be asked if a reappraisal of Kennaway’s work is a perennial task.


The Mind Benders 

by James Kennaway 

Valancourt Books, 9781941147276, £9.99, PP145


The Cost of Living Like This 

by James Kennaway 

Valancourt Books, 9781941147283, £9.99, PP142

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