The Parson (Peter Owen Modern Classic)

BOOK: The Parson (Peter Owen Modern Classic)
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PRAISE FOR
THE PARSON

‘Written with an imaginative intensity that takes it to the borders of hallucination. A man and a woman, both in thrall to their idea of themselves, play out their drama in a northern landscape like a bad dream. The nearest in our literature to
The Parsonis
Rhys’s
Wide Sargasso Sea,
which has something of the myth or ur-tale. This is a fine example of that ancient tale, the predatiory femme fatale and the puritan man.’ – Doris Lessing,
Times Literary Supplement
Books of the Year 2001

‘A writer of such chillingly matter-of-fact, unself-pitying vigor that her vision transcends itself.’ –
New Yorker

‘Kavan fans will revel in the lyrical risk-taking of her prose, the emergence of some of her hallmark images and themes and her brilliant juxtapositions of ancient and modern, rich and poor, good and evil.’ –
Publishers Weekly

THE PARSON

The Parson of the title is not a cleric, but an upright young army officer so nick-named for his apparent prudishness. On leave in his native homeland, he meets a rich and beguiling beauty, the woman of his dreams. The days that the Parson spends with Rejane, riding in and exploring the wild moorland have their own enchantment. But Rejane grows restless in this desolate land; doubtless in love with the Parson, she discourages any intimacy. Until that is, she persuades him to take her to a sinister castle situated on a treacherous headland ...

The Parson
is less a tale of unrequited love than exploration of divided selves, momentarily locked in an unequal embrace. Passion is revealed as a play of the senses as well as a destructive force. There have been valid comparisons to Poe, Kafka and Thomas Hardy, but the presence of her trademark themes, cleverly juxtaposed and set in her risk-taking prose, mark
The Parson
as 100% Kavan.

ANNA KAVAN, née Helen Woods, was born in Cannes – probably in 1901; she was evasive about the facts of her life – and spent her childhood in Europe, the USA and Great Britain. Twice married and divorced, she began writing while living with her first husband in Burma and was published under her married name of Helen Ferguson. In the wake of the collapse of her second marriage, she suffered the first of many nervous breakdowns and was confined to a clinic in Switzerland; she emerged from her incarceration with a new name – Anna Kavan, the protagonist of her 1930 novel
Let Me Alone
– an outwardly different persona and a new literary style.

Her first novel in this guise was
Asylum Piece,
and it achieved for her a certain recognition. She was a long-term heroin addict and suffered periodic bouts of mental illness, and these facets of her life feature prominently in her novels and short stories. She died in 1968 of heart failure soon after the publication of her most celebrated work, the novel
Ice.

ANNA KAVAN
THE PARSON

PETER OWEN
LONDON AND CHICAGO

Publisher’s Note

This is the only remaining novel by Anna Kavan, left among her manuscripts, which has never been published hitherto. A significant feature of the narrative is that it presages, through its undertones and imagery, some of her later and most enduring fiction. Some minor editorial emendations have been made to the final extant draft of the text prior to publication. Otherwise it remains unaltered, as the author wrote it.

It has not been possible to date the book exactly, but it was probably written between the mid-1950s and the early 1960s.

1

 

O
NE
afternoon at the end of a wet northern summer, a most improbable meeting took place between two people from worlds which could hardly have been further apart.

One was a young lieutenant, the eldest of six children whose native country this was, and whose father had died long before, leaving the family in poor circumstances. The other, from the south, was like the heroine of a romantic story, beautiful and extremely rich.

Rejane had just left her current lover after a violent quarrel, meaning to stay away for a week or two, until her absence had reduced him to a sufficiently abject state. She was bored with all the usual places her set frequented, and had come to this northern country because she’d never seen it and it was the remotest place she could think of. But it rained the whole time and the hotel was empty. She was already planning to leave after a few days of solitary boredom when Oswald appeared, and she changed her mind.

The tall, athletic young man, whose skin was tanned much darker than his very fair hair, aroused her interest, not by his good looks but because she immediately saw that there was something puzzling about him, something incongruous, that required explanation.

He was unmistakably an army type; even now, in casual civilian clothes, the uniform could be felt in the background. And he had a certain military assurance, sure of himself as an officer and a gentleman, though without a trace of conceit or swagger. This, with his rather severe good looks and superb physique, made him unusually impressive for such a young man.

Yet it seemed to Rejane, unobtrusively watching him across the hotel room, that his assurance was slightly overstated, as if he needed to convince himself; and, suddenly, in one of the flashes of inspired intuition she sometimes had when her interest was aroused, she saw that it was only his position in life he was sure of – not of himself in the middle of it.

Most strange, this was to her, this division, as if he stood outside his own circumstances. Her interest was stimulated still further.

He looked so straightforward and normal, so extroverted. At a first glance, he seemed all simplicity and directness, a man made for action, not thought, engagingly natural and absolutely trustworthy, within his limitations. He should have been perfectly at ease with himself, entirely at home in his world. And, most of the time, he kept the assured army façade. Only at an occasional unguarded moment his face had a bewildered lost look that was touching and most unexpected. In his dark-blue eyes, to which his tropical tan gave a startling brilliance, could be seen the same lost bewilderment, so inappropriate it was almost uncanny, like an improbable secret he carried always upon his person.

Rejane wasn’t touched by it, but she was intrigued. A secret was always a challenge to her, something she had to possess. On the spot, she decided to make this handsome walking secret her property, although it meant staying on here in the wilds, cut off from everything that composed her real existence. Five minutes ago, this small, out-of-the-way country had seemed a terrible bore, she’d wanted to leave by the very next boat. Now at last it had provided her with an interest – even the weather seemed to have turned over a new leaf.

*

The change in the weather was responsible for the whole thing. If this September day hadn’t unexpectedly brought brilliant hot sunshine, she would never have seen Oswald at all. He would never have driven his mother across the moors to the comfortable little modem hotel where she was staying, which, during his absence abroad, had replaced the dilapidated smugglers’ haunt he’d known all his life.

Though any stranger approaching across the moors would have supposed it to be miles inland, the hotel was really right on the edge of one of the countless inlets which turned the map of that coastline into a sort of fringe; deep narrow lochs, everywhere winding into the sombre landscape of moors and great granite tors.

As soon as the mother and son got out of the car, they could feel the pleasant salty astringency that rose from the unseen creek. Steep steps led down to a rough terrace of half-submerged rocks, around which the pellucid water, clear and solid looking as blue-green glass, lazily swelled and sank, to the barely perceptible rhythm of distant waves. While they were standing here, looking over the bright water to the upland slopes on the other side, a sudden chill penetrated the summery afternoon, as if sent to remind them that it wasn’t
really
summer and that they were in the north, though the sun still shone and there wasn’t a breath of wind.

So they went indoors and ordered tea in the hotel lounge; where they couldn’t fail to be very much aware of the stranger who was its only other occupant, dressed with an elegant simplicity rarely seen in their sparsely populated district.

In the blond north, in that remote and unlikely setting, Rejane’s dark beauty was quite extraordinary, with its sensuous contrast of pale flawless skin and almost black hair and eyes. Her complexion was pure magnolia. And her hair fell in soft, dark waves that always looked perfect and perfectly natural – everything about her had this inevitable sort of perfection, as if it just happened that way. Naturalness was one of her great assets, her beauty being in no way artificial, but the result of supreme good health. Her body was as perfect as Oswald’s, and, though she was a few years his senior, might have belonged to a slim young girl – except that no young girl ever had so much glamour. The impression she liked to give – it was somewhat misleading – was of a charming and lovely girl, quite simple and unassuming, unspoiled by money and adulation.

To Oswald, she was by far the most enchanting person he’d ever seen. An irresistible attraction drew his eyes towards her; and he hardly tried to resist, as if such glamorous beauty must not be kept private but could be admired, like royalty, without rudeness.

His mother, too, though usually timid with strangers, seemed to feel free to observe this one, so different from herself. And, as if the contrast made her half aware of deficiencies in her own appearance, she vaguely pushed a stray wisp of hair under her ancient hat before picking up the teapot, which had been set in front of her. As she began to pour, still under the spell of the unknown beauty, she murmured, ‘Who can she be? What can she be doing here? She doesn’t look at all the sort of person to come to the moors ...’ Then she stopped abruptly, silenced by her son’s disapproving frown.

Though he’d always been deeply devoted to her, at this moment everything about his mother got on his nerves – her dowdiness, her sudden silence and meekness, as much as her muttered personal remarks. At the same time he felt guilty, unfair and unkind, knowing that devotion to her family was responsible for her behaviour – she was shy and awkward for the same reason that she was badly dressed; because the poverty that followed his father’s death had limited her experience of the world, imprisoning her at home, so that she was out of her element in a hotel lounge, almost as if she belonged to a lower class than her handsome, obviously well-bred son.

*

It had been for him, the first bom, rather than for any of his brothers and sisters, that she had saved and slaved, not only to educate him but to add to his share of the meagre patrimony, so that he could enter his father’s regiment, as tradition required. In their small northern country, advanced in some ways, in others behind the times, it was still the age of absolute male supremacy, the divine right of the eldest son hadn’t been questioned. So that Oswald could go into a crack regiment, the education of the younger boys had been skimped; the girls it had not been thought necessary to educate, beyond the rudiments their mother could teach them. This state of affairs Oswald himself found quite natural; but he’d never forgotten his debt, or that it was his duty to do credit to the family, as he always had done, coming back this time more of a credit to them than ever, already promoted, and assured of success in his profession – his superiors said he was sure to get to the top.

BOOK: The Parson (Peter Owen Modern Classic)
5.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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