Sunday 13 January 2008

Love behind bars

A Man in the Zoo is a short novella by David Garnett (1892-1981), bookseller, publisher, literary editor of the New Statesman and sometime resident of Charleston, whose second wife was Angelica, daughter of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

John Cromartie and his girlfriend, Josephine Lackett, have an argument about marriage, during which Josephine retorts that Cromartie really should be an exhibit in the zoo. In an impulsive act of love scorned, that is exactly what he decides he will be. He moves into the Ape House at the London Zoo, in a cage between the orang-utan and the chimpanzee. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t exactly solve any of the problems between the pair of lovers, but it does raise a number of interesting dilemmas.
This quaint but interesting period piece dates from 1922. As do the assumptions about class and race around which are ingrained in the both the author’s and the characters’ thinking (some of which make for uncomfortable moments for the modern reader). What hasn’t dated – and part of what makes it a delight to read – is its analysis of the violent (sometimes from one minute to the next) swings between love and contempt, hope and despair, wanting and not wanting, decision and indecision which characterise an abrupt hiatus in a passionate relationship. Are the tqo utterly incompatible . . . or absolutely made to be together?

The dramatic withdrawal of Cromartie from both Josephine and the polite society to which he is accustomed (indeed from any form of society, save that of a wild cat who becomes his companion, and briefly, another man who moves into the next-door cage as the zoo seeks to extend the experiment and capitalise on the newfound popularity of its Ape House) highlight aspects of his character and of Josephine’s which neither had realised about each other, nor about themselves.

The other two good reasons for reading A Man in the Zoo is the lovely woodcut illustrations by Garnett’s first wife, Ray, and the spare, understated grace of the writing.

The Vintage Classics edition I have also includes another novella, Lady into Fox, which I haven’t yet read, but . . . it’s on the list.

If you’re not familiar with the intricacies of the relationships within the Bloomsbury Group, there’s some interesting background on where David Garnett fits in (and it was complicated - weren't they all?) here .

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