BOOK REVIEW / High wind that subsided into gentility: 'Richard Hughes' - Richard Perceval Graves: Andre Deutsch, 20 pounds

Share
Related Topics
DESPITE a professional life that extended over half a century, Richard Hughes (1900-76) produced only four full-length novels. Two of these, A High Wind in Jamaica and The Fox in the Attic, separated by a gap of 30 years, were considerable best-sellers. In between came a piecemeal living on the dreariest kind of hack work, even extending to unfilmed scripts for Ealing studios. The chief paradox of Hughes's career rises inexorably to dominate Richard Perceval Graves's painstaking biography: how a man who exulted in the 'life sentence' of the writer's calling could find the act of writing such perpetual torment.

The streak of restlessness which was to interrupt his later career was, as Graves shows, ingrained early on. As well as a glut of plays, poems and stories, Hughes's early twenties took in a surfeit of foreign adventures: a holiday down the Danube spent interfering in Balkan politics on the side of Croatian nationalism; hair-raising travels in the Near East and North America; house-buying in Tangier. By the end of the Twenties his metamorphosis from patriotic public schoolboy to literary man of action was complete: the physical extremes to which the cast of A High Wind in Jamaica (1929) are exposed have a definite grounding in his own life.

But it would be a mistake to mark Hughes down as a kind of home-grown Jack London. One of the sharpest characteristics thrown up by Hughes is an adaptability to circumstance that had a habit of propelling its subject into highly conventional patterns of life and thought. Even in his undergraduate days at Oxford, when a blasphemous poem had him threatened with expulsion, Hughes immediately rescued his career by agreeing to apologise. Later, after a successful war as an Admiralty civil servant, he was happy to follow the Foreign Office line on East European literary gatherings, or rebuke Graham Greene's opposition to Vietnam. The children of his marriage to a quintessentially genteel Englishwoman went to public schools.

The picture of a fiery Cambrian savant is similarly hard to square with increasingly frenzied attempts to earn a living. Endlessly seduced by new schemes, he took until 1961 to produce The Fox in the Attic, and Graves's account of his writing life in the Fifties is often a list of aborted projects. Increasingly absorbed in The Human Predicament, an ambitiously conceived work on the pre-history of the Second World War of which Fox was the first volume, he managed only one further novel - The Wooden Shepherdess in 1973 - and the scheme died with him.

Graves's biography, written in the conviction that both Hughes and his work are undervalued, is more a recitation than a piece of analysis. Occasionally pedestrian in style, he is reluctant to engage with what on the surface seem to be crucial passages in Hughes's life or temperament. Hughes's sexuality - his cancelled first engagement and the interest in small girls - is one obvious absence, but this lack of inquisitiveness extends into other areas. The publication of his first two (admittedly minor) books in 1926 goes by in a paragraph; some potentially revealing dinner dates with Evelyn Waugh disappear in a sentence.

More important, perhaps, is the relative silence on one of Hughes's most settled beliefs: the futility of a writer taking a political stance. This lay at the heart of his quarrel with Greene and his disagreements with Koestler. And quietism, one imagines, is also a cause of his comparative neglect. It is not simply that Hughes wrote a kind of highly intelligent action novel that has gone out of favour, but that in the age of Orwell, Auden and Co, his detachment makes him seem a diminished figure. For all Graves's enthusiasm, one can't help feeling that his subject is probably beyond reclaim.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Bob Geldof  

Ebola is a political AND a medical disease

Paul Vallely
 

I've tried reason, but my cat is pig-ignorant

Dom Joly
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin