ALEX COMFORT'S FIRST BOOK, The Silver River, was in print before he left school. It is a record of ten weeks at sea during the summer of 1936. Comfort sailed with his father on a Dutch tramp to Buenos Aires, calling at Madeira; they returned on a Greek boat via Dakar. His narrative consists of impressions of place and seascape, of notes on life and manners, of botanical and zoological observations. The young author writes already with an impressive assurance. He is an idealist with an engaging sense of humour; more remarkably, he is a precise observer and a very well-informed student of natural history. There is a feeling of receptiveness, of an insatiable curiosity, in his book and yet, from this admirable beginning, no-one could have deduced much about the novels which were to follow.
The bulk of Comfort's fictional work was written during the forties. His views on the task of the writer appear in Art and Social Responsibility but they are repeated or particularised in The Novel and Our Time which was published in 1948 and against which has work of this period may best be examined. He begins by reaffirming his attitude to art:
My own position is that of romanticism, which I have discussed elsewhere and tried to define in such a way that realism as a novelistic quality is not made an antithetic quality to it. For me, romanticism implies a belief that humanity, by virtue of the development of autonomous mind, is in a constant state of conflict with the external universe; a conflict, in face of the human instinct for survival, with death, and with those members of the human race who have lost their nerve and sided with death against man: the advocates of power. The main literary and ethical conclusions of this view are that human standards, beauty, justice, and so on, exist only so long as we assert them, but are none the less valid for that; and the main ethical value is a sense of biological human responsibility, against death and against power.
He advances the view that the novel is the most socially useful art form of Western culture. Because of the fragmentation of modern civilisation; because the only fixed points now are our scientific achievement and our art; because the novel is observational and so may lay claim to the scientific method; because it addresses the reader in privacy and can still be patronised when other art forms are beginning to succumb to totalitarian pressures … for these reasons it has great potentialities as a social force provided that there are sufficient novelists of the right stamp. And if the novel disappears it will be to be replaced by "the unanimous literature of tyranny or the spontaneous literature of a free society".
He goes on to consider some of the practical problems posed by the novel, suggesting that the cinema may have had a liberating influence on modes of narration and discussing the ways in which the reader may identify with central figures. He deals with realism at length: it is "the method which appeals most directly in a period when events are apocalyptic in character and scale. It would be difficult to invent more perfect or moving tragic patterns than those which actually exist". The realist must observe carefully and must train himself to assimilate any sort of technical knowledge in order to obtain a definitive picture of the sorts of lives his characters must lead. In addition to this Comfort's own approach, so as to maintain coherence, is to trust to his normality and to use ordinary people — he will concentrate on the onlooker, rather than the firing-squad or the condemned man, who may be disorientated by the occasion: "someone is there at every big crime and every big swindle, and because he is a man you know roughly what he is thinking and how he feels. Instead of your own armour of prejudice and rationalisation, you can add his …"
The sex-and-violence discussion inaugurated in Art and Social Responsibility in relation to the sexual character of atrocity propaganda is extended in The Novel and Our Time. The ways in which men react to violence are examined. Responsible writers, he says, are in a difficult position: "the power of handling violent events is essential if one is going to write about modern Europe at all." But writers run the risk of making the situation worse by directing yet more attention to it — "unless they possess great power of exposition and an unshakeable integrity in the perpetual drumming-in of the ethic of responsibility."
This ethic of responsibility, the principle of the New Romantic, is again presented: "I mean the refusal to abandon the basic conception of humanness for any extraneous object whatsoever — victory, democracy, the nation, the party, the civil list, or the libraries." The responsible writer is perforce an anarchist. He is opposed by the collaborator, the writer who cannot recognise the meaning of the times or who is afraid to stand alone. Between romanticism and collaboration there are two escapes: the pure form escape (Finnegan's Wake, various types of abstract art, and so on); and the escape into fantasy or surrealism, when it is used to evade the need to make explicit comment. And so Comfort must reserve his admiration for — "Zweig's Grischa, Silone, Mann, Giono, some Koestler, the earlier Malraux." The tests of the reader should be: "Is this writer capable of recognising a human being? Is he able to reject the art of diverse weights, for which an act identical in every respect is a heroic but regrettable necessity when done by Our Side and a contemptible atrocity when done by Their Side? Is his judgment of human decisions level or weighted; does he know filth from food, whatever the wrapper?"
The first of the novels, No Such Liberty, appeared in 1941 when Comfort was 21. Its efficiency is striking. The first half of the book is a rather inflammatory description of the atmosphere in Cologne just before the war. It culminates in the first pogrom. The narrator is a young German doctor whose wife has involved herself with Jewish friends. They effect a hairsbreadth escape and are seriously ill on arrival at London but they are received with sympathy and are given assistance in the island of the free. Up to this point the novel must have been perfectly acceptable at the time of its publication. A casual reader would pass by some hints of other evidence and would be ready to put it on the shelf beside I, James Blunt.
At this point, however, war is declared and Dr. Breit must go before the Aliens' Tribunal; and now he declares for pacifism on Christian grounds. This, he tells the judge, involves the belief that love can overcome evil by suffering — if necessary, to the point of death. When the judge enquires why he didn't stay to test this theory he can't provide an answer and so he is registered as a Class B Alien. Shortly he is interned and the remainder of the novel develops into a forceful exposure of internment conditions in Britain at the beginning of the war. The doctor is released after some influence has been applied only to find that his wife has also been taken. Ultimately she is traced but the conditions at her camp have led to the death of her baby. The story ends on a note of calm but of uncertainty with the couple awaiting permission to sail to still-neutral America. They are almost broken by their experiences and, with hindsight, we can't help wondering what lies ahead of them. The novel, in essence, is a study of the two faces of mass hysteria.
The Almond Tree, which followed, goes back to the first World War. Pyotr Tomascezewski lives in his vineyard on the Moselle with his grandchildren: Theresa, Hilde, Yelisaveta and Fyodor — another, Serge, has already escaped and is a philosopher at Bonn. Pyotr's distaste for his German neighbours holds them in isolation but in 1911 his death releases and disperses the family. Theresa, already married, stays on the estate with her husband. Hilde, who knows what she wants, leaves immediately; we never learn whether she gets it. Yelisaveta and the young Fyodor go to Paris where the girl is to be companion to the wife of a chance acquaintance and the boy is to go to school. Eventually he runs away from this school (very much like the one in Zero de Conduite, down to the dwarfish, bearded magician-headmaster) and arrives back at the house at a critical moment: Madam Roux, a lesbian, is assaulting his sister. Fyodor lives in a world divided between concrete unhappiness and elaborate fantasy and he is only sustained by his love for Yelisaveta. He cannot confront this discovery and he runs out into the night. A kindly old Spaniard looks after him and takes him to sea; he dies of the plague in South America six years later. Yelisaveta, after escaping Madame Roux, lives happily for two years with her lover but has to take work in a convent when he goes into the army and to his death. Serge, on the opposite side, is in ill-fated Huygebeek Wood when an English assault begins. In panic he runs away in the confusion, is severely wounded, and ironically finds himself decorated for heroism. So, back at Muden after the war has rolled away, the survivors gather: Serge, a cripple who sits beneath his grandfather's almond tree; and Theresa and Yelisaveta, older and discontented.
This abrupt summary must give an impression of extravagance which is not felt on reading the novel. Each episode firmly excludes the feeling of the previous section — some of them might be read separately as powerful short stories. The atmosphere of the house in Paris is steadily built up to a quite terrifying crisis. The balance in Fyodor's voyage between a naturalistic description of the external world and the commencing resolution and dissipation of the boy's fantasy-world conjures up a mood like that of A High Wind in Jamaica. In the novel as a whole there is an impression of innocence besieged; with, in the background, a claustrophobic sense of the constraints of institutions — the school, the convent, even the patriarchal family.
The Power House, which appeared 1944, is complex and ambitious and from several points of view looks like the centre-piece of Comfort's work. It offers a panoramic view of the collapse of France and the early occupation through the experiences of its two principal characters and a large number of lesser figures. Fougueux is a weaving-mill engineer in a Channel port; he is reluctantly forced to seek concealment in the army with a close friend whose affair has ended in the girl's death. The young Lieutenant Vernier is posted to their unit and presently the battery is moved up to the front. Fougueux and Vernier are thrown together in the chaotic retreat and manage to reach Paris, which is already occupied, in safety. They work in the city for a while but become involved with the Resistance and their first action ends as a disastrous misadventure. They are obliged to enlist as volunteer labourers and find themselves back at Fougueux' mill where they narrowly escape the consequences of an abortive insurrection.
This action takes place against a background of extraordinarily precise description thick with unforgettable minor figures — Uncle Pécquard, Arsule, Mélusine, Valtin's wife. The weight of detail helps to obscure a multiplicity of coincidences in the plot; these coincidences arranged, perhaps, to put into personal terms the repercussions of miscarried plans and to show the characters in a variety of situations without extending the novel intolerably.
In intention the novel is an assessment of the condition of Europe at that time and an examination of various forms of resistance. A defined position, shared by several of the men, is gradually made clear. The little doctor has decided that politics is irrelevant: the real struggle is against Society. "The State is a lunatic in these days," says Valtin. "… Society in this age is just a vast criminal conspiracy by the majority of the lunatics against the minority of the sane." And Vernier is steadily drawn to this view. But the Christian approach of Dr. Breitz in No Such Liberty seems to have been abandoned now. The men in The Power House either hit back or evade. There is no implication, too, that retaliation by violence is dangerously or stupidly inaccurate: Loubain's murder of the German soldier leads to the execution of Valtin; Vernier's assistance to the saboteurs contributes to the death of Germaine. Evasion, it is true, is not always successful. We do not learn what happens to the young man whose birth was not registered by his father; but Valtin, who recognises that "the great thing about history is to avoid being killed by it" and works his release from the army, dies before a firing squad in spite of all his plans: the best-laid schemes of mice and men.…
The penultimate scene is set in a detention camp hospital. Claus, the unknown political prisoner with an untold experience of internment camps, watches another detainee feeding Vernier. Here the writer interpolates that this scene is characteristic of the world at present: that as Breughel painted village weddings to represent his time, so someone must paint this. And Claus sums up in the tone of voice we associate especially with Comfort and in the words, almost of Art and Social Responsibility:
We are the enemies of society and we must learn disobedience. Then we shall probably inherit the earth by default when the maniacs have burnt each other to a cinder. We shall be alive, they won't. Europe stinks of murder and groans with partings: your strength or your skill has got to be hidden, of if you display it, your mind — all sources of danger: the lunatics either desire you or fear you, and I do not know which kills you more rapidly. Banners are wagged in your face, guns are thrust in your ribs, grinning flat-footed gangs of citizens, all mouthing the same bilge, push around you and threaten to educate you by cutting your throat. People ask, what is the use of life to a slave? That's bilge — what's the use of freedom to a corpse? You carry your freedom inside your skull and your ribs, and if anyone makes a hole it pours out and wastes with your blood.…
Everyone today who has a whole body is liable to find himself in the wings of a stage melodrama. They take him to the stage side. There is a crime being committed — there's the villain, whiskers and all — there's a victim yelling blue murder. "Act up to your principles," whisper the thimbleriggers and prompters. You rush to help — every step you take crushes an innocent person — before you reach your objective you are drenched in blood, and by now that objective has been skilfully moved out or reach. Never mind, they show you another — act up to your principles, save civilisation — once more you set out, a trail of irresponsible ruin behind you. By now you have caused so much bloodshed in your fat-headed enthusiasm that the thimble riggers are pointing you out to other would-be heroes as a villain. Everywhere people are crying out for release — out of reach. Your natural kindness is canalized to swell the massacre. You set out to save the Jews and find yourself butchering civilians in crowded cities. There is only one responsibility — to the individual who lies under your feet. To the weak, your fellows.
Letters From An Outpost is a collection of a dozen short stories. Resistance is again a major theme and the deserter-hero promised in Art and Social Responsibility appears now as a central figure. The physical abnormality of children is seen as a source of pleasure, since it ensures exemption from service in future wars. Some of the stories are allegorical. "The Lemmings" shows war as a form of group insanity — though even the lemmings have deserters. Others are simply realistic descriptions of a disaster or of a violent or macabre event. There is a sense of strain, indeed, of beleaguerment, behind several of them: a frustration turning desperate and barely contained so that we are reminded of Kafka's most unpleasant pieces — "Behind Bars" has the horror of "In a Penal Settlement". This is the least enjoyable of Comfort's books: one can't read it without a feeling of depression.
"Every man of my age, reckoning the sober possibilities, must have realized that he had a small, a diminishing chance of living to be forty," says the hero of On This Side Nothing. "At one time, one would have been safer for being a Jew, a non-military person, a cosmopolitan, but now the historical roulette had thrown up the number JEW, as it had frequently done before, and I had long known I was for it …" Nonetheless, Szmul Weinstock lets pass his chance to escape the Second War and goes to join his friends and relatives in Libya whilst the contending armies are fighting the desert war. He arrives illegally the day before the city's Jews are impounded in the ghetto. Conditions inside deteriorate steadily. A tunnel is pierced under the wall of the Old City but the Germans withdraw as the Allies announce their arrival by levelling the ghetto instead of the main town.
As in No Such Liberty the reader imagines that the time of deliverance is near and he is again mistaken. The fascists in the Italian civil police remain in office, adapting themselves as flexibly to the British administration as they did to the German. Wires are re-erected round the Old City and with British propriety the sexes are segregated. The hero is unwillingly involved in the murder of a German who has deserted and found employment with the occupying powers. The body is buried at the end of the tunnel outside the city wall until it is discovered and contested, like Polynices, by the dogs. Weinstock is seized but escapes by his route of entry to find the Italian mayor and a British lieutenant are defecting with him. Still rejecting Palestine, he is bound now for America perhaps. His philosophy of refusal and exile only asks one question: does a man move of his own volition or does he simply obey?
A Giant's Strength (1952) focusses on a scientist's struggle to escape the world's War Departments. Dr. Hedler, a German mathematician who had worked reluctantly for the Nazis, crosses into East Germany when the Americans try to claim him but finds that his intelligence is now to be conscripted in the Russian cause. He is sent to work at the University of Tashkent. He plans to escape to a country where his services are not indispensable but the plan misfires and he finds himself in precarious circumstances in the middle of the Turkestan desert. He is not quite alone for, by chance, two other parties are in the neighbourhood: a scientific expedition from his own university and some itinerant bandits who have just moved across the Afghan frontier. It would be a pity to say more about the development of a most exciting story. The attitudes of intelligent Soviet academicians and officials are represented with what appears to be a scrupulous honesty. And there is a particularly interesting, long dialogue in the Marx-Bakunin tradition, for anarchism is represented not only by Dr. Hedler but also by an old Russian who once sat at the feet of Kropotkin himself.
Reverting, now, to Comfort's views on writing, it will not be necessary to labour the ways in which the novels are used as vehicles for his themes. Obviously, tried by his intentions he is impeccable. He looks the twentieth century in the face, presents his material with the utmost authenticity, and makes his message abundantly clear. His books teach the uniqueness of the individual and they teach where
men's loyalties lie. They are, in fact, interesting in construction and, without exception, they are exciting as stories. Their inhabitants represent a range of class and nationality which few contemporary British novelists can match. Yet these characters are neither national stereotypes nor uprooted cosmopolitans; they are steeped in their own cultures and if they become international or extranational in outlook it is when reason or experience has forced it. They move, too, before a backcloth detailed by minute observation in the city and by the understanding of the biologist in the natural world. They struggle with their personal problems: Uncle Pécquard copes in stoical secrecy with whatever sort of tumour is steadily blinding him; Fougueux is plagued by his impotence and Arsule dies through her nymphomania; Fyodor folds his private horrors into his imagination. It is a broad canvas and it is astonishing that these throngs of Europeans should have been created by a very young English writer.
It does not seem profitable to attempt to discuss The Novel And Our Timein any wider context here. It is true that some readers might consider that it states an unnecessarily dogmatic approach. They might say that minds are affected in multifarious ways and that the writer ought to place more confidence in the intelligence and discrimination of the reader. But we should remember that Comfort's own novels are not intended exclusively for that audience which already reads with more or less discrimination. On the other hand, it is noticeable that apart from asking for "a sense of dramatic construction" there is little to suggest that quite unreadable novels might not be written to his formula. Even if we take a good contemporary novelist, Alan Sillitoe, whose books embody Comfort's principles almost perfectly — how many entirely sympathetic readers take him as our most valuable young writer, even from a social point of view? In fact, persuasive attacks on closely similar positions predated Comfort's book: Richards on Tolstoy's What Is Art? twenty-four years earlier, for instance. A defence against any such criticism today might very well be based on the final standards of urgency and survival. But, in any case, it is fifteen years since The Novel And Our Time was published; there was a gap of almost ten years between A Giant's Strength and the latest novel; and with this novel, Come Out To Play, and a new collection of essays, Darwin and The Naked Lady, it is apparent that we have new emphases and a change of tactics.
Come Out To Play came out in 1961. It is Comfort's first venture into comedy. A biologist who is a specialist on sexual matters forms a liaison with a beautiful and mysterious stranger whom he encounters on a coach tour. In Paris, without money or work, they set up a school for those who would improve their coital performance; it is so successful that its NATO clients find more to entertain them than the hotbeds of the cold war — even the Russians are enrolling by the end. A research chemist isolates a group of substances with disconcerting properties: one perfume makes men attack each other and is tested practically in the United Nations Assembly (anarchists have been up to this before in Geoffrey Household's The High Place); aphrodisiacs of irresistible power are created and are given field trial at a Buckingham Palace garden party. Politicians, pressmen, clergy and nobility are outwitted or improved by superior intelligence, common decency, and the resources of the scientist and scholar.
Humour is a notoriously erratic weapon but most readers without insuperable political sexual barriers ought to enjoy this book thoroughly. In fact, despite the fact that it offended some critics, observations in the library show that copies are never on the shelves for more than a few minutes. It is a racy tale (apart from some cunning technical interludes) and in places it is vastly amusing. Simultaneously, it presents serious and humane ideas about sexual and personal relationships and about modern science and politics.
The theory behind Come Out To Play, together with the sources of a good deal of the raw material, is to be found in Darwin and The Naked Lady, a collection of seven essays. This is in some ways the richest and most stimulating of Comfort's books. The colossal range of reference, the frequent appeal to psychology and biology, the dense texture of the argument, and a vocabulary sometimes unnecessarily abstruse or international, combine to intimidate the general reader. In mitigation, apart from the absorbing nature of the ideas presented, the characteristic lucidity of style is backed by a zest which keeps flashing into the most sparking asides; and there is a unique fund of fascinating minutiae from many provinces of science and art. We see, too, that Comfort is less prone now to argue about what, for instance, Romanticism is — he looks at things rather than names in this book.
One chapter, "The Rape of Andromeda", has already been printed in ANARCHY (with some variations in text) and the rationale of Come Out To Play may be seen in the conclusion of this essay. After considering the novelist's problems he decides —
One alternative is to write popular fiction. I think it is safe to say that there is no functioning art-form, however poor its present execution, which cannot be exploited if one has enough ingenuity … at least the requirements are not more stringent than those stylisations which myth and ceremony imposed on Greek, or Elizabethan taste and politics on Tudor, drama. I would rather write like Longus than like Mr. Fleming, but if editors, readers, or censors compel me to write like Mr. Fleming in order to be heard — or for that matter like the conformist colleagues of Pasternak — I would make a fair offer to turn any imposed restrictions into horrid arms against their originators.
Come Out To Play cannot properly be called popular fiction — the vocabulary is too wide to begin with — but it is a move in that direction: from the cover onwards it tries to seduce the casual reader.
(And if anyone feels sceptical about what can be done through the popular arts he should try to get hold of an American record of Judy Collins singing a ballad about the Evans-Christie case.)
One of the major themes of Darwin and The Naked Lady might be called sex-or-violence: men in love, Comfort says, tend to resist such civic privileges as conscription. He discusses Eastern erotic art at length and hopes that if the trend in the West towards more permissive and "more polymorphous" sexual behaviour continues it may tend to discharge our preoccupation with violence. This might have the incidental effect of gradually displacing the stereotyped sex-and-violence material and might therefore benefit the general taste; whilst talented artists who were to commit themselves to the erotic function of art might find a release from the minority audience — the "Third Programme ghetto".
The reader who was upset by the prescriptions of The Novel And Our Time might be equally disturbed by Darwin and the Naked Lady, though for different reasons. The horizons of the scientific humanist place art in a wider and colder landscape than many may care to think about: "To acquire Freud's toughness, one must be able to see human pre-occupations, art among them, as interesting derivatives of primate behaviour, without ever losing confidence in their value …" And Comfort is not afraid to speculate about a time when modern English may have become so archaic as to be unintelligible: a disquieting vision to some lovers of literature. There is that breadth behind the whole of the book. Art is to be considered alongside erotic experience — "its older twin"; even its senior partner! — as a form of play and also as a stiffener of resistance. Through our legitimate fantasies we must oppose and undermine the pathological fantasy-makers — the world's rulers. We need an ability to recognise two modes of thinking, or attitudes, in human affairs in general. He defines these loosely, calling them "hard-centred" and "soft-centred". They are, in fact, very much like the extensional and intensional orientations of post-Korzybskian semantics.
The book also contains a provocative essay on criticism and another on the relationship of psychology and art; it includes, too, a rather technical account of how Darwin nearly became Freud as well. But, altogether, Darwin and The Naked Lady is inexhaustibly interesting, so brilliant and various that an attempt to encompass it in a few paragraphs must look quite pitiful. It repays whatever amount of attention the reader is prepared to give it and it is a splendid culmination to twenty-five years of writing.
It seems remarkable today that Comfort — the novelist, biologist, social psychologist, essayist of pacifism, philosopher of anarchism — was so frequently referred to, in his early career, as a poet. In fact, although his books of verse are rather slim volumes he must have devoted a good deal of his time during the forties to the writing of poetry. And he was active, too, as an editor or co-editor of selections of new writings: Lyra, New Road, Poetry Folios. It is always foolish to doubt the reversibility of taste but it is not likely that his work of the forties will receive much attention in the future except from those who approach it through his other activities. Even in the anthologies it is being crowded out — symptomatically Hermann Peschmann, selecting from 1930 to 1950, gave him two-and-a-half pages and considerable praise whilst Elizabeth Jennings, covering 1940 to 1960, allows him twelve lines. It appears to us now that during the war years poetry had a more sympathetic or a less demanding audience than it has today. Comfort's work of that time drew attention, perhaps, for the independence of its message and (trying to allow for the reaction often developed by readers of a pursuing generation) for its affinities with a manner which looks as stylised now as that of any period of literary history. Rather than argue about this poetry at length, however, we ought to present some of it. Here are two short extracts intended to represent its characteristic tones. The first is one of the eight sections of "Aeschines in Samos" which appeared in Elegies (1944). The poem as a whole gives the impression that Gerontion or Phlebas may be in the neighbourhood but its combination of simplicity and technical skill is indisputable and it lodges in the memory easily.
Argas the banker was a friend of mine
all his white balconies were full of birds
and the green Hellespont was his private water
its clouds scaly as fish; until he found
a cold unruly wind, sailing off Athos —
a flaw in the mast, and all his rowers sick:
as through the following days of calm he floated
pressing his white lips to the water's windows
seeing the white birds fall like wingless snow.
It is his head that tumbles like a child
among the wreaths of froth, an old man playing with girls.
By contrast, the aggressive poetry of "The Song of Lazarus" in The Signal To Engage (1946) is, despite a certain incantory impact, somewhat profuse and vehement. Some of the poems in "The Beginning of a War'' (dedicated to the editors of FREEDOM who went to prison for sedition in 1945) are more elegant — "Song for John Hewetson", for instance. But you can see the limits of this poetry by looking at the concluding lines of this group of poems.
For Freedom and Beauty are not fixed start,
but cut by man only from his own flesh,
but lit by man, only for his sojourn
because our shout into the cup of sky …
brings back no echo, brings back no echo ever:
because man's kind lives at his stature's length
because the stars have for us no earnest of winning
because there is no resurrection
because all things are against us, we are ourselves.
The shout is made in all seriousness but it sounds a trifle thin in these spaces; the only response that seems appropriate is that of agreement. A recent contributor to the New Left Review spoke of "a loose libertarian rhetoric" in a poetic tradition stretching from Whitman to the Beats and the phrase might fairly be applied to some of Comfort's work. Up to this point he seems to be one of those writers like Thoreau whose best poetry is found in their prose — who can't stop playing with words. We see this in The Power House. and Art and Social Responsibility when, for example, "Europe stinks of murder and groans with partings" is varied as "Europe stinks of blood and groans with separation".
With And All But He Departed in 1951 there is an indeterminate change half-apparent. He is still appealing for the revolution but the poetry is rather more tense and even uses rhyme:-
This is the work I do —
I gather your scattered No
your inarticulate salvage
drive your doubts in a row.…
Give me this for my work.
I ask you to speak, not hear.
I am your audience. Give
the disobedient word
that will open history's ear
like the prince's kiss that woke, and the sleepers stirred.
These lines are from the longest poem in the book; if we read the shortest, the evasive and interesting "Between", we suddenly have an impression of unused resources. The cloud in this poem may be the one that Fougueux saw in The Power House and Comfort saw before the war perhaps but it is used here as something more than a symbol of the inquietude or presentiment; it dominates the poem and gives it cohesion. And despite its generality the language remains simple.
the third between ourselves
hung in that tideless sky
under a sail as wide
as time or history.
Some of the earlier characteristics of Comfort's poetry are still in evidence. The second poem in the book, "The Petrified Forest" — again on the disobedience theme — has unity and is confidently developed. But it concludes with a moral: "This was a city where too few refused / and every yes-man's mouth is filled with sand." This sounds all right on the first reading; later it seems too obvious, so neat and facile that it punctures the mood the poem has built.
As with the novels, there was a hiatus of ten years before the appearance of the most recent volume of poetry, though the pieces in Haste To The Wedding may represent that period uniformly. The most surprising thing about it is that whilst the earlier poetry was frequently admired his latest collection was found disappointing or distasteful in some quarters. It is hard to see why. Certainly it is uneven in the extreme but it includes half a dozen poems which are not only very impressive in themselves but also happen to be couched in an idiom rather like that of the Movement. In fact, if you compare "In The Museum" — surely one of the best poems Comfort has ever written — with Philip Larkin's "Churchgoing", one of the most-discussed poems of the fifties, you will see distinct similarities in tone and method: and Comfort's poem is not damaged by the comparison. "In the Museum" is ambitiously conceived. The poet watches a girl sketching a celebrated relic from the graves of Ur; he reflects upon the barbaric burial practices of the ancient world and wonders whether she will take the message of these exhibits; there is a moment of understanding, the reference to our contemporary situation is seen, and the poem concludes as an assertion of faith — for life and against power. The humanity and intelligence, the undertones of tenderness and humour, are in flawless harmony; the speech-rhythms are conversational but melodic; rhyme, assonance and dissonance are used flexibly with splendid control. It is one of the most remarkable poems of the last decade.
Amongst the other noteworthy pieces there is a moving love poem, "Never Say Never", with Comfort's peculiar blend of seriousness and tenderness. "Dylan Thomas on a gramophone record" is an appropriately resonant remembrance. There are some witty and scholarly celebrations of physical love. And, of course, there are the tilts at Government: in "Maturity" the intransigent states his position with rousing finality, an absolute assurance and a lashing scorn; a proclamation for drum accompaniment.
Comfort, at the age of 43, already has more than thirty books to his name. Typically, his ideas and sentiments are expressed with equal fluency in any form so that one finds the same material presented in a variety of ways; a poem in Haste To The Wedding restates a paragraph in Come Out To Play; the theme which the latter book uses humorously is argued seriously in Darwin and The Naked Lady; we are told to spit at recruiting officers in an essay in Art and Social Responsibility and in a poem in The Signal To Engage. He has urged his views for over twenty years now, holding a difficult stance with courage and persistence yet without losing a sense of humour. We follow his work with the utmost admiration and pleasure.
The last novel and the last book of verse provoked some scathing criticism which might itself form an interesting subject for enquiry. But ignoring those critics with an impediment in their politics, one suspects that even reputedly liberal-minded reviewers struggle with two submerged assumptions: the tendency to feel that a man with such art and scope can't be right at the top in any of his provinces — it wouldn't be fair on those who dedicate their lives to one endeavour; and the related myth that really significant artists tend to have some sort of imbalance or to hold reactionary views (Pound, Yeats, Eliot) — besides, if a writer is a talented libertarian how can the critic possibly write a "balanced" review? — he might appear from his unqualified praise to lack acuity!
In fact, we have our own difficulties in writing about Comfort's books. We are too eager to take as proof what he has advanced as evidence and we are persuaded already of what he sets out to prove. But the greatest embarrassment in discussing his work is that he expresses himself so memorably that one is always tempted to use massive quotations. This shows, however, that there is little point in reading about the books when you can get hold of them. We know that those not well acquainted with his writings will draw from them encouragement and insight to enrich their personal lives; we hope, too, that they will find principles to guide their corporate actions.
A Comfort bibliography
The Silver River. Chapman and Hall 1938
No Such Liberty. Chapman and Hall 1941
The Almond Tree. Chapman and Hall 1942
The Power House. George Routledge and Sons 1944
Letters From an Outpost. George Routledge and Sons 1947
On This Side Nothing. Routledge and Kegan Paul 1949
A Giant's Strength. Routledge and Kegan Paul 1952
Come Out to Play. Eyre and Spottiswoode 1961
France and Other Poems. Favil Press 1942
A Wreath for the Living. George Routledge and Sons 1942
Elegies. George Routledge and Sons 1944
The Song of Lazarus. Viking Press, U.S.A. 1945
The Signal to Engage. George Routledge and Sons 1947
And All But He Departed. Routledge and Kegan Paul 1951
Haste to the Wedding. Eyre and Spottiswoode 1962
Into Egypt. Grey Walls Press 1942
Cities of the Plain. Grey Walls Press 1943
Are You Sitting Comfortably? 'Sing' Magazine 1962
Art and Social Responsibility Falcon Press 1947
The Novel and Our Time. Phoenix House 1948
Darwin and the Naked Lady. Routledge and Kegan Paul 1961
MEDICAL, SOCIOLOGICAL, PHILOSOPHICAL
Barbarism, and Sexual Freedom. Freedom Press 1948
First Year Physiological TechniqueStaples 1948
The Pattern of the Future. Routledge and Kegan Paul 1949
The Right Thing to Do. P.P.U. 1949
Sexual Behaviour in Society. Duckworth 1950
Authority and Delinquency in
the Modern State. Routledge and Kegan Paul 1950
Delinquency. Freedom Press 1951
Social Responsibility in Science
and Art Peace News 1952
The Biology of Senescence. Routledge and Kegan Paul 1956
Ageing. (enlarged edition of the Routledge and Kegan Paul
above). (forthcoming 1964)
The Biology of Ageing. Signet Books, U.S.A.
Sex in Society. Duckworth 1963
Lyra. (with Robert Greacen) Grey Walls Press 1942
New Road, 1943. (with J. Bayliss). Grey Walls Press 1943
New Road, 1944. (with J. Bayliss). Grey Walls Press 1944
Poetry Folios. (with P. Wells). Poetry Folios 1947
The Koka Shastra and other
Mediaeval Indian Writings on
Love. Allen & Unwin (forthcoming 1964)
Cecil Collins: paintings and
drawings. Counterpoint Publications 1946
Alex Comfort, born 1920, is Nuffield Research Fellow in the biology of senescence, Department of Zoology, University College, London and was formerly Lecturer in Physiology at the London Hospital. In addition to the books and pamphlets listed above and to articles and reviews, he is the author of many papers in scientific journals and symposia.
Of uncollected articles in the anarchist press the most important is "The Social Psychiatry of Communism" (FREEDOM Vol. 11, 24 and 25 (25/11/50 and 9/12/50).
Comfort has also written two unpublished plays, Gengulphus and The Besieged, and was the author of the polemics contributed by "Obadiah Hornbooke, B.A." to Tribune during the war, and the anonymous author of the pamphlet Civil Defence: What You Should Do Now (P.P.U. 1950) and of the song Ban, Ban, Ban the Bloody H-Bomb.