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February 2024 Issue [Reviews]

Sometimes Gamesome, Sometimes Sad

The elusive fiction of Phyllis Paul
Illustration by Dadu Shin

Illustration by Dadu Shin

Discussed in this essay:

Twice Lost, by Phyllis Paul. McNally Editions. 257 pages. $18.

When Phyllis Paul died on August 30, 1973, after a motorcycle hit her as she crossed a road in Hastings, England, the authorities had to identify her from the name tag sewn on her handkerchief. Paul had believed that a writer should be known simply for her work, and she had been forgotten once already, for fifteen years, the period between her second and third novels. She knew what it was to be noticed, dropped, and then remembered; if we equate attention to existence (and I’m not sure I’m strong enough to resist), then she understood what it might be like to die and yet be reborn.

She was remembered for the first time in 1949. The life before then can be sketched: birth in Kent, not far from where she would die; work as an illustrator for children’s books, though we can’t be sure; two prewar novels. Graham Greene, reviewing the second, thought she had a “serious claim to be judged as an artist.” The years from 1934 to 1949 are blank like her handkerchief. Then she allowed Camilla to appear, followed by eight other novels, at regular intervals. Twice Lost, thought to be her best, and the first to be reissued in the United States in the twenty-first century, appeared in 1960. It was like she was starting all over again. The New York Times assigned the mystery writer Anthony Boucher to review Twice Lost; he found it “at times awkward, at times brilliantly right in ways that no conventionally competent novelist could attain.” In the Thirties, Paul had looked like a literary writer; by the Sixties, she was a genre writer who didn’t stick to the rules, and you couldn’t always tell if her deviations were intentional. When John Cowper Powys wrote to her in admiration, her reply, he thought, emanated a “psychometric spirit” that repelled praise. She did not want the social life of a writer, and perhaps no social life at all; a witness to the accident that killed her described the way she crossed the road as “like a sheet of newspaper.” Such mystery only breeds curiosity.

She was remembered for the second time in 1966. Twice Lost and Pulled Down were selected to be among the inaugural titles in the Gilt-Edge Gothic series from Lancer Books. They were billed as paperbacks of “high literary merit and great entertainment value,” but for discerning readers navigating the midcentury publishing boom, they were pulp. Paul wanted her writing to fend for itself—but from a revolving wire rack? These aren’t the sorts of books that get remembered, and they weren’t. Paul’s books vanished, and her reputation with it.

She was remembered for the third time in 1975. Interviewed by the Times of London, Rebecca West used Paul as an example of a “neglected” writer. Paul wrote thrillers, she said, but “exquisitely.” (By contrast, she thought Arthur Miller “ghastly” and Graham Greene “bogus.”) Why was Phyllis Paul forgotten? “I don’t know what happened to her. . . . She was outside the cliques and nobody read her and she has passed away.”

She was remembered for the fourth time in 1995. Glen Cavaliero, a fellow commoner at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and president of the Powys Society, was intrigued by a reference to Paul in Powys’s letters, tracked her books down, and included her in his study of English supernatural fiction for Oxford University Press. Hers was a “chilling gift” for noticing the way carelessness can “provide the soil in which more purposeful malevolence can flourish.” Her name began to surface in online discussion groups; did anyone know anything about her? The few copies of her books that remained reached fantastic prices on the open market (a hardback first edition of Twice Lost costs $300 today), and so people who had copies, usually antiquarians or mystery enthusiasts, described the stories to those who couldn’t find or afford them. One blogger compared Twice Lost to The Turn of the Screw and Picnic at Hanging Rock; another thought the novel’s two strands didn’t fit together. Everyone agreed, though, that it was not pulp, and that they had not read anything quite like it.

She was remembered for the fifth time in 2023. Twice Lost was brought back into print with a foreword by Jeremy M. Davies, handsome French flaps, and an image on the cover of a floral bouquet emerging from clear dark water. In an age of autofiction, Paul’s blank handkerchief of a life is a tonic: “Surely we’ve had too much of authors who must telegraph their every valorous opinion,” Davies writes. But does the writing fend for itself? “Paul’s books aren’t just gothic. They aren’t just pulp. In her sentences you will find the filigree of a Henry James at war with . . . heaving bodices.” Is the novel at war with itself, or does it just reveal the conflicts within its rememberers? Will we ever see it clearly?

Twice Lost opens in an English country village at the end of a long summer day. A seven-year-old girl, Vivian Lambert, and two seventeen-year-olds, Christine Gray and her friend Penelope, are in search of something precious. “They had separated and were creeping about the grass, bowed over, with their eyes on the ground.” The girl has lost some sort of trinket—she cannot tell the grown-ups what it looks like, or even whether it is silver or gold. In the first sentence of the novel, the reader sees the trio from above, and they already seem misguided. They are so intent in their looking that you suspect the toy won’t be found. That day, Vivian’s stepmother played tennis with the other young people on the grounds of Carlotta House, a Regency villa, long abandoned, now rumored to have finally sold. While the adults played, the girl had been exploring the overgrowth: trees choked with ivy, paths covered by weeds, unpruned roses forming a barbed-wire fence. Now, in the gloaming, the child stands with a “craven, dodging air”—privately, Christine had thought the girl “sly,” and this encounter does little to change her mind. The bibelot, she suspects, had been borrowed from Vivian’s father’s collection, which was known in the village to be of some value. Still, something in the young woman responds with pity to the mute, scared child, and when Vivian’s stepmother takes off laughingly in a car with some boys, Christine walks her home, pulling her into her own coat to keep warm. “Rosalie hates me,” Vivian says of her stepmother. “She’d pour boiling water over me again.” She must be exaggerating; children exaggerate. Christine doesn’t see Vivian to her door but leaves her halfway up the path, a decision she’ll regret for a long time.

In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’s “shameless potboiler,” the governess thinks her charges angelic. One of the unknowns of that novella is the reason the boy, Miles, has been expelled from school—that the boy could be bad is unfathomable to the governess because of his charm. Vivian Lambert is already spooky, and Christine, the governess figure in Twice Lost, feels “awkward” around her—and is aware that she does. She is relieved when she spots a lighted window at Vivian’s, and realizes she can relinquish responsibility for the strange little girl. On the way home, she runs into Lia Freemantle, about forty, single, bohemian in manner, and due to leave the village the next day for Peru, or was it Ecuador? Lia suggests that Vivian’s parents “deserve to lose her. . . . Or rather, no, they don’t deserve it, for they’d be glad to lose her.” The child would be better off as an orphan like Miles—or perhaps with a different stepmother. Once home, Christine helps with dinner while her parents air what they’ve heard about the new owner of Carlotta House. A celebrity had bought it: Thomas Antequin, “a name of renown in the literary world of that time,” who also had a writer son, Keith, who was almost as famous. Christine’s parents are happy: they suppose a man of feeling will not want to cut down the trees.

Because The Turn of the Screw is also an allegory about writing, you can enjoy it even if you don’t believe in ghosts, or enjoy being scared. The governess in James’s novella entirely remakes the world of Bly, transforming her meager material of a housekeeper and two children at a country manor into a sexually charged arena for exploring her imaginative power. If there are no ghosts, then the governess is very nearly mad, but if she is also a stand-in for the author, she could take solace in the fact that she has convinced nearly everyone of her way of seeing things. This is part of what good writers do: make their version of events so powerful that it displaces all others. (Bad writers also try this, to rather more indifferent results. And it could be that writers are just crazy after all.) Like James’s governess, Christine becomes an author of sorts through her attempts to understand a situation that isn’t, in the end, all that tractable. Her version of events will come under scrutiny—that of Antequin fils, a writer used to shading and coloring the facts to his own advantage.

In the middle of her mystery Paul has placed two writers—one who would have been forgotten, and another desperately intent on having his father remembered. Thomas Antequin’s work was out of fashion; it was Keith’s mission to resurrect it. The style was archaic, Elizabethan even, not prose and yet not quite poetry. But in its favor was the fact that “it was like nothing else in print at the moment—and that was enough, that was its real beauty, in Keith’s judgment.” Keith’s relationship to his father isn’t so straightforward: the result of a frowned-upon youthful dalliance, he had grown up a solicitor’s ward rather than in the care of either of his parents.

His own talents were trifling. His brains were by no means first-class, as is apt to be the case with the children of very young parents—a shallow, spontaneous nature which had soon been modified by events and had achieved a sensitiveness and also a shrewdness and agility it would not normally have possessed. He was a natural climber.

Keith climbs into a semi-aristocratic literary set in London, keeping up by “light journalism” and ingratiation. When a critic pounces on his father, he decides to take up his defense. Such works as his father’s “needed to be presented, and presented cleverly, the modern literary world being what it was they would sink without it.” This sort of thing was likely what publishing people said to Paul in midcentury Britain; it is likely what they say to writers now. It is always a fight, Paul seems to suggest, for a strange book to be considered fairly—and it’s rare for a writer to be well resourced for that fight. (Thomas, we learn, had fallen prey to the critics once his wife died, as she had handled his business affairs.) And if people like Keith, “hungry and subtle,” are often the ones who succeed, then what good is the game?

By the time Paul is writing this, she has found and lost literary fame once already. Now that she was publishing again, did she see her own books as something like those of Thomas Antequin?

Through all Thomas’s pages ran a breeze of terror, arising in the metaphysical world; the air was sinister. The leaves shivered in the dark forest. Something flew behind the million leaves, always out of sight—mystery.

Was it mystery or marketing that would make her books last? She had placed her bets on mystery, and knew she would not live to see the returns. If she was to be remembered, it had to be for her writing—and it was Casaubons, as it turned out, rather than Keiths, who brought her back from oblivion.

“In ten years,” Paul writes, “Keith had made his father’s fortune.” Taking hold of the literary fashionables, he is able to bring the Antequins into ascendancy. His only problem is Thomas himself, who cannot

be brought to conduct himself like a man who recognized his worth. Left to entertain people, he would be found bridging the top of a glass with matches. In short, he shone in simple company. He was simple.

The father isn’t hungry and subtle, he doesn’t need the cheap sustenance of newspaper bylines, he isn’t after the rousing effect of sexual or artistic passion, he’s not in the business of remembering. Why? Keith wonders. The narrator answers:

It was really no mystery. The whole of Thomas, all his badness and all his goodness, all his heart, soul, strength and mind, had gone into his work, and there was nothing left but a little animal, sometimes well and gamesome, sometimes ill and sad. His books were his life.

It is not that Thomas believes in posthumous rewards; it is simply that he’s happy living in his books. Did Paul worry that she would be disappointing in person? Is that the reason she shrunk herself to the width of a sheet of newspaper? She cannot solve the question of her own work’s merit by herself—all she can control is the making of it, and if that required privacy, so be it. Let the Keiths of this world repackage quietness as mystery, soulful reserve, eeriness, or whatever. (But in fact the writer here is the stand-in for all of us: no genius, just a little animal, sometimes gamesome, sometimes sad.) And if they think they invented you—“Who would ever have heard of him, but for myself?” Keith says of his father—then more fool them. After The Turn of the Screw, there can be no mystery. It is all in the governess’s mind; it is all in the reader’s mind; it is all in the son’s mind. Neither geniuses nor ghosts exist—it’s more that the truths are so commonplace as to be unpalatable, so we give all that we have to disguising them. And even then sometimes sidelong glimpses are all we can manage.

Christine had promised Vivian she would return to the garden during her lunch hour to see if she could find the lost trinket by daylight. The little girl was undoubtedly at school, and Christine has the grounds to herself. At midday, the overgrowth appears as a secret garden, romantic and wild. Apart from the long-abandoned well house, which she is spooked by and thinks a seven-year-old would avoid, she combs the area methodically. The search is no longer hopeless, but rather “like a difficult game at which one had at least a sporting chance; a thing which was undoubtedly there, must be findable.” If there was no mystery, there must be an answer. She stops to sit on the low boughs of an apple tree and eat lunch, the sun working its way through the leaves “in a cascade of soft, gliding light-spots.” Dropping to the ground once she is done eating, she rests a minute among “the sweet, warm stalks.” Lying there, she sees out of the corner of her eye a smudge of pink, a patch of lightness, and what could be an arm thrown backward. “Oh, no, I am never going to find the body of a poor little murdered girl!” she thinks to herself, “her breath nearly stopping and the scene going dark before her.” She sits up to investigate. No body, simply a flesh-colored petal caught in the grass. But when Christine returns to work, she learns this might not, after all, have been an illusion—because Vivian Lambert is missing.

What happened to Vivian? This is the question that will preoccupy the rest of the book. Was it her parents? (There are people who say it is always the parents.) The free-spirited neighbor? (A single middle-aged woman is not to be trusted.) Thomas Antequin was visiting the village around the time Vivian went missing: Could he be involved? (Writers live in a world of their own.) Is Christine telling the truth? (She didn’t seem to like the little girl very much.) Is Vivian dead? Has she been kidnapped? How will Keith leverage his father’s proximity to the crime? Over fifty or so pages, Paul unfolds the mystery at the heart of Twice Lost (who or what will be twice lost?) and within the space of an hour’s reading lies information that can make sense of what happened to Vivian. Which hallucinations has the reader already built out of rose petals? What has he already forgotten that he ought to remember?

“Until the last lines of Twice Lost,” Davies writes, “you may find yourself doubting that Paul was in control of her materials—wondering whether this book is above or beneath you.” It feels to me like Davies, in his rather subtle praise, is misconstruing her. A certain sort of reader likes to be taken in hand, to know that the romantic strife will end happily and the murderer will be found—which is to say, to know that the book they’re reading is generically stable. Why mix up a scathing portrait of a literary chancer with a story about a girl who goes missing? The mystery reader will be bored and the literary reader will be patronized. No one will know how to market the thing. It was not James who argued that The Turn of the Screw was a literary allegory, after all; for him it was a bagatelle for Collier’s. But unfortunately, life is generically unstable: You think you are in a romantic comedy, but you turn out to be a minor player in a limp tragedy. A desperate event can be awful, then hilarious, then forgotten. We are always at once above and beneath life, I’d say to Davies, both pulp and hardback. Doubly so when you are a woman writing a midcentury mystery, with your grim subject matter and your glittering sentences, when what the world expects of you is freshly baked scones and neatly pressed linens.

More and more, I think it was Rebecca West who was most right about Paul. Apart from some overblown sentences here and there, Twice Lost gains strength from its surprisingly artful blend of literary fiction and mystery. You can observe the genres, and Christine’s emotions, flickering in and out of view with lepidopterous gentleness as Christine looks for the trinket. The flickering captures Christine’s moods as doubt cedes to certainty: from believing she’ll find both the pendant and the girl to thinking she’d found the body, then convincing herself she’d been foolish to think it, before returning to the awful feeling that in fact something has gone wrong.

At first Paul’s description of the gardens has a leisurely, literary quality to it: “About her was a sea of grass, so pierced and riddled with sun that one could peer into its reedy depths as into new-washed hair.” The simile is novel and yet the sort of thing a young woman would think; there is assonance and consonance seesawing across the sentence, which is slow and gorgeous rather than quick and thrilling. Then Christine surrenders to the warm grass and is brought up short by a smudge of pink that is and isn’t the dead Vivian. “All the secret sicknesses of her nature started forth as if extravasated by torture,” is how Paul describes the dread’s arrival, using “extravasate,” a rare verb from 1668, alongside “secret sickness,” a hokier phrase. Both genres are now in play, and Paul deftly manipulates them to show Christine’s psychological back-and-forth. She will use thriller-like plain speech, clipped between commas, to report on Christine’s panicked thoughts: “No, look where she would, nothing of what she had seen, nothing suggesting it, was to be found.” She’ll follow this with a literary description of the slumped and fake relief once it has passed: “The shock had left her with a tremulous, oppressed, sickish feeling.” The effect reminds me of the way Elena Ferrante moves between genres in the Neapolitan quartet, allowing herself almost anything in the quest to unsettle and seduce the comfortable reader. But it is also emotionally precise, and infernally effective. In Twice Lost, feelings proliferate, genres cross, and the plot thickens all at once. The effect is contrapuntal in the best way.

In September 1915, Freud visited his daughter Sophie in Hamburg, where he spent time with his eighteen-month-old grandson Ernst. Watching him one day when Sophie wasn’t there, Freud noticed the boy had invented a game for himself. With the last cotton thread attached to a wooden spool in his hand, he would throw the cylinder away, cry “ooh” with pleasure, and then reel it back in, saying “da,” as if something had been accomplished. Freud names it the fort/da (there/here) game, and marvels at the way his pre-linguistic grandson has found a way to experience his mother’s absence as something he can control. Ernst made a game out of a trauma: fort, I can forget, and da, I will remember. It is a condition of existence. We don’t control when people die, leave us, or forget us; the dead never live again; and we don’t control when or if those who leave us will come back, or whether they will later remember us. The fort/da games we play with lovers or parents are fictions, pathetic attempts to make this uncertainty psychologically tolerable. So are the books we write, and the books we read. We will keep on being forgotten and remembered until the end of time. Under these conditions, the resurrection of a Phyllis Paul is heartening—even if she has to be remembered once, twice, or thrice more.

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March 2018

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