Frédéric de Janzé: Vertical Land.
London: Duckworth, 1928. 156 pp. (Incidentally, the book doesn't mention his name;
it just says “Le Comte de Janzé”.)
I first heard of this book a couple of years ago, when I was reading two books about
the 1941 murder of Lord Erroll
in Kenya: White Mischief by James Fox,
and The Life and Death of Lord Erroll by Errol Trzebinski; see
about these books from back then. Erroll had been one of the notable members of the
somewhat dissolute community of wealthy British settlers centered in the Wanjohi Valley, a.k.a.
in central Kenya. De Janzé was also a part of this community for a while in the 1920s,
and this book, Vertical Land, consists of his impressions from the time he'd spent there.
I couldn't find terribly much information about him on the web; the Wikipedia has a nice article
about his wife, Alice, which also
contains some information about Frédéric. Apparently they had a daugher named
Nolwen (link 1, link 2). Frédéric was apparently also a noted racing driver during the 1920s;
see this forum thread
for more information about his racing career.
Apart from that, he had literary pretensions;
“[h]e had moved in literary circles in Paris, keeping company with people like
Anna de Noailles” (Trzebinski p. 80).
Fox cites a few passages from Vertical Land (pp. 25, 32–3); they seem interesting enough.
I enjoyed both Fox's and Trzebinski's books greatly, and I found the Happy Vally set a fairly
exciting subject, so I was really looking forward to reading Vertical Land.
Alas, I don't remember the last time I was so disappointed by a book. Thank goodness that it's
relatively short; about 150 pages, the type generously large, the page size closer to a modern
trade paperback than to a traditional octavo hardcover; and two pages are wasted at the beginning
of each chapter, the first for the title and the second being empty. All of this, in short,
shows that there really isn't that much text here. If the book had been interesting, it wouldn't
be difficult to read it at a single sitting. But I found it terribly, terribly boring; I couldn't
put up with it for more than one or two chapters at a time. All in all it took me almost a whole
week to finish it.
The only other comparably painful reading experience that comes into my mind
at the moment is when I had to read The
Sorrows of Young Werther in secondary school; I think I was probably a bit too young for that
book at the time, and I have reason to believe that if I had attempted to read it again at some later
point, I might even enjoy it. In fact I still intend to re-read it some day. But anyway, at the
time it was a real ordeal for me; the novel itself (excluding the translator's foreword and other such crud)
was only about 150 pages long, and the only way I could stomach it was by reading about ten pages a day
over a course of approximately two weeks. Needless to say, there isn't very much point in reading a
book in this way :-)
But to return to Vertical Land. I must admit that the style of writing in this book
is interesting, and could even be enjoyable if taken in very small doses. Perhaps that's why all those
brief extracts cited by Fox made such a good impression on me. You can see right away that de Janzé
has some literary pretensions, that this is not just a plain ordinary memoir. I must also admit that,
from the style of writing itself, it would never occur to me that the author is a Frenchman rather
than a native speaker of English; the author is certainly to be commended for that, and I think it's
always impressive if someone manages to produce literature in a foreign language. (Interestingly,
he says on p. 26: “My French is rusty, been moulting since 1918”.)
The book is divided
into several chapters, but each chapter is then subdivided into a number of quite short sections (each
with a title of its own), some of which are just one or two pages long. Sometimes the paragraphs and
even the sentences are so short that the text appears almost like a poem in prose, rather than as
plain old ordinary prose. Each section is a story, impression, or anecdote of its own, which, given their short length,
means that these are really just sketches in the barest sense of the word; the style is languorous and aloof,
the author deliberately refuses to provide us with more context, to tell any story in a proper way as a storyteller
of the traditional type — e.g. a 19th-century
writer — would have done, taking the trouble to introduce the reader to the subject and to lead him
through the narrative in such a way that he actually has a chance to keep track of what's going on,
where the story is coming from and where it is going to.
There is none of that here; it's a book from the
age of modernism after all. It reminds me somewhat of (what I imagine of) modernist interior design:
everything is very rectangular, as bare and empty as possible — and horribly dull.
Here in this book I had a similar impression that the style of writing is very spare;
while one reads a book, there ought to be pictures forming in one's head of what's going on in
the story, but here there was nothing of this sort; instead of clear pictures, there was in my head
only an unclear, nebulous haze. I often had a similar impression to the one I already described
in my rant about D. H. Lawrence's
modernist travel writing: the individual words are familiar enough, but when I read them, they should
coagulate into something that I could then think of as the meaning of this passage — but, alas, they don't.
Now I went back to Trzebinski's book and noticed that she cites Vertical Land (as well
as de Janzé's second book, Tarred with the Same Brush), several times, e.g. in her
chapter 5, and from those mentions it seems clear that many incidents in Vertical Land
are observations of real events from the lives of de Janzé and various acquaintances;
and that these participants are real people that can be identified by someone who knows enough context.
But not by me; when reading de Janzé's book, it all went right over my head. I learned
more about the sort of life that de Janzé and his friends lived in Kenya from
chapter 5 of Trzebinski's book than from the whole Vertical Land.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not blaming de Janzé for this — I blame myself for
not being able to understand his book better. Maybe it's the style; maybe it's the lack
of context; or maybe I'm simply a careless reader. Maybe it's my aversion to modernism.
Maybe it's because I read this book late at night, when I was already sleepy. Anyway, I really
wanted to enjoy this book; but I couldn't, I just couldn't.
Perhaps another reason for the spareness of de Janzé's narrative style
is that he didn't want the people involved in his anecdotes to be too easily recognized
by everyone; they might be offended by being thus made the subject of a book.
The most obvious example of this is the last chapter, ‘They’, which
consists of a number of really short sketches of various real people that de Janzé
knew or encountered in Kenya. “If someone thinks they recognise themselves
or others, let them be lenient towards an author who has given only impressions—impressions
lasting a second, then passed for ever.” (P. 139.) Fox mentions that he
saw a copy of Vertical Land in which de Janzé added the names of these
people in the margins, and from the passages cited by Fox some of these people can also be
identified (Fox pp. 32–3, 41, 174). We are familiar with the concept of
a roman à clef — maybe
Vertical Land could be called memoirs à clef. But a good roman à clef
should be enjoyable reading even for those who don't possess the key; unfortunately I cannot
say this of Vertical Land. If the author had set himself as a goal
to write a book that tells as little as possible to those unfamiliar with the people and events
described, he could scarcely have done a better job than this.
Heck, I didn't even notice where the motivation for the term ‘vertical land’
comes from. Perhaps it isn't explained in the book at all, but more likely it is and I
just nodded straight through it (I really was quite sleepy). The only similar thing I found
was “the land of the Vertical Sun”, p. 131.
Anyway, the explanation of ‘vertical land’
is in Trzebinski p. 66: “The cedar-clad forest ridge which ran along the [Wanjohi] valley,
dubbed by Frédéric de Janzé ‘the vertical land’, dwarfed everything below, and this haunt of
elephant and buffalo lent grandeur to the simplicity of daily existence.” There's a photo of
this location on plate 11 of Trzebinski's book (and a photo of de Janzé himself on plate 17).
He mentions Lord Cranworth's book, Profit and Sport in British East Africa
(p. 36; “that tabloid monument”, p. 33). I remember this book
because of this hilarious passage in Lawrence James' Rise and Fall of the
British Empire: “Lady Cranworth [who contributed a chapter to her husband's book],
counselling the new settler's wife, strongly recommended regular inspections of the kitchen,
a disagreeable chore which invariably ended with ‘a feeling of soreness on the part,
the posterior part, of the cook’.” (Ch. 8, p. 295.)
An interesting parallel between warpaint and the fancy evening attire of the modern world:
“I stagger to the bar; everyone is there in full war paint.” (P. 42.)
Both Fox and Trzebinski often mention the antagonism between the white settlers in Kenya
and the British colonial administration there. Echoes of this can also be seen here
in Vertical Land, pp. 46–7.
There's a very interesting section, titled ‘Voodoo’, on pp. 93–6.
The author joins a group of policemen who interrupt some kind of native ritual
as lurid as something straight out of some B-movie: night, a big fire, frantic drum music,
human sacrifice — it's got it all. “The golden figure twists and
whirls. Above the wailing chant, above the crooning of the tom-toms we catch the clicking
rhythm of the golden plates. Always faster and faster, till with a crash it stops.” (P. 95.)
The native priest in a golden robe pulls out a knife and is about to stab a girl that (I guess)
had been kidnapped for the purpose; the police shoot him, but apparently he manages to stab
her in his fall: “There, dead, lies one of our dearest friends, beautiful in the
glory of her youth, her golden hair. African born and bred, what witchcraft has wrought
this?/ Thank God she's dead.” (P. 96.) This, incidentally, is also a nice
example of how the author deliberately withholds information from us — information that
could help us understand the events better, but he prefers to keep things mysterious. Shame on him.
He mentions a curious phrase on p. 122: “all their female relations
having a little Kilkenny argument over the dainty morsels thrown them by their lords and masters”.
I can't find any mentions of “Kilkenny argument” as a special phrase on the web.
Maybe it's an allusion to Kilkenny cats,
of which I now heard for the first time.
One chapter is titled ‘In memory of the 5th K.A.R.’.
At some point the soldiers capture a number of “Havashi raiders” (p. 133).
“The sergeant spits indignantly towards these renegades, forgetting his own
slight lapse ten years ago when he lead a galloping rush against British horse,
during his leave back in Somaliland. The commandant, smiling, remembers the look
of horror on the sergeant's face when he was brought before him: ‘Effendi, is our regiment
here?’ ‘No, Mohammed, but it is well that I am here to see
that thy neck should not be stretched. What have I taught thee? That troops in formation
cannot be broken by a rabble charge.’ ‘Oh, Effendi, these pigs would not wait
though I have drilled them for the past week.’
‘Dismissed, thou shalt have two hours more drill each day when we get back.’
‘Inchallah, Effendi.’ ” (Pp. 135–6.)
“We all know now why they can't play bridge.
She believes that hearts are always trumps, he that spade work is necessary.”
Of the sketches of people in the last chapter, my favourite is ‘The Sun’
(pp. 143–4), about a man who had gone native.
“Thirty years of this land, thirty years of fever and chattering have deformed his mind,
broken his will: [. . .] you notice that he stands hatless by your side in the midday sun./
He does not feel the sun any more!”
From another sketch: “What can we say better than ‘Much will be
forgiven her, she has nice ankles.’ ” (P. 152.)
I suppose he must be joking — maybe 50 years earlier Victorian men
really could have been turned on by the sight of a mere ankle,
but surely de Janzé's milieu was a bit more liberated than that?
Interestingly, he consistently uses the spelling “cocoanut” instead of “coconut”
(e.g. p. 155).
Incidentally, this book seems fairly scarce. The first time I looked for it, I didn't find any copies on abebooks.com, but I did find one on a bookseller's website: they wanted £90 for a copy “[r]ecently rebound in dark brown leather lettered gilt with marbled boards and new endpapers”. This is, of course, too expensive for me, so I decided to wait until some cheaper copy turns up. Only recently did it occur to me to set up a want for it on abebooks.com; not long afterwards, a copy turned up on abe, costing €60 for a very good copy whose only fault was that the spine had fallen off (for no obvious reason). This is less than half the price of the first one, which suggests that the first one was so expensive mainly because someone had taken the trouble to rebind it in leather. Anyway, I figured that this is perhaps a reasonable enough price after all, or at least that I might have to wait a long time before another copy appears, and who knows whether it would be cheaper or not; so I bought it. Now that I got the book, I noticed, on the inner side of the front cover of this copy, a crossed-out pencilled price of $150; I guess this is what it was at some point offered for, probably before the spine fell off.
De Janzé wrote another book, Tarred with the Same Brush, also published by Duckworth (in 1929; 191 pp.).
The title sounds intriguing, although I'm afraid that it might turn out to be just as boring as Vertical Land.
At any rate, it seems to be just as scarce, and I have no idea how much a copy might cost if/when it turns up.
Maybe it will be beyond my budget anyway (that would be good — at least I wouldn't be tempted to buy it) :-)
Fox doesn't seem to mention Tarred with the Same Brush, but Trzebinski does; I must have
either overlooked these mentions when reading her book, or I must have forgotten about them later.
(Update: I recently got this book and read it as well; see my post about it.)
Another book mentioned by Fox (p. 33):
A report from Ethiopia and British Africa by
Evelyn Waugh (Duckworth, 1931).
Apparently Waugh had been not only to Ethiopia but to Kenya as well; Fox cites his
description of an encounter with Raymond Trafford (Alice de Janzé's next husband,
after she divorced Frédéric).
White Man's Country. Mentioned by Trzebinski, p. 322.
Elsbeth Huxley: Out in the Midday Sun (1985). Mentioned by Trzebinski, p. 322.
Nicholas Best: Happy Valley: The Story of the British in Kenya (1979). Mentioned by Trzebinski, p. 322.
V. M. Carnegie: A Kenyan Farm Diary (1931). Mentioned by Trzebinski, p. 322.
Peter de Polnay: My Road: An Autobiography. Mentioned by Trzebinski, p. 323.
In praise of the publisher
Incidentally, I must admit that I am impressed by this publisher, Duckworth: not only were they
willing to publish the stupendously boring and impenetrable Vertical Land, but they
were even willing to follow it up next year by another book by the same author on the same subject,
Tarred with the Same Brush!
The only other Duckworth-published book of which I currently own a copy is the
six-volume first edition of Charles Doughty's
interminable and monumentally dull epic poem, The Dawn in Britain (Duckworth, 1906).
Amazingly, after a hundred years of publishing boring books like these, they
are still in business as an independent publisher. I am delighted to see that there still exist
publishers like that, and that they haven't yet been obliterated by the merciless forces of the free market.
Now I realized that if de Janzé really died in 1933 (link 1, link 2),
then his copyrights have expired by now. Maybe I could do a good deed and scan this boring curiosity
of a book and publish the text on the web, free for all. . .
Update: I'm pleased to say that the e-text of Vertical Land is now
available at the Project Gutenberg of Australia web site.
Here are direct links:
Before downloading and reading it, you might wish to make sure that the text is in the
public domain according to the laws of your country. Given that de Janzé died in 1933,
the text is probably in the public domain in most “life + 70” countries
(not to mention the “life + 50” countries). However, it isn't clear whether
it's in the public domain in the US, where “Works published and copyrighted 1923–1977 retain copyright for 95 years”
(from the Project Gutenberg web site);
there are some exceptions to this rule, but the Project Gutenberg copyright clearance team
weren't able to convince themselves that the book falls under any of them.
Labels: books, nonfiction, White Mischief