Barbara Comyns: Sisters by a River

Barbary Comyns is a very unusual writer, both regarding her life and her writings. She married early and unhappily, worked in a variety of jobs, some of them rather… unusual, not to say bizarre (breeding poodles!) and kind of slipped into a writing career when she was persuaded to try to publish the stories about her early life she had been writing down for her children. She had a hard time finding a publisher for that novel, but finally succeeded and it was released as Sisters by a River in 1947.

As far as her writings are concerned, the only author I can think of who is somewhat comparable would be Robert Walser – they both share the unflinchingly affirmative attitude of their protagonists, who not only endure, but embrace and welcome all the misery that life throws their way. The writing of both appears odd, even quaint at first (and might remain that way to a superficial reading) but on closer inspection reveals that it has a darker undertone and a very sharp edge to it. The constant enthusiastic affirmation of even the most cruel and mean-spirited behaviour produces a subversion which denounces such behaviour and the society that produces it much more effectively than any open criticism could, and makes for a very uncomfortable, even unsettling reading experience – which, I think, is to a large part responsible for neither Walser nor Comyns getting quite the appreciation they deserve; if they are read at all, both tend to be classified as “quirky humour”, and this is a label that does not do justice to either.

However, there are at least as many differences between the two writers as there are similarities; in fact the actual reading experience of their respective works is very different indeed. What struck me most, at least with Sisters by a River, – the only novel of Barbara Comyns that I have read so far, but unlikely to remain the only one – was that while the world Walser’s protagonists live in is both mind-numbing and soul-smothering, Comyns’ protagonists find themselves just as often victims to or at least threatened by physical violence. That might be due to Comyns living in Britain rather than Switzerland, or to her writing several decades later – but for my part, I’m inclined to ascribe it to the gender of her protagonists, who appear to be all female.

As accepting, affirmative and even occasionally merry as the first-person narrator of Sisters by a River is, her life is filled with violence, a lot of it directed at herself either from her parents or her eldest sister. Taking a step back, detaching oneself from the narrative and taking considered look at everything she tells us about, this is a fairly bleak book – while the sisters of the title did live in an upper class home for most of their childhood, they were exposed to the constant fierce quarrelling between her parents and oppressed by the eldest sister who erected something like a rule of terror over her siblings, down to the colour of clothes they were allowed to wear (only brown and other drab colours, so that they would not outshine the eldest). That might sit strangely with the quirky and essentially harmless humour that is often ascribed to Comyns, but in fact it is precisely a mark of her greatness as a writer that she spins such a breezy and occasionally bubbly tale out of her misery (her own misery, too, given that Sisters by a River is presumably to a large degree autobiographical) – not, however, to gloss over them, but quite to the contrary: once the reader notices the dissociation between tone and subject matter, the bleakness of the latter is driven home as a shock, and once noticed, it cannot be un-perceived, but stays with the reader until the end of the novel and what appeared at first as quirkiness takes on an increasingly sad tone as the novel progresses.

And Barbara Comyns does make the reader notice – chiefly by way of the language which is very distinct (and marks another major difference to Robert Walser, whose prose is  more conventionally beautiful) thanks to her idiosyncratic orthography. This is often taken as the narrative being written from the perspective of a child, but I for my part do not that this is a viable explanation – it is quite clear from several remarks the narrator lets drop that she is telling of events at a time well afterwards, which would put her at an age where one would expect people to get their spelling right. I think the spelling mistakes and linguistic distortions in the narrator’s writing show the wounds that the events she is writing about have dealt her, that her life has left her scarred even down to the way she is using language. It comes as no great surprise, then, that while some of the novel’s orthographic idiosyncrasies appear to be simple spelling mistakes, instances abound where an apparent error brings some hidden strata of meaning to light, placing Barbara Comyns’ writing in proximity to authors like James Joyce or Arno Schmidt, staunch modernists all.

I do not think I ever read a novel that was so extreme – moving from amusingly quirky to depressingly bleak, its language simultaneously child-like and avant-garde, the reading experience both delightful and harrowing – and yet was so very unobtrusive about it. Sisters by the River is truly a hidden gem, placed in a dark corner where it attempts to avoid drawing attention on itself, but once discovered and exposed to the light, it shines all the brighter. And I can’t help it, but I find it very exhilarating that even after reading several thousands of books one can still make discoveries like this one.

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4 comments

  1. Hello, Heloise. Just came upon your blog while researching my piece (just posted at Tredynas Days) on this strange novel. I hope you don’t mind my linking to this post there. I found your views interesting and thoughtful – thanks.

    1. Of course I do not mind at all – quite to the contrary, I appreciate you taking the time not just to link to this post but also leave a comment here – thank you very much! 🙂

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