Ronald Firbank’s novels describe a world which is only adjacent to this one, having many of the features of reality, but a reality which is altogether ‘too much’. In Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli, there is a class structure, a Cardinal harassed by an overwheening aristocrat, presumptious servants, lavish banquets, and so on. But the overwheening aristocrat has recently had her latest adopted dog baptized in full ceremony in the Basilica, the Cardinal has a crush on an altogether too knowing acolyte, and Madame Poco the wardrobe mistress is a Vatican spy. A world of gossip, barely suppressed scandal, Catholicism of the Scarlet-Whore-of-Babylon variety, and a limpid prose style with roots in the Decadent movement, have ensured for Firbank a place in the pantheon of gay classics. But Firbank is not just a gay writer. He is also one of the great unsung 20th century masters of English prose, a magnificent stylist of the very first rank.
Firbank’s rhetorical devices range between two characteristic gestures: 1) an entirely modern separation of the signifier from its usual signified, opening a new realm of inconsequential beauty, and 2) an extreme use of metonymy, in which smaller and smaller units of language: the oevre, the novel, the chapter, the sentence, the phrase, stand in isolation for something bigger.
He is the master of the double entendre, that most British of rhetorical devices, (but one that needs a French name): In my little garden, I sometimes work a brother. ‘And your Queens, I presume, are Pitchers?
Another device is the use of silences to punctuate an otherwise respectable discourse to bring out the unspeakable:
‘But is he ripe?’ Mrs Thoroughfare wondered.
There was a busy silence.
And in the passing silence the treble voice of Tiny was left talking all alone.
‘…frightened me like Father did, when he kissed me in the dark like a lion’: - a remark that was greeted by an explosion of coughs.
The sense of a reality removed from reality is achieved by the use of imaginary titles: the Duquesa DunEden, The Grand Xaymaca; rococo names of people: Mrs Hurstpierpoint, Lady Parvula de Panzoust; and places: Valmouth and Clemenza. Firbank’s characteristic method is to take a name of place: the more euphonious the better, and to transfer it to a person. He is the master of the adjoinage. Consider the made up name ‘Valmouth’, with its associations of the mundane: Falmouth, a small port town in the south of England; and the risqué: Valmont, the villain of Laclos’s Les Liaison Dangereuses, and vermouth, that sin-inducing drink…Saint Euphraxia of Spain, so similar to the real Saint Euphrasia, and yet off by just one letter…
Felix Feneon, the inventor of the three line novel, wrote sentences which were so carefully crafted as to contain within them a whole world, hermetically sealed from anything around it, and containing within itself whole worlds of imaginative possibility. Firbank’s sentences have the same quality. Their matchless rhythms and sounds create marvels of miniature precision. Each one can be lifted from the text and enjoyed in isolation for the jewel-like quality of its images and euphony:
From the Calle de la Passion, beneath the blue-tiled mirador of the garden wall, came the first brooding sound of a seguidilla.
Here and there, an orchard in silhouette, showed all in black blossom against an extravagant sky.
At the season when the oleanders are in their full perfection, their choicest bloom, it was the Pontiff’s innovation to install his American type-writing apparatus in the long Loggie of the Apostolic Palace that had been in disuse since the demise of Innocent XVI.
Likewise, each of the chapters his (very short) novels are marvels of taught construction, in which every element has its crucial role to play. Just as one can enjoy each sentence lifted from its context, so each chapter can be read and enjoyed separately from the whole story.
Firbank has absolutely no political purpose, no wider or deeper meaning. His is a style and a vision entirely preoccupied with artifice and the aural and visual surfaces of language only.
Underlying all the aesthetics is a waspish humour:
The College of Noble Damosels in the Calle Sante Fe was in a whirl. It was ‘Foundation’ day, an event annually celebrated with considerable fanfaronade and social éclat. Founded during the internecine wars of the Middle Age (sic) the College, according to early records, had suffered rapine on the first day of term.
Fraulein Pappenheim was a little woman already drifting towards the sad far shores of forty…
A writer to read with a grin, a chuckle, an occasional eye rolled heavenward at the silliness of it all, and a sustained sense of toe-curling delight at the sheer loveliness of the prose.