In Partial Disgrace
by Charles Newman
Dalkey Archive; 336 p.
Charles Newman’s novel In Partial Disgrace is a strange one: a sentimental remeberance of a (fictional) nation lost to the totalitarian clashes of the 20th century with elements of a spy novel seamlessly woven in. Introductions by Joshua Cohen and Ben Ryder Howe explain something of the genesis of this newly released volume, given that its author died in 2006. For my part, I’d rather not read this as a novel with a asterisk beside it; the primary question I had while reading it is the one that comes to mind when reading just about any book: does it work on its own terms? By and large, the answer here is “yes.” Newman’s bizarre blend of Eastern European history, musings on dog training, and espionage have resulted in a uniquely iconoclastic book. And while it isn’t without its bumps. the experience of reading it far more satisfying than one might expect.
Most of the novel is narrated by one Coriolan Iulus Pzalmanzanar — though he is largely telling the story of his father Felix’s friendship, before the Second World War, with a man referred to here as “The Professor.” Certain sections are narrated by Frank Rufus Hewitt, an American soldier who is also presented as the translator and editor of Iulus’s remembrances. His is the first voice we encounter, and evocatively so: “I fell into that hermit kingdom carelessly, the chute shuddering above me as the shroudlines cut my hands.” As he falls into the nation of Cannonia (roughly corresponding with Hungary) in the waning days of World War II, so do we — though soon enough, Rufus’s story gives way to the more pastoral account of Felix, an aristocratic dog trainer, told by his son. These recollections of a prickly friendship, fraught with rivalry, is balanced with evocative descriptions of animals at play and at rest:
Scharf immediately toppled over on his back and gazed up at the collective assembly, his head grotesquely twisted to one side, his tongue curved like a scallop in the roof of his hideous mouth.
Though Newman’s novel isn’t simply a pastoral account of intellectual life. There are darker rumblings afoot, from the anti-Semitic laws affecting The Professor’s daily life to a metaphorically fraught description of leashes and bits that sits in the center of the book. Those objects aren’t the only examples of ominous connotations arising in this novel. At times, they’re introduced gradually; at others, they collide with more seemingly innocuous situations.
Iulus himself is described in a dramatis personae as “inadvertently, the last casualty of the last war of the twentieth century, and the first great writer of the twenty-first.” This may be, but he registers strangely: largely absent from the story of Felix and The Professor, and recounted in hindsight in Rufus’s account of things. There are occasional glimpses of Iulus’s own adult personality in his memories — most strikingly, when watching a group of frolicking ponies:
Only late in life did I realize that as the weather cooled and their own coats grew shaggy, they appeared in the distance the exact color and texture of my mother’s pudenda.
Which tells us much about Iulus — possibly more than a reader might want to know.
There are also fantastic imaginative narrative leaps here, from a sleep apnea metaphor that arises out of left field but lands perfectly to moments of dry and complex wit. Consider Rufus’s description of Iulus after the war:
He drank and womanized in short bursts, and when he needed a vacation, adopted the guise of a genial salesman of gumball vending machines, his perfect Dublin accent and raconteurial genius making him an international social favorite and leading his shadowers to many dinner parties in exotic parts of the world.
Newman’s novel, then, occupies a thematic space blending the comic with the philosophical, with a baroque sensibility rounding it off. As a reader new to Newman’s body of work, In Partial Disgrace struck as a bridge between the comic terror found in Flann O’Brien and the intellectual comedy of Robertson Davies. Its shifts in tone and the gaps it suggest can occasionally frustrate, but the overall effect is a satisfying one — and it’s left this reader, previously new to Newman’s body of work, eager to delve deeper into his fictional landscapes.