On William Plomer for The Modernist Archives Publishing Project


The Modernist Archives Publishing Project ("a critical digital archive of early twentieth-century publishing history") has now published a biography/bibliography I wrote about William Plomer, the man who, among other accomplishments, links Virginia Woolf and James Bond.

Back in 2015, I wrote here about Plomer's little-known novel The Invaders, and that post explores what most fascinates me about Plomer: his reticence and, honestly, his failure. As I said in the MAPP bio, The Invaders is
a story of class conflicts and homosexuality, though the presentation of the latter was so quiet that one of the directors of Jonathan Cape, Rupert Hart-Davis, complained of the protagonist in one scene, “You don’t say, and hardly even infer, whether they went to bed together or not,” but Plomer refused to be more explicit (Alexander 194). When the novel was published, E.M. Forster wrote a letter to Plomer criticizing the ambiguity, which he admitted he felt was a failure in his own work, too: “Some fallacy, not a serious one, has seduced us both, some confusion between the dish and the dinner” (Forster 125).
Forster was right in his diagnosis, but wrong that the fallacy was not a serious one, at least for Plomer. (Forster was a genius, and his best novels actually benefit from his reticence, partly because he often made it a key subject — most famously, the marabar caves in Passage to India.) Plomer's boldest and most artistically successful novel was his first, Turbott Wolfe, which, until relatively recently, was still in print in the US. Both Sado and The Invaders could have been significantly more effective and affecting novels if Plomer had been willing to represent the characters and situations less ethereally. But he didn't, and so the books feel sketchy and evasive. With Turbott Wolfe, Plomer didn't seem much to care if he offended respectable sensibilities. The novel got good reviews in England and the US, but (again quoting the MAPP piece)
the reaction in South Africa was less positive, with one major review headlined “A NASTY BOOK ON A NASTY SUBJECT” (Alexander 96). Robin Hallett notes that “The narrator of the novel fell, though only platonically, in love with a Zulu girl; an Afrikaner woman married a Zulu man; African characters were shown as beautiful and dignified, while many of the Europeans were depicted as the vicious specimens of an ‘obscene’ civilization. …Plomer’s novel was – quite rightly – regarded as a deeply subversive book” (32).
Only the most deludedly friendly reading of Sado or The Invaders would say those books were subversive of anything, let alone "deeply". Had Plomer been more courageous as a writer, they could have been. It's a lesson for all of us who write. We must dare to risk offense, we must dare to write what may be read as nasty books on nasty subjects. Otherwise, what we write will be sure to have as little effect as a few words scrawled lightly in sand on an empty beach at low tide.

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