The Clio by L H Myers

1925 HB from Putnam

Myers’s second novel, The Clio — or The “Clio”, to be precise — was published in 1925, and it’s instantly obvious he’s improved as a writer. The prose is cut back but vivid in its descriptions, and simpler in depicting action. He has a larger cast of characters but handles them with a lighter, more distanced touch, with occasional glimpses into their inner lives, rather than extended digressions. There’s a lot more dialogue, and it doesn’t consist of people lecturing one another — or, thankfully, reading out essays to each other. It’s also shorter, around 60,000 words to the previous novel’s 150,000. There’s an air of lightness to the whole thing: the prose, the plot, the characters, the theme — though the second half takes a turn which gives the book enough of a bite that it’s in no danger of being mere froth.

The “Clio” of the title is “probably the most expensive steam-yacht in the world”. At the start of the book it’s heading down the east coast of America, and, seemingly on a whim, its owner Harry Oswestry decides to take it down the Amazon. On board are a collection of mostly wealthy idlers, who don’t really care where they go, as long as it’s vaguely distracting. Lady Oswestry, Harry’s mother, is mostly concerned with finding somewhere she can buy her favourite face-cream, so as to hold back the wrinkles long enough to catch the attention of Sir James Annesley. Her younger son, Hugo, is wondering whether to go into politics, but is more concerned with which of the young ladies on board he should fall in love with. Of the young ladies, most are basically indistinguishable, apart from Stella Barlow:

“She had been to Girton, and her career there was understood to have been dreadfully distinguished. She had discovered something quite new about atoms; and then, right on the top of this, she had learnt Russian, gone off to Russia, and interviewed Lenin, about whom she had just published a book.”

Despite this, looking at her, Sir James thinks, “For all her brains she had the appearance of being quite a foolish young thing.” She, it turns out, is one of two characters Myers is deliberately underplaying in the first half of the novel — in fact, she sadly remains underplayed, a fault brought over from Myers’ previous novel. The other is the yacht’s owner, Harry. His mother’s least favourite son (she seems to have decided he’s never going to make anything of his life), the reason he initially gives for heading down the Amazon is: “It’ll amuse me considerably—to see the young women’s complexions—after the insects have had a go at them.” But, it turns out, he has another purpose.

Bookship, 2024 PB

As they head down the Amazon, the passengers and crew hear rumours of a political revolution in Para. They at first assume this will just provide some local colour to their trip, but when the Clio has to dodge a river-mine and ends up grounded on a stretch of forest-bank a day’s walk from the nearest settlement, things start to take a darker turn. Boredom sets to work on them, forcing these often shallow characters to think about their lives in a way they hadn’t before; and then it’s not boredom but danger. One man goes out for a walk in the jungle, gets lost, and seriously thinks he’s going to die; another catches a fever and actually does die. And Harry, it turns out, has been helping to plan this revolution for some time, and may actually be hoping to install himself in the new government, should it manage to get itself into power.

The Clio, then, starts out with the air of a light comedy, more concerned with who among the passengers is going to pair off with whom, then undermines the leisure and privilege just enough to make these characters consider their lives a little deeper. Not too deeply — none of them, apart from maybe the dying Sir James in his final moments, really hits the existential depths of Nicholas from The Orissers, and one shallow young man escapes any change at all. (Nobody, as far as I recall, discusses the actual politics of the revolution in Para — it’s just “a revolution”, and anyway, it’s happening in a foreign country.)

1990 PB

A much more readable book than his first novel, it’s hard to say, though, whether this is the one to go for if you want to sample Myers’s writing. His most well-known and enduring works are the sequence of novels that followed this one, known collectively as The Root and the Flower, which I’m thinking (I’ve not read them yet) are probably going to take the writerly lessons of The Clio and apply them to his deeper concerns about how to live one’s life, which were present, though seriously undigested, in The Orissers. On its own, The Clio is a fun read as a novel of the roaring twenties, without Fitzgerald’s air of the doomed tragedy of it all — but whether that’s a plus or a minus is hard to tell.

Myers himself seems to have been a mix of the political idealism of Harry and the more shallow leisured life enjoyed by the other characters here. His marriage is a case in point: having fallen in love with a slightly older woman at a young age, he agreed to wait a couple of years until she felt she could be sure of him, which seems to imply a seriousness of genuine feeling. Once they were married, though, he embarked on a number of affairs, at least one of which lasted long enough for him to set up himself and his lover in another house, and even to expect his wife to welcome the woman to the house that they shared. But he would also use his wealth to support those whose work he believed in. When, for instance, George Orwell was told he needed to spend some time in sunnier climes for his health, Myers gave money to Orwell’s friends to pass on anonymously, funding his getaway to Marrakesh. His life, then, seems full of contradictory impulses, and perhaps the light tone of The Clio means it was written at a relatively calm time, for him.

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