And it started so well. The opening scene of The Fox in the Attic presents a damp autumn afternoon in Wales, with feathery clouds, swans “creaking” overhead, and finally introduces two masculine figures walking through the landscape: “The younger man was springy and tall and well-built and carried over his shoulder the body of a dead child.” I thought that was a very promising opening.
But Richard Hughes doesn’t stick with that mood, or for the matter with that character or that setting. The Fox in the Attic, published in 1961, is an historical novel divided into three sections linked by the central character. Augustine is a young World War I veteran struggling with the unsettling fact of not only having survived the war, but also having inherited a massive estate in Wales. It is he whom we meet carrying the dead child.
The first part of the book, “Polly and Rachel,” is set in England and Wales. Long stretches of it combine lyrical British writing about country life with cool scrutiny of peculiar characters, not unlike J.G. Farrell’s unsettling novels. Part Two, “The White Crow,” sends Augustine to visit remote cousins in Germany. Though Hughes makes a point of contrasting Augustine’s naive notions of the “new Germany” with the bitter facts of stupendous inflation and poverty, this part of the book is really an account of the events surrounding the “Beer Hall Putsch.” The third section concentrates on Augustine’s sudden passion for his beautiful blind cousin Mitzi, and his own blindness to, or misinterpretation of, almost everything he sees in the von Kessen family’s castle. There is an actual fox in the attic in this part, but there is also a character called “Wolff” who has lived in hiding in the attic for a year, on the run after getting involved in an unsuccessful coup attempt.
The novel is very uneven. Hughes seems most interested in his characters’ incomprehension of each other or their circumstances. This trait can be annoying (in Augustine’s naivete) or rather magical (when Hughes narrates from the point of view of a small child). The “White Crow” section felt very tedious: it’s hard to set up the political background for the Putsch because there are so many complicated circumstances and Hughes is hampered by his narrative technique of seeing it only through the eyes of marginally-involved characters. And then at the end of the book, Augustine simply tosses his clothes into his bag and departs from the German castle, with no destination in mind. I suppose I ought to be curious about where he’s going next, but vague irritation is not a good basis for a further relationship.