In ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’, John Betjeman has Wilde whimper to Robert Ross: ‘So you’ve brought me the latest Yellow Book:/ And Buchan has got in it now:/ Approval of what is approved of/ Is as false as a well-kept vow.’ It is a marvellous scene, but not quite accurate. As a thousand Buchanites will clamour, Wilde was arrested in April 1895 and Buchan’s first story appeared in Aubrey Beardsley’s gorgeous fin-de-siècle magazine only the following January. Meanwhile, just a glance at this illustrated new selection of stories shows that John Buchan was the opposite of conventional.
The story in question, ‘A Captain of Salvation’, tells of a man brought low by drink and hard living, now an officer of the Salvation Army in the East End. He can resist the temptations of women and the flesh but not an old confederate and the lure of picketing up in the Drakensberg or dropping down the Irrawaddy. Here at the very start of his selection, Giles Foden gets Buchan in one. Buchan had probably never seen Limehouse, and it would be five years before he picketed up in the Drakensberg. Like his friend, T. E. Lawrence, John Buchan imagined his adventurous life before he lived it.
John Buchan wrote about 70 stories, the best of them gathered into four principal collections. These are Grey Weather (1899); The Watcher by the Threshold (1902); The Moon Endureth (1912), which intersperses stories and verse in the manner of Kipling; and The Runagates Club (1928).
Of these collections by far the best is Grey Weather. Subtitled ‘Moorland Tales of My Own People’, it contains 14 stories set in the hills of the Upper Tweed valley where Buchan spent his summer holidays at his mother’s family sheep farm. Of these, Foden chooses three, including the best, ‘Streams of Water in the South’. (The excellence of Buchan’s stories begins with their titles.) Here precise natural description dissolves into a sort of otherworldliness, conveyed in a ravishing Scots that was already disappearing from the hills. Readers sometimes imagine that because Buchan wrote good English he could not write Scots.
The six long stories of The Watcher by the Threshold all have to do with what Foden identifies as a second theme of his fiction and life: that ‘a line, a thread, a sheet of glass’ is all that separates civilisation from barbarism, empire from anarchy, reason from the uncanny, the warm drawing-room from the howling moor. Foden selects the title story and the fine ‘Fountainblue’, which is precisely the sort of love story that John Buchan is said to be bad at.
A third theme emerges in The Moon Endureth: a yearning for some enclosed and consecrated natural place, for which Buchan in his autobiography used the Homeric word temenos. This secret place may bear the trace of antique rites or piety. Of this type, Foden selects ‘The Grove of Ashtaroth’, in which a Rand millionaire takes to atavistic rituals in an ancient wood in his park. A tough nut, Foden puts up with the story’s antiquated racial psychology for the beautiful oddity of its religious sentiment: religion as a species of supernatural gallantry.
The first world war sharpened Buchan’s sense of both the fragility of English-speaking civilisation and (like Conan Doyle) the lure of the supernatural. Of the 12 stories in The Runagates Club Foden selects eight, which is too many. Buchan’s heroes, now well on in middle age, foregather at a dining-club. Moral and psychological themes are laid out for fictional illustration like game at a butcher’s and the detailed professional milieux — the City, the Bar, newspaper journalism, code-breaking, battle — are too urbane for their own good (and for the modern commercial thriller which inherited them). Also for men who profess to work so hard, there is far too much outdoors recreation.
In ‘Ship to Tarshish’, Buchan creates a sort of a phantasmagoric or nightmare Canada, a country he was soon to govern for the King. ‘He hated Canada like poison.’ One can only pray that the Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, never saw this story. In ‘The Last Crusade’, there is a dirty clubman’s joke all the more disgraceful for being in Latin. ‘Tendebant Manus’ is a fine story but relies for its closing effect on a misreading of Virgil. ‘The Wind in the Portico’ is a reworking of ‘The Grove of Ashtaroth’ without the sex. Foden also prints an 18th-century pastiche, ‘The Strange Adventures of Mr Andrew Hawthorn’, not half so good as the brilliant Jacobite might-have-been ‘The Company of the Marjolaine’, but welcome because all but unknown.
How good was John Buchan at short fiction? Among the writers who domesticated the American and Continental short story, Buchan is not even in shouting distance of Joyce (‘The Dead’) or Kipling, but holds his own with Stevenson, James and Conrad. Foden’s judgment of these stories, because unpartisan, is even more flattering:
One only needs to begin reading them to be either taken into a separate world of the imagination or returned with a necessary bump to harsh physical reality. Many writers perform one or other of these services. Few are capable of doing both. Even rarer are those who, like John Buchan, can do both at the same time.
James Buchan’s latest novel, The Gate of Air, will be published by the MacLehose Press next week.