Exquisite Corpse by Robert Irwin
[extract from book, set in late 1930s]
New Year’s Eve approached and I could think of little else except the night I would spend with Caroline at the Ball…. I was going as Count Cagliostro and was hiring most of my costume from a theatrical suppliers, but Caroline, who had decided to go as Marie Antoinette, was making her own dress…
The night of the Ball, the night when one bad year gave way to what proved to be a worse year, finally came. Before the War the Chelsea Arts Ball was the biggest party of the year. It may be still, for all I know.
The floor of the Albert Hall was fringed with mock pavilions and pergolas and crowded with English, French, Russian and Venetian aristocrats in powdered wigs, as well as grenadiers, highwaymen and their molls, milkmaid, banditti, sans culottes and figures from the Commedia dell’Arte. Many of the revellers wore domino maks and these had the effect of making the eyes seem brighter and the smiles sharper.
comments: My notes for this book read: Death, orgies, surrealism, Bohemians, Paris, ‘real person’, Orwell.
Of all the authors I have discovered in recent years, I think Robert Irwin might be the best. His Wonders Will Never Cease is a book that lives in my mind with startling clarity: it is amazing, an absolute stunner. The Mysteries of Algiers is also on the blog. And now this one: the story of a (fictional) Surrealist painter in the first half of the 20th century. His story weaves in real and imaginary people, and some very familiar events and happenings (for those of us who spend far too much time reading fiction and non-fiction of and about that era). For example George Orwell makes an absolutely hilarious cameo appearance.
Exquisite Corpse is a seamless book, very good and clever and readable – I think it doesn’t quite have the magic of Wonders, there’s something about the fact that in this case you don’t know exactly what he has made up and what was real… and the setting is SO familiar, and the carryon of the artist and his friends so familiar. But still, good fun and a most enjoyable read. But go for Wonders will Never Cease if you really want to have your socks knocked off.
The book plays with ideas of identity, and of men trying to shape women, and about the struggle for a person to find out what your importance was in someone else’s life. For these reasons I found similarities with the Hitchcock film Vertigo, and with the John Banville novel The Untouchable.
The Chelsea Arts Club, and the Ball, and barely-disguised versions of them, are stalwarts of the books of the time, and of the lives of the Bohemians. One of Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence stories features The Three Arts Ball, and much as I barely tolerate T&T, I always liked this:
“When I was a nice young girl,” said Tuppence [trying to persuade Tommy to go to the ball], “I was brought up to believe that men – especially husbands – were dissipated beings, fond of drinking and dancing and staying up late at night. It took an exceptionally beautiful and clever wife to keep them at home. Another illusion gone! All the wives I know are hankering to go out and dance,and weeping because their husbands will wear bedroom slippers and go to bed at half-past nine…”
You can also find a 1950s Christie view of Chelsea-as-Bohemian hangout in another of her stories -see blogpost here, along with cherished memory of Nancy Mitford’s Lady Montdore’s view on Chelsea: she was ‘rather cheered up by the idea that some poor ladies have to live in Chelsea.’
Nina Hamnett has a number of blog entries – her memoir Laughing Torso covers some very similar ground to Exquisite Corpse.
There’s a character in a Saki short story for whom
Disapproval was to her what neuralgia and fancy needlework are to many other women. She disapproved of early morning tea and auction bridge, of ski-ing and the two-step, of the Russian Ballet and the Chelsea Arts Club Ball, of the French policy in Morocco and the British policy everywhere.
[She would find plenty to think about in Robert Irwin’s books]
And in the Wychford Poisoning Case by Anthony Berkeley (1926) two of the more raffish characters go to ‘the Four Arts Ball in Covent Garden, the last big public event of the season, going back afterwards to the Bischroma again’. (Bischroma is an Italian music term, and in this case is the name of a hotel of a kind where couples could go who were not married to each other).
The Chelsea Arts Ball features in Gladys Mitchell’s Tom Brown’s Body: it is offstage, but the creation of a remarkable costume for it – featuring a scarey mask and stilts - is very important.
I can never resist a fancy dress ball for the blog, and extra points for one set at new year. The tango dancers at the top are by one of my favourites, Sam Hood and the State Library of New South Wales: the other pictures all come from previous entries in fact.
The painting is The Costume Ball by Max Freidrich Rabes from The Athenaeum.
The masked woman is a fashion illustration from Paris, from the NY Public Library.
The b/w picture of a fancy-dress ball is from that same Sam Hood’s collection at the State Library of New South Wales.
I always find the art world fascinating, Moira. And of course, the New Year background is a great context for a story. Add in a fancy dress ball, and I can see how you'd have been drawn to this one.ReplyDelete
Yes it has a very fine collection of features that I love in a book Margot! And all features that make for intriguing reading..Delete
Penelope Lively mentions going to the Chelsea Arts Club ball in the introduction to one of the stories in Making It Up - though that was in the early 1950s. According to the Chelsea Arts Club website the Albert Hall banned them after things got out of hand at the 1958 New Year's ball (disappointingly there are no lurid details).ReplyDelete
Oh great catch, good to know about that one. And we absolutely must find out what happened at the ball in 1958.Delete
When I was a young reporter, we were given a tipoff that a certain hotel had banned a regular doctors' dinner because of their bad behaviour. I rang the hotel who said yes, they would not take any more bookings from them, because the destruction and damage had been worthy of a rock group.
So then I rang the official chair of the local doctors group, expecting a stuffy rebuttal: in fact his comment was 'well of course we'll pay for the damage, but for goodness sake - call that a riotous party? they think THAT was serious bad behaviour? Ridiculous. Now I've been at doctors' dinners in my youth which would make that look like a vicar's teaparty.' Cue reminsicences of his young days, and disparaging comparisons with the rule-keeping drs of today. Always good to reminded that you mustn't try to write the story before you speak to everyone!
As one of the rule-keeping doctors of today, that doesn't surprise me at all!Delete
He belonged in one of those Richard Gordon Doctor in the House books...Delete
Robert Irwin published another novel, with his customary lack of acclaim, in 2019, My Life is like a Fairy Tale, the autobiography of the woman star of a Nazi screwball comedy, and has another, The Runes Have Been Cast, appearing this year.. He wrote an autobiography,, My Life as a Dervish, some years agoReplyDelete
Oh thank you, so glad to know that - it certainly passed me by. Essential reading...Delete
I keep thinking Irwin should be a cult writer at least, given how many people admire each book, but he's so varied that a cult doesn't form even among people who think "Now what's he done lately."Delete
Brief history - with interesting pictures - of the Chelsea Arts Club Ball here: https://flashbak.com/the-chelsea-arts-ball-the-outrageous-new-years-eve-parties-1908-1958-50141/Delete
Those pictures are amazing, thank you so much! And yes, have downloaded My Life as a Fairy Tale. I can;t imagine why Irwin isn't better-known...Delete
This sounds great. I love the photo of the tango dancers. And you have reminded me that I have now and then toyed with the idea of a short story set at a New Year's Eve fancy dress ball. Maybe now is the time . . .ReplyDelete
Aren't the tango dancers wonderful? I was so happy when I found that picture.Delete
Another of your stories to look forward to! I am going to expect a dedication when you produce a whole book of stories, each one inspired by something on my blog - there's this, and the museum idea just in the past few weeks...
I'll see what I can do . . .ReplyDelete
This does sound intriguing and your enthusiasm for the author is a plus. This is a "maybe someday."ReplyDelete
If any of his books turn up, Tracy, at the book sale maybe, you should grab them!Delete
Probably not for me. Don't think I've featured an orgy on my blog yet. There you go blazing the trail!ReplyDelete
That can be your task for this year: find and review a book with an orgy scene.Delete