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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Edgar Mittelholtzer - a wife's memoir

Two elements have always lived within me . . . The Idyll . . . The Warrior . . .' Edgar Mittelholzer, A Swarthy Boy.

I met Edgar on the coach on the way to the Writers' Summer School in Derbyshire. 'Is this seat taken?' he asked, and I replied: 'No.'

Our first conversation was about graveyards and old churches, reincarnation (in which we both believed) and writing. He told me how he liked to make the characters in his novels 'a little nutty', for he felt that this would excuse any extraordinary views they expressed or any extraordinary incidents he invented. In The Weather in Middenshot, for example, there is an old man who believes - or pretends to believe - that his very living and present wife is dead. Whenever he needs to communicate with her, he stages a spiritualistic seance. And in A Tinkling in the Twilight (which Edgar had just published, in 1959, when I met him) many ideas about which the author was really quite serious are put across in a mocking fashion - yoga, reincarnation, and views on crime and punishment.

Was it the down-to-earth side of him, or was it an inconsistent lack of sureness, which made a person who usually wrote and spoke with such conviction use this mocking cover? Either way, he cannot have been content to let his beliefs rest with this light-hearted tone; for later came the outspoken The Piling of Clouds, The Wounded and the Worried and The Aloneness of Mrs. Chatham.

I remember being impressed by the way Edgar (who, in that year when I met him, had fourteen published novels and one non-fiction work, With a Carib Eye, to his credit) behaved at the summer school with all the modesty of a beginner.

Born in Guyana (then British Guiana) in 1909, he was living in London, Maida Vale, when I met him. He had four children by his first marriage, but was divorced. His first wife was a Trinidadian. After World War II, when he was demobbed from the Trinidad Naval Reserve, he lived for six years in Trinidad. Then he managed to come to England where he worked for the British Council, helping in a 'typing pool', until he began to try to live entirely by his writing.

In Georgetown, Guyana, he had once worked as a meteorologist. He was fascinated by weather, and at home we had a number of charts, thermometers, barometers and hygrometers. One sees his interest in weather in many of the novels. The Weather in Middenshot and The Weather Family are obvious examples.

He had always had a chequered career with his writing. His first novel to be accepted, Corentyne-Thunder, was published only after a series of 'ups and downs'; and there was an interval of nine years before the appearance of his next published novel, A Morning at the Office, in 1950.

Although he became known as a leading 'West Indian novelist', he never liked the label. In fact, he used to point out that Guyana is not, strictly speaking, part of the West Indies. All his later novels were set in England but one of his own favourites among his novels was a Caribbean one - Shadows Move Among Them.

Edgar had always felt he would be more at home in England than in his native country. He had been educated to think of this as the mother country, and therefore, in a sense, the homeland. Also, he preferred the British climate to the tropical one. Yet, after a while in England, he seemed as if he thought he would be even more at home in Germany. The trace of the German in him seemed to conflict with everything else, trying to come out stronger - or his idea of what was German in him. It was the contrasts in Edgar which made him so interesting as a man - and as a writer.

For the five years of our marriage we lived in a rented flat over a store-room in the grounds of a larger house. We used to collect wild flowers. We did not have a garden of our own, although in the time of our first landlady we were allowed to use part of the garden. Edgar planted some of the wild flowers in a pot at the top of the steps just outside the flat. We had spent our honeymoon on the Rhine, and I picked a sprig of privet in Boppard. We brought it home and Edgar planted it. I have moved four times since then, but have a privet hedge taken from a cutting - all from that first sprig.

Edgar used to make dandelion and blackberry wine. We went for walks along the lanes and sometimes in the fields. Our home was in Surrey - near the Surrey-Hampshire border. He painted water-colours, mostly of trees, and we had several of his paintings of views we could see from the window or nearby.

'Nothing evil, you felt, could be abroad when the wind thrust its fingers through the swayed bearded lines of green solidly massed on solid earth.' (The Aloneness of Mrs. Chatham). Here, in this poetic approach to a barley field, we see Edgar's restrained love of nature. It was a restrained love. He was not very fond of animals (did not believe in keeping pets) or of walking in wild countryside. But it was part of the gentler side of him.

His death was violent, horrific. He has been described as having a streak of violence which found its outlet in demanding that violence be used against violent criminals. In writing and in speaking, he expressed his views passionately. He stressed the theme of strength versus weakness. This is a theme of many of his novels - notably the well-known Kaywana trilogy. It is significant that he himself has been called both 'strong' and 'weak' according to the viewpoints of the people who have talked to me about him.

It is interesting that his preoccupation with violence and criminality was something that Edgar had in common with the better known writer, Colin Wilson, though from an opposite point of view. Wilson's sympathy for the criminal can make him hard towards the victim; Edgar's indignation on behalf of the victim leaves no sympathy for the criminal. Wilson's main concern is to explore the mind of the criminal, in which Edgar does not openly express interest. Yet the two writers seem to have something in common, and Edgar refers in his own novel, The Piling of Clouds, to Wilson's Ritual in the Dark of similar theme.

Edgar may have hated the violence in others all the more because of the deep conflict in himself. Many people were impressed by the gentle aspect of his nature - an aspect which was apparent to me. As a husband, he was protective and domestic. He used to be a familiar sight in Faroham where we lived - a tall, spare figure, striding rapidly doing the shopping with his 'hold-all'. I was much younger than Edgar, and not as strong-willed. Neither was I very confident or practical. I used to be afraid that I would never have the chance to learn to do things for myself.

The flat we lived in had trees - beeches and elms - round it in the grounds of the bigger house. It was quiet. But Edgar loved his routine. He got up before I did, and prepared the breakfast; shopped and went to the library in the mornings; wrote in the afternoons; read or listened to the radio in the evenings. He also liked a brief afternoon rest and a brief evening walk.

In the evenings we sometimes listened to records. His favourites were those of Wagner. Edgar and I liked many of the same kinds of books, music, plays. He introduced me to many such things. We were both interested in the occult; read books about yoga, reincarnation, astral projection, supernatural phenomena. Among our fiction reading there was always a sprinkling of ghost stories.

Contrasts in our life together were the contrasts between Edgar and me. There were differences in our ages, experience, temperaments, viewpoints. I was a member of CND which he thought was part of the 'would-rot' - his name for the 'rot' which he said had set into society. Although it was he who had the 'coloured' blood, it was he who would put the case for the whites upon heating any news item about racial friction.

Scolded by Edgar for not being sufficiently orderly (I have since realised how maddening I must have been), I found it restricting, yet occasionally steadying, to live with someone who liked so fixed a routine. Of course, the routine changed a little after the birth of our son, whom we called 'Leodegar', a family name of some kinsfolk Edgar discovered who had lived for centuries in Appenzell, Switzerland. It was always the name of the first-born son.

Edgar was forty-nine when I met him, but my first impression was that he was somewhere in his thirties. He did not seem much over forty when he died - when he was really fifty-five. The passing of the actuality of Edgar was the more heart-rending because of this extreme vitality of his. Edgar was as real as the daily routine, and is now to all appearances just something about which I am writing. The past is never quite 'recapturable'. It can be remembered as vivid, but the actuality goes. The actuality of the freckle on the rim of his right ear, and the one on his lower lip.

He had many freckles, arranged like constellations on his face, showing up in their darker shade than the rest of his brown. His large ears stuck out and as a boy he had been nicknamed 'Bat-ears'. By the time I knew him, his straight, dark hair (which he always wore cut very short) was thinning. His dark, bright eyes had a powerful range of expression from hard, flashing, to incredibly soft.

Edgar asked me once during our summer school week: 'Does my age alarm you?'

'I don't know what your age is,' I pointed out. I had been afraid to ask him before because I knew this would force me to tell him my own age. I was ashamed that people usually thought me about sixteen. It made me feel foolish when I had to confess that I was really twenty-one. A short-hand typist who missed the opportunity to go to university, I lacked confidence in various aspects of life, including with men. I have written about this at greater length elsewhere, but am not in such a masochistic mood at present. I was an only child, a mother's girl, whose actor father died when I was aged nine.

I remember Edgar saying in one of our first conversations: 'Well, I never went to university either.' But that was not his or his parents' aim, nor a likely aim in British Guiana at that time. The main ambition in a 'good class' family seems to have been to get a 'government job'. At first Edgar was taught by a governess, then at a series of private schools, and then won a scholarship to Berbice High School.

'Good class' . . . Edgar's father was a town clerk - and Edgar the only dark-skinned member of the family. This swarthy complexion was resented by his father. Edgar's parents, younger sister and two younger brothers were all comparatively fair-skinned.

I was always interested in writing and had won a scholarship to the summer school the previous year. Without this, I would not have known of the summer school, nor have met Edgar.

Why did Edgar kill himself? He felt a misfit because his views on life were not generally accepted - or in the circles where he thought they ought to be. While most people he met in the daily round seemed to agree with the views he held on crime, and a letter he wrote to the Daily Telegraph brought a dozen letters supporting him, yet he felt that the intelligentsia were against him - those who would nowadays be called the 'politically correct'. His views, and his uncompromising way of expressing them, were what made it so difficult to publish two of his later works - The Piling of Clouds and The Aloneness of Mrs. Chatham.

He felt isolated, too, in his views upon the occult - views expressed the most seriously in The Wounded and the Worried and, again . . . Mrs. Chatham. This was early in the 1960s. People seem much more interested in such things nowadays.

It mattered to him when many disagreed with him or did not take him seriously (his humour had to be on his own terms). But he would not have killed himself if he could have supported our son and myself, and his other family, as he wanted. He wanted to do it all himself. I felt guilty for a long time afterwards because I had not persuaded him to use more of my own small income. But he had firm ideas about the man being the provider -- and the deciding factor.

Discussions, the household set-up . . . everything was gradually becoming freer between Edgar and myself. Discussions, I think, became completely free in about the last two days of his life. He seemed natural about everything; about things over which he would previously have been rigid. He seemed so much more relaxed. It awoke in me, too optimistic, a hope for the future and for his returning optimism. I realise now that the warrior was stilled in him because in his own mind everything was settled. Life had always been a battle. Now there was nothing left to fight, because he was leaving it. Or any warrior's thoughts which might remain were keyed up to the final act of will. Also, of course, he must have put on some false cheerfulness for my benefit, as the letter he left me indicated. I must have been blind! I was laughing and playing with the baby boy on May 5th, 1965, the day Edgar died. Edgar suddenly exclaimed in a strange way: 'Oh, you two!'

'What is it?' I asked, going over to him, knowing how depressed he had been of late, and how he had commented sometimes, as if from a far distance, on the life-loving qualities of the boy and me. 'All this frivolity around you?' 'Yes. Yes, that is it. Yes.'

We had house-hunting difficulties because we had a new couple of landlords who wanted us to move. I think Edgar's complexion had something to do with it. They had come from Rhodesia, as it then was.

I was excited, like a little girl when she is given a grown-up task, that I seemed to be taking my full part in the search for somewhere else to live. I suppose I did not realise how much Edgar had lost interest in life, and that he was leaving some things to me because of this.

Any semblance of interest he showed I realise now was so much star-dust thrown in my eyes, and he said as much in the letter I found after his death.

Death had always been a possible way out. He could not understand why people wanted to come to terms with life when it persisted in not going according to plan.

His last diary entry struggled valiantly to be normal, typical:

'Got up 6.15 am. Occasional sunny periods, Variegated cloud . . . 45 (90). 50 (93).'

Many little things I remember from the last few days: things which I now know must have been planned so that we would have a happy leave-taking without too many regrets. It is not his fault if I consider now ways in which I must have failed him: how even differences over the housekeeping probably would not have occurred if I had been a more confident, competent person. It was good of him to bring the conversation round at cocoa-time, one of those last evenings, to how much we meant to each other.

There is not space here to give all my last impressions, but Edgar had lately formed a habit (obviously on purpose) of taking a late evening walk alone. One evening, he did not return from this walk. I was in a forewarned state and, finding a note in a drawer, did not stop to read it properly before phoning the Farnham police:


'Yes, madam. What is your name?'

They found him in a field. He had set fire to himself - with petrol.

Edgar was fascinated by death, frequently quoting T. S. Eliot's:

'O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark . . .'

I always disputed with him his attitude. Yet, in an odd way, I seem to have been on his side. A sense of achievement comes thrilling back to me sometimes nowadays, when I remember that he got the strange thing he wanted in the end.

Publication Information: Article Title: Edgar Mittelholtzer - a Wife's Memoir. Contributors: Jennifer Pointer - author. Magazine Title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 269. Issue: 1568. Publication Date: September 1996. Page Number: 143+. COPYRIGHT 1996

Posted by jebratt :: Thursday, January 26, 2006 :: 3 comments

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