(Front cover of original 1958 edition (left) and restored edition (right)
The Rack, by A. E. Ellis (Derek Lindsay)
Restored Edition, published by Ashgrove Publishing/Zephyr Books, UK, 2016
“There are certain books we call great for want of a better term, that rise like monuments above the cemeteries of literature: Clarissa Harlowe, Great Expectations, Ulysses. The Rack to my mind is one of this company.”
– Graham Greene
Some books remain with us. Even after subsequent readings they amplify rather than shrink our understanding of them. One such novel is The Rack, published in London by William Heinemann, Ltd., in 1958.
I discovered the 1961 Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Rack in its characteristic orange and white jacket in the bookstall of the railroad station in Florence, Italy. It was December, shortly before Christmas, and I was on my way to England. Opening the first pages, I learned that The Rack was a novel about a young Oxford student and former captain in the British Army during the Second War. I also discovered that the protagonist, Paul Davenant, was suffering from tuberculosis and was traveling with a group of British students to a sanatorium in the French Alps, where they were to be treated under the auspices of an international student organization. This brought to mind The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann’s novel of life in a Swiss sanatorium. However, once I began to turn the pages, I found myself in the hands of a far different writer from Mann: a writer whose first sentences were as sharp and clear as the air his protagonist and I were soon to breathe on our very different passages through the mountains.
I had been ill during the unusually cold and wet Florentine winter. Though I felt well enough to travel, and would by no means have given up my first opportunity to experience London, I still felt feverish in the overheated train compartment I occupied, especially after I began reading about the state of health of the British students making their way to the mountains. Paul Davenant, who was among them, was scarcely able to get around he was so incapacitated by the disease he hoped to get some respite from in the French sanatorium.
I was drawn equally into the obsessive routines of temperature taking and sputum checking, as, having settled into sanatorium life, the patients shuffled from their rooms to the service medical for their x-rays. Reading further, I would learn more about the array of interventions available to tuberculosis patients at the time, each stage of which became potentially more painful and, all too often, less effective.
By the time we had reached the Italian-Swiss boarder I simply could not put the book down. As novelist Alan Wall writes in his superb introduction to this restored edition of the novel, for whose important restorations he is also responsible, The Rack, “is the greatest novel of medical confinement in the English language.” Even without coming to that conclusion during my reading in the stifling compartment, I clearly felt the sense of the novel’s projection of confinement, not only between the walls of the sanatoria where the patients were confined, but also in the book’s interconnected stories about several of the patients, many of whom represent the major countries of Europe not long after the close of the war.
And the war itself is not far from the confines of the hospital, or the lives of its inmates. Each in some way, including Paul, has suffered from the conflagration. Paul, who saw combat as a captain, might well be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress as much as from the effects of TB. It could also be ventured that his physical illness is a function of his depressed emotional state, which often causes him to strike out verbally against the person he most loves and to express his own growing self-hatred.
While I concur with Wall’s discerning introduction that the subject is confinement in all of its senses (one can actually feel claustrophobic reading about the characters who spend their days in bed, or navigate the narrow hospital corridors in shabby robes and slippers), I also feel that the trope of confinement, along with novel’s multiple images of malaise, can be extended to Europe itself after a war believed by many to have brought on the collapse of the Old World order. In other words: Europe has become the sanatorium and its people are now patients in an uneasy post-war recovery. In fact, some, like the Dutch inmate and fantasist, Delmuth, also have troubled consciences, which may well be emblematic of a general European guilt over the war and its exterminations.
Nevertheless, Paul’s case is central to the novel’s development. He will learn that he is a very sick man. We already know, and will learn more, about his early life as an orphan, about his shifting residence from one family member to another, about his having been bullied at a provincial public school, and his underachieving years as an Oxford undergraduate, all contributing to his depressive state, as does his physical illness. We will also learn that he is a reader, when he is well enough to be; and that his preferences are for Stendhal, Dostoevsky and Proust, especially Proust. One wonders if these writers are not also the preferences of the novelist himself, and if he is not signaling to us his influences in composing a novel that while eminently contemporary in subject, tone and language, also pays homage to those 19th and early 20th century novelists of the grand subject—war, the conflict within the human soul, and life in society as it etiolated (Proust), told by a writer who had been an invalid himself.
Like the classics with which it has been compared, The Rack is one of those novels that continue to yield rewards upon each successive reading. Subtleties of characterization emerge, especially the dynamics among the doctors in charge of treatment, along with the politics of the sanatorium culture of Brisset, the Alpine mountain community where the sanatoria are located, and the conflicts among the patients themselves. At the vital center of the novel, whose narrative tensions can often feel excruciating, is the story of Paul and the woman he comes to love and will sadly lose, the young Belgian patient Michelle Duchene. Doomed by deteriorating health, their age differences, and Paul’s diminishing prospects, yet alive to each other in the ways only young people in love can be, their story, narrated in unsparing and utterly unsentimental detail, takes its place among the great love stories of contemporary literature.
Shortly after the publication of the first British edition, Atlantic Monthly Press issued an American edition, followed by a larger format Penguin Edition with a cover illustration from a 1926 painting by Ubaldo Oppi of three surgeons standing austerely in white coats. The illustration itself is reflective of the three often competing doctors, who attempt unsuccessfully to treat Paul’s condition.
The new Ashgrove/Zephyr edition restores 25,000 words from the original manuscript, cut by the book’s first editor, James Mitchie, who hoped to present a novel in the “existentialist” mode, in keeping with Continental fiction of the era. A decidedly existentialist cast to the novel remains, even as restored, reflecting the underlying hopelessness and despair in Europe after the war, growing anxiety about the emerging Cold War, and the very real fear of nuclear holocaust. Though these concerns may lie under the surface of the narrative they are often acted out by the characters. It is my belief that the restored edition presents the novel as Ellis/Lindsay originally wrote it and would have wanted it to appear, in the same way that the restorations to the texts of D. H. Lawrence’s major novels in the Cambridge University Press editions give Lawrence to us undiluted and in all his narrative and linguistic brilliance.
Alan Wall’s judicious restorations present us with a more ample narrative, a deeper sense of characterization, a comic spirit, often black but still bracing, and a more discerning sense of place; for place itself, not only in the confinement of the two sanatoria in which Paul becomes a patient, but also in the surrounding mountains, and the town of Brisset itself, is as much a character in the novel as are Paul and Michele, the other patients we come to know and care about, and the attending doctors, Vernet, Bruneau, Dubois and Roussel, whose bravado may often exceed what we view as their competence.
Then there is the disease itself, barely able to be confined if not cured, even as the new antibiotics, in the form of streptomycin, are beginning to be tried and tested, only to discover that the subjects of the trials are often resistant to them. Amply documented from the author’s own suffering are the horrors of the other modes of intervention, under oddly aseptic names like pneumothorax or plombage.
The new edition itself is in an attractive paperback format, designed by its publisher Brad Thompson, and illustrated with a front cover portrait that might well be Paul Davenant himself, hand on book, eyes on the surrounding mountains, the two poles of his life, inside and outside, confinement and freedom, the life of the mind and that of his gradually diminishing body constantly oscillating under his, and our, anxious gaze.
Derek Lindsay (1920-2000), did not publish another novel during his lifetime, though he is said to have been at work on a sequel to The Rack, and also to have written plays. While one might have wished for more from this clearly major novelist, it is enough for him to have written a single masterpiece.
(I wish to thank publisher Brad Thompson for providing me with a copy of the novel soon after publication and for his assistance in helping me to understand the extent, nature and importance of Alan Wall’s restorations to the original text)