Pretty good at what it is: The Professor by Rex Warner.
The Professor, Rex Warner, Penguin 1944 (171 pages).
This is a decent novel and a fascinating artefact. First published in 1938, it is a direct response to the tide of totalitarianism that was then sweeping across Europe. My copy was published in 1944, when that trend had reached its dreadful apotheosis, and is distinctly of its time. Here I reproduce some of the adverts found on the back cover and inside the back of the book. ‘The front’ is a current metaphor for fighting the bristles on your chin; we have advice for extending the useful life of a nightie, and we’re told to remember how useful a product is, even though right now it is in short supply. The book itself is produced in accordance with the war economy standards, and the paper is noticeably thin and the cover rather floppy (yet here it is 70 years later, speaking something to what was considered a ‘cheap’ edition back then, and making me wonder whether some our standards might not be irrecoverably lower now than they were then). Having said that, the design is clearly pre-Tschichold, with it’s penguin that looks ready to collapse and blobby ‘Penguin Books’ logo at the top. One would think that if a book company is going to save trouble by not designing the covers individually, the least they could do would be get the one design they were using right.
To the story; it is a fable, taking place in an unspecified county (not Britain) that shares a border with a great power — rather like a Baltic state glancing fearfully at the Russians, say, or Austria in 1937. The little country knows it cannot fight and win, and there are sections of its own population attracted to the certainty that dictatorship offers. As the government is in free-fall they try offering the Chancellorship (a position akin to the German position, or to a Prime Minister in a Westminster-type government) to The Professor, a respected academic whose work has centred on Greek and Latin literature, and the like. The Professor is intelligent but not worldly, and events soon overtake him. His options narrow, the people around him have their own agendas, and eventually the inevitable eventuates. On the way we meet a cross section of the community, we see how people cope with living under the imminent cloud of envelopment — some embrace it, some disappear into fantasy and denial, many do not really understand it and so manage quite well.
The Professor himself is a somewhat unsatisfactory and pedantic figure. Some of the supporting cast, through the very fact of being drawn more economically and perhaps therefore bluntly, are more alive than he is. He never quite becomes more than the puppet the plot, and the philosophy behind the work, demands. The prose is… precise, bordering on pedantic. Every clause carefully set off, every verb correctly subjected, no infinitives even within a mile of splittedness; it is as if the words are designed to match the personality of the protagonist; prim, academic and correct.
These things add up to making The Professor a very interesting book if you like looking at books and how they work. It is not a story for the fan of plot and counter plot and subplot and action and suspense.
Is it a book that speaks to our times now? I suspect the inhabitants of Ukraine or Taiwan or Tibet would say, ‘Yes, though Rex Warner doesn’t know the half of it.’
It’s short; if you see it kicking around, give it a go.