Authors: David Stacton
A fellow Carthaginian historian
The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope.
Un acteur juge réellement … avec sa sensibilité et sa personne physique—non avec son esprit.
The Case of David Stacton
Might David Stacton (1923–68) be the most unjustly neglected American novelist of the post-World War II era? There is a case to be made – beginning, perhaps, with a simple inductive process.
In its issue dated 1 February 1963
magazine offered an article that placed Stacton amid ten writers whom the magazine rated as the best to have emerged in American fiction during the previous decade: the others being Richard Condon, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller, H. L. Humes, John Knowles, Bernard Malamud, Walker Percy, Philip Roth, and John Updike. It would be fair to say that, over the intervening fifty years, seven of those ten authors have remained solidly in print and in high-level critical regard. As for the other three: the case of H. L. Humes is complex, since after 1963 he never added to the pair of novels he had already published; while John Knowles, though he continued to publish steadily, was always best known for
A Separate Peace
(1959), which was twice adapted for the screen.
By this accounting, then, I believe we can survey the
list today and conclude that the stand-out figure is David Stacton – a hugely productive, prodigiously gifted, still regrettably little-known talent and, yes, arguably more deserving of revived attention than any US novelist since 1945.
Across a published career of fifteen years or so Stacton put out fourteen novels (under his name, that is – plus a further raft of pseudonymous genre fiction); many short stories; several collections of poetry; and three compendious works of non-fiction. He was first ‘discovered’ in England, and had to wait several years before making it into print in his homeland. Assessing Stacton’s career at the time of what proved to be his last published novel
People of the Book
(1965), Dennis Powers of
ruefully concluded that Stacton’s was very much ‘the old story of literary virtue unrewarded’. Three years later Stacton was dead.
The rest has been a prolonged silence punctuated by occasional tributes and testaments in learned journals, by fellow writers, and around the literary blogosphere. But in 2011 New York Review Books reissued Stacton’s
The Judges of the Secret Court
, his eleventh novel and the second in what he saw as a trilogy on American themes. (History, and sequences of titles, were Stacton’s abiding passions.) In 2012 Faber Finds began reissuing a selection of Stacton’s novels.
Readers new to the Stacton
will encounter a novelist of quite phenomenal ambition. The landscapes and epochs into which he transplanted his creative imagination spanned vast distances, and yet the finely wrought Stacton prose style remained fairly distinctive throughout. His deft and delicate gifts of physical description were those of a rare aesthete, but the cumulative effect is both vivid and foursquare. He was, perhaps, less committed to strong narrative through-lines than to erecting a sense of a spiritual universe around his characters; yet he undoubtedly had the power to carry the reader with him from page to page. His protagonists are quite often haunted – if not fixated – figures, temperamentally estranged from their societies. But whether or not we may find elements of Stacton himself within said protagonists, for sure his own presence is in the books – not least by dint of his incorrigible fondness for apercus, epigrams, pontifications of all kinds.
He was born Lionel Kingsley Evans on 27 May 1923, in San Francisco. (His parents had met and married in Dublin then emigrated after the war.) Undoubtedly Northern California shaped his aesthetic sense, though in later years he would disdain the place as an ‘overbuilt sump’, lamenting what he felt had been lost in tones of wistful conservatism. (‘We had founding families, and a few traditions and habits of our own … Above all we had our sensuous and then unspoilt landscape, whose loss has made my generation and sort of westerner a race of restless wanderers.’) Stacton was
certainly an exile, but arguably he made himself so, even before California, in his estimation, went to the dogs. In any case his fiction would range far away from his place of birth, for all that his early novels were much informed by it.
Precociously bright, the young Lionel Evans was composing poetry and short stories by his mid-teens, and entered Stanford University in 1941, his studies interrupted by the war (during which he was a conscientious objector). Tall and good-looking, elegant in person as in prose, Evans had by 1942 begun to call himself David Stacton. Stanford was also the place where, as far as we know, he acknowledged his homosexuality – to himself and, to the degree possible in that time, to his peers. He would complete his tertiary education at UC Berkeley, where he met and moved in with a man who became his long-time companion, John Mann Rucker. By 1950 his stories had begun to appear in print, and he toured Europe (what he called ‘the standard year’s travel after college’).
London (which Stacton considered ‘such a touching city’) was one of the favoured stops on his itinerary and there he made the acquaintance of Basil ‘Sholto’ Mackenzie, the second Baron Amulree, a Liberal peer and distinguished physician. In 1953 Amulree introduced Stacton to Charles Monteith, the brilliant Northern Irish-born editor and director at Faber and Faber. The impression made was clearly favourable, for in 1954 Faber published
, Stacton’s first novel, which
Time and Tide
would describe as ‘a charming idyll, set in Hollywood, Paris and Rome’.
A Fox Inside
followed in 1955,
-inflected Californian tales about money, power and influence; and neurotic men and women locked into marriages made for many complex reasons other than love. In retrospect either novel could conceivably have been a Hollywood film in its day, directed by Nicholas Ray, say, or Douglas Sirk. Though neither book sold spectacularly, together they proved Stacton had a voice worth hearing. In their correspondence Charles Monteith urged Stacton to consider himself ‘a novelist of contemporary society’, and suggested he turn his hand to outright ‘thriller
writing’. But Stacton had set upon a different course. ‘These are the last contemporary books I intend to write for several years’, he wrote to Monteith. ‘After them I shall dive into the historical …’
In 1956 Stacton made good on his intimation by delivering to Monteith a long-promised novel about Ludwig II of Bavaria, entitled
. Monteith had been excited by the prospect of the work, and he admired the ambition of the first draft, but considered it unpublishable at its initial extent. With considerable application Stacton winnowed
down to a polished form that Faber could work with. Monteith duly renewed his campaign to persuade Stacton toward present-day subject matter. There would be much talk of re-jigging and substituting one proposed book for another already-delivered manuscript, of strategies for ‘building a career’. Stacton was amenable (to a degree) at first, but in the end he made his position clear to Monteith:
I just flatly don’t intend to write any more contemporary books, for several reasons … [M]y talents are melodramatic and a mite grandiose, and this goes down better with historical sauce … I just can’t write about the present any more, that’s all. I haven’t the heart … [F]or those of conservative stamp, this age is the end of everything we have loved … There is nothing to do but hang up more lights. And for me the lights are all in the past.
Monteith, for all his efforts to direct Stacton’s
, could see he was dealing with an intractable talent; and in April 1957 he wrote to Stacton affirming Faber’s ‘deep and unshaken confidence in your own gift and in your future as a novelist’.
The two novels that followed hard upon
Me were highly impressive proofs of Stacton’s intent and accomplishment, which enhanced his reputation both inside Faber and in wider literary-critical circles.
On a Balcony
told of Akhenaten and Nefertiti in the Egypt of the Eighteenth Dynasty, and
concerned a monk in fourteenth-century Japan. Stacton took the view that these two and the Ludwig novel were in fact a trilogy
(‘concerned with various aspects of the religious experience’) which by 1958 he was calling ‘The Invincible Questions’.
And this was but the dawning of a theme: in the following years, as his body of work expanded, Stacton came to characterise it as ‘a series of novels in which history is used to explain the way we live now’ – a series with an ‘order’ and ‘pattern’, for all that each entry was ‘designed to stand independent of the others if need be’. (In 1964 he went so far as to tell Charles Monteith that his entire
was ‘really one book’.)
Readers discovering this work today might be less persuaded that the interrelation of the novels is as obviously coherent as Stacton contended. There’s an argument that Stacton’s claims say more for the way in which his brilliant mind was just temperamentally inclined toward bold patterns and designs. (A small but telling example of same: in 1954 at the very outset of his relationship with Faber Stacton sent the firm a logotype he had drawn, an artful entwining of his initials, and asked that it be included as standard in the prelims of his novels (‘Can I be humoured about my colophon as a regular practice?’). Faber did indeed oblige him.)
But perhaps Stacton’s most convincing explanation for a connective tissue in his work – given in respect of those first three historical novels but, I think, more broadly applicable – was his admission that the three lives fascinated him on account of his identification with ‘their plight’:
Fellow-feeling would be the proper phrase. Such people are comforting, simply because they have gone before us down the same endless road … [T]hough these people have an answer for us, it is an answer we can discover only by leading parallel lives. Anyone with a taste for history has found himself doing this from time to time …
Perhaps we might say that – just as the celebrated and contemporaneous American acting teacher Lee Strasberg taught students a ‘Method’ to immerse themselves in the imagined emotional and physical lives of scripted characters – Stacton was
engaged in a kind of ‘Method writing’ that immersed him by turn in the lives of some of recorded history’s rarest figures.
Stacton was nurtured as a writer by Faber and Faber, and he was glad of the firm’s and Charles Monteith’s efforts on his behalf, though his concerns were many, perhaps even more so than the usual novelist. Stacton understood he was a special case: not the model of a ‘smart popular writer’ for as long as he lacked prominent critical support and/or decent sales. He posed Faber other challenges, too – being such a peripatetic but extraordinarily productive writer, the business of submission, acquisition and scheduling of his work was a complicated, near-perpetual issue for Monteith. Stacton had the very common writer’s self-delusion that his next project would be relatively ‘short’ and delivered to schedule, but his ambitions simply didn’t tend that way. In January 1956 Monteith mentioned to Stacton’s agent Michael Horniman about his author’s ‘tendency to over-produce’. Faber did not declare an interest in the Western novels Stacton wrote as ‘Carse Boyd’ or in the somewhat lurid stories of aggressive youth (
The Power Gods, D For Delinquent, Muscle Boy
) for which his
nom de plume
was ‘Bud Clifton’. But amazingly, even in the midst of these purely commercial undertakings, Stacton always kept one or more grand and enthralling projects on his horizon simultaneously. (In 1963 he mentioned almost off-handedly to Monteith, ‘I thought recently it would be fun to take the Popes on whole, and do a big book about their personal eccentricities …’)
In 1960 Stacton was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, which he used to travel to Europe before resettling in the US. In 1963 the
magazine article mentioned above much improved the attention paid to him in his homeland. The books kept coming, each dazzlingly different to what came before, whatever inter-connection Stacton claimed:
A Signal Victory, A Dancer in Darkness, The Judges of the Secret Court, Tom Fool, Old Acquaintance, The World on the Last Day, Kali-Yuga, People of the Book.
By the mid-1960s Stacton had begun what he may well have considered his potential
magnum opus: Restless Sleep
manuscript that grew to a million words, concerned in part with Samuel Pepys but above all with the life of Charles II from restoration to death. On paper the ‘Merrie Monarch’ did seem an even better subject for Stacton than the celebrated diarist: as a shrewd and lonely man of complicated emotions holding a seat of contested authority. But this work was never to be truly completed.
In 1966 Stacton’s life was beset by crisis. He was in Copenhagen, Denmark, when he discovered that he had colon cancer, and was hospitalised for several months, undergoing a number of gruelling procedures. (He wrote feelingly to Charles Monteith, ‘[A]fter 48 hours of it (and six weeks of it) I am tired of watching my own intestines on closed circuit TV.’) Recuperating, he returned to the US and moved in once more with John Mann Rucker, their relations having broken down in previous years. But he and Rucker were to break again, and in 1968 Stacton returned to Denmark – to Fredensborg, a town beloved of the Danish royal family – there renting a cottage from Helle Bruhn, a magistrate’s wife whom he had befriended in 1966. It was Mrs Bruhn who, on January 20 1968, called at Stacton’s cottage after she could get no answer from him by telephone, and there found him dead in his bed. The local medical examiner signed off the opinion that Stacton died of a heart attack – unquestionably young, at forty-four, though he had been a heavy smoker, was on medication to assist sleeping, and had been much debilitated by the treatment for his cancer. His body was cremated in Denmark, and the ashes sent to his mother in California, who had them interred in Woodlawn Cemetery, Colma.
From our vantage today, just as many years have passed since Stacton’s untimely death as he enjoyed of life. It is a moment, surely, for a reappraisal that is worthy of the size, scope and attainment of his work. I asked the American novelist, poet and translator David Slavitt – an avowed admirer of Stacton’s – how he would evaluate the legacy, and he wrote to me with the following: