How is one to define the peculiar, the essential quality of Firbank's novels? He has been described as a fantasist and as an exponent of artificial comedy, but such labels are not much to the point; for Firbank is a writer whom it is nearly impossible to fit into any of the accepted literary categories. He is a comic writer, certainly, but his comedy has always an undertone of poetry: it is nearer, one might say, to A Midsummer Night's Dream than to The Importance of being Earnest. The Firbankian world is a fantastic one, yet the fantasy is restricted, for the most part, to what is just humanly credible: the characters who people this world — priests, society ladies, nuns, negresses and so forth — are convincing within the context in which they occur, however eccentric and improbable their behaviour. Firbank, in fact, created a world in which, for all its remoteness from reality, one finds oneself able to believe, rather as one 'believes' in the world of Alice in Wonderland (which, like that of Firbank, has an interior logic of its own)
Firbank's style, though it cannot usefully be compared with that of any other writer, is full of echoes. His debt to the nineties is of course predominant, not so much to the epigrammatic or humorous writers of that period as to the more precious of the 'decadent' poets, as well as to Maeterlinck and to Beardsley's Under the Hill. There are echoes too, perhaps, of the Restoration dramatists, and in many passages Firbank adopts — in inverted commas, as it were — the tone and mannerisms of such popular women novelists as Ouida or Marie Corelli. He is also fond of parodying the writers of gossip columns, and one novel, Valmouth, is in part a skit on those 'rural' novelists later to be satirized more directly by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm.
Firbank, in fact, might be described as a 'pasticheur', yet from the strange stylistic amalgam produced by his many borrowings emerges something uniquely his own: one cannot read a page or even a paragraph of his mature work without at once recognizing its author. This technique of multiple pastiche might be compared with those surrealist collages of Max Ernst which, fabricated from the illustrations to Victorian magazines, mysteriously transcend their humdrum sources, and become something wholly personal to their creator.
Firbank's novels, though they seem so casually put together, are in fact written with immense care; every word tells, each sentence is cunningly designed to produce exactly the effect required. Firbank can be perverse and even silly at times, but his writing is never slipshod, and in his close attention to verbal and syntactical values he may be said to bear some relation (though admittedly a distant one) to James Joyce. There is, moreover, a 'syncopated' quality about his prose which faintly suggests the influence of jazz music, whose beginnings were more or less contemporaneous with Firbank's debut as a novelist. This effect is produced mainly by the eccentric placing of words, particularly adverbs: thus, he will write of a young man 'grooming fitfully his hair' (Vainglory). He is an adept, too, at the comic juxtaposition of pompous diction and colloquialisms, and like Joyce again, he enjoys playing with words, inventing new verbal combinations, and twisting his sentences into curious and unprecedented patterns. He is fond of alliteration, and sometimes uses it with an almost onomatopoeic effect, as when he writes 'The plaintive pizzicato of Madame Mimosa's Porn pup, "Plum Bun",' etc. (Valmouth). And here is another passage from Valmouth in which the syntax is strained almost to bursting point:
'Lift the lid of the long casket — and pick me a relic', Mrs. Hurstpierpoint enjoined....
'You used to say the toe,'m, of the married sister of the Madonna, the one that was a restaurant proprietress (Look alive there with those devilled kidneys, and what is keeping Fritz with that sweet omelette?) in any fracas was particularly potent.'
Firbank's humour might be said to be a by-product of his style: the fun lies not so much in the jokes themselves (they are often rather feeble) as in the form and cadence of a sentence, or in the choice of some surprising or in-congruous epithet. He is at his best in his dialogue which, though as stylized as that of I. Compton Burnett, contrives also to catch the exact tones and modulations of real speech. The talk in a Firbank novel, perhaps one should add, performs no such pedestrian function as furthering the plot, or even (in most cases) of characterising the respective speakers, who as often as not have a way of speaking wildly out of character. Their conversation tends to be the merest gossip, yet full of strange overtones, half-hints and sly implications. Here (in Vainglory) two women are discussing a new curate:
'Probably a creature with a whole gruesome family?' she indirectly enquired.
'Unhappily he's only just left Oxford.'
'Ah, handsome, then, I hope.'
'On the contrary, he's like one of those cherubs one sees on eighteenth-century fonts with their mouths stuffed with cake.'
'And he wears glasses.'
'But he takes them off sometimes?'
'That's just what I don't know.'
This passage, even though read in isolation, might serve as a test of Firbank's capacity to make one laugh: if one doesn't find it funny (and many people do not), one is not likely to enjoy Firbank's work as a whole. Note, incidentally, the characteristic use of italics to give an equivocal emphasis to a perfectly ordinary remark: a device which has been borrowed by Evelyn Laugh, who in his earlier novels was much influenced by Firbank. Also, though seldom overtly indecent, Firbank is a master of bawdy innuendo, and can suggest, by a mere verbal echo or by a row of dots, the most outrageous obscenities, while ostensibly expressing himself with perfect propriety.
Though hardly a literary innovator on the scale of Joyce, Firbank did nonetheless break new ground as a novelist: quite apart from idiosyncrasies of style, the construction of his books is also strikingly original. Abandoning the traditional mode of direct narrative, he employed a method akin to cinematic montage, switching abruptly from scene to scene, and ruthlessly omitting all those introductory or explanatory passages which earlier novelists had thought necessary for the convenience of the reader. This technique of 'cutting', though today (owing partly, perhaps, to Firbank) it has become almost a commonplace in the writing of fiction, was decidedly a novelty forty-five years ago, and the opening sentences of Vainglory may well have seemed bewildering to the average reader who picked it up in 1915
'And, then, oh yes! Atalanta is getting too pronounced.' She spoke lightly, leaning back a little in her deep armchair. It was the end of a somewhat lively review.
On such a languid afternoon how hard it seemed to bear a cross! Pleasant to tilt it a little — lean it for an instant against somebody else.... Her listener waved her handkerchief expressively. She felt, just then, it was safer not to speak....
On a dark canvas screen were grouped some inconceivably delicate Persian miniatures.
She bent towards them. 'Oh, what gems!'
And so on, and so forth: only gradually and by a series of inferences does one learn, during that first chapter, who is speaking to whom, what they are all talking about, where they live, etc. The reader, in fact, is in the position of one who finds himself at some party at which the guests, all unknown to him, are gossiping about private topics to whose nature he has no clue; nor does the host (in the person of the narrator) make any but the most perfunctory efforts to enlighten him. In time, however, one becomes accustomed to Firbank's oblique method of presentation; one's fellow-guests no longer seem strangers, one learns their names and their habits, and the flood of gossip becomes suddenly intelligible.