A Source of Embarrassment by A. L. Barker

Asked of her admiration for A. L. Barker, Rebecca West said:

I think she’s the best novelist now [1981] writing, not always, but I think The Middling is a magnificent novel. And A Source of Embarrassment, about the woman who knew she was going to die. This last book, The Heavy Feather, is so good I can’t believe it, and nobody likes it. And they are wrong. I am exaggerating, of course. Lots of people do admire her, but not enough.

Rebecca West was not Barker’s only advocate. Auberon Waugh said, “I know nothing of A. L. Barker, except that she writes like an angel and I love her.” West called Barker’s The Middling, “…the finest book written by a woman in our time, and if the critics don’t think it is, that is their fault, not hers”. For reasons I cannot recall I started my Barker journey not with The Middling, but A Source of Embarrassment.

The story is not what I expected after reading the opening pages, it is more dark, more twisted. Opening with a ladies’ tea party, I thought it is unlikely I’ll be finishing this book. The elaborate tea party is a clever device, the bitchy ladies that sit around gossipping about Edith Trembath exist merely to provide a counterpoint, some depth to a potent and memorable character.

The story is advanced through dialogue, which Barker handles with mastery, as she does the nuances and alternating currents of a relationship. You get the sense of a careful writer, choosing words with great care and precision. It is an odd story, but worthwhile, maybe not Barker’s finest but sufficient impetus to read more deeply of an under-appreciated writer.

Faber Finds, an imprint aimed at restoring the works of “authors of distinction” now offers Barker’s oeuvre.

Paddy Leigh Fermor

With a few hours to spare I indulged one of my favourite pursuits, scouring the shelves of secondhand bookshops for surprises. My targets were Slightly Foxed and Heywood Hill. I stumbled upon 3 first editions: The Woman Who Was God by Francis King, The Haunt by A. L. Barker (both writers advocated by Rebecca West) and a rare Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

A few hours later, to my surprise, I learnt of Leigh Fermor’s death. His travel books are outstanding examples of the genre. We shall see if there is a third volume, long promised, of his legendary walk, as a teenager, from Holland to Constantinople.

A Truly Original Writer

Customarily I expect each book I read to suggest subsequent reading material. Reading Simone de Beauvoir offered up André Gide and William Faulkner, and also lead indirectly to Bernard-Henri Lévy and Stendhal. Geoff Dyer suggested Rebecca West, leading to Henry Green, whom she describes:

He was a truly original writer, his prose was fresh minted, he drove his bloodless scalpel inches deeper into the brain and heart, none of it had been said before. He is nearly forgotten.

Four other writers merit West’s favourable mention, each of which I shall try to squeeze into my life:

Now I admire Muriel Spark, for she is an innovator. And I am a fanatical admirer of A. L. Barker. If you cannot read her it is your fault. You should ask your vet to put you down if you do not admire The Middling or An Occasion for Embarrassment. I admire the grand architectural force of Paul Scott, and the subtlety of Francis King, notably his book The Widow.