The Devil's Own Work by Alan Judd

After having read a rather long and detailed history book (which I thoroughly enjoyed) I needed to take a break and read some fiction, preferably short. So I decided to pick up a novella sized work that had been laying on the shelves since I bought it at one of those discount book warehouses. Alan Judd’s The Devil’s Own Work is a Faustian story in one sense but a subtle horror in another. In between the sparse, but at times haunting, story the author uses the narrator to castigate what he sees as the weaknesses of post-modernist writing.

The central character is Edward a budding writer living in London. The narrator, a prep school teacher and college friend of Edward, relates the story looking back on events as best he can reconstruct them. From the start there are hints and signs that this is not a happy tale, but it begins innocently enough with the two of them seeking their fortunes in London fresh out of university. The narrator is rather naive and pedestrian while Edward is a bit cold and standoffish but is seeking to be a “great writer.” After some early success, Edward is invited to the house of the then reigning patriarch of English literature in the South of France. At that confrontational meeting, Edward had written an excoriation of the respected author which prompted the meeting, something bizarre happens. Edward comes into the possession of some sort of mysterious manuscript which seems to play a role in his future writing success. In fact Edward is soon duplicating the life of the now dead patriarch right down to living in the house with his mysterious girlfriend Eudoxie. It soon becomes clear that Edward doesn’t possess the manuscript so much as it possesses him. The story becomes darker and more tragic as Edward attempts to escape the trap and the narrator’s life becomes corrupted by the tragic events.

The novel, winner of the Guardian First Book Award of Fiction in 1991, was written as a homage to Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier which I unfortunately haven’t read (Judd is also the author of a well received biography of Ford). My ignorance in this area obviously prevented me from picking up on the stylistic or philosophical references to Ford in the story. I did find the story entertaining and enjoyed the way Judd slowly reveals the true nature of the possession at the heart of the novel. As the mystery is slowly revealed the reader begins to understand the horror involved and its corrosive nature. In essence it was a classic Faustian bargain – except I am not sure Edward willingly made it but was tricked into accepting it – fame and fortune for your soul. In this case, the soul is represented by Edward’s ability to write what he wants, to create art from within rather than be controlled. The bargain removes his free will and thus his identity. Without a sense of who he is as a writer and as a person, Edward is soon corrupted in other ways. This corruption in turn has tragic effects on the life of the narrator.

The commentary on writing and writers can be interesting too. The larger the presence of writing or artistic creation is in your life the more powerful or interesting these commentaries – indeed the whole story – are likely to be. These commentaries within the narration for a sort of philosophical back drop to the story. From the very beginning we see that the narrator/author has a cynical view of the publishing world:

In those days there was nothing to distinguish him [Edward] from the shoals of Eng. Lit. graduates who feed off the scraps of London publishing and journalism. The more fortunate and determined grow into big enough fish to join the literati and become editors. columnists, presenters, and usually in a small way, writers. They think that being literary is a preliminary to writing good books until time finds them out.

The narrator continues this cynicism when discussion postmodern writers, again the context of Edward’s writing:

He became a leading writer among what were then known as the post-modernists, exponents of something called “fictive realism” according to which reality and fantasy had the same status. This resulted in writers thinking that they could write what they liked, that they had no obligation to convince or render, that they need not discriminate except on grounds of what pleased them. The cause of this was a failure of imagination, or of belief in the power of imagination to interpret life, and it led to a contempt for the reader. It had, I think, an intellectual justification at the time, a supposedly absolute skepticism which maintained that since reality was no more to be trusted than fantasy nothing could be finally proved – whatever that meant. Naturally, the writers and critics who believed this could do so only by walling themselves behind a new absolute greater than any they claimed to attack, which was their sense of their own righteousness. Their skepticism did not extend that far.

This above passage leads to the words which give the work its title. They seem to form the philosophical underpinning to the book within the book:

You may think that I was opposed to this movement, but far from it. It was only later that I came to see it as a betrayal and to believe that truth in art matters, that part of the role of art is to help us to hear what cannot usually be heard amidst all the noisy non-sense in which we live. I know I am old-fashioned – I who was so keen to be contemporary – but I have been made so by experience. It was the new truths that failed me not the old ones, and I do believe that anything that confuses reality and unreality, or that attempts to equate the two, is the devil’s own work.

Perhaps readers will not be surprised to find that I sympathize with this sentiment. It seems to me that the narrator is describing what might be called literary neo-conservatism. By this I don’t mean to invoke all the current nonsense associated with neo-conservatism and the Bush administration. Rather, I mean to connect it to old saw that a neoconservative was a “liberal mugged be reality.” The narrator in this case wanted to embrace the new theories and current fads of literature but found that they failed to sustain him. It was this failure that led him to the old truths. In fact, his conservatism – his sense of being “old fashioned” – comes from a realization that truth matters in art. Obviously I agree.

The Devil’s own work is an intriguing and stimulating meditation on the role of literature combined with a sparse but haunting tale of possession and entrapment. Those interested in the world of literature, publishing or writing – or even those who just like spooky tales – would enjoy this brief but tightly written work. Next time you are at the library or find your self in one of those discount book places, check it out.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).