Thursday 25 August 2011

Blaze of Noon

“For what are the emotions? They are things like anger, fear and curiosity. They are sudden changes in a man’s temper, breaking in upon his existence and distorting his features. […] Love is not an emotion.” So says Rayner Heppenstall in The Blaze of Noon, and the novel is filled with these nuggets of philosophy which both stand alone and illuminate the psyche of their narrator.

At once a love story and a treatise on the power dynamic between men and women, Heppenstall’s tale of a blind masseur staying in a Cornish country house posits a doctrine of emotional detachment which its narrator struggles to live up to. After going blind at the age of twenty-three, Louis Dunkel has exerted himself to make his disability as inconspicuous as possible, making masculinity, rather than infirmity, the driving force of his character. Embarking on a relationship with the beautiful but troubled Sophie Madron, Dunkel is at pains to establish himself as an authoritative male presence, educating and repairing Sophie whilst remaining emotionally neutral himself. “The brute fact,” says Dunkel, “is that man’s pleasure in love is a derivative of the pleasure he gives to woman.” This philosophy – and Dunkel’s emotional distance – is compromised by the arrival of Sophie’s blind and deaf cousin, Amity Nance.

I was ashamed not to have heard of Heppenstall until very recently, but in fact he has been widely neglected. Until now his much-admired early novels had fallen out of print, thanks largely to critical distaste at his later work. In its depiction of the minute-to-minute experience of blindness, The Blaze of Noon represents an intriguing engagement with literary form, and has often been hailed as forerunner of the nouveau roman.


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