SIMON MATTHEWS on Tom Stoppard’s first and only novel, Lord Malquist and Mr Moon, published in 1966.
The reviews of Tom Stoppard’s debut novel were good: ‘a dream-like London where everything is seen through a haze of despair’, ‘after The Goon Show, Evelyn Waugh, Dali and the Beatles films – a novel to make you laugh, jump and stand on your head.’ The Washington Post was similarly impressed: ‘Zany, aphoristic and flashy . . . a remarkable entertainment, remarkably funny…’
It appeared in 1966. He was 29 and best known – then – for some radio and TV dramas. He had the good fortune to fall in with Anthony Blond, at that point the UKs foremost avant-garde publisher. And what a catalogue Blond had. That year alone it ranged from Querelle of Brest (Jean Genet) and The Sabre Squadron (Simon Raven) to The New London Spy: A Discreet Guide to the City’s Pleasures (Hunter Davies) via The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience (REL Masters and Jean Huston). There was also space for The Left (Gerald Kaufman, then a columnist on the New Statesman), and the military history efforts of Alan Clark.
The presence of Kaufman, and probably Clark, is explained by Blond having political ambitions of his own around then (he was Labour candidate at Chester in the 1964 general election). Would anyone today combine publishing Jean Genet with a career in the Labour Party?
Lord Malquist and Mr Moon is set in London immediately prior to the state funeral of Winston Churchill. What attracted Blond to it? The contrast between a madcap plot and the gravity of national mourning? The satirical barbs made at the expense of a fast-fading UK aristocracy? If the sales pitch was ‘surreal farce set in the run-up to the state funeral of Winston Churchill’ maybe Blond expected healthy sales, if only on the outrage factor.
The action doesn’t stray beyond Mayfair, Piccadilly and tourist London, featuring horse-drawn carriages, clubs, servants, faithful retainers and the like, as well as a comic Irishman, a couple of cowboys (spouting clichés from a 1950s western) and several other lightly written parts. As expected from the title, the main characters are Lord Malquist, an eccentric aristocrat with literary pretentions (he is writing his own interpretation of Hamlet) and Moon, a writer/journalist of some sort, commissioned, rather like Boswell by Johnson, to take down Malquist’s thoughts. Malquist’s wife is also present, providing an on-going erotic interest.
The end result is hard to place in the writing of the time. Not a difficult read, and mainly amusing, the stream of bon-mots, the quirky sexuality, aristocratic trappings, Carnaby Street dandyism and peculiar plot (Stoppard has a bomb throwing anarchist bring things to a conclusion) remind one a bit of the film version of Modesty Blaise. Or possibly an early Moorcock/Cornelius outing. Another comparison might be Joe Orton. It has the same end-of-the-pier revue feel albeit with a lot of sex and jokes about religion and race thrown in. Did Blond think he was getting something that might rival Loot? The reviews nod to The Goon Show, which is reasonable, but other than a wallow in Yellow Submarine-type playfulness, the invoking of the Beatles less so.
In truth, Stoppard may be our greatest playwright, but he isn’t a novelist. The characters have zero backstory and, rather as they would in a radio play, they shuttle on and off the page spouting huge amounts of dialogue, some of which, in an arch way, is rather good. There is very little descriptive text and no overall ‘mood’ beyond a freewheeling immediacy.
Perhaps he wrote this as an experiment to work out ideas that he used elsewhere. The allusion to a reworking of Hamlet, and much of the faux Shakespearian dialogue he uses, clearly metamorphosed into Rosencrantz and Guildenstein are Dead, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival about eighteen months after Stoppard would have been writing his novel. Similarly, the characters of Moon and Birdboot (a butler in the book) were retained in his 1968 play The Real Inspector Hound, where they were played by Richard Briers and Ronnie Barker respectively. It wasn’t a completely wasted effort.
Nor could sales have been that poor. Panther Books, who did ‘paperback reprints of best-selling hardcover novels from other publishers’ brought out a five-shilling edition in 1968, after which, with Stoppard famous for other types of writing, it made a rapid descent into obscurity. It remains his only novel and a first edition today would set you back £80-£90.