Becalmed as we are upon the stagnant waters of three-for-two promotions, the Ottakar's capitulation and Richard and Judy, it is worth asking whatever happened to that staple of bygone English literary life, the highbrow novel. The answer is that, if now increasingly the fiefdom of small independent firms, the highbrow novel is still sticking to its guns, thanks very much. Christine Brooke-Rose, grande dame of the syntactical labyrinth and the elliptical aside, published a newbook (Life, End Of) only last month. Virago have just reissued Pillion Riders by the very wonderful Elisabeth Russell Taylor. Joining them in an indifferent marketplace comes Peter Vansittart's Secret Protocols, a novel which follows the aesthetic template of these exemplars by making no concessions whatever to its prospective readers.
To anyone raised on the McEwan-and-water orthodoxies of contemporary British fiction, the view from Vansittart's Mount Olympus can be a bracing experience. For a start, there is the sense of a ferocious intellect burning unappeasably away, writing exactly what it likes without giving a damn about the Water-stone's buyer or the prize jury. Then there is the rapt cosmopolitanism of the gaze: not westward across the Atlantic, but back into the heart of an old Europe which, for all the anaesthetising effect of post-war politics, still seems very much alive. Dense, allusive, with all kinds of buried sub-texts poking up from beneath its surface, Vansittart's work often seems to operate by way of a series of barely recognisable codes, a view of history so thronged with detail that it practically needs foot-noting.
Hitting the 1950s, for example, Secret Protocols casually refers to "a Tory politician who had lost his seat for opposing Suez... jowled and piggy-eyed, a CND vice-president, novelist, the modern Dickens." A moment or two with the reference books suggests that these gentlemen are Nigel Nicolson and J B Priestley. Other twitches at the reader's elbow are yet more recherch. A few pages later, Vansittart describes a character as "unpredictable, a chimp holding a Svres" in a delicate little reprise of Evelyn Waugh's famously bad review of Stephen Spender's autobiography.
Perhaps, in the end, such layering doesn't matter: literature is still literature, after all, whether re-imagined by the book club browser …