Two excellent novels by Brigid Brophy – The Snow Ball and Flesh

The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy (1964)

I’ve been keen to return to Brigid Brophy for quite a while, ever since I read her thoroughly engaging coming-of-age novel, The King of a Rainy Country, a book imbued with the freshness of youth. Luckily the Bloomsbury Oxfam turned up trumps a few months ago with a lovely secondhand copy of The Snow Ball, Brophy’s fifth novel, initially published in the mid-1960s.

It’s a playful, seductive book, shot through with a captivating sense of wit. In essence, Brophy is riffing with the themes of Mozart’s celebrated opera Don Giovanni, reimagining the relationship between the titular character, DG, and Donna Anna, the young woman he tries to seduce. (As the opera opens, the attempted seduction has just taken place, but its success or otherwise remains unclear.)

The setting for Brophy’s novel is a grand house in London where various guests have gathered for an 18th-century costume ball on New Year’s Eve. (Although the exact period is never specified, the story appears to take place in the early 1960s.) Central to the narrative are Anna K, a fortysomething divorcee attending the ball as Mozart’s Donna Anna, and another guest (identity unknown) who is dressed as a masked Don Giovanni.

When Don Giovanni kisses Donna Anna on the stroke of midnight, naturally the pair are attracted to one another, irresistibly drawn together in the woozy atmosphere of the ball. As the remainder of the night unfolds, we follow this couple in a provocative dance of sensuality and seduction, a liaison brought to life through Brophy’s exquisitely crafted prose. The use of dialogue is particularly impressive, highlighting the sophisticated nature of the author and her lead characters.

They were again leaning on the parapet, arm parallel with arm, cheek parallel with cheek; but not touching. Anna had let her clasped hands drop, from the wrists, below the level of the parapet, but not out of Don Giovanni’s sight. She was aware of his head turned ten degrees from the straight and of his gaze resting, consumingly, on her hands.

“My husband—” she began, but broke off. She twisted her wedding ring a millimetre further round. “Please let’s remain anonymous.”

“All right. But it restricts the conversation.”

“It needn’t. Tell me what sort of person you are. In general terms.”

“I don’t think in general terms.”

“What things do you think about?”

“Mozart and sex,” he said.

“Nothing else?”

“Nothing else in general terms. And you?”

 Mozart, sex and death,” she said.

There was a pause. They both burst into laughter. (p. 66)

Brophy skilfully intercuts this flirtation with tantalising glimpses of other couples at the ball, most notably teenagers Ruth (Cherubino) and Edward (Casanova) who are embroiled in their own romantic entanglement – partially captured through a series of real-time diary entries by Ruth. The two young lovers are beautifully sketched in a manner that highlights their individual airs and affectations to great effect. Interestingly, their relationship acts as a striking contrast to the Donna Anna-Don Giovanni arc: the awkwardness and inexperience of youth vs the sophistication of more seasoned lovers. Also participating in a separate clandestine tryst are the ball’s hosts, fifty-something Anne (a close friend of Anna K’s) and her fourth husband, Tom-Tom.

In spite of my lack of familiarity with Mozart’s opera, I found this an utterly captivating read, accentuated by some beautiful descriptive prose. This is a highly imaginative novel of seduction, ageing, mortality and Mozart – definitely worth seeking out.

Flesh by Brigid Brophy (1962)

Having enjoyed The Snow Ball so much, I decided to go on a hunt for more novels by Brophy – a search that eventually uncovered Flesh, a suitable companion piece from 1962. Once again, Brophy demonstrates her natural ability to riff with the creative arts, this time alluding to Rubens’ women as symbols of sexuality.

When we are first introduced to Marcus, he appears as a shy, socially awkward, gangly young man, struggling to find his place in the world. By the end of the narrative, he is transformed – infinitely more comfortable with himself and his relationships with others. The woman who brings about this fundamental change in character is Nancy, a self-assured, sexually experienced young woman whom Marcus meets at a party.

Flesh is the story of Marcus and Nancy’s relationship, a sexual awakening of sorts played out against the bohemian backdrop of 1960s London. In the following scene from an early stage in their relationship, Nancy encourages Marcus to dance, something he has never felt confident to do in public before – happily, the outcome is rather enchanting.

But Marcus was wrapped, enchanted, in his discovery of dancing, which felt to him like floating not in the water but in the air. He did not care who was watching or visualising what. This publicly permitted parody of an experience he had never had, sexual intercourse, at last liberated his physical response to Nancy. He was amazed to find it so unlike – and yet so exactly the realisation of – his erotic daydreams. It was easier; the imagination need not be worked, but responded of its own instant accord to the actuality of the thing – a real person, real legs, moving : yet because of the actuality it was also harder, inasmuch as muscles had actually to grip and let go, and to be displaced. And in the same way it was both less and more exciting. (p. 35)

There’s some interesting character development here, particularly with Marcus who evolves quite significantly under Nancy’s reassuring influence. The novel also contains some beautiful descriptive passages about sex – always sensual and evocative, never gratuitous or overly explicit. Instead, everything is beautifully judged.

As ever, Brophy is wonderful when it comes to detail, particularly in her depiction of the secondhand furniture shop where Marcus works. Fans of Rainy Country will find much to enjoy in the portrayal of the establishment’s owner, the rather idiosyncratic Mr Polydore, with his scarlet bow tie and lavender suede shoes.

This is another smart, sexy, thoroughly enjoyable novel from Brigid Brophy, an author who seems ripe for rediscovery, particularly in the current era of women’s empowerment.

My copies of The Snow Ball and Flesh were published by Allison & Busby.

32 thoughts on “Two excellent novels by Brigid Brophy – The Snow Ball and Flesh

  1. Radz Pandit

    Sold, Jacqui! The passages you have chosen are quite striking particularly the dialogues in The Snow Ball. I realise that these books are not easily available, but I do have The King of A Rainy Country, so that’s the one I will read first.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Marvellous. The King of a Rainy Country would be an excellent introduction to Brophy, especially as it came early in her career. It captures something of the freshness of youth, a feeling that life and all its opportunities are ahead just waiting to be discovered. Enjoy!

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    The books sound appealing. The Snow Ball sounds so creative. I tend to like it when literature connects to other arts. The way that that book relates to Don Giovanni seems to be both clever and interesting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s playful and inventive without being too intellectual, if that makes sense. I was reminded a little of some of Anita Brookner’s early novels which often draw on or contain references to other creative works, e.g. Providence, which features Benjamin Constant’s novel, Adolphe. It’s an interesting idea.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, I was thinking you might like The Snow Ball, particularly in light of the link to Mozart’s opera. Not that it’s part of the Classics tradition you teach – but even, so the connection to another creative work is an interesting one to explore. I hope you manage to find a copy of the Brophy – I’d love to hear what you make of it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a really interesting book – smart, witty and playful without being too clever for its own good. I found it very engaging – hopefully you’ll enjoy it too.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, definitely! I think you’d like her a lot. Start with The King of a Rainy Country. It’s a great introduction to her work and still relatively easy to find.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. I only came across her via recommendations from other readers and bloggers – mostly via Twitter, I think. She’s well worth seeking out, although I appreciate you have your hands full with what’s left of the 746!

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    I have both these books on my kindle (my poor kindle books do get forgotten). These sound perfect novels to be read together. I thoroughly enjoyed The King of the Rainy Country too. If I come across hard copies of these I will snap them up, it might make me read them sooner.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, excellent! I’m glad to hear that you have access to them, albeit via your kindle. (I know exactly what you mean about how easy it is to forget about these ebooks – there must be around 30 of them withering away on my own kindle as I rarely get around to even switching it on these days!) And you’re right about these novels working well together. I read them within a couple of weeks of one other (a rare occurrence for me), and it was interesting to see the connections between the two. They’ve very recognisably the work of the same writer, particularly in terms of style.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I have a feeling you would like Brigid Brophy as her style is so playful and engaging. Plus, the quality of her writing is top-notch. Do let me know what you think if you get a chance to try her – I’d be very interested to hear.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’ll love The Snow Ball! It’s full of interesting scenes, brought to life with a lightness of touch (the dialogue is spectacularly good). Definitely something to look forward to.

      Reply
  4. juliana brina

    Great reviews, Jacqui! I am planning to read The King of the Rainy Country this Summer, and your review of Flesh, in particular, piqued my curiosity – I’ve just seen that it is available on kindle! I think I might grab it :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, do! Flesh is fun and sexy and beautifully written. Perfect reading for a lazy afternoon in the sun. I hope you enjoy Rainy Country. It’s probably the best introduction to Brophy’s work, particularly given its focus on the nature of youth.

      Reply
  5. madamebibilophile

    I’ve been looking out for a copy of The King of a Rainy Country since your review – to no avail! I may have to order it & these are so tempting too – she sounds wonderful!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Rainy Country is well worth acquiring, even if you have to resort to ordering it online. I’d love to see a proper revival of her work – apparently her non-fiction is very interesting too!

      Reply
  6. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Good idea. It’s probably a more appropriate entry point than The Snow Ball, the latter being the most sophisticated of the three I’ve read to date. I’ll be interested to see what you think of her!

      Reply

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