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Book Review : The Preposterous Tale of a Biographer

June 13, 1986|ELAINE KENDALL

The Legacy of Ladysmith by John Kenny Crane (Linden Press $17.95)

Compared to the Menzies Clan of Loch Killilan, the mythological House of Atreus was a family of plain folks living humdrum lives.

Since this turgid haggis of a novel utterly defies outside interpretation, it's best to let the perpetrator sum it up in his own words: "He could not, therefore, claim that all this mess was Cecil Rhodes' fault, that because he lusted for wealth and empire he had started the Boer War and so ensnared Roberts Menzies and Maria De Jager in his cycle; and that because of this, Farquhar, Ann, Sybil, Duncan, Clyde, Henrietta, Jason Glass and old Peebles had had their own lives sewn into the same irrevocable pattern as well. . . ."

The operative phrase here is "all this mess;" the first "he" refers to Jason Glass, an American writer hired to make a book of these incompatible elements and bizarre lives.

"The Legacy of Ladysmith" is actually four novels--one a fanciful account of the Boer War written in diary form by a Scottish physician and his Boer mistress; another a modern Gothic set in a remote Highland castle; a third the tale of Jason Glass' literary and sexual adventures in Scotland; and the fourth a recapitulation of Glass' book "Gratuitous Glory," which brought him to the attention of Farquhar Menzies, the present clan chief.

Menzies has engaged Glass to produce a sanitized biography of his ancestor, a doctor embroiled in the Siege of Ladysmith, one of the most gruesome events of the Boer War. Menzies wants a work similar to "Gratuitous Glory," which had not only restored one of Glass' own ancestors to respectability but returned a six-figure profit and won the "International Book Award." Despite his impressive credentials, Glass eagerly accepts the challenge of beatifying Roberts Menzies. The six-figure income has been decimated by his predatory ex-wife and a subsidized trip to Scotland seems just the ticket. Glass is met on arrival by Sybil Menzies, the alcoholic, nymphomaniacal daughter-in-law of Farquhar Menzies, and in short order, encounters his glamorous editor, Sybil's sister Ann McGregor, who introduces him to his patron.

At the Menzies castle, Glass is presented with his source material, the wartime diary of Menzies' grandfather Roberts Menzies, a garbled and fragmentary journal obviously altered from its original form. Glass is to fill in the yawning gaps, polish the remainder and turn Roberts Menzies into a hero, an assignment he is in no position to refuse.

The reader is then treated to the diary itself, a document unsurpassed for gracelessness of style, tedium of detail and redundancy of event; the crucial difference between our ordeal and Glass' only that we are neither in love with Ann nor on Menzies' payroll. With the aid of Ann McGregor, Glass turns himself into a detective seeking truth, an exercise offering the opportunity to uncover and exploit terrible secrets in the present Menzies family history, behavior so violently irrational that most of the modern story consists of flashback exegesis awkwardly presented as conversation. Here's Ann, filling in the details of the siege of Ladysmith for Jason, suggesting some theories of her own: "No, No, Jason. While I'll buy the code books . . ., they cannot be White's own. Those were not penny dreadfuls or pornographic magazines, Jason. They were not mass-produced or left to lie around. Not were they infrequently used."

As Roberts Menzies' dual role in the Siege of Ladysmith slowly is revealed, equally ghastly events were taking place around the Menzies family seat at Killilan, events not only reproducing every cliche of the gothic novel up to the obligatory madwoman in the attic, but including dozens never imagined by previous practitioners. Meanwhile, back in the States, Glass' estranged wife is blackmailing him by publicizing the canard that his own sainted ancestor Annie Daly, the heroine of his one successful book, was a whore.

These various stories proceed from outlandish to outrageous to absolutely preposterous, as might be expected in a work by a narrator who defines himself as "a novelist by aspiration, a pamphlet writer by trade, and a biographer by accident."

Had the would-be biographer of Roberts Menzies only resisted the temptations of the novelist, and the crass commercialism of the pamphleteer, "The Legacy of Ladysmith" could have been an imaginative version of a complex and relevant historical event, instead of this gory pudding.

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