Review by George Simmers (see his Great War Fiction blog here).
Seven Against Reeves is quite an interesting novel, in that it is a book by a highbrow with a middlebrow hero, and it very strongly upholds middlebrow – or indeed Philistine – values. The book is a lively satire on artistic pretentiousness.
When John Reeves retires from the City at fifty, having made his fortune, he looks forward to twenty years of doing as he pleases. His wife has social ambitions, however, and pays Hawksneetch, a pretentious young Oxford graduate with useful connections, to introduce them to nobility, celebrities and artists. Reeves finds all of these unpleasant; the artists are all pretentious modernists. He finds himself expected to buy paintings he dislikes, and to subsidise a composer of raucous music. The family travel in Europe, where they meet more artistic parasites and aristocratic crooks; the daughter becomes engaged to a gigolo. Reeves finally gets the opportunity to stand up to his family.
Reeves is an innocent of conservative tastes, thrust into an artistic world of fakes and chancers, and the novel completely endorses his disgust at the art he is offered and the people he meets. What I found interesting about this book is that Aldington, originally an Imagist poet closely associated with T. S. Eliot, offers very much the same crudely negative representation of modernist art that might be expected in a middlebrow comedy of the period. All the artists are absurd, all are greedy, all batten on the prosperous Reeves without a twinge of conscience. There is no instance of a genuine artist to contrast with the parasites and fakes.
The way that Aldington signals that he has a wider knowledge and higher values than his characters is through his language, and especially by the use of quotation. The title, Seven against Reeves, for example, presumably refers to the tragedy by Aeschylus, Seven against Thebes, about the army of champions who attacked the city after the death of Oedipus. Why Aldington considered it apposite, I don’t know. He also scatters little references to high culture throughout his text, like in-jokes. One that I spotted comes when Reeves has exhausted the resources of a hotel library:
‘He did not go there now for intellectual refreshment – his flesh was sad, alas! And he had read all the Edgar Wallaces.’ (168)
This sentence is a parody of Mallarmé’s Brise Marine: ‘La chair est triste, hélas! et j’ai lu tous les livres.’ Like the title, this reference has nothing much to do with the events or characters of the story; it is there to demonstrate the writer’s superiority, and maybe to flatter the reader who gets the reference.
Aldington gets some of his comedy by showing us the parasites through the innocent eyes of Reeves, who dislikes them intuitively, but does not recognise the signs that most of the artistic poseurs are homosexual. In Venice, for example, he is introduced to a literary man with the suggestive name of Mr Philboy, who has a much younger friend, Erasto Paederini:
Mr Reeves wondered why Mr Philboy went about with him, not realising that to the over-sophisticated nothing is so attractive as the purely natural man… (182)
The representation of homosexuals is crude and stereotyped. When two of them argue, for example, they get into a screaming match:
I am unsure how far the artists Aldington describes are based on real people. Philboy, for example, leads the expatriate lifestyle of Norman Douglas, author of South Wind. Aldington was a friend of Douglas’s, but that would not necessarily stop him from caricaturing him. In Stepping Heavenward (1931) he had mocked his former friend T.S. Eliot in a very wounding way, as a cold-hearted prophet who drives his wife mad. Aldington was not a very nice man.
This is not really a good novel, since most of the characters are caricatures or stereotypes. The satire is laid on very thick and does not make fine distinctions. On the other hand, it’s readable, and contains some lively writing. For example, when Reeves is fed up with his wife’s social climbing:
Like the Scot who considered the fall of man to be particularly hard on him, as he didn’t care a dom about apples, Mr Reeves felt this was particularly hard on him, as he didn’t care a damn about notabilities. But what could he do? Nothing but rustle the Telegraph in an ominous way, and say ‘Umph’ at intervals. (203)