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When Sarban‘s Ringstones and Other Curious Tales was published in 1951, the collection was generally well-received, with the sole exception of the second story “Capra.” The author Rebecca West wrote to Sarban in praise of his “really enchanting” stories, but she turned her nose up at “Capra” for being “the only trite and bad story in the volume” [p67]. Sarban would admit that, “she is quite right about “Capra”,” whilst his publisher Peter Davies agreed that “Capra” was “the least impressive of the tales.” Sarban’s biographer Mark Valentine also deems “Capra” to be “indeed the weakest.”

West could not tell in which direction Sarban’s stories were pointed: some of them were perfect for children, whilst the more sexually preoccupied “Capra” could not expect to be welcomed in the nursery. But beyond this uncertainty over the intended readership, one wishes that West et al – and Sarban in particular – could elaborate further upon their comments. For whilst “Capra” remains a troubling and mysterious story, it is hardly a disaster. “Capra” begins as a work of deft craftsmanship and pointed satire, and Sarban seems to be poised on the brink of executing a minor masterpiece, before he finally decides to slap a great streak of black paint across his canvas.

“Capra” shares obvious structural similarities with the previous tale, “A Christmas Story,” with both concluding on the same note of ringing despair. The first story ends with a mournful mammoth sinking into the tarn, whilst in “Capra” modernity makes a satyr cry after he is forced to eat some bullets. Mythical creatures are presumably not accustomed to being shot like foxes, although the Greek historian Plutarch had recorded a somewhat sketchy report of the death of Pan – the first and chief satyr – during the reign of Tiberius. “Capra” is set beside Pan’s temple, and Sarban’s Uncle Bentham submits an equally uncertain account of the god’s death. Once again, there is no body.

As with “A Christmas Story,” we have to rummage about a bit to get to the story itself. We journey all the way to the exotic setting of Egypt, only to be told a tale which is set beside the Gulf of Corinth, via a brief anecdote from the Kashmir. Sarban was a seasoned British diplomat and one may assume that his bulging story-bag advertises the global breadth of British influence, but the overall impression is less the glamour of James Bond, and more the sense that the whole world is an indiscriminate nuisance – noisy, dusty, and tiresome, whatever continent the professional Aryan finds himself supervising. In this vein, the narrator of “Capra” dwells upon “the native Egyptian’s astonishing capacity for making a noise. Vociferation with him seems to be an involuntary function of the body, like sweating. Indeed, it might be thought his chief natural function.”

Whereas Masseyey’s personal circumstances complement and explain the events of “A Christmas Story,” Uncle Bentham considerably complicates his own tale, until we are left with more storyteller than story. We first discover Uncle Bentham on a veranda, surrounded by chirruping frogs. On these grounds, we may deem this gardening enthusiast to be rather a lesser light than the rampant Nature god whose death he proclaims. Bentham’s defining characteristic is “a kind of receptive innocence,” whilst “his still undimmed blue eyes could kindle with sympathy and affection for anything human…” We learn, however, that “sympathy and affection” do not quite mean “respect,” particularly when it comes to those of other races and cultures. Indeed, Bentham at times seems to view Johnny Foreigner as being as much goat as “anything human.”

Compared to the post-imperialist intrigue which marked Sarban’s career, Bentham represents a quaint, old-world racism, which deplores any enterprising bourgeois streak in a foreigner. He looks down on “these urban Levantines” because “they’ve got nothing else but money.” He prizes the ideal of the peaceful English country garden, even though it may be compromised in his own case by being planted in desert climates along with “black carnations.” Yet Bentham implicitly compares his wholesome Englishness to Leon Stavroulou’s mock baronial hall, which is filled with “fake suits of armour,” catalogue-ordered hunting trophies, and fancy-dress mythical creatures. The villain of Bentham’s story is immediately identified:

Yves Falzon… was very much what anyone of Tommy’s type without his courtesy would have called a Wog… to me he looked the usual complicated Levantine chippolata [sic] with a strong Hebrew seasoning in a synthetic French skin.

Bentham regards Falzon as being indiscriminately and excessively foreign – an oily representative of the “Levantine” hordes – although Falzon’s name is French/Italian, he seems to have no connection to the Arab world, and he cuts an impeccably cosmopolitan figure. Bentham is nevertheless adamant that Falzon cannot escape from the shadow of the minaret – “he was a type you could find any day in Cairo or Alexandria or any Levant city.” Maybe Bentham knows what he is talking about, or else his definition of “Wog” encompasses anybody who is a scone or two short of the full Aryan cream tea. Whatever Falzon’s ethnic makeup, Bentham regards him as being a menace to the Empire: “Give a man of Falzon’s type a chance to score off an Englishman and all the viciousness of the slave comes out.”

Unfortunately, with his own name recalling the dreary utilitarian practicalities of Jeremy Bentham, our narrator falls some way short of upholding the lofty virtues of Western civilisation. In one crucial respect Bentham compares poorly to the Arab upstart Falzon: his classical education is rather ropey. Uncle Bentham narrates a harum-scarum philistine travesty of Greek mythology, in which Artemis, a model of chastity, apparently cavorts with a hairy, lusty satyr. Yet curiously, the anecdote which triggers this story provides a fair counterpart to the “death” of Pan:

“…the old fellow pointed something out on a slab of rock on the other side. He said it was a bear asleep. I could just make something out: it might have been a bear, but it might just as well have been a haycock.”

The hunter Norman Kennish fails to verify his quarry’s death, but the point of this otherwise inconsequential scrap of story is to recall the fate of Artemis’ attendant Callisto, who was transformed into a bear after breaking her vow of virginity. Like Kennish’s bear, Callisto was almost killed, but Zeus saved her by encrusting her into the sky as “the Bear” Ursa Major. In this respect, Kennish’s attempt to “make out” the bear recalls the same confusion of the ignorant stargazers whom we observe at the end of “A Christmas Story.”

Falzon’s apparent fling with Diana [the Latin Artemis] offers a jarring image of Pan wooing Artemis, and Artemis possibly encouraging the goat, but nothing of any further clarity arises from Bentham’s muddled story. When Bentham looks at Falzon, he can see “the malice of the most revolting sort of small boy who has fully realised his own nuisance value,” but even if a grown man was capable of demonstrating such a quality, the following story suggests that Falzon’s menace may be purely that of a boy. Falzon seems more interested in fancy-dress and practical jokes than in having his way with another man’s wife, and at the moment of his presumed triumph, he seems to be inexplicably passive, leaving his apparent prize to be snapped up by something altogether more goatish.

If Bentham garbles the goat, he is completely confounded by the goddess. He declares that, “you know, when I looked at Diana I found it hard to believe that she was such a bitch.” It is indeed hard to believe this – not least because there is no evidence for it. Like Artemis, Diana seems to be merely chaste in skimpy clothing. She possibly marries the depleted Tommy Lobeck to enshrine her virtue within a plutonic marriage to a protective older man. She will never desert Lobeck for the splendid young Falzon, even during her husband’s decline. Her apparent immodesty in bathing naked and dancing half-naked may simply express a childish innocence, rather than a sexual freedom, although Bentham aimlessly protests that “I really could not believe that she was so innocent as she sounded.” Perhaps Diana retreats to the lonely waters of the “pool” rather as Ethel flees in Somerset Maugham’s 1921 short story “The Pool,” just to get a bit of peace: “I won’t have you here. Can’t you even leave me this? Go away.”

Alternatively, we and Bentham may both romantically assume that Falzon will seduce Diana beside the pool, under the moonlight, when Diana may have just retreated from an orgy to get some air, leaving Falzon to enjoy a post-coital cigarette. But even if Diana and Falzon have been lovers for years, we should be surely happy at such a wonderful prospect, which would save Diana from her barren marriage and put a spring in Falzon’s goaty step. Whilst Lobeck may be displeased by Falzon’s practical joke (unless, that is, Bentham is merely projecting his own vicarious outrage on to Lobeck), he may still – for all we know – generously endorse his young wife taking a lover.

We have no means of judging whether Falzon and Diana are gripped in an extra-marital adventure or enjoying an innocent friendship, but, in any case, the decision is taken for us. Bentham has already found Falzon and Diana guilty, although this judgement is based upon a lot of suspicion and very little evidence. For example, when hearing of Falzon’s joke, Bentham notes that Lobeck “never mentioned his wife when he told me the story, but he clearly took it for granted that I knew all there was to know.” Out of such materials, Bentham builds a story which does not so much end as collapse.

He narrates that Falzon “had it all: plot, character, costume, setting, suspense – and surprise,” but the most crucial factor – meaning – is amiss. In this respect, Bentham’s admission that “I ought to read some books about ancient Greece myself” is particularly pertinent. A resort to mythology would have taught Bentham about Artemis’ virtue.

The climactic appearance of the goat god is not satisfactory evidence of either a real living creature or some sort of telepathically-transmitted symbolic caprice. This ineffectual deity, who is fended off with small arms fire, seems to be both too symbolic and too awkwardly realistic.

The most obvious and unexciting explanation for the satyr is that Lobeck, Falzon, and Diana have together played a whimsical practical joke upon our nitwit narrator. These three oddly-disconnected characters are really co-conspirators. Lobeck and Diana are a healthy, loving couple – they rope in their servant, Falzon, to scandalise Bentham by pretending to be Diana’s lover – the bullets are blanks, Falzon is Pan, and the dramatic tableau enacted before Bentham’s horrified gaze is really a small episode within a fancy-dress party which is conceivably filled with many other similar episodes. If Bentham is himself a gardener, the image of Stavroulou’s own “old gardener” being terrified by a few hoof marks may reflect the broader practical joke upon Bentham. This explanation is admittedly unsatisfactory, but it most readily explains the story.

On a symbolic level, each character in the tale dons a costume. Diana becomes Artemis, whilst Falzon becomes Pan. Uncle Bentham appears in Arab skirts, to venture his idea of a “dignified,” subdued Arab who is nothing more than a blank costume. But in taking offence at Falzon, Bentham increasingly identifies with Lobeck, whilst Lobeck is correspondingly drained of selfhood. Indeed, Lobeck is launched as a Wodehousian buffoon – the would-be hunter who can never hit anything and “one of the simplest, kindliest chaps I’ve ever known” – but he ultimately morphs into a particularly warped version of Clifford Chatterley, whose trigger finger is so sharp that the bullets end up tearing through history.

Bentham’s race to save Falzon’s life may merely mask a desire to witness his death. Still, if Bentham appropriates Lobeck and plays him like a card, Falzon has done something altogether similar, and instead of appearing beside the pool as a meek sacrificial goat, he submits the frisky goat god as a substitute. In any case, Lobeck will shoot at the satyr not to be saved by “the blood of the goat,” but to simply kill the goat. In the final scene, Lobeck trumps Pan like the winning card, but by now this meaningless story is being conducted by proxies and we can no longer tell who is real and what virtue survives.

Pan learns the hard way that, “et in Arcadia ego.” Black paint has been flung across the pastoral canvas. Yet one suspects that if this story was daintily wrapped up with a bow, it would convey far less depth and power. “Capra” twinkles with the mystery of Falzon’s “fascinating eyes” – “they were dark, of course, and hot, with a humorous, even droll look, but with an unmaskable malice in them…” At the end of this perplexing story, the joke is conceivably on us.

[Tychy previously analysed “A Christmas Story” here. See here for information about Sarban’s latest fortunes in the world of E-publishing. See Tychy passim for further commentary upon “weird fiction,” including an essay on the story of Lord Dufferin’s Ghost and an assessment of Laird Barron’s writing. Ed.]