“Hard to resist” – The Gap in the Curtain by John Buchan

IMG_8Nov2021at095423Class, identity, destiny, belonging (or lack of it), presentiment and foresight are the principal themes in the six stories which make up John Buchan’s The Gap in the Curtain. Written in 1932, eight years before Buchan’s death, he returns to preoccupations — magic realism, psychological manipulation and the supernatural — he experimented with in his earliest writings, most notably his short stories. The curtain of the title is, itself, a metaphor for things that are hidden or, more accurately, unknown at the time the first chapter of the book is set, rather than an actual curtain made of fabric.

The narrator, Sir Edward Leithen, is a hard-working lawyer and politician and besides Richard Hannay, who features in The Thirty-nine Steps (1915), Greenmantle (1916), Mr. Standfast (1918), The Three Hostages (1924), The Courts of the Morning (1929) and The Island of Sheep (1936), Leithen is the character who appears most frequently in Buchan’s fiction. He is an earnest voice of reason, a substitute for the ordinary man, and is quite often given to introspective reflection. He is prone to overworking and in The Gap in the Curtain he is practically dead on his feet from fatigue. Through Leithen Buchan examines human nature, and the resilience of the human spirit. In the present novel it is the psychological impact of foreknowledge on an individual which he specifically focuses on.

During a Whitsun gathering at the home of well-to-do society figures, Evelyn and Sally Flambard, the guest of honour, Professor Moe, a brilliant, somewhat mysterious, Einstein-like mathematician and scientist, conducts an as-yet unproven experiment to gain a glimpse of the future. The six individuals he chooses from those present get to see, for a brief moment, a page from The Times newspaper one year in the future. The problem is that what each of them sees is an isolated fact, taken out of context. It may enlighten them, but it could just as easily be misleading. They know one thing that is likely to happen, but they don’t know how and why it will occur.

Edward Leithen is one of those Professor Moe chooses to have in his experiment. Here Leithen reflects on being asked to participate:

“I had a feeling as if we were all on a vast, comfortable raft in some unknown sea and that, while some were dancing to jazz music, others were crowding silently at the edge, staring into the brume ahead. Staring anxiously, too, for in that mist there might be fearful as well as wonderful things.”

The experiment is to last three days. And, in the midst of it, Leithen finds himself completely taken over by it:

“I was in the grip of a power which I had no desire to question, and which by some strong magic, was breaking down walls for me and giving me a new and marvellous freedom. For now there was no doubt about it — I could set my mind at will racing into the future.”

In the subsequent chapters Buchan follows the life of each of the six participants up to that date a year in the future and explores the ways in which they deal with the knowledge they have gained. Arnold Tavanger, a London-based stockbroker travels all over the Near East and southern Africa to buy shares in a mining concern that only he knows will be big money in a year’s time. A politician, the Right Honourable David Mayot juggles his party affiliations in order to end up on the right side of the man he believes will be Prime Minister in a year’s time. What Reggie Daker reads about himself in the newspaper a year hence takes him completely by surprise, while the youngest participant in Professor Moe’s experiment, Robert Goodeve, reads about his own demise. Can he intervene with what fate has intended for him?

Arguably, the final story in which Captain Charles Ottery, previously a bit of a womaniser, secures and seeks to sustain “the love of a good woman” is the most poignant. He is anxious about how, after years of travelling the globe and indulging in pleasures of the flesh during his free time, he can keep himself grounded in one place. Buchan writes about him:

“What concerned him was how to pass the next eight months without disgracing his manhood”.

This notion of ‘finding himself’ could be said to be an autobiographical reflection on the author’s own life, since he quotes from his favourite book, John Bunjan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: “He had come out of the Valley of the Shadow to the Delectable Mountains.”

In this, the fourth novel in which Edward Leithen appears (the others are The Power House (1916). John MacNab (1925), The Dancing Floor (1926) and Sick Heart River (1941)), Buchan’s penchant for playing psychological games with his characters shines through. His persuasive writing manipulates the reader into willingly suspending disbelief in order to find out what happens next. The author then deftly changes tack when, in the subsequent chapters, he describes how the characters chosen for the experiment spend the following twelve months. They are tales filled with believable realism.

Any Cop?: Newly reissued by Handheld Press, The Gap in The Curtain tells us stories in which the human spirit triumphs over nature. Its intoxicating blend of speculative fiction, psychological manipulation, the uncanny and fictional realism is hard to resist and a world away from the environment of suspicion, political intrigue and violence in which Buchan’s other alto ego, Richard Hannah, operates.

Carola Huttmann

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