Fox in the Attic, published by the New York Review Books, is the first volume of The Human Predicament, which the author Richard Hughes described as a “long historical novel of my own times culminating in the Second World War.”
I begun reading Fox in the Attic by the end of December. However, it took me a long time to go through it. Somehow, I always found a reason to pick up other books instead. One reason for this is its dragging start.
It is divided into three parts: Rachel and Polly, The White Crow, and Fox in the Attic. It begins with Augustine, a young bachelor, returning to his secluded country home with the body of the young girl Rachel he found in the woods while hunting.
We are then introduced to Augustine’s Welsh hometown and his elder sister’s London residence where we meet his niece Polly; all of which basically sheds light on the contrasts between Rachel and Polly, commoners and nobility, city and province, and etc. There is great attention to details.
By the time we get to the next part, we find Augustine in Munich, Germany. He stays with German relatives, the Kessens, in a Bavarian castle to escape facing accusations that he killed the girl Rachel. It is here that the pace quickens. We see the events leading to the pathetic Beer Hall Putsch, linked to Augustine’s hosts in the resentment stirred by the German defeat in the First World War.
We even meet Hitler himself and his fellow conspirators. However, I found Hughes’s extensive attempts to get inside Hitler’s mind to provide some sort of depth to his character, a bit silly:
After all, how could that monistic “I” of Hitler’s ever without forfeit succumb to the entire act of sex, the whole essence of which is recognition of one “Other”? … Because this of course was the rationale of his supernal inner “Power.”: Hitler existed alone. “I am, none else beside me.” The universe contained no other persons than him, only things; and thus for him the whole gamut of the “personal” pronouns lacked wholly its normal emotional content. This left Hitler’s designing and creating motions enormous and without curb: … these “men” were… in the same category as other tools and stones… And it is nonesensical to love… stones. p. 243
Did Hitler really think this way? As Dostoevsky puts it in The Brothers Karamazov, psychology cuts both ways. In this regard, I found Tolstoy’s of Napoleon in War and Peace, who was depicted from some distance, more effective. A lengthy essay inserted into Fox in the Attic’s narrative that “psychoanalyzed” British society during and after the First World War also did a better job. Although apart from Hitler, the treatment of the rest of the characters were also quite good.
Meanwhile, Augustine hears rumors of the coup over dinner or at parties he attend but he was too busy falling in love with his blind cousin, Mitzi, to really notice this.
Augustine’s mind was now exactly shaped and stretched to hold Mitzi’s peerless image and nothing more: it felt stretched to bursting by it and couldn’t conceivably find a hair’s-breadth room for anything else. p. 164
His hosts kept a fox inside their home. After his failed putsch, Hitler hides in the attic of a Nazi supporter’s cottage. And in the upper floors of the Kessen’s castle lurked something even more sinister. Towards the end, this formed the tension that moves the narrative. But this is somehow wrapped off too hastily.
The novel begins too slowly and after drawing your attention, this interest also ends abruptly, like the fox that all too quickly hides in the attic. ■