Twice did I try, and twice did I fail to make any progress with Robert Hugh Benson’s apocalyptic novel Lord of the World. Despite this inauspicious start, I really wanted to read something by him so picked up None Other Gods.
Firstly, an admission. Had it not been because I was absolutely determined to finish this book come-what-may I probably would have returned it to the library long before reaching the last page.
Secondly, a promise. The difficulty I had with None Other Gods was not its fault; at least, not in the sense of the story being no good. Benson writes with subtlety and grace. That’s his problem. Or rather, that’s my problem; I think I don’t read enough literary novels where the reader must work things out for himself rather than be handed them on a platter. As a result, if the writer is more subtle with his words, I am liable to miss it and find the book more arduous as a result.
Thirdly, a figure – three. There were three scenes that were, for me, critical to the development of the book. Before giving them, I’ll quickly explain the plot. Frank Guiseley is a student at Cambridge University and the son of a Lord. He has all the world before him. One day, he converts to the Catholic faith, leaves university and becomes a tramp. He spends the rest of the book travelling from Yorkshire down to London with a man known as the major and his ‘wife’, Gertie. The book ends with a confrontation between the major and Frank and another event that I won’t mention here in case you decide to read it.
That’s the plot. The first critical scene occurs after the two hundred page mark when Frank tells someone that he has become a tramp because he has a particular purpose in mind. We don’t find out what it is, though.
The second critical scene occurs a while later when we discover the specifics of what Frank is up to, and it is that he is trying to rescue Gertie from the major and return her home. That is understandable. The major is a very debatable figure, both in his conduct towards Gertie and Frank.
The third critical moment is the ending of the book. It confirmed for me the idea that None Other Gods was a retelling of the story of the Incarnation. Frank is the Christ figure who leaves his home (heaven) and comes to earth (the life of a tramp) to save souls (specifically, a soul: Gertie) from worldly suffering (the major).
I would really like to say that once I realised Benson’s purpose, all the narrative elements fell into place. But, they didn’t. There are still scenes that I wonder ‘why was it there? What purpose did it serve?’. I’m not going to say Benson was a bad story-teller, though – not before I read the book again armed with the knowledge of it that my first reading has given me. Maybe he wasn’t any good; I think, though, it is far more likely he is simply someone whose writing style requires careful and close attention from me.
Finally, another promise. I’ve written this post from memory. I very much regret not keeping even a brief note of where the critical events appeared so that I could be more specific in this review. From now on, I am going to make more of an effort to put pen to paper.