Saturday, June 28, 2014

BOOK: Frédéric de Janzé, "Tarred With the Same Brush"

Frédéric de Janzé: Tarred With the Same Brush. London: Duckworth, 1929. 193 pp. (The book doesn't mention his name; it just says “Le Comte de Janzé”.) Now also on Project Gutenberg Australia.

This book is a kind of sequel to Vertical Land, which I read a few years ago (see my post about it from back then; it also includes more about the author's background and how I got to know about him in the first place). Just like Vertical Land, it is inspired by the author's experiences while living among the wealthy British settlers in 1920s Kenya.

After my big disappointment with Vertical Land, I naturally approached this next book with considerably reduced expectations, and almost out of a sense of duty and completism rather than pleasure — I expected merely another boring slog and just wanted to finish the job, so to speak, and prepare an e-text of his second book so that both will be freely available to everyone.

Thus I was extremely pleasantly surprised by how much more I enjoyed reading this book than I did Vertical Land! I can safely say that at least 50% of Tarred With the Same Brush made for very pleasant reading, and the rest was at least tolerable; overall I liked it a lot better than Vertical Land.

Perhaps it's because the style of Tarred is less vague, and is much of the time closer to something like normal storytelling than the extremely hazy impressionism of Vertical Land. I suppose that some of that haziness was due to the fact that many of his tales were inspired by real people and real events, and he had to make things vague to avoid causing offence. But here in Tarred With the Same Brush, he used a somewhat different approach by reworking his material into a more conventional fictional narrative, and the result is much more pleasant to read. (And I guess that for the right sort of reader, of which I am not one, Tarred still has a lot of connection to real people and events, as you can see e.g. from the way it's quoted in Errol Trzebinski's book about the murder of Lord Erroll.)

That is not to say that the style of Tarred is completely different than that of Vertical Land, of course; it's still somewhat aloof and sparing with the details, and another thing that contributes to a feeling of vagueness are the ellipses — I don't think I've ever seen a book with as many ellipses as this one.

In any case, I suppose one has to be careful before making any sort of inferences from the tales in this book to the lives of real people. Judging by the contents of these books, the wealthy white settlers in Kenya didn't have anything much to do besides going on safaris, sleeping with each other's wives and then getting divorced and/or committing murder in fits of jealousy. This makes for entertaining reading, but one would hope that things were a bit better than that in reality.

Incidentally, de Janzé includes a sort of disclaimer in the introduction (p. 12), though I'm somewhat skeptical if we were meant to take it seriously: “These stories have naught to do with any living humans [. . .] go your way, untrue stories of mine.” Later he includes a sketch of a man who complains about the “damned foreigner” who “put me in his book” (p. 183), and one of a different man who complains about not being mentioned in Vertical Land (pp. 187–8).

The first half or so of Tarred consists of short stories told by a group of people on a safari trip, embedded in a framework that I guess was inspired by the Decameron. This was my favorite part of the book, and most of these stories were quite enjoyable to read. Most of them have some drama — people cheating on their spouses, trying to get married for money, trying to kill their rivals and the like. There's often a bit of a twist ending, and they don't even all take place in Kenya; one of the stories involves smuggling alcohol in prohibition-era America.

The second half of the book consists of shorter sketches that are perhaps more similar to Vertical Land than the first half. (In fact at the very end there's a section of extremely short and extremely vague character portraits exactly like those at the end of Vertical Land.) I didn't enjoy this part of the book as much as the first half, but some of these shorter stories were still pleasant. Most of them are told from the perspective of the same first-person narrator, nicknamed Tiny, who also told one of the stories in the first half of the book; I liked this approach as it makes the book feel a bit more coherent than Vertical Land did. Many of these stories are about animals, for which Tiny has a great fondness. He seems to live with a woman named Delecia (p. 141ff.), and incidentally the book is also dedicated to a Delecia (p. 5), so I'm wondering if this part of the book was partly based on the experiences of some real people whom de Janzé knew well.

There's a very touching tale in which the narrator adopts a lion cub whose mother had been shot by hunters; the lion becomes a cherished pet even after it grows up, but eventually the owner has to move back to Europe and leave the lion behind. By an amazing coincidence, he encounters the lion again a couple of years later, as the poor animal has been sold to a circus, where it is being treated badly. The story has a sad ending and also includes a touching and impassioned plea against the abuse of animals for entertainment. That struck me as a very decently progressive sentiment for 1929, and I was also pleasantly surprised by it because in the rest of the book the writer doesn't exactly come across as a bleeding-heart humanitarian in the way he treats his human characters. (In the introduction, he deplores hunting even while he admits he'd done plenty of it himself; and he adds a sentiment that is not often seen outside the most radical animal-rights circles: “Why should laws prevent you from going hunting another man with a gun when it lets you massacre the innocent?” P. 9.) In fact the author's fondness of animals is a recurring theme in this book.


He now refers to coconuts as coco-nuts, which is a considerable improvement from the cocoanuts which we saw in Vertical Land.

“Norma went back to her motherland to stagger the play-goers by her acting on the stage and the morning papers by her acting in her home.” (P. 46.)

Here's a very funny passage from p. 81, which evokes wonderfully the stereotype of the overfed British aristocrats and colonialists: “these people who, when they live past the days when they can get killed out hunting, terminate their useless careers with a stroke after too good a luncheon or in some home for arterial over-pressures.”

And here's one from pp. 121–2, in which a guest after a long and drunken party wakes up to find a lion in his bed: “The eldest souse of us all was sitting up in bed wildly gesticulating and asking us to hold him down as he was seeing things—that a lion was in bed with him and that the last time it had only been lizards and biting fishes, but this time it was lions and he could feel it too, and would we shoot him quick.”

In the copy of the book I've got, there is a pencilled inscription on the front free endpaper, which suggests that some previous owner of the book did a bit of genealogical research about de Janzé; it says: “Vicomtesse de Janzé, great-granddaughter of Mrs. Jordan & William IV / Comte de Janzé's mother? or grandmother? / C. de J., husband of Alice Silverthorne, whose Wanjohi farm was our home in Kenya.”

Sic transit gloria mundi?

There's an interesting passage on pp. 38–9, listing the contents of a rich woman's investment portfolio. “General motors, American Tel. and Tel.—St. Gobain—Suez—Wagon-lits. . . . Deutsche Algemeine Elek­trische Gesellschaft—Siemmens . . . and nearer home . . . B.S.A.; Shell Trans.; Daily Sketch Deb.; Guinness . . . and others.”

So those, I guess, were considered to be big and important companies of the day, solid and reliable investments. Naturally I was curious about where they are now, so I did a bit of searching on the wikipedia:

  • General Motors is, of course, still around and still important;
  • AT&T is also still around and still important, but the monopoly position it used to enjoy as a telephone provider is long gone.
  • St. Gobain, of which I never heard before, is apparently also still around and still a big corporation, producing building materials.
  • “Suez” probably refers to the Suez Canal Company, which managed the canal until it was nationalized by the Egyptian government in 1956. The canal is now managed by an Egyptian agency (Suez Canal Authority), but the Suez Canal Company still exists in some form, as part of an electric utility company.
  • The Compagnie internationale des wagons-lits, known for operating trains with sleeping cars, went into decline after the WW2 and apparently now exists as part of another company called Newrest.
  • The Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft, a manufacturer of electrical equipment, disappeared over several mergers in the second half of the 20th century. The AEG brand name is now used by various manufacturers of household applicances.
  • The British South Africa Company mostly came to an end with the 1960s due to decolonization, though apparently it formally “still exists, and is registered as a non-trading business”.
  • The “Shell” Transport and Trading Company was one half of the Shell group throughout the 20th century, the other helf being called Royal Dutch Petroleum Company. Both were finally merged for good in 2005, forming a company called Royal Dutch Shell.

  • The Daily Sketch was a British tabloid which merged into the Daily Mail in 1971. “Deb.” probably stands for debentures, a kind of bonds.
  • Guinness still exists and makes beer, but is now a part of Diageo, a multinational alcoholic beverages company.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the results. Despite various economic crises, a world war, and numerous other changes, about half of the companies in that 1929 portfolio are still around and apparently doing reasonably well. I wonder what an equivalent present-day portfolio would be like, and what it would then look like in 2100.


Both Vertical Land and Tarred With the Same Brush seem to be relatively rare books, the latter one even more so; I often looked for it on and it took a long time before a copy showed up for sale. I ended up paying £150 for it, which felt a bit horrible as I don't think I've ever spent that much on a single book, not to mention how little text there is in it.

But on the positive side, buying the book enabled me to prepare an e-text of it, just like I did for Vertical Land a few years ago, so that anyone can now read it at no cost. The author died in 1933, so the copyright on his books has expired in many parts of the world. You can now get an e-text of Tarred With the Same Brush from Project Gutenberg Australia (direct link: HTML, plain text).

  • Paul Spicer: The Temptress (2011). A recent biography of Alice de Janzé, an American socialite who was married to Frédéric during the 1920s and lived with him in Kenya.
  • Frances Osborne: The Bolter (2008). A biography of Idina Sackville, another notorious member of the same milieu that inspired de Janzé's books. (Is it wrong that I think of hobbits every time I see that surname? :P)

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