This year marks the centenary of the birth of the Caribbean’s first professional novelist. There had previously been writers from the region, such as the Jamaican journalist HG de Lisser, who made money from their fiction, but Edgar Mittelholzer, born on December 16, 1909, was the earliest recorded author from the region to make a living – and a very precarious one it would turn out to be – from his pen.
Mittelholzer was born in British Guiana (now, of course, independent Guyana) into a family of predominantly European descent. His father was of Swiss-German origin and his mother from a light-skinned family from Martinique. In race-conscious British Guiana the Mittelholzers were firmly “white”, yet Edgar’s birth seemingly revealed some hitherto hidden family history, as he was – as he himself put it – “swarthy” (A Swarthy Boy is the painfully self-conscious title of his 1963 autobiography). For his father, Edgar’s colour was “a momentous disappointment”: “I was the Dark One at whom he was always frowning and barking.” Photos show a tall, rather gaunt man, with staring eyes and a sallow, rather than dark, complexion.
Race, racism and neurosis appear to have filled Mittelholzer’s early colonial years. Family life was genteel and repressed. He had few friends. He took refuge in reading and writing from an early age (again, to his father’s dismay) and kept voluminous diaries while bombarding London magazines and publishers with short stories. Nearly all his approaches met with rebuffs, as in the 1920s and 1930s the idea of Caribbean fiction was as yet unknown. Undeterred, Mittelholzer wrote Corentyne Thunder, in 1938. He had previously self-published a collection of stories called Creole Chips, which he hawked from door to door in New Amsterdam – a move that reinforced his reputation for eccentricity.
At the end of 1938 Mittelholzer finally received a positive response from a London publisher, but the outbreak of war stopped communications. It was not until 1941 that Corentyne Thunder was at last published, by Eyre & Spottiswoode; and immediately disaster struck. Hardly had copies arrived in the publisher’s warehouse, according to journalist Colin Rickards, than a German bomb destroyed warehouse and books alike. Only a handful of advance copies, sent out for review, survived.
By now Mittelholzer had left British Guiana for Trinidad, where he served with the Trinidad Royal Volunteer Naval Reserve until discharged on medical grounds (he was by now suffering from what we would now recognise as clinical depression). After taking a few menial jobs and marrying Roma Halfhide in March 1942, Mittelholzer decided to take the plunge and head for London, where he felt he could establish himself as a writer. He, Roma and their daughter sailed for England in 1948.
At first he was uncharacteristically lucky, meeting Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s widower, through the British Council where he worked as a typist. In 1950 Woolf’s Hogarth Press published Mittelholzer’s A Morning in the Office in 1950, a sharp analysis of colonial colour and class snobbery set in a Trinidad office. When two more novels were published in 1951 and 1952, Mittelholzer gave up his job and became a full-time writer.
For a while the gamble paid off. From 1952 to 1961 he established a stable relationship with Secker & Warburg, who published 13 of his books. During that period he restlessly travelled to Canada and Barbados before returning to London in 1956. By now, however, his relationship with Roma was on the rocks and in 1959 they divorced. Edgar then met Jacqueline Pointer at a writers’ summer school and married her in 1960.
Mittelholzer might have achieved his literary ambition, but life was never easy or straightforward. He refused to hire an agent. Money was always an issue, and books were written quickly for the next meagre advance. Funds had to be found for the children from his first marriage, while the arrival of a son in his second added financial pressures. The tendency towards anxiety and depression, evident from his early years onwards, began to become more pronounced. His precarious sense of identity and self-worth, undermined by his father, the colonial system and a lifetime of rejections from the publishing world, began to unravel.
Was it Mittelholzer’s escalating paranoia that repelled publishers and critics, or was their irrational hostility towards his work responsible for his descent into darkness? It was probably a mixture of the two. In any case, Secker & Warburg cut their ties with him and thereafter he found it almost impossible to find a publisher willing to take on a writer with a tricky reputation. His ideas, says Rickards in The Caribbean Camera, became increasingly right-wing and pseudo-mystical. In desperation he resorted to a nom de plume, but with little success.
Suicide had always fascinated Mittelholzer. One critic has estimated that no fewer than 15 of his characters kill themselves. In his last, posthumous novel, the main character escapes his insanity by setting fire to himself. This was to be Mittelholzer’s preferred end: on May 5, 1965 the author doused himself with petrol in a field near Farnham, Surrey, and lit a match.
The awful nature of his death and the trials and tribulations he endured should not obscure Mittelholzer’s significant contribution to Caribbean literature. His My Bones and My Flute (1955) is a genuinely eerie ghost story set against a background of slavery and revenge in Guyana. But perhaps his greatest work, recently reissued by the excellent Peepal Tree Press of Leeds, UK (www.peepaltreepress.com), is Corentyne Thunder, a groundbreaking novel of racial tension and passion set in rural Guyana. The characters it depicts are doubtless those people whom Mittelholzer’s father would have belittled as “coolies”, but the author gives the lives of Ramgolall, an old Indian cow-herd, and his daughters an epic significance that is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s best work.
Most significantly, the landscape itself – the great flat expanses of savannah, the presence of rivers and sea, the vast skies – is evoked in a way that no writer had ever done before. Drawing on the emptiness he knew, Mittelholzer describes a nature utterly indifferent to the death of Ramgolall:
“It looked so untroubled, so flat and at peace as though nothing at all had happened. And the sky, too, and the wind, the sunshine – all untroubled, the same as they had been yesterday and all the days before: the sky blue, the wind cool, the sun red because it was low in the west.
“Ramgolall was dead, but the whole Corentyne remained just the same.”