26 November 2018

A Man Forgets His Identity (but not his manners)

The Thread of Flame
Basil King
New York: Harper, 1920
351 pages

I raced through this novel, caught up in its plot and hungry for the solution to the mystery surrounding its main character. He's first introduced as Jasper Soames, though he and the reader are well-aware that this is not his true identity:
It was a name that to me meant nothing. Referring it to my inner self, nothing vibrated, nothing rang. It was like trying to clink a piece of money on wool or cork or some other unresponsive material.
Soames, as he's known through most of the novel, remembers nothing of his life before awakening to find himself aboard a ship bound for New York. His cabin-mate, a blind boy named Drinkwater, is of no help as the two are strangers. Soames's search through his modest belongings yields nearly four hundred dollars, but no clues as to his true identity.

For the remainder of the crossing, Soames does his best to hide his amnesia, speaking in vague terms about his past and deflecting questions about himself. In doing so, he becomes a man of mystery and a subject of significant interest amongst the shipboard well-to-do: Boyd Averill, his wife Lulu, and his sister Mildred. Those of the working class accept Soames as is. They do not pry, do not judge, and readily accept him as one of their own. But Soames is not one of their own. Aware that he belongs to a different class, he is offended by their friendliness and gross familiarity, and looks forward to shedding the acquaintance of each just as soon as the ship docks. This doesn't happen as quickly as planned – Soames feels obliged to escort Drinkwater to the boy's new lodging – but soon enough he sets off on a new course.

Soames recognizes New York, and is certain that someone in the city will recognize him. To this end, he passes his days in the lobbies of the finest hotels, hoping that he will encounter an old, forgotten friend:
At any minute I might feel a clap on the shoulder, while some one shouted, "Hello, old Brown!" or, "Why, here's Billy Robinson! What'll we have to drink?"
These daily expeditions are undertaken with some trepidation, because he fears that he may have adopted the Soames name in fleeing some horrible crime.

When finally it comes, the clap on the shoulder is more of a tap:
In the interval too brief to reckon before turning round two possibilities were clear in my mind. The unknown crime from which I was running away might have found me out – or some friend had come to my deliverance. Either event would be welcome, for even if it were arrest I should learn my name and history.
Soames is disappointed in that the man who tapped his shoulder is Boyd Averill, a man who knows our hero – is he a hero? – only as Jasper Soames. Boyd is pleasant enough, but has growing suspicions about his mysterious acquaintance. Meanwhile, Boyd's sister Mildred grows close. She's attracted to Soames, recognizing him a man raised in privilege who is now on some sort of quest. In this way, he is a kindred spirit. The daughter and inheritor of great wealth, Mildred is searching desperately for a purpose in life.

Though the attraction is mutual, Soames begins to distance himself from Mildred:
Falling in love with anybody was no part of my program. It was out of the question for obvious reasons. In addition to these I was in love with some one else. That is to say, I knew I had been in love; I knew that in the portion of my life that had become obscured there had been an emotional drama of which the consciousness remained. It remained as a dream remains when we remember the vividness and forget the facts – but it remained. I could view my personality somewhat as you view a countryside after a storm has passed over it. Without having witnessed the storm you can tell what it was from the havoc left behind. There was some such havoc in myself.
Soames's decision is made all the easier because his "program" is failing. The days sitting in hotel lobbies are proving fruitless, and funds are running thin. With winter setting in, and no money to replace his summer suits, he cuts himself off from the Averill family, and moves into squalid lodgings alongside the very class of people he'd sought to reject.

There's more, much more, of course. I spoil nothing in revealing that Soames never quite regains his identity. Sure, he eventually learns his real name, and the nature of the "emotional drama," but he is forever altered by the event that caused his amnesia and his experiences living amongst the working class.

A wild ride, I very nearly finished The Thread of Flame in one sitting. What slowed my progress were a dozen or so pages near the end in which Soames tries to make sense of the Great War and the new world it created.

There's no fault in this.

I dare say we're trying to make sense of it still.

Favourite passage:
Ernestine, to do her justice, was as tolerant of me as she was of any one who wasn't a flag. The Flag having become her idol and she its high- priestess, she could talk of nothing else. The nation had apparently gone to war in order that the cult of the Flag should be the more firmly established; and all other matters passed outside the circle of her consideration. She knew I had been dead and had somehow become alive again; but as the detail didn't call for the raising of a flag she couldn't give her mind to it. As she could give her mind in no greater measure to Minna's canteen-work or Vio's clothes, I profited by the generous nature of her exclusions.
A mystery quickly solved: The Thread of Flame first appeared as a serial in Maclean's (December 1919 through 15 May 1920), accompanied by twenty illustrations by Charles L. Wrenn.

Maclean's, 1 February 1920
Ten months after publication of the concluding chapters, the magazine included this very strange piece:

Maclean's, 15 March 1921
I admit to having been mystified. The words the con quotes do not appear in the novel, nor do they appear in its serialization. A bit of sleuthing reveals that they come from an introduction that King wrote for Charles E. Chapin's Story: Written in Sing Sing Prison (New York: Putnam, 1920). I haven't read the book, but do remember it being described in The News Game (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1966) by Toronto Star reporter Roy Greenaway as "one of the best descriptions of nerve-shattering newspaper toil ever written." The tragic results of this toil are described in the opening sentences of the publisher's note appended to Chapin's Story:

Object: A bulky hardcover in red boards with white type, the book is made bulkier still by four John Alonso Williams illustrations. My copy, a first edition lacking dust jacket, was purchased just last month for US$9.00 from an Illinois bookseller. As is so often the case, I paid much more in shipping than I did for the book itself.

Access: Library and Archives Canada and fifteen of our academic libraries hold copies of the novel, but not one is found in any library in Prince Edward Island, the province of the author's birth.

Other than the Harper first, the only edition of which I am aware is a cheap Grosset & Dunlop.

The Harper edition can be read online here thanks to the University of Toronto and the Internet Archive.

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  1. Should be "Charles E. Chapin's Story", not "Charles E. Chaplin's Story"

    1. Thank you, Roger. I should know better than to write these things in the wee hours. The funny thing is that I caught the very same error in Roy Greenaway's book!

    2. Any relation to Hedley Lamarr, I wonder? Chapin himself probably often met the same problem. !920 wasn't a good time to have a name that looked like Charlie Chaplin.