5 January 2022


John Buchan. The Gap in the Curtain. Handheld Press, 2021. 

John Buchan is chiefly remembered for his spy novels featuring the adventurer hero Richard Hannay: the most famous being The Thirty Nine Steps. Yet he also wrote a considerable amount of supernatural and weird fiction – four collections were published from 1902 to1928. In 1932 came the novel The Gap in the Curtain exploring the idea of precognition. 
Five country guests assemble at Lady Flambard’s Whitsuntide party. They are “people whose physical vitality was low, and who were living on the edge of their nerves...” and have been chosen by Professor Moe for an experiment. Moe is a steely mathematician of Einstein concerns and intellect who will enable them to see the future. This will be a specific moment in time – the news in The Times newspaper one year hence. They will be mentally trained to see what articles and headlines will have a significant effect on their lives. 

Through diet, avoidance of alcohol, intense concentration and intuition they begin to see the exact words that will determine their life and death. Possessing such knowledge can they escape their fate? If not then how positive or negative will be the outcome? And can the power of free-will come into play? 

 Buchan said he was inspired by J.W.Dunne’s Experiment with Time (1932) and Time and Freewill (1889) by the French philosopher Henri Bergson. He mentions Dunne in relation to Professor Moe and has a Bergson quote prefacing the opening chapter. But although this neatly incorporates the novel into a philosophical context, and the concept for the book was undoubtedly fascinating, I’m afraid The Gap in the Curtain didn’t make for inspired writing. The problem is threefold. 

Firstly, this isn’t really a story of the supernatural. Kate Macdonald says in her introduction that Buchan preferred to merely suggest the existence of the supernatural. Fine, but the uncertainty of the outcome of the characters isn’t vivid enough for them to come alive on the page. I yearned for an occasional supernatural twist or SF dilemma. Well not quite as I was emotionally involved, on the level of emphatic realism, with the characters of Sir Robert Goodeve and Captain Charles Ottery whose names are also the titles of the two last, and best, chapters. 

Buchan’s research is impeccable. He knows so much about the lives of businessmen and politicians. Unfortunately there’s an excess of fine detail that debilitates the narrative flow. Occasionally his observation and sharp social satire really grips but too often it derails the story from Buchan’s theme of precognition. It doesn’t help that he’s writing about the upper middle classes and aristocracy. Nothing wrong with that as they can suffer as much as ordinary folk but did we have to have so many interludes, from the working of fate, as they pursued their grouse shooting, fly fishing and fox hunting? 

The Gap in the Curtain isn’t structurally a novel but a collection of five episodes packed with too many incidents. When J.B. Priestley reviewed the book he said it would have worked better as a “single big novel with all the strands woven together, rather than what amounts to a series of short stories” I completely agree. For this would have allowed Buchan to integrate more persuasively the satire, analysis of social class, politics, business, intimacy of feeling and the overhanging fate that’s mysteriously determining our actions. 

The book ends abruptly with another self-contained story. You turn over the page expecting a coda or epilogue where Edward Leithen, Buchan’s narrator will deliver a summing up of what this precognition experiment meant for its characters, the reader, or human - kind, in general, but it’s not there! What was missing was a kind of futuristic H.G. Wells overview of events. But even if that’s not Buchan’s style his chosen conclusion felt artistically wrong. 

All Buchan enthusiasts will want to read this; long out of print it’s certainly worth their attention. As for anyone else I’d say it’s a highly uneven book that doesn’t do justice to its theme. Though Buchan’s failure shouldn’t prevent you from trying this odd ‘novel’ as it’s what the story might-have-been aspect that manages to keep your attention. Being alternatively dull and compelling is the puzzling contradiction of The Gap in the Curtain. 
  • Alan Price

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