Reviewed by Harriet
I saw the ships in the water and the lights of the stars in the water and the reflections under the bridges. The pubs were about to close and when the doors opened there were waves of smell and light and sound floating out into the fog. There was laundry hung up on lines across the darkness in back yards. In the small streets there were lighted windows and one was open and you could see the warmth from inside passing out into the mist and there were whirls of smoke and fog in the light and a girl sang ‘When your lover has gone’ and her voice was low and husky from too much smoking.
This is the narrator, Cameron McCabe, in typically reflective mood on a visit to Chinatown in London’s East End. McCabe is a strange mixture of hard-boiled cynicism and an extreme sensitivity to external phenomena. He is a film editor, working on a feature film in a London studio and, as the books starts, he has been ordered to cut a young actress, Estella Lamarre, out of the film completely – she will become what’s known as ‘the face on the cutting-room floor’. McCabe objects – the film concerns a love triangle and will make little sense if one of the participants is cut out. Soon, though, this all becomes more or less irrelevant as Estella is discovered dead, having been stabbed in a cutting-room at the studio. This room turns out to have a special camera installed, which starts recording when someone enters the room. Thus it becomes possible to see the actual stabbing of Estella, in which her lover Jensen is involved, though it’s far from clear whether this was murder or an accident. Then Jensen disappears, only to be rediscovered a few days later, having been murdered in a shabby London boarding house.
Now begins a most bizarre investigation and, eventually, a trial. Several people confess to the murder/s, but the ineffectual detective Smith is certain that McCabe is responsible and manages eventually to get him arrested. McCabe chooses to represent himself, and does so with the aid of two famous law books, which he cites many times in his own defence. His character is pretty well assassinated during the trial, largely by the revelation that, though in love with the actress Maria Ray (whose credibilty, however, he doesn’t hesitate to question, citing her promiscuity as a reason), he has been carrying on a simultaneous affair with his secretary Dinah Lee. He manages to impress the jury and gets acquitted, but Smith has not finished with him…
So much for the plot, which is curious in itself, twisting and turning but never really moving forward very much, being more concerned with different peoples’ views of the same event. But that is far from the most curious thing about this novel. First published in 1937, it continues on past the end of the narrative with a section entitled ‘An Epilogue by A.B.C. Müller as Epitaph for Cameron McCabe’, in which the supposed Müller, apparently a literary critic, undertakes to defend the novel from various supposed criticisms and compares it favourably with the work of writers such as James Joyce, Hemingway and Dasheil Hammett. He speaks of McCabe in disparaging terms (‘the arrested development of the criminal mind’) and reveals a fact about his recent death that he says he heard first hand from Maria Ray herself.
When the novel was first published, it was assumed that McCabe really existed, and after its success the publishers placed advertisments asking his heirs to get in touch with them. Following a reprint in 1974, however, a reviewer revealed that he had discovered the real identity of the author, one Ernst Bornemann, who, as further research revealed, was an eminent author and sexologist living in Austria, having anglicised his name to Ernest Borneman. The Face on the Cutting Room floor had been written when he was only 19, and he had started learning English some four months earlier.
All this undoubtedly makes the novel a post-modern literary curiosity, but is it more than that? I would say a resounding yes. True, the main plot is complex and in fact doesn’t make much progress, but, despite or maybe because of Borneman’s new acquisiton of English, the language is wonderfully evocative in the hard-boiled mode so beloved of American novelists of the era. McCabe’s observations of the world around him – the winter London weather with its swirling brown fogs and the November sky, ‘orange and heavy’ – and his cynical analysis of the motives and morals of his circle and indeed of himself, make the novel a real pleasure to read. And of course the setting – the busy, up-to-date film studio, the grimy London streets – and the louche, amoral characters who inhabit it – is a fascinating and informative. In addition, a whole essay could be written on the Epilogue, in which the supposed Muller quotes page after page from what are apparently reviews of an earlier (non-existent) edition, which are actually altered versions of reviews of a number of other, genuinely published, works.
The Picador Classics edition I read has an interesting and informative introduction by Jonathan Coe and an afterword containing extracts from a 1979 interview with Borneman. Great stuff!
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Cameron McCabe [Ernest Borneman], The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor (Picador, 2016). 978-1509829811, 338pp., paperback original.
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