Thursday, December 11, 2014

Goose of Hermogenes by Ithell Colquhoun

Recently read, there is little I can add to 50 Watts’ enthusiasm (here) for Goose of Hermogenes,  one of those discards found in the dollar bin of my local bookstore, landing there because the casual browser failed to see its worth, a diamond in the dung. Steeped in surreal and occult imagery which seems to have come to Colquhoun as easily as breathing, it is a deceptively short text which calls for re-readings, a characteristic it shares with Gracq’s Chateau d’Argol and Kubin’s The Other Side (another work by a predominantly visual artist).

This is the relation of a young woman's trip to a dreamy and forbidding coastal island, a transitional space between the worlds, ruled by the narrator’s uncle. The uncle being an elusive but omniscient presence, an occult Prospero, the narrator is left to explore the secluded mansion and its environs.  There is a true sense of isolation and menace, broken by visions (a sea-Amazon arising, with an ancient underwater kingdom, from the waves; an arboreal bordello where her enslaved sisters service spirits of the netherworld), a tableaux of Tarot imagery, wherein her uncle has collected the symbols of the minor arcana, the “Museum of the Mosaico-Hermetic Science of Things Above and Things Below”, and the occasional presence of a mysterious anchorite who acts as her keeper and protector.

If your tastes run to the occult or surreal, watch the dollar bins for this little masterpiece, or order your own from a semi-reputable dealer.

Recently Read

Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by Daniel Paul Schreber.  A 1903 first person account of schizophrenia by a institutionalized German jurist, fascinating (if tiresomely repetitive) in its description of paranoia and hallucinatory obsession as Schreber describes the psychic assaults of supernatural beings that are transforming him into a woman. The oppression by both his imaginings and the asylum staff are palpable, giving a certain poignancy to the writing.  This memoir was influential on Freud’s thinking, misguided as it was (Freud never bothered to meet with the author in person, although such a meeting would not likely have been too difficult to arrange). The New York Review Books edition includes introductions, appendices and notes relating to Schreber’s case.

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees. A volume in the Millenium/Gollancz “Fantasy Masterworks” series, a novel of Faerie written in 1926 the protagonist of which, Nathaniel Chanticleer, may well put you in mind of another who puts comfort aside for the necessity of adventure, Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End. One may also be put in mind of John Crowley’s enchanting 1981 iteration of the theme, Little, Big.

Currently on the Nightstand:  The Seven Who Fled by Frederic Prokosch

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Encyclopedia of the Dead by Danielo Kis

The Serbian author Danielo Kis, in contrast to most of us, died too soon, in October 1989, of lung cancer.

The tales in The Encyclopedia of the Dead reexamine the relevance of  mystical legends ("Simon Magus", "The Legend of the Sleepers") and offer fantastical takes on 20th century realities in metaphysical imaginings on the theme of death, in Kis's estimation "one of the obsessive themes of literature."  His debt to Kafka, Borges and Nabokov (that trinity of the astonishing in modern literature) are clear, but his stories stand on their own merit.  The story "The Encyclopedia of the Dead" is a remarkable elegy for the life of everyman, an acknowledgement of the narrative significance in the lives of even the least of us.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Accumulated Wisdom

The last step that Reason takes is to recognize that there is an infinity of things that lie beyond it. Reason is a poor thing indeed if it does not succeed in knowing that.


Monday, September 10, 2012

The Shipwrecked Men by Cabeza de Vaca

A volume in Penguin's "Great Journeys" series, this is an abridgment of the Chronicle of the Navarez Expedition, which relates Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca's nine year ordeal (beginning in 1530) among the natives of the Northern Coast of the Gulf of Mexico and what would become the American Southwest and Gulf of California.  Of the six hundred men setting out on the expedition in five ships, only three others were accompanying de Vaca when, sun baked and emaciated, he finally made contact with fellow Spaniards in Mexico.

In addition to being an anthropological document, there are also glimpses into the conquistador mindset, motivated by a brutal greed (it is a lust for rumored gold that leads the expedition astray in the first place).  He doesn't spare the details of the misery of the survivors, stalked by native archers and beaten mercilessly while on the verge of death, although the episodes of cannibalism brought on by the maddening pangs of starvation are passed over somewhat quickly.

While the narrative of travel is frustratingly vague regarding de Vaca's route, it is filled with details and observations regarding the native Americans he encountered, and must count as the earliest description of these people and their harsh lifestyle.  The Spanish suffered many depredations along the journey: de Vaca survived due to his adaptability and no small amount of luck.  He found a useful function as a trader among the various tribes, and eventually he and his companions acquired reputations as great healers. His sense of compassion - rare among soldiers of fortune- must also have served him well in his darker moments.

Along the journey, de Vaca formed a sympathetic respect for the natives he encountered, and, in addition to the more horrifying aspects of native life, he recorded their tenderness as well.  By the end of the journey, we see him surrounded by great flocks of followers, like some first century eastern Mediterranean wonder worker.  When he finally encounters his countrymen, he is shocked by their brutality and duplicity. Assured  by his rescuers that his followers will be better treated, they are enslaved and assaulted as soon as he is out of view.  He ultimately gains a victory of sorts when imploring that the King would be better served by the conversion, rather than the destruction of the natives.  It is a tender mercy that, in some instances at least, the cross triumphed over the lance.

Cabeza de Vaca's narrative is a testament of human endurance and adaptability under extreme circumstances.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner

Stranger Magic is a long and erudite meditation on the meaning and influence of The Thousand and One Nights in the West. Two significant touchstones for this work are Borges’ essay “The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights” (in which Borges notes that “one of the chief events in the history of the West was the discovery of the East”), and Edward Said’s “cult bible” (Warner’s words) Orientalism, a critique of the false romanticism of the East by the West.

In tracing the influence of the Nights from its first Occidental appearance in Antoine Galland’s French translation (1704-1717) and through the iterations of Edward Lane and Richard Burton, among others, Warner harvests fertile ground. Within five separate sections, she explores significant themes interspersed with retellings of fifteen stories from the Nights. As the title of Warner’s book reminds us, The Thousand and One Nights is a book of magic, although for us in the Occident, much of its magic may come from the interpretive powers of its translators (the eroticism of Burton springs most immediately to mind, although we must bear in mind that much of the spice in his retelling is contained in the voluminous footnotes). Still, as a collection of tales, it is impressive, deriving from Persian, Turkish, Chinese, Arabic, Egyptian, Indian, and God knows what other sources, and with the influence of some of the tales reaching as far as Chaucer’s England. But what is at least as impressive as the tales is the ingenious frame story: it hardly needs repeating how Sharazad saves herself from beheading by the Sultan Shariyar by entertaining her sister (and, silently, the Sultan) with stories within stories, extending through the night, through days of silence, to be resumed the next night. The doom that hovers over Sharazad is due to womanly treachery suffered by the Sultan and his brother, treachery for which all women must pay as each night the Sultan takes a virgin bride only to have her beheaded with the morning light. It is Sharazad’s accomplishment not only to save herself, but to also bend the Sultan’s distrust of women. Surely, the early stories contain their share of female treachery, but over time, Sharazad subtly introduces the theme of the pure and noble woman, capable of great love and sacrifice, and in this manner softens the Sultan’s heart (the Sultan also discovers, at the end of his thousand and one nights, that Sharazad has borne him two children!).

(As a sidenote, I must relate the curious fact that two of the most popular tales of the Nights, those of Aladdin and of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, do not actually appear in the original texts of the Nights, but were added by Galland, based upon oral tales related by an informant, a Christian Arab from Aleppo, after his original translations proved so successful that a series of sequels was warranted.)

It would be exhausting to relate the themes that Warner examines in 436 pages (not counting another hundred or so pages of glossary, notes, bibliography, and index). She touches on the medieval legend of Solomon the Wise King, a large figure in the mythology of three religions, and inspiration for countless tales of magians and alchemists; flying carpets and other enchanted objects; the description and use of talismans; the supernatural djinn; Voltaire’s Orientalist tales; Goethe’s East-West Divan; Beckford’s sublime and underknown gothic novel Vathek; flying machines; Lotte Reiniger’s silent film The Adventures of Prince Achmed; Aladdin as holiday pantomime; and the Persian carpet which adorned Freud’s couch, and upon which his patients explored their own subconscious as the tales of the Nights awaken our own.

Stranger Magic is an intense book, and one demanding of attention. Obviously, some of the themes Warner flits off after will hold more fascination than others, but the possibilities of the Nights seem endless, and one can’t fault the author for taking her thoughts wherever they lead. Keep this one on the shelf next to Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nights: A Companion, and Penguin’s superb and exhaustive recent three volume edition of The Arabian Nights in the Malcolm C. Lyons translation.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The House of the Vampire by George Sylvester Viereck

The vampire in this 1907 novel is of the psychic variety, a successful and remarkably arrogant author named Reginald Clarke, who steals the best thoughts from the most talented souls around him by a kind of mind invasion technique. He makes women blush and men swoon, especially young Ernest Fielding, his current victim. Poor Ernest finds that this man whom he worships has somehow extracted from his very soul a masterpiece of literature, which he passes as his own. While the narrator asserts that "all genuine art is autobiography", this doesn't stop this psychic leech from exploiting the talents of those around him, leaving them empty, wasted shells. Ernest joins with his new lover, Ethel Brandenbourg, in a brave attempt to rescue what is rightly his from Clarke, but he will have to contend with Clarke's almost superhuman force of personality and well-developed sense of contempt for lesser mortals. Despite the turn of the century philosophizing on the nature of creativity, and a genuinely chilling denoument, I'd have to rank this entertaining novel as only a touch above middling.

Available free for Kindle for Amazon Prime members.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Eccentric Spaces by Robert Harbison

John Soane House, London
I have picked at this book for years, finally deciding to read it straight through back in 2010. I keep my edition with my architecture books, but it is just as much a work of aesthetics and literary analysis. Harbison's themes are imagination and artifice in the human environment. He begins - as does man's mythic history - in the garden, where man seeks paradoxically to replicate and control the wildness of nature. He moves through various literary environments, such as Holmes' Baker Street sanctum (and what it says about the peculiar English concept of home, and the British comfort of living ensconced in a "pre-Freudian past"), the architectural oddities of Walpole's Strawberry Hill and the John Soane house, the Italian scene from ancient Rome down through Ruskin's Venice, Hawthorne's Marble Faun, Corvo's grotesque Don Renato and Radcliffe's gothic Mysteries of Udolpho. There is a masterful extended summary of Colonna's bizarre Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Harbison looks at the deliberate alienness of Flaubert’s Salammbo and the strange inertia of Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, which makes reference to one of Pater’s tweedy descendants:

It is a book of not doing and not being various things most people do and are, and is set in a remote time as a way of saying I cannot hear you, or I could not heed you so finally I can no longer hear you, or I could not heed you so finally I can no longer hear you. The book shows nothing as pronounced as renunciation, but makes a drama of abstention, the things one has not done are more memorable, life lies in deliberately unused possibility which is a preserved youth. Pater resembles in this his descendant C.S. Lewis, another cloistered child-scholar, who creates even more emphatically than Marius a life based on a dreamed recollection of generalized childhood.

The concluding essays address the world in miniature, our attempts to circumscribe, and, in a sense, immobilize the human landscape and artifacts through maps, museums, and catalogues.

Plan of William Beckford's Fonthill Abbey
Harbison’s book is, in part, a thoughtful commentary on semi-obscure literature such as Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte, Huysman’s La Cathedrale (“Like all converts, Huysmans supposes he does the faith a favor by becoming interested in it…”), and the aforementioned works of Colonna and Corvo. He also works in the obvious candidates, such as Kafka, Joyce and James. I have largely neglected to mention his no less impressive commentary on art and architecture, particularly that of Renaissance and 16th century Italy. Although Harbison’s arguments can induce some brow-wrinkling as one attempts to puzzle out his perspectives, as a whole, Eccentric Spaces is a remarkably engaging intellectual experience.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

Many of the world’s anti-semites live in blissful disregard of the false paternity of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document which purports to record a secret conclave of Jewish elders as they lay out their insidious plan for world domination by undermining the financial and moral foundations of the West.  Many years ago, in Texas, a co-worker loaned me his copy of the pamphlet, which he in turn had received as a premium from a small-town service station owner who, like Henry Ford before him, felt that this vile fabrication was deserving of a wider audience.

Arriving at the turn of the 20th century, and discredited as fabrication cobbled together from fragments of fiction and fantasy soon after, the Protocols were inessential for the Jew-hater, but they held, and in some quarter still hold, a place of honor as proof positive that the slanders of centuries were true, that the Jews, the rats inhabiting the cellar of humanity, were laying humbly in wait for the moment to strike at the bosom of the Christian West. Every move of the Jew was, almost by definition, deceptive and manipulative: they suffered (or, some might say, exploited) the degradations of the ghetto and the periodic pogroms as they bided their time. They secretly encouraged godlessness and the freedoms of the so-called “Enlightenment” in order to weaken the power of the Church and the princes of the West, and to encourage a moral laxity that would rot civilization from the inside.

We love a conspiracy, because we love the feeling that we are in possession of a great truth, the feeling that we have stolen a look behind the veil and have seen the world as it really is, not as the false reality that the foolish take at face value. And we love a scapegoat - a people on whom we can blame the ills of society. Any scapegoat will do, but few have had the pedigree of the Jews, who reached a climax of vulgarity when they murdered the Savior of the World, and duly suffered for it while paradoxically nurturing a secret network, digging labyrinthine tunnels beneath the bulwarks of order because they had a master plan (conspiracy is meaningless without a master plan) to enslave humanity and avenge the ills visited upon them for their deicide. For those willing to believe, the West has been in a race for centuries against this threat, which those in power have been content to ignore, for their wealth and power come from their being in cahoots, being willing to sell out their own for their own gain. There were occasional “cleansings” -slaughters and burnings - but a final solution was elusive, the Jews being protected by those they had manipulated into thinking they had something to gain by shielding them from all but minor harassments.

Such is the fantasy, such is the slander which led to the great conflagration of the last century, a pyre which the Protocols played their part in igniting. One must commend Umberto Eco, a 20th/21st century European, for being willing to scratch at the scab of anti-semitism and show us the proximate roots of that Holocaust. Ingeniously, and with his customary erudition, he weaves a novel of the strands of 19th century violence and social upheaval, of the various spectres haunting Europe. As he has made clear in interviews, all the characters save one (the central one) are actual, historical figures. Eco’s skill is to - as he did with his masterwork of occult conspiracy, Foucault’s Pendulum - construct a credible narrative of disparate elements which moves towards an inevitable and preordained (by subsequent history) conclusion. The fact that he can sustain this narrative for almost 450 pages under the narration of one of the most noxious characters in recent fiction, the repulsive forger Simone Simonini is, in itself, a commendable feat.

The plot itself defies easy summary. Needless to say (and again as with Foucault’s Pendulum) the attentive reader will have fun noting in the margins the dizzying references to a plethora of literary and historical figures, and if one is so inclined, reading the novel with Wikipedia close at hand might be fruitful as well, if one is unacquainted with, for instance, the works of the once popular and now forgotten novelist Eugene Sue (author of The Mysteries of Paris and The Wandering Jew) and a couple dozen other historical figures besides. One would have to be remarkably well-versed in European history to not need a crib sheet on, for instance, the Risorgimento or the Dreyfus Affair, as a means of deciphering Eco’s multi-layered narrative. Still, for those willing to spend some time and effort in unfamiliar territory as a means of gaining new insight into the origins of one of the most contemptible horrors of the 20th century, the exercise will be enlightening and - if it’s not inappropriate to say - entertaining.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Homo Sapiens: A Novel in Three Parts by Stanislaw Przybyszewski

*Spoilers Ahead*

Published in the years 1895-96, Przybyszewski’s Homo Sapiens is a trilogy of novellas comprised of Overboard, Under Way, and In the Maelstrom, detailing the rise and moral unraveling of a young Polish author in 1890’s Berlin and, according to George Schoolfield in his A Baedeker of Decadence, contains more than a modicum of autobiographical reference. Erik Falk is an aspiring superman and nascent anarchist who, in these episodes, leaves a trail of suicide and broken spirits in his wake. The first novella describes his seduction of Isa, the girlfriend of an original and promising artist (modeled after Edvard Munch). Self-satisfied, he escapes with his prize even as the artist kills himself in despair. In the second installment, Falk, now with a wife and child at home, goes on an extended trip to his home town, and there becomes obsessed with the seduction in mind and body of a pious young girl. With his mission accomplished, he again takes his leave. Abandoned, and learning that Falk has a wife and son back in Berlin, the girl drowns herself in the river.

In the Maelstrom continues Falk’s downward spiral. Already an alcoholic, and with yet another mistress and child hidden discreetly away, he becomes obsessed with threats by an acquaintance, a former political ally with whom he has fallen out, to reveal his secret life to Isa. Falk brings others into a web of deception, and, when deepening despair brings him to thoughts of suicide, he finds himself lacking the courage, and so goads another anarchic socialist acquaintance, who maintains some curiously bourgeois sensibilities, into challenging him to a duel of honor in the hope that the man will kill him. But fate has other plans, and, now abandoned by his wife, Falk gets out with nary a scratch. Buoyed by a sense of egotistical invincibility and cleansed, through monomania and psychic degradation, of all the binds of family and social obligation, he coolly picks himself up, finds another woman, and strides off to begin again.

Homo Sapiens was published in English translation by Knopf in 1915, with a laudatory introduction praising Przybyszewski as Poland’s greatest living author. However, as Schoolfield notes, the “obscenity” of the subject matter, combined with the author’s pro-German sympathies during the First World War effectively marginalized him from the English-speaking world. Some of his works, including the 1915 edition of Homo Sapiens, can be found on Internet Archive, albeit in a somewhat overwrought translations which would likely benefit by some updating. The political concerns of the time, which result in a couple of long digressions in the book, hold no special interest for most readers anymore, but Schoolfield’s essay gives a good overview of the presence of the anarchic terrorist in a surprisingly wide range of works of the time from Conrad to Bely, and from Conan Doyle to Chesterton. The theme of the Nietzschean anti-hero who abandons the strictures of conventional morality was becoming a convention of philosophical literature at the time this trilogy was written, and would continue through to Brecht’s Baal and beyond. If you can deal with the issues inherent in a translation almost a century old, I’d recommend fellow devotees of decadent literature to seek this one out.

Friday, February 03, 2012

From The Meadows of Gold by Mas'udi

Translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, and issued in 2007 in Penguin’s “Great Journeys” series, this volume is a small selection from Mas’udi’s massive historical encyclopedia Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems, of which the only other English translation appears to have been the volume published in 1841 by Aloys Sprenger under the auspices of the Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain. A complete translation of the five volumes would be a daunting task. It appears that the Penguin selection functioned as a preview of a larger work envisioned for publication as a Penguin Classic, however, I have found no indication that this project is advancing.*

Written in the tenth century in Baghdad, Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems is an encyclopedic universal history, based not only upon Mas’udi’s researches, but on his extensive travels as well. He gives descriptions of the lands and customs of Islamic Spain, the Mediterranean, Frankish Europe, the Norsemen, the Slavs, and the various tribes of the Caucasus and beyond. He also ventures descriptions of Egypt and Africa, India, China, Southeast Asia, and the Indonesian archipelago. This volume, being such a radical abridgement, gives but a taste of the larger work, to which Mas’udi brings a remarkably cosmopolitan eye.

In the Sprenger edition, Mas’udi notes that he has given his work a rich name “in order to excite a desire and curiosity after its contents, and to make the mind eager to become acquainted with history.” Having perused the Sprenger, I would have to say that it is a real treat, a fountain of lore beginning with the creation of the world, tracing, in the Arabic iteration, the story of the Old Testament and the life of Jesus, moving on to the history and religion of the Indian subcontinent, then to a general discussion of geography and astronomy, seas and rivers, oceanography, the Chinese Empire, island peoples, Spain, perfumes, the Caucasus tribes (with special attention to the Khazars, who adopted Judaism after conference with representatives of the three Abrahamic religions), Russia, the Byzantine Empire, and an entertaining diversion regarding the distribution and astonishing habits of monkeys.

The present translation, though laudable, doesn’t hold a candle to the 1841 edition, which one can easily access through Internet Archive. The Penguin is, for me, too disjointed, breaking the narrative into mostly short paragraphs on diverse subjects (the histories of chess and backgammon, electric catfish), which are, by turns, informative and fantastic. Still, in any version, Masu’udi is an entertaining guide, deserving of his reputation as an Arabic Herodotus, a prodigious traveler, historian, and naturalist. Sadly, only two of his known thirty-six works have survived. Despite lapses into pedantry, they are deserving of a larger audience.

*Apparently a selection focusing exclusively on Mas'udi's account of the Abbasid Dynasty has been published.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney

A charming and satiric fantasy. Dr. Lao's circus pulls into the dusty little town of Abalone, Arizona, beguiling the jaded residents with impossible creatures and tapping into their deepest dreams and desires. Published in 1935, Finney's book is escapist entertainment, but with a particular bite. The residents are, for the most part singularly unimpressed with the parade of chimeras, satyrs, sea serpents, hermaphrodites and unicorns.

Dr. Lao is a stereotypical eastern sage, speaking in an appropriately musical Charlie Chan voice, herein exasperated with a family of skeptics:

"Whatsah mattah? You tink someblody makeum fool allah time. I no fool you. You come this place looky look; you looky look. By Glod, I no charge you nothing. You go in flor nothing; takeum whole dam family flor nothing. You see: I no fool you. This place no catchum fake. This my show, by Glod!"

But falling into carney-speak when the mood strikes:

"Don't be foolin' with that animal, mister..."

While the men attend a risque tent show, the town Lonelyhearts consults Apollonius of Tyana for a fortunetelling session, a session in which, at wit's end at the woman's persistence, the oracle is forced to give it to her straight:

"Well, I paid you, read my future."

"Tomorrow will be like today, and the day after tomorrow will be like day before yesterday," said Apollonius. "I see your remaining days each as quiet, tedious collections of hours. You will not travel anywhere. You will think no new thoughts. You will experience no new passions. Older you will become but not wiser. Stiffer but not more dignified. Childless you are, and childless you shall remain. Of that suppleness you once commanded in your youth, of that strange simplicity which once attracted a few men to you, neither endures, nor shall you recapture any of them anymore. People will talk to you and visit with you out of sentiment or pity, not because you have anything to offer them. Have you ever seen an old cornstalk turning brown, dying, but refusing to fall over, upon which stray birds alight now and then, hardly remarking what it is they perch on? That is you. I cannot fathom your place in life's economy. A living thing should either create or destroy according to its capacity and caprice, but you, you do neither. You only live on dreaming of the nice things you would like to have happen to you but which never happen; and you wonder vaguely why the young lives about you which you occasionally chide for a fancied impropriety never listen to you and seem to flee at your approach. When you die you will be buried and forgotten and that is all. The morticians will enclose you in a worm-proof casket, thus sealing even unto eternity the clay of your uselessness. And for all the good or evil, creation or destruction, that your living might have accomplished, you might just as well has never lived at all. I cannot see the purpose in such a life. I can see in it only vulgar, shocking waste."

"I thought you said you didn't evaluate lives", snapped Mrs. Cassan.

The evening ends in a an impossible phantasmagoria under the bigtop, with a full scale sacrificial ritual to the great god Yottle complete with virgins, a spectacular from which the townsfolk file out and home to bed, to rest and rise another day.

Finney supplies a detailed and hilarious appendix cataloging in minute detail the residents of the town, the beasts, and the questions and contradictions in the book that pass unresolved. The Bison Books edition includes the wonderful illustrations by the appropriately exotically named Boris Artzybasheff. Terrific fun.

A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

I have no critical expertise with regard to science fiction, and don’t count myself as a particular fan of the genre, but no such expertise is necessary in making the assertion that A Voyage to Arcturus is a seminal novel with far reaching influence in the realms of science fiction and fantasy. Published in 1920 in the aftermath of the Great War, Lindsay’s novel represents a quest for a utopia, a philosophical search for the ideal condition to which man must aspire, but doomed to end in the pessimism which was the enduring legacy of that war. Tweedy ol’ Professor Lewis found in this book inspiration for his own Space Trilogy, and recommended it highly to Professor Tolkien. Decades later, Harold Bloom praised the novel enthusiastically, and, picking up on the many Gnostic elements in the tale, attempted a sequel, a Gnostic fantasy entitled The Flight to Lucifer.

There are certainly others who have made a touchstone of this novel. It is a classic of science fiction, but not the comparatively mundane sci-fi of Verne and Wells, but rather a whole different breed. There is little in the way of hardware or mechanics of space travel: there are no ray-guns or esoteric technologies (the means by which the protagonist, Maskull reaches the Arcturian planet Tormance is almost laughable: the flimsy spacecraft is projected back to Arcturus by means of some “reverse rays”, kept corked in a bottle, which travel back to their source), but one can easily imagine the producers of a film like “Avatar” seeking inspiration in the exotic and dynamic life forms of Tormance.

The hero Maskull, who is himself a bit of an odd duck on planet Earth, witnesses a strange physical manifestation during a séance in an English country house. He is approached by a stranger, the demonic Krag, who proposes that he and a companion meet at an abandoned observatory in order to partake in a particular adventure – travel to the region of Arcturus, a distant binary star system. The scenes in the observatory are weird enough, for the structure is clearly a portal through time and space, but once on Tormance, the magical mystery tour begins in earnest. I won’t catalogue the personalities Maskull encounters in the strange realms of this distant world. His adventures are rather episodic, with each encounter exemplifying a particular lifestyle seen by its adherents as ideal, and while there are various ethical and moral viewpoints presented, Lindsay most definitely has some perspectives on sexuality that were ahead of their time.

Once on Tormance, Maskull finds he has the peculiar ability to sprout (and lose) extra limbs and manifest new sense organs as necessitated by the situation. This seems to be entirely appropriate to the planet, which in itself seems to be in a constant state of dynamic change. There are strange life forms and landscapes that seem to mutate constantly, and new colors occasioned by the fact that each of the two suns around which the planet revolves emit an idiosyncratic spectrum of light. One can detect some Buddhist concepts floating around in this novel, none perhaps so obvious as the Buddha’s admonition that “change is inherent in all things”: on Tormance, change appears to be fast and constant. Lindsay invents some remarkable descriptions for the planet, and they are one of the beauties of this well-imagined novel.

Another peculiarity of Tormance is that it appears to be a sort of ghost world. The entities that Maskull encounters are almost all solitary, or at least live in solitary surroundings. Again, there is no indication of “civilization”, and no evidence of advanced technologies. The higher powers, which must be imagined as dieties, seem to be specific to the planet, and do not seem to possess omnipotence, another mark of the Gnostic demiurge. It almost seems to be a planet of anchorites, each integrated into a unique landscape, or perhaps into its own private heaven or hell.

Maskull was invited to Tormance with the full understanding that his death would be inevitable. The few days’ time in which the narrative takes place form a quest, a quest for a Gnostic demiurge known variously as Shaping, Surtur, and Crystalman (the latter being known primarily through the sardonic death mask which reshapes the face of the deceased immediately after death - a remembrance, perhaps, of the war dead Lindsay had seen in the trenches). One must also mention that Maskull has the odd and disturbing compulsion to murder just about every sentient being that crosses his path on this alien world, either through anger, self defense, or simple misadventure. Maskull is quite the fickle soul, making an earnest promise to the first ethereal space sylph he meets to abstain from eating any living thing during his sojourn (the intoxicating water should suffice), but abandoning the vow at the first whiff of some extraterrestrial barbecue. In fact, for all his avowed independence, Maskull seems to be putty in the hands of every alien he meets, coming round to each of their unique philosophical points of view with alarming facility. The downside of this (for the alien, that is) is that he doesn’t need much persuasion to bash one alien’s head in with a handy rock so that he can move on to the next chapter of his intergalactic pilgrim’s progress, for Maskull is heading for a revelation, and he ain’t got time to waste.

Fascinating as it is in places, A Voyage to Arcturus has, through much of its narrative a rather tedious quality for the 21st century reader. It is one of those influential novels the daring of which has become blunted with time and imitations, but which was close to inaccessible for its contemporaries. It is certainly a necessary read for anyone interested in the roots of modern fantasy and science fiction. It is available as a volume in Gollancz’s excellent “Fantasy Masterworks” series, and in an edition of Bison’s equally worthwhile “Frontiers of Imagination” series.