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.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Three Imposters by Arthur Machen

The press notices included in the appendix to my Everyman edition of The Three Imposters (1895) testify to the almost universal revulsion this novel induced upon publication. The Liverpool Mercury - which one must assume comes down firmly on the side of the necessity of moral fiction - reported that “(n)o one can be made happier or better by such a book as this, but on the contrary the reader’s mind is likely to become stored with images and ideas that cannot but have an undesirable effect.” The Liverpool Courier was even more blunt in declaring “Ugh! A more repulsive catalogue of horrors it would be difficult to imagine, and its existence can only be attributed to the occasional perversity of man.” Other reviewers simply found the book unimpressive, and derivative of the recent work of Stevenson, particularly his New Arabian Nights, a debt which Machen seems to readily acknowledge in his characterizations and plot devices. In short, Machen tended to be seen as a sensationalist, dwelling on the ugly and repulsive, and making the clear choice of reveling in the descriptive horror of the grotesque, rather than leaving anything to the imagination. Machen himself disavowed all but a couple of episodes in the book.

From a distance of more than a century, we can appreciate the book on its own merits, and recognize its publication as a signal event in the development of the fiction of the weird and uncanny. This novel is, to me, greater than the sum of its parts, although the parts have merit on their own. Within the frame story of the elusive character of the “young man with spectacles” the book is largely a collection of tales of the demonic and grotesque, there are weird tentacled humans, dripping with slime such as might warm the heart of a Lovecraft fanatic (as it did Lovecraft himself), a Jekyll and Hyde character (another homage to Stevenson) who taps into his atavistic demons in the “Novel of the White Powder”, and a secret society whose tentacles are metaphorical, if none the less deadly. There are scenes of grisly torture, and a moment or two of grim humor besides (note: always read the instructions for your new torture devices before operating!).

The novel utilizes a minor “a long the riverrun” device, and I can’t imagine turning the last page without proceeding immediately to the first, as the ending elucidates the Prologue. Beyond the individual stories told by the so-called “imposters”, there is an undercurrent of deception and evil intent. The imposters are on the trail of the gold Tiberius, a rare talismanic coin which serves as this novel’s macguffin. The central pigeon is a Mr. Dyson, a hapless figure only slightly less clueless than his friend, Mr. Phillipps. It is he who hears from the imposters the series of improbable tales regarding the (supposedly) sinister young man with spectacles, and the two are witness to the morbid denoument in a dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of London.

The Three Imposters is an extended piece of strange fiction which enthusiastically utilizes Machen’s favorite themes of cruel human obsession and demonic atavism as presented in The Great God Pan and The Hill of Dreams. It is an entertaining work, with a nice balance of horror and humor, and it has survived its critics to become a classic of the genre.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Two Novels of Horror and Suspense from the 1970s

William Hallahan's The Search for Joseph Tully is one of a number of supernatural thrillers dating from the late 60’s-early 70’s that include Rosemary’s Baby, The Other (see below), and the best of the lot, The Exorcist. This particular story centers on a dual narrative involving Peter Richardson, a Brooklynite having horrible, maddening premonitions of death, and Matthew Willow, a British genealogist searching for the descendants of one Joseph Tully, a resident of London in the year of Our Lord 1779. The book is a decent page turner, even though one figures out pretty quickly just how the narratives are likely to intersect in the latest iteration of the eternal recurrence of a revenge narrative necessitated by events in the gruesome prologue, set in a Roman catacomb in 1498, in which two bound men are sickeningly pierced, sliced and decapitated by a red hot sword. The dramatis personae are mainly the residents of Brevoort House, a decrepit building awaiting the wrecking ball and include the obligatory clairvoyant; an artist who dies trying to warn Richardson of his impending doom by means of a creepy mural; and a defrocked priest with a deep interest in the teachings of Giordano Bruno regarding the transmigration of souls. The story attempts to make genealogical research sexy - with limited success – although this angle does underline the perspective that we are attending to a story that spans centuries and the lives of numerous individuals. Mr. Hallahan apparently had an abiding interest in Pre-Revolutionary American, having written a couple of nonfiction works set in this time frame, and he fleshes out this book with descriptive passages on life in the wilds of colonial New Jersey.

This book is nicely atmospheric, with the backdrop of a suitably bleak winter with the wind cutting through the pages like a steel blade (hint, hint). Still, I found the ending unsatisfyingly abrupt for my taste. It seems Millipede Press brought out a nice new edition of this book a few years ago, but Hollywood apparently resisted the temptation to add it to the list of supernatural horror flicks that deluged theaters in the wake of the film adaptations of the aforementioned works.

A subgenre of the thriller/horror film trend of the early 1970’s was the gruesome “evil child” melodrama, one of which was derived from Thomas Tryon's novel The Other. Tryon’s novel is indeed gruesome and melodramatic, as well as gratingly pretentious in places. But it has not aged too badly, despite having been subsequently swamped by the Stephen King tidal wave of popular horror fiction. It has all the hallmarks of latter-day gothic – a creaky and labyrinthine old New England house, strange children with strange powers, insanity, a family seemingly under a dark curse, comfortingly predicable plot twists, and a satisfyingly sufficient number of creepy deaths. There are those who hail The Other as a significant work of modern horror, and, not having read widely in modern horror, I won’t argue the point. A quick and passably entertaining read.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The World Through Blunted Sight: An Inquiry Into The Influence of Defective Vision On Art and Character by Patrick Trevor-Roper

This book has gone through a few editions since its first publication in 1970. I first read it many years ago (I seem to associate it with a rather enthusiastic recommendation by Anthony Burgess), and was pleased to find that my enjoyment has not diminished on a second reading. Written by a renowned ophthalmologist, it looks at specific visual deficiencies and their effects on art and artists. In another sense, it is also an examination of how our perception of the world is influenced by the brain’s interpretation of sensory, particulary visual, stimuli.

Trevor-Roper is an enthusiastic author, with a knowledge of evolutionary biology as well as art history, and writes particularly well on ophthalmological conditions with a minimum of jargon. The book is loaded with anecdotes and interesting divergences (for instance, it is remarked that Aristotle, Milton, and Goethe shared the belief that there were only three colors evident in a rainbow), although I would have to say that some of Trevor-Roper’s assertions and conclusions strain credibility (I believe that his identification of personality types based on visual acuity are rather broad and clumsy, ignoring much more significant factors). He also has a Eurocentric - or rather a latent Imperial - bias that is too easily dismissive of “primitive” art in favor of the “high” art of Constable, Turner, El Greco and Cezanne, although, admittedly, those artists are more instructive for his purposes. Still, there is much in this text that is fascinating, and it deserves its reputation as a sort of overlooked classic.

Image: Brueghel's "The Blind Leading the Blind" or, "The Parable of the Blind". Trevor-Roper notes "the five beggars...representing, from left to right, ocular pemphigus with secondary corneal opacities, photophobia possibly from an active kerato-uveitis, phthisis bulbi and corneal leucomata. A similar painting by Hokusai has the blind man descending from right to left, possibly reflecting his racial directional gaze."

Monday, July 18, 2011

Elias, or The Struggle with the Nightingales by Maurice Gilliams

First off, I am somewhat puzzled by the lack of interest in this book. On LibraryThing, I seem to have the only English translation, that being the one issued by Sun and Moon Press in 1995. Its representation in the original Dutch isn’t overwhelming either: there are 42 copies noted, and with an average rating of two and a half stars (it fares better on Amazon). Now, the back of my copy indicates that this semi-autobiographical novel, the first of a trilogy, is widely read in Belgium and Holland, and yet I find it somewhat strange that Sun and Moon describes the book as a “children’s classic”. Unless your child has the uncheerful aspect of a diminutive Ingmar Bergman, I just can’t see this as a beloved children’s book.

Elias is a coming of age story, a short episodic novel about the life and impressions of a twelve year old boy living on a country estate with his mother (his father is, curiously, absent for most of the book) and a variety of aunts, uncles, and cousins. His strongest attachment is to a cousin four years his senior, a self-willed young man named Aloysius, who neglects his studies, and pushes back against the stifling and hypocritical adults of the household. He and Elias sleep in the same bed, and share their sense of isolation, making small paper boats which they set loose in a small brook on the estate. In a pivotal moment early in the book, following a creepy family party in which some of the children are made to act out the roles of two recently dead children, Aloysius leads Elias to a clearing in the woods, where they meet two young girls and spend the night engaged in dancing, singing, and other mysterious rites, wherein Elias feels “searching lips come and burst into blossom on (his) hammering temples.”

After this nights revelry, Aloysius fades into the background of the story for a while, eventually returning to boarding school, where his failure to engage with his studies will have consequences. Elias focuses on the behaviors of his older relatives, particularly his aunts, the strict pedagogue Theodora; Zenobia, who fights with and frets over the free willed Uncle Augustin; and Henrietta, with the long blonde hair, addicted to pills, who is going mad and to whom Elias has an awakening erotic attraction. There is an ancient Grandmother, wheeled from room to room, and other children who are largely silent and unseen. Elias’ only other intimate is his cousin Hermione, “very nervous, thin, transparently pale, and given to sudden crazy ideas.” How Edward Gorey missed out on illustrating this book, I can't imagine.

The narrative is made up of young Elias’ impressions of the people and events around him. He sits with his Grandmother and muses on the fact that what she sees through her dimmed eyes, and her memories of the estate, are so very different from his own. He muses on her inevitable death (death, too, is a preoccupation of the book: in one episode, he follows Aloysius through the night to stand outside the window of a villager as his family and neighbors sing his wake, with Aloysius singing along silently for the soul of the stranger) and the doings of his crazy Aunt Henrietta. He is troubled by her, not least erotically. He goes to his room, but cannot sleep:

This is what the speechless stone walls of the room are teaching me tonight. They, too, die to nothing behind the outer shine of what they hide in their denseness. You can bruise them with hammer-blows, stick wallpaper on them at whim, soil them with ink spots in childlike revulsion. They will keep their secret, even if you were to destroy them stone by stone. With almost microscopically small letters I write on them: Lucifer’s regal name. I cannot immediately express in words what I mean by it; it does not matter anyway. I go to sleep, at peace again. I sin of my own free will, fully conscious of what I am doing, to placate the monsters of my imagination.

Aloysius’ obstinate refusal to apply himself at school (and at home, under Theodora’s punishingly sadistic gaze) means he will be shipped off to join the navy. In turn, a trunk materializes, and Elias’s mother demurely packs it under the harsh eyes of Theodora. As they get the carriage ready to transport Elias to the school about which Aloysius has told him such horror stories, later recanted - “it won’t be bad for you” - it is decided that it is an opportune time for Theodora to shoot the estate’s ailing old dog. Aloysius tears apart his rosary, tossing the little wooden beads into the brook and letting the cross be buried in the sand: later Elias searches for it in vain. He finds the swampy basin where the paper boats have come to their end, without ever having reached the sea. As he rides off in the carriage, Elias has the heartwrenching realization of the universal adolescent: “I have to choke back my anger until I feel sick; I cannot understand the need for this - why does it have to be so sad, and so unjust?”

Maurice Gilliams made his mark as a poet, and there is a real lyricism in this book. It forms the first portion of a trilogy, although it doesn’t appear that Sun and Moon was able to complete publication of the additional volumes. It would be a precocious child who found satisfaction in the bitter and fatalistic page of this “children’s classic”, (although it rivals The Catcher in the Rye in its portrayal of the hypocrisy of the adult world) and while the narrative flows rather languorously, with minimal dialogue, I found this to be an affecting and engaging, if dark, coming of age story.

(No product link, as the Amazon page for this product is remarkably screwed up. I wouldn't recommend ordering from there.)

Monday, June 13, 2011

50 Watts showcased in The Atlantic

An old acquaintance from LibraryThing and a connoisseur of book illustration and design (as well as a favorite of many followers of this blog), Will "Journey Around My Skull" Schofield was recently showcased by Steven Heller in The Atlantic.

50 Watt is a real treasure for lovers of books and design, and an obvious labor of love! I would steal so many of his illustrations, if it weren't so obvious where they came from.

Congratulations to Will on this well-deserved attention.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Die Nachtwachen des Bonaventura / The Nightwatches of Bonaventura

A review begun but never completed, rediscovered this evening. Apologies for its incompleteness, but as this is a book which one must come back to, perhaps a fuller assessment can be made at some future date…

An air of mystery surrounds the authorship (now generally attributed to Ernst August Friedrich Klingemann) of this work of high pessimism from the early German Romantic era. The Nightwatches are scattered and sometimes confusing statements on the vanity of human existence in a hostile and meaningless universe. The narrator is a foundling and former poet; in the madhouse he plays Hamlet to Ophelia, an actress who has adopted the mask as her own face, who dies in childbirth, and who he will glimpse again as a grinning corpse, snuggling with the infant in the grave. The madhouse, quite simply, is the world itself, with the inhabitants rushing about in various delusional guises, marionettes in a cosmic farce The watchman wanders the darkened, colorless streets, witnessing episodes of pathos and farce, raging against human manipulation and oppression, exemplified by the frequent appearance of marionettes in the narrative. For amusement, he rouses the town with the pronouncement of a false apocalypse, he composes a funeral oration for the birth of a child, and a too-pointed satire upon a local worthy lands him in the madhouse. The narrative takes the form of sixteen “night watches”. A dark cloud of hopeless despair covers this midnight shadow world, the shadow world of life, which someone famously described as a dream (nightmare?) from which we struggle to awake.

As a work of fiction, there are frustrations in the Nightwatches. The narrative is chronologically confused, and there are strange devices such as the tale of Don Juan, told twice – once as a straight narrative and then immediately afterwards as a marionette play. There are abrupt changes in focus and disconcerting alternations between sardonic wit and outright nihilistic rage against the injustices of being. Not only textually difficult, the book itself is rather difficult to find, at least in an affordable edition. My copy of this book was published in 1972 by the Edinburgh University Press in a bilingual edition. I have recently discovered a 1968 thesis translation by Elmar Theissen online. Thanks to benwaugh for alerting his acolytes to the existence of this unique - and uniquely disturbing - work.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Doctor Sleep by Madison Smartt Bell

Doctor Sleep, published in 1991, is a novel describing three frantic days in the life of an insomniac American expatriate, an ex-addict practicing hypnotherapy in West London. In the absence of real sleep, the protagonist, Adrian Strother, externalizes his subconscious by immersing himself in the hermeticism of Giordano Bruno. This obsession, one suspects, also acts as a substitute for the dangerous ecstasies of heroin, a habit which Adrian managed to kick a few years previously by an act of will.

While hermetic philosophy gives Adrian an inner framework for assigning a metaphysical order to the universe (and a conduit for the higher powers to which he aspires) his life on this mundane plane of existence is a bit of a shambles. His girlfriend, alienated by his restlessness and inner turmoil, has left, and he is currently suffering unwelcome intrusions into his life by acquaintances from his days on the streets, including a reformed addict named Stuart, who has found Jesus and is attempting to establish rehabilitation centers in England, and Nicole, an ex-prostitute and girlfriend of Stuart’s who beat her cruelly and who Adrian had somehow managed to marry in their wild days, although they never cohabitated and their relationship was anything but conventional. Adrian’s constant is a West Indian bartender, Terence, with whom he practices a particularly brutal form of Korean martial arts. (The punishing aspect of the martial arts sessions, the physical consequences of which – including a possible concussion - Adrian carries for the course of the novel, is clearly a form of self-punishment, or spiritual cleansing that Adrian must subject himself to for the sins of his past. It also provides him a necessary focus for his mental and physical energies.) Other essential elements of the novel are a patient of Adrian’s, an agoraphobic whose secret shame comes out in hypnotherapy, a sadistic West End crime lord, a shadowy Scotland Yard official for whom Adrian does freelance work, and a series of child rapes/murders that grace the covers of the lurid British tabloids.

The novel runs on adrenaline, following Adrian’s ceaseless transits of London during Carnival as it is celebrated by West Indian immigrants (Bell has also written a trilogy of novels set in Haiti). The narrative, it grieves me to say, drags in places, and seems largely unfocussed until we reach the last quarter or so of the novel, when the pieces begin to fall into place for a conclusion that is not, in my opinion, completely satisfying. Bell is good at showing Adrian’s increasing raggedness and mental diffusion as he drinks, gets beaten (both willingly and not), suffers hallucinations, contemplates the fate of Bruno, searches for his estranged girlfriend, gets dragged to jail and to meetings with kingpins on (ostensibly, at least) both sides of the law, performs a particularly creepy act of hypnotism, agonizes over a lethargic pet snake (in the novel’s most blatant act of kundalini symbolism), drowns a sick mouse and, over the same bathroom sink, pries the blade from a disposable razor for use as a means for himself to slip the surly bonds of earthy existence.

Doctor Sleep is an intelligent thriller, capable of sustaining interest despite its meandering flow. It was, curiously, made into a film entitled “Close Your Eyes”, with a screenplay by Bell, which seems from its description to have absolutely nothing to do with the novel other than having a hypnotist as a main character. Bell’s novel might actually have made a decent Roman Polanski film, with its arc of brutality, insomnia, and psychic disintegration.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard

Published in German as Verstorung (“Bewilderment”) in 1967, and given the imprecise title Gargoyles in the 1970 translation by Richard and Clara Winston, this is Thomas Bernhard’s first novel. It is a bitter pill, describing the day-long trajectory of a young engineering student as he accompanies his country doctor father on his rounds among the hopeless inhabitants of Austria’s rural Styria.

The first 80 pages introduce us to some increasingly grotesque figures as the two make a Dantean pilgrimage deep into the granite defile of a remote mountain gorge leading upwards to the Saurau Castle, Hochgobernitz. Bernard’s pessimism regarding the human condition is laid out clearly in these vignettes. The first episode, which haunts the book, relates the casual murder of an innkeeper’s wife by a drunken miner. We also meet an old woman whose world has shrunken to the dimensions of a stale, unkempt bedroom as she awaits death, who relates her contempt for her stupid and brutish son, born of her and her educated husband, now dead. She dreads the Sunday visits of the son and his nasty family, whom she regards with loathing. There is also an industrialist with a mania for solitude, who lives sequestered in his country house, from which all comforts have been banished, with his nervous sister, with whom he appears to have formed an incestuous attachment. The industrialist works obsessively at a bare desk with pen and paper, preparing his great work “which might possibly boil down to a single thought.” Silently, as they make their rounds, the doctor and his son anguish over the ruptures and insurmountable obstacles in their own relationship, and in their relationship with the boy’s sister, who is apparently descending into psychosis.

Over lunch, the two discuss a former patient, a young schoolteacher who has committed an impropriety with a “nervous boy” and whose psyche had been shattered by his subsequent trials such that his only occupation had become the composition of remarkable pen drawings of a world “intent upon self-destruction,” with “birds torn to pieces, human tongues ripped out by the roots, eight-fingered hands, smashed heads, extremities torn from bodies not shown, feet, hands, genitals, people suffocated as they walked, and so on.” The doctor relates how he marveled at the teachers idiosyncratic surrealism, which has something original in that “there was nothing surreal in his drawings, what they showed was reality itself.”

Leaving the restaurant, the son’s eyes fall upon a group of schoolchildren and he reflects “what gruesome people these innocent creatures will inevitably become…” They approach a mill, where the workers torment a Turkish hired hand and engage in the systematic killing of the exotic birds in the proprietor’s aviary, for their cries, echoing through the gorge, are driving the denizens mad. They hope to preserve the birds, which they have laid out on a plank in full view of their doomed fellows, through crude taxidermy so that they may repopulate the aviary with the lush plumage of their silent remains.

Before reaching the castle, there is one more unnerving stop. They visit a violent and deformed young musical genius, kept safely locked in a caged bed. This young man has posted annotated portraits of the great composers around the room, labeling Hayden as “Swine”, Berlioz as “Horrible”, Schubert as “Womanish”, but noting Mozart’s greatness and the phrase “I am listening!” across Bartok’s face. As they leave, the son notes the broken necked violins hanging bundled by a cord.

Among the madness and degeneration of these subjects, we detect a theme relating to the inversion of creativity – futile attempts to come to grips with human reality through the artifices of philosophy, art, and music. A certain control, an ordering of reality, is sought, but slips away. One can only ponder the inexplicable vagaries - and the inconsistent bestowal - of genius, which lurks at the borderline of insanity. This descent into hell, however, is but a prologue to what lies ahead, for, like the immense Lucifer chewing the flesh of the arch-sinners in the icy pit of Hell, the mad Prince of the Sauraus waits on the walls of Hochgobernitz Castle.

Although patriarch of a small household, the Prince maintains a queer and solitary existence. He lives in a state of extreme misanthropic solipsism and despair, and the doctor seems to have become his sole confidant. He patrols the inner and outer walls obsessively, keeping an eye on his vast forested estates. He has, in fact, only this morning broken his solitude for the purpose of interviewing three potential overseers for his estates, a task he approaches half-heartedly, for he is convinced (through the testimony of a dream) that his son, currently studying and preparing a socio-philosophical thesis in London, is intent on not just dismantling the ancestral lands upon the Prince’s demise, but on allowing the forest and fields to rot into the ground.

The last hundred pages of the novel are a Beckettian tour-de-force of sustained monologue, a stream-of-consciousness binge of logorrhea, with its leitmotif being the utter hopelessness of human life and aspirations. The monologue is delivered in a voice once removed, as it is related to us through the recollection of the doctor’s son, who meticulously notes the old man’s obsessions. The Prince’s visitors are mostly silent, a state which the Prince clearly prefers (“Incidentally, the art of listening is nearly extinct. But I observe that you, Doctor, are still practicing it”, says the Prince in the novel’s only true comedic moment, coming over halfway into the monologue) - he has no interest in the opinions of others. He relates minute preoccupations and paranoias (he accuses the entire household, one by one, of having stolen and read a small notebook that he keeps and has inadvertently – or subconsciously – left on the kitchen table), and approaches his dreams as verified realities. He is clearly sliding down a steep slope towards madness.

The Prince’s monologue gives the book as a whole an apparent sense of unbalance, yet it is effective in that it touches the themes presented in the previous section, binding their ugly hopelessness into a complete whole, an apotheosis of pessimism. The sense of estrangement between the doctor and his son is mirrored in that of the Prince and his. When the visitors leave, it is with the clear (to us) knowledge that their estrangement, reflecting that of the human race in general, is unreconcilable.

Gargoyles reflects Bernhard’s publicized hatred of his Austrian patrimony – its uncouth, stupid (in his eyes) baseness, and his violently dim view of humanity with its self-delusions and hypocrisies. Bernhard may not have exorcised his demons in his writings, but he has cast them forward for all to see, and tremble before. With the Prince in a central role as a demented Superman, this book is a profoundly pessimistic and difficult work in the Germanic tradition of Bonaventura’s Nachtwachen and the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Archaeology of a Smile

Kore, c. 530-515 BC
from Richter, A Handbook of Greek Art (Phaidon Press, 1967)

Angel, Riems Cathedral, about 1240
from Focillon, The Art of the West in the Middle Ages, Volume II: Gothic Art (Phaidon Press, 1963)

La Gioconda (Mona Lisa), Leonardo Da Vinci, completed ca. 1519

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille

James de Mille’s tale, serialized in Harper’s Weekly before its publication in book form in 1888 is a late Victorian contribution to the lost world/hollow earth genre that had its modern genesis in Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, but with roots stretching back to Lucian’s True Story and some of the more fantastic medieval traveler’s tales. Whatever merits it held as an adventure story at the time of its first publication seem to have been quickly forgotten in the wake of Rider Haggard’s tales of mystery and thrills in darkest Africa as exemplified in She and Ayesha (the book business must have been quite different in those days, for in our present time one successful novel, or series, in a specific genre – let’s say, warlocks or vampires – opens the floodgates for a plethora of imitators ready to be gobbled up by the undiscerning reader at alarming rates). De Mille also seems to have been aiming for some sort of social satire in the Swiftian mode, but to dreary effect.

The story relates the contents of a copper cylinder found at sea by a group of upper class idlers yachting out amongst the Azores. They have hit the doldrums, and are glad for the amusement of the narrative, although they have divergent perspectives on the veracity of the adventures detailed on the papyrus pages. The token skeptic is convinced that the story is a hoax, cleverly planted in the mid-Atlantic to bob in the waves, collecting barnacles and seaweed until such time as some lucky sailor fishes it up and publishes it to his own financial advantage. Others take a more scholarly interest, interrupting the narrative to give speculative lectures on the linguistic correspondences between that of the antipodean cannibals described therein and the ancient Hebrews (one of the idlers notes that this connection between the polar death worshippers and the Thirteenth Tribe makes no sense, because the barbarians abhor wealth, and well, how Jewish is that?).

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The narrative details the adventures of one Adam (get it?) More who, deciding to go penguin hunting on a remote Antarctic island with a companion, ends up being lost in a fog as his ride home sails blissfully away. He and his buddy paddle around for a few days in their dinghy, but loose all sense of direction in the eerie bleakness. They finally make landfall on a godforsaken volcanic shore inhabited by a degenerate race of subhumans who treat them royally until dinner time, at which point they figure More’s companion might taste good jerked and slow-roasted. The cries of More’s companion, warning him to get away before he becomes the second course is genuinely creepy. More gets back into the boat and is swept safely away from the cannibals, which is a good thing, into a dark and deepening chasm inhabited by prehistoric sea monsters, which is a bad thing.

He eventually passes, by means of a subterranean river, into a true Antarctic world, comprising a warm ocean encircled by mountains which are terraced with strange temples and caves, and inhabited by more friendly cannibals. This is where the social commentary comes in, for these lost folk live in a topsy-turvey society which, as previously mentioned, abhors wealth and views death as the biggest trip of all, man! These people practically fall over themselves giving away every pittance they earn, and clamor for the honor of having a nice big shiny dagger plunged into their hearts at certain times of the year. They also pursue giant prehistoric beasts for the express purpose of being torn limb from limb by said beasts. More’s response to these revelations, not surprisingly, is “include me out!” Did I mention that the really really BIGGEST thrill is to know that you will be the guest of honor, so to speak, at the next cannibal feast? This certainly doesn’t appeal to our sailor, especially since he’s fallen hard for the only girl on the polar continent who can pass for “normal”, a hostage from a distant land, and the fact of their love necessitates that, in this place where every day is opposite day, they must part until such time as they get to have the honor of having their hearts ripped out and their bodies eaten. (The worst thing about it, of course, is that the natives are just so damn cheery,as they relate these quaint customs to More. Despite his innate Victorian indignation at these plans, he can’t really bring himself to dislike these chaps, although he doesn’t mind plugging a few of them with his “thunder stick” before all’s said and done).

So, anyhoo, there are lots of dinosaurs, a cavern of mummies that sweetie must tend to, bloody rituals, and desperate attempts at escape. There are also droll and droning lectures aplenty (this is a Victorian narrative, so you don’t really have to worry about too many belly laughs creeping in) on prehistoric fauna, and obsolete linguistic speculations interspersed just to pad out, - er, I mean - give a sense of verisimilitude to the narrative. All in all, not a bad adventure yarn in a genre that has been revisited so many times that one might be excused for seeing this story as derivative, rather than a somewhat original adventure narrative, predating Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, and all the other spinners of lost world yarns.

Link to text at Internet Archive:

The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen

The Hill of Dreams (serialized in 1904 as "The Garden of Avallaunius") is a supernatural/decadent novel by the Welsh writer Arthur Machen. Machen was a native of the Welsh town of Caerleon-on-Usk (now Gwent), which has strong Arthurian associations and a history going back to the Roman occupation. Machen, a prolific author who died at a ripe old age in 1947, retains a reputation as a master of supernatural fiction, although he wrote in several different genres. In circumstances of poverty such as described in the semi-autobiographical The Hill of Dreams, he translated Casanova and prepared an extended essay on The Anatomy of Tobacco. He also subsequently authored several volumes of autobiography. His pagan and occultic preoccupations make him a fascinating writer to encounter, as does the richness of his prose in describing (as Huysmans does so well in Against the Grain and, for me, Walter Pater does less successfully in Marius the Epicurean) the world of sensation.

This strange novel is one of the handful of things by Machen that I've read. It involves a sensitive youth, Lucian Taylor, who has a strange mystico-sexual experience in the ruins of a Roman fort, and who has a brief affair with a local girl. When Lucian later moves to London to pursue, as did Machen himself, a writing career, he falls into a life of poverty, squalor, and opium addiction. His mystical fantasies (if they are indeed fantasies) of the Celtic-Roman past occupy his mind during his opium dreams. In his increasingly rare lucid moments, he rails against the barbarous, dehumanizing metropolis (In his A Baedeker of Decadence, George Schoolfield notes the resemblances between Machen's London and that portrayed in Thomson's influential long poem The City of Dreadful Night). Poor Lucian spirals further and further into a madness driven by deprivation, opium, and his search for "new and exquisite experiences". He is as much a decadent touchstone as Huysman's Des Essientes and Wilde's Dorian Grey.

Machen continues to have a following among aficionados of supernatural fiction. The Hill of Dreams is a rather different work than, for instance, The Great God Pan, a creepy tale of sexual and demonic atavism induced by modern science, but certainly bears testimony to Machen's interest in the occult (he was, like Crowley, Yeats, and Algernon Blackwood, an active member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn). l would recommend this novel to anyone interested in the history of decadent literature in Britain.

The Hill of Dreams is available in a variety of edition and formats, including some shoddy modern reprints. The Dover edition is worth seeking out. My edition is the yellow-covered Machen series published by Knopf in 1922.

Friday, April 15, 2011

On Elegance While Sleeping by Viscount Lascano Tegui

The narrator/diarist of On Elegance While Sleeping personifies a particular type current in the yellow literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries - that of the immoralist. The Dalkey Archive translation makes reference to Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Lautreamont’s (another South American of invented nobility) Maldoror, and we also see in the novel a direct association with the character Lafcadio in Gide’s Caves du Vatican (The Vatican Cellars). We perceive in these works the literary reflection of the precocious violence of the naïve genius Rimbaud, and the contempt for bourgeois society evident in the works of Jarry and the brief florescence of the Dadaist agitators, with their stated goal of disturbing the ceremony. In his Foundations of Modern Art (1931, revised 1952), Ozenfant draws parallels between Gide’s antihero and the surrealists, noting commonality in “their particular turn of thought: anxious, elegant, melancholy, tangential, incidental, elliptical, their taste for evoking emotion through what is singular: their oneiric glossolalia: and their interest in the unmotivated act.” These are also the characteristics of the pale criminal with the delicate hands at the heart of Tegui’s novel.

This decadent novel indeed opens on a surreal note. In his diary entries, the protagonist rarely speaks of immediate experience, but rather uses the journal as a means of reminiscence. He recalls his youth in the town of Bougival, down the Seine from Paris. Down the river would come the corpses of the drowned (and implicitly, those of the murdered and the suicides): our young hero would count coup by fishing the bodies, with their hands waving from the muck, from their entanglement in the mill wheel, at the same time slipping a business card from the town mortician in the pocket of the bloated corpse. This scavenging of the human effluence issuing forth from the great metropolis is only the beginning of a catalogue of transgressions against bourgeois conventions that will include pederasty, homosexuality, voyeurism, transvestism, bestiality, rape and murder. There is, in the narrator, a random bipolarity between the extremes of ironic dispassion (speaking of a North African café and a local brothel – “We felt entirely at home in both places: we took off our jackets in one and our pants in the other”) and a sickly sentimentality (“There’s nothing more in life than to love someone. To be loved. Such is the happy monotony of my life.”). The only other significant character is the coachman Raimundo, who has his own obsessions with the debauchery of Don Juan.

The eyes and ears are passive. The hands are a mode of action. The protagonist fusses over hands, particularly his own. He is a manicured dandy, a solipsist of whom someone exclaims on the first page “He cares for his hands like a man preparing for a murder.”

The journal moves between brief reminiscences and opinions, mostly of a carnal nature and evident of a healthy dispassion towards the suffering of others (he enjoys news of disasters and fatalities: “what are a few deaths compared to the moral serenity…provided to people like myself”). At last the diarist comes to that moment, the penultimate step before the summit of his debaucheries and immoralities, that inevitable Nietzschean moment which calls for the courage of the knife:

Something like that, flamboyant, coarse, unexpected – something that will impose its tyranny over my life without question. I’m going to kill someone.

He finds his victim easily enough. It is the perennial victim of the 20th century, that one small and insignificant person, deemed valueless, whose murder will be magnified over the century by the thousands and the millions, depersonalized by neglect and violence into non-existence:

As I passed her in the market, I found her concentrating heavily on some change she’d been thrown. She counted it coin by coin, like a child or a savage. Her slowness in counting, her obvious limited ability, made up my mind. It authorized my act. To unburden humanity of an imperfect being: a weakness.

From Baudelaire on down, the decadent illustrates the most immaculate morality in his immorality. For what is a greater morality, than to wish to excise the malignancy, the sickness, or, like the Gnostic Sethians, to exterminate it by exhausting it? Tegui’s pale criminal accepts the knife with gusto, and is rewarded by the indifference of his fellows. In the aftermath of the bloodbath, he walks the streets and notices the dismal face of the town clock, and realizes that he, the murderer, is of the common run of mankind.

Dalkey Archive’s resurrection of Tegui’s novel almost a hundred years after itscomposition is a noteworthy event, as we can see by the notices it has generated. It shows that a gem may be pulled from the muck and cleansed, and put forth for consideration by a new and worthy audience. Idra Novey’s translation perfectly captures the essence of the author’s words and sentiments.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Stolen Child by W. B. Yeats

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water-rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you
can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you
can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To to waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you
can understand.

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
from a world more full of weeping than he
can understand.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Messiah of Stockholm by Cynthia Ozick

One of the saddest legacies of the Twentieth Century was the invention, by necessity, of a new literature, the literature of the Holocaust. We find, next to the histories of the war in general and the liquidation of the Jews specifically, personal memoirs of survivors (an inadequate designation) and those who did not survive. We have the works and testimonies of Weisel, Levi, Appelfeld, and a nondescript girl from Amsterdam whose name is etched forever into the annals of human sorrow. Included in this literature are secondary works, echoes of the loss, which reveal the scars which have passed to second and third generations, and which continue to manifest themselves.

The author and artist Bruno Schultz lived 50 years before his life was ended by a bullet from the gun of a Gestapo officer. This death occurred not in Auschwitz or Treblinka, but on the streets of the Polish village of Drohobycz, where Schultz, carrying a luxurious loaf of bread and living on borrowed time, was under the apparently inadequate protection of another officer who admired his visual artistry. The author of Cinnamon Shops (aka The Street of Crocodiles) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, two surreal autobiographical works set on the streets of Drohobycz, died on one of those very same streets.

Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm (1987) is another of the echoes of loss. It concerns one Lars Andemening, a book reviewer for a mediocre Swedish newspaper, who has immersed himself in the literature of Central Europe and who had come to the conclusion that he is the son of Bruno Schultz, who died on a cold November day in 1942, killed by a nonchalant Gestapo officer and who, in addition to two published works, is rumored to have left the manuscript of an lost work entitled The Messiah.

Lars shares his obsession with the owner of a small bookshop, an elderly German refugee named Heidi. Heidi also claims to carry the scars of the Holocaust. As a girl, she lived near one of the camps, and would venture out on dark nights to lob packages of food over the barbed wire, listening for the sound of the Jews pouncing upon the packages like hungry dogs. Heidi is an irascible sort, with a rumored husband whom Lars never sees and who feeds him documents and letters pertaining to Schultz smuggled out of Poland. This is the totality of Lars’ life: reviewing the works of Kundera and Kis for an unappreciative public, sleeping through the afternoons, and meeting Heidi in the hopes of obtaining new relics of his “father”.

Soon enough, events occur which cause Lars to re-evaluate his paradigm, his lost childhood and his lost father. A woman has arrived in Stockholm, a Polish immigrant, and she carries with her, in a white plastic bag, a manuscript salvaged from an old tin box and old shoes. It is the last known work of her father, the writer and artist Bruno Schultz – the manuscript of The Messiah.*

The theme of Ozick’s short novel is the question of how one reconstructs one’s life and identity when true identity has been stolen. How do we claim a birthright, a personal history? How do we insert ourselves into that mystical flow of heredity when our unknown fathers and mothers have been obliterated from the face of the earth? And how do we react when our carefully constructed reality is challenged by that of another orphan?

Ozick’s novel takes some turns which it would be inappropriate to reveal. Questions remain, particularly regarding an agonizing decision for Lars, who, when faced with the dubious manuscript of The Messiah and what appears to be a cabal of swindlers, takes an irreversible action that necessitates the creation of an entirely new persona to mitigate the potentially devastating psychic effects of that action. While perhaps not a major addition to the canon of Holocaust literature, The Messiah of Stockholm is nevertheless worth a read as an echo of the loss, a testament to the memory of one man among millions who died a tragic and undeserved death.

*Ozick’s speculation regarding the theme and content of this work, revealed through Lars’ reading of it, is wonderfully imaginative.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Zone by Guillaume Apollinaire

You are weary at last of this ancient world
Shepherdess O Eiffel tower whose flock of bridges bleats at the morning

You have lived long enough with Greek and Roman antiquity

Here even automobiles look old
Only religion stays news religion
As simple as hangars at the airfield

Alone in Europe you Christianity are not antique
The one modern European is you Pope Pius X
And you whom windows watch what shame keeps you
From entering a church and confessing your sins this morning
Handbills catalogues advertisements that sing overhead
Furnish your morning's poetry for prose there are newspapers
Dime detective novels packed with adventure
Biographies of great men a thousand and one titles

This morning I saw a fine street whose name slips my mind
New and bright the sun's clarion
Where executives and workers sweet stenographers
Hurry every weekday dawn and dusk
Three times a morning sirens groan
A choleric bell barks at noon
Billboards posters and
Doorplates twitter like parakeets
There is charm to this Paris factory street
Between rue Aumont-Thiéville and the avenue des Ternes

Here is the young street and you still a baby
Dressed by your mother only in blue and white
A pious child with your oldest friend René Dalize
You like nothing so much as church ceremonies
Nine o'clock the gas turns blue you slip out of bed
To pray all night in the school chapel
While an eternal adorable amethyst depth
Christ's flaming halo revolves forever
He is the lovely lily we all worship
He is the red-haired torch no wind may blow out
Pale and scarlet son of the sorrowful mother
Tree hung with prayer
Twofold gallows of honor and eternity
Six-pointed star
God who dies Friday and rises on Sunday
Christ who flies higher than the aviators
And holds the world's record

Christ pupil of the eye
Twentieth pupil of the centuries he knows his business
And changed to a bird this century ascends like Jesus
Devils in hell raise their heads to stare
They say it imitates Simon Magus in Judea
They say if it lifts to call it a lifter
Angels soar past the young trapeze artist
Icarus Enoch Elijah Apollonius of Tyana
Hover near the original airplane
Or give place to those whom the Eucharist elevates
Priests rising continuously as they raise the Host
At last the plane lands with wings outspread
Through heaven come flying a million swallows
At full speed crows owls falcons
Ibises flamingoes storks from Africa
Roc so celebrated in song and story
Clutching Adam's skull the original head
Eagle from the horizon pounces screaming
Hummingbird arrives from America
From China long supple phis
Who have only one wing and fly in couples
Here comes the dove immaculate spirit
Escorted by lyrebird and ocellated peacock
That funeral pyre the phoenix engendering himself
Momentarily veils all with his ardent ash
Sirens quit their perilous perches
And arrive each singing beautifully
Everyone eagle phoenix phis
Fraternizes with the flying machine

Now you stride alone through the Paris crowds
Busses in bellowing herds roll by
Anguish clutches your throat
As if you would never again be loved
In the old days you would have turned monk
With shame you catch yourself praying
And jeer your laughter crackles like hellfire
Its sparks gild the depths of your life
Which like a painting in a dark museum
You approach sometimes to peer at closely

Today in Paris the women are bloodstained
It was as I would rather forget it was during beauty's decline

From fervent flames Our Lady gazed down on me in Chartres
Your Sacred Heart's blood drowned me in Montmartre
I am sick of hearing blessed words
My love is a shameful disease
You are sleepless anguished but possessed by an image
Which hovers never distant

By the Mediterranean
Under lemon trees that flower the year long
You take ship with friends
One from Nice one from Menton two from La Turbie
Terrified we see in the depths giant squid
And fish the Savior's symbols gliding through seaweed

In a tavern garden near Prague
You are content instead of writing your stories
To watch a rose on the table and
A rosebug asleep in the rose's heart

Agahst you trace your likeness in the mosaics at Saint Vitus
And that day almost died of grief to see yourself portrayed
As Lazarus distracted by daylight
The hands of the ghetto clock run backward
You also creep slowly backward through life
Climbing to the hradchen listening at twilight
To Czech songs from the taverns

You in Marseilles among piles of watermelons

You in Coblenz at the Giant's hotel

In Rome sitting under a Japanese medlar tree

In Amsterdam with a girl you find pretty but who is ugly
And engaged to a student from Leyden
One can rent rooms there in Latin Cubicula locanda
I remember three days there and three at Gouda

You are in Paris arrainged before the judge
Arrested like a criminal

You went on sad and merry journeys
Before growing aware of lies and old age
Love made you unhappy at twenty again at thirty
I have lived like a fool and wasted my youth
You no longer dare examine your hands and at any moment I could weep
Over you over her whom I love over all that has frightened you

With tears in your eyes you see the shabby refugees
Who have faith in God and pray the mothers nurse their children
Their smell fills the waiting room at the gare St. Lazare
Like the three kings they believe in a star
Hoping to strike it rich in Argentina
And return home wealthy
One family carries a crimson quilt as you your heart
Quilt and our dreams are equally unreal
Some of these refugees stay on and lodge
In slums on the rue des Rosiers or the rue des Écouffes
They keep close to home like chessmen
And are mostly Jewish their wives wear wigs
Pallid they sit at the back of little shops

You stand at the counter of a dirty bar
Taking a café for two sous among the wretched

You are in a huge restaurant at night
These women are not evil only careworn
Each has tortured her lover even the ugliest

Who is the daughter of a Jersey policeman

Her hands which I had not noticed are calloused and cracked

Pity fills me for the scars on her belly

Now I humble my mouth to a poor creature with a horrible laugh

You are alone morning comes
Milkmen clink bottles along the street

Night leaves like a lovely Métive
Ferdine the false or watchful Lea

You sip a liquor as burning as your life
Your life you drain like an eau-de-vie

And stride home to Auteil
To sleep among your fetish from Oceania or Guinea
Other forms of Christ and other faiths
Lesser Christs of dim aspirations

Farewell Farewell

Sun slit throat

Guillaume Apollinaire

Friday, March 11, 2011

Accumulated Wisdom

When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into them completely.

Letter from Niccolo Machiavelli to Francesco Vettori, 1513

Tun-Huang by Yasushi Inoue

In his classic travelogue The Ruins of Desert Cathay, the archaeo-adventurer Aurel Stein describes his first visit to Tun-huang (Dunhuang) in 1908, lured by stories of cartloads of ancient Buddhist manuscripts hidden away in secret niches in the sacred “Caves of A Thousand Buddhas”. This richly decorated shrine was carved out of the low hillsides amidst a freezing, windswept desert along one of the most inhospitable stretches of the famed Silk Road. One thousand years ago, this desolate country – the topography of which is as central to this novel as anything – boasted two particularly significant aspects. For one, it lay along the main east-west trade route connecting the great civilizations of East and West, and for another it was in close proximity to the steppe region in which the prized thoroughbred horses of Liang-chou, essential to the Asian cavalries, were bred. It was for these reasons that the area was of importance to the Sung Empire of China, and it was in the potential for glory and riches that the ethnic peoples of the region engaged in seemingly endless wars for autonomy and vassalage.

It is by the most accidental of circumstances that Inoue’s protagonist, Hsing-te, comes to the inhospitable lands of extreme western China. An educated young man, he has but one more interview to go in China’s infamous examination hell to complete in order to enter into a highly desirable civil service career. He is confident of his success, having passed all previous examinations brilliantly, but on this day, fate intervenes. He dozes off under the courtyard elms as he waits for his name to be called and dreams of a meeting with the Emperor, who quizzes him on the best means of subduing the upstart peoples of the Central Asian steppes. By the time he awakens, the courtyard is empty, and the interviews are complete. He has lost his opportunity to sit for the coveted Palace Examination. He wanders despondently through the town, until his attention is caught by a spectacle at the marketplace: a barbarian from the west has an exotic woman, a naked His-hsia, whom he is selling. He is, however, selling her piecemeal, and as the crowd watches, he severs two of her fingertips to prove the seriousness of his proposal. Hsing-te is intrigued by the woman, with her dark and vaguely Caucasian appearance and intense stoicism. He purchases her. She is leery of his intentions, but when he assures her that she is free to go, she leaves him with the only real possession she has, a strip of silk with strange, undecipherable writing on it. It is, she tells him, the newly conceived script of the His-hsia. It is the combined effect of this remarkable woman (whom he never sees again, but whose numerous avatars he sees in the mud-brick towns of the His-hsia) and the strange script that pulls him to a new life among the warring peoples of the Inner Asian desert.

I shall not enumerate Hsing-te’s adventures in detail. A not particularly adept soldier, he survives, with his new commander Wang-li, waves of brutal battles on the steppes as part of the mercenary Chinese vanguard in service to the His-hsia. As they take one particular town, Hsing-te discovers a woman hiding in an unsearched watchtower. He is awed by her regal beauty, and seeks to protect her from the ravaging troops by sequestering her in a storeroom, where he visits her and nourishes her, and where, overwhelmed by her beauty, he aggressively makes love to her. Hsing-te’s facility with words and language lead to his reassignment to a distant city in order that he may learn the language of the His-hsia and compile a useful Chinese/His-hsia dictionary. He is suited to the task, but his reassignment requires that he reveal the woman to Wang-li, placing her under his protection. The woman, who is in fact a Uighur princess, has but a brief role in the narrative, but she is the Helen figure which binds four men and leads not only to a civil war in Central Asia but the preservation of one of the world’s great cultural treasures.

Stoic and beset by loss and weariness, Hsing-te becomes over the years attracted to the Buddhist doctrine (particularly the Diamond Sutra, with its theme of non-attachment), and leads an effort under the aegis of a studious local potentate to translate the scriptures into the His-hsia script. But as the civil war initiated (for reasons significant to the narrative) by Wang-li rages, it becomes imperative that the texts be saved from the ravages of war and fire. He must enlist the aid of a caravan leader, a proud and temperamental man of royal blood, whom he must trick into protecting his “treasure”, and it is with this man that Hsing-te must face his destiny…

It is a strange matter of fate that Yasushi Inoue, the Japanese author of Tun-Huang, did not visit the Central Asian locale of his adventurous tale until almost 20 years after the 1959 publication of his novel, and even then he did not have the opportunity to visit the caves themselves. His story was born of his curiosity as to how the priceless manuscripts came to be sequestered and hidden for centuries in the Thousand Buddha Caves, how there are stories in history that we cannot know, and which we must fabricate to the best of our abilities given stark historical facts, the vagaries of human nature, and the inventiveness of the human imagination. Inoue’s fabrication is as good as fact, for it rings true in its epic scope and its fine characterizations and motivations. It is a story that takes to a distant place and time outside of ourselves, that gives flesh to the bones of history, and passion to the shades of the nameless dead.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Malpertuis by Jean Ray

I read Jean Ray’s novel Malpertuis (1943) over the course of two evenings, and each night I experienced strange dreams of forgotten identity. (I also became reacquainted with an ancient structure riddled with hidden passageways that has haunted my dreams since childhood.) Characterized by the publisher as a “modern Gothic novel”, this book does indeed reflect the conventions of that genre: a sprawling house exuding evil, a cast of strange characters, a naïve protagonist, and a sense of overpowering malignancy casting its shadow over the proceedings.

The narrative is epistolary, with four or five persons contributing to the arc of the story. A prologue describes the discovery by a thief of a collection of manuscripts hidden away in an ancient Belgian abbey. The proper story begins with a ship seemingly lost at sea, in search of a mysterious Aegean island that appears on no charts. There is a storm worthy of Poe, Coleridge, or Lautremont, and an ancient mariner glimpses, above the rocks of the island, gigantic and repulsive corpses. His ship lost, the mariner in his delirium relates his vision to his rescuers, one of whom, a malignant priest, repays the information the sailor provides by having him strangled and cast into the stormy froth.

We then come to Malpertuis itself, inhabited by a dying magus who holds various relatives and acquaintances in his thrall. He is a repugnant presence, and in his dying days reveals, in the contents of his will, that his unimaginably vast fortune will go to the luxurious maintenance of his heirs (with the balance going to the last survivors) under the stipulation that they must remain in residence in the old man’s sprawling and decrepit house. The house is the namesake of the abode of the evil and perhaps Satanic fox Goupil in the medieval romance of Reynard the Fox. As a primary character itself in the drama, the house is described at length. The overwhelming atmosphere is one of decrepitude and darkness. The grounds are grey and seemingly perpetually stormy, and the house is inadequately lit by meager candlelight.

The inhabitants are a queer and motley lot. The narrator is young Jean-Jacques, and it is his cruel and sensual sister Nancy who largely runs the house. The others are strange and in some cases pathetic “cousins” with various obsessions that run the gamut from an unhealthy interest in taxidermy to an overweening obsession with ensuring that some degree of illumination remains in the house as protection from an ominous dark shadow. There are, in addition, small strange daemonic creatures scuttling about in the attic and currents of sexual desire and meticulously kept antipathies passing among some of the inhabitants.

Along the way, Ray drops enough clues to point the attentive reader towards an assessment of the true nature and identities of the doomed souls occupying Malpertuis. The novel is heavy on atmosphere, a delicious atmosphere that pervades the bulk of the novel. For the thick-witted, each chapter contains a relevant epigraph or two from the likes of Hawthorne (no stranger to tales of doomed houses) and others which light the path towards the ultimate revelations. For me, the narrative begins to fragment towards the end, losing momentum as poor Jean-Jacques has to suffer through a number of swoons as Satanic powers pursue him and the inevitable explanations are painstakingly revealed. But this is a minor complaint. Malpertuis, while it may not be a high water mark in world literature, is original, creepy, and compellingly atmospheric enough, with a peculiar hallucinatory power and sense of melancholy earning it a place of honor as an obvious touchstone of the latter-day gothic romance. I am aware of one recent fantasy novel that exploits Ray’s particular conceit of the existence of the old gods, whose power waxes and wanes in accordance to the degree that mortals believe in them. Were I more conversant with that genre, I could no doubt identify others.

Friday, February 11, 2011

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

A hefty (almost 700 page) epistolary novel set in Restoration Oxford. The dual plot involves shadowy political intrigue and the circumstances surrounding the trial and execution of a young woman purported to be, by turns, a witch and a whore. The four narratives are, by necessity, somewhat contradictory, giving the novel a Rashomon quality as we attempt to fit together a true picture of what happened during that brief period in the midst of a bitterly cold English winter.

Pears' characterizations are finely drawn, with some individuals standing out quite vividly. A couple of the narrators are rather repugnant, however, most of the motivations and circumstances are clarified in the final narrative, that of an Oxford antiquarian. For me, the narrative did tend to drag in a few places, but not enough to abandon the effort. It helps to have some understanding of the English Commonwealth period and the circumstances surrounding the restoration of Charles II. While I wouldn't describe this as a philosophical novel, the currents of discovery relating to physiology and empiricism do play their parts, with cameo appearances by Robert Boyle and John Locke.

I will admit to being somewhat dissatisfied with the conclusion, which veers into a somewhat heavy handed mysticism. I would have no problem with a metaphysical gloss on the chain of events, but Pears' clarification of the identity of Sarah Blundy, one of the best drawn personalities in the narrative, strains credibility. Still, an enjoyable and well written tome for a winter's night reading.