Saturday, November 12, 2016

Exquisite Corpse by Robert Irwin

Encompassing a missing-person mystery that isn’t much of a mystery, this 1995 novel is nonetheless an entertaining and intelligent work set amongst the surrealists of 1930’s London and Paris just before the Nazi deluge. Irwin is as at ease in this milieu as he was in the world of medieval Islam in The Arabian Nightmare (1983).

The protagonist is a minor painter with a Buster Keaton profile who, in the course of a Dadaist prank, makes the acquaintance of a conventionally attractive young English typist.  Our hero, Caspar, has a rather obscure (if not fictitious) background, littered with innuendos of an extraordinary youth under the wing of a mysterious guardian, and he seems to find young Caroline exotic in her ordinariness.  The other members of Caspar’s surrealist group, the Serapion Brotherhood (an Irwinesque name if there ever was one, harkening back to E.T.A. Hoffmann and referencing a similarly named Russian writers fraternity of the 20’s), are enjoying an extended adolescence, playing games with irrationality as they play peek-a-boo with their individual insecurities within the context of their grand surrealist gestures.

As the movement unwinds in the shadow of the approaching Nazi darkness, the Brotherhood scatters to the wind following a very short and dismally conceived orgy.  Caroline herself has suddenly disappeared, and in his search for her, Caspar’s obsession grows.  With the world tilting on its axis, he desperately seeks the “normalcy” of a quiet dull life as a painter of railway posters and Caroline, to his mind, is the key to this state of existence that he now desperately craves.

Robert Irwin is a talented author who blends historical personages (Dali, Breton, Paul Eluard, and a special appearance by Aleister Crowley) into the narrative quite effectively and with good humor.  Caroline’s disappearance isn’t much of a mystery for even a half-attentive reader, although a red herring early on suggesting that Caspar has somehow caused her demise has, by novel’s end, vanished without a trace.   While Caspar seems to bumble through the story like a little lamb lost (the Keaton reference seems to be an apt one), his adventures, acquaintances and sensations are quite enough to make this an enjoyable read.

Illustration:  Exquisite Corpse (1928) by Man Ray, Joan Miro, Yves Tanguy, and Mas Morise

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