English, Scottish & Irish

BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE BY ALAN MOORE

I have spent my life feeling sane. The sanest, the most rational, the most logical. It was you, I thought with absolute conviction. All of you. You are mad, not me. I was convinced. I laughed at the opinion of others; I scoffed at the judgement of my peers and associates. I denied you; you, who thought me peculiar, eccentric, and unnerving. Until recently, that is. Until I met someone who agrees with me, who believes in my sanity. I met her and suddenly, almost instantly, I lost my nerve. I no longer believe in myself, because of her. I no longer trust myself, because of her. How can I, how can someone like me, be entrusted with something precious? I’ll hurt her, I’ll break her, I’ll ruin her, precisely because of her faith in me, in my soundness of mind and character. I cannot be trusted….because I’m not sane. I see it now, what you see and have always seen. I’m crazy; and a beautiful vase is not safe on a rickety table.

“When you find yourself locked onto an unpleasant train of thought, heading for the places in your past where the screaming is unbearable, remember there’s always madness. Madness is the emergency exit.”

It is perhaps this uncertainty, this feeling of vulnerability, that has brought me back here. I am, it strikes me now, using this as a kind of preserver, a log large enough to hold onto and be kept afloat. By ‘this’ I mean, of course, writing; and reading. The Killing Joke. It took me little over an hour, but it soothed me; it soothes me still. It is not her, it is not us, at least. I have no responsibilities here. I had been given the impression, from the bits and pieces that I had read about it beforehand, that the focus of the story is the relationship between The Joker and Batman, specifically how alike they are, how they are essentially the same. But that isn’t the case. Batman is largely absent, both literally – in that he has little page-time – and in terms of his personality. He is almost a blackhole of a character. A nothing. The one insight we are given into who he is as a man is when he states that he doesn’t want to kill The Joker, that he is afraid that he will kill him or be killed by him. Ultimately, I got the feeling that Moore just wasn’t particularly interested in him, and so neither is the reader.

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The same cannot be said of The Joker. Moore puts a lot into him. On one level, he is an epic cunt. Just the sort of cunt a reader, or this reader, wants in a bad guy. At one point, for example, he shoots a young woman, paralysing her. No word, no warning. She opens the door and he grins at her and fires. He then strips her and takes photographs. Moore wasn’t messing. The Joker’s not messing. He is undoubtedly a horrible cunt. Yet, Moore also gives us his backstory, where it is explained who he was and how he became what he is. The Joker was a bad comedian, a failing man and husband. His jokes are terrible. I wondered initially if The Joker’s puns were meant to be funny, but Moore’s exposition convinced me that they are deliberately not funny. The man behind the face paint. He isn’t the joker, he is a joke. He’s a bungling burglar too. He agrees to commit a crime in order to give his woman and child a better life. He fails at that also. A loser. The Loser. 

It’s clear that Moore wants us to understand The Joker, to empathise with him. He demystifies him, humanises him. It could have backfired. The Joker isn’t all bad, in the way that a supervillain, in my limited understanding of the superhero genre, is meant to be. He isn’t something other, he is simply a man. An average man, a hurting man, a failure, like most of us, who goes mad through misfortune and bad choices. It’s not Batman who we are meant to see in him, but ourselves. Indeed, one of the themes of the story is that he could be you, in the right – or wrong – circumstances. This is what The Joker aims to prove in kidnapping and torturing Commissioner Gordan. A good man, a normal man, a sane man, will go crazy, will break, if you subject him to certain, appalling situations. It’s inevitable, natural, comforting even.   

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As with everything I have read by Alan Moore, there is a satisfying depth to his ideas in The Killing Joke. Intelligence; no easy answers or conclusions. The Joker is discomforting, not because I saw myself in him, as some may do, but because he is acting out of pain. He is capable of anything, because this awful anything, this madness, distracts him from the pain. It is also worth mentioning that he is drawn beautifully. He is odd looking, without being monstrous or camp. Moreover, some of the other illustrations are impressively creepy, resembling an Aphex Twin video you may once have seen on MTV at midnight. In any case, my favourite part of the story is at the end, and features neither The Joker, nor Batman, nor any kind of traditional comic book hero or villain. A man speaks. Facing forward. Talking to you, it seems. He wants to do something bad. Kidnap a child, perhaps. A little girl. He wants to kidnap her and make her ordeal as terrible as possible. He would rape her, no doubt. The man has a woman and a child of his own. He is not bad, he states, he simply wants to try it, to compare it to goodness. It is this man, without green hair, without face paint, without a bat suit, who is the most familiar to us, and the most frightening.

THE CAGE BY MARTIN VAUGHN-JAMES

…I had arrived in what looked like an evacuated city…

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…an abandoned housing block; a burnt out car…

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…she was blonde, beautiful and broken jawed…we fucked badly, or I did, too drunk and too spaced and too sadsacked…she demanded that I spit in her mouth and there was nowhere to escape to…she told me that she had once lived in an area where nondescript businesses were open 23 hours a day, as though one hour only was set aside, for the owners and workers, only one hour for themselves, to rest…

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…the cage is unfinished and already decayed…it stands as before…before, what…an event never for an instant anticipated…before the catastrophe, if you can call it that…the cage is significant only because it remains…it is whole, in a landscape of chaos and destruction…a cube…unfinished and already decayed, but not destroyed…its construction abruptly and inexplicably arrested…it remains…

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…I did not hear “help me”…their names sounded like an order and a surprised reaction…

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…everything is vague…by some event, inexplicably arrested…noises described in detail but not truly accounted for or explained…which may or may not be of some significance…symbols and signs that may or may not be significant…an empty analogy…the cage…

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…and inside…a human head…

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…a labyrinth of distorted signs, which may or may not be signs…builders overtaken in their endeavour by some event…once populated, builders…some order or arrangement is in evidence, although order and arrangement is impossible…everything is chaos, and to live is to futilely attempt to impose order and meaning upon it…an intricate system…

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…I had arrived in what looked like an evacuated city…but it’s all me, in tidal motions…the something I needed was…new death…hallucinating rats…

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…hints at the sinister…broken nails and bloody rags…the suggestion that there is a design, a purpose, an intent…the chaos, the destruction…the air splinters…

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…stealing the beginnings of pornographic videos…

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…eye sores…I pulled out my hair and gave myself bruises…the now obliterated whole…

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…I spat in her mouth in a burnt out car…

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…fragment…looking for answers in rubble and dejecta…

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…the cage stands as before…signifying nothing…

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…unfinished and already decayed…

ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND BY LEWIS CARROLL

I want, perhaps one last time, to write as I once did. To not punish myself, and punish you, with my words. Last week, I began a review in dialogue in which I meet adult Alice, old Alice, close to death, in a darkweb chatroom, knowing that it was so odd and unsettling that I would never publish it even if I finished it. I cannot continue to present you with flowers that smell like dirty feet. Yet it troubles me to put together sentences and make them stick. In Tokyo, I collapsed, and ever since I have been experiencing a ‘dropping’ sensation in my head. Momentarily, I feel as though I am falling, and, as in a real fall, I anticipate the end point as a sudden, devastating impact. I anticipate the impact, but do not experience it. It troubles me to attempt to think coherently, to pull together the loose threads of my mind. But I want, perhaps one last time, to force myself to do it, and produce the kind of review I once produced with ease.

“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

I will write about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, because that is why you’re here. I will write about Alice as though I know her, as though she is the solid surface upon which I have fallen. I will call her Alice, although she denies the name and wishes that I would call her something else. She is easily bored, and possibly a little stupid. Certainly, she is impetuous and sometimes thoughtless. She follows a rabbit down a rabbit hole, remember. She drinks from strange bottles and eats strange things, without a great deal of consideration, without being sure that it is safe to do so. When talking to a mouse she cannot help but mention her cat, even though she understands that it frightens the poor creature. She often puts her foot in it, not out of malice, but rather out of carelessness. In person, she would be infuriating, to me at least, but in fiction she is charming, because she has a dreamy disposition and is not without obvious faults.

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Alice follows a rabbit down a rabbit hole and enters a world that is disconcerting to her. Within that world she is transformed; she becomes ungrounded, peculiar. She is the outsider there. The inhabitants, whom she thinks speak in riddles, question the turn and quality of her mind. Alice’s experiences in Wonderland are often compared to a dream, and they are dream-like in ways. She says so herself, in fact. As in the dream realm, the population and landscape of Wonderland isn’t unfamiliar, not completely so. Alice recognises the mouse and the bird, the door and the fire. It is more accurate to say that the familiar is distorted. The mouse speaks, for example. The dream realm isn’t another, or alien, world, it is a wax model of your world that has been placed too close to the fire. Yet there are signs, clear signs, frequent suggestions, that Wonderland isn’t part of the dream realm at all, but that Alice is more likely mad. Indeed, it is this way of interpreting the story that resonated with me, that moved me even.

The inhabitants, as far as Alice is concerned, speak in riddles, remember; their behaviour, moreover, strikes her as strange, unrelatable. This confuses and angers her and, in fact, makes her doubt herself. I feel that way all of the time, have done my whole life. Other people, the oppressive other, seem perfectly content and comfortable; they engage with each other successfully; and yet I cannot understand them. ‘We’re all mad here,’ the Cheshire Cat says, but isn’t it Alice who is mad, as she is the outlier? My concentration levels are poor these days, and I am unable to read carefully, but it seems to me that Carroll presents Alice, not as a young girl having weird yet harmless adventures, but as one who is unstable, as one who is, specifically, suffering from a crisis of identity. She is, to my mind, experiencing a fracturing of the self. Consider how we are told that she, in the ordinary world, pretends to be two people; she plays against herself, she admonishes herself. In Wonderland, the caterpillar asks her ‘who are you?’, to which she replies ‘I hardly know myself, sir.’

WATCHMEN BY ALAN MOORE

My father is worried about Devil-dog. He has been out of intensive care, and a coma, for two days. Devil-dog! he shouts and points from the chair by his hospital bed. I’m not sure if he is pointing at me, but it appears so. Before his illness, I barely knew him; I hardly ever thought about him. It is only in this vulnerable state that his existence has become a thing, a fact, for me. Devil-dog, he shouts, and I think that he may be pointing at one of the tattoos on my arm. Or at least I hope so. Before his illness, my father was almost invisible to me; but now that he is on my mind, now that I see him at last, I realise how difficult his life has likely been. A man so meek and undemanding, so out of place and out of time, that the world – our world – must have been bewildering to him. Not once have I seen him do anything wrong; but then I never saw him do anything at all until now. It seems as though he had to lose his mind in order to impose himself, to speak up. Devil-dog! he shouts again, his frail arm extended and scanning the room; and suddenly I’m convinced that he’s passing judgement; on me, on all of us.

“Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else.”

When I began to take a serious interest in graphic novels I knew that one day I would have to read Watchmen. Although I was not, to be honest, excited about the prospect. Despite its lofty reputation – a reputation that makes the book difficult to ignore or bypass – the little I knew about it didn’t appeal to me. I picked it up, therefore, with a feeling of, not dread, but mild irritation, as though I was performing a duty. Yet it took no more than the first frame to dispel my misgivings. Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach, begins Rorschach’s diary; and I knew immediately that the writing – the narration, in this case – was superior to any I had come across previously within this genre; it is superior, in fact, to most conventional novels, and frequently verges on the poetic. Often when reading something of this sort there is a begrudging acceptance that the prose parts will be average, at best; and that this is a necessary trade-off for the interesting visuals. That a book could be as impressive in both areas was incredibly exciting. Indeed, it made graphic novels look like the future of literature, rather than a fun diversion.

Everything that I thought a novel of this sort could achieve Watchmen does it; it does more, in fact. Throughout, there are extracts from a character’s autobiography, newspaper articles, letters, an academic journal; there are quotes from Nietzsche and the Bible; and so on. These are not new tricks, of course; one will find similar in Berlin Alexanderplatz, and such like, but certainly I wasn’t expecting to come away from Watchmen referencing the touchstones of Modernism. Moreover, the prose pieces, or essays, are of the highest calibre. The story of Joe Mermon, for example, really touched me. He was, we’re told, a collector of erotic novelties, who one day put on a pair of false plastic tits to get a cheap laugh. However, he finds out that his wife has been cheating on him; and when he tells his colleagues they go into hysterics because he had forgotten to remove the breasts. The writer, and former masked avenger, Hollis Mason, concludes: ‘and although I have never worn a set of false bosoms in my life, I’ve stood there dressed in something just as strange, with tears in my eyes while people died laughing.’

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Usually, I will complete a graphic novel in a day, no matter how many pages it contains, but Watchmen took me over a week to read. This is because it is so dense, so sophisticated and detailed. One gets the impression that Moore [and Gibbons, the illustrator] threw everything at it, gave it everything, and remarkably almost* all of it works. One of my favourite aspects of the book is how multiple stories are told simultaneously, in a cinematic fashion. In Black Hole by Charles Burns, if someone is having a flashback the frame is wavy, which is a simple, almost childlike, technique. Here, however, you are made to work; it is only by following the story, being fully engaged in the story, that one is able to distinguish present day from memory. Moreover, and most impressively of all, there are times when two stories are told within the same frame[s]. For example, there is a scene in which a couple are having sex, which is a significant plot development, while on the TV there is a news broadcast, followed by an acrobatic performance, both of which provide information about other plot points. Not only that, but the TV could be said to commentate ironically upon the sex: ‘one smooth, seamless flow of motion’ is how the acrobatic performance is described, while the couple’s endeavours are fumbling, awkward.

Moore also clearly put a lot of work into developing his characters. We learn their back stories, their fears, their hopes, their motivations, etc; they are, without exception, rounded, believable and, in most cases, relatable. This, one imagines, was intended as a kind of comment upon the genre itself, as a deliberate bucking of a trend. Prior to Watchmen, almost all masked avengers, or superheroes, were flat; necessarily so, you might argue. They were not ordinary people, they were special. One was meant to look up to them as superior beings, both physically and morally. Flawless, they dealt in absolutes: absolute goodness, absolute justice, and so on. They were essentially Gods. Well, Moore’s ‘heroes’ are not at all God-like, except the brilliant Dr. Manhattan. Take Rorschach, who is mentally and emotionally unstable. The Comedian, on the other hand, is not only morally dubious in a Batman-like manner, but, in killing an innocent woman and attempting to rape a colleague, actually behaves in such a way as to make him the book’s biggest villain.

The Comedian is particularly interesting because he is a man of the times or, more accurately, a man who moved with the times, who saw and understood where humanity was heading. One of the book’s major themes is social change, away from old ways of behaving and being towards new, and less innocent, ways. At the beginning of the book all of the avengers, except Rorschach, have retired. It was a forced retirement, but the impression is given that they were no longer needed, that they were, in fact, no longer capable. Crime had changed, the world had changed; and not, one is led to believe, for the better. Indeed, Watchmen, like Bolano’s 2666, is a kind of literary death rattle; it’s humanity’s last rites in book form. In short, we are fucked; and there is little that we can do about it. We are circling the bowl of the toilet. It might take one last flush, but the end, for us, is at hand. Moore sees it, Bolano saw it, and my father sees it too. Devil-dog! he shouts repeatedly from the chair by his hospital bed, his eyes intensely focussed and his frail arm outstretched.

 

*there was a point in the book, about a third of the way into it, when I began to wonder how Moore was going to draw all the strands of his narrative together in a satisfying manner. And the truth is that he doesn’t. In the final stretch, the plot becomes corny and silly.

CRASH BY J.G. BALLARD

It had been announced at the beginning of the flight. There would likely be turbulence. The woman next to me had started crying before we were even in the air, as though she had been granted a vision, a premonition, of her death. Ordinarily I would have closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but I found myself fascinated by her reaction. When the plane shuddered, as though breaching a hard surface, her panic intensified and her sobbing reached the point of hysteria. It felt as though she was controlling the rocking plane and preparing to bring it down, that she was passing a death sentence on us all. She pressed her face into her hands and I wondered if she saw in the darkness the aircraft colliding with the earth, married with the earth, the cabin now a tunnel of fire and smoke. The more I thought about it the more I saw it too, the more I wished for it almost, such that I felt that she and I were somehow joined together, unified in this vision, like the plane and the earth, our mangled bodies wrapped around each other as in a desperate act of copulation.

“The long triangular grooves on the car had been formed within the death of an unknown creature, its vanished identity abstracted in terms of the geometry of this vehicle. How much more mysterious would be our own deaths, and those of the famous and powerful?”

J.G. Ballard’s sixth, and most controversial, novel was published in 1973. It was, for me, a disorientating experience, and if one can say that of it now one might wonder what it must have been like to read it without the baggage of decades of critical opinion, to which, of course, I am about to add. These days, even someone with a passing interest in so-called serious literature will likely be aware of Crash and its reputation, and will know, at least, its central theme. This is summed up in the blurb on the back of my copy of the book as ‘erotic atrocities among car crash victims,’ which in vulgar terms could be described as ‘being turned on by car accidents.’ I would wager that for most of us, no matter how kinky or open minded we consider ourselves, such a thing seems incredible. There are many novels that explore outré sexual practices and preferences, many that disgust and shock, or certainly attempt to, but it strikes me that Crash bests them all in this regard. Incest, torture, bestiality, blood and shit; these all seem almost like child’s play in comparison.

If someone were to ask me which book I wish I had written I would not say this one, but it does, without a doubt, contain the one idea I would most like to have thought of. I admire the ballsiness, even the beauty, of Ballard’s imaginative prowess, his descriptions of the intimate embrace of deformed metal, of instrument panels forced into the crotch as if in ‘some calibrated act of machine fellatio,’ of fragments of tinted windshield set in the forehead ‘like jewels.’ However, to give the impression that Crash is about sexual fetishes would be misleading, which is to say that while of course a specific, and unusual, fetish is a major part of the novel, Ballard does not say anything particularly meaningful about it as a fetish or about sex in general. In fact, the sex tends to be ridiculous or clinical; the author’s approach to it, specifically the terminology he uses, is sterile, formal, medical. There are, for example, repeated references to such things as mucus, discharge, faecal matter, and so on.

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Perhaps the only interesting thing that Ballard does suggest in relation to sex is the parallel between it and the experience, or aftermath, of a car crash. Crash is not a character study, everyone in the book is devoid of personality, and that is fine. There is, however, a strange, an almost obsessive focus on their bodies. It is in this way, if at all, that one gets to know them. The hand, the knee, the crotch, the anus, etc. Ballard consistently breaks his characters down into their constituent parts; and doesn’t sex, doesn’t injury, do this too? When sexually excited, when given access to someone’s body for the purpose of sexual activity, there are – for me, at least – certain areas on which I focus; the person I am touching, kissing, fucking, ceases to be whole; they are a vagina, a mouth, and so on, or a small combination of these things. Consider also how it is to be hurt, physically, in some way; stub your toe and you become, well, a toe. Yet I feel as though this insight, which isn’t particularly profound, was possibly accidental, was a unintended consequence of exploring another idea altogether, which is our relationship with technology.

By disassembling his characters, Ballard is destroying their humanity, he is, you might say, mechanising them, for a machine is…what? It is the sum of its parts. In focussing so relentlessly on a hand, a thigh, etc, the author forces you to see them in isolation, and when isolated, when removed from the totality of the body, they become strange, unnerving, inhuman. Perhaps I am not explaining myself very well, but there is something here, something important in all this. A man holding a mobile phone is just that: a man holding a mobile phone; but a disembodied hand holding the phone is something else; the removal of the hand from the body is a kind of equaliser. Hand and phone become one, the hand ceases to have authority, greater importance, by virtue of being human. Indeed, and as already suggested, throughout the book Ballard combines, marries, people and technology. He likens an airplane shaft to a penis, he writes about the ‘soft technology’ of the breast, and the metallic sheen of the body. For me, he was making a point about how technology itself is, how a mechanised world is, dehumanising; and his sterile descriptions of body parts – the ‘geometry of the pubis’ – and sex play into this.

On the cover of the book at the top of this page there is an image of Elizabeth Taylor. The nature of celebrity figures in both Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, which could be seen as a sort of precursor to it. There are, I’m sure, a number of reasons why celebrities preoccupied the author, as they do Vaughan, who is Crash‘s leading man, or ‘nightmare angel.’ There is, for example, something super-human about them, and therefore inhuman. They are, we tend to think, not like us. However, it strikes me, certainly in terms of the novel under review here, that it is acting, more than celebrity, that is the real point of concern. There are, for example, numerous references to a thing or action being stylised, which is to say that it is not realistic. Moreover, at one point, a stunt man performs an accident, a crash, which is to be included in a film; and while doing so he is dressed, and made up, to look like Taylor. I would argue that this – acting, or, if you prefer, unreality – is further evidence of what I was discussing previously. People in Ballard’s world are not living, they are performing, they are playing or pretending, consciously or unconsciously; they are, despite appearances, unreal and inhuman, like mannequins, robots or crash test dummies.

ILL SEEN ILL SAID BY SAMUEL BECKETT

As the sky goes black, suddenly black, and the snow drifts up into the air, I think of her. Of mum. My mum. Cancer-riddled, near death, near end, near black. Small and misshapen, she moves like a insect, injured, legs missing on one side only. Graceless, my mother, like an insect near death. Old, too old, too ill. Her hair once red, now gone, no more. She was mad before, in years gone by, for years until now. Now sane, seems sane. No more fire or fight, in her. As the sky goes black, and the snow rises from the earth, I think of mother, whose body, which is failing, has failed, was previously strong enough to push me out into the world. Her body, which for nine months sustained her son, which kept him alive, can no longer sustain her own self. At night, I wonder, as she lays down in darkness, at night, does she consider it certain, her life, her waking, in a few hours time? No, I’d say. No complacency, I’d say. No more of that. She is pure present, pure pain, no doubt, at least at times. The rest, at rest, she rests, with death.

“Already all confusion. Things and imaginings. As of always. Confusion amounting to nothing. Despite precautions. If only she could be pure figment. Unalloyed. This old so dying woman. So dead. In the madhouse of the skull and nowhere else. Where no more precautions to be taken. No precautions possible. Cooped up there with the rest. Hovel and stones. The lot. And the eye. How simple all then. If only all could be pure figment. Neither be nor been nor by any shift to be. Gently gently. On. Careful.”

As the sky goes black, no, no sky, nor snow, no more of that. An introduction is all it was. A way of getting here, wherever this is. No mother, either. Move on. Thought and feeling rising from the earth, no. Move on. In my room, afraid of the cold outside, afraid of the world outside, of them, of another them. Yes, that, or maybe that, in some way, to some degree, but I ought to avoid complications. In any case, I wanted to read, or reread, something by Samuel Beckett. First Molloy. In my room, I read, reread, then stop. For days I read, and reread, and stop, more often stop. Not for difficulty, no, but for a breath, to breathe. Molloy I see is more beautiful than I remember. Before, all I noticed was the humour. Or at least that’s all I could remember, from before. Yet still I stop, full stop, and move on to another. I have defended The Unnamable, passionately, to myself more often than not. Who else do I know who has read it? There is none. I read, and reread, and so on, and I like it, just as much as I thought I did, but still I stop, of course. Of course, I stop, otherwise this would be something else. The title at the top of the page is clear.

Maybe it was the snow, which I will not mention again. Maybe it was the stillness that rose from the earth. Maybe it was mother, who I will not mention again. I don’t know. Something drew me to this, specifically this, to Ill Seen Ill Said. For the third time. Or the fourth. I cannot be accurate on this point. I was drawn to it, not as I was drawn those other times, that is all. Move on. It is usually published with two others, as Nohow On. A trilogy, which isn’t a trilogy, after all. Ill fitting. Nothing links them, except the obvious, to which I will return. A matter of convenience, then. Beckett’s late prose pieces, as they are often called, and because late, near last, it is said that they are the toughest, the most obscure. That isn’t the case, or not for me, at least. No genius, I, either. The other trilogy, yes, The Unnamable, specifically, yes, although even those all are readable, re-readable, comprehensible. For me, to me, at least. Beckett’s style, as his life drew to a close, was one of clarity, simplicity, minimalism. His sentences, you might say, grew shorter, as the life left to him grew shorter also. They dwindled as he dwindled.

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I promised I would return, and so it is. There is no escaping it. Say it, say what? Death, the bastard death. There is no escape. The book begins: from where she lies. Already you know; you know, if you didn’t already, from that. She lies, because movement is difficult. Down on her knees especially she finds it hard not to remain so forever. Such helplessness. She’s old, of course; of course, she’s old. So old, so frail, so close to the void, that her steps in the snow, hers not mine, her snow not mine, leave barely a trace. Perhaps that – old age and the approach of death – is the reason why she spends so much of her time at the window, watching Venus rise. It is beautiful, bright, and permanent, unlike she. Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. Is there a better way to live your last? I don’t know. The woman understands, it seems, her situation. She is ‘beyond surprise.’ Beyond because experienced and wise, perhaps, because resigned, perhaps. Or is she so because mad, because she doesn’t understand? Things and imaginings. As of always. Confusion amounting to nothing. The mind decays with the body. I will return to that. At the window then, passively, only because she cannot easily be elsewhere? I don’t know.

All of this is familiar, so far. Beckett, on death on dying. No new ground. Wonderfully executed, but new? No. The woman, a woman. Yes, of course, there is that, but gender at this stage, in this state, what matters that? Whether she or Molloy or Malone, no matter. The woman in her cabin, in a ‘formless place.’ Ok. Meagre pastures; stones increasingly abound. Ok. There was once clover. Ok. The woman living amongst ruin. This all strikes one as straightforward enough. The environment mirroring her state. Suggesting, you might say, also neglect, for she is alone. Withered crocuses. Fine. Ok. And the snow. Formless too, and white. A kind of void. Cold like death. Yet strictly speaking she isn’t alone. There are the animals, which come and go, as you would expect, and the men. Twelve men. Always in the distance, receding, circling, perhaps watching. Are they real? She is, we have established already, quite possibly mad. And her eyes ill see, without question. An illusion of men? There is a train of thought, which I would like to dismiss almost without mention, that they are the twelve disciples and the woman, the Virgin. Be that the case, or not, I find no great evidence for it, and even less enthusiasm.

The men, the twelve, why twelve, I don’t know. The men for me, putting aside the number, for I cannot explain it, are the others, the rest, the world, the truly living, at a distance, shadowy, indistinct, disappearing. Ghostly, in a word. One thinks of the dead, or dying, as the ghost, but to the dead, or dying, it is they, the others. The ethereal atmosphere, now that I am warming to my subject, is the reason that I love Ill Seen Ill Said as much as I do. I rate it, I should say, or I will anyway, higher than most, the highest, almost. For this reason. It is what sets it apart, from the rest of Beckett’s work. There are throughout repeated references to white. The snow, again. The stones. The lamb. The moon. Her hair, her hands. The rest of Beckett’s novels, no matter how absurd, all feel grounded in the real, in the world, our world. Yet this one is otherworldly. It exists in a misty dimension, between life and death. It’s great, and moving, beauty isn’t only in its style, but in its setting and atmosphere also.

ASYLUM PIECE BY ANNA KAVAN

Have you ever had the feeling that you’re being followed and watched? Lean into the darkness and what do you see? The alley, the wardrobe, the space under the bed, the cracks in the walls – lean in close and what do you see? Maybe you’re being paranoid, for when you root around in the dark corners of your life there’s no one there. Still, you’d better clutch your keys, or quicken your step or pull the duvet over your head. There’s a knife in the kitchen which gives you peace of mind but which, you note to yourself, could equally be a murder weapon. I once had a stalker. Once, perhaps still. Who knows how good she is at the task she has given herself. Stalking like anything else is a skill one can develop. I would see her, fleetingly, although we had never met, in shops and on streets. I knew her from her photographs, in which she was naked and her face was turned away from the camera. Someone, if not her. Something, if not her. A powerful force dogging my heels that never fully reveals itself. I lay awake every night, cat-eyeing the dark corners of my life.

“I know that I’m doomed and I’m not going to struggle against my fate. I am only writing this down so that when you do not see me any more you will know that my enemy has finally triumphed.”

It has been a number of weeks since I last read a book. I didn’t read this one, or certainly not with strict concentration. I dipped in and out of it as though it were a dream, my cat eyes skimming the white pages and always drifting towards the window in the room. Even now, as I write, I find my head involuntarily turning towards it and whatever conscious part of me that still exits is drawn into the snowy static that obscures the world. My relationship with Anna Kavan has been an uneasy one, but that isn’t it. My relationship with most things is uneasy. During my past periods of lucidity I found her work tiresome, not now. I’ve read Ice three times, and enjoyed it only once, most recently. Asylum Piece was written much earlier than Ice, in some year or other. Or years, perhaps, for I’m not sure if it is something whole, put together by the author, or a collection fashioned by a publisher from various sources. It reads – if my experience of it could be said to be that of reading, which I am certain it cannot – like a bit of both. The first half of the book is given over to a sequence of Kafkaesque* – in the truest sense of the word – short pieces, while the second is a cycle of stories concerned with patients in mental institutions.

It strikes me as necessary to concentrate on the first half of the book, for no reason other than that was when my attention was most focused on it. In fact, The Birthmark, which opens the collection, is the only story I know by name, whose details I can confidently associate with a title. This is fortunate in so much as it is representative of what I can recall of the first half as a whole. In it a young girl is sent away to boarding school where she meets another girl, H, whose arm, ‘as if traced in faded ink’, is blemished by a birthmark. The years pass and the girls lose touch with each other, although the narrator confesses to having never really forgotten about H. Then, one summer when she is travelling in a foreign country, the narrator visits an ancient fortress and, while walking around, notices a ‘barred window giving on to some subterranean cell.’ It is in this cell that she thinks she sees a woman with an identifying birthmark, in which he thinks she sees H.

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With succinctness and clarity The Birthmark could be said to make much of the rest of the book redundant, and in fact much of Kavan’s oeuvre [with the obvious exception of Ice, which in hindsight becomes richer]. Certainly, when I finished it I felt as though I knew more about, and better understood, her principle concerns. The most compelling and insistent of these concerns is that of oppression. In her most famous work it is manifested in the elements, and in the girl’s partner, here it is the boarding school and the fortress prison and possibly the birthmark itself [which H is self-conscious of]. It is interesting that Kavan herself was said to be secretive about her age, as though that too – ageing – is an oppressive force, especially for a woman. In each of the rest of the stories in the first half of Asylum Piece the narrator – they are all told in the first person – is either being punished, persecuted, threatened, or imagines herself to be. In some she is at the mercy of an authority – such as the patrons in Going Up in the World – of whom she is aware, and with whom she interacts, and in others it is a shadowy, distant, unknown entity that she believes to be at work against her.

The tone of these stories is panicked and fearful; there is a sense of dread and unease, paranoia and futility throughout, regardless of the primary action. For example, in the early stages of The Birthmark the narrator speaks of feeling ‘strange and subdued’ and of how ‘nullification’ accompanied H. Indeed, the book is full of words and phrases such as ‘ill omened’, ‘gloomy inertia’, ‘doom’, ‘hostile’, ‘treacherous’, and so on. Moreover, frequent references are made to being or feeling alone or isolated. The prison speaks to this, of course, but so does the situation of the girl in Going Up in the World, where she is forced to live in a cold and dirty room, while her patrons live above her in luxury and brightness. Even in less restrictive circumstances, while apparently free, her narrator is ‘frightened and lonely in a nightmare world’ with ‘not a soul’ she can trust. I know very little about Kavan as a person, and so I would not want to make judgements about her mental state, but it is clear that she was at least interested in the mental processes of the hysterical depressive. This is perhaps how both halves of the book fit together. The first puts us inside the diseased mind of such a person, while the second observes these types from a distance.

 

*this is a word that I instinctively recoil from in most circumstances. However, if you are familiar with Kafka’s work the similarities should be apparent having read this review. In fact, there is a short suite of stories in Asylum Piece, in which the narrator has been charged with a crime she knows nothing about, that are on the borderline of plagiarism.