English

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.

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CONCLUDING BY HENRY GREEN

I had intended to write this yesterday. But I went out drinking instead. This is my life now. This, apparently, is living. I spent a number of years putting people off, in order to read and write. Excuses and outright lies. I was ashamed of myself, and wished I was different. I am different now, yet not in a meaningful way. Different only in so much as I force myself to engage, while being still disengaged mentally and emotionally. I felt I had to try though, so I am trying. I spoke about Henry Green last night. I was asked, as I am always asked, because it is one sure way to make me speak, what are you reading? I had just finished Concluding. It is usually the case that my brief explanations are met with interest, be it genuine or fake. However, on this occasion the response was lukewarm, almost hostile. And it occurred to me then that Green’s body of work might just be the hardest sell in literature.

There is something singularly unexciting about Henry Green’s oeuvre when reduced to its elements. Of plot and character depth or development, there is very little, and the most immediate compensation – the lovely, awkward sentences – is not exactly crowd-pleasing. Yet Concluding, which I have read twice now, is, for my money, one of the great British novels, and I hope that what I am going to write here will give some indication as to why it is deserving of that status. I’m not holding my breath, though. The book was published in 1948, making it one of the last things the author worked on. Green himself was only 43 at the time, so it is unlikely that he felt as though his own life was coming to an end, but perhaps he did have in sight the last days of his career as there is an autumnal, elegiac quality to parts of it. In one scene, for example, he writes about ‘a glare of sunlight concerted on flat, dying leaves’ and a ‘hidden world of spiders working on its gold, the webs these made a field of wheels and spokes of wet silver.’

The central character Mr. Rock plays into this too. He is an old man, in his seventies, a once brilliant scientist, who now wears thick glasses, consistently mishears conversation due to deafness, and rises ‘with a groan.’ In fact, one way of understanding Concluding is as a novel about old age, and specifically the mistreatment, at least in Britain, of the elderly. Certainly, if one’s sympathies lay with Rock, one could argue that he is a highly intelligent, but vulnerable, man, who is preyed upon by various other, younger, characters who want to strip him of a cottage that sits close by an institute for girls; a property, moreover, which was given to him by the State in view of his former importance and contribution to science. However, one is never entirely sure of him. There are too many contrasting opinions, too much contradictory evidence.

In some quarters he is ‘well liked and respected’; and his granddaughter, in particular, idolises him. But for others he is something more sinister; he is a man ‘not of this world’, he is a ‘curious creature’. At no point in the novel does he do anything truly concerning, and yet one is at times given the impression that there may be, or have been, some form of inappropriate involvement, possibly sexual in nature, between him and one or more of the young female students of the institute. Indeed, it is even suggested that he may have had something to do with the disappearance of two girls, which is the central mystery that provides much of the novel’s momentum and tension. In this way, Concluding is very much like the work of another Henry, Henry James. As I wrote in my review of Portrait of a Lady, James’ genius was the ability to somehow hint and imply without ever outright telling you the juiciest bits of his story. There is, I wrote, a whole world beneath the surface of his work. The same could be said of Green.

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In relation to the disappearance of the girls, it is not only Rock who is fingered as a suspect in the reader’s mind. Almost all of the characters are. Everyone raises suspicion, everyone strikes you as dubious, without ever really doing anything to deserve it; except perhaps Miss Edge, the headmistress, who is the most obvious villain of the piece. In fact, one is never sure whether there has even been a crime. It’s really quite magical. There is an atmosphere of unease and strangeness throughout the novel. The girls, for example, are all called names beginning with M. They are essentially faceless, and without personality, and are often described in sexual terms, such as when reference is made to their ‘golden bare legs’ or the ‘brilliant wetness’ of their mouths. Liz, Rock’s granddaughter, is decidedly odd, having recently had a mental breakdown. Edge and Baker, who run the institute in tandem, are ‘devious’, ‘dangerous’, ‘Babylonian harlots.’ The whole cast appear to be plotting and scheming, and they all talk to each other as though they are having two entirely different conversations.

The characters aren’t all of it, either. Perhaps the most significant scene, in terms of understanding the peculiar power of the novel, and something of Green’s art, is when a doll is found dressed in institute pyjamas. One cannot help but he alarmed by it. Is it meant to represent Mary, one of the missing girls? If so, who is responsible for it? The murderer? The kidnapper? Or does it perhaps belong to her? If so, how did she lose it in the woods, and why the pyjamas? All kinds of macabre thoughts run through one’s mind, and yet it is still only a doll. It does not, in fact, signify anything, even if it does belong Mary, as we already know she is missing and we do not know for certain that she has come to any harm. The doll tells us nothing of note, but suggests all kinds of horrible things. Indeed, one spends the majority of Concluding waiting for a dead body to appear, to be stumbled upon, to float to the surface, or at least for some form of closure, but this is not a book that works in that way. There are no answers or conclusions. As Henry Green himself once wrote: “it’s not the truth that matters. It’s what’s believed.”

THE BLUE FLOWER BY PENELOPE FITZGERALD

I grew up in a home in which a washing machine, for example, was an extravagance we could not afford. However, we did own a large selection of hardback books, which my father – perhaps in an effort to convince my mother that he was a sensitive and high-minded man – had purchased during the early stages of his marriage. Yet most of these books – including the complete works of Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, and some hefty poetry anthologies – remained untouched until I was old enough to understand that they were not simply a decorative feature. Of course, I could not make sense of the greater part of what I read, but I found comfort in emotions and situations that were alien to me and beyond my personal experience, in being able to transport myself away from my dreary surroundings. When I read, say, a poem by Dylan Thomas I felt as though he was trying to tell me something, was reaching out to me, but, at the same time, had endeavoured to make that message as beautiful or interesting as possible, like a woman putting on her best underwear before jumping into bed with her partner.

By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I was writing my own poetry and short stories. I wrote terribly, of course, but it was something that I felt compelled to do. It didn’t seem strange to me then, although it does now, that I chose to express myself in words rather than with violence. My parents did not encourage me to be creative; I don’t think they even knew that I spent most of my time reading and writing. They had no expectations for me, wanted nothing for me, as far as I could tell, except that perhaps I would not ‘get into trouble’ like the majority of my contemporaries. I was fifteen when my English teacher entered a story I had written in a competition, and I won. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t attend the prize-giving. I was awkward, insular and unambitious. My father was a bed maker, my mother, when she could find work, was a cleaner or barmaid. I wasn’t ashamed of them, I was ashamed of myself. I subsequently went to college, then to university, to study English literature and Philosophy; and at each stage I felt unfit for purpose.

“But even more heavenly than the flashing stars are those infinite eyes which the night opens within us, and which see further even than the palest of those innumerable hosts.” – Novalis

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald concentrates on a few years in the life of young Fritz von Hardenberg, who later made his name as the romantic poet and philosopher Novalis. Approaching the novel, one might expect that the aim would be to show his development as an artist, and there is some of that, but what came through most clearly, and movingly, for me was a portrait of a man who is unsuited to a practical existence, and who is at odds with his most practical parents. Indeed, the Hardenbergs are said to not invite neighbours to their home, and not accept invitations, as this ‘might lead to worldliness.’ When the French revolution is reported in the newspaper the Freiherr believes the people to have gone ‘mad’ and bans the paper from the home. He is strict man who does not like new ideas, and will not tolerate frivolity in his children. Fritz’s mother, on the other hand, is described as having a ‘narrowness of mind’; she sees the disturbances in France as being ‘no more than a device to infuriate her husband.’

Yet it would be wrong to give the impression that Fritz’s parents are hard and unloving. The Freifrau is simple, yes, but she is a good, affectionate woman. She, for example, offers Fritz her bracelet – the only one she considers truly her own – from which he might fashion his engagement rings. Even his tough old father breaks down in tears after visiting his son’s sick wife-to-be and proposes to give her some of his property. The Hardenberg’s are, in fact, a happy family, who would, says Fritz, give their lives for each other. It is simply that there is a generational clash, between the parents and all their children, but which is most keenly felt in their relationship with Fritz. So while the Freiherr wants his eldest son to be educated ‘in the German manner’, to take a year of Law so as to be able to protect the family’s property, Fritz instead enrols in courses for philosophy and history. The old man expects him to begin a career as an inspector of salt mines, while the ‘dreamy, seemingly backward’ son is only really fit for being a poet and writer. The novel, therefore, is not really concerned with the creative process, but rather with how an artist responds to being raised in an environment that doesn’t nurture, or even acknowledge, his creativity.

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The Blue Flower is often described, or sold, as a love story, and yet for me his relationship with Sophie von Kuhn is simply further evidence of Fritz’s impractical, romantic nature. First of all, she is only twelve years old when they meet and so is not, and could not be, his intellectual equal; in fact, she can barely write. Moreover, she is portrayed as being somewhat uncouth, which is of course not unusual in a child. One of the central questions in the novel is, then, why does Fritz love Sophie? Certainly, it is not due to her supreme physical attractiveness, for we are given to believe that the ‘decent good-hearted saxon girl’ is very ordinary looking. Nor is the answer simply that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, as some have tritely argued. It is the case that Fritz sees in her childish ways something natural, free and easy. She represents for him, as women do for a number of men, nature, innocence, etc. She is uninhibited. The most significant moment in the book in terms of understanding her appeal is when Erasmus asks her for a lock of her hair, and she laughs at him because, unknown to the boy, she has lost her hair due to illness. Her lack of embarrassment and ego is charming. In this way, there is a subtle change in the way that one reacts to the novel, for the real issue is not can Sophie make Fritz happy, but can he do the same for her, for she has no romantic ideals on which to build her love.

“A word of advice. If, as a young man, student, you are tormented by a desire for women, it is best to get out into the fresh air as much as possible.”

There is one other, perhaps more interesting and tragic, love story in The Blue Flower, which involves Karoline Just’s unrequited feelings for Fritz. Sophie von Kuhn dies, and this is upsetting, of course, but, as noted above, at no point did I believe that her marriage to Fritz would be a successful one. Karoline, on the other hand, is, at least on the surface, perfect for him. She is mature, intelligent, warm-hearted, and, most crucially, believes in him and looks up to him. With her Fritz would have been happy, and yet he fails to see it. In a novel that is full of wonderful character portraits, she is, if not my favourite, then certainly the most emotionally affecting, for her cross is that she is not exciting enough. She is not poetry, she is not philosophy; she does not encourage romantic ideas; she is too practical, too conventional a choice for a man of genius.

THE HEARING TRUMPET BY LEONORA CARRINGTON

It was three years ago that my grandfather walked onto the blade of the sword that old age had, for some time, been holding out to him. If we – his family – were honest with ourselves, we would have had to admit to feeling relieved. None of us had known what to do with him, before death had intervened and took control of the situation, with the great authority that only it is capable of. His behaviour had been increasingly erratic, like that of a young bird learning its trade. Sometimes his mental processes were graceful, even though impossible to follow; at others, reality impinged upon his flights, causing him to stumble. He was a once tough and capable man, who had been reduced to a curio; and I sometimes wondered if, or how often, he was aware of his own failings and, worse still, ours.

“You may not believe in magic but something very strange is happening at this very moment. Your head has dissolved into thin air and I can see the rhododendrons through your stomach. It’s not that you are dead or anything dramatic like that, it is simply that you are fading away and I can’t even remember your name.”

The Hearing Trumpet was published in 1976, when its author, Leonora Carrington, was fifty-nine. It is, therefore, perhaps no surprise that, as she approached her sixtieth year, she would make the concerns and experiences of the elderly, specifically elderly women, the focus of her work. Indeed, it is narrated by Marion Leatherby, who, at ninety-two years old, is put in a care home against her wishes by her son and daughter-in-law. However, the book is much warmer and light-hearted, and strange, than that brief synopsis might suggest. Much of that is due to how engaging and eccentric, and funny, the narrative voice is. Marion writes, for example, of having a little grey beard, which ‘conventional people would find repulsive,’ but which she considers ‘rather gallant.’

While Marion could not, of course, be said to be in the prime of life, she refutes the idea that, at such an advanced age, she is mentally and physically incapable. In fact, she highlights, or accentuates, her abilities. So, yes, she is almost completely deaf, but her sight is ‘still excellent’; and although her skeleton has been bent by rheumatics, it does not prevent her from sweeping her room once a week. Likewise, she may be prone to sudden flights of fancy, but her mind wanders ‘never further than I want.’ What one gets from Marion is, then, a picture of a woman who is totally at ease with who she is, and who is, moreover, less sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of others, which is to say that she is accepting of others and their foibles. All told, she is a likeable and charismatic creation.

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Less likeable, however, is the behaviour of some of those around her. As already noted, her family pack her off to an institution for the senile, without seeking her opinion on the matter. They appear to believe that Marion is at an age, and in a condition, such that she cannot make decisions for herself, an attitude consistent with the idea that being old is a kind of second childhood. In this way, The Hearing Trumpet is, in part, a kind of social commentary or criticism, relating to the perception and treatment of the elderly. This is made clearest when – in the book’s least successful scene, in my opinion – the family discuss Marion, without her being present, or at least without being aware of her presence, in the most disparaging and callous way. She has been, Muriel says, ‘a constant anxiety’ to them. Worse still, Robert, her grandson, declares that she ‘can hardly be classified as a human being.’ She would, he concludes, be better off dead.

“I am never lonely, Galahad. Or rather I never suffer from loneliness. I suffer much from the idea that my loneliness might be taken away from me by a lot of mercilessly well-meaning people.”

Anyone coming to The Hearing Trumpet looking for surrealism such as one finds in Carrington’s paintings would likely be disappointed with the first third of the book. It is, for all its charm, fairly conventional, having more in common with writers like Muriel Spark than Ithell Colquhoun or any of the French novels usually gathered together under that umbrella term. Yet once Marion arrives at the ‘sinister’ Lightsome Hall, the tone of the work changes and it becomes, well, curiouser and curiouser. It is run, first of all, by a couple of religious fanatics, who say things like ‘we seek to follow the inner meaning of Christianity’ and make the residents do strange dances called Movements. Stranger still is the caper involving the winking Abbess, the search for the Holy Grail, and the concluding apocalypse section.

I must say that while I enjoyed the unpredictability, and was particularly engaged by the Abbess’ story, I wasn’t as enthused as I was by the early stages. This may have something to do with not fully understanding, or being all that interested in, the symbolism involved. Certainly, Carrington appeared to want to say something about women, femininity, etc, what with the references to Venus, a Bee Queen, and so on, but I thought she dealt with that more elegantly when Marion imagines herself beautiful, and through the character of Georgina, who, although severely wrinkled, still considers herself attractive and sexually alluring [for which she is mocked]. In any case, The Hearing Trumpet is a fine, and fun, novel, but more than that, it is a comforting one, for, with its gang of rebellious and resourceful pensioners, it makes one feel as though getting old will not be as horrifying as one might think.

INSEL BY MINA LOY

For years I considered myself unlucky, to be the innocent victim of misfortune. I could not understand how it came to be that everyone I was familiar or intimate with were mad, how I came to be so consistently embroiled in absurd, sometimes harmful, situations. It was only recently that I realised that it is my own eccentricity that draws these people to me, or draws me to them, that creates, or helps to create, the situations that I find myself in. Madness does not circle me, I am the madness. My behaviour, my choices, my attitude. So, when I arranged to visit a friend abroad, and the day before I was due to fly he deleted all trace of himself, disappeared, and hasn’t contacted me since, I am now able to recognise that this is as much about me as it is him. My inability to maintain conventional relationships means that the friendships I do have are with the sort who can and will suddenly disappear, in the same way that they too would likely not be surprised if I went missing, never to be heard from again.

“If this is madness,” I said to myself, breathing his atmosphere exquisite almost to sanctification, “madness is something very beautiful.”

Mina Loy made her name, if that isn’t too fanciful a term considering the limited success during her lifetime and her relative obscurity now, as much for her unconventional lifestyle as for her poetry and art. Insel, her only novel, was published posthumously, and was, one therefore assumes, unfinished, or certainly not completed to the author’s satisfaction. As one would expect, there isn’t a vast amount of information about, or critical analysis of, the book; but, in terms of what there is, the general consensus appears to be that it was inspired by, or is a fictionalised account of, her relationship with the German surrealist painter Richard Oelze. This strikes me as a further example of her personal life overshadowing, or being given more consideration, than her work, a trend that I am not interested in continuing here. [More interesting is the public’s relentless desire to hunt for, to sniff out, ‘real life’, or fact, in art, but that is a discussion for another time].

‘The first I heard of Insel was the story of a madman,’ is how the novel begins. It is an impressive opening, for it not only immediately grabs your attention, and motivates you to want to continue, it says something significant about the titular artist at the centre of the narrative. This is a man with a reputation, a man who is perhaps a figure of fun, about whom anecdotes circulate. Indeed, the narrator, Mrs. Jones, then shares one such anecdote, about how he is in need of money for a set of false teeth, so that he can go to a brothel without disgusting the prostitutes with a ‘mouthful of roots.’ Therefore, Insel is, we’re meant to believe, not in a good way, both mentally and physically. Mrs. Jones relentlessly stresses this point, as Loy, if not always to the reader’s enjoyment, seemingly delights in finding new turns of phrase to describe his poor state. He is ‘pathetically maimed’; an ‘animate cadaver’, with a ‘queer ashen face’, who has ‘fallen under the heel of fate.’

Moreover, as the book progresses we are given access to details that paint a picture of someone who has not suddenly found himself down on his luck, nor recently broken down, but who has always been on the periphery of things, of life itself. For example, Insel tells Mrs. Jones that ‘as a child I would remain silent for six months at a time.’ This sense of a disconnect, of being outside conventional society, is perhaps why the narrator frequently refers to him as a kind of ghost, someone ‘transparent’ who is able to ‘pass through’ without leaving a trace. It is, I would, argue, a metaphor for his relationship with the world, rather than, as it seems on the surface, a comment on his status as a starving artist. Indeed, the word insel is German for island.

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While all this likely gives the impression that Insel is a tough, bleak reading experience, the reality is the opposite. Stylistically, it is modernist, something like Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, and there are people who will struggle with that, but the tone is light and amiable, even comedic at times. Think back, for example, to Mrs. Jones’ anecdote about the teeth, which is pathetic, certainly, but humorous also. As are Insel’s run-ins with various prostitutes, whom he leeches off and gets into fights with. Moreover, there is a suggestion that the painter might not be as mad or vulnerable as he appears to be, that he is not quite a man on the brink of extinction. The leeching off prostitutes is part of it, for Insel can clearly ‘get by’, can put himself in a position to be kept, in spite of his apparently revolting appearance. Indeed, his relationship with Mrs. Jones, who supplies him with steak amongst other things, is further, even more commanding, proof. In this way, the book could be viewed as a portrait of a con man, more than that of a tortured artist. Certainly, there is little in Insel that gives weight to the idea that he is a mad genius; there is very little about art in it at all.

Yet I’d argue that the most rewarding reading of the novel is as a ode to unlikely friendship or mutual need. Both characters are obviously looking for something, if not precisely each other, when they meet. Mrs. Jones, a Mrs. without a husband in tow, is not exactly lonely, for she has friends, but men, it seems, are not beating down her door. In one scene, for example, she is approached in a bar, but the gentleman shudders when he discovers ‘the hair in the shadow of my hat to be undeniably white.’ Insel, therefore, plays an important role in her life by paying her attention, by playing suitor without ever being her lover. Likewise, she, as noted, feeds him and mothers him, but, more than this, she appears to value him, both as an artist and as a man – she calls him a ‘delicate and refined soul.’ The two together fit; their friendship is, she states, one of ‘unending hazy laughter.’ However, as I know myself, relationships of this sort are not built to last. ‘Danke für alles – Thanks for everything,’ Insel says at the very end of the book; and then he disappears, of course.

GOOSE OF HERMOGENES BY ITHELL COLQUHOUN

I was looking for Irene’s Cunt. I had been following a trail that had no fixed first step, but which began, in my mind, with Les Chants de Maldoror. Although you might justifiably say that it began with Dostoevsky or Rulfo or Nabokov. In any case, I took in Jan Potocki’s Saragossa Manuscript, and Wittkop’s ode to necrophilia; and these led to La-Bas, and Husymans led to Bataille; and somewhere further along this road I began the search for Irene’s Cunt by Albert de Routisie [better known as Louis Aragon]. I haven’t found it yet but, in retrospect, it seemed inevitable that at some point in this journey my attention would be drawn towards the book under review here.

“They floated on, gently at first, then more rapidly so as not to lose sight of the bird. As they flew, leaving the mansion and its grounds far behind, they became permeated with light and colour; and their blood, always a single stream, now pulsed back and forth along the rays of the sun, as from some magnetic heart.”

Goose of Hermogenes is, I’m led to believe, the only novel by Ithell Colquhoun, whose name is primarily associated with painting, of the surreal variety, and an interest in the occult. It was published in 1961, although it was by all accounts written much earlier, and is a first-person account of a nameless woman’s experiences on a mysterious island. As one might expect, there is, from the very beginning, an atmosphere of unease and strangeness. The island, we’re told, is situated in a ‘misty bay almost landlocked by two promontories and chocked with a growth of the half submerged trees.’ The woman arrives by virtue of an ‘erratic’ bus, which she then exchanges for a horse and cart. These are both subsequently abandoned when the track towards her intended accommodation becomes ‘impassible.’

There is a sense, therefore, of someone entering into a situation, an environment, that will not be easy to escape from and may in fact be hostile or harmful. Indeed, the island, by virtue of its inaccessibility, gives one the impression that it is not meant to be accessible, or that perhaps there is something to hide. This feeling is strengthened when the woman enters a gate-house which stands a little distant from the mansion of her uncle, with whom she is to stay for the duration of her visit. As she looks around the room in which she finds herself it strikes her as being arranged as ‘a defence against an outer darkness’ and as having an atmosphere of ‘the deliberately sequestered.’ Moreover, the porter at the gate-house, the Anchorite, is said to give her a ‘sinister impression’ of her relative and his house.

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[Landscape of Nightmare, Ithell Colquhoun 1945]

While one would not describe the uncle as the book’s central character, he is, despite being off-stage for most of its duration, probably the most important, and certainly the most intriguing. He is an enigmatic man, who is described, on first sighting, as being ‘disquieting.’ He is tall, with a ‘skeletal head’; his manner is ‘courteous but distant.’ Indeed, he rarely speaks nor leaves his room. Yet, although reclusive and taciturn, the narrator feels that none of her movements go unnoticed by him; and that he has methods of knowing everything she does or thinks, which suggests of course that these methods are unnatural. It is an impressive and clever move by the author, as it adds tension to the narrative, it ramps up the unsettling atmosphere, by making it seem as though the uncle is ever-present, always looking over the woman’s shoulder, while being, as noted, mostly absent from the novel’s action.

In some editions the subtitle of Goose of Hermogenes is A Gothick Fantasy, whichas a summary of the contents, is fairly accurate. As previously stated, the landscape is overgrown and menacing; the locals are decidedly odd; and there is the archetypal madman [the uncle is said to have ‘deliberately pressed beyond the borders of sanity’] in his spooky old house. Indeed, there are, we’re told, ‘groans and growls’ coming from one of the rooms and various references are made to possession, visions, weird bird-like creatures, death and ghosts. The narrator even claims to have upon her throat the ‘mark of a vampire’s tooth.’ Moreover, I am, despite being an almost complete ignoramus where this subject is concerned, fairly sure there is a large amount of  occult symbology.

However, these things are probably less disconcerting, and certainly less disorientating, than the genuinely surreal aspects of the novel. Very early in the book the narrator pushes a boy through a window, but when she looks out after him she sees only his empty shirt falling through the air. This sets the tone for a series of bizarre, inexplicable, and random, happenings. For example, at one stage the woman is being carried over a man’s shoulder, and the next moment, without explanation, she is walking on her own. Furthermore, one finds out towards the end that her twin sisters are also on the island, a circumstance that had gone unmentioned previously. Indeed, if Goose of Hermogenes itself has a twin it would be Anna Kavan’s Ice, in which there is a similar suspension of the laws of reality, a similar weightlessless, and thrilling sense that absolutely anything could occur on a page by page basis.

ICE BY ANNA KAVAN

Read it, they intone. Not as a distraction from the chaos but as an explanation. Everywhere you look: bodies crushed under avalanches of snow; hardy men torn apart by a substance as soft as tissue paper; babies blue, and harder than stone, ripping through the air like bullets. I have seen so many things. Awful things. They call it the end of the world. But this is not the end, this is still something. The end will be a relief. The end, the end. I’m fooling myself. There is no end. I am the cockroach. I have survived; I will survive. Soon I will be the only one left. The bitter wind that carries their voices to me will then be mute.

Read it, the cold wind says, and then you will understand. What will I understand? There is no place for that now, for the goal of understanding is progress. And we are going nowhere, not even backwards. The only movement comes from the ice and the snow, that constantly shifting, vertical and horizontal, oppression. An arctic prison, built around a void. They have public readings. For an hour or two they stop killing each other, or digging, and read together; or one reads and the others listen. The book begins, I have been told, ominously. A man is lost, hopelessly lost, and he is almost out of petrol. It is night-time, and this is telling, for isn’t the dark traditionally where danger lurks? The man drives into a petrol station and is issued a warning. A real bad freeze-up is on the way.

Read it, and all will become clear. Yet everything is murky. Who is he? Where has he come from? Where is he going? You are aware that something bad has happened, something irreversible, but details are sketchy. A ‘disaster’ is mentioned, which has ‘obliterated the villages and wrecked the farms.’ Later, it is suggested that there may have been ‘a secret act of aggression by some foreign power.’ A nuclear explosion, perhaps. Confusion, rumour, theory. The truth is you will never know. And what good is knowing anyhow? There is then, and there is now. No one in the book is named; no countries are identified either. Instability, uncertainty dominates. But you must deal in certainties, if you are to stay alive. There is the ice, and there is the girl. And these two things are connected. Of this much you can be sure.

Read it, they chant day and night, although, strictly speaking, there is no night-time anymore. There is no darkness, no rest. There is bright icelight, and no one can put it out. The earth is a giant glittering discoball. The girl. She is, the man admits, an obsession. He is infatuated; he could think only of her. In fact, the man is only really interesting in relation to how he views, treats, and thinks about, her. Throughout the book he is intent on finding her. This is, essentially, the plot: he finds the girl, and then he loses her again. He finds, he loses. He finds, he loses. It should be tedious, but it is oddly moving. And often disturbing. He wants to save her, from the disaster, from the warden.

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Read it, for the girl. She is important, of course. She has a body ‘slight as a child’s.’ It is repeatedly emphasised. Her physical immaturity, and vulnerability. She has thin and brittle wrists. She is almost weightless. She is neurotic, fearful, mostly silent. She is emotionally vulnerable too. To be frank, the repetition in the first half of the book seems artless. She is weak; she is otherwordly. You wonder how many times you need to be told. Yet you must remember that we only have access to his words, that this – like a child – is how he sees her. Isn’t it – her childish, delicate appearance – his obsession, not the author’s? The man needs her frailty, in order to justify his need to feel protective of her.

Read it, and perhaps you will make up your own mind. I don’t know. I have little interest in books. I will not yield to their demands. I simply listen and I observe. And I endure, like the cockroach that I am. There is a point in the book when the man speaks of the girl as though she is a dog. I believe that this is significant. He had to win her trust. She comes when she is called. Isn’t it the case, therefore, that he sees himself as the owner, the master, of this timid animal? The relationship between the girl and the man is not based on love, but power. He credits himself with the power to save and also the power to destroy. The girl is destroyed, or hurt, numerous times throughout the novel. By the ice. By a dragon. By the warden. By the man himself, of course. In the first half, she is repeatedly persecuted, killed. She submits to it without resistance.

Read it, and you will agree that it is a novel about systematic abuse, about victims and victimisers. This is why they like it, why it speaks to that gang out there, outside my window. It isn’t the ice, it isn’t the parallels between that and this; Anna Kavan could not see into the future, she did not predict what was going to happen. Not even they believe that. It speaks to their now unleashed desire to crush and maim those who are weaker than they are. If the world is a nightmare, if unreality is reality, then anything is permissible. The girl wasn’t born to be a victim, she was trained, you might say, by her mother, who kept her ‘in a permanent state of frightened subjection.’ And as a victim she needs the man, and the warden, as much as they, as the victimisers, need her; they sustain each other.

Read it, they demand, not once, but repeatedly, until the words become your words. Bearing all this in mind, you understand the man’s actions, his mission, differently; he is not simply searching for the girl, he is stalking her. He is a sadist. He finds her bruises ‘madly attractive.’ He argues that her ‘timidity and fragility seems to invite callousness.’ He derives an ‘indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer.’ And you, as the reader, feel complicit because you enjoy it too – when the ice overwhelms her, when it entraps her – as these are the moments when Kavan’s writing truly astonishes. It is beautiful only in these moments. Her death: over and over again. I don’t know if that was intentional.

Read it aloud, so that those who are within earshot can also be redeemed. The ice! The ice! Sometimes I feel as though it lives, it breathes, and we are simply performing rituals, and sacrifices, in order to please it. You can draw comparisons between the girl and Kavan herself; both silver-haired, both with mother issues. The author was a heroin addict, and the girl’s appearance is certainly consistent with that. Thin, pale. And the ice, of course, and the snow, which engulfs, and entraps. You might argue that this – the ice – is her addiction; that it is the drug that is destroying her. There is a dragon, remember. A dragon. The level of self pity, and self-obsession, is incredible. To write a novel about one’s own destruction and link it to the fate of the world. No, I find that the most uninteresting theory of all.

Read it, study it, and memorise it. Almost all copies were submerged under the ice. What we have has been rewritten, from one or two master copies. Still, teams of men and women are excavating as I speak, chipping away at the glass that mirrors their toil. An Original is precious. It could buy you life, or death. I prefer the latter. The man is dreaming, terrible dreams; they are a side effect of the drugs he takes. He admits this early on. There is no mystery. The girl is ‘the victim I used in my dreams for my own enjoyment.’ Case closed. There is reality and lucidity; there is unreality and hallucination. The warden with his ‘vicious scowl’, his ‘aura of danger.’ The man and the warden [and her husband] are the same man. The man and the warden and the ice. The black hand. The dragon. All one and the same. Am I spoiling things? Who am I spoiling it for? You all know the book better than I do, for I have never even glanced at a page.