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THE CATHEDRAL OF MIST BY PAUL WILLEMS

Long before I finished The Cathedral of Mist I began to wonder how I was going to write about it, how, specifically, I could articulate the powerful emotional effect it had upon me. I saw myself floundering pathetically, like someone attempting to thread a needle in the dark. How many times, and how many ways, could I call Willems’ stories beautiful and moving? I had my notes of course, which were not as detailed or inspired as I would have hoped, but at least they were something to which I could cling. Yet, after closing the book I, unknowingly, put it down so that it was resting on the delete key on my keyboard. It was a fair few seconds before I understood why my words were quickly disappearing before my eyes. It was as though, after spending a short but disorientating period of time in Willems’ magical world, it was entirely possible, right even, that text can, of its own accord, begin to remove itself.

“The cathedral sparkled in the sunlight; every last detail of its architecture could be distinguished. I felt like we were seeing it reflected in one of those great mythical mirrors where winter has forever frozen its most beautiful memories.”

My intention was to begin this paragraph with some biographical information about Paul Willems, who I assume the readers of this review know as little about as I do, but a cursory look around the internet provides almost nothing of note. He was, I read, a French-speaking Belgian author and playwright who passed away in 1997. The Cathedral of Mist was, according to the publisher’s blurb, first released in 1983. It contains six short stories [and two essays, which I skipped], which run to roughly sixty small pages. I mention these apparently insignificant details because it seems incredible to me, first of all, that the stories are so recent, bearing in mind the timeless quality of them, and, secondly, how slight the whole thing is. Never has my love for something been built upon such feeble foundations.

In view of the scarcity of information regarding Willems, and the obscurity of his work, at least in English, it seems appropriate that secrecy features prominently in the collection. Indeed, although I didn’t keep score, it seemed to me that the words secret or secrets appear in each of the six stories, sometimes more than once. In Requiem for Bread, when the narrator, who I assumed was the author in all the stories, is told that bread screams when it is cut, he describes this as ‘one of those secrets of the world.’ Likewise, the Countess Kausala in An Archbishop’s Flight is said to be the keeper of ‘some very pleasant secrets.’ It is never revealed what exactly it is that the Countess knows, but this is not important of course. The frequent references to secrets are simply one part of an overriding atmosphere of romance, wonder and mystery. The world, as Willems sees, or experiences it, is one in which one can purchase a hat and subsequently find oneself in a bed, in the forest, as the snow begins to fall; it is a world where a man will invent his own language in order to communicate with his dead daughter; it is a world where there exists a cathedral made entirely out of mist; it is a world of epiphanies, if you know where, or how, to look.

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Moreover, this is evident not only in the basic action or interactions, but also in the way that Willems uses imagery to transform ordinary, commonplace things into something significant, dramatic, beautiful or magical. Clouds, for example, are described as ‘great grey fairies’, and bullets are like bees, but perhaps best of all is when it is said that waves speak two words: ‘the first dashes up on shore, toward us. The other withdraws, taking back what the first said.’ I don’t like to compare one author’s work to another, for I find these comparisons lazy, largely pointless and often tenuous, but I could not help but be reminded, first of all, of Bruno Schulz. In his story Tailors’ Dummies, Schulz calls his father the ‘fencing master of imagination’ and this phrase seems to me to go some way to capturing not only his own genius but Willems’ too. Yet, having said that, there is an economy of style, a restraint, in the Belgian’s work that is lacking in Schulz’s, and which is reminiscent of Tarjei Vesaas.

What I have written so far will, I imagine, give the impression that The Cathedral of Mist is rather like a children’s book of fables or fairytales; and that would not be entirely incorrect. However, there is also a core of sadness, a very adult kind of sadness, and a preoccupation with death. In Requiem for Bread the narrator’s cousin dies by falling out of a window, and each night, when he shuts his eyes, he sees her ‘falling without falling, spinning without moving, dying without dying.’ In Cherepish he is in Sofia with Hector, a middle aged man who has ‘nothing in his life.’ Hector yearns for his own epiphany, but ‘whatever is essential has passed him by.’ Finally, in The Palace of Emptiness, Victor, following the death of his father, beats his wife ‘like a child who hits his mother because it is raining’. She leaves him for a while, is happy, and then, at the end of the story, she returns, ‘submissive to the harm she would need from now on.’ Willems’ characters are, more often than not, suffering; and, for this reason, I would resist the description of the author as a ‘fantasist.’

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KZRADOCK THE ONION MAN AND THE SPRING-FRESH METHUSELAH BY LOUIS LEVY

What will be related here is, like the novel by Louis Levy around which much of the action revolves, a ‘dreadful and bloody mystery’, one that is still not entirely understood by me. I make these notes, therefore, not in order to bring clarity to the situation but as a kind of exorcism. I write as a means of relieving myself of a burden and to bring a semblance of peace and order to my own soul. My patient, who I have always known as Kzradock, but who may in fact be someone, anyone, other than that man, was referred to me by the police as a paranoid schizophrenic. However, early in my treatment of him I doubted this diagnosis. When he screamed ‘Kzradock!’ I, like the police, understood this to be his name, certainly, but other of his utterances, and most persuasively the look in his haunted eyes, suggested to me some form of secret knowledge, a mystery, or story, that ought not to be ignored. In short, I doubted his madness, and, in turn, ended up doubting my own sanity.

I was making my morning rounds of the institute when I looked in upon Kzradock. He was standing in the corner of his room, his back to the wall. Often in situations such as these I would pass on to the next room without interfering, for the man was not harming himself, but on this occasion something compelled me to enter Kzradock’s cell. I greeted the man with a sincere good morning, and he, without turning around to face me, took up his familiar refrain: ‘Kzradock! Violently shaking hands! Hmm. Collapsing…under the burden. Eyes…ah…a consuming fever!’ I wondered whether I ought to administer a sedative, but I suddenly wished to have another go at getting him to expand upon his seemingly incoherent ramblings. I asked him to whom it was that he referred. ‘Kzradock!’ he screamed. And then to my surprise he spoke, near moaned, these new, strange, barely comprehensible, phrases: ‘Fever! Fresh Onion Man! Levy, Louis-Methuselah. Doctor! Oh doctor! I don’t exist! Please help me!’

I considered these new offerings to be a kind of breakthrough. Certainly, he had not referred to me as a doctor before, which suggested that he recognised who I was and, perhaps, where he was. Kzradock, I said, gently, who is the Fresh Onion Man? Levy Louis? ‘Kzradock and the doctor,’ he replied. I am the onion man? ‘No!’ he screamed. ‘You, like me, don’t exist!’ And then he began to weep. I thought at this point of ending our conversation, for I could see that it was especially distressing. I was about to leave when, conveniently, one of my attendants entered the cell and told me that there was a call for me in my office. When I picked up the phone, however, the line appeared to be dead. But as I listened closer I heard a crackling sound, something like tin foil being scrunched up into a ball; and then, faintly, I heard, or thought I heard, a voice say: ‘Kzradock is a character, doc.’ Hello? Hello? Who’s there? ‘It’s a book, you fool.’ What’s that? A book? Hello?

I put down the phone, almost slammed it down, and looked around my office. The room was full of books, for I have always been a keen reader. I went over to the shelves and scanned them intently. Kzradock, Kzradock, Kzradock. Every single book was called Kzradock The Onion Man and the Spring Fresh Methuselah and each was written by Louis Levy. Ah, I’m lost, I thought to myself. I’ve gone mad! Kzradock has infected me with his madness! I took one of the books from the shelf and opened it. The pages were blank. I was on the verge of collapse when one of my attendants, the same attendant as before, entered my office. ‘You have blood on your hands,’ he said sheepishly. What? Is Kzradock dead? ‘No, your hands, doctor, are bleeding.’ I looked down at my hands. They were red. ‘A papercut!’ I screamed at the man. He smiled and nodded and then handed me a piece of paper. What’s this? ‘A police officer gave it to me just now.’ Which police officer? No, don’t say anything! You may leave!

I knew that something was amiss with that attendant. He was, I was sure, in on a plot to ruin me. He was, yes, a co-conspirator. Perhaps, I thought, he has even drugged me. In any case, I opened the note and read: esteemed author, Louis Levy, who died in 1940, will today, September 10th 2017, give a talk about his famous novel Kzradock The Onion Man and the Spring Fresh Methuselah. Although sensing a trap, I noted the time and address and, realising that I had only twenty five minutes to spare, immediately left the institute. When I arrived at the appointed place, however, the talk was over and Levy was answering questions. ‘Yes, I would say that it is a Gothic novel. There is an insane asylum, of course, and murder, or at least the suggestion of murder, and a ghost. There is a scalping too! And there are, if you will allow me to quote myself, references to a hall of pain and an underworld of horrors. But it is, on the surface at least, as much a detective novel, but a confused kind of detective novel, whereby one isn’t sure who exactly is investigating – is it Mr. Wells or Monsieur Carbonel or Dr. Renard? – or whether there has even been a crime!’

A round of applause. A hand now sprang up, a small and hairy hand, a hand much too small and hairy to be human. I looked closer and noticed that the entire audience was made up of mongooses. ‘How do you feel, Mr. Levy, about the popular description of the novel as pulp?’ Levy grinned back at the mongoose. ‘Oh, I feel as though that term, that genre, is applied to books often as a kind of insult, or back-handed compliment at least. It is a way of saying that a story is fast-paced and fun, but not too taxing; that it is rather stupid, but enjoyable. It denotes low quality literature. Well, I guess my book is fun – what with the puma, and the man with the tapeworm, and all that – but, if I may say so, it isn’t stupid nor low quality.’ Another round of applause from the mongooses. I put up my hand. ‘Yes, you, the man in the doctor’s coat.’ What, I stammered, does all this mean? Who are you? Who am I? The book…I don’t understand. ‘He hasn’t read it,’ whispered one of the mongooses. ‘Philistine!’ hissed another.

I quickly realised that I ought to leave. I pushed through the crowd, which had now started to turn on each other. Mongoose leapt at mongoose, teeth bared, aiming for the throat. Pools of blood began to form on the floor. Wider, higher. Up to my knees. I waded through it. At this stage the mongooses had stopped fighting and were, instead, starting to drown in an ocean of their own blood. As I reached the door I looked back. ‘You don’t exist!’ one of the mongooses shouted, his head barely visible above the blood. ‘This isn’t real, it’s a book. Kza…Kzr…the meaning…is madness.’ I wanted to exit, to make myself safe, and yet I could not, I had to speak to the mongoose. What do you mean? ‘The book, if you had read it, you philistine, has all the answers…memory and madness…Kzradock is the mind in collapse, the soul when over-burdened…think, man, about yourself…how have you been feeling lately? Well?’ I had to admit I had not been quite myself. ‘What is reality? That is the book’s ultimate, profound question. Is it what you experience? Can what you experience be wrong? What does it mean to be of healthy mind, doctor? Is it when you can trust what you experience? Can you ever trust it?’

I wanted to reply, to converse further, but the head of the mongoose finally disappeared. So instead I pushed open the door of the auditorium and walked through, but rather than finding myself on the street, as I expected, I was, in fact, facing a wall, the wall of a cell in my institution. And, and as I turned around…there in front of me…was myself. ‘Good morning,’ I said to myself. ‘How are you feeling today?’ Kzradock! I screamed. ‘Tell me more,’ I replied patiently, ‘who is Kzradock?’ The Onion Man…I…I’m Kzradock! Louis Levy! Please! ‘And who is Louis Levy, Kzradock?’ Me…I’m…Dr. Renard de Monpensier…this is insanity…who are you? Who am I? Oh please…Spring Fresh book! Fever! Fresh Onion Man! Levy, Louis-Methuselah. Doctor! Oh doctor! I don’t exist! Please help me.

MALPERTUIS BY JEAN RAY

Following the separation of my parents I stayed for a while with my grandmother. I was around seven years old at the time. She lived in a flat, on a council estate in one of Sheffield’s most deprived areas. The living room window looked out upon a run-down concrete playground, which, eerily, never appeared to be in use, despite the large number of children in the neighbouring tower-blocks. The old lady did not own a TV, most likely because she could not afford one, and so would each evening tell stories about strange happenings – involving ghosts mostly – which she insisted she had herself witnessed. Yet most terrifying of all was the story of the circumstances surrounding her arrival in England. I was told that she had once been a member of an old aristocratic and wealthy Scottish family, but, for reasons that were unknown or unexplained, she was dispatched to a sanatorium while still in her teens. There she received electric shock therapy, and, upon her release, was subsequently disinherited and banished.

Whether any of that is true or not is, of course, debatable. I have, partly out of fear perhaps, but mostly in order to spare my mother any anguish or upset, never sought to verify what I was told. However, what is certain is that the unease I had felt upon entry into my grandmother’s home began to intensify to such an extent that it – the flat – was transformed, in my childish imagination, into a house of horrors, one that was large, unwelcoming, and labyrinthine. The ghosts, moreover, became real and malevolent and forever on the prowl. Indeed, according to my mother I began to have waking nightmares, visions, in fact, of a man sitting on the end of my bed, who only I could see. I also, she claimed, started to sleepwalk, and could be found most nights at the front door attempting to leave. Finally, my grandmother – may she rest in peace – was, I was sure, the mad conductor of these evils, rather than the inventor of them.

“Those who lie down to sleep in its vast rooms lay themselves open to nightmares; those who spend their days there are obliged to habituate themselves to the company of the atrocious shades of executed criminals, of men flayed alive, or walled up or otherwise tormented.”

Until I started reading Malpertuis I had forgotten all about my brief stay in a haunted house, although, as this review will show, I, comparatively, got off lightly. The novel was written by Jean Ray, a man who was described by a friend as ‘a Gothic personality’, and was published in 1943. The style, however, is reminiscent of something written at least a hundred years earlier, and the structure – with the use of the framing narrative – is similar to Jan Potocki’s Saragossa Manuscript, parts of which first saw the light of day in 1805. Indeed, Malpertuis begins with a sort of preface, which describes the theft of a number of manuscripts from a monastery. The thief then explains that he has attempted to edit and order the manuscripts, which altogether would have ‘constituted a work of colossal size and minimal interest’, in an effort to turn them into a coherent narrative of ‘mystery and terror.’ The resulting story is, he claims, the work of four or five men in total, but the greater part – the kernel, as he calls it – is provided by the journal of Jean-Jacques Grandsire, a young man ‘marked with the brand of misfortune.’

For a book that I found so gripping, that I would call a page-turner, it seems odd that when I think about it now I realise that there is little in the way of plot. Jean-Jacques’s journal tells of a dying man’s family and friends gathering around him. Following his death, his will stipulates that the people there named must live in Malpertuis or forsake their large inheritance. From this point onwards – aside from one or two digressions – we follow Jean-Jacques as he explores the house and encounters all manner of terrible things. So, how to account for the feverish speed and rapt attention with which I read it? Well, one of the reasons that Malpertuis is so engaging is that it consistently poses questions for which the reader wants answers. Why must the characters live in the house? What is the significance of the shop attached to it? What is the link between Malpertuis and the island described in the opening chapter? Why is the beautiful Euryale so distant? What does the Abbe Doucedame know about the goings on in the house? And so on. In many ways, Ray’s novel is something like a Gothic version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, with Jean-Jacques acting as the detective.

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However, it is the terrible things that most hold the attention. Indeed, this was perhaps the closest I have come in my reading experiences to straight horror; and, I must admit, I had a blast. Take Lampernisse, a ‘skeletal creature’ with ‘spiderlike hands’, who lives in Malpertuis and obsesses over the lights, which he believes are being put out by a malevolent presence within the house. His ramblings about his plight are both oddly moving and chilling: “There was a time I sold animal black and lamp black, but I never gave anyone the darkness of night. I am Lampernisse. I am so good and kind, and they have cast me into outer darkness.” I am reticent to discuss the many other strange and horrible occurrences that litter the text for fear of spoiling it for those who want to read it, but I can’t resist mentioning that, amongst other things, there is something in the attic, there is a severed hand, there are faceless beings, and devilish beings with haunting mask-like faces, and a number of gruesome deaths.

Malpertuis was, according to the Abbe Doucedame, the name given to ‘the lair of the cunning and evil fox, Goupil’. In conversation with Jean-Jacques, he muses over whether the house that then took this name, the one in which Jean-Jacques etc. live, did so in order to denote evil or cunning. Yet he concludes that cunning is ‘the prerogative of the Spirit of Darkness’ and that therefore, whichever way you look at it, Malpertuis is, in his view, the house of the Devil. This can be understood in two ways, for, as already noted, there is horror inside the house, but the building itself is, in appearance, horrific also. On the facade there are ‘disagreeable carvings’, a facade that is, according to Jean-Jacques, a ‘severe mask’ that ‘fails to conceal the abominations that lie behind it.’ However, although it may seem as though the direction in which we – the reader and the characters – are heading is Satanic, that the mysteries of the novel are to be explained in relation to that, when the reveal actually comes Jean Ray does something incredible and wholly unexpected: he provides one of the most emotionally affecting endings of any novel I have read.

THE METAMORPHOSIS BY FRANZ KAFKA

It was the cowering spider that did it. I spied it crawling across the bedroom wall one afternoon. It was fairly small, but still had a grotesque bulb-arse, the kind that, when I had offed the others, had exploded under the weight of the shoe set aside for the purpose of killing. I immediately ran for this shoe, which, grossly, had the dried remains of numerous arachnids caked to the sole. But I paid that no mind; I couldn’t afford to. Who worries about the carcasses of dead spiders when there is a real live one crawling, blithely, across your wall? So, I clutched the shoe and pulled a chair over, for the thing was pretty high up and I didn’t want to overstretch and miss it and have it fall on my face, or even the floor, because falling spiders are my biggest fear, are what you might call the ultimate nightmare. I positioned the chair close to the wall, a little to the left of the spider, in case it should fall, and climbed up, my hand resting on the wall for support.

It was at this point, I would swear it hand-on-bible, that the spider cowered. Perhaps it had seen me, sensed me, or felt a vibration. I don’t know. But it pulled in its legs. It tried to make itself as small as possible. And that was it; the jig was up. No way could I kill it. In fact, I started to feel a kind of tenderness towards it. I named it; I watched out for it every day. I spared the spider because I saw in its behaviour some form of recognition of me, of my power, and this made me benevolent. Yet, more importantly, in that brief moment of silent communication between us, I also recognised the spider, and, consequently, it stopped being revolting to me. It was no longer some alien, unfeeling, creature; something entirely ‘other’, and therefore beyond my understanding; and so a relationship had been created between it and I.

“We can’t carry on like this. Maybe you can’t see it, but I can. I don’t want to call this monster my brother, all I can say is: we have to try and get rid of it.”

Whenever I raise the subject of the work of Franz Kafka with friends or acquaintances – which is something that I do often, for it is frequently on my mind – I am mostly met with blank or bemused faces. Yet, if I specifically mention his story about a man who finds himself turned into a bug, there is invariably an immediate gesture of happy recognition. There seems to be something about the premise of The Metamorphosis that is so appealing that it has seeped into the consciousness of the general public, even though, in my experience, many haven’t read it, nor can they name it or its author. Part of the reason for this is, I believe, because of the absurdity of the situation. Gregor Samsa – whose appalling fate this is – isn’t cursed by a witch, wizard, devil, or demon; he isn’t magically transformed on the whim of some powerful being. He hasn’t been dabbling in strange experiments either. There is no backstory, or explanation; and the man himself is entirely without responsibility or blame. He simply wakes from ‘troubled dreams’, and he is a bug. This is both unnerving and amusing.

The absurd plays an important role in the story as a whole, as it does in much of Kafka’s writing. When Samsa realises what has happened to him, he doesn’t freak out, as one would expect. In fact, there is almost no emotional reaction whatsoever, except that he blames his strenuous, exhausting job as a travelling salesman, which, he states, ‘is bound to take its effect.’ Indeed, his principle concern is being late for work, and how this will be viewed by his employers, rather than his transformation. He contemplates calling in sick, which in the circumstances seems more than reasonable, and yet ‘that would be rather embarrassing and a little suspicious too.’ It is in relation to this that one sees another of Kafka’s principle themes, which is oppression. In The Trial, Josef K wakes to find himself arrested for a crime he knows nothing about, one from which, subsequently, he cannot clear his name; while in The Castle K is oppressed, in the main, by his own bloodymindedness. Here, Samsa is oppressed, amongst other things, by his job and his new body.

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It is worth focussing for a while on this last point. When Samsa awakes he is in bed, of course, on his back. For a human being this position isn’t such a problem, yet for a bug it is incapacitating. Samsa struggles, for ‘he would have needed arms and hands with which to get up; instead of which all he had were those numerous little legs, forever in varied movement, and evidently not under his control.’ Throughout The Metamorphosis, there is a sense of a man/thing coming to terms with, and understanding, himself/itself. Gregor learns how to ‘inflate’, thereby pushing off the bed cover; he learns to crawl and climb; he, through a kind of trial and error, but also by instinct, discovers his preference for foods that previously he wouldn’t have touched. Indeed, he feels a sense of ‘physical well-being’ only when he accepts himself, when, in other words, he stops trying to be human, to fight against his new self, such as when he drops onto his multiple legs, instead of trying to walk on two.

Yet while Samsa, for the most part, accepts what he has become, the same cannot be said of the people who come into contact with him. The cook, for example, is so disgusted that she asks to be let go. His mother is distraught, and frightened, albeit initially sympathetic. His father is outright hostile. Only his sister, in the early stages, seeks to understand him and make things easier for him, although even she cannot tolerate seeing him. In this way, one sees more evidence of oppression, but this time it is Samsa unintentionally oppressing others with his physical appearance. However, what is most interesting about this is not the revulsion, which is expected, natural even, but how the transformation affects how Samsa is treated. He is, despite posing no danger, locked in his room, and at no point, once his bug-form is revealed, does anyone attempt to intelligently interact with him. He does not look human, and so is deemed to be a primitive creature, with primitive desires, with no consciousness, which is, of course, not the case.

“Was he an animal if music could captivate him so? It seemed to him that he was being shown the way to the unknown nourishment he had been yearning for.”

In my opinion, the overriding theme in Kafka’s major works is the inability to communicate, to connect with other people. I am not going to labour over that here, as I have dealt with it extensively elsewhere, but one might argue that ultimately it is Samsa’s inability to communicate with his family, either with human sounds or human gestures, that leads to his downfall. Yes, he may look horrific, but if he could talk, if he could give evidence of his consciousness, his thoughts and feelings, then it would be much more difficult to dismiss him. [Tellingly, towards the end of the story Grete, his sister, stops referring to him as Gregor, and starts calling him ‘it.’] This of course raises questions about personal identity. One way of seeing The Metamorphosis, although it isn’t my preferred interpretation, would be as a comment upon not only how we treat other creatures, but how we treat the ill or disabled. If someone cannot express themselves in ways that we can understand we tend to assume that they do not have a complex inner life. There are also passages that deal with the idea of the ill or disabled, or in this case the transformed, as a burden, and how this too can lead to callousness.

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[my most recent tattoo]

When I read The Metamorphosis previously I considered it to be a brilliant, but less sophisticated work than The Trial and, even more so, The Castle, which is my favourite. The reason for this is because I felt the main character’s oppression to be too literal, and therefore less subtle. In contrast, consider K, and how in The Castle it is his own stubborn refusal to leave that is the real problem. Unlike Samsa, he could free himself from what oppresses him, but he does not, and I believe this to be a more complex, depressing take on humanity. Furthermore, as repeatedly stated, Gregor is a bug, and so cannot speak, and this, I would again argue, is a less compelling way of addressing the issue of [mis]communication than when the principle character is human also. However, having now reread The Metamorphosis, what I believe it does have in its favour, what elevates it to the level of Kafka’s other two masterpieces, is extreme pathos. It is difficult, in view of what I have said about him, to be moved by K’s plight, for example; but one genuinely feels for Gregor, especially when he does such things as hide under the sofa to spare his sister his appearance. In fact, it is a long time since I could say of any book that it broke my heart, but this one did, and so perhaps it is time to retire my killing shoe for good.

THE LIME TWIG BY JOHN HAWKES

I haven’t slept properly for weeks. I lay on damp sheets, my hair on end. I peel myself, and check my phone. I dive into it, as though it were a dream. 4am. 5am. 4am. Circling time, I perceive the screen like a wildcat does a fire bristling in the distance. I lay back, conscious of my dreaming. Always dreaming; always awake. This is not insomnia, which sits on your chest and reads to you, politely pausing on occasions to allow you to interject and ask questions. This is life now. Always dreaming; always awake[…]Sometimes I see tiny, naked figures running along the carpet of my room, and hiding in the corners and behind the chest of drawers. I beckon them toward me, so that I can eat them, and re-emerge, and breach the surface of my unhappiness, for they were part of me once; but they are wise to me; they like me this way[…]For the first time I feel incapable of reading in a way that would allow me to write coherently about what I read. Every book that I pick up becomes part of the landscape of my dreams, of my dream-life, rather than another world into which I consciously escape[…]I had tried a number of times before to finish The Lime Twig, losing patience somewhere around halfway. This time, I didn’t finish it either, for you can’t finish something that is part of the fabric of your existence, or at least not until you too are finished[…]It was written by John Hawkes, a man about whom I know very little, and I like it that way. What I do know is that he is an American, and yet The Lime Twig is set in England, and feels English in the same way that Patrick Hamilton’s novels do[…]There is a dreary, grimy atmosphere throughout the book that is familiar to me, from my childhood especially, before the bleak northern city in which I was raised was redeveloped to resemble some fictional European tourist spot, some quaint idea in the mind of an outsider[…]There are references to ‘oily paper,’ to a mother’s ‘greasy bodice,’ to ‘premises still rank with the smells of dead dog or cat.’ There are smells everywhere, such that you experience The Lime Twig with your nose as much as with your eyes. With all your senses, in fact. Holding it, it feels sticky to the touch, dirty, oppressive, like blindly immersing your hand in a sink full of unwashed dishes[…]Oppression is the point, I think. The dreariness is simply one aspect of an overriding atmosphere of unease and uncertainty[…]From the opening paragraph, Hawkes begins to build the tension. When discussing Hencher’s pursuit of lodgings, Hawkes wonders: ‘what was it you saw from the window that made you let the bell continue ringing and the bed go empty another night.’ Suggesting that it was something unnerving, something intangible perhaps, a gut-feeling, an inexplicable foreboding[…]The nature of lodging is, when you think about it, mysterious and disquieting. A lodger is a stranger, someone without a home of their own and, it seems, neither family nor friends upon whom they can depend. Yet they too are potentially vulnerable, entering the home of another, or other strange persons[…]The word ‘nightmarish’, or some variation, is invariably used to describe the book, and for once that feels valid[…]While there is violence, including death, there is nothing about The Lime Twig that is genuinely frightening; plot-wise, in terms of action[…]Although it isn’t always clear what is happening[…]There is a sense of suspended time, or of ‘time slipped off its cycle'[…] The characterisation is thin, with the only one of note – Hencher – early killed off. Hencher, the only one with a story to tell, of life with mother and the war; and it is told wonderfully in the opening section, which Hawkes presents in the first person[…]The nightmare is in the uncertainty, in the murkiness out of which a plane can fall and land at your feet. But most of all it is Hawkes’ imagery that provides the cold water shock[…]The horse is not only a prop the author uses to make of his novel a kind of crime caper, it is ‘the flesh of all violent dreams’, it is an ‘animal whose two ears were delicate and unfeeling, as unlikely to twitch as two pointed fern leaves etched on glass, and whose silver coat gleamed with the colourless fluid of some ghostly libation and whose decorous drained head smelled of a violence that was his own.'[…]One way of looking at the novel would be as a cautionary tale, or as a comment on the humdrum, involving a couple – the Banks – who become embroiled in something dangerous, beyond their abilities and limited emotional scope, a modest wife who waits up for her husband, whose worst nightmare is that he not come home; but for that to work one would have to believe in the couple, and I didn’t. I did, however, believe in the horse, in its potency and magic, and, consequently, ultimately, in Hawkes himself, his imagination and ability to manipulate the English language into sinister and beautiful shapes[…]

WHO WAS CHANGED AND WHO WAS DEAD BY BARBARA COMYNS

‘She wasn’t going to tell you,’ her mother had begun. And then she – her mother – told me. I, for my part, remarked that I hadn’t noticed anything. ‘It only shows when I’m nervous,’ Megan replied, looking at the floor, or something beyond it. ‘She makes all kinds of noises,’ her mother took up, before imitating her daughter’s Tourette’s. ‘If you ever do get nervous,’ I said, ‘don’t worry about it. Everyone gets nervous sometimes.’ I’m not sure now what exactly I was trying to say. I guess I wanted to let her know that her condition wasn’t a big deal for me, although I knew it would be a big deal for her. ‘See, Megan,’ her mother said, smilingly, ‘even normal people get nervous.’ And then there was silence, long enough for me to wonder whether her mother was conscious of her unkindness. Was there some malice in it? Or was it sheer thoughtlessness? And did it even matter? The effect was the same.

“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.”

Last year I read Barbara Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter. I was impressed by the prose style, but thought it a failure as a novel in almost every other respect. Especially irksome was the characterisation, which was so lacking in subtlety, so predictable, as to be soap opera-ish. Alice’s father, for example, is just plain bad, and his every appearance results in him doing something brutish. His mistress, on the other hand, is the archetypal common tart. Everyone in the novel conforms to a cliche, and, in my opinion, calling it a ‘fairytale’ doesn’t excuse these faults. Consequently, the small number of pages – one hundred and thirty in my edition – felt like a slog; and, bearing in mind that The Vet’s Daughter is often described as Comyns’ most accomplished work, I was reticent to try another. I’m glad, however, that I overcame my reticence as Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, her third novel, might be the best thing I have read this year.

The term ‘gothic’ is consistently applied to Comyns’ books, and the title of this one certainly suggests dark and creepy. Indeed, there are a number of gothic motifs, such as a thunderstorm and a monstrously ugly man with a scarred face; and references are made to ‘tormented screams’ and the ‘stench of evilness.’ Moreover, the novel begins with a flood, with, therefore, disaster; but more tellingly it begins with death. A pig is said to float by, ‘its short legs madly beating the water and tearing at its throat, which was red and bleeding’; then ‘a tabby cat with a distended belly passed, its little paws showing above the water, its small head hanging low.’ As the narrative progresses, the corpses increase in number, and are not at all limited to the animal kingdom. However, unlike with The Vet’s Daughter, I felt as though the violence and bleakness of some of the content serves a purpose, which is to tell us something significant about the characters, and, by extension, people-in-general.

In terms of death, therefore, what is important is not the event itself but people’s reactions to it. When the flood hits one of the first questions asked is: has anyone drowned? And more than one character is eager to see a dead body. Likewise, the turn-out for funerals is high. This sort of gruesome voyeurism is not news, or certainly not to me. There is a reason why there is a spike in newspaper sales, online hits, tv viewing figures, whenever a tragedy strikes; and there is a reason why the death toll is so relentlessly reported. We enjoy this stuff. The higher the count, the grislier the details, the better. The book focuses on the Willoweed family, and it is interesting to note how the two eldest members deal wth death. First, Ebin seeks to make money out of it, to further his career, by writing articles about the quickly expiring locals and selling them to The Daily Courier. The grandmother, on the other hand, gleefully wishes it upon others, bantering with Ives about who will croak first. Finally, both mother and son feel sorry for themselves when one of the family passes away.

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As I criticised the characterisation in The Vet’s Daughter I should point out that I had similar misgivings about Grandmother Willoweed, the ‘bad fairy’ or ‘dreadful old black bird’ of the story. The family matriarch is a violent bully, who hits out at her maids with a carpet-beater and calls them names, such as ‘sluts.’ The rest of the Willoweeds, and many of the other villagers, except perhaps old Ives, are fearful of her, and one gets the impression  – as with all sadists – that she enjoys it, or at least mistakes it for respect. Yet what makes her slightly more interesting than Alice’s father, what gives her a smidgen of depth, is her age, and therefore her vulnerability. During the course of the novel she has her seventieth birthday. To be that grand age is, I would imagine, to feel powerless, and so one might understand her desire to dominate in terms of that, i.e. as a way of avoiding feeling pathetic. Moreover, one wonders how much of her behaviour might be due to dementia; certainly, she appears to have gone mad towards the end.

As already suggested, Ebin Willoweed is another notable character, and he, thankfully, is not painted in quite such broad strokes. He is initially described as a ‘slothful’ and ‘ineffectual’ man, who is something of a failure, even a fool. His favourite daughter, for example, is clearly not his – Hattie is mixed race – and he is only living with his mother due to having been dismissed from his job because of ‘carelessness.’ However, although he might be a fool, he is evidently not harmless. Emma, the heroine of the novel, states at one point that her father has made her hate men, and for such a compassionate child this strikes one as a telling claim. Yet it is his son, Dennis, who receives the harshest treatment, and who reminded me of my friend Megan. Dennis is a nervous and insular boy, whom Ebin refers to as a ‘cissy.’ When the father takes his son swimming, and Dennis struggles and clings onto the boat, Ebin hits his hands with the oar. It’s the kind of insensitive, small-scale sadism that I wrote about in my introduction, and which is often justified as ‘tough love.’ In this way, and many others, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead struck me, not so much as concerning itself with life’s big questions or issues, but with its little, yet still painful, tragedies.

BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL BY ELLIOTT CHAZE

You and me, she said, could take on the world. And it was easy to believe her, although I knew that she didn’t need any help with that. If she had wanted the world, she could have taken it all by herself. She was high at the time, of course. It was midnight when she called, and I had to be up for work in six hours. She wanted me to watch her sing at a gay bar in town. I couldn’t say no, partly out of a desire to see her and partly out of fear of what she would do if she was disobeyed. She was a deadly kind of beautiful, the kind that if you felt breathless in her presence you couldn’t say with any confidence whether it was love or cyanide poisoning. I was familiar with femmes fatales from films and books, with cold-hearted, dangerous dames with sultry looks, but in real life it wasn’t so glamorous or sexy or exciting. I felt like an amateur snake charmer who is happy just to get through each day without fatal injury. This girl will be the death of me, I once told a friend, and for the first time in my life I meant it.

“Thinking back, I remember the stupidest things; the way there was a taut crease just above her hips, in the small of her back. The way she smelled like a baby’s breath, a sweet barely there smell that retreated and retreated, so that no matter how close you got to it you weren’t sure it was there. The brown speckles in the lavender-gray eyes, floating very close to the surface when I kissed her, the eyes wide open and aware. But not caring. The eyes of a gourmet offered a stale chunk of bread, using it of necessity but not tasting it any more than necessary.”

Black Wings Has My Angel was published in 1953, a little after the greats of hard-boiled crime fiction – Chandler, Hammett,  Cain et al – had produced the majority of their best and most cherished work. In fact, one could argue that this goes some way to explaining not only why it was largely forgotten for a number of years but also many of its merits. Those writers were trailblazers, of course, but to be at the vanguard of something means you have no real reference points, no conventions to work within, and no one to learn from; you have to find your own way and make your own mistakes. The novels written during that golden period of the 30’s and 40’s are undeniably appealing, but often the characters lack depth and the plots are convoluted or under-developed. Elliott Chaze, however, was a refiner, in that he took what was already established and gave it finesse. The end result is noir with a kind of Stendhalian sweep, a genuine sense of tragedy, and characters you care about.

One of these characters is Kenneth McLure, aka Tim Sunblade, who narrates the action. My initial impression of Kenneth was that he was the archetypal hard-boiled tough guy. He’s an ex-con, who, he tells us, tried to get himself beaten during his time in prison in order to break the monotony of solitary confinement; he also contemplates murdering anyone who might stand in his way. His narrative style is, as one would expect, punchy and broad-shouldered, featuring lines like: ‘[I let] my mind coast. It needed a lot of coasting.’ Yet, as the story unfolds, Chaze does something unexpected: he allows you to see different sides to Kenneth, his sensitive and vulnerable sides. He is, for example, haunted by the death of his friend, and particularly the image of his bloody, mangled face. He does bad things in the novel, certainly, but he exhibits a conscience at times; in fact, the climax of the story, and his desire to look deep into the abyss of the abandoned shaft, is all about his guilt. Kenneth isn’t a sociopath, like the continental op, he is capable of feeling fear, shame, sorrow and love. He even waxes sentimental about his home town and his childhood sweetheart.

Consequently, one feels as though one gets to know McLure, including both his qualities and his faults, his strengths and his weaknesses. Chaze endeavoured to make him believable, to make him psychologically sound, if not entirely sane. We are told that he was in solitary confinement, as noted previously, and this allows one to make sense of the regular, romanticised, descriptions of scenery and wide open spaces in his narration. Moreover, his conflicted attitude towards death, and his desire to make the most of his time on earth – as though he has been told that he has only twelve months to live – could be put down to his experiences in the war, where he was injured in action. If you have stared death in the face, it is easy to see how it could become more monstrous and yet easier to confront in future. Having said all that, one does wonder whether the author was actually suggesting that Kenneth’s behaviour is a direct result of his head-wound, such that his ‘bad side’ is physical not psychological. This is not a ludicrous idea, although it is less interesting for me personally.

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I mentioned love in the previous paragraph, and that may have raised a few eyebrows. Relations between men and women in noir tends towards the wildcat sort. Lust, sure, obsession, maybe, but love seems like a stretch. However, there are moments between Kenneth and Virginia that are genuinely touching. Once again, I believed in them, I, specifically, believed in them as a couple. She is a looker, of course, with legs like a champion racehorse, and he is rough and manly, and there is plenty of good fucking throughout the novel; but there is also tenderness, intimacy; there are, for example, the numerous references to her smell; and there is a scene in which they swap ice back and forth between their mouths, and another in which Kenneth tells Virginia things he never thought he’d tell anybody. In these ways, Black Wings Has My Angel is not a novel about meeting the wrong person at the wrong time, but maybe the right person in the wrong circumstances.

It is also, however, a novel about money and class. I have not written in detail about Virginia so far, partly because she adheres a little too closely to the noir femme fatale stereotype. She is a wise-cracking whore, who doesn’t sleep for thrills anymore. Yet Chaze gives her a backstory too, in which it is revealed that she was once well-to-do. This is important, not because it justifies her expensive tastes, but because it creates tension between the couple, which, in turn, allows Chaze, via Kenneth, to lambast high society. Almost everyone in Black Wings Has My Angel is afforded some level of sympathy, with the exceptions being the police – predictably enough – and the rich, who are thieves of a more socially acceptable sort or idiots. What’s more, towards the end, after he has become moneyed himself, Kenneth states that while he had always wanted to live ‘lazily and glossily’, he has come to realise that it weakens and demotivates you, that it makes you flabby and frivolous. And isn’t that the worst kind of living of all?