Gothic/Grotesque

THE RED LAUGH BY LEONID ANDREYEV

FRAGMENT 1

Horror and madness…

I made notes, with headings and categories. Whenever I read, whenever I am to write about a book, I do this. I wrote Horror and I wrote Madness, and then I filled the empty space.

FRAGMENT 2

The world is collapsing under the weight of its own faeces…

How many times have I expressed this thought? In those exact words, in fact? The world…the world…ack, I am tired of it. Let it collapse. Let me be at the bottom, the very bottom. Let me take the full weight upon my chest. Let me die first.

Write about the book. Give praise. Oh, of course, the book. My eyes shifted across the pages, from one end to the other, line after line, from top to bottom, and I cannot say that I was made unhappy.

FRAGMENT 3

I was talking to Vivien from Budapest. She moved to England in order to be a writer. We spoke about writing, of course.

I never read anything, I said, and think ‘I can’t do that.’ Not Tolstoy, not Dostoevsky, not Proust, not Mann. I consider myself equally capable. Their works are, after all, only words. Words, that’s all. Words, in pleasing combinations.

I gave her a copy of Ted Hughes’ Crow. I opened it and read to her:

When Crow cried his mother’s ear 
Scorched to a stump. 

When he laughed she wept 
Blood her breasts her palms her brow all wept blood.

The world is collapsing…

FRAGMENT 4  

I don’t consider myself a genius. I believe that I am mad. Sickness and horror. What an awful business life is. I was speaking to Eve too. She said that her dead sister is at peace, and that in this way she envies her…

FRAGMENT 5

Eve is disappointed, not mad. Already, at nineteen. I told her: peace is a human concept and therefore it cannot apply to the dead.

I wrote about The Red Laugh. Once, somewhere. Not here. I made notes, at least. Here:

Wild fiction 8 tortured brain 8 Terrible raving of a mad world 9 All mad 11 strange and terrible globes 12 abyss of horror and insanity 15 cloud of insanity 19 bloody savage nightmare 24 silence 8 neither slept nor eaten 19 dead men 25 pallor 25 are you afraid? 26 red laugh 27 lunatic wards 29 hair 37 constantly looking for something behind their backs 39 everything strange 39 filled with horror 43 hallucinations 50 dance on the ruins 84 afraid of going mad 101 hatchet/knife 102 black abyss 106 fingers/wild dance 109 

Like a terrifying, beautiful poem.

FRAGMENT 6

Wild fiction. Tortured brain.
Terrible raving of a mad world. 
All mad.

Everything strange, filled with horror.
Hallucinations. Dance on the ruins,
Afraid of going mad.

FRAGMENT 7

Something about a shell whizzing through the air like a witch…

That was my favourite line. The most pleasing combination of words. The witch. Andreyev could have written only that and his standing with me would have been assured. Perhaps he should have.

The Red Laugh is split into two parts, with a kind of intermission holding them together. The intermission spoiled my enjoyment slightly by spoiling the atmosphere. It deflates. In opening the book you are dropped immediately into a strange, almost surreal landscape. The intermission takes you out of that by taking the narrator out of the war, or at least out of the centre of the battle, and sending him home to die. The unreal becomes the real. The intermission is grounded, domestic, and somewhat tedious.

FRAGMENT 8 

Whenever I write about the book I feel grubby…

As though I am lowering myself…

FRAGMENT 9

In the first part, there is a sense that anything could happen; that the action is not subject to the familiar laws of reality, because what you are reading isn’t reality, but a kind of horrible dream.

The world as a horrible dream…

The world as a horrible dream from which you cannot awake, and which you cannot avoid except through death.

Death is the absence of everything…

It’s not a dream.

FRAGMENT 10

As in a dream, the world of the first part of the book lacks form, or has it only to a minimal degree.

‘Where are we,’ asked somebody…

Everybody laughed, but their laugh was interrupted by a rough, indignant voice that sounded out of the darkness…

The lump with the protruding leg was thrown aside…

This is one of the ways in which The Red Laugh is frightening.

One stumbles around in the dark; hands groping, grasping at air, but occasionally slithering over something unidentifiable and unpleasant to the touch; eyes trained on the darkness, which is uniform, but in which, perhaps as a trick of the brain, one sometimes sees vague shapes.

The men, if they are men, do not know where they are going, only that they must go. No. Only that they are going….

FRAGMENT 11  

It is clear to me, and to you too no doubt, that I do not have the patience or passion for this anymore. For writing. For writing about books, specifically. There was a time when I enjoyed the exercising of my imagination, when I was stimulated by the execution of a good idea. Now I can hardly bear to form a sentence, and I do not look for novel ways to express myself. My achievements in life cannot be the combining of words into a pleasant sequence, especially when that achievement is recognised by me alone.

Most of the time it is painful to speak, never mind write…

I’m oppressed by words…which I now find…

Words, like schoolchildren…snot-nosed and uncouth. My own, at least.

FRAGMENT 12

The Red Laugh is the laugh of horror and madness; laid on your back, eyes wide; mouth wide, swallowing the debris of a quickly collapsing world…

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HASHISH BY OSCAR SCHMITZ

I had spent the day in Montmartre cemetery looking for Lautreamont’s grave, which, I was later informed, rightly or wrongly, is unmarked and therefore impossible to find. Certainly, I did not find it, much to the amusement, I felt, of the black cats and crows that populate the place. In any case, several hours after leaving, while I was sitting in a bar planning a trip to the catacombes des Paris the following day, I was approached by a beautiful woman. Her name, it transpired, was Justyna. She was, she told me, an artist, newly arrived in the city from Poland, and this night, like all recent nights, she was drinking alone. The particulars of our conversation are not important, except to say that we got on well enough for the evening to conclude back at her small flat. Once there, she asked me if I smoked, and without waiting for an answer produced a large quantity of what I took to be cannabis. ‘I have been saving this for a special occasion,’ she said.

In truth, I am not a cannabis smoker, having tried it once or twice and been unimpressed by its effects; but I did not have the heart to admit this to Justyna, whose loneliness and eagerness touched me, and whose supreme attractiveness was, to be frank, directing much of my behaviour. She did not know how to roll, so I took on the responsibility myself. Not having had much experience with this particular drug, I stuffed the cigarette papers full of it, such that the end result was a tumorous-looking thing; a child’s attempt at a papier-mâché head; in short, a monstrous joint that, by appearance alone, boded ill. Moreover, I found that, once I had lit it, my host took barely a puff and left the greater part of it to me. It wasn’t until I laid down on the bed that the visions began. The ceiling appeared to be falling in on me. Justyna, by this time, was working on taking my jeans off. I did not want, nor was in any fit state, to prevent her. I was, in fact, almost paralysed. Her task completed, she jumped on top of me, grinding her crotch into mine; and ordinarily I would have been pleased at this turn of events, but I was rather distracted by the demons.

I did not sleep at all that night, and Justyna, to her disappointment and mine, did not get what she wanted either. My penis, like the rest of my body, was elsewhere; in another dimension, another world, another reality, featuring demons and skulls, black cats and crows, and a room that was shrinking to the proportions of a coffin. Yet, for the most part, I had forgotten about this incident, it being swallowed up, so to speak, in the bigger drama of a cancelled flight and a difficult journey back to England. That is, until I started reading Hashish by Oscar Schmitz. It begins with a chance encounter between the narrator and Count Vittorio Alta-Carrara. The latter invites the former to attend a soirée of sorts, at a ‘hashish club,’ where men in oriental dress lounge around on cushions amidst hookahs and bowls of incense. It has been suggested that Hashish is one of the earliest examples of ‘drug lit’, which, although it strikes me as a nonsense term, has become a kind of genre of its own. Whether that claim is accurate I can’t say, but Schmitz’s work is surprisingly direct and modern in its approach to drug use, and it does capture some of what it is like to take certain substances, which is to say that the narrator’s experience chimes with my own.

‘There was barely a stir as we entered,’ Schmitz wrote, which indicates a drug-induced lethargy amongst the attendees of the club. Likewise, the narrator states, amusingly, that he would gladly do good for others providing that he could remain ‘stretched out on the divan.’ There is, when using some drugs at least, an accompanying sensation of well-being, and subsequent desire to accomplish great things, without having, of course, the necessary wherewithal to do so. This is why pot smokers are often simultaneously described as dreamers and wasters; they are, for all their fine intentions, ‘pointlessly wasting in false sensations.’ A further example of this is the feeling that, when high, one is seeing the world as it really is, that one is experiencing the ‘true colour of life,’ that drugs can ‘clear away the inhibited conceptions of an often unbidden practical intellect.’ Yet the unfortunate truth is that drugs are not a gateway to reality, they are an escape from it, for better or worse. To this end, the worse end, Schmitz also wrote about the visions, the hallucinations, and the terror that can lead a man to long for ‘sober responsibilities.’

When I first encountered Hashish, the synopsis on the publisher’s website gave the impression that it is a gothic novel in the decadent tradition, which means a combination of ghoulishness and moral decay. And on the surface it is that. The drugs are part of it, of course, and the dandyish Count. There is some depravity, and a stab at getting an orgy going, and so on. I was promised necrophilia and cannibalism, and perhaps I was high myself throughout my reading, but I somehow missed all that; but there is certainly dark doorways, hideous masks, incubi and succubi, and, praise be, a lashing of Satanism. However, although it is fun to linger over this sort of thing, I must return to theme of the nature of reality, because that, for me, is the heart of Schmitz’s work, and it is that which gives it depth. In the first, and best, story told to the narrator at the club a man is sent a mysterious letter inviting him to a rendezvous with a woman. She claims to be aware of his extreme ugliness and therefore, although eager to meet, doesn’t want to be able to see him. The man agrees and soon takes the woman as his lover.

What is most engaging about this story is not the surface action, the promise of adventure, the Dumas-like cloak and dagger liaison, but what happens psychologically to the couple in the dark. What they find, the man in particular, is that the other person becomes their anything and everything. The darkness strips them of their true identity, and in its place they can take on any identity that it pleases their lover to give them. The woman, in fact, imagines the man to be Satan, while he, rather more quixotically, embraces ‘queens once desired but unapproachable’ and ‘the lovers of my boyhood dreams.’ In this way, much like a drug experience, but far more beautiful and moving, at least for me personally, one sees the mixing of the real and the unreal, of dreams and actuality, of the senses and the imagination. Indeed, the sorry climax of this tale is brought about when reality becomes the dominant factor, when it crushes the imagination, when, to be specific, the couple lay eyes on each other for the first time. In concluding in this manner I do not think that Schmitz was advocating a life of fantasy, either by means of drug use or any other, but that he was trying to say something about what it is to be human, to be entombed in the ordinary, whilst always striving towards something rarer and more wonderful.

CRASH BY J.G. BALLARD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

120 DAYS OF SODOM BY MARQUIS DE SADE

I never thought that I would become tired of sex. In the last twelve months, however, I’ve done it more times, and with more women, than I had in all the previous years of my life combined; and recently I’ve noticed a change, a hint of boredom creeping into my lovemaking, like the shadow of a pot-bellied man crawling up a bedroom wall. I had once been so easy to please, so straightforward in my tastes, but now? If someone were to suggest the missionary position I would be horrified. The shadow of the pot-bellied man looms larger, and between his legs dangles a most flaccid and unimpressive cock. I have a preference for certain acts, of course, but I’ve never really had any kinks or fantasies. I’ve always found that sort of thing ridiculous, for it suggests to me a mind gone awry, a defect, a glitch in the system. Sex but not sex. Sex incognito. Yet last week I was talking to an underwear and fetish model. She was fresh off a job in which only her feet were of interest. ‘It’s because they’re forbidden, because they’re not the norm, because they’re kind of ugly and dirty; you’re not meant to sexualise them and so they become sexy,’ she said, and while I still didn’t feel any stirrings myself, for the first time I, in my jaded state, understood.

“Beauty belongs to the sphere of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary, and there is no question but that every ardent imagination prefers in lubricity, the extraordinary to the commonplace.”

The Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom appears to be one of those works that many people have heard of but know little about in terms of the specifics of the story. I was one of the many. In fact, I was under the impression that there was no narrative at all, that it was simply a catalogue of sexual deviancy. And it is that, but there is a frame around the kinks and perversions, in which four libertines gather together – some by way of abduction – a group of men and women, but mostly boys and girls, in a remote castle. There, they have a number of aged prostitutes recount their experiences, which are progressively more extreme, and which they then re-enact with the other inhabitants. This is, indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel, because it makes an audience of the libertines, almost in the same way that you, the reader, are; and just as the power of suggestion works upon them, there is the chance it will work upon you too. Certainly, not everything contained within will appeal to everyone, or I would sincerely hope not, but there is such a range, and it is so imaginative, that I’d be surprised if there wasn’t something. I think there is a misconception about pornography that people only go to it with, and looking for, pre-established ideas about what turns them on. There is some of that, no doubt, but I also think that, for better or worse, it also suggests, it teaches, it moulds.

While 120 days of Sodom is not a character study, the four libertines are sketched in some detail, to the extent that one is informed of both the length and circumference of their dicks. The Duc de Blangis is fifty years old, and ‘may be regarded as the repository of all vices and all crimes.’ His brother is a Bishop, who is, we’re told, ‘treacherous and cunning,’ and a ‘loyal devotee of active and passive sodomy.’ The President de Curval is ‘the walking image of debauchery and libertinage,’ who has a ‘dreadful squalor about his person that he finds sensual.’ This gentleman’s erections ‘are rare and only achieved with difficulty.’ Finally, Durcet, a financier. He has a ‘woman’s build and all of her tastes.’ In considering the four men a number of interesting ideas and similarities emerge, many of which are expanded upon, or given more weight, as the book progresses. First of all, one may have noticed that each of the men are rich or of noble birth. While de Sade doesn’t explicitly discuss the issue of class, it cannot be a coincidence that every anecdote involves people in a position of power and prosperity. One might say that these are the only people who can afford to use prostitutes, but I believe there is more to it than that.

Throughout, the small number of peasants are the only characters shown in a positive, or sympathetic, light. They are pious, good-hearted, downtrodden, or happy-go-lucky, while the rich have peculiar tastes or are simply monstrous. For example, one poor old woman is dragged from her sickbed and abused by a wealthy man; her daughter, who her mother very much loves and who cares for her, is abducted by the man and likely murdered as part of a sexual act. In another anecdote a working man shits, not for his own gratification, but for a rich man who has paid for this service. So what, if anything, is de Sade saying, indirectly at least, about class? The rich are the only people who have the time and the means and the imagination for these kinds of perversions, that in fact the free time and great wealth enables their imaginations. Secondly, if one can buy whatever one wants, if one can (by virtue of one’s power and wealth) have whomever one wants, then one is likely to become jaded very quickly. Therefore, to be a libertine, to be aroused by, to engage in, extreme or unusual sexual acts is, in this instance, an end point, it is arrived at as a way of reinvigorating dulled senses.

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I have already used the term libertine multiple times, and that is because it is insisted upon in the text. Barely a page goes by in which it doesn’t appear more than once. To be a libertine is to indulge oneself, sensually, to excess, without regard to conventional moral principles. This is both the way of life and the philosophy of the four central characters; it is this that bonds them together. Far from having one particular kink, the men are interested in anything that is unconventional, anything that conventional society would deem wrong or disgusting, including rape, torture, incest, and murder. Indeed, anything criminal adds to their enjoyment, by virtue of how shocking, how frowned upon it would be. Perhaps this anti-conventional attitude is the reason why women are so scorned by the four libertines (and by the majority of the men in the book). Make no mistake, they are vehement misogynists, to an almost laughable degree. For example, there are numerous instances where a woman showing her vagina or breasts to a man sends him into a rage. It is, in almost every story, the arse they want! Always the arse! There are, indeed, several rhapsodic speeches on the subject, such as when one of the libertines salutes ‘divine arses! How I reproach myself for the tributes I stole from you! I promise you an expiatory sacrifice – I swear on your alters never to stray again for the rest of my life!’ The arse is of course not uniquely feminine.

“Only the law stands in my way, but I defy it – my gold and my influence place me beyond the reach of those crude scales meant only for the common people.”

As I sat down to write about 120 Days of Sodom there were a large number of themes that I intended to explore. My notes, in fact, totalled over a thousand words, and much of that I still haven’t touched upon, and will not, including the topics of nature and religion. I realise now that it is inadvisable, if not impossible, to discuss everything of note in detail. This review will have to serve as a kind of introduction, if it has any use at all. Bearing in mind the name of the author, one thing that it seems necessary to include is the role of sadism within the book. Surprisingly, sexual torture, and the pleasure gained from it, makes up only a small part of the prostitutes’ stories. However, the main reason for this is because the book is unfinished, and only one whore – she who is tasked with outlining the simpler pleasures – is able to give a fully fleshed account of her experiences. One is left in no doubt – and de Sade’s own notes attest to this – that there were greater horrors to come. Yet there is still, even within the ‘finished’ part of the manuscript, much that is disturbing, certainly when removed from the atmosphere of the text as a whole. For example, the inhabitants of the castle, aside from the four libertines of course, are not allowed to shit unless given permission and are not allowed to wipe or clean themselves. This is because the men have designs upon the shit, but also because they enjoy the power, they enjoy how unhappy it makes the boys and girls.

Throughout the book, de Sade makes it clear that almost none of the young people, nor the men’s wives, are willing participants. They shit in the captives’ mouths, and have them shit in theirs. They fondle, maul, and force them to suck and swallow, they rape and fuck arses and cunts. The disgust and pain their victims feel during these abuses is commented upon, albeit only in passing. It is this, more than the acts themselves, that turns the old lechers on. Within the castle there is a system of punishment, which the reader never has full access to, but which we are informed will be barbaric, potentially fatal. The victims, who are innocent both in terms of their overall situation and often in terms of the ‘crime’ they are charged with, are constantly reminded of the compassionless nature of their judges. The situation within the castle is, therefore, absolutely not the form of sadism that is currently en vogue, it is not a consensual exploration of mutual fantasies involving a master and a slave, a dom and a sub, although there is some of that within the stories the first prostitute tells. In any case, there were occasions when, rather than providing a libertine manual, I felt as though it was de Sade’s aim to torture his reader, to make them his victim; and yet, if so, he failed.

“If it is the dirty element that gives pleasure to the act of lust, then the dirtier it is, the more pleasurable it is bound to be.”

Before I finish, I want to return to a word I used earlier, which may have struck you as strange, or even disconcerting, given the context, which was ‘laughable.’ There is, without question, nothing funny about kidnapping, misogyny and sexual abuse. When I was reading A Sentimental Novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet last year I was deeply troubled by its contents and had to quit before the end. 120 days of Sodom is, however, or was for me, extremely amusing in places, because it is ridiculous. There is a marked difference of tone between this book and Robbe-Grillet’s. First of all, one never believes in the characters or the situation. I could not buy into de Sade’s reality. The four libertines are cartoonish, vaudeville, over-the-top; they stop just short of twirling their moustaches and laughing in an exaggeratedly sinister fashion. Moreover, consider again some of what de Sade tells you about them: one of them can’t get an erection, one of them only fucks arses and has his own fucked, and two of them have prodigiously large dicks. It’s terribly hard to take any of them seriously.

These men all have an insatiable sexual appetite, to the extent that they appear to be turned on, to be able to fool around, all day, every day; and most of them come multiple times. They are truly Herculean! Consider, also, some of the acts, the shitting in particular. It is no exaggeration to say that the libertines devour three or four turds a day each, and none of them end up unwell. They even put their captives on a special diet in order to have them produce especially tasty shit. I don’t want to labour over the scat too much, but it dominates the book, and there came a point when, despite having no interest in shit myself, be it sexual or otherwise, I started to gleefully anticipate the ceremony. de Sade had put me into a state of near delirium or hysteria. Every anecdote would end, I knew, with one person shitting in another’s mouth. It was like being locked in a room where someone tells you the same joke over and over again until you’re on the point of insanity and joyously shouting out the punchline in unison with your captor.

In other areas, the repetition was more of a issue. I am aware that de Sade wrote the book in prison, and that it is, at noted previously, unfinished. It is likely, therefore, that even the ‘completed’ part of the text is only a draft of sorts, and so it feels churlish to criticise, but there are frequent passages that are interminable. For example, I do not know how many times one needs to be told that the Duc thigh-fucked Zelmire, but it is certainly less than forty. Nor does one really need to be told, over and over again, who took who into the cupboard, especially as you are never informed as to what happens in there. There are, moreover, other instances of this sort, whereby de Sade will keep things, certain acts or events, from the reader, because, he states, they are too extreme for this particular part of his narrative and would be out of place. Which begs the obvious question: why tell us at all then? In any case, my enjoyment was not spoiled by these flaws. I did not think, even for long periods during which I read it, that I would be able to say that I love 120 days of Sodom; and yet I do. Perhaps I am even more jaded than I thought. The shadow of the pot-bellied man looms ever larger.

HUNGER BY KNUT HAMSUN

If you continue to lose weight, she said, I’ll have to put you in hospital. My mother thought that I was starving myself. She spoke about it as though it was a conscious decision, as though I had decided to stop eating, out of vanity perhaps, when it was simply the case that I could no longer keep food down. I was fourteen years old, and being sick was easy. I didn’t need to force it. I didn’t tip my fingers down my throat and waggle them around. The vomit came when called, like a well-trained dog. She had always over-fed us, my brother and I, because it was the only thing she could do. For a while I had thrown her meals out of the bedroom window, but I couldn’t live with the guilt. What little money we had went on this, on fattening the rats that gathered below. So I did my duty. I ate, and that was important; but I wasn’t hungry. My shins burned when I walked, my mouth cramped when I talked too much, and I frequently lost consciousness, but I never knew hunger. I would, I thought, die happily without ever knowing what it felt like to want anything.

“God had poked His finger down into my nerves and gently, almost without thinking, brought a little confusion among those threads. And God had pulled His finger back, and behold–there were filaments and fine rootlike threads on His finger from the threads of my nerves. And there remained an open hole behind His finger which was the finger of God, and a wound in my brain behind the path of His finger.”

That Knut Hamsun’s first novel was published in 1890 is, with each new reading, increasingly surprising to me. This is not because it seems so ahead of its time – although many have made that argument – but rather because it strikes me as largely out of time. There is very little in it that dates it, that ties it to a specific period. The horse and carriage, the writing with pencil on paper, and one or two other moments or incidents, are the only real indicators. In terms of style, there are elements of Dostoevsky’s supernatural realism, but on a meagre scale. Hamsun’s unnamed protagonist is less intense, less obviously a front for an ideology or ethical-philosophical system; and certainly the author himself was less concerned with intricate plotting. In fact, there is little more to Hunger, in terms of action, than an exceedingly poor man wandering around Kristiana, that ‘strange city which no one leaves until it has set its mark upon him,’ which is now known as Oslo.

The most obvious interpretation of the book’s title is that it refers to the central character’s starvation, to the frequent days he endures without being able to eat. He is, as noted, wretchedly poor, and so cannot afford to. At times he becomes so desperate that he chews on wood shavings, or sucks a stone, or nibbles at a bone that he has procured from a butcher for an imaginary dog. Only occasionally – either through luck, charity, or his own hard work – does he come by a little money and therefore legitimate food. When denied basic sustenance the body will, of course, suffer, eventually wither and ultimately break down. Frequently he feels weak, his legs twitch and become unsteady, his head pounds, and his hair falls out. Even when he does take in food he throws it back up because his stomach is unused to it, it cannot handle it. Yet perhaps the biggest indication of his physical deterioration is how often people run away from him or try and avoid coming into contact with him, such as the woman who presses closer to the wall when he walks past. Indeed, the man’s body is in such a bad way that even he notices it, and cries over it, when it is often the case that the person involved, as I know myself, is ignorant of what is happening to them.

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However, this aspect of the book is, although disturbing, not particularly interesting. For me, anyway. Perhaps it is too familiar, too close to my own experience, but I think there’s more to it than that. That someone who doesn’t regularly eat would be physically weakened, would waste away, is predictable, natural, and therefore hardly worth devoting your attention to. I’m reminded of what I wrote about Lolita, which is that if all that book has to say is that pedophilia exists, and this is how grooming works, then it was a waste of time to write it. In any case, what is engaging about Hunger is how Hamsun shows that the mental and the physical influence each other. When the man eats he feels ‘stimulated,’ more stable and lucid, and ‘capable of a greater effort’ where his own writing is concerned. Conversely, when he is without food, his mental state worsens, resulting in wild mood swings. At times he is ‘nervous and susceptible’; he is timid, apologetic, despairing, pathetic, and self-pitying. On other occasions, he becomes inexplicably angry and even sinister, such as when he goes in search of confrontation or starts to follow a young woman with the intention of ‘frightening’ her. One understands in these moments that it isn’t only his appearance that alarms the locals.

What this means is that the less the man has, the more in need he is, the more mad be becomes, and subsequently the more unlikely it is that he will receive help. Because extreme vulnerability is unappealing. That is part of the tragedy of the novel, and of life itself. At his most demoralised and despondent, he turns to God, but not with any conviction or genuine faith, more in order to rail against Him or doubt Him. His luck is so bad, he thinks, that his existence must be at the whim of some higher power, or is at least evidence of the fact that he has been abandoned. Yet if anyone is to blame for his predicament it is he himself. Indeed, the most fascinating aspect of his character, and the novel as a whole, is how much responsibility he has for, how much he contributes to, his own downfall. Take, for example, his insistence on helping the tramp, to the extent that he pawns his waistcoat in order to give him some money. It’s absurd, funny even. To be starving, to have so little, and give away your possessions or money, to people, in fact, who are probably better off than you are. The first time I read the book I couldn’t take it seriously, precisely for this reason. It wasn’t until I read it again that I began to understand.

The title of the novel refers to starvation, of course it does, but it also has a broader meaning or significance. Hamsun’s protagonist is stripped of, or denied, or just plain lacks, almost all of life’s essentials, almost all of the things that sustain us. He hungers, yes, but not only for food. He hungers for love, for sex, for work too, none of which he has access to. The only thing that he has, or that he can at least fool himself into thinking that he has, is his dignity. He helps the beggar because he does not want to be seen as being too destitute to give charity. He has next to nothing, but at least he can do that, at least he can still help others or attempt to. Similarly, when he sees a man carrying a bundle, he wants to take it from him and carry it himself. One might say that he cares too much about what people think of him – he blackens the knees of his trousers so that they will not look too worn, for example – and, yes, that is part of having dignity too, but, in my opinion, he cares more about what he thinks of himself. Isn’t that vital? To be able to tolerate the person you are. Yes. It may be at some point in your life that other people cannot bear to look at you, but I hope that you are always able to look at yourself.

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.

MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS BY AMOS TUTUOLA

Boo.

No one chooses to be a ghost. It’s something that happens to you, against your will, without your say. One moment you’re miserable and alive, the next you’re miserable and dead. Or not dead exactly; it’s more like being in a permanent state of drunkenness, but a particular kind of drunkenness. It’s the sort of state you find yourself in after the party, at 3am, walking home alone in the dark, when everything seems unreal, untouchable, soft and sad. Yet this is still preferable to real death, of course. Any form of being is superior to no being. Something is always better than nothing, no matter how intangible. Perhaps the nothing comes after. Perhaps life fades away in stages, like a stain. I don’t know. No one tells you anything. There isn’t an induction or instruction manual. The lights simply go out, and then the lights come back on, as though there was a brief glitch in the system. At first you think it’s business as usual, until you realise your leg is missing or your face now looks like a shredded lettuce.

Nowadays, I’ve got a lot of time to kill. In the world of ghosts there is very little socialising. We have no ambition, no lust for power, no lust of any kind, and aren’t these urges often the motivating factors behind human interaction? So we spend most of the day, every day, alone, not even acknowledging the still-breathing beings with whom we share the world. Yet sometimes, in order to pass a few hours, I’ll listen in to their conversation, hoping that from a distance, with no personal agenda, I can find something worthwhile in it. Unfortunately it strikes me as even more banal and absurd than it did when I could participate myself, because it does not, and cannot, relate to me. You might say that I am bitter. I would say that I’m bored. Certainly, I’m bored; and I guess that is how I came to this, or came back to this. To reading, I mean. It’s almost enough to make you believe in the Devil, in some powerful, malevolent force. To read, to spend the afterlife engaged in the one activity you blame, you hold responsible, for wasting years of your actual-life, for driving away friends and girlfriends, for missed opportunities. To return to books, with your tail between your legs.

“Again after a little while they left that and then my eyes opened as before, but I saw nobody there with me in this doorless room who was ill-treating me like that. Immediately my eyes opened there I saw about a thousand snakes which almost covered me, although they did not attempt to bite me at all. It was in this doorless room which is in undergrounds I first saw my life that the biggest and longest among these snakes which was acting as a director for the rest vomited a kind of coloured lights from his mouth on to the floor of this room. These lights shone to every part of the room and also to my eyes, and after all of the snakes saw me clearly through the lights then they disappeared at once with the lights and then the room became dark as before.”

Recently I read My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola. I remember trying, on numerous occasions, to finish it in the-before-times. Then, I would give up after only a few pages. Maybe I have more patience now. Maybe my taste has become refined. More likely, I simply have no real distractions. I cannot, for example, break off my reading in order to drink tea or play with myself. In any case, it is the story of a boy – the narrator – who gets lost in the African bush and, yes, spends a great deal of his life amongst the ghosts that inhabit it. When considering the book, it is perhaps expected of you that you will engage with the African issue, which is to say that you will place My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in socio-political, cultural context. Quite frankly, I am incapable, and, truth be told, not really all that interested in how closely, or otherwise, the contents resemble, are inspired by, etc, Yoroba folk-tales. I am not a professional literary critic. For me, what is important is this: is it a good book? Yes, it is very good indeed. It is, in fact, a great book. Says the ghost.

In likewise fashion, I do not want to labour over the language either. Of course, I must mention it, briefly at least. It is sometimes argued that the writing is poor, broken, ungrammatical, or, God forbid, ‘primitive.’ Well, I can report that the syntax, for example, is unusual, vis-a-vis formal English, but isn’t, say, Henry James’ and James Joyce’s also? Or what about Mark Twain, David Foster Wallace, John Hawkes, Anna Kavan, the surrealists, and so on? Isn’t there the not-so-subtle, unpleasant odour of racism hanging over that ‘primitive’? Ask yourself this: what is correct? What does it even mean to call a certain kind of writing correct, or not-broken, or sophisticated? Aren’t these terms meaningless? In any case, perhaps Tutuola could have written like Jane Austen had he wanted to. And perhaps I’m primitive myself – well, I am half-dead, at the very least – but all that truly concerns me is whether the style serves the material well, which, in this instance, it undoubtedly does.

There is, however, the recurring theme of language within the story itself. Tutuola’s hero finds often that he cannot communicate with those around him, with, to be specific, the ghosts; or certainly not with words. When he meets the copperish, silverish, and golden ghosts, for example, they use lights to catch his attention and win his favour. They, and the other bush-dwellers that the boy crosses paths with, have their own language, which he cannot speak [although at times he seems to be able to understand them, they, in the main, cannot understand him]. Moreover, there are numerous instances where speech is physically impossible – such as when a web covers his mouth – or when it is outlawed, as in the town where one is only allowed to communicate with shrugs. I am not able to put forward a single, convincing, intelligent theory as to what the significance of this is. It might be nothing more than a way of heightening the bush’s sense of otherness, and likewise the boy’s exclusion from that world. Yet I like to think it is a cheeky reference to the European novels that plonk the white man in Africa to confront the alien, sometimes hostile, locals, with their weird food, their weird practices and their impenetrable gobbledygook language.

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Certainly, the ghosts aren’t all that friendly. I’ve already alluded to this; although my kind aren’t Tutuola’s kind. Many of them want to kill the boy, or eat him – which also supports the aforementioned theory of mine, for it suggests the African cannibal cliche – or at least do him some form of physical harm. Yet this perceived ill-treatment, or lack of friendliness, is, in most cases, not presented as being a moral failing. Aside from one or two references to hell, and an episode featuring a female ghost who disagrees with the murderous commands of her parents, the author doesn’t appear to judge them, nor want the reader to. They are not savages; ‘the deads’ simply have their own customs, their own way of life, their own values, their own world, which are of course different to the boy’s, to that of earthly creatures. For example, there is the story of the mother ghost, who one must present with food, both for her and the numerous heads that are attached to her body. The rest of her people eat last, and not very well, and this is accepted as how it must be.

Now I would like to set all that aside – the theorising and philosophising, the search for a deeper meaning, etc – and concentrate on the weirdness. If we ghosts talked to each other more often I would say ‘here, read this book it’s…really weird.’ The weirdness is the selling point, the high point, the only real point that matters. I mentioned previously the mother ghost with many heads, but that’s nothing. How about the small ghost: ‘both his legs were twisted as rope and both feet faced sharply left and right, he had an eye in his forehead which was exactly like a moon, this eye was as big as a full moon and had a cover or socket which could be easily opening and closing at any time.’ Then there are the ghosts who steal into the womb of pregnant women, replacing her unborn babies; and the television ghost, who shows the boy a vision of his mother on the palm of her hand in order to convince him to lick her sore for ten years; and the talking land, which, when you place your feet on it, says loudly: ‘Don’t smash me. Oh don’t smash me, don’t walk on me.’

The weirdness is endless, and always entertaining. And, perhaps most impressively, very funny. A lot of books that are described as funny do little to justify the claim. They might make you smile, maybe even snigger, but laugh? Really? My Life in the Bush of Ghosts drew sounds from my throat I thought I would never hear again; and that, in the real world, and in the unreal world, in my world and in your world, is precious. I do not want to analyse, but rather give examples, to make, not for the first time in this review, a short list, without, I hope, spoiling the jokes. So what about the homeless ghost who dances to the boy’s crying as though it is ‘a lofty music for him’? And what about the ghost with snakes all over his body, the bad-smelling ghost, who can only eat sleeping animals, for the wide-awake ones are alerted by his smell and run away? Finally, from me, certainly not in terms of the book, what about the point when the boy turns himself into a cow in order to escape a ghost who is chasing him; when, unfortunately, as a cow, he catches the eye of a lion, who also takes up the chase? Perhaps none of this sounds amusing, for I am not a comedian, I do not have a polished delivery. I’m dead, or half-dead, after all.

Boo-hoo. Boo-haha.