Gothic/Grotesque

THE TRUMPETS OF JERICHO BY UNICA ZÜRN

It is at the end of a relationship that the most revealing statements are made. It is as though it is only when there is no hope of resolving the issues, of moving forward together, that people are able or willing to honestly disclose their feelings. ‘I thought I was pregnant last year’, my ex-partner told me once all was lost, ‘but I was too frightened to tell you.’ It was her most hurtful admission. I was ashamed that I had communicated my misgivings about having children in such a way as to convince her that it would be better to deal with the worry alone than to share it with me. And yet I do wonder – if she had been pregnant and had wanted to keep the baby – how I would have taken the news. Outwardly I would have done all that I could to be supportive, but secretly, inside myself, would I have freaked out? The awful truth is that often, when I have come into contact with pregnant women, I have felt uneasy, especially in regards to the grotesquely swollen belly, inside of which there sits a living creature. There is something magical about it, yes, but unnerving also.

However, it wasn’t until I read Unica Zürn’s The Trumpets of Jericho that I seriously considered how a woman might feel in the same situation. I don’t mean that I would expect that every woman be happy about being pregnant, rather that, as I have selfishly blundered my way through life, it had not previously occurred to me that to be the one who actually has the living thing inside you might be a whole other level of existential terror, a kind of terror that the likes of me  – i.e. a man – cannot fully understand. Indeed, for Zürn’s narrator her pregnancy has been nine months of a ‘gruesome inner union.’ She openly, almost gleefully, attacks the unborn, calling it a ‘bastard’, a ‘hateful creature’, an ‘abomination’, and an ‘unwanted suckling’. It is this last phrase that is, in my opinion, the most significant. The child was not planned, and is not wanted. While it is true to say that she is partly responsible, the girl – she is only sixteen – has had her body, in a sense, invaded.

At the heart of her despair, and her disgust, is the realisation that the baby’s existence, its inevitable coming, signals the end of ‘the sweet days of youthful peace’. On one level this ‘youthful peace’ refers to her physical well-being. She laments how the child has ‘sucked all the strength’ from her, with her labour pains, for example, being so intense that they feel like ‘the sea moving beneath a storm.’ There is also a touch of vanity in her concerns, for she remembers the time when she was ‘still slim’ and notes how her ‘long, beautiful hair is getting damp from fear sweats.’ However, her strongest objection is that she will no longer be able to do as she pleases. To have a child is to be responsible for, and obligated and tied to, another human being, which requires your time, effort, and money; especially for a woman, and especially at the time at which the book was written. She sees the baby as a threat to what she calls the ‘dancing freedom of a proud young cat,’ and remembers fondly how she once ‘hurried with big steps from one lover to another.’

“For the whole land is flooded with a large and powerful wave of the deepest melancholy, and wherever anyone goes or stands, they think here of violent death.”

The Trumpets of Jericho is not a plot-based book, so it is no spoiler to reveal that the girl plans to kill the baby. Indeed, on the second page she states that she has ‘cold-heartedly’ decided that ‘the suckling must die.’ The intended infanticide speaks to her mental state, of course, and I will return again to that, but it is also one part of a overriding atmosphere of gothic horror, which at times is surprisingly playful. The girl’s situation is that of someone living alone in a tower. She has, she says, no friends. Her only company are ravens and, for a brief period, the bat that is caught in her hair. With a touch of welcome humour, she theatrically addresses the creature: ‘I honor you, you serious, uncanny night spirit/But please leave my hair, because you are bothering me during the serious business of bringing my child into the world.’ I was also amused by the grim intention to pack the remains of the murdered new born ‘in seven different packages and send them to my last seven lovers.’ A dramatic fuck you to whichever of these men is the father.

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On the back of my copy of The Trumpets of Jericho it is described as ‘a fierce fable of childbirth’, which is a fine phrase, but which is not, in my opinion, entirely accurate. Of course it is important, and it is, moreover, the most immediately engaging, eye-catching aspect of the text, but I don’t think Zürn’s work is reducible to that alone. In fact, although I have devoted all of this review to it so far, at least half of the book’s fifty pages have nothing to do with pregnancy or childbirth at all. The second half is given over to a series of surreal-poetic stories, told by the narrator, the majority of which feature death. For me, The Trumpets of Jericho is about madness and unhappiness, about, specifically, Zürn’s own madness and unhappiness, with an attitude towards childbirth being only one facet of this. Indeed, the girl describes herself, rather quaintly, as a ‘member of the Eccentric’s club’. More alarmingly, she speaks of an anger against life and longs to kill herself, by leaping from a window.

I don’t often refer to biographical detail concerning the authors of the works I review, for I consider it irrelevant in the main, but on this occasion it is worth pointing out that Zürn killed herself by doing just that: by jumping out of a window. There is, moreover, a moment in the text when Zürn, as the author, addresses you: ‘you see, reader, that I cannot bend my thoughts away from death.’ It is a brief slipping of the girl-mask, of the pretence at writing a piece of fiction. Another, more telling, slip occurs when she actually namechecks herself: ‘Unica’s heroes murdered.’ The second half of The Trumpets of Jericho, which is at times barely comprehensible, but is always beautiful, is like directly entering the gloomy labyrinth of her mind; and it is, in this way, much scarier than what precedes it, if not so ripe for critical analysis.

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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.

THE TUTU BY LEON GENONCEAUX

‘You don’t ever talk to your friends about it?’ she asked. No, I replied, of course not. She – my partner at the time – laughed and said: you’re repressed. ‘We all go to the toilet; even girls, you know.’ Girls shit. I knew. I know. But did that mean it had to be a topic of conversation between us? Was I, in refusing to entertain the subject, denying her the level of intimacy that she deserved? Does every other couple comfortably share their excretory experiences? Maybe she was right: I am repressed. I don’t want to discuss bodily functions. Repressed, and probably a bad man. I remember someone once telling me about how her boyfriend would enter the bathroom and take a shit while she showered. Cool as you like. How often did this happen? Regularly, she said. Ah, I shouted, he waits until you are in the shower! He wants you to see and hear him shit, the dirty bastard! He wasn’t repressed. Certainly not. What a beautiful relationship they must have had.

“The only thing in the world that matters is us. Nobody will ever guess at the sublimities hidden within our hearts. Nobody else here on earth eats the brains from corpses and drinks the spittle of asthmatics. Let us act so that we might die in the satisfaction of having experienced, we alone, the True Sensation, of That Which Does Not Die.”

On the cover of the handsome Atlas Press edition of The Tutu it is stated that ‘it was written under the pseudonym of Princess Sappho, and is presumed to be the work of Leon Genonceaux.’ I do not often read the pages that precede a novel, but that ‘presumed’ tempted me, motivated me, to make one of my few exceptions via-a-vis Iain White’s introduction. I won’t retell the whole story here – or as much of the story as is known – but it is worth picking out some choice titbits. Genonceaux was responsible for publishing both Lautreamont and Rimbaud, the latter resulting in legal action against him. Marvellously, instead of facing up to the charge, he apparently went on the run. Later, he was charged again, on the grounds of publishing a book with an obscene cover, and again he fled. If someone is in fear of being arrested, is essentially in hiding, then putting one’s name to another obscene work – for The Tutu would almost certainly have been considered obscene – would not have been the wisest move. Hence: Princess Sappho.

However, as satisfyingly Borgesian as that all is, there’s more: some believe the book to be a hoax. On the first page of his introduction White writes that ‘it was published in the autumn of 1891’, but that ‘nearly all of the print run seems to have disappeared.’ Yet, in his final sentence, he asks: ‘what effect would it have had if it had indeed appeared in 1891, when it was written?’ Now, it is perfectly possible that I am misunderstanding his use of the term ‘published.’ To me that means that it made its way into the hands of the public, or at least had the potential to, if any of them had seen fit to part with money for it. Can something be published and not appear? Did White make a mistake? Or are we  – the readers – being played here? [If you have the answers to any of these questions, then please keep them to yourself, for I do not want to have to rewrite this review]. In any case, the confusion surrounding the book, and more importantly the sense of playfulness, is certainly in keeping with the contents.

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The Tutu is largely concerned with Mauri de Noirof, a dandyish sort who ‘always dressed with studied elegance.’ On the opening page he picks up a brick and wonders whether it ‘had a soul’ or whether it was ‘troubled by the rain.’ One understands immediately that he is something of an eccentric, a dreamer, a man perhaps at odds with his milieu. Indeed, his mother later says that she adores him because he is ‘not in the least like other men.’ And it is true, he isn’t, yet maybe not in the way that one is thinking; which is to say that he’s not a shy and sensitive little pup. The key to his character is, I think, evident in his chief ailment, which is his forgetfulness. Mauri’s bad memory – he orders cabs and makes appointments with women and keeps them waiting for hours – suggests to me, not that he has a serious medical condition, or that he is depressed, but that he is bored. It is as though he almost sleepwalks through life, barely allowing its events to trouble his consciousness. He says of himself that he is scared of life, but that didn’t come through to me. Alongside his boredom, I saw disgust and dissatisfaction, and it is the combination of all these feelings that, in my opinion, prompt his, let’s say, stomach-churning indulgences.

Of these indulgences, the most scandalous is his sexual interest in his mother, which is, moreover, reciprocated. Indeed, the book ends with Mauri bending her over a coffin, an act that is described as ‘impure and hideous.’ If one is bored, dissatisfied, and disgusted, then one might look to enliven one’s existence by doing something extreme, and, in an attempt to upset others, those others who disgust you, something shocking. Incest is, of course, considered unacceptable by society at large; and Mauri understands this, for numerous times his laments the law that prevents him from marrying the woman who brought him into the world. It is, therefore, the extremity, and shocking nature, of the act that makes it appealing, more so than the physical charms of his mother. Furthermore, this act is likely to not only shock the people who disgust Mauri, but it sets him apart from them in his own mind, for it is something that they would never do. It is his being capable of it that makes him superior to them.

Yet not all of the unpleasantness contained within The Tutu is attributable to Mauri. In fact, the scene most likely to make the reader gag is when a man eats the tail of a dead, maggot-infested, cat. There is also – if you would like a list, either as warning or recommendation – piss, snot eating, vomit, shit [ah maybe now you see where I was going with my introduction], a woman breastfeeding snakes and another who is, um, tongued by a corpse. All of this leads one to wonder about the author’s intention. Was he trying to poke his finger in the ribs of people like me, the unapologetically repressed? Was he saying that this is life – bodily functions, death, decomposition – and one should not turn one’s head away from it? Certainly I think that was part of it. But I also believe that he, in grotesquely humorous ways, wanted to urge his reader to make the most of their time on earth, which, as Mauri’s mother says, ‘ought to be an extraordinary sensation.’ This making the most of life, this experiencing of extraordinary sensations, need not mean drinking sputum and eating brains, of course, but rather not allowing oneself to, well, sleepwalk through it.

There is much more that I would like to discuss, especially the satire, but this review is overlong already, and the satire is rather obvious. Princess Sappho, or Leon Genonceaux, took pains to aim arrows at all of society’s pillars: marriage, religion, parent/child relationships, etc. Before concluding, however, I want to return to the idea that The Tutu might be a hoax. This theory holds up somewhat not only because of the obscure origins, and publication history, of the book, but also because it strikes one as modern in its construction. There is, for example, something of the surrealists automatic writing about the way the bizarre scenes seamlessly merge, so that one is not always sure where Mauri is or who he is talking to. There are, moreover, passages from other sources, including Maldoror; there is a conversation with God, a dream sequence, a picture, and a score. What one is left with, as one turns the final page, is less a feeling of disgust, although that is there there too, but more an admiration for the author’s own joie de vivre, for his enjoyment in his creation is evident throughout.

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 GOLEM BY GUSTAV MEYRINK

I was, I must confess, disgracefully hungover and sleep deprived; and I had, yes, already had something of a meltdown in the Kafka museum; but these things can, I feel, only provide a partial explanation for what happened on the Karluv Most bridge. It was early in the afternoon, around 12:30, as we left the museum and started the crossing. Straightaway, I noted a woman having her portrait drawn, a smile stretched grotesquely across her face as though it was intent on swallowing it. Further on, a spidery old man was playing an over-large accordion, and what appeared to be circus performers were blithely strolling in the midday sun. Yet, while these things all contributed to the surreal atmosphere, it was the dogs, the dogs wearing scarves, that truly did for me.

The walk along the bridge seemed to be unending. My feet moved, but I appeared to make no progress. The dogs, so many dogs, all the same breed, and all wearing scarves, passed by me at regular intervals. It was as though I was standing still, and they – the dogs – were going round in circles, were circling me, coming back around, time and time again. Where were they coming from? How could it be that ten or fifteen of the same breed had found themselves on the bridge that day? And why were they dressed so suavely? I have lost my mind, I suddenly thought to myself; then, gripping my friend’s arm, I asked him, straight-faced, with great seriousness: ‘You can see those dogs, can’t you?’

Thankfully, he could; but the point of this story is not the existence, or non-existence, of dogs, but rather to demonstrate something of the special atmosphere of Prague. It is a city, a beautiful city, that invites madness; it is a city of weirdness and wonder, where, one feels, or certainly I feel, anything is possible. It is not, I believe, a coincidence that much of the literature it has generated – The Maimed by Hermann Unger, for example – has that particular quality to it, as though the strange air of Prague has seeped into the pages. In this way, Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem held few surprises for me; which is to say that I expected odd, and odd is what I got.

“A brief rustling that broke off short, as if startled at itself, then deadly silence, that agonising, watchful hush, fraught with its own betrayal, that stretched each minute to an excruciating eternity.”

First published serially in 1913-14, The Golem is, on the surface at least, a gothic thriller. With little subtlety, but great relish, Meyrink turns Prague’s Jewish ghetto into a nightmare, with its ‘dark corners,’ ‘tomblike silence’ and generally gloomy, and threatening, atmosphere. It is a place where a ‘human spider’ with a hare lip [Aaron Wassertrum] lurks; and where a malevolent being, said to be the Golem, stalks the streets and the inhabitants, including the narrator, Athanasius Pernath. As one works one’s way through the book there are murders, robberies, secret rooms, inexplicable events, and suicide plots; there are references to cabbala and tarot; and all of this is great, dumb fun.

Yet there is, I believe, an underlying gravitas to the descriptions of life in the Jewish quarter. At the time that the novel was written it was, in fact, in the process of being demolished or cleaned up. For many years it had the reputation of being excessively dirty, over populated, and run down; and it was thought to be a hotbed of violence and criminal activity. With this in mind, Meyrink’s gothic thriller has perhaps more in common with Emile Zola’s theatrical naturalism than it does Lovecraft, Poe or Dracula. Moreover, this historical knowledge has the effect of altering the tone of much of what you read, so that when Pernath describes the houses as turning their backs on each other one sees in it, not something sinister, but something rather moving. Likewise, when he says of the inhabitants that they are ‘strange people’ who ‘seem to have been put together haphazardly, out of odds and ends.’

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This is not to say that Meyrink, or at least his narrator, is entirely in sympathy with the people of the ghetto. Certainly, in the early stages I detected elements of anti-semitism, for there is obvious disgust in the way that Wassertrum and Rosina, for example, are depicted. Indeed, Aaron is said to have a ‘horrible face’ and ’round fish’s eyes’; he is a crook, who once sold a woman into prostitution. Rosina, on the other hand, is ‘repulsive’ and lascivious. Moreover, the evils of Wassertrum and his son are both linked to money, bringing to mind the Jewish stereotype of avariciousness. In contrast, the Czech characters, who are also living in poverty of course, are lovable rascals with hearts of gold. Yet, as the narrative progresses, Meyrink introduces Hillel and Miriam, who are positive Jewish characters; and this did go some way to soothing my concerns, especially as they are both self-denying and generous with money.

It is usually the case with these reviews that I spend a considerable proportion of them discussing the principle character[s], their motivations, psychology and personality. This is made more difficult in this instance, because Pernath is, for much of the novel, a man is search of himself, literally and spiritually. Indeed, at the beginning, he is handed a book with a prominent letter ‘I’ etched on it, which is not, of course, insignificant; and later it is hinted that the narrator may not be Pernath at all, having assumed this identity from a name in a hat he mistakenly picked up. In any case, he does not, we are told, remember anything about his childhood; there is the suggestion that he had some kind of mental breakdown, underwent hypnosis, and therefore repressed, or in some way lost, those memories, and with them his sense of self.

“The soul is not a single unity; that is what it is destined to become, and that is what we call ‘immortality’. Your soul is still composed of many ‘selves’, just as a colony of ants is composed of many single ants.”

It is interesting, in this regard, that when we meet him he is alive, certainly, but could not be said to be living, as though one’s past enables one to have a present and a future. In fact, it is only when he starts to recover his memories that he takes an active part in life. He romances two women, for example, and forms deeper, more valuable friendships. However, I ought to point out that this is, I’m sure, not how Meyrink intended his novel to be understood. It is full of obscure mysticism, or ‘waffle’ if you were being uncharitable, which, based on what I know about the author and his interests, would likely mean that he had something more philosophically complex in mind. Moreover, if you have read the book you will know that I have completely disregarded the ‘twist’, and the questions it raises about the nature of reality, dreams, and so on. But well, fuck it, I most enjoyed The Golem as a story, not about a man’s spiritual awakening, but rather as about a man beginning to feel some joy in living.

LA-BAS BY J.K. HUYSMANS

For years I’ve been having a dream, a recurring nightmare, which features me and whoever I am in a relationship with at the time. In this dream nothing out of the ordinary happens, except that I am convinced that my partner is evil, is, specifically, possessed by something evil. Indeed, on one occasion I actually pushed the girl with whom I was sharing my bed away from me while I slept, believing her to be demonic. It is not, of course, difficult to interpret this dream, but, outside of any subconscious negative feelings towards my girlfriends, it is, I believe, still significant, because it involves something that, for no logical reason, absolutely terrifies me [and I don’t mean being in a relationship].

Despite not being religious myself, and not having been raised by religious believers, or ever having been particularly exposed to them, the satanic, well, possesses me. I’m as drawn to it, as I am petrified of it. I used to watch a lot of horror films at one time and, regardless of how poor the film was, if anyone started croaking out a bit of Latin and pulling gymnastic body shapes I was wanting to run out of the room. You might argue that my fear is atavistic, is a kind of psychological remnant of a time when the majority of people truly believed in this stuff, when they felt as though the prospect of hell was a genuine one. Who knows? But satanism is certainly the reason I was simultaneously attracted to, and wary of, J.K. Husymans’ La-Bas.

“Really, when I think it over, literature has only one excuse for existing; it saves the person who makes it from the disgustingness of life.”

The novel centres around a disillusioned author, Durtal, who is writing a book about the ‘virtuoso of suffering and murder’, and dabbler in the occult, Gilles de Rais. On the basis of what we learn about him, de Rais was a real life Maldoror; in fact, he is credited with one particularly unpleasant act – making a child think that you have saved him, so as to enjoy his shock when he realises that you intend to butcher him – that also features in Lautréamont’s Chants. These murders, which according to Huysmans number into the hundreds, were, it seems, part satanic ritual and part an expression of de Rais’ ennui. As the novel progresses, Durtal himself gets mixed up in satanism, which he justifies as being part of his research.

While I did approach La Bas with caution, the truth is that I needn’t have been concerned at all. The book is mostly plotless, is relentlessly, often drily, investigative and philosophical [with an emphasis on the historical], such that a significant proportion of it reads like an academic textbook. Therefore, all the tension and atmosphere that the subjects of child killing, dismemberment, and satanic practices, might have created is lacking. I freely admit to being a coward, and yet there wasn’t one moment during my reading when I felt especially unnerved or uneasy, not even the black mass scene, which is frequently commented upon. This is not, however, necessarily a fatal flaw, for there are numerous interesting ideas and passages in the book – such as the opening discussion about Naturalism, which I agreed with completely – but one will certainly be disappointed if one comes to it looking for thrills and shocks.

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Indeed, that La-Bas opens with a chapter dedicated to the merits or otherwise of Naturalism is telling, for it is as much, if not more so, a book about art and literature as it is about satanism. Huysmans states that Naturalism rejects ‘every high-minded thought’, that it is concerned only with appetites. It may, as Durtal notes, have rid the world of romanticism, and rescued literature from ‘tedious idealism’, but it is, nevertheless, a dead-end, because it is not concerned with the soul. What Durtal advocates is a kind of supernatural realism, similar to that created by Dostoevsky, of which La Bas itself could be considered an example. The book is, then, partly about the author’s dissatisfaction with writing, both his own and other people’s, and was born out of his quest to create a new or better form of literature.

Moreover, one ought to bear in mind that all of the main characters are outsiders, are in a sense lost and/or disappointed with themselves and with the times; they are, to quote Husymans, ‘lives out of alignment.’ Take Durtal, a man whose soul ‘is clogged up with filth.’ He is an author who has given up writing novels, and who detests the literati and the present generation as a whole. He is, in writing a book about de Rais, shying away from the modern world, retreating back into the middle ages. His work on satanism and spirituality in medieval France is an act of avoidance, but it is also clearly an attempt to find himself. There are an abundance of references in the book to the superiority of the old ways, and the vacuous nature of modern attitudes and behaviour, which is best represented in the bell-ringer, Carhaix. This occupation, which was once so significant, the sound of bells being said to ‘echo the state of the town’s souls’, is now near-redundant [prophetically des Hermies predicts that real bells will soon be replaced with electronic chimes] and has been stripped of meaning or profundity.

“He did not believe, and yet he admitted the supernatural. Right here on earth how could any of us deny that we are hemmed in by mystery, in our homes, in the street,—everywhere when we came to think of it?”

What Huysmans seems to be suggesting is that people in the middle ages were more spiritually, emotionally alive, be that to one extreme or the other. This, for me, explains the real purpose of the focus on Gilles de Rais, who was both exceptionally good at one point in his life and exceptionally bad. Of course, one does not admire a child murderer and rapist, who has a sideline in Devil worship, but one cannot accuse the man of not wholly living, of not feeling and experiencing life to the full. And I believe that this is the point of interest for Huysmans, far beyond what it meant to be a satanist. Indeed, the title of the novel is sometimes translated as The Damned, but it is not the purveyors of black magic who are condemned, it is the spiritually lethargic, increasingly mindless modern man.

THE BLIND OWL BY SADEQ HEDAYAT

Whenever anyone asks me why I like owls I always tell a short story, a fictional story of course, about the first man to ever see one. Imagine blithely walking through the woods, through a forest, late one night and coming upon such a creature; imagine, to be specific, coming upon a barn owl. What is it? A bird, but not really a bird, or certainly one like no other. Lion-headed; razor-clawed; black-eyed…a ghoul, in short, in a bird-like form. There is an abundance of astonishing, disconcertingly weird animal life – the spider, for example – but none of them quite have the captivating, eerie power of the owl. The reason for this is, I think, because, unlike the spider, it has a certain human quality also, but a humanity that has been horribly distorted. It looks like something you would conjure up in a nightmare or a drug-induced hallucination, where the real and familiar combines with the odd and unexpected. In this way, although owls are only briefly mentioned in the text, it is a fitting symbol for Sadeq Hedayat’s compelling Iranian novel.

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The Blind Owl begins without preamble, which is to say that Hedayat does not ease the reader into his narrative, but immediately drops you into a tale of madness and despair. The opening line, for example, describes ‘sores’ that ‘erode the mind.’ These sores are not literal, of course, but emotional or mental; they are the product of a ‘disease’ for which relief, according to the unnamed narrator, is only to be found in wine and opium. Indeed, I have come across few novels that start so intensely, with so much melodrama and hand-wringing. The world, he says, is ‘mean’ and comprised of ‘wretchedness and misery’; and people, moreover, exist only in order to cheat him. He is full of loathing, loathing for others and for himself, but is, even more so, full of self pity about his ‘poisoned’ life and ‘inconceivable suffering.’

The cause of the ‘agony’ he experiences is, predictably, a woman; or, to use his own words, a ‘star’, a ‘ray of sunlight’, an ‘angel’ that disappeared from his life forever, and whom he cannot forget. At this stage I am probably giving the impression that The Blind Owl is something of a Werther-esque story of unattainable sweethearts and lost love; and, in a way, it kind of is, especially the first half. Indeed, the narrator spends much of the early part of the novel repeatedly referencing the ‘extraordinary’ beauty of his beloved, with her ‘prominent’ cheekbones, ‘full’ lips, moon-like pallor, fine limbs, radiant eyes, and slender eyebrows that meet in the middle[!]; she is, he says, an ethereal misty form.

However, as the narrator comes to explain how he met the woman, and how he subsequently lost her, one realises that The Blind Owl has more in common with Poe or the [mostly French] surrealists or something like Jose Donoso’s gothic horror story The Obscene Bird of Night, than Goethe‘s famous novel. I do not, of course, want to give away the entire plot, but, in short, it involves windows that disappear, ‘dense mists’, uncanny images on pen cases [he has taken up decorating these in an effort to stupify himself or kill time, he says] and jars, black ‘skeleton thin’ horses, dismemberment, a hearse, and a great deal of blood, etc. Like The Obscene Bird of Night the timeline of these events is confused, which mirrors, of course, the mental state of the narrator, a man who, as has already been mentioned, is often drunk on wine or high on opium.

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As one would expect, then, there is much in the novel about reality and fantasy. One is invited to ask oneself how much of what you are reading is true and how much is false,  or, to be more precise, how much is real and how much is hallucination or fiction. Indeed, there are numerous references to dreams and visions throughout The Blind Owl, such as when the narrator describes himself as being in a state of mingled horror and delight akin to that produced by a ‘delicious, fearful dream.’ Moreoverhe says of opium that it puts him in a state that is like being ‘neither awake nor asleep’, and, more tellingly, or consequently, that everything he sees, thinks, and feels might be ‘entirely imaginary.’ Yet there is also the suggestion that he may, in fact, simply be making things up, for he admits at one stage that his story might not contain even ‘the slightest particle of truth.’

“I write only for my shadow which is cast on the wall in front of the light. I must introduce myself to it.”

As engaging as all this is, the most interesting element of the novel, for me, is when Hedayat writes about identity or ‘the self.’ The first hint of this is when, at the beginning of The Blind Owl, the narrator says that he wants to ‘know himself’, as though there is some part that is unknown or unknowable. He also claims to be composing the story for his shadow, which he refers to numerous times as though it is a separate, individual being. There is, furthermore, more than one instance in which people become other people, or people are switched, or there is some confusion as to who is who. For example, there is an anecdote told about the narrator’s father and uncle, and how they were locked in a room with a cobra[!] and, due to how similar in appearance they were, no one was entirely certain which one of them came out alive. The concept of multiple selves is, of course, familiar to all of us, but especially those who have an interest in mental illness. Not only are there conditions such as bipolarity, but split personalities and schizophrenia too.

It is also worth focusing, briefly, on the structure, for I was impressed by the way Hedayat brought together the two halves of his novel. The first half is, as I noted previously, a rather confusing, melodramatic story of lost love, involving a woman who may or may not have existed. The second half then goes on to explain, or give the impression of explaining, the events that take place in the first, in a more realistic, or believable, manner. Initially, this irritated me, for it felt a little like a magician performing an impressive trick, then showing you exactly how it was done. However, as I progressed further into the second half it became apparent that the explanation was, in fact, no more credible than the horror-fantasy in the first half.

“We are the children of death and it is death that rescues us from the deceptions of life.”

I want to continue, I want to write about mummy and daddy issues, Freud, and the psycho-sexual, but this is a book review, a long book review already, and it cannot, if I hope to have any readers, be allowed to mutate into a dissertation. However, before I finish I am going to touch upon the translation. I have actually tried to read The Blind Owl a number of times, abandoning it on each of these occasions somewhere around 20-30 pages in, and only recently saw it through to the end. My reservations previously were all related to the quality of the prose, specifically how overwrought it is [although I should point out that the second half is much less so].

Open the book at any point within the first thirty pages, and read a page and you will find a plethora of examples. Fearful abyss! Immense eyes! Profound darkness! Accursed trees!! The first part is so saturated with this sort of thing that it is, at times, amusing, rather than, as you would imagine was the intention, exciting or unnerving. You will notice, also, how almost every word, every noun or verb, is qualified or modified in some way with an adverb or adjective, which is something that I generally associate with bad writing. All screams are bloodcurdling, all glances are penetrating, and so on. Moreover, I was struck by how old-fashioned the language was for a book that was published in 1937, such that it almost felt like a pastiche [alas].

I did wonder whether these flaws could be attributed to a shoddy translation. The copy I own was translated by D.P. Costello, a man who was, as the name suggests, not Iranian himself, and who, I think I am right in saying, was not considered an expert in the language. With this in mind, I sought out the most recent translation by Naveed Noori, who claims, as is always the way, that his version is more accurate. Well, more accurate it might be, but it is also clunky and sometimes near unintelligible. Compare the opening paragraphs:

“There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker. It is impossible to convey a just idea of the agony which this disease can inflict. In general, people are apt to relegate such inconceivable sufferings to the category of the incredible. Any mention of them in conversation or in writing is considered in the light of current beliefs, the individual’s personal beliefs in particular, and tends to provoke a smile of incredulity and derision.” [Costello]

“In life there are wounds that, like leprosy, silently scrape at and consume the soul, in solitude—This agony can not be revealed to anyone, because they generally tend to group this incomprehensible suffering with strange and otherwise rare events, and if one speaks or writes about it, then people, by way of popular perception and their own beliefs, receive it with a doubtful and mocking smile.” [Noori]

Yes, the Costello one is archaic, suggesting a brooding 19th century count, in a dark and windy castle somewhere, contemplating the state of his soul over a snifter of brandy, but it is nevertheless poetic, smooth and readable. This is the perennial problem with modern translators, which is to say that their work tends to be faithful, on a word-by-word basis, but they have seemingly no idea about, or interest in, how English sentences are actually constructed, or how to make them pleasing to the eye or ear. Indeed, reading them is like dancing with someone who has conscientiously learnt all the steps, but lacks grace of movement. So while Costello’s melodrama isn’t perfect, and it may be a bastardised version of Hedayat’s novel, I still greatly favour it over a version that reads as though it is the product of google translate.