Surrealism

BLACK MIRROR: SELECTED POEMS BY ROGER GILBERT-LECOMTE

Rien. Nothing. I have the word tattooed across my fingers. Not to remind myself, because I never forget. That which awaits me? No, because there will be no me to experience it. It will be the absence of me. Nothing. The absence of all things. Including me. The void. I never forget, although it is impossible to contemplate it. For my thinking is always targeted towards something. Everything we do, every aspect of our existence, is targeted. Even when we think we are not doing anything. It is simply a lie we tell ourselves. We are always doing something. We live with the idea of the void, not the reality of it. There is no reality. It is nothing. Not even the word with which we attempt to pin it down. Does anyone understand me? I am scared of this phantom blackness. Less than a shadow, than the wind. Less than the stillness, the silence. It is the absence of shadows, of wind, of stillness, of silence. Rien.

I’ll speak of the dark 
To dank caves
Mushroom beds eyes glowing in the blackness
I’ll speak of the dark to coiled snails
I’ll speak of the dark 
To rain to soot
To the circle of moonwater motionless at the bottom of a well
To barrels rolling in the cellar at midnight
When the white lady moaned
I’ll speak of the dark
On the blind side of mirrors
I’ll speak of the dark
Of immortal torture
Of most ancient despair
In the absence of a universe

To discover something is to draw it out of the void, to give it existence. Before it was nothing, now it is. To discover is to create. You, in your discovery, are responsible for that thing. You are the creator of the universe, or at least those bits of it that exist, which is to say the bits that you have experience of. I came upon the work of Roger Gilbert-Lecomte in the same way that I happen upon most writers or books: by semi-accident. I found him, I created him, I dragged him out of the void, by following a trail. By now the marks left my footprints have been erased. Which is a pretentious way of saying that I have forgotten what led me to Black Mirror. A brief mention in an online article covering the surrealists, perhaps. Or Rene Daumal, whose work I admire, and with whom Gilbert-Lecomte founded the avant-garde Le Grand Jeu artistic group and magazine. A long-term morphine addict, he died, I’m told, at the age of thirty-six as a result of an infection caused by the use of dirty needles; and yet now I have breathed new life into him and written his poems.

Whether accurate or not, my understanding is that Gilbert-Lecomte published only one full length book in his lifetime. It is called La vie, l’amour, la mort, le vide et le vent. Or Life, Love, Death, Void and Wind. It is tempting to end my review here, with that. No other title summarises a writer’s body of work better. However, what that title hints at, but doesn’t fully convey, is the hysterical, gothic surrealism of some of the poems. In Notes for a Coming Attraction, for example, he writes of ‘horror in tar: the grin of certain dead people.’ Indeed, some of his lines wouldn’t look out of place in the liner notes of a death metal album. Like this from The Borders of Love:Veiled in a red fog and buzz/Of blood seared by the venomous spells/And prestigia of desire/Exciting in the bend of your nocturnal throat/The voracity of vampires.’ Throughout, there are references to the ‘icy slithering of ghosts,’ and lemmings bashing their brains out, and fingers that ‘sprout insanely squealing diamonds/drops of blood singing in midair,’ and so on. Some of the images are theatrical and ridiculous, a great many of them are beautiful, but, regardless of how you feel about this sort of thing, there is certainly an impressive dedication to a specific [gloomy and anguished] mood.

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Of all the things promised by the title of his book – life, love, wind etc – it is the void that dominates. Gilbert-Lecomte’s poems are filled with phrases like ‘black oblivion’ and ‘ethereal abyss’ and a ‘place of absence.’ There is barely a line in the collection that doesn’t mention blackness or darkness, which, in our attempts to understand the concept, to grasp it, are words that are invariably associated with nothingness. However, while fear is certainly a present emotion in the text, I did not get the impression that the poet directs it specifically at the idea of the void, at the state [although of course it isn’t a state] of non-being. In fact, he appears to always exist within it. In The Borders of Love, for example, he writes ‘Blind as I am/In the caves of being that are the antechambers of annihilation.’ Which suggests to me that rather than being, as I am, petrified of nothingness, of what happens after death, Gilbert-Lecomte’s despair is directed at his being [not the future lack of it]. 

This makes sense when one considers how troubled and difficult his existence was. On the Station Hill Press website, the publisher responsible for Black Mirror, it is written that ‘his life was a succession of jail and hospital confinements.’ I have also read that he was forbidden to marry a woman who was later deported to Auschwitz [and did not return]. And there was, of course, the years of drug abuse and addiction. Non-being might begin to look attractive in such circumstances, or certainly not something to be afraid of. It is notable, therefore, that so many of the poems allude to the womb, or explicitly mention it. For example, Gilbert-Lecomte writes of ‘caves of darkness,’ and being ‘at the bottom of the deepest cave,’ and of being ‘rooted in uterus/A ghastly fetus doomed to one more round/Of procreative desperation/Spinning on the wheel of the horror of existence.’ It is often [wrongly] claimed that our only experience of nothingness is pre-life, pre-consciousness, but again I don’t think that this is entirely what he had in mind. The womb, unlike life outside, is safe; to return to it is a comforting notion. Moreover, certain drugs, including morphine, are said to give you a feeling of contentment and safety that is womb-like. To my mind, Gilbert-Lecomte was preoccupied with the void, yes, but as a pacifier, and as something to aspire to, perhaps.

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FRACTION BY SHINTARO KAGO

Have you ever wondered if what I write here is true? If the face I present to the public is genuine? Isn’t it possible that everything I appear to reveal about myself and my life is fiction? It could be the case, for example, that I am not English, nor even a man. There have been many occasions that I have been solicited for a meeting through this website, and one of these women – for they are almost always women – began to stalk me. She moved to my city, and for what? For a phantom, perhaps. Whatever she thought she knew about me she had garnered from here, from my writing. The connection that she imagined we had was based on an illusion or at least an idea in her own head, rather than any living person. There is an assumption, a kind of naive trust or blind faith, that what is written in the first person, in a context known for being factual, can be taken on face value. The public are, for want of a better word, gullible, especially when experience has conditioned them to have certain expectations. It would be easy, therefore, for me to manipulate them, to manipulate you.

“I give up on ero guro! I will write a story without nudity, without murders, without guts hanging out, without scat, S&M, or torture scenes!”

Shintaro Kago’s Fraction manga is, at least in part, a murder mystery involving a serial killer called The Slicing Devil and a potential copycat. It seems, in the early stages, that the author/artist is paying homage to Edogawa Rampo and the like. Certainly he is working within the ero guro – erotic grotesque – style and genre, with which he, and Rampo too, is primarily associated. This means that there are a number of gruesome images, one of which adorns the cover, and some that are fairly explicit. I won’t focus too much on Kago’s art, as you can check it out for yourself, but there is a pleasing, and appropriate, realism and sophistication to it. The aforementioned cover image is particularly striking, what with the way that the eyes appear to be making contact with your own, despite the top of the girl’s head having been sliced off. In any case, the mystery at the centre of the story is not the identity of the serial killer; that is revealed almost immediately. What Kago does instead is very clever: he makes his murderer the pursuing detective.

Whilst in Uzumaki the characters were barely one dimensional, those in Fraction are at least a little more well rounded. The serial killer, for example, believes that his actions are just, that he in fact embodies justice. Kago gives you some idea of his personal history also, explaining that he is motivated to murder as a kind of payback for his brother’s suicide. This brother, whom he also talks to in his moments of doubt or weakness, killed himself because of a woman. The Slicing Devil, therefore, focuses on female victims, cutting them in half to reflect the way that his brother was dismembered by a train when he threw himself on the tracks. There are, of course, no impressive psychological insights here; it’s all a bit pulpy and ridiculous; but it does flesh out the story. There is less a sense of the characters sleepwalking through the book than I have found in other manga; they have emotions, motivations and meaningful conversations and interactions.

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When the copycat killings start The Slicing Devil is understandably perturbed. Indeed, he amusingly lambasts his rival’s ‘sick needs’ and, as previously suggested, begins to investigate. In other words, he becomes more concerned with catching, or unmasking, the copycat than he does with his own, self-styled, righteous mission. This too is somewhat amusing. As this story progresses, Kago increasingly seeks to bamboozle the reader by implying that all may not be as it seems. It could be, for example, that his serial killer is not actually a killer after all, rather that he is simply a man so traumatised by his brother’s death that he is having a psychotic breakdown, that he is, therefore, imagining or hallucinating the murders or at least his part in them. Certainly two people whose deaths he witnesses later turn up alive. It is also hinted that the brother might not be dead after all, and he may be one or both of the killers. Finally, it is possible that The Slicing Devil is both the killer and the copycat, and as such is actually investigating himself.

So far I have perhaps made Fraction sound something like a comic book version of the film Memento, and that isn’t an entirely inappropriate comparison. However, The Slicing Devil is only one of the novel’s two main sections or stories. The second is called The Manga Artist and features Kago himself, mostly in conversation with a publisher. I must admit that initially I rolled my eyes, having a particular dislike of authors appearing in their own work, but I quickly found that I enjoyed this part of Fraction immensely. What makes The Manga Artist worthwhile, and so stimulating, is not how it provides the answers to the book’s central mystery, or at least helps to tie all the threads together, but how Kago intelligently discusses the nature, limitations and possibilities of manga, both for him personally and as as art form. In the beginning, Kago states that he should move away from ero guro towards something more commercially viable. A manga artist must, of course, make his living, and drawing guts and blood, rape and murder, is not the quickest, or most certain, route to success. Moreover, he acknowledges that while violence is fun to draw there isn’t a lot else to it, indicating that it isn’t intellectually engaging enough for him.

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The central theme of The Manga Artist, and Fraction as a whole, is narrative manipulation, which is, by Kago’s definition, when an author tricks, or manipulates, the reader, rather than the characters. He admits that this is much easier with words or film, because in the former anything can be suggested without visual proof and in the latter there are things such as lighting, effects and fluid motion. Manga, however, is necessarily static and one is limited to a few boxes per page. Kago does, in any case, give some examples of how narrative manipulation in manga might be achieved, with my favourite being the idea that a group of images within a frame can look like certain, identifiable things, but without the frame they are revealed to be something else [i.e. a monster]. He also discusses how the audience accept the images within a graphic novel on face value, because their expectation is that they are being given the whole story, that they aren’t being tricked. What Kago does in The Manga Artist is cast doubt; he makes you question your assumptions, your ideas, your eyes, and ultimately how you interact with the world.

UZUMAKI BY JUNJI ITO

Words brought me here. Or, I should say, my desire to avoid them. Except that they are, of course, unavoidable. I feel them like a heavy weight that bears down upon my head, such that every crude sound my lips make is painful to me. The knitting-circle nattering of my mind is even worse. And this? What I am doing now? This is the third wall that completes my triangular prison. My run down, but secure prison. I don’t want to write, but words come, regardless. Painful and inadequate words; but if not this, then the gurgle or the drone. I sometimes wonder if the only solution is death, but death is, I fear, a canny bastard. How can one even contemplate or summon it without words? My weariness astonishes me.

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I tried to hide behind my eyes. To pass the time staring mindlessly at pictures. To feel without words. Yet I ultimately realised that I can only process and understand images through the filter of language.

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Uzumaki was part of this failed experiment. I had always searched for myself in books, but my aim this time was to escape, to escape my own narrative, my words, the words that not only define me but are, in fact, all that I am. However, the opposite occurred. I found myself in Junji Ito’s world, in his city contaminated by spirals. I understood the paranoia and the obsession of the locals. They see the spiral everywhere, in the shell of the snail, in the cochlea of the ear, in the twist of the hair, in the swirl of water and the drift of smoke.

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The book is full of grotesque images of the kind one would find in something like The Exorcist or Evil Dead. One episode, involving the reinsertion of a baby into its mother’s womb, and the drilling for blood by mosquito women, was particularly, and memorably, gruesome and unnerving. Yet part of what makes the book so impressive is that Ito’s horror works on two levels. There is the physical horror, whereby the body is manipulated, such that, for example, people are turned into snails and then often eaten; and there is also the psychological horror, the sense that, in the early stages at least, what is happening might be no more than ordinary human madness. In fact, even the most obvious examples of physical horror have a psychological element. The mosquitos, for example, with their endless buzzing, and the fear that they will penetrate the ear. There is, moreover, the spiral itself, and how Ito manages to transform this innocuous shape or pattern into something sinister, much like the way that Hitchcock did with birds.

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With the emphasis being on the visual, it is natural that the story, and the characters, are underdeveloped. The plot is episodic and it never really goes anywhere, except that the horror increases in intensity and gore. The ending is also unsatisfying, not so much because it doesn’t truly resolve anything, but because it suggests a love element that isn’t really there in the rest of the story.

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It is said of many horror films that they are morality tales. It is the bullies, the promiscuous, etc, that often make up the body count. The same is true of Uzumaki. Or, certainly, Ito at times appeared to want to make his story karmic in that way, with the bad people getting their comeuppance. Towards the middle of the book, he focusses on those who seek attention, both from the opposite sex and from their peers. One such episode ushers in Azami, Uzumaki‘s most celebrated character, who has a scar on her head that is said to make her irresistible to men. However, Ito doesn’t follow through on this idea and even if he had it isn’t sophisticated enough to make it a reason to pick up the book.

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Uzumaki is stunning in places, is worthy of the praise it has had, and the regard in which it is held, but not for anything that you would associate with conventional literature. Moreover, although my experiment failed, and it did not resolve any of my issues, or provide any answers, for the respite that it gave me, I am grateful.

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…

ILL SEEN ILL SAID BY SAMUEL BECKETT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASYLUM PIECE BY ANNA KAVAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.