escape

GOOSE OF HERMOGENES BY ITHELL COLQUHOUN

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

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

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

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

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[Landscape of Nightmare, Ithell Colquhoun 1945]

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

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

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

GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT BY JEAN RHYS

Escape. For a while this was my favourite pastime. When things went wrong, I would flee, with a fleeting moment of joy and optimism in my heart. Things were always going wrong. Of course. Because I was unstable. I gave up everything. I quit a good job. I broke up with my girlfriend. A nice vase isn’t safe on a rickety table. London had done me in. I had done London in. I needed to hide, so I escaped and I went home and I hid. This all seems funny to me now. I started a casual thing, because that was all I was capable of. I borrowed money from my brother. I ran up a debt with the bank. Student overdrafts are marvellous. So I had this casual fling, back home, in hiding. It is easier to hide in pubs and clubs. The lighting is perfect. She invited me to meet her friends, and I did, only I turned up with a bottle of whisky, of which I had already drunk three quarters. She thought it was quixotic, bohemian. You can get away with this sort of thing when you’re twenty two, and they still think you’re cute.

It lasted longer than it should have. I was no good to anyone at that time, except as perhaps the subject of an anecdote. I went back to her room one night. She had text me and asked me to come. We had both been out, in different places. I sat on her bed, and I was sure we were going to fuck. That was the point and that was what I was geared up for. But then I burst into tears. Sobbing uncontrollably. Ugly tears that contort your face and your voice until you no longer look or sound human. I’m not a crier. I very seldom cry. I was drunk, certainly, but I’m not an emotional drunk either. This isn’t exactly fun, she said. This is not what I had in mind. Well, quite. I can’t help but laugh as I write all this down. Who in their right mind would have wanted that? It was mortifying. A first-year university student. She was, at last, nose-to-nose with the unpleasant reality of what she had been dabbling in. So, anyway, we tried, but it was impossible, and so I left. And as soon as I got out of there I calmed down, as though it had all been a show. But it wasn’t that, it was because I knew this was the last time I’d see her. I had escaped again.

“My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafés where they like me and cafés where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I shall never be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.”

I am desperate to move away from writing these kind of reviews, but unfortunately I can’t help but look for myself in the books I read. Of course, I don’t always succeed, and I don’t always enjoy it when I do. Sometimes I worry that my self-obsession is out of control. Why would I want to search for myself in books like this? Maybe it’s a solidarity thing. Oh look, they are as wretched as I was, at this time or that time. I don’t, however, think I was ever as wretched as Sasha Jansen, the narrator of Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight. Small mercies, and all that. Yes, I do see some of myself in her, but it’s more like looking at my reflection in a dirty, cracked mirror. Maybe that is the point. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that no matter how low you got once upon a time, you never got that damn low. Alike, but not that alike. The novel opens with an already broken Sasha preparing to move to Paris, to, specifically, return to Paris. Escape is important to her too, as is hiding. She says so frequently.

Sasha was not born Sasha. She was born Sophia. This is also part of the escape, the hiding. She tried to reinvent herself. Sasha sounds like more fun than Sophia. Sasha is a sassy sort. Sophia sounds serious. This changing of name is also a way of breaking from her family, her parents, who named her, of course. Sasha’s parents would have preferred her to have drowned herself in the Seine, so putting some distance – literally and symbolically – between her and them makes a lot of sense. At one point in the novel Sasha dreams of a place with no exit sign. “I want the way out,” she says. Her hotel looks onto an impasse. The novel is full of this stuff. Escape, exits, hiding, dead ends. Her hotel room is dark. Her dress ‘extinguishes’ her. As does the luminol  – a barbiturate, popular in the 1930’s, that was prescribed to combat insomnia and anxiety –  she takes at night.

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[Paris in the 1930’s, photographed by Brassaï]

What is ironic about the Paris trip, which is meant to help her, is that it is probably the worst place in the world for her to be. Because hiding is not possible there. A return, as I found myself, is not an escape. She is oppressed by her memories, is forced to relive these memories as she stumbles around Paris, from one familiar place to the next. Here, she did this, my God; and there, well, there is where such and such happened. Yet Sasha’s anxiety is more complex than embarrassment or shame at having shown herself up or been shown up in certain restaurants or cafes; it goes beyond having her nose rubbed in her past experiences. Sasha’s anxiety extends to pretty much every sphere of her existence. If she goes somewhere she is convinced that people are looking at her, and talking about her, and judging her. She thinks herself old, and not attractive. Conversation, all interaction, is excruciating, for her and for the reader. I have come across very few characters that are as relentlessly terrified and lonely and unhappy as this one. She’s not a hot mess. She’s just a mess, period. The only reason she is still alive, she says, is because she doesn’t have the guts to end it all.

Yet she hasn’t given up on herself, she wants to look and feel nice. She wants new hair, a pretty dress, a flattering hat. These things don’t or won’t help, but she wants them. Not for a man, either. For herself. Men play a strange role in the novel. They seem to almost emerge out of the shadows, taking Sasha and the reader by surprise. The gigalo. The Russians. The man in the white dressing gown. Strange men approach her, and us, out of the blue. Perhaps they smell the desperation. But then I guess this kind of thing happens to women a lot in real life. You’re walking down a street, feeling lousy or great or whatever, and some guy makes himself a fact, a part of your day. I’ve always thought that must be exhausting, to be a woman and be expected to give every sleazy Tom, Dick and Harry your attention merely because they want it, to be forced to give it even in telling them to fuck off. No man knows what that is like, no matter how good-looking. The problem for Sasha is that she has no defence system against this sort of thing. She’s easily manipulated because, despite her bitterness, she, ultimately, wants to be liked, she wants company.

To state the obvious, Good Morning, Midnight is not an upbeat book. It is a book to drag through your hair. Sasha isn’t likeable. No one in it is likeable. There isn’t a single hint at redemption or possible happiness. The ending is awful; it is, in fact, the worst part. I wouldn’t, however, want to call it an authentic portrayal of serious depression, of someone staring into the abyss, because what is authentic? I shy away from the word autobiographical also, despite being aware of some of the similarities between her character and Rhys herself. To talk in that way suggests that the author simply spewed her life and experiences onto the page. No. Anyone can be depressed, anyone can be suicidal, but not everyone is talented enough to have written this book. It is important to point out that there is method here, there is artistry. There are some great lines, for example, things like “there must be the dark background to show up the bright colours.” There is style too, which I would compare to Louis-Ferdinand Celine, a man who also wrote caustic, near-plotless monologues, rife with ellipses…although Rhys’ ellipses suggest broken trains of thought, confusion, sluggishness, rather than, as with Death on Credit, recklessness, tension, and breakneck speed. As with Celine, I’m sure many will liken Good Morning, Midnight to writers like Henry Miller. But that doesn’t stand up. Miller was a publicist, a myth-maker, a self-aggrandiser. Which is part of the reason why I so dislike his work. Not everyone takes stock of their life and finds that, actually, it’s full of booze, whores and good times. And, sure, not everyone finds that it is hopeless either, but I’d rather attend a pity-party [and Sasha is absolutely self-pitying] than drink down Miller’s balls-sweat.

THE TRAIN WAS ON TIME BY HEINRICH BOLL

I have spent much of my life, from around ten or eleven years old, looking for the answer, for something that would provide relief and allow me to, not exactly reconcile myself with The Fear, but at least be able to cope with those times when it sits on my chest and holds me down and pummels me in the face. Which is most days really. For years my relationship with The Fear – which for other people may mean a number of things but which for me is a fear of dying –  has involved extreme panic attacks. During these attacks, which I would describe as being motivated by The Genuine Belief That One Day I Will Definitely Die, I will howl inhumanly, and tear at my hair, literally grab great chunks of hair and pull at them like an overzealous, inexperienced fisherman yanks at his rod when he sees his float disappear under the surface of the pond’s water. And I will scream, actually scream into the palms of my hands, and writhe and kick and squirm. When The Fear really takes hold, when I truly believed that at some point I am going to cease to exist – because it is a different thing to say it or know it than it is to truly believe it – it is like my head, my body, my Self, is going to suffer a kind of irrevocable breakdown, a Twin Towers-like collapse, and the writhing, the screaming, the kicking, etc is a sort of existential battle for survival, is my Self trading blows with The Fear. If anyone was ever to see me in this state, which they wouldn’t of course because The Fear is a canny bastard who will only ever step to a guy when he is at his most alone and vulnerable, they’d think, understandably, that I was possessed.

All of which should go some way to explaining why Heinrich Böll’s The Train Was on Time, which is, on the most basic level, the story of a young man who is absolutely certain that the train he is on is taking him to his death, has been an uncomfortable, and yet at times strangely comforting, reading experience for me. The novel is set in 1943, and features a German infantryman, Andreas, who is bound for the Eastern front [specifically Poland]. In these circumstances, having a premonition of one’s death is not exactly a flight of fancy. Indeed, Andreas had already come close to the ultimate departure once before, in Amiens, France. Unfortunately for him, the situation, for the Germans, has significantly worsened since then, so that losing the war seems likely. One must bear in mind that one’s chances of survival when on the winning side are, at best, in the balance, but when on the losing side? Well…

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[German soldiers during WW2, waiting to board a train]

To be a soldier during wartime is to be in an extraordinary predicament, because, regardless of how that war is justified, whether it be in the name of freedom or democracy or whatever, for the people who are actively involved in it, it is literally a fight for life, a battle to stay alive; it is a state of affairs whereby death isn’t simply keeping an eye on you, it is aggressively stalking your heels. To spend weeks, months, years in such a situation must be horribly taxing. Therefore, it is no surprise that soldiers are often mentally damaged by the experience; and there is certainly evidence of that where Andreas is concerned. He is obsessively focussed on certain incidents, replaying them in his mind; he worries that he isn’t praying enough, and when he does pray it is often for the Jews; he frequently wants to cry but cannot; and, as already noted, he is convinced that his death is coming, yet not at some unspecified point in time, but on a specific day, in a specific place.

“He could no longer say, no longer even think: “I don’t want to die.” As often as he tried to form the sentence he thought: I’m going to die…soon.”

For me, Böll handles all this with great sensitivity, intelligence and skill. On the surface, the book is written in the third person, but large parts of it are actually given over to Andreas’ internal monologues. In the beginning, he is terribly afraid, he panics…it is an animal reaction, a feeling that goes beyond reason. He is tormented by the word ‘soon.’  Soon. Soon. Soon. Soon. “What a terrible word,” he thinks to himself. When is soon? Soon is uncertain, it is imprecise, it is a black hole, a nothing. Like death itself. And so, almost in order to comfort himself, to be able to get a handle on death, to make it concrete, to give himself something to hold onto, he convinces himself that his death will take place on a Sunday, between Lvov and Cernauti. He makes the uncertain certain. There is something, I think, in the unknown, in nothingness, that we simply cannot bear, because, I guess, we cannot comprehend it. I have been spending time with terminally ill people recently, and there is, in my limited experience, a kind of calmness that descends when death stops being this thing that might grab you unawares, and instead comes to sit beside you.

Once death is certain, and no longer soon, Andreas’ panic subsides somewhat [which is not, by the way, the same as saying that he becomes entirely reconciled to the fate that he believes is his] and he becomes wistful and melancholy, thinking about the places he has been unable to visit, about how he will never again see the girl who serves him coffee. In this way, The Train Was on Time, as with all worthwhile literature, is universal, because we all experience the transitory nature of existence, even if we do not always link that experience to death. Whenever I am on a train I will spend some time looking out of the window, and I am always struck by a painful feeling, an understanding that I will never again see what I am seeing, that even if I take the same train, at the same time, travelling the same route, the sights will not be exactly the same. No single second of your life can ever be repeated; to all intents and purposes, you die thousands of times a day.

“That’s something no one would ever be able to understand, why I don’t take the next train back to her… why don’t I? No one would ever be able to understand that. But I’m scared of that innocence… and I love her very much, and I’m going to die, and all she’ll ever get from me now will be an official letter saying: Fallen for Greater Germany…”

For a novel so preoccupied with death it is not surprising that there is a sense of wanting to escape running through it. In addition to Andreas, there are two other major characters, Willi and a blonde officer. The three men come together when Andreas is asked if he wants to play a game of cards. Of course, for the young infantryman the game, and the company, is not about avoiding boredom, as it might be for us, but about keeping busy, taking his mind off things, off, specifically, the fact that he is likely hurtling towards his final resting place. However, death itself is also a kind of escape, or it could be viewed in that way, especially if one’s life is intolerable. In the case of Willi and the blonde officer, they could be said to be running towards war, towards death, rather than away from it, as one struggles with the break up of his marriage and the other with having once been sexually abused. In fact, Willi drinks large quantities of alcohol, which, of course, also provides an escape from reality, albeit only in the short-term.

In conclusion, I seem to recall the translator and critic Michael Hofmann once writing disparagingly of Heinrich Böll, and I seldom see his work [Böll’s] in lists of great German novels. On this basis, he probably qualifies as underrated. I do not think he ever hit the heights of someone like, say, Thomas Mann or the Austrian Robert Musil, but I have yet to be disappointed with any of his books. However, I ought to point out that, in the early stages, the transitions between third person narrative and the internal monologue are a little clunky to say the least, and that I wasn’t won over by the opening scene in which Andreas speaks to a clergyman on the platform about his desire to avoid death, but these are minor quibbles overall. The Train Was on Time, which was Böll’s first published work, written when in his early thirties, is fascinating, and often beautiful and moving.

DEATH IN ROME BY WOLFGANG KOEPPEN

I have a reputation in my family for being cold and difficult to be around. I don’t, the consensus is, ‘make any effort’ with them. And that is true. I really don’t. Don’t get me wrong, family can be a wonderful thing, if it is a safe and strong and nurturing unit; but I realised at a very young age that the idea of being tied to a bunch of people who you have nothing in common with, who are, moreover, unpleasant human beings, is absurd. Recently my mother has become involved with her sister again. This sister is, quite frankly, vile. I find the fact that she is back in my life very hard to take, but I find it even harder that she is back in my mother’s, although of course my opinion is irrelevant. The only real blessing is that my Uncle is not around, having died of cancer some years ago. You are not meant to speak ill of the dead, but it’s difficult when someone had almost no redeeming features. I was present at his funeral, when the eulogy was spoken. He liked cats we were told. And, yes, I guess he did, but he was also a violent criminal, with perverse sexual tendencies, who kept a gun behind his sofa.

So I can identify with Seigfried Pfaffrath, one of the major players in Wolfgang Koeppen’s Death in Rome. It is the 1950’s, and he has essentially fled to Rome in order to escape his family, his past, and reinvent himself as a composer. But he finds that, in reality, you can’t escape, because wherever you go you bring your experiences with you. Much of the novel is devoted to internal monologues, and even before he comes to understand that prominent members of his family are also in Rome Seigfried can think of little outside of his childhood, his hated Uncle Judejahn, his father, and the recently ended war. It is significant, I think, that he chose to become a musician, because we generally think of music as being an expression of the creator’s inner life, their soul. Seigfried’s music is described as being frightening, as ‘naked and unworthy despair.’ It especially unnerves Kurenberg’s wife [the husband being a friend of Seigfried’s] who grew up in the same area and whose father was eventually murdered by the Nazis.

“Once upon a time, this city was a home to gods, now there’s only Raphael in the Pantheon, a demigod, a darling of Apollo’s, but the corpses that joined him later are a sorry bunch, a cardinal of dubious merit, a couple of monarchs and their purblind generals, high-flying civil servants, scholars that made it into the reference books, artists of academic distinction. Who gives a damn about them?”

The Nazis, racism, and complicity all play important roles in Death in Rome. At one stage Seigfried dredges up the memory of Kurenberg asking for assistance from his father, in an attempt to save his own father-in-law. The advice that he received from Friedrich Pfaffrath, who at that time was a senior administrator, was to divorce his Jewish wife. A large part of Seigfried’s anguish is related to his not wanting to be associated with his family’s actions during the war and their ongoing Nazi sympathies. Like me, he feels tied to people who do not represent his feelings or opinions, whose behaviour he does not condone, people who, unfortunately, he will always be tied to by blood at least. He has, he states, thought about changing his name, so as to distance himself, but decided that to disappoint his family, who would not be in favour of his vocation, is a nice form of revenge; indeed, he focuses specifically on twelve tone music, which was frowned upon in his youth and was actually considered by the Nazis to be ‘degenerate.’ I found this aspect of the novel to be one of the most engaging; Koeppen did a fine job of capturing the young composer’s understandable shame, disgust, and helplessness, in being related to murders and war criminals [although I would say that he borrowed liberally from William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom in order to achieve it].

“Could I even cope with my own life? And then I thought: If Adolf and I can’t cope with life, then we should at least unite against those unscrupulous people who want to rule because they are unimaginative, against the real Pfaffraths, the real Judejahns, the real Klingspors, and perhaps we could change Germany. But even as I was thinking that, it already seemed to me that Germany was past changing, that one could only change oneself, and everyone had to do that for him or herself.”

The most imposing member of the family and, as noted, the most hated by Seigfried, is Gottlieb Judejahn, a former SS officer. He fled Germany due to a death sentence having been placed upon him for his involvement in the war, during which he had ordered the execution, and had himself killed, numerous people. As with Seigfried, a large part of the novel is also given over to Judejahn’s thoughts and feelings, and none of them are pleasant. He is an unrepentant Nazi and racist. He yearns for war, for bloodshed, for a reinvigorated, all-powerful and all-conquering Germany. In Guy de Muapassant’s Bel Ami, Georges Duroy is described as having the attitude of ‘an NCO let loose in a conquered land,’ and I think this suits Judejahn perfectly. Men are to be beaten down or brought to heel, and women [whom he frequently refers to as ‘cunt’] are to be raped or fucked [if willing]. After spending some time with Judejahn not only did I empathise with Siegfried in his hatred, but I started to understand the title of the novel. Death in Rome. It doesn’t mean dying in Rome, it means that Death has come to Rome, and his name is Judejahn, a man who stalks the pages of the book, and the city itself, like a particularly grim Grim Reaper.

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[Rome in the 1950’s]

However, as I progressed through the novel, I struggled to understand what exactly Koeppen was trying to say, specifically in relation to Judejahn. That SS men were psychopaths? Well, yeah. I mean, that’s hardly news is it? Moreover, I felt as though Judejahn is simply too cartoonishly loathsome; I was, in fact, unable to take him seriously as a human being. Yes, he is a Nazi, but I’m not convinced that he had to be so unrelentingly despicable, so much so that at times I expected him to tie a woman to some train tracks and stand to the side twirling his moustache. I am, of course, not defending the Nazis, but would simply have liked this one to be a little more nuanced as a character. Indeed, I don’t actually think it is helpful to portray them as titanically evil [not to mention miserable], without a humane thought in their head or even the merest hint of sensitivity. That, for me, almost excuses them, as though we are saying that they are or were sub-human, or not human at all. They absolutely are and were human, they had families, friends, they laughed and enjoyed themselves. That is what is so horrifying about them. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only example of Koeppen losing control of his material. I was also decidedly unimpressed with the melodramatic scene in which Adolf, Judejahn’s son, kind of befriends a starving Jewish boy, and the two swap uniforms and break bread.

In any case, I would laud Koeppen for his bravery in writing, and having published, a novel such as this so soon after the war, for reminding the world that Nazis didn’t just stop being Nazis because Hitler lost; they didn’t simply see the error of their ways, or ‘wake up’ as though coming out of a deep sleep. I think if the book says anything of note, anything really important, then that is it. People like Judejahn, who becomes a kind of Arab arms dealer, or Friedrich Pfaffrath, who becomes a legitimate mayor, may try and reinvent themselves, they may hide or escape, but their old prejudices remain. In this way, the stream of consciousness technique was entirely appropriate, because one might be able to wash the blood off one’s hands, but one’s thoughts, if we have access to them, would always reveal the true nature of the man.