gods

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.

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THE ODYSSEY BY HOMER

My parents split when I was very young. The arrangement they made between them was that my brother and I would spend the weekends with our father, but would live, during the week, with my mother. One winter, when I was ten years old, it started to snow heavily and gave no indication of stopping any time soon. It was a Sunday morning and my brother and I were due to leave dad’s and return to what, for us, was home. The snow, however, had other ideas.

To go home we had to catch two buses. The first was running late, but, otherwise, the ride, although slow, was pretty uneventful. We arrived in the centre of Sheffield sometime around one o’clock. It was then that things started to go awry. At the stop where we would usually catch the next bus, which was to take us into Rotherham, there was one already waiting. It did not, however, give the appearance of preparing to go anywhere; the engine was off and the driver was stood outside, smoking a cigarette. Being ten years old I did not want to ask the driver what was happening but I heard another potential passenger enquire as to when we would be allowed to board. ‘You won’t’ said the driver. ‘All buses have been cancelled due to the snow. I’m returning to the depot.’

At this a strange kind of panic overcame me. My brother and I were halfway between my mother’s and my dad’s, with no phone and our fare the only money in our pockets. Typically, my brother wanted to wait it out. The buses would start running again soon, he said. But I knew that wasn’t the case. The snow had settled, and heavy spidery flakes were still bombing the city. Waiting would only make it harder to walk; and walking, I knew, was inevitable.

To return to dad’s was, relatively speaking, easier; it was closer and the route was straightforward; but, as when after the split, when we were asked which parent we wanted to live with, we instinctively felt drawn to our mother, despite the inevitable hardships. And so, our decision made, we set off through the snow in the direction of home, following the route the bus would have taken. Yet time and distance, we found, are deceptive. What had taken 25 minutes on a bus, would, we thought, only take us an hour. But the bus wasn’t a young child; it wasn’t cold and tired and scared. On the bus, home had always seemed close, just around the next corner; but as we mashed through the snow it seemed impossible, unreachable; it seemed, after a couple of hours, as though it no longer existed; nothing existed, except the snow, which is all we could see.

Two or three times my brother fell down, and I, almost without stopping, dragged him to his feet, shouting encouragement into the snow. At some point night fell too; and still the heavy spidery flakes came down, punctuating the darkness. By this stage I could not have said why I was doing what I was doing; instinct had kicked in; one foot followed the other, regardless. I remember coming to a distinctive spot, a part of the journey that, by bus, always felt significant, because it meant only another five or ten minutes until we reached home. But on foot, mashing through thick boot-clinging snow, that last leg, which was up hill, seemed monstrous.

Eventually we made it, of course. As we descended the hill on the other side we were met by my mother and her then boyfriend, who, we were told, could not bear to wait any longer and had started to walk to meet us on the way. And there it was: home; which is, I found, not a physical building, but the look in my mother’s eyes as she ran to greet us.

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[Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus by Jacob Jordaens]

The point of this story is to illustrate how universal great literature is, for whenever I think back to that day, which is something that I do quite often, I am immediately reminded of The Odyssey, Homer’s immortal poem. My brother and I did not encounter any Sirens, or Lotus Eaters or Cyclops, but our walk through the snow was, in principle, a fight to get home, to overcome adversity and return to the familiar and comfortable. And, on the most basic level, this is just what The Odyssey is about. Following the war at Troy, as he sought to return to Ithica, to his wife and son, Odysseus had stumbled from one disastrous situation to the next, until the great warrior found himself entrapped on an island for seven years by Calypso, a Goddess. Eventually, with the help of Pallas Athena, he is allowed to leave; and so continues his famous, epic quest.

“Men are so quick to blame the gods: they say
that we devise their misery. But they
themselves- in their depravity- design
grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns.”

It may seem like an unusual thing to say about epic poetry, but there is a tremendous amount of dumb fun to be had when reading The Odyssey. The tricking of Polyphemus – who Odysseus gets drunk and subsequently blinds – is probably the most famous episode, but I also particularly enjoyed the beautiful witch Circe, who turns a number of the ship’s crew into pigs. To the modern reader, The Odyssey is a fantasy, having much in common with something like The Tempest or A Midsummer’s Night Dream or even fairytales; indeed, to highlight a more recent example, one can draw a number of parallels between Homer’s work and the Lord of the Rings saga. In this way, I would say that it has a broader appeal, is easier to digest, and certainly contains greater variety, than the brutal, relentless Iliad.

Despite the weird creatures, the faraway lands, the quest, and the prominence of a great hero, the heart of The Odyssey is conventional and domestic, in that it is concerned with values such as love and friendship and the importance of family. Again, this is in contrast to The Iliad, where honour and death and war are the focus. When Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, goes in search of news of his father he is given hospitality from a number of Odysseus’ friends, and their sons and daughters and wives, who are willing to do all they can to help him. Penelope, meanwhile, is, even after a number of years, and not knowing whether her husband is alive or dead, still resisting the suitors who have almost taken over her house. In fact, she even plays a trick on them, promising to take a new husband only after she has finished weaving a shroud, while unpicking it each night to make sure that she never does.

“Now from his breast into the eyes the ache
of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms,
longed for as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
spent in rough water where his ship went down
under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea.
Few men can keep alive through a big serf
to crawl, clotted with brine, on kindly beaches
in joy, in joy, knowing the abyss behind:
and so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband,
her white arms round him pressed as though forever.”

One thing I find refreshing about Greek myths, and by extension Homer’s work, is that women play such a strong role. It’s funny how hundreds of years later women would be seen as delicate, incapable creatures who need protecting by being locked up at home, and yet here their position, and personalities, are not dissimilar to the men’s. For example, Goddesses are worshipped and invoked just as much as God’s, and it is not the case that these Goddesses are concerned with flower arranging and children, they get their hands dirty, intervening and interacting with what is happening on earth, be that war or whatever. In fact, although The Odyssey is certainly Odysseus’ story [the clue is in the title], the second most important character is the grey-eyed Pallas Athena. Moreover, as noted earlier, Penelope, although upset that her husband is lost or dead, is no sap, while, conversely, the mighty Odysseus frequently bursts into tears.

If you have read any of my reviews you will likely know that, when approaching translated literature, choosing the best translation is, for me, of paramount importance; so much so that there are books that I haven’t enjoyed in one translation, and later really liked in another. The question of which translation one should read becomes particularly critical when one is concerned with poetry. Part of me, I must admit, is resistant to the idea of translated poetry altogether, because I just cannot see how it can possibly bear any great or significant resemblance to the original. Yet I think this is less of a danger with epic, narrative poetry; with something like The Odyssey, the translator has a story to tell, and as long as he or she tells it faithfully they have done at least half the job right.

For The Iliad I chose Robert Fagles’ critically acclaimed version. The reason for this is that I felt that his robust [you might uncharitably call it inelegant] style suited the material. I did, however, cringe frequently at some of his phrasing and word choices, which were far too modern for my taste. Therefore, for The Odyssey I went with Robert Fitzgerald, who, I believe, had a stronger ear for poetry and a more subtle touch. Yet, having said that, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Fitzgerald’s rendering to the first time reader of Homer’s work. I think the popularity of Fagles’ translations has much to do with how accessible they are; the truth is that most people don’t care about the use of modern language in an ancient Greek text; in fact, the average reader would likely prefer language that is recognisable to them.

In comparison, Firtzgerald’s rendering is more of a challenge. Don’t get me wrong, his work is still readable and is, for the most part, easy enough to get a handle on, but some of his choices are potentially alienating or disorientating. For example, character and place names are spelt in a way that most of us will not recognise [Calypso is Kalypso, Circe is Kirke, Ithica is Ithika etc]. In most cases, deciphering these is, as you call tell by my examples, not especially difficult, but occasionally the spellings are outright baffling. The worst I can recall is Sirens, which in Fitzgerald’s version is Seirenes. When one encounters something like this, one is, unfortunately, taken out of the text as you try and work out what or whom exactly we are dealing with.

However, as previously hinted, the strength of his version is that it stands up as poetry. I can’t, of course, say that it is the best or most successful version, not having read them all, but it is consistently smooth, beautiful and stirring. There’s one line in it, which is repeated throughout the text, about the dawn’s ‘finger tips of rose,’ that I was particularly taken with, and which, moreover, I have seen elsewhere translated in such disappointing and clunky ways.

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[Odysseus and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper]

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the poem is the sophisticated structure. I expected that it would be episodic, and it is, but I did not anticipate a non-linear narrative. The Odyssey begins in media res, with significant proportion of the action already in the past. As we enter the story, Odysseus has been missing for many years, the suitors are surrounding his house in an effort to take his wife, and his son is about to begin his own journey for news of his father. Therefore, for quite some time the main character is off-stage, so to speak. When he does appear, he spends much of his time recounting the details of his life following the war in Troy. So, we only have access to the most exciting, and the most famous, episodes as flashbacks.

What this highlights is the important role that oral story-telling plays in the text. Throughout, Odysseus and many other characters tell tales, be they fictional or true, as a way or bonding or sharing information or entertaining each other, in the same way that we do now. I have always found this interesting, this seemingly universal, immortal desire to give voice to, and share, stories with other people. It is something, as the rambling introductions to my reviews attest, that I feel compelled to do myself. At one stage, Athena turns Odysseus into a beggar, and the hero creates for him an entire history, fleshing out and breathing life into the character he is playing. So there you have it: a book that shouts loudly about home and family and so on, but which, in a more subtle fashion, is equally concerned with, as well as being itself an example of, the joy and importance of communication and human interaction.

METAMORPHOSES BY OVID

Certain philosophers, including John Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, have claimed that one has to accept, to confront, the fact that one has been abandoned, and, as such, one has to take responsibility for who you are and what you do. I’ve always liked that idea, have lived my life that way as much as possible, and yet I find religious belief, which certainly allows for individual responsibility but which is the anthesis of a philosophy of abandonment, incredibly attractive. For many of the existentialists religious belief is bad faith, in that it is to accept, and submit to, an authority outside of yourself which provides guidelines [and demands] for your behaviour. Well, I’m not a believer, and never have been, but I happen to find that unfortunate. Bad faith it might be, but it would be a relief, would ease a lot of my anguish, if I could look at the world around me and see a plan, could envisage a plan for myself. I can’t though, I just don’t feel it; and then I read Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Metamorphoses is an epic poem, comprising fifteen books and over 250 myths [thanks wiki]; it is an attempt to chart the creation and progress of the world, in much the same way as the Old Testament does. Now, I’m certainly not saying that I believe, in the strictest sense of that word, the stories that Ovid laid down, all those Gods and shape-shifting beings, but the book did have a profound effect on me. Genuinely so. I think sometimes, and I’m guilty of it too, that reviewers give the impression of being permanently enraptured. Not every book we read is life-changing, or perfect or a profound and beautiful experience; some are though, and this kind of feels like one. As a result of my reading I’ve started to look at the world a little differently. Ovid’s poem explained the world to me, presented the world to me, in a new and exciting way; and, suddenly, it is a richer place.

Behind each of the things and creatures Ovid touches upon there is a story, and as I came upon these things in my every day life I was reminded of the applicable tale and felt, yeah, happier, somewhat comforted. It may be naíve, but it struck me that this must be what it’s like to be a religious believer: everything makes sense, everything is as it ought to be. Take one of my favourites, the story of Arachne. Arachne was involved in a weaving contest with Pallas Athena. At the conclusion of the contest Arachne hangs herself; Pallas Athena transforms the girl into a spider, her nimble fingers now her legs, to hang forever more. As a result of this story I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eye one without thinking of Arachne, without seeing her in it; of course, I’ll still  murder the multi-eyed motherfuckers, but my experience has [like Arachne herself] been transformed, and so I’ll perhaps do it with a heavier heart; I even feel a little less frightened of them.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that the only way to relate to the book is as a pseudo-spiritual experience. Metamorphoses is, more than anything else, great fun. As the title suggests, the primary theme is one of change or transformation, and within the pages we encounter people becoming trees, birds, bears, and rivers, to name a few; then there are the nymphs, naiads, and dragons etc. A great number of the stories or episodes are parables, yes, but one could justifiably approach them as fairytales. Obviously, some are more interesting than others, but all are short and readable; if you were to open the book at random I’d wager that you’d find something to entertain you within a couple of pages. I was particularly taken with Phaeton and his dodgy driving of his father’s [the sun god Helios] chariot of light [he loses control and burns half the earth], Tereus’ kidnapping of his wife’s sister [don’t worry, his wife gets payback], and Echo’s unrequited pursuit of Narscissus [yeah, so that wasn’t doomed, was it? You’ve got great taste in men, love].

It is, it’s worth noting, a pretty lusty book too, with lots of gettin’ it on between Gods and Gods, and Gods and mortals, and just about everyone and everything else. On this point, this is apparently what happens to you if you trick your father into bumping uglies with you:

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Oh Myrrha, you dirty so-and-so.

There is also, by the way, a lot of rape to navigate, which, as is always the case, I could have done without, but which is, thankfully, never graphic. The women aren’t all mindless airheads either; Juno, for example, is one of the strongest, certainly most wicked, characters; her stock response to her husband’s [Jupiter] indefatigable infidelity is to try and ruin the girl[s] and, usually, the resulting offspring. Her behaviour would make Glen Close blush and could provide inspiration for a whole series of Japanese revenge films.

If I have any criticisms of the work they would be structural ones. In the translation I read the individual stories are titled, yet it is clear that Ovid intended his Metamorphoses to be read as one long continuous poem, that it is essentially meant to work as a complete piece. However, some of the connections between the episodes are tenuous at best and this may irritate readers who want a more straightforward narrative. Ovid will often tie one story to another by saying something along the lines of well, that happened over there, but over here something equally interesting was going on or after presenting the story of, say, Perseus he will write Perseus’ nephew had a friend, whose uncle knew someone who had a goat. Well, that goat was owned by… as an introduction to the next, and so it’s sometimes a bit like he was playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon. I didn’t mind this though, the [sometimes amusingly unsuccessful] attempts to link the individual stories made the book more engaging, satisfied that part of me that usually doesn’t enjoy short stories. On a side note, one could also perhaps credit Ovid with inventing the idea of stories-within-stories, as sometimes he would begin by telling the tale of one character only for that character to then embark on another story entirely.

I don’t have any other negative comments to make, except to say that there is some repetition. My biggest regret was reading Stanley Lombardo’s translation, which is just awful. His word order is at times odd and confusing, although I guess he would claim that Ovid’s is too. What I do know is that Ovid was not responsible for the use of slangy contemporary phrases, such as it got on his nerves or hot under the collar [these are my examples; I can’t remember any of Lombardo’s off the top of my head, but they are exactly the kind of phrases he regularly employs]. I was genuinely concerned that Jupiter was going to tell someone to not have a cow, man. Or announce that the girl he has just spied is well fit, or that the lyre playing is dope. Of course, some people may prefer modernised language, but, quite frankly, fuck ’em. Other than that, Metamorphoses is very highly recommended. Get Allen Mandelbaum’s translation if you can though. 

THE ILIAD BY HOMER

Sing, O Muses, of an epic poem,
Homer-written, but Fagles-translated;
Sing of the illustrious Iliad. And, regarding
The content, content competent readers
With a brief but brilliant description,
Of how Achaeans and Trojans
Became embroiled in bloody battle;
Hot-Helen was the cause,
Whom preening-Paris had taken
From her red-haired husband Menelaus.
At first it seemed that war may be averted,
When Paris proposed a pact:
He will fight mighty Menelaus, one-on-one;
The victor’s prize will be hot-Helen,
And no more blood need be shed.
But puny-Paris was pulverized, so fled,
With God-help, and took hot-Helen to bed.
And yet war was still not assured,
Until Menelaus was arrow-injured,
As he stood apart from the Achaean army.
In Pandarus’ mortal ear a God had whispered,
Convincing him to launch a swift shot.
So, war it was to be; the wrenching work of war!
King of the Achaeans, Agamemnon,
Would no longer be placated.

Homer-written, Fagles-translated;
Of the illustrious Iliad, pray sing.
An ancient epic, but is it also ageless?
Many men fight over women to this day,
But most wars do not start this way.
Nor do we believe in a gaggle of garrulous Gods
Who intervene. So, what other theme,
O mellifluent Muses, can you sing of?
The perils of pride-pricked? Or how
Honour beats hard in the hearts of headstrong men?
Or the limitless lust for power, perhaps?
Or supreme bravery in extreme adversity?
All these and many more,
But most of all the horror of war!
[Which is sadly still so relevant].
To say The Iliad is very violent
Is a gross understatement,
For there is blood and gore galore,
And deaths described in grisly detail.
Spear-spiked Trojans and Achaeans
Fatally fall in great and gruesome number;
Sword-swings cleave many men in two;
Tongues are mouth-cut and arms are torn
From their sweat-soaked and swollen-sockets,
As the toiling tribes wage war for Troy.

Hard to remember, in name and number,
The people who populate the poem.
But there are some whose roles
Are bigger than others, and some
Whose names are more well-known.
Which renowned men will we meet with
In the ancient epic Iliad? Achilles
[He of famous fatal weakness] and
Odysseus, long absent from home,
Where suitors surround his spouse.
There’s the already-acknowledged Agamemnon,
Who’s life his wife’s lover takes upon his return,
And Helen of Troy, the celebrated beauty,
Who brings the bloody battle on.
Great Gods and Goddesses, The Iliad’s got plenty.
Apollo and Athena are in attendance, and
Powerful Poseidon, and cruel Zeus, kin of Cronus,
And angry Ares, even amorous Aphrodite.
All these immortals, and more,
Direct, and influence, the course of war,
Like masters of puppets, or players of chess
From Olympian heights or dark-sea depths.

Conclude, O Muses, with a verse dedicated
To eminent editions and treasured translations.
Sing of Fitzgerald’s and Fagles’ Iliads’:
The two most prominent and people-pleasing versions.
The former’s form is more precise,
And his style more elegantly poetic;
While the latte’s lines are looser,
With no set scheme or meter,
And his style more bold and brusque.
On this occasion famous-Fagles
Was the choice of choosy-P, who thought
His rough and rugged rendering well-suited
To serving the sometimes sordid subject matter.
Despite many trite modern phrases,
Picky-[P] was surprisingly impressed,
By famous Fagles’ fine translation
The readability, the almost-rhymes,
The random-rhymes,
And the abundant alliteration.