island

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.

THE INVENTION OF MOREL BY ADOLFO BIOY CASARES

I misread ‘the intimate forms of address’ as ‘the intimate forms of sadness,’ and liked it much better.

At one time I could recite word-for-word, without the book in my hand, but now, as I read it, I make mistakes. Before I found the book I spent a long time looking at photographs, studying them. I would stare at the faces and try to gauge their mood. Who amongst them were happy? Those who are smiling? That seems obvious, of course; but who can say with any certainty? You cannot know anyone but yourself. Finding the book was a relief, a welcome distraction from the photographs that were becoming an obsession for me.

Start at the beginning? There are no beginnings. The book is called La invención de Morel and was written by Adolfo Bioy Casares and first published in 1940. Whilst the loneliness is sometimes hard to bear, at least now that everyone has left no one will point out that he was a close friend of Jorge Luis Borges. Moreover, with no one here to read what I write I do not have to worry about spoilers. It is possible to read the book as an adventure story, a detective or mystery story, a ghost story, a love story, or as a philosophical investigation. I have had time enough to enjoy it in every way possible.

I sometimes misread the title of the book as The Island of Morel. This is because it is written as though it is the diary of a fugitive who lands on what he thinks is an uninhabited island. Ah, from the start you are led to believe that this is no ordinary island, that it is ‘unhealthy, sinister.’ There are three buildings; the largest, the museum, is a kind of labyrinth, with hidden rooms, and strange aquarium flooring. I must admit that in my solitude these early adventurous chapters, that are so reminiscent of Conrad and Melville and Carpentier, none of whom I have access to, and which speak of a new land and new discoveries, are a source of excitement. There is nothing for me to discover here; everything is familiar.

I am not on an island. I hope I have not given that impression. No, I am at home. They left, I did not arrive. So one could say that my situation is the reverse of what happens to the fugitive, who suddenly finds his island has been invaded by a group of people. Here is the mystery. How did they get there? The fugitive did not see or hear them arrive. Who are they and why are they there? They appear to be tourists, or holidaymakers. Eventually the narrator focuses on one of them, a woman called Faustine. It has been a long time since I have seen a woman, except in photographs. Sometimes I find a photograph that features a beautiful woman, and I dream. These dreams are really nightmares, of course.

The fugitive and Faustine is, for me, one of the world’s greatest love stories, despite the fact that Faustine does not at any stage speak to, or even acknowledge, the fugitive. I have been alone too long; my heart has turned peculiar. One of the novel’s themes is recognition. How can life have meaning if you go unrecognised, or if no one will acknowledge your existence? What purpose does life have without human contact? Of course I have given much thought to these questions. Before everyone left I often ranted and raved about our need to be acknowledged, about how we [by which I mean humanity-at-large] spent all day posting our vacuous thoughts onto the internet for just that reason: for someone to see it and validate our existence. I no longer scoff at this idea. I write this now in the same spirit, even though I know that no one will ever read it.

Have you ever been in love? Was that love always reciprocated? Unrequited love could be said to define the fugitive’s relations with Faustine. He tries to catch her attention; she ignores him. This is painful, of course; it causes him to despair. He becomes bolder, takes greater risks – for one must remember that he is a fugitive, and the police are perhaps looking for him. Could Faustine be a trap? A sting? Is she, and the rest of the gang, working for the authorities? Love makes one crazy, they say. Or they once said; they have left, as I have to keep reminding you. But the fugitive must reach out. Ah, there we are: loneliness and the yearning for human companionship. No man is an island, although he may find himself living on one. ‘Hope is the one thing I must fear,’ says the fugitive. The hope that Faustine will love him in return, is what he means, of course.

Eventually the fugitive starts to doubt his own sanity. Is Faustine really there? If so why does she not respond? He reminds the reader that he eats plants and so forth that have been known to make him hallucinate. Is he hallucinating? Adolfo – I allow myself to address him familiarly, I know his work so well – wants the reader to think about the nature of reality. Ask yourself, is what a madman sees real? Is an hallucination real? Perception is a strange beast. If something feels real to you, then it is real, it is your reality. Consider: what if I am not the last man on earth, what if it is not the case that everyone left one day without so much as a solemn wave of the hand, and that actually I am in an insane asylum or I took some super-strength narcotic and I only think I am alone in the world? Does that make me any less alone? More importantly, does it make my loneliness less acute, less painful? If Faustine does not exist, does the fugitive love her any less? The book, to my mind, is at least partly about how, no matter how many people you have around you, you are truly alone; because the only person, the only thing, you can be certain of is you.

Of course, it could be that Faustine is a ghost. Or that the fugitive is a ghost. How tragic, to be in love with a dead person, with someone who you can never, therefore, touch or reach. The narrator mentions ghosts frequently; perhaps the island is enchanted? Perhaps, perhaps. As I read the book for the first time, many ideas, many interpretations occurred to me, as you can imagine. What qualifies the work as a work of genius – if I can use so lofty a term – is that it actually becomes more moving, more beautiful, more fascinating once you know what the twist is, i.e. once you finish and return to the beginning of the book and start again. Faustine and the rest of her troupe are not ghosts, nor hallucinations, nor the result of madness [or maybe they are – but we’ll gloss over that for fear of going round in circles]; they are…

No, no, I can’t do it….I can’t spoil it for…who? How strange that certain niceties and politenesses cannot be shaken off, how one maintains certain behaviours even though there is no one around to appreciate them. Morel, more is important. Love. Faustine. I still put down the toilet seat after using it. For who? For Faustine? My own Faustine has gone, is dead, most likely.

The invention of a man called Morel.

What is Morel’s invention? Ah, well, the invention is actually twofold: first of all, it is the story that the island houses a kind of disease that will kill you within two weeks. This story was invented by Morel in order to keep people away. Second of all, there is the physical, or, if you like, mechanical invention. How very clever you are, Adolfo. How I wish they hadn’t left so that I could praise your lovely novellita to them all. The fugitive is in love with…! Isn’t it beautiful? If you were to go back and read the book, with a certain knowledge in mind, wouldn’t the scenes with the fugitive and Faustine, scenes such as when he creates a little garden for her, wouldn’t they break your heart? But, wait, there’s more…

The Invention of Morel is about death, about immortality. Yes, it is. There’s something rather amusing about that: to be immortal, you must die! Maybe my sense of humour has soured somewhat due to my isolation; one finds it hard to tell jokes to oneself; one does not often find humour in empty streets and buildings.

I have consciousness but did my mother, my brother? My Faustine? I’m losing my thread…weariness overtakes me suddenly. Thinking is all I do these days, and so I regularly overtax my brain. Being alone like this I find that I do not think better, but much, much worse, less clearly. ‘When one is alone it is impossible to be dead,’ wrote the fugitive. My favourite line in the book.

Proceed to a conclusion: the conclusion? How very happy-sad the ending of the book is.

How sad…so sad…

I cry to myself; for myself; for everyone who left.

And yet how uplifting…

To reach Faustine…faustine….faustine….

It wasn’t impossible after all.

THE SUMMER BOOK BY TOVE JANSSON

Philip Pullman called this book marvellous, beautiful, wise and added that it is also very funny. I think someone might have spiked Phil’s tea. Marvellous, wise and beautiful, yes, it is all three of those things on occasions. Very funny, though? Er. Maybe some people’s funny bones are hellishly tickled by airy Scandinavian short stories about nature and human existence, but I can’t say mine was.

Tove Jansson, it seems necessary to mention, was the Finnish author of the Moomin series of books. She was, then, primarily a writer for children. However, in the last few years her adult novels, of which The Summer Book is one, have gained greater attention and praise. I’ve always thought that the distinction between children’s fiction [not to mention young adult etc] and adult fiction an odd and irritating one. We seem obsessed with the idea that things ought to be directed or targeted, more so to sell those things than for any other reason. I mention this because there is nothing about The Summer Book, aside from the absence of white Hippo-like creatures, to mark it out from so-called kid-lit; and certainly there is nothing that makes it unsuitable for or unappreciable by children. In fact, while some adults might find it dull and uneventful, I’d wager that kids, who are way more open-minded than we are, would see something of their own experience of the world in it and dig it on that basis.

In keeping with the tone of the work, Jansson’s prose style is direct and simple. There really is nothing challenging about The Summer Book, and that could be construed as a criticism, but it is not intended as one. While I absolutely did not have the profound experience that some readers and critics would like to convince us the book is capable of providing, I did enjoy it very much. If you liked that scene in American Beauty with the plastic bag floating around on the wind, if that scene made you gulp a little bit and squeeze your partner’s hand, then you’ll probably enjoy these stories too. I am keen to avoid hyperbole in this review, because I think that leads to disappointment; too many reviews of this book give the impression of it being something it isn’t. Take it on face value for what it is: nice. There ain’t nothing wrong with nice, yo.

I often alternate between the words book and novel in my reviews; they are, for the most part, interchangeable, of course. Not here though; The Summer Book is often called a novel, but it is no such thing. It is a series of connected short stories, featuring a child, Sophia, and her Grandmother. There is absolutely no more continuity beyond that [except the island where they live, and a father who is absent in all but name]. There is no narrative, no plot, and, actually, no character.

All of the stories, or episodes, are likeable and pleasant and worth reading, but one or two stood out for me. My favourite was The Cat, which involves Sophia adopting a moggy who will not return her affection.

“It’s funny about love,” Sophia said. “The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.”
“That’s very true,” Grandmother observed. “And so what do you do?”
“You go on loving,” said Sophia threateningly. “You love harder and harder.”

Eventually she exchanges the cat for one who loves her back, who sleeps on her bed and purrs madly. Only Sophia eventually comes to realise that she can’t simply transfer her feelings from one animal to another and so wants to make the exchange again.

“It’ll be awful,” said Sophia gravely. “But it’s Moppy I love.”

The morals, the lessons learned are all very obvious and straightforward, but that is not to say that we can’t all do with being reminded of them once in a while.