surreal

THE SHIP BY HANS HENNY JAHNN

It had been fifteen minutes since I ordered the taxi. According to the tracker on my phone it had spent that time down a dead-end street, turning slowly in circles. I considered cancelling, but with the instinctive human yearning for a reasonable explanation I convinced myself that my phone was faulty, that I was overreacting, that the fear I felt was unwarranted. When eventually the car pulled up I got in and asked the driver if he had been having mechanical problems. He told that he had been stuck at traffic lights. The lie unnerved me further. When the vehicle moved, it did so at great speed. I felt for my seatbelt, pulled it across my chest. It would not click into place. It was obstructed by something. ‘It doesn’t work,’ the driver said. I asked him to stop the car. He seemed agitated. ‘It’s fine,’ he said. ‘Stay there.’

It crossed my mind at this point that he meant me harm, and, further, that in harmful situations the victim usually waits for the terrible moment, the blow, before reacting. I was ready to act, to preempt. The driver offered me the backseat, then changed his mind. ‘Stay there, it’s fine,’ he repeated. We sped on. I wondered, with that futile human need for clarification, why he was so insistent on me being in the front of the car. A robbery? A sexual assault? I contemplated jumping, but, in compromise with myself, persuaded him to let me in the back instead. It’s either that or I get out, I stated firmly. What an absurd agreement. A few moments later we pulled up at some traffic lights. ‘My eyes,’ he said. ‘They feel itchy, I can’t see.’ He wants me to get in the front again, I thought. To check his eyes. I didn’t. I asked to be let out, and to my surprise he stopped the car.

I’ve told this story numerous times. Most think that it was nothing, that the danger was a figment of my imagination, that it was no more than dust dirtying the mirror of my mind. Sometimes I think so too. Is it not I who am mad, and not the world? I’ve asked myself that question before. Isn’t it possible, likely even, that I am viewing the world through the prism of my own insanity, and that this is the reason why everything I experience seems so peculiar, offbeat, and frightening? Is that the reasonable explanation for which I yearn? There are no demons in dark corners, they are all in my head. Yes, that is certainly a more straightforward way of looking at things. There was no maniacal taxi driver intent on hurting me, simply a taxi driver who was bad at his job; there are no trapdoors, simply doors upon which my diseased mind has imposed a sinister significance.

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The Ship was written by Hans Henny Jahnn and published in 1949. Information about the author is scarce, but the German was, I’ve read, the son of a ship’s carpenter and the grandson of a builder of ships. This, and the title of course, might lead one to expect from his work something like an ode to sailing and the sea, or even the less thrilling chapters in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, but the reality is far removed from that. The ship itself, which at the beginning of the novel is moored, and doesn’t give hint of being ready to go anywhere, is described as being of ‘unparalleled artistry.’ It was, we’re told, ‘built by a genius.’ The red sails, however, are troubling. More so is that fact of it being stationary, and of it being utilised as something of a party boat; for a ship that doesn’t drive through the water is a ‘useless enterprise,’ is, indeed, ‘an offence to society.’

These are early examples of a strangeness and unease that intensifies as the novel progresses. Some of this is due to the construction of the ship itself. The vessel is, it is revealed, equipped with microphones that allow the supercargo, a government official, to listen in to all conversations. This man is also in contact, in a way that isn’t particularly clear, with another ship that is sailing close behind and which is ready to move in on his say. Even more alarming is that the original ship appears to have secret walls and certain doors can be opened from outside even when locked. All of which gives the impression that the passengers are trapped in what is effectively a surrealist painting or on a floating fairground house of horrors. These people are further spooked by the uncertainties regarding the mission and the cargo. In short, none of them know where they are going, or why, or what is being carried.

In this way, The Ship is a a kind of mystery thriller, albeit a slow-paced one, especially when one factors in the disappearance of a young woman, and her possible murder. Indeed, it has much in common with the ‘locked room’ subgenre, as there are witnesses that see her enter the supercargo’s cabin, but none that see her leave; and yet there is no evidence of foul play when the room is searched. There is not, however, a highly trained detective on hand to unravel the mystery, only the passengers, the greater number of whom – the regular crew – are rapidly losing their minds. Of the others on board, there are three who are of particular interest. There is a captain, who is affable and competent, as long as he is dealing only with traditional captain’s business, but who would, if he were allowed, turn a blind eye to anything he couldn’t easily explain. Secondly, there is the aforementioned supercargo, who seems initially set up to be the villain. He is the only one with knowledge of the cargo and destination of the ship, and he is described as ‘devious’, ‘repulsive’, and ‘exceptional.’ Most telling, however, is his nickname as the ‘grey man’, for his character is vague, changeable. One is never sure what to make of him. Is he victim, loser, pawn or puppet-master?

The third character of note is Gustave, the missing young woman’s lover. He is the person on board who goes through the most significant changes. In the beginning, he stows away on the ship, and one can see in this a shedding of his previous identity, or a means of mentally and emotionally reinventing himself. Indeed, his relationship with Ellena, which had been so solid, falters; he ignores her, first for his new-found love of adventure and comradeship with the crew, and then in his obsession with understanding and explaining the odd nature of, and happenings on board, the ship. Yet far from arriving at any form of enlightenment, he becomes increasingly ‘befuddled.’ It is through Gustave in particular, but also notable members of the crew, that Jahnn illustrates his principle theme.

When faced with the strange or confusing, man will endeavour to look for a reasonable or logical explanation, almost as a kind of comfort blanket. However, it can happen that in searching for a simple, rational explanation one actually creates lavish fantasies, and these, in turn, can push one towards insanity. Moreover, is it also the case that a mind already in the grip of madness, when searching for the rational, will in fact create something monstrous, yet still plausible. Take, for example, the construction of the ship. Gustave refuses to accept, or may not even acknowledge the possibility, that its design is eccentric, but harmless. He sees something sinister in it, a motive. Likewise, the cargo could be anything. It is a secret, yes, but that does not mean that it is something horrifying or supernatural. Perhaps it is guns. Drugs. Or something even more banal. Yet Gustave and the crew concoct ever wilder theories, culminating in a belief that in each coffin-shaped box lies a woman, dead or alive.

CONCLUDING BY HENRY GREEN

I had intended to write this yesterday. But I went out drinking instead. This is my life now. This, apparently, is living. I spent a number of years putting people off, in order to read and write. Excuses and outright lies. I was ashamed of myself, and wished I was different. I am different now, yet not in a meaningful way. Different only in so much as I force myself to engage, while being still disengaged mentally and emotionally. I felt I had to try though, so I am trying. I spoke about Henry Green last night. I was asked, as I am always asked, because it is one sure way to make me speak, what are you reading? I had just finished Concluding. It is usually the case that my brief explanations are met with interest, be it genuine or fake. However, on this occasion the response was lukewarm, almost hostile. And it occurred to me then that Green’s body of work might just be the hardest sell in literature.

There is something singularly unexciting about Henry Green’s oeuvre when reduced to its elements. Of plot and character depth or development, there is very little, and the most immediate compensation – the lovely, awkward sentences – is not exactly crowd-pleasing. Yet Concluding, which I have read twice now, is, for my money, one of the great British novels, and I hope that what I am going to write here will give some indication as to why it is deserving of that status. I’m not holding my breath, though. The book was published in 1948, making it one of the last things the author worked on. Green himself was only 43 at the time, so it is unlikely that he felt as though his own life was coming to an end, but perhaps he did have in sight the last days of his career as there is an autumnal, elegiac quality to parts of it. In one scene, for example, he writes about ‘a glare of sunlight concerted on flat, dying leaves’ and a ‘hidden world of spiders working on its gold, the webs these made a field of wheels and spokes of wet silver.’

The central character Mr. Rock plays into this too. He is an old man, in his seventies, a once brilliant scientist, who now wears thick glasses, consistently mishears conversation due to deafness, and rises ‘with a groan.’ In fact, one way of understanding Concluding is as a novel about old age, and specifically the mistreatment, at least in Britain, of the elderly. Certainly, if one’s sympathies lay with Rock, one could argue that he is a highly intelligent, but vulnerable, man, who is preyed upon by various other, younger, characters who want to strip him of a cottage that sits close by an institute for girls; a property, moreover, which was given to him by the State in view of his former importance and contribution to science. However, one is never entirely sure of him. There are too many contrasting opinions, too much contradictory evidence.

In some quarters he is ‘well liked and respected’; and his granddaughter, in particular, idolises him. But for others he is something more sinister; he is a man ‘not of this world’, he is a ‘curious creature’. At no point in the novel does he do anything truly concerning, and yet one is at times given the impression that there may be, or have been, some form of inappropriate involvement, possibly sexual in nature, between him and one or more of the young female students of the institute. Indeed, it is even suggested that he may have had something to do with the disappearance of two girls, which is the central mystery that provides much of the novel’s momentum and tension. In this way, Concluding is very much like the work of another Henry, Henry James. As I wrote in my review of Portrait of a Lady, James’ genius was the ability to somehow hint and imply without ever outright telling you the juiciest bits of his story. There is, I wrote, a whole world beneath the surface of his work. The same could be said of Green.

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In relation to the disappearance of the girls, it is not only Rock who is fingered as a suspect in the reader’s mind. Almost all of the characters are. Everyone raises suspicion, everyone strikes you as dubious, without ever really doing anything to deserve it; except perhaps Miss Edge, the headmistress, who is the most obvious villain of the piece. In fact, one is never sure whether there has even been a crime. It’s really quite magical. There is an atmosphere of unease and strangeness throughout the novel. The girls, for example, are all called names beginning with M. They are essentially faceless, and without personality, and are often described in sexual terms, such as when reference is made to their ‘golden bare legs’ or the ‘brilliant wetness’ of their mouths. Liz, Rock’s granddaughter, is decidedly odd, having recently had a mental breakdown. Edge and Baker, who run the institute in tandem, are ‘devious’, ‘dangerous’, ‘Babylonian harlots.’ The whole cast appear to be plotting and scheming, and they all talk to each other as though they are having two entirely different conversations.

The characters aren’t all of it, either. Perhaps the most significant scene, in terms of understanding the peculiar power of the novel, and something of Green’s art, is when a doll is found dressed in institute pyjamas. One cannot help but he alarmed by it. Is it meant to represent Mary, one of the missing girls? If so, who is responsible for it? The murderer? The kidnapper? Or does it perhaps belong to her? If so, how did she lose it in the woods, and why the pyjamas? All kinds of macabre thoughts run through one’s mind, and yet it is still only a doll. It does not, in fact, signify anything, even if it does belong Mary, as we already know she is missing and we do not know for certain that she has come to any harm. The doll tells us nothing of note, but suggests all kinds of horrible things. Indeed, one spends the majority of Concluding waiting for a dead body to appear, to be stumbled upon, to float to the surface, or at least for some form of closure, but this is not a book that works in that way. There are no answers or conclusions. As Henry Green himself once wrote: “it’s not the truth that matters. It’s what’s believed.”

MOTORMAN BY DAVID OHLE

1.

Night times. Night man in the nightmare house.

The Kid blew orange smoke from wheezing mouth. The house didnotfalldown.

But he almost did.

2.

He had read Motorman. Read it twice, The Kid. It’s short on almost everything. It’s not a novel, he’d told Beagle. It has no pulse.

He thought about Moldenke, but what he thought was mysterious.

3.

“Listen up, jackass.”

“I’m listening.”

“That Moldenke,” said Beagle.

“…”

4.

That Moldenke, it is written, is puzzled, it is stated, by almost every phenomena.

He is likened, please note, to a rat.

Also: a brightly burning candle with a shortened wick, destined to burn low and give off gas.

5.

The phone rang in The Kid’s blue apartment.

“Listen, kid, give up this Moldenke business.”

“Hello? Can I help you?”

“Don’t be a jackass.”

6.

Bunce is the key; only the key is made of jelly.

And the lock is broken.

7.

With concentrated thought, The Kid tried to drown out the midnight drone, which itself was drowning out the scuttling of the night man as he ranged about the room. Bunce, he told himself, is in control. Of the lighting and of Moldenke. He tells Moldenke to do things, like put his hand in his pocket.

Reflexively, The Kid put his own hand in his pocket.

He rummaged around, and brought up air.

8.

Beagle had sent The Kid a questionnaire:

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The Kid considered these questions, unanswered.

9.

The world of Motorman, the two suns, the air.

The dying wind.

The artificial, the month, the mock war.

The resemblance to something like sky.

10.

Bunce wants blood. Or might want it.

Like the night man with Weetabix hair.

The unpinning threat of violence.

11.

The Kid called Beagle.

“Bunceresidence.”

He hung up the phone.

12.

Two days later he flicked on the TV. Beagle facing front:

“There’s a lot of weirdness, kid. A lot of odd shit. Don’t let yourself brood. Maybe you’re not meant to understand, huh? You thought of that? So there are jellymen, so what. Maybe you misdialled, huh? Maybe you got the wrong number? The wrong face in the crowd? Stop shouting out names in the hope that someone will turn around. Move on, Moldenke.”

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.

ON ELEGANCE WHILE SLEEPING BY VISCOUNT LASCANO TEGUI

April 1, 20-

I could describe it as a baby Maldoror, which is to say that there is a distinct likeness, but it lacks the teeth and claws of its bigger, nastier brother.

April 2, 20-

I realised some time ago that I must be an intense person to talk to, not because I am unfriendly, but because I am incapable of small talk. It doesn’t help that I find it so boring, and therefore lack motivation, but even when I do give it a go, when I want to be able to make small talk in order to relieve some level of social embarrassment or tension, I find that I very quickly, within seconds, run out of gas. I have no grasp of the art. And it is an art. My brother, for example, is a master. He has an astonishing ability to speak for hours without actually saying anything. I’m not even joking. It is a kind of sorcery.

Books such as this leave me similarly tongue-tied, which is to say that reviewing them requires a talent for what I would call literary small talk, for working numerous paragraphs out of limited materials. There is, for example, no plot, and there are almost no recurring characters. There is what I would call a cohesive outlook, and I can get one or two things out of that, sure, but not enough to satisfy me.

April 3, 20-

I might argue that On Elegance While Sleeping is like the Comte de Lautréamont writing The Book of Disquiet. And there is something in that, certainly. There is a sense of ennui, a kind of spiritual malaise, a downheartedness, about the book, such as when Lascano Tegui writes that the foetus has had to avoid ‘the machinations of abortion’, that the womb is ‘a series of threats’, and as such its triumph ‘can never be more than melancholy.’ Ah, but such comparisons are meaningless; they are the recourse of the most contemptible reviewers.

April 4, 20-

It is presented as the diary entries of an unnamed man. While one would not go so far as to say that the book is autobiographical, there are certainly some similarities between Viscount Lascano Tegui and his narrator. Tegui, I believe, was born in Argentina, but lived for some time in France. The book is set in France, but a number of the characters have Spanish or Latin American names.

I must not include the above paragraph, for it is painfully dull.

April 5, 20-

As a rule, I avoid reviews and introductions of books I want to read, as I don’t want to be influenced by other people’s ideas, but in this case I am tempted, simply because I want to know what on earth they found to write about it.

I want to make it clear that this isn’t a comment on the quality of the book, which I enjoyed, but on the way that my mind works, on my own limitations as a writer and as a man.   

April 6, 20-

Apparently Lascano Tegui was not a real Viscount. He gave himself the title. More writers ought to do this, for they are dreadfully boring as themselves.

April 7, 20-

There is much in the book about change, about changing identity or adopting roles. The earliest instance of this is when the young narrator’s mother dies and his father colours the boy’s hair and eyebrows black. There are, moreover, a number of references to gender confusion [although confusion isn’t the appropriate word]. Indeed, the narrator calls his own soul a boyish and a girlish one, and at one point he buys a corset and tries it on. There is even a girl, Germain Marie, who changes sex, becomes a boy, grows a beard. What is the point of all this? The narrator writes about ‘instability of character’, but this suggests something negative, while the author appears to advocate a fluidity of self [a fluidity of self? That philosophy degree of mine wasn’t wasted]. Perhaps what he is really advocating is freedom, to not be weighted down with concrete labels. Be whomever you want to be. It is an invitation.

One sees that in the author himself, of course, what with appropriating that aristocratic title of his.

April 8, 20-

He asks, ‘Why do I like women whose faces have the bony structure of sheep?’ – yes, why is that? Probably because they remind you of that ‘voluptuous’ goat you were writing about earlier in your book.

He feels closest of all to goats.

April 9, 20-

On Elegance While Sleeping is often called surreal. It is there in the blurb on the back of the book, no less. This strikes me as inexcusable laziness. There is very little in it that one would describe as bizarre, or unreal, or dream-like. It is very much grounded in reality, at times verging on the banal.

April 10, 20-

Novelists, he writes, don’t trust in the asphyxiating monotony of the everyday. Doesn’t that remind you of Pessoa?

Must not write about Pessoa.

April 11, 20-

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April 12, 20-

In Maldoror there is a theatricality, an admirable, or certainly amusing, commitment to exaggerated villainy. For example, Lautréamont writes about raping and torturing children, of wanting to slice off their cheeks with a razor. Of course, those acts, in reality, would not be admirable nor amusing, but one understands that this is a performance, that the author is not in earnest, because what he describes is so ridiculous and vaudeville. However, in Tegui’s novel, he frequently admits to being attracted to and having sex with young girls, aged thirteen or so, which is, in fact, more alarming than what we find in Maldoror.  It is not dressed up, it is matter of fact.

April 13, 20-

There are elements of the macabre in the book. As a child, he states, he dragged drowned bodies out of the seine. Disembodies arms would sail by, ‘reaching into the air, as if for help.’

Gabriela’s father lopped off his penis.

And so on.

April 14, 20

There is a focus on childhood, not only the narrator’s memories concerning his own, which dominate the book, but also in terms of what it means to be a child, what is, in other words, special about childhood as a state of being. Men, Tegui writes, don’t know how to hold on to the elegance they possessed as children. So perhaps one can understand, if not justify, the erotic interest in young girls in light of this.

April 15, 20-

Whereas in Maldoror the principle character appears to enjoy the violence and misery for its own sake, Tegui provides an interesting argument for his, or his character’s, interest in the macabre. At one point in the book the narrator states that he enjoys the news of disasters. He uses the example of the precariously balanced Tower of Pisa, and how he would check the paper each morning to see if it had fallen. He would, moreover, wonder how many fatalities there would be if it came down. Initially this seems gruesome, yet he explains that he enjoys this kind of thing because it provides a ‘moral serenity’, because he cannot bear the suspense. That is something different, of course. I have myself often hoped, wished for, something bad to happen, the worst to happen, because it would be a relief. Consider how you might feel if you suspect your partner is cheating on you. Isn’t finding concrete proof of their infidelity better than the suspense, the not knowing? Once again, one sees in Tegui’s work a strain of melancholy missing in most of the [mostly French, avant garde] books to which it is frequently compared.

April 16, 20-

I do not want to write about the anti-establishment, anti-conventional morality, anti-religious elements of the book. My brain stamps its feet, and refuses.

April 17, 20-

The best way to understand Tegui and his book is in relation to the word that he uses frequently in the text, and in his introduction. Voluptuous.

‘I write out of pure voluptuousness, I confess.’

Which, for me, means that he wrote for pleasure, to titillate himself. And this does come across in the text, especially in the rich and elegant sentences and fine imagery. Moreover, there is a devil-may-care attitude on display, an attitude of anything goes; there is a languid, laid-back approach to literature and its conventions. Plot? He shrugs. Character development? He shrugs. Something about sexy goats? Yeah, why not. Be a laugh, won’t it?