‘The Tenant’ by Roland Topor

Image from publisher’s website

The Tenant, by Roland Topor, was originally published in 1964 as Le Locataire chimérique. It was made into a film by Roman Polanksi in 1976, and for many of us, at least in the English-speaking part of the world, this is our introduction to Topor’s work. I only watched the film about ten years ago and thought it was excellent, as most of Polanski’s films are, and similar in theme to his 1965 film Repulsion. When I discovered that it was based on a novel I sought out more information on the author and the novel but in typical fashion I never got round to reading it. When Valancourt Books published a new edition at the end of last year I decided the time had come to read it. However, even that was difficult as getting a copy here in the UK was a bit of a struggle. This Valancourt Books edition was published in 2020 and originally translated by Francis K. Price in 1966.

The Tenant begins with Trelkovsky looking for a new flat in Paris, having been told to leave his old flat—no reason for this is given but right from the start Trelkovsky is described as an ‘honest, polite young man in his early thirties’ who holds a steady office job so we don’t expect any foul play. The apartment consists of two gloomy rooms with peeling wallpaper but as apartments in Paris are scarce and he needs one soon he can’t afford to be too choosy. He’s not even fazed when the concierge gleefully informs him that the previous tenant, a young woman called Mlle Simone Choule, threw herself out of the window; she’s not dead but she’s in hospital and in a bad way. Trelkovsky can’t be choosy and he needs an apartment so he goes to see the owner, M. Zy, who lives in the building on a lower floor. Trelkovsky manages to haggle with Zy but he’s warned that they don’t like noise in the building, so no parties, children or animals are allowed.

Leaving the building, pleased that he’s got the apartment but worried about his position if the former tenant returns, he decides to visit Mlle Choule in hospital. One of Simone’s friends, Stella, is also visiting when Trelkovsky arrives. Simone’s face is heavily bandaged but Trelkovsky notices a missing incisor tooth. Simone has only recently come out of a coma and stares into space but when her attention is drawn to Trelkovsky and Stella she lets out a moan which builds to a scream. Time to leave. Trelkovsky and Stella go for a coffee and then to the cinema. Simone dies later that evening. Trelkovsky is ready to move out of his old apartment.

Already at this point in the novel Trelkovsky comes across as a loner, who has an active imagination and is rather finicky and straight-laced, perhaps neurotic. Throughout the novel Topor mentions times when Trelkovsky needs to urinate, fart and vomit. At one point, when walking back to his old apartment just prior to moving he’s ‘playing a game’ whereby he farts with every step only to be embarrassed when an old man frowns at him. Later on in the novel, at Stella’s flat, he has a vomiting fit—he feels disgusted with himself but at the same time he feels free.

When packing for his move to his new flat he experiences a sense of loss that he has to move from his flat, he feels that a part of his own self is contained within the walls.

He had lived so many years in this room that he still could not quite grasp the idea that now it was finished. He would never again see this place which had been the very center of his life. Others would come into it, destroy the order of things that existed now, transform these four walls into something he would not even recognize, and kill off forever any lingering assumption that a certain Monsieur Trelkovsky had lived here before. Unceremoniously, from one day to the next, he would have vanished.

So Trelkovsky moves in and before long he’s having trouble with the neighbours. When he has a house-warming party a neighbour complains of the noise, when he tries to move furniture about they bang on the floor, when he has the radio on low they bang on the walls. Trelkovsky, being timid, is worried about how he appears to his neighbours much to the amusement of his friends who think he should tell them to go to hell and mind their own business. In an amusing episode where Trelkovsky is taking out his rubbish to the communal bins he ends up spilling bits of rubbish on the stairs and when he empties out his rubbish he’s aware that his rubbish is not as ‘neat’ as the other tenants’ rubbish. He even feels ashamed about his rubbish.

When he lifted the cover of one of the trash cans, before emptying the contents of his own pail into it, he was always astonished by its neatness and order. His own trash was the most indecent collection in the entire building. Repugnant and despicable. There was no resemblance between it and the honest, day-to-day trash of the other tenants. That had a solid, respectable appearance, and his did not.

And so things start to get a little strange: people knock on his door but disappear before he can answer it, the rubbish he drops on the stairs is cleared away before he returns; he finds a canine tooth wrapped in cotton wool in a hole in the wall and just why do the people spend hours in the toilet staring at the wall—the toilet window is opposite Trelkovsky’s apartment window.

As the novel progresses Trelkovsky’s sense of paranoia grows and he feels his own identity fragmenting. He imagines that the other tenants drove Simone Choule to jump from her window and soon believes that they are trying to turn him into Simone. When he has a fever the lines between reality and paranoid fantasy become even more blurred, especially when he sees a bandaged Simone Choule through the toilet window. Later, when he is walking through the streets his fellow Parisians appear as if in a dream.

He strolled through the streets unhurriedly, observing the passing crowds. The ranks of faces filed steadily, almost rhythmically, before him, as if their owners were standing on some kind of endless, moving sidewalk. Faces with the great bulging eyes of toads; pinched and wary faces of disillusioned men; round, soft faces of abnormal children; bull necks, fishlike noses, ferret teeth. Half closing his eyes, he imagined that they were really all one face, shifting and changing like the patterns of a kaleidoscope.

As the novel progresses there’s an inevitability about the ending but Topor still has a couple of surprises up his sleeve. Topor’s brilliant novel is both creepy and amusing; it’s scary being in Trelkovsky’s head, we know he must be going mad but anyone who has lived in an apartment block will recognise some of the petty rules and the squabbles that can erupt into more.

It’s easy to see why the novel appealed to Polanksi and, having watched the film again after reading the novel, I think he did a brilliant job of putting it on the big screen—it sticks very closely to the events in the novel. Polanksi himself plays Trelkovsky and is suitably meek, nervous and tormented throughout the film. The film is visually very dark, it’s either mostly at night or in Trelkovsky’s dark, dingy flat. So, I would suggest you watch the film AND read the book; it’s up to you which one you do first.

See below for a slideshow of images from the film. n.b. this may not be viewable on all devices.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

‘Bloody Wedding in Kyiv’ by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (GLM X)

Bloody Wedding in Kyiv is based on a real person and real events, Olga, or Olha, of Kiev (b.890?-925?, d.969) though what is actually real is not known as it has been embellished in its re-telling over the centuries. Sacher-Masoch was obviously attracted to the tale of a beautiful, cruel, imperious woman exacting revenge on her husband’s murderers. I’m not going to concern myself with what is, or isn’t, true, or with any inaccuracies in the story but just concentrate on the story as a work of fiction.

Image source: publisher’s website

This edition actually comprises of two stories by two authors: Bloody Wedding of Kyiv (1866) by Sacher-Masoch and Kniahynia’s Comb(2015) by Petro Haivoronskyi. The full title is Bloody Wedding of Kyiv: Two Tales of Olha, Kniahynia of Kyivan Rus and was published by Sova Books in 2016. The translator is Svitlana Chornomorets and the beautiful cover is by Nikola Nevenov. The book also contains some illustrations of the events from The Radziwiłł Chronicle.

The story begins with Kniaz Ihor (or Igor of Kiev) having his chess game interrupted by the arrival of some diplomats from Derevlia. Ihor reluctantly agrees to see them. Their leader, Mak, asks Ihor to remove the levies that he has placed on the Derevlians claiming that they are crushing his people but Ihor, who doesn’t believe that they can’t pay him, refuses to retract the levy and threatens to collect it himself. His beautiful wife, whom Mak is besotted by, says that they shouldn’t be let off so slightly but should be tortured instead.

So Ihor goes to collect his tribute from the Derevlians. They meet and escort him to their capital, Iskorosten where he will be based. His soldiers meet resistance when they try to collect the tribute and it erupts into an uprising. This infuriates Ihor even more and when he personally goes out to assist he is confronted and killed by Maz. Ihor is buried outside Iskorosten and his troops return to Kyiv.

The Derevlians decide that it would be advantageous if Mak were to marry Olha which would bring Kyiv under their control. Also Mak is attracted to Olha. So Mak sends some diplomats by ship to Kyiv to offer Olha his hand in marriage. Olha tricks them and has them captured then they are buried alive, together with their ship, in a huge pit that has been dug. Another group of Derevlian diplomats, who are unaware of the fate of the first group, are burnt alive in a bathhouse, much to Olha’s delight. Olha then goes to meet Mak, ostensibly to marry him, but in fact to get revenge; she agrees to the marriage but it must be in Kyiv. When Olha is told that Mak is handsome she replies:

“He is handsome and noble,” added the Kniahynia, reflecting, “but his hands are awash with blood. The blood of my master, my husband – and a warrior demands revenge! I could love him, if I did not have to hate him with all my heart.”

So Mak arrives in Kyiv, prepared for marriage but curious as to what happened to his diplomats. There is a big feast and the Derevlians get drunk. When Mak approaches Olha in the wedding chamber she attacks him and with help from her guards they bind him. Meanwhile most of the Derevlians are massacred but for those that were involved in the murder of Ihor ‘inhumane tortures’ are invented. Limbs are chopped off, some are burnt alive, some buried alive.

Olha then takes up arms and completely subjugates Podillia, the land of the Derevlians. Villages are burnt and people massacred. On her return she decides on Mak’s cruel punishment.

And the cruel woman ordered that the Derevlian Kniaz’s arms and legs be severed. For the rest of his life he was to stay under her table and gather the breadcrumbs with his tongue.

Olha rules on behalf of her son, Sviatoslav, until he is old enough to rule himself. Olha is christened in 955.

The Kniahynia’s Comb by Petro Haivoronskyi is also based on Olha. In present day Ukraine some archaelogists discover a coffin from the tenth century which still contains a corpse. In the coffin there is a silver comb which has two names inscribed on it: ‘Prekrasa’ and ‘Vedmid’. ‘Pekrasa’ was Olha’s original name and ‘Vedmid’ was an early admirer of her. The story tells how Vedmid sacrificed his life to save Olha from assassination. The discovered comb appears to have some healing properties.

Bloody Wedding in Kyiv was read as part of ‘German Literature Month 10’.

10 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Sacher-Masoch, Leopold von

‘Love. The Legacy of Cain’ by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (GLM X)

The Legacy of Cain (Das Vermächtnis Kains) is an unfinished cycle of stories/novellas which was to be split into six volumes of six stories, with each concentrating on a specific theme. Only the first two volumes were completed: ‘Love’ and ‘Property’. ‘Love’ also contained a prologue, called The Wanderer (Der Wanderer). The prologue and the first three stories from the original volume are included in this Ariadne Press edition of Love. The Legacy of Cain from 2003; the other stories are Don Juan of Kolomea (Don Juan von Kolomea), The Man Who re-enlisted (Der Kapitulent) and Moonlight (Mondnacht). The original volume, Love (Liebe) was published in 1870, though some of the stories had already been published separately. The original version also included Sacher-Masoch’s most famous work, Venus in Furs (Venus im Pelz) and two other stories that aren’t included in this translated edition: Plato’s Love (Die Liebe des Plato) and Marcella (Marzella oder das Märchen vom Glück). This translation was by Michael T. O’Pecko.

The first story in this collection is the shortest, The Wanderer, being the prologue in the original version. In this story Sacher-Masoch sets out his plan for the whole cycle of stories by having the narrator, whilst out shooting in the forest with a companion, meet a religious wanderering ascetic who sees everything about modern life to be evil; he describes himself as ‘fleeing from life’ and in his long monologue he explains that he is looking forward to death and that he must die as he has lived, ‘in flight’, as we are all descendants of Cain and that ‘existence is a kind of penance’. Whilst his hunting companion has departed, the narrator is intrigued with what the wanderer has to say. The wanderer sums up his monologue with the six ‘evils’ of life, which then become the themes of the six volumes of Sacher-Masoch’s books.

“And these six things: love, property, the state, war, work, and death, are the legacy of Cain, who slew his brother and whose brother’s blood cried out to heaven, and the Lord spake to Cain: ‘You shall be cursed upon the earth and a fugitive and a vagabond.'”

As with all the stories in this collection Don Juan of Kolomea is set in Galicia (in present day Ukraine) and begins with a frame story. It begins with some travellers being waylaid in a tavern whilst they’re waiting for their papers to be checked. I found this story rather humorous and contains one of my favourite passages from the whole book.

I was soon bored, for my friend Moschku had his hands full with serving his guests with brandy and gossip, and only seldom did he hop over the bar to my table, sink his verbal claws into me, and attempt a learned conversation about politics and literature.
I was bored even without that and looked around the room.
Its basic color was green.
The frugally trimmed petroleum lamp filled the room with greenish light. Green mold lay on the walls, the great rectangular oven was lacquered green, and green moss grew out of Israel’s fieldstone floor. Green sediment in the schnaps glasses, green oxidation on the small tin measuring glasses that the peasants drank out of when they walked up and put their copper coins down on the bar. A green vegetation covered the cheese that Moschku placed in front of me, and his wife was sitting behind the oven in a yellow nightgown with bluish green flowers and rocking her pale green child. Green in the Jew’s careworn face, green around his small, restless eyes, around his thin, motionless nostrils, and in the mockingly twisted, sour corners of his mouth.

When a man enters and starts talking to the bartender’s wife, the bartender, Moschku, pulls her away from him and calls him a ‘dangerous man’. When this man ends up telling the narrator his story we expect, given the title of the story and the man’s apparent reputation, to hear a story of his love conquests, but instead we hear about his married life. It’s an amusing tale of how he was ignorant of women as a young man but fell in love with Nikolaya Senkov, whom he describes as ‘walking like a princess’. So, they fall in love, marry and are happy – for a while. The story, as told by Demetrius, or ‘Don Juan’, is in his own colloquial style as he chats with the narrator and sometimes teases him, sometimes berates him. Things start to go wrong with the marriage when they have children; when the narrator says ‘Usually a child is seen as a pledge of love’ this really tickles Demetrius and he henceforth refers to his children as his ‘pledges of love’. They now argue, grow apart, Nikolaya flirts with other men and Demetrius fools around with peasant girls. Demetrius is getting drunker as he tells his tale but by the end he claims that he and his wife get on ok now, then he departs to go visit his current lover.

The second story, The Man Who Re-enlisted begins with some poetically descriptive passages of nature and another traveller who meets up with a band of soldiers, one of whom tells us his story. This story is different than the first and told in a more straightforward style but we get comments from some of the other soldiers, who are all interested in the love story. It concerns Frinko Balaban, the ‘re-enlsited man’, and Katharina; they fell deeply in love when they were young but as both were peasants there was little chance of advancement in life, except Katharina is beautiful and catches the eye of the young master of the estate. Katharina readily ditches Balaban to marry the master and so become mistress of the estate. Balaban ends up joining the army and re-enlisting to stay away from Katharina but ends up returning to his home village after his parents die. Balaban never marries as he’s still in love with Katharina. The men talk about what Katharina did and they can all see, including Balaban, why she married the count, as Balaban explains:

“But a smart woman isn’t satisfied with a bag of money. She drags the man off to a priest.
“Do you understand me? That’s why there is such a great enmity among women, just like there is among tailors or basket-weavers. Every one of them is trying to sell her little basket as best she can. And is she wrong to do so?
“Isn’t the woman judged by who her husband is? Once a girl from the village marries a count, she’s a countess, isn’t she? Her husband’s honored position is hers, and that’s why a woman is always prouder of his titles and his wealth than the man is himself. You understand?”

And Balaban goes on to justify this mercantile nature of love, to the bemusement of the more Romantically-inclined narrator:

“A man’s love soon comes to an end, and I say that women are right to look to their interests while they can, as long as they’re young and pretty, and as long as the man’s head is on fire; a fire like that is soon extinguished, and a little woman soon becomes old.”

But we see in Moonlight, the last story, what may happen to a woman who marries for money and titles. There is rather an unusual frame story to this one in that a traveller is told a story, whilst lodging for the night, by the mistress of the house after she sleepwalks into his room at night. Olga tells the traveller, Leopold, the story of her life. Olga, a beautiful child, is destined for a ‘good’ marriage and she is brought up by her parents with the intention of marrying her off to a ‘good’ family. Mihael, an estate-owner, is attracted by her and they soon marry; Olga is whisked off to Mihael’s estate where she is soon bored with having nothing else to occupy her except her children. Her husband’s time is taken up with managing the estate and his involvement in local politics. Olga ends up falling in love with Mihael’s rather self-important friend, Vladimir, which lasts for a year before Mihael finds out and kills him in a duel. Olga and Mihael then stay together in a loveless marriage. This is almost an archetypical nineteenth century story about marriage but it’s interesting that Sacher-Masoch makes all the characters in the story believeable and even likeable; no-one is a demon, each person’s actions is understandable, instead it is the social structure of the standard marriage that, Sacher-Masoch seems to imply, is at fault.

Before reading Love I also read The Master Masochist, which is a 1968 collection of stories, each concentrating on tales of cruel, evil, domineering women, which is, of course what the author is most famous for, through the novel Venus in Furs. It’s a curious collection of tales, and I suspect the stories have been heavily edited to pick out the more salacious parts of his stories. There is a story called Girls Who Whip Men and the last story, The Female Hyena of the Hungarian Plain, has the ‘Hyena’ having a man whipped and tortured so that he bleeds upon the woman so that she can bathe in his blood. All the women wear furs and love whipping men in these stories, though they usually get their comeuppance in the end. Although in Love the women occasionally don furs and show a cruel smile, it’s all in the ‘background’, whereas the stories in The Master Masochist read more like nineteenth century soft porn—I’m intrigued just how much was altered or cut in these translations. Still, I enjoyed them in a way, they weren’t very ‘literary’ but it was interesting to see Sacher-Masoch play out his fantasies in other stories.

‘Love’ was read as part of ‘German Literature Month 10’.

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Sacher-Masoch, Leopold von

‘Grieshuus’ by Theodor Storm (GLM X)

Image from publisher’s website

Grieshuus: The Chronicle of a Family was originally published in 1884 as Zur Chronik von Grieshuus. This translation, by Denis Jackson, who sadly died earlier this year, was published by Angel Classics in 2017. The events in Storm’s novella take place in a northen Schleswig town and covers four generations of an aristocratic Junker family, roughly covering the period of the mid-seventeenth century to the early eighteenth century.

The novella begins with the narrator recalling an incident in his youth when he went out walking on the heathland and discovered a few remains and foundation stones of what he was convinced was once Grieshuus manor; after discovering a book abou the manor the narrator had tried to find out more about the manor and its inhabitants. The first book mainly concerns the twin sons of the current Junker, Hinrich and Detlev. Although quite similar when young they grow up to be quite different; Detlev is studious, whereas Hinrich prefers the outdoor life. Although they get along together quite well, the narrative in this first book ends with a violent quarrel between the two. Generally quick to temper, Hinrich’s passion soon cools, and he is then ashamed of his actions. One time, Hinrich hits a boy on the head with his heavy stick in front of a girl, Bärbe, and later on he beats his dog to death because it refuses to join in on a wolf hunt. He admits this beating to Bärbe, who is now a young woman, and vows never to do such a thing again. Of course, Hinrich and Bärbe have fallen in love, which others have noticed, including Hinrich’s father, who disapproves of the match as Bärbe is a commoner. Both Hinrich’s father and Bärbe’s father die and their funerals are held on the same day; Hinrich asks the pastor to wed himself to Bärbe at the end of her father’s funeral. But a will has been written and Grieshuus has been left to Hinrich’s brother, Detlev, who has married a more suitable woman.

I shall reveal some of the plot in the next paragraph so you may wish to skip it if you don’t want to know what happens.

Although Hinrich is happy to have married Bärbe, he resents the fact that his brother has inherited what he believes is rightfully his, as he is the older of the two. Animosity grows between the two brothers and when Detlev sends a letter to the pregnant Bärbe insinuating that their marriage is invalid, in shock she goes into a premature labour and soon dies after giving birth to a daughter. In a rage he confronts his brother and kills him. Not only has he committed murder but he has broken his solemn pledge to Bärbe not to be violent again. And so, like Cain, Hinrich disappears to wander the earth, as far as anyone knows. Book Two begins a generation later; there are more foreign troops occupying the land, a Swedish colonel, who is besotted with Henriette, marries her. Henriette is Hinrich’s daughter and within a year Rolf, Hinrich’s grandson is born. With Hinrich still absent the family move into Grieshuus.

The rest of the book is an account written by Rolf’s tutor, Caspar Bokenfield. In many ways Grieshuus is a typically nineteenth century work, concerned with families, inheritance and forbidden love affairs, but with Storm it seems much different than an English novel of the period. This is partly because it is written as a novella rather than a novel; it proceeds at a pace, but does not seem rushed; with Storm the reader needs to pay attention to every word and to slow down their reading. The double funeral scene where Hinrich marries Bärbe is wonderful, but packed with events. In under two pages we learn of the deaths of the fathers of the couple, that Hinrich’s father has left a will and of the marriage of the couple. Blink, and you might miss something important.

And when the final Lord’s Prayer had also been said, he took the deceased’s daughter in his arms in front of everyone and held her firmly until he saw the pastor striding down the path on the way to his house. ‘Come!’ he said softly to the lovely girl, such that he was overheard only by an old woman next to him who looked up at him in puzzlement. And as though each knew the other’s thoughts and were both of the same mind, they followed the pastor hand in hand to his house. ‘Would you kindly marry us, Herr Pastor,’ said the Junker, ‘so that this girl may find a home in my heart.’
    And the old priest laid his trembling hands upon their heads.

In the perceptive introduction David Artiss highlights the amount of symbolism that exists throughout the book, most of which I wouldn’t normally notice. Wolves are a constant threat to humans throughout the novella with the heathland virtually off limits because it is so dangerous. Dogs are also mentioned often. Artiss notes that Hinrich’s own character is more wild, more wolf-like at the beginning but by the end he has tamed his own nature to be more dog-like, more domesticated. But still, it is not enough to save Grieshuus from decay.

Grieshuus was the second book that I read as part of ‘German Literature Month 10’.

27 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Storm, Theodor

‘When the Time Comes’ by Josef Winkler (GLM X)

In the clay vessel where the putrid-smelling bone stock was rendered from the bones of slaughtered animals, to be painted on the horses with a black crow’s feather around the eyes & nostrils and on the belly, to protect them from the mosquitoes and horseflies…

In the clay vessel the bones of nearly everyone who dies in this novel is laid down, one on top of another, layer upon layer and rendered down to a bone-stock, a greasy, viscous liquid called a ‘pandapigl’, in the dialect of Carinthia. At the very bottom of the clay vessel lay the arm bones of a man who had his arms torn from his body during WWII. This man had, before the war, carried a life-sized statue of Jesus and, for some reason, thrown it over a waterfall; the statue had later been reclaimed by the local pastor, Balthasar Kranabeter, except for the arms. The man’s loss of his arms was seen as a just punishment for his wicked act. This man is also portrayed in a large painting, painted by the pastor, framed with fire and in which the sinner is entwined by a large snake whilst Satan pours a cup of gall down his throat. This painting is on the side of a calvary and can be viewed by the inhabitants of the town as a reminder of what awaits the blasphemer.

Image from publisher’s website

The novel begins with an event from WWII and ends with other grisly WWII scenes, such as a soldier whose body is torn in two and the top half of his body is dumped on the top of a dung heap, much to the amusement of his comrades. However, this novel is not about WWII particularly, and although it takes place in an Austrian town, or village, it is not really about that village, but is about death. This plotless novel is a non-chronological catalogue, a necrology, of the many deaths of the inhabitants of the village. Very often a character is introduced with the nature of his or her death. It is confusing at first as we are introduced to many characters, not all of them named, in fact some are just described as Maximilian’s grandmother, Maximilian’s uncle and so on, so we try to work out who’s who in relation to Maximilian, even though initially we know little about Maximilian himself.

The narrative can be confusing but Winkler’s use of repetition is often helpful in aiding our understanding. Sometimes the narrative switches from person to person but it is usually clear(ish) as long as the reader pays attention. I was never quite sure whether Maximilian alone was the ‘bone collector’ or his father, or both; maybe a second reading would be beneficial. Maximilian’s father is repeatedly introduced as ‘the ninety-year old man with the gray-flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows’ and it is not until later in the novel that we actually discover that he is called Oswald Kirchheimer—strangely, once we discover his name he becomes a more real person rather than the rather nebulous man with a ‘gray-flecked moustache’, even though we have already heard stories of his childhood, such as how he lost a finger and how he fell from a hayloft, and how he had his face pushed into some excrement by a butcher, who also liked to urinate into his sausage meat.

So many characters, so many deaths—there are deaths from heart-attacks, cancer, pneumonia, traffic accidents, fires etc., but most of all there are suicides. From the beginning we learn of the suicides of Max’s great grandmother and great-grandfather; there is also the suicide of Ludmilla Felfernig, who is taunted by some boys when she has her period and in shame, I guess, she drowns herself in the river. There is a spate of suicides in a family where three brothers end up killing themselves on separate occasions. The suicide of one of these boys, Leopold Hasslacher, is a double suicide with his friend Jonathan Steinhart, which takes up a significant portion of the book. What follows is Winkler’s description of the suicide; there is no explanation of why they did it, all we get is a description of the events. Jonathan and Leopold were seventeen year-old lovers who decided, though we do not know why, to die together.

After Jonathan, wearing only his pajamas, jumped out of his bedroom window in the middle of the night & met with Leopold, who awaited him in the garden, the two went to the stable and put a three-meter-long hemp rope in a bricklayer’s bag splattered with quicklime. On a September night, under the light of the moon, they walked with the rope up the village street, passing the calvary, not noticing the devil’s red wings, which were stretched to the point of tearing—Lucifer was sweating blood—and then up the hill of the parish house into the barn. In the empty barn full of dusty cobwebs—the parish house was unoccupied at the time—they climbed a wooden ladder to the crossbeam. The two boys tied the two ends of rope behind their ears and jumped into the emptiness, weeping and embracing, a few meters from the armless Christ who had once been rescued from a stream bed by the priest and painter of prayer cards and who now stood in the entranceway of the parish house, gasping and smelling the blood sweated out by the devil in the calvary. With their tongues out, their sexes stiff, their semen-flecked pants dripping urine, Jonathan in pajamas and Leopold in his quicklime-splattered bricklayer’s clothes, they hung in the barn of the parish house until they were found by Jonathan’s sixteen-year-old cousin, who shined the beam of his flashlight across their four dangling legs twenty-four hours later, and were cut down with a butcher’s knife by Adam the Third.

The two suicides are afterwards described by the villagers as ‘those two idiots who did away with themselves together’, but Katharina Steinhart, Jonathan’s mother, is particularly haunted by the suicide of her son. From her bedroom window she could look out over the cemetery and, with the aid of some binoculars, see her son’s grave, and dream of his resurrection and return to the family home. She is to die fifteen years later of breast cancer and is buried alongside her son.

With Katharina’s reaction to her son’s death Winkler allows a little bit of sentiment to creep into his book. That most of the book is devoid of it makes it even more effective when it does appear. The overriding effect of the novel is the inevitability of death; but do we need to be reminded of it? Maybe. Maybe we do. And did I say that Winkler has a beautiful prose style?

Two years ago I reviewed Josef Winkler’s Natura Morta for GLM VIII.

When the Time Comes was originally published as Wenn es soweit ist in 1998. This translation, by Adrian West, was first published by Contra Mundum Press in 2013.

When the Time Comes was my first contribution to 2020’s German Literature Month.

15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Winkler, Josef

‘The Brazen Head’ (1956) by John Cowper Powys

It did not take Lil-Umbra long with her fifteen-year-old legs and her slender figure to scamper down the quarter-of-a-mile avenue of over-arching elms that led due eastward from the Fortress of Roque, where she lived, to the ancient circle of Druidic stones that had come to be known as “Castrum Sanctum”.

So begins, John Cowper Powys’s novel, The Brazen Head, published in 1956 when he was 83 years old. The events in The Brazen Head take place in the year 1272; the title refers to a talking ‘brazen head’ that was invented by Friar Roger Bacon and which could supposedly answer any question put to it. The opening lines introduce us to Lil-Umbra, the daughter of Sir Mort, the Baron of Roque Castle, as she meets Peleg, a Tartar giant who is indebted to Sir Mort with saving his life during a crusade. Powys’s novels typically have a multitude of characters and The Brazen Head is no different; briefly the novel covers the inhabitants of three castles and a priory along with various visitors. Firstly there is the Manor of Roque, owned by Sir Mort, his wife, Lady Val and their children, Lil-Umbra, Tilton and John; John is about twenty-years old and studies under Roger Bacon. Secondly, there is the Castle of Lost Towers, occupied by Sir Maldung, his wife, Lady Lilt, and their beautiful daughter Lilith; both Sir Maldung and Lady Lilt appear mad and Lilith wicked. Thirdly there is Cone Castle, occupied by Baron Boncor, his wife, Lady Ulanda and their son Sir William; Raymond de Laon, who is a relative of the Baron’s is currently visiting. Fourthly, there is the Bumset Priory, run by Prior Bog, and is the current home/prison of Friar Roger Bacon.

Just in case the reader is thinking that this will be a rather tiresome historical novel we are quickly introduced to a horse, called Cheiron, that has an incipient human head forming in its neck, an old man who has discovered the consciousness of inanimate objects, and later on in the novel we are introduced to Peter Peregrinus of Picardy who carries a lodestone around with him and wants to use it to take over the world but also just seems to enjoy giving people, including Bacon, ‘magnetic shocks’ just for the hell of it—he also fantasises about getting his revenge on the human race. Lilith of Lost Towers is an odd one too, and feared by Lil-Umbra, who seems to sense Lilith’s malevolence. Lilith, though possibly evil, is extremely beautiful and inspires lust in just about every man she meets; she acts lasciviously towards Bonaventura, for example, a friar who is searching the land for heretics, and has his eyes on Bacon. Lil-Umbra fears that Lilith will try to seduce Raymond de Laon, whom Lil-Umbra is in love with. Lilith and Peregrinus seemed to be made for each other and they become a sort of Brady-Hindley couple. If Lilith is a bit cracked, then it’s no surprise because her parents are just as mad; her father, Sir Maldung, is very odd, and tries to kill both Sir Mort and Baron Boncor by arrow. Here is a description of Sir Maldung, as he interrupts a meeting between Baron Boncor and Bonaventura in the woods; this precedes Sir Maldung’s attack on Baron Boncor.

   He was interrupted by the appearance of the most amazing human figure that any of them, man or beast, had ever seen in his life before. This personage came dancing into their midst, and not one of them could take his eyes off him for a second when once he appeared. He inhaled and sucked in and tried to drain up the essence of every living soul upon that spot, whether such a soul belonged to a man or an animal or a bird or a reptile or a toad or a worm or an insect. None of the three human beings present at that cross-tack in the forest had a flicker of doubt as to who this intruder was, who thus came dancing into the midst of them.
   It was Baron Maldung himself, the Lord of Lost Towers!

And what of Bacon’s brazen head? Well, it undergoes an….invocation…I guess, as that’s the title of the chapter; this invocation involves inviting Ghosta, a Jewish servant girl who has just arrived in the priory, and who has had a presentiment to visit the friar, to straddle the brazen head with her naked genitals touching the neck, whilst they all repeat the following: Birginis, Sirginis, Flirginis, Virginis. Apparently this is of use to Bacon. This scene is portrayed on the cover of my edition by a sculpture by Patricia V. Dawson, a series of seven sculptures based on events in the novel. Bonaventura, meanwhile, considers Bacon an heretic; he intends to put a stop to his experiments and seize and destroy the brazen head; and maybe even Bacon as well.

This is certainly a wild novel, full of grotesque characters and it is amazing that a man in his eighties would write such a thing. Some of Powys’s other later novels sound even stranger than this one. Maybe it isn’t quite as consitantly crazy as I’ve made it out to be but it’s not far off and the ending is suitably chaotic and cataclysmic—you will have to read it though to find out what happens. In amongst all the weird characters and the strange goings-on there are some beautiful passages; Powys’s skills as a writer certainly didn’t deteriorate as he aged. Here’s a short passage near the end of the book as an example of the calmer prose in the book.

It may well be that what gives to the wind along that Wessex coast its indescribable mixture of vague sorrow and wild obscure joy comes from its passing, on its unpredictable path, the floating hair of so many love-lorn maidens and the wild-tossed beards of so many desolate old men.

n.b John Cowper Powys was born on 8th October 1872, 148 years ago today.

The Brazen Head was read as part of Karen’s and Simon’s 1956 Year Book Event.

9 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Powys, John Cowper

‘A Devil in Paradise’ (1956) by Henry Miller

For the 1956 Club I thought I’d carry on the Powys and Miller theme I started earlier this year. I’ve had to cheat a little with my choice of Miller’s works: although A Devil in Paradise was printed separately in 1956, it was subsequently included in Miller’s larger work of 1957, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, where it was re-titled Paradise Lost. ‘Big Sur’ is more readily available than the separate edition and it’s what I had to hand.

A Devil in Paradise is a short work, of just over a hundred pages, and the ‘devil’ in question is Conrad Moricand, born in Paris 1887. Is he a devil? Well, not really, just an annoying house-guest who becomes a leech on Miller and family, though he does divulge some unsavoury aspects of himself. Miller was first introduced to Moricand by Anaïs Nin in Paris in 1936 and his first impressions weren’t favourable. They have very little in common: Moricand was an astrologer, prissy, ascetic, whereas Miller was outspoken, gregarious and enthusiastic. Anaïs Nin had hoped to offload some of the responsibility she had for caring for Moricand onto Miller—why Nin was responsible for him in the first place is not explained. Anyway, Miller did his best to feed him and find him work. As poor as he was, Moricand had to keep up a front of respectability and affluence, much to Miller’s amusement.

What sticks in my crop about this period, when he was so desperately poor and miserable, is the air of elegance and fastidiousness which clung to him. He always seemed more like a stockbroker weathering a bad period than a man utterly without resources. The clothes he wore, all of excellent cut as well as of the best material, would obviously last another ten years, considering the care and attention he gave them. Even had they been patched, he would still have looked the well-dressed gentleman. Unlike myself, it never occurred to him to pawn or sell his clothes in order to eat. He had need of his good clothes.

Miller left Paris for Greece in June 1939 and does not hear about Moricand again until 1947 when he receives a thick, forwarded, letter from him. Moricand is living in Switzerland, and as always, is in a precarious state. Miller gets the idea to invite him over, though he’s not sure how his wife will take to it. She can see it ending badly.

Henry gets his way and he manages to raise the passage money somehow and it’s not long before Moricand has arrived in Big Sur, California. Moricand seems to be impressed at first, calling the place ‘paradise’, but a small incident, where Moricand insists that he can only use Yardley talcum powder, makes Miller realise early on that his wife had been correct—that it was a mistake to invite him to their home.

But of that instant I knew my wife was right, knew that I had made a grave mistake. In that moment I sensed the leech that Anaïs had tried to get rid of. I saw the spoiled child, the man who had never done an honest stroke of work in his life, the destitute individual who was too proud to beg openly but was not above milking a friend dry. I knew it all, felt it all, and already foresaw the end.

If it’s not the talc, then it’s the correct size paper, French cigarettes, proper eau de cologne, and then he needs codeine. Miller ends up portraying Moricand as a malingerer, sponger, drug-addict and finally a paedophile—this last one supposedly by his own admission, from a tale he tells the Millers.

So, this is an amusing and interesting character study/demolition, one we can probably all relate to, i.e. the annoying guest who just won’t leave. But it does make one wonder how much is true. I read a couple of Miller biographies decades ago but can’t remember if they say anything about Moricand. Whilst writing this review I came across a book by Karl Orend, called The Brotherhood of Fools & Simpletons: Gods and Devils in Henry Miller’s Utopia (Alyscamps Press, 2005) which appears to show Moricand’s side of the story — if anyone’s interested here’s a review of the book.

This was read as part of Simon’s and Karen’s ‘1956 Club’ Reading Group.

7 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Miller, Henry

Charles Tunnicliffe. Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné

Image from publisher’s website

Back in July 2017, when we were still free, I came across some non-fiction books by H.E. Bates (see bottom of post), two of which were illustrated by C.F. Tunnicliffe, the other one was illustrated by Agnes Miller Parker, and although they were wonderful books to read, with the illustrations being a beautiful accompaniment to Bates’s text I failed to write a blog about any of them. As soon as I’d heard of Tunnicliffe’s name I seemed to see his work everywhere, and most serendipitous of all there was an exhibition at the Royal Academy, London which ran from 11th July to 8th October 2017—I managed to visit the exhibition on 6th October. It was a bit of a disappointment really as it was just a few prints on the wall of a small room with some of the books he illustrated scattered around the place. But what really stood out was the catalogue (it’s a thick book really), which they had on display in the exhibition room and for sale in the shop. I don’t often buy art books, as I just don’t have the room to store them, but I just had to make an exception with this one as it contains over 400 beautifully reproduced illustrations from Tunnicliffe’s oeuvre. It is still in stock from the RA Shop should you wish to buy it. It was published in 2017 by Royal Academy Publications and was edited by Robert Meyrick and Harry Heuser.

RA Tunnicliffe Exhibition Oct17


The catalogue begins with quite an extensive biography of Tunnicliffe; he was an unpretentious, unassuming man, who began life working on his father’s Cheshire farm before going off to study art at the Macclesfield School of Art and then the Royal College of Art in London. The introductory section is interesting as it allows us to see a few of Tunnicliffe’s watercolours and oil portraits which are all beautifully executed; as the book focuses on his engravings and etchings it would be tempting to think that that was ‘all’ he did—the sheer quantity of work is amazing, but the quality and detail of this work is astonishing.

The bulk of the book consists of wood engravings and copper etchings, which were mostly produced commercially. Tunnicliffe started to work professionally in the late 1920s just when the demand for etchings was on the decline and Tunnicliffe’s pastoral subject matter probably seemed quite old-fashioned. These early etchings are mostly about farm life; bulls and cows, sheep-shearing, butchering, mucking-out stables etc. Tunnicliffe concentrated just as much on the mucky side of farm life as the pleasant—it’s very realistic. Although his illustrations of animals dominate the book he is just as adept with humans; pictures of a market town or a crowded horse sale are just as expertly executed as the pictures of pigs foraging or bulls fighting.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


In 1932 Tunnicliffe’s wife, Winifred, passed him a copy of Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter (1927), with the suggestion that it would be an excellent book for Charles to illustrate. He promptly sent some example illustrations to the publisher, who were a bit dismissive at first, but once Williamson had seen them and endorsed them Tunnicliffe was employed to supply twenty-four wood engravings to illustrate the book. As some of the scenes in the book involve hunting (I’d never heard of otter-hunting before), Tunnicliffe was invited to attend a hunt with Williamson. Williamson was so impressed with Tunnicliffe’s work that he was asked to illustrate four more of his books: The Old Stag and Other Hunting Stories) (1933, orig. pub. 1926); The Star-born (1933), which sounds like such an unusual book described as ‘an allegorical commentary on humanity in the wake of the First World War’; The Lone Swallows and Other Essays of Boyhood and Youth (1933, orig. pub. 1922); and The Peregrine’s Saga and Other Wild Tales (1934, orig. pub. 1923). Tunnicliffe also illustrated Williamson’s Salar-the-Salmon (1935) but only two decorative pieces are included in this book. Tunnicliffe's illustrations of Williamson's works takes up much of the book (over 90 pages) and his illustrations for Mary Priestley's A Book of Birds et al. takes up much of the rest of the book. I was surprised that his work for H.E. Bates’s books, In the Heart of the Country (1942) and The Happy Countryman (1943) isn’t included or even mentioned in this book, which just shows how prolific an artist he was if they can safely be ignored.

I have included a few sample pictures of the contents of the book in the slideshow but it’s difficult to do justice to Tunnicliffe’s work with such photographs. But you can be certain that if you enjoy perfectly executed engravings and/or illustrations of nature then you will love this book.

As the slideshow doesn’t always display I’ve included the pictures as a thumbnail gallery below.

8 Comments

Filed under Art, Tunnicliffe, Charles, Williamson, Henry

John Cowper Powys and Henry Miller

After finishing John Cowper Powys’s A Glastonbury Romance I was eager to push on with some more of his works, however, I had made some commitments to read other books so I couldn’t indulge myself quite yet. But I still couldn’t quite leave him alone; after spending a month with A Glastonbury Romance I wanted to know a little more about Powys and his world. So, I bought online, and read, as soon as it arrived, a short biography of the author by Herbert Williams. Published in 1997 by Seren (Poetry Wales Press Ltd) it is too short to be a comprehensive biography but, at 172 pages, it’s long enough to be substantial enough, and it suited my purposes.

Image source: GoodReads

John Cowper Powys’s writing career lasted more than sixty years; surprisingly he started by writing poetry, with his first book, Odes and Other Poems coming out in 1896 and his last book, except for some posthumous, unfinished works, was the novel All or Nothing in 1960. Along the way he wrote poetry, novels, philosophy, literary criticism and an autobiography. In fact whenever I read anything about J.C. Powys it’s his autobiography that is marked out as being worth reading; J.B. Priestly said that ‘this one book alone would have proved him to be a writer of genius’, though it’s curious, as Herbert Williams points out, that it contains nothing about the women in his life, not even his mother. Still, his Autobiography and many of his other books seem appealing, even some of his more bizarre books, such as Atlantis (1954), which I believe is about Odysseus discovering Atlantis, or something. His book on Rabelais, a favourite author of Powys, and his philosophy book, In Defence of Sensuality are a couple of his non-fiction works that I would like to read. It is worth noting that many of his books are published by Faber and Faber and the Powys Society recently released many of the more famous novels in kindle format.

Image source: Powys Society

I first heard of John Cowper Powys via the works of, and biographies of, Henry Miller. So I had to read this collection of letters between Henry Miller and J.C. Powys, published in 2014 by The Powys Society and edited by Jacqueline Peltier; its full title is Proteus and the Magician. The Letters of Henry Miller and John Cowper Powys. Miller initiated the correspondence in March 1950, when he was living in Big Sur, California and was in the middle of writing his book, The Books in My Life and was obviously thinking about authors who had inspired him through his life. Miller had seen Powys lecturing in New York between 1916-17 and had the impulse to talk to the man after one of his lectures only to be rather curtly treated by Powys. Still, reading these letters it is amazing to see how quickly the two authors start calling each other ‘dear John’ or ‘dearest Henry’—they quickly become best friends and their letters become quite personal at times. Having read works by both authors it is not that surprising that they both got on so well together. The only real difference is over sex; although Powys is no prude he seems to have not enjoyed sex (in a letter included in the Williams book Powys states ‘I have a horror of ‘fucking’ as it is called’), though he often claims to have had sadistic fantasies in the past and preferred masturbation to sex. In one of the letters Miller mentions the works of Sade, in reply to Powys’s previous mention of his sadistic tendencies and Powys shares the following:

No I’ve never read a line of de Sade and never shall. You see my own dominant overpowering maniacal vice was sadism and in Philadelphia (isn’t that the right place for such a thing?) I used to borrow from a friend Sadistic Books in French (he had half a library of them!) and carry them off to my lodging where I wd. read them with my knees knocking together & all my pulses going it like mad in a prolonged cerebral fury of crazy unsatisfied satisfaction.

Amusingly, Powys frequently calls himself an ‘old maid’ in his letters to Miller, but then he was approaching eighty at the beginning of the correspondence, whilst Miller was still a sprightly fifty-eight. Another topic where Powys disagreed with Miller can be seen below, which is about love—it’s rather amusing—see what you think.

O I do so agree with you in Faith being the thing! But Henry (my dear) I can’t I can’t I can’t and I won’t (even if it is the old devil himself in me!) I can’t agree with you about ‘Love‘. No no no no no no no no no no I am sick of love. It has been tried and it has failed. Jesus & Love have had their day.

It was heartening to see that they met again in 1953, when Miller visited Powys in Corwen, North Wales, and that they, and their wives, got on so well together; their visit is frequently referred to in later letters and seems to have been a joyful encounter. In one of the last letters in the volume, Henry Miller wishes Powys a happy ninetieth birthday and signs off with the following:

And now, my dear beloved John Cowper Powys, rest well, breathe lightly, and dream true.
   Henry Miller

8 Comments

Filed under Miller, Henry, Powys, John Cowper

‘A Glastonbury Romance’ by John Cowper Powys

After finishing John Cowper Powys’s 1,120 page epic, A Glastonbury Romance (AGR), which took just over a month to read, I am finding it difficult to leave Powys’s world behind. I’m reluctant to start anything new and have started reading a (slim) biography of him by Herbert Williams. I keep picking up AGR to re-read parts of it again and think to myself, “Why not read it again?”—but I will resist the urge, for now. The same thing happened after my reading of Wolf Solent and I very nearly started a re-read of that book instead of starting AGR. There is something strangely attractive about his writing; he’s not the best author and AGR is not the best book in the world, but it is very readable, at least I found it so. He’s just an unfashionable writer, unfashionable then and unfashionable now.

Powys is one, of many, authors whom I first heard about from reading Henry Miller when I was younger—others are Jean Giono, Knut Hamsun, L.F. Céline, Sherwood Anderson et al. Two of these authors, Powys and Giono, I’ve only got round to reading for the first time in recent years and both have been impressive, so far. I’m looking forward to reading more by them.

So yes, A Glastonbury Romance is a big book; but once started I was drawn into its mythologies, its many sub-plots and its strange characters, I almost forgot the size of it and only wished it were longer—the same thing has happened with my reading of Dickens and Dostoyevsky. So A Glastonbury Romance was first published in the U.S. in 1932 (and 1933 in the U.K.) three years after Wolf Solent. It won’t be any surprise to find that the bulk of the novel takes place in Glastonbury, Somerset but it begins in Northwold, Norfolk with the reading of Canon William Crow’s will; many of the family members have assembled, such as John, Mary, Philip and Elizabeth Crow, all who feature throughout the novel; Elizabeth is the daughter of Canon Crow and is the aunt of John, Mary and Philip. John has just returned from a period in France and has no real plans for the future, whereas Philip is a successful businessman from Glastonbury. Canon Crow has a surprise in store for everyone as he’s left all his estate to John Geard, who had been the Canon’s valet, secretary and in the end, his friend. Although this revelation causes initial excitement and anger, most of the characters seem to resign themselves to the decision quite quickly—maybe they were half-expecting something of this sort. John decides to walk to Glastonbury and meets a Welsh Arthurian scholar, called Owen Evans, at Stonehenge; Owen happens to be Geard’s daughter’s fiancé.

Thus did these two, the man from Wales and the man from Norfolk, enter the silent streets of the town of Glastonbury.

The rest of the book takes place within Glastonbury and its environs. Powys introduces us to multiple characters and sub-plots and tries to show us the political, philosophical, mythological, quotidian, psychological, sexual, natural life of Glastonbury (n.b. I may have missed some). The political side of Glastonbury is demonstrated by showing three main strands of political life represented by different characters or groups of characters: there is the capitalistic, industrious group represented by Philip Crow and William Zoyland; the socialists are represented by Red Robinson and Dave Spear; and the religious/mystical represented by John Geard and Mat Dekker. There are many others, some connected to these groups, some completely separate that intertwine with this narrative within the novel but there are conflicting interests for the future of Glastonbury (Britain). Crow and Zoyland are ashamed of the mystical past of Glastonbury and want to create industry, wealth and jobs; the socialists are just as ashamed of the mysticism but want to create a commune in the town; and there is Geard, who uses his newly acquired wealth to try to revive the mystical past of Glastonbury. Geard both uses and is used by the others to attempt to accomplish their aims. For instance Geard is supported by the socialist groups to become the mayor of Glastonbury as they believe he can be used to thwart Philip Crow’s industrial plans. When Geard does become mayor he decides to put on a pageant (or passion play) which ends in an amazingly chaotic mess.

John Geard is one of Powys’s brilliant characters but it’s difficult to know whether he’s genuine or a charlatan. At several points in the book Geard seems to suggest that he believes he is the manifestation of Christ; he appears to be at least a mesmeric cult leader. Physically, Geard is rather odd-looking and is described thus:

…a broad-shouldered, rather fleshy individual, without any hat, whose grizzled head under that suspended light seemed to Sam the largest human head he had ever seen. It was the head of a hydrocephalic dwarf; but in other respects its owner was not dwarfish. In other respects its owner had the normally plump, rather unpleasantly plump figure of any well-to-do-man, whose back has never been bent nor his muscles hardened by the diurnal heroism of manual labour.

Geard can work a crowd, he delivers impromptu speeches to audiences, sometimes sober, sometimes drunk and sometimes under some unknown influence. He’s enigmatic but shambolic. Later on in the novel he supposedly cures a cancer victim and during the opening ceremony of a Saxon Arch, he has had built, he seems to bring a recently-deceased boy back to life. Weird? Yes, meanwhile Sam Dekker, the son of the vicar of Glastonbury, has a vision where he sees the Grail in a barge on the canal. Maybe, even more strangely, Powys invests all creatures, indeed, all objects with a living spirit; but Powys has a special affection for trees; the following quote takes place whilst Owen Evans and his new wife, Cordelia, kiss in a wood next to two trees, a Scotch fir and a holly tree, which are also in love with each other.

In the summer when the wind stirs the trees, there is that rushing, swelling sound of masses of heavy foliage, a sound that drowns, in its full-blossomed, undulating, ocean-like murmur, the individual sorrows of trees. But across this leafless unfrequented field these two evergreens could lift to each other their sub-human voices and cry their ancient vegetation-cry, clear and strong; that cry which always seems to come from some underworld of Being, where tragedy is mitigated by a strange undying acceptance beyond the comprehension of the troubled hearts of men and women.

But it’s not all mysticism and animism, in fact, that takes up only a small part of the book; there are many affairs and other dalliances, sexual desires, repressions, sadism and murder. Owen Evans, for example, has sadistic sexual urges which he tries to purge, initially, by playing a crucified Christ at the pageant; later on in the novel he’s obsessed with witnessing a murder; but in both cases he does not really have the stomach for it as his sadistic desires turn to revulsion when realised. Powys switches about between characters, human and non-human, good and evil, at one point we are viewing events from afar and then we fall into the character’s mind. It can be disorienting but also exciting.

One of the new characters that appears in the second-half of the novel is Finn Toller. I can never resist a good description of a character, so here’s Finn:

Mr. Finn Toller in his natural condition was no engaging sight. In his present state he was a revolting object. He was a sandy-haired individual with a loose, straggly, pale-coloured beard. He gave the impression of being completely devoid of both eyebrows and eyelashes, so bleached and whitish in his case were those normal appendages to the human countenance. His mouth was always open and always slobbering, but although his whole expression was furtive and dodging, his teeth were large and strong and wolfish. Mr. Toller looked, in fact, like a man weak to the verge of imbecility who had been ironically endowed with the teeth of a strong beast of prey.

Finn is a nasty piece of work; he thinks that everyone is trying to inveigle him to murder people on their behalf. He’s quite happy to oblige, except for women and children, so when Mad Bet does indeed urge him to murder John, whom she is besotted by, he plans an attack, which forms another sub-plot to this mesmerising novel. As with many of the local characters Finn talks, and thinks, with a Somerset accent. As a little taster of some of Powys’s Somerset dialogue here are a couple of examples of Finn’s:

“I never have liked these here windy nights. These here nights be turble hummy and drummy to me pore head.”

“What I’ve got…to say, Missus, be for Mr. Robinson’s ear alone. Please allow me, Missus, for all that us poor folks have got left”—he stopped and threw a very sinister leer at Red—”be what be put in our minds by they as be book-larned and glib of tongue, like this clever Mister here, who is foreman of his Worship’s. Us poor dogs hasn’t got anything left in the world, us hasn’t, except they nice, little thoughties, they pretty thoughties, what clever ones, like Mister here, do put into we.”

By the way, the ‘nice thoughties’ are those of bludgeoning Philip Crow over the head with an iron bar. In a public speech Red Robinson had called for Philip to be ‘liquidated’, by which Finn takes that to mean that Robinson wants him bumped off; when he repeats Robinson’s words back to him with this ‘understanding’ Robinson is shocked. It’s gruesome but funny as well.

“A bloated capitalist, like ‘im, what do hexploit us poor dawgs, ought to be lickidated.” It was Mr. Toller undoubtedly who was saying that; and Red recognized his own oratorical expression, “liquidated,” the meaning of which, for the word had reached him from Bristol, had always puzzled him—though this had not prevented him from using it in his orations.

But AGR is not all dark, there are light passages as well, humour as well as seriousness, and realism as well as mysticism and a cataclysmic ending for good measure. The aspect I really like about his work is how the narrative weaves between all these. For example, there is a great section where Powys describes a murder and the narrative switches to that of some rooks flying above and some insects on the ground near the body, or in the earlier example where the narrative fades from Owen and Cordelia kissing to the ‘thoughts’ of the trees.

Throughout the novel Powys introduces us to his spiritual philosophy of the First Cause; I always find mystical or spiritual text difficult to ‘understand’ but in Powys’s hands such passages are still stimulating to read. I shall end with a couple of passages as examples.

   There is no ultimate mystery! Such a phrase is meaningless, because the reality of Being is forever changing under the primal and arbitrary will of the First Cause. The mystery of mysteries is Personality, a living Person; and there is that in Personality which is indetermined, unaccountable, changing at every second! The Hindu philosophies that dream of the One, the Eternal, as an Ultimate behind the arbitrariness of Personal Will are deluded. They are in reality—although they talk of “Spirit”—under the bondage of the idea of the body and under the bondage of the idea of physical matter as an “ultimate.”
   Apart from Personality, apart from Personal Will, there is no such “ultimate” as Matter, there is no such “ultimate” as Spirit. Beyond Life and beyond Death there is Personality, dominating both Life and Death to its own arbitrary and wilful purposes.

What mortals call Sex is only a manifestation in human life, and in animal and vegetable life, of a certain spasm, a certain delicious shudder, a certain orgasm of a purely psychic nature, which belongs to the Personality of the First Cause.

12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Powys, John Cowper