Category Archives: Fiction

‘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.


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.


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.

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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.


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


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.


Filed under Fiction, Powys, John Cowper

‘The Women at the Pump’ by Knut Hamsun (1920 Club)

When I first started looking for books from 1920 I knew I would have to read Knut Hamsun’s The Women at the Pump. Other possibilities would have been re-reads of Sherwood Anderson’s Poor White and Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, both which I enjoyed reading eons ago. Another re-read choice would have been some H.P. Lovecraft stories, such as The Statement of Randolph Carter—but I read some Lovecraft for our 1924 Club Year so decided against it this time. So, The Women at the Pump was published in 1920 (of course) which was the year that Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for Literature. His superb book, The Growth of the Soil, which was published in 1917, was cited as being instrumental in the prize being awarded to him. As is often the case with authors I like, he had some dodgy political views, such as supporting the Nazi regime; he even gave Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal as a gift. I don’t actually know much about his life but would certainly like to read a biography; I know of at least one that is available in English—Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun by Robert Ferguson. My copy of The Women at the Pump was published by Souvenir Books (now owned by Profile Books), who have several of Hamsun’s books available, and was translated by Oliver & Gunnvor Stallybrass in 1978.

The events of The Women at the Pump take place in some unnamed Norwegian coastal town in some undefined period presumably before WWI, as the war is not mentioned or even hinted at. There is little plot, as such, which seems to annoy some people (at least it does on GoodReads), but a lot of character studies, which I always enjoy. Throughout the book the focus switches between many of the inhabitants of the town, but the main focus is on Oliver Andersen and his family. But there is also Jørgen the fisherman; Johnsen of the Wharf, a double Consul; Carlsen the blacksmith; Mattis the carpenter; Olaus, a loafer; and a doctor, a postmaster etc. And as the book progresses there are sons and daughters of these characters, and more. I must admit I love this type of book with a multitude of characters. So Oliver Andersen (who it should be noted is blue-eyed) gets a job on a ship, called Fia, which is owned by the consul C.A. Johnsen. It is, however, only a few months before Oliver returns home crippled; he’s lost a leg and claims that he was crushed under a barrel of whale oil. Life is tough on his return; he lives with his mother, and his girlfriend, Petra, is unsure whether to resume their relationship.

As we get to know Oliver over the course of the novel we see that he’s a bit of a rascal, and a scallywag, but overall he’s a good(ish) sort. He’s not violent, or a drinker, or a gambler; he loves his wife and his children and he has a bit of a sweet tooth; but he’s not adverse to lying, or breaking the law if it might benefit him, and his family, in some way. We get the feeling that Hamsun has a bit of a soft spot for Oliver. Here are a couple of descriptions of his character, which mostly appear near the end of the novel.

Now as before, as nearly always these last twenty years, Oliver’s life is partly within the law, partly on the borderline, occasionally a little outside.

Oliver was made of sterner stuff, less delicate and sensitive, more carefree, in short, the right human clay; he could endure life. Who had taken a harder knock than he? But a tiny upward turn in his fortunes, a lucky theft, a successful swindle, restored him to contentment.

Oliver no longer begins anything anywhere, beginning things is not his business, he stays where he is put, uncrushed by human thought, unconverted by the women at the pump. Naturally life, fate, and God are damned high-class questions and very necessary questions, but they will be solved by people who have learned to read and write; what use are they to Oliver? If a brain like his starts busying itself with the why and the wherefore, it will go into a tailspin, and then Oliver will be unable to continue with his work, to enjoy his food and candy, to be fit for what he is. Leave getting above oneself to others!

Oliver has ups and downs throughout his life, and his relationship with his wife, Petra, is stormy. At times they seem to hate each other. Here’s Petra’s view of him at one such low point.

Petra doesn’t answer, doesn’t look at him, she is so weary of his talk and of his person. Oh, that lump of fat in the chair—it breathes, it wears clothes that someone has sewn, it has buttons on its clothes; on its upper end it has a hat, tilted at an angle. She knows it all inside out, the sprawling wooden leg that projects into the narrow room and blocks the way, his conversation, all the lies, the bombast, the voice that grows more and more like a woman’s, the lusterless, watery-blue gaze, the mouth that is perpetually moist. Year by year he seems to be going to pieces; only his appetite remains intact. And there isn’t always enough to eat.

Still, Oliver and Petra have two boys, Frank and Abel, and three girls. Throughout the book it is clear that there is more to Oliver’s injury than he lets on and although it’s pretty clear to the reader what the problem is, the rest of the characters seem oblivious, and at times Oliver and Petra themselves seem unaware.

What is especially enjoyable about this book is the humour and the compassion that Hamsun has for the characters, indeed all the characters; there is no-one that is wholly bad or contemptible, no-one that the reader ends up hating. The postmaster can’t stop talking about metaphysics to uninterested listeners, the doctor is a misanthrope, Oliver’s son Frank is studious but dull, his other son, Abel, is in love since an early age with Little Lydia, who is totally uninterested in him, Oliver has a long-lasting feud with the carpenter over some doors and much, much more. And the women at the pump? Well, we’re never allowed to listen in on them directly but we do hear, throughout the book, what is being discussed by the women at the pump and what they think. Anything that is worth knowing is known by the women at the pump and known before anyone else.

Human beings push against each other and trample on each other; some sink exhausted to the ground and serve as a bridge for others, some perish—they are the ones least fitted for coping with the push, and they perish. That can’t be helped. But the others flourish and blossom. Such is life’s immortality. All this, mind you, they knew at the pump.


Filed under Fiction, Hamsun, Knut

‘Timbuktu’ by Paul Auster

I recently read Paul Auster’s brilliant novel, The Music of Chance, as my contribution to AnnaBookBel’s Paul Auster Reading Week. It was fun reading all the blog posts on Auster’s works, some I’d read, but some I hadn’t. Timbuktu was one of the few of Auster’s earlier novels that I hadn’t read so I was very pleased to find that I won it as part of Annabel’s giveaway at the end of the Auster week. I was between books when it arrived, I read the first line, and as is often the case with Auster’s works, I couldn’t stop.

Mr. Bones knew that Willy wasn’t long for this world. The cough had been inside him for over six months, and by now there wasn’t a chance in hell that he would ever get rid of it.

Mr. Bones is a dog, Willy’s pet and companion. Willy’s full name is Willy G. Christmas and he is on his last legs. They have recently arrived in Baltimore in search of Willy’s old teacher, Bea Swanson, the only problem is that he’s not sure where she lives, or if he can make it there. Willy has two things to accomplish before he dies, firstly he needs to find a new owner for Mr. Bones and secondly he needs to find someone to whom he can bequeath his only valuable possessions, his manuscripts; although Willy has been homeless since the death of his mother, he is also a writer, and Bea is the only person he trusts. That he fails in both of these goals is typical of Willy.

Willy’s sidekick was a hodgepodge of genetic strains – part collie, part Labrador, part spaniel, part canine puzzle – and to make matters worse, there were burrs protruding from his ragged coat, bad smells emanating from his mouth, and a perpetual bloodshot sadness lurking in his eyes.

The story is told from Mr. Bones’ viewpoint; as Willy likes to talk and Mr. Bones likes to listen we find out about Willy’s life. Born in 1947 (the same year as Auster) as William Gurevitch, he was brought up in Brooklyn by his Polish immigrant parents. When his father died just after Willy’s twelfth birthday he was brought up by his mother alone. At university Willy took a lot of drugs and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. After he was released he switched from drugs to alcohol, which stabilised him a little, and he then had the experience that changed his life: one time whilst watching late-night T.V. he had a conversation with an on-screen Santa Claus, who convinced Willy to ‘ask nothing from the world and give it only love in return.’ Willy changed his name and had a tattoo of Santa on his right arm. His relationship with his mother was strained and it was at this point that Willy began to spend the summer months wandering around the country only to return to his mother’s apartment in the winter. He also resumed his writing. But the years went by and Willy felt the need of a dog, both for companion and protection. So he got Mr. Bones. Mr. Bones loved Willy and Willy loved Mr. Bones. Indeed, Willy believed that Mr. Bones’ body contained the soul of an angel.

When the narrative turns back to the present, an exhausted Willy has come to a stop on the steps of a building. Willy enters into a brilliant monologue about his life and then falls asleep. Mr. Bones curls up against Willy and falls asleep, then events get a little confusing.

That was when he dreamed the dream in which he saw Willy die. It began with the two of them waking up, opening their eyes and emerging from the sleep they had just fallen into – which was the sleep they were in now, the same one in which Mr. Bones was dreaming the dream.

Ok, it’s a dream within a dream, which is nothing new, but it’s done well, and when they both wake up events follow a similar course as the dream, with Mr. Bones fleeing from Willy, whom he believes to be dead, and fleeing from some policemen, whom he believes will take him into a ‘shelter’, something which Willy has warned him about. Mr. Bones now has to make his own way in the world and the narrative becomes a bit more of an adventure story.

Spoiler alert: I’m going to reveal the ending in this paragraph.
Mr. Bones has some bad times and some good times but as we get near the end of the book we realise it’s not going to end well for him. After being adopted by a loving family he is then left at a kennel whilst they go on holiday, he escapes, only to find himself out in the snow, ill and exhausted, much like Willy was earlier. He ends up running into oncoming traffic to commit suicide—an ending very similar to the ending of The Music of Chance. It made me think that both novels have similar themes: aimless/lost wandering; characters with a lack of purpose; the death of a close companion or friend; being trapped in an almost inescapable situation; escaping from situation only to commit suicide. This is not meant as criticism of Auster as I often like writers who work away on their obsessions, each time from a slightly different angle, but I probably wouldn’t have noticed the similarity between both books if I hadn’t read them so close together. Timbuktu is another excellent novel by Auster and I’m glad I finally got round to reading it.


Filed under Auster, Paul, Fiction

‘Incest’ (Eugénie de Franval) by Marquis de Sade

This Hesperus Press edition was originally published in 2003. It is a novella-length story of 89 pages translated by Andrew Brown. The original story was published as Eugénie de Franval in what was to be the only collection of Sade’s stories to be published in his lifetime, Les Crimes de l’amour in 1800, a collection which consisted of eleven stories and one essay, in four volumes. It is believed that these stories were written between 1786 and 1788 when Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille. Different translations of Eugénie de Franval are available in English, such as David Coward’s translation in the Oxford University Press 2005 collection, The Crimes of Love, which includes seven of the original stories along with the essay on novels. The original collection, Les Crimes de l’amour, does not contain the explicit material for which Sade has become infamous, and as such was published under his own name. But the material is still quite risqué as it invariably includes libertines as main characters who are not afraid to voice their opinions and act on their desires. Last year I read Virtue, which was another story originally from Les Crimes de l’amour. I have also set up a page on Sade’s shorter works which may be of use to anyone who is trying to make sense of the English translations currently available. More recently Alma Classics published an edition of this translation with a less explicit cover.

M. de Franval is a young, handsome libertine. When the question of marriage arises and he makes it known that he wishes to have a young wife, then the fifteen year-old, beautiful, Mlle de Farneille seems a perfect match. Her mother, Mme de Farneille, who is still only thirty-two years old, has ‘intelligence and charm’. Within a year of their marriage Mme de Franval (née Mlle de Farneille) gives birth to a daughter, Eugénie.

M. de Franval, who, the minute this child saw the light of day, no doubt conceived the most detestable designs on her, straight away separated her from her mother.

And so, Franval takes Eugénie away from her mother despite the protests from his wife and mother-in-law. Eugénie only meets her mother for the first time when she is seven years old. Eugénie is fed well, has an excellent education and is allowed to play with other children as well as attend theatres, but she is ‘protected’ from the influence of religion by her father. Franval tries to inculcate in his daughter his own views on morality and religion.

By the age of fourteen Eugénie loves her father and despises her mother and it is at this age that Franval decides to act. Having groomed his daughter since birth he talks to her as a lover and Eugénie replies likewise, she wants no other man. Although the narrator ostensibly condemns this relationship, he dwells on the details and tries to make it sound like a beautiful relationship between equals. In his ‘libertine novels’ incestuous and paedophilic actions occur frequently and violently; here Sade is still trying to transgress contemporary morality but more insidiously. Unaware of the relationship between father and daughter, Eugénie’s mother announces that a M. de Colunce has asked for Eugénie’s hand in marriage. Franval puts his foot down and tells his wife to tell Colunce that his ‘daughter was born with certain defects which are obstacles to the bonds of marriage.’ Franval’s wife and mother-in-law become suspicious as they know this not to be true and they call upon the help of a priest, M. de Clervil.

Sade now has Franval and Eugénie renew their love for each other and has them speak like any other lovers in novels. Eugénie’s mother, grandmother and Clervil now try to get her to marry Colunce, whom she doesn’t love. If Eugénie was in love with anyone else we would see Clervil et al. as the ‘baddies’ trying to force her to marry someone against her will. Franval, being a libertine, is not scared of using dirty tactics and so he decides to get Valmont, a fellow libertine, to seduce Mme de Franval and blackmail her, with forged love letters, into leaving Franval alone. It is Valmont who reveals Franval’s and Eugénie’s true relationship to her.

With events running away from her Mme de Farneille, Franval’s mother-in-law, asks Clervil to talk to Franval and Eugénie. Clervil and Franval spar: when Clervil states that happiness cannot be found in crime, Franval gives the Sadean reply that all crimes are relative and so all happiness is relative.

‘No, Monsieur, no, there is nothing real in the world, nothing which merits praise or blame, nothing worthy of being rewarded or punished, nothing which, though it is unjust here, is not legitimate five hundred leagues away—no real evil, in a word, and no constant good.’

Clervil, who has been advised against referring to scripture, uses a pragmatic argument that transgressing local laws will lead to further crimes and incur punishment.

‘Furthermore, the habit of overriding ordinary constraints soon leads us to break more serious ones, and, from error to error, we end up committing crimes which are properly punished in every country in the whole world, and properly inspire dread in all reasonable creatures which inhabit the globe, under whichever pole it might be.’

Franval argues that Eugénie freely chose to be his lover and that he did not force her. Clervil says that Franval put the thought into her head for selfish reasons. Franval tries to use the forged letters to convince Clervil of Mme de Franval’s unfaithful behaviour but Clervil knows them to be fakes. When Clervil tries to convince Eugénie of her error she throws herself, nakedly, at him and tries to create a scandal; Clervil withdraws. This dialogue is interesting in that Clervil’s arguments against Franval (Sade) are valid and as justified as Franval’s; neither man is seen to ‘win’ the argument.

From here on the plot gets complicated and melodramatic as it involves double-crossing, kidnapping, murder and suicide. As this story was meant for a general readership, Sade has Franval and Eugénie repent for their crimes. The final scene is suitably gothic with castles, lightning, coffins, corpses and suicide.

Although not as explicit as his libertine novels, Incest is still quite shocking for the modern reader, as it must have been for the contemporary reader. It is clear that Franval intends to control and manipulate Eugénie until she is of age to become his lover. Sade disliked the influence that religion had over society and certainly disapproved of girls being brought up uneducated, unaware of sex and then married off at an early age to a man she does not love. Was Sade trying to show that Franval’s methods of bringing up Eugénie were no less controlling, no less manipulative and no less selfish than the way girls were brought up by church and state? Sade may argue that at least with Franval Eugénie had an education and was allowed to, and capable of, making a decision on whom to love and that she would have had no choice if she had been raised as her mother wished. The modern reader would surely say that Eugénie was groomed by Franval for his own sexual gratification and that she had no choice at all and that both scenarios are bad for Eugénie. It is always difficult to know if Sade is trying to make a serious point or whether he is just out to shock the reader. He always undermines any point he is trying to make by having his characters act abominably, even in these ‘mainstream’ works. Still, I believe that Incest would be a good book to read for anyone wishing to get a ‘flavour’ of Sade’s writing but who are wary of reading his more sexually violent works.


Filed under Fiction, Sade, Marquis de

‘The Music of Chance’ by Paul Auster

For one whole year he did nothing but drive, traveling back and forth across America as he waited for the money to run out.

The Music of Chance was originally published in 1990 and it is one of my favourite books by Auster. I had intended to read 4 3 2 1 for Annabookbel’s Paul Auster Reading Week but I didn’t plan ahead, so I thought I’d re-read an old favourite instead.

Paul Auster usually starts his books with a great opening sentence, and The Music of Chance is no different—see quote at top of page. Over the next few pages we discover that Jim Nashe had inherited two hundred thousand dollars from his father, whom he hadn’t seen for over thirty years. This inheritance arrived at a pivotal time in Nashe’s life as his wife, Thérèse, had recently left him and his daughter was now living with his sister. After paying off some debts, he bought a new car and went on the road for two weeks, driving for seven straight hours each day and staying in motels at night.

Every morning he would go to sleep telling himself that he had had enough, that there would be no more of it, and every afternoon he would wake up with the same desire, the same irresistible urge to crawl back into the car. He wanted that solitude again, that nightlong rush through the emptiness, that rumbling of the road along his skin.

He returned to work but soon decided to leave his job, sell all his possessions and go on the road for good. He had no plans but he thought he’d soon get bored with it, only he didn’t, instead he criss-crossed the country, occasionally dropping in to see his daughter, Juliette.

The thought of just disappearing, or running away, from one’s current life must occur to everyone at some point in their life. But, if we had the money to do so, would we act on it? Most, likely not, but the characters in Auster’s books often do act on these impulses and it is what makes them compelling to read.

Then, after just over a year on the road, he meets Jack Pozzi, a twenty-three year old poker player, and this chance encounter knocks his life into another lane. Nashe meets Pozzi hitchhiking, his clothes are all bloody and he looks dazed; it turns out that he’d just escaped from a beating after a poker game turned violent after he was suspected of hustling them. He was trying to raise some money for another poker game with a couple of millionaires, whom he likens to Laurel and Hardy, in just a few days’ time. Nashe gets to know Pozzi, and although he’s brash and cocky, Nashe realises he is a good poker player and makes the proposal to fund Pozzi ten thousand dollars for a fifty-fifty split of the winnings. This is nearly the last of his funds.

Bill Flower and Willie Stone are a strange couple; they won their money on the lottery a few years earlier and now live in the same mansion albeit in separate wings. Stone’s wife had died, whilst Flower’s wife had left him, neither had re-married. They both enjoy playing poker but have other interests, which become significant later on in the novel; Stone is building a scale-model of a city, called ‘The City of the World’, which he intends to spend the rest of his life working on, whilst Flower collects all sorts of objects, especially the stones of a fifteenth-century castle from Ireland which he’d bought, dismantled and shipped to America. The intention is to build a wall with the stones.

Now, halfway through this novel they begin their game of poker. Pozzi is confident as he had beaten Flower and Stone a few years ago. The two millionaires, however, have been coached by a well-known poker player and are confident also.

Things don’t go as well as expected for Nashe and Pozzi and they have to pay off their debt to the millionaires. If you are intending to read this book it may be a good idea to stop reading here as I’m going to reveal some details about the end of the book.

When I first read The Music of Chance many years ago I found it an amazing book, very nearly perfect, except for the ending. I expected that Nashe would never pay off his debt and he’d end up performing a Sisyphean task; if not building, dismantling, rebuilding the wall, then something similar, another task maybe; but Auster just cut the story off with a suicidal car crash. I remember feeling a bit ‘cheated’ by the ending, but now, after a second reading, I’m not so sure, and I think maybe Auster was right in ending it the way he did. Nashe’s year-long driving spree could be seen as a long slow suicide attempt; maybe suicide was an unconscious goal all along and now that he gets control of his car once again he can finish the job.

Pozzi had been beaten up, possibly killed, after trying to escape and Nashe may have felt that he also had no way out of the contract. But he kills himself, as well as Murks and Floyd, just when he is celebrating being clear of his debt. Does Nashe believe, like Pozzi did, that he isn’t really going to escape from his debt, or is it the freedom that he finds unendurable? I must admit that I like this violent, destructive ending more than I did before.

A film was made of the book in 1993 which was directed by Philip Haas and starred James Spader, as well as a cameo by Paul Auster. I have seen the film and have a feeling that the ending was changed. I shall have to watch it again as I remember really liking it.


Filed under Auster, Paul, Fiction

‘Witiko’ (Book Three) by Adalbert Stifter (GLM IX)

And so, on we go with Book Three of Stifter’s Witiko. Book Two ended with Witiko preparing, over the winter months, for the coming war in the spring. Book Three begins after the recent battle at Mt. Branis in which Prince Wratislaw’s troops have been repelled by Witiko’s forces. Over the next few days Witiko’s forces meet up with Wladislaw(W)’s forces, as well as receiving reinforcements from elsewhere. Witiko renews his oath to Wladislaw(W)’s cause.

   “Witiko,” the duke said, “give me your hand.”
   Witiko extended his hand to the duke; the latter took it and said, “As I press your hand, I am and hope to remain always your friend. Be devoted to me throughout the coming years, if I deserve it.”
   “Your Grace,” Witiko replied, “I came to you because I considered you the rightful duke; I gladly served you because you are are a good duke, and I have grown to love you because you are a just man.”

It is not long before both sides are ready to go to battle again.

Desolation, destruction, annihilation was the order of the day between two peoples who should have been living in harmony under the same ruler.

Wladislaw(W) is, once again, triumphant as the city of Znaim surrenders. They bury the dead and tend to the wounded of both sides. Wladislaw(W) tries to avoid committing any atrocities against the enemy, especially as this is a civil war and he sees both sides as his people. Within a few months all of Moravia is back under Wladislaw(W)’s control.

So, job done! Witiko returns home and visits the construction site of Heinrich’s castle (Heinrich is Witiko’s father-in-law-to-be). Witiko goes aroaming again and brings his mother and family to his home in Pric. Once he has confirmation that he has been enfeoffed with the regions promised to him he begins to construct his own castle, starting with the well. Now he is a lord and will soon own a castle he feels he can formally ask for Bertha’s hand in marriage; so off he goes to see Heinrich. This all takes quite a while, of course, as there are a lot of formal procedures to get through. Bertha, unsurprisingly, agrees to the marriage and they go off for a walk to the stone seats in the meadow where they first met.

   “Here is the spot,” Bertha said.
   “You stood here with the roses,” Witiko said.
   “And you stood over there with the sun shining on the rocks, and then you walked toward me,” Bertha said.
   “I was startled when I saw you wearing the forest roses,” Witiko said, “because in my country they are often revered.”
   “It was fate to take the roses on that day, and we must honor them,” Bertha said.
   “We must honor them,” Witiko replied, “and they will always be a symbol for me.”

But the warring is not quite over. Wladislaw(S) and his supporters make an appeal to Duke Wladislaw(W) that he, Wladislaw(S), should rightfully be the Duke of Bohemia and Moravia, thereby re-hashing the initial succession debate that was voted on and then fought over. After listening to the appeals Wladislaw(W) unsurprisingly rejects them. However, he does not punish them but allows them to retain their lands. There is peace for a while but more trouble is brewing.

Before the leaves of the birches turned yellow and the beeches’ leaves red, the building with its scaffolding rose like a tremendous four cornered tower above the forest visible from far away.

Meanwhile, Witiko’s castle is completed and his marriage to Bertha can proceed. There is a lavish celebration beginning with a ‘courting procession’. There is much feasting and many gifts are exchanged.

   After twelve days of festivities, Witiko’s friends and other guests departed with wishes for his happiness and praises of Bertha and the forest.
   When all were gone, Witiko stood with Bertha on the southern balcony pointing out the meadows and mountains he had told her of on the stones of the lonely meadow near her father’s forest home.

In the new year there is an uprising of princes in Moravia including Konrad von Znaim, Wratislaw and also Wladislaw(W)’s own brother Diepold, who had helped with Wladislaw(W)’s defence of Prague. Events begin to be a bit rushed now in Stifter’s narrative. Konrad von Znaim and Wratislaw are excommunicated, Diepold repents. Wladislaw(W) goes on a crusade (Second Crusade of 1146) but Witiko doesn’t. The narrative turns to Friedrich, Holy Roman Emperor, who is about to embark on an Italian campaign against Milan, which has revolted against his rule. In order to enlist Wladislaw(W)’s help he crowns him as King of Bohemia and Moravia. There are many that object to this but Wladislaw(W) gets his way; I guess it solves the succession problem. They go off to lay siege on Milan and eventually succeed and return triumphant.

So, after nearly 600 pages, or 300,000 words, of Stifter’s Witiko was it really worth reading? The short answer is ‘no’. Its style is so stilted and stylised that it is quite boring to read. Stifter’s other novel, Indian Summer, is similar, but there was a pay off, I felt, as in that novel the descriptions of the houses and landscape were often beautiful, the conversations about art and science were at least interesting and there were different characters, even if they were all of the same type. But in Witiko the prose is flat, almost dead, there are no discernible characters as everyone is the same and all conversations are formal and stiff. The conversation between Witiko and Bertha quote above is about as free as it gets. There are no thoughts, banter, sex, ribaldry, passion, personal opinions or humour…definitely no humour. Presumably the topic itself would be a bit of a problem for many historical novelists but most would, I believe, try to inject some humanity and passion into the narrative; Stifter tries, and succeeds, in sucking out anything of the like so that we are just left with this dried-up husk of a novel—an anti-Romantic historical novel.

I am intrigued enough, though, to wonder what Stifter’s motives were for writing this book, especially as it seems so different from his other novellas, most of which are set in contemporary Germany/Austria. Witiko was originally published as three separate books between 1865 and 1867. As the Prussian-dominated unification of Germany happened in 1871 maybe Stifter was concerned that Bohemia would be incorporated into this united Germany, even though it was still part of the Austrian Empire. Or maybe Stifter was anticipating the break-up of the Austrian Empire and the possibility of an independent state for Bohemia and Moravia—maybe he was trying to supply it with some historical gravitas: See how we ruled by ourselves in the past. My knowledge of this period is too patchy to make any further comments but it would be interesting to read more. Unfortunately I know of no biographies of Stifter available in English and although there are some critical studies of his work available in English they are all pretty expensive. One that I would like to read is Adalbert Stifter And The Idyll: A Study Of Witiko by Barbara S. Grossmann Stone and published by Peter Lang.

This was read as part of German Literature Month IX.


Filed under Fiction, Stifter, Adalbert