Mervyn Peake was passionate about Dickens. You only need to read a few pages of his first completed novel, Titus Groan, to see this at once, even before it has been pointed out – as Peter Winnington points out in his fine biography of Peake – that the scholar-pirate Mr Slaughterboard in Peake’s unfinished early novel of that name owns a complete set of Dickens bound in red leather; or that the hero-villain Steerpike in the Gormenghast books takes his name from the hero-villain of David Copperfield, Steerforth; or that Peake drew a magnificent set of charcoal illustrations for Bleak House in the 1940s, which wasn’t published till after his death. There are Dickensian touches all over his work, and I’d like to point out a few of them in this post.
Peake looked at people with a Dickensian eye. In 1941, after being drafted into the army, he found himself studying his fellow conscripts with a sense of frustration that they should have been doomed to live in time of war – when lives and talents were being wasted at a frightening rate – rather than at a time when they could have served as imaginative material to be worked into a masterpiece of Victorian fiction. He wrote a poem about his frustration, ‘To a Scarecrow Gunner’. It’s not one of his best poems, and he knew it, leaving it in manuscript along with the unfinished Mr Slaughterboard; but it’s worth considering all the same. Here it is, a fourteen-line sonnet:
To a Scarecrow Gunner
The Fates have willed it that you’re living now
And not when Dickens might have watched your face
Your pigeon body and the tousled crow
That on your scalp finds perilous nesting space
And they have willed that Dickens cannot hear
Your sad inconsequent ejaculations
In such a curlew voice, as none may share
The portent of, save in hallucinations.
But so much less do I respect the Fates.
The Fates have willed the always insecure
And muddy forage cap on your dark head
Should not be part of Dickens’ stock and store –
But now sits cocky while the man is dead
Who might have seen what’s lost upon your mates.
Written as it is in wartime, this lament for what the scarecrow gunner fails to become – a character in one of Dickens’s novels – is rendered more painful by his likely other fate, to serve as fodder for the enemy’s guns. The birds in the poem – crow, pigeon, curlew – all have unfortunate connotations; the crow is a bird of ill omen, as is the curlew (its mournful cry is often thought to presage death), while the pigeon is a game bird whose use to carry messages in wartime makes it doubly vulnerable, as a source of food and a possible enemy instrument. The gunner’s scalp serves as a ‘perilous nesting place’ for his crow-like hair both because he is permanently dishevelled and because he is himself in peril as a soldier. The sound of the gunner’s voice is ‘sad’ because of the danger he is in, his voice unheard in the general din of a global conflict, the ‘portent’ it carries thanks to its resemblance to a curlew’s cry unnoticed by anyone except in the fever dreams or ‘hallucinations’ of the sick or wounded. The reference towards the end of the poem to Dickens being dead could have a double meaning; the scarecrow gunner’s cap ‘sits cocky while the man is dead’, both in the sense that the man who wears it is effectively dead already before being transported to the battlefields of the continent, and in the sense that the author is dead who might have seen his potential as a model for a character in his latest novel. The abrupt ending of the sonnet, then, while on the one hand it can be read as a poetic failing, can also be said to augur the premature ending of this potential. The scarecrow gunner is one of those lost souls in Peake’s work whose condemnation to obscurity robs the world of something extraordinary; and Dickens’s books are full of similar laments for lost potential.
David Copperfield was obviously one of Peake’s favourite works by Dickens, and it’s a work that’s full of the fear of wasted talent: from the talent of Mr Micawber, who finds it so hard to find an outlet for his natural skills, to that of Rosa Dartle, whose disfigurement by the spoiled boy Steerforth has condemned her to a state of perpetual bitterness and a permanent quest for revenge against all the world apart from the man who actually injured her; from Little Emily, who is engaged to be married to a kindly and devoted fisherman named Ham, but is seduced by Steerforth into running off with him to Europe, ‘ruining’ her good name in the process, to Mrs Micawber, who is thought by her family to have made a disastrous marriage to the always-indebted Mr Micawber, and Agnes Wickfield, who is let down both by her widower father and her young admirer, David, and finds herself facing financial and personal ‘ruin’ as a result. There are several writers in the novel whose writing never comes to anything: Dr Strong, who is compiling a dictionary that never gets beyond the letter D; Mr Dick, who is writing an obscure Memorial which keeps being invaded by the figure of Charles I, decapitating the writer’s ambitions with every appearance. Mr Micawber, too, is a writer, who turns every event in his life, no matter how trivial, into a letter, very few of which succeed in their primary purpose, which is to bring him financial gain. David Copperfield is a writer, but for much of the novel all the writing he has time for is to jot down Parliamentary proceedings in shorthand, while his ill-considered marriage to the childlike Dora Spenlow quickly makes his nascent career as a novelist into a formidable barrier between them that augments their intellectual and imaginative differences instead of cementing their happiness. Relationships in this book are always on the point of collapsing or being destroyed by hostile forces; writing is always in the process of proving empty and pointless; and growing up, which is supposed to bring the potential of a child to maturation, is always being arrested or cut short.
Miss Mowcher, for instance, has stopped growing upwards at an early age and finds her life defined by her diminutive height. Dora has stopped developing intellectually at an equally early age, and finds herself being cheated by every tradesman or servant she asks to help her. Mr Dick, too, is widely perceived as having a childish mind, although his formidable guardian Betsey Trotwood remains convinced of his untapped genius. Mr Micawber is childish in his inability to find gainful employment, his permanent reliance on the kindness of a few good friends; Agnes too is trapped in childish dependence on others by the machinations of the upwardly-mobile clerk, Uriah Heep; Uriah has been forever tainted by the philosophy of the charitable foundation school where he was educated, which taught him to keep proclaiming his own humbleness no matter how fiercely he might resent it (p. 464). For a Bildungsroman, a novel of growth from youth to maturity, David Copperfield is packed with people for whom growth has proved impossible in the teeth of the various social, economic, emotional and educational barriers they have been faced with.
Perhaps the most striking figure of lost potential in the book is James Steerforth, the seemingly heroic young man who effortlessly wins the affection of people from every social class with his charm and charisma. Steerforth delights the inhabitants of the fishing community of Great Yarmouth, where he chooses to spend much of his time; the sailors and shipbuilders there, whose trades he learns at a whim; the schoolboys at the school where he gains his education – including David, who adores him with a passion; the women who fall for him and whom he betrays. Handsome, clever, rich (like Jane Austen’s Emma), he misuses his abundant gifts to damage the people who love him most as if in a destructive game – a game that proves self-destructive in the end. Rosa Dartle, the woman whose face he scarred and whose life he blighted, considers him to have been in potential worth ‘millions’ of any other person in the novel (p. 644). In practice he does nothing at all except flirt with David, damage Rosa Dartle and his mother, abscond with Little Emily, abandon her, and finally die pointlessly in a shipwreck.
As one might expect from the poet who lamented the lost possibilities of the scarecrow gunner, Gormenghast Castle in Titus Groan positively teems with similar cases of arrested development – to such an extent that Alice Mills has written an entire monograph about ‘stuckness’ in the fiction of Mervyn Peake. In the first of the novel series that bears his name, Titus Groan himself gets stuck in childhood, growing with difficulty until he is ‘not two years old’ in the final chapter of the book that bears his name. He is surrounded by people who are variously imprisoned by habit and custom, from the eremitic castle poet, who walls himself up in his tower with a barricade of books, to the community of the Bright Carvers, obsessively dedicated to the pursuit of carving wood into fantastic shapes while also being doomed to grow suddenly old at the age of twenty. There is the manservant Flay, so devoted to the castle that he has begun to ossify into a moving sculpture himself, and his arch-enemy Swelter the chef, permanently swathed in self-indulgence in the form of the imprisoning folds of fat that engulf him. There is the Countess Gertrude, Titus’s mother, an intelligent and formidable woman who is so wholly absorbed by her birds and cats she has no time for her children. There is his father Sepulchrave, so committed to his library that when Steerpike burns it he goes mad, repeatedly recreating the books he has lost by arranging pinecones on the ground as if on shelves, speaking in blank verse like his favourite dramatists and poets, and transforming himself as if by an act of unhinged imaginative will-power into a Death Owl from one of his tragedies or lost novels. Titus’s sister the Lady Fuchsia is stuck in her position as an impotent family member, ignored by everyone except her doting nurse and the castle doctor; and his aunts, the Ladies Cora and Clarice, are identical twins who are stuck in a permanent loop of mindlessly echoing each other’s thoughts and dreaming of a political coup that will never happen. All these characters embody the capacity of human beings to cut themselves off from one another – and from the past and the future, as the scarecrow gunner is cut off both from Dickens and from the life he might have lived in the time to come, if the deadly rituals of military life had not taken possession of his ‘pigeon body’. Gormenghast Castle is itself the mournful dream of an infinitely fertile imagination left to decay, like the forgotten halls and roofscapes of the seat of the Groans.
If Gormenghast perfectly embodies the lost potential that haunts the characters in David Copperfield, the young antagonist Steerpike embodies the character in Dickens’s book who has the most potential, Steerforth. Peter Winnington has pointed out that Steerforth had already made an appearance around ten years before the publication of Titus Groan in Peake’s unfinished novel, Mr Slaughterboard:
the moment when the dwarf, Shrivel, stands on the table and brushes Smear’s hair to a gloss inevitably brings David Copperfield to mind: the dwarf Miss Moucher [sic] is described by Dickens and memorably illustrated by Phiz, standing on a table, brushing and combing Steerforth’s hair which she has treated with oil.
This, Winnington says, is ‘about the closest Mervyn came to borrowing from Dickens’; but the echoes of Steerforth in the kitchen-boy Steerpike have been recognised for years. Steerpike is both charismatic and strangely attractive to others, despite his strange appearance and unsettling personality. Dr Prunesquallor is as arrested by his energy and naked ambition as Fuchsia is entranced by his mimicry of an adventure hero and a circus clown. Skilled, like Steerforth, in every craft he turns his hand to, he is galvanised into action by the birth of Titus, just as Steerforth is galvanised into action when he is invited to share in his young friend David’s personal life: to visit David’s working-class friends in their boat at Yarmouth, to meet David’s childhood sweetheart, Little Emily, and to entrance her adoptive family, slipping easily into their confidence thanks to his friendship with David, and laying his plans to break up their seaside idyll as if challenging himself to provide the most tragic of endings to David’s life story. Steerpike similarly worms his way into the lives of Titus’s family and associates: his sister, mother, father and aunts, the doctor who presided over his birth, the official who oversees the rituals they are obliged to attend, his elderly, diminutive nurse. Steerpike shares Steerforth’s playful brand of wicked humour, his willingness to do harm on a whim, and is at his most strenuously active when laying the groundwork for seemingly pointless acts of villainy: burning Sepulchrave’s library; designing imperial thrones for the aunts which will never be occupied; scrambling up and down a ladder to rescue members of the Groan family from a fire he himself has started; mixing poisons in the Doctor’s laboratory which he never uses, unless for the singularly pointless purpose of killing Nannie Slagg; lurking in a hammock under the Earl’s dining table to listen in on conversations that tell him nothing. His penetration of Titus’s environment is as complete, and as ruthless, as Steerforth’s invasion of David’s.
In the second Titus book, Gormenghast, the former kitchen boy is more maliciously playful than ever, accompanied always by a monkey as if to point up his tricksterish nature. In this book his role as a double for Titus Groan – a kind of malignant substitute for him – is finally confirmed by his purloining of Titus’s boat, a light canoe the boy has imaginatively invested with the personality of the feral girl who was his first crush. And death is Steerpike’s constant companion or shadow, just as it is Steerforth’s. After being seduced and abandoned by Steerforth, Little Emily is urged to commit suicide by the envious Rosa Dartle, while her friend Martha (also ‘ruined’ by illicit sex) almost succumbs to the same temptation as she lingers on the banks of the Thames, before being saved by David and Mr Peggotty. In Gormenghast the young woman seduced by the upstart Steerpike ends by really committing suicide, since there is no one nearby to save her – one more in the trail of victims he leaves in his wake. She dies by drowning, as Martha nearly did. Steerpike, meanwhile, ends his days in water, like Dickens’s Steerforth, as if to atone for driving Fuchsia to despair. As we might expect, Steerpike is at his most strenuously active in the moments that lead to his death, nimbly evading hordes of pursuers, picking them off one by one with his catapult, skimming about the surface of the rising flood waters in his stolen canoe, until he is symbolically trapped in the ivy of the castle walls – and even then he wields his knife in delighted defiance and crows in triumph like a second Peter Pan. His ingenuity and energy are at their peak when there is nowhere left to go, and as a result he is as charismatic in the termination of his story as ever he was in its slow unfolding.
Steerforth’s death, too, contains unnerving echoes of an adventure story for boys. His charisma shines through as David observes him from a distance, labouring away with his less industrious shipmates in a hopeless attempt to fashion an escape from a deadly storm. Watching helplessly as Steerforth’s ship comes to grief among the breakers, David tells us: ‘I plainly descried her people at work with axes, especially one active figure with long curling hair, conspicuous among the rest’ (p. 637); and a few minutes later, ‘four men arose with the wreck out of the deep, clinging to the rigging of the remaining mast; uppermost, the active figure with the curling hair’ (p. 638). Even from far away David notices the beauty as well as the energy of the ‘active figure’, from the curling of his hair – so carefully tended by Miss Mowcher – to the very attractive head-covering that does so little to confine it: ‘He had a singular red cap on, – not like a sailor’s cap, but of a finer colour; and as the few yielding planks between him and destruction rolled and bulged, and his anticipative death-knell rung, he was seen by all of us to wave it’ (p. 639). Steerforth remains distinctive, handsome, stylish and theatrical in his final seconds, just as Peake’s Steerpike when he knows he is about to die promises to savour every second of it in a performance of melodramatic self-indulgence: ‘He would indulge himself – would taste the peculiar quality of near-death on his tongue – would loll above the waters of Lethe’ (p. 741). Steerpike is childish in his death, letting out the ‘high-pitched, overweening cry of a fighting cock’ as Titus strikes at him. Steerforth’s childishness comes out only after his death, when David sees him lying on shore among the ruins of Mr Peggotty’s boat-house, ‘with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school’ (p. 640). He does not die alone; in another echo of a boy’s adventure story, the boatbuilder Ham – whose fiancée, Little Emily, Steerforth stole from him – makes a final heroic attempt to rescue his enemy, and drowns in the attempt, adding one more name to the list of lives destroyed by the young man’s influence. In both books – David Copperfield and Gormenghast – water comes to represent the threat of obliteration and obscurity, against which the books’ protagonists and villains struggle with every ounce of strength they have. The protagonists keep their heads above the water, while the villains and their victims succumb to it – on the villains’ part, at least, with seeming enjoyment, as they flash their knives and wave their caps in a last farewell.
The other David Copperfield connection in the Titus books can be found in Steerpike’s resemblance to the book’s other villain, Uriah Heep. The ambitious clerk who rises to a position of power over the family that previously gave him employment has much in common with Peake’s unscrupulous kitchen-boy, who shares his humble beginnings and vaulting ambition. The pair resemble each other physically in obvious ways: Uriah when we first meet him is a ‘cadaverous’ youth of about fifteen, ‘who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, with eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded that I remember wondering how he went to sleep’ (p. 181). Steerpike is seventeen when we first meet him in Swelter’s kitchen. He does not lose his eyebrows and eyelashes until he is almost burnt to death in the process of murdering Barquentine in the second Titus book, Gormenghast, but his eyes are of a distinctive shade of red from the beginning: he has ‘dark-red concentrated eyes’ (p. 111) when he first opens them to look at Fuchsia in her attic, and by the day of his death they have intensified to ‘two red points of light’ or ‘beads of blood’ (p. 743). Uriah is ‘high-shouldered and bony’ (p. 181), and Steerpike when he strips to wash is ‘very thin, very bunched at the shoulders, and with an extraordinary perkiness in the poise of the body’ (p. 115). Uriah is given to spasms of self-deprecating ‘writhing’ – at one point early on he ‘writhe[s] himself quite off [his] stool in the excitement of his feelings’ (p. 194) – and Steerpike undergoes a similar spasm when he begins to realise he has Fuchsia under his spell: ‘A snake writhed suddenly under the ribs of Steerpike. He had succeeded’ (p. 116). Uriah has the daughter of his employer firmly in his sights from the beginning of his rise to power, in much the same way as Steerforth has Little Emily in his sights from their first meeting; and Steerpike’s desire to fascinate Fuchsia stems from a similar conviction, when he first meets her, that she will be useful to him later – and afterwards perhaps from a sheer delight in imposing his power on people weaker than himself.
Uriah’s designs on Agnes Wickfield form part of a long-term plan whose slow working out involves putting the unfortunate girl through what is effectively slow torture, as she watches her father gradually lose his identity under the combined influence of alcohol and Uriah’s remorseless exposure of his calamitous financial dealings. ‘My Agnes is very young still,’ Uriah tells David at one point (p. 310), ‘so I shall have time gradually to make her familiar with my hopes, as opportunities offer’; his hopes being that he can marry her after taking control of her father’s affairs. Peake’s Fuchsia undergoes a similar torture at Steerpike’s hands, as she watches her father slowly lose his reason after Steerpike has burned his beloved library. Both men, as well as Steerforth, worm their way like parasites into other people’s lives, taking possession of their most intimate private spaces – their rooms, their papers, their families, their bodies, their thoughts. And both men, it seems to me, embody this process of parasitical possession and consumption in a metaphor that represents another clear echo of Dickens’s wording in the work of Peake.
Many months after informing David of his ambition to make Agnes his wife, Uriah comes up with a novel way of describing the lengthy process of bringing his plans for her to fruition. ‘I say! I suppose,’ he says to David at one point, as the young man waits for a coach to leave, ‘you have sometimes plucked a pear before it was ripe, Master Copperfield?’ (p. 469). David answers, ‘I suppose I have’; and Uriah tells him: ‘I did that last night’. He is referring to his first abortive attempt to ask Mr Wickfield for his daughter’s hand in marriage, an attempt that resulted in wild rejection. Uriah remains convinced, however, as he tells David, that his plan will succeed. ‘It’ll ripen yet!’ he gloats; ‘It only wants attending to. I can wait!’ Shortly afterwards, David notices him through the coach window, moving his mouth as if in the process of eating the pear. ‘For anything I know,’ David observes, ‘he was eating something to keep the raw morning air out; but he made motions with his mouth as if the pear was ripe already, and he were smacking his lips over it’. Uriah’s gesture is as cannibalistic as it is proprietorial.
In this passage, Uriah’s unpleasant anticipation of Agnes’s ripening contrasts to his habit of referring to David by the honorific reserved for young boys. Uriah is always calling him Master Copperfield instead of Mister Copperfield – something he rarely fails to point out whenever he does it. David, in other words, has always been unripe as far as Uriah is concerned, and always will be. This habit of making people seem younger than they are is shared by Steerforth, who feminises and belittles David by calling him Daisy, and by Steerforth’s scheming manservant Littimer, whose every word and gesture makes David think himself terribly young. In the passage I’ve just quoted, Agnes too is infantilised, as Uriah assumes that the only reason for her to reject him is because she has not yet reached maturity – and conversely, that maturation will render their marriage inevitable. At the same time, her prospective maturation is described in terms that wholly subject her to his body as well as his will; ‘smacking his lips’ anticipates the moment when he will effectively ingest her, making her part of himself. For Uriah, Agnes’ qualities and talents are reserved for his use alone, since he has effectively bought her when he took control of her father’s money. David listens to him with all the horror of a man who recognises how far this assumption implies the wastage of Agnes’s qualities and talents.
Steerpike has a similar moment of acute acquisitiveness in relation to the woman he desires. Having escaped from a prison cell in which the servant Mr Flay has locked him and climbed across a vast expanse of the castle walls and roofscape, the kitchen boy tumbles in through an attic window and loses consciousness. When he wakes he finds himself in a hidden room that belongs to a young girl: fifteen-year-old Lady Fuchsia, who retreats to this attic to withdraw into her imagination and forget the humdrum life of ritual that enfolds her in the formal spaces of the castle. Little by little Steerpike pieces together the evidence he sees around him of the proclivities and age of the attic’s owner – above all the picture book he finds open on a table, in which he finds a poem about three eccentric old men in a ‘grey and purple world’ (p. 106) and notices on the page the signatory marks of the book’s last reader: ‘Steerpike noticed small thumb-marks on the margin of the page. They were as important to him as the poem or the picture’ (pp. 106-7). Beside the picture-book lie two wrinkled pears, and Steerpike is hungry; he picks one up and notices that a bite has already been taken from its side. Nevertheless he proceeds to bite into the pear himself, as if intentionally to continue his violation of Fuchsia’s personal space as embodied by the attic:
Making use of the miniature and fluted precipice of hard, white discoloured flesh, where Fuchsia’s teeth had left their parallel grooves, he bit greedily, his top teeth severing the wrinkled skin of the pear, and the teeth of his lower jaw entering the pale cliff about halfway up its face; they met in the secret and dark centre of the fruit – in that abactinal region where, since the petals of the pear flower had been scattered in some far June breeze, a stealthy and profound maturing had progressed by day and night. (p. 107)
At this point in the novel Steerpike has only once seen Fuchsia at a distance, through a ‘circular spyhole in the wall of Octagonal Room’ where the Groans were gathering after the birth of the castle’s heir (p. 108). He does not know that she is the proprietor of the attic, the reader of the book who left her thumbprints on the pages, the biter of the pear. Steerpike’s ascent is as yet only physical – the ascent he has just made up the wall of the castle, which finally severed his connection with the castle kitchens where his own development was cabined, cribbed, confined, hemmed in, by his monstrous master, Swelter the Chef. Steerpike himself is young – only seventeen. But his deliberate biting into the pear that has already been bitten – and the implications of this violation of the ‘secret and dark centre of the fruit’ – prefigures his invasion of the secret and dark centre of the castle, as well as his exploitation of the fruit’s first consumer, Fuchsia, whose personal space he is occupying at the moment he bites – and the trajectory of whose life will be interrupted by his meeting of her within a few pages of the bite. Like Uriah, he will assume that he possesses her from that moment, and that her maturation will provide him with another sumptuous meal like the pear he ate in her attic. But unlike Uriah, Steerpike will succeed in the end in wasting her talents completely – her talent for love as well as for all the various arts her attic contains.
As he wrote Titus Groan, Peake was intensely aware that the time he lived in was inimical to the process of bringing the rich potential of youth to maturation, especially for young artists such as Fuchsia or himself. Dickens gave him the language and some of the other novelistic techniques he needed to articulate this threat of artistic waste and loss. His version of David Copperfield, however, goes further in fulfilling this threat than Dickens dared to, at least at this stage in his career (Bleak House goes much further). Gormenghast castle and its occupants have been cut off from the historical, familial and economic resources that gave Dickens’s protagonist, David, the outlets he needed to fulfil his potential as a novelist. Cut adrift from the past and the future, as England was cut adrift from the rest of the world by war, Peake’s castle finds itself tossing on a sea of oblivion as deadly as the ocean that drowned Steerforth and threatened to overwhelm his victims, as well as the victims of his red-eyed double, Uriah Heep. At the same time, writing in response to Dickens perhaps gave Peake a sense of control in the chaos of wartime; control, and a promise that the arrested development of his cast of lonely characters might find a way to maturation after all.
 See G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London: Peter Own, 2009), pp. 95, 100, 283. For the full set of Bleak House illustrations see Mervyn Peake, Sketches from Bleak House, selected and introduced by Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen (London: Methuen, 1983).
 Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 85.
The Personal History of David Copperfield (London:Hazell, Watson and Viney, n.d.).
 Alice Mills, Stuckness in the Fiction of Mervyn Peake (London: Rodopi, 2005).
The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1989), p. 365.
A few months back I wrote a post on Alasdair Gray. Among other things I mentioned a note he wrote me about the writer-artist Alfred Kubin, which at the time I didn’t have access to because it was locked away in my office at the University of Glasgow, being protected from Covid like the rest of us.
In recent weeks I’ve been able to get back into my office and have been ferrying things back and forward between there and my Glasgow flat. Among other things I ferried my copy of Alfred Kubin’s fantastic novel The Other Side (1908), and when I opened it I found the note I mentioned in the earlier blog post.
My edition of the novel is from 1967, and was published by those friends of the fantastic Victor Gollancz Limited. Here it is with its handsome dust jacket:
As I said in that earlier blog post, this book was first recommended to me by my tutor Christopher Butler, as a superior alternative to the work of Mervyn Peake. Needless to say I couldn’t agree with him on the matter of its superiority, though I found it fascinating, as Kafka did apparently.
And here’s the note, written in Alasdair’s inimitable hand. A transcript follows.
31 July 2002
I should have returned this long ago as I finished reading it the morning after the day you gave it to me. I found it fascinating yet repulsive. One of the richest men in the world creates, circa 1900, a small principality in central Asia that is modelled on just such a small German autocratic city state circa 1850. He peoples it with the kind of folk he knew from his schooldays, living in the same kind of buildings. Having completed this static, stagnant world, he dies. It rots away and disintegrates with him. This cannot be called a prophetic story since the 3rd Reich rotted away more violently, through attacking the outer world into overwhelming it back. The style of illustration completely fits the narrative. Both strike me as foosty – modelled from the stuff that collects in vacuum cleaner bags.
BUT thanks for lending it. My response is highly emotional, so despite the foost it did not strike me as dull!
Yours – with thanks – Alasdair
I loved that sentence about the stuff that collects in vacuum cleaner bags. Here’s an example of what he’s talking about:
As a contrast, here’s the Handbook Alasdair designed for the then MPhil in Creative Writing when he was Professor at the University of Glasgow. Look at those clean lines, and the arrogant power of that writer-artist-lion, with his back foot grasping a mouse, his tongue reaching out to lick the quill. No wonder Gray felt sick at the sight of foostiness:
I was recently reading a book about Adam: Oliver Langmead’s Birds of Paradise (2021), which presents the Father of Humankind as a scarred giant bearing the wounds of many generations, stalking the world in quest of surviving fragments of the fabulous Garden of Eden. Each item from the Garden – bird, beast or flower – has the quality of a Platonic ideal, and this quality is signaled with capitals: the first magpie is Magpie, the first rose is Rose, the first crab is Crab and so on, each being the Crabbiest, the Rosiest or the most Magpieish being in existence. The book is full of the delight of first discoveries, as piece by piece the fragments restore to Adam the sensation of his initial encounter with Rose, Magpie, Crab, Fox, Butterfly and the rest, in the early days of the world’s creation. It’s a fully worked-out model of Tolkien’s notion of Recovery, whereby fantasy (or fairy story, as Tolkien calls it in his famous essay) restores to its readers the exhilarating strangeness of the common creatures and plants that inhabit our world, as if we were encountering them for the first time. There has never been a time when Recovery has been more urgent, and Langmead gives it to us here in lavish profusion, inviting us to learn afresh how wonder-filled the planet is, or has been, in these days of its decline and possible fall.
The book reminded me of another act of Recovery around the time when Tolkien wrote his essay on Fairy Stories, which he delivered as the Andrew Lang lecture in St Andrews University in March 1939, in the dark days before the outbreak of the Second World War. The 1930s saw the great sculptor Jacob Epstein turn his attention to the things that made the world, recreating in a series of three-dimensional artworks the delights of creation, the surprise of the new, in defiance of the dictatorships that worked to denigrate, smother, damage or destroy the oddly lovely and the beautifully strange. As a Jew in the 1930s, Epstein had borne witness many times to the distortion and damage that could be inflicted on things of beauty for ideological reasons, and on people and cultures whose achievements lay at the heart of civilizations, but whose contributions were being systematically erased from the records by sneering pseudo-historians. He had seen his own things of beauty – his most ambitious sculptures – subjected to ridicule, outrage and defacement for their bold exposure of things that were meant to remain unseen in civilized countries: homoerotic desire, as embodied in the Tomb of Oscar Wilde; adolescent exuberance in the monument to W. H. Hudson, which featured the writer’s most famous creation, a native Venezuelan girl called Rima; key moments in the life of the human body, from procreation to inelegant old age, in the eighteen spectacular nude sculptures for the British Medical Association Building in the Strand. The desiring sphinx on Wilde’s tomb was fitted with a symbolic figleaf by the Parisian authorities; Rima was tarred and feathered and defaced with swastikas; while the statues on the BMA building were mutilated in 1937, supposedly in the interests of health and safety (the stone had started to decay), but also because of long-term hostility to their open display of human nudity on a prominent public building. Epstein himself had been repeatedly subjected to anti-Semitic abuse, suggesting that hostility to his art was in many cases prompted by racism. He carefully listed the different kinds of verbal and physical damage inflicted on his sculptures in his autobiography, Let There Be Sculpture (1940). But he also gave that book a title which insisted on his continuing commitment, against all odds, to the act of creation, as incapsulated in the words of Genesis 1:3: Let there be light.
Epstein’s choice of title linked his autobiography – and hence his life – to his recent series of sculptures celebrating the early days of the world’s creation as recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. The first of these was a monumental statue titled Genesis, first exhibited in 1931. The image showed a pregnant woman, leaning backwards to display her swollen belly, and touching it with her hands in a gesture of tender pride, puzzlement, protectiveness and pleasure. The woman’s legs seem to be embedded in earth or stone, there is power in her thighs, hips, stomach and hands – which seem to draw strength from the stone below her – and her face resembles an African sculpture, such as the famous Great Bieri bought by Epstein in the 1920s from the Parisian art dealer Paul Guillaume. The name of Epstein’s sculpture, Genesis, implies that it represents Eve, and that the infant in her belly was the first child ever conceived. When it appeared in the Leicester Galleries the statue was vilified by many reviewers, largely because of its African features. The Daily Express described the woman as having ‘the vapid horrible stare of the idiot’, while the Daily Mail called her ‘a simian-like creature whose face suggests, if anything, the missing link’, and poured scorn on the sculptor’s ideas of beauty, which grow ‘every year more peculiar’. Ironically, the Mail’s reference to the so-called missing link – a hypothetical common ancestor of humans and the great apes – touched on one of the points of the sculpture: to bring alive the link between the living and the dead, the people of the present and those who came before, stretching all the way back to the common origins of humankind on the African continent. Eve’s seeming emergence from the soil makes nonsense of the petty nationalisms and racial theories which draw hierarchical distinctions between one branch of humanity and another. The decision to model the face on a religious artifact of the Fang people of Equatorial Guinea, who honour their ancestors, seemed to the sculptor wholly appropriate for this purpose. Epstein’s interest in kinship between all peoples stemmed, he suggests in his book, from his childhood in the multicultural East Side of New York, where ‘swarms of Russians, Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Chinese lived as much in the streets as in the crowded tenements’, and where he made friends – to the shock of his respectable parents – ‘with negroes and anarchists’. His critics had a narrower and nastier set of affiliations.
To some British observers, the project of associating the modern citizens of the United Kingdom with the people of sub-Saharan Africa was at best maliciously wrong-headed, at worst politically explosive, unsettling as it did the assumption that there was a natural racial and cultural hegemony which served to justify British imperialism. In The Daily Mirror a poet calling himself ‘Merry-Andrew’ – the early modern term for a professional clown – took Epstein to task for working so hard in his recent sculptures ‘To prove you and I are related to negroes’, in ‘flat contradiction of all that’s in Genesis’. The poet, meanwhile, chose to identify Epstein as a relative of the great physicist Albert Einstein, presumably because of a perceived resemblance between their names. Like Einstein, Epstein has ‘Invented a theory about Relativity / Called Art for the Artless’, and his work can only be understood by certain intellectuals such as G.B.S. – the Irish socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw – who was one of the sculptor’s staunchest defenders. The Mail made the link with Einstein, too, suggesting that for his next project Epstein take on the theme of the Theory of Relativity, because since very few people understand it, the artist will thereby find himself ‘safe from criticism’. A few years later, a Catholic reviewer of Epstein’s sculpture of the crucified Christ, Consummatum Est (‘It is finished’), again suggested that the two men were indistinguishable, both in name and in their common willingness to traduce plain common sense: ‘What is all this about Mr Epstein or Mr Einstein or whoever it is? I know one invented Relativity and the other Rima, only I never remember which is which. Probably because I can’t make head or tail of either’. The characterization of both as comically foreign-sounding violators of the safe certainties that provided the foundation of British culture mark them out as amusing but potentially dangerous internationalists, scornful of the values that elevated Britain above its continental neighbours. The barely concealed anti-Semitism of this 1937 article is rendered more disturbing by the fact that the writer must have known very well that Einstein had been driven out of Germany by Nazi death threats four years earlier (Epstein made his bust of Einstein during the physicist’s short stay in Britain on the way to the United States). Jokes about Epstein’s and Einstein’s shared interest in disrupting time (and Epstein did say in his autobiography that with Genesis, ‘At one blow, generations of sculptors and sculpture are shattered and sent flying into the limbo of triviality’) had by this point in European history taken on a distinctly menacing air.
Epstein returned to the theme of creation at the end of the 30s. In 1938 he made a bronze sculpture of Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden, as if in acknowledgement of the dreadful turn taken by global events since he first depicted the Mother of Mankind. In the same year he sculpted The Burial of Abel, which like Consummatum Est could be interpreted as a response to the Spanish Civil War, a tribute to the republican idealists whose lives had been cut short by the fascist enemies of democracy. Epstein described Consummatum Est, which shows a prone Christ showing the wounds in his hands to the sky, as a post-apocalyptic vision of bombardment, his equivalent of Picasso’s Guernica: ‘I imagine a waste world; argosies from the air have bombed the humans out of existence, and perished themselves, so that no human thing is left alive’; and The Burial of Abel inhabits a similar wasteland at an earlier stage in its degeneration, with two tortured figures mourning over the limp corpse of a third. In these three sculptures – Adam and Eve, The Burial of Abel, Consummatum Est – the promise for the future Epstein represented in his Genesis, with its burden of vibrant new life, has been replaced with images of exile and destruction; the first beginning had been superseded by foreshadowings of the final end, when all humanity will say with Christ the words consummatum est, ‘It is finished’. But in the same year as his statue of the expulsion from Eden, Epstein produced his most ambitious sculpture yet: the titanic Adam that provides Let There Be Sculpture with its frontispiece. And this sculpture signaled a major change of mood, returning to the exuberant defiance of its partner, Genesis, but in a far more militant tone.
As with Genesis, creation not destruction is Adam’s theme. Once again the power of the body, with both hands held upturned against its ribs, one giant leg thrust forward and the other backwards, like an arch and a pillar or buttress in a Gothic building, was complemented by the masklike face, reminiscent of Fang sculpture, here half obscured by being lifted to the sky. Once again the figure paid homage to the medium from which it was carved, ‘a block of alabaster’, in its shape, colour, texture and proportions. Once again fertility was offensively visible in the sculpture’s anatomy, Adam’s half-engorged phallus providing a flamboyant counterpart to Eve’s pregnant belly. And once more the statue triumphed over time, pointing backwards towards the African origins of humankind in its stylized face, pointing forward to an African future (as Eve’s infant did) through the forward motion of its giant legs, bearing the face and body towards new horizons. In his book Epstein spoke of the sculpture as if it were a machine – ‘a dynamo where a tremendous energy is generated’ – and as if it overthrew nationalism by its mere existence: ‘I feel […] that generations spoke through me, and the inner urge that took shape here was a universal one’ [my emphasis]. Observers agreed. The sculptor reports that one Australian observer said, ‘It is as if a people had done this work and not just an individual’; and a New Yorker went one step further: ‘Adam is as if it were not made by a man, but by mankind’. The Scottish artist William McCance went further still, and claimed that the statue was in a sense the product of the stone itself:
[Epstein] has too great a respect for his block of stone to distort it in order to make it look like flesh. He has that kind of humility which respects innate differences of nature; an artist, not a dictator.
His recognition of the right of the stone to retain its nature throughout the process of carving sets the artist up as the antithesis of dictatorship, a teller of inconvenient truths as against a purveyor of nationalist dreams. Adam’s raised face was interpreted by one critic as a gesture of aspiration and spiritual yearning. But the face of the statue Consummatum Est was raised skyward too, and Epstein saw in that a response to blanket bombing on a global scale. Adam’s turn to the sky could be read as speaking calm defiance out of the wasteland. And the wasteland for him is palpably fertile. He is aroused, and the upturned hands raised to the level of his ribs may make us think of Eve, his partner and workmate. God fashioned Eve, we’re told, from Adam’s rib; but Epstein’s statue makes us think the first man might have done it himself, in a fierce continuation of the divine gesture that brought Adam himself into fruitful being, in triumphant repudiation of the related concepts of isolation and uniqueness. Adam insists on having a companion in his primordial garden. Bombs may fall, but the shared existence of Epstein’s Adam and Eve – their shared generative power bracketing the calamitous decade of the 1930s – guarantees that life goes on, and that its energies are unstoppable, as well as impossible to obscure with nationalist figleaves.
It’s at this point in the story that the writer-artist Mervyn Peake comes into the picture. Peake and Epstein had first met in 1931, when the sculptor visited an exhibition put on by Peake and two other young artists at the Chat Noir café, a significant landmark in London’s gay scene between the wars. They don’t seem to have met again until some years later, but there’s no doubt they had a certain amount in common. Peake shared a number of Epstein’s artistic and political interests: a lifelong fascination with the human body; a delight in unusual bodily and facial proportions, which sometimes led to his being accused of favouring the grotesque; anarchist friends (as James Gifford has demonstrated); a religious bent that remained detached from institutional practices, which Peake expressed in one poem against religious bigotry (‘How Foreign to the Spirit’s Early Beauty’, 1937), and another poem on Christ as the forceful ‘Jewish man’, whom he imagines shorn of the trappings of Catholic ceremony and ornament (‘No Creed Shall Bind Me to a Sapless Bole’, 1939). Peake is known to have been an admirer of W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions, since Rima inspired the wild girl called ‘the Thing’ in Gormenghast, and one wonders whether Epstein’s Hudson memorial, with its depiction of Rima surrounded by jungle birds, might have sparked off the younger artist’s interest in the writer. Finally, Peake liked to acknowledge, as Epstein did, the lingering presence of past artistic practices in his own modern works of art. In the fine essay that precedes his book The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1949) he speaks of the ‘authority’ of a good drawing, ‘which is doubly alive, firstly through its overtones and echoes which show it to be born[e] rapidly or languorously along one of the deep streams that wind back through time to a cave in Spain’, and secondly in the ‘individual note’ that marks it out from other products of its time, setting the artist against the monotony of current conventions. Peake’s conviction of art’s capacity to challenge time in these two distinct ways chimes perfectly with Epstein’s desire to work in the tradition of Michelangelo, Rodin and the anonymous sculptor of the Great Bieri while resolutely treading his own path, unaffiliated to contemporary movements.
Peake, too, was disinclined to attach himself to contemporary movements. He had a marked interest in Spanish art, as the passage from The Drawings of Mervyn Peake suggests; El Greco, Velazquez, Goya and Picasso were major landmarks along the stream that winds back to a cave in Spain, each of which he referenced often in his writings and drawings, as did Epstein. Peake also appreciated Jewish art, as he showed when he paid a visit with his wife Maeve Gilmore – herself a gifted artist – to the studio of Emmanuel Mané-Katz in Paris in 1937. Mané-Katz wasn’t at home, but some of his work was visible through the window. Peake’s short poem about the visit is packed with references to the threatening context in which Mané-Katz was practising his profession. The day is oppressively hot, and makes Peake think of ‘the end of all the world / When no-one knows or cares if hell or heaven / Or nothingness cries trump upon tomorrow’, while the period the couple hope to spend with the artist is imagined as taking up ‘An hour of a painter’s nervous time’ [my emphasis]. Even the piratical ferocity of the canvas they glimpse through the studio window seems to be ominously cut off from its surroundings: ‘Upon a shadow’d easel there upreared / A silent canvas with its breast on fire / While all around it silence grew…’ Mané-Katz was best known at this point in his career for his vibrant depictions of everyday life in the Jewish community, and the idea of a painting of, say, a Hassidic wedding or a party of Jewish musicians being hemmed in by mounting silence offers a powerful commentary on the situation faced by Jewish artists at a time when Fascism, Stalinism and Nazism were tightening their grip on Europe.
Peake’s account of his visit to Mané-Katz’s Paris studio, unpublished in his lifetime, was one of only two poems in which he mentions contemporary artists. The other is a poem he wrote immediately after seeing Epstein’s Adam, which was published in the letter pages of the magazine Picture Post. The editor of Picture Post, Stefan Lorant, was a Hungarian Jewish filmmaker and photojournalist under whose editorship the magazine reported extensively on the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. Lorant followed Einstein to the United States in 1940, well aware that a German invasion of Britain – which at the time seemed imminent – would condemn him to death. In this context, Peake’s passionate verse defence of Epstein against his detractors may be read as political, placing the poet shoulder to shoulder with anti-Nazi agitators like Lorant. It’s worth bearing in mind that an earlier poem by Peake, a sonnet on ‘El Greco’ published in January 1938, transforms one of the most famous paintings of the Graeco-Hispanic visionary painter into a meditation on the sort of mass bombing carried out in Guernica, in a gesture that closely corresponds to Epstein’s transformation of Christ into a bomb victim in Consummatum Est. Peake is often described as apolitical; but the anti-Nazi interventions in his verse tell another story, as do his close ties to anarchism, as convincingly identified by James Gifford.
Peake’s poem ‘Epstein’s Adam’ is worth giving in full:
I have seen this day
A shape that shall outlive our transient clay
A virile contour when the world
Renews its crust
With our decayed and horizontal dust.
When this our perilous
Bright blood and bone,
Our hectic inches and the singing tone
Of throats and fingers are for ever gone,
And our sons’ sons shall have forgotten us,
This shape that I have seen shall journey on
Erect along the winding corridors
Of the future years –
A craving of cold stone! A vertical
Symbol of man’s perpetual
Dumb cry for light
Among the tangled Edens of our night;
A flowering fact;
A towering dawn of alabaster, hack’d
Into the yearn of Adam. His flat face
Lies parallel to the eternal skies,
His chiselled chest
Swells like a straining sail that holds a tempest
Captive within the rigging of his ribs –
Stone pistons of his arms – the architecture
Of surging thighs, deliver
A power and a magnificence
As brooks no question; this tremendous stance
Be-damns the bloodless mocker with his smug
And petty vision. Epstein fought
His burning tyrant for the shape he sought
And emptied a stone splendour from his heart.
There is a breed at large who have forgotten
That it is sap that drives the frozen tree
Into an April spasm; that it is blood
That drives the man; and that eternity
Is glimpsed through passion in a sudden light
That blinds the fickle processes of thought,
Thus in my sight
From those charged rhythms, suddenly
Adam broke free
And surged into my darkness, and made bright
The spirit’s deathless hankering
Within man’s body, that proud, tortured thing.
Peake’s poem confirms the sculptor’s conviction that his figure of Adam breaks free from conventional perceptions of time – a conviction ironically shared by the critics who mockingly aligned Epstein with Einstein, the architect of relativity. For Peake, however, the direction of travel of Epstein’s figure is unremittingly forward. The opening of the poem represents the sculpture as a figurative message from the present to the distant future, a shape that ‘shall outlive our transient clay’; outlive the flesh, that is, which was made from ‘the dust of the ground’ by God, according to Genesis, and whose ‘transient’ nature has been demonstrated in the 1930s by the impact on it of mechanized warfare. These lines remind the reader that they are made of the same substance as their progenitor, but that their death, which may be imminent, will shortly renew the earth’s crust ‘with our decayed and horizontal dust’, in stark contrast to the permanent stone sculpture. The second sentence of the poem underscores this sense of fleshly transience in the phrase ‘perilous / Bright blood and bone’, where the term ‘perilous’ and the brightness of blood remind us how often these usually hidden features of the human body have been brutally exposed by conflict in recent decades, as graphically described in (for instance) David Jones’s epic poem about war in the trenches, In Parenthesis (1937). ‘Hectic inches’ in line 9 makes living men seem minuscule as well as feverishly active (hectic is often used to describe the heightened colouring of fever victims), while the ‘singing tone’ produced by ‘throats and fingers’ can only be achieved by the living, and only then under special circumstances – when the mood and conditions make music possible. Bodily transience is made doubly transient by forgetfulness, and in this poem it seems inevitable that ‘our sons’ sons’ will soon have forgotten our very existence. Present generations having been erased like this in the first eleven lines of the poem, it’s for Peake to consider in the next section what sort of message to the future Adam embodies, as the sole survivor from the perilous present day.
In this poem, Epstein’s sculpture speaks first and foremost of masculinity. It has ‘a virile contour’ and line 11 mentions ‘our sons’ sons’ rather than our granddaughters. Its outlasting of living human beings stands in stark contrast to the fate of the many men who died in recent wars, often in far-off places that mattered personally to Peake such as Spain and China (where he was born). Adam’s ability to outlive Peake’s and Epstein’s contemporaries identifies him with a positive, creative version of masculinity as against a negative, destructive kind; he ‘journeys on / Erect along the winding corridors / Of future years’ like a discoverer, not a warrior, and articulates craving rather than hostility or revenge, becoming as he goes ‘A vertical / Symbol of man’s perpetual / Dumb cry for light’ as against darkness, a ‘flowering fact’ rather than a dream of conquest, a ‘towering dawn’ as against a heroic sunset. Violence is present in his makeup; in him an alabaster block has been ‘hack’d / Into the yearn of Adam’, and the idea might remind us of the sculptors Braigon and Rantel in Titus Groan, whose mortal combat over the woman they love, Keda, is fought out with the knives they use when sculpting wood and described as if they were chiselling each other’s bodies instead of stabbing each other to death. Peake’s understanding of Epstein’s Adam, however, is as an ebullient sign of life wrested from a time of death, as expressed in the statement that his cry for light emerges from ‘Among the tangled Edens of our night’. The notion of positive, creative masculinity emerging from destruction, darkness and death is enacted in the way Peake’s description of Adam’s figure emerges only after eleven lines describing man’s mortality, and the way the poem is structured around longer lines emerging out of shorter ones. Epstein’s Adam is for Peake a message of hope for creative men like himself or his editor Stefan Lorent, who were on the verge of being hurled against their will into the tangled night of war, a war fought over competing versions of Eden – some of which have no Jews in them, in spite of the fact that Eden itself is a Jewish concept.
Adam’s creativity is one of action, associated with travel, industry and construction as much as with sculpture. His ‘flat face’, which ‘lies parallel to the eternal skies’ in a statement of equality or at least equivalence to his maker, tops a body made up of elements of strenuous physical achievement: a chest which ‘Swells like a straining sail that holds a tempest / Captive within the rigging of his ribs’, arms like pistons, legs like architecture. And in generating this emblem of potent creativity, the sculptor had to fight, Peake tells us, like Braigon and Rantel; though the lines in which the poet describes this struggle make it sound as though Epstein had to fight himself: ‘Epstein fought / His burning tyrant for the shape he sought / And emptied a stone splendour from his heart’ (my emphases). ‘His burning tyrant’ might refer to the sculptor’s lifelong compulsion to create, which he speaks of often in Let There Be Sculpture, while the phrase ‘emptied a stone splendour from his heart’ suggests ejaculation as much as artistic self-expression. The lines capture the way Adam’s upturned hands press forcefully against his own ribs – protectors of his heart – as if in combat or in ecstasy; but they also invoke Epstein’s next and most famous colossal sculpture, Jacob and the Angel (1940), which depicts the grandson of Abraham supported as if in exhaustion by a muscular angel, their posture closer to that of postcoital lovers than the night-long wrestlers of the biblical account. Epstein’s sculptures in stone transform violent combat into sensual intimacy, and so overcome the tyranny of conflict that threatened to overwhelm the world in his lifetime. Peake’s poem does something similar, identifying Adam’s liberation from constraint (‘Adam broke free’) as a gesture like that of the artist, as described in the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake: ‘the creation of a work of art. The smashing of another window-pane’.
Set against this strenuously creative, transgressive masculinity in the poem is the emasculated ‘bloodless mocker with his smug / And petty vision’. The line might invoke for art lovers the most famous mockers of all – the people who mocked Christ on the way to his crucifixion at Calvary, as vividly recalled in Peake’s own poem ‘Thunder the Christ of it’ – and makes of the artist a Christ figure, the offspring of the divine creator who seeks to redeem creation by renewing it, investing it with fresh purpose and energy. Epstein represented Christ, as we’ve seen, in his most direct response to the rise of fascism, and was roundly mocked for it. Peake’s artists and heroes are repeatedly assailed by mockers: Steerpike is the ultimate mocker, mimicking the dignitaries and servants of Gormenghast and parodying in quick succession a romantic adventurer, a clown, a lover, an efficient medical assistant, a stern functionary and so on – always with that characteristic bloodlessness of his, a refusal to allow his current role to take possession of his body, or more specifically his emotions, the aspects of him governed by his heart. Adam is his polar opposite: representative of the capacity of nature to awake the seeming dead to impossible life, as a tree awakens after a hard winter; committed to seek the ‘sudden light’ when he sees it, irrespective of the rules and expectations that govern other people; unconcerned by the ‘fickle processes of thought’ that instruct the thinker to change direction regularly in pursuit of the best advantage for any given set of circumstances. His monumental body speaks to the capacity of human life to overcome death as arboreal life overcomes the February frosts. Born from stone, he has stone’s endurance in the face of destructive forces, and can frame or capture light in the planes and angles of his body, limbs and head. He is a progenitor of that stupendous structure Gormenghast Castle, though not ruled by ritual as the castle is; in this respect he’s more of a Titus Groan, that ‘proud, tortured thing’. Titus had stone in his heart and mind; other inhabitants of Gormenghast – Flay, Sourdust, Lady Gertrude, the Grey Scrubbers – were practically made of stone. Adam marks that stone as a bastion of defiance against the Nazis, a proclamation of the capacity of material things to resist attempts to reshape them into structures inimical to their properties.
Viewed from the point of view of the twenty-first century, Peake’s description of Adam’s stone form tramping down unpopulated corridors in a deserted castle, carrying with him pain and love, seems perfectly matched to the actual fate of Epstein’s sculpture. In the year it was exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in London – where Peake held exhibitions, too – Adam was bought by a gold miner Charles Stafford, who leased it out to Lawrence Wright, a Blackpool showman. As Jonathan Lee Cronshaw puts it, ‘Adam was exhibited as a sideshow and was later sold to Louis Tussaud’s waxworks [again, in Blackpool,] as a permanent exhibit, to be joined later by Consummatum Est, Jacoband the Angel and Genesis’.Adam remained in Blackpool for many decades, before being bought by Lord Harewood and displayed in a major retrospective exhibition of Epstein’s work in Edinburgh in 1961. Peake could have seen the sculpture he loved for a second time when he lived in Blackpool as an unhappy conscript between 1940 and 1942. Adam seems to have been displayed there as a kind of pornographic peep-show, with a film from 1939 showing women giggling and fainting at the sight of his enormous genitals. Peake, meanwhile, managed to transmute him into raw material for his own strange masterpiece carved in stone. Much of the first draft of Titus Groan was written in Blackpool, within a few streets of the place where Adam was ignominiously stowed, in his own version of Gormenghast’s Hall of the Bright Carvings, where great sculptures carved in wood reside in perpetuity, unvisited by anything but the settling dust.
In response to Peake’s poem, Epstein invited him and Maeve to dine at his house, where they met the sculptor’s wife, the Scotswoman Peggy Epstein. Peggy has been described as ‘an over-life-size woman with deep red hair’, who resembled Countess Gertrude in the Titus books, or so Maeve thought. One wonders if Epstein himself may have had some hand in ensuring that the most prominent form of art in those books isn’t Peake’s own medium of painting and drawing but sculpture.
The theme for Folklore Thursday this week is the folklore of our local places; and it coincides with the installation of three stained glass windows in the bay window of our flat in Glasgow’s West End. The windows are a family effort. My wife Kirsty thought of them, asked the makers of our windows if they were possible and made suggestions for details they might include. My grown-up children, Boo and Grace, designed two of the windows while I designed the third. And they represent local folklore in two ways: first because they reference Glasgow’s folklore by incorporating themes from a poem that’s become the city’s emblem; and secondly because they contain references to family folklore, that is, knowledge that only our family have and which we will read in the windows every time we look at them. It struck me, when I noticed Folklore Thursday’s theme, that the windows had something interesting to say about it, so I decided to write a blog post about them.
The poem, as all Glaswegians know, goes something like this:
Here is the bird that never flew
Here is the tree that never grew
Here is the bell that never rang
Here is the fish that never swam.
It refers to a series of miracles worked by Kentigern, patron saint of Glasgow, who acquired the name Mungo when he was ordained a priest at the Monastery of St Serf in the gorgeous town of Culross on the Firth of Forth. The bird was a robin, a pet of Mungo’s mentor, St Serf, which was killed by one of the young man’s fellow priests in training, who promptly laid the blame for its death on Mungo. Mungo took the bird in his hands and prayed, whereupon the robin came to life and flew to its master, chirping sweetly. The tree is usually depicted as an oak tree, though according to Glasgow City Council’s website it was originally a hazel. Mungo was left in charge of the fire in the monastery’s refectory or dining room, but he fell asleep and it went out – put out, it seems, by those malicious fellow seminarians. When he woke up Mungo took a bunch of hazel twigs in his hands, prayed over them until they burst into flames, and used them to rekindle the fire. The bell, it would seem, is just a bell, though it may have been given to St Mungo by the Pope. But the fish has a longer story. To quote the City Council’s website:
The fish with a ring in its mouth is a salmon and the ring was a present from Hydderch Hael, King of Cadzow, to his Queen Languoreth.
The Queen gave the ring to a knight and the King, suspecting an intrigue, took it from him while he slept during a hunting party and threw it into the River Clyde. On returning home, the King demanded the ring and threatened Languoreth with death if she could not produce it. The Queen appealed to the knight who, of course, could not help and then confessed to St Mungo who sent one of his monks to fish in the river, instructing him to bring back the first fish caught. This was done and St Mungo extracted the ring from its mouth. The scene is represented on the counter seal of Bishop Wyschard, made about 1271.
The story of the fish, with its link to the Clyde, presumably dates from St Mungo’s time in Glasgow, where he founded a church on the site now occupied by the Cathedral. The site of the city was chosen by a couple of oxen pulling a cart containing the corpse of a holy man named Fergus; Mungo instructed the obedient beasts to take the body wherever God told them to, and they duly made their way to the proper location. All this happened in the sixth century, but the stories of St Mungo are commemorated in the city’s crest, which it acquired in the nineteenth century.
Each of the windows in the bay window contains elements of St Mungo’s legend: a bird, a fish – though not with a ring in its mouth – a tree, a bell – and in Gracie’s window you can see all four. But these emblems share space with elements of family lore which only we four would recognise. Boo, for instance, tells me he was inspired by ‘the Kelvin walkway and urban wildlife/fay’ – the walkway being the path beside the River Kelvin which has been thronged with walkers since the first lockdown. For his bird he chose the heron we see so often at the weir near the ruins of the old Flint Mill, while the dark green strips on either side of the main picture contain dark creatures which may or may not be shadowy West End foxes, of the kind that used to live in the gloomy spaces under Hillhead Primary School on Gibson Street. The steeple in the distance invokes the steeples on the Great Western Road, one of which – the steeple of George Gilbert Scott’s Episcopalian Cathedral of St Mary – you can see from our bay window, though the one in the picture looks more like the steeple of Lansdowne Parish Church, now Webster’s Theatre and Bar, where Boo once worked in the Box Office. Boo also thought of the University steeple when he discussed it with me; and the rural landscape invoked for me our many trips to the hilly country north of the city. There’s a frog in a pane in the bottom left hand corner and a toad in the bottom right; Boo is always picking up frogs and toads, most recently I think in the wildlife garden at Glasgow Uni. The sun and the moon share the sky with the heron, and to me the sun looks like the shell of a whelk, of the kind Boo was always gathering on the seashore as a child. But the heron dominates, because the heron is ours, a personal family friend who stands on guard at the side of the weir, hoping no doubt to snap up one of the salmon you used to see leaping up it in spring – though I haven’t seen the salmon leaping for several years, and can only hope the tall grey knight isn’t going hungry.
My window, which is on the left as you face the bay from outside, has a robin in it as if in deference to Mungo. But it was Kirsty who asked me to put it there, because in our family robins have come to represent lost loved ones, who come back in the form of a bird to keep an eye on the children and friends they left behind. The bell is the bell of St Patrick, and as I was painting it I thought of the time not long after I first came to Glasgow when I cycled along the Forth and Clyde Canal till I came to a place whose name I didn’t know. Fortunately I met an old woman on the towpath and was able to ask her where I was; and she answered, like an old woman in a fairy tale, ‘You’re in Old Kilpatrick. You’ll always remember the name because it’s where St Patrick was born’. She was right, too: I’ve always remembered the name, and the association with St Patrick, and the old woman, and that bike ride in fine weather. The decorations round the edges of the window are based on the Book of Kells, which may or may not have been made on Iona; and as I drew them into the picture I remembered another picture I drew and painted long ago for a family friend, which showed St Patrick sitting under an old Irish cross with his favourite wolfhound lying beside him. That picture too had decorative themes from the Book of Kells, and the wolfhound in it was modeled on our dog Gelert, the largest and sweetest-natured dog I’ve known. The hill in the background is Dumgoyne in the Campsie Fells, up which I once walked carrying Boo in a backpack. And the strange yellow creature in the tree is a cat-bird fairy demon. I know you’ve heard about them, and now you know exactly what they look like, and where to look for them next time you’re standing by a twisted oak.
Gracie’s picture is the most allusive of all. It shows a flying fish, of course; and she chose this kind of fish to commemorate a family holiday in Mallorca, when we saw the miraculous airborne creatures skimming across the waves ahead of the boat that was taking us to a swimming spot in a secluded part of the island, where much smaller, sea-bound fishes nibbled our toes. The fish is surrounded by water because this is Gracie’s favourite element, and also the element of her Zodiac sign, Scorpio. Hidden in the middle panel at the bottom is the Angelic tune symbol from Cassandra Clare’s Shadow Hunter universe, of which the Mortal Instruments book series is one. Grace is a manic reader of thick tomes and enormous book series, and Cassandra Clare and Leigh Bardugo are just two of the writers she’s obsessed with. St Mungo’s signs are all over the place in her window, from the rings at the four corners – four of them plain, four of them with jewels – to the oak trees in the side panels, the bells and the stylised wings of birds. Oak trees, by the way, are personal things to us as well as to Glasgow; outside our window stand the only oak trees planted in the street, the last to get their leaves in spring, the last to lose them in autumn. When their leaves come out in a few weeks’ time you’ll be able to see real oak leaves dancing behind the painted ones.
I suppose the point I’m making in this post is that folklore of a quite specific kind is present in all cohabiting communities, and that we all have objects and pictures that evoke for us things that no one else could ever guess at. What we read, where we’ve been, the things that have happened to us, weave themselves together into stories which get told and retold down the years, until they get lost among fresh skeins of story woven by new generations. Old stories reappear among the new ones, as St Mungo’s does in our pictures, and lend continuity to the narratives we’re part of. And for us, the window painters, fantastic stories (fairy tales, the novels of Cassandra Clare, invented supernatural fauna, the lives of Celtic saints) infuse our local landscape with light, so that we see the fantastic through it, and the tiny details of tree and bird, fish and water, grow magical as a result, capable of coming to life in strange new ways at different times of the day or night.
The greatest miracle of our windows, though, is how they were constructed by a master craftsman using our paintings as a map or blueprint. That’s something only we and the glazier can really appreciate: the amount of trouble he took to select the right textures for the glass he was using in each panel, the thought he gave to the question of how to translate the texture of pen and ink or brushstroke to the glass’s surface, the little inventive touches like a piece of red glass stuck on behind to make the robin’s red breast, the oak leaves created by scraping away the paint from the side panels in Boo’s window. We got the measurements for the middle window slightly wrong, and the glazier had to find ways to make Gracie’s design fit the space precisely. His name is Colin Stevenson, of Stevenson Stained Glass, and he worked on the windows in the evenings from December to late March, after the working day was supposed to be over. The love he put into this process has made itself part of the story they tell, and we’ll think of it every time we look at them.
That’s our contribution to Folklore Thursday’s theme for 25 March 2021, folklore of local places.
I knew Alasdair Gray. During his lifetime I was always aware that typing those words would one day come to seem momentous, like saying I knew William Blake or Ursula Le Guin. The seed of this momentousness was sown the moment I arrived in Glasgow and read his fantastic novel Lanark as a guide to the city. There could be no better guide, since it covers everything: Glasgow’s architecture and inhabitants, its place in the British Empire and hence the world, its place in the spiritual universe, the quality of its light, the various kinds of illnesses it suffers from (turning into a salamander being the least of them), and the fact that living there made one complicit with the conditions that cause its ills – as well as with the glories and wonders it is full of. Not long after my arrival at the University of Glasgow in 1992 I found myself teaching the novel of his I love most, Poor Things, which is about a woman who may or may not have been cobbled together, Frankenstein style, by an eccentric surgeon. The book made Glasgow into Frankenstein’s creature, and Scotland too, and the British Empire, and the world. Local things became universal in Gray’s writing, more explicitly than in the work of anyone else I can think of except James Joyce, and this made me proud to be a citizen of the city he lived in.
I met him through a mutual friend, the critic and poet Philip Hobsbaum, founder of a series of influential writer’s groups in Belfast, London and Glasgow. Alasdair was a regular visitor to his house in Oban Drive, and on one occasion he bought a drawing made by my daughter, who was in Primary School at the time. He paid her a pound for it, I think, and said it was an investment for the future, since she was bound to become a famous artist, and he could then sell it for a vast profit. In one gesture, the man summed himself up: a lifelong agitator for decent wages for artists and other workers; a visionary who was always looking to the future, not least in the way he pictured Scotland as an independent socialist republic; a warm and gentle human being who respected and spoke to everyone, though he also seemed profoundly shy. I say ‘seemed’ because his shyness didn’t make him shy away from (for example) public speaking at demonstrations or conversations with strangers, at least in my experience. That said, I didn’t speak to him as often or for as long as I would have liked to. I always felt I shouldn’t take up too many minutes of his astonishingly creative time.
One story I heard from the Hobsbaums, among many others, concerned Alasdair’s creation of one of his finest murals in the front room of Philip’s wife Rosemary, who then lived in West Prince’s Street, a slightly shabby address in Glasgow’s West End. Alasdair had been enjoying himself one evening, to the extent that he cut himself somehow without noticing and left a smear of blood on the living room wall. He liked the shape made by the blood, which resembled the body of a whale, and later came back with his paints and started to sketch out a gigantic mural depicting one of his favourite characters, the reluctant prophet Jonah who was swallowed by one of the great leviathans of the sea. He painted and painted for weeks until the mural was complete. A few years later, Rosemary sold the flat and moved somewhere else, and the new owner wallpapered over the mural. I can’t say I altogether blame them, because it did take up the whole of one wall of the main room in a small apartment, and it was hard to appreciate the picture as a whole because the room was too small to stand back from the painting far enough to see it entire. A few years after that another new owner removed the wallpaper and found the mural underneath, badly damaged by glue. She got in touch with Alasdair to say she’d found it, and Alasdair agreed to come and restore it, entirely free of charge. When the restoration was finished the owner made the painting available to be seen by the public for Doors Open Day, the date in September when the public are invited into private buildings throughout the UK to which they do not normally have access. I saw it then, was blown away by it, and was delighted when it found its way into that beautiful volume Alasdair Gray: A Life in Pictures (I’d give you the page number but the book is in my office at work, inaccessible because of the lockdown). Alasdair fought all his life to achieve fair play for workers, including artists like himself, but his generosity was boundless, and he could spend many hours of his precious time making art for little or nothing, as a gift, a promise, an uninvited prophetic vision.
A few years after meeting him I was lucky enough to work with Alasdair when he came to work at the University of Glasgow as Professor of Creative Writing. Actually the Professorship was another Frankenstein’s creature, having been cobbled together from three entities: the novelist James Kelman, the poet Tom Leonard, and Gray. They had grand designs, which the university was not in the end able to fulfil. One of them was to buy the former church on University Avenue which is now the Charles Wilson Lecture Theatre, and turn the building into a state-of-the-art centre for creative writing, equipped with the latest IT technology, film studios, performing spaces, etc. etc., and attended by around 20 hand-picked students every year, the best and brightest of applicants to the MLitt programme, as it was then. I don’t think the vision was altogether serious, in that nobody thought it could really happen, but it was an authentic representation of the place the arts should occupy in a healthy society from the Professors’ point of view. The most memorable moment of the Professors’ brief tenure as a trio, from my own point of view, was an Away Day in a certain Scottish rural village, organised by the then Head of English Literature, Susan Castillo, to make plans for the future of creative writing at Glasgow. It was attended by my friends Willy Maley and Adam Piette as well as Susan, and the three professors stayed with us in the big hotel that dominates the village. At one point during the proceedings we found ourselves in the village pub. The conversation carried on far into the night in front of the fire, with round after round arriving at the table and the visions of possible futures getting more elaborate and ambitious with every passing hour. I think the doors were locked at one point, but I can’t be sure. We reeled back to the hotel by starlight, and when I woke up in the morning the whole thing seemed to have been a dream; but it was one of those dreams you had in Alasdair’s company – and in Jim’s and Tom’s too – which contained the seeds of political action driven by the engine of the imagination. In Alasdair’s company you too had visions, and carried them home with you to nourish after your time with him was over.
I also remember Jim, Tom and Alasdair reading to students during an occupation. If you approached them to support you in what they considered an important cause they were always available, always committed, always able to find a way to use their art on your behalf.
On two occasions I myself approached Alasdair to ask his opinion of other writer-artists whose work I liked, and thought he might like too. The first was Alfred Kubin, the Austrian printmaker, illustrator and novelist, whose book The Other Side I’ve loved since being introduced to it by one of my university tutors, Christopher Butler. Alasdair took it away, read it carefully, and wrote me a note about it in his unique and beautiful handwriting. He didn’t like the novel, which seemed to him to be about a man who created a perfect replica of a town in the Austro-Hungarian empire for no better reason than a kind of misplaced nostalgia; the illustrations, too, he considered blurrily impressionistic, without style or focus. These are my words, not his; I still have the note, but that too is locked away in my office; when I can get back in there I’ll type it out in full below [no I won’t; I’ll make another blog post about it!]. The point is that he didn’t think much of art that didn’t engage with politics. An artist should be committed, the three professors told us often, and by that they meant as much committed to social transformation as to their art. Alasdair’s understanding of commitment was pretty broad, I think, but didn’t embrace the construction of what amounted to an imaginary theme-park for the perpetuation of inequalities.
The second time I approached him for comment on a writer-artist was when I went to look for him at the Òran Mór – the former church, now entertainment venue, where for many years he could be found working on his biggest and most ambitious mural – to ask if he would provide me with a quotation for the cover of my edition of the Collected Poems of Mervyn Peake. I found him at the bar, asked him my question, and watched him consider it carefully for several minutes. Eventually he gave his answer. No, he said, he couldn’t possibly provide an encomium for a writer-artist who did not dedicate his work to a worthwhile cause. And having issued this declaration of his own integrity – perhaps with slight reluctance – he suddenly burst into verse. He was quoting verbatim, from memory, a poem from Peake’s first novel, Titus Groan. I think this was the stanza, with its chorus:
In dark alcoves I have lingered
Conscious of dead dynasties.
I have lingered in blue cellars
And in hollow trunks of trees.
Many a traveller by moonlight
Passing by a winding stair
Or a cold and crumbling archway
Has been shocked to find me there.
I have longed for thee, my Only,
Hark! The footsteps of the Groan!
Lingering is so very lonely
When one lingers all alone.
Gray, it seemed, loved Mervyn Peake – or at least liked his work enough to memorize a poem from it (Edwin Morgan liked it too). I was enchanted, both by the refusal and by the revelation, and have never forgotten the experience of listening to Alasdair’s voice rising over the hubbub of conversation at the bar as he intoned the words he considered too frivolous to be written about, but by no means too frivolous to be internalised, to be made part of himself. From such contradictions geniuses are made.
Those are my words about Alasdair Gray, written on the inaugural Gray Day, when his friends and fans gather together to remember a remarkable creator – or maker, the word he would rather use. My memories may be faulty, but they’re mine, for what they’re worth, and you’re welcome to them.
Understanding the text of Maurice Collis’s Quest for Sita as the work of an Irish nationalist enables one to read it in political terms (see the previous post for details). But what of the drawings that accompany Collis’s narrative? Peake’s association with Ireland came through his wife, Maeve Gilmore, whose father was an Irish Catholic doctor; but Peake’s politics were those of an artist, whose work is to represent the world with fidelity to his own artistic vision, in defiance of the many pressures – financial, cultural, personal, political – to adapt their style in response to the latest fashion or movement. Could his drawings in Quest for Sita be understood as a commentary on the problem of this kind of fidelity to one’s vision in the 1940s, when illusions of many kinds, from propaganda to more insidious kinds of indoctrination, competed for attention with accurate representations of people, things, ideas and feelings as the artist saw them? Collis describes the pictures as ‘a quest of [Peake’s] own to show Sita to us’ (p. vii), and the impression this gives is that ‘showing’ Sita is a process fraught with difficulty. The puzzling nature of Peake’s drawings confirms this impression, not least because it’s not easy to be sure what some of them show. Thinking about them may give a number of clues as to why he chose to offer them as puzzles rather than as a simple visual response to Collis’s text.
As Peter Winnington has pointed out, Peake’s pictures diverge from Collis’s text on many occasions, some of them not even referring to an identifiable incident or character in the adjacent pages. This can’t, I think, be said of his illustrations for other publications, all of which testify to a meticulous close reading of the texts they embellish. Peake explains why he reads so carefully in a talk on ‘Book Illustration’, first given for the BBC radio show ‘As I See It’ in 1947. After embarking on a study of the major illustrators, Peake tells us – the Englishmen Rowlandson, Cruikshank, Hogarth and Blake, the Frenchman Doré, the German Dürer and Goya, the Spaniard:
I began to realize that these men had more than a good eye, a good hand, a good brain. These qualities were not enough. Nor was their power as designers, as draughtsmen. Even passion was not enough. Nor was compassion, nor irony. All this they must have, but above all things there must be the power to be identified with author, character, and atmosphere, the power to slide into another man’s soul. A new and hectic art seemed to have been opened up to me; a new world.
There is something unsettling about the italicized phrase with which this passage climaxes, the power to slide into another man’s soul; a hint at demonic possession that perhaps explains why so many of Peake’s finest illustrating projects involve dark magic, or the suspicion of magic – his images for Christina Hole’s Witchcraft in England (1945), for instance, or Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1948), or Dorothy Haynes’s Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch (1949). The unsettling tone is taken up by the phrase he uses to describe book illustration, a ‘hectic art’ – hectic often being used to describe out-of-control activity, especially the behaviour and appearance of a fever victim (sufferers from tuberculosis are often said to possess a ‘hectic beauty’). And Quest for Sita, in which a person may well be very different from what they appear – and identities are always available to be changed, as Ravana’s very nearly is by his admiration for his captive – makes the possibility of being possessed by someone else, sliding into another person’s soul, or being gripped by a fever of desire, uncomfortably real. Moreover, in the central portion of the book sliding into the ‘soul’ of the author is a complicated task, since the author is both the Irishman Maurice Collis and the Sanskrit poet Valmiki, from whose text he adapts his version of the Ramayana. It’s striking, then, that Peake chooses only to illustrate this central portion; the part of the text where magic is most active, illusions are omnipresent, and beings from the Three Worlds (earthly, divine, infernal) interact openly with one another, as they do not in the frame narrative. Peake is concerned solely with Swallow’s adventures as Sita, the dream sequence (as Collis presents it) when Swallow is occupying the body of the legendary princess. Sita’s body in this central section of the text is always under threat, in danger of being replaced with the body of Ravana’s sister, Surpanakha, in Rama’s bed, or of having Ravana replace Rama in her own. She is seized and subjected to successive spells of illusion and psychological coercion by the Demon King, his guards and his enchanters. Sita’s identity itself, in fact, is under siege – not just by Ravana but also by Rama, who disbelieves her assertions of her own constancy – while the identity of the demons who abduct her is even more unstable than hers. Peake’s drawings visualize this predicament, which explains why they are so unlike conventional illustrations.
Peake’s drawings are executed with exemplary control, as they had to be, given the simplicity of the drawing style he chose for them. Peter Winnington describes Peake’s three principal drawing styles in Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art:
his illustrations […] fall into three groups. In the first […] the illustrations are based on a single line, drawn with pen and ink, that outlines or silhouettes objects, without recourse to shading or cross-hatching. […] The second group […] is characterized by cross-hatching. […] Works in the third group […] were executed with a brush rather than a pen.
The drawings in Quest for Sita fall into the first group: pen and ink work based on a single line unsupported by cross-hatching. And as Winnington points out, it’s among the most ‘spare and economical’ examples of this group, where the ‘continuous thin line endows the space that it encloses with an extraordinary sense of three-dimensional volume and weight’, so that the ‘figures have a sculpturesque fullness and roundness at the same time as an ethereal beauty’, but with ‘nothing of the cold perfection of marble’. Peake never in fact uses a single continuous line in the book – one can easily identify the places where the artist must have lifted his nib from the paper to execute a new line – but Winnington is right in saying that this is frequently the impression these drawings give. The restless curving movements of the pen, the sinuousness of the trail it leaves behind, endow the apparently continuous line of ink with a metamorphic quality which perfectly suits the tale of Sita’s abduction. A few years after completing this commission Peake expressed his delight in the metamorphic possibilities hidden in a continuous line of ink by producing sketches for a never-realized television cartoon called Just a Line (early 1950s), about a straight line that yearns to achieve the sorts of sculpturesque effects with which the Quest for Sita is filled. ‘Sometimes I feel quite frantic,’ the line exclaims at one point, ‘when I think what I might be’ – such as a ‘wonderful land full of strange shapes and sounds and peculiar creatures and broken statues’, perhaps Collis’s India. Liberated from its straightness the line would be able to transform itself into anything it likes, from a tiny mouse to an imaginary landscape, and the impression of continuousness put across by Peake’s serpentine lines in Quest for Sita suggests that they could undergo just as many transformations at the will of the magician-artist. Each drawing can be understood as existing on the verge of becoming something else; and this impression is only enhanced by the reader’s uncertainty in many cases as to what exactly the images refer to in the text – if anything at all. This uncertainty transports the reader into the magic-filled world of the pre-Golden Age, so that we share Swallow’s uncertainty as to who she can trust, how she is to read the bodies that present themselves to her, and indeed, who she herself may be. The notion that each drawing may be controlled by a different personality in the text – sometimes Sita, often Ravana and his enchanters, sometimes perhaps even the great archer Rama, whose skills with another sort of line, his bowstring, are legendary – is reinforced by the thematic echoes that link picture to picture (extravagant headwear, the nudity of both male and female figures, the strange creatures they contain). Unlike the line in Peake’s projected cartoon, the line in these drawings is continually changing, and may be possessed by any number of souls at different points in the visual narrative.
As I’ve just indicated, one of the ways in which Peake diverges from Collis’s text is to represent most of the male and female figures in the book as nudes, modeled sometimes on the sensuous nudes of Indian, Burmese or Indonesian sculpture in wood or stone (which Collis could have shown him), sometimes on the erotic line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, often on neither of these things. Each figure looks much like all the other figures of the same gender in the book, the women rounded and flexible, the men well muscled and angular, though some figures blur these gender distinctions, like the androgynous figure clutching a bird on p. 107. They have little or no context – only a little ground beneath their feet, sometimes supplemented with a few lines composing a background – to help us place them in the narrative. Stripped down to the basics, the figures wear headdresses whose extravagance is intensified by the blank spaces all around them and the nakedness of the figures they crown. Reminiscent of the towering royal headdress of South-East Asia known as the makuta, as I said in the previous post, none of these pieces is ever repeated between one picture and another. Each, then, could be taken to represent the current mood of its wearer: aggressive, sad and contemplative, sexually aroused, acquisitive, sly and so on. This is most vividly suggested by the claws that burgeon from Surpanakha’s crown as she performs her dance of seduction on p. 49, suggesting her predatory intentions towards the royal couple, or the daggers and pneumatic drill that spring from its apex when she takes on her monstrous true form on p. 51, just before launching her attack on Sita. The complicated ornamentation on these makutas suggests they are made from gold, which links them to the illusions that envelop Ravana’s gold-filled fortress of Lanka, and to Ravana’s vision of mortals, sprites and gods as so many expensive items to be added to his personal treasury. The sensuality of so many of the pictures, too, suggests that we are looking at them through the eyes of the Demon King; they represent, in other words, the dangers that beset Swallow in her role as Sita, and suggest the ease with which we, the reader-viewers, might have given in to the seductions she resists.
This association of the drawings with the dangers posed by Ravana is first suggested by the very first picture we encounter in the book (not including the one on the dustjacket, the sketch of Sita stamped on the cloth-bound hard front cover of my edition, or the nude dancer on the title page). This first picture appears at the point in the narrative when Ravana’s presence is first revealed to Rama and Sita, two chapters after Swallow’s trance-transition to the Golden Age. The Chapter in which it appears is aptly called ‘The Apparition’, announcing the entrance of magic into the story in the person of Surpanakha; and the drawing shows an old man – presumably an anchorite – squeezing water out of his beard at the edge of a cliff, while looking nervously around as if to spot one of the demons who have been troubling his solitary existence since Rama and Sita came to live nearby (p. 45). The old man is fully dressed and wears an umbrella-like hat, and if the dampness of his beard is at first hard to account for – there is no suggestion in the text that the anchorites were unusually wet when the royal couple first met them – it may be explained by the words of the ‘ancient recluse’ who describes the recent depredations of Ravana’s demons:
Taking many forms, both of men and animals, they issue from the forest and haunt us incessantly. […] At dead of night their vast laughter bursts out when we are practicing our penances. Or flooding down they will foul our altars, which at dawn we find to be drenched with blood. (p. 46).
The wetness of the old man’s beard, in other words, may show the after-effect of the demons ‘flooding down’ on himself and his fellow recluses; the liquid he wrings out of it may be blood. As for the cliff, it may represent the precipice of danger at the edge of which the couple find themselves as the old man speaks. Many of the pictures that follow give the impression that we have fallen off this precipice and are leaping, dancing or tumbling through space. This impression is enhanced by the dynamic movement of the male and female figures in the book, who launch themselves through the air, balance on their hands on the backs of beasts, or fling themselves from their foaming steeds in ecstatic agony. Their bodies twist, their arms and legs gesticulate wildly, and they often seem off kilter, always on the verge of taking up a new position, a new life or a new identity. Peake’s series of drawings begins with the entrance of Ravana into the story, so that they seem to be ‘of Ravana’s party without knowing it’, to adapt the famous words of William Blake about John Milton.
The old man in that first picture has a creature near him, a diminutive lizard which is taking an obvious interest in the drops coming out of his beard. Many of the pictures contain birds and beasts, often looking on in surprise or curiosity, like this lizard. Again, these creatures have a source in Collis’s text, where they crop up from time to time to stare in amazement or consternation at the actions of gods, sprites, mortals and demons. During the battle between Ravana and the divine vulture Jatayus, the ‘sylvan deities of tree and stream and hill’ manifest themselves and utter cries of encouragement for the vulture (p. 68). Later Sita’s abduction is witnessed by a throng of forest animals, which follow the shadow of Ravana’s chariot in their various ways – ‘galloping, bounding, swinging, a-wing’ – spurred on by their sense that a ‘great wrong [is] being consummated’ (p. 72). Animals also play a major role in the story, of course, in the form of the warrior monkey Hanuman, his king Sugriva, and the vulture brothers Jatayus and Sampati. But these significant beasts, the ones with major roles, are often hard to identify in the drawings. The birds on pp. 67 and 69, for instance, whose pictures sit alongside Collis’s account of the fight between Ravana and Jatayus, have hooked beaks and decorative plumage, but seem not to be the vulture of the text, who is ‘divinely brave, divinely strong, and divinely beautiful’ (p. 66). Instead they are small, their expressions goofy.
The animal on p. 63, meanwhile, seems clearly to represent one of the vampiric donkeys that draw Ravana’s chariot, according to Collis; it has protruding fangs, grotesquely puckered lips, and batwing ears, and the drawing of it is positioned very close to Collis’s description of the ‘asses with the faces of vampires’ (p. 64). But the animal’s tail is not much like that of a donkey (Peake could draw donkeys with great accuracy, having ridden one to school in his childhood). And the quadruped that appears a few pages later, in one of the two pictures that accompany the fight between Ravana and Jatayus (p. 67), looks very unlike the vampire ass of p. 63. It has a headdress made of something like coral, square teeth, strange pointed hooves, and an expression even more goofy than that of the bird perched on Sita’s wrist (if the woman in the picture is indeed Sita).
The next picture shows a carnivore – perhaps a tiger – with a woman balancing upside down on its back, another small bird perched on her ankle (p. 69). By no stretch of the imagination can the picture be said to represent Sita struggling to free herself from Ravana’s grasp, as she does in the facing text; while the bird on her ankle can hardly be said to have ‘claws as large as pruning hooks’ (p. 68). It also looks rather different from the bird in the previous drawing, which may also be intended to represent Jatayus. What, then, does the picture on p. 69 stand for? The tiger may be some sort of embodiment of Ravana, but the gleeful expression of the woman on his back seems quite inappropriate for Sita, who should be watching for the outcome of the fight with some anxiety. We seem to be in the presence, then, of a visual fantasy in which the battle between Ravana, Jatayus and the vampire asses, as witnessed by Sita, is replayed as an erotic juggling act watched by an appreciative audience consisting of a charmingly decorated snake and a lizard with wings. Is this Ravana’s way of seeing the combat? Or are we in the alternative universe of Peake’s art, the ‘world’, as Collis described it, which is ‘pervaded by a mood unlike that of any writer or painter working today’, and where the fight has a different meaning from the one it has for Collis? We simply don’t know; the drawing is enigmatic.
At times, then, Peake’s animal drawings can’t be linked with any confidence to particular details in Collis’s text; and this is most obvious in the case of the monkeys. The monkeys (if they are indeed all monkeys) change their appearance radically on at least three occasions. The most obviously simian figure in the book is the one on p. 143 (see end of post), which may be Hanuman with his bow and spear and elaborately ornamented sword. The short legs, long arms, mobile lips and small, closely-set eyes suggest an orang utan from Burma, while the foliage pouring from its helmet suggests the jungle where it feels at home. The picture on p. 139 may or may not represent Hanuman’s monarch, King Sugriva, because Collis describes him wearing a ‘fantastical battle-cap’ (p. 145), and the creature is certainly wearing the most fantastical of all the crazy bits of headgear in Peake’s illustrations. The crown has what looks like the capital of a stone column incorporated into it, surmounted by a kind of vase containing three hands, one of which supports a wheel, on top of which balances a vase with a single flower in it. But this monster could just as easily be a manifestation of Ravana, who is ten-headed but is always changing his appearance to conceal his decacephalic nature (decacephalic is one of Collis’s favourite words). The picture occurs alongside Rama’s account of how he saw Sita – or her double – lolling in Ravana’s lap before the final battle; so perhaps it represents the Demon King as Rama sees him. Its face might be that of a leonine baboon, and hence suitable for a monkey king; but it might just as easily be the face of a lion, perched on top of a humanoid body, the sort of hybrid shape Ravana might be expected to delight in. Again, we just don’t know.
The third monkey image, if it is one, appears on p. 101. The monster in the picture, which has a naked woman crouching on its back, doesn’t look anything like a monkey or an ape – it’s more like a Chinese lion, tiger or dragon; but in my edition it sits alongside the part of the text where the captive Sita refuses to ride on Hanuman’s back to escape from Lanka, because she thinks that certain observers would find this mode of travel unseemly for a woman of her rank. I am tempted to think of it as a representation of what her husband Rama might think if Sita were to agree to escape in this way – an imaginative response, that is, to the words she uses to describe his potential reaction:
What will people think of me riding on a monkey? Will Rama be pleased to see me appear embracing such a mount as your Honour’s self? […] Rama would be glad to have me back, no doubt, but at the same time might condemn the manner of my return, flying over the sea and between the worlds, not like the wife for whom he mourns but like a wild thing, a witch or ghost (p. 100).
Certainly the woman in the picture looks decidedly wild, with her legs spread wide apart, her face smiling impishly, and a telltale skull embedded in her hat. The skull, too, appears to be smiling. And the monster she rides is smiling too, its lips bared in a grin that displays its blunt teeth and long curved tusks. Its six-pronged tail stands erect, perilously close to the woman’s haunches. My reading, then, makes some sort of sense, but the picture doesn’t support it by, for instance, showing the monster as in any way apelike. It’s a riddle, like all the other drawings in Peake’s part of the volume.
Other animals in the pictures have no relation at all to anything in Collis’s text. The androgynous person on p. 107, for instance, has a lion ramping behind them, and occurs at a point in the text where the monkey Hanuman is running riot in Ravana’s palace. Is the lion an image of Hanuman’s ferocity? The woman on p. 131 is holding a grotesque sort of Pekinese dog, with tufts like sea anemones on its elbows. There’s no dog mentioned in the text. All in all, the birds and beasts have more in common with Swallow’s retrospective description of her adventures in the Golden Age than with any particular episode she took part in. As she tells the old man Ho after waking from her trance, ‘I saw birds, and dragonish persons who were birdlike, and beasts that were like birds, and birds that were like men’ (p. 147). The sentence might vaguely describe her various meetings with talking vultures and a flying monkey, but they also suggest a world in which people, beasts and spirits are always mixing, melding and changing appearance, as if in the throes of a particularly hectic fever dream.
In this procession of uncertain images, the quest for Sita is a challenging one for the reader as well as the artist. The nudity of the women in the drawings does not accord with what we know about the princess, who bedecked herself with finery before her abduction. It’s possible that she lost these clothes in the course of the journey to Lanka, since at one point she flung her ‘yellow silk mantle’ to some monkeys in the hope that they would take it to Rama and show him which way she went. Alternatively, or in addition, Sita’s nudity may be intended to suggest her subjection to the predatory gaze of the Demon King and his monstrous cohorts. Certainly it aligns her with the female nudes in Collis’s text, all of whom are Ravana’s dancers, who ‘had a likeness to dryads, being clad only in gems and the sparkle of gems, as such nymphs are in dew-drops and mottled sun-light’ (p. 78). Some of Peake’s drawings correspond quite closely to Collis’s account of these dancers. They are ‘led by midgets and contortionists’, and Peake represents the dancers’ attendants in several images of Beardsley-esque dwarfs, some of them clutching the legs of women, and in two images of contortionists or acrobats (pp. 83 and 85). Some dancers wear ‘round their waists […] a belt of bells’, and here the distinction between them and Sita blurs still further. The dancer on p. 91 wears a belt that might well be made of bells; but so does the woman standing in front of a horse or ass in the drawing on p. 67, which is positioned alongside the textual description of Ravana’s fight with Jatayus. Most of the dancers have bodies that resemble Sita’s, though some are distinguished from the rest by the length of their claw-like fingernails. Their faces are often like hers, too: heart-shaped, with large, wide-set eyes, full lips and long lashes, like the face of Peake’s favourite model, his wife Maeve. As a result, it’s impossible to be certain in any given picture of a full-length female nude if we’re looking at Sita or one of the dancers. The problem is compounded by the fact that three pictures I’ve already discussed as possible representations of Sita have little connection to Collis’s text (pp. 67, 69 and 101). The hallucinatory quality of the drawings, in other words, is as evident in the human figures they contain as in their birds and animals. They float in a space or world adjacent to the verbal narrative, and only occasionally seem fully to converge with it.
Most of the men in the drawings are as hard to identify as the women. There are a couple of exceptions, such as the image on p. 123, which self-evidently shows the beheading of Rama, since this is the only decollation mentioned in Collis’s text. To confirm the identification, the picture occurs on the page before Sita is shown her husband’s ‘freshly severed head’ (p. 124), so the reader is likely to make the connection between the dead man and Rama very soon after the picture has appeared. The head in the drawing, however, has no distinguishing features, and its identity is in any case rendered questionable by the fact that Rama has not in fact been beheaded; his decollation is a lie spread by Ravana’s enchanters. And other possible representations of Rama in Peake’s drawings are not so certain. It’s not clear, for instance, whether the archer shown in the drawing on p. 111 is the bowman Rama as described in Collis text on p. 110 (‘the most famous archer among the mortals’), or is instead one of Ravana’s soldiers, whose ‘bows are the strongest in the Three Worlds’ (p. 109). The bowman in the picture is mounted on a horse, whereas Rama and Ravana ride chariots in their final showdown – so the drawing might show a member of Ravana’s ‘cavalry’ (p. 111). The same uncertainty surrounds another archer, who appears on p. 135, standing in front of a horse. Could this be Rama, standing in front of one of the white horses that draw his chariot, as the text informs us (p. 134)? The cruelty of the man’s expression suggests he is not the prince; but if it’s Ravana, he’s disguised as a human or a god, since Ravana’s true form, as we know, has ten heads. More even than the women, it would seem, the men in the pictures are hard to name, because Ravana has spun his webs of enchantment round them in his bid to mislead Sita into infidelity.
The men in Peake’s pictures are mostly naked, as I’ve already mentioned, like the women, and in the men’s case this nudity seems to emphasize their vulnerability: their capacity to be subdued by a woman’s qualities, like the Demon King Ravana, and to lose their grasp on the characteristics of patriarchal masculinity: strength, decisiveness, vigorous activity, control over women. The first man we meet in the drawings is the elderly anchorite, who is fully dressed but fearful, damp and threatened (p. 46). After this we are shown only women, until we reach Chapter 19, which describes the temptation of Sita in Ravana’s palace. Here suddenly a succession of men step onto the paper stage; and the order in which these drawings appear may be significant. The first picture shows a giant of a man who is carrying a tray as if it were laden with heavy objects, although the only thing on the tray is a pot with a solitary flower in it (p. 75). This was the picture, or something very like it, that impelled Collis to approach Peake to make the drawings for Quest for Sita; and here the man forms part of a parade of entertainers that follows Ravana as he comes to seduce his captive on the night after her arrival. Most of the parade is made up of dancers, but it closes with ‘a rout of dwarfs and buffoons, who pretended to carry yet other dainties, with show of effort supporting a dish on which was nothing but a stone or a common flower’ (p. 76). The man, then, is clearly a buffoon, his muscles straining for no purpose at all, symbolically demonstrating the emptiness of the show in which he takes part. The next men to appear in the drawings are a pair of male dwarfs who seem to be fighting over a single place between the legs of a female dancer. One eyes the other, brandishing a phallic snake and making a threatening gesture, as if preparing to shove him away from where he stands clutching the woman’s calf. A few pages later, another dwarf holds up a goofy bird while flouncing a tail between his own buttocks. When at last we get a drawing of the King of Demons, then – in Chapter 20, titled ‘Moonlight in the Park of Spring’ – he has been heralded by a series of satirical versions of maleness: the frightened hermit, the ridiculous muscle-man, the lecherous dwarfs. Men in Peake’s drawings are fragile, and seem to be striving to impose their will on women in a bid to convince themselves of their own forcefulness.
Ravana is the other male figure who is easily identified among Peake’s images. Near the beginning of Chapter 20 Collis describes him in some detail, dressed in ‘a scarlet cloak, open in front, floating as he came like the foam of ambrosia, and sown with flowers’ (p. 88). The Demon King is ‘lustful and proud, elated with wine, and glorying in the night’; his face is ‘a mask’, like the masks of the goldfish in his pond (p. 88). But Sita resists him, and at the end of the chapter he is forced to replace her in his bed with one of his dancers, a former favourite who assures him that ‘You will get ill loving one who loves you not’ (p. 92). And Peake pictures him on p. 89 in such a way as to hint at his abject failure to subdue his captive. Gliding along ‘as though on an air current’ (as Collis puts it), his feet suspended above the ground, voluminous cloak thrown back to reveal his naked body, he appears weightless despite the power of his muscular frame beneath the cloak – the exact reverse of the strangely weighty flower we saw a few pages earlier. Muscular though he is, his body is hairless, as if to suggest that he has not yet achieved complete maturity. His face is fishlike, as if to stress the lack of thought going on behind it. His crown looks like a garden ornament. The male gaze may have shaped the bodies of the naked women we have seen in Peake’s drawings up to this point, but men themselves, it seems, are feeble, unable to exploit their power for any greater purpose than to please the eyes. They are decorative, not practical, and thus ill suited for the martial feats they are expected to engage in.
As the parade of drawings goes on, the men in them get increasingly fragile. The series of drawings that represent the final fight between Ravana and Rama show men as always dangerously off balance, from the mounted bowman on p. 111, who seems to be sliding off a melting horse, to the beheaded warrior on p. 123, who has lost his body altogether, to the seeming delight of the ferocious mount that stands behind him. After this picture they begin to fall and die, pierced through by arrows, snarling in pain and rage as they writhe towards death. A rearing horse flings its furious rider into space, its mane and tail blazing (p. 127). A dying swordsman drops his fantastically ornate sword, its quillons fashioned in the shape of wings as if to confirm its intention to elude his grasp (p. 133). The man throws back his head in angry ecstasy as an arrow transfixes his chest. The arrow-pierced rider on p. 137 seems to have been mounted by his horse, in an ironic reversal of the hoped-for mounting of Sita by her abductor. The Demon King intended his seduction of the princess to culminate in a ritual, orgiastic penetration; instead he and his men are penetrated by his rival, and flap the air as they die with great limp hands.
Ravana and his warriors are closely akin to many other men Peake drew in wartime: the young soldier who seems to die while involved in a homoerotic affair with a centaur, in a set of recently discovered sketches; the naked youths suspended in space which he used to illustrate his first collection of poems, Shapes and Sounds (1942); the Ancient Mariner, who throws out his chest in mute expectation that it will be struck by some supernatural arrow sent to avenge his piercing of the albatross. In Peake’s war drawings men tumble, slump, recline and sag, borne along like flotsam on the tides of a global conflict they cannot control. The tumbling, wounded men in Quest for Sita are located in the Second World War by their affinity with these vulnerable predecessors. They proclaim, too, their affinity with the men in Peake’s wartime novel, Titus Groan, who have been read as uniquely vulnerable by Matt Sangster in a revealing essay.
Peake, like Collis, seems to imply that the women in Sita’s story are more powerful in body and mind than the men who compete for their attention. They are also more closely attended to in his drawings, as in Collis’s narrative. In among the full-length images I’ve looked at so far, Peake presents us with a series of portraits, whose positioning in the text implies they show Sita. The first comes in Chapter 16, after the chapter where Sita sends Rama away from her in pursuit of the wonderful gazelle, followed closely by his brother Lakshmana. At this point in the narrative she is alone, and for the first time unsure of her behaviour: ‘With the departure of Lakshmana,’ Chapter 16 begins, ‘Sita remained bowed and weeping […] uncertain whether she had acted rightly or no’ (p. 58). The portrait on the page opposite (p. 59) doesn’t show her in this state; the woman in it is not weeping. Instead she looks sad and thoughtful, much as Sita does when Ravana sees her for the first time, in the chapter’s third paragraph. On hearing a sound outside, Collis tells us, Sita ‘raised her head’ and ‘overwhelmed with joy ran to the door’; but on seeing who it is (Ravana disguised as a religious mendicant) ‘She looked at him askance, grievously disappointed’, while the mendicant looks back ‘with open admiration’. This is no surprise, Collis tells us, because ‘in her court silks, jeweled and tyred, her lovely face reflecting like a mirror her troubled heart, she was a vision hardly imaginable at the door of the mountain retreat’ (p. 58). If the picture opposite shows Sita at this moment, in other words, she is being seen by the Demon King. But she is not seeing him; she looks through or beyond him, seeking her husband. The male gaze may seek to subjugate her face and body to its pleasure, but after the opening chapters of the Ramayana section of the novel, the man who interests her is always elsewhere. As she looks out of the page, he is behind the reader’s shoulder, so to speak. No other man can match him.
Ravana is Sita’s abductor and would-be seducer, and we might expect this to be reflected in how he sees her. At the same time, the Dark Angel’s gaze in Collis’s narrative begins to change him, subjecting him to the power of Sita’s personality, awaking in him an admiration of her inward qualities as well as her body. This split perception of Sita is well represented in Peake’s portraits. She is physically attractive in a conventional way, with large eyes, full lips, tilted eyebrows, curling lashes and a heart-shaped face. In several portraits she is nude or semi-clad, underscoring the Demon-King’s erotic obsession with her; and in all of them she is also ‘bejewelled and tyred’, sporting elaborate earrings and a version of the makuta or crown on her head (that, at least, is what I think Collis means by ‘tyred’, though the OED is not very helpful in supporting my reading of ‘tyre’ as a variant of ‘tiara’). In some drawings, including the first portrait, she wears make-up, with a tilaka or third eye painted between her eyebrows and floral patterns on her cheeks. But if she is represented as physically attractive, she is also represented as strong; her neck, in particular, is extraordinarily powerful, supporting her head on a pillar of muscle that defies the conventions of anatomy, as in this first example. Her expression is always serious in these portraits – whereas the women in the full-length pictures often look gleeful, ecstatic, or coquettish. The portraits are often placed in the first UK and US editions alongside moments in Collis’s text when Sita exerts her power. The first (p. 59) comes at the moment when Ravana begins to admire her; in it she looks at Ravana in disappointment, so that the reader as well as the Demon King is aware that he means nothing to her.
The second (p. 97) comes at one of Sita’s weaker moments, when she confesses that she sent Rama after the gazelle on a ‘stupid whim’ (p. 96); but the confession confirms her power over her husband and his brother, and Sita’s expression in the drawing shows no remorse.
The third portrait (p. 113) occurs when Ravana’s initial impression of Sita is replaced by ‘a new and more violent feeling’, which makes him aspire to achieve ‘paradise’ for her – to win a place in the world of the immortals – in defiance of his own demonic nature. In this portrait she is not looking at the viewer at all, her thoughts again being clearly occupied with something else.
The fourth portrait (p. 131) comes at the point when Sita gains control of her Amazonian guards, who beg her to protect them against Rama’s allies, Hanuman’s army of warrior monkeys. In this picture Sita is holding the bizarre creature I mentioned earlier, some sort of fanged Pekinese. Her nails are long and pointed, like the nails of Surpanakha in Peake’s picture of her. She is looking away from the viewer, as well as the creature, and the impression she gives is that of a woman who can tame any monster without even thinking about it – which is exactly what happens in the text.
The last portrait (p. 141) faces the moment in the story when Sita makes her solemn declaration that Rama was mistaken in thinking he had seen her on the final battlefield in Ravana’s chariot, ‘covering him with kisses’, as the Dark Angel sped towards his fatal final encounter with Sita’s husband (p. 140). The tilaka between her eyebrows looks as though it has burst into flame, and her eyebrows too are jagged, as if to indicate her anger at the accusation. Her makuta has a protective cloth attached to it behind, like the helmets worn by the male warriors in Peake’s drawings of them – most notably in the portrait of Ravana. She looks directly at the viewer, as if to confirm her words, and her neck is like a column or tower of flesh. This is the final image we are given of Sita, and it couldn’t be more obviously intended to leave us with the sense that she knows now exactly who she is, and intends us to know it too. In Peake’s terms we have slid into her soul, and are ready to return to the mortal world in the last three chapters, armed with a familiarity with this seminal figure in Indian myth that will enable us to look with new eyes on the countries and cultures in Asia that embraced it.
Clearly my interpretations of Peake’s drawings are largely conjectural – stories I’ve made up about them, based on their location at certain points in Collis’s narrative. We have not been given a verbal commentary to help us read them, and other individuals will read them very differently from me. Our scrutiny of these drawings, in fact – our awareness of how they diverge in many details from the text they accompany – makes us collaborators in the business of bringing Sita back to life, the quest for Sita. We are writers and artists as well as readers. Between them, text and drawings ensure that the book is a creative process, since it’s for us to interpret the dialogue in progress between them. And Collis’s preface, with its acknowledgement of the constantly changing texture of the great stories, confirms that this is exactly what both artists – writer and illustrator – set out to do. Their theme was independence, and text and drawings perform that theme as well as any artwork I can think of.
 Peake explains his philosophy of art in the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (Grey Walls Press, 1949), reproduced in Mervyn Peake: Writings and Drawings, ed. Maeve Gilmore and Shelagh Johnson (London: Academy Editions, 1974), pp. 80-82.
 Maurice Collis, Quest for Sita (New York: The John Day Company, 1947). All references are to this edition.
Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen Books, 2006), compiled Sebastian Peake and Alison Eldred, ed. G. Peter Winnington, p. 107: ‘there are no captions to Mervyn Peake’s drawings, for (as here) they often do not correspond to a specific character or moment’. The picture mentioned is the one of the old man, the first drawing in the body of the text, discussed below.
 Quoted from Mervyn Peake: Oscar Wilde (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1980), Foreword by Maeve Gilmore, p. 9.
 Winnington (ed.), Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, Chapter 7, pp. 101-103.
 See Mervyn Peake: Writings and Drawings, ed. Gilmore and Johnson, pp. 93-96.
 ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.’ William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), in The Poetical Works of William Blake, ed. John Sampson (London etc.: Oxford University Press, 1914), p. 249.
 Matthew Sangster, ‘Peake and Vulnerability’, Miracle Enough: Papers on the Works of Mervyn Peake, ed. G. Peter Winnington, introd. William Gray (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013), pp. 105-116.
The work of Maurice Collis is well known in Myanmar (formerly Burma) but hardly at all in Europe or America, though he was once a celebrated author. Quest for Sita (1946) – his version of part of the Sanskrit epic the Ramayana – is most famous in Britain for having been ‘illustrated’ by the writer-artist Mervyn Peake. Collis himself describes their partnership in the book’s preface as joint ‘quests’ to interpret Valmiki’s text, and the equal status of these quests is signaled on the dust jacket of the first US edition of 1947, which describes it as the work of ‘two master craftsmen’ and the pictures as ‘Drawings by Mervyn Peake’. In his Preface to this edition Collis refers to the transformations undergone by the epic through the ages, whereby the story has been repeatedly modified in response to the new pressures exerted on it by the new experiences of successive generations. ‘Each writer,’ Collis tells us, ‘as he brought it to life again, tinged it with the colour of his own period and environment’, and he sees himself as following in this tradition. His aim, he says, was to ‘rescue and bring [Sita] back to life’, and his method ‘while preserving the main outlines of her history’ to ‘vivify it by passing it through his imagination, the course taken freely by his predecessors of Asia’ (p. vii). ‘The same,’ he concludes, ‘may be said of Mr Mervyn Peake, whose drawings are less illustrations of the text than a quest of his own to show Sita to us’. Quest for Sita, then, may be described as a joint venture that represents part of the ancient epic through the eyes of two European artists at a particular time in history. The artists may be from Europe, but for Collis they both participate in India’s commitment to the Sita legend, seeking to transplant it into a Western culture that has deliberately distanced itself from the culture and history of the subcontinent it has been exploiting for so many centuries.
In this blog post and the next I will consider Quest for Sita as a collaborative artistic enterprise, rather than as a writer’s project which happens to have been embellished by an artist. In the process I hope to learn something about Collis’s neglected craftsmanship as a writer, while also learning how to think about the illustrator’s craft, which strikes me as having been equally neglected. I can’t think of a better book to use for the second of these purposes; first, because Quest for Sita contains haunting pictures which have been widely praised (though not often analysed) by both commentators and collectors; secondly, because the drawings seem to have a life of their own, quite distinct from the text; and thirdly because this is a book which has never been printed without its illustrations, so that Peake’s images seem to have been accepted as essential adjuncts of Collis’s prose. I should say at once that I didn’t at first expect to have as much to say as I do about Peake’s pictures; and there remains a lot more to say about them. To modify the old saying, a picture is worth much more than a thousand words, a truism that gives the lie to the usual perception of the relationship between word and image in book illustration, which tends to weight the collaboration very heavily in favour of the writer.
If Quest for Sita was a bid to bring the heroine of the Ramayana back to life, 1946 was a remarkable year in which to do it. Valmiki’s epic is revered and performed throughout the Indian subcontinent, South East Asia and China, and the whole of this region was in turmoil as the project took shape. According to Peter Winnington, Peake’s drawings were made ‘in the late summer and autumn of 1944’, while Collis’s text must have been written earlier. Burma (Collis’s home of more than twenty years) was largely under Japanese occupation at the time, and the Burmese independence movement, which aimed to liberate the country from both Japanese and British rule, was at its height. Collis set his version of the story in China, also under partial Japanese occupation in 1944, and India, which was mobilizing huge numbers of troops against the Axis while continuing its own struggle for independence from the British. Peake’s drawings furnish the characters in the story with variations on the South-East Asian royal headdress known as makuta (magaik in Myanmar), linking the story back to Burma. The ‘colour of [the artists’] own period and environment’ pervades the project, in other words, and many of those colours are violent ones, well suited to a story of abduction, combat and rescue played out between gods, mortals, demons and monkeys in a landscape of mountains and magical islands.
Maurice Collis was well placed to make the most of the Sita story in this context. He is often described as ‘British’ in accounts of him, but in fact he was an Irishman, the oldest of three brothers from Killiney, County Dublin. His father, a wealthy solicitor, sent him to Rugby School in England, and he joined the Indian Civil Service when he left university, settling in England after his retirement in 1934. All of this makes him sound like a thoroughgoing Unionist and a dedicated servant of Empire. But Collis was a nationalist sympathizer – allying himself to the Burmese as well as the Irish independence movements – and his behaviour as a magistrate in Rangoon got him in trouble for failing to toe the colonial line on several occasions. His book Trials in Burma (1937) describes three trials in particular where his judgments were at odds with those of the British expat community. In the first he failed to impose serious punishment for sedition on a well-known activist for Indian independence, Jatindra Mohan Sengupta, when he spoke publicly in Rangoon; in the second he reprimanded a British merchant for failing to administer first aid to a servant he had fatally injured; while in the third he sought to impose a prison sentence on a British army officer who had knocked down two Burmese women in his car. The sentence was overturned by the High Court and Collis was effectively demoted, being sent as an Excise Commissioner to the remote port of Myeik, where he went on researching Burmese and Chinese history and culture. After his retirement from the Civil Service he wrote many books – novels, histories and biographies – as well as three plays. Many of his titles confirm his continuing interest in the workings of imperialism, from an account of the Spanish invasion of the Americas, Cortés and Montezuma (1954), to a history of the first and second Opium Wars between Britain and China, Foreign Mud (1946). As an Irishman, he saw British activities in the Far East with the sceptical eye of an outsider; and his consciousness of this outsider status may have been intensified by the fact that publications by the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party were widely circulated in 1930s Burma, as a route map to liberation from British influence.
A few more things are worth mentioning about Collis. First, he had a pair of remarkable brothers, John and Robert, the first of whom became a pioneering ecologist while the second worked as a doctor with the Red Cross during the Second World War, notably in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and later with cerebral palsy patients in Dublin, including the writer-artist Christy Brown. Robert could conceivably have met Mervyn Peake in 1945 when the artist entered Bergen-Belsen with the aim of recording it in pictures (a task Peake found impossible, as he explained in a poem). Maurice Collis, meanwhile, had a lifelong interest in the visual arts; he wrote books about L. S. Lowry and Stanley Spencer, and took up painting himself at the age of 67. It was this interest in art that first brought him together with Peake. He reviewed one of Peake’s exhibitions in June 1944 and was so struck by one drawing in particular that he invited him to draw pictures for Quest for Sita. The friendship between them lasted for the rest of Peake’s lifetime. When Peake won the Heinemann prize for Gormenghast and The Glassblowers in 1951 he asked Collis to go with him to the prize-giving ceremony, and Collis later penned an ‘introduction’ to one of Peake’s exhibition catalogues, in which he comments that ‘His world is pervaded by a mood unlike that of any writer or painter working today’. This unique ‘mood’ is what sets Peake’s pictures apart from Collis’s text in Quest for Sita, and Collis’s celebration, in his Preface, of the independence of Peake’s response to Sita suggests that it was achieved with the writer’s active encouragement.
To describe Quest for Sita as a version of part of the Ramayana doesn’t do the book justice. It’s a narrative as much concerned with the international impact of the Ramayana as it is with the epic itself; and its stated intention to ‘rescue and bring [Sita] back to life’ endows Valmiki’s poem with the same kind of vibrant relevance to anti-colonialism in India, China and Burma as the Irish Revival had to the struggle for an independent Ireland. The book introduces the Ramayana to its Western readers in much the same way as James Stephens (another friend of Peake’s) had introduced British and American readers to the Irish literary heritage that underpinned the independence movement.Quest may, in fact, have had a similar intention to Stephens’s retellings of Irish tales: to get the old stories into widespread circulation among populations that did not know them, and thus to lend those stories a symbolic and political reach they would not otherwise have had. And Collis underscores the unexpected link between the Indian and Irish contexts with the addition of a number of new episodes of his own, to supplement the new episodes added over time by his Asian forerunners.
In Collis’s book, the tale of Sita’s abduction by the ‘Dark Angel’ Ravana is set within a frame narrative that takes place near Chongqing City in Sichuan Province, China. A girl named Swallow, whose family are starving, is sold by her parents to a marriage broker, who plans to sell her on as a wife to any man willing to pay a good price. Swallow escapes from the broker’s clutches and is given shelter by the mysterious Sage of Wushan Mountain. The Sage believes he recognizes the girl from some former life, and she agrees to take part in an experiment whereby he sends her back in time, with the help of a meditation-induced trance or dream, to the period when they first knew each other. By this means the pair discover that they are reincarnations of the famous lovers Sita and Rama, having taken on their roles in a dream reenactment of the central portion of the Ramayana. When Swallow wakes from her dream at the end of the novel she learns that the Sage is also the son of the Emperor of China, banished from court after having been unfairly implicated in a plot against his father. The frame narrative ends with the Prince being reinstated as his father’s successor and returning with his new wife Swallow to the imperial court – though not before the girl has made sure that her parents and younger brothers will never starve again.
The frame narrative isn’t set in any specific period in history, but it contains elements that would have been familiar to Chinese, Irish and Indian readers. The notion of a Chinese Emperor in exile might have called to mind the so-called Last Emperor of China, Pu Yi, who was deposed as a child in 1912 and later set up as puppet Emperor of Manchuria by the Japanese invaders. Royalty in exile was also a theme of Irish history, especially after the Anglo-Norman Invasion of the late 12th Century. Famine, meanwhile, was an abiding presence in British colonial history. The famine that drives Swallow’s family to offer her up for sale recalls both the Great Hunger triggered in Ireland by the potato blight of 1845-9, which was exacerbated by the refusal of the British government to intervene, and the famines that afflicted China in the nineteenth century, which were exacerbated by population expansion and the widespread use of opium. It was the British who forced the Chinese government into legalizing opium in the Opium Wars of 1839-60, as Collis explains in Foreign Mud (a book he published in the same year as Quest for Sita); so the British imperial authorities were complicit with disastrous famine events in China as well as in Ireland. The British were complicit too with famine in India, much closer to the time when Collis was writing. Churchill famously refused to relieve the food shortage in Bengal in 1943, resulting in around three million deaths. Collis makes no reference in Quest for Sita to the Irish, Chinese or Bengalese famines, but for readers who shared his anti-imperialist sentiments he would not have needed to.
Famine drove the Chinese and the Irish to disperse across the world, where they often found themselves subject to racist abuse. Collis’s frame narrative works to counter such racism by elevating Swallow, the daughter of a starving Chinese farmer, to semi-divine status as the heroine Sita, before providing her with the most spectacular of fairy tale endings. The ending, in fact, represents the fulfilment of all her dreams – and from the start of the book Swallow is represented as an inveterate dreamer. In childhood she is always dreaming of Wushan Mountain, expecting some ‘Saint’ to come down from its slopes and whisk her away from her life of poverty. She later learns to her disappointment that Wushan is not the mountain it was, in terms of the sanctity of its occupants. An old man named Ho, who helps Swallow escape from the broker’s henchman, explains that the hermits living there now are very far from Saints, and that the mountain’s reputation has dwindled accordingly. Ho’s personality confirms his words, since his own claims to wisdom and holiness are decidedly suspect. He insists, for instance, that he has mastered magic in the course of his studies, but the only spell he ever casts is a feat of trickery whereby he changes Swallow into a boy by giving her male clothes, ‘a metamorphosis as complete,’ he adds, ‘as any that magic might have effected’ (p. 10). He then frightens away the broker’s henchman by telling him that the girl has transformed herself into a hare, which both suggests to the terrified henchman that she is a demon and proves, as Ho points out, ‘what excellent results may be obtained by blending the natural with the supernatural’ (p. 11). By this point in Collis’s story we may suspect that the world in which it takes place is one where spirituality and magic have been set aside in favour of pragmatism, as embodied in the sleight of hand that helps the poor survive in times of crisis.
But later Swallow finds that her dreams are not so far-fetched after all. Magic lurks everywhere in Collis’s novel, just beneath the surface of the present, woven through the fabric of the past. Swallow’s ‘metamorphosis’ into a boy is only the first of many episodes in which illusions play a major part, and each illusion conceals a reality more remarkable than the last, revelation opening out from revelation in a series of Chinese boxes. What seems at first, then, to be a story that highlights the slow decay of Chinese civilization over time, ends by insisting that the link between past glory and the suffering present is an active one, just as it was for the Irish literary revivalists in the days of British rule. One might see the book as an allegory for the work of looking closely into unfamiliar cultures before you judge them. The closer the European or American reader looks into the life of the starving girl we meet in the opening pages the more wonderful she appears, and the more remarkable the Chinese and Indian cultures that produced her.
Swallow herself resembles a set of Chinese boxes from the moment we first meet her, like the story in which she appears: one box hidden inside another in an endless series that continues to unpack itself until the end of the narrative. Despite her poverty at the beginning she is well educated, and can recite poetry to express her feelings (pp. 3-4), of the kind made popular in Britain after the Great War by the translations of Arthur Waley. She also feels ‘some hidden aspiration’ (p. 4) for better things even when she is hungry, the earliest clue to her mythical past and imperial future. The Chinese box analogy is reinforced when Ho brings her to meet his master, the Sage of Wushan Mountain, who gains from her face the impression of meeting again ‘one whom I had lost through my own fault in the mists of time’ (p. 22). After a time this impression recedes, but it continues to haunt the Sage’s mind as he gets to know her better. He describes it as ‘fantastical’, since she is only a ‘poor village girl in [a] blue cotton gown’, but nevertheless takes her on as his pupil, and increasingly sees resemblances in her not only to the person he first took her for but also to himself (talking to her is ‘like talking to oneself’, he begins to think [p. 23]). His desire to uncover her past identity is part of a drive to discover his own, since he senses they are closely linked; and Swallow in her turn senses that she knows him as well as herself, being convinced that he is ‘sane and wise’ despite their short acquaintance (p. 27). Her spiritual journey to the past, then, is a journey both into herself and into him, and takes her to a place where disguises and false appearances are everywhere, and where seeing through them is a necessary act of heroism. Collis’s stress on disguises and false appearances in his frame narrative, in other words, echoes a theme in the portion of the Ramayana he retells, and implies that knowledge – of the sort he himself acquired of Chinese and Burmese language, art and history – leads to the recognition of equality between previously unevenly matched elements: communities, individuals, genders, in the frame narrative; humans, gods, demons and animals, in the Ramayana.
At the same time, knowledge in this book is hard to obtain. The Sage’s doubts about Swallow’s past identity, which he tests by sending her back in time, later find an echo in Rama’s doubts about Sita’s loyalty, which he tests by subjecting her to trial by fire. Even the nature of the place and time Swallow travels back to in her trance is left uncertain. We are informed in the heading of chapter 10 that the period she enters is the ‘Golden Age’ of Hindu myth, but Rama’s brother Lakshana casts doubt on this designation (p. 44), and his doubts turn out to be justified. In the following chapter we learn how Rama was banished from his father’s court through the machinations of his wicked stepmother; and later his wife Sita, who went with him into the wilderness, is captured by the Demon King Ravana and taken to his island stronghold of Lanka – later Sri Lanka – from which Rama and his brother Lakshana must set her free. Lanka represents an illusory Golden Age in miniature, which substitutes lavish ornamentation and wild orgies for enlightenment and impartial justice. From a distance the island appears as ‘golden, glittering, bodied with green, rising from the foam’ of the Indian Ocean (p. 118). And it is full of gold. Ravana likes his monstrous followers to wear ‘gold coloured’ skin to hide their true forms (p. 76); he drinks from a gold chalice at his orgies (p. 78), and promises his Amazon warrior women beautiful youths with ‘dimpled golden skins’ as a reward for good service (p. 84). So obsessed with gold is Ravana, in fact, that at one point his prisoner Sita compares him to the ornamental carp in his palace pond:
Sita waited by the goldfish pond, watching the scarlet shapes as they glided under the white locus. The faces were as if masked, like masked dancers in a supernal drama, for the thought in their eyes was not of this world. Their orbs stared coldly, monstrously, like dragon-masks. To the little denizens of the water they seemed dreadful for all their splendour of gold. Such was Lanka, both gilt and demonic, with its shimmering sea and white battlements, its palace of women from all the heavens, and a dragon king of many metamorphoses. (p. 129)
Gold, then, is a suspect mineral in this version of ancient India, and it is for Rama and Sita to find a way to bring about a true Golden Age in place of Ravana’s false one. Sita herself points this out at one stage, when she recalls the miniature Golden Age the couple experienced in their hermitage before her abduction, but goes on to say that this too was not the real thing. ‘That the Golden Age be extended to all the earth,’ she tells her friend, the vulture Sampati, ‘Rama must fell Ravana’ and return to rule his father’s kingdom (p. 120). But this is hard to achieve, since the material gold of royal courts and marriage brokers – as against the spiritual gold of enlightenment – continues to exert its fascination on the young couple, and ends up by competing with spiritual gold throughout the middle portion of Collis’s text for control of their souls.
Spiritual gold is much harder to acquire than material gold in Quest for Sita, and as easy to use as deceptive gilding for bad intentions. In the frame narrative, as we’ve seen, there has been a decline in Chinese sanctity in Swallow’s lifetime; but sanctity proves equally elusive in the age of Sita. From the start of the Ramayana section, the notion of holiness is used to put a gloss on political scheming. When Rama’s stepmother, Queen Kaikeyi, coerces his father into naming her son as heir to the realm in Rama’s place, she chooses to reinforce the king’s decision by sending Rama and Sita into exile, setting them up as religious solitaries in the ‘woods of the anchorites’ (p. 38). In token of their new pseudo-religious status the Queen has them clothed in the distinctive habits of the ‘anchorites of the forest mountains’ (p. 42); but this fails to conceal the couple’s true identity, since even dressed in these humble garments they remain ‘as beautiful as denizens of the Golden Age’. Ashamed of his weakness in acceding to Rama’s exile, the King then exposes his sense of the disparity between their high birth and their new role by urging them to carry various luxuries into the wilderness: servants, ladies, soldiers, gold, their favourite dishes. Rama refuses, desiring to prove himself a genuine anchorite, not a fake one, and thus to certify his obedience to his father. The King, however, sends a box of clothes and jewellery after them, so that Sita at least can dress like a princess, even in exile (p. 42). And predictably, this box of clothes and gold is the couple’s undoing. The events that lead to Sita’s kidnapping begin after she has opened the box of clothes to try on the dresses they contain. At once a wonderful gazelle trots out of the forest, whose distinctive markings – the colour of its hide ‘gold splashed with silver’, its rainbow tail like that of an exotic breed of goldfish (p. 54) – reveal its status as bait for unwary princes and princesses. It’s in pursuit of this goldfish-gazelle that Rama leaves his place by Sita’s side, swiftly followed by his brother Lakshmana, sent after him by Sita to rescue her husband from a seeming attack by ferocious demons. The Princess, then, is partly responsible for her own abduction, having been distracted from her religious duties by the sumptuous garments sent by the King. And this distraction could have been anticipated from the start of the central section of Quest for Sita. Not long before this episode, she and Rama were assuring each other, like the banished Duke Senior and his companions in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, that the wilderness is a better place than the royal palace. Rama told Sita that the ripples that embellished her wrists as she bathed in a pool provided ‘Livelier bracelets […] than ever [she] wore’ at the royal Court (p. 33); while Sita in turn assured her husband that the tree under which they were sitting resembled ‘the scented parasol they used to hold above us’ to mark their royal status. Despite their obedience to the King’s command, in other words, the couple kept seeing the royal court through the mountain landscape as if through a window, which suggests that their minds were not attuned to the life ascetic.
Ravana seems to mock this failure to commit to a religious existence when he appears to Sita, soon after the episode of the gazelle, in the unlikely guise of a ‘religious mendicant’ (p. 58). This apparent monk keeps making inappropriate remarks about Sita’s beauty before revealing himself as the Demon King and whisking her off in his magic chariot. Once in Lanka, the religious mockery continues in the entertainments Ravana chooses for Sita’s amusement. At one point his dancer-sprites reenact the seduction of the saintly ‘anchorites of the Black Desert’, each dancer transforming herself from anchorite to seducer and back again to anchorite in ingenious imitation of the constant struggle between body and mind undergone by hermits:
That at certain moments a dancer in jewels and girdle, by force of expression, pose and some inner identification, took on sufficiently the appearance of an anchorite, wrestling against the very lasciviousness which her form represented, was far more potent in suggestion than if she had remained a temptress. To see the anchorites, each a naked sprite, writhing, staring, overcome and, turned pursuer, darting, leaping; and, at the moment of the leap, to see the sprite again, seductive and smiling; to see all this in the self-same dancer, was to be confused, nor to know whether the transformation was by art or magic, an imagined or a real metamorphosis. (p. 80)
This dance in fact replays the adventures of the royal anchorites, Sita and Rama, as an inner conflict. The couple’s dual identities both as prince and princess and as holy hermits set them radically at odds with themselves, a state of mind Ravana hopes to exploit as he seeks to lure them into his power, as he has lured many others before them.
But there’s another side to the dance of the sprites, which predicts the eventual outcome of the continuing contest between Ravana and the royal couple. The dancers, we’re told, have ‘some inner identification’ with the anchorites they mimic, and this suggests that they too are undergoing some sort of identity crisis, torn between their ostensible work of seduction and a secret sympathy for the targets of their sensual assault. And as Sita’s captivity goes on she inflicts a similar identity crisis on her demonic captor, drawing him slowly but surely away from his lifelong obsession with lust and conquest towards a reluctant but growing delight in her inward beauty. As a result, by the time he confronts her rescuer, Rama, Ravana is no longer simply a demon; he has ambitions to transform himself into the ‘King of Heaven’, having been converted by Sita’s goodness ‘from a dark angel into a god of light’ (p. 115). He shares Sita’s state of being split between one kind of existence and another, but with this crucial distinction: neither kind of existence he courts is a legitimate one, since as a demon king he is prone to aggressive attacks on neighbouring kingdoms, while as Sita’s lover he seeks to supplant her lawful husband. Sita’s incongruous interest in royal clothes, by contrast, is an expression of her genuinely royal status, and anticipates the moment when that status will be restored. Sita is never at any point as divided as Ravana is, so that the likely end of their contest can be predicted from the start.
The two-way struggle between Ravana and the royal couple over which shall convert or transform the other is set in motion by the very first meeting between their houses. The first member of Ravana’s household to visit Rama in his hermitage is Surpanakha, the Demon King’s sister, who approaches the prince with the clear intention of replacing Sita in his bed. At the same time, this intention triggers an inner conflict which reveals itself in constant changes to her appearance:
Staring at her face they saw that the features were not constant but fluctuating, as if formed of a mist or substance that ran together, so that now they saw a beautiful, now a hideous face, an expression languid and subtly smiling, or, again, horrific with starting orbs, a grimace so twisted that an eye would be carried to the middle of a cheek, a double face, or a face and the shadow of a face. (p. 47)
Surpanakha’s weirdly mobile, Picasso-esque features (amusingly visualised in Peake’s second portrait of her, reproduced here as Surpanakha 2) provide an index to her uncertainty as to who she is and what she wants. On the one hand she wishes to take Rama back to Lanka, where as her husband he will regain the status he lost as anointed heir to a powerful monarch, though the monarch in question will be her brother. On the other hand, as Rama points out, this seeming restoration of the prince to his former status will in fact transform him utterly, since it will make him the successor of his father’s ‘opposite’, a Demon King. To become Surpanakha’s husband he will have to betray his true wife, Sita, and thus place himself ‘past reason’, succumbing to the permanent instability to which Surpanakha herself is subject, and so ceasing to be Rama, the man she desires. Lost in this maze of contradictions, Surpanakha quickly loses what stability of form she once possessed, launching into a frenzied ‘dance of enticement’ which merely exposes the lurking ‘shadow of her monstrous self’. And the dance concludes with a fierce attack on her rival, Sita, in ‘the full horror of her form’. The attack confirms her desire to supplant Sita as Rama’s wife, while at the same time revealing how incapable she is of filling that position, of becoming the wife whom Rama loves in his current identity as the unimpeachable Prince of Ayodhya. Her inward self is radically at odds with her seductive outward appearance, and she is finally unable to conceal the disparity between these component elements of her being. Rama’s brother Lakshmana wounds her as she attacks, and her defeat predicts (again) the defeat of her brother Ravana, destroyed by the man he wishes to replace in Sita’s affections, the man who, in the end, he wishes to be, in spite of his lifelong quest to become his ‘opposite’.
Ravana describes himself a number of times in the text as the Lord of the Three Worlds – that is, of Paradise, Earth and Hell, as Collis explains in his play Lord of the Three Worlds. As we’ve seen, the Demon King supports his own claim to all three regions by transforming his island fortress into a false Paradise, and by seeking to impose his will on the earthly mortals Rama and Sita while maintaining control over his fellow demons in all their manifestations. But his island Paradise keeps revealing its hellish true colours – for instance in the pink-snouted crocodiles that lurk in its moats (p. 73) – and his own efforts to represent himself as a worthy rival for Prince Rama keep being undermined by his obvious preference for booze-fuelled orgies over faithful love. For all his continuing efforts to hide his real motives behind a veil of illusion he only succeeds in revealing his demonic nature more clearly as time goes on.
Meanwhile, Sita’s vision becomes increasingly piercing thanks to her affinity with the inhabitants of the true Paradise, as against Ravana’s fake one. This affinity reveals itself in her growing friendship with the animal messengers of the gods, the vulture brothers Jatayus and Sampati and the monkey Hanuman. When first abducted by Ravana, Sita finds her vision distorted by his powers of enchantment, because the white umbrellas that shade his chariot have the property of making her see with the eyes of her captor: ‘As she came beneath their shadow, it was like entering the portal of another world, for the [earthly] cottage was suddenly distant and less real, and the landscape of a different colour’ (pp. 65-6). But by the time she reaches Lanka she sees things more clearly, largely thanks to the intervention of the heavenly vulture, divine Jatayus (p. 53). Sita’s instant recognition of Jatayus when she first meets him, knowing him at once for an authentic denizen of Paradise (‘her instinct told her this was truly Jatayus’, p. 52), established the link between them long before Ravana came on the scene, and the link is confirmed when Jatayus is mortally wounded in the attempt to rescue her from her abductor. Even after his wounding Jatayus is able to set Rama on the right road to rescue Sita, so that his vision continues to work in her favour up to the moment of his death. After his demise his attachment to her is passed on to his brother Sampati, who performs the crucial office of reporting to her the real events of the final battle between Rama and Ravana, even as Ravana’s enchanters seek to persuade her that Rama is dead and Ravana victorious. Meanwhile Hanuman the warrior-monkey, who visits her while she is imprisoned on Lanka, adds to the birds’ clearness of vision a sometimes unsettling clarity of discourse. It is Hanuman who first informs Sita that she is to blame for her own abduction, as ‘It was Hanuman’s manner,’ Collis tells us, ‘to be a little blunt’ (p. 96) – not to say misogynistic, since he insists that her calamitous longing for the wonderful gazelle is merely an illustration of ‘the nature of women’, who ‘must have pretty pets and pretty presents, and continually urge their husbands to supply them with these’ (p. 96). Despite his anti-feminism, however, Hanuman shares the vulture brothers’ accurate perception of Sita’s loyalty, and defends her against the false testimony of Rama’s eyes – which seemed to see her embracing Ravana in his chariot – by affirming that he ‘sat and saw how she repulsed the demon’ (p. 144, my emphasis). In the end it is clearness of vision, rather than prowess on the battlefield, that proves the deciding factor in the combat between heroes and demons, and in Collis’s story it is women rather than men who chiefly possess it.
The vision of men is always being blurred by their expectations and desires. Ravana’s increasing recognition of Sita’s qualities, for example, combines with his desire to possess her as his wife to prevent him from seeing clearly that their marriage would destroy what he most admires about her – her integrity. Rama, meanwhile, has always loved Sita for her integrity, yet is easily deceived by Ravana into believing she has been unfaithful to him. Even after he has killed Ravana, he remains enthralled to the demon’s trickery long after Sita, Sampati and Hanuman have been released from it. This is not entirely Rama’s fault. Before embarking on the final battle, Ravana instructed his enchanters to trick Sita into putting on a ring engraved with his and Sita’s names ‘entwined in an everlasting knot’ (p. 125); and after the demon’s death Rama takes this ring as proof positive that she has turned against him. At the same time, Rama refuses to accept the testimony of the immortal vulture and the plain-speaking monkey that his wife is as he has always known her to be, unwavering in her commitment to her husband. Even when Sita chooses to undergo trial by fire to prove it, Rama sees the trial itself as evidence of her betrayal. In his eyes the flame through which she walks takes on ‘the form of a man’, who ‘leapt with her high into the air and disappeared’ (p. 145), thus enacting a second abduction. Sita, on the other hand, experiences the walk through fire as she has been taught to do by the anchorites of the mountains. For her, the flame is a kindly man who wraps her protectively in his cloak, and instead of suffering loss or blurring of vision, as Rama does at this point, she rises with the burning stranger – as if on the back of an immortal vulture – to a place from which she can see everything in the universe: ‘vast blue horizons, distances incalculable, as between star and star’ (p. 146). Her state of enlightenment brings with it a ‘sense of freedom’, and it’s with this liberating knowledge of her position in time and space that she wakes again as Swallow on Wushan mountain.
Collis’s decision to tell his tale from a woman’s perspective is another link between his book and his Irish background. Ireland was famously embodied by Yeats and Lady Gregory in their play Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902) as a homeless old woman, whose homelessness connotes the disenfranchised state of her country under British rule. The play ends with her transformation into a young girl, who departs from the household that sheltered her ‘with the walk of a queen’. Swallow’s poverty and homelessness equate her with Cathleen, and she too turns out to possess qualities that make her worthy of royal status: beauty, but more importantly intelligence, which for the Sage of Wushan and his father, the Emperor of China, makes her a worthy wife for a prince, whatever her birth. Her elevation from poverty to queenship also parallels the life of Collis’s favourite figure from Burmese history, Queen Ma Saw, the protagonist both of his fantastic novel She Was a Queen (1937) and his play, Lord of the Three Worlds (1947). Ma Saw started life as a farmer’s daughter and ended as Chief Queen of Narathihapate, King of Burma. Her royal husband has much in common with King Ravana: headstrong and self-indulgent, he is prone to deadly rages and rash actions which can only be controlled by the sound advice and gentle persuasions of his Queen. Like Ravana, too, he dies when a foreign power invades his country. Ma Saw, who is never in the seat of power herself, although she is highly influential in affairs of state, withdraws into obscurity at the end of both play and novel, and her status in both cases aligns her with the status of Burma as Collis was writing, awaiting the moment of its liberation from forced marriage to Britain. Swallow, too, and her alter-ego Sita, could be seen as standing for the hope of independence in Burma and India, just as Cathleen stood for the dream of an independent Ireland. Her eventual assumption of an imperial title confirms the potential of both countries to assume an equal status with the global Empire that controlled them for so long.
In Collis’s hands, then, the abduction of Sita becomes a promise of liberation, both for his heroine and for the many Asian cultures that had welcomed her into their hearts. The end of his book represents a series of liberatory gestures, akin to the flinging open of the lids of many boxes. Sita escapes from Ravana through Rama’s victory, then frees herself from Rama’s suspicions by walking through fire, after which Swallow frees herself from Sita’s influence by casting off the trammels of sleep, then liberates herself from confinement to the Sage’s hermitage and finally makes herself independent of her parents by sending them a gift of money to support themselves for the rest of their lives. These gestures of independence recall the exultant ending of James Stephens’s nationalist fantasy The Crock of Gold, in which the imprisoned Irish people, from school children and clerks to prisoners and factory workers, find themselves liberated from their bonds in a triumphant ‘Happy March’, a parade or dance in which mortals and fairies join together to break the mental and physical shackles of their occupied country. Indian independence came in the year after Quest for Sita was published, 1947, and Burma’s in 1948. Quest for Sita remains a powerful statement of European solidarity with the movements that led to these enfranchisements. In my next blog post I’ll consider what, if anything, Peake’s drawings may contribute to that statement.
 Maurice Collis, Quest for Sita (New York: The John Day Company, 1947). All references are to this edition.
 G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs, PA: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 202.
 ‘As Ba Maw points out, the writings of the Sinn Fein leaders were as eagerly studied in Burma as those of Lenin and Sun Yat Sen’. Louis Allen, War, Conflict and Security in Japan and Asia-Pacific, 1941-52 (Folkestone: Global Oriental, 2011), p. 12
 See Mervyn Peake, ‘The Consumptive. Belsen 1945’, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), pp. 133-4.
 See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, pp. 201-2.
 I’m thinking here of Stephens’s Irish Fairy Tales (1920) and Deirdre (1923) as well as The Crock of Gold (1912).
 When Queen Sawlon sees that her husband, King Narathihapate, has assumed the style of ‘Lord of the Three Worlds’ in Act II she tells him: ‘That you should be invincible in this world, I can bear, for there is Paradise. But if in Paradise too you were Lord, where could I hide? Not even in Hell, for over that domain also would you lord it.’ The Lord of the Three Worlds (London: Faber and Faber, 1947), p. 55.
Collected Plays of W B Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1963), p. 88.
I’ve been reading David Jones’s In Parenthesis lately, a book often referred to as a poem (though it’s largely in prose) written by a brilliant artist who illustrated Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner in 1929. I’m reading it as part of a project on Mervyn Peake, because Peake drew Jones’s portrait in January 1939, two years after In Parenthesis was published. I presume the portrait was commissioned by The London Mercury in response to the impact the book was having in literary circles. Prominent writers had praised Jones’s epic prose poem in fulsome terms, including W H Auden (whose portrait Peake also drew in the late 30s), Graham Greene (who selected Titus Groan for publication by Eyre and Spottiswoode), and Herbert Read, the theorist of surrealism and a veteran of the Great War like Jones himself, whose work Peake must have known well as a professional artist and teacher. I can hardly imagine, then, that Peake did not read Jones’s Anglo-Welsh prose epic. He was fascinated by poetry, by book illustration – he too illustrated The Ancient Mariner in 1943 – and by Welshness, thanks to his Welsh mother and his friendship with Dylan Thomas; and like everyone else in 1939, he lived in the shadow of war. He was later in the habit of reading books he illustrated with close attention; I don’t know if this practice extended to the books of men and women whose portraits he drew, but this seems likely. Of course it’s not fair to look at Jones’s work merely through the lens of my interest in Peake, but it seems to me that In Parenthesis has much to tell us about how the Great War helped shape the emergence of fantasy as an artistic mode or practice between the wars. Jones forms, then, part of the picture that includes Tolkien’s emerging The Lord of the Rings, Peake’s development as a fantasy writer as well as an artist, and a number of important fantasy texts I’ll be looking at in future blog posts. Reading In Parenthesis in relation to fantasy, then, may be worthwhile, and that’s what I want to try briefly here.
As I said, the book is often described as a poem, despite the fact that it’s written in prose. This may partly be because of T S Eliot’s championing of it, and because of Jones’s regular references to Eliot and other poets in his preface and throughout the text; but it’s mainly an acknowledgement of Jones’s scrupulous attention to the verbal medium he uses – its rhythms, its sounds, its punctuation, its layout on the page. It tells the story of eight months in the Great War, from December 1915 to July 1916 – a journey from the training of new recruits in the British army to their first major engagement, the attack on Mametz Wood in which Jones was injured. This chronology takes us from Christmastide to High Summer, from relative innocence to hard-won experience, from the largely familiar to the deeply strange, from the nature-oriented past to the mechanized future. It’s told in a kind of verbal collage made up of dialogue in English and Welsh, technical military language including numerous acronyms, painterly descriptive passages, quotations from literature and snatches of song. The dialogue brings together numerous dialects used by different classes in various localities – most often in London and Wales. The narrative is divided into seven parts, each of which has its own pace, rhythm and stylistic techniques, which have been selected to match the subject matter: training and travel, marching, arriving at the front by night, contemplating no-man’s land, the routine of army life, the eve of battle, the battle itself. By the end of the book a transformation has taken place – multiple transformations, in fact, which are too complex to summarize briefly, but which echo the fantastic metamorphoses and ungainly fusions that took place in fiction, art and poetry after the war.
The text’s point of view is mainly that of a private called John Ball. Ball is named for the leader of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, who also appears in one of William Morris’s first socialist fictions, The Dream of John Ball (1888), where he embodies the brand of neo-medieval socialism Morris sought to articulate and promote. There is a link here to fantasy as well as politics, since Morris famously wrote a series of neo-medieval romances in the 1890s which strongly influenced Tolkien. Morris’s romances were widely read in the trenches, especially The Well at the World’s End (1896), with its deft mimicry of the prose of Thomas Malory and its vision of a largely egalitarian, meticulously reinvented Middle Ages. Jones had another reason, though, for admiring Morris. The Victorian designer-poet’s theories about the dignity of craftsmanship as embodied in medieval craftsmen’s guilds, and the importance of substituting these for the alienated labour of industrialism, strongly influenced Jones’s mentor the sculptor and designer Eric Gill, founder of the Catholic Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, to which Jones belonged. It’s no surprise, then, if the point of view in the book is more collective than specific. The personal pronouns throughout the book are always changing their referent, so that ‘he’, for instance, can refer at different times to Private Ball, the German enemy, the sun (p. 59), or one of Ball’s comrades or superiors, while ‘she’ can mean a specific woman, or the moon (p. 27), or a ship’s figurehead (p. 51), or Ball’s rifle, or the spiritual embodiment of the wood where the final battle takes place. ‘They’ can be members of other units, distinguished from yours by the supposed cushiness of their living standards (p. 47); or else you and your comrades as you discover the alienness of your bodies after a poor night’s sleep (p. 63). The second person, ‘you’, meanwhile, gets used everywhere, drawing the reader into the narrative by weirdly investing her or him with the status of honorary veteran of a war they didn’t experience.
The most important feature of the book, however – at least from the point of view of understanding its relationship to fantasy – is its title. For Jones, the Great War took place as it were between brackets, separated by imaginary punctuation marks from every other experience he or anyone else involved had undergone. ‘This writing’, he tells us in the Preface,
is called “In Parenthesis” because I have written it in a kind of space between – I don’t know between quite what – but as you turn aside to do something; and because for us amateur soldiers […] the war itself was a parenthesis – how glad we thought we were to step outside its brackets at the end of ’18 – and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis. (p. xv)
The final part of this paragraph seems to extend the wartime experience to the whole of human life (‘our curious type of existence here’); but the text itself marks out the difference of wartime existence from other kinds in a number of ways. The process of reading it is much like entering an invented world of the kind Tolkien started to construct in the trenches; the language, in particular, is distinctive, punctuated by technical military terms which make it necessary for Jones to provide the ignorant reader with detailed notes, and the strangeness of war is constantly being associated with the impossible events and mythic resonances that have come to characterize the genre or mode now known as fantasy. And in the bracketed ‘space between’ that is the war, or the part of the war Jones chose as his subject, many more bracketed spaces occur: turnings aside, as the Preface puts it, ‘to do something’ distinctly different from the monotonous routines of army life. Each of these parentheses has its particular atmosphere and organization, so that it resembles what John Clute has called a ‘polder’ in fantasy fiction: a place where the rules are either subtly or radically different from the ones that govern the world in which the overall narrative takes place.
Jones prepares us in the Preface for the fantastic nature of what occurs between his book’s pages. ‘I think the day by day in the Waste Land,’ he writes, ‘the sudden violences and the long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence, profoundly affected the imaginations of those who suffered it’ (p. x). He adds, with wonderful unexpectedness: ‘It was a place of enchantment’. Before heading over to France, he tells us, ‘The air was full of rumour, fantastic and credible’ (p. 14), so that the impossible is already starting to be accepted by soldiers as the binding condition of their future lives. Rumour here is the preliminary ritual that sets aside the charm or spell or invocation from ordinary transactions, like the resounding hand-claps that alert the Japanese gods to the prayers of the faithful. Later, as the soldiers disembark from their trucks not far from the front, they receive ‘in their nostrils an awareness and at all their sense-centres a perceiving of strange new things’ (p. 18): a sentence that makes wonderfully concrete the bodily process of encountering and absorbing strangeness. The landscape they find themselves in is a matter of wonder – sometimes, Private Ball discovers, because of its very ordinariness, its stubborn persistence in being at once quotidian and the theatre of unprecedented atrocities. One of the things that make it strange is the shifting light- and sound-patterns caused by natural or man-made weather, which is always rendering the everyday transcendent. Ball ‘marveled’, we learn early on, ‘at these foreign clouds’ (p. 20); and later he witnesses a sunrise like a revelation, the emergence of something divine from behind the cloud-cover: ‘Behind them, beyond the brumous piling the last stars paled and twinkled fitfully, then faded altogether; this beautiful one, his cloud garments dyed, ruddy-flecked, fleecy stoled; the bright healer, climbing certainly the exact degrees to his meridian’ (p. 62). In the bizarre nocturnal of Part 3, lit by flares and gunfire – where the language of the narrative shifts abruptly towards radical modernistic fusions of disparate idea and sound and image, in its efforts to invoke the state of being half-asleep while striving to stay alert and watchful while on sentry duty – the transition to fantasy is made explicit: ‘his mess-mates sleeping like long-barrow sleepers, their dark arms at reach. Spell-sleepers, thrown about anyhow under the night. And this one’s bright brow turned against your boot leather, tranquil as a fer sidhe sleeper, under fairy tumuli, fair as Mac Og sleeping’ (p. 51). The soldiers here resemble the legendary sleepers under mounds – King Arthur and his knights, the Seven Sleepers and the rest – in that they are both fully armed and unconscious, buried alive, so to speak, in roughly-executed trenches, precariously suspended between life and death, their very capacity to sleep under such circumstances a miracle, sure proof of enchantment. At the end of the book, the dead remain for ever in this fairy state, having been invested as ‘secret princes under the trees’ by the mysterious Queen of the Woods, who chooses ‘twelve gentle-men’ from among them to ‘reign with her for a thousand years’ (p. 185). The implication is that the strangeness of the ‘Waste Land’ of war has in some sense persisted beyond its temporal boundaries, enacting the ‘ever after’ of conventional fairy stories through the continuing presence of the twelve chosen sleepers in the mind of the man who saw them, thanks to the alchemy of memory. His memories of the dead, however, are framed in the language of fantastic narratives: dream reportage, folk tales, neo-medieval romances, bedtime stories. Fantasy is what makes it possible to recall them without self-damage, and what lends their casual slaughter point and purpose, giving their abruptly terminated narratives shape. The fantastic references throughout In Parenthesis alert the reader to the fact that the narrative is not a memoir, but a means of making memory bearable, in the sense of being transferrable to new, better contexts where the horror of war can be transmuted into art.
As I’ve already implied, the resemblance of the parenthetical ‘space between’ of war to the secondary world of high fantasy is partly achieved by the cultural difference of army life in wartime from the lives of ordinary citizens, whatever their trade. This cultural difference imposes a clear distinction between readers of the book who were there at the front with Jones and those who were not. The distinction is emphasized, as I suggested, by the necessity for notes. Old soldiers will not need them, at least not the notes explaining army terminology. In the same way, Welshmen won’t need the translations from Welsh, nor Londoners the interpretations of cockney rhyming slang – at least, they won’t need these if they belong to the working classes, or have lived and fought alongside them, as Jones did. This bracketing-off of the veterans, in particular the set of veterans Jones fought with – as well as of the different kinds and phases of veteranship (Jones informs us that some of the terms he uses in the book belong to specific phases in the War, falling into and out of use as the conflict wore on) – may be what’s being referred to in the final sentence: ‘the man who does not know this has not understood anything’ (p. 187). Non-combatants or even combatants who never saw the Somme cannot hope to share the weird knowledge Jones has to impart, and the strangeness of Jones’s patchwork style is designed to emphasize the impossibility of a stranger’s ever achieving comprehension.
At the same time, Private Ball himself is quickly initiated into the alien culture of the front after first encountering it as an outsider. Arriving at the trenches he discovers a distinctive ‘folk-life’ embedded there, ‘a people, a culture already developed, already venerable and rooted’, and it’s only with time that he gets initiated as a full member of this order or community: ‘And you too are assimilated, you too are of this people – there will be an indelible characterization – you’ll tip-toe when they name the place’ (p. 49). The sentence emphasizes the exclusiveness of membership of this war-torn people, but its use of the second person also ensures that Ball’s own initiation is shared by the reader. This is not, then, an elitist text, despite its moments of obscurity and its use of unfamiliar cultural references – such as the early medieval Brittonic poem Y Gododdin, quotations from which open each of the seven sections, alongside the much better-known text Morte Darthur by the fifteenth-century soldier Sir Thomas Malory, which crops up everywhere. Jones laments, for instance, the fact that convention forbids him from using swearwords in the text, about which he says in the Preface: ‘The very repetition of them made them seem liturgical, certainly deprived them of malice, and occasionally when skillfully disposed, and used according to established but flexible tradition, gave a kind of significance, and even at moments a dignity, to our speech’ (p. xii). The demotic is elevated to liturgy by the stresses and strains of war, rendering socially ostracized discourse as precious as the language of the training ground, the law court or the parlour.
The democratic aspect of conflict is intensified by Jones’s acute awareness that every soldier at the front, whatever his background, is unique and therefore valuable in light of the particular cultural referents he contains, as it were in brackets, within his body. No one soldier is more unique and hence significant than anyone else, as the slippery pronouns demonstrate, and this radical egalitarianism cannot help but impose itself on Jones’s readers – re-acculturating us as we read until by the end we are forced to inhabit an egalitarian space, no matter what space we came from at the beginning. The rich specificity of each individual’s assemblage of experiences, cultures and histories is brought out with greatest force at the point of death, when the casual demolition of people we have come to know well in the course of the narrative – such as the young lieutenant Mr Jenkins, sinking to the ground with his revolver swinging from its pendulum like ‘the clock run down’ (p. 166), or Private Wastebottom, who is killed waiting in the trenches for the last assault, yet ‘maintained correct alignment with the others, face down, and you could never have guessed’ (p. 158) – is set alongside the deaths of anonymous soldiers whose lives are briefly lit up, so to speak, by the names of the places and people that helped to make them: such as the German killed by Private Ball in the wood, who in dying ‘calls for Elsa, for Manuela / for the parish priest of Burkersdorf in Saxe Altenburg’ (p. 169). Conversely, one Welsh soldier’s death links him to the deaths of all soldiers everywhere, thanks to his being the namesake of the poet Aneirin who wrote Y Gododdin, the poem that provides In Parenthesis with its epigrams:
No one to care there for Aneirin Lewis spilled there
who worshipped his ancestors like a Chink
who sleeps in Arthur’s lap
who saw Olwen-trefoils some moonlighted night
on precarious slats at Festurbet,
on narrow foothold on le Plantin marsh –
more shaved he is to the bare bone than
Properly organized chemists can let make more riving power than ever Twrch Trwyth;
more blistered he is than painted Troy Towers
and unwholer, limb from limb, than any of them fallen at Catraeth
or on the seaboard-down, by Salisbury,
and no maker to contrive his funerary song. (p. 155)
Here Aneirin’s personality or personhood – most marked earlier in the narrative by his propensity for singing constantly under his breath, as if transforming the experiences we are reading into song – gets mixed in with those of earlier poetic memorialists of warfare. These include Shakespeare (in the reference to Arthur’s lap, mentioned as Falstaff’s final resting-place in Henry V); the writer of the Culhwch and Olwen section of the medieval Welsh anthology the Mabinogion; the Arthurian storytellers and poets from Nennius to Chrétien de Troyes; the many poets and dramatists who have written about Troy; and the fifteenth-century soldier-storyteller Malory, whose style is echoed in the phrase ‘let make’ and whose story of Arthur’s final battle on Salisbury Plain is referred to in the penultimate line. At the same time, Aneirin is elevated above and separated from these distinguished predecessors by the excessive destructiveness of his demolition. He is more ‘shaved […] to the bare bone’, more ‘blistered’ and rent ‘limb from limb’ then any soldier on the battlefield of Catraeth, where the tragic action of Y Gododdin takes place. Unlike his predecessors, too, after this horrible unmaking he has no poetic ‘maker to contrive his funerary song’ – he is not remade, so to speak, in verbal form. Not, at least, until Jones started writing; and the success of Jones’s exercise in commemoration depends on the reader’s participation in it, their willingness to subject themselves to the dreadful account of Aneirin’s dismemberment, to understand both where it connects with and where it is bracketed off from the past dismemberments Jones lists in this passage. The reader’s importance is acknowledged in the final broken paragraph of the book, from which I quoted earlier: ‘The geste says this and the man who was in the field… and who wrote the book… the man who does not know this has not understood anything’. Understanding is associated with the man who ‘wrote the book’, which makes the book we have just read a means of connecting us with the material reality of the ‘field’, through a combination of the act of writing, the act of reading, and the act of imagining – all of which take courage. Aneirin’s remaking is achieved through Jones’s connection of the field of the Somme with the field of Catraeth, which most of his readers will not have heard of before that too was remade, so to speak, in the epigrams and notes to In Parenthesis. Making Aneirin anew is possible, then, despite the radical dissimilarity of his death from those in the texts alluded to – the tales of Troy and Catraeth and Arthur – and despite the unfamiliarity of most readers with the time and place where it took place.
The most moving moment in the passage occurs when Jones conjures up an intimate detail of Aneirin’s life at the front line: the time when the soldier noticed a certain species of flower, a trefoil, despite his own precarious perch on moonlit slats in a trench under enemy observation. The flower had for Aneirin an association with a story from his homeland, that of Culhwch and Olwen in the Mabinogion: it is ‘Olwen-trefoil’ (my emphasis). So this perception on the part of Aneirin brings life, so to speak – imparts urgency and vividness – to a tiny fragment of Welsh culture; and this process of bringing a fragment of culture to life would have been lost to the world if Jones had not recorded it. The association between a fragile, easily-missed blossom and personal and cultural memory recalls the opening tale in Lord Dunsany’s story 1918 collection Tales of War, in which soldiers from a small Kentish village called Daleswood – all the grown men left in the community apart from the very old – expecting to be wiped out at any moment, seek some way to record what matters to them most about their village. They seek not to register their own names or the grand historical events they and their ancestors have taken part in, but the tiny everyday details which are crucial, in their opinion, to the place’s identity, and which will be lost for ever if none of them survive (the women of the village, they claim, have different priorities from the menfolk, and would choose to remember different things). But the men cannot agree on what those crucial details are; whether the foxgloves in the wood at the end of summer, or the time of year when they cut the hay with scythes, or the ‘valleys beyond the wood and the twilight on them’, or the ‘old village, with queer chimneys, of red brick, in the wood’. In the end they record on a lump of chalk only the sentiment: ‘Please, God, remember Daleswood just like it used to be’. As it transpires, the men survive; but the question of commemoration – of what’s worth preserving about a culture, a place, a person – remains; and the men’s sense that they lack the verbal means to perform the commemorative act, or even a consensus on what should be mentioned in their memorial, lingers on in the reader’s mind long after the story is finished and the men from the village are unexpectedly spared. The death of Aneirin is of course a tougher proposition. Salvaging the details of his death from Jones’s memory, with other wartime matters, was achieved at the expense of a nervous breakdown on the writer’s part, and the details Jones gives us about him are no more than fragments of the man who died. But they form part of a larger structure of great beauty, while being parenthetically bracketed off from the rest of the book by their specific application to a single soldier, now gone for ever. If it does not succeed in memorializing Aneirin adequately, the passage makes quite clear what has been lost by this inability to memorialize – just as Dunsany’s story makes quite clear what would have been lost if the men of Daleswood had died without being able to pass on their small observations of the village to their children and grandchildren.
The parentheses of Jones’s book, in other words, do not segregate his text from the understanding of its ‘lay’ readers – though that understanding will include, for most of them, the awareness that there is a clear distinction between the man ‘who was in the field’ and the man or woman who was not. Parentheses, in fact, are for Jones the condition we all inhabit, not just soldiers: ‘our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis’. Our lives are parenthetically bound in by non-life, before birth and after death, and war serves only to stress their parenthetical nature by means of its difference. The most startling example of a wartime parenthesis – the kind that accentuates parentheses of other kinds – comes in Part Seven, when the enemy artillery gets increasingly accurate in its aim at the British troops waiting in the trenches. As Private Ball stands motionless, listening and waiting, he observes – using one of those flexible pronouns that turn up everywhere, in this case denoting the enemy by way of the third person singular – how ‘He’s getting it more accurately and each salvo brackets more narrowly and a couple right in, just as “D” and “C” are forming for the second wave’ (p. 157). These are the salvos that annihilate Privates Wastebottom and Talacryn, in very different and individual ways: ‘Talacryn doesn’t take it like Wastebottom, he leaps up & says he’s dead, a-slither down the pale face – his limbs a-girandole at the bottom of the nullah [i.e. ravine or trench]’ (p. 158). Sandwiched between these murderous brackets, Private Ball finds the parenthesis of his life reduced to the fewer and fewer inexorable seconds before he finds himself within range of an enemy salvo; and his awareness of this extends his sense of time to encompass whole epochs: ‘Last minute drums its taut millennium out […] and seconds now our measuring-rods with no Duke Josue nor conniving God / to stay the Divisional Synchronization’ (p. 159). By the time he gets the command to go over the top, every second is a parenthesis packed full of stark terror, impotent denial of his own mortality, and a sense of the infinite preciousness of the tiniest temporal fraction of a man’s existence.
The murderous bracketing of D and C companies by the double salvo can in turn be understood as an open parenthesis before the assault, for which the closing parenthesis for many will be death by violence. But this is just one of many temporal parentheses in the book. There is the opening bracket of the departure from England after training, bracketed at the other end of the war by the capitalized Big Ship that will ferry survivors home (p. 104). There is the parenthetical space of the night described in Part 3, with its own distinctive rules and visions and language; the night is bracketed by those wonderful passages in which Jones describes the slow departure of light and its equally slow return. There’s the parenthetical space of waiting between brief periods of action, the ‘King Pellam’s Laund’, No-Man’s Land or Wasteland of Part 4 – a location which is physically parenthetical, or unlike any other, in that it is stranded between the elements of earth and water (p. 88) and requires constant labour on the soldiers’ part to maintain its identity as solid land. The life led in this location by combatants on both sides aligns them with that parenthetical animal, the ‘rat of no-man’s land’ (p. 67); a parasite that exists in the interstitial spaces between the mapped regions inhabited by ‘real’ people and ‘real’ animals such as horses and mules. There’s the parenthetical space of Private Ball’s period of rest at the start of Part 6, in which he ties his own groundsheet to those of two comrades for extra comfort; a period that ends when one of the three is ordered away to act as a runner. This leads to the symbolic disengagement of the three groundsheets from one another, an act that gains significance from the friends’ awareness that their separation may well prove permanent: ‘such breakings-away and dissolving of comradeship and token of division are cause of great anguish when men sense how they stand so perilous and transitory in the world’ (p. 137). Private Ball’s meeting later that day with another two friends from different regiments takes place in a parenthesis which is grammatically as well as geographically distinct from their everyday lives: ‘These three seldom met except for very brief periods out of the line – at Brigade rest perhaps – or if some accident of billeting threw them near together. These three loved each other, but the routine of their lives made the chances of foregathering rare’ (p. 139). The final foregathering of the three is bracketed by intimations of mortality: the hammering of carpenters as they work to build coffins ahead of the assault (‘He wished they’d stop that hollow tap-tapping’, p. 139, my emphasis) and the parting shot of one of the friends: ‘don’t get nabbed tapping the Gen’ral’s wire – I’d hate to see you shot at dawn’ (p. 143, my emphasis). Each parenthesis, in other words, is a miniature reflection of the great parenthesis which is an individual lifetime, here all too often curtailed by the cold machinery of war.
The military body itself in the book is a kind of parenthetical enclosure, clearly distinguished by virtue of its discomfort – and the forms of violence visited on it – from civilian bodies, as well as from its contents, the thoughts and feelings that make up personhood (‘feet following file friends, each his own thought-maze treading’, p. 37). At each stage of its army existence the body is defined as mechanism, the mind as something sensitive, soft and alien to the machine that encloses it, and Jones repeatedly invokes this awkward disparity between the component elements of a soldier’s self. As Private Ball marches, ‘his loaded body moved forward unchoosingly as part of a mechanism’ (p. 19), while his mind roams in other directions. As he wakes up each morning with other members of his platoon, ‘delicate mechanisms of nerve and sinew, grapple afresh, deal for another day’ (p. 61). As stress sets in before the final battle, the machine falters: ‘the sensibility of these instruments to register, / fails; / needle dithers disorientate. / The responsive mercury plays laggard to such fevers – you simply can’t take any more in’ (p. 156). Then at the point of death the machine runs down and comes to a stop: Mr Jenkins sags to the ground like ‘the clock run down’ (p. 166); Private Talacryn’s ‘mechanism slackens, unfed’ (p. 158); their respective recollections, desires and sense impressions are lost irretrievably as their specific functions in the engine of war come to an end. In the last pages of the book, the body becomes increasingly fragmented: Private Lewis loses his limbs, Private Morgan his head (which ‘grins like the Cheshire cat / and full grimly’, p. 180), and Private Ball the use of his legs in a kind of industrial cataclysm, ‘as if a rigid beam of great weight flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker’ (p. 183). After the war, we’re told, injured men will learn to live without limbs and organs they once thought essential: ‘Give them glass eyes to see / and synthetic spare parts to walk in the Triumphs, without anyone feeling awkward’ (p. 176). The final scene finds us in a wood full of corpses, recumbent in a tree-made crypt where the body is finally liberated from the state of mechanization. The German dead – tall ‘strangers’ in ‘field-grey’ – resemble stone statues rather than broken engines:
Aisle-ways bunged-up between these columns rising,
these long strangers, under this vaulting stare upward,
for recumbent princes of his people.
Stone lords coiffed
long-skirted field-grey to straight fold
for a coat-armour
and for a cere-cloth, for men of renown:
Hardrada-corpse for Froggy sepulture. (p. 182)
The Welsh dead, by contrast, recall discarded clothing, their bodies reduced by war-damage to the condition of prehistoric bog-people or the occupants of Neolithic burial chambers:
And here and there and huddled over, death-halsed to these, a Picton-five-feet-four paragon for the Line, from Newcastle Emlyn or Talgarth in Brycheiniog, lying disordered like discarded garments or crumpled chin to shin-bone like a Lambourne find. (p. 182)
Deprived of their mechanical rigidity, these resting bodies – some broken, some intact – remain as anonymous as memorials in churches or archaeological discoveries. But as the wounded Private Ball crawls through the wood where they lie he imagines a dryad figure ritually reaping their minds and memories as she selects from among the corpses heroes worthy to ‘reign with her for a thousand years’; and Jones’s own recording of this ritual reanimates the dead men by name and personality as a stone tomb or burial chamber never could.
If the body is a parenthetical ‘space between’, so too is what might be called the War Time into which Jones plunges as he leaves the training ground and travels to France. He tells us in the Preface, ‘I suppose at no time did one so much live with a consciousness of the past, the very remote, and the more immediate and trivial past’ (p. xi); and this fascinating fusion of the remote past of communities and the trivial past of the individual sets the place of war apart from other places in terms of the way it measures time. Time is distorted by the actions of war. Sentry duty distends it, rendering the phosphorescent dial of the soldier’s watch spookily inadequate to the task of marking its passage. The moments before the assault make the soldier yearn to stop time altogether, or somehow to evade the specific period in which the assault will take place, set it apart from himself in a parenthesis where only other soldiers die (p. 158). Transitions from day to night and from night to day are often used to mark the passage of time when clocks or watches are unavailable, but In Parenthesis is filled with twilight moments when day and night are in contention with each other, and where space too seems to collapse:
With the coming dark, ground-mist creeps back to regain the hollow places; across the rare atmosphere you could hear the foreign men cough, and stamp with foreign feet. Things seen precisely just now lost exactness […] Your eyes begin to strain after escaping definitions. (p. 98)
The past, too, ceases to be distinguishable from the present, because the soldier inhabits a continuous War Time which (as the Preface pointed out) seems to exist as a dark undercurrent that is always present behind or alongside the organized timetable of Peace. This is why Jones keeps straying into the language of the war poets, Aneirin, Malory, Shakespeare, the Chanson de Roland; their literary representations of war are always occurring to Private Ball as accurate statements about the strange world he has entered, despite the major changes that have taken place between their times and his own. History is erased or rendered null by War Time because no one has learned from it; men are still marching out to die as they did in Y Gododdin, in which case what is the point of differentiating 600 AD from 1916? The erasure of history is another of the many equalizing processes at work in Jones’s text. Any man in the army can take part in it, from Private Dai Greatcoat – who delivers himself of a long formal boast that links himself to an endless line of fighters stretching back to Cain and the Trojan War (pp. 79-84) – to Private Donkin, whose personal history has brought him to France in a mission to avenge the atrocity whereby four of his brothers died at the front the year before (pp. 144-5); revenge being a process of balancing the books that effectively wipes the action you are avenging from the records, rendering it null and void. Outside War Time, killing is forbidden, or at least killing for personal reasons such as revenge. In War Time, every soldier finds himself exempt from such restrictions, encouraged to do things that would have got him imprisoned or hanged before he joined up – and which may still get him killed, imprisoned or maimed, as Private Donkin’s story shows. The clock of his life, in other words, has undergone an extraordinary metamorphosis. Long before it winds down and stops, it has entered a ‘space between’ and given itself over to Salvador-Dali-style dissolution, as inadequate for the purpose of measuring the distance between one moment and the next as the luminous watch-dial of a bored or frightened sentry.
The final parenthesis in the book incorporates all the others, and seals the link between Jones’s record of wartime and the other great literary records of wars gone by. It’s the parenthesis of the Wood which is the objective of the assault in Part 7, and which becomes the paradigm of woods and forests everywhere in literature, the ‘spaces between’ where adventures take place, magic lurks, and supernatural people and creatures live and move and have their being. Private Ball identifies the Wood as a place apart as early as Part 4, where he contemplates it from a distance while on sentry-duty, observing: ‘To the woods of all the world is this potency – to move the bowels of us’ (p. 66). Woods, he recalls, are at certain times of year a place of holiday, to which men come ‘in heart’s ease and school-free’ or ‘perplexedly with first loves’; or the perfect hiding-place for an ambush; or a refuge for the justly or unjustly persecuted and the lost. They are associated with exiled ‘sweet princes by malignant interests deprived’, like Shakespeare’s Duke Senior, parenthetically barred from his hereditary role; or madmen running wild from grief and pain, as Lancelot did when Guinevere rejected him, or Merlin in certain Arthurian traditions, as well as ‘broken men’ of other kinds. Private Ball or one of his comrades – it’s not clear which – becomes such a ‘broken man’ at the beginning of Part 7, as Jones himself did while writing the poem: ‘He found him all gone to pieces and not pulling himself together nor making the best of things’ (p. 153), in the prelude to the assault on the Wood where he knows most of his company will be slaughtered. Woods, then, are where men are unmade, in that they are dismantled body and mind; but they are also where makings begin. Here unmade men will find a maker to commemorate them, since makers in the sense of poets and storytellers love the woods, which occur everywhere in old romances, lyrics and laments. Woods, then, are a place of destruction and reconstruction. They’re also a kind of neutral ground in wartime. They occur, we’re told in Part 4, on the maps of army draughtsmen, one of whom
Made note on a blue-print of the significance of that grove as one of his [i.e. the enemy’s] strong-points; this wooded rise as the gate of their enemies, a door at whose splintered posts, Janus-wise emplacements shield an automatic fire (p. 66).
Woods are liminal, in other words, Janus-faced like the first month of the year, facing at once towards past and future, death and life, the Germans and the British, making themselves available to anyone with the guts to approach and seize them for the flag. In addition, the Wood in Part 7 serves both as a gate that closes the parentheses within which the action of In Parenthesis takes place and a gate that opens out from the book onto the postwar era when it was written and published. As a portal of both kinds, it gives the lie to the notion of parentheses as sealing off what they contain from ‘normal life’. The world was deeply affected by the Great War; cultures changed radically in response to it; afterwards, as after Covid 19, there was a ‘new normal’. Parentheses in fact are always permeable, like portals, and In Parenthesis enacts this permeability through the uncanny skill with which it conjures up for a postwar readership the between-space of War Time.
Through the wood, as I mentioned earlier, stalks the enigmatic Queen of the Woods – whether in earnest or as a figment of Private Ball’s imagination. Her careful selection from among the dead of a representative twelve to serve as her knights makes that sample too a kind of parenthesis, in that it stands outside the categories of class and nation imposed on ordinary individuals by custom. She chooses for inclusion in her company both German and British soldiers, both privates and officers, both men like gods and men who are nothing more than jokes to their companions. And like the mad Ophelia, exempt by virtue of her broken mind from the restrictions that govern the sane, she presents each with some suitable woodland plant as a token of their admission into the culture of the strange:
Her awarding hands can pluck for each their fragile prize.
She speaks to them according to precedence. She knows what’s due to this elect society. She can choose twelve gentle-men. She knows who is most lord between the high trees and the open down.
Some she gives white berries
some she gives brown
Emil has a curious crown it’s
made of golden saxifrage.
Fatty wears sweet-briar […]
For Balder she reaches high to fetch his
Ulrich smiles for his myrtle wand.
That swine Lillywhite has daisies to his chain – you’d hardly credit it.
She plaits torques of equal splendor for Mr Jenkins and Billy Crower.
Hansel with Gronwy share dog-violets for a palm, where they lie in serious embrace beneath the twisted tripod. (p. 185)
In this scene, reminiscent of an arts-and-crafts painting – a panel, perhaps, from Burne Jones’s Briar Rose series of panels – men of all ranks and origins combine in quasi-erotic intimacy. Twelve of them are selected, like twelve apostles for some vegetable Jesus, twelve members of an assessing jury, none differentiated in terms of rank or importance from his copesmate. Balder the beautiful, the Christ-like Norse god who was killed with a mistletoe sprig through Loki’s trickery, is set alongside the pauper Hansel, driven by hunger to the woods with his sister to be murdered by a stranger; the German Hansel locked in ‘serious embrace’ with the Welshman Gronwy, all enmity forgotten; the unpopular commissioned officer Lillywhite alongside Lieutenant Jenkins and Private Crower, all bound together by daisy-chains ‘of equal splendor’, confirming their equal status in the Wood Queen’s universe, which lies well away from the social and military hierarchies that govern the spaces outside the parentheses of war and madness (‘wood’ means madness in Shakespeare’s time, as Demetrius’s phrase from A Midsummer Night’s Dream – ‘wood within this wood’ – might remind us).
A ‘prize’ is something that bestows meaning and value on a person’s achievements. The Wood Queen’s awarding of prizes, with its richly pictorial quality, may remind the reader of Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Ophelia as well as Burne Jones’s Legend of Briar Rose; above all the famous painting by John Everett Millais of the drowning Ophelia in the stream, singing as she sinks, and John William Waterhouse’s image of her sitting bolt upright on the river-bank, bedecking her hair like a sacrificial calf before she throws herself into the murderous waters. Millais was one of the founding members of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, while Waterhouse was one of its final generation of adherents, who worked alongside Burne-Jones and his good friend William Morris, whose guild socialism lived on in Eric Gill’s Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, to which Jones belonged. Jones’s creation of a post-pre-Raphaelite scene in these final moments of his book anticipates Gill’s attempt to carry forward the ideas of Morris and his predecessor Ruskin into the postwar era.
But the end of the book also seeks to leave the past behind, perhaps by ensuring it undergoes a suitably radical transformation in response to the transformative horror of the war years. The work of setting the war and all that brought it about behind him is accomplished by Jones in the section where Private Ball decides to leave his rifle behind in the Lady’s Wood, where he was wounded. The rifle is his lover – just as the ‘many men so beautiful’ who died embracing one another among the trees are also in a sense his lovers (p. xxi). He has been taught by his training to treat this thing of wood and metal, this fusion of the organic and the industrial, as a bride (‘cherish her, she’s your very own’, p. 183); and the process of abandoning the rifle-bride is announced and then accomplished before and after the Wood-Queen’s ritual selection of her own retinue of dead heroes. Left behind at the ‘gate of the wood’ (p. 186) under an oak tree, like the bodies of Ball’s mingled enemies and comrades (‘Lie still under the oak / next to the Jerry / and Sergeant Jerry Coke’, p. 187), the abandoned gun represents the leaving-behind of a period that has brought both terrible violence and terrible beauty, like Yeats’s Easter 1916. But a gate, as we’ve seen, is Janus-faced, a limen or threshold that admits people both ways, both out and in. It’s a permeable boundary. Jones or Ball imagines the rifle becoming a future archaeological find, to be plundered by bloody-minded tourists on the lookout for souvenirs of mass slaughter (‘a Cook’s tourist to the Devastated Areas’, p. 186). And his account of the war experience ensures that it will be brought to life again, as his comrades will, each time a reader chooses to visit his pages. The gun that unmakes is remade, here, as a way to remake the dead, a tool as essential to the work of the maker as his pen.
In the preface to In Parenthesis, one of the transformations Jones imagines taking place in the wake of the war is the capacity to see the post-industrial world and its killing engines as stunningly beautiful – of giving guns and bombs and poison gas the romantic or magical associations of other murderous objects, such as swords and fires, or tarot cards, or landscapes like the plains of Troy or Salisbury or the hills of Catraeth. ‘It is not easy,’ he observes,
in considering a trench-mortar barrage to give praise for the action proper to chemicals – full though it may be of beauty. […] We who are of the same world of sense with the hairy ass and furry wolf and who presume to other and more radiant affinities, are finding it difficult, as yet, to recognize these creatures of chemicals as true extensions of ourselves, that we may feel for them a native affection, which alone can make them magical for us. It would be interesting to know how we shall ennoble our new media as we have already ennobled and made significant our old – candle-light, fire-light, Cups, Wands and Swords (p. xiv).
One of the techniques by which Jones turns his War Time into a ‘place of enchantment’ is through the practice of radical anachronism: the running together of old and new, past and present, to produce a synthesis which is both disturbing and wonderful (disturbing because wonderful, I could have written). The experiments he practised among the parentheses of In Parenthesis anticipate the experiments practised by fantasy writers after the war, when they invented radically anachronistic, parenthetical secondary worlds as a means of understanding the strange new fusions that surrounded them, whose novelty the Great War threw so violently into relief. Jones helps us to understand, I think, how far these seemingly distant fantastic spaces can be read as responses to the equally anachronistic spaces through which their writers moved, within which they worked. Lovers of fantasy, then, should embrace his epic with the same enthusiasm as the modernists embraced it on its first appearance.
Jones, David, In Parenthesis (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1978)
 ‘It was not that the look of the place was unfamiliar to you. It was at one to all appearances with what you knew already. […] That’s a very usual looking farm house. […] The day itself was what you’d expect of December’ (pp. 18-19).
 The Seven Barrows and the Long Barrow at Lambourn (spelt Lambourne here) are thought to have inspired Tolkien’s account of the Barrow Wights in The Fellowship of the Ring. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lambourn
[This is the second of two posts on Fantasy Brussels, written as an affectionate homage to the UK’s membership of the European Union. The first post, on comics and museums, can be foundhere.]
If you really want to immerse yourself in fantasy Brussels, you can’t do better than read its comics, and above all the work of Schuiten and Peeters. You should discover, if you can, not just the Cités obscures series but their many side-projects too, which include exhibitions designed to create the illusion that there are portals, openings or passages between our world and certain parallel universes, of which the ‘Continent obscure’ is the most complex and best known. The Continent is a kind of alternative Europe, permanently devoted, it seems, to the architecture and technology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Interestingly the Continent seems to exclude any version of Britain, as if Schuiten and Peeters were already anticipating Brexit from the moment they started the Obscure project in the early 80s. But if London, Birmingham and Edinburgh are absent from their parallel universe, the place is simply teeming with versions of Brussels: from the art nouveau monster-city Samaris in the first volume of the series, which draws unsuspecting travellers inside its walls to feed on their personalities like a vast carnivorous plant, to the City of Urbicande, which gets taken over by a three-dimensional grid of giant poles or girders, made up of ever-expanding cubes which eventually construct a kind of pyramid over the city, like the pyramid Poelaert wanted to build on the highest point of his Palais de Justice. The buildings of Samaris are no more than frail facades, which invokes the ‘façade retention’ technique of Brusselisation, while the network of Urbicande can be read as a working model of a faceless bureaucracy that has failed to tailor itself to the needs of actual urban environments – the Brexiteer’s version of the European Union. But the growing grid can also be seen as liberating, since it constantly forms new passages between one place and another as it grows, temporarily connecting the prosperous south bank of the city to the impoverished north bank in defiance of the wishes of the totalitarian city council. There are, in other words, at least two perspectives on it, just as there are on the EU’s vision of a unified Europe.
La Tour is set in a version of Pieter Breughel’s two famous paintings of the Tower of Babel – a structure so vast that it may never be completed, where maintenance workers live like parasites in desolate forgotten corners of the building, striving to preserve them against the decay that is setting in before the process of construction has come to an end. Breughel painted his Tower in Antwerp but died in Brussels, where the bulk of his greatest masterpieces were executed. Brüsel concerns itself with the difficulties of the owner of a flower-shop, Constant Abeels, as he struggles to relaunch his business at a time when the City of Brüsel is itself being restructured on an epic scale in response to constantly changing instructions from a corrupt developer, Freddy de Vrouw. Meanwhile the city is falling prey to Kafkaesque bureaucracy – which makes one suspect a punning reference to Terry Gilliam’s great dystopic assault on bureaucracy, Brazil, in the album’s title – as well as a rising tide of polluted water, the very element which the city planners aimed to suppress by paving over the river Senne. As love letters to the European capital, these two albums are as fascinated by its failings as by the overweening vision that continues to test its resources to the limit, and to lift the hearts and minds of its devotees.
Another work, La musée Desombres – comprising a booklet and CD, which I haven’t yet managed to get hold of – is about a museum in our own world whose exhibits look like ordinary paintings by the artist Augustin Desombres, but actually serve as passages to the Continent. The way these passages work is explained in the album L’enfant penchée, one of whose plotlines features Desombres making his way from his dilapidated studio-museum in northern France to the Obscure universe, where he becomes the lover of Mary von Rathen. There’s nothing particularly Brussels-like about the Desombres story apart from the notion that a museum could serve as a conduit between alternative universes, which is surely what the citizens of Brussels believe, else why devote so much money, thought and time to their construction? As the series unfolds it becomes clear that many such conduits or passages exist, and that this may explain the significant overlaps between the culture of the Continent and our own. It may be the resemblances between architecturally unique structures on both worlds that make them suitable to serve as passages. Given their anachronistic purposes, museum buildings are particularly complex and resonant examples of urban architecture, which is presumably why a museum-rich environment like Brussels has so many parallels in the world of Brüsel.
Indeed, there is something akin to a museum in the organization of several albums in the series. Many Franco-Belgian BDs privilege the writer rather than the artist, in that the writer produces the story and the artist illustrates it. With the Cités obscures, by contrast, it’s often the pictures that come first, with the writer producing narratives in response to the artist’s images, much as a museum curator produces a verbal narrative to forge a coherent relationship between objects that have ended up side by side in the museum building, often through historical accident rather than design. Some of the most effective albums in the series were developed this way. L’archiviste started out as a projected collection of posters to be published by Casterman for sale on an individual basis. Converted into an album, it became an account of research carried out by an isolated archivist, perhaps in our world, into a random set of images pertaining to the world of Urbicande and Samaris. This transforms the poster series into a kind of two-dimensional display cabinet, its contents curated by the archivist as he struggles to make sense of the images and compile a report on them for his superiors. Le guide des Cités masquerades as a Lonely Planet-style guidebook to Schuiten and Peeters’s parallel universe, its accounts of the societies, structures and notable personages to be found there helping to supplement the stories told in more conventional albums. It began as a pair of articles for a literary magazine, Les saisons, but ended up as a full-scale Baedeker, transforming the cities it describes into an open-air museum to be rambled through by imaginative tourists. Souvenirs de l’éternel présent is based on Schuiten’s sketches for a planned movie to be directed by Raoul Servais in the 1980s, while La route d’Armilia started life in a commission to create a comic in Danish containing representations of an Obscure version of Copenhagen, which had to be finished in time for the opening of an exhibition of Schuiten and Peeters’s work in the Danish capital. The album also incorporates images from other projects, including posters for a glazier, a watchmaker and a Wagner festival. The constraints imposed on these narratives by the initial circumstances of their production means that they are full of startling unexplained images. A woman clinging desperately to her vacuum cleaner as she dangles over an unfathomable gulf in Brüsel (is she really the star of a commercial, as one witness claims, or is she in deadly danger, as her expression leads us to believe?). Four explorers approaching a shining crystalline mountain (‘Qui peuvent-ils être? Que cherchent-ils?’), with a garden enclosed in a natural glasshouse at the summit. A city full of towers, the tops of which morph into baroque sculptures of naked men and women, their anatomies pierced by windows much as the monumental woman in Salvador Dali’s ‘The Burning Giraffe’ is pierced by drawers. An empty artist’s studio with no artist in it, full of paintings whose central images have been ripped from the canvas by some violent censor. Decontextualized, as unattached to any narrative as an anonymous artwork given to a gallery or an ancient artefact of unknown provenance found in the storerooms of a museum, each of these images exists in a kind of suspension or limbo, available to be read and reread in any way that suits the reader. The subjects of these pictures – buildings, vehicles, machines – have lost all connection to the conditions under which they were fabricated or the purpose for which they were first intended by their makers, and they share this lack of context with many buildings in modern cities, which get repurposed – like the Horta buildings in Brussels – or awkwardly juxtaposed with newer buildings. We must invent our own narratives to account for such juxtapositions, just as Peeters must invent a narrative in each album to account for the wayward juxtapositions in Schuiten’s pictures. The reader’s efforts at supplementary storytelling may be assisted by seemingly authoritative handbooks, like Le guide des Cités, or newspaper articles as in the album L’Echo des Cités – which is made up of pages from the most significant inter-urban news outlet of the Continent – or history books, like the forbidden volume found by the child Aimé in Souvenirs de l’éternel présent, which describes the cataclysm that reduced the City of Taxandria to the graveyard of architectural fragments it has become. But guidebooks, articles and history must in turn be augmented or given life by the imaginations of their diverse readers, which invariably run aslant to one another, since they were formed in response to different pressures and conflicting desires.
One of Schuiten and Peeters’s recurring protagonists, Mary von Rathen, encapsulates this obliqueness or perversity in our various responses to the worlds we encounter. At eleven years old, Mary is struck down by a mysterious ailment after a fairground ride, a condition that leaves her walking at a permanent angle to the ground, 45 degrees aslant from the upright that governs every other person’s posture on the planet. As the narrative unfolds it becomes clear that she is in fact subject to the gravitational pull of a different planet or sphere, and it takes the rest of the album to restore her to a sense of equilibrium within her native world, the Continent. As a result of this ailment Mary becomes an attraction in a circus: Laetitia the tightrope walker, whose balancing skills are rendered astonishing by the 45 degree angle at which she perches on her cable. Fundamentally at odds with her fellow human beings, dismissed by nearly every adult she encounters as a troublemaker, freak or fraud, her personality quickly becomes as perverse as her posture; after all, she is a young girl in a patriarchal culture modelled on the Europe of the fin-de-siècle, and it’s only by contradicting everyone she meets that she is able to pursue her desired trajectory towards an explanation and perhaps a solution to her gravitational problem. Aided and abetted by fellow marginals and outcasts – the journalist Stanislas Sainclair, who as a dwarf has only with difficulty escaped being branded as a ‘freak’, like Mary herself; the aged inventor-scientist Axel Wappendorp, whose real achievements don’t prevent many of his countrymen from dismissing him as a madman; the artist Augustin Desombres, whose paintings are responsible for upsetting the equilibrium of the Continent as a whole, and of Mary in particular, by forging imaginative connections between his native Europe and the parallel world she lives in – Mary eventually recovers her balance, and grows up to be a famous visionary and activist, briefly restoring social, economic and political stability to the industrial city of Mylos where she was born. A slant perspective here becomes the basis for non-violent revolutionary action, and Mary joins the ranks of enigmatic women who have provided the radical counterbalance to bureaucratic authoritarianism since the beginning of the series: Sophie in La fièvre d’Urbicande, Milena in La Tour, Tina Tonero in Brüsel, Hella in La route d’Armilia, Minna in L’ombre d’un homme and all the rest. All of these rebellious women are outsiders in the quasi-imperialist architectural fantasies of the Continent, invariably reduced to symbols, tools or erotic objects by the men who meet them, or banished completely from the city streets, as happens in Taxandria. Mary and her sisters confirm that one person’s Paradise is another’s Inferno, a saying that could apply just as well to the unified Europe of the European Union as to the fragmented alternative Europe of Alaxis, Xhystos and Pâhry.
One album in the series strikes me as saying something especially pertinent to Brexit, invoking as it does the symbiotic relationship between the underlying problems and visionary possibilities of a united Europe. Superficially, La route d’Armilia tells a simple story. A young boy is entrusted with the formidable task of carrying a crucial ‘formula’ to the City of Armilia at the North Pole. Without this formula the Continent is out of balance in some fundamental way: weather conditions are getting more extreme, communications systems are breaking down, compasses are going haywire and those who rely on them are getting hopelessly lost as a result. The formula must be carried as quickly as possible to the North Pole using the fastest conveyance in existence – an airship or zeppelin – in order that the machine there that governs the planet’s equilibrium may be recalibrated and order restored. The airship’s mission is not too urgent, however, to permit the occasional digression on the way. As it traverses the north-west corner of the Continent from its starting point in Mylos to København, and from there across the Arctic wastes to its destination, the airship’s captain is prepared to turn aside from time to time to offer help to a stranded vehicle, or to allow his passengers a better view of the cities over which they pass. The journey provides, in fact, a rich mixture of adventures and wonder, like the voyages extraordinaires of Jules Verne on which it is modelled: from the discovery in the hull of a young stowaway called Hella, who becomes the boy’s fast friend, to an encounter with a giant land-cruiser, which has lost its way owing to the disruption of its instruments by the problem at Armilia; from an outbreak of vegetation in Brüsel just as the zeppelin is passing overhead, to the loss of the document containing the precious formula, and foul weather in Polar regions – again produced (it seems) by the problem at Armilia – which smothers the zeppelin in ice from stem to stern and almost causes it to crash. Through portholes in the cabin the two children watch in awe as the Obscure Cities glide majestically by, their hypertrophied buildings dwarfing the dirigible, which steers between them as between the peaks of the Himalayas. Its progress is described through the diary of Ferdinand, the boy, and records his rising panic as he realises, after losing the document containing the formula, that he cannot recall the words of the formula itself. Hella, meanwhile, boosts his confidence with sound advice and unflagging cheerfulness, as enthused by every wonder on the journey as Ferdinand himself. The improbable climax of their trip is a hurried visit to København, where the quirkily beautiful towers of real-life Copenhagen have been expanded to many times their actual size and number, and where the famous Tivoli gardens are dominated by a roller-coaster twice the height of the highest buildings in New York. On the way there, they pass over Bayreuth – a city whose streets empty themselves completely whenever an opera is performed – and Brüsel, whose buildings make the skyscrapers of Chicago look like toys. This is Europe as a scattering of upwardly mobile city states, multiple polders whose swarms of flying machines inspired by the inventions of the fin-de-siècle artist Albert Robida. Between these urban centres the landscape is more North American than European, with desert dominating the territory between Mylos and Muhka, forests and mountains between Brüsel and København, and icy waters and mountains north of that. There is little agriculture in sight – apart from a field full of sheep at the aerodrome where the airship commences its journey – and no connecting roads or railways. The Continent here is exclusively devoted to adventure and wonder, with no space in it that doesn’t do service to these two urges.
In fact, the single-minded dedication of the Continent to the fulfilment of Ferdinand’s adolescent fantasies begins to look increasingly suspicious as we read on. When the airship first takes off, the boy expresses the hope that the sheep he can see from the porthole, which are utterly unfazed by the silent rise of the giant dirigible, will not set the tone for the rest of the voyage: ‘J’espérais un peu plus de sensations. Pourvu que ce voyage ne soit pas trop tranquille!’ (p. 7). Sure enough, pleasing or frightening things happen at every stage, as if in response to the premonition he expresses shortly afterwards: ‘Ah, comme je sens que ce voyage va me plaire’ (p. 11). In fact, Laroute d’Armilia makes no secret of its own artificial nature. The pages of Ferdinand’s journal are penned in a neat italic script, with hand-drawn images carefully arranged around them for maximum decorative effect and emotional impact. It is embellished with attractive motifs: the tiny circular sections of map that announce the airship’s arrival in each new city – Porentruy, Muhka, Calvani, Genova; the narrow strips of landscape-drawing that occur on almost every page. A brief study of these strips confirms that they’re frequently repeated. One image of a desert landscape appears many times between pp. 7 and 25, an image of forested hills recurs between pp. 28 and 45, while a single picture of icy mountains and waters shows up again and again between p. 47 and the final page. The repeated images are, of course, a neat way of suggesting that the zeppelin is moving across vast geographical spaces, but they also suggest a certain lack of interest in minor details of the Continent, perhaps even an ignorance of them on the part of the journal’s author. What matters to Ferdinand are the highlights of his voyage, which occur with remarkable frequency. He visits three cities, for instance, in just one day, the 27th May, and makes no comment at all on what he sees between them. It’s as if the map of the journey provided on p. 10 has been compressed in certain places to ensure a regular provision of excitement en route to the North Pole.
Other aspects of the narrative reinforce the impression that things are being arranged for Ferdinand’s benefit. The girl Hella, for instance, shows up very early in the journey as if in response to a child’s desire for someone his own age with whom to share his enthusiasms. There seem to be no other passengers on the airship, no supervising adult to help the boy discharge his crucial duty of delivering the formula. Like the young protagonists of many children’s adventure stories, Ferdinand is unencumbered by parents, having been entrusted with his mission by an absent ‘uncle’ who seems to have absolute faith in his nephew’s capacities. Smaller details are even more strikingly arranged for Ferdinand’s convenience. He has bunk beds in his cabin, for instance – as we learn on p. 46 – as if the captain has anticipated from the start the need for a second child to be berthed alongside Ferdinand, in the kind of bed young people like best. The menu on p. 11, which illustrates ‘les nourritures délicieuses’ served in the airship’s dining room, is decidedly childish: chicken and chips for the main course, three different kinds of dessert – including chocolate cake and banana split – while the only drinks available are ‘Colibri Orange’ and ‘Zeppo Cola’. Tasty meals continue to provide significant highlights in Ferdinand’s account until the final page, when he and Hella are showered by the grateful inhabitants of Armilia with ‘nourritures merveilleuses et […] machines inconnues’, as if it were Christmas. Meanwhile there is a strong element of play about the journey. When Ferdinand loses the document containing the formula and seeks to dredge up its contents from the depths of his memory, every new phrase he comes up with reads like a crossword clue, a riddle or a piece of nonsense: ‘LE SINISTRE ARLEQUIN MANGE TOUS LES MIDIS UNE TONNE DE LIMAÇONS’; ‘TAQUINE TANTE ADÈLE SOUS LE LIT DU MAÇON’; ‘MIDI VIENT DE SONNER: CHARLES QUINT DANS LA TENTE A LIMÉ SON MINISTRE’; while the formula itself, once retrieved, sounds just as playfully inconsequential as these alternatives (‘À QUINTE LA SINISTRE, À MIDI LA DÉTENTE, SONNE LE LIMAÇON’, pp. 59-60). The very notion of entrusting the formula to a child suggests a playfulness about the airship adventure which is radically at odds with its apparent significance for the safety of the Continent.
At the same time, there are darker elements to the story, hints that some sinister force may be at work to foil Ferdinand’s mission – as suggested by the presence of the word ‘sinistre’ in two versions of the formula. Early on, the boy’s sleep is disturbed by a nightmare in which the hull of the dirigible opens up to reveal an armillary sphere (pp. 12-13): a representation of the workings of time in space which occurs many times in Schuiten’s artwork, and on which the City of Armilia seems to be modelled, as we learn when the expedition finally reaches its destination. In the boy’s nightmare, the many circles and rings around the sphere in the zeppelin’s hull revolve with ‘une folle energie’, as Ferdinand calls it. All at once they grind to a halt, unleashing a flurry of sheets of paper: ‘On aurait dit les pages d’un livre s’ils n’avaient été entièrement blanches’. The sheets quickly cover the sphere, turning it white, and Ferdinand wakes up drenched in sweat as if half smothered by the paper avalanche. Next day he finds the stowaway Hella cowering in the hull of the airship, where the sphere hung in his nightmare. She tells him she has escaped from the factory in Mylos where the canvas that covers the hull was fabricated, and Ferdinand is horrified to learn that the airship was constructed with child labour (‘Quoi? Une enfant de votre âge employée dans les fabriques[!]’, p. 17). He takes her to his heart at once as a fellow sufferer from bad dreams: ‘votre cauchemar est terminée,’ he tells her, ‘Désormais, vous êtes mon invitée à bord de cet appareil’ (p. 17). But later the connection between Hella and nightmares gets reasserted, when after another restless night (‘J’ai mal dormi’, p. 24), he is suddenly struck by the idea that the stowaway might be a spy, employed by some unknown enemy ‘pour me ravir la formule’. In a panic he conceals the document containing the formula in the hull of the ship – the third item so far to be hidden there. Not long afterwards Hella accuses him of mistrusting her, and to prove her wrong he hurries to fetch the document from its hiding place; but to his horror it has disappeared. Ferdinand starts to reassure his friend that he can remember the formula in any case, having learned it by heart; but ‘les mots, soudain, se sont étranglés dans ma gorge’ (p. 35), as he realises he has forgotten it completely. This is a cue for further nightmares:
La nuit, les mots se sont mis à danser dans ma tête comme des farfadets malfaisants. Ils couraient en tous sens, sautaient, grimaçaient, ricanaient; ils glissaient comme des ombres, échangeaient leurs habits, se cachaient sous des masques (p. 37).
The sense of play that dominates the journal is here transformed into a piece of carnivalesque puppet theatre staged by some demonic descendant of the Belgian puppet-master Toone. For the first time the heroic adventure of which Ferdinand has made himself hero begins to look as if it might end badly, the smooth arc of its trajectory disrupted by the malicious twirling of sinister marionettes.
At this point the significance of those blank pages in the zeppelin’s hull gets a little clearer. If the boy’s memory remains a blank, the whole journey he is recording becomes futile, its purpose lost, and he might as well stop writing. From now on, nightmares begin to invade the children’s waking hours. As the zeppelin enters Arctic regions, Ferdinand and Hella are aroused from sleep when the vessel suddenly tilts in a gust of wind, unbalanced by the weight of ice that covers it. Later the boy’s efforts to recall the formula wake him a second time, startling everyone with his shouts, and he is forced to pretend that he has had ‘un simple cauchemar’ (p. 51). As conditions in the cabin deteriorate, hunger, cold and lack of sleep ensure that these ‘simple’ nightmares spread to other members of the expedition in the form of mirages: the steward thinks he can see horsemen on the icepack below the vessel, the helmsman thinks they are flying over a desert. Alternative narratives threaten to disrupt the story of Ferdinand’s mission, until by the end of the journey the blank pages from his nightmare could stand for the possibility of writing anything on the blank pages of the world, since there is no structure to the universe, however strenuously one might struggle to impose an imaginative shape on its shapelessness, coherent rules on its primordial chaos. By this stage the constant disruptions to the airship’s voyage seem to enact the disruption of the Continent by the breakdown of the Armilian machine.
Yet in the album’s final pages all these nightmares and metaphysical torments get swept aside in a few swift strokes. On arrival at Armilia, Ferdinand is about to confess the loss of the formula to the city’s chief scientist, Professor Pym, when Hella suddenly hands the boy the missing document and he is able to read it aloud to Pym as his uncle intended. Hella later explains that she purloined the document as a ‘blague’ or joke, because she found Ferdinand too serious, too confident that he alone could save Armilia and the world. By concealing the paper from him she has made the journey a true collaboration between them; by restoring it she has reinstated playfulness as the mission’s dominant mode. Hella’s action confirms what Ferdinand once suspected – that she is not to be trusted; but it also identifies her as the perfect playmate, a trickster who performs practical jokes on her friend to ensure that his journey is everything he wsihes it to be, full of incident, danger and difficulty as well as of wonder. The potential complexity of the boy’s conspiracy theory has been rendered childishly ‘simple’, which is how Hella describes the motivation for her joke; the sinister has been rendered amusing. And when Ferdinand begins to complain about Hella’s behaviour, the girl closes the album by shouting another version of the formula, this time a clarion call to replace what is sinister with ringing laughter: ‘QUITTE CET AIR SINISTRE! DIS, L’AMI, DÉTENDS-TOI ET RIONS SANS FAÇON!’ In doing so she identifies herself as a bearer of her own formula, which celebrates the triumph of play over the rigidity of proverbs, inflexible rules and rote learning. Indeed, her playful philosophy seems to be shared by the Obscure Continent itself, since Professor Pym has to imaginatively decode the riddling formula delivered to him by Ferdinand before it can be used to fix the damaged mechanism of Armilia (p. 60). Her trick on Ferdinand is entirely in the spirit of the universe he seeks to save – at least in the journal’s version of that universe – which suggests that she herself is in some sense the formula he needs to restore its equilibrium.
By the time this happens, however, the album’s readers are well aware that the playful plot in which Hella plays a part masks another, grimmer plot from which she is excluded, and which runs parallel to Ferdinand’s adventures in the airship. This second narrative is delivered in a style much closer to that of the conventional BD: a series of panels designed to be read from left to right, with dialogue conveyed in speech bubbles (there are no speech bubbles in Ferdinand’s journal). It kicks off in the first two pages of the album, where a pair of factory inspectors walk through a titanic industrial complex talking about a recent downturn in productivity, and promising to trace the source of the downturn as soon as possible. Ferdinand’s journal begins on p. 7 – effectively the third page of the album – with no indication as to how it might relate to the men’s discussion. From time to time, however, a return to the visual style of the opening pages reminds us of the unfinished factory plotline. At the bottom of p. 23, for instance, three consecutive panels show us a child in a strange kind of helmet, who is drawing a sketch of the land cruiser encountered by Ferdinand in the six previous pages. Who is the child in the helmet, we ask ourselves, and how does he know about the other boy’s mission? On p. 42, two more panels with speech bubbles show the factory inspectors for a second time: one of them says he has finally found the source of the downturn, while reaching for a handle fixed to the lid of a metal pod. These two panels interrupt Ferdinand’s narrative, cutting across the middle of a page of his journal, but they are quickly swept aside by the magnificent vista of København as viewed from the airship that takes up the opposite page, and then forgotten in the whirl of exciting events that follows. All at once Ferdinand announces in his journal that his adventures have been interrupted for a second time. ‘Mais que… Quel est ce bruit?’ he writes, and then inexplicably, ‘Vite!’ (p. 53). Turning the page, the reader is confronted by the longest sequence of BD panels yet, all set in the factory. A speech bubble in the first panel announces ‘on le tient’ – ‘we’ve got him’. In the second we see the helmeted child from p. 23, crouching inside a metal pod whose lid has just been opened. The two inspectors glare down at him, pointing out to each other the cables he has disconnected to give himself light to read by. Scattered round him is a heap of books, and the inspectors express outrage at the thought of a worker reading fiction on company time. One inspector strikes the boy with one of the ‘bouquins’ (‘how do you like books now?’, he asks him viciously), then hurls the lot into a nearby furnace. At this point, the perspective of the panels opens out to show the boy as just one of a row of helmeted children in identical pods, each linked to the production line by a couple of cables at the back of his helmet. Under his helmet every child has additional cables embedded in his skull; we learn this on p. 54, when the boy’s helmet is knocked off by the book as it strikes his head. Disconnected from these cables the children will die, or so they believe: another child named Anton proudly explains as much when questioned by the inspectors. ‘Nous avons besoin des machines comme ils ont besoin de nous,’ he recites with a vacuous grin. ‘Si nous cessons de travailler, elles s’arrêtent et si elles s’arrêtent, nous mourons’ (p. 56). Anton, at least, remembers exactly what he has been taught by rote, trotting out the correct answer at the precise point in the other plotline when Ferdinand is most anxious about having forgotten his own instructions. And the words he parrots reflect a philosophy of work which is the polar opposite of the philosophy of play embodied by Hella in the journal.
At the same time, there are clear parallels between the factory plotline and Ferdinand’s journey to Armilia. In both plotlines something has gone wrong in the day-to-day functioning of a mechanised process: in the factory the production line has some sort of glitch, while the world itself is off kilter in the journal, due to the malfunction of a ‘machine inconnue’ based at the North Pole. Child workers are involved in both plotlines, with one child in each – Hella and the boy in the pod – showing a remarkable ability to imagine themselves into the positions of the moneyed classes to which they have presumably never had access. In both narratives a child forgets certain critical instructions: the rote lesson or the formula. And at the centre of both plotlines is the airship – though we have no way of knowing this in the factory plotline before the last few pages. In the final BD section we see the two inspectors walking away from the pods that house the child workers, congratulating each other on how they have handled the miscreant, the boy who reads (pp. 62-3). As the men leave the factory, the largest panel on p. 63 finally reveals what’s under construction there: an airship like the one in the journal. The inspectors agree that such a product ‘mérite bien quelques sacrifices’; and the exact nature of those sacrifices is visible all round them as they walk, in the rows of adult factory workers – skulls sprouting cables like the skulls of the children we saw earlier – whose withered faces testify to the premature aging brought on by lifelong imprisonment at their stations. Here is another link between the plotlines. Ferdinand’s journey to Armilia, too, involves certain sacrifices – the voluntary sacrifices of the romance hero, hunger, cold and fear – while the factory workers are unwilling sacrifices to industrialism, plugged into the production line without hope of release. Ferdinand’s adventure, in other words, touches on the workers’ lives in the factory at numerous points; but where the factory is a prison, the journal gives its child protagonist freedom and space, and where the factory workers seem wholly passive – and permanently alienated from the product of their labour, the zeppelin – the child protagonist has agency in abundance, and enjoys the dirigible as a privileged guest.
In fact, however, the factory workers are not wholly passive. One worker has acquired a degree of agency against all odds, and this agency suggests another link between the plotlines: their shared concern with secrecy and playfulness – or more precisely with the clandestine plot as a means of finding space for liberating play. Not long before we learn what the factory is making, we find out that the child worker who likes to read is also writing the journal, and that his name is Friedrich. His clandestine work of creation runs parallel with the factory’s production of luxury goods denied to workers like himself. And the inspectors never find this out; to the end of the book it remains a secret between the album’s reader and the writer-artist in his pod. As we’ve seen, just before the inspectors open the pod the word ‘Vite!’ appears in the journal, and we later deduce that this signals the moment when Friedrich conceals what he has been writing. As soon as the pod is closed again, the boy takes the unfinished journal from its hiding place and goes on writing. Ferdinand’s adventures, in other words, are permitted to continue, in defiance of Friedrich’s near exposure as a creative spirit – a young rival to the inventor Axel Wappendorp, or the authors whose books he owns. Between the opening and closing of his pod, Friedrich has made another involuntary sacrifice – his books have been burned; but his own manuscript survives unscathed, and as a result the dirigible can proceed on its way to Armilia, and the story of the formula can achieve a satisfactory ending. If Ferdinand was a hero, Friedrich is doubly so, for both resisting oppression and imaginatively conjuring up Ferdinand and Hella as his unfettered alter egos.
Friedrich’s secret writing activities provide one more point of contact between the factory narrative and the journal plotline, while also suggesting another interpretation of Ferdinand’s nightmare of the armillary sphere in the airship’s hull. The whole journal is composed under threat of discovery by the inspectors; so the writing process it involves is effectively a spy story, much like the one that has Hella as its heroine. And the blank pages that smothered the sphere represent the possibility that this writing process will be cut short before it’s complete; that its time line will be arrested, just as the movement of the sphere was stopped by the paper storm. Friedrich incorporates this fear into Ferdinand’s journal in the first words he writes after the burning of his printed books: ‘Après ces nouvelles épreuves, plus cruelles encore que les précédents, je retrouve ces notes que j’ai craint de ne jamais pouvoir reprendre’ (p. 58). At this point he mentions the various mirages suffered by the airship’s half-frozen crew, but he concludes by expressing hope that the story will achieve closure all the same: ‘Tous, nous sentons que nous allons bientôt toucher au but et ce sentiment nous redonne du courage’ (p. 58). And his optimism proves well founded. When Ferdinand’s story comes to an end, it marks Friedrich’s triumph over the inspectors, and the implication is that this triumph also comes at the cost of further glitches in production, since the inspectors have never succeeded in identifying the source of the downturn they mentioned at the beginning – his writing activities, in other words. The mission of Ferdinand and Hella, which he has invented, can be read as a parable of the liberating power of writing, and as such it serves as both a metaphorical and literal act of sabotage against the oppression of industrial capitalism.
Friedrich’s triumph through the completion of his writing project is anticipated at the very moment of the inspectors’ interruption of his creative labours. As the two men prepare to leave the factory building on p. 57, satisfied that they have terrorised the recalcitrant worker into submission, the BD format of the factory plotline finds itself invaded for the first time by the journal narrative. Just as Friedrich closes his pod – supposedly to resume his duties – a BD panel shows a narrow strip of cloudy sky. In the next panel Friedrich pulls out the journal from where it was hidden in his overalls, and in the next the airship appears among the clouds. Friedrich begins to write, and in the final panel at the bottom of the page the airship is nearer. By this time the implication is that the inspectors and the factory have been supplanted in Friedrich’s mind by Ferdinand’s mission. The reader presumes that the following page will continue the journey to Armilia, which is indeed what happens. And the same supplanting of the factory plotline by the plotline of the journal occurs in the last three pages of the album. On pp. 62-3, we see the inspectors leaving the factory, delighted by their success in putting Friedrich in his place. But on the final page – p. 64 – all restrictions on Friedrich’s imagination have been lifted. Not only has Armilia been repaired and the balance of the world recovered, but the airship has been refuelled and reequipped for the homeward journey, so that its young passengers, reconciled, can set off on new adventures unrecorded by any later albums in the Obscure series. The creative process, in other words, remains alive and fructifying at the end, unbounded by the factory structure, or the album’s two plots, or even the meticulous planning of Schuiten and Peeters. The possibilities available to it are as unconstrained as the imaginations that developed the ‘machines inconnues’ and the soaring buildings of the Obscure Continent, or the dreams of the reader after the reading process is over.
The trajectory of the album from constriction to liberation, from dictatorship to playfulness, can be traced in its visual representation of the sky. Entirely obscured by smoke in the opening pages, partly hidden by clouds in the BD strips on p. 57, by the final page it has been swept clear of clouds altogether, showing cloudlessly blue above the airship as the vessel takes off from the Arctic wastes with the Continent made freely available to its newly refurbished engines. In Ferdinand’s journal (Friedrich’s manuscript), weather conditions were at first affected by the dysfunction of the strange machine located at Armilia. The correction of this meteorological imbalance in Friedrich’s story would seem to involve the effective erasure of the factory that barred him, along with the rest of its workers, from sight of the sky, and the handing-over of the factory’s products to the wage-slaves who helped to shape them.
The crossovers between the two plotlines of La route d’Armilia invite us to ask another question. How far is Friedrich’s story, about Ferdinand’s journey to the North Pole, a work of fiction or a record of something that in some sense ‘really’ happened? The books Friedrich has in his pod, and from which he presumably derives inspiration for his own composition, represent a mixture of genres, from science fiction (Jules Verne’s Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras) to autobiography (Souvenirs d’un explorateur by the Polar adventurer Roald Amundsen), from fairy tale to Gothic short story (Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Karen Blixen’s Winter’s Tales). Odder still, all these books come from our world; even the works of fiction, in other words, are ‘real’, in the sense that they are not the products of Obscure authors. And one of the books is Brüsel, an album from the same series as La route d’Armilia. In the Continent, Brüsel is presumably a work of non-fiction, like Amundsen’s Souvenirs in our own universe. The books, then, could be seen either as evidence of the existence of passages between our world and the Continent, or as passages in themselves, allowing us access between one kind of ‘reality’ and another. Their presence in Friedrich’s pod is from one point of view an anomaly: how could a child worker have acquired them? How could he even have learned to read? But it is also evidence of the power of books throughout the Obscure series to crop up in places where they are least expected, and to have an impact well beyond what might be expected wherever they happen to crop up. The burning of the books by the inspectors, in other words, is no guarantee that they will cease to affect the environment into which they were impossibly introduced; and their continued presence is in fact implied by Friedrich’s continuing story. His character Ferdinand, after all, is named after two heroes of Jules Verne’s, the Arctic explorer Captain Hatteras and the aeronaut Robur from Robur the Conqueror (the boy’s full name is Ferdinand Robur Hatteras, p. 16) – just as the name of Ferdinand’s contact in Armilia, Pym, recalls the name of another fictional explorer from our world, Edgar Allan Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym. The fiction found in Friedrich’s pod, in other words, continues to bear fruit, and attract new fiction to itself, after it is burned (Poe’s novel is not among the volumes mentioned by the inspectors when they confiscate Friedrich’s library). The mere existence of a book in one dimension makes it available, perhaps, in others. And this implies that Friedrich’s liberation through his writing – a work of fiction – may be in some sense, or some dimension, ‘real’.
Its reality is obliquely implied, in fact, by Schuiten’s artwork. On p. 23, where we first see Friedrich working on the journal, Schuiten shows us the boy’s sketch of the land cruiser designed by Axel Wappendorp, with the airship overhead. Both the land cruiser and the airship are crudely drawn, as one might expect from a child of Friedrich’s age, though the boy’s handwriting is identical to the hand we have been reading as we followed the journal. In the panel that shows Friedrich’s sketch we are also shown the illustration he is copying from an unnamed book, which shows the land cruiser almost exactly as Schuiten drew it on p. 19, except that the illustration is in black and white, whereas Schuiten’s picture is in colour. The panel that shows Friedrich working on the journal, in other words, suggests the existence of three or four different levels of ‘reality’ on which his story operates. On one level, there is Friedrich’s reality, in which the volume from which he copies his picture of the land cruiser offers him an accurate representation of a real machine designed by the real inventor Wappendorp. On the second level there is Friedrich’s invented narrative in the journal, which is presumably inspired by the books he has been reading. On the third level there is Schuiten and Peeters’s version of Friedrich’s work, which converts his childish images into a more ‘realistic’ style, while conserving the exact appearance and wording of his written script. All these levels of reality are equally real – or equally fictional – from the point of view of the album’s reader, though we might be inclined to privilege one level of reality as more ‘real’ than another within the fictional universe. But this privileging of one level of reality over another is called into question by the care Schuiten has taken to represent the boy’s story about the land cruiser in ‘realistic’ terms – far more realistic than the picture the boy draws in his pod. The implication would seem to be either that Schuiten is representing Ferdinand’s adventures as Friedrich visualises them, or that he is representing them the way they ‘really’ happened, as Friedrich cannot, owing to his youth and lack of technical expertise as an illustrator. If the latter is the case, then Friedrich is a visionary or medium rather than a novelist. Another possibility exists – that the boy has been copying out Ferdinand’s adventures from some historical account not mentioned by the inspectors – but this does not explain the overlaps between Ferdinand’s story and the story of Friedrich, especially the point when Ferdinand anticipates the arrival of the inspectors themselves (‘Mais que… Quel est ce bruit?’, p. 53). The whole album, in other words, continually plays with questions of what’s real and what is fabricated. And Schuiten and Peeters continue to play on these fine distinctions between fact and fiction, the real and the fantastic, in later volumes of the Obscure series, sometimes with specific reference to Ferdinand’s adventures.
In Le guide des Cités, for instance, the story of Ferdinand and Hella is implied to be a myth or a work of fiction which may or may not have some basis in fact. The tale presumably forms the basis of an opera mentioned under the entry for the composer Dieter Dennis/Didier Denis, Les enfants d’Armilia (p. 154). Meanwhile the entry for Armilia in a later edition of the guide mentions that there is some uncertainty among historians as to whether or not a boy named Ferdinand Hatteras was really responsible for correcting the malfunction of the Armilian machine at the time of the worldwide crisis it brought about. The latter entry seems to confirm that certain details La route d’Armilia are deemed to be ‘true’ in the archives of the Obscure universe: Armilia did, it seems, break down at one point, and the consequences of its malfunction affected the Continent in its entirety. The album L’archiviste, meanwhile, concerns itself with the way legends and myths of the kind that Ferdinand’s adventures represent can have material effects. The archivist’s official task in this book is to demonstrate once and for all that the Obscure Continent, whose existence is mentioned in numerous baffling references throughout his archives, properly belongs to the section he works in – the section devoted to myths and legends. In other words, the archivist has been instructed to prove that the Continent doesn’t exist. Instead he finds himself increasingly convinced that it is in some sense real, and says as much in his report, which results in his dismissal. The album ends with his clandestine return to his old office, where he sits waiting for what he knows will happen next: the arrival of representatives from the Continent to take him away to the place he now sees as his spiritual home. At this point the archivist has become one of the inhabitants of the Obscure Continent by virtue of being represented in one of the volumes of the series; he has been absorbed into the archive he was studying, just as Ferdinand is absorbed into the archives of the Continent after Freidrich has invented him and Schuiten has drawn him. Like La route d’Armilia, then, L’archiviste provides testimony to the potency of reading, writing and drawing in the Obscure universe; and this potency is confirmed in a number of other albums. In L’Echo des Cités, for example, a young orphan – younger even than Friedrich – mysteriously learns to read, and is inspired by a book to organize a pilgrimage of children from his orphanage to an inter-urban book fair, the City of Books, which takes place near Brüsel. The same album records the miraculous rescue of ‘Les naufragés du Battista’ – the castaways from the vessel Battista – by the appearance of a titanic library in the open ocean; here they are able to disembark and wait in safety for the arrival of a relief expedition from the Continent. The fact that this expedition is led by a fictional character from a book in our world – Michel Ardan, the protagonist of Verne’s novel De la Terre à la Lune (1865) – and that the castaways themselves are from a ship named after a legendary figure – Giovanni Battista, protagonist of La Tour – who is himself named after a historical Italian illustrator, Giovanni Battista Piranesi – illustrates the complex interplay between books and ‘real life’ that permeates these volumes. The situation is rendered more complex still by the fact that the newspaper in which these events are reported, L’Echo des Cités, has begun to acquire a reputation for inaccuracy by the time the reports appear. Its editor, Stanislas Sainclair, is said to be something of a fantasist, and his paper is eventually shut down to be replaced by a more reliable organ, edited by Michel Ardan, who supports his reportage with photographic evidence (Ardan himself is a celebrated photographer, formerly employed by Sainclair, who supplied snapshots both of the ‘naufragés du Battista’ and the titanic library where they fetched up). However, Ardan himself is a work of fiction, which leaves us back where we started. Is there no egress from this Borgesian labyrinth?
There is not, of course, and this is precisely the point of the Obscure series. Throughout the series, the question of what’s real and what’s fantastic is a question of power, and each album subjects the power of determining between them to playful questioning. The designation of certain things as fictional – as frauds, fabrications or distractions from the ‘real’ – is a way of asserting the authority of the designating parties. Calling Mary von Rathen a fraud because of her disability, which means she walks at a 45-degree angle to the ground, is a way to suppress her and dismiss what she represents: an anomaly that renders questionable all the assumptions of the Continent’s scientists and technicians and of the politicians who rely on their services. Dismissing Friedrich’s books as ‘saletés’ – filth – is a way to keep Friedrich and the other child workers in their places. Identifying Sainclair as a fantasist enables one to supplant his version of the world with something better tailored to the interests of rival editors, ambitious politicians, urban developers, or all three. Meanwhile, telling the stories of people like Mary von Rathen, Stanislas Sainclair, Constant Abeels, Friedrich, Hella and others whose narratives have been suppressed or sidelined is a means of fulfilling the remit of fantasy as Rosemary Jackson sees it: of expressing ‘the unsaid and the unseen of culture’, and identifying the ‘reality’ of the powerful as fundamentally fantastic. One might argue that every album in the Obscure series sets the fantasies of the authorities at odds with the fantasies of small-time rebels and resistance fighters, but this doesn’t adequately summarize the forces at work within them. A return to La route d’Armilia will help us to paint a more convincing picture.
Like every album in Les Cités obscures, La route d’Armilia involves a play-off between three opposed yet complementary forces – like three orbital paths around an armillary sphere – each of which is equally dependent on the technological and architectural resources of the Continent. The first force is that of the powerful, as embodied in the owners of the factory and their inspectors, who aim to take absolute control of these resources for their own exalted purposes. This in turn involves taking absolute control of the populace, shutting them in, setting them to work under rigidly constrained conditions, diminishing and anonymising them, terrorising them, and erasing anomalies from their ranks, such as Friedrich, the boy in the pod. For the exploiters other people are no more than puppets, suspended from cables rather than strings, and they justify their exploitation of these mindless automata by characterising themselves as visionaries, whose projects will bring enormous benefits, at least to the powerful, and therefore ‘mérite bien quelques sacrifices’ (p. 62), albeit on the part of the puppets, not themselves. Examples of these quasi-fascistic exploiters include the authoritarian members of the ‘Commission des hautes instances’ of Urbicande, the developer Freddy de Vrouw of Brüsel, and the nationalistic maréchal Radisic of Sodrovnie in La frontière invisible.
The second force at work in the Continent is made up of creative open minds, like those of the child worker Friedrich, the children of Armilia Ferdinand and Hella, the inventor Axel Wappendorf, the leaning girl Mary von Rathen, the flower seller Abeel Constants, the adventurer Michel Ardan, and the editor Stanislas Sainclair, whose dream is to present all the cities on the Continent to one another in all their strangeness and wayward glory. Dedicated to embracing a world which is out of kilter, adapting themselves to its ebb and flow through the qualities of balance, play and heavier-than-air flight, and concerned to improve the lives of ordinary citizens by all means possible, these creative minds delight in disruption even as they struggle to harness it for the widest possible benefit. Champions of liberty as against the tendency of their cultures to privilege coercion and confinement, anomalies are for them opportunities to exercise and expand their imaginations rather than impose their philosophies on the world by force majeur. These men, women and children, too, are visionaries, and for this reason they are susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous visionaries of the first order discussed above. Freddy de Vrouw for a while takes Constant Abeels under his wing; Mary von Rathen finds herself controlled by a succession of men before taking her fate into her own hands; the brilliant ‘urbatecht’ Eugen Robick is an employee of Urbicande’s Commission before he breaks free of their oppressive influence; Axel Wappendorf depends on wealthy, unscrupulous officials and entrepreneurs to bring his inventions into existence, and so on. The figures who embody this second, creative force are not too effective as revolutionaries – although they regularly get caught up in revolutions and rebellions – but their receptive delight in the properties of the strange world they inhabit sets them frequently at odds with the capitalist, industrial and military masters of the Cities they live in.
The third force at work in the Continent is the most interesting: it’s the force of spontaneous change, as represented by the disruption of time and weather brought about by the broken machine at Armilia, the unexplained outbreak of vegetation in Brüsel, the dreams and nightmares that plague the passengers and crew of the airship as they approach the North Pole. In every album some similar crisis occurs, a phenomenon that has no bearing on the plots of the powerful or the projects of lonely visionaries or rabble-rousing radicals – a change of rules that alters the nature of the particular urban polder in which it takes place. The growth of the network or grid of Urbicande has no human source or explanation. The rise of the waters of the Senne in Brüsel defies all the efforts of the powerful to suppress it, while it both disrupts and abets the machinations of insurrectionists and visionaries. A sudden outbreak of stones and sand in the Brüsel of La théorie du grain de sable is as unsettling for Mary von Rathen and Constant Abeels as for the city authorities (the difference being that Mary, Constant and their friends learn to embrace the disruption where the authorities strive against it). Each of these crises emphasizes the autonomy of the Obscure Cities themselves, as organic phenomena whose sheer scale and ambition overwhelms every attempt to take control of them, while at the same time spurring the puniest of human beings into herculean struggles to respond appropriately – with respect and courage and imaginative ardour – to their unparalleled size and beauty. The European Union is something like this: a project that began with a dream of economic cooperation, which would encourage cooperation on political, philosophical and artistic levels, and ended by developing into an organic entity (no longer a project) which cannot finally be contained, controlled or properly measured, and may indeed be all the stronger and more delightful for this loss of containment, control and measure; a dream that sometimes morphs into a vision or a nightmare; an architect’s model that reduces human beings to tiny, semi-translucent sketches, yet liberates them to think in terms of vast, navigable spaces and endless journeys, their very tininess and translucency capable of extending their capabilities beyond all previous limitations.
The United Kingdom has shut itself off from this mysterious and absurd region of possibilities, transforming itself into a magically fenced-off polder that resists the playful to-and-fro that characterized its relationships with other European polders between 1973 and 2020. But passages exist that will bring us back to the games we used to play with them, either through the workings of our imaginations or in some other way we might consider more ‘real’. We can look for these passages in Brussels, city of comics, museums, fantasists and migrants. We can send for others via the internet, in the form of the albums of Schuiten and Peeters. Or we can dream them up for ourselves, and playfully open new passages to Brüsel, Mylos and Armilia from the precarious safety of our own front rooms. And after those passages have been opened, who knows what new friendships and imaginative networks might be formed?
 Accounts of some of these exhibitions can be found in the volume Voyages en Utopie (see list below).
 The appendices of my edition of La fièvre d’Urbicande (see list below) offer a range of further readings, none of them comprehensive.
 It’s also inspired by the architectural engravings of Piranesi, as was made clear by the exhibition ‘Rêves de pierres’ in Villeneuve-sur-Lot in 1999 and later in the Musée Fesch, Ajaccio, between October 2000 and the end of January 2001. See Voyages en Utopie, p. 25.
 This is a point made by Thierry Groensteen in his article ‘La Légende des Cités’, on the website dedicated to the Cités obscures, Alta Plana. Groensteen points out that some albums in the Obscure series bear a closer resemblance to a ‘catalogue muséographique’ than to a conventional BD. https://www.altaplana.be/en/dossiers/neuviemeart/la-legende-des-cites
 AT NOON EACH DAY THE SINISTER HARLEQUIN EATS A TON OF LIMAÇONS; TEASING AUNT ADÈLE UNDER THE BUILDER’S BED; THE CLOCK HAS STRUCK MIDDAY: CHARLES THE FIFTH HAS FILED HIS MINISTER IN HIS TENT; SINISTER AT THE FIFTH POSITION, A TRUCE AT NOON, SOUND THE LIMAÇON.
[This is the first of two posts on Fantasy Brussels, written as an affectionate homage to the UK’s membership of the European Union. The second post, on a well-known series of Belgian comic books, can be found here.]
As the UK bids farewell to the European Union I find my thoughts turning to fantasy on the European continent, and in particular to the most fantastic city on that continent, Brussels. This is a kind of polder in Belgium, as John Clute defined the word in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Derived from the Old Dutch term for ‘a tract of low-lying land reclaimed from a body of water and generally surrounded by dykes’, Clute takes ‘polder’ to mean an ‘enclave […] of toughened Reality, demarcated by boundaries from the surrounding world’. The boundaries need to be maintained by powerful magic wielded by some figure who recognises the need to keep them in place. ‘A polder, in other words,’ Clute sums up, ‘is an active Microcosm, armed against the potential Wrongness of that which surrounds it, an anachronism consciously opposed to wrong time’. There could hardly be a better word for Brussels, in its capacity either as imaginary capital of Europe – set up to oppose the Wrongness of totalitarianism, corruption and international conflict – or as a cultural centre, protector of artistic innovators and eccentrics from Pieter Brueghel the Elder to Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Horta and Magritte. The figure maintaining the integrity of Brussels through magic remains obscure, but the magic is there for sure, as well as the notion of the city as a focus of anachronisms, a meeting place between multiple strands of history and the very modern social and economic problems it works haltingly to resolve.
Brussels is a linguistic as well as a cultural polder: a French-speaking capital city stranded in the middle of Flemish-speaking territory. Different rules apply here. Spatially it’s confusing, with its jumble of ancient, decrepit, out-of-date, modernist, postmodern and ultra-modern buildings, many of them highly eccentric, all locked inside a labyrinth of streets, both cobbled and tarmacked, to which no map provides an adequate key. It’s here that the Belgian Revolution started in 1830, the only political coup ever to have been triggered in an opera house. The work that got it going, La muette de Portici (‘The Mute Girl of Portici’), by Daniel Auber and Germain Delavigne – whose lead, bizarrely for an opera, is a voiceless woman performed by a dancer – is often described as the first Grand Opera, and the people of Brussels were so inspired by it that they rose against their Dutch oppressors and established the Kingdom of Belgium as an independent state in emulation of its central characters. The eccentricity that transformed Grand Opera into Revolution continues to mark the people of Brussels to this day, and a quick glance around the city will confirm its omnipresence there, embodied in the bizarre architectural structures and peculiar statues with which it is so well stocked.
Its eccentricity is also embodied in the extraordinary diversity of strange museums in the capital. There is no other city in the world that has half so many museums per capita (that’s a claim I’ve just invented, but I bet it’s true). From the Museum of Beer to the Museums of Freemasonry, Jazz, Chocolate, Clocks, Trams, Musical Instruments, Lace, and Fantastic Art, each of these institutions embodies an obsession, and many are housed in buildings which are themselves museum pieces (the Museum of Musical Instruments is a great example). The monumental Musée des Beaux-Arts near the royal palace, with its unparalleled collection of Flemish masters, was immortalised in an Auden poem [link]; he summed it up as the place where Icarus can be found, the boy who fell from the sky while everyone else went quietly about their business. That’s exactly what you’d expect to happen in Brussels. The city has been an artistic as well as a commercial centre for many centuries, providing a generous home for movements such as Art Nouveau, Symbolism, Expressionism and Surrealism, and between them the museums testify to the sheer oddness of the creative gestures the Bruxellois have found most congenial. Some museums also testify to its violent past: the Museum of Central Africa, for instance, full of traces of the Belgian atrocities in the Congo which underpin Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces in the Parc du Cinquentenaire, which when I last saw it was crammed with German helmets from the Second World War with bullet holes in them, mute reminders of the importance of the project of a unified Europe. Perhaps the strangest of the museums is the Wiertz Museum, dedicated to a painter of vast lurid pictures which he left to the state on condition they be displayed for ever in his majestic studio. Wiertz’s subjects include the body of Patroclus being torn apart as the Trojans and Greeks fight over it, a cholera victim who has been accidentally buried alive clawing his way out of his coffin, a half-naked man blowing his brains out with a pistol, and a young woman smirking at an undead skeleton. There is hope that Wiertz himself might one day become a museum exhibit; his body was embalmed according to Egyptian custom and stored safely in an underground vault.
I came to know Brussels in the early 1970s when my father went to work there as an official in the European Commission. He lived in a high rise just down the road from the Berlaymont building, many storeys above the street and accessible only by a small lift or many flights of narrow stairs; when he moved there, the larger items of furniture he owned had to be hauled in through the sitting room window. The kitchen of this flat had a chute with a metal flap on it through which you could post your rubbish, which went crashing down from storey to storey till it came to rest in a noxious refuse bin in the subterranean basement. If you visited the basement to take out rubbish that didn’t fit in the chute you had to dare the automatic lights, which turned off after several seconds leaving you stranded in the dark; you then had to grope your way to one of the switches, which glowed like the eyes of Morlocks in the George Pal movie of The Time Machine, and activate the lights again – for a few seconds, until they switched themselves off and plunged you once more in abysmal darkness. When we children stayed with my father we went to the Berlaymont every weekday for lunch, being introduced to such typically Belgian delicacies as ‘filet américain’ (a plateful of raw mince) and roast chicory wrapped in ham and doused in a thick cheese sauce. There were no Brussels sprouts in Brussels back in those days, which broke my father’s heart because he loved them more than any other vegetable; just chicory in unimaginable quantities. The most remarkable thing about the Berlaymont canteen in the 1970s was that it was the only place in the country where you could get a truly terrible meal. On special occasions we would go out to a proper restaurant such as Chez Léon, near the celebrated Grand Place or central square, to eat moules frites – mussels with chips – which is the Belgian national dish, the shellfish in question being doused in every kind of sauce you can possibly imagine and many you can’t. You can’t talk about Brussels, in fact, without talking about food and drink. The food there is as various and eccentric as the architecture, and somehow perfectly adapted to it, as full of curlicues and flourishes as the Maison du Roi in the Grand Place: a confection of Gothic revival balconies and images which houses the Brussels City Museum and is also known as the Broodhuis or Bread Hall, though it looks more like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake than a conventional loaf of bread. You see? Food and buildings exist in a symbiotic relationship chez les Belges.
On successive stays in Brussels I fell in love with some of the city’s bizarrer architectural manifestations, such as the futuristic Atomium (1958), constructed in the shape of an iron crystal – and extremely dilapidated when I first visited it – and Joseph Poelart’s Palais de Justice (1866-1883), the largest building constructed in the nineteenth century, which is essentially a monstrous portico with no rooms attached to it (though there are some very impressive staircases both inside and out). Some claim that Orson Welles wanted to shoot his version of Kafka’s The Trial among its halls and corridors, while Poelart himself is said to have gone mad while building it – just as the architect of Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum is said to have been driven to distraction by the discovery that his masterpiece had been constructed back to front, throwing himself off one of the building’s many towers in a fit of pique. At an early age I also became aware of the practice of ‘Brusselization’, which involves buying fine old buildings and allowing them to decay until they are completely irreparable, then tearing them down and building something hideous in their place. When I first went to Brussels the city was full of these carefully neglected ruins, which lent the streets an air of melancholy, as if some calamitous architectural disease were eating away at its vital organs. The effect was enhanced by the mania for preserving historical façades while tearing down the buildings they once fronted. The many ornate frontages with nothing behind them except scaffolding and gaping brick-fringed holes in the Belgian soil added to the impression that Brussels was a kind of conspiracy, a front for something deeply suspicious and possibly inhuman which was working towards the universal destruction of mankind.
Conspiracy theories like to portray human beings as helpless sentient puppets manipulated by monstrous unseen hands; and Brussels has a hidden gem ideally suited to the tastes of inveterate seekers-out of Rosicrucian plots and anarchistic machinations. This is the Toone puppet theatre, a tiny, shadowy cave tucked away in an inner courtyard off one of the narrow medieval streets that worm the vicinity of the Grand Place. The theatre doubles as a bar draped with superannuated puppets, like corpses in a painting by the manic Belgian etcher and painter James Ensor. It has been in existence since its foundation by Antoine ‘Toone’ Genty in about 1830. Disturbingly, all the puppet masters since have adopted the name of Toone, as if they were clones of their great precursor, carved by him out of wood and brought to life by some perverse blue fairy; or a succession of boy apprentices carefully trained in the supernatural art of bringing life to inanimate objects, each of whom got possessed by the spirit of Genty at a certain point in his professional development. One memorable Toone production I saw in my teenage years involved Lucretia Borgia’s murderous attempts to set herself up as ‘Papesse’ – a female Pope much addicted to poisoning her rivals. Another was a particularly violent version of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, all acted in the Brussels dialect, a unique fusion of Flemish and French which ends up sounding very much like English. The Toone Theatre is yet another polder within the larger polder of Brussels, its inhabitants dusty people made of wood, cloth, wire and string, with unsettling painted eyes. It’s a museum too, of course, as well as a bar and theatre. I think perhaps every building in Brussels is also a museum. And a bar. And possibly a theatre too, now I come to think of it.
When my father moved to Auderghem, a former forest village in the south east of the city, we spent many afternoons among the etiolated trees of the Forêt de Soignes, where charcoal burners and hunters once plied their trades and where the tracks of deer can still be traced after each fresh fall of snow. Our favourite spot was a former monastery called Rouge Cloître: a cluster of buildings surrounded by woods, within whose precincts a succession of excellent restaurants and cafés have been set up over the years, none of which have lasted more than three or four seasons. One modest café there only ever served quiches, but they were the finest quiches in the whole of creation. Parokeets flew screeching through the nearby branches, Siberian chipmunks whisked along the tops of the crumbling walls, while huge carp surfaced in the ancient fishponds, some of them attached to the fishing lines of the many anglers who crowded the banks. When in town I drank at the famous bar À la mort subite – Sudden Death – near the city centre, an ornately decorated chamber thronged with indifferent lounging cats. There and elsewhere I discovered the astonishing diversity of Belgian beers, from Gueuze, Kriek and Hoegaarden to the much more potent abbey brews, blond, dark and russet. The abbey connection suggests that beer is something of a religion in that part of Europe. There’s a Scottish connection, too; when I moved to Glasgow in 1992 I learned that Scottish beer was more highly regarded in Brussels than in Scotland, and that at least one variety – Gordon’s Highland Scotch Ale – was still being brewed exclusively for the Belgian market in Edinburgh (production was transferred to Belgium after the millennium). I have never been to the Beer Museum, but I’ll wager it’s full of astonishing facts like this one.
All these details give some sense of the eccentricity of a city whose best-known symbol is a little boy having a pee, who gets dressed up in a different costume for every day of the year (there’s a museum for his costumes, of course: the ‘Garderobe Manneken Pis’). But I promised to talk about Brussels and fantasy, and for me the epitome of fantasy in Brussels has always been the comics. By comics I mean, of course, the bandes dessinées or BDs of the Franco-Belgian school, known to francophone commentators as the ‘ninth art’ (the eighth is television; I forget the rest). My father’s flat near the Berlaymont Building was crammed with BDs, and later so was his house in Auderghem. He had all the Tintin books, mostly in French with a few English titles thrown in; he also had the whole of Asterix, an Enki Bilal, some Lucky Lukes, and more. I read everything dozens of times, poring over the relationship between words and pictures, the transition from panel to panel, the colour schemes, and slowly discovering new puns, allusions and even plotlines as the years went by and my French improved. After a few years I began to collect BDs of my own: most notably Thorgal le Viking, by the Polish artist Grzegorz Rosinski and the prolific Belgian scenario-writer Jean van Hamme, and the Cités obscures series by the Belgian artist François Schuiten and the French novelist and scholar Benoît Peeters. My taste in comics was largely determined by my taste in drawing styles. I loved pictures I could study for hours on end and return to again and again, stumbling across new details and more ingenious juxtapositions, or simply marvelling at the skill that had been lavished on each panel, page or double spread. Such were the drawings of the French artist Jean Giraud, known as Moebius, which led me to his masterpiece L’Incal, scripted by the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Brazilian writer-artist Leo drew me to his series Les mondes d’Aldébaran with his careful representations of peculiar alien animals, each of which is sufficiently close to some terrestrial life-form to disturb and amuse in equal measure. Régis Loisel’s flamboyant penmanship made me enamoured of La quête de l’oiseau du temps, scripted by Serge Le Tendre, while the rich textures and three-dimensional solidity of Juan Díaz Canales’s anthropomorphic dogs, goats, polar bears and rhinoceroses led me to the neo-noir adventures of the feline private eye Blacksad, written by Canales’s fellow Spaniard Juanjo Guarnido. Recent discoveries are the Valérian books by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières (I was alerted to these, of course, by Luc Besson’s film), the Orbital series by Serge Pellé and Sylvain Runberg, and Sillage by Jean-David Morvan and Philippe Buchet. The ten-volume Décalogue, conceived by Frank Giroud and drawn by several artists, delighted me by setting the first of its volumes in Glasgow, so that I had the pleasure of seeing the buildings I knew best magically embedded in the panels of a Franco-Belgian comic. I collected volumes or ‘tomes’ of BDs each time I went to Brussels to visit my father, often in the local Carrefour supermarket, sometimes in the Museum of Comics near the Grand Place – more accurately, the Centre Belge de la bande dessinée.
The Comics Museum is housed in a former department store designed by Victor Horta, so one could say that the BD industry has been built into the landscape of the city, entwined with the vegetable inventiveness of Belgian Art Nouveau. Another of Horta’s buildings houses material relating to the comics of François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters; this is La Maison Autrique, which contains a permanent display of Schuiten’s pictures honouring the Horta legacy. The Maison plays a central role in one of the final albums of the Cités obscures series, La théorie du grain de sable. Museums occur, in fact, with remarkable frequency in Franco-Belgian comics. Captain Haddock’s house, Moulinsart or Marlinspike, is effectively a museum stocked with family heirlooms going back many centuries, standing shoulder to shoulder with mementoes of the Captain’s travels with his young friend Tintin. So is Professor Tarragon’s house in Les sept boules de cristal, its contents based on research carried out among the Incan holdings of the Cinquentenaire Museum in Brussels. There is an actual museum in L’oreille cassée, and many more in Edgar P. Jacobs’s Blake and Mortimer series and Jacques Tardi’s Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec. Schuiten and Peeters’s Mémoirs de l’éternel présent includes a museum dedicated to forbidden things, mostly clocks and timepieces whose very existence suggests that the City of Taxandria hasn’t always existed in the eternal present, as its government insists. Bande dessinée, in other words, is as besotted with miscellaneous collections of displaced antiquities, forgotten or rejected customs and extravagant artworks as the city which is the BD’s spiritual home. The strange juxtapositions accidentally achieved in the display cabinets of scholarly collections are the stock-in-trade of the ninth art, and it’s with juxtapositions that my next blog post on Fantasy Brussels, dedicated to the comics of Schuiten and Peeters, will be concerned.