Another Cicerones journey or a new Pilgrim’s Progress, a noisy cascade of Aickmanly self-indulgence, depicting a young man with a double barrelled name who leaves his Tent to travel his future life, a series of encounters with his future self or “near-doubles” and characters he seems to know in some previous life and to whom he had done some bad, as well as encountering others while his future sins couched as past ones are divulged to this confessional of pages, as it were, including an appearance by me today in the role of an old ‘intruding duffer’!
The fabulous journey entails the eponymous legendary bower which he, with his Tent, seeks by dint of some ordained crazy improvisation — a bower named after Henry II’s mistress. A bower eventually discovered, and described in a perfectly wonderful Aickmanly manner, at the overlapped Niemandswasser ownership of a no man’s land of fields and meadows. Here the bower is a maze, with no cows mooing from Bashan, and no birds at all except a frightening grey peacock.
One of his encounters is with a young boy-page who turns out to be a girl (cf the Cicerones) whom the narrator scandalously wishes to “gather up” and to “defeather” her cap while she “posed with legs far apart”, as well as later encountering a beautiful woman, Rosamund as a Virgin Mother figure, who, I infer, transcends his earlier dubious desires or she is perhaps another version of himself without the so-called poison of masculinity, judging by some of Aickman’s other works.
An Abbess, a Seneschal, some doggy pugs, a stone kiosk or shrine and much else, heraldic or otherwise. Some quotes below that should be remembered so as to encapsulate a gestalt of whoever dreamt all this up, and whoever it was escaping at the end into what he hoped is a different future! One where the feathered birds had all already by now returned…
“The words ‘a big woman’ are frightening in themselves.”
“The peacock had been assuredly male, but the Abbess had the same eye as the peacock and a similarly shrivelled and pointed face,…”
“…he would not have been the man he was, part poet, part dreamer, part babe, had it been otherwise.”
“He suspected, indeed he knew, that it had happened, or would happen, again and again.” Again and again like Zeno’s Paradox.
“…the Father of Lies”, who has now returned again.
“…lovers caressing, and saints suffering; or possibly the reverse.”
That ‘wisp of demons’ in yesterday’s Insufficient Answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything: “It had ears with points; a wispy, tufted tail…”
“0h, it’s surely not as bad as that. No. 42 I thought rather good.”
…which statement by one of the characters, at the very start of this novelette, sheds an added slant upon its title!
It is indeed ironically a quite insufficient answer, one that is knowingly not an answer at all. A self-mockery that goes with the novelette’s melodramatic Gothic plot, a plot that definitely seems in prophetic or inexplicably preternatural synergy with Mark Samuels’s relatively recent novel, ‘Witch-Cult Abbey’, a work arguably superior to this Aickman novelette and reviewed Zenoistically by me HERE. Please read both works and you will see what I mean, this one by Aickman starting with an art gallery running a series of exhibitions entitled “Women Who’ve Made as Good As Men”. (Sic)
A character called Cust shares his name with a past British Home Secretary; the latter, as well as advocating a National Lottery, had been a close friend of Lola Hastings – and she is sculptor and painter holed up in distant Slovenia inside a Gothic, maze-like Schloss and lots of flaming faggots to light the place up, living with a woman called Poppy Franklin and another (imprisoned?) girl as a model called Felicity.
Cust is sent by the art gallery to persuade Lola to visit London to help bolster her sales or otherwise the whole business would collapse. Well, to cut a long story short, Cust returns to London, tail between his legs, tellingly with Felicity’s handbag in his suitcase, after a rather convoluted plot, where Poppy is amazingly dying of pneumonia one day and quite fit the next. No way I can cover the whole ground of this plot, but here are some highlights as one delves through it…
Lola’s art involves statues with colour, and she also has some local peasants as models, and her drawbridge doesn’t work, and there is some strange geological rift outside. — There is a lot of great writing, as one would expect with Aickman, involving Cust’s experience of the journey, his arrival at the ‘cut-off’ Schloss, and the adventures with these strange women. — Lola hates noise and sculpts in the dark and is also learning to paint in darkness, and Cust feels he need to be a Trappist to cut down on the noise he makes! — But there is much clanging of shutters, and he half-dreams some of his adventures — Cust explains to Lola that the art gallery felt that her answers to their demands on her homecoming were insufficient! — Lola has an eikon decorating her room, but one questions her devotions, especially when the chapel she prays in is not exactly a chapel. — They play games of fives, a sport of which Cust was once a champion. — “Mortifying thoughts crawled like earwigs through his brain….” —
I had no idea what all that meant, but I somehow knew there was much meaning in it that I would understand toward the eschatological end of things. — But “All kinds of things are hidden so well they’ll never be found again.” — Matters of plot concerning a well, a spider, a Singer sewing machine, Whitby, Napoleon Bonaparte and some dropped cigarette butts — and Cust’s whole visit becomes “a wisp of demons”… — he thinks he sees Felicity lying in tomb or “waxy sarcophagus” and there are many such effective horror scenes that somehow resonate with Mark Samuels’ aforementioned novel of the Abbey and with his Lilith/Lola of the White Hands. — Poppy tells Cust that Lola had come here to this Schloss to escape men (Aickman himself being “poisoned with masculinity”, an expression used elsewhere in his canon of fiction.) — and here are Lola’s final words (my bold)…. “We lock the Schloss to keep in what we lock our rooms to keep out. […] I don’t think that either of us, Miss Franklin or I, would be particularly acceptable to London society at the present moment. We must absent ourselves from that felicity a while.” And, in still-evolving real-time, I think I now understand that other mysterious passage shown above. Another irony, with a colourful ’city’ embedded in ‘felicity’, as other bodies were embodied in stone or rock.
“Why is it that after the chariot-race on the Ides of December the right-hand trace-horse of the winning team is sacrificed to Mars, and then someone cuts off its tail, and carries it to the place called Regia and sprinkles its blood on the altar, while some come down from the street called the Via Sacra, and some from the Subura, and fight for its head?
Is it, as some say, that they believe Troy to have been taken by means of a horse; and therefore they punish it, since, forsooth, they are Noble scions of Trojans commingled with children of Latins.
Or is it because the horse is a spirited, warlike, and martial beast, and they sacrifice to the gods creatures that are particularly pleasing and appropriate for them; and the winner is sacrificed because Mars is the specific divinity of victory and prowess?
Or is it rather because the work of the god demands standing firm, and men that hold their ground defeat those that do not hold it, but flee? And is swiftness punished as being the coward’s resource, and do they learn symbolically that there is no safety for those who flee?” — PLUTARCH
(My bold print above, as part of my still homing in on Aickman’s overall theme in his own stories and in his edited Fontana anthologies)
A ROMAN QUESTION by Robert Aickman
“Middles are dead nothings.”
“You sink together, yet apart, into tighter and tighter quicksands, while your faces grow blanker and blanker,…”
This is a mighty haunting story as I have just rediscovered after many years. I had forgotten this was the one that has haunted me ever since with the sound at dawn of a horse on the roof of the house where I am sleeping. But now just realised that I am wrong about it being a ‘horse’ on the ‘house’, by later confusion of words.. The horse was of course dead in the street outside, and it was a man called Harry presumed dead or missing in the war now finding himself trying to get through the roof as the returned dead are not allowed through doors (or was it two men who were more than just friends now bonded even more by death?), as summoned by an earlier group séance inside the house with sugar cubes (that are often given to horses as treats?), using, in a child-like game, the sugar cubes as strictly numbered and correctly situated models of ships while summoning the dead one by name and also by means of what is called a horse-eye beam of light. The Roman questions above by Plutarch now become, by an oblique leap of meaning, more a Roman habit of seeking the truth of the future from animals’ entrails than playing with sugar cubes. Noises like ‘the brickwork of a house settling’, or a horse breaking itself in?
Should I bother you with the logistics of the odd exchange of cars and dodgy methods of overnight accommodation etc, and how we got to the above summoning of the dead? Well, to cut a long story short, there is a conference in Birmingham, and an unsatisfactorily married couple, the narrator and Marguerite, accompany, as a favour, a friend called Neptuna to an equally unsatisfactory cross-discipline conference of the arts and commercial business, and they are later latched onto by a woman called Deirdre whose boy friend escapes back to London leaving her in Birmingham to share digs with the narrator and his wife. The Peeverses are the couple running these digs and whose son Harry was dead or missing. Don’t go there! But it all makes a typical Aickmanly roughness of haunting sense. Suburban seediness (“There was nothing on view but the usual Birmingham pile of dry sandwiches, and some sliced Scribona.”) with no street lights and some eccentric behaviour in bedrooms and so much more. Telling you even more than you think you have been told. Or want to be told!
Let’s briefly draw out some key moments…
“But I find that I never like the middle period of anything.” — Neptuna had three ex-husbands still tending to her needs, I infer, but what was that about her dinosaur? — Mrs Peevers is dressed in a patchwork of black bits and pieces, and the sole benefit of the seance seems to give her a miracle cure by allowing her to walk again, but also makes her shake an earthenware pot, thus scattering dry, yellow leaves — the one or two summoned men who arguably ended up on the roof, was Harry who once escaped ‘jug’ and close friend Jim Tate who once painted the former’s portrait that now hangs above the séance’s sprawlingly-described ritual of sugar cubes — Marguerite accuses Deirdre of ‘witchcraft’, the latter meanwhile claiming that “The women make the ocean and the men make the ship.” — Deirdre once performed this séance in a hospital where she claims they use “serious animals” (cf the aforementioned entrails?) — Deirdre’s surreptitious groping of the narrator during the ritual, a ritual that also uses women’s stockings — later we see Marguerite in her “pretty pants” and ‘manicuring her toes in the bad light’; “She wore her hair tighter at night than by day, so that it should not lose its day-time shape”, as one does! — “Of course one commonly encounters such fleeting paradoxes in the difficult matter of sex. […] the familiar complexity of sex-appeal.”
Amazingly “Her head was as trim as a newly opened horse-chestnut.”
A most creepy, meaninglessly meaningful story. This representing Aickman’s own unapologetic anthropology.
Now off to Dudley Zoo! Along with the Meatyards. If not with those Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Harry had an interest in anthropology”
“It is always extraordinarily difficult to be affectionate in that kind of way with a person to whom one is bound for life; and now I was both too late and too frozen,…”
“To Fern, life had become an affair of moments only; a present without past, without future.”
This turns out to be a seminal work for my latest series of reviews of his stories and edited Fontana anthologies, while incidentally giving a nod — via Henry Fern’s sighting of a man with a ‘boy’ in Venice — to the Thomas Mann novella and also the Daphne Du Maurier story ‘Ganymede’ that I happened to review recently HERE. Also containing Venetians with masks like the animals (asses or lions?) in Du Maurier’s The Blue Lenses, also reviewed at that link.
Meanwhile, in the main flow of this story, Henry Fern is a neuro-diverse man, walking life’s tightrope, romantically gauche, feeling himself to be an ‘alien’ or ‘impostor’, one with a death obsession, and working in an office — and, with a sudden unexpectedly fateful success in promotion, he can afford, perhaps reluctantly, to visit VENICE for the first time, not least, perhaps, to check out his previous unreliably recurrent dream of being in a gondola with a woman…
A richly complex emotional portrayal of Fern that will ever resonate with the resistant power of Zeno’s Paradox, and also dealing with his balancing of the crassness of tourism in a Venice with a spellbinding and eventually spiritually diverse Gothic fulfilment of his dream — involving the perfect detailed description of what in the last year or so I have called a co-vivid dream. Across time and resistant inclination. Become a ghost himself? Become part of that uttersome sexual rapture that subsumed masculinity in the Wine-Dark Sea…? Taken out to the open seas from the lagoon, as in Aickman’s novel, Go Back At Once, even with a Hope still painted by Watts?
These are, for me, the story’s key textual clues…
The ‘piercing radios’ of the above tourist crassness also mentioned in my Aickman review yesterday of Wine-Dark Sea which is a story that also mentions Mussolini.
Tourism generally now being a tour of the same place wherever you are, a chore not a pleasure, as I have long thought.
“…women are so much more alike than are men.”
Two points in this story where swords are related the the death obsession, cf ‘The Swords’.
“Venice was rotted with the world’s new littleness.”
“The Venetian dream” through ‘holes in its scenery.’
“…because life goes ever crabwise…”
“… insidious Venice had promoted an insanity in him, a mad confusion between dream and dread. He was pretty sure that, if he should run at all, he should by rights run in the opposite direction.”
They were not the gondolier’s shoes, but black feet.
“If I go beyond the obvious things, I get into what you call deep waters.”
Venice with darkening palaces, full of idiot tourists…”no tides in the Mediterranean” as in Holihaven, and as if swept out to the Wine-Dark Sea.
“…he looked at his watch, he found it had stopped.”
“It was to the effect that a simple hour as a lion is to be preferred to a lifetime as an ass.”
“…the tideless Mediterranean and Aegean, which on a calm day tend to be at once stagnant and a little uncanny. Dense weed often clogs the shallows, uncleaned by ebb and flow;”
England has similar places of tideless, gluey Zenoism, too: e.g. in Ringing the Changes and Letters to the Postman. Here, holidaying on a Greek island with the modern day’s triviality of radios et al, is an Englishman with curious curiosity called Grigg — “He felt agog (it was the only word)…” — and, by stealing a boat, visits a smaller island off that mainland island, the smaller one greatly spurned by the mainland locals. It seems to be a living rock with, built-in, a male statue as if Grigg is seeing a naked Mussolini (Cf the the Aickman novel Go Back At Once), a statue that is upon – or part of – this rock, together with a fortress inhabited by three beguiling women, Tal, Vin and Lek, who take him over by ‘uttermost rapture’ as well as wine. And with depiction of his striking nightmare while there and a great cyclic earthquake and a later storm and intruder — and comprising his explorations stealing through empty rooms via doors all of which are either open or shut — he is himself, via some failure of loyalty towards them, eventually spurned by those three siren women whom everyone else had already spurned.
And, using words from this story, an author who felt himself “poisoned with masculinity”, I guess, judging by his canon. A mystically opaque work that is only interesting because it forms a part of — and sheds some oblique light on — that very Aickman canon. (Also a story with possible racially or politically didactic references to Greeks and Turks.)
“When you live entirely among madmen, it is difficult to know how sane you are.”
“There are no beautiful houses in England now. Only ruins, mental homes, and Government offices.”
This is probably the most spiritually complex or artistically sophisticated story that Aickman ever wrote and I stand abashed and humbly fazed before its vision of the Isle of Man just a few hours after I happened to link to the Isle of Lewis HERE with these words of mine in 2011 about the other story there: …a transience-permanence parable and the ability to cheat logic for real through fiction, an invisible power that needs one to strip away bit by bit, move by move, sacrifice by sacrifice, one’s physical body to become a noumenon, nay, this story’s “No-Man”…. — For me an incredible coincidence or a sudden preternaturally pattern-clinching synergy!
I speak of ‘parable’ there, while here is a fable in the Aickman about a man living his life like reading a story scrolled from one roller to another at variable speeds — and this seems to be the apotheosis of what I have been slowly establishing about the primacy of Zenoism and Nullimmortalis in Aickman’s fiction and in his edited anthologies!
“…his own soul took flight and drifted warm and lazy and for ever.”
A convalescent man called Carfax (skilled in the drawing arts as with a pencil-as-planchette and in composing music) who views a variable VIEW from the room where he is staying and the garden when drawing such a view, the same view but views ever different from each other, after having been picked up on the inferred ferry from Liverpool by a variable woMAN who becomes his lover by night and a lone horse rider by day (if indeed that is what she does during daylight bearing in mind that Carfax’s name is, well, Carfax!), a woman whom he later calls Ariel, with his being picked up by her to stay at her wondrous secluded house called Fleet, by the Island’s sea, containing a household of a grey-clad maid and deceptive mirrors and visions of his other selves and his half-dreams, an outer house or an inner world threatening to turn into the tawdry town life he usually lives and into his convalesce-able ills again. This is essential Aickman fiction as well as coming to “some sort of terms with the intransigent and rather trivial opposite sex”, but, like the view, a sex opposite to what? — a fiction with many key passages: …
“Immortals have no names,…” like this story’s suit of armour — or amour?
The giant carpet of carpets snaking on the stairs and bedrooms….
”The answer you cannot make, the pattern you cannot complete — till afterwards it suddenly comes to you — when it is too late.”
Mention of Wagner – and of course mention of Rutland Boughton who was inspired by Fiona MacLeod in his ‘IMMORTAL HOUR’ opera that gave prominence to The Lordly Ones that I have found appeared in at least two other Aickman stories (‘Growing Boys’ and another story that I have now forgotten but have already reviewed!)
“You live surrounded by the claims of other people:” — “…nonsense with a lovely strangeness about it.” — or a comforting commonplace?
Hanging a sodden towel from one of this story’s immortal moments of truth so that you can find it again one day, but has the towel fallen off when you come to read it yet again? — “‘I think the secret’ she replied, kissing him, ‘is to get it down quickly. Quickly. Immediately you see it. When you see it. Don’t stop till you’ve got it down.’”
“Did his imagination in some way have to embrace everything or nothing?”
The flaw that the Chinese used to create an ultimate perfection. The racing down the lines of print to take in whatever is of exceptional interest in them, but gathering less and less the faster one goes…
“We had better go to bed. We had better go to bed.” And he wonders if the room they were both in at any one time appears to be a different room to the perception of one or other of them. A parallel to one reader reading this story who feels they are reading a different story from the one another reader is reading while both are reading the same story.
Aickman apotheosised, indeed.
‘Ariel’ and ‘alien’ used in a single paragraph of THE VIEW, my view.
“You must have heard that love doesn’t go by desserts.”
In the context, I assumed it should be ‘deserts’. Well, this desiccated Des at least would prefer the smell of desserts to the later one in this story of “charred bloaters.” Meanwhile, to unpick this astoundingly associative work (free association or determined?), it starts with a posh restaurant where there is an ante-room with three-legged tables, presumably leaning against walls. And Malcolm, the main protagonist with an overt Macbeth connection, falls in love, by Aickmanly obsession, with a woman he sees in that ante-room who turns out — with the intermediary help of Dr Bermuda’s hypnotic ‘magnetic undermind’ — to be called Dorabelle and living in Arcadia Gardens in a house of sphinxes and a strangely slow servant — but, later, uncharacteristically quick, too — called Gunter.
Malcolm falls so deeply in love with Dorabelle that he ups and leaves his fiancée Ann in the restaurant (who later consequently commits suicide and becomes an oracle for us all) and follows Dorabelle in a taxi to where she lives; she is mourning her father, but later deeming Malcolm to be her father’s tutelary reincarnation….
“You know very well you can know.” Please compare the problem solving in ‘Letters to the Postman’. And Dorabelle embroiders what she considers to be beautiful stuff but which, in truth, contains ugly tangles: and she weaves a black veil for her coming marriage to a man she first found in a mirror. It is with this man that Malcolm ends up having a duel, with a choice of weapons. The dreaded tasselled cane, notwithstanding.
Wine that gives a shell of sobriety. Her tapping heels hard to hear whilst he can hear a darting cat’s ‘furtive footfalls in patchy dimness’. It is Dr Bermuda, though, who fascinates me most. He believes in masticating and biting and fully digesting the woman one loves (please see elsewhere John Magwitch’s theories on the theme of cannibalism in Aickman.) Also, Lewis Carroll’s micropsia/ macropsia in a room at Arcadia Gardens. And biscuits that are large enough for serving at the Hospice, I guess. Dessert enough, I say!
Even banknotes cram and stifle at best. The “vilest anti-climax”, of all…not to speak of the ‘orange-coloured fungus’… all of this story proving ‘free will is an illusion’ by simply saying it! Dorabelle’s embroidery thus duly unpicked, if not the whole of this astounding cat’s cradle of a story.
“‘Gunter seems a little under the weather. That cough . . .’ ‘I know he’s slow. I’m sorry.’”