Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Suicide Club by Robert Louis Stevenson, Dover Thrift Edition.

Machen’s The Three Impostors – reviewed last month – led me to this; a linked three-story series from Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights collection that, in set-up and structure, was its inspiration.
  Prince Florizel of Bohemia, with his British aide Colonel Geraldine, don mutual disguises in a bid to thwart a Gentleman’s Club wherein its clientele play cards for the opportunity to be led by variously devised means to their own deaths. Across each tale, the Prince and the Colonel assist a vulnerable victim (is there any other kind?) as a means to corner and despatch the Club’s wicked President who may have had a hand in the fate of Geraldine’s brother and is, of course, only out for himself.
  To describe this book as merely dated is to underestimate the more honourable attempts of its contemporaries. The main problem – as so often is the case with Victorian melodrama – is what is the subtext; not only left unwritten by the author, but, seemingly, not even realised. Clear opportunities for contemporary satire are ignored:
  ‘There was little decency among the members of the club. Some boasted of the disgraceful actions, the consequences had reduced them to seek refuge in death; and the others listened without disapproval. There was a tacit understanding against moral judgments;…a third was for reading the mysteries of life in a future state; and a fourth professed that he would never have joined the club, if he had not been induced to believe in Mr. Darwin.
  "I could not bear," said this remarkable suicide, "to be descended from an ape."’ (p. 13).
  Such a quote, witty in itself, unfortunately leads nowhere, never being exploited in the narrative voice of its author. Neither is blatant gay iconography ever once even intimated. Florizel and Geraldine are, here, unquestioned male names, for crying out-loud, while the usual, distant ‘love interest’ is manifest in the mysterious fate of Geraldine’s brother.
  While what may have been mildly shocking subject matter in 1882 is positively Neanderthal in 2012. It also reads today as tactlessly presumptuous in assuming a single world-view against the subject of suicide. Can we blame Stevenson for this? Well, I would expect far more radical and revelatory use of the same material from contemporaries such as Chesterton, Belloc or, perhaps most intriguing, Ronald Firbank.
  This would have been far more successful as a satire of Wildean wit, but, in several bounds, Stevenson manages to free himself from all opportunity to portray it as such. Where the subject of suicide and the individual’s right to choose is hotly debated today, here, the view is strictly conservative and – despite the lame attempts at black humour – as socially unaware as Stevenson’s humourless kowtowing to its two Establishment ‘heroes.’
  Some books come into their own after years of unjust neglect. Others fall out and should be left where they land to die. The Suicide Club is one such. A pity – and such a great title.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Short Story In Crisis?

Where is the short story heading? London publishers' agents are reluctant to touch them; the novel remaining their pre-eminent weapon of choice. First timer collections of yore no longer hold their niche in today's market. Here, film rights hold sway over what now, in effect, is a literary first draft script; one in waiting for an audience already exposed.
  Meanwhile, the Net exploding has triggered a universe of uncertainty. The old categories appear increasingly parochial, muddied and out of touch. This allows for experimentation, yes, a window of opportunity for new sub-genres, perhaps. It might also mean no individual writer, whomever he/she is, will any longer be able to follow and maintain a deserved career where their voice and standing now lasts only as long as current sales.
  New voices thus become fickle, ten-a-penny, interchangeable and easily lost in a 'market' that no longer exists as a separate entity, but transient and indistinguishable from the world it is in. Yet, writers new and old stubbornly continue to write them. Why? They are not in a vaccuum, of course - they must. How else can they exercise their talent and guage reader interest in their name? How else can they publicise their ability - if they have one - and swiftly define - through creative repitition - a public face? How, without recourse to a sole, perhaps overlong, tale that may be flawed in technique but brilliant in plot?  
  What should they do then? Simply write another? Don't be fooled by the high profiles of London's and New York's well-heeled literati. Most new writers barely scrape a living and certainly can't afford the luxury of sacrifice entailed by the time, financial loss and mental commitment incurred by the expenditure of this one hit.
  There are parallels to the rock music industry in the mid-Seventies. The large record labels, stuffed and complacent from years of sell-out gigs, overlong tracks too easily filling disc space and overpaid bands trading on past glories, lost touch with their market; the younger generation of music lovers following in their wake. This new generation rebelled, producing short DIY sounds and personal images that tapped into their audiences discontent.
  One difference to today is crucial. The competition then was bound by the media's relatively modest size. You pretty much knew what it was and could build your public image accordingly. The 'them' and 'us' scenario. This appears no longer possible. Now, as an artist, you encounter something knew and unforeseen at every click, defying such demarcation. The competition is vast, instantly international, and bound only by those as yet without the Net. In this situation, the writer must continue to network, yes, to occasionally write for free, perhaps. But he / she must also hold determinedly onto what is theirs by right; their own literary identity.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Three Impostors by Arthur Machen, The Everyman Library edition.

Far more of a challenge than your typical novel, this is the story of three men too absorbed by their own literary interests to realise the truth, or otherwise, of the events unfolding around them. These are Dyson, in thrall to his own imagination, Phillipps, an adherent to science, and Russell, who simply considers himself a realist.
  Structurally based upon R. L. Stevenson’s ‘New Arabian Nights,’ thirteen chapters here act as anecdotal short stories, delivered to Dyson and Phillipps by supporting characters inveigling upon them their recent plights, and on whom we – and they – must trail to decide upon the truth of their motive and intent. If this sounds dry, it is only because to describe it effectively at all on one reading is in itself a challenge.
It’s necessary to place the work in the context of its time.
  First published in 1895, this era of supposed ‘decadence’ amongst the monied classes incrementally seeps through our consciousness. For though only sketched, Dyson, Phillipps and Russell still evoke the lazy wit, diffidence and nonchalance of stoned Sixties rock stars. They seem to live for kicks, their own amusement, and little else. They appear bored, dissolute and need adventure. Only, there is the growing, unnerving feeling in this reader that Dyson in particular cares only for the sating of this need over and above the fate of those who may require his help. Machen doesn’t force us to believe this; he simply plays it out. Such progress through the dark makes the work – if not entirely successful – the page-turner it needs to be.
  So, what’s interesting is what author Machen himself thinks of their status. Is he contemptuous of the three? - not obviously. Does he approve of their self-absorption? - it is never made clear. (As literary impostors, who are they pretending to be?) A clue might lay in the work he released in its wake. The novel ‘The Hill of Dreams’ (1897) may be the longest suicide note in history, in its part-autobiographical depiction of a failing writer whose talent and unique personal vision is overlooked to the point where madness fatally perverts whatever it was he’d earlier harboured. Here, the author seems to be predicting his own fate; what may – and may yet – happen to him if he listens to all those who think he should give up his art and get a ‘proper job.’
  Oh, how we can relate to it…
This was also, remember, the time of Chesterton’s sledgehammer metaphors in ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ and ‘The Club of Queer Trades,’ and Belloc’s satirical sketches. So, it is possible Machen - to a certain extent – is satirising himself and his generation in the former book.
  Two anecdotal ‘stories’ in particular have co-existed in neat isolation from the rest of ‘The Three Impostors’ for at least the last seventy years. Both ‘The Novel of the Black Seal’ and ‘The Novel of the White Powder’ episodes have rightly made countless horror anthologies through the 20th Century and done so again in the imminent, and welcome, Penguin Classics reissue, ‘The White People & Other Weird Stories.’ With their contemporary themes of archaeological intrusion and unchallenged drug addiction resonating down the decades, Lovecraft, Howard and their offspring have been milking those particular seams ever since.