Saturday 15 August 2015

The Face of the Earth & Other Imaginings by Algernon Blackwood, (Compiled and Edited by Mike Ashley), Stark House Press

I felt a frisson of joy, stumbling across this recent release - the first 'new' collection of Blackwood since 1989's The Magic Mirror. (Also from Mike Ashley). When it came to humanising nature, most of his contemporaries – from Potter to Grahame - anthropomorphised woodland beasts for children; Blackwood – almost single-handedly – anthropomorphised the elements around them for adults. He achieved this – especially in his pre-World War One work – by manifesting the child-like idealism still slumbering in himself and, unarticulated, in many of us grown-ups. Add the mystical atmosphere – fired by his own belief – and the undeniable beauty of his vision remains unique.
  Today, a brisk surface read by a Blackwood novice could form an assumption of him as a mere sentimentalist; and a dated one at that. In truth, his resonance is far more profound.
  After his death, aged 82 in 1951, his last hurrah of major sales subsequently faded in the wake of 1967's Summer of Love. John Baker re-published The Empty House, The John Silence Stories and Selected Tales collections - and that was it. A sad but significant ending for a bibliography that, by the 1930s', had been a staple of the private and public school curriculum; significant also in its reflecting what were fast turning into more cynical times.
  Mike Ashley's choice and compilation of material is first rate. I only wish Stark House's realisation was equal to it. The usual bold, painterly art cover and graphics work well, always enticing the eye; but, within, there is something about the crowding of the text and the office-type paper – used by so many inde publishers now – that lets the production down. (Presumably to cut costs). That said, it is worth the purchase for Ashley's well-considered chronicling of Blackwood's early oeuvre, highlighting the arc of his nature vision, and the detailed bibliography at the back.
  Some of the journalism acts as useful prologues to some of the later, more famous, short tales (not featured here) for the scholar seeking deeper context. The elemental descriptions in 'The Willows,' 'The Wendigo' and 'Ancient Sorceries' clearly resonated with what he'd already witnessed in these earlier explorations around the mountains and valleys of the Balkans, Canada, Austria and Egypt.
  Ashley – Blackwood's biographer – has separated his finds, culled from Blackwood's early stories and journalism, into four sections: 'Early Tales,' 'Imagination Awakes,' 'Nature Inspires' and 'Conflicts of the Soul.' If not strictly chronological, they are ordered logically enough to easily follow his literary and spiritual journey up to the end of World War One.
  Of the four, Section 3 reveals itself as both key and the most memorable. Here, we come closest to seeing life through Blackwood's eyes as lived. It is nature as a mystical liberation; one with no beginning and no end, ever-active, ever-changing, yet eternal. 'Down the Danube in a Canadian Canoe' - the centrepiece of, perhaps, the whole book – clearly made a lasting impression on him, echoed in several subsequent pieces – including 'Egypt: An Impression.' These are more transcending than mere travelogues, while never descending to the showily sentimental.
  Two pieces in Section 4 stand out as contrasting results of encounters made during World War One, working first for the Field Ambulance Service and, latterly, as an Intelligence Agent. 'Onanonanon' may be unique in the canon for detailing the psychosis of a schizophrenic, first as a boy, then as a man, making disturbing connections. If not his best, then it's certainly his most radical short tale and singularly ahead of its era. (c. 1920). 'The Memory of Beauty,' the final tale here, concerns a convalescing soldier in a nursing home, making a mental connection of his own to somehow recapture the little he can recall of his past. Again, Blackwood avoids saccharin pathos; instead producing a scene genuinely moving to anyone – like myself – who has a relative afflicted with Alzheimer's.
  Then again, from a memory all my own, he unwittingly left me with a smile. A line on the last page leads into the soldier's epiphany: 'He saw two Lebanon cedars, the kitchen garden wall beyond, the elms and haystacks further still, looming out of the summer dusk...' Recall that it was his literary rival, Machen, who was quoted as remarking; Tennyson, you remember, says, “the cedars sigh for Lebanon,” and that is exquisite poetry, but Blackwood believes the cedars really do sigh for Lebanon and that … is damned nonsense!’ 

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