The Gates of Paradise (1960, Jerzy Andrzejewski, translated by James Kirkup)

The paucity of contemporary sources concerning the story of the Children’s Crusade of 1212 makes it difficult to disentangle history from legend. Two young shepherds, Nicholas of Cologne and Stephen of Cloyes, claiming divine inspiration, led expeditions of thousands of people, the German group going no farther than Italy, the French reaching as least as far as Marseilles. Later accounts conflated these two mass movements into one, creating an edifying tale of courageous, innocent children seeking to reclaim Jerusalem through the peaceful conversion of Muslims to Christianity, only to be betrayed by perfidious merchants and sold into slavery in Tunisia. Andrzejewski is not interested in uncovering the historical truth, but in using the legend as a vehicle for his own concerns: faith and fanaticism, the entry of young people into the corrupt world of adults, narration and the distortion of truth, the tortuous complexity of human motivation. The most immediately striking thing about the book is that, apart from a few words at the very end,* it is almost entirely composed of one enormous sentence (mercifully, the novel is quite short). Throughout this syntactical monstrosity, the point of view changes from that of a third-person narrator to those of the characters, and it is far from obvious when these shifts occur. Punctuation, while sparing, is not absent―dashes, commas and semicolons perform services more usually carried out by periods―but it is used as much as to confuse and to wrong-foot as it is to clarify. Of course, there are obvious correlations here between the length of the sentence and the length of the never-to-be-completed journey to Jerusalem, and between the contorted style and the mental convolutions of the characters. Andrzejewski reinforces these correlations through his masterly and varied use of repetition, which both extend our sense of time and space, and add further stylistic, psychological and thematic intricacies. Anthony Burgess praised the work as ‘incredible tour de force’, and it’s hard to disagree with him.

The most obvious way Andrzejewski uses repetition is to repeat, with variation, phrases that occur frequently throughout the book, each variation calling to mind the ones that have preceded it and opening up possibilities of succeeding variations. The feet of the old priest who accompanies the crusaders, hearing their confessions, are at different points referred to as ‘his heavy, swollen feet’, ‘the bare and swollen feet of the old man’, ‘the confessor’s bare, swollen feet’, ‘his feet, his bare feet’, ‘his great swollen feet’ and ‘his weary feet’ as they continually move forward, pressing down into the earth. The same priest repeatedly implores God that a nightmarish vision of the future he has had never be realized: ‘let this dream never become reality’, ‘let my cruel dream never become reality’, ‘let the day never come when my cruel dream becomes reality’, and so on. Another character, a witness to a death by drowning, remarks on the ‘yellow and foam-flecked’ waves of the Loire in flood, and thereafter mentions its ‘yellow and impetuous waters’, ‘flood of yellow foam’, ‘muddy yellow waves’, etc. The longest passage to reappear are the words with which the leader of the band, here called Jacques rather Stephen, inspires his followers, which are first given as:

God the Almighty has revealed to me that because of the blindness and cowardice of kings, princes and knights, it is fitting that the children of Christ should go, for the love of God, unto the relief of the city of Jerusalem that is fallen into the hands of the infidel Turk, for the confident faith and innocence of children, greater than all the powers on land and sea, are able to accomplish the most holy miracles

This version is repeated once verbatim, but in every other instance it is either truncated or altered slightly in phrasing and/or punctuation. The question of the provenance of Jacques’ revelation, and how exactly it came to set in motion the journey of thousands of children and youths, is of great importance to the novel; the subtle variations exemplify the unreliability of narrators and the difficulty of arriving at a consistent, truthful account. From this passage, the line about relieving Jerusalem from ‘the hands of the infidel Turk’ is also excerpted and repeated, with further variations (sometimes it is the whole city that is to be liberated, sometimes just the tomb of Christ). The frequency of the repetition takes on the quality of a mantra, except that the mantra cannot settle on an agreed wording, and so becomes suspect; the more that the loftiness of the crusaders’ goal is invoked, the more it is undermined, the text’s suspicions magnifying as the priest’s doubts about the crusade grow.

Further instances of repetition occur in short, localized bursts, such as the ‘darkness and despair’ that one narrator mentions four times on one page. Another technique is the use of keywords that crop up again and again, sometimes in different contexts and for different purposes. Among the most prominent are ‘shadow’, ‘voice’, ‘silence/silent/silently’ (characters are forever breaking off from speech and lapsing into silence), ‘eyes’, ‘hands’, ‘feet’, ‘heart’, ‘love’, ‘desire’, ‘dream’ and ‘dark/darkness’. Somewhat less frequent are repeated occurrences of certain adjectives, such as ‘sombre’, ‘indifferent’, ‘cold’, ‘radiant’, ‘pure’, ‘innocent’ and ‘naked’. As an example of the creative variety Andrzejewski’s repetitions, the word ‘penetrate’ can refer not only to sexual acts, but also to feet pressing into the earth, to feet pressing into a body that has fallen to the ground, to an unrequited desire, to a feeling of languor, to a feeling of joy, to a knowledge of one’s condition, to an awareness of another’s presence. Visual motifs also abound, among them the crosses, banners and baldaquins carried by the crusaders, their white robes, the purple mantle belonging to one of the narrators, and his white steed. Repeated references to certain places (the plains, valleys and forest through which the crusaders journey; the desert surrounding Jerusalem; the tomb of Christ; the tomb of a morally debased count; the gates of the holy city; Jacques’ hut; Chartres cathedral) form associative links between them. There are multiple descriptions of the weather, which have the hallucinatory vividness of a garishly colored etching:

the rain had now stopped completely, there arose from the sodden earth the heady odour of wet soil and spring grass, while in the distance, as if already in another world, the thunder went on rolling and the fires of the setting sun one more unleashed their washes of tender colours over the level valley, the green pools glimmered out of the shadows, the earth beneath the children’s feet was clarty and lit with still pools of rain, he could see the rainbow’s lifting arc and went on

One of the effects of these elaborate authorial schemes is to simultaneously pull apart and bind together all the voices at play. Pull apart, because some repetitions and motifs are peculiar to individual narrators; bind together, because those repetitions and motifs that are found throughout the book make all the voices sound the same even as they are quite distinct. The control Andrzejewski exerts over this potentially cacophonous mix is what gives his prose such tremendous accumulative and rhythmic power.

A couple of flaws must be noted. First, the confessions of two of the characters, Jacques and Alexis, are accorded much greater length and weight than the others, which throws the book a little off-balance. As a consequence, the two female narrators seem rather sketchy in comparison, and come regrettably close to conforming to Madonna/whore stereotypes. This doesn’t seem to have been Andrzejewski’s intention, as his attempts to imbue these characterizations with some complexity are evident, but he hasn’t given himself enough space to succeed. It is a brilliant work nonetheless. It takes a jaundiced view of human relations, presenting them as based on deceit and incomprehension. The debauched, exploitative cruelty of the count, who acts with the arrogance of the authority his position confers, is one representation of adulthood; the well-meaning but ineffective and compromised earnestness of the priest is another. Between these two poles, the younger characters attempt to find a path; their crusade is in part a rejection of the moral failures of the adults who direct their lives, the innocence of youth set in relief against the corruption of age. It is a mission doomed to failure, not only because youth is shown to be far from innocent, but also because the value of innocence as an ideal is shown to be illusory. Ironically, it is the most corrupt character (whose own crusading exploits were nothing more than bloody plundering) who most idealizes innocence, and it is he who is idealized by the most innocent character; it is the most innocent character who is the most dangerous corrupter of others, an unwitting Pied Piper who earns the curses of the relatives whose children have abandoned them. There is no denouement in Andrzejewski’s telling, the only hint of the crusade’s fate being the priest’s nightmare.** There is only endless continuation, the awful conclusion deferred until beyond the point his language is able to reach. Andrzejewski stretches his gargantuan sentence to the point of exhaustion, but the feet march on and on.

 

*The final sentence contains four words in the original Polish, five in English translation.

**Andrzej Wajda’s 1968 film adaptation includes a coda that conforms to the traditional account of the children all either perishing during the journey or being sold into slavery.

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Nothing But the Hours/Rien que les heures (1926, Alberto Cavalcanti)

A young, careworn-looking woman takes off her hat and sighs; when she looks up, she breaks into a smile; a young sailor is grinning at her in anticipation. Each face is held in close-up, shots alternating between the two so that we are invited to view each almost through the eyes of the other―almost, but not quite, because the camera is positioned just to the side of where a truly subjective placing would be. The woman starts to undress; the man looks to the side; there is a shot of a bed. The man turns his head back towards his companion, but the following shot is not of the woman’s face but of her legs and hands as she unlaces her boots. Returning to the man, we see his gaze tilted downwards, his expression a picture of lust. The next shot of the woman is of her head and shoulders, which are now naked; her back is towards the camera, and she slowly turns her head to meet the man’s gaze. We see him regarding the object of his desire before turning his head towards the bed again. A shot of the bed ends with a fade-to-black, suggesting eyes being closed, but before the screen turns entirely black, there’s a cut to the next shot: the woman turning her head away and closing her eyes in apparent pleasure. At first, cued by the turning of the man’s head, we might assume the shot of the bed to be his subjective view, but by ‘rhyming’ the fade-out with the woman’s closing her eyes, the film opens up the possibility of it being her subjective view. The next cut is not to the young man, but to the woman’s leg as she removes her boot and lets it fall; this time, as her arm swings for a moment by her side, her movements seem less seductive than exhausted. There’s one last shot of the bed, but the camera has moved closer to it this time. The last shot in this sequence is again of the woman; she winks, at the young man, and―almost―at the viewer. As the camera holds her in shot, her gaze maintains it focus, but her expression subtly changes: she purses her lip, shifts her lower jaw, and smiles somewhat shakily. While can read all sorts of things into this final close-up if we choose―bitterness, resignation, weariness, cynicism, sexual desire, love―no definitive reading is insisted upon, or possible. The camera’s playing with subjectivity and objectivity, with the sexually charged gaze of the man and the gaze of the woman as she observes that gaze, involves us closely with the characters yet also holds them at a distance, not allowing us to arrive at a settled response to them. The sequence of shots is further disrupted by the insertion of documentary footage of homeless men entering a shelter, a shot of a window, a doorbell etc., things bearing no obvious relation to the small human drama in the bedroom.

This scene takes place near the end of Alberto Cavalcanti’s luminous masterpiece Rien que les heures/Nothing But the Hours (a.k.a. Nothing But Time, 1926). Our experience of watching it is complicated by information conveyed by previous scenes. First, the young woman is a prostitute―something made clear near the beginning when we see her unsuccessfully trying to attract a potential customer. Is, then, the young man a paying client, a lover, or something else? His being a sailor might argue against a close attachment, but this is not something of which we can be sure. Another earlier scene showed the pair gazing at each other in apparent adoration at a dance hall―an image of contented romance contrasted with the intense expression of jealousy on the face of another man also present at the dance hall. Jealousy is, at least, the most obvious explanation for the intensity of this man’s expression (an earlier scene showed the same man kissing the same woman), but it’s not an explanation the film confirms. Do we see the dancers in a subjective shot from the other man’s point of view? Perhaps, but we can’t even be sure that he is looking at them, for the three are not shown in shot together. They do in fact share the screen at the same time, but it’s a tripartite split screen with the dancers in the middle, the intense-looking man on the left, and an accordionist on the right. Cavalcanti refuses us the grounds to be sure of the spatial relationship that exits between these characters (are they even in the same dance hall?). The dancers are framed in such a way as to suggest a proscenium arch; multiple exposure creates several copies of them dancing at once. A subjective shot conveying the emotional state of an observer? But both the intense man and the accordionist are facing away from the ‘proscenium’. A close-up of the intense man is followed by a second two shot of the dancers, the image in extreme soft-focus, which again suggests the emotional subjectivity of an observer. But then we return to the split screen, which disrupts again the connection we have drawn between the dancers and the intense man. Our attention might also be drawn to the fact that the sailor and the prostitute are not the only dancers in the middle portion of the screen; there is another, unrelated couple. What are they doing there?

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The other complicating factor is that, before her meeting with the sailor in the bedroom, we have seen the young woman apparently acting as an accomplice to a crime resulting in murder. In this scene, she stands watch while, in an alley, the intense-looking man from the dance hall robs and then kills a newspaper seller (another recurring character, whose death had been foreshadowed by an encounter with a fortune teller). Indeed, it is the sailor’s inopportune arrival that causes the prostitute to lead him away from the crime scene and to the bedroom. When we later watch the young woman undressing, the not-quite-subjective shot underlines the fact that we do not see her through the sailor’s eyes because we have information about her he does not share, information that affects our response to her. At the same time, we have information that she does not share, for she is unaware that the planned robbery ended with an unplanned homicide. We are not granted a position of privileged knowledge, however, because there is much we do not know, much that remains puzzling. None of the characters is given a name; the prostitute is introduced with a title card referring to her as ‘la fille’. The nature of her relationship to the intense man, and the degree of her complicity in his crime, is unclear; her relationship with the sailor is likewise not elaborated. Can we even be sure of the chronology of events? The film gives us merely the fragments and hints of a melodrama, declining to provide us with enough detail to enable us to arrive at a stable understanding.

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One of the claims often made of Rien que les heures is that it inaugurated the movement or genre known as the city symphony film, Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and Dziga Vertov’s extraordinary Man with a Movie Camera (1929) being the two most celebrated examples. Others include the Études sur Paris (André Sauvage, 1928), São Paulo, Symphony of the Metropolis (Adalberto Kemeny and Rudolf Rex Lustig, 1929) and Lisbon, Anecdotal Chronicle (José Leitão de Barros, 1930), as well as the shorter works Twenty-Four-Dollar Island (1927, Robert Flaherty), Skyscraper Symphony (1929, Robert Florey), Rain (1929, Joris Ivens and Mannus Franken) and À propos de Nice (1930, Jean Vigo). Manhatta, directed in 1921 by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, might be thought of as a kind of precursor. But what is a city symphony? Do the films share enough common features for us to consider them a coherent group? It’s certainly a very varied bunch. Skyscraper Symphony runs for under ten minutes; São Paulo, Symphony of the Metropolis for an hour and a half.  Études sur Paris is almost entirely documentary in approach, fictional vignettes being absent except for one brief scene of a thwarted assignation. At the other end of the spectrum, a title card at the beginning of Lisbon, Anecdotal Chronicle denies that the film is a documentary at all, preferring the term anecdotal chronicle on the basis that it features several famous actors (although it is clear that many of the people who appear on screen are not professionals). The films of Ruttmann, Kemeny and Lustig, Leitão de Barros and Vigo are avowedly portraits of individual cities, their names included in the titles, while Vertov’s city is a composite of Moscow, Kiev, Odessa and Kharkiv, and Rain seems only incidentally to be about Amsterdam (it could just as easily have been filmed in Rotterdam). The frenetic montage of Man with a Movie Camera is not in the least like the leisurely grace of Études sur Paris; Vigo’s droll mockery of Nice’s wealthy tourists could not be further removed from the boosterish qualities of São Paulo, Symphony of the Metropolis. Many of these filmmakers were associated, to one degree or another, with left-wing politics; stark scenes of urban poverty in the films of Vigo and Cavalcanti highlight the miseries suffered by the losers in a capitalist economy. The poor, by contrast, are largely absent in São Paulo and Lisbon, neither of which is interested in offering an overtly political critique―indeed a disturbing strain of militaristic nationalism is evident in both. Also absent from São Paulo are non-white faces; a few are featured in Lisbon, but with no acknowledgement of the violence of Portugal’s colonial project. Some features are common to most city symphony films, notably a fascination with industrial machinery (plenty of shots of factories) and modern transport (ships, trains, cars, trams, chaotic or smooth-flowing).

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One of the things that elements distinguishes Rien que les heures from the other city symphony films is the development of its fictional elements into dramatic story lines (oblique and elliptical though they may be) integrated with non-fiction scenes, the emotional power of melodrama combining with the truth-value of documentary (then a relatively recent concept) to give the work its sense of fullness and depth. In addition to the recurring characters already mentioned, another important figure is an old woman who staggers through alleys and across building sites, perhaps in search of food or shelter, or perhaps simply driven restlessly by despair or mental disturbance. This woman stands for all the ignored, disdained, downtrodden citizens of Paris, the ones who are usually left out of the familiar glamorous, romantic, sophisticated representations of the city, which are explicitly rejected near the beginning. Title cards announce that we are to be presented not with the fashionable and elegant life, but the daily life of the humble, the low-class (although the film does in fact include scenes of the fashionable and elegant life). To demonstrate the point, a shot of chic young ladies is frozen into a photograph, the image ripped up by a pair of hands into implausibly numerous small pieces. Next, a swanky car transforms by dissolve into a tired donkey and cart laden with bags. Such bold, even crude, transitions and contrasts are characteristic of the film: shots of attractive flowers and vegetables at a market are intercut with shots of flowers and vegetables discarded in bins; a well-dressed young man eats a steak while, framed by his plate, we see a scene at the slaughterhouse. Alongside effects such as these, there are beautiful shots of clouds moving across the sky, the rising and falling of a woman’s chest as she sleeps, morning light streaming through a grille, smoke ascending delicately from chimneys.

Rien que les heures is a collection of disparate fragments: fragments of a seamy melodrama, of a socially conscious record of the lives of the poor, of a rapturous and impressionistic cine-poem. As well as the Parisian setting, another thing these fragments have in common is an ever-present awareness of the inexorable passage of time, an awareness that adds poignancy to the brief, ecstatic moments of captured beauty; to the fleeting pleasures of alcohol, the swimming pool, the carousel, that provide relief from the grim routines of work; to the embracing lovers; to the consideration of the fragility of life (the murdered newspaper-seller) and the onset of old age (the wandering woman). ‘We can fix a point in space, freeze a moment in time,’ proclaims one title card; a bit later comes the reply, ‘but space and time both escape our possession’―an observation both tragic and charged with wonder. It’s also an observation made in the shadow of Einstein’s upending of the old certainties of physical reality, and the shots that occur between these two title cards play with this temporal and spatial disorientation. On a spinning globe, only two cities are marked: Paris and Peking (as Beijing was then known in the West), linked by a shared first letter, but in different time zones. We see postcards of Peking landmarks, referring back to the film’s opening statement that all cities would be identical were it not for the monuments that distinguish them. There follows a strange little scene featuring a Chinese woman being chased around a room by a Frenchman. In the background there is a folding screen decorated with images suggestive of contemporary European art, an ornamental blend of two cultures. The man and woman enter screen right, the woman apparently anxious to get away from the man. They exit screen left, but then immediately enter screen right again; this impossible circuit is repeated.* When we next see the spinning globe, it is first rotating at tremendous speed; there’s a slow dissolve to an image of oscillating back and forth hesitantly, the speed reducing until another dissolve shows an unmoving map of Africa and Eurasia, with Paris marked at one end of the screen and Peking at the other. During the second dissolve, a ghostly Paris is seen adjacent to Peking, as if the two cities were about to merge. Time is distorted in the next shot of a clock face, its hands turning at heightened speed; the image dissolves into one of the clock hands swinging like a pendulum. Next, the clock is physically reordered, the numerals in a horizontal strip at the bottom of the screen, the face shattered into multi-screen fragments, each showing a different scene. One of these scenes is of the city’s traffic; after a dissolve, the whole screen is taken up by this traffic, except that different shots are superimposed, so that cars appear to be travelling into each other at tilted angles. The confusion and disorder that Cavalcanti sees as the key condition of metropolitan modernity is viewed ambivalently: there is the scandal of crushed and thwarted lives, the violent, brutal underbelly of the clichéd falsities of the city of light, but here, in confusion and disorder, might also be found a breach in the defences of society and the possibility of reform or revolution. I don’t know whether the film is pessimistic or optimistic about this possibility, or whether its pessimism and optimism can be disentangled, but its freshness and fascination lie in part in its commitment to boldness and freedom of artistic expression as part of the social struggle. It is only 45 minutes long, yet the richness of its aesthetic and political radicalism is treasurable.

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*Is the woman in danger? So we might think, but we are wrong-footed when the woman sits down laughing on a sofa in the foreground; this is light romantic comedy rather than grim melodrama.

Nobel Clerihews

George Bernard Shaw

Thought dawdling a bore.

‘There’s nothing quite sadder;

Now fetch me my ladder.’

 

Eugene O’Neill

Made love to a seal

On the deck of a schooner.

The result was Oona.

 

José Saramago

Was placed under embargo

When he said a joined-up Iberia

Would make people cheerier.

 

Günter Grass

Had a musical arse,

Which, prompted by pain,

Would fart ‘Lili Marleen’.

 

Doris Lessing

Bathed in French dressing.

Fingers were crossed

When her salad was tossed.

The Narrow House (1921, Evelyn Scott)

There are eyes everywhere in The Narrow House; Evelyn Scott never misses a chance to draw attention to them. In this study of a family at war with itself, the most minor character is sure to have theirs described, from a baker’s ‘narrow good-natured eyes’ to the ‘inscrutably professional’ ones of a doctor. Major characters, especially women, have their eyes repeatedly described, whether they are ‘dull and confused with resentment’, ‘opaque with misery’, ‘violently hard’, ‘self-righteously excited’, ‘rapacious with humility’, ‘lustful with pity’ or ‘fixed and despairing’. Scott is painstaking, too, in charting the movement of her characters’ eyes as they variously meet and avoid one another’s gaze. A sad, neglected little girl has a terror of eyes, particularly her mother’s, while her lonely aunt wonders whether it would be better to be blind. Eyes, in this novel, are weapons; both looking and not looking at your enemy can serve as modes of attack or defence. A few examples:

He glanced at her, his solemn eyes twinkling with a kind of placid malice.

 

His eyes narrowed against hers as though he were shutting her out.

 

He veiled his disconcerted rather empty blue eyes under defensively lowered lids.

 

His daughter-in-law disturbed him and if he could avoid it he never looked her in the eye.

 

“I hope so, Mrs. Price,” he agreed, coming forward, his lids drooping as if to shut out the painful sight of them all.

 

Winnie’s eyes shone, mercilessly sweet, into the hunted eyes of the elder woman.

 

Winnie’s eyes, like brown bees, crept with their glance into the vague combative eyes before them.

 

His smoky eyes were everywhere and on no one.

 

Alice kept a rigorous gaze full of cruel pity steadily upon her mother’s face.

 

She looked steadily with her dissolving gaze against his unpenetrated eyes.

This ocular warfare takes place surrounded by mirrors and windows: mirrors that provide fragile reassurance for the beautiful and torment for the plain, windows that make faces of houses and train cars, that let in light that exposes and reveals. Light, and its absence, is a further authorial obsession. In a book of just over 200 pages, the word ‘dark’ appears more than 120 times, ‘light’ more than 90, ‘bright’ more than 50, while ‘pale’ appears 40 times. Then there are the colors. White gets the most mentions, but grey, black, blue and red also feature heavily, as do color compounds, such as purplish-blue, amber-white, gray-green, etc. Eyes, leaves, teeth, furniture, clothes are all assigned colors: there doesn’t seem to be any symbolic method or patterning here, simply the creation of a dazzling visual texture that is precise in isolation but cumulatively vague (‘vague’ is one of Scott’s favorite adjectives). The exciting, frightening possibilities and uncertainties of modernity, which set the members of the Farley family at each other’s throats, are both brilliant and diffuse, leaving the characters bewildered in a visual overload. The shifting volatility of the historical moment, its attraction to the new and strange, finds expression―particularly in relation to eyes―in the odd and sometimes contradictory use of adjectives and adverbs. I’ve already quoted ‘placid malice’, ‘mercilessly sweet’, ‘vague combative’ and ‘cruel pity’; there’s also ‘angrily caressing’, ‘dark bright empty’, ‘soft sharpness’, ‘languid and deliberate excitement’, ‘vague hard’, ‘sweet greedy’, ‘fiercely soft’, a humility that is ‘triumphantly cruel’. Heady stuff, at times teetering on the edge of silliness, but never less than interesting.

Scott was prolific and acclaimed in 1920s, but her career nosedived in the following decade, and she ended her life bitter, paranoid and forgotten. There have been attempts to rehabilitate her since then, with a few reprints and critical studies, but she remains obscure. The Narrow House, the first volume of a trilogy, was also her first novel, and is not without its crudities. Some of it reads as if it had been culled from an anthology of Imagist poems; the result is as hit-and-miss as this implies. The striving for a big effect can be strained, as in the hands of a clock being ‘rigid as the limbs of the crucified,’ or the empty rooms in a row of houses being ‘blank as the faces of idiot women waiting for love.’ Scott is sometimes guilty of piling too much in an untidy heap; it isn’t enough for a house at night to be ‘a monstrous phlegmatic beast half drowned’, its ‘inmates’ have to be ‘sightless parasites’ as well. ‘Inmates’ is a metaphorical way of describing the occupants of a house; the metaphor here doesn’t make a good fit with monsters and parasites. I also doubt many animals would be phlegmatic about the prospect of drowning. But there are plenty of goodies, too: wet wheel tracks ‘glistening and sinuous like black rubber snakes’; a character’s voice dying away ‘like the shed petals of a flower’; the smile on her face like ‘the still surface of a pool filled underneath with little frightened fish.’ There’s a particularly fine passage as a narcissistic wife returns to the awful house after a brief sojourn away:

It was foggy. The train passed through a railway yard and Winnie saw rows of empty cars, long and low, that were like monsters with lusterless hides and opaque eyes, submerged in mist. Hundreds of dull eyes stared from the dimly shining windows, the pale eyes of the cars.

  Delicate bridges floated over her head as the train passed beneath them, and the swinging arms of derricks and huge machines, lifted through the mist, were as frail as lace.

  Lights burst against the mist like rotted stars, and there were other lights that opened upon her suddenly, glad and unseeing as the eyes of blind men raised in delight.

  The moon, small with distance, slimed over with fog, was green like money lost a long time. The telegraph wires stretched across the pale landscape tautly, like harpstrings. One after another the flat branched poles seemed to open submissive palms to the passing train.

It’s not flawless. If the eyes of the blind men are raised in delight, you would only be able to see them if you were looking down, which doesn’t accord with the character’s position in a train. But otherwise, it’s great, especially the gracefully alliterative last line.

There isn’t much plot. The elements of a plot are present; they seem to promise a feverish family melodrama to match the feverish intensity of the prose, but it never quite materializes. There are events―a few of them quite dramatic―but Scott shows little interest in weaving them into an artfully told tale, opting instead for a bleary narrative drift from scene to scene, character to character, dipping now and then into some stream-of-consciousness, or a poetic rhapsody on the sky, leaving the crises to peter out. The book is concerned with impressions, suggestions, atmospheres; the narrative propulsion is weak. What moors the novel, keeping it from floating about freely in the realms abstraction, is the author’s masterful depiction of her characters, which are conceived with a psychological acuity that recalls a more traditional novel. Some of them are quite familiar as types―the frustrated young spinster, the pompous moneyed oaf, the weak shambling patriarch―but they are given enough depth and strangeness to avoid cliché. Scott can be a heavy-handed writer, but her touch can also be deft and amusing.

Mr. Price came up to her and gave her a dominating caress. “Well, Winifred, how are you, my dear little girl?”

  She returned his perfunctory kiss, her moist lips cool with distaste.

  “Feeling pretty badly, dear?”

  “No, Father. I’m feeling pretty well.”

  He cleared his throat. He was disappointed.

The Narrow House isn’t a lost masterpiece, but neither is it a mere historical curio. It is certainly a very good first novel―good enough to suggest that Scott’s bibliography might just include the odd masterpiece or near-masterpiece, or else a respectable number of works of more modest excellence. What about The Wave (1929), which contemporary reviewers praised to the skies, and which was reissued in 1986? A big, big book about the Civil War told from multiple perspectives seems an obvious candidate for inspection, perhaps too obvious. At any rate, my interest in this writer has been awakened.

The Story of Hong Gildong (date and author unknown, trans. Minsoo Kang)

The basis of numerous films, TV shows and comic books, Hong Gildong is a brief, rollicking piece of popular entertainment featuring a legendary outlaw endowed with superhuman powers. Like Robin Hood, he steals from the rich to give to the poor, and rights injustices committed by corrupt officials, but also winds up with a kingdom of his own. The interest of this work derives both from the brio of its storytelling and its status as a cultural artefact of late Joseon-period Korea. In his introduction, translator Minsoo Kang argues against the traditional attribution of authorship to poet and politician Heo Gyun (1569-1618) in favour of a much later publication in the mid-19th  century, at a time of political crisis and the growth of a mass-market readership that preferred exciting plots to the edifying texts consumed by the scholarly elite. Edification is not entirely absent in this instance, but excitement, humour, wonder and sentiment are far more to the fore.

There are three sections. The first deals with the hero’s birth and his troubled upbringing as the illegitimate son of a high-ranking minister; the second relates his criminal exploits; the third takes the action out of Korea―first to China, and then to two fictional islands, of which Hong Gildong becomes king. The hero’s illegitimacy (his mother was a servant, and subsequently concubine, of the minister) is the motor for the plot, as all his discontent derives from the discrimination faced by illegitimate sons in an austerely hierarchical society. For all his astonishing strength, intelligence and virtue, the young Gildong realises from an early age that government posts will be barred to him; worse, he is denied the full affection of his father, who, in spite of the high regard in which he holds his son, is such a stickler for propriety that the boy is forbidden from addressing him as father.

The father-son relationship and its place within the dynamics of the Hong family is the main concern of the first section. Minister Hong is described at the beginning as an honourable man, but his behaviour throughout is questionable. Most disturbing is the conduct that leads to Gildong’s birth. Following an auspicious dream featuring a dragon, the minister tries to sleep with his wife (or, as the text puts it, makes ‘apparent his intention to become one with her in a decorous manner’), but is rebuffed on the grounds of his age and dignity. Instead, he sleeps with a young servant girl:

Although Chunseom was only a servant girl, she had a gentle nature and her demeanor and actions were always as proper as those of a respectable maiden. She may have been lowborn, but there was nothing lowly about her character. When the minister approached her so suddenly with an authoritative air and made apparent his ardent desire for her, she dared not resist his advance and allowed him the use of her body. From that day on she never ventured outside the house and showed no interest in other men. The minister was so impressed by her loyalty that he made her a concubine.

The domineering exertion of his power to satisfy his lust is bad enough; it might have been even worse had not Chunseom demonstrated her ‘loyalty,’ which is what persuades the minister to raise her status to that of concubine. It is clear that had Chunseom acted differently, Minister Hong might easily have kept her as a servant girl, or even cast her out, after getting her pregnant. Chunseom’s unswerving devotion, which is the mark of her virtue, might suggest an uncritical endorsement of male privilege, just as Gildong’s continuing reverence towards his father might suggest an uncritical endorsement of patriarchal authority, but the minister’s actions (particularly his gullibility in the face of the scheming of his senior concubine, which leads him to consider having his own son killed) leave him open to a heap of criticism, thus lending an ambivalence to the text. Similarly, while the adult Gildong displays to the Joseon king a mixture of impish defiance and firm loyalty, the king’s repeated failure either to capture the outlaw or utilize his talents within the state, as well as the implicit royal tolerance of ministerial abuses, weaken his authority. There is certainly an anti-authoritarian streak to this text, exemplified by the narrative’s clear endorsement of Gildong’s refusal to simply accept the second-class status society (including his father) would force on him, and the story has often been read as a subversive work. But, as Kang writes in his introduction, the subversive elements co-exist with more conservative attitudes (Gildong wishes rather to be recognized and awarded by the state than to overthrow it), resulting in an uneasy ambiguity perhaps reflective of the ambiguity and uneasiness of late Joseon politics, and also of the conflicting impulses within the popular market towards defiance of conventional morality and adherence to it.

The second section is the most entertaining, yet it also tests the tension between rebellion and obedience almost to breaking point. Gildong does not assemble his band of thieves from scratch, but rather wins control of an already successful outfit after a demonstration of his prowess; once the command is his, he warns that disobedience will be punished according to military law, refashioning his group so that it resembles the model of the royal army. Later, a general tasked with apprehending the criminal is seized and brought before ‘a great king dressed in a silk robe and a jade belt’ who sits on a high throne, and when the hero executes corrupt officials, he does so in the guise of a government inspector. Even as a bandit Gildong replicates the Joseon state, half as rival, half as loyal imitator. The motives by which Gildong claims to be guided aren’t always as pure as he claims, either. His first act of daring as leader is not a raid against an overbearing landowner or oppressive governor, but the looting of a Buddhist temple, its hapless monks being no match for the hero, who humiliates them with a glee bordering on the sadistic. Following the stunt’s success, he gives a speech to his men, solemnly commanding them not to steal from or harm the common people, or to take grain being collected by the government. Sure enough, he soon after steals grain from a local administrative centre. Perhaps we are to understand that this is not grain reserved for the common people, but the store of the yangban, or ruling class―but even if this is the case, would not the store simply be replenished at the commoners’ expense? In order to prevent innocent people from being punished for his crimes, Gildong advertises his own responsibility, but in doing so dishonours his family, breaking his parting promise to his father. As the outlaw’s notoriety spreads, the Hongs become increasingly endangered, yet each time Gildong promises to hand himself in for their sake, he eludes capture right at the last minute. His antics are funny, but there’s a strain of callousness, even cruelty, in the laughter. And what is his great aim in all of this? The demand he makes of the king is that he be appointed minister of war, yet in return he vows to leave the kingdom, which would leave him incapable of carrying out the duties of his post. It would seem that all he wants is an empty title free of any obligation to work.

Gildong’s powers being too great for Joseon to safely contain them, it is only natural that he should leave, just as he leaves his family. It is hard to see what other direction the story could have taken. Defeat and a glorious death, perhaps, but the problem would then have arisen of what to do with his family, as the relatives of traitors and rebels were deemed to share the offender’s guilt, and were often executed. Destroying the Hongs would have struck too sombre a note, so some potentially distracting device to save them would have been necessary. A reformed hero who renounces banditry and reaches an accommodation with the state would have been a terrible let-down, and so the simplest way to achieve a satisfactory ending is to remove the action from Korea. Granting him an invented kingdom to rule over, with his outlaw companions as his ministers of state, is an obvious conclusion. What is striking is that the fantastic elements actually decrease on fictional soil; there’s a bit of monster fighting in China, but once Gildong is made king of his make-believe island, he largely concerns himself with matters of ritual, ceremony and protocol; when he conquers new territory, it is through mostly conventional military means (no qualms about invading other lands, of course―might is right). The ending, though, is unexpected, calling to mind, of all things, Oedipus at Colonus―an oddly effective note of mystery and grandeur on which to end a diverting yarn.

Fogo (2012, Yulene Olaizola)

Between 1954 and 1975, the Canadian government resettled thousands of Newfoundlanders living in remote, impoverished communities, many of which were deemed unviable and abandoned. Such a fate threatened the small island of Fogo. In the late 1960s, while the outlook was still grim, the director Colin Low shot a series of short documentaries known as the Fogo Process, which sought both to record aspects of an everyday life with extinction looming over it, and to address community concerns by giving islanders a platform to discuss them. These were films made by an outsider (from Alberta) in collaboration with locals, and which were then publicly screened on the island. Many of them were overtly political: plainly-shot discussions of the state of the fishing industry, reliance on welfare, religious divisions, education, the role of women, the lack of opportunities for the young, etc. A few others recorded weddings, parties and musical performances, while one―the delightful The Children of Fogo Island (1967)―allowed Low to indulge his more poetic impulses. Funded by the National Film Board of Canada and the Memorial University of Newfoundland, what emerges most strongly from these films is a collaborative ethos and a sense of community; they were primarily made for local audiences, and maintain a focus on the issues that mattered to those audiences. In the end, the residents won their battle to avoid resettlement, their cause aided by the films they collaborated in making. Today, a little over 2,000 live on the island. The fishing industry has declined, but tourism provides a new source of income, encouraged by some swanky new architecture.

Not having been to Fogo, I can’t report on the current state of the community or speculate as to its future, but it’s safe to say that no visitor today will encounter the extreme desolation depicted in Yulene Olaizola’s mesmerising pseudo-documentary. In this film, the community is on the verge of dying out; houses are dilapidated and abandoned; most residents appear to have left; a man announces the departure in a few days of the last ferry―presumably the last ever ferry. Norm, the main character, is faced with the agonizing decision of whether to leave his lifetime home or stay behind with no hope of a future. No information concerning the cause of this desperate situation is given; it could be the end point of a gradual, localized decline, or it could be apocalyptic in nature. The clothes, buildings, furniture etc. on view might as well indicate the 1960s or 70s as the present or future. It’s a fictional scenario, but doesn’t announce itself as such; the absence of a plot, the natural lighting, mostly static shots and observational study of the lives of ordinary people are features that together suggest a documentary. Norm is played by Norman Foley, a real islander; his friends Ron Broders and Joseph Dwyer also play versions of themselves (and what beautiful performances the three of them give).

Yulene Olaizola is, as was Colin Low, an outsider, though from a different country: Mexico. In her film, there are no overtly political discussions; the only visible community is that of one in irreversible decay. The film was funded by an artist-in-residency program run by the Fogo Island Arts Corporation, a body that didn’t exist in the days of the Fogo Process. The corporation strives to meet the cultural needs of the island, but Olaizola is also aiming at international art-house audiences (though there’s little evidence of commercial calculation in such a determinedly non-mainstream work), who may not know very much about the real Fogo, and so may not realize that they’re watching fiction and not a documentary. Whereas the majority of the 60s shorts are specific and functional, Fogo is elusive, puzzling, elliptical. It is both rooted in place (the contemplative attention to landscape; the use of residents as non-professional performers; the imagining of the terrible fate narrowly avoided by the island, and which might loom again) and general (the scarcity of detail regarding the scenario turns Fogo into an exemplar of similarly remote communities, and its decline emblematic of wider civilizational anxiety in the face of economic and environmental catastrophe). Its low-key naturalism might appear to be in the service of verisimilitude, but in fact the Fogo that appears on screen is the result of a distorting process of selection; in an interview, the director explained how she avoided shooting the modern Fogo―its houses, its roads, its vehicles―in order to realize her vision of a broken-down, all but deserted community.

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Why are the characters so attached to their tiny island? The question isn’t answered. Olaizola and her remarkable cinematographer, Diego García, contrive to make Fogo an astonishingly beautiful film, but they don’t make Fogo seem a particularly beautiful place, at least not in a way that commonly wins the approval of tourist boards. Filmed in winter, there is just enough snow to impress the cold on the viewer, but not nearly enough for the kind of gleaming, picturesque snow-scape the camera loves so much. We see little other than a bleak, boggy, windy tundra―hardly an inviting terrain. There may well be more conventionally pretty scenes to be found on Fogo, but if there are, Olaizola has chosen to ignore them. Instead, it is in the midst of the bleakness that she shows a sensuous appreciation for nature: the wind blowing through the long grass, the pressing of boots and paws into wet mossy ground, a breathtaking low shot of the wind blowing little wispy trails of sand-like snow across frozen water. Perhaps the ability to find and cherish natural beauty where it is not immediately apparent, where all around at first sight appears barren and featureless, is one of the things that binds Norm and his friends to their birthplace, which will strike many as inhospitable. ‘We’re staying here,’ says Ron to his two dogs, Thunder and Patch, in the darkness of the kennel, his voice expressing at once defiance, solace and uncertainty. A single beam of light sunlight illuminates him, to which he turns his head: religious lighting, it might seem, except that there is no intervening heavenly power here, just the indifferent sun.

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The hopeless intensity of the bond these men feel to their island is evident in Norm’s meeting with his older friend Joe, which mixes wry comedy and an aching sense of loss in two exquisite scenes. The first scene is mostly comic, as Joe’s awkward attempts to trade a scavenged tin of spaghetti for a beer are rebuffed until Norm agrees to give him a beer for free. Underlying the humour, however, is the scarcity of food and drink: the tinned spaghetti is the only one Joe has, the potatoes Norm is peeling are mostly rotten, the beer is home brewed. In the next scene, as the two men drink together and lament, the comedy largely retreats (exception: Joe’s reference to the weather-beaten Norm as ‘a young fella’) and the despair engendered by their situation comes to the fore, especially in close-ups of their careworn faces. The friends derive some pleasure from reminiscences of happier times, but talk of the good old days also brings pain (Joe: ‘Oh, my son. They’ll break your heart, my son’). Norm considers whether to stay or go, but Joe is so wedded to Fogo that for him leaving is not an option. The older man starts to sing in a hoarse, cracked voice (sample lyrics: ‘You can’t take a man from the soil that he knows/Tear off his roots and expect him to grow’*), but fluffs his lines, swears, and mumbles that he can’t remember anything anymore: memory, song and language fragmenting and disappearing along with the community of which they are part.

Norm takes two walks around the island, during the course of which Olaizola and García linger on the landscape. The first is an apparently brief stroll Norm takes after Joe’s visit; after walking for a bit, he stands in the snow with a troubled face before returning via the same route we saw him follow earlier. Does he need the air to ponder the situation and reach a decision? Is he taking a last look before he’s forced to leave? Or does the walk (which ends with him heading back home) illustrate the impossibility of his leaving? By the time he takes his second walk, we know that he has decided to stay. After discussing his decision with Ron, the two men decide to set off for an isolated, rudimentary cabin, with Ron’s dogs in tow. We do not see them return. Around half the film is taken up with this expedition, the purpose of which is unclear. Do they have some notion of holding out or hiding in the heart of the island, retreating still further from society while the one they have known all their lives crumbles and vanishes? Is there even something of a death-embrace to it? The last ferry has, after all, left by now.** The two men spend the night in the cabin talking about the past while they finish off a small bottle of whiskey―as with the home brew, alcohol is prized for its scarcity and consoling powers. ‘Good to the last drop,’ says Ron, and follows it with ‘So’s life,’ which may or may not be ominous.

One curious anomaly about our first sight of the cabin is that there is no snow visible on the ground in front of it, whereas the ground we saw over the course of Norm’s and Ron’s journey has a light, patchy, but extensive cover of snow. Nor is there any snow on the clothes the two men wear. Does this indicate that they have been travelling for such a long time that the snow has melted? This is not very likely on such a small and cold island (25km long and 14km wide), especially as they are not seen carrying any provisions. Could one tiny patch be entirely free of snow in contrast to the rest? It’s possible, I suppose, although it would have to be a very small patch, because when Ron goes off to find water, there is snow on the banks (and yet again, not too small, because the establishing shot of the cabin shows quite a wide area). Perhaps their arrival comes after a different, later journey (though they are wearing the same clothes). Of course, it is quite possible that the absence of snow around the cabin is simply the unavoidable result of the weather during shooting, but while that might account for the anomaly, it does not dispose of it. Furthermore, the shot of the cabin is preceded by an instance of one of the most striking formal features of Fogo: its use of fades-to-black to transition between scenes. The shot prior to our first view of the cabin is of the men and dogs crossing the snowy tundra; the fade that follows lasts about 15 seconds from the moment the screen begins to darken to the next shot. This ellipsis not only opens up the possibility of considerable time having elapsed between Norm and Ron setting off on their journey and them arriving at the cabin (and so opens up the possibility of there being two separate journeys), it also undermines the surface realism of the documentary style. Rather than seek a narrative solution for the anomaly, or shrug it off as a continuity error, or mark of budget constraints, the absence of snow on the ground might be regarded as a deliberate, playful disruption, resistant to explanation―prominent enough to arouse curiosity and provoke a few questions, but no so glaringly unsubtle as to knock the film off balance.***

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I counted seven fades-to-black over the course of the film, in addition to the opening, which is of a black screen. These fades range in duration from around 4 or 5 seconds to around 20 seconds. Some, but not all, mark the transition from an evening to the next day. Sometimes the screen fades quite slowly, as it does before the arrival at the cabin, while at other times it turns black quickly. The two longest and slowest fades occur after the shot of Ron with his dogs in the kennel, and at the very end of the film. In the latter instance, there’s a cut from Norm looking ahead into the distance to a gorgeous shot of the dawn sky, with a pillar or sword of pink light seen between purple-grey clouds; this shot is held for about a minute before the screen begins to darken. The power of the image is heightened by its gradual fading into black, the cinematic technique decreasing the light even as the natural phenomenon it records is increasing it. On one level, the paradox is perhaps Norm’s subjective experience of an astounding beauty, both familiar and revelatory, soon to be denied him. More generally, it provides a haunting visualization of time’s dissolution of all things, a dissolution which, crucially, does not operate on all things with equal speed, for the natural world so wonderfully captured by Olaizola and García―the landscape, the sea, the sky―will endure far longer than any mere human who lives within it.

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*It is worth noting in passing the very male-centric focus of this film. We only see five people on screen, four of whom are men: Norm and his friends, and the unnamed man who announces the departure of the last ferry. The only woman to feature is Ron’s elderly mother, and we only glimpse her wordlessly gazing out of the window. It is Ron’s concern for her welfare that prevents him from leaving Fogo; when it is revealed that her view is of no more than some kind of cliff or rocky outcrop resembling a large natural wall, the idea of confinement or even entombment extents to both mother and son. It’s a powerful shot, and makes one regret the absence of any further consideration of societal collapse on the island’s women. By contrast, the women who appear in Colin Low’s 1960s documentaries are given the opportunity to express themselves with a strong voice.

**Unfortunately, I was not able to make out what may be a key line said by Norm in response to Ron’s stated wish not to see his mother die in their house: ‘Fuck it, let’s go to… [inaudible]’.

***Another unexplained anomaly occurs earlier in the film. A man knocks at the door of a very tumbledown-looking house and announces the departure of the last ferry in two days; there is then a cut to an interior shot of Norm seated at a table by the window, seemingly pondering the announcement; the next shot returns to the first man walking away from the tumbledown house. From this sequence, it would be natural to assume that the house we see is Norm’s home, and that while the man stands outside announcing the ferry’s departure time, Norm is at that moment seated inside the same building considering what he has just heard. However, after a further few shots of Norm at his table, there is then an exterior shot of a house that, while resembling the first house to such a degree that an initial glance might take them to be one and the same, is actually a different building. The first house we saw from the front, while the second we see from behind. The architectural style is the same: a simple, two-story wooden structure, but the color of the wood is subtly different, as are the shape and location. So which is Norm’s house, the first or the second? If the first, why cut away directly from Norm at home to this house which has nothing to with him? If the second, that would mean that Norm did not hear the news about the ferry while he was at the table; the man conveying the news was at another house altogether. Olaizola is creating minute fissures in both the fictional and documentary surfaces of her film, undermining the viewer’s complacency about both. Another example: before Joe breaks into an abandoned house to retrieve his tin of spaghetti, we see him look around before he applies a crowbar to the door, as if to ensure that no-one is watching. If the film really were a documentary, as it pretends to be, then this action would be completely unnecessary, as the real Joseph Dwyer would have no need to be furtive about an act he knows is being recorded.

Asylum Piece (1940, Anna Kavan)

Asylum Piece is a collection of linked short stories or sketches, vignettes of mental dislocation and encroaching despair. It might be possible to read the book as a novel, for there is a narrative thread running through some the pieces, but Kavan does not seem to be concerned with genre distinctions. There are three distinct sections. The first contains first-person narratives: a woman makes a desperate visit to a pair of mysterious, disapproving ‘patrons’; a woman suspects that she has an implacable unknown enemy; a woman conceives a fear of her house; the resident of a mental asylum derives fleeting comfort from watching the birds (which may not be real) she sees in the garden. It is implied, but not made explicit, that the narrator of each of these stories is the same person, an unsuccessful writer; certainly some of the narratives are linked as they contain references to the same ‘advisor’ and impending ‘judgement’, the nature of which is not spelled out. The stories depict the narrator’s experience of the world as a living hell of paranoia, confusion and hopelessness, in which almost everyone is hostile, in which every grey sky is an omen of doom.

In the chilling first story, the ‘victim’ is not the narrator, but a young woman the narrator identifies, by means of a birthmark, as an old school acquaintance, now apparently a prisoner in a foreign country. This opening sketch is like a small overture setting the tone for what is to follow, and is suitably oblique; we are not told the name of either the narrator or the prisoner (as a schoolgirl, she is referred to as ‘H’), and the foreign country and the crime of which the prisoner was convicted are unspecified. The sinister guards at the castle the narrator visits, and in which the prisoner is being held, might indicate an authoritarian regime (the publication date of 1940 is significant here), but this is never confirmed. Rather, they suggest the presence of a cruel, overbearing state power not limited to any particular ideology, and analogous to the hints of a similarly shadowy tyranny back in the narrator’s home country. The coded references to the dire political situation in Europe at the time of publication are elements of the wider theme of authority and control Kavan explores. In the stories that follow, various authority figures (usually male) appear, or are mentioned: the narrator’s ‘advisor’, her ‘patrons’, her husband, her nurse, doctors, police officers, her mysterious enemy. They dominate, reject, patronize, demean, confine and terrorize the narrator, resulting in an attitude that veers between crushed, submissive fatalism and a steely determination to endure. Kavan never lets on as to how much of the oppression faced by her narrator is to be taken as ‘real’ and how much is a product of her paranoid imagination, nor is it even clear whether the stories are set in the ‘real world’, nightmarishly distorted through the narrator’s subjective experience and relation of it, or take place in an alternate reality. Nothing is moored down or demarcated; the boundaries between the objective and the subjective, the external and the internal, are blurry and uncertain.

Perhaps the piece that best exemplifies this is the most uncanny of them, ‘A Changed Situation’, in which the narrator describes her growing terror of her house. The impassive solidity of the edifice melts away as the building, which is ‘of no definite architectural design’, and which was new when the narrator bought it, acquires an old part, ‘full of treacherous angles’. It is this old part (or newly old part) that occasions the terror. Here, readers might picture a building with old and new sections, an old house with a new extension, or a new house with a phantasmagorical old extension. A paragraph later, however, and there is no longer any mention of old and new parts, but of an old and new house―a single entity able to change appearance, or two entities with a symbiotic existence:

Lying peacefully curled up on a sunny day, the new house looks like a harmless grey animal that would eat out of your hands; at night the old house opens its stony, inward-turning eyes and watches me with a hostility that can scarcely be borne. The old walls drape themselves with transparent curtains of hate. Like a beast of prey the house lies in ambush for me, the victim it has already swallowed, the intruder within its ancient structure of stone.

The house is a life-form, a host for the parasitical narrator, who is destined to be spewed ‘like an owl’s pellet into the arches of infinite space’. The delusions of a disordered mind, perhaps, or even an allegory of the crushing by settled domesticity of an independent, creative woman. But there is no contrast with a familiar external reality or a ‘normal’ psychology. There are brief references at the beginning of the sketch to the narrator’s family, but they are vague and fleeting, as if these relatives had no presence. The piece ends with an image of the old house rearing its head up ‘like a hoary serpent, charged with antique, sly, unmentionable malevolence’―an image of sufficient power to make the question of whether we take the world as described by the narrator to be ‘real’ seem beside the point. Kavan does not seem interested in placing her readers in the position of clinical observers, safely examining the narrator’s mental disturbance from a situation of harmonious mental order. Rather, she seeks to puncture our own certainties about the world around us, poking at our odd suspicions and secret dreads, making us aware of the fuzziness of the dividing line between sanity and insanity. When viewed in the context of the world’s alienating cruelty and barbarousness, and its effects on the people who live in it, any distinction we might make between sanity and insanity is made to look, if not necessarily illusory, then at least of minor importance. To see oppressors in the forms of everyday objects and the natural world seems less extraordinary when one recognizes the pervasiveness of oppression and brutality in ordinary social life. Non-human forces range against the narrator in an alliance with her human antagonists, as in the following excerpt from the piece entitled ‘An Unpleasant Reminder’:

The day was ill-omened from the beginning; one of those unlucky days when every little detail seems to go wrong and one finds oneself engaged in a perpetual and infuriating strife with inanimate objects. How truly fiendish the sub-human world can be on these occasions! How every atom, every cell, every molecule, seems to be leagued in a maddening conspiracy against the unfortunate being who has incurred its obscure displeasure! This time, to make matters worse, the weather itself had decided to join in the fray. The sky was covered with a dull grey lid of cloud, the mountains had turned sour prussian blue, swarms of mosquitoes infested the shores of the lake. It was one of those sunless summer days that are infinitely more depressing than the bleakest winter weather; days when the whole atmosphere feels stale, and the world seems like a dustbin full of old battered tins and fish scales and decayed cabbage stalks.

Something as ordinary as a day of disagreeable weather becomes part of a cosmic vendetta against an individual; the mundane futility of those tins, scales and stalks stands for the whole world. Minor quotidian irritants collaborate so closely with larger traumas and disasters that it can be difficult to tell them apart.

After ten of these first-person narratives, there is an abrupt shift into the next section, entitled ‘Asylum Piece’. This is divided into eight short, numbered sketches, the first of them a surreal dream like something out of Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and the second the anguished musings and memories of an asylum inmate. The remainder of this section is composed of sketches, written in the third person, of various inmates, staff members and visitors at a psychiatric institution in Switzerland. Kavan extends her theme of authoritarianism, with unsympathetic doctors and relations (including a ‘fine-looking, clever, successful, debonair physician with his graceful, athletic stride’ and a middle-aged man admitting his fragile younger lover against her will) exerting a hard dominance over the mentally ill. She also includes small acts of tentative solidarity and compassion among some of the inmates and workers which, although they hardly amount to an effective resistance to power, yet provide a glimpse of an alternative to the stifling confinement, isolation and impotence to which, as Kavan shows, society condemns those who do not conform to its models of sanity. Near the end of the final episode in this section, a desperate young woman gives up at the sight of authority and huddles in a corner, ‘limp as a doll’; shortly afterwards, an older inmate, who had earlier attempted to intercede on her behalf, ‘enfolds her in a compassionate and triumphant embrace’.

The whole ‘Asylum Piece’ section could easily be read as the work of the narrator of the earlier stories, who is a writer (so perhaps a bit of metafiction going on here). Kavan returns to this narrator in the penultimate and final pieces, entitled ‘The End in Sight’ and ‘There is No End’, which are as cheerless as the titles would suggest. The closing image is of ‘a garden without seasons, for the trees are all evergreens,’ in which ‘there is no arbour where friends could linger, but only concrete paths along which people walk hurriedly, inattentive to the singing of birds.’ Kavan’s narrator is always attentive to the singing of birds and to the natural world in general, which can, at times, offer brief solace, but there is no obvious egress from those concrete paths.