rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Review for the book I read Wednesday, July 13th, on the plane on the way to Boston.

Oh dear.

So, you know how I've been reading David Lindsay in aggregate, because some part of my brain suddenly went oh hey he must have written something other than Voyage to Arcturus and there was this university library sitting right there?

I am SO GLAD I left this one to last. SO SO GLAD. Because Sphinx was one of the best fantasy novels I have read in some time, and if I had read Devil's Tor before getting hold of Lindsay's other work I would never have read any David Lindsay ever ever ever again. I am going to find it very hard to explain to you exactly how terrible this book is. It is bad in the simple, basic, ordinary ways-- prose, construction, over-wordiness-- and then it is bad in a dimension I can only call world-historical, a dimension which makes me both sorrowful and angry. And yet there are ways in which I can't blame Lindsay specifically for its badness (I'll get into that), though there are ways in which I can AND DO. It is so bad I have not tagged it in this entry with the 'genre: awesomely terrible' tag, because there is nothing awesome about it. I think it is the worst book I have read this year.

One thing that I appreciate about Lindsay: he was always trying something new. He would write a book, and it would sell three copies (every single one to a future famous author), and it would make no money, and he would write another book that was totally different, in hopes that it would sell more. In fact the one novel of his that I have not yet managed to track down is a blood-and-thunder swashbuckling serial along the lines of, say, The Prisoner of Zenda (I can't picture what this could be like). He was always changing, both for artistic reasons, in that his philosophy grew and matured and shifted, but also because he was looking for the main chance, the publisher's check at the end of the rainbow. He tried straightforward fantasy epic (Arcturus) and a mode resembling early British ballad (The Haunted Woman) and drawing-room tragedy (Sphinx) and none of it got anywhere.

So Devil's Tor is David Lindsay doing Thomas Hardy.

NO, REALLY. Stylistically that is exactly what it is. I cannot imagine why he thought this was a good idea. He hasn't the ear. I don't like Hardy at all, but I will admit he had some ear; this reads more like the parodies of Hardy one gets in something like Cold Comfort Farm. Paragraphs and paragraphs of the moor being emotionally reflective of everyone's dully inarticulate unspoken feelings. Symbolic lightning. Symbolic sunrises. It is the most melodramatic geography. And it blows the pacing of the book all to hell, because whenever there's an emotional effect or something that's meant to be moving we get two goddamn pages of landscape portraiture. It's repetitive, too, because the book takes place in a quite limited geographic area, and there is only so much one can say about any given rock. I had the feeling by the end of the novel that I could have drawn a topographical surveyor's map of the titular tor at about one-inch resolution. I will not say no writer could pull that off without being boring, because there are more things in heaven and earth, but that writer is not Lindsay. Of a five hundred page novel, I would have cut half the length if I were editor; and that, the lesser of the book's disastrous flaws, is why I fell asleep reading it six separate times on the airplane. (I'd nothing else I hadn't read with me that wasn't in checked baggage. Silly, I know, but it was a five hundred page novel by a writer whose other work I've liked.) I could only take it for so long and then my brain would refuse.

As for the greater of the book's flaws, this is the thing that's going to take some time to explain. UNSPEAKABLE HORRORS THIS WAY. )
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Review from June 29th.

This is actually an omnibus of two novels: The Violet Apple and The Witch.

The Violet Apple, written in 1924, was Lindsay's last completed novel, and was never published during his lifetime. I am not certain why, as Charles Williams seems to have managed to begin a career writing the same kind of book during the time Lindsay's manuscript was bouncing from publisher after publisher.

And Charles Williams is the correct and direct comparison here: this is explicitly theological fantasy and though I know it would have been impossible for C.S. Lewis to have read it (it was not published till 1976), maybe there was something in the water, for The Violet Apple is an unorthodox and fantastical retelling of the myth of Eden. The protagonist, Anthony Kerr, a successful playwright, has a family heirloom which has been passed down for centuries, a Venetian glass dragon of great beauty and immense value, hollow and containing a seed which is supposed to be from the apple of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The dragon is broken; Anthony plants the seed; the tree grows; there are two fruits. But the tree is a miniature and stunted thing, dying even as it bears, and the apples don't look a thing like apples as anyone knows them. Meanwhile, circumstances keep conspiring to throw Kerr together with his oldest friend's fiancée Haidee, although he himself is engaged to marry that friend's sister. In a moment of spite at the web of jealousy and confusion the four of them find themselves in, Haidee picks the fruit.

As with Sphinx, this is an odd fusion of the appearance of a drawing-room tragedy with a deeper level of allegory and the fantastical, but I think it is a lesser work than Sphinx. Sphinx is one of those novels in which every incident plays into the main theme, whereas The Violet Apple really has two plots, and the surface difficulties of social convention and which set of couples will marry are just as pointless and irrelevant as Anthony and Haidee, under the influence of the knowledge of the angels, find them to be. That may be the point, but it makes for an actually boring overlayer. The fantastical content, while more overt than in Sphinx, is consequently less menacing, more predictable. Sphinx is a book I recommend to anyone who likes complex fantasy, but this is specifically a book for those who like theological fantasy, to whom the argument is as interesting as the characters and images.

And yet, as a work of theological fantasy it is fascinating, because while it uses the story of Adam and Eve and has a resolution that appears at first glance Christian, it is not a Christian philosophy that Lindsay is arguing. It is the same complex not-quite-Buddhism not-quite-Calvinism that he always does hold, and it is odd to see these symbols used this way. That may have something to do with why the book was not published. Or it may just be the dullness of the domestic portions. It is also marred by a glaring sexism, of the sort at which one sighs and says 'par for the course for an author born in the 1880s, but'. I found it a rewarding read, mostly, although I got through parts of it with great impatience, but then I am a sucker for theological fantasy.

The Witch is another animal entirely. It is the novel Lindsay was working on when he died, unfinished and perhaps unfinishable, the one in which he was trying to synthesize absolutely all of his thoughts into one book written at the height of his power, the one he wanted to make a Great Novel and place among the immortals.

If he had finished it, he might have done so. I have certainly read nothing remotely like it. The protagonist is haunted before we even meet him, haunted from the book's first sentence, though that dawns on the reader gradually: he has heard a rumor that a young lady who is at a party he is attending is a witch. He does not meet her at the party. He questions what his acquaintances could mean by saying that. He meets with friends, receives business letters. But no interaction he has with anybody goes as expected, nothing is normal, his family break out into odd disquisitions, persons in the street tell him dreams they have had. The entirety of the world around him and everyone he knows seem to be conspiring to bring him, as if by coincidence, to a certain spot, whose history he is being told before he gets there, a spot known for centuries as a place of danger and sacrifice. There has never been any 'reality' in the book at all; he lost that when he began to fall down the walls of the world. She will be there, of course, waiting, at the bottom. He cannot tell whether she means him good or ill, or why she decided on him.

She means, it turns out, to send him in the flesh through the outer precincts of Heaven. This is not a benevolent motive, or, if it is, it is an incomprehensible and inhuman benevolence, because the metaphysics of that universe are such that it is pointless trying to distinguish between Heaven and Hell.

You can tell exactly where Lindsay got to, before becoming ill. It is a brilliant book, almost as good as he thinks it is, genuinely frightening and stirring and extremely unusual in the way that reality fractures and reshapes around the protagonist so that the reader can notice it and he can't. The philosophy of what Lindsay thinks this Heaven is is worked into the fiction indissolubly, and then, suddenly, it isn't, and the whole thing collapses into a bald statement of the philosophy involved, a lecture and no longer a novel at all, and then cuts off. I cannot recommend the lecture. It is boring and dry and repetitive and exhausting and syntactically crazy. The book before it is so good, and stops so quickly, and I can see why it was published, because it is not losable, but it has the eternal frustration of something that is never going to hit what it was aiming at. It is lovely and infuriating and I doubt he'd have finished it if he lived another twenty years, because the hundred pages here took him twenty-five. I can't in good conscience suggest anybody read it, but I also can't suggest not. Consider your annoyance threshold, and how sad you become at things that break off in the middle.

I am in no doubt, now, that Lindsay was a major fantasy writer, and that the majority of his reputation depends on his least characteristic book. A Voyage to Arcturus has impressive weirdness value, but it simply is not as good as The Haunted Woman, or Sphinx, or the non-disintegrated portion of The Witch. He was a genuine novelist, and could use both symbol and subtlety; I disagree with his metaphysics and cosmology so thoroughly that I understand why C.S. Lewis considered them actively blasphemous, but I certainly know what they are, and his innumerable fine shadings of worldbuilding thought; he had ideas about women that make me want to throw things, an innate class bias I doubt he ever once noticed, an unparalleled way with a visual image, and no sense of humor whatsoever. I do not think he will ever be popular, because if he had a time it has passed, but I could wish for him to have literary descendants, if they could learn to laugh at themselves a bit while still maintaining that amazing unsettling quality he has where you think you know where the next step is, and it isn't, and you put your foot on empty air and stumble. I have remaining to read that I can get of him only Devil's Tor, which should be interesting.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
I don't think that I first heard of David Lindsay's novel A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) through the essay in which C.S. Lewis says it is one of the most blasphemous books ever written, but that essay certainly added enthusiasm to my then-ongoing search for a copy. And upon reading it I saw both why it would have sent Lewis into something of a moral tizzy and how much of his Space Trilogy was composed in reaction to it (most). A Voyage to Arcturus contains some of the best fantasy travelogue ever written, is set in a universe whose metaphysics combines the most depressing aspects of Calvinism, Catharism, and not-terribly-well-understood Buddhism, is so intensely peculiar about gender that I have to tell myself Lindsay is talking about Arcturians even to parse how the book thinks sex roles work, and is one of those experiences where one is continually doing the mental equivalent of putting one's foot down on a stair-step that isn't where one expected it to be. I have never read anything remotely resembling it, and while I am not sure it is a likable book, I certainly respect it.

So after reading that one, I looked out for more Lindsay. He is not easy to find. Arcturus sold some ridiculously tiny number of copies on first printing and has turned into one of those books people talk about in essays more than reading, and I was amazed to find a copy of his The Haunted Woman (1922) a few years back in a used-bookstore crawl. That one is completely different from Arcturus in just about every direction and is altogether a tighter, more interesting and more congenial second novel-- it takes place in a castle which has one of the most unusual hauntings I know of, a room which turns people into their deepest selves when they enter it, and then wipes the memory from them as they leave, without erasing the effects of what they have said and done. After stumbling on that book, since those were the years before internet bibliographies, I did not manage to hear of any others.

Blessings on the conjunctions of internet bibliographies with university libraries. Sphinx (1923) is Lindsay's third novel.

And he had gotten better at his craft. )


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