All God’s Angels, Beware! – Quentin S Crisp
I’m starting another of my real-time reviews on this page, i.e. of “ALL GOD’S ANGELS, BEWARE!” by Quentin S. Crisp (Ex Occidente Press 2009). I shall attempt to draw out all the fiction’s leitmotifs and mould them into a gestalt.
I anticipate this being a delightfully slow-sipped journey through this mightily filled and exquisitely honed book. The process may therefore entail days or even weeks between additions below.
EDIT: CAVEAT (24 OCT 09 – one hour after writing the review for ‘Ynys-y-Plag’ below): Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review as the items are posted below, before or during or after your own reading of the book, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading the book. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.
All my real-time reviews and some comments upon them are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/
“…I thought I might as well do a bit of concentrated haunting on this spot just for my own sake.”
The language flows limpidly as if from some meaningful source or fount of the future. The omens are good for me as, today, I start reading this long-anticipated book – having recently been considering, for ‘Cern Zoo’ purposes, the latest news that the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland is sabotaging itself from the future or, as some have said, committing suicide in self-retrospect. This story’s themes include what it calls ‘retrocausality’ in a very similar vein.
The plot flows as beautifully as the language that tells it. I really should have read more QSC before today! The narrator is a ghost (of Troubled Joe) and it is a staggeringly original treatment of such a consciousness trying to find its own ‘source’ of being or hindsight explication, by a form of confessional with those it haunts, sometimes almost with tactile or even sexual frisson. It is a story of some length and I cannot do justice to the relentless power of concept and emotion, leading to a fatal and seemingly spiteful ricochet that this ghost ’causes’ or ignites between two realities, and one wonders whether assisted death (assisted by whomsoever) is an act of despair or hope. The truth, perhaps, it’s neither. We all shall see, no doubt. (23 Oct 09)
The Were-Sheep of Abercrave
Well, I’m seriously Half-Welsh…and this story is absurdly half-something else.
It starts off as a tale of a Black Path in the Welsh countryside along which the narrator wends his way towards a structure called the Round House, presenting an ambiance that has a strong ‘genius loci’ amid the start of a compelling plot-thread of ‘weird fiction’ in the sanest sense of that genre. It then changes somewhat suddenly, somewhat gradually (I’m significantly uncertain which) into its own “piecemeal effigy”, as if there are tufts of morling* wool snagged on the letters themselves.
It does not exactly become an avant garde art installation but, rather, a narrative that, by being even weirder than the weirdest imaginable ‘ready-made’ in the Tate Modern, begins to assume a degree of empathisable sense that the story itself calls “non-human thought“. It’s as if the reader loses bits of himself and gains other bits (both physical and mental bits) in a sort of Consequences game before following his (the reader’s) own personalised Black Path – meeting, inter alios, Elvis Presley, Darth Vader and William Blake along the way. I, of course, cannot evaluate the whole of this story, being Half-Welsh.
*morling wool is shaved off a dead sheep, shorling wool off a live one. (23 Oct 09 – five hours later)
And now of substantial novella length:
“I suppose I shall be accused of employing the pathetic fallacy but, then, the true fallacy is to believe that inanimate things have no mood or spirit of their own…”
A notable photographer – in a hybrid WG Sebald / Lovecraft and geographical-synaesthesia mood with an element of something that seems generally endemic as ‘photographer’s angst’ or paranoia when photographing, say, children as an inadvertent part of his art as much as when photographing a tea-bag in an ashtray – seems to be starting a journey with us explaining connections with his famous book of photographs (‘Traces’) with no thought for the Intentional Fallacy! I feel very much in tune with the strong and realistically unsettling sense of place and with this narrator as he chooses this (to him, unknown) Welsh area of Ynys-y-Plag with a preliminary random pin on the map for his photographing trip (much as I chose Clun for my honeymoon in 1970) after he briefly mentioned Braintree (where we have friends not far from where I live now, i.e. in Essex). I also feel very much in tune with his approach to a tree at the tail end of Part I where he finds a swing and a tiny white sock like a maggot. I only hope my current chest infection does not dare to prevent me from reading further or from approaching the ‘tree’ that is this book. Heart in mouth, I approach this novella in the same way because it promises to be something truly special in my long life of reading literature. And I say that advisedly. (24 Oct 09)
“I stalled here because I realised I did not actually know what he had told me, at least, not so that I could paraphrase it.”
Indeed, I share that danger with the narrator of re-telling the story by means of this ‘review’. I will not, can not do so. But here we have concerns of photographic light related to pre-Raphaelite twlight, the narrator’s chance brief conversation with the ‘Otter Man’, his landlady at his lodgings who seems to be worried for his welfare by coming in so late in the evening for his dinner, all the paths seeming to lead to bridges one of which is due to become one of his most famous photographs with a child’s shoe nearby, manholes in the countrified ground, and a ‘bug’ that I don’t think can be likened to my current chest infection (or I hope not!). I merely say that my awe-struck anticipation for this highly atmospheric novella is growing even greater. And, in hindsight (by retrocausality?), I wish to replace ‘Lovecraft’ above with Sarban and Algernon Blackwood. WG Sebald may stay, however.
“The stranger I fear in others is also the stranger I fear in myself.” (24 Oct 09 – ninety minutes later)
“If you saw something strange it was best to look the other way, walk on, and, if possible, forget it.”
Bugs are illnesses as well as things we project into our life’s technical paraphernalia to explain their shortcomings, the text at some point states. But now the reader is given the paraphrase of a paraphrase that, in turn, also paraphrases. The desolate area of the bug (or ‘bwg’) where the ‘swing’ swings is thus fleshed out with some perspective of and from the past by such effective means. One of the paraphrase’s protagonists ended up perpetutaing the ‘bug’ in herself. I know several people in real life who have surely touched their own ‘bug’. But this girl is or was due to suffer “mental backwardness“, a supposed condition which takes on a whole panoply of meaning in the context. Meanwhile, I am careful here not to plant spoilers. But who knows how many spoilers plant themselves? Or will do so? (24 Oct 09 – another 2 hours later)
“You can judge for yourself how well I did, by turning the pages and comparing ‘Traces I’ with ‘Traces II'”
The narrator now has a seeming antagonistic companion called Rhodri provided by the dubious landlady for apparent fear of his photographing at twilight alone. Seeming, apparent… We now enter the dark zones of this story and Sarban, Blackwood, Sebald &c have by now abandoned us and we are joined instead by some head-lease or freehold author (whether QSC himself or someone else, I cannot say) to accompany the photographer-narrator in a different manner from that of someone ‘real’ like Rhodri. And together we all visit the aforementioned woman of “mental backwardness“. Some of the ensuing events are shocking, even disappointingly strident by over-implication. I am not sure who’s the constructively craziest of them all? Me or you for submitting ourselves to this story? Or those who put the ‘bug’ into the reading-text in the first place for us to catch? All I can say is that the language remains impeccable, the shocks heartfelt and the horror immediate but also subtly retroactive in possibly increasing measure. I sense and hope that the final part as yet to be read will be a calm coda of some sort. (24 Oct 09 – another 2 hours later)
A perfect ending. It is as if the Narrator sees something now in his Narration which is not entirely his, because he has become a different person (mentally and physically, cf: ‘The Were-Sheep of Abercrave’), different to what he was when within that very Narration. This is intrinsic to reading fiction and suspension of disbelief and ‘becoming’ (living through) the character himself. The photographs, too, become – in his subsequently successsful book ‘Traces’ – beyond his own ‘intentions’, some possibly perpetrated by Rhodri with his camera when he wasn’t looking, i.e. with fleeting images within the negatives (or ‘dark zones’) that bring back his ‘photographer’s angst’ and paranoia… We also spot such images among the text, in a similar fashion. We, too, as readers, have become different. It’s as if we have submitted ourselves to a rite-of-passage for real and beyond ourselves. We were hysterical, but now calm. We just need to watch behind us in case the text was indeed catching. Or will be. (24 Oct 09 – another 2 hours later).
And now another of substantial novella length:
Unlike ‘Ynys-y-Plag’, this is not divided into formal Parts. Therefore, in advance, I intend to read and review this in three convenient parts (I: pages 135 – 159, II: pages 159 – 181 & III: pages 181 – 202). (24 Oct 09 – another hour later)
“This would mean I stopped being myself in my mid-twenties.”
“…but the thing that really did for England was the urban rhizome.” (24 Oct 09 – another 4 hours later British Summer Time)
This novella is not in itself like ‘House of Leaves’ but, as reader, I feel I’m exploring the actual text and urtext as if I’m exploring something like exploring the ‘House of Leaves’ but my Mary Poppins opened-umbrella hinders my progress, assists my clumsy attempts to become even clumsier to fully apppreciate what I am exploring so far. It is a stunning monologue, at times old-fashioned like May Sinclair’s Heaven stories, at others original and breath-taking, science-fictional or apocalyptic, both a painting and cinematic film, a printed novella and a waking dream you had yourself, a cartoon or a tsunami of images relating to death / life – mortality / immortality – architecture / dream – reality / unreality – England / Japan – homelessness / security – self / selflessness. The language is all-enveloping and flows sweetly and takes you on a fabricated journey to you know not where. Fabricated on the hoof, while tightly pre-destined. There are just hints of things, Kadath, Nabokovian turns of phrase….and things that are more obvious all swirling you, as reader, onward. Someone yesterday criticised my real-time reviews as being un-academic and full of spoilers, i.e. with particular reference to this current one. OK. Hence the added ‘caveat’ above. All I can say is: “All God’s Angels, Beware!” Most of the stuff I ‘review’ can’t actually be spoiled because it is the reading experience that counts not the enjoyment of any plot possibility being tripped up by a careless unofficial denouement. This novella, so far, is a spoiler in itself. But only a spoiler for those who never get round to reading it. It will just be there, out there, precarious and tantalising, and the person who did not read it will be nowhere. (25 Oct 09 – 8.10 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time)
“It occurred to me, with the force of inspiration, that I should take holographs of myself at set intervals, if possible in the same position, at the same time of day, against the same backround.”
…similarly with photographs in ‘Traces’ earlier. And a Brainbook as the new Braintree.
The journey (my umbrella lost) through a reality-rarified Japan continues with thoughts concerning the wriggle-room, I infer, at the cusp of mortality and immortality … longevity as a determinant of regard or disregard, love or sex as a potential nuisance neighbour, CGI as a ‘stone age’ mummery and Time almost literally like wind and weather. Then a philosophical dialogue, but which one is Socrates? Plus still all the wonderful ingredients I’ve already covered above for Part I. A rose tree that reminds me of my own father’s rose tree and plaque in the crematorium grounds and an appointment I may need to keep.
Keep taking the medicine, I say. I need Part III not only to be read, but written.
“…like looking at the moon after seeing someone leapfrog over it, but knowing that for me the moon was still the moon.” (25 Oct 09 – four hours later)
“If it was raining, or if there was danger of rain, she would usually remind me to take an umbrella.”
Well, it would only be too easy now to fall into spoiler territory, with a (for me) surprising finale that is, inter alia, relevant to the unChristian belief that icons hold the soul of he or she or it they iconise. Indeed, in the Hundred Year Museum there are many ready-mades on a production-line of Time. This is an amazing novella, there can be no mistake – one that is remarkable and original and beautifully, mellifluously languaged, containing much of what I have already hinted at above and much much more. It is glib to say something is life-changing. But this must surely edge towards such a claim, at least.
“It was the gutter of history, that flows into the sewer of the forgotten, and inhaling this smoke had been like drinking from that gutter.” Some may know from what I’ve said before in this review that I currently have a bad cough. I coughed while reading that sentence, but the cough seemed to take on ((de)generate into) a tail-end language of its own ‘inspired’ by this novella. My wife in the room heard it. I told her that that cough had been a Japanese cough. She laughed.
“My hair had become entirely grey on that side…” Cf. the photographer of ‘Traces’. I am left with one question: can ruins be ruined? (25 Oct 09 – another 2 hours later).
A Cup of Tea
“I would read a section like this before I had to rest myself by looking up, only to find myself in a world of the ‘dull smoke-coloured light from Hell’. Then I would turn back to the book feeling almost as if I were choking on fumes.”
I wonder if the writer of this letter would be disingenuous enough to deny the Proustian quality of his communication to one with whom he used to share cups of tea. I’d boast about it, if I were him. It’s a gem of this literary genre. Ranging from the Tibetan Dead to Lovecraft to considerations of self and Proustian selves within that self and selfhood talking to selfhood – and the photographic light that just one cup of tea can fleetingly contain upon its spinning meniscus of valued memory (cf. the use of light in the book ‘Traces’). Memory is often better than now, a ‘now’ with even one’s Job Centre moved to another town, better than the homelessness owned by another Karakasa as seen without memory. I wonder if he posted this letter he wrote or filed it somewhere with his P45. (25 Oct 09 – another 2 hours later).
Asking For It
“Once in London, on my way back from visiting a friend in Greenwich, I had a rather unpleasant experience.”
Yet this relatively brief story (compellingly told and enjoyably read) takes place in Tokyo. A troubled protagonist stalking our sympathy or even empathy. He’s almost a bit like Erstwhile Joe doing a bit of haunting for its own sake. I shake my keys at him. (25 Oct 09 – another 3 hours later GMT)
The Fox Wedding
“He had created his own world of words and could not stray beyond its verge.”
A substantial and extremely powerful text comprising a smoker’s dual-directional narrative of an exquisitely conjured-up Japanese ‘genius loci’ – trotting with foxy powdery geisha-girls – laced, in contrast, with the cute salaciousness of girls from bottom-of-the-range novelty stickers – and a studied empathy with semi-consciously stalking the stalkers (cf. ‘Asking For It’ and ‘Troubled Joe’) while self-disgust becomes layered with a mazy sense of literature desperately attempting to neutralise (insulate? cauterise?) itself by point-of-view (yours as well as the narrator’s): an alley within a building.
“It was like a tide rising in my chest.” (26 Oct 09)
Mise en Abyme
A densely textured text that is impossible to ‘spoil’. To say it is merely Escherean or Alicean is to diminish it. Not a Venn Diagram so much as a Venn Psychopomp. Seriously, I’m hugely impressed by this philosophical exercise in ‘The Synchronised Shards of Random Truth & Fiction’ (many potential readers will flinch at that, but don’t!) – and not only, for me, because it is in tune with Nemonymity (that I have been nurturing for forty odd years) but also with the ‘retrocausality’ (now here in surround-sound!) hinted at by earlier topical references to the Hadron Collider…and more, much more. A Swiftian ‘Baffles and Fables’. Traces upon Traces. Stalking stalkers. Proustian selves. Here is a short selection of unspoilers:
“Creating the many worlds of his fictions, the writer should, theoretically, stand outside all of these fictional worlds in some transcendent universe of ultimate reality.”
“…prompted him to write a letter to the newspaper expressing his personal and vocational concern at the recent malfunctions in reality that had been the cause of such global panic and bafflement.”
“…but I wonder if it would not be more helpful if, instead of looking at particles or forces, we saw instead that we live in a universe of doors, windows, corridors, rooms, stairs and ladders.”
“A similar pattern, however close in design, would not suffice; the pattern had to be identical.”
“…his heart palpitating as he wondered whether they were following his movements or he was following theirs;”
“He almost believed he could hear this second self breathing…”
The breathing is accentuated by the as yet uncoughed-up phlegm, I guess. Soon, we will not need to know which of us is the true “Metascribe“. One of them will probably be dead! (26 Oct 09 – two hours later)
“Eventually I managed to select a toy which was a kind of inverted plastic cone for shooting ping pong balls in the air and catching them again.”
It is not easy to say this. But this is my favourite story (so far) in this book. I shall resist the temptation of saying it may also be one of my favourites of all-time, in case the moment has grabbed me too hard. The plot and style have an Elizabeth Bowen-esque elegance coupled with fracture. Its lead actress – ‘Aunt’ Annette – has the same power as I imagine Elizabeth Bowen herself to have had in real life. All seen through childhood’s eyes. Then again by his same eyes when older. Retro-shadowed, as he gives an interview, when older still, about the stories the once-child-he-was later wrote. A dual-palimpsest Proustian Remembrance of Things Past. Trace upon trace. Sheer delight, like the rich knickerbocker-glory I should not finish, but I will – today. Pigging on Crisp, because I can’t help it.
I was brought up in a Penny Arcade of the Fifties, by the way. Almost. (26 Oct 09 – another 2 hours later)
“…for whom the horror of existence becomes a maddening double image.”
This is ‘cast’ in the book’s context as another item of fiction, indeed a seeming story of substantial length. When ‘real-time reviewing’ previous books, I have eschewed any Author Story Notes or Introductions and so forth so that I can alone approach the fiction texts themselves uncluttered by any ‘extraneity-creep’. If this author has pulled the wool over my eyes, by casting his ‘Author Story Notes’ as just another Story, I shall find it very difficult to forgive him. With that preamble, I can safely say that I am convinced in myself that I was destined to read this last piece as I must have been retro-destined to read the whole book itself. If wool has been pulled over my eyes, it is morling wool, not shorling. There are ‘puppets from ancient children’s TV’, that ‘were-sheep’ again, accruing and accreting bits and bobs, some involving Vishnu’s maw and ready-mades and other artwork from one of the story’s ‘characters’ (Karen). And it is all so tangibly moving.
It would be so easy to ‘spoil’ this story with an extraneity-creep like me describing it further. Suffice to say, it compellingly encapsulates and gives further variations on the theme that is this book. Indeed, I wish that theme to subsist holistically, holographically, photographically, spiritually, without… without what? And perhaps I should tear all the pages from this highly-honed beauty of a physical book and pin the pages round my walls….and shake my keys at them.
A reader’s love for the book he’s just read (and indeed truly loved) expressed as a series of suicide notes.
“…even though you are safe and cosy, chatting over a cup of tea, you are not actually safe at all…” (26 Oct 09 – another 3 hours later).
*Sorry, I mis-typed this title here yesterday, now corrected. It changes nothing of what I said. A compliment to this ‘story’, but it is a fiction that artfully reads like autobiography – and in hindsight is even more powerful today than when I read it yesterday. My overall favourite in this wonderful book, however, is likely to remain ‘Italiannetto’. (27 Oct 09)