Literary Remains – by R.B. Russell
posted Sunday, 11 April 2010
I’m starting below another of my gradual real-time reviews. This time it is of the collection of stories entitled ‘Literary Remains’ by R.B. Russell (PS Publishing Ltd. 2010). I shall attempt to draw out all the fiction’s leitmotifs and mould them into a gestalt. There is no guarantee how quickly it will take to complete this review.
CAVEAT: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review before or during your own reading of the stories, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading them. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.
All my real-time reviews are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/
Cover art: Jason Van Hollander
“I was obsessed with Joseph Conrad…”
This first story is told by a female I-protagonist who is ambivalent between rock music and antiquarian book-collecting. A strange mixture. A strange story of ghosts and ghost stories – and sexuality. Which makes me think she is a trick of the writer she admires so much. The Conrad novel ‘Chance’ has several layers of narration … and the frightening, truly disturbing thing about this story (as in ‘Chance’) is that one is never sure about something that one is not sure is the thing that one should really be unsure about. Certain creeps on each side of a a wall. Much interesting detail about old books, book-collectors, book-collections and book-defacements. Er… I deface books when I real-time review them… (11 Apr 10)
An Artist’s Model
This is as if we all are a ‘tabula rasa’ and, here, hauntingly, such a ‘tabula rasa’ has been set up for puppet characters gradually to develop into real selves, told in the initial shape of a stilted masquerade of student artists and tutors (one called Locke) in a teaching studio – with angles of perception to create rivalries and conflicts and an inferred violent sexual liaison between Locke and his model – all as seen through the surreptitious painterly eyes of one of the students whose own faltering development has not fully ‘taken’ and his ‘tabula rasa’ returns at a critical moment, positing the possibility that each of us is indeed another faltering artist’s model whose images are stretched like canvases over consecutive frames (growing increasingly larger), but with gaps between. A faltering God? (11 Apr 10 – another two hours later)
“…the sun was coming through the etched glass fanlight above and slanted brightly across the wall forming a strange, stretched shape.”
Let me tell you, that I am long experienced in reading what many of us call ‘strange stories’ (such as Robert Aickman’s) but these strange stories of R.B. Russell are strange in a strange way I can’t (yet?) fully explain. It seems they suffer, like a large house in this story, a sort of subsidence … a stretching over an ill-formed frame. That is not a criticism, merely an observation, because I have enjoyed the three stories so far. This one tells of coincidences of people meeting apparent old school friends at dinner parties, people who may or may not be confidence-tricksters – a hint of marital infidelities and mixed or misunderstood motives in all characters (including the narrator) and dubiously verified pasts …. and inconsistencies (such as a letter thanking the letter’s recipient (the narrator) for a cheque (later withdrawn before encashment) and then the narrator evidently not questioning the fact that he has now found his own letter unopened on a doormat at the correct address to which it was posted and presumably with the cheque still inside). It is as if this book itself is a confidence or coincidence trick, with missing periods of time within an unverifiably sane logic of development (as in the previous story) and liaisons of ghosts or creeps on either side of a (imperfectly thin as opposed to subsided?) wall in the first story. Not the Aickmannerisms of constructive inexplicability so much as things I’ve yet to nail down as literary devices at all. Perhaps we have here, indeed, the book’s ‘literary remains’ of physical realities. Perhaps ghosts are truly thus: remains of people and places ‘stretched’ by volitionless mystery beyond the control of anyone purporting to tell you about them? (12 Apr 10)
Una Furtiva Lagrima
” ‘…I don’t suppose anybody’s life is so well plotted as to make sense at the end:…’ “
A dialogue between a son and his dead father’s erstwhile mistress, the latter having thought, mistakenly, for years, that she had been abandoned for the wife … with, eventually, very powerful repercussions now spoken about in this dialogue, involving (akin to that in ‘The Artist’s Model’) a ‘tabula rasa’, in one case from unconsciousness after an accident and in the other through alcoholic intoxication. The ending is superb, in spite (some may say) or because (others may say) of its eventual indeterminate nature. Taken on its own, I suspect that this is a more graspable tale than the previous three, but paradoxically made less graspable when following in those stories’ context!
We each see or create a different reality around us, as some philosophers maintain, and that extends to extracting reality from reading fiction. (12 Apr 10 – four hours later)
” ‘…one of my failings was pacing.’ “
A publisher’s representative, in a mazy Kafkaesque / Ligottian East European city scenario, liaising with an author by specially delivering contributor copies of the paperback edition of his earlier successful hardback novel, Terminus. But the author is now, in diminished conditions, looking after his illness-behaved mother … and he tells the representative something about the book … and gradually we begin to wonder about the real author (Russell) telling all this with such a straight face. It made me shudder. It’s as if prose itself is illness-behaved and we imagine how it was first written before we got to reading it. I didn’t get to this book quick enough before it changed (by word or simple pacing) and I fear reading it again and again forever before it changes again or develops ever-widening gaps. Or before I change first or develop my own gaps. Wonderful stuff. And it’s done in such a deadpan way… (12 Apr 10 – another 3 hours later)
“…she slid her hand through the buttons in a way that was incredibly sensual.”
This fabulous gem, although original in itself, reminds me of one of my genuinely favourite ever stories: “The Vanishing Life and Films of Emmanuel Escobada” by Anonymous that appeared in 2002. This new one by RB Russell is an intriguing tale of coincidences and of someone who always gave himself too much time for travelling to appointments (me too!) – so much so on one occasion he was able to discover a cinema and the showing of a film called ‘Loup-Garou’ before making the job interview on time! The darkly synchronoous comparisons in the film with his own life were uncanny to say the least and the story needs to be read and appreciated for what it is. Not a coincidence trick as such, but a a confidence-drainer, one where I speculate about exponentially squaring each segment of time it takes to retrace my steps towards where it first started going wrong in my life. There’s something paradoxically uplifting about that. (13 Apr 10)
“David Riley knew that he spent rather too much time watching the world go by as he worked at his desk in the window of his shabby flat.”
Judging by the contents list, this is the longest story in the book. I somehow find myself returning to the words ‘deadpan’ or ‘straight face’. This is a story of a two-way-filter of identity within two men – with no obvious purpose or eventual climax, other than a ‘foreign film’ sense of final nonchalance. I consumed it avidly, a real page-turner, but I don’t know why! I wonder if this gives some clue to previous stories, such as ‘The Artist’s Model’ or ‘Llanfihangel’. It also reminded me positively of some Reggie Oliver stories. I am left in two minds about this story. But I can’t really complain. I enjoyed it.
[As a separate matter, I scratch my head over the blue glow. The pervasive, gently hued hint of significance without significance? Or another coincidence trick, one where the trick is that there is no coincidence at all other than that perhaps this story presents the basic groundwork for a highly intelligent whodunnit mystery yet to be told?] (13 Apr 10 – three hours later)
“Her voice was lifeless, for all that there was a slight foreign lilt to it.”
Ostensibly, a reminiscence of a Local Council Housing worker checking up on Council properties – and the curiouser and curiouser tenants he happened to meet in the course of his duties, one tenant in particular. A lady with a taste in Brontë novels, but otherwise nondescript and with no ambitions beyond being ordinary all her life, co-tenanted by her son … and a loft with a padlock on it. This is a believable absurdity told with that now increasingly deadpan Russell approach. There is a skill in making an absurdity haunt the reader with its edge of truth, as this story does. [As an aside, I somehow sense that the woman tenant is the story itself (a woman of suspect lifelessness from being a fiction) but a fiction she manages to transcend by further managing to fabricate a frame to stretch herself within and, by this means, she plants herself in the flow of plot in a slightly different more enticing guise than her real self so as to reveal (by using a fiction skill learnt from Charlotte Brontë?) something beneath (or above) the story that the Council worker would otherwise miss.] (13 Apr 10 – another 2 hours later)
An amusing story about a Vanity Publishing firm, one with a modicum of conscience, all as seen from the viewpoint of its Publicity Manager(!). It revisits some of the authorial territory of ‘Another Country’ with fresh climactic nonchalance, a matter-of-factness-about-significance that seems to make the readers more passionately affected at their own apparent involvement with the absurdities thus treated. Or maybe it is anger at the tricks played on them rather than passion! Indeed, I think this book’s stories seem impassionate in a positive way, refreshingly paring down the punishing punnish flair & wordplay of, say, a Rhys Hughes, but keeping the essence of such literature – here, uniquely, with Russell, Aickmannerisms and European absurdisms in a synergistic partnership, then artfully pared down or nonchalantised. There was more to Mr Gabo (the author using the Vanity firm to publish his ‘masterpiece’) than met the eye, in this story, as there was to the ‘lifeless’ woman tenant in the previous story. And that is true of the stories themselves. And along the way the reader also has to cope with a tabula rasa or two (implicit or explicit) – those perhaps representing the ultimate pruned punned-downness or deadpanness? (In different moods, I also enjoy Rhys Hughes fiction, it has to be said, which fits more easily with my own wordy weirdness when writing fiction!)
[Interesting that the Vanity firm is called Asphodel, another word for Narcissus. A word someone used recently about possible authorial reactions to my real-time reviews!] (14 Apr 10)
Where They Cannot Be Seen
” ‘And as for sex, well, is it really necessary? I’ve always preferred a nice cup of tea myself.’ “
This story is the book’s coda, because, to my mind, the tabula rasa finally grows rooms within it as a test for humanity. Following earlier thin firewalls-between.
This is a country house holiday for three couples that they annually hold, a gathering reminiscent of Russell’s novella ‘Bloody Baudelaire‘. And there are Dorian Gray elements here as well as in the Brontean ‘A Revelation’. The role-playing of human interactions. MR Jamesian touches, too. Perhaps also ‘An Unconventional Exorcism‘ (a Russell story in ‘The Sixth Black Book of Horror’ where, inter alia, someone says: ‘Intercourse is necessary, I acknowledge that, but so is defecation.’) and, with that, the ending here in ‘Where They Cannot Be Seen’ is left as open-ended or flip-floppy as the cool customer that seems to underpin these stories with supreme nonchalance. I shall now put this book on the bookshelf where its own un-nonchalant soul (detached from any such cool customer) can sear its pages undisturbed. A memorable book? We shall see. It takes being laid-back four-square in time to judge memorability.
“That night, as he lay in bed, Robert could not sleep for the thought of Georgina in the room next to him, barely inches away through the wall.” (14 Apr 10 – three hours later)
Yes, it is memorable! I’m drawn back here to consider again its overall title: Literary Remains. That seems to bode well in this context of memorability. Honestly, one of those books that is sure to grow on me. (much later) 🙂
Just thought of Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS in the context of this book’s tabula rasa. As well as his novel CHANCE. And the silver mines in NOSTROMO?
2. Weirdmonger left… Wednesday, 14 April 2010 1:32 pm :: http://weirdmonger.blog-city.com/cinnaba
Just reminded myself that I reviewed another Russell story at the link immediately above. It was ‘The Red Rose and the Cross of Gold’ in the CINNABAR’S GNOSIS anthology (Ex Occidente Press 2009). More material for comparison, including building subsidence!
I shall also need to seek the ‘sold out’ ‘PUTTING THE PIECES IN PLACE’ another anthology by RB Russell (Ex Occidente Press) because I now feel I want to be a RB Russell completist! 🙂
3. Bill B. left… Tuesday, 8 June 2010 3:00 pm
Just finished this book, and now reading the reviews I have so far been ignoring. Interesting to see you compare “Blue Glow” to Reggie Oliver’s works; I also got a hint of RO from one of the stories, but for me it was “Where They Cannot Be Seen”. I will definitely snap up each of Russell’s future titles.
4. Weirdmonger left… Tuesday, 8 June 2010 3:05 pm :: http://weirdmonger.blog-city.com/tragic_
Hi, Bill Thanks for comment. Later, I compared ‘Blue Glow’ to ‘Someone Across The Way’ by Steve Duffy in the review linked immediately above.
5. Bill B. left… Tuesday, 8 June 2010 9:15 pm
An apt comparison, certainly. The other side of the identity-swapping coin is identity-splitting, which I’ve most recently encountered in Mark Samuels’ new collection. Steve Rasnic Tem’s “At the Bureau” is perhaps my favorite in that category.
6. Weirdmonger left… Tuesday, 8 June 2010 9:19 pm :: http://weirdmonger.blog-city.com/the_man