Sunday, September 29, 2013

Do Marionettes Die? - Maria Luise Weissmann

“We love our slender dolls so much
- Their white faces are lonely”

Maria Luise Weissmann (1899-1929) translated the work of Paul Verlaine and Blaise Cendrars, and also wrote a handful of books of her own poetry, and one novel. Her work is little-known even in her native Germany and has not been widely translated.

Mark Valentine has written the first known translation of her brief but strange and sensuous poem, “Do Marionettes Die?”, which in just twelve lines evokes the precious life of dolls and puppets and our curious affinity with them. Jo Valentine has created striking images that complement the uncanny world of the poem. Both the original German and new English texts are provided in a hand-made “double book” in soft covers, together with a brief note on the poet and several haunting portraits of her. Each cover has a unique variation on the design, though all feature dolls and puppets.

This is the third publication from the Valentine & Valentine imprint, and is in a limited, numbered edition of 25 copies only. Note: the translation appeared earlier in Mark Valentine’s Star Kites, Poems & Versions (Tartarus Press, 2013).

Update: all copies have been taken. We hope to announce another title in about a month.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Return of Kala Persad

The Divinations of Kala Persad (1895) by Headon Hill introduced possibly the first Hindu detective in Victorian fiction. The title character, however, is kept out of sight in a secret room. He listens to the cases brought to his friend Mark Poignand, and uses his mystic powers to see the solution. His enquiry agent colleague then goes off to find more orthodox proof. Kala Persad is thus most like M P Shiel's Prince Zaleski, an exotic visionary. It seemed to me that he had more potential and that it might be interesting to see how he would work as an independent character. The first episode in this career, "The Return of Kala Persad", will appear in Seventeen Stories from The Swan River Press, Dublin, next month. The story reveals that Kala Persad was not quite as depicted by Poignand, who did not fully understand his friend's powers: "When he would find me reclining idly, as he supposed, I was in fact transfixed in meditation, training my mind to that acute level of discernment which enabled me to solve his cases for him in a moment. And when I huddled close to the flames, it was not because I was cold, since I have long mastered matters of the body, but to sharpen my spirit by observing the golden dance of Agni, the fire-god." We also make the acquaintance of the seer's companion snake, the cobra Kalpa, an old soul, whose sudden emergence from his basket in a vegetarian restaurant startles a young and troubled Englishman. "The Return of Kala Persad" is one of three tributes to singular Victorian detectives in the book, along with "The Green Skull" (a Sherlock Holmes case) and "Prince Zaleski's Secret". In the latter, Shiel's refulgent sleuth pits his wits against decadent poet, mountaineer and occultist Anstruther Rook in a case threatening the delicate diplomatic balance between the Great Powers, indeed perhaps the fate of the Empire and the world. Other sets of stories offer Four Curious Books; Three Strange Places; Three Odd Societies; and Four Haunted Figures. Advance orders for Seventeen Stories are available now.

Friday, September 20, 2013

LE VISAGE VERT new issue no. 22

Another stellar volume of Le Visage Vert has appeared, and needs to be recommended.  This is issue no. 22, dated June 2013.  The lead items are a fascinating story "Mon Ami Hermann" by Lucien Prévost-Paradol (1829-1870), and an article by Norbert Gaulard on the double life of Prévost-Paradol.  "Mon Ami Hermann" was first published in 1858.  It concerns an amiable German university student whose soul, at night, inhabits the body of an Australian criminal named Parker.  When Parker is hanged, Hermann is also found dead.  The similarities with Stevenson's "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" are apparent, but whether Stevenson ever encountered the story is unknown.

Other contents include articles "Scotland Yard au pays d'Hoffmann" by François Ducos;  "Du côté des loups (1ère partie)" by Michel Meurger; stories "L'Argonaute et la sirène" by Camille Mauclair; "Le Château" by Romain Verger; "La Peur" by Rodolphe Töpffer (with illustrations by the author); and translations into French of "The Ghost-Extinguisher" (1905) by Gellett Burgess; "The Stolen Cigar-Case" (1900) by Bret Harte; and "An Irreducible Detective Story" (1916) by Stephen Leacock. 

To order, visit this website and scroll down to find the all available issues of Le Visage Vert.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Golden Journey to Samarkand - Centenary

One hundred years ago James Elroy Flecker published a slim volume of verse from the obscure imprint of Max Goschen.  The title poem of “The Golden Journey to Samarkand” caught all the yearning for far-away adventure that so often comes to a people living on a grey island on the edge of the world. Flecker took a fabled city on the ancient Silk Road to the East and made it into a talisman for the wondrous and the exotic:

            We travel not for trafficking alone:
            By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
            For lust of knowing what should not be known
            We make the golden journey to Samarkand.

            Flecker also wrote a handful of other lyric poems that have survived well and are still quoted from time to time, including “Oak and Olive,” “The Old Ships” and  “The Gates of Damascus”, but it is for the Golden Journey to Samarkand he will remain immortal. A good number of his other poems also have a fantastical theme.  Serpents, sorcerers, viziers, legendary heroes, strange ships and marvellous lands abound: the very stuff of traditional poetry.
            James Elroy Flecker achieved his renown in just thirty years, dying young of tuberculosis at a sanatorium in Switzerland. His reputation was already high during the last years of his life, especially among fellow literary men such as Rupert Brooke, Edward Marsh, editor of the Georgian Poetry volumes and Harold Monro of The Poetry Bookshop. Indeed he was regarded by some as second only to Yeats amongst poets writing in English. And after his death, interest in him soared. Both Collected and Selected Editions of his poetry were enormously popular. His verse play Hassan, which was only published and performed posthumously, also enjoyed a great success in the theatre.
             The future poet was born in Lewisham on 5 November 1884, but grew up in Cheltenham where his father was the headmaster of Dean Close, a respected Evangelical school. Throughout his life he tended to react against the rather pious and conventional attitudes of his family and they in turn often failed to understand his high spirits, zealousness in the cause of literature and fascination with the passionate and strange.
            Flecker only really began to break free as an individual, though, when he got to Oxford. The young men there had made something of a cult of the decadent Eighteen Nineties and wit, affectation, languor and luxuriance were prized. Flecker soon won a reputation as a master at all of these. Douglas Goldring, a fellow undergraduate,  recalled in his 1922 memoir of the poet:  “Flecker’s obscenity amounted to a gift, and many of his most famous witticisms and jeux d’esprit (written down and illustrated in a MS. volume bound in “art linen, ”  called the “Yellow Book of Japes”)…are scarcely likely to find their way into print,”  adding ruefully, “one may be forgiven, perhaps, for regretting this, for they were the outcome of enormous high spirits and of a wholly charming gusto for life.” The book in question has still never been published.
            His first significant publication came in 1907 with his book of poems The Bridge of Fire. With typical insouciance, he chose the title for the slim volume first and then wrote a poem to go with it. The verses show the marked influence of the English Decadents and the French poets they revered - Baudelaire especially - and was even issued by a relic of the Nineties, the publisher Elkin Mathews, in his Vigo Cabinet series.
            A more unusual item followed. Flecker wrote a vision of the future, The Last Generation, which marks his farewell to the Decadent pose, as it satirically depicts a coterie of enfeebled youths too weary to preserve the guttering flame of the human race. Published by the New Age Press in 1908, in fawn printed paper wrappers, Goldring described it as “extremely scarce” over eighty years ago.
            His second poetry collection, the rather more soberly entitled Thirty-Six Poems was issued by a new publisher, The Adelphi Press, in 1910. Amongst the fine poems in this volume were “To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence”, “The Town Without a Market”, “The Masque of the Magi”, “War Song of the Saracens” and “I Rose from Dreamless Hours”.
             Flecker entered the Consular Service in June 1910 but his career was brief and broken by periods of ill-health. He was sent first to Constantinople (now Istanbul) but within a few months fell ill, supposedly by catching a chill through bathing in the Black Sea. A doctor discovered traces of tuberculosis, then a deadly disease, and he went to recuperate in a hospital in the Cotswolds. He returned to Constantinople  in 1911 and in May married Helle Skiadaressi, a Greek poet, whom he had met on board ship on his first voyage out. His family disapproved of the marriage.
            After their honeymoon, Flecker was sent as Vice-Consul to Beirut, and was there intermittently for eighteen months, his longest period of duty. Despite celebrating it in verse, he appears not to have relished the modern Middle East, and was rather too volatile a character to make a good diplomat. He was caught up in several incidents while there, including an Italian bombardment of the city, which he wrote an essay about, and an uprising against the Druse, in which an enraged crowd turned on him and he had to be rescued by an Ottoman policeman. More usually, however, the life was routine and the climate inimical to his health.
It was while here that Flecker struck up a friendship with  T.E. Lawrence,  in December 1911. There are photographs of Flecker in Arab dress taken by T. E. Lawrence, and the Arabian hero had a selection of Flecker's works in his library at Clouds Hill cottage in Dorset.  Lawrence called him “the sweetest singer of our generation” and wrote An Essay on Flecker, though it was not published until 1937, and then in an “unofficial” edition.
            In 1913, Flecker’s health deteriorated and his wife took him to the first of several sanatoria in Switzerland: he was never to leave that country. “It was hard for him to have to spend those last months in such desolate places,” Helle later recalled,  “out of touch with the world of letters that was just beginning to know his name; letters from friends or unknown admirers were the only bright moments.”  His last years were marked, however, by a rapid rise in his reputation as a poet. His finest book of poems, The Golden Journey to Samarkand, was issued in the Summer of 1913.
It is this volume which, in Saki’s story “A Defensive Diamond”, the self-appointed “club liar”, Treddleford, is trying to enjoy while being constantly interrupted by the club bore. Saki skilfully sums up the potent attractions of the book: “It was an afternoon on which to be wafted away from one's climatic surroundings, and "The Golden journey to Samarkand" promised to bear Treddleford well and bravely into other lands and under other skies. He had already migrated from London the rain-swept to Bagdad [sic] the Beautiful, and stood by the Sun Gate "in the olden time".”
As well as the Samarkand poems, the book includes what Flecker believed to be his greatest poem, “The Gates of Damascus”, with its glittering and immortal line, often quoted, evoking “The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea”. Other notable pieces were “Oak and Olive”, contrasting England with Ancient Greece, and “Brumana”, a memory of a pine grove in England, while Lord Dunsany was a great admirer of the mermaid poem “Santorin, a legend of the Aegean.” Flecker hoped that Goschen might issue a selection of his poems to be illustrated by Dunsany’s artistic collaborator Sidney Sime. Nothing came of the idea, but in my story “Sime in Samarkand” I imagined what might have been.
Flecker’s poems do not at first glance seem to be particularly personal and this has often lead critics to regard him as somewhat limited, even merely a clever formalist. It is true that he paid careful attention to the “technical” qualities of poetry, the classical forms, the rhythm, rhyming schemes and buried rhymes, the shape of the work: and he sometimes took a delight in choosing consciously poetic, “elevated” language.  But his work reflects his character too: consumed with visions of splendour, a wanderer among myths and dreams, true, but also a delicate, intimate observer of friendship and nature.
The same year saw the publication of Flecker’s longest prose work, the fantastical romance The King of Alsander, in which a shopkeeper’s son in the English shires, fond of reading Gothic tales and other outre books, is mysteriously whisked away to a realm where he becomes embroiled in a Ruritanian conspiracy involving a cross-dressing Princess.  The book had been begun when Flecker was at Oxford and is usually seen as a whimsical jeu d’esprit by most commentators.  The mingling of the fanciful with ironic commentary on modern affairs does not always work, but it is an enjoyable romp that might be worth a revival.
            James Elroy Flecker died on 3 January 1915 at a sanatorium in Davos. He is buried in the cemetery at Cheltenham, and his gravestone bears a line from one of his poems, selected by his wife:  “O Lord, restore his realm to the dreamer”. His obituary in The Times was written by Rupert Brooke, who was much moved by Flecker’s early death, and other writers paid tribute to his work. The Golden Journey to Samarkand had already gone through several editions, and interest in him now began to intensify .
A posthumous volume of unpublished verse, mostly written in his last two years, which had already been in preparation, was quickly brought out by The Poetry Bookshop. The Old Ships, in foolscap, with pictorial lavender covers, was notable for the title poem (“I have seen old ships sail like swans asleep/Beyond the village which men still call Tyre”) and “The Burial in England”, written at the outbreak of war.
            But the greatest boost to Flecker’s reputation was still to come. In his last years he had been working on a verse play, Hassan, set in the milieu of the Arabian Nights, in which the pleasant young confectioner of the title is able, by a chance encounter, to save the life of the Caliph from a conspiracy led by the King of the Beggars. Richly rewarded, he does not, however, find happiness, for the Caliph’s revenge on his attackers is cruel and palace intrigue is troubling. At length, he sets out on a pilgrimage, poorer but wiser: to Samarkand. Some of the Samarkand poems published earlier had indeed been extracted from this longer work, and it offers all the same attractions of an exotic setting, brilliant images, and old-fashioned storytelling. After many vicissitudes, the play was eventually launched by Basil Dean at His Majesty’s Theatre in September 1923, in a colourful and vigorous production that was an immediate and enduring success.
Flecker will always be known as the immortal poet of the Golden Road. He was a remarkable individual, dedicated to his craft.  The “lean and swarthy poet of despair”, as he once characterised himself, can still call to lovers of fine poetry everywhere, as he hoped in his  “To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence”:

O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Story-readings by Blackwood, Dunsany, Coppard, etc.

Just a quick plug here for a CD released in "The Spoken Word" series put out by the BBC and the British Library.  Short Stories: English and Irish Authors Read Their Own Work is a three disc compilation that includes  two stories read by Algernon Blackwood, one by Lord Dunsany, one by A.E. Coppard, one by Angela Carter, one by Kingsley Amis, as well as other authors including W. Somerset Maugham, William Trevor, Harold Pinter, Edna O'Brien, V.S. Pritchett, Sean O'Faolain, Phyllis Bentley, and Frank O'Connor.

The Blackwood tales include "The Destruction of Smith", first published in The Eye-Witness for 29 February 1912, and collected in Pan's Garden (1912); and "The Texas Farm Disappearance", published in The Listener for 13 May 1948, and collected in the section titled "Five Strange Stories" in The Magic Mirror: Lost Supernatural and Mystery Stories by Algernon Blackwood (1989), edited by Mike Ashley.  The recording of "The Destruction of Smith" was first broadcast on 6 September 1940, and that of "The Texas Farm Disappearance" was first broadcast on 10 May 1948. 

Lord Dunsany's tale is one of Joseph Jorkens, "The Pearly Beach", first published in Vanity Fair for March 1932, and collected in Jorkens Remembers Africa (1934).

A.E. Coppard's tale is "The Princess of Kingdom Gone", which first appeared in Voices for November 1919, and was collected in Adam and Eve and Pinch Me (1921). 

The Angela Carter story is "The Snow Child" and the Kingsley Amis on "The Green Man Revisited".

For me it's been especially nice to hear Blackwood and Dunsany read their own tales.  Blackwood's voice is more restrained than I might have expected considering his fame as a reader of ghost stories.  And Dunsany seems to have (to these American ears) only a slight Irish lilt in some words. Both are effective as readers of their stories. 

For more details, here are the Amazon US and Amazon UK links. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013


In November 2012, a day-long celebration was held at the Michelson Theater of New York, celebrating the British television writer Nigel Kneale (1922-2006), author of the Quatermass series, The Stone Tape, and The Year of the Sex Olympics, among many other works. A resultant book (with cassette tape comprised mostly of experimental synthesizer music inspired by Kneale's works) was published, called The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale, edited by Sukhdev Sandhu, with contributions by Roger Luckhurst, Mark Pilkington, China Mieville, and others.  This small printing disappeared fairly quickly, but a second edition is reportedly in preparation. The contributions aren't especially well-edited---e.g., at least two contributors refer correctly to Kneale's birth in Barrow-in-Furness, while two others state  (incorrectly) that he was born in the Isle of Man. Some of the contributions are creative, while the more focused and analytical ones worked best for me (including one putting Kneale's least successful science fiction Kinvig into context).  A few essayists make intriguing remarks about Kneale's recurring contempt for his medium (television), which shows up (most obviously) in The Year of the Sex Olympics, as well as in the final Quatermass. Overall this volume makes an interesting entry point to the study of Kneale's work, which deserves all the attention it gets.