Friday, March 10, 2017
The Memoirs of a Ghost - G W Stonier
Seventy years ago, G W Stonier (1903-85) wrote a short experimental novel called The Memoirs of a Ghost (1947) which is one of the more unusual attempts to devise a modern, contemporary ghost story. It was published by the Grey Walls Press, an independent imprint set up by the poet and editor Wrey Gardiner from his mother’s house in Billericay, Essex.
Stonier was a versatile journalist, writing and reviewing mostly for the serious periodicals, such as the New Statesman, and also for BBC Radio. He also translated books from the French, and later in his career wrote travel books. His thoughtful, rather bleak ghost story sometimes gets brief mentions in studies of the field, but it is not widely known. E. F. Bleiler, while finding it not fully successful, evidently respected the book. He commented that it was “nicely imagined in detail, stylistically superior, but unclear in intention. It is possible that the author is simply discussing problems of readjustment during and after the war.”
The narrator, we lean early on in the novel, has been killed in the Blitz. But he continues to exist. We witness his halting re-emergence after the bomb blast, confused and assailed by pursuers. Then, in a scintillant, lyrical set of soaring pages, he appears to rise above the earth and to witness the vital forces of nature in all their majestic shapes and contours. But this episode does not last. Soon he is back in the dingy, semi-derelict streets of the city, and surrounded by rough, very definitely down-to-earth characters. He is never able to rest, eat or drink properly, though he still feels the need to do so.
The narration is fractured, spasmodic, frequently shifting scene, as it might be in a dream, or nightmare. However, very gradually he resumes a similar life to the one he has supposedly left. But it requires considerable psychic effort to continue to cohere. Sometimes he becomes spiritually exhausted, and begins to lose his hold on the recreated life: at others he feels on the brink of a fundamental revelation.
I think Bleiler was right to detect some element of social allegory in play. However, this does not seem to me the main thrust of the book. It is perhaps foremost a genuine attempt to explore what a certain sort of after-life might be, with a worked-out sociology and psychology of the ghost. His narrator is scornful of the traditional type of ghost, “wearing armour or clanking chains, and extending a luminous claw”. We should be looking instead, it is implied, at the figures we see every day on the street.
The narrator tells us that “The ghost is gregarious and a creature of habit”, but he is also limited: “Habit, I found,” he tells us, “restricts his imagination to the experience of a lifetime.” He cannot suddenly depart from the parameters of his previous world. Also, his existence is tenuous: “The ghost, unhappy wretch, lives on his immediate energy; he must draw the lines of every perspective, mould every curve, distribute form, animation and colour". It is an “unremitting” struggle: “I lived by inches,” he tells us. Perhaps we see here an allegory about how we sustain our own individuality and continue our search for meaning in this world, seen as a perilous task requiring constant energy and vigilance.
Stonier’s book belongs in the sphere of modernist literature. The restless, allusive, splintered response to the city has qualities in common with T S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, for example, or ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, with its nocturnal exploration of memory “through the spaces of the dark”. It also has some similarities to the modernist short stories and novels of Mary Butts, particularly in the mingling of the mortal world with other dimensions, and the displacement of time and space.
As a fantastical evocation of the Blitz, one of the few works with which Stonier’s distinctive book has some points in common is Rex Warner’s Why Was I Killed? (1943). This book is sub-titled “a dramatic monologue”, and this suggests both its strength and its weakness. As a searching discussion of the causes and effects of war, it has an earnest authority to it which compels respect. But as a work of fiction it is less successful. There is, nevertheless, a strange atmosphere to Warner's book which makes it worth perseverance.
Stonier’s work is much less didactic than this, but belongs to the same tumultuous, charged atmosphere of the Blitz years, and has an equally evident serious purpose. It is more ambiguous and exploratory, and gains from this less closed approach. It is also more focused, since we are in the presence of the single narrator throughout. Stonier’s work is more successful than Warner’s in establishing a plausible, compelling new plane of existence.
As well as the short novel, he also wrote a short story with the same title which appeared in The Second Ghost Book (1952) edited by Cynthia Asquith. This appears to be a variation on an extract from the book: however, as Bleiler notices, there are several divergences in detail from it. Possibly Stonier may have thought the longer work had not quite had the notice it should, and reworked part of it for this new readership.
Otherwise, the author of The Memoirs of a Ghost never wrote anything else quite like it. Much of his other work is largely that of the professional writer, willing to try out publishers with various ideas. He did also write about London and the bombing in Shaving Through the Blitz (1943), a memoir, and Round London With The Unicorn (1951), a pub crawl. Perhaps the nearest to the supernatural Memoirs is The Shadow Across the Page (1936), a sort of commonplace book of isolated brief paragraphs recording unusual sights, facts, overheard conversations, impressions. Some of these have a strange, eerie or macabre quality similar in tone or perspective to The Memoirs of a Ghost.
There are still many dimensions of the ghost story yet to be explored, and I think that Stonier’s book gives some indications of where there is still room for a dramatically different approach. It certainly will not be to everyone’s taste, particularly those who prefer a more traditional style and an antiquarian theme. But I hope that the integrity of the work, its thoughtful dimensions, and the illumined quality of its prose experiments would be recognised even by those not naturally drawn to it.
A Checklist of the Principal Books by G W Stonier
Gog Magog and other critical essays (J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd, 1933)
The Shadow Across the Page (Cresset Press, 1936)
Shaving Through the Blitz (Jonathan Cape, 1943)
My Dear Bunny (Home and Van Thal, 1946)
The Memoirs of a Ghost (Grey Walls Press, 1947)
Pictures on the pavement / illustrated by Edward Ardizzone (Michael Joseph, 1955)
Round London With The Unicorn (Turnstile, 1951)
The English Countryside in Colour (B T Batsford, Ltd., 1957)
Off the Rails, A Book of Personal Adventure (Travel Book Club, 1967)
Rhodesian Spring (Hutchinson, 1968)
(This is an edited version of a note that first appeared as a contribution to a mailing of the correspondence society The Everlasting Club. New members are welcome.)