Aickman, Robert. Go Back at Once (unpublished novel, 257 pp.)
According to a cataloguing entry of the Robert Aickman Archive at the British Library, this novel was written in 1975. Aickman's first novel, The Late Breakfasters, was written some years before it was published in 1964. Aickman wrote one other lengthy story near the end of his life (he died in 1981). The Model was published posthumously and is often erroneously called a novel, when more accurately it would be called a novella, due to its short length. Thus Go Back at Once occupies a middle place in Aickman's three pieces of extended prose fiction. All three are odd, but in different ways; yet Go Back at Once is perhaps the oddest work of Aickman's entire oeuvre.
It attempts to work as narrative on more than one level, yet any meaning, as well as the details of its time and setting, are rather murkily presented. Taking place some years after the war, it doesn't specify which war. Yet the accumulation of a number of minor details point decisively to about the year 1924. The setting begins in England, but moves on to a kind of autonomous Italian state called Trino. Yet it is not the known Trino that is in northwestern Italy, for this Trino is on the Adriatic Sea, and is reached via Trieste. In fact the fictional Trino is on the eastern side of the Adriatic, somewhere in one of the Balkan countries.
On the surface level, the novel centers on two young girls, Cressida Hazeborough and Vivien Poins. They are inseparable friends, and having just completed schooling at Riverdale House, they go to London to live with Vivien's aunt Agnes (Lady Luce). Cressida begins to work at a flower shop, while Vivien starts as a receptionist for a psychoanalyst. Their life is interrupted when Aunt Agnes receives a summons from an old acquaintance. And here the novel's oddness begins.
The acquaintance is known as Virgilio Vittore, a great poet, playwright, athlete, soldier, etc., who captured Trino and now governs it according to the laws of music (whatever that means). The two girls travel with Aunt Agnes to Trino, where they find a curious populace and an even stranger society, where everything is free for the taking (the government is funded by a wealthy newspaper magnate, along the lines of a patron of the arts). The second half of the novel takes place over a period of only three days, as the girls explore this new society and become increasingly disillusioned about it. The theatricality of everything is paramount, and the girls are often muttering to themselves quotations from Shakespeare's plays, or those of John Webster, or even Gilbert and Sullivan. Cressida is to work with the theatre, where all the plays performed are by Vittore. At a strange banquet the meal starts with a dish made up of lark's tongues, though the meal is interrupted by a huge number of birds in flight, which are quickly fired upon by the male diners with their small silver pistols, leaving the tables covered with feathers and dead birds. The girls meet a number of unusual people, and aspects of sexuality simmer in the narrative. What the point of all this is is anyone's guess. It doesn't seem to be satire, nor allegory, in any sense. Where it leads, over the three day span, is that Aunt Agnes and the girls are rescued in Adriatic, having left Trino as it collapsed, and they go back to England, and pretty much to the lives they had before their adventure. This is foreshadowed half-way through the book by the woman Cressida works for in Trino who suggests to her that perhaps she might prefer to go back at once, meaning only in that scene to retreat from her prospective employment. Yet in the end this is what the two girls and Aunt Agnes do.
We do not know if Aickman ever offered this novel for publication, but it would have been a hard sell to a publisher. Go Back at Once lacks the cohesiveness of Aickman's first novel, and seems an advance upon it only in terms of conceptual oddness. It also compares unfavorably with Aickman's well known “strange stories,” for the development of the novel is labored to the point of becoming, at times, rather boring.