Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Devil in Crystal - Louis Marlow

The Devil in Crystal (1944) by Louis Marlow is a timeslip novel in which the protagonist (a man about town and satirist rather in the shape of the author himself) is projected back from 1943 to 1922. There, he is in the body of his younger self but his mind is that of the 1940s man and he is fully aware he is back from the future. He is, however, mostly compelled to go through the same actions and say the same things that he originally did then, which he finds tedious, as if he were just a piece of clockwork: but occasionally, with fierce effort, he seems to be allowed to say or do something out of place.

Quite a lot of the novel is about the personal tension involved in this situation, and there is also a certain amount of sombre reflection on the difference between the (for him then) quite sybaritic existence of the Twenties compared to the Forties wartime restrictions and exigencies he has come from. In some ways the later, more stringent and insecure, time compares better in its human qualities, but he is able to relish the luxuries he could no longer get in the later time: wine, brandy, fruit, cigarettes.

The thinking-through of his position and testing-out of just how much he can deviate from his original script is shrewdly conveyed, and the book is quite philosophically interesting in its meditations on time, chance and free will, but does sometimes become a bit dry: we share the character’s frustration a bit too much. At last, he discovers another who seems to share his knowledge, a young woman who when he first knew her then, in the Twenties, had an uncanny reputation, and seems to him now to see the nature of things more clearly than he.

Louis Marlow (whose surname was Wilkinson - Marlow was a pen-name) was a colourful figure known to his friends as The Archangel on account of his imperious looks and manner, and as a young man was sent down from Oxford for blasphemy but accepted, in a retort to its fustier rival, by Cambridge instead. He is most known as the friend and biographer of the Powys family, but he also wrote a number of brisk, satirical novels which have mostly receded from view. Aleister Crowley was quoted as saying of one of these, 'In all literature I know no pages so terrifying as those in Louis Marlow's Mr. Amberthwaite.' There is a helpful discussion of the novels in W J Keith's 'Reading the Fiction of Louis (Marlow) Wilkinson' (The Powys Journal, Vol. XXIV, 2014).

Louis Marlow's Seven Friends (1953) is a lively account of Oscar Wilde, Frank Harris, Aleister Crowley, John Cowper Powys, T F Powys, Llewelyn Powys and Somerset Maugham. Perhaps somewhat overshadowed by the Powys connection, his own quite different work is due more attention. Maybe there really ought to be a Louis Marlow Society.

Mark Valentine

1 comment:

  1. This sounds strikingly similar to P. D. Ouspensky’s Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, which Wikipedia tells me wasn’t translated into English until 1947, though was published in its original Russian in 1915.