Friday, January 14, 2022

An Interview with R B Russell - Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography

Tartarus Press have just announced the publication of R B Russell’s Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, the first full biography of this enigmatic author. Aickman’s character is in many ways as cryptic as his stories, and this fascinating study offers a lucid and even-handed assessments of his achievements, his idiosyncrasies, his aesthetics, his politics, his romances and his writing. We are pleased to present an interview with R B Russell about the book.

What was the most unexpected thing you found in researching the biography?

I don’t think there was any one particular surprise. Like Aickman’s stories, there was an accumulation of information that was often quite odd and unexpected, but which resonated with Aickman’s world view (“philosophy” is not quite the right word). He believed that art and aesthetics were of primary importance, and that the modern world had lost its way and was irrecoverable. If I was surprised by one thing, it was how strongly he held and expressed these views, but how he was not particularly successful in explaining or defending them. When called to do so, he relied on rhetoric and emotion, and often seemed to be simply finding excuses for his personal prejudices. Aickman usually cultivated those who were sympathetic to his outlook (which is quite natural), but was surprisingly content to shun those who might have challenged it.

I was very pleased, though, to answer some questions that had been bothering me for many years, such as was he really a Conscientious Objector in the Second World War, and what argument could he have possibly made to a Tribunal? . . . And while I loved his volumes of autobiography, I was never sure how much of them I could believe.  

Did you find that some details of Aickman’s life cast new light on his strange stories?

It was interesting to discover some of the places, people and situations that provided inspiration for his fiction. Usually this was just “colour”, or the starting point for a story, although, for example, ‘Sub Rosa’ was firmly based on a personal episode that he was happy to exploit. Aickman was rarely on firm ground when attempting to explain his views of the world in non-fiction, but in fiction he found a very persuasive vehicle for his romantic, idealistic, often reactionary way of looking at the world.

If Aickman gave an elevated place to art and the appreciation of beauty, do you see him mainly as an aesthete, in a similar tradition to those of the Eighteen Nineties?

He would have embraced the idea wholeheartedly! It is easy to see his love of beauty in his dedication to opera, the theatre, classical music, art and literature. But it also informed his view of the waterways of Britain. His reaction to them was almost entirely aesthetic, which is what put him at odds with many in the Inland Waterways Association, including his co-founder. L.T.C. Rolt’s prime aim was to make the waterways viable for the people who had traditionally worked on them. Aickman had a completely personal vision for the restoration of the waterways which was so idiosyncratic that he failed even to convey it to many of his supporters.

Contrastingly, you also show that Aickman saw himself as a capable leader and administrator, as shown in the inland waterways campaign. Do you think he ever quite resolved these two roles (aesthete/administrator)?

In some ways he did resolve them. He may have caused arguments and schisms, but he genuinely inspired many people who were happy to put long hours of often back-breaking work into helping him realise his aesthetic vision. It is a very unglamorous thing to say, but Aickman was himself capable of putting in a great deal of hard work in an attempt to realise his vision.

One of the themes that certainly resounds throughout your book is Aickman’s great capacity for friendship, particularly with women. And yet there is still, ultimately, an impression of melancholy, of loneliness. Was he really, do you think, an outsider?

In some ways he was a self-imposed outsider. His claims to a lonely childhood in The Attempted Rescue are overdone—he always had friends, and enjoyed company, but, presumably, he felt that few friends understood him properly. As for women, he had such unrealistic and ambitious expectations, while being a confirmed pessimist, that he could not have a satisfactory romantic relationship for long. (His time with Elizabeth Jane Howard was an ideal, but she could not put up with the demands he made on her.)

To widen the scope of your question, Aickman enjoyed being an outsider when it suited him. For example, he liked causing trouble to successive governments over the waterways because he had little time for politicians or democracy. He felt that he could most effectively agitate for change from the outside. But, in contrast, he was a confirmed snob and adored aristocracy and royalty. He would never have wanted to be a member of the House of Commons, but he would have happily accepted a peerage and joined the House of Lords.  

Some biographers end up appreciating their subject more, others come to dislike or even loathe them. Where have you ended up with Aickman?

I was aware that Aickman’s politics and reactionary way of looking at the world was the opposite to my own, but I admired his writing, and was impressed by what he had achieved with the I.W.A. The more I have learned about him, the more I disagree with many of his views, but my admiration for his undoubted achievements is undiminished. One thing that I have come to realise is that his pessimism must have caused him a great deal of pain. His sincere belief that the past was not just a different country, but a superior one, spoilt any capacity for happiness in the present. Through his writing and his work for the inland waterways he was striving to achieve a very personal utopia that he knew was impossible. He was such a pessimist that he must have taken some pleasure from knowing that he could never succeed in changing the world to his satisfaction.

(Mark Valentine)

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Taking Out another Story from the Fitz-James O'Brien Canon

Neil Cornwell, in his collected essays Vladimir Odoevsky and the Romantic Poetics (1998), makes it quite clear that he thinks that "Seeing the World" by Fitz-James O'Brien is a plagiarism of a story by the Russian writer Vladimir Odoevsky (1804-1869). But there are some complications in the scenario that Cornwell doesn't consider. 

The story is "Improvizator" ("The Improvisor" or "The Improvvisatore")--one of several stories in a narrative framework, in the style of Tieck's Phantasus (3 volumes, 1812-1816) and Hoffmann's The Serapion Brethren (1818), under the title Russkie nochi (Russian Nights*), originally published by Odoevsky in 1844. Cornwell traces the plagiarism not from the Russian but from a French edition of seven stories by Odoevsky in Le décameron russe (1855), translated by Pierre-Paul Douhaire. O'Brien is reported to have known French well. And "Seeing the World" is without question a translation of Odoevsky's tale.  But where does the guilt of O'Brien enter in?

"Seeing the World" was first published anonymously in Harper's New Monthly Magazine for September 1857. This was at a time when O'Brien was a frequent contributor to the magazine. "Seeing the World" is apparently attributed to O'Brien in the Index to Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Volumes I to L: From June, 1850, to May 1875 (1875). I have not examined this 1875 version, but I have seen the updated version,  Index to Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Volumes I to LX Inclusive: From June 1850 to June 1880 (1881), where "Seeing the World" is indeed attributed to O'Brien. Unfortunately this bibliography doesn't give the reasons why any piece is attributed to any author. So how accurate might it be, for a compilation made a few decades after the publication of the story in question, and more than a decade after O'Brien's death in 1862? There are certainly reasons to question its accuracy. For example, the story discussed previously "A Dead Secret" is (correctly) not credited to O'Brien in the Index, but neither is it credited to the now-known author George Augustus Sala. The information in the Index is clearly dependent on the quality of its sources of information, which remain unknown. 

Francis Wolle in his Fitz-James O'Brien: A Literary Bohemian of the Eighteen-Fifties (1944) accepted the attribution of the Index, and "Seeing the World" has subsequently appeared as an O'Brien story ever since. But what happened before that attribution?  

I see three possible scenarios here. 

1) That the case is exactly as Cornwell suggested--that O'Brien plagiarized Odoevsky's story. 

2) That O'Brien might have translated the story for Harper's New Monthly Magazine, intending no deception. Anyone researching magazines of the eighteenth-century will know that translations into English of stories from foreign languages rarely have the author named, and rarely have the translator credited. And even in such respected modern resources like The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals 1824-1900 (1979), with attributions for originally uncredited works frequently based on publisher's archived records, there can still be serious problems, as exemplified in the writings of Henry Ferris, collected in A Night with Mephistopheles (1997), where at least two of the pieces included are translations of foreign works. The archives had listed Ferris as the contributor because he translated the works, not because he wrote them, as was mistakenly assumed by the volume's editor. 

3) That O'Brien had nothing to do with "Seeing the World" and the attribution to him is an error by the Index's original compilers.

If either scenario 2 or 3 is true, then O'Brien should not be called a plagiarist. But if the first scenario is true, then he certainly was one. Unfortunately, from the perspective of one hundred and sixty five years after the publication, we have no evidence to decide amongst the three scenarios.

In any case, "Seeing the World" should be removed from the oeuvre of Fitz-James O'Brien.

* Russian Nights was first translated into English in 1965. It was reprinted in paperback in 1997.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Legend - Clemence Dane

In Clemence Dane’s Legend (1919), Madala Grey, a young woman in her early twenties achieves remarkable acclaim for her books. Visiting her childhood home she meets and marries the family doctor, and dies in childbirth. The news is brought to a gathering of her friends in the fogbound London house of a well-respected, but less successful, critic who “discovered” her, is her literary executor, and is going to write her life, determined that this will bring her similar acclaim. They talk about her.

This novel should not work. For one thing, it is about not one but two authors – in fact, a third, because a diffident cousin of the critic is the narrator, writing this book. And books about authors always seem to suggest a want of invention, a self-referential limitation. For another thing, almost all of the book is in the conversation of this rather superficial clique and all the action, such as it is, in this single evening in the house. Nor is the character of the famous author, as seen through their eyes, all that compelling. Further, Dane reproduces a few passages from her famous author’s books, a risky thing to do because they have to be convincing as the work of an acclaimed genius: and they aren’t.  

But despite these drawbacks in Dane’s novel, I think it does succeed, and that is because of the haunted atmosphere that she is able to create. It is at first obliquely achieved. She has arranged an enclave: the fog is so thick that there are no cabs and even pedestrians cannot see where they walk. So the guests in the house are marooned there. And Madala Grey’s presence is pervasive in the room, at first just figuratively, in the thoughts and shared memories and opinions of this shallow little coterie. There is, in fact, a brief eerie scene in flashback when the young author is wandering in the churchyard of her childhood village and shivers – as if, she says, she had stepped over her own grave, an apparent premonition.

This obsessive going over and over the qualities and characteristics of the famous author builds up a tension. You marvel that Dane can keep it going and hold the reader’s interest in this single subject in this single narrow time and place. Perhaps it is a bit too drawn-out. I began to wonder just how much more Dane could eke it out. But then she brings the curtain down with a final scene that, though it does follow on from what has gone before, is yet a dramatic incursion.

Two of the characters, the narrator and an artist with a strong affinity to Madala, have remained mostly aloof from the circle and are drawn tacitly and tentatively together. The front door opens and only they are in sight of it. The fog seeps in, and with it an apparition that they each see, though they see it differently. We have been very briefly prepared for this, we may now recall, by a passing remark of a character earlier, about seeing the face of the lost one everywhere you look. So there might, just, be a psychological explanation. But this figure is stronger than that: this vision has purpose.

In Legend, Dane has written a novella-length ghost story which is modern in its setting and its technique, yet traditional in its imagery—the fog, the figure at the door, the incident in the churchyard—and in its denouement, the spirit that returns to complete a mission. It is a daring approach, with highly disciplined writing, and it just about works.

I wondered if Dane had in mind as one model for her lead character ‘Michael Fairless’, the young woman who had such a success with The Roadmender (1902), and died young. It would be hard to avoid that example, and although Dane’s character is more sophisticated, she shares with Fairless a deep, simple longing for the countryside. There may be a hint of this origin in the quoted last paragraph of her character’s third and last book, which specifically evokes roadmenders.

Dane’s book now looks like a pioneer in the development of the modernist metaphysical novel. It was followed, for example, by Helen Simpson’s Cup, Wands and Swords (1927), which similarly introduces the supernatural into the affairs of a London artistic set: and in fact Simpson and Dane were good friends and collaborated on crime novels together. There are parallels also with Mary Butts’ Armed With Madness (1928), where quarelling bohemians in Dorset encounter the Holy Grail. All three novels entwine modernity and eternity.

Clemence Dane was also an enthusiast of the novels of Claude Houghton, and contributed to a set of appreciations of him: and his Thirties metaphysical novels have affinities to her work. Indeed, his great success I Am Jonathan Scrivener (1930) uses a similar technique to Legend, of a strong central character described from differing perspectives in the memories and conversations of others, and also has a similar final scene, the dramatic opening of a door.

E F Bleiler, in The Guide to Supernatural Fiction, does not list Legend, but he does include her short story collection Fate Cries Out (1933), and her family saga The Babyons (1928), which has supernatural interludes. He describes the latter as ‘Literate, stylistically interesting Art Deco romanticism’. That would do equally well for Legend.

(Mark Valentine)