Tuesday, November 7, 2023

The Centenary of 'Sphinx' by David Lindsay

Sphinx (1923), David Lindsay’s third novel, was begun in August 1921, completed by May 1922, and published in November 1923, one hundred years ago. It was announced by its publisher, John Long, as part of its Winter List for 1923, and included in advertisements in the Christmas numbers of book journals.

It is a book that provided one of my first really exciting finds as a young book-collector, when I saw its sage-green spine with black lettering staring at me among shelves of old hardback fiction at a shop in Saffron Walden, a pleasant town mostly known for its pargetted houses and ancient turf maze. I could scarcely believe it, especially when I looked at the pencilled price, which I have left in the book as a memento: 50p.

Lindsay told his friend E H Visiak that the book was ‘a blend of common and supernatural life’ but that he had also tried to strike out on a new line. The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun the previous year, 1922, had created a vogue for Ancient Egypt, and the publisher may have hoped the title would benefit from that. In fact, ‘Sphinx’ is the name of a piece of music in the book, and there is hardly any Egyptian aspect to the plot.

The greater part of Sphinx is a novel of relationships, with social and romantic complications. The setting is in a large residence on a newly built, upper middle class, semi-rural estate, where the protagonist, Nicholas Cabot, has come as a paying guest to carry on his scientific work involving dreams. The other notable character is Lore Jensen, a woman composer who fascinates Cabot, though he thinks she has betrayed her artistic gift for commercial gain.

There was a 1988 reprint of the novel from Xanadu, which unfortunately has some printing issues. It included an introduction by Colin Wilson, who, although a great champion of Lindsay, thought that here his vision exceeded the reach of his writing skills: “Ordinary technical ability, the literary talent that so many third-rate novelists possess in abundance, was denied to him,” he says.

He is not alone in expressing some dismay about the book. Glen Cavaliero, in an endnote to his The Supernatural and English Fiction (1995) is brusque: “its story of a man’s experiments in recording his own dreams cinematically is novelettish and rather trite: it affords no real sense of the mysterium.” J B Pick says that Sphinx is “composed of insights, observations and inventions, profound and often brilliant, but bits and pieces nonetheless, filled with the types he met in the Cornish society playground.” David Power admires the final vision, but concludes “Most of the book . . . is dull and disappointing. Despite some superb passages it is one of Lindsay’s weakest novels."

E F Bleiler is more enthusiastic: “A very strange novel with both thought-provoking metaphysics and a good picture of pre-Titanic resort life among the British middle classes. Most critics have dismissed Sphinx as a failure, but I find it curiously fascinating” (The Guide to Supernatural Fiction, 1983).

Lindsay’s handling of the society element and the personal relationships is more assured than has sometimes been recognised. But it is certainly quite likely that enthusiasts of A Voyage to Arcturus and The Haunted Woman will think the fantastical aspects in Sphinx are not given sufficient space and force. These involve dream-recording and dream-journeys, and a sense of shared destinies on another plane. But though the fantastic is less to the fore than in most of his novels, it does occur at key moments and is strongly evoked at the denouement.

Lindsay, through Cabot, explores the idea that there are two types of dreams: those that are simply variations on our everyday life and have no further import; and deep dreams, which are profounder and may even be prophetic. Here, he was ahead of his time. Just four years later, J W Dunne was to publish his highly successful and much-discussed study An Experiment With Time (1927), one of whose major themes was precognitive dreams, which he thought gave insight into the nature of time itself: not linear, as we seem to experience it, but immanent. It is perhaps surprising that Lindsay’s publisher did not re-issue his novel to gain from the remarkable upsurge of interest in the idea following Dunne’s book.

A new (and reliable) edition of Sphinx, with an informative introduction by Douglas A Anderson, was published by Nodens Books in 2019 and is available from the usual outlets (ISBN 9781987594317).  

(Mark Valentine)


  1. I think Bleiler's take is most nearly correct. While the novel is difficult to defend as an example of literary art it is nevertheless "curiously fascinating". And I find the character of Lore Jensen intensely interesting. The artist who has tasted the transcendent but who lost it and cannot find her way back. And the book has a terrific ending in my estimation.
    ps: Off the subject but why has no one republished an affordable edition of The Violet Apple?

    1. Thanks, Stephen. I agree about the character of Lore Jensen, and the ending: both do give the book allure. 'The Violet Apple' is in some ways similar, but here the talisman of the title offers the strange quality. It would be good to see a new edition.

    2. The Violet Apple, first published posthumously in 1976, remains under copyright, so the Lindsay Estate would have to authorize a reprint.

  2. What are the printing issues with the 1988 edition?

    1. Duplicated passages and missing pages.