Tuesday, September 06, 2005
Misprision-house of Language
On the plane I read M. John Harrison, The Course of the Heart, which Henry Farrell was kind enough to provide.
I’ve only read Harrison’s Viriconium before (at Henry’s instigation). I liked it but it didn’t impress me as much as Course now has. The language is precise, in a ‘this puzzle-piece of reality goes here‘ sort of way. So you admire Harrison’s fingers. This opening bit seemed Wittgensteinian in tone:
Some of the first words I heard my mother say were, ‘A grown woman like that! How could a grown woman act like that?’ She was gossiping about someone in the family. I can’t remember who, perhaps one of her younger sisters. It was the first time I had heard the phrase, ‘A grown woman.’ I imagine a woman cultured like a tomato or potato, for some purpose I would never understand. Had my mother been ‘grown’ like that? It was an image which ramified and expanded long after I had understood the proper meaning of the phrase.
(Cf. Philosophical Investigations §195.) Is there a term for cases like this? Poetry that functions via excessively literal readings of figures? Or maybe that isn’t the best way to describe this brand of compelling erroneousness.
Another bit, a few paragraphs down:
The year I was twelve, my mother was thirty. I remember her walking up and down on the lawn at the front of the house shouting, ‘You bloody piece of paper, you bloody piece of paper,’ over and over again at a letter she was holding in her right hand. It was from my father, I suppose. But clearly something else was at stake. ‘You bloody piece of paper!’ Eventually she varied the emphasis on this accusation until it had illuminated briefly every word. It was as if she was trying for some final, indisputable delivery.
Her sense of drama, the transparency of her emotion, unnerved me. I ran round the garden pulling up flowers, desperate to offer her something in exchange for whatever loss she was suffering. ‘Have my birthday,’ I remember shouting. ‘I don’t want it.’ She looked puzzledly at the broken-stemmed handful of maguerites. ‘We must put them in a vase,’ she said.
The novel revolves around three English friends who, years ago, consented to perform a gnostic ritual in a June field with a magician named Yaxley. They are all obscurely damaged, if not guilty. The narrator’s motives are oddly opaque - to him as much as to the reader. Pam is afflicted. Lucas is haunted. The supernatural element is soft-pedaled almost clean out of this world, producing an explanatory vacuum to be filled with tales - and tales within tales - and odd psychological drifts and twists. The characters are clawing for the holes in their world’s walls, or seeking to paper them over. There is the world, and the Pleroma, and - periodically out of the latter, only to fall again - the Coeur.
Pam and Lucas warm themselves over melancholy, gnostic MacGuffins, thusly:
The empress Gallica XII Hierodule, he claimed, had at least three children. Of a shadowy daughter whose name may have been Phoenissa, least is known. ‘She was beautiful. She may not have have escaped the wreck. You can still hear in the Pleroma a faint fading cry of rage and sadness which may have been hers. The older of the two sons was popularly supposed to have been the son also of Theodore Lascaris, but this seems like a late slander. His name was Alexius and he died in Ragusa in 1460, where, ironically, he had a reputation as one of the secret advisers of George Kastriotis, the national hero of Albania.
‘It was his brother, John, who fled to Rome after the Fall, and tool with him something described as a “Precious relic”.’
What this might have been, Lucas was forced to confess, was a matter of speculation. It had been variously referred to as ‘the head of Saint Anderew’, which when stuffed with chemicals would speak; a rose, perhaps the centifolia brought back to England from the Low Countries over a century later by John Tradescant the Elder, gardener to the first Earl of Salisbury; ‘a magic book of which certain pages open only when a great variety of comditions are fulfilled’ (this Lucan saw as a parable of overdetermination); and ‘a mirror’.
‘One description,’ Lucas said, ‘has it all or most of these things at once. Whether it was head, mirror or cup, book or flower, it continually “extended its own boundaries through the medium of rays”. It was known as the Plan, and was thought also to contain within itself an explanation of the ontological relationship between the Coeur, the World and the Pleroma which continuously gives birth to them both. Whatever it was, it was enough to secure a pension from Pope Pius II; and John remained in Rome until his death, fathering three sons. Yaxley, who believes the Plan is still in the world, would dearly love to get a sight of it, but he’s barking up the wrong tree - you could learn more from a little girl’s shoes left in a ditch.
That’s another distinctive device: apparently senseless over-specificity of metaphoric source, which somehow insinuates it isn’t, leaving you holding the shoe. (A simile I like from Robert Musil: “as real as houses in the morning.” That seems oddly correct.)
I got to meet lots of bloggers in DC: Henry Farrell, sister Maria, Russell Arben Fox, John Quiggin, Micah Schwartzman, Dan Drezner, Scott McLemee. And then - lo and behold - when I get back to Singapore, Belle has gone and invited Cory Doctorow to dinner. (No really, he came to dinner.)
The “apparently senseless over-specificity of metaphoric source” puts you in the mind of Jorge Luis Borges, especially “Ficciones” and his varied labrynth narratives, except perhaps even more deeply embedded in the story (it’s really hard to hide the delineation between the allusive passages in, say a tale about a binary planet like “Tlon, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius” and the more conventionally narrative, connective ones, no matter how many footnotes you scatter in the metaphor).
Someday soon all of humanity will be one degree of separation from Cory. Then he will reveal his master plan.
The Course of the Heart is, I think, the greatest contemporary work of dark fantasy I’ve read, and one of the best English novels of the last few decades.
That’s about all I have to say, I’m afraid. Maybe I can do better in ten years.
I’m with Ray here, which is why I pressed it on John - it’s a simply extraordinary book. Utterly savage. Harrison’s prose has the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel; but one that’s liable to twist in your hand and cut your fingers to the bone if you don’t watch it. His images and metaphor create a world in which everything seems hyper-real, as if it’s illuminated from within, but they’re utterly untrustworthy. Characters like Lucas and Pam who are utterly fucked, because they want to escape from the real into the ‘real.’ Characters like the narrator who are even more deeply fucked, because they never knew the difference in the first place.
A few of his short stories should be read in conjunction with COTH - “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium (London),” “Anima,” “The East.”
As Ray says - he’s one of the great modern writers, and no-one outside of genre knows him.
John, I can always nitpickingly count on you and Ray to antiPenelopely tangle my TBR list before I can unravel it ...
Just picked up last month’s paperback reissue. Thanks again.