Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Terror



The Terror
[2018 TV series created by David Kajganich, based on Dan Simmons's 2007 novel]


Friday, 28th June, 1850

A curious thing. We were in our small boat examining a piece of flotsam spotted by Abbot in the hope that it might have come from one of the ships. There was ice all around us, but being in deep water this neither obstructed nor threatened us in any way. The flotsam gave no indication of its origin, and as I inspected my pocket watch to note the time of our sighting for Pioneer's log, Abbot warned me against losing it overboard, pointing out to me that such was the depth of the water upon which we rowed that had I been careless enough to drop the watch it would have been telling yesterday's time before it struck the bottom.

Lt Sherard Osborn R. N.
Stray Leaves from an Arctic Journal, 1852

That's not a quote from either David Kajganich's TV series The Terror, or even from Dan Simmons' book of the same name. Instead, it stands as the epigraph for Robert Edric's earlier novel The Broken Lands, which also attempted, a couple of decades earlier, to recreate the horror of Sir John Franklin's famous 'lost expedition.' Franklin set out in 1845 in the two (appropriately-named) ships Erebus and Terror to find the North-West passage, and not one of the participants, officers or crew, was ever seen alive again.



Robert Edric: The Broken Lands (1992)


There's a kind of poetic trippiness about Edric's version which perhaps befits what seems, in retrospect, a somewhat statelier time (not that the 1990s felt like that to us then). Evocative vistas, carefully honed epiphanies, and a general emphasis on style above substance distinguished much of the fiction of that decade.

I do still love that idea of the pocket watch sinking rapidly into the icy water, down and down and down, far enough down to strike "yesterday's time before it struck the bottom," though. I suppose it's as good an image as any for the art of the historical novelist - painting a vision so detailed and psychologically acute that it convinces all who experience it that that's how it must have been.



Edwin Landseer: Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864)


Not that Edric was the first to attempt it, by any means. There's always been something about the Franklin expedition which has appealed to myth-makers and psychogeographers. Edwin Landseer, better known for 'The Monarch of the Glen' and The Stag at Bay,' was much criticised for his vision, above, of polar bears gnawing at the exposed ribs of frozen sailors, when he showed it at the 1864 Royal Academy exhibition.

Perhaps, indeed, that was the motivation behind Millais's even more famous painting 'The North-West Passage' - promoting a message of imperial derring-do and bulldog intrepidity more acceptable to the Victorian establishment:



John Everett Millais: The North-West Passage (1874)


It seems only fitting that the figure of the Old Salt in Millais's picture should have been modelled on Lord Byron's old friend Edward John Trelawny. Trelawny, author of the novel Adventures of a Younger Son (1831) as well as the almost equally fictional memoir Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron (1858), wrote a famous account of plucking the unburnt heart of Shelley from that famous bonfire on the beach after the latter was drowned at sea. Whether he really did risk the flames in that reckless manner is anyone's guess.



Louis Édouard Fournier: The Funeral of Shelley (1889)
[l-to-r: Trelawny, Leigh Hunt, and Byron; Mary Shelley, seen kneeling, was actually not allowed to attend]


All of which brings us back to The Terror. My own interest in the whole subject of the many, many expeditions in search of the North-West passage probably goes back as far as my childhood reading of the 'Classics Illustrated' comic below (which I'm glad to say I still own):



World Illustrated: Story of the Northwest Passage (No. 531)


A rather more sophisticated - though actually just as dramatic - account is given in Glyn Williams' more recent Voyages of Delusion (entitled, in America, Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage):



So you can imagine that as soon as I saw those images of poor old Ciarán Hinds contemplating his end in the snow, it was only a matter of time before I watched the whole series. It might have been nice if it'd been possible to do so on some convenient streaming service, but never mind, I'm now the owner of a brand spanking new DVD of the whole thing.



The Terror (2018)


Is it a masterpiece? Too early to say, I suppose, but certainly the mise-en-scène looks brilliantly, hauntingly real - as befits any production under the supervision of Ridley Scott, or at any rate his production company Scott Free. The performances from all the various principals - Jared Harris as Captain Francis Crozier, Tobias Menzies as Commander James Fitzjames, Paul Ready as Dr. Harry Goodsir, and Ciarán Hinds as Franklin - are flawless. It also contains the slimiest, most reprehensible villain since Shakespeare dreamed up Iago as the ideal foil for his hero Othello.

I don't really want to say too much more about it, for fear of ruining the suspense for those of you who haven't yet watched it. Suspense and mystery are, after all, the lifeblood of stories such as these. Suffice it to say that all is not as it seems in these frozen wastes, and that David Kajganich's vision is probably closer to Edwin Landseer's (above) than to John Millais's.

If you'd like something more decorous and meditative, stick to The Broken Lands. This particular version of Franklin's story is as violent and bloody as anything I've ever seen on TV. It's more for fans of H. P. Lovecraft's lurid melodrama At the Mountains of Madness than for admirers (if there are any still left) of the 1948 film version of Scott of the Antarctic.



Jared Harris (1961- )


The presence, in the cast, of Jared Harris, has the effect - or so I would imagine, at least - of reminding us of his more recent star-making turn in the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. The pompous inanities and downright lies of such people as Sir John Franklin and his allies back in London seem not too far away from the rather more serious untruths promulgated in the latter series. In both cases, it would seem, if you want the craggy face of integrity, you go to Jared Harris (a long cry from his role as the most villainous villain of all in the TV Sci-fi series Fringe).



Chernobyl
[2019 TV series created and written by Craig Mazin, directed by Johan Renck]

'Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.'
- Craig Mazin, Chernobyl (2019).


I wrote this poem some time ago, as a response to the (so-called) 'Polar-Bear-gate' scandal. It now seems to me strangely appropriate to the themes and atmosphere of the magnificent Chernobyl and the gut-wrenching The Terror alike:





Peter Gleick: Stranded Polar Bear (2010)


Stranded Polar Bear


The ripples imply
a boat’s passed by

or something larger
like a whale

the islet’s small
and artificial

looking
like the bear

enduring exile
Augustus sent

his family
to islands

small enough
to terrify

even the young
willing to die

until you realise
it’s a fake

that bear
was never there

even his shadow
clouds and drift ice

carefully placed
to make the point

that lying is okay
when the legend becomes fact

print the legend
said John Ford

by saying it
he showed

he didn’t mean it


Paul Nicklin: Polar Bears (2010)


Thursday, December 12, 2019

Mike Johnson & Leila Lees - Booklaunch on Waiheke Saturday 14th December



Mike Johnson & Leila Lees: Ladder With No Rungs



Booklaunch

Mike Johnson & Leila Lees:
Ladder With No Rungs
Community Room - Waiheke Library.
Saturday 14th December @3 pm.

ALL WELCOME




Mike asked me to come along on Saturday to say a few words about his new book, but unfortunately I'm unable to make it. Once before, in 2007, I did make the trip to Waiheke to speak about one of his books of poetry, and this is what I had to say on that occasion.

That was a lot of years ago, though. Since then his rate of production has, if anything, increased - as you can see from the bibliography I've included below. Nor has he allowed himself to be pigeon-holed as a novelist who occasionally writes poetry (or, for that matter, as a poet who's gone over to prose ...). Both modes seem equally natural to Mike, and he's continued to produce distinguished work in each genre.

I'm told that there's a substantial new novel in the offing, and I'm very much looking forward to reading that. In the meantime, though, this latest book of poems seems quite ambitious enough. The poems themselves are short, "haiku style" verses charting the way of a soul in the world and (in particular) through relationships with nature and with each other.



Ladder With No Rungs: Blurb


Leila Lees' graphic works do indeed seem like the perfect accompaniment to Mike's words. The book would be well worth having just for those, in fact. There's yet another technical innovation - albeit quite a light-hearted one - to recommend it, though. I'm referring to the final section, where lines and words surplus to the main text have been presented in a graphic extravaganza of colour and experimental form.

This is what Mike had to say about this part of the book on Facebook (25/9/19):



Ladder With No Rungs: Rejects (1)

What qualifies a poem as a reject? My next book of poetry, LADDER WITH NO RUNGS is in preparation, with the last section entitled REJECTS. Instead of the rejects going into the trash, I suggested to Daniela Gast, our book designer, that she 'mangle them up' in contrast to the rest of the book. Like you'd screw up a piece of paper. And what a wonderful result she achieved. So these are my words, suitably mangled, Leila Lees' art work, suitably mangled, and the work of Daniela, Mangler in Chief. Enjoy!


Ladder With No Rungs: Rejects (2)


I hope that everyone who's able to attend has a wonderful time. I'm sure they will. Though I can't be there in person, I'll certainly be lifting a glass to Mike and Leila in spirit. This is probably the most delightful books of poems I've read this year - moreover, it's a truly collaborative work between artist, designer and poet, something much rarer than it should be.

Lasavia Publishing is quitting the year 2019 in style. Bring on 2020, and the bumper crop of new books it no doubt has in store for us!

on the seventh hour they lay down
to rest
their words hung in the ruby air

first ever dawn chorus
making a fuss

[Ladder With No Rungs, p.24]




Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson

Select Bibliography:


    Poetry:

  1. The Palanquin Ropes. Wellington: Voice Press, 1983.
  2. From a Woman in Mt Eden Prison & Drawing Lessons. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1984.
  3. Standing Wave. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1985.
  4. Treasure Hunt. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1996.
  5. The Vertical Harp: Selected Poems of Li He. Auckland: Titus Books, 2006.
  6. To Beatrice Where We Crossed The Line. Auckland: Second Avenue Press, 2014.
  7. Two Lines and a Garden. Illustrated by Leila Lees. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2017.
  8. Ladder with No Rungs. Illustrated by Leila Lees. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2019.

  9. Fiction:

  10. Lear: the Shakespeare Company Plays Lear at Babylon. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1986.
    • Lear: the Shakespeare Company Plays Lear at Babylon. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2016.
  11. Anti Body Positive. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1988.
    • Zombie in a Space Suit. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2018.
  12. Lethal Dose. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1991.
    • Lethal Dose. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2019.
  13. Foreigners. Auckland: Penguin, 1991.
  14. Dumbshow. Dunedin: Longacre Press, 1996.
  15. Counterpart. Auckland: Voyager, 2001.
  16. Stench. Christchurch: Hazard Press, 2004.
  17. Travesty. Illustrated by Darren Sheehan. Auckland: Titus Books, 2010.
  18. Hold my Teeth While I Teach you to Dance. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2014.
  19. Back in the Day: Tales from NZ’s Own Paradise Island. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2015.
  20. Confessions of a Cockroach / Headstone. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2017.

  21. For children:

  22. Taniwha. Illustrated by Jennifer Rackham. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2015.

  23. Non-fiction:

  24. The Angel of Compassion. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2014.






Leila Lees

Leila Lees

Select Bibliography:


  1. Mike Johnson: Two Lines and a Garden. Illustrated by Leila Lees. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2017.
  2. Into the World: A Handbook for Mystical and Shamanic Practice. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2019.
  3. Mike Johnson: Ladder with No Rungs. Illustrated by Leila Lees. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2019.




Monday, December 09, 2019

Behrouz Boochani and Kyriarchy



Behrouz Boochani: No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (2019)

"The sovereignty of the waves has collapsed the moral framework."
- Behrouz Boochani, No Friend but the Mountains, p.16


You know how it is when everyone's telling you that you simply must read a particular book? How a certain reluctance starts to set in? A refusal to be herded, to walk in their footsteps in order to repeat some pale simulacrum of their experience?

Unreasonable, perhaps, but that's how it is. One of my colleagues, Rand Hazou, lent me his own copy of Behrouz Boochani's prison memoir, so I thought this might be a good way to sample it before actually deciding whether or not to add it to my already overcrowded bookshelves.



Varlam Shalamov: Kolyma Tales (1995)


I have read a number of prison memoirs in my time: I date from the era when every dissident memoir from the Soviet Union was there to be appalled by: Evgenia Ginzburg (Into the Whirlwind & Within the Whirlwind), Natalia Gorbanevskaya (Red Square at Noon), Anatoly Marchenko (My Testimony), Irina Ratushinskaya (Grey is the Colour of Hope) - not to mention the collected works of Andrei Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov (if you haven't read him, you really should: Kolyma Tales is a great work).



As well as those, there were books from Latin America (Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without a Number, by Jacobo Timerman); Africa (The Man Died: Prison Notes, by Wole Soyinka); not to mention - going back a bit - Nazi Germany (I was Hitler's Prisoner, by Stefan Lorant); and the Spanish Civil War (Dialogue with Death, by Arthur Koestler). Let's just say, in summary, that it's not an entirely unfamiliar genre to me.

Much of the interest around Boochani's book has focussed on its extraordinarily convoluted mode of composition and transmission to the outside world: it was sent in fragments through text messages, then converted into blocks of pdf text, and finally passed on to his translator, Omid Tofighian.



Actually this is probably the least interesting aspect of the book. Certainly this method has had an influence on the extraordinarily close relationship between translator and author which characterises it, but possibly this would have grown up organically anyway.



Stephen King: The Plant (2000)


All in all, it reminds me a little of Stephen King's somewhat abortive experiment with online publication twenty years back, when he published his then-latest short story, Riding the Bullet, as the "world's first mass-market e-book, available for download at $2.50."

King complained later that everyone who wanted to talk to him about it focussed on the method of publication, while none of them seemed to feel the slightest interest in the story itself. Frustrated, he gave up on his follow-up plan to issue a serial novel, The Plant, in digital form. It remains to this day a magnificent fragment.

In other words, to paraphrase King's own motto: "Trust the tale, not the one who tells it." If you do decide to read Boochani's tale, you'll immediately notice a few things about it:

  • First of all, it's very 'poetically' written. In other words, the prose passages are interspersed with more focussed passages of free verse. What precisely this echoes in the original text, it's hard to say, but it's certainly very effective in English.

  • Secondly, Boochani has the soul of a novelist, as well as that of a poet. His character studies are brilliantly biting and witty.

  • Thirdly (and perhaps least palatably for many readers), he is an intellectual of the deepest water: prepared to argue theoretical definitions of oppression and perception to the n-th degree. Principal among the concepts he uses is that of Kyriarchy.



Anthony Haden-Guest: The Resistance to Theory


To my deep shame, I have to confess that this term did not immediately ring a bell with me. Now, of course, I've googled it and am getting ready to sound like I knew what it meant all along. But no, don't believe me. I didn't.

Or rather, I thought I didn't ...





Countdown Supermarket (Mairangi Bay)


Since it was first built in the 1970s, we've been living next door to a supermarket which started out as a SuperValue, then became a Woolworths, and is now a Countdown. Originally it had two entrances, one at the back and one at the front, but at a certain point, a couple of decades ago now, they decided to make the back carpark a loading area.

This didn't stop us walking through there. Once or twice it was necessary to dodge the front-end loader, but I never heard of any accidents or problems with that (though cars were only allowed through when no unloading was taking place).

Last Christmas we were rolling a trolley full of goodies towards the loading area when a young uniformed fellow started shouting at us. "You can't go through there," he said. The fact that we claimed to have been doing so for years did not sway him. We were forced, instead, to take the long way round and roll the trolley back through the rest of the shopping centre.

Alas, this was an augury of things to come. We continued to walk through, but we could see the signs of construction work beginning. Eventually this culminated in a pair of gates, at either end of the loading zone, which have made it impossible for anyone without a key to get in or out.



These were not just any gates: they were topped with barbed wire, padlocked and chained, and surrounded on all sides by extra razor-wire extensions to stop anyone trying to slip in or out unobserved. If you imagine something like the prison camp in that old TV series Hogan's Heroes, that should give you the general idea.

Nor is the process of getting them open and shut a trouble-free one. We frequently see lines of trucks stalled in the alley leading up to the first gate, honking their horns and cursing the absence of anyone to let in and unload their goods.

The gates at the other end, however, are even worse. They were wrongly balanced to start with, and could not be closed without immense effort and much cursing. Eventually they just left them open most of the time, until they could be removed and an entirely new set of gates installed.

To what end, exactly? The one thing they didn't try, over all the years we roamed freely through this loading zone, was a sign to the effect that people shouldn't walk through there - "for health and safety reasons." There's a sign there to that effect now, but given the simultaneous presence of the barbed wire and padlocks, it's not really necessary any longer.

I can see that the job of manning the loading area has become at least fifty percent more onerous since the great gates were installed. They have to be opened and closed, with much ceremony, many times a day - the truck drivers clearly hate them, and so (one suspects) do the supermarket staff. Sometimes I've been inside buying groceries when the call comes over the tannoy: "So-and-so to the loading area," generally accompanied by loud honkings and shoutings from outside.

The analogy may seem a trivial one, but this is the best I can come up with as a running definition of kyriarchy: a completely unnecessary set of extra rules and regulations, reinforced by physical barriers and new holding areas, which transforms lives by adding an extra level of inconvenience and time-wasting, on order to achieve a very debatable end.

Why didn't they try asking us not to walk through? It might not have worked, but putting up a couple of signs to that effect would surely have been easier than going the full nine yards with the locks and the razor wire?

The idea that there's nothing accidental in such decisions, whether they concern the detention structures on Manus Island, the roads and barriers around West Bank settlements in the Middle East, or the management structures in large institutions, is (as I understand it) the idea behind this theoretical construct:

In feminist theory, kyriarchy ... is a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. The word was coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, interacting, and self-extending systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others. It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, xenophobia, economic injustice, prison-industrial complex, colonialism, militarism, ethnocentrism, anthropocentrism, speciesism and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized.
Once you start looking for it, you spot it everywhere. They just announced the introduction of a new scale of parking charges at work, without any consultation with staff, just after we'd finished a long set of negotiations over pay and conditions with them through our Union delegates. Merry Christmas to you, in other words - don't think you can get us because we'll get you.

Is kyriarchy too large and all-encompassing a concept to be useful for critical analysis of these structures? Not really. The point is to try and encompass the protean slipperiness with which power structures adapt themselves to each new change to the status quo.

I wish Behrouz Boochani well, and think his book a narrative masterpiece, but I think he would be the first to say that this is the beginning, not the end, of the conversation. The mere existence of places such as Manus Island raises uncomfortable questions. If we fail to see them as the extension of the petty power structures all around us designed - with more or less success - to keep us in line, then we've missed the whole thrust of his argument.



Saturday, November 23, 2019

The King in Yellow



Michael Cimino, dir. & writ.: Heaven's Gate (1980)

"Heaven's Gate - like the movie?"

- Elizabeth Knox, The Absolute Book
(Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2019): 217




Elizabeth Knox: The Absolute Book (2019)


[WARNING: this post contains significant plot spoilers - proceed no further unless you don't care about such things, or are not actually intending to read the book]:
One of the most interesting lapses in Elizabeth Knox's latest novel The Absolute Book comes quite early on, where her heroine Taryn Cornick is discoursing learnedly to an M.I.5. spook:
"... The Necronomicon is a fictional forbidden book, like M. R. James's Tractate Middoth or Robert Chambers' Yellow Sign. Someone handing me a card with Abdul Alhazred on it would mean to say: 'I am the master of forbidden knowledge'." [76]


Abdul Alhazred: The Necronomicon


Alas, not so. Mind you, H. P. Lovecraft's imaginary Necronomicon, ostensibly composed by the "mad Arab Abdul Alhazred" is indeed precisely what Taryn claims, but M. R. James's allegedly "forbidden" book is not. It is, rather, a perfectly respectable and well-known portion of the Jewish Talmud, as a few minutes of online searching should have revealed:


Tractate Middot (Hebrew: מִדּוֹת‎, lit. "Measurements") is the tenth tractate of Seder Kodashim ("Order of Holies") of the Mishnah and of the Talmud. This tractate describes the dimensions and the arrangement of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and the Second Temple buildings and courtyards, various gates, the altar of sacrifice and its surroundings, and the places where the Priests and Levites kept watch in the Temple.


Robert W. Chambers: The King in Yellow (1895)


The Robert W. Chambers error is more interesting - and possibly more revealing. The book in question is not called The Yellow Sign but The King in Yellow.

It's notorious among fans of supernatural fiction not so much for the quality of its prose, which is fairly standard 1890-ish Wardour Street tushery, but for the sheer force of the idea behind it. Each of the first four stories references The King in Yellow, a "forbidden play which induces despair or madness in those who read it."



Aaron Vanek, dir.: The Yellow Sign (2001)


It's true that one of those four stories is entitled "The Yellow Sign." More to the point, though, The Yellow Sign was the name of a 2001 movie based on Chambers' stories, made by indie film director Aaron Vanek.

The idea of the literally unreadable book has been used many, many times since - perhaps most amusingly by Martin Amis in his 1995 novel The Information, where his writer protagonist's novel Untitled - "No, it's not untitled, that's the book's name: Untitled," as he is forced to explain again and again throughout the narrative - causes nosebleeds, nausea and even brain tumours in anyone who attempts to read it.



Dan Gilroy, writ. & dir.: Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)


Another, more recent twist on the idea can be found in the netflix movie Velvet Buzzsaw where an unscrupulous art critic (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is destroyed by a set of paintings he has connived in stealing from a dead artist's apartment. Unsurprisingly, various references to The King in Yellow can be seen in the paintings themselves.



At first sight there do seem to be an unusual number of simple errors of nomenclature in Knox's book. For instance, when describing a large public sculpture outside a library in Aix-en-Provence which the heroine is visiting, she says:
Three giant-sized books had been reproduced in enamelled steel ... In order, they were The Little Prince, leaning; Molière's Les Malades in the middle; and Camus's The Stranger, which was nearest to Taryn. [89]
Why are two of the titles in English, and the other one in French? More to the point, though, what's this "Molière's Les Malades" when it's at home? Molière did indeed write a play called Le Malade imaginaire [The Imaginary Invalid, or - if you prefer - the Hypochondriac] - it was, in fact, his very last work for the stage - but he never wrote one called Les Malades.



Honoré Daumier: Le Malade imaginaire (c.1860)


[UPDATE (4/2/20): I've just found the image below online, on Pinterest:


Cassandra Claims: Broken pencil tips


This clearly represents the scene described in the novel, and yet ... as I prognosticated above, not only are all three titles in French, but the middle one is, indeed, Le Malade imaginaire rather than the quoted "Les Malades." Vindication! - of a sort, at any rate.]

Again, we find further down:
According to folktales, and later literary productions, the fairy took pretty children, like the boy Oberon and Titania squabble over in A Midsummer Night's Dream. They stole away bards like Yeats's Ossian, or beautiful knights like Tamlin. [243]
Yeat's bard is named Oisin [pronounced Osheen], not Ossian. It's true that Ossian is a legitimate variant of the name - the one used by James Macpherson in his series of eighteenth-century epic poems adapted from the Gaelic, in fact - but Yeats's 1889 poem is called The Wanderings of Oisin (though in later editions he occasionally spelt the name 'Usheen' - perhaps for easier pronunciation). A small lapse, admittedly, but one which would definitely lose you the point in Mastermind or Who Wants to be a Millionaire?



Yet again, still further down, in a discussion of the disposition of the family library on which so much of the plot hinges:
'There were quite a few things your grandad packed up himself. With personal notes. ... And there were one or two large crated consignments of books, like his whole set of Gibbon. [547]
'Like his whole set of Gibbon.' Huh? Wha ...? Edward Gibbon's great work on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire first appeared in six volumes between 1776 and 1789. Subsequent reprints have sometimes swelled this to seven or eight volumes, but seldom more than that. As for his other miscellaneous works, the most compendious (Swiss) edition of these ran to seven octavo (i.e. small) volumes (1796), but the more standard English edition of 1814 is in five volumes.



Edward Gibbon: Miscellaneous Works (3 vols: 1796)


Would you really need a separate crate for eleven books? Taryn's grandfather may, of course, have been a mad Gibbonian who collected innumerable different versions and reprints, but in that case why is the reference to his 'whole set of Gibbon' rather than his many, many copies of the same book?

I guess the problem here is that if you're not really familiar with his work, the mere fact that Gibbon is a classical historian famous for his verbosity and longwindedness ('Another damn'd thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?', as the Duke of Leicester reportedly remarked when presented with volume one of his long-awaited history) might lead you to suppose that his collected works would reach quite a bulk.

They do not. Gibbon is in fact the most terse and pithy of writers, with sentences packed to hold the utmost possible meaning.



A much better choice here would have been one of his more prolific contemporaries, such as Voltaire, the most recent edition of whose collected works runs to 144 volumes. He might well merit a packing case to himself. Or, for that matter, Diderot, whose Encyclopédie (1751-80) fills 35 huge volumes. As the Encyclopédie Méthodique (1782-1832), it was eventually expanded to 166.



Denis Diderot, ed.: Encyclopédie (28 vols: 1751-66)


We are left, then, with two alternatives - either the author (and editor) of The Absolute Book didn't bother to check any of the bibliographical 'facts' it contains, but instead decided to rely on the by-guess-and-by-God system of literary divination. Or, alternatively, that early reference to 'The Yellow Sign' is meant as a code for a system of hidden correspondences underlying this book, also.

Perhaps (I'm guessing here), as with the Navaho, intentional errors had to be inserted to stop the book starting to ... operate upon its readers?

Stranger things happen in the plot itself, after all: we've hardly got stably located in one world than we're dashing off to another - Fairyland, Purgatory, Auckland - you name it.

Perhaps, too, the long (and rather irrelevant) description of a celebrated session at the 2016 Auckland Writers' festival, is meant as a part of this coding. That conversation hinged on the subject of saffron (I know because I was there).



Paul Muldoon (2016)


Basically, the person she refers to as 'the Irish poet' (Paul Muldoon) was being interviewed - or, rather, subjected to a long rambling monologue - by C.K. Stead, who (in his defence) had been roped in at the last minute to replace Bill Manhire, who was ill. They somehow got onto the subject of saffron - "You mean, what I use to colour my rice?" observed Stead hopefully - and Muldoon claimed he could write a whole book about it, like "those books about salt, or coffee, or cod" [315].

Unfortunately this roused the ire of a young man in the audience who trooped down to the microphone at the front of the auditorium to ask a rather long and involved question:
"... the guy said he read feminist poetry, and poetry by people of colour, and trans people. Poetry with politics in it. How he made a point of doing that. And then he said, 'I haven't read your books and I might find they're full of beautiful poetry, but where is it coming from?'" [316]
Renee Liang's account of the event, posted at the time on The Big Idea, was somewhat different:
In One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, after the title of [his] most recent collection, Irish-US poet Paul Muldoon was interviewed by ‘last minute ring in’ CK Stead. Muldoon kicked off the session by announcing that Stead’s The New Poetic had profoundly influenced him as a young poet. The two old acquaintances then had a leisurely chat, seemingly forgetting the hundreds watching [my emphasis]. Muldoon on writing poetry with a jolt factor: “If I know what I’m doing, it’s almost certain everyone else will too. If I write what I don’t know, I might have the element of surprise.” He and Stead wandered gently around the subject of poetry, with seemingly unrelated side trips: “Now, saffron. You could write about saffron forever.”

Things became more lively when, with 20 minutes to go, Muldoon asked for the lights to be brought up on the audience. “Ah, there you are. You must have some things to ask?” Up first, a young man with a challenge: “I’m young, gay and Irish. Why are you talking about saffron? If you have that talent – do you not have a responsibility to use it?” Muldoon gently admonished him. “Subject matter is irrelevant. Any subject in the world could be illuminated through the prism of saffron. Or tea, for that matter. Now, a cup of tea is not a simple thing – it carries so much weight of history. Look at all the trouble tea caused in Boston Harbour.” It was hard not to admire a man who can turn anything into a metaphor ...


Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)


It reminds me a bit of that old anecdote about the London cabbie: "I have lots of famous people in my cab. The other day I had Bertrand Russell in there. The philosopher. And I said to him, 'Well then, Bertie, what's it all about?' And, d'you know, he didn't have an answer!"

Knox's account of the event concludes with a few bitchy put-downs of the PC young man, and some vaunting of the poet's 'gentle reply', with a suggestion that the whole thing could have been settled by asking, 'Excuse me, is there a question in your question?' [316].

Perhaps that's a stock author's perspective - motivated principally by the fear of getting just such a grilling oneself. Renee concludes with some oblique praise of Muldoon's ability to 'contort time' - and a suggestion that if he were a working mum, he might find it a bit harder to contemplate saffron in such a leisurely way.

For myself, I guess that the whole thing was just a huge disappointment. I adore Muldoon's poetry (which, unlike - I suspect - most of the other commentators, I have read, and taught, and discussed, at length). All this bullshit about saffron was so far from what I wanted to hear from the author of 'The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants’ or 'Incantata' that I found myself resenting most of all the conference organisers' decision to pair him off in a 'conversation' rather than simply letting him read. But perhaps I'm the one going off at a tangent now ...

So what (if anything) links all of these things?



  • Forbidden books (or works of art): - In this case, a book such as The King in Yellow, deliberately misnamed (or should I say misleadingly named) to draw the attentive reader.

  • Sickness (or disease generally): - This takes the form of Molière's Les Malades [the sick people] - an obvious distortion of the title Le Malade imaginaire to stress the fact that this particular malady is far from imaginary:
    In 1673, during a production of his final play, The Imaginary Invalid, Molière, who suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, was seized by a coughing fit and a haemorrhage while playing the hypochondriac Argan. He finished the performance but collapsed again and died a few hours later.
  • Poetry (or bardic verse): - This is underlined by reference to the abducted Fenian bard Oisin (or Usheen, or Ossian) - clearly misnamed, despite the fact that this is one of best-known of Yeats's early poems.

  • Size (or number): This arises from that passing reference to the bulk - or, in this case, otherwise - of someone's 'whole set' of Edward Gibbons' works. But Gibbon did indeed propose the publication of a collected edition of the historical materials used by him in reconstructing the history of Europe during the late Roman Empire, the Byzantine period and the Dark Ages. If Taryn's grandfather had access to Gibbon's list of works - or had taken the initiative to compile such a monumental collection himself - that really might have occupied an entire packing-crate.



Geoffrey Keynes: Edward Gibbon's Library (1940)


One could perhaps summarise as follows:

  1. Madness
  2. Disease
  3. Abduction
  4. Size




All in all, it sounds to me rather like a warning of some kind. I also note, parenthetically, the tendency of each of these works to group in the fin de siècle of each of the last few centuries: 1789 (the year of the French revolution) for Gibbon's Decline and Fall, 1889 and 1895 for (respectively) Yeats' and Chambers' books, 1673 for Molière's fatal last play ...



The ostensible subject (or should I say 'The MacGuffin'?) of Knox's work is a book referred to only as 'the firestarter', which is presumed to have been the cause of several of the most celebrated library fires in history. It takes the form of a sealed, almost indestructible box, which contains:
a scroll made from the skin of an angel. The skin is tattooed with words, in an ink made of the angel's own blood. The scroll is a primer of the tongues of angels, otherwise known as the Language of Command. A language which, like the language of the Sidhe, has no written form. The primer is ... in the Roman alphabet, with the phonetics of Latin used to approximate the sounds of the words of the language of Command [622-23]
It also contains, we discover a bit later - after the original scroll has been used to buy off the demons who have been making trouble throughout most of the book - 'in Latin as well as the language of angels,' a letter from the mother of the character Shift, a minor god who plays a major part in the action of the book:
She apologises for all the deceptions she practised on me. And for hiding me. [632]
"By virtue of its being the same text written in two languages, it is also a cipher key," comments Hugin, one of Odin's two ravens of wisdom, also an important character in the plot.

'The phonetics of Latin.' Well, even that is not quite so easy as it sounds. Anyone who's ever tried to learn Latin knows that it has at least two systems of pronunciation:
  • The first is the established Continental system, used by the Catholic church, which roughly equates its sounds with those of a modern Romance language such as Italian.
  • The second is the nineteenth-century British pronunciation which attempted to reconstruct the 'original' classical sounds of the letters by analogy with transliterations in other languages (such as Greek). Hence the infamous 'Wainy, Weedy, Weeky' sounding of Caesar's epigrammatic'Veni, Vidi, Vici' [I came, I saw, I conquered]. Hence, too, "Kikero" for "Cicero", and (of course) "Kaiser" for "Caesar."

What if you got it wrong? Surely a certain precision must be employed whilst intoning the sounds of this 'Language of Command'? Unless it's all a cunning plot on the original angel's part to make his scroll unusable by any but those previously initiated into his system of pronunciation?



Alan Garner: The Moon of Gomrath (1963)


In his author's note at the end of The Moon of Gomrath, Alan Garner remarks:
The spells are genuine (though incomplete: just in case)
Are Knox's instructions to initiated readers similarly "incomplete: just in case"? It's tempting to think so. It's hard, therefore, to conjecture just what the final message of the book might be.

It certainly involves danger (The King in Yellow) - though what that danger is is not quite clear. Is it madness, as in Chambers' original play? Abduction to the Other Side, to Fairyland (or, if you prefer, Swedenborgian space) - like Yeats's Oisin? Is it death, as in Molière's own play?



Joseph Noel Paton: The Reconciliation of Titania and Oberon (1847)


It's just a suspicion, but I feel that the question of size is crucial here. Opnions differ on the precise dimensions of Faerie. Modern writers have poured scorn on the idea that Fairies are of diminutive size, with gossamer wings and diaphanous dresses. Another world might well be ruled by an entirely different set of dimensions, however. Oisin may well have shrunk when he followed his fairy princess to the three islands of Yeats's poem - "Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose" - even though he resumed his original giant-like dimensions on his return to St. Patrick's Ireland.

Enough said, perhaps. I cannot say message received, as that would be mendacious in the extreme, but certainly I remain poised for further communications from the other side. Size, yes, and saffron. That particular reddy-yellow spice comes up again and again, and is perhaps the most important ingredient to be gathered from this colourfully encoded work.