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)

Again, 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.


Roger Allen said...

"No, it's not untitled, that's the book's name: Untitled"

Untitled books do present problems: Enoch Soames's plan for an untitled book went awry. Peter Readong, tried to publish one a few years ago, but copyright(?) or ISBN regulations meant he had to call it [Untitled], which takes away the point.

Dr Jack Ross said...

I'd forgotten about Enoch Soames's problems with publishing an untitled book - I just remember his Fungoids: surely one of the great titles of all time ...

Dr Jack Ross said...

Come to think of it, I once edited an anthology called [your name here]. The title seemed pretty clever to me, but then I discovered that nobody would stock it or even recognise its existence.

To add insult to injury, shortly afterwards John Ashbery put out a book of poems called Your Name Here, which made it look as if I'd just been copying him in a singularly incompetent manner ...