Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The Other Side

Alfred Kubin: Illustration for Die andere Seite (1908)

I picked up a hardback copy of this fascinating novel in a Hospice Shop the other day:

Alfred Kubin: The Other Side (1969)

To be perfectly honest, I didn't really need it, as I've owned a copy of the Penguin Modern Classics edition for a number of years:

Alfred Kubin: The Other Side (1973)

The book holds a strange appeal for me, I'm not quite sure why.

I first noticed it on my eldest brother's shelves, when he was still living at home before leaving for university. A bit later I found a copy of my own to read (he was a stickler for not allowing anyone else to crease the spines or covers of his books by opening them more than a crack).

One day I mentioned to him that I'd been reading it. "I don't know what you're talking about," he replied. So that was that.

I presumed from his response that he must have forgotten all about the book shortly after buying it, and had no idea that it was still in his collection. Or perhaps he was just in a bad mood that day, and couldn't be bothered discussing it.

It did seem a curious omen, though.

Alfred Kubin: The Other Side (1967)

Die andere Seite was Kubin's only novel. He wrote it in 1908, after finishing a long series of drawings. Feeling exhausted and unable to create anything new in that medium:
Instead, in order to do something, no matter what, to unburden myself, I now began to compose and write down an adventure story. The ideas came flooding into my mind in superabundance; they forced me to work day and night so that in twelve weeks' time my fantastic novel 'Die andere Seite' [The Other Side] was finished. During the next four weeks I provided it with illustrations. Afterwards, to be sure, I was exhausted and irritable, and I entertained serious misgivings about my daring enterprise. I possessed no reliable judgment in literary matters ...

Nicola Perscheid: Alfred Leopold Isidor Kubin (1877–1959)

It's been compared to Kafka's Castle, to Hermann Hesse's Journey to the East, to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast. It isn't really very like any of them, though.

Gustav Meyrink: Der Golem: Frontispiece (1915)

What it does resemble more than a little is Gustav Meyrink's The Golem.

Gustav Meyrink: Der Golem (1915)

That isn't entirely surprising:
The illustrations for the book were originally intended for The Golem by Gustav Meyrink, but as that book was delayed, Kubin instead worked his illustrations into his own novel.
- Wikipedia: Alfred Kubin
It's hard to know how literally to take this statement - quoted from Siegfried Schödel's Studien zu den phantastischen Erzählungen Gustav Meyrinks (Nuremberg: Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, 1965): 27. If The Golem was written "between 1907 and 1914", then "first published in serial form from December 1913 to August 1914 in the periodical Die Weißen Blätter", before being published in book form in 1915, it's a bit difficult to see how Kubin could have been working on illustrations for it as early as 1907-8.

Certainly there's no mention of the fact in the short autobiography appended to the successive editions of Die andere Seite published in Kubin's lifetime (and finally printed in full in the 1967 English translation of The Other Side). What he does say is that it coincided with a period of aimlessness and depression after the death of his very controlling - and emotionally distant - father in November 1907.

The atmosphere of Prague's tangled old streets, omnipresent in Meyrink's somewhat plotless novel, may well have contributed something to Kubin's creation of his Central Asian Dream Kingdom, constructed by the narrator's old schoolfriend Patera with the intention of preserving only broken-down, abandoned relics of the Europe he's left behind. Nor is it difficult to see in the name "Patera" an echo of Kubin's recent paternal loss.

Joseph Karl Stieler: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

The life-and-death struggle between the paternalistic ruler Patera - at one point explicitly equated with the mad "Dream King" Ludwig II of Bavaria [223-24] - and his upstart nemesis Hercules Bell, the American tycoon, who turns up in the Dream Kingdom fresh from "poking about in the islands of New Zealand" [172], tempts one to posit an elaborate satire on Goethe's famous vision of America and the New World as offering a fresh, clean slate for mankind to write upon:
Amerika, du hast es besser
Als unser Kontinent, der alte,
Hast keine verfallenen Schlösser
Und keine Basalte.
Dich stört nicht im Innern,
Zu lebendiger Zeit,
Unnützes Erinnern
Und vergeblicher Streit.

Benutzt die Gegenwart mit Glück!
Und wenn nun Eure Kinder dichten,
Bewahre sie ein gut Geschick
Vor Ritter-, Räuber- und Gespenstergeschichten.

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "Den Vereinigten Staaten" (1831)

America you're better off
than our continentthe old one
you've got no fallen castles
no ruins to build on
your inner life
is free
of futile strife
and fruitless memory

live in the momentgood luck to you
and when your kids write poetry
try to keep them well away
from robbers ghosts and chivalry

[trans. JR]

Nicholas Roerich: Svyatogor (1942)

Kubin's Dream Kingdom, by contrast, is made up nothing but old ruins, old grudges, and all the detritus of the Old World. It is, admittedly, set on the opposite side of the globe from the United States, in the ageless steppes of Central Asia, inhabited by a strange blue-eyed race of mystics, who appear to have leased the land he builds on to the absurdly rich - and equally enigmatic - Patera.

It seems unlikely that Kubin was familiar with the work of his near contemporary Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) at the time he wrote Die andere Seite - Roerich's Symbolist designs did not really become famous in the West until he created the sets for Borodin's Prince Igor (1909) and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (1913) for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

One can see in him something of the same fascination with this ancient, mystic land of Nomad empires and esoteric religions, however. Certainly H. P. Lovecraft, whose fabled plateau of Leng was avowedly inspired by Roerich's paintings, must have thought so.

Marvel Comics: Conan the Savage #4 (1995)

Max Ernst: Europe after the Rain (1940-42)

But all this is taking us quite a way from Kubin's novel, composed in 1908, long before World War I - let alone the even more Apocalyptic World War II - had convulsed his native Austria in blood and flame.

He describes his rather dismal experiences of privation and want in both wars in the Autobiography at the end of his novel, but nowhere makes the explicit connection between the cataclysmic fall of Patera's Dream Kingdom with those of the Hapsburg Empire and Hitler's thousand-year Reich.

Might we then read Die andere Seite as a premonitory vision?
... not nonsense, but the confused fragments of a dream: a dream that no sane man could bear to dream: a waking memory of what was to be.
- Alan Garner, Elidor (1965): 48.
Certainly many of the descriptions Kubin gives of himself would scarcely qualify as sane - perhaps "highly strung" would be the most diplomatic formula for some of the behaviour he confesses to at this particular time.

Max Ernst: Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961)

In any case, he wouldn't be the only one to report having had strange dreams and visions before the advent of the "War to end all Wars":
In October [1913], while I was alone on a journey, I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps. When it came up to Switzerland I saw that the mountains grew higher and higher to protect our country. I realized that a frightful catastrophe was in progress. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood. This vision last about one hour. I was perplexed and nauseated, and ashamed of my weakness.

Two weeks passed; then the vision recurred, under the same conditions, even more vividly than before, and the blood was more emphasized. An inner voice spoke. "Look at it well; it is wholly real and it will be so. You cannot doubt it." That winter someone asked me what I thought were the political prospects of the world in the near future. I replied that I had no thoughts on the matter, but that I saw rivers of blood.

I asked myself whether these visions pointed to a revolution, but could not really imagine anything of the sort. And so I drew the conclusion that they had to do with me myself, and decided that I was menaced by a psychosis. The idea of war did not occur to me at all.

Soon afterward, in the spring and early summer of 1914, I had a thrice-repeated dream that in the middle of summer an Arctic cold wave descended and froze the land to ice. I saw, for example, the whole of Lorraine and its canals frozen and the entire region totally deserted by human beings. All living green things were killed by frost. This dream came in April and May, and for the last time in June, 1914.

In the third dream frightful cold had again descended from out of the cosmos. This dream, however, had an unexpected end. There stood a leaf-bearing tree, but without fruit (my tree of life, I thought), whose leaves had been transformed by the effects of the frost into sweet grapes full of healing juices. I plucked the grapes and gave them to a large, waiting crowd ...

On August 1 the world war broke out.

- Carl Gustav Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Ed. Aniela Jaffé. Trans. Richard & Clara Winston. 1965. Revised edition (New York: Vintage, 1973): 175-76.

Alfred Kubin: Der Staat (1901)

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