Living Alone by Stella Benson

Stella BensonLike David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Stella Benson’s Living Alone (1919) was published in the aftermath of the First World War. Both books set out to attack the conventional world, but if their attack was kicked off by a disgust with the horrors of war, the anti-conventional impulse was deep within these writers already. The main difference between the books is in their method of attack: Lindsay’s approach is to tear the conventional world to shreds to prove there’s nothing worth saving, while Benson satirises, using her ‘magic people’ — her witches and wizards — as exemplars of unconventionality, to show the world what it has lost. The odd thing is that, though a comedy, Benson’s book contains almost as much of a tragic note as Lindsay’s.

Living Alone starts with a woman bursting in on a charity committee. She’s just stolen a bun and needs to hide from the police. The committee, whose job is to sort the worthy from the unworthy, immediately starts trying to find excuses not to help her. But she doesn’t want help. The woman is a witch. She has packets of magic in her pockets.

‘Now witches and wizards, as you perhaps know, are people who are born for the first time. I suppose we have all passed through this fair experience, we must all have had our chance of making magic. But to most of us it came in the boring beginning of time, and we wasted our best spells on plesiosauri, and protoplasms, and angels with flaming swords, all of whom knew magic too, and were not impressed.’

One of the committee members, a woman called Sarah Brown, goes to the witch’s home, a shop-and-boarding house at ‘Number 100 Beautiful Way, Mitten Island, London’. This house is called Living Alone:

‘It is meant to provide for the needs of those who dislike hotels, clubs, settlements, hostels, boarding-houses, and lodgings only less than their own homes; who detest landladies, waiters, husbands and wives, charwomen, and all forms of lookers after. This house is a monastery and a convent for monks and nuns dedicated to unknown gods. Men and women who are tired of being laboriously kind to their bodies, who like to be a little uncomfortable and quite uncared for, who love to live from week to week without speaking, except to confide their destinations to ’bus-conductors, who are weary of woolly decorations, aspidistras, and the eternal two generations of roses which riot among blue ribbons on hireling wall-papers, who are ignorant of the science of tipping and thanking, who do not know how to cook yet hate to be cooked for, will here find the thing they have desired, and something else as well.’

There are three types of alone-ness in Benson’s novel. The first is the natural lack of need for company — a self-sufficiency born from a rather childlike self-absorption and self-centredness — exemplified by the witch. In comparison to the conventional-minded — as typified by those who sit on committees (‘and a committee, of course, exists for the purpose of damping enthusiasms’) — these are the un-fallen innocents of the world, who ‘are not blinded by having a Point of View. They just look, and are very much surprised and interested.’ But, as much as they’re childlike and innocent, they’re also not fully formed as human beings:

‘A heart is a sort of degree conferred by Providence on those who have passed a certain examination. Magic people are only freshmen in our college, and it is useless for us—secure in the possession of many learned letters after our names—to despise them. They will become sophisticated in due course.’

Being ‘sophisticated’ is the second type of alone-ness — not separation from other people, but from one’s deeper self. Those who are ‘sophisticated’ are the sort to sit on judgemental charitable committees, and are isolated from others not by childlike innocence, but by the assumption of an inauthentic, self-blinding maturity:

‘Mr. Darnby Frere was the editor of an advanced religious paper called I Wonder, but he never wondered really. He knew almost everything, and therefore, while despising the public for knowing so little, he encouraged it to continue wondering, so that he might continue despising and instructing it.’

This is the social self divorced from the truer, deeper self:

‘Religion which has forgotten ecstasy…. Law which has forgotten justice…. Charity which has forgotten love….’

Stella-Benson2The tragedy of Benson’s novel lies in the third type of alone-ness. This belongs to one character only, Sarah Brown. Sarah Brown (who’s always given both names, as if in an attempt to make her a distanced, comic everywoman figure, though it seems to me she’s the closest to an authorial self-portrait in the book) is not so mired in the conventional world that she refuses to acknowledge the existence of magic (unlike the increasingly red-faced policeman, who insists on interpreting everything in mundane terms, even while wanting to arrest the witch for ‘being in possession of an armed flying machine’ — her broom), while also knowing she herself isn’t magical. Sarah Brown, then, can see both the innocent paradise of the magical and the cynical worldliness of the conventional, but can fit into neither. She knows, for instance, she’s not the ‘True Love’ of the dashingly unconventional wizard Richard; she also knows that, even as she leaves London for New York, it will no more be her true home (‘America, you know, would be entirely magic, if it weren’t for the Americans’) than London was. Sarah Brown has something within her that makes her unfit both for civilised company and her own solitude:

‘She could not bear touch. She had no pleasure in seeing or feeling the skin and homespun that encloses men and women. She hated to watch people feeding themselves, or to see her own thin body in the mirror. She ought really to have been born a poplar tree; a human body was a gift wasted on her.’

And, having set foot in the house — having admitted her alone-ness — it’s as though she can never leave it, and can never be anything but alone:

‘How can you ever be far from home, you, a dweller in the greatest home of all. Did you think you had destroyed the House of Living Alone? Did you think you could escape from it?’

But for most of it, the book is lightly magical and nonsensical, not so much a story as a series of skits. Some of the chapters could be extracted as short stories, such as chapter VI, ‘An Air Raid Seen From Above’, where the witch of the House of Living Alone, flying over London, gets into a fight with a German counterpart, who, though magical, has somehow been co-opted into the cynical world’s endeavours:

“We are Crusaders,” said the German. “Crusaders at War with Evil.”

“Why, how funny—so are we,” said our witch. “But then how very peculiar that two Crusaders should apparently be fighting each other. Where then is the Evil? In No Man’s Land?”

Despite being set in wartime, Benson’s book is a self-declared ‘book of fine weather’, ostensibly written for frivolity and fun. Magic and the war are entangled, but not in the way you’d expect:

“I suppose the War was made by black magic,” suggested Sarah Brown, trying to talk intelligently and to be faithful to her own thoughts at the same time.

“Good Lord, no,” replied Richard. “The worst of this war is that it has nothing whatever to do with magic of any sort. It was made and is supported by men who had forgotten magic…”

To me, Living Alone meanders over the fine line between being satirically funny and wilfully twee, though there were enough little gems to keep me going. For instance:

‘Fairies are never ill. They have immortal bodies, but no souls. If they see you in pain, they simply think you are flaunting your superiority and your immortal soul in their faces.’

Or, the moment when Sarah Brown and the Witch set eyes on America:

“Here we are,” said the witch to Sarah Brown. “At least, I suppose this City on its Tiptoes is New York. Do you think I ought to call the attention of the Captain to that largish lady on our left, who seems to be marooned upon a rock, and signalling to us for help?”

Or:

“I could of course cure you of the nerve-storms you speak of. Or rather I could help you to have nerve-storms all the time, without any stagnant grown-upness in between. Then you wouldn’t notice the nerve-storms.”

At times, I found myself thinking that Living Alone could never be published today, it is so wilfully eccentric, but at other times I couldn’t help feeling it might fit easily into the world of the Harry Potter books.

Devil’s Tor by David Lindsay

Devil's Tor by David Lindsay, Putnam'sWriting to his latest publisher (Putnams) shortly before they issued this, his fifth novel, David Lindsay said: “Between the philosophies of Arcturus and Devil’s Tor there seems to be a chasm of contradiction. As both books were sincerely and independently written, and were long matured, no doubt the contradiction is more apparent than real…” He goes on to say his next (never-to-be-finished) project, after the release of his 1932 “monster”, Devil’s Tor, will be “a larger synthesis… a new and higher truth”, but it seems to me that the worldviews of A Voyage to Arcturus and Devil’s Tor are really not that different. Both reject our “terrible temporary world of mud, blood and bubbles” for another we can only have hints of (“sublimity should not represent a natural state of the soul, but be, as it were, its homesickness”). What Devil’s Tor did do was add a key element all but absent from Lindsay’s first book, which, it could be said, he’d spent his post-Arcturus novels (The Haunted Woman, Sphinx, the then-unpublished Violet Apple, and even his ‘pot-boiler’ The Adventures of Monsieur de Mailly) trying to fit into place. For, despite a handful of strong, or at least interesting, female characters (Joiwind, Oceaxe, Tydomin, Sullenbode), the world of A Voyage to Arcturus is ultimately male: the heroes, their guiding deities and would-be deities are all male, from Maskull to Nightspore, Krag to Crystalman. Devil’s Tor’s presiding figure, though, is the Great Mother, and it’s through her that Lindsay works towards a deeper understanding and acceptance of what, in A Voyage to Arcturus, he’d rejected wholesale: existence itself. The Goddess in Devil’s Tor (who shouldn’t be taken as female in the human sense, but as the yin to Arcturus’s yang) represents “the source of the universe”:

“The Virgin-Mother is explanatory of the world, as the others are not — for nothing is explained by the dogmatic assertion that God made the world…”

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

All of Lindsay’s novels can be thought of as battles for the soul of their central character. This is most obvious in A Voyage to Arcturus, whose protagonist Maskull is presented with a series of forthright philosophies, worldviews and ideals, each of which he gives himself to wholeheartedly, only to reject (often violently) when they prove false. In the end, the ultimate falseness of Tormance — the demiurge Crystalman in one of his many guises — tries every last temptation to win Maskull to his side, but Krag, the only real truth in Lindsay’s first novel, wins him in the end with pain — which is the closest, Lindsay says, we can get to truth in a world “rotten with illusion from top to bottom”.

In Devil’s Tor the soul to be battled for is Ingrid Fleming’s (whose name — names mean a lot in Lindsay — I take to contain a hint of ‘flaming’, fire being one of Lindsay’s signs of sublimity). She is, effectively, presented with three would-be husbands or potential soul-mates: the artist Peter Copping, the scholar Stephen Arsinal, and the adventurer Henry Saltfleet. But her soul already belongs to the Goddess, and what’s being battled for is not hers so much as the world’s soul: she is to be the mother of a coming saviour, a redeemer, and only one of those would-be husbands is fated to be the father. And he wins her not as Krag does, with pain, but with the two virtues Lindsay praises most of all in Devil’s Tor: disinterestedness and magnanimity. (David Lindsay is, I suspect, not the one to go to for dating advice, unless perhaps you do your dating at WagnerianHeroines.com.)

The Violet Apple by David LindsayThe novel of Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor most resembles in plot — it could almost be a heightened, intensified version of it — is his then-unpublished The Violet Apple. That book begins when an antique glass ornament, shaped like a serpent, is accidentally shattered, releasing an ancient pip said to derive from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. In Devil’s Tor, a forbidding “Devil’s Head” monument atop the titular Tor is shattered in a storm, revealing a tomb that contains, like the pip of The Violet Apple, one half of an egg-shaped meteoric stone. In both cases, a symbol of new life or rebirth (a pip and an egg-shaped stone) is released when its devil-shaped guardian is accidentally/fatedly broken. And in both cases, this breaking-open releases supernatural powers intent on bringing together, against the wishes of their families, friends and existing fiancés, a man and a woman who are unrecognised soul-mates. (Lindsay likes to throw every worldly difficulty he can in the way of his hero and heroine. He even seems to prefer that they don’t feel any attraction for each other, but are drawn together under pain, duress, and in situations of the utmost tragedy. What a romantic.)

There isn’t a lot of action in Devil’s Tor. Whole chapters are given over to detailed dissections of characters’ reactions to mere moments: someone enters a room and everyone retreats into themselves to review their thoughts on fate. It’s a difficult read; it was probably a difficult write for Lindsay, who’s constantly descending into Yoda-speak (“Reserved of heart she was, proud of temper beneath her domestic obedience; femininely romantic of the imagination she had never been…”) for pages at a time. When it came out, though, it fared better than Arcturus, finding a few sympathetic reviewers. Hugh I’Anson Fausset in The Guardian called it “a vast, formidable, and over-powering book” that “at once engrosses and exhausts us”. To read it is, he says, “to suffer an unforgettable experience, to be excited, appalled, and finally purged.”

How Lindsay must have loved that review: “to read it is to suffer”.

It’s hard to recommend Devil’s Tor. Like the fatedness of its own characters, you’re either compelled to read it (through a fascination with Lindsay’s work) or you pass by, appalled at the tragedy. But it repays the effort put into it, even if the final repayment, so full of renunciation and fate, is a very bleak sort of catharsis.

Mary Rose by J M Barrie

MaryRoseMary Rose is, literally, a sinister play: right-handed J M Barrie, suffering writer’s cramp, wrote it with his left hand. It is, in a way, the anti-Peter Pan, dealing not with the wonderful adventures of children in Never Never Land, but with the loss felt by those left behind — an adult play, rather than one for children, and a post-World War play, too, rather than one set in the Arcadian Edwardian era of long, golden summers.

It starts with a young man, Harry, visiting the house he used to live in before he ran away to sea at the age of 12. Now empty and a long time on the market, the house is reputed to be haunted, though its stony caretaker, Mrs Otery, is not to be drawn on the matter. The second act gives us the back-story: when she was eleven, a young girl called Mary Rose disappeared, for twenty days, on a small island in the Hebrides, where she had been sketching whilst her father fished. Her parents were frantic; but then Mary Rose returned thinking only a few hours had passed. As a grown-up woman she apparently remembers nothing of the incident, though feels a vague fondness for the island. She tries to convince her husband-to-be Simon to spend their honeymoon there. He, having been told what happened, thinks better of it, until several years into their marriage, by which time they have a two-year-old boy, and Simon has grown to disbelieve the story about Mary Rose’s disappearance. They visit the island, and she disappears again — not for twenty days this time, but twenty-five years. When she returns, she’s not a day older. Everyone else, of course, has aged: her parents are now old, her husband is grey and used to being alone, her baby boy has grown up and run away to sea. The play, which for much of its time is a lightly comic portrait of a rather idealised, Edwardian ‘perfect’ marriage — with the man being decent, strong and a little stupid, and the woman being quirky, wilful and doting — is bookended by a sense of utter loss, both loss-through-absence and an even worse sort of loss, when the presence of someone longed-for or loved but irretrievably changed only serves as a reminder of all that is lost. Mary Rose’s parents, Mr and Mrs Morland, lose Mary Rose (at first through marriage, though she continues to live at home, then to the mysterious island); husband Simon loses his wife; Mary Rose loses her parents and her husband and her child. When she returns after her second absence, the years have come between her and those that remain, and she can only pine for her baby, who is now not only grown up but run away. This multi-generational, omnidirectional sense of loss is even more concentrated on the boy, Harry, whose running away at the age of twelve isn’t explained, but could be seen as an attempt to lose even himself, having spent his early years so overshadowed by the loss of his mother.

coverOften described as a ghost play (because, even though she’s said to have died, Mary Rose somehow lingers in the house to which she returned, acting as both a playful, absent-minded child, and a pining mother), Mary Rose resonates just as much with fairy stories about people who disappear — as in Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall, or, much more intensely, Alan Garner’s Boneland — or who disappear then return — as in Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale — only to feel severed from those they once loved. The key fantasy element, Mary Rose’s disappearance, is never explained. (The island is known as ‘The Island that Likes to be Visited’, though as a local notes, ‘an island that had visitors would not need to want to be visited’.) Perhaps this is why the overlap between the ghostly and the fairy seems to work so well: it gives the play an uncompromising feeling of dropping you into an utterly unexplained abyss, a terrible fact that is just there, and which can never be assimilated or ameliorated. Which is, of course, what loss feels like.

J M BarrieIt’s easy to see parallels with J M Barrie’s life. When his elder brother (his mother’s favourite) died in a skating accident just before turning 14, Barrie tried but failed to take the boy’s place. Later in life he adopted the Davies children (one of whom inspired Peter Pan), after both their parents died; then Barrie’s favourite of those children, George, died in the War. But it’s odd the play doesn’t feel, to me, to be about death, as such, but about a mix of both absence and presence — and a very physical presence, at that (Mary Rose, as a ghost, is not insubstantial, though the caretaker Mrs Otery says ‘she’s as light as air’, linking her with Peter Pan). Of all the parallels in J M Barrie’s life, Mary Rose herself seems most like Barrie’s mother, depressed after the death of her most beloved child, and failing to recognise that child in Barrie himself, who was trying to play the role.

Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make a film of Mary Rose, though it feels like, with Vertigo, he already did, as that film is also about a very physical haunting, centred on a woman who seems trapped in the past and unable to make an emotional connection the male lead desperately needs. If any film captures Mary Rose’s sense of sudden, utterly unexplainable loss, though, it has to be Picnic at Hanging Rock.

tartarus_2004One more connection I’d love to make — and it almost but perhaps doesn’t fit — is with David Lindsay’s second novel, The Haunted Woman. Both Lindsay’s novel and Barrie’s play start with someone going over a house being put up for sale, and both deal with a room in that house which is sometimes, unexplainably and supernaturally, inaccessible. (In Mary Rose, the room is the nursery, whose door, though unlocked, is sometimes ‘held’; in The Haunted Woman, there’s a staircase that appears to some people, not to others, and only at certain times, giving access to an area described as ‘far and away the oldest part of the house’ — just as the ‘held’ room in Mary Rose is also ‘the oldest part of the house’.) I like to think of Lindsay — whose books make a lot of reference to theatres, plays, and so on — going to see Barrie’s play and getting the seed of an idea which sparked off his own, very strange, reinterpretation. Mary Rose was first performed on April 22nd, 1920 at the Haymarket Theatre, London; David Lindsay, apparently, began work on The Haunted Woman immediately after the acceptance of his first novel, which was finished in March 1920. Does this fit? I don’t know. But both times I’ve read Mary Rose, the opening reminds me of Lindsay’s second novel.

The Outsider by Colin Wilson

Wilson_TheOutsider_2001There’s a small list of books I’ve immediately re-read after first reading them, and Colin Wilson’s The Outsider is on it. At the time (I must have been 21 or 22), I’d never read any philosophy, nor much literature outside of SF, fantasy & horror, and part of the impact the book had on me came from its introducing me to subjects I’d never looked into before, but which I soon realised I had a great hunger for. It’s humbling to realise Wilson himself was 24 when he wrote it. By that point he’d already read more books than I, at twice my then-age, have managed even now — and he’d not only read them, but thought about them.

It’s a hallmark of Wilson’s writing that he’s deeply and infectiously engaged in anything he’s writing about, something that’s even more true of this, his first book. What, then, is it about? A general study of the figure of ‘the Outsider’ in literature would be too diffuse; this is the study of a selection of figures that enable Wilson to ask the questions he most wants to ask. So what is a Wilsonian Outsider?

‘…the Outsider is a man who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeois, accepting what he sees and touches as reality. “He sees too deep and too much,” and what he sees is essentially chaos. For the bourgeois, the world is fundamentally an orderly place, with a disturbing element of the irrational, the terrifying, which his preoccupation with the present usually permits him to ignore. For the Outsider, the world is not rational, not orderly. When he asserts his sense of anarchy in the face of the bourgeois’ complacent acceptance, it is not simply the need to cock a snook at respectability that provokes him; it is a distressing sense that truth must be told at all costs, otherwise there can be no hope for an ultimate restoration of order. Even if there seems no room for hope, truth must be told.’

What it comes down to is a basic question asked of life itself: ‘Ultimate Yes, or Ultimate No?’ The non-Outsider says, ‘Ultimate Yes, obviously,’ but this is the dismissive reaction of someone who’s never had to make the choice. The Outsider, who ‘sees too deep and too much’, has to ask the question every moment of every day, either recoiling in horror at the suffering in the world (‘Ultimate No’), or discovering, once again, in moments of intense affirmation, his own particular ‘Ultimate Yes’ — but always in spite of all that could lead to an ‘Ultimate No’:

‘The way lies forward, into more life… accept the ordeal… “ever further into guilt, ever deeper into human life”… Life itself is an exile. The way home is not the way back.’

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

(Those last two sentences can’t help reminding me of the journey towards our ‘true home’ in David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, a book I also first read, and immediately re-read, around the same time, without knowing Wilson had written about it. Re-reading The Outsider now, I’m struck by how similar the two books are, both in subject matter and basic form. Both begin by rejecting the idea of normal, ‘bourgeois’ reality: in Arcturus, this is the gathering described in the opening chapter, ‘The Séance’; in The Outsider, this is in Wilson’s opening sentence — ‘At first sight, the Outsider is a social problem’ — and his discussion of Henri Barbusse’s novel, L’Enfer, in particular the dinner table scene, which is, like Arcturus’s séance, a social gathering where something shocking — the story of a local murder — is presented for entertainment. Both books then go through a series of explorations and rejections of possible answers to the questions they’re asking, leading, ultimately, to a more visionary conclusion.)

In 2001, The Outsider, having been constantly in print since its first publication in 1956, was re-published with some additional after-thoughts by Wilson, in which he summarises the Outsider’s position:

‘…it still seems to me that the whole “Outsider problem” is epitomised in the contrast between Van Gogh’s painting The Starry Night and the words of his suicide note: “Misery will never end.”’

Manic_Street_Preachers-The_Holy_Bible_album_cover“La Tristesse Durera” — not coincidentally the title of one of my favourite songs by one of the most Outsider-ish (in the Wilsonian sense) bands, the Manic Street Preachers. (Their Holy Bible is a modern ‘Outsider document’ if ever there was one, highlighting all the ‘Ultimate No’s’ of the 20th century, from serial killers to eating disorders to concentration camps — issues not touched upon by Wilson in his first book, though serial killers were a speciality of his later work. The energy of the music itself acts as an ‘Ultimate Yes’. Of course, the fate of Richey Edwards, who disappeared after the album’s release, touches on the question that made Wilson start his book in the first place: why did so many young men of genius in the 19th and early 20th centuries end up killing themselves?)

The Outsider was published in 1956. There’s something about that era, the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, that had a much more serious intellectual air about it. Writers could expect their public to have a basic familiarity, and interest in, both new scientific ideas and experimental art. The era also had its dark side, as when ‘the Establishment’ grew defensive. Perhaps sensing this non-university-educated upstart was getting too confident, Wilson’s sequel, Religion and the Rebel (1957), was reviewed as scornfully as his first book was praised. He went on to write a total of six books in his ‘Outsider sequence’, but it wasn’t until the 1970s, with the success of his massive tome, The Occult, that he was once more taken seriously as a writer in his homeland (other countries were far more enthusiastic, and less duplicitous).

Colin Wilson, from the back of Dreaming to Some Purpose

Colin Wilson, from the back of Dreaming to Some Purpose

For me, The Outsider stands alongside other books such as the already-mentioned A Voyage to Arcturus, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, J G Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, that are a form of ‘crisis literature’, in that they’re both about, and are often the result of, a crisis in the author and the culture. They seem to call for an intellectual response — the need to decode, categorise, ‘solve’ — but more and more I think these books are primarily emotional statements than steps towards some sort of rational answer. The Outsider describes a stage we can all come to — and hopefully pass through — each time we find ourselves seeing ‘too deep and too much’, beyond the comfortable myopia of our personal boundaries, or those of our times. The distress of alienation (from self, or old ideas, or from family, or society, or culture), and the need to move forward into a newer, stronger certainty, make these into books of ‘crisis’, and each solution must be new-found, new-made, by each individual. But at least some such individuals leave guidebooks for us; and Wilson’s could be the arch-guidebook, or certainly the vital first step, composed as it is of fragments of others’ — a guidebook of guidebooks.