Green Mansions by W H Hudson

I can’t remember where I first heard about W H Hudson’s 1904 novel Green Mansions, but I kept finding it being mentioned as beloved of a number of early twentieth century writers that I like (though I’ve forgotten which ones, apart from Joseph Conrad and David Lindsay). Anyway, it eventually gained enough readerly pull that I just had to read it.

The book’s narrator (apart from a framing-device preface) is Abel Guevez de Argensola, a young Venezuelan forced to free his home country when his parents’ political affinities clash with those of a new regime. Heading into the jungles of neighbouring Guyana, he at first follows rumours of gold until he settles with a tribe close to the Parahuari Mountains (buying his way into their affections with the gift of a silver tinderbox and his skill with a home-made guitar), and decides to spend some time far from the dangers and hassles of civilisation.

Close by his new home, he discovers a region of jungle completely unexploited by human beings, and begins to spend his days there, at first simply appreciating the strange and wonderful sights of nature, but soon becoming aware of another sentient presence that is not only aware of him, but seems to be leading him, with musical bursts of a bird-like but human-sounding language, to even more strange and beautiful sights.

The tribe he’s taken up with warn him to stay away from this area of jungle, as it’s the home of a “Daughter of the Didi”, who can catch darts fired at her, and throw them back with deadly accuracy. Abel ignores the warning, and soon meets the young woman who has been following his explorations of her region of jungle, the bird-like Rima:

“To induce her to walk soberly at my side or sit down and enter into conversation with me seemed about as impracticable as to tame the fiery-hearted little humming-bird that flashes into sight, remains suspended motionless for a few seconds before your face, then, quick as lightning, vanishes again.”

Rima lives in harmony with all the creatures of the jungle, and in fact seems to embody, for Abel, all the beauties and wonders he has come to find in the jungle itself:

“When I look at you I see them all—all and more, a thousand times, for I see Rima herself. And when I listen to Rima’s voice, talking in a language I cannot understand, I hear the wind whispering in the leaves, the gurgling running water, the bee among the flowers, the organ-bird singing far, far away in the shadows of the trees. I hear them all, and more, for I hear Rima.”

She almost comes to seem superhuman to him:

“She herself was so near to the supernatural that it seemed brought near me; indefinable feelings, which had been latent in me, stirred into life, and following the direction of her divine, lustrous eyes, fixed on the blue sky above, I seemed to see there another being like herself, a Rima glorified, leaning her pale, spiritual face to catch the winged words uttered by her child on earth.”

In a way, Green Mansions has similarities to Wuthering Heights, as both are stories of intense love where human feelings seep out and charge the landscape with that air of the supernatural, until it seems haunted by the presence of the loved one. But Rima is a very different creature from Heathcliff — almost his opposite, in that she’s a flighty, scintillant human humming bird, and Heatchliff is a walking Gothic castle.

Rima, it turns out, isn’t entirely the jungle dryad she at first seems. She is actually a human girl, living in a small hut with her “grandfather” Nuflo (in fact, an old man who took on the orphaned Rima’s care, in part out of a need to change his life and make some amends for his criminal past). And, when she starts to feel a return of Abel’s love for her, her initial reaction is panic. She doesn’t understand what she’s feeling, and for the first time insists on being taken to the land where her mother came from, to find her own people, who, she hopes, can explain these new feelings to her in her own bird-like language.

William Henry Hudson was born in Argentina in 1841. He spent his early years studying the flora and fauna of South America, before settling in England in 1874, where he made his name as an ornithologist, naturalist, and writer. His Times obituary in 1922 called him “unsurpassed as an English writer on Nature”, and Ford Madox Ford called Green Mansions “Anglo-Saxondom’s only rendering of hopeless, of aching passion”.

Rima, in Green Mansions, seems to embody Hudson’s own initiation into a relationship with the natural world, a world full of unique and wondrous living things:

“To each of us, as to every kind of animal, even to small birds and insects, and to every kind of plant, there is given something peculiar—a fragrance, a melody, a special instinct, an art, a knowledge, which no other has.”

Through his relationship with her, and with the jungle world she inhabits:

“I was changed, and this change—so great, so complete—was proof that the old artificial life had not been and could not be the real one, in harmony with my deeper and truer nature.”

Rima went on to have a funny cultural afterlife. In 1924, she was depicted on a bas-relief designed by Eric Gill and carved by Jacob Epstein, placed in the Hudson Memorial Bird Sanctuary in Hyde Park. The figure’s nudity caused something of a scandal (after all, she’s not nude in the book, but wears a scintillant gown of carefully-gathered spider-silk), with Arthur Conan Doyle and E F Benson, among others, petitioning for its removal. (It’s still there today, though.) In 1959, Rima was played by Audrey Hepburn in a film of Green Mansions, opposite Anthony Perkins as Abel. The film changed the book’s ending, but was a financial disaster. And, in 1974, Rima starred in a 7-issue run of Rima the Jungle Girl from DC Comics, where she’s depicted as a sort of female Tarzan.

Hudson’s other books include the future-set pastoral utopia A Crystal Age (1887), and the memoir Idle Days in Patagonia (1893), that I like to think influenced the title of Lord Dunsany’s 1910 short story “Idle Days on the Yann”.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

(most probably) Emily Brontë by her brother, Branwell

Wuthering Heights (1847) is the subject of my favourite book review ever, in a letter from Pre-Raphaelite artist & poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Irish poet William Allingham, in September 1854:

“…it is a fiend of a book — an incredible monster, combining all the stronger female tendencies from [poet] Mrs Browning to [murderer] Mrs Brownrigg. The action is laid in hell, — only it seems places and people have English names there.”

My first attempt at scaling Wuthering Heights was when I was trying to work through all the books in Cawthorn & Moorcock’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books. I was perhaps feeling a little jaded by that book’s eccentricities by that point, as I’d read Moby Dick thanks to their recommendation, and couldn’t quite see the relevance to fantasy. (I can perhaps see their point a bit better now, and mean to reread Moby Dick at some point, free of false preconceptions — which is the best way to enjoy a classic novel.) A little way into Wuthering Heights, I began to feel it was going to be another of Cawthorn & Moorcock’s more eccentric inclusions, and gave up on it. (I really wonder if I’d have been able to appreciate it properly anyway, back then.) On recently learning that David Lindsay thought highly of it, though, I decided to give it another go, and am glad I did.

Wuthering Heights has had a long association with the more subtler and supernaturally-tinged fantastic. As Julia Briggs says in her study of the English ghost story, Night Visitors (1977):

“…the whole tenor of the book… implies a coherent universe wherein man, nature and spirit interact closely, and where the cruel and uncompromising power of love is more ruthless and compelling even than death.”

Most surprisingly of all, considering its reputation as perhaps the most darkly romantic of all love stories, H P Lovecraft liked the book — Lovecraft, who reacted so strongly to a “few touches of commonplace sentimentality” in William Hope Hodgson’s House on the Borderland. In “Supernatural Horror in Literature” he says:

“Though primarily a tale of life, and of human passions in agony and conflict, its epically cosmic setting affords room for horror of the most spiritual sort… Miss Brontë’s eerie terror is no mere Gothic echo, but a tense expression of man’s shuddering reaction to the unknown.”

Both of these quotes make it clear it’s the atmosphere of the book that speaks of the supernatural and fantastic, rather than the details (though there is, of course, ghostly Cathy’s “ice-cold hand” through the window one night, which may be a dream, but nevertheless imparts some details the narrator couldn’t at that point know). In fact, a lot of the power of the book comes from its narration being so low-key and realistic, thanks to the down-to-earth servant’s-eye-view of Nelly Dean, whose general lack of judgement only makes all the violence and brutality centred around Heathcliff seem that much more violent and brutal, lacking as it does the narrative cushioning of explanations, justifications, and condemnations.

Faber and Faber cover

It’s around Heathcliff this dark air of the supernatural accumulates, from the moment he first appears in the story, a “dirty, ragged, black-haired child” with an oddly old-looking face. Mr Earnshaw, who brings this child back the 60-miles walk from Liverpool, names it after a dead child of his own, adding to the feeling it may be a fairy changeling or a soul retrieved from hell. Like one of Le Fanu’s supernatural companions, it sucks the life out of those around it, as both Mrs (who most dislikes it) and then Mr Earnshaw (who most likes it) fade away and die after it’s brought into the home. (And the detail that, as well as presenting this unwanted child to his family, Mr Earnshaw discovers that the gifts he was asked to bring have either been lost or broken seems almost Aickmanesque. Did Earnshaw have to struggle to bring the child along with him? Or, did the child’s mere presence supernaturally spoil all attempts at affection, however minor, from that point on? The weird creeps in where the explanations are lacking.)

By name and nature, Heathcliff is more a landscape than a person — or, perhaps, a Gothic castle in human form, bleak, forbidding, oppressive, imperturbable, dark and haunted, monomaniacal. He feels like a character from a different mode of fiction altogether, a blood-soaked Webster tragedy, perhaps, or one of the wilder folk ballads. Placed in an otherwise respectable early-Victorian novel, he becomes a sort of black hole, pulling everyone in his orbit down into the dark pit of his loveless world.

Puffin cover

And that’s the thing that most struck me about this novel. By reputation, Wuthering Heights is a love story, but it seems to me the whole point about Heathcliff and his world is it (and he) cannot express, or even understand, love. Heathcliff’s relationship with Cathy, for instance (who’s too infantilely self-absorbed to express love herself: “I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me…”). Their relationship seems more about possessiveness than love, but a possessiveness so deep that Cathy feels it as identification (“Nelly, I am Heathcliff!”). So, it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t marry Heathcliff, because she and he are already one. Heathcliff himself seems only able to express anger, resentment, and a dark joy in revenge. He teaches the young Hareton Earnshaw, who lives with him at Wuthering Heights, “to scorn everything extra-animal as silly and weak.” When Isabella Linton marries Heathcliff, and lives with him at the Heights, she’s forced to ask, of the affable narrator Nelly Dean:

“How did you contrive to preserve the common sympathies of human nature when you resided here? I cannot recognise any sentiment which those around share with me.”

I still find it hard to express what I felt as I read Wuthering Heights for the first time. It was like a constant series of affronts, as Nelly Dean’s calm and seemingly level-headed narrative was peppered with acts of sudden anger and violence, some of which didn’t serve the plot, but just added to the air of devastation. The way five-year-old Hareton, for instance, reacts to the woman who, till six months before, had been all but mother to him: he throws a heavy flint at her head, and not out of anger at her, but more a sort of feral rejection of all human beings. There’s something about the way these brutal emotions swamp out the more human ones that recalls, to me, the way the children in The Turn of the Screw have been in some undefined way defiled by the depredations of Peter Quint, at the other end of the 19th century.

Wordsworth cover

And I think Wuthering Heights has more in common with The Turn of the Screw and those great horror stories of the end of the 19th century than that. Just as the ghost story at that time made the transition from pure fright-tale to a new and deeper exploration of human psychology, so Wuthering Heights’ power derives, in large part, from its presenting the sort of tumultuous passions brewed up in those earlier Gothic novels in a more realistic — and so, undeniably recognisable — way. It makes the novel’s characters and story that much more believable, and its horror all the more horrific — and so, I’d say, the psychology all the more insightful. This is, it feels, an authentic layer of human experience that no amount of civilised society can do away with.

It’s Heathcliff who’s haunted in Emily Brontë’s novel — “The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!” — but the result is itself a haunting narrative, still shockingly powerful and weirdly irresolvable.

And you can’t talk about Wuthering Heights without mentioning Kate Bush. Her song, I think, stands alongside Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Queen’s “Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke” as rare examples of songs inspired by other works of art that equal them in artistic power.

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

The title of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel (released in 2017 in Japan, and in 2018 in English translation), refers to a painting, done in traditional Japanese style, of a scene from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, where Giovanni kills the father of Donna Anna, a woman he’s been trying to seduce. The unnamed narrator finds this painting in the attic of postwar artist Tomohiko Amada, while living in the artist’s house (Amada himself being in a retirement home, all but lost to dementia). Seeing it, he realises two things: that this painting is a masterpiece, and that it’s unknown to the art world. It must, he’s sure, have had some deep personal significance for the artist.

He’s an artist himself, and has been living alone in Amada’s mountaintop house since his wife of six years unexpectedly asked for a divorce. At the time, he’d been making a reasonable living painting unchallenging portraits for business clients who’d write off the expense as “office furniture”. After his wife asks him to leave, he phones his agent and says he has given up painting portraits. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do, but can no longer keep living as he did.

Killing Commendatore is a big novel, and it’s no surprise it contains a lot of perennial Murakami elements (though some only briefly): a well-like hole in the ground used for self-imposed solitary confinement; a wise teenage girl; a potentially dangerous religious cult; conversations with an oddly down-to-earth fantastical being; the girl in the past who died too young; the wife who suddenly and inexplicably leaves; a missing cat; a violent impulse in a love hotel; a closet full of a dead woman’s clothes; days spent obsessively watching news reports of an earthquake; a seemingly significant bird (in this case, a horned owl); uncovered histories of WWII atrocities… Most Murakamian of all, though, is the Empty Man: the young professional working competently at a financially rewarding but undemanding job who’s suddenly confronted with the emptiness in his life, an emptiness that hides unprocessed losses in the past.

“Empty Man”, obviously, describes the narrator of Killing Commendatore, but here we get an additional instance of this Murakamian trope — and perhaps an even more empty Empty Man, because, not being an artist as the narrator is, he can’t express his emptiness — in the shape of mountaintop neighbour Menshiki, who says, at one point, “when I passed fifty, I looked at myself in the mirror and discovered nothing but emptiness.” (And of whom we’re later told, “there is a gap in his heart, an empty space that attracts the abnormal and the dangerous.”)

Menshiki’s name means something like “avoiding colour” (which recalls the protagonist of Murakami’s previous novel, Colourless Tsukuru). He has completely white hair, lives in a white house, and maintains an isolated but intensely ordered existence. He approaches the narrator to commission a portrait, and though the narrator has just given up portrait-painting, the amount Menshiki offers means he’d be stupid to refuse; in addition, Menshiki wants the narrator to open up artistically and use whatever style he thinks fit. Unlike all those “office furniture” commissions, here, at last, he’s being given permission to produce something truly artistic.

Soon enough, though, Menshiki makes a confession. Although he has spent his life avoiding permanent relationships, there’s a 13-year-old girl out there in the world he believes may be his daughter. And though he’s rich enough, and connected enough, to find some way of determining this for sure, he doesn’t want a final answer. What he wants is for the narrator, after he’s painted Menshiki’s portrait, to paint hers, for which, of course, he’ll pay an even more disproportionately large sum.

Unlike Murakami’s previous big novel, 1Q84, which alternated between two or three narratives, Killing Commendatore is all related by a single character, but it never becomes monotonous. This is because, as usual, Murakami keeps several mysteries on the boil from early on: there’s the titular painting, and how Amada came to paint it; there’s Great Gatsby-like Menshiki, and the whole mystery of his Empty Man personality; there’s the narrator’s wife, and why she left him. But there’s also weirder mysteries: a bell heard ringing from a remote spot in the middle of the night, the narrator’s oddly troubling, wordless encounter with the Man in the White Subaru Forester, and the Commendatore, a two-foot tall “Idea” in traditional Japanese dress who emerges from Amada’s painting for a series of enigmatic chats.

Killing Commendatore is a novel about secrets. Deeply personal secrets, things that can’t be easily spoken of, are what the narrator’s “office furniture” clients lack, and so he can quite easily paint superficial but successful portraits of them. But when confronted with a man like Menshiki, who has a genuine secret, an emptiness to be plumbed and expressed, that is what requires him to reach inside for an artistic response. Secrets of this sort, though, as well as providing depth to a person, isolate them, turning them into the likes of Menshiki, who lives such a well-ordered, superficially wealthy but cavernously empty life.

Yet, there is a way out, a way a secret can remain a secret, and so keep its personal meaning and significance, but escape the trap of isolation: it can be shared, and so become not just a way out of the isolation, but a bond with another person. And artists — the likes of the narrator and Amada — have an additional way out, too. They can keep their secrets secret while sharing them through their art, saying what cannot be said, sharing what cannot be shared.

The truest portrait the narrator paints, in the end, is an unfinished one. Those “office furniture” paintings were so satisfying to their clients because those clients had ceased to grow and change and so could be easily captured. The deeper sort of subject requires not just artistry, but an acknowledgement that this is not by any means a finished piece. As one of the narrator’s subject’s says:

“It’s a work in progress, and I’m a work in progress too, now and forever.”