Axël by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam

I first heard of Axël by Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (to give him his full title) when its most famous line was quoted by Colin Wilson in The Outsider. Towards the end of the play, its young hero, Count Axël of Auersperg, having declared his love for the heroine Sara, realises that, from this point on, life can only be an anticlimax. Sara has just suggested a good two pages’ worth of places they might go, wonders they might see, raptures they might endure, but he replies:

“As for living? our servants will do that for us.”

And so the pair share a cup of poison — a “magnificent gem-encrusted cup”, that is, because at this point Axël and Sara are virtually swimming in a recently-uncovered stash of gold, silver, gems and jewellery — and the play ends with their deaths.

At one time I was determined, having read Wilson’s Outsider a couple of times, to go through all the books he mentioned in it, reading them, too. (I recently compiled a list of the works he mentions, and put it up on my site.) I’m now pretty sure I’ve no interest in reading every book Wilson alludes to, but Axël somehow remained one I wanted to try. It’s difficult to get hold of, despite being translated into English twice (by H P R Finberg in 1925, and Marilyn Gaddis Rose in 1970); Wilson himself might have only known it through Edmund (no relation) Wilson’s summary in the final chapter of his 1931 critical study of “imaginative literature”, Axel’s Castle (and by “imaginative literature” he meant mostly the French Symbolist poets — Edmund Wilson seems to have hated fantasy, famously denouncing both Lovecraft and Tolkien). But, finally, I tracked down a paperback copy of Gaddis Rose’s translation, published in 1986 by the Soho Book Company, in a suitably French-decadent yellow cover.

Edition published by Jarrolds, London, 1925

The play opens with Sara, an orphan consigned to a nunnery, just about to take her final vows. It’s a rich ceremony, and one the church has much interest in, Sara being quite wealthy. Sara herself says nothing while she’s presented at the altar and lectured (at length) by the Archdeacon, who, finally, asks if she will “accept Light, Hope and Life” in devoting herself fully to God. With one word — her first, and it’s a “No” — it’s as though the very church comes crashing down around her. Nuns run for cover, the abbess starts shrieking and the Archdeacon — inevitably — delivers another lecture. Then Sara throws a handy axe through a window and makes her getaway.

The second act shifts to a castle in remote Auersperg in Germany, in whose dark, endless forests the young Count Axël spends his days in hunting and his nights receiving instruction from the mysterious Master Janus. A visitor, Commander Kaspar, hears a legend about the young Count’s father. When Germany was threatened by Napoleon, an enormous portion of the country’s wealth was given to a select group of military men to hide in some remote spot, in case Napoleon should win through and claim it for spoils. The old Count hid it in his lands, then was killed (in a plot by several of his countrymen who wanted the treasure for themselves). Only his wife knew where the treasure was, and she died soon after. When the Commander confronts Axël with this story, the young Count, who up to this point has been entirely civil towards his guest, takes instant offence and calls for duelling swords. There then follows a very, very long portion in which Axël defends his unwillingness to either look for the treasure himself or let anyone else do so. (The translator, in her foreword, says that Axël has “perhaps the most tedious second act in modern drama”, and it’s this long justification scene she’s talking about. Yeats, who initially enthused about the play during its first performance, later recommended that, should it ever be brought to Britain, its second and third acts should be reduced in length “enormously”.) Axël, contemptuous in every way of the complacency, materialism and worldliness Commander Kaspar represents, kills him in the ensuing duel, then, disgusted with himself, goes to see Master Janus.

Master Janus is an occultist — “I do not instruct; I awaken” — and he tries to pull Axël out of his despondency by declaring his pupil’s disgust with both himself and worldly life in general to be only an indication that:

“…you are ripe for the supreme Test. The vapour of the blood shed for the Gold has just diminished your essence. The fatal effluvia envelop you, penetrating your heart—and, under their pestilential influence, you have become a child again, stammering mere words. Heir to the instincts of the man you killed, you live through the old thirst of voluptuousness, power, and pride, inhaled and reabsorbed into your organism, lighting up the reddest blood in your veins. O redescended from the sacred thresholds, the former mortal is going to come back to life in the disavowing eyes of the guilty Initiate! The Hour has come…”

And so on. Janus has an answer for everything — a long answer, in technical occult jargon — but it always seems to boil down to the same thing. Whatever Axël says, however much he disavows or rejects, it’s “Then at last you are truly ready to begin,” as though everything up to now has been a mere preparation. And, as the act continues, you get the impression that this is how it will always be with Master Janus — always a beginning, always a promise of some great transformation to come, but never the fulfilment. Finally seeing this, Axël bursts out with:

“I want life! Not more knowledge!

And he banishes Janus. (Who, as he leaves, mutters, still self-justifying: “…the Work nears fulfilment.”)

In the final act, Sara comes to the castle. She, it turns out, knows where the rumoured treasure is hidden. At night, she creeps down to the crypt and presses a certain death’s-head decoration, opening a secret vault overflowing with coins and gems (“a scintillating torrent of gems, a rustling rain of diamonds”). But she’s unaware that Axël is hiding in the crypt, having come down there to end his life. After a brief misunderstanding (Sara, armed with two pistols, shoots Axël, wounding but not killing him), the two fall instantly, passionately in love. Sara gives her speech about all the things they could do; Axël gives his:

“If we accepted life now, we should commit a sacrilege against ourselves. As for living? our servants will do that for us.”

And so the play ends, with the self-slain Axël and Sara a Romeo and Juliet caught, not between Montagues and Capulets, but Idealism and Reality.

Villiers de l’Isle-Adam

Villiers de l’Isle-Adam worked on Axël for almost twenty years. Despite his title, he was not rich. Significantly — considering the buried-treasure plot in this play — his father wasted the last of the family wealth buying up estates, often at inflated prices, convinced they’d contain buried treasure. At the age of seventeen, Villiers went to Paris, to pursue a similarly fruitless task, though the treasures he sought to unearth were of the imagination. He became a poet and, once the wealthy aunt who supported him died in 1871, spent most of the rest of his life in poverty. (He died in 1889.) During the time he worked on Axël (as well as other works — his Contes Cruels are his most-read work), he passed from Catholicism to Occultism and back to Catholicism again, a movement tracked by the play’s many renunciations: of Catholicism, materialism, Occultism, then life itself. He did achieve some success towards the end of the 19th century, as poetic and artistic Symbolism came into fashion, but by this time his health was failing. On his death-bed, he planned a legal case against God for taking away his life before he could finish his work.

Detail of one of Gustave Moreau’s many Salomés

Axël is a play more to be read than performed. (When it was performed, it was about five hours in length. Some of the speeches are very static and go on for pages.) It might have looked fabulous had it been set-designed by Gustave Moreau — certainly the ending would have, with Sara bathed in jewels like one of Moreau’s Salomés — and perhaps could have been twinned, in a buttock-numbing double bill, with Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, another archetypal Symbolist drama.

Its series of renunciations (the acts are titled “The Religious World”, “The Tragic World”, “The Occult World”, “The Passional World”, after what each rejects) remind me of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, which certainly has Symbolist affinities. But Axël ends merely in death, a final renunciation, whereas Lindsay’s work turns its last, all-encompassing world-rejection into its protagonist’s transformation and a return, with renewed purpose, to the world he’d rejected.

Another comparison is the 1970 film Performance, if Count Axël were (as his umlaut suggests him to be) a heavy metal singer in retreat, self-cosseted and no longer able to create, and with Sara in the James Fox role, only not a gangster on the lam but a nun on the run. But, again, Performance hints at some sort of transformation beyond its concluding deaths, whereas Axël doesn’t.

Axël lacks that final vitality. At times, its rejections feel like a list of its writer’s resentments and self-justifications rather than a genuine stand for truth. In her foreword, Marilyn Gaddis Rose calls it “the epitome of Symbolist drama”, and it does, at its best, feel like a Moreau painting — scintillatingly bejewelled and Romantically doomed — but, as with Moreau, the figures are too stiff to feel like real human beings, and the whole thing is ultimately too static to work as drama. It’s one of those works, I think, it’s perhaps better to know about than to read, and maybe it’s better — as with Axël and Sara’s love — as a single line and a hint of what might have been:

“As for living? our servants will do that for us.”

A Voyage to Arcturus — the Séance

The first chapter of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus can seem a bit of an anomaly. It introduces eleven characters, all but three of whom (and they’re the last three to be introduced) are forgotten as soon as the chapter ends. What’s more, we get enticing hints about these soon-to-be-forgotten characters, making it seem Lindsay might have had some sort of a plan for them. Montague Faull, for instance, the South American merchant at whose Hampstead home, Prolands, the séance is to take place, obviously has the hots for another character, Mrs Trent. (Backhouse notices “the concealed barbarian in the complacent gleam of his eye” when Faull looks at her). There’s plot material there, but it never gets used.

As more people arrive for the séance, it almost seems as though Lindsay were bringing characters on stage for the purpose of auditioning them to be his novel’s protagonist. After Backhouse — who’d certainly make the subject of an interesting, if depressing, novel (Lindsay tells us something of his fate) — and the rascally Faull, we get Lang, “the stockjobber, well known in his own circle as an amateur prestidigitator” — surely set to be the hero of his own series of Raffles-like adventures, in which he beats cat burglars at their own game on the tiled roofs of interwar London. Then we get Professor Halbart:

“He was the eminent psychologist, the author and lecturer on crime, insanity, genius, etc., considered in their mental aspects. His presence at such a gathering somewhat mystified the other guests, but all felt as if the object of their meeting had immediately acquired additional solemnity.”

Ballantine cover, art by Bob Pepper

Surely Halbart is to be our hero, the man who, perhaps by teaming up with Backhouse to gain a clue or two from the netherworld, will prove Montague Faull to be the murderer of Mrs Trent’s husband at the exact same moment Faull was hosting the séance! Or perhaps, working alone, he’ll discover Backhouse to be a criminal mastermind using his weirdly tangible apparitions to commit a series of daring robberies or anarchistic assassinations.

But no, it’s none of them. At what seems the last moment, Lindsay brings on the peculiar double act of Maskull and Nightspore, one the evident man of action, the other “consumed by an intense spiritual hunger”. What sort of adventure would require such a pairing? This Voyage to Arcturus novel is growing stranger and stranger by the moment…

But still Lindsay isn’t done. As though daring himself to go one step further still, in leaps Krag, who’s another order of being altogether. His first act, after loudly greeting his astonished host, is to murder Backhouse’s apparition by twisting its neck in two precise movements.

Part of me loves the possibility that Lindsay sat down to write a novel set entirely in Hampstead, and got shanghaied by some wild strain of his own imagination. This quote from a letter to E H Visiak makes it almost seem possible:

“I do not know how it is with you, but my books up to the present have turned out quite other than I have originally intended, so that it is almost fascinating to watch them developing themselves on their own lines.” — Letter to Visiak, 21st October 1921, printed in Adam International Review Vol XXXV.

David Lindsay, grainy newspaper photo, from the time of the publication of Devil’s Tor

But I can’t believe he simply busked the rest of the book, particularly as there’s the weird way that moments of Maskull’s journey tie in with incidents on Earth, as though the two were happening both subsequently and simultaneously — or perhaps, on some mythic plane, perpetually — most evident of which is Maskull’s at one point lying down on Tormance to die, only to find himself waking up, briefly, as the very apparition whose hand he shook, at the séance he attended several days previously!

So here are a few other ideas. I’m not presenting any of them as convincing arguments. I’ve come to enjoy re-reading A Voyage to Arcturus as a way of opening up its possibilities rather than trying to solve it as though it were a crossword puzzle, and I think the more I do that, the richer, as a novel, it becomes.

The most obvious interpretation sees the séance chapter as part of the general pattern of all of Maskull’s later adventures, in which a new region of Tormance is introduced, along with its inhabitants and their world-view or philosophy, only to have it all proved to be another of Crystalman’s ploys, by having the “vulgar, sordid, bestial” grin appear on yet another corpse, like the rubber stamp of Lindsay’s disapproval. In this context, the Hampstead séance is just one more rejection — the primal rejection, you could say, as it rejects the writer’s own world and culture wholesale. Exactly what the rejection is of is difficult to say, as it seems to be rejecting so much, though the ennui that leads these successful Hampstead residents to indulge in a little light séance-ing is perhaps best summed up by Joiwind’s later comment:

“That’s a strange word. It means, does it not, craving for excitement?”
“Something of the kind,” said Maskull.
“That must be a disease brought on by rich food.”

At this time, most works of imaginative fiction used a framing device — as in, for instance, The Turn of the Screw, where everyone stands around a fireplace, taking turns telling ghost stories — and it could be that Lindsay simply included the Hampstead chapter as a convention, as the accepted way to tell a fantastic tale. In this interpretation, the trip to Tormance doesn’t actually take place, but is played out before us as part of the séance. After all, the voyagers-to-be, Maskull and Nightspore, make their first appearance the moment after Backhouse has announced the séance has started — so is Maskull and Nightspore’s entrance its first manifestation? And is all that follows in fact a vision channelled through Backhouse for Montague Faull and his guests’ amusement and/or instruction? (But if so, we ought to get their reactions at the end. I can imagine Faull applauding politely while throwing a glance at Mrs Trent to see if he might get her alone later in the evening, while Professor Halbart jots a line or two in a pocket notebook.)

Turkish edition, from İthaki Yayınları, 2016

Another take on the séance chapter is that Lindsay is setting up a contrast. Maskull will set out on a journey of spiritual enlightenment, guided by the mysterious “Muspel Light”, whose name refers to the realm of fire, Muspelheim, in Norse myth. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Hampstead are, at the start of the book, “illuminated only by the light of a blazing fire”, a hearth-fire that in no way compares to the mystical and otherworldly blaze coming from Muspel. It could be that, in this way, this séance in a Hampstead drawing room sets up a very Lindsay-esque comparison, as though he were saying that Maskull’s trip to Tormance stands in the same relation to a drawing-room séance as a séance stands to an average evening social gathering in a Hampstead drawing room. Just as the séance is a breaking through of the wondrous and sublime into Hampstead normality, so the trip to Tormance outdoes the séance by multiplying its wonders and sublimity exponentially.

It could be, though, that Lindsay was doing something necessary to his own creative process in the séance chapter, because it has echoes with the set-ups in his later novels, as though he had certain alchemical preconditions necessary to begin working his literary magic. These preconditions involve the coming together of two opposing but complimentary elements, most often embodied, in Lindsay’s fiction, as a man and a woman. As he says, in another letter to E H Visiak:

“You remark — ‘Poetry is generated by the clash of the male and female elements in the personality.’ I go further and say that all the works of creative genius are the children of the union of the male and female elements, and that it is the female that produces them.” — Letter to E H Visiak, 9th Feb 1922; printed in Adam International Review 346-348

The first of these elements at the séance is Backhouse the medium. Backhouse is presented as an aloof, disciplined man, who, despite the fact he hires himself out as the entertainment at soirées such as this, takes his work very seriously. Of what he does, he says: “I dream with open eyes… and others see my dreams. That is all.” He makes no attempt to explain or understand what he does — which makes it so fitting when Krag calls him a “spirit-usher” — nor to embellish or mystify it in any way. In this, he’s a bit like Lindsay himself, whose prose style has wrong-footed some readers into thinking it no style at all, or a bad style, simply because it does none of the usual things that a fantasy prose style of the time (Dunsany’s, for instance) was expected to do. It works none of what Clark Ashton Smith calls “verbal black magic”, but instead seems intent on cutting all the magic out, so as to present its wonders in a plain, straightforward, take-it-or-leave-it style, with no rhetoric and no poetry. The facts are left to speak for themselves, thus making them seem all the more like facts. What Backhouse says of himself might count for Lindsay, too:

“I am a simple man, and always prefer to reduce things to elemental simplicity… Nature is one thing, and art is another.”

In this, he’s like another Lindsay protagonist, Nicholas Cabot in Sphinx. In that novel, Nicholas is working on a machine to record the deep-sleep dreams we can never remember upon waking. He, too, is seeking to “dream with open eyes” — conscious, rational, waking eyes — and his approach is as scientific and inartistic as Backhouse’s.

Which is why the medium is so discombobulated when he turns up at Prolands to find he’s to work on what is, effectively, a theatrical stage. It’s all down to our second alchemical element, Mrs. Trent — of whom Lindsay says, “It was evident that aesthetically she was by far the most important person present.” She represents the creative element Backhouse represses, denies or lacks. And though her contribution is, on the face of it, simply to have the séance room done up with theatrical scenery and a hidden orchestra, what she’s also doing is bringing the power of Mozart, and the Temple scene from The Magic Flute specifically, to magnify Backhouse’s powers as a medium. In a way, it could be this — mediumship plus Mozart — that takes Backhouse’s normally dry but impressive séances to the next level, turning this one into the start of a journey to another world. (Also, of course, Mrs Trent is the one who invites Maskull and Nightspore to the séance — her apparitions, ready to mix with Backhouse’s.)

Lindsay was obviously deeply affected by Mozart, particularly this one scene from The Magic Flute. And in his description of the séance room, it’s evident he’s thinking of one specific production of the opera:

“Having settled his guests in their seats, Faull stepped up to the curtain and flung it aside. A replica, or nearly so, of the Drury Lane presentation of the temple scene in the ‘Magic Flute’ was then exposed to view: the gloomy, massive architecture of the interior, the glowing sky above it in the background, and, silhouetted against the latter, the gigantic seated statue of the Pharaoh…”

In England, The Magic Flute received its first performance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in March 1838. Obviously, Lindsay didn’t see this one. It was revived, though, in 1914 by Sir Thomas Beecham, as part of the repertoire of his Beecham Opera Company, which was formed after the Covent Garden Opera Company shut down during the First World War. Beecham toured his company around England, but settled at Drury Lane in 1917, putting on performances between May and July, and September and November, of that year, which is when I guess Lindsay (still in his first year of married life, at the time) might have seen it. Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s stage designs for an 1815 production are the images most associated with The Magic Flute:

But Beecham’s company employed Hugo Rumbold as designer, and in the 30th May 1914 issue of The Sphere, there are some drawings of Rumbold’s stage set-ups in an article about the opening of Beecham’s new opera season. They don’t seem as impressive as Schinkel’s designs, but perhaps this is what Lindsay was thinking of as the setting for his séance:

“A Fanfare of Trumpets in the Temple. Act II, Scene I”. Drawing by D. Macpherson, of Hugo Rumbold’s stage design for The Magic Flute. Source: the British Newspaper Archive; The British Library Board. © Illustrated London News Group

So, the séance chapter may have been all about setting up a sort of chemical reaction: Backhouse’s link to the netherworld combined with Mrs Trent’s link to “the beautiful and solemn strains of Mozart’s ‘temple’ music”. Result: Maskull on Tormance.

Perhaps, though, it’s easier simply to think about the effect the séance chapter has on the rest of A Voyage to Arcturus. If Lindsay had started with Maskull, Nightspore and Krag setting off for Tormance — or even if he’d started with the second chapter, where Krag, in the street outside, convinces Maskull to accompany him and Nightspore — it would be all too easy for the reader to see the rest of the book as a fable or a flight of fancy. By beginning it in a realistic setting, with realistic-seeming characters, Lindsay sets his reader up for something realistic. This makes the shift to the fantastic setting both more bizarre and shocking and, in a way, more meaningful. Also, that shift from the realistic to the fantastic is a deliberately destabilising move in a book that’s all about destabilising moves. (In an era when other modernistic works, such as The Waste Land, were taking the jarring displacement to a new level.)

I think the reaction the séance chapter often gets is down to that feeling of displacement. The effect is deliberate and meaningful, but it can leave readers who are used to having their science fiction and fantasy provide them with rigorously self-consistent worlds dismissing Lindsay’s effect as a mistake — or, considering the book was published in 1920, dismissing it as ingenuous, when it is, in my opinion, ingenious.

A Voyage to Arcturus is a rich book, one that repays many close re-reads and re-interpretations. I’ll hopefully write some more about other aspects of it, and Lindsay’s work in general, soon.

Sphinx by David Lindsay, Sphinx by Cyril Scott

Sphinx by David Lindsay (cover)I was doing some research into David Lindsay’s third novel, Sphinx (published in 1923) — whose title refers to a fictional piece of piano music composed by a fictional composer, Lore Jensen, that’s played early on in the book — when I found that there actually was a piano piece of that name, published in 1908, fifteen years before Lindsay’s novel, and so quite possibly still in circulation at the time the book was written. I’m certainly not going to make the case that Lindsay must have known about it, or that it might have played some part in inspiring his novel (in which the fictional piano piece is mostly there to spark off a conversation about the book’s themes), but it’s fun to explore the possibility, largely because of one further coincidence I’ll come to in a moment.

The real-life 1908 “Sphinx” was composed by Cyril Scott (1879–1970), who was considered by some to be ‘in the forefront of modern British composers’ in ‘the first quarter of the last century’ (the quote is from this 2005 article), though after the Second World War he seems to have drifted from favour. One speculation is that Scott, being continentally-educated and more modernistically-inclined, didn’t fit in with the emerging idea that English music should be about English-educated composers reworking native folk themes.

Cover to score for Cyril Scott's SphinxAnother possibility is Scott’s interest (like many artists and writers of the early 20th Century, such as Yeats, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Conan Doyle) in the occult and supernatural. Some of his works, such as his 1917 opera The Alchemist, and his 1932 ballet based on Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, reveal this interest, and he also wrote books on these (and other) subjects. This is something that fell out of fashion in post-WWII culture, and may have had a distancing effect on the critical elite.

Scott’s interest in metaphysics was sparked by the pianist Evelyn Suart, who was a Christian Scientist, and who championed his work, premiering many of his pieces, and who introduced him to his publisher. (Scott published a lot of miniature pieces for piano, of the sort that people at the time bought as, later in the century, they’d buy singles. His producing what might have been seen as populist, commercial work is cited as another potential reason for his disfavour in the post-WWII years.)

But here’s that other interesting coincidence I promised (though I’m sure it is just a coincidence). In Lindsay’s novel, the fictional piano piece “Sphinx” is played by a young woman called Evelyn Sturt — one letter different from Scott’s friend, the real-life pianist Evelyn Suart. (Thanks to Séan Martin for pointing out my previous error in calling her Evelyn Stuart.)

In Lindsay’s novel, the short piano piece is described as follows:

‘It was what used to be called a “tone-poem,” a work built round a single central idea. Evelyn evidently found its freshness attractive, for she played it with far greater sympathy and feeling than either of the Chopin pieces. Despite her protestation, she made no obvious blunders. It was quite short, in length a mere trifle, but after the first minute Nicholas grew interested and impressed. The opening was calm, measured and drowsy. One could almost see the burning sand of the desert and feel the enervating sunshine. By degrees the theme became more troubled and passionate, quietly in the beginning, but with a gradually rising storm—not physical, but of emotion—until everything was like an unsteady sea of menace and terror. Towards the end, crashing dissonances appeared, but just when he was expecting the conventional climax to come, all the theme-threads united in a sudden quietening, which almost at once took shape as an indubitable question. It could then be seen that all that had gone before had been leading the way to this question, and that what had appeared simple and understandable had been really nothing of the sort, but, on the contrary, something very mysterious and profound. . . . Half a dozen tranquil and beautiful bars brought the little piece to a conclusion. . . .’

Opening bars to Sphinx by Cyril Scott

Cyril Scott’s “Sphinx” (Opus 63) is similar in many ways. It’s reasonably short, as classical music goes (4 minutes, 27 seconds in Michael Schäfer’s recording, available digitally from Amazon UK and US), it opens quietly — in a way that immediately reminded me of the opening of one of my favourite pieces of creepy film music, Christopher Young’s spine-tingling end theme to Hellraiser — gradually rises in both intensity and dissonance (‘Mysteriously, and sustained’, the score says), then lapses back to its initial quietude.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that Lindsay was thinking of Scott’s real piece when he was writing about Lore Jensen’s fictional one — his description, after all, is a pretty obvious structure for any piece of short, mysterious music — but reading Lindsay’s prose, and listening to Scott’s composition, it’s easy to imagine it leaving you with the sense of “an indubitable question”, even if the question is only, “Did David Lindsay know this music?”

The novels Lindsay published during his lifetime have been in the public domain since 2016. After thinking someone, surely, would bring the more obscure ones out as ebooks, I gave up waiting and this week published Sphinx on Kindle and other ebook formats. Hopefully this will help make the rest of Lindsay’s work, other than just his most famous work, A Voyage to Arcturus, accessible to a wider readership.