A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

My cover to the Bookship hardback

David Lindsay’s first novel, which he called Nightspore in Tormance but his publishers renamed to the slightly more comprehensible (if bland) A Voyage to Arcturus, came out one hundred years ago this month. I first heard of it thanks to Moorcock & Cawthorn’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, which I’d bought because I’d grown dissatisfied with the sort of genre fare I was finding in my local bookshops, and was wondering if I shouldn’t give up reading fantasy altogether. I decided if I couldn’t find something in Moorcock & Cawthorn’s list to re-enthuse me, I’d look for a different genre to read.

Their summary of A Voyage to Arcturus left me somewhat mystified as to what the book was actually about, and certainly didn’t sell it to me:

Arcturus itself is not an ingratiating work; the shelf it occupies is a short one, reserved for titles more often to be found in lists than in reader’s pockets. The message it spells out is no comforting one.”

I’d probably never have read it had I not found it in a secondhand bookshop with that lovely Bob Pepper cover and thought “Might as well.” Even then, it sat on my shelf for a while before I actually picked it up and gave it a go.

Bob Pepper’s artwork for the Ballantine paperback of A Voyage to Arcturus

At first, I continued to be nonplussed. It seemed a little old-fashioned in style, and along with the freedom of imagination you often find in novels written before their genre conventions gel, it had that quaint lack of scientific or logical consistency that comes from somebody building a world before the idea of world-building set in. It was a strange book, yet not with the poetic strangeness of Clark Ashton Smith, or the uncanny strangeness of Lovecraft. If anything it seemed, stylistically, to be doing its best not to seem strange, but rather to present all its odd characters, sights, and events in as matter-of-fact a manner as any mundane travelogue:

Before many minutes he was able to distinguish the shapes and colours of the flying monsters. They were not birds, but creatures with long, snake-like bodies, and ten reptilian legs apiece, terminating in fins which acted as wings. The bodies were of bright blue, the legs and fins were yellow. They were flying, without haste, but in a somewhat ominous fashion, straight towards them. He could make out a long, thin spike projecting from each of the heads.

“They are shrowks,” explained Oceaxe at last. “If you want to know their intention, I’ll tell you. To make a meal of us. First of all their spikes will pierce us, and then their mouths, which are really suckers, will drain us dry of blood. . . . pretty thoroughly too; there are no half-measures with shrowks. They are toothless beasts, so don’t eat flesh.”

But then something happened. Pushing on through the book (more for the sake of finishing it than anything else), I became aware that some inner part of me, some second, more discerning reader — my inner Nightspore to the outer Maskull — was really caught up in it. It seemed to be saying: Something is going on in this book, and I have no idea what! I finished it in a rush, because I’d suddenly realised I hadn’t been paying it the attention it deserved, and I needed to start reading it again, this time making notes.

Various covers, art by (clockwise from top left): Peter A Jones, Ron Miller, …, Florence Magnin, Karl Stephan, Kato Naoyuki, Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, Jean Delville (design by John Coulthart)

In a sense, I’m still doing that. I’ve re-read Arcturus countless times, and each time I feel the need to read it again, paying still closer attention — or I feel the need to plough through the rest of Lindsay’s novels in succession, to try and grasp them all as one thing in my head and this time work it out. (I’ve even wondered if it’s not part of some “Lindsay effect”, a trick of that matter-of-fact literary style that leaves you constantly feeling you’ve almost-but-not-quite grasped something utterly intriguing.)

Soon after I first got on the internet, I started a website dedicated to Lindsay, mostly because I’d managed to acquire Colin Wilson, J B Pick, and E H Visiak’s book, The Strange Genius of David Lindsay — for £3! — and, feeling privileged to have got it, wanted to share the information inside it, feeling there had to be other people out there as hungry for information on Lindsay as I was. At first I added my own commentaries about the books, but soon removed those sections, feeling that the more I read Lindsay’s work, the less I knew about it. I kept The Violet Apple site (named after a posthumously published Lindsay novel which was the first book I bought online — thanks to Blackwell’s rare book search service, in fact) strictly factual for a while, apart from one article (“Four Approaches to A Voyage to Arcturus”), which was more about how the book defied any single interpretation than an attempt at offering an understanding of it.

(Another thing that has shifted in my view of the book, and Lindsay’s work as a whole, is its darkness. Initially encountering Lindsay and Arcturus, you can get caught up in that darkness — after all, it’s a novel about world-rejection, where only Pain can redeem you from all the terrible pleasures of life; and meanwhile Lindsay himself, after a lack of success as an author, died quite unpleasantly from self-neglect. But the more I’ve read it, the more I’ve seen that actually it’s a book shot through with a vitality that defies the darkness, and seeks something better. With Arcturus, the darkness is not the end point, but the beginning, and the impulse behind it is one of uncompromisingly seeking something better.)

Ad from The Times, September 1920

I like how open to interpretation A Voyage to Arcturus is, even while it has an evident meaning. Yes, it’s a gnostic text, but also it’s an exploration of a certain sort of psychological state that (in my view) is more fundamental than any religious or philosophical outlook: if you are not your authentic self (if you are Maskull, as opposed to Nightspore), then the world will seem like Crystalman’s prison, and it will be hard, dangerous work trying to untangle yourself from it. (Lindsay’s friend, E H Visiak, read the book in completely Christian terms; Colin Wilson read it as an allegory of consciousness; J B Pick saw it as vision.)

Most recently, I’ve come to see A Voyage to Arcturus as an incredibly rich archetype of the quest for truth. (And I think it’s in the book’s archetypal, or mythical, structure that its power lies — it certainly wasn’t its ideas that grabbed me on that first read, but something far more instinctual, mythical, musical even.)

Romanian edition

The protagonist Maskull begins the book not really invested in any search for truth as such, but once he gets caught up in it, he goes through all the possible stages of being deceived, wrong-footed, sidetracked, aggrandised, defeated, converted, bamboozled, disillusioned and overwhelmed, before finally, worn out through a series of breakneck back-and-forths, he snaps, and finds the simplicity and truth he was seeking all along — a simplicity that transforms him from Maskull to Nightspore, and turns the world from benighted deception into one lit by a beacon of pure truth (Muspel-fire).

I still find Lindsay himself something of a mystery. The power of his first novel was never quite equalled — except in snatches — in his subsequent books, though I have found all of them more and more interesting the more I read them. But the question I’m still undecided on is how in command of his material Lindsay was. Did he know what he was doing? I don’t think any creative artist of any real power does entirely, but there’s still the question of how much they know what they’re doing. A Voyage to Arcturus’s utter strangeness could be down to a certain naivety on Lindsay’s part, a beginner’s luck approach of letting his wild imagination go utterly free before the self-consciousness of post-publication hit him with how he ought to write. But hints in his letters — a reference to the mystical German writer Jakob Böhme for instance — make it clear he wasn’t an entirely innocent wanderer in fairyland, either.

Lindsay from the cover of Bernard Sellin’s Life & Works of David Lindsay

“Only a very few people will ever read Arcturus,” he reportedly once said to Victor Gollancz, “but as long as even two or three people will listen to Beethoven, two or three people will read it.” A Voyage to Arcturus now seems to have found an established place on many lists of classics of SF, fantasy, and imaginative literature, as well as Scottish novels, and even early 20th century fiction generally, and every few days I get a Google Alert telling me that someone, somewhere, on Twitter or some obscure internet forum, is recommending it as one of the strangest and most compelling books they’ve read. (Or, more rarely, saying it’s the most boring or incomprehensible book they’ve ever read.)

In a way, then, Lindsay has been proved right. Beethoven is certainly in no danger of not being listened to; now, I hope, A Voyage to Arcturus is in no danger of ever not being read, even if just by a few.

Lilith by George MacDonald

Cover by Jim Lamb

After Phantastes, published when he was in his early thirties, George MacDonald’s Lilith came out in 1895, when he was 70. Phantastes was a coming-of-age novel, and written by a man who, like its protagonist Anodos, was still finding his way in life — having abandoned his initial career as a minister, and now starting to make his living as a writer. Lilith is still a novel about the quest for the authentic self, but it’s no longer about that initial, coming-of-age moment of self-discovery; it’s about redemption for one’s failings in life, and a reconnection with the innocence of childhood.

It begins with its protagonist, Mr Vane, spending his days reading in his family’s library, where he encounters the mysterious figure of Mr Raven, who appears to have been popping into the lives of Vane’s family for some time. (He knew Vane’s forefather, Sir Upward, whose name makes me think of Anodos from Phantastes, one of the meanings of whose name is “upward path”.) Raven shows Vane how to access another world through a mirror in the attic, a world which is not so much a different physical location as a place that exists alongside, and in the same space, as ours, “In the region of the seven dimensions”:

I was in a world, or call it a state of things, an economy of conditions, an idea of existence, so little correspondent with the ways and modes of this world—which we are apt to think the only world, that the best choice I can make of word or phrase is but an adumbration of what I would convey.

Events there are that much more self-evidently meaningful:

While without a doubt, for instance, that I was actually regarding a scene of activity, I might be, at the same moment, in my consciousness aware that I was perusing a metaphysical argument.

Mr Raven, who seems to mix the roles of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat and David Lindsay’s Krag, is full of paradoxical-sounding but vaguely threatening advice, all of which turns out to be literally true in this parallel realm, if only Vane could understand him, and which is ultimately directed at redeeming Vane’s soul. The trouble is, Raven seems to be saying that the only way to truly live is to die, and he even has a place in his cellar among all the other dead people waiting for him:

“None of those you see,” he answered, “are in truth quite dead yet, and some have but just begun to come alive and die. Others had begun to die, that is to come alive, long before they came to us; and when such are indeed dead, that instant they will wake and leave us. Almost every night some rise and go. But I will not say more, for I find my words only mislead you!—This is the couch that has been waiting for you,” he ended, pointing to one of the three.

Cover by Gervasio Gallardo

Vane decides not to “die” just yet, and instead sets out into this strange new world. He meets a group of parentless forest-dwelling children, who speak in that awful baby-speak so many Victorian children’s writers forced into their young characters’ mouths. Nearby, there’s a race of stupid giants — and as the children also call Vane a giant, it’s obvious these are in fact merely adults. Some of the children occasionally grow into stupid giants, others remain children. Vane wants to help these children grow up properly, without the risk of turning into stupid giants, and so journeys to the city of Bulika, ruled by a princess who doesn’t allow any children in her land, as there’s a prophecy that a child will one day kill her. This princess is in fact the vampire Lilith, Adam’s first wife who left when he said he’d never “obey and worship” her, and who has turned her realm into a waterless desert whose selfish people love only riches. (George MacDonald seems to have regarded wealth as the greatest of sins: “But with God all things are possible: He can save even the rich!”) Vane’s attempts to save the children and overcome Lilith’s evil are closely entwined with his own need to redeem himself and, finally, lie down in Mr Raven’s room and “die” so that he may, mysteriously, live.

Lilith is an odd mix of at times cutesy Victorian fantasy and at others dark, almost existential, psychology. Of the children in the book, J B Pick, in The Great Shadow House (a study of Scottish authors with a metaphysical bent), says:

“The problem is not merely that MacDonald is sentimental about children — that’s common enough in Victorian writers — but that sentimentality is essentially an evasion of reality by wishful-feeling, and its all-pervasiveness casts doubt upon the author’s ability to think straight on other issues.”

He goes on, however, to praise the “intense psychological penetration” of the cornered Lilith’s resistance to being redeemed. Redemption, in this world, requires the renunciation of the self — or, at least, of the willed self — as symbolised by the sleep of death, and Lilith is at first too obsessed with being the person she has made of herself, dark though it is, and not the person she was made (by God) to be. But this self-willed identity is, in the novel, a state of life-in-death:

She knew life only to know that it was dead, and that, in her, death lived. It was not merely that life had ceased in her, but that she was consciously a dead thing. She had killed her life, and was dead—and knew it.

There are moments where Vane himself feels the sort of dread the Existentialists of the 20th century would write about:

Then first I knew what an awful thing it was to be awake in the universe: I was, and could not help it!

And also the sort of idea Hermann Hesse presented in Demian, that a human being is not a finished thing, but an experiment, or a process, always in a state of becoming:

I saw now that a man alone is but a being that may become a man—that he is but a need, and therefore a possibility.

As a result, although MacDonald is clearly writing about a Christian redemption achieved through giving oneself up to God — and returning to the unconvincing, innocent state of his over-cute children — it nevertheless brings in a psychological complexity that means it’s far from presenting it as an easy, simple, or painless thing to do.

Lilith has a mixed feel. On the one hand, there’s the obvious joy Vane takes in the children, which can’t help but make me think of the grandfatherly MacDonald allowing himself to be piled on, and have his beard tugged by, his no-doubt numerous grandchildren (he had, after all, eleven children, so could easily have had a small army of grandkids); on the other, there’s a sense of still, even at the end of life, trying to find a solution to the riddle of oneself, and the burden that being, and willing, bring to the life of a human soul. As Mr Raven says, at one point:

“Indeed you are yourself the only riddle. What you call riddles are truths, and seem riddles because you are not true.”

As a fantasy, I found it a lot less enjoyable than Phantastes, even though its story was more focused. (It still had its bizarre episodes that did little to help the plot except add wonders and horrors, as in the land where monsters and wild animals burst out of and back into the ground, or the ruined castle where skeletons dance at night.) It seems, to me, that MacDonald never wrote enough of this sort of adult fantasy to really hone the form, but nevertheless had a natural feel for how to make serious use of his imagination.

MacDonald’s two adult fantasies were both early entries in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series (Phantastes coming out in April 1969, Lilith in September the same year), their contents perfectly suited to those flower-powerishly innocent Gervasio Gallardo covers, with their mix of childlike wonder and fairy-tale strangeness. But there’s definitely a darker element there, too, and at its most potent in Lilith’s resistant struggle to being redeemed in Mr Raven’s life-in-death House of Bitterness. This comes across as a little too genuine to be merely MacDonald’s invention, but more likely something he felt, to some degree, himself.