Having spent the last few post dealing with the work of old reading friends, this post sees me moving into less familiar territory. I recognise Gustav Meyrink’s name from The Golem, of course, but Georg Heym’s name and work are unknown to me so far. Or, rather, and I suspect this is much nearer the truth, I may have encountered both writers in the past and kind of … well, glided past them. My younger self, for all that she loved exuberant and exotic language – with writers like E.R. Eddison, it’s hard to avoid – was rather less fond of exotic imagery, oriental fantasies, tales of cruelty, and so on. She would have found Kubin’s ‘The Other Side’ intensely disturbing, for example. She wanted security in her reading, and Tolkien, ghost stories, and so on, provided that because they operated within historical and metaphysical frameworks that she understood.
More overtly transgressive work was problematic, and for years I simply didn’t have the reading skills to deal with it. It is to be hoped that things have improved over the years, but I am acutely aware that my reading tends to run along well-marked Anglocentric pathways. Part of the reason I’m carrying out this extended reading is to challenge myself with unfamiliar approaches to writing, and to read work from other countries.
Meyrink’s ‘The Man in the Bottle’ places us without ceremony in the middle of a masked ball. There are no explanations, but the reader picks up snippets of gossip as she is moved through the throng by the author, handed from one character to another. First, there is speculation about the identity of the woman in the spectacular costume that makes her look like a bat at rest, upside down – Meyrink’s description of this remains a little vague; if we are to believe one character, perhaps a little drunk, the occupant of the costume is herself upside down, which is impossible, but we might wonder. The story rides the flow of gossip, the hints of an illicit liaison between the Count de Faast and the wife of his highness, Mohammed Darasche-Koh, the party’s host; the absurdity of the costumes – a Gordian knot rushes past, pursued by Alexander the Great. For the most part people are not named, they are characters, stripped of personal identity, possessed of identities conferred by their clothes. They are not, for the most part, accessible to us, except in vague hints and allusions.
What is also interesting, and clearly intentional, is the way that the characters lack any sense of awareness that something terrible is about to happen. To me, it seems to be signalled from the outset; that sense of the characters whirling around aimlessly; the nervousness about the prince, described as a jealous Asiatic, with vague undertones of Othello. There is a sense of suppressed unease, of people dancing and gossiping to distract themselves. Surely, when the ‘crimson executioner’ signals the start of the entertainment, they might wonder. That the play is billed as being a ‘Marionette Comedy in the Spirit of Aubrey Beardsley’ surely doesn’t bode well, and someone is bruiting abroad the fact that it will be gruesome. One wonders how many more clues the audience might need.
One senses that this throng has lost touch with what it means to be human, to fully feel emotions, or else its appetites are so jaded it seeks ever more extreme thrills without fully recognising the horror of what is happening in front of it. Thus, in this case, the people watch a man being dropped into a large glass bottle from which he cannot escape, after which the top is screwed down tight, and the prince is seated on the bottle. Pierrot, Count de Faast, becomes the genie in the bottle who cannot escape, who cannot be summoned, and also the incidental background for the marionette show, where ‘[t]he semblance of death brooded over the entire motionless group’ (73). The symbolism of the marionettes is difficult to escape, for as is clear to the outsider, this whole court dances under the control of the prince, who is firmly reminding them of the court’s power structure even as they watch. Yet the people do not seem to realise that they are as much puppets as the marionettes that they are watching, or if they do, fear prevents them acknowledging this. In the same way, they seem unable to acknowledge that they are watching the man in the bottle as he dies.
The spectators had formed themselves into two camps. The one was speechless under the spell of this vampiric, enigmatic marionette play that seemed to exhale an atmosphere of poisoned merriment; the other group, not sensitive enough to appreciate such a scene, laughed immoderately at the comical capering of the man in the bottle. (73)
Again, when the Lady in the Sedan Chair is brought onto the stage and placed close to the bottle, it’s clear, from the reaction of the Man in the Bottle, that something terrible is taking place before their eyes, and the reader probably has a shrewd idea what it is, but from the audience ‘[l]aughter and applause rose to a tumult’ (73).
It is interesting to try to pinpoint the moment when realisation dawns. I think it comes at the point when ‘one of the Moors haltingly approached the sedan chair and opened the door’ (73) (my italics). Until this point there has been motion and the lack of motion. Motion has been fast and furious – dancing, thronging, rushing – while motionlessness is equated with death or paralysis, and particularly with the marionettes, but to move hesitantly is something new. It suggests uncertainty, a relinquishing of control somewhere, but simultaneously that someone else in control. Jerky movement suggests puppets, the first time there has been a sense of a marionette moving as it ought to. We note that the Persian prince has also become motionless. As a frenzy of activity erupts he is suddenly absent.
This is on the one hand a remarkably unpleasant little tale of a hideously thought-out punishment for adultery, with two people murdered before one another’s eyes, by someone who has the time, money and patience to wreak such revenge. On the other, there is something indefinably odd going on here. Who is in charge? Who is controlling the marionettes, who seem to move independently There are no strings, no puppet masters, only the Prince, and now he is gone. Indeed, the more deeply one probes the story, the less it seems to make sense, and one begins to understand the reason for the story’s last sentence:
Silently and with invisible pinions the gigantic ebon birds of terror streaked through the hall of the fête. (74)
There is something else going on here. I find myself wondering what happens in the next line of the story, the one after it finishes. Georg Heym’s ‘The Dissection’ is tiny by contrast even with the Meyrink, a prose poem, a reverie, as the introduction notes. It is a fantastical description of a dissection. We know nothing about the man being dissected, why he is being dissected, though there are hints that he has been wounded. Heym draws a weird and dreadful beauty from the bloated rotting corpse: ‘His body resembled the iridescent calyx of some gigantic flower, a mysterious plant from Indian primeval forests that someone had shyly laid at the altar of death’ (75).
The description of the dissection itself is the stuff of nightmares, exaggerated for effect, perhaps, but revoltingly physical and visceral, more like an abattoir than a scene of scientific endeavour. Which makes what happens next all the more shocking, when, as the doctors cut apart his skull, ‘a remainder of love awoke in him, like a torch shining in his personal night’ (75). Suddenly, the reader is pitched into the corpse’s memories of his love, of a summer’s day, of seeing her dressed in poppy red, a stark contrast to his own black blood.
The juxtaposition of a beautiful memory and the decaying horror of the body is extraordinary; to call it beautiful seems perverse, and yet there is something so passionate, so vibrantly alive in this crumb of residual memory, with the promise that love survives all, that one accepts it and somehow steps aside from the horror of the operating table, as the dead man quivers in happiness at his memory.
It would be wrong to pass a judgement on the whole of the European weird/fantastic literary tradition based on two small stories, but at the same time, I cannot deny that the mood of them is different. They’re more introspective, perhaps, more sensual, more … decadent, more grotesque. Neither is overtly supernatural in the way that, say, the Crawford, James or Blackwood are; their weirdness emerges in other ways. This, I’m sure, is where I got into trouble as a young reader. The weirdness is, in many ways, more overt yet less direct, an intellectual oddness. That’s a thought to hold onto as I continue reading.