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Review: Mothlight by Adam Scovell

At the heart of Adam Scovell’s Mothlight (2019) lies a mystery. Why did Phyllis Ewans hate Billie, her sister, so very much? To the extent that when the elderly Billie scalds herself with a hot drink, Phyllis ignores the fact until Thomas’s grandmother discovers the situation and has Billie admitted to hospital. Thomas’s grandmother is already caring for Billie, despite Phyllis sharing a house with Billie, and at this point Phyllis effectively turns over all responsibility for her care to Thomas’s grandparents. When Billie dies, it is they who arrange her funeral and deal with the legalities. Meanwhile, Phyllis has gone about her business as usual, even as far as going on holiday, apparently determined to forget as soon as possible that her sister ever existed. That  any photographs of Billie still exist is because Thomas’s grandmother, realising what Phyllis Ewans would do, rescued them, to ensure she was not forgotten.

As mysteries go, the solution will prove in some ways to be comparatively banal, although underlying it is a matter of profound importance to Phyllis , and to another person. Yet Thomas, the narrator of the story, will apparently be unable to comprehend the nature of the mystery or its solution, refusing to see what is apparently staring him in the face. Perhaps it is simply because he is so completely out of kilter with the world around him, though why that might be is unclear. We could maybe start with his having been “a shy and inward-looking boy” (11), at least according to his grandmother. Why he spent so much time with his grandparents is not explained, but there is already a sense of something lurking unacknowledged in his early childhood.

His parents seem to be entirely absent, and his grandparents have taken on some sort of parental role. They are also the facilitators of his first meetings with the Ewans sisters even as they later forbid him to keep in touch with Phyllis Ewans. Their own connection with the Ewans sisters seems to be purely business—Thomas’s grandfather runs a grocery business and they are customers, albeit customers who rarely pay their bills. With hindsight we may wonder why it was that Thomas’s grandparents tolerated this running debt, but it is not a question that Thomas ever asks himself.

As he grows older, Thomas will describe himself thus:

I became a lonely teenager, interested only in things that could excuse such loneliness. These were namely an insistence on long walks in Wales at the weekend and an increasing interest in moths.

Scovell, Mothlight, 28

Whether the loneliness begat the walking and the pursuit of moths, or whether the walking and the pursuit of moths begat the loneliness is unclear, not least because Thomas himself seems uncertain, but as the novel unfolds it becomes more and more difficult to imagine that Thomas ever had an existence that was separate from either Billie or Phyllis Ewans so closely is his life entwined with theirs. Indeed it is almost as though they somehow brought him into existence. When, after Phyllis’s death he painstakingly begins his examination of her possessions, one has the sense that Thomas is as much hunting for himself as for the explanation of Phyllis’s animus towards Billie, and the deeper secret that Phyllis herself hides. And it’s difficult not to conclude that, for all he has been obsessed for years with Miss Ewans, he has come to stand in relationship to Phyllis much as she once stood in relation to Billie, and that she is as much a necessary part of his life as she is an annoyance.

By his own admission, Thomas begins to haunt Phyllis’s life, infected as he is by “the parasite of her interests” (37), and yet he seeks to suggest too that his early interest is superficial, something he has picked up “in the way that many do when young and impressionable, and so I took to the most obvious ways to express this interest by fumbling around in an amateurish manner, and with little success ” (39). But the opening words of the novel undermine all of this:

To my knowledge, Phyllis Ewans had only two great preoccupations in her long life: walking and moths. An interest in these same two subjects also grew within me after a number of years of knowing her; such was the power of her influence.

Scovell, Mothlight, 10

So which is it to be? Has Phyllis exercised a magnetic influence over Thomas since almost the moment they first met (although, by his own admission, Phyllis first takes an interest in him because Billie has already taken an interest in him), or has Thomas, for whatever perverse reason, modelled himself on Phyllis Ewans, and taken on her interests and, perhaps also, her life? There is undeniably something strange about the interest that both women take in him, and indeed about their relationship with one another. Billie is described as being “much older than her sister” (11) and Thomas will later say “they were only sisters in name, and I still harbour daydreams surrounding the likelihood of their differing parentage” (11). One begins to wonder if in fact Billie is Phyllis’s mother rather than her sister. And, eventually, one can’t help wondering if Thomas has come to imagine he is Phyllis’s son.

Meanwhile, Thomas’s narrative proceeds in fits and starts, as though he cannot even find the right place to begin the story. He constantly backtracks in his attempt to tell the story, pulled between the past, present and future, apparently unable to locate himself in his own narrative. Or perhaps, more accurately and more appropriately, he is circling the story, like a moth drawn to a flame, only to find himself caught in a death spiral, unable to resist his attraction to the light but unable to explain it either. At one point, just after Billie’s funeral, Thomas talks of “following blindly towards the light if only to uncover the reason for [Phyllis’s] character. This was the curiosity she had imbued in me with parasitic precision” (28). Which is to imply yet again that Phyllis Ewans herself is responsible for causing Thomas to stalk her as obsessively as he does—and let us not mince words; he stalks her—when it is his own fascination that drives him, a fascination that his grandparents do their best to counter: “I was not allowed to write or converse with her due to the great divide between her and my family”, this presumably referring to the quarrel when Phyllis left Thomas’s grandparents to take care of everything after Billie’s hospitalisation. But then, by Thomas’s own admission, he “could not have done so at any rate as there was no forwarding address for her new London home” (41).

All this in itself might be enough for a short novel: how Thomas accidentally rediscovers Phyllis Ewans in London, when he starts work in a university entomology department and hears her name mentioned. How they begin to meet regularly and talk, how Thomas begins to sense a deeper mystery, and how he insinuates himself into her life, becoming her de facto carer. Whether she actually requires this is not entirely clear, but as Thomas puts it: “She needed to be healthy for as long as conceivably possible in order to pass on her secrets to me” (68).

What does Phyllis Ewans get from this arrangement, apart from a devoted slave? According to Thomas, it’s stories. “This was an explicit requirement, as Miss Ewans seemed to draw energy from them, almost as nourishment” (68), and Thomas devotes much of his time to telling her stories of his experiences when out moth-hunting, or retelling them, altering them, embellishing them.

And it is at this point that the novel takes a strange turn. Or, rather, that something that has been happening already becomes more explicit. Thomas calls them “visions”; the first occurs at the graveside when Billie’s coffin is lowered into the grave. Thomas describes himself as being somehow attacked by “a skein of moths”(27), an image drawn from a photograph of Billie with, behind her, an ornament of some sort that looks precisely like “hordes of moths” (27). The fluttering of paper wings will dog Thomas as his mental health appears to deteriorate, but that is not all.

Another time, walking alone in Snowdonia, long before meeting Phyllis Ewans again, Thomas experiences a vision of a lake, and from a jetty a woman staring at him. “I had become aware of my own detachment from reality. I could feel the spray of water from the breeze and sometimes felt a hand holding mine” (42). Later, he finds a photograph taken by Phyllis Ewans, documenting precisely the scene he had encountered in a Welsh forest, and asks himself, “whose hand had held mine” (43). By his own admission these teenage experiences have an “accumulative, traumatic effect on my own psyche” (43). And later, as an adult, the hand returns. In one particularly disturbing scene, as Thomas tells Phyllis about a visit to a nature reserve, one they had both visited, though not at the same time.

I felt a hand grasp my own. It was, I just knew, the same hand that had held mine in the forest in North Wales: a woman’s hand, slender and friendly. […] More unnerving than the feeling of the hand in mine was the uncanny change it seemed to make to my own. I looked down to my side in my memory of walking around the serve and found my hand to be slender and feminine with longer, ill-kept fingernails.

Scovell, Mothlight, 70-71

These occurrences increase after Phyllis Ewans’ death, particularly when Thomas is sorting her photographs, many of which appear, uncannily, to document places that he has also visited, although more than once Phyllis Ewans has denied having ever visited them. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Thomas chooses to interpret these synchronicities as Phyllis Ewans attempting to send him messages, and maybe he is correct insofar as Phyllis has chosen to retain these photographs for a reason, though not to communicate with him from beyond the grave.

All first-person narrators are unreliable to some extent, but Thomas regularly undermines his own recollections by repeating them with variations, particularly when it comes to his own creation story, rather in the same way as he has repeated stories to Phyllis. Yet, while his interpretation of the strange encounters might be suspect, there is a sincerity in the way he describes the encounters themselves that suggests that some of them at least are genuine, for values of genuine that presuppose a belief in the supernatural. It’s not entirely clear what Thomas believes but it is clear that he continues to find the experiences deeply unsettling. His mental breakdown after the death of Phyllis Ewans only makes matters worse while at the same time driving him to finally solve the central mystery of her life, following a breadcrumb trail of hidden photographs, entries in an address book, and a name: Elsa.

Indeed, the answer has, to some extent, been within Thomas’s grasp all along had he not been too naive to fully understand the meaning of that ghostly hand in his, and the associated “feeling of nervousness about this, [that] no one could be allowed to see us holding hands, whosoever she was […]. It was not simply down to the fact that our affection was a secret […] but that it was considered highly improper as well” (71). It comes as no surprise, in the end, to learn why it was that Phyllis returned so often to North Wales, or to find that Billie had discovered her secret and had acted upon that knowledge to the detriment of those involved.

For all that he claims at the end that he has always known, but can only accept if “the confirmation was spoken out loud” (150), one wonders what it is, at this stage, that Thomas does know. Or, perhaps, more accurately, what he is willing to accept. He seems convinced that Heather, Elsa’s daughter, can tell him for sure, but this is the one thing that she will not do, although she knows the story well enough, and has already confirmed Billie’s betrayal. This suggests that she suspects that Thomas wants her to tell him something else. Heather’s refusal to meet Thomas’s unspoken demand, in the very last sentence of the novel, is remarkably powerful; a moment of clarity after all of Thomas’s own evasions, underlying the fact of his having intruded into a story that is in fact not his to fully know.

And perhaps Thomas has also had the answer to the “hauntings”, if such they are, all along. As a teenager he realised that place is often emphasised in the visions, and later recalls Phyllis Ewans talking of “place being essentially the ghost of all our lives” (44).

I imagined her amused look, peering over my shoulder when the synchronous moments occurred, and found much likeness between her past and my past, albeit my past already had hers intertwined within it. Such dizzying thoughts would plague my mind as if we were, in fact, the same person: a reflection of simulacra displaced by some impossible mistake. All of this could simply have been down to our shared geographies and our shared passion for moths, but it went deeper than that.

Scovell, Mothlight, 44

All this would be enough in itself to make Mothlight a diverting read, if maybe a little mannered in its telling, as if Scovell is trying just slightly too hard for effect. Unsurprisingly, the inside of Thomas’s head is a rather exhausting, self-pitying and self-justifying place to be for long periods of time, not to mention having to spend much of the novel watching him fail to grasp what is so obvious to anyone reading it.

But this is not where the novel ends, and perhaps is not even where the novel begins. For this is a novel with photographs. In the acknowledgements at the end of this book, Adam Scovell tells us that Mothlight is constructed around a series of photos, which, apparently, he inherited from his grandmother and the “real ‘Phyllis’”, although the circumstances remain vague. It is therefore some kind of “found” piece, insofar as the photographs act as prompts of some sort and the novel is constructed around them. If we take the acknowledgements at face value, the co-opting of the photos into a story is assumed to have been permitted (and for all we know the story being told is indeed the story they told, or some version of it), but there is something disconcerting about the thought that these photographs could have as easily come from somewhere else, and that perhaps, one day the subjects of the photographs, or their descendants, might accidentally find themselves, pressed between pages, in a piece of fiction that is really nothing to do with them.

This is perhaps the risk a creator of “found” pieces runs, and maybe it adds a frisson to the act of creation, but something always feels vaguely wrong to me in these cases. As readers we become reluctant voyeurs, colluding in someone else’s act of appropriation. One might argue that this in fact sets the tone for the entire novel because it is in part a massive act of appropriation but equally, it can feel a little as though the author is producing this extra evidence as “proof” when it is nothing of the sort. Which is not to say that novels with photographs are inherently bad, but in this instance their inclusion feels jejune rather than illuminating. Although there is no denying that the first photograph of “Phyllis Ewans”, in which the female figure lurks in the background, hidden behind an English bulldog that sits front and centre, is remarkably striking. It is surely just a trick of the light that the sun glinting on her large round glasses make it look as though she has the eyes of an insect.

I think, though, that these photographs are not so much about co-opting unsuspecting people into the story as they are about signalling a connection with another text, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a novel that is intensely present throughout this text, but perhaps never more so than when Sebald mentions Thomas Browne’s Musæum Clausum, and his inclusion of the bamboo walking canes in which two Persian friars smuggled silkworm eggs out of China, a section illustrated with a black and white photograph of a plate from a book of moths. By contrast, the only visual representation of a moth to be found in Mothlight is in Vince Haig’s beautiful collage cover design, where the moth’s wings are a patchwork assemblage of the photographs which lurk at the heart of this novel.

Sebald’s approach to writing Rings of Saturn is pretty much self-evident (and I do urge you to read his narrative; there was nothing else quite like it at the time, and since then, while many have attempted to emulate him, they have done so without really coming as close as they like to imagine). The text’s framework is a record of a walk he makes along the coast of East Anglia, in part as a celebration of recovering from illness, described at the beginning of the narrative. Each chapter spirals out from Sebald’s direct experience to a consideration of previous inhabitants of East Anglia (most notably Thomas Browne, writer of the incomparable “Urne Burial”, itself a meditation on the history of the area, and of past burial practices) and beyond, intertwined with the history of Sebald’s own family in Germany. Although it is at heart a narrative in search of a rootedness, it is noticeably a very outward-looking book, even if the narrative returns to home at the end of each chapter, “home” being wherever Sebald happens to find himself at that point but also a process of finding or relocating “home”. Importantly, it is also illustrated with a mixture of Sebald’s own photographs of his journey and appropriate material from photographic archives. Scovell’s approach is, we might say, Sebaldian, but it is also antithetically Sebaldian. While Sebald looks outward, recording his discoveries, Scovell’s narrator turns ever inward, somehow finding less and less to record.

Sebald’s photographs can be seen in terms of a very mundane act, documenting an account of a journey—sophisticated holiday snaps, but holiday snaps nonetheless; their interest lies as much as anything in the fact of Sebald having taken or curated them—but can the same be said of the photos taken or collected by Phyllis Ewans? What is it that Phyllis is actually documenting? We can choose to read them as documenting an innocent series of journeys through North Wales, or, covertly, documenting a love affair, if one knows how to read the signs, which Thomas clearly does not. But, talking about a particular series of photos Phyllis Ewans takes of Billie’s bedroom after Billie’s death, as if to underline her sister’s absence, Thomas notes that ‘Phyllis Ewans forced the ghost into the space, capturing it within an image of itself to control the existence of its memory” (31), and seems almost to be proposing that Phyllis uses the photograph to capture her subjects and memories, almost in the same way as she captures and mounts a moth.

There are many other influences in play, many of them folk horror-related, as one might expect of the person who devised the Folk Horror Chain. I was reminded of M.R. James’s neurasthenic academics, hastily scribbling down their accounts of dealings with the supernatural while awaiting the next act in their personal drama of revelatory horror drama: at the beginning of the novel Thomas alludes to being “plagued by my illness”. Phyllis Ewans’ alleged preoccupation with walking makes me think of Nan Shepherd, writer of The Living Mountain, and patron saint of so many modern walker-writers (though I am not aware she had any particular interest in moths). The novel’s dedication “For Nan” thus takes on a certain ambiguity—is he honouring his grandmother or someone else?

And there is more than a whiff of Great Expectations about this novel, the film as much as the book. Thomas’s initial meeting with Billie and Phyllis, a small boy’s encounter with two strange women, is memorably recounted.

Much of the furnishing was incredibly old and a thin mist of dust and debris was always visible. I’d never seen dust such as this before and quietly enjoyed disturbing it with my hand to create shapes and tiny whorls in the air. The walls were covered with mounted moths and, with hindsight, I imagine this dust to be an atmosphere of scales comprised of [sic] insect wings.

Scovell, Mothlight, 10

Billie certainly has a flavour of Miss Havisham about her, with Phyllis taking on the role of Estella. Billie ‘still had the air of a great and fashionable lady, brought over from her youth which was one filled with expensive fur coats, pearls, jewels and silken stockings’ (11), and everyone is surprised at her great interest in Thomas. The narrator describes how ‘Billie reached for a small purse tucked under numerous layers of clothing and blankets. Her spindly fingers, no doubt thought of as delicate and desirable some forty years previous, wrapped themselves around a rolled-up note. […] This bought my attention for some time on that visit, during which I all but ignored Phyllis Ewans’ (12). One cannot help but wonder whether Phyllis wasn’t also enacting a long and complex revenge for being overlooked, not least in the way she deliberately shows him a mounting of a poplar hawk moth, almost forcing it upon his attention.

As my grandfather went to leave, Phyllis Ewans decided to show me a specimen she had hanging in the furthest part of the hallway. Seeing an opportunity to discuss her favourite subject, she took the mounted insect off the wall and began to tell of its history with great gusto and character […] The moth had stood out from the others due to its great size and its solitary mounting. […] It seemed to my young eyes even then to possess some secretive important, some unique position ahead of all the other moths.

Scovell, Mothlight, 13

Clearly, for the adult narrator, this is an important moment in retrospect, but at the time? Later he will claim that Billie attempted to disrupt ‘my own burgeoning interest in walking and moths’ by showing him photographs, and perhaps with good reason if she associates moths with sexual transgression, but we are left with a powerful sense of two women bickering over the young Thomas’s future, and in effect crushing it before it has even begun, even as the mounting of the poplar hawk moth is later smashed: we are told this from the outset then spend much of the novel waiting for it to happen.

Then I began to wonder about the novel’s title, which I incidentally like very much. Was “mothlight ” Scovell’s own coinage, I wondered, or was it another of those words that Robert Macfarlane is seeking to reintroduce to our daily vocabulary? When I searched online, I found something unexpected. “Mothlight” is not original to Scovell but is in fact the title of a very short collage film made in 1963 by Stan Brakhage.

Unusually, Brakhage’s film was created without the aid of a camera; it involved pressing found objects between strips of splicing tape and then running them through a projector. Brakhage was inspired by seeing moths drawn to a candle flame. He identified powerfully with “these crazy moths […] flying into the candlelight, and burning themselves to death” and wanted to incorporate them into his artistic practice. He struggled to film live moths and eventually turned to dead ones instead:

Over the lightbulbs there’s all these dead moth wings, and I … hate that. Such a sadness; there must surely be something to do with that. I tenderly picked them out and start pasting them onto a strip of film, to try to … give them life again, to animate them again, to try to put them into some sort of life through the motion picture machine.


Watching “Mothlight” online is an odd experience – an intense storm of detritus appears on the screen, some of it identifiable as insect body parts, the rest of it unrecognisable. There seems to be some debate about how it would have originally been experienced, but there is an idea that the whirr and clatter of the projector would evoke the idea of wings beating, while the light from the projector would illuminate the dust motes floating in the air, as Scovell describes them above. It is difficult to know how to respond to these images of carnage; the natural impulse is to construct a narrative around them but the story, such as it is, lies in the film’s provenance rather than the film itself. The insect parts are momentarily animated but they die all over again once the film is run.

Which might be another way to read Mothlight; not as a text constructed around a series of found “prompts” or clues but more as a series of artefacts pressed between the pages of another book, tumbling out into the reader’s vision, to be made into a story according to how they fall. Which is a pretty conceit, reinforced to a degree by the recurring image of fluttering wings, as though supernaturally emphasising that this text is not what you think it is. But no, that feels a little too clever.

By this point the novel as artefact is becoming as much a treasure hunt as it is a novel. On the one hand, I’m up for a treasure hunt, yet on the other it quickly becomes annoying. Is this what I’m supposed to be doing? Or is the fact that I have to go away and do the research a mark against me, in that I don’t already know? But still I continue, uncomfortably aware that as a reader I am now, like Thomas, painstakingly, if reluctantly in my case, rummaging through the material made available.

The epigraph quotes words spoken by Jacques Derrida in Ken McMullen’s 1983 film, Ghost Dance. The film itself claims to explore the beliefs and myths surrounding the existence of ghosts and the nature of cinema, which might in turn prompt us to consider Mothlight as an act of cinema on the page. I am, I admit, suspicious of this as an idea. I don’t think the two are entirely analogous, and inserting pictures into a novel really isn’t going to change that. Having said that, Ghost Dance is a mesmerising film, making me think of nothing so much as Chris Marker’s La Jetée, another “found” story. Derrida appears near the beginning of the film, as himself, theorising to one of the characters in a very entertaining cameo. He’s obviously enjoying himself, and in turn we enjoy his pleasure at being in the film. But it is what he has to say about ghosts that should be the focus of our attention. “To be haunted by a ghost is to remember something you’ve never lived through. For memory is the past that has never taken the form of the present.” And this seems to me to be at the heart of Thomas’s experience. He might be reliving Phyllis’s memories through his handling of her photographs, or maybe he is trying to relive something that never happened at all.

It was a section of narration later in the film that really caught my attention. An unseen man says: “The more things break up, the more myths flourish, attempting to make historical sense out of historical chaos”, and this seems to me to be very much how we are initially invited to read Mothlight. Yet, one of the characters poses a question that undermines this: “Do you think these myths are an attempt to avoid something?”

The question remains, hanging, as the novel ends. As does another question:  does this novel need to parade its props and influences when the story itself is sufficient?

Reading C by Tom McCarthy #10 – Appendix

One last post about C, the novel that seems to keep on giving by resisting any coherent interpretation. However, this post is a round-up of odds and ends that occurred to me while I was working on it.

First, a few bits by and about McCarthy himself, including an interview in the Guardian (24/07/10), which reminds me that there is so much I’m just not getting about this novel, and a recorded interview (also downloadable). Also, a piece by McCarthy himself … here

Then, as I was reading, I kept being reminded of other books that seemed to have some kind of connection with it, so here, in no particular order, are a few that resonated with me.

Alain-Fournier – Le Grand Meaulnes (variously known in English as The Lost Domain, The Lost Estate, The Wanderer). This is one of my favourite novels so I recommend it anyway, but I find certain resonances between Versoie and the lost domain that Meaulnes discovers and then spends years trying to relocate. On the other hand, Meaulnes is everything that Serge is not.

More on Alain-Fournier here and here (with photographs of some of the settings.

Kitty Hauser – Bloody Old Britain, about the archaeologist, O.S.G. Crawford, who first recognised the potential of aerial photography in archaeology. Crawford flew as an observer in World War One, and spent much of his working life with the Ordnance Survey (you can see why I was thinking of Serge, can’t you?). He was an strange and complex man, out of step with the world in which he found himself, fascinated by oddities; a man who became seized with the idea of recording aspects of life he felt were under threat. He has a huge, pretty much uncatalogued archive of photographs of things like doorways and architectural bits and pieces, kept in one of the Oxford museums. Review of book here.

A couple of years ago, I read Erik Larsen’s Thunderstruck, about Marconi and Crippen, two men with no connection whatsoever, other than that Crippen’s arrest for murder was facilitated by telegraph. In many ways, this really was a book of two halves. Both were interesting, but they didn’t belong together. However, I mention it here because of another character who featured, the scientist, Oliver Lodge, who also worked on early telegraphy. I was immediately reminded of him when I began reading C because of the way in which Lodge was so easily distractible from what he was doing, a little like Simeon – Larsen describes it as a ‘lofty dilettantism’ –and as a result missed the opportunity to trump Marconi.

He was also, in common with a number of other significant scientists (including William Crookes, whose Crookes tubes are mentioned towards the end of C), fascinated by spiritualism and the idea of being able to communicate with the dead, more so after his son, Raymond, was killed in the First World War. Lodge took part in experiments to contact his son and indeed wrote a book about them and his belief that he had indeed heard his dead son speak to him.

Christopher Frayling’s The Face of Tutankhamun also sprang to mind immediately. It’s the book of an outstanding series he made for the BBC about the (re)discovery of Egypt through its history and archaeology and the influences of those discoveries, particularly the tomb of Tutankhamun, on English and American culture. Apparently, the series is available on DVD in the US but not in the UK, which is not very helpful of them. Perish the thought I might actually want to, you know, watch it again.

Reading C by Tom McCarthy #9

Comments on Chapter 1 are here, Chapter 2 here, and Chapter 3 here, Chapters 4 and 5 here, Chapter 6 here and Part 2 here, and Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

Part 5 – Conclusion

Yesterday, I wondered if C might be a stele for Serge Carrefax, his life, the characters in it, the scribe in his own life. This morning, it occurred to me that C might be in fact be a scarab of some sort: “So the scarab withholds the vital information even as it records it? Even as it prints? (290)” says Serge at one point, and if that is not true of his life, of this novel, then I’m not sure what is.

And so I reach the end of my rather rambling journey through Tom McCarthy’s C, and it is time to try to pull together a few thoughts about it. As you may have noticed by now, it is a novel that resists an easy commentary. It is overflowing with words and ideas profligate with both, and it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to trace a straightforward path through it. Rather like the paths at Versoie, which twist and turn and fold in on themselves like a maze, the novel folds around itself, with images resurfacing time and again, the loops and repetitions that Serge so often notes.

Or maybe not a maze so much as a crossroads. The crossroads at the heart of my home city of Oxford, in England, is Carfax, which is a corruption of the French “carrefour”, or crossroads. I immediately thought of that when I first saw Serge’s name, and I wonder, given his family history, and given the novel is in four parts, or four turnings, whether this might be a useful way of thinking about what is going on. Serge takes four different journeys during the novel, through childhood, through treatment, through the First World War and through post-war Egypt, and each time he returns to a point where his life is or seems about to be remade. Even in the last section, the mystical marriage-cum-coronation is a remaking, though perhaps now in a different world, as if Serge has finally found a place where he belongs, in the radio waves themselves, a two-dimensional place (though a mischievous part of me wonders too if McCarthy isn’t drawing some sort of analogy between godhead and AIs; the movement towards computer imagery almost suggests that). Alternatively, one might think of the ka figures in the tomb, portraying its occupant at different points in his life, allowing his spirit to move from one to another.

If this is so, it perhaps addresses what might be perceived as a certain narrative … not aimlessness, precisely, though if ever there was a character without a direction, it is Serge, who seems not to have a clue what to do with himself in life … but, well, like Serge, the novel doesn’t really seem to have an ending. Though that, I suspect, is part of the point.

The profligacy of the book’s ideas seems to mirror the potential of the early twentieth century in terms of technological developments, the many strands of research, the possibilities but this is set against the increasing dehumanisation of the people. One is struck time and again how the people in the novel seem to be akin to automata, or to be human machines, repeating the same actions over and over – the women in the rearing sheds and weaving shops, the children learning to articulate sound, the learning by rote of the pageant speeches, even Sophie’s obsessive attention to code-breaking, to dissection. During the war Serge is bound by the lines on the map but simultaneously breaks free of them, but once the war is over, it’s back to learning by rote, surrounded by people who are caught in a daily routine of work and performance. The location may change but on one level is Alexandria any different to London when nothing seems to get done. The archaeological excavations are literally contained, in the box-like tombs, and their contents become yet more lists. The only escape open to Serge by this time is death or a crossing to another world for he is endlessly trapped by his own world, constantly returning to the beginning, to restart it.

I suppose what I love most about this novel is its layers of possibility. I’ve dug around in them for the last few weeks, but I know that I’ve by no means exhausted their potential, like the layers of tombs that will never be excavated. This is frustrating and exhilarating at the same time. I’m haunted by a sense of what I may have missed (lots) as much as I delight in the connections I’ve discovered so far. There are moments when I wonder if McCarthy hasn’t pushed it a little too far, whether the piling up of image and repetition isn’t just a little too knowing, but given McCarthy’s track record I assume this is an entirely conscious choice and it’s no less intriguing for that.

So, a novel that is ingenious and exciting and mysterious by turns. I have by no means made up my mind about it but I can’t deny that the power of the writing blows me away.

Reading C by Tom McCarthy #8

Pylon at Luxor (Notre Dame Architecture Library)


Comments on Chapter 1 are here, Chapter 2 here, and Chapter 3 here, Chapters 4 and 5 here, Chapter 6 here and Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

Part 4 – Call

There is a moment in part 3 of C when Serge, newly inducted into London’s drug culture and its arcane system of signs and passwords (including C for cocaine, of course), “starts seeing all of London’s surfaces and happenings as potentially encrypted: street signage, chalk-marks scrawled on walls, phrases on newspaper vendors’ stalls and sandwich boards, snatches of conversation heard in passing, the arrangements of flowers on window-sills or clothes on washing lines. (211)” Codes were Sophie’s thing, something that linked her to Widsun, but the marks on walls, the secret signs, made me think also of hieroglyphs, and that leads me, conveniently, to the final section of C, Call. (depending on how you pronounce ‘caul’, the title of the first section, you may notice a similarity in the names; I feel sure this is intentional).

Widsun, as we will recall, is now working in Communications, in North Africa, and has offered Serge a post in Egypt. (The irony of dealing with this section, set in post-war Egypt, at this particular moment, as the Egyptian government disintegrates in slow motion is not lost on me.) As ever, the reader is dropped right into the action, as Serge follows his new mentor, Petrou, around Alexandria. They are surrounded by destruction but, as Petrou explains, it’s not all as recent as it looks. As they gaze at a pile of “giant slabs toppled over one another”, Serge learns that some damage comes from recent riots but “these were probably torn down from some other edifice when the Persians sacked the place in the seventh century; and from another one before that too, when Octavian routed Antony. That’s the thing about Alexandria: these periods just kind of merge together … (242)”

In fact, much of this final section of the novel seems to be about things merging, or more often collapsing into one another, layer upon layer. All of Serge’s preoccupations from earlier parts of the novel will resurface here, in profligate detail, so much so that it’s difficult to keep a grip on the story one is so busy noting resonances from earlier. It is as though this is the place where all the traces of those earlier inerasable broadcasts Simeon was concerned about have become caught in the eddies of time and space.

Serge’s actual task, to write reports about the development of the Empire Wireless Chain, seems to be of little interest to anyone. It’s not clear who the report is even for, nor what kind of ‘appendix’ it is that Widsun requires from him. Serge was never a writer – during the war he was negligent about filing post-flight reports – and things have not changed. When told he is supposed to be providing a wider perspective, he notes once again that this was never his thing, but his concern is brushed aside. In truth, it doesn’t seem as if anyone knows what they’re doing. This is post-war Egypt, teetering on the brink of independence, and the various powers are jockeying for position. There is a sense of ineffectuality about everything, not least the fact that Britain, which had led the world in developing radio and telegraphy communication, has now fallen far behind, other countries having done deals with the much reviled Marconi. It is as though Simeon has become Britain, not that Simeon himself plays any further part in the story. On a more individual level, Serge is surrounded by people who are failing to communicate what it is that they want.

With no one really paying attention to him, Serge can once again drift aimlessly, accumulating experiences without doing much with them. He is once again a passive witness rather than an active observer. trying to make sense of what he sees but, without perspective, lacking the means to fully interpret. Alexandria suits Serge because, perhaps like him, it seems “just now […] roused, or half-roused, from its slumber. (245)” Or perhaps it is because here, he seems to find himself as the hub of his own world, even down to the discovery that the tram lines are designated by geometric figures, echoing hiss schoolroom perception of the world. Everything he has ever done, ever thought about, seems to be focused here. As Petrou notes, Alexander himself had a grand concept for the city:

He wanted it to be the great hub of the world, connecting everything to everywhere else. More than that: it would be Greece’s grand self-realisation, its ascent, beyond itself, into a universal condition, Über-Greece: a kind of simulation, better than the real thing ever was. His version would assimilate all other cultures, all their gods and figureheads and what you else, and conjoin these beneath the canopy of a transcendent, modern Hellenism in which reason, science and knowledge would all flourish. Alexander was a co-ordinator too. (246)

In some ways, this echoes, I think, Simeon’s perception of Versoie, as a hub, the point of connection; only the scale differed. History folded around it in the same way as it piles layer upon layer on Alexandria, and yet both failed, with both cut off from the current of the world. Only Serge remains as an imperfect conduit between the two, the communications apparatus that can’t communicate.

But his presence in Egypt opens up possibilities for other discussions, ones that haven’t so far been articulated fully. There is a first hint when Petrou talks about the Ptolemies taking over in Egypt and marrying their sisters. A few pages later, when Petrou describes Alexandria as a “city of sects and syncretism (253)”, Serge adds “And incest”, moments before they see the statue of Sophia. Taken in conjunction with a comment made by Serge’s superior, Macauley, about seeing his father in Serge, only it’s clear he doesn’t mean Simeon but Widsun (267), and one begins to wonder what it is that Serge does know and what it is he is looking for.

Serge is finally given a proper task of sorts, to survey an area to see if it is suitable to erect a second pylon for the Wireless Chain, a final, redundant attempt at stamping British authority on the entire wireless project. This requires Serge to join an archaeological dig at a place called Sedment, which he mishears as Sediment. Mishearing words is a theme of this entire section, as though Serge is beginning to go deaf or is no longer able to comprehend the language when it is spoken. His mishearing, however, often adds a second layer of meaning to the situation, though it also often topples over into frantic hand-waving, as though McCarthy is desperate to squeeze in all the resonances before the novel ends. Or, if we follow Simeon’s theory, the resonances are overwhelming the novel. Latterly, his mishearing become noticeably scatological, as though his bodily inhibitions are also starting to come undone. There is a sense that Serge is disintegrating, in more ways than one.

On the dig, he has become known as Pylon Man, because of his task, to find a suitable site for the new pylon, losing his name as well as his speech. While the pylon reminds us of his interest in radio, in ancient Egyptian architecture, a pylon is a monumental gateway in a temple, suggesting that Serge has somehow been transformed into a gatekeeper (and puts me in mind of the opening sequence of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten: “Open are the double doors of the horizon; unlocked are its bolts.”). The question, then, is what sort of gatekeeper might Serge be.

When Laura, one of the archaeologists, tells Serge about her dissertation it turns out to be about the myth of Osiris:

the god’s dismemberment, his sister Isis’s search for his parts, her conception of Horus from the one part of him she couldn’t find and so was forced to remake herself, and Osiris’s subsequent adoption as the deity of death and resurrection by the people of the Nile, who’d depict him in their art with a large phallus, rising to inseminate each day. (280)

She goes on to note that Osiris would “swallow [the sun] and pass it, bringing about the repetition of creation, the timeless present of eternity. the ancient Egyptian cosmology had no apocalypse, no end: time just went round and round … (281)” Osiris, as the god of death and rebirth is thus alive and dead simultaneously. I’ve already commented on the way that Serge seems to been reborn in Sections 2 and 3, and it would appear this was not a coincidence. More than that, Serge suddenly realises that Isis, gathering up her brother’s body parts, save for his phallus, is in radio terms a coherer, like an old-fashioned radio set that made particles move together, to cohere. Radio, as he puts it, is “a gathering-together too” (284).

The archaeologists’ voyage up the Nile to Luxor has a certain funereal quality about it. It is repetitious in the extreme, and Serge has a sense of himself as being part of a giant mechanism, transported through history. The view is a series of photographic negatives; Laura’s outpouring of information are like ‘a strip of punch-card paper emerging from her mouth – constant and regular, (283)’; forms of communication compete against one another for Serge’s attention and it is noticeable that the predominant form is something that would not have been known to Serge at all, the computer.

As Serge notes, Laura is inventorising the dig, entering each find in a ledger. At one point he finds her transcribing lines of text: “[t]he lines run in strips like flypaper or film, each frame a single picture: bird, scythe, foot, ankh, eye, a pair of hands …(293)” When she tells Serge that they are spells for executing functions, it’s difficult not to see them as a series of instructions to a computer. Later, she will be described as streaming information. Already Serge has seen scarabs bound with copper wire; a curious game he describes as Isis’s cohering set, and which is described as possessing a circuit board. Even the scarabs themselves, reminding us once again of Sophie’s dismemberment of insects, hold secrets, being, according to Laura, of “the deceased’s unreported deeds, clandestine history and guilty conscience”, devices that print and withhold information simultaneously. There is a strong sense that here, in Laura’s workshop, Serge is at a nexus of communication possibilities.

Likewise, Sedment (living up to Serge’s mishearing of it) seems to be the historical rubbish heap of the world. “Shards of broken pottery protrude from these [mounds of debris], alongside scraps of paper that he can’t, in passing, make out as either old papyri or contemporary news-pages, plus short lengths of what look like copper. beetles scurry up and down the surface of these mounds like mountaineers negotiating faces and approaches. (287)” Yet the layers have been so disturbed, it is impossible to create proper archaeological strata, an image that is picked up again later when Serge and Laura descend into the tomb that never seems to end, with room upon room filled with fragments of bone and ceramics, bodies that have collapsed in on themselves and one another. Here they make love; this seems to me to be the one sexual encounter Serge has in which he experiences some genuine passion and emotion and yet the setting is grotesque, a charnel house, an orgy of bones.

It is here, in the tomb, that Serge is bitten by an unspecified creature, which leads to the fever which in turn produces the hallucination of a mystical marriage, or coronation … it is an extraordinary culmination, a gathering together of images and thoughts from throughout the novel, muddled together in Serge’s fevered mind, shrinking away to nothing. Or, perhaps, Serge himself has become part of the background resonance of the world, to be received later.

I’ll end by going back to a point where Laura shows Serge a stele, a slab on which is painted the life of the person it commemorates.

All these figures; […] interact with one another, and seem to be exchanging words – but in a silent, gestural language only.
“It’s beautiful,” says Serge.
“The colours?”
“No, the flatness.”
“Stelae […] carried pictures of the deceased’s old life to the underworld, and conveyed back up from there ones of the new life he was living – which was, of course, a better, more refined version of the old one.”
“Two-way Crookes tubes, “ Serge murmurs; “death around the world. (294)”

Reading C by Tom McCarthy #7

I continue my reading of Tom McCarthy’s C.

Comments on Chapter 1 are here, Chapter 2 here, and Chapter 3 here, Chapters 4 and 5 here, Chapter 6 here and Part 2 here.

Part 3 – Crash

At the close of Part 2 of C, McCarthy says of Serge, who has narrowly avoided death by firing squad, and has just been abandoned by German soldiers, ‘For the first time in the course of the war, he feels scared.’ In the short term, one might read that as Serge being unsure what to do next, stuck somewhere in the German countryside, but the same holds true in the longer term. Without the war, which has finally given Serge’s life some structure if not any particular meaning, what will he do next. The war has inconveniently come to an end, Serge has not met an heroic death being shot while escaping, what will happen next.

It comes as no surprise to discover, when Serge returns, as he must, to Versoie, that it ‘seems smaller’ (193). The path through the garden becomes:

a passage each of whose sections used to comprise a world, expansive beyond comprehension, filled with organic density and volume, with the possibilities of what might take place in it, riven with enclaves and proclivities every one of which itself comprised a world within the world, on to infinity – now seems like a small, inconsequential circuit: a transceiver loop or well-worn route round a familiar parade ground. It’s as though, in Serge’s absence, the whole estate had, by some sleight of hand, been substituted by a model, one into which he’s now been reinserted, oversize, cumbersome and gauche … (193)

There are various ways of looking at this: we might think of Serge as an out-of-scale toy in a dolls house (and here one thinks back momentarily to Sophie’s abuse of the young Serge, whom she undressed and played with as though he were inanimate). Or, one might think of Serge as having come back to earth (and literally with a bump – how McCarthy seems to enjoy feeding the reader such lines and thoughts), with the picture of a world beyond Versoie still in his head, unable to reconcile it with the geographical constraints of the estate. He can no longer see Versoie as something flat and two-dimensional, from the air. As it acquires three-dimensionality once again, so he is imprisoned by it. There are further hints of that imprisonment in the routine of life at Versoie and in Masedown, the constant ritual of questions repeated, ‘so limited, so mapped out in advance, as to be predetermined’ 194), which resonates with the endless pageants of Serge’s earlier years, and Serge’s response, to walk out of shops, ‘to identify and breach the boundary of each situation […] to let it form a box around him which he could then step out of …’ (194). What Serge wants is ‘the sense of being a fixed point in a world of motion’ (194), as he was when he was flying.

Not only is the estate smaller but the corruption that has always seemed to lurk at its heart, unspoken, now visibly manifests itself in the mould that has attacked the mulberry trees, central to the silk production business, and perhaps too in his mother’s changed appearance, ‘depleted, like a silkworm that’s secreted all it can’ (199) and lurking behind this is the Spanish flu pandemic, barely mentioned but pervasive in the smell of quicklime, used in the mass graves on Salisbury Plain, which makes Serge feel ‘alive and good’ (195). . Simeon, needless to say, has a theory about the mould, an oddly progressive one in its way, claiming that it’s caused by electrical disturbances, outliving the moment of their generation. The static that interferes with radio, a step or two on from telegraphy, is, according to Simeon, or as he is referred to throughout this section ‘Serge’s father’, the residue of old broadcasts. I think Simeon has always teetered on the edge of rationality but here we begin to seriously question his sanity. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that a lot of the early pioneers of radio, telegraphy and other related areas also turned to the matter of communicating with the dead, generally to the detriment of their scientific reputations. To me, Simeon is clearly heading in the same direction, though given his track record for never quite keeping up, he’ll most likely distract himself en route.

His talent for digression has its reflection in Serge’s failure to settle on his return. He ends up, rootless, in London studying architecture. To a point, this makes sense. He can continue drawing ‘plan sketches of imaginary spaces’ (201), but his failure to engage with the post-war world is summed up in his continuing inability to draw perspective, to make the shift from two dimensions to three, from plan to section elevation, and even his claim to the school’s provost that he is working on memorials (something he really has no interest in) can’t quite get him off the hook.

At Versoie, the Crypt has always provided the reminder that ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ – death is always present – but London, as Serge sees is, is nothing more than a city of the living dead, and it really has little to do with the war. The provost assumes that Serge himself is experiencing shell-shock or some other post-war stress, whereas Serge wonders what’s happened to everyone else. They can’t all be shell-shocked nor can they all be drug addicts. For his own part, he knows he’s not shell-shocked either; during the war he was more alive than he’d ever been, and I think this is perhaps the key to what he thinks he sees around him: people who are similarly dissatisfied with post-war life whereas they are, of course, possibly more numbed by the experience than he ever was.

The drugs scene, filled with mostly young people looking for highs, is set against the scenes at the spiritualist meeting. Serge, the rationalist, is of course rightly suspicious of the veracity of the communications, but his own emotional numbness is such that he entirely misses what is important to all these people he sees as being deceived, namely that the medium, however bogus, offers a hope that the war, the deaths, weren’t entirely for nothing, that the soldiers who died have that better existence for which they were supposedly fighting. While the forces of rationality triumph when he disrupts the table-turning exercise, having worked out how it’s being done, we have to ask what he’s achieved in terms of shattering the faith of the desperate. This is clear in the description of Audrey, his lover, after the debacle:

[Her back] seems bulkier, as though the weight lent by her body to the world of spirits, loaned out through the twin agencies of love and conviction, had been returned unclaimed. Her hair, too, looks heavier, greased by sadness. […] All of her is downward-sagging, solid, heavy. If mass and gravity have been added to her, something’s been stripped away as well: despite her layers of clothes, she somehow looks more naked than she does even when undressed, as though a belief in which she’s clothed herself till [sic] now, a faith in her connectedness to a larger current, to a whole light and vibrant field of radiant transformation[…], had been peeled off, returning her denuded to the world – this world, the only world, in which a table is just a table, paintings and photographs just images made of matter […] and the dead dead. (235).

The section concludes with a car crash as Serge finally flees from London’s deadness, driving faster and faster, looking for some kind of meaningful experience. The world transforms itself from a tapestry into a screen, an image into which he can force himself, passing through the material of space, into a fantastic stream of images that recapitulate the images that constantly recur in the narrative, most of them words beginning with C. The car crash is the plane crash redone. The car becomes Serge’s carapace, reminding us once again of those disconnected pieces of insect that Sophie dissected, or possibly his crypt. He is buried in earth once again, like the tunnellers during the war, and the radio operators. He is in a coma, he is once again passive. Only when Widsun reappears is there a possibility of something beyond Versoie. This time, it’s Egypt. ‘What have they got there? (237)’ asks Serge, and one senses that he is once again looking outward.