In the mid-eighteenth century, the would be Venetian architect, etcher of Roman views and manufacturer of hybrid artefacts, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, produced a remarkable series of prints entitled Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons). The Imaginary Prisons can be classed as capricci, architectural fantasies, however these astounding visions would have an impact far beyond the narrow limits of this particular genre.
The first plate of fourteen prints was published between 1745-1750 and later revised with two additional etchings in 1761. It’s most obvious and immediate influence was upon the craze for the Gothic novel that swept throughout Europe in the late 18th Century. The Prisons would also exercise a considerable hold upon the imagination of the English Romantics. Not only do we find the two original gentleman junkies, Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Coleridge, discussing Piranesi at length in De Quincey’s classic autobiography and drug memoir, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, but De Quincey’s entire writing style can be seen as an attempt to replicate Piranesi within literature. Critics have found echoes of the Prisons in the works of Byron, Shelley and Victor Hugo.
In the 20th Century, the Surrealists saw in the Imaginary Prisons a visual metaphor of the mind and hailed them as an important precursor of their own explorations of the unconscious. Aldous Huxley linked Piranesi to Kafka and certainly such stories as In the Penal Colony seem to be set in the world of the Prisons.
In the visual arts Piranesi direct heir was M.C Escher, complete with paradoxical geometry and labyrinthine structures that offer a vertiginous glimpse of an infinity that may well also be infernal. For the most terrifying aspect of Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons, is the suggestion, re-enforced by the fact that we are only seeing a section of the whole and that the buildings are never fully enclosed, that the portrayed Prison is conterminous with the world, or indeed the universe.
One of the most glaring omissions from Breton’s Anthologie de l’ humour noir is of the symbolist writer Leon Bloy. Bloy’s scathing, vitriolic assaults on the bourgeoisie are certainly fine examples of black humour. His highly idiosyncratic, reactionary Catholicism is diametrically opposed to the Surrealist militant left-wing atheism, however the similarly politically inclined decadent writers J.K Huysmans and Villers de L’isle-Adam are both included. Maybe the absence of Bloy has more to do with his personality, he had an enormous talent for making enemies. By the end of his impoverished life he had managed to fall out with everyone in the Parisian literary world, former friends especially, and had earned the nickname The Ungrateful Beggar for his constant written requests for money.
The following story by Leon Bloy was much admired by Borges who positions it as one of the few precedents of Kafka. Translation is my own.
One of the most important of the Austrian Symbolists, Alfred Kubin was the master of macabre art and the morbid image, who, in his insistence upon portraying all the horrors lurking just beneath the surface in the unconscious mind, can reasonably be said to have anticipated the Surrealists.
His life reads like a cross between a Freudian case study and a decadent fiction. He didn’t meet his father until he was two and afterwards he only felt, ‘hate, hate, hate’ towards him. His beloved mother died when he was ten and the following year he lost his virginity to a pregnant friend. This unhappy childhood led to his abortive suicide attempt on his mother’s grave when he was nineteen. He joined the army but that resulted in a nervous breakdown.
Kubin worked primarily as a book illustrator, mainly of Gothic and fantastic fiction, notably Edgar Allen Poe, E.T.A Hoffman and Gustav Meyrick. In 1906 he married the half-Jewish heiress Hedwig Grundler and they moved to an isolated 12th century castle in Upper Austria, where he was to remain to his death. The marriage was a success, much to everyone’s surprise as Hedwig had a heavy morphine dependency that required frequent hospitalizations.
Kubin was a friend of both Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky and did show with their Blauer Riter group, however his avant-garde involvement ended by the time of the WWI.
Kubin was also a talented writer and his brilliant proto-surrealist novel The Other Side of 1909 (which I intend to write about in detail at some point) was much admired by his friend Franz Kafka and also by that troubling genius of German letters, Ernst Junger.
I have previously featured a short clip of Pollie Fallory (# 74 in the VUE directory) giving the Bird List Song socks in my post Persistent Rumours of Encroaching Ice, however I only mentioned the film it is excerpted from in a very casual aside.Well, there is a time and place for everything and a more detailed summary seems in order as part of the series on birds in art, film and literature.
The Falls is an experimental mock-documentary from 1980 and was the first feature length film of the director Peter Greenaway, who would later go onto direct A Zed & Two Noughts, The Belly of an Architect and his most famous, or rather infamous film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.
The Falls purports to a filmed representation of the biographies of 92 (a number that recurs frequently the movie, its significance however remains unexplained, like so much else) victims of the Violent Unknown Event (or VUE for short) whose surnames begin with the letters FALL. The 92 people listed are meant to represent a cross section of the 19 million people worldwide who were affected by the VUE.
As the cause of VUE is obviously unknown, we can only gather clues from the biographies, all of which are filmed in a bewildering array of techniques, though all with a earnest, old school documentary style narration. The VUE may, or may not have been the Responsibility of Birds, but it has left those afflicted with an obsession with birds (and/or unaided flight), as well as bizarre medical conditions including six part hearts and re-opening of old wounds. The VUE also resulted in 92 new languages appearing and sexual quadmorphism (in addition to the traditional two sexes another two have come into being and accorded classification).
All in all this perplexing, brilliant and infuriating movie comes over like a cross between Borges and Monty Python, with elements of Kafka in its portrayal of bureaucracy. It does however slyly acknowledge its own limitations, with many scenes of cars or taxiing air-planes pointlessly going around in circles, and with the deadpan voice-over commenting that the various ridiculously named characters suffer from the inability to tell a good joke from a bad one.
I have included illustrations of birds drawn by Peter Greenaway (who started his career as an artist) featured in the film, along with a theatrical trailer.
Henry Green remains the most elusive and neglected of modernist writers, even though he was among the top rank of prose stylists in English in the 20th century. However when you are not just a writer’s writer, but a writer’s-writer’s writer, as his friend the Beat novelist and screen-writer Terry Southern noted in his interview of Green for The Paris Review, then maybe a degree of obscurity and anonymity is to be expected.
Henry Green was the pseudonym of Henry Yorke, an aristocrat and industrialist, for most of his life he was managing director of the family firm of Pontifex. After a childhood spent in large and imposing country houses he attended Eton (at the same time as fellow novelists and friends Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell) and Oxford, though he dropped out of Oxford to work in the company’s Birmingham factory. By the time of his departure from Oxford he was already a published novelist, his astoundingly assured debut Blindness coming out when he was only 19. His time on the factory floor was the inspiration for his second novel Living, which is thoroughly modernist with its cinematic dissolves and dropped articles and displays a Chekhovian sympathy and understanding of his mainly working class characters. His friend Christopher Isherwood called it, “the best Proletarian novel ever written,” however as Green drily noted, Isherwood had never worked in a factory.
The thirties saw a hiatus in his literary career, after a glittering society wedding he was too busy being a Bright Young Thing and socializing with the Aga Khan in the South of France, (though he complained about travel being an inconvenience, as it interfered with his masturbation), and the Guinnesses (which included Diana nee Mitford and soon to be Mosley) at fancy dress balls, and there was a ten-year gap before his third novel Party Going, which is perhaps my favourite of all is works (though it is a hard choice), was published in September 1939, just before the onset of WWII.
In 1937 a somewhat depressed Green had written, “what pleasure or interest I ever took in anything, or what potential there was to take pleasure or interest, malicious or otherwise, is leaving me so that I have started writing again to try to make a world of my own.” The world he constructed in Party Going is one only Green could have created. On the surface Party Going is concerned with the anxieties and amorous manoeuvres of a group of privileged and incredibly vapid young people waiting for a train to take them to the Continent. The station is fog-bound and no trains are either arriving or leaving, so to while away the time they sequester themselves in the station’s hotel. Alliances form and dissolve, the characters get entangled in a muddle and confusion of their own-making. And that is basically it, yet it is hard not to conclude that there is a lot more going on underneath this deceptive surface. It has been remarked that the fog represents “a paradigm of life, life surrounded by a fog of death and threatened Departures,”. Maybe because of the long gestation of Party Going, the tone and style itself shifts, at the beginning the dropped articles recall his previous novel Living, however the novel becomes more expansive around a third of the way in, this change further disorients the reader, adding an extra dimension of uncertainty and unease. The novel, which had seemed to be merely a comedy of manners takes on a Kafkaesque turn while also anticipating Beckett.
The war was to prove to be a fruitful period for Henry Green, which will be the subject of Part Two. To end this post here is a short example from Party Going of Green’s effortlessly stylish prose:
“So now at last all of this party is in one place, and, even if they have not yet all of them come across each other, their baggage is collected in the Registration Hall. Where, earlier, hundreds had made their way to this station thousands were coming in now, it was the end of a day for them, the beginning of a time for our party.”