25 thoughts on “The Collected Connoisseur – Mark Valentine & John Howard


    “The slime itself makes its own shapes.”

    Having been delighted by my reading of a few of The Connoisseur stories HERE, I could not resist buying this book to read what appears to be a whole lot more. In fact I don’t think I quite appreciated that this book existed at all until it was shouting out at me from somewhere, making its own shapes, as this story now introduces me to a clearer, civilised, immaculately styled picture of this character, and it is as if the prose itself holds within itself hidden effigies that are striving to get out in nightmarish shapes in the form of The C’s visit to a pottery artist to investigate why his work seems to have gone off the boil. It’s almost as if there are sunken wells beneath the surface text, some healthy, some not.
    A very promising start to this book. With a religio-monstrance ending.


    “They do not possess many of the electric luxuries of the modern home, yet — or perhaps I should say, therefore — they seem brimful of ideas and excitement.”

    There seems something ironic about those words today, this story having first been published in the ancient year of 1990. The C’s spoken tale of slender volumes of minor poets, volumes that remind me of MV’s own ‘Wraiths’ book published in the modern age of 2014. One such slender volume so minor it was planted unpublished in an ancient sun-dial during a country house artist commune’s open-air pantomime, with undercurrents of a front-line death in 1916, plus a tenuous pIerrot in the moonlight and the female protagonist’s inferred romance with such tenuity – or even with the dead poet himself?
    A fulsome slenderness of atmosphere and tone.


    “He became paler and more slender until at last, it seems, he simply grew too weak to live.”

    A tale of The C’s own spoken tale written, I imagine, upon the purple escritoire belonging to narrator ‘Valentine’, a tale not of the usual fraternal rivalry, that between the Paravine brothers, but of a deadly paternal manipulation by filial runting – whereafter the elder brother Lawrence somehow summons the fey gestalt of Flavian, the younger brother, the pavonine eyes, the Paravine cries…


    “…full of an active, aching emptiness.”

    I love that phrase; it seems to encapsulate the soul of this book so far, a soul also infused with sumptuous visions amid cosy civilised sipping settings of conversation and anecdotage. Here The C tells within the text his visit to a sick cousin named Rebecca, a Poesque scenario but one steeped in English history of the Roses Red and White. The vision of the paling roses is matchless as is the sense of the historical ‘ardour’ almost suffusing the walls of the building where it is still haunted by another of this book’s wan or fey wraiths, this one seeking posthumous adherents.
    The walls are suffused just as the roses are de-suffused.


    “…sleeping actresses, caged youths and sullen boys…”

    An avant garde series of aesthetic or decadent tableaux in a Peak District House by the artist Ivo Tradescant, described with immaculate old-fashionedness. A reprise for Flavian Paravine as an attendant at this celebration of apotheosis and epiphany. The C really lays it on thick this time, but with one unfortunate typo: ‘dessicated’.
    The question of how many tableaux becomes important in the ‘dying fall’ ending.
    A ‘wan seepage’ of pale youths, now with a concupiscent edge, like the name Tradescant itself?
    Some of the words, when gathered together, seem to ache with complex phonetics and semantics issuing aromas of meaning liable to knock you back.

  6. imageTHE LOST MOON

    “There are so many today, I suspect, who believe that the emergence of Saturn was a miscegenation,…”

    If that, what, pray, Herschel – or even Pluto?
    The C here gives us all a real treat as well as his interlocutor, by describing his meeting a lady clockworker who never dealt with clocks. Here, her esoteric commission is servicing an old orrery, but one that is – as Father Brown would say – the WRONG SHAPE, or moving in skewed orbits, echoing real historical events and arcane conspiracies, where it summons darkness that is almost tangible (a beautiful description) and leaving only silver white streaks of its planetary movements. Exquisite delivery of a brilliant tale, where the orrery is both real and metaphorical – even an orrery of astrological harmonics?
    I have shown my own natal chart (a form of frozen orrery as diagram) for 5.40pm gmt, 18.1.48, Essex, England. You will see that my own Saturn, Herschel, Pluto and Moon are highly aspected.


    “His ardour attracted to him quite a circle of like minds, from artists at the furthest edge of the new, to renegade anthroposophists, concrete poets, quixotic inventors, free form dancers,…”

    The more I read this book, the more I remember that in the sixties I myself was a concrete poet and helped form the Zeroist Group at Lancaster University. This text deploys modern architecture and modern music and modern sculpture as a decadent old-fashioned vision. I suppose cubism is indeed old-fashioned now but this work has a sort of mix of Aesthetics with glimpses, amid the geometry of human figures, conversations, ‘abstract mysticism’, ‘encrypted spirit’, ‘frozen music’… The apotheosis or soul of art deco as a ghost story of ‘tragic loss’. The avant garde of L’Homme Recent and Les Editions de L’Oubli.
    Even mention of ‘Colour Music’ which relates to a story I read in another book that appears later in this book, one in which Sir Arthur Bliss is referenced, the composer of the Colour Symphony and Things to Come. The straight lines of a new Scriabin.


    “Or did they, or their authorities, more ancient chroniclers still, draw on remembrances they chased through the caverns of their dreams, their visions.”

    The C, for once in more casual clothes, is laidback in telling the next story, one of visiting, with his cousin Rebecca, a workshop where rocking-horses are made, except when they wander into the unattended area of these gathered rockable artefacts, none of them are actually pure horse-shaped, in the same way as this book’s earlier clockmaker never dealt with clocks. It is a magical scene of hybrid or half-bred ‘rocking-horses’ and no wonder The C is more laidback, if still immaculate in his style, when telling this story, because rocking itself implies laidback, I guess – like Val Doonican in a rocking-chair?
    Riding this story is like mounting one of these artefacts, a perfect blend of angles and colours and ambiances that embody these creatures, some of which need coaxing or enticing into the wood of the artefacts or into the described creatures themselves…
    A living description.


    “A sheaf of shards: that is what I gather.”

    The C here provides me – by means of a book of someone’s inchoately collected letters – with the sublime exaltation and exulting sense of many aspects of my life’s thoughts about gathering together – during my experience of existence – gestalts from various leitmotifs, those patterns from many perceived art-aesthetic, spiritual, cosmic, astrological, natural phenomena. A pure rhapsodic treatment by fiction, the first explicit expression I have ever seen in print, of what I have long called ‘the synchronised shards of random truth and fiction’. A fiction of a fiction as a truth, thus enabling the power of this passage, among many others, in this ‘story’: “What we seek, and what we also half-fear, is all around us, always, had we the necessary calm intentness to discern it.”
    A ‘half-fear’ that this knowledge may also destroy us as easily as it creates us?


    “Still, I always like to get ahead.”

    A highly cherishable novelette comprising various entitled sections or stories reminiscent of the methodology and ambiance, if not the substance, of ‘The Three Impostors’ by Arthur Machen, blended with the grotesque, sometimes humorous, theatricality of Reggie Oliver, plus tinges of A.S.Byatt, Chambers’ King in Yellow and the human-animal stories of Clarice Lispector (who as a woman improbably appears herself in this novella under another name?) – also a half-breeder device of a fiction related to Mark Valentine’s own excellently Miltonic masque of IN CYPRESS SHADES (that I reviewed HERE).
    The C plays a more active part in the endgame of the plot after listening to various character’s stories, towards cohering, as he does, like Father Brown, some resolution that becomes in fact a resolution in later real-time that we all witness with the characters rather than a Poirot-like recitation of denouement. The entrancing work has an ‘elaborate code’ of stalking rather than the already admitted eavesdropping, leading to a precarious, but half-welcome, relationship building up between two of the characters beyond the end of the text. A plot of a zeroistic ‘happening’, but decidedly old-fashioned and immaculately constructed despite its own allusion to ‘literary anarchism’ and some pretty weird music that outdoes Bliss and his Colour symphony, even Scriabin. Even Cage! A ‘gateway’ between ‘formlessness and form’.
    Taoism, Confucianism, Dadaoism, notwithstanding,


    “Others claimed to see patterns inherent in the dapples of light or the groupings of shadows, evidence of symbols or simulacra, hints of hovering presences.”

    The C tells of a gathering at the Hugh Kerwyn museum, an old house preserved with some of his paintings. A story that is imbued with ‘luxuriant blessedness’ and ‘synaesthesia’ as expressed by a gloriously unashamed aesthetic pretentiousness. The famous Kerwyn STILL LIFE of various objects today reconstructed by the same objects, the same except for one vital detail, one that prevents the objects evoking the original perfect moment, its ‘on-the-edge-of-something’ convergence, and how that missing detail, however tiny, is larger than one can ever imagine – someone encountered who claims removing that detail surreptitiously for fear of that moment or is that moment itself the evidence for that very same someone’s essence or ghost?
    Which comes first, not the proverbial chicken or the egg, I guess, but the vial or the vital?


    “We were both searchers after some glimpse of the Real, though our approaches were so very different: I, a roamer, a wanderer at the waste edges of the beyond, a seeker after the strange encounter that might illuminate all: he a recluse, a ponderer upon the depths, content to dwell upon the same potentiality for many hours and days.”

    There seems something intrinsically important to this book about that difference, the ‘I’ being the C telling us about himself, the ‘he’ being Nico Valdervane the vane indeed for clouds aka nephosophy. I put myself, meanwhile, in both categories when scrying books as well as clouds! This is another text that reaches extremes of word synaesthesia, some call it over the top, others like me exquisite. But over the top is also a perfect description for this story, as you can imagine, and due to the way it dovetails with the rest of this book so far, the sensitive reader of its gestalt will not be surprised or even dismayed at Nico’s mysterious disappearance, an enduring mystery that the C, also of this mind no doubt, only half-heartedly tries, for appearances, to solve.


    “…to discern the playing-out of odd coincidences and patterns.”
    Here such patterns or ‘enactments’ (or happenings, as I used to call them) relating to the sea and to “that diurnal wireless bulletin, with its comforting, authoritative crispness, the ‘shipping forecast.'”
    I live by the sea and often photograph its patterns for my blog and Facebook, and, in related contrast of old-fashionedness, I usually listen to the Shipping Forecast every morning at 5.20 a.m. on the BBC Home Service (or Radio 4 as it is now called).
    So I am fully satisfied by the upon-the -yearning-edge of this new account by the C of another artist (Edgar Shepherd) or ‘enacter’ who transcends our world.
    The “re-enritualling of Britain” amid the shepherding of “a troupe of like-minded art-magic japesters.” Even the ‘patterns’ of cribbage and a cricket match (do I remember a cricket match story by John Gale?)


    “I at last found found what I was looking for. Or to be more precise, I did not find what I did not expect to find.”

    …being a ‘back-formation’ of a myth made real, or at least perceived to be real. A substantive plot that I will not itemise, but couched with polished ‘al dente’ prose by The C’s account to me of his visit to a Scottish castellated realm – akin to a modern day fortress Sealand with its own laws and King? – where there is an old lady as Regent to a legendary Prince, her younger female relation, and a male illustrator (friend of The C) upon one of an offshore islands as steward designing postage stamps, a historical Jacobite link, an eventual loving romance, and two of The C’s visits, where he is more of a catalyst, I propose, rather than a bystander or narrator.
    The visionary finale is a haunting pattern of connections (“the hugger-mugger of things that were more stored than placed…”) or the disconnected half-perforations of a stamp yearning to be rejoined to its fellows.
    There is also – to die for – a description of darkness, with the added conundrum of whether its nature is an absence or a presence.


    A reprise of the Lucifer Hall venue, now for music concerts that reminded me of Waugh’s Vile Bodies, a female violinist with a pulsing ‘violet vein’ in her neck, and the twenties’ bright young things, rags and charlestons with big bands as well as small ones like a septet. It’s that type of music that I imagine – but as morphed by an Erich Zann sensibility? And the conjuring of an Eros statue changed by the musical happenings away from the one we usually see in Piccadilly Circus.
    I know that most editions of this book don’t contain this story. And I am lucky to own possibly the only one that does. Or unlucky enough to have sold my soul to it?
    Louche, loose, loping and insouciant. Doomed, too. With “yelping and imploring sounds.”


    At first, I thought the title had a typo for ‘lutenist’, until I reached the end. But that is not the main reason for this being probably my favourite story so far in this book (a favourite among several favourites). It has everything I need in a story. A perfectly pitched prose in a tale told by The C. A forming of patterns by gestalt, in sound and sight, one being a face in the plaster of a chimney breast. A frisson from the natural forces that pass through obstacles and space, emitting patterns upon-the-edge of understanding. Another vane of the Nephoseum of Valdervane. Another Vaux in the cogs of ‘clockworking’ Thomasina’s ‘Lost Moon’. An intriguing mystery of the ancient contraption that The C and Thomasina together travel to its original ‘folly’ to fathom.
    And above all, reminding me of my youthful reading of books by Thomas Love Peacock, if not the peacocks of the Paravines. A literary key to a non-literary cosmic mystery. A wonderful pareidolia to turn the eye from “the depredations of hobos or tearaways”, their “midden of debris and detritus.”
    This story, if not the whole book’s ‘contraption’, also filters out the wind and bluster of my review, and makes it sound good.


    “It is an interesting theory: I should say it will not quite hold, but there is some kernel of truth in it.”

    I was just imagining The C – here in his active form of pareidoliac Carnacki or psychic Holmes – just falling short of yearning to complete that ‘not quite hold’ as ‘not quite hold water’…This is an atmospherically misty, miasmic, mysteriously shape-scrying tale by the narrator (who I always take to be me now he’s not overtly called ‘Valentine’) as I tell of The C investigating the mystery on the lake that is beset with shapes in the mist. Rowena the rower is the ‘ferryman’ with her sigil-marked willow-wood tickets that take the paying passenger halfway with one ticket, and the rest of the way across the lake with a second ticket…
    The denouement of all these factors (and more) makes for yet another classic tale. If you feel these stories are too precious or pretentious or wishy-washy for you, then you need to meet them halfway, as you will then begin to see how they will yield much bespoke for you as well as for the lover of sleuths, ghosts, patterns, oneiric cosmogony and exquisite language for its own sake.


    “…or whether I was simply cultivating the crepuscular mood myself, by meditating so intently on these lost forms in that wavering half-light…”

    Remarkable that I was real-time reviewing a story entitled ‘The Lost Art of Twilight’ this very morning (here).
    There are some wonderful passages in this story (one about shadows and snow, for example) where The C tells me a sort of swashbuckling ‘Three Impostors’ yarn combined with Theospohy as well as villains perhaps from Limehouse melodramas and, even, “dadaspeak”. All of them after the solander box containing panoramic photo plates relevant to Romanian history and another Heath Robinson contraption not unlike that investigated recently by Thomasina Vaux…
    It has all the intriguing ingredients of the foregoing stories in this book but with a delightful confusion that some others might find, well, confusing.
    For example, the list of writers’ names and their elliptical acrostic revealing the word ‘solander’ – well I do get how that works, except for the name ‘Le Fanu’ being unnecessary in that acrostic. Was that meant to be an Irish joke?


    “It was inseparable from my affinity with snow — except here in the snow’s home it was not the mere unreal shadow that I had hitherto known. It was becoming the real thing.”

    That amazing passage about snow and shadow in ‘The White Solander’ I cited above is significant to the thrust of this, The C’s reading aloud to me and his interpretation of an otherwise hidden tract, written by a purposely chosen artistic-leaning member of an Arctic expedition, one with the aforementioned affinity to snow and to Andersen’s Snow Queen, a member indeed of Sir Martin Conway’s 1896 expedition into “the heart” of the then remote Spitzbergen. This ‘story’ of such factors is, for me, a gem of weird literature, an apotheosis of such snowy terrain and its visions, a blend of Lovecraft’s Mad Mountains, Hans Castorp’s spiritual foray into the Swiss Alps away from his sanatorium in Mann’s Magic Mountain, and one of this book’s collaborators’ own ‘essay’ upon the Vaughan Williams Sinfonia Antartica and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that I reviewed HERE. Horror without Victims, indeed.
    It as if this very book of pure white pages with inky words showing through “invites us to cross it”… A world shaped not by itself but by our imaginings of it.

  20. I have read the next three stories before and I copy from HERE my three recent reviews below:

    THE RITE OF TREBIZOND by Mark Valentine & John Howard

    “Yes. Empires rise and fall. When this one fell, the new leaders declared that only Turks could live in their new republic. All Greeks had to return to Greece.”

    It is good to get back to the classic stories from the first decade of the 21st century – one that I had not read till today. This is exquisite prose, depicting, by inter-told stories by equally exquisite prose, a tale of the Connoisseur, a soul of literature that I personally see as the soul of the Mesquita in Córdoba. It should be read aloud within the precincts of that building.
    Stemming from an investigator of British precincts that have their own rules, by arcane tradition, beyond any Local Authority control, and, in this pastoral lost domain, for me being a Wagnerian Parsifalinia of Master and Boy Apprentice in search of a new Oriental /Occidental Grail for our times in the second decade of the 21st century when migrants piggy-back each other across the old Ottoman Empire, sending epistles to each other by text rather than this story’s epistles “creased and folded, covered with colourful postage stamps, postmarks, and handwritten scrawls.”
    A ‘last redoubt’ by anamnesis?

    THE SERPENT, UNFALLEN by Mark Valentine & John Howard

    “…the usual ecclesiastical smell of the church, all polish and prayer-books, was becoming intincted with a trace of sharp gums and herbs…”

    This luxurious book, inspired by bright red inner vestments and ochre frontispiece embodied around the sensual smoothness of its printed pages, seemed to become imbued with other hues as scents, an alchemy of incense, as I read on in this story, a symbiosis of form and content.
    It is another tale of the Connoisseur here alerted, by further immaculate prose of told-internality, to the prehensile pulsing of icons and reliquaries with implicit dangers to be exorcised or summoned by competing forces of the story’s characters or others whoever whatever…?
    This competing brings the previous story’s struggle or symbiosis of Cross and Crescent towards intriguing relationships between the two stories themselves, here the Holy Roman Empire, there that Empire’s time-lapping Ottoman one, and within this single story itself, the Fallen and the Unfallen.
    Combining homely domestic church-keeping with less homely ornamental church-seeping.

    THE TEMPLE OF TIME by Mark Valentine & John Howard

    “There were many reasons evinced for why their actions did not, or could not, also flow back down the time-stream, and thus also influence the past.”

    …although I do believe this my review, written, even as I start writing it, today, has had some retrocausal influence upon the writing of this classic story from the first decade of this century, as, hopefully, all my reviews of both these authors have had similar influence upon the previous emergence of their combined and separate canons, to date. Long may that continue. Having said that, I could not prevent this story from mentioning the music of Sir Arthur Bliss before I mentioned it in connection with this story, as I would have done without the story’s prior mention of it. He is still well known for his Things to Come and Colour Symphony, but Bliss’s fine chamber music works are not things to come but things to have gone…
    This story will become an unforgotten classic eventually, another intriguing tale of the Connoisseur (seemingly a sort of conversationally laid back Sherlock Holmes), and he elicits here adumbrations of an Art Deco or Egypto-classical British cinema wherein are evoked a viewing of the Wellsian ‘Things To Come’ film, things then to come like, for example, the White City concept that, if I do not misremember, has appeared in John Howard fiction since this story was first written, things to come as derived from or deriving the Toynbeean history of challenge and response (or, in tune with my brainstorming above, response and challenge), a type of history that stirred into being the -isms of the previous century. The ambiance of the cinema building in question, and who was found watching a film alone with the Connoisseur’s interlocutor – and these unfolding discussions will become even more influential than they already are simply because many have not yet read this story but will now do so as a result of reading the challenge in this review to respond to what I say about its existence as a classic story of the early 21st century. But that begs the question of who or what will later stir this review itself into prominence…a blogpost rather than a concretely designed artefact like a cinema building showing once transient films.


    “‘I’m Dr Edith Mallet. Author of Edwardian finials of the Welsh Marches and Iron in the Sky: The Finial Art of England. You may have heard of them?'”

    In many ways, this is the perfect culmination of this wonderful wonderful book, a book as a revelation of the hyper-imaginative and humorous avant garde for me, as well as an over-riding immaculate comfort of tradition and the frisson of the cosmic undercurrents I ever feel about me, plus the creation of a character as believable as Holmes or Father Brown.
    Perfect in the sense that it gathers together some of The C’s leading players and passive enquirers and listeners and protagonists, including me (currently involved in performing a bit part in Handel’s Messiah) and this finial lover and bad car-driver called Edith Mallet. There are moments here that will live with me forever: the finial on the turret of a cafe which I assumed was a mutant fire escape now truncated, until I got further into the story. The agate-eyed lamppost-like cafe waiter, the collectors of matchbox labels, arcane gatherings or cenacles to summon who knows what from the oneiric cosmogony, a smithy with the wit to weaken as well as strengthen, a town that celebrates Guy Fawkes day a week or two before the correct date, ‘a quizzicism in a countenance’, a gestalt of performed items of obscure ancient music, and many other references I associate with my acquaintance with the aura of this book, like Francis Brett Young and the Peacock Angel. But I was unconvinced by the madcap cinematic ending.


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