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The Uncertainty Of All Earthly Things – Mark Valentine
A stylish, luxurious hardback, with ribbon marker, about 220 pages, and pure black pages as markers between stories and endpapers.
My edition numbered 83/199.
I shall firstly deal with the stories that I have already reviewed elsewhere, copying and pasting my reviews below as originally written in the previous context of each one.
I shall then later read the other stories and post my new reviews in due course after this multi-comment.
TO THE ETERNAL ONE
“‘In the whitest marble,’ I continued, ‘there are always veins of black: in the darkest basalt there are always sheens of light.'”
….as with all Valentine’s works.
I am a big fan of his works. Are you? Then this one is unmissable. A prime example of his style and ethos. To be added to the Ex Occidente canon as well as to his many equivalently wonderful ex-Ex Occidente works. My reviews of nearly one hundred Ex Occidente Press books – Valentine and non-Valentine works alike – are linked from HERE. All my reviews of Valentine’s works Ex or ex-Ex are linked from HERE (as well as of the works of John Howard, who, I notice, has a new story appearing in UNCERTAINTIES Vol. 2).
This story is generic ex-occidente, in the sense of an elaborate fakery of the ex-oriental, for example the Ottoman Empire or a para-Palmyra vision, also a generic, eventually spurned, valentine’s card to a gamine waif called Felice who is “wasteless” and I assume wasted or waistless, a creature as enticement to calligraphy and the stamps-and-banknotes collages across history’s blurred frontiers of nationalism and/or religion.
There is no way I can do justice to this work in a review nor yet fit it into this whole book’s possible gestalt. It just is, sitting alone in a Wicker chair amid a Mid-Eastern mock-up of a Gentleman’s club… It is both an importantly genuine currency of literature as well as a forged one, the genuine and the forged taking it in turns to be the lead partner in the collage- or palimpsest-dance, and your ticket to becoming a titled person reigning over one of the world’s Biblical locations or of other religious-cultural oubliettes of ancient history. (Above image by PF Jeffery)
This morning! I realise even more that I am here reading a book of extreme contrasts, and one of seeds to fructify in its holes or lacunae…
The Key to Jerusalem
Here pomegranate seeds, to follow the earlier Cartesian red seed – and this is not Indescribabble, but an engaging temperate word-perfect Valentine-visitation into documents quoted here from those ‘important’ and less ‘important’ soldiers who were concerned with the taking of Jerusalem in 1917, and with the area’s past crusaders and their heraldry … and ‘counter-heraldry’…. A stone vault, a dead monument to once ancient hope. And to whom a certain ‘keynote’ was passed, but with some relief, as reader, I found a ‘dying fall’ keynote chaconne of further mystery with just three dots. A lacuna or an ellipsis, I ask myself.
IN CYPRESS SHADES
“We agreed in the end on some discreet chamber music. I had a sense that Hobbes only gave in because he didn’t really think it mattered.”
And perhaps this author puckishly didn’t really think that the sylvan spa performance itself of COMUS – A MASQUE by John Milton warranted a whole story devoted to it. At first, I thought this was some Paniac drama festival that often climaxes fiction works by Powys, Byatt, Reggie Oliver or me – or music by Rutland Boughton. It is a wittily engaging description of its preparation, though, the organising characters involved, a location’s ambiance, and make-up instead of bespoke heads … But it diverges into an intoxicatingly heady scene, half dream, half reality, I sense, where the heads and the make-up of passers-by become subtle masks where the joins cannot be seen. For me, a sort of humanised procession of characters from Rupert the Bear. Or from Chambers’ musical words of meaningful atonality in The King In Yellow, another fiction about masks with a play or masque in it.
“–there is something of a dance about them, a masque of pale dancers, a sarabande of stately wraiths.”
YES, I KNEW THE VENUSIAN COMMODORE
“Up in some tower block there’s probablyh a student rehearsing, and in all the angles and curves of the city…”
Casting a light on our world, literally, back from its end to the beginning, this gorgeously Valentine-immaculate text — about the Flash Gordon fashion of films of yore and upon one of its acting stars in particular — morphs itself into a L. Ron Hubbard type religion.
No, it is much more than that because — with some of the Mad Scientist power of this book’s earlier publication of a work by Jacurutu:23 who bears a name with a single word (an Internet identity or password or dreamcaptcha?) like MV’s film star character whose screen name was Triton — it transcends itself as a text into a fiction that is both characterfully touching and TRUE. With ‘love rays’ to match those of Rix.
THE SCARLET DOOR
“…the graceful white crescent of late Victorian houses was said to have been visited by Delius, who had once played two violin sonatas by lamp-light in one of their sea-view rooms,”
But, apocryphal to this story’s account, each sonata cancelled out the other one. And neither are now part of his known canon of sonatas, I am sure. Meanwhile, we read of the narrator who went to that town and described its off-the-wall nature to us so evocatively and wittily – and of the bookshop there he visited as part of his conspiracy to safeguard books that had small print runs and thus not likely to be known to the grasping net and thus saving at least some books from being converted to the electronic Babel of that net. I am, of course, sympathetic to that aim. And this is an account of one book that the narrator obtained in the shop safeguarding HIM, by dint of a strange retinal imprint of itself upon the wall (a scene as if created beyond the narrator’s own grasp, beautifully characterised by Valentine in his meticulously stylish, traditional, often slightly absurdist way), indeed safeguarding the narrator, perhaps in naïve confusion as to the nature of the electronic net, from another book he had obtained in the same shop. Or so I infer the narrator inferred. The otherwise gratuitous nature of the ending is sublime. I only hope this dreamcatcher review, using the net, avoids entrammelling the gaze of unwelcome eyes towards this wonderful story.
THE UNCERTAINTY OF ALL EARTHLY THINGS
“You are only aware that some sense you hardly knew you possessed is telling you that here there are secrets. And of course you want to find out more, while being unsure that you should.”
Is Sancreed a sanctuary or somewhere beyond?
MV is another author by whom I am never disappointed, and this is one of my favourites of the many works of his that I have read, as it turns out. A male greenhorn museum curator in this part of Cornwall, meets a church-panel sketching woman (who perhaps becomes an even bigger mystery than the overt transcendent mystery they both address as the main story). Think MR James near, but not too close, to the brink of chick lit. And a type of visionary scene gestalted or gestated within the genius loci of landscape that you perhaps can only find in this author. But one that reminded me surprisingly of the transcendent vision in the Jacqueline Simpson story. Always uncertainty in all spear-distaff interfaces, I guess.
“I spent some time, indeed, trying to make out patterns and parallels between the symbols, but they kept their mystery.”
AS BLANK AS THE DAYS YET TO BE
From start at “In the summer of that year” to “I have never forgotten him.”
“Part of my purpose in going to Whirlwell was to gather folklore about folklore.”
The narrator’s enthralling quest – in person, by dint of ‘spoor’ and from research – for the cockatrice, at first in this byway of Hampshire where he dares talk to only one person (hoping he is not the village idiot?) while he is there. And that is as far as I have got.
This, so far, is engaging, rurally urbane, Valentine-vintage textwork.
From “I suppose it ought to have been one of those summer days…” to “…I had a feeling that I must remember the moment. There was a quality about it I could not quite identify.”
Comfortable narrative of a church’s missing weather-vane depicting a cockatrice, meeting a man with four coloured jam jars and a sign of the cockatrice on the local pub, a magazine about mazes, but nothing about a megazanthus.
From “We came to a narrow house…” to “…of his fantastical model.”
Sampling this in order, savoured morceau by savoured morceau, “an extraordinary athanor of shades” being part of a deviously tactile description of the cockatrice model belonging to the man the narrator met. A forbidden description, I infer. I am intrigued even more by the man met and all his accoutrements.
From “I subscribed then –” to “…and if he would want to meet again.”
A tour of arcane periodical journals, some more serious than others. Or more or less professionally printed. Leading to “a world quiet different to the everyday one, a mysterious unfathomable world,…”
At first I misread, in the small print, ‘unfathomable’ as ‘unfashionable.’ Both are true, and I try to blend a gestalt of traditional and avant garde in my own real-time reviews. The regular embodiment of periodical disprint.
Laced with found art in photographs, as also in this booklet.
From “The field lay at a slightly lower level…” to the end
“I knew the patterns of these miz-mazes to be complex, as I had seen diagrams of them, and I did not think his great-aunt’s rough sketch could be more than a rudimentary recollection,…”
Sharing the maze with this man I’d met, this person who I am or who I may not be as first person narrator, a maze itself, of self, as are the emotions shared when sharing a bottle of water, without his wiping the top after I had drunk from it. This is a megazanthus after all, an anthology of mazes and magazines. And a gazetteer of landmark horses, one possibly a landscape’s dragon abbas, or even, dare I say, a cockatrice. A sleight of gender.
This is prime Valentine.
“…I said, ‘I wonder what’s in the middle?’
‘We are,’ he replied,…”
To be continued in due course…
LISTENING TO STONEHENGE
“I am always alert to Significances, you see.”
And so am I. Whatever the provocation of ridicule! Still, I did think the sentence on page 50 with a list of seaside towns would have ‘even Clacton’, so much more unbelievable than Skegness. Anyway, this is a sophisticatedly hilarious, delightfully charming and page-turning tale of a man’s search for a potential ‘popular classic’ called Stonehenge for a themed album of such music played by the Pomp and Circumstance Orchestra. It is a so far obscure piece by a 20th century woman composer who died in the sixties. Think Edith Sitwell without the goth or the poems. Think incense sticks, and polkadotted beanbags, think fancies, ley-lines, ghostly dolls, maybe Bax and Delius and more, but do not necessarily think “stiff upper-lip stuff” or snuff smoke, nor even Wagner, though all of them and more are in this work, too. Meanwhile, Stonehenge sounds a bit like Schoenberg to me – well, they look a bit like each other as words.
A brilliant story that cheered me up safternoon, while listening to Elgar.
“It wasn’t a bad selection. Sublunar were here, those cosmic travellers; Stray Horse, the country band;”
More incense sticks plus a snuffed up musky stench…
My recall of Sixties music was Del Shannon and Bobby Vee. Here, I suspect it’s more early Seventies by which time I had mainly left the scene. More the squirly colourful folksy-rock albums now Stuart Maconie Freak Zone loved psychedelia with a secret message sung backwards or hidden in the scratchy run-in groove? An interesting portrait of a male (of course) who has a ritual of obsessively collecting such albums in the shacks called record shops of our downtrod towns. Finding his ultimate find, Goat Songs, with the four group members all named after the group’s name itself. And there is much suspense for the reader and for him, as he sets out playing it in his caravan on his old record player. I can hear it now. Feel it in my feet. Racks and tracks, found randomly by skipping other letters of the alphabet. All beautifully couched. Redolent with pungency and obsession. Scary, predictable ending, for me. Yet, it remained scary, nevertheless. Scuffy cover. I wish him luck with Mothlight. But I hear this story’s author is still after Swiftwillow!
Cross-referenced Goat Songs with Things Behind The Sun: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/03/13/black-static-62-interzone-274/#comment-11914
“, as though caught in some hesitation of time.”
ZABULO is about an English church that was built in the 1880s on the high ground of a crossroads, roads leading to insubstantial places nearby, places that already had their own churches.
In the old days, when I was sometimes sent to church as a child, I used to stare at the Hymn numbers due to be sung, in their wooden slots. I was intrigued by these numbers, in some inscrutable way, I think. Little did I think that generations later, I would read such a story as this one about such number cards, in the engaging, limpid quality of Mark Valentine’s style, a style that often tells of old-fashionedness, unusual scrying and, say, skewed, worrying permutations as seeming threats of evil or strange real/imagined incantations of words or obsessive/idiosyncratic collecting hobbies or something disturbing from recent/ancient history. This work, therefore, while sharing some at least of these permutations, is believably told to us by a narrator, a habitual visitor to such redundant churches…
Take this as read (soppy though it may sound!) –
For some considerable while I have been looking for the number 42 in certain special circumstances while out and about, and till last night failed. I happened to be attending a choral concert in a church and this was staring me in the face!
This is not the teleological or ontological proof of the Existence of God, but the numerical one?
Another 42… in a hymn board yesterday here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/10/07/scintillo-string-quartet/
THE MASK OF THE DEAD MAMMILIUS
“I know you always need to find something new in the plays to make your mark, but . . .”
Or your mask? Actually, this delightful, no doubt scary, ghost story (one that I am sure would appeal to Reggie Oliver) is a gestalt real-time review’s pure dream of creative reading – about The Winter’s Tale and a particular far-fetched interpretation that actually WORKS, as conducted by a particular theatre director and his ‘familiar’ artist buddy. It is also a distant love-affair conducted by the pub-loving middle-aged narrator with a young actress he befriends but dare not touch, who is delighted by her role in the play as boyish girlish boy-girl gamine coquette. And a subtle portrayal of modern trans- and inter-gender politics. Loved it, along with Reggie, no doubt. And it’s a good ghost story, to boot.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see—
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
(From the ‘Abide With Me’ lyrics by Henry F. Lyte, 1847)
I looked throughout the lyrics for a certain letter, and suddenly saw it started the word ‘joys’. Then, as if by magic, I sensed a moving finger add to the end of the next story: “But we don’t live a sentence, any of us, only a word, finally a letter, then nothing.” But fiction abides in its own domain whatever happens to us, I replied to whoever added it.
VAIN SHADOWS FLEE
“In memoriam Joel Lane.”
This is the story of Bide-y, a near derelict old man whose existence is pervaded by his own singing, intoning, humming, mumbling, silently mouthing the hymn as him, the hymn whence that old nickname derived. It is a poignant, sacred, beautifully textured, unforgettable, unquenchable fiction, shown on the loom of a Hobbes Leviathan as if painted, I sense, by Arcimboldo, not as a human’s single unburied “head”: a conjoined gestalt of several dead or living objects such as berries and plums and household implements, but as a “miniature in his pocket”, itself a conjoined gestalt of many such risen human heads. The uncertainty of all earthly and unearthly things, the sleep mask of Mammilius, Mammalius or Mamillius? (‘A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one.’)
NOTES ON THE BORDER
“And he shows us a Europe where the line between the ‘barbarian’ and the ‘civilised’ is also not quite as demarcated as history suggests.”
The border, that edge, that end, that barely balanced balcony.
An engaging coda to this book, or bonus track to be tracked down or grooved into by this book’s earlier collector with his gramophone needle seeking things beyond the hiss of history…
This work appears to be the author’s creative diary from 13/9/01 to 17/9/02, delightfully made public, from which I recognise various Valentinisms – or imagine I recognise them. A series of entries about a self’s book and shop haunting, connections made, inspirations for fiction received, observations imparted. Just to mention a couple of the names from my own field of interest: WG Sebald and John Cowper Powys. I am not sure about “frail violas in his buttonhole” (I prefer cattleyas), and there are many other adumbrations and divergences, even decoys, from various ineffable domains. The concept of the “thanartist” included. And eccentric funeral societies. The positive uncertainty of distances as well as further earthly and unearthly things. Other than the spelling of ‘paen’ for ‘paean’, “It was immaculate.”
“‘A person does not so much exist as embody a resonance of creation.’ This last phrase is striking and I link it to the proposal that ideas themselves — and images — have an independent existence and come to us rather than we to them:”
That, and the rest of the sentence I only quote above up to its colon, seems to be a ‘found’ ready-made for this whole book’s gestalt.
Not to forget Tristram Shandy: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2014/03/15/tristram-shandy/