22 thoughts on “THE RETURN by Walter de la Mare

  1. I

    “It was a pity thoughts always ran the easiest way, like water in old ditches.”

    This is a shocking startle to this quiet, if effetely morbid, stroll by Lawford through evocative countryside near Widderstone, into a graveyard, and, with meticulous crevicing details, some erased, upon a seeming Frenchman’s gravestone, who had died by his own hand according to what details were left, and my memory has erased some details except the spider, and, yes, the robin, and we already know that Lawford seems to have been suffering from Long Influenza, because of his still needed convalescence, out and about today to give his wife Sheila a break from him. And now, back home, he locks himself in the bedroom from Sheila because somehow he cannot truly face her. (I hope I will not spoil this plot with my own different face reflected back by it!)

    “He had no notion of the time; the golden hands of his watch were indiscernible in the gloom.”

  2. II

    “‘Y.S.O.A.’ – do you remember? They meant, You Silly Old Arthur – do you remember? Will you please get that letter at once?’”

    Once Arthur Lawford, but now whoever’s saturnine shape he fills? This is simple effective unmissable horror with a power I’m surprised this work is the source or template of? — not being made invisible as in Wells or even shape-shifting like a weird ‘were’, but more akin, but not identical, to what happened in my review of Benson’s ‘Outcast’ a few days ago (HERE or in my writing this-very-morning (HERE): ‘Fantasy is a theft from truth, I guess. But in fiction, that also needs to be truth thieving from fantasy for it to work as well as this fiction?
    What is the key? Whom to bring to help Arthur and Sheila, say, a doctor or vicar? Or just a medical dictionary called Quain? That earlier billet doux quoted above as proof to Sheila as what had happened to him by so foolhardily visiting a graveyard while still convalescing.
    Pretending to be doctor himself when meeting Ada the servant face to face.
    And Onions’ rose-wood door again (HERE)…
    “Lawford rose and put the key of the door on his wife’s little rose-wood prayer-desk at her elbow, and deliberately sat down again.”
    That thief of something yet to be explained…
    “A thief was in one of the candles. It was guttering out.”

  3. III

    As I read this agonising conversation between Arthur Lawford, and the vicar about his new condition and the circumstances of his metamorphosis after a ramble to Widderstone graveyard, I found myself brainstorming, visualising myself re-manning as it were, like… was it just his face, or his whole body?— and then I thought of L.P. Hartley’s ‘Facial Justice’ (reviewed here years ago) and Hartley’s story ‘The Face’, but if it was Lawford’s whole body was the earlier spider a symbol of some more fundamental Kafkation? The crack in the gravestone some “supernatural” fissure from ‘Saul’ to ‘soul’? Did some bodily entity, when Lawford was asleep, suck out the details of his memory (details as later tested by Sheila), then kill him, dispose of his body, and now impersonating him? Is his spiritual angst of self and identity a pretence? The precariousness of the future self as a triangulated collusion with others soon to be rejected by those others?

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  4. IV & V

    “Those eyes surely knew something of dreams, else, why this violent and stubborn endeavour to keep awake?”

    More agonising of self and non-self, a co-vivid dream or is he an imposter? Sheila has severe doubts that it is her husband at all, especially when she sees his hair has changed colour, his signature altered, too, a potential re-manning, before the green sealing-wax was placed on the now locked-up document with answers to various questions that the vicar made him almost legally answer in writing.
    And a Doctor Simon (is that a French name, I wondered?) to whom Arthur Lawford had heretofore been a stranger, advises on influenza and the foolhardiness of having submitted himself to an east wind in a graveyard….

    But yet… I think, there is much here that is unresolved.
    “…how tenuous, how appallingly tenuous a hold we every one of us have on our mere personality.”
    As the vicar claims, or hopes…
    “Time will heal all that. Time will wear out the mask. Time will tire out this detestable physical witchcraft. The mind, the self’s the thing.”
    And then the most poignant scene of all with Sheila follows this…
    “Lawford raised himself on his elbow with a sigh that very was near to being a sob.”

  5. VI & VII

    “He even, on the shoals of nightmare, dreamed awhile.”

    Lawford’s body as well as his mental/facial injustice of a mask…
    “…he fancied with a deadly revulsion of feeling, that his coat was a little too short in the sleeves,…”
    A sense of self battling with self….
    “…that other feebly struggling personality which was beginning to insinuate itself into his consciousness,…”

    “….a shrewd incredulous scoffing world that would turn him into a monstrosity and his story into a fable. And in a little while, perhaps in three days, he would awaken out of this engrossing nightmare,…”
    We literally feel for him as he meets an old acquaintance, Miss Sinnet, when he is illicitly out and about, and she fails to penetrate the suspicions of who he is.
    The arrival of his beloved daughter Alice; he is hidden from her by Sheila, by dint of an imaginary Dr Ferguson, but he visits her at night like Santa Claus, and becomes her ‘dream-face’.
    Then he senses ‘improvement’ in his condition amid thoughts of ‘unclean beasts’ from the Bible, and Mr Bethany the vicar refers wishfully to a mere ‘facial paralysis’…
    Somehow, he also arguably predicts a modern theory of Lawford’s condition about which he could never have known?…
    “‘Oh, AI,’ said Mr. Bethany.”

    And my earlier hint of a manning-tree as Lawford later sees, through his bedroom window, autumn leaves, and also, “Very much like a child now he stood gazing out of his bow-window – the child whom Time’s busy robins had long ago covered over with the leaves of numberless hours.” And he sees a ‘roof-tree.’ … then seeks that medical dictionary again….

    “At any rate Quain was found, with all the ills of life, from A to I;”

  6. VIII, IX & X

    “…almost as if there really were two spirits in stubborn conflict within him. […] He sat down with elbows on knees and head on his hands, thinking of night, its secrecy, its immeasurable solitude. […] He seemed to see dark slow-gesturing branches,…”

    This plot seems, at the start of these sections, to be becoming as flabby as the fat friend (“You were born fat; you became fat; and fat, my dear Danton, has been deliberately thrust on you – in layers! Lampreys!”) whom Lawford meets at the end of these sections! Yet, there is still something compelling in his predicament, spiritual with autism’s knowledge of masking, a ‘facial justice’ that even Hartley could not encompass, a casting out that even Benson’s ‘Outcast’ could not reach. And a hint of something even WDLM failed to see, even with REAL as part of ‘Walter’ and DREAM as part of ‘de la mare’, not forgetting the residual AWE. A dream dreamt.

    And upon visiting the graveyard again he converses about death with a stranger called Herbert Herbert (a name that reminded me of Humbert Humbert)…
    “– supposing it was most frightfully against one’s will; that one hated the awful inaction that death brings, shutting a poor devil up like a child kicking against the door in a dark cupboard; one might – surely one might – just quietly, you know, try to get out?”
    A scene in the graveyard that is hauntingly tantalising.

    At end of these sections, it is as if WDLM himself who is now masking, as he radically changes the point of view to a discussion (without Lawford present) about Lawford’s state by Bethany, Sheila and Danton the fat friend. An authorial ‘buffer state’, an expression of flabbiness and indeed an expression used by Bethany himself.
    Does WDLM himself ‘know’ something or ‘grope’ towards it? — a distinction made in the text.

  7. XI, XII & XIII

    “…where the waters floated free again, stood vast, still trees above the clustering rushes; […] – but to me time seems like that water there, to be heaping up about me. […] You don’t know, after all, what on earth sheer silence means…”

    … vast relations between the River Widder and WDLM’s ‘The Vats’ I happened by chance to read and review yesterday (HERE), are poignantly factored into more agonising by Lawford in interface with his daughter Alice …and also with Herbert and Herbert’s sister Gisel whom he visits by that very river.

    My earlier mention of Long Influenza links to some possible co-vivid dream? …and his own “waking dream” in these sections…
    “It’s just the last rags of that beastly influenza,…”
    And a continued sense of the manning-tree?…
    “…craning forward to see into the garden – the trees, their knotted trunks,…[…] …vast, still trees… […] …prodigious branches…”
    How could he remember Flitters, when he had not been mentioned before? — or at least as far as I remember…
    “He had forgotten Flitters. Had Flitters forgotten him?”

    He battles with the ‘aura’ he feels within him and, alongside Herbert, with the thought that the soul that wants to escape a reluctant death (although suicide) is gradually winning the battle to take over him bodily as well as mentally, especially when he sees the once living image of that soul as an “engraving” in a book. Now disengraved as him!?…
    “The one clinching chance of a century! Wouldn’t you have made a fight for it? Wouldn’t you have risked the raid? […] I can’t help thinking that Sabathier’s raid only just so far succeeded as to leave his impression in the wax.”

    And in these sections there is a long description of a “ghost” that is possibly the most effective example of such in all literature? I believe so. And I dare not quote from it for fear of dissipating its power.

  8. Pingback: AT FIRST SIGHT by Walter de la Mare | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books

  9. XIV

    “He raised himself on his elbow and looked at his wife.”

    A crucial chapter, a marital catharsis between Sheila and Arthur, ushered in significantly by that elbow trigger. Heart to heart but heart-breaking.

    “We shall never be able to look anybody in the face again. I can only – I am compelled to believe that God has been pleased to make this precise visitation upon us – an eye for an eye, I suppose, somewhere.

    Arthur’s now hindsight despair at his life, its emptiness, being dependant on outside opinions … like us today bolstered by how we in react in our electronic vacuity?

    “I couldn’t see how feeble a hold I had on life – just one’s friends’ opinions. It was all at second hand.”

    But Sheila’s bitterness, too, as she sees this ‘defacement’ or ‘derangement’, as she puts it as a religious sign…

    “God visits all sins.”

    Pure WDLM moments as part of this crucial catharsis, as Arthur recalls the book’s engraving and his visit to Herbert and Grisel….

    “…but just as that dark, water-haunted house had seemed to banish remembrance and the reality of the room in which he now sat, and of the old familiar life; so now the house, the faces of yesterday seemed in their turn unreal, almost spectral, and the thick print on the smudgy page no more significant than a story one reads and throws away.”

    And then another significant elbow moment to end-bracket Sheila’s departure with Alice. That devastating blue envelope full of money, as if he should take off on a voyage — never to return? …

    “She laid the blue envelope on the dressing-table at her husband’s elbow. ‘You had better perhaps count it,’ she said in a low voice – ‘forty in notes, the rest in gold,’…”

    And sadly in remarkable tune with AT FIRST SIGHT (synchronously yesterday here) the same ‘grey glove’ that started Cecil’s awakening in that other WDLM work now become here a symbol of its wave goodbye…

    “He saw the grey-gloved hand a little reluctantly lifted towards him.
    ‘Good-bye, Sheila,’ he said,…”

  10. XV & XVI

    “Contempt, fear, loathing, blasphemy, laughter, longing: there was no end. Death was no end. There was no meaning, no refuge, no hope, no possible peace. To give up was to go to perdition: to go forward was to go mad.”

    Intenser and intenser, if not curiouser and curiouser, as our man battles with a ‘thing on the stairs’, with the hindsight help of Gisel, to trap the ‘outcast’ (a word also used by Gisel in tune with my earlier mention of E.F. Benson), to trap it in another room instead of within himself, “cornering” it elsewhere, having been fed with — and near subsumed by — the Sabathier in Herbert Herbert’s dingy book.

    Two separate and quite different pep talks, from Mr Bethany and Gisel, after his wife and beloved daughter had left.

    Mr Bethany:
    “We came in puling and naked, and every stitch must come off before we get out again. We must stand on our feet in all our Rabelaisian nakedness, and watch the world fade.”
    He tells Bethany of Sabathier’s grave “under the trees”…

    “Meanwhile there was in this loneliness at least a respite.”
    And he was far more able to be confident with small talk in the shape of someone else, say, when at the Barber. Whoever that someone else is? — like an autistic masking?

    The intenser woman Gisel, more sympathetic, understandably, than his own wife?

    Meantime, of this very WDLM book as well as, I hope, my gestalt real-time reviewing of just such books…
    “I mean if once a theory gets into his head – the more far-fetched, so long as it’s original, the better – it flowers out into a positive miracle of incredibilities.” (My bold)

    “…we are like so many children playing with knucklebones in a giant’s scullery.”

  11. XVII

    “…’even a dream must have a peg.’”

    The intriguing and worrying nuances of Lawford’s spiritual, mental and bodily predicament are discussed by him with Herbert and Grisela, the former rowing back on the Sabathier connection he had set in motion, i.e. trying to put Lawford back together, fascinatingly with the preternatural resonance of the mention of “Humpty Dumpty” with Herbert Herbert (Humbert Humbert!).
    Those ever-accruing nuances of self-sublimation against objective reality involve things rooting and unrooting within the overall perceived metamorphosis, more subtle than Kafka and other literary metamorphoses, and I feel WDLM has been critically short-changed inasmuch as this novella is not more well known outside the genre field of ghost stories and the weird.
    Herbert, on being ‘Sabathiered’…
    “No; the fellow just arrested you with his creepy epitaph; an epitaph, mind you, that is in a literary sense distinctly fertilising. It catches one’s fancy in its own crude way, as pages and pages of infinitely more complicated stuff take possession of, germinate, and sprout in one’s imagination in another way. We are all psychical parasites.”

  12. XVIII

    “…this is the very dell Boccaccio had in his mind’s eye when he wrote the Decameron. There really is something almost classic in those pines. And I’d sometimes swear with my eyes just out of the water I’ve seen Dryads half in hiding peeping between those beeches.”

    …as spoken by Herbert Herbert. When I first mentioned, earlier in this real-time review above, his name’s assonance with Humbert Humbert, I was sort of joking, or, at best, brainstorming…! But now I am convinced that he is, in this novella (1910), the forerunner of Nabokov’s character. A free-wheeling, free-thinking reference, amid the various philosophical exhortations about literature, the touch of genius, and about Proustian selves, ‘rooting in’, ‘working in’, soul fighting soul, face fighting face, exhortations by Herbert Herbert to Lawford, and later by Gisela when she has a picnic alone with Lawford….

    “As for literature, and style, and all that gallimaufry, don’t fear for them if your author has the ghost of a hint of genius in his making.”

    “We’re all, every one of us, sodden with facts, drugged with the second-hand, and barnacled with respectability until – until the touch comes. Goodness knows where from; but there’s no mistaking it; oh no!”

  13. Pingback: Walter de la Mare / Vladimir Nabokov | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books

  14. Pingback: Triggering by Onions | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books

  15. XIX, XX & XXI

    “‘There are dozens and dozens of old stories, you know,’ she said, leaning on her elbows, ‘dozens and dozens…’”

    This book grows flabby again, as Lawford agonises, with soupçons of hope, temporarily back home, with Alice, one sort of love, and then staying with Herbert, and the farewell from Grisel, another sort of love, a hopeless one.

    There are other moments in these sections, that need recording here. These essential WDLM passages, with yesterday’s “tiptoe”….and the water of music as time in ‘The Vats’…
    “Long after they had bidden each other good-night, long after Herbert had trodden on tiptoe with his candle past his closed door, Lawford sat leaning on his arms at the open window, staring out across the motionless moonlit trees that seemed to stand like draped and dreaming pilgrims, come to the peace of their Nirvana at last beside the crashing music of the waters. […] Chopin and Beethoven, a fugue from Bach, and lovely forlorn old English airs, till the music seemed not only a voice persuading, pondering, and lamenting, but gathered about itself the hollow surge of the water and the darkness;… […] Is it that the clockwork has been wound up and must still jolt on awhile with jarring wheels?”

    ‘The apple branches burdened with ripe fruit’ and Lawford’s manning-tree as “changeling“?

    A place called Detcham (purposely assonant with ‘double-dutch’ below?) as an unaccountably dreadful place for Lawford to visit….

    The “double-dutch” (cf the Huguenot in the ironic disfigured doppelgänger Sabathier who is not a double at all?) in Herbert’s political views….
    “Government to me is merely the spectacle of the clever, or the specious, managing the dull. […] I suddenly realise my human nakedness: that here we are, little better than naked animals, bleating behind our illusory wattles on the slopes of – of infinity.”

    “….he pretended to be reading, with elbow propped on the table.”

  16. XXII & XXIII

    “She was reading apparently; but her back was turned to him and he could not distinguish her arm beyond the elbow.”

    There is something important, if unintentional, about a book like this book ending with a chapter numbered 23. And as the servant Ada becomes an unknowing catalyst, she just now earns her own elbow moment above. And although doubtless unsatisfying to many readers, the book’s oblique denouement represented by these two chapters is satisfying to me, if flabby again with Danton, and others, along with Sheila plotting and damning Lawford with incriminating gossip of Grisel in a pony-carriage, all the while he eavesdrops upon them in the dark…. Devils’ possession, or coincidence of circumstances, or Lawford’s unmitigated madness as in OO’s ‘Io’ referenced above yesterday. Or a combination of all these three? Until, upon the departure of the plotters and would-be lynchers, Miss Sinnet arrives with arguably the final piece in the puzzle of the manning-tree, the Family Tree which shows his mother Mary Lawford’s maiden name was “van der Gucht” in resonance with much above ….”As a matter of fact, your mother was very proud of her Dutch blood. […] …though there’s plenty of apples, I fear, on the Tree yet, Mr. Lawford.” Thud, thud, thud, as Elizabeth Bowen once had it?
    And when Miss Sinnet had gone, Mr Bethany returns and, well, I feel some intangible hope even if “that’s all I can do now – blunder on . . .” My italics below, showing that WDLM is the only writer who put this so-called proverb into the past tense…

    “There was no peace for the wicked.”

    end

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