“And so life started to become an adventure, in a way we had never known before.” – Gregor von Rezzori
I’m shifting gears this week to get a bit more traction on other stuff, and to take a break from heavy topics. I moved recently and I have been slowly unpacking my library and re-acquainting myself with some old favorites, not all of which are fantastika. Some of these books are surreal or fabulous, and demanded that they be written about. So, I want to discuss some books that aren’t “genre” in the strict sense of the term, but that are challenging novels which admirers of fantastika might find pleasure and reflection in reading. Some of them are openly fantastical, others subtly so, but what they each have is some resonance with the sensibilities that I find in the best fantastic fiction and in great literature generally. They are strange, perplexing, rhapsodic and open to possibilities; they are fables, carnivals, and enigmas that require you to imagine the world differently and see it through some very distinctive eyes.
1) Bartholomew Fair, by Eric Basso. Basso may be familiar to some readers because of the inclusion of The Beak Doctor in the Vandermeers’ The Weird anthology. I have written here previously about his work and I look forward to reading more of it and writing about it. In general, Basso’s writing is thoughtfully deceptive, sometimes seeming to be straightforward while at other times reading as surreal and obtuse. Regardless of how he is writing, he issues a constant challenge to the reader to understand his meanings while inviting them to put together the puzzles that eventually create a bigger picture.
This book is an excellent example of this tendency; meaning is not layered so much as contentious and partly submerged, always in motion beneath the words. Moving between magic-historical tales and contemporary conversations, between fiction text and dramatic presentation, Basso paints a picture of the subject of the book’s title, but not a sociological or allegorical one. Much of the “action” of the novel lies in a series of conversations between our narrator and Toby Haggis, who is a blarney-spewing Rabelaisian trickster affiliated with the Fair. Between their meetings and the stories of the Fair’s past a portrait is conjured, one that is mysterious and slippery yet insinuates a coalescence and erosion of need. But there is much more to discover if you want, and that is the rough joy of Bartholemew Fair: it keeps rewarding and pushing you as you assemble and reassemble it.
2) An Ermine in Czernopol, by Gregor von Rezzori. The opening line of this novel sets the tone for the entire thing: “There are other realities besides and beyond our own, which is the only one we know, and therefore the only one we think exists.” From this beginning we are given a witty, scattered portrayal of Czernopol, a shadow-play of the actual city of Czernowitz as it was between the World Wars. A young boy narrates, although narration does not fully express what von Rezzori creates in this novel. While tragic and sad, it is also full of life, of poetic and prosaic digressions, and of wry, overstuffed observations. The central plot, such as it is, concerns a stiff army officer who fights for his sister-in-law’s tarnished honor, but this trite conceit is really just an excuse for the narrator to talk about the magic that people make when they live together in a city and create a peculiar collective life that lives only in memory and story.
Von Rezzori is greatly concerned with memory (his other books include Memoirs of an Anti-Semite and The Snows of Yesteryear), but not in its capacity for regaining facts. He is interested in exploring how we recall things and what import they have on us in the present, what they give us in the moment of recollection. He is interested in examining how we create that reality in his opening line, and how diversions and minutiae influence memory, and thus influence our sense of self in the present. Major Tildy’s thick-headed sense of honor and justice creates a reality far more illusory and destructive than most any other vice or delusion, and the way that von Rezzori, with both wit and compassion, shows the reader time and time again how strange life actually is and how hard people work to fit that strangeness into a coherent sense of the real is familiar and illuminating. Memory enchants the past: “The images from those days (past) seem as far removed as the untold fairy tales and legends that filled it with such wonders.” It is a form of magic that creates wonders and terrors of great power and must always be examined with wistful reflection and a sense of playfulness. An Ermine in Czernopol is joyous and cautious about our capacity to wonder and dream, and urges us to not lose that capacity, but to look at with tenderness and maturity.
3) Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling. This is not a novel, but a collection of vignettes that discuss, with unassuming language, fantastical occurrences and unlikely fables. While ranging widely in subject they work together very well as glimpses into a magical world, and as you read more of them you get a sense of the vastness of experience that lies within the short tales and reports. The strange and mythical things that happen in the stories often seem unremarkable to the narrator, and the style ranges from naturalistic to deadpan description. Beneath that delivery, however, lie all sorts of surprises and delights.
From mischievous fox spirits to unexpected largess, from random giant fish to moments of sudden luck, the stories create an amalgamation of synchronicity and magic, until the two seem inseparable from each other. This is not just a world of spirits and sorcery, but of fortune and wise grace. It is sensual and formal, but there is often trickery afoot, although often in the service of helping or educating others. There are lessons to be learned, but they do not often boil down to a handy aphorism. What I took away from the stories was that we need to pay attention to the world around us and ignore neither the needs of others nor the pitfalls of pride or misplaced desire. While in some ways this is the most fantastical of the books on this list, it is the one that counsels grounding and perception the most, that says we need to see that magic is all around us, but we need to see its uses for what they are and not react blindly. These stories implore the reader to look at the world more openly and to accept its gifts for what they are, even if they end up being harsh lessons.
4) The Service of Clouds, by Delia Falconer. Falconer is an Australian writer who has not produced a lot of work, but whose productions are striking. This book was her first novel and it creates a magically-inflected world that is firmly set in its historical period but that weaves dreams and flights of fancy throughout. At its heart it is a love story, but that heart is there to power other themes, from seeing what we want to see to the changes that come to the world when technology (and war, its motivator) changes our relationship with nature. While the cloud metaphors are sometimes overdone, the relentless focus on dreams and illusions blurs the lines between reality and fantasy.
While one character, Eureka, comes to terms with this blurring, many other characters do not, and are swept away either by their illusions or changed by the shifts in reality that they cannot control. Nature changes from miracle to commodity, and with that people’s lives are altered. What they see in the clouds and breathe in as air is altered by time and events such as World War I, and the clouds, in the end, serve not as reflections or possibilities but as illusions. Falconer seems to argue that we rarely see things clearly, and it not until we understand that the service clouds provide is not some revelation of truth, but reflections of our own beliefs, and that it is only through recognizing our fantasies for what they are that we can learn what the clouds, our desires and aspirations, are teaching us.
5) Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. This book may be the furthest afield in terms of some connection to the fantastic, but it is so ephemeral and affecting that it seems to be an enchanted story, a long, dissolute fairy tale. The story of two orphaned sisters, Ruth and Lucille, and how their lives are changed by their Aunt Sylvie, is a poetic lesson in how to create a possible world. Sylvie lives in a very different reality than those around her, and Ruth is drawn into this world. Their aunt’s worldview clashes with that of everyone’s elses (including Lucille’s, eventually) and brings into question ideas of place and identity through an act of subtle worldbuilding that emerges as the novel progresses.
We see this worldview unfold through Ruth, and the way that we are drawn into it is masterful. We come to see the everyday world in a hazy new light, and concepts such as home, self, and even right action are called into question by the gradual suffusion of this worldview into the words of the story. As Ruth embraces Sylvie’s world we worry for her but also see the transformation that occurs in her that has both dangerous and liberating potential. The beautiful writing lulls the reader into a tweaked state of mind that makes the strangeness of Sylvie’s world compelling. The book does not argue with the reader, but tries to instill a sense of the allure of Sylvie’s seemingly dissolute life. You are pulled into her odd world to the point where you can only leave it with intentional effort, and that is a sort of worldbuilding that is rare in any book.
6) Une semaine de bonté, by Max Ernst. The most surreal entry in this list, Ernst’s assemblage of collages may seem an unlikely choice for this list because of its rule-breaking, but the way in which it stimulates the viewer’s imagination and dares it to make sense of the work creates a feeling similar to that of challenging fantastika. This book is a fabulist’s nightmares visualized, unexplained, and framed only with a slight anchorage of time and element. Divided into seven days with complementary elements, this book is a compendium of dark, violent, and stark images that for their seeming randomness soon make you think about the possible messages within it.
What do we make of bird-headed men and people attacking chairs? How do we reconcile faces filled with fear and beckoning skeletons in Victorian drawing rooms? There are moments of terrible triumph, of oddball humor, and overlapping juxtapositions of excess and propriety. I found it to be a harrowing experience the first time I looked through it, and that sense of being assaulted visually, without textual anchorage except for a few epigraphs, forces you to either look away or to contextualize the pictures within your own experience. You not only have to discern the artist’s purposes, but your own for reading it. It is a mirror and an imposition in an absurd alternate universe that requires the reader to make up their own mind, and make any semblance of story or point their own.
7) The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola. Tutuola’s writing is getting some attention within the field; his work has been excerpted in The Weird and Odd? and there was a panel about this book at Readercon this past July (which I was fortunate to be on). In some ways reading this story is like trying to make sense of Ernst’s collages, except the images are created with words and sometimes make less sense. Tutuola tells us the story of a man whose only work is to drink vast amounts of palm-wine and who must go on a quest of sorts to find his tapster so that he can restore his palm-wine supply. But what happens on that quest is jumbled and sometimes terrifying, and we not only enter a weird, capricious otherworld, we are given no comfortable viewpoint from which to make sense of what occurs.
There is no safe place for the reader to sit and watch the story unfold. Explanations seem oblique and events turn from outrageous to impossible quickly. The reader is subjected to a torrent of images of excess, deprivation, and reversals that just seem to create anxiety and befuddlement. This is another example of how powerfully a world, this time an impossible one, can be created and maintained with tone and extravagant, visceral imagery. In the end, you have to place your trust in the author, hoping that he is taking you somewhere that will bring resolution or explanation. That doesn’t really occur, but the reader does come to a place that stops the torrent of grotesque images and voracious invocations and, like most of these selections, urges the reader to not walk away, but to linger and search for something deeper than the horror and disjunction the text creates.
This idea, of the reader continuing to look for answers, is a theme that I think runs through all of these books, and is one that great fantastika also stimulates in us. This is the true wonder that such books can offer us, if we take the time and risk closely reading them.