Tuesday, September 01, 2015

WBR: A Voyage To Arcturus by David Lindsay (1920)

I thought I'd say a few things about David Linday's seminal 1920 sci fi/fantasy novel, A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS. This is a novel which immensely influential for many important 20th Century writers and critics. J.R.R. Tolkien was an admirer, and C.S. Lewis was clearly deeply influenced by it. Even literary critic Harold Bloom fell under its spell; his one attempt at writing his own novel was a sequel called A FLIGHT TO LUCIFER.

Here are the opening 13 lines (note -- A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS is in the public domain):
On a March evening, at eight o'clock, Backhouse, the medium—a fast-rising star in the psychic world—was ushered into the study at Prolands, the Hampstead residence of Montague Faull. The room was illuminated only by the light of a blazing fire. The host, eying him with indolent curiosity, got up, and the usual conventional greetings were exchanged. Having indicated an easy chair before the fire to his guest, the South American merchant sank back again into his own. The electric light was switched on. Faull's prominent, clear-cut features, metallic-looking skin, and general air of bored impassiveness, did not seem greatly to impress the medium, who was accustomed to regard men from a special angle. Backhouse, on the contrary, was a novelty to the merchant. As he tranquilly studied him through half closed lids and the smoke of a cigar, he wondered how this little, thickset person with the pointed beard contrived to remain so fresh and sane in appearance, in view of the morbid nature of his occupation.

This opening gives an almost entirely misleading impression about what is to come. It sounds like the start of countless Victorian and Edwardian adventure stories, but this is nothing of the sort. Faull and Backhouse along with a number of other nicely-drawn characters from the first chapter simply disappear. The novel moves on to the enigmatic gentlemen Maskull and Nightspore, and then for the bulk of the novel just Maskull alone.

Looking at a manuscript opening like this I'd immediately pull out my red pen. It's inefficient to introduce the readers to characters in the opening when those characters are going to immediately disappear, especially "point of view" characters. And generally you want to let readers know the kind of story they're in for -- at least in genre fiction, where you generally take the reader by the hand and show him he's come to the right place. And there are other things you expect from a science fiction adventure too: a dramatic structure with a readily identifiable beginning middle and end; a protagonist with motivations and problems who deals with a series of rising complications and ultimately resolves them.

What you get in A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS is none of these things. It is not dramatic, it is epic, episodic and nightmarish. It's a long and difficult slog because so much of what carries you through a conventional, dramatically structured novel just isn't there. Chief among these are characterization and motivation. Maskull has no real reason to visit Arcturus other than a vague interest; once he gets there he goes from place to place, not because he has any reason to, but more in that he has no compelling reason NOT to. Maskull reminds me of Mersault in Albert Camus' THE STRANGER, who also does appalling things for no particular reason.

It's almost as if Lindsay sat down to write a commercial 19th C adventure yarn and ended up writing an avant garde novel. It's possible; first novels do have a way of getting away from their authors. A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS anticipates much of later 20th Century literature. Practically the entire Existentialist lexicon could be indexed to this book; it's chock full of absurdity, despair and rudderless anxiety. Even Maskull's confusing inconsistency could be put down to lack of what Existentialists call "authenticity". 

Sound like fun? Well, at the time the word of mouth must have been disastrously bad: it sold fewer than 600 of its original print run, and I'd bet the very few of the original purchasers made it all the way through. But if you don't give up, the balance between frustration and fascination gradually tips toward fascination. A mere decade after it's publication it took C.S. Lewis three years to locate a copy; but even though in his correspondence he's clearly aware of ARCTURUS's limitations, its impact upon Lewis's own fiction is almost hard to overstate.

Now a lot of fans of A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS have written various keys to its enigmatic meanings, but the point of these writer's book reports isn't to discuss meaning, or even literary value; it's to look at lessons we can draw about *method*. But I don't think there's a lot of lessons to draw about method from this particular book. Its language is competently composed, but frankly I think that this book's virtues as a work of imagination are somewhat exaggerated by its admirers. Take the following:

The floor itself was like a magician's garden. Densely interwoven trees, shrubs, and parasitical climbers fought everywhere for possession of it. The forms were strange and grotesque, and each one seemed different; the colours of leaf, flower, sexual organs, and stem were equally peculiar—all the different combinations of the five primary colours of Tormance seemed to be represented, and the result, for Maskull was a sort of eye chaos.

At first this passage seems impressive, but if you really examine it you find it's only just that -- seemingly impressive. The "densely interwoven trees" etc. are fine as far as they go, but then Lindsay punts on the description. In so many words he's essentially telling us that the what Maskull is seeing is indescribable. I suppose a little of this is inevitable when describing an alien landscape, but I find that when this kind of handwaving is incessant it quickly becomes annoying.

This is not to say that the work lacks imagnation -- far from it. Imagination runs riot on every page, but mainly in the realm of ideas rather than sensation. In the chapter quoted above Lindsay gives us a character of a third gender:

He found himself incapable of grasping at first why the bodily peculiarities of this being should strike him as springing from sex, and not from race, and yet there was no doubt about the fact itself. Body, face, and eyes were absolutely neither male nor female, but something quite different. Just as one can distinguish a man from a woman at the first glance by some indefinable difference of expression and atmospheres altogether apart from the contour of the figure, so the stranger was separated in appearance from both.

See? It's the old handwaving trick again. You can't call this "unimaginative", but it strikes me as undisciplined; not fleshed-out as it could be.

So how did this clumsy and difficult text become the most influential underground speculative fiction novel ever? Where does the fascination come from? I think it's the experience of being in the hands of a totally uncompromising author.

Some bad writers like to think of themselves as uncompromising; they hide the fact they don't know how to engage readers by pretending they're not interested in catering to the unwashed masses. That's just craven, self-righteous posturing. But Lindsay is a different animal. He is sincerely obsessed with debunking anything you might believe lends your existence meaning or significance. This pig-headed skepticism, chapter after chapter, begins to take on the color of integrity. 

Which brings me to what I think is the lesson of this novel: the difference between the things that produce accessibility and the things that produce power in writing. 

I think we can lump much of what makes a piece of writing widely accessible under the heading of "technique". Imagine a writer of crude fan-fiction. At first what he writes is only interesting to fans of the franchise. As he gets better at prose style, plotting , structure and characterization, more people who can read his fan-fic without scorn. Eventually many can read his work with actual enjoyment.  His work becomes more accessible to the general reader, albeit starting from the opposite end of the spectrum that inaccessible highbrow literature does.

A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS may be the most inaccessible published novel I've ever read. And although this opinion will offend fans of the novel, I think it's because the novel is crude. Which is not to say it's stupid or unimaginative. It's just that it's prose style is at best serviceable, and it lacks things like structure, plotting, and characterization that help readers through a long story.

On the other hands A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS is immensely powerful. That's because the writer has something to say to practically every human being. Whether you're an ethical egoist, an altruist, a sensualist or a legalist, David Lindsay wants you to know you're just wrong, wrong, wrong. Even even if you insist on disagreeing with him, at least you have the pleasure of seeing him shoot holes in the opinions of other people you disagree with.

So power in writing, I think, comes from having something to say that's meaningful to readers -- at least some of them. A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS is a book for perhaps one in a million readers, but I believe it will always find those readers.

Should *you* read A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS? I'd say its practical value to a science fiction author is debatable; but I definitely think it is a must-read for fantasy and even more so horror writers. That's not a guarantee you'll enjoy it, but it's worth studying the way Lindsay imbues the landscape and its inhabitants with immanent meaning (albeit only to debunk that meaning).

Title: A Voyage to Arcturus
Author: David Lindsay
Published: 1920
Pubisher: Methuen & Co. Ltd., London UK
Edition Reviewed: ISBN 978-1480258426

Word Count: 93,000

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