Friday, August 12, 2011

Liminal Literature: Lindsay Clarke and Haruki Murakami

I've been neglecting this blog far too long, because all my attention went to a book that I was writing. Complete and prolonged concentration on such a task does strange things to one's mind: it gives you more sharpness and precision than normal, so that you can do things that you wouldn't normally be capable of, but it also tends to block you from slipping into the less focused and more dreamlike states of consciousness that happen to be more naturally suited to twilight travelers...

Anyway, the book is finished, and now it's time for this owl to start flying again. Recently I read a novel that left me deeply impressed. It's written by a British writer, Lindsay Clarke, and is called The Chymical Wedding. Clarke has an extraordinary gift for writing, and his beautiful english alone makes the book a pleasure to read. But there is much more. Clarke's books are deeply informed by alchemical and other kinds of esoteric literature - the very title of the novel refers to a famous Rosicrucian allegorical novel published in 1616 - and does so in a particularly profound manner that never, even for a moment, risks becoming stereotypical or kitchy. I won't give away the plot, but it cannot harm (especially since one can read it all on the back cover) to mention that the novel tells two parallel stories, each with one female and two male protagonists. In the 1980s, a young man who has just gotten divorced meets an unusual couple, an old man and a young woman who are busy researching a forgotten history that happened in the mid-nineteenth century: at that time, a young woman and her father during the Victorian era were involved in deep studies of the Hermetic philosophy, and got acquainted with the newly arrived vicar of their village. Two triangles; two couples of an older man and a younger woman; and twice an additional male factor who turns out to be essential to the complex process that is going on underneath the surface. As could be expected in a book with such a title, the alchemical "coniunctio" or union of opposites will prove to be essential to everything that is going on.
One of the two narratives is loosely based on a real model: the story of Mary Ann Atwood (née South) and her father. The latter was planning to write a large poem on the Hermetic mystery, but never managed to finish it. His daughter did publish its equivalent in prose (A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery, 1850), but after it had come out, she and her father were overcome by panic at the idea of having "revealed too much". So they tried to buy back all the copies and burned them! Some did survive,  however, and the book remains in print.
Why did the novel impress me so much? Most of all because Clarke's uncanny ability to convey powerful but subtle shifts or alterations of consciousness. As you will find out for yourself when you read it, precisely those shifts or alterations are essential to everything that the novel is about, but few things are so difficult to evoke in prose without the result becoming artificial or shallow. Lindsay Clarke succeeds in making the reader experience events which take place in a liminal twilight reality that is "neither here nor there": not just dreams or fantasies, not just ordinary prosaic reality, but some third realm that refuses to accept such an either/or choice.

And as if that weren't impressive enough, almost at the same moment I came across the same kind of thing in a very different kind of novel. This time it's the work of a Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami. He seems to be quite well known but I confess that I had never heard of him. Anyway, his three-volume opus 1q84 was warmly recommended to me, so I read it. At first I was quite puzzled by the strange language, which often made a somewhat naïve or childish impression on me (perhaps partly because of the translation?); but after some time I got used to it, and began to experience it as part of his particular charm. Only halfway through the first volume did the book really "grab" me, and then I had no rest until I had finished it. Of course, I won't give the plot away here either. But again, what makes the novel fascinating is the presence of a liminal "other reality" that can neither be dismissed as dream or fantasy, nor accepted as straight reality. Murakami's world violates our most basic assumptions about reality (implying, of course, that in fact it is those assumptions that do violence to the world as it really is). Again, as in Lindsay Clarke's novel, all the most important things that happen in the novel involve powerful but very subtle shifts to another level of consciousness and/or reality. Murakami, too, has an uncanny ability to make his reader experience them without a hint of artificiality. His language is much simpler than Clarke's, but the effect is the same.

One final point that both novels have in common is that, at some level, these liminal events or altered states are always charged with erotic energy. Some kind of erotic tension involving male and female polarities seems to be required in order for the protagonists to be pushed through the barrier that separates normal prosaic reality from that other state. I don't think that Clarke and Murakami know anything about each other, and their novels could not be more different, but somehow they are parallel and arrive at similar conclusions. 


qwallath said...

Thanks for the reviews! The description of both novels reminds me of John Crowley's works, which straddle the same border between daily reality and some uncanny presence of other realities (alternative lines of history in the 'Ægypt' cycle).

I didn't know Murakami wrote in a similar way about some felt 'otherworld', but that sounds very interesting too. Did you read all three volumes of '1Q84'? And what parallels do you see with Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-four'?

Twilight Traveler said...

Hi Qwallath, I've no idea about 1984 but I think your comparison with John Crowley is right on the mark: did you see my posting on him, elsewhere on this blog?