March 28, 2003

Of Things Near and Far

Of things near and far has been this journal’s subtitle almost since its inception, and can currently be seen lurking in the background of the banner image above. The phrase derives from the title of a book of memoirs by a long-time favourite author of mine, Arthur Machen (1863-1947). An interesting essay about Machen’s tale The White People at Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s Violet Books site brought his writing back to the forefront of my attention for the first time in quite a while.

It was very dark in the room. He seemed by slow degrees to awake from a long and heavy torpor, from an utter forgetfulness, and as he raised his eyes he could scarcely discern the pale whiteness of the paper on the desk before him. He remembered something of a gloomy winter afternoon, of driving rain, of gusty wind: he had fallen asleep over his work, no doubt, and the night had come down.

Machen began his literary career in the 1880s, as a pasticheur and translator (he translated, among other works, the Memoirs of Casanova), before going on to attain a small measure of notoriety as the author of some luridly melodramatic horror stories, such as The Great God Pan and The Inmost Light (published together in 1894). The former tale can be found entire in most Project Gutenberg archives.

He lay back in his chair, wondering whether it were late; his eyes were half closed, and he did not make the effort and rouse himself. He could hear the stormy noise of the wind, and the sound reminded him of the half-forgotten days. He thought of his boyhood, and the old rectory, and the great elms that surrounded it. There was something pleasant in the consciousness that he was still half dreaming; he knew he could wake up whenever he pleased, but for the moment he amused himself by the pretence that he was a little boy again, tired with his rambles and the keen air of the hills. He remembered how he would sometimes wake up in the dark at midnight, and listen sleepily for a moment to the rush of the wind straining and crying amongst the trees, and hear it beat upon the walls, and then he would fall to dreams again, happy in his warm, snug bed.

In much of Machen’:s fiction, the visible world is portrayed as a mere veil thinly stretched over realms beyond of radiant beauty or unspeakable nastiness. This outlook achieved its best expression in the works he wrote ca. 1897-1901, among them what I would consider his best novel The Hill of Dreams (also available on-line, at litrix), an account of a hypersensitive young man’s profound alienation from the material world around him, one which ultimately destroys him. In this book Machen sought to create, as he put it, a Robinson Crusoe of the soul. It is a book which seems more akin to the fragrant flowerings of French symbolism than to the all-too-often stodgily prosaic world of English Victoriana.

The wind grew louder, and the windows rattled. He half opened his eyes and shut them again, determined to cherish that sensation of long ago. He felt tired and heavy with sleep; he imagined that he was exhausted by some effort; he had, perhaps, been writing furiously without rest. He could not recollect at the instant what the work had been; it would be delightful to read the pages when he had made up his mind to bestir himself.

As for Things Near and Far, it was written in the early ’20s, at a time when Machen's work was beginning to enjoy a short-lived vogue. It is an uneven and episodic work, though aptly titled, and most interesting for its account of the period following the death of his first wife in 1899, when, after suffering a kind of breakdown, his grief gave way to a state of bliss, hauntingly described; a time when the world around him seemed charged with strange magic.

Surely that was the noise of boughs, swaying and grinding in the wind. He remembered one night at home when such a sound had roused him suddenly from a deep sweet sleep. There was a rushing and beating as of wings upon the air, and a heavy dreary noise, like thunder far away upon the mountain. He had got out of bed and looked from behind the blind to see what was abroad. He remembered the strange sight he had seen, and he pretended it would be just the same if he cared to look out now. There were clouds flying awfully from before the moon, and a pale light that made the familiar land look strange and terrible. The blast of wind came with a great shriek, and the trees tossed and bowed and quivered; the wood was scourged and horrible, and the night air was ghastly with a confused tumult, and voices as of a host. A huge black cloud rolled across the heaven from the west and covered up the moon, and there came a torrent of bitter hissing rain.

Machen subsequently worked as a stage actor, which he loved, and as a journalist, which he loathed with a cold fury. His books were always lauded by a small few, but generally ignored by the public at large. Wide acclaim and a secure prosperity eluded him. Nevertheless, his works are still cherished, and there was until recently a flourishing Society dedicated to preserving his memory.

It was all a vivid picture to him as he sat in his chair, unwilling to wake. Even as he let his mind stray back to that night of the past years, the rain beat sharply on the window-panes, and though there were no trees in the grey suburban street, he heard distinctly the crash of boughs. He wandered vaguely from thought to thought, groping indistinctly amongst memories, like a man trying to cross from door to door in a darkened unfamiliar room. But, no doubt, if he were to look out, by some magic the whole scene would be displayed before him. He would not see the curve of monotonous two-storied houses, with here and there a white blind, a patch of light, and shadows appearing and vanishing, not the rain plashing in the muddy road, not the amber of the gas-lamp opposite, but the wild moonlight poured on the dearly loved country; far away the dim circle of the hills and woods, and beneath him the tossing trees about the lawn, and the wood heaving under the fury of the wind.

The above quotations are the opening paragraphs of Chapter VII of The Hill of Dreams.

Photograph of Arthur Machen

Machen's signature.


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