Saturday, June 16, 2018

Tarr by Wyndham Lewis

The chilly and unusual air of the early morning, the empty streets and shuttered houses, destroyed all feeling of reality of what was happening for Kreisler.  Had the duel been a thing to fear, it would have had an opposite effect.  His errand did not appear as an inflexible reality, either, following upon events that there was no turning back.  It was a whim, a caprice they were pursuing, as though, for instance, they had woken up in the early morning and decided to go fishing.  They were carrying it out with a dogged persistency, with which our whims are often served.
I was inspired to read D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow because I had developed an interest in T. S. Eliot's milieu.  Here we have a novel I am reading from the same impetus, but by a personage much more closely connected to Eliot.  (Though in a December 1922 letter to his brother Henry, Eliot suggested that Joyce and Lawrence were the only contemporary novelists worth reading, Peter Ackroyd's 1984 biography of Eliot relates incidents that suggest Eliot was very skeptical about Lawrence--in a lecture in 1933 Eliot called Lawrence "a sick man" and he later called out E. M. Forster for his effusive eulogy of Lawrence, implying that calling Lawrence "the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation" was vacuous, empty praise.)  In a November 1918 letter to Isabella Stewart Gardner, Eliot called painter, writer and soldier Wyndham Lewis "the most interesting man in London Society."  Lewis published Eliot in the second and final issue of his famous periodical Blast, while Eliot wrote a foreword for Lewis's poetry collection One-Way Song.  The two even traveled together on the Continent, where Lewis got into a bicycle accident.  (Here's an article by Jeffrey Myers all about Eliot and Lewis's relationship.)

First page of the Preface from
the copy of Tarr which I read
Tarr, Lewis's first novel, was initially published in 1918, but the author rewrote it in 1928 and there has been considerable debate among scholars as to which version is superior.  I borrowed via interlibrary loan a 1973 printing by Jubilee Books--it is not clear to me whether it presents the 1918 or the 1928 text.  I like the typeface and the little decorations at the start of each chapter, which seem to incorporate the borzoi logo of Knopf; Knopf published the first American edition of the novel.  Is this some kind of clue about which version I read?

In a 1947 radio recording you can listen to on YouTube, Lewis talks about his education in France, tells an odd story about Flaubert, discusses the influence  the great Russian writers had upon his thinking, and speculates on the differences in character among English, French and Russian young men.  (The Russians come out on top, Lewis suggesting they are serious thinkers, while the English and French are frivolous.)  Lewis's interest in national characters and in foreign cultures and ideas  is strongly reflected in Tarr, which is set in Paris and features an international cast.  On the very first page of the volume, which I reproduce here (click to enlarge), Lewis's preoccupation with these topics is evident.  The English again come in for some dismissive criticism--since they don't think for themselves, save for a few Irishmen and Americans (who is he thinking of here?  Yeats and Pound?  Joyce and Eliot?) they are at the mercy of German ideas, of the "brain waves" that "boom" from "Germany's large leaden brain;" only the sea, that has protected the English people from Continental invasion for centuries, has preserved Lewis's countrymen from the influence of German thought, which has had its way with Frenchmen, Italians, and Russians.

The novel is chock full of lines like these that succinctly characterize the various ethnic and cultural groups of Europe; here is a small sample:
The whole of English training--the great fundamental spirit of the country--is a system of deadening feeling, a prescription for Stoicism. 
Latin races are as scandalised at northern amenities, the badness of our hypocrisies or manners and total immodesty displayed, as the average man of Teutonic race is with the shameful perfection of and ease in deceit shown by the French neighbour. 
...husbands hobnobbing with their wives' lovers or husbands of their unmarried days is a commonplace of German or Scandinavian society.
...in Latin countries you have a democracy of vitality, the best things of the earth are in everybody's mouth and nerves. 
There he sat with his legs crossed and his eye fixed on the door with a Scottish solemnity.     
The main text of Tarr in this edition is some 340 pages long and consists of seven Parts, each made up of several chapters.  In Part I we meet our title character, Frederick Sorbert Tarr, an English painter living in Paris's "Knackfus Quarter."  Tarr is engaged to a German woman, Bertha Lunken, a sort of mediocrity.  Tarr puts forward his theory that an artist devotes to his art the passion an ordinary man devotes to sex; as a result an exceptional woman would distract him from his work, and so a mediocrity is the best sort of woman for him.
All the delicate psychology another man naturally seeks in a woman, the curiosity of form, windows on other lives, love and passion, I seek in my work and not elsewhere.
Tarr visits three English friends of his, one after the other, to talk over his relationship with Bertha.  Tarr treats these men pretty shabbily, insulting them and demeaning them.  His discussions with them confirm in him the need to avoid marriage, and so he goes to visit Bertha in her apartment, which is decorated with a scowling bust of Beethoven and reproductions of Max Klinger images, intent on severing their ties.  Tarr and Bertha's long and convoluted conversation settles nothing, however; Bertha calls his bluff and Tarr in any case is unsure whether he really wants to break up with her.

In my opinion, this 1926 ad for Tarr totally
mischaracterizes what the novel is all about
(image from "Rewriting Tarr Ten Years Later:
Wyndham Lewis, the Phoenix Library,
and the Domestication of Modernism" by
Lise Jaillant)
Part II introduces us to Otto Kreisler, a German painter resident in the same part of the city as Tarr and Bertha.  Kreisler actually occupies a larger portion of the narrative than our title character.  The chapters in this part, no doubt for some artistic reason, are not in chronological order, though I will summarize them here more straightforwardly.  Background: Back in the fatherland, Kreisler's fiance dropped him to marry his own father; Kreisler went to Italy to study painting, leaving Italy for Paris when his debts began piling up--Kreisler is notorious for not paying his bills and for borrowing money from others and failing to repay them.  He relies on money sent regularly by his fiance-stealing father, but, as the period covered by this novel begins, his father's regular letter, with its precious marks, is late, and Kreisler must face up to the possibility that no more money is forthcoming from Germany.

Like Tarr, Kreisler has a large number of acquaintances whom he treats in a shabby manner.  (Lewis again and again provides us readers reasons to see similarities between his English and German protagonists, and I have a suspicion that one of the novel's objects is to portray the negative effect on the character of an Englishman of excessive association with Germans--Tarr is attracted to and identifies with individual Germans and proposes ideas he labels as German, and "Frederick" is a sort of classic German name, isn't it?)  In a cafe Kreisler meets a beautiful woman, Anastasya, an ethnic Russian who spent her youth in the United States and has lived in Germany as an adult.  Kreisler becomes infatuated with her.  He learns she will be at an upcoming party of Paris-living Germans, and finagles himself an invite to the party, but feels he cannot go because his evening dress clothes have been pawned.  In the course of fruitless attempts to borrow the money he needs to regain possession of his evening attire, he spots Anastasya hanging around with another of his acquaintances, Soltyk, a half-Polish Russian art dealer whom Kreisler already has complex psychological reasons to dislike.  In despair, thinking Anastasya must be beyond his reach, Kreisler decides to attend the party in his dirty morning clothes and deliberately make a scene, I guess to achieve a childish sort of revenge.

Part III covers the party to which K arrives underdressed, and is titled "Bourgeois-Bohemians."  (Whoa, remember when that David Brooks book came out?  It feels like just yesterday!)  This is one of the more entertaining parts of Tarr, as Lewis describes all the pretentious phonies and odd characters who attend the party--a grossly fat woman with a tiny violin-playing mathematics expert for a boyfriend; women who pretend to be lesbians because it is avant garde; an impoverished baroness who gets her fellow artists to pose for her for free, and so on.  Lewis's metaphors here feel more fun and more effective--the fat woman is an elephant and Der Matematiker is a flea who hops around whenever he is near her; a dull man who is in love with Frauelein Lipmann, the woman throwing the party and the center of the novel's social circle, is said to be "laying siege" to her, "investing" her.

Bertha is at the party, and notices how out of sorts Kreisler is, and approaches him, tries to comfort him.
"You are suffering!  I know you are suffering.  I wish I could do something for you....Treat me as a sister: let me help you."
Her attentions are insistent, and seem somewhat flirtatious, and Kreisler, thinking that here is an opportunity to commence his work of causing trouble at the party, grabs her and kisses her; the question of how much Bertha consents is muddled--in this novel people's motivations and actions are all ambiguous and vague, the characters seeming to act on whims and then later concoct post hoc rationalizations for their impulsive actions.  Bertha hopes word of the kiss will get back to Tarr and this will somehow bring her relationship with the Englishman to a crisis, severing it for good or inspiring jealousy that will tie Tarr securely to her.
With the salt of jealousy, and a really big row, could Tarr perhaps be landed and secured even now?
(I love how poetic this line is, with its rhyme and its metaphors--it even feels like it is in meter.)

As the party proceeds Kreisler makes a tremendous nuisance and fool of himself, groping women and insulting them, angering most everyone, except for Bertha, who does not witness this misbehavior.

The next morning, in Part IV, Kreisler receives a letter from his father informing him that no further money will be arriving and demanding his return to Germany ASAP.  Kreisler writes back a letter threatening to commit suicide on a specific date if his father's financial support is terminated. Bertha receives a letter from Tarr, who has heard the gossip of Bertha and Kreisler's kiss and decisively breaks off their relationship. Despite his efforts to avoid her, Kreisler runs into Bertha on the street, and, his "appetites" "asserting themselves," he suggests, and she agrees, to have dinner with him. All Bertha's friends warn her that Kreisler is a monster, but, for complex psychological reasons, their admonitions actually push Bertha closer to him. A few days later she agrees to model for one of his paintings, and while she is in his apartment he rapes her.

In Part V, Tarr, who has moved to another part of Paris, begins returning to the "Knackfus Quarter" on a daily basis in order to socialize with Fraulein Lipmann's circle, including his former girlfriend Bertha and Kreisler, the strange German whom he thinks is Bertha's new boyfriend.  (Tarr's reasons for returning to the neighborhood at all and for making such an effort to spend time with Kreisler I found vague and confusing, and perhaps this is Lewis's intention, to convey Tarr's own confusion and indecisiveness.  I think it is suggested that Tarr couldn't quit Bertha cold turkey, but had to wean himself off her, and that one reason he spent so much time with Kreisler is that he was trying to occupy the German's time so he (Kreisler) couldn't visit Bertha.)  Tarr meets Anastaysa, and, attracted to her, strikes up a friendship with her.  As the day upon which he has scheduled his suicide approaches, Kreisler acts in an increasingly violent and crazy manner.

Part VI, titled "Holocausts," covers Kreisler's physical altercations with Soltyk--he smacks the Pole when he finds him on a walk with Anastasya, and then again the same day in a cafe, where he publicly challenges the man to a duel. (Lewis relates the events of this Part out of chronological order, and from various vantage points; Kreisler's attack on Soltyk in the cafe is narrated twice, once from Kreisler's point of view and once from that of Tarr, who arrives at the cafe at just the right moment to witness and become briefly and peripherally involved in the caper.)  Because of the erratic behavior of Kreisler and others, the duel itself is a tragic farce where nothing goes as planned. Kreisler flees Paris, ending up in a police station near the German border where he hangs himself in a cell. The chapters about the duel and its aftermath are perhaps the best in the novel, as there is some real suspense (at times it looks like the disputants will make up or that one of them will fail to show up, preventing the duel from taking place and keeping anybody from getting killed) and because Lewis introduces some odd and interesting minor characters in the form of the men who serve as Soltyk and Kreisler’s seconds.  Kreisler's time in his cell and his suicide are also well done, Lewis giving us a striking and novel metaphor (I'll reproduce this below) and then a very good psychological description of Kreisler's process of destroying himself.


After the climaxes of the botched duel and the successful suicide, in Part VII the stories of Tarr, Bertha, and Anastasya are resolved. Anastasya, equipped with beauty, intelligence and a powerful will, calls the shots in her relationship with Tarr; he tries to break things off with her--remember that he thinks that an artist should not let his sexual relationships take up too much of his energy, and so he should not get involved with a woman who is his equal--but she asserts herself and seduces him, and they become lovers. Bertha tells Tarr that she is pregnant with Kreisler's child (she doesn't let on that the baby is the product of a rape), and Tarr marries her, it being the honorable thing. For a few years Tarr and Bertha remain married while Tarr spends most of his time with sexy sexy Anastasya, then Bertha divorces him and marries an eye doctor.  Tarr never has children with Anastasya, but he is unfaithful to her and has offspring with another woman.

This is a bleak novel in which all the characters are selfish jerks, but none of them is selfish in an ambitious or exciting way—the characters are artists, but none of them is driven by an obsession to be rich and famous or by a commitment to changing the world or altering the course of art history.  This is a marked contrast to Lewis himself and his friends Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, who were always founding new schools of thought, publishing manifestos and plans, promoting new writers and artists and trying to bring to the attention of Westerners literature from other parts of the world, and pushing for societal and cultural change (let's put aside for the moment that these changes they sought could be stupid and dangerous.)   None of the characters in Tarr has any kind of guiding passion or any decent human feeling.  With the marginal exception of Tarr himself, they don’t talk about art, and none of them feels any kind of normal love or friendship, or even lust.  At best they act like (erratic, broken) machines (Lewis repeatedly uses the word "machine" in the metaphors he applies to the characters); at worst they are manipulative schemers who see each other as tools to be used or resources to be exploited, and not even to grand or romantic ends, but to petty ones.

I'm willing to admit that Lewis here is presenting an accurate picture of how people behave, and that this may very well be an appropriate satire of artists he knew, but such characters militate against the construction of an entertaining novel, and contribute to Tarr's lack of clarity and lack of narrative drive.  I'm sure that there are people smarter than I am who think Tarr is a hilarious and biting satire that powerfully makes its point, but it didn't make me laugh and I don't feel like it had any particularly new or exciting ideas to convey.  There are a few good passages and effective scenes, and the book is certainly interesting as a historical document, but taken as a whole Tarr is not really moving or compelling.  Worthwhile for me and those with particular interests, but not a masterpiece or a satisfying read with broad appeal that I would recommend to general audiences--it's no Don Quixote or Moby Dick or In Search of Lost Time or Of Human Bondage

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence

He was obsessed.  If he did not discover and make known to himself these delights, they might be lost for ever.  He wished he had a hundred men's energies, with which to enjoy her.  He wished he were a cat, to lick her with a rough, grating, lascivious tongue.  He wanted to wallow in her, bury himself in her flesh, cover himself over with her flesh.  
Front cover of copy I read
In an effort to justify my mother's complaints that I am a snob and my father's fears that I am a dangerous reactionary who is putting his good name at risk, I have been reading T. S. Eliot's earlier poetry and about the St. Louis native and London habitue's early life (basically up to 1922 and the publication of The Waste Land.)  In Robert Crawford's Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land and in The World Broke In Two: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and the Year That Changed Literature by Bill Goldstein, mention is made of Lawrence's 1915 novel The Rainbow as a controversial book that was "suppressed for indecency."  I've never read anything by D. H. Lawrence, and seeing that the novel was (apparently) full of sex and that the more famous Women in Love was a sequel to it, I decided The Rainbow would be a good place to start my D. H. Lawrence experience and tracked down a copy (Penguin 2007, edited by Mark Kinkead-Weekes) at the Baltigore County Public Library.  For what it's worth, this edition claims to be the closest ever published to what Lawrence intended.

The Rainbow is the story of three generations of the Brangwen family, relatively prosperous owners of the farm known as the Marsh in or near the village of Cossethay on the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, a tale that runs from the mid 19th century to the first years of the 20th.  After a brief look at his immediate ancestors, we spend 100 or so pages with Tom Brangwen as our main character.  Though not the eldest, Tom succeeds to ownership of the Marsh, his older brother Alfred moving to Nottingham to take a job as "a draughtsman in a lace-factory."  After an encounter with a foreign gentleman, Tom becomes fascinated with foreigners and aristocrats—one of the themes of The Rainbow is of people who yearn to be more, to grow into something different, something bigger, or to have children who do so  These hopes are generally frustrated; for example, Tom's mother wanted her children to be educated, but Tom was a horrible student, "a hopeless duffer at learning," "a fool" who "had not the power to controvert even the stupidest argument...."

...and the back
Tom becomes enchanted with Lydia Lensky, a Polish widow with a little girl, Anna.  Lydia, the daughter of a landowner, and her husband, a physician, were forced to leave Poland because they were patriots and got mixed up in a rebellion against the Russians--her husband died of illness in London, leaving her and little Anna penniless.  Tom and Lydia marry, and we learn all about the joys and miseries of their marriage. Their marriage is contrasted with Alfred’s; Alfred cheats on his wife with an intelligent woman who lives in a house full of books with her father--Alfred and the woman read Herbert Spencer and Robert Browning together.

When Anna is eighteen, Alfred’s son Will moves near the Marsh to take up work himself as a draughtsman at a lace factory. Anna and Will, a sensitive sort who likes to visit churches and look at books of reproductions of church architecture and Christian paintings and sculptures (Ruskin has had a big influence on him), fall in love, and we get 100-something pages in which their marriage, the joys and miseries of which are even more extreme than that of Tom and Lydia's, is described in detail.

Lawrence’s book is focused primarily on psychology, on the characters’ inner lives and on their feelings, feelings mostly related to their sexual and family relationships. There is quite little description of people’s work or their relationships with other people in the community--we don’t get scenes of Tom haggling with customers over prices for his butter or beef or Will trying to get a raise from his boss, and we learn very little of the economics of managing a farm or the intricacies of designing lace patterns, we don't hear people's complaints about government trade or tax or foreign policy.  Again and again the characters eschew the outside world, shutting themselves up in the family:
Anna continued in her violent trance of motherhood, always busy, often harassed, but always contained in her trance of motherhood....No responsibility, no sense of duty troubled her.  The outside, public life was less than nothing to her, really.  
.... 
And to him, as the days went by, it was as if the heavens had fallen, and he were sitting with her among the ruins, in a new world, everybody else buried, themselves two blissful survivors....
or themselves:
...she was always tormented by the unreality of outside things....she became hard, cut herself off from all connection, lived in the little separate world of her own violent will.
The descriptions of people’s family relationships, particularly relationships between spouses, ring very true and are very effective. Just like in real life, everybody’s feelings are ambiguous, equivocal,  subject to endless revision, and Lawrence's character's emotions shift from one extreme to the other from one moment to the next.   Lawrence addresses, in detail, many of the challenges faced by married people: you can't live without your wife, can't imagine a life without her, she is the center of your being, but at the same time that you adore her and desire her, you resent her because of her power over you.  She makes fun of your hobbies, and it hurts so much you throw the woodcarving you've been working on for months into the fire!  (When this happened to Will I was reminded of scenes in Kipling's The Light that Failed and in Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage in which women destroyed men's art work.)  Your wife criticizes your religion, your deepest beliefs, and you begin to doubt.  You love your husband and desire him sexually, but there is nothing more delicious than being alone at home while he's at work, and you can't get any sleep in the same bed with him, so you send him to another room every night.  Lawrence goes into all these things at great length, as well as into Tom's relationship with Anna and Will's with his and Anna's first daughter, Ursula.

Lawrence's style is not subtle--when people are not overwhelmed by love or desire they are going into "black rages" and consumed by hate, usually for the person they were in paroxysms of desire for just two paragraphs ago, and will be equally in love with within a page or two.  Lawrence's style is characterized by repetition.  Lawrence will use the same short straightforward words and phrases multiple times in a single sentence, in a single paragraph, again and again throughout the book ("rage" and "black" are favorites):
All the blood in his body went black and powerful and corrosive as he heard her.  Black and blind with hatred he was.  He was in a very black hell, and could not escape.
....
Oh, Oh, the bliss of the little life sucking the milk of her body!  Oh, Oh, Oh the bliss, as the infant grew stronger, of the two tiny hands clutching, catching blindly yet passionately at her breast, of the tiny mouth seeking her in blind, sure, vital knowledge, of the sudden consummate peace as the little body sank, the mouth and throat sucking, sucking, sucking, drinking life from her to make a new life, almost sobbing with passionate joy of receiving its own existence, the tiny hands clutching frantically as the nipple was drawn back, not to be gainsaid.  This was enough for Anna.  She seemed to pass off into a kind of rapture of motherhood, her rapture of motherhood was everything.
Lawrence will make the same points about a character and use the same metaphors again and again, in a brief space.  One minor character is a Polish baron, Skrebensky, exiled to England where he has taken up the job of a vicar and marries an Englishwoman.  On page 184 Lawrence tells us the Baroness has "the soft, creamy, elusive beauty of a ferret."  On the same page we are told "She had real charm, a kind of joyous coldness, laughing, delighted, like some weasel."  And at the top of the next page we find that Will "watched her with deferential interest as he would watch a stoat playing."  (I was hoping Lawrence would whip out "ermine," favorite of all us Leonardo and Wyndham Lewis fans, but he limited himself to three of these weaselly ferrety metaphors.)

(Is repetition a hallmark of "literary modernism?"  Linked to the interest of its practitioners in primitive chants and ancient ritual?  Eliot certainly uses lots of repetition in his poetry.)

Almost halfway through our 450-page trek, and eight years into Will and Anna's marriage, Will goes to town and picks up a girl at a theatre; he gropes her in the dark corner of a park, but she won't let him go all the way.  Back home Anna immediately notices something is different about him, but she is not necessarily offended:
She liked him.  She liked this strange new man come home to her.  He was very welcome, indeed.  She was very glad to welcome a stranger.  She had been bored by the old husband.  
Will's infidelity triggers a revival, a revolution, of his and Anna's relationship, and they devote themselves to ferocious animalistic sex, sex bereft of love or tenderness, sex based on lust: "They abandoned the moral position, each was seeking gratification pure and simple...Their children became mere offspring to them, they lived in the darkness and death of their own sensual activities."  It is hard to tell to what extent Lawrence is endorsing this kind of attitude towards sex, and to what extent he is condemning it.

Some publishers try to sell The Rainbow as a sex
novel--this is my favorite of the sexy
covers I have seen
I enjoy this kind of extravagant writing, when some guy is so hot for a chick he swoops down on her like a predatory bird and wants to devour her like a cat, and when he is so angry at her that he wants to take her in his hands and break her. The problem I began having with The Rainbow, however, was that Lawrence was doing this stuff again and again—there was no relief, no variety, it got repetitive, monotonous.  It is hard to burn at a fever pitch for page after page without it getting stale, especially when the topic does not vary for over 100 pages.  I thought of Proust, who also writes at length about love and sex and how they make people feel and act goofy, but he also writes about art, literature, social class, and politics, and includes many memorable images and even pretty funny jokes. (And Proust writes about more varieties of love and sex than Lawrence does here.)  Fortunately, in the second half of The Rainbow, Lawrence expands his scope and his range of topics a bit, and tries to include arresting images, particularly featuring the moon and flowers.  (I love to look at the moon, but, unfortunately, and despite the best efforts of my father, who cultivates a huge garden, my wife, who loves to decorate our home with cut flowers, and Bryan Ferry, flowers leave me cold and I have no idea what a rhododendron looks like without googling it.)  More interesting, to me at least, are the characters' responses to political, economic and social issues.

Anna and Will's plunge into ecstatic and indulgent sex feels like the climax of the first half of The Rainbow.  It is followed by a sequence in which Tom Brangwen, Anna's (non-biological) father and Will's uncle, is killed in a flash flood at the Marsh farm, drowned while drunk.  Fred, Anna's half-brother, son of Tom and Lydia, succeeds to the farm.

Will and Anna's daughter Ursula is the main protagonist of the remaining 225 or so pages of the novel.  Following the book's themes, Ursula is selfish and self-absorbed:
She was a free, unabateable animal, she declared in her revolts: there was no law for her, nor any rule.  She existed for herself alone. 
and wants to improve her status and go out and explore the world:
So even as a girl of twelve she was glad to burst the narrow boundary of Cossethay, where only limited people lived.  Outside, was all vastness, and a throng of real, proud people whom she would love. 
She often indulges in fantasies of being a rich aristocratic lady, helping others and otherwise flaunting her superiority over them.  Lawrence includes lengthy descriptions of teenaged Ursula's grappling with religious questions.  She, of course, wants to do the right thing, but she is unwilling in her squabbles with siblings and schoolmates to turn the other cheek and forswear self-defense and revenge, and though she is troubled by the parable of the camel and the eye of the needle, she is very reluctant to give up her superior status as the member of a relatively prosperous family or sell her fine things (among them a pearl-backed brush and mirror, silver candle stick, and a "lovely little necklace") and hand the proceeds over to the poor--in fact, the poor disgust her.
"Very well," she thought, "we'll forgo that heaven, that's all--at any rate the needle's eye sort."  And she dismissed the problem.
(Lawrence fills The Rainbow with quotes from the Bible and Biblical references--Anne Fernihough furnishes this edition with fourteen pages of very good notes that help uneducated people like myself spot the less obvious ones.)

Ursula is a rebel who questions all she hears.  Her first romance is with Anton Skrebensky, son of that Polish Baron turned vicar; Anton is an engineer in the British Army.
"But what would you be doing if you went to war?"
"I would be making railways or bridges, working like a nigger."
When he talks of why he is willing to fight for the nation and its people, the importance of maintaining order, and so on, Ursula insists that it is all nonsense, that she doesn't care about the Mahdi or Khartoum ("I don't want to live in the desert of Sahara--do you?") and attacks the very idea of a nation:
"But we aren't the nation.  There are heaps of other people who are the nation."
"They might say they weren't, either."
"Well, if everybody said it, there wouldn't be a nation.  But I should still be myself," she asserted, brilliantly.
Anton is sent off to fight the Boers.  Ursula's second lover is a woman, Winifred Inger, one of her school teachers the last year she attends classes and a sort of feminist activist.  As with so many relationships in The Rainbow, this one veers from ecstatic adoration to absolute detestation.  Sick of her, Ursula sets up Winifred with her uncle Tom (Will's brother, son of drowned Tom) who, after travelling around the world a bit, has taken up the job of managing a coal mine.  Ursula is disgusted by the colliery and the ugly town that has sprung up around the pit and the way the miners ("colliers") are forced to adapt to the industry--she thinks they would be better off living in poverty than toiling to produce the energy that powers the modern economy.  Tom's role in the coal mining industry, and Winifred's interest in Tom (the two do end up married) makes them abhorrent to Ursula.

This cover, from a website offering
e-books, is the funniest I've seen
As I have suggested, Lawrence lays everything on pretty thick in this book, and he doesn't skimp when expressing how horrible--in Ursula's opinion, at least--the whole business of mining is, though he doesn't portray the colliers as slaves or innocent victims: they are volunteers who like the high wages they receive at the colliery.  Lawrence paints everything in The Rainbow in bold (garish?) colors but at the same time he presents everything as ambiguous and equivocal.

Ursula is sickened by the idea of staying at home with her mother and all her many siblings--she wants to enter the world of work, the world of men (Chapter XIII is actually titled "The Man's World"), she wants freedom and independence, and so she takes a job as a teacher (her "matric" qualifies her for such work.)  She has dreams of moving far away to teach among the beautiful people, but she ends up taking a teaching job nearby in a poor district, a job her father gets for her (so much for independence!)  The kids are rebellious, and to keep her job Ursula must abandon her fantasies of being the kind sensitive teacher every student loves and become a ruthless taskmaster who beats down recalcitrant boys with a cane--like the colliers she must adapt, alter her personality, become a servant of the machine, to the school which feels like a prison and a system she finds "inhuman."
She did not want to do it.  Yet she had to.  Oh why, why had she leagued herself to this evil system where she must brutalize herself to live?  Why had she become a school-teacher, why, why?
Ursula works as a schoolteacher for two years before attending college.  This is probably the most interesting part of the book, as Lawrence gets into what it is like to be a schoolteacher at the turn of the 20th century and actually shows us a character developing in a logical way and not just changing his or her attitude on a dime, as Ursula has to learn to adapt to the challenge of teaching a bunch of kids who do not want to be taught and of appeasing her superiors, who are not exactly eager to help her learn the ropes.  The minor characters in this portion of the novel are also interesting, the monstrous kids and the monstrous teachers who have to tame them if they want to be able to do their work.  This chapter of The Rainbow offers the pleasures of a conventional plot--I found the scene in which Ursula defeated the most villainous of the students and asserted her control of the class and won the support of her colleagues to be cathartic and satisfying, and some of the students' antics amusing.  I only wish we had gotten similar chapters on Will at the lace factory and Tom Senior managing the Marsh farm.

One of the recurring motifs of The Rainbow is people beginning new lives and entering new worlds, when they get a new job or meet a new lover or something like that.  In the last one hundred pages of the book Will, Anna, and their legion of children, the summer before Ursula begins college classes, enter into a new life, moving to from the village of Cossethay to Beldover, a newly risen town of newly constructed houses, one of those coal towns Ursula detests, where Will takes up the job of art teacher.  Ursula lives in this new house while attending college.  At first she is thrilled by the college, seeing it as a temple of learning and the professors as priests of knowledge, but she is soon disillusioned--the teachers don't teach out of love of learning, but merely in order to receive a paycheck, and the students aren't there to drink in the ambrosia of knowledge, but to increase their value on the labor market!
This was no religious retreat, no seclusion of pure learning.  It was a little apprentice-shop where one was further equipped for making money.   
Ursula, who in high school loved the Romans (on page 310 she "with her blood...heard a passage of Latin, and she knew how the blood beat in a Roman's body, so that ever after she felt she knew the Romans...") finds she doesn't even like Horace!  She compares Greek and Roman literature to the Chinese and Japanese "curiosities" for sale in antique shops, worthless gewgaws (page 403: "She was bored by the Latin curiosities....")

Anton Skrebensky, now a lieutenant, returns from South Africa late in Ursula's college career after serving down there for years; he has six months leave before heading to India.  Sick of school, Ursula "wanted to run to Skrebensky--the new life, the reality."  His time in Africa has turned Anton into a man, and Lawrence gives us some more animal metaphors: Anton is a leopard, then a lion, then a tiger.  As they sit in the night by the river, Anton tells Ursula all about life in Africa:
"I am not afraid of the darkness in England....It is soft, and natural to me, it is my medium, especially when you are here.  But in Africa it seems massive and fluid with terror--not fear of anything--just fear.  One breathes it, like a smell of blood.  The blacks know it.  They worship it, really, the darkness.  One almost likes it--the fear--something sensual." 
Distracted by Anton, whose body thrills her, Ursula skips class, fails her exams, is denied her B.A.  She and Anton get engaged, but after a tirade against England ("meagre and paltry...unspiritual") and democracy ("I hate democracy....Only the greedy and ugly people come to the top in a democracy....who are those chosen as best to rule?  Those who have money and the brains for money") Ursula tells Anton she doesn't want to get married.  (We later learn that she wants to experience other men--she loves and desires Anton, but he is the only man she's ever had sex with, and she is sure she could love and enjoy the bodies of other, different, men.)  Anton bursts into tears, and she relents, but over the next weeks he also realizes they are not made for each other and he marries a more stable woman and brings her with him to the East.

The brief final chapter includes symbolic visions, one in which Ursula sees herself as a seedling growing from an acorn, a new living thing with no connection to the Brangwen family or Anton or anything from her past life, and another in which she sees a rainbow appear over the world and sweep away the new coal towns and usher in new lives for everybody.  There is also a tedious dream-like scene in which Ursula is trapped in a wood by horses and has to climb a tree to escape the equines.  She is carrying Anton's child, but falling from the tree induces a miscarriage.  I think.  This is the lamest chapter of the book, and compares badly with the visionary scenes in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain.

Of course, many publishers have
taken the safe and literal route
So, did I enjoy The Rainbow?  Can I recommend it to people?  Individual chapters and individual passages are definitely good, and as a failed PhD candidate in history the occasional insights into the lives and attitudes of the people of Victorian and Edwardian England held my rapt attention.  It is noteworthy how much time and energy Lawrence devotes to women, to getting into their heads (for example, describing Anna's fulfillment as a mother as well as her evolving sexual feelings for her husband) and to exploring the problems and burdens faced by women in their relationships with men (Winifred moans that men are really mostly concerned with their work, be it in the shop, the pits or the office, and that their wives only get from their husbands what little is left over, "the bit the shop can't digest.")

However, after the first hundred pages or so, the novel's repetitiveness, the way Lawrence banged away at the same words over the course of a paragraph, the same ideas over the course of a chapter, and the same themes over the course of 450 pages, made reading much of The Rainbow more like a job than a joy, and I had trouble achieving my goal of reading fifty pages a day.  The characters are not very sympathetic, and because they are all prone to radical attitude adjustments they lack definition and individuality--the book left me feeling adrift, with nothing solid to hold on to.  I don't regret acquiring some familiarity with a famous and important author, but I'm glad this exploration is behind me and doubt I will read another novel by Lawrence any time soon.

In our next episode, another British novel from the same period. 

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Starburst by Frederick Pohl

"My God," he said, shaking his head, "it's politicians who are supposed to be the manipulators, not scientists.  You're acting like a tinpot Jehovah!  You use human beings like laboratory rats, tricking them and in the end killing them."
Most of the SF I have read since this blog arose from the slime to sow terror and confusion about the countryside has been in old paperbacks or old magazines (often via the medium of the internet archive or the SFFAudio PDF page.)  But in my youth most of the SF I read was in hardcover, because I was at the mercy of libraries in the suburban New Jersey towns where I and my grandparents lived, libraries which didn't really stock paperbacks.  One of the authors the librarians seemed to favor was Frederick Pohl, and I read lots of hardcover Pohl novels published in the '70s and '80s when they were relatively new.

As an adult I reread and loved Gateway, but on a reread I found Beyond the Blue Event Horizon to be mediocre and I was irritated by Drunkard's Walk, which I viewed as too much (for my tastes, at least) a product of Pohl's political ideas, ideas which I do not find congenial, so I avoided Pohl for some years.  Recently, however, I really enjoyed Pohl's short story "The Fiend," which sparked a curiosity about all those old hardcovers like Jem and Black Star Rising that I recall so little about but which I presume I liked.  I began looking into used bookstores specifically for these 1970s and '80s works, and my first hit came in late May at the Old Book Shop in Morristown, New Jersey, a place I frequented while still living in the greatest state in the union and which I try to visit on my rare trips back.  For $1.50 I got a paperback copy of 1982's Starburst, adorned with a rainbow-like cover and high praise from the Minneapolis Tribune, which ceased publishing under that name soon after printing that laudatory review (the Tribune survives as the Star Tribune, in 1982 having been consolidated with the Minneapolis Star.)  Was the Tribune full of crap when it said Starburst was "one of the best sf novels of the past three or four years?"  Or will Starbust be so good that I will be jumping in my Toyota Corolla to scour the Eastern seaboard's used bookstores for copies of the aforementioned Jem and Black Star Rising so I can indulge in what the TV-watching public might call "a Frederick Pohl binge?"  Let's read Starburst and find out.


Dr. Dieter von Knefhausen, alumnus of the Hitler Youth and veteran of the Eastern Front, is a genius!  You might even say an evil genius!  He has worked his way to the top of the U.S. space program, and convinced the American people and government to finance the construction of an interstellar space ship even though the country is wracked by unemployment and civil unrest and faces the prospect of Africa being taken over by violent Muslim radicals; he even personally hand-picked eight people of the highest abilities to crew the ship on its voyage to Alpha Centauri.  Von Knefhausen got the people of the land of the free and the home of the brave to sign on to this expensive project by telling them that there was a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri for the eight heroes to explore, but the Bolshies over in Moscow are not so gullible as us Yankees!  Soon after liftoff, the commies announce to the world that their instruments indicate that there is, in fact, no planet orbiting Alpha Centauri!  It's not long before the President of the United States has called von Knefhausen on to the Oval Office carpet and is demanding he explain why the German egghead tricked him into lying to the whole world and sending eight of America's best and brightest on a one-way trip to their deaths a bazillion miles away!

Von Knefhuasen explains that the free world, to outlast the communist East, needs scientific breakthroughs, and isolating the eight astronauts from the distractions of the Earth, putting them in a situation where they have nothing to do but think, will probably result in them coming up with some awesome new ideas!  (This scheme reminded me of Theodore Sturgeon's classic story from 1941, "Microcosmic God," and Thomas Disch's fine 1967 novel, Camp Concentration--in both, ruthless authorities impose deadly conditions on people that foster innovative thinking.)

Pohl's narrative switches back and forth between Washington, D.C. and the starship and employs a number of narrative strategies.  Many chapters are in the third person omniscient, though the ones on Earth include lots of internal monologue stuff from von Knefhausen; some early chapters consist of transmissions from the astronauts back to von Knefhausen, and some later ones are first person narratives composed by the the most sympathetic of the astronauts, Eve Barstow and Willis Becklund, the spacefarers least altered by their revolutionary adventure.

Squint or click to marvel at the love showered on Starburst by the critics

Von Knefhuasen's scheme almost immediately bears fruit--with nothing better to do, one of the spacers proves Goldbach's Conjecture.  Within a year the astronauts have invented a more efficient, more expressive, language that leaves them bored with the clumsiness and annoyed by the sluggishness of English.  They become very interested in random numbers and their use in divination, and acquire knucklebone dice by chopping off their little toes--no real sacrifice, as they have developed means of controlling their bodies to the point that they can ignore pain and even regenerate lost digits.  They also realize, via I Ching hexagrams and a "personality analysis" of Knefhausen, that there is no planet at Alpha Centauri and that they have been sent on a fraudulent suicide mission; this inspires a consuming wrath towards the German scientist and a determination to build a planet around Alpha Centauri for them to reside on.

While the astronauts develop increasingly unbelievable powers, back in Washington things rapidly deteriorate, with political violence escalating and the federal government's power diminishing until a confused civil war, with military units switching sides and untrained youths taking the place of disciplined soldiers as the professionals are steadily killed off, ensues.  Things on Earth go from terrible to still more terrible when one of the astronauts, full of rage, uses his psychic powers to direct a stream of kaons at Earth; kaons cause radioactive materials to lose their radioactivity and instead shed tremendous heat.  This sneak attack renders useless nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors all over this big blue marble, crippling energy production, and also causes global warming that raises the sea level.

Starburst feels very long.  The tone is detached and uniformly flat, and the plot is episodic and has a feeling of bland inevitability; Pohl's novel lacks emotional high points and offers no suspense or tension or catharsis.  The characters are not very engaging, and those we follow most closely are, during the period the novel directly covers, spectators rather than drivers of events.  Mad scientist von Knefhausen is probably the most interesting character, though Pohl tries to make Eve Barstow, the least intelligent of the astronauts, sympathetic by describing her loneliness and ennui--she cannot learn the new-fangled super-efficient language of her comrades and is thus left out of much of what they do.  Eve is also the only astronaut who maintains her humanity; for example, she embraces the traditional female role of raising the astronauts' army of genetically engineered kids when most of the spacefarers have progressed so far intellectually and even physically that they see their own offspring as laborers, as the machinery they have built to do the tasks necessary to construct their artificial planet.

Pohl's writing is deliberately oblique and parcels out information in a fragmentary fashion, leaving the reader to figure out some things or just wait until they are explained.  Early in the story Willis Becklund is killed, but his personality somehow survives and continues to interact with the other explorers as a "ghost;" the nature of his living death is explained (in a vague and impressionistic fashion in keeping with the novel's interest in Eastern mysticism) many chapters later.  Similarly, we are presented with the astronauts' passel of children long before it is explained how these strange beings, genetically engineered to achieve English literacy at age two and sexual maturity at age six, were actually produced.  The reader's experience thus mirrors that of the characters--when von Knefhuasen was in the driver's seat he kept all the other characters in the dark as to his true designs, and when he is out of favor he has to contend with the astronauts' confusing messages and endure years in prison, where he receives only scattered clues about what is going on in the calamity-wracked outside world.

Some twenty years after leaving the Earth the astronauts and their fifty or so offspring have made great progress in building a Centauran planet out of asteroids and comets, but they want more raw materials and more genetic material and so they debate how to acquire these resources from Earth--via threats or via trade?  To assess the lay of the land back on the mother planet Eve and Willis return to the post-apocalyptic Earth with six children; Eve's twelve-year-old son, himself a father, is in command of the vessel.  They are greeted by the current President of the United States, whose domain consists of merely a portion of a largely submerged midAtlantic region--the rest of the former USA is split into little competing fiefdoms.  Von Knefhuasen died in prison a few months ago.

While Americans are reduced to riding around on horses and their President speaks with some kind of hillbilly accent, civilization has been reborn in Western Canada.  The leader of this oasis of order and technology in British Columbia, a beautiful woman, is on hand in Washington to make sure the President, whom Pohl portrays as a buffoon, doesn't have a chance to seize the Centaurans' technology and use it to reunite the United States.  She guides the visitors to her Kanuck utopia where everybody lives in an efficient little apartment and population levels are carefully controlled, and she has sex with Eve's son, who is sixteen after the four-year trip from Alpha Centauri.

Eve also starts a relationship with a handsome Canadian, a police officer (even though the sight of his gun makes her queasy.)  Willis the Ghost raises a ghost of von Knefhuasen in order to berate and humiliate him--he gives the German scientist a big nose and makes him say things like "oy vey" and "bubbeleh."  The astronauts offer the Canadians their supertechnology, but the Canadians reject the offer, preferring to keep their utopia the way it is.  I guess that is the (underwhelming, after 216 pages) climax of Starburst; the sensawunda denouement is that the principal Alpha Centaurans split up to colonize different areas of the galaxy (accompanied by some volunteer Earthlings), while Willis, the ghost, explores time and the universe and nervously contemplates the end of time.

Long, tedious and a bit dull, Starburst is disappointing, no matter what various newspapers claimed back in 1982.  Pohl presents situations that should provoke an emotional response in us readers--von Knefhuasen, Eve Barstow, and Willis Burkland are all people of ability and ambition who are suddenly thrust into catastrophes and find themselves essentially helpless and totally isolated from the rest of humanity--but somehow Pohl failed to generate any feeling in this reader.  The book is cold and distant--perhaps Pohl's failure to convey human feeling or depict human drama is a function of the novel's alleged satiric intent?

Publishers Weekly, in the blurb reproduced above, tells us Starburst is, in part, a satire.  If a satire is supposed to be funny, Pohl again fails, because there are no laughs in this book.  The effect of the jokes, if they have any effect at all, is to defuse any drama, or leave the reader scratching his head.  The way von Knefhuasen is turned into a caricature of a Jew, for example--Pohl didn't bother to paint von Knefhuasen as an anti-Semite, and in fact pointed out early on that he was not a committed Nazi but simply an opportunist, so the gag at the end of the book comes out of nowhere.

More interesting than whether or not Pohl's humor succeeds is the question of what Pohl is satirizing here.  A ruthlessly manipulative German scientist, stupid Americans, clever communists and wise Canadians, and a USA crippled by illegal immigrant demonstrators, stone-throwing college activists and heavily armed African-American terrorists, and then finished off by the temper tantrum of an intellectual, are certainly the kinds of elements you might expect to see in some left-winger's satire of a post-World War II United States.  Pohl, like grad students I have had the misfortune to have to work with, also pushes the idea that technology and trade are detrimental rather than beneficial to human life--the Canadian woman suggests that the kaon strike that has denied the Earth any nuclear power wrought an improvement over the Cold War conditions that prevailed before, and we get an abbreviated lecture on how international trade is characterized by imperialism, cartels, dumping, and trusts.

More effective than this bog standard lefty boilerplate stuff is what I take to be Pohl's examination of the science fiction trope of the superman and his rehearsal of the timeless insight that power corrupts.  The smartest and most powerful individuals in the book are the least decent and least kind, the astronauts (besides Eve and Willis) growing more and more selfish and less and less connected to their comrades and their families as they grow more intelligent and acquire more abilities.  Power corrupts, whether it is the genius of a von Knefhuasen, the supergenius of the astronauts, or the political power of a head of state (though not if she is Canadian, I guess.)

Starburst is not actually bad; I am not quite prepared to declare it a waste of the reader's time.  There are interesting ideas, and tons of science stuff--I don't think I've encountered kaons anywhere else, nor the idea of a Gödel code.  Pohl also tries to explain solitons and instantons, one of those concepts I am never going to understand.  Contra Washington Post Book World, what the novel lacks is any sense of fun (though I suppose Democrats and foreigners may read about the destruction of the United States with glee) and any sort of feeling--there is no adventure, no excitement, no human drama, and I didn't care about the characters and I wasn't eagerly turning the pages to see what happened next.  I have to judge this one barely acceptable, and admit that any plans of seeking out Jem or Black Star Rising have been put on the back burner.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Four tales of Mars by Leigh Brackett

Let's explore yet another of my Fifty Cent Second Story Books finds, my copy of Ace's 1970s edition of The Coming of the Terrans by Leigh Brackett.  There is some mystery over exactly when this edition was published and who produced its cover illustration, but we know that the first edition of The Coming of the Terrans was published in 1967 and had a cover by Gray Morrow.  The collection includes five stories, and we've already read one, "The Last Days of Shandakor," as it also appears in The Best of Leigh Brackett, which we read in its entirety in the summer of last year.  Today we'll tackle the remaining four stories it contains by the celebrated writer of SF adventures, detective stories, and screenplays.

"The Beast-Jewel of Mars" (1948)

"The Beast-Jewel of Mars" was the cover story of the Winter 1948 edition of Planet Stories, where it is advertised as a story of "lost worlds" where beautiful women try to bewitch tall men (how different is that, really, from our own world?)  I like the cover illustration--the principal figures wear suitably and convincingly desperate expressions and the female lead sports a charming little blue number--and the inside pages boast not only the Brackett tale but contributions from two other beloved writers on the fantastical end of the SF spectrum, Ray Bradbury and Frank Belknap Long. 

Captain Burk Winters is a broken man!  He chain smokes Venusian cigarettes!  His hands shake so severely he drops coins all over the place when he pays a cabbie.  What happened to this dude, who was once one of our best space pilots?  He lost his girl to alien drug pushers, that's what!

Jill Leland was a wealthy member of the thrill-seeking classes who spend their leisure time in the solar system's Trade Cities, where the decadent rich of Earth gamble and indulge in elaborate vices!  Such pastimes are sought to relieve the pressure of life in the go go future--here are the kinds of people one sees in the Trade Cities:
Their faces were pallid and effeminate, scored with the marks of life lived under the driving tension of a super-modern age.
Leland's particular vice was the Martian "Shanga."  The Martians are the heirs of the wreckage of an heroic high-tech civilization that collapsed many centuries ago due to nuclear war; even though they can't reproduce much of that old time technology, the Martians can still operate some of the artifacts, and the Shanga crystals are among such artifacts.  In the Shanga parlors in the Trade Cities, Earth people can expose themselves to the Shanga rays, and temporarily feel physically and mentally younger, and live carefree for a few hours.

Brackett explicitly compares the treatment to drug use, and depicts exposure to the rays as a direct stimulant to the human brain's pleasure centers and as quite addictive.  Hard core addicts like Leland soon hear rumors that the Shanga treatment in the Trade Cities is mere kid's stuff compared to the real deal, the Shanga rays available in the desert in the crumbling half-deserted cities of Mars's heyday.  Winters tried to get the Shanga monkey off Jill's back, but to no avail; she disappeared in the Martian desert without a trace, presumed dead!

We learn all this stuff I just told you over the course of the 60-page story, which is structured sort of like a hard-boiled mystery.  The plot of "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" follows Winters as he goes to the Trade City on Mars, Kahora, and then out into the desert in search of his junkie girlfriend.  Winters is a manly man who isn't really interested in Shanga or any of the twisted allures of the Trade Cities, but to pursue his lost love he patronizes their evil trade, posing as a hopeless Shanga addict.  The Martian pushers take him out to the desert, to a lost city on the shore of a dry ocean basin, where they hold him captive and Winters learns the terrible truth.

The Shanga rays, at full power, after repeated doses, don't just roll your biological clock back to childhood, but back down the evolutionary ladder!  One strong dose of the rays turns Winters into a brutish cave man!  Winters recovers from this treatment, but he sees other Earthlings who have received many doses and been turned back to Neanderthals, to "missing links," even to god-damned reptiles and amphibians!  Winters worries that, if he doesn't escape, he'll eventually get turned into an amoeba!

The Martians, who see themselves as a superior race of great wisdom who were building skyscrapers when humans were still living in caves, resent human control of their ancient red planet.  The tribe of Martians in this story, those who run the Shanga parlors, turn Earthers into these evolutionary throwbacks in order to put them into an old amphitheater to torment them and laugh at them, a way of getting a little of their own back and assuaging their humiliation at the hands of us humies.

Our French friends included "Beast-Jewel of
Mars" in this 1975 anthology of stories from
Planet Stories.
Winters finds Jill Leland reduced to the condition of a cave woman--she can't even talk any more!  At night he escapes captivity and sneaks into the room of the leader of this tribe of vengeful Martians, a beautiful woman named Fand who has catlike grace and walks around with her high breasts bare.  (Brackett generally writes stories in which aliens are so biologically similar to Earth people that they are sexually compatible.)  Winters treats Fand the way a New York state prosecutor might treat one of his girlfriends, knocking her unconscious while she sleeps by bashing her in the head and then tying her up and carrying her back to the amphitheater.  When the Martians turn on the Shanga rays as they do every day, Fand gets exposed just like the Earth-creatures, and, because the Martians are an old race with tired genes, she gets devolved way way back, becoming into a disgusting vermiculate monster.  When her tribe realizes what has happened to Fand, chaos ensues, with the Martians fighting hand-to-hand with the Earth creatures in the arena, and Winters escapes with his mute and illiterate girlfriend to alert the human authorities about the menace of the Shanga parlors.       

(The crazy evolution stuff in "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" reminded me of the numerous stories by Brackett's husband, Edmond Hamilton, that feature wild speculations about evolution, and of course the whole plot and theme of the story reminds you of Chinese opium dens and Chinese resentment of Western imperialism.)

When we read two Poul Anderson novels recently we saw they were full of signs of his libertarian attitude--celebrations of private trade, the individual, and rational reason, and denunciations of big government and mysticism.  In "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" we see signs of an old-fashioned conservatism on the part of Brackett.  Modern life, we are told, is too fast and too complicated and drives people batty, and we see that modern wealth and leisure just leave hands idle to do the devil's work.  Interstellar trade hasn't made the life of Terran or Martian better, but corrupted and demeaned them both, giving rise to bitter hatreds as each race abuses or exploits the other at every opportunity.   Brackett also evinces a traditional skepticism of the city and city life:
Winters hated the Trade Cities.  He was used to the elemental honesty of space.  Here the speech, the dress, even the air one breathed, were artificial.
As you might guess, the Trade City on Earth is New York, a famous target for criticism from country folk and conservatives (and not always without reason.)

Not Brackett's best work, but entertaining and interesting.

Scanned from my copy, a brief introductory essay by Brackett and a list of "othe" Ace books
by her, including Alpha Centauri or Die! and Sword of Rhiannon, which I own and have read,
  and Big Jump, another publisher's edition of which I own and have read.

"Mars Minus Bisha" (1954)

Another cover for Brackett, and another Planet Stories in which Brackett shares an issue with Ray Bradbury; this time Bradbury is represented by one of the all-time most famous dinosaur stories and stories about time travel, "A Sound of Thunder."  In "Mars Minus Bisha" Brackett again invites comparisons between the people of Mars and East Asians, this time very directly:
She sat up, a dark and shaggy-haired young person, with eyes the color of topaz, and the customary look of premature age and wisdom that the children of Mars share with the children of the Earthly East.
This is the kind of thing you'd probably think twice about committing to paper today.

Fraser is a scientist living alone in a Quonset hut in the Martian desert, studying Martian diseases.  A woman from a tribe of reptile-riding nomads brings her daughter to him and flees--the shamans of her tribe had declared the seven-year old girl, Bisha, to be cursed, scapegoating her for a plague, and sentenced her to death.  Fraser examines her and finds Bisha to be perfectly healthy, and she moves in with him; soon the little girl is the light of his life, and he plans on bringing her home with him to Earth when his project is complete in a few months.

But it is not to be--this story is a tragedy!  From an ancient race of Martians with tremendous psychic powers Bisha has inherited a recessive genetic trait, an ability to drain the life force of those around her over which she has no control!  If they continue to live alone together, Bisha's autonomic vampiric powers will eventually kill Fraser, but if Fraser lets any Martians see her they will recognize her condition and destroy her.  Fraser's life force is fading--can he get to a human settlement three hundred miles away before he expires and before any natives spot Bisha?  And if not, who will live and who will die?

An effective story, more economical (just 30 pages) and better structured than "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" and with more human feeling, including a sad ending like something out of Somerset Maugham which took me by surprise.

"Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" (1964)

Brackett's name sits at the top of the list on the cover of the 15th Anniversary "All Star" issue of F&SF, right above her husband's.  (We read Hamilton's contribution to this issue, "The Pro," back in June of last year.)  Preceding "Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" is a page long bio of Brackett and a description of this story's genesis--it seems that Anthony Boucher, writing about Brackett in F&SF in 1955, made up the slightly goofy name od this story as a sort of parody of the titles of the type of planetary romances she excelled at writing, but some readers didn't realize it was a joke and began asking Brackett where they could find the story.  So, when the opportunity presented itself almost ten years later, Brackett wrote a story to match the title, making real this once fabulous component of her oeuvre.

Harvey Selden (!) has always wanted to go to Mars.  As he looks at the red planet from the observation dome of the starship as it comes in for a landing, Third Officer Bentham, an alcoholic whose career has been stunted by his love for the bottle, invites Selden to have dinner with him on the surface with some Martian friends of his.

Selden is staying at the Kahora Hilton.  Kahora has changed since the days when Jill Leland and Burk Winters frequented the Shanga parlor there; now that "the bad old days of laissez-faire," as Selden calls them, are over, Kahora and the other Trade Cities are under strict government control and all those sinful amusements are just a memory.  Kahora now has seven domes--Bentham takes Selden to the original dome, now a residential district, to meet his friends, including a Martian called Firsa Mak, Firsa Mak's sister and her human husband Altman, and a gorgeous Martian girl who walks around topless and serves the drinks, Lella.

Though this is his first trip to Mars, Selden is an academic expert on Martian culture and history; he came to Mars to take up a position at the Bureau of Interworld Cultural Relations.  He is also one of those liberals who identifies more with the colonized Martians than with his own people, the colonizers, and denigrates the actions of the first human explorers of the red planet, calling them "piratical exploiters."   
...Firsa Mak said with honest curiosity, "Why is it that all you young Earthmen are so ready to cry down the things your own people have done?"
Selden dismisses as nonsense the stories told by those first Earthmen to visit Mars about Martian cults who worshiped evil gods and practiced human sacrifice, but he's in for a surprise, because Bentham the drunk has just delivered him into the hands of people who know how very true those stories are!  Lella has served him a drugged drink and when he wakes up he's bound and gagged in the cold wilderness beyond the domed cities.  Brackett presents starkly the contrast between bookish know-it-all Selden, who in the wilderness proves weak and ineffectual, and adventurous manly men Firsa Mak and Altman, who are perfectly comfortable in harsh conditions and dangerous situations.

This German collection of
Brackett stories includes
"Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon"
Firsa Mak and Altman disguise Selden and drag him to a ritual where cultists pay obeisance to a slumbering Godzilla-sized monster.  The experience is so horrifying that Selden faints.  When he wakes up, Firsa Mak and Altman try to convince Selden to alert the Terran authorities about this cult which sacrifices people twice a year and its dangerous monster, which, they fear, if roused could destroy an entire city.  The government does not believe scruffy adventurers like them, but maybe they will believe a trained academic and member of the establishment like Selden?   

Selden, however, begins to doubt his own senses--Lella drugged him, after all--and worries that spreading rumors about Martian cults and Brobdingnagian monsters will wreck his career.  Instead of reporting the menace to the authorities he abandons his new job with the Bureau and flees to Earth where he undergoes psychotherapy and is relieved to be told he hallucinated the ritual and the monster, the result of drugs working on his unresolved feelings about his mother and his repressed homosexuality.  (We see evidence of Bracket's adherence to traditional ideas about gender roles and sexual mores here as well as in the quote I extracted from "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" above and in her novel Alpha-Centauri or Die!)

"Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" is well-written and I liked it, but at the same time I have to admit I thought the end was a little disappointing, anti-climactic.  A traditional adventure or horror story with a plot like this would end with the protagonist killing the monster and/or the priestess or making a narrow escape.  Instead, this story is a satire of inept intellectual types who look down on the brave men who defend and expand society, and so the main character is a kind of spectator lead around by the nose and kept from danger by the manly adventurer characters.  He is never in real danger and because he is incompetent outside a classroom he never makes any real decisions of consequence, just takes the path of least resistance.  I'm all for goofing on effete liberals and psychoanalytic quacks, but to achieve its full potential I think a story that follows the kind of adventure/horror template that this one follows needs real tension and a real climax--as "Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" stands, it is unsatisfying.  (I was hoping all along that Selden himself was going to be sacrificed--this would accomplish the goal of ridiculing the willfully-blind academic types who dismiss the reports of men in the field while at the same time providing a satisfying horror story conclusion.  Of course, then Brackett couldn't work the psychoanalytic angle.)

Another problem I have with the story is the equivocal role of Lella.  We have every reason to believe that the masked woman who leads the ritual, the Purple Priestess, is Lella herself, but at the same time Lella seems to be allied with Firsa Mak and Altman, who are trying to get the government to do away with the cult.  A nagging mystery.

"The Road to Sinharat" (1963)

"The Road to Sinharat" was an Amazing cover story.  isfdb lists it as part of the Eric John Stark series, but Brackett's famous hero does not appear in the tale.  Maybe it is considered part of the Stark series because the city of Sinharat also appears in a Stark story "Queen of the Martian Catacombs," later expanded into the novel The Secret of Sinharat? 

Long ago Mars was a world of oceans and forests; today it is an arid desert.  The men of Earth think they have the technology to restore part of the red planet to its former verdant glory, but the Martians resist the renewal project; they have made peace with their old and tired planet, and don't want to see their canals messed with and their settlements moved.  In fact, the renewal effort is leading to unrest among the natives and even violence against Earthmen.

In 1932 Edmond Hamilton published the short story "Conquest of Two Worlds," a story about Earth imperialism and an Earthman who joined with the natives of Jupiter to oppose Earth oppression.  Brackett considered this one of her husband's best stories--at least she chose it for The Best of Edmond Hamilton, a volume she edited.  I bring this up because "The Road to Sinharat" also features a Terran, Dr. Matthew Carey, who goes against his superiors and risks his life to stand against Earth interference with aliens.

Carey is an archaeologist currently working with the organization planning the renewal project--because the natives oppose the project, so does Carey.  Carey has lived so long among Martians, exploring tombs and even participating in barbarian raids, that he can pass for a Martian desert dweller and capably wield Martian weapons (by which I mean things like axes and daggers--I guess automatic rifles and heat ray pistols aren't among the ancient Martian technologies which have survived.)  He ditches his job to help the natives, and the plot of "The Road to Sinharat" follows Carey and some Martians--the trader Derech, an old friend who accompanied him on his archaeological expeditions years ago, and Arrin, a sexy Martian girl--as they travel via canal barge and then on reptile-back to the forbidden city of Sinharat, to look for some ancient documents which may convince the Terran authorities to abandon their renewal scheme.  They face various obstacles, among them pursuit by a Terran police detective, Howard Wales, and his Martian cops, who is tasked with bringing in the renegade archaeologist on suspicion of fomenting native violence.

Eventually Carey and his friends and Wales and his cops end up trapped together inside Sinharat, under siege by some barbarians who are reluctant to enter the ancient city, which is taboo because it was once the HQ of a tribe of Martian scientists who achieved longevity by kidnapping young people and shifting their consciousnesses into the youth's bodies.  Just as an aircraft comes to rescue the besieged humans and their Martian comrades, Carey finds the records he needs.  They show that the body snatchers of Sinharat, ages ago, launched their own renewal effort, and the memory of its eventual failure lingers in the Martians' cultural consciousness, rendering all such efforts anathema.  These records convince the authorities to abandon their plans.

"The Road to Sinharat" was among the
stories from Amazing and Fantastic
included in this 1968 reprint magazine.
Like "The Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon," "The Road to Sinharat" contrasts academic experts who think they know it all with the men of action in the field who actually do know what's going on, and like "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" doles out some harsh conservative medicine--change is bad, progress is a scam, history is a tragedy, and you shouldn't interfere in other people's business, even if you have the best of intentions.  "The Road to Sinharat" is also reminiscent of Brackett's "Citadel of Lost Ships;" both feature government projects that relocate towns and tinker with water sources, allegedly for the greater good.  (Public policies that destroyed American communities to create reservoirs and dams, like those chronicled here, seem to have struck a chord with Brackett.)

While not bad, this story is another disappointment.  Brackett overstuffs "The Road to Sinharat" with lots of cool material, but because it is confined to a paltry 50 pages the story feels rushed and cramped, almost like a condensed version of a longer piece of work.  All Brackett's ideas and all the many relationships she sets up are dealt with in cursory fashion--she has no room to explore any of them with any depth, so they lack dramatic power.  Derech, Arrin, Wales, and Alan Woodthorpe, head of the renewal project, all have potentially fun and interesting relationships with Carey, in particular Wales and Woodthorpe, because all three of the Earthmen have a strong sense of duty and a determination to do the right thing for the people of Mars, but Carey's thinking is at odds with those of his fellow Earthers, and over the course of the story Carey wins them to see his side.  Unfortunately, Brackett doesn't have room to develop these relationships and chart their evolution in a compelling way.  Arrin is also a lost opportunity--she could have been a sexual interest for Carey, part of a love triangle with Carey and Derech, or given voice to one of the numerous Martian factions (Brackett's Martians are not monolithic, but split into distinct and often competing cultural and political groups who react to the colonizers differently, just like colonized peoples in real life) or all three, but as the story appears, she does very little.

(I often moan that a piece of fiction is too long, but here we have the rare case in which I think a story would have been better at two or even three times the length.)

Another problem with "The Road to Sinharat" is that it lacks the thrilling danger and cathartic (and sexualized) violence of many of Brackett's stories--often in Brackett stories men kill each other with their bare hands and women get beaten or killed (when Fand in "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" got transformed into a 100 lb. slug her lieutenant euthanized her with a sword.)  I don't think anybody gets killed in "The Road to Sinharat"--when the barbarians charge Wales and his men they repel the charge with stun guns.  To be satisfying, an adventure story has to have believable physical or psychological dangers, and "The Road to Sinharat" comes up short in this department. 

**********

"Mars Minus Bisha" is a quite good story of human feeling, while the other pieces we've looked at today are just marginally good or merely acceptable.  "Beast-Jewel of Mars" has some of the violence and passion that bring to life Brackett's best work, like Sword of Rhiannon or "Enchantress of Venus," but lacks their strong characterizations and relationships, while "The Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" and "The Road to Sinharat" follow an adventure template but lack the danger and violence of a good adventure story and the latter feels underdeveloped.  Fortunately, there are still Brackett stories out there I haven't read, and I can live in the hope that there is another Brackett masterpiece awaiting me.