Sunday, August 7, 2016

Michael Butterworth on Arthur Machen

I asked Michael Butterworth for his advice on what I should read by and about Arthur Machen, and he sent the following:
Well, definitely John Gawsworth’s The Life of Arthur Machen if you can get hold of a copy (a Tartarus book). This should be read in tandem with Aiden Reynolds and William Charlton’s biography Arthur Machen, which is more workmanlike but tells Machen’s life to the end (Gawsworth’s book stops about ten years before Machen’s death). It also examines Machen’s work more closely.

These full-length works of Machen’s are indispensable:

The Hill of Dreams (an unacknowledged classic novel of decadent literature and the most important of his works; if you read nothing else, read this)
Things Near and Far (memoir)
Far Off Things (memoir; this and Things Near and Far are these days usually sold together in one volume; a third memoir is The London Adventure, not as good but still well worth reading)
The Secret Glory (a novel, badly flawed but brilliant)
Hieroglyphics (Machen’s theory of good literature containing the element of ecstasy is as idiosyncratic as Poe; cleverly constructed novel-cum-literary-criticism)
A Fragment of Life (often reprinted in collections as a long short story, which is what it is, though it first appeared as a book)
Ornaments in Jade (a collection of short prose-poetry pieces)
Dog & Duck (a collection of essays; Machen did a few other non-fiction collections — Dreads and Drolls, Bridles and Spurs, Notes and Queries — which are all worth the read).
The Terror (a cleverly written fantasy set during the Great War; hack work, as Machen regarded it, but its anthropomorphic animals might well have had an influence on Orwell’s Animal Farm almost thirty years later)
The Bowmen (see note immediately below)

He is most famous for a few slight stories collected as The Bowmen, which he wrote for a newspaper he worked for during The Great War. Although the stories can in no way be classified as literature they gave rise to the widely believed myth, of The Angel of the Mons, so they are interesting for this reason. Although Machen didn’t set out to write a hoax (a la Poe) that’s what he achieved with these stories. Poe would have loved to have produced them!

His other full-length works are mostly early, written when he was trying to find his voice under the influence of writers like Stevenson (of New Arabian Nights vintage) e.g. Machen’s novels The Three Imposters, The Great God Pan, etc. Unfortunately they are the works he is remembered for (and praised for by the likes of Stephen King and ST Joshi) but while his ideas were inventive and the structure experimental, the language far from sparks. For me, at any rate, it is deadly dull. His even earlier books (such as The Chronicle of Clemendy) are influenced by eighteenth century authors, and suffer in a similar way, where he is unable to get the writing to sing. (He later produced a book of the best bad reviews he received, Precious Balms, which shows he was widely lampooned for his attempts at producing horror.)

He produced many great short stories, too numerous to mention here, but for me a lot of them are marred by the Edwardian Stevenson-derived voice he affected that has not travelled well. With these, you will have to take pot luck, and decide whether you like them or not as you come to them. ‘The White People’ is a classic — once you get into it! The story is book-ended by uninspiring narrative that attempts to ‘frame’ or contextualise it. Another classic is ‘N’ (which has the aforementioned Edwardian voice, but here works), which first appeared as an original story in his collection, The Cosy Room. It is unusual also because it is a late work, when his spark had mostly gone (e.g. in his novel The Green Round).

ST Joshi introduces the current Penguin edition of Machen (The White People and Other Weird Stories). I complained about Joshi’s Penguin selection to my friend Ian Johnson, who wrote to me:

One complaint I have with these Penguin Classics editions of weird fiction is that they are, with few exceptions, edited by S. T. Joshi.  Joshi is a first-rate if rather pedantic scholar, and his annotations are thorough and informative, but he labours in the shadow of Lovecraft’s long essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”; consequently, his Penguin selections of Blackwood, Dunsany, Machen, et al. tend to be assembled from stories that either influenced Lovecraft or were praised by Lovecraft.  This is a great pity, since the overall effect is to reduce these writers to mere footnotes to the Cthulhu mythos and lens their works through same—not this this is explicitly Joshi’s aim, but it perhaps serves to explain why he has included certain stories and others omitted others.  Interestingly, Hill of Dreams is mentioned favourably in the Lovecraft essay, but HPL makes clear his preference for Machen’s work of the 1890s.
In other words, Machen’s curse is to have been defined by Lovecraft. It is a mixed blessing, of course. But it explains why Joshi rates those stories so highly, which are not Machen’s best work. I said to Ian that it was a pitiable shame that once again Machen (with this Penguin edition) was being overlooked by lesser work for his masterpiece The Hill of Dreams

His first commercial works were catalogues (for a London book dealer), and two translations into English, firstly of the Heptameron and secondly The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova (a four-volume bowdlerised version, as no printer could be found who would print the first text he produced!). The translations seem to be well regarded, at least at the time they were produced, but I am no judge on this.

If you ‘catch the bug’ with Machen, you will find his voice is in everything he has written, and you will probably want to read anything and everything, as I did and still do.

Don’t be put off by his politics, which tended to be Tory (liberal Tory, but still Tory) and traditionalist. I think these attributes prevented him from striking out unhindered into becoming a greater writer than he was. They made him too hidebound, and sometimes too cod (he had a second career as an actor, in which, I understand, his distinctive voice was the main draw). In all, he had three careers: author & translator, actor, newspaper journalist. Her followed these at different times, not consecutively, though he was always first and foremost an author. 

Mack [Donald M. Hassler] entertained some of the Machen Society people, and produced a book, Arthur Machen and Montgomery Evans, which I am ashamed to say I still have not purchased! I must do so.


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