Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Review: Selected Stories, by Mark Valentine

The stories gathered here have all been published before, but many appeared in hard-to-obtain volumes. The unifying theme is the collapse of empires in the wake of the Great War. Europe, once 'the mighty continent', has been torn apart by years of brutal conflict. The vast majority of people found their lives disrupted, sometimes fatally, but often in bizarrely unpredictable ways. This much is fact. What Mark Valentine adds is his remarkable erudition as he offers us glimpses of the lives of aristocrats, villagers, aesthetes, and wandering visionaries (or charlatans), during a time when that fabulous phenomenon called balance of power is swinging wildly this way or that.

Indeed, the first story is entitled 'A Certain Power', and takes us among the various social classes and factions of Petrograd during the doomed attempt by the Western Allies to assist the White Russian cause. But the power in question is not an earthly one, and its emissaries have a most unusual mission. I found the story very satisfying - a sound example of a fantastical premise taken to a logical conclusion.

'The Dawn at Tzern', by contrast, is a tale of lesser beings - a provincial postal official who stages a small, almost secret, rebellion by not using newly-issued stamps. He prefers those featuring the old emperor Franz Joseph. The minor functionary's moral qualms are contrasted with the rough idealism of a leftist radical and the mystical, probably heretical, antics of the village priest. All await the dawn, and when a spectacular sunrise comes each sees in it the possible fulfilment of their hopes.

'The Walled Garden on the Bosphorus' is a slight tale of a learned man who 'collects' unusual faiths - heresies, cults, near-forgotten creeds. Felix Vrai (the name is surely significant) eventually vanishes, perhaps to search for his unorthodoxy of choice. Or perhaps he vanishes because he has found it. Also very short, but powerful in a Machenesque way, is 'The Amber Cigarette', in which a strange jewel - a 'sphere of worked jasper' - exerts an abnormal fascination. The jewel happens to adorn a cigarette case, and the story is as much a paean to the pleasures of tobacco (a topic that the young Machen explored) as it is a mystical vignette.

The next story, 'Carden in Capaea', is the tale of a tribe not so much lost as overlooked. The Capaean language intrigues a British adventurer, as he struggles to grasp a world (perhaps our 'real' world) that only needs to be truly named to be revealed. It's a somewhat Borgesian tale, or at least it reminded me of the latter's 'Undr', with its quest for a word that is all poetry in itself.

'The Bookshop in Novy Svet' rings the changes on the idea that language can alter reality - if we take the mathematics of the actuary to be a language as potent as the works of any poet. This deliberately Kafkaesque story even features (albeit peripherally) a Doctor K, who assists the Workman's Compensation Society. When he is made redundant the assistant actuary discovers poetry, and comes up with a clever scheme to make money by calculating when a given poet's works will rise sharply in value. But things do not work out quite as planned.

A personal favourite of mine is 'The Ka of Astarakhan'. Here is a first-person narrative given by a dying poet who is also, arguably, a mystic, a buffoon, a charlatan. Playful, intense, and ultimately moving, it is more of a testament to the value of a life lived boldly (if, at times, absurdly) amid the chaos of decaying cultures. It's also a quiet affirmation of the value of the short story, as - like a good poem - it demands to be read and grasped at one sitting.

'The Unrest at Aachen' is, I think, a story that lies somewhere between Machen and Chesterton (especially the latter's The Napoleon of Notting Hill). It's a story of how a minor operative of the Luxembourg secret service prevented a world war from breaking out in 1906. If that sounds slightly ludicrous, well it is in a way. But it's also a fable about the way myth and belief can shape history, for better or worse.

The final story, 'The Mascarons of the Late Empire', is so rich in ideas and imagery that it ought to form the seed-pearl of a fascinating novel. Set in the easternmost city of the recently-defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, it explores the hazy territories between the personal and the political, as a proto-fascist movement arises, windows are smashed, Jewish graves desecrated, and a single language is imposed on a diverse citizenry. The characters all, in their different ways, represent old Europe, with its romance, stability and belief in progress. All are out of place in a more sordid and brutal world. Yet, the author suggests, there is still hope.

This book is arguably the best 'sampler' of Mark Valentine's highly-regarded fiction. While not every story can be deemed supernatural, they are all imbued with a strangeness and beauty that takes them - and the reader - several removes from what is called realism.

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