Tuesday, 7 January 2020

The Far Tower - Running Review

This beautiful book from the Swan River Press offers nine stories inspired by William Butler Yeats. The great Irish poet was a firm believer in Spiritualism - his English wife Georgie was a medium and the couple held seances.

As Mark Valentine points out in his excellent introduction, this aspect of Yeats' life was seen as a tad embarrassing by literary critics until relatively recently. And yet, as Auden pointed out in his 1939 elegy on Yeats, the poet and mystic was 'silly like us' - a complex and often baffling individual whose life and work were strangely intertwined. Like most people, he assumed the existence of a world beyond our own, albeit one that might well be illusory. Unlike most people, he set out to explore that world by deploying the talents of a creative genius.

Valentine rightly puts Yeats' mysticism in context as a modernist trope - they were all it. But Yeats went deeper and endured longer. The fact that critics tended to dismiss his occult interests is, I think rightly, linked to the general snobbishness of academic criticism.

'The same patrician disdain meant that the supernatural fiction of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood; the epic fantasies of Tolkien, Peake, and Eddison; the tales of magic and witchcraft by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Stella Benson, Mary Butts, and others were largely ignored. Original and challenging work, such as David Lindsay’s visionary novels, Claude Houghton’s metaphysical thrillers, Naomi Mitchison’s historical epics, had little chance of acceptance. The effect on some of these writers was not minor: for some it meant poverty, neglect, marginalisation, disillusion.'

Yeats, of course, enjoyed fame and fortune, and his critical reputation remains high. It is impossible to imagine a world in which literature is valued while Yeats is not. But what this volume does is explore - via nine fictions - Yeats' the mystic, the table-turner, the visionary. I'm looking forward to sharing my thoughts on these stories. So, here beginning the first running review of 2020. 

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