The October Country by Ray Bradbury (1955)

I didn’t realise until I began to read him, that science fiction accounts for less than half of Bradbury’s output of short stories and novels, though it makes perfect sense. Even in the supposedly science fiction stories you can feel the pull of the fairy tale, the fable, of horror and fantasy, and also, sometimes, of strikingly ‘normal’, non-sci-fi, naturalistic stories – the kind of sweet and sentimental sensibility which produced the idyllic stories of boyhood in rural Illinois which are captured in Dandelion Wine.

But this volume is all about the grotesque and the macabre. The October Country contains nineteen dark and twisted short stories. Fifteen of them are taken from the twenty-seven stories in Bradbury’s first collection, 1947’s Dark Carnival, with four more added which had been previously published elsewhere.

I read a reissue of the 1955 hardcover edition which features artwork by Joseph Mugnaini. I’m not sure I liked them, but Mugnaini’s illustrations certainly contribute to the dated feel of many of the stories, to the sense of 1950s American Gothick, and also to the feeling that they are, at bottom, children’s stories. Albeit for very twisted children.

Illustration by Joseph Mugnaini of Ray Bradbury's story The Halloween Tree

Illustration by Joseph Mugnaini of Ray Bradbury’s story The Halloween Tree

The stories

The Dwarf (1954)

Set in a carnival at the end of a pier. Ralph Banghart, the owner of a Hall of Mirrors, plays a cruel trick on a dwarf who is a regular customer. He spies on the dwarf and realises that he likes going to the room of mirrors which elongate your reflection i.e. make the dwarf look ‘normal’ height. So Ralph replaces the heightening mirror with a shortening one, and listens to the dwarf’s screams of horror. All this is observed by Aimee, the kind-hearted owner of the hoop stall, Aimee, who runs off to find the distraught dwarf.

The Next in Line (1947)

This is a long story made up of numerous powerful scenes. An American couple are on holiday in mexico. When they see a funeral procession passing below their hotel balcony carrying a small child’s coffin, something in the wife, Marie, snaps. Her unfeeling husband takes her to the local cemetery which features a macabre tourist attraction, a catacomb where the mummified bodies of the poor whose relatives can’t afford to keep up payments for their burial plots, are dug up and lined up against the wall. There is room for one more at the end of the line of horrific half-decayed corpses. Marie is insistent now that they leave town, but at first the husband, Joseph, refuses, and then their car breaks down and will take days to repair.

The ensuing scenes record Marie’s nervous breakdown, stumbling weeping in the street, locking herself in the bedroom with American magazines as a psychological wall against the outside world.

Outside, in the plaza, the street lights rocked like crazy flashlights on a wind. Papers ran through the gutters in sheep flocks. Shadows penciled and slashed under the bucketing lamps now this way, now that, here a shadow one instant, there a shadow next, now no shadows, all cold light, now no light, all cold blue-black shadow. The lamps creaked on their high metal hasps.
In the room her hands began to tremble.

The story reaches Edgar Allen Poe levels of macabre when she lies on the hotel bed trying to stop her breathing, to stop her pulse, screaming at her husband that, whatever happens, she doesn’t want to end up next in line to the mummies.

Then the scene cuts to the husband merrily driving his car back north to America, wearing a black armband, and alone! Did she die? Did he have her embalmed and placed in the row? Was the whole thing some kind of evil conspiracy by him?

I didn’t quite get the ending, but for most of the story, anyway, it wasn’t really about horror, it was an intense description of a marriage breaking down, marital arguments, and of a squeaky clean housewife having a nervous breakdown.

Here’s a review of the story which includes photos of the mummies which actually exist, and inspired the story after Bradbury visited them.

The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse (1954)

A comedy which satirises the ‘honey I’m home’ conformity of the American middle classes and the ‘hey daddio’ coolness of 1950s hepcats. George Garvey is the most boring man in the world. They have no social life because George almost instantly bores company to death. By chance the leader of a gang of jazz-loving hepcats, Alexander Pape, meets him in the hall of the apartment building and is so blown away with his stupefying dullness, that he invites his gang of swinging dudes to pay him a visit. The story recounts their jazz-slang conversations as they (afterwards) marvel at his world-stopping dullness. Eventually George becomes the epicentre of a new craze, with jiving cool dudes packing out his apartment.

But, alas, under the influence of all these precious things he himself starts to become interesting. He accidentally nips the tip of one finger in the door of his car but insists on having a gold fingertip replacement made. When his eyesight fails in one eye he posts a poker chip to Henri Matisse in France with fifty dollars and asks the master to pint it for him. Astonishingly, Matisse does and George receives the Matisse eyepiece back (along with the cheque – Matisse doesn’t need the vulgar money).

The hepcats get bored of George and abandon him, but he is now a man transformed. He insists on being called Giulio and sometimes, in the depth of the night, his wife wakes up, looks over at her snoring husband and could swear that… she sees the Matisse poker chip wink at her!

Skeleton (1945)

A really delirious story in which everyday Mr Harris develops the neurosis that his own skeleton has a life and personality of his own. Through a series of encounters, with his wife (Clarisse), his friends, a doctor, a bone specialist, the narrative becomes a kind of continuous hallucination as Harris loses weight and his skeleton becomes evermore apparent, in the street, in the mirror.

Finally, he calls back the creepy bone specialist, a Monsieur Munigant, who sits him down, bends over him with a peculiar device and…. extracts his skeleton from his body! Cut to M. Munigant strolling down the sidewalk, pulling out a long white thing which looks remarkably like a thigh bone, carving holes in it and… playing a tune on it… and then to Harris’s wife returning from the shops:

Many times as a little girl Clarisse had run on the beach sands, stepped on a jellyfish and screamed. It was not so bad, finding an intact, gelatin-skinned jellyfish in one’s living room. One could step back from it.
It was when the jellyfish called you by name

The Jar (1944)

Charlie is a poor hick from the outback in Louisiana. At a carnival he’s entranced by one an object in a jar, something like one of those pickled foetuses. He buys it off the carny-owner for $12 and takes it in his horse and cart back to the shack by the swamp, and it becomes a talking point, a feature, a pretext for the real backwoods retards of the village to come up every evening and speculate on its contents.A poor farmer buys a jar with something floating in it for twelve dollars and it soon becomes the conversation piece of the town. However his wife begins to realize that she cannot stand the jar or him.

The Lake (1944)

Harry is twelve. It is the last day of summer. He is at the lake and his mother washes him down. He walks off a long the short remembering his childhood friend, Tally, who drowned her earlier in the summer. They used to build sandcastles together. He builds half of one leaving the rest for her to complete.

Ten years pass by. He moves to Los Angeles and grows up, goes to college, gets a job, and married Margaret. They come East for their honeymoon. When Harry takes her down to the beach where it all happened one summer long ago, he is startled that the lifeguard is carrying in a small bundle. To his fascination and horror the lifeguard unwraps the decayed face long enough for Harry to recognise the long blonde hair and (admittedly decayed) features. It is Tally. Staggering back along the beach he comes to a sandcastle, half a sandcastle… as if built by her spirit.

The Emissary (1947)

Martin is ten. Since he contracted an unnamed disease he is bed-ridden. His only contact with the outside world is the family dog who they’ve named Dog. Bradbury revels in giving acute descriptions of the smells and fragments Dog brings to Martin’s bed of woods and leafmould and fresh air and sunshine. He also often returns with the teacher Miss Haight, who sits and listens to Martin.

Autumn comes, then wet October. His mother haltingly tells him that Miss Haight has been killed in an auto accident. Martin cries. Then one day Dog doesn’t return. Martin is distraught, his two lifelines lost.

And then, one cold and rainy night three days after Halloween, there is a barking and commotion and Dog comes bounding up the stairs and leaping onto Martin’s bedcovers. And something else is with him. Something else has come into the empty house. And clumps crudely up the stairs. And swings open the door to Martin’s bedroom.

It is the living corpse of Miss Haight which Dog has dutifully dug up and brought to Martin, like a good dog.

Touched With Fire (1954)

Mr Foxe and Mr Shaw used to work in insurance. They’re both now retired and chat about the old days. During this unusually hot summer it dawns on them that certain people are just destined to have accidents, certain people are made careless or negligent.

As a hobby, they have been studying people in their neighbourhood, studying the personalities and habits and trying to calculate the odds. One fat, argumentative woman in particular, Mrs Shrike, catches their attention, and they watch her storm out of her apartment building, slamming the door, nagging everyone she comes across, haranguing the shopkeepers, before storming home.

Mr Foxe and Mr Shaw decide they have to help her. they come to warn her that she is just the sort of person accidents happen to. but she is outraged that they’ve been following and watching her. Moreover, there is a certain temperature, 92 F, Mr Foxes has informed us, at which the most murders are committed – the temperature at which people lose self-control and snap!

And as Mrs Shriek harangues them, Mr Shaw notices the thermometer in the room hitting 92 degrees and Mr Foxe does indeed snap, raising his cane and hitting her over the head. I thought that he would end up killing her and so it would be one of those spookily self-fulfilling prophecy stories.

But instead Foxe drops the cane and staggers out with his friend, they sit on the cool stoop and get their breath back. She was hurt but still shrieking when they left. And they are still recovering when the front door is brusquely pushed open and the enormous brute who is Mr Shrike pushes past them and clumps up the stairs. As he goes, they can’t help noticing that tucked in his back pocket is a big ugly sharp longshoreman’s hook. The strong implication is that, what with her nagging and the sweltering heat, Mr Shrike is about to murder his wife.

The Small Assassin (1946)

Alice and David Leiber are comfortably off, nice job, nice house. They consciously plan to have a baby but even before it’s born, Alice begins to have nightmares about it. the actual birth is excruciating and she screams convinced the baby is trying to kill her. The hospital psychiatrist Jeffers takes David aside to warn him that his wife may be suffering from post-partum psychosis.

In fact Alice is remarkably clear headed and lucid (I say this having known two women who had severe post-natal depression) and simply points out to her husband that their baby is trying to kill her. He goes off on a business trip. Jeffers rings him to say his wife is ill. he rushes home. She recovers from pneumonia. Things settle down. One midnight, David is sure he hears something at the bedroom door. Gets quietly out of bed, pads to the door and… stumbles over a soft toy placed in just the right place to make someone stumble. But this soft toy was in the baby’s room. How did it get here? He begins to have horrible suspicions. He takes the toy back to the baby’s room and looks down at the little creature.

David drives to work the next day full of misgivings. When he gets home he finds his wife dead at the foot of the stairs. She has tripped on the soft which he placed back in the baby’s room and fallen all the way down the stairs.

Dr Jeffers attends and David blurts it all out, convinced now that the baby is the killer. they had put off giving it a name. Now he wants to call it Lucifer. Jeffers tries to calm David down and prescribes sleeping pills. David takes them but as he’s passing out, swears he can hear something else moving in the empty house.

Next morning the doctor pops round to check up on him and finds David dead in  his bed. Someone had disconnected the gas pipe in his room and, being drugged asleep, David had asphyxiated. Convinced now that the baby is to blame, Dr Jeffers takes things into his own hands and the story ends with him leaning over the baby’s crib… holding a scalpel!

The Crowd (1943)

Mr Spallner is in a car crash and, as he passes out, hears the voices in the crowd around him. Later, in hospital, he becomes convinced something was wrong about it. It got there too fast, people were commenting on things they couldn’t have known about. He becomes obsessed and scours the archives for photos of other auto accidents – and discovers the same faces in the crowds that thronged round them as thronged round his one, even down to the colour of their dresses and coats.

He shares his theories with work colleague Morgan who thinks he’s bonkers, but as the evidence mounts, begins to be persuaded.

The story ends with Spallner in another car crash, this time nothing to do with him as a heavy truck rolls out of a side street and crushes his car. He sees the same faces bending over him, the same voices asking whether’s he’s dead. but whereas in the first accident, a voice had said, No, he’ll be alright,’ now he hears the very same voice suggesting that they move him – which he knows is that last thing you want to do to a crash victim. He tries to cry out to prevent them but a couple of guys move him onto the sidewalk and he fells his body break and erupt in pain.

As he fades Spallner realises the crowd decides who will live and die. And in the rather ambiguous final words, he manages to speak a little and seems to have realised that – the crowd are the spirits of the dead, themselves killed in car accidents and somehow condemned to eternally revisit and rewitness them.

He tried to speak. A little bit got out:
“It – looks like I’ll – be joining up with you. I – guess I’ll be a member of your – group – now.’

Jack-in-the-Box (1947)

This is one of the really weirdest stories in the collection, told from the point of view of a boy who lives with his mother in a vast secluded mansion, convinced that beyond the dense forest which surrounds them are monsters which will eat him, told that his father, the original God, was killed by beasts outside. Every day his mother prepares breakfast for him then packs him off to see the ‘teacher’, who wears a grey cloak and has her classroom up on the top floor.

A lot of effort goes into creating the detail of this 20-page story, before the rather inevitable climax, namely that the mother dies: when the boy goes to see ‘the teacher’ she is not there either and he pieces it together that the two women are one and the same.

At which point he sets off bravely through the gates of the mansion’s garden, on through the densely overgrown tunnel through the woods to emerge… into a perfectly normal American city, with cars honking and pedestrians hurrying by and two cops puzzled by the strange looking boy wandering round repeating ‘I am dead, I am dead’ to himself.

The Scythe (1943)

During the Depression a family of four are heading west to California but are pushed off the highway by their car failing then braking down, just near to an empty looking farm. Going in, the husband, Drew, discovers the owner, dressed in his Sunday best, dead on his bed, and next to him a will leaving the property to whoever finds him, on condition they use the scythe – which is there in the room – to mow the huge wheatfield out back.

Not looking a gift horse in the mouth Drew, his wife and two kids move in, quickly discovering reserves of delicious meat and milk in the barn. Next day Drew sets to mowing. He quickly discovers that the wheat he mows rots immediately. Also that it has all grown back next day. He tries to abandon the futile mowing but discovers that he can’t settle to anything, his hands and arms are twitchy. Only when the scythe is in his hand is he happy.

Worse, he slowly realises what the wheatfield is when he hears a crying out as he mows one outcrop. The wheat is human souls. He himself is the grim reaper, fated to carry out his duty whether he wants to or not.

The story comes to a climax when he realises a little clump of wheat stalks represents his wife and children. Revolted he throws down the scythe and walks away. But next day, when he is out mowing another part of the field, he sees smoke from the house and runs to find it burning to the ground. but his wife and children preserved intact inside. They should have died, but they didn’t died because he didn’t mow them.

So back out to the meadow he goes and consciously scythes the stalks representing his family and, embittered and enraged, goes on, madly, feverishly, unable to stop.

Sobbing wildly, he rose above the grain again and again and hewed to left and right and to left and to right and to left and to right. Over and over and over! Slicing out huge scars in green wheat and ripe wheat, with no selection and no care, cursing, over and over, swearing, laughing, the blade swinging up in the sun and falling in the sun with a singing whistle! Down!
Bombs shattered London, Moscow, Tokyo.
The blade swung insanely.
And the kilns of Belsen and Buchenwald took fire.
The blade sang, crimson wet.
And mushrooms vomited out blind suns at White Sands, Hiroshima, Bikini, and up, through, and in continental Siberian skies.
The grain wept in a green rain, falling.
Korea, Indo-China, Egypt, India trembled; Asia stirred, Africa woke in the night. . . .
And the blade went on rising, crashing, severing, with the fury and the rage of a man who has lost and lost so much that he no longer cares what he does to the world.

Uncle Einar (1947)

This is one of several stories about the ‘Elliott’ family which bears a close resemblance to the Addams family, being made up of monsters and ghouls.

It’s the story of Uncle Einar who has enormous wings on his shoulders, and becomes a kind of bat at night-time, but who one night flies into an electricity pylon, and wakes up on the ground, being tended by a kindly cowherd, Brunilla.

they fall in love and get married but Einar is devastated to discover that the accident with the power cable has destroyed  his sense of sonar i.e. he can’t safely fly at night. Since he cannot fly during the day because people will spot him and call the cops, he is stuck and becomes very depressed.

Then he discovers some of the Elliott children are going to fly kites and he has a brainwave: he attaches a string to his feet, goes along with them to the kite hill, then leaps into the air and swoops and soars in complete freedom, under the pretence of being their kite.

The Wind (1943)

A really atmospheric little thriller: the main character, Herb Thompson, is having friends round for drinks and his wife is hassling him to get ready. Trouble is he keeps getting rung up by his friend Allin, a former explorer who once penetrated to a mystic valley in the Himalayas which was the source of all the world’s winds.

Now the winds are coming to get him. Herb’s wife calls him away to come and be polite to the guests, but throughout their drinks and dinner are continually interrupted by calls from Allin, who lives in an isolated house thirty miles away, and describes, at each call, how a big wind is assembling on the horizon, then blowing round his house, then smashing in the windows, then blowing down the walls, so he retreats to the cellar, at which point, taking the umpteenth call, Herb hears a great shattering sound, the roar of wind and screaming.

Later that night a surprisingly strong wind comes and rattles Herb’s door and windows. He opens the door and calls Allin’s name and hears a cackling and feels a sudden gust in his face. then the winds are off, laughing, to their multiple destinations round the world.

The Man Upstairs (1947)

Young Douglas watches his grandma stuffing a chicken the old fashioned way, pulling out the innards herself, then stitching it back together and filling it with stuffing.

A new stranger, Mr Koberman, comes to rent the room at the top of the house. He is creepy and has strange demands, such as insisting on using only wooden cutlery.

Over the ensuing days Douglas follows and spies on the man, establishing that he only goes out at night and sleeps like a log through the day, despite Douglas’s attempts to wake him up by stomping up and down and banging things and singing right outside his door.

One day Doug happens to be on the landing where there’s a window with panes of coloured glass in it when he watches Mr Koberman walking down the street, experimentally watching him through each of the colours and sees… to his horror, that Mr Koberman has a completely different insides from us. He is filled with geometric shapes.

Next day, when his grandma has gone out, and Mr Koberman is asleep in  his darkened room, Doug creeps into the stranger’s room with shards of the coloured glass and… a sharp kitchen knife. To cut to the chase, Doug kills him and guts him, removing a whole series of weird-colour and strange-shaped organs.

The story ends with two hardened cop and the coroner standing over the body, examining the organs before sewing him back up and agreeing that the kid did the right thing.

There Was an Old Woman (1944)

Aunt Tildy is an ‘ornery, opinionated, down-home, no-nonsense old lady. When a smooth-talking young man comes a-calling, saying he wants to take her away, she thinks he’s an insurance salesman and kicks him out. The four men with him carry out a huge heavy casket which she doesn’t understand at first but when her young friend Emily comes to visit, the latter is terrified to discover her hand and the cup of tea she’s made go right through Aunt Tilda.

Because Aunt Tilda is a ghost! That nice young man was Death, and those other men carried her body when they carried out the casket.

Mad as hell the ghostly Aunt Tilda gets Emily to drive her down to the mortuary and makes a big scene, interrupting the service, insisting on seeing the manager, threatening to turn the whole place upside down until, at her insistence, the fetch the casket, open it and, with great effort, and much comic sound effects, she squeezes herself back into her corpse, ordering all the parts, one by one, to come back to warm life!

The Cistern (1947)

Two lonely, odd old ladies, Juliet and Anna, live in a house overlooking the street. During the long dark afternoon they tell stories about lost loves and also the urban legends about the rainwater drain outside the house, how it runs like a dark secret beneath the whole city to a magical land where lovers are reunited after death and – by sheer force of hallucinating intensity – persuades herself that that is where her long-lost lover, Frank, who never had the courage to marry her, is waiting for her.

Juliet drowses in the late afternoon, then hears the front door slam.Leaping up, by the time she gets there to open it the street is empty, but she thought she just had time to hear… the big manhole cover in the middle of street clang closed, as if someone had just climbed down into the dark wet underworld…

Homecoming (1946)

The second and longer story about the supernatural Elliott family who return from round the world for a family reunion at their spooky Gothic mansion, each demonstrating their special supernatural skills, as seen through the eyes of young boy Timothy who is one of the family but – being an orphan mortal boy left on their doorstep – has no immortal powers himself.

The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone (1954)

Fans track down a writer who chose to withdraw into seclusion and cease writing, and get his story from him.


Reflections on Bradbury’s approach and style

After a while I began to get a bit bored of one very prominent feature of the stories, which is that so many of the characters experience intensely altered, hallucinatory, delirious psychological states.

In story after story Bradbury describes people passing out, having delusions, fainting, besides themselves, alienated from their bodies, hysterical and so on. These may all sound like different and distinct states of mind but they’re all described in the same way, in sentences which:

  • tend to be long, with lots of consecutive ‘ands’ conveying
    • a nightmareish sense of unendingness and
    • mental collapse, the failure of the adult ability to distinguish between events, reversion to an infantile state where a thing happens and another thing happens and another thing happens
  • repeat the same phrases or words to convey the way the mind is numb and repeating like a machine
  • often include words indicating falling, swooning, fainting, passing out
  • sometimes invoke the grand concepts of ‘time’ and ‘space’ to give the impression that the entire universe is crashing around the characters

1. Long sentences Here’s an example of a long sentence with lots of naively consecutive ‘ands’. Marie, the wife in The Next in Line, is having a nervous breakdown:

She could not speak to him for she knew no words that he knew and he said nothing to her that she understood, and she walked to her bed and slipped into it and he lay with his back to her in his bed and he was like one of these brown-baked people of this far-away town upon the moon, and the real earth was off somewhere where it would take a star-flight to reach it. If only he could speak with her and she to him tonight, how good the night might be, and how easy to breathe and how lax the vessels of blood in her ankles and in her wrists and the under-arms, but there was no speaking and the night was ten thousand tickings and ten thousand twistings of the blankets, and the pillow was like a tiny white warm stove under-cheek, and the blackness of the room was a mosquito netting draped all about so that a turn entangled her in it.

‘and… and… and’, a headlong sequence of clauses which creates a sense of breathless, panting hysteria.

2. Clotted clauses Here is Bradbury doing hysteria – old man Foxe in Touched with Fire is being driven mad by the harridan Mrs Shrike taunting him on a blisteringly hot day until he reaches breaking point and snaps. Not the long flatness achieved by all the ‘and’s, here it’s something different, the piling up of multiple clotted clauses to create a sense of claustrophobia:

He was in a blazing yellow jungle. The room was drowned in fire, it clenched upon him, the furniture seemed to shift and whirl about, the sunlight shot through the rammed-shut windows, firing the dust, which leaped up from the rug in angry sparks when a fly buzzed a crazy spiral from nowhere; her mouth, a feral red thing, licked the air with all the obscenities collected just behind it in a lifetime, and beyond her on the baked brown wallpaper the thermometer said ninety-two, and he looked again and it said ninety-two, and still the woman screamed like the wheels of a train scraping around a vast iron curve of track; fingernails down a blackboard, and steel across marble.

Here is the dwarf driven mad by the sight of himself crushed and compressed in a distorting mirror. The first sentence is the usual concatenation of ‘ands’; the second sentence uses the piling up clauses technique to create a sense of crashing stumbling.

There was another scream, and another and still another, and a threshing and a pounding and a breaking, a rushing around and through the maze. There, there, wildly colliding and richocheting, from mirror to mirror, shrieking hysterically and sobbing, tears on his face, mouth gasped open, came Mr. Bigelow.

3. Out of body Numerous Bradbury characters suffer from a hyper-self-consciousness about their bodies, have out-of-body experiences, find themselves looking down and not recognising your own hands, feel their body disappear from under them. Here’s the husband, David, in The Small Assassin being told down the phone that his wife is very ill:

Leiber dropped the phone into its cradle. He got up, with no feet under him, and no hands and no body. The hotel room blurred and fell apart.

If this was a spy thriller, you’d think this character had just drunk a poisoned drink or been injected with a sleeping potion. In Bradbury it’s a fairly common occurrence. Here is the same husband, having flown home to be with his wife:

The propellers spun about, whirled, fluttered, stopped; time and space were put behind. Under his hand, David felt the doorknob turn; under his feet the floor assumed reality, around him flowed the walls of a bedroom…

Later, Alice ‘collapsed inward on herself and finally slept.’ Characters’ bodies bend, buckle, disappear, are suddenly empty or void or alien.

4. Repetition Another trick is the repetition of the exact same phrase, maybe for incantatory effect, sometimes to emphasise the sense that the mind being described is in such a state of shock, that it has become a stuck record. This is from The Crowd:

They were a ring of shifting, compressing, changing faces over him, looking down, looking down, reading the time of his life or death by his face…

The ambulance doors slammed. Through the windows he saw the crowd looking in, looking in

He heard their feet running and running and running

He could smell their breaths, the mingled odors of many people sucking and sucking on the air a man needs to live by…

Conclusion

Bradbury was young when he wrote these stories and the cumulative impression of reading a sequence of them is the impression that he was still dazzled with the tremendous impact these tricks can have.

It’s like a teenage girl discovering that if she wears high heels and a low-cut top she can have a dramatic effect on the boys. Us parents look on and think, ‘Yes, I lived through that age, I’ve had that experience, it doesn’t thrill me anymore, in fact I feel embarrassed for you.’

Thus when the story The Crowd opens with just such an out-of-body altered moment of experience, conveyed by one long sentence with lots of ‘ands’ simply and naively joining together a sequence of impressions as if the higher functions of the brain have been surgically removed – and when the story then invokes grand words like time and space – all these tricks are being used to convey the experience of being in the centre of a car crash.

There was the feeling of movement in space, the beautifully tortured scream, the impact and tumbling of the car with wall, through wall, over and down like a toy, and him hurled out of it. Then–silence.

The only problem is that by this stage in the book, we have seen same box of tricks nine times already, used variously to describe a woman having a nervous breakdown, a man learning his wife is seriously ill, an old man being goaded to snapping point, and a dwarf being goaded to madness. In other words, it is getting a bit over-familiar.

You even begin to suspect that Bradbury began the writing process with a strong personal familiarity with this kind of over-self-aware, hallucinatory, out of body, psychological state, discovered that he could reel off hundreds of pages of long incantatory sentences describing it – and then he found stories to fit the effects into.

You suspect that the sense of nervous collapse, and the giddy style which captures it, came first – and then he had to find the kind of tales and narratives which justified deploying it.


Related links

Ray Bradbury reviews

1950 The Martian Chronicles – nineteen stories loosely telling the colonisation of Mars but much weirder and stranger than that suggests
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1953 Fahrenheit 451 – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down forbidden books and burn them
1955 The October Country – nineteen stories of the gruesome and the macabre
1957 Dandelion Wine – wonderfully uplifting happy stories based on Bradbury’s own boyhood in small-town America in the 1920s
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

The Art of the Northern Renaissance by Craig Harbison (1995)

The period covered is 1400 to 1600.

‘Northern’ means north-west of the Alps, excluding Eastern Europe which had its own development, and Spain, ditto. So it includes the many different little German medieval states, France, but especially the northern part of the Duchy of Burgundy (modern-day Netherlands and Belgium). In these rich northern cities the wealth from the wool and textile trade created patrons who wanted paintings of themselves, decorations for their houses, but especially grand altarpieces for the big churches they built.

The Renaissance in Italy was closely linked to a rebirth of interest in classical statuary, architecture and literature, examples of which lay all around its Italian artists. This revival of learning led to new experiments in building in the pure classical style, to the introduction of mathematically precise perspective in painting, along with unprecedented anatomical accuracy in the human form. The paintings, like the architecture, were big, grand, monumental. At its peak, think of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Many Renaissance paintings are vast and use classical architectural features to emphasise their monumentality and to bring out the artist’s clever knowledge of perspective. I often find this art sterile.

By contrast, northern art is more continuous with the medieval art which preceded it. Curly Gothic architecture continues to provide its frame of reference and design. The figures often still have the elongated, willowy S-shape of medieval statuary rather than the new, muscular bodies being pioneered in Italy by the likes of Michelangelo et al. Harbison says that northern art of the 15th century is in many ways a transfer of late-medieval innovations in manuscript illustration to the public spaces of altarpieces, painted boards and frescos.

What I love northern art for is:

  1. its more flattened, less perspective-obsessed images allow for the surface of the work to be covered by gorgeous decorative schemes, particularly sumptuous fabrics and carpets
  2. it is always teeming with life – there are always tiny figures in the distance riding into a wood or firing a crossbow – every time you look you notice something else
  3. the faces – the people in northern art have much more rugged individuality than in Italian art – another way of saying this is that they are often plain and sometimes positively ugly in a way few Renaissance portraits are

As an example of gorgeousness of decorative design, I suggest Virgin among virgins in the rose garden by the unknown artist known from one of his other works as the Master of the St Lucy Legend.

There’s perspective of a sort, in that the wooden pergola covered with climbing roses creates a proscenium arch through which we can see an idealised version of the city of Bruges in the middle distance. But the overall affect of the foreground is more flat than in an Italian work. This brings out the wonderful detail of every leaf and petal of the dense rose hedge behind the characters; and emphasises the decorative layout of those figures, two on either side of the Virgin and in similar poses but with enough variation to please the eye. It allows the eye to rest on the sumptuous gold dress of St Ursula sitting left and contrast it with the plain white dress of St Cecilia sitting right. As to my ‘teeming with life’ point, I love the tiny figures of the two horse riders departing the city in the distance. In this work, I admit, the faces lack the individuality I mentioned, but I like this kind of demure medieval oval facial style.

Harbison contrasts this northern work with a contemporary Italian work, Madonna and child with saints by Domenico Veneziano (c.1445)

For me, all the human figures are dwarfed and subordinated to the ruthless application of the new knowledge of mathematical perspective. I find all those interlocking pillars and arches exhausting. And, ironically, somehow for me this does not give the image the desired depth of field but makes it appear flat and cluttered. The orange trees peeping up over the back wall don’t make up for the clinical sterility of the architectural setting. And although the human figures are obviously individualised and their clothes, the folds of their cloaks and gowns, are done with fine accuracy, these aren’t enough to overcome what I see as the overall flat, arid, washed-out and sterile effect.

As Harbison puts it:

In place of the clear, open, even and often symmetrical Italian representation, northerners envisioned subtly modulated, veiling and revealing light effects, intriguing nooks and crannies, enclosed worlds of privacy and preciousness. (p.35)

As an exemplar of this Harbison gives Rogier van der Weyden’s wonderful three-part St John Altarpiece (1450-60).

The dominant feature in all three scenes in this altarpiece is obviously the Gothic arch. (These repay study by themselves, with a different set of saints and small scenes depicted on each of the three arches.) The three main scenes depict, from left to right, the presentation of the newborn John the Baptist to his father; John the Baptist baptising Jesus; and then John’s head being chopped off and given to Salome.

The figures are given quite a lot of individuation, especially the balding executioner with his stockings half fallen down which gives a bizarrely homely touch. But the foreground scenes are really only part of the composition. Equal emphasis is given to the detailed backgrounds of all three. Perspective is used, but not ruthlessly – with enough poetic license to allow the backgrounds to be raised, tilted upwards, so we can see and savour them better.

In the left panel St Elizabeth being tucked into bed (a typically homely northern detail) is good, but better is the deep landscape behind Jesus in the central panel, with its church perched on cliffs on the right in the middle distance and city on a cliff in the remote distance left. But best of all is the right-hand panel, where our eye is drawn by the steps and tiled floors of King Herod’s palace, complete with a lounger staring out a window, a bored dog lying near the table where courtiers appear to be feasting.

And, as always, at the very bottom, in the corners, the humble, everyday, weedy flowers of northern Europe which I love so much.

The St John Altarpiece is a prime example of the richness of detail which characterises northern art and makes it – to me – so much more enjoyable, homely, decorative and domestic – funny, even, with its wealth of humanist touches.

The Art of the Northern Renaissance

The book is divided into four parts addressing different topics:

  1. Realism
  2. Physical production & original location
  3. Religious behaviour and ideals
  4. Italy and the North.

Within these there are 35 separate sections addressing issues like ‘artist and patron’, ‘manuscript illumination’, ‘the production of a panel painting’, ‘the pilgrimage’, ‘landscape imagery’, ‘the naked body’, and so on. From these sections we we learn lots of detail about specific areas of medieval life and their depiction, but nothing which affects the basic thesis that at the core of northern art is, as Harbison puts it, ‘a love of detailed description’.

It is as if one is always catching sight of something out of the corner of the eye. The ideal is not simple harmony but complex polyphony. (p.39)

Northern art is fragmentary, interested in detail. Italian art is more unified, classical and spare. Take this masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

For a start it was a north European convention to depict the Deposition within an architectural frame (cf. The descent from the cross by the Master of the Bartholomew altarpiece) which gives it a kind of continuity with the Gothic architecture of the church where it is located.

I love everything about this painting, the cleverness with which ten human figures are composed so as to make a polyphony without excessive artifice; the colour of the clothes e.g. the olive green and high cord of the woman holding the fainting Mary, the sumptuous fur-lined cloak of the rich burgher (Nicodemus) on the right. Harbison points out the detail of Christ’s pierced bloody hand hanging parallel to the Virgin’s long white hand, providing a powerful and moving real and symbolic contrast.

And, as always, I love the flowers in the foreground – is that yarrow at bottom left and herb bennet at bottom right? Harbison gives a detailed analysis of another northern masterpiece:

The detail of daily life, the sense of real people in an actual community, is what I love about this art: the unashamed flat-faced ugliness of the three shepherds, the (married?) couple standing by the gate in the background beside the shepherds; the wrinkled face and hands of old Joseph praying on the left.

As always, flowers in the foreground, here the highly symbolic lilies and irises (symbolising the passion), columbine (representing the Holy Spirit) and three small dark red carnations symbolising the nails of the cross.

Harbison makes the interesting point that the shadows of the two vases fall sharply to the right as if the floor of the stable (incongruously tiled) is almost flat; whereas, somehow behind the sheaf of wheat the floor suddenly tips upwards, presenting a much more flattened surface than strict perspective would suggest – which is then ‘decorated’ with the various figures. There are perspective points in it, but the painting ignores a strict rule of perspective in order to create a more effective, colourful and ‘rhythmic’ composition.

Top artists of the northern renaissance

If I summarised every one of Harbison’s analyses this post would be as long as the book. Instead here’s a quick overview of the key players and some major works:

Early Netherlands masters

The weird

From the generation following the deaths of these early fathers of Netherlands painting comes the one-off genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

  • Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) The religious triptych was the most common format of painting in this period, and Bosch produced at least sixteen, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments. The most famous is the weird and wonderful Garden of earthly delights. No one has adequately explained where his bizarre fantasies came from.

The Germans

I find the Germans a lot less pleasing than the Flemish or French painters of this period. They lack grace and delicacy. Their depictions of the human body, especially of the crucified Christ, seem to me unnecessarily brutal. Albrecht Dürer is meant to be the great genius but I like hardly anything that he did.

After the Reformation

The Reformation forms a watershed halfway through the period 1400 to 1600, usually dated with great specificness to 31 October 1517, when the monk Martin Luther sent 95 theses systematically attacking Roman Catholic theology to his superior, the archbishop of Mainz. His arguments became a rallying cry and focus of decades of growing discontent with the corruption and over-complex theology of the Catholic church. His ideas spread quickly and were taken up by other theologians, who were often protected by German princes who had their own secular reasons for rejecting Papal authority, until it had become an unstoppable theological and social movement.

In artistic terms the Reformation’s rejection of the grandeur of Roman Catholic theology and the authority of the super-rich Papacy played to the strengths of the northern artists, who already produced an art often characterised by its relative smallness and intimacy.

Harbison very usefully brings out the fact that fifteenth century art was so dominated by images of the Madonna seated holding the Christ child because such a static image encouraged silent devotion and meditation – in contrast with the more dynamic and emotionally upsetting images of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

He points out how the corruption of the official church had already alienated many Christians from public worship and created through the 15th century a cult of private devotion. It was onto this fertile ground that the anti-establishment teachings of Luther and his followers fell, and proved so fruitful.

Thus Reformation theology tended to foreground personal piety, meditation and reflection – moving away from bravura displays of big ostentatious public ritual. And so while the Counter-Reformation in Italy (the theological and artistic reaction against the northern Reformation) was marked by the increasing ornateness and vast, heavy, luxury of the Baroque in art and architecture, in northern Europe – although Christian subjects continued as ever – there was also a growth in depictions of ‘ordinary life’, in domestic portraits and still lifes.

It was during the post-Reformation 16th century that landscapes and still lifes came into existence as genres in their own right.

Quentin Matsys

A figure who straddles the pre- and post-Reformation era is Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) (also spelt Massys) founder of the Antwerp school of painting. His mature work dates from the period of the High Renaissance (1490s to 1527) but is the extreme opposite of the vast panoramas of human history being painted in the Vatican (the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Stanza). Instead, Massys typifies for me the virtues of northern painting, with its small-scale atmosphere of domesticity, its focus on real, living people – not the Prophets and Philosophers of Michelangelo and Raphael – and its portraits not of heroic archetypes, but of plain ordinary and, sometimes, ugly people.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

This increasing valuing of secular life is one way of explaining the rise of the genre of ‘peasant paintings’, which was, apparently, more or less founded by the teeming peasant panoramas of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Hans Holbein the younger

The northern Reformation was suspicious of religious imagery. In many places it was stripped out of churches and burned; in others merely covered up. Certainly the market for grand altarpieces collapsed, and the period saw a rise in other more specialised subjects. Critics from centuries later define these as genre paintings.

Portraits also became more secular and more frequent, a trend which produced one of the most wonderful portraitists of all time, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Technique

Harbison explains a lot about the technicality of northern Renaissance painting. Some of the most notable learnings for me were:

Panel painting Almost all northern renaissance artworks were painted on wooden panels, ‘panel paintings’ as they’re called. It wasn’t until the 17th century that prepared canvas became the surface of choice for artists. Some works were painted on linen but almost all of these have been lost. A small number were painted directly onto metal and some onto slate.

The rise of oil painting Most 15th century paintings were made with tempera. Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. But as the 1400s progressed, northern artists experimented with using oil as the binding material – first mixing colour pigment with oil then applying it to prepared surfaces.

Most of these new ‘oil’ paintings were built up from multiple layers. This required paintings to be put to one side for weeks at a time to fully dry before the next level could be done – a repetitive process which explains the incredibly deep, rich and luminous colours you see in these works.

Most Renaissance sources credited the northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the ‘invention’ of painting with oil media on wood panel supports (‘support’ is the technical term for the underlying backing of a painting). There is ongoing debate about where precisely it originated but it was definitely a northern invention which headed south into Italy.

Destruction and loss

The vast majority of European art has been lost.

  • Much of it was created for ephemeral purposes in the first place – for ceremonies, processions, pageants or plays – and thrown away once the occasion had passed.
  • Thus, much effort and creativity was expended painting on fabrics, such as linen or flags, on backdrops and sets and panels, which have rotted and disappeared.
  • Huge numbers of paintings in the churches of northern Europe were lost forever when they were painted over with whitewash during the Reformation. Outbreaks of popular or state-sanctioned iconoclasm also saw the systematic destruction of statues, wooden tracery and decorative features – all defaced or thrown out and burned in the decades after 1520.
  • Successive wars wreaked local havoc, destroying in particular castles which would have held collections of art sponsored by rich aristocrats. As an example, only ten paintings and thirty-five drawings survive of the entire life’s work of Matthias Grünewald – ‘many others were lost at sea in the Baltic on their way to Sweden as war booty’.
  • The destruction of the Great War – epitomised by the German army’s deliberate burning of the manuscript library at Louvain – was essentially localised to north-west Europe.
  • But the destruction of the second World War ranged all across Europe, deep into Russia and involved the destruction of countless churches, galleries, museums, libraries, stately homes, castles and chateaux where art works could be stored. Dresden. Hamburg. Monte Cassino. The loss was immense.

It’s always worth remembering that the comfortable lives we live now actually take place amid the ruins of an almost incomprehensibly destructive series of wars, religious spasms and conflagrations, and that the art we view in the hushed environments of art galleries is not an accurate reflection of what was painted and created in Europe, but are the scattered remnants and lucky survivors from a continent of incessant destruction and artistic holocaust.

Related links

Where to see some

You can see some masterpieces from this period for free in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (in London):

You can see the fabulous Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in room 1 of the Courtauld Gallery, off the Strand, which currently costs £7 admission price, but is worth it for the stunning collection of masterpieces from these medieval pieces through the French post-Impressionists.

Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman (2005)

Relevance of biography for Stevenson

Normally I don’t like biographies of writers, since they take you away from the hard-earned riches of the fictional text, and drag you back down into the everyday world of contracts and illnesses, of gossip and hearsay.

Thus Harman spends some pages trying to decide whether Stevenson’s penis entered the vagina of his older, married friend, Miss Sitwell, or whether the penis of his friend Sidney Colvin had already had that pleasure – or whether neither penis gained entry until Colvin and Sitwell married years later. This concern about who ‘became lovers’ with whom, exactly when and where, is precisely the kind of Hello magazine tittle-tattle I despise, and so I skipped these parts.

But a biography of Stevenson is worth reading because his published writings are so scattered and diverse – plays, poems, ballads, fables, ghost stories, horror stories, short stories, novellas, children’s adventures, adult tales, essays, reviews, appreciations of other writers, travel books – as to be difficult to reconcile and grasp as a complete oeuvre. It helps a lot to make sense of Stevenson’s output to understand the shape of his life and why he produced what he did, when.

An account of his life is necessary to show a) how all the different writings fit together b) what his own attitude towards them was; crucially, for me, how his thoughts about style and approach changed, evolved, or were deployed, for different texts.

Harman’s biography

There have been half a dozen biographies of Stevenson, from the circumspect one by his cousin Graham Balfour in 1901 to Frank McLynn’s magnum opus in 1994. Harman’s is the most recent one and takes advantage of the availability of more manuscript material, and especially the eight volumes of the Yale edition of Stevenson’s letters, which were published in the mid-1990s.

The main ideas which emerge are:

Stevenson the Unfinisher

  • Stevenson wrote a phenomenal amount, some thirty published books as well as scores of short stories and hosts of essays, as well as thousands of letters. This is why the Tusitala edition of his complete works amounts to an impressive 35 volumes.
  • BUT he was a chronic beginner of stories which he never finished. He was a starter not a finisher. Harman describes some stories he wrote for his school magazine, all of which ended with the phrase To be completed… and none of them ever were, and neither were scores of other plans. He was a great maker of lists of projects, Harman details the plans he made at one point at university: plans for thirteen plays, umpteen essays, long epic poems – ideas spurted out of him endlessly.
  • A complete guide to his prose works lists over 300 projects of which only some 30 were ever published. A biography of Hazlitt, a massive history of his own family, various plays, books of essays… the biography is littered with abandoned projects and ideas…

So Stevenson was the possessor of a striking fecundity, but a troubled fecundity, and this sheds immediate light on the works I’ve been reading towards the end of his career:

  • The Bottle Imp intended as just one of a volume of supernatural tales the rest of which were never written
  • Weir of Hermiston unfinished
  • St Ives unfinished.

It also sheds light on the speed and hastiness of many of his finished works, which often seem thrown together, written at tremendous speed, before the afflatus and inspiration fade and he abandons them.

Sometimes the speed is somehow captured in the text itself as energy and excitement – hence Treasure Island, Kidnapped.

Sometimes it isn’t transmuted into the text which feels more like a list of incidents than a narrative which engages and transports you, as with The Black Arrow.

And in his three collaborations with his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, the Osbourne factor amounts to a tremendous slowing down of Stevenson’s usual pell-mell effect – most notable in the grindingly slow first half of The Wrecker, which takes an age to get into gear and move towards the fast-moving and violent climax.

Doubles

Like everyone else who’s ever written about Stevenson, Harman is entranced by the really blindingly obvious idea of ‘doubles’ in his fiction, taking the duality which is blindingly central to Jekyll and Hyde and then detecting it in other ‘double’ stories, like Deacon Brodie or Ballantrae and so on. Of course it’s there to some extent, but an obsessive focus on it obscures the many many other aspects, themes and elements of his work.

Rebellion against parents

His father and his father before him were engineers, members of what became known as ‘the lighthouse Stevensons’, the dynasty which built many of the lighthouses around the notoriously dangerous Scottish coast. Stevenson was a rarity in the extended family, in being an only son, and his father made every effort to force him into the family business, making Stevenson study engineering for three years, touring the lighthouses his family had built and studying the ports and harbours where new ones were planned.

He remained a flop as an engineer, unable to tell one type of wood from another, incapable of the mathematics and physics required, but the extensive travel around the Scottish coast, meeting and staying with poor peasants in remote locations, stood him in very good stead when it came to writing his Scottish fictions.

Bohemian pose

The biography gives a fascinating account of Stevenson’s life as a very reluctant engineering student in dank and foggy Edinburgh, and his student-y predilection for roughing it in low-life pubs and brothels, sitting in the corner of smoky taverns while prostitutes plied their trade and dockers argued and fought. He and his friends were living La Vie Boheme before the term was coined and Stevenson is thought to have slept with one or more of the prostitutes he knew, experimented with hashish, and been a devotee of the debauched poetry of Charles Baudelaire. This taste for low life, again, stood him in good stead when he moved on to Paris, when he imagined life among bandits and outlaws and pirates for his adventure books, when he found himself among emigrants and cowboys in America, and then in his final guise, as friend and defender of South Sea Islanders against the incompetent colonial authorities.

Sick and well

Though always extremely thin and weedy in his young manhood, Stevenson was nonetheless extremely active, playing the gay blade at the artists’ colony in Barbizon, northern France, restlessly pacing up and down rooms, his feverish eyes drinking in his surroundings and his mind pouring forth an endless stream of repartee and humour. He is sent to the south of France and Switzerland to try and cure his lung disorders, but it is far from clear what he actually had. Was it TB or some form of syphilis?

The ill health seems to crystallise during the arduous journey across the Atlantic and then by train across America in 1879. By the time he arrives at Fanny Osbourne’s house he was really unwell, and it was during his stay in California that he experienced his first bad haemorrhage.

At some level, being accepted by Fanny – 10 years his elder – coincided with his official advent to the condition of invalid; somehow their relationship skipped the ‘lovers’ stage directly to ‘mother’ and ‘invalid’, and there it was to stay until his death.

The elusive masterpiece

Harman makes the point that right up to his death (in 1894, aged just 44) Stevenson’s friends and fans were hoping against hope that he would finally deliver The Masterpiece that would cement his place as a Master of English Literature. His precocious essays and stories promised so much, it was hard for everyone, including the man himself, to accept that he just couldn’t produce the kind of solid, consistent, three-volume novel typical of Dickens, Eliot, George Meredith. But he couldn’t and he didn’t. Instead, Stevenson’s oeuvre is a) extremely scattered b) littered with unfinished projects.

Worse than the non-arrival of The Masterpiece, was the way that his entire output from the South Seas was viewed by many as a calamitous abandonment of a conventional career. Instead of a bigger better Kidnapped or Ballantrae his fans were subjected to a pamphlet defending a missionary who worked with lepers, a series of rather boring letters to his friend Sidney Colvin, the long travel book In The South Seas which, unlike his other short witty travelogues, was long and weighed down with pages of local history and culture which quickly became boring. The few fictions seemed desperately diverse and unfocused: was The Bottle Imp the beginning of a series of fables setting a kind of Arabian Nights fantasy in Tahiti? And what to make of the short novel The Ebb-Tide which combined grotesque levels of violence with what seemed to be a sustained attack on Western civilisation in a fiction in which almost every white character is despicable.

Against this backdrop Harman makes the interesting point that the unfinished novel Weir of Hermiston, when it was finally published, was greeted with relief by Stevenson’s fans because it was so obviously a return to the Scottish setting of some of his greatest works and showed, without any doubt, a significant progress in psychological portrayal of character.

Thus Hermiston was enshrined as the pinnacle of his achievement – which involved ignoring the long potboiler, St Ives, which Stevenson had brought much closer to completion but is a regrettable reversion to the smash-bang-wallop style of earlier shockers – and, much worse, I think, involved downplaying or just ignoring the South Sea fictions, The Beach of Falesá and The Ebb-Tide, which are, I think, masterpieces of a completely new realistic-but-grotesque style, something new in his writing and immensely promising.

What I’ve learned

From this time round reading Stevenson, the main findings have been:

1. The travel books are brilliant. I thought they’d be dry and dusty and irrelevant, but they turn out to be short, punchy, engaging, funny and full of fascinating and vivid character studies, as well as providing a fascinating experiment in autobiography in instalments.

2. Stevenson’s emigration to the South Pacific led to a typical explosion of writing in all sorts of genres – travelogue, local history, cultural analysis, essays, pamphlets, letters to the press, letters home to friends, parables and fables. But head and shoulders above them stand the two longer fictions – The Beach of Falesá and The Ebb-Tide – which I wish someone had recommended to me years ago, and I think are among his greatest achievements.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

Medieval and Renaissance art at the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Medieval and Renaissance collection is scattered over different floors and different parts of the building. (See the V&A floor plan to understand what follows.)

If you enter the main entrance on Cromwell Road, turn immediately right, then left down the narrow steps (past the men’s loo) into rooms 8, 9, 10, 10a, 10b and 10c, to begin at the chronologically earliest part of the display, covering the years 300 – 1500.

Stairs at the end take you up to level 2, where rooms 62 to 64 continue ‘Medieval & Renaissance 300-1600’. From this balcony level you can descend back to ground level and to the huge east hall (probably the first thing you see when you’re buying tickets or asking for information in the entrance lobby) this hall comprising rooms 50a, 50b, 50c and 50d, which house monumental sculptures and a vast stone church screen.

Also on the ground floor, though in the opposite wing, is another huge room 48a, which houses some Raphael cartoons and, in the corridor beside the main bookshop, rooms 16a, 26 and 27, which house a series of sculptures from 1300 to 1600. Close to this are the two large rooms 46a and 46b, which contain casts of Renaissance sculptures, the so-called ‘Cast Courts’.

Early medieval

A visit to all of these rooms confirmed me in my sense that I prefer art from what used to be called the Dark Ages and the early Medieval period, and my interest falls away during the religious revival of the 14th century – although I still like its humanistic medieval approach – and then falls off a cliff as the technically perfect artists of the Renaissance put their gifts to the service of hundreds of horrible Italian princes and the manufacture of countless pastiche classical statues, or gold-larded altars adorned with simpering Madonnas and halo-happy saints.

Why visit galleries or museums?

You visit museums or galleries not only to learn about the ostensible subject matter of what you’re seeing, but also:

1. Visiting helps you find out what you like and don’t like and so helps you define your tastes and preferences – helps inform and improve those tastes and preferences. In this day and age you don’t have to conform to pre-set canons of taste, but how do you know what you like till you try it?

2. It is also a form of therapy. By clarifying what you like and don’t like you find out who you are, the kind of person you are – an art lover, a science lover, a weapons lover, a photograph lover: there are museums and galleries for every taste. And finding out what you like is part of understanding who you are.

3. Exhibits are not only data for value judgements they are witnesses to the past and since all art is produced in some part of the past, it is difficult to avoid engaging with history, in one or other sense of the word. And understanding fragments of the past may help you better understand the troubled present.

Personal prejudices

If I ask myself why I like the pieces I warmed to, it is for one of two reasons:

1. Real Dark Age art is original, weird and different from the Classical or Renaissance periods which bookend it. It speaks of pagan mysteries, the Teutonic forests, a northern ecosystem, a barbarian bestiary of ravens, foxes, gargoyles, green men and grotesques, not laid out in expensive open perspectives, but crammed together into constricted spaces which make them adopt strange stylised postures.

In its avoidance of the the perfection of classical statuary, in its interest in energy compacted into a stylised space, it has obvious similarities with the Modernist art, especially from the period of the Great War, which I also love.

2. When the art of painting revives from the 1200s onwards, I dislike almost all religious ie Catholic, subject matter, and warm to the depiction of people in their own right, for their humanity, for the love of suffering humanity which they evoke. Linked to that view, I warm to animals, flowers, trees and all the indications of a lush, fertile northern environment, and am almost physically repelled by the harsh, barren, rocky landscapes under a pitilessly blue sky, which characterise so much Italian Renaissance painting.

Personal highlights

So this isn’t an attempt to be definitive or authoritative; it is a very personal list of highlights.

Rooms 8 to 10

  • Ivory Last Judgement and Transfiguration (800, recarved 860) I liked the very literal way the coffin lids were coming off in the middle of the image and how, at the bottom right, a big devil’s head is swallowing naughty sinners.
  • Elephant ivory comb (875) Ceremonial combs were used to comb the hair of a priest before he conducted the Mass. Combing was a symbolic process, which established bodily order. It also stopped unruly hair falling in the communion wine.
  • Tabernacle with deposition (1150) I liked the polished crystal in the base, the cartoon bendiness of the human figures and the way they blend into the crucifix which, unusually, has the form of an actual, organically growing tress, rather than the usual straight planks.
  • non-classical animals, bestiaries
  • Relief of the Virgin and Child in orange-red Verona marble (1160-80). The flat smooth expressionless faces remind me of Modernist sculpture, maybe of the Eric Gill reliefs on display at Tate Britain.
  • Grotesque corbel, made from carved sandstone between 1125 and 1150. Corbels stick out from walls to support other features. Why were grotesques and gargoyles so common on medieval buildings?
  • The Becket Casket (1180-90) I liked the stylised hieratic figures, especially the dancing knights beheading the saint, and the prominent polished rock crystals.
  • Virgin and child with goldfinch (1280-1300) made from elephant ivory. What caught my attention was the way Jesus is holding a bird like a toy. It is a goldfinch, symbolic of the crucifixion because it (supposedly) eats seeds of thistles, prickles, thorns.
  • Morse ivory fragment with the Deposition (c. 1190-1200) The humanity of the effort, the closeness, the physical intimacy of the task.
  • Relief of Saints Philip, Jude, and Bartholomew (1150) from limestone. I like the flat stylised effect. Again, like modern art.

There were two touchscreen information panels (complete with a quiz to take after you’ve read the content) about the Romanesque and Gothic.

Romanesque 1000-1200 (so named in the 1820s to refer to a ‘debased Roman style’.) Round arches lined by chevron or dogtooth patterns, scrolling plants, the human form more decorative than realistic, imaginary creatures. Characteristic buildings: Durham Cathedral. People: Henry of Blois, brother of King Stephen of England.

Gothic 1200-1500 (used by the 16th century Italian Renaissance critic Vasari to refer to the ‘barbarous German style’ which defeated and repressed good classical taste until the revival of classical style in the 15th century.) Pointed arches, flying buttresses, curving human figures, naturalism of detail eg leaves, expressive emotion. Key buildings: Notre Dame Paris, York Minster (still the largest building in York, it took 250 years to build).

  • The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries; Boar and Bear Hunt (1425-30) This fills one big wall and has an audioguide of its own with a touchscreen which allows you to pick out particular details and hear them interpreted. Ever since I read the wall labels for the wall painting of Nebamun at the British Museum, I’ve realised the symbolic importance of hunting scenes: they may have value as naturalistic depictions, but their primary purpose is to assert the hierarchies of authority in a society, to show the ruling classes enacting, imposing and creating order in the natural world and, by extension, in their culture.

Rooms 50a, 50b, 50c, 50d

Nothing. I disliked everything in this huge space, the flawless pastiches of classical statues, the vast oppressive ‘s-Hertogenbosch Choir Screen which covers one wall, the numerous heavy, threatening church features such as pulpits, fonts and screens, all done with a leaden, heartless perfection.

Rooms 62 to 64

  • The huge timber staircase from Morlaix in Brittany (1530) redolent of Henry IV and Falstaff’s tavern scenes.
  • Room 1 at the British Museum has an extended explanation of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ as created by collectors in northern Europe. One room here contains a small but striking collection of luxury items from the Cabinet of Curiosities or Kunstkammer of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I (1503-1564).
  • Towel holder (1520-25) The missing arms would have held a pole over which a towel would have been draped. Apparently, the fool towel holder was a common feature.
  • Virgin and very ugly Child by Carlo Crivelli (1480) Note the fly on the parapet. And the carnation and two violets.

In the eight rooms on this level, by far the best, the most stunning, original, powerful and sophisticated exhibit was a Benin bronze on loan from the British Museum, demonstrating the sophistication of other cultures as the Europeans began faring forth to discover and then colonise the world.


Related links

Other museums

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