Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Discovery of Heretics: Unseen Writings by Sarban

Discovery of Heretics, a collection of early writings, incomplete drafts, and excerpts from unpublished novels by Sarban, was only made available in a slipcase with Mark Valentine's biography of that author, Time, A Falconer.  At first, this might seem an odd decision, as one could imagine readers who enjoy Sarban's work but aren't interested in his life story.  Reading the book, however, makes the logic behind the decision quite clear.  In the first place, Time, A Falconer provides insight into the origins, composition, and development of the writings in Discovery of Heretics, which as presented in that volume are simply large blocks of text with minimal context.  Second, and more important, the proximity of the biographical study underlines the reality that the primary interest of these "Unseen Writings" is in what they reveal about the author's mindset and personality.  Although the prose is invariably well-crafted and there are some striking passages, only some of the material in Discovery of Heretics is enjoyable as fiction in its own right.

That is, however, no reason to suggest that the book is a failure or ought not to have been published.  In fact, approached in the right spirit, its contents are fascinating.  The volume begins and ends with atypical work: a non-supernatural story and a short play on the one hand, and a few poems on the other.  This is the only complete and finished material in Discovery of Heretics, and it's all competent but unexciting.  The short story is one of those darkly ironic, highly-coincidental pieces that are associated with the likes of O. Henry and Saki, though stylistically it's not much like either.  Even at this early stage, Sarban was capable of fine, clear prose without even minor flaws, and had mastered the manner of his material.  The same is true of the play, "Their Blood Cannot Die," a drearily ideological piece in which characters extol the virtue of Marxist revolution through implausibly long and stilted speeches.  For the kind of literature this is, Sarban approaches it very well, but even at ten pages the thing is hard going.  The poetry is more enjoyable; he would never have been a great poet, but he was capable of working in rhyme without descending into sing-song doggerel, and a couple of the pieces are genuinely atmospheric.

The bulk of the remaining material is several different approaches to writing about a gynocratic society.  There are five versions of this concept, ranging in length from eight to one hundred eleven pages and in date from the late 1940s to the early 1970s.  In some ways, this idea seems to have been Sarban's "Silmarillion."  The scope of the material and the time spent working on it is of course smaller, but the desire to examine these themes, and the closeness of the concept to the author's heart that that desire suggests, are much the same.  The earliest version, "Agorit," is mostly about a misunderstanding in an African airport and a meeting with a mysterious woman; like many items in Discovery of Heretics, it cuts off just as the fantastic aspect of events seems likely to become clearer. 

The next attempt, The Gynarchs is a substantially complete novel, of which the present volume includes only selected chapters, comprising 30-40% of the total length.  Even with that selectivity, The Gynarchs is a draggy affair, more a dogged exploration of a milieu than a narrative.  As Mark Valentine observes in Time, A Falconer, the characters are rather coldly observed; one seems not to be expected to sympathize with or care about them, and indeed it's not clear what, if any, position the author is taking on the society he's created.  Writing compellingly about a utopia is, for obvious reasons, difficult at best, and Sarban's vision, dependent on essentialist attitudes about male and female attributes that I have trouble taking seriously, is neither credible nor terrifically interesting.  (The invented language of the milieu is particularly ugly and unevocative.)  The primary fascination of the material is the way Sarban's play with gender roles, his masculine women and feminine men,* suggests certain aspects of his own psychology.  This is where Time, A Falconer is particularly valuable, as Valentine examines these issues thoughtfully, without drawing pat conclusions.  Apart from that borderline-prurient interest, there are some fine descriptive passages in The Gynarchs, redolent of the South American landscapes that evidently informed the work, and an eerie sequence near the end set at a spider temple.

A more striking yet still frustrating refashioning of the concept comes under the title "The Artemists."  This fragmentary work dates from the 1970s, and changing times had allowed Sarban the freedom to be more explicitly sexual in certain ways, though the story is by no means crude.  Unlike The Gynarchs, which was set in a post-apocalyptic future and had no hint of a modern perspective, "The Artemists" brings contemporary young women into its utopia, which they find somewhat less than it's cracked up to be.  Unfortunately, a large chunk of missing text seems to cover the most eventful sections of the fragment, and what's left is mostly made up of two long expository speeches.  The hints of what has been lost, and what was never written at all, suggest a darker, more complicated vision than that of The Gynarchs, and one wishes Sarban had continued with this version.

From around the same time there are two shorter attempts to re-explore the gynarchy, both of which also feature contemporary protagonists, and both of which link the concept to ideas from other unrealized fiction by Sarban.  "The Herbs of Miss Aran" features a intriguing wise-woman figure who, perhaps inadvertently, leads the narrator toward her alternate realm, though again the story breaks off just as he's about to get there.  "Aunt Rachel" is very short, and atypically for Sarban has a female narrator.  Her story of a mysterious imaginary brother is tantalizing, but no more.

A strange sibling also features in "Never Go Back," perhaps the most successful of the works in Discovery of Heretics.  This piece, which runs to about 30,000 words and is only just getting warmed up when it stops, was clearly informed by the collapse of Sarban's marriage and his own frustration with his later life.  It's not autobiographical in the narrowest sense-- the narrator's inability to function in the world is clearly exaggerated beyond Sarban's own-- but there is nonetheless a force and poignancy to the fragment that suggests real experience.  Despite the advice of the title, he returns to his childhood home, and foreshadowing throughout the non-supernatural opening suggests a connection to another plane of existence.  Once again, the fragment ends before we get there.

"The Papers of Henry Sugden," which dates from around the same time as Sarban's three published books, also hints of visitors from another realm.  It too is already at novella length when it breaks off, and the preliminary material, a possibly over-elaborate framing narrative, has only just concluded.  There are ingredients here for a fine tale of classical visionary supernaturalism-- a mysterious young woman, an isolated school, an idealistic young master, the manuscript of a madman-- and as with "Never Go Back," one can only wish it had been completed.

"Fergus Aran" is not, despite what the title (which, like many of the titles here, was devised by the publisher for material left titleless by Sarban) directly linked to "The Herbs of Miss Aran."  However, both stories do deal with unusually close male-male friendships.  Like the assertive or dominant female characters of his other work, these relationships suggest the complexity of Sarban's emotional and sexual attitudes, and "Fergus Aran" seems likely to have developed into another story of non-human incursion into our own world.  The narrator's loneliness is well-described.

A male-male friendship is also at the heart of "Discovery of Heretics," which extracts the opening chapters of an unpublished novel of the same name.  That novel is also known as Paul Wenzel, after the narrator's friend, who he meets during a lonely and dull diplomatic assignment in Cairo.  The descriptions of their life together, exploring area landmarks and discussing Islamic history, are effective, and the dry language nonetheless evokes something of British life in Cairo in the 1930s.  The events of the end of that decade force a separation between Wenzel and the narrator, and their parting has an understated melancholy.  The supernatural and the esoteric appear in these excerpts in distant discussion only, but as a literary story, it works fairly well.

In spite of the individual virtues of some of these pieces, their total effect is somewhat wearying.  Most are either excerpts from novels or fragmentary pieces that would have grown into novels if finished, so the pace is slow, and across several different works grows tiresome.  However, for readers interested in Sarban, the intellectual interest that the book provides, both in terms of Sarban's imaginative world-building and his own revealed lifestyle, will more than make up for that.  Indeed, although I've described The Gynachs and Paul Wenzel in less than enthusiastic terms, and would certainly accept Mark Valentine's belief that they are uneven works, I still hope that complete publication of one or both will eventually become viable.  When you're dealing with a writer of sufficient stature, even early, incomplete, or unsatisfying work becomes worthwhile, and so it is with the unseen writings that make up Discovery of Heretics.

*"Masculine" and "feminine" being used here in terms of their traditional meanings rather than to suggest actual inherent characteristics.

1 comment:

  1. An informative and honest review. Great blog.