Friday, June 10, 2011

The Mascarons of the Late Empire & Other Studies

i. "The Atelier in Iasi"
In his post that morning, as he was readying for breakfast in his Bucharest flat above the Roman Market, he had received a moderately perplexing piece of correspondence. It had been in a good quality white envelope, crisp as English frost. He refrained from opening it crudely with forefinger and thumb, but reached instead for the little stiletto letter-opener, and slit the top properly. Inside there was a single card, also of proper weight and whiteness, and printed well in embedded black letters, which he could feel, like inverse Braille, when he passed his finger-tips over them. The placing of the characters upon the card was also done with discrimination, with pleasing spacing.
At the head of the card the characters read: AN INVITATION TO A PRIVATE VIEW. And then there was a date, one week hence, using Roman numerals, which he thought was a little eccentric, but different: and after that there was placed a symbol, used, he could see, to cause a break between the opening text and the detail that followed. The symbol loomed larger than the font of the text, and was not quite centred on the full field of the card, which irked him, mildly, at first: but as he stared at it further, he could see that in fact it worked quite well. It was an elegant circle, or perhaps an oval – it seemed to hover between the two – intersected by a single curt stroke, fixed from the north-east to the south-west, or vice-versa if one read it from the base rather than the top. That black stroke was oblique, perhaps slightly italic, almost, one could imagine, tentative.
This description of the aesthetics of an invitation comes from a story concerned, among other things, with the joys, sorrows, and eccentricities of the aesthete's life.  It is, from a certain perspective, odd for the protagonist to linger over the proportions of so disposable a thing, but one of the themes of the story, and indeed much of Valentine's work, is that any object or image can be well or ill-made.  "The Atelier at Iasi" is at once a tribute to a city and a wise, mildly satiric meditation on the mental workings of seekers after beauty.  It has also some of the atmosphere of unease of a traditional weird tale.  Strange invitations, after all, often lead us to places from which it is difficult to escape.

ii. "A Walled Garden on the Bosphorus"
The garden itself was perhaps twenty paces long and rather less than that wide: a walnut tree dwelt in one corner and in another, a medlar with, in spring, its bright silver-green leaves and white flowers, and, in autumn its tight, tawny little fruits. Much of the garden was cobbled, and old moss grew between the cobbles. But there was also a minor rank meadow of wild grass and in this stood an ornate bench painted blue, and a round table on a single elegant stalk: its top was just big enough to accept a coffee tray. Around the bench there were overflowing pots of mint, tarragon and rosemary. A rectangular lead cistern held brackish black water: it was decorated with the dark head of an heraldic panther whose mouth held an arid iron spout.
 In my review of The Peacock Escritoire, I quoted another descriptive passage from a Valentine story, and suggested that anyone ought to find it evocative.  But why?  What, precisely, is the quality of Valentine's imagery that, despite having no interest in picturing the physical arrangement of the objects described, I find it so powerfully suggestive?  Some of it is the formal, mildly antiquated air of the language, which hints at the elegance one associates (however inaccurately) with the refined past.  Some of it is the plain felicity of the sentences, which never contain an awkward phrase or misused word, creating, as in a very different way M. R. James does, an impression of skillfulness that becomes all the more powerful because one cannot pin it down to a specific virtue.  And some of it, I suppose, is Valentine's gift for devising scenes that are redolent of the world he wants to capture.

But again, I am perhaps making it seem that the author's work is images only.  "A Walled Garden on the Bosphorus" also takes in the varied "obscure faiths" of the Ottoman empire, whose names and beliefs are as redolent of the fantastic as if Valentine had fabricated them himself, though by and large he had not.  Felix Vrai, the Frenchman who describes these faiths to the story's narrator, is interested in them neither as theologian or as scholar, "as if he were turning over in his fingers a carved gem, remarking upon how the light and the dark played upon each facet."  He takes a similar joy in simpler things, in inks and sweetmeats, which, seen through Vrai's and Valentine's eyes, do indeed attain strange and remarkable qualities, becoming worthy of contemplation.  Any journey can take on another quality, if one examines the right things.

iii. "The Mascarons of the Late Empire"
He glared about him with gleaming eyes at the heaving throng, the men and women of the night. He saw ex-soldiers still in the torn uniforms of different armies, sullenly begging, or performing pathetic tricks with whatever limbs or senses were left to them; he saw barely clothed gutter children jostling to pick up whatever glitter fell onto the slimy cobbles or streaked street paths; he saw bedraggled, brown-limbed beckoning women laugh at him from the shadows; there were lepers exposing their weeping sores to provoke pity; and the grey-bearded sellers of the grave dust of the saints and prophets were solemnly hawking their sacred wares in blue paper packets, inscribed with strange stark letters. And then he thought he saw, among them all, another face he knew from his book; the only face not made of stone; he saw her wavering on the edge of the crowd, like a white candle; it was the slightest glimpse, yet even within the fevered embrace of the distilled rose he knew it to be her. Reason and hope surged back to him and he told himself she surely must have come to the city in answer to Dr Barusch’s campaign, and (like himself) got lost and drawn in to the vile commotion of the Night Market.
By far he longest of the four stories in this collection, "The Mascarons of the Late Empire" follows four characters, an idealistic linguist, a mapmaker, a bookseller, and a scholar of the titular objects, architectural masks that adorn building walls.  In the last-named character's search for mascarons, which this final city of his search seems to lack, and the unusual human faces he discovers in their place, there is another hint of traditional weird fiction.  But by and large the story is concerned with the fate of a city that is, like the title locale of "The Dawn at Tzern," on the cusp of a great transition.  Its distinctive features, of which the market captured in the passage above is but one, will surely change, and there is an overpowering feeling of elegy in the story's seemingly-mundane conclusion.

iv. "A Lantern for Carpathia"
As we drew nearer, I soon understood: for we were approaching a little hidden cemetery and the light and the scent came from votive candles burning in glass jars, which bore black bruises from the touch of the flames when the hill-winds caught them or perhaps when they were disturbed by the freshet that follows a passing figure. There were maybe forty or fifty stones in the cemetery: and each seemed to have some form of vessel upon them, though only some of these were lit. But in one corner of the graveyard there stood a grey stone column, plain and straight, with a larger flame burning within a glass prism at its peak, and this cast a glow over the whole ground below it, hard, bright and golden at first, but fading in the farther recesses to a pale flicker. I had seen something similar once in a French country churchyard: a lanterne des morts.
I have said before that Valentine's knowledge of diverse subjects leads him down fascinating roads.  Here we have what might have been a historical footnote: a one-day republic, a flash of liberty between two bulks of imperial control.  The narrator, another scholar with an unusual preoccupation, is brought to this cemetery and meets its keeper, the last of that forgotten country.  Personal and national memory are intertwined in this elderly man, and his tale carries with it an almost unbearable melancholy, a mourning not only for a republic and its people but for all the things that must fade away and leave only hints behind, mere stubs of what were once harsh, bright cigarettes.

v. Studies

I have said a little about each of the tales in this collection, but in truth much of what I've said about each could be applied to any of the others.  (They have distinctive individual themes as well, naturally.) Each concerns itself with a city living to one degree or another in the shadow of the two great European wars, and with the artistic intellectuals of those cities, the beauty they can find in unexpected places, a beauty not lacking its own dark side, its hints of death, disappearance, memory that is cherished in spite of, or because of, its bitterness.  The total effect of the volume, which can be read in the course of an evening, is to link the personal, the urban, the national, and the numinous, to bring the reader, however briefly, up to an awareness of something much larger than most books of less than one hundred pages could convey.  The Mascarons of the Late Empire & Other Studies is itself like a carved gem, its facets flashing by, dark and light, almost, almost, too quickly to be seen, yet too wondrous to be forgotten.

2 comments:

  1. "Some of it is the plain felicity of the sentences, which never contain an awkward phrase or misused word..."

    I agree with this observation wholeheartedly. While it is a small part of the appeal of Valentine's fiction, I think it bears emphasis.

    While there are many interesting writers coming out of the small press world today, I feel that we would be more likely to see true masterpieces emerge if some of the writers had the benefit of thoughtful, skilled editors (because, frankly, many of them could use some help in the style department.)
    Valentine, along with a handful of others, need no such help.

    Of course, solid style is not enough; fortunately for us, in Valentine's fiction it is wedded to an exquisite subtlety of conception and observation and an immense, though never heavy-handed, erudition.

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  2. While there are many interesting writers coming out of the small press world today, I feel that we would be more likely to see true masterpieces emerge if some of the writers had the benefit of thoughtful, skilled editors (because, frankly, many of them could use some help in the style department.)

    I quite agree. Whenever I venture beyond the few writers and editors I know have an excellent ear for prose, I'm amazed at the amount of awkward and/or ungrammatical language. Too often, small press editors aren't capable of (or even aware of the need for) proper editing. As Ellen Datlow once put it in an interview:

    "There are more lower-end horror magazines and ‘zines [in horror] than there are in both science fiction and fantasy combined. Much of what I read is obviously not vetted. If it had been, it wouldn’t have been published. What does get published in some of these magazines or websites has also not been edited. Some so-called editors out there don’t even know what editing means.

    An aside: I read a piece [by an editor] on a website that ostensibly explained how he “edits” yet what the person was describing was not editing at all. It was copyediting: fixing punctuation and spelling. A whole different animal. My annoyance at this ignorance caused me to rant on my blog about the difference between line editing and copyediting. In turn, I was asked to adapt that rant into an article for the SFWA handbook."

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