The Fool’s Way Part III – Bloody Greta Garbo

I’m still translating Nils Asther’s memoirs of silent stardom from Swedish. Catch up on parts I and II. And look – Nicole of Strange Fiction is providing illustrations!

nilscadDN_1YmxVAAAou-l.jpg-largeMeanwhile, in the Roaring Twenties…

When he wasn’t yelling at him and making threats, Mauritz Stiller liked to tell Nils he was his favourite. He probably told Greta Garbo that too.

Stiller helped the teenage Greta Gustafsson come up with a new name and a new look. He had her lose weight and fix her teeth, chose shoes to make her feet look smaller (Stiller had a complex about the size of his own feet, so hey, why not everyone else’s?) and began to cultivate the special something that would make her a star. Rumour had it, her beat her. There was plenty of whispering about Greta Gustafsson. The girls at the Royal Dramatic Theatre called her untalented and ugly, but Stiller believed in Greta with his characteristic possessive fervour, and she adored him.

Greta Garbo and Mauritz Stiller

Greta Garbo and Mauritz Stiller

There was plenty of whispering about Nils, too. He was getting decent reviews for his stage work, plus plenty of film roles, but his fellow students were sure he was only tolerated because he was sleeping with the great Augusta Lindberg. Augusta’s exhibitionism wasn’t doing much to dispel the gossip. On one occasion, he was forced to climb out of a window mid-session to preserve her honour. She was perfectly happy with her quota of honour, but it was nice of him to make the effort.

nilsyoung

When Nils met Greta, they were both students. Their first encounter would haunt him for the rest of his life. She wasn’t anything special to look at, not at first, but then…

“Suddenly she looked up and into my eyes. It felt like I was hit by a thunderbolt. I stared bewitched at her. But it seemed like she did not notice me. Her girlish face seemed to me wonderfully beautiful. My whole body was carried by a pleasant springing sensation, which I never before experienced, and the effects of which I could never completely free myself from. Something strange had happened inside me. The peculiar theatre student had lit a fire of love in me, bordering on bliss. It insisted that I must join with her forever.”

Within three days of setting eyes on her, Nils proposed for the first time.

This was typical Nils. Where Greta Garbo was supposed to fit alongside Augusta, Hjalmar, Stiller, Lutzy, the twins, and the estranged mother of his child, I don’t know. She wasn’t sure either. With grace, she told him she was married to her craft.

Linde Klinckowström

Linde Klinckowström

Anyway, there was Linde Klinckowström to consider. Linde was a Swedish countess who would become known for daring solo trips across Europe on horseback. She was intelligent and artistic, and Nils being Nils, he couldn’t help but flirt with her. They met when she was appearing as an extra in a film, dressed in men’s breeches. He said he had a way of falling in love with girls in trousers. Well then, she said, she said she ought to wear them more often. Somehow, “Ooh, I might have to propose”, came out of someone’s mouth, maybe even hers. At last, said his friends, a nice, relatively normal girl to keep him on the straight and narrow. Straight and narrow were new concepts to Nils, and he wasn’t sure what to do with them. Linde presented him to her parents, half-joking about a romance. She was nobility, after all, and though he looked the part, he had a commoner’s accent. But Linde’s brother was an artist, a good one, and he counselled Nils to leave the acting world and follow his dreams of painting. He and Linde were astute enough to see Nils’ self-destructive nature. Film would only encourage it, as would mad love affairs.

It was sound advice, so naturally he didn’t take it. Linde and her aura of calm would appear to him in dreams for years to come, begging him to slow down. Gently, she broke off their brief, strange relationship, leaving him free to pursue… more brief, strange relationships.

Oh My God, Stop Falling In Love

The Linde hangover was over. Now Greta Garbo was his one true love.

Where did this alluring creature hang out? Where could he loiter in the hope of bumping into her? There was her house, of course, but any idiot can lurk outside someone’s home address (and he did). You’ve got to think creatively. You have to go somewhere you’ll have something to talk about, things to do.

Her father’s grave, for instance.

And so he hung around in the snow amongst the headstones. Looking forlorn had always worked on Hjalmar, but it wasn’t going to cut it with Greta. What was this ‘just friends’ concept she was talking about? Nils thought he was losing his mind. Perhaps Mauritz Stiller had threatened her too?

A very young Greta Garbo

A very young Greta Garbo

He and Greta actually had a lot in common. They had the same sense of humour and ability to see through bullshit. And Greta had a similarly horrible childhood to Nils, only far poorer:

“It was eternally grey—those long winter’s nights. My father would be sitting in a corner, scribbling figures on a newspaper. On the other side of the room my mother is repairing ragged old clothes, sighing. We children would be talking in very low voices, or just sitting silently. We were filled with anxiety, as if there were danger in the air.”

This was something they could bond over. Post-divorce, Anton Asther had settled down with his new wife and was producing more children. According to rumour, he hadn’t told his new family that his old one even existed. But Nils was becoming well-known in Sweden, and the Asther name was uncommon enough that surely someone would start asking questions. Nils decided to contact Anton one last time. For what, who knows? Maybe acceptance. But Anton refused to meet. Nils had brought the shame of ‘sawdust’ onto their name, he said. He was nothing but a simple clown.

But like Greta Garbo, the clown was going places. Friedrich Zelnick, one of the most important director-producers of the day, called Nils his ‘darling’. Bidding wars started up between directors determined to have him. Nils pretended not to care. He liked to see how far he could push it. “It’s all just so boring,” he shrugged, which only made the directors hurl more cash at him. Greta was in Turkey, making movies with Stiller. Nils was filming in Berlin, Vienna, and Sicily – doing what? He couldn’t remember.

“I have a peculiar talent for forgetting the names of all the bad films I’ve been in. Guess I’m just lazy.”

Lutzy, or Lucy Doraine

Lutzy, or Lucy Doraine

This may have been more down to his lifestyle than the quality of the films. Depressed by the chaos of his personal life, pining for Greta, he threw himself into further hedonism. Deciding that Lutzy Doraine was now the one and only woman for him, he went AWOL from the theatre to go on a mad dash across Europe to see her while she went travelling. The pursuit of his beloved consisted of a few months of daylight drinking in public spaces, random encounters with people who didn’t speak any of the languages he knew – none were as bewitching as Lutzy, of course, even the lady with the lovely ankles – and further day drinking. If he could just get all the way to Egypt, maybe he could become like a romantic knight, riding a camel to the pyramids. But Egypt turned out to be full of honking cars and strewn with rubbish. And it wasn’t really Lutzy he was after. He only ever seemed to want to run away.

In Nils’ own estimation, he was “totally deranged” at this point. Hjalmar Bergman, besotted as ever, lamented the behaviour of his “little idiot”. Keeping up with Nils was killing him. When Hjalmar wasn’t face-down in a mountain of cocaine, he was taking his feelings for his foster son to the brothels. Nils had begun to talk about America. It was the logical next step for his career, and Greta Garbo was already there, making a mark. Hjalmar couldn’t bear to lose the handsome youth he had idolised for so long.

After a night of heavy drinking, the writer broke down on Nils’ shoulder. Why had nature cursed him with such a repulsive face? Nils did his best to console the older man. Hjalmar had no need of something so trivial as good looks. He had been blessed by the Muses, and Nils admired and loved him for it. But he was missing the point. Bless him, he was quite good at missing the point. In four more years, Hjalmar would die alone in a Berlin hotel, wrecked by alcohol.

It's really not that bad, Hjalmar.

It’s really not that bad, Hjalmar.

Mephistopheles Doesn’t Care About Your Hangover

On the 17th of January 1927, Nils spent his 30th birthday alone. He composed himself this message:

“Congratulations on the birthday, you old rascal! Not that you deserve it, but may your future become light and fun, with great success. Well, why not world renown to satisfy your vanity? Beautiful girls, a thousand of them, and coins in large quantities, and good health so that you can enjoy these creature comforts. May all your dreams come true, even the idiotic ones. And when you’re drinking in a villa in Italy or Spain, where you can live in peace and with peace of mind, free from ambitions and desires, may you finally get your easel, canvases, brushes and paints. Cheers to you, old boy.”

nilsasther

Despite drowning his loneliness in champagne, it was a pretty good birthday. Paramount had noticed this Scandinavian heartthrob and were sending a representative over to Sweden to talk to him right away. But they were beaten to his door by rival company United Artists. Literally. They just barged in.

“I had not yet got out of bed and was waiting for morning coffee, when there came a knock on the door. Unannounced, it was a Mr. Berman from the U.S.A. Hat in hand, an extinct cigar hung from the corner of the mouth. ‘Hallo, Asther! You are going to Hollywood. You have a future there. You’re the type that the girls will run after.’ Uninvited, he had thrown himself down in an uncomfortable chair. He mistook my silence for awe, for he galloped in with a bunch of promises of life in Hollywood. He represented the prominent United Artists and told me what I already knew, that it was owned by Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Norma Talmadge with Joseph Schenk as the Director. I would stay at the finest clubs and a Cadillac would be the only car for me, etc. Where the hell was the coffee…?”

Very politely, for someone hungover in his pyjamas, Nils explained he was flattered but had an appointment to keep with Paramount. To Hell with Paramount, said Berman. United Artists would beat any offer from those shmucks. Also, how do you feel about pretending to be twenty-five?

By the end of the month, Nils would be in America, having the time of his life.

“There is nothing that I more bitterly regret than leaving Sweden and giving myself to the violence of film,” he wrote, years later. “Above all, I let myself be caught by the untruthful Hollywood dream factory, where I experienced my life’s most terrible nightmares.”

It’s going to be so much fun, guys.

TBC.

nilsbynicole

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Spectres of The Silent Age

Popcorn? Check. Ice cream? Check. Unholy masses of gummy worms teeming with e-numbers? Shovel that filth into your face. It’s Halloween, and as I’m on a bit of a silent film binge at the moment, I’ve put together a list of early horror for your perusal.

All these have had soundtracks added by creative Youtubers. Maybe you can substitute your own? ‘Tis the season for Rob Zombie, after all…

Auguste and Louis Lumiere’s Le Squelette Joyeux (1897)

Segundo de Chomón’s The Red Spectre (1907)

Georges Méliès’ The 400 Tricks of The Devil (1906)

Segundo de Chomón’s The Haunted House (1908)

Georges Méliès’ The Devil In A Convent (1899)

 

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The Fool’s Way Part II – God’s Orchid

I’ve been translating Nils Asther’s memoir from Swedish because I apparently have nothing better to do. Catch part one here.

It’s fair to wonder what would have happened to Nils Asther had he not attracted the attention of Mauritz Stiller that evening. The teen had no money, no qualifications, no home to go to, and in his mind at least, no family.

Mauritz Stiller

Stiller was born in Helsinki in 1883, and fled to Sweden to avoid being drafted into Czar Nicholas II’s army. He was a pioneer of silent films, writing and directing more than thirty-five features in his lifetime. The night he laid eyes on Nils, Stiller was eating out with a fellow screenwriter, Sam Ask. Stiller ushered Nils and his companion over to Ask. “Doesn’t this one look like an actor?”

(Nils’ friend was ignored for the rest of the evening. Poor boy, he was lovely, but he had a face like the back of a tram.)

Soon they were joined by a hefty gentleman with thick curly hair. He looked out of place in the noisy eatery, standoffish and over-eager at the same time. This was Hjalmar Bergman, a respected author. Having established himself as highly literary and intellectual, the death of his father brought about huge debt, and Bergman was forced to write more crowd-pleasing works. This required research, such as drinking, snorting cocaine, and fraternising with gorgeous young men.

Tonight was Bergman’s lucky night.

“He looked at me as if I were an angel fallen from the skies,” Nils wrote. “It took a while before he sobered up. He asked me my name and what I did. I told him that I was kicked out of my adoptive parents’ house and from the Spyken school in Lund. Now I had decided to become an artist. Hjalmar Bergman reacted negatively. Not many artists could live on their jobs. Such fancies! Movie actors made big money. I was assured that all the artist dreams would be beaten out of my mind.”

Hjalmar Bergman

Debt be damned, Bergman was besotted. He rented an apartment for Nils, with a little kitchenette and a big bed with red curtains. Unaccustomed to older men being kind to him, Nils wondered if Bergman was his true father. When he asked him this, the writer became tearful. He only wished it were so! Trying to shrug off the emotion, he said if he were Nils’ father, he would pack him off back to school – even if he had to bribe the teachers to put up with him. From now, on Nils would be Bergman’s ‘foster son’, along with a young German lad who was coincidentally also an actor, gorgeous, and like to do uppers on trains. Bergman had a type.

Nils at 22-years-old, by Einar Jolin, 1918.

Bergman isn’t widely known outside of Sweden, but in 1919 he published a drama based on his relationship with Nils: God’s Orchid. In it, an oafish father watches his beautiful son grow up and wonders how anything so perfect could have been created by him. The boy is compared to Christ, but he’s full of guile, always with his eye on the next opportunity to escape his low upbringing. They bicker and make up and bicker again, with the father’s obsessive love always verging on something more unhealthy.

In Bergman’s letters, he says of Nils, “It’s not his fault he’s a degenerate, nor mine”. But they encouraged each other. Nils doesn’t talk about cocaine in his memoirs, but Bergman joked that if he ever wanted anyone killed, he’d just send them out to party with his foster son.

After drinks, Bergman sometimes liked to arrange Nils where he could sit and stare at him, which isn’t at all skin-crawlingly weird. “You are Jesus to me,” he said on one such occasion. “I will love you as long as I live.” He dared to kiss his cheek. Another time, he gifted his ‘foster son’ with a copy of Death In Venice, which is a bit like handing someone a neon sign blinking “RUN AWAY”.

Aschenbach Off, Hjalmar

But Nils had nothing to run away to. His behaviour seems deliberately coquettish – at one point, he describes undressing in front of Bergman before inviting him to stay over. He always protested their relationship was never more than platonic. “He never tried to rape me,” he wrote, nevertheless describing all the awkward caressing as if that’s just what writers are like. It seems his need for a father figure meant he was willing to put up with almost anything.

Strange men started coming up to the apartment, seeking Nils’ company. That some of these men were publishing professionals makes me suspect Bergman deliberately fed rumours that he was getting more for his money than he really was. Everyone knew what was going on. Or thought they did. The artist Nils von Dardel teased Asther about it. “I know very well Bergman likes you, the pederast.”

Mauritz Stiller paid close attention. In 1916, he got Nils into the Royal Dramatic Theatre for tuition. “Try not to get expelled,” he said. Next came a film role, in Stiller’s The Wings. It’s a strangely post-modern piece, a film within a film, and you can see what remains of it here.

The Wings was a film about gay desire. At 19, Nils was too young for the lead, but Stiller couldn’t resist writing him a part to keep him close.

“He opened me to the art of loving and enjoying my own sex,” Nils wrote. Again, their relationship was one of power imbalance. Stiller was liable to fly into rages if his demands were not instantly obeyed. “The man had a demonic power over us actors. If he said that we must obtain and drink a teaspoon of piss every day […] I assure you that we would have done it.”

But threats and tantrums were nothing new to Nils. He was getting small film and stage roles, and as soon as he had enough money, he could quit and become the artist he longed to be. Acting was like worshipping a monstrous pagan god, he thought. Fame and decadence were fun, but he was astute enough to see they wouldn’t lead to happiness.

Speaking of unhappiness, Hjalmar Bergman’s wife was less than pleased with her husband’s obsession with this wayward boy. To comfort her, he suggested they have a baby. Isn’t that nice? But Nils had to be the father. Hjalmar only wanted a pretty baby.

Her reaction? “Get some class, deadbeat!” and a slap in the face. Not for Hjalmar. For Nils. Which seems slightly unfair.

Drug use and hectic living eventually killed Bergman. But jealousy put pay to his relationship with Nils, at least in Bergman’s eyes.

A Love Triangle Pyramid Dodecahedron

Lindberg,_Augusta_-_porträtt_-_Foto_Ferd_Flodin_Stockholm_1906-05-29_-_AF

Augusta Lindberg in 1906

Augusta Lindberg was Bergman’s mother-in-law. She was in her fifties when she first encountered Nils. As a veteran actor and mother of the director Per Lindberg, Bergman and Stiller thought she was a suitable mentor for their new discovery.

Sigh.

He was deposited in front of her with the script for Ibsen’s Ghosts. The play is a typically Norwegian nightmare about syphilis and incest, but Nils flipped through it and remarked Ibsen could have had the decency to throw some actual ghosts in. Like, yawn, am I right?

Augusta was tickled. Surprise-surprise, their weekly private acting classes didn’t involve much acting. Augusta had a taste for exhibitionism. A neighbour complained she had to pour herself a large brandy whenever Nils showed up at the door. At a party, Augusta decided to show Bergman he didn’t own Nils by dragging him into an adjacent room. Nevertheless, Augusta saw the wounded child in Nils and could always sense his anxiety. She mothered him, made sure he ate properly, and helped to keep him in school despite the cocaine and the all-night adventures with Bergman.

Nils saw all this in his unique and adorable fashion: “It has been claimed that there was a tug of war between him and his mother, Augusta Lindberg, and that she emerged victorious. It’s not true. He was merely amused to hear me talk about our games.”

Amused, devastated? One of those.

“Hello. I have an opening for a Tuesday afternoon girlfriend.” Solen Der Dræbte, 1918

Stiller also had opinions on Nils’ love life. As well as Augusta Lindberg, there were the actresses Linde Klinckowström and Lutzy Doraine, another fellow student, and a set of twins he could just about tell apart. Over dinner one night, Nils confided in Stiller that he was worried one of the twins might be pregnant. Stiller went ballistic.

“You fucking idiot. Is it not enough that you’re riding that hag Augusta?”

No one would ever buy into a movie star who was saddled with a wife and kids. Was that what he wanted? To be domesticated? If he went ahead with these relationships, Stiller would dump him completely. Worse still, Bergman was withdrawing his affection. It came as no surprise when Nils had a breakdown.

The Real Reason Visiting Hours Are Restricted

“I was an ambitious hunchback not worthy of anyone’s love. No one has ever loved me, and it’s certainly my hideous failure. Why was I such a vindictive and obnoxious person? Was it perhaps my hideous childhood filled with hymns, beating and screams that characterised me?”

Woe is me

Woe is me, Himmelskibet, 1918.

Nils retreated to a sanatorium at Saltsjöbaden where he was the youngest by about seventy years. Whether he was off the magic fairy dust at this time was unclear, but he still managed to make another of his trademark disastrous decisions by having a girlfriend over to visit. They conceived a child on the ward.

She miscarried, much to their mutual relief, and they celebrated… by getting pregnant again. They fell out and she went to Switzerland to give birth alone. If he was remotely interested in his child, he doesn’t let on.

If you’re thinking it’s about time his mother gets involved, you’d be right. He arranged to meet with Hilda Asther for the first time since running away. The poor woman looked broken. Anton had set up with another lady and was raising a new family. Nils urged Hilda to divorce him, and promised to support her for the rest of her days. To prove it, he handed her a wad of banknotes. Probably Hjalmar Bergman’s banknotes, but the sentiment was sound. He still couldn’t bring himself to ask her about his adoption. In his mind, she was his foster mother, and she loved him in a distant way that was the best he could hope for. With all his relationships, Nils seemed to have seen himself as someone merely passing through. He never imagined anyone could truly become attached to him.

But where could Hilda go? The Asther house in Malmö wasn’t hers. And Nils surely couldn’t put her up in his sugar daddy’s apartment.

Nils knew just the place.

[Cut to the freshly-divorced Hilda Asther setting up home with Augusta Lindberg.]

Okay…?


TBC.

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The Fool’s Way

I translated Nils Asther’s autobiography from Swedish so you don’t have to.

IMG_0738Why, Verity? Why?

Because I love a gorgeous tragic dead boy, and people who’ve read it say it’s a car crash from start to finish.

How?

I can’t read Swedish. But I downloaded a translation app and know a couple of Swedes who helped me when Swedish idioms came out garbled and hilarious. The majority of the book was perfectly readable, even when I needed to make some leaps of logic to complete sentences.

And yes, it’s a scream from beginning to end.

Who?

Nils Asther is probably best known for his titular role in Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen. He had a long career, stretching from the First World War up to the 1960s, though his talent was mainly wasted on flimsy romantic roles. “I quit because I couldn’t stand making those ‘pretty boys’ films in uniform any more,” as he put it. His Swedish accent made him difficult to cast when the talkies came along, but his unusual beauty meant he stayed in demand for a long time, despite his open disdain for the film industry. Women were wild about him. Men, too. One male fan left the actor a fabulously expensive ring in his Will, a posthumous declaration of desire.

Annex - Asther, Nils_02

I mean, it’s little wonder.

Hollywood marketed Nils as a mysterious Scandinavian, an intellectual, an adventurer, and friend of Lenin for some reason. But in his memoirs, Narrens Väg (meaning ‘The Fool’s Way’), Nils looks back at the truth of his life (and I’m using ‘truth’ very loosely here) with bitterness, hilarity, and a ridiculously long list of lovers. How he found time for filming is beyond me.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun for other silent film fans if I summarised the fun bits in English.

Strap In, This Is Going To Get Bumpy

IMG_0736Once upon a time in Denmark, on a cold and dreary day in 1897, a boy was born to parents unknown. He spent his first few months in a notorious orphanage until he was adopted by a beautiful Swedish lady and her evil husband who took him home to their big house in Malmö.

Or not. Once upon a time, a boy was born to Hilda and Anton, Swedish lovers who coincidentally despised each other. To save shame, Hilda gave birth in Denmark and left her son in an orphanage temporarily to give her and Anton time to arrange a ‘colossal’ wedding that neither of them wanted.

They didn’t tell their son any of this. That would have taken the fun out of the next eighty years.

Despite his timid, bookish demeanour, little Nils was branded The Bad Child from the start. His half brother, Gunnar, was favoured in all things, and Nils and Hilda were largely left to their own devices, eating alone, vacationing alone, and trying to smile when Anton’s business partners came over, boasting about their money and their mistresses.

It seems everyone knew Nils’ shameful origins except him. The parish priest harboured a special dislike for the boy, making Sundays an ordeal he would later turn into gruesome art. (I’ll be sharing this painting later. It’s… something.)

Anton and Hilda’s marriage was poison. Neighbours whispered about the couple’s wedding night, when Hilda was seen trying to hurl herself out of a window. Relatives were concerned when she named her baby boy after her brother who brought shame on the family for sleeping with a maid. Hilda’s father beat the teen so badly – in front of the other children – he later killed himself.

So far, so horrifying.

Nils recounts his early memories like a series of battles. As a small boy, he walked in on his father violently assaulting his mother. She proceeded to use Nils as a human shield, which cemented in Anton’s paranoid brain that his wife and youngest son were in cahoots against him. Another night, Nils and Hilda barricaded themselves into a bedroom while Anton beat on the door with a gun.

It sounds like a melodrama from the silent films. And yes, Nils is probably embellishing. But decades before writing his memoirs, Nils gave interviews in Hollywood, telling of how his main memories of Sweden were his mother crying alone in large rooms, and of being stunned when strangers treated them with kindness. The little details, like hardly daring to breathe, ring true for survivors of abuse. After leaving Sweden, Nils never spoke to his father or half-brother again.

nils

The domestic power-balance changed when Nils hit his teens. He shot past six foot, way above his father, and the physical difference made him realise he wouldn’t always be under Anton’s tyranny. Hollywood would later work hard to promote the shy, romantic teenage Nils over the real one who was breaking windows and discovering boys.

Expulsion Number One – The Pekinese

We all had that one teacher we wanted to murder. For Nils, this was The Pekinese, a history teacher nicknamed for his unfortunate face and love of ‘biting’ boys with his cane. Nils liked the concept of history, but couldn’t absorb the names-and-dates nuts and bolts. It didn’t matter how hard Nils worked, The Pekinese just wouldn’t give him a break. His feelings for his teacher festered away along with the helplessness and frustration of his home life, evolving into a slightly manic hatred that would rear up again and again in later life.

One day in class, Nils was caught playing with a knife. That wasn’t a problem – all boys had knives – but he was using his to carve a willy into his desk. Inspecting the damage, The Pekinese discovered Nils’ cartoons – which, admittedly, were quite good – all depicting the teacher as an angry lapdog.

He was up against the board with his pants down in no time. The Pekinese got out his cane and delivered several sharp whacks. Refusing to show any pain, Nils waited until the final blow, peeped over his shoulder and said, with a smile: “Was that nice?”

The boys howled with laughter. Nils was mad with adrenaline. When this got back to Anton, he might actually die of rage. However, the headmaster showed an annoying amount of leniency. You’re a smart boy, usually so well-behaved, you’re about to begin your leaving exams, etc, etc. He didn’t want to suspend him for something so silly as graffiti and cheek.

So Nils sawed two legs off The Pekinese’s chair and gave him concussion, just to make sure.

nils asther great dane

 

Expulsion Number Two – This Time, It’s Musical

When the yelling died down, Nils was sent away to the Spyken school in Lund. The school still exists, and is probably lovely, but in the early 1900s, it was where rich men sent their terrible children when no one else would put up with them.

Things went well for a while. Then a new PE teacher turned up, a short man with a chinstrap beard and dandy pretentions. That manic hatred boiled up again. Poor guy was doomed.

The PE room was in the basement, and the boys had to file down a flight of stairs to get there. There was plenty of larking about on the way, so Mr Chinstrap told them all to shut up and get in line. Nils decided it would be more fun to boot him down the stairs.

While the teacher lay clutching his broken ribs, Nils stood at the top of the stairs singing ‘Liten Karin’, a cheery Swedish folk song about a king who puts a maid into a barrel full of spikes and rolls her around until she dies.

Eesh.

Have A Screaming Match With Your Vicar In The Gym, Why Not

When you have a demon child on the premises, the only option is to call a priest.

Anton Asther stormed into the school, “roaring like a lion”. The headmaster called Nils’ childhood parish priest, the one who thought he was the physical manifestation of sin, and although the cleric’s presence stopped Anton from murdering his son, it was a life-changingly bad idea.

Most of Nil Asther’s memoir is about life-changingly bad ideas, honestly.

So they’re locked in a room together, just yelling at each other. Father Soandso attempted reason; words to the effect of “Why did you break your teacher’s bones again, you utter lunatic?” Nils stuck to his guns with “You lie, priest bastard!”, which is a great response to just about anything. This went back and forth until the priest gave up any pretence of Christian compassion or priestly discretion:

“How I wish my friend Anton had never let that woman persuade him into adopting you. We have reason to believe that you are the son of a whore and an adulterer in Copenhagen.”

Oh.

Now, if you’d just been told you were adopted, wouldn’t you go to your parents and maybe… ask them?

Or would you rather burst out of the room, grab your things and get the train to Stockholm without saying a word to anyone?

IMG_0735That’s the spirit!

There was a little bit of reasoning behind this move. Not much. But a bit. To summarise:

I am not related to awful Anton.
I am also not related to my beautiful, sad mother.
But she probably doesn’t love me either.
So I’m going to become an artist.
Anton will hate that.

This all turned out to be another life-changingly bad idea.

What do artists do all day? Well, they hang around in cafes looking interesting. In Stockholm, Nils found a floor to sleep on and an old school friend to hang out with. The pair became a regular fixture in the murkier end of Stockholm nightlife. One evening, going out to eat, the teenagers were approached by man with gigantic hands and even bigger feet. The boys must join him for dinner, he said, definitely not leering. Had Nils ever thought about acting? Did he like films?

Nils had never seen a film. He certainly didn’t know he was talking to Mauritz Stiller, the man who discovered Greta Garbo. According to Anton Asther, actors were degenerate idiots who disgraced their families and died penniless.

So yes. Yes, he was interested…

TBC. Read part II here.

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Pre-Raphs in Space

I’m surfacing for a brief moment as I haven’t blogged properly for yonks, and with Pseudotooth coming out next month I need to make it look like I’m alive.

Those who know me are well aware of my weakness for Beautiful Tragic Dead Boys. This means I frequently get gifts of antique photographs to hang on my wall where I can imagine the anonymous subjects were thwarted poets who died at sea. We all have our preferences.

Rejoice: I have a new Beautiful Tragic Dead Boy. Nils Asther was beamed down to earth in 1897 by the same aliens who gave us David Bowie. He grabbed my attention a few weeks ago for being the dead spit of my Az from Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs. I had in mind an androgynous silent film star look for Az, and Nils’ dark, unearthly prettiness, though rather too tall, is precisely how Az materialised in my head, stealing my silverware and hijacking the neighbours’ wifi.


Thank you, Outer Space, for loaning us your bisexual cheekbony creatures.

So I’ve been watching as many Asther films as I can find. Mostly, he was the romantic bad boy, which he hated, but there are a few surprising films. Himmelskibet (A Trip To Mars) featuring a twenty-one-year-old, rather skinny Nils as a citizen of Mars, which is probably where he came from in the first place. While lacking the whimsy of Georges Méliès’ 1902 A Trip To The MoonA Trip To Mars – made in 1918 – has a certain Pre-Raphaelite flavour that caught my eye.

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As unlikely as it may seem, the Pre-Raphaelite link to sci-fi is something that keeps popping up. (See the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood post on Princess Leia for some hair-talk.) Although the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were, by definition, interested in the naturalistic style of art before Raphael, they still interacted with the issues of their own Victorian age through a lens of medievalism and myth. Science, okay, not so much – Rossetti, famously, had no idea if the sun revolved around the Earth or vice versa, and argued it was unimportant anyway – but later disciples of the PRB did dip their toes into the world of modern technology. This 1910 Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale painting of an angel guarding a biplane has always fascinated me…

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The celestial meets the mechanical.


There’s something odd about watching a film about space exploration made during the First World War. And there’s a yearning quality to A Trip To Mars. While the Earth is tearing itself apart, Mars turns out to be populated by peace-loving vegetarians. We get to watch a rocket full of uniformed Earthmen barging onto the peaceful planet where everyone floats around like Grecian deities. It’s as if Man has found Eden again, and another way to ruin it all.

Are the Earthmen ready for the Martians’ message of peace and love, or will they give in to the temptation to hurl grenades for no good reason? Here’s their chance to go back in time and halt things before they go wrong – something the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were deeply concerned with.

Here are a few of my favourite rather Pre-Raphaelite moments. You can watch the whole film here.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast Denies Him Her Salutation

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Frank Dicksee – La Belle Dame Sans Merci

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William Holman Hunt – Rienzi Vowing To Obtain Justice

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John Everett Millais: The Black Brunswicker.

John Everett Millais – The Black Brunswicker.

And finally, a spaceship decked in flowers. Just because.

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Wunderkammer: Heinous and Unnatural

the-witch-poster-e1440010251515If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I’ve been excited about The Witch for weeks, and finally got to see it on Saturday. I loved it – loved it in a slightly manic, unreserved way, grinning in the dark for two hours despite the man behind me getting vocally upset because a film marketed as being disturbing turned out to disturb him.

In summary: Puritans are awful, New England is awful, children are awful, that man sitting behind me who thought he’d come to see a Pixar film is awful… but goats just want to have fun.

witchesbabiesAmid all the jolly goat-related devastation, some scenes reminded me of certain folk tales and cases of bizarre phenomenon I’ve taken to my heart over the years. In the spirit of Folklore Thursday, gather round and clutch your protective sprig of rosemary…

I Saw Sister Procter Canoodling With The Devil

There have been cases of mass hysteria throughout history in all sorts of cultures and scenarios. Especially potent in close-knit communities like boarding schools, mild cases of mass hysteria can lead multiple individuals to laugh unstoppably, faint, contract an imaginary virus, or become convinced of a conspiracy. When the paranormal becomes involved, as the Salem witch trials show, things get rather more interesting.

One case in 1491 saw a nunnery in the Spanish Netherlands overrun with ‘possessed’ nuns. The sisters ran around like dogs, jumped out of trees pretending to be birds, and clawed tree trunks, miaowing. (Did the cat-nuns chase the bird-nuns, I wonder?) Devilish familiars were blamed, and over the following centuries, dozens of similar mass hysterias cropped up in convents all over Europe. Screaming, convulsing, foaming at the mouth, nuns would confess to carnal relations with devils and attempt to seduce those sent to exorcise them. For a bored nun who fancied her priest, succumbing to hysterics probably looked quite appealing. Or perhaps demons, like poltergeists, work best amongst stifled young women.

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Your Honour, I Put It To You That Donkey Is Evil

As every good churchgoing medieval serf knew, Jesus drove a pack of demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs. The pigs subsequently hurled themselves into a river to drown. So it’s understandable, then, that animals were sometimes suspected by early modern humans of being up to something wicked. A Swiss cockerel in 1474 was burned at the stake for committing the “heinous and unnatural crime” of laying an egg. Such a disruption to the natural order had to mean Lucifer was playing tricks through the medium of breakfast food.

Animal trials sometimes involved actual courts, judges, and juries. In 1750, a donkey caught in the act of copulation with her human master was found innocent by the townspeople because she was “in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature”. The man was executed. In the French town of Savigny in 1457, a sow was put on trial for trampling a child to death. The sow was hanged from the same gallows tree as the town’s human criminals, but her piglets were exonerated due to lack of evidence.

Questions of free will clashed with theology in these animal trials – were animals empty vessels capable of being controlled by devils, or were they creatures with as much  character and virtue as a man?

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They Came From The Forest

Woolpit (meaning ‘the pit of wolves’) is a nice little village in Suffolk where I used to spend weekends with my aunt. She had a twelfth century house there with witch marks on the ceilings – long ladders and ave marias traced in tallow smoke. If you’ve driven through Woolpit, you’ll have noticed the peculiar village sign depicting one of the wolves the village is named for alongside two children, hand in hand, painted green.

Around the time my aunt’s house was built, a boy and a girl emerged from the woods. They spoke an unknown language, and both had green skin. The children would only eat beans, and the boy soon died. When the girl was taught enough English to communicate, she claimed to be from a world of eternal twilight called The Land of Saint Martin. They were wandering through a cave, she said, when they blundered into horrid daylight and were discovered by a gang of Woolpit reapers. They did not know how to get home.

The girl took the name Agnes, married, and lived a relatively normal life, eventually losing her green colouring. Various theories abound – that the children’s greenness was caused by Hypochromic Anemia, that aliens had landed, or that they were indeed faerie children from a sunless world.

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Bugganes and Breeches

While faeries have it in them to be friendly on occasion, goblins err on the side of goatish bloody-mindedness. The Buggane, in particular, embodies this attitude. These pre-Christian goblins were known to set up camp in old chapels to prevent parishioners preparing leaky roofs and dangerous staircases. Able to change shape at will, Bugganes favoured the form of monstrously large black rams; the horns enabled them to actively rip down roofs so congregations were rained on during services.

One Buggane did just that when monks failed to ask permission of the faeries before building their church at the foot of Greeba Mountain on the Isle of Man. No matter how many times the roof was repaired, something gigantic would tear it off again, and soon no one dared worship there.

The destruction prompted a local tailor to make a bet that he could stay in the goblin-infested chapel long enough to make a pair of breeches. At midnight, the Buggane tired of the tailor’s company and appeared in its horned form, ready to give him its customary gigantic demonic ram welcome. The tailor was quick, however, and when the Buggane realised it couldn’t catch him, it ripped off its own head and flung it at him. As you do.

The chapel – St Trinian’s – remains a roofless ruin to this day. And horned farmyard animals remain peaceable and cuddly and only casually acquainted with Lucifer.

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“For children… perhaps.”

This post is brought to you by a cocktail of painkillers, hypnotics, and anxiolytics, administered by a lovely NHS anaesthetist whose name I can’t remember – only the sight of her leaning over me with a smile: “You’re going to forget my name.”

Just some routine Marfans stuff. But two days later, I’m still swimming through dreams. I like to think the lingering hypnotics are giving me the authentic Rossetti experience, minus the raccoon hiding in the wardrobe. And the genius.

Hanging onto the tail of this wooziness, I want to talk about childhood, but also about Jan Švankmajer’s gorgeously surreal 1988 film, Alice: “A film for children… perhaps.”

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Years ago, a counsellor complimented my socks. They were pale blue and white striped, up to the knee, and they were perfect, she said, “because you’re Alice in Wonderland.”

This probably wasn’t wise of her.

Like a lot of only children travelling with military parents, I was prone to dissociation. That’s the psychology term for intense daydreaming. And I mean intense – to the point that reality was almost entirely blocked out for the majority of every waking day. Mostly, it was paradise, but there were snags. Teachers found they had to full-on yell to catch my attention. I once kicked a cannonball-sized hole through a porter cabin wall without noticing.

Dissociation is a creative coping mechanism for when life is unstable or lonely. It’s very much like the intravenous sedative experience – a protective measure that picks you up and whisks you away. Eventually, children who habitually dissociate grow up to remember more about their dream worlds than the reality of the past. Some of them become writers. Ahem.

Onto Alice. As a chronically fantastical child, I was rankled by the Disney version of Alice In Wonderland. It was all so very pastel, so very clean. Nothing pristine, I knew, could ever be magical. Childhood is frightening, and nonsensical, and inappropriately hilarious – much like the original Wonderland tales.

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Children inhabit another planet. Lewis Carol knew that.

So on the other hand, you have Jan Švankmajer’s Alice. A film for children… but probably not for parents. The White Rabbit is taxidermy, leaking sawdust. Socks have teeth and the jam is full of drawing pins. Wonderland itself is a wreck of broken china and splinters, pickled specimens, potted tongue (prone to slithering), and other Victorian relics. Alice – the only living person in the film – has a way of turning into a decidedly spooky china doll and back again, tearing off the chrysalis of painted skin and making a run for it. Like the doll, her facial expression never changes. She never smiles or frowns. Those are things you do for others, and this Alice is content to be alone with her imagination.

Drowsy and doped as I am, it strikes me how strangely authentic Švankmajer’s vision of childhood imagination was.

In 1989, the year after Švankmajer released Alice, I was three. The Navy posted Dad to Scotland, and we ended up living on a dismal estate near a submarine base. Someone had spray-painted a peace symbol on the garden fence for our arrival. I wasn’t ready for school, and we never stayed anywhere long enough to make friends. I think I tried, on a few sparse occasions, but it was so much effort for so little return when inside was infinitely better than outside.

Perhaps it was the jerky stop-motion animation, or the twisted quality – lurking on the indistinct border between dreams and nightmares – but watching Švankmajer’s Alice for the first time a few weeks ago, I began to spontaneously remember scraps of day-to-day surrealism from that time in Scotland.

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Someone – I forget who – told me bubbles were living things, and that when you popped them, they died.

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There was a nearby play park where a boy knocked himself out trying to make the swings turn full circle. I saw his body in a red tracksuit, face down on the ground. ‘Cracked his head open’, I thought for years, was literal. Bash the hinge hard enough and the skull pops open like a spring-loaded box.

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That play park was an island of concrete amongst hillocks of unkempt greenery. One day, some other children took my doll, so I wandered off to where you could see the Forth Rail Bridge, muddy-bloody coloured, in the distance. Over a hill, I found the skull of a ram, picked clean. The coiled horns looked like the fossils in my dinosaur books. I can’t recall the doll.

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From the spare bedroom, if the light was good (by Scottish standards), you could see dark cylinders moving slowly through the cold seawater. I’ve never grown out of the fear of submarines, but the house held hidden dangers of its own. I was playing in the garden. Making a pile of gravel. The house had been arsoned before we moved in, so the gutters full of gravel also contained all the glass from the shattered windows. Not that I noticed. I was grabbing handfuls, piling it up, until I registered I was bleeding from dozens of tiny cuts. I took myself up to my parents’ bedroom and triumphantly held out my hands to them. It didn’t hurt.

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A fisherman on a jetty shouted at me for dropping a stone in the sea and disturbing the fish.

“I want to cut him in half,” I said, and I can still clearly see the satisfying image in my mind, of a man sliced in two like a pink salmon.

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Sugar, spice, and murder fantasies. There’s a whimsical grotesquery to childhood I think we’re programmed to erase. Perhaps it’s only free to come out when we’ve been dosed up by friendly anaesthetists without names.

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Review: Horsehead

nightmare I used to be able to dream lucidly. It took practise. I had a notebook covered in Chinese silk that I kept beside my bed. Whenever I woke from a dream, I’d turn on the light and immediately write every detail down. After several weeks of this, I was an active player in my subconscious world. I could choose where to walk, what to look at, when to fight and when to run away. I wouldn’t call it fun – to be inside and outside one’s body simultaneously – but it made me aware that the world of dreams is as real and as valid as the waking one. You can find answers there that you can’t in daylight.

That’s the premise of Horsehead, a 2014 horror film directed by Romaine Basset. Jessica, a young woman studying the psychology of dreams, travels to her mother’s home in France for the funeral of the grandmother she never really knew. Relations with her mother aren’t any better, and when Jessica goes down the with flu, dreams are her only escape from their bickering. The fever, coupled with the bottle of ether she keeps sniffing, makes for some horrifying dreams, and she is quickly confronted by a horse-headed priest-beast called The Cardinal. When it emerges that her grandmother committed suicide, Jessica must follow her spirit deep into the subconscious mind to discover the secret The Cardinal is guarding with his scythe.

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Firstly, this film pushes all my aesthetic buttons. Everyone will recognise the Fuseli Nightmare painting above, and most scenes are shot in that kind of amniotic red darkness suggestive of opiates and deviance. It’s all very consciously Angela Carter-esque, with shades of The Company of Wolves in the costumes and the inventive gore. (Mild spoiler: it’s not a gory film, per say, but if pregnancy-related violence is too much for you, you might want to give Horsehead a miss.) Jessica’s mother lives in the kind of pretty, cobbled French village no normal human being could ever afford a house in, but by night it descends into medieval darkness. The quaint, winding streets take on a haunted quality as Jessica roams them in her penitent robes and Riding Hood cape.

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There’s a constant sense of unreality which might annoy some viewers. Everyone speaks in an overly-deliberate way, even when Jessica is awake. George, the baritone caretaker, verges on something from The Dark Crystal, though the echoing industrial soundtrack (free of jump scares) keeps the film from becoming ridiculous. I liked that about Horsehead. If you’re going to have a literal horse-headed monster lumbering about, unreality is something you need to embrace with enthusiasm. Though the family do keep the dead grandmother upstairs for an awfully long time.

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If you enjoy visually-striking, thought-provoking horror or fantasy, you’ll likely love Horsehead. If you prefer quests and defeatable demons, however, there’s likely more reading between lines than you’ll have patience for. Horsehead belongs thoroughly in the realms of the subconscious.

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Review: The Man Whose Mind Exploded

“I just want them to take you seriously.”
“Is that possible?”

drako2Drako Oho Zarhazar had seven lives. Having survived two nervous breakdowns, two suicide attempts, and two comas, he was left with a brain so damaged it could no longer record new memories.

In his second coma, he experienced enlightenment in the form of a voice telling him:

TRUST
ABSOLUTE
UNCONDITIONAL

The words were tattooed on his body, along with tribal mandalas and what appears to an enormous celestial ram doing the splits. Born in 1936, Drako lived his last years in a council flat in Brighton where he was a familiar character, sweeping around town in a cape, telling ladies at the bus stop how he was once Salvador Dali’s angel and supplied The Rolling Stones with weed. The aristocratic RP and circus strongman panache might lead you to assume this was a deluded poseur – it’s Brighton, after all – but in Drako’s case, it’s all true.

drako Toby Amies’ The Man Whose Mind Exploded peeks in on the life of this magnificently peculiar man, his wild past, and surreal, sad twilight years. Drako lived alone, experiencing each day afresh. “Do you remember me?” the filmmaker repeatedly asks. “Not especially, no.” But he was, as he put it, happy to be used. Drako was nothing if not an exhibitionist. Which perhaps you can tell at a glance.

Amies spent four years getting to know Drako, in the disjointed, repetitive way brain damage requires. The distance a filmmaker is meant to keep from his subject is breached from the start, giving the film an intimate edge which makes for high emotional impact. Amies was practically Drako’s carer, urging him – and sometimes pleading him – to take more care while candles burned amongst his toppling stacks of art and scribblings. It was an inferno waiting to happen, but Drako liked it that way.

Tout_Love_hands_tattoo-814x545“I love it all,” he would say, again and again. “The theatre of life.”

This is no pity party, nor would Drako want it to be. He laughed often, spicing up his musings on art and faith with seemingly random instances of surreal filth, simply because he liked it. It’s kind of endearing, once you get used to all the phalluses hanging from his ceiling.

(And there are a lot of phalluses. Just… flocks of cocks. Wow.)

It’s impossible not to love Drako. For all his kinks and his squalor, by the end of the documentary, you hope there will always be people like him, baffling bystanders. Drako was affectionate and friendly and maddeningly stubborn. He lived in the moment, and entirely in his own style. “I love it all.”

Low budget, tender-hearted, and hilarious, The Man Whose Mind Exploded will appeal to fans of Grey Gardens and Marwencol. It’s available to download from iTunes.

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Wunderkammer: The Street of Crocodiles

It’s hard to separate the writing and art of Bruno Schulz from the tragedies of his life and death. Schulz’ peculiar inner world was shaped by the traumas of WW1, the death of his father, and an almost pathological solitude that cut him off even from his fellow Jews in the ghetto. In the wake of his death at the hands of a Nazi officer in 1942, many of his drawings and his final literary work, The Messiah, were lost forever. Under cover of darkness, a friend carried his body from where it lay in the street to a nearby Jewish cemetery. No trace of his grave site remains.

brunoshultzI first became aware of Schulz through the Brothers Quay 1986 film of his short story collection, The Street of Crocodiles. Terry Gilliam called it one of the most beautiful films ever made, and he’s not wrong. The stuttering dolls and the clash of rusty machinery alongside throbbing organic matter stay with you long after the twenty minute film is over.

I only read the book recently, needing something brief after a massive Donna Tartt blowout. The Street of Crocodiles bears little literal resemblance to the film, but thrums with the same unsettling energy. Beginning in a stiflingly hot day in the Polish city of Drogobych where Schulz lived and died, the reader is introduced to the strange inhabitants of the city, wheeling about like beetles on the baking pavement. Then come the even more disconcerting denizens of the family home. A shy, thin young man, Schulz inserts himself as an unobtrusive narrator, watching the strange comings and goings of his family with little concern for the creeping madness of his father and the violence of the strangely powerful servant Adela.

Schulz is most commonly lumped in with Kafka and Proust. Having only read Crocodiles so far, he reminds me most of magical realists like Angela Carter and Mikhail Bulgakov; more introverted, like a quiet cousin of theirs, but just as poetic and hilarious.

With Schulz, everyday sights are loaded with meaningful life. The landscape he traipses each day with his mother becomes a character in itself, as much as any family member: “And over the fence the sheepskin of grass lifted in a hump, as if the garden had turned over in its sleep, its broad peasant back rising and falling as it breathed on the stillness of the earth.” His disturbed father shares this odd sensitivity, adopting tailors’ dummies and treating them as beings capable of pain: “Who dares to think that you can play with matter, that you can shape it for a joke, that the joke will not be built in, will to eat into it like fate, like destiny?”

Bruno_SchulzHe is sensitive without being sentimental, as if conscious that the rules of his world are not the same as his neighbours:

“In a way, these ‘stories’ are true; they represent my style of living, my particular lot. The dominant feature of that lot is profound solitude, a withdrawal from the cares of daily life. Solitude is the catalyst that brings reality to fermentation, to the precipitating out of figures and colours.”

Reality goes in. Imagination – distilled – comes out.

Schulz’ drawings remind me of those of his contemporary Mervyn Peake – probably the reason I warmed to him so quickly. Schulz’ hollow-cheeked Jews wouldn’t be out of place in The Hall of Bright Carvings; Peake’s Mister Flay would be quite at home in The Book of Idolatry. Sideways black comedy came naturally to them both, although it’s impossible to look at them side-by-side without the sad realisation that Peake documented the atrocities of the Holocaust as an official war artist while Schulz – and so much of his surreal, beautiful work – did not survive it.

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