Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Disciplined Decadence

What fascinates me in the prose of Robert Murray Gilchrist is a quality that I can also find in Clark Ashton Smith and in Ronald Firbank, but rarely elsewhere: disciplined decadence.

The writing has none of the crazed fireworks and cake frosting that we find in M. P. Shiel, none of the languor that weighs down Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde (but only sometimes in the case of Wilde, who could write with a lean style when he chose to).

It has a lightness, a bounce:

"The striking of a tall clock near the hearth awakened me: I had slept till midnight. The candles had been removed from the table to the piano; those in the girandole had guttered out or been extinguished. A young man sat at the piano on the embroidered stool. His back was towards me; I saw nothing but high, narrow shoulders and a dome-shaped head of dishevelled black-hair plentifully besprinkled with grey. From the road outside came a noise of horses whinnying and plunging. I looked out, and there was a lumbering coach drawn by four stallions which, black in daylight, shone now like burnished steel.

"The would-be musician turned and showed me a long painful face with glistening eyes and a brow ridged upward like a ruined stair. It was a face of intense eagerness: the eagerness of a man experimenting and praying for a result whereon his life depends. Without any prelude he played a dance of ghosts in an old ball-room: ghosts of men and women that moved in lavoltas and sarabands; ghosts that laughed at Susanna in the tapestry; ghosts that loved and hated. When the last chord had sent them crowding to their graves he turned and listened for a footstep. None came. He lifted a leather case from the side of the stool and, unfastening its clasps, took out a necklace which glistened in the candlelight like a fairy shower of rain and snow. 'Twas of table diamonds and margarites, the gems as big as filberts. He spread it across the wires, and after an instant’s reflection began to play. The carcanet rattled and jangled as he went: it was as an advancing host of cymbal-women. When he listened again, great tears oozed from his eyes. He took up the jewel and played a melody vapid at first, but so subtle in its repetitions that none might doubt its meaning: thus and not otherwise would sound a lyke-wake sung in a worn voice after a night of singing. And whilst he played, the door opened silently, and I saw Dinah, there in her nightgown, holding the posts with her hands. She took one swift glance, then disappeared again in the darkness, and came back carrying in her arms a bundle swathed in pure linen and strongly redolent of aromatic herbs. Holding this to her breast, she approached the man. Her shadow fell across the keys, and he lifted his head. From both came a long murmur: his of love and joy and protection, hers of agony. He rose and would have clasped her, but she drew back and placed her burden in his outstretched hands."

-- "Dame Inowslad."

Like Clark Ashton Smith, Gilchrist relies on visual details and descriptions that move:

"By now, at the end of a sloping alley, we had reached the shores of a vast marsh. Some unknown quality in the sparkling water had stained its whole bed a bright yellow. Green leaves, of such a sour brightness as almost poisoned to behold, floated on the surface of the rush-girdled pools. Weeds like tempting veils of mossy velvet grew beneath in vivid contrast with the soil. Alders and willows hung over the margin. From where we stood a half-submerged path of rough stones, threaded by deep swift channels, crossed to the very centre. Marina put her foot upon the first step. ‘I must go first,’ she said. ‘Only once before have I gone this way, yet I know its pitfalls better than any living creature.’

"Before I could hinder her she was leaping from stone to stone like a hunted animal. I followed hastily, seeking, but vainly, to lessen the space between us. She was gasping for breath, and her heart-beats sounded like the ticking of a clock. When we reached a great pool, itself almost a lake, that was covered with lavender scum, the path turned abruptly to the right, where stood an isolated grove of wasted elms. As Marina beheld this, her pace slackened, and she paused in momentary indecision; but, at my first word of pleading that she should go no further, she went on, dragging her silken mud-bespattered skirts. We climbed the slippery shores of the island (for island it was, being raised much above the level of the marsh), and Marina led the way over lush grass to an open glade. A great marble tank lay there, supported on two thick pillars. Decayed boughs rested on the crust of stagnancy within, and divers frogs, bloated and almost blue, rolled off at our approach. To the left stood the columns of a temple, a round, domed building, with a closed door of bronze. Wild vines had grown athwart the portal; rank, clinging herbs had sprung from the overteeming soil; astrological figures were enchiselled on the broad stairs.

"Here Marina stopped."

-- "The Basilisk."

As you can see, there is a terseness here that allows Gilchrist to keep his work in motion. This economy gives his terminal paragraphs a punch: without warning, like doors in a windstorm, they slam shut and leave us out in the cold.

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