The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen
Each year, I try to read a "major" book, something that is a challenge either because of its length or its density of prose and ideas. One year was Moby Dick, another Ulysses, a third 1Q84. I had supposed that I would give Swann's Way or Finnegans Wake a swing this year, but alas, I'm just not ready, as this year has already gotten the best of me, and I doubt I will be able to finish either of those and give them the attention they deserve this year. To my surprise, Arthur Machen's The Hill of Dreams fits the bill. It is not a big or thick book, as far as page count, but it is, in every other aspect, a MAJOR work.
Like most major works, plot is secondary to the inner-journey of the protagonist. Take Moby Dick, for example. Plot: Man chases a whale. But it's so much more than that. It's about the people presented, their thoughts, feelings, weaknesses, desires, despairs. We concentrate on what the characters think, feel, and experience. And at this, The Hill of Dreams is nigh unparalleled.
I wondered, as I read, whether or not Machen's account of Lucian Taylor was autobiographical or not. But as I got into Lucian's phantasmal world, I realized that I had been pulled into the novel, that it was autobiographical . . . and it was about me! At least in some small ways, that is. I think it's no accident that I picked this book up, the Library of Wales edition, while in the booktown of Hay-on-Wye in, you guessed it, Wales, maybe an hour north of where Machen was born and a half-hour west of where the author attended boarding school. We were in the heart of "Machen country". Not to mention that (rumor has it that) I have distant relations in that part of Wales. I might should confirm that, but I think I'll leave that mystery untouched. There is something to the fantasy that I'd like to maintain.
More immediately, though, I found myself in Lucian's headspace and thinking "that is how I felt as a young man, much of the time". I would much rather escape into my own imaginary world than having to deal with the banal. I was a smart kid who traveled a lot and really loathed stupidity and provincialism. I've matured since then, but I still have a strong disdain for shallow people and idiocy. Lucian is the same way, even to the point where he rejected human contact in order to pursue his fantastical journey of writing, trying to capture the essence of something he felt as a child, while up in a circle of trees atop a Roman hill fort, an occult experience that haunts him from that time forward, a vision that ultimately leads to his physical ruin, and his spiritual transcendence.
That is the essence of the plot. The narrative uses this as a stepping off point (one thinks of a spirit stepping aside, outside of the body, like an astral traveler) to examine the real focus of the story: Lucian's dedication to his art.
This was, of course, another point of connection. No, I did not abandon all human contact for the sake of writing, but I have spent many long nights alone writing, sometimes long after my wife and kids had gone to sleep, even pushing through the night to finish the work and arriving at work the next day as a shell of myself. I understand that drive and how it can consume you. Lucian's self-exile and denial of all sociability ironically has the seed in it (through his experience) of a great artistic work. By his distancing himself, but observing sociability, without engaging in it, he preserves his time and efforts for his art, while gaining (painful) insight that informs his work. This is, to some extent, the writer's quandary. To be or to write, but one must observe being to write.
The writerly process, with all its frustration and wonder, can only be known by doing, and Machen waxes eloquent (yet simply so) when writing about Lucian's writing. Machen picks at the emotional scabs of the difficulties presented by writing, not by "writer's block" but by the frequently returning dis-satisfaction that inevitably occurs after one has found some success in writing. It's a harrowing place where each writer has to confront their own inadequacies and weaknesses. Writing is, more often than not, painful. But the rewards are exhilarating. It is a kind of drug, so no wonder that writers are notorious for being addicts of one kind or another. That reward-lever is flipped in much the same way during the ecstasy of writing as it is during (an admittedly mild) trip. It's not the exact same feeling (in my own experience), but one is an echo of the other - it's just a question of which way the echo amplifies.
The prose throughout is dreamlike and ethereal. Here, Machen is at the height of his poetic game, at turns subtle and effusive, with pitch-perfect voice and timing. This is one of the most eloquent works I have read in the English language, but languidly so, like a smooth, comfortable opium dream, so natural that you don't know you've been drugged and swept into another world. TIme often stood still while reading this book. And this was Machen's and Lucian's intent: to capture the transcendent possibilities of language, to escape the drab world and drown in the essence of beauty.
To win the secret of words, to make a phrase that would murmur of summer and the bee, to summon the wind into a sentence, to conjure the odour of the night into the surge and fall and harmony of a line; this was the tale of the long evenings, of the candle flame white upon the paper and the eager pen.
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