The Complete Stories by Mary Butts
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Occasionally, very occasionally, one stumbles across a writer whose writing changes one's entire outlook on the act and product of writing itself. There are various degrees of such a revelation, and I've discovered these insights several times. But once in a long while, a very long while, another's writing fundamentally cracks an author's foundation, forcing them to look at their own output with new eyes. It's not just a function of imposter syndrome (believe me, I experienced that when I started graduate school - I still reel a bit from that experience, twenty years gone now), it is a serious reconsideration of the craft of writing, a hard look at the deep structure, the longue durée, if you will, of one's writing history. Mary Butts' The Complete Stories has caused such a paradigm shift in me.
Now, I don't desire to mimic her exquisite work. She has her voice(s) and I have mine. But reading Butts' writing has caused serious self-reflection on the craft of my own writing - not the placement of verbs, the number of adjectives to use, the clever use of a semicolon, but the thought process that comes long before the pen actually bleeds onto the paper and the act of sounding out both the phraseology and subtle meaning of the words chosen. Reading this book is causing me to think much more carefully about my writing. This does not, however, mean that I plan on showing more restraint in my writing (as one book reviewer publicly advised that I do many years ago . . . what was his name? I forget. The world has forgotten). On the contrary, I feel a sense of impending freedom, a return to some of the vigor of my more experimental works, but with a more steady, sure hand.
What is it that has caused this epiphany? Honestly, it's hard to tell. It's not the subject matter, which is usually a social situation of some kind or another, oftentimes within or involving a group of bohemian artists and decadence (though long after the demise of Bohemia as an independent kingdom and the decadent movement). It's not the characters, though I thought the characterizations were good, sometimes great - I would LOVE to see an entire novel or perhaps even more of the main antagonist (and he is just that) in "Honey, Get Your Gun". It's not the setting - often Paris from the 1920s to the 1930s (?) is interesting enough, but not so astounding as, say, Berlin during the same period. It's not the plots; many of these stories seem essentially plotless or the plot is so subtle as to be barely detectable.
Honestly, the subtlety itself may be the "it" I am looking for. It can be thoroughly off-putting at first, but once one has caught the rhythm of a Mary Butts story, one knows one is ensconced in it. There really is no escape, once you've given yourself up to the mystery. And I mean that quite literally - not mystery as a genre (there is precious little of that ilk here), but the mystery of "just what the heck am I reading?" followed by the slowly dawning realization that . . . it just doesn't matter! If you allow yourself into these stories, you will often come out of the other end not knowing exactly what happened, but knowing that something significant happened, maybe even something with meaning. The fact that you will continue to quiz yourself on what the meaning is . . . well, that in and of itself gives the story some meaning, doesn't it?
As I review my notes to the stories, I see more question marks than in any other review I've done. The Complete Stories is baffling, frustratingly so, at times. But the fact that so many of these short tales have lingered in my mind so long and so powerfully, attests to their staying power, despite (or perhaps because of) a lack of full comprehension in my reading.
In other words, if you're one of those people who must have closure in your stories - don't read this book. You're going to hate it.
If, on the other hand, you are comfortable with or even excited by vagaries in fiction, this is your book. I should have guessed I would enjoy it, given my rather open-ended acceptance of "difficult" texts and Mark Valentine's praise of Mary Butts' work. At first, though, it was tough going. I had to accept that there was much that I did not understand and let myself feel that this was okay. Walk by faith, I guess, stepping into the darkness until only one step ahead is visible, as the old allegory goes. I'm glad I took each story as its own step (sometimes a series of steps). I can't say exactly where I arrived, in the end, but here is my journey, with commentary on each story:
I noted that, from the first story: If "Speed the Plow" is any indicator, I am going to like Mary Butts' work very, very, very much. The stream of consciousness of Beckett, but the poetics of a Huysman or a Rilke peeking out from behind the banalities. This is off to a smashing start. This is the type of writing one has to go back and reread each paragraph, partly for comprehension, but, really, mostly for the sheer awe inspired by the writing.
Did I understand "In Bayswater" from beginning to end? No. It's convoluted, a bit of a mess. But that prose is exquisite. And I was able to follow along well enough the first time through. A second reading would do much to tie it all together, but I'm not ready for that now. Some other time. Still good enough in structure to carry on and beautiful, beautiful writing and dialogue. Borderline decadent.
"Bellerophon to Anteia" is the Corinthian hero's underworld journey, but it is unlike any other hero's underworld journey, full of grief and regret and a pyrrhic victory, at best.
The trees, that were a row of whistles for the wind, grew small out of the bright grass.
Call me petty, but little gems like this one from "Angele au Couvent" are what make Mary Butts' stories "sing," despite their sometimes choppy presentation. Like diamonds against a foil of black construction paper. There is a certain charm there that I must admit I like.
"Angele au Couvent" - what to make of this? A young girl in school, perhaps studying to be a nun (?) comes to the realization that she will never find happiness there, but only in literature. And yet, the story ends with a beginning that does not hold much hope for a "literary" future, but rather the edge of a life storm where she will be tossed about to and fro by the ravages of society. Or perhaps it is not?
"In the Street" is a short monologue by . . . who knows? A madwoman? A spurned lover? A cast off whore? All of these things, perhaps, or none of them. This is a woman that Beckett would have heard in his mental echo chambers, a "lost one," a vagrant or, perhaps, a mad princess. It is so hard to tell. And by hard to tell, I mean "telling". She is all of these and less and more.
Is "The Golden Bough" a retelling of the Fisher King set in 1920s London? Difficult to say, though there is the self-sacrifice. But here, at least two of the characters are self-admittedly mad, having been institutionalized at one point. And yet, one questions who here is sane and who is not? Perhaps the cast of unreliable characters will never allow the mystery to be unraveled. Could it ever be? Should it?
What happened "In the South"? Something very old, ancient, even. Something undying, like eternity, like love. And what is signified by the terms "brother" and "sister"? Something deeper and more meaningful than shared parentage, something unknowable and absolutely unbreakable.
Young Mary finds that being overshadowed by the Holy Ghost and seeing an angel is . . . complicated and wrought with danger in "Maddona of the Magnificat".
"Widdershins" is an unravelling labyrinth of social entanglement. Dick Tressider discovers that no instantaneous magic can give him the standing he desires and, in fact, he might never attain the status and place he desires. At least this is how I interpret this choppy narrative, but of flotsam swirling in an undoing.
"The Dinner Party" is a social labyrinth that we are taken through from the view of a wanderer therein. At the center lies the Minotaur, and it is every bit as horrifying as that terrible beast. Perhaps even more so for the facade of "culture" around it. An outstanding expose of manners and social pressure. Devastating, in the end.
I had to reread "Brightness Falls" to fully grasp it (though it is not "graspable" and intentionally not so). On the second read, I realized how absolutely masterful the story is. My favorite up to this point. Is it about jealousy and winsomeness, or witchcraft and liminal dimensions, or hypnotism and a Freudian obstacle course? I take the fantastical view myself, with an acknowledgement of the humor veined throughout.
What happens to old, perverse Greek heroes when they seemingly retire from . . . hero-ing? "The Later Life of Theseus, King of Athens" sheds some light - and some darkness - on those golden years. Just remember that, as the economists say, "debt never sleeps". And it will be repaid. It will.
A bit of a dark comedy of manners does not allow one to simply laugh off the sinister story "In Bloomsbury," about a staid aristocratic family and their beastly (their word, I think) cousins from South Africa. It's a disturbing commentary about racism, colonialism, and the upper-class sense of superiority. And yet, here Butts' dexterity with language is clearly apparent. She describes the dawning realization of murder - fratricide and matricide, no less - in beautiful terms:
"Essential daylight, colourless and clean" filled the room. The fire sulked. The hour was unpropitious for the turn of the event. Besides, what were we to do? Julian went on: "I made an under-statement. They spoke of their victims in the plural: referred to "them." The woman, I suppose, their stepmother." Situations which sink in. All their little peculiarities which had hitherto delighted us, reseen in this light. Revision at dawn. Of murder; of blood on black ivory skins. Polished boxwood and scarlet; two bodies who would stay dead.
"Friendship's Garland" seems to be about transitions, from old age to young, from human sociality, with all its pretense and stresses, to the seclusion of nature and the accompanying opportunity to see oneself in their purest form.
"Green" may be a story about a newly-married couple and the interpolation of an old "friend" of the husband who may or may not have been a lover in the midst of what may or may not be a love triangle in which the husband's mother (also admired of the husband's may or may not have been ex- or maybe not-ex-lover) may or may not have interfered in said maybe-but-maybe-not affair. It's all so platonic and careful.
I got a strong du Maurier vibe from "The House Party," with echoes of Trilby throughout: a group of decadent friends, all of whom might or might not be gay, who negotiate the intricacies of social standing and sociality, all with a sinister background character (in this case, The Pimp) who inadvertently reveals things about oneself to oneself. One of the stronger stories in the first half of the book.
"Look Homeward, Angel" is a somber piece that shows a restraint absent from earlier stories. Perhaps it is this sense of restraint that makes it so emotionally affecting. There's a certain resigned sadness here, in the liminal space between memorial and grief. This is one of Butts' later stories and it's maturity shows. It's the most beautiful story in the volume so far, absent of hyperbole and all the better for it.
"The Guest" is about, well, the guest . . . to a husband and wife and a "friend" of vague intentions. Vague enough that the guest himself takes umbrage with the whole affair (or is there really an affair)? All is not as it seems, except for the excellent writing. The stream of consciousness bits are portrayed parenthetically, which makes for much easier reading comprehension.
A fictionalized account of the true story (!) of the young Julius Ceasar being kidnapped by pirates whom he later came back to crucify, "A Roman Speaks" presents the general on the cusp of assuming dictatorial power. Here Caesar presents his story of capture, life among the pirates, ransom, and his promised crucifixion of his captors (who thought it was a joke until it happened). An interesting insight into the man.
Friends meet friends and become enemies in "The Warning," a cautionary tale (telegraphed by the title). Sometimes it's best to keep one's associates siloed away from each other. We've all had this experience, but never so eloquently.
Mary Butts' work demands your attention. In some tales, every word counts. "Mappa Mundi" is a truly weird tale that requires your focus as a reader. The diligent reader is well-rewarded here. I had to go back and reread several sections twice, but once I got my focus and the brain grasped what was happening - or what might have happened - a door opened into a labyrinth . . .
"A Lover"? A lie. A deceit that makes a mockery of love, even of friendship. Dissimulation cracks its head open against The Truth, and one lover must simply walk away. This seems to be a theme in many of the stories in this collection. Deceit couched in the most beautiful of words, but what are words, other than masks? Layer upon layer of fiction. All of it false, yet speaking truth.
I have not fallen in love and had my heart broken in the city of Paris after finding that the object of my devotion had been thoroughly corrupted by an evil sorceress and her coterie of cruel followers; not until I had read "From Altar to Chimney-piece". This story will stick in my brain for a long, long time. The ambiguity of supernatural power next to social corruption is delicious and wretched. Butts is a master.
Butts channels M.R. James in "With and Without Buttons," and the story is James-worthy, but with a hint of dark comedy throughout. A delightful, creepy story, with Butts' trademark turns of phrase scattered here and there . . . like stray gloves . . .
"After the Funeral" pulls off a triple-feat by putting the focus on a dead woman after her funeral, damning the shallowness of sociality, and showing a myth, albeit a private one, in the making. It is the echoes of the tale, between the lines, outside of the actual words, which interest me the most; that life beyond the veil, or that death. One wants to walk past the foreground and find the underpinnings.
Chaos reigns in "The House" as two pairs of renters sublet while on vacation. In the meantime, a new landlord purchases the property. Not-quite Jeeves and Wooster funny, nor Howard's End dramatic, Butt's story is . . . alright. With a touch of understated flair. Very English, one could say. Everything's alright. "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way . . .".
A young, self-loathing American overseas practices cynicism with great elan. As stated earlier, I would love to read an entire novel about the main character in "Honey, Get Your Gun " a miscreant antihero that Nick Cave would be pleased to celebrate in one of his darker songs. It's a gloriously dark rumination and one of the more compelling characterizations I've ever read in this short of a piece of fiction. Depressing; oustanding!
There are bushels of bitter melancholy for such a small piece as "In the House". Poverty, death, unfulfilled promises, the breaking of familial trust, and decay are all suffused throughout. A poignant piece, but very depressing if you dwell on it too long. Sadness incarnate.
"Lettres Imaginaires" is a one-sided correspondence from a spurned woman who may or may not be a goddess to a man who may or may not be a god. Butts captures the sense of loss and the yearning for the repair of a broken heart one encounters when one is essentially abandoned. The narrator here, though, is smarter by miles than I was as a young man who encountered similar circumstances.
"A Vision" is simply that, a hallucinatory terrain trodden by mice, macaws, and angels, with a stark lesson in the futility of taking on the essence of God (even successfully - no, especially successfully). Assuming the character of God might incur the greatest flaws of all. Perfection is not all it's cracked up to be.
Scrying is the preferred method in "Magic," a purely meditative piece on the ascent into light, the descent into darkness. This could bear several readings, which is no small task for such a small story.
"Change" is actually about the lingering after-effects of change, specifically the ironies of being disinherited by one's wealthy family and living a life of poverty and shame - which has it's own richness and pride . . . of a sort.
The next tale is less about "A Magical Experiment" than it is such. Written in the 1920s in France, you can guess where the strong surrealism came from. It's largely nonsensical, but at certain moments it is startling. Probably the story most influenced by Crowley, though it would be easier to analyze if it was clear who was who. I need more context to understand this experiment.
"The Master's Last Dancing" is a bacchanalian riot of dance and violence and the shedding of all social graces. I can imagine the room full of flappers and gents in a Berlin jazz club, though this dance took place decades after that, another place, another time. Some things are timeless? A shocking, sad, story that asks, in the end, if it is actually funny or not?
"Fumerie" contends for my favorite piece in this volume. It's a decadent how-to guide, told in demonstrative vignettes and sometimes outright instruction, on the world of the opium smoker. I smoked opium twice, and it's a good thing I couldn't get my hands on more, because I really, REALLY liked it. This sometimes tongue-in-cheek piece of realism presents the sociality of the pipe with all its quirks. Brilliant.
The final untitled story is slight, but underscores the recurring theme of expatriate Americans in Paris, their brashness and clash of ideas or style with the locals. I suppose this story needs to be here for the volume to be The Complete Stories, but Butts has done this theme much more ably in other stories.
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