You could work, you could say something, you could see where to climb, to fix what you said, you could see a clear flight of steps. You worked from bottom upwards, but suddenly this staircase was spiral, it had no end. You worked on, somewhere there was an end to these stairs, somewhere you could stand. Silence was long, had a leaden weight, so that you could feel this as you worked, from bottom upwards, you knew there was somebody about, someone in the forest of rounding stairs, someone who would watch. You would work on, and suddenly you came on him, he spoke, and you laughed, silence was broken, you had met one who understood your language.
A tour de force about a night in the Blitz is also an allegory about the artist in society; and we, the other residents in this boarding house, who watch Clem and Lena carry a painting up and down the stairs, are more likely to belittle than to understand him; what he does too strange, so bizarre, too eccentric to be easily understood.
The artist lives at the top of house. Of course! it has to be. Every time the Luftwaffe fly over Clem and his wife take the picture down to the basement. It is heavy. It is large. It gets stuck between the banisters. It is a masterpiece Clem has been working on for years; and which has now become a dangerous object, that puts his life at risk. Does this worry him?
Two art connoisseurs also live in the house. They are two lesbians whose ground floor flat is decorated completely in green - are they jealous of the man in the attic? We will never know. They do not appear in this novel.
The other flats are occupied by the common folk; they have no interest in art; know nothing about artists. One of their number is Richard Jones, warden and landlord, who goes further that incomprehension: he tries to stop Clem; speciously arguing that the picture won’t fit into the underground room. For a fire warden only safety matters; the bodies of Clem and Lena more important than this painting; a worthless object when compared to a human life. So sad. Mr Jones is blind to a simple truth: that this picture is an extension of Clem; that the artist lives on the canvas; that to destroy the painting is to kill the man who made it. The warden is an ordinary person; he isn’t interested in metaphysics. And if he was… He isn’t, and that is that.
We add another meaning to this confrontation - we squeeze it out between the bannister rails: art is too slow and awkward for Authority, which wants efficiency in all things.
The pensioners hardly notice Clem and Lena. They have their own obsessions - the front door that will not close; the paralysed hand that suggests a stroke both wish to ignore. The airman is on leave and having a good time; the artist’s odd behaviour a chance for yet one more witticism.
Clem is alone. There is no one in this house who speaks his language; not even Lena, who helps him.
The journey up and down these stairs is a symbol for the artist's Sisyphean struggle; an endless ever ramifying performance (we return to the opening metaphor, an offshoot of the central symbolism) that is incomprehensible to an indifferent public - even the connoisseurs are absent. Always there is the danger of sudden extinction. Somehow the work of art survives.
Walking into the book we… oops, oh dear! we slide over a sea of broken glass; and bump into a drunken sailor, who believes he is standing on an ice floe. The world has been transformed. Ja! The Luftwaffe are blasting the city into new forms, they are turning London into a gallery of images. London. It has become a work of the imagination.
Outside on the street Lena sees something beautiful. And woven into this vision is a meaning; it is the dreamlike state of an artist’s mind; its firestorm of images; its strange and otherworldly perceptions.
She looked, she saw a balloon coming down, slow, elephantine movements; lost, isolated movement in a still world, you had to watch. It was like something out of another time, you thought of an undiscovered sphere, a new kind of mammal. Coming, lower, lower. She was at the corner of a short street, she knew it would descend there, she had to see this touch ground, she knew not why. But it must touch ground. She looked up; she saw its shape. She hoped that round a corner, out of a hole, down a street, across a road, she might see a face, and she saw this.
Lower, so reaching roof level, lower and suspended between houses, then touching ground. Something enormously swollen, a bugaboo. She watched it settle, shiver, it was still. Gigantic rubber ears, they looked like ears. Come down from a great height, trailing ropes, and then she saw a face, a man’s face. Seeing it, near to her, under a helmet, violently red, very close to her in moonlight, she saw it red, weathered like leather, but she did not think of the face, only the balloon. Two small eyes were peering at her from under the steel helmet, she was unaware, she was staring at the balloon. A human face that was red, a moment ago she would have warmed to it, but now she could not, a red face in a quiet street, not a step heard, not a sound moving, not a word spoken, and behind it this yet quivering mass, the thing descended from the spheres. She looked at the mass, she thought of prodigious lice, white lice.
It is a German pilot. Lena is not interested. Mesmerised by this extraordinary sight the war has ceased to be a moral or practical problem. A city of living individuals has been turned into a studio of amazing pictures; the evolving forms of the parachute more important than the motivations of the parachutist. Forgetting herself, a witness to a work of art being born, Lena watches an image come slowly into focus. And we remember Clem talking about a staircase; how it suddenly changes, a clear straight line becoming a spiral…
Such experiences are intoxicating; art like war both heightening and dislocating the senses; we think of that sailor floating on shattered glass.
Such perceptions are scary. Sinister. Think of the words Lena uses to describe this metamorphosis - “bugaboo”, “violently red”, ‘lice, white lice”. There is something monstrous about the act of creation.
Art. Such an odd activity. Only an alien can make it. The German parachutist, a foreigner falling out of the sky, over the city he bombs to pieces, is the symbol of the artist. Ja! Ja! The artist: an enemy in friendly territory.
A bomb blast, which blows the doors down, and shakes the house like a mother her misbehaving child, brings a revelatory insight… Clem running out into the street, and lost amongst a phantasmagoria, encounters a white horse - that old symbol from the Book of Revelations - which he tames and walks to safety.
These images are too incredible, they carry too much symbolic meaning, to be believable. Nevertheless, they exist. For Clem the Blitz isn't a simple act of destruction, but a confusing mix of concrete images and metaphorical meanings; which together form the inspiration for his own paintings. An artist lives outside the material world of facts and objects, of human beings; these are merely shadows in the fire-lit room of his inner-life; his mind creating its own forms, that feed on death and decay; think of a fire, its burning wood, the crumbling coal giving off heat and light.
“We had better go up now,” he said.
“Sit down, rest a while, you’ve no breath left,” forcing him down.
“No, no, let’s go up now,” he said. “Help me to get the canvas out.”
He was suddenly staring towards the door.
“What is it?” she said.
He didn’t answer, he only saw the sailor lying there again.
“That sailor,” she said, “he—” and then she was thinking of stairs, counting them in her brain.
“Yes. Are you ready now?”
“I’m ready now,” she said.
The penultimate word is a typo. It should read “he said.” The editor finding it difficult to concentrate with the bombs dropping overhead, the candle flame quivering, the table shaking; a warden banging on her door telling her, “get out, get out. Now! now! now!”
A man has died. This is not important. The sailor doesn't exist at all for Clem; for Lena hardly less so; Lena’s thoughts a flow of events punctuated by odd impressions; Clem’s a boutique of images whose meanings he tailors for himself. You have to interest these people for them to be interested in you. The sailor’s corpse a worthless object, for it is lifeless and dull; a mannequin without clothes. Artists: egoists and quite inhumane.
Mr Jones wants to keep everyone alive. This makes him unsympathetic to the house's occupants. He doesn’t understand that for the Frazers their peace of mind is more important than anything else - they only want to be sure that the door is closed. The Robinsons’ desires also pass him by: when a life is in danger a man shouldn't be allowed play Bolivian music and chat with a new friend, the sailor, a man helplessly drunk. But what’s death to an airman home on leave?
The sailor is a vagabond. The outsider. The Lord of Misrule. For sure he must die. Personifying the Blitz, he brings it into this house.
Celia is an intruder. She once modelled for Clem, and is one of Art’s hangers-on. Lacking the creative gift, she is a catalyst; and a source of conflict and vandalism; she arouses Lena’s jealousy; she triggers Sailor’s desire, who breaks into the connoisseurs' flat to find a place for their dalliance. She will survive. They always do. Celia the philistine for whom art is a mirror to admire her own beauty. She walks off with one of Clem’s paintings, a portrait of herself.
Richard Jones used to be a nice man. Once he was a travelling salesman whose mellifluous voice would beguile his customers; particularly the Frazers; the husband a former civil servant, aware now of his lost dignity. Mr Jones is a lovely boy1 no longer. Employed as a warden he has become officious; he demands the household follows his orders - “quickly, come on! come on! quickly now” - and won’t let them find their own pace down to the basement. He gets his way, in the end; except for Clem and Lena; they do not listen to him, for he operates in a world they do not recognise, or even see. They take their time. Slowly, ever so slowly, they carry the painting down the stairs. It is hard work. It is an excruciatingly slow and frustrating experience. They are carrying the heaviest, the most awkward thing in the world….
(Review: No Directions)
1. Clem. Gwen. Mr Jones… Yes! To this Welshman this book feels so very Welsh.