52 Poems, Week 2: I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud (Wordsworth)
52 Poems, Week 3: Drachenfels (Byron)

Sunday Night Journal, January 14, 2018

I finished the two remaining Charles Williams novels (see the November 26 post) a week or two ago, and I'd better say something about them while I still remember them well enough to do so. They are The Greater Trumps and Shadows of Ecstacy. The short verdict is that it was fitting that I read them last, as I would put them in that order for merit. I was hoping to discover a neglected gem, but was disappointed. I'll take them in the order I read them, which is also the order of their publication.

I thought from the title that The Greater Trumps probably had something to do with Tarot, and it does. The GTs are a suit of the Tarot deck, and apparently the most powerful. I know nothing much about Tarot, and possibly would have enjoyed this book more, and understood it better, if I did. 

In Williams's telling, it seems that there is one original Tarot deck, and it possesses great power. More or less accidentally it has come into the possession of a rather sour and unimaginative middle-aged man, Lothair Coningsby (and who wouldn't be sour with that name?). The first sentence of the novel consists of him saying something "peevishly," and he continues to do that throughout, though he shows something more before it's all over. He is employed as a "Warden in Lunacy," and if there is an explanation of that I missed it. I suppose it means that he is the director of an insane asylum. He has a daughter, Ruth, who is engaged to a young man named Henry Lee, who seems a pretty typical upper-middle-class English character except that he is of Gypsy extraction. He recognizes the cards for what they are, and conspires with his grandfather, Aaron, to steal them from Coningsby.

These gypsies are not the sort you'd expect, at least not in a story having to do with ancient and powerful Tarot cards: they are both affluent and stably domiciled. The grandfather has a big house in the country, equipped with servants, and he invites the Coningsbys to spend a few days there at Christmas, with the intention of getting hold of the cards.

I thought it might be a mistake to read so much Williams all at once. I think it was, and that probably had an effect on my view of this book. Most of his novels involve the unleashing of mighty cosmic forces at great risk to the world. Exactly what these forces are going to do is often rendered rather murkily. Long and complex descriptions of their activity and its results, frequently involving the transportation or absorption of an ordinary person and an ordinary place into some cosmic-spiritual reality which somehow leaves me more or less befuddled. Part of the problem is that he sometimes paints a picture of more or less abstract qualities and forces behaving as if they are physical entities. At any rate, by the time I read this book I had grown impatient with it, and not much interested in trying to make sense of it. I'd begun to have a sort of ok-fine-whatever reaction to those passages, and to hurry through them in order to find out what's actually happened. And so I can tell you that possession of the Tarots will enable them to do some really big things, but I'm not quite sure what they all are, though they do seem to include seeing the future, and also, more or less by the way, to give one the ability to control the weather, which is important to the story. 

The Lees are already in possession of a rather remarkable thing, one of the more interesting things in the book. It is a set of little golden figures representing the entities of the Tarot. They reside in a special room in the Lee house where they engage in a perpetual dance across a chessboard-like surface. And I do mean perpetual. The dance never stops, and it has something to do with the cosmic dance of all things; I think in some way it is that dance. And I think part of the idea is that one who possesses the original Tarot deck can use it, in conjunction with the dancing figures, to know the future, really and accurately.

I may very well be doing this book an injustice by reading it so soon after three others. I can imagine that reading it fresh, without being, as I was, a little tired of Williams's devices, might be a much more enjoyable experience. But on the other hand--there is a sort of subplot involving an old woman, a relative of the Lees, who believes, possibly correctly, that she is the incarnation of an Egyptian goddess--Isis, I think. That was one of the parts that I ceased to care about so am not sure what it was all about. 

I should mention a very engaging character: Sybil Coningsby, sixty-ish unmarried sister of Lothair. She is a quiet, modest, but perceptive and shrewd and preternaturally agreeable person, having acquired that latter quality, it is suggested, through a lifetime of spiritual discipline. She's a bit too agreeable sometimes: when the old Isis-woman wants her to kneel to her and more or less worship her as a goddess, she complies at once. Her spiritual power gives her an important role in the proceedings. I'd like to have heard more of her. She's given a bit of dialog that I very much enjoyed. She and her brother are discussing the Christmas visit to the Lees:

"I'm afraid it'll be very dull for you," he said.

"Oh, I don't think so," she answered. "It'll have to be very dull indeed if it is."

"And of course we don't know what the grandfather's like," he added.

"He's presumably human," Sybil said, "so he'll be interesting somehow."

A few pages into Shadows of Ecstacy I thought "This may be either the best or worst of Williams's novels." Maybe I didn't think "best" and "worst." I may have thought "most interesting" and "least interesting." In either case, after a few chapters I had pretty well decided on the latter. 

A recurring theme, and even a recurring character, in Williams's novels is that of the spiritual adept who, even if he is a Christian, sees ordinary Christians and ordinary Christian faith and practice as naive, pitiably naive if not plain stupid, not understanding the religion they profess, which is really about other, more subtle things than sin, forgiveness, heaven, hell, and all the rest. Sibyl Coningsby has a bit of this quality. The archdeacon in War In Heaven has a good deal more, as does Stanhope in Descent Into Hell. It's Gnostic, obviously, and I can't help thinking that it represents a fairly serious defect in Williams's theology--or perhaps only in his character. Perhaps he was wise enough to see the problem, even if he couldn't entirely extirpate it in himself.

Anyway, this tendency more or less takes over in Shadows of Ecstacy. The adept here is not even Christian, and is by any mundane standard a pretty evil man--at least if you consider the willingness to foment the murder of thousands of people to be a measure of evil. He is Nigel Considine, an Englishman who has traveled and lived for a long time in Africa, and discovered a great secret. He believes that the passionate energy of Africa (or Africans) holds the key to complete mastery of the life force, to the point that one sufficiently adept in the technique can bring himself back from the dead. He has launched a great quest for this ability, not simply to attain it for himself--he is too noble for that, although he does want it--but to give it to the world. This is going to require, first, that he more or less conquer the world, or at least Europe, so that he can lead it out of its dead rationalism into the glorious life of the passions. I wouldn't have been surprised to have him declare his intention to dare I say it?--rule the world! But this would be done not for the mere exercise of power, but for the spreading of his technique.

Passion, it seems, is the key to immortality, and here we get some all-too-Williams-ish (or Nietzchean) malarkey:

I have always, so far as I could, done according to the gospel which moves in me and my friends, the doctrine of transmutation of energy, of the conscious turning of joy and anguish alike into strength and will, and of that passionate strength and will into the exploration of all the capacities of man.

Ok, fine, whatever. There's much more but that seems to be the basic idea. We've heard a whole lot of this sort of thing over the past hundred years or so, and I would hope that whatever persuasive ability it had has pretty much faded at this point. 

Another familiar motif in Williams's fiction is that of the woman who submits to the will of a man in service of some spiritual enterprise. Some of these are lovely, for instance the relationship of Lord Arglay and Chloe Burnett in Many Dimensions. But its occurrence here is ludicrous. A would-be disciple of Considine, Roger Ingram, a professor of literature who recognizes in Considine's teaching what he had always felt about poetry, decides to give up everything, including his wife, and follow Considine into great adventures of passion to be mastered and transmuted, probably not excluding sexual passion, if he follows Considine's example, and from which he may very well never return. And this is perfectly fine with his wife.

"Why did you tell Roger to go?"

"Because I wanted him to, since he wanted to," she said. "More; for I wanted him to even more than he did, since I hadn't myself to think of and he had.... I want it--whatever he wants. I don't want it unselfishly, or so that he may be happy, or because I ought to, or for any reason at all. I just want it. And then, since I haven't myself to think of, I'm not divided or disturbed in wanting...."

My response to this was yeah right.

I would have supposed that these two books represent the ebbing of Williams's novelistic gift, but I learn from his Wikipedia page that Shadows of Ecstacy was actually the first written, though it was the fifth published, in 1933. So one can hope that he abandoned some of its ideas. The first five were published quickly, between 1930 and 1933. There is a gap of four years between Shadows and Descent Into Hell (1937) and another eight before All Hallows' Eve (1945).I think most readers would agree that both these are at least strong contenders for being his best novel, so, far from ebbing, his ability was at its height just before he died in 1945.

If I were asked to recommend some of Williams's fiction to someone who had read little or none of it, I would first ask whether he or she (or they) was looking more for a good story or for spiritual depth. If the former, I would say either War In Heaven or Many Dimensions; if the latter, either Descent Into Hell or All Hallows' Eve

Comments

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I think that among Williams aficionados Shadows is generally considered his weakest novel, the weakness attributed to the fact that it was his first attempt at fiction. I tend to agree -- I put off reading it till the mid-90's and found it disappointing.

I've read The Greater Trumps twice, first in the late 70's, then again in 1992 in conjunction with reading Tim Powers' novel Last Call, which also deals with the Tarot. I don't remember too much about it, although I recall thinking that the climax, with the supernaturally-created snowstorm, was very well done.

I keep meaning to revisit Williams, as his name comes up here fairly often. I'd probably start with War in Heaven, as that was the first one of his I read way back when.

Oh, and speaking of Powers, a bumper edition of his short fiction has just come out -- 'Down and Out in Purgatory.'


I resisted the very strong temptation to dig around for biographical and critical info about any of these novels or about Williams in general before I had read them. I like to limit the role of preconceptions in my reaction to any work. But I'm very curious about how Shadows fits into his overall development. There seems to be pretty clearly a lot of authorial admiration for Considine.

The snowstorm is a good bit. It occurs to me that that may have something to do with the fact that it is a very real physical event, not one of the murky supernatural ones.

You've recommended Powers before. I should give him a try.

Back in the late 70's/early 80's I was something of an Inklings geek, so I read a fair amount of the critical material on Williams that I could find at the time (there wasn't a whole lot, really). I've seldom revisited it though, so my memory of it is pretty foggy.

Powers is kind of like Williams on uppers. P.K. Dick meets Graham Greene?

Sounds...bizarre.

Speaking of P. K. Dick, has anyone watched Electric Dreams? We have just watched the first two episodes (They are stand-alone episodes.), and they are very good. Too intense to binge watch, which is why we have only watched two.

AMDG

They do have some sexually offensive stuff.

AMDG

Looked at my copy of War in Heaven last night and was extremely surprised to see that I had noted on the inside cover that I had re-read it in June of 2005. I don't remember that at all, although to be fair that was a bit of a trying time in my life and I may have just decided to read it as an escape of sorts. In any case I've got no memories of that revisit. If I do decide to read a Williams then, it'll probably be either The Place of the Lion or Many Dimensions.

Declare is generally considered Powers' best novel and is a good place to start with him.

After reading now three posts of yours on Williams I can't say I'm convinced he needs to be read, as Lewis and Tolkien do. But if I did ... I would go for the Tarot book. I happen to know a lot about Tarot.

I think I'd agree about Williams vs Tolkien and Lewis. Worth reading, yes. Essential, no.

Rob, I'm sort of glad to hear you don't remember that reading. Makes me feel better about my memory lapses. :-)

Thanks for that tip, Janet. I'd wondered about that show. I really haven't read much of PKD, just the Electric Sheep one, which didn't make a big impression on me.

I tried to read Electric Sheep when the original BR came out, but I couldn't make it through. Bill has read it twice, though, now and then.

Electric Dreams has the feel of the movies.

AMDG

I just don't remember anything at all about it, except that there was this main character who was sort of miserable, and that I didn't see how they got Blade Runner out of it.

Its often a bad idea to read a lot of any author all at once. All their quirks start jumping out at you

True. I knew that might happen with Williams, and it did. I probably would have liked Greater Trumps better if I'd read it alone, but I don't think that's the case with Shadows of Ecstacy.

I just don't remember anything at all about it, except that there was this main character who was sort of miserable, and that I didn't see how they got Blade Runner out of it.

Exactly.

AMDG

Years (and I mean years) ago I read The Place of the Lion and enjoyed it a lot. I tried a couple of others, I think Shadows of Ecstasy and Descent into Hell and I couldn't get on with them.

I didn't think much of Shadows of E, obviously, but Descent Into Hell is a truly profound (no pun intended) work. Not everybody's cup of novelistic tea though, as it's also a truly weird work.

I could see someone enjoying War in Heaven or All Hallows Eve but finding Descent something of a drag. But I do think it is quite profound, as you say.

A number of years ago I read a novel that reminded me a little of it, Julien Green's 'Each Man in His Darkness,' and although I've meant to I've but never followed up with any more Green.

Descent is definitely a drag. :-)

After years and years of Rob's recommendations of Each Man in His Darkness, I have ordered a copy.

Drag indeed. And scary, but it may be his best.

AMDG

I thought I'd mentioned Green before but I didn't remember when or in what context.

You definitely have but I don't remember the details either.

And, of course, most of the comments have disappeared. ;-)

It came up several times in the context of general discussions about books we liked0.

AMDG

Not *most*. I think I've been off Haloscan longer than I was on it. Still , it's lamentable.

I meant most of the discussion about Each Man in His Darkness. After searching for Julien, I think I should have said all.

AMDG

Oh I see. Yeah, I couldn't find any trace of him.

Green wrote at least one "mystical" novel, Then Shall the Dust Return, but I've not read it.

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