The Victorian Chaise-longue – Marghanita Laski

Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-longue is a chilling, unsettling tale of time travel, a kind of psychological drama cum horror story where a woman wakes up to find that she has been transported back to an earlier century. It’s a fascinating novella because Laski plays with the reader’s mind without providing the comfort of a neat resolution, but the mood and tone captured makes it a compelling, frightening read.

Note on the postcard: Fife Terrace, Islington, the setting for The Victorian Chaise-longue (1953). Especially commissioned painting by David Gentleman for Persephone Books.

When the book opens, we are in the 1960s and our protagonist is Melanie, who was recently afflicted by tuberculosis and is limping back to recovery. Atleast we are given to believe so, as evinced from Melanie’s opening lines (“Will you give me your word of honour that I am not going to die?”), a question to which Dr Gregory gives his assurance that she is on the mend.

Melanie is happily married to Guy, a successful lawyer and the couple resides in London in a house by the canal. They have just become parents for the first time. But Melanie’s illness has kept her away from her baby and from experiencing the joys of motherhood and she longs to be united with her child.

Meanwhile, both Guy and Dr Gregory agree that a trip to a brighter clime filled with fresh air and sunshine, notably Switzerland, will do Melanie a world of good. Note that the men make the decisions for Melanie, her views on the matter are not sought. But before embarking on that journey, the doctor recommends that she find a sunny, cheery spot in her home first as a refreshing change of scene, particularly since Melanie has been cloistered in her bedroom for far too long.

It’s around that time that the three spot the Victorian chaise-longue.

It was ugly and clumsy and extraordinary, nearly seven foot long and proportionately wide. The head and foot ends of the seat curled round a little as though to meet each other, raising, above the elaborately carved legs and frame, a superstructure of wine-red crimson felt.

Its Regency ancestor had probably been delicate and enchanting; this descendent was gross, and would certainly have been inadmissible in such a home as Guy’s and Melanie’s were it not for the singular startling quality of the berlin-wool cross-stitch embroidery that sprawled in bright gigantic roses over the shabby felt…

A piece of ungainly furniture that Melanie had purchased at an antique shop at Marylebone, this item is now arranged facing the windows in the drawing-room for Melanie to lounge and relax. And she does so, the languor of the afternoon slowly lulling her into sleep.

Through the open windows the spring poured in. From her couch, bathed in soft sweet air, Melanie could not see the canal that lay beside her home, but it flowed through imagination, dark and still and beautiful…from one of the brambles, a branch curved high and free to lie across the blue sky in the window, dark leaves and paper-pink flowers suffused with sunlight faintly swaying across the pale blue sky. Drowsy, Melanie looked at the flowers and the sky…

Time died away, the solitary burden of human life was transformed in glory, and Melanie withdrawn in ecstasy, fell asleep.

And it is then that her nightmare begins. When Melanie wakes up, she is in for a rude shock. There is something not quite right about her surroundings, the room is dull and dark. She spots a woman called Adelaide and a maid called Lizzie loitering in there. And to her immense horror, Melanie gradually realizes that she has woken up in the year 1864 in the persona of Milly Baines.

For an instant, forever, Melanie was bound in timeless fear. Her eyes were forced open, rigid and unblinking, her mouth hung open, the rigid lips stretched in a terrible grin, all her being was rigid with unimaginable terror. For she knew that this was true.

That’s the basic premise of the plot and I will not reveal more. But as the book progresses, Melanie’s sense of terror and confusion increases as she struggles to find a way out of her predicament. She’s aware, though, that the one object common to the two time periods is the Victorian-chaise longue.

Some of the key themes explored in this novella are entrapment, isolation, confusion of identity, and the bending of time.

Melanie finds herself trapped by circumstances beyond her control and her attempts to explain and make herself understood are not taken seriously. Indeed, in many ways, when lying on it, the chaise-longue unflatteringly symbolizes a helpless woman at the mercy of those around her. For some reason, I was reminded of Betty Draper in Season One of Mad Men, lying on the psychotherapist’s couch, vulnerable while confessing to a man of dubious morals. No control at all over her circumstances.  

Melanie is also increasingly isolated not just in the present, but also in the past. Her illness in the present confines her to a bedroom with no option of human interaction. And in the past, consumption has rendered her so weak that she’s nearly an invalid chained to the chaise-longue. There’s no prospect of human contact in that period either other than Adelaide, who is Milly’s sister and quite a cold woman.

But most importantly, Melanie experiences a loss of identity, her sense of self is blurred. Is she Melanie trapped in Milly’s body? Melanie knows the mind is hers, but who does the body belong to? Or is she really Milly Baines where her future (Melanie’s present) is only a vision? It’s possible that Milly is Melanie’s alter ego, after all there are some similarities in their circumstances and personalities – they are restricted by illness, bound and chained, the expression of their thoughts curtailed.

Has Melanie really lost all sense of time? Is it all a horrible dream, a nightmare and it’s only a matter of time before sanity is restored and she finally finds herself where she belongs? Or is she slowly descending into madness?

Somewhere along the way, a passionate affair is hinted at, there’s a sense that Milly was engaged in inappropriate behaviour but the details remain hazy. But it definitely makes Melanie ponder on the concept of sin and how it changes as time moves on.

We seem to be together now, she (Melanie) explained, you and I both hopeless. I think we did the same things, she told her, we loved a man and we flirted and we took little drinks, but when I did those things there was nothing wrong, and for you it was a terrible punishable sin. It was no sin for Melanie, she explained carefully, because the customs were different; sin changes, you know, like fashion.

In a nutshell, cranking the fear factor up a notch and evoking a creeping sense of dread, The Victorian Chaise-longue, then, is an excellent novella where Laski has effectively employed the time travel angle to showcase a well-crafted tale of psychological horror. It’s one of those stories that throws up more questions than answers, which is always a good thing.

As an aside, this is the second time travel story I’ve read this year, the first being Daphne du Maurier’s excellent The House on the Strand.

The House on the Strand – Daphne du Maurier

I picked out The House on the Strand because I wanted to participate in the Daphne du Maurier reading week hosted by Ali in May, but for various reasons could not post this review in time. However, I was glad to have read this book, since it turned out to be quite excellent.

The House on the Strand is an excellent, engrossing story of a man literally caught between two worlds, where du Maurier deftly weaves in elements of time travel and horror to offer a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of the central character.

When the book opens Richard (Dick) Young, our narrator, is at a crossroads in his life. He is on a sabbatical, having left a plum publishing in London, possibly suffering from burnout. For rest and relaxation, he is spending the summer at a country home called Kilmarth that belongs to his good friend, the charismatic Magnus. Magnus is now a successful scientist, and the two strike up an agreement. Dick can spend the holidays at the house with his family – Vita, his American wife and his stepsons – who are scheduled to join him later. In return, Dick has to agree to become a test subject for a new psychedelic drug that is the focus of Magnus’ research.

The drug will transport Dick back in time, in this case the fourteenth century, but merely as an observer, and he will not be able to participate in the actual events that unfold there. Magnus also warns him of the side effects that are likely to occur the moment Dick is violently brought back to the present – nausea, dizziness, trembling and so on.

As Dick, highly influenced by the more strong willed Magnus, starts consuming the drug, his trips to the past, to the 14th century begin to take on a vivid, mesmeric quality.

The first thing I noticed was the clarity of the air, and then the sharp green colour of the land. There was no softness anywhere. The distant hills did not blend into the sky but stood out like rocks, so close that I could almost touch them, their proximity giving me that shock of surprise and wonder which a child feels looking for the first time through a telescope. Nearer to me, too, each object had the same hard quality, the very grass turning to single blades, springing from a younger, harsher soil than the soil I knew.

I had expected – if I had expected anything – a transformation of another kind: a tranquil sense of wellbeing, the blurred intoxication of a dream, with everything about me misty, ill defined; not this tremendous impact, a reality more vivid than anything hitherto experienced, sleeping or awake.

Dick is entranced by that era, it’s depiction of courtly intrigues, murder, infidelity, and particularly danger to a beautiful noblewoman by the name of Isolda Carminowe with whom Dick is besotted.

Dick’s primary guide in this era, if you will, is a steward called Roger who acts as a liaison between various family members, who although closely related, are at odds with one another. Isolda Carminowe, in particular, married to Oliver Carminowe, is engaged in a secret affair with Otto Bodrugan. The latter is also married with a son, and had rebelled to overthrow the King in a failed attempt. These aspects begin to take a fast hold on our narrator.

Slowly but surely, that 14th century sphere, with its people and landscapes, starts to thrill Dick to the point of addiction.

This, I think, was the essence of what it meant to me. To be bound, yet free; to be alone, yet in their company; to be born in my own time yet living, unknown, in theirs.

When Vita and the boys surprise him by landing at the house a few days earlier than expected, all of Dick’s best laid plans of experimenting with the drug go awry. While he mechanically performs his duties of a father and husband, arranging activities for his family to enjoy, it’s clear he is increasingly fraught with anxiety and that his mind is elsewhere.

Vita senses this, and her perceptive questioning slowly begins to drive Dick up the wall. Despite the difficulty of being by himself, Dick does manage to find some opportunities to experiment secretly. But the growing frequency with which he does so complicates matters and Dick’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. In his confused state of mind, the two worlds begin to merge. This both alarms Vita and alienates Dick driving a further wedge into their marriage.

When Magnus conveys his desire to come and spend the weekend with them, the stage is set for an unforeseen, dramatic and horrific chain of events.

One of the remarkable aspects of the novel is du Maurier’s evocation of landscapes in both the time periods. Across six centuries, the landscape has, of course, irrevocably altered, and yet its core essence has endured. For instance, where there are rows of houses along the sea now, they did not exist then because it was all a body of water all those years ago, and this has been brilliantly portrayed by the author.

The other fascinating point is the concept of time travel. Du Maurier has cleverly employed this trick…it’s not the time travel aspect in itself that interests her, but what it signifies – an escape from the present reality of stasis, uncertainty, and bitterness.

Magnus is in the throes of a mid-life crisis, filled with existential angst. Vita’s brother Joe has offered him a job in his publishing firm in New York, which Vita encourages him to accept given that he has a family to support, but Dick remains vary of the sameness of the new job, and the prospect of starting afresh in a completely new country fails to entice him.

As he keeps postponing his intentions of making that critical decision, the lure of the psychedelic drug and its escape to another realm, a much simpler one as perceived by him, intoxicates Dick pulling him deeper into an abyss.

“The world we carry inside us produces answers, sometimes. A way of escape. A flight from reality. You didn’t want to live either in London or in New York. The fourteenth century made an exciting antidote to both.”

I’ll admit though that while the 14th century was a source of constant fascination for Dick, I found those sections to be the least interesting in the book. Somehow, the people seemed one-dimensional, which could possibly be attributed to the fact that Dick was just a casual observer there and could not really interact with those characters nor could they perceive his presence.

To me the present, modern day world of Dick – his personal dilemma and his on-the-edge relationship with Vita – had much more depth and was therefore very satisfying and absorbing, notably for the way du Maurier has effectively created an atmosphere of chilling unease and creeping dread.

The House on the Strand, then, is a wonderful heady concoction of history, horror and time travel highlighting to greater effect du Maurier’s excellent storytelling skills. Sometimes the past comes back to haunt us in the present, but for Dick, the consequences might just prove deadlier, paving the way for his downfall.

Tentacle – Rita Indiana (tr. Achy Obejas)

A quick glance at author Rita Indiana’s profile shows that she is a Dominican music composer, producer and key figure in contemporary Caribbean literature. It also tells us that her novel Tentacle has already won a prestigious prize.

Now translated into English by Achy Obejas and published by the wonderful And Other Stories (through whom I discovered one of my favourite authors Deborah Levy), both the cover and the blurb were enticing enough to catch my eye. Well then, what about the content within the pages?

It was excellent.

Here’s why…

Tentacle

When the book opens we are in the future in 2027 in Santo Domingo the Dominican Republic. Acilde, the central character in the book, is working as a maid in Esther Escudero’s house.

It soon becomes apparent that we are in some kind of post-apocalyptic world with an environmental disaster having occurred much earlier. A virus has plagued the other part of the island, and Esther’s house has a mechanism by which anyone infected by the virus can be detected and shot down.

Recognizing the virus in the black man, the security mechanism in the tower releases a lethal gas and simultaneously informs the neighbors, who will avoid the building’s entrance until the automatic collectors patrolling the streets and avenues pick up the body and disintegrate it.

Acilde, meanwhile, was not always a maid. She was a prostitute at the El Mirador with a body like that of a fifteen year old boy. That’s how she meets Eric – Esther’s right hand man.

Eric convinces Acilde to work in Esther’s house as a maid in return for which she will get the opportunity to attend culinary school.

But Acilde has a greater desire – to transition into a man. At first she discovers a valuable sea anemone in one of Esther’s rooms (valuable because all other marine creatures have been destroyed in an environmental catastrophe). Her initial plan – to steal and sell the anemone, the proceeds of which she would use to buy Rainbow Brite. This is a drug that allows sex change without surgery.

But she changes her mind. Subsequent events compel Acilde to flee Esther’s although Eric later secures the Rainbow Brite and helps Acilde in her transformation into a man.

All of this pretty much takes place in the first chapter.

In the alternating chapter, the first of which is deliciously titled ‘Psychic Goya’, the focus shifts to Argenis, a budding artist, who soon realizes that the classic art school in which he studied has not much use when it comes to contemporary art.

At the School of Fine Arts, a public institution with a budget even smaller than the local barbershop’s, the professors – for whom there was no art after Picasso – were proud of Argenis’ technical expertise and Catholic themes and predicted a successful and prosperous future for him.

But when he finished at the School of Fine Arts and got his father to send him to the School of Design at Altos de Chavon, it was a different story. His fluency with perspective and proportion wasn’t worth a dime. His classmates were rich kids with Macs and digital cameras who talked about Fluxus, video art, video action, and contemporary art.

Down on luck, and fired from his job (communicating tarot readings over the telephone), Argenis is recruited by Giorgio Menicucci and his wife Linda for their Sosua project to raise funds and repopulate the sea with marine life.

Argenis, meanwhile, is the archetypal misogynist with dreams of sleeping with Linda, not to mention harbouring thoughts bordering on racism.

On an expedition, Argenis gets stung by a sea anemone. This leads to a situation where he is leading two lives – one in Giorgio’s house as part of the group of other artists also enlisted for the project, and the other way back in the 1600s as part of a band of buccaneers skinning hides.

The stories of Acilde and Argenis alternate between chapters and then the two very cleverly merge.

Acilde, now a man, is also leading several lives, all part of the grand plan to rebuild marine life and save the environment. But while, Acilde is able to effortlessly move between his various selves, Argenis is driven mad by them.

All these ingredients make Tentacle a very potent read. The book is just 130 pages, but it’s a hybrid of time travel, art, sex and politics all which Rita Indiana seamlessly and with great imagination mixes together to create a heady brew.

The obvious themes are the fluidity of gender, and the impact of environmental disasters. But Indiana also manages to throw in others such as the place of art in the world and the perception of contemporary art.

Despite the strangeness of the overall tale, within its confines, the story has a rationality and lucidity that is unmistakable.  Moreover, Indiana’s prose is vibrant with enough chutzpah to drive the narrative forward.

Overall, this was a wonderful read and one that is a strong contender for my Best of the Year list.