Friday, March 16, 2012
M.P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud and Fridtjof Nansen
A day or two ago finished reading, and taking something away from, the revised 1930 version of West Indian/Irish author M.P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud. (Besides being an author, Shiel also spent time in the old Grey Bar Hotel, for reasons illuminated in the Wikipedia article on him.)
I tried to read the novel once before. I cracked the "last man" epic open and read a bit of it when on a train trip from New York City to Portland in April 1997, fanning my eyes back and forth between the pages and, perhaps, North Dakota or Montana horizons. However, I abandoned the book after the journey, not completing it until now.
The novel, as with Shiel's prose in general, is grotesquely eccentric and lush, overflowing with arcane vocabulary and Ciceronian abundance. In addition, the writer was prescient (or at least tapped a kind of synchronicity) in several ways. He creates an apocalyptic scenario, with humankind fleeing a doom unleashed from the Arctic. In the wake of the Purple Cloud, the protagonist, Adam Jeffson (Adam from Genesis, and Thomas Jefferson?) finds all of humanity, save for him, dead, and the blended Middle Eastern, Asian, African, European corpses reflect the global migration patterns of 2012 more than that of 1901 or 1930. Then, take the phrase: "and how I went to Nagasaki, and burned it" -- written not in 1945, but in 1901.
With influences from Poe and Jules Verne, Shiel is at the same time unique.
Karl Edward Wagner described him as resembling a satanic scripturalist on a methamphetamine jag. H.P. Lovecraft praised Shiel and The Cloud in Supernatural Horror in Literature. While, according to Wikipedia, the original 1901 Purple Cloud is regarded more highly than the 1930 revision, both have merit. I prefer the use of assonance and cosmic imagery in the following sentence from the 1930 version: "On we pressed, wending our petty way over the immense, upon whose loneliness, from before the old Silurian till now, Bootes had pored and brooded." 1901: "On we pressed, crawling our little way across the Vast, upon whose hoar silence, from Eternity until then, Bootes only, and that Great Bear, had watched."
Consider the following passage from the initial section of The Purple Cloud, describing the return from a fictional expedition to the North Pole: "A hundred yards inland from the shore-rim, in a circular place where there was some moss and soil, I built myself a semi-subterranean Eskimo den for the long Polar night.
I knew that I was at Franz Josef Land, somewhere or other in the neighbourhood of C. Fligely (about 82° N.), and though it was so late, and getting cold, I still had the hope of reaching Spitzbergen that year, by alternately sailing all open water, and dragging the kayak over the slack drift-ice."
The description of a winter buried alive on Franz Josef land would seem to be inspired by, or borrowed from, Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen's and Hjalmar Johansen's similar winter in 1895-96, on their own return from an attempt to be first at the Pole. The expeditionaries spent eight months mostly confined to a dugout. In addition, when Nansen finally emerged, by extraordinary coincidence, he ran into British explorer Frederick Jackson in the Arctic desolation, an event reeanacted on a television show.
I was first made aware of Nansen's top-of-the-world inhumation from a show called Voyages of Discovery, broadcast on PBS a few years ago. The special, presented by Paul Rose, was part of an excellent series which also included episodes on the expeditions of Captain Cook, Magellan, and Charles Marie de La Condamine. The latter's trip to Equador, and its ultimately successful attempt to measure the circumference of the earth, seems to be from the world of Werner Herzog. Then, Nansen himself is well worthy of attention. I toured the Fram (the ship Nansen, and later Amundsen and others used for expeditions) and its museum, in Oslo. Unfortunately, I got there not long before closing, so had to rush through the exhibits and ship. The story of the long voyage which started on the Fram is also detailed in Nansen's book, Farthest North, 1897. Shiel seemed to take some of the descriptions of Arctic celestial phenomena from Nansen's book, along with the Franz Josef Land episode.
At any rate, The Purple Cloud is a fantastic, rich, and complex work of imagination.
Posted by Jonathan at 10:46 PM