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The Other Side by Alfred Kubin

Writing about a couple of books from my past recently got me thinking about the volumes in question. As is so often the case, I recall so little about them (it must be over 30 years since I read them) and I must admit I did feel a pull to revisit them and find out what they actually were about and what it was that made me attached to them after all this time.

other side

So I picked up Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side. As I mentioned, this came via a recommendation from my old friend H; an artist herself, our little group were at the time very obsessed with Mervyn Peake, and Kubin was, like him, an artist who had dipped into writing (although I would argue that Peake’s all-round achievement was greater, as he was a real polymath). My Penguin Modern Classic is translated by Denver Lindley and illustrated with a number of dark, strange drawings by Kubin himself.

Alfred Kubin, says Wikipedia, “was an Austrian printmaker, illustrator, and occasional writer. Kubin is considered an important representative of Symbolism and Expressionism.” TOS is his only written work, produced in a white heat of 12 days when he was unable to paint, and it’s a dark and strange book. Our unnamed narrator is a bourgeois, happily married illustrator who one day receives an odd summons from a rather unusual old school friend, Patera. The latter invites him to join him in the mysterious Dream Kingdom, providing a large sum of money to enable travel. The narrator is intrigued and he and his wife set off on their travels.

The Dream Kingdom is located in Asia, and after a long and laborious journey, the narrator and his wife are admitted, in circumstances of high secrecy. It’s an isolated spot, locked away from the world, and dream is certainly the word than can be applied to the place, though in the real sense of the word….

Dreams can be disjointed, confusing and flawed narratives set in strange, almost familiar yet not quite real places, and the DK fulfils all those conditions. The houses are imported from all over the place and built piecemeal, giving a thrown together look to the place. Anything new or modern is not allowed and for the denizens of Perle, the main city, dress is a weird combination of old-fashioned clothing. It seems impossible for people to hold on to money or possessions for any length of time, and the place is covered by a permanent layer of cloud.

Needless to say, this is a disconcerting and unnerving place to live. There is red tape galore and plenty of strange ritual; and the narrator finds it impossible to get to see his old friend, designated as the Master of the place and obviously some kind of demigod. His wife finds conditions in the DK unbearable, and sickens and dies. Then a discordant element is introduced in the form of the American, Hercules Bell, who is determined to bring down Patera and have the DK for himself. However, the place does not seem to be long for this world, as in an extended section of the book entitled Hell, the Kingdom begins to disintegrate. Buildings collapse, plagues of almost biblical proportions arrive, behaviour breaks down and the population turn bestial. Truly it seems as though the end of the world (or at least the DK) has arrived…

Well, what a dark and bleak book this was! It’s a remarkable flight of imagination by Kubin, but he certainly does have a morbid one. I’ve read plenty of what you might call gothic books in my time, and I love the darkness of Poe, for example, but Kubin needs some kind of separate rating for his book.

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Certainly, if you read Kubin’s autobiographical sketches at the back of the novel, you can track the source of his imaginings; a sensitive boy whose mother died when he was young, he seems to have spent much of his life haunted by thoughts of death, corpses and the like. He obviously drew on his lifetime of fantasia in for this work and he’s really created something powerful and unique.

One of the fascinating elements of the story is the constant sense of disintegration and entropy; everything is old, disintegrating and rotten, and as hell breaks loose things and people just crumble. It’s as if Patera had forced something fragile into creation out of the swamp it rests on, and eventually the swamp claims it all back.

Most uncanny of all was a mysterious phenomenon thar began with the animal invasion, increased rapidly, and led to the Dream Kingdom’s complete collapse – the crumbling process. It attached everything, Buildings made of all sorts of materials, objects collected through the years, everything that the Master had spent his gold for, all this was doomed to destruction. Cracks appeared simultaneously in all the walls, wood rotted, iron everywhere turned to rust, glassware grew muddy, cloth disintegrated. Valuable works of art fell irremediably victim to an inner decay, for which no adequate cause could be found.

So what actually is the DK? That’s a good question and one that’s never really answered. The narrator hints that the Blue Eyed people who live in the suburb (possibly indigenous peoples) may be behind everything and manipulating events and people; and certainly Kubin portrays the inhabitants as mostly little more than puppets playing some master’s game. But who really is the master is never actually made clear and it’s left to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

I believe that TOS has been republished as a horror classic and I must say that’s a classification I’m not really sure of. Certainly the book is a dark and horror-full read in places, but it really is more of a fantastic work of literature, the product of an individual and perhaps fevered imagination. It’s bloodier than Peake’s work, but just as unusual and memorable and definitely worth reading if you want to explore the darker recesses of the human mind.

In search of lost European authors…

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When I was in my 20s and going through my first big reading discovery binge, I could walk into any one of many book stores and be met by an array of translated works ready for me to explore. 20th century European fiction was in vogue and I could choose from a huge range, from Camus, Colette and Sartre through to Kafka, Hesse and Hamsun – and many of these were published by Penguin and considered mainstream.

There’s still a vast array of European literature available, and many might argue that the choice is even better than it used to be, with publishers such as Pushkin Press and Alma Classics (amongst many others) bringing out lovely editions of books from France, Germany, Italy et all. However, it seems to me that despite this, there are works that have slipped through the net and become less obviously available nowadays; and two particular books spring to mind.

lost europeans

The first, “The Other Side” by Alfred Kubin, was mentioned by translator Will Stone in his excellent interview on the Pushkin Press website. I hadn’t thought about the book in decades, but it still nestles on my shelves, having sat there since the 1980s. If I recall correctly, my old friend H. recommended it to me; the only novel of a visual artist, it’s what would probably now be labelled speculative fiction, but what I would have thought of loosely as fantasy, and we probably read it because we were very obsessed with Mervyn Peake at the time and thought this might be similar. It’s not a book I see mentioned often and certainly the Penguin Modern Classic seems to be no longer available.

The other is by German author Ernst Junger, best known for his WW1 memoir, “Storm of Steel”. His 1939 novel “On the Marble Cliffs”, which sits next to “The Other Side” in my collection, is an allegorical work, widely seen as a reaction to the rise of National Socialism. A tale of the destruction of a rural community, I’m not sure that this one is even still in print and old Penguin copies seem to be very highly priced.

This set me thinking about trends and fashions in books; why, I wonder, would these works, which were obviously popular and highly regarded enough to warrant mainstream Penguin editions, slip out of favour? In a culture we have now of celebrating European literature with sparkly new volumes, why would these two not be available with the rest? As I mentioned in my post on Herman Hesse earlier this month, apart from his best-known works, many of his books seem harder to track down and aimed less at the general reader than they used to be, and I can’t help thinking this is a shame.

I’m a bit partisan, but I tend to think that the 20th century produced some of the finest works of literature, and many of the European authors I read are amongst the best ever. I could pick up a Sarte or a Simone de Beauvoir, a Calvino or a Camus or a Colette, a Kafka or a Hesse and be assured of reading something different, wonderful and mind-expanding. Alas, I do find that what passes as mainstream nowadays is much, much less interesting than what used to be available.

So I suspect I will still keep returning to my older books to get the kind of bookish joy and thrill I used to, as well as discovering new authors thanks to my favourite indie publishers. And if you have any suggestions of any neglected European authors I should explore, I’d be very interested to hear them! 🙂

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