Another Irreplaceable Terry

I never got to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus until it was too late: my parents’ dislike of it and their control of the television kept me from the show until the last, Cleese-less series. Friday mornings used to be hell as I would have to negotiate all the catch-phrases that everybody else in my year picked up the previous night, and which I just didn’t understand: lumberjacks, spam, I was totally isolated among my peers.

In the end, I got the films and the Hollywood Bowl album. I remember people trying to persuade me not to go into the cinema when I wanted to watch Life of Brian and being wiling to argue if they challenged my directly, which never happened.

Partly because of this, but more because I was already committed to The Goon Show, I was never the Monty Python fan everybody else of my generation seemed to be. I wouldn’t ever call them derivative of Spike Milligan, but if it hadn’t been for the Goons, I think it would have been another twenty years before people like the Pythons could have broken through.

But whatever you say, they were six bloody funny men, and by being television instead of radio, they changed the world more thoroughly and more wide-rangingly that Milligan, Secombe and Sellars. Now there are just four of them left because Terry Jones has been released from the prison of dementia, and I am glad to think that his mind has now been unshackled, and sad to think that all his work is now only of the past.

Thank you for everything, Terry.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Dotty

Physically, Dotty is a companion to The Elliptical Grave, as was East of Laughter to Serpent’s Egg. It is a United Mythologies Press chapbook novel, slightly shorter, printed on white rather than sepia paper, and similarly limited in number, this time 330. My copy should be numbered somewhere between 1 – 250, but is sadly unnumbered. Like all the few remaining books in this series, Dotty appears in the Archipelago checklist and, although it is not part of The Devil is Dead trilogy, it is a part of Lafferty’s Argo Mythos.
But only as a sidebar. Dotty is Dotty O’Toole Peisson, friend to Finnegan (who is mentioned two, maybe three times in her book), World’s Greatest Galveston-Style Piano Player, and this is her story, up to the age of twenty-one or thereabouts, and for once with Lafferty, we are given an almost clear time-frame, beginning with her birth on 15 October 1933, in dust-bowl Oklahoma, though Dotty’s natural home is indeed Galveston.
This is as clear and open a book as Lafferty ever wrote, and whilst he never descends to any crudity, it is also as carnal a story as he ever told. Dotty, the youngest child and daughter of Sheriff Slywood O’Toole and Mary Theresa O’Toole is pretty blatantly indicated to be the product of marital rape, during the War. Slywood pretty blatantly pimps his wife out to his superior officer, Colonel Kean, and Dotty herself, under the influence of Pan, throws away her virginity, and with it for a long time her Faith, becoming next to a prostitute before she is partially saved.
Dotty is about faith, or rather Faith, since what is under consideration is Roman Catholic belief, and an old-fashioned version of it that Lafferty himself considered essential to the health of the world. Dotty herself is a preternaturally intelligent and determined child, for whom precocious is a word that doesn’t go half far enough, but she lives in a real world of Lafferty’s experience and the country’s experience. This is not a fantastic book in the way that we have become used to in Laff’s body of writing, and the closest to it in its rootedness is Archipelago. Indeed, from comments Andrew Ferguson has made elsewhere on this blog, I believe it to be Lafferty’s second novel, chronologically.
Dotty begins as an adherent to the true Faith. She is rigid and doctrinal, though those are words that ill-fit her turn of mind and belief. Rather, she is Absolutist, rejecting the world of the body, of matter and dirt, characterising those who lapse into that form as pig people, in favour of the world of spirit. She’s incredibly advanced for her age, in knowledge, perception and adventuring, but in a world that is relentlessly solid.
And she is full or argument and debate, as is the book. Lafferty rejects liberalism and humanism as tools of the Devil, rejects everything that he sees as compromise from the old, original Faith. He is more direct in his philosophy than at any time since, yes, Archipelago again. But this is a section of the Argo Mythos: one day, some enterprising publisher will, we hope, create an omnibus containing all the elements of this Mythos, to be stored under one roof.
But Dotty is about both Faith and Doubt. Dotty herself Falls, under the influence of Pan, Pan who is both nature and rutting, and her surrender to physicality, outside the licit state of marriage, breaks her for a time. Absolute Faith admits no equivocation, no least failing. What rescues her, in a remainder of the story that see-saws between her attempts and failings to recover Grace, is the sailor, Charles Piesson, with whom she finds love, and marriage, and a wholeness within that is only temporary, for he must return to sea, and there he is lost and so too is Dotty again.
Here, Lafferty hints at things beyond the solidity of life. Charles has foreseen his death, has written fifty-two letters to Dotty, to be sent to her weekly so that for a year further he can speak to her. Dotty will not open them, because to do so is to acknowledge that Charles is dead, but she knows their contents. Others read them, Soft-Talk Suzie Kutz – a barmaid and, it is faintly hinted, perhaps an Angel – takes and keeps them, to give to Dotty in their proper order, weekly, once she has admitted her loss, and Soft-Talk Suzie says that some of the contents of these letters were written after Charles died.
There is the typical Lafferty non-ending. We are only seeing part of the story, just as all his novels are part of the unfinished ‘A Ghost Story’ of his entire work. We have seen Dotty to a certain point and what else lies ahead is not to be told us. Just because there is no climax does not mean we cannot have an ending. Every story goes on for longer than we are allowed to participate by its writer.
This is a book that requires an open mind, even as you will no doubt decide that R.A. Lafferty’s was closed. It is an argument and a doctrine, and I am not equipped to judge it in theological terms, only to learn how a certain viewpoint differs from my own.

Person of Interest: s03 e14 – Provenance

Implausible but watchable

Watching and blogging a television series from beginning to end, the same day each week, is a vulnerable process, since you cannot bring the exact same set of sensibilities to bear every single Tuesday. Though it’s not happened so far with Person of Interest, it’s too much to expect for the entire run to go unaffected, and this has been the case today. Feeling at a low ebb, mentally as well as physically, due to various things going on, and watching one of those almost-never standalone episodes, ‘Provenance’ wasn’t going to lift me out of my prevailing mood. Perhaps I should have taken a week off?

The episode was a genuine standalone, its only connections to the ongoing story being at top and bottom. Reese returns from Italy, with a new suit, ready to resume his job, with a Number already on hand. At the end, the crew gathers to celebrate their success with drinks, and Reese places a glass at an empty place round the table, for the one who isn’t there.

After so many intense, serialised weeks, a one-off with no ulterior significance would have to be pretty damned strong to make it and this wasn’t. The Number was Kelli Lin, real name Jai Lin (Elaine Tan), a high-flying events planner who, it quickly turned out, was an international, world class art thief specialising in cultural artefacts of tremendous value. She was also, under her real name, a Chinese former Olympic Silver Medallist being chased by her own Jean Valjean, Interpol Agent Alain Bouchard (Henri Bulatti).

Jao basically had two skills in life: gymnastics and very high power stealing. She had a little daughter being held hostage by a Czech gang requiring her to repay her debt to them, as represented in New York by Cyril (Gene Farber) who was obviously never going to let her go.

It was this conception, gymnast and thief, that bent the plausibility curve out of shape for me and left me unable to get into the episode in the way I usually do. It was the usual, well-constructed thriller: the team start off aiming to frustrate the theft by Jao, in whose wake bodies drop like flies (Cyril was doing it behind Jao’s back) and then had to switch to carrying out the theft itself to protect Jao’s daughter and bring the Czechs down.

Even then, to achieve the required happy ending, logic had to be bent to get Bouchard, who’d pursued Jao across Europe for years, to slip her a key so that she could escape.

No, on another day, of fairer frame of mind, I could buy this and enjoy it for what it was, but not today. Today, I was not receptive to what I could only see as a weak episode by PoI standards. Next week will be better.

Saturday SkandiKrime: Wisting – episodes 7 & 8

I wouldn’t expect too much from me on this pair of episodes because, though the second half of the series is turning out to be more interesting and less conventional than the first with its serial killer, I happen to be watching it with a head full of cold that is not doing anything for my mental acuity. It’s an effort to go beyond Good Procedural, Keep It Up.

For instance, I remember a scene in which a young blonde reported a feeling of being followed to Bejaminm, the youngest member of Wisting’s team. Since she had no evidence whatsoever beyond ‘feeling’, he couldn’t do anything about it. Now the girl, Linnea Kaupang, has gone missing, didn’t come home last night, reported it to the Police, now headed by the efficient-but-distracted-trying-fior-a-baby Torunn. I remember the scene but I can’t remember if that was last week or in a previous one.

Linnea’s case is meant to parallel the Cecilia case over which Wisting has been suspended. Not directly: one involves the faking of evidence to convict a probably innocent man, the other the police not taking a matter sufficiently seriously (with no reason to do so until hindsight intervenes. Benjamin, who conducted the intial interview is getting steadily further involved, especially after Linnea commits suicide.

Or leaves a suicide blog note. The Police have to investigate all options, they can’t just take on trust the word of a mother who wasn’t that close to her daughter but who treats the merest suggestion of conflicts as a direct accusation of being a bad mother.

Meanwhile, Wisting is investigating the Cecilia case from his own records. Someone did plant faked evidence. Nils was all over the case like a cheap suit, and he was relocated from Oslo for taking shortcuts. nd Frank, still obsessed with his niece’s death, convinced Haglund did it and not respecting any niceties about the caswe, is so blatant a suspect that it can’t be him unless the show is pulling an unusually subtle double-bluff.

He end up with Torunn on sick leave, no-one in charge, Linnea’s parents bad-mouthing the Police across all the press, Line getting involved again (as in fucking naked on her Dad’s couch) with ex-boyfriend bad-boy Tommy (why is this relevant?) and a resigned Haglund giving Wisting the clue to identify who fitted him up.

It all made a lot more sense watching this but as i say, my head’s away with the fairies right now. I am going to make myself a coffee and give it the rest of the day off. I’d better be better for the finale, next weekend.

Film 2020: Volver

Once, a long time ago, I watch a Pedro Almodovar firm on television, Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown I think it was. I remember Barry Norman enthusing over that on his BBC Film show, the one I’ve stolen the title from. Since thern, I’ve seen nothing by him.

With the exception of one Chinese film, the wonderful Curse of the Golden Flower, and one Mexican film, the superb Y Tu Mama, Tambien, the only foreign films I have in my collection are French. But something about the cover of this DVD, Penelope Cruz’s face, Almodovar’s reputation and the high regard in which Volver is held, came together to inspire me to take a punt on a cheap copy, and it’s been a good guess once more.

Though I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen, I’m not really sure what I’ve seen this morning. Volver (To Go Back, or Coming Back) is no one thing, nor is its story clearly-defined at any one moment. Usually, films that don’t settle on one strong theme tend to meander (which is not always a bad thing), and have trouble ending. This film however avoids settling upon any single element to emphasise, and gives weight to each one, taking themes such as sexual abuse, insanity, murder, ghosts and adultery and stuffing them into a wellspring of life. It’s a film with six stars, all of them women, of three different generations, coming out with a buoyancy that contradicts the seemingly negative atmosphere you would otherwise expect.

The film begins with a classically Spanish scene: woman, mostly widows, are sweeping, polishing, cleaning, tending to headstones in a graveyard in the village of Alcanfor de les Infantas, a village in the La Mancha region of Spain. Here are Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), her fourteen year old daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and her sister Sole (Soledad, Lola Duenas), tending the grave of Raimunda and Sole’s mother Irene (Carmen Maura), killed along with their father in a fire three years ago. They go on to the women’s Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), elderly, near-blind, senile, who is being looked after by her neighbour opposite, Augustina (Blanca Portillo), who believes Aunt Paula is visited by the ghost of her sister, Irene.

That’s a complicated set-up to begin with, but it’s soon to get more involved. Raimunda is married to Paco, a mainly good-for-nothing slob, perennially unemployed, semi-drunk. Home from Alcanfor, concerned about her Aunt (to whom she has always been closer than to her late mother), Raimunda refuses Paco’s advances in bed. Horny, he glances up Paula’s skirt, spies on her in the bathroom, topless, and then tries to rape her in the kitchen, claiming he’s not her father so it’s ok. Raimunda comes home from work to find Paco dead, stabbed.

Raimunda takes responsibility. She cleans the kitchen, hides the body in a freezer in the nearby restaurant when she’s left the keys by its absentee owner, indeed opens the restaurant ad hoc to feed a film crew, improvising madly with the aid of her neighbours (both female, one a prostitute). Whilst this is developing wildly, Aunt Paula dies. Sole has to go to the Funeral alone – despite being terrified of the dead – although everything is organised beautifully by Augustina.

In Aunt Paula’s house, Sole sees her mother. When she returns to Madrid, her mother is in the trunk of her car. Influenced by village superstitions, Sole believes her mother has returned, to fill one last, undone thing from life, and is ready to do this for her. However, Irene can only do herself what she needs to know, which is to speak to Raimunda and put right the reason her daughter hates her

Irene moves in to Sole’s apartment. She assists her in her illegal hairdressing business, pretending to be a Russian who speaks no Spanish.

Augustina contracts cancer, a virulent form, terminal. She has one wish left, to know whether her mother is alive or dead. Her mother disappeared years ago, the same day Raimunda and Sole’s parents were killed. Augustina believes in Irene’s ghost and, if she should appear to Raimunda, she wants her to ask that question. Raimunda, who is full of an unexpressed anger that Cruz incarnates in her every look, dismisses this as ridiculous only to learn, long after her daughter, that her mother is still there.

Irene’s not a ghost. Raimunda’s earthiness won’t allow a ghost to exist. In fact, the truth was that Augustina’s mother had been having an affair with Raimunda’s father, and it was Augustina’s mother who died in the fire, set by Irene.

And there is more. Paco wasn’t lying when he claimed Paula wasn’t his daughter. Raimunda was abused by her father: Paula is not merely her daughter but also her sister.

Slowly, everything comes out. The picture is painted. Raimunda and Sole bring Irene back to Alfancor. Augustina is on medication to keep her free from pain as she dies. Irene moves into her house, as a ghost, to care for her until the end.

All of this seems morbid, and yet the film’s gift, in Almodovar’s writing and directing, and in everybody’s acting, with no distinction to be drawn between any of the players (though Cruz is as good as anyone ever has been, not to mention looking fabulous throughout in a very non-film star fashion: I also loved Duenas, who I’d never seen before, and she possesses a very attractive bottom) is to fill you with great enjoyment.

The film’s lack of a clear definition makes it difficult for me to respond to it with any clarity of my own. It’s a wide window into a culture with which I have only the most minimal insight but to which I have always responded positively and with great enjoyment and comfort. Two hours in such a place is worth the experience itself, and I will be watching this several times more.

Bye Bye Mr Derek

I hope this isn’t going to start being a habit, like in 2016, writing recollections of the good, the great and the memorable. One year like that was enough for a lifetime. But for a second successive night I’m paying tribute to someone we’ve lost.

I go back far enough to remember Derek Fowlds as Mr Derek, yes, on The Basil Brush Show, which memory plants firmly as being on Friday afternoons, the last offering of Children’s television before the adults took over with the news. But I never watched him in Heartbeat, which provided him with a comfortable and stable old age.

No, I will always remember Derek Fowlds as Bernard Woolley, the dry, pedantic Principal Private Secretary on Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister, forever caught between the twin masters Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby, in one of the funniest and most intelligent sitcoms ever to come out of Britain. Now Fowlds is gone, we have lost all three stars of this dryest of witty shows.

Notoriously, actual Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once insisted on playing a political sketch, written by Number 10, not Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, to be read with Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne. It was put out that there simply wasn’t a part from Fowlds, but I am cheered immensely to learn today that the truth was that he would not appear with her.

Good guys always go, though sometimes they stay with us a long, long time: Fowlds was 82. Our only consolation is that, in a primitive way of balancing things out, the other sort eventually go as well. Derek Fowlds lives forever as Bernard Woolley, a good legacy.

The Infinite Jukebox: Age of Chance’s ‘Kiss’

The best Prince covers are easily the ones where you know nothing about the original. Of course, if you’ve only ever owned one Prince album, even if that’s Sign O’The Times, that aspect is easy, but just think of ‘Nothing compares to U’, or ‘Manic Monday’, not to mention the little known but still brilliant Hindu Love Gods cover of ‘Raspberry Beret’.
And then there’s the Age of Chance…
The first time I heard ‘Kiss’, I hadn’t a clue what to make of it. How I even heard it, I don’t know because I’d stopped listening to Peely by then. It just stopped me in my tracks like a street-mugging, and it’s still a jolt of electric energy and easily one of the best examples of pulling a song apart by ripping off its arms and legs with wild horses and suturing them back together in a way nobody could have imagined. Just what the hell was this?
Well, this was, to use Age of Chance’s own definition, Crush Collision, a musical style I have never heard any other band perform. Before I got the album and found that out, the best I could come up with by myself was Heavy Metal Call-and-Response and it isn’t even Heavy Metal…
A music teacher friend of mine once described music as “organised noise”. What the Age of Chance do is to break the concept of organisation down as far as it can go whilst remaining recognisable as music. The staccato, inconstant drumming, constantly disrupting any kind of rhythm, the thunderous guitar, hammered out on one undifferentiated chord, these leave the only vestige of the tune Prince wrote in the hands of the singer, or rather shouter.
But the song is not a song, not in the hands of the Age of Chance, it’s a bludgeon of sound, stripping any sense of melody out of the aural experience. The only remnant of tune is conveyed by the raucous chorus, which may have been sinuous and slinky in the Prince original, but is here a defiant chant, negating any suggestion that the band are performing a song (I have never knowingly heard Prince’s version and I have no wish to mar the purity of the Age of Chance’s barrage by ever doing so: the disappointment would be massive).
In fact, there’s an underlying air of glee, a joyful sense of anarchy to the band’s approach. They’re ripping the song to pieces, rebuilding it in a completely different form, overwhelming as they charge towards the listener, shaping the world about them in a way that it has never been done before. If only they were plugged into the mains, the band give off the sense that they could light Leeds for a month.
If the band were a part of any musical tradition it was the brief Industrial music phase also championed by Peely in the early Eighties, exemplified by Tools You Can Trust. The Age of Chance had clearly heard them, but where Industrial Music built itself out of percussion almost exclusively, Crush Collision had greater ambitions, more polyphonic rhythms and a sense of hurtling inevitability, as if they were sculpting their sound out of granite rather than metal.
If only they’d lasted. One album, two Peel Sessions, 12”ers and remixes and b-sides, all linked by that charging sound, those epic chants. Partway through recording a second album, ‘singer’ Steven-E (Elvidge) quit. The album was re-voiced by his successor, but Elvidge’s voice was an essential component of that sound and, despite limping on another three years, the spell was broken. Age of Chance were one of those bands who exist in one line-up and in which no-one can be replaced, and especially not by a smooth, sweet, soul voice. On top of those rythyms?!.
There isn’t anything else that sounds remotely like this that I like, and there was only ever too little of this. Sometimes you wonder if the world isn’t ready for some bands, and sometimes you wonder if some bands just have too narrow an audience. Count me in that niche, if that was what they were: some grooves are too good to get out of.

As Father, As Son: Christopher Tolkien, R.I.P.

Thiugh his father’s name will always precede him, so long as people read The Lord of the Rings, Christopher (C.J.R.) Tolkien, who has been announced today as having died aged 95, will enjoy reknown for playing a vital and heroic role in expanding the universe of Myth and Philology that grew from an exercise book and a pencil, in the trenches of the Somme over a hundred years ago.

Christopher, like his siblings, grew up on the stories created by his father, not least of which the one that became The Hobbit. He became cloaest to his father in mind about these stories, drawing several of the earliest Maps, being the recipient of Book 4 in chapters sent out to him on National Service in South Africa in the Second World War, his Literary Executor, and not merely Guardian of the Flame but responsible for the expanson of Middle Earth and its vastest histories into the best possible representation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s final thoughts.

All his work, from 1974 onwards, when he began work on producing an acceptable The Silmarillion and then the long decades of The History of Middle Earth, a massive illustration of the evelopment of a writer’s mind, C.J.R. abnegated himself to his father’s creativity, with love, fidelity and a profound respect.

Though not a writer in his own stead, to me he deserves just as much remebrance and thanks for what he did. May he live in Middle-Earth forever.

Lou Grant: s03 e12 – Hollywood

Forties sob-sister journalist

After demonstrating how well it could tell a story over two episodes, Lou Grant went back to single episode mode and showed just how good it could be in its basic style. The show gave itself a stylistic twist, with voiceovers from Lou himself, and stylish, if somewhat overmixed soundtrack combining to create an atmospheric story that went back thirty years, leading to an ending that left you still caught in the haze of the past, without a glib response.

It began with an old, abandoned Mexican food restaurant, Baby Duarte’s Cantina. Lou discovers it by chance, doing a favour, taking a Diner meal across to its owner, the reclusive Mrs Polk (Nina Foch). She never leaves the place, she never sees anybody. Inside, the Cantina is exactly as it was when it was shut, just dust.

Baby Duarte used to be an LA name, a Filipino boxer, a local success and, afterwards, such a sweet guy. His place was popular with the Hollywood crowd until, one night, Baby was murdered, in a back booth. The murder was never solved, though the suspects were Hollywood folk, racey actress Laura Sinclair, her two agents (and reputed lovers) Lee Wittenberg and Ken Holmes, and Director ‘Wild Man’ Moran.

Laura. who reputedly also had a mobster lover, kissed Baby in front of her two Agents.moran, already drunk, was refused a drink by Baby, who he provoked into beating his down. Mrs Polk, widow of Baby’s co-owner, discovered him at 3.45am, shot dead.

It’s an old murder of a forgotten name. At first, the Trib does a picture series on the Cantina. Then the team get involved in the old story. They interview the surviving players, Holmes and Moran. They interview Thea Kaft (Margaret Hamilton), the hard-boiled reporter who covered the story in the Forties, who supplies cuttings. Slowly, the story enlarges. Animal befriends Mrs Polk, a lonely woman trapped in a past that has captured her and refuses to let her leave. She’s a woman of her times, of her raising, a note the show slips in unobtrusively.

Can Billie or Rossi or Lou solve the crime after all these years? Billie discovers that Laura Sinclair, who supposedly cracked up a few months later and died in a Sanatorium in Indiana, is neither dead nor insane: she got out of the business, gew her hair. put on her glasses annd married a Doctor, becoming a fat, placid, contented mother.

I was beginning to think this was going to stay unsolved, because the atmosphere, the sense of times past and irrecoverable, so gracefully captured, was the main point of this episode, but there was a sting to the tale, a sting that left  you sad and helpless to its pointlessness.

Animal interviewed Mrs Polk, softly, gently, sympathetic. And out of that sympathy he understood what had happened. Mrs Polk had loved Baby, been in love with him. To us, and to him, there seemed no obstacle: he was single, she was widowed. But there was an obstacle, an insuperable obstacle. Baby was ‘coloured’. He came from Manilla, he wasn’t white. Mrs Polk wasn’t raised that way. It was against the Law (the look in her eyeswhen Animal told her, very gently, that that Law was changed, twenty-five years ago versus her soft comment that it was a good Law). Baby had a dream, of owning a chicken farm. he wanted a wife, he wanted to go back to the Phillipines. Mrs Polk loved him so much.

There was no heat to it, not now, not thirty years later. Just a hopeless sweetness, and the human heart in conflict with itself. Good Law? No. Yet it was not the Law but Mrs Polk’s upbringing that killed Baby Duarte, forgotten name of Los Angeles.

It waas, after all, so long ago. but without leaving 1979, the episode had spent its life there, and it was hard to emerge from it.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: The Elliptical Grave

Like How Many Miles to Babylon?, The Elliptical Grave was published as a chapbook, a chapbook of a different dimension, but it is a chapbook whose circulation numbers hundreds not thousands. It is there in the Archipelago checklist, though it is there named ‘The Elliptic’, but I first knew of its existence in the mid-Nineties, in a Comics Journal Summer Reading List where Neil Gaiman was reading this and Dotty. Because it was the Nineties, I could get this (and Dotty) for less than the cost of a medium-sized asteroid. At least I could actually get this, which seems impossible now, as it doesn’t look like any of us who have a copy are letting it out of our hands this side of our grave.
The Elliptical Grave was the third of Lafferty’s novels to be published in 1989. I do not know when it appeared but have chosen to treat it as later than Sindbad – The Thirteenth Voyage, though I read it much sooner than either.
The book appeared through United Mythologies Press, publishers of many late chapbooks by Lafferty, most of which were compilations of short stories. It was 100 pages long, square bound but otherwise in the general format UMP established for such books. It was published in 375 copies, seventy five either private or signed and with an extra short story: mine is no 274.
It is a physically difficult book to read because, although the printing is immaculate, the typesetting is done on an electric typewriter, in unjustified lines, by copying typescript pages. The effect is narrow and grey and hard on the eye, and even though the book is only 100 pages long in this format, these are long, dense and grey pages, and far more physically draining than the ordinary run of book.
The Elliptical Grave is a strange book, even by Lafferty’s standards. Coming late in his career, it pays even less regard to the audience, framing itself around an unusual archaeological expedition, to the White Goat Valley in Calabria, the southernmost toe of Italy, digging in the ground and the air for things never defined but which are regarded as dangerous to discover, the search for which ultimately ends in the imprisonment, and implied death of all members of the expedition, eccentric of name, aspect and aptitude in the grand Lafferty manner.
And there is another suspended ending, represented only by a large font exclamation mark, in which two courses are stated to be possible but not which of them will come about.
The Expedition is in the name of its leader, Pioneer J Reventlo, who believes that in the earliest beginning, language was at its most detailed, widespread, gracious and complex, and that history has been a process of ultimate simplification, as opposed to the opposite that we all assume.
Reventlo gathers round him a crew of minds, who agree, disagree, reject and support his ideas, to one extent or another. He regards himself as being Cro-Magnon, and at least one other member of the expedition as Neanderthal. He seeks his University’s support, and bursary, to carry out his expedition to a valley that at least half of his Expedition believes to be an illusion and which, in reality, it very well may be.
Structurally, the story has three roughly equal phases. There is the initial set-up, complete with its arguments about the validity of Reventlo’s proposed expedition, its funding in the face of disagreement and the efforts of a small and secretive group whose members use code names employing different arrangements of the numbers 1 and 2 (the chief opponent is designated 1-212-1212). Cartwheeling in and out of this are two acrobats, Vivian Oldshoe and Curtis Blow, acrobatic of mind and body (when I said cartwheeling, I meant it literally), who know deep secrets for which they are constantly pursued by killers seeking to prevent these being communicated.
The second phase takes place at White Goat Valley, remote and isolated, but with a Pavilion that attracts tourists and which is used to house that part of the expedition that is not staying with the Count of San Angelo, a ghost who is nevertheless the ruler of the Valley. The Count is one of many ghosts, one of which, Cecilia Calca, becomes a member of the expedition. There is also the excavator, Il Trol, who is, as you may gather, a troll. The expedition digs and excavates in both the ground and the air above it, and it excavates from these places that are both past and future a wealth of invaluable material for their studies, whilst the members settle down to watch the latest biopic adventures of Vivian and Curtis, starring in their ongoing ‘Death Chase’ pursuit film.
But the expedition is warned not to allow all of its members inside the Pavilion at once but to always keep at least one person outside so as to help them escape. And in their excitement over their findings, the expedition forgets this and as soon as all the members, including those who are ghosts, are within, the Pavilion is locked and they are trapped, inescapably.
This is the third phase. The Pavilion has been removed from the world for 375 days. Outside there is nothing. The secrets 1-212-1212 was so determined to prevent being revealed will not be revealed because they cannot. When the Pavilion opens again, those who survive will discover…
But that’s the thing. Reventlo has a theory that life moves towards simplicity not complexity, with the oldest languages the most ornate, but that’s about as close as Lafferty comes to defining the things the expedition is looking for, and he certainly doesn’t define what they find. What it is is a matter for the readers’ imagination, and in this late stage of his career, it is correspondingly harder to divine his thoughts from a virtual paucity of matters.
In that sense, The Elliptical Grave has to be considered a failure in conventional terms, and a relatively minor work in Laffertarian terms. It is full of the usual improbable people, with strong opinions and behaviours, and sometimes with Lafferty, whose people are as unbelievable as their highly unlikely but symbolic names, that’s worth the price of entrance alone.