A. E. Ellis (Derek Lindsay)
The Rack (Restored Edition)
Introduction by Alan Wall
Ashgrove Publishing Ltd, 2016
Constant Readers will no doubt recall my enthusiastic review of Valancourt’s re-issue of this somewhat forgotten masterpiece of midcentury British fiction. There I concluded that
In the end, I can’t agree with some of those readers who have named this the best novel ever written, or even of the 20th century, but it’s certainly a more visceral, and valuable, experience than The Magic Mountain; rather than just reading about Hans and his interesting discussions and possible spiritual growth, one can come close to being, at least in imagination, the alchemical subject oneself. While Mann, true to his title, gives us only the alchemical vessel, The Rack puts the reader on the instrument itself, helping us to realize that we are all in Paul’s position: “As Jung once suggested, life itself is a disease with a very poor prognosis. It lingers on for years and invariably ends with death.”
So imagine my delight to hear that a new edition is to be published in a restored version.
When originally published, some 45,000 words were excised by Lindsay’s friend and editor James Michie, himself a noted poet and translator. Now, some 25,000 words have been recovered and restored by the writer and academic Alan Wall.
Wall also contributes an Introduction that nicely complements some points made in my own review. After a brief tour d’horizon of the “vivid enough accounts of the effects of this terrible affliction, some fictional and some historical,” that we have been given over the centuries — Keats, The Portrait of a Lady, La Bohème, even Doc Holliday at the O.K. Corral — Wall arrives at the inevitable comparison, The Magic Mountain of Thomas Mann, and he immediately lays his finger, like a skilled medical practitioner, on the essential difference:
[We] sense on every page of the novel the reality of the gruelling experience underlying it. Unlike Mann, who gathered his data regarding the sanatorium from an illness of his wife’s, Lindsay himself underwent the experiences so brilliantly and graphically conveyed here. … You could never ask for more evidence of first-hand experience than we are given in this novel. Where Mann is relatively uninterested in the actual medical details of the procedures being pursued up in the mountains, preferring long philosophical discussions, the writer Ellis spares us nothing. We know with every page that this is an account, as vivid as any could possibly be, of actual experience transmuted into fiction.
Thought there is “nothing metaphorical” about life in the sanatorium Les Alpes, Wall also sees that the main effect of this suffocating realism is rather, well, magical; the reader finding himself almost the subject of a medical experiment, or rather, as I suggested, an alchemical process:
Both medicine and psychology became concentrated, compressed into a place and a space, and there can be no escaping either except by reaching that final terminus which never seems too far away in any case.
As I also observed, Lindsay/Ellis does this by the kind of obsessive attention to details that I’ve called attention to in writers as diverse as Henry James, H. P. Lovecraft and even Baron Evola: a kind of realism pushed so far as to become a kind of true sur-realism, generating horror from the everyday and even, at times, mystical transcendence.
The details of this life are portrayed with such particularising brilliance that it is impossible not to notice that we are in the presence of great writing. This is indeed the work which so impressed Greene, and it achieves a finesse of horrified observation which would surely have struck Flaubert as exemplary.
Commenting on an account of a meal of what I would call Lovecraftian unease (complete with a Cthulhuian “etiolated, disintegrating octopus”) Wall observes that
You have to look long and hard at food to see it as vividly as that, and you have to be a writer of remarkable command to convey the matter so succinctly. In the drama of confinement that constitutes life in a sanatorium, assuming you are a mobile intelligence unit with the exquisitely functioning senses of Paul Davenant, you have time to scrutinise all this data fastidiously. The obsessions are: first the medical treatment, then the food, then the environmental conditions, and finally the doctors whose regulations rule your existence.
Discussing the remarkable cast of characters Lindsay/Ellis creates, Wall, as I did, singles out Desmond Beale, but while I could only relate him to Blackadder’s Lord Flasheart, Wall finds a more distinguished pedigree:
Beale seems to have strolled out of the pages of an Evelyn Waugh satire of the 1930s. He is in effect a living gargoyle, splendidly portrayed in all his inebriate ghastliness. And yet, like so many of the characters in Waugh, he is not in fact mere caricature; he comes alive on the page.
And that leads us to the subject of this “restored” edition, which Prof. Wall lauds for
[Now] display[ing] far more of Derek Lindsay’s darkly comedic talent as a writer. Ellis writes in that great, savage tradition of British humour, a tradition which includes Ben Jonson, Dickens and Evelyn Waugh.
Now, what about the revisions — or rather, restorations — and additions? Aware of my interest in the book, the publisher not only contacted me to alert me to the upcoming Restored Edition, but also made available a remarkable document which presented the text of the novel with all changes and additions indicated by various colors of ink. In this way I was able, with no great strain on my memory or dexterity, to see how the novel had originally been presented to the publishers and then slowly transformed into the work into what we might call — on analogy to the Biblical precedent — the Received Text.
Of course all this also appealed to my admitted rather postmodern love of works that exist in multiple editions.
James Michie had the unenviable task of editing for publication the first novel of a close friend. According to the publisher, no record exists of what his guiding philosophy was, but perhaps it can be inferred from the results. It seems clear that he thought he was faced with two problems: the novel was too long — especially for a first novel by an unknown writer — and there was too much of both drama and comedy, to put it that way, without cluing in the reader as to which was predominant.
Wall is probably right to think that the idea was to craft something along the line of the newly popular “existentialist” fictions coming out of post-war Europe, although I would maintain this British novel is far superior to any of them, except perhaps The Stranger. All the more attractive as a strategy, since such récits tend to be on the short side, thus allowing him to fulfill the other half of his brief.
Literally true or not, the record of textual changes makes it look as if Michie started at the beginning, making relatively few changes, mostly just tightening up the wording of sentences, eliminating redundancies, etc. As the end of Part Two approaches, the wholesale deletions increase, and ultimately whole chapters are dropped, including a newly fashioned ending. Along the way, Paul’s romance with Michele is somewhat abbreviated, and some characterizations are tweaked, mostly for the better.
The result is The Rack we know; although still a long book, more Dickens than Camus, it’s more tightly focused on Paul’s ordeal with only occasional humorous bits as relief, leading to the sense of alchemical confinement we’d alluded to.
Overall, one can’t really disagree with the bulk of Michie original choices. One passage that one might have wanted retained comes fairly early, in Chapter 10 of Part One:
‘It has all been useless?’
‘Who knows? God perhaps — certainly neither Dr. Vernet nor myself.’
‘It is always the past — recapitulated.’
‘There are differences. We change.’
Perhaps Michie thought it too explicit, but it’s a nice adumbration of the theme we identified as the essence of the work: Paul’s struggle to overcome the futile and (literally) deadening routine and repetition imposed by both the disease and the doctors, mirroring own struggle to transcend the everyday.
And speaking of repetition, Michie’s instinct was sound to remove the whole original ending, which goes on too long and concludes with a gesture overly dramatic, clichéd, and above all, too final for a novel where endless, despairing repetition is the main theme.
Interestingly, one thing that Wall himself has removed is the epigraph, a page-long quote from the obscure, in all senses, French litterateur Montherlant. It’s entirely in French, and near as I can tell mucks about with death and life and other French concerns. It’s definitely not needed, but it does give you fair warning that, as I pointed out in my review, this is a book that hails from the era when and educated Englishman could be expected to be able to handle a fair amount of French in his reading matter.
So, where does this leave you, the Reader? The first timer is best advised to go for the original edition; it is long and harrowing enough as it is, and it is, allowing for Michie’s editing, the version the author decided on. On the other hand, the original is more in the English tradition of the “loose baggy monsters” James disparaged, and to that extent some may find it easier just to get through the first time, reserving the shorter, more intense edition for a revisit.
But just about any reader will agree with the likes of Graham Greene, V. S. Pritchett, and Cyril Connelly, that this is a true twentieth century masterpiece, and will want immerse himself in the author’s whole original vision, and come as well to a new appreciation of the process — itself almost alchemical — that produced the received version of Ellis’ alchemical novel.
If The Rack is an alchemical process, then like those, it must be a repeated experience. For enabling this, we will all owe a debt of gratitude to the folks at Ashgrove Publishing.
1. “’Here Lies No One’: Reflections on the Metaphysics of The Rack,” here.
2. See, for instance, the title essay in my collection The Eldritch Evola … & Others (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).
3. The patient-protagonist who stands in for Lindsay/Ellis, and whose very name, I pointed out, suggests the Lovecraftian revenant.
4. See, for instance, “Breaking Badge: Touch of Evil through the Lens of Breaking Bad,” here. Forthcoming essays will explore, in a similar fashion, the cinematic oeuvre of Coleman Francis, as well as the multiple print and film versions of A Dandy is Aspic.
5. See Greg Johnson’s “A Leveling Wind: Reading Camus’ The Stranger,” here.
6. As I’ve also said before, the very obscurity of my college preserved such attitudes long into the ’70s, helped in this case by being, after all, in officially bi-lingual Canada. Even here, “familiar” had many meanings. One of my philosophy profs, F. Temple Kingston, was not only the son of the Archbishop of Ontario, but also the author of the well-regarded French Existentialism. A reading of a paper on Merleau-Ponty reveled, however, that his upper-class notion of bilingualism entailed being able to read French, but pronounced as if it were English. No quarter to fancy notions of authenticity here. This is the sort of thing that fueled Quebec separatism for decades.
7. To use a distinction made by Edmund White, the Michie version is in the modernist tradition, where every word bears some significance, while the original is more akin to an older, more discursive tradition where the reader can skip along, dipping in where and to what extent he wishes; see White’s introduction to Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray (Oxford World’s Classics Hardback Edition, 1999) and my comments in The Eldritch Evola, loc. cit.
8. “Authentic initiation must be a series, because the mind must spend some time, some number of sessions, working through ideas and sense-of-self feelings while in the mystic state. Astrotheology reflects this by the idea of ascending through graded planetary spheres.” Michael Hoffman on “The Classic Initiation Series,” here.