A Voyage To Arcturus - David Lindsay

Another review for Usenet (or see Google archive).

A Voyage To Arcturus
David Lindsay
Fantasy Masterworks
ISBN 0575074833

This isn't so much a review as it is a request for someone to explain to me why A Voyage To Arcturus is regarded as a classic?

The back cover has several laudatory quotes - Clive Barker calls it 'a masterpiece.', The Times says that it is a product of genius, while Moorcock suggests that it 'stands as one of the great originals.'

Me? I bounced off it within ten pages, kept going, bounced off it again a few pages later, and finally gave up at page 180 out of 280. I think that's a fair attempt.

Still, Barker and Moorcock aren't really to my taste, maybe A Voyage To Arcturus is simply not to my taste either. However, I've read plenty of books that I didn't really think were my cup of tea, but I've always been able to tell if, say, the plotting or characterisation, or certain themes were interesting. Not this time; I really didn't see any reason to keep on reading, not even to see if the ending would explain why critics like this so much.

A Voyage To Arcturus was published in 1920. It starts with a seance in Hampstead, in which a medium produces a body from thin air. Why did I bounce off here, so early? Well, the seance takes a very long time to set up, and introduces a large cast of characters - Blackhouse, the medium. Faull, the host. Mrs Jameson, the host's sister. Kent-Smith, an ex-magistrate. Mrs Trent, a friend of Mrs Jameson. Prior, a coffee importer. Lang, a stock-jobber. Professor Halbert. In addition, Mrs Trent has invited a couple oflate arrivals on her own initiative - Maskull, a giant, and Nightspore, a psychic. Anyone find anything odd about the last pair? Me too, but of course, this being a English drawing room, no-one says anything.

So, the medium has produced the body from thin air. Now, a stranger breaks in, and after a few words to those present kills the 'specimen goblin', invites Maskull to join him and Nightspore, who it seems know the intruder, Krag.

So, chapter two. We now follow Maskull as he follows Nightspore and Krag on a quest to go to somewhere called Tormance, in pursuit of someone called Surtur. I dropped the book here. We were introduced, in a very lengthy and frankly dry, first chapter, to a host of characters, and it turns out that the barely sketched peripheral characters are to be central? Argh. I relented a day later, and started again. Things turn more obviously allegorical, or maybe just plain confused quickly. It takes another couple of chapters for Maskull to go anywhere, but eventually he arrives on Tormance - alone.

Maskull has sprouted some new organs, one on his brow, one either side of his neck, and a tentacle on his chest. These imbue him with new senses. Long story short, we follow Maskull in this new land as he meets and falls in love with one of the gentle kind inhabitants. Next, he moves to another land, grows new organs, finds this land to have new rules - perhaps cruel and harsh. Rinse, repeat. New lands, new organs, new sense, new encounters. The central theme is the quest for the identity of the mysterious Surtur, or Crystalman, or Shaping.

I presume the author is writing something allegorical, that later in the novel I would find all the threads tying together, that I would learn what the strange spiritual journey Maskull is making is all about - but frankly, about 2/3 of the way in I still didn't know where things were going, and worse, I didn't really care. Part of the problem is the writing. I like period prose, that didn't put me off at all. The different rhythms and style weren't a problem - the fact that the characters were wooden puppets was a problem. The fact that all the conversations and descriptions were written by an author with a tin ear? That was a problem too. Oh, and my complete lack of interest in the landscape didn't help - it wasn't strange and exotic, it was just ... there ... for Maskull to be pushed through by the author.

Here's a paragraph I dropped the book at on the third day; Maskull is travelling on a flying steed behind a fierce warrior woman:

"'Sing me a song!' he called out presently. 'A characteristic one.'
She turned her head and gave him a long, peculiar look; then, without any sort of expostulation, started singing. Her voice was low and weird. The song was so extraordinary that he had to rub his eyes to ascertain whether he were awake or dreaming. The slow surprises of the grotesque melody began to agitate him in a horrible fashion; the words were pure nonsense - else their significance was too deep for him."

See? If I were the woman, I too would have given Maskull a peculiar look for saying something like, 'A characteristic one.' Maybe you enjoy this novel, but I'm not going to recommend it to anyone. To me it read as though the author of The Eye of Argon tired of Conan, grabbed Pilgrim's Progress and had a stab at that style next.

I think the last line of the quote above is how I saw A Voyage To Arcturus; "the words were pure nonsense - else their significance was too deep for him [me]."

Posted: Sat - August 9, 2003 at 12:00 AM