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The Vorrh, Redux

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Vorrh-smallEarly in 2013 I wrote a post about The Vorrh, a novel by sculptor, artist, and poet Brian Catling. I thought it was a powerful, fascinating book that defied easy categorisation; epic fantasy or epic horror, magic realism or magic surrealism, it seemed bigger and stranger than whatever one might think to call it. Set mostly in Africa and mostly in the years after World War I, it deals with a forest called the Vorrh, where reality and time and logic become confused. A hunter tries to cross the forest, another man tries to stop him, yet another man tries to stop the second. Meanwhile, in a colonial German city that exists inside the forest, a young cyclops is educated by peculiar automata. Alternating with these plot strands we follow the fictionalised life of the actual Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge, as well as the unreal experiences of the quite real French surrealist writer Raymond Roussel, whose equally real 1910 novel Impressions d’Afrique first introduced the Vorrh.

Catling’s novel first came out in late 2012. Now, almost three years later, it’s being republished (as reported here by Black Gate supreme overlord John O’Neil). Catling’s edited the book extensively, slimming it down and moving sections around. He’s also found a new publisher. The original version of the book came from UK small press Honest Publishing; the new one’s published by Vintage.

The edits make a more direct narrative. The maze-like interleaving of scenes and moments has been reworked into an armature of chapters. Crucially, though, much of the original’s tonal strangeness remains. The prose has been pruned of some detail, some paradox, and some side reflections, and this tends to make the story clearer. Many of the losses were fascinating bits of writing in and of themselves, but also complicated sentences, paragraphs, or concepts. Sometimes those complications were worthwhile. But if the new Vorrh is a little less rich, it’s also much more vivid.

The VorrhThe original text was mostly built out of relatively short passages of several paragraphs or a couple pages, shifting back and forth from character to character. The new edit assembles the scenes featuring specific characters or sets of characters into longer units, fusing the brief passages into chapters. The new text also takes care to name characters early on in a chapter, where the original was content to be more enigmatic — more interested with presenting a character’s interiority, and allowing the reader to work out their identity from context. The new edit moves more smoothly, keeping different threads in motion in a more traditional way, but along with that comes less reader involvement. Because you don’t have to work as much to put the pieces together, you relate to the book differently.

If The Vorrh was and is, as its name implies, a kind of narrative vortex, then one might imagine the earlier version of the book as a kind of swirl of overlapping spirals, while the new version is a set of straight lines running through different points on a circular perimeter and meeting at a centre. Things are more linear. One character’s chronology is straightened out. Others have backstory introduced earlier. Time becomes easier to parse, and characters seem to be deeper though little new information’s presented: the sense of reading about people with pasts is stronger, and events no longer seem to take place in an eternal present moment.

On a sentence level, you can see the greater fluidity and clarity of the new version by comparing two passages. Here’s an example from early in the book — the second scene in the original, in the new edit the start of Part 1 (with the original first scene now a brief prologue). First the original version:

The bow I carry with me into the wilderness, I made of Este.

She died just before dawn, ten days ago. She had seen her death while working in her garden, saw the places between plants where she no longer stood, an uncapping of momentum in the afternoon sun. She prepared me for what had to be done, walking back into our simple house and removing her straw hat, returning it to its shadow and nail on the north wall.

She was born a seer and some part of her seeing lived in the expectancy of her departure, a breeze before a wave, before a storm. Seers die in a threefold lapse, from the outside in. The details and confinement of each infolding had to be carefully marked and heard without panic or emotion on my part, for I then took on a different role.

We said goodbye during the days leading to her night. Then all of my feelings were put away; there were more important rituals to perform. All this I knew. From our first agreement to be together it had been described, it had been unfolded. Our love and companionship grew in the confines and the constantly open door of its demand, and secretly I rehearsed my distance and practised the deceit of loneliness.

And in the new version:

The bow I carry with me, I made of Este.

She died just before dawn, ten days ago. Este had foreseen her death while working in our garden, an uncapping of momentum in the afternoon sun.

She was born a seer and lived in the expectancy of her departure, a breeze before a wave, before a storm. Seers die in a threefold lapse, from the outside in.

Her long name was Irrinipeste, and she had been born to Abungu in the Vorrh, the great brooding forest that she said was older than humankind.

We said goodbye during the days leading to her night. Then all of my feelings were put away; there were more important rituals to perform. All this I knew. From our first agreement to be together it had been described, it had been unfolded.

The passages are similar, but distinct. Things which will become clear later on are dropped: the “into the wilderness” in the first sentence (because we’ll find out soon enough where the narrator’s taking the bow) and the sentence beginning “She prepared me …” in the second paragraph (because the narrator’s agreement to perform the prescribed rituals gets covered in the fourth). Minor changes bring out character: touchingly, the garden changes from “her” garden to “our.” Overall the focus on the inwardness of the narrator shifts slightly to make his relationship with Este more significant — the bits cut tend to be passages describing his reactions, duties, and emotions.

Impressions d'AfriqueThe one-sentence paragraph added is a kind of narrative anchor, explaining and foreshadowing much; more, in fact, than is at first apparent. We know at once (what takes longer to become clear in the original) that Este is Irrinipeste. We know what the Vorrh is, and at least some of what its narrative significance is. And, although it’s not at first obviously important, we know who Este’s mother is. This is an interesting decision because it’s a long time before we come to realise the significance of this bit of information; in fact one of the book’s major narrative threads will seem disconnected without this knowledge. In other words, the edit is clearer, but still allusive, still challenges the reader to put information together to get the full picture.

The new version’s also much faster. That speed comes at the cost of some lyrical sentences, particularly the last sentences of the last two paragraphs. They’re marvellous and evocative, but probably unneeded and potentially confusing. Why “infolding,” for example? Is there a paradox in “confines and constantly open door”? I think these things are interesting images, and ultimately coherent. But they do slow down a reader. They also fall into something of a verbal pattern of doublings — “details and confinement,” “panic or emotion,” “love and companionship.”

All in all, the removal of the more distracting sentences and the addition of the background paragraph seem to me to result in slightly more developed characters, and, as I said, a more developed relationship between the two. Normally all that would be to the good. In the case of this particular book, though, it may be reasonable to wonder. The text Catling’s book was based on was a surrealist novel, and strong echoes of that surrealism resonate through both versions of The Vorrh. So does the stronger naturalistic sense of the new edit risk blunting the book’s visionary edge?

Impressions d'AfriqueTo begin answering that question, it’s worth looking at Roussel’s Impressions d’Afrique (I read an English translation, Impressions of Africa, by Rayner Heppenstall and Lindy Foord). An oddly-shaped book, it starts with an extended ceremony somewhere in Africa, in a courtyard surrounded by improbable buildings. Sculpture and musical performances and tableaux vivants and visual arts of all sorts are involved — and when I say “of all sorts,” that’s an understatement. Roussel’s imagery is fantastic and elaborate: an elaborate mechanism changes the air temperature as a way to trigger instruments of an automated orchestra; a worm at the bottom of a narrow trough contorts its body to let water drip through a hole at the bottom of the trough and fall onto the strings of a zither so that, drop by drop, a waltz plays; a man builds a picture by throwing playing cards against a sticky curtain until the cards make a kind of pointillist portrait; grapes are made to ripen on a vine, each grape holding in its centre not a seed but a tiny statue made of its own pulp which, when a bright light shines upon it, projects an image. The audience, and some performers, react to all these things. But we don’t get their story until almost halfway through the book, after the elaborate ceremony’s ended. At that point we get a series of flashbacks and exposition that explains what we’ve just seen, where the marvellous machines came from, and who all these people are.

Roussel’s book has some aspects of what we’d now call steampunk, but its structure recalls the gothics of the 18th and early 19th century. Those novels often showed some baffling or apparently supernatural set of events, then went on to explain them as the product of some elaborate series of coincidences or conspiracies. Roussel’s novel has a somewhat different feel, though, for two reasons. First, his imagery is weirder, as he uses an elaborate verbal game based around puns to come up with the elements of the book’s strange ceremony. Second, his explanations, the narrative meat of the book, often seems to derive from traditional fairy-tale motifs. It’s in this context that his Vorrh appears: it is the mysterious dark forest in which a royal baby marked for death is left to grow to maturity.

Impressions of AfricaRoussel’s Vorrh is a background element, something unexplored, something perhaps unexplorable by nature, but also something narratively useful. More broadly, his Africa is no real place. It’s an exoticised construction, a sort of screen upon which Roussel plays out his fantasies like a magic-lantern show; those fantasies in turn being sometimes fascinating and sometimes colonialist if not overtly racist. Catling’s work seems to me to be quite different, not just conscious of issues of power and race and imperialism, but actively interested in them.

Catling’s work is I think generally more involved in the real world and real history than Roussel’s. As though to make this point, Catling’s fictional version of Roussel insists on naming one of the locals in the Vorrh after one of the characters of Impressions d’Afrique, ignoring the man’s actual identity in favour of Roussel’s own imagined sense of him. This is more than a deconstruction of Roussel and his text, it’s an expansion, a reconstruction. Catling’s novel may take its inspiration and perhaps some of its sensibility of the fantastic from Roussel’s, but its technique and aim are different.

Stylistically, the books seem vaguely similar (so far as I can judge from the translation of Roussel’s work). Both use precise language to describe the fantastic. But both versions of Catling’s text have a greater feel for the interior life of the characters. If Roussel’s indebted to the gothic and the fairy tale, that’s in part because his story reads like one of those tales — characters described only from the outside, no feel for place, a flat tone touched by irony. Catling’s sense of irony’s more profound, his sense of both character and setting not just more realistic but more evocative and complex. Roussel’s tale is to be read, I think, as a marvellous contrivance. Catling’s is a description of a distinctive vision, and therefore in itself an approach to the visionary.

Impressions of AfricaThe new edit doesn’t change the relationship of Catling’s text to Roussel’s. If anything, it makes the distinction between them even more obvious. By clarifying Catling’s approach, it clarifies how different the two novels are. And it tends to throw the mysteries that remain into greater relief. Roussel’s Vorrh is a handwaved half-concept. Catling’s is profoundly linked to myth and the unknowable: Eden, it is implied, is only a part of the great sprawl of the forest.

Catling’s Vorrh is a nexus of time and story, a fundamentally unmappable place. A clearer, simpler text might therefore seem to betray the concept of the thing. But the humans who interact with the Vorrh, however extraordinary, remain human. They’re outsiders to the mysterious place where memories are eroded. Even those who live in the Vorrh mostly live in the colonial city of Essenwald, a kind of garrison of reason in the midst of the unreasonable or the deeper-than-reason. A clearer text, one that takes more care to ground characters in their own backgrounds, is a different way of looking at their interlinked stories. It’s a different way of dramatising the effect of the Vorrh.

I do think that the clearer narrative comes at something of a cost. The new version is stylistically less dizzying, or perhaps less hypnotic. The original novel literally entranced me, seeming to present a succession of images and events that gradually built up links between them. The new one is a story, a series of logically and coherently connected events whose diverse threads eventually cohere to display a larger whole. There’s more of a sense of motion; of continuity, of past and present. The original version had a timelessness which the new edit forsakes.

Impressions of AfricaParadoxically, though, the new edit feels more individual. The clarity of the approach means it feels like a more directly communicated experience (even though it’s had more work put into it). The story feels more like a story, but also more like a story only this specific writer could present.

I’ll add something more specific: stylistically and narratively, the book feels less like Iain Sinclair. Sinclair’s an excellent writer who has been associated with Catling in the past — they’ve performed together, they’ve published work under the same cover, Sinclair’s written about Catling, and so on. The current version throws into relief the original version’s resemblance to Sinclair’s style. Specifically, I find a similar approach to gnomic sentences and to surprising digressions. And a similar approach to sentence and paragraph structure, to the way Catling handles the gap left (like a film cut) between the end of one sentence and the beginning of another. In the new edition, he leaves much of that stylistic influence behind, and finds a subtly but significantly different voice.

I am by no means in agreement with the theory that more editing is always good, but in this case I think editing did what it’s supposed to do. The new version of The Vorrh is easier to grasp, though still perplexing and intriguing. Both texts are powerful experiences. The overall pattern’s easier to see in the new one. It doesn’t come without cost, but it’s a cost worth paying. The Vorrh remains a powerful book, and I’m glad the new edition is drawing new readers.


Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.

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