Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Return

I can see why Walter de la Mare is more remembered as a poet than either a novelist or short story writer. His language has an archaic feel and it must have had this even when he was writing it. It is highly poetic and suggestive such that periodically it obscures the narrative flow. You are lost in a symbolic space, beautiful in itself, but sometimes seemingly remote from the matter at hand as if poetic reverie has interceded and your story teller has temporarily lost sight of his audience.

However, that said, he is unjustifiably neglected. Once you have adjusted to the wrought style, he is revealed as a highly gifted, imaginative and thought provoking teller of tales (in prose as in poetry).

One critic described him I recall as 'an expressionist' (more German than English) and I see what they mean. His books read like a tableau of vividly imagined and intense emotion.

The Return concerns a man, Arthur, who, recovering from influenza, on a walk strays into an unfrequented churchyard. There he falls asleep on a bench by one of the graves and on returning home, and looking in the mirror, discovers that physically he has changed. His face is different, that of another. The book explores the impact of this transformation on his family and friends and on his own imaginative and emotional life.

What follows is a penetrating exploration of how we rely on our mask, our persona, for our identity. Though both his wife and Mr Bethany, the Vicar, immediately 'recognise' him as 'Arthur' underneath, his conventional wife especially is deeply unsettled and quickly moves to ponder how to contain the social confusion of such a transformation (a need for containment that is shared with and by the friends whom she takes into her confidence).

Meanwhile, suburban, middle class Arthur is left searching for an explanation while trying to cope with the emotional consequences of not being seen, recognised, acknowledged. He meets, in the same churchyard a man, Herbert, who, with his sister, befriends Arthur, and seeks to help him find an explanation. Two come as possibilities: the first is that he has been possessed by the spirit whose grave he slept at who turns out to have been French, an eighteenth century rake and suicide, whose pamphlet and portrait Herbert has discovered. The second is that in his illness and heightened sensitivity, he has imagined the change and imparted this imagination into the 'seeing' of others, a self-confirming, shared hypnosis. Possessed or hysterical you are allowed as reader to choose but either path leaves Arthur reassessing his life, trapped, as it has been, on the tramlines of normality, barely awake to the wonders of the world or genuinely felt connections to family and friends. He has, all this time, been masked from himself and from others and it is only the collapse of this mask, ironically stripped away by its uncanny replacement, that has punctured his complacency and given him the possibility of a new life.

It is clear that the new persona has offered a glimpse of his shadow self - both the positive and negative - qualities that he has rejected in himself. New life has burst forth in a way both highly unsettling and an opportunity.

This is where we leave Arthur at the end of the book - recovered of his original appearance - hysteria or possession have taken only temporary control - but 'broken down' into the possibility of new life and about to depart home, for a while or for good, in search of it.

I was, in passing, vividly reminded on the French psychologist's, Henri Wallon's, discussion of 'confiscation': how we allow the opinion (and confirmation) of others to forge our identity. Here a 'random' event shatters that act of confiscation - Arthur's conformity to others opinion, rooted in his appearance and manner - and allows him an opportunity to rebuild from an 'inside' he had forgotten he possessed.

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