Mortal Love

When I was fifteen, I went on a road trip with my father during the October half term through Somerset, Devon and the northern tip of Cornwall. It is the only time I have visited Tintagel. It was a murky, mist swirled day, the season ended, the rather tawdry gift shops and cafes empty or closed.

However, I remember standing in one of the ruined cells of what had been a 'Celtic' monastery on the site itself with the uncanny sense of both having been there before and that 'being there before' coincided with now, not simply a 'memory' but a presence, of stepping across a threshold of worlds and of being more than one identity, then and now, and yet the same 'person' then and now. It is the only time I have had a glimmer of what it might be to feel in terms of 'reincarnation'.

Cornwall, where I spent many childhood holidays, has that effect on you - a place of its own culture, isolated, surrounded by the ocean on three sides and what an ocean: majestic and mysterious.

Sidhe by AE George Russell

I recalled this reading Elizabeth Hand's novel, 'Mortal Love'. Here the differently identified but same woman, appearing over time, is not a human reincarnation but a 'faerie queen' and decidedly not of debased modern fantasy but a vital, charged, inspiring and dangerous being. The novel traces from the nineteenth century to the present her impact on the lives of a series of men whose lives, through the intricacy of the novel, come woven together. She is the weft of their deepest desires. The final denouement, appropriately takes place in Cornwall, where she is reunited with her estranged faerie lover and returns to that other world that is enfolded in this one.

It is a testament to Hand's skill that she weaves what is a radically contemporary 'faerie tale' into a perfectly realised set of historic and present realities - realistic magic, magicked realism.

All the principal men are, in some form artists or obsessed with art, and the haunting woman becomes their muse. She comes from a world where time is different, it does not have the swiftness and consciousness of passing and loss that gives our world its edge and for her this edginess is delight. It gives birth to a desire to create, to make things that hold memory, that defeat time. Her desire is to inspire such making. Yet though her world and its beauty is inspirational, it also opens up the pits of unfulfilled desire for those bound to human worlds. She is beautiful and dangerous as faeries are.

So, the book becomes an extended meditation on the relationship between art and inspiration and how the latter, though source for the former, ultimately cannot be contained by it. It, also, becomes a provocative essay on the relationship between madness and art: how costly to the normal is the 'affliction' that is inspiration? Are some of those made mad by the unbearable weight of illumination?

It is, also, full of beautiful, if rather lush writing, and has characters that do feel like characters in a faery tale - symbolic actors rather than psychologically delineated moderns (which I offer as a complement not a criticism); and, some of whom are historical, most notably the poet, Algernon Swinburne, who rather delightfully gets to play a diminutive hero at an asylum fire. It is, also, fun that the faerie queen's guardian companion masquerades in the present as a Jungian analyst!

This is modern Gothic of a very high order. 


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