Robert Aickman is a divisive and disturbing writer. He has devoted admirers, but today many otherwise well-read people have never heard of him. In his lifetime (he died in 1981), he had good friends and was described by some as excellent company, an erudite talker and an adventurous walker. He was renowned as the host of elegant little suppers that he never cooked himself, and as a knowledgeable escort to the theater and the opera. He enjoyed reading aloud, from his own work or from “out of fashion” authors such as William Gerhardi and Ada Leverson. But he was also contrarian and quarrelsome, and many disliked him. I think, on the evidence of RB Russell’s clear-eyed and dispassionate biography, that I would have disliked him, and he me no doubt.
Traveling, I have fallen under his spell. Hitherto he had been no more to me than a cross-reference in Dinah Birch’s edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature (2009), where he rubs shoulders with Henry James, MR James, Walter de la Mare and Algernon Blackwood in an essay on ghost stories (a genre that Russell and Aickman are at pains to distinguish from fantasy and horror). But I was curiously enthralled by both Robert Aickman: An attempted biographywhich gives a detailed account of his other life as “one of the saviors of Britain’s inland waterways” – not one of my mainstream preoccupations – and by a reprint of his entertaining, D’Annunzio-inspired last novel, Go Back at Once, completed in 1975. I found myself buying volume after volume of his short stories and immersing myself in his uncanny, haunted, inconclusive world and its distinctive, wittily allusive prose. And Other Stories and Tartarus Press, the publishers of these new volumes, have done this difficult writer proud.
Aickman’s life and publishing history does not follow a clear trajectory: he pursued, sometimes in a desultory fashion, parallel careers as writer and waterway activist. He was born in 1914 to middle-class parents, unhappily married and of diminishing means, and he was close enough to the graces and luxuries of the Edwardian Heyday to become a lifelong and vocal apologist for an already vanished world of servants and style. His father, an architect, was reduced by the postwar slump from conceiving mansions for the affluent to designing public toilets. Robert inherited a keen architectural eye: his work is filled with precise and evocative descriptions of buildings ranging from stately homes to suburban dwellings, from vicarages to the stones of Venice, from the vast, haunted palatial baroque spaces on the Adriatic coast in Go Back at Once to the desolate English industrial landscapes and railway cuttings of one of his earliest stories, “The Trains”, published in The Tatler in 1951. His vocabulary is dotted with archaisms, some of which call for a dictionary, and with eccentric figures of speech. “Boscage” and “cresset” are nicely salvaged words. A highly individual style of undercutting is one of his techniques, and it is pleasing to find him describing one of his characters (in a Scottish tale called “The Fetch”) as having “a subtle wit, based on meiosis”. Two delightful sentences from the reissued novel read thus: “She carefully unfolded the thin, tingling sheets [of the letter], blue as the sea, or as the sea is sometimes”; and (on “the beauty of abroad before breakfast”) “Such intensity as this was never to be seen in England: or at least had never been seen by her, neither on Exmoor nor in Charwood Forest, not on the shores of The Wash , nor of course at home. And she had, once or twice, been up early enough for it in almost all those places!”.
On the other hand, the biography makes one feel nothing but relief at having never been involved with Aickman’s activist persona. On committees he was a nightmare. He fancied himself as a public speaker and was acclaimed as a persuasive orator, compared somewhat oddly by one of his waterway associates to Mrs Pankhurst, but his admiration for the rhetoric of Goebbels sounds an alarm bell, as does his faith in strong leaders such as Mussolini and Franco. Aickman manages to satirize this dubious tendency in Go Back at Once: he knew how odd his opinions were, so odd that some thought affectations or, indeed, “a fascinating pathology”. Others marked him down as “a pessimistic anachronism”.
Russell is obliged to weave his way between his subject’s belligerent passion for the peaceful Inland Waterways of Britain and his strangely hesitant life as a writer. The two narratives don’t interlock very often, although they do meet, bizarrely, in the character of Elizabeth Jane Howard, with whom Aickman had an affair, and with whom, in 1951, he published a joint volume of ghost stories, We Are for the Dark. (He was very good at titles.) They met in 1942, before Howard married Peter Scott later in the same year; she left Scott in 1946 and lived for a while with Aickman. The romance did not last long, but they never forgot one another: she gives an account of it in her memoir, Slipstream (2002), and he continued to pay tribute to her outstanding beauty and kept her photographed by his bed until death. Their relationship was a version of Beauty and the Beast, for Aickman was a strange-looking fellow, “unprepossessing”, according to Howard: “he had thick horn-rimmed spectacles through which his small brown eyes looked out with an almost cynical intelligence, thick brown hair scraped back from his forehead and firmly held in place with a good deal of Brylcreem. He had a large, but not insensitive mouth.”
Scott, Howard and Aickman were all involved with the Inland Waterways Association, and Howard was for a while its very poorly paid administrator, at two pounds ten shillings a week. She had no shorthand and spent hours dictating to Aickman. All three maintained their interest in the IWA, despite their fractured friendships.
The waterways represented for Aickman a more tranquil and civilized past, and the project of their postwar restoration was in keeping with his hatred of the “monsters” of the machine age. He railed against cars, locomotives and coaches, even against washing machines, and never owned a radio or a television, although he tuned in with his friends and was skilled at persuading other people to drive him around the countryside when the need arose. He was lyrical about canal art and the traditional paintings of roses and castles that decorated the narrowboats, considering these designs “the most beautiful and heart-warming things to be seen in the whole of Britain; and the last large-scale and authentic survival of popular folk art … They symbolized excellently the philosophy that the Association had been founded to uphold”. Yet even these roses and castles became a bone of contention between various factions, culminating in a radio broadcast in 1949 in which Aickman vehemently deplored those who opposed his vision of the future, which consisted largely of reviving the past. One prominent member of the IWA network was to claim that “Robert could join any warm and convivial meeting and, in quite a short time, implacable enmities would have been created”.
Aickman seemed curiously eager to emphasize the inevitability of the failure of some of his projects, which irked Howard, who rebelled against his “despairing ideas about life” and embarked on a secret affair with a merchant banker before divorcing Scott and moving on to marry Kingsley Amis. Aickman has often been credited with indirectly influencing Amis’s uncharacteristically supernatural novel of 1969, The Green Man.
All this time Aickman had been married to a woman called Ray Gregorson, whose supportive existence he edited out of his memoirs (The Attempted Rescue1966, and The River Runs Uphill, 1986). He had no wish for children (“wombats”, he called them), but he depended on Ray for his home comforts and for her long-term professional help with the affairs of the IWA. Others have paid tribute to his spouse: Howard described her as a “tall, large-boned woman, with a face reminiscent of a du Maurier drawing, but enlivened by remarkable eyes, blue and shining with intelligence … she clearly adored Robert “. Ray and Robert were married in 1941, “to stop her being called up”, he later said. He had himself avoided military service by claiming to be a conscientious objector, in a document reproduced as an appendix that Russell subjects to uncomfortably close scrutiny, and that sits oddly with Aickman’s admiration for the ardent nationalist and war hero D’Annunzio.
Whether or not Ray adored Robert, eventually they parted: they divorced in 1957 and she entered a convent. He spent the rest of his life cultivating female friendships, which he kept strictly compartmentalized. Ray had been shut out of his life’s official narrative, and other friends were rarely allowed to mingle in it. He was never short of company, although he was a demanding acquaintance, to the extent of dictating how his women friends should dress – he was very interested in women’s clothing. He must have exerted a strange and not very obvious attraction over those with whom he consorted.
Equally strange, enigmatic and unclassifiable is the appeal of his fiction, which now has me unaccountably in thrall. Others have tried to define it, and the praise of Neil Gaiman has been much cited: “Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I’m not even sure what the trick was. All I know is that he did it beautifully.” The stories have recognizable elements, with echoes of other writers in the ghostly genre, with touches of the gothic and reverberations from Freud, whom Aickman mentions on various occasions. The intensely atmospheric and erotic story “Ravissante”, set in Brussels, and dedicated to his friend Marina Mahler, granddaughter of Gustav, brings to mind the dreamlike city of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. But throughout the oeuvre there is something that is uniquely Aickman, some elusive sense of yearning, as he put it, quoting Shakespeare, for “a world elsewhere.”
One large question remains: did this erudite, evasive man, with his “feline cosmic detachment” (Observer, June 1964) sincerely believe in the occult and the supernatural? Russell believes he did, and cites evidence to support this, claiming that, in his introduction to the Third Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (1967), Aickman unequivocally states that there had been no people and no culture without ghosts, and that England is regarded as “the metropolis of the supernatural, as of lyric poetry”. His interest in the paranormal, in ghosts, poltergeists, spirit writing, UFOs and the Swedenborg Society, was certainly sincere, and he regularly attended associated bodies such as the Ghost Club and the Society for Psychical Research. Does this mean he was a true believer? He had a professional interest in appearing to believe, as well as a genuine curiosity about all aspects of the otherworldly, and maybe these combine in the ambiguous uncertainty that is the hallmark of his work. One reads it gripped, waiting for an answer and a resolution that one knows will never come. Does the spirit world exist, or not? Robert Aickman keeps the reader guessing, or turning the page, or clicking on the e-reader. There are moments of glory and affirmation in his work, but the dominant mode is one of profound uncertainty, no mean reflection of the human condition.
Margaret Drapble is writing a memoir, and six of her novels were reissued earlier this year
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