‘All I know comes from books. It’s a wonder I keep my end up as well as I do.’
‘Books are better, I think, most of the time,’ replied Louise. ‘The more you know of life outside them, the less it’s like them. But there’s one problem that you have to solve if you’re to go on profiting from books, and books won’t help you much to solve it.’
‘And that is?’
‘The problem of finding someone, even one single person, you can endure life with. To me it’s acute.’
(From ‘The Late Breakfasters’)
Robert Aickman has been a quintessential Faber Finds author ever since the launch of this list in 2008. This year sees the centenary of his birth, and we have moved our Aickman offerings to Faber’s main list with glorious new cover art and prefaces, along with the additional treat, new to Faber, of his debut collection of strange stories, Dark Entries. But Aickman has not been lost to Faber Finds – oh no – for our own centenary tribute is to proudly add to Finds the two longer works that Aickman completed in his lifetime, The Late Breakfasters and The Model.
‘Those, if any, who wish to know more about me’ - Aickman wrote in 1965 – ‘should plunge beneath the frivolous surface of ‘The Late Breakfasters’.’ This claim becomes yet more intriguing when you consider that the novel is a tale of thwarted love: though it opens rather like a country house comedy of manners, its playful seriousness slowly fades into an elegiac variation on the great Greek myth of Hero and Leander – to speak of just one of the allusions that glimmer on its pages.
Its heroine, one Griselda de Reptonville, is invited to a great stately residence called The Beams, where other guests include a bumbling Prime Minister in the process of forming a coalition government. To this end the Beams is to host an All Party Dance, at which Griselda, very much a reluctant dancer, is expected to come out of her shell and take to the floor. (It should be said that throughout the novel dance is a kind of metaphor, as expressed in the popular phrase ‘vertical lovemaking.’) Though she expects little of this weekend, Griselda to her great surprise meets the love of her life. Alas, this is to be just the start of a terrific complication in her life, and a source of more melancholy than joy.
Fans of Aickman’s ‘strange stories’ will be delighted, too, by The Late Breakfasters. It partakes of the humour that is deployed more rarely in the stories, and there are notable flashes of erotic gaiety. (An ageing bookseller tells Griselda, ‘My eros veers almost entirely towards Adonis’; an ageing Duke declares of his lady wife over tea, ‘For some time now it is during the afternoon that I make Odile mine… We both of us find it best at nights to sleep.’) But there are also – wouldn’t you know it? – moments of sepulchral strangeness. The Beams is thought to be haunted, by the ghost of a beautiful Belgian actress named Stephanie des Bourges. The novel’s principal love scene involves a bewitching moonlit walk across a wet lawn to a Temple of Venus on an island amid a lake, with her heroine Griselda clad in black cloak and domino. And the second half of the novel contains a digression of a chapter which I would characterise as a ‘strange story’ in miniature.
Though Aickman wrote so little in the way of long-form prose he was clearly proud of what he did accomplish in this regard. He told a friend that he considered his novella The Model to be ‘one of the best things I have ever written, if not the very best.’ After his death in 1981 this manuscript, a wintry rococo fable set in Czarist Russia, was located among his papers and duly published for the first time in 1987. It tells of Elena, a grave girl inclined to losing herself in dreams of becoming a student ballerina or coryphée. Her dolour darkens further when she learns she is to be sold into marital slavery by her father so as to settle the family’s debts. Refusing an unendurable future she sets out to the city of Smorevsk to pursue her dream. First, however, she must traverse a landscape crowded by highly curious characters and creatures.
To suggest that The Model is like the marriage of Alice in Wonderland and The Nutcracker would be the sort of publishing vulgarity for which Mr Aickman would have had no time. But you will know what I mean, and I think if you are tempted then you will find The Model to be highly delighting. It is a fable about making the fateful choice to be a creative personage, come what may and whatever the cost. Aickman – who was himself far too much of an artist to ever write the kind of sensational sadistic horror novel that successive agents were sure he had in him – can be glimpsed, I think, in the shade of the purposeful Elena.