“I was not mourning. I was petrifying. Stone cannot mourn.”
I was greatly anticipating Adam Scovell’s second novel, How Pale the Winter Has Made Us. Last spring I read and reviewed his first novel, Mothlight, which he so skilfully disguised as a memoir that it duped me into forgetting that I was reading a novel. I want reading redemption.
The opening sentence of How Pale the Winter Has Made Us immediately plunges his readers and Isabelle (a young British academic) into a weird gothic-fantasy milieu:
“It was on an autumn day in Strasbourg when I first saw the Erl-King. I had not somehow crossed into another world in a moment of lax attention or dreamed the veiled figure into shadowy existence from my window. Instead, I was witnessing a genuine apparition on account of the news I had just received concerning my father’s suicide back in Crystal Palace.”
As if witnessing gothic apparitions in response to the death of a parent weren’t enough, Scovell immediately complicates Isabelle’s plight by adding a horror element: she claims that the Erl-King (or the Erlkönig, the German word she sometimes uses) is invading her bed and leaving marks on her body. Am I to believe she is actually seeing and experiencing this thing? Isn’t she imagining these couplings? She does admit that “grief does strange and terrible things to the mind; rationality disintegrates into the air.” She describes her fear, which is also tinged with ambivalence and a touch of respect:
“I was haunted by the Erl-King. . . . He was following, desiring flesh, feasting and strengthening on the sadness of his victim. That an image could travel from folklore, through to Goethe and then to the lyrics of a modern metal band felt like a profound journey, but also induced fear. This thing could travel across barriers of culture and language and time.”
Isabelle has been visiting her unnamed French boyfriend (she calls him “my partner”) in Strasbourg. While he’s indulging in a German form of wanderlust called fernweh, she decides to spend the winter alone in his apartment even though she’s already begun to drift away out of their relationship. She basically views him as “interchangeable with anyone.”
After her father’s suicide, Isabelle begins to inoculate herself against her feelings about his death. Sparked by a chance sighting of an evocative old photo at the stall of a street vendor, Isabelle begins to obsessively map the histories of famous artists who spent significant amounts of time in Strasbourg: Gutenberg, Goethe, Arp, and Dore. She distracts herself by obsessing about these famous artists and their connections to the city, nourished by the “amnesia of history” that is more real than her current existence.
Scovell’s novel is an intriguing mediation on the following lament:
“Is there such a thing as a destination after a father’s suicide? Is not all direction briefly lost when a parent, even one so loathed and ambivalent, is finally silenced?”
Any Cop?: Scovell includes grainy snapshots of mountain climbers and poets drinking coffee outside of cafes. Such details enrich the book’s texture. He also spices his novel with short, academic-type essays that touch on such tertiary (imaginary?) historical figures as Jacques Prévert, Max Leiber, Anton François, and Edward Whymper. I don’t care whether these men are actual historical figures or simply Borgesian figments of Scovell’s imagination. Based on my experience with Mothlight, whether Edward Whymper actually led an expedition up the Matterhorn that ended in tragedy is irrelevant to my enjoyment of the novel. Be my guest and google these names. Just keep your findings to yourself.