The Lost Stradivarius by John Meade Falkner and The Parson by Anna Kavan
The Lost Stradivarius
Novella-length ghost story. One young man at Oxford picks up some old-fashioned music on his travels and plays it with his friend. One particular piece summons a ghostly listening presence. They are both aware of it, but only one of the young men becomes drawn into dishonesty, forbidden knowledge, sacrifice of all he held previously dear, and ruined health. This is an elegant rendition of the late Victorian/Edwardian ghost story. The sinisterly intriguing portrait, the wicked dead, the diary, the intuitive experience of the past, the approach to the unspeakable and the lacuna left for the same. As with M. R. James, the loss of piece of mind is felt as the most terrible consequence of crossing the path of the dead. What I liked about Falkner’s other two books was the distinctively twilit, quiet, pleasantly sad atmosphere. This was the first thing he wrote, and that tone lends itself so obviously to the ghost story that I didn’t really notice it here in its own right.
Novella about an officer called Oswald and nicknamed The Parson. Outwardly he is a fine healthy upstanding young man, but he is really rather odd, highly-string and ascetic. He falls in love with Rejane, a beautiful narcissistic socialite. Well, really, like Rejane, he is not so much in love as he is engaging with and indulging a phantom of his own psychological needs. Rejane is intrigued by Oswald in his guise as a voicing of the barbaric, otherworldly North, the landscape of moors and tors. She is in the habit of adopting various roles she finds herself piquant in, and Oswald offers her a brief fling at being Cathy, though he keeps spoiling it by not being Heathcliff enough.
On the last day of Rejane’s sojourn in Oswald’s part of the world, they have a strange trip to a ruined castle. Oswald sees Rejane for the witchy soulless creature that she is. Rejane is almost possessed by the role of cruel queen before nearly falling through the castle into the sea. Oswald rescues her and, furious with her for despoiling his vision of the perfect woman as an escape from worldliness, he rapes her, though she does not really realise that that is how he means it. He is traumatised by the knowledge that that is the kind of person he is, and the book ends portentously, which these kinds of stories generally do., and which I’ve come to think is their flaw. It exceptionalises the characters, makes them too much the people who do what no one ever does except when they do, rather than explaining the strange things that go on inside people as ordinary as anyone.
This was shelved in the Romance section. The gender dynamics are redolent of Romance, I suppose, but it’s just about told from an angle. There’s not much that’s new here, I suppose, but it felt new. Kavan has a kind of distant but intimately knowing approach to her characters’ peculiarities and I quite enjoyed the barbaric North theme, which is something Kavan as well as Rejane is playing with.