DECEMBER 20, 2013
THERE THEY WERE, seven books, white spines aligned, proudly establishing a small fiefdom amid the “New and Notable” books of my local library. Their author, David Stacton, would have appreciated this display, which, while not as awesome as some of the façades depicted in his work — King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s fairy-tale castles, the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten’s “imposing fraud” of an imperial capital, a mountainside Japanese monastery — nonetheless conferred on this uninitiated reader a sense of grandeur.
In several months, I fear they will be distributed among the stacks, subject to the same fate as the pharaoh’s city, which was hastily abandoned after his death: “At dawn it had been the centre of an empire. Now, at evening, it was not.” In 1963, Stacton was at the center of the American literary world, at least according to a Time magazine article that ranked him among Roth, Ellison, Updike, and Walker Percy as one of the country’s foremost novelists; now, he is not.
Faber and Faber, Stacton’s British publisher, released seven of Stacton’s novels last year as part of its “Faber Finds” series. (New York Review of Books Classics recently put out Judges of a Secret Court, a historical novel about the Lincoln assassination, with a nice introduction by John Crowley). Richard T. Kelly’s introduction to each Faber reissue asks whether Stacton might “be the most unjustly neglected American novelist of the post–World War II era?” David Slavitt seconds that opinion, writing in to say Stacton “is a prime candidate for prominent space in the Tomb of the Unknown Writers.”
An epitaph for that tomb? “Here lies David Stacton, portentous comedian.” In On a Balcony, David Stacton defines the comedian, as opposed to the humorist, as a “zoologist with a genius for classification,” a definition that identifies the encyclopedic pleasures of his oeuvre. He is more earnest and sardonic than playful or satirical, but his brand of realism “is not possible without a sense of humour.” His elect are the few men, or objects, “humorous enough to perceive the Tao’s indifference.” In Stacton’s world, even rocks can be quite the enlightened, observant jokesters: “Rocks are very humorous. One can detect that in their immobility. Like all humorous people, they are content merely to watch.”
Stacton has a lot more to say about rocks: they formalize the horror of life without concealing it; it is “inaesthetic to tamper with them”; they “breathe and sweat and to a certain extent are capable of feeling”; are courteous and have no regrets; are the most abstract objects and therefore the most immanent; and are “as immortal and as guileful as children.”
In fact, Stacton has a lot to say about pretty much everything, which allows one to read his ambitious novels as specialized instructional manuals. For those seeking enlightenment, Stacton is a more than flexible guide:
[T]o eat a peach, to spice properly a meal, to contemplate a waterfall or a problem in mathematics, or to copulate, [are] all the same means to accomplish the same insight.
For megalomaniacal readers, he helpfully lays out how to become a god in few simple steps: “All one needs is a mother, no father […] and the recommendation of at least one politically astute high priest.” For aspiring military strategists: “Wars are fought in the field, which results in dead bodies, and at the council tables, with dead souls.” And for the sexually inexperienced, Stacton reassures them that before original sin “[lovemaking] either had to be done well or not at all […] Without a sense of sin to reinforce his pride, your bumbling amateur felt more at a loss then than now.”
From these snippets, one gets a sense of Stacton’s peculiar blend of the oracular and the mischievously ironic that makes him an invaluable cicerone in any setting, ancient or modern.
Stacton was born as Lionel Kingsley Evans in San Francisco in 1923 to Irish immigrant parents. He attended Stanford and Berkeley, travelled widely in Europe through the 1950s, and died in Denmark in 1968, leaving behind a massive unfinished novel about Charles II and Samuel Pepys. He produced over 20 novels, four works of historical nonfiction, including an account of the fall of Constantinople, and several volumes of poetry. Throughout, Stacton was writing lurid genre tales like D for Delinquent, some under the pseudonym Bud Clifton. John Banville comes to mind as an author who so easily switches gears from fustian to fetid, though it may be even beyond that Irish master’s range to compose a work like Muscle Boy, with its preening bodybuilders, male pornography racket and sex dungeons, alongside the oneiric, sometimes precious explorations of vanished worlds.
Among the Faber reissues are two early noir tales, A Fox Inside (1955) and The Self-Enchanted (1956), each of which takes place largely in Northern California and involves power-hungry, rootless outsiders clawing their way to reach their demented idea of social respectability; a loose trilogy of historical novels about life’s “invincible questions” shown through the spiritual and aesthetic ruminations of a Bavarian king (Remember Me), an Egyptian Pharaoh (On A Balcony), and a Japanese monk (Segaki); a version of the Duchess of Amalfi tragedy (A Dancer in Darkness); and finally, his most panoramic work, a predictably idiosyncratic rendering of the Thirty Years War (People of the Book).
A Fox Inside, the more chilling and less histrionic of the noirs, begins with a barefoot young woman running out of a Bolinas house, wherein lies the corpse of her husband, Charles Shannon. Luckily for her, “Escaping in cars ran in the family.” An old boyfriend, “Spanish-Mexican” and from Southern California, where “the palm trees and the madness both begin,” warily returns to uncover the mystery surrounding Charles’s origins and death. The novel is about two outsiders — one noble and passive, the other horrid and manipulative — who infiltrate the strange world of the rich, those “fresh water fish, in a world four-fifths salt, limited in their ambience, but living in their own element with their own diseases and squalor.” This description of moneyed decay — as good as anything in Chandler — signals Stacton’s intent to cast his eye on bigger fish later.
Indeed, it is fascinating to watch Stacton working out in the noirs the kind of novelist he would become. From the beginning, Stacton is drawn to a certain kind of person, the kind who is the “victim of the propulsive force of his own character.” The autodidacts and men on the make in these early works are literal and figurative climbers — rising from obscurity and, like the more kingly subjects to come later, drawn to alpine heights and dwellings “built safely above the high water mark of human avarice and fear.” In The Fox Inside, the coldly calculating Charles builds his house, the building “of a man who did not like to be watched,” on the edge of a cliff, where he retires to drink after realizing that “there was nowhere else for him to climb.” And in The Self-Enchanted, Christopher Barocco, a gambler possessing “a special insolent animal charm that men resent and women can make no use of,” commissions a house that “stood out on its cliff like stages of lunar madness,” then makes a “mad ascent” up the surrounding mountains during a snowstorm. He is an early version of Stacton’s first royal subject, the Mad King Ludwig, without the latter’s refined aesthetic sensibility.
In a letter to his Faber editor Charles Monteith, who was encouraging him to continue producing contemporary novels, Stacton resisted, writing that “my talents are melodramatic and a mite grandiose, and this goes down better with historical sauce.” The noirs are about men who seek refuge from their past, their families, and their insecurities by zealously pursuing a petty absolute power over their sordid surroundings. In the three historical novels that follow, the so-called “Invincible Questions” trilogy (Remember Me, On a Balcony, Segaki), Stacton turns to “grandeur brought low,” to men with absolute power who are self indulgent and slightly crazed, but never petty. The protagonists are slightly ill at ease in body, generally apathetic to the demands of their authoritative position, and generally prefer sublimation to consummation. They are creatures in ruins — lonely, incapable of love, or spiritually drained — but not without vision. As Stacton tells us, “ruins know what buildings ought to be.”
Remember Me begins with King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s ascension to the throne as a young man “stuffed with knowledge as though he were a Strasbourg goose tethered in a cage” but supremely unfit for, and uninterested in, the limited duties of a constitutional monarch. The Wagner-obsessed Ludwig prefers to take “refuge from himself, as much as from the world, in a dreamlife that pullulated around him.” That dreamlife famously revolved around his growing “mania for building,” a determination that “sovereignty should have its symbol, even though sovereignty is no more.” And thus castles spring forth from his rich imagination (and financed by the state’s increasingly impoverished coffers): Linderhof, Neuschwanstein (Disneyland’s inspiration), Herrenchiemsee (modeled after Versailles), and Falkenstein, which, while never completed, took grandiose Wagnerian shape in Ludwig’s imagination: “[Falkenstein] would be the perfect grail to house the ideal of purity. It would rise upon its rock like an organ, in great buttresses of sound.”
The buildings, once completed, are disconcertingly lifeless, which supports Stacton’s broader message about finished works as “nothing more than a rubbing of the artist’s original idea.” Ludwig is always building “the wrong dream”; even the marvelous Linderhof is merely a “beautiful cage for something that had flown away.” Increasingly isolated, Ludwig is reduced to shuffling aimlessly between his castles, none of which gives him what he wants precisely because to give shape to a vision is to deface it. His eccentricity looks likes madness, but Stacton imbues it with a certain “fairytale” logic by filtering every peculiarity through Ludwig’s rigorous aesthetic consciousness.
If Ludwig retreats from the “merciless” light into the “kind” shadow, the Pharaoh Akhenaten in On a Balcony devises an entire religion around the sun’s glare. Again, Stacton takes for his subject a ruler fascinatingly ill-suited for his role: “He was horribly intelligent. He knew things no prince should know, and almost nothing that a prince should.” Akhenaten decides to upend the Egyptian order by inventing a new monotheistic religion that worships a sun deity, Aton, of which he would be the living representative. The Pharaoh’s motivation is summed up in a line that best makes a case for reading Stacton: “He was not the first nor would he be the last monarch to become a god out of ennui.”
Akhenaten largely neglects the empire crumbling around him to build a new village, Aketaten, to be built in honor of Aton. The religion outwardly flourishes, but he eventually discovers that his subjects’ strict adherence to the new rituals is a farce. This might seem obvious to us mortals, but to a pharaoh, the god at the system’s center, the realization is both shocking and liberating:
While he had believed in it, it had never occurred to him that this new faith was so ludicrous. Now he began to see the possibilities. He could laugh at it all day, and he proposed to […] All his life he had craved understanding, and now, instead of receiving it, he was ready to give it. It was called comedy.
Stacton’s historical novels focus less on the precise details of political maneuvering than on this ritual comedy of power, specifically on those rulers and artists who obsess over the spiritual and aesthetic principles of that comedy.
Taking as its subject a less-fevered hero than Ludwig or Ikhnaton, Segaki is the sparest, and I think most beautiful, novel of the trilogy. It recounts a disillusioned monk’s journey across war-torn Japan in the 14th century. For reasons unknown even to himself, Muchaku Hojo leaves the monastery to visit his brother, Yasumaro, a renowned painter who “always managed to look as though he had just had a bath and enjoyed it riotously.” His brother’s giggling exterior and sensual lifestyle, the monk comes to discover, are in fact indicative of a deeper, more natural asceticism than his own.
Muchaku traverses the landscape encountering slaughtering armies, ghost foxes, a spectral noblewoman, and one dangerous, if buffoonish, samurai. But as always with Stacton, aesthetics trump action. Amid the rampaging gangs and quasi-supernatural presences, Stacton’s awe is reserved for the “covert paradises” of the world where “we see very well how the world may be breathed out and in.” Taking a cue from his brother, Muchaku gradually cultivates his ethical watchfulness, an “unconcerned appreciation of beauty with a free conscience” that is far from selfish: “love was neither sympathy nor understanding, but only the ability to watch. It was the ability to watch that required sympathy and understanding.”
In one extraordinary scene that demonstrates this watchful love, Muchaku comes upon his brother contemplating a spring snail’s path around a decapitated soldier’s fallen body. When the mollusk finally slides into the palm of the corpse’s hand, a sense of peaceful order descends over the tableau, and Yasumaro’s gaze is revealed to be less ghoulish or unseemly than reverential. Stacton returns, spectacularly, to that spring snail in the novel’s strangely moving climactic scene, which involves a sketchpad and swordplay and feels as if it were collaboratively dreamed up by Quentin Tarantino, Walter Pater, a Zen Buddhist, and Bob Ross.
All three novels in the Invincible Questions trilogy are wonderful, idiosyncratic and “comic” in the broader sense Stacton employs, that is, the awareness that life is a “secret game,” a “savage parody of faith,” a heightened attunement to that “special form of deceit called honesty.” They are about seeing into the life of things and finding a temporary beauty, order, and amusement in the “perfectly articulated illusion” of the world. Stacton’s comedy pits those privileged few who are in on the joke and who “tease the world because [they are] so fond of it” against those who are dangerously without insight or humor: “‘There is always some fool who believes his own world is the real one, so other people believe it too, and want to take it away from him.’”
These rapacious fools bring us to the Thirty Years War, the subject of Stacton’s last completed novel and “a time of disorder, riot, defeat, loss, survival, plague and pestilence.” Throughout, Stacton’s unsparing portraits of the major players remind me of a comment made by Saul Bellow about some querulous editors: “I could make those people very unhappy by describing them.”
Stacton doesn’t demur. Sir Henry Vane, the British diplomat, is a “carrot pudding of a creature, pompous, self-important, childish, with the small close set-eyes of a discontented baby.” He mercifully has no sense of humor, for if he had, “he could not have looked in the mirror and survived.” Of Cardinal Richelieu, the Éminence grise seeking to prolong the war to weaken his Hapsburg enemies: “He had a tendency to gum his food. He was ostentatious, treacherous, and unduly addicted to cats.” I have no idea what the last detail signifies, but it seems damning. Of a French emissary’s snobbery: “[Charnacé] was […] distressed by stenches belowstairs only if the floor happened not to be parquet.” And of a Bohemian noble: “In any room Wallenstein entered, you were aware of something worse that had just left […] He was a good everything except a man.”
And our heroes? Though King Gustav is called “an insignificant northern snowball” by his Viennese enemies, Stacton considers him a “one-man avalanche,” a rare Nietzschean “overlord” able to order the world, temporally, around his aimless will: “Large men have no specific motives; they obey their own inevitability. Only little men act always in some cause.”
In People of the Book, Stacton in a sense obeys his own inevitability. Some authors pare down during the late style; others embrace their baroque tendencies. Such is the case with Stacton’s epic. The novel is a monumental and exhausting account of the “fugue of war,” zooming in on rulers, two orphaned children making their way across war-ravaged Germany, and all the “odd creatures” that war “sucks […] out from their burrows”: a preening bandit and tamer of white horses, a self-styled Magician and his companion, a prostitute with multiple personality disorder, and two snow leopards.
The novel’s large canvas is Central Europe during the Thirty Years War, but nary a paragraph goes by without Stacton turning his aphoristic, philosophizing eye on some little corner. It is like a tennis player going for the drop shot one too many times, but what an elegant drop shot it is. In a typical passage, a boy, Lars, tries on some ill-fitting armor he has collected from corpses, which sets Stacton off:
The right costume makes one want to kill. It shifts the body’s weight and so alters its opinions. It is a way of hiding. It gives us freedom from ourselves, just as jail frees the prisoner from life […] [Lars] was austere by nature, and here he was lost in the luxuries of death. Few men can swagger naked. They need the weight of steel boots.
That a shift in a body’s weight should alter a body’s opinions is both obvious — look at the difference between a rugby player and a football player bringing down an opponent — and startling. Stacton’s sharply declarative sentences capture the absurdity, but also the inevitability of Lars’s swagger, which is no less menacing for its ridiculous dependence on the weight of steel boots. Thus is a child initiated into the pointless and sensual mysteries of violence surrounding him.
Stacton died at the age of 44, which makes this passage from People of the Book all the more melancholic: “For if we are going to live a long time, the forties are a kind of second maturity, during which we are reminded of the dreams of our second youth, our thirties.” He speculated that life continues to alternate like this, decades of renewed youth followed by decades of reflective maturity. What such an imagination would have conjured had it been periodically recharged and refined over the years is the last invincible question Stacton left us. Thankfully, among the hundreds of epigrams to be found in his reissued work is one that helps us begin to see as he did: “The world contains mostly marvels. One has only to squint with one eye.”