Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Lost in the travelling: the odd novels of Ruthven Todd

Ruthven Todd (the short one with the glasses) flanks Dali and Eluard at the 1936 London Surrealist Exhibition

At each corner of a particular literary-artistic narrative that runs from the ‘thirties to the ‘fifties we seem to catch fragmentary glimpses of the figure of Ruthven (pronounced “Riven”) Todd, journalist; poet; novelist; Blake, Fuseli and John Martin scholar; raconteur; “failed painter” and hard drinker. He is at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, sleeping on Wyndham Lewis’s floor, in the pages of Grigson’s New Verse, behind the counter at Zwemmer’s bookshop, assisting John Lehmann at the Hogarth Press, mentoring the younger neo-romantics on a well worn crawl round the pubs of Fitzrovia,  companion of Robert Graves in Majorca, letting Tilty Mill to Elizabeth Smart and the two wild Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde, or attempting to calm the erupting chaos at the deathbed of Dylan Thomas. The Wikipedia entry on him is strangely brief, though with a good book list. But the online magazine Stride has recently included a wonderfully detailed and entertaining appreciation by Robert Latona, Twelve Texts for Admonitory Sermons, which is well worth the read.

Todd took himself seriously as a poet, as did others, but much of his verse somehow contrives to fall just short:

This windy morning of the first of May
When iron-toed feet are castanets on cobbles,
The lily-of-the-valley tattered and awry
Will bring in happiness and banish troubles.

Todd props up Dylan Thomas at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village

Well, yes. But, er – castanets on cobbles? Todd’s William Blake scholarship remains his solid and lasting achievement, while he earned something of a living from writing the Space Cat children’s series and by pot-boiling detective thrillers (Unholy DyingBodies in a Bookshop) under the name of RT Campbell. But he also managed three novels under his own name, of which the two earlier, though long since out of print, are worth a second look, perhaps less for any huge literary merit than for the peculiar period interest that they possess.

Over the Mountain was published by Falcon Press of London and Knopf of New York in 1939, and saw reprints in 1978 by Ayer Publishing and Arno Press (“lost race and adult fantasy fiction”). The title derives from the children’s song about the bear who went over the mountain to see what he could see, but saw only the other side. Twenty-one year old Michael, protagonist and narrator, makes a desperate attempt to cross the unscalable mountain range that hems his anonymous homeland. All previous expeditions have ended disastrously, a single survivor succumbing to “mountain madness”. As a result, the inhabitants are entirely ignorant concerning the unvisited territory on the far side.

Despite disorienting and hallucinatory experiences at the highest altitudes, Michael survives exhaustion and physical disfigurement  to descend into this unknown land, but discovers that, in the stress of the ordeal, he has lost his memory. The society in which he has arrived is an unpleasant totalitarian system enforced by brutal but moronically infantile secret policemen whom Todd has speak in a satirical baby-talk (“Oo-ee, goody, goody!”) that rather grates after a few pages. As Michael attempts to assert his independence in this controlled society, he sheds his celebrity explorer status, becoming a dissident hunted by the authorities, and makes the return ascent to freedom.

The precise details of these goings-on need not concern us too much here, as they don’t seem to have troubled Todd unduly either. Much of the middle section of the book, sandwiched between the two passages over the mountain, feels pedestrian and carelessly written. There is some attempt to explore the role of institutions such as the church in a totalitarian society, but most of this adds little, serving only to hammer repeatedly the single theme of the unpleasantness of a fascist dystopia. Where Todd loses belief in his invented world, so does the reader.

Michael’s escape attempt is unsuccessful; again in the grip of confusion he descends to what he assumes is his homeland, only to find that he has inadvertently come back down the same side of the mountain and returned to the nightmare country in which he is sought by the police. The twist on the final page is his realisation that he has never crossed the mountain in either direction, that he has twice descended the same slope, that the oppressive regime was all along that of his own native land, and that his belief in freedom has only been made possible by the loss of his identity. If this twist sounds obvious in summary, Todd actually handles it rather well on the page. It’s a pleasingly neat idea, even though he did not have the skill, or perhaps the patience, to give it real flesh.

Over the Mountain is essentially an anti-fascist allegory, a dystopian fantasy much in the manner of Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome (1941) or The Wild Goose Chase (1937), which Michael Moorcock characterises as “a mixture of didactic fantasy and absurdism”. Beyond this, Todd makes no attempt, for example, to explore the political manipulation of the hero-mountaineer, as Auden and Isherwood did in their 1936 drama The Ascent of F6. And the novel owes less than we might expect to his involvement at the time with surrealism.

Much closer to surrealism is his next novel The Lost Traveller, published by Wrey Gardiner’s Grey Walls Press in 1943, and given a single reprint in 1968 by Dover. Another young protagonist, Christopher Aukland, has been killed by a mysterious explosion in the street. He wakes to find himself in a bejewelled and hallucinatory desert where time seems to be suspended, arriving at a dystopian city whose appearance alternates between Gothic and Le Corbusier.

This visually inventive but politically unpleasant environment is in thrall to an elusive divinity referred to simply as Him, who is visualised sculpturally as a plain cube of stone. He is revealed, a little predictably, to be a fictional pretext for the despotic rule of his human spokesperson, the sinister Omar. Christopher, like Michael in Over the Mountain, falls foul of the arbitrary legalism of this society by attempting to escape, is arrested and tried, and, by virtue of his surname, is sentenced by Omar to undertake an impossible expedition to hunt the Great Auk. Alone at sea, he is captured by hostile fishermen, and as they beat him to death he metamorphoses into the extinct Auk itself.

Throughout the fantasy, Christopher retains memories of his previous normal life, and is made to muse naively on the “oddities” of this “mad world”. This rather undermines the suspension of our disbelief, tending to break up the consistency of what might better have been a purely self-referenced fictional realm. As in Over the Mountain, some passages feel lacklustre, incoherent or hastily written. Much of the narrative consists of a series of random surreal moments that serve little purpose other than to surprise or disturb the reader – bleeding statues, bronze insects, faceless (literally) functionaries like De Chirico dummies, the amputee proprietor of a jeweller’s shop dressed as Napoleon, night watchmen in winged helmets who signal to each other with violins, and so on. These images appear symbolic, but have no referents. On the other hand, their strength is in their inventive, essentially visual quality, and some more successful sections feel like transcriptions of sequences of remarkably vivid and troubling dreams:

They were in a building which looked like a church, though it had all the fittings of an aerodrome; squat black chaser planes, machine guns nestling in their wings, stood beside helicopters, and the walls were hung with air-screws of all sorts and of all materials – aluminium, plastics, wood and stainless steel. However the windows were not glazed with the usual wire nettings and glass, protection against fire, but with extraordinarily bad and garish stained glass. They showed men, some with the faces Christopher knew, and others faceless like the citizens, occupied in various activities connected with building, making bricks, erecting walls and carving gargoyles.

Dom led Christopher between the rows of aeroplanes and out into the street. The houses were of all sorts and sizes, and seemed to vie with each other in the elaborateness of their decorations. There were plaques on some, stating absurdities (the fact that so-and-so had never lived in this house), and others were stuck all over with sea-shells – clams, oysters, dog-whelks and the rest, while others again were ornamented with bottles of all sorts, from the little green ones crying ‘Poison’ to the huge ones which stand, filled with coloured waters, in chemists’ windows, all carefully set in cement to form a pattern or spell out a name.

This quality does not always fit well with Todd’s intention to create some sort of didactic political allegory, and the awkward influence of Kafka is not far away. The city’s authorities first apprehend Christopher from an airship, but there is no further exploration of the Wells/Auden theme of airmen as a political elite.

Todd’s friendship with Wyndham Lewis invites comparison with Lewis’s The Human Age trilogy – Childermass (1928), Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta (both 1955). Survival in a dystopian city in an afterlife is a shared theme, and Todd’s Falstaffian Omar may derive from Lewis’s monstrous Bailiff in Childermass, though Todd is a very long way indeed from the verbal invention and rich complexity of ideas in the latter. Conversely, Lewis’s abandonment of modernist experiment for the strictly accessible style of his two later volumes could have owed something to Todd’s example in dealing more plainly with similar themes.

The young neo-Romantic painter John Craxton contributed a frontispiece to The Lost Traveller, also used on the dust jacket. (According to Malcom Yorke in The Spirit of Place, Todd paid Craxton for the work with an original Miró.) Craxton’s typical Palmerian dreamer-in-a-landscape is a good fit for the lost Christopher, and the spiky image works nicely. The sleeper’s profile droops and elongates Picasso-ishly around a closed eyelid. He is the hero as traveller and dreamer, asleep in the unknown world that is his dream.

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