Tag Archives: Literary

Briefing for a Descent Into Hell

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Briefing for a Descent Into Hell [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Doris Lessing.

Lessing Briefing for a Descent into Hell

This novel is beautifully written. I felt like it was very demanding of my attention, because although styles and speakers vary in the course of the text, there are no full page-stop chapter breaks. In the absence of dialogue, paragraphs tend to run for multiple pages, and the prose (sometimes breaking into poetry or incantation) has an insistent restlessness in keeping with its subject matter–especially in the first half, where a narcotized sleep is an ambivalent power for desired healing or feared imprisonment.

“I never learned to live awake. I was trained for sleep. Oh let me sleep and sleep my life away. And if the pressure of true memory wakes me before I need, if the urgency of what I should be doing stabs into my sleep, then for God’s sake doctor, for goodness sake, give me drugs and put me back to dreaming again.” (139)

This waking/sleep dialectic is one of the features that insinuates a mystical subtext throughout. Others include the intimation of people destined for companionship, the foreboding of illusion in consensual phenomena, and reflections on the urge to engender praeterhumanity in our children.

There are many different levels of storytelling involved, of which the outermost is a set of clinical notes and correspondence surrounding the hospitalization of a man with what seems to be traumatic amnesia. Within that setting are conversations, and within those are dreams and memories. In one dream an entire governance of the solar system is set forth as background to the protagonist’s sense of dislocation and urgency. In an unreliable memory, guerrilla warfare becomes the setting for a tragic encounter with idyllic nature.

Others have noted that this is a book worth re-reading, and I’m inclined to agree.

Seeing a Large Cat

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Seeing a Large Cat [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Elizabeth Peters, book 9 of the Amelia Peabody series.

Peters Seeing a Large Cat

This ninth Amelia Peabody mystery is the first that I have shared from cover to cover with my Other Reader. We both enjoyed it quite well. It continues the formula established by Peters in the earlier books, this time covering (to my irrelevant excitement) the 1903-1904 excavation season in Egypt. 

The “large cat” of the title is perhaps Ramses Emerson, who sports whiskers as a surprise at the outset of the novel, and whose relations with the feline members of the household constitute an ongoing subplot. This volume of the series is one in which the younger generation of Emersons gain a significant degree of independence. Their separate perspective is supplied through the device of excerpts from a “Manuscript H,” supposedly written by Ramses and containing events he would best know, although referring to him in the third person.

On the other hand, the Cat could equally be Katherine Jones, a new character who seems likely to recur in future stories, and whose cat-like qualities are emphasized in descriptions. The gerundial phrasing of the title alludes to the ancient Egyptian dream-interpretation papyrus that is Peabody’s translation project for the season. What indeed is the significance of “seeing a large cat” in one’s dream? This book combines entertaining adventure with ominous portents for its protagonists.

The Limits of Vision

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Limits of Vision [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Robert Irwin.

Irwin The Limits of Vision

There is usually an exotic element to the setting and/or plot of Irwin’s novels, but The Limits of Vision takes place in a single day in the life of a 20th-century English housewife named Marcia. The text follows her fantasies, wonders, and anxieties throughout, and she gives a wonderful new level of meaning to the phrase unreliable narrator

Despite her morning coffee with the neighbor housewives, Marcia is a solitary soul in a distant marriage, and her visionary experiences stack up favorably against those of any anchorite you’d care to name. Instead of seeing Jesus like Julian of Norwich did, Marcia receives visits from various artistic and scientific geniuses of more modern periods. She also resists the onslaught of the diabolical intelligences that she associates with the dirt of her house.

I can’t offer too much more detail without ruining the delightful surprises of this short book, which develops quite a tense plot, all things considered.

at night they twinkled gaily with geometrical constellations, or else, flood-lighted, pointed their luminous fingers (with a gesture whose significance nobody in England but the Savage now understood) solemnly towards the plumbless mysteries of heaven.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Huxley Brave New World fingers gesture savage understood solemnly towards plumbless mysteries heaven

It was a snake, cold of eye, its tongue flickering, its fangs dripping with poison. It hissed, and a drop of poison from its mouth dripped onto Loki’s face, making his eyes burn. Loki screamed and contorted, writhing and twisting in pain. He tried to get out of the way, to move his head from beneath the poison. The bonds that had once been the entrails of his own son held him tightly.

Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Gaiman Norse Mythology snake cold eye tongue fangs dripping poison Loki burn screamed contorted writing twisting pain bonds entrails son held tightly