The Mysteries of Algiers has certain obvious points of intersection with Robert Irwin’s other books: the Westerner involved in espionage in Islamic Africa is like the earlier Arabian Nightmare, and the maniacally ideological protagonist/narrator is akin to the later Exquisite Corpse. In this instance, the anti-hero fanatic is a Marxist revolutionary in French Algeria.
This one is probably the most violent of the author’s novels that I’ve read. It is also the least overtly mystical. At the same time, Irwin doesn’t miss the opportunity to emphasize the spectral icing on the Marxist cake. The touchstone quote of the volume is Marx from The German Ideology: “The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life processes, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises.” I still hardly understand what that means; what is the antecedent of “which”?
Still, Irwin keeps esoterically-minded readers like me paying attention with little nuggets like tacit quotation of Sufi saint Rabi’a (“The torch is for setting fire to Paradise and the water to extinguish the flames of hell,” 123) and poking fun at the arch-Mahatma of Theosophy (“It is as if Koot Hoomi — some great astral spirit — was dictating nonsense to me,” 138).
I realized while reading this novel that Irwin’s fiction has much in common stylistically with that of Chuck Palahniuk. While American Palahniuk may be more plugged-in to the 21st-century Western zeitgeist, Englishman Irwin definitely has the edge in literary allusion and historical orientation. I wouldn’t call The Mysteries of Algiers one of Irwin’s best, but it’s damned good just the same.
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.
I picked up this short book because of my liking for the author’s novels. My interest in the topic had no urgency whatsoever, and now I know far more than I’ll ever need to about the best-preserved of medieval Muslim palaces. Although packaged as a something like a travel guide, Irwin’s history of the Alhambra and its cultural reception has advice for the visitor confined to a three-page appendix. The bulk of the book is both conversational and erudite, treating the dubiety of received interpretations of the Alhambra, an assortment of informed speculations on the original designs and uses of the buildings, and tracings of the cultural effects of the Andalusian palace in Western literature and art.
Despite the extensive scholarship underlying Irwin’s volume, it has neither footnotes nor endnotes. He does provide a very detailed bibliographic essay, complete with such blunt remarks as: “Chateaubriand’s Les Aventures du dernier Abencerage was translated into English in the nineteenth century, though frankly it is not worth reading in any language.” The twenty-five full-page black-and-white illustrations are a valuable complement to the text. [via]
Robert Irwin’s most recent novel Wonders Will Never Cease is in many ways a return to the form of his first The Arabian Nightmare. The setting is different: this one takes place in fifteenth-century England, and all of the principal characters are drawn from the history of the period. The elaborate narrative structure supports further stories within it, including Arthurian romance, Celtic myth, the Niebelung saga, prophecies, propaganda, dreams, and visions. As in The Arabian Nightmare, the boundaries between the imaginary and the “real” become very porous, and the reader is ultimately left with no defense against the fact that the contents of the book are all a story, but such a manifold and self-devouring story as to make one question the “reality” of the reader as well.
The narrative follows the adventures of Anthony Woodville, Lord Scales, who is slain in a battle at the beginning of the novel, but returned to life in a manner never fully explained. A nearly comparable amount of attention is devoted to the adventures of Woodville’s fictional alter-egos, in the rumors about him manufactured by George Ripley (alchemist and spymaster to Edward IV), and in the legends and fairy-tales told by his mother, who is evidently no mean sorceress. Anthony himself learns a bit of magic from the scholar John Tiptoft. But this book is very far from the sort of modern fantasy re-visioning of the War of the Roses found in G.R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books.
The idea of decapitation looms large in this book, although it has faded somewhat in public discourse over the last decade or so. I certainly took note early on when Irwin explained that it was customary for a medieval executioner to present the severed head first toward its former body, so that any trace awareness in the head could register its doom. As a reader of this intensely metafictional book, already-dead with Anthony Woodville, I felt more like a body regarding in fascination and horror the workings of my isolated head. [via]
This speedy little novel (which nevertheless takes plenty of time to smell the roses) seems almost like a tale for The Arabian Nights written by Franz Kafka. The cover blurb justifiably brags of its inclusion of “sex with men, women, fairies and alligators.” The protagonist is an Ottoman imperial prince, and the story gives an account of his first few days of interacting with women, after having been imprisoned for his whole life with his brothers.
Given the peculiar tone of the ending, I couldn’t help but wonder about the ways it might be interpreted as a fable, or even an allegory. [via]
In Dangerous Knowledge Robert Irwin provides a very full history of an intellectual discipline: the study of Arabic and Islam in Western scholarship, which has customarily gone under the name of “Orientalism.” In some measure, Irwin’s book is a response and rebuttal to Edward Said’s Orientalism, which indicts the entire Orientalist effort as having been an instrument of imperialist ambitions to degrade and dominate the Muslim East. Working largely through a host of thumbnail biographies of individual scholars, Irwin shows the motives and affections of the researchers to have been very diverse, and while geopolitical ambitions may have resulted in a (particularly 20th-century) relative surge of funding for Orientalist research, the researchers and the funders do not seem to have had any reliable overlap in sentiment. Amidst this diversity, Irwin observes the various chains of scholarly transmission, comparing them appropriately to the Sufi concept of silsila.
While Irwin (far from the first to do so) criticizes Said’s Orientalism for lacking or contradicting the actual facts about Orientalist academics and their work, Dangerous Knowledge suffers in some respects from a complementary difficulty. It is decidedly more trees than forest, and by emphasizing the many and admittedly interestingly various individuals and details, it leaves the reader groping somewhat for a “big picture.” The effect is somewhat paradoxical: Irwin is obviously opinionated, and clearly loyal to what he sees as the valuable elements of the Orientalist tradition, but the stress on objective, heterogeneous fact almost conveys a sense of dispassion. The prose style is accessible, and not encumbered with academicisms; anyone with an interest in the subject matter should find the book accessible and worthwhile. [via]
Irwin weaves a terrific tale of the “Summer of Love Under Will”: a hippy college student in London gets into more occultism than he bargains for. The story is enchanting, revolting, hilarious, nostalgic, riveting, and pathetic by turns, and the magick, the drugs and the weird sex are all pretty credible—even as outre as they become.
The entire book is written as a diary, initially undertaken as a magical record in obedience to the “Black Book Lodge,” a persistent old schism (of Irwin’s invention) from Crowley’s A∴A∴ The journal format is not merely an homage to or evocation of classic horror fiction like Stoker’s Dracula, it is a faithful representation of the sort of document that modern magical practice actually generates. It repeatedly inspired me with envy; would that my own diary were as witty and perceptive as that of Irwin’s protagonist! In that sense, it can serve as a goad for working occultists today.
The author’s 1967 photo portrait on the back inside jacket (also in the background of the paperback cover) offers further evidence for the suspicion—which must occur to any informed reader—that he drew significantly on personal experience in constructing this delectable yarn. [via]
“In the autumn of 1966 it seemed to me that I had no destiny, for my future was blank. Now, as I write, it seems to me that my destiny is already mostly in the past” (122).
Robert Irwin is one of my favorite novelists, the author of such wonderful works as The Arabian Nightmare (his first), The Limits of Vision, and Satan Wants Me, and that would have been enough to interest me in his memoir. And indeed, this book discloses to a reader of Irwin’s fiction many of the crypto-autobiographical vectors in his writing. But the the promise of accounts of his experiences in the emergence of English counterculture in the 1960s and of his own involvement in Algerian Sufism made the memoir irresistable.
Irwin expresses nostalgia for his experience of the hippy sixties, while powerfully deglamorizing the counterculture. He is disenchanted and strikingly contemptuous of his younger self. In addition to drugs, mysticism, music, and romantic love, he recounts his academic odyssey and encounters with intellectuals such as R.C. Zaehner, Bernard Lewis, and the Perennialist school of religious scholarship.
Irwin professes his abiding faith in the message of Islam and the value of Sufi praxis, despite the horror with which he regards conspicuous portions of the global Muslim community. His respect for the ‘Alawi tariqa in which he was initiated has not been effaced. But the book almost reads as though it might have been entitled “Memoirs of a Failed Dervish,” because he confesses his own lack of attainment and inability to derive consequence from his mystical strivings. Still, he provides details of the perplexing effects of his aspiration. “Like body odours, ecstasy is something that nice people don’t talk about, but the hell with that” (78).
There is certainly a significant dose of melancholy in Irwin’s retrospection. “I cannot think of anything useful I have learned from dreams, or any instance in which a dream has served as valuable inspiration,” he writes (215). In a highly enjoyable reflection on his youthful interest in science fiction, Irwin remarks: “I have lost the capacity to be astounded and I am sad about that” (19). For me, his memoir was like summer sunshine filtered through browning autumn leaves. [via]
This brilliant book communicates its own obsessive thought-patterns to the reader in a way that dissolves the boundaries between literature, dream and magic. I’m not sure I’ve ever managed to leave Cairo even now. [via]
Adrian Strother isn’t a doctor, and he hasn’t slept for some time. Nor can he for the three days that make up this novel. The reader is deposited in media res into Adrian’s 1980s London world, which seems to have his American past catching up with him, and his inchoate future dwindling to the indivisible point which hath no points nor parts nor magnitude. He’s a talented hypnotist with aspirations to the divine magic of Marsilio Ficino and (more particularly) Giordano Bruno. For much of this book he struggles with whether and how to care about the people closest to him, while his professional engagements produce surprising results, and his carefully-constructed interior world reaches its full momentum.
Doctor Sleep isn’t a “thriller” as the HBJ jacket copy claims. It’s more of a “love story” after the fashion of the two M. John Harrison novels I recently read as Anima. It combines the modern hermeticism of John Crowley’s Aegypt books with the gonzo introspection of a Robert Irwin novel. Layer on the chatty readability and pell-mell plotting of an early Palahniuk book, and you’ll about have it. But enough of comparisons.
The fast-reading story darkens severely towards its dawn. I caution interested readers against any alleged plot summaries, because although the story itself is given in a perfectly sequential first-person narrative, it all hinges on circumstances that are revealed in an elliptical manner to give them their greatest effect. One of the chief topics of the novel (and the title of the second of its three days) is the art of memory, and what a haphazard glosser might see as background is just as likely to be payoff.
There is certainly a Faust tale here, and much that can be read as allegory. It was the first book of Bell’s I have read, but since he could deliver “more light” in this fashion, I won’t make it the last. [via]