Resurrection in Print
By Anna Aslanyan.
Gerald Kersh, The Angel and the Cuckoo (London Books 2011)
A couple of years ago, Michael Moorcock told me in an interview that he calls himself a “resurrectionist” because of his interest in names long forgotten or never properly remembered. “Writers who disappeared or were banished, if you like, from the popular consciousness. There is an author I like a lot, pretty much forgotten now. He wrote a book about his family that insulted so many people his publisher had to withdraw it – there were about fifty people trying to sue him at the same time. If I wanted to write about him, say, for the Guardian, they wouldn’t let me – I know they wouldn’t.” He was referring to Gerald Kersh, whose 1934 novel Jews without Jehovah did, indeed, offend his relatives (five in all, not fifty, as Moorcock estimated) and was subsequently withdrawn. On the whole, Moorcock was right to lament Kersh’s disappearance from the public view, although he made another overstatement here: in fact, two years before our conversation, when his Night and the City was reissued by London Books, Andrew Stevens did write about Kersh in the Guardian. The same publisher has just put out The Angel and the Cuckoo, which, upon its release in 1966, did not get the reception it deserved. I rather hope it does this time.
As a book that spans the years between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the Blitz, The Angel and the Cuckoo is surprisingly topical today. There are things the author could not have known in the 60s, yet he talks about them as if he was writing a parody of the 21st century popular culture in retrospect. You cannot help laughing at the discussion of cinematography as the new art that will replace theatre soon, while the adventures of a pre-war wannabe actress and her protectors read like a (good quality, it must be noted) tabloid piece. Betting fraud is as tricky and profitable as its Internet-era counterparts: “The procedure now is simple as ABC. One day, betting from the course, Lord X […] hands in to the telegraph operator, say, sixteen telegrams, each betting a thousand pounds on a horse in a race where there’s sixteen runners. The operator stamps all these telegrams as having been handed in five minutes or so before the start.” The rest hinges on a time delay which would be plausible for a present-day computer-based system.
But most of all, The Angel and the Cuckoo strikes you as an anti-globalist book written in the age when globalism was just a twinkle in capitalism’s eye. The protagonist, Steve Zobrany, arrives in London from Hungary, settles near Carnaby Street, and opens an eponymous café, which takes its name from a silly joke and a hideous sign: “the cherub cast a monstrously priapic shadow. Strangers thought, at first, that Zobrany was operating a rendezvous for homosexuals.” Try as you might, you can never imagine the place becoming part of a chain; the same can be said about a neighbouring pub, The Road to Hell (also known as The Good Intention), whose owner raises many a glass in Zobrany’s company to maintain a jovial community spirit. “My décor will be something quietly picturesque,” Zobrany dreams in his old-fashioned, refined manner. “An artistic enterprise, good conversation, dominoes. My menu, cosmopolitan. I can provide tasteful lunches and dinners quite cheap, and give good value.” I cannot think of a better way to advertise a small business in our day and age.
The other characters include Zobrany’s compatriot Gèza Cseh, who starts a busboy in Vienna, but soon is called the Baron Cseh and, later, makes a name in Hollywood as Gabriel Chess; Tom Henceforth (“Henceforth henceforth,” he announces proudly one day, bored with his real surname), a young man of many talents, in whom illegal activities evoke a special thrill; and Perp, the godfather of the Brighton underworld. The book is populated by crooks, tarts, conmen, and, to top off this motley cast, a hack writing an in-depth article “Would I Live My Life Over Again?” The journalist is not sure of the answer to the question he poses to his interviewees, when the old romantic Zobrany tells him: “But why not? It would be better the second or third time. The plot is the least part of a good story: it improves with rereading, does it not?”
Which may be true of the novel itself, at least in the sense that its plot is less important than the stories it spins and, especially, the manner in which they are told. As for rereading, I will have to wait and see what happens. It might, after all, follow in the footsteps of Tom Henceforth’s “glittering, satanically hyperbolic monologues – diamonds by lamplight but paste in the morning; champagne to hear but heel taps to remember”. To be fair, there are passages in the book that seem overlong or unnecessarily florid; the jury is still out on these. Be that as it may, the scene of Tom’s first carnal embrace (as recalled by the author, not by himself) is so hilarious and vivd I doubt it turns into something else with the first dawn. “The woman in the nightmare now had thirty shadows, and was multiplying herself to dance a black Carmagnole by the light of eight dreary candles. She was tearing herself to pieces. There flew a feather boa like a knot of vipers, and a shower of gaping slate-blue boots – away fluttered as many green skirts as there are flames at a witch-burning, and as many petticoats as there are flakes of ash. The Night Mare was greenish-white, and reeked of penny opopanax mingled with sickly lilies and rotten roses; of candle grease, butcher shops, sour milk, violets, ammonia and pickled onions; of sickroom odours prevailing over incense, and of forgotten vegetables.”
When Moorcock says he likes Kersh, you remember his Mother London, a vibrant novel where the history of the post-war city is encapsulated in a series of absurdist episodes, which definitely draws on Kersh’s London prose. If Moorcock’s characters are mental patients, The Angel and the Cuckoo presents outcasts of many different kinds; criminals, shadowy figures, adventurers, all sorts. And this, if we return to anti-globalism, becomes its trump card. Kersh’s heroes have numerous vices, but none of them can be put into a corporate context of any description. It is best exemplified by the publican of The Road to Hell, who “was a world-defier. He defied the Brewer’s Combine, the Income Tax, the Defence of the Realm Act; he defied the police, the Church, the sanitary inspector, the Army, the Navy, the King and Parliament”. Reading a recent article in the Guardian, where it is suggested that Britain’s pubs closing fast may be not such a bad thing, and many others that talk about anti-globalist issues, you wish the press did more to resurrect this rare breed, the authors who make us see London’s present in the bold light of its past.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 17th, 2011.