#1940Club: The Secret of Dr Honigberger

Mircea Eliade: Secretul doctorului Honigberger (The Secret of Dr Honigberger)

Original cover of the novella.

Before Mircea Eliade became a philosopher and historian of religions, he was primarily known as a fiction writer (and playwright) in his birth country, Romania. 1940 was a bit of an odd year for him Рhe had recently been released from prison for his support of the right-wing Iron Guard, but was then rehabilitated and even sent to London and then Lisbon as cultural attach̩ when Romania lurched to the right and later became military dictatorship during the Second World War.

This slim novella was written during this troubled period and perhaps that’s why it contains hardly any references to the politics of its time: it is pure escapism, with the future professor of religions very much in evidence. It is a story within a story and features mysterious disappearances, dusty and potentially dangerous manuscripts, time shifts and surreal/ghostly elements that are now common-place in fantasy literature, but which were perhaps rarer at the time.

The narrator is a young scholar of Oriental Studies (like Eliade himself), who has recently returned from a lengthy trip to India. He is invited to the house of Mrs Zerlendi, a widow, who would like him to examine her husband’s extensive library of Oriental treasures and determine if it might be possible to complete the monography he was writing about Dr Honigberger, who had travelled throughout India and the Arabic countries in the first half of the 19th century and was believed to have attained a transcendental state and special psychic powers.

The narrator is somewhat sceptical at first, and considers the deceased Mr Zerlendi a rank amateur. However, as he grows familiar with the valuable collection and even stumbles across a secret journal, he realises that things are not quite what they seem. Zerlendi did not die, but mysteriously disappeared all of a sudden in 1910, without a word to his family or friends, without taking any of his papers or clothes or money with him. From his journal, it emerges that he was following many of the ascetic and yogic practices described by Dr Honigberger in an attempt to reach the hidden world of Shambala, which some scholars thought was an actual location somewhere in the north of India, but which the narrator is starting to think is something like Enlightenment.

Just as the narrator thinks he might be uncovering the secret, he is suddenly kicked out of the house and library (under the pretext of spring-cleaning and that Mrs Zerlendi has fallen ill). He keeps trying to get past the gatekeeper, the fierce, limping housekeeper, but no luck. And then, when he passes by the house again after a few months, he discovers something very strange indeed: the Zerlendi family (still without the father of the household) in something resembling the future or perhaps an alternative universe.

There is no resolution to the mystery of what actually happened to the narrator or to Zerlendi, and readers often asked Eliade for an explanation, which he refused to give. Clearly the author’s professional interests in esoteric practices got the better of him, for there are far too many lengthy descriptions of those. There are times when the narrator seems to be critical of the fascination with all things Oriental that Zerlendi displays, but I wonder if Eliade the author is aware that he and his narrator are displaying all the same symptoms.

If anyone could manage to make an exciting premise boring (even in a short novella), then it is Eliade here. After he became a lecturer in religious studies, his literary output decreased dramatically. On the other hand, his academic works often read like novels, so…

For an updated and even more intriguing take on this story, with a science-fiction twist, I would recommend Paul Doru Mugur’s short story ‘zerlendi@shambhala.com’, the first in his short story collection Psychonautica, recently published in the US by New Meridian. (And I say that not only because I translated that book).

A translation of Eliade’s novella by Ana Cartianu was published in 1992 under the title ‘Doctor Honigberger’s Secret’, as part of an omnibus edition of Eliade’s Mystic Stories. Probably only worth seeking out if you are deeply interested in the subject or in the author. However, you can see an entirely different (and funnier) side to Eliade by reading his barely disguised youthful memoirs translated and published by Istros Books.

I know that officially the #1940Club is over, but I just wanted to add this fairly obscure book to the list. It didn’t take me long to read but it has taken me far too long to review. More about the reasons for that perhaps in another post.

#1940Club: Miss Hargreaves

Frank Baker: Miss Hargreaves, Bloomsbury, 2009 (reissue)

I know that one of our hosts of the #1940Club, Simon, is extremely fond of this book, so I’d better be careful what I say…

Fortunately, I loved it: a delightful piece of escapism with a supernatural tinge (what did I tell you about 1940 being the year people wanted to look away from the horrors befalling them?). I also feel it says a lot about the nature of the average Englishman (or woman) – the social snobbery, the gossip mill of country villages, the tolerance of eccentricity and bumbling fools, but also the inability to talk about things openly, and the backstabbing that ensues because of that cowardice.

The book reminded me of Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson or David Garnett’s Lady into Fox, both earlier works but likewise taking very English scenarios, characters and landscapes, and then throwing a surrealist spanner in the works. There is much more of a concern for social niceties in all of these novels than in the French, Romanian or German surrealist tales that I’ve read, and the humour is often broader.

Two young men go on a tour of Ireland and engage in what they believe to be a harmless prank, making up on the spot the formidable 83-year old Miss Hargreaves (‘rhymes with ‘graves’, not ‘greeves’), who travels everywhere with her dog, her parrot, her dire poetry, her harp and a hip bath. To their utter astonishment, this figment of their imagination shows up in their cathedral town of Cornford on the Thames, with all the accoutrements they’ve embellished upon, and proceeds to make their life a misery.

At least, that is the official version of the story, and I could easily imagine the narrator Norman as a bashful, confused but nevertheless charming young Hugh Grant, complete with floppy hair. However, I couldn’t help but be aware of the subtext: the schoolboyish high jinks of fairly comfortably well-off young men (although they also work for a living), making fun of the vicar in Ireland who holds his church in high esteem, simply because they deem it ugly, inventing the most absurd connections for an elderly woman and then being embarrassed when these things manifest themselves in real life, above all the back-handed way in which Norman goes about discrediting Miss Hargreaves when he feels she isn’t paying him sufficient attention anymore.

Amusing though it was to witness Norman’s discomfort and madcap attempts to disentangle himself from this crazy situation, my sympathy lies firmly with Miss Hargreaves, self-important and pompous and bulldozerish though she is. And, to be fair, the author seems to be slightly in love with her too. None of this is really her fault, and the narrator comes to that realisation too. There is one poignant moment when the lady says:

For a little while, I broke into a life which I was never intended to lead. But now I know what I am… ‘a thought, a piece of thistledown, a thing of naught, rocked in the cradle of a craftsman’s story’.

There are philosophical asides about the nature of reality and the creative vs. destructive purpose which I wasn’t quite expecting in this essentially light-hearted and fun book.

Lately, I’d begun to doubt a good many things. Whether life wasn’t one long dream: whether dreams weren’t really life: whether I actually existed. Under water, I knew at any rate, that I existed; I knew that because I knew that if I stayed there much longer I should cease to exist.

While most of the book is laced with the self-deprecating kind of humour that feels quintessentially English, there are those moments of anger at one’s own hopelessness, and lashing out at others in a quite nasty way via anonymous denunciations, which somehow reminded me of some of the less pleasant aspects of the recent Covid lockdowns. And then that smug tone of self-justification:

She was climbing too damn high. Some rungs, if not all, must be wrenched from her ladder. Get the rumour round, get the tatty trotty tongues of Cornford wagging, and it would be the beginning of the end for her… It’s no good your reading this and condemning me and saying I’m horribly malicious. I had to do something about it. I couldn’t sit back for ever and watch Connie capering in her Cloud-Cuckoo-Land of Deans and Archdeacons. One kind word from her, one smile in her old fashion, one wink of recongition – and I would not have acted as I did.

In conclusion, I would say that I really enjoyed it and laughed heartily while reading it, but it left a bitter aftertaste, which gave it added complexity, whether the author intended it or not. Oh, and one more reason I loved the book: the multiple mentions of Cookham and Cliveden make me think the book is set somewhere very close to where I currently live.

#1940Club: The Invention of Morel

Adolfo Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel, transl. Ruth L.C. Simms, NYRB.

This is the first of the books that I have lined up for the #1940Club, as hosted by Simon and Karen. I read it in one sitting, at the airport and on the plane coming back from France, and it was a truly unforgettable, mind-twisting experience.

Both Octavio Paz and Borges described this as a perfect novel, but it is incredibly difficult to describe or define – and fits in perfectly with two other novels published in 1940 that I have on my list. I wonder if the outbreak of war caused many writers to feel that reality was too uncomfortable to deal with and that they should focus either on escapism or, if they wanted to address any social issues, they should write them ‘aslant’.

It could hardly get more remote than the island where the narrator lives, in an attempt to flee justice for a crime that he never quite describes. He was told about this island by an Italian rugseller in Calcutta: an uninhabited island where ‘around 1924 a group of white men built a museum, a chapel and a swimming pool’, but anyone who attempts to live there is said to fall prey to a fatal disease that attacks the outside of the body first and then works its way inward. Nevertheless, the narrator is desperate enough to seek refuge there. However, the island seems to be decaying: prone to unpredictable tides and flooding, the marshlands on the south side of the island seem to be taking over, the trees are diseased and the food stores in the ‘museum’ (which feels more like a hotel or a sanatorium) have long since run out.

Then, all of a sudden, the island is ‘invaded’ by a group of people intent on partying, dancing, playing ‘Tea for Two’ and ‘Valencia’ on their phonograph, playing tennis, lounging around and chatting. It all feels very Evelyn Waugh at this point. The narrator is terrified that they might stumble upon him and call the police, yet he cannot stop himself observing them from a distance, especially a dark-haired woman who sits every evening on the rocks to admire the sunset. He becomes obsessed with this woman and tries to woo her with an offering of a garden of dead, picked flowers (yes, really!). But when he attempts to talk to her, he either stumbles over his own ineptitude or else she simply ignores him. Then he discovers that she is also being wooed by ‘an ugly bearded tennis player’ called Morel and he cannot stop himself eavesdropping on their conversation.

Throughout the story, we get the sense that we are caught in someone’s fever-dream, although the narrator assures us that these visitors are not hallucinations. But strange, illogical things keep happening: doors that will suddenly not open anymore, but later on do; people appearing and disappearing mysteriously and silently; fragments of conversation being repeated verbatim. Has the narrator, weakened by hunger and illness, invented Morel and his retinue, or is Morel running an eerie experiment with all of them? (The influence of the ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ is strong here) The ambiguity of the title becomes ever more apparent.

This novel is an intriguing blend of an adventure story with touches of surrealism or science fiction, a story of impossible love, a novel of psychological insight and a meditation on the nature of memory and trying to preserve our most precious moments of happiness. I’m not sure I understood everything, especially in the second part of the book, but it casts a trance-like spell on the reader. The language is very clean and tidy, not a random stray edge anywhere, but highly suggestive. It’s all about reading between the lines – and the author leaves plenty of room for us to make up our own stories and interpretations.

It felt particularly appropriate to read this book, with its surrealist flourishes, right after admiring the paintings of the surrealist artists gathered in Marseille during the war, waiting for a passage to freedom and a new life.