Red Virgins, Black Dogs and almost-Orphans : an unreview

Unreview of “Black Dog : The Dreams of Paul Nash” by Dave McKean, “The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia” by Mary & Brian Talbot, and “Dear Rickard” by Lena Ask. (I call these essays “unreviews” because they’re more than reviews of the individual books, I’m looking, through comparison and contrast to shed light on a broader topic. And because I like inventing daft words.)


Fantasy and reality make strange bedfellows – but not always in the way we might think.

Fantasy and Science Fiction literature allows us to envision worlds quite different from our own, although the majority of such literature depicts norms and conventions remarkably similar to those of the time of the writers. There are many notable exceptions that exercise the imagination in considering genuinely alien cultures (e.g. Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Patrick Ness).

Fantastical themes can also serve to deliberately hold a distorted mirror up to our present reality, rather than (or as well as) serving an escapist function. In this capacity, they can often say things about the present more accurately than a straightforward non-genre fiction, using the fantastical to get at a deeper truth about real events or situations.

Reality can also be more fantastical than we tend to think. In the tension between fantasy-as-satire and the unconscious echoing of current norms in fantastical literature, we can lose track of something else – that history, even recent, euro-centric history, has held quite different norms from those we consider as “normal” today. Many readings of recent history (and a few discussions with friends and family about recent generations) have left me struck with how much variety and other-ness there is to be found in the real world, without needing to venture into fantasy to find that new angle with which to present our lives in an unfamiliar light.

I want to look at three books here that examine recent historical events and figures (“recent” as in the last 150 years), events that in themselves are quite as alien as a lot of the situations depicted in genre fantasy. They are:

The Political

“The Red Virgin and the Visions of Utopia” by Mary & Bryan Talbot. A historical account of the French socialist/anarchist revolutionary Louise Michel, framed by conversations about her life between Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Monique, a fictional young associate of Michel’s. I’d say this is very much a character study of Michel, as well as a historical account. Michel is presented as a very forceful character, with an unwavering confidence in doing the right thing, and a seeming disregard for her own safety or wellbeing in the process. She speaks truth to power, and meets the disenfranchised as equals. The practicality underlying her idealism is neatly illustrated by a repeated motif, in the Paris Commune and later on the penal boat, of her giving away gifts, because she sees someone else’s need as greater than her own.

This directness and confidence in her character seem, for the most part, to preclude any internal struggle. She knows the right thing to do, and does it. The only exception to this is her playing music on a church organ to accompany the bombing of the Paris Commune, where some hint of madness is suggested.

As a character, then, Michel is fascinating, and far from one-dimensional in her other-worldliness. She’s a poor choice for a protagonist, though, and Mary Talbot has chosen wisely to frame the account of her life via the conversation between other, more fallible and relatable characters.

Michel is drawn with certainty to her vision of utopia. Running throughout the book, there are also references to many fictional utopias, including Gilman’s “Herland”, works by Jules Verne & HG Wells, and Albert Robida’s Futuristic Trilogy. (There’s a great scene where Robida, a soldier in the Commune, explains his concept of piping food directly into houses, and everyone joins in with requests for their favourite foods.)

I found this to be one of the most striking features of this book as a historical account – from Michel through to the minor characters, there’s a near-universal belief in the possibility of utopia, in a progress towards some perfect end-state for society through the application of science and rationality. Given we’ve just passed through a referendum in the UK in which the “winners” don’t seem to know why they voted the way they did, and the UK and US are both engulfed in a political mood against those pesky experts and fact checkers, it was this that struck me as most alien about the historical account presented here.


The Psychological

“Black Dog – the dreams of Paul Nash” by Dave McKean, is a character sketch of the british surrealist painter Paul Nash, and his experiences of the first world war.

The narrative is structured as a series of dreams, or dream-like sequences, depicted with McKean’s typical visual flair in a dazzling range of styles (many of which are familiar, but, pleasingly, a couple of new approaches in here too, notably an early sequence about his boyhood dreams of flying in the forest, utilising Matisse-like cutouts mixed with some very loose painted backgrounds). The book stands by itself, but is also an accompaniment to a live multimedia performance, with music and film. The words are obviously written for live performance, full of internal rhymes and almost-rhymes that only reveal themselves if you read them aloud, something I’d really recommend.

Nash, like McKean, is a surrealist. Surrealism is everywhere these days, so it’s worth taking a moment to consider its original aims. Surrealists created fantastical imagery, often through a process of juxtaposition, presenting everyday items outside of their usual context, such that the viewer questions their meaning or purpose. Andre Breton, the founder of surrealism, saw surrealism as an inherently political art – by revealing deeper psychological truths to the viewer, as well as evoking empathy, it challenged the authority of the status quo (with the same kind of positive vision of a possible future expressed by the many Utopian visions in The Red Virgin).

Black Dog isn’t a biography. There are helpful signposts scattered throughout, but to fill in an understanding of Nash’s life from a cold start, you’ll need google to hand. The book is a mood piece, a story about the First World War, and Nash’s experience in it. Perhaps more importantly, it’s about his reaction to it. It deals with the horrors of the war – there are accounts of Nash witnessing the death of a young colleague, and of the steady deterioration and destruction of his regiment – but Nash’s story isn’t a straightforward one of “carefree young spirit growing up too fast in face of the horror of war”. Nash is spared direct experience of the war twice, once through Measles, and later by falling into a trench and breaking a rib. And the biggest cathartic reveal in the visual storytelling (with double-page spread of fire and destruction) is of a solitary Nash witnessing the devastation that war has visited upon the landscape, rather than the people. He passes a human corpse along the way in this sequence, but in that final vision of destruction, the charred bodies are those of the trees. Nash was a landscape painter, and this, according to McKean’s narrative at least, is a deep part of his psyche, not just an aesthetic or technical choice, as seen in the early chapter describing his dreams of flying in the forest landscape of his childhood.

Nash is contrasted throughout the book with more worldly characters. There’s an art dealer whose first response to news of the war is how it will affect the art market, but also more subtle contrasts with his brother John, and the painter Claud Lovat Fraser, both of whom seem to have found some inner peace with their experiences of the war, whereas Paul Nash has not. The episode with Frazer highlights this in an interesting visual way, with Lovat being depicted in colour, rather discordantly, while Nash remains grey. There are plenty of visual storytelling nuggets of this sort – the sludge-brown fog enshrouded pages as Nash and his battalion sail from Southampton Docks is another.

In one sense, Nash has chosen not to recover, not to “move on” from his experiences, because he wished to continue to bear witness to what he had undergone. He is accompanied throughout by the “Black Dog” (echoing Churchill’s description of his depression?), whose nature shifts from menace to monster to guardian and mentor, sometimes part-human, in a beautifully dream-like, and genuinely surrealist, fashion. Surrealism isn’t symbolism, and the black dog doesn’t clearly “stand for” any single concept or emotion. McKean is talking the language of dreams rather than fantasy here, a very alien landscape to which we all have some degree of access.

The Personal

“Dear Rickard” by Lene Ask presents a much more personal view of a different time and place. The text is taken verbatim from letters between a late 19th century Norwegian boy and his father, a missionary. From age 6, Rickard along with his siblings, is left to grow up in an orphanage while his father David returns to work in Madagascar. The arrangement appears to be purely practical and financial, and much of the conversation is of a mundane nature – how the crops in Madagascar are growing, Rickard worrying about his grades at school, and so on. The emotional charge of being effectively abandoned by his father is allowed to build up slowly, in his refusal to answer his father’s letters as he grows older, for example, and never completely eclipses the tenderness between them.

The pictures accompany and enrich the often spare text of the letters beautifully. Drawn in finely cross-hatched pencil, with a loose and natural composition, they depict the day to day activities of the two correspondents. Ask is an accomplished draughtswoman, with a good command of body language and facial expression. The composition of the individual panels is often a little haphazard, and certainly informal – bringing to mind Rick Geary’s early work in some places, although the finish of the artwork is quite different.

The pairing of the imagery with the words is masterful and poetic, allowing each to follow their own direction before returning to fire sparks off each other. To cite a few examples:

  • The visual echoes of Rickard shaping a snowball in Stavanger and David holding a peach in Madagascar, highlighting the closeness and the distance
  • Images of David & his new wife’s sea crossing give way to the three children consulting a globe, then to Rickard walking away with a football (visual echoes again)
  • Rickard, then Jacob, both petting cats, followed by a sequence of migratory birds. The Stavanger cat is later seen hunting and killing a bird
  • Images of Rickard’s stamp collection, panning out to show more and more stamps, as he asks his father how long he will be away, and begs it to be no more than two years

It’s beautifully done, showing a very impressive control of the comics form, and the unfolding of a very unusual inner and outer life.

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