SECRET EUROPE by John Howard and Mark Valentine (EXPOSITION INTERNATIONALE: Bucharest: MMXII).



This book presumably is some sort of collaboration between MV and JH. But did they write all these stories independently and decide to put them together as a book: owing to the stories, later, serendipitously seeming to be suitable for such a purpose, thus creating ‘Secret Europe’ from literary ready-mades or installations?  (I notice the order of the stories currently shown here is different to that in the actual book). Or did these two authors agree together in advance to write independent stories specifically designed for the then future ‘Secret Europe’ project? And, if the latter, how much input did they have into each other’s stories and into the final order of them – and were third parties involved in such decisions? With the two stories that are reprints, were they last minute additions to perfect a pre-perceived gestalt? Or did all the new works effectively write themselves only later to shuffle contentedly into the book along with the two backstories? The fact that I need to ask such questions at all is a credit to the book, I propose.

Wandering Paths – John Howard

“There were specks swirling in the air – or perhaps they were circling behind his eyes.”

…signs of scrying irises? — The protagonist visits a neighbouring town which he had not visited before, although familiarity is strangely present, I sense. He is there with an arrangement to meet his future wife to save their future marriage (ie which comes first?) – a gentle, almost ‘anti-novel’ feel, of meticulously described wandering, with increasing purposelessness (when she doesn’t turn up) … with a Proustian unrequitedness as part of the highly honed ‘genius loci’  – and I relish such purposelessness and the paths actually being made by an effetely-swishing grass-cutter for our protagonist to follow even before he has decided which direction to follow, or so I sense. This is the way of life, being shadowed or pursuer, shadower or pursued. This is perhaps the way of this book, whatever the answer to the aforementioned questions of collaboration. Who the grass-cutter, who the one one who walks where the grass has been cut? A soporific index-linking to literary sentiments rather than market ones.  ‘Wandering Paths’ is interestingly the exact opposite of ‘The Way of the Sun’ (with its intrusive outsiders) in respect of the condition of (wanting or not wanting) outside forces impinging (to impinge) upon either pre-set or free directionality.  (7 Mar 12 – another three hours later)

A Lantern for Carpathia – Mark Valentine

As we drew nearer, I soon understood: for we were approaching a little hidden cemetery and the light and the scent came from votive candles burning in glass jars,…”

This story has candles. This story has cigarettes. And this story has The One Day Republic of Carpathia, the day that Carpathia was “No longer Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, Ruthenian, Russian, German, Romanian;” until, like those trying to give Greece a haircut today, such ‘-ians’ come to reclaim their parts of what they need so as to divert (rather than finally annul)  the results of scarce resources – and the man who experienced the London Blitz as well as being, in this story, the walking Carpathian Republic himself in personified form, talks to the dead: maintains their spirits with candles: and I a cigarette researcher learn how dark and bitter are his Red Bears to drag through my lungs so that I can write a book called: “The Cigarette in Europe, a study in economy, society and culture“: but I cry, as the reader and as the story’s first person protagonist, when I hear of the “gold krona” (krone?) and the “lanterne des morts“.  I cry, too, at this story’s use of the word “immured” rather than “inured”. Meanwhile, along with the smuggling and trading of cigarettes, I feel this story — a reprint: my earlier review of it here — is essential re-reading and not itself smuggled into this book: but an organic part of it. (7 Mar 12 – another 3 hours later)

The High Places – John Howard

The vast pale carpet of London stretched out in front and below us.”

…seen from the various high places or, I’d say, ‘balconies’ surrounding the centre of  London.  This is the story of Averill Turner the painter.  In mid 20th century London, and here, after the previous story’s mention of it, we enter the London Blitz by the Germans in full narrative reality of someone who knew Averill quite well during those years. [My mother – aged 86 – still tells me about the Blitz first hand, so I should know. Strangely or serendipitously enough, she did so this very morning.] This work is an inspiring essay, a stunning portrait of the panoply of 1930s, 1940s London from the centre out towards its edges, say, at Ealing’s beginning of then accreting concrete: particularly its churches, particularly its City churches [the City of London where I worked in finance in the 1970s: the sort of finance that shamefully was to lead to the sorry pass we’re in today within Secret Europe and I visited St Pauls every lunch time, a cathedral that sometimes looks like a huge sailing clipper with its attendant church-vessels as small churches (as this story attests), St Pauls Cathedral that figured so prominently in much of my own early fiction] – and Averill painted these churches as his specialism, to preserve them for posterity at least on canvas.  But in some sort of collaboration with God, perhaps, I sense, that very act of painting … well you need to read this splendid story to find out! [Soane is mentioned in this story. I have very fond memories of the writer Mark Samuels taking me and others to see Soane’s Museum in the late 1980s]. (8 Mar 12 – 1.45 pm gmt)

The Fall of Ashes – Mark Valentine

“…as if they were grey ribbons or twilight confetti for the start of a secret, as yet unannounced, parade.”

The city here has a feel of Arthur Machen, in some oblique way, the first time I’ve consciously thought this with the fiction I’ve read in this book, which is perhaps surprising. The  conceit of ashes beginning to fall – at first very slowly – upon the protagonists in the story-fable, together with rumours of special facilities for burning books or, at best, papers of bureaucracy, is one that makes me shiver with delight at the literary conceit itself but also with grimness at what lies behind it.  A “future history” of ebooks et al?  Whatever the case, this book is safe. The fiercest furnace could not harm its stiff impermeable luxury.  For me, even ashes forming stains of aspirational words to be scried from upon the surfaces where they fell are better than any evanescent texts that tend to vanish from screens at the whim of a solar storm. (8 Mar 12 – seven hours later)




3 responses to “*

  1. We planned the book together, and divided Europe between us. All but a handful of the stories were written specially for it. The others were included because they seemed to fit. We looked at each other’s new stories as we wrote them, and sometimes made minor suggestions. But they are each entirely our own. Our publisher suggested the order of the stories, and we agreed this.


  2. Secret Europe / Black Horse (Index)

    Two real-time reviews that I conducted together for no other reason than they were there to read:

    Here is the index-linking for each real-time review’s parts:

    SECRET EUROPE – by John Howard and Mark Valentine: OneTwoThreeFourFiveSix

    BLACK HORSE and Other Strange Stories – by Jason A. Wyckoff: OneTwoThreeFour

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