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The Devil in the Details

Michael Pacher, "The Devil showing St. Augustine the Book of Vices," ca. 1480 [1]

Michael Pacher, The Devil showing St. Augustine the Book of Vices, ca. 1480

3,892 words

Alan Judd
The Devil’s Own Work [2]
London: HarperCollins, 1991
New York: Knopf, 1994
Richmond, Va.: Valancourt, 2015; with an Introduction by Owen King and an Afterword by Alan Judd

Oh boy, another weird novella unearthed and republished by the folks at Valancourt![1]

Well, not really unearthed, as The Devil’s Own Work is a 1991 novella by Alan Judd which won the Guardian Fiction Award. And Judd seems to have had quite a successful career, in nonfiction (the W. H. Heinemann Award-winning biography of Ford Madox Ford published in 1990), fiction (many a novel, some televised), and journalism.[2]

Still, it’s been out of print for years, and it’s new to me — and likely you — so that’s all that counts.

According to the publishers,

After Edward, a rising young author, pens a savage review of the new novel by the world-famous O. M. Tyrell, he is surprised to receive an invitation to visit the old man at his villa in the south of France. The night of their meeting, Tyrell dies, and soon after, Edward’s career mysteriously starts to soar as he earns fame, fortune and critical acclaim. But despite his achievements, Edward seems haunted, even tormented. His friend, the narrator, begins to put together the pieces of the story: an ancient, inscrutable manuscript, a beautiful, ageless woman who attaches herself to whatever writer possesses it, and a bargain to achieve success at a terrible price . . .

All set with the plot?[3] It’s the good old Faust yarn, or a The New York Times Book Review says, “A brief return to the world of Faust, Mephistopheles and the Devil pact. “ The Guardian (which gave it that prize, remember) went even further:

At once moral fable, cautionary ghost story and inspired attack on the whole hellbent drift of modern letters, this is a splendid tale, splendidly told, which Ford or Henry James would have been glad to have written.[4]

So, it’s a ghostly Faust tale, and also a satire of modern publishing. As for Ford and James, well, then the Times Literary Supplement drives home the comparison: “It is seldom that a novel demands such attentive reading; and seldom that a reading is so amply rewarded. Ford would have been proud to have such a disciple.”

Now, that raises a third point: close reading. One of the pleasures of genre fiction, for both reader and writer, is that the genre conventions take over much of the work. The reader knows that to expect, the writer finds his task simplified. If the writer stops there, we have the pulp hack.

More ambitious, “literary” authors also like to “try their hand” at genre fiction; with plot and character concerns simplified, they can concentrate on fancy writing and atmosphere.[5]

Here, I’m not sure that Judd has really delivered. It’s a short and pleasant read, but there’s nothing particularly distinguished about it. Judd’s main contribution is the cursed manuscript itself, an archaic, handwritten document that seems like gibberish when read, but possession of which allows the ambitious writer to effortlessly turn out elegant yet empty fictions, but also completely takes over and supplants his own creativity; it manifests its presence in an almost subliminal scratch-scratch-scratching noise.

Those thousands upon thousands of thin spiky strokes gave me an uncomfortable sensation of nonsense, pernicious nonsense that was nevertheless tempting because at the same time it seemed that it could be made to mean something

“Not a notebook but a text, a blueprint, a sort of literary genetic code.”

When he heard the noise, his head filled with words, scenes, characters, voices and echoes in such profusion that he felt he couldn’t contain them. All he could do was to siphon them off through his own pen, writing automatically with hardly a shaping thought of his own.

“It’s probably my imagination,” he said slowly. “When I’m thinking, you know. A projection of some sort like a poltergeist.”

It’s an appropriately creepy idea, even one that seemingly must have its origins in some lost Gothic novel, though I can’t place it if so; but one can’t help but wonder how much more a Hoffman or Lovecraft — to say nothing of James — would have done with it.

The problem is, for a “ghost story” in the Jamesian nouvelle tradition, and blurbed by Stephen King, no less, as “wonderful” and “the best book I’ve read all year”[6] there’s really no atmos’ here.

Partly, it’s a problem of setting as well; however lovely, the scenery of Cap Ferrat and Antibes really doesn’t evoke the idea of “scary gothic.”

Indeed, Judd, or a least his narrator (who is certainly Jamesian in his unreliability and general obtuseness[7]), may not really think this is a problem:

The best style is the least noticeable because it so directs the reader’s attention to what is being written about that he is unaware of how the trick was done, or that here was a trick.

That concern about “trickery” can be bracing tone to take from time to time, but ultimately a rather Puritan one. It is, however, essential to Judd’s other theme, the vanity and danger of modern writing from the scientific pretenses of the Nouvelle Roman to “magic realism” and postmodern “irony,” the emphasis has been on mere technique rather than moral vision.

One can’t help but be reminded of Judd’s stablemate at Valancourt – and favorite of Counter-Currents readers – Colin Wilson. Indeed, the elderly author, O. M. Tyrell – known jocularly as the “Old Man” or, in Jamesian terms, Old Master — who passes the manuscript to Judd’s protagonist Edward, rather resembles, to my mind at least, Samuel Beckett, Wilson’s lifelong bête noire:

The people who deserve blame are the pessimists, the poisoners of our cultural wellsprings, like Samuel Beckett and William Golding.

Idiots parrot “Beckett is a great writer.” He isn’t. With the exception of Godot, which justifies itself by being funny, he is a dreary shit. And in encouraging the notion that life is “a tale told by an idiot,” and that our attitude towards it ought to be one of weary resignation, he is an enemy of human evolution. Other writers have taken the same attitude, including Shakespeare, but there is a greatness in his language that contradicts his negativeness. In Beckett’s later work there is no such counterbalance.

The pessimism of Beckett or Celine or Andreyev is their own assessment, and it seems to me to be full of their personal weakness and subjectivity—their poor emotional health, if you like.[8]

Beckett’s sudden rise from obscurity to worldwide prominence was indeed the topic of a good deal of speculation as early as the ’50s.[9] Well, it’s not far from here to “demonic possession,” is it? When Wilson gets really going, his targets expand in an interesting way:

I had noted in my teens that major writers are usually those who have had to struggle against the odds — to “pull their cart out of the mud,” as I put it — while writers who have had an easy start in life are usually second rate — or at least, not quite first-rate. Dickens, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Shaw, H. G. Wells, are examples of the first kind; in the twentieth century, John Galsworthy, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Samuel Beckett are examples of the second kind. They are far from being mediocre writers; yet they tend to be tinged with a certain pessimism that arises from never having achieved a certain resistance against problems.[10]

One can easily expand the idea of having an easy time of it, biographically, to the notion of the postmodern writer having an equally easy time of it, technique-wise, churning out hollow fantasies and word games, rather than dealing with the existential struggle of modern man; and from thence to postulating some kind of machine that cranks it out,[11] and thence to the Faustian pact. Wilson has the interesting idea that the pessimism is secondary, a mere symptom; it’s paradoxically common to writers who have had an easy life, while those who struggle derive the Wilsonian sense of victory and evolutionary advance.

Anyway, it’s interesting to see Graham Greene’s name pop up alongside Beckett. Pessimism I get, but I wouldn’t have thought Greene an example of someone with an easy life; in fact, Wilson himself elsewhere tells the story of the adolescent Greene playing Russian roulette out of boredom, and compares it to Dostoyevsky’s firing squad revelation.

And yet, Judd, in his Afterword, reveals that the inspiration for the Old Man was – Graham Greene, whom the young Judd met and found to be a rather nasty old bugger.[12]

Nevertheless, my attempt to find the atmos’ through close reading found paydirt when finding a more subtle clue. When Edward publishes his magnum opus of obscure literary emptiness, our narrator informs us that

Edward’s next book, which was publicized as being the first he had written – actually “compose” was the world used – electronically. This was the book that established him as a literary writer of truly international status, a highbrow bestseller. No one since Thomas Mann . . . had so combined sales with intellectual repute.

This is irony, of course, and just the kind of “onomastic” playfulness that Mann himself delighted in[13] – Edward’s soulless triumphal work fools the public into ranking him with Mann! Mann, of course, is not the hidden target we’ve been looking for, rather the anti-type. He does, however, give us – onomastically – the clue to something else, a hidden theme.

The clue is that Edward’s book is composed; an unusual word, the narrator agrees. We are meant, I think, to link Edward, the Mann-fraud, with Adrian, the doomed composer of Mann’s own masterwork, Doktor Faustus.[14]

Rather than fairly standard Gothic atmos’, I think Judd has spent his time developing a subtle network of allusions to Mann’s book. Like Mann, the serious theme of the contents gives him license to amuse himself with the superstructure, unlike the “ironic” concoctions of the postmodernists.

Armed with this clue, I returned to “attentively read” the text (as was said, it’s a “brief return” and a pleasant way to spend the afternoon) and was indeed amply rewarded. Clearly, Judd had eschewed the easy path of “gothing” it up and instead chose the more subtle one of constructing a network of associations that would tie his short novella into Mann’s large-scale “highbrow bestseller.”

Mann’s protagonist, Adrian Leverkuhn – clearly based on Friedrich Nietzsche – is an early XXth century composer who seeks an escape from the dead end of Western tonality[15] through a pact with the Devil; or, perhaps he’s just bat-shit crazy from syphilis acquired from a Leipzig prostitute. Either way, he achieves his breakthrough after devising a cabalistic[16] method of atonal composition,[17] going on to compose increasingly Satanic and inhuman parodies of Western music, culminating in a demented choral work, The Lamentations of Dr. Faustus — intended to “take back the Ninth” – and a final collapse into madness and silence.

On a rereading, many of Mann’s themes and even leitmotifs can be spotted. For example, Mann makes much of Adrian’s blue eyes, and their attraction and repulsion on others.

The blue of his eyes so enhanced their expressiveness that it took very little to make them intimidating.

This sentence could easily be dropped into Faustus, as it brings together several motifs:

We might all have felt more for him if we had had any idea of the emptiness, destruction and terror concealed beneath his heavy immobility, his measured tones,[18] and his apparently attentive blue eyes.

Speaking of eyes, those of his Satanic controller, Eudoxia, recall the Russian-born, French speaking temptress from Mann’s earlier novel, The Magic Mountain: “Kirghiz-eyed” Clavdia Chauchat:

[The ponytail] emphasized the slightly Asiatic shape of her cheekbones and eyes. I assumed from her accent that she was French, and said so. “Partly, un peu. A little of everything.”[19]

Back to repulsion and distance; both Adrian and Edward ae characterized by a lack of empathy, or of any interest in human affairs, and a revulsion from human contact.[20] For example:

[His signature showed] an immense pressure, a little circle[21] of unending pain, unreachable and inexpressible, utterly private.

Edward’s girlfriends, an imprecise and fluctuating group of women

The presence of children, even signs of their existence such as toys or the push-chair in the hall, discomforted him.

As often with people who have an ambition in life, the whole business of families was irrelevant.

Yet at the same time it somehow made one feel for him as if he were a child in this world.

This coldness, this attitude of noli me tangere, as Mann says, manifests itself in chilly, inhuman mode of artistic judgement as well, and Mann devotes many ironically amusing pages to Adrian’s social encounters with upper-class culture mavens, theoreticians of Weimar decadence, and Conservative Revolutionaries, all of whom make the mistake of thinking the Great Composer gives a shit about their ideas. As with Edward:

A coldness, a perhaps unreachable pride that deterred any real fellow-feeling.

He was a writer who was prepared to commit himself to anything while being essentially committed to nothing.

There was also something about him that discouraged questions; the impression that things which may have been important to others were, when it came to him, too trivial to bother with.

During any discussion of theory, or even of other contemporary writers, he would smile and shake his head as if it were all above him, which gave the impression that it was in fact all below him.

More even than before, he gave his opinions in inverted commas, which made it sound as if he did not trust the words he used.

Adrian/Edward’s heartlessness is both the basis for, and the product, of their temptation and damnation:

At the base of all that fantasy is heartlessness.

You can see that tendency paralleled in his books, in the steady erosion of individual significance.

The reality of evil is that it is the opposite of real.

Throughout the book, anyone who succeeds in breaking through Adrian’s emotional resolve, and thus taking him from the Devil (or, prosaically, distracts him from his work) is fatally dispatched.

I did read something in the papers about a will that was disputed by one or two of his former wives; but the wife or wives died and whatever fuss there was fizzled.

Early in Mann’s book, Adrian’s father, a Swabian peasant with an autodidact’s hobbies, shows Adrian how crystals subject to osmotic pressure will bend towards the sun. “And yet, they are dead,” he sighs mournfully, provoking sardonic laughter from the boy. The metaphor, of the dead or inorganic imitating life, occurs throughout, symbolizing both the “dead tooth” of Western music, and Adrian’s satanically inspired “new music” that is mere mechanical parody, as well as Adrian’s autistic personality and even German’s imperial ambitions. The same metaphor crops up in Judd:

[A book that lacks honesty] will be forever pretending to be something it never quite is.

He became immensely prolific and successful, as we know; but his own thoughts and his own imagination perished.

Deadliness invaded the very heart of his genius and spread from there to occupy every part of his life, so that in time there was almost nothing for him to oppose it with.

It was as if they had been manufactured and assembled rather than grown.

All the time his books ere about less and less. . . . Really no more than a parody of what he might have done, a dance around emptiness.

In both books, the narrator is a childhood friend (well, college friend, in Edward’s case) who is somewhat aware of his philistine nature and unsuitability as a biographer, but acutely aware that he has been kept around as an amusing reminder of the past.

I was his only contact with his former life, I alone survived his success; nothing else of his past, of himself – really nothing, by the end – remained to him.[22]

I was also afraid that even in youth I had been a bit of an old fuddy-duddy who bored people, and this did nothing to reassure me.

“Because you were associated with me and she needed to make sure.” “Of what?” “That you weren’t important.”

He makes his record of the life of his friend, for two reasons: his unrequited love, and as a warning to others.[23]

A great sadness informs my memory of him and I have written this in order that people be not too harsh. He was one of the lost, and I hope is so no longer

I record this not to claim prescience but because I want to show how a potentially great writer was destroyed and because I am sure it did not begin with Tyrrel or end with Edward.

Just as Adrian’s pact with the devil is sealed with, or his madness caused by, his tryst with a syphilitic prostitute, confirming him in his social and sexual isolation, so Edward’s “philandering” is described as

Bites from apples not so much in hope of a new taste as to confirm the old. There were many apple but I suspect Eudoxia had inoculated him against any new taste.

And finally, a personal association, though ever so dear for all that. One of Adrian’s deliberate or accidentally Satanic preceptors is one Prof. Schlepfuss, an outwardly genial teacher of “suspect” subjects for a professor of theology; mediaeval demonology, for example. “We students,” Mann’s narrator tells us, could never agree if he really did drag one foot along.

And sure enough, in a chiastic parallelism, at the end of his story Edward is beginning to metamorphose into a figure of Adrian’s youth:

Edward was corpulent, had heavy unshaven jowls and dragged one foot . . .[24]

And in a final shout-out, Edward, asked how he escaped Eudoxia’s watchful eye, laconically says “I jumped from a train,” as did Adrian after his collapse, in both cases ultimately referencing Nietzsche.

Of course, Mann has an easy time with the atmos,’ being set first in rural Swabia, then universities that preserve a creepy Protestant mediaevalism, and finally reaching not Munich but a nearby farmhouse that eerily doubles Adrian’s childhood and remains his home for the 25 years of his pact with the Devil, after which his empty, catatonic shell is removed back to Swabia. In fact, a minor theme of the book is Germany’s eradicable mediaeval nature, providing fertile ground for an endless supply of village eccentrics, syphilitic composers, and NS functionaries.[25] The best Judd can access is to return Edward to his childhood village in Yorkshire.

But Judd has shown us that a straightforwardly written (well, as straightforward as a story involving cursed manuscripts can be) moral tale can be as satisfyingly coded with as much literary ingenuity as any mindless postmodern “entertainment.” And at a kindle price of only $2.99 you really can’t pass this up. Get it now!

Meanwhile, I must try to find out the source of that scratchy noise I’ve been hearing all afternoon. It must be mice in the walls, or maybe rats.


1. For more on weird novellas, see my review of The Feasting Dead here [3]. For more on Judd, see “An Interview with Alan Judd” by Joseph Wiesenfarth (Contemporary Literature, Volume 47, Number 1, Spring 2006), online here [4].

2. He’s been the “motoring correspondent” for The Spectator, whatever that may involve.

3. MST3k, Episode 612: The Starfighters (29 Oct 1994).

4. Robert Nye in The Guardian. All review quotes form the publisher’s website.

5. Peter Bogdanovich has observed that Hitchcock, during dry spells, liked to buy hit stage plays (Rope or Dial ‘M’ for Murder) and just film them “as is,” the playwright having done all the work for hm. Of course, as Bogdanovich adds, it was Hitchcock doing the filming, which made all the difference in this “hands off” approach.

6. “More chills in its little length than in a whole shelf of bestsellers.” And making his list of recommended books in On Writing (not that it’s a very distinguished list [5]); he also thought The Killer Shrews was pretty good [6] too; but who am I to snark [7]? That’s his son Owen who provides the Introduction here.

7. “I am not a very perceptive person and perhaps for that reason I feel I have to take an interest in everything.”

8. Colin Wilson interviewed by Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino (2006), here [8].

9. “The Achievement of Samuel Beckett” by Melvin J. Friedman; Books Abroad; Vol. 33, No. 3 (Summer, 1959), pp. 278–81; online here [9].

10. The Books in My Life (London: Gollancz, 1998), p.188.

11. One thinks, of course, of the absurdly overpraised nonsense spewed out by the hermetic nutjob Raymond Roussel; see Mark Ford: Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams (Ithaca: Cornell, 2001).

12. “The General is crusty . . . but unlikeable.” MST3k, op. cit.

13. See the Foreword by Theodore Ziolkowski to Hermann Hess: The Glass Bead Game, translated from the German Das Glasperlenspiel by Richard and Clara Winston, with a Foreword by Theodore Ziolkowski (New York: Bantam, 1970).

14. Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn As Told by a Friend, trans. John E. Woods (New York: Knopf, 1999).

15. Healthier responses were explored in my articles on Wagner and Harry Partch, here and collected in The Eldritch Evola … & Others; ed. By Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).

16. “Something sinister, almost cabalistic, about [Edward’s] signature

17. Schoenberg was not amused, which must have made fro some tense encounters around the swimming pools of their LA exile.

18. Reminiscent of Adrian’s frequent migraine spells.

19. Thanks to its novella length, we are spared the whole chapters in French of Mann’s two volume novle; see my review of A. Ellis: The Rack (Richmond, Va.: Valancourt, 2014), here.

20. In our less Romantic times, we call it “Asperger’s Syndrome” and make sitcoms about it.

21. Constant Readers know that the circle is the symbol of horizontal, repetitive evil, the spiral of vertical, spiritual good.

22. The motif gets its classic formation in the role of the narrator Stapledon’s Odd John dubs “Fido.” See my review, “‘The Wild Boys Smile’: Reflections on Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John, Part 3,” here [10].

23. Mann wrote that his novel was about “the flight from the difficulties of a cultural crisis into the pact with the devil; the craving of a proud mind, threatened by sterility, for an unblocking of inhibitions at any cost; and the parallel between pernicious euphoria ending in collapse with the nationalistic frenzy of Fascism.” See The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus (New York: Knopf, 1961), p. 30.

24. For my own encounters with Prof. Schlepfuss, see Greg Johnson’s “Interview with James J. O’Meara,” reprinted in my collection The Homo and the Negro (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012) and “There and Then: Personal and Memorial Reflections on Alan Watts (1915-1973),” here [11].

25. “What will it be like to belong to a nation whose history bore this gruesome fiasco within it, a nation that has driven itself mad, gone psychologically bankrupt. . . . Was not this regime, both in word and deed, merely the distorted, vulgarized, debased realization of a mindset and worldview to which one must attribute a characteristic authenticity and which, not without alarm, a Christianly human person finds revealed in the traits of our great men, in the figures of the most imposing embodiments of Germanness?” Here is a parallel between Mann and Judd themselves, for the latter, to judge from subsequent publications, also seems to have an unhealthy, but not doubt career-enhancing, obsession with The Total Evil of National Socialism.