JUDY KRAVIS

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Friday, 1 January 2021

The Other Side

Over on the far left of a middle bookshelf, somewhat obscured by shelves of CDs, I found The Other Side by Alfred Kubin. The Penguin Modern Classics glue has failed on many of the central pages, though I think I only read it once. It was written in the space of twelve weeks when Alfred Kubin was thirty, first published in 1909, with more than fifty illustrations. He was an artist and illustrator and this was his only book, written, as he says in the autobiographical pages at the end, 'out of an inner compulsion and psychological necessity ...  in an extraordinary state of mind that was literally comparable to intoxication'.

An old schoolfriend saves a fabulously wealthy Chinese couple from drowning, inherits their fortune and builds a European city in Central Asia, a few days journey from Samarkand, transporting buildings from Europe and inviting 65,000 people to come and live there. The Dream country rapidly becomes a grotesque nightmare, so monstrously detailed that I could only read it at great speed, in order, maybe, to understand why the writer had to write this. The misery of a substantial period of his childhood, expelled from school, hated by his father, persecuted by the girl who ran the household, is spelled out in the autobiography.

This time of isolation, however, proved remarkably stimulating to my fantasy. From the start I had found keen pleasure in dwelling in imagination on catastrophe and the upsurge of primeval forces; it was a like an intoxication, accompanied by a prickly feeling along my spine. A thunder storm, a conflagration, a flood caused by a mountain stream — to observe these was one of my greatest joys.

Early on the Dream country begins to be attacked by inexplicable states of rot and crumbling, torpor and disease. Unlike Poe who is a tidy story-teller, or Kafka who is humorous, Kubin is lush with horror and vultures, disaster, decay and a fascination with the worst instincts of human life. Only the blue-eyed people who live in The Suburb seem peacefully exempt; even swept by the acrid decay of the rest of the Dream State, they are silent and beautiful. Their presence towards the end of the novel ushers in the cataclysm that at last reveals the moon and the sun, both of which had been absent till then.

A soft and blessed frailty permeated the world. Out of a faint understanding grew a power, a yearning. It was an immense, self-assertive strength — it grew dark. In distinct, regular oscillations, the universe shrank to a point.

You could talk about Kubin's clairvoyance. Two world wars were to follow. Or, as he does in the final paragraph, you could talk about the forces of attraction and repulsion, the contradictory double game played out within us, 'inter faeces et urinam', between the shit and the piss. 

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