Thursday, June 14, 2012

A few thoughts on The Flame Is Green - from Kevin Cheek (our 2nd ever guest post!)

"In the paintings of Fragonard, there are trees that are unreal. Sometimes they seem to be a curious heaping up of elements of oak and elm and yew trees, but not according to any rational botanical system. Sometimes they seem to be massive studio montages made out of clustered purple grapes and bird feathers. Yet one traveller wrote there really were groves of these impossible trees in Dauphine and Piedmont in the eighteenth century. One grove of them had, in fact, survived into the nineteenth century: and Dana Coscuin and Malandrino Brume had just come through it afoot.

In the novels and plays of Marivaux, there are men who are not real. They seem to be a curious heaping up of elements in Old Roman and Old French, with inconsistent modish attitudes and the dated smell called 'Moment of Time.' Sometimes these men seem to be studied mélanges of shepherds and princes and rogues and pedants. Yet one student of the period has written that there really were such impossible men in the eighteenth century. At least one of these unlikely men had, in truth, survived into the nineteenth century. Dana Coscuin and big rough Brume had just come to visit this unlikely man who lived on the fringe of the too-blended, too-arty grove".

from The Flame is Green, p. 93, the opening of Chapter Six.

Only Lafferty could have written those two paragraphs. I almost wrote “and get away with it” but the truth is that only Lafferty could have written them and the fact is that he did get away with it every time he did something like that. The first sentence tells you that you are reading Lafferty. Firstly there is the mention of Fragonard, a name with a glorious sound to it--an eighteenth century painter, once the darling of the aristocracy, now almost entirely forgotten. Then there is the statement that the trees are unreal. Trees in a painting unreal? Of course they seem unreal or appear unreal, they are just paint on canvas. However Lafferty doesn’t say they appear unreal, he says they are unreal. There is just enough of a difference there to make you pause and wonder what you just read. This recalls the statement in “Narrow Valley,” talking about the trees in the Cross Timbers: “Many of those trees appear twice, and many do not appear at all.”

Never one to let narrative convention drive his craft, he bent his description of the two men’s work into deliberately parallel paragraphs, drawing a parallel between the trees and the characters and implying that they are artificial constructs. All of this is set up to introduce a character who in some ways can be considered an artificial construct, someone who through affectation attempted to appear more than he actually was. Ashley, the character about to be introduced, was an artificer and thought too highly of his creations--though they were merely the webs of his spiders, an aping of the spiderishness of the conspiracies of the day.

It would not have surprised me at all if Lafferty had make up the names Fragonard and Marivaux for the sake of the narrative. It would not have been out of character. After all, he used a description of Atrox Fabulinius and his narrative of Raphaellus to interrupt and redirect a chapter in The Fall of Rome. However, I did a little bit of reading on Wikipedia and learned that both Fragonard and Marivaux were not only real, but lived through and were affected by the events half a century before The Flame is Green takes place.

Fragonard was a Rococo painter known for romantic excess in his paintings. He lived in Paris in the 19th century and painted primarily for the aristocracy. He was forced out of Paris by the French Revolution and did not come back until the beginning of the 19th century.

Marivaux was a novelist, playwright, and journalist in Paris in the 18th century. He was very influential on the development of French literature, especially in his portrayal of his characters' thoughts. Wikipedia says, “Marivaux's characters not only tell each other and the reader everything they have thought, but everything that they would like to persuade themselves that they have thought.” This has a parallel with an important point within The Flame is Green, in that Dana Coscuin frequently deludes himself into following the wrong path while attempting to convince himself that it is the right one, or at least that he couldn’t have been expected to know better.

Reading up a little on Fragonard and Marivaux adds to a general background understanding of the novel. And this raises another point about Lafferty. The man was so astoundingly erudite, that when you do know the history behind his small mentions and asides, it enriches your enjoyment of the narrative. It is actually very rewarding to read a Lafferty novel, especially one of his historical novels with the internet near at hand to look up every small character and side reference. Some writers use historical settings as a backdrop for the story they want to tell, but the more you know about the period, the more irritating you find the writing. Lafferty is the exact opposite. I find that reading (or more often re-reading) one of his novels with Wikipedia open in front of me leaves me jubilant at everything I have just learned.


Katy S said...

Very interesting post, Kevin! Thanks for letting me know about it in the Village :-) These sound like the sorts of books that I would take forever to read because of following your advice, and fill my head with all sorts of notions. ATB!

Kevin said...

I finished reading The Flame is Green over the weekend--re-reading actually. I stumbled across it in the Livermore public library back around '90 or '91, so there was a 20 year hiatus in between. I found on re-read that I had remembered some passages verbatim and did not remember huge sections of the plot.

Overall, I found it delightful to read, and his prose very easy, but the novel is intense enough that I couldn't read more than 10 or 15 pages at a stretch. each section was so packed with ideas that I often had to stop and ruminate for a while before returning to it.

As I mentioned in my post, Wikipedia was my constant friend, looking up the Carlists, the Black Pope (traditional nickname for the head of the Jesuit order), and literally hundreds of historical figures and events. The more I read from Wikipedia and other sources, the more obvious became Lafferty's Catholic-centered point of view.

One thing is interesting to note: he stated several times that these movements did not need to erupt in bloodshed, and there was no real reason for them to have been a fulcrum point for the direction of our culture and civilization--the stakes seemed unnaturally high. The tensions had been building for a century in some places, but the dynamic of forces and building tensions has been a constant since the birth of civilization. Why did these revolutions of 1848 cause such huge consequences. He compares it to a pebble tossed in a pond, whose ripples grew and grew until the spanned the globe like an outsized tsunami. It seemed (blatantly in his novel, and possible to infer from reading other histories) that there were people or groups trying to tip the balance at every point. No, I'm not suggesting anything like the returnees from Fourth Mansions or any Illuminati type secret societies. However there are people and groups that profit from chaos and try to throw metaphorical gasoline on political fires to put themselves into position reap power and wealth from the confusion. Look at the Middle East today see an example of this at work.

Anyway, those are some rambling impressions upon finishing The Flame is Green. I wonder if it could be filmed as a massive, 2-part historical epic.

Andrew said...

Been meaning to reply to this excellent reflection, but also aware that I might have the chance for an interesting appendix to it quite soon. So watch this space, I guess?

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Kevin, thanks so much for your thoughtful contribution. The two paragraphs from Flame that you've copied in for us here are just gorgeous prose I have to say.

Right now I mainly just want to comment, in regard to 'checking up' on Lafferty's references, that this happened to me with the opening chapter of Fourth Mansions. He describes each of the seven 'snakes' by reference to various painters and their works. I happened to be reading that portion during a visit with a close friend of mine who is a fine art painter. I read those passages aloud to him to see if they meant anything to him. He knew every single reference and could see how it was being used to describe the physicality and personality of the characters - he was quite charmed and amazed by it actually. (I've been planning ever since then to do a post showing this, with visuals of the various paintings or painters referenced.)

That little discovery brought me to whole new levels of respect for Laff. I'm not sure if he *ever* references something he doesn't have a fairly decent grasp on. He was only human, so I'm sure he garbles some things, but man, the fellow was just quite genuinely ERUDITE!

Andrew, we'll definitely watch this space!

Kevin Cheek said...

I genuinely love that section in Fourth Mansions I first read that book just after taking a course in "modern" art history--so I could picture the characters and their associated paintings clearly in mind.

I am again reminded of an obituary I once read for Lafferty where the author described the experience of the priest at Lafferty's church. He said that Lafferty was so well read and educated on points of theology and Catholic literature that the priest would give his sermons and look up occasionally to see if the man was smiling or sadly shaking his head. I wish I could find that obituary again.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

I like that anecdote too, Kevin. In searching for it, I came across this EXTREMELY interesting little exchange between Michael Swanwick and one of his readers:

'A. asks: I read your wonderful, frivolous, but profound appreciation of R.A. Lafferty in Locus. I am , however, wondering if you would remove the mask (a very interesting mask though) and speak more directly about the past master. Would you agree with me that he is the Catholic Kafka? I mean that in many respects but in part I suggest that Lafferty, like Kafka, was a religious humorist playing practical jokes on God and everybody else. Also, many people regard Lafferty as a surrealist but I argue other wize. Lafferty was a covert believer in reason, he loved light, he opposed elite aestheticisms ( whew! big word there!), his humor is secretly very gentle and even child-like, he denies "convulsive beauty" and he would say "freedom in the service of beauty" not "beauty in the servic of freedom" . He is a counter-surrealist.'

'Well, "counter-surrealist" certainly fits. One of Lafferty's most telling conceits was that we use labels to refer to their opposites - that "liberals" aren't, and "conservatives" don't, and so on down the line. But quite seriously, I think that "the Catholic Kafka" is a contradiction in terms. To a believer, despair is a mortal sin and there are no tragedies. And Lafferty was a stronger - and more knowledgeable - believer than most. (There is a story that Lafferty's parish priest was unnerved by the way, during his sermons, Lafferty would sit listening with a small smile on his face, shaking his head.)

Comparisons with other writers only work when the writer being explicated was not unique. R.A. Lafferty, however, was a prodigy, inimitable, sui generis. The closest we can come to defining him is to say that Lafferty was the Catholic Lafferty.'

Andrew said...

Right. So this: is the harbor of Castletown, where the novel begins.

My time there was unfortunately limited, so I didn't get all the shots I wanted (which would have required a full day of hiking or, more likely, a car), but you can see both how capacious the harbor is, and xxalso how perfect for smuggling.

A better look perhaps is here: — the land spur on the right (actually the west bank, looking south) is part of the town itself, and possibly where Dana was standing just then; on the left is tiny Dinish Island, which is very near the shore, and just beyond that is big Bere Island, which hugs the coast and provides a barrier to a sort of natural canal, guiding traffic in and out of Castletown. (Another shot, without the land spur, looking out onto the bottleneck between Castletown and Bere:

If you look at the map for Castletownbere ( you will see the little island, Dinish, and then the great big Bere Island just south of there--I'm not sure the exact dimensions given there match up to what my eyes saw though, such that I think some of that land spur might be a recent artificial addition.

Anyway, looking at this I'd guess an experienced boatman would be able to discern the presence of just about any craft coming in or out of that harbor; a preternatural one perhaps even the smallest skiff. Wherever Dana was standing, he'd be able to survey the whole scene; getting past him would take some doing.

A couple of hasty boat pics: here ( is off the east side of Bere Island; this one is from near Glengarriff, looking out toward the peninsula ( I'll toss an album up at some point, but it'll have to wait till home and settled again, which won't be for a while yet.

It's obviously a region of staggering beauty, and apparently the Gulf Stream exerts enough force there that even some tropical plants can be grown on the islands by the inlet. I didn't get to visit the bays on either side, but hope to in the future when more time allows. Also, to see the castle proper, and the many ruins dotting the area.

Always found it interesting how little use Lafferty, a self-proclaimed lover of cities, had for Dublin or even Cork, Limerick, or Galway in his Irish fictions. But to link a tale with such remote beginnings to every other event in half the world of that time is an accomplishment even by Lafferty's standards.

I think the Chronicles are sadly underrated even by many of his fans. Kevin, your piece gets at some of why: every single sentence buoyed up by tremendous historical and cultural detail, put in the service of a narrative structure of deceptive complexity. His characters move through the landscape of ideas the way other authors' do a meadow or a forest; and yet they remain characters, embodied and fleshy, for all that.

I'm hoping to see volumes 3 and 4 put out fairly early on in the republication process; they're high up the list of unpublished material to get out. Thanks for this!

Andrew said...

hmm. links not direct.

here, quick and dirty album of just these few:

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Wow, Andrew, thanks for the pictorial appendix! I still haven't read Flame is Green and co. but I too find that interesting that he doesn't so much deal with the great cities. (I do believe him when he says he loves cities - I feel it strongly in some of his fiction. But I think maybe there were only a few he could do any scant justice to and his imagination was more gifted for other sorts of locations.)

I look very forward to reading the tetralogy some day.

philiph35 said...

It is good to hear the last 2 volumes of the tetralogy will be appearing sooner rather than later. Any news on the rest of In a Green Tree?

Andrew said...


No idea. I'd love for Green Tree to be one of the earlier releases, and to be released as a really nice four-volume (slipcased?) set—also to include the fragments of the fifth book, naturally.

And maybe that will be possible, if they end up proceeding by subscription. But my suspicion is that they'll concentrate on, first, the Best Of; second, the re-releases of 900GM, Space Chantey, Fourth Mansions etc.; third, a select few unpublished works (Esteban, Fair Hills of Ocean Oh!, Coscuin books); fourth, new compilations, including uncollected and unpublished short stories; fifth, everything else.

So unfortunately I think the Green Tree ones might have a while to wait unless the University of Oklahoma or someone else gets involved for the sheer historical value of it (sadly U Tulsa doesn't have its own in-house press).

Kevin said...


Wow, the photos of Castletown Harbor are amazing. Laffery's power of description is evident in that the photos look absolutely right for the image I had in mind from the novel (minus the 20th century buildings).

You mentioned Dana reading the ripples in the harbor, and that ties in exactly to the narrative of reading the ripples of the green and red revolutions in history. Obviously a deliberate parallel in Lafferty's writing, but one I didn't catch until you pointed it out. That must be why the novel started there on the water of Castletown Harbor.

philiph35 said...

Andrew, Perhaps it's time for you to start telling us about the bicentenary too. By then, I think I'll be able to stay on in Tulsa and read the rest of In a Green Tree there.

Kevin Cheek said...

Philip, are you saying that by Lafferty's 200th birthday, you ought to be able to stay in Tulsa to read? Only 102 years to wait, or thereabouts.

Philip said...

Either I'll do the One Day at a Time trick or I meant "centennial"!

Kevin Cheek said...

Speaking of birthdays, Happy 4th everyone!

Kevin Cheek said...

I just finished Half a Sky. I ran across this following bit of dialog near the end, and was reminded of our discussion of "The World as Will and Wallpaper" where one of y'all explained the Schopenhauer connection (which I was sadly too uneducated to have run into).

Here the characters were discussing the green revolution vs. the red revolution and how the devil seems to be gaining temporary advantage:

"The Devil has been stealing all the thunder," one of the three foeign visitors told Dana. "He has assembled twelve disciples of the scribbling sort ans has them all working for him. They are adept at their trade; some of them have intellect; all of them has strong person in their writings. They are much better at their job and of a much more single-minded devotion than were those flies of Montevideo whom you knew. These men have an urbanity and plausibility, a poetry, almost a sweetness so as to deceive all but the elect. Some of them seem good men, but all are in his employ, wittingly or unwittingly."

"Who are they?" Dana asked. "I'll be warned by your naming them. I'm a gullible sort and am likely to be taken in otherwise, by their urbanity and plausibility, by their poetry, and their almost sweetness. I'm easily taken at times."

"The twelve Devil's Disciples are Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Comte, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich David Strauss, Marx, Kierkegaard, Haeckel, Fechner, Fichte, Renan, Sainte-Beuve. You'll swear that some of them are not bad. I tell you, Irishman, they'd all be bad for you. Never before were there twelve such living and writing at once."

Anyone care to elucidate?

Andrew said...

All 12, unsurprisingly, attacked orthodox Catholic Christianity, albeit in very different ways and degrees. While some -- Marx and Feuerbach most obviously -- were set against religion as a whole, others -- Comte and Mill -- wanted to found a religiousy sort of thing on another basis, such as science or humanity. Others such as Fichte (the younger, though applicable to his father as well) argued for various forms of ethical theism, and others still (Kierkegaard, mostly) thought Christianity was actually the proper philosophical system but needed more rigor and refinement; this led him down the path toward existentialism that would eventually lead to Rudolf Otto, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so on (which is to say, rapprochement with some forms of Protestantism).

A big part of that era was the attempt to found criticism on biographical basis (Sainte-Beuve especially), and a large subset of that effort went into historicizing the life of Christ, presenting him as any other historical subject. Strauss's Das Leben Jesu and Renan's La vie de Jesus are the most famous such efforts.

Fechner started psychology on the path that would lead to Skinner and behaviorism, more or less the idea that all psychological states could be quantified and predicted. He was a theist, but of an animist bent; he was a mentor to CS Peirce, who I find the most fascinating mind of the next era, and who considered himself a Christian and even tried to adduce new proofs for the existence of God (though there was certainly nothing orthodox about him, though the very basis of his philosophy is trinitarian).

Haeckel's a little strange here, not because he lacked for venom against Catholicism, but because he's very slightly anachronistic. He was an evolutionary theorist just before and during Darwin's time, but his major attacks came in the 1870s. Also he's an incredible illustrator of plant and animal forms.

All the rest are pretty much working at the same time though, if you fudge the dates a year or two.

Kevin Cheek said...

Thank you, Andrew! That was exactly what I was asking for, only better. What surprised me after upon reading the passage was the mention of Shcopenhauer, because Lafferty had based the story "The World as Will and Wallpaper" in part on Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. However I (hate to admit) have never read Schopenhauer, so I can't tell if Lafferty's story was an homage or a lampoon.

Kevin said...

Just curious, does anybody know, or is there any way to find out how many copies of The Flame is Green and Half a Sky sold?

Kevin said...

Y'know, I had another strange coincidence with this passage. The other day, I was on a flight from Chicago to Albuquerque. sitting next to me was a very talkative young lady. The conversation turned around to books, and I showed her the passage about Fragonard and Marivaux. Her jaw dropped open. She had just gotten back from a vacation in the south of France where she had toured the Fragonard Parfumeur factory. She had some very ornately labeled bottles in her luggage. I can only assume there is a connection.

Kevin said...

Quick change of topic: I'm reading The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny right now. I am not enough of an academic to do it justice, but someone really ought to do an analysis on the use of consensus reality and the use of war as a metaphor in both The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny and Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. The parallels are frightening.

Kevin said...

Awful quiet 'round here. Is nobody reading Lafferty, or is it just out of season?

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

ha ha, sorry, man, I have got to get back on the Laffertian ball! I'm glad you keep prodding and prompting, Kevin. We MUST keep this going!

Kevin said...

Well, I have to brag about the small part I just played: A friend of mine teaches high school English, and she teaches an optional class on Science Fiction as Literature, in which she spends several weeks on Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle. What could I do, but find a cheap copy of Apocalypses to give her so she can read The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny.

Andrew said...

A friend of mine doing a thesis on SF alt history has a chunk on Three Armageddons. It'll be in the essay collection, when I can manage to get back to that.

Neck-deep in the dissertation right now plus prepping for the semester, so not as much time as I'd like for Lafferty. Slowly making my way through a French intro to Lafferty written as a preface to a volume of his stories, though. ( -- scroll down, note cover).

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Nice, Kevin. I do hope Laff's alternate history work gets studied alongside the rest at some point.

Andrew, keep going! That cover is good fun. When is this coming out? Is it a newly selected edition or a translation of an already existing collection (such as 900 Gs). Is that cover meant to represent a particular story, or a composite, or just give us the general feel of the madness we're in for? I don't really recognise the imagery.

And why can't Lafferty's native country and language treat him with this respect, including him in s.f. series like this alongside the other classics? It's truly scandalous that the 'Masterworks' series has not included him in both its fantasy and s.f. series' so far.

Martin Heavisides said...

I spent quite a while investigating Axtro Fabulinus before I concluded there was no Roman scribe of that name, only (as it later developed) a giant who is one of the world's master storytellers, and only in Lafferty's vividly real unreality.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

What led me on a goose chase more than Atrox was the Laughing Christ of Creophilus, mentioned in both Fall of Rome and East of Laughter. I think I discovered Creophilus was an actual ancient sculptor, but couldn't find any reference to a Christ sculpture he'd made.

'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)