Side Real Press's Reviews > Petals and Violins: Fifteen Unsettling Tales

Petals and Violins by D.P. Watt
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it was ok

(or ★★★★ Four Stars).


Over time I have developed a Pavlovian reaction to certain names such as Ligotti, Valentine, Insole, Oliver, Bell and Watt. This reaction manifests itself by me pressing a big button marked 'buy'. I rarely regret it.

Watt's work is perhaps the most experimental, as at times he draws overtly on the surreal and absurdist schools of literature. The results can at times take (and stretch) the reader into some odd territories. 'Petals and Violins' offers a mix of reprints and new material (seven of the fifteen tales are the latter) centered around a long example of this more experimental work 'Conflagration'. We will return to this piece later.

Much of Watt's work relates to memories and their veracity, or otherwise. Do memories make who and what we are? Where are 'we' in that psychological landscape? This is explicitly explored the first two stories, both of them are excellent.

In 'Blood and Smoke, Vinegar and Ashes' a woman travels to Poland to execute a will and discovers that the deceased is some sort of folk magician with a cupboard full of ritually prepared potions that allow their consumer to explore others' minds. This technique contrasts with 'The Magician, or, Crab Lines' in which the titular character is a sorcerer unencumbered by ritual who seeks, in an almost apologetic manner to regain his own lost equilibrium. This idea is articulated by a character in another tale 'Mizpah', who has has been bought forward (or is it back?) into the present via the efforts of a collector/researcher of local history. "Time is a thin veil," she says. "You felt to pull to me..."

Akin to 'Mizpah' is the more sinister psycho-geographical story 'We Don't Want For Company' in which an ancient sacred site works its sinister magic on a visitor and appears to become a character in itself. This made me think of Machen, whose influence also appears in a totally different type of setting, the 'Golden in The Mercy of His Means', a tale set in a not too distant divided future in which a father looks impotently at the overrun and seemingly abandoned house next door which none the less appears to have some sort of life within it. There is a political aspect to this story, more overtly (and to my mind better) expressed in 'Doreen,' in which the return of an ex-pat acquaintance demonstrates that danger can be found within your own 'society' rather than from without. These stories (both reprints) demonstrate to me how important the positioning of tales are within a volume; 'Golden...' seems to feel more obscure in the context of this book, whereas 'Doreen' sits far more happily in this volume than in its original publication. 'Set and setting' as Timothy Leary would say...

But these are perhaps minor, and possibly irrelevant, quibbles compared to a larger issue which I hope will answer the question you (might) be asking as to why only two stars and not, say, four?

The answer; 'Conflagration'.

In the acknowledgements, Watt thanks Tartarus Press for the 'courage to include 'Conflagration' '. A courageous decision always brings to mind one my favourite television comedies; 'Yes Minister' in which a hapless 'Minister of Administrative Affairs' battles with the civil service to implement his ministerial vision. It is extremely funny and full of great civil service double-speak in which what is said often means something else. To quote: "A controversial decision will only lose you votes, a courageous one will lose you the election".

'Conflagration' (subtitled 'Immoral Vignettes') is certainly the most 'courageous' work in the book and one of Watt's most 'demanding' works of his entire oeuvre. It begins by listing a dramatis personae of fifteen modernist playwrights from August Strindberg to Tadeusz Kantor and the 'characters' they play. Some are easily understood, such as 'Priest' (Antonin Artaud), but why is Edward Gordon Craig 'A long shadow cast against the cyclorama'. In fact, who is Edward Gordon Craig? Off to the internet. Why is Vaclav Havel (a name I do recognise) 'A Trumpet player'? A cursory search of the net doesn't help. Why is Stanislaw Witkiewicz (who?) a Pierrot and Juggler?

Actually it doesn't really matter as these characters are not actually playing 'parts'. Well, no, hang on, they are of sorts - but it's not really a 'play'. Confusion and/or absurdity reigns.

The Vignettes that follow this list are titled by date and location in chronological order. The first is titled '20th April 1889. Braunau am Inn''. 20th April 1889 is Hitler's birth date. You are not told this, so if you didn't happen to know it would be off to the internet- again. Hitler is not on the 'cast-list', if indeed it really is a cast list. Why? I don't know.

Okay, some playwrights you can place from the texts and dates/locations. You might know that Alfred Jarry wrote 'Pere Ubu' and that the play is famous for its opening line 'Merdre!' (Shit!). Watt uses the word in the text and the vignette's title; '10th December. Theatre de L'Oeuvre, Paris' is the date of that infamous first night. But '11th March 1907. A boarding House, Florence'. What? Off to the internet again. I feel as if I am the dumbest kid at school. Is this a test of some sort?

To save yourself feeling stupid, angry and frustrated (as I did first time out when I read this piece in the original 2016 Ex-Occidente edition), I highly recommend that you do all the internet searches you need to, and write the appropriate results against the titles before reading the vignettes. This is because;

a) they make more sense if you know something about who they relate to (and some of them are lovely pieces of writing) but more importantly,

b) you wont have utterly destroyed any desire to read the them because you won't have made yourself sick of going to the net every two minutes.

It is obvious this piece is meant to 'provoke', just as the playwrights and their works originally did and, still can, but it is a fine line between provocation and pretentiousness. 'Conflagration' is the type of work that I could imagine being read at an academic theatre conference to great 'amusement' from those 'in the know'. I have a pet hate for the terms 'writer's writer' and 'artist's artist'. They smack of elitism and snobbery. Coflagration is too close to an 'absurdist's absurdity' for my liking and my frustrations with it (still) leave a bitter taste in my mouth even after four intervening years and a number of re-reads. And this is despite my admiration for its prose.

My feelings this time around could have been somewhat mitigated had an (optional) 'key' to the dates/playwrights, been provided, perhaps discreetly placed at the end of the book. The piece is somewhat curiously (and to my mind, uneasily) situated as the centre-piece 'tale'. I did wonder whether it was placed there to act as some sort of literary 'watershed', but I was unable detect an answer. As it thus stands, it strikes a long (nearly eighty page) discordant note spoiling my anticipation of the tales following it. I was pleased to find that this trepidation was entirely groundless as Watt dispenses with the highly experimental approach and returns to the more 'normal' weird- is that an oxymoron? Highlights are 'The Pedagogue, or, They Muttered' which portrays an abrasive academic's mind in collapse (or perhaps getting his comeuppance) and 'Our Second Home', a title that also refers to both a metaphysical and physical environment. 'Four Windows and a Door' is also about a house, but the issue here is getting out, rather than into it. These are Watt at his very best.

This volume also contains perhaps my very favourite Watt story, 'Ophelia'. It's a delicate tale of lost childhood innocence told from the perspective of a toy; a mere five pages long but seems to encapsulate all that is good in Watt's weird world. It deserves the highest praise and will hopefully find its way into those 'year's best' anthologies.

But Conflagration weighs too heavily on me and thus, somewhat sadly, I cannot give this book the rating it (perhaps) deserves, despite the volume overall being an excellent (and affordable) introduction to his work. 'Set and setting' I'm afraid.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
January 1, 2020 – Shelved

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Taryn Allan Whilst I am enjoying 'Conflagration' for its prose style, it's hard to argue with any of the points you raise regarding its content.

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