Regular readers of some longevity may remember that way back in August 2013 I had a few spare copies of books by Frederick Rolfe Baron Corvo and offered to send them out for free on a first-come first served basis to anyone who hadn't read one in the hope of 'spreading the word' and perhaps garnering some interesting responses. I am always fascinated by people's responses to reading Rolfe for the first time and so it's been interesting to hear back from some of those who received those books. Not everyone responded and that's fine but I just didn't think anything of it when a request came in for a copy of Stories Toto Told Me (not in the edition pictured above I'm afraid!) from Ukraine.. at the point of my sending it, there was no particular issue there big enough to make international waves. As you will see from the email below that I received just before Christmas, the book was sent into a peculiar and difficult situation and has had quite a life since I sent it out. Maryna, a 24 year old ex-air traffic controller, currently studying ethnography in Lviv and spending the rest of time reading Robert Aickman and watching Slavic folk horror movies, has kindly agreed that I can reproduce her email in full... I am very grateful for it and I hope you will appreciate it as much as I have.
it's Maryna from Luhansk - you sent me Baron Corvo's "Stories Toto Told Me", and haven't heard from me ever since :)
My failure to deliver a proper (or whatever) review probably needs an explanation. Last winter, the situation in Eastern Ukraine turned from unstable to hellish, so one day I had to grab my backpack and flee. I had been living in a rent apartment, so lamenting over a Lost Home was out of question - even though the feeling that I'd lost my hometown was, and is, still there. But the apartment had been full of books. I only managed to get them back recently, having visited the dreaded ex-hometown - it wasn't that bad, even though my Ukrainian accent, acquired after a few months of living in Western regions, infuriated the gunners now and then. I had to leave many books behind - a highly curious Russian four-volume Meyrink collection, for instance - but most of them I carried with me in great bundles like those which ex-USSR smugglers used to carry their merchandise. "Stories Toto Told Me" was in one of the bags.
When I finally got to read the collection, it reminded me of an obscure Hungarian movie, Angyali üdvözlet, or The Annunciation. All roles in it were performed by children: ten-year-old Adam and Eve leave the garden of Eden, and as the subsequent stories unfold, the film offers a pleasantly grotesque reading of the ancient and modern history. The magniloquence of the scenes' progression - there are tyrants, monarchs, revolutionaries (the latter category including Jesus and a pretty fair-haired Lucifer as well) - is subverted by the tyrants' lisp and the knights' and maidens' overdone "adult" acting, and that's precisely what makes the sight so fascinating. It's reductionist to call it a movie where the roles of adults are performed by children: it is a movie, in which the games of children are fashioned to fit the Great Narrations. "Aren't you bored?" - the crucified Jesus is asked. The characters suffer, because their Great Narrator, or their creator, is an ill-tempered grownup, and the games he invents are inevitably boring.
That's when a parallel to Rolfe's "Stories" comes to mind. The world of Toto's stories is a world where a benign adult, who reigns the kingdom of children, is an observer and an occasional playmate, not a capricious gamemaster or a toy store manager. I am not oblivious of connotations when I call Toto's demiurge benign, and even to a person who is unaware of Baron's biography, some digressions in "Stories" might give a rough impression ("they made the little divel kick and struggle, — just as I should, sir, if you whipped me naked with a whip of red-hot wires, instead of with the lilac twigs you do use when I am disobedient"). There's not a vestige of artificially preserved, idolized Youth - in these stories being young is not a more favourable condition, it's simply more natural than growing up.
"First of all, you must understand that the saints in heaven are always young; that is to say, if you are old when your life in this world comes to its end, you just shut your eyes while your angel takes you to paradise, and when you open them the next minute you are there, and you have gone back to the prime of your life, and so you are for always; but if you die while you are young you do not change your age, but remain at the age at which you died."
Eternal youth can be a damnation - when one's master is an old man, forever jealous of his servants' games. Toto's God addresses his angels as "little brothers" - maintaining the spirit of this delicately mischievous collection. Images of teenage saints appeal to me for various reasons, but mainly because folk-Bible stories tend to get exceptionally weird when they depict young martyrs. I remember being fascinated by a book on Ivan and Jacob, who are regarded as the most controversial saints in Orthodox Christian hagiography. It is believed that a five-year-old Ivan accidentally killed his two-year-old brother, presumably during a game, and then hid in a stove and was burnt alive - again accidentally - by his parents. And our local stories of the rescue of infant Jesus are outright creepy because of his weird transformations: "She took the old man into her arms and held him to her breast. And he turned himself into a small boy in swaddling clothes."
"Stories Toto Told Me" presents a brighter side of teenage martyrology. The naivete of that delightful lore which strips saints of their shining garments and dresses them in peasant clothes, is merged with Rolfe's delicate humor - and in the world which thence arises, cherubini are more impish than their pet "divels". Lately I've been contemplating Pelagia Horgan's article on the effect of religious art (Fra Angelico's in particular) on secular people. Rolfe's "Stories" are in no way "sacred" by these standards, of course, but the essayist's conclusion may be extended to embrace them: it's the artist's transforming gaze that matters. Baron Corvo/"Toto" animate solemn Christian images, and frescoes turn into lusty tricksters and young rebels who are simply too riotous to worship those stuffy pagan gods.