Memoirs of a Ghost, by G.W. Stonier
The literature of the first half of the twentieth century produced a new crystallization of city tropes; the modern urban idiom of fragments, flashes, and incongruous juxtapositions was virtually invented by T.S. Eliot in “The Waste Land.” Each recycled element drags along a cumbersome apparatus of tags and footnotes. I blundered across Stonier’s brief Memoirs of a Ghost at random in a secondhand shop and made what is probably a familiar gamble taking it to the register. It turned out to be a sterling example of this kind of city novel; not, in this case, a journey to a necropolis, but just the opposite: the living city as it appears to a dead onlooker.
The symbolism of the split light of the street is dryly resolved as the narrator is hastening away from the spot, his perceptions are abbreviated into symbols and eventually into suggestive darting images. You see how deftly the atmosphere of nightmare is invoked by the inference of indirect threats, the fear of seeing certain things not obviously horrible in themselves, fear of some vaster mechanism centering its workings on the subject, fear of exposure, and a more rarefied fear of the whole world. In part, Stonier’s accomplishment in this book is this successful interpretation of familiar ghostly attributes, like noncommunicativeness and a propensity to hide, as elements of a certain kind of vividly-realized character. As an acutely sensitive observer, so much so that there is almost nothing to him but his perceptions, he experiences the exaltation of the senses and the powerful or even devastating emotions which coincide with them merging together to generate episodes without any other action, except the continuation of his wandering.
The narrator belongs to a recognizeable type: his consciousness and memory are full of holes and are half made of lapses. He plunges from black out to black out. He is seized, like you are in dreams, with impulses to do things that seem full of importance at the moment in a desperately oblivious way, but he is not “neurotic.” His behavior is too indiscernible, weightless, and free of the past to be available to that kind of psychological reading, so we can put this one on the short list of books published in 1947 that weren’t overflowing with Freudianisms. The chaos of his disrupted character is not allowed to settle into any routine or diagnostic type. It’s a “new life,” not adequate to death but diaphanously intense, if that makes sense. The narrator goes to see a doctor, apparently unable to form syllogisms like “a dead man has no need of a doctor.” He complains he can only apprehend what is immediately present. The doctor finds “nothing.”
The narrative goes through phases like a book of the dead, first the narrator is a fugitive, then homeless, and so on. (I don’t want to give away too much.) He seems to be made possible by the chaos of the war, then wanders right out of it and into Heaven: “Everything between sleeping and waking responded to mad, forgotten whims.” He describes moments that correspond to what we’d imagine to be heaven and hell as though he’d never heard of either, or it had never occurred to him to use those names to describe these moments. Stonier’s wry treatment of heaven is an appropriately anomalous patch in the overall texture of the book. He will move on and, especially after being mistaken for a beggar, he is more and more an unreal spirit of Eliot’s city, staring at everything in wild confusion. At one point he asks his lover if she believes in anything.
When a man named Sale seems to recognize him from his former life, offering him a job, trying to steer him into his life by whatever means, if anything he is reluctant to go back, and it’s not clear whether or not this reluctance is a matter of his inability or his unwillingness. Sale exerts an overpowering pull he experiences with despair, a trapped suffocating feeling, and weird shame. Another grateful omission is the absence of any cornball moment of discovery the truth comes out, but in a very English understated climax at the end of the third section, an unusual and satisfying moment, a little like Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” in reverse.
Stonier has not only realized this testimony of a ghost with great artistry and intelligence, he’s given it the authority of a real narrative by fixing himself so completely on the ghost’s own experience, instead of, for example, writing an elaborately plotted narrative filled with illustrative action.
“With disillusion the mind takes on strange clarities, the body becomes clairvoyant. I look back on death as a visit to the dentist.”