I see why many laud Hope Mirrlees’s fantasy novel Lud-in-the-Mist. The prose is as delicious as fairy fruit, the sentences in the style of Virginia Woolf—intricate, laden with clauses like grapes on the vine, and as heady as wine, full in the mouth and producing a ringing in the ears that lingers long after you’ve closed the book.
The ambition is likewise admirable: philosophically meaningful commentary on the human condition, the importance of art in mundane life, the equally delusional nature of law and fantasy, and so much more, climaxing in clever tail-swallowing exhortation to beware the lying written word.
Yes, it’s the kind of book that one can write a dissertation on, find levels of meaning and message in, revisit and dissect and be enriched by. But it’s not one I can love, not one I can feel in my bones, not one I can don like a skin and walk the world in.
The book views art and sensitivity to art as a melancholic, vexed, even hexed, exchange that leaves one longing through a sleepless night, flinching at a harmless word, haunting a graveyard in nameless dread and envious of the impervious dead as one anticipates—oh! how sensitively!—loss of the present’s joys. If one suppresses one’s sensitivity, the agony intensifies, and one suffers—oh! how one suffers!—by turns achingly nostalgic for the prosaic present and drawn inexorably toward the tantalizing, fatal lands of Fairy. Feverish. Fearful.
But mine is a lumpen soul. These melancholic, elevated sensitivities do not speak to me. And thus, although the characters are fulsomely drawn, I don’t feel their plight: instead, I stand outside and observe them in their drawing rooms or kitchens or huddled in their beds, and I watch as the author shines her light on this foible, on that longing, on a curious admixture of base and noble, or ordinary and extraordinary, or philosophical and practical—and I think, yes, intellectually, I recognize these attitudes, these attributes, the arms and legs and flashing teeth of characterization. But I don’t feel them.