Sorrows and So You Want to Be a Wizard

I’m about two-thirds of the way through Marie Corelli’s 1895 novel The Sorrows of Satan, about which I’ll probably have more to say later. (Wikipedia tantalizingly claims that this blockbuster best-seller owed its popularity “partly due to an upheaval in the system British libraries used to purchase their books,” which I suppose has something to do with the demise of the three-volume novel; I still don’t really understand it.)

The Sorrows of Satan follows one Geoffrey Tempest, millionaire, on his travels with a mysterious and cultured friend named Lucio Rimânez who just might be Satan himself. Yes, this is a very similar plot to that of James Hogg’s 1824 Confessions of a Justified Sinner, as seen previously on this blog. But Corelli’s “Lucio” has more of his own stuff going on than Hogg’s “Gil-Martin.” He’s not single-mindedly devoted to his protégé’s advancement; he also finds time for philosophical and cultural asides. Quote:

“Sometimes,” he continued— “just at odd moments— I like to believe in Paradise. It is a relief, even to a hardened sinner like myself, to fancy that there may exist something in the way of a world better than this one.”

“Surely, sir,” said Miss Charlotte Fitzroy severely, “you believe in Heaven?”

He looked at her and smiled slightly.

“Madame, forgive me! I do not believe in the clerical heaven. I know you will be angry with me for this frank confession! But I cannot picture the angels in white smocks with goose wings, or the Deity as a somewhat excitable personage with a beard. Personally I should decline to go to any heaven which was only a city with golden streets; and I should object to a sea of glass, resenting it as a want of invention on the part of the creative Intelligence. But– do not frown, dear Miss Fitzroy!— I do believe in Heaven all the same,— a different kind of heaven,— I often see it in my dreams!”

He paused, and again we were all silent, gazing at him. Lady Sibyl’s eyes, indeed, rested upon him with such absorbed interest that I became somewhat irritated, and was glad when, turning towards the Countess once more, he said quietly—

“Shall I give you some music now, Madame?”

(Incidentally, the popularity of frivolous, juvenile, goose-winged-and-harped Heavens has only gone up since Corelli’s day, and it’s not just Satan who quotes scripture against them.)

Now Lucio plays:

With the first few bars he struck I half started from my chair in amazement;— could a mere pianoforte produce such sounds?— or was there some witchery hidden in the commonplace instrument, unguessed by any other performer? […] The music swelled into passionate cadence,— melodies crossed and re-crossed each other like rays of light glittering among green leaves,— voices of birds and streams and tossing waterfalls chimed in with songs of love and playful merriment;— anon came wilder strains of grief and angry clamour; cries of despair were heard echoing through the thunderous noise of some relentless storm,— farewells everlastingly shrieked amid sobs of reluctant shuddering agony;— and then, as I listened, before my eyes a black mist gathered slowly, and I thought I saw great rocks bursting asunder into flame, and drifting islands in a sea of fire,— faces, wonderful, hideous, beautiful, peered at me out of a darkness denser than night, and in the midst of this there came a tune, complete in sweetness and suggestion,— a piercing sword-like tune that plunged into my very heart and rankled there,— my breath failed me,— my senses swam,— I felt that I must move, speak, cry out, and implore that this music, this horribly insidious music, should cease ere I swooned with the voluptuous poison of it,— when, with a full chord of splendid harmony that rolled out upon the air like a breaking wave, the intoxicating sounds ebbed away into silence. No one spoke;— our hearts were yet beating too wildly with the pulsations roused by that wondrous lyric storm. Diana Chesney was the first to break the spell.

“Well, that beats everything I’ve ever heard!” she murmured tremulously.

I love that long lyrical paragraph (except perhaps that ungainly word “sword-like”). By serendipity I encountered it just after finishing a re-read of Diane Duane’s So You Want to Be a Wizard (1983), a book that I remember loving a couple decades ago. It hasn’t aged quite as well for me as has Dealing with Dragons, but its alternate-mecha-nightmare-Manhattan setting still resonates, especially now that I’m living in New York, as the book is basically a love letter to New York City. Anyway, So You Want to Be a Wizard climaxes in a similarly lyrical paragraph, as our pair of heroes incant a spell to untwist Manhattan from the grasp of their own business-suited Satan-figure, the Starsnuffer.

Kit began to read, and for all her fear Nita was lulled to stillness by wonder. Kit’s voice was that of someone discovering words for the first time after a long silence, and the words he found were a song, as her spell to free the trees had seemed. She sank deep in the music of the Speech, hearing the story told in what Kit read.

Kit was invoking New York, calling it up as one might call up a spirit; and, obedient to the summons, it came. The skyline came, unsmirched by any blackness — a crown of glittering towers in a smoky sunrise, all stabbing points and jeweled windows, precipices of steel and stone. City Hall came, brooding over its colonnades, gazing down in weary interest at the people who came and went and governed the island through it. The streets came, hot, dirty, crowded, but flowing with voices and traffic and people, bright lifeblood surging through concrete arteries. The parks came, settling into place one by one as they were described, free of the darkness under the night — from tiny paved vest-pocket niches to the lake-set expanses of Central Park, they all came, thrusting the black fog back. Birds sang, dogs ran and barked and rolled in the grass, trees were bright with wary squirrels’ eyes. The Battery came, the crumbling old first-defense fort standing peaceful now at the southernmost tip of Manhattan — the rose-gold of some remembered sunset glowed warm on its bricks as it mused in weedy silence over old battles won and nonetheless kept an eye on the waters of the harbor, just in case some British cutter should try for a landing when the colonists weren’t looking. Westward over the water, the Palisades were there, shadowy cliffs with the Sun behind them, mist-blue and mythical-looking though New Jersey was only a mile away. Eastward and westward the bridges were there, the lights of their spanning suspension cables coming out blue as stars in the twilight. Seabirds wheeled pale and graceful about the towers of the George Washington Bridge and the Verrazano Narrows and the iron crowns of the 59th Street Bridge, as the soft air of evening settled over Manhattan, muting the city roar to a quiet breathing rumble. Under the starlight and the risen Moon, an L-1011 arrowed out of LaGuardia Airport and soared over the city, screaming its high song of delight in the cold upper airs, dragging the thunder along behind….

Incidentally, Wikipedia unreliably informs me that this January marked the final commercial flight for the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar. Mais où sont les aéronefs d’antan?

Posted 2019-11-30