"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 6, 2016

"The Other Side" by Alfred Kubin (Book Review)

In my overview of the Austrian novel, I forgot to include one very interesting book, The Other Side by Alfred Kubin, a great example of European fantastic fiction.

One day, the anonymous narrator of the story receives a surprising visitor, who has come to give him the following message: "Claus Patera, absolute master of the Dream Kingdom, has sent me as his agent, to invite you to move to his country." As Claus Patera was an old school friend of the narrator, he accepts the invitation and travels with his wife to Pearl, the capital of the Dream Kingdom, which is situated somewhere deep in central Asia. But the dream is soon the become a nightmare... this is not a Shangri-la story.

When this decadent, expressionist novel, with the German title Die andere Seite, appeared, it was greeted enthusiastically by Expressionist and Surrealistic artists, not least of all by Kafka himself.

The author Alfred Kubin (1877-1959) was a Symbolist and Expressionist graphic artist, who wrote this fantastic novel set in an oppressive imaginary land - his only literary work - in 1908. Born in Litoměřice, in the Bohemian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kubin studied painting in Munich, where he became interested in the prints of Max Klinger. In 1911, he joined the Expressionist Blaue Reiter group. He is known for his dark, spectral fantasies, often grouped into thematic series of drawings; he also illustrated books by Poe, Hoffman and Dostoevsky - illustrations he originally made for The Golem by Gustav Meyrink were in fact used for The Other Side. Kubin was also a life-long friend of Paul Klee.

[Dolmen by Alfred Kubin, c. 1902]

Kubin started his career just when Freud published “The Interpretation of Dreams,” and it is clear he made a careful study of dreams himself. His black-and-white drawings have been called "a guide into the shadowy corners of the unconscious." The same is true for The Other Side, where the Dream Kingdom becomes the setting for a hallucinatory vision of a society founded on instinct over reason. The novel culminates in a dizzyingly surrealistic apocalypse. What started as a utopia, soon becomes a dystopia and then a terrible cataclysm - the narrator is the only one who escapes to tell the tale.

Kubin wrote this novel in only twelve weeks, working day and night, when he suffered from a blockage to draw. Finishing the novel left him with new confidence as an artist.

There is little plot in the novel, although it starts out as an adventure story; the main element is the description of the dream city Pearl and its collapse.

The city of Pearl is protected by a great surrounding wall. The whole town consists of old houses, transported here from all over the world, and filled with antique furniture. The inhabitants also dress in the clothes of a previous generation. All have been summoned here by Patera because of some psychological quirk, such as hysteria, or a mania for gambling, or a physical peculiarity such as a hunchback or a huge nose.

There is no sun in this grey city, but only a filtered twilight. The narrator finds employment as illustrator to a newspaper, but fails to contact his school friend Patera, who hides behind an impenetrable bureaucracy, as the ruler in Kafka's The Castle. His rule is challenged by a newcomer, an energetic American millionaire, Hercules Bell, and finally the struggle between these two factions will take down the city in blood and nightmare. The narrator - whose wife has died miserably - barely escapes with his life.

How should we read The Other Side? There are various possibilities:

- As a satire on the Austro-Hungarian state: for example, the description of the city as wholly consisting of antiquarian buildings and objects could be seen as a critique of a country that is severely behind the times. Interestingly, the ruler, Claus Patera, rules his country via the dreams of the people, and via hypnotism. The name Patera = Pater = Father suggests authoritarianism and also Austro-Hungary was governed by an emperor who was a father-figure and who was getting more and more antiquarian with his advancing high age. Kubin's description of the absurd bureaucracy is reminiscent of Kafka's in The Trial and The Castle, two novels also inspired by nightmarish elements in the Habsburg state.

- As a satire on reactionary, idealist utopianism evident in German thought in the early 20th c. Everybody in the dream-realm is under a sort of irrational spell, but it is not easy to see what that spell exactly is.

- The novel also contains a satire on American capitalism, in the figure of the above-mentioned Hercules Bell, who challenges Patera with industrialization and modernization, but who also brings insecurity, deracination and destruction.

[Alfred Kubin in 1904]

Although written in a matter-of-fact style, the novel is filled with an atmosphere of gloom, doom and threat. Kubin aptly uses dream symbols and dream situations, such as the scene of a blind mare galloping along a tunnel in the dark, threatening the narrator. The Other Side is a wild ride, filled with memorable visions.

The culmination of the novel is a great literary feat, an apocalypse with plagues of insects, mountains of corpses and orgies in the street. The houses literally decay and fall apart, the city is overrun by all sorts of wildlife, dissolving into the primal and decadent. In the end Patera and Bell merge into a terrible double monster, that then gradually dissolves. Kubin was not for nothing in the first place a painter and we see here echoes of such art works as Pieter Brueghel's The Triumph of Death. It all ends with a downpour of filth, entrails, body parts and carcasses of beasts and men.