The novella-length fiction Visa for Avalon by the writer who called herself Bryher was first published in 1965 and was reissued by the Paris Press in 2004, before the US presidential election of that year. Since it is set in the future—a future in which violent mass movements are causing uproar and a controlling government is restricting the freedom of ordinary citizens—it was seen by both its publisher, Jan Freeman, and by its introducer, Susan McCabe, as a book with a lot to say about the squeeze being put on liberal democracy by such draconian measures as the Patriot Act in the United States, and by similar tendencies elsewhere.
The Paris Press is “a not-for-profit press publishing work by women that has been neglected or misrepresented by the literary world.” For this exemplary aim, Bryher is a strong candidate: few twentieth-century women’s lives were more interconnected with their own era, and few others displayed her edgy bravery and intellectual curiosity, but she is little-known today.
Bryher was born in England in 1894, thus living through the First World War as a woman in her twenties, through the intellectually exciting 1920s in her thirties, and through the Second World War in her fifties. Her birth name was Annie Ellerman; she renamed herself after one of the Scilly Isles, a place that—in her inner geography—stood for remoteness, adventure, and freedom: as a child, she longed to run away to sea and become a cabin boy. Her family was well-to-do, which gave her the opportunity to develop her many interests.
At the age of twenty she encountered Ezra Pound and Imagism, and through them, the poet H.D. Bryher and H.D. formed a lifelong friendship and sometime partnership, although they did not always live together. The two of them took up psychoanalysis in the 1920s, and Freud and his teachings remained important to Bryher throughout her life. She was a poet, a supporter of the modernists, and a foster mother of the experimental writers and filmmakers of the 1920s and 1930s. With the rise of fascism she foresaw the coming horror, and when it came she devoted herself to rescuing Jews and intellectuals, using her home base in Switzerland as a transfer point. When Switzerland expelled most foreigners in 1940 she went to England, where she lived through the blitz. After the war she published a series of historical novels that were widely read at the time; but from these, Visa for Avalon is a departure.
Bryher was seventy-one when Visa for Avalon was published. She had eighteen years yet to live—she died in 1983—and several books left to write; still, anything produced by an author of this age cannot help but be retrospective in mood, and Visa for Avalon has something of an autumnal feel to it. As the hand of Death readies itself for the definitive knock on the door, the writer toils even harder: Wait! Wait! I have just this one very important message I need to get across! A writer’s age at the time of a work’s composition is never irrelevant: The Tempest is not a young man’s play, and Visa for Avalon is not a young woman’s work.
In her introduction, Susan McCabe links Visa for Avalon to the twentieth-century dystopian tradition that includes Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, and such a link is not entirely inappropriate. Yet Visa for Avalon is very different from either in tone, and—insofar as one can say anything about a writer’s intent—in intent as well. It’s an odd duck of a book, and placing it within the Orwell-Huxley frame does it a slight disservice: the reader enters the book expecting the kind of specific and quasi-satirical detail that abounds in these works—the religion of Our Ford, the Ministry of Love, the babies grown in bottles, the use of Newspeak, and so forth—but such sardonic, bat-winged flights of invention are not to be found in its pages.
What then is to be found in them? The word “allegory” has been used about Visa for Avalon, but it is not an allegory, since its characters and events cannot be interpreted one-for-one. In Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Una stands for the True Faith, Duessa for the false one, the Faerie Queene herself for Queen Elizabeth I, and so forth; but there are no such connect-the-dots certainties in Visa for Avalon. Part of this book’s crepuscular charm is that it eludes definition—its arrangement is fugue-like rather than linear or schematic, and it achieves its effects partly by a seemingly artless syncopation of motifs.
Insofar as Visa for Avalon has a central character, that character is Robinson, a man of retirement age whom we first discover waking up by the sea. His name connects him with islands (Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson must have been known to Bryher, who as a child “devoured” everything in print), and Robinson will soon develop a yen for another is-land—the island nation of Avalon. Robinson is on vacation in a Cornish-sounding village called Trelawney; he’s staying at Rose Cottage, owned by his landlady, the widow Mrs. Lilian Blunt. (Those lilies, those roses: the innocence of the garden in Tennyson’s Maud, before the catastrophe. Bryher, like most writers of her generation—Pound included—used armfuls of images and much stock vocabulary from the Victorian literature they claimed to be heaving out the window. The hand of Tennyson in particular lay heavily upon them, a point to keep in mind when the significance of “Avalon” is considered. The practical “Blunt” of Lilian’s last name stands in opposition to the more romantic elements: this is a landlady who cooks eggs and does other bustling, domestic things, but her Blunt element is—we will discover—somewhat of a disguise.)
After a working life that sounds confining and tedious, Robinson has planned to spend his retirement years in Trelawney. He often goes fishing with a younger man called Alex. But the peaceful scene is disrupted when a “Movement” youth group in green uniforms and caterpillar formation worms its way into the village, when Mrs. Blunt is informed by a bureaucrat that her beloved cottage—her lifelong home, her only possession—is to be demolished to make way for a factory access road, and when it swiftly becomes clear that worse upheavals are in store. The rights of individuals are about to be mashed underfoot in the name of collective progress, as the fate of Rose Cottage exemplifies.
Robinson and Lilian decide to flee, not only from Trelawney but from their no-name England-like country itself. They travel to the also no-name city by means of jammed and filthy trains; they attempt to get a couple of the rare visas for the mysterious island nation called Avalon; they are helped in their efforts by Alex, who works at the Avalon consulate; and finally—joined by a couple of other visa-holders—they make it on to the last tiny plane for Avalon, just before the mob-like Movement closes the airport and prepares to “laugh at international law.”
Along the way, Robinson and his several fellow travelers provide a running commentary on the trends unfolding. What has caused things to go so thoroughly to the bad? Is it overpopulation? The fact that “people are apathetic until it becomes too late,” as Alex says? The repression of this or that urge or passion, bound to burst forth in a thuggish fashion? The unconscious desire of the majority for a return to barbarism? Whatever the reason, no good will come of it. “If an individual’s right to a place of his own were not respected,” Robinson muses, “it was the first link in a chain that would ultimately lead to the elimination of the unwanted by any group that happened to be in power.” Lawson—Avalon’s representative at the consulate, and a straight arrow, as his name implies—takes the psychoanalytic view: “Why was there so deep an urge for destruction in people… They used so much research to introduce automation into everyday life and so little to find out what really went on in a nation’s mind.”
But all of this political chat—although true enough, and informed by Bryher’s considerable experience with head-in-the-sand denial and psychoanalysis, and with the rampages of iron-fisted and destructive political movements and the stifling of the rule of law—seems almost like flotsam on the surface of a different sea. There’s a dream-like air to the narrative, even apart from the this-can’t-be-happening sensations that overtake people when they’re caught in sudden violent upheavals. What deeper current was carrying Bryher along as she composed this strange book? She knew the work of Kafka, and his name too has been used in connection with Visa for Avalon—again with some reason: the facelessness of the malevolent forces, their apparent lack of any definite goal, and the pettiness of the bureaucrats representing them recall, perhaps, The Trial and The Castle.
But you don’t name a book Visa for Avalon by accident, especially if you are Bryher, composer of historical novels. “Avalon” in Arthurian legend was the place to which King Arthur was boat-lifted after his last battle. Susan McCabe mentions Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version, in which Avalon is a sort of apple-filled Edenic island where Arthur will be healed, and also Malory’s “La Morte d’Arthur,” in which Arthur dies there, surrounded by weeping women. She does not however invoke the most likely influence on Bryher, who as a voraciously reading child went through her father’s library. That late-Victorian library would have contained the works of Tennyson, including his long narrative poem, Idylls of the King. What Bryher’s novel means to signify is intimately connected with what Tennyson’s Idylls meant to signify.
The final section of Idylls, “The Passing of Arthur,” begins with “that last weird battle in the west,” a misty affair filled with confusion and the difficulty of being able to identify the enemy—a confusion and a difficulty mirrored in Bryher’s book. Both works have to do with a man’s fated journey toward his possible death, the collapse of a civilization and its return to savage and lawless ways, the betrayal of the nobility in man, and—underneath these themes—the sadness of getting older and finding yourself surrounded by young people who don’t understand what you’ve lived through or even what you’re talking about. Tennyson sounds this note repeatedly in “The Passing of Arthur,” which is told by Sir Bedivere in his old age, when he is living among “new men, strange faces, other minds.”
The new men, the strange faces, and the other minds are already a problem for both Lilian and Robinson, quite apart from any green-uniformed Movement. There’s a considerable amount of grumbling about “change,” and “development,” and “progress,” and how things aren’t the same as they used to be, and about the rudeness of the young, and also that of waitresses—themes not unheard-of among any group of retirees sharing doughnuts at the corner coffee shop. In addition to this, Robinson is a man who from the outset feels that he’s no longer of the present day, and finds himself resigned to his own end. “Do you know,” he says, toward the beginning, “I wish I could step ashore and die with this moment as my memory of earth.”
Section Two begins as Robinson takes his “final walk” beside the waves: “They were full of the terror of death, of the return to the caldron of the sagas, where what was finished was swept away and new patterns formed from the atoms…. Age was rather an exhaustion of the emotions than a physical fatigue….” Or, as Tennyson’s Arthur put it, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new….” Will Avalon—for Robinson—be a place of death or a place of healing, or will the latter be a version of the former?
And what will Avalon be for the other folk headed there? Each one of the travelers has different hopes connected with it. A young girl thinks happily of love, Alex wants “the truth,” the pilot, an Avalonian, is torn between the domestic and the adventurous. Avalon is said to be a place of more freedom, but there’s mention of a mysterious “them” who seem to be a controlling bunch, if only in the way of a posse of quasi-benevolent religious supervisors checking to see if you’ve passed some never-specified test. It’s a land of peace, but then, so is the after-life. Is Avalon really the country from whose bourne no traveler returns, as we’re led from time to time to believe? But then we’re led to believe otherwise, because Alex has been and has come back. No sooner does Bryher strew around a few literary and metaphysical allusions than she tramples them underfoot. This is maddening in the way of vampire novels that break the long-established rules (“What do you mean, you like garlic?”). Sometimes it’s as if Bryher forgot exactly what it was she’d set out to do.
Visa for Avalon purports to take place in the future—television and computers are mentioned in passing—but the foreground is occupied by a great deal of linoleum: good, bright linoleum, and bad, squalid linoleum, and even a linoleum hat. Nothing dates an era more tellingly than floor coverings, and 1965 was the Age of Shag Carpeting, not the Age of Linoleum. In the physical details of its setting, Visa for Avalon suggests, not a future, but a past—two decades of it laminated together. There’s the utopian brutalism of the Fascist and Nazi Thirties ideologies, with their impulse to destroy the systems of the past and streamline the present, and there’s the dinginess of the war years in England, with their crowded trains and depressing waiting rooms. The emotional climate, too, is that of wartime: the inability to get anywhere or obtain much-needed documents or do anything effective, combined with a grinding boredom, and, at the same time, the acute, stomach-churning anxiety of not knowing what is really going on.
In these observations, Visa for Avalon has the texture of lived experience. We don’t know what to think about the tyrannical government or Movement that’s taking over—are they left or right, or does it matter?—but we certainly learn to the last traffic jam and hastily packed suitcase and nasty armband-wearing guard and eerily deserted street how such a takeover would feel to ordinary folk trapped inside it. As people do when their adrenaline levels are high and there’s no overt means of expression, the characters focus on single details perceived with hallucinatory clearness: the rusty oil drum, the splintered piece of timber, the cable wheel. The handling of these sections is realistic in the extreme.
Once on the plane with the small saving remnant, we find ourselves back in a quasi-symbolic universe. Robinson wonders whether the whole experience he’s just lived through has been an illusion; he decides it’s real, but we’re wondering. Soon he’s speaking the language of salvation by Grace: “What had he ever done that had made him worthy of rescue?” “Things do come to an end,” says Lilian. As she remembers with nostalgia her life in Trelawney, she has an amazing insight:
By a terrific effort of will and with the physical force that she had needed to stand against the autumn gales, she stammered, but who heard her against the roar of the engines, “I wanted to be out on the Seven Seas, I never wanted to be in Rose Cottage at all!”
It now seems that Lilian—unknown to herself—has wanted to run away to sea all along, like the young Bryher. Is a visa for Avalon a kind of litmus paper that shows us the truth about ourselves?
Right after this surprising cri du coeur the plane plunges into fog, the radio fails, the novel takes us through a near-death experience, and Robinson is back in Tennysonian mode: “All of us have our fate…none of us can escape it.” But whatever his fate may be, it doesn’t include a crash-landing in the sea, because Avalon itself is glimpsed briefly at the book’s end: “…The clouds parted for an instant and Robinson saw far below them, as they came in for a perfect landing, gorse bushes, the valley full of apple trees and a stretch of white sand.” Or, as Tennyson had it,
I am going a long way
With these thou seest—if indeed I go—
For all my mind is clouded with a doubt—
To the island-valley of Avilion;
Deep-meadow’d, happy, fair, with orchard lawns….
Is life a waiting room or a journey? In Visa for Avalon, both options are proposed. If a waiting room, what comes after you’ve done the waiting? If a journey, what is its end? Bryher doesn’t tell us, partly—one feels—because Tennyson doesn’t tell us whether Arthur lived or died, and partly because she hadn’t made up her own mind about life after death; but partly, also, because she wisely judged that in a narrative such as this, to travel is much better than to arrive.
There’s some suggestion that Avalon is whatever you think it is, and the same can be said of Visa for Avalon. In part it’s a trip through the nightmare of political repression and mob takeover, in part a veiled encounter with approaching death: Everyman meets The Pilgrim’s Progress crossed with “The Passing of Arthur” with undertones of The Seventh Seal, as domesticated in Trelawney-by-the-sea. It would be stretching matters to call it an entirely successful work of art—its threads are too loose—but despite this, it remains a suggestive and beguiling fiction by one of the twentieth century’s most interesting artistic figures. The Paris Press should be thanked for republishing it.
April 7, 2005