Published by Black Shuck Books in 2018 as part of their Signature Novellas range, The Three Books is the first time, at least as far as I can recall, that I have encountered the work of Paul StJohn Mackintosh.
The story is told from the perspective of Sophia Amory, a young woman in love with the written word and in particular infatuated with the work of poet Desmond Carvill, choosing him as the subject for her PhD dissertation. Carvill is an enigmatic and reclusive figure, someone who is never seen in public, can only be contacted through his agent. His first two sonnet cycles, Daphnia and Nyx, produced as original art books, were hailed as masterpieces, while his third work The Tower was rated as below par, a failure after the magnificence that proceeded it. The basis of Sophia’s thesis is that Carvill should not be regarded as a poet per se, but as a visual artist. She meets and interviews with people who knew Carvill before he became a recluse and then, out of the blue, she is given the chance to stay with Carvill at his isolated cabin in the woods and talk to him at her leisure, learning the secret of his creativity.
This novella offers us an evocation of New York in the early years of the twentieth century, the New York of artists and intellectuals, Mackintosh grounding his work and adding verisimilitude through sprinkling ‘celebrity’ names into the text. A world in microcosm, where for many the need to achieve something of lasting value is paramount. Along the way and mostly by inference, the book offers us insights into the world of art, the interface between media and message, while affirming the importance of art in our lives, qualities that are embodied in Sophia Amory. She is a character who, with her love of poetry and periodic bouts of depression and self-doubt, will strike a note of familiarity in the heart of many a reader. Someone we can identify with, whose concerns we can share, whose fervour for the thing she loves seems exemplary.
Desmond Carvill is another matter, and it’s hard to discuss him usefully without dropping a massive spoiler, and in fact one might do so simply through what is not said. I’ll take the risk, but consider yourselves warned. Long story short, Carvill does terrible things to achieve his poetic effects (but you’d probably already worked that out). In the abstract the book asks what we are prepared to allow for the sake of great art? Is Carvill’s behaviour acceptable because it results in great art, or are their lines that should not be crossed? The question of whether we can separate the art and the artist, a riddle that seems all the more apposite in present times with the prevalence of woke and cancel culture, is here posed in the most extreme of terms.
But while those questions are there to be asked, they are also an irrelevance to the actual story, a distraction even. The real focus of the book is on the relationship between Sophia and Carvill. Thanks to her depression Sophia values her own existence and work less than that of others, is too susceptible to others’ evaluations of her worth, something that Mackintosh puts over very well and mainly through suggestion. Carvill on the other hand is so sure of himself that he is willing to sacrifice others, to objectify even those he claims to love. Urbane, genial, eminently likeable on the surface, at heart he is an abuser and manipulator of great cunning, who persuades Sophia to see things his way, to act in accord with his wishes, assessing herself as worthless apart from what she can do for him, how she can sacrifice herself to forward his career. While great art may be involved, the couple are emblematic of all such tawdry and sickening relationships, where one partner takes advantage of the other by reducing their sense of themselves as autonomous, rendering them simply an adjunct to their monstrous ego, and finally nothing more than an object, a vessel through which their will is channelled. This is true horror.
The writing is beautiful and economical, without a wasted word. The plot, characters etc., all ring true. Paul StJohn Mackintosh, like the mad artist he brings to such vivid life on the page, has produced a story that is enjoyable as a word song and valuable for what it conveys about human nature.