Exquisite Corpse

I recently finished reading Exquisite Corpse by Robert Irwin. An absolutely brilliant faux-autobiography of an English Surrealist artist “Caspar” and his all-consuming obsession with his apparently very ordinary muse Caroline. I was halfway through reading it when I visited the Museum Ludwig in Köln; I was so tempted to leave the book in one of the galleries holding their extensive Surrealist collection, it would make a lovely objet trouvé for some unsuspecting soul, but I just couldn’t bring myself to abandon the story unfinished. Never mind, now I’ve worked my way through it I’ll have to drop it off in another museum’s gallery of the surreal (perhaps with a Bookcrossing sticker inside, so that I can track its progress). Except that… I really want to read it again, now that I know the twist in the tale.

Here are a couple of my favourite passages from the novel, from a time when Caspar has lost Caroline and his purpose in life, and has become a war artist:

My commissioning by the W.A.C. coincided with the beginning of the Blitz in 1940 and this coincidence provided me with my artistic mission. I became a painter of ruins and firestorms and I thought of myself as the heir to Piranesi and Mad John Martin. I left my Surrealist box of tricks unopened for the remainder of the War. The Blitz provided its own Surrealist effects – a white horse galloping around inside a burning meat market and displaying all its teeth in a panicked, mirthless grin, a girl in a blue dress emerging with her skipping rope from clouds of black smoke and skipping calmly by, and the facades of buildings curving and distending like the sets of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Everywhere I walked I saw staircases which led nowhere, baths suspended apparently in mid-air, brick waterfalls flowing out of doorways and objects jumbled incongruously together in conformity with Lautreamont’s aesthetic prescription; ‘Beautiful as the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table’. Long tongues of flame would leap out of every window of some great office block, like demons being expelled from a disenchanted castle. I was not really very aware of the Germans or their bombers: I felt rather that it was the fire that was our real enemy while water was our ally. At times I toyed with the notion that Britain had entered the War on the wrong side and that we should have allied with the glamorous fire against the dull and squelching water.

And then, a couple of pages later:

I heard the most extraordinary things. Huns disguised as nuns were at work surveying our coastal defences. The Germans had already attempted a sea-borne invasion and failed. Their bodies were still being washed up on the beaches. The Royal Family had been evacuated to Canada and a troupe of actors were now impersonating them in Buckingham Palace. A kind of werewolf preyed on the bomb sites, looking for fresh bodies to eat. Most people said that he looked like a fireman and some said that there was a whole crew of werewolf firemen operating in the East End. What the werewolves did not eat themselves they sold at the back doors of posh restaurants on the Strand and Piccadilly. Then again, the foreman of one salvage crew told me how he had been chatting up a foreign girl in uniform – a green uniform he did not recognise, perhaps of something like the Free Latvian Forces — when the air-raid siren went off. They were in the vicinity of Chancery Lane, but instead of going down into the tube station, as everyone else was doing, the girl took him by the arm and made him follow her. They passed through the nondescript-looking door of some official-looking building and descended a deep and dimly lit spiral staircase. At the bottom, the salvage foreman found himself in a shelter the like of which he had never dreamed of. All the other people sheltering there were female officers in the green uniforms of their foreign army. There were beds with clean white sheets, champagne in ice buckets and great piles of tinned foods. The foreman spent a night of ecstasy in that shelter. However, though he did his best to memorise the exact location of its exit, he told me that he was never able to come back at that place again.

I was fascinated by the proliferation of rumour and the elaboration of wartime folklore…