Reviewed by Paul Kane
Sybarite Among the Shadows
by Richard McNeff
Mandrake of Oxford, October 2004, ISBN-13: 978-1869928827, 212 pages
How to describe Richard McNeff’s curious novel? It is set in London, over the two days following the opening of the International Surrealist Exhibition – over 11 to 12 June 1936, that is. It centres on the intriguing figure of Victor Neuburg, a man who was – at various times in his life – both Dylan Thomas’ mentor and publisher and Aleister Crowley’s disciple and lover (‘sexual partner’ would probably be a more precise term here; the two practised a kind of sex magick together: see Chapter 13 of John Symonds’ The Great Beast
if you’d like further details). All three of these men, and many other so-called ‘real-life people’, appear as characters in the novel. Overall, Sybarite Among the Shadows is an entertaining read and a lot of fun, a painless way of learning about the literary and artistic life of 1930s London.
The story is rather picaresque and meandering, but no matter: the journey is always diverting and involving. This is true whether we see Victor Neuburg on the drunk with Dylan Thomas – a night and a half and no mistake – or hooked up with Aleister Crowley for a spot of espionage and ceremonial magic (or magick). The characterisation is quite subtle; so Dylan Thomas is comic and raucous, but – as a poet – ultimately earnest. Aleister Crowley remains a mysterious and ambivalent figure, and is certainly a more rounded character here than as Oliver Haddo (probably his best known fictional alter-ego ) in Somerset Maugham’s The Magician. You takes your choice with Crowley: he was either for real and the Herald of a New Age, sadly deluded, an English eccentric whose like we will never see again, an egocentric monster, the counter-culture hero on cover of the Sgt Pepper album … or an amalgam of all of the above. Cyril Connolly’s colourful summation (“He is the Picasso of the Occult. He bridges the gap between Oscar Wilde and Hitler …”) perhaps comes closest to the truth.
1930s London is well depicted, with plenty of realistic period detail, although McNeff’s isn’t quite as bleakly authentic as Patrick Hamilton’s (how could it be?). We are shown horse-drawn milk floats, Mosley’s blackshirts, seedy pubs and dodgy night clubs policed and populated by spivs. Alongside this, we are shown a fantasy London milieu, Chestertonian in nature, that is as convincing and may have been as real too. So Crowley and company meet the King and Wallis Simpson in The Gargoyle Club, so called because its mirrored walls give a distorted image of one’s face (but perhaps a true image of one’s soul?). Did this club actually exist? Perhaps.
This is an unusual and intriguing novel and an entertaining foray into an earlier, stranger England. There are plenty of puns and amusing similes to smoothly move matters along (“The waiter was hovering over them with the forlorn air of the last penguin in the colony” is one) and Richard McNeff’s prose often gives sybaritic pleasure. Since there are occasional allusions to Daath, Choronzon and others, you’ll get most out of this novel if you are already familiar with Crowley’s magical world (or have a copy of John Symonds’ aforementioned The Great Beast handy); if you know your Bartzabel from your Beelzebub, so to speak.
One small critique: the pagination in the contents page is incorrect from Chapter 3 on, in my copy of the book at any rate; otherwise the book is well produced.
About the reviewer:Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org