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Carl Jung’s concept of the Shadow is one of many intertwined and mutually reinforcing themes in Mark Gordon’s complex and absorbing novel. The Shadow comprises the negative, primitive and morally reprehensible emotions and impulses inaccessible to the conscious mind: among them, lust, greed, envy, rage and the pursuit of power. It is at its most dangerous when habitually repressed and rejected, eventually manifesting itself in mental disturbances such as neurosis, psychosis or irrational hostility.
The majority of the characters in The Snail’s Castle are haunted by the Shadow in one way or another, particularly Jake Milson, a US student of English Literature at McGill University in Montreal in the early 1960s. Jake has set his mind on winning a scholarship to study at Oxford, but his enviable academic record of straight A’s is suddenly tarnished by a C-minus for an essay in Creative Criticism, taught by poet Gregory Percival. Jake’s scholarly success is in part due to his careful homework on the predilections and obsessions of his teachers, enabling him to slant his own work to reflect their pet theories. Percival, however, is unimpressed. Jake’s efforts to change the professor’s mind – by hook or by crook – become increasingly personal and obsessive, and neither of them is prepared to give an inch in a battle of psyches that rapidly overwhelms Percival’s wife Margaret (whom he has betrayed sexually time and again), Jake’s girlfriend Rebecca (who falls for Percival’s charm) and even the unwitting members of Jake’s student fraternity.
Jake and Percival prowl the same moral morass, but their paths rarely cross, as Percival – appropriately – is a shadowy figure, difficult to meet and impossible to intimidate. The novel expands with the proliferating connotations and ramifications of their relationship, which becomes a kind of twinship that holds up a mirror for Jake to see himself as he really is – if only he had the self-insight to look. At one point, late on in the novel, he feels a burning sensation in his chest, which accompanies the thought that ‘it felt good to say something without any ulterior motive, to say something sincerely.’ Here, Jake confirms our suspicion that he has hitherto been an unreliable guide to his own motives, and is at last beginning to wise-up.
Jake and Percival are competing males, with women as their accomplices and their victims. They are also two poles of an unstable binary opposition between critical analysis and artistic creativity, which are reconciled at novel’s end. If that sounds dry and academic, it isn’t, and there is a great deal more at stake than male pride.
Jake and his fraternity brothers are Jewish, as are many of their girlfriends, including Rebecca. Issues of group- and self-identification infuse the narrative with the bitter aftertaste of Holocaust and pogrom, along with a prickly sensitivity to the latent and not-so-latent anti-Semitism of Montreal’s elites. Class and privilege, wealth and power, intersect with personal aspirations and romantic relationships, and the very geography of the city is a grid of social distinctions that can be traversed but never ignored. There are some places where access confers little more than ridicule and shame. They also provoke in Jake a vision: ‘he saw naked bodies marching to Auschwitz. He saw goose-stepping troops. He remembered that the gypsies, the queers, and the socialists were herded, along with the Jews, to the showers that washed away all sins.’ Great evils are born of everyday incivilities.
This awful weight of personal and cultural history is emphasized by recurring allusions to classical myth, biblical imagery and, of course, works of literature. Shakespeare’s King Lear – especially Lear’s rantings on the storm-ridden heath – is particularly apropos, but the major chord is struck by a rare and peculiar book loaned by Percival to Rebecca and Jake, called – The Snail’s Castle. Jake attempts to unlock the mysteries of its bizarre narrative, only to find himself sinking into the moral quagmire of its main character. This brilliant self-reflexive trope highlights the power and the danger of the Word (of words written on the page and in the heart) and the problematic interconnections of literature and life. Books, however well written, are not life, but a parallel form of human experience, and the two should not be confused.
Mud – its depth and consistency, its suitability as a burial site for unwanted memories – is a ubiquitous symbol, both in the book-within-the-book and in the lives of Jake and Margaret, who remembers plunging her hands in the earth of her beloved grandmother’s garden. Margaret experiences a mental storm of memories that competes with the snowstorms that form Montreal’s winter landscape (Nature’s version of a whited sepulchre), evoked effortlessly by the author’s poetically precise prose. It is Margaret, too, who unknowingly echoes a theme of the book-within-the-book: ‘We’ve all got these little empty spaces, Jake. And we run around trying to fill them up. Sometimes with nostalgia.’
To which character(s) does The Snail’s Castle belong? The opening sections provoke uncertainty in this regard, rather as the camera in a film by Michelangelo Antonioni permits its dispassionate gaze to rest first on this character, then on that, before making up its mind to follow someone else entirely. Jake’s is the disputed but dominant voice, but even he is shouldered aside for a couple of chapters by Margaret’s claims on ownership. Personally, I found this a jolt, and at a point where I think the novel begins to lose its way, or at least its focus, for some little while. I also began to question the amplitude of memories available at a moment’s notice for several characters at various stages, especially Margaret. The sheer quantity and detail of her memories deflect attention from their immediate cause, so that her present experience is covered over by a welter of images and ideas in which she and the reader lose their way. But perhaps that is the point and I am wrong.
In any case, these are minor quibbles. For all its seriousness, The Snail’s Castle has a light, assured tone that makes for compulsive reading. At turns amusing and disturbing, it is among the most literary of literary works, with a deep intelligence that expects its readers also to be intelligent. That is a rare compliment that should be savoured. I thoroughly recommend this stimulating novel, so beautifully written by a gifted writer, to whom I offer my hearty congratulations.