'The Devil's Paintbrush' by Jake Arnott
From The Times
May 16, 2009
Jake Arnott interview
By Andrew Billen
The author made his name with the gangster novel The Long Firm, but his latest book is set in the debauched Victorian world of Aleister Crowley. He explains the appeal of occultism, his years in squats and how he 'converted' to heterosexuality
John Milton was accused by William Blake of being, in Paradise Lost, of the Devil’s party without knowing it. This is not a charge you could level against Jake Arnott. Sympathy for the Devil is his speciality.
In Arnott’s spectacular debut novel, The Long Firm, a gangland sociopath with more than a touch of the Krays about him was the most likeable figure in the book. In the follow-up, He Kills Coppers, Arnott took us to within an inch of forgiving a ringer for the notorious police killer Harry Roberts.
Now, in his fifth novel, The Devil’s Paintbrush, we are persuaded to rethink the reputation of the occultist Aleister Crowley, a figure so repulsive that even his mother called him The Beast. Readers may even consider that Crowley does a favour to the book’s other protagonist, Sir Hector Macdonald — a military hero of the British Empire now practically forgotten — by pushing him into a spiral of drug-fuelled debauchery during a chance (and mainly fictional) encounter in Paris in 1903.
“I think being damned is quite an important step one can take,” Arnott says calmly over nothing more hallucinogenic than coffee in a bar in North London. “You then realise you do not have to be good any more. It certainly destroys Hector, the need to be good, as it destroys so many people. The necessity to be good can take away a lot of natural things about people, particularly their sexuality.”
Arnott, whose relationships have mainly been with men, surprised himself a few years back by falling in love with the lesbian novelist Stephanie Theobald. Although I gather that at 47 he has not entirely retired from the bad boys’ club.
Does he not regard himself as a good person? “No, I don’t. It would [be] nice occasionally to be able to do a good thing and I don’t necessarily think of myself as a bad person, but I think the problem with embodying virtue or being forced to embody virtue is that it is a terrible burden and it can actually lead to very bad things.”
Written in two distinct styles — the adventure-yarn voice of John Buchan and the crazy aestheticism of an English Joris-Karl Huysmans — The Devil’s Paintbrush does not adjudicate on whether Hector Macdonald’s military career furthered an evil or virtuous Empire. It is clear, however, that Macdonald, like Gordon of Khartoum, Lawrence of Arabia, Baden-Powell and (more than likely) Kitchener, was a homosexual at a time when the Empire was in angry and possibly cynical denial about the variety of its citizens’ sexual preferences.
“I think,” Arnott says, “that there was an instinctive feeling that this repression was a way of powering expansion. Crowley makes this comparison early on in the book with steam power, which the Victorians exploited. Steam power is all about repression.”
In addition, the book seems to argue that when in the 20th century lids started flying off, what was repressed found expression not in the harmless diabolism of Crowley but in an orgy of mechanised violence, whose emblem was the Devil’s paintbrush itself, the machinegun that turned the century’s battlefields red.
The prophecy of automated extermination is given in the book to Macdonald, a Presbyterian crofter’s son who distinguished himself in Afghanistan, Sudan and against the Boers, but returned to England disgraced after allegations of homosexuality in Ceylon. It is on his way back to face a court martial that Macdonald runs into Crowley (which in real life he did, although only for lunch). History may record Macdonald as a war hero, but in the novel it is Crowley, at terms with his bisexuality, who is more like the hero. During their night together, Macdonald is taken to a point where he acknowledges his suppressed make-up. Arnott sympathises with both his characters but confesses to liking Crowley, whom he had assumed was “a rather ridiculous, flamboyant charlatan”, much more than he thought. “I see him as this strange prefiguring of the modern age.”
By virtue of being set a hundred years ago, The Devil’s Paintbrush definitively refutes the caricature that Arnott writes modern “gangster lit”. The Long Firm had the mixed fortune of surfacing at about the same time as Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
The success of The Long Firm — ten years ago but fresh in many minds from a 2004 television adaptation — came when he was 38 after a career that was nothing if not chequered. Brought up in middle-class Buckinghamshire as the third of four children, he spotted a vacancy for a bad sheep in the family. At 16, very unhappy at a grammar school he found unintellectual, he left for London, rejecting on the way down his mother’s Roman Catholicism and the work ethic of his father, a management consultant.
The struggle to work out his sexuality meant, he jokes, that he got his midlife crises in early. An early job was as a hospital mortuary technician. This, alongside the Aids crisis of the early Eighties and a debilitating bout of hepatitis B he suffered between 1981 and 1982, may account for his works’ intense preoccupation with death.
After a decade spent in squats fighting a half-hearted war against Thatcherism, he accepted an acting job with a theatre in Leeds. The gig lasted six months, but he stayed in Leeds to work for seven years as a social services care assistant. After penning his unpublishable “squat novel”, he won a six-figure book deal for The Long Firm. The nearest equivalents to a talent content to hide for decades under a bush are probably Ricky Gervais and Susan Boyle.
At the time, papers hinted that the saturnine good looks of this former model and film extra won him an advance beyond his worth. Not so, but life as a literary novelist is precarious and his subsequent novels have not, despite good notices and a cover endorsement from David Bowie, sold as well as the first.
The reader of the new novel, based on the lives of two largely discredited real men, will wonder if Arnott has really bought Crowley’s vision of enlightenment through drugs, occultism and sex. Taking the alleged liberators in order, I ask if he shares Crowley’s belief that drugs can open doors of perception. “I think so. I think they can. My own experience of psychedelic drugs, to use that strange term — acid and magic mushrooms — is that you do sometimes suddenly shoot off and your consciousness seems to go somewhere else.”
But does it go anywhere useful? “That is a very good question. I suspect it doesn’t in terms of a rational connection with our surroundings but in terms of narrative it is tremendous.” Had he taken a little trip or two to refresh his memory? “I didn’t need to. It was fresh in my mind.”
What about mysticism? Did his research lead him to think there is anything to it? “The occult makes the kind of sense that real life does not make. It is like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Protocols of Zion. These things do make perfect sense. Real life doesn’t. But the thing about religion and belief is that in some way we do have to regulate them. You cannot completely do without them and, because there is an element of mental illness linked to all of these things, people do get carried away if left on their own. The problem is denying them all.”
And what of Crowley’s notion that “sex magic” was the key to elevated spiritual knowledge? “I think this is one of the great disappointments of the 20th century. Sex still has this tremendous hold on us but one of the things about the 20th century right up into the Sixties was this feeling that any moment now there will be this incredible explosion and revolution and we will suddenly be in this idyllic world. And it didn’t happen. We realise now that it is not that big a deal.”
Arnott is a persuasive writer, so agile at crawling into the minds of others, and to hear him giggle camply over the theories his characters take so seriously is slightly disorientating. When I question the importance of a heterosexual experience to Crowley near the end of the book, it does not seem to occur to Arnott that I may be hinting at his own conversion to heterosexuality. So I ask him if meeting Theobald four years ago made him feel that he had at last reached the safe shore of monogamy.
“Quite possibly,” he laughs, “but in terms of sexuality, if tomorrow our relationship came to an end I cannot imagine having a relationship with another woman. I think it has been a very particular relationship and I know Stephanie feels the same way.”
It does sound like love? “I think that is the word for it. It’s a fantastic thing. It is a hard thing to find and it is certainly not something I thought would happen again after having been in quite a long relationship before?”
With a man? “Yes.” Had he had a long-term girlfriend before? “Not really. I have had girlfriends, but not for this long, no.”
Has it changed his perspective? “I think the thing is I have never had a relationship with a writer before. That was the quite terrifying thing for me. I think that has had a huge effect.”
I search for a smile, devilish or otherwise, in case he is joking. I don’t think he is. Arnott will laugh about most things. His writing is not one of them.
The Devil’s Paintbrush is published on May 28 at £15.
Owner and Editor
Seems an interesting publication, Paul.
A review in today's (UK) Daily Mail:
The Devll's Paintbrush
by Jake Amott
HOCUS-POCUS meets derring-do in
this boldly fictionalised account of
the 1903 encounter between two
notorious figures from the fin-de-siecle:
the disgraced Major-General Hector
MacDonald and the occultist Aleister Crowley.
Born a lowly crofter's son, Fighting Mac's
fearlessness on the battlefields has propelled
him through the ranks to become a great
national hero. But he's facing a ruinous court
martial over a homosexual scandal on the
night that Crowley finds him dining alone in a
Paris hotel and whisks him off to experience
salvation by way of brothel and black mass.
Jake Arnott - best known for his hardboiled
gangland novels - is an ambitious writer
whose best work illuminates the murkier
undercurrents of British history. Here, he
plays with the interesting idea that the British
Empire was driven by sexual repression. He
also has great fun with Crowley's decadent
underworld of candles, codes and cloaked
femme fatales seeking 'sex magic'.
Having assembled such promising material on
the dark altar of his fiction, Arnott could have
conjured something truly thrilling. Alas, his
plot never takes flight, leaving his characters
flapping about like sacrIficial chickens until all
the blood's drained out of them.
Owner and Editor
There's a very lengthy interview with the author in tomorrow's Scotland On Sunday: http://scotlandonsunday.scotsman.com/spectrum/Jake-Arnott-interview-The-thrill.5294999.jp
Owner and Editor
And more in today's Sunday Times: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/fiction/article6328853.ece
Owner and Editor
Short interview with author on Mariella Frostrup's Open Book programme on UK Radio Four this week.
Very positive review of the book in today's Guardian newspaper by the author of The Book Of Absinthe: http://tinyurl.com/mtdrfa
Also, thought I'd mention that I've just finished reading the book and, in my humble opinion, it's a cracking good read. Intelligent, well-researched, superbly paced and skilfully crafted. Highly recommended.
Owner and Editor
A lengthy article by Jake Arnott, author of the excellent The Devil's Paintbrush, appears in today's Daily Telegraph (UK) newspaper.
With the unfortunate exception of including as fact the now discredited report of Raoul Loveday's death from "cholera after drinking animal blood in a sacrificial ritual," this is one of the most well-informed pieces we've seen in a national newspaper for many years:
The fictional lives of Aleister Crowley
The Satanist and spy Aleister Crowley has inspired a host of memorable characters in novels, finds Jake Arnott
By Jake Arnott
Aleister Crowley is the archetypal villain in 20th-century fiction. Larger than life, he personified the extreme fears and disturbing desires of a new age. Poet, chess master, mountaineer, sexual adventurer, cult leader, spy, magician: all these achievements have faded. What remains is an unforgettable creature of the imagination. The “Great Beast 666”, as he was known, was never that bad, but he possessed a seductive horror that enchanted many of the most important writers of his generation. His own literary ambitions were never realised; his legacy is as a character, or rather a series of them.
WB Yeats first met him in 1899 as a fellow initiate in the Order of the Golden Dawn, a fashionable mystical society. The young Beast became indignant when the older poet appeared to snub him. “What hurt him was the knowledge of his own incomparable inferiority,” Crowley was later to comment. When a bitter schism divided the Golden Dawn, they found themselves on opposite sides, issuing curses, magical spells and even threats of violence.
Nevertheless, they shared an artistic temperament. Both sought to infuse modern verse with an occult sensibility and had apocalyptic visions for the coming century. And, though clearly the better poet, Yeats remained intimidated by the Beast’s demonic prowess. “The Second Coming” (1920) has a depiction of the Antichrist with the unmistakable silhouette of his old adversary: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last.”
By then, Crowley was firmly established as a fictional character. W Somerset Maugham’s The Magician (1908) featured the sinister Oliver Haddo, whom Maugham admitted was based on Crowley. They had both frequented the same dining club in Montparnasse. “I made my character more sinister and ruthless than Crowley ever was,” Maugham insisted. Already, the Beast was more distinct in fiction than in fact, and despite his protestations was clearly enjoying his double life. Crowley later featured in other depictions of Parisian expatriate life, including Arnold Bennett’s Paris Nights (1911) and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964).
There is some debate as to whether Crowley is the basis for the evil alchemist Karswell in M R James’s ghost story Casting the Runes (1911). This tale came at a moment when Crowley was still forming his alter-ego and there are prophetic lines in James’s yarn. Karswell is said to have “invented a new religion for himself”, which is precisely what the Beast went on to do.
By the Twenties, Crowley had done much else: travelled the world, scaled K2 in the Himalayas, experimented with drugs, practised ritual sex with men and women, been involved in espionage and published scores of poems, novels, stories, plays and books on ceremonial magic. The only thing left was to set himself up as a prophet with a temple for his disciples. This led him to the notorious Abbey of Thelema in Sicily, where one of his acolytes died of cholera after drinking animal blood in a sacrificial ritual.
“The Wickedest Man in the World”, claimed the Sunday Express. Though he led a precarious fictional life, it was reality that got Crowley into trouble, in tabloid reports and his appearance in scandalous memoirs. After initial success in suing for defamation, the Beast was finally bankrupted by a disastrous libel case in 1934. Anthony Powell was working for the publishers Duckworth at the time and he met Crowley over lunch to discuss yet another “factual” book that mentioned him. Powell came away with a sketch for two sinister characters in A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-75): Dr Trelawney, who is “hounded by the Sunday papers after a devotee had fallen to her death at a temple” and later Scorpio Murtlock.
It was now open season on Crowley, as his legend became the stuff of gaudy thrillers. The best of these is Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out (1934), where he is clearly the Satanist Morcata. He also appears in Warwick Deeping’s Exiles (1930), HR Wakefield’s He Cometh and He Passeth By (1930), and Dion Fortune’s The Winged Bull (1935), which contains the marvellously melodramatic announcement: “London, Paris, New York, Berlin are full of all sorts and conditions of organisations experimenting and researching and playing about generally with the Unseen.”
Indeed, Crowley was playing with sects and secrecy in all these places, his life now a complex charade. He was in Berlin at the same time as Christopher Isherwood, sharing a flat with the communist con man Gerald Hamilton, who had his own fictional double in Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935). Immersed in a decadent demi-monde, Crowley and Hamilton were both spying on each other for the British and German secret services respectively. Isherwood was later to use Crowley as the basis of the antihero in A Visit to Anselm Oakes (1969).
At the outbreak of war, the Beast found himself caught up in further intrigue as the occult and espionage worlds collided. Ian Fleming, working for naval intelligence in M15, contacted him with an outlandish plan to lure Rudolf Hess to Britain by using mystical enchantments and astrology. The details of this plot remain obscure, but Hess, a passionate devotee of the occult, did fly to Scotland and Fleming was keen that Crowley should interrogate him using his magical knowledge. All that is certain about this curious episode is that Crowley provided Fleming with the template for Le Chiffre, the first Bond villain in Casino Royale (1953). This was to be the final study in his lifetime and a fitting climax to the absurd double narrative of his existence. He died in 1947, addicted to heroin, morose, penniless, exhausted.
After the Second World War, Crowley’s status as the wickedest man in the world seemed faintly ludicrous, and his eligibility as a literary villain began to wane. Indeed, by the Sixties he had been reinvented as a hero to the counter-culture movement, which questioned traditional morality just as he had done. He featured on the cover of the The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album and in the lyrics of Led Zeppelin and David Bowie. He was still the consummate baddy for the old-guard novelist Powell though, who used the Beast once more, reincarnating him as the vicious cult leader Scorpio Murtlock in Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975), the final volume of his epic cycle.
He features as himself in my new novel The Devil’s Paintbrush, as a witness to the homosexual scandal of Major General Sir Hector Macdonald. His appearance is based on an actual historical event: Crowley did indeed meet the doomed Empire hero over lunch at the Hotel Regina, Paris in 1903. But, though I started with the facts, the nature of the Beast has inevitably led me astray, off on a wild night in the city of sin. So Crowley continues his merry dance between fiction and reality, only really making sense as a character of wild speculation. But he is neither villain nor hero in my book. Just a man with terrible flaws and precocious talents, a prescient embodiment of all the wicked delights and holy terrors of the modern age.
Jake Arnott’s ‘The Devil’s Paintbrush’ is published by Sceptre at £15. It can be bought from Telegraph Books for £13 plus £1.25 p&p, 0844 871 1515 or Telegraph Books
Owner and Editor
I've been tracking Crowley's life as a fictional character for some time, but Mr Arnott has found some appearances of which I was not aware. Good job there.
For those interested in such things, a long article of mine on this subject will be seeing print later this summer, details to follow:)
Arnott's book was also reviewed in the review section of the Guardian on 30.05.09 - for those who are keeping track of Crowley in the press, etc.
That's right: I mentioned it and a number of other reviews here - http://www.lashtal.com/nuke/index.php?name=PNphpBB2&file=viewtopic&p=37407#37407
I'll merge the two threads.
Owner and Editor
Owner and Editor
A well-informed review of the book and interview with Arnott by Danuta Kean in today's Independent On Sunday broadsheet newspaper:
The inclusion of Aleister Crowley in Hector's downfall is a stroke of genius. Crowley's wilful flouting of propriety and easy acceptance of his own confused sexuality ("Crowley for me is genuinely bisexual," says Arnott) throws MacDonald's struggles into sharp relief. Not only is Crowley shielded by wealth and position; he has a letter written by the Duke of Clarence, Edward VII's dead son, to his gay lover. It is essential insurance for a man of excessive tastes. This revelation is just one of the many ways that The Beast, as Crowley refers to himself in the novel, emerges as a playful, narcissistic reprobate. As MacDonald represents a dying age of Empire, Crowley, with his self-regard, vanity and lack of serious substance, foreshadows our own age of celebrity excess and self-obsession. He would fit nicely into the Celebrity Big Brother house.
"Crowley connects with a very modern world but he's also come of age in the Victorian period so he has these very conflicted feelings," the one-time mortuary attendant Arnott observes.
Owner and Editor
A negative review of the book appears in today's Sunday Telegraph by Roger Perkins: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/5648666/The-Devils-Paintbrush-by-Jake-Arnott-review.html
Arnott’s best work has been set at times that are just on the fringe of folk memory aided by recollections of fading headlines. Recreating 1903 Paris proves too much of a task. Arnott’s funny, sexy, wolfish touch is missing – what’s in its place is a clunky, stilted historical novel that reads at times like a parody of not only the adventure yarns of the period but of the Scots demotic, too – Och, Hector, ye’ll have had your sodomeee.
Crowley’s mission statement, so to speak, was 'Do what thou wilt’. Unfortunately, this tale contains too much wilt of a different kind.
Owner and Editor
Read it last night. Thought it beautifully written and overall, excellent research.
Owner and Editor
Wow! Such sterling reccomendations prompted me to look for this book; it's unavailable in the U.S.A., so I had to order it from Amazon UK. Can't wait!
Though I guess we should be glad not to have the (usual) hatchet job on AC I cannot say this book is quite as fab as I might have expected.
I had not read any of the authors previous efforst but it seems to me that he has a touch of the 'Dan Browns' about him, in that the text is curiously 'flat' with pretty monochrome characterization.
Each of our main protagonits have almost alternate chapters to themselves, so one builds to a chapter climax then...back to the other character for a chapter that leads to a climax...etc. A bit of an irritation really especially as the storyline or imagining, or whatever one wants to call it, also seems to telegraph its agenda from pretty early on and one is itching to get there.
The much lauded research seems, er, pretty basic really. There really is so much accurate stuff out there nowadays it couldn't have been too difficult to have got the material utilized in this book.
That said there is one GREAT scene involving a gun which has a lot of power within it, (any reader of the book will know which part I mean!) perhaps because the characters are all together in a chapter, but this is the notable exception in a book that is just too pedestrian and lacks any real dynamics, especially from the Crowley character.
In my opinion I would let a copy find you cheap, than be too keen to seek out and buy one new at full price.
Just finished reading the book and I found it to be excellent. I am puzzled by the comparison with Dan Brown: in his case, the characters are two-dimensional indeed, while in Arnott's case there is a strong emphasis on the introspection. Most importantly, this is a real work, it raises questions: the meaning of honour, army, colonization, homosexuality, modernity, religion, the Other. Ultimately it is an issue of personal taste so there is no need to argue. There are some anachronisms in the book and the author's take on Crowley is rather ambivalent, leaning towards negative, but his Crowley, even if morally ambiguous, even if failure, is still grand, romantic, and possibly tragic, in either case not a clown as some contemporaries portray him. I may not have read a better fictional work that treats the subject of the occult.
'Ultimaytely it is an issue of personal taste so there is no need to argue', hope however that it realy treats the subject of the Occult very seriously, I was still somewhat in doubt wether to obtain the item or not. Hope Iskandar gave me the insight, though somewhat an interesting publication I am still resolving in myself, I'm still somewhat in doubt.
I'm pleased to see that the Sunday Telegraph yesterday took a different view of this rather excellent novel on its paperback release:
Previously known as a crime novelist, Jake Arnott spreads his wings to excellent effect, in this deliciously over-the-top romp set in Edwardian Paris. The two main characters are real historical figures: Aleister Crowley, the famous occultist; and Sir Hector MacDonald, a Scottish war hero who shot himself after a homosexual scandal. Either character on his own would make for a colourful novel; together, they are irresistible.
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