Louis Levy, Kzradock the Onion Man and the Spring-Fresh Methuselah: From the Notes of Dr. Renard de Montpensier, Wakefield Press, 2017.
read it at Google Books
Originally published in Danish in 1910, Kzradock the Onion Man and the Spring-Fresh Methuselah is a fevered pulp novel that reads like nothing else of its time: an anomaly within the tradition of the Danish novel, and one that makes for a startlingly modern read to this day. Combining elements of the serial film, detective story and gothic horror novel, Kzradock is a surreal foray into psychoanalytic mysticism.
Opening in a Parisian insane asylum where Dr. Renard de Montpensier is conducting hypnotic séances with the titular Onion Man, the novel escalates quickly with the introduction of battling detectives, murders and a puma in a hallucinating movie theater before shifting to the chalk cliffs of Brighton. It is there that the narrator must confront a ghost child, a scalped detective, a skeleton, a deaf-mute dog and a manipulative tapeworm in order to properly confront his own sanity and learn the spiritual lesson of the human onion.
When Gershom Scholem read the novel in its 1912 German translation on the recommendation of Walter Benjamin, he concluded: “This is a great book, and it speaks a formidable language … This book lays out the metaphysics of doubt.”
"This immensely great book speaks with a powerful language… (...) This book unfurls the metaphysics of doubt. The terrifying law behind soul's germination -- if one trusts the soul -- is developed explicitly in this detective story. (...) The book's knowledge is legitimate and its artistic unity morally shattering, for its unity arises out of the demonic. Indeed, doubt alone can make the madness in art bearable." - Gershom Scholem
Presented as From the Notes of Dr. Renard de Montpensier -- the director of an insane asylum -- Kzradock begins promising mayhem and confusion:
What will be related here is a dreadful and bloody mystery, one that is still not entirely understood by the author.
Kzradock is a patient of the doctor's, though the opening scene certainly isn't one of any traditional psychiatric treatment session: it's of a séance. Whatever is buried in Kzradock's soul -- and the doctor warns that's a lot: "When I began treating him he was on the verge of collapsing under the weight of the burden that he carried in his unconscious" -- apparently can only be reached by both mystical and medical treatment.
There is murder, of two women, Alice and Yvonne, vividly described ("the carpet is so red that you can hardly tell what is blood and what is carpet"), and with murder and police investigation, Kzradock employs traditional (early-days) detective story devices, twists and all. Yet despite involving the Paris police -- a Monsieur Carbonel -- and an American detective, Mister Wells, the real mystery is on the personal level: Kzradock is a literally soul-searching novel, and it's simplest summing-up would say it is the story of an identity crisis. There's a reason the doctor refers to Kzradock as 'the Onion Man', and there are a lot of layers to peel back here.
Among the major plot points is one having the inmates taking over the asylum. Apparently setting it on fire, they are able to fool the fire chief into believing that the late-arriving-to-the-scene doctor and Monsieur Carbonel are impostors, escaped patients -- with Monsieur Carbonel then taking advantage when the situation is cleared up to claim that the foreign irritant, Mister Wells, is, in fact, one of the madmen. As it turns out, there apparently is no fire:
"No fire," replied the fire chief. "But there is a revolution."
Everywhere the doctor turns, Kzradock is his antagonist. Eventually, he sees:
Now I understood just what the struggle with Kzradock meant ! It was the struggle between madness and reason. A struggle between his insanity, which wanted to crowd into my circles, and my reason, which felt a curious desire to enter his world.
And it doesn't come as too much of a surprise that that is very much an internal struggle.
Using elements of the detctive novel, as well as delving into both mysticism and the subconscious (the psychic and psychoanalytic here both very much of their time), -- with a good dose of the seemingly hallucinatory unreal -- Kzradock is a nicely twisted take on soul-searching, plunging ever-deeper into questions such as:
Is reason only disciplined insanity, an insane hallucination that has taken on form, and under whose influence we all live ? Is reason a dream created by chance, made useable by necessity ?
The doctor goes through quite some ordeals -- all the way to the cliffs of Brighton. In conclusion, he can't be sure -- "Who knows whether I have truly escaped ..." -- but he's found some of the answers for himself. They include the lesson learned: "You have to doubt your own soul". This too is very much of its time, a worldview informed by the theories (or fads ...) of the day -- but it's nicely mixed up and in by Levy, the doctor's travails and adventures using all of this well in reaching his conclusions. And if it's all a bit overheated -- the action as well as the ideas -- it's certainly quite good fun, especially in its bizarreness.
Kzradock is the kind of novel that finds the narrator flailing, finding that:
At the edge of the abyss between madness and reason language comes to a stop, and words can no longer explain ....
But the atmosphere and action Levy conjures up are enough to give the reader some sense of this abyss he explores.
Likely considerably more haunting in its own time, Kzradock still stands up reasonably well, and both the mind-games Levy plays in it and the contrasting pieces -- ranging from imitation-detective-novel bits to the near-surrealistic -- make for an appealing, bizarre little read. - M.A.Orthofer