Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Portrait of an Eccentric Noble

The Underground ManThe Underground Man 
by Mick Jackson

 "I have no idea how an apple tree works. The quiet machine beneath the bark is quite beyond my ken. But, like the next man along, I find Imagination always willing to leap to Ignorance's breach..."  --  Mick Jackson

Portrait of an eccentric -- The Underground Man is an extended vignette of an exceedingly interesting and wealthy British Duke, William John Cavendish-Bentinck-Scott, fifth Duke of Portland, who is portrayed against a background dominated by his interest (obsession) with the contrasts between man and nature, order and disorder, and ultimately, the nature of the real versus the supernatural. He is a prodigious eccentric best known for the elaborate network of tunnels he built beneath his estate. The duke is portrayed as a repressed hypochondriac, an old man morbidly curious about the workings of his body and mind. During the months encompassed by the novel, he grows increasingly obsessed with the fleeting bits of memory that intrude upon his ruminations and hint at some horrific, long-buried secret. Above all there is his search for his own identity, haunted as he is by the specter of his alter ego. Whether the author succeeds or not depends upon his success in developing the Duke as a compelling and believable if complex character. I think he succeeds.
The Duke narrates almost the entire novel and is the only truly fully developed character. I found this character appealing and become engrossed in the Duke's search for a cure for his ills and an explanation for the wonder he found in the world about himself. Except for one trip to Edinburgh he spends the six months of the narrative in and about his massive estate. This does not limit his imagination and as the reader I was swept up in his journey of discovery and his attempts to explore the mysteries of man and nature.
The novel has no love story as a subplot, almost no female characters (only the housekeeper, Mrs. Pledger, and a couple of maids) and in this sense reminded me of some Victorian novels (think of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). This vacancy did not deter the author from developing suspense and a sense of mystery concerning the Duke's own wonder at the nature of his identity and the meaning of his existence. Whether journeying to the lower depths of an ancient cavern (Hades?) with the local Vicar or visiting an expert on phrenology at the University of Edinburgh, the Duke was always exploring the wonders and mysteries of life as he saw them. It is this that I think, ultimately, the novel encourages in the reader -- to reflect on his own life.

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