And you, are you still here
tilting in this stranded ark
blind and seeing in the dark. From Leaning, by Phyllis Webb
This read is part of my re-read project which I began in January of 2013 when I joined Heavenali’s event of that same month. (See Month of Re-Reading under Events on menu bar) I enjoyed the re-reading so much that I did not stop when the month was over but rather just slowed down and opted to finish my initial list for that project. Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage I left til last so that I could savour it once more. And now I have decided to do posts on each of the four books that make up the novel. There will also be one or more posts from analytical and critical works concerning Timothy Findley’s novel.
In Book One we meet a large cast of characters, including Dr. Noyes/Noah and Mrs. Noyes. One of my favourites is introduced early and this is Mottyl the cat. Mottyl has one good eye and one that is blind from cataracts. In the evenings she sits with Mrs. Noyes on the porch and watches the world “drift into darkness through the narrows of her one good eye”. The link to the epigraph above for Book One should be noted.
The family of Doctor and Mrs. Noyes includes Shem, the oldest son, called The Ox, Ham the middle son, a “scientist” and Japeth, the youngest son. Hannah is Shem’s wife and Emma is Japeth’s wife. Emma is eleven years old at the start of the book and she has a dog named Barky.
It was through Mottyl that I first registered the sinister side of Doctor Noyes’ practices. He has caused Mottyl’s cataracts but makes “merciless puns” about “cataracts for cats” and he steals Mottyl’s kittens for use in his experiments. I don’t remember reacting strongly to this in my earlier reads but I have had much more life experience with much loved felines since then. I would have more trouble with this if I did not know that the author was a cat person.
A number of ominous signs occur in Book One: the blizzard which Doctor Noyes says is snow but Ham says is ash; Japeth’s adventure in the city which results in him turning blue and silent; the Faeries coming out of the woods and bringing the message to “Watch”.
Mottyl has some interesting recollections in this section of the book. She recalls one summer when she met Whistler the groundhog and he invited her into his burrow where it was cooler and Mottyl was going to go in but “had had to back out even before her tail was in the tunnel. Being underground was too alarming.” She soothed Whistler’s hurt feelings quickly by insisting “It is only the confinement.” “And she stayed at the entrance to his burrow, baking through the noonhour, just to show him she was not offended (by the flavour of his burrow), while he had told many stories, lying in the damp earth below her.”
To repay Whistler, Mottyl took him to the pond in the Noyes’s yard so that he could drink during a drought time because he was ill and weak and could not make it to the river.
Mottyl is the reader’s informer about many aspects of the setting. In the groves of catnip she would get “almost as drunk as Mrs. Noyes” sometimes but she also passes along information about the sanctuary places where a beast who is ill or injured could be safe. She explains that these places were “anathema to dragons” because the smell of the mushrooms growing there made dragons vomit and have violent headaches. The mushrooms “had come to be thought of as the spirits of the dead, whose bones had gone down under the leaves and into the earth.”
Mottyl “had a healthy fear of dragons and demons” and she gives us another perspective on the Faeries besides that of Mrs. Noyes. She also explains that the lemurs “were considered the guardians of the wood”. One of her friends is the lemur, Bip, now about 6 years old, whose partner is Ringer (they have ring-tails). It is Bip who informs Mottyl that there is a “new presence” in the wood. He says that “the smell is different”: lemon verbena and rotten eggs and mud pots boiling over. Bip thinks it is an angel.
In this section of the book, Noah Noyes is over 600 years old. He has received a message carried by a rose coloured dove from Yahweh who says he is very upset about the state of the world and he is coming to visit Noah.
Another creature we meet in this book is the Unicorn: he “was not a great deal bigger than Mottyl herself”. He had a nervous habit of talking to himself and he was hunting for flowers to feed The Lady. He passes on some very upsetting news to Mottyl about one of the farm animals.
Mottyl continues on her way once the Unicorn leaves to return to The Lady with some columbine for her to eat. Mottyl must check out what the Unicorn has told her. On the way she meets the “angel” in the company of Ham, one of Doctor Noyes’s (Noah) sons. The “angel’s” name is Lucy and Lucy adores Ham and Ham tells Mrs. Noyes that he and Lucy want to get married. Noah’s reaction?” “If you hadn’t coddled that boy, he’d be old enough to recognize a whore when he sees one,” Noah had said (to Mrs. Noyes).” Lucy is seven feet tall and is afraid of dogs which makes Mottyl sympathetic towards her.
Other celestial characters include Yahweh, his cats Abraham and Sarah, and Michael Archangelis, the Supreme Commander of all the Angels. The”Lord God Yahweh…was more than seven hundred years older than his friend Doctor Noyes” the author tells us.
Where to categorize the Faeries and the singing sheep and the Dragons is uncertain at this point in the novel.
And so Yahweh eventually arrives with his retinue including cages filled with exotic, large animals and there is much that happens during his visit. Eventually he walks in the orchard with Noah and gets ready to leave. All the animals are left in Noah’s care and only Noah knows why this is the case. Yahweh also gives Abraham and Sarah to Noah as a gift.
As Yahweh’s carriage pulls away there is the sound like that of “voices down an unlit hall whose distance could not be measured”. Mottyl knows what the sound is but she thinks maybe only she and Yahweh know what it means.
I don’t recall very much of Book One from my earlier reading of this work and now I am more intrigued than ever to find out what happens in Book Two. Re-reading is such a rich experience when old books become new again!