The Promise of Air by Algernon Blackwood
Algernon Blackwood’s novels The Human Chord (1910) and The Centaur (1911) constituted two of my finest reading experiences of 2022, so it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to my next experience courtesy of the author popularly known as “The Ghost Man.” But that nickname, it seems to me, has done Blackwood something of a disservice, because scares and shudders were far from being the writer’s only concern. Rather, in the greater part of the author’s fiction, his goal seemed to be elucidating great but hidden truths, showcasing the transformative powers of Nature, spotlighting the unrealized capabilities in human beings, and peering behind the curtain of so-called “reality.” As he himself once put it, “My fundamental interest, I suppose, is signs and proofs of other powers that lie hidden in us all; the extension, in other words, of human faculty.” And the book that I have just been wowed by, courtesy of Blackwood, demonstrates that credo perfectly; no ghosts or scares in this one, but rather a book that might very well change your way of looking at the world around us … namely, the novel entitled The Promise of Air.
The Promise of Air was originally released in 1918 by the British publisher Macmillan & Co. when Blackwood was only 49; his ninth novel out of an eventual 14. That same year, it was released in the U.S. by the publisher E. P. Dutton & Co. (the hardcover book that I was fortunate enough to pick up somewhere) before going OOPs (out of prints) for no fewer than 96 years. House of Stratus would resurrect the novel in 2014, and today, the 2018 edition from Stark House Press is readily available. And a nice bargain that latter volume seems to be, too, as it includes Blackwood’s other novel from 1918, The Garden of Survival, between its covers as well. So today, this once-scarce item in the Blackwood catalog can be had easily, and a fortunate thing that is, for this is a truly remarkable novel, both beautifully written (no surprise there) and mind expanding (actually, no surprise there, either!).
Now, it is at this point in my reviews that I usually like to give prospective readers some idea of a novel’s plot, but that is not an easy proposition in this case, as The Promise of Air is rather skimpy in that department. The book introduces us to a British student named Joseph Wimble, who is enamored and entranced with avian life and loves nothing more than communing with Nature. (I suppose naming the character Robert Spinrobin would have been a bit too obvious, and besides, that had been the handle of the lead character in The Human Chord anyway.) In the Cambridge countryside one day he meets a woman named Joan, whose birdlike sprightliness causes him to fall instantly in love. The two marry soon after, but a few years of wedlock causes Joan to lose that airy, birdlike quality and descend with a thud to Earth. Joe also feels his avian nature deserting him as he adapts to the realities of his new job as a traveling bookseller, as well as to the pressures of providing for his family. To the Wimbles soon come a daughter, also (strangely enough) named Joan, and a son named Tom. But whereas Tom grows up to be a clerk whose only ambition lies in the acquisition of material things, his sister Joan is something of a fey visionary, whose birdlike, spontaneous nature makes Joe begin to recapture some of that feeling from his youth. Over the course of the book, the Wimble family goes out for dinner, and later reacts to the elder Joan’s father’s death in their various ways. Joe goes for a walk around London, and later watches the approaching dawn with his daughter from their house rooftop. The family goes to see a movie at the local cinema, and Joe and the younger Joan attend a meeting of the Aquarian Society. The family moves from London to the Sussex countryside, and Joe and his daughter take a walk on the Downs. As far as the action is concerned, that is the book in a nutshell. But that is hardly what Blackwood’s novel is all about.
Rather, the book concerns Joe Wimble’s slowly recaptured awareness of the true nature of the world around him. As his daughter causes him to realize, conducting oneself in the manner of a bird, spontaneously and without overly thinking things, is the way to go. Maintaining this “airy” quality will allow one to tap into a universal consciousness of sorts, a way of life that, if adopted by the masses, could lead to a worldwide sense of brotherhood. Casting off rigid conventions and traditional modes of thought, living fully in the moment, glorying in the wonders of Nature, appreciating the “one-ness” of life everywhere, rejecting fear and the stale habits of everyday life, and acting intuitively become some of the tenets of Joe’s new outlook. It is a philosophy that Blackwood expounds in remarkable depth over the course of his book’s 280-page length, and one that enables Joe to become light and airy again. Meanwhile, however, Tom and especially Mrs. Wimble can only look on in confusion, weighted to the Earth as they are…
Writing in his 1984 overview volume 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939, author/critic Anthony Burgess says this of Aldous Huxley’s 1962 work Island: “…It is less concerned with telling a tale than with presenting an attitude to life, it is weak on characterization but strong on talk, crammed with ideas and uncompromisingly intellectual…” And the same statement, I feel, might well be made concerning Blackwood’s The Promise of Air. Outwardly, nothing much happens in Blackwood’s book, but inwardly … ah, that’s something else again! Joe Wimble’s growing awareness of his place in the universe makes for a potentially mind-expanding, consciousness-awakening and eye-opening lesson for the reader; another gift from Algernon Blackwood, who not only seeks to dazzle his audience with words, but to instruct and patiently enlighten (in both senses of the word!), as well. Open the book to any page and you will encounter some truly beautiful writing – almost like prose poetry – or some fascinating food for thought. Thus, the author says of the young Joe and Joan “…he had dipped into her being and found, as in a book of poetry, that all his favorite passages were marked.” Regarding that rooftop experience at dawn, we’re told “It was September and the sky was soft with haze, yet still empty and hungry for the swallows.” And just dig this description of the year’s weather:
…Wimble watched the year draw to its close and run into the past. Born slowly out of sullen skies, it had shaken off the glistening pearls of April and slipped, radiant and laughing, into May; at the end of June, full-bosomed still and stately, it had begun to hasten, lest the roses hold it prisoner for ever; pausing a moment in August, it looked out with perfect eyes upon the world as from a pinnacle; then, poised and confident, began the grand descent down the red slopes of Autumn into the peace of winter and the snow…
The entire book is like that, crammed with passages that stun the reader with their offhand beauty.
Space does not permit me to mention all the many quotable nuggets of wisdom that Blackwood provides for his audience, but here is just a sampling: “No one, nor nothing … can prevent me from being anything I feel myself, will myself, say I am.” “But you have no right to live unless you can be grateful to life, and create your own reason for existing. It means dancing, singing, flying!” “One should take life as a bird takes the air.” “To rely upon inner, subconscious guidance was to rely upon that portion of his being – that greater portion – which obeyed spontaneously an immense rhythm of the mothering World-Spirit. Thought broke this rhythm; Reason was clever but not wise…” And on and relentlessly on. Ultimately, the reader beings to wish that Algernon Blackwood could have been his/her life coach. He sure did seem to have a grasp on the correct and proper attitude toward life. True, some of the ideas propounded here do get a little far out – such as the notion that one might observe the Battle of Waterloo today by simply overtaking the rays of light emitted at the event, and that the afterlife is merely a change in direction from the life we know, and that all objects are one and the same – but they are unfailingly compelling and clearly stated, to the author’s great credit.
It is truly remarkable how Blackwood could take the most mundane event – be it the watching of birds in flight, the viewing of a movie, or a walk on the Sussex Downs – and transform it into something fantastic and magical; a talent at which he excelled and that has been frequently remarked upon elsewhere. And his powers in that department are happily, in The Promise of Air, at their fullest flush. Typical for Blackwood, he repeats, rephrases and re-presents his ideas here in an almost incantatory manner to really drive his message home, a trick that he uses particularly at that meeting of the Aquarian Society, during which the speaker coincidentally summarizes all of Joe’s nascent thoughts. That speaker, interestingly enough, refers to this new airy dawning of consciousness as “The Age of Aquarius” – Blackwood beating The Fifth Dimension to the punch by almost half a century!
Still another remarkable aspect of Blackwood’s ninth novel is the way he manages to incorporate both avian and air metaphors throughout. Thus, Joseph’s facility for catching the drift of things: “He swooped like a bird, caught it flying, and was off upon another quest.” When Joe and Joan first meet, “They floated, if not flew, into each other’s arms.” Their marriage is likened to “the mating of birds.” When trouble arises, they “took the situation like a pair of birds, lightly and carelessly.” On their honeymoon, they built “their first nest far away in a sun-drenched Algerian garden.” When Joe and his daughter are finished discussing a topic, “they flew on to other things.” When Joe gets a brainstorm, “a Flock of Ideas” is said to descend upon him. When Mrs. Wimble utters something pompously, how does she say it? “With an air,” of course. You get the idea. Still, to continue in this vein for 280 pages really is most impressive.
Readers of previous Blackwood novels and short stories will notice echoes of some earlier works in The Promise of Air. Eighteen-year-old Joan, Jr. is sort of a composite of the 14-year-old nature girl Manya in Blackwood’s story “Temptation of the Clay” (from the superb 1912 collection Pan’s Garden) and the paganish Terence O’Malley from The Centaur. And that lyrical rooftop scene as dawn breaks is almost a reworking of Blackwood’s short story “The Messenger,” from that same collection. Typical for Blackwood, numerous literary allusions are to be encountered here, such as John Ruskin’s The Queen of the Air (1869), Samuel Butler’s utopian fantasy Erewhon (1872), and Beatrice Irwin’s The New Science of Colour (1915); a hint as to the wide-ranging variety of Blackwood’s own former TBR list.
For the rest of it, it strikes me that Jimi Hendrix, of all people, might have approved of Blackwood’s work here, if only for the scene in which Joe asks his wife if she has ever been experienced; granted, Joe’s meaning of the term probably differed from Jimi’s some 50 years later! But seriously, though, The Promise of Air is surely not a book for all tastes. It demands patience on the part of the reader, and again, contains no scares, shocks or even real action whatsoever. But those who are game may well be captivated by the book’s gradually mind-expanding revelations, and of course by its gorgeous prose. And the book concludes on a lovely note, as well, with a hint that the birdlike quality just might be returning to Mrs. Wimble after all.
I can find very little fault with Blackwood’s very moving work here. Yes, it can be a tad confusing when both mother and daughter sport the same name (perhaps that’s why Joe starts calling his wife “Mother” after Joan, Jr. is born). I had a similar problem, actually, in another book that I recently read, Collin Brooks’ Mad-Doctor Merciful (1932), in which a mother and daughter were both named Kathleen. Was this a “thing” in England 100 years ago … mothers and daughters with the same first name? I’d never encountered it before. The Promise of Air is not the 5-star masterpiece that The Human Chord and The Centaur are, I feel; a 4 ½-star masterpiece would be more like it, with some points off for its lack of any action-type set pieces. Still, it remains a little-read book that many thinking and feeling adults would genuinely appreciate. My 1918 edition was apparently turned into a library book, and according to the library card that still resides in its jacket inside the book’s front cover, only a single person, named Pearce, ever took this book out … for eight days, in May 1941. And that’s a real shame, as Blackwood’s novel is both an important one and a highly pleasing one. Despite Joe Wimble’s assertion that words only disguise the true meaning of things, Algernon Blackwood does very well indeed with his own words here. I for one cannot wait to “experience” him again one day soon…