This book, published in the US with slightly different content as The Veils of Isis, was Harris' fourth collection of short stories. By this time Harris' writing was much more complex than in his first collection, Elder Conklin, and he employed much a greater variety of settings and styles. However, complexity is not always a virtue and some of the stories here seem to have been artificially inflated.
One which does not suffer this complaint is the title story, the strongest here for its combination of simplicity and power. A Jewish girl has come to Moscow to study, but finds she has nowhere to stay. Under the restrictions placed on Jews, the only way she can find to live is to become a legalised prostitute, by obtaining a Yellow Ticket. Fortunately her first customer is a kindly man who finds another way out of her predicament. The oppressive nature of the Tsarist regime, with its arbitrary and hypocritical rules governing the behaviour of its citizens, is revealed subtly and ironically.
Interestingly Michael Morton (1864-1931) used the same title and basic idea - a young Jewish woman has to obtain a Yellow Ticket in order to travel - for a play he published in 1918 which went on to be filmed as many as six different times, according to my researches through IMDB and other sources. Whether Morton based his play on Harris' story or not is unclear - both may have used a news story or some other source as a basis. Certainly Morton's play is sufficiently different in essentials from what Harris wrote to be considered his own.
The Veils of Isis follows. This is a slight fantasy, with Harris' characteristic emphasis on sex as the mainspring of the world. A young man devotes himself to the worship of the goddess Isis, who favours him by gradually revealing herself to him. When the final veil is removed, he dies, but Harris is deliberately ambiguous as to why this should be, while encouraging us to believe that the goddess has taken him - as her lover - to her realm.
The next story, A French Artist, is better, though rather marred by a pat ending. The artist of the title is led by his aesthetic sense to take a young woman as his wife, but as she matures and deviates from his ideal he abandons her and takes another who more closely fits his idea of beauty at the time. This idea is made more interesting because both his artistic development and his wife's orthogonal development as a woman are shown as reasons for his change of mind. The woman he takes instead ruins him. I read this as a parable of the danger of choosing art over life, with the implication that one should choose both - symbolised by the wife. In the end he is accidentally crushed to death by a huge crucifix, literally 'a cross of his own making'.
Next is a long story, almost a novella, In the Vale of Tears. A wealthy elderly man, despite the warnings of his doctor, takes a young wife. The character of the wife is one of the weaknesses of the story as she is a paragon of goodness, which becomes tedious in a story of this length. The husband, as the doctor foretold, weakens. Not wanting his wife to become his nurse, he kills himself, having first arranged that the doctor should conceal the fact of his suicide.
The most interesting part of this story is the character of the doctor, who is rather unsympathetic and cold. I found myself wondering if there was some ulterior motive in his advice, which seems almost calculated to bring about the suicide of his friend. At any rate, while the husband's death is intended to leave his wife free to be happy one is forced to wonder if that will be so.
A Daughter of Eve is another strong story which I won't analyse in detail because it is by far too complex to do justice to here. In outline, it is about the tragic effect of a young woman's sexual power, wielded unwittingly, on a sea voyage in a small boat. The description of the effect that she has on the male crew, and the consequent jealousy of her sister, who is also aboard, is beautifully portrayed. This type of subject shows Harris at his best.
A Prostitute is an ambiguous little story which fails because too much extraneous matter is brought in, overwhelming Harris' central idea - to the extent that I for one cannot determine exactly what he was trying to say. (For a contrary view see Pearsall, who thought the meaning of this story quite plain, but I do not feel his view makes sense.)
Isaac and Rebecca, the next story, is the product of Harris' strange obsession with Jews, which never quite turns into anti-semitism but is too stereotyped to be comfortable for a modern reader. He tells the story as a one-act play, with the characters speech being rendered pseudo-phonetically: 'I vant' for 'I want' and so on. Both these devices make it harder to read, and the story itself is hardly worth the effort. Harris was far better at describing behaviour and feelings than implying them indirectly through dialogue, so why he adopted this form is a mystery.
A Miracle and No Wonder is another story told as a play, really no more than a mild dirty joke, but no less entertaining for all that.
A Fool's Paradise is a parable about the nature of vision (cf. The Magic Glasses) in which a doctor cures a young man of a strange optical defect which to him made the world infinitely strange and wonderful. Once cured he finds it a drab place and falls into melancholy. For a change, the ending is the strength of the story, with the doctor pointing out that true vision has to be worked for.The Ugly Duckling is based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale, but rewritten as a heavy-handed satire on those nations who Harris saw as having overlooked his talents. Casting himself as the unrecognised swan, with the Americans, English and French lightly disguised as ducks, hens and geese respectively, Harris tried to portray himself as persecuted and misunderstood, but only succeeded in seeming ridiculous. This is by far the weakest thing in the volume, simply because Harris has crossed the line into personal axe-grinding, always hard to get away with. The reader does not share Harris' particular set of obsessions and is not carried along with them (of course in the hands of a sufficiently gifted writer this obstacle can be overcome: cf. Hadrian the Seventh and other works by Frederick Rolfe).
Scribbled by Alfred Armstrong 11 years 7 months ago