Alchemy for beginners

<strong>Mercurius: the Marriage of Heaven and Hell</strong>

Patrick Harpur <em>Squeeze Press, 512

Are alchemists nice people? It is hard to say, as they are all so secretive. None of my friends admits to being an alchemist, though I dare say one or two are. As Eileen, one of the protagonists in Patrick Harpur's novel explains, "the alchemical secret, like the secrets of all magical or 'secret' societies, was designed to produce that effect which every child who has a secret knows - the effect of inner pressure" - and this in turn "activates deeper layers of the psyche".

In the 1980s Eileen, in flight from a doomed love affair in London, flees to a village somewhere in the west of England where no one knows her. There she rents an abandoned vicarage. Its cellar and graveyard close by may be haunted. Eileen becomes fascinated by the personality and activities of a previous occupant in the 1950s, John Smith, a vicar who conscientiously ministered to his parishioners, but who secretly worked in the cellar on a grand alchemical project. Knowing of Eileen's interest in Smith, one of the villagers gives her the record Smith kept of his experiment as well as of his increasingly fraught relations with the villagers. From then on, the stories of Smith and Eileen run in parallel.

He works with minerals and a flask known as a double pelican; she offers a retrospective commentary on Smith's lab experiments in which structuralist theorising mingles with highly critical readings of Jung's idea of alchemical texts as coded exercises in analytical psychology. For Eileen, alchemy is a reading mystery in which enlightenment comes through having read to the end. There is a supporting cast of eccentric and mostly malevolent villagers, and Harpur's fine description of the local landscape turning under the seasons, together with his mastery of musty scholarship and his evocations of a growing subterranean menace, reminded me of the superb ghost stories of M R James.

The author aims to do more than entertain by making the flesh creep, however. Mercurius, first published in 1990, is an intensely serious didactic novel. Whereas Edwin Abbott's novel Flatland explored mathematical dimensionality and Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World taught philosophy, Harpur's book provides lengthy and cryptic lessons that come close to being sermons on the spiritual dimensions of alchemy.

Much of this is interesting: it includes reflections on living in a world of metaphors, the evocation of humanity's homesickness for a home it has never known, alchemic images as being "good to think with", the comparison of alchemy with cookery, and potted biographies of the mostly sad lives of alchemists. Yet I increasingly found myself bunking off from lessons because, drawn in by the progressive self-revelations of Eileen and Smith, I wanted to know more about their personal dramas and the stormy events building up outside the subterranean lab. The characters' entwined lives are rounded off with twinned evocations of mysterious consummations which are feverish, melodramatic and incoherent - followed by notes on the alchemical sources cited.

There have been other alchemical novels: Edward Bulwer Lytton's A Strange Story, Balzac's The Quest of the Absolute, Gustav Meyrink's The Angel of the West Window and Charles Williams's Many Dimensions come to mind. It is arguable that alchemy itself is nothing but a grand fiction compiled over the centuries by deluded enthusiasts - a spectacular drama with a colourful cast of kings, queens, hermaphrodites, sages, dragons and serpents.

I have never managed to understand much about ordinary chemistry (having failed chemistry O-level) and even though, drawn on by the engrossing plot, I read to the end of Mercurius, I remained unenlightened. The author's commitment to the inner truth of alchemy is clear and the burden of his message seems to be that the human psyche extends beyond the body and hence can influence events in the outer world. But, whether one takes alchemy literally or metaphorically, I am doubtful whether it really is good for the soul. Alchemy is the disease of which it seeks to be the cure.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror