Dark Illumination

Daniel Davis Wood reviews Adam Scovell’s Mothlight

Adam Scovell
Influx Press, £9.99
Buy direct from the publisher.

It has been said that moths are drawn to burning candles because they confuse flames with the light of the moon. Moths, after all, use moonlight to navigate a path through darkness, but light from elsewhere reliably drags them off-course. The result is a split in perceptions. From the moth’s perspective, the path remains direct although the destination is unreachable: the creature believes itself to be flying straight on towards its goal, even as it fails to close the remaining distance. From the perspective of an observer, however, the moth has been snared into a spiral with no way to break free; it flutters around the flame in a way that makes a misleading light the centre of an experience, surveying the object of its desire continually from a distance. In his début novel, Mothlight, Adam Scovell has written a book that shadows the movements of the captive moth. Scovell’s narrator takes aim at a very particular objective, albeit one that is hazily conceived, only to end up whirling around in circles, unable to seize his prize, fixating on an ideal in a frenzied pursuit that robs him of his sanity.

The narrator’s name is Thomas, though he discloses very few meaningful details of his life. He is a young man involved in academic research, his area of interest being lepidoptery. He says he developed his fascination with moths as a result of his acquaintance with an elderly woman named Phyllis Ewans, who he met when he was a boy in Cheshire. Phyllis, “Miss Ewans”, lived on the Wirral Peninsula, close to Thomas’ grandparents, in a house she shared with her sister, Billie. That was where she cultivated her two great interests, walking the hills of Snowdonia and collecting and studying moths, and that was where she inducted Thomas into her idiosyncratic ways. After a series of events leads to the death of Billie and brings about Thomas’ closer involvement with Phyllis, Thomas begins to function as the ailing woman’s carer, and then, following her death, he becomes the executor of her estate.

As he narrates Mothlight, Thomas describes in detail the character of Phyllis Ewans and the significant events of her past, focusing on her activities as a walker and lepidopterist while also considering the extent to which his affection for these activities was bequeathed to him by her. But of his own character and past he has little to say; he is strikingly, tantalisingly opaque. Once, halfway through Mothlight, he refers to having been involved in just “one brief romance” which ended, he says, “like most of my own social relations… as soon as my obsessions with walking and moths had become readily apparent.” More generally, he mentions that he is employed as an early career researcher at a university in London, and he occasionally makes reference to colleagues who remain nameless. The only significant event he describes at length, in all its complexity, is what he calls “the great calamity”. He frankly admits that this calamity amounted to a “breakdown”, “in which the death of Miss Ewans cast my obsessions into a startling cage from which I could not escape”, and Mothlight is essentially a record of his efforts to recover himself.

In this last respect, the setup of Mothlight calls to mind the opening pages of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and it would be fair to say that Mothlight is a novel written in a Sebaldian spirit. The text is interwoven with photographs that Thomas scours for telling details, and the rhythms and tones of Thomas’ narrative voice carry recognisable echoes of Sebald’s. His methods, too, are Sebaldian; he embarks upon lines of inquiry with academic precision, but then drifts off into digressive tracts and recursive loops, and in his descriptions of the behaviour of hawk moths, convolvulus, and parasitic wasps, he does for entomology what Sebald did for ichthyology in pondering the bioluminescence of herring. In Sebald, of course, the combined effect of these manoeuvres is notoriously melancholic — melancholy being the middle ground between the raw panic of the narrator’s experiences and the reticence, pedantry, and willed composure of his narrative voice. In Mothlight the general effect is much the same, heightened by the fact that Scovell’s narrator rivals Sebald’s with his listlessness and peripatetic habits, but there are also a couple of new elements in the mix. There’s more of an overtly gothic flair to Mothlight than in any of Sebald’s novels, and a greater willingness to look directly at the sheer distress of a psychological breakdown as it is occurring, so that Scovell ultimately pushes the Sebaldian novel into the realm of the genuinely surreal.

The initial symptoms of Thomas’ breakdown are auditory and visual hallucinations. First he believes he can hear the incessant fluttering of the wings of countless moths, then his vision becomes clouded by a storm of wings falling in front of his eyes like snowflakes. But while he specifically attributes his decoupling from reality to the death of Phyllis Ewans, his own memories of the time he spent with her during her final years suggest that his troubles have been with him for a while. He recalls being unsettled, for instance, when he once told Phyllis of a solo moth-catching expedition that came as no surprise to her: “Each detail was met with a nod of recognition as if merely confirming something of which she was already aware. … In my memory, she walks behind me on that trip, passing comment on various butterflies and moths.” While she is still alive, he also begins to dream that his body is transforming into someone else’s, or perhaps someone else’s is merging with his: “My hands had never been especially masculine”, he says, “my whole body in fact never really seeming either male or female apart from in the most basic of ways. But my hand was no longer my own, or at least the impression of my own. … The lower arm was that of a woman, and my arm was equally feminine.” Eventually, Thomas even suggests that he spent the last years of Phyllis Ewans’ life becoming one with her, or that the two of them were somehow merging into a single entity: he noticed “much likeness between her past and my past”, he says, “albeit my past already had hers intertwined within it. Such dizzying thoughts would plague my mind as if we were, in fact, the same person: a reflection of simulacra displaced by some impossible mistake… somehow mimetic of one another.” And so, when Phyllis does indeed die, Thomas feels as if some essential aspect of the woman has been cut loose from her body and integrated into his being. “I began to ghost her life”, he says, “following in her footsteps: sometimes symbolically with my study of biology, and sometimes simply by walking far into the northern Welsh mountains… [and t]he loneliness which had seemed to pervade Miss Ewans’ life was also transferred to my own.”

How to account for this uncanniness? In Phyllis’ absence, Thomas can’t help but feel as if she has taken a monumental secret to the grave — although he can’t say exactly what the secret might look like, or what answers it might provide, or even what questions might need to be asked in order to make those answers intelligible. The mere possibility of the secret, or the promise of answers, is what drives him deeper into an obsession with Phyllis, no matter that his burrowing into her life may turn up nothing of any great significance for his state of mind. That possibility is, in other words, the moonlight by which Thomas navigates a path towards an ideal destination, striking at it again and again and again, even though the reality of the secret is to him as the flame is to a moth: a force that attracts but cannot be apprehended. “[T]here was something enormous missing from my understanding of [Phyllis Ewans] that I simply needed to know, in order to consider staying sane”, Thomas insists, and finally he pegs his sanity on the possibility that the woman herself has “deliberately left behind a trail of clues to follow”. He resolves to devote himself to uncovering the truth, whatever the truth may be, “studying and solving her mysteries” by ensconcing himself in her house, throwing himself into her collection of moths, and trawling through her belongings in search of anything that might satisfy his sense of a lack. “As I moved [her] many things”, he says,

I thought that I would use them later as a map to find the heart of her secrets. She was leaving me the means with which to communicate with her after she had departed. It occurred to me that I had not really needed her alive at all, and that most of what I required was probably right here in the house.

Mothlight, then, is a novel of haunted places and haunted people, as well as a novel of haunted pasts that intermingle and continue to haunt the present. It is peppered with eerie doublings, blurred identities, and spellbinding imagery, and the wild unreliability of its narrator builds up an atmosphere of paranoia that colours everything in a spectral pall. Even when Thomas reminisces on the daily joys of spending time with Phyllis, of indulging his obsessions in her company, Scovell’s prose tilts towards proleptic elegy with evocative sentences like this one: “It was her spectre that spoke more as her age took her under the waves, and I often felt as if I was walking side by side with her ghost whilst inconspicuously pushing her corpse along in front; her frail but edged words floating back into the air.” What’s most impressive about Mothlight, however, is the way in which it uses the spiralling path of the wayward moth as an architectural scaffolding for its sentences. While the events of the narrative also loop back on themselves as Thomas retraces his steps through Phyllis’ past, there’s an even more intricate looping at work on a smaller scale:

I knew [the investigation] would end in the countryside of Wales. It was always to be Wales and the memories of the place. Her memories of the landscape regularly became one with my own in the dying moments before sleeping. The mysteries would be solved in those moments because they were our memories. I questioned, when lying on the duvet just before sleep, why I did not get up and write such memories down. My illness was briefly cured, and it could have been retained if only I could have got up off the bed and solidified them, the details of the life that she and I had somehow shared…

The passage continues to unfold, but the pattern is clear in these few lines: each sentence gives a significant word to the sentence that follows it, so that each sentence also repeats a word from the preceding sentence before offering a new word to the next one. “Wales” bleeds over from the first sentence to the second; “memories” from the second to the third; “moments” from the third to the fourth; “memories”, again, from the fourth to the fifth; “get up” from the fifth to the sixth; and so on. Scovell edges away from Sebald with this technique, taking a step towards the territory of a writer like Gertrude Stein, and although the technique doesn’t dominate Mothlight with iron-fisted discipline, it does govern perhaps three quarters of the prose. It’s not always successful, and when it combines with the pressure to give the sentences a mellifluous rhythm it produces a few redundancies. At one point, for instance, when Thomas falls into a stupor, he describes himself as “only performing the minimal basics of a living creature” while suffering “the pangs of a painful hunger” — as distinct from what? the maximal basics and a pleasant hunger? At its best, however, when Scovell exploits Thomas’ fragile psyche not only to use words recursively but also to shift the meanings of the recurring words, this technique has an effect that is simultaneously enthralling and distressing. It purports to pin things down through repetition while also causing reality to lose its integrity, dissolving literal referents into figurative formulations. Consider, here, in a passage from the novel’s final pages, the simultaneous instability of the sound -tion and a word as simple as “hand”:

My hand reached for the piece of card on which the poplar hawk moth had been mounted, almost slamming it down on the table so that Heather could read the inscription, the words that I had hoped would force her hand. I could not take another moment of this torture, and blurted out another direct question. “What did Miss Ewans do?” I said with a manic disposition, my hands shaking as I drowned in the cacophony of moth wings.

“A manic disposition”: the disposition of the moth as it draws ever nearer to the flame, draws close — too close. What does it see when it teeters towards the fire? A blitz, a searing whiteness, a blaze too intense to bear? Then black. That is what the flame is to the moth: not the caress of the moon, not a pale waymarker, but a source of dark illumination — a light that seduces, troubles, obsesses, and obliterates — and Thomas’ narration is a testament to the agony of its touch. In Mothlight, Adam Scovell has written a dark little novel of unaccountable power, power that builds and builds as the narrator increasingly believes himself bound for a radiant truth. It is a novel dense with disturbing ideas, textured by subtle shifts in mood, and exacting in the execution of its ornate technicalities. Even when it doesn’t fully convince, it moves in mesmerising and tremulous ways, leaving behind a sensory impression every bit as vivid as the trace of light on the retina after the flame has been snuffed out.

About Daniel Davis Wood

Daniel Davis Wood is based in Scotland. His début novel, Blood and Bone, won the Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia, and his follow-up, At the Edge of the Solid World, was published to acclaim in 2020. He is also the author of a monograph, Frontier Justice in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Cormac McCarthy, and the novella Unspeakable. He blogs at Infinite Patience and tweets @DanielDavisWood.