Watch the Northwind Rise

I am unsure whether to recommend Robert Graves’ Watch the Northwind Rise. It is an interesting story in some respects, and it is written with the same intelligent humour that I found in Goodbye to All That, but it sometimes reads like an erotic fantasy with all the juicy bits removed. At one point, the protagonist describes erotic dreams that he used to have in his youth, where he would be a Sultan choosing a woman from his harem, only he would wake just as he had made his choice, before he could actually touch her. This moment could stand as the novel in miniature. It is continually leading up to an eroticism that it never actually consummates.

For example, the protagonist encounters a beautiful young woman when he is summoned into a Utopian future. The woman falls in love with him on the first night; her friend makes plain their mutual attraction through dialogue that would not be out of place in a porn film; and they end up in bed together. So much, so patently and erotically fantastic. However, it seems that the traditions of this future Utopia permit sex only in very particular situations, so our leading man and his new lady merely lay together in a sort of spiritual union, a union which is later sublimated, suddenly and without much narrative logic, into a father’s love for a daughter as he brings her back with him to his own time and introduces her to his wife. I have not bothered to find how much criticism has been written on this text, but there is enough material here to make the careers of a University full of Freudian critics with enough left for a small college of feminist critics also.

As a Utopian narrative, however, it does provide an interesting commentary on Graves’ contemporary culture, and much of this commentary remains relevant to our own culture today. Graves also uses the fantastic nature of his Utopia to speculate more directly on certain moral and ethical issues than he could perhaps in a more realist novel. Some of this feels like preaching, and some of it is a little trite, but there are a few places where he is almost profound, like when he says that “evil is the means by which the supreme good is contrasted with the merely normal,” an idea that accords very well with my own understanding of the nature of evil.

So, by all means read the book, enjoy Graves’ subtle ironies, and search out his scattered little profundities, but be forewarned that this book’s seeming eroticism will need you to fill in all the racy bits.

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