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A Reading of Nick Cave’s And the Ass Saw the Angel

Nick Cave’s 1989 novel ‘And the Ass Saw the Angel’ is a tumultuous lamentation upon Euchrid’s (the central character) discontent with his small town and its inhabitants.

by Harry Carlson | 23rd October 2020

Illustration by Kitty Bate

Cave moved to Berlin in September of 1984 to stay at a loft squat in Kreuzberg. Here, he isolated himself for months amongst the squalor that he described as “pungent with obsessiveness towards the book”; the walls of the apartment were laden with 19th-century pornography, Lochner paintings, and stacks upon stacks of poetry, prose and scrawled-upon papers. The novel began as a screenplay based upon ‘Swampland’, a track from Cave’s band ‘The Birthday Party’ on their final EP, ‘Mutiny!’ The script proved to be impracticable and eventually served as inspiration for the novel. After five years of toiling over a typewriter, the novel emerged out of the shadow of said paper-riddled walls and is littered with evidence of Cave’s fascination with the martyrs. “The mute”, Euchrid, hails from Ukelore Valley - a town comparable to a mongrel crossbreed between the wetlands of the Deep South and Cave’s homeland of Western Victoria. He is born of a leviathan slummock of a mother and a father of the most sadistic, perverse variety. The genes they pass to Euchrid and his ill-fated twin brother are sodden in a sickly past of incest and depravity. Euchrid purports that he is sent a messenger from God - his guardian angel who instructs him to kill Beth, a girl the townsfolk see as their saviour from the poor harvests over the past few seasons. Euchrid fails in his task from God and ultimately commits suicide, submitting to the mire of the swamplands. The novel’s narrative is filtered through a southern drawl. Consequently, the language of ‘And the Ass Saw the Angel’ is equal parts archaic as it is colloquial, torn from the same cloth as the Old testament. Euchrid utters, “the fucken cicadas blasted again upon the night with their shrill-splitting alarum”; the imagery of the fittingly antediluvian and prehistoric-looking cicadas, the southern-twinged profanity and archaic term “alarum” are akin to a lingual potpourri concocted by Cave to engulf us in the macabre mind of Euchrid.

Cave’s prologue provides a comprehensive history of the valley and the ‘Ukilites’ through charts, poetry, parish notices, agricultural records, local folklore, and a myriad of other local relics. Ukelore’s history and inhabitants were based upon real-life figures of Latter-Day Saint sects such as The Church of the Firstborn. The townsfolk exhibit the same animosity in their drive for vengeful retribution, vindicated by the word of the Lord: “Not every down-borne hand that sought to chastise me was crooked. O no! The godly, the meek, the righteous—they too were party to mah persecution”. Ironically, Euchrid sees his struggle as one opposed to those who act under the false pretense that they are an agent of God.

“They have corrupted themselves

Their spot is not the spot of his children

They are a perverse and crooked generation

Mah scalp crawled and ah closed the book. A chilly thing. The Bible.”

Throughout my first reading of the novel, I noticed traces of the Old Testament’s doctrine sewn throughout. The God of the Old Testament is a maniacal, punitive force; much of the content of the Old Testament is centered around mercy and retribution from God rather than love and forgiveness. Several events of the novel mirror the allegories of the Bible. Scripture has long informed Cave’s writing. In the novel, it is approached as a form of poetic fiction. He writes, “it was the feeling I got from the Old Testament, of a pitiful humanity suffering beneath a despotic God, that began to leap into my lyric

writing.” This said “feeling” is the basis of the novel’s tone. Positioning the grotesque and blasphemous directly beside the divine could at first be read as a well-worn, even slightly kitsch, device to provoke and allude. Yet, it appears that Cave is attempting, albeit slightly crudely, to highlight the duality of meaning in the early scriptures. Euchrid’s language and attitude towards others reflect the ambiguous nature of God’s word and praxis in the Old Testament. To Cave, and vicariously to Euchrid, the Bible is not simply a text to abide by, but one to inspire and rouse.

Cave’s writing has a sense of rhythm, drive, and refrain. The narrative has a powerful plodding pace comparable to his early lyrics of ‘Bad Seeds’ tracks such as ‘Tupelo’, ‘A Box for Black Paul’, or ‘The Carny’ (all tracks written in or around the same time the novel was being composed). Cave’s signature poetic, narrative-driven style is woven into each line and the novel teeters upon the line between prose and verse throughout.

“ The whole valley reeking of wet beast

Wet beast and rotten, sodden hay

Freak and brute creation all ” (‘The Carny’, Cave, 1986)

I can see a semblance of Christ in Euchrid, however sacrilegious his thoughts and actions. Like Christ, Euchrid is given purpose through God’s word. Just as it is said that Christ “knew he was born to die”, Euchrid is sent a message from God and knows he is bound to martyrdom. Euchrid dies at the hands of the townspeople, and as he is slowly engulfed by the “mire’s eye”, he proclaims himself to be “secure, sainted, unborn”. The marshes are Euchrid’s eventual cross and his suicide, his very “own crucifixion”. The novel’s ambiguous epilogue fuels this interpretation; once both Euchrid and Beth die, “as the prophet predicted, he is born”. The implication is that Euchrid is born again, resurrected/reincarnated in the form of a child, just as God was in Christ and Christ was on the third day of his death. Although these links between Euchrid and Christ are based mostly on aesthetic similarities, these images suggest that the novel is as much a product of Cave’s study of the Old Testament as it is the New Testament.

Balaam and the Ass (1622), Pieter Lastman

In his 1996 essay ‘The Flesh Made World’, Cave described the “tough prose” of the Bible as “a perfect language, at once mysterious and familiar” that “actively informed [his] artistic endeavours.” The novel’s style reflects that which is described by Cave but is tainted by his contemporary southern influences. The persistent use of obscure and antiquated language is at first somewhat exhausting, like reading a page of ‘Finnegans Wake’ for the eighth time over. But as I continued to read, the strange semantic field grew on me. Eventually, I let go of the expectation that I should understand every long-obsolete tool of expression that Euchrid’s internal monologue employs; the language simply accentuates the tone of the novel and reflects Euchrid’s concept of language as a mute. ‘And the Ass Saw the Angel’ is often compared to the work of other writers – probably most often the forthright figures of southern gothic literature such as Faulkner or O’Conner. Although usually complementary, I feel these comparisons only undermine or trivialise Cave’s abilities as a writer. The novel is dense, yet sharp. Plodding, yet manic. Occult, yet sacrosanct in its meaning. And although the style in which Cave writes can be difficult to absorb, he creates a richly sinister tone for the lore of Ukelore to inhabit and wider concepts of divinity to be expressed. ‘The Ass Saw the Angel’, establishes Cave as a competent and engaging writer; he achieves a near-perfect tone that is both baroque and acerbic - something I had never seen executed so well before reading the novel. Cave’s style of writing subverted my fundamental expectations of what prose can be. It is for this reason that I consider ‘And the Ass Saw the Angel’ to be one of my favorite novels of the late twentieth century.

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