Peace and rumours of peace


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hide & seekI have just finished, very close together, Hide and Seek by Xan Fielding and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré. At first glance, you’d think they have nothing much in common. Fielding’s book, first published in 1954, is primarily an account of the years he spent on Crete as an SOE agent and guerrilla leader during the war; Le Carré’s novel, first published 20 years later in 1974, is one of the finest spy thrillers ever written. Fielding’s prose is crisp, matter of fact, undecorated; Le Carré’s prose is richer, more discursive, full of digressions; both are effective, but they work in very different ways. Continue reading

Hideous with existence


How long have I believed that we would come to a moment of release, a release from this suffering? When everything would be all right again. But there is no such moment. There is no end to this ordeal. Therefore they really are unendurable. I can’t endure them. They are such absurd pain, such impossible, intolerable pain. They are hideous with existence; we will all die of revulsion.

At long last! I don’t think there is any book I have been waiting this long to read. I know I first read Ragtime in the mid-1970s; the reviews had excited me so much that I got hold of the paperback the moment it appeared, which could make it as early as 1976. This gave me a taste for E.L. Doctorow’s work that I have never since lost. I quickly caught up with the previous novels, The Book of Daniel, Welcome to Hard Times (which was originally called Bad Man from Bodie), and subsequent books I acquired as soon as they came out. But there was one book I couldn’t find. Big As Life has not actually been disowned by Doctorow; it is listed among his previous publications in all of his books that I own, but it has never been reprinted since its Simon and Schuster hardback in the US in 1966. Secondhand copies of that book are like hen’s teeth, but throughout those pre-internet days I kept looking, in every secondhand bookshop I visited, year in, year out, my first port of call was the collection of Doctorow books. Once, in Berkeley, I asked the shopkeeper about it; he did a search and told me copies of the book were valued at $600. I didn’t have $600, but I kept looking.

As a Doctorow fanatic, I would have wanted the book anyway, but my interest was piqued fairly early on when I discovered that Big As Life was science fiction. Welcome to Hard Times was a deconstructed western, The Book of Daniel was a sort of spy story, Ragtime rearranged our notion of the historical novel, so it seemed that Doctorow was playing with genre and I wanted to see what he did with science fiction.

And now I have a copy. Not exactly a copy of the Simon & Schuster first edition, it must be said. Curiously, it is a photocopy of the first edition bound as a hardback by the library of a midwestern University. How it came to be produced, and how it came to the secondhand dealer we acquired it from, I can only speculate. I assume all was legitimate. To judge from the ‘Date Due’ slip still tipped into this copy, the book went into the University Library in July 1983 and was withdrawn in the summer of 1991, and between those dates was borrowed fewer than ten times. Not exactly in demand then, but I wanted it. Now I have it, and I’ve read it, and … Continue reading

Stop Reading This Book


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A little while ago I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Konrad Walewski for the Polish version of F&SF. Along the way, he pressed upon me Nest of Worlds by Marek S. Huberath. The novel is apparently successful in Poland, but they have been unable to find any publisher to take it in this country, despite the fact that there is a very fine translation by Michael Kandel. Having now read the book, I find this mystifying. Not that this is an obvious bestseller: it is very weird, as I shall endeavour to show, but at the same time it has the sort of bravura conceit that should win it an appreciative audience.

The problem is: how to describe the book without giving too much away. Or maybe I shouldn’t worry too much, because if this really is Nest of Worlds everyone will read a different novel anyway. Continue reading


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