A year in review

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Okay, it’s that time of the year again, when I go through everything I’ve read. Which turns out to be more than I’d anticipated, given that the first third of the year was given over to writing my book on Christopher Priest (The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest, due out from Gylphi in March 2020), and the rest of the year was given over to researching my book on Brian Aldiss (due for delivery to Illinois University Press in March, but in all probability it will be sometime during the summer).

There were, indeed, a couple of times during the latter part of the year when Aldiss became a roadblock for me, and I found myself for weeks at a time unable to read anything else, and barely able to bring myself to pick up whichever Aldiss title  was then working my way through. And there were extraneous stresses as well, which didn’t help. I have found myself almost frozen into immobility by Brexit, a madness from which there seems to be no escape. I’ve described this, elsewhere, as a nation collectively and eagerly committing suicide. Certainly what has been revealed about the national character by this whole charade has left me feeling that this is not my country, that I don’t belong here and I don’t want to belong here.

But enough of that! Let us turn our attention to books. I read over 70 books this year, just about the same number as I read last year, though it really does feel like more than I’ve managed for several years. And as is usually the case, the titles in bold are those I rate as the best of the year.

1: After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry – her first novel, which I wrote about on this blog.

2: The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova – a collection of extraordinary stories that I reviewed at Strange Horizons.

3: The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley – a rather wonderful short novel.

4: Melmoth by Sarah Perry – her latest novel, which I wrote about here.

5: What Not by Rose MacAulay – one of two novels I read this year that started to fill in the curious gap in British science fiction in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. I reviewed this for Strange Horizons.

6: A Spy in Time by Imraan Coovadia – it does some interesting things with very familiar time travel elements; an enjoyable read but not a spectacularly great novel.

7: The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts – I don’t normally like Watts, at least not as much as many others seem to, but this short novel did work for me.

8: Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice – set on a reservation in northern Canada where they are used to being without modern amenities, so they hardly notice when power goes down, mobile phone signals are lost and the internet disappears. It’s not a problem until white refugees start to appear. It’s a wonderful slow apocalypse, though the ending is rather too rushed for the novel’s good.

9: Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller – this was the novel we gave the Campbell Memorial Award to this year, and I think it is thoroughly deserved. An excellent novel.

10: Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman – another slow apocalypse, this time centred on a tribe of bonobos at a remote zoo and their human keepers, and the cross-species collaboration that allows their survival.

11: Time Was by Ian McDonald – a lovely short novel, but it felt that it should have been longer and a little more developed.

12: Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar – an alternate history novel with postmodern overtones, and though both aspects were well done I couldn’t help feeling that we’ve been there before.

13: The Rise and Fall of the British Nation by David Edgerton – not a book I want to try to sum up in a couple of sentences, but it is a revelatory account of twentieth century British history. For instance, those Brexiteers who see a return to Empire as our national salvation might care to consider the fact that when Empire was at its height during the first half of the century we had more trade with Argentina than with the Empire.

14: Big Cat and Other Stories by Gwyneth Jones – always great to see a new book from Gwyneth, but though some of the stories were excellent I was really disappointed with the title story. I reviewed the book for Strange Horizons.

15: Bury My Heart at W.H. Smith’s by Brian Aldiss – the slog begins; and I’m not going to say anything about these books here, mostly because I’m still processing.

16: The Brightfount Diaries by Brian Aldiss.

17: Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss.

18: Little by Edward Carey – a novel about Madame Tussaud in her youth that I wrote about here.

19: Space, Time and Nathaniel by Brian Aldiss.

20: Hothouse by Brian Aldiss.

21: Earthworks by Brian Aldiss.

22: Barefoot in the Head by Brian Aldiss.

23: Greybeard by Brian Aldiss.

24: Frankenstein Unbound by Brian Aldiss.

25: The Eighty-Minute Hour by Brian Aldiss.

26: Moreau’s Other Island by Brian Aldiss.

27: Mooncranker’s Gift by Barry Unsworth – an early novel by a writer I came to value highly, though not for this novel. I wrote about it here.

28: Snare of the Hunter by Helen MacInnes – which I wrote about here.

29: The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey – a clever book, told backwards and with the chapters mirroring each other, but the interesting thing is that the story survives the cleverness. Though I suspect it is a book you really need to read in as close to a single sitting as you can.

30: Uncommon Danger by Eric Ambler – which I wrote about here.

31: The Great Level by Stella Tillyard – a fairly straightforward historical novel that takes us from the draining of the fens to the early days of New Amsterdam. A good but not spectacular novel.

32: Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler – not much to add to what I’ve said elsewhere about Ambler.

33: Quinn’s Book by William Kennedy – a while ago I got onto something of a jag with William Kennedy, picking up everything by him I could lay my hands on. Then, for some reason I stopped reading him. Then over the summer I picked up this novel and reminded myself all over again what a damned good writer he is.

34: The Green Hollow by Owen Sheers – a play about Aberfan that I wrote about here.

35: March Violets by Philip Kerr – the first of the Bernie Gunther novels I’ve read; there will be more.

36: HHhH by Laurent Binet – I was playing around with the idea of writing something for this blog about Nazis in fiction, picking up on this and the Philip Kerr and Eric Ambler. Somehow nothing came of it, but these are all fascinating books.

37: The Primal Urge by Brian Aldiss.

38: The Dark Light Years by Brian Aldiss.

39: Cryptozoic by Brian Aldiss.

40: Report on Probability A by Brian Aldiss.

41: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan – which I wrote about here.

42: Cracken at Critical by Brian Aldiss.

43: Galaxies Like Grains of Sand by Brian Aldiss.

44: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss – which I wrote about here.

45: Starswarm by Brian Aldiss.

46: Churchill’s Wizards by Nicholas Rankin – for some reason an interest in wartime deception re-emerged at around this time, and this was the first fruit which I wrote about here.

47: The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss.

48: The Cambridge History of Science Fiction edited by Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link – which I reviewed for Extrapolation.

49: Operation Fortitude by Joshua Levine – more on wartime deception, covered here.

50: The War Magician by David Fisher – the story of Jasper Maskelyne that is itself deceptive and far from what actually happened, also covered here.

51: The Half-God of Rainfall by Inua Ellams – an epic poem that links Nigerian mythology, Greek mythology and basketball, and somehow it works.

52: Hide My Eyes by Margery Allingham – which I wrote about here.

53: Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss.

54: Memento Mori by Muriel Spark – is this the wickedest, sharpest, most bitterly funny of her novels. Well it’s certainly a contender for that title.

55: Horizon by Helen MacInnes – more espionage.

56: Helliconia Summer by Brian Aldiss.

57: The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger – an unexpected companion to Rose MacAulay’s novel, an early dystopia from the 1920s that I reviewed for Strange Horizons.

58: Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre – another addition to my wartime deception library. This is probably as close as we will get to a definitive account of “The Man Who Never Was”. What strikes me in this and in the other books on this subject that I’ve read is how incompetent German intelligence was, and how lucky British intelligence was.

59: Of Me and Others by Alasdair Gray – the year ended with the terrible news of Gray’s death. This was the first of two of his books I read this year, with the expectation that there would be more to follow. And yet there is a strange sense of tidying things up and closing down in this collection, which brings together a variety of essays, including a number I’ve read before in other books.

60: Helliconia Winter by Brian Aldiss.

61: The Dark Frontier by Eric Ambler -which I wrote about here.

62: A Romance of the Equator by Brian Aldiss.

63: Best SF Stories of Brian W. Aldiss by Brian Aldiss.

64: Dracula Unbound by Brian Aldiss.

65: White Mars by Brian Aldiss and Roger Penrose – which inspired some thoughts here.

66: The Twinkling of an Eye by Brian Aldiss.

67: Ivory Apples by Lisa Goldstein – a straightforward fantasy that is also a subversive account of the creative processes that I reviewed for Strange Horizons.

68: Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction edited by Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel – a variable collection, some of which I have strong arguments with, and which I am reviewing for the BSFA.

69: The Dollmaker by Nina Allan – in my round-up of the year for Locus I described it as a nexus that recalled aspects of Little by Edward Carey, The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova, and After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry. I alsosaid that it is impossible to say whether or not we are meant to take it as a work of straightforward realist fiction. Anything overtly weird or fantastic is restricted to the interpolated stories, which are crowded with echoes and repetitions and a sense of otherness. Yet what makes this novel is the way that these stories, supposedly written decades before, prefigure characters, incidents and situations in the present. Which leaves The Dollmaker with an overwhelming sense of the uncanny, even though nothing exactly strange happens.

70: Purgatory by Alasdair Gray – what is perhaps most sad about the death of Alasdair Gray is that it probably means we won’t get the final part of his translation of The Divine Comedy.

71: Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton – the story of the oddballs who were behind Britain’s sabotage efforts during the Second World War, and how consistently the more conventional military forces and government departments tried to hamper them.

72: Friends and Lovers by Helen MacInnes – her spy novels tend to involve competent young men with a background in the arts or journalism, or both, who prove skilled at adapting to any unexpected situation, and who teams up with a young woman who turns out to be equally adaptable and imaginative. Take out the spy story, and what you have is a straightforward love story; which is exactly what this novel turns out to be. It is also the first of her novels that I’ve encountered that is set before the time in which it was written (first published 1948, but set around 1932-3), which leads me to wonder whether it was an early work which was dusted off when she started to be successful.

73: Morning Glory on the Vine by Joni Mitchell – another book displaced in time. Although first published in 2019, it actually consists of a selection of her pictures, lyrics and poems that she gathered together as a Christmas present for friends in the early-1970s. It is interesting to see how the lyrics of songs differ from what was recorded, and how some of the song lyrics are lifted from earlier poems.

As for my writing, it doesn’t seem like much: five reviews for Strange Horizons, one for Extrapolation, and the usual end-of-year bits and pieces, maybe 15,000 words in total. But then, I did manage to fit in an 80-odd thousand word book on Chris Priest, so it probably wasn’t too bad. And that was 2019, heaven knows what 2020 will bring, but I have a strange feeling it will end up being every bit as stressful as the last couple of years have been.

A Better Place

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Two roads converged in a dark wood.

Or, to be more accurate, two pieces of reading converged in the darkness of my mind. They are distinct pieces, unrelated, but the coincidence of reading them at about the same time untethered connections that, I suppose, have meaning to me more than anyone else.

The first was an essay in the Paris Review: Michael Chabon writing about Ursula K. Le Guin. What struck me in this essay was when Chabon talks about Le Guin’s attitude towards reading, and literacy in general. For Le Guin, Chabon tells us, literacy was “defined not simply as the capacity to read a text but as a means of training the imagination—and ultimately of constructing an authentic self—through sustained encounter with literary art.” In other words, literacy and imagination are the same thing: to read is to imagine; and it is through our imaginations that we become who we are.

Taking the next step, therefore, the function of any piece of writing, fiction or non-fiction, is to excite and exploit that imagination. Literature that does not engage the reader imaginatively, that does not make us think, see, wonder, learn, enjoy, is failing in its most basic purpose as a piece of literature.

Which takes me onto that second road, a novel I was reading before I chanced upon that Chabon essay, and that I have finished reading now only after having put aside the essay. This is White Mars, written by Brian Aldiss in collaboration with Roger Penrose. Now, it has to be said that Aldiss could be, shall we say, hit and miss as a writer. He wrote a number of things that were extraordinarily good: beautiful, vivid, engaging. But he also wrote a number of things that were simply bad. However, this is the only one of his novels that is not just bad, it is dull. It is only as you engage with the tedium of this book that you realise that even novels that were catastrophically bad, like The Eighty Minute Hour, were never actually boring.

But it is not the faults of White Mars as an individual novel that concern me here, but rather as an exemplar of a type of novel.

White Mars, which came out in 1999, is a utopia. In fact it is a utopia of an almost classic form, a form that generally hadn’t been written throughout the preceding century. The model of the classic utopia stems from Thomas More’s ur-text: the perfect society has been established some time before in the image of its progenitor, King Utopus or his avatar, and has since remained fairly static as a society since once perfection has been achieved there is nowhere else to go. H.G. Wells began to challenge that formulation at the beginning of the 20th century with A Modern Utopia, which suggested that utopia was not a destination but a process. Wells would continue to develop this notion in his subsequent utopia writings, such as The Shape of Things to Come, but already the environment in which utopias prospered had been changed. The technological consequences of modernism, evident in the First World War, made people start to distrust the future. And then we saw the brutal and authoritarian consequences of utopian political aspirations in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, militaristic Japan, China, Italy, Spain and elsewhere. Utopia gave way to dystopia as a vision of the planned society.

One of the things that is odd about White Mars is that it is a utopia at at time when the dystopia is in full flood. The few utopias that were being written were ambivalent about the notion (Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia or more tellingly “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”), or imagined radically changed circumstances, such as the universe of plenty in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. Nobody was writing the sort of guided tour of the institutions that were making everybody’s life better. Oh there is some scientific hand-waving in the novel, but it is at its core the sort of political, social, cultural utopia that Wells and his predecessors used to write. The sort of book where dealing rationally with everything makes everything perfect.

Take such ideas alongside Le Guin’s dictums about how vital the imagination is, and it seems a natural fit. Shouldn’t we all find our imaginations stirred by the notion of making a better world? But in fact, it is dystopias that have better engaged with our emotions through the simple device of telling a story about someone caught in the laocoonian coils of a dystopian system. Utopias fail so often because that is precisely what they do not, what they cannot do. There is no story in utopia. There should be: imagine how exciting it is in a crime story or a science fiction story to read about someone solving a puzzle, working their way towards a position that makes sense and that makes things right. Isn’t that exactly what a utopia should be: solving a social puzzle and making it right.

But that is not the story that utopian writers (and I am definitely including Aldiss in this) have chosen to tell. Thomas More had two models to draw on for his original Utopia, the traveller’s tale typified by recent books by Amerigo Vespucci, and philosophical disquisitions typified by the work of his friend Erasmus. Those who use More as their model have concentrated almost exclusively on the traveller’s tale, and that model has barely changed in the centuries since. More presented an argument; his successors present a status quo, a fact that has to be explained, described, but not dramatised.

Aldiss (and I am assuming that Penrose’s contribution is largely connected to the handwavium concerning the search for something beyond the Higgs boson) sets the story up as if it is going to be a sort of intellectual detective story. Economic collapse on Earth leaves a small Mars colony stranded, so they have to start working out how to govern themselves. That should be fine: a succession of social issues (what to do about sex, about crime, etc) become the puzzles to which utopian thinking provides the solution. But having set the situation up, Aldiss immediately resorts to the standard utopian model of the traveller’s tale, as if that is the only way that anyone can think of presenting a utopia. So we get the puzzles, but as soon as a rational response is suggested everyone falls in with it, nothing is complexified, nothing is made dramatic. It is the besetting sin of utopian writers that they consider their own particular utopia so obvious that everyone will immediately see its rational wonderfulness. Aldiss is no different from anyone else in being unable to see why anyone might disagree with his oh-so-rational solutions.

There is imagination in utopian fiction, but the imagination is expended on the idea, not on the story. In that respect it fails Le Guin’s test: it is an engagement with the imagination of the writer, a sort of literary onanism, not with the imagination of the reader. Just as the utopian writer cannot imagine an antagonist who might, for perfectly rational reasons, work against the version of the perfect state they have just invented, so they cannot imagine a reader who will not instantly see the sense of their invention. So the classic model of a utopia is a series of showcases for different aspects of the perfect state, it does not attempt to dramatically win the reader over to the benefits of such a state. The argument is assumed to have been won before the reader even opens the book. Which is why so many utopias, and White Mars is just such a case, are dull, because the literary engagement is not an imaginative engagement.

Siri Hustvedt

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The Kent Literature Festival, which started lo these many years ago (though after most of the country’s other literary festivals) has gone through a fair number of name and location changes over the years. It now seems to be settled as the Folkestone Book Festival. One thing has been consistent over all this time: it has been something of a tail-end Charlie of book festivals, coming late in the year and drawing on a number of participants already familiar and tired from a year on the circuit. There have, from time to time, been somewhat misplaced attempts to live the thing up. I remember one notorious occasion when they had Iain Banks, and the organiser therefore decided it would be a Scottish Evening with himself and all the staff in tartans.

The more recent incarnation of the festival does seem rather more adventurous, however. This year, the cast included Siri Hustvedt, which felt like a real coup to me, though I did wonder if anyone else in Folkestone would have even heard of Siri Hustvedt (it didn’t help that they misspelled her name in the programme). I am inveterately early for things like this, and for a while my worries about how popular she might be seemed to have borne out: I was sitting outside the auditorium for over 20 minutes before anyone else turned up. Still, in the end there were around 40 of us in the audience, though I hadn’t taken on board that she seems to have become something of a feminist idol, and the only other few men in the audience were accompanying more intense wives.

Initially, I confess, I was disappointed. It turned out that we were not having an audience with Siri Hustvedt, we were having a Skype chat with her: she was sitting in a sunny room in her home in Brooklyn, we were in a dark theatre in Folkestone. It is, admittedly, a creative way to broaden the range of writers we might get to see at our tired little late-year book festival, but at the same time, bang goes my hope of getting her to sign The Blazing World. And I was a little annoyed that this wasn’t made clear in the programme: the Siri Hustvedt talk was under a heading “Words from a Wider World”, and if you worked your way patiently through the programme book you would find, several pages away, a note about this thread that, mid-paragraph, included a passing reference to “live link-up”, but that wasn’t at all clear.

On the plus side, her head filled a six-foot screen, which meant we had a wonderful view of how animated she is. Her eyes were particularly expressive, opening wide, rolling, glancing away to left or right. Her face was never still, and she laughed a lot; maybe, being in her own home, she was more relaxed that she might have been on stage. When we came to questions from the audience, someone asked inevitably about what conversations were like over the Siri Hustvedt/Paul Auster dining table. I saw Auster once at a reading, and I suddenly had an image of the light and lively Hustvedt against the dark and static Auster, and nearly burst out laughing.

The real problem was the interviewer. She wasn’t a writer or a critic, or even a psychiatrist (Hustvedt is a lecturer in psychiatry, so that might have been an interesting dynamic); she was an artist interested in “text and image”, the sort of bland phrase that means nothing. I’m not sure she’d had much experience interviewing, because her questions were rambling statements to which she somehow managed to append a question mark. And she had a habit of still hesitating and qualifying her question long after Hustvedt had started trying to answer it, which for me is a capital offence among interviewers.

But Hustvedt was gold: full of perceptions and ideas that moved effortlessly and revealingly from the structure of writing to the history of science to the character of memory to the role of women to the fluidity of gender. Everything was grist to her mill, everything interweaved with the way she wanted to write her novels. It was fascinating.

From the audience, after the usual fluffy questions from people who don’t really know how to talk to writers (the Hustvedt/Auster dining table, can you tell me something about that picture on the wall behind you) I managed to ask how she came to Margaret Cavendish. She immediately started on an excited five-minute talk about researching 17th century science and how the name Cavendish kept coming up and how she knew it from Virginia Woolf’s dismissive comments and how she therefore hadn’t read any Cavendish (because, well, Woolf), but then she did and how the scientific ideas still resonate with ideas we’re asking about today. When she finally wound down, she added: “And thank you for asking that question.”

So, a good evening. But I still don’t have my copy of The Blazing World signed.

100 Books

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The other week, the BBC published a list of The 100 Novels that Shaped Our World. It’s as tendentious as such lists inevitably are, though there is also, inevitably, some interest in it.

In response, Nina Allan produced her own list of The 100 Novels that Shaped Her World. This is more personal, and therefore more revealing in its way. And I find myself much more in sympathy with Nina’s list than with the BBC’s. She also suggested that “we all get naked” and produce our own lists. So I have done precisely that. Well, with qualifications.

Nina didn’t keep strictly to the remit of novels, since she included T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (understandably, of course). I have broken with the remit even more dramatically, since my list includes a fair bit of poetry and non-fiction. To be honest, novels alone would not give an accurate or a coherent picture of what has, since childhood, shaped me as both a reader and a writer. Right from the start of trying to compile this list (and drawing up a list of 100 books is far harder than I thought it would be) I found myself unable to avoid including books that were not novels, because they demanded their place on the list.

I have also broken with her remit of only including one title by each author. I tried to do that, and in some places I was able to sneak extra titles through (Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, for instance) in ways that don’t really seem to transgress the rule. But there are two authors I have included twice: I discovered T.S. Eliot’s Selected Poems and The Four Quartets at exactly the same time (I picked them up from the same shelf in the same shop on the same school outing) and it would be invidious to pick one over the other. And H.G. Wells also appears twice because the two books are exemplars of two different branches of his career, and both, in very different ways, have been very important to me. Again, I could not pick one over the other.

Other than that, I will follow Nina’s pattern and list the books without comment. Partly because a list of 100 titles is long enough anyway, and any commentary would stretch this post to breaking point. And also, you don’t really need to know which novel I ripped off for the first piece of fiction I ever wrote (when I was 10), or which book shaped my desire to be a critic, or which novel I hated on first acquaintance but came to admire on revisiting. You might guess, of course, though you might well be wrong.

I thought long and hard about how to present this list. Should it be in the order the books occurred to me? Or chronological order of publication? Or in some order that reflects when I first read them? In the end, alphabetical order of author seems the most straightforward. So here goes:

100 Books that have shaped me as a reader and as a writer:

English Music – Peter Ackroyd

Report on Probability A – Brian Aldiss

The Rift – Nina Allan

Look to the Lady – Margery Allingham

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster

The Bridge – Iain Banks

Cloudsplitter – Russell Banks

The Untouchable – John Banville

The Famous Five – Enid Blyton

A Postillion Struck by Lightning – Dirk Bogarde

The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano

Labyrinths – Jorge Luis Borges

The New Confessions – William Boyd

The Ascent of Man – Jacob Bronowski

Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner

Earthly Powers – Anthony Burgess

True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

Best Science Fiction of the Year 3 – Edited by Terry Carr

Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

The Poems of C.P. Cavafy

The Blazing World – Margaret Cavendish

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie

Strokes – John Clute

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe – D.G. Compton

Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

Just William – Richmal Crompton

Aegypt Quartet – John Crowley

House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski

Dhalgren – Samuel R. Delany

Underworld – Don DeLillo

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

Loon Lake – E.L. Doctorow

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell

The Alexandria Quartet – Lawrence Durrell

Selected Poems – T.S. Eliot

The Four Quartets – T.S. Eliot

Tours of the Black Clock – Steve Erickson

A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh Fermor

Time and Again – Jack Finney

The Civil War trilogy – Shelby Foote

Sarah Canary – Karen Joy Fowler

The Magus – John Fowles

The Stone Book Quartet – Alan Garner

The Spire – William Golding

Lanark – Alasdair Gray

The Course of the Heart – M. John Harrison

Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

The Mersey Sound – Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, Brian Patten

Riddley Walker – Russell Hoban

Mythago Wood – Robert Holdstock

The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt

The Turn of the Screw – Henry James

Phoenix Café – Gwyneth Jones

Report to Greco – Nikos Kazantzakis

900 Grandmothers – R.A. Lafferty

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – John Le Carré

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

Decision at Delphi – Helen MacInnes

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Children of the New Forest – Frederick Marryat

C – Tom McCarthy

Enduring Love – Ian McEwan

Loving Little Egypt – Thomas McMahon

The Metaphysical Club – Louis Menand

Martin Dressler – Steven Millhauser

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

Utopia – Thomas More

Hav – Jan Morris

The City, Not Long After – Pat Murphy

Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov

My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

An Instance of the Fingerpost – Iain Pears

James Tiptree Jr – Julie Phillips

Woman on the Edge of Time – Marge Piercy

The Affirmation – Christopher Priest

An Inspector Calls – J.B. Priestley

The King Must Die – Mary Renault

The Chalk Giants – Keith Roberts

Queen of the States – Josephine Saxton

Murder Must Advertise – Dorothy L. Sayers

Dying Inside – Robert Silverberg

Skin and Bones – Thorne Smith

Memento Mori – Muriel Spark

Tristram Shandy – Laurence Sterne

Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – Tom Stoppard

Sophie’s Choice – William Styron

Waterland – Graham Swift

Warm Worlds and Otherwise – James Tiptree Jr.

The Ruby in her Navel – Barry Unsworth

Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut Jr

The Time Machine – H.G. Wells

The History of Mr Polly – H.G. Wells

Sinai Tapestry – Edward Whittemore

Philosophical Investigations – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Uncle Fred in the Springtime – P.G. Wodehouse

The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe

How did Hitler win?

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I am reading Adam Roberts’s essay in the new critical collection Sideways in Time, which is giving me pause for an awful lot of thought. I don’t always agree with him: I tend to view Nova Solyma by Samuel Gott as the first book-length fiction specifically set in the future rather than a form of alternate history. But mostly I do agree. Two things that particularly caught my eye were his central thesis – that science fiction tends, perhaps unthinkingly, to go with the great-man theory of history rather than what he terms the Tolstoyan approach which views history more democratically as a mass of things happening independently that together shape the world – and a casual aside, that the vast majority of alternate histories concern either the American Civil War or Hitler winning the Second World War. Now I knew this, of course, but seeing it in the context of the great man theory made me consider it in a slightly different light.

Now I know quite a lot about Civil War alternate histories; I’ve even written about it, for instance in my essay “The North-South Continuum” in What it is we do when we read Science Fiction. Most of these fictions are written by what we would now call history geeks. The civil war really was a period of happenstance, and the more you read about it the more chance events you come across where things really could have gone either way. The union really did stop a British ship in international waters in order to seize two Confederate agents, prompting Britain to send troops to Canada and almost turning it into an international war. Some union soldiers really did find three cigars wrapped in the Confederate battle plan on the eve of Antietam. On the second day at Gettysburg, Longstreet’s troops really did take an unusually circuitous route as they marched to flank the union line; and the 20th Maine really did get into position on Little Round Top only minutes before Longstreet’s troops began their delayed attack. There are probably incidents like this in any war, but they seem particularly prevalent in the Civil War. Given the moral weight of that war, the issues of slavery, freedom, the soul of America, it is tempting for anyone reading the history of the war to wonder what if they hadn’t found the cigars or Longstreet had taken a more direct route. Which is why most civil war alternate histories tend to focus on the hinge point. The moral consequences are huge and obvious, so it is less a question of what would result than of how it got there.

In Roberts’s terms, I tend to see these as more Tolstoyan, in that one small ordinary thing that is rarely the responsibility of any individual has a knock on effect on all the other things going on around it, until the tumbling dominoes result in some great moral change. Or maybe we should consider that the sergeant who found the cigars was a Great Man without him realising it, and what this theory is really saying is that one small incident is enough to transform history. Thus the Tolstoyan view would suggest that there can be no one identifiable hinge point, that one incident cannot effect that big a change. We can have this argument precisely because the focus of so much civil war alternate history is on the hinge point.

But Hitler Wins alternate histories seem to me, on reflection, to be a very different thing.

Okay, there are instances where we know the turning point. In “Weinachtsabend” by Keith Roberts and Farthing by Jo Walton, Hitler didn’t win but rather the appeasement party in Britain retained power. In one of my favourite novels in this genre, Resistance by Owen Sheers, Operation Sealion was successful. But these are exceptions. In The Sound of his Horn by Sarban and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick or “The Fall of Frenchy Steiner” by Hilary Bailey or SS-GB by Len Deighton, or any of a host of others, we don’t really know, or care, how Hitler won. In these stories, what matters is consequence not cause.

These consequences are, of course, as huge and moral as in the civil war stories, but there is a difference between white men considering the survival of black slavery which they can decry from a distance, and white men considering the moral corruption of Nazism and considering how they might be complicit or in peril. Among the best of the civil war alternate histories, for example, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee is more about the economic decline of the North than the fate of the blacks; while Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South suggests that when it comes to it slaveholding southerners are morally superior the white South Africans. How we got to that point is therefore more important than what it is like to be at that point. On the other hand, Hitler wins stories, such as “Weinachtsabend” and SS-GB are concerned with how easily the protagonist could become like their Nazi masters. Here the consequence is far more important than how we got to that point. So the hinge point in Hitler wins stories is largely irrelevant.

And it is precisely because the hinge point doesn’t matter that these are undeniably Great Man stories. By this I don’t mean that an individual is responsible for changing history, or that one single event changes history; we just don’t know. But rather, that the whole focus of the history is upon one man, or more precisely upon one institution, the Nazi state. Hitler is not the great man of these stories, it is the state for whose moral failings Hitler stands as exemplar that is the great man, the single figure that shapes and turns history.

This is not a spy novel

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the dark frontierEric Ambler was an advertising copywriter and would-be playwright when he wrote his first novel, The Dark Frontier. It was not meant to be a spy novel so much as a parody of the sort of spy novel that was then popular. He sets the plot in motion with an extract from just such a novel:

Then, that amazing resourcefulness which had made the name of Carruthers feared and hated by the criminals of four continents came to the rescue.

Later works, like the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, fit neatly into exactly this mode of story: the spies are professional, suave, sophisticated, are famous throughout the world (yet are anonymous whenever they need to be), have a smile playing constantly about their handsome features, are superbly fit, quick thinking, and are able to escape the deadliest of situations without breaking into a sweat. They are teflon-coated heroes designed to provide fast-paced adventures without a trace of the real.

The person reading about Conway Carruthers of Dept. Y is about as far as it is possible to get from such a spy. Professor H.J. Barstow is short, middle-aged and sedentary. He is also on the verge of a nervous breakdown, which is why he has stopped into this small hotel on his way to an enforced holiday in the West Country. Here, by chance, he encounters a man called Groom who works for an arms company and is looking for an expert to accompany him to the Balkan state of Ixania to examine a new explosive that has apparently been developed there. Barstow, a physicist who has worked with the British government on ultra-high explosives, would fit the bill, but Barstow turns him down.

That evening, Barstow finds and reads the Carruthers novel. The next day he sets out to drive to his holiday destination, but on a narrow country road he crashes the car. When he comes to, he believes he is Conway Carruthers, and that in the disguise of Professor Barstow his mission is to accompany Groom not to aid the arms company, but to destroy all knowledge of a terrible new weapon.

I’m pretty sure that we’re not meant to take this extended set-up too seriously. And throughout the novel there are explicit reminders that this whole thing is somewhat ridiculous. Late in the novel, for instance, Barstow’s companion, the American journalist Casey, comments:

I was unconvinced by this specious explanation but let it go. Carruthers, I had noticed, always liked to regard his incredible guesswork as masterly foresight.

Yet, although the adventure that follows this set-up conforms to the extravagant conventions of the sort of story being parodied, we can also see the rudiments of what would quickly become the typical Ambler story starting to take shape. Art students learn their craft by copying masterpieces; here, Ambler is learning his craft in the process of copying the cruder examples of the type. There are clumsinesses here that would quickly disappear from later works, the most obvious of which is the uncertainty of the narrative voice. The novel opens in third person, with some unseen, unknown narrator telling us what happens to Barstow, but also what is going on in his fractured mind. But this unidentified “biographer”, as Barstow refers to him in the novel’s opening “Statement”, tells us too much. Once the dramatic action really starts, the novel works largely by withholding information in a way that the omniscient third person could not do. So, at roughly the half-way point, the novel shifts to a first person account by William Casey, an American journalist who happens to be on the spot in Ixania. It’s a rather fumbling transition: Casey begins his narrative at precisely the point that the omniscient third person stops, as though each author is aware of what the other says. Only three years later, Ambler would have the narrative control that produced The Mask of Dimitrios, but here we’re seeing someone still learning how to tell this particular story.

Barstow is an amateur who imagines himself into the role of a super-spy. As such he behaves with more confidence and more physical dexterity than we might expect of a 40-year-old finding himself in such deadly circumstances. But at the same time he becomes the model for Ambler’s later heroes: an amateur unwittingly caught up in a dangerous international game. Ambler’s amateurs tend to be forced by circumstances to reveal far greater competences than they expect. There’s something of that in Barstow, but because of his other personality as a super-spy these abilities emerge not through circumstance but as a result of his delusion. Yet the delusion, despite the occasional aside from Casey, is never questioned, never undermined. His plans, ever more elaborate, daring and reliant on split-second timing, always work. And it is not a matter of chance that they work; from his damaged mind a genuine technical and tactical genius seems to have emerged. From which I get the impression that Ambler has convinced himself of the story he is telling, so that we get in effect the daring spy story that Barstow imagines rather than the parodic version that Ambler started to tell.

As a result, the broken narrative voice and the uncertainty over what story we are actually being told mean that this, overall, a less satisfying book than the novels that would follow it. Yet at the same time it is identifiably a book from which those later novels would be born, even down to the fact that villainy lies in the corporate world, heroism in the left-leaning political will of the people. By the time Casey takes over the narrative duties, Ambler is already a better writer than he was in the opening chapters; it is easy to see how some of his best work appeared so quickly in the wake of this hesitant debut.

Hide My Eyes

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One of the things I find interesting about Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion novels is that Campion ages more or less in real time. The pre-war Campion of Mystery Mile, Look to the Lady and Sweet Danger is sleek, fast, adventurous, insouciant. The post-war Campion is married, settled, more given to thought than action. Lugg starts to disappear from the stories; and his police contact, Stanislaw Oates, is promoted and replaced by Charlie Luke. Time passes, things change.

hide my eyesAnd the nature of the stories changes with the aging of the characters. Tiger in the Smoke, generally reckoned to be the best of the post-war Campion novels, is a haunting and atmospheric story of a darkly evil person emerging out of the London fog. But having just read Hide My Eyes, I’d venture to suggest that it is even better.

Though it is hardly an Albert Campion novel at all. Campion is there, making sporadic appearances throughout the text, adding a couple of hunches and a couple of deductions to the inspired detective work of Charlie Luke; but the detection is really no more than the background to a much more interesting story, and Campion and Luke are little more than peripheral figures.

At the heart of the novel is Gerry Hawker, though that is only one of the names he goes by. In part he is an affable rogue who charms everyone he meets; all his contacts are sure he is into something illegal, but he is so affable that none of them can believe it is anything really serious. Even when they encounter evidence to suggest otherwise, they dismiss it, put it out of their minds. But Gerry is also an amoral murderer who, by the end of the novel, has killed ten people. He is modelled, at least in part, on John Haigh, the so-called “Acid Bath Murderer”, executed in 1949, and whose case is referenced several times during the novel. Like Haigh, Gerry is a thief and swindler who believes that once you have taken everything else from your victim, you might as well take their life, and he is so careful and so charming that he gets away with it.

The portrait of Gerry as it develops throughout the novel is chilling and powerful. And though we see his carefree competence begin to unravel, there is still no reason to suppose that he won’t carry on getting away with it. Which is what makes the novel so compelling. This never pretends to be a whodunit, we know that he is guilty, that he is vile and dangerous, right from the start, but as we follow him throughout the one day in which the story happens he remains absolutely fascinating. Gaps and contradictions and errors in his story arise repeatedly, but he seems to sweep them aside effortlessly, and those who are with him, and indeed those who are tracking him, never see enough of the story to be able to recognise these contradictions for what they are.

In contrast to Gerry there is Polly Tassie, a gentle old woman who runs a small private museum devoted to the oddities her late husband had collected throughout his life. She and her husband had befriended Gerry years before, and he now uses her home and museum as an irregular base of operations. She knows that Gerry is a wrong-un, she has even discovered that he has stolen money from her and so has asked a lawyer friend to confront him and get the money back (which results in the lawyer’s death), but she cannot believe his is a serious villain. To believe as much would be to undermine everything that she and her late husband have held dear. Rather, she thinks that Gerry just needs to settle down with a good woman, and has invited the daughter of a cousin to visit in the hope of engineering a match.

Instead, this visit is the beginning of the end for Gerry, because Annabelle has an admirer, who spots Gerry leaving Polly’s home and so determines to find out who he is. As a result he finds himself being swept along with Gerry from place to place, witnessing his brazen lies and equivocations, and slowly coming to realise that he is being set up by Gerry as an alibi for a crime he is planning to commit. Richard provides the viewpoint that allows us to contrast what we know of Gerry with what everyone else sees in him.

One of the other people fooled by Gerry’s lies is the proprietor of a Soho drinking club that, in its layout and its character, reminded me irresistibly of the old Troy Club which I visited a few times. And that is another aspect of the book that fascinated me: the glimpses of a lived-in, worn-out, run-down London as it was when the book came out in 1958. The character of a cafe where the proprietor cat behind a raised counter by the entrance where she could survey her domain; the glimpse of London buses that were grimmer and more essential than they are today; the way street life is carried on. The novel turns out to be an extraordinary window into the past, far more so than is usually the case in Allingham’s novels which are often set in their own peculiar little private universe.

Most of Allingham’s novels I have found satisfying and engaging, but this has a psychological and a descriptive heft that makes it one of her very finest books.

The Deceivers

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montys_doubleA year or so back, I came across a television broadcast of the old 1950s film, I Was Monty’s Double. It is not a very good film (Clifton James was not a particularly talented actor), nor was it an especially honest film (at least two better, and better known, actors were approached to take part in the deception before James; James was a drinker, who brought the deception to an end earlier than planned because he was drunk and Montgomery was a strict teetotaler; and the whole drama involving the John Mills character never happened); but I found myself intrigued yet again by the whole notion of wartime deception. This particular deception, Operation Copperhead, as it was called, doesn’t seem to have had much if any effect on the German war effort, but still the whole idea was just so bizarre.

the man who never wasAlso, it reminded me of another film of similar vintage about another, and far more effective, wartime deception. And lo, The Man Who Never Was showed up on television just a little while later. What’s more, not long after that a different channel was showing a documentary, Operation Mincemeat, which filled in some of the details that the film missed (including giving the name of poor Glyndwr Michael, which hadn’t been released at the time the film was made, and who is one of the few civilians in the Roll of Honour on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website).

I Was Monty’s Double was a fairly simple deception: make Montgomery appear on Gibraltar and in Algeria, and the Germans will think the D-Day planning is not at an urgent stage, and maybe relax their attention a bit. The Man Who Never Was was a much more complex deception. Have a body wash up off the coast of neutral Spain as if he had died in a plane crash, have the body carry secret documents suggesting that the allied invasion of Southern Europe would be through Greece not Sicily, and then hope that the massive network of German agents operating in Spain would get hold of those documents and believe them. As if that wasn’t complex enough, they had to find the right body whose actual cause of death would not be detectable to Spanish pathologists (as it was, the body was kept on ice for so long that signs of decay were starting to show in the extremities by the time he was pushed into the sea off Huelva); then they had to create an entire backstory to make “Major Martin” appear like a real person and like someone who would be carrying such documents. What’s more, the documents contained a double bluff, since they referred to the actual plans for the invasion of Sicily, Operation Husky, but as if this was itself a deception to distract the Germans before the real attacks on Greece and Sardinia. It worked like a dream, Rommel along with masses of men and armour were actually moved from Sicily to Greece, then sat there with nothing to do throughout the Allied landings.

The more I learned about Mincemeat, the more complex it became. And then, in one of those instances that make you question the whole efficacy of algorithms, I was searching guitar tutor sites on Youtube when suddenly I came across a documentary about Operation Fortitude. Now, I knew vaguely about dummy armies being massed in Kent during the run-up to D-Day, but I knew no details, and I didn’t know it was called Fortitude. But the documentary did no more than whet the appetite, I had to know more. So I went out and got three books on the subject, as you do.

churchill's wizardsThe first of these, Churchill’s Wizards: the British Genius for Deception 1914-1945 by Nicholas Rankin, would, I hoped, provide me with a good basic overview of the subject, which would allow me to fill in details later. And I suppose it did, to an extent, though not the extent that I’d hoped. This is partly because he keeps coming back to Churchill, even though Churchill himself was rarely more than tangentially involved in any of this; he likes to give detailed accounts of campaigns and battles which often involved little in the way of deception; and he is too easily distracted, an account of radio deception spends several pages talking about Tommy Handley and ITMA. If he had kept strictly to his subject, a 600-page book would have been closer to 300 pages, and all the better for it. Nevertheless, what is in there, for instance on camouflage in the First World War, is often very good, though I could have done with more detail, for instance, on how fake buildings and patterns of light and fire were used to deceive German bombers. What I particularly like is being introduced to

dudley clarke

Dudley Clarke in and out of his Madrid ensemble.

the extraordinary character of Dudley Clarke, brother of T.E.B. Clarke who would write so many of the great Ealing Comedies. Dudley seems to have expressed the family’s creative genius in the form of some of the great deceptions of the Second World War. It was Dudley Clarke who came up with the idea of the commandos, and later in North Africa decided to trick the Germans into thinking there was an elite commando unit operating behind their lines which he called the Special Air Service, only for David Stirling to think that was a good idea, and turn the deception into a reality. Then there was the curious incident in Madrid when Clarke was arrested by Spanish police in women’s clothing; no one has quite managed to work out what he was doing in Madrid or why he was in drag. Don’t you just want a full biography of Dudley Clarke?

the war magicianAt the opposite extreme to Churchill’s Wizards is The War Magician: The Man Who Conjured Victory in the Desert by David Fisher, which is the story of Jasper Maskelyne. Now I was interested in Maskelyne because he came from a family of stage magicians, his grandfather John Nevil, and his father Nevil, were both renowned magicians (and one or other of the Nevils, I suspect the elder, played a significant part in Christopher Priest’s The Prestige). But this is probably not the book to read. Fisher writes it like a bad novel, with conversations that could not possibly have been recorded (including one conversation between two men as they die alone) and lots of sentimental asides about Jasper and his wife. There is no source given for anything he tells us, and though he says at the start that some of the characters are composites we have no indication who these might be. But more than that, I don’t believe it, there are details that are simply wrong (Dudley Clarke is described as the head of a spy network, but Clarke had nothing to do with spies in that sense, and as the person in charge of deception throughout the North Africa campaign he jasper maskelynewould have been Maskelyne’s commanding officer) and others that are misleading (a number of the deceptions that Maskelyne is credited with inventing are variants of things being used extensively elsewhere). I don’t doubt that most if not all of the deceptions described in this book actually happened, I just think that Maskelyne’s role is being massively over-inflated. Rankin says as much in Churchill’s Wizards: “Maskelyne’s theatrical charisma has cadged him more credit than perhaps he deserves” (that “cadged” is a nice touch); but I think I would have doubted this book even if I hadn’t read Rankin first. (I’ve just checked on Wikipedia, which says that his very brief command of the Camouflage Experimental Section was not a success and he was transferred to welfare, ie, entertaining the troops, and that according to official records his wartime role was very marginal.)

Still, the deceptions that Maskelyne was, or claims to have been, involved in are quite spectacular. These include fooling German bombers into attacking an empty bay instead of the crowded harbour at Alexandria, and using dazzling lights so that pilots could not aim their bombs accurately at the Suez Canal. Most spectacular was the preparation for El Alamein. Rommel knew that Montgomery would have to attack somewhere along a relatively short and distinct line, but he did not know where or when. The allies started creating a water pipe towards the south of the line: this would be essential for supplying any advance, but the rate of construction was such that it could not be completed before November. Meanwhile supply trucks were parked and forgotten at the northern end of the line, while tanks were massed at the southern end, then, in a carefully stage-managed operation, the tanks were transferred to the northern end where they were disguised as trucks, while fake tanks replaced them at the southern end. When the attack came at the beginning of October, it took the Germans completely by surprise.

operation fortitudeThis deception, of course, recalls the preparations for D-Day, which brings me to the third and by a long way the best of these three books. Operation Fortitude: The Greatest Hoax of the Second World War by Joshua Levine tells a story that is more complex and more wide-ranging than I had ever imagined, and Levine tells it in a way that is compelling without reverting to the fake novelistic mode of Fisher, full of telling detail that is both more succinct and more convincing than Rankin’s rather long-winded manner.

It turns out that the fake tanks and the rest in Kent were largely irrelevant to the deception, because by this stage in the war the Germans didn’t have the facilities for reconnaissance flights. They were entirely dependent on their agents on the ground, and though they didn’t realise this, they didn’t actually have any agents. I have long heard the story that every German agent in Britain during the war was either captured or turned, but I didn’t know the details. Levine very carefully lays out how Operation Fortitude was almost entirely a product of the Double Cross system. Germany doesn’t seem to have thought to put any agents in place in Britain before the war, and the first ones they tried to infiltrate once war began were singularly incompetent and ill-trained. Some barely spoke any English, most seem to have had no knowledge of the geography of the country, all were rounded up within a day or so of landing. Of these, most were happy to play along with their British captors and start relaying false information back to their handlers. That was the tentative start of the double cross system, but it really got going with the appearance of two extraordinary characters. Dusko Popov was a Yugoslav lawyer and playboy (who may have been one of the inspirations for James Bond) who got himself recruited by the Abwehr, then went straight to the British and volunteered to be a double agent. Throughout the war he ran a string of fake agents in Britain that kept Germany informed of everything we wanted them to know. Then there was Juan Pujol Garcia, a Spanish chicken farmer who volunteered himself to the Abwehr only to sit in Lisbon making up stories based on a tourist guide and an old map of Britain. At one point he told his German handlers that a Glasgow workman would reveal any secret for a litre of wine, and nobody in the Abwehr blinked an eye. It took him several attempts to get the British to take him on as a double agent, but once they did he set up a network of fake agents even bigger than Popov’s, and remained Germany’s most trusted informant right up to the end of the war. With Pujol and Popov in place, and the dozens of agents they apparently controlled, the Abwehr decided it wasn’t worth the risk of trying to infiltrate any more spies, which is how Britain (through the Twenty Committee, the XX or Double Cross Committee, led by our old friend Dudley Clarke) more or less dictated everything the Abwehr knew throughout the war.

What I like about Levine is that he is not only a good storyteller who clearly relishes the various deceptions he describes, but he is scrupulous in showing how well or ill they worked. Fortitude was in two parts, for instance. Fortitude North suggested an army being amassed in Scotland ready to invade Norway, and though this seems to have worked to the extent that it kept German troops in Norway that might have been transferred elsewhere, that force was not huge and was not augmented by additional forces. So Fortitude North was not exactly a resounding success. Fortitude South, on the other hand, had the advantage that it was trying to suggest that the European invasion would come at the Pas de Calais. That was the obvious location for an invasion, and both Rommel and Hitler believed that that is where it would happen, so the deceivers were preaching to the converted. So successful were they that even after troops had landed at Normandy they were able to convince the German High Command that this was just a feint and the real attack would follow at the Pas de Calais once the troops there had been drawn away. Before D-Day, Eisenhower asked the deceivers to keep the Germans tied down at Calais for three days; he actually got more than two weeks.

Apart from the Levine, there have to be better books about the hall of mirrors that is British wartime deception. But even so, the stories they tell are endlessly intriguing. I have a feeling I’m developing another obsession.

Living in the Past

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Back in 1978, I remember watching a BBC television series called “Living in the Past”. In it, a group of volunteers spent a year living in a recreated Iron Age settlement. It was the first time I came across the phrase: experimental archaeology. (By this time I had long since read The Kon-Tiki Expedition and The Ra Expedition, but it would be some years later before I associated those adventures with experimental archaeology.)

I mention this only to suggest that there is nothing new in the idea of living in an Iron Age roundhouse. The various couples in the BBC series were not archaeologists themselves, but nor were they playing with the idea of being pre-Roman Britons. The programme showed it to be an often harsh and miserable existence. One family left part way through when their child fell ill, but everyone else stuck with it to the end. And if I remember rightly, there was a follow-up programme in which all of the participants insisted that they had learned from the experience.

Above all, it was not a game.

Which is where I start to have problems with Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. It is a highly-praised book, and I can understand and appreciate why that should be so. And yet I kept running up against doubts and questions.

ghost wall by sarah mossThe setting is an exercise in experimental archaeology that has been set up by a professor and three of his students. Also taking part in the exercise are a working class family, Dad, a bus driver who prides himself in being an enthusiastic and reputable amateur when it comes to ancient British history, his wife, and their daughter, Sylvie, who is the narrator. That’s rather too small a group to recreate Iron Age living, but it is just about acceptable for dramatic purposes.

The problem I have is that at no time do we get any notion of what the archaeologists are doing there. There is no aim to the experiment, and there has been no preparation for the experiment. When the students are sent out to forage for food, they have no notion of what foods might be found, or what might be edible and what poisonous. And the same goes for the professor, who has not prepared either his students or himself, and who seems to have no idea what he is doing from one moment to the next. As the supposed expert – he is, after all, teaching a course on experimental archaeology – it is as if he has suddenly found himself dumped in the Iron Age with no idea what to do next.

And because he is clearly not taking any of this seriously, neither do the students. They are all playing at the Iron Age, and by extension they are all playing at archaeology, even though for all four of them that is their chosen profession.

The only one taking any of this serious, and this is of course the point of the book, is Dad. Through him, of course, both Mum and Syl take it seriously, but only because they are terrified of Dad. And Dad is living in the past in more senses than one. He is the old-fashioned northern working class patriarch who rules his family by intimidation and violence. He is ready in an instant to thrash anyone who lapses from his strict and absolute rules. He is a monster, and far and away the most vividly drawn character in the novel. (But then, monsters do tend to leap off the page, don’t they?)

While the focus is on these three – horrific Dad, Mum cowed to inertia, and Syl more alert to what might trigger Dad’s violence than to anything else around her – the novel is chilly, sharp and powerful. But it needs the others. Or rather, it needs two of the others, the two male students are largely undifferentiated extras there to bulk out a scene as necessary. In the first place, it needs Molly, the careless, sybaritic student who gradually comes to realise what tortures, mental and physical, Syl is enduring. Molly is bright, mercurial, a flashing contrast to the dark, foreboding bulk of Dad.

But it also needs the Prof, because he is the one who enables the climactic expression of Dad’s violent and controlling nature. But the Prof is a non-entity, he has no character, at no point do we get any glimpse of why he is doing anything or what he thinks is going on at any point.

bog bodiesThe purpose of experimental archaeology, particularly of the living-in-the-Iron-Age type, is practical. How did they live? How did they do that? What was it like? But at no point does this particular exercise in Iron Age living consider such questions; Syl has learned hard lessons, and so knows how to gather burdock roots and bilberries for the group to eat, but even such essential practicalities seem of little interest to anyone else. But rather, Dad’s madness (is he mad? We are not told, but there is surely something not quite sane about him) quickly steers the professor and his male students towards that bugbear of archaeological interpretation: ritual. They construct a ghost wall, a wicker fence adorned with skulls to frighten away the enemy. And after that, Dad convinces them to take the next step, the sacrifice, the bog body, and nobody cries halt, nobody says that is not why we are here. And yet we have to take Dad’s domination over the Prof as a given, because we never see it in action. And because we never understand the Prof, we never understand why events might follow this path.

The only other book by Sarah Moss I have read is her first novel, Cold Earth, a book with which I was considerably less enamoured than most other people seem to have been. I like Ghost Wall much more than that, but it is still a novel that feels as if something is missing, a little extra depth, a little extra solidity.

Little and Black

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My leisure reading this year, as an escape from the science fiction I’m contractually obliged to read, has been roughly split between spy fiction and historical fiction. Of the latter, two books stand out not because they are among the best of the bunch, although they are, but because there is a curious congruity between them.

One is set in the late-18th century, the other in the early-19th century. Each consists of a first person narrative by a child who is alienated from their society by reason of their person: one is female, of stunted growth and ugly; the other is black with a disfigured face. Each gains their eventual status by ability in art and interest in science.

The novels are both named for their narrators. Little by Edward Carey is the story of Anne Marie Grosholtz, born in poverty in Alsace in, as the first sentence of the novel tells us:

the same year that the five-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Minuet for Harpsichord, in the precise year when the British captured Pondicherry in India from the French, in the exact same year in which the melody for ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ was first published.

Little by Eadward CareyThat enjambment of oddly disconnected detail is typical of Carey’s distinctive style. I have read and enjoyed two of his novels before this, Observatory Mansions and Alva and Irva, and though this new novel doesn’t have the same perverse air of unreality the writing has much the same curious quality. In this instance, though, the novel cleaves close to historical reality. Little Marie, who never grows above five foot, goes while still a young child to work as a housekeeper for an eccentric doctor in Berne. She becomes interested in his work, and through her preternatural abilities as an artist starts to make a contribution to his work in the study of body parts. So much so that she goes with him when two visitors, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Louis-Sebastien Mercier, persuade him to go to Paris. She plays a part in helping Doctor Curtius in setting up a business displaying wax heads of famous Parisiens. For a while Marie is taken up by one of the minor princesses in the Royal Family and spends a year living in a cupboard at Versailles. Then comes the revolution; Marie barely survives, and after struggling to pull together what remains of her and Doctor Curtius’s business, she eventually leaves for London. There, at some point after the end of the novel, she will become Madame Tussaud.

It’s a marvellous novel, full of curious details, vivid characters, snappy lines, all helped out by Marie’s own line drawings as provided by the author himself. Although this is a fairly straightforward historical novel it still has an air, familiar from Carey’s other novels, of being situated at a slight angle to reality. Yet at the same time it conveys absolute conviction, you get a sense that the young Madame Tussaud must have been exactly like this.

The other novel, which seems to parallel Little, is Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. Like Carey, Edugyan has written a couple of novels before this, though in this case I haven’t read them. I get a feeling that I should.

Also in apparent parallel with Little, the blurb on the back of my copy of Washington Black says “Inspired by a true story”. This, however, is the only reference to such a “true story” anywhere in the book. There is no author’s note to provide context, no hint of such a story in the acknowledgements, none of the quoted reviews make any reference to such a source story; so I really don’t know what to make of this claim. I am inclined to doubt it, though that does nothing to gainsay the quality of the novel.

Washington Black by Esi EdugyanWashington Black is ten when the novel opens, which makes him a few years older than Marie, but he is even more disadvantaged: he is a slave on the Faith Plantation on Barbados. At the time, around 1830, slavery on the sugar plantations of the British West Indies was even harsher than in the southern states of the USA, and Faith Plantation has just been taken over by a new owner who is particularly harsh. But Edugyan doesn’t spend too much time spelling out the familiar iniquities of slavery. The new owner’s brother, a tall, thin man known as “Titch”, has also arrived. He has a sort of soft, liberal sensibility that makes him uncomfortable about slavery, though he doesn’t act on this discomfort. However, Titch is also a naturalist and would-be inventor, and his latest invention is a balloon-powered flying craft. Wash, small and light, would be an ideal assistant in his experiments. The fact that Wash is sharp, a quick learner, and has untapped artistic ability, cements the relationship, particularly when an accident with the gas being used for the balloon explodes and permanently disfigures Wash’s face.

When a visitor to the plantation commits suicide in Wash’s presence, Wash knows that as a slave he will get the blame regardless of what actually happened. So he and Titch escape aboard the flying craft, which almost immediately ditches in the middle of a storm. There begin a series of highly coloured picaresque adventures, aboard ships on illicit business, encountering the underground railroad in Virginia, being chased by a slave catcher, heading deep into the Arctic wastes where Titch wanders off alone into the snow. Edward Carey’s novel sticks pretty close to historical reality, but the way that the language is used suggests a heightened reality; Esi Edugyan writes a careful, factual prose, but the story she tells is full of the wild action, coincidences, chance meetings and extravagant settings of an early-19th century melodrama. In both cases, I find it fascinating that the style and the story seem at odds, yet work so well together.

At a later stage in the novel, Wash falls in with a noted naturalist and his beautiful daughter. Wash’s ability as an artist earns him the chance to illustrate the naturalist’s new book, and his interest in science helps him devise a way in which an exhibition of sea creatures can be staged in which the creatures are live rather than dead. It was at this point that I found myself wishing that, like Carey, Edugyan had found some way to include Wash’s drawings in the book.

Washington Black was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a worthy honour that I don’t begrudge it in the least; Little seems to have slipped by almost unnoticed, though I think it is at least as good a novel. Together, the two make for an intriguing and remarkably satisfying pairing.