Unenlightened

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Working my way through Ritchie Robertson’s dense but wonderful account of The Enlightenment and I am struck by two words. The words recur throughout the book (as far as I have got), sounding like a tocsin proclaiming not the achievements of the Enlightenment, but its purpose, its aspirations.

Those two words are “happiness” and “tolerance”. And I realised that they have all but disappeared from public discourse these days.

Happiness crops up in that great Enlightenment document, the US Declaration of Independence, which asserts that the purpose of independence is the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That line gets quoted a lot, but the emphasis is always on life and liberty, although these have been strangely distorted by politicians of all parties. Happiness, as a national aspiration, is forgotten.

When did you last hear a politician of any stripe talk about happiness? Come to that, when did you last hear anyone talking in public about happiness? When, many decades ago, I studied philosophy, I don’t recall happiness cropping up in any of the contemporary moral or political philosophy I encountered. I don’t know if it is any different now, but I doubt it. We don’t hear church leaders talk about happiness, or educators, university administrators, local councillors.

Now, admittedly, business leaders talk all the time about “keeping the customer happy”, but in this instance happiness is more of a sedative than anything else. As long as “they” are happy with what we give them, then “we” can do what we want, make any profit we desire. This is not an aspiration to spread happiness but to keep the lid on dissent. The word crops up in entertainment, also, but to much the same effect: consumers of entertainment are just one more type of customer to be kept placated.

When did happiness stop being an aspiration beyond the private sphere? It is not as if we have achieved national happiness, which might mean it could safely be forgotten as we move on to other things. Far from it. And besides, happiness en masse is probably unachievable, it must remain an aspiration. But surely it is a worthwhile aspiration, something we should desire for ourselves, our neighbours, our fellow citizens. And as such, surely, it is something that those who set out to be our leaders should hold up as their goal, their shining city on the hill? But they don’t, do they, none of them. Politics, business, religion, none of them any more have any real interest in making life tolerable for the masses, for their constituents, their customers, their followers. That’s not cost effective, is it, it’s not worth the effort. As a polity we have gone beyond the tolerable, the goal now is control, power, the certainty of being returned to lucrative positions time after time.

And the way to secure that certainty, that lucre, is to scrap the tolerable, the tolerant. Doubt, fear, enmity, are the great agents of control. In advertising, we were taught that the two great ways to sell anything are greed and fear. And it works: you make people fearful and they are in your pocket forever.

Which is almost certainly why that other great enlightenment word, tolerance, is no longer heard. Tolerance is wonderful for helping people get along with each other, for spreading communal happiness; it is not so good for securing control. Voltaire said that tolerance was the hallmark of humanity, but humanity doesn’t rank very highly in public discourse any more, does it, because it really isn’t that useful, at least not if you are looking down from a position of authority.

The Enlightenment was not necessarily a good time to live. It was intellectually exciting, but for most people it was poor, miserable, disease-ridden and uncertain. There were wars, there were revolutions, there was persecution. Enlightenment was limited to the way a few people were thinking about their world, though those thinkers did very slowly manage to achieve some advances that bettered the lot of most people. But I can’t help thinking that right now we are in desperate need of a new Enlightenment, where the aspirations for happiness and tolerance become once more a way that people think about the world.

Openings

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The first of the Book Marketing Council’s “Best Young British Novelists” promotions in 1983 came at an odd time. The British publishing industry was struggling, mostly due to outdated methods, and a quick and dirty fix was needed. Hence the promotion. And it worked. Well, it did for me at least. Christopher Priest was the only one of the featured writers whose work I was already familiar with (by this time I’d read Philip Norman’s book on The Beatles, Shout!, but I’m not sure I associated the Philip Norman featured in the promotion with the author of that book), but I read the associated issue of Granta cover to cover (one of the few times I can say that of the magazine) and discovered a good handful of writers whose work interested me. For a while after that I would religiously buy each new book by Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Adam Mars-Jones, Ian McEwan, and Graham Swift. I’ve read, with pleasure, the occasional novel by Rose Tremain and Lisa St Aubin de Teran, without consistently following their work, and though I’ve tried the occasional book by Martin Amis I’ve never really got on with his writing. Over the years, I stopped following most of these writers (Ishiguro I dropped quite quickly, then picked up again later and do now follow him). So today only Boyd and Swift are writers whose new work I religiously buy and read.

Which brings me to the latest William Boyd novel, Trio. What I like about Boyd is his storytelling, which is why it is no surprise that along the way he has written a couple of very effective spy stories. He does come up with some quite arresting metaphors and descriptive passages, but in the main his prose can be a little pedestrian. But his control of pace, revelation, drama, is powerful enough to keep you reading even if the writing might limp a little. Even so, I was a little startled by how flat the opening of this novel seemed:

Elfrida Wing stirred, grunted and shifted sleepily in her bed as the summer’s angled morning sun brightened the room, printing a skewed rectangle of lemony-gold light onto the olive-green-flecked wallpaper close by her pillow.

Yeah, that reads like someone trying too hard, like a writing-class exercise in stuffing as many descriptive words as possible into a single sentence. Then you turn the page to the start of chapter two (the chapters are short in this novel, mostly only two or three pages, which is one reason that the lumbering, over-emphatic description feels too much), and you read: “Talbot Kydd woke abruptly from his dream.” Then another couple of pages and another chapter begins: “Anny Viklund woke up and, as she did every morning as consciousness slowly returned, she wondered if this day was going to be the day that she died.”

Three successive chapters beginning in exactly the same way: the full name of the character followed by a description of them waking up. It is laboured, repetitive, and it is hardly the most inspired or inspiring way to introduce the three central characters who make up the Trio of the title. I’ve come to expect fancier footwork than this from Boyd, even at his most pedestrian.

We are well over half way through the novel before it begins to dawn on us what Boyd is doing here. Elfrida is an alcoholic one-time novelist who hasn’t written anything other than fanciful titles for never-to-be-written books in over ten years. At the height of her fame, and to her perennial disgust, she was always called the new Virginia Woolf. It doesn’t help that she can’t stand Woolf’s work, which may be one of the reasons why she stopped writing. But now, between drinks of vodka from the countless old Sarson’s Malt Vinegar bottles she has stashed around the house, she gets an idea for a new novel, one that will lay the old ghost while getting her back into print: She will write a novel about the last day of Virginia Woolf.

Inevitably, she gets no further than the first paragraph, which she rewrites over and over again. A typical example reads:

Virginia Woolf was sleeping. On the wall by her bed a pale parallelogram of lemony early-morning sunlight crept towards her face. When the sunlight hit her eyes, she grunted and turned over, but consciousness had indisputably dawned in her brain and was urging her awake.

The openings of the first three chapters are all variations on the opening of the Virginia Woolf novel. Elfrida herself grunts and shifts with the lemony light. Talbot’s dream figures in several of the putative openings, and his own story that follows will take the form of an awakening to a clearer understanding of what is going on around him (he is a film producer out of step with the modern world of the late-1960s, coming to terms with his own homosexuality, and also coming to recognise that his trusted partner is defrauding him). And Elfrida’s various opening paragraphs always end with Woolf recognising that “this was going to be the last day of her life”, echoing Anny’s own premonition. Anny is a young American film star brought to Britain to add cachet to the film Talbot is currently producing, but she also brings with her a host of troubles, mostly initiated by her former husband who is now a wanted terrorist, and the more she tries to run away from things the fewer places she has to turn, until the story does indeed end in her death.

So we have it: the three interweaving stories that make up this trio are all variations on the last day of Virginia Woolf. Elfrida herself is, of course, the most Woolf-like. At one point, frustrated that no publisher wants the novel she is planning (1968, when most of the novel takes place, was the nadir of interest in the Bloomsbury crowd) and beginning to suffer from DTs, and therefore in a mental state closely resembling that of Virginia Woolf in March 1941,she buys a secondhand fur coat, stuffs stones into the pocket, and plans to march into the Ouse near Woolf’s home at Rodmell. A farcical intervention stops this happening, and she ends up drying out in a religious establishment outside Taunton.

If Elfrida offers the closest parallel to Woolf, Talbot and Anny are the more engaging characters. This is because Elfrida has been defeated, knows it, and is complicit in her own downfall. Talbot and Anny are both bemused by events but are still trying to keep ahead of the game. Talbot succeeds, Anny doesn’t, perhaps ending as Woolf herself did (thought there is an unresolved mystery here), but at least there is more sense of them playing an active part in their own lives.

Thinking of Elfrida, I wonder how Boyd pitched this novel to his publisher. Things have moved on since 1968, the Bloomsberries are fashionable again, so to that extent he had an easier job. But still: “It’s a novel about the last day of Virginia Woolf, only it is set in 1968 and Woolf never appears.” Actually, Leonard Woolf is seen at a distance once, still living at Monk’s House and irrascibly chasing away would-be sightseers. In the end it’s a clever book, but perhaps more clever than good, a satisfying intellectual confection rather than something more engaging.

In Pink

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Sometimes, the most unlikely of sources can make you see something that has been staring you in the face forever and has just passed you by.

I am continuing my intermittent read of The Prose Factory by D.J. Taylor, and his chapter on the 1930s is, predictably, all about left wing literary movements. It is a reasonably fair account, I think, given that I suspect Taylor’s own political inclinations are centre-right and he doesn’t come across as at all sympathetic to Marxist views. But he manages to connect a few things that I hadn’t really connected before.

Let me try and put this into chronological order. In 1929, the Wall Street Crash had sent the Western economies spinning into the Great Depression. In May of that year, the Labour Party under Ramsey MacDonald had come out ahead in one of the tightest of elections and formed a minority government. That is not the most stable situation for dealing with the economic shocks that were to come over the next couple of years. So, in 1931, MacDonald entered into coalition with the Tories as the National Government, which won an overwhelming victory in the 1931 election. The National Government held something over 500 seats in Parliament, the only opposition being provided by a small group of rebel Labour MPs. Despite the National Government being theoretically a coalition, it was overwhelmingly dominated by the Conservative Party, with the Tory leader, Stanley Baldwin, taking over as Prime Minister in 1935.

What this meant (and the connection that Taylor spelled out for me) was that the left had no political voice, just at the start of a decade that was filled with causes for which the left needed to be heard. And so the left started to turn to extra-parliamentary ways of making their views known. Thus you got things like the hunger marches, which had been occurring intermittently since the start of the century, but which now became much larger and more frequent. One march from Scotland brought 100,000 people to Hyde Park in 1932. These marches were often organised by the communist party, and so were just as often brutally put down by the authorities. The communist party was also behind the large numbers of working class young men who travelled to Spain to fight for the Republicans (there were some British volunteers who fought for Franco, but they were neither so numerous or so well organized as those who fought against him).

But this activism also had a more intellectual underpinning, provided by the spread of the Workers’ Educational Association, which had been formed at the beginning of the century but which was at its largest and most successful during the 1930s. And also by the totally unexpected success of Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club, which aimed to break even with 2,500 members but had over 40,000 within the first year. The club would make books more widely available and far cheaper than usual, and published works ranging from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier to Murray Constantine (Katherine Burdekin)’s Swastika Night; books that brought home again and again the social conditions and political enemies that those on the left were up against. There were Right and Centre Book Clubs, but these had neither the reach nor the effect of the Left Book Club.

With the sense of community and purpose provided by the likes of the hunger marches and the Spanish Civil War, and the spread of ideas promulgated through bodies such as the WEA and the Left Book Club, the left found a powerful and often working class voice throughout the 1930s, just at the time when they had no voice in government.

The National Government shed all pretence and became a straightforward Conservative government under Baldwin, as it remained under his two successors, Neville Chamberlain (from 1937) and Winston Churchill (from 1940). Under Churchill, and with a war to fight, the government again became a coalition National Government, but again it was predominantly Tory. After Baldwin’s election of 1935, there was no general election until 1945, when it was generally assumed that the great wartime leader, Churchill, would sweep back into power. It was a shock, therefore, when Clem Attlee won an overwhelming victory for Labour. But it perhaps shouldn’t have been, because that victory was the fruit of all those years during the 1930s when the left had been deprived of a political voice and so had found new ways to make their voice heard. The Attlee victory, if you like, was a direct consequence of Victor Gollancz creating the Left Book Club, which had, after all, published a book by one C.R. Attlee.

Modernisms

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When I read Lost Girls by D.J. Taylor last autumn, I was disappointed. It seemed to me that the book only really came alive when Taylor was discussing the London literary scene during the 1940s, and the four young women who were the titular subject of the book were at best only peripherally involved in that scene. So I decided to try a book that seemed to more directly address his interests. Which is how his 2016 literary history, The Prose Factory, appeared on my Christmas list (very many thanks, Maureen).

At the moment I am only into the second chapter, but already it is obvious that this is a subject he is much more interested in writing about. The book is a literary history of Britain from 1918 until, more or less, the present, and it is as general and has the sort of blinkers as one might expect. A cursory glance, for instance, suggests that H.G. Wells is the only science fiction writer to appear in the index; which is fine with me, I wasn’t really expecting anything else. As a broad account of literary movements it is providing exactly the sort of historical context I was hoping for, and at times it can be quite revealing.

When you look at literary history from a science fiction perspective, for instance, modernism tends to come across as a monolithic force, an instant literary establishment that, as the result of a quarrel between Henry James and H.G. Wells, conspired to exclude Wells and, in his wake, science fiction as a whole, from serious academic consideration. It wasn’t exactly like that. Reading Taylor’s chapter on modernism in the 1920s I wasn’t surprised to find that it was quite a fragmented movement, but I was surprised to learn how tribal it was.

The father of literary modernism, as I suppose we might put it, was Henry James, who is barely mentioned in Taylor’s book primarily because he had died in 1916. He brought a number of his Romney Marsh friends and neighbours, such as Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford, into the modernist camp on his coat tails, though it has to be said that at the time Conrad and Ford were more readily seen among the Georgians, the conservative, traditionalist literary movement that began with the end of the Edwardian era and fizzled out during the First World War.

It was after the war that modernism really got going, often lauded within the pages of the plethora of small magazines that were published throughout those years. These are magazines with famous names – Criterion, The Athenaeum – but they were still decidedly small. Even the best of them were lucky to have a circulation of 1,000, and those subscribers were fickle, if they grew weary of John Middleton Murry’s jeremiads in The Athenaeum, they would switch to T.S. Eliot’s austere pronouncements in Criterion. And though Taylor doesn’t say so, I get the distinct impression that this readership primarily consisted of academics in Oxford and Cambridge, and would-be writers in London plodding from the offices of one small magazine to the next in the hope of getting published. Despite this, the magazines were influential, at least in terms of how later academics look back on the modernists.

Middleton Murry was the cheerleader for one tribe of modernists, endorsing a number of the newer writers. But he seems to have been at war with everyone, and fairly soon lost his influence. Another tribe centred on the Sitwells, who were early advocates of the work of Eliot. Their circle included the composers William Walton and Constant Lambert, and they brought into their branch of modernism something of the polyrhythms and improvisation of jazz, the other great artistic movement of the decade but one that was not otherwise widely taken up by modernists. But the Sitwells were self-obsessed, idiosyncratic, and argumentative. Edith Sitwell in particular seems to have delighted in her feuds. There is one delightful vignette in Taylor’s book in which someone came upon Edith Sitwell and Virginia Woolf sitting side by side on a settee during one of their periodic truces, and I got a vivid impression of two tight-lipped women each preparing to spit venom at the other. Woolf, and Bloomsbury, introduces another tribe, one that encompassed the artistic as much as the literary, and whose publishing house, the Hogarth Press, brought out books by writers like E.M.Forster, Peter Quennell, and Muriel Jaeger, who weren’t all normally classed as modernists. Though the most notable title from the Hogarth Press was probably the first edition of “The Waste Land”, which brings us inevitably to Eliot himself, buttoned-up and puritanical, whose early poems, and especially “The Waste Land”, made him the torchbearer for post-war modernism. He inspired reverence – Taylor tells of a young Anthony Powell gazing in wonder when he chanced to spy Eliot dining alone at a Charlotte Street restaurant – and there were any number of would be writers trying to copy his work (as successfully as such copyists invariably are); but he also inspire mystification and condemnation, especially from critics like J.C. Squire, the last of the Georgians. Though Eliot himself, politically conservative and religiously inclined, probably had more in common with the Georgians than with the new generation of would-be revolutionaries who followed in his wake.

And this, I suspect, barely does justice to the internecine conflicts that characterised the first decade or so of literary modernism in Britain. I mean, where does one fit James Joyce, championed by Eliot but hardly the clubbable type one might find in Bloomsbury or at a Sitwell country home? So when Sarah Cole, in her truly wonderful book, Inventing Tomorrow: H.G. Wells and the Twentieth Century, argues that Wells was a modernist writer all along, the response has to be: of course, but what brand of modernist?

My top ten books of the last decade

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I have chosen one book from each year, with the added proviso that I have chosen no more than one title per author. That is, I admit, an artificial rule, and it did give me problems on a couple of years, but it avoids the problem that the list would otherwise be dominated by the same two or three names.

Some of these were obvious from the moment I thought of doing this list (the first and last on the list, for instance), others less so, mostly when there were years in which no title really sang out to me. I was sorely tempted to list two books from one year and none from another. But if you set yourself rules, I suppose the least you can do is stick to them. So here are ten books from the last ten years. I’d be very interested tosee what your lists are.

2011
The Islanders – Christopher Priest
When I started this exercise, this was the first book I thought of. It is among the two or three very best novels Priest has written. I have read it several times now, and each time it seems fresh, each time the complexity, the daring, the humour all combine to make the book exciting and invigorating. There is always something new to discover within its maze of distortions, uncertainties, twists in time and games with identity. I reviewed the novel for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

2012
Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
I remember the excitement of reading Wolf Hall when it first came out. I know most commentators focussed on the way the novel connected with history, the rehabilitation of Thomas Cromwell (up to that point familiarly presented as one of the villains of the age), the sense of being fully absorbed in the politics of the age. But for me what I found most engaging was the language. I wrote at Big Other about Mantel’s use of the word “he”, and what it signifies about identity and narrative voice. So now, two years later, there comes a sequel, and any fears I might have had are quickly dispelled: the same language, the same inhabitation of the age. The two books together are simply magnificent.

2013
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
I continue to regard this book as one of the finest works of science fiction of the last decade, although, as I said when I wrote about it here, it is a book that demands not to be read as science fiction. It is a variant on an alternate history novel, but here it is a single life, a single consciousness, that is fragmented. Ursula constantly dies and is reborn, barely if at all conscious of her previous existences, but always trying to relive her life in a way that brings her closer to achieving her goal, which is the survival of her brother who, most commonly, is killed in a bomber raid over Germany during World War II. The sequel, A God in Ruins, details the emptiness of the life that is thus saved, making for an extraordinarily powerful dyptych of novels.

2014
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
Not, perhaps, his finest novel (that, surely, is Cloud Atlas), but still a vivid, beautifully realised, and always compelling novel that manages to turn the half-sensed interlinking background that has underlain all of his
previous books into the foreground of the story. And it does so without in any way undermining the faithfulness of Mitchell’s portrayal of ordinary life from the recent past to the near future. As I wrote here, it spells out the patternmaking that is Mitchell’sapproach to writing.

2015
The Thing Itself – Adam Roberts
I had a struggle with myself over Roberts’s place on this list: should his place go to The Thing Itself or to The Black Prince? If I were to subvert my own rules I would do both, without hesitation. But in the end I decided to go with The Thing Itself, partly because, while I love the way The Black Prince retells a medieval story in the manner of John Dos Passos, The Thing Itself includes a whole series of chapters recapturing literary styles that vary from 18th century prose to the work of James Joyce. It’s a joy to read, and the way the title offers a mash-up of John W. Campbell and Immanuel Kant demonstrates what a wild intellectual journey this book is.

2016
The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead
Over the years, I have been in disagreement with the Arthur C. Clarke Award more often than not. I have found shortlists to be wilful and bizarre on too many occasions, but even then the right book might emerge as the winner, and this is one such. It is powerful, haunting, unforgettable, all of which I tried to compress into this piece about the book when I was on the Shadow Clarke jury.

2017
The Rift – Nina Allan
Back at the end of 2017, when I wrote my list of the year’s reading, when it came to this novel I simply put: “My book of the year.” I didn’t elaborate, I didn’t try to justify the choice, somehow it felt like I didn’t need to. This was one of those books that was just so unquestionably right that I didn’t think it needed further discussion. It still feels that way to an extent. Of course, it is a novel that ticks all my boxes, a novel of indecision, of uncertainty, a novel that could go in any direction depending upon how we choose to read it. Isn’t that what a great book is supposed to do? Well, so far as I am concerned it is.

2018
Europe at Dawn – Dave Hutchinson
Okay, I’m playing slightly fast and loose with my own rules here, in that I am using the final novel in Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence to stand in for the whole series. Europe in Autumn not winning the Clarke Award was one of the occasions on which I seriously parted company with them. What I wrote about the third book, Europe in Winter, for the Shadow Clarke jury, sums up much of my feeling about the sequence, which I see as one of the most politically relevant works of science fiction we have seen for many years. And the way I see Europe at Dawn as a fine conclusion to the series is spelled out in my review for Locus.

2019
Ivory Apples – Lisa Goldstein
I admit, I have doubts about including this novel in the list. I enjoyed it immensely, and as I said in my review
for Strange Horizons
, I thought it was a major work of contemporary fantasy. Yet it somehow feels, in retrospect, slighter than some of the other titles on this list. But I wonder whether that is primarily an artefact of the way 2019 felt to me, a year in which nothing seemed to blaze particularly brightly. I’ve often found that in a year of good books it is easy to spot the great ones; but in a year of mediocre books, even the good ones seem diminished. That was 2019 for me; this is a good novel, it probably deserves its place, but it wasn’t a particularly good year.

2020
The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again – M. John Harrison
Yeah, this is no surprise, is it? Only yesterday I was writing my massive survey of the year’s reading, and I said then that this was without doubt the novel of the year. Well, it is. It is the summation of everything we love about Harrison’s writing: the supple prose, the intense realism, the inescapable sense of the weird beginning to break in around the edges.

And that was the year that was

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End of the year, and as I do every year I am producing a write-up on all the books I’ve read during the year. Except, this wasn’t every year, this was a weird, misshapen beast of a year. Superficially, my life during lockdown wasn’t all that different from my life in any other recent year. But there were differences, things that were missed, things that became out of reach, things that were suddenly more stressful than usual, indeed more stressful than they had any right to be. On top of which we had the inestimable joy of seeing in vivid highlight just how mad and incompetent and uncaring our political masters actually are. It was a year that attacked us, a year we didn’t just have to endure but actually had to fight back against. And out of it all? Well, I spent more of the year feeling worn down, mentally exhausted, than I think I’ve ever known before. Which is not exactly good for getting lots of reading done.

I’ve spent much of the year seeing people talk about how lockdown has allowed them to get more reading than ever done. And it’s like I’m reading something in a foreign language. I simply don’t understand what they are saying. It has been a terrible year for reading. I had no patience for most of the books that came my way; far more books than usual were tossed aside unfinished. And when I did persevere I found it harder than ever to concentrate, so I read less more slowly. What worked for me was not exactly comfort reading, I didn’t turn back to old favourites, in fact I didn’t re-read much of anything during the year. But I did find that crime worked for me better than most other forms of fiction, particularly the Maigret novels by Georges Simenon which I discovered for the first time this year. And I was turning more than ever to non-fiction, perhaps because of the way the best non-fiction engages the intellect.

Anyway, this is the much-reduced list of all the books I finished during the year. As usual, I’ve put the books that I particularly recommend in bold.

1: Aldiss Unbound – Richard Mathews: The first month or so of the year was taken up with last-minute reading for my own book on Aldiss. The first three titles on this list are the three previous books on Aldiss, which seem to be trying to out-do each other in how unquestioningly they adore everything the man ever wrote. I can only hope that my own book has managed to inform the work with a more critical perspective than any of these three managed.

2: Apertures – Brian Griffin & David Wingrove.

3: Brian Aldiss – Michael R. Collings.

4: Enemies of the System – Brian Aldiss: And there were also three books by Aldiss that I had to catch up with at the last minute, two of which, at least, were indicative of just how bad some of his work could be.

5: Memories of the Future – Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky which I’ve already written about here.

6: Brothers of the Head – Brian Aldiss.

7: Super-State – Brian Aldiss.

8: We Danced All Night – Martin Pugh: I am more and more fascinated by British social history, particularly of the twentieth century, and this is one of the best I have encountered. It is an extraordinary account of that twenty-year period between the two world wars, and, unusually for histories of that period, it gives an unusual emphasis to the lives of women in that time.

9: Memories of the Future – Siri Hustvedt which I wrote about here along with the identically titled collection by Krzhizhanovsky.

10: Utopia and the Contemporary British Novel – Caroline Edwards which I reviewed (very favourably) for Science Fiction Studies.

11: Here We Are – Graham Swift which I wrote about here.

12: Tombland – C.J. Sansom: The last, or at least last-to-date, of Sansom’s novels about the Tudor lawyer and investigator, Matthew Shardlake, and following the pattern of the earlier volumes, it is also the longest of the books. By now, Henry VIII is dead and Shardlake is working for the Princess Elizabeth, a perilous occupation given how out-of-favour Elizabeth is at the court. But a bizarre murder involving a distant Boleyn relative sends Shardlake to Norwich just in time to get caught up in Kett’s Rebellion. As always with Sansom the pleasure is in the detailed recreation of historical events, and the atmospheric presentation of the social reality of daily life at that time.

13: Double Cross – Ben MacIntyre: There is something terribly British about the fact that the double cross operation they ran with turned German spies during World War II was under the control of a group called the Twenty Committee (Roman numerals: XX); and there is something terribly German about the fact that, though they must learned the name of that committee, the German spymasters never twigged to what it signified. Though I do find myself wondering whether the Abwehr (mostly staffed by aristocrats who were not exactly pro-Nazi) was knowingly turning a blind eye to what was going on. If there wasn’t some level of complicity, they were woefully incompetent. Every single German spy sent to Britain during the war was captured, and a number were turned; though the double cross network was mostly made up of people who approached the British independently. There are questions about exactly how much influence the double cross spies had on the course of the war, but it is pretty clear that they fed the German High Command with what they wanted to hear, so they were simply confirming expectations when they revealed that there were twice as many troops in Britain as were in truth present, and when they said that the Normandy landings were just a feint before the real invasion at Pas de Calais. Hitler in particular was so convinced of this last that he held troops in place at Calais for almost twenty days after the Allies had come ashore at Normandy.

14: The Light of Day – Eric Ambler: This was the novel that inspired the film Topkapi, though in truth the novel is a richer and more complex work, and the unreliable narrator of the novel is a far funnier and more nuanced character than Peter Ustinov who plays him in the film.

15: The Farthest Shore – Ursula K. Le Guin: I’ve been reading the Earthsea Trilogy aloud to Maureen off and on for the last few years, mostly limited to a chapter or two as entertainment on long car journeys. This is easily my least favourite of the three.

16: The Late Monsieur Gallet – Georges Simenon: Many years ago, I tried reading some of Simenon’s non-Maigret novels and couldn’t get on with them. I think Maureen had a similar experience. But we have both enjoyed radio and television dramatizations of the Maigret stories (I have fond memories of Rupert Davies in the 1960s, and we have both enjoyed the Rowan Atkinson incarnation), and sometime late last year or early this year Maureen decided she would give the Maigret novels a go. She enjoyed them a lot, but she also thought they would work well being read aloud. So, having finished the Le Guin, we picked up this one. It remains, a dozen or so Maigret novels later, my favourite of them, but there isn’t a bad one in the bunch, and they are wonderful to read aloud. I love the fact that they are all very carefully structured, all 145-155 pages long, all consist of 11 chapters, the last of which is always about half the length of any other. And yet, within those constraints, and despite the speed with which they were written (about 10 in 1932 alone), they never feel mechanical. The nature of the crime, Maigret’s relationship to the crime, the circumstances, the setting, the social environment within which it all occurs, always vary from novel to novel.

17: Aiding and Abetting – Muriel Spark: I love Spark’s work, but this is a late and decidedly minor work. It consists of a novella and a novelette (the novella is late, the novelette, I think, quite early). The novella concerns a psychiatrist in Paris, two of whose patients both claim to be Lord Lucan (the minor aristocrat and gambler who murdered his children’s nanny, presumably mistaking her for his wife, then fled the country never to be seen again). Since the psychiatrist is also living under a false name, there is some interesting stuff about identity going on here, but it never quite seems to hit the heights the way you’d expect of Spark.

18: The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien – Georges Simenon.

19: The Carter of La Providence – Georges Simenon.

20: The Pale Criminal – Philip Kerr: The second of the Bernie Gunther Trilogy, this time investigating murders that bring him up against the anti-Jewish policies and beliefs of the Nazi regime.

21: H.G. Wells: A Literary Life – Adam Roberts which I reviewed for Foundation.

22: The Yellow Dog – Georges Simenon.

23: A German Requiem – Philip Kerr: I’m not exactly sure why, but the first three of the novels Kerr wrote about his German detective are known as the Bernie Gunther Trilogy, as is they are somehow separate from all the other Bernie Gunther novels that Kerr has written, despite the fact that the fourth volume, The One from the Other, is a direct sequel to this novel, which is the third part of the trilogy. In fact, there is more connection between A German Requiem and its sequel than there is with the two novels that precede it. In those two Gunther is a Berlin detective in Nazi Germany; in A German Requiem the war is over and Gunther finds himself in Vienna, though the case he is investigating has its inevitable links to the Nazi regime.

24: Inventing Tomorrow: H.G. Wells and the Twentieth Century – Sarah Cole: also reviewed for Foundation. This is one of the best books on Wells I have read for a long time, examining his sometimes fraught relationship with the modernist writers of his time, and suggesting that his work was more modernist, and more worthy of examination than we tend to assume.

25: Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell: As we have come to expect of Mitchell, there are two bits of story going on here. One is the long story that ties this novel to everything else he has written: the two schools of immortality at war in the background. In some of his novels (The Bone Clocks, Slade House) this over-arching fantasy is the main focus of the work, but here I find it far and away the least interesting part of what is going on. The other story is about the rise and fall of a rock group in the late-1960s, and this I found absolutely entrancing. It may be because this is my musical era, many of the performers who have walk-on parts in the novel were among my favourite artists at the time. The novel is littered with quotations from the songs of the period, some overt, many not, and they filled my head with exactly the music of the group Utopia Avenue. I recognized the group even if it never actually existed: bits of early Fairport perhaps and Pentangle, mixed with The Animals, maybe, and a soupcon of The Kinks? Folk and rock just at the time they were learning to live together. To that degree, therefore, I find this an excellent historical novel.

26: Utopia: The History of an Idea – Gregory Claeys: And another, different, utopia. Except that this book is a mess, a confusion of ideas and there are major parts of the book where the only reason I understood what was going on was because I already knew about it before I picked up this book.

27: Night at the Crossroads – Georges Simenon.

28: The Last Astronaut – David Wellington: I read this because it was on the Clarke Award shortlist, and because it is the one book on that list that I hadn’t seen mentioned anywhere else (after I read it I came across Nina Allan’s evisceration of the book, which says much of what I say here). I wondered if this was the book that had slipped through the net, but that deserved better. All I can say is: what the fuck were the Clarke jurors thinking? It’s not a bad book, but it’s a book that positions sf firmly back in the 1960s. To be specific, it is Rendezvous With Rama dressed up for a new audience. For me, the point of science fiction is to confront the new, to make us see something afresh. An award should recognise a work that pushes the envelope, that takes sf in a new direction. That new direction is not backwards. The Last Astronaut is almost shameless in the way it steals from Rendezvous With Rama. An object enters the solar system, and starts to slow down. NASA has been wound down over the decades, so their only option for exploring the alien object is a mothballed spaceship and a disgraced ex-astronaut. When the astronaut and her crew enter the object, you’ve got all the basics of Rama repeated: a frozen landscape that slowly comes to life, objects that are mysterious and unlike anything we know on earth. There aren’t the tripods, but there is the icefield that melts to become the equatorial ocean. Wellington takes the easy option of making all this threatening rather than just mysterious. Characterisation is perfunctory: the central figures are each defined by just one thing, and show no more growth or complexity than that. There are convenient devices available just when they are needed. There’s something mechanical about the whole enterprise (both within the story and in the writing of it).
There are many worse books about, true, but if this is the sort of book that should be considered for an sf award, then science fiction has gone into reverse.

29: Pietr the Latvian – Georges Simenon.

30: The Code Book – Simon Singh: My interest in deception and espionage in World War II has inevitably come around to the issue of codes and cyphers and cryptanalysis. The Code Book has been on our shelves for years, so it seemed like a good idea to pick it up. It covers the whole history of codes from Biblical times to Enigma and beyond, so it is not especially deep on any part of that history, but it does seem like a good general introduction to the subject.

31: The Grand Banks Cafe – Georges Simenon.

32: A Crime in Holland – Georges Simenon.

33: The Future of Another Timeline – Annalee Newitz: Well, at least I managed to pursue this to the end, unlike so many of the other highly-praised novels of the year that were discarded almost before I’d begun. I really wanted to like this novel more than I actually did. It started off well, and all the way through there are some things I really liked. But increasingly I found myself struggling to accept what I was being told. I had real difficulty with the gang of teenage serial killers. I just didn’t believe it. There were places where I felt Newitz wasn’t sure in her own mind what she was writing about. We are told repeatedly that the Great Man theory of history doesn’t work: if you kill Hitler, someone else would fill the same niche. Yet everything about Comstock is Great Man theory. And I’m not sure Newitz really noticed how often she was contradicting herself. I loved the time machine, but again I don’t think Newitz had really thought it through. Of course, she gets away with a lot by giving us no details, no explanations, no origin story, but even so I couldn’t make the whole thing hold together in my mind. And then there was the woman from the future. I recall that line, was it from Chandler, that if you are stuck on your plot have someone burst in with a gun. Well Morehshin was that someone with a gun. As far as I can see, her main role, indeed almost her exclusive role, was to let Newitz break all of the rules she had so far established about using the time machine. To my mind this is not playing with the net up. As I say there is a lot about the novel I like. I particularly like Beth and her relationship with her father. And I rather like how Newitz teases us over whether Tess is Beth or Lizzy. But all the way through I couldn’t help feeling that the whole just didn’t hold together.

34: Remains of Elmet – Ted Hughes & Fay Godwin: Another book that has been on our shelves forever and that I never quite got around to reading before. Well, I say reading, but it was Fay Godwin’s startling black and white photographs that caught my attention. Ted Hughes’s poems seemed to me rather flat by comparison, often seeming laboured and repetitious.

35: A Gray Playbook – Alasdair Gray: A beautiful volume, gloriously illustrated by the author. Gray was a moderately successful playwright before he became a novelist, and this gathers together most of his plays ranging from a one-act version of the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus written for and performed by his school classmates when he was about 10, to an incomplete modern adaptation of Goethe’s Faust from 2008. Among the various theatre, radio and television plays between these end points there are the plays that would later be recast as the novels The Fall of Kelvin Walker, Mavis Belfrage, and McGrotty and Ludmilla, along with a host of others I hadn’t encountered in any form before. But for me the two stand-out elements of the book are the script for a putative film version of Poor Things, and an extract from the storyboard for Lanark with which he hoped to persuade someone to make a film of that novel. How much I would give to have seen both those films.

36: The Salzburg Connection – Helen MacInnes: The first of two Helen MacInnes novels I read this year. They are chunky books, well over 300 pages of fairly dense text, and there’s a lot going on in them, yet I get through them at a phenomenal rate. It rarely takes more than a day to read the book from start to finish, I find them so compelling.

37: The One from the Other – Philip Kerr: The first of his Bernie Gunther novels not to be part of the Bernie Gunther Trilogy, even though this follows directly on from the events of A German Requiem, with Gunther getting involved with the ring smuggling Nazis out of Europe to South America.

38: Big Sky – Kate Atkinson: A belated addition to her sequence of Jackson Brodie crime novels. Well, there’s usually a crime, and Brodie sort of investigates though often half-heartedly, and most of the story is told through the eyes of a host of sometimes oddball characters who never know more than a fraction of what is going on. It’s an approach that makes these novels fascinating, though I have to be in the right mood to get the most out of them. I was in the right mood for this.

39: A Kind of Anger – Eric Ambler: It is fascinating to watch Ambler laying down the groundwork that later spy writers would follow. This is a perfect example: a search for someone who doesn’t want to be found, an uneasy alliance between people who aren’t sure they can trust each other, and competing enemy forces that must be outwitted if our central characters are to survive. Great stuff.

40: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again – M. John Harrison: Okay, I’ve said so for both Strange Horizons and Locus, this is undoubtedly the book of the year. It is simply a distillation of everything that is brilliant about Harrison’s writing, which I’ve written about here (and, tangentially, here).

41: One Two Three Four – Craig Brown: I find it strange that people are still finding different ways to write about the brief decade-long existence of The Beatles, but when the result is as good as this, I can’t complain.

42: The Same River Twice – Ted Mooney which I wrote about here.

43: A Man’s Head – Georges Simenon.

44: Dead Doubles – Trevor Barnes, which I wrote about here.

45: The Lunar Men – Jenny Uglow: And yet again a book that has been sitting neglected on our shelves for too long. This, to me, is both the origin of and the model for the trend for group biographies that we’ve seen since the beginning of this century. It is the story of the group of industrialists and savants from the Midlands that are the very embodiment of the blossoming of scientific knowledge during the latter part of the 18th century. It is a fascinating story and extraordinarily well told.

46: Lost Girls – D.J. Taylor, which I wrote about here.

47: The Evidence – Christopher Priest: To be honest, as I was reading it, this felt like one of his second-rank novels. But I was asked to review it for Foundation, and as I was writing that review I found I was identifying all sorts of connections and resonances that only became clear in retrospect.

48: Bletchley Park and D-Day – David Kenyon: How do you make the story of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park sound uninteresting? By writing it like one of those corporate histories that big companies sometimes insist on putting out. Also, Kenyon seems to have an axe to grind. For him, Enigma has played too big a part in the public perception of Bletchley, so we are constantly being told that they didn’t decipher that much, or the messages they discovered were too late, or they didn’t have that much effect (other things I’ve read suggest this is at best not the whole truth). Meanwhile the other parts of the codebreaking operation are praised unstintingly, as if they are not all part of the same operation. It is, I suspect, significant that Alan Turing hardly appears in the index.

49: The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin – Georges Simenon.

50: The Two-Penny Bar – Georges Simenon.

51: A Diary in the Age of Water – Nina Munteanu: I reviewed this for the BSFA. It seems to me to be a rather clumsily constructed series of mini-lectures about water and the environment presented as being a polemic and the whole thing then disguised as a novel, and every part of that tripartite structure seems to undermine the other two parts.

52: The Shadow Puppet – Georges Simenon.

53: This is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone, which I wrote about here.

54: Reading Backwards – John Crowley: John Crowley is damned near as fine an essayist and reviewer as he is a novelist, as this selection of pieces from 2005-2018 amply demonstrates. Though reading through did seem to illustrate something I’ve noticed before in American critical writing: while British critics seem to strive to keep themselves out of their reviews, Americans seem to consider reviewing as a branch of autobiography. Thus, here, we learn an awful lot about Crowley’s upbringing, the places he lived, the family’s catholicism, his interest in theatre design and so on. It’s fascinating stuff that is often very revealing about his fiction, particularly the second volume in the Aegypt sequence, Love And Sleep.

55: The Saint-Fiacre Affair – Georges Simenon: I’ve noticed, even in the handful of Maigret novels I’ve now read, how much Simenon likes to ring the changes. In The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin, for instance, Maigret hardly appears for much of the novel. It is like Simenon is constantly looking to find new ways to tell a crime story, while most crime novelists of the inter-war years (Christie, Sayers) told their stories in much the same way, but changed the surrounding detail. That Simenon was consciously rejecting the style of Christie and her kind is demonstrated by this novel, which climaxes with a parodic version of the invariable denouement scene where Poirot gathers all the suspects together. It is a very deliberate two fingers to the then most common style of crime fiction.

56: The Silence – Don DeLillo: It is interesting how much, and how overtly, DeLillo is turning towards science fiction. His last novel, Zero K, concerned cryogenics, this new novella is a version of a disaster story that is very precisely set in the near-future, on Super Bowl Sunday in 2022. While a couple and their younger friend settle down to watch the game, another couple who are expecting to join them are currently on a flight arriving from Paris. Then all the electrics go out: the television is blank, the cell phones are silent, the airplane controls are disabled. We’ve seen this notion of the modern world going away before, and we’ll see it again, but it seems a scenario ideally suited to DeLillo. This is not a catastrophe of rioting and bloodshed and people reverting to savagery, that’s not how DeLillo characters react to anything; rather this is a catastrophe of isolation and silence. Conversations stop being responses, one person to another, and become overlapping monologues with no interconnection. One character loses touch with reality as he begins to imagine the game he is not seeing on the screen. For DeLillo, when the modern world goes away it takes away our connections to other people.

57: Pray for a Brave Heart – Helen MacInnes: In The Salzburg Connection an American amateur finds himself caught up in a plot involving Nazis and Russians centred on a picturesque Alpine village just outside Salzburg; in Pray for a Brave Heart an American amateur finds himself caught up in a plot involving Nazis and Russians centred on a picturesque Alpine village just outside Bern. They are not the same stories, but there is a Helen MacInnes pattern that is starkly illustrated by reading these two novels in close proximity. Doesn’t stop me enjoying them, though.

58: Snow – John Banville: I don’t understand why this novel has not been published under Banville’s Benjamin Black persona, it is so very clearly a Benjamin Black novel, even to numerous references to Quirke and Hackett from the early Black novels. And the setting is is the same as in the Quirke novels: Ireland in the 1950s, with the focus on the baleful political and social influence of the all-powerful Catholic church. In this instance, as a corner of South East Ireland lies under a thick blanket of snow in the last few days before Christmas, a priest is stabbed to death and then castrated. The policeman sent down from Dublin is a protestant so the way the Catholic hierarchy tries to cover up the details of the case and interfere with the investigation are particularly galling. It is a familiar scenario from Banville/Black, I worked out the who and the why of the murder quite early on, but it is very well done.

59: X Y & Z – Dermot Turing: Turing, the nephew of Alan Turing, set out to write the story of how Enigma was broken, but he quickly became focussed on the story of the Polish codebreakers who first cracked the German codes. The Enigma machine was patented towards the end of the First World War and initially sold as a commercial device, but the German military started to take it up at the end of the 1920s. For Poland, effectively divided between German and Russian rule by the Versailles treaty, this was a problem, and the Polish independent movement started to gather together a crack team of mathematicians and codebreakers in order to get access to German secrets. And they succeeded; Polish codebreakers were regularly reading German Enigma messages at least ten years before Alan Turing started working on the problem. The Poles had even invented a device they called a “Bombe” which helped work out the setting for the three rotors in the Enigma machine. The Polish Bombe was the basis for the machine of the same name that Turing would later develop. Meanwhile, a senior and rather dubious character in French intelligence, Gustave Bertrand, had a German double agent who was regularly selling them top flight information, including codebooks and Enigma settings. But the French had no facilities for codebreaking, so they got together with the Poles to swap information. Meanwhile, still unaware that Enigma had been cracked, the German military started to improve security, adding additional rotors to the machine, and changing settings on a daily basis. This made the Polish Bombe ineffective, so the arrangement with France was expanded to include Britain for extra facilities. This was the X (France), Y (Britain) & Z (Poland) intelligence alliance that was established bare months before Germany invaded Poland. The Polish codebreakers escaped at the last moment, but rather than getting them to Britain where their work would have given the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park an astonishing head start, Bertrand set them up in Vichy France where their facilities were fewer and the risks were greater. They still did some significant work there, until Germany took over Vichy and they had to flee again. Some got away, many didn’t. Those who evaded capture by the Abwehr made it to Britain but their position was now ambiguous and they were set up in a separate establishment away from Bletchley Park. Typically, once the war was over Britain was unwelcoming, and the contribution of the Polish codebreakers to the war effort was almost completely overlooked until recently. This is a fascinating book, and a wonderful corrective to Kenyon’s sour view.

And that’s it, not quite 60 books in one year. Years ago, when I was fresh out of university and first started keeping a note of the books I finished each year, I was averaging well over 100 every year. When I revived the practice a few years ago through this blog, I usually managed to read somewhere around 70 books each year. 59 is the lowest annual total I can ever remember.

Of course there were distractions. For the first half of the year I was writing the book on Aldiss, which was not, I confess, a very easy job. And later in the year there were proof corrections and other bits and pieces to do with The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest, which came out in November (did I mention I have a new book?). For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, I’ve written about it here and here. And of course there were reviews for Foundation and Science Fiction Studies and the BSFA, though nowhere near as many as in some other years. But these writing assignments wouldn’t really have taken any more time away from reading than similar assignments have done in other years. No, it was a year in which events made it hard to give myself over to reading.

Of course the year is ending now, within a few hours as I write this 2020 will be over and done with. There are vaccines for the coronavirus, Trump has been voted out, a Brexit deal has been done at the last minute (a ridiculously bad deal, but better than no deal, I suppose); so 2021 has to be better. Right? Well, I’ll withhold judgement on that. Let’s say I’m not feeling overly optimistic. In Britain the government has shown an unprecedented ability to screw up everything it touches, so let’s just say that I’m not totally convinced that the various stresses and horrors of the pandemic or of Brexit are actually safely behind us. I suppose all we can do is hope and wait and see.

Good luck out there!

At war with time

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One of the Facebook groups I’m a member of has recently been discussing This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. This was my contribution to the discussion.

I have finally, at the second attempt, managed to read This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. It was a struggle that seemed to get harder the further I got through the book. And I remain mystified by the adoration it has received, and the fact it has won just about every popular vote award going. What is it that everyone else seems to see in this book that remains completely opaque to me?

Okay, it’s nearly Christmas, do I really want to play the Grinch here? But what the hell, this is why I felt so depressed, so alienated by the book.

For a start it felt wearily familiar. In the end I decided that it is a rehash of Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time (1958), a novel that is probably shorter than this novella. Any story about a time war is probably influenced by Leiber, and when the two characters talk of themselves as “Change agents” (60) it is, I am sure, an explicit acknowledgement of Leiber’s Change War. The Big Time is then mashed up with Transition by Iain Banks (2009) which, if anything, is probably a bigger influence than Leiber, though it goes unacknowledged. And this unholy melange is then recast as if it is part of Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine (1991). Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of these origin stories, but a half-baked and sentimentalized rehash does nothing to thrill me with a sense of the new.

[Among the comments on my original post was the suggestion that readers today probably haven’t read the Leiber, and perhaps not even the Banks (he’s on a lot of TBR lists, someone said, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he is read). All of which is perhaps true. But my comment was about the authors of the work (and about this particular reader). The passing reference to “Change agents”, a formulation that I remember encountering only once in the novella, is so at odds with every other reference to the time war that I feel sure it is meant to be a nod towards Leiber’s Change War stories. So I think there is that influence in there, and anyway these were the things that leapt out at me as I was reading the story, so they certainly affected my own response.]

But this familiarity is not limited to the so-predictable source material. The story structure plays exactly the same riff over and over again, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. The book is made up of pairs of chapters, each pairing following an identical pattern. In a chapter told in third person, one of the two central characters takes part in what is presumably a mission within the ongoing time war. This mission may involve lots of deaths, though any brutality is off screen and the dead are so anonymous that they could as easily be a mass of shop window dummies lying in the field of battle; or it may involve saving someone, though again the people involved are so anonymous that we cannot care whether they live or die. Either way, the exploits are so shorn of context that they tell us absolutely nothing about the war, other than the fact that it is an incoherent mess of unconnected incidents that reveal nothing of any aims, abilities or strategy that either warring side might possess. When, at one point, Blue writes: “what a microcosm we are of the war as a whole, you and I” (36), she tells us precisely nothing about either the war or the characters. This first chapter in the pair invariably ends with the viewpoint character discovering a letter that is encoded in the most ludicrous way imaginable, in the feathers of a bird, in seeds, in water bubbling in a kettle.

The second chapter of the pair is, of course, the letter. There are only two characters in the book: Red is an agent for one side in the war, Blue is an agent for the other. The exchange of letters spells out the developing love story between the two putative enemies. Honestly, if I were exchanging letters with an enemy who, moments before, was tasked with killing me, I might be rather more suspicious of their motives than either Red or Blue seems to be. But then, the cards are heavily stacked in favour of romance in this novel; that the background is a war seems to be an incidental matter, there for nothing more than local colour.

I did, at first, imagine that in an epistolary novel written by two authors, each would take one character to give her a distinctive voice. Well, if it happened here, the chapters were then edited to within an inch of their life, yielding up a smooth voice without any distinction between the two characters. This, of course, is at least partly intentional (really, if you don’t spot the only possible way this story could play out within the first three or four chapters, you’re simply not paying attention), but I think the greater intent is to give the whole a romantic, poetic feel. Though in truth the language is poetic only because none of it is rooted in anything concrete. The actual within this work is so tenebrous that it eludes anything remotely resembling a referent. That lack of substance, the sense that there is no solid world to anchor the airiness of the romance, extends to the non-letter chapters also, so much so that there is an unforgiveable sense that exactly the same voice is providing the narration as well as both of the letters. I suppose that part of the fun of the story lies in the extravagance of the scenarios through which the two characters move as they seek out the next letter. Though it does bother me that none of this makes sense, so that when you get “a game of chess in which every piece is a game of Go” (109), for example, I really don’t have any idea what that is supposed to mean.

[Some of those who commented on my post said that they discerned a distinct difference between the two voices. To each his own, but that certainly didn’t come across to me.]

Actually, this use of language for effect rather than for sense, this notion that if you bundle enough images together somehow they will create an impression of something awesome, brings me to another problem I have with the story. There is a carelessness here that is evident both in the way the language is used and the story that the language is used to tell. When we are told, for instance, that “Red wins a battle between starfleets in the far future” (98), you wonder, given that the characters wander freely back and forth through time, what is meant by far future? Far future of what? That is thoughtless writing. But then, on the evidence of this story, I don’t think that either El-Mohtar or Gladstone has sat down to work out what a time war might be like and how it might be structured. Presumably Red and Blue are immortal (or at least as near immortal as makes no difference) agents who travel backwards and forwards through time changing events in order to create a different future that favours their side. So far so simple, but then Red tells us that “strands bud Atlantises to thwart her” (47), that 30 or 40 times she has walked away from a different sinking island. So there are multiple timelines; changing one event doesn’t change the future, it just births a new timeline. In which case, what are they fighting for? What could possibly constitute a victory, or a defeat, in such a situation. If everything goes wrong, then there is another timeline where everything has gone right. And if there can be no victory, there can be no cause for war. How do you go to war with an enemy who has just got everything they want in a different timeline? Over and over again throughout the novel I came up against the same notion: that none of this makes sense. There is a time war not because there is any functional purpose in the war, but because the authors need their two lovers to be on opposite sides in a conflict. This is Romeo and Juliet with two Juliets but otherwise no change: starcrossed lovers on either side of an age-old quarrel they cannot repair, needing to keep their affair secret, and leading to seeming death. Make the houses of Montague and Capulet into the enemy camps in a time war and lo you render the whole thing science fiction.

In other words, all of this, the time war, the battles and escapades, the ludicrous devices for hiding a letter, are meaningless. They are the one-dimensional, crudely-painted scenes designed to be pushed out onto the stage behind the star-crossed lovers so we can pretend their romance is being played out in something that passes for a real world. Anything actual, anything that might involve the crude and the cruel, the bloody and the miserable, the things that go wrong and the things that raise doubts, is banned from this world. This is all about the feels – “Red likes to feel. It is a fetish.” (4) we are told right at the start of the novel – about the sweetness, about things not going wrong, about happy ever afters. It is a story for children who want to be reassured about the world, not for those of us who want to explore and understand and confront the world. It is saccharine and it sets my teeth on edge, and that in the end is what I really dislike about this facile fantasy.

Writing about Christopher Priest

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In his blurb for my book (The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest – did I mention I’ve written a book?), Adam Roberts notes that Priest’s work is resistant “to conventional critical approaches”. That is only too true, and it contributed to the problems I had writing this book.

My first idea when I set out on this project was to follow essentially the same plan I had when I wrote my book on Iain Banks, that is a more or less chronological account of his career. I even started a draft of the book on this plan. It didn’t work, I knew it even as I was writing it. Everything that Priest has done in his fiction works against any straightforward chronological reading. I don’t just mean the way he returned to the Dream Archipelago twenty years after The Affirmation, though that introduces complexities enough. There is also his habit of revisiting and revising his earlier work. Do you write about Indoctrinaire in 1970 or its revised edition of 1979? What about Fugue for a Darkening Island, first published in 1972, which reappeared in an extensively revised edition in 2011. Or The Glamour, which went through several different iterations between its original publication in 1984 and its revised edition of 1996. Since the past is fluid in Priest’s writing, it is only logical that it is fluid in his bibliography also, which tends to make a nonsense of a straightforwardly chronological approach. And that is not to mention the way themes, devices, and even occasionally characters, recur throughout his career. The more I went on this track, the more I realised I was going to end up tying myself in knots as I necessarily referred backwards and forwards in time.

But if not chronology, what structure could I use for the book? Thematic? Years ago, writing about Priest (which I’ve been doing, off and on, for something like 40 years now, lord help us), I noted that there are recurring devices that run through most if not all of his oeuvre: the island, the double, the book. So I began to plot out how I could construct my book by taking each of those themes in turn. And again I ran into an immediate problem: a novel featuring islands is as likely as not going to feature twins also. Keeping strictly to a thematic structure would entail constant repetition.

I was stuck. Both approaches seemed to offer benefits in discussing Priest’s fiction, but there were just as many problems. And whichever I chose I could foresee that by the end I would be tying myself into such convoluted knots that even I wouldn’t be able to see a way through, let alone the poor reader.

Then I had a silly idea: why not do both. It is easy to periodize Priest’s career: his engagement with the New Wave as he was getting started; what we might call the science fiction years from Indoctrinaire to The Space Machine; the noticeable stylistic change in his writing that takes us from “An Infinite Summer” to The Affirmation; the period when he seemed most distant from science fiction from The Glamour to The Separation; and the return to the Dream Archipelago with The Islanders. Each of those would work as a coherent, unified chapter, providing a context for his career. And I could intersperse those chronological chapters with thematic chapters taking, in turn, career-spanning ideas such as islands, the nature of reality, doubles, and the arts.

There are advantages to this. By providing thumbnail sketches of the books in the chronological chapters, I wouldn’t need to keep repeating them in the thematic chapters; while devoting individual chapters to each of the main recurring themes, I wouldn’t need to spell these out every time they came up in another work. So I would obviate a significant cause for repetition throughout the book. But there would still be repetition, of course. Some key works, such as The Affirmation, The Prestige or The Islanders, might need to be discussed in anything up to half a dozen different chapters. But maybe, I thought in a self-justifying way, this need not be a major problem. If I take as my thesis, as I do, the notion that Priest’s work is unstable, that there is no consistent and unified reading of his work, then by approaching each of these works from a different perspective, by emphasizing different characteristics in them, I could illustrate this very point. Here is not one reading of Priest’s work, but a variety of different readings. After all, I’ve read The Affirmation more times than I can count, and it seems like a different book every single time.

I admit, one of the reasons I finally went for this somewhat convoluted structure is that, when I started putting it down on the page, I found I could make it work. Whether it works for anyone else, of course, is not up to me, but this is the structure I ended up with:

Author’s Note
Or mea culpa, in which I explain that Priest is a long-time friend, but also try to lay out the complexity of the way he revisits older work.

Abbreviations
To be more accurate, this is a bibliography of his books. But the quotations I use throughout the body of the book are identified by abbreviations, which are spelled out here.

A Complete List of Short Fiction
The second part of the bibliography basically does what it says on the tin.

Chapter One: Ambivalence
The book is published as part of a series called SF Storyworlds, so I begin by laying out the troubled and complex (two adjectives that seem inevitable wherever Priest is concerned) relationship between Priest and science fiction. He is ambivalent, often antagonistic, towards science fiction; science fiction is ambivalent, often antagonistic, towards him.

Chapter Two: Accounting
The first of the chronological chapters takes us from his failed career in accountancy to his part in coining the term “New Wave”, to his early stories and eventually the first novel, Indoctrinaire.

Chapter Three: Insularity
Islands play an inordinately large part in Priest’s fiction, from the island in time of Indoctrinaire to the island city of Inverted World to the psychological and ontological distortions of the Dream Archipelago, all covered here.

Chapter Four: Inversions
For a time Priest was primarily and intentionally a science fiction writer, with Fugue for a Darkening Island, Inverted World, and The Space Machine, but in this chapter I trace how quickly a conventional approach to sf exhausted the advantages the genre offered to his ambitions as a writer.

Chapter Five: Instability
As a schoolboy Priest was knocked off his bike and suffered amnesia, with several days of his life that have never been recovered since. This created a sense that reality is unstable, a theme that crops up repeatedly from “Real-Time World” to The Islanders.

Chapter Six: Dreaming
Opinions differ on when the change came in Priest’s writing, but I date it to his story “An Infinite Summer”. There can be little doubt, however, that a more austere and literary approach to his fiction gathered pace through A Dream of Wessex, the early Dream Archipelago stories, and The Affirmation.

Chapter Seven: Doubling
Priest’s own children are fraternal twins, a curious example of life following art since he had been writing about twins and doubles throughout his career, and they would continue to be a symbol of the uncanny nature of reality.

Chapter Eight: Authorities
In the 30 years between The Affirmation and The Islanders he produced fewer books than in the first ten years of his career, but these complex and challenging works established a literary language for dealing with the issues of unreality that have been central to his work.

Chapter Nine: Authorship
It is very rare to find a novel by Priest that does not involve a stage magician (The Prestige), a painter (The Islanders), a musician (The Gradual), a photographer (The Adjacent), or more frequently a writer (The Quiet Woman, An American Story), so in this chapter I explore the symbolic weight of these artists.

Chapter Ten: Revisiting
Late style in the case of Christopher Priest seems to involve a new urgency (the last ten years of his career have been as productive as the first ten); an increasing simplicity of language tied to a complex and often oblique structure; and above all a return to the Dream Archipelago.

Chapter Eleven: Stories
A return to some of the questions I was asking in the first chapter, in which I try and fail to resolve what sort of a writer Priest is.

Works Cited

Index
And here, after 235 pages and 80-odd thousand words, the book comes to a close. Is it some sort of a victory that after all of this I still love Priest’s work?

The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest

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So, the book is real, it exists, it is sitting on my desk, it is available to be bought.

It is described thus in the blurb (which for a blessing I didn’t write myself):

Paul Kincaid’s book divides itself into a series of chronological and thematic readings of Christopher Priest’s life and work. Historical context proves itself to be key in the chronologically ordered chapters, while the thematically arranged ones provide a place to discuss islands, reality, doubles, and the arts. This duality provides an excellent space for Kincaid to use his incisive powers of critical thinking to capture the evanescence and ambivalence of Priest’s writing.

And it has attracted two wonderful comments from writers I admire intensely. M. John Harrison said:

Christopher Priest is one of Britain’s best writers: Paul Kincaid brings his considerable critical skills to this broad yet carefully focussed view of Priest’s intense and determined oeuvre.

And Adam Roberts said:

An absolutely invaluable book: not just the first critical account to cover Priest’s whole career, but the first critical engagement with Priest of any kind to provide a persuasive overall critical approach to this major but hard-to-categorise writer. Kincaid alternates a broadly chronological account of Priest’s writing life with analysis of Priest’s recurring themes and symbols, balancing these two approach such that each illuminates each, and without ever losing sight of the distinctiveness that makes Priest so important—even if part of that distinctiveness is, precisely, his resistance to conventional critical approaches. Kincaid’s critical engagement is always judicious, eloquent, often brilliant and it remains throughout sensitive to the studied ambiguities and shifting complexities of its subject. Critical writing is rarely this good.

The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest is available directly from Gylphi, or, I imagine, from any online book store.

Pentaholics

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I have, over the last week or so, found myself obsessively watching YouTube videos by the a cappella group Pentatonix, and perhaps even more obsessively watching reaction videos to Pentatonix videos. I don’t think I’m yet obsessive enough to be a Pentaholic (which is what fans of the group call themselves) but it must be getting close.

Reaction videos are a very strange phenomenon, which I tend to watch as a guilty pleasure because I find them either sociologically mystifying or amusing. Am I showing my age when I react with amazement as someone says they have never knowingly heard Steely Dan or The Animals or, God help us, The Beatles? And you have to admit it is funny, in a shocking kind of way, to watch two educated and musically aware American kids listen to “Lola” by The Kinks for the first time and (a) think it is describing a sleazy nightclub in somewhere like Havana, and (b) completely miss the cross-dressing references. I mean, I remember when the song first came out in 1970; I was still a fairly naive teenager, but even so I knew it was set in “a bar down in old Soho”, and I couldn’t miss the fact that “I know I’m a man, and so is Lola.”

But reaction videos to Pentatonix seem to be a very different sort of thing. For a start, there is a curious pattern to them. If you happen upon the very first time the person is listening to the group (for some reason it is almost invariably to their version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”), their script is pretty well identical. They start by fumbling the name: “This is a group called Pen … Pen … Pentonicks? Is that how you pronounce it?” (I’ve heard musicians, who should know about the pentatonic scale, have the same problems.) Then you either get: “I’m told this is an a cappella group, and I don’t really like a cappella”, or the video is stopped within the first few seconds with: “Woah! Is this a cappella? Nobody told me it was a cappella.” From that point on, comments follow a very familiar course, they get goosebumps within the first minute, they exclaim at how deep that guy’s voice is, they complain that they can hear a drum so they must be using instruments, they get orgasmic over the girl’s voice and then are stunned into awed silence by the guy with the high voice (“I didn’t expect that!”),and they wonder why they haven’t heard from the black guy who’s banging his chest and stamping his feet. The end is always the same: “Wow!”

After that, there will inevitably be a second Pentatonix reaction (usually, this time, to their version of Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence”), and often recorded within a day or two of the first. But this is very different. By this time they know the names of everyone in the group, as if they’ve been best buddies since childhood: “Oh, that must be Matt who replaced Avi, isn’t his voice a perfect fit for the rest of the guys.”

While I was on holiday, I read One, Two, Three, Four by Craig Brown about The Beatles. When discussing the fan reactions to the group there are constant references to the girls who were convinced they were going to marry one or other of the Fab Four. The thing is, The Beatles were so fresh, so innovative, so exciting and so engaging that those who heard them felt drawn into a strange intimacy with them. I think there is something similar with Pentatonix, that same sense that the beauty and the novelty of what they are doing speaks to each listener individually. We are not observing a group, we are being drawn into an extraordinary family. Those sounds are addressed to me, to me, to me, they give me goosebumps, they make me gasp. The only way to respond to the group is to know them, even if only vicariously.

* *

I first came to Pentatonix like, it would appear, so many of the makers of reaction videos, through “Hallelujah”.

I wouldn’t say that I love the song, it is by no means one of my favourite Leonard Cohen tracks, but it fascinates me. Part of this fascination lies in the mutability of the song. There are a huge number of verses (I seem to remember Cohen saying at one point that he had written something like 20 verses for the song), and each version picks different verses, so that each version is, in effect, a different song. I am wondering if there are verses that have never been sung. Thus, of the four verses sung by Pentatonix, for example, three are familiar (the first two are in just about every version you will hear), but they also choose one of the less familiar verses, and one which thus gives a slightly chillier, haunting affect to their rendition.

One of the fascinations of the song is that the lyrics in the first verse of the song actually lay out its musical structure. The first five lines of the verse are as follows:

I heard there was a secret chord

That David sang and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do ya?

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth,

The minor fall and the major lift

Okay, a little basic music theory. Each key runs through the seven letters of the musical alphabet from the note for which the key is named. The key that is invariably used as an example of this is the key of C, because it is the one key in which there are no sharps and flats. The key of C thus runs: C D E F G A B. The chords that belong in any key always follow a particular pattern: major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished. The chords that belong in the key of C, therefore, are: 1st – C major (usually just C), 2nd – D minor (usually Dm), 3rd – Em, 4th – F, 5th – G, 6th – Am, 7th – Bdim.

Most (though not all) of the transcriptions of “Hallelujah” I have seen put it in the key of C. Therefore, the chords for the last two lines I quoted follow the lyrics exactly. The line starts in C; with the words “the fourth” the music switches to the fourth chord, F; for “the fifth” it switches to the fifth chord, G; “the minor fall” is in Am; and “the major lift” takes us back to F major. It’s a fairly common chord progression, but I find it endlessly fascinating how Cohen fits together words and music in this way.

One of the other fascinations about the song is that it is, like anything by Cohen, very wordy. It demands attention to the lyrics which means that the diction has to be clear. Yet at the same time it demands a slur, “ya” not “you” in order to rhyme with “Hallelu-JAH”. When I was working at Canary Wharf, I once came upon an outdoor concert by a singer who was clearly classically trained and had a very fine voice. But at one point he started singing “Hallelujah” and when, in the first verse, he sang “But you don’t really care for music, do you?” I turned and walked away. By his careful, precise, correct pronunciation, he had destroyed the rhythm and pattern and hence the sense of the lyrics.

* *

The Pentatonix version begins, as so many of their songs do, with Scott (yes, I know, forgive me and bear with me) stepping forward to sing the first line or two unaccompanied. He has a warm baritone, though he can sing a very resonant bass (as in, for instance, “The Sound of Silence”), and here he sings quietly with a little vocal fry (the crackle that you get at the back of the voice) that makes this an intimate whisper, from which the volume will subsequently soar.

The harmony as it comes in is also quiet, ooo’s and mmm’s. But as the verse ends the group starts to arpeggiate the chords, that is, each individually singing one of the notes of the chord. This starts to change the dynamic of the rendition. Avi, the bass, takes the second verse – “Your faith was strong but you needed proof / you saw her bathing on the roof” – singing in a very creamy, sweet low baritone.

As the verse ends, Kevin starts thumping his chest and stamping his foot and creating all sorts of rhythmic noises in his mouth. This is what some people have heard as a drum kit, but it is just a very skilled example of beatboxing. To get the full effect, try their video of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in which, at one point, he perfectly emulates a full drum kit, snare and hi-hat and tympani and so on. This again increases the pulse of the song, making it more urgent, more powerful.

Kirsten takes the third verse – “I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch / but love is not a victory march / it’s a cold and its a broken hallelujah” – and I may be mistaken but I think there’s an effortless key change at this point. Her voice soars as the harmony vocals get louder and more urgent. Then, suddenly, it all falls away and in the abrupt silence we get Mitch singing the final verse – “Maybe there’s a God above / but all I ever learned of love / was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya.” Mitch is a wonder, he has a crystal clear high tenor almost verging on the countertenor. He has a range of somewhere in the region of four octaves, and I have never heard this part of the song without a shiver.

Then all the voices start to merge for the ecstatic climax. For a while Scott’s voice is dominant, then, as it climbs higher, Kirsten takes the lead. Meanwhile Avi rumbles out a low counter-melody. Just as it seems it can get no higher, it all falls away again, ending on a low, soft hum that echoes the quiet of the opening. The last note you hear is a bass note from Avi so low it is almost subliminal.

The thing about this video is how controlled it is, the timing is immaculate, and the voices, all very different, blend perfectly together. Of course, this is a recording made in a studio, but if you search YouTube you will find film of live performances that are pretty well indistinguishable from this recording.

* *

Kirsten, Mitch and Scott were friends at school in a small Texas town. They had been singing together for years when they decided to form a group. But to do that they realised they need some lower notes to underpin their own voices. A friend introduced them to Avi, and another friend showed them a YouTube video of Kevin playing cello and beatboxing at the same time (which strikes me as like patting your head and rubbing your stomach simultaneously). Kevin and Avi joined the group and they entered a TV talent show called “Sing Out”. I’ve no idea if this is still a thing, but it seems to have run for several years, with vocal groups competing for a big cash prize and a recording contract. Video of most if not all of their performances from the show can be found online. There are a couple duff songs, but in the main they strike me as every bit as clever, inventive, and musically sophisticated as any of their later work. The stand-out, for me, is perhaps their version of “Video Killed the Radio Star”.

They won easily, of course, but the record company broke the contract before they even saw the inside of a recording studio. But they decided to stay together and put their stuff out on YouTube to get attention. At some point they recorded a medley of songs from Daft Punk which, according to rumour, they recorded in a kitchen cupboard for less than $400. Nevertheless, the effect is stunning, and it won them the first of their numerous Grammy Awards.

Now, their videos routinely get millions of views (“Hallelujah”, at the time of writing, has had 564 million views), they have a shelf full of awards, and they have, of course, a recording contract.

But here’s the thing: I’m not sure I want to have any of those records. But I will give anything to see them live.