Friday, 22 August 2008

Off to Asia

I will not be posting again untl September as I am off to Asia to run some workshops in my other life. The curious can see details at http://www.guyfs.com

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Dorothy Whipple, novelist

There is a very good review of the unjustly neglected novelist Dorothy Whipple to be found at http://normblog.typepad.com/, I would recommend in particular They Were Sisters, which I read many years ago and is now sadly out of print, like most good books.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

"Steppenwolf" by Hermann Hesse

I venture on a review of Steppenwolf with some trepidation, firstly because it has a reputation as one of the most complex (and, its author believed, one of the most widely misunderstood) European novels and secondly because I have read relatively few of Hesse’s other works, although I have read The Glass Bead Game, which was instrumental in him being awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1946, and I have also read Peter Camenzind, albeit about twenty years ago. Also, in Steppenwolf more so than in many novels there are biographical elements, ranging from echoes to direct references, and so a significant knowledge of Hesse’s life is helpful, but I have been unable to find a full biography in the English language and sadly my German is not up to reading anything longer than the text of Winterreise.

It sounds trite to say that Steppenwolf operates on different levels, yet say it I must, for disentangling these different levels, both of narrative and of argument, is important. The book, as quickly becomes evident once we move into the main body of it, is about the nature of personality, intellect and spirituality and here we must introduce our first biographical note. Hesse experienced severe mental problems as a boy, at one stage attempting suicide and being institutionalised. Though he seems to have made a recovery, incidentally by working as an apprentice bookseller, he later became deeply interested in psychology not least because his wife, Maria, herself suffered increasingly severe mental illness, to the extent that their marriage broke up and Hesse himself suffered a relapse. It was then that he underwent psycho-analysis with a student of Jung and also met and came to know Jung himself. Jung’s theories became, and remained, a major influence on his writing.

The book begins with a sort of prologue by the son of a landlady describing one of her lodgers, an odd but harmless loner, the Steppenwolf (wolf of the steppes) of the title, whose real name is Harry Haller. The lodger leaves the son a book on his departure and the novel then takes the form first of an introduction to the book written by Haller, and then the book itself which, it transpires, has been given to Haller by a mysterious man advertising a Magic Theatre which is “not for everybody”. To his surprise, he find that it is entitled “Treatise on the Steppenwolf. Not for everybody.”

We learn from the second part of the book that Haller feels a duality of personality. There is the man, who craves the comfort of a bourgeois existence, and the wolf, who threatens to predominate and must constantly be held in check, who despises the petty pleasures of the world, and the stilted civility of a middle class household. This duality surely mirrors Jung’s division of the self into the conscious and the unconscious, one manifestation of which represents the primitive man (the wolf / unconscious mind), who is driven by strong instincts, and the modern man (the man / conscious mind) who has learned to control those instincts in the interests of social inter-action, but who has also lost something in the process. As Jung says in Man and his symbols:

“I am not denying that great gains have resulted from the evolution of civilised society. But these gains have been made at the price of enormous losses, whose extent we have scarcely begun to estimate.”

The third part of the book increasingly makes clear that Haller’s obsession with this duality is both irrelevant and rather laughable. Rather than being composed of two separate factors, his mind and personality are in fact a complex assembly of a large number, later visualised as a mirror breaking into many shards of glass. Could he but come to recognise and accept this, he would be happy but, as the ending makes clear, he cannot, and that is his real tragedy.

Perhaps one reason why this aspect of the novel was not well understood was that until fairly recently the mind-set of western readers would have been formed entirely by the European Judaeo-Christian tradition, which sees morality as a binary struggle between good and evil, and which states its moral rules in the form of religious dogma. The influence of the more subtle Buddhist tradition only began to make itself felt with the hippy generation, too late for Hesse himself who died in 1962. Again, there is an important biographical point here. In 1911 he went on a long solitary trip to the Far East, partly, one suspects, to escape from his increasingly unstable wife, and there imbibed Asian religions such as Buddhism, as is evident for example in Siddhartha, which was published about ten years later.

Haller the man/wolf finds everyday experience shallow and depressing, craving either pain or pleasure simply as a means of experiencing real existence.

“There is much to be said for these bearable and submissive days on which neither pain nor pleasure cry out … but it is just this sort of contentment that I cannot endure … in desperation, I have to escape into other regions … A wild longing for strong emotions and sensations seethes in me, a rage against this toneless, flat, normal an sterile life. I have a mad impulse to smash something … to seduce a little girl …”

He also finds the ability of modern man to find pleasure in the petty and the trivial almost unbearable, and this increases his sense of isolation.

“I cannot remain for long in either theatre or movie. I can scarcely read a paper, seldom a modern book. I cannot understand what pleasures and joys they are that drive people to the overcrowded railways and hotels, into the packed caf├ęs, with the suffocating and obtrusive music … I cannot understand nor share these joys, though they are within my reach, for which thousands of others strive.”

He encounters apparent rescue from this soulless daily round of existence in the shape of a girl who befriends him in a bar. At first he does not know her name. When he finally asks her, she turns the question round by asking him what he thinks her name might be. All at once the name of a childhood friend, Hermann, comes to mind. She agrees at once that this is indeed her name, but Hermann is of course a man’s name (not to mention Hesse’s own), so Haller now ventures Hermine, its female equivalent, and again she agrees, though suggesting playfully that perhaps she is a boy dressed in girl’s clothing. This sexual ambivalence is echoed later in the novel when she appears to Haller at a masked ball dressed as a man. Again, the book is functioning on different levels. Is Hermann / Hermine a figment of Haller’s imagination? Has his self invented her as an escape mechanism into the world of the everyday and the mundane, hence her teaching him to dance and to enjoy popular music?

There is yet another layer of duality here, in the distinction between the group and the individual. Haller feels isolated from society (the group) not because he does not understand it, but because he does, and feels his own superiority to it. His inability to enjoy the group’s pleasures he interprets as springing from a need to enjoy more spiritual or cultural matters, symbolised in the book by the simple beauty of Mozart’s music. Is Hermine suggesting that in order to arrive at such a view he first needs to become part of the group, and learn to share its experiences before he can properly judge them? Certainly the idea of learning how to synchronise the conscious and unconscious minds is an important part of Jung’s writings.

Hermine finds Haller a lover (her name, Maria, is an obvious auto-biographical reference) with whom he finds genuine passion and pleasure. Hermine insists that this is all part of a ploy on her part to make Haller fall in love with her. Chillingly, she also predicts that he will end up by killing her. Dancing lessons lead to a masked ball, which in turn moves dreamlike into the Magic Theatre. One view of what happens here is that Haller is presented with different possible versions of his self, or at least different possible actions and outcomes, one of the images being that already referred to of the shattered mirror. Is Haller being offered the chance to embrace the multiplicity and complexity of his personality in order to escape from the crippling duality which he suffers?

Certainly Hesse himself seemed to suggesting this, for in 1961 he wrote that the book had been badly misunderstood. It was not a book about pain and suffering, he said, but about “transcendence and healing”; if one was following a Judaeo-Christian agenda, one might almost add “redemption” to the list. If so, then Haller fails the test, because in the final dream-like sequence in the Magic Theatre he ends up killing Hermine with a knife. The keeper of the Theatre expresses his disappointment, picking up the body of Hermine who has now miraculously shrunk to a small doll-like figure. Both agree that Haller has at least learnt something from the experience and that he will do better next time.

If we interpret the book as a dialogue between Haller’s conscious and unconscious minds, then the Magic Theatre sequences represent his dreams. Jung believed that dreams were communications from the unconscious mind and that we could use them to work out the true nature of our self. This process was important:

“For the sake of mental stability … the conscious and the unconscious must be integrally connected … if they are split apart or “dissociated” then psychological disturbance follows. In this respect, dream symbols are the essential message carriers from the instinctive to the rational parts of the human mind.”

All of which goes to prove my starting premise that this is surely one of the most complex novels ever written, functioning on a number of different levels and capable of many different lines of analysis and interpretation. To dismiss it, as Jack Kerouac did, as “stupid and senseless” is manifestly absurd. It is one of the most intellectual and thought-provoking of books, one which both demands and repays re-reading and mature reflection. It deals with the deepest of human conundrums: the nature of the self, the search for self-knowledge, and the understanding of the human condition which can then result. Kerouac, as a student of Buddhism himself, should have realised that.

Phil Dick overload?

A few people who read my review of Flow, my tears, the policeman said (I suppose I should self-importantly correct that to “a few of the many people”) were intrigued by my comments on Dick’s continual wrestling with different views of reality and have asked if I might expand on this a little. I would straight away recommend them to read a very interesting book about Dick called I am alive and you are dead by Emmanuel Carrere, but since I have some experience of wrestling with reality myself as a novelist perhaps I can also add a few perspectives of my own, though let me acknowledge openly that I will be drawing heavily in places on Carrere’s book. I am also honoured that Tessa Dick, Phil’s widow, should have taken the trouble to get in touch with some comments on my original post, all of which I have naturally been delighted to incorporate.

The title of his book, by the way, is a reference to Ubik, in which some characters are presented as being alive but are in fact dead, while others are portrayed as effectively dead but being kept alive, or at least existent, artificially. For anyone looking to dip a first toe into the water of Dick’s oeuvre, it is not a bad starting point.

Talking of starting points, his “experience” on 2nd March 1974 is generally taken as having sparked what became an obsession with the nature of reality and perception. It was the day, Dick said a year later when he “saw that the world did not compute”. Lawrence Sutin in his biography of Dick, Divine Invasion, quotes him thus:

“It, from inside me, looked out and saw the world did not compute, that I - and it - had been lied to. It denied the reality, and power, and authenticity of the world, saying, 'This cannot exist; it cannot exist’.”

While not seeking in any way to downplay the effect of this on Dick, there are one or two points to bear in mind here. First, Dick himself was unsure of exactly what nature this revelation had taken; that is why I have deliberately used the word “experience”, which was as neutral a word as I could conjure up, but even this is loaded to a certain extent in that it acknowledges that something actually happened, no matter what it might have been. Dick later explicitly acknowledged the possibility that he might have been mistaken (what he called his “minimum hypothesis”), or have misinterpreted what he felt or experienced.

The other thing I would point out is that the constant description of altered states of reality (or rather, altered perceptions of reality) was already a leitmotif running through his books well before this experience occurred. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch was published nearly a decade earlier in 1965, and Eye in the Sky as early as 1957. So, whatever the experience might have been or done, it may have contributed to the internal debate but it certainly did not initiate it.

We should also consider the zeitgeist of California in the fifties and sixties, an era when hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD were legally available, and people were becoming aware for the first time that the establishment was not the benign father figure that it purported to be, but a cynical, manipulative clique whose only real purpose in life was to cling to, and if possible increase still further its power. It is distinctly possible that both of these things could have been major contributory factors to Dick’s subsequent writing and to his eventual paranoid delusions.

It was also a time when new scientific musing was taking place about the nature of perception and reality, and in particular the role played by the human mind. R.D. Laing in The Divided Self argued that what society sees as madness may actually be a sane person’s reaction to a mad world, an idea developed twenty years later by Foucault in Madness and Civilisation. Aldous Huxley and Henri Bergson agreed, describing the brain as a mechanism for filtering out a reality which is too rich for people to deal with. Writing in The Doors of Perception in 1954, Huxley advanced the theory that madness is what occurs when the mechanism fails, and a person catches a glimpse of reality as it really is. Incidentally, Huxley was a user of LSD and asked to be injected with it a few hours before he died, so that he could enjoy the experience more intensely.

The British writer John Collier suggested that the universe might be like a pint of beer, with each bubble a separate galaxy. What would happen, he wondered, if a few people living in one tiny bubble should happen to peer out and catch a glimpse of the man pouring the beer? For them, nothing could ever be the same again. The horror writer H.P. Lovecraft adopted the word “eldritch” to describe this sort of feeling, what Carrere describes as the panic and betrayal at realising the true nature of the falsely familiar. We know that Dick read this and that it affected him deeply, since he created a character named “Eldritch” who distorted people’s perceived reality through the use of narcotics. In fact, Freud had earlier used the word “unheimlich” to describe this sort of sensation.

Dick already knew that perception was treacherous, that the senses could lead us false, and that the human mind altered its perception of reality as much as possible to avoid having to confront a reality that may not sit well with the individual’s belief system, or that may cause friction within the collective spread of belief systems of a group of people. He was familiar from reading Jung with the ancient Greek concept of “idios kosmos” as being the individualised version of reality that each person carries around in their head, and “koinos kosmos” as being what people think of as being reality, but which is really a diplomatic fiction to allow society or a community to function. Dick described this as the lowest common denominator of the group. From this it was for Dick only a short step to a recognition that the business of ordering any society consists simply of the deception of the many by the few.

“What seems real is a deception. What rational beings agree on as constituting reality is an illusion, a simulacrum, created either by the few in an effort to mislead the many or else by some external power intent on misleading everyone. Reality is not reality.” Emmanuel Carrere, from I am alive and you are dead.

For many, I am sure that this is what makes Dick’s writing so compelling. Not only are they very well written, but they force us to question our own everyday world through his eyes. It is one thing to acknowledge that everything told to us by government is somewhere between an evasion and a downright deception, and quite another to question the whole physical fabric of our reality, yet that is the step which Dick invites us to take. And that way, as he was to find out to his cost, madness lies.

"Flow, my tears, the policeman said" by Philip K. Dick

There are certain novelists who are not taken nearly as seriously as they should be because of the subject matter they choose. Patrick O’Brian, C.S. Forester and Derek Robinson are all probably examples of this; despite Robinson having been short-listed for the Booker in 1971, various of his books are currently out of print, while O’Brian was never short-listed but surely would have been had he written modern day working class stories in Glaswegian dialect. From the world of science fiction, Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick would also be prime candidates for this sort of snooty critical disdain.

This last statement might require some slight qualification, though. When we think of science fiction, we tend to think of stories set far in the future and grappling with huge themes such as conquest, oppression, scientific advancement, enlightenment and the indomitable nature of the human spirit; certainly much of this is present in Asimov. Yet Dick’s books are mostly set in the late twentieth century, and tell stories set on a very small scale of human experience. Many science fiction books are set in faraway worlds and feature fantastic inventions such as inter-galactic space drives. Yet Dick’s books are set mostly on earth and, although using different names and employing a few additional features, his gadgets could quite credibly form part of our own environment, or at least that slightly warped parallel universe which he makes out of it. If his works are science fiction, then so is Orwell’s 1984.

This is the key to appreciating what Dick does as a writer. He takes a world which could be our own and then manipulates it in some quirky, and usually nightmarish way. It is as if he reaches out, takes time and space in his hands, and twists them, so that some parts are compressed and others stretched. This nasty creased mess then becomes the canvass on which he starts to paint his scene, with his characters left at the mercy of wherever they come to fall on the treacherous terrain.

“Treacherous” because in Dick’s world nothing can be relied upon to be what it seems. He is one of the few writers ever to have achieved an eponymous adjective, and this is exactly what “phildickian” means: that in some bizarre way one’s belief system is about to be put radically to the test. He is obsessed with the nature of reality or, more precisely, with different people’s perceptions of reality and of how these might be manipulated. Frequently this operates on many different levels, each adding a new layer of complexity. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (later made into the film Bladerunner), for example, Dick not only creates androids who believe they are human, but poses the question “if androids can believe they are human, how can any human be sure they are not an android?”

In Dick’s case there is an added piquancy to these alternative views of reality since it was something that he himself experienced, by which he became obsessed, and which was either the product or the cause of serious mental health problems. In 1974 he had an experience, or a number of experiences which he variously described as blinding light and a sense of recognising that reality was not as he had previously understood it to be. He frequently referred to this as, and used as the title of an early novel, an eye in the sky, in other words being part of an artificial world that somebody has created and catching the creator unawares gazing in at his creation, rather like a colony of ants suddenly discovering that the world they have been living in has actually been built between two sheets of glass so that young scientists can observe their workings.

Tantalisingly, there are hints in his later writings that he may actually have made all this up, but whatever the case there can be no doubting the disturbed balance of his mind. The evidence is plentiful. He convinced a psychiatrist that his wife was trying to kill him, resulting in her being taken away and confined in a secure mental hospital, being fed tranquilisers to calm her constant rage, which the doctors ascribed to her unbridled murderous instincts (his problems really began when she was finally released …) He addressed a later wife in nothing but German, though refusing to allow her to learn the language. He removed the labels from all his records, insisting that people should choose their music by instinct. Later in life, he covered dozens of notebooks in nonsense writing, insisting they (his Exegesis) would be his true literary legacy. He believed, and almost convinced the FBI, that he was being targeted by the Russian secret service, kept under surveillance and being used as a pawn in some indeterminate plot for world domination. However, the assertion in his official biography that repeatedly asking women for sex was further evidence of mental illness may say more about the biographer’s mind than his subject’s.

In The Penultimate Truth, millions live in crowded subterranean colonies believing that the planet surface is lethally radioactive, but it is a lie, spun by the rulers up top, and perpetuated by phony media broadcasts. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a sub-plot also makes use of a media con-trick, with the added twist that when this is exposed, people continue to believe in it anyway because they find the false world it has created more comforting that the reality which they dare not confront. In Ubik the reader is left wondering whether the central character actually died early on the in the novel. In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, we find a different kind of altered reality as the population are fed a hallucinogenic drug.

Flow, my tears, the policeman said takes Dick’s obsession with different layers of reality to new heights. It is difficult to analyse this in any details without giving away the plot, but the novel open with Jason, the hero, a famous singer and TV star, discovering that he has apparently ceased to exist, with nobody every having heard of his TV show (which has mysteriously disappeared from the weekly listings) and there being no record of his birth at the central registry. Naturally the police find this both suspicious and disturbing, since they assume that he has stolen his file from the records department, yet only somebody very important could have done this. It then becomes clear that the police too (or one of them in particular) is grappling with different layers of truth. The most impressive thing, though, is that Dick manages to set most of the novel inside the heads of the two main characters, yet without in any way losing the grip of the reader’s attention. Anyone who has watched a new wave French film consisting of seemingly interminable monologues delivered by an unwashed man smoking a cigarette will recognise the scale of this achievement.

The reason for this is quite simple; Dick is a very fine writer indeed. The dialogue has an everyday credibility to it, as do the thought processes that run through Jason’s head. When it comes to General Buckman, the “policeman” of the title the balance of the book shifts significantly, as surely Dick meant it to, to the extent that we even begin to wonder who is supposed to be the real hero, even the real narrator. Is Jason intended by fate to be the catalyst that releases Buckman’s secret into the clear light of day (though again, misleading media coverage attempts to obscure the truth)? Or does Buckman offer Jason, in some perverse way, a route back to existence and the world he craves, a world where he exists in the eyes of his many fans and can soak up their adulation? Unfortunately, it is difficult to develop this point further without divulging key elements of the book’s denouement.

Once cannot say that a reappraisal of Dick is overdue, because thankfully it has already started. He has been compared to Kafka and to Borges, among others. Surprisingly, nobody has thus far mentioned Orwell.

“At the 469th Precinct station, Jason Taverner found himself lost in a multitude of men and women who moved aimlessly, waiting to get in, waiting to get out, waiting for information, waiting to be told what to do. McNulty had pinned a coloured tag on his lapel; God and the police alone knew what it meant.”

That could be from 1984, but is in fact from Flow, my tears the policeman said. However, there is a dryness, a sparseness about Orwell that does not always sit well with Dick. Typically his style is more flowing and instinctive; there are parts of this book which almost approach a stream of consciousness technique. There are similarities between the two writers, though. Both struggled with severe ill health, one physical the other mental. Both felt themselves profoundly out of tune with conventional society. Both believed that the basic decency of mankind would always assert itself if left alone to do so, but that it could be squeezed out of people by the unremitting daily grind.

“He did not object to the people; he saw them as trapped here, the ordinaries, who through no fault of their own had to remain. They had not invented it; they did not like it; they endured it, as he had not had to. In fact, he felt guilty, seeing their grim faces, their turned-down mouths. Jagged, unhappy mouths.”

That could be Orwell from The Road to Wigan Pier, but it isn’t, it’s Dick again. Like Jason Taverner, Orwell too felt guilty when he encountered “the ordinaries”. Guilty that he had not had to endure what they had, and guilty because he knew that he, like them, would have proved unequal to the struggle.

Dick has yet to find, or be ascribed, his rightful place in the pantheon of American novelists. For now, the critics are still moving him up and down, and along the shelves from side to side to see where he might best fit. There is no doubt that the “sci fi” tag has both delayed and confused this process. Perhaps it is meaningless. Throw it off and Dick is undeniably a great novelist. Replace it and he is not enhanced, but perhaps diminished, at least in some people’s eyes, notwithstanding that what he wrote was not really “sci fi” at all, but simply alternative offerings of reality.

His contemporaries included Updike, Heller, Kerouac and Bellow and it is difficult to say that he cannot rank with any of them, despite the exalted status of the last name in that list. He wrote what was seen as popular fiction, published for the most part by small specialist publishers, and the critical perception of his work has undoubtedly suffered because of this. However, so did Dickens, and his has not.

"The Leaf" by Frank McGillion

Wagner’s great Ring begins with an almost inaudible E flat, rising gradually both in volume and pitch as he begins to build first octaves and then arpeggios upon it; from this simple note grows imperceptibly yet majestically the river Rhine itself, and the river is in turn an allegory for life, the world and the eternal flow of birth, death and renewal. In the same way, Frank McGillion’s The Leaf begins with a depiction of precipitation, considered first as simple rain and then reduced gradually almost to an atomic level as simple moisture hanging and swirling in the air, blending with breeze and light to produce what is surely intended as an allegory of the building blocks of existence itself, both physical and spiritual.

The subtitle “a novel of alchemy” is helpful but almost superfluous since from the very outset we are left in little doubt that what we are dealing with here are deep matters indeed, and on many different levels. The great themes of creation, renewal and existence run through the work, and we are invited to consider what role man may be able to play in the process, and what limits should be placed upon his efforts. The choice of wetness as an idea to begin the book is surely not coincidental; Thales, the earliest of all recorded philosophers, believed that the essence of all being was water, and guessed at the atomic nature of matter, just as McGillion hints at the combining of individual factors, each invisible in itself, to produce a holistic being. Adding yet a further level of complexity, the reader finds this idea too played out on various planes, but to develop this analysis further would be to divulge a key aspect of the plot.

The writing style is highly distinctive and we recognise from the very first page that what we are hearing is a unique voice. What makes this all the more impressive is that much of McGillion’s earlier work, including On the Edge of a Lifetime, which was nominated for the Booker Prize, and its sequel From Shoreline to Mainstream are written in a dazzling mixture of black humour, comic book surrealism and Glaswegian teenage chutzpah, but here we are in very different territory indeed. One struggles to think of other novelists who have written in such different styles. Some may have tried, but surely none can have succeeded so impressively. Simply to underline the difference, and not with any intention of implying that his style is in any way derivative, the voice we hear in The Leaf has echoes of Doris Lessing and William Golding.

The opening passages of the book bring to mind that period of one’s school life before one is trusted with a microscope, and has to observe nature through a magnifying lens. McGillion skewers small aspects of human observation on his specimen board and invites us to scrutinise them meticulously and mercilessly. Again, it cannot be a coincidence that the golden age of natural sciences which forms the inspiration for much of what we are told was itself before the science of lens grinding had progressed sufficiently to allow the development of the microscope, and so the magnifying lens would have been the way that the likes of Paracelsus, whose name hovers unspoken over proceedings in the novel, would have observed nature.

Corporeal existence and the incorporeal, metaphysical world mingle throughout the book, as does the idea of atomic, almost granular existence, and the boundaries are always blurred, one merging into another, often in a seemingly random fashion.

“And his pen scraped and her eyes searched and a silence settled softly on their lives. And the years laid themselves open and unrestrained and they drifted into them and with them and through them like fine golden sand slipping softly away. And lines of time rose from tiny cracking seeds and wormed hazily web-like across their faces, dribbles of time splashing over them, ripples spreading as the encroaching sea beat the edges of its waves around them.”

Incidentally McGillion is far too fine a writer to start a sentence with a conjunction without a particular effect in mind. In this book the word “and” is used over and over again as the first word in a sentence to convey a sensation of a narrative that is gently undulating yet unending; it ebbs and flows but never stops. Even its “end” is not really an end, but the completion of a circuit. Just as Wagner’s Ring begins and ends with the Rhine and a low E flat (he was insistent on the E flat even though it meant tuning the double basses a semitone lower than normal because he believed in the subconscious emotional effect of certain notes) so does The Leaf. In its end is its beginning; to turn the last page is to find oneself back on the first.

“It was night. The rain fell through the city with a soft watery whisper.”

“And outside the rain fell silently around him and froze itself into snowflakes. And he was quite unaware of them falling and landing softly without a ripple on the earth.”


Incidentally, just as the final scene of the Ring uses music symbolising the union of Brunnhilde and Siegfried, so the image of unseen snow at the end of The Leaf is an explicit reference to the occasion on which he (the central male character) first sees his future wife.

“He heard the outside door open and new voices fluttered in with a vague cool draught. One of the voices said it was snowing … He looked again at the young woman standing quietly listening to her companions. And his thoughts fell over her like the unseen snow.”

Novels which grapple with huge issues run the risk of being branded self-indulgent, pretentious, or even downright boring. That The Leaf does not is testament not just to the quality of the writing but also to the fact that McGillion has learned the knack of letting his narrative do the talking for him; again Golding comes to mind. For example, just as Pincher Martin uses an island initially as a symbol of loneliness and isolation and later, in a multi-layered book, as an allegory of death, so an island plays a large part in The Leaf. Initially this seems little more than a plot device to bring about a state of travelling to an isolated location away from the comforting environment of the childhood home, but as the book progresses it acquires various guises. It is a place where perhaps the normal rules do not apply. It is a place where people may go to convalesce mentally and spiritually away from the demands and pressures of everyday life. It symbolises a finite separation between those who go and those who stay behind. It is a place where visions occur which cannot be glimpsed in the city, and a place where secrets are sought, and later half-glimpsed and only partially explained. It is a place which can exert its own magic and draw people back to it to look back over the passage of years.

“The island secreted its influence through her and her days, until she had merged completely with her past and saw things almost as she had as a child.”

The island is where the central female character, Elizabeth, experiences two visions, both of them as a child. We never learn the full spiritual message which they convey, though it is presumably no coincidence that McGillion is an acknowledged expert on the Fatima miracle and that the 1917 vision appeared in sunshine which, according to some accounts, shone through the leaves of a tree. This is apt, because we learn that there is also a real life secret which concerns Elizabeth and it is unclear to what extent she ever fully grasps the truth, although a section towards the end of the book suggests that she does not.

The seeking after truth runs through the book like a leitmotiv. At least two of the main characters have studied the arcane arts; in both cases it disturbs their mental health. The image of drinking from the cup of truth is employed both in the early and closing stages of the tale. Yet is it really the cup of truth? In the Ring the draught which Siegfried drinks prevents him from seeing the truth, a blindness to reality which is lifted only in the moment of death. In The Leaf one character refers to whatever is in the cup as “forbidden fruits” which could refer to great mysteries normally hidden to men’s eyes, but could equally well hint at a new awareness of sin, or to some sort of spiritual opiate helping to dull the pain of knowledge. Those who drink from the first cup go on thirsting after knowledge rather than being the beneficiaries of some sudden revelation, and we are left to wonder why the church is using the same liquid as those whose theories they seek to suppress. Like Wagner with his E flat, McGillion is calling to us at a subconscious level with his imagery of communion wine, truth serums, sleeping draughts and love potions. Again without giving away too much of the plot, what we learn after the final drink is taken calls to mind the line from Hamlet: “and in the cup a union shall he throw”.

This is a very significant work from a very talented writer. When the story of the modern novel comes to be written, the name of Frank McGillion will feature strongly as an unjustly neglected and under-rated craftsman who managed to write originally, entertainingly and thought-provokingly in at least two different styles.

The Leaf is published in paperback by Xlibris, ISBN 0738899097