Friday, 30 April 2010

"Mother London" by Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock is probably best known for his Pyat Quartet, a work which I greatly admired, but which somehow did not quite work for me. Towering picaresque novels, the four books trace the life of Maxim Pyatniski, a Russian inventor and his relationship with an Englishwoman who, at least in her youth, is a great beauty and a mistress of several men in succession.

I recently saw Mother London in the library and was instantly capitivated by it. It is worth noting at the outset that Moorcock is a very talented writer, and has worked in a number of genres, including science fiction, for which he has won many major awards over the years.

I should also mention that I have recently read Thomas Pynchon's V (see a review on this blog), and felt very strong echoes of that book, not just stylistically but also within the narrative feel, most notably during the period when V2 rockets are falling on London. In fact, out of interest, I checked which had been written first. Moorcock's book was published in 1988 , whereas V was 25 years earlier. It would be fascinating to know if Moorcock had read it and, if so, what he thought of it.

Mother London is told in a series of vignettes which dot backwards and forwards in time, and are told by various narrators. The only connecting factors are London itself, which almost becomes a character in its own right, a little like Alexandria in the Alexandria Quartet, and the fact that all the narrators have been diagnosed with mental problems and most of them know each other, so that they flit in and out of each other's stories. The three central characters in particular have all been at the same mental hospital at the same time.

Apart from being a fine novel in its own right, Mother London asks some disturbing questions about the nature of mental illness and our perception of it. Is it, for example, simply a convenient way of classifying and ignoring something with which we do not know how to deal? Is it perhaps simply a sane reaction to an insane world, as suggested by R.D. Laing in The Divided Self? Foucault's Madness and Civilisation, which looks at differing attitudes to madness through the ages, is another interesting parallel.

Despite its structure, the narrative is not disjointed. This is a difficult trick to pull off, but Moorcock manages it. There is even a gratifying sense of satisfaction as everything comes together at the end amidst mist and romance.

This is one of the best novels I have read for a long time, and it is difficult to believe that it has not won a major fiction prize. Who knows, I may event try his Cornelius books, even though they are SF ...

1 comment:

Frank said...

I've not read much Moorcock (The Vengeance of Rome which I was amused and disturbed by) and a 'best of'short stories which I dislike - but Mother London is a wonderful revelation. I like your review.