Monday, 29 December 2008

Death of a Hero by Richard Aldington

Death of a Hero was published in 1929 but despite the time lag is very much a product of the First World War, in which Aldington fought, was wounded, and became recognised as a war poet. Incidentally, the distinction of becoming acknowledged both as a novelist and as a poet is a rare one. One thinks of Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy and Lawrence Durrell (with whom Aldington would conduct a famous literary correspondence later in life), but the list is a short one.

Death of a Hero was highly commended many years after its publication by Durrell, and while one has to be careful about this since Durrell was being sycophantic and could lay flattery on with a trowel when he felt like it, his judgement is sound. It has a fair claim to being the first truly modernist novel of the twentieth century, though To The Lighthouse was published in 1927, Women in Love was written during the First World War itself, and The Longest Journey as early as 1907. Despite the chronological order of these novels, however, there is a quality that sets Aldington apart from either Woolf, Lawrence or Forster.

Woolf was concerned with the technical aspects of novel writing, most famously her use of the stream of consciousness technique, and with dissecting the psychological motivations of her characters. She was apt to forget Forster’s famous reminder that “the novel, oh dear yes, the novel tells a story”, and perhaps this had something to do with the decline in her popularity. Am I alone in finding her unnecessarily “difficult” to read? Aldington tells his story in direct, straightforward prose, and I use the word “story” deliberately since there is that unfashionable combination of elements: a beginning, a middle and an end (almost literally since the book is divided into three sequential sections).

Lawrence was concerned, at least partly, with portraying the sexual aspects of human relationships, both actual and repressed. Aldington does not bother with these niceties but dives straight into describing sexual relationships as they actually occur, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. There is not the same analysis between the characters as occurs in The Rainbow and Women in Love. Here, the story is told and that is that. Aldington would probably never have come up with such memorable prose as describing someone as “not a coherent human being but a roomful of old echoes”, yet much of Lawrence’s conversation seems stilted and artificial to a modern reader, whereas Aldington’s does not. Incidentally, the lack of sexual analysis did not save Death of a Hero from the attentions of the censor, and substantial cuts had to be made before publication.

Forster was of course a completely different sort of writer, one who liked to make his points by wry observation much in the way of Jane Austen or E.F. Benson, and it is probably no coincidence that both he and Benson were gay; there is the same deliciously camp flavour about both their prose styles. While some might take issue with this, one could argue that what he wrote were essentially novels of manners. Again, Aldington had little time for this. He tells us bluntly what happens and leaves the question of any judgement of the characters to the reader.

It is this gift of ruthlessly honest observation, simply told, that distinguishes Aldington’s work and provides him with a distinctive voice, and it for this reason that I venture to call him a truly “modernist” writer. He is not playing around with technical fireworks, or trying to impress with florid prose, but telling a story acted out by deftly crafted characters.

The story such as it is may be quickly told, though I am deliberately not going to give away the ending of the book save to say that it foreshadows a novel of the second war by Sartre. Had he read Aldington, I wonder? George Winterbourne is brought up in a seemingly conventional middle class family, though his mother has a string of affairs. Moving to London, he begins a thoroughly modern relationship with Elizabeth; both agree that they should be free to take other lovers. Eventually marriage results, again with the same agreement as to an open relationship. Things go awry, however, when Elizabeth discovers that on the nights she is spending with her lover of the moment, George is making love to her best friend. What is sauce for the goose, it transpires, is not sauce for the gander. The final section of the book can best be described by saying simply that the First World War intervenes and George goes off to fight in France.

Though Aldington never stoops to judgmental passages, we are clearly meant to see Elizabeth as an unattractive character. She reminded me of various characters drawn by a similarly neglected English novelist, Patrick Hamilton, some of whose women are almost unbearably awful (and some of the men, in fairness, almost unbearably weak). I think the clue to the real meaning of the book lies in its title, however. For me, Aldington is saying that after the horrors of the war it is no longer possible even to keep up a pretence of the possibility of any sort of heroic or principled existence. There are clear auto-biographical elements here as Aldington was not only wounded physically during the war but also suffered for many years from the after effects of shell shock; perhaps that is why it took him so long to write this book, which he openly admitted was based partly on his own experiences of a decade before.

George, the “hero” of the book, takes what people say at face value, and is disillusioned by the meaningless destruction of the war, and his fellow officers’ cynical reaction to it. A more complex character would probably have quickly worked out that this was no more than a defence mechanism to the horrors being witnessed on a daily basis, but George is not a complex character; he is one who says what he feels and expects others to do the same. Elizabeth is almost exactly the opposite so it is perhaps inevitable that their relationship is doomed from the outset. She speaks in euphemisms and expects others to understand what she only hints at. She espouses sexual freedom but does not expect her husband actually to practise it, and certainly not with her best friend.

Aldington would write other novels, most notably Rejected Guest in 1939, but none would have the directness and freshness of Death of a Hero. He was a prolific writer of non-fiction, especially biographies and criticism, and achieved notoriety as the author of a hugely controversial revisionist biography of Lawrence of Arabia in 1954, the vitriolic reaction to which greatly upset him. By this time he was living in France, having left England for good in 1928, and in 1957 he began the literary correspondence with his near neighbour and fellow exile Lawrence Durrell that lasted until his death in 1962 and which has been published under the title Literary Lifelines.

Aldington is well overdue a re-evaluation. In his early life he was married to the American poet Hilda Doolittle, usually referred to, especially by herself, simply as “H.D.”. According to no less an authority than Ezra Pound, it was Aldington and H.D. who together founded the Imagist school of poetry. As well as his friendship with Pound, he was also to have close relationships with Ford Maddox Ford (alias Hueffer) - both he and H.D. took dictation of passages that became The Good Soldier – and T.S. Eliot. That he was a fine writer there can be no doubt; his biography of Wellington won the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Yet in all his writings (or all of them that I have read, at any rate), and particularly when he is being at his most intimate such as in the later letters to Durrell, there is a melancholic nostalgia for a world which probably never existed, or at least not as he would have liked it to. There is the sense of someone who very much wanted to be part of the literary establishment but felt himself a perpetual outsider gazing in through the window like Cathy and Heathcliffe at the Lintons’ dance. His self-imposed exile, the reasons for which baffled his friends and which he never explained, even to Durrell, can be seen in this light. Reading between the lines, much of this may be laid at his own door; he seems to have found it difficult to sustain friendly relationships with other writers, or to come to terms with the lack of success which some of his books encountered, though much of this may well be the enduring long term after effects of shell shock, which was not in those days recognised as a disease requiring treatment, except in extreme cases, and certainly not on an ongoing basis (we know that he suffered from severe headaches in later life).

It is precisely this quality of slight detachment, however, that makes Death of Hero such an excellent novel. It is told as if by one standing passively on the sidelines and watching events unfold that, while they are part of one’s life, somehow have an air of unreality and unimportance. Lawrence Durrell was undeniably a great novelist, but maybe it takes one to know one.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Madness and Civilisation by Michel Foucault

I have read various books in French, but am happy to admit that Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation is not among them. Happily a full English translation was published by Routledge some years ago, and so this important work is now available to a whole new body of readers.

Madness and Civilisation is a re-working of Foucault’s 1961 doctoral thesis which looks at the treatment of madness through the ages. The first thing to note, however, is that Foucault draws a distinction between the “mad” and the “unreasonable”, something which is perhaps more meaningful in French, where “déraison” is one possible interpretation of “insanity”. Foucault’s point is that is was the “unreasonable” who were reviled, locked up and generally ill-treated, but that to be “unreasonable” perhaps meant no more than to have an alternative point of view. R.D. Laing would of course express related sentiments in The Divided Self, in which he suggested that what we commonly view as insanity, and in particular schizophrenia, might actually be no more than a sane person’s reaction to an insane world. Laing would later claim Foucault as supporting his views, though the latter was characteristically ambivalent when asked about this. Two things people realised about Foucault very quickly were that he hated taking anything other than centre stage, and that he hated being pinned down on any particular subject. Towards the end of his life his utterances became positively opaque, and he specifically disavowed several of his earlier books, though never Madness and Civilisation.

While on the subject of other writers it is worth pointing out that similar views had been expressed even before Foucault. During the previous decade, Henri Bergson had suggested that the brain might operate as a mechanism for filtering out aspects of reality which are too rich for the mind to deal with, and Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception mused in 1954 as to whether “madness” occurs where this mechanism fails to operate properly, so that someone glimpses reality as is actually is rather than the sanitised version of it that is intended for them.

There was an interesting version of this view circulating even during the Renaissance. The reason, or truth of God was beyond human understanding, but it was suggested that the insane had come closer to this truth than had been intended for human experience, and had been rendered mad in consequence. Thus the coupling of insanity with a superior, or at least alternative view of reality is one that has a long history. Modern writers such as John Collier, H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick were to incorporate this idea into their own work. Indeed, Dick himself famously claimed to have had some sort of revelatory experience in his own life, during which some such sort of altered or superior reality revealed itself to him.

As with so much modern thought, we also find a sound rooting in Freud. He thought that the natural state of mankind was viciousness, destructiveness, and a total inability to live together for the common good. Civilisation is for him something which acts as a filter to deflect these natural but base instincts in the interests of human progress. Like Huxley, he believed that when these safety mechanisms failed, what we regard as mental illness could result. Thus “madness” might be not an abnormal functioning of the mind but rather a totally normal functioning, yet one which society for various reasons cannot admit, much less tolerate. Hence the modern inability to admit an alternative view has a lengthy, if not an honourable tradition.

Sadly both Foucault and Laing were criticised, with some justification, by their more industrious but less interesting academic colleagues, as being populist writers and for sacrificing intellectual endeavour for self-publicity. Certainly Foucault was someone who would have attended the opening of an envelope, who turned every issue into a petition so long as he could be the first signatory on the page, and every petition into a lengthy press conference. He campaigned for socialism in the fifties, and against it in the eighties. He took part in the highly publicised shoplifting raids of a bizarre Maoist organisation which stole luxury foodstuffs and distributed them to the poor. He demonstrated with Paris students in 1968, being tear gassed and imprisoned. He demonstrated on behalf of Algerian nationalists, and later also went to Iran, famously claiming that an Islamic revolutionary republic was a logical impossibility because Islam did not believe in the power of the state. Ayatollah Khomeini disagreed.

The fact that both Foucault and, less flamboyantly, Laing spent so much time on television shows was held in some way to diminish the seriousness of their message, which is a shame because it has never been more apposite. In his later works Foucault would go on to examine at great length the concept of power, and that what seems at first sight the protection of the individual may simply be the state lengthening its reach: a chilling foretaste of life in a post 9-11 world. He also believed that contemporary views of madness had been conditioned by bourgeois morality of the nineteenth century, which saw work as a holy and social duty, and the mad as being denied any chance of redemption through employment.

We live in democracies which past generations of Americans and European fought and died to create and preserve. We enjoy a high standard of civil liberties, often enshrined in constitutions or Bills of Rights. Yet never has the alternative view been more under threat. Never have the words “terror” or “terrorist” been more easily bandied around as an excuse to stifle even discussion, let alone dissent. As Speaker Reed famously said “all the wisdom in the world consists of shouting with the majority”.

A pessimistic view of civilisation might take the view that we had the chance during the Age of Reason to shake off the old shibboleths of kings, gods and tribes. That we had an opportunity to banish for ever the police state, political polemic and petty bourgeois morality. Yet we failed, and these shibboleths now exert as strong a sway as ever they did. Leaders around the globe of all nationalities, religions and political persuasions exhibit views of the world which are self-evidently delusional and demented. Thinking people must find themselves daily posing the question “am I mad and the rest of the world sane, or (more worryingly), am I the sane one?”

Reading Madness and Civilisation may therefore come as a great comfort. Foucault believes that society is prone to define madness for its own convenience, and to brand as “unreason” all that which might challenge the traditional view. Therefore take heart, and join the growing ranks of the mad.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Sunday Times festival talk

No joke, I'm assured, but the date for my E.F. Benson talk will be 1st April - 12 noon in Christchurch College, Oxford and all welcome. Signed copies of Major Benjy will of course be plentifully available!

Monday, 15 December 2008

Oxford Literary Festival

I have been asked to give a talk on E.F. Benson at the 2009 Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. I will post a time and date when I have it.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Living with the Truth by Jim Murdoch

Jim Murdoch describes himself as making steady but erratic progress as a writer. When I read Living with the Truth, I assumed he meant as a novelist, but now I’m not so sure. I do not mean this as an insult – far from it. What I am trying to convey is that while I was reading this excellent and absorbing novel I had a strong feeling that it had actually been written by a poet, and on researching further for the purposes of writing this review I discover sure enough that Murdoch has been writing poetry since he was a teenager, and so his emergence as a poet pre-dates his discovery of himself as a novelist. There are some sentences that could be lifted straight out of this book and re-set as verse, and very good verse too. For example:

Here he was, in his twilight years, his life well and truly worn in, perhaps even a bit frayed round the cuffs …

The premise of the book is simple enough, though I am going to have to be more cursory here than I would like as I am determined not to give away the ending. Jonathan Payne is moving towards the latter end of middle age and leads a life which contains little of interest. He runs a second-hand bookshop, he has no human relationships of any note, and it is debatable whether he really even has any genuine interest in matters literary. He has drifted into his present situation, and has continued to drift aimlessly ever since. He is one of those people who are shaped by events, rather than vice versa, bobbing along like all the other human flotsam and jetsam on the rather scummy tide of life.

(It was) not that he had a particular reason to die, he simply lacked a decent excuse to keep living.

Into his bookshop and his life walks Truth, an omniscient supreme being, who proceeds to bring him face to face with various facets of his life both past and present. The idea that over the quiet boredom of a mundane existence hovers the continual possibility of a metaphysical encounter is handled with everyday nonchalance and a certain black humour which calls to mind Peter Cook playing the devil in Bedazzled.

“I remember a certain time with Descartes: we bumped into each other in this tavern in Holland and we got talking about the meaning of life – he was heavily into stuff like that too, whereas I was far more fascinated by the fact that the barmaid’s bosoms didn’t topple out of her dress … Anyhow, he’d come up with this great new gimmick of his – Cogito ergo Sum – I’m pink, therefore I’m spam. I don’t know why it had to be in Latin, but there you go.”

When helping out around the shop, knowing in advance exactly what every customer wants clearly comes in helpful. Miss Tremble, a seemingly respectable spinster, is handed “an erotic work, whose author had greater aspirations for it than it rightly deserved”. Incidentally, this episode also demonstrates Murdoch’s priceless ability to find a few evocative phrases which perfectly convey someone’s personality on an almost subliminal level. This is one of the novelist’s greatest gifts, and very few are blessed with it.

She had been saving herself for the right man and the interest was accruing nicely. The fact is ‘interest’ could be her middle name, as that was as far as she’d ever got.

Truth dissects Jonathan’s relationships with the opposite sex, which have been infrequent enough to be capable of easy enumeration, and helps him to the realisation that his recollection and evaluation of these has been unnecessarily harsh, and that in at least one case a major opportunity was missed. To say more would risk disclosing essential plot developments, but let us just say that by the end the book Jonathan has become considerably more self-aware than he was when we first met him.

Murdoch offers that priceless commodity, a unique novelist’s voice. Many labour for this, but it is granted to very few and where it appears it is an unmistakeable sign of true talent. In this, as in fact in some other things, Murdoch resembles his countryman, Frank McGillion, who is also reviewed on this blog. There is the same arch and rather mischievous poetry in his view of passing objects and people, for a start.

The woman at Number 66 was calling her son Tommy who was choosing not to hear her death threats if she had to cross that road to fetch him … a couple of sullen teenagers passed them, if not dressed to kill then at least dressed up to commit GBH

This, then, is a novel that speaks to one and it always difficult to define exactly how and why this occurs, partly since the experience is necessarily subjective, but it does. It is a novel which offers frequent shafts of wisdom, usually dressed up as sly, witty asides. More than anything it is a novel which stays with you. By force of circumstances a period of some months elapsed between my reading the book and writing this review. Yet I found that it was still so perfectly formed in my mind that though I read it again (with just as much pleasure as before) I could probably have written this just as well based on my recollection alone.

Jim Murdoch has a genuine natural talent and it as well for all of us that he has both recognised this fact and, so far as I understand it from his blog The Truth About Lies, managed now to arrange his life in such a way that he will have more time to write in the future. That’s good news for everybody.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Life on hold

Many apologies for the promised reviews which have not materialised. My real life occupation has gone crazy, with many assignments in Asia so that since the beginning of October I have been passing through London only for a day or so at a time before heading out to see another client. Details if you are interested at the usual place.

I have started receiving quite a few requests from publishers to review a book on the site, so at least people must be visiting! I am happy to oblige provided it is "my sort of book" which I suppose means literary fiction or interesting non-fiction, particularly history or philosophy. Please do not approach me about "chick lit", as a couple of folk have recently, as I am very senstive about dealing out rejection.

Life will get back to normal from about 2 December onwards, and I promise to make up for lost time.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Songs of Blue and Gold by Deborah Lawrenson

I must confess to a strong sense of personal bias about Deborah Lawrenson’s Songs of Blue and Gold since it features a character who, though highly fictionalised, is clearly (and Lawrenson openly admits this) based on Lawrence Durrell, without doubt my favourite novelist. Like me, she particularly admires the Alexandria Quartet, which she transposes for her character, Julian Adie, into the Cairo Triptych. However, let me say that regardless of the Durrell perspective, I really enjoyed reading this book.

The basic premise is a detective story. Melissa, the central character, undergoes a traumatic combination of events in which, in short order, her marriage breaks up, her mother develops Alzheimer’s disease and has to go into a home, and then the mother dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Just before leaving home for the last time she presses one of Adie’s books into her daughter’s hands. It bears a cryptic inscription in the author’s own handwriting that suggests that she and Adie may have been lovers, and been privy to some great secret that must never be revealed.

This serves as a device to have Melissa go to stay on Corfu and begin rooting around for the truth. To say more would be risk giving away key aspects of the plot. Suffice it to say that the narrative is well-constructed and leaves the reader always eager to start the next chapter for the next layer of truth to be peeled away. This is despite continual shifting between time and place which in the hands of a less accomplished writer could be very confusing.

The references to Durrell’s own life and works, and those of his naturalist brother, are very well handled. Like me, Lawrenson has read and enjoyed the biographies, both the official one by Ian McNiven and the unauthorised, and thus less sanitised one by Gordon Bowker. The first three wives are all drawn from the pages of those biographies; only the names have been changed.

The parts of the book that I enjoyed most were the descriptions of first Melissa and then her mother (later in the book, but first chronologically, of course) on Corfu. There was a sense of immediacy, and that here was a world in which Lawrenson thoroughly believed and felt at home. It also helps, of course, that she is a very fine writer with more than a hint of Durrell about her own prose.

Time and truth are elastic. I could feel that strongly here, sitting on the rocks on which they once sat and which he described so alluringly, peeling away the layers of the present and the past. The slippage of years is like the strong undertow of the sea over steeply shelving beach.

I had a little more difficultly with the other parts of the book, particularly those describing Melissa’s present day problems with her husband. Perhaps it is just that so many books have been written about women in similar situations by women authors that the whole genre is in danger of becoming almost a pastiche of itself. Perhaps also these parts suffer in comparison to the Corfu scenes because the latter are so vibrant and unique. Whatever the case, I thought the husband was in danger of becoming almost a stereotype male figure; in particular we never really understand his motivation (though there are third party points of view, all from women) for acting as he does. I am not suggesting this is Lawrenson’s fault, simply that this particular theme has been done to death over the last twenty years and that to say something new about it has thus become an enormous challenge.

Again, without giving away too much of the plot, the identity of the man with whom Melissa will end the story happily ever after is obvious from a very early stage to anyone who has ever read a Jilly Cooper story (I deliberately am not using the world “novel”). I could not help wondering whether such a well-worn formulaic approach might have been forced upon the author by her agent or publisher, anxious to create a “commercial” book. Personally, I found myself saying “oh no, not that” and almost wishing for an unhappy, or at least unresolved ending, but then perhaps I am just a hardened old cynic.

Congratulations to Deborah Lawrenson for having written such a hugely enjoyable book. My last point is strictly speaking nothing to do with the book itself but about its packaging. Publishers today seemed obsessed with brands, and with squeezing a book into one rather than letting its merits speak for itself. This book has very clearly been labelled and packaged as chick-lit romantic fiction (whereas it is undeniably a serious literary novel) and I must confess that had I picked it up in a bookshop I almost certainly would not have bought it. Publishers should beware the old legal maxim expressio unius, exclusio alterius.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Still reading despite appearances to the contrary!

Apologies for not having posted another review yet. I do have several in the pipeline, including one of a novel by the Scottish writer and fellow blogger Jim Murdoch, but a glance at my webiste will reveal how busy I am in my other life, plus I am working hard on my next book, which will be a narrative history of the Plantagenets (when it's finished) ...

At least I have got around to changing my reading list.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Some Tame Gazelle: Barbara Pym

Some Tame Gazelle is a testament to the persistence that is an essential part of any writer’s make-up. Finished in 1935, it was not published until 1950. Of course, the world was a very different place by then, with any remaining illusions of innocence and human goodness having been shattered for ever by the Second World War and its attendant horrors, and one wonders if this had something to do with the publishers’ change of heart. Perhaps there was feeling that after the war readers were yearning for some escapist material, set in an altogether gentler age.

I came to Barbara Pym on the recommendation of various people whose opinions I respect, most recently the novelist Alexander McCall Smith, and I deliberately chose this novel as I knew it had been her first, written immediately after she left university. As a novel, it is almost a contradiction in terms. A novel, Forster said, tells a story, and yet this is a book in which very little of substance seems to happen. For a modern reader, brought up to expect at least one marriage break-up or hallucinogenic episode a chapter, it will feel tame and dull. To a reader who appreciates an expert using the English language as it was supposed to be employed, it will be a delight.

So, nothing much happens, but to say that is to miss the point of the book, as I suspect the publishers originally missed it back in 1935. Pym presents us with a slice of real life as it actually happens, and one might think that this means a description of the dull and the mundane. Yet what is dull and mundane depends not on the events themselves but upon one’s perception of them. Viewed and described as they are through the lens of her characters they take on a totally new life, since they become our means to understand the characters themselves.

I think it is no accident that people who enjoy Pym tend also to be admirers of E.F. Benson: McCall Smith certainly is, indeed he cites them (along with Narayan and Auden) as his four main literary influences. He says that Pym, Narayan and Benson all write of human yearning, and a striving after something elusive. That is certainly true here. Harriet and Belinda are two sisters who live together. As the narrative progresses we work out that both are in their early fifties, yet this comes as something of a surprise since they both seem to have preserved exactly the same outlook they had as young girls. This is one of the many ways in which our temporal sense is manipulated slightly by Pym. We constantly hear, for example, fifty being described as the prime of life. Yet there are other, darker tones which intrude, such as the references to unmarried sixty year old men looking for a wife to help them towards the grave.

Harriet likes to mother young curates, whereas Belinda is in love with the real thing, a neighbouring clergyman, (the archdeacon, which calls to mind Trollope’s great creation), who had the poor taste to marry someone else instead.

Belinda, having loved the archdeacon when she was twenty, and not found anyone to replace him since, had naturally got into the habit of loving him, though with the years her passion had mellowed into a comfortable feeling, more like the cosiness of a winter evening by the fire than the uncertain rapture of a spring morning.

This passage sets the tone for the book itself, which has exactly that feeling of mellow fruitfulness. It is no coincidence that all the characters, with the exception of the young curate himself and his fiancée whom we glimpse but briefly at the end, are in the autumn of their lives. This is a gentle book, which we read as if reposing in a hot bath that has just gone slightly off the boil yet can still induce a sense of dreamy lassitude.

Actually, the archdeacon is a rather unpleasant character: querulous, petty, pompous, arrogant, and openly unpleasant to his wife. So throughout the book we are presented with evidence of the filtering effect of a character’s feelings on that which they perceive around them. Early on in the book the archdeacon’s wife, Agatha, goes away to Italy on holiday, where incidentally she meets a bishop whom she brings home to visit the village. In a different book, with different characters, the scene would now be set for a prolonged period of sexual tension as we wonder whether Belinda and the archdeacon will resist temptation or take advantage of the opportunity which has been presented, but of course we know that this is not that sort of book.

True passion is conspicuous by its absence. Visiting gentlemen pop in to deliver a proposal of marriage, delivered in a charming yet stilted manner, apart from the rather racy Ricardo, who proposes to Harriet regularly every few months in a passionate, poetry-spouting sort of way. Rejected, the gentleman usually nods sadly but sagely and departs without finishing his tea, though he is liable simply to walk straight down the road and propose to someone else instead, reviving memories of Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice.

This is a novel where the most important thought in anyone’s mind seems to be with whom they are going to take tea that afternoon. Yet these petty social niceties mask a range of complex emotions which are no less real for remaining entirely unrequited. Agatha is rather in love with the bishop, but married to the archdeacon. The bishop is rather in love with Belinda, who is rather in love with the archdeacon, who is married to Agatha but thinks constantly that he would rather be married to Belinda. It is Harriet who points out in a common sense sort of fashion that the parties might consider a straight swap, or re-arrangements along the lines which their emotions suggest, but such things happen only in films such as The Wicked Lady.

McCall Smith says that Pym’s novels are stories of the yearnings of ordinary people, and that is certainly right if you can get around the fact that to a modern reader these people are far from ordinary. What he might have gone on to say is that it is a yearning which is destined to remain always unfulfilled, and that where resolution occurs it is not through the emotion being requited, but by the character coming to terms with it, and forcing it down into themselves until it becomes just a comforting, cuddly teddy bear that they carry around with them. Which thought chimes rather conveniently with the title itself, which is from a poem by Thomas Haynes Bayly, the next line of which is:
Something to love, oh, something to love!

Monday, 15 September 2008

Friends of Tilling Gathering 2008

I have just returned from a visit to Rye for the 2008 Fiends of Tilling Gathering. For those who don’t know, “Tilling” is the fictional settings for E.F. Benson’s Miss Mapp plus the three Mapp and Lucia books which follow, but is actually Rye in East Sussex, where he lived for many years, serving three terms as mayor in the process. Unlike the E.F. Benson Society, which is a proper society with a permanent membership, the Friends are a group who come together on an ad hoc basis once a year to pay tribute to Benson and in particular to his Mapp and Lucia books.

The morning began with a visit to Benson’s grave, which is not in Rye churchyard (though many people unsuccessfully look for it there) but in a very pleasant cemetery a little out of town on a hillside overlooking the gorgeous East Sussex countryside. If you have to be dead, then I guess this is as good a place to do it as any.

Then on to Rye Old Books, run by the wonderful Aoife Coleman where I not only ran into a lady librarian (always a pleasure in itself) from Blackpool named Joan, but surprised her in the very act of buying Major Benjy, which I was delighted to sign for her. Rye Old Books is a delightful establishment, of a kind which is now a vanishing breed and I do urge you to visit and support it when next you are in Rye. Aoife is a genuine and expert bibliophile, a fund of knowledge and humorous anecdotes on any literary topic under the sun, and a warm and lovely person.

Luncheon followed, with a new Mapp and Lucia story written by an anonymous admirer and read by the actor Nicholas Grace, best known for his brilliant show-stealing performance as Anthony Blanche in the television “Brideshead Revisited”. I was sitting with him at lunch and am delighted to report that we had the most wonderful conversation about nasal sprays, facial steamers, and skin moisturisers. He really does have the skin of a twenty year old. (For my part, I had the body of an eighteen year old, but let go of it reluctantly in mid-afternoon.) Joking aside, he is a charming companion and witty conversationalist, and a mine of knowledge on books and plays. It was very kind of him indeed to make time available to attend, as he was literally in the middle of a filming schedule.

Just time for a quick visit to Lamb House, the home in turn of Henry James and E.F.Benson, and now a National Trust property. In the books, its serves as Mallards while Mapp lives there but Lucia changes it to the rather grander sounding Mallards House. Sadly the famous garden room which features in the books was destroyed by German bombing in 1940 and has never been rebuilt.

Then on to my talk on Benson, which meandered around various literary byways, via some rather well-worn jokes. As people started to show their appreciation in the traditional manner (by falling asleep), I drew matters to a close. I am happy to report that every one of the copies of Major Benjy which the publishers had provided was snapped up by the eager members of the audience.

Then dinner, with a speech by the renowned author Alexander McCall Smith, whom I had no idea was a Luciaphile, and who was very gracious indeed about Major Benjy. I had the opportunity of a chat with him after dinner. He said his four main literary influences were Auden, Naryan, Benson and Barbara Pym. I must confess that I have not read the latter, but as she has also been recommended by various members of the Yahoo Benson Group I really have no further excuse and have just ordered Some Tame Gazelle.

I had a strong recommendation from Erwin of the Yahoo group (whom I am happy to report won first prize in the Benson quiz) for Final Edition, which I have likewise just ordered. Taking into account that I also unearthed a J.G, Farrell first edition in Rye Old Books, my literary cup runneth over.

Many thanks indeed to Jonathan Dunlop and Darren Reynolds for their selfless hard work in organising such an enjoyable event. Such is their devotion to detail that they even visited the cemetery the day before to tidy up the grave and check that the country footpath was still safely navigable after the recent heavy rains. Anybody interested in attending the 2009 event (on 5 September) should keep an eye on the Friends of Tilling website.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Blogging again soon!

Apologies for the lack of postings. This has been largely due to being denied internet access for three weeks by BT Broadband.

I am just back from the Friends of Tilling 2008 Gathering in Rye, at which I gave a talk on E.F. Benson, visited Lamb House, and signed copies of my new book. I got to discuss copyright issues with a famous author, and discuss male skincare products with a famous actor.

A detailed report will be posted here soon ...

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

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Dorothy Whipple, novelist

There is a very good review of the unjustly neglected novelist Dorothy Whipple to be found at, 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 cafés, 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