With less than twenty-four hours to go, here is something that approximately half the population of the UK will not find funny.
See you on the other side …
With less than twenty-four hours to go, here is something that approximately half the population of the UK will not find funny.
See you on the other side …
Same book, same publication date (September), two different approaches. The one on the left is Gollancz’s UK edition; the other is Titan’s edition for the USA. I have been waiting a long time for the Gollancz cover to be finalized, partly my fault because at first I said I liked the original draft, then changed my mind. I was away travelling for much of May, and assumed things would happen while I was away. At last, mid-June, I think these two are now the ones.
I have been reading this biography* of the Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosinski, a figure of deep ambiguity, a man of endless contradictions and apparent deceptiveness. He was a liar, a plagiarist, a shameless social climber, a hater and abuser of small dogs, a manipulator of women, a constant user of whores, an annoying player of unfunny and sometimes dangerous practical jokes. All of this was routinely denied by Kosinski, while most of his strange and dysfunctional acts were known and witnessed by many others. I knew none of it myself at the time, while not seriously doubting it when I became aware of what had been said. Rumours and accusations followed his career (intensifying after his death by suicide, a quarter of a century ago), with many people coming forward to claim that they had actually written his books for him. Some successful writers attract hostility and jealousy – Kosinski suffered these in spades. Everything is described in detail in the biography. Whatever the truth, for me Jerzy Kosinski was a novelist I found inspiring and influential.
I first came across his work in 1968, when his second novel, Steps, was published in the UK. I had never read another book like it: almost every page was a shock, a revelation. This was partly because of the period – Steps seemed to fit naturally into the social upheavals of the time – but also partly because I was a young and beginning writer, trying to write and sell my own first novel. I was seeking a voice, seeking encouragement, seeking almost everything. I was dissatisfied with the conventional narratives of the novel, knew that there were ways to try to break out into more adventurous methods, but I was also stricken with a kind of stage fright, a nervousness about my own limitations.
Incautiously reading Steps was for me like suddenly throwing open a door without knowing what might be on the other side of the steep wall that contained it – there was what seemed to be a burst of light, revelations, openings, possibilities, a view of scenery I had not suspected was there, or ever could be. Steps consists of many short narratives, told in an icily clear, unemphatic voice. It is all description, with hardly any dialogue. It is written in a detached narrative voice, first person, unemotional, worryingly dispassionate – but the steps in Steps are violent, abusive, sometimes disgusting, dangerous, always unexpected.
I have not re-read Steps since that first time, but its images still haunt me. I soon found Kosinski’s only other book available then: it was in fact his first novel, The Painted Bird, published a couple of years before Steps. The Painted Bird is a more linear narrative, but also consists of a series of shocking scenes or events. As the Germans invade Poland in 1939, the middle-class parents of a young Jewish boy place him for safety with peasants in a remote part of the countryside. This arrangement quickly breaks down, and the boy endures the rest of the war alone and sleeping rough, fending for himself in a strange and hostile landscape. He witnesses, or endures, appalling events as the Holocaust goes on around him – what you read in Steps is mild when compared with The Painted Bird. Some of the material is so horrifying that it is almost literally impossible to read. Again, Kosinski’s narrative voice was hypnotically calm, but because of what I knew about the author’s personal background (from the brief author descriptions on the book jackets) I assumed it was an autobiographical novel. If so it was unlike anything of that sort I had ever read.
Most people made the same assumption. By the time his novels were published, Kosinski had social-climbed his way into the upper echelons of the New York literary establishment. A regular at dinner parties, he repeatedly told his horrifying anecdotes: parental abandonment, trying to pass as a non-Jew, the violence of ignorant peasants, mutilation by criminals and SS members, being struck dumb. When he worked these stories into a book the publisher, who had heard them from Kosinski’s lips, accepted it as a non-fiction work. Kosinski insisted it was fiction, and as such it was published. When people read The Painted Bird, thinking as I did that it was a novel heavily influenced by personal experience, Kosinski would say in public that “it was all true”.
Who really wrote his books is a question that I think will never be answered. There have been various allegations of plagiarism or cheating. Perhaps the most damaging of these was that one of his most successful novels, Being There (1971), appears to have been a rewrite of a minor best-selling novel, published in Poland in 1932. The plagiarism would be obvious to many readers in Poland, but the original novel was never translated into English. One George Reavey, an unsuccessful poet, came forward and claimed that it was he who had written The Painted Bird. Others said that Kosinski had worked in some mysterious (and undescribed) way with the CIA – his escape from communist Poland and entry into the USA was suspiciously easy and his political background was always undefined, but the thought of CIA spooks collaborating with him on a novel about the Holocaust is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. His first two books (non-fiction, about the Soviet Union, published with the by-line Joseph Novak) were dictated in Polish to a bilingual secretary. She then fleshed them out into readable English. It is no secret that Kosinski employed a private editor to work as rewriter and adviser on many of the novels, or that Kosinski produced many different versions of his manuscripts, bearing multiple changes with each appearance.
I knew none of this when I read Kosinski’s first two novels, nor, for that matter, when I caught up with his later books. The books existed, they worked as books. Of course, as an author I believe the name of a writer on a book is a sort of guarantee, a brand, a vouchsafing of true identity. But many books are published under pseudonyms, many books are heavily edited by third parties before publication. Were his actions just a matter of degree?
Knowing what we know about Jerzy Kosinski, or strongly suspect, adds something to the intrigue, not something that is particularly flattering, but it made him different, odd, disturbing. Anyway, the novels were for me a terrific stimulus. I often went to read sections of them when I was stuck on one of my own books, not to copy or imitate the style, but partly to try to renew that first revelatory discovery of Kosinski’s unique way of showing the art of the possible.
Reading James Park Sloan’s biography I frequently felt glad that I had never been part of Kosinski’s circle, that I had never met him. But then, suddenly, I remembered that I had met him once, very briefly. In 1983 he came to London to deliver the annual Scott Dawson Memorial Lecture to members of P.E.N. (of which Kosinski was a past president). It was held at the Royal Festival Hall, and the place was packed. In the interval I saw Jerzy Kosinski in the foyer, so I boldly approached him and asked him to autograph my copy of Steps. He looked at it, checked the print information, then said, ‘Have you any idea how rare and valuable this edition is?’
I said I did, and watched as he used a felt-tip pen to double its rarity and value.
* Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography, by James Park Sloan. Dutton, 1996, ISBN 0-525-93784-6
I had been hoping to put up an early image of the covers (UK and USA) of my next novel, The Gradual. The Titan cover for the USA has been agreed, but Gollancz and I are still discussing what should go on the British cover. I should like to place the two images side by side, as they are of equal importance to me. Maybe in the near future? I have now seen and corrected the proofs for the UK edition – publication set for September 15.
Earlier this month we took a short holiday in the highlands of Scotland. It is almost impossible to convey the sense of beauty, awe and peacefulness you gain from seeing so much open scenery, so here are a few photos of what we so briefly visited. We returned refreshed, but with an unmistakable feeling that the Devon countryside, which normally we relish, now seemed a bit, well, flat …
None of these pictures would make a suitable cover for the novel, by the way.
Just to record, slightly amused, slightly egocentric, that earlier this week I (or more correctly my book The Prestige) was a question on BBC-TV’s University Challenge. As things turned out, I was also an answer. It’s a weird experience, when this happens. This was incidentally a step forward, because two or three years ago I was a question on the same programme, but, as things turned out, not an answer.
I am giving a talk this evening (11th March 2016) to the Birmingham SF Group, at the Briar Rose Hotel, Bennett’s Hill, Birmingham, from 7:30pm. I should have mentioned this before — sorry about the short notice. More details here.
While on this subject I will also be appearing at the North London Literary Festival on 22nd March 2016, at Middlesex University in London. Full information here.
We will also be at Mancunicon, the Easter SF convention, from 25th to 27th March 2016, at the Hilton Deansgate Hotel, 303 Deansgate, Manchester M3 4LQ. If you are not already a member of the convention, day memberships are available, but (NB) only if purchased in advance. There will be no day admissions at the door. If you are intending to be there, make contact with them now. Full details of day memberships, and everything else, here. I shall be appearing on two panel discussions, one on Saturday evening, one on Sunday evening.
April looks as if it will be a quiet month, so I will be getting down to work, but during May I am involved in a hectic excursion, which includes two visits to France and a week in Canada. Later in the year: more of the same, even more hectic. I thought things were supposed to slow down as you enter the crepuscular years of your life …
Here is the cover by Valancourt Books for their US paperback reissue of The Space Machine, which was first published by Faber & Faber some 40 years ago. (Yes, that’s FORTY. It’s not the sort of sentence I’m keen on writing. Read it quickly, please.) Valancourt’s edition is going on sale next month, March 2016.
Unlike a child that might have been born in 1976, The Space Machine is 40 years old only by date: it is not an adult, certainly not a middle-aged adult, but a child of its time. My time, in fact: it was my fourth novel, which I started writing more or less straight away after completing Inverted World. It is to my eyes still fresh to read, although I know that if I were to try to write something like it now I would probably muck it up. Lacking self-consciousness can be an advantage.
By the way, this year marks the 150th anniversary of H. G. Wells’s birth. His life and mine overlapped by just over three years, so I inappropriately think of him as a contemporary. I realize now, with hindsight, that my writing of this novel might seem like a bumptious act. At the time, part of what impelled me was the realization that I was then more or less the same age as Wells had been when he was writing his scientific romances — I still consider those to be his best work in fiction.
This is a recommendation to the Argentinian film Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes), which we watched on DVD last weekend. It came out last year and has won prizes and awards at film festivals all over the world, although largely in South and Central America. It gained nominations for the Oscar and BAFTA awards (in the categories embarrassingly and chauvinistically called respectively “Foreign Language” and “Not in English”). It was also nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
Somehow, though, perhaps because it was thought to be “foreign”, it did not gain a theatrical release in the UK, and opened on a paltry four screens in the USA. Traditionally, English-speaking audiences are assumed by distributors to loathe sub-titled films. (It is exactly this kind of unthinking chauvinism that is ultimately behind the current controversy about actors in this year’s Academy Awards.) Whatever the reason, Wild Tales can be fairly said to have slipped through the Anglophone net. More fool us.
It is a wonderful film, one of the best made and most enjoyable I have seen in a long time. It is, though, difficult to describe and review, because of the form it takes. It is a portmanteau film, consisting of six individual short stories, without linking between them. In Wild Tales the stories have nothing in common beyond the theme: they are all about revenge.
The wish for revenge is an intriguing subject, and here it is treated with flourish. Each of the stories is original and unusual, each is well told and skilfully filmed. The cast consists of actors who are not instantly familiar to British and American audiences, but are obviously well known in Argentina – perhaps the most familiar of the actors is Ricardo Darin, who was the lead in such (Argentinian) films as Nine Queens and The Secret in Their Eyes. But the ensemble acting is terrific throughout.
Each of the episodes is imaginatively constructed: there is an ingenious plot as well as the story, and the characters are properly and convincingly drawn. There are memorable images galore: you will never forget the astonishing image with which the first story ends, but it’s not a film of cinematic trickery. The concluding story, for example, is based entirely on character and good writing, and leads up to a most satisfactory and surprising ending.
Wild Tales was produced by Pedro Almodóvar, and was written and directed by Damián Szifrón. I hope Szifrón has a long and successful career ahead of him. I can hardly wait to watch his film again, and I suspect others will enjoy it as much.
During the same weekend we saw a second film. This, oddly enough, had several features in common with Wild Tales. Much of it was filmed in Argentina, for instance. A lot of the dialogue has subtitles in English. It too is about revenge.
It was (perhaps not obviously from that brief summary) the recent blockbuster vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy: The Revenant.
Whereas Wild Tales glories in superlative writing and storytelling, The Revenant is minimally scripted, has hardly any story at all and no plot to speak of. It is no more than an anecdote, padded out for two and a half hours. You will know the anecdote before you go into the cinema: DiCaprio is savaged by a bear, left for dead by his colleague Tom Hardy, and after he recovers he goes off in search of Hardy to exact revenge. There is nothing more to the film than that: apart from a lot of hanging around in cold weather, fabulous photography of cold weather, a dip in a freezing river, endless violence in cold weather, a lot of cruelty in the snow … and a quest for revenge.
Wild Tales was budgeted at $3 millions. The Revenant spent $135 millions. Wild Tales, as I said, opened on a mere handful of American screens. The Revenant opened on more than three thousand.
Wild Tales is the better film.
Until this week any photographs I might have posted of our local countryside here in North Devon would have been awash with mud and puddles. At last some real winter weather has arrived and it is now refreshingly cold.
The photos below are of the flood plain of the Taw Valley. The Taw rises on the northern edge of Dartmoor, then meanders its way in a generally north-westerly direction, reaching the sea at Barnstaple. It is a live river, almost entirely unpolluted and free of modern development for most of its length. The valley is a haven for wild birds, and the river itself is a safe habitat for salmon, trout and otters. In recent years it was brilliantly photographed by James Ravilious (son of the painter Eric Ravilious) who in his lifetime created a unique archive of the scenes and people in this part of North Devon, and whose work casts a impressive shadow across latter-day attempts.
In recent years the area has become known as Tarka Country, based on a popular novel about an otter of that name, by Henry Williamson. There is a long walk through the valley called the Tarka Trail, and our local train service (which crosses Devon from Barnstaple to Exmouth) follows the course of the river for much of the way and is known as the Tarka Line. It is in fact a real train line, a reliable link to the mainline trains in Exeter, and much used by local people. It’s not at all intended as a novelty for tourists, but even so it’s one of the most scenically splendid train journeys in this country.
Here are a few images of what I saw of the flood plain this morning, as I drove in a mundane way to take the car in for a repair:
It is good to see the novel published under its real title at last — when it came out the first time the American publisher (Scribner) changed it to The Perfect Lover. This was partly my own fault — my choice of earlier titles in the USA had turned out to be contentious and I reacted wrongly to that. Two of the titles I had put on my earlier books had led to changes in the USA. Harper & Row changed Fugue for a Darkening Island to Darkening Island, then Inverted World to The Inverted World. Although both these decisions were only slightly mystifying, and the changes only seemingly minor, they led inevitably to confusion in databases and catalogues. I was already fed up with the argument I had to have with the publisher every time (I won two of the arguments: Indoctrinaire and The Space Machine went out in the US with the correct titles), and later I was also fed up with explaining what the difference was to bibliographers, librarians, and so on. It went on for years.
When I completed A Dream of Wessex my then literary agent said that no one outside the UK would have the faintest idea what the word ‘Wessex’ meant, and he proposed a title change. He eventually suggested Future Perfect, which seemed OK for a time — the manuscript went out under that title. Then the British publisher, Faber & Faber, said: ‘No, this is no good.’ They preferred the original! A familiar problem immediately returned, this time in reverse. But to my irritation, even the concession about not alarming American readers by mentioning ‘Wessex’ led to a new argument about the title. Scribner wanted a harmlessly bland formulation, and their change soon seemed not only inevitable but by this time, for me, it was habitual and traditional. The phrase ‘the perfect lover’ is actually used in the novel, but it’s a passing remark — no more than that, a momentary insight, a reflection by one of the characters.
Valancourt’s smart new edition will, I hope, put an end to all that. There is a selection here of the reviews of the original Faber edition — this includes an image of the Faber cover, which is, incidentally, based on a little-known watercolour by the painter Paul Nash.
Meanwhile, here is the cover illustration Valancourt have put on their US paperback edition of my 2002 novel The Separation. This was published back in June 2015, but for some reason the copies Valancourt sent to me did not reach me. I only became aware recently that the book was already out. Until now, or at least until June last year, The Separation had never achieved a mass-market paperback in the USA, so this new release is especially pleasing to me.
The Separation is a novel set during WW2, but it’s the part of WW2 that I have always found interesting: the period when Britain ‘stood alone’, when the world war was actually a European war (but no less serious for that), a time when the USA, the USSR and Japan were not yet involved. After June 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded Russia, it became a worldwide conflagration, more deadly and damaging, a grim conflict with consequences for everyone on the planet. My novel is anti-war in intent.
Here are some of the reviews of The Separation, when first published in hardcover, in the UK and the USA.
Mr Johnson died on Christmas Day — my obituary of him appears here. I never had the pleasure of meeting him in person, but after intensive researches while drafting the article I rather began to wish I had.
Part of my researches involved having a look at what online extracts I could find of the film of his novel, Logan’s Run, released in 1976. (He co-wrote the novel with William F. Nolan, who survives him.) I remember reading Logan’s Run when it came out in the mid 1960s. By the more modest standards of that long-ago era it was fairly heavily hyped by the publishers, but when I read it I found it was a straightforward dystopian satire, better done than some of the other books of that type but not exceptionally so.
It was filmed a few years later, directed by Michael Anderson from an adapted script by David Zelag Goodman, and starred Michael York and Jenny Agutter. I can’t remember much about the film beyond the fact that I did go to see it, so looking at some of it again was a revelation, especially in the context of the currently released Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The ‘first’ Star Wars film was released less than a year after Logan’s Run, and of course transformed forever the interest of Hollywood in the science fiction idiom. The two films came out less than eleven months apart — because of the amount of process work that followed the live action shooting, Star Wars was probably filmed in the UK around the same time as they were making Logan’s Run in Hollywood. Yet they seem to come from different decades, not to say that they emerge from bizarrely different imaginative cultures. Logan’s Run is slow, preachy, unconvincing. The sets and special effects look phoney, the acting is coy, forced and lacking in conviction. As for the costumes: the scenes of life in the community are rather like an especially demented Abba video. Young extras tirelessly walk to and fro, holding hands, chatting and smiling in groups of two and three — the chaps all wear body suits and have blow-waved hair, the young women are in diaphanous one-piece mini-dresses. It’s a ghastly reminder of the awful ‘styles’ that were prevalent in the 1970s. ‘It begins where imagination ends,’ promised the trailer. Never was a truer word —
We saw the new Star Wars release a day or two before Christmas. Whether or not I liked the film is neither here nor there: in terms of the visual effects, acting styles, the costumes, the kind of writing and storytelling, the type of humour, The Force Awakens is entirely consistent with its predecessor, made nearly four decades earlier. Neither film dates the other. Of course, special effects techniques have changed out of all recognition in that time, and there are gentle in-jokes about some of the original actors looking a bit faded, but everything is put to the same service as before. And even in those pre-CGI days, the Star Wars miniatures were convincing, the script had wit, the explosions were not wobbly and semi-transparent, the costumes were non-specific to passing fads and hairstyle fashions. For the full embarrassing truth, check out the Logan’s Run trailer here.
There has long been a plan to re-make the film. Not in itself surprising, but I was astonished to discover how many top film makers and writers had been dragooned into the project, and for how long it has been going on. Efforts to make a new version go back to at least 2004, with directors like Nicolas Winding Refn and Bryan Singer attached, and writers such as Carl Rinsch, Andrew Baldwin and Alex Garland commissioned to write new screenplays. All have come and gone. As recently as July 2015 the experienced producer and writer Simon Kinberg was taken on to re-boot the old project.
I tended to see all this from the point of view of George Clayton Johnson himself. A modern remake of his book would obviously have brought him some welcome recognition, and an injection of cash. I went through something similar a few years ago, while I waited for a Hollywood studio to get around to filming my The Prestige — but in the end I had to wait only five years for the project to be greenlighted, and another twelve months to see the finished film on the screen. For Mr Clayton, the inexplicable process was going on for at least the last ten years of his life, when he was elderly and unwell.
I hope when they get around to it, they do him justice.
If you have not bought a computer printer this year, an internet router or modem, a television set, a hair-dryer, a vacuum cleaner – all is well. If you are thinking of replacing the one you have, read on!
Sometimes the law changes inconspicuously: you hear something on the news, and you understand it and take it in, but it doesn’t have the press of urgency and so within a short time you tend to forget it. The consequence of this kind of forgetfulness has just happened to us.
A couple of years ago we bought a new coffee filter machine. We found one on special offer in Morrisons: £10 for a basic unbranded model. It worked swiftly and made good coffee, and with its large pot (which the manufacturers call a ‘carafe’) we had something that did exactly what we wanted it to do. In short, it sat quietly in the kitchen, exhaling a pleasant smell and from time to time muttering little contented noises. Hot coffee was on hand all day.
Last week it brewed its final pot, the heating element under the hot plate at last burning out. We ordered a replacement from Amazon. Familiar brand name, more or less basic design. (Not £10, though.) It arrived safely the next day. Unsuspecting of an event that was to waste our time for the next couple of days, we set it up, ran clean water through it, then made a pot of coffee.
Coffee filter machines are basic technology, whose simplicity is quickly grasped by anyone who uses them. The water is drawn down from a small reservoir, passes through an insulated heating element in the base, and is then expelled upwards to a nozzle where it drips on to the coffee grounds in a filter beneath. The fresh coffee percolates into the carafe, where it is kept warm by the same heating element under the hot plate. The new machine did all this, but we couldn’t help noticing that it had a number of extra buttons, a timing device, special lights, etc.
While we were still looking at the manual the main special light went out. The hot plate began to cool. We turned it on again. Then we noticed that our radio had stopped working. When we moved the coffee machine away the radio started working again. The new coffee machine was clearly emitting not pleasant smells and little contented noises, but a death-ray of radio interference. We were still trying to find somewhere we could have both appliances (in a kitchen, available free surfaces close to a power socket are not plentiful) when the coffee machine turned itself off again.
Amazon has an excellent, hassle-free returns service, which I recommend.
The next day we went into our local market town to find a replacement, one we could look at in the shop to make sure it wasn’t afflicted with the same level of high-tech irritation. The only problem was that none of the four shops we visited (including a huge general-supplies warehouse on the edge of town) had any in stock. This was surprising – we had assumed filter machines were common consumer products. We ended up driving a further distance to Barnstaple, where there is a branch of Currys. They had two models on sale: we bought the simpler, cheaper one. This too had extra buttons, a digital clock, LEDs that were said to change colour.
We ran fresh water through it, then made a pot of coffee. The radio continued to work, but a few minutes later the filter machine turned itself off.
It was only then that a faint, distant memory arose of some EU-inspired legislation change. A visit to Google confirmed the worst (here and here). From the beginning of 2015, many electric or electronic devices aimed at the consumer market have to turn themselves off if they are not used after a certain, fixed period of time. The reason: an urge to conserve energy, not in itself a bad thing, but because the new rules are aimed at consumers there is nothing we can do about it. There is no discussion, nothing to argue about – climate change is threatening the world. Things are being made differently now.
Governments, local authorities, big corporations are of course free to continue to waste energy however they like. A visitor to any big city after dark will see a blaze of lights, signs, displays, engines running, things being cooked, devices turning, vehicles rushing around. A night flight across North America or Europe will reveal the glare of city lights, which are sometimes so bright they dazzle even from five miles above. Hundreds of thousands of aircraft fly constantly above North America and Europe and everywhere else, millions (perhaps now billions) of cars and other vehicles gulp down fuel every minute of the day. There’s practically no point in trying to list the many ways in which energy is wasted constantly, by everybody, everywhere. The present British government is drawing back from supporting renewable energy sources, and now plans to ruin the environment of the countryside forever with plans to frack in quest of two or three years’ worth of “independent” fossil energy. For these reasons, our little one-kilowatt coffee maker has to turn itself off to prevent global warming.
My next modem, should the current one expire, will turn itself off if “no main task is performed”. Our vacuum cleaner, which noisily, swiftly and efficiently sucks up the usual weekly detritus of dust, bogies, cat hair, etc., will have to be replaced one day by an “eco-friendly” low power machine, which will take twice as long to do the same job and no doubt use up more electricity in the process. I have spent the last two weeks trying to find a decent light-bulb for my reading lamp, one which is bright enough to read a book by, but does not cast a pattern of variegated illumination on the page. I did not realize the difficulty of buying suitable light sources was a symptom of the same cause that now prevents me from having a supply of hot coffee all day: the meddling, inappropriate urge of some mad bureaucrat in Brussels, unresisted by a compliant British government, who wants to control how ordinary people use the precious fossil resources of the world.
This was of course why we had to search around Devon for a shop that carried even a small stock of these now more or less unsuitable coffee machines – people don’t want to buy them any more. And it was also, I now realize, why Morrisons were selling off their old stock at knockdown prices last year. I wish we had bought ten of them.
I have been reading a lot of Patricia Highsmith recently, notably her novel This Sweet Sickness. I carried the book with me on a recent journey to France, one that took several hours in both directions and involved much hanging around in airports and train stations. It did what I hoped it would do, and that was distract me from the endless noise and discomforts of travel delays.
This Sweet Sickness (1960) is about a clever, educated and not unattractive man called David Kelsey. Kelsey has become obsessed with a young woman, Annabelle, whom he hopes and intends to marry. He has constructed a secret alternative identity, which he adopts every weekend. Under a false name, William Neumeister, he goes to stay in a house in the countryside close to where Annabelle lives. Here he lives out a fantasy in which he imagines himself greeting his paramour, showing her proudly around the house, preparing lavish meals for two, opening bottles of fine wines, and so on. Between all this he writes letters to Annabelle, pleading with her to give up her present life and move to be with him (but she has married someone else, and has had a child). Sometimes he telephones her and sometimes he goes to hang around the place where she lives. From time to time Annabelle relents and agrees to meet him, but only to emphasize forcefully that he must back off and leave her alone. Kelsey always wrongly interprets these contacts with her, wilfully blinding himself to reality. Kelsey is, in short, a stalker. A death takes place, partly caused by Kelsey’s actions, and to try to divert police attention from his own role in the incident, Kelsey poses as Neumeister and approaches the police with a false story about an accident. ‘Neumeister’ having diverted suspicion from Kelsey then contrives to disappear into the web of lies that has sustained Kelsey’s fantasy life. For most of the book Kelsey manages to keep Neumeister at a distance from himself, but later there is another semi-deliberate killing.
It’s an interesting study of the psychology of a stalker, but also a fascinating illustration of the way apparently harmless lies create an inescapable trap, as only new and more complex lies must be devised to evade justice. Kelsey moves slowly to an inevitable (but not entirely predictable) fate.
Highsmith’s novels intriguingly often feature non-murders, or semi-murders, almost as if the author shrinks away from the brutal act.
Her third novel, The Blunderer (1954), is typical. Walter Stackhouse is plotting in a blundering sort of way to kill his unstable wife Clara, when she happens to die anyway. Because Walter was closely shadowing her movements at the time, the police treat her death as murder and start to investigate. Meanwhile, Walter becomes obsessed with a similar unsolved crime, in which a bookseller appears to have murdered his own wife. The two men meet. The cop investigating them both is a dangerous psychotic.
The Cry of the Owl (1963) is about another stalker, or more accurately a Peeping Tom. Robert Forrester is spying on Jenny, fantasizing about her life in the house where she lives. Jenny spots him one night as he lurks in her darkened garden, and unexpectedly befriends him. A weird relationship develops, but her fiancé Greg is unsurprisingly not too pleased. Robert and Greg fight violently, and Robert comes off the better. Greg’s body then disappears, leaving Robert in the familiar Highsmithian dilemma of not knowing for sure if he is a murderer or not.
A Suspension of Mercy (1965) is one of my favourites, with a plot not dissimilar to The Blunderer: Bartleby, an American writer living unhappily in Britain with his young wife Alicia, plans to kill her. While Alicia is away visiting a friend, he rehearses how he would actually perform the deadly act, and this includes acting out the murder, then going through the motions of moving her body away from the house and concealing it. Unfortunately, Bartleby’s rehearsal is witnessed by an elderly neighbour (or is it?), and he is incriminated. When Alicia does not return from her visit, and appears to have gone missing, the police start investigating.
In Those Who Walk Away (1967), a man called Coleman blames his son-in-law Ray for the recent and premature death of his daughter, even though Ray too is of course mourning his loss. Coleman attacks Ray while they are in Rome and leaves him for dead. Ray however recovers and escapes to Venice. Coleman follows him, not certain if Ray actually died or not. Ray seizes an opportunity for revenge and Coleman is apparently killed, but again there is no certain evidence of Coleman’s death. The two men stalk each other through the wintry alleys and along the dark canalsides of Venice, both descending into a web of concealment, deception and sudden violence.
These books are classic page-turners and any of them would make a great film, as some of her books already have. My first awareness of Highsmith’s work was in the early 1960s, when Alfred Hitchcock’s film of Strangers on a Train was briefly re-released into cinemas as ‘classic Hitchcock’. (His film Psycho had been a major success in 1960.) This was a time when I was starting to take note of writers who wrote films, or whose work was adapted. I had never heard of Highsmith – Strangers was her first novel, published in 1950 – and I began looking with interest for her books. In spite of Hitchcock’s film she was not then a well-known or widely distributed writer, and the only book of hers I could find was a paperback tie-in of the film.
Over the following years Highsmith built her reputation steadily through her novels. Most of her books were initially published in hard covers, although in Britain at least the editions were usually cheap-looking, aimed at library buyers. An early adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley was made in 1960 in France as Plein Soleil (or Purple Noon), directed by René Clément and starring Alain Delon. Other films have followed, including The Cry of the Owl in 1987, a remake of Mr Ripley in 1999, directed by Anthony Minghella and starring Matt Damon, The Two Faces of January in 2014, and Carol in 2015. Highsmith’s books are now much easier to find, both new and second-hand.
Gradually, her work is coming to identify in a loose sense with America in the early 1950s, although through nearly all of her working life she was living in Europe. In Highsmith’s novels most of the characters have regular jobs, they drive cars, buy houses. In those pre-internet days they make phone-calls and write each other letters. They become engaged and sometimes marry, and they do not, usually, have pre-marital sex. They drink a lot but rarely do drugs. Other than Tom Ripley her characters are not career criminals, but are ordinary people with slightly dysfunctional lives, who drift into murder on an impulse, or by mistake, or as a consequence of an earlier, lesser crime.
There’s a good biography called Beautiful Shadow by Andrew Wilson (2003), and she wrote an excellent book about thrillers called Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966).
A Muslim is ‘one who submits’ – Michel Houellebecq’s new novel is called Submission, and it describes the Islamization of France in the near future. A self-aware novelist, Houellebecq makes clear his particular, peculiar understanding of Islam. The title in French is Soumission, and the straightforward translation to the English equivalent is obvious, but ‘soumission’ has a secondary meaning in English, and probably in French too: submissiveness. There’s a fine difference. Authors often pick titles which use secondary meanings to suggest another way of interpreting the novel, a deeper level of intent.
On page 217 Houellebecq describes what he thinks the real meaning of Islam might be. The narrator of the novel is François, a middle-aged university lecturer, who is having the new French world explained to him. Houellebecq puts the words into the mouth of one Robert Rediger, a charismatic French academic who has reacted opportunistically to the democratic rise to power of an Islamic régime in France. Rediger has joined the new government and converted with alacrity to Islam. With several young female students, he has quickly caught on to the attractions of polygamy. He and his multiple wives now live in a sumptuous house in rue des Arènes, in the 5th arrondisement of Paris, the same house, apparently, where Anne Declos wrote the novel of female sexual submissiveness, Story of O. Through Rediger, Houllebecq makes a link so crass that it is momentarily stunning. Rediger explains to François:
‘… there’s a connection between woman’s submission to man, as it’s described in Story of O, and the Islamic idea of man’s submission to God.’
Houllebecq is notorious for causing offence and presumably saw this political satire as an affront to the French bourgeoisie – it seems more likely that the elders of Islam are going to be upset by a comparison of their faith with Anne Declos’s graphically described novel of male sexual dominance.
Houellebecq is confusing the trappings of Islamic culture with the tenets of Islamic faith, a fundamental error made by many Islamophobes in the West, but the consequences of that are his problem. I’m more concerned with his novel.
There are superficial similarities with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, few of them flattering. Rediger, for instance, fulfils roughly the same sort of role here as O’Brien in Orwell’s novel: he is the party insider, who explains and defines the new and authoritarian régime to François, the book’s narrator. His function is first to explain to François where he has gone wrong, then to offer him salvation. Rediger’s passages of explanation are maddeningly dull – they seem to be based on political party handouts, or newspaper articles, or debates on TV current affairs shows.
Rediger has no literary function beyond exposition, which is why the apparent similarity to Orwell is a trite one: O’Brien was a false-flag operative, luring Winston Smith into a feeling of trust before betraying him, a crucial and memorable sequence which Orwell used as an illustration of the ruthlessness of the Big Brother régime. Houllebecq lacks that kind of subtlety, or any sense of drama. Rediger finishes his explanation and François now is ready to convert to Islam, presumably much taken with the idea of a new beard and some polygamy with his young students. In his own way he too is now loving Big Brother.
Houellebecq has hardly any story to tell: a presidential election in France in 2022 leads first to an inconclusive result, then after the run-off a Muslim politician called Ben Abbes, leader of the so-called Muslim Brotherhood (but not the same one as in Egypt), forms a government. Almost overnight the constitutionally secular French Republic is transformed into an Islamic nation, rather along the model of Saudi Arabia. All women wear veils in public, alcohol is banned, universities are closed, beards are grown, Shariah is introduced.
François has a job at a university, but loses his job at the university. For a while the novel feels like a watered-wine version of The Day of the Triffids – the old order is breaking down and survival is imperative! Riots on the streets of Paris! Shortages in shops! Time to get away from civilization! François jumps into his car and drives out of Paris in his powerful VW Touareg – ‘a turbo-diesel V8 and 4.2 common rail direct fuel injection, it could go 240 kilometres per hour’. He thus speeds down ‘strangely empty’ motorways while everything in the country seems to be ‘broken’. He finds a hotel in Martel (TV not working, no food), then a more congenial one in the Christian shrine village of Rocamadour. He settles down comfortably and spends a lot of time sitting in a church (this is where we and Houellebecq part company from Triffids). After a return to Paris, where the riots appear to be over, or more likely forgotten, he leaps on a TGV (SNCF still working OK) and escapes to become an oblate at a monastery, returns to Paris, listens to Rediger explaining and explaining …
A secondary theme in the novel is François’s interest in the 19th century novelist J.-K. Huysmans, who was the subject of his dissertation years before. Huysmans worked as a civil servant for many years, and was noted for his pessimism and interest in the decadent movement. He became a religious convert after he spent time as an oblate in a monastery. This is the same monastery at Ligugé that François flees to. What sort of point is Houellebecq making here? Are we being invited to see a parallel between François and Huysmans? So it would seem, but Houellebecq’s infilling about him is sketchy to say the least. The thinness of the connection looks perilously like a bit of sophistry, a factitious attempt to give some kind of literary extra meaning to his otherwise uninteresting story.
Speculation about the near future seems these days to be increasingly attractive to writers who would otherwise disdain the idea of writing what they appear to presume is trashy genre science fiction. Houellebecq is just the latest and by no means the worst … but he’s close to the worst. The point is that the literary requirements of all fiction remain necessary when writing speculative or fantastic fiction.
In the first place, a metaphorical level is required: the basic theme of the novel (in this case the Islamization of France) needs poetic irony and resonance: a sense of place, or dread, or rationalism, or humour, or distance, or invention. If you write as Houellebecq has written here – spouting the knee-jerk fears of the tabloid press, or the homilies of ambitious politicians, or the sonorities of newspaper leader writers – then you end up at best with a sort of manifesto. But if you fall below that best, as Houellebecq does in Submission, you do little more than rehash clichés and generalizations and ignorant assumptions and political gobbledegook. Islamophobia is already familiar to us, the daily stuff of headlines, politics and journalism. And in a novel even metaphorical content is not enough on its own: a novel of course requires characters, a mood, a sense of place, a love of language, a story, a plot, a reason for the book to exist that is greater and more lasting than the passing fears of the moment. Houllebecq delivers none of these novelistic qualities, but at least his book is short and soon over. The translation, by Lorin Stein, is well done.
Submission by Michel Houellebecq – William Heinemann, 250 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1-78-515024-1
Patrick Ness’s extraordinary fundraising endeavour for the migrants (Save the Children) has passed the half-million pounds mark. It is genuinely mind-boggling. Rejoice, and join in the excitement here.
But although those Syrian families and lost children are justifiably grabbing the headlines, don’t forget that the crisis on the British doorstep, a short distance away in Calais, has not gone away. Mary Jones’s initiative is to build up the little library that has been created in the migrants’ encampment. This is about somewhere to find shelter, somewhere to read a book, somewhere for the kids to play and learn, somewhere to learn a new language, somewhere to keep warm as winter approaches. Please see my earlier post here.
Mary Jones wants to raise a modest £10,000 — she has recently passed £3,000, with just over two weeks to go. Her project is flexibly funded, so every donation will reach her, even if the main target is not reached. This is a link direct to Mary’s fundraising page.
Predicting the future – events, developments, discoveries – is not the main aim of writing speculative fiction. All fiction is made up, so when you make up a story set a few years into the future you inevitably throw in a few guesses about such things. Most of them, nearly all of them in fact, turn out to be wrong. But every now and then, by accident, by following a hunch, by a stroke of luck, we get things right.
By exactly that sort of good or bad luck, I now witness an upheaval of historical proportions taking place across Europe. Some forty-five years ago my second novel, Fugue for a Darkening Island, dealt metaphorically (as I saw it) with such an upheaval. Things were bad in the novel – I believe them to be just as horrific in reality. More so, in fact. I make no claim for the novel, but the Gollancz paperback edition of 2011 has a new Introduction that attempts to set the context.
On a matter of much less importance:
The Met Office in the UK has decided that from this winter all storms arriving in Britain and Ireland will be given names, in the same way as cyclones in the Pacific and hurricanes in the Atlantic are named. They are soliciting suggestions from the public for a naming system in alphabetical order. I modestly suggest that the search could be a short one as I have already created a unique naming system. I think the weather people should adopt it straight away.
In my novel The Adjacent (which came out in 2013) I described a series of violent weather systems, partly a result of climate change, called temperate storms. The book is set some time after the season has begun, so the earliest named in the book is TS Danielle Darrieux. Mme. Darrieux is followed by Edward Elgar, Federico Fellini and Graham Greene. Soon to come would be TS Hermann Hesse, but the story moved on and Herr Hesse was not required. Before the book begins, northern Europe has already been ravaged by the (undescribed and unmentioned) TS Alan Alda, Brigitte Bardot and Charlie Chaplin.
The difficulty of finding a storm with the initials I. I. was something I shrank from, but considered that eight storms were probably enough for one winter in Europe, and certainly more than enough for the purposes of my novel.
Something I discovered while researching this subject was that the naming of storms was started by the American author George R. Stewart, in his novel Storm (1941).
There is a library in the jungle. It is a small building which has become a focal point of calm and order in the chaos of the waste ground near Calais where thousands of people are being forced to camp out. It has books, art materials, facilities for teaching children and also for them to play. As winter approaches there are plans to put in extra lighting and heating.
Mary Jones, a British resident in Calais, has worked with the migrants to build and equip this symbol of the quiet values. In the worsening human crisis, which the authorities seem incapable of coping with, the ramshackle, temporary building is a practical refuge but also an expression of hope for the future.
Mary Jones is seeking crowdfunding of £10,000 by 24th September. This is by most standards a modest amount, but it would enable her to buy generators, cooking kits, groundsheets, etc. She also wants to get hold of four or five laptops for the school, and for people anxious to make contact with their families through Skype. Within the first few days she has raised just under £1,000.
More details here. Do it now?
From the plays of William Shakespeare, through the novels of the Bronte sisters, the social novels of Charles Dickens, the scientific romances of H. G. Wells, virtually every work of literature that becomes recognized as a classic was conceived and written in the first place for a popular audience. (The only exception to this generalization that I can think of is the work of James Joyce, which has achieved classic status without a groundswell of popular support.)
Recognizing writers in the present day who are likely to achieve long-term recognition as a classic author is a risky business. Popular success often comes about because of the public’s unpredictable reaction, or a wish to find an undemanding read, or because of a response to perceived matters of the moment. Happenstance comes into it, and so does the luck of timing. Best-seller success is therefore usually ephemeral. Can anyone seriously suggest that the ‘Grey’ novels of E. L. James, the ‘Twilight’ novels of Stephenie Meyer, the nonsensical best-sellers by the likes of Dan Brown or Jeffrey Archer, are destined for anything but the dustbin of literary history?
Who now reads, or even remembers, the author Hervey Allen? Or for that matter James Hilton, Dorothea Brande, Alexis Carrel, Franz Werfel, Munro Leaf? The works of Hervey Allen, and all the others, were discussed seriously and in detail in a book called Best-Sellers – Are They Born or Made? (1939, by George Stevens and Stanley Unwin). With the possible exception of James Hilton, who I suspect is remembered more for the iconic ideas of Shangri-La and Mr Chips than for present-day reading of the novels in which they appeared, all these writers have vanished more or less without trace. Yet in their day their books were immense popular successes. Ephemerality has struck – posterity has eluded them.
In 1981, John Sutherland published a book with a similar subject: Bestsellers – Popular Fiction of the 1970s. Sutherland then was interested in such popular novelists as Harold Robbins, Mickey Spillane, Michael Crichton, Jacqueline Susann, Frederick Forsyth, Jackie Collins, Mario Puzo, Len Deighton and a score of others. Most of these names are admittedly more familiar than those of Hervey Allen and his contemporaries, but I suspect their familiarity rests on the fact that popular films were made of their novels and are still being shown on TV. I also wonder how many people are still actually reading The Valley of the Dolls or The Dream Merchants or The Odessa File?
So the correlation between popular success and impending classics status is by no means certain. Because of this, one should be nervous of pointing to this or that contemporary success and predicting that posterity will accept it into its halls.
Certainly, the modern literary novel, at least in Britain, is not the place to look. Although they enjoy critical admiration and (one gathers) impressive sales figures, the books by writers like Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis are unlikely to survive much beyond their authors’ physical demise. McEwan is a skilful stylist but he has an unoriginal mind and an unadventurous approach to fiction. Barnes is a writer of middle-class dilettantism, diverted into subjects rather than passionate about them, and one day will be regarded, I believe, as having many constricting contextual class and social assumptions. Amis is a more complex problem because he is ambitious and committed, and probably more intelligent than the other two, but as a novelist he peaked more than thirty years ago with his novel Money (1984), and his subsequent work has depended increasingly on verbal invention, much of it rather clumsy.
We are more likely to find literary posterity, or the possibility of it, in the genres. For instance, thirty years ago who would have guessed that Philip K. Dick would be seen, at least in the world of Hollywood studio films, as a paradigm of science fiction? Most of his novels were quickly written for commercial publishers, aimed at and read by a genre audience. But as a result of several hugely successful films, Dick’s many routine SF books have returned to print, he is taught in universities and schools, and he is generally regarded as the finest modern SF writer. Yet in 1981, roughly at the time Blade Runner was being filmed, John Sutherland gave Dick no more than a passing mention. Of course, this was largely because at the time he was not actually a best-selling author, he was still alive, his writing was past its best, and he was recognized mainly for his Hugo-winning novel The Man in the High Castle (1962).
Stephen King is the one contemporary author who seems to me destined for status as an enduring classic. His books are of course aimed resolutely at a popular audience, but his social awareness, his easy use of a myriad of contemporary cultural references, and his sheer bravado as a storyteller seem to ensure a timeless quality. In these respects his work strikes me as similar to that of Charles Dickens, but like Dickens he has written too much and not always well. Some of Stephen King’s books are over-long, and (like Dickens) he has stylistic and narrative mannerisms that, once noticed, can be annoying. However, his best work is intelligent, unexpected, personal, original in concept and told with ruthless skill.
I think the jury is still out on the work of J. G. Ballard, at least as far as enduring popularity is concerned. Since his death in 2009 Ballard’s reputation has grown steadily, so there is room for hope. Although most of his best work was originally published in the kind of popular science fiction magazines despised by the literary establishment, in the years following the publication of Empire of the Sun (1984) his work was taken up and accepted not only by critics and the literary world in general but by the book-reading public too. Because some of his work from the end of the 1960s is avant-garde and ‘controversial’ (I’m thinking of his Atrocity Exhibition period, with its references to American presidents of the day, the Vietnam War, and so on), long-term status as a classic writer is not certain. But the early short stories, as well as the novels The Drowned World, The Burning World, The Crystal World and Crash, are distinctively original, metaphysical in impact and told in almost transparently lucid prose, waiting to be discovered by those who have so far not done so.
Then there are two writers of fantasy: J. K. Rowling and Terry Pratchett.
Rowling’s Harry Potter books have been so massively popular, and so widely discussed, that there is little point in adding a further encomium. Except to say that my own children were at exactly the right age to discover and be enchanted by the books as they appeared, so that I was a close witness to the impact the books (devotedly written for a wide and popular audience) had on them and their friends. It’s worth pointing out that that generation of first Harry Potter readers is now approaching the age of their own early parentage – the wheels of posterity are turning smoothly.
Finally, the works of Sir Terry Pratchett. I have been provoked to write this essay today by an article in the Guardian’s blog, by the newspaper’s arts correspondent Jonathan Jones. As a display of closed-minded prejudice, and an astonishing willingness to brag about it, there have been thankfully few precedents. Here is how Jones starts:
It does not matter to me if Terry Pratchett’s final novel is a worthy epitaph or not, or if he wanted it to be pulped by a steamroller. I have never read a single one of his books and I never plan to. Life’s too short. No offence, but Pratchett is so low on my list of books to read before I die that I would have to live a million years before getting round to him. I did flick through a book by him in a shop, to see what the fuss is about, but the prose seemed very ordinary.
Unsurprisingly, the online comments on this pathetic piece of ignorant journalism have swarmed in (at the time of writing, just under one thousand), and for once almost all of them agree with each other. I will be surprised and disappointed if Mr Jones retains his job with the Guardian, at least in the capacity of an arts correspondent. I have rarely seen a letter of resignation so overtly and shamelessly revealing as this. I was forcibly reminded of a letter my old friend John Middleton Murry wrote to the Observer many years ago on another, not dissimilar, matter: ‘I note your organ does not have a reporter in Antarctica, and suggest that this would be a suitable posting for Mr Martin Amis.’
I should add that Terry Pratchett and I were respectful colleagues rather than personal friends. We knew each other better in the days when we were teenage hopefuls, trying to get our first stories sold. The years went by, we found our publishers and we went our separate ways. I doubt if Terry ever read my books – I read only a few of his. Terry does not need me to defend him – Jones’s article is contemptible.
But I would say that of all the writers I have ever known, or the books I have ever read, Terry Pratchett’s seem to be a dead cert for long-term classic status. They are written for a popular audience, so fulfilling the first condition. They have been commercially successful, not just in Britain and the USA, but in languages and countries all around the world. The books are not liked by many: they are loved and admired by millions. Uniquely, in the profession of writing, where commercial success often turns a writer’s head and (to mix a metaphor) turns him or her into an asshole, Terry Pratchett remained approachable, unpretentious, sane and generous. His immensely popular appearances at Discworld conventions were marked by his geniality, openness and amusing manner, and a shared respect between author and audiences. His premature death was a cause of sincere mourning to all those readers, most of who never had the chance to meet him.
His work is written well – no matter what Jones says about ‘very ordinary’ prose, Terry Pratchett’s novels are stylistically adept: good muscular prose, not mucked around with for effect (except sometimes!), enlivened by wit, sharp observation, a unique take on the world at large and whatever the subject of social satire might be for the time being, a brimming sense of fun and the ridiculous, and overall an approach to the reader that feels inclusive, a letting in on the joke, an amused welcome to the world he is writing about. All his books contain bizarre cultural cross-references – part of the fun is spotting them. Some of his jokes are genuinely original – I always liked the one about the Australian bush hats with the corks, and the other one about the vampire photographer who used a flashgun on his camera. Millions of people – not the appalling Mr Jones, a spectacular scorer of own goals – will recognize these references with a sense of remembered joy.
I hope Jonathan Jones packs plenty of warm underwear for his next job.
I have not been able to write here for several weeks – July 2015 appears to have vanished, as far as this site is concerned, and already we are halfway through August. The reason amounts to one matter only: I have been absorbed in writing and finishing a new novel, and, since finishing, sitting around feeling lazy. If you have emailed me in the last three months or so and have not received a reply I’m really sorry – please try again, because I know I have been a bit dilatory.
The novel is called The Gradual, and it is with the publishers now. I completed and delivered it on the last day of July, cleverly timing it for the month when everyone in publishing goes away on holiday, or is attending the worldcon in Spokane, Washington. We can be patient.
The Gradual is the first conventionally written novel I have produced since The Extremes in 1998: it is a straightforward narrative told in sequence. It is about time and the perception of the passing of time. There are those who have said they noticed certain recurring images in my recent novels: identical twins, for instance, or stage magic, or invisibility, or the sainted presence of H. G. Wells. Such critics will not find any of them in The Gradual. The narrator is also completely reliable. Hah.
Currently: working on a new collection of short stories for Gollancz. I shall be in Rennes, northern France, during part of October, on the jury at the Court Métrange film festival. Soon after that, at the end of the month, I shall be at Utopiales 2015, in Nantes.