Here is the beautiful and effective cover for the US edition of The Adjacent, which will be published in hardcover by Titan Books in April 2014.

The Adjacent -- April 2014

A few extracts from the reviews of the book are now available on this site. (A new page is opened.) For those doubters, the full un-extracted reviews can also be found, with links from that page.

I suddenly realize I have written nothing here since the beginning of August, just after returning from our trip to Avilés (below). I have been in that strange and unproductive realm where a new novel lurks tantalizingly out of reach. Many false starts have led to raised and dashed hopes, but I think I have finally cracked it. It doesn’t take more than a few words of draft to realize that you have found a way into a complex story, but it can take ages to reach that realization. A decade and a half ago I spent nearly six months fruitlessly trying to find a way in to the book that eventually became The Separation. I drafted some twelve different openings, only to realize that the very first attempt was actually the one I wanted and should have been using all along. Anyway, after only about six abortive attempts, the new novel now has a beginning I think will lead somewhere, and I have even worked out the title for it. Dark winter days with the comfort of something in progress lie ahead.

It has been a time of reading. I have just finished Simon Ings’s new novel, Wolves, which strikes me as certain to be one of the key books of next year. I have no idea why it is called Wolves, and I don’t like the cover (which I think separates me from everyone else), but it is a serious, ambitious and discomfiting novel.

I also gave a long and attentive reading to a new novel called Erotic Lives of the Superheroes, by Marco Mangassola. I truly wanted to like it, as in many ways it is extremely well wrought and appears to have been given an excellent translation (by Anthony Shugaar). The publisher, Salammbo Press, is a small independent house, who must have gambled heavily on the book. Good luck to them. But it’s a novel that takes superheroes seriously and literally, and because of that it walks directly into one of my blind spots. I thought Watchmen was pretty good, but firstly that was enough, and secondly it was a quarter of a century ago. I’m going to pass this copy across to Nina, as she is more receptive than I can ever be to this sort of thing. Sorry, Salammbo. Sorry, Signor Mangassola.

I am currently reading Richard House’s The Kills. I might be gone for quite a while.

We have also seen some terrific movies in the last few weeks, some of them real discoveries.

Try Chronicle (dir. Josh Trank, 2012), a fabulously entertaining found-footage sf film, written by Max Landis, son of John.

Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax, 2012) was a real oddball, about a man touring Paris in the back of a limousine, performing good deeds (or otherwise) on the way. Kylie Minogue appears in a scene in a ruined department store, shades of Liebestraum, in one of the most surreal pieces of casting I can remember. The film is a lot better than David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, with which it is often compared (also about a man being driven around in the back of a limousine).

Alias Betty (dir. Claude Miller, 2001) comes close to being my film of the year so far – it is based on a novel by Ruth Rendell, and has a constantly intriguing structure and plot.

In spite of a long antipathy to the work of Neil Jordan (don’t ask), I rather enjoyed his new film Byzantium (2012) not least because it was filmed effectively here in Hastings, gaining little gasps of recognition from the audience in our local Odeon.

My film of the year so far: The Place Beyond the Pines (dir. Derek Cianfrance, 2012). The worst thing about the film is the title, which is meaningless, pretentious and irrelevant, and I’m certain helped ensure that few people paid to get into the cinema. On one level the film is a well-made violent thriller (starring Ryan Gosling), but the truly wonderful thing about it is its structure. It drives a train through the received Hollywood wisdom that films must have a certain story arc or structure: unless you peek at the reviews first (I rarely do) you will have no idea where this film takes you, or how it is going to turn out. It breaks most of the storytelling rules that so cramp Hollywood style, and does so brilliantly.

We caught up at last with Summer of Sam (dir. Spike Lee, 1999), which was another film that did not at all develop in the direction you assume from the subject-matter (serial killer in New York) and the opening scenes.

Finally: Silver Linings Playbook (dir. David O. Russell, 2012), a film about people suffering personality disorders, and unusually for a Hollywood film not softening up the awkward details. It is remarkable for a brilliant performance by Jennifer Lawrence. All of these films I recommend.

Currently: catching up with the box sets of Breaking Bad. Best thing I’ve seen on TV in years, rushing through it incontinently.

Last week we went to the Celsius 232 convention in Avilés, in the Asturias region of Spain. It was a hugely enjoyable visit, largely hosted by Ian Watson and Cristina Macia. Writers from the UK included myself, Nina Allan, Paul McAuley, Jonathan Grimwood and Joe Abercrombie; from the USA there were Robert Sawyer and David Simon; from South Africa came Lauren Beukes. Most of the best Spanish writers of the fantastic were there too. A high point, recognized by everyone, was the instant translation provided by Diego Garcia Cruz, who not only interpreted our fumbling words with precision and real inflective flair, he worked seemingly without a break for hour after hour. Unfortunately I do not have a good picture of him, as he was the star turn. We visiting writers from abroad do not exist without translators.

However, here is the pedestrianized centre of Avilés. It was siesta time, and only mad dogs and photographic Brits were about:

Aviles siesta

Our hotel, the NH Palacio de Ferrera, was a conversion from a former palace in the Plaza de España. Although most of the guest rooms were in a modern extension at the back of the old building, the main part remained. The room below had been restored to its former appearance, the spiral staircase leading to a small balcony on a tower overlooking the town:

SpiralDuring one of the free days we visted Gijon, a coastal town (part Spanish Navy, part tourism) where some eight years ago I was a guest at the annual Semana Negra, a book fair mostly concerned with thrillers and the fantastic. As I had found in 2005, Gijon seemed unphotogenic to me, but while we were having lunch in a shaded alley in the old town, I noticed this sign for the Street of Recollections:

Street of Recollections

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now a few pictures of some of the people who were there.

Here is Jon Grimwood, a shy writer, who has recently re-invented himself for his literary novel The Last Banquet:

Jon GrimwoodIan Watson now lives in Gijon, and seems to be blossoming under the heat of the sun, the rejuvenating impact of the sea winds and the wonderfully tasty Spanish cuisine. Here he is, not pulling a silly face:

Ian Watson in Avilés

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, here are Joe Abercrombie and Lauren Beukes, being sociable in the modern way. I read in the Guardian this morning that this activity is now known as phubbing:

Joe and Lauren phubbing

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – Doubleday, 2013, £18.99, 477pp, ISBN 978-0-385-61867-0
Life After LifeThis is a beautifully written book, the language precise, evocative, sometimes lyrical, sometimes referential, often witty, sometimes even vernacular. You can open it at almost any page and you will find good English, plausible dialogue, well-balanced narrative, attractive passages of description. Kate Atkinson is an excellent stylist and this book is a pleasure to read.

But the paradoxical question arises: does beautiful writing make a well-written novel?

While reading Life After Life, my thoughts often turned to the celebrated novel by Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001), with which it has several features in common. (A review I wrote of the McEwan novel is no longer part of this main website, but a copy of it can be read here.) There are similarities, and not only superficial ones.

Both the McEwan and the Atkinson are centred around fearful and traumatic events in the second world war – in Atonement it was the humiliating military evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940, and in Life After Life it is the Blitz on London during the winter of 1940-41. Both novels are notable for their fine prose. Both novels cover a sweep of years, although there are more years in Atkinson’s novel. Most interestingly, both books are experiments with the novel form: in Atonement McEwan toyed with metafiction (an unconvincing hidden narrator is wheeled out in a moment of last-minute authorial desperation), while Atkinson is experimenting with what might be called the unreliable event. I had not come across this before, and my interest was sparked.

The event in question is the death, in fact the multiple deaths, of the central character: Ursula Todd … the punning German meaning of the surname is probably significant. (Something is made of her given name – ‘little bear’, and so on – so this suspicion is not just fanciful.) Ursula dies repeatedly, or is killed, throughout the novel.

In the opening sequence she is depicted as a young political assassin, stalking Adolf Hitler in a Munich café in 1930 – she produces a gun, aims it at Hitler’s heart and pulls the trigger. Hitler’s henchmen instantly have their guns out and they fire back. ‘Darkness fell.’ These words, or variations of them, are used in the novel whenever Ursula dies. We might assume Hitler has been shot dead, but we are told only that she pulled the trigger of the gun, not that it went off.

She dies again two pages later: now it is twenty years earlier, February 1910, and she is being born. The house is isolated by snowdrifts, and the urgently expected doctor and midwife cannot get through. Ursula’s umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck and she is strangled. Darkness falls a second time. In the next chapter the doctor is miraculously present, he snips the cord with surgical scissors and little Ursula is safely born.

The pattern is set: throughout her life Ursula will face a series of crises and threats, yielding to most of them, but managing to reboot her life afterwards. She dies of Spanish flu at the end of the first world war, almost survives another bout but succumbs again. Later she marries an abusive man and ends up being murdered. In another strand she commits suicide. In yet another she is killed when a bombed house collapses on her during the Blitz. A second attempt on Hitler’s life is described, the henchmen getting her again, but again there is a question mark. We know only that Ursula pulls the trigger. Afterwards, the second world war breaks out and continues to 1945, so are we to presume that either the gun did not fire or that she missed?

Around her, other people are affected by her reboots. A beloved brother in the RAF is killed in a bombing raid over Berlin and the evidence of his death is unchallengeable – yet does a miracle later occur? In one of Ursula’s reincarnations he survives to marry his beloved young Nancy, herself murdered by a vagrant in an earlier Ursuline life-experience. In a weird variant alternate life, Ursula moves to Germany, befriends Eva Braun, marries a German officer and becomes part of Hitler’s inner circle in the Berghof.

All of these sequences are written convincingly. The author’s research material is impressively absorbed into the background and narrative so that it is not in any way obtrusive. The sheer boredom of life with the Führer in Berchtesgaden is brilliantly evoked. Atkinson’s long scenes in the London Blitz are particularly effective, with strong descriptive writing, several hair-raising scenes of attempted rescues from the rubble of bombed buildings and a genuine sense of the chaos created by the nightly bombing. Fairly deep research has gone on, because although such matters as Hitler’s mind-numbing table talk are documented they are not widely documented. There are many popular myths about life during the Blitz, misleading for writers who do not research too closely: the American writer Connie Willis is one recent example. Atkinson is made of sterner stuff and has done her work well.

Much of this would make Life After Life a well-written but conventional family saga, or a novel of the recent historical past. It is of course more than that: everything turns on the matter of Ursula’s repeated deaths.

It is absolutely unimportant that there is no attempt to explain how they happen: this is literature, not reality. The meaning is not rational – it is elsewhere, the result of a literary device.

Literary devices have a point. They promote fiction into metafiction, demanding the reader should examine the text as well as merely read it.

It is a long book: 477 pages. For most of those pages it is not at all clear what Kate Atkinson’s point is, and in fact it is delayed (by my reckoning) until about page 440, when the author’s intention slowly starts to become clear. Even then, it is merely hinted at, almost shyly, shrinking away from tackling the subject the reader has been wondering about for the previous 439 pages.

What are we to make of these repeated deaths? Dying is traumatic: how does apparent survival from it affect her psychology? Does the character learn from repeated deaths? Is the course of history changed by them? Is there a darker symbolism to it than a mere second chance, a rebirth? Is Ursula’s life noticeably changed by death? Yes, there are alternative paths taken, but are they in themselves fundamentally different from before?

The Hitler and Blitz passages aside, most of the first 400+ pages are concerned with what might broadly be called domestic matters. We read page after page of English middle-class family life in the first half of the twentieth century: an adored but distant father, a rambunctious older brother, a sweet-natured younger brother, a problematic cook, picnics, servants, birthdays, someone being trampled by a bull, a family dog or two, shopping expeditions, tennis, neighbours, lawn mowing, trips to London, walks in the park, weather, illnesses, infatuations, boyfriends, a semi-scandalous aunt who writes YA best-sellers.

The chronology of events is never clear: the novel darts to and fro in time, returning again and again, for instance, to the day of her birth. As the complexities of Ursula’s life-after-life mount, this miasma of mundane detail starts to rise around the reader’s perception of the book, clouding concentration.

One of the real problems is that Kate Atkinson’s writing of character is rather thin. To take an example, we know that the distant father is named Hugh, that everyone loves and respects him, but that’s about it. He pops up a few times, passes through with a mild manner, and leaves no apparent trace. The name ‘Hugh’ conveys vague and paternal niceness to the reader, but that’s all. The same lack of depth is true of almost all the other characters. Ursula’s mother is called Sylvie and she is in the book for most of the way, but she acts and talks very like Ursula, and several times I found myself briefly muddling them up. We also meet George, Pamela, Harold, Derek, Old Tom, Millie, Benjamin, Bridget, Teddy, Margaret, Ralph, Fred Smith, Mrs Appleyard, Jimmy, Crighton, amongst others … and a further medley of more or less interchangeable names during the Blitz sequence. (One good and memorable character emerges from the rubble: Miss Woolf, an ARP volunteer, plausibly intelligent and humane.)

Nothing is more important in fiction, or for that matter in metafiction, than good, deep characterization. We know, for example, who Derek Oliphant is and what he is like while we are reading about him – for several pages he is a significant character in Ursula’s life, or at least during one extreme passage of it. But she dies at the end of that passage and is re-born, and the name and the character of Derek fade as quickly from the mind of the reader as they do from Ursula’s life. This is because in spite of his behaviour we learn almost nothing about Derek beyond his actions. He is a function of plot, not of character.

But this is a book with a point, even if it takes about 440 pages to make it. Until then, the reader doesn’t have much to go on, once one’s appetite for middle-class English families is first satisfied, then exhausted.

Thirty pages from the end of the novel, and not a moment too soon, Ursula starts reacting to images from her past lives. She is taken to the family psychiatrist, complaining of persistent déjà vu. The reader, still alert for the true content of the novel, perks up. This is in one of the few chapters that does not carry a date, and there is no internal evidence to indicate how old she is – Sylvie, her mother, is there with her, so perhaps Ursula is still a child at this point. We are coming to the end of the book, but chronologically the scene appears to be close to the start of her life. While in the psychiatrist’s office she notices that a photograph of his dead son, formerly placed on a side table, has gone missing. She asks about it, but the psychiatrist draws a blank. He knows of no son. Alternative reality is nudging her.

From here, it is almost as if the first long part of the novel is recapitulated synoptically, this time lightly tuned by Ursula’s ghost memories. For instance, she happens to meet again the abuser, Derek Oliphant, but this time takes fear and runs away from him. To paraphrase a thought of Ursula’s: practice makes perfect. Things are coming right – even at the moment of Ursula’s birth Sylvie is ready with the surgical scissors. Does Ursula get it right, as seems to be implied, in her second attempt on Hitler’s life?

Kate AtkinsonMy main criticism of McEwan’s Atonement was that the only interesting feature of the novel was put in as an afterthought, a rather unconvincing way of trying to address the plot weaknesses exposed at the end. For all that novel’s success and apparent popularity, and its carefully wrought high literary style, I believe it is one of McEwan’s poorest novels. I do not feel as strongly about Life After Life, even though it shares something of the same failing in not coming to terms with its formal invention until far too late. I believe Kate Atkinson stumbled across the innovative technique, became enraptured of its narrative possibilities, but did not think through in literary terms what she was tackling. It is a brave book, but the conventional family goings-on immensely clog the bulk of the novel, and work depressingly against her. There is some terrific material in her book, and some lovely prose (she is a better, less adorned stylist than McEwan), but because the author did not take on the real challenge of her interesting idea it is not the novel it might have been.

However, to conclude on a positive note – it seems likely to me that Life After Life will scoop many of the major literary awards this year. Good style counts for a lot with book-prize judges, and Kate Atkinson’s prose is almost faultless. The novel also contains its special extra, the rebirth of its protagonist, a formal surprise, another kind of literary catnip. It is not in fact an alienating surprise, but one that will seem rather more daring than it really is, a piquancy that can be argued sets it aside from, or ahead of, other novels in its year. I believe a sequel is planned.

John Clute wrote about Life After Life in his column in Strange Horizons.
Paul Kincaid reviewed it on his blog, Through the Dark Labyrinth.
Kate Atkinson writes about the background to her novel, and provides a list of her sources.

NetherwoodAt the end of my appearance yesterday at Blackwell’s, in Charing Cross Road, someone gave me a beautiful copy of his book called Netherwood, about the final years of Aleister Crowley’s life here in Hastings. In the general confusion after the talk I neglected to note his name, but I assumed it would be inside the book so I could contact him later and say thanks. However, Crowley-like, the information is a bit diffuse. (Byline: “A Gentleman of Hastings”.) Please make contact with me, so I can communicate with you direct?

One of those Crowley coincidences must have been going on. Because our house is currently more or less uninhabitable (two rooms with the floors up, and builders and their equipment everywhere) we are taking many of our meals at a pub called the Robert de Mortain. This large building on The Ridge is just about the only remnant of the Netherwood estate, which was Crowley’s last home. The main house and grounds are now something called Netherwood Close, and covered with the mass-built houses of Mr Wimpy or Mr Barratt.

Thanks to all who turned out in yesterday’s sometimes foul weather to go Blackwell’s. It was great to see so many people there, and I was really sorry the thing had to end so suddenly. I would have liked the chance to chat more informally at the end. Now back to the mundane realities of Hastings.

 

Sometimes, I get things wrong. Last week I posted here a list of copies of past titles which I am selling off to free some space in this crowded house. But my timing of this was really insane.

The day after the post went up I had to go to Paris for three days. Today I am back but we have no food in the house – and anyway it is publication day for The Adjacent. At the weekend I am doing a launch of the book in London, on Sunday I’ll be moving furniture and on Monday we have builders coming in to repair part of the floors.

Meanwhile, I have received a stream of orders for the books and I’m simply incapable of dealing with them for the time being. If you have sent an order, please be tolerant. I have kept each one in the order in which I received them and for those that arrived before I went to Paris I have set aside the physical copies. The rest I will treat in strict order of receipt, and I will contact everyone direct as soon as I can. However, it might be a week or two before I can get around to everyone.

So sorry!

A few more spare and extra copies of CP’s old books have come to light, mostly in surprisingly good condition. We need to make space in this house crowded with books, so once again I am offering several of these titles for sale. Signature and/or dedication (or freedom from all such marks) available on request. A beautiful handmade bookmark, with vulgar self-commendation, is included with every copy from the main list. All the books are in the original English, some being UK editions, others from the USA. (All are described accordingly.) Most are first editions, although there are a few book club editions (again, marked appropriately).

Translated editions are also available, with a link to the dealer who now holds all available titles. Many of these are beautifully printed hardcovers with dust-wrappers. None of the translated editions is signed, but that can be arranged if you are interested.

Please note that the numbers available for each title are strictly limited, and in some cases there are only one or two copies available. It would be a good idea to email me from the Contact page on this website to check availability before sending money. The list will be kept updated, so it should give a  good general idea of availability at any time.

Prices and payment. Each book has a core price of £4.00, but I do need to charge extra for post and packing. Postage costs in particular have recently been increased in the UK, and the Post Office’s concessionary rate for books sent overseas has been abolished. The current rate works out at about £2.00 per title when sent inland, but significantly more when sent abroad. There are savings, of course, if several titles are ordered at once. I’ll quote you in advance. Payment by PayPal is acceptable (the contact email address can be used), but because the average PayPal commission is about 5.5%, direct payment by internet is to be preferred. I don’t have to pay a commission to the bank. (Details sent on request.) If you order from within the EU, I can supply SWIFT and IBAN details; if you are ordering from further abroad I can accept cheques in pounds or dollars. A receipted invoice is sent with every parcel.

The current list can be read here.

Because we had business in nearby West Byfleet, and it was a lovely day, we decided to drive on afterwards to Woking for lunch and have a look at the Wellsian sites there. I take my duties as Vice-President of the H. G. Wells Society proudly and seriously, if somewhat intermittently.

Wells Maybury RoadWe went first to 143 Maybury Road, to which Wells had moved in June 1895. The house then was named ‘Lynton’, a small semi-detached villa opposite a railway line, but with a garden at the back. Woking has its own huge Common in Horsell, apparently visible from the top floor windows of the house, and there and in the surrounding countryside, Wells and his second wife Amy Catherine (who was known as Jane), took frequent bicycle rides. These trips were part of the inspiration for Wells’s 1896 novel, The Wheels of Chance. The photograph shows 143 Maybury Road as it is today. A commemorative blue plaque seems long overdue, because this is the house in which The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man were written.

Please note that the photograph of 143 Maybury Road shown on the Woking website about H. G. Wells is incorrect. It is also incorrect on Wikipedia. The house shown on both these sites is actually no. 141, and has no Wellsian connection.

Wells MartianNext, we moved to the centre of the town, where in 1998 the artist Michael Condron installed his breathtaking sculpture of the “Martian Walking Engine”. This a beautiful piece of work, not only a fine sculpture in its own right but accurate in many details to Wells’s descriptions in The War of the Worlds. It is almost the right size: Wells said the tripods were at least 60 feet high, and the sculpture is not far short of that.

Wells Cylinder SculptureClose beside it is this smaller sculpture, depicting one of the Martian cylinders after its dramatic nose-first crash landing in the sandpits of Horsell Common. And speaking of which, we concluded our mini-tour of Wells memorabilia with a walk across the Common in search of the sandpit itself. It is not at all difficult to find, as there is a large map of the Common in the car park, with the main features clearly shown. Because of the long winter just finished, and the delayed spring, British trees seem incandescent with brilliant green at the moment, and the walk under the tall pine trees (with a few large young oaks growing up between them) was an inspiring and reinvigorating experience. Wells Horsell sandpitThe sandpit itself is still much as it must have been in Wells’s days, at least before the Martians came along and ploughed everything up, and as it was a weekday we had the place almost entirely to ourselves.

I should have noted at the beginning of this post that a spoiler for The Adjacent is contained within.

Simon Spanton at Gollancz has sent me a couple of advance copies of The Adjacent. To Simon I therefore say, Thanks! No matter how many years I have been doing this, the moment when you see the first copy of your new book, when you hold the thing in your hand, is a memorable one.

The Gollancz edition of The Adjacent, I have to say, is a thing of exceptional beauty. Brian Roberts’s cover manages to be both understated and declarative (see the image on the side of this page), a lovely cool green, made iconic with silhouettes of one of the few British aircraft almost everyone can identify on sight. It’s appropriate to the story, even though it’s not a novel about Spitfires, or if so, only adjacently. I should also mention the physical shape and feel and weight of the book: it seems to me to have classic proportions, perhaps by design, perhaps by accident. It is good to hold.

Before I get too sentimental, let me add that it’s also a snip at £12.99. One of the less-advertised wonders of our age is the way that the prices of hardback books, in a time of alleged recession in the book-buying habit, and under the much spoken-of threat of downloads and e-books, remain competitive. Almost exactly twenty-three years ago, my novel The Quiet Woman came out in hardback from Bloomsbury. In 1990 it was priced at £13.99 and contained half the number of pages of my new one. The hardback of The Prestige (Touchstone, five years later) was priced at £15.99. And some books not only keep their prices but gain in value as the years go by. That hardback of The Prestige now usually sells secondhand for hundreds of pounds – there’s a copy on AbeBooks at present, going for £950. I wish I had kept a few more of them.

One final word of gratitude, this time to Charlie Panayiotou at Gollancz, charged with the responsibility of transferring my proof corrections to the final copy. In the manuscript I had devised an eccentric scheme of chapter headings and subheads, which someone in Orion’s production department rather sternly corrected. I appealed to Charlie to restore my original, and now I have seen the book I realize he did, and exactly so. Thanks, Charlie!

As part of the annual Charing Cross Road Fest, my new novel The Adjacent will be launched at Blackwell’s Bookshop (100 Charing Cross Road) on Saturday 22nd June. I will be in conversation with Simon Ings, from 12:30 lunchtime. Tickets are free, but have to be booked in advance.

Simon is the editor of Arc, the digital magazine about the future, and is the author of Dead Water, one of the novels inexplicably neglected by last year’s Clarke Award judges. He is currently writing a science fiction novel about Hampshire, a place he hates. His other books are soon to be reissued by Gollancz.

Click here for full details of the Blackwell’s event. (For “Afghanistan” read “Anatolia”, incidentally. Not my error, and not Blackwell’s, either.) Tickets can be ordered from: events.london@blackwell.co.uk

Be there?

While I am on this sort of subject, two weeks earlier, on Saturday 8th June, I will be addressing the British Humanist Association annual conference, at the Hilton Leeds City Hotel, Neville Street, in Leeds. As this is a conference you would have to join in advance – places are still available, and may be booked here.

Here are links to some recent blog entries on this site:

12 May 2013
Bomber Command memorial – the most recent entry.
‘In June 2012 a permanent memorial was created to the RAF Bomber Command campaign of the second world war. The memorial is to all lives lost during the war, notably the estimated 600,000 civilians and non-combatants killed on the ground by the bombing, but it is also, at last, a memorial to the young men, all volunteers, who served as aircrew in the air force. Theirs was one of the most dangerous jobs of the war.’

16 December 2012
Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis – a review of this novel.
‘Bad books are usually written by incompetents, so are bad in uninteresting ways, but occasionally a real corker comes along: a poor or careless or contemptible piece of work by a highly rated author.’

9 December 2012
Robert McCrum: “cockroach in the world of books” – a response to one of McCrum’s Guardian essays.
‘McCrum’s weakness is that he will not acknowledge his blind spots. Genre fiction, or what he thinks is genre fiction, is the prime example. He abdicates himself from addressing the problem by assuming that genre fiction abides by rules and conventions that general fiction does not, and that it has an orthodoxy he neither understands nor wishes to learn about. He thinks it is a specialist form that can only be dealt with by an editor with specialist expertise.’

27 October 2012
Communion Town by Sam Thompson – one of the best novels of 2012.
‘This is not a review of a novel so much as a recommendation of one – the best new novel I have read this year is Sam Thompson’s Communion Town. It is a first novel of impressive skill and imaginative flair, ambitiously structured and beautifully written, described by the publisher as a city in ten chapters, which in fact sums it up admirably. The central city, which might be London, or Boston, or Tel Aviv, or Melbourne, grows slowly into vivid life as you read the stories of the various people who live there.’

28 March 2012
Hull 0, Scunthorpe 3 – a polemical essay about the ineptly managed 2012 Clarke Award shortlist.
‘It seems to me that 2011 was a poor year for science fiction. Of the sixty books submitted by publishers, only a tiny handful were suitable for awards. The brutal reality is that there were fewer than the six needed for the Clarke shortlist.’

2 January 2012
The Inner Man – The Life of J. G. Ballard by John Baxter – a review of this unreliable biography of the great writer.
‘Gossip is the main weakness of Baxter’s book, because he falls foul of the temptation to rely too heavily on the memories of living witnesses. From evidence I have seen elsewhere, much of this book appears to have been heavily influenced by long interviews with Michael Moorcock.’

 

We are now only a few weeks away from the release of my next novel The Adjacent (to be published by Gollancz on 20th June), so it’s time to mention a debt. The background for a section of the book came from the RAF bombing campaign against Germany in the Second World War. This is the second of my novels to deal with this difficult period of British history: The Separation (2002) described more directly the impact on the life of a young man who flew with Bomber Command in the early part of the war. The Adjacent does not go over similar ground, but it does touch on the same sensitive subject.

In June 2012 a permanent memorial was created to the RAF Bomber Command campaign of the second world war. The memorial is to all lives lost during the war, notably the estimated 600,000 civilians and non-combatants killed on the ground by the bombing, but it is also, at last, a memorial to the young men, all volunteers, who served as aircrew in the air force. Theirs was one of the most dangerous jobs of the war. 55,573 RAF men were killed in bombing raids during the war, and another 18,000 were wounded or taken prisoner – which was more than half the total number of crew involved (about 120,000). Serving in an RAF bomber gave a worse chance of non-survival than that of an infantry officer in the 1914-18 war. Bomber Command survivors and the families of many of the lost men have campaigned for years for the sacrifice of so many lives to be acknowledged. Winston Churchill, who through much of the war was an enthusiastic advocate of destroying German cities, and killing as many civilians as possible, changed his mind towards the end of the war, probably realizing belatedly how history might regard him. Under his orders, no Bomber Command campaign medal was ever struck, surviving career officers were demoted to their pre-war ranks, and most of the remaining civilian volunteers were demobilized and sent home as soon as possible.

The memorial is situated in Green Park, London, at the Hyde Park Corner end of Piccadilly. It contains some suitable statuary of an RAF crew, and several commemorative tablets explaining what was at stake for the ordinary people who were so terribly affected by this aspect of the war. I found it to be an unpretentious monument, and was moved by the many simple and heartfelt comments people had written on their cards and tributes.

Because none of my family or close friends were involved in RAF activities during WW2, and because I am a novelist and not an historian, I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable with the idea of my taking a stand on the morality or otherwise of the bombing of Germany. However, I have been reading books about this subject ever since I was a teenager, invariably torn between horror of what happened and sympathy for those caught up in it.

I have long held that many of the books written by participants in WW2 are the literary equivalent of the outpouring of poetry that appeared in the First World War. In fact, relatively little good poetry was produced in 1939-45 (Daniel Swift’s recent book Bomber County, 2010, is the best existing account of what we have — reviewed by me here), but in the immediate postwar years, starting in the late 1940s but mostly from about 1950 onwards, there was a veritable flood of books containing war stories, war memoirs, war experiences: captives escaping from prisoner-of-war camps, agents parachuted behind enemy lines, bombers attacking dams in the Ruhr, nurses and firemen in the Blitz, gunners in the rear turret of Lancaster bombers, U-boat submariners in the North Atlantic, memoirs of generals, and so on. At first, during the 1950s, these books were produced by trade publishers as general titles, but in recent years those that are reprinted come from specialist military publishers, small presses or have been sponsored by the families. Many can be found in the Military History sections of large bookstores (which like many bookshop departments can be a bit of a misleading label), and of course the internet will locate most of them. They make up a neglected but unique vernacular history of that appalling war. None of them is a literary masterpiece, but like much of the poetry from the earlier war they are written with energy and a sense of total personal experience and commitment, they are moving, they contain material that is sometimes graphic or shocking or surprising, they are above all true in every sense of the word. Here are a few, but there are literally hundreds more:

Bomber Pilot, Leonard Cheshire (1943)
The Wooden Horse, Eric Williams (1949)
A WAAF in Bomber Command, Pip Beck (1989)
No Moon Tonight, Don Charlwood (1956)
The Naked Island, Russell Braddon (1952)
P.Q.17, Godfrey Winn (1947)

A postscript. I visited the Bomber Command memorial at the end of June 2012, just two days after it had been officially opened by the Queen. Many of the floral tributes and cards were still fresh. I found the one from Martin Barratt (in the photograph above, dated the day before), and took a couple of pictures of it. The poignant little message struck me as sharing the same sense of ordinary decency and pain that I had encountered many times before in these books. I moved away, looking at the other tributes. When I returned to the place where Mr Barratt’s message had been left, I discovered that it was now missing. It had not been moved to one side, it had not fallen to the floor, there was not enough of a wind to have blown it away. I looked everywhere around, but someone must have removed it. I can’t imagine why.

The Explorer is the second of James Smythe’s novels to be released within a few months. This UK publication is datelined 2013 although it is copyrighted 2012, perhaps from an earlier US edition. Could this be a first novel, or would that be The Testimony, released a while earlier? The instinct is of course to go critically a bit easier on a first novel, so just in case …

First impressions are good. Smythe is young, he writes good clean prose, he is obviously serious in intent (and therefore we might assume he is ambitious as a writer, ambitious in a greater sense than just becoming a best-selling or highly paid author, but maybe those too), and at a time when many young authors are coming into the field of fantastic literature equipped with not much more than a love of fantasy epics or Doctor Who, he seems to be well versed in the various tropes of serious science fiction.

The story of The Explorer is simply described: a spacecraft is launched from Earth bearing six astronauts. Within a few days of the launch the crew members start dying, and soon only one remains alive: a young journalist called Cormac Easton. Cormac is unable to steer or control the craft, so he is trapped inside while it continues with its programmed mission: to go further into deep space than any manned craft has gone before. Gradually the spaceship runs out of fuel and supplies until it is inevitable that Cormac will not escape with his life. Before the craft becomes completely unusable he activates some kind of auto-destruct system, and he and it are destroyed. This happens before the end of page 52. More than 200 pages of novel remain. What then follows I will leave to Smythe to relate as it is where the book becomes unusual and intriguing.

Stop reading here if you believe that first novelists (or even second novelists) should have their attempts rubber-stamped with routine approval. It’s also a good place to stop reading as the partial plot synopsis in the previous paragraph might well make you curious about what happens next. I certainly was curious, and in fact Smythe keeps the mystery going almost until the very end. I don’t want this blog review to make people think, even for a moment, that this is not a book worth reading. The uncommon quality of its plot makes it a novel that stands out from the rest, and certain details and anomalies add to that.

The novel has many such anomalies, some of them minor. The spaceship, for example, is called the Ishiguro, named after a Japanese scientist called Hidemori Ishiguro who designed the ship’s engine. Ishiguro is a fairly common Japanese name, so that’s OK. But it’s also the name of Kazuo Ishiguro, a well-known Japanese-born novelist who has already shown a more than passing interest in novels based on speculative ideas. The use of his surname here leapt out at me and it made me wonder if it was some kind of metaphysical cross-reference, a hint that the author was writing about something more than a straightforward journey into space. Maybe that’s just a detail.

But a larger anomaly, larger because it continues throughout the novel, is created by all manner of practical descriptions and accounts of the lives of the astronauts and the spacecraft itself. I was unconvinced by the astronauts themselves, simply because they behave like no other astronauts I have ever heard of or seen in action on television. The one thing everyone knows about astronauts (and Smythe knows it too, because he describes it) is that they go through years of selection, preparation and training, and detailed physical, mental and psychological testing. Even if all their personal idiosyncrasies are not entirely ironed out or controlled before the launch, the training imposes a high standard of teamwork and practical precision. The five or six allegedly trained and tested astronauts in The Explorer go to pieces within a few days of the start of the mission: a couple of them are shagging in a spare storeroom, they call one of the women astronauts “Dogsbody”, they bicker and argue about trivial matters, and soon they start dying in mysterious circumstances.

As for the spaceship itself, it is described as having bags of unused space (including the spare storeroom), seems clean and tidy for most of the time, but above all has a double-skinned hull. This design feature seems to have more relevance to the needs of the plot than to the operation of the craft, because it becomes essential as a long-term hiding place. I was sometimes reminded, uncomfortably, of the similar narrative device in Flowers in the Attic – not a comparison a good writer like Smythe will welcome. This double skin is apparently sufficiently wide for someone to move around in, and contains enough air, heating and, I think, plumbing for a man to occupy the area for weeks on end. Secret viewing hatches are everywhere, and these enable the story to continue. It is all too contrived for comfort.

Then we find that the craft is capable of “stopping” in space more or less at the throw of a switch, and as soon as it stops the “gravity” comes back on. When the engine is turned on again, the occupants of the spaceship immediately suffer the conditions of free fall. (Surely this, or something like it, would be more likely to work the other way round?) Astronauts carrying out maintenance or repairs during any of these “stops” have to don spacesuits and carry out space walks – throughout these EVAs they continue to argue about personal matters and disagreements, and when they do get down to perform the tasks for which they have left the spacecraft most of their work is to sort out a mass of wiring contained behind an access plate, a bit like telephone engineers repairing crossed lines in a terminal on the side of a suburban street.

None of this (or a lot of other stuff like it) convinced me on any logical or practical level, and I say this from the point of view of someone who does not have much grasp of technological or space-science procedures. But the overall falseness of the set-up, taken together with my much more instinctively dependable doubts about the behaviour of the characters, had the promising effect of making me wonder what the author might really be up to.

The text quickly starts showing evidence of these irregularities, and so I began musing about the whole thing being somehow in quotation marks, perhaps a dream or the ravings of a madman, or a description of a real-time simulation being carried out in a closed hangar somewhere in the Nevada desert, or maybe even a reality TV show. Something more than the events being described seemed to be going on. These totally implausible astronauts, flying in a spaceship like something out of Dan Dare, on a mission which appears to have no scientific or exploratory purpose at all, could not really be doing what the author insists they are doing. Could they? There must be another layer to all this nonsense. My interest was therefore held, and continued to be held for most of the rest of the novel.

Without giving too much away, because the plot of The Explorer develops in genuinely unexpected ways, the most serious weakness in the novel is the description of the characters, not just as astronauts but as people. We learn hardly anything at all about them in the first 52 pages, so that in the following sequence, the major part of the novel, the new and significant information we are given about them does not carry much surprise or interest. Smythe is experimenting with narrative unreliability here, which I find interesting, but that is a literary technique which is really only effective when the unreliable text seems convincing and thus memorable before it transpires that the author has not admitted everything relevant. For instance, the belated news of a pre-mission relationship between Cormac and one of the female astronauts emerges as additional information, not a revelation of any kind. This is because the woman herself barely comes to life whenever she is mentioned or takes a part in the action. By the time she is promoted by the author to being a major character, we are left wondering why she was so wan and bland before. The same is true in a similar way when we learn about the reality of Cormac’s marriage – not all is what it had appeared to be at first. The two male astronauts, named Quinn and Guy, are more or less indistinguishable from each other (in the way Cormac reacts to them, and because of the equal narrative weight the author gives them), even though one of them is mad and gay and German, while the other is not. Characterization is the key to all good writing but because Smythe has his attention elsewhere for most of the book, his ambitious and clever plot is significantly undermined.

These negative comments are directed to the author, should he come across them, and are intended in a constructive way. There is a lot to like in The Explorer, and I wanted to celebrate it more. James Smythe is obviously an intelligent writer, talented and seriously intended, and I look forward to whatever he comes up with next. I gather he is writing a sequel to The Explorer, news which, from the perspective of having just finished the first book, makes me wonder yet again if some numinous endeavour is going on. Some greater or more universal reality might be at hand.

To the reader I say: set aside the reservations I have expressed and read The Explorer with an open and welcoming mind. It is different in tone, subject-matter and ambition from almost any other SF novel you might read this year. No giant moles, artful coppers or talking horses here …

With writers almost universally using computers, books have been getting longer and longer. When I began publishing in the 1970s, a full-length novel was usually between 70,000 and 80,000 words, but shorter novels often appeared. During that period word-length was often an issue with publishers, or at least it was in my experience, with pressure brought to bear to make books shorter. For instance, when I delivered my fourth novel, The Space Machine, which I now know was about 120,000 words, my publishers in both the UK and the USA demanded I cut it down by about a third, mainly to save themselves some of the cost of production. The American publisher even went to the trouble of commissioning an outside editor to read my allegedly long-winded manuscript and suggest ways of cutting it down to size. I wondered at the time if the editor’s fee was going to be larger or smaller than the saving they were hoping to make – in the event it was academic, because after I had read his suggestions I declined gently and of course politely.

The UK publisher, Faber, suggested some editorial amendments to the opening chapters. While I was looking at these suggestions, and because I am helpful by nature, I took the opportunity to make a few silent excisions as well, harmless to the story or characters. These cuts overall reduced the length of the novel to just over 117,000 words, but I think no one at the publisher noticed. Their requests for me to make more radical cuts continued for several weeks afterwards, seeming to increase in desperation. The culminating event was a phone call one morning from my then editor. She told me in a panicky voice she had just seen the latest increase in the price of the glue that book binderies used on the spine. Glue! Would I not AT LAST see sense and take out the required 40,000 words of surplus text? I suppose I do not have to spell out what was my gentle and polite response.

In the end The Space Machine appeared in its 117,000-word version on both sides of the Atlantic. It was at that time the longest of my novels, but since then The Prestige, The Separation, The Islanders and now The Adjacent have all been longer. I don’t see any inherent virtue in great length for its own sake – I suppose that I am no different from many other writers, enjoying the freedoms brought to composition by digital technology – but even so my books are by no means the longest around. A few minutes in a bookshop will reveal that my stuff is modest in size, compared with many others.

Word-length aside, my books, at least in hardback, are as large as anyone else’s, and larger than some. By large I mean the dimensions of the pages, the binding.

The first hardcover novel I ever bought was John Wyndham’s Trouble with Lichen. In 1962 it cost me 13s 6d – 68p today, but in those days a substantial sum because my weekly pay was less than £5 a week. Trouble with Lichen was in the then-standard format for hardback fiction in Britain: 7.5″ x 5″, or what printers and binders call Crown Octavo, or C8. At a mere 190 pages it was probably no more than about 60,000 words long.

Wyndham was not at all unusual. I have just read a novel by William Sansom called The Cautious Heart, published by Hogarth Press in 1958. This was also printed in C8 and at a quick estimate was about 52,000 words in length. It was not just a good novel to read, it was enjoyable to handle the book, with its compact pages, sewn binding, clear letterpress type, and its unlaminated wraparound cover: a painting of a peaceful interior by Charles Mozley. I like to collect books from the 1950s, mostly because I’m interested in the writers of that period (Wyndham, Sansom, Linklater, Shute, Frankau, among others), but also because I enjoy the quality of the books that were printed then. They must have been the ones I used to see in bookshops during the years I was still at school, impossibly beyond my means.

When I started acquiring books seriously in the mid-1960s (becoming a reviewer was a help), many hardbacks were still coming out in C8. For instance, most of Brian Aldiss’s early books from Faber were in that format, as were the Gollancz editions of Kingsley Amis’s first books. The second hardback book I bought, later in 1962, was Amis’s Gollancz title New Maps of Hell. (16s 0d – 80p.) Perhaps because it was non-fiction it was slightly larger than the Wyndham book, more than half an inch taller and slightly wider. This was Large Crown Octavo (abbreviated to LC8, and it is still the size used for many ‘trade’ or ‘B Format’ paperbacks). By the beginning of the 1970s LC8 had become the usual size of hardback fiction. My first novel, Indoctrinaire, in 1970, was in LC8 format, in common with the rest of Faber fiction at the time (and that of most other UK publishers). All the books I published with Faber, up to The Affirmation in 1981, were LC8.

But books were getting bigger again. No different from many other titles at the time, The Glamour, 1984, was printed by Jonathan Cape in Demy Octavo (D8, or slightly larger than LC8). Novels these days are even larger: all my books since The Prestige, 1995, have been in M8 format: Medium Octavo, or 9.5″ x 6″. Even the books of my own that I had printed for Grimgrin were in M8 format – there was little choice: M8 was the only size available in that general range.

When a book is published the writer is normally consulted on many aspects: the text, of course, the cover illustration, the blurb. But other matters are at the publisher’s discretion: the typeface, the print-run, the publicity budget, the price – and the size of the pages. I sometimes wonder what the thinking must be. I assume it is partly the result of a calculation which involves the word-length, the number of pages, the type size, the costs involved, the anticipated print-run and the projected eventual retail price of the title. Also, I imagine there are practical constraints. Books are no longer printed on flat sheets (folded into ‘signatures’ of 16 pages each, then sewn into a cloth spine – ‘sewn’ binding), but on large rolls, guillotined in order and stuck with glue into a reinforced paper or plastic spine (called in a misleading way ‘perfect’ binding). You no longer see the tiny signature identifier printed at the bottom left of pages 17, 33, 49, 65 … It’s true to say that although I never really noticed them when they were there, now they are absent I rather miss them.

All the spare copies of The Affirmation and The Quiet Woman that I had for sale have now gone to their better places, and I have no more. Thank you to all who ordered, and I hope the books have arrived in good condition.

Copies remain, however, of The Glamour in its beautiful Jonathan Cape hardcover strip. The core price of this book is £4.00 a copy, with £2.00 added for p&p within the UK and Europe. If you live further afield please be prepared to add a little more for surface mail, and even more for airmail. I belatedly discovered the the UK post office has recently removed its concessionary rate for books sent abroad. No doubt this is a sign by officials of their wavering faith in the future of books, which, incidentally, I most certainly do not share.

 

An unexpected find: a handful of first editions of some of my older books has come to light, and as storage space is always at a premium in this house without cupboards I would be more than willing to sell a few copies. They are all in brand-new condition, first printings of the first editions, and of course I would be pleased to sign or dedicate copies. They will be protectively and lovingly wrapped for despatch. NB: numbers are strictly limited.

The titles are as follows:

The Affirmation – this is the Faber 1st edition hardcover from 1981, which turned out to be my last book to be published by the firm. (See the item in this blog dated 22nd May 2011, A Quick Read, for some recollections of how it was reviewed in its day.) I always liked the simple, declarative quality of the Faber cover, and in all it is a well printed edition on good paper. Although I never claim The Affirmation as one of my best books, it is first of all a bridge between the books I wrote before it and the ones that were to follow, and secondly I see it as a novel that helps elucidate the others. It was the first novel of mine to include the Dream Archipelago as a setting. Price: £19.00, plus p&p £1.00 in UK and Europe.

The Glamour – this was my one and only novel to be published by Jonathan Cape, a publisher I moved to in an attempt to escape the clutches of a new editor at Faber, who was out of sympathy with what I was writing. (See Lice in the Locks of Literature, on 9th December 2012.) Although I have revised The Glamour twice since this edition appeared in 1984, the changes have been mostly cosmetic. The major content of the text is unaltered, but for people who take an interest in authors who fiddle around with their novels there are a few unrepeated original thoughts there to be found. Price: £4.00, plus £1.00 p&p in UK and Europe.

The Quiet Woman – although I had an excellent experience of having The Glamour published by Cape, by the time I sent in this next book there had been substantial staff changes at the company. Notably, my editor Liz Calder had left Cape, to set up the new publishing venture Bloomsbury. It was not a decision I wanted to have to take, but in the end I followed Ms Calder, and this first edition, in 1990, is one of their early titles. To be honest I never liked the Bloomsbury cover illustration, and overall the book did not do well in this edition. An American edition followed five years later and for that I made some revisions to the text. This text will be used in the forthcoming paperback from Gollancz, but as with The Glamour, the first edition is a chance to read the book as originally presented. Price: £4.00, plus £1.00 p&p in UK and Europe.

Outside UK and Europe?: please add the equivalent of £2.00 to cover the extra mail cost. Thanks!

More than one title?: Small discounts are offered for 0rders of more than one book. E.g., all three in UK and Europe: £27.00. Please Contact me if you want more details. A unique and perhaps collectable bookmark is included with every copy.

Signed copies: Please let me know if you would like no signature, a signature alone or a signed dedication.

Payment: I can accept PayPal at the Contact email address, or direct bank transfer – details will be sent on request. UK cheques are also acceptable – email me to obtain the address to which they may be sent.

My Christmas present to myself was a copy of John Fowles’s novel The Magus, which I re-read over the holiday period. The copy was a well-preserved UK first edition, which I bought not all that expensively from the Fowlesian specialist book dealer: Magusbooks, run by Bob Goosmann in Sacramento. Mr Goosmann also manages the best website on Fowles, with a mass of biographical and bibliographical detail, background information on Fowles, many photographs, and much interesting trivia (such as a translation from the Latin of the last line of The Magus). The website is here, and has direct links to the bookstore.

The first copy I owned of The Magus was a paperback urged on me in 1970 by my friend Graham Hall. The cover had been torn off because it carried a photograph of the actor Michael Caine, whom Graham loathed. (John Fowles disliked him too, as I discovered many years later). Caine was the star of the 1968 film adaptation of the novel (a pretty terrible film, with a badly chosen cast). Both the film and the novel had passed me by and I had no strong feelings about Michael Caine, but it meant that when I read the book, which came into my hands lacking a blurb and descriptive text of any kind, I had no idea what was in store. Once I had started reading, The Magus glued me to a chair for an entire weekend and overall had a profound impact on me, both as a reader and as a young writer.

Four decades and several re-readings later I’m still convinced it is one of the finest and most influential novels of the last century. The writing is beautiful, in particular in the long descriptive scenes in the first fifty pages or so (the physical descriptions throughout the long novel are executed with precision, delicate language and a vivid visual flair). Much of the story is told through scenes of dialogue, and these are handled plausibly and with a real sense of place, nuance and character.

The story is gripping. In the autumn of 1952 a young English teacher takes up a position at a private school on a small Greek island. By the following summer the schoolmaster, one Nicholas Urfe, has become trapped in an existential cabal conducted by an elderly man called Conchis, who lives on the island in a luxurious villa on the south coast. Urfe’s relationship with Conchis becomes a sort of masque, a ritualistic psychodrama overseen by the self-styled mystic, for which Urfe has apparently been chosen at random. The narrative tells how Urfe is drawn into the conspiracy, how he becomes deeply entangled and what happens when he finally escapes. The plot of the novel is complex, constantly surprising the reader. Towards the end of the book, as Urfe tries to unravel the mystery that has been woven around him, the story takes on the aspect of a thriller, with one revelation after another, opening up the story not to explanation but to a deeper realization of the complexity of the conspiracy. At the end of the novel, the famous final sequence complete with its obscure Latin tag, nothing is clear or resolved in terms of practical explanation, but philosophically both the reader and the central character have moved to a different plane of understanding. It is a choice example of how an undefined or ambiguous ending to a novel places a memorable charge on the reader.

No novel is ever perfect, though, and The Magus has its imperfections. As the years go by they seem more and more problematical, partly because the novel is not yet so old that we can make excuses for it (in the way we tolerate the sexual coyness of novels from the 19th and early 20th centuries, for instance), and partly because Fowles himself was living and working in the modern age. Fowles published the original version of The Magus in 1966, and in 1977 published a fully reworked and revised version. (It was the 1977 edition I re-read last week, incidentally, not my newly acquired first edition.) Fowles should certainly have known by 1977 that sensibilities were changing. His sexualized depiction of two of the young women in the novel (they are in their early 20s, but he usually refers to them as ‘girls’) will offend some people today, as will, and much more acutely, the characterization, description and role of the (alleged) American academic Joseph Harrison.

John Fowles, who died in 2005, is of course not around to defend himself, but he might well argue that the attitudes and mores of the novel accurately reflect those of its period, the early 1950s. However, because the book was published thirteen (and twenty-four) years after its period it is technically an historical novel, a genre which usefully deploys modern sensibility in an ironic or detached way to comment subtly on the past. There is little irony or detachment of this particular social kind in The Magus.

The other problem lies in the long central section of the novel, during which Nicholas Urfe is bemused by the intricacies of the plot that surrounds him. He is constantly questioning his own take on reality. Is this mysterious old man telling him the truth or is everything a fabrication? Have these alluring young women been employed as actors, as he is told, or is a more subtle temptation being put before him? Why are people walking around in masks from Greek mythology? Are those really Wehrmacht soldiers operating in the hills of the island, or are they actors too? Is he free to leave, or is he somehow a captive? And so on. This entire sequence continues to be written in a compelling and intriguing way, and in truth it is not all that tiresome, but it is incredibly long. After the second or third time the women (or one of the women) offer him sexual favours, only to refuse him at the last minute, the reader can’t help wondering why Mr Urfe doesn’t just walk away from the whole damned thing. He sees it through, and so will the reader, with perhaps a sense that the longueurs were justified, but I felt on this re-reading that John Fowles could easily have omitted at least two of Conchis’s long autobiographical recollections, and shortened the rest.

The essential attraction of The Magus lies, I believe, in what you could call extra-literary values.

You do not, for instance, have to read far into the novel to realize that it has a strong autobiographical content. It is known that as a young man John Fowles went to a Greek island to teach English at a large private school. The real island was Spetsai (or, as it has since become, Spetses), and it is in the same part of the Aegean Sea as the fictional Phraxos. He taught there until the summer of 1953, at the end of which he was sacked, in a similar way to Urfe although not for the same reason. The villa on the southern coast of the island is a real one, it is, or was, owned by a reclusive millionaire, and Fowles visited him there. After he left Spetsai, Fowles always swore he could not return to Greece (and did not until the end of his life, when he was taken there by a film-maker), and in general he said little in public about his time on the island.

However, his Journals from that sojourn have been published, and Eileen Warburton’s biography describes his days on Spetsai in detail. Bob Goosmann’s excellent website has more about this period. Fowles himself said, in the Foreword to the 1977 edition, ‘No correlative whatever of my fiction … took place on Spetsai during my stay.’ Even so, and knowing that reality is not the same as fiction, you can’t help experiencing a sense of curiosity about the events that are described in the novel. Fowles’s own denial, or at least his apparent need to make the denial, itself fuels the curiosity. Although many novels are written autobiographically, it is unusual to find one conducted with such intensity, so intriguingly, so enigmatically, and with so many undertones of plausible or even traceable reality.

And there is a sense of something larger, less well defined, behind the book. More than the story you read, more than the language you enjoy and even relish, more than the knowledge you gain of the characters, the reader acquires a sense of complex or profound material. The Magus seems to me to be at least partly about free will and randomness – this is never stated in such explicit terms, but as Urfe begins his quest to find out what had ‘really’ happened on Phraxos, he turns up more and more evidence that the conspiracy was wider than he imagined. Even chance encounters, a girlfriend picked up in a cinema, the landlady of a rented room selected from a postcard in a newsagent’s window, waiters, taxi drivers, newspaper vendors – they all seem to be directly or indirectly connected to the mysterious events at the villa. Maybe by this time Urfe was deep in paranoia, but then so too is the reader, also seeking some kind of rational solution.

I believe it is these extra-literary qualities which have given the novel its enduring qualities, and why it has always appealed (as Fowles himself noted, apparently ruefully) to younger or more open-minded readers. It shares with fantastic fiction that vague sense of ‘something other’, of stating or implying certain truths in outline, of suggesting that life is improvable or at least capable of change, of leaving much to the imagination while exactly and precisely stimulating it with imagined events and an invented story.

A bad book provides a variety of temptations, prime among them being just to ignore the thing and put it away in the Oxfam box. Bad books are usually written by incompetents, so are bad in uninteresting ways, but occasionally a real corker comes along: a poor or careless or contemptible piece of work by a highly rated author. Then the temptation is otherwise. The recent novel by Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo – State of England, is one such. (Cape, 2012, pp 276, ISBN: 978-0-224-09620, £18.99.)

I’m not interested in Amis or his life (although it does have a direct bearing on this novel), but I am much concerned with his writing ability. I’ve also asked myself why should anyone care about this novel? I can’t imagine the people who read this page would normally be bothered with it, but to me the subject of good and bad writing is always interesting. Lionel Asbo – State of England presents a unique example, because Amis has often declared himself to be in a class above his contemporaries. He once said that he “wrote the kind of sentences the other guys couldn’t write”, and is widely regarded as one of the more innovative and colourful users of the English language, a perception he accepts and enthusiastically reports.

Lionel Asbo – State of England is the story of a dysfunctional family of grown-ups in present-day London, the most prominent member of whom is Lionel, a sixth son. His five older brothers are called John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stuart. When Lionel’s mother ran out of Beatle names (apparently never having heard of Pete Best) she “christened” him Lionel. (Pete Asbo admittedly doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.) Lionel is now a brainless thug, in and out of prison for minor offences, usually offences of dishonesty or violence. At the age of 18 he changed his name to “Asbo”, the tag being seen as a badge of honour in his circle. Although he despises the lottery he accidentally gets hold of a winning ticket and collects £140 millions. He becomes a sort of celebrity yobbo, tasting the sweet life while staying much the same lovable old Lionel: he imbibes magnums of champagne and vast quantities of artisanal baked beans. (The latter are presumably baked beans made by craftsmen.) The protagonist of the novel is not, however, Lionel himself, but his nephew, one Desmond Pepperdine. Desmond, or Des, spends most of his young life in fear of Lionel uncovering his greatest secret: that as a teenager Des had enjoyed a physical affair with Lionel’s mother, Grace. (Lionel suspected someone else and bumped him off, but Des knows Lionel will find out the truth one day.) Towards the end of the novel Lionel duly takes his revenge.

Now then, let’s start unravelling some of this.

The title, which I have quoted in full until now, has a subtitle which is an indication of the author’s intent: this is a novel examining, or satirizing, or criticizing the “state” of modern England. Martin Amis has become an expatriate, so his visits to this country are short and intermittent. Distance can lend objectivity, but it can also introduce error. Much of what is wrong with this book can be traced, directly or indirectly, to Amis’s presumptuous stance, that he, a wealthy author from a privileged background and now living abroad, can tell us anything about the place we live in, through descriptions of a benefit-receiving or working-class family.

One of the many casual errors Amis commits concerns the “Asbo” – properly, it is an ASBO, an acronym for “Anti-Social Behaviour Order”, and crucially it was a civil order, not a criminal penalty. Amis should have known at the time he was writing that the ASBO, a mis-judged Blairite “fix” like so many others in those days, was largely unsuccessful in its results and was falling into disuse by the authorities. It was never a “badge of honour”, although the tabloid press thought it was – in reality most ASBOs were deployed against street drinkers, a hamfisted attempt to cure them of alcoholism.

Amis’s novel falls into two broad parts: the divider is Lionel’s lottery win, with his activities before and after spelled out. The first half is where most of the satirical work of the novel takes place, but Amis soon loses interest in that. The second half, a dazzling sequence of almost random social or pop-cultural references to foods, magazines, TV shows, music (not much, though, about texting, social networking, gaming, etc.), becomes increasingly like a farce. The repellent creation Lionel is now almost marginalized, and all Amis is left to write about is a world of scruffs and scroungers that he obviously dislikes and does not understand. The second half of the novel involves a constantly changing cast whose names, let alone their characters, are almost impossible to tell apart: Dawn, Dawnie, Des, Dudley, Daphne, Drago, Dylis? I suspected the author found himself late delivering his manuscript, and having done as much as he could with Lionel rushed something out so he could be rid of it. The closest literary parallel with these 100+ pages of frenetically recorded births and deaths and blow-out meals and posh houses and TV appearances and illnesses and infidelities are those old Confessions of … novels by Timothy Lea, but without the jokes. Not one.

Lionel Asbo is told in two main voices: a third-person narrative, which we should assume is intended as the authorial presence, and the dialogue, sometimes phonetically rendered (“Get you tits fixed” is a favourite line), of Lionel and his associates. The one time we see a letter written by Lionel, we are given a good look at his terrible spelling – for instance CUMPEW UH, with Amis obligingly providing the glottal stop. In fact, Amis frequently comments on the dialogue, explaining pronunciation, etc. At one point Lionel unexpectedly utters the long word “labyrinth”, and the author immediately points out that Lionel’s “enunciation” was improving: he was now saying labyrinf, not as might be expected, labyrimf. Later: “The first time he said brothel he pronounced it broffle, and the second time … he pronounced it brovvle.” As the book goes on there are more and more of these italicized interjections, to such an extent they become a sort of third narrative voice, jutting interchangeably into both the dialogue and the narrative. The two main voices are not even wholly discrete: the narrative style often slips into the vernacular, such as on p.93, in a description of Lionel’s suite of rooms in a snooty hotel in St James’s: “[There was a] bedroom, lounge, office area, bathroom with two sinks (and an extra shitter in a little closet of its own).”

In a 1990 Introduction to a reprint of William Sansom’s novel The Body, Anthony Burgess warns of the dangers that exist when there is a disparity between the mundane abilities and lifestyle of a novel’s characters and “the mentality of a professional writer who has read all the fiction and poetry ever written, especially in the modern age, and learned from their example how to contrive a highly original style of his own”. Burgess goes on to say that the danger is one of appearing to condescend. He discusses the way James Joyce enclosed Leopold Bloom “in a symbolism of great subtlety and erudition”, which elevated rather than condescended. He says that Sansom also avoids condescension. I think if Mr Burgess had known about Lionel Asbo he would have had a field day, as Amis not only keeps trying to show he is one of the lads, but consistently elevates condescension into class-based sarcasm.

It is the author’s mistakes that really set this novel out on its own. These range from the practical (poor research, or unfamiliarity with everyday life) to stylistic (bad writing).

On the practical mistakes, one hardly knows where to begin. Maybe you noticed that in the plot synopsis, Lionel’s mum christened him – no, she could only name him. Christening is a Christian sacrament. In 2006, according to Amis, milk was still being delivered in London in glass bottles – no, only a tiny handful of the posher addresses still receive any milk delivery at all, and an even tinier handful receive glass bottles, but Amis is probably protected from this knowledge. Des, a 15-year-old living in a rough urban neighbourhood, still attends school. Alone in the whole of London, this teenager wears short trousers, a purple blazer and he carries a satchel. He and Lionel live on the 33rd floor of a high-rise, where the lift never works, so they bravely run up and down the stairs, sometimes carrying furniture – I bet Martin Amis has never tried even to walk slowly up 33 floors. At one point, Lionel complains that his left pillock was aching – Amis obviously means his left testicle, or (daring slip into the vernacular) his left bollock, but “pillock” has only one meaning and that’s a stupid or annoying person. It’s from a Norwegian dialect word pillicock, which means penis. Diston (Amis’s imaginary inner-London slum area) is said to have gravid primary-schoolers – pregnant 5 to 10-year-olds?

Then Amis makes mistake after mistake when he talks about the crimes Lionel Asbo is said to have committed. Does this matter? Not really, but in a novel about the criminal underclass, where offences regularly feature, the one thing anyone can be sure of is that the perpetrators will know exactly what they’re up against and why they have been banged up. Lionel has form for “Extortion with Menaces” (doesn’t exist, and anyway Amis ought to be able to spot a tautology when he writes one), and “Receiving Stolen Property” (doesn’t exist – the offence is called Handling Stolen Goods, or just plain Handling). “Attempted Manslaughter” (p.18) is another non-existent offence in England and Wales – manslaughter is usually inadvertent, or is a reduction by mitigating circumstances from a murder attempt. There are several more Amis errors of this kind, too tediously technical to keep listing here, but all this sort of detail is quickly discoverable on the internet, as I just found.

However, it is on his home turf, writing the kind of sentences the other guys couldn’t write, that Amis is uniquely awful.

P.10: “Dawn simmered over the incredible edifice … of Avalon Tower.” How does that work? Simmering means cooking slowly just below boiling point; people can “simmer” with rage when they are holding it back. But a sunrise? (There is also an important character called Dawn … I wondered for a surreal moment if Amis was talking about her.)

P.22: “He squinted up with his unfallen eyes.”

P.28: “The worst stretch of Cuttle Canal was as active as a geyser: it spat and splatted, blowing thick-lipped kisses to the passers-by.” Presumably Amis is saying here that the canal is so damaged by pollution that it is in constant reaction, as chemical events take place. But “blowing thick-lipped kisses”?

P.34: “Diston, with its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzy low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste. Diston, a world of italics and exclamation marks.”

P.36: “… a heavy silence began to fuse and climb. A muscular, pumped-up, steroidal silence, a Lionel silence, shrill enough to smother the parched whispers of Jeff and Joe …” Difficult to see how any silence can “fuse” (i.e. unite or join or integrate), let alone “climb”. The “muscular, pumped-up, steroidal silence”, related to Lionel, is a flourish too far, especially as we know that Lionel is lazy, overweight and flabby. A “shrill” silence? A silence that can “smother” other sounds? (Jeff and Joe, incidentally, are two pit bulls, kept calm and domestic by being fed Tabasco every day. “Parched” is not the word for them.)

P.40: “… a film of water swam on the flagstones.” Presumably, Amis means a small puddle or a patch of water – “film” is generally used to describe a thin sheet or layer. But water is never in layers, and it never “swims”.

P.200: “They started forward, sliding sideways through the clenched teeth of the locked cars.”

P.245: “… the trail of life had frayed.”

Again, it becomes tedious to keep arguing this sort of detail – the above should serve fair warning to anyone who persists in thinking Amis is an inventive or descriptive or fluent writer. An earlier novel by Amis, the dreadful London Fields, had just as many similar solecisms. He gropes for images, he approximates descriptions, he uses the wrong words, but like a concert pianist hitting a dud note he plays it loudly, as if he meant it all along. The other guys, it is true, do not write like this – they are better at it.

Martin Amis once said (to Val Hennessy in Time Out), “My curse as a writer is that I am not read slowly enough. By reading my work fast one may perceive the local effects, the jokes, the virtuoso paragraphs but one gets absolutely no idea of the novel’s architecture or artistry.” Well, I read Lionel Asbo slowly, hoping for jokes, virtuosity and artistry, but it was a sordid experience. I wished I could have read this ill-judged and badly written novel faster.

Clearly, to quote another of his utterances, he needs frenzied editing by his publisher, and doesn’t get it. This interests me. One of my novels was published by Jonathan Cape (coincidentally at the same time as London Fields) and I was impressed by the thoroughness and sensitivity of the copy-editing, the attention to detail, the high standards on which the editorial staff insisted. I could hardly believe London Fields was from the same publisher. Yet dozens of these terrible Amisian gaffes still get through the Cape system somehow and I can’t help wondering how it happens. Perhaps his truculent style of surly ad hominem attack intimidates the editorial staff, so that he receives the lightest, most “respectful” treatment of his text? Or maybe he simply goes through the copy-edited text after Cape have finished with it, and restores his howlers?

The case of Martin Amis is not all that interesting when his work is considered in isolation, away from the white noise thrown out by his manner and his provocative and ill-informed public remarks about Islam, etc. He is a writer who was given a good start, but who peaked too early: Money: a suicide note (1984) is usually regarded as his best work, but that was three decades ago. His fiction since has been an up and down affair: sometimes no better than all right, sometimes awful. Lionel Asbo is his most recent fiction and it is at the bottom of his own mediocre scale. It reads like a terminal novel, a fizzling out of what some people thought all those years ago were the signs of a sparky new talent.

In year 2007, Prime Minister Gordon Brown requested members of the British public to suggest a four- or five-word slogan, perhaps in Latin, to sum up what signified modern Britain. I can’t remember if a winner was ever found, but a reader of The Times memorably suggested: Dipso Fatso Bingo Asbo Tesco. This witty remark said everything that Lionel Asbo says, but the novel is some 99,995 words longer and notably lacking in wit. I’d commend the slogan to Martin Amis, but I rather suspect he wouldn’t know what a “tesco” is.

 

Gollancz have come through with a cover design for The Adjacent. I am left wordless (for a change), but keep staring at it. The book will be published in June 2013.

The artist who created this image is Brian Roberts:

Artist: Brian Roberts

 

“Science fiction is the cockroach in the house of books: it survives on scraps and never goes away. Occasionally, as in the work of HG Wells and JG Ballard, it becomes sublime.” (From the Guardian, 19th November 2012.)

This comment (part of an essay which was semi-jokingly trying to create all sorts of new literary genres) was written by Robert McCrum, an associate editor of the Observer. Before he joined the newspaper McCrum worked at Faber & Faber as an editor.

It was in this capacity that I met him in the early 1980s. Before his arrival he had been described to me by Matthew Evans, the Chairman of Faber, as a representative of the new generation of editors who was going to be brought in to revitalize the Faber fiction list. McCrum duly took up his post and some time later he took me to lunch. At this time I had been with Faber since 1969 and had published all my books with them. These included my first five novels, a short story collection, an anthology and a children’s book. I felt my position with Faber was more or less secure, although by instinct I never take anything for granted – just as well, as it turned out. At the time of our lunch I had recently delivered my new novel to Faber, The Affirmation. The editor for this was Charles Monteith, one of the greatest of all post-war book editors, who worked with William Golding, P. D. James, Lawrence Durrell, Philip Larkin, Brian Aldiss, many more. Charles Monteith was due to retire from Faber shortly, and McCrum was his replacement.

“You’ve had it easy up to now,” McCrum said to me over lunch. “Faber’s going to change out of all recognition. The big boys are in town.” I looked at this young chap with the pink ears and shiny face – he looked as if he had started shaving earlier that week. I asked him which of my books he had read … in particular had he read The Affirmation? “I don’t read sci-fi,” he said in a pained voice, implying of course I don’t read rubbish, as you should know. He went on, “If you want to stay publishing with Faber you’re going to have to look to your laurels.” In spite of my many qualms about being defined by science fiction, or indeed any other genre, I realized that arguing with this rising young star of publishing was going to be a complex and difficult matter. No time for that then – our lunch was quickly over.

I knew only one thing about McCrum before we met: he had just published his own first novel, In the Secret State. On my way home I bought a copy. I read it on the train and finished it that evening. It was an illuminating experience: McCrum was a lousy writer! The novel is a sort of sub-genre of the Le Carré type of thriller, told through the medium of former public schoolboys mingling with each other in the secret services, and having to interview lesser types, while making knowing allusions to privilege and position, and betrayal of the class by those whom they feel should know better. Familiar enough, but McCrum’s addition to this genre was amateurish and incompetent. I couldn’t help wondering why any pro publisher had accepted it. He was incapable of controlling a short scene, let alone a whole novel. Clumsy viewpoint shifts occurred two or three times a page and he could not imagine or describe a scene with any conviction. His attention to detail was erratic and often incorrect. The dialogue in particular had a phoney feel to it, and the book depended heavily on the use of this unconvincing dialogue.

A working relationship between me and this young high-flyer seemed likely to be problematic. The point needs to be made that I do not expect my editor to be a published novelist. In fact, most of the editors I have got along with best have not been writers. For a sole example, Charles Monteith never to my knowledge published a word of fiction in his life. The other editors I have worked most productively with over the years have been the same. However, if an editor should in fact turn out to be a fellow professional then I naturally expect that he or she should be at least as competent as me, and preferably more so. To judge by In the Secret State, McCrum had a lot to learn. I certainly did not feel like taking any lessons in writing from him, not then, or indeed now, three decades later.

It’s perhaps just as well that writers and their editors do not have daily contact. I kept my head down and began work on my next novel, The Glamour. Charles Monteith duly retired, and McCrum’s reign at Faber began. I had only intermittent dealings with him over the next two or three years. On one occasion he sent me a manuscript by a young writer he had just taken on, saying he felt that some of the “sci-fi” elements needed an expert view. Gritting my teeth I read the thing – it was OK, but the writer was as hopeless at viewpoint as McCrum himself. Suspecting I was flogging a dead horse, I wrote a detailed report to McCrum, and gave as just one example of poorly handled viewpoint a chase scene where every moment of doubt or fear or suspense was undermined by the writer’s habit of switching between the characters, so that nothing was left to the reader’s imagination. When the novel finally came out I was interested to discover that the clumsy shifting around of viewpoint was just as I had read it before, except in the one scene I picked out as an example, where this simple technique was now handled correctly. McCrum hadn’t been able to convey a basic editorial point to the writer, not because he didn’t agree but because he clearly didn’t get it.

In the meantime, The Affirmation had been published. It suffered poor sales in hardback and Faber had great trouble in selling paperback rights. McCrum and Matthew Evans took me to lunch, ostensibly to talk about future plans, but told me they wanted to “reposition” me in the market. I was suddenly interested. To me, this meant that Faber were acknowledging they had published and sold The Affirmation inadequately, and they were planning to do something about it. I listened carefully. “What we want you to do,” McCrum said, “is get in your car and go out and discover England.”

Although it was optioned to Faber, my next novel, The Glamour, was published by Jonathan Cape.

McCrum’s career as a publisher is usually regarded as successful. The Faber general fiction list, which until his arrival was clearly looking a bit moribund, was duly revitalized. The firm has now, once again, become a leading publisher of literary fiction. This sort of “repositioning” is of course a result of a business decision as much as an editorial one. A company with a blue-chip literary reputation like Faber will have no problem attracting the best novelists if an effort is made, with an editor appointed to make the effort and propagate the new policy to literary agents and speak encouragingly to the writers. Meanwhile, the company will back up the initiative by making the right sort of money available. Since those days McCrum has moved on – for a while he was Literary Editor at the Observer. Now as one of that newspaper’s associate editors he appears to be a freelance commentator on the world of books, writing regularly for the Guardian blog.

McCrum’s weakness is that he will not acknowledge his blind spots. Genre fiction, or what he thinks is genre fiction, is the prime example. He abdicates himself from addressing the problem by assuming that genre fiction abides by rules and conventions that general fiction does not, and that it has an orthodoxy he neither understands nor wishes to learn about. He thinks it is a specialist form that can only be dealt with by an editor with specialist expertise. On the whole he believes that genre fiction lacks the greatest challenges of literary fiction by taking a less demanding route, an easier way. He sees all genre writers as buttressed by an undiscriminating fan readership. He assumes they lack any clear critical standards or apparatus, and that they are untalented or unambitious.

This is true in varying degrees of all writers and all areas of fiction, but to take literature seriously we have to look at its best examples. McCrum seems unable to grasp that. He dismisses what he does not know as being worth only his lip-service, his derision.

That is his weakness, but the real problem is that he is out of date. When I met him thirty years ago I could temporarily forgive his callow manner and patrician attitudes, but I was alarmed and discouraged by his conventional and unoriginal approach to literature. Out of date then, and still out of date now, to judge by the flippant and ignorant article I quoted at the beginning of this. I find his glowing, exempting reference to J. G. Ballard particularly offensive, as when I knew him McCrum had never even heard of Ballard, a writer whose astonishing work had been influential since the late 1950s, but whose presence only dawned on the likes of McCrum after Empire of the Sun was published in 1984. Anyone who doubts McCrum’s wider areas of weakness should glance through the 68 comments that followed his appearance on the Guardian website.