Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges

If you want a good reason to learn Spanish, here’s one: you’ll be able to read Borges in the original. Learning won’t be very difficult, but it would be worth it even if it were. Spanish is a clear and elegant language and Borges is a clear and elegant writer. He puts his stories together like mosaics, using words as chips of coloured stone to create the strangest of worlds and situations.

This collection, which combines El Jardín de Senderos que se Bifurcan (1941) (The Garden of Forking Paths) and Artificios (1944) (Artifices), has the very strange world known as “La Biblioteca de Babel” or “The Library of Babel”, an infinite library of hexagonal rooms whose books are a kind of drunkard’s walk through alphabetic possibility:

Uno, que mi padre vio en un hexágono del circuito quince noventa y cuatro, constaba de las letras MCV perversamente repetidas desde el renglón primero hasta el último.

One book, which my father once saw in a hexagon in circuit 15-94,consisted of the letters M C V perversely repeated from the first line to the last.

Borges was fascinated by concepts like randomness and infinity, which is why he drew on mathematics so often in his stories. “The Library of Babel” is an exploration of those ideas, but amid the abstraction and universality of mathematics there are haunting images like this:

Muerto, no faltarán manos piadosas que me tiren por la baranda; mi sepultura será el aire insondable; mi cuerpo se hundirá largamente y se corromperá y disolverá en el viento engenerado por la caída, que es infinita.

When I am dead, compassionate hands will throw me over the railing; my tomb will be the unfathomable air, my body will sink for ages, and will decay and dissolve in the wind engendered by my fall, which shall be infinite.

That’s both horrible and beautiful. The first words of the quote – “Muerto, no faltarán…” – are an example of how Spanish can be more precise than English. A literal translation would be: “Dead, there shall not lack caring hands to cast me over the railing…” But in English the referent of “dead” hangs in the air and doesn’t settle very readily on “me”. In Spanish, muerto is masculine singular and clearly refers to the speaker.

English has to paraphrase, just as it does with the title of Gautier’s «La Morte Amoureuse» (1836). One of the strange titles in the Library of Babel, Trueno peinado, translates well into English: Combed Thunder. Another title doesn’t: Calambre de Yeso, or Plaster Cramp. I think Sandstone Cramp or Onyx Cramp would work better in English: the translation fails by being too faithful.

But Borges survives translation better than most writers, because his prose is precise and his themes are universal. Or perhaps you could say fundamental. He’s playing with words and ideas, exploring the relationship between language and reality, between reality and imagination, between imagination and mathematics. “The Library of Babel” is an excellent example, which is why it’s perhaps his most famous story.

But there’s a melancholy and even a terror in the story too, which come across more clearly when you’re reading more slowly and with closer attention. That’s one reason it’s good to read in other languages: people whose mother tongue isn’t Spanish can find things in Borges that native speakers can’t.

But that applies to every language: in some ways the natives are trapped by their own familiarity and fluency. Borges was aware of questions like that and in “The Library of Babel” he suddenly throws a door open to an infinity of mirrors. If the relation between symbol and sense is arbitrary, then any combination of letters can have any meaning. That’s why the narrator of the story suddenly asks:

Tú, que me lees, ¿estás seguro de entender mi lenguaje?

You who read me — are you certain you understand my language?

In other stories, like “La Muerte y la Brújula”, or “Death and the Compass”, Borges’ games with symbols and coincidence can begin to seem like self-parody. This is the story of a series of murders committed to form the letters of the Tetragrammaton, or great and unspeakable name of God in Hebrew. I think the title in Spanish is better than the story, because brújula has an enticing echo of brujo, “wizard”, or bruja, “witch”. Borges was a profound writer, not a broad one, and he repeated himself, like a garden of forking paths or an echoing labyrinth. But my Spanish isn’t good enough to appreciate him fully or get the most out of his humour.

Whatever language you read him in, you’ll probably agree that he is among the greatest writers of the twentieth century. But one of his biggest services to literature may have been to encourage more people to try G.K. Chesterton, one of his own heroes and inspirations. He would certainly have been pleased to do so, because you don’t get ego with Borges. Instead, you get ideas, some of the strangest and most haunting ever set to cellulose. As I said in one of my own attempts at Borgesian weirdness:

Black Aikkos the God is eternally blind,
But he sees with the eyes of the infinite mind… (“The Dice of Aikkos”)

Homer, at the beginning of European literature, is said to have been blind. Borges certainly was, and if he proves to have been at the end of European literature, he is great enough to bear the comparison.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

The Collected Stories of Arthur C. ClarkeThe Collected Stories, Arthur C. Clarke (Victor Gollancz 2000)

Do you want to know the difference between ingenuity and imagination? Between literary competence and literary genius? Then compare Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories with J.G. Ballard’s short stories. Reading Ballard is like exploring a jungle; reading Clarke is like touring a greenhouse. Ballard is haunting and head-expanding in a way that Clarke isn’t, much as he might have wanted to be.

You could say that the difference between them is like the difference between wizardry and engineering or poetry and prose or madness and sanity. Clark Ashton Smith and J.R.R. Tolkien are different in the same way. Ballard and Smith could conjure dreams on paper; Clarke and Tolkien could create realistic worlds. I like all four writers, but I don’t place them at the same level. There is a great gulf fixed between the wizards and the engineers. I’m reminded of it every time I read Clarke and Tolkien, so part of the value of their work is that it teaches me to appreciate Ballard and Smith more. Or to marvel more.

All the same, the engineers could do things that the wizards couldn’t. Clarke and Tolkien were better educated than Ballard and Smith, and Clarke knew more about hard science than Ballard. There are some ideas and images in this book that take realism to its limits. The life-form that Clarke invented for “Castaway” (1947) has stayed with me ever since I read the story as a child. It was thrown off its home-world by a storm – or rather, thrown out of its home-world. That’s because it was a plasma-creature living inside the sun until it was ejected by a solar storm and blown on the solar wind to the Earth:

The tenuous outer fringes of the atmosphere checked his speed, and he fell slowly towards the invisible planet. Twice he felt a strange, tearing wrench as he passed through the ionosphere; then, no faster than a falling snowflake, he was drifting down the cold, dense gas of the lower air. The descent took many hours and his strength was waning when he came to rest on a surface hard beyond anything he had ever imagined.

The unimaginably hard surface is actually the Atlantic Ocean, where the plasma-creature is detected by the radar of an overflying jet-liner. It looks like a giant amoeba to the wondering humans who are watching the radar, but they can’t see anything at all when they look at the water. The story is a very clever exercise in shifts of perspective and Clarke returned to these ideas in “Out of the Sun” (1958), in which the same kind of creature is thrown out of the sun and lands on Mercury, where it freezes to death in “seas of molten metal”. More wondering humans have watched it fly through space on radar from a solar-observation base. As it dies, the humans feel a “soundless cry of anguish, a death pang that seeped into our minds without passing through the gateways of the senses.”

There’s also alien life and clever invention in “A Meeting with Medusa” (1971), which is about a solo expedition to Jupiter that discovers giants in the clouds: browsing herbivores that defend themselves from swooping predators with electrical discharges. The explorer is called Falcon and is part-robot after an air-ship crash on earth. That enables him to survive “peaks of thirty g’s” as his air-ship, called Kon-Tiki, descends to the “upper reaches of the Jovian atmosphere” and collects gas so that it can float there and observe. The story takes you to Jupiter and teaches you a lot about Jovian physics, chemistry and meteorology: it’s realism, not reverie, and Falcon’s discovery of life is entirely plausible.

The story was probably influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Horror of the Heights” (1913), a proto-Lovecraftian story in which an early aviator discovers similar predators high in the air above Wiltshire. Doyle’s contemporary H.G. Wells was certainly an influence on Clarke: there’s even a piece here (not a proper story) called “Herbert George Morley Roberts Wells, Esq.” (1967). Clarke also knew Lovecraft and wrote a short parody of At the Mountains of Madness (1931) called At the Mountains of Murkiness, but the parody isn’t collected here and Lovecraft’s influence isn’t very obvious. Clarke had a sunny and optimistic personality and wrote few dark or depressing stories. There is a definite Lovecraftian touch, however, in one of the mini-stories collected under the title “The Other Side of the Sky” (1957). In “Passer-By”, an astronaut describes seeing something as he travels between space-stations on a rocket scooter. First he spots it on radar, then watches as it flies past:

I suppose I had a clear view of it for perhaps half a second, and that half-second has haunted me all my life. […] Of course, it could have been a very large and oddly shaped meteor; I can never be sure that my eyes, straining to grasp the details of so swiftly moving an object, were not hopeless deceived. I may have imagined that I saw that broken, crumpled prow, and the cluster of dark spots like the sightless sockets of a skull. Of one thing only was I certain, even in that brief and fragmentary vision. If it was a ship, it was not one of ours. Its shape was utterly alien, and it was very, very old.

It’s Lovecraftian to compare the portholes of a space-ship to the eye-sockets of a skull. So is the idea of a “very, very old” wreck flying between the stars. The uncertainty and doubt are Lovecraftian too, but you could also say that they’re scientific. Clarke often emphasizes the fallibility of the senses and the uncertainty of inferences based on them. Science is a way of overcoming those sensory limitations. In Lovecraft, science is dangerous: that uncertainty would slowly give way to horror as the truth is revealed. Clarke’s protagonist experiences no horror and though he’s haunted for life by what he might have seen, he feels that way because he didn’t learn enough, not because he learnt too much.

That story may have been the seed for Rendezvous with Rama (1976), which could be seen as a more optimistic re-working of At the Mountains of Madness. Puny humans explore a titanic alien artefact in both stories, but Clarke’s humans aren’t punished for their curiosity and at the end of the novel they look forward to indulging more of it. Clarke is good at grandeur and invoking the hugeness of the universe. He wrote about galaxy-spanning empires, giant scientific discoveries and struggles to save the universe.

He wrote about the multiverse too and there’s a story that makes the multiverse seem big by portraying a very confined part of it. This is the opening paragraph of “The Wall of Darkness” (1949):

Many and strange are the universes that drift like bubbles in the foam upon the river of Time. Some – a very few – move against or athwart its current; and fewer still are those that lie forever beyond its reach, knowing nothing of the future or past. Shervane’s tiny cosmos was not one of these: its strangeness was of a different order. It held one world only – the planet of Shervane’s race – and a single star, the great sun Trilorne that brought it life and light.

Shervane is a young man who makes a very strange discovery when he tries to cross a giant wall that circles his home planet. What is on the other side? In a way, everything is. This is another story that has stayed with me from my first reading of it as a child. And it could almost have been written by Ballard: like Ballard’s “The Concentration City” (1957) or “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1962), it’s about trying to escape from confinement and making an unexpected or ironic discovery about the true nature of things. Unlike Ballard, Clarke didn’t spend the Second World War locked in a prison camp, but he could get big ideas from a wall and the limit it imposed.

Neither he nor Ballard always wrote about big and serious ideas, however. Many stories here are deliberately small and silly, or big in a ludicrous way. P.G. Wodehouse seems to be an influence on the stories that come under the heading of Tales from the White Hart, in which Harry Purvis spins fanciful yarns for an audience of scientists and science-fiction writers in a pub in London. One story has an exploding moonshine still, another a giant squid that’s angry about its brain being manipulated, another a fall of twenty feet during which an unfortunate scientist doesn’t merely break the sound-barrier, but travels so fast that he’s burnt alive by air-friction.

It’s a horizontal fall too, although the story is called “What Goes Up” (1956). Clarke was playing with science there; elsewhere, in stories like “Green Fingers”, part of “Venture to the Moon” (1956), he’s making serious suggestions. The story is about a botanist on the moon who is killed by his own ingenuity, but it’s not a gloomy, Lovecraftian doom. Risks are part of exploration and adventure and Clarke presented space-travel as a new form of sea-faring. He loved both the sea and the sky and his love shines brightly here. So do “The Shining Ones” (1962), the intelligent cephalopods who end the life of another of his protagonists.

The premature death of adventurous young men is a theme he shared with A.E. Housman, whose poetry he greatly admired, but Clarke could also write about the rescue of adventurous young men, as in “Hide-and-Seek” (1949), “Summertime on Icarus” (1960) and “Take a Deep Breath” (1957). And deaths in his work aren’t futile or proof that man is always ultimately defeated. If Clarke had written pessimistically like that, he wouldn’t have been so popular among working scientists or inspired so many children to enter science. But he could appeal to children partly because he never properly grew up himself. Unlike Ballard, he never married or had any children of his own and his decision to live on Sri Lanka was probably inspired in part by paederasty, not just by his interest in scuba-diving.

My final judgment would be that he was an important writer, not a great one. I’ve enjoyed re-reading the stories here – even the numerous typos were fun – but that’s partly because they’ve sharpened my appreciation of J.G. Ballard. Clarke had no spark of divine madness: he was Voltaire to Ballard’s Nietzsche. His work does sparkle with intellect and ideas, but he made more out of science than he ever did out of fiction.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Clarke’s Arks – reviews of Imperial Earth (1976) and Rendezvous with Rama (1972)

Read Full Post »

The Strange Adventures of Mr Andrew Hawthorn & Other Stories by John BuchanThe Strange Adventures of Mr Andrew Hawthorn & Other Stories, John Buchan (Penguin Books 2009)

“How the devil could one associate horror with mathematics?” A Lovecraft fan will answer: easily. But that question was asked by John Buchan in a story first published in 1911. Buchan is most famous for the character Richard Hannay, hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), but just as there is much more to Doyle than his detective, so there is much more to Buchan than his battler.

As you’ll see in this collection. Like Doyle, Buchan ranged from horror to humour, from realism to romance, from outdoors adventure to indoors introspection. He could write vivid descriptions of everything from dinner with the Devil to a storm at sea. Doyle was obviously an influence on him; so were Kipling and Stevenson. He doesn’t always match their quality, but that’s hardly surprising: writing formed only part of his very full and active life. According to the chronology here, he trained as a barrister, became President of the Oxford Union, worked as secretary to the High Commissioner of South Africa and served in the Intelligence Corps during the First World War, then became successively a director of Reuters, a Conservative member of parliament, President of the Scottish Historical Society, Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Governor-General of Canada and Chancellor of Edinburgh University.

During all that time, he was also hunting, fishing and tramping the wilderness of Scotland, South Africa and Canada. And he was reading in several languages on many subjects: there are quotes here from Suetonius, Shakespeare, the Bible, Burke, A.E. Housman, Verlaine, Pascal and Poincaré. The last two supply the seed for “Space” (1911), his proto-Lovecraftian story of mathematics and menace:

All Hollond’s tastes were on the borderlands of sciences, where mathematics fades into metaphysics and physics merges in the abstrusest kind of mathematics. Well, it seems he had been working for years at the ultimate problem of matter, and especially of that rarefied matter we call aether or space. I forget what his view was – atoms or molecules or electric waves. […] He claimed to have discovered — by ordinary inductive experiment — that the constituents of aether possessed certain functions, and moved in certain figures obedient to certain mathematical laws. Space, I gathered, was perpetually ‘forming fours’ in some fancy way. (“Space” in The Moon Endureth: Tales and Fancies – in this online version of the story, the opening quote is by Tertullian)

Like one of Lovecraft’s protagonists, Holland is doomed by his discovery. So is the antiquarian Dubellay in “The Wind in the Portico” (1928). He is visited by the narrator, who is “busy on a critical edition of Theocritus” and wants to see a rare codex owned by Dubellay:

I had made a portrait in my mind of a fastidious old scholar, with eye-glasses on a black cord, and a finical Weltkind-ish manner. Instead I found a man still in early middle age, a heavy fellow dressed in the roughest of country tweeds. […] His face was hard to describe. It was high-coloured, but the colour was not healthy; it was friendly, but it was also wary; above all, it was unquiet. He gave me the impression of a man whose nerves were all wrong, and who was perpetually on his guard. (“The Wind in the Portico” in The Runagates Club)

He’s right to be: having excavated an “old temple” in the woods, he’s foolishly renewed worship of a “British god of the hills” called Vaunus. What happens to him seemed startlingly Lovecraftian when I first read the story, but when I read it again the Lovecraftian charge was muted. It’s hard to be startled twice and a story with powerful images can be disappointing when you return to it.

Buchan uses a similar theme in another story, “The Grove of Ashtaroth”, but in that case the story holds its power when I read it again. It has a different ending too: the doom is averted and the deity is ambivalent. Baleful or beautiful? Grotesque or glorious? It depends partly on one’s race and the story is about atavism and the way ancestry can overthrow environment. Or rather: can re-emerge in the right environment. Like Doyle, Buchan accepted some shocking and long-exploded ideas about the influence of genetics on brains, bodies and behaviour. They’re shocking to modern sensibilities, at least, but they might prove less exploded than some suspect.

Buchan himself may be evidence for them, because he’s another example of the disproportionate Scottish influence on English-speaking culture and literature. He died in Montreal but he was born in Perth near the east coast of Scotland. This background means that some of the strangeness in this collection is a matter of perspective. If you’re not Scottish, it will be strange. If you are, it won’t be. Take “Streams of Water in the South” (1899) and the apparent tramp who suddenly appears and helps a shepherd get his flock across a deep and dangerous flood. The shepherd asks the narrator of the story if he knows who the tramp is:

I owned ignorance.

“Tut,” said he, “ye ken nocht. But Yeddie had aye a queer crakin’ for waters. He never gangs on the road. Wi’ him it’s juist up yae glen and doon anither and aye keepin’ by the burn-side. He kens every water i’ the warld, every bit sheuch and burnie frae Gallowa’ to Berwick. And then he kens the way o’ spates the best I ever seen, and I’ve heard tell o’ him fordin’ waters when nae ither thing could leeve i’ them. He can weyse and wark his road sae cunnin’ly on the stanes that the roughest flood, if it’s no juist fair ower his heid, canna upset him. Mony a sheep has he saved to me, and it’s mony a guid drove wad never hae won to Gledsmuir market but for Yeddie.” (“Streams of Water in the South”)

The mixture of formal literary English and broad Scots heightens the richness and earthiness of the Scots. But perhaps “earthiness” is the wrong word. Language is like water: fickle, fissile, rushing over the landscape of history and culture. So Scots runs through southern English like the streams after which, via the Bible, the story is named.

The tramp Yeddie is named after them too: his real name is Adam Logan but “maist folk ca’ him ‘Streams of Water’”. He both loves water and gains power from it. As he carries fifteen sheep, one by one, across the dangerous flood, he stands “straighter and stronger”, his eye flashes and his voice rings with command. He reminds me of Kipling’s jungle boy Mowgli, who’s at ease with natural forces in a way most people don’t understand and are disturbed by.

The power of this story is Kiplingesque too: it will stay with you, partly for its strangeness, partly for its sadness. Unlike his beloved streams, Logan can’t defy time and where he was once familiar, he will one day be forgotten.

Politics and the May-Fly” (1896) also involves water and also uses Scots. It’s memorable in a different way: not sad, but sardonic. It’s psychological too, involving a battle of wits between a Tory farmer and his radical ploughman. High-born Buchan, the future Governor-General of Canada, could understand and sympathize with all stations of men. But there are things common to all men: “Politics” is a Machiavellian tale in miniature and not something that Lovecraft could have written.

Lovecraft didn’t like fishing or the great outdoors, after all, and he couldn’t explain their appeal as Buchan can. Nor could he have written “Basilissa” (1914), a story that involves both life-long love and rib-cracking wrestling. You’d have to look to Robert E. Howard for a story like that. And this, from a story with a Lovecraftian title, is like Clark Ashton Smith:

Sometimes at night, in the great Brazen Palace, warders heard the Emperor walking in the dark corridors, alone, and yet not alone; for once, when a servant entered with a lamp, he saw his master with a face as of another world, and something beside him which had no face or shape, but which he knew to be that hoary Evil which is older than the stars. (“The Watcher by the Threshold”, 1900)

So Buchan could write like all of the Weird Big Three. I think he must have influenced them too. The Thirty-Nine Steps is a classic, but it doesn’t reveal Buchan’s full range, erudition and intelligence. This collection does. I don’t think all the stories are good, but at his best he isn’t so far behind Kipling, Doyle and H.G. Wells. With a less strenuous public life, perhaps he would have matched them. But if he’d had less appetite for work, he might have had less appetite for landscapes and ideas too. There are lots of them here, from Scottish hills to Canadian forests, from mathematical pandemonium to the “Breathing of God”.

Read Full Post »

Extreme Metaphors Interviews with J.G. BallardExtreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J.G. Ballard, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (Fourth Estate 2014)

This book reminded me of one of Ballard’s most remarkable stories:

People were now clambering all over the giant, whose reclining arms provided a double stairway. From the palms they walked along the forearms to the elbow and then crawled over the distended belly of the biceps to the flat promenade of the pectoral muscles which covered the upper half of the smooth hairless chest. From here they climbed up on to the face, hand over hand along the lips and nose, or forayed down the abdomen to meet others who had straddled the ankles and were patrolling the twin columns of the thighs. (“The Drowned Giant”, 1964)

There are lots of interviewers in this book clambering over the gigantic person and work of J.G. Ballard. But Ballard is alive, not drowned, so he responds to the clambering feet and clutching hands. He laughs and wriggles. He offers a commentary on his own body, explaining his own scars and birthmarks, demonstrating his own reflexes and justifying the use he’s made of his muscles. By the time you finish the interviews, you’ll understand the giant better.

And you may have had some surprises on the way. Ballard liked Margaret Thatcher and didn’t like drugs:

This story [“The Voices of Time” (1960)] also came without drugs, and that, I believe, confirms what I’ve just said, that the human imagination is [capable of anything], it doesn’t have to fall back on artificial stimulants, on chemicals, to release something that the brain can do even on its own. A fertile imagination is better than any drug. (“1982: Werner Fuchs & Joachim Körber. An Interview with J.G. Ballard”, pg. 145 – translated from German)

He didn’t practise what some thought he preached:

People used to come out to this little suburban house [Ballard’s home in Shepperton] expecting a miasma of drug addiction and perversion of every conceivable kind. Instead they found this easy-going man playing with his golden retriever and bringing up a family of happy young children. (“1995: Will Self. Conversations: J.G. Ballard”, pg. 315)

The giant was gentle, you see: he wrote a lot about violence, but didn’t believe in practising it or promoting it. Which becomes a bit of a shame in the interview by Will Self. How good would it have been if Ballard had lifted his gigantic fist and turned Self into a splot on the floor? Very. Alas, it didn’t happen.

And I must admit that the Self interview has some of the most interesting replies in it. But Self’s presence is a reminder that Ballard appeals greatly to the Guardianista community, which is not a good thing. Most of the interviewers here are Guardianistas or some overseas equivalent and they often pursue a Guardianista agenda. Fortunately, Ballard doesn’t say “in terms of” very often, but it would have been interesting to have questions about more things than are in the Guardian’s philosophy. Ballard shared that philosophy in some ways:

Of course men, on account of their greater physical strength, were the dominant figures in most social activities: commerce, industry, agriculture, transportation. Those activities no longer require a man’s great physical strength. A woman can just as easily fly a 747 across the Atlantic. A very small part of industry requires brute muscle. A woman computer programmer can control a machine tool that cuts out a car door. A large number of traditional male strengths, in both senses of the term, are no longer needed. The male sex is a rust bowl. (“1995: Will Self”, pg. 312)

There is much more to the difference between men and women than physical strength. It’s easier for a woman to use a gun than to fly a 747, but almost all gun-crime is committed by men. There are genetic, neural and psychological reasons for that. But men differ too, within races and between them, which is something else that Ballard and his interviewers don’t acknowledge. I’m puzzled by this, because Ballard saw big differences between races in his childhood: English, Chinese and Japanese. He later wrote about them extensively. Did he think they were simply due to upbringing and culture, that the human race was one-and-indivisible?

H.P. Lovecraft didn’t and Lovecraft is a regrettable absence from this feast of analysis, prophecy and metaphor – just as William S. Burroughs is, for me, a regrettable presence. It would have been good if the former had replaced the latter, with Ballard discussing and praising Lovecraft instead of Burroughs. After all, H.P.L., like J.G.B., drew on dreams, not drugs. But I assume Ballard never read Lovecraft and perhaps never even heard of him. That’s a shame, because Lovecraft might have fertilized Ballard’s work with even stranger and stronger ideas. And might have made him use mathematics more.

But Lovecraft wouldn’t have needed to fertilize Ballard with humour, because it was already there. The giant was ticklish. The world made him laugh and so did his own work. There’s a lot of fun in Extreme Metaphors:

Crash a corrupting book? I’ll take my younger self’s word for it. (“1984: Thomas Frick. The Art of Fiction”, pg. 185)

There’s also a detailed index and a clever cover: a crashed, overturned car, a mysterious solar/sanguinary glow and some blue inviting sky. If I wish that Lovecraft had fertilized Ballard, I also wish that Ballard could have fertilized Lovecraft with gusto, joie de vivre and optimism:

I would say we were moving towards an era where the brain with its tremendous sensory, aesthetic and emotional possibilities will be switched on, totally instead of partially, for the very first time. The enormous, detailed, meticulously chosen reruns [of everyday life] that I have been talking about will give one a new awareness of the wonder and mystery of life, an awareness that most of us, for biologically important reasons, have been trained to exclude. […] After a million years or so, those screens are about to be removed, and once they have gone, then, for the first time, men will really know what it is to be alive. (“1979: Christopher Evans: The Space Age Is Over”, pg. 131)

If you’re interested in the giant, you can clamber all over him here.


Elsewhere other-posted:

Vermilion Glands – review of The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard (W&N 2011)

Read Full Post »

Front cover of Conan the Indomitable by Robert E. HowardConan the Indomitable, Robert E. Howard (Orion Books 2011)

This collection contains probably the best Conan story, “The Scarlet Citadel”, and certainly the longest, The Hour of the Dragon. It was also one of the last: the Texan Robert E. Howard would kill himself a few months after the final part appeared in the April 1936 issue of Weird Tales. He was only thirty, which means that he may one day have had more readers than he lived seconds (60 x 60 x 24 x 365 x 30 = 946,080,000). If re-readers count towards the total, he’ll get there a lot quicker: Howard is a writer you can return to again and again. He’s one of the Weird Tales Big Three with H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. He’s the least intelligent and imaginative of the three, but he’s a better writer than HPL and a more stirring writer than CAS:

“Again, nay!” snapped Tsotha, swinging down from his horse. He laughed coldly. “Have you not learned by this time that my brain is mightier than any sword?”

He passed through the lines of the pikemen, and the giants in their steel caps and mail brigandines shrank back fearfully, lest they so much as touch the skirts of his robe. Nor were the plumed knights slower in making room for him. He stepped over the corpses and came face to face with the grim king. The hosts watched in tense silence, holding their breath. The black-armored figure loomed in terrible menace over the lean, silk-robed shape, the notched, dripping sword hovering on high.

“I offer you life, Conan,” said Tsotha, a cruel mirth bubbling at the back of his voice.

“I give you death, wizard,” snarled the king, and backed by iron muscles and ferocious hate the great sword swung in a stroke meant to shear Tsotha’s lean torso in half. But even as the hosts cried out, the wizard stepped in, too quick for the eye to follow, and apparently merely laid an open hand on Conan’s left forearm, from the ridged muscles of which the mail had been hacked away. The whistling blade veered from its arc and the mailed giant crashed heavily to earth, to lie motionless. Tsotha laughed silently.

“Take him up and fear not; the lion’s fangs are drawn.” (“The Scarlet Citadel”, 1933)

Like Alistair MacLean, Howard is good at describing violent action and at painting powerful word-pictures. The wizard’s full name is Tsotha-lanti, which is an unusual invention for Howard: unlike CAS and HPL, he usually drew on real history and mythology for his names. This is part of why “The Scarlet Citadel” is probably the best Conan story: its wizard really seems part of a mysterious ancient world, many thousands of years before the present. It’s a pity the story contains borrowed names too: Set, Ishtar, Rinaldo, Pelias and so on. “Conan” itself is taken from Irish history, for example, in tribute to part of Howard’s own ancestry. Like his talent, his early suicide and his popular appeal, Howard’s ancestry links him to Kurt Cobain, the lead singer and guitarist in the band Nirvana. And would Howard have been a rock-musician if he’d been born later in the twentieth century? Maybe. He’s certainly contributed to rock music: by helping to shape sword-and-sorcery, he influenced heavy metal and its imagery.

His stories have the incongruity of heavy metal too: heavy metal uses advanced technology to sing about sword-and-sorcery, Howard used modern English to write about sword-and-sorcery. His archaic vocabulary is decorative, not fundamental, and his prose is too direct and efficient to truly evoke otherwhen and elsewhere:

Through the black arch of a door four gaunt, black-robed shapes had filed into the great hall. Their faces were dim yellow ovals in the shadows of their hoods.

“Who are you?” ejaculated Thutothmes in a voice as pregnant with danger as the hiss of a cobra. “Are you mad, to invade the holy shrine of Set?”

The tallest of the strangers spoke, and his voice was toneless as a Khitan temple bell.

“We follow Conan of Aquilonia.”

“He is not here,” answered Thutothmes, shaking back his mantle from his right hand with a curious menacing gesture, like a panther unsheathing his talons.

“You lie. He is in this temple. We tracked him from a corpse behind the bronze door of the outer portal through a maze of corridors. We were following his devious trail when we became aware of this conclave. We go now to take it up again. But first give us the Heart of Ahriman.”

“Death is the portion of madmen,” murmured Thutothmes, moving nearer the speaker. His priests closed in on catlike feet, but the strangers did not appear to heed.

“Who can look upon it without desire?” said the Khitan. “In Khitai we have heard of it. It will give us power over the people which cast us out. Glory and wonder dream in its crimson deeps. Give it to us, before we slay you.” (The Hour of the Dragon, 1935)

The Hour of the Dragon would make a good computer-game: it’s a detailed but fast-moving quest-story, with Conan pursuing the great gem that has resurrected an evil wizard from the far past. But if it were made into a computer-game, I wouldn’t want to play it. Writing is still the strangest and most mysterious of the arts: black marks on white paper can conjure an infinite variety of sights, sensations and emotions. Hour isn’t concentrated Conan like “The Scarlet Citadel”, but it’s a lot of fun and I enjoy it every time I re-read it. Howard doesn’t transcend his genre, so he can’t be placed at the level of Clark Ashton Smith. And he didn’t have Lovecraft’s subtlety, invention or sly humour, so he never wrote anything to match “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or “The Call of Cthulhu”. But he deserves to be one of the Weird Tales Big Three and this collection proves it.

Read Full Post »

Six Uncollected Stories by Saki

Read Full Post »

Front cover of an Armada edition of William in Trouble by Richmal CromptonWilliam in Trouble, Richmal Crompton (1927)

This may be my favourite William book, which means that it’s very good. Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) had ambitions to be a serious adult writer, but I doubt her books for adults can be as good as her books for children. Which are books for adults too and may even be informed by the classics she studied at university. My theory is that the Outlaws represent the four Greek humours: the gang consists of William Brown and his three chief friends, Ginger, Henry, and Douglas. William is choleric, Ginger sanguine, Henry phlegmatic and Douglas melancholic. Their names seem to reflect this: choleric literally means “bilious” and bile is brown like William’s surname; sanguine literally means “bloody” and Ginger has red hair; melancholic literally means “black-biled” and Douglas is from the Gaelic Dubhghlas, meaning “dark river”:

“We can’t fight him — not if he’s grown-up,” said Douglas gloomily. Douglas was always something of a pessimist. (ch. 10, “William to the Rescue”)

But the Outlaws are also miniature satyrs, lordlings of misrule who introduce chaos into the orderliness and calm of what J.G. Ballard, a fan of the series, called a “curiously empty middle-class world”. I don’t think the emptiness of the world is deliberate: Crompton just doesn’t seem interested in topography and architecture. The homes of William and his friends, the old barn they use as a headquarters, the countryside they roam, the church they reluctantly attend, the shops and high street in their village — they’re just settings for what really interests her: children and their psychology. This, from the slightly earlier More William (1922), is an excellent piece of prose and observation, capturing the fearlessness and skills of early childhood:

He [William] was getting jolly hungry. It must be after lunch-time. But it would spoil it all to go home too early. Here he caught sight of a minute figure regarding him with a steady gaze and holding a paper bag in one hand. William stared down at him.

“Wot you dressed up like that for?” said the apparition, with a touch of scorn in his voice.

William looked down at his sacred uniform and scowled. “I’m a scout,” he said loftily.

“’Cout?” repeated the apparition, with an air of polite boredom. “Wot’s your name?”

“William.”

“Mine’s Thomas. Will you catch me a wopse? Look at my wopses!”

He opened the bag slightly and William caught sight of a crowd of wasps buzzing about inside the bag.

“Want more,” demanded the infant. “Want lots more. Look. Snells!”

He brought out a handful of snails from a miniature pocket, and put them on the ground.

“Watch ’em put their horns out! Watch ’em walk. Look! They’re walkin’. They’re walkin’.”

His voice was a scream of ecstasy. He took them up and returned them to their pocket. From another he drew out a wriggling mass.

“Wood-lice!” he explained, casually. “Got worms in ’nother pocket.”

He returned the wood-lice to his pocket except one, which he held between a finger and thumb laid thoughtfully against his lip. “Want wopses now. You get ’em for me.”

William roused himself from his bewilderment.

“How — how do you catch ’em?” he said.

“Wings,” replied Thomas. “Get hold of their wings an’ they don’t sting. Sometimes they do, though,” he added casually. “Then your hands go big.”

A wasp settled near him, and very neatly the young naturalist picked him up and put him in his paper prison.

“Now you get one,” he ordered William.

William determined not to be outshone by this minute but dauntless stranger. As a wasp obligingly settled on a flower near him, he put out his hand, only to withdraw it with a yell of pain and apply it to his mouth.

“Oo—ou!” he said. “Crumbs!”

Thomas emitted a peal of laughter.

“You stung?” he said. “Did it sting you? Funny!”

William’s expression of rage and pain was exquisite to him. (More William, ch. IX)

William isn’t always triumphant in the series, you see, and in one story (“April Fool’s Day”, I think) he’s even humiliated by a much less formidable figure than Thomas. Crompton doesn’t write a lot about the sadism of childhood, but it’s there all the same, as that extract shows, along with the irrationality, superstition, and love of noise and excitement. William supplies a lot of all those, particularly the last two, being the ugly, dirty, disruptive opposite of his calm mother and beautiful sister Ellen. In “William and the Fairy Daffodil”, the second story in this book, he’s an unauthorized addition to a play being performed by a girls’ school. The audience is shocked and disturbed by a “curious apparition” in “yellow butter muslin”, which delivers its misremembered lines, then sits down, “stern, bored and contemptuous”, until:

…a light as at some happy memory came into its face. It pulled up the butter muslin to its waist, revealing muddy boots, muddy legs and muddy trousers, plunged its hand into its pocket and brought out a nut, which it proceeded to crack with much facial contortion and bared teeth.

William’s mother is in the audience to witness the spectacle, as members of his family so often and improbably are when he breaks the rules. The embarrassment he causes them is always an important part of the stories. So are his chivalry and wayward but strong sense of honour. That’s how Violet Elizabeth Bott, his lisping, iron-willed, six-year-old female admirer, manages to control him and the other Outlaws. She’s not at her best in William in Trouble, but does utter her famous catchphrase when forcing the Outlaws to admit her to the staff of the paper they’ve set up:

Violet Elizabeth dried her tears. She saw that they were useless and she did not believe in wasting her effects.

“All right,” she said calmly. “I’ll thcream then. I’ll thcream, an’ thcream, an’ thcream till I’m thick.”

More than once William had seen the small but redoubtable lady fulfil this threat quite literally. He watched her with fearsome awe. Violet Elizabeth with a look of fiendish determination on her angelic face opened her small mouth.

“’Sall right,” said William brokenly. “Come on — write if you want to.”

The domineering William much prefers the demure and dimpled Joan, who’s happy to let him control events. “The Mammoth Circus” he arranges to welcome her home in this book succeeds in introducing more chaos into the adult world. He hides its star performers in the apparently empty Rose Mount School and they end up driving out the foolish and credulous women who have flocked there to a convention of the Society for the Study of Psychical Philosophy.

Crompton often uses William like that to deflate pretentious, superstitious and self-important adults. Later in the book he’s mistaken for a musical prodigy and produces a “Bacchanalian riot of inharmonious sounds” on the Vicarage piano, which the wives of the vicar and squire compete to praise. Bacchanalian is the mot juste: the eternally youthful William, eleven both when the series began in 1921 and when it ended in 1970, introduces the drunkenness of the irrational and unplanned into middle-class adult sobriety, as some of Saki’s anti-heroes do. Crompton doesn’t have all of Saki’s subtlety or much of his malice, but in her way she’s rebelling against the same conformity and rigidity, while recognizing that rebellion has its own flaws.

She’s one up on Saki in having an excellent illustrator, Thomas Henry, who enhances her books as Tenniel did for Lewis Carroll’s or Quentin Blake did for J.P. Martin’s. Henry obviously enjoyed portraying the ugly, stocky, shockheaded William and although the pictures here aren’t the best I’ve seen by him, one is a classic: William on stage as Fairy Daffodil, confronting the dainty Fairy Bluebell:

“It’s not my turn,” he hissed. “I’ve just spoke.”

That’s William in trouble again.

Read Full Post »

Front cover of For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming
For Your Eyes Only, Ian Fleming (1960)

The best first novel I know is Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall (1928). But Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953), the first James Bond novel, is highly impressive too. Genetically speaking, I don’t think this is a coincidence: Waugh and Fleming both had Scottish ancestry. This may explain their literary talent or their will-to-fame or both or neither, but there is definitely something to explain about the disproportionate Scottish influence on English-speaking culture. Alastair MacLean is another example in literature and, as another best-selling thriller-writer, is a useful point of comparison with Fleming. As I described in my review of The Satan Bug (1962), MacLean is interested in the elements in their harsher forms: he writes a lot about cold and wet. The Satan Bug is a bleak book and it’s appropriate that one of the few diversions from the bleakness is a reference to astronomy and the moons of Jupiter. MacLean doesn’t seem to have been very interested in human beings or in life in any of its senses.

Fleming was quite different: he liked sun, sex and sybaritism. You can find all three in his Bond books, but I think my favourite is this overlooked short-story collection, For Your Eyes Only. I like it partly because it’s overlooked, but mostly because it’s so full of life in all its senses. MacLean noticed the harsher elements: wind, rain, hail, snow. Fleming noticed all kinds of animals: sting-rays, squirrels, wood pigeons, bees, deer, fiddler-crabs, moray eels and a “chorus line of six small squids” appear in For Your Eyes Only. Male writers like dispensing expert knowledge, and male readers like absorbing it, but I can’t think of anyone else who would start a murder-mission story like this:

The most beautiful bird in Jamaica, and some say the most beautiful bird in the world, is the streamer-tail or doctor humming-bird. The cock bird is about nine inches long, but seven inches of it are tail — two long black feathers that curve and cross each other and whose inner edges are in a form of scalloped design. The head and crest are black, the wings dark green, the long bill is scarlet, and the eyes, bright and confiding, are black. The body is emerald green, so dazzling that when the sun is on the breast you see the brightest green thing in nature. In Jamaica, birds that are loved are given nicknames. Trochilus polytmus is called ‘doctor bird’ because his two black streamers remind people of the black tail-coat of the old-time physician. (“For Your Eyes Only”)

That’s from the title story and Fleming uses it to heighten the effect of the violence committed later. He was obviously a bird-watcher, but then he named his hero after an ornithologist with what was, back then, the very ordinary name of James Bond. Fleming gave the name glamour, though he didn’t give his own Bond much of an interest in ornithology. Bond is less complex than his creator and the books have a life and interest beyond Bond. It’s not just animals: roses, blue-bells, hibiscus, bougainvillea, lilies, hyacinths all appear here too. One of the stories, “The Hildebrand Rarity”, is actually named after a small fish, and the plot of another hinges – literally – on a rose-bush. MacLean’s writing is bleak with repression. Fleming’s writing is bursting with richness. Here’s a good example later in the title story:

The girl looked like a beautiful unkempt dryad in ragged shirt and trousers. The shirt and trousers were olive green, crumpled and splashed with mud and stains and torn in places, and she had bound her pale blonde hair with golden-rod to conceal its brightness for her crawl through the meadow. The beauty of her face was wild and rather animal, with a wide sensuous mouth, high cheekbones and silvery grey, disdainful eyes. There was the blood of scratches on her forearms and down one cheek, and a bruise had puffed and slightly blackened the same cheekbone. The metal feathers of a quiver full of arrows showed above her left shoulder. Apart from the bow, she carried nothing but a hunting knife at her belt and, at her other hip, a small brown canvas bag that presumably carried her food. She looked like a beautiful, dangerous customer who knew wild country and forests and was not afraid of them. She would walk alone through life and have little use for civilisation. (“For Your Eyes Only”)

Bond meets the girl while he’s preparing to assassinate an ex-Nazi in his forest hideaway near the Canadian border. He thinks she looks “wonderful”. Fleming liked beauties as well as beasts. There are hints of his sado-masochistic tastes in the bruise and scratches, and in the spanking Bond threatens the girl with for interfering with his mission, but S&M is another way of getting more out of life. Pain reminds us that we are alive and gets the blood flowing. So does danger. This is a thriller and Fleming is good at writing about dangerous situations. One of the stories is actually called “Risico”, Italian for “risk”. It’s about Bond both facing death and witnessing it:

Bond was planning to slow down to a walk and keep enough breath to try and shoot it out with the three men, when two things happened in quick succession. First he saw through the haze ahead a group of spear-fishermen. There were about half a dozen of them, some in the water and some sunning themselves on the seawall. Then, from the sand-dunes came the deep roar of an explosion. Earth and scrub and what might have been bits of a man fountained briefly into the air, and a small shock-wave hit him. Bond slowed. The other man in the dunes had stopped. He was standing stock-still. His mouth was open and a frightened jabber came from it. Suddenly he collapsed on the ground with his arms wrapped round his head. Bond knew the signs. He would not move again until someone came and carried him away from there.

The man is in an uncleared mine-field near Venice, because the Second World War wasn’t long finished when these stories were written. Accordingly, the Cold War wasn’t long started. “From a View to a Kill”, the opening story, is about how Bond manages to “wipe the eye of the whole security machine of SHAPE”, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Forces Europe. He solves a murder-mystery involving a hidden team of Soviet spies and the theft of “top secret booty” from motorbike dispatch-riders. He also meets another beautiful blonde. Like the bow-toting dryad in “For Your Eyes Only”, she’s a sex-object but not a passive one, and Fleming can bring her to life in a way MacLean couldn’t:

The battered Peugeot, commandeered by Rattray, smelled of her. There were bits of her in the glove compartment — half a packet of Suchard milk chocolate, a twist of paper containing bobby pins, a paperback John O’Hara, a single black suede glove.

But all the stories have beautiful blondes in them. It’s implied more or less directly that Bond beds them all, except Rhoda Masters in “Quantum of Solace”, which supplied the title but not the plot for a recent Bond movie. This story is an odd addition to the collection, because it isn’t about Bond, who merely sits and listens as the British governor to the Bahamas narrates a story about a failed marriage in the then colony. It reminded me of Somerset Maugham and of “Octopussy” (1966), another short-story by Fleming in which Bond is a bit-player. “Octopussy” is a better story, with a proper thriller plot, and Maugham would have made a better job of “Quantum of Solace”, but I like the way it breaks the action, slows the pace, and makes Bond a spectator, not an actor. He’s in the Bahamas for adventurous reasons, but they’re out of the way within a paragraph:

Arms were getting to the Castro rebels in Cuba from all the neighbouring territories. They had been coming principally from Miami and the Gulf of Mexico, but when the US Coastguards had seized two big shipments, the Castro supporters had turned to Jamaica and the Bahamas as possible bases, and Bond had been sent out from London to put a stop to it. He hadn’t wanted to do the job. If anything, his sympathies were with the rebels, but the Government had a big export programme with Cuba in exchange for taking more Cuban sugar than they wanted, and a minor condition of the deal was that Britain should not give aid or comfort to the Cuban rebels. Bond had found out about the two big cabin cruisers that were being fitted out for the job, and rather than make arrests when they were about to sail, thus causing an incident, he had chosen a very dark night and crept up on the boats in a police launch. From the deck of the unlighted launch he had tossed a thermite bomb through an open port of each of them. He had then made off at high speed and watched the bonfire from a distance. Bad luck on the insurance companies, of course, but there were no casualties and he had achieved quickly and neatly what M had told him to do.

By not describing the adventure in detail, Fleming makes Bond more realistic: he has a life beyond the page and there are things about him that readers don’t know. It reminds me of the briefly mentioned “extra episodes” in the Sherlock Holmes stories, which were, of course, written by yet another highly successful and talented Scot, Arthur Conan Doyle. Scots have been disproportionately successful in all branches of science too, including the genetics that will one day tell us why this is so. Doyle mixed science into his literature in a way Fleming didn’t, but Fleming had some of the traits that make for a good scientist: he was interested in the world for its own sake, not simply as an adjunct to himself or to humanity. And so he observed and recorded the world and brought it to life for his readers. He packs a lot of detail into the 63,000 words of For Your Eyes Only and I’m sure his books are harder to translate than MacLean’s. They would certainly need much more commentary for alien visitors, even though Fleming and MacLean were writing thrillers about the same civilization. MacLean was influenced by Fleming, but he didn’t base his plots on rose-bushes or describe the glove compartments of beautiful blondes. His best villain is a virus, not a human being.

Fleming created lots of memorable human villains and the beasts in For Your Eyes Only aren’t confined to the animal kingdom:

Bond examined the man minutely [through the telescopic sight]. He was about five feet four with a boxer’s shoulders and hips, but a stomach that was going to fat. A mat of black hair covered his breasts and shoulder-blades, and his arms and legs were thick with it. By contrast, there was not a hair on his face or head and his skull was a glittering whitish yellow with a deep dent at the back that might have been a wound or the scar of a trepanning. The bone structure of the face was that of the conventional Prussian officer — square, hard and thrusting — but the eyes under the naked brows were close-set and piggish, and the large mouth had hideous lips — thick and wet and crimson. (“For Your Eyes Only”)

That’s a description of von Hammerstein, an ex-Nazi who has been working for the Cuban dictator Batista and decided to get out as Castro nears power. Seeking to diversify his property portfolio, he’s murdered two British subjects in Jamaica. “Subject” is the mot juste: Fleming believed in Queen and country and so does Bond, who’s sent by M to assassinate von Hammerstein in northern Vermont. It has to be an unofficial job, so Bond flies to Canada and slips across the border to do rough justice on his country’s behalf. If Bond had ever existed, his drinking and smoking would have killed him long ago, as they killed his creator. But it’s interesting to wonder what Fleming or his creation would have made of queen and country now. It’s the same queen as it was in the 1950s, but it can’t be called the same country. That’s something else that makes this book interesting. It’s full of life, but a lot of that life has vanished. Or been poisoned. In “Risico”, Bond has to break up a heroin-smuggling gang operating in Italy. He allies himself with one of the “greedy, boisterous pirates” he meets often in the Bond books and gets on well with. They’re on the wrong side of the law, but they’re not evil. This Italian pirate’s booty is clean and he won’t deal in drugs. He tells Bond how the raw ingredients of the heroin are

a gift from Russia. The gift of a massive and deadly projectile to be fired into the bowels of England. The Russians can supply unlimited quantities of the charge for the projectile. It comes from their poppy fields in the Caucasus, and Albania is a convenient entrepôt… No doubt it is some psychological warfare section of their Intelligence apparatus.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union undoubtedly used heroin as a weapon against the West. Its Marxist allies in the West didn’t openly support heroin-smuggling, but they did openly support another Marxism-friendly import: mass immigration, which is far more harmful. Hard drugs can kill individuals, but they can’t kill civilizations. Immigration can do both and the Marxists responsible for it were climbing into position while Fleming was contributing to the civilization they hated with his Bond books. I don’t think his contributions are as good as Evelyn Waugh’s, and they’re certainly not as witty, but they are probably much healthier. Europe needs James Bond’s chivalry and sense of duty, not Basil Seal’s misogyny and anarchism. You don’t have to find important geo-political themes in For Your Eyes Only, let alone genetic ones, but I think they’re there to be found all the same. Also here are more insights into an interesting creator, Ian Fleming, and an interesting creation, James Bond. I’ve owned two or three paperbacks of this book and now I’ve read it as an e-text. It’s been highly enjoyable every time and it only gets more interesting.

Read Full Post »

Front cover of The Lost World by Arthur Conan DoyleThe Lost World and Other Stories, Arthur Conan Doyle (various dates)

Professor Challenger, the “ape-man in a lounge-suit”, is someone else in Sherlock’s shadow, but in some ways he’s much more interesting than Doyle’s detective. Holmes may have set “the whole world talking” but “to set the whole world screaming was the privilege of Challenger alone.” He does that in the last story of the collection, “When the World Screamed” (1928), in which the earth is found to be even more alive than the modern Gaia theory suggests. And it kicks against Challenger’s prick. That foreshadowing of later science is also found in “The Poison Belt” (1913):

A third-rate sun, with its rag tag and bobtail of insignificant satellites, we float towards some unknown end, some squalid catastrophe which will overwhelm us at the ultimate confines of space, where we are swept over an etheric Niagara or dashed upon some unthinkable Labrador. I see… many reasons why we should watch with a very close and interested attention every indication of change in those cosmic surroundings upon which our own ultimate fate may depend.

There are some very interesting and prescient ideas here: Doyle should get much more credit for his pioneering science fiction, but again Holmes is probably to blame. Not that Holmes would have wanted to take the limelight: he’s introverted and not played for comedy. Challenger is the opposite in both ways. Ted Malone, the narrator of “The Lost World” (1912), notes that his “enormously massive genial manner” is “almost as overpowering as his violence”. Later, Malone has an unpleasant encounter with a tick in the South American jungle:

“Filthy vermin!” I cried.

Professor Challenger raised his great eyebrows in protest, and placed a soothing paw upon my shoulder.

“You should cultivate the scientific eye and the detached scientific mind,” said he. “To a man of philosophic temperament like myself the blood-tick, with its lancet-like proboscis and its distending stomach, is as beautiful a work of Nature as the peacock or, for that matter, the aurora borealis. It pains me to hear you speak of it in so unappreciative a fashion. No doubt, with due diligence, we can secure some other specimen.”

“There can be no doubt of that,” said Summerlee, grimly, “for one has just disappeared behind your shirt-collar.”

Challenger sprang into the air bellowing like a bull, and tore frantically at his coat and shirt to get them off.

Each of the four main characters in “The Lost World” has a distinct personality, as though Doyle is trying to embody the Greek humours: there’s the choleric Challenger; the phlegmatic Summerlee, Challenger’s sardonic rival; the sanguine Lord Roxton, a big-game huntsman who accompanies the expedition for sport; and the melancholic Irishman Ted Malone, the journalist who narrates the story. This makes for entertaining reading, as I’ve found every time I’ve come back to the story. And my re-readings must be in double figures now. Doyle’s racial descriptions will provoke disapproval in many modern readers, but they’re something else that may be prescient and they aren’t confined to “villainous half-breeds” and the “huge negro Zambo, who is as faithful as a dog” but not very intelligent. Doyle also describes the Irish as distinct within the white European race, which does seem to be the case.

But Doyle’s prescience has failed so far in the longest story of the collection, which, in its way, is another joke at Professor Challenger’s expense. Having made the character popular before the First World War, Doyle shoe-horned him into “The Land of Mist” in 1927 as part of his propaganda for spiritualism. I’ve never re-read this story, which has more historical and biographical interest than literary merit. Doyle lost a son and brother during the War and the wishful thinking that inspired his support of spiritualism is evident throughout the story. He even makes Challenger turn on his head for the purposes of spiritualist propaganda. This is Challenger in “The Poison Belt” in 1913:

“No, Summerlee, I will have none of your materialism, for I, at least, am too great a thing to end in mere physical constituents, a packet of salts and three bucketfuls of water. Here ― here” ― and he beat his great head with his huge, hairy fist ― “there is something which uses matter, but is not of it ― something which might destroy death, but which death can never destroy.”

But in “The Land of Mist”, fourteen years later, Challenger opposes the supernatural and has to be brought round against his will. He champions materialism as his daughter Enid and his friend Malone, both reporters, are about to attend a spiritualist meeting. Malone reluctantly accepts materialism as an intellectual proposition:

“But my instincts are against!” cried Enid. “No, no, never can I believe it.” She threw her arms round the great bull neck. “Don’t tell me, Daddy, that you with all your complex brain and wonderful self are a thing with no more life hereafter than a broken clock!”

“Four buckets of water and a bagful of salts,” said Challenger as he smilingly detached his daughter’s grip. “That’s your daddy, my lass, and you may as well reconcile your mind to it.”

Enid doesn’t and in the end Challenger admits he was wrong. The effort Doyle put into the story was wasted: it’s only a historical curiosity nowadays and seems likely to remain so. To see why the other stories, some much shorter, are much more valuable, simply pick up a copy of the collection in the excellent Wordsworth series.

Read Full Post »

The Conan Doyle Stories, Arthur Conan Doyle (Blitz Editions, 1990)

Mary Shelley wrote about a monster that broke free of its creator. It then broke free of its creatrix too: Frankenstein’s monster became far more famous than Mary Shelley ever was. Dracula and James Bond outgrew Bram Stoker and Ian Fleming in the same way, but Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle are a little different. It isn’t just Doyle who stands in his character’s shadow now but a host of Doyle’s other characters too. That’s what made it so galling for Doyle, because he didn’t think the Sherlock Holmes stories were his best work.

If you read this marvellous collection, a modern facsimile of a book published before the Second World War, you might begin to agree with him. Doyle wasn’t so much an author as an industry, and the range of his invention and subjects is startling. There’s everything from realism to the supernatural by way of science fiction, from “The Croxley Master”, the story of a prize-fight in a tough Yorkshire mining district, to “Lot No. 249”, the story of a murderous Egyptian relic, by way of “The Horror of the Heights”, a proto-Lovecraftian story of early aviation. But perhaps my favourites are the pirate stories about the wicked Captain Sharkey, whose sail, believe me, you would not have liked to see appear on your horizon all those years ago. There’s a Brigadier Gerard story too, as light and playful as the Sharkey stories are dark and sadistic, and reminding me that I ought to re-read the full set of Gerard stories again.

Everything else has its interesting points, but some stories were re-printed because Doyle became famous, not because they’re any good, and two are throw-aways turning on what were, when they were written, the startling inventions of recorded sound and moving pictures (Holmes aficionados will recall that Doyle used the idea elsewhere). Like those two, many stories have political or social preoccupations that make them interesting in ways never intended. In other ways, however, Doyle’s writing may be becoming less rather than more dated as the years pass: his shameless racial and sexual stereotyping — opposing the phlegmatic Saxon to the highly-strung Celt, for example — was once taken for granted, then dismissed, but is now being vindicated by genetics. Doyle trained and practised as a doctor, after all, and brought a trained eye and wide experience of human variety to his writing. There are medical stories here too, but Doyle says in his introduction that his “Tales of Long Ago” are the ones he would choose to preserve if he could save only one section.

I don’t think they’re the best in the book myself, but they are among the most powerful and they have a breadth of knowledge and minuteness of observation worthy of the great Victorian artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who specialized in classical scenes. Like Alma-Tadema, Doyle was knighted for bringing so much pleasure to the general public, but his reputation and fame have survived much better than the painter’s, thanks to Sherlock Holmes. Read this collection to discover why there is much more to Doyle than his detective.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »