William Gerhardie – review of “God’s Fifth Column”, The Dabbler, 2015

Another William Gerhardie piece, this time ten years on from the SAU blog one and covering much of the same ground about his odd kind of fame. The Dabbler had a feature called the 1p book review, on books that, in theory at least, cost only 1p via Amazon marketplace. I also had encountered Gerhardie again in the memoir of Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec, financial manager of the Rolling Stones.

 

1p Book Review: God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie


Seamus Sweeney reads God’s Fifth Column: A Biography of the Age 1890-1940 – an unusual work by an author who at one time looked like becoming one of the greats…

William Gerhardie has achieved an odd kind of fame; famous for not being famous.

He is a writer whose champions specifically focus on his obscurity, or rather the obscurity of his later life. Gerhardie was well-known in his early career, and the same few quotes that recur in his blurbs give testament to his appeal to his contemporaries. Evelyn Waugh said of him, “I have talent, but he has genius”, and for Graham Greene “to those of my generation he was the most important new novelist to appear in our young life. We were proud of his early and immediate success, like men who have spotted the right horse.”

Born in St Petersburg, Gerhardie was an English merchant of great wealth who was thrown into a sack in the 1905 Revolution. According to his son, he was only spared by being confused by the mob with Keir Hardie (this does have the air of a somewhat convenient anecdote). A Russian education for William was followed by being packed off to England to prepare for a commercial career of some kind; he ended up returning to the land of his birth as part of the failed Allied intervention after the 1917 Revolution.

As well as the acclaim of Greene, Waugh, Katharine Mansfield and Edith Wharton, Gerhardie also achieved a fair measure of worldly success, being taken up by Lord Beaverbrook as a potential protégé on the strength of The Polyglots. Beaverbrook’s attempts to turn him into a bestseller failed, and a lengthy decline into obscurity began. In 1931, aged 36, he published an autobiography, and moved into Rossetti House in London, behind Broadcasting House. He would remain there until his death in 1977, “a hermit in the West End of London” in the words of Holroyd and Robert Skidelsky’s introduction to God’s Fifth Column.

Every so often, Gerhardie achieves some revival  degree of revivial. I myself tried to stoke the embers in 2006. William Boyd, a longtime admirer partly based Logan Mountstuart in Any Human Heart on Gerhardie. Michael Holroyd seems the most devout keeper of the flame.

 There was another flurry of interest when his biographer, Dido Davies, died in 2013. Davies was a former heroin addict and author of sex manuals who had her funeral written up in Mary Beard’s blog.

 Of his novels, Futility, Doom and The Polyglots are widely available. Futility is the most amenable to (my) contemporary taste,  while Doom and The Polyglots are much shaggier stories but with much to recommend them. The latter,  with its vain narrator, is notable for a remarkably clear-eyed portrayal of children free of sentimentality or faux-toughness. The former features a fictionalised Beaverbrook and a piecemeal apocalypse.

 One of his works I have yet to track down is Meet Yourself As You Really Are written with Prince Rupert Lowenstein, father of the Prince Rupert Lowenstein (or more properly, Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec) who became financial manager of the Rolling Stones. In his biography A Prince Among Stones (which Sir Michael Philip Jagger, perhaps actuated by jealousy due to relative lack of names, responded: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think your ex-bank manager should be discussing your financial dealings and personal information in public”) the younger Lowenstein describes the work:

He [Prince Rupert] was a writer, or more precisely, he had had a modestly successful book first published by Faber and Faber … which he had written with William Gerhardi, a novelist, playwright and critic, born in St Petersburg to English parents, who was a renowned and pioneering supporter of Chekhov’s writing in the West. (Gerhardi was also a keen supporter or the Tsarina, whom he had met as a young man, and believed that the best influence in Russia was, contrary to all normal belief, that of Rasputin who had been violently against the war in Germany…)

 Meet Yourself as You Really Are was a very early example of home psychoanalysis, one of those psychological quizzes that offers instant insights into your personality and psyche … You are asked a long list of questions about all aspects of your life, covering everything from childhood to phobia, social behaviour to daily routine. I remember one that asked ‘Do you like your bath water tepid/hot/very hot?’ … From these answers and a scoring systems, you could discover your personality type among multiple permutations (three million possibilities, the book’s strapline proclaimed) leading to a number of basic key type.

William Gerhardi and my father had decided to name these different types after rivers, so you might at the end of the process discover you were the Rhine, the Nile, the Tiber or the River Thames, the latter with its conclusion ‘You’re the sort of poor mutt who always pays.’

 After his death, within various cardboard boxes labelled “DO NOT CRUSH”, was found the manuscript posthumously published as God’s Fifth Column. He had been working on this from 1939, and it made it into the Metheun catalogue of upcoming publications for Autumn 1942, but was then withdrawn (the relevant correspondence disappeared during the War; Gerhardie claimed he had withdrawn it at his own request for revision).

The “god’s fifth column” of the title is the comic spirit, subverting humanity’s well-intentioned, seemingly rational plans. Gerhardie defines it thus:

God’s Fifth Column is that destroying agent – more often the unconscious agent, sometimes malevolent or maladroit in intention – of spirit within the gate of matter. Its purpose is to sabotage such structures and formations of human society, built as it were of individual human bricks, as have proved to be unserviceable for association into larger groups of suffering units because insufficiently baked by suffering to cement with their immediate neighbours.

Later, he writes “Comedy is God’s Fifth Column sabotaging the earnest in the cause of the serious.”

Despising overarching explanations of history, and keen to defend the individual against all the collectives, from family to state, that seek to the control the “suffering unit” that is the individual person, Gerhadie’s history is a series of tableaux, of scenes in which the same figures -Tolstoy, Shaw, Margot Asquith, Arthur Balfour, various royals of various  nations – recur.

Holroyd and Skidelsky edited out a quarter of the text which was unready for publication; the bulk of the text  relates to the 1890-1919 period, with the next twenty years much more briefly dealt with.  Gerhardie’s judgments are direct, his authorial voice magisterially certain of his subjects. A sample:

Bernard Shaw sent the greater writer of the Russian soil [Tolstoy] his The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet, which drew a blank from Tolstoy, who answered that he ‘looked forward to reading it with interest’. Which, in author’s vocabulary, may be taken to mean he had already dipped into the thing without much interest and elected to write before he had to confess disappointment. In his accompanying letter Shaw stressed that virtue was ineffective because habitually cloaked in pious language, and would gain by the prestige of blunt, full-blooded, pithy speech, in which vice masquerades attractively before an admiring adolescent world.

 This suggestion also seems to have drawn a blank. Virtue knocked dumb by meekness drew tears from Tolstoy’s old eyes, and he could not see it swaggering in jackboots.

 But the letter is key to Shaw. He is a swaggerer, and he knows it and enjoys it. A man of trepidation in most things, he takes a double step. Metaphorically, even physically, as he strides up like a conquerer before the cine-camera. He adds an incongruous flourish of defiance to his old-maid’s signature: uses belligerent barrack room terms to convey Salvation Army sentiments.

This extract is fairly representative. God’s Fifth Column is full of entertaining anecdote, and Gerhardie has extracted from a host of memoirs of the age a host of arresting observations and unexpected encounters. His style, lapidary in Futility, tends to the verbose (not to mention tendentious) here, and ironically given his disdain for the great abstractions that press on the “suffering unit”, much of the narration is taken up with abstraction.

Read at length, the style becomes slightly grating; however as a book to dip and out of, it works very well.

 

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William Gerhardie – a perpetually “lost writer” rediscovered again. SAU Blog, 2005

William Gerhardie is a writer whose fame rests on obscurity. Prominent early in his career, and feted by Waugh and Greene as their better, he later became “lost.” Being “lost” became his kind of fame. This can be a form of pleasing eccentricity; the glamour of shabby neglect. Even his biographer, Dido Davies, had something of this quality.

All this obscurity can obscure the books themselves. I wrote a few pieces on Gerhardie a while back. Here is one focusing on two of his better-known novels, Futility and Doom. I would place The Polyglots above Doom (but behind Futility)

William Gerhardie, the “rediscovered” author, and the “cult” novel

“Cult fiction” is, as I have observed previously, a marketing term with vague connotations of youthfulness, of eccentricity. It is also meaningless, or rather only meaningful when applied to works which have inspired a genuine cult-like devotion (such as the novels of Ayn Rand) for reasons unconnected with their literary merit (putting it mildly). It is applied to novels such as Catch 22 and To Kill a Mockingbird which are high in the list of all-time best sellers. It is applied to novels about drug dealers and serial killers. It is applied to any book which is turned into an artificially “edgy” Hollywood film. “Cult” and “mass market” are interchangeable, really.

William Gerhardie is established so firmly as a “lost writer” that, in fact, it seems churlish to encourage his rediscovery by a wider readership, and I recoil at the prospect of labelling him a “cult” writer. Part of the pleasure in reading Gerhardie is the sense of ownership, and thus it would be somehow disturbing if Gerhardie became as well known as, for instance, Evelyn Waugh. Even the loyal if somewhat obsessive devotion shown by admirers of Anthony Powell would seem excessive if Gerhardie were its subject.

Gerhardie, today, has a knot of literary champions – William Boyd and Michael Holroyd seem to feature on the blurbs of most reissues of his books – and, in his own time, was seemingly marked out by the Waugh-Greene-Powell generation as the real genius of the age. Waugh said of Gerhardie:

I have talent, but he has genius.

Greene said:

to those of my generation he was the most important new novelist to appear in our young life. We were proud of his early and immediate success, like men who have spotted the right horse.

Those of an earlier generation were also admirers; Katherine Mansfield described his debut, Futility, as a:

living book … one can put it down and it goes on breathing.

Edith Wharton provided a preface for Futility, saying:

Mr Gerhardie’s novel is extremely modern; but it has bulk and form, a recognisable orbit, and that promise of more to come that one always feel latent in the beginnings of the born novelist.

Perhaps part of the enjoyment of discovering Gerhardie is the Ozymandias effect; encountering a writer whose reputation once threatened to be vast and who ended up dying in obscurity and penury. To a certain temperament, sic transit gloria mundi is a beautiful lament.

Born in St. Petersburg in 1895, Gerhardie’s father was English. During the 1905 Revolution Gerhardie senior was thrown into a sack and taken to the dock to be drowned. A revolutionary asked who was inside the sack, and misheard the name as that of Keir Hardie, thus sparing Gerhardie to be ruined by the 1917 Revolution. After a Russian education, Gerhardie junior – marked out as “the dunce of the family” – was sent to England to begin a vague commercial career. Gerhardie preferred to affect a languid expression and a Wildean demeanour, dressing dandyishly while lounging around dreaming of theatrical triumphs.

During the First World War he was posted to the British Military Attaché in what was now Petrograd, where he witnessed the 1917 Revolution. Later he would serve in the British Military Mission to Siberia, taking a part in the attempted intervention by the Western Powers. This would feature in Futility, and his long return journey from the East – via Singapore, Colombo and Port Said, and bearing the Order of the British Empire for services rendered during the expedition – would feature in his second novel, The Polyglots. On his return he began study in Worcester College, Oxford.

Oxford would feature in much of his work; as he wrote in The Polyglots:

Oxford is best in retrospect … There are as many fools in a university as elsewhere … but their folly, I admit, has a certain stamp – the stamp of university training, if you like. It is trained folly.

He was very glad to have gone there, because otherwise he would have had an exaggerated respect for an Oxbridge man. His time at Oxford was not entirely wasted, for while there he wrote the first book in English about Chekhov and Futility.

Erotic longing – as well as awareness of the absurdity of erotic longing – dominates the novels. All through his life Gerhardie craved female company – as an officer in Russia, he attracted the disapproval of his fellows for regarding:

the bodies of [lovers or wives of other men] as his own.

The novels feature a cavalcade of beautiful, teasing sisters, with interchangeable names like Nina and Zina. These ladies are, inevitably enough, accompanied by platoons of eccentric relatives.

For this reason, reading two novels of Gerhardie in one consecutive sitting can be somewhat disorientating. One expects the characters of one to wander into another. One reason advanced for his relative lack of success compared to Waugh is the tighter plotting of Waugh’s work; one can drift in and out of a typical Gerhardie novel, beginning at the end or the middle seems to make little difference. Futility is, however, more accessible in this regard than other Gerhardie novels.

The title of the first section, “The Three Sisters”, is an obvious nod to Chekhov. The Anglo-Russian narrator, Andrei Andreiech, is adrift in the dizzyingly complex family life of Nikolai Vasilevich, his three young daughters, and his longtime live-in lover who he has now abandoned for a young woman, Zina, who brings her own retinue of eager dependants. Nikolai Vasilevich is seen by all as a man of considerable means, based on what turn out to be utterly worthless mines in Siberia.

The eager dependants are exemplified by Uncle Kostia. Uncle Kostia is a writer, who has of course never published a word or given any indication of writing anything, but is nevertheless allowed to live as he wishes by the family out of respect for his apparent vocation:

one was never never sorry to give him all he wanted since the man is clever, you understand, and writes.

Eventually, when Revolution and Intervention make generosity even more expensive, Andrei Andreiech is prevailed upon to try and persuade Uncle Kostia to publish something:

“What have you been thinking about, Uncle Kostia?” I asked.”That’s just the trouble,” he said. “I can’t tell you.”

I waited.

“I don’t know myself,” he explained.

I still waited.

“I have been thinking of this and that and the other, in fact, of one thing and another – precious but elusive thoughts, Andrei Andreiech. Beautiful emotions. A kaleidoscope of the most subtle colours, if I may so express myself. And, Andrei Andreiech, it has taught me a great truth. It has taught me the futility of writing.”

Thus the eternal preoccupation in Russian culture with the proper role and duty of the intellectual is reduced to absurdity. Rather than the habit of some authors of attempting to create “character” by piling on detail, Gerhardie gives each character a recurrent phrase which manages to pinpoint them in the mind – the perpetually drunk Russian general who repeatedly mourns the “damrotten game” that is politics and greets any halfway attractive women with the words:

What eyes! What calves! What ankles!

There is Sir Hugo of the Admiralty whose response to most situations is an enthusiastic “Splendid! Splendid!”, and the hero of Gerhardie’s second novel, George Hamlet Alexander Diabologh, who is forever insisting to other characters and to the reader that he is:

good-looking… you think I’m conceited? I think not.

Intervention, for Andrei Andreiech, consists largely of an eternal train journey with Sir Hugo, an increasingly splenetic Admiral who is ultimately reduced to unhappily complaining, when finally worn down by the obscurantism and incompetence of the various White Russian factions, and the whole menage of Nikolai Vasilevich:

Some people think snow beautiful. I think it idiotic.

The expectations of the Admiralty are confounded by Russian incomprehension of such concepts as organisation and efficiency. It is no surprise, having read Gerhardie, that Trotsky’s Red Army won the civil war easily enough in the end. In the final sequence, Andrei throws in life in Oxford to travel back to Vladivostok and proclaim his love to Nina, the loveliest of the three sisters:

No more novels! Life, I thought, was worth all the novels in the world. And life was Nina. And Nina was life. And, by contrast, the people I encountered seemed pretentious and insincere. The women in particular were unreal. They talked of things that did not interest them with an affected geniality. They pretended a silly superiority or else an unconvincing inferiority. They said “Really?” and “Indeed?” and “How fascinating!” and “How perfectly delightful!” Nina was not like that. My three sisters were not like that. They were real. … Oxford with its sham clubs and sham societies appeared a doll’s house, a thing stationary and extinct of life, while the world, the Outside World, was going by. And I asked myself: What am I waiting for?

In Vladivostok, however, it turns out that Nina is disappointed to see him. She never loved him, she says. Andrei is just in time to see the sisters depart for Shanghai, and brood miserably on the quaside Now it is Oxford that seems to be a hub of pulsating life. Romantic longings, the whole idea that life is elsewhere, the “faraway hills” delusion – all are exercises in futility too.

Doom, Waugh’s favourite Gerhardie novel, was, confusingly, also published as My Sinful Earth in 1947 and Jazz and Jasper in 1927. It begins with a postmodern avant la lettre touch – the narrator, Dickin, reads an account of his involvement with two beautiful sisters to Lord Ottercove, the Beaverbrook-based press baron, and afterwards walks into a taxi with one of the sisters who has featured in the narrative. Dickin, constantly assumed by other characters to be a relative of Charles Dickens, is drawn into Ottercove’s orbit. Playing an increasingly large part in events is Lord de Jones, major proponent of an scheme to increase global food production by sealing volcanoes, thus increasing the Earth’s heat, and thus increasing the growth rate of crops. De Jones, it emerges, is more interested in apocalypse than in agricultural improvements.

Ottercove takes liftboys and gives them important branches of his empire to run – if they succeed he has discovered a genius, while if they fail they can always go back to being liftboys. He repeatedly promises Dickin an evening newspaper to edit as a wedding present. The restless extravagance of extreme wealth – an extravagance that is casual, without regard for power or even pleasure – is the keynote of Ottercove’s personality. Despite Ottercove’s apparent absurdity, A. J. P. Taylor – who wrote a biography of Beaverbrook – described Doom as the most convincing portrait of the press baron in print.

Ottercove is an extraordinarily vivid and dynamic creation, and his end – a literal disappearance into thin air – exemplifies the giddy, disturbing spirit of the book. It moves from romantic fantasy to evocation of what could be called High Mehgdia Mogulry to the bizarre apocalyptic coda set on a Swiss hillside. This finale – based on an idea of Gerhardie that the world might end piecemeal, in stages – was inspired by a suggestion of D. H. Lawrence that the world might end in the same way as a stocking ladders. Gerhardie also canvassed H. G. Wells for ideas on how to accomplish this bit-by-bit apocalypse, which stumped the father of science fiction.

In real life, Beaverbrook had made contact with Gerhardie, with a peremptory summons to London from Vienna to hear the tycoon discourse on the excellence of The Polyglots. Gerhardie fell into the Beaverbrook orbit just as Dickin fell into Ottercove’s. Beaverbrook would also toy with giving Gerhardie a newspaper to edit as a wedding present, although Gerhardie preferred to see himself as an artist rather than journalist. Beaverbrook’s attempts to turn Gerhardie into a best seller failed, though not for want of trying. Thus, despite the praise of his peers and the might of Beaverbrook, Gerhardie continued on the path to his later obscurity. It seems clear he lacked a certain industriousness – a literary virtue rarely celebrated in all the mystic blather about “inspiration” – and a seriousness that would have perhaps anchored his books.

In the Thirties he wrote, with Prince Leopold of Loewenstein, Meet Yourself as You Really Are, which has been described as an early example of hypertext. Loewenstein would sit around talking about psychological types, while Gerhardie rendered the whole into witty, elegant English. The reader would choose which option to take at the end of each paragraph, something in the manner of those Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that were so popular in my childhood. A future of broken relationships, alcohol and relative penury loomed. Gerhardie would never achieve the glittering reputation his early praise seemed to merit.

In a 1990 biography of Gerhardie, Dido Davies discusses Malcolm Bradbury’s concept of different approaches to novelistic comedy. One is based is on extraordinary, eccentric characters and incidents – Don Quixote, the Pickwick Papers, or Tristram Shandy – and the other on a comedy of more everyday life and experience –Jane Austen, or Kingsley Amis. Gerhardie, in Davies’ view, exemplifies both types – the eccentric relatives and absurd political and military adventures revolve round a core of universal erotic longing, of the banality of everyday existence, or boredom and gaiety. Futility is Gerhardie at his simplest and most effective, as well as a book which saddens with the vastness of the promise not wholly fulfilled. His other available works are looser and more obviously flawed, with moments of tremendous wit and brio. If only “cult” has not acquired its irritating implications, it would be the perfect description of his writing.

 

Adam Kirsch on Emmanuel Carrère, faith, and Christianity’s ability to scandalise

From the April 21st TLS:

The decline in churchgoing across Europe over the past two centuries has had the paradoxical result of restoring one of Christianity’s most notable features – the ability to scandalize. When a man like Emmanuel Carrère – an esteemed and successful French writer of fiction, non-fiction and screenplays, a sometime member of the Cannes film jury – suddenly declares himself to be a devout Christian, as he did in the autumn of 1990, the effect on his secular acquaintances brings to mind the effect of a similar announcement by a Roman matron 2,000 years ago. It’s not just shock but a kind of contempt: how could a person like you believe a story like that?

When Carrère was “touched by grace” – “it embarrasses me to put it that way today, but that’s how I put it at the time”, he writes in his new book The Kingdom – he was also undergoing psychoanalysis, and the reaction of his analyst to his declaration of faith was telling. Wasn’t Carrère’s new found belief in God the Father actually just “a crutch that I’m using on the journey toward an understanding of the place occupied in my life by own father?” This widely held secular view echoes the Nietzschean and Freudian assumptions that religion is always an imaginative compensation for suffering.

Carrère understands both faith and unbelief. … For as his reference to “embarrassment” implies, he had long ceased toe be a Christian by the time he began this book … But he is still torn, and fascinated, by the knowledge that his past self would have been devastated by his current self’s scepticism, just as his current self is aghast at his earlier faith.

The whole review is interesting, and while Kirsch is pretty sceptical of the book’s literary merits, the piece is a worthwhile meditation on the “literary shaping of Christianity” as the headline has it.

 

Review of “The Lady of Situations”, Stephen Dedman, SF Site 2011

Original here. Another of my SF Site reviews of Ticonderoga Publications books after this and this.  As with “Ghost Seas”, I recall greatly enjoying the book at the time, yet have forgotten most about it. So my enthusiasm here is a sort of archival one, as well as one redolent of the pleasure of getting books for free, a pleasure which to some degree deforms a reviewer’s art. Phrases likely “hugely accomplished” hint at this….

lady of sit

The Lady of Situations is a hugely accomplished short story collection from one of Australia’s premier science fiction writers. Originally published in 2009, this beautifully produced edition from Ticonderoga Press, illustrates the range of his work.

The stories remind me of the story collections of other authors published by Ticonderoga and reviewed by myself on this site, Lewis Shiner’s Love in Vain and Steven Utley’s Ghost Seas. There is the same range and sense of controlled exuberance. There is the same disregard for easy genre categorisations. For instance, the title story is pretty much a mainstream literary piece about a lady with an eidetic memory, while the immediately following “Ever Seen By Waking Eyes” is a vampiric twist on Lewis Carroll’s much-analysed and much-debated interest in young girls. Two very different “genres,” yet both have the same tone and emotional impact, and share a concern with the horrific realities of child sexual abuse.

“The Lady of Situations” is a good example of Dedman’s story telling technique. Essentially it is a narrative told by a character within a fictional framing vignette. This kind of technique reminds me of the Marlow of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, and allows the writer in an unforced, even rather traditionalistic way, to allow a character to show their revealing elisions and hesitancies, with a group of listeners whose reactions and preoccupations reflect on and deepen the story itself. It is a technique which can have radical narrative implications; done badly it can just seem arbitrary and pointless, done well it profoundly alters our reading. “The Lady of Situations” will reward study by writers themselves as rich example of the type.

Dedman’s spins on the alternate history format — “Amendment,” with Lee Harvey Oswald working at a Texan sci-fi convention, and “The Godfather Paradox,” which brings together Alan Turing, the Mafia, and time travel — are particularly well done. Too many alternate history stories simply have a twist on history as we know it, and that’s all. The secret of any story is that through embodied action, some kind of reaction — usually emotionally, but it can be intellectual or even visceral — is evoked in the reader that is stronger than the explicit content of the words themselves.

The book has a witty introduction-in-dialogue by Sean Williams and Mark Radium, which manages to say many acute things about Dedman’s prose along with various gross out jokes. There are various themes and tropes that recur, and Williams and Radium identify many — but the real strength of Dedman’s work is a power far beyond didacticism. Dedman’s stories have an evocative life beyond what is simply written. His style — engaging, lucid, never obscure but nevertheless allusive and richly evocative — is perfectly suited to a range of themes, genre tropes and structures. All these stories insinuate themselves into your consciousness slyly and irrevocably. Someone once wrote that the cinema of Stanley Kubrick “is not about things, it is things,” and something similar could be said about The Lady of Situations.

Review of “Love in Vain”, Lewis Shiner, SF Site 2010

Another Ticonderoga Publications review, following the review of “Ghost Seas” by Steven Utley of the prior post, here is a review of Lewis Shiner’s Love in Vain. Lewis Shiner  is an interesting writer – I will post my review of his “Dark Tangos” here also at some point. As you can see, a slight tendency to tendentious and unsubtle “allegory” marred one story, but that is pretty reasonable odds.

love in vain l s

 

Ticonderoga Publications have produced a beautiful limited edition paperback of Lewis Shiner’s 1997 collection. These are great stories, ranging over genres and locations with admirable disdain for the artificial boundaries that disfigure literature. To use one of the great clichés, there is something for everyone. More accurately, there are multiple stories to suit multiple tastes.

There are some wonderful fragments (or, if you prefer, “short shorts”) such as “Oz,” in which the lives of two villains, a pantomime pop culture villain and a real one (or, possibly, history’s greatest patsy), intersect. Similarly, “Mystery Train” takes an icon of rock and roll and puts a strangely horrific slipstream spin on him. For my money, the worst problem that writing about popular music faces is taking itself too seriously, putting a portentous spin on every aspect of itself, and forgetting the excitement, menace and atmosphere of the best popular music. Shiner’s prose — in a mysterious, ineffable way — captures the sinuous shimmering strangeness of rock at its most expressive and evocative. Reading these stories, I couldn’t get a remix of the Swiss band Young Gods’ song “Child in the Tree” out of my mind.

The “straight” stories are as well-observed, and as thought-provoking as anything else here. For instance, “Dirty Work,” the story of a down-on-his-luck man who is forced to take a job for a former high school classmate which involves tailing a rape victim, is a searing and sad account of male brutality and a decent man who tries, ineptly, to make amends. “Castles in The Sand” is a sweet snapshot of a mismatched couple at the beach — if it was a song, it would be The Mamas And Papas juddering version of “Dream a Little Dream.” There are also two pictures of father-son relationships — the intergenerational rivalry of “Match” and the casually poignant “Flagstaff.”

Then there are the historical stories, some of which are overtly science fiction, such as the portrayal of Nicola Tesla as Promethean magus in “White City,” and some of which are less so, such as the proto-Marxism of the pirate Jean Laffite in “Gold.” The most haunting stories are “Dirty Work,” again a straight story in which a down-on-his-luck family man takes a job from a former high school friend, now a successful-seeming lawyer, tailing a rape victim. The lawyer is defending the alleged rapist, and the narrator — a decent man trying to make a living — is immersed in a world of moral dilemmas. “Love In Vain,” a precursor of the Hannibal Lector/Dexter meme of a serial killer who “helps” the authorities, except this time the killer tells the police where to find the remains of victims he couldn’t possibly have killed — because the cases are entirely made up.

Shiner is able to create an atmosphere and to evoke a tone of voice that suits each of the disparate settings of his stories. This is a masterful collection, with hardly a bum note (Ok, I’ll admit it, there was one story that left me cold — the parable “The Tale of Mark the Bunny” which by my reckoning is trite and facile, but there you go) and one which I highly recommend.

Review of “Ghost Seas”, Steven Utley, SF Site, 2010

Original here

I reviewed a slew of books from Australia’s Ticonderoga publications around the early 2010s, for the SF Site. All were at the very least interesting, beautifully produced books. Re-reading this review now, it does convey that I enjoyed the read although I must also confess I didn’t recall much of Ghost Seas until prompted by the review.

ghostseas

 

Ghost Seas

Steve Utley

 

A review by Seamus Sweeney

 

 

 

Steven Utley has been described (by Gardner Dozois) as possibly “the most under-rated science fiction writer alive.” With Bruce Sterling, Howard Waldrop and Lisa Tuttle, he helped form the Turkey City Writer’s Workshop in Austin in the 70s. The prolific contributions between these authors lead to, amongst other things, the first stirrings of steampunk. Utley took something of a hiatus from science fiction as the 70s ended, pursuing other interests, only to resume in the later 80s. Perhaps this hiatus helped secure his status as a self-described “internationally unknown author.” On the one hand, it is richly undeserved — Steven Utley should be as famous (and rich) as anyone else. On the other, there is a certain pleasure in discovering an author unknown to one who induces the literary version of love at first sight.

 

The eponymous opening story of this brilliant collection is a haunting tale of the West Texas sands, a strange triangle between a dementing (but rich) old man, his apparently guileless nephew, and the nephew’s young wife. This story was reminiscent of all those J.G. Ballard stories and novels set in imagined landscapes that powerfully reflect mindscapes. The exotic and the eerie is a mirror of ourselves. For me, reading this entire collection was an exhilarating experience that brought me back to the excitement of discovering Ballard’s short story collections in Dublin Central Library as a young teenager.

 

There is not a weak, forgettable story among these tales. Even more impressive is the range of Utley’s prose — we have outright sci-fi, slipstream, alternate history, “straight” history, outer space, inner space, a dream Texas, a real Texas. All these worlds are created and explored in an utterly absorbing manner. From the hilarious slice of space opera “Upstart” to the alternate historical fragment “Look Away” to the time travel glitch “Michael Bates Michael Bates Michael Bates Michael,” each story describes a world perfectly.

 

Another highlight is the palaeontologist versus creationist murder mystery “The Dinosaur Season.” With humour and sympathy, Utley captures the cultural clash between the scientists and the local law enforcement very well. The long historical story “The Electricity of Heaven,” in which a venal, pompous newspaper editor experiences the last days of Confederate Richmond, was for me the collection’s centrepiece. “The Electricity of Heaven” is a straight historical fiction, and yet one does not notice the distinctions in this collection.

 

Writing an unreservedly enthusiastic review that is both interesting and avoids repetitive use of superlatives is actually quite difficult. So at this point I will bow out and simply encourage those who have not yet encountered these stories to acquire this fine edition from Ticonderoga Press.

Review of Fugitive Minds, Antonio Melechi, Nthposition 2005

This review, unlike that of“Old Friends”, now seems rather dated. Not because of the book (which I would like to re-read) but the tone, simultneously bombastically magisterial in the opening paragraphs and tellingly naive (I have now heard of the normalisation of hearing voices – indeed it is more or less mainstream)

fugitive minds

 

There are two tendencies in popular science, particularly popular psychology and neuroscience. One could be called reductionistic. We are assailed by books claiming that “we” are “just” collections of neurons, or idiot machines to reproduce our DNA, or somesuch. Books touted to “explain”, finally and definitively, why we are the way we are. The other is the perpetually chippy and confrontational, content not merely to propound a sweeping explanation for everything but to dismiss as absurd, stupid or downright evil all alternatives.

The regrettable proliferation of inverted commas in the last above paragraph perhaps indicate how these books rub off my own taste and temperament rather than objective critical opinion, but it is a pity that popular science writers seem less and less keen simply to explain and illustrate, rather than hector and hold forth.

The fly jacket tries to set this up as Antonio Melechi versus the monstrous regiment of materialist biological psychologist and psychiatrists: he “argues that this materialist vision of the human mind and behaviour promises more than it can deliver.” This is true, but on one level misrepresents the book. Melechi is refreshingly undogmatic, and while his inclination is obviously to champion the importance of cultural factors in twilight states, this is no aggressive polemic. The emphasis is on the interplay of cultural and biological factors, and Melechi’s stress on the cultural side is not just a reflection of his own background but a corrective to the prevalent tendency to champion the biological side. But he is no blind foe of any application of biochemistry and neuroscience to psychology.

For instance, in the essay on Near Death Experiences, Melechi concludes that “many of the elements that are ‘universally’ characteristic of the NDE, from geometric forms to the ‘life review’, do not require metaphysical explanation; they are best explained in terms of a secret heritage called ‘the body.'” William James, far more than Freud, is the presiding spirit of these essays. In the introduction Melechi writes of James’ scorn for the 19th century materialists who eagerly diagnosed saints and mystics as epileptics and hysterics. This is Melechi’s attitude too, one that is properly sceptical of wild claims but never outright dismissive.

He writes, for instance, on the possible relationship between Lewis Carroll’s history of migraines and the genesis of Alice in Wonderland. The shrinking and expanding, the “curiouser and curiouser” phenomena that Alice encounters, all echo descriptions of a migraine aura. Yet Melechi is aware of the limits of this approach; writing on the temptation to see Jabberwocky as influenced by the migrainous jumbling of words, he deflates the idea by observing that the poem was intended as a parody of Anglo-Saxon.

One of the most fascinating chapters is on hearing voices. I was unfamiliar with the work of Marcus Romme, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Maastricht (what would Europhobes make of that, I wonder), who campaigns for the normalisation of hearing voices, and the Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, whose idea of the “bicameral mind” is purported to underly the guidance by voices of the Old Testament Prophets, the heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey and other ancient texts. The later discussion of the work of John Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist of whom Melechi writes “of late, [he] has been increasingly impervious to criticism and debate. The Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which has been less than even-handed in its criticisms of Mack, should take some responsibility for his exile” should warn one of the dangers of accepting authorities whether they be tenured professor at Harvard or self-appointed police of the borders of science.

The book is not just concerned with psychopathology (or perceived psychopathology) There is much on the twilight states that we all experience – sleep, dreaming – as well as ones which, while not universal, are very common – such as sonambulism and déjà vu. There is much on psychiatric exotica like latah, koro and arctic hysteria, and obsolete psychiatric diagnoses like nostalgia, once a dread disease of migrant workers. It functions best as a collection of essays, very well written and filled with literary and historical references, about various aspects of psychology rather than as some kind of argumentative tract. Even the most rigid biological determinist would surely be able to read these for profit and entertainment.