So, when I read this title, I Am Legend, I automatically think of Tim Curry in magnificent raunchy curled horns and stomping devil hooves, terrifyingly, hugely red, from Ridley Scott’s 1985 film Legend. Or John Legend. Or perhaps the film with Will Smith in it. In descending order of recognition, that title barely scrapes a thought for Richard Matheson’s 1954 vampire novel. Pity. Matheson certainly didn’t invent the vampire, but he put it into 1950s pulp fiction, and imagined vampires in American high streets and grocery stores.
Matheson’s I Am Legend is the basis for the 2007 Will Smith film, which (from looking at the online descriptions) moved the action from an anonymous, Everyman small town to (yawn) New York, and upped the leading character Robert Neville to a ‘brilliant scientist’. Matheson’s Neville is a regular American guy who has to repair his house every morning after the nightly attacks from his vampire neighbours, and also force himself through a basic biochemistry course from library books. You get desperate when you’re working out how your immunity to vampire attack can help you kill them before they kill you.
Matheson’s novel is a pulp classic. It’s a straightforward survival story, generously laced with gore and relentless sexual suggestion. The female vampires flaunt themselves at Neville, trying to lure him outside (of course they do; female vampires only exist to supplement male sex fantasies). The female survivor who Neville rescues is unaccountably unable to keep her bathrobe tied properly. There’s even a scene where something secret is brought out from its hiding-place inside a brassiere. Whatever happened to pockets?
I Am Legend has been repackaged as a science fiction classic, despite its horror lineage, because it uses a serious scientific approach to the problem of the biochemistry of vampirism. Is it in the blood, or in a bacillus? How does the bacillus allow vampires to survive gunshot wounds? Why does wood work when lead won’t, and exactly which part of the garlic bulb is the repellent? I definitely enjoyed the science more than the tedious pulpy parts, because as Neville thrashes through his flashbacks of what happened to work out why the vampire plague happened, we see glimpses of a far more interesting story. I was bored quite quickly by Neville refusing to escape from being trapped in his house by night and scavenging by day. I wanted to read the whole thing, not his deranged memories and circular ramblings. The oblique storytelling becomes really murky towards the end, so much so that I am still none the wiser about why Neville has become a legend to the new society that is taking over the earth. They don’t sound like nice people. I was happy to close the book.
When William Came by Saki (H H Munro) is a complicated novel. On the face of it, it’s a straight propagandist story at the peak of the anti-German pre-First World War war fever craze, to warn the British to start preparing for war and get the young men into the army as soon as possible. Underneath that, it’s a classic Saki story. It’s witty and sly about glossy boys who prey on middle-aged Edwardian matrons, who know perfectly well what they’re doing, and understand the duplicity of their upper-class society. At an unexpected third level, it’s a rather strongly-felt hymn to the English countryside, English values and the tragedy of not being able to live in England. And I say ‘England’ deliberately: this novel is about England, not Britain. And, finally, it’s a strangely subtle fantasy about the grafting of European values and culture onto London society, which has the surprising effect of letting us see what Saki thinks about the rest of Europe, about Germans, Italians, Jews and all. I’m going to try to avoid the word ‘offensive’ because one person’s outrage can be another person’s delighted amusement, especially in fiction from a historical period that we don’t live in.
When William Came isn’t at all a black and white, easily polarised narrative. This is what makes it probably the best of the war fever novels, because it is not simplistic, not single-level, and so it has survived as a novel, rather than as a novelty, beyond the fad of fear of Germany. No-one now would read The Battle of Dorking unless they were literary historians: there is no other excuse. No-one now would read The Swoop, or, How Clarence Saved England, unless they were completist P G Wodehouse fans. They certainly wouldn’t read it for the enjoyment of war fever fiction. I have a fat volume of these tales, lovingly and painstakingly collected by the late I F Clarke, the great pioneer in the recording of really obscure, very generic fiction from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was interested in science fiction and feminist fiction too, any kind of genre fiction as long as it was from around this period, and war fever fiction was one of his specialities. His bibliographic achievements are invaluable to literary historians, but this particular fictional cul-de-sac has not been much visited by the average reader.
One hundred years later: is When William Came still worth reading? If you like Saki, absolutely. There’s a lot here for those who appreciate Saki’s particular style to enjoy. If you’re a war-fever collector: yes, certainly. This novel is a sophisticated addition to the canon, it’s by a most accomplished stylist and it’s actually a really fascinating read. There is no conventional plot: the novel is a series of scenes with political speeches laid on, but they are very cleverly arranged, have real characters, vintage Saki creations, who continue to live on after you’ve finished the book. The propaganda value is potentially immense, but I doubt whether anyone took the novel seriously because of who Saki was.
Saki was a satirist, a writer of light squibs, frothy cynical superficial fiction for amusement, and the after-dinner quotation. He made his name by sending up turn of the century Westminster political pretensions in The Westminster Alice, in which he rewrote topical political events in the style of Alice in Wonderland. These were published in weekly instalments, and as a book in 1902: he was really a newspaper columnist. He then became celebrated for his short stories. If you read these en masse in one of his collected fiction editions, they give you a total immersion into callous candour and heartless selfishness. They are brilliant: he had a gift for seeing straight through the pretension and pompousness of Edwardian upper-class society, and for being bitingly straightforward about the hypocrisies of daily life. When William Came was his last novel, because shortly after it was published, the First World War broke out, he joined up (over-age) and died in November 1916, killed by a sniper’s shot. His last words, to a fellow soldier, were ‘put that bloody cigarette out’.
When William Came is speculative fiction, a what-if story, so when it begins we are immediately intrigued by the something that has occurred. It is referred to, politely and discreetly, by the characters as the ‘catastrophe’, or is simply not mentioned at all, as if it were rather too unpleasant to discuss. ‘It’, of course, is the German invasion of Britain, which was accomplished very easily in only a few days because the British were too lazy to train their young men to be an active defence force. The mighty power of the massed German armed forces overwhelmed the puny and pathetic British attempts at self-defence, and in a remarkably bloodless takeover, Germanised the entire country. Actually, we only see London, and a bit of the countryside, but we are to take it that whatever happens in London, must have happened to the rest of the island. Streets have been renamed in German. Road signs and place-names now have signs in both languages. The British way of socialising has been transformed to German habits. There are no pubs any longer, only continental-style cafés where you argue, play chess and read the paper at set times in the morning (when Saki was writing, this was very un-British). A German monarch sits on the British throne, and many, many Britons have left the country to settle in other parts of the Empire. The British king now has his court at Delhi. There is a richly sentimental episode where a traveller in Mandalay, or somewhere similar, visits an English family who have settled there, where they can still raise the Union Jack on a flagpole. Charming German aristocrats are infiltrating the British social scene. The British middle and upper classes, already supine, are being slowly squashed, and British men have been emasculated. The only successful British men are the charming glossy boys whom Saki specialised in writing, who exist by flattering and serving their own interests. It is now illegal for British men to join the army, they have no masculine role any longer. But hope still exists: even if British men have been beaten and are unable to fight back, with fox-hunting their only active, physical pursuit, British youth will not lie down under the German yoke. At a grand review in Hyde Park, at which the Boy Scouts of the nation are to parade and salute the German emperor and his son, the gathered crowds are first embarrassed, then gleeful to see that British youth has decided to ignore the summons by the German Emperor, and simply do not turn up. It’s a sad sight to see an Emperor kept waiting by his subject race, and so the novel ends on this uplifting but flatly ridiculous sight. There is hope for the nation, even an unprepared nation, if its youth keep a proper attitude towards the enemy. At least, that’s what I think Saki is saying.
The scorn in this novel is very, very evident. It is a Tory rant. Decadent social customs are held up for ridicule: modern dance, couples who do not live together in harmony, the adoption of pretty boys by older women as agreeable social accessories. The most wonderful character in the novel is Joan Mardle, an irritating woman related to practically everyone in Society, who invites herself to events and then comments on them loudly at moments when the din of conversation has dropped. She is the spirit of inconvenient candour, a kind of anti-flatterer, whose ringing voice and piercing tones say aloud what everybody else has been thinking, or trying not to say, or would have preferred not to be noticed. She alone is worth reading this book for, but when she is part of a glorious satirical shower of scorn, she makes When William Came simply magnificent.
How does this novel fit into the literary scene of 1913? It’s obviously part of the anti-German war fever fad, and it’s also a nice example of early twentieth-century speculative fiction. It’s a strong example of Edwardian satire and dilettantism, the kind of literary alley down which you would also find E F Benson and Anthony Hope. These are minor sub-genres: Saki was not a major writer, but he was absolutely brilliant at what he did.
Warning: part-way through this novel about the author teaching poetry and drinking with Keats and Walt Whitman, I realised that it’s a sequel, of sorts. I’ve now got a copy of it, Maxwell’s On Poetry, but I haven’t read it yet. So I might have missed something in this review. Bear with me.
Glyn Maxwell, real-life poet, playwright and novelist, wakes up in a dream where he’s a poetry tutor on Thursdays, in a small village that has more pubs than shops. It also has an Academy, whose staff are none too pleased that Maxwell has been scheduled to run his extra-mural, ungraded classes for their students, who ought to be studying more important things with the real staff. Drink and rebellion against administrative regimes seem to be important for this poet’s mission. Maxwell is confused about why he’s there with no explanations, but he gets on with the classes anyway.
He gulps, but takes it in his stride, that he’s got guest poets arriving each week to do readings and meet the students: John Keats, Emily Dickinson, John Clare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, Charlotte Bronte, both the Brownings and Yeats. Edward Lear is also in attendance, shyly sitting with the students rather than performing his own work. We encounter a clutch of almost indistinguishable British First World War poets in their cricket pavilion watching the fireworks, but I think I spotted Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen.
It’s a lovely conceit that succeeds because as a practitioner Maxwell is steeped in poetry, and I personally would like to be taught by him. His classes are anarchic but also intensely informative: by making the students write poems he shows how it’s done, how poetry works. His students have strong characters, so their evolving community makes a novel out of their classes and encounters with the poets, as we learn more about them (and pick up on stories that seem to be left dangling from On Poetry). Maxwell has more scope with the students as fictional characters because he’s invented them. He can’t invent the poets, because he has restricted himself to only showing them as they are historically known to be, in their clothes, what they say, what they are known to have thought. He patches their dialogue so cleverly into the narrative that the dead poets live, magnificently: they are, variously, formidable, charming, friendly, shy, magnificent, dangerous, irresponsible, self-effacing and always elusive.
Maxwell himself works as a character because he is only confused when he’s not teaching or talking about poetry. In the episodes when he’s trying to find out where this extraordinary village is, how to leave, wondering what his real life is up to out here beyond the fog of this bubble of time, he is just a bit tiresome. When he’s fighting the Academy staff and its philistine autocracy (and, most unexpectedly, having a fling with one of them) he’s pig-headed, brave but irritating. When he’s moderating the uncontrollable poets, he’s desperate, juggling their wellbeing as ghosts with feelings, with the needs of his students and their emerging private lives that need a lot of taking care of.
What emerges is a passion for poetry, and a longing to have known how the great poets did it, how they thought about it. I loved this book. There’s a hint that he might be teaching plays next. I’m reading On Poetry now.
Glyn Maxwell, Drinks With Dead Poets. The Autumn Term (Oberon Books 2016), ISBN 9781783197415, £12.99
In this week’s Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, Ire-read that bit in Louisa M Alcott’s Good Wives (1869) where Jo March goes to work in New York. (I should warn any Alcott scholars looking in that I haven’t read any Alcott criticism for years.) Alcott was a great believer in work – on evangelical grounds, also from common sense, and because she herself had to work to survive. Her four girls from Little Women never seem to stop working, but the housework and the self-educational didactic work episodes are not as convincing as the simple need to earn a living. Jo is my particular Little Woman, the one I like best and identify most with (and I know I’m one of millions, but we can share her), so the more I read about her, the more interested I was in the stories.
Rereading Good Wives as an adult – because I don’t think I’d read it for at least twenty years – was extraordinarily interesting, as well as soothing, entertaining, delightful, and mildly irritating. I was amazed at how early this novel was published: 1869 is nearly 150 years ago, five generations ago, but Good Wives is totally fresh in its dialogue and how the characters develop. The blurb on the front of my Puffin edition (marketed to girls in the 1970s) calls it a ‘period piece’: well, it may be set in a different period, but it’s a modern story about growing up and embracing responsibility, as well as getting married. Nothing ‘period’ about that, and there is barely any history in the novel to ground it in the American nineteenth century. Little Women had the Civil War lurking in the background all the way through. Good Wives only has the merest hint that the war had happened, because (spoiler) John Brooke gets wounded and comes home to marry Meg. But the causes of the war are barely mentioned.
At the very end of Good Wives, when Jo’s new venture, a school at Plumfield, is being described, we’re told that a ‘merry little quadroon’ was one of the abandoned boys that she and Professor Bhaer took under her care, even though folk said (and I’m sure these were the background chorus of ‘society’ that the eternally perfect March family lived among, like the Pharisees), that taking him in would ruin the school. Well, that’s quite a divisive statement. A quadroon is an outdated term for a person with one black grandparent, or some ancestry approximating to that, so the novel is noting that mixed-race children existed in the comfortable and victorious North of the 1860s, and were being abandoned. It was Jo’s duty, as well as her pleasure, to take in a stray child like this and look after him. This boy has disappeared by the time the Plumfield sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys was published, so perhaps Alcott didn’t want to develop him as a character, but only use him as a social indicator of a different kind of destitution that society needed to take responsibility for, rather than have people like Jo and Professor Bhaer do it through private charity.
Jo’s sense of responsibility is matched by Professor Bhaer’s general perfection and goodness. I was never very sure about a girl like Jo marrying a man of nearly 40 when she was 26, and I still don’t find them at all romantic. Laurie and Amy are much more glamorous and exciting for the romance that Alcott could write really well when she wanted to. Professor Bhaer is a father figure of Jo’s very own. She doesn’t need to share him with her sisters, like she has to with their own father, and she can take him away to live in Plumfield, the house where she was forced to spend dreary hours as a girl being a companion to crotchety Aunt March. So in Good Wives, Jo gets to remake her family life to suit her own requirements, in which money is not a very important consideration, as long as they have enough for their needs. She gets a husband and children of her own; she’s able to write as much as she likes without criticism because she has to, to increase their income; and she is an equal partner in the enterprise of the school. Such terrific feminist and creative messages really appealed to me as a girl, and probably continue to appeal to girls like I was. It’s a great wish-fulfilment ending: the result may not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly suits Jo, especially that Aunt March has been tidied out of the way and her house is now Jo’s.
However, Jo has to meet Professor Bhaer before any of this can happen. Since (I think) one of the points of Good Wives is to find out what Jo will do next, the episode where she goes to New York alone to work is fascinating. Her parents let her go: that is quite interesting enough as a start, because it shows the huge difference there is between novels about girls’ lives written in a British context, and those in an American setting. In Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, which was published only 15 years earlier than Good Wives, the poor heroine Margaret Hale is trapped at home being an angel of the house, and is totally tied to the selfish vagaries of her inadequate parents. There is no way that she can go out to work: her class and her society will not allow it, even though she shows signs of making an excellent district nurse and social worker. Class and society’s expectations are certainly a consideration in Good Wives, but Jo’s parents see nothing wrong with her working for her living. Mrs Hale of North and South would have apoplexy at the thought, as would the terrifying Mrs Thornton, Margaret’s future mother-in-law.
Mr and Mrs March also see nothing wrong with Jo moving out alone to work in the big city. Mrs March’s first and only worry is class-based: she is unsure that Jo would be suited to ‘going out to service’ as she puts it, working as a governess or nursery maid. Living and working in a big boarding-house is not a bother to them, or to Jo, because the owner, Mrs Kirke, is a family friend. It would be unusual in a British Victorian novel to have the daughter of a minister of religion at the same social level as a boarding-house keeper. In fact, I think it would be impossible to find a British Victorian novel where a boarding-house was described as a desirable place to live for a middle-class girl of some education. I don’t think this is just the social snobbery of the period: there is something about the sanctity of the home in British Victorian fiction that makes living with your family the default mode for the middle classes, and these long, didactic, moralising and serious novels were written for the Victorian middle classes. For the British, the boarding-house was several social steps down. It’s not like that for the Americans, which is a rather different society. This is why I like Good Wives so much. It’s a completely different world.
The real point of letting Jo go to New York alone, apart from letting her meet her future husband, is so that she can try out being a professional writer with only her own judgement and initiative to help her. Annoyingly, Alcott souses this episode with morals, so although Jo does really well in writing fiction that the cheap periodicals market will buy, and sells her stories successfully, entertaining a new readership – the teenage boys and young thoughtless men that she has so much affection for – Professor Bhaer is brought in to point out the great harm that the magazines that she publishes in, do to young readers, and how he would destroy all magazines like them rather than let young people read them. This is a pretty strong and impressive message – it stops Jo in her tracks, makes her burn all her stories that she’d sold to these terrible magazines (I never understood why she burned them, unless it was to hide from the so-admired Prof. Bhaer that she had soiled her purity with such writing?), but she does not give away her precious earnings. That would be a moralistic step too far: if Jo had still been living at home, under Marmee’s eye, she’d have given the money to the poor or something equally depressing. But as she’s an independent writer, she chooses to keep the cash as the payment for her time, even if the results are now in the fireplace. This is a relief. If you’re going to work for the money rather than for the sake of the novel you long to write, you may as well keep the money if you get it. There’s no point being a martyr once you’ve done the work.
And what, may I ask, is so wrong with the blood and thunder magazines that Jo was writing for? Why did Alcott, who wrote herself for similarly sensational genres, come over all holier than thou about the moral turpitude of sensation writing? Because the evangelical message that permeates all of the Little Women novels will not be quenched. Christian evangelism as a norm is another thing that I found very surprising on this re-reading: the unquestioned conviction that there is life after death; that Beth, when she dies, will be well again. These are strongly dogmatic Christian beliefs that Alcott obviously felt deeply, and are presented as the foundation of the common-sense morality that enables the March family to live with dignity in relative poverty, according to their class values. By dabbling in sensation fiction Jo is stepping away from these values, and Professor Bhaer is brought into the plot to bring her back to the fold, and marry her as well. He’s not as perfect as John Brooke, but he is still a Victorian male paterfamilias.
And after Alcott, there was Coolidge: next week I’ll be reading Susan Coolidge’s heavenly trilogy What Katy Did, What Katy Did at School, and What Katy Did Next. I read these incessantly as a girl, and I recently located the sequels, about Katy’s sister Clover and her adventures in life. After reading Louisa May Alcott’s relentless evangelical messages – I haven’t even mentioned the temperance propaganda in Good Wives – I want to read more of the same, but without the religion, and with a lot more teenage drama.
This podcast scripts catch-up from Really Like This Book is on the first of Gene Wolfe’s epic science-fiction & fantasy tetralogy The Book of the New Sun,The Shadow of the Torturer (1981), the only one of the four I have been able to finish. It is EPIC, a tremendous, sprawling feast of fantastical invention slathered over a strong sf foundation. To reassure those not wishing to read celebrations of violence, it contains only two torture incidents, both very brief, and described in such a way that we are more interested in the how and why than the what.
Here’s the story: Severian is an apprentice torturer, and hopes to rise one day to become not just a journeyman but a master torturer. The torturers are the executioners and punishment inflictors for the Autarch, who is the supreme ruler of this part of Urth. That’s our Earth in the very far future. Severian becomes emotionally too close to a ‘client’, as torture victims are called in this world, closer than he should be, with the result that he is sent on a journey. The journey introduces him, and us, to his world, which is convenient since he and we are equally ignorant about its fascinating details, while the things that Severian knows about that we don’t are not explained because they are the mysteries of his trade, and we the readers are not privy to these. It’s a familiar way to tell a story – Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle came to mind quite a few times while reading this.
Severian narrates the story from many years later, with more than enough remarks about his later career, so we don’t have to worry about whether he’ll survive (an awkward pitfall of first-person narration: if they’re still alive to write/dictate the narrative, obviously they’re not going to fall down a cliff or onto a spear halfway through). As I say, we are given so much reassurance that Severian will survive, in a narrative where death is simply everywhere, we can concentrate with greater avidity on his story, and try to work out why his society makes a guild of torturers necessary. The McGuffins that keep the plot moving are (1) that Severian has to get to his destination, and (2) by the end of this first novel in the tetralogy he finds a certain extraordinarily valuable something and he has to decide what to do with it. There are other, smaller mysteries as well: why does Dorcas have no memory? Will Vodalus the rebel ever come back to challenge the Autarch? How will Severian reach the destiny we are told about almost at the beginning of the book?
This society is medievalised, which is a peculiar convention in fantasy literature. It is oddly common for a fictional future society to have reverted to pre-industrial technology. This produces useful hand-to-hand, one-to-one combat scenes between characters the reader has learned to care about, rather than big impersonal explosions between anonymous armies (though fantasy still deploys these: looking at you, Michael Moorcock), but why the reversion? What events cause a society to forget all it once knew and regress, other than a lack of industrial quantities of resources? As a former economic history student (one term only, till I failed the course utterly), these motivations for world-building bother me.
Wolfe complicates the medievality by allowing glimpses of, for instance, the fliers owned by the rich, which zip through the air like silver tears. The lighting in the Citadel is clearly from something as long-lasting as nuclear power; some of the torture techniques are based on psychotropic drugs; and the Tower of the Torturers is clearly part of a long-defunct and partially overgrown and overbuilt spaceship. In this respect Wolfe has done what Anne McCaffrey did with her dragons of Pern novels, but he’s stayed on Earth. Extra-terrestrials are mentioned briefly; they are cacogens, pale and thin, but a few more clearly alien creatures and people appear in the last crowd scenes of the novel, with the effect of letting us know that Wolfe has hardly got started: this is just the first act.
On rereading The Shadow of the Torturer, I found that I had not remembered anything much except a sense of wonder and a world that I wanted to return to. Sometimes you get a sf novel where the society is more interesting than the plot, and I think Wolfe may have tipped the balance with this one. I don’t care very much about Severian and his agonies of conscience, but I adore his world. There is a fascinating use of hierarchies in his society. Severian knows his place and refuses to be elevated from it, because his role is more important than the man. He dissuades the chiliarch from giving him his executioner’s fee with his own hand because this would have demeaned the chiliarch’s own office, and was not traditional: his fee had to be flung at him on the ground.
Chiliarch. Yes: what’s a chiliarch? For this purportedly post-historic frame narrative Wolfe adds a note at the end explaining his ‘editor’s need to invent words for ancient concepts that had not come into existence’. Instead of leaving us to accept that sf is just invention like any other kind of storytelling, Wolfe adds extra meaning to the very idea of sf, like so many other sf novelists, by inviting the reader to think about these stories as being the narratives and records of history that have not happened yet. So we don’t just read ‘story’, we also think about these stories as histories, reports, assessments, commentaries: all of which let us consider how future reality might yet be.
With this in mind, we might read The Shadow of the Torturer in this way with some relief, because its most striking aspect is its vocabulary. Opening the book at two, unrelated, pages at random, here is a representative sample: cataphract (some kind of guard), sateen (a fabric, but not the Victorian cheap furnishing fabric with the same name), optimate (middle-class, burgher), armigette (woman of the trading classes), anagnost (official from the justice courts), jade (low-grade mistress, much the same as its early English meaning), bravo (thug, ditto from Renaissance English), sabretache (satchel, also a British nineteenth-century military accoutrement), fuligin (a colour darker than black). Their meaning is fairly obvious in the context, and there are very few words whose meaning is totally obscure, because otherwise how would we understand what’s going on? Wolfe doesn’t want to scare his readers off, he wants us to work through the story with the experience of not everything being familiar or clear.
The associations carried by the similarity of these strange words to existing words add layers of sound and meaning to the prose. His new vocabulary (mainly nouns) sounds as if it was altered by changing a vowel or suffix to make new words from a familiar root. He also changes the meaning of real words, like destrier, which in his world isn’t a horse, but another animal that is however ridden and used like a horse for the upper classes, which is what a destrier was. Wolfe warns that even some words that are familiar may not mean what we understand them to mean, like ‘metal’ and ‘hylacine’.
The early scenes of the novel are set in the apprentices’ world in the Tower of the Torturers, which inevitably recalls Earthsea, or Hogwarts, and then we think, no, this is much darker. The Shadow of the Torturer is about medical training with a particularly non-Hippocratic use of the Oath to ‘do no harm’. These medievalised characters are also not saving the world through magic. There isn’t any magic in these novels: it’s all physics and invented alien biology. This is a magical world only in the sense that it is conjured up by invented and archaic words.
Wondering what the words mean, and knowing that there are going to be gaps in our knowledge throughout the story, keeps us nicely off balance. Nothing can be taken for granted. Wolfe is an expert distracter of attention, of casting casual asides down in our path just as we expect to be focusing on something else, with the clever result of dividing our attention. At the same time that we are focusing on the present we are also looking at the past. Being told things in such an oblique way also changes the focus. Because we aren’t told anything about screams, bleeding flesh, details of pain, or anything else that we might expect from a torture scene (and believe me I do not read that kind of fiction, so I’m just guessing here), we don’t feel immediate horrified empathy. Instead, we’re told about the event from a very clinical viewpoint, and also an artist’s perspective. We are first invited to admire the skill, we applaud the careful work, and only then do we think about the poor suffering ‘client’, and wonder, with increasing horror, what the clinical details actually mean to the nerve endings concerned. It’s very effective, because the displacement of our attention from natural, emotional empathy for the victim to rational admiration for the technical expertise is done solely by the narrative voice, by the torturer himself.
After the distancing, comes the interest in the details of the technique, the rituals, the taught practice, the means of doing the job properly. The torturer is concerned to maintain dignity for all, there is no degradation, but there is also no exceeding or mitigating the sentence handed down. The final, most important effect of the distancing technique is that we never forget that the role of the torturer is to be an officer of the law, a means to enable justice as decided to be enacted. And this leads us to ask, who sets these punishments? What IS this society that maintains torturers to separate verdict and punishment? You will only find out by reading the next three novels. (Caveat: I have tried the second novel, The Claw of the Conciliator, but it lost my interest.)
This week’s Newspaper Novel abandons the literary historical approach to journalism, and just wallows in satire. Terry Pratchett is one of the most popular and widely-bought British authors, but he is also hardly ever mentioned in the heavyweight literary weeklies because his writing is funny. He was a writer of fantasy fiction, predominantly in the Discworld series, and he was a lean, keen and seasoned satirist with deadly effect. All this does not win him prizes outside genre fiction, and definitely gets him no respect from the London literati on the TV and radio. It simply is not respectable, nor likely to get you repeat gigs on Radio 3 arts programmes, to openly say ‘I would rather read Terry Pratchett than Zadie Smith’, or, ‘Terry Pratchett can say more sensible, and true, things about human society in one page than a whole issue of the London Review of Books’. I’m not bitter. I’m just SO BORED of the British literary establishment snooting at this effective, innovative, profound, clever, and much beloved writer. His slightly risible name didn’t help him in the literary snob stakes. However, he did receive a knighthood, which was very pleasing, and the author A S Byatt is secure enough in her position as an eminent British intellectual and philosopher to be able to say with enthusiasm that she thinks his novels are brilliant, so there is hope.
I will now get back to the point.
The Truth (2000) is a novel set in the largest and most uproarious city on Discworld, Ankh-Mopork. The city is transitioning from medieval squalor straight to the industrial revolution, cautiously. Long-distance communications have been invented in the form of large semaphore towers that go remarkably fast for such a clunky, physical mechanism. The invention of the postal service and the reform of the local currency will happen in the next few books, and the City Watch, the police force, have been reformed for some time, under the command of a cigar-chewing hero with a drink problem, Sam Vimes. The Watch is a microcosm of the city’s population, which fluctuates joyously and wildly as new ways of making money and spending it come and go. Most of the Watch officers are human. Others include a werewolf, a dwarf, some trolls, possibly a golem, and there are not yet vampires on the strength, but they may yet join. Several of the Watch are also female. With that in mind, you observe the city.
Ankh-Mopork is a place of ordinary people doing its business, which is making a living, and trying to earn more to enjoy living it. Naturally there are richer and poorer members of society, and some of the richer ones have lately taken to sending a subscription to a younger son of one of the rich families. He has been writing an intermittent newsletter recounting the events of the city that he thinks they would like to hear about. Society events, political ups and downs, what Lord Vetinari, the Patrician, or benign dictator totally in control, had to say about the Assassins’ Guild last week, and so on. William de Woorde writes this letter, has it engraved painstakingly, and sends the copies off to the subscribers. It’s been getting more mittent, as Pratchett would say, because what he writes about is unaccountably interesting to many people.
One day, William gets knocked over by a runaway cart carrying something extremely heavy, and wakes up in a workshop of anxious dwarves who are inventing a printing press. (Dwarves are the genius inventors and engineers of this society, and can build anything out of anything. One of the things I particularly like about Discworld is that although magic has its place there, it is never used wantonly or without due effect. Magic, as we all ought to know, * is not a daily event. You use magic, you have to pay for it, and in daily life you don’t want to pay for that sort of thing every day. There is no magic in this novel, unless you count what Otto the iconographer does with dark light, or his incessant reconstitutions from a pile of dust.)
The dwarves would like to do business with William. He takes a while to be persuaded, but is persuaded, that printing as a concept is going to be far cheaper, faster, flexible and more easily reproducible than engraving, and so an industry is born. With printing the newsletter is transformed into the newspaper: a daily sheet of stories describing events, sold on the streets, that people begin to quote at breakfast, and rely on as truth because the paper said so. With this simple fact, reflecting our own daily practice, the table of The Truth is spread wide for a satirical smorgasbord.
Who says what is news and what is not? Who controls the news? Why is a story true if it’s printed, but only a rumour if it’s spread verbally in the air? Why do people want to read about things they already know, but not about things that are new and vital and important? Why do people want to look at pictures of malformed vegetables? Why do people want to read a story if it’s got their name in it? At what point does a reporter, or an editor, get personally involved in a story? What is the difference between reporting and recording? Why do people want to read the stories made up in a cellar by a salesman rather than things that really happened? Why and how can a lie run faster around the world before truth can get its boots on? Why are many of the words used in newspaper stories never used in real speech in real life? (‘Rumpus’ and ‘fracas’ are the two that Pratchett cites. I would add ‘slammed’, and allowing alliteration to trump fact. My school-friend Gillian Philip and I were once featured in the Aberdeen Press and Journal as ‘Budding Brontes’ because we’d made the final of a national play-writing competition. I expect the P&J sub-editor knew the Brontes’ plays, because we didn’t.)
The printing press is like a hungry animal: you fill it up with the next issue, it spits out the pages and is quiet for a while, but soon, really too soon, it demands more news, more food, and you have to feed it. (The internet is exactly the same. How often have you checked the online newspaper only an hour or so after you last looked at its headlines? Pre-internet, we just watched the TV news at night, and read the paper in the morning, with a dash of radio headlines in between.) In The Truth, William is supplying a printed record of rumours to a city which had previously only talked about its rumours in conversation. The printed record immediately becomes important because of its permanence, visible for all to see and read. And people want more of it. The small magic of how words are produced from individual lead letters set in boxes in a compositing frame, freaks out some of the more conservative members of the Ankh-Mopork ruling class, because they are used to controlling anything they want, and now they cannot control the words being used to pin down rumours they don’t want made public. Such prolific printing can be dangerous. As Vimes says to William in exasperation, ‘Are you going to print EVERYTHING you hear? Are you going to run around my city like some loose siege weapon?’ William does use his newspaper as a weapon: as a duelling weapon in a battle against an undead lawyer, and as a weapon of investigation and challenge in the mysterious case of the disappearing Patrician. The Truth is a brilliant novel, and makes you think very hard about modern newspaper culture. What Pratchett would have made out of the Impending President-Elect and his manipulation of fact, truth, lies and human gullibility is one of the great unwritten novels of our age.
There is something for everyone in Pratchett’s massive collection of witty novels probing human nature and how society works. You want overgrown schoolboy puns about magic and education? Look at any of the wizard books from the Unseen University. You want slapstick and horror mixed up with drunken old ladies? Witches Abroad for you. You want crime fiction? Follow Commander Vimes. You got problems with feminism? Monstrous Regiment should set you right. You think books about small blue men and teenage girls are just for children? I Shall Wear Midnight is one of the most chilling books about the responsibilities of witchcraft I have ever read. You want Pratchett’s version of Gotham City, and the lunacy of getting a city to run on time? Any of the Ankh-Mopork novels will be a revelation, and should warn you off applying to sit on the local council. And if you’re into aliens and strange creatures, and interracial strife, The Fifth Elephant, and Thud, are masterpieces of inclusiveness politics. He’s a genius: just read him.
* Much as I love J K Rowling, the lack of a magical economy in her world-building irritates me immensely. I follow the Wizard of Earthsea economic system of magical economy, in that there has to be a balance. If we all cooked like Mrs Weasley or Queenie Goldstein, who digs the potatoes, mills the grain, milks and feeds the cow and sets the cream to rise? Using magic without balance or consequences devalues its effects, and makes it, ultimately, unbelievable. Since so much of Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts is profoundly believable, it feels wrong that the magic in that world works as a decorative way to skip over the boring bits of economic theory, or vigilante force, without democratic oversight. For a world in which magic is the whole point, this is weird. In contrast, magic on the Discworld matters, even though very few of its novels actually deal with magic per se, just with magical creatures.