Tuesday, 10 September 2019

The Return of the Native

Thomas Hardy The Return of the Native (1878)
I've had several run ups to Pohl and Kornbluth's allegedly classic Gladiator-at-Law, and whilst I can see that it's well written in terms of elegant sentences, I just can't seem to give a fuck about anything happening within the narrative. Now on my second or third attempt, I make it to chapter eleven and notice that I have no idea what's happening to who or why; then somehow I find myself reading this instead, a big fat Victorian novel of such volume that copies could be used to weight sacks containing stool pigeons destined for large rivers or other bodies of water. No sentence is less than two-hundred words long, typically describing the moral import of some minor feature of someone's face, and nothing happens for the first quarter of the book, or what felt like it - just a bunch of people stood around a bonfire gossiping about some woman being no better than she ought to be, amongst other things; and yet unlike Gladiator-at-Yawn, it's positively gripping.

The story is spun around the doomed marriages of two couples. Clym has been living in Paris but, having decided it was all a bit too fancy, now returns to his beloved and rustic Egdon Heath to marry Eustacia, who only marries him because she hates Egdon Heath and assumes he'll change his mind and will take her to live in Paris. Naturally it all ends in tears, ultimately concluding with lessons learned.

Derwent May's introduction seems to spend a lot of time refuting D.H. Lawrence's assertion that the main character of The Return of the Native is the landscape itself, as described in his Study of Thomas Hardy. Without actually having read Lawrence's Study of Thomas Hardy, I'd say he seems to have a point.

The first part of the book serves to define its cast as ephemerals within a much larger and essentially mysterious landscape across which bonfires are lit from one hilltop to the next in this pre-technological era, itself only a moment in the depths of geological time, with references to arrowheads, bronze age tribes, and Biblical times provided for the sake of scale.

The instincts of merry England lingered on here with exceptional vitality, and the symbolic customs which tradition has attached to each season of the year were yet a reality on Egdon. Indeed, the impulses of all such outlandish hamlets are pagan still: in these spots homage to nature, self-adoration, frantic gaieties, fragments of Teutonic rites to divinities whose names are forgotten, seem in some way or other to have survived mediaeval doctrine.

Being a Victorian novel, Native pays the same laborious attention to detail as any Pre-Raphaelite painting and is similarly loaded with meaning and allegory - possibly even to the point of the term native - here referring to Clym Yeobright - being a single letter removed from naive. Whilst the principal characters of the novel are not without depth, they are primarily described in terms of how they relate to their environment to the point that we may as well regard them as expressions of the same. Clym's defining characteristic is that he left the heath and has, as Hardy sees it, come to his senses, and it seems significant that we learn hardly anything about his time in Paris beyond that he'd had enough. Here we find this kinship expressed as the one time scholar is reborn back on his home turf as a common labourer who goes accordingly unrecognised by his own mother.

The silent being who thus occupied himself seemed to be of no more account in life than an insect. He appeared as a mere parasite of the heath, fretting its surface in his daily labour as a moth frets a garment, entirely engrossed with its products, having no knowledge of anything in the world but fern, furze, heath, lichens, and moss.

Clym's relationship to the land from which he was sprung is an instinctive rather than considered aspect of his psychology.

He already showed that thought is a disease of the flesh, and indirectly bore evidence that ideal physical beauty is incompatible with emotional development and a full recognition of the coil of things.

It's not difficult to see how this would have appealed to D.H. Lawrence, particularly as a forerunner of his own ideas about blood consciousness, as he termed it, as expressed by Don Ramón in The Plumed Serpent.

'Man is a column of blood, with a voice in it... And when the voice is still, and he is only a column of blood, he is better.'

Returning to the theme of how the characters serve as extensions of their environment, Eustacia is defined more or less entirely by her desire to escape from the heath; and then we have the Reddleman, Diggory Venn, an avatar of the land in the sense of Swamp Thing being an avatar of the bayou. Venn is coloured red from head to toe as a consequence of his work, extracting red ochre from the ground with which to mark sheep. Having no fixed abode, he comes and goes in the fashion of a wandering spirit, a parallel which is emphasised in the first part of the book by reference to a red ghost seen at large on the heath.

The lesson of The Return of the Native may, on the surface of it, seem typically Victorian and conservative - stick to what you know, stay home, honour thine parents, and so on and so forth. Clym shouldn't have gone to Paris in the first place, and his moderately unpleasant wife probably shouldn't make too many assumptions about the grass being greener over there; but I suspect this may be a misreading, or at least an unbalanced emphasis in so much as that it's not really the point of the book which seems too complex to be boiled down to any single, simple lesson. Some of it concerns fate, or what we understand to be fate, and the related dispensation of blame for the occasional shitty hand which we may be dealt.

'But you can't charge yourself with crimes in that way,' said Venn. 'You may as well say that the parents be the cause of a murder by the child, for without the parents the child would never have been begot.'

So, I guess it's about personal responsibility in the sense of suggesting that human agency plays a greater part in how our lives work out than any nebulous ideas of destiny, such as - for example - those which may seemingly root us to a specific patch of earth.

Human beings, in their generous endeavour to construct a hypothesis that shall not degrade a First Cause, have always hesitated to conceive a dominant power of lower moral quality than their own; and, even while they sit down and weep by the waters of Babylon, invent excuses for the oppression which prompts their tears.

The strength of The Return of the Native is not that any of this is necessarily spelled out, but that it allows us to piece these ideas together by whichever terms make most sense to the reader, avoiding the somewhat didactic qualities of, for example, Dickens, not to mention his cloying excess of sentiment.

We open with a sort of death, something coming out of the night, Thomasin returning stillborn to Egdon in the Reddleman's funereal conveyance as bonfires are lit in homage to the death of Guy Fawkes; then conclude with the Mayday rebirth of Spring, Diggory Venn who has scrubbed up fairly well and is no longer bright red, and Clym at last finding his calling as a preacher, but one who prefers not to simply spout doctrine or to go through motions determined by any external influence.

He left alone creeds and systems of philosophy, finding enough and more than enough to occupy his tongue in the opinions and actions common to all good men.

It's therefore about facing the future, I suppose, or something along those lines. It could have been shorter. I'm not sure I don't prefer the sound of the conclusion Hardy submitted for the earlier serialisation, wherein Venn remains a mysterious, borderline supernatural figure; but this 1912 iteration nevertheless holds together well, possibly excepting the laborious distended arse-ache of Diggory Venn and Thomasin Yeobright finally brought together by agency of a missing glove.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Nova Express

William S. Burroughs Nova Express (1964)
This was one of three novels in a collected paperback edition I stumbled across, the other two being Soft Machine and The Wild Boys. I didn't already have a copy of The Wild Boys, and I don't even think I'd read Nova Express, so I picked it up because it seemed to close a gap. First, I re-read The Soft Machine. It doesn't actually seem like it was that long ago that I read it, but according to what I wrote, I wasn't able to get much sense out of it, so it seemed like another attempt couldn't hurt, plus some minor obsessive compulsive impulse nagged at me, suggesting that it would be weird to leave the first third of the compendium unread, regardless of what seemed like a previous and fairly recent reading. Anyway, it didn't make a whole lot of sense this time either.

Nova Express seemed a little more coherent in so much as that Burroughs just about gets away with claiming it's a science-fiction novel describing an invasive Venusian force taking over our planet, but you probably won't be too surprised to learn that at no point did I have to flip to the cover to check I hadn't picked up an Asimov by accident. It's mostly a cut-up novel, and I seem to remember reading that it's pretty much a remix of Naked Lunch, one of several if anyone's counting. So it is what it is, and certain passages work to create a sort of visionary narrative by impressionist means, but it gets very repetitive after a while and its impact is almost certainly less than what it may have been in 1964. The way it is written, or perhaps I mean assembled, is well suited to the conclusion which, according to Burroughs, represents the ascendency of the invasive forces as the breakdown of meaning, and by association, narrative; but frankly, it's not a whole bundle of chuckles. This sort of thing worked better when the pill is sweetened with a few interludes of regular material written in a straight line. Otherwise the experience of reading gets a little headachey and thankless.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019


Voltaire Candide (1759)
It seemed like time I dipped in a toe, never having actually read anything by the man whilst having lived with his influence for most of my existence. I'm actually listening to a Cabaret Voltaire album as I write this, funnily enough.

I was hoping for wacky proto-science-fiction, which Candide sort of isn't, but never mind. It turns out that I was thinking of Micromégas.

Candide describes the global journey of a young man identified as such, his progress notably incorporating the fictional land of Eldorado, vaguely situated in south America and probably commenting either on Thomas More's Utopia or else its legacy. The novel was a relatively new thing at the time of writing in so much as that it was still doing all sorts of weird things which no-one really seems to bother with these days. Candide is allegorical in the sense of Gulliver's Travels being allegorical - and I'm quite excited by the realisation that Voltaire met Swift whilst living in London - and so our hero's progress serves as a sequence of philosophical metaphors illustrating his ruminations on society, humanity, existence, and how these relate to the religious thought of the day. Specifically it's mostly concerned with whether or not we're living in the best of all possible worlds, as suggested in 1710 by Gottfried Leibniz as a means of accounting for the persistence of evil in a cosmos ruled over by a loving God. Voltaire found plenty of evil upon which to pass comment in 1759, and if he reaches an actual conclusion, I seem to have missed it, so I assume this is more about asking questions, ensuring that certain institutions feel duly uncomfortable, and taking the piss - although not quite to the extent of Swift.

As is probably obvious, I'm somewhat out of my depth here, so any or all of the above may actually be bollocks, but to continue regardless: Candide seems much softer focus than Gulliver, being closer to a ribbing than the weapons grade sarcasm of Swift, excepting infrequent incidents of rape, hanging and related horrors; although it could be that the translation has dulled the narrative's sharper edges. This one was handled by Lowell Bair who did a pretty decent job on Jules Verne as far as I recall, so who knows?

Candide seems fairly light, but was nevertheless a pleasure, and sufficiently so as to justify my keeping an eye open for the aforementioned Micromégas. Where my appreciation may be muted due to having precious little clue about the politics of 1759, the novel still represents a fascinating cameo of eighteenth century attitudes, not least those regarding science and evolution, with the relationship of ape to humanity being something which people were quite clearly thinking about.

Monday, 2 September 2019

The Blal

A.E. van Vogt The Blal (1965)
Having just done the calculations, I realise there are now only five novels by A.E. van Vogt which I am yet to read, which is pretty weird considering how many times I've struggled through one and consequently ended up telling myself it will be the last. On the other hand, it seems there are still a fair few of his short story collections I haven't tackled, which is probably only because I never see them in any of the usual second hand stores. I'd say that I'm maybe not so keen on his short fiction, but it's obviously bollocks because I keep reading it, and for all those incomprehensible brain scramblers I've had to wade through, the good stuff always makes it feel as though the tears and headaches and double vision have been worth it. Of course, one problem with the short story collections is that they tend to feature a lot of the same material, but then seeing as half of his novels were short stories welded together, I don't suppose I have much grounds for complaint.

Of this bunch, I'd already read five of the eight, some in short form, some human centipeded into larger novels, some both, but van Vogt can be absurdly dense and difficult to retain so second or third readings are often rewarding, not to mention surprising when a particular story turns out to be nothing like how you remember it. I'm sure War of Nerves did something completely different the last couple of times I read it.

Enchanted Village and Vault of the Beast render this collection approximately essential, in the event of you not already having either in seven other van Vogt collections. If The Blal falls short of qualifying as the absolutely definitive selection, it's decent and there's nothing bad here. Also, Final Command is interesting for its arguably bearing a closer resemblance to certain themes which inform Blade Runner to a more pronounced extent than anything from the Philip K. Dick novel of which Ridley Scott apparently managed thirty pages, which would be the second occasion of Mr. Hovis advert filming something which just happened to seem a teensy bit reminiscent of a particular van Vogt short story.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Ham on Rye

Charles Bukowski Ham on Rye (1982)
Bukowski only wrote a handful of novels, the bulk of his published work being poetry. This was the first one I read, recommended by my late friend Andrew, an unfortunately dedicated alcoholic who shared some of Bukowski's habits and much of his general outlook. It was a good place to start. The general composition of Bukowski's narrative has calmed down since Post Office, less of the screaming capital letters, and with thirteen additional years of boozing and falling over seemingly providing further distance from the emotional battering laid down during his childhood years, here described in roughly autobiographical terms through the fictionalised persona of Henry Chinaski. I didn't have a bad childhood, but neither was it one so idyllic as to leave me with any soft focus desire for a return revisit; and I think anyone who engages in at least some degree of honest reflection will recognise the description of reality kicking you in the teeth over and over, even if child battery played no actual part.

Ham on Rye is, unsurprisingly, a far from pretty picture, and it would be shocking to read of Chinaski's dabbling with the politically far right in any other context. Tellingly, this seems to have been a gut reaction, as I suppose it often is, inspired by a distrust of the vocally and demonstratively liberal, which I can at least understand. What's more significant here is the author failing to give a shit about presenting himself as a sympathetic figure, not even really a victim of circumstance - which seems a fairly rare thing; and the visceral element is perfectly balanced with glimpses of beauty snatched here and there for the sake of contrast, or if not beauty then at least reasons to be alive: discovering the novels of D.H. Lawrence at the local public library, solitude, drink, fighting just for the sheer fucking fun of it.

America, regardless of James Dean, Marlon Brando, and whatever else it has told itself, never really did rebellion. It's a nation of boy scouts, good little soldiers, and loyal snitches who regard diversity and imagination as dangerous gateway drugs to Communism and homosexuality, and whose minds are easily blown by Michael J. Fox dancing on the hood of a gridlocked car so as to teach the grown-ups a thing or two about what it means to be young. This is why America's fuck-ups and square pegs tend to be pretty hardcore, at least Manson levels of craziness; although of course they don't quite count as America, not officially, not until we get the commodified Tarantino version, probably with Brad Pitt saying motherfucker in an amusing way which will inevitably give rise to a thousand cool memes, as they will be regarded by those fuckwits who place stock in the term cool holding any value whatsoever.

So that's a massive generalisation right there, but I'd guess it explains Ham on Rye and is therefore a recommendation.

Monday, 26 August 2019

Fantasy & Science Fiction 613

Gordon Van Gelder (editor) Fantasy & Science Fiction 613 (2003)
I have new books, or at least books newly purchased which I'm yet to read, but somehow nothing is sticking. I read a few pages of London Fields, a few of a Kornbluth, part of a short story by A.E. van Vogt, but I'm not in the mood for any of them; so I'm really beginning to appreciate having accumulated unread back issues of the digests just in case, particularly those such as this one which has been mostly light without feeling either insubstantial or crappy.

This is my third back issue this year, bringing us up to 2003, and it's been the best one yet, seemingly representing a further refinement of what Fantasy & Science Fiction does. Back in April, I wrote:

Unfortunately I am no more able to read fantasy than I am able to attend renaissance fairs dressed as a fucking minstrel. As soon as I read a sentence suffixed with my Lord, my brain shuts itself down.

I guess it wasn't just me, because by 2003 the magazine is happily free of anyone with pointed ears wearing a green hat, and what we have sits loosely between speculative fiction and the modern ghost story - I'd say something in the Gothic tradition, but I'd be guessing. M. Shayne Bell's Anomalous Structures of My Dreams and Jeremy Minton's Halfway House are probably the stand-outs, but there's nothing bad here, and everything reads very much like the work of authors who care about their craft. I stumbled a little upon Mary Rickert's The Machine and Albert E. Cowdrey's Grey Star, but second run ups taken next morning paid off, particularly with The Machine, which is, on reflection, probably one of the more satisfyingly intense things I've read this year.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Perry Rhodan: Enterprise Stardust

K.H. Scheer & Walter Ernstling Perry Rhodan: Enterprise Stardust (1961)
I remember seeing a shitload of these in WHSmith when I was a kid, and yet only recently have I come to realise that Perry Rhodan is the main character of the series rather than its author. I hadn't bothered with any of them because I generally prefer to start a series at the beginning for obvious reasons, but it turns out that this was the first one, so here we go.

Actually, it's a translation of the first two, Perry Rhodan having been a weekly digest first published in Germany - each week a new novella amounting to sixty or seventy pages of text. A minimum of research has revealed that Perry endured for decades - still keeping to that weekly schedule - was massively popular, and seems to have given birth to the story arc, from what I can tell. By story arc I mean self-contained tales which form part of a larger narrative within an even broader evolving continuity, as distinct from three or four novels with the same setting or the sort of stuff Edgar Rice Burroughs used to churn out. Maybe there have been earlier story arcs, but I can't think of any right now.

As with both Doctor Who and 2000AD comic, the pressure of a weekly schedule compelled the creators to a certain degree of homage, borrowing, or whatever you would prefer to call it, and the legend accordingly has it that Perry Rhodan has been caught up in more or less every conceivable science-fiction scenario at one point or another, and so we begin the saga with first contact.

These books have a reputation for being somewhat pulpy. This one is more uneven than anything, albeit uneven with a certain pulpy sensibility in evidence here and there. The story is quite slow, even laborious as it tells of Rhodan's historic moon landing in detail which clearly foreshadows the Apollo missions and reads very much like the work of Arthur C. Clarke. Our guys encounter the scout ship of an advanced alien race stranded on the moon, at which point traces of pulp become discernable. One of the aliens is a female called Thora, summoning unfortunately intrusive images of Songs of Praise - at least for me; and we learn that the marooned Arkonides have become a degenerate race, meaning they've reached the peak of evolutionary perfection but now spend all day sat on their fat asses watching telly. This is literally why they're stranded on the moon - because they can't be bothered. Rhodan returns to Earth with a couple of the livelier Arkonides, obliging all of those nuclear superpowers of the sixties to unite and cooperate, having at last realised that Earth is just one planet at the edge of a much larger galactic civilisation. This last element of the story actually seems to have drawn inspiration from accounts of the space brothers as related by Adamski and all of those other flying saucer abductees of the fifties.

So it isn't great literature, but neither is it the worst thing I've ever read, and it's easy to see why Perry Rhodan was popular. The writing is a little uneven, and the narrative occasionally treads water - presumably stretching things out just enough to make up a page count - and the characters creak a little, but it was written - or at least translated - by people with some ability, and doesn't suffer from any of the ineptitude I've seen perpetrated by certain more recent authors. There's a sort of screwy enthusiasm here, that of a fairly stupid story told well, and perhaps Perry deserves to be remembered with a little more dignity than has generally been the case.