Topics In Fantasy: Chesterton, Kirby, Gaiman

Or: “When Strikes…The Napoleon Of Three Septembers And A January!”

Let’s hope this one turns out pretty darn good.

You know, I rarely think about dream movie projects anymore. Somehow, in this era of great power and little responsibility I have come to dread them instead of yearn for them. Well, age and care will educate even the most committed ignoramus: so many things I yearned for have come true in the worst way, I’d have to be deaf and blind not to know that bringing a dream to life is often the easiest way to wreck it. When I was seventeen, I dreamed of a swing revival, of all things: suits and civility, and old-timey cocktails.

And we all saw how well that turned out, didn’t we?

So, no knock against any of the current comics-inspired movies and animated programs, many of which are of excellent quality, but outside the comics world: no, in general terms I don’t yearn to see someone make a movie of this or that beloved book. I feel lucky to have got the extended version of Peter Jackson’s Fellowship Of The Ring, absolutely. But I didn’t ask for it; long before it came out, I’d stopped asking for things like that.

Well, mostly, anyway.

Until the death of Nigel Hawthorne, there was still one beloved book that I yearned to see as a movie. Maybe that was because the whole theme of the book was about the successful bringing-to-life of dreams, I don’t know. Probably it was. Now that he’s dead, I can’t imagine wanting it any more: he would’ve been too perfect for it, and I can’t tolerate the idea of substituting for him, even just in my head.

The book? G.K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon Of Notting Hill…and the perfect role for Nigel: England’s jokester King, Auberon Quin.

You do not know how beautiful I would’ve made it. You really don’t. Terry Gilliam, step aside: it would’ve been glorious, and Nigel would have taken home bucketfuls of awards for it.

And that’s all done now. But still: the perfect, apocalyptic reflexion of a Chestertonian movie is something we might fruitfully meditate on. I once dreamed of movie versions of my favourite books, but that’s only because any movie is a dream, already: a slick, feverish reinscription of oneiric logic over the things of life, that makes them glisten in the half-light. The essential character of every movie is a premonitory one, if you stop to think about it: far more than even a stage play, a movie controls sight in such a way that it drags the viewer’s perspective through (as it were) a diamond. The crystal facets of space, the interior flaws of time: one is absorbed into them.

And then sweats their meanings out, soaking the sheets.

Hey, is this a good time to talk about how much I liked Ang Lee’s Hulk?

I guess not. Okay, onward then! To Chesterton, and his famous love of paradoxes. For him, absolutely nothing in the world was more natural than finding essences in their opposites; so naturally he didn’t see the dreams of fiction (of fantasy) supplanting reality, but instead saw “reality” as completely hollow and unprovable until anointed by the fictive element. By the imaginative element: before which, in the Chestertonian scheme, reality softens, quivers, and inevitably falls into new courses against its will. Through his typically bold (and well-argued) inversions, material facts and objects were made the true abstractions, the true ephemera, as the most nebulous intangibilities were proven the very source of solidity.

And it doesn’t matter what he was doing it for. What matters is that he arrived at all the conclusions of my old English professors about seventy years ahead in advance of their arguments being launched. Nothing can be real without also being true, but truth can exist independently of reality; in fact sometimes the most unreal thing is even the truest.

Some alchemy, eh? Everybody wondered what happened to it, after it disappeared from the test tubes and the boiling beakers. They never suspected it went into letters.

That’s where it went, though!

Where the powers of the Philosopher’s Stone are a much better fit, if you want my opinion. The Napoleon Of Notting Hill does indeed turn “lead” into “gold” — in fact that’s its whole objective, as fiction. As fiction that talks about reality, by talking about fiction

Hmm, haven’t we heard that line somewhere before…?

Like, hasn’t Neil Gaiman made an entire career out of bellowing it from the rooftops?

God bless Neil, that’s just what he’s done, and he’s done it extraordinarily well. I think Chesterton would have heartily approved of the paradoxical shifts and softening viewpoints embedded in Sandman, and its revelations of how an underlying dream-logic supports reality’s structure. “This never happened,” cries Puck in amazement as he watches the first performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “but it is true!” Well, what else would a fictional character say, upon encountering a play about (as we commonly understand it now) the experience of going to the theatre? It’s actually a wonder his head doesn’t explode.

But importantly, Gaiman isn’t merely drawing on Chestertonian paradox and postmodern lit-crit in Sandman; he’s drawing on comics, too, and in comics the high priest of bringing dreams into reality (Winsor McKay’s midnight snacks notwithstanding) is Jack Kirby. And this is what I wanted to get at! Because construing Kirby as a descendant of Chesterton seems an impossibility at first glance, and yet the more you look at it the better sense it makes.

Only, with a twist: because unlike Chesterton and Gaiman, Kirby’s fantasies were not reflexion (as a movie of Napoleon or the story of Emperor Norton would be…boy, talk about your premonitions! It’d be like The Painting That Ate Paris!), but they were revision. They were retcon, if you like: because everywhere Kirby went, he sought to subvert the traditional signifiers and tropes of his genre in an effort to free them for other uses. Mythological uses, of course! Which is to say, psychological uses. Therapeutic uses, really, as this is how all fiction and fantasy operates. The landscape of Kirby’s imagination is of course positively littered with gods, but they are all (aha!) new gods, new generations of gods, more befitting the mythological/psychological/therapeutic needs of what Kirby believed was a terminally future-shocked new generation of readers. Which is to say: dreamers. Here is his revision in a nutshell: Ben Grimm for the Golem, Black Bolt for Christ, Captain Victory for Krishna, Galactus for Yahweh, Reed Richards for Apollo — Kirby re-envisions them all, re-dresses them in obscure and allusive clothing, and sends them off into the recesses of the human brain, the recesses of the mythological imagination, in the hopes of changing what dreams are. So, this might have been a world where Apollo and Krishna got shoved aside, where by now no one had ever heard of them; and is that so inconceivable? Back in the Sixties, as Kirby moved into full engagement with his mature storytelling concerns, the concept of counterculture paved the way for those concerns to be more happily taken inward by his readers — tune in, turn on, drop out…make new, was the order of the day. Turn dreams to reality, but first find new dreams that you would like to see, instead of the stagnant stuff that clogs up the ancient psychological gutters of the Establishment. Envision a new past, a new present, and then a new future: let the apocalypse — that means the revelation, Road Warrior fans — explode the tiredly formal continuity of boring daily meanings with a POP, and let it all be changed. Let it all always have been changed.

This is what Chesterton does, only without the sci-fi visual flourishes.

What Gaiman does, without the clever (so clever!) Catholic prosyletizing.

My argument: Kirby is the missing link — the tidal surge? — that connects them.

And out there somewhere, as yet beyond sight…the silver reaches of the estuary

We can’t see it, but we can already smell it, I think.

But what do you think, Bloggers? Is it, as I claim, a Topic In Fantasy?

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20 responses to “Topics In Fantasy: Chesterton, Kirby, Gaiman

  1. Y’see normally the logic dictates Kirby=Morrison, but Kirby=Gaiman is less obvious, and probably more interesting. Nice piece of writing there.

  2. Thanks, Sean!

    I seem to recall Morrison saying that as a young comics writer trying to break in, he decided to domesticate his envy of Gaiman, and make it work for him (sounds like the cancer-familiar in The Invisibles, doesn’t it?), and he definitely wouldn’t have been out of place here as a fourth example, since I take counterculture to be one of his main pop-magic preoccupations. But, I ran out of room in the argument! And also Neil came first.

    But it would certainly be interesting to follow this germ line of fantasy through Morrison’s work, as well!

  3. I’m not sure what it signifies…but during my Kirby-related activities this past weekend I discovered a strong undercurrent of anti-Gaiman feeling in Kirby fandom. This feeling is by no means universal, but I heard more than a few visitors to our table disparage Neil in general and his work on The Eternals and 1602 in particular. I’d hate to speculate on the reasons for this antipathy without further data. It isn’t simply objecting to another creator tampering with Kirby’s creations, because there are offenders far more egregious and offensive; Gaiman’s uses have been more sensitive to the originals than most. Somehow I’m sure this ire is relevant to your thesis here; it requires further contemplation before I can figure out what to make of it all.

    Also, true story: many years ago, I tried to persuade the editor of a Kirby fanzine that the King would have been the ideal creator to depict the story of Emperor Norton in comics form. Look at Victor Volcanum, look at Himon’s motley band of rejects, look at a dozen Newsboy Legion stories featuring good natured scalawags.

  4. I think the big difference is that Morrison is the heir to Kirby just because Kirby is the only standard for the sheer amount of ideas being thrown out. There’s no one as compulsively creative as Morrison, except Kirby. Gaiman is actually closer to the King in what his writing achieves. Of course visually, Kirby can be traced down into pretty much everyone can’t he?

    And to be honest I never made it all the way through 1602 myself…

  5. Oh, mercy, what a comic that would be…I instantly think of that mural I covet so much, of the Lower East Side street scene with the kids stealing apples…

    Uh…Lower East Side is right, right?

    Did you note my callback to our discussion of Black Bolt’s mask, RAB? I swear I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the bottom of my fascination with The Retroactive Future That Wasn’t; sometimes I think it just has to be a movie, a movie about loners travelling through a post-apocalyptic desert world, wearing shabby, half-forgotten pop-culture images on themselves like sigils, because they’re the only mythological touchstones they’ve got left, at all…

    And then I remember that somebody already made Easy Rider.

    Oh well!

    I think if you weren’t alert to what Neil is up to in his Marvel work, you might feel he’s going a bit Claremonty with it all — there seems to be a little too much Kulan Gath in 1602 at first glance, perhaps — which would be adding insult to injury, if you were a person who also thought all the “mopey goth stuff” was the work of someone who disdained the genre that pays their bills, and thought themselves above it. Also Neil dresses in leather jackets and has had something of a teen idol status even slightly outside comics fandom proper. Funny how most social irritation boils down to thinking someone thinks they’re better than you, doesn’t it? But Kirby read Shakespeare, too, of course, and Neil’s obviously quite aware of that.

    However, that’s not your exact point, I think. What does anti-Gaimanism among hardcore Kirby fans signify with respect to my thesis, hmmm…yeah, I agree, it feels like there’s something there.

    What about Morrison? Do hardcore Kirby nuts (like I’m not one of them) feel like he’s stabbed them in the back with all his “mad ideas”?

    I wish I had the space or the stamina to outline everything I think is fresh and useful about 1602…the Keeper knows what a monster that would be, ’cause once when I had a fever I bashed out a short form of it, as a weird Sentry/Rom/1602/Marvel Zombies crossover event plot, and sent it to him. Why I did that, exactly, I’m not quite sure…but hey, the man loves his ROM!

    The Eternals I’m on record as liking a lot, however.

    Jeez, Marvel just can’t seem to pick up on one cool thing Neil’s done for them, can they?

  6. I’ll agree, Sean: you betcha, for sheer fecundity it’s Morrison all the way, and his little black notebooks. Look at the All-New Atom, that’s just plain NOT BORING. And then there’s SSoV. The man’s got gifts.

    Intellectually I think his work’s quite in accord with Kirby’s concerns…clearly, since I think he’s part of the line of fantasy-inheritance I’ve sketched out above. Lead into gold? Morrison should translate that into Latin, and make it his family motto. However, he’s also a very elliptical guy, and he doesn’t tend to linger long over the ideas he tosses off. Whereas Kirby had focus! And Neil does, too: his philosophical goals may be close kin to Morrison’s, but the manner in which his storytelling goals address that point is much more direct.

    As to 1602, I’m still waiting for Neil to explain the dinosaurs to me…I must’ve missed an issue somewhere in there…weirdly, I think I’ll say that 1602 is one of Neil’s most Morrisonian efforts…

  7. Lower East Side is right. And there are plans afoot for that very mural of which you speak, though sadly I am not at liberty to et cetera and so forth.

    And yes, I note the callback to Black Bolt’s mask. I’m not sure how much of Kirby’s subversion of comics tropes was simply market driven rather than a deliberate attempt to liberate them from past meaning. When Kirby was up to something, he usually told us in relatively plain language precisely what he was up to. Morrison on the other hand is a great one for breaking in like an animal liberation fronter raiding a cosmetics lab to set free our captive archetypes.

    In my travels I’ve run into very few hardcore dues-paying Kirby fans who are familiar with Seven Soldiers — and from the dismissive comments I’ve heard when asking why more of them didn’t bother to check it out, it seems Morrison may be the one with the (grossly undeserved) reputation for deliberate obscurantism and thinking he’s too good for the medium. Yeah, yeah, I know…but the whipped dog snaps at the hand that tries to pet him, or something like that.

  8. Ah. Got it, maybe.

    If Neil’s gig is making dream-type things “come to life”, possibly there are some Kirby fans who feel that it’d be heresy to say Kirby’s creations need Neil’s sort of treatment. This is all about mistaking what Neil does for some sort of Extreme Makeover thing — “this character was stupid, we need somebody to jazz it up for the twenty-first century”, which of course isn’t what he does at all…

    Except it’s a bit hard to argue that’s not what he does, too, because in a simplistic way, yeah, you could say he tries to jazz stuff up by reinterpreting it into a greater “importance”. A greater “relevance”? Technically true, I suppose; Neil’s a sophisticated guy, and Sandman at any rate is full of once-satiric characters that’ve been turned inside-out to show their seriousness.

    That’s an awfully stingy way to look at it, but you could look at it that way if you were just bound and determined to say “this guy thinks he’s better than me” or “this guy has a lot of nerve saying these characters need fixing”. And it isn’t hard to overlook serious characters that’ve been inverted to show their inner absurdity as compensation: you could just say “oh, he ruined them”, instead.

    The Kirby connection being: if I’m right about Jack desire being to bring dreams to life in the above manner, then a Kirby nut might well see a Gaiman treatment as being disrespectful because redundant.

    Possible?

    Okay, genuinely taking a break for a few days now. Will check in if I can find internet access near the coal face.

  9. Thanksgiving? What am I giving thanks for? Some ship sailing out of Plymouth? Happens all the time.

    On the note of GK Chesterton, I have a small request, Plok. Could you list five literary novels you think I should read. I promise to go and do it, subject to one or two provisos…

  10. Aren’t you being awfully soft on the whole “what, you think you’re better than me??” reaction? I mean, isn’t that an automatic transferral to the douchebag bin, regardless of how cool it might otherwise be to be devoted to Kirby? It definitely is for me.

  11. So who’s being soft? You callin’ me soft, Ed?

    Priene, I hesitate to offer a list of the “literary” to someone who can quote Russian poetry at will. Plus, I don’t know what “literary” means, exactly.

    I mean, I know what it means, yes! But not with exactitude, if you catch my drift. So I’ll bar folks like Kingsley Amis and Raymond Chandler and Ursula LeGuin from the list of recommendations, and concentrate on the more aspirational/aspired-to writers of my acquaintance…and I’ll leave out anything Russian, too, and then just for kicks I’ll complain that five is way too arbitrarily tiny a number for a list of books.

    Hey…waitaminute, didn’t I do a similar list of books for Dan not too long ago…? “Science, Fiction, Double Features”?

    All right, I won’t repeat anything I put on that list, either.

    So.

    The Wars, Timothy Findley
    The White Hotel, D.M. Thomas
    The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad
    I, Claudius and Claudius The God, Robert Graves
    The Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton

    And, just because no one ever made a list of five without going over by at least two:

    Humphry Clinker, Tobias Smollett
    To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee

    I suppose I’ll have to content myself with that. As for Thanksgiving…damn straight you should be thankful those nutcases got out of your part of the world as soon as they did! Can you imagine how things might’ve gone if they’d stayed?!

  12. I cherish Three Septembers and a January, one of Gaiman’s finest pieces. It could film wonderfully as long as there was someone to tell them, “Not a feelgood story and For Heaven’s Sake not a Morpheus showcase – we’ve got an exquisite balance between great brutality and great gentleness, and the Endless can slide in from time to time as a Greek chorus, OK?”

    Pity for fic that G.K.C. (1874-1936) and the Emperor Norton (1815-1880) couldn’t really have crossed paths. Chesterton and Mark Twain, though? So I began to think what other great but not necessarily contempoarary contrarians one could pair Chesterton up with. And then it hit me (“Hey, who threw that brick?”).

    [ On a fast stage from Dodge to Abilene by way of Coconino County. ]

    “Are you going to open it?”, Gilbert shortly asked in the same solicitous tone.

    Did he have any choice, Dick wondered. Or was his next action already confirned in block time like an ant in amber? He stared at his hands with a sense of abdication: if his future took the next step without him, he would have no right to complain.

    But his sense of purpose resumed. After all, he was only holding a crumpled sheet of paper tied around a brick with ancient, fraying twine, and it had done its worst. The one knot yielded easily.

    He read, “LOOK OUT”.

    “Well, at least that is to the point.” said Gilbert. “And it does have the grace to let you put it behind you, unlike a commercial flyer or a demand for ransom.”

    “Still I wish it had got here a little quicker. I could have used the warning.”

    “I’m so glad to hear you say that! People go around saying, ‘The medium is the message’, quite thoughtlessly. In fact the two are clearly distinct, and there is no necessity for one to arrive at the same time as the other. I realize far too often that I had received a message a long time before it actually got to me. Don’t you find that?”

    “I’m afraid it’s the other way round with me.” Dick said gloomily. “Things get to me before there’s any evidence they’ve arrived. Or been sent or even thought of. I have to be on my guard all the time.” He held the sheet at arm’s length. “And now somebody seems to have noticed.”

    He rotated the brick in his other hand. Roll, pitch, yaw. “Say. Suppose there are people, or beings, out there, who use a language completely made up of self-referential terms. That would be impossible, right?”

    Gilbert looked stricken. “What a horrible thought! Language is only bearable because it points to something other than itself. Thankfully, it is only practical on the same condition.”

    “Exactly. They’d have to combine the message with something outside its own terms of reference.” He cocked his elbow to throwing position. “The practicality would be all in the medium.”

    “Well, if they haven’t got beyond hurled bricks, I can’t say I hold out great hopes for their future.”

    The crack of a whip rang out, with a yell of “Whoa deayah!” from the driver’s box above. Gilbert leaned out the window. “There’s somebody holding up a sign. Were we expecting another passenger?”

    “We’re thirty miles from water, so if he’s standing out there in the sun he might need help.”

    “He appears to be wearing …” Gilbert fell silent. He leaned further until he was blocking out the light on that side. “No, excuse me. And believe me when I say I am simply reporting the evidence of my own eyes, but …” He took breath. “It is a kind of cat, and it is standing on its hind legs. While holding up a sign. Hmmm. Very odd.”

    Here we go, Dick thought. “Listen, I think you need to get down low and behind something, and let me read that. The last thing these people wrote packed a wallop.”

    “By no means, Phillip! Risks are only fun when they’re shared!” He gave a high-pitched giggle. The coach rattled down to a stop. After a moment, Gilbert pronounced: “KAN HEF R “BRICK” BECK PLEECE ? With a question-mark and quotation-marks around the ‘BRICK’.”

    “That’s the Use/Mention distinction – they’re being careful. Okay, it’s my brick, I got it for free, I get to hand it back”

    “‘Like stout Cortez with eagle eye'”, Gilbert commended. “Just one thing perhaps to keep in mind – that ‘pleece’. People who’ll hang on to the common courtesies and let the spelling straggle after can’t really be beyond the civilized pale, I should think.” Dick nodded, non-commitally.

    He clambered down into sunlight that made his head ache, and there the creature stood: toylike, blinky-eyed, not unappealing. If P.K. Dick had one positive talent, he considered, it was that he could latch onto the damndest thing with a few words at a moment’s notice, and probably fish them out of memory afterward. He let himself relax now and just looked. The kind-of-cat had just two dimensions, he saw, but seemed to carry its own standards of bulk and perspective along with it. And it was in black and white; but the perfect, inky blackness somehow confided that the kat had a place to go home to, some kosy joint where bananas would be chrome yellow, potted plants a vivid lime green, chili peppers fire-engine red, and the sky forever a serene bright blue.

    Presumably Gilbert was seeing the same things. On Dick’s vigilantly documented scale of mental and neurological self-betrayals, he didn’t know whether that was better or worse.

    He said, “I guess this is yours. Take good care of it now.”, inanely, and dropped the brick into the soft black paws, where at once it became a kind of brick, held in shape by a few sketchy edges.

    “Moochers gratias, sweet senhor!” The kat did a little jig on the spot. “See Ignatz, the prodoogil is returned unto us!”

    “And not before time. My pitching arm is unassuaged e’en yet.”

    The speaker was a kind of mouse, about half the size of the brick, with limbs attenuated to the point of invisibility. It looked pissed off, Dick thought.

    “Pardon me.” Gilbert loomed in the coach door, with his fob watch open. “But are we to understand that you threw that brick?”

    “I deny nuthin and so what if I did.”

    “I looked at my watch just after it struck my friend.” Gilbert said, taking no nonsense. “That was at least five minutes ago, four of them at a good canter. You must have a surpassing turn of speed, laddie, because no common argument will persuade me that you pitched a brick, oh, a mile and a quarter, and put it through the window of a moving target.”

    “I threw it early, dumbcluck. Whadda ya take me for?”

    “Well it didn’t work.” Dick said, rubbing his scalp. “See this knob? You’ve got to think it through some more.”

    “And you’ll have plenty of time for thinking in the kalabazoo.” It was a kind of short baggy hound-dog in a baggier policeman’s outfit. “Come, miscreant!” He grabbed onto the mouse’s spindly forearm somehow, and started marching him away into the notional background, with Ignatz squawking, “Watch it with the professional assets, kop. I been railroaded!”

    It had the air of a well-known performance, timed to perfection and all the pieces meshing like clockwork, so you’d never tell where the routine left off and the improvisation started, Dick thought. No single bit of it self-referential, but all making one whole, complete and content in itself. A li’l kingdom.

    “He won’t be in very much trouble, will he?”, Gilbert asked.

    “Oh, trupples is only trupplesome til da moon comes upp.”, the kat replied. “Oho! I shell serenade him yonda da bars of his durance wile!” He made a curtsey and turned tail. “Fair well and a deuce, kind amigos. To me, my accordium!”

    A moment later he had dwindled to a tiny black squiggle in his pocket perspective. The first few bars of “O Solo Miaou” hung on the desert heat haze.

    They had been on their way again for a few minutes, before Gilbert spoke up diffidently. “You know, if you’ll forgive the impertinence, I think I’ve found out something about this country. It really still is a New World to you, isn’t it?”

    Dick nodded, at peace. “That’s what I’m betting on, Gil. It’s what we’re all betting on.”

  13. Gaiman has expressed his admiration of Chesterton before. (At least I presume it was Gaiman and not Pratchett; it was in Good Omens.) One of the characters said something about how Chesterton was the only one to really understand the 20th century. I think that was what he said.

    That was cool, Jonathan. I wonder what other historical pairings we could come up with like that? I’m no Chesterton expert (I read Father Brown once, and The Man Who Was Thursday for the first time a month or two ago, but that’s it)… I’ve seen a couple of instances of the young Ben Franklin and the elder Isaac Newton appearing next to each other in fiction.

  14. Thanks, Matthew. Well, that was definitely a trans-historical pairing, cheating, even. That field’s wide open.

    One thought comes to mind – in character, in context. Someone, maybe Paul O’Brien of http://www.thexaxis.com/, was discussing Joss Wheedon’s current Buffy, Season Eight storyline, and dropped the phrase …

    Eliza Doolittle, secret agent

    and I thought Great Leaping Lobsters, why hasn’t somebody done this? I suppose the Shaw estate must have secure title. Otherwise how could Alan Moore resist?

  15. Thanks mate.

    As a rule of thumb, literary means “doesn’t have the name Dan Brown on the cover” and “no fucking elves”. Well, that’s my definition, anyway…

    I shall add those titles to my already-bulging book stack. If you want, I’ll be happy to reciprocate with some Russian poetry. When you get into it, it’s a sight easier to understand than modern English poetry. And it’s got a higher body count.

  16. Back from beyond.

    And, first off, Jonathan: holy jumpin’ catfish, my mind is blown! Absolutely inspired to pair Dick with Chesterton, I wouldn’t’ve thought of that in a million years…and now the more I do think of it, the better I like it. Even in these days of borrowed protagonists, I’d read the hell out of a book like that — no fooling around, that’s quite elegant. Quite elegantly Dickian as well. Wonderful conception.

    Now I’m going to have to try to think of another Chestertonian literary match-up…even though you’ve already hit the bullseye. Total madness. This has the makings of a fun game, though…

    Priene: oh, that kind of literary, well! That’d probably drive me crazy: too few constraints. I’ve read a few Findley books, and liked some of them a lot, others less so. Haven’t re-read The Wars in about twenty years (!) but remember it being his best…I should really check to see if I still think so before recommending it, but if memory doesn’t deceive me after all then you oughtta read it right away, as it’s both a) slim, and b) good.

    The White Hotel I read more like about twelve years ago, maybe fifteen — one of those things it’d be easy to call “literary” because it’s so amazingly bleak and serious. Still, I think it’s one of the more ambitious novels I’ve come across…again, if memory serves. Possibly I’ve been influenced to select it by two things: one, you read Russian poetry, so “bleak” is no doubt your bread and butter…and two, it’s a bit epistolary in places, and lately I’ve got a weakness for the epistolary novel. Come to think of it, The Wars is a bit epistolary. And, damn it, Humphry Clinker is epistolary…!

    For the others, I happen to like Conrad, and The Secret Agent is Conrad at his funniest…good God, when did Conrad get funny?! It seems unreal. Having to do with anarchists, enemies of civilization, etc., it bears a certain relation to The Man Who Was Thursday, so maybe those two hang together in my head a bit. Thursday continues to impress the bejeezus out of me — please bear in mind, the bastard was only twenty-one when he wrote it! Which you can kind of tell, because it reads like several stories I tried to write at twenty-one but failed abjectly at…and possibly, it’s the sort of story only a young man would wish to write. I dunno; see what you think. Anyway I always keep a copy handy in case I start getting a big ego. Finally, the Claudius stuff — that hangs on The Wars a little, perhaps, because I was impressed with Graves’ WWI memoir Goodbye To All That, but I just re-read Claudius recently and was again very happy with it, so it’d likely get in here for its own sake. I don’t know, it’s a bit of a tossed-off list — a fully committed Top Five of mine would probably still have Chesterton and Findley in it, and maybe Thomas, but I can’t be absolutely sure…I mean how could I exclude Hammett, who writes like nobody, who freaks me out? How could I gloss over Dick, in fact. To consider the thing is obviously outsane, so constraints, constraints, constraints, bring me the constraints.

    I quite liked David Lodge’s Changing Places. Intelligent, digressive, a little bit old-fashioned…and yes, occasionally epistolary.

    The first chapter of Voice Of The Fire is Alan Moore being typically playful — first-person narration, for seventy-five pages or so, by a protagonist with roughly a 400-word vocabulary. This is exactly the kind of thing Alan handles better than just about anyone else, and I dare you not to be a little bit moved by his skill.

    Quarantine by Greg Egan, and Spin by Robert Charles Wilson (boy was I impressed with the latter) make an interesting science-fictional pair with literary merit — also I’d read anything by Kim Stanley Robinson, and if you can tolerate a certain amount of fuddy-duddy-ness I’d even recommend Isaac Asimov’s Prelude To Foundation, in which he triumphs over his own impossible material to deliver the perfect punchline to a career: an SF novel, not about physics, engineering, or mathematics, but about the academic discipline known as Philosophy of Science. Warning, though: it’s an Isaac Asimov book. So, no: not really literary.

    Shall I just keep tossing these out? It’s kind of fun, but I feel myself both straying from the point, and developing guilt over having omitted essential things. Thank God it’s just a blog…!

    Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream: should be required reading for all SF enthusiasts.

    How about Jack London and Iain Banks?

  17. Pingback: The Fan-Fic Nobody Knows « A Trout In The Milk·

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