The Terror of 403

Apologies if you have been trying to reach this site in the last two weeks or so. A terrifying error-message which blazoned the word FORBIDDEN in capital letters was all you would find. A virus attack had occurred at the ISP, but it has now been sorted by my son Simon. (A million thanks!) He and I have changed ISP, and things should be back to normal.

But I ask a favour: I understand that after a change of ISP anyone who has a link to my site will not be able to re-connect, except manually. I have no access to social media, and I’d be grateful if this renewal could be made known. The URL is unchanged: www.christopher-priest.co.uk.

Thanks!

They Have Been Sent In

The image below appears on the cover of Fortean Times 347, dated December 2016.

clown
The headline beside it reads as follows:

ATTACK OF THE KILLER CLOWNS
The creepy craze that started in America and spread across the world

My copy of FT was delivered here on 8th November. Fortean coincidence, or what?

Fortean Times, the journal of well researched and sceptical reporting of strange phenomena, the bizarre and the inexplicable, is one of the most readable, intelligent and thought-provoking magazines in existence. It is also at times extremely amusing. In a world perceptibly going mad, it is a beacon of sanity. I read it cover-to-cover as soon as it arrives. A 12-month subscription costs: UK £38.98, EC £47.50, USA $88.99.

 

The Day the Earth Caught Fire

The Day the Earth Caught Fire was a British science fiction film made in 1961. These days it has become a somewhat under-rated and forgotten film, but it has its moments. Told from the point of view of the journalists and editor of a Fleet Street newspaper (in fact, the Daily Express), the film depicts the fate of the world after too much nuclear testing tilts the axis of the planet. Severe climate change ensues. In the film, the only possible remedy is thought to be the setting off of even more nuclear explosions, which will in theory cause a return to normality. However, there is an equal risk that the detonations will destroy what is left of the planet.

As the moment of detonation approaches, and the characters face their destiny, the machine room of the newspaper is set to print one of two final editions. The closing image in the film is of the front pages of both editions.

saveddoomed

 

 

 

I can’t help remembering this as we prepare to spend the night watching TV, waiting for salvation or doom.

Ravilious (2)

New Perspectives, the exhibition mounted by Beaford Arts of
new-perspectives
photographs by James Ravilious and others, opened yesterday. (See entry below.) It runs until 12th November. The exhibition will eventually tour, displaying in several of the villages and towns which are the actual locations, but this opening is at the Goodwin Gallery, Petroc Brannams Campus, Barnstaple.

It’s a rare opportunity to see twenty-five of James Ravilious’s extraordinary black-and-white images of North Devon, beautifully printed, mounted and displayed. The exhibition celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Beaford Arts, which holds the Ravilious archive. It was curated and organized by Caroline Preston, who with Lizzie Grant and Martyn Warren also curated the open submissions.

Nina and I went to the private view yesterday, happily mingling with the other amateur photographers whose contemporary pictures were shown alongside Ravilious’s originals, most of them from thirty or forty years ago.

goodwin-gallery

photo by: Nina Allan
photo by: Nina Allan

Ravilious

Today is UK publication day for The Gradual, but resisting temptation to put up yet another scan of the attractive Gollancz cover, let me show you an image of something else entirely.

northam-burrowsThis is a part of the huge area of estuarial salt marshes at the mouth of the rivers Taw and Torridge. The photograph was taken on the southern side of the rivers, known as Northam Burrows. In the distance there is a glimpse of the seaside town of Westward Ho! (The exclamation mark is part of the town’s name, and has nothing to do with my possible surprise or excitement about it.)

I took the photo because I had my camera with me, and because it struck me as an interesting view. I took several more that day, in July this year, and this was the best of them.

Much later I discovered that a local arts organization called Beaford Arts was running a competition to celebrate their 50th anniversary, and were inviting photographic entries inspired by the work of James Ravilious.

Ravilious’s work as a photographer is not, I think, widely known outside Devon, but to my mind his photographs are not only artistic and beautiful, but have real social worth too. He was the son of the artist Eric Ravilious, a painter whose work I had already come to admire as he was based in Eastbourne – many of his paintings were inspired by the East Sussex coast where I was then living.

James Ravilious, working with Beaford Arts for about a quarter of a century, from 1972 until his premature death in 1999, set out to make a pictorial record not only of the unspoiled, peaceful and vulnerable scenery of North Devon, but also of the people who lived and worked in the area. Many of the people who live around here remember him well – he was much liked in his lifetime. He took more than 80,000 photographs in that quarter century, and also made archive copies of around 5,000 more photos taken by other photographers in earlier years. There is probably no other area of rural England so intensively recorded by such a wealth of remarkable photographs. In my opinion Ravilious is easily the equal of great French photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson (who had originally inspired Ravilious to take up photography) and Robert Doisneau. Both of these men worked almost exclusively in black-and-white, as did Ravilious.

Many of Ravilious’s pictures can be seen on his website. The whole archive is maintained by Beaford Arts, and much of that can also be viewed online.

The other day I learned that my photo of Northam Burrows has been selected to be exhibited, and will be displayed alongside a photograph taken by Ravilious in 1977, of Braunton Burrows, on the opposite side of the estuary. I believe the exhibition will be touring in Devon soon, but I don’t think it will be shown outside the county.

So do take some time to look at Ravilious’s astonishingly beautiful photographs, and reflect, as he wished us to do, that this unique tract of England might one day be casually destroyed by those who have an insatiable need for road widening schemes, shopping malls and estate houses.

Life is a Lottery

Affirmation EksmoThis is the cover of the Russian translation of The Affirmation, due to be published by Eksmo on 6th October. It accurately identifies the book as a product of the age of typewriters …

According to my trusty Russian speaker (Nina), the title translates as Lottery, or maybe a slight adaptation of the word. In the novel it’s called a Lotterie.

As always I’m really pleased to see this particular novel given a new lease of life.

Ineffective Art — The Last Days of New Paris

In George Melly’s autobiography, Owning Up (1965), he describes how he became the victim of a violent assault outside a hotel in Manchester. He had been singing with Mick Owning Up (Melly)Mulligan’s Magnolia Jazz Band and at the end of the gig he was standing on the steps of the building, breathing the fresh air, while the rest of the band were still inside packing up their instruments. A group of young thugs approached – one of them had earlier been ejected by Mulligan for pulling a razor on him, and he and his mates were now looking for revenge. One of them had a bottle, which he started tapping with increasing strength against a brick wall. Melly writes, ‘When that breaks, I thought, he’s going to push it in my face.’ The assault began with a head-butt, making Melly’s nose bleed.

Melly, who says he was ‘anaesthetized by fear’, reached into his pocket for the only thing that might work as a defence: it was a book of Surrealist sound poetry, written by Kurt Schwitters, the Dadaist. Melly briefly explained to his attackers what the poems were, and started reading aloud from one called ‘Ursonate’. The first four lines go as follows:

langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
Ookar.
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi (… and so on)

‘Slowly, muttering threats, they moved off,’ writes Melly. (George Melly had a lifelong commitment to Surrealism, being a noted collector, critic and lecturer in the genre.)

I kept remembering Melly’s anecdote, which I interpret as evidence of how effective art can be when well deployed, all the way through my reading of China Miéville’s new novel, The Last Days of New Paris. Much the same thing happens.

Last Days (Mieville)The story, such as it is, describes the aftermath of an ‘S-Blast’ (Surrealist Blast, I assume) set off in Les Deux Magots in Paris, in 1941, during the Nazi occupation. The S-Blast unleashes a nightmare brigade of beasts and ‘manifs’ from the world of Surrealist art. These empower but also threaten the small band of Surrealists still hiding in Paris: La Main à Plume. Soon a violent three-way battle is convulsing Paris, between the ‘manifs’, the Surrealist fighters and the Nazi occupiers. The war, an extension of the Nazi strategic plan Fall Rot (‘Case Red’), continues until at least 1950, which is when much of the novel is set. The only surviving member of La Main à Plume is one Thibaut, who insofar as the novel has a leading character other than the narrator, is the leading character.

There is hardly any trace of story, but what there is describes the appearance of one Surrealist icon after another, which either attacks or is attacked or avoids being attacked. At the back of the book nearly all of these manifestations are carefully cross-referenced to the original artwork, or sketch, or pensée, by page number. (Thus, very early in the novel what appears at first to be two women crazily riding a tandem bicycle, soon turns out to be a ‘manif’ of Leonora Carrington’s Goya-like pen-and-ink drawing called ‘I am an Amateur of Velocipedes’. This is a bicycle-like machine with a female figurehead mounted on the handlebars – a reproduction of it is quickly discoverable online. An endnote exists. The narrator of the book, in a dialogue with an elderly Thibaut, carefully documents the source. No one can be left in any doubt about what it is.)

As the novel proceeds a whole bestiary of Surrealist oddities enters the book, each similarly traced to source by the narrator. Some are famous: Max Ernst’s painting of an elephant-like metal bin, ‘Celebes’, is one, and ‘Exquisite Corpse’, a collage by André Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Yves Tanguy, not only comes alive but takes a prominent role. Soon, the unstoppable carnival of spinning Surrealist images becomes dizzying.

I hoped and intended to like this novel, assuming it was a return to form for China Miéville after a period of some uncertainty. After finishing it, I felt Miéville should be congratulated on writing a unique novel. It is ambitious, obscure, unusual, difficult, provocative, fantastic, vainglorious, and not at all too long. His language is at its best bizarre, experimental, sometimes daringly impressionistic. I cannot recall another novel like it. All this is to its advantage. However, it also presents a congeries of literary problems, serious ones.

‘Weird’ is a word sometimes applied to Miéville’s work, often by the author himself. In fact, there is little about the novel that is weird. If you accept the conceit of the S-Blast, and the madness of war extended almost indefinitely, much of the novel reads like the catalogue of a Surrealist exhibition, or a Thames & Hudson book of art reproductions. We move from one ‘manif’ to the next, programme notes to hand, like captions to illustrations or narrative cards attached to the wall beside the piece of art. The reader is not given a story to follow, or the emotional lives of the characters to grow with. We know nothing of the lives of the characters outside the events in the novel – where do they live?, what do they do at the weekend?, how do they eat?, etc. There is as well a lack of comprehensible dialogue, no plot to speak of, and an extremely poor sense of place – Miéville writes ornately, but the ambience is thin. There is none of the evocative descriptive prose of (e.g.) The Scar.

And because it is a narrative totally lacking in atmosphere, sensuality, character, motivation, and much more, it becomes a struggle to maintain interest. This is the kind of book you press on reading not because you have found something to enjoy or be intrigued by, but because you are determined not to be beaten by its extraordinary flatness.

Like the Surrealist art that the novel describes, The Last Days of New Paris is not weird at all, Dali Clock Aug 2016but odd and fanciful. Surrealism developed from Dadaism, which was based bizarrely on anti-war feelings in the years 1914-18, and is full of fancy. Trains emerge from fireplaces or chug through someone’s beard, ants crawl across melting watches, lovers kiss with their faces shrouded, skeletal bones clutch an egg, a urinal is presented as an object of beauty and usefulness.

Miéville’s novel, by adding nothing to these fanciful works of art beyond making them move and cataloguing them, is full of fancy. It even becomes more fanciful still, because a novel is itself a work of art and this one should have brought something to the intriguing subject of Surrealism, more than being simply an illustrated list of examples.

The early work of J. G. Ballard (notably his stories in the collection Vermilion Sands) is wonderful proof that the images and feelings of Surrealism can be summoned and enhanced in English prose. Ballard, like Melly but seemingly unlike Miéville, was dedicated to Surrealism. Throughout his career he often cited its images and manifestos as being major influences on his writing.

Fancy is related to fantasy, but it is a slot lower. While fantasy literature draws on psychic archetypes and symbols, images of the dream state and the human wish for a sense of otherness, it also inspires imaginative ideas unconnected to the reader’s experience of reality. Fantasy often summons a series of pleasing or exciting or gratifying mental images, serving the reader’s need for the feeling of well-being not present in the real world – equally, it can suggest frightening or disturbing or warning images, again satisfying a need for excitement or menace or apprehension not often encountered in real life. Written well, fantasy is powerful stuff, ultimately based on reality and psychological experience. And yes, fantasy is often genuinely weird.

On the other hand, fancy is a whim, a surprising thought, an unexpected juxtaposition, an anachronism, a party piece. It treats the ridiculous with unfruitful solemnity. It lacks metaphorical depth. While fantasy can move, excite, depress or stimulate a reader, fancy gains only a reaction: at first it is one of amusement, or even of being impressed or astonished, but when fancy piles on other fancies, as in Miéville’s novel, then it is all too much. It becomes risible, annoying, irrelevant, even unsurprising – it provokes irritation, anger, a wish for better things.

An example from Last Days: It was one thing for the poet Paul Éluard to suggest fancifully that L’Arc de Triomphe should be turned into a giant urinal – it is quite another order of fancy for Miéville’s ‘manifs’ to tip the monument on its side, then have it streaming with self-generated urine. Self-generated urine? Where does that sort of image lead us, what does it mean, what on Earth was the author thinking? (P 54.)

A sense of the author’s abstraction, or distraction, recurs too often for comfort. Miéville is presently at the top of his game, and we expect him to be committed to his work and thus give a great performance. Far too often in Last Days there are lapses of style, grammar. The narrative is told in two tenses, the present and the past perfect – we switch between the two without apparent purpose. On pp 68 and 69 there are two such switches: from present to past perfect, to present again. This is a sign of something going wrong: either the author was not concentrating on what he was doing, or it was a meaningless stylistic mannerism he rather liked, or he didn’t realize he was doing it, or he didn’t care that he was doing it. Whichever of those four betraying signs is the one, it’s a no-win.

He has also not been well served by his copy-editor. She was not much older than Thibaut, he thought. She looked at him with urgent eyes (p 6). Who thought that? Who is ‘he’? The entire passage before and after this is in the third-person, and it is about Thibaut, but in the first of these sentences Thibaut appears to be thinking about himself. In the second: how can passive organs like eyes ever be ‘urgent’?

This sort of carelessness is a betraying detail – there are more than a few others, and it would be tedious to list them all. The four revealing conditions under which the author allows changes in narrative tense apply here too.

I found myself breaking a personal rule and began making pencil underlines of dodgy words and phrases. Like most of its kind the thing is obviously in pain. But that size, whatever its injuries or sickness, they will not help him (p 19). We expect better writing than this from a serious and successful author — we are entitled to expect better.

The expansive and dynamic early Miéville novels find few echoes here. The Last Days of New Paris is, I am sorry to say, a thinly achieved novel, apparently book-learned, lacking narrative and descriptive skill, lacking passion.

The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville — Del Rey, 2016, 205 pp, $25.00, ISBN: 978-0-345-54399-8

Owning Up: The Trilogy by George Melly — Penguin, 2000, 594 pp, ISBN: 0-141-39001-8

Selfie literature

Tom Hunter, current director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, wants to open the prize to self-published novels. He is at present uncertain how this might work. One way he is mooting would be to throw it open to anyone, but charge each writer the same submission fee presently paid by publishers. Another proposal is to allow the panel of judges to call in self-published books. The two could or might be combined in some way.

But it seems to me that this begs the question of what a self-published novel actually is. For example, an ebook made available by a writer through Kindle is self-published — Amazon is only the distributor. Amazon does not act or function as publisher, and the writer remains the de facto publisher.  So here is a definition that might be helpful:

Self-published works are not eligible where the author is the publisher. If the publisher is a company which has been specifically set up to publish the work in question, and/or the author is the person who owns the majority shareholding or otherwise controls the company, the work is ineligible.

That strikes me as a clear, uncontroversial and defensible statement of how self-published novels, intended to be submitted to a literary award, should be defined and regulated. It also accepts by implication that there is a difference between self-published texts and professionally published books. Although it is always unacknowledged by those who campaign for literary parity, here is the difference:

A book brought out by a trade publisher goes through various processes and tests before it is printed and distributed through bookshops.

  • The author, who in many cases has the experience of publishing earlier works, will have completed several drafts and read-throughs before submitting it to the publisher.
  • The manuscript will be read and judged by an experienced editor, and in some cases by several other people who work for the publisher.
  • After it has been accepted the publisher will almost invariably require changes, usually minor but sometimes quite extensive: parts of the book might be requested to be shortened, lengthened, clarified, rewritten, etc.
  • When the author has been given time to consider and carry out the revisions, the next stage is a close copy edit of the text. The copy editor will modify the text to conform to the publisher’s house style, and to normal printing conventions. At the same time various small but important matters will be addressed. Spelling and grammar will be corrected. Inconsistencies of plot or character or language or background will be queried.
  • After the book has been set in type, both an in-house proofreader and the author will go closely through the text to make sure everything is correct.
  • The book will be designed. Typeface and general typography will be chosen, as will page layout, chapter breaks, and so on.
  • A cover is designed by an artist, overseen by the publisher’s art department.
  • The finished book is then printed and bound.

None of these steps, or almost none, will apply to a self-published book. It is nothing to do with elitism (a frequent charge against people who know the difference). Writing is a profession. It has standards.

More than one hundred books are submitted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award every year — 113 were sent in for the 2016 prize. That’s a lot of reading to get through in a matter of a few weeks, and if the floodgates were opened and the commitment had to increase I believe it would become unworkable for most people. If self-published books were regulated as suggested above, then perhaps numbers would stay more or less where they are.

While on the subject of the Clarke Award, and knowing that no one can agree what it is actually “for”, it seems to me that over the thirty years of its existence it has tended to highlight well written centralist science fiction as well as more ambitious works which are pushing at the edges of the definition of the genre. Science fiction has always been a progressive form: it changes and improves and expands, and we look to something like the Clarke Award to reflect that unique literary spirit. In this it differs from fan-based prizes. Most of the people who have won the prize in the past have been serious about their writing, and the general tone of discussion has been, until recently, equally serious.

(Many congratulations to Adrian Tchaikovsy on his win! I hope it will have a significant impact on his career.)

L’inclinaison

L'inclinaisonHere is the cover for L’inclinaison, the beautiful new translated edition of The Gradual, from Gilles Dumay’s collection Lunes d’encre (published by Denoël in Paris). It has been translated by Jacques Collin, who also translated The Adjacent.

It is due to be published at the end of September.

Yesterday, I received my first finished copies of Gollancz’s hardcover edition (see below), which is due to appear on 15th September. Sounds like a busy month — the following events are coming up, in addition to the books being published:

Wednesday, 14th September. I shall be at Waterstones in Bath, 4-5 Milsom Street, Bath — interview and signing. 6:00 for 6:30pm. Contact the shop for more details.

Weekend of 17th/18th September. With many others of the Gollancz authors I shall be taking part in this year’s Gollancz Festival, largely based in Foyles bookstore in Charing Cross Road, London.

Saturday 24th September. I am taking part in a celebration of H. G. Wells’ 150th anniversary at Bromley Central Library (Large Hall, 4th Floor, from 11:15am onwards). There will be several talks (including mine), a chance to view selected items from the extensive Wells archive, and a walk around parts of Bromley associated with Wells. More info here.

Sunday 25th September. After a mad dash northwards I shall be giving a talk called Reality, Memory and Doubt at Brighouse Library, at 4:00pm. This will follow a free screening of the film of The Prestige, at 1.30pm. (Perhaps this is the moment to say that the “Lord Colderdale” mentioned in the film, and the book, has nothing whatsoever to do with Calderdale, the local authority which runs the library.) More details here, or if you call 01422 288060.

Finally, just a reminder of the cover images of the English-language editions of The Gradual published in September, Gollancz (UK) and Titan (USA):Gradual GollanczGradual Titan

 

 

“My Nime is Michael Touchy”

Ten years later, I think I have at last solved a small mystery. It concerns the actor Sir Michael Caine, whom I met in 2006 during the evening of the UK premiere of the film based on my novel, The Prestige. Never having had a film made of something I had written, not to mention never having been to a star-studded party at a film premiere, for me the whole evening was weird and weirdly memorable.

To recap (I have described this elsewhere): during the party, a stand-up affair in an uncrowded room, I saw Caine standing to one side and thought I should introduce myself. I thought Caine had done well in an underwritten supporting role in the film, bringing a kind of intelligent conviction to the scenes he was in. When I told him my name, it obviously meant nothing to him. I told him I had written the novel on which the film was based. The atmosphere suddenly cooled. He raised himself up, looked down his nose at me (he is surprisingly tall), and said, “I never talk to writers.” He immediately turned away and stalked off.

In all truth I think I was more amused than offended by this, although it was probably the one incident I remembered afterwards with complete clarity. I assumed that during his long career Michael Caine must have had many aggravating brushes with writers, some of whom are well capable of acting like arrogant shits. Even so, the mood at this party was low key and friendly, and one would think, wouldn’t one?, that in the cause of general harmony such past experiences can be temporarily set aside in the cause of good manners. Well, apparently not.

Fowles Journals vol 2I have been recently re-reading the published Journals of John Fowles. In the second volume Fowles describes meeting Caine at the end of 1966 for the filming of The Magus. Both were then youngish middle-aged men, both had become suddenly famous and successful – Fowles was 45 (two best-selling novels, a film of The Collector already made), Caine 33 (starring roles in several films, including Zulu and the Len Deighton adaptations, and an Oscar nomination for Alfie). They met again and worked together the following year while The Magus was being filmed in Majorca. We shall probably never know what Caine thought of Fowles, but through Fowles’s unrestrained and often contentious journals we have the other side.

After their first meeting he describes “Mike” Caine as ‘a thoroughly unlikeable young man’ and ‘good at poker faced banter … but he’s got to give more than that.’ Although he later compliments Caine on his ‘exemplary behaviour between takes’, when he sees the first cut of the film he describes Caine’s performance as ‘excruciatingly bad, totally incredible as an English graduate’, and that ‘his failure pervades the whole picture, the one part we couldn’t afford to go wrong.’ (Later that day, Fowles reports that a large part of the cliff on which his house was standing has slipped into the sea. Maybe this informed his mood?)

I read all this when the Fowles diaries were first published, but because the comments appeared in a long book filled with similarly disparaging remarks about dozens of people (including, as it happens, me) I didn’t take much notice. However, reading it again last month I suddenly made the connection – Volume 2 of the Fowles Journals was published in 2006, just a few weeks before the film of The Prestige was released in the UK. Michael Caine had clearly come across these remarks: someone must have tipped him off, or he had found himself named in the book’s index, while browsing in a bookstore. Suddenly, it all made sense to me, and for a few moments I even felt forgiving of him.

The Journals, Volume 2, John Fowles. Jonathan Cape, 2006, 463 pp, ISBN 978-022-406912-0