Wizardry and Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock

I’d like all the writers I like to like each other. But writers, self-centred and individualistic as cats, are often the worst at being objective about other writers. There’s too much stepping on each other’s toes, too much “You don’t want to do it like that!” and “I was going to do that, and do it better!” As a result, I’ve learned to take a cruel joy in finding out that the writers I like in fact hate each other. There’s M R James on Lovecraft (“whose style is of the most offensive. He uses the word cosmic about 24 times”), Machen on Blackwood (“Tennyson said ‘the cedars sigh for Lebanon’, and that is exquisite poetry; but Blackwood believes the cedars really do sigh for Lebanon and that… is damned nonsense”). Both Tolkien and C S Lewis met and liked E R Eddison, but hated his outlook (Tolkien: “I thought that, corrupted by an evil and indeed silly ‘philosophy’, he was coming to admire, more and more, arrogance and cruelty”); while Fritz Leiber wrote of Tolkien, “He’s not interested in women and he’s not really interested in the villains unless they’re just miserable sneaks, bullies and resentful cowards…”

Wizardry & Wild Romance cover

Wizardry and Wild Romance, Gollancz (1987), cover by Les Edwards

Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance is subtitled “A Study of Epic Fantasy”, but it’s no academic exercise in objectivity. I’ve read it many times, but reading it used to depress me, and it’s taken a good few years (and re-reads) to understand why. It is, of course, that Moorcock is a practitioner of the form he’s examining, and his “study” is more a cry than a critique. One of the reasons I’ve so often come back to reading it is that I wanted it to be like Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”: a critical history of a genre by one of its major practitioners. But Lovecraft’s essay is, really, a critical history only by way of being a writer’s manifesto, a definition of what Lovecraft himself was trying to do. Because Moorcock shies away from explicit definitions (though he does offer one: “I am referring specifically to that body of prose fiction distinguished from myth, legend and folktale by its definite authorship and not genuinely purporting to be a true account of historical or religious events”), it leaves a sort of gap, the black hole of a definition which can only be inferred from the penumbra of praise and damnation that makes up the bulk of Wizardry and Wild Romance. And one of the problems is that Moorcock is so much better at damnation:

“…a new school is emerging of would-be Romantics, desperately striving to discover fresh sensibilities in the way repressed products of the middle-classes tried to loosen up with drugs and sentimental egalitarianism in the sixties. These people learned the school rules too well, however, and the main impression given by their fabulations is of red elbows and other miscellaneous bits of anatomy poking out through holes they have, with much effort and personal discomfort, rubbed in the straitjacket.”

And:

“Often the prose is little more than a mindless imitation of the euphonious aspects of the verse which, lacking the substance of the original, takes on the aspect of a mute attempting desperately to sing a Mozart song by mouthing an approximation of the sounds he has heard.”

And, most famously:

The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle-class. The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced. It is Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an epic.”

Like many an internet commentator, he brings the Nazis into the debate early on (mentioning Rudolph Hess in the Foreword). And he has a particular downer on HP Lovecraft:

“An aggressive, neurotic personality, though not without his loyalties and virtues, Lovecraft came under the influence of Poe, Dunsany and the imaginative writers of the Munsey pulp magazines and produced some of the most powerful infantile pathological imagery and some of the most astonishingly awful prose ever to gain popularity, yet his early work, written primarily in homage to Dunsany, from where he borrowed the idea of an invented pantheon of gods, is lighter in touch and almost completely lacking in the morbid imagery of his more successful horror stories in which death, idealism, lust and terror of sexual intercourse are constantly associated in prose which becomes increasingly confused as the author’s embattled psyche received wound after wound and he regressed into an attitude of permanent defensiveness.”

Whew.

That word, “aggressive”, occurs quite often in Moorcock’s little critiques, whether it’s of Lovecraft, John Norman, Tolkien or C S Lewis. But its use does itself come across as, well, quite aggressive:

“One should perhaps feel some sympathy for the nervousness occasionally revealed beneath their thick layers of stuffy self-satisfaction, typical of the second-rate schoolmaster, but sympathy is hard to sustain in the teeth of their hidden aggression which is so often accompanied by a deep-rooted hypocrisy.”

The thing I always failed to notice in my early readings and re-readings of Moorcock’s book (which usually left me feeling how much he must hate the genre, and wondering why he bothered to write a book about it) was his evident passion for it. He swipes so eloquently against the writers he hates precisely because he feels so strongly about what they’re doing — or, to his mind, mis-doing. He does praise writers, some not unequivocally — Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E Howard — others highly — Fritz Leiber, M John Harrison, Robert Holdstock, Mervyn Peake — though never, sadly, as eloquently as his criticisms. But he also presents, if you can spot it amidst the fusillade, evidence of having not only read a great deal of it, but a good deal about it.

Rodney Matthews cover

Rodney Matthews cover

And, of course, he has written a lot of it himself. But here, Moorcock doesn’t discuss his own work, which may account for the key gap I find in Wizardry and Wild Romance (whose title I always assumed was a quote from a genuine poem, till I tried to track it down, and found that the “Wheldrake” it’s attributed to is a Swinburne pseudonym (used, appropriately, to write bad reviews of his own work) as well as, later, a Moorcock character).

Wizardry and Wild Romance was the first book about fantasy I read, and it certainly taught me a lot:

“An intrinsic part of the epic fantasy is exotic landscape…. and no matter how well drawn their characters or good their language writers will appeal to the dedicated reader of romance according to the skill by which they evoke settings…”

And:

“Melodrama and irony work very well together; the best fantasies contain both elements, which maintain tonal equilibrium…”

Moorcock may bash the “morally bankrupt” middle-classes, and he may sometimes present a rather defensive maturismo somewhat reminiscent of Jackie Wullschläger’s in Inventing Wonderland, but you have to admit he does it with style. And if you can stand back far enough not to be splashed by the acid he spits, there’s a good deal of enjoyment to be had from the sheer wit of the book, even if you disagree with the points being made:

“If the bulk of American sf could be said to be written by robots, about robots, for robots, then the bulk of English fantasy seems to be written by rabbits, about rabbits and for rabbits.”

And, perhaps the most revealing statement about Moorcock’s own tastes in fiction:

“If we must be given stories about talking animals, let them at least be sceptical, sardonic and world-weary talking animals.”

While to me, it’s to find recourse from scepticism, cynicism and world-weariness that I turn to fantasy in the first place — that, to me, is what literary magic is all about, what Tolkien called “re-enchantment” — but that, of course, is my own bias.

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John Picacio cover

Although it was updated in 2004 for the Monkeybrain Books edition, Wizardry and Wild Romance is, really, a product of its time, and is best read that way. It came from a writer witnessing the commercialisation of what had been, to him and the writers he admired, a deeply individualistic, often revolutionary art form — but that’s a battle that has long been lost, the commercial element of heroic fantasy being here to stay. The updates to the book, to me, feel a bit tagged on and less part of the central, anguished cry that spawned the kernel essay, “Epic Pooh”, back in — when was it? According to the Foreword, parts of Wizardry and Wild Romance were published as early as 1963, and that’s over fifty years ago!

Wizardry and Wild Romance is a book I will come back to and re-read, as I have come back to it many times in the twenty seven years since I first read it. But it’s been a process of learning how to read it: not as objective criticism, more as the expression of a passion, and of an ideal, that Moorcock never clearly states, but certainly defends — in style.

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

cover imageThroughout his high school years, Tsukuru Tazaki was one of five extremely close-knit friends (three boys, two girls) in his hometown of Nagoya. Of the group, he was the only one not to have a colour in his name, so was nicknamed ‘Colourless’ Tsukuru Tazaki, something that subsequently coloured his own view of himself as being ‘An empty vessel. A colourless background. With no special defects, nothing outstanding.’ He was also the only one of the five to leave Nagoya after high school, going to Tokyo to study engineering. Returning briefly in the middle of his sophomore year, he phones his friends only to find they’ve cut off relations with him. ‘Think about it, and you’ll figure it out,’ is all he’s told. But Tsukuru can’t figure it out, and he’s plunged into near-suicidal despair:

‘The door was slammed in my face, and they wouldn’t let me back inside. And they wouldn’t tell me why. But if that’s what all of them wanted, I figured there was nothing I could do about it.’

The novel begins sixteen years later. Living an empty but ordinary (colourless) life, Tsukuru is prompted by his latest girlfriend — the first he feels serious about — to track down his former friends and solve the mystery. Tsukuru is none too keen: ‘I’ve managed to slowly close up the wound and, somehow, conquer the pain. It took a long time. Now the wound is closed, why gouge it open again?’ Sara says: ‘Maybe inside the wound, under the scab, the blood is still silently flowing.’ She does the initial work (with social media, something Tsukuru, of course, doesn’t use), and comes up with the first shock: Shiro, ‘Miss White’, was murdered several years ago. Another of the group, Eri, married and moved to Finland, but the remaining two, the men, are still in Nagoya. Keen not to lose Sara, Tsukuru agrees to visit each of the surviving three and learn the truth about what he’s been dealing with on his own all these years.

inner coverIt’s just before halfway through the novel that Tsukuru meets with the first of his former friends, Ao, head of a Lexus car dealership in Nagoya, and perhaps because of the much slower pace of Murakami’s last novel, the triple-decker 1Q84, I was almost shocked when, instead of the usual Murakami-ish evasions and mysteries-around-mysteries, Tsukuru actually gets most of the answers he’s looking for! But Colourless Tsukuru is a much shorter book than 1Q84 — and, I’d say, a better one. It’s a pity that (perhaps because of the economics of publishing such a huge novel) 1Q84 got so much press attention at the time of its release, drawing in so many readers new to Murakami, many of whom were left somewhat overwhelmed by the size and typically Murakami-ish incomprehensibilities of the book. Colourless Tsukuru, though by no means as barnstorming or epic a novel, is much more effective at telling its low-key tale of a quiet man coming to terms with the loneliness and rejection he’s borne throughout his adult life. (It’s a novel that could, even, be shorter still. An early episode in Tsukuru’s college years, featuring the only fantasy-tinged sequence in the book, could be removed, I think, without unduly affecting the rest of the novel. Aside from offering up an interesting but mostly detachable story-within-a-story, it left me expecting a resolution that never comes.)

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage addresses themes Murakami has dealt with before — intense early-life relationships derailed by mental illness (Norwegian Wood), social ostracism (“The Silence”, one of the better stories in The Elephant Vanishes) — but to me it felt like he was taking those themes a bit further, adding a little more maturity and perspective to the brew. There’s a real feeling of mere human beings doing what they can to face up to the dark forces of life, an attempt to rescue something meaningful from an early, life-defining wrongness that has blighted all the years that followed:

‘Life is long, and sometimes cruel. Sometimes victims are needed. Someone has to take on that role.’

By the end of the novel, mysteries remain, but these are just the tying up of plot threads; the central emotional core resolves, and it makes Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki a satisfying, if low-key offering from Murakami, and one that bolsters my faith in him after the frankly overlong 1Q84.

The Crystal World by J G Ballard

The Crystal World coverJ G Ballard’s fourth novel, The Crystal World, seems to have grown like a crystal. Before the novel (published 1966), there was the novella “Equinox” (in two parts in New Worlds between June and August 1964), and before the novella there was the short story “The Illuminated Man” (in F&SF, May 1964), and at the very start of the short story — topping and tailing it, in fact, as it’s repeated at the end — is a brief, italicised paragraph that’s like the seed-crystal of all that follows, a description of a Surrealist painting that never was:

“By day fantastic birds flew through the petrified forests, and jewelled alligators glittered like heraldic salamanders on the banks of the crystalline rivers. By night the illuminated man raced among the trees, his arms like golden cartwheels, his head like a spectral crown…”

In the novel (where this paragraph appears in the final chapter), the alligators are now crocodiles, as the location has shifted from Florida to a more Heart of Darkness-ish “isolated corner of the Cameroon Republic”, but the main story is the same. The protagonist, Dr Sanders (a first-person narrator named James B—— in the story) finds himself at one of several points on the Earth which are being transformed by the “Hubble Effect”:

“…an actual proliferation of the sub-atomic identity of all matter. It’s as if a sequence of displaced but identical images of the same object were being produced by refraction through a prism, but with the element of time replacing the role of light.”

The upshot is that everything is becoming encased in (or turned into) crystal, and the crystallisation is spreading in waves that pulse through the affected zones, turning rivers into roads of glass, and roads into pathways furred with foot-high crystal spurs. Everything, from the vegetation to the buildings to the water is becoming a prismatic version of itself, and that includes the animals and people. It’s when describing this effect — when painting it before our eyes in sparkling, rainbowed light — that Ballard’s writing is at its precise, vivid, hallucinogenic best:

“From the elbow to the finger-tips it was enclosed by — or more precisely had effloresced into — a mass of translucent crystals, through which the prismatic outlines of the hand and fingers could be seen in a dozen multi-coloured reflections. This huge jewelled gauntlet, like the coronation armour of a Spanish conquistador, was drying in the sun, its crystals beginning to emit a hard vivid light.”

The Crystal World, another coverTime has crystallised my own view of The Crystal World. On a first reading I found it to have passages of beautiful, precise poetry punctuating (after a nicely-paced moody beginning) an otherwise dull story. A recent re-read has only confirmed me in this opinion. The moments that stand out are like shards of the original short story — they’re all in “The Illuminated Man”, often in the same words: the helicopter that slews then crashes as it tries to fly when the Hubble Effect has taken hold of its rotor blades, the half-vitrified crocodile suddenly whipping into life from its bed in a solidified river. But these intensely imagined, visually shocking moments speckle a story of mostly rather unconvincing, lacklustre characters who seem to be standing around in the presence of all this cathedral-like jewelled wonder waiting for the Ballardian spark to wake their inner worlds. Only, it never happens. Ballard provides us with a pair of love triangles — the protagonist Sanders, Suzanne Clair & Max Clair, and Ventress, Thorensen & Serena — both centred around a male rivalry for a dying woman, though this doubling only waters the effect of the same single-triangle situation in the original short story, which itself only seemed to be pointing out how meaningless such human motives as love and revenge are in contrast to the time-defying crystallisation process. Why, then, go to the bother of actually duplicating this meaningless situation, particularly when neither, ultimately, resolves in any interesting way?

The Crystal World, Max Ernst coverThe protagonist Sanders is much less inwardly connected to the catastrophe when compared to, say, Kerans of (my favourite Ballard novel) The Drowned World. I can’t help feeling that in writing The Crystal World, Ballard was perhaps stuck in the formula of his previous two books, and while his inventiveness as it related to the transformed landscape had blossomed — even, effloresced — he had less to say about the human side of the equation. He even, at one point, has his main character discuss the possible themes of the very novel he’s in, as Sanders starts going on about the profusion of doubles in a plot Ballard seems to be struggling to get some meaning out of. It results in some very un-Ballardian psychological truisms (“Of course there’s a dark side to the psyche, and I suppose all one can do is find the other face and try to reconcile the two — it’s happening out there in the forest”, and “Each of us has something we can’t bear to be reminded of.”). But the sheer audacity, strangeness, and poetry of the fantastic idea at the heart of the novel conquers, in the end, and those few scattered jewels of Ballardian poetry that break through the tedium of the novel’s unconvincing characters make it all worthwhile. (Though I can’t help feeling that, apart from the moody equinoctial darkness of the opening chapter, which I love, you’d be better off reading “The Illuminated Man”.)

The feeling that Ballard was tiring of his initial formula and on the verge of an artistic breakthrough is perhaps confirmed by what came next: as well as his almost continuous outpouring of short stories at the time, there was, a few years later, a quantum leap to a very different type of fiction with the “condensed novels” of The Atrocity Exhibition, and then Crash. (A novel very much like The Crystal World, in that it comes to life entirely through its intense, rather inhuman poetry, rather than its short story’s worth of story.)

The novel does, though, at least touch on a human meaning behind the Hubble Effect:

“The beauty of the spectacle had turned the keys of memory, and a thousand images of childhood, forgotten for nearly forty years, filled his mind, recalling the paradisal world when everything seemed illuminated by that prismatic light…”

And:

“…this illuminated forest in some way reflects an earlier period of our lives, perhaps an archaic memory we are born with of some ancestral paradise where the unity of time and space is the signature of every leaf and flower.”

Which makes me realise how much the catastrophes in catastrophe novels are all about a need to halt time, to end the forward rush of modernity and pause, perhaps regress, to something a little more humanly manageable. Perhaps, in this, Ballard’s Crystal World is the ultimate expression of the SF catastrophe.

The Crystal World also, perhaps, contains a hint of autobiography:

“It seems to me, Max, that the whole profession of medicine may have been superseded — I don’t think the simple distinction between life and death has much meaning now.”

Ballard spent a year studying as a doctor (his descriptions, in Miracles of Life, of his time dissecting cadavers in anatomy classes easily equals the poetry of The Crystal World’s more jewelled moments), but gave up, perhaps because of a very similar realisation: that it all meant nothing compared to the immensities to be explored in his own imagination — visions like the life-and-death-annulling crystallisation of the world — which were themselves attempts to resolve the very intense plunge into catastrophe, violence and upheaval of his teen years in WWII China. Like Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out Of Space” — a very similar story in some ways — The Crystal World could well be the purest expression of what its author was aiming at:

“…the response to light is a response to all the possibilities of life itself.”

Whatever its faults, The Crystal World is still an amazing piece of fiction for the sheer strangeness of its vision alone.

The Conversation

Sometimes the quieter characters are the more interesting ones. Franics Ford Coppola’s The Conversation lets us into the tightly-controlled, paranoid world of Harry Caul (played by one of my favourite actors, Gene Hackman), a lone-wolf surveillance expert renowned for his ability to tape the untapeable. As the film starts we see him working on just such an operation, using a variety of microphones to capture a conversation between a young couple as they wander round a busy city square at lunchtime; then, back in his office (the wire-caged end of an otherwise empty floor), he gets down to what you just know is his favourite part: hidden away from the world, fine-tuning the mix of his audio sources into a single, listenable record of this mysterious, fragmented conversation. Harry Caul is a craftsman.

Conversation_01

He’s also a deeply vulnerable man. All the control, all the paranoia — a consequence, perhaps, of knowing how much can be listened to, recorded, gleaned — makes the vulnerability that much more plain. Caul wears a finicky but oh-so-practical transparent mac over his work clothes, which could be the symbol of the namesake birth-caul he seems to be keeping himself wrapped in, a barrier against the world. He claims to have no phone in his apartment, but we know he has, we see him using it. He regularly visits a woman (Terri Garr) who doesn’t know what he does for a living, or where he lives, but still knows more about him than Harry would like. The way he enters her apartment, for instance: “You have a certain way of opening the door. You know, first the key goes in all quiet, and then the door comes open real fast, like you think you’ll catch me at something.” Whatever secrets Harry thinks he has, the truth about his vulnerability and fear of opening up is obvious to everyone.

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As much as the first half of The Conversation is a plunge for us into Harry’s strange world, in the second half, he plunges deeper still into vulnerability and paranoia. When he goes to deliver the minutely polished tape of that lunchtime conversation, he’s told he can’t hand it over in person. So, he gives back the money and leaves with the tape. This, oddly, makes the character in my eyes — he may be strange, he may be reserved and secretive, but he has an ethic, not just to his craft, but to his word.

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The key scene where everything goes wrong comes soon after. There’s a surveillance industry conference and he and a few fellow professionals go back to Caul’s office with some drinks and a couple of good-time girls. Harry does a quick scan to make sure all the sensitive materials are hidden, locked away in a cage-within-the-cage of his already cage-like office. His fellow experts try to get him to open up about his past triumphs, to no avail. We learn that Harry once taped an impossible-to-tape conversation that got some people killed. They joke, but Harry doesn’t like it. He takes one of the women off into the empty space of his office and finally opens up to someone — only to find his colleagues listening in, playing a trick. But this is nothing compared to the trick the woman’s playing on him.

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The thing with this sort of story is first to make, then break, a character. A difficult-to-like person like Harry has first to be made in our eyes — we have to find him interesting (he’s certainly that, with his highly controlled ways) but also worth liking (and I think this is where his work ethic, and his keeping to his word despite having to turn down money, wins us over to this otherwise cold fish — that’s if his secret saxophone playing hasn’t already). But then, just when we’re starting to get comfortable in his distinctly uncomfortable world, the breaking starts. That precious, worked-over-a-hundred-times tape is taken off him, and he’s desperate to know it’s not going to be used to harm the young couple, not like last time, not again. He uses his surveillance skills to try to find out, but he’s close to breaking point. The need to know won’t help a jot if the deed’s already done. But, it turns out, Harry’s being tricked again. All that carefulness, control and paranoia only makes him that much more vulnerable. He’s not just been tricked, he’s being played.

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At the end, a single phone call — to that phone he claims he doesn’t have — is enough to tip him over the edge. They’ve bugged the world-proof enclosure of his apartment. And Harry, being the surveillance expert he is, can think of a thousand places they might have planted a bug, and a thousand types of bug they might have planted. He proceeds to tear his little sanctum apart, till he’s left with nothing, a ruin — the end result of all his attempts to control the uncontrollable. Even though, we know, from watching him, that the few secrets he has aren’t worth anyone’s while trying to discover. They’re the simple human secrets and vulnerabilities we all have, only Harry has them all the more because he pretends he doesn’t.

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