Here's a thoughtful post on Purgatory Mount by Alan Jacobs. And here, via Soundcloud, is an event I did with Andrew Biswell of the Anthony Burgess Centre in Manchester, on Dystopias. At the Scottish festival Cymera I appeared in conversation with Arkady Martine, talking about galactic empires and space operas. I'm not sure if this discussion has been posted online yet (though I blogged a little about some of the thoughts it prompted in me, here). This year's Hugo and Nebula awards have been announced. I have never won, never been shortlisted for, or even been longlisted for any fiction or non-fiction Hugo or Nebula, a state of affairs that has continued this year and that will, clearly, continue as long as I live. What can I say? If I aspired to such honours I should, I suppose, write books that are less shit. I mean, that sounds like hard work; but there you go. In more positive news: my son Daniel became Bar Mitzvah recently: I wrote about the experience here.
Monday, 31 May 2021
My friend Rich Puchalsky has written two twitter-threads on the Mount. The first records his reservations about the novel, which he thinks 'interesting' but not really successful; the second is about eagles. You should read them both.
I'm not going to reply to Rich's points here; an author bickering with a review is an unseemly sight, and anyway a reader is generally in a better place to judge the success or failure of a novel than its author is. So Rich is probably right that the book doesn't work. I will, though, add one short comment to his second thread. As he says, I had to swap out some Tolkien things, most notably the names of my five 'wizards', since my publishers baulked (understandably) at tangling with the Tolkien estate's notoriously protective attitude to its copyrights. This is a shame, I think (as Rich says: the swap doesn't work nearly so well), and he's right that it means the valence of the eagles as last-minute redeemers gets muddied. The eagle is an American symbol as well, and all the things Rich says are right, I think, about how the novel is interested in forgetting, individual and collective, and my sense, from the far side of the Pond, of America as 'the United States of Amnesia'. But he misses the specifically punitive eagles quoted in the book's epigraph, Portrait of the Artist, which are about pecking out your eyes unless you apologise, or are perhaps more alarmingly if more importantly about how those two things are, in some sense, equivalents. Joyce was certainly very interested in Dante. Whole books have been written on this topic: '"The past," warns Reynolds, "encumbers even while it enriches and invigorates".' Well. Quite.
Wednesday, 7 April 2021
Today my short monograph Middlemarch: Epigraphs and Mirrors is published by @OpenBookPublish. It is, as its title suggests, a reading of Eliot's marvellous novel via the text's many epigraphs and embedded quotations, some of which I track-down and identify for the first time. That sounds dry I know, but I hope I make something a little more illuminating and engaged out of these readings, to do with Eliot's distinctive and powerful modes of realism, reading the mirror-like and lens-like effects of Eliot's complex allusiveness in terms of her mimesis. There are chapters on the novel's intertextualities via George Sand and Pascal, Sappho, 19th-century Science, Tolstoy and Zola, Rousseau, Homer and Sophocles, Goethe and Guizot, bits and bobs on paintings and music and bells, Brownian motion and Herodotus. I am Professor of Nineteenth-century Literature and Culture after all.
Sunday, 4 April 2021
Delighted and, I'm not going to lie, a little surprised to hear that my It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of? (Elliot and Thompson 2020) has won the non-fiction BSFA Award. It really is an extraordinary and unexpected honour, particularly considering the strength of the shortlist. It was a strange business, writing a book about the end of the world whose publication coincides with a global pandemic and lockdown. next time I'm going to write a book about world justice, communism, happiness and utopia and see what happens.
Friday, 12 February 2021
My new novel Purgatory Mount is out now, and available from all good bookshops.
Waterstones are selling it here.
I also signed fifty copies, which Goldsboro Books are selling at no extra cost. I think these are the only signed copies going, aside from those occasional and individual books personally inscribed to friends and the like, so the usual publishing joke about ‘for sale, a rare unsigned edition of etc etc’ doesn't, in this case, obtain. I added a few annotations to a few of the Goldsboro copies too, as a kind of lucky dip. Not many though.
I'll do another post linking to reviews if and when, over the coming weeks.
A couple of readers have got in touch, or articulated their feelings online, to the effect that though they liked the book (I will of course also keep you informed of people who hate it, as many surely will) they weren't sure they entirely understood it. I have to confess that this rather gratified me, and not, I think, out of mere perversity. My worry, in writing the novel, was that what I was doing was only too clunkingly obvious, clunking obviousness being the enemy of art. I still worry about that, actually. Purgatory Mount is, as its title implies, a novel about forgiveness, its possibility or impossibility. I take either alternative seriously—I mean, generally, in the world, and so in the novel I have written. It seems to me one of the great matters of our time, actually: so much so, in fact, that the lack of art about it surprises me. I mean, I know plenty of art that, sometimes eloquently and powerfully, articulates outrage at and condemnation of the manifold wrongnesses in the world, but not art that explores the forgiveness of such wrongnesses. Perhaps I'm just not seeing the art that engages this matter; but I don't think I'm wrong that ‘we’ have a problem with forgiveness nowadays. That many of us don't choose to forgive (that we indulge, rather, the dark satisfactions of a targeted, often collective and vindictive unforgiveness). Or perhaps it's that we don't know how to forgive: or more specifically don't know how to forgive without feeling weak, feeling like suckers, feeling as though we're letting gross offenders ‘off the hook’—which is indeed what forgiveness does, of course, so I suppose I mean: without feeling as though the people we are forgiving don't deserve forgiveness. Maybe they don't. It seems to me that there are enormities so egregious they approach unforgiveability. But the ‘you don't deserve forgiveness!’ attitude runs hard into the fact that I don't, either. Who among us does, really? And a society in which there is no generally accepted mechanism for enacting forgiveness can never achieve, in the resonant South African phrase, truth and reconciliation. Somebody has done something, or said something, to hurt you: under what circumstances should you forgive them? It's obviously not for me to tell you what to do, or how to feel, and if I don't have that right then neither does anybody else. But, by the same token, a sociey in which there are no channels through which forgiveness can flow becomes a kind of hell. This is true in several related ways, I think. For example my friend Alan Jacobs, conversation with whom in part shaped the way this novel emerged, argues that ‘in a really important sense Hell is the refusal to be forgiven’, and I think he's right. Which is to say, Alan, as a Christian, understands how crucial forgiveness is to human community, health and flourishing, and is aware how often the Chrisian Right, as well as the radical Left, in his own country fail on precisely those terms. But even I, as an infidel, can see the wisdom in what he says, and am struck by how allergic the Left in my country are to forgiveness. Should Black people ‘forgive’ the history of European and American slavery and its centuries-long legacy of structural and individual racism? There is obviously no way I, a white Englishman, could possible insist upon such a thing. But let me ask the same question in different terms: should our children forgive us? Should their children? Do we deserve to be forgiven for poisoning and depleting the planet, wrecking the enviroment and bolstering a rapacious dog-eat-dog socio-economic system that leaves them indebted and stripped of life-opportunities? Do you deserve forgiveness for this? Do I? Is there an alternative to, on the one hand, a braying self-exculpatory denial (climate change is a hoax! the younger generations are lazy avocado-munching knaves!) or on the other, to our simply curling up in shame and expiring? Might there be some tertium quid, some knight's-move leap via which forgiveness becomes, liberatingly, possible? Some things probably are unforgiveable; but most things aren't, after all.
Purgatory Mount is moved in the first instance by that question: should our children forgive us? The novel's answer is by no means a facile yes they should. It is, rather, and as per the book's structure, a cerberusian three-headed thing: a hellish no, a paradisical (if sacrifical) yes and the main bulk of the book, by page-length, working its way through a more—I hope dialectical, but perhaps merely muddled—purgatorial dramatisation of the dilemma. This middle section perhaps does not arrive at a place that persuades you. I don't know if it persuades me, and I wrote it. All I know is that the place at which it arrives is the one that felt right, in a way alternatives just didn't, as I was writing. But the big question of forgiving others includes the smaller question of forgiving ourselves, and that latter strikes me as just as intractable.
I do feel, strongly, that forgiveness is inextricably linked to memory, individual and collective, that it can never bloom in a culture of forgetting. That's also, I think obviously (I fear: over-obviously) what Purgatory Mount is about. You could read it for yourself and see whether you think I get it right. But, of course, only if you wanted to.