‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Friday 12 February 2021

Purgatory Mount (Gollancz 2021)

My new novel Purgatory Mount is out now, and available from all good bookshops. 

Waterstones are selling it here.

Amazon uk, if you don't mind buying from them, here (and on Kindle, here). There's an Audible audiobook.

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.


  1. Amazon US has it now so guess what I'm reading this weekend!

    I'm not reading this post or any reviews until I read the book. :)

  2. All done! Good job, as always. It was a quick, compelling read, with a few good ideas, a dew deep thoughts, and a few twists along the way. What more could a reader ask for? I think the topics of atonement and forgiveness are timely, given the current behavior of the media and a significant portion of the public, with responses ranging from "cancel" culture to riots over offenses of any size or age. I don't agree with the conclusion I think I see in your book, but I won't get into spoilers here.

    Since you saw fit to pick on Americans, I feel obligated to pick back. Here are some things Americans don't say: hoik, bodge, treacle, truckle, snib. Abe Lincoln did not speak with a Southern drawl and we never refer to the Gulf of Mexico as "the sea".

    So we'll end on a positive note, I enjoyed the U.S.S. Donald Trump. Maybe we'll get to a point someday where that's a possibility.

    Thanks for another thoughtful, intelligent read!

    1. Thank you, Paul! I'm really glad you enjoyed the novel. And thanks for the corrections: if I put any of those words into the mouths of my (American) characters, then I boobed indeed (although if they only appear in my idiosyncratically English narratorial voice then I feel less on the hook). Abraham Lincoln -- not the man himself, but a hologram -- was deliberate (even an Englishman knows which side of the Civil War Lincoln was on!) and as for the Gulf of Mexico: shall we see if calling it 'the Sea' catches on before my notional future date? Anything is possible.

  3. Re: A. Lincoln, Simulacrum: lol, y'all.

  4. I'm afraid I'm also partially baffled. I found I was reading part 1 in a spirit of patient detachment - "OK, let's see where this is going..." - which seems appropriate in a way (and to some extent was cued by the narrative voice) but did leave me ready for something more straightforwardly engaging. Perhaps relatedly, I had a strong reaction against a couple of parts of part 3, one crucially plotty and one (I think) not - there's a half-page swerve into far-future oral history which I found almost physically distressing; a voice I'd come to trust was going somewhere I couldn't follow. (Perhaps that's my problem with part 3 writ small.)

    I liked the central story a lot. Formally it is more straightforwardly engaging than the first part; a proper old page-turner, complete with a reveal which I spotted before it happened, but only a couple of pages before (always gratifying). I felt it made an odd sort of companion-piece to NMA: something going on in there about war and time and forgetting, and atonement being denied or deferred ("War Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry", or "War Means Who The Hell Are You? No, Really, Who Are You?"). I felt there were points about time and multitudinousness being made, too; something significant about the chronological age of the characters, the sheer number of days a character goes through and the sheer number of people bouncing off them...

    But I'm still waiting for Unexplained Plot Motor A to slot into Not Fully Spelt-Out Theme B, and for the resultant whole to dock with whatever was going on in part 3. (Not that it's unclear what was going on in part 3...) It's going to stay with me, and I'm hopeful that it will cohere more in retrospect, but I could have done with a couple more breadcrumbs. I felt a certain nostalgia for the way Pratchett would sometimes bring everything to a grinding halt within sight of the end, tap the mike and say "The Theme Is This, Just So We're Clear", before putting the narrative mine cart back on the rails and giving it a swift kick towards the denouement.

    1. Missed this from earlier, Phil: but, as ever, hard to gainsay what you say. I mean, there's a part of me that imagines a viewer standing in front of a Rothko and going "but, but that big ragged slab of dark purple, and that slab of blood red under it ... how do they relate to one another, though? I mean, they're completely different colours!" If I were to say: the juxtaposition is the point, then you might very well shake your head sadly and say: that's not enough. Which throws me back upon my last resort: late style.

  5. In case you have the ability to copy edit the eventual paperback release, just thought you should know in the Gomery section of the novel, "Scranton, NY" should be "Scranton, PA" and "Binghampton, NY" should be "Binghamton, NY". Thank you for the book, I found it equally enlightening and terrifying. Who could ask for more?