Saturday, 22 June 2002

E.R. Eddison: A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941)

Edition: Del Rey, 1978
Review number: 1100

The second of Eddison's Zimianvian trilogy is the most difficult of his novels to read, though it is well worth the effort. It has much more to do with the aims of his writing than Mistress of Mistresses, where the hinds about what is being done can easily be ignored, and the unfinished and in many parts skeletal nature of The Mezentian Gate make the underlying ideas far more obvious. The trilogy as a whole has an extremely unusual and rather disconcerting structure, in that it is more or less in reverse chronological order, with much overlap between the events in the second and third novel (the central event which provides the title here also occurs in The Mezentian Gate).

The fact that the opening chapter contains phrases in French, Italian, Greek and Latin might put a fair number of readers off, but more difficult in actuality is not so much Eddison's theme (time and eternity) as what he wants to say about it. (Eternity is also the theme of Eddison's less obviously related and most famous novel, The Worm Ouroboros, as the worm is a symbol for the concept.) The philosophical introduction won't clarify matters for anyone who hasn't read at least one of the novels in the trilogy already. Eddison could have written an allegorical fantasy, which would have been more familiar as a form to many readers of the genre, but he felt that it would be too easy to do this and would diminish his subject; instead of personifying eternity, he wanted to use all his characters to hint at different aspects of his ideas about time, in the same way that he felt that real world individuals did.

Eddison conveys his ideas as well through the parallels he makes between the real world and Zimiamvia, and by making several of his characters incarnations of gods and goddesses (or, perhaps more accurately speaking, of the ideas behind the characteristics of Zeus and Aphrodite). These ideas, present in the other two novels, appear here in more complicated forms which are explained in less detail, as the earthly story is intertwined intimately with the Zimiamvian, as Lessingham's courtship of Lade Mary Scarnside parallels Duke Barganax's of Fioranda. Then there is the "fish supper" itself, where discussion of how the gods create worlds for their own amusement leads to the act itself, as our "real" world is exhibited as a fantasy of a dinner party in Memison.

The structure is a bit confusing, at least on first reading, but A Fish Dinner in Memison contains much which is inventive and still fresh (especially the idea of our world being a temporary diversion, one which has recently been re-used in The Science of the Discworld as a way to explain scientific ideas through Terry Pratchett's popular fantasy series). It is a philosophical and, like all of Eddison's writing, a poetic novel - the language of the chapter "Night Piece: Appassionato" in particular seemed to me to invoke the eternal. Recommended to anyone with an interest in the more philosophical fantasy novel.

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