Wednesday 18 June 2008

James Wilson: The Dark Clue: A Novel of Suspense (2001)

Published: Faber & Faber, 2001

The Dark Clue is a sequel, of sorts, to Wilkie Collins' classic The Woman in White. It has the same central characters: artist Walter Harkwright, and his sister-in-law Marion. Rich from his marriage but still relatively unsuccessful as an artist, Walter is approached to write a biography of JMW Turner, as a counterblast from still-living friends of the famous artist to a scurrilous biography raking up scandal (the actual first biography of Turner by Walter Thornbury). But as he and Marion investigate, they discover that Turner did indeed have a dark side, and the truth about the revolutionary painter is at the least going to be more complicated than Walter's initial assessment that his "life of him will be quick work indeed".

The Dark Clue re-uses the narrative technique of The Woman in White, purporting to be a collection of letters and diary entries, with Marion's diary being probably the chief source. While Laura, Walter's beloved in Collins' novel and now his wife, was absent from the stage for most of The Woman in White, she appears only as the author of a handful of letters in The Dark Clue, which mostly are complaints that Walter is neglecting her and their children. Wilson picks up on the feeling that must strike most readers of Collin's novel, that Walter and Marion would be extremely well suited to each other, while Laura is an abstraction for which he unfortunately develops a romantic passion. For Collins, Laura is a personification of persecuted innocent beauty (a very Victorian female character); for Wilson, she is a personification of a dutiful wife and mother. For both, she is a cipher, at best a passive plot device, and not really a character at all.

The differences between the two writers is perhaps best seen in their handling of the relationship between Walter and Marion. Collins, as far as I remember, leaves their interest in each other unspoken, unacknowledged even by the characters themselves. Wilson, more direct, engineers a moment of self revelation for Marion which beings a new dark note to their research together. Writing at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Wilson can obviously be far more graphic than Collins, about this and other aspects of the novel as well. This makes The Dark Clue more immediate, but much less subtle than The Woman in White. For much of the earlier novel, Collins sets up an air of menace that seems far beyond what Wilson's straightforwardness can do. Even so, he manages to leave the exact nature of Turner's scandalous activities frustratingly unspecified, preferring to concentrate on the effect that learning about them has on Walter's morals; I found this very unsatisfying indeed. The consequent lack of impact makes the subtitle "a novel of suspense" seem rather inaccurate; I assumed that it was one more item inherited from Collins' novel, but this is not the case.

Turner clearly would be a great subject for a biography, whether the biographer believed the more scandalous stories or not. But the structure of The Dark Clue is not really suited to a biography in the way that it is to the unravelling of the murky plots in The Woman in White. This is a novel where the initial idea is more interesting than its execution; it could have been another French Lieutenant's Woman but isn't well enough done to reach anywhere near that level.

While it is fairly obvious to compare a sequel to a classic novel with the original, this is not always something which the reader feels inclined to do. There are, for example, many sequels to Pride and Prejudice which make no attempt to be anything other than humorous romantic novels, and it is perfectly reasonable for them to succeed on that level without approaching the greatness of Jane Austen. But Wilson fairly clearly sets out to write a novel which is a worthy partner to The Woman in White (and the blurb and reviews on the cover reinforce this). This means that, in my view, it becomes reasonable to criticise Wilson because he is not as good a writer as Collins, who is, after all, not himself a master in the class of (say) Dickens or Tolstoy, so a modest target compared with some that could have been chosen. For a "novel of suspense", The Dark Clue is unpardonably dull, for a biographical, historical novel, it is insufficiently focused on its subject.

Wednesday 11 June 2008

Arthur C. Clarke: The City and the Stars (1956)

Published: Gollancz, 2001

I had the impression that in my teenage years I read pretty much all of Arthur C. Clarke's output to that date. Yet I managed to miss The City and the Stars, one of his best known novels, until I picked up a copy in a secondhand bookshop recently. (I went off Clarke after a while, which explains not picking up on this omission earlier.)

Far in the future, when humanity's galactic empire has risen and fallen, and alien invaders have pushed us back to the Earth alone. Those who remain live in the eternal city of Diaspar, living lives of everlasting leisure, docile and without interest in the universe beyond the city walls. After a thousand or so years of life, the citizens return their "patterns" to the computer banks while others come back to life from these same memory stores. Diaspar has remained essentially unchanging for millennia, but then Alvin, the central character of The City and the Stars, comes along. Alvin is a Unique, a person who has never before been activated, and he is different from all the other people in Diaspar. He finds that he needs ot know what the outside is like, and eventually finds a way to leave the city.

The story is effectively a polemic for two of Clarke's philosophical positions: that what makes us human is our curiousity about the world, and that organised religious belief holds back our ability to understand the universe. To Clarke, these ideas are related, as he believed that the certainties of faith extinguish the desire to find out. In The City and the Stars, Alvin's quest to escape the city is a version of Joseph Campbell's hero's journey, complete with guru figure in the form of the "jester" appointed to shake Diaspar's complacency through practical joking. But Alvin is contrasted so strongly with the other citizens that the hidden agenda becomes blatant, and the story less interesting: it seems unlikely that he would ever have been able to live in the city for as long as he does.

When Clarke died recently, one of the pieces I read about him was by Michael Moorcock, not really an author with whom he might be expected to have had much in common, even if they were both writers in the same genre. However, that they knew each other in Moorcock's early days as a professional writer in London appears not to be the only link between them, for there seem to be definite connections between The City and the Stars and one of Moorcock's best known series, The Dancers at the End of Time, which is also one of my favourites from the whole science fiction genre. Moorcock's trilogy is better, as far as I am concerned, for several reasons. (I should point out that Moorcock says he was unfamiliar with most of Clarke's writing, so may well not have read The City and the Stars.) The decadence it portrays is more convincing than that of the dwellers in Diaspar. Moorcock's characters party desperately to stave off world weary boredom worthy of Huysmans, while the inhabitants of Diaspar are far more conservatively portrayed, as effete artists as opposed to the vigorous Alvin. Given the resources at their control, the actions of the Diasparans are really too rooted in the twentieth century: a little virtual reality on top of conventional art. This is, to me, a major failure of the imagination at the centre of the book when compared to Moorcock's baroque creations. Clarke's attitude to sexuality also causes problems, though of course the limitations placed on genre authors in the fifties were much stricter than those faced almost twenty years later by Moorcock; a book as explicit as The Dancers at the End of Time would never have been published. But even so, prudishness is taken to an extreme. There are just two or three minor female characters, and The City and the Stars is even more male dominated and asexual than The Lord of the Rings, another novel where almost all the significant relationships are about male companionship. Women are pretty obviously excluded from the heroics of scientific discovery about the universe. Moorcock is able to have a more egalitarian background, in which lust (if not love) is commonplace. Moorcock also introduces an extra theme with time travel. But the most important difference is that Moorcock's writing has a sense of humour, a concept which is alien to the earnestness of much fifties science fiction.

The worst fault of The City and the Stars is that the second half of the book, when Alvin escapes the city, is less interesting than the beginning. The thesis that curiousity about the universe is what makes us human, and Clarke's consequent need to make the scientific endeavour heroic, should mean that Alvin's exploration of the universe is made really gripping. Yet the puzzle of how to get out of Diaspar is much more interesting, and told in such a way that it is clear that Clarke found it more interesting himself. Alvin's trip is hackneyed space exploration from the pulp era, complete with outlandish monsters, and would have been old fashioned even in 1956, particularly as it isn't accompanied by character development: Alvin and his companion travel across the galaxy, yet remain just the same as they did before they set out.

The parallels with on of my favourite books make me sure I have not read The City and the Stars before, because the similarities are such that I am convinced that I would remember it. It's not, to my mind, one of Clarke's best, particularly given the second half. What it does remind me is why I had no particular urge to return to Clarke after binging on his stories in the early eighties.