Spook Country by William Gibson (2007)

When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself.
(Spook Country page 174)

The Sprawl trilogy

Gibson’s first three novels made up the Sprawl trilogy (1984 to 1988), science fiction stories set 50 or so years in the future (Gibson is on record as saying he thinks Neuromancer is set in 2035) in a society dominated by huge urban conurbations (the entire East Coast of America has ceased to be made up of distinct cities and is one endless dome-covered megacity known as the ‘Sprawl’). This future society is drenched in digital tech where hackers can plug their brains directly into the vast matrix of digital data flows. The narratives of all three Sprawl novels unfold grippingly complex plots, told in adrenaline-fuelled, cyberpunk prose, leading up to the revelations that these vast rivers of data are reaching an omega point whereby the combined power of the worldwide web is arriving at a transformational moment when it will gain full self-consciousness (exactly as the Skynet defence system does in the contemporaneous Terminator franchise of movies).

The Bridge Trilogy

Gibson’s next three novels formed the Bridge trilogy (1993 to 1999), set a more modest 20 or so years in the future, around 2010 or so, after a cataclysmic earthquake has struck California causing the state to be split in two. They take their name from the Golden Gate bridge which was so badly damaged in the quake that it was abandoned as a means of transport and was quickly squatted by all manner of lowlifes, the poor and marginalised, who turned it into a futuristic favela made up of home-made building units, streets and shops suspended from the bridge’s steel coils, a vivid and striking recurring image.

Against this backdrop were set the intertwining stories of Gibson’s quirky characters: a tough security guard down on his luck, a sexy bicycle courier, a mentally challenged digital ninja who spots patterns in the endless flow of data around the internet, a rock star who marries an entirely digital cyber-woman, a deaf and dumb street kid, a silent Taoist assassin. The techie ends of the plots involved digital headsets and some internet technology but there was a lot less of it than in the Sprawl novels and, similarly, the prose was still zippy and tight, but less densely street cool than in the earlier trilogy.

The Blue Ant trilogy

Then came the Blue Ant Trilogy (2003 to 2010) of which this novel is the middle instalment. These complete Gibson’s ‘retreat from the future’ and are set in the contemporary world, each one set more or less the year before they were published, so roughly 2002, 2006 and 2009 respectively.

I thought Blue Ant was going to refer to something cryptic and obscure and cool and so was very disappointed to discover it’s just the name of the secretive (fictional) advertising agency run by super-clever, super-rich philosopher-businessman, Hubertus Bigend. When I first read that name it struck me that Gibson was taking the piss out of his legions of fans and devotees in the book world, taunting them to swallow such a preposterous moniker. At that point, my willing suspension of disbelief in Gibson’s fiction snapped and I realised several things:

Irritating features

1. A little like J.G. Ballard in his final phase, Gibson has ceased being a writer of inspiringly visionary science fiction and has become the author of slick, very well-made but ultimately pretty traditional thrillers, with a bit of pop culture window dressing to tickle the style magazines, i.e:

Women

The protagonists are mostly young women (Cayce Pollard in book 1 of this trilogy, Hollis Henry in books 2 and 3).

Paint it black

Everyone wears black, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, black shades, black underpants, black jeans, black socks, black shoes, because black is cool, daddy-o. Groovy, man. Dig your black shades, baby.

Ethnic characters

There’s a lot of ethnic minorities involved, gesturing at our modern multicultural, cosmopolitan societies although, noticeably a) nearly all of them are East Asian – I mean Japanese or Chinese – with very few, if any people, of colour, and b) none of the lead characters are not Caucasian. In this, as in so many other ways, despite the superficial gloss, pretty traditionalist.

Digital

There’s still quite a lot of hi-tech digital gadgetry but it’s got more and more meh. Also, instead of being a prophet, his books have started to be wrong and misleading when it comes to the digital world. He is writing quite limited ideas of virtual art but this was overtaken even as Gibson wrote his books by the far more revolutionary impact of smartphones and social media.

In both Spook Country and Zero History the lead character, Hollis Henry, is researching and writing about a small group of ‘cutting edge’ artists who are creating holographic art works which exist in public spaces, on street corners, but can only be seen by people wearing the right hi-tech headgear. It’s called ‘locative’ art. Well, that never caught on, compared to Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and so on. The central revolution of social media is how mass it is, how many people have taken up, with plenty of anti-social and negative effects. None of this is anticipated in Gibson’s books.

Instead he is a) working on a very outdated cultural model that new developments will come among a tiny cohort of avant-garde artists and b) much more telling is the fact that the ‘locative artist’ Hollis first meets and interviews, Alberto Corrales, has gone to this enormous time and effort in order to create 3D holographic images of…. Jim Morrison and River Phoenix, the latter an image of Phoenix’s body lying dead of a drugs overdose outside the ‘legendary’ Viper Rooms in Los Angeles. In other words, fantastically dated and retro. Creating 3D images of dead rock gods and movie stars struck me as the opposite of cutting edge.

Rock music

I find it almost unbelievable how tiresome, dated and crappy Gibson’s obsession with rock music and rock bands is: characters constantly reference Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison as if they released their latest discs last week instead of having been dead for half a century. But far more important in terms of making the books almost unreadable is the fact that the central character of the second two novels, Hollis Henry, was actually in a rock band – she is the ex-singer of a now-defunct fictional rock band called The Curfew.

We learn next to nothing about how the Curfew actually omposed their songs or recorded or performed them because Gibson isn’t actually interested in music at all. As someone who plays piano and guitar and has played bass in various bands, I know something about these processes and feel embarrassed for Gibson as he fills his books with would-be ‘cool’ insights about the world of rock music and the practicalities of music making, which feel as they’re copied from the pages of naff style magazines from the 1980s.

There is nothing, nothing, about the actual music. No description of the chord structures, the guitar or piano or bass sound, the tempos or dynamics of any of the songs, the challenge of performing highly produced music live, nothing. If you are actually interested in rock music (as I am) these books are a desert, a black hole of zero information on the subject.

Instead rock music is used by Gibson as a marker of hip, of cool. It allows the characters to make endless ‘cool’ references, to be hip to drugs, man, and bleat about the traumas of being endlessly ‘on the road’ and smashing up hotels and having immense fights and then ‘breaking up the band’, man.

This isn’t an incidental detail, it’s central to the other characters Hollis meets and interacts with. During the novel she taps up the other members of ‘the band’: guitarist Reg Inchmale, drummer Heidi Hyde, and makes countless wistful references to Jimmy Carlyle, the bassist who managed to kill himself from a heroin overdose, his death bringing the band to an end.

It’s bad enough having to meet the ‘wise’ and dependable Inchmale and the super-angry, over-emotional Heidi Hyde in Spook Country but when all three characters are relocated to London in Zero History we have the added indignity of meeting other members of the ‘rock elite’ from other crappy, made-up bands, who are all as insufferably ‘cool’ as each other and all know all about the local ‘scene’, man.

You’d learn more about the dynamics of an actual band and actual music-making from watching Spinal Tap. Or The Blues Brothers in which actual music is actually performed. No music is performed in any of these books. God forbid. It would upset the hang of the characters’ black designer jackets.

Disappointing lack of insight into the present

Concurrently, Gibson has ceased writing about the future. Step by step each trilogy has retreated from the future and now Gibson is just writing about… the present, just like ten thousand other novelists and columnists.

The first two novels in the Blue Ant trilogy heavily referenced the big events of their day, namely 9/11 (2001) and the war in Iraq (2003). This should be riveting to someone like me, a close follower of contemporary politics, but, very disappointingly, Gibson’s novels have almost nothing to say about international or domestic politics or contemporary society. Contemporary society is a consumer paradise and, behind the scenes, it’s a bit corrupt, seem to be his big discoveries.

By now there are no ideas at all in his novels, which are really showcases for a 50-something’s Dad ideas of ‘cool’ – rock bands and rock chicks wearing black t-shirts and black leather jackets and black shades, impressing each other with snazzy gadgets, flying round the world on Hubertus Bigend’s bottomless expense accounts, on wild goose chases which have a disappointing tendency to fizzle out at the end.

The trouble with writing a ‘neat, up-to-the-minute spy thriller’ (as the London newspaper Metro described Spook Country when it first came out) is that neat, up-to-the-minute spy thrillers quickly go out of date. Who wants yesterday’s papers?

For example, Gibson seems proud of the way some of the characters ‘Google’ something on the internet, as if that’s a super-early use of the verb. His lead character is shown hacking into other people’s wifi rooters, as if how to do that is a big discovery. Bigend gives his employees bolt-on scramblers to attach to their phones. A central element in the plot is people using iPods as containers for contraband information. 14 years later this all seems very, meh, very yawn.

In interviews Gibson said the novel is set in the spring of 2006, before the financial crash and, more importantly, before the advent of Facebook, twitter and the rest of the social media programs. It is, therefore, a novel which claims to be with-it and futuristic, but now reads like a relic from an antiquated, pre-social media world.

The plot

As usual with all Gibson’s novels, there are three distinct storylines each featuring small groups of characters, appearing in self-contained, alternating chapters. For over half the novel these separate storylines appear to have nothing in common, so part of the book’s entertainment value is wondering how they will eventually impinge and collide, and being on the qui vive for the clues the author drops as he slowly weaves them together.

1. Hollis Henry

Hollis Henry is a young freelance woman journalist who’s been engaged by a magazine named Node, a fictional European version of the real-world tech magazine Wired (p.39) (so you have to have a feel for what Wired is about to fully place her. It is worth noting that Gibson has been a regular contributor to Wired magazine and featured on its cover in its first year, 1994 so he knows whereof he writes, and his writing in general confirms me in my suspicion that I never need to read a magazine like Wired.)

Hollis’s job is to write a piece about a digital artist named Alberto Corrales who uses ‘locative’ technology to create cutting-edge digital artworks in Los Angeles (you put on a headset and see 3-D versions of the corpses of famous Hollywood characters in various downtown locations).

Hollis was a member of the ‘legendary’ fictional band, The Curfew, alongside band drummer Heidi Hyde, guitarist Reg Inchmale and bassist Jimmy Carlyle, which impresses the people she meets, including the ‘locative artist’ Corrales, as well as the owner of Node, advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

2. Tito

Tito is aged 22 (p.11) and Alejandro (aged 30) are cousins, part of an extended family of immigrants to America.

‘They’re one of the smallest organised crime families operating in the United States. Maybe literally a family. Illegal facilitators, mainly smuggling. But a kind of boutique operation, very pricey. Mara Salvatrucha looks like UPS in comparison. They’re Cuban-Chinese and they’re probably all illegals.’ (p.230)

Tito lives in a crappy apartment in Manhattan. They are refugees from Havana, Cuba where, improbably, their grandfather seems to have been something to do with the KGB (p.72). Their aunt, Juana, is a devout believer in Afro-Cuban pagan gods of Santería, with numerous incense-laden shrines to them in her apartment.

It’s only a third of the way into the novel that we come to realise that both Tito and Alejandro are well-trained operatives in a Russian spy methodology. They have been raised in the way of the systema, the Russkie name for cutting-edge spycraft. It slowly emerges that they are following the orders of someone referred to simply as ‘the old man’ (we never learn his name but we do learn that ‘he looked a little like William Burroughs, minus the bohemian substrate’ (p.296), a characteristically dated, Beatnik reference.)

3. Milgrim

Milgrim (no indication whether this is his first name or last name) is an unusually literate drug addict who is fluent in Russian, and in particular an Anglicised form of Russian which is referred to as Volapük by the shady secret operative, Brown, who has sort of kidnapped Milgrim and keeps him dosed up with the prescription tranquiliser he’s addicted to, Ativan. (Milgrim’s drug dealer when was at liberty was Dennis Birdwell, p.100)

Having no money of his own, and being utterly dependent on the daily doses of drugs which Brown allows him, Milgrim is forced to tag along while Brown plants listening devices on what he refers to as an IF (short for Illegal Facilitator, page 17). Early on we learn that the apartment Brown is going to the effort of bugging, and the figure he is spying on from a camouflaged van full of surveillance equipment, is none other than Tito the Cuban refugee. Why? That’s precisely the question the reader is meant to ask, and which draws us into the ensuing 350 pages of tangled plot.

The MacGuffin

The pointless goal

According to Wikipedia:

“In fiction, a MacGuffin is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself. The term was originated by Angus MacPhail for film, adopted by Alfred Hitchcock, and later extended to a similar device in other fiction.”

In most of Gibson’s novel there is some secret which brings together the 3 or 4 separate groups of characters, in an elaborate interweaving of storylines towards whose revelatory climax the narrative hurtles with ever-increasing speed.

The incessant travelling

Something which isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article is that the MacGuffin often requires an extraordinary amount of travelling to find it. This is as true of the Holy Grail in the original medieval Arthurian legends as it is of, say, the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark or the endless driving and traipsing around Los Angeles required by Philip Marlowe, at the more humdrum end of the spectrum.

In hundreds of thousands of other narratives like these, the seekers after the MacGuffin must travel far and wide and undergo various perils in order to track it down.

And so it is that, in the second half of this novel, the three sets of characters make substantial journeys across America to arrive at the slightly unusual location for the denouement of the plot, Vancouver docks.

1. Tito and the old man are taken from New York by van to a private airfield, and flown in a plane which stops numerous times to refuel en route at remote rural locations across America, arriving on an island where they pick up a jeep concealed in brush, drive to the coast and are in turn collected by a boat which transports them by sea into Canada.

2. Hollis and Odile fly from Los Angeles to Vancouver, are greeted by a Blue Ant functionary who drives them to the astonishingly luxurious Blue Any apartment, complete with free cars and a hover bed.

3. Milgrim and Brown go by train from New York’s Penn station to a safe house in Philadelphia and then by swish Jetstream private jet to an island from where they are taken by boat across the border into Canada.

Trains and boats and planes. The extent of this gee-whiz travel and the fact that everything is paid for and pre-planned is one aspect of the novel’s fantasy escapism. How lovely to have someone lay on all this expensive travel without a moment’s hassle.

The mastermind paymaster

I still think naming the impresario who sets this and the previous novel in motion Hubertus Bigend is Gibson making a calculated snub to his readers. It is both a joke for those with the right sense of humour, but also a not-very-subtle way of saying, ‘If you suckers’ll buy this guy’s preposterous name, you’ll buy anything.’

The idea of this character is that Bigend is a fabulously rich, fabulously successful advertising guru, who is interested in off-the-wall activities which lead him into realms far outside advertising accounts, partly out of pure curiosity which he is rich enough to indulge, and partly because it helps maintain his ‘edge’ (Daddy-o) and sometimes inspires ideas for new campaigns. This motivation supposedly explains why Bigend is prepared to provide bottomless funding for the two sassy young women protagonists of Pattern Recognition and Spook Country…

(To justify the idea that the wild goose chases in these novels do have some kind of practical payoff, we learn on page 108 of this novel that the outcome of Cayce Pollard’s prolonged search for the video footage being released snippet by snippet in the previous book, Pattern Recognition, was that Bigend developed a thing called ‘Trope Slope… our virtual pitchman platform’ (p.108). I wonder if this is intended to sound as lame as it does. Maybe a similarly global quest featuring mysterious video footage was necessary to develop Tesco’s strapline, ‘Every little helps’.)

So there’s this elaborate justification woven around Bigend’s character and business practices but, at the end of the day, this is just the basic James Bond setup. Whatever fake passport and fake identity and flash gadgets and fast cars and plane tickets Bond requires to do his job, he is given. It’s exactly the same with the two women freelancers working for Bigend – they want it, they get it, and they fly off somewhere exotic.

In fact the novel contains a number of conscious echoes of James Bond and his world of glamour, gadgets and girls. Bigend’s enabler, the person Cayce or Hollis ring up to get plane tickets or a new car or laptop or whatever, is another supremely capable young woman, in this case named Pamela Mainwaring. She appears in all three novels in the trilogy as Bigend’s super-efficient fixer and she’s basically an updated version of Miss Moneypenney.

That Gibson realises at various points that he is, in effect, writing a Bond novel for the 2000s, Bond with a laptop, is acknowledged in several explicit Bond references, on pages 160, 166 and 344.

Personally, the idea of slightly puzzled agents in the field reporting back to an avuncular, all-seeing older man, who works from a series of secret locations equipped with vast screens, maps of the relevant cities and advanced tracking technology, reminded me of the Man from UNCLE TV series, and the mastermind paymaster figure of Alexander Waverly played by the lovely Leo G. Carroll. Despite all the shiny prose style and laptops, Gibson’s novels feel, deep down, that dated.

The payoff – spoiler alert!

In the end the entire plot turns out to be about Iraq and corrupt United States government money.

A hundred pages or so into the text we learn that Tito is being ‘run’ by an old unnamed man, who claims to have known Tito and Alejandro’s grandfather back in Havana. This, combined with lots of references to the KGB, and a couple of mentions of the surprising fact that Tito and Alejandro learned their ‘tradecraft’, their systema, from a Viet Cong-era Vietnamese operative, these are all, I think, deliberate red herrings dropped by Gibson to suggest that the plot is all some spooky global conspiracy involving the successor to the KGB, the scarey FSB. But no, in the end…

The old guy who is in charge of the entire scam which lies at the heart of the story, is just a retired US secret service guy who is pissed off at the grotesque amounts of US government money being wasted and siphoned off in Iraq (all explained in chapter 71).

(In fact, I later find out, ‘the old man’ is referenced in this novel’s sequel, Zero History, and one of his operatives there suggests that he is motivated ‘by some sort of seething Swiftian rage that he can only express through perverse, fiendishly complex exploits, resembling Surrealist gestes.’ Something like the Situationist ethic so beloved of media and literature students, and dating back, like so much in Gibson’s worldview, to the 1960s. [Zero History, chapter 51].)

Hacked off at the way billions of US dollars are being poured into the bottomless pit of Iraq and wondering what to do about it, ‘the old man’ and others like him have got wind of a particular shipping container containing $100 million in cash which had been sent off to Iraq by sea. However, something in the Iraq situation changed and the container got rerouted, then delayed and then cleverly ‘lost’ by the bad guys who wanted to steal it.

By ‘bad guys’ Gibson does not appear to mean Iraqis or Russians, but the kind of ‘rogue element’ within the US’s many security services and military operations who feature in movies like the Bourne series, bad guys based deep in the heart of Langley or the Pentagon or wherever. The plot then, once you get it straight, appears to be the very, very tired one of rotten apples inside the US Administration itself.

(It’s one of the many disappointing things about Gibson, once the facade of supercool hi-tech gadgetry is stripped away, that there is so much to say and think and write about how the sudden eruption [as it seemed to people who hadn’t been following it for years] of Islamic fundamentalism in 9/11, a decisive event which for years afterwards appeared to have tilted the entire world of geopolitics, security and culture on its side, but that Gibson has next to nothing to say about it. He has infinitely more to say about the minutiae of made-up rock bands and long-dead rock gods and fashion brands than about the fascinatingly shifting sands of international affairs. I find this deeply bathetic and disappointing.)

Anyway, the unnamed, retired, pissed-off ex-US secret service guy knows people who’ve hacked into the $100 million container’s tracking beeper, and so knows that it’s arrived in Vancouver, Canada. So he devises a scam and takes Tito in a plane across the States from New York to Vancouver, picking up a super-competent operative, an Englishman named Garreth (why not?) along the way.

After umpteen long-distance flights and boat trips this trio finally hole up in an arty loft conversion near the docks in Vancouver where they know from the tracker that the sky-blue container containing the swag has been unloaded, presumably to be shifted across the border into the States at some time.

They have hired this loft conversion because it gives an unimpeded view of the container across the way in the fenced-off dock area. That evening Garreth makes a big deal out of setting up one of those supercool sniper rifles with a tripod and telephoto lens which feature in every spy thriller of this type, up in this loft conversion, and fires nine bullets in a row along the bottom of the container.

Why? Because these are no ordinary bullets, they contain radioactive caesium stolen from a hospital or some similar cock and bull source. The idea is that the radioactivity will irradiate the entire container full of hundred dollar bills and make it impossible for the money smugglers to offload, launder or in any way use the stolen loot.

That’s it, that’s the scam, the MacGuffin and the climax to the novel. Why did the old man go to 360 pages worth of elaborate ruses to achieve this pretty simple goal? As he himself admits to Hollis, it’s a trivial amount in the grand scheme of things, but it makes him feel better. It doesn’t change anything in the real world, it just pisses of some super-criminals and makes the old man feel better.

See what I mean by Gibson’s novels having a tendency to hurtle in their supercharged prose towards a Grand Conclusion which is…er… a bit disappointing.

And Tito? He’s been brought along because if the container had a set of neat bulletholes in it officials would become suspicious. Tito’s role is to be smuggled into the waterfront container port on the same evening as the radioactive bullet shooting, with a coil of rope under his shirt and a hard hat to fit in with all the other stevedores, and to make his way among the milling dock workers till he’s just below the target container as Garreth shoots his 9 magic bullets… Then Tito’s job is to swarm up the side of the containers (the target one is the top one of a pile of three) and use a rope harness suspended from the top of the container to abseil carefully along the row of bulletholes and plug them each with a set of small, supermagnetic metal disks he’s been given for the job. Then slip back down, loosen the rope with a whiplash movement of the wrist, dump it and all other incriminating gear in a ‘dumpster’, scramble over the barbed wire and so to safety.

Actually into the arms of a rock band who happen to have been passing by (the docks are right in the city so there are roads running alongside the perimeter) and, when Tito says he can play keyboards, drive him off for a beer and a jam with the band. Seriously. You begin to wonder if Gibson’s obsession with rock bands might be a recognised mental disorder.

And Hollis Henry? Her assignment to interview the ‘locative’ artist (who creates holograms of dead celebs in Los Angeles streets) had led her to the hyper-secretive tech wizard, the man who actually enables and produces these holograms, one Bobby Chombo, ‘an expert in geospatial technologies’.

Hubertus Bigend, who has by now introduced himself to Hollis so she knows exactly who she’s working for and what he’s looking for (namely, intellectual thrills), explains to Bigend that it is Chombo he really wants to meet and/or work with. But only days after Corrales takes Hollis to Chombo’s pad to meet him for the first time, the paranoid genius disappears along with all his kit leaving an empty loftspace.

Where has he gone? Well, Vancouver, where he’s been summoned by the ‘old man’ supervising the scam. How does Hollis discover that’s where he’s gone? Well at the start of the story Hollis is staying with Odile:

‘A curator from Paris who specialises in locative art’ (p.251)

Gibson concocts a ridiculous coincidence whereby Odile turns out to know Chombo’s sister, Sarah Ferguson, who one day phones her to say she’s just seen her brother, Chombo, in their home town Vancouver (chapter 62), news which Odile passes onto Hollis. Pretty convenient coincidence!

When Hollis tells Hubertus that’s where this reclusive tech guru has gone, he immediately authorises whatever she needs, plane or train or automobile, to get her to Vancouver, so off she flies with Odile tagging along.

And a a day or two later, Hollis has only just tracked down Chombo’s new location to a building down a back alley in Vancouver when she is spotted and swept inside by calm omni-competent Garreth, and into the briefing meeting being given by the old man to Tito and Garreth. Because, as luck (or the conveniences of thriller fiction) would have it, Hollis has stumbled on their secret hideout only hours before they are scheduled to go on the big radioactive shoot.

Just about the one real divergence from action thriller clichés is that, rather than just ‘waste her’ as the bad guys would in any number of the shockingly brutal American thrillers we’re nowadays used to, these guys make Hollis feel right at home, order her takeaway pizza (while they have curry) and ask if she’d like to come along and witness the climax of the whole story.

Which, as an aspiring journalist, she willingly does, going along to the hired space opposite the docks, watching Garreth set up his super-duper gun, fire the radioactive bullets, dismantle the gun, and returning with him to the others. At which point they simply let her walk away once she’s given her word she won’t tell anyone. And she doesn’t. Aren’t people nice? What a lovely story!

And Brown and Milgrim? In the middle of the story they are involved in a complex red herring / distraction / bit of cooked-up plot surrounding iPods. The unnamed old man has known for some time that Brown, a disaffected member of some other branch of the vast and many-headed US security services, has been on their tail. So the old man has concocted a preposterously complicated red herring whereby Tito or others in his ‘family’ send iPods packed with geospatial information about the whereabouts of the $100 million container, carefully coded amid reams of harmless music so as to appear highly secret and terribly important, to a poste restante address in San Juan, before being forwarded on to another, secret location.

Brown and his people have been taken in by this elaborate ruse and are willing to go to any lengths to get hold of what are, in fact, completely worthless iPods. Not only that but Hubertus Bigend was also taken in by this elaborate and completely irrelevant red herring, and we the readers are also forced to put a lot of energy into piecing it together until we’re told, towards the end of the book, that it was all an elaborate waste of time. Completing a Sudoku puzzle would be more rewarding.

But Brown is told by his controller about the other team (old man, Tito and Garreth) making for Vancouver and so he drags drug-addicted Milgrim with him on a long complicated journey by train to a safe house in Philadelphia, then by plane on to somewhere else, ending up at an island on the US-Canada border, and then finally arriving in Vancouver itself.

Here, by another incredibly far-fetched coincidence which the narrative tries to gloss over, they are driving along in their rented SUV when they, by complete coincidence, accidentally see Tito walking along the road. He is in fact on his way, as the reader knows, towards the Vancouver docks because this is the evening when the radioactive shooting will take place.

In a flash, the easily-angered Brown floors the accelerator and tries to run Tito down, but the boy is agile and leaps out of the way, while Brown rams his rental car into a fire hydrant and injures himself. Brown is limping around on the sidewalk as they hear the sirens of approaching police cars but when he calls Milgrim (who was in the car with him) to heel, Milgrim, for the first time in the novel, simply says ‘No’. In the confusion of the crash he had simply reached over to Brown’s briefcase, for once unattended, and helped himself to a substantial supply of the tranquilisers he’s addicted to (brand name Rize), grabs the coat Brown had supplied him and an envelope full of hundred dollar bills they’ve been using as petty cash, and simply walks off in the opposite direction.

There’s a bit more: Milgrim stumbles into the empty loft space soon after Garreth had fired his shots from it, (watched by Hollis) and discovers Hollis’s handbag which she had carelessly left behind, steals her money and phone, dumps the rest. That’s the last we hear of this strange and attractive character, Milgrim…

Meanwhile Hollis has made it back to her hotel in one piece and her old bandmate Reg Inchmale turns up for coffee and conversation. In a sudden switch of focus, Hubertus loses all interest in the locative art and now makes Hollis and Inchmale a massive offer if they’ll re-record their greatest hit but with new lyrics, for a Chinese car commercial he’s doing…

But basically it’s a happy ending. No-one gets killed, hardly anyone really gets hurt, more or less everyone gets what they want. These My Little Pony happy endings are an unexpected feature of Gibson’s fiction.


Things which drive me nuts about William Gibson’s later novels

Young women protagonists

This and its predecessor, Pattern Recognition, both have young female lead protagonists. So, come to think of it, did some of the Bridge and Sprawl novels. Presumably this is intended to be very liberated and modern and manga, but I find Gibson’s impersonations of women significantly younger than him (half his age, in this book) a bit creepy.

In this novel the lead character is Hollis Henry, a freelance journalist who discovers that she (like the young freelance fashion expert, Cayce Pollard, in Pattern Recognition) is working for a company owned by advertising guru, Hubertus Bigend, himself a creepy, domineering character who takes Holly for a long car ride without explaining where they’re going, making her considerably anxious, exactly as he did to Cayce Pollard in the previous book.

It feels very close to an abduction, and although Gibson moves to neutralise him (Hollis describes him as ‘like a monstrously intelligent giant baby’) episodes like the creepy car drive made me envision Bigend as looking and behaving like Harvey Weinstein.

Dad rock

This lead woman character, Hollis Henry used to be the singer in a rock band (oh dear) named The Curfew, yawn, which had a female drummer (like the Velvet Underground, like Talking Heads). Gibson hasn’t grasped the obvious truth that all fictional rock bands sound stupid. This rock band background goes on to become a central theme of the book, as various people she meets are bowled over to be meeting the Hollis Henry, singer with the Curfew. But this is not impressive, I found it tiresome.

Leading off this central premise are other creaky old ‘rock’ references. One of Alberto Corrales’s virtual reality artworks is of Jim Morrison, which gives rise to a little flurry of learnèd analysis of the appeal of The Doors (1967 to 1971) and the band’s internal dynamics (Ray and Robbie, man, how they managed to keep the surly old drunk in line, man).

There’s many more laboured rock references: half a page of ponderous humour about rock stars having big noses in the Pete Townsend-Keith Moon tradition (p.56).

He mentions Kurt Cobain, not bad going considering Kurt killed himself in 1994 only 13 years before the novel was published, although that is getting on for 30 years ago from today’s perspective (p.63).

More typical is the reference to a Grateful Dead concert (p.323). And Gibson namechecks Anton Corbijn (p.85), superfamous rock photographer of the 1970s and 80s (and, his Wikipedia entry tells us, ‘creative director behind the visual output of Depeche Mode and U2’) who is also thanked in the Author’s Thanks at the back of the book and so is, presumably, a buddy of Gibson’s.

Presumably this is all meant to press the buttons of ageing rock fans (U2! Depeche Mode! Jim Morrison! The Grateful Dead!) Gibson was pushing 60 when this book was published and it shows: all these Rolling Stone-type references feel incredibly dated and old.

It’s a tremendous irony that Gibson is marketed as a prophet of the future and yet so many of his cultural references are to a dusty old era of rock music from forty and fifty years ago.

Black

Gibson is obsessed with the colour black, everything is coloured black, black leather jackets, black jeans, black socks, black pants, black shades, black Range Rover, black Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, black leather pork pie hat, black-painted plastic spyhole covers, black conference table, black thigh-length leather coat, black wool watch cap, black knit skull caps, black, button-studded leather, a black Passat, black trash bags, heavy duty black masking tape, high-topped black shoes, loose black cotton shirt, black shirt and tie, black Oxford shoes, black vinyl hanger bag, black three-button jacket, black leather wallet, black nylon carryall, Bigend’s magnetic bed is a perfect black square supported by braided cables of black metal, a black Zodiac boat, made of black inflated tubes, a hard black floor and a black outboard motor, black plastic Pelican case, black-framed sunglasses, black filter-mask, a large black pickup, a black t-shirt under a black jacket, black tripod, black climbing rope, black respirator, black badge case, spring-loaded black flap, black tanks, black bungees, black lens cap, black SUVs, bulky black-clad special forces officers, black doors, black houses, black streets (blacktop), black sky, and some heavy-duty, enormous black dudes in New York (chapter 41), because big black guys in this kind of white man fan fiction are, well, just cool cf Live and Let Die, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and every blaxploitation movie ever made.

A few other colours occasionally make an appearance but the relentless foregrounding of black everything gives the text a laughably old rock journalist chic, black shades, man, black leather, man, just like the Velvet Underground, man, characters wear black coats, black leather jackets, black t-shirts, drive black cars up to the jet black facade of fashionable bars (the Viper Rooms where River Phoenix died). Sooo achingly cool if you’re a child of the 60s and 70s but otherwise… so lame.

Brand namechecking

Almost as big as Gibson’s Dad rock and his infatuation with all things black, is Gibson’s obsessive brand namedropping.

Gibson is described as a pioneer, and he certainly was in his first half dozen novels, set as they are in gripping sci fi futures. But by the time of Hubertus Bigend he had settled into producing pretty mainstream Yank thrillers with a twist or two of digitech gimmicks, and one of the most tedious aspects of your modern American thriller is their obsession with brands, their compulsive need to know exactly what brand of car, gun, phone, jacket, handbag, jet, or phone etc which every character is toting, driving, flying, wearing or dialling. Thus in just the first 30 pages or so we have references to:

a Philip Starck elevator, Bluetooth, Adidas trainers, a classic VW beetle, iPod, Red Wing boots, counterfeit Prada, the Ikea couch, the Casio keyboard, Paul Stuart overcoat, Ziploc bag, Yohji Yamamoto, Tower Records, Virgin records, Chesterfield cigarettes,  Hamburger Hamlet, Schwabs, Aeron chairs, Lacoste golf shirt, Nyquil, Marlboro cigarettes, winkle-picker Keds shoes, faux Oakley keds, Adidas GSC9s, Starbucks, Cuisinart

The names of umpteen cars are reeled off: Passat, Econoline, Grand Cherokee Laredo Jeep, Ford Taurus, Phaeton, Ford. The planes include a vintage 1985 Cessna Golden Eagle described in some detail (p.221). There’s even careful brand naming of the Zodiac motorboat which Brown hires to take him and Milgrim up to Vancouver.

One way of viewing this obsessive naming of branded products is as an extension of the basic thriller idea of competence. The classic thriller hero, from Philip Marlowe to Jack Reacher, is not only physically strong and resourceful but knows everything – he is an expert at guns, cars and the ways of the underworld, can explain what’s going on to all the sidekicks and dames he picks up along the journey, is savvy and streetwise in ways you and I, dear suburban reader, can only gawp at in admiration.

The modern thriller’s obsession with brand names is, from one perspective, just an extension of that expertise, of that whip-smart super-awareness, into the over-saturated world of American consumer capitalism. The modern thriller narrator can name and identify any brand of anything. It is part of his omnicompetence.

That said, an equal and opposite way of interpreting it might be as satire on the super-saturation of American life with brands and endless adverts; a satire on the way that 21st century American culture is nothing but products, and American citizens are increasingly secondary to the master brands they purchase. A world in which human beings are the disposable appendages of the brands which now own their lives: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram et al.

At some point early in the history of The Thriller this brand obsession may have been an innovative device for positioning both narrator and characters and the action itself, for quickly describing and placing them in the evermore complex mid-twentieth century society. But in Gibson’s hands the obsessive iteration of brand names becomes really irritating. It’s like being stuck inside a ten-hour-long ad break, like being locked up for a week in an American shopping mall lined with huge glass windows full of lifeless models demonstrating an endless array of glossy, vacuous products. Gibson knows this. At one point he refers to:

another concourse of heavily trademarked commerce (p.367)

But nowadays this brand obsession doesn’t convey anything at all except the complete lack of depth in American life, which has slowly and steadily become almost entirely about surfaces. Even in politics, anything resembling ‘ideas’ is being squeezed out of public life, until all that matters is appearances. Are you black or white? Are you a man or a woman? These seem to be almost the only two issues left in American political or cultural life. It represents the triumph of surfaces and the death of depth. ‘If you’re white you can’t understand…’, ‘if you’re a man you can’t understand…’ Until eventually there is nothing left beneath the surface of the American mind except people squabbling about their ‘identities’. Until it’s just Kim Kardashian in culture and Black Lives Matter in politics. All ideas are annihilated in a world of appearances.

And thus it is that, although he lost the 2020 Presidential election, the certifiable dunce Donald Trump actually increased his vote. Mind-boggling evidence that America has become a nation of dunces, but dunces who know their brands to a T, who can spot the difference between a Prada and a Ted Baker and a Gucci handbag, or an Alfa Romeo Stelvio, a Jaguar I-PACE or a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, at a hundred paces.

For me the obsession of American thrillers with ‘brands’ and products long ago lost any rationale in terms of either authorial ‘competence’ or biting satire, and simply became one more extension of the empty world of style magazines and TV makeover shows. It represents an apotheosis of empty-headed consumerism, the kind of mindless consumption which is eating up the planet and turning Yanks into the tens of millions of depthless cretins who voted for Donald Trump. Twice. Gibson is aware of it, the drowning consumerism of American society. There’s a little dialogue between Brown and Milgrim:

‘People say Americans are materialistic, do you know why?’ ‘Why?’ asked Milgrim… ‘Because they have better stuff,’ Brown replied. (p.256)

So you can see why Gibson’s brand obsession is a big problem for me. In interviews he claims to be ‘analysing’ or ‘critiquing’ contemporary society but, for me, his books are just another embodiment of flashy, empty American shallowdom. Completely in thrall to designer labels, ageing rock references and flashy digital gimmicks, Gibson’s novels are part of the problem, not the solution.

The odd good thing about Gibson’s later novels

Gibson’s command of language

Gibson still has a wonderful way with words, although he has got noticeably less zingy as the years have gone by. Still, there are plenty of places where he makes the English language turn on a sixpence, expressing neat insights with tremendous style.

  • Odile shrugged, in that complexly French way that seemed to require a slightly different skeletal structure. (p.222)
  • Nature, for Milgrim, had always had a way of being too big for comfort. (p.263)

Although he is not above what you might call fairly obvious druggy jokes in the manner of Tom Wolfe:

The sky had a Turner-on-crack intensity… (p.154)

And, above all, his consistent thing is using language to suggest edges, spaces of the mind, perceptions on the periphery, weird angles just on the edge of consciousness or perception. These crop up regularly and are very pleasurable. Thus when our heroes arrive at the huge warehouse loft where they’re going to set up the sniper rifle, Hollis notices:

It generated white noise, this place, she guessed, on some confusingly vast scale. Iron ambients, perceived in the bone. (p.329)

Interesting word, ‘ambients’. Gibson takes a lot of trouble to make his prose special, to find the phrases to express the peripheral insights he is trying to capture and he does capture this, these fleeting perceptions, with dazzling fluency, and this effort and prose achievement should be celebrated. At the end of the adventure Hollis returns to Bigend’s enormous apartment in Vancouver with its huge windows overlooking the bay:

She went upstairs. Dawn was well under way, lots of it… (p.350)

He can throw this kind of thing around with apparent ease, every page has generous doses of stylish phrasing. But, imho, the zingy style doesn’t make up for the disappointingly lame content.

Medieval mysticism

Milgrim is a drug addict and steals things but he is also a university graduate who once had a respectable career as a Russia translator before he became addicted to prescription drugs. He is, in other words, a perfect invention for a book like this, a man who combines lowlife street drug knowledge with extravagant flights of scholarly fancy.

Milgrim’s adbductor, Brown, gives him an overcoat to wear which has been stolen from somewhere and in it Milgrim unexpectedly finds a dog-eared copy of a serious history book about Christian heresies and millenarian sects of the Middle Ages. This is an unlikely subject to find in a techno-thriller. But this pretext gives Gibson no end of scope to have Milgrim get thoroughly stoned and have all manner of psychedelic fantasies or make long fantastical associations about weird and wonderful religious leaders and colourful practices. Sometimes Milgrim dreams of specific named medieval millenarians, or has waking visions of Hieronymus Bosch-style scenes. It lends the novel a pleasing patina of literacy and depth.

Kidnap psychology

In fact, arguably the best thing about the novel is the description of the peculiar bond between Brown, the renegade security operative, and Milgrim the drug-wrecked Russian translator he not so much abducts as rescues and then keeps like a stray dog. Brown feeds and doses Milgrim with his pills and orders him to carry out (pretty innocuous) tasks, like translating the occasional text they’ve intercepted being sent to or from Tito, or accompanying him to change the battery in the listening device he has (very amateurishly) hidden in Tito’s New York apartment.

All that stuff, the spook stuff, is a bit crap compared to either the Master of Spy Glamour (James Bond) or of Shabby Espionage (John le Carré). What is good and is almost worth reading the novel for in its own right, is the peculiar, undefined and shifting nature of the strange master and servant or kidnapper and abductee psychology which runs through the Brown-Milgrim storyline. This is unusual, unexpected, strange and worth the read.

The Orishas

Another notable strand or flavour in the book is the fact that Tito and Alejandro’s ‘aunt’, who brought them to New York from Havana when they were babies, Aunt Juana, worships a set of occult Cuban gods. They are referred to as the Orishas, who are deities in the Santería religion (named deities include Ochun, Babalaye, He Who Opens The Way, p.70, Orunmila, Elleggua, p.94).

There’s more detail on page 163. Oshosi gives Tito power in chapter 42. Oshosi saves Tito from Brown’s car ramming in chapter 75. Ochun helps him dangle from the harness beside the contained and seal the bullet openings in chapter 77.

Looking it up online we learn that the gods of the Santería religion are ultimately derived from the beliefs of the black slaves who were brought over from Africa to Cuba and, forbidden to practice their own beliefs, were forced to superimpose them onto the permitted icons and figures of Christianity. Thus in this belief system, shrines may contain images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary but these are ‘fronts’ for the older pagan gods.

What makes this more than local ‘colour’ is that at key moment in the book – namely when Tito is sent into Vancouver docks to patch up the bullet holes in the container – the text suggests that the Orishas literally take over his body and mind, giving him reflexes which keep him out of danger and a sense of purpose which guarantees the job will be done.

This is weird and powerful, although it actually has precedents in Gibson’s work. Something very similar happened with the voodoo spirits which appear in the second and third Sprawl novels, as somehow voodoo embodiments of the personas of pure data flow within the web. In both that and this novel, the irruption of voodoo gods into the mind of the protagonists doesn’t really make any sense but is nonetheless very compelling, as a weird, uncanny experience for all concerned.

No sex, no violence

Given the rather harsh things I’ve said about Gibson’s addiction to brands and the way the narrator’s omnicompetence with brands and travel arrangements and scrambled phone lines and surveillance technology and safe houses makes him sound exactly like every other contemporary thriller writer… one big thing certainly does distinguish Gibson’s thrillers from the competition, and it’s not the use of cutting-edge ‘locative’ or ‘geospatial’ technology. It’s the almost complete absence of sex and violent death in his books.

Actually, really high-end thrillers as a genre generally underplay sex. Characters may have sex, but it is rarely described, in fact most thrillers draw a Victorian veil over the act itself. Does Jack Reacher have much sex, I can’t remember. This, I guess, is because sex or, shall we say, making love, is generally quite a slow sensuous affair which can leave both participants feeling mellow and blissed out. Well, that is precisely the opposite of the jittery, hard-edged tone most modern thrillers strive to achieve. It would be like having a big ad break in the middle of an action movie. It would last just long enough to undermine the edgy atmosphere, the sense of constant threat, and the fast-moving action. Hence – surprising absence of sex.

What makes it more notable in Gibson’s novels is his penchant for female protagonists which sort of, at moments, might lead you to expect a flash of boob or some such sexual reference. But no nothing like that, nothing tasteless or porny ever, ever happens in a Gibson novel. He never refers to the sexuality of his women protagonists.

Instead, Chevette Washington in the Bridge trilogy, Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition and Hollis Henry in Spook Country function just like robots, like androids. They don’t seem to have any of the emotions I associate with women, or indeed people generally (love, compassion, empathy, fear, worry) nor any of the bodily functions experienced with female biology; they don’t seem to have periods, stomach cramps, any of the other physical conditions which women of my acquaintance experience.

At most they briefly pee or shower but this is referred to in, at most, a sentence before they dress quickly and efficiently and get on with the action. Gibson’s female protagonists are curiously sexless. It’s like reading the adventures of a shop window mannekin.

Ditto the violence. Nobody gets killed during the narrative of Pattern Recognition and nobody gets killed in this novel, either. It’s remarkable how, for a modern thriller writer, Gibson manages to keep the body count right down. He maintains a constant sense of threat and anticipation and yet… almost nobody actually gets hurt in a Gibson novel, nobody at all in this one.

It’s one more thing which gives them their distinctive flavour, along with the sexless women, the voodoo gods, the tangential psychology of many of the characters, the obsession with Dad Rock and flashy brands, and the consistently disappointing climaxes when the hurtling tension of 350 pages give way to a happy ending, in which no-one is hurt and more or less everyone gets what they wanted:

  • Tito and Garreth and ‘the old man’ successfully pull off their job
  • Milgrim walks free from bondage to Brown
  • Hollis gets enough detail to write her magazine story about ‘locative art’
  • and Hubertus, never really sure what he wanted except the thrill of the chase into unknown areas of the matrix, appears to be satisfied and swiftly moves on to ask Hollis and Inchmale to record a version of their only hit single which he can use on an ad for a Chinese car

So everyone is home in time for tea and an early night. In the end, it’s an oddly comforting book, in its politics-free, product-obsessed, shiny, sexless way.


Credit

Spook Country by William Gibson was published by Putnam’s in 2007. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon but it wasn’t too badly damaged, only the back cover covered in marks and the last 15 or so pages bent and folded.

Other William Gibson reviews

Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard (1971)

All summer the cloud-sculptors would come from Vermilion Sands and sail their painted gliders above the coral towers that rose like white pagodas beside the highway to Lagoon West. The tallest of the towers was Coral D, and here the rising air above the sand-reefs was topped by swan-like clumps of fair-weather cumulus. Lifted on the shoulders of the air above the crown of Coral D, we would carve sea-horses and unicorns, the portraits of presidents and film-stars, lizards and exotic birds. As the crowd watched from their cars, a cool rain would fall on to the dusty roofs, weeping from the sculptured clouds as they sailed across the desert floor towards the sun.

Those who come looking for classic Ballard – all car crashes and multi-story car parks – will be disappointed. The nine stories Ballard wrote about Vermilion Sands are, for the most, part, among his earliest – in fact Prima Belladonna, the first story in the series, is also the first short story he ever had published – and they all reek of early period, fin-de-siecle-cum-surrealist dreams rather than the hard psychoses of the modern world which he became famous for later on.

The idea is that Vermilion Sands is a holiday resort of the very near future, but not a holiday resort as we know it in the real world of Ibiza or the Costas. For the most striking aspect of Vermilion Sands is that there is no sea. No sea, no beaches, no sunbathing and all that vulgar paraphernalia. Instead the town appears to be surrounded by a vista of endless rolling dunes, sand-lakes and quartz reefs, among which grow the mysterious ‘sound sculptures’ and out of whose dark grottos fly the ominous sand-rays.

Perfectly at home with this nearly other-planet-like landscape, the denizens of this alternative reality are all well educated and middle class, all seem to work in the arts (we meet an increasingly predictable series of artists, singers, film makers, architects, painters and fashion designers), and indulge strange dreamy fantasies which involve making singing sculptures, tending plants which emit music, selling houses which shape themselves to their owners’ moods and, in the most characteristic story, The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D, use gliders to carve faces and shapes out of clouds for the entertainment of the jaded inhabitants below.

The stories appear to take place in the present or near future:

  • in Venus Smiles the narrator references the Expo 75 and the Venice Biennale as contemporary events; later he tells us that the artist Lorraine Drexel hobnobbed with Giacommetti and John Cage (making her a very 1950s character)
  • in The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista the architect who is shot dead is described as having hung out in the 1950s with Le Corbusier and Lloyd Wright, and then moved on to Vermilion Sands, ‘1970 shots of him, fitting into the movie colony like a shark into a goldfish bowl’, and since we know he was shot soon after arriving at the resort that sets his murder in the Seventies, and the story is being told some ten years after the trial (p.194)
  • in Say Goodbye To the Wind the lead female character Raine Channing, was a world famous model in the 1970s and the ‘now’ of the story is barely ten years later (p.132)

But the stories take place in a location which is not the same earth or the same present as the rest of us inhabit. Everyone is comfortably off and lazy. All the houses have balconies and verandas where the characters do a good deal of daydreaming and musing. Everyone takes the endless dunes, the singing sculptures, and the flying manta rays for granted.

Ballard is often heralded as the prophet of late-twentieth century urban psychoses but these stories really reveal the late Victorian in him, the man in thrall to a Tennysonian love of euphony, given to long lazy paragraphs describing pre-Raphaelite women who sleepwalk through the dunes under the shimmering moonlight, combined with an 1890s, decadent, Oscar Wilde intoxication with jewels (jeweled eyes, jeweled insects) and the uncanny attraction of the macabre. In these stories Ballard is more of a Symbolist than a modernist.

Standing with one hand on the cabin rail, the brass portholes forming halos at her feet, was a tall, narrow-hipped woman with blonde hair so pale she immediately reminded me of the Ancient Mariner’s Life-in-Death. Her eyes gazed at me like dark magnolias. Lifted by the wind, her opal hair, like antique silver, made a chasuble of the air.

In a short preface Ballard says the stories are his best guess at what ‘the future will actually be like’, a snapshot of ‘the day after tomorrow’ – but I think we can take that with a pinch of salt: the future will obviously look very much like the world of today, only more crowded and polluted; that’s certainly how the future has turned out for the last 40 years that I’ve been experiencing it.

In the 1970s they told us that by the year 2000 there’d be colonies on the moon or even Mars, and we’d all be living in the Leisure Society where the only challenge would be deciding whether to fill your spare time by being an artist or a poet. 40 years later the Space Age is over, everyone works harder than ever, and the world is just more crowded and polluted.

What the Vermilion Sands stories really are is a mental realm where Ballard could go to indulge the most rococo and whimsical of his decadent fantasies, untroubled by any constraints of realism or logic. He is closer to the mark when, later in the Preface, he says that the stories consciously celebrate ‘the neglected virtues of the glossy, lurid and bizarre.’ They are exercises in the strange and the fantastical, the weird and surreal, all told in the calm, bejewelled prose of a latter-day Oscar Wilde.

Memories, caravels without sails, crossed the shadowy deserts of her burnt-out eyes. (p.21)

References in the text to Vermilion Sands

Vermilion Sands is my guess at what the future will actually be like.

Vermilion Sands is a place where I would be happy to live. I once described this overlit desert resort as an exotic suburb of my mind…

Vermilion Sands has more than its full share of dreams and illusions, fears and fantasies, but the frame for them is less confining. I like to think, too, that it celebrates the neglected virtues of the glossy, lurid and bizarre.

Where is Vermilion Sands? I suppose its spiritual home lies somewhere between Arizona and Ipanema Beach, but in recent years I have been delighted to see it popping up elsewhere — above all, in sections of the 3,000-mile-long linear city that stretches from Gibraltar to Glyfada Beach along the northern shores of the Mediterranean, and where each summer Europe lies on its back in the sun. That posture, of course, is the hallmark of Vermilion Sands and, I hope, of the future — not merely that no-one has to work, but that work is the ultimate play, and play the ultimate work. (Preface)

‘tourist haunts like Vermilion Sands’ (The Singing Statues)

Ten years ago the colony ‘was still remembered as the one-time playground of movie stars, delinquent heiresses and eccentric cosmopolites…

All the houses in Vermilion Sands, it goes without saying, were psychotropic…

‘Darling, Vermilion Sands is Vermilion Sands. Don’t expect to find the suburban norms. People here were individualists.’ (Stellavista)

… to Vermilion Sands, to this bizarre, sand-bound resort with its lethargy, beach fatigue and shifting perspectives

The Recess is referred to in several places as a worldwide economic slump which reduced most people to working a few hours a day (Referred to in The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista and the Cloud Sculptors), but this is as airily vague and meaningless as everything else in the stories.

Vermilion

Prima Belladonna (1956)

Steve Parker keeps a shop of singing flowers, Parker’s Choro-Fauna. A lot of effort is put into explaining the complexity of singing plants and, in particular, the way they need tuning and Steve does this using the monstrous Khan-Arachnid orchid, a difficult bloom with a range of 24 octaves. When he’s not fussing about these rare and expensive musical plants, Steve hangs out with his pals Tony and Harry, drinking cool beers on his balcony.

What is maybe most characteristic about the story is the notion that it is set during ‘The Recess’, a decade of economic stasis. There’s no socio-economic explanation of this, it just reinforces the sense of slow, lazy, easy-going torpor which hangs over the story.

Into their relaxed, passive lives arrives the stunningly beautiful Jane Cyracylides, long and lean with golden skin and disconcerting eyes which seem like insects. The boys ogle her from their balcony and then one day she comes to the shop.

Tony gets to know here and discovers Jane’s astonishing singing ability, an ability which, if not restrained, badly upsets the flowers in his shop. She starts to make a living singing in nightclubs and becomes famous so Tony is thrilled when they become an item, cruising round together and hanging at the beach.

One day he is awoken by music from the shop, strange, it’s locked up and should be quiet. He goes in to discover the Khan-Arachnid orchid in mad tumescence, rearing up to over nine feet tall and sucking into its core the willing body of Jane Cyracylides. When he tries to pull her free she pushes him away. Later, when he re-enters the shop, the Khan-Arachnid has returned to its normal size and Jane is nowhere to be seen. Has it eaten her?!

Venus Smiles (1957)

A broadly comic story. The narrator – Mr Hamilton – is on a small committee which commissioned a sonic sculpture for the central square of Vermilion Sands and awarded the gig to Lorraine Drexel. Unfortunately the finished product looks like a radar aerial with a car radiator grill broken in two so the bars stick up like a big metal comb. And the sound it emits instead of being calm and reassuring is a high pitched whine, a sitar-like caterwauling. The crowd gathered to see the unveiling starts booing.

Quite quickly the statue is withdrawn and ends up in the narrator’s own front garden, and Lorraine Drexel leaves town, laughing. This is because she knows what’s coming next. Which is the statue starts growing, and sprouting more and more sound cores which start broadcasting various classical lollipops like Mendelsohn’s Italian Symphony or Grieg’s Piano Concerto.

Hamilton chops it up with a hacksaw but the parts only grow back. They call in an expert, a Dr Blackett, who spouts some typical half-plausible pseudo-scientific explanation about the sculpture extracting its new content from oxygen in the air and its metal core, creating a dynamic form of rust.

Hamilton wakes up to find the thing smashing through his bedroom window and stretching all over his garden, caterwauling umpteen different pieces of classical music. His colleague on the Art committee, Raymond, comes round with an oxy-acetylene kit and they spend a day chopping the monster singing sculpture up into thousands of tiny pieces. They pay a local contractor to take it away to a steel mill and get it all recycled.

But the sculptress Lorraine Drexel reads about it in the press and sues. The case spends months dragging through the courts and the final verdict is delivered in Vermilion Sands’s new courthouse. They lose the case because the judge doesn’t believe – despite the eye witness testimony – in a growing singing sculpture.

But as they leave the courthouse, Hamilton feels a vibration in his feet. He leans to the floor and hears music. He walks to a window and looks out at some of the unfinished parts of the courthouse. Yes, there are new struts and stanchions growing out from the building even as he watches and new ‘sonic cores’ forming, from which emits louder and louder music.

The sculpture! Its melted-down parts have been mixed with other metal and sent off to construction jobs all over the city. Not only buildings but cars and planes, all the artifacts of modern technology will start budding soundboxes and singing!

Studio 5, The Stars (1960)

Studio 5, the Stars is an address – studio 5 is a house half way along a road in Vermilion Sands called The Stars.

It’s a good-humoured joke that the narrator is Paul Ransom, editor of Wave IX, a poetry magazine all of whose works are produced by modern VT technology – punch in your requirements of stanza form, genre, style, metre and so on into an IBM machine and it coughs out as many lines as you like.

Into his life wafts a late-Victorian beauty, the mysterious figure of Aurora Day (much like the slender and mysterious beauties Leonora Chanel and Jane Ciracylades in the other stories), given to mysterious sleepwalking in her billowing white gown or feeding the white fish in her pond or stretching on her divan, her ‘beautiful body uncoiling like a python.’

She is a real poet in that she writes the old fashioned way, with a pen. Once she learns Ransom is editor of a poetry mag she sends her pink Cadillac round every morning so that the hunchback chauffeur can deliver her latest compositions, and in the evening the tapes on which she has written her texts comes roiling and blowing across the sand from her house across the dunes, Studio 5.

But this is just the start. When Ransom rejects her poems, she magically co-opts the entire issue he’s sent to the printers, deleting all the computer-generated poems and replacing them with hers. Far more dramatic, when Ransom gets over burning the tampered copies, he lifts his glass to find a quote of poetry engraved on it, and poetry engraved on the steps of his, and on the doors, and on the walls, and on the floors. Then he looks at his arms and realises they are live with hand-written verse and when he looks in the mirrors he sees that his face it is covered in poetry.

He vaults the balcony, lands on the sand and runs over to Aurora’s house. There she is lazily feeding her fish and asks him if he knows the Greek myth about Melander, goddess of poetry, and Melander, the only true poet of the day who kills himself to prove his devotion to the art of poetry. As she tells it him, Ransom realises there are paintings of the two characters all round the walls. Is she… is she the goddess Melander?

Quickly the plot develops. Ransom utterly gives in to Aurora’s demand that the next edition of his magazine be filled with original, hand-made poetry. But when he gets home he discovers his lovely IBM poetry-making computer has been trashed. He phones the other 23 poets in Vermilion Sands and same has happened to them. How the devil is he going to fill his magazine?

One alone among the other poets isn’t fazed, the good-looking youth Tristram Caldwell. He not only offers to submit some of his verse but comes over and introduces himself to Aurora. Over the next few days they become inseparable. He suggests they go on a sand-ray hunt, sand-rays being things like bats which fly about above the ‘reefs’ but have a sharp and fatal sting.

To cut a long passage short, Tristram fools Aurora into going into a mazy grotto of the reefs and there whipping the sand-rays into such a frenzy that they appear to attack and kill Tristram. Aurora runs off screaming and is driven away the goatish chauffeur who Ransom has, by now, realised must be a reincarnation of the Greek god Pan.

Ransom a) tries to follow them but their big Cadillac loses him b) drives to Aurora’s house only to find it empty, deserted and feeling as if it has never been inhabited (as in a thousand clichéd ghost stories) and c) gets home to find Tristram lazing on his divan. What!

It was a scam by Tristram. He learned how seriously Aurora took the Melander story and how she had cast him as the tragic devotee. So he staged the entire sand-ray hunt in order to fulfil her psychological need. Only he among the little hunting party knew that they are in the ‘off’ season for the rays, and so their blades aren’t poisonous.

And the punchline of the story? Ransom is still stressing about how to fill his next issue when he gets a call from one of the poets who, strange to say, has had a moment of inspiration and has knocked out quite a decent sonnet. And then another phone call. And another. Somehow, Aurora’s presence, or her (probably) commissioning the hunchback to smash up all the poetry computers, has had the desired effect. The poets have learned how to write again.

The Singing Statues (1961)

Another story about a beautiful willowy woman who enters the life of the male narrator and entrances him.

In this case he is Milton, an artist, a maker of sonic sculptures and she is Lunora Goalen (what, not the Lunora Goalen, yes!! the Lunora Goalen!!), rich patron of the arts with apartments in Venice, Paris, New York (funny how some things haven’t changed in 60 years), doyenne of the news magazines and celebrity columns and society pages.

Lunora has rented a luxury house in the resort. She has dropped into the art gallery where Milton was just adjusting his latest sound sculpture which looks like an enormous totem pole with wings at the top. Out of the wings come sounds. Milton happens to be inside when the rich client strolls his way and – knowing the musical range of his sculpture is actually pitifully thin – he grabs the microphone and as Ms Rich arrives in range, singes the Creole Love Call which is transmogrified by the computers into a haunting melody which enchants Lunora and she buys it on the spot, turning and walking out to climb back into her white Rolls Royce, leaving it for her sharp-eyed assistant Mme Charcot to make out the cheque to the flustered gallery owner.

Next day they get an angry call complaining that the sculpture only seems to emit a dull booming noise. Milton drives out to the luxury house (like ‘a Frank Lloyd Wright design for an experimental department store’) and pretends to be doing maintenance when he is in fact installing a tape of classical music. This should fix the problem for a day or two.

On successive nights he sneaks back across the dry lake climbs over the wall into the garden, sneaks up onto the unrailed terrace and instals a new tape. Then spends increasing amounts of time looking down to the ground floor where Lunora is sleeping on an open-air divan, topless.

On the climactic day he is rung up by Mma Charcot who insists he comes straight away. Lunora is distraught, her hair undone, dishevelled, crouching beside the sculpture. Milton crouches down beside her and takes her hands in his but Mme Charcot sniggers, it is not him she cares for – it isn’t even the sculpture – it is herself she is in love with.

Appalled, Milton turns and walks away. Next day Lunora, her secretary and chauffeur have gone, When he revisits the house it is cold and empty, the muted statuary standing around like corpses. Months later, in preparation to make a new statue, Milton goes out among the actual living sound sculptures, among the sand dunes and reefs of the desert, and there discovers the sculpture he had sold her, chopped up into pieces and scattered around the sand, some of the fragments still making a sad, whining lament.

The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista (1961)

Talbot and his wife Fay are looking for a house to rent in Vermilion Sands. The resort is now past its prime and these new buyers are aware of the history of movie stars and celebrities who populated it in its prime.

The story is based on the idea of Psychotropic Homes – these are homes built in a kind of bioplastic which respond to their owners’ moods and personalities. This immediately leads Ballard into a comic tour of totally unsuitable homes, such as the mock-Assyrian ziggurat whose previous owner had St Vitus dance and so which was still nervously jitterbugging even years after he’d left. Or the converted submarine pen which was the home of an alcoholic and whose vast concrete walls still reek of gloom and helplessness. You get the idea.

Anyway they finally take a nice house with a pool and it’s only when the estate agent ‘turns it on’ (you turn on psychotropic houses) that he reveals it was the home of 70s movie star Gloria Tremayne, who was the defendant at the Trial of the Century, accused of shooting dead her architect husband, Miles Vanden Starr. Now we learn that Talbot, who’d already told us he was a lawyer, was actually a junior defence lawyer on Gloria’s team. Lots of guff about how mysterious and aloof and Greta Garbo she was.

To cut to the chase, Talbot and Fay find themselves beginning to act out the characters of its previous inhabitants. In particular, we learn from Fay’s comments to him, that Talbot has become obsessive, vengeful, permanently angry. One day the house tries to kill her by melting and bending down the ceiling in the living room where she’s sleeping to crush her onto the sofa. Her screams waken Talbot who comes running in to save her.

Next day she’s gone, a note on the memogram saying she’s gone to stay with her sister. Two months later she demands a divorce. Talbot goes on a bender, drinks too much, raves the car back across the lawn, smashing into the automatic garage, throws his coat in the swimming pool, necks a bottle of whiskey and wakes up sprawled across his bed to witness a strange sight.

A pressure zone enters the doorway, but no person, The pressure zone crosses the bedroom towards the bed, there’s a pause, then a convulsion in the air and the house goes into spasm, has a fit. The room he’s in starts to contract, within moments the door and control panel are covered in melting blob, huge veins stand out on the walls. Luckily his lighter is in his pocket and Talbot holds it up to the ceiling which starts to fizz and melt apart and he’s able to pull himself up into the from above, though that is melting and bending, the swimming pool has been upturned and draining.

He realises the house is reliving the moment Gloria Tremayne went into his bedroom to shoot Starr. The spasm was the house re-enacting Starr’s death spasm, the contraction was his lungs and heart ceasing to work, his life force contracting as the room contracted around Talbot.

Talbot makes it to the control panel and turns the house off. Hours later the police leave deciding there’s nothing they can do to prosecute a house for murder. The estate agent looks in horror at the wrecked, erupted shell of the desirable property he sold Talbot only a few months previously, then leaves.

For the time being Starr will remain. He can’t afford to move and the house is turned off. But one day… one day, he will turn it back on… the threat being that he will subsume himself in the damaged psyche of the murderess.

The Screen Game (1962)

Paul Golding is an artist, well, an artist in the Vermilion Sands sense, meaning he rarely actually paints anything. He’s co-opted by his friend Tony Sapphire into painting the sets for an avant-garde movie being produced by the millionaire playboy Charles van Stratten (two ex-wives and a controlling mother who mysteriously died in an ‘accident’) who owns a massive house out across the sand lakes.

There’s a cast of distractions including the outrageous director, but the point of the story is to introduce us to the beautiful, slender and (inevitably) troubled young woman at the heart of it. Emerelda Garland used to be a famous actress, darlings, but had a breakdown after her mother died. Now van Stratten (who is, of course, devoted to her) has organised the filming solely to recreate the milieu of her glory years and try and effect a cure.

As an typically eerie and oblique aspect of this cure the narrator is tasked with building a series of twelve enormous screens, which are painted with the signs of the zodiac and are to be moved around what seems to be an enormous chessboard on a terrace below the producer’s summer house.

As the story progresses, Golding produces many more screens than are required and he and his friends develop a strange complicated ‘game’ of moving them around, creating strange patterns and mazes.

Emerelda does indeed find walking among their ever-changing patterns and mazes somehow consoling, although Golding finds it disconcerting that she is followed everywhere or surrounded by an eerie troop of scorpions and spiders with jewels embedded in their heads, jewelled insects which foreshadow the jewelled world created in The Crystal World. (Leonora Chanel is referred to on almost page of her story as having ‘jewelled eyes’, which, we eventually realise, means small decorative jewels stuck around her eyes.)

The climax comes one morning when Charles himself deigns to come down from the summer house and play ‘the screen game’, by now a complex process using the 40 huge screens Paul has painted. But suddenly an abandoned sonic sculpture down on the empty beach sets up a wailing and they realise something is wrong.

Charles starts tearing apart the screens which form the protective carapace the mad Emerelda has made for himself. But when he penetrates to the core and strips away the screens shielding her, exposing her to the harsh sunlight, her entourage of jewelled insects, scorpions and spiders, protects her by leaping onto Charles’s body and covering his face, and stinging him to death as he runs away down the sand embankment screaming in time to the sonic sculpture’s mournful wail.

Cry Hope, Cry Fury! (1966)

The first-person narrator, Robert Melville, goes sailing on his sand-yacht across the bone-dry dunes of the sand-sea, in hunt of the eerie sand-rays which fly just out of reach. When one of the tyres of his sand yacht gets a puncture he sets off on foot but the razor sharp sand cuts his feet. Back at the yacht an enormous ray flies overhead till he shoots it dead and it falls out of the sky wrecking his sails and knocking him unconscious.

When he comes to he is being rescued by a much larger sand-yacht under the command of the windswept beauty, Hope Cunard, who tends him in her cabin as they cruise over the smooth dry sand lakes towards her luxury home on the bone dry Lizard Key. Here Melville meets Hope’s small and characteristically troubled entourage, namely her pockmarked half-brother, Foyle, and her secretary Barbara Quimby.

Hope is, of course, a painter, she paints portraits. In a nod to his sci-fi audience Ballard invents a kind of paint which, once you’ve set the basic parameters, you leave out on the canvas in front of the subject and it automatically takes the shape of whatever you intend to paint – similar to the computer programs for making poems in Studio 5, The Stars.

The subject of painting does two things. One, it brings out a profusion of references to artists, including Monet, Renoir, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Balthus, Gustave Moreau, the surrealists as a group and ‘the last demented landscapes of Van Gogh’, as well as literary references to Coleridge’s poem The Ancient Mariner and one of the Surrealists’ holy books, Maldoror. Two, it triggers a glut of sensuous, decadent description, of the desert, the gleaming sand, the  sand-rays wheeling above the rock spires and so on. And, of course, the human body as a junction or meeting point of the organic and the crystalline.

Sometimes at night, as she lay beside me in the cabin, the reflected light of the quartz veins moving over her breasts like necklaces, she would talk to me as if completely unaware p.103

It emerges that Hope had a tempestuous affair (underneath the psychological flim-flam there’s quite a lot of Mills and Boon about a Ballard story) with a tall dark stranger who is identified in the story with the Flying Dutchman. He even left a jacket behind with a tell-tale bullet hole in the chest.

Hope lets a portrait of herself and Melville be painted but over the following days it twists and distorts into the macabre figure of a skull-faced woman in a blonde wig and a pig-faced mannequin. The narrator thinks this is a reflection on the weird psychic processes at work in the isolated house, but at the climax of the story we learn that the two other occupants – Foyle and Barbara – have been dressing up in costumes and standing in front of the self-painting paintings, nothing weird and psychic about it at all, it’s a twisted attempt at humour and control.

The climax come when the Flying Dutchman or some such young man does indeed arrive, but Hope has been driven into a state of hysteria and fires a pistol at him, wounding him in the wrist and he and Melville both make their escape, running across the piazza and onto the man’s sand-schooner.

The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D (1966)

This might be the best, the most representative of the stories. Major Raymond Parker has been invalided out of the air force after an accident, hence the crutches. He is building gliders in a disused garage. two freaks pass by, the hunchback Petit Manuel and tall artist Nolan. They’re joined by playboy Charles van Eyck and form the cloud-sculptors of Coral D. a) Coral D is the fourth and largest of the four large coral towers outside vermilion Sands b) cloud sculptors glide among the clouds and release scythes of silver iodide to carve and sculpt them into the shapes of celebrities, presidents and actresses.

Till the day when beautiful reclusive heiress Leonora Chanel (daughter of one of the world’s leading financiers) is driven up in her white Rolls Royce, accompanied by her secretary Beatrice Lafferty (it does feel as if Ballard is writing the same story again and again and again).

As we get to know her we realise Leonora is a monster of egotism. She puts on a massive party at her huge villa and invites the cloud sculptors to perform. Van Eyck and Nolan are vying for her attention and outdo each other. Parker quickly starts an affair with Miss Lafferty and they jointly observe what happens next which is

1. That night there is some kind of argument or fight up on the terrace and Nolan goes running off into the night. We learn that he has in fact already had an affair with Leonora and painted a very unflattering portrait of her. Out of the shadows emerges smooth playboy Van Eyck who now tries his chances with Leonora.

2. Next day there is another party (easy to get the fact there are two, a bit confused) and this time the clouds darken into a storm. First Manuel begs to go up, in order to impress Leonora who had not tried to hide her revulsion at the hunchback. He goes up and his glider is smashed to bits in a storm cloud. Parker and Lafferty go and recover his body which means they are out in the desert when the storm turns into a real tornado and – apparently driven by the vengeful Nolan in his glider -heads straight for Leonora’s villa, where it wreaks tremendous damage.

Emerging from their hidey-hole, Parker and Lafferty tour the ruined, devastated villa, with its wreckage of party chairs, marquee and smashed champagne glasses. They find Leonora dead among her peacock feathers, her face covered by shreds of the many portraits of herself she’d commissioned over the years. And Van Eyck hanging strangled in the wires of the party lights.

Say Goodbye to the Wind (1966)

The narrator, Mr Samson, keeps a fashion boutique jokily called ‘Topless in Gaza’, the snazzy sci-fi angle being that the clothes are all bio-clothes, animated clothes, which shape and mould themselves around the owner and are also prone to hysterical fits (much like the sensitive plants and the sensitive houses and the sensitive musical sculptures).

One day a glamorous former supermodel, Raine Channing, turns up at the shop (just as Lunora Goalen turns up at Milton’s art gallery and Jane Cyracylides turns up at Tony Parker’s flower shop) and buys a carful of clothes. This is paid for by her secretary Mme Fournier (same figure as the Mme Charcot who handles everything for Lunora) and has an aggressive chauffeur (as did Lunora and Aurora Day).

Basically, Raine was used and moulded by her svengali, fashion designer Gavin Kaiser. Now she imagines he is coming back to get her and her behaviour becomes increasingly unhinged, particularly her habit of wafting from her hotel room through the empty streets to the abandoned nightclub and dancing by herself to the one record left on the old-fashioned gramophone.

At the climax of the novel the narrator is watching her, when someone creeps up behind him and biffs him on the head. When he regains consciousness he is in a hand-tailored biomorphic golden suit which almost immediately starts contracting and strangling him to death. there’s a couple of sentences of over-the-top description of this Poe-esque fate before strong hands grip him and a macho man cuts open the constricting fabric. It is none other than Jason Kaiser, brother of the dead Gavin Kaiser who has rescued him for obscure reasons.

Five miles away they watch the headlights of Miss Channing’s chauffeur-driven car as it disappears into the night, just like all the other psycho-goddesses in every other one of these stories, disappears back into the shadows of Ballard’s obsessive psyche.


Ballard’s goddesses

Hope Cunard stepped through the open window, her white gown shivering around her naked body like a tremulous wraith. (p.102)

Into all this Emerelda Garland had now emerged, like a beautiful but nervous wraith. (p.65)

Almost all the stories rotate around women of a particular type. Each of Ballard’s narrators meets and falls under the intoxicating influence of glamorous female figures with golden skin and mysterious pasts, former movie stars, reborn goddesses, alluring divas from myth, beguiling heiresses, elusive millionairesses:

  • Jane Ciracylades – mysterious and sexy woman who has a superhuman singing ability
  • Aurora Day – a witch with magic powers who can project poetry quotations into solid objects and onto human skin and murders (she thinks) her lover
  • Leonora Chanel – ‘this beautiful but insane woman’, millionairess who inspires the cloud sculptors, spurring them on to death and destruction
  • Gloria Tremayne – former actress who shot her husband and went mad
  • Emerelda Garland – former actress who had a collapse after her mother died and ends up trying to shoot her lover
  • Hope Cunard – millionaire heiress owner of mansion on Lizard Key who tries to shoot the narrator and her former lover
  • Lunora Goalen – neurotically self-obsessed millionaire art collector who has a breakdown by a sculpture
  • Raine Channing – former teenage supermodel who tries to kill the narrator by dressing him in constricting bio-fabric

These femmes fatales involve the narrator in their strange and dreamlike psychodramas which spiral up towards some kind of often violent climax before they abruptly disappear. He uses the stock phrase – ‘I never saw XX again’ – in so many of these stories it becomes a trademark, a cliché. ‘Of course I never saw her again’ (Gloria); ‘That was the last I saw of Aurora Day’ (p.180) and so on. They come; they entrance and beguile; they disappear – like women in a (very male) dream.

In fact the basic structure – glamorous woman enters life of man with an interesting speciality (animated clothes, musical plants, cloud-carving gliders, computer-generated poetry), after some fencing they ‘fall in love’ i.e. go to bed, before the plot moves to some kind of climax to which she is central and then the woman disappears as abruptly as she arrived – reminds me of the basic template of the James Bond stories (Bond’s interesting speciality being that he is the sexiest spy in the world). The Bond books began appearing only a few years before Ballard’s (first Bond novel 1953, first Ballard short story 1956).

There’s another point worth making: almost all the women are topless or scantily clad at some point; there are quite a few bare bosoms about. Lunora Goalen sleeps topless every night out on the desert terrace where Milton the sound sculptor spends hours watching her. When you see the contemporary illustrations for Ballard’s stories in contemporary sci-fi magazines, you see why coming up with a steady supply of nubile, slender and topless or diaphanously dressed women was required to keep the fans happy.

Cover of the October 1963 issue of Fantastic Stories showing an illustration of The Screen Game – jewelled insects, moveable screens painted with signs of the zodiac and – of course – a slender, half-naked young woman

Some of this – the recurrence of film stars and the entire story about making an avant-garde movie (The Screen Game) – sheds light on Ballard’s later obsession with real-life movie stars like Greta Garbo, Jayne Mansfield and especially Elizabeth Taylor in Atrocity and Crash.

These later texts are usually read as deconstructions of the mediascape in a consumer capitalist society, of the way Hollywood iconography and huge advertising hoardings mediate, focus and exploit primal human longings (for sex, for a better, perfect life) for profit. But a simpler interpretation is that Ballard himself had a deep devotion to the figure of the goddess, the muse, the Perfect Woman, which has more to do with Tennyson and the pre-Raphaelites than the hectic commercial world of the 1960s.

It’s characteristic that even though some of his male narrators sleep with these other-worldly muse figures – as Steve Parker does with Jane Cyracylides and Robert Melville with Hope Cunard – little if anything is made of the sex, as such. It is more important as a symbol of the often oblique psychological bond between the narrator and the goddess-figure.

But even that is not quite accurate, because there is actually little if any psychology in a Ballard novel. Or, to put it another way, Ballard’s novels are full of psychology but it is Ballard’s psychology – the characters are little more than ciphers in the strange trance-worlds Ballard creates, as their generally anonymous names clearly signal – Ransom, Golding, Milton, Talbot, Melville, they’re all dream figures acting out Ballard’s compulsive scenarios, again and again and in Vermilion Sands it’s striking how many of these obsessions are more or less the same one – being entranced by a beautiful, sexy, but mad and dangerous young woman.

As a footnote, they all arrive in very nice cars, and they all have chauffeurs:

  • Leonora Chanel – white Rolls Royce, chauffeur and secretary (p.11)
  • Lunor Goalen – white Rolls Royce, chauffeur and secretary (p.75)
  • Aurora Day – pink cadillac and chauffeur (p.154)

Once I’d noticed this, I couldn’t help thinking about Lady Penelope, driven about in her pink six-wheeled Rolls Royce by the faithful Parker in Thunderbirds (which was broadcast 1965-66).

Ballard’s buzzwords

There’s a lot of detail and imagination in all of the stories – a lot of sci-fi gags, like the houses which change shape or the mutant plants which can make music or the eerie sand sculptures and so on – but, in the end, I found it a struggle to read the book right to the end. The atmosphere, which starts off as dreamy symbolism, ends up becoming too one-dimensional, the effects too shrill and tinny.

I began to notice the way he throws around the adjective ‘insane’ a lot – insane wishes, insane people, insane ideas, insane landscape, insane logic,

  • fighting the insane air, Manuel piloted the glider downward…
  • For a moment the ambiguous nature of my role, and the questionable morality of abducting a beautiful but insane woman, made me hesitate. (p.67)
  • Convinced at the time of this insane logic, I drove my fists through the canvas… (p.105)
  • I raised my hands to my face, in horror saw that the surface of my skin was interlaced by a thousand tattoos, writhing and coiling across my hands and arms like insane serpents. (p.163)
  • The fragments of Aurora Day’s insane poems caught the dying desert light as they dissolved about my feet… (p.181)
  • I stood up, wondering what insane crisis this psychotropic grand mal duplicated. (p.205)
  • ‘The place must have been insane.’ (p.207)
  • There’s a subtle charm about the house even in its distorted form, like the ambiguous smile of a beautiful but insane woman. (p.208)

And bizarre:

  • the portraits recapitulated in reverse, like some bizarre embryo, a complete phylogeny of modern art… (p.98)
  • a character’s shirt makes him look like ‘some bizarre harlequin’ (104)
  • She seemed to be concealed in this living play-nest like a bizarre infant Venus (p.134)

And demented:

  • We barely noticed the strange landscape we were crossing, the great gargoyles of red basalt that uncoiled themselves into the air like the spires of demented cathedrals. (p.52)
  • In the wardrobe the racks of gowns hung in restive files, colours pulsing like demented suns. (p.136)
  • I woke on Raine’s bed in the deserted villa, the white moonlight like a waiting shroud across the terrace. Around me the shadows of the demented shapes seethed along the walls, the deformed inmates of some nightmare aviary. (p.141)

Yes, nightmare:

  • What had begun as a pleasant divertimento… had degenerated into a macabre charade, transforming the terrace into the exercise area of a nightmare. (p.69)
  • Kicking back the door I had a full glimpse of these nightmare figures. (p.106)
  • The macabre spectacle of the strange grave-flora springing from cracked tombs, like the nightmare collection of some Quant or Dior of the netherworld… (p.130)
  • The cloud if insects returned to the summer house, where Dr Gruber’s black-suited figure was silhouetted against the sky, poised on the white ledge like some minatory bird of nightmare. (p.71)

And macabre. And grotesque. And hell.

  • The livid colours of Hope’s pus-filled face ran like putrefying flesh. Beside her the pig-faced priest in my own image presided over her body like a procurator in hell. (p.107)
  • I remembered the clothes I had seen on a woman killed in a car crash at Vermilion Sands, blooming out of the wreckage like a monstrous flower of hell, and the demented wardrobe offered to me by the family of an heiress who had committed suicide. (p.137)
  • Three nights later, tired of conducting my courtship of Emerelda Garland within a painted maze, I drove out to Lagoon West, climbing through the darkened hills whose contorted forms reared in the swinging headlights like the smoke clouds of some sunken hell. (p.67)

And nightmares. And Bosch.

  • My pig-snouted face resembled a nightmare visage from the black landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch. (p.105)
  • With his beaked face and insane eyes, his hunched figure hung about with the nets of writhing rays, he looked like a figure from Hieronymus Bosch. (p.177)

There’s a tired business mantra that if everything’s a priority then nothing’s a priority. Same here. If everything is ‘insane’ and a ‘landscape from hell’ then, eventually, nothing is.

My point is that it’s too easy and glib to chuck around extreme adjectives like that. It devalues them and they quickly lose their evocative affect.

The obsessive repetition of the same basic structure – mysterious glamorous woman entrances naive male protagonists against the backdrop of the endless dunes, sand reefs and sonic sculptures – gets pretty boring after the fourth or fifth iteration. The details of things like the psychotropic houses and the moments when the house tries to kill Fay, then the narrator, are weird and hallucinatory, the details of the gliders flying among the clouds and sculpting them into shapes and faces is wonderful, but:

  1. the human plots which he concocts amid the sand-seas and reefs of quartz are often shallow and disappointing
  2. Ballard’s language is too often cranked up to maximum all the way through; there’s little light or shade, the whole thing does indeed become ‘glossy, lurid and bizarre’ to such an extent that, in the end, it runs the risk of ceasing to register or matter

Maybe literature is something to do with restraint, and the reason Ballard is hard to take seriously as a literary figure is because, although his novels are brilliant (the three disaster novels are breath-taking and Atrocity and Crash are all outstanding visions), nonetheless Ballard’s writing – considered solely as written prose – is so ridiculously over the top.

In the silence of the villa I listened to [the shadows of the demented shapes] tearing themselves to pieces like condemned creatures tormenting themselves on their gibbets. (p. 141)

Edgar Allen Poe on acid.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds, an the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced his is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions including the new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)

These images appear suddenly, as in flashes – outlined against the background of the night, like scarlet paintings executed upon ebony.

Saint Anthony

Saint Anthony a.k.a Anthony the Great (c. 251 – 356) was a Christian monk and visionary who reacted against the increasing acceptance and normalisation of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire by becoming, first an ascetic, and then rejecting social life altogether by going to live in the Egyptian desert, to fast and pray by himself, relying only on gifts of food from pilgrims and local villagers.

Rumours and legends spread about his simple life and holiness, and soon he gained a following. He is known to posterity because his contemporary, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote a long biography of him. For many years Anthony was credited as the founded of monasticism i.e. the idea that holy men should go and live in isolation from society, ideally in remote locations, to live simple lives and praise God – though modern scholars now know he was part of a widespread movement of religious puritans away from urban centres, which predated and accompanied him.

Athanasius’s biography describes how Anthony was tempted by the devil and by demons who appeared in numerous disguises, trying to seduce him with food and the pleasures of the flesh or, more subtly, trying to lure him into some of the heretical beliefs with which his age abounded.

Continually elaborated in the retelling, embellished with demons, naked women and weird monsters, the legend of the ‘Temptation of St Anthony’ went on to become a familiar subject in western art, inspiring lovingly grotesque depictions by the likes of Hieronymus Bosch and Mathias Grünewald.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch (1501)

In more modern times the Temptation was painted by Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, and was the subject of a symphony by the German composer Paul Hindemith (1934).

And it inspired this prose fantasia by Gustave Flaubert, published in 1874.

The mundane and the fantastic in Flaubert

As I’ve read through Flaubert I’ve realised his output can be very simply divided into two categories: the contemporary realist works (Madame Bovary, The Sentimental Education) and the exuberant historical fantasias (Salammbô, The Temptation of Saint Anthony).

In other words, alongside his painstaking attention to the detail of contemporary life, Flaubert was also fascinated and inspired by a wide range of historical and fantastical subjects. He had a long-running interest in the ancient world of the Mediterranean (an interest fuelled by his visits to Tunisia and Egypt) and a lifelong fascination with religion, all religions, ranging as far afield as Buddhism and Hinduism.

It is as if all the uncontrolled sexual, sadistic, fantastical and philosophical fantasies which Flaubert kept completely bottled up when creating the painstaking ‘realist’ novels, just had to erupt somewhere else – in the sustained cruelty of Salammbô and into the extended philosophical and psychological fantasia of Saint Anthony.

The problem of ‘evil’ in 19th century literature (i.e. it is boring)

Flaubert wrote three completely different versions of the Temptation (1849, 1856 and this one).

The long introduction to the Penguin paperback edition by Kitty Mrosovsky compares how the images and ideas changed in the three versions. She then goes on to quote the opinions of later French writers and critics, from Baudelaire through Valéry, from Sartre to Michel Foucault.

What becomes clear is that if you write about God and the devil, heaven and hell, being and nothingness, sex and sin, any number of critics will be able to impose their own critical schemas and obsessions on your text, and it can be turned into a Symbolist, Freudian, Modernist, Existentialist or Structuralist masterpiece, depending on which critic you’re reading.

In other words, modern texts on this kind of subject often turn out to be strangely empty.

Inner right wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece depicting the Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Inner right wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece depicting the Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Personally, I find the history of the late Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity and the efflorescence of its countless heresies, absolutely riveting. By contrast I often find the way secular ‘modern’ writers use this era and these ideas to spool out endless ruminations about the meaning of life, unutterably boring. Why?

I think the reason I like the history of the actual heresies – all those gnostics and Arians, the Adamites, Marcionians, Nicolaitans, Paternians, Archonites and so on – is that they are interesting in themselves, and they really mattered. There were riots, insurrections, people fought to the death about these beliefs and – arguably – the weakness of the Church in North Africa after centuries of bitter sectarian fighting made it easy for militant Islam to sweep across the region in the 7th century. This was of world-historical importance.

And the arcane Christological heresies of the 3rd or 4th centuries AD are interesting in themselves as thought-provoking explorations of the potential of Christian theology – was Christ a man? or a God? or half-man and half-God? Which half was which? Did God speak through him or were his words his own? Has the Son existed for all time, like God, or was he created at some later date i.e. is he equal to, or inferior to, God the Father? How can they be part of the same Substance when Jesus continually refers to ‘his Father’ as a distinct entity? And how does the Holy Spirit fit into each of these scenarios?

1. The long line of 19th century non-believing poets and writers who tackled issues of ‘sin’ and ‘damnation’ and ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ – from Byron via Baudelaire to Rimbaud and beyond – were just playing at being ‘damned poets’. There is no sense of risk in their work. The absolutely worst thing they could conceive of in their fictions, was suicide (which, when all is said and done, is just a personal psychological disorder), or murdering someone (just the one person) the subject of Dostoyevsky’s 500-page-long Crime and Punishment. Even the primevally wicked Mr Hyde only in fact murders one person. The worst thing most of these writers did, in practice, was sleep around and get drunk a lot.

In a sense the twentieth century made much 19th century literature redundant. The First World War went a long way towards (and then the Second World War, the Holocaust and the atom bomb, completed the work of) redefining forever the meaning of evil, despair, horror.

Agonising over one person’s soul seems, well, rather paltry in the light of the world we live in. (This is the reason I find the novels of Graham Greene, and their enormous obsession with the sinfulness or damnation of just one person, rather ludicrous.)

2. Also, no-one believes in Christianity any more. Not in a literal hell and damnation, not like they used to. In the Middle Ages the idea of damnation really mattered, psychologically: in Chaucer and Dante it is a real place, with real fire, and real demons skewering your tortured body. By the nineteenth century, in the hands of a dilettante like Byron, it is a fashion accessory, part of the pose of tormented genius.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

The Temptation is divided into seven parts. It is written as if a play, with prose instructions describing the setting and goings-on (Opening words: ‘The setting is Thebaid, high on a mountain…’) while the dialogue of the ‘characters’ is given in dramatic format- the name, a colon, the speech.

It starts with Anthony outside his primitive hut in the desert at nightfall, and he proceeds to have a bewildering series of visions, some of which transport him to cities and palaces, where he encounters emperors and queens, and all manner of famous individuals such as the Queen of Sheba, Helen of Troy, the Buddha, the Greek gods and so on.

Right from the start Anthony – surprisingly – bemoans his lot, hates being alone, wonders whether he shouldn’t have followed another vocation, grumbles and complains in what – to be honest – is Flaubert’s awful, stagey dialogue.

Another day! another day gone!… What solitude! what weariness!… Ah! woe, woe is me! will this never end? Surely death were preferable! I can endure it no more! Enough! enough!… Assuredly there is no human being in a condition of such unutterable misery!… What shame for me! Alas! poor Anthony!… It is my own fault! I allow myself to be caught in every snare! No man could be more imbecile, more infamous!…

Since he doesn’t really do anything, we only know Anthony through his speech and his speech is hammy Victorian melodrama. As with the dialogue in Salammbô, every sentence seems to end in an exclamation mark but, paradoxically, the more exclamation marks he uses, the less dramatic (or interesting) the speech becomes, the more tiresome and simple-minded.

I found it impossible to take Anthony seriously as a character.

He stamps his foot upon the ground, and rushes frantically to and fro among the rocks; then pauses, out of breath, bursts into tears, and lies down upon the ground, on his side.

In fact, given the extravagant cast of characters, there is also surprisingly little drama, hardly any sense of conflict or threat, in the whole work. Anthony remains the same miserable moaner all the way through. There is no change or development, no sense of critical encounters or turning points or sudden revelations.

As I’ve read through Flaubert’s works I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of Set Piece Scenes in his fiction. In a sense the Temptation is a reductio ad absurdam of this approach: it consists of nothing but an apparently endless series of set-piece encounters and scenes. This accounts for the highly static impression it makes on the reader.

One critic compares the entire book to the panoramas created by magic lanterns in the mid-nineteenth century. These enchanted their simpler audiences by projecting a series of images onto a flat wall. You can envisage the entire book as just such a series of slides.

The Temptation Of St Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck

The Temptation of St Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck (1650)

Part one – Human frailty

We find Saint Anthony in front of his hut in the desert as the sun sets. The entire book takes place in the space of this one night, from dusk to dawn.

Anthony is moaning about his lot in life and wonders why he didn’t do almost anything else, become a soldier or a teacher. Almost continually his thoughts are interrupted by wolves prowling just outside the light of his torch, or by birds, by strange noises.

Personally, I found almost all the scenes involving Anthony off-putting because he comes across as so wet and feeble. As in Salammbô and the realist novels, I often found the quiet, descriptive passages the most enjoyable, the ones where Flaubert uses his extensive background reading in the period to depict ordinary life of the time. Here he is imagining the life of your ordinary Alexandrian merchant.

The merchants of Alexandria sail upon the river Canopus on holidays, and drink wine in the chalices of lotus-flowers, to a music of tambourines which makes the taverns along the shore tremble! Beyond, trees, made cone-shaped by pruning, protect the quiet farms against the wind of the south. The roof of the lofty house leans upon thin colonettes placed as closely together as the laths of a lattice; and through their interspaces the master, reclining upon his long couch, beholds his plains stretching about him – the hunter among the wheat-fields – the winepress where the vintage is being converted into wine, the oxen treading out the wheat. His children play upon the floor around him; his wife bends down to kiss him.

Anthony sees this vision because he himself is lonely and hungry. The local villagers used to come and give him food, now they’ve stopped. Anthony reminisces about his days back in the city, as a trainee monk, when he was invited by Athanasius to join a set piece debate against the Arians (a very popular type of Christian heresy). Then he sees visions -‘ a stretch of water; then the figure of a prostitute; the corner of a temple, a soldier; a chariot with two white horses, prancing’, then he faints.

Part two – the Seven Deadly Sins

Out of the darkness comes the Devil, like a huge vampire bat, and under its wings are suckling the Seven Deadly Sins. It is a disappointment, then, that this ominous creature doesn’t speak. Instead Anthony hallucinates that his mat is a boat, rocking on a river, floating past the temple of Serapis.

Papyrus-leaves and the red flowers of the nymphæa, larger than the body of a man, bend over him. He is lying at the bottom of the boat; one oar at the stem, drags in the water. From time to time, a lukewarm wind blows; and the slender reeds rub one against the other, and rustle. Then the sobbing of the wavelets becomes indistinct. A heavy drowsiness falls upon him. He dreams that he is a Solitary of Egypt.

I like passages like this, clips or little scenelets of vivid description. When Anthony wakes the Devil has, apparently, disappeared – very disappointing. Anthony finds a husk of bread and his jug empty and this prompts a vivid hallucination of a great banqueting table set for a feast, replete with intoxicating sights and smells.

Then many things appear which he has never seen before – black hashes, jellies, the colour of gold, ragouts in which mushrooms float like nenuphars upon ponds, dishes of whipped cream light as clouds.

It was only the notes which explained to me that what now follows is a sequence in which Anthony hallucinates each of the Seven Deadly Sins in turn. This one represented the Sin of Gluttony. As in a hallucination the food morphs into lips and then into one loaf on a table which now stretches to right in front of his face. He pushes it away and it vanishes.

Then Anthony stumbles over something underfoot, which turns into money, lots of money, a crown, precious jewels.

As water streams overflowing from the basin of a fountain, so diamonds, carbuncles, and sapphires, all mingled with broad pieces of gold bearing the effigies of Kings, overflow from the cup in never ceasing streams, to form a glittering hillock upon the sand…

It is the Sin of Avarice. As he throws himself upon the pile it vanishes. He trembles in the knowledge that, had he died in the middle of succumbing to any of these temptations, he would have gone to hell.

Now the scene completely changes and Anthony thinks he sees a panoramic overview of the city of Alexandria. In style this is identical to the numerous panoramic overviews of Carthage which Flaubert gave us in Salammbô. He sees crowds of vengeful monks pouring through the streets, seeking out their heretical opponents, the Arians, and then Anthony suddenly sees himself to be one of them, bursting into the houses of the heretics, burning their books, torturing and eviscerating them, wading up to his knees in the heretics’ blood!

And the blood gushes to the ceilings, falls back upon the walls like sheets of rain, streams from the trunks of decapitated corpses, fills the aqueducts, forms huge red pools upon the ground. Anthony is up to his knees in it. He wades in it; he sucks up the blood-spray on his lips; he is thrilled with joy as he feels it upon his limbs, under his hair-tunic which is soaked through with it.

This is the Sin of Wrath.

Next the scene morphs to a Roman city (which I deduce is the newish capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople) and Anthony finds himself ushered through countless rooms in a grand palace, past armed guards to arrive in the presence of the Emperor. This painted, dazzling personage treats him as an equal, discusses politics and religion with him and places his imperial diadem on Anthony’s brow. He is taken out into the balcony overlooking the Hippodrome where the great chariot races are held, walking past prison cells in which are imprisoned his theological enemies, the Arians, grovelling and begging hur hur hur. The Sin of Pride.

Then the scene morphs into the throne room of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon 600 BC, a long banqueting table, and crawling in the dirt all the kings Nebuchadnezzar has defeated, whose hands and feet have been cut off. A little way off sit the king’s brothers, all of whom have been blinded. As in Salammbô the reader becomes aware of Flaubert’s oppressive interest in sadism and cruelty. Anthony enters the mind of the king of kings and is immediately drenched in feelings of lust and cruelty. He climbs on the table and bellows like a bull and then…

Comes to himself. He is alone in front of his hut. He picks up his whip and flagellates himself, enjoying the pain, the tearing of his rebellious flesh, whereupon…

He sees men riding on onagers (a kind of Asiatic wild ass) and then a procession of camels and horses and then a white elephant with a golden net and waving peacock feathers, which bears the Queen of Sheba. The elephant kneels, the queen slides down its trunk onto a precious carpet laid out by her slaves and she greets Anthony. As with Salammbô, there is in these scenes an excess of description over psychology or character.

Her robe of gold brocade, regularly divided by furbelows of pearls, of jet, and of sapphires, sheaths her figure closely with its tight-fitting bodice, set off by coloured designs representing the twelve signs of the Zodiac.

She wears very high pattens – one of which is black, and sprinkled with silver stars, with a moon crescent; the other, which is white, is sprinkled with a spray of gold, with a golden sun in the middle. Her wide sleeves, decorated with emeralds and bird-plumes, leave exposed her little round bare arms, clasped at the wrist by ebony bracelets; and her hands, loaded with precious rings, are terminated by nails so sharply pointed that the ends of her fingers seem almost like needles.

A chain of dead gold, passing under her chin, is caught up on either side of her face, and spirally coiled about her coiffure, whence, redescending, it grazes her shoulders and is attached upon her bosom to a diamond scorpion, which protrudes a jewelled tongue between her breasts. Two immense blond pearls depend heavily from her ears. The borders of her eyelids are painted black.

And she claims they have been searching the wilderness for him and, now they have found him, she will marry him and worship him and anoint him and caress him. There is a great deal of Miltonic description of the riches and luxuries from far-flung exotic places which she can offer him, but then it focuses down to the pleasure of her body, which sums up a whole world of desire. The Sin of Lust.

I am not a woman: I am a world!

But Anthony stands firm and after flirting with him some more, she turns on her heel, remounts her elephant and departs along with all her servants, laughing, mocking him.

Part three – Hilarion (11 pages)

A small child appears. Going up to him Anthony recognises the face of his one-time disciple, Hilarion, long since departed for Palestine. This phantasmal Hilarion sets about systematically undermining Anthony’s faith:

  • he criticises Anthony’s teacher, Athanasius, pointing out his theological errors
  • he says Anthony’s mortification is pointless since many heretics do just the same
  • Jesus went cheerfully about his ministry, mixing with people, talking, teaching, unlike misanthropic Anthony
  • when Anthony points to the Scriptures as the basis of faith, Hilarion immediately rattles off a list of the inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts of Jesus
The Temptation of St. Anthony by David Teniers the Younger (1647)

The Temptation of St. Anthony by David Teniers the Younger (1647)

Part four – the Heresiarchs and the circus victims (60 pages)

The heresiarchs Hilarion ushers Anthony into a vast basilica full of people who turn out to be a collection of all the founders of heresies, all the rival theologians and preachers and mystic, the Gnostics and neo-Platonics and religious thinkers, of his time. This is quite a long list and, as most of them only get a sentence or so designed to baffle and demoralise Anthony, it is very difficult from Flaubert’s text alone to properly understand their deviant beliefs.

After all these years I still recommend Paul Johnson’s excellent History of Christianity (1977), whose long second chapter is devoted to a detailed exposition of the Christian heresies which exploded around the Mediterranean and caused outrage, riots and even wars (when different candidates for emperor adopted opposing theologies) until well into the 8th century.

Thus Anthony meets in quick succession the heresiarchs Mani, Saturninus, Cerdo, St Clement of Alexandria, Bardesanes, the Herbians, the Priscillianists, Valentine, Origen, the Elkhasaites, the Carpocratians, the Nicolaitans, the Marcosians, the Helvidians, the Messalians, the Paternians, Aetius, Tertullian, Priscilla, Maximilla, Montanus, the Archontics, the Tatianians, the Valesians, the Cainites, the Circumcellions, Arius. Pandemonium breaks out:

The Audians shoot arrows against the Devil; the Collyridians throw blue cloths toward the roof; the Ascites prostrate themselves before a waterskin; the Marcionites baptise a dead man with oil. A woman, standing near Appelles, exhibits a round loaf within a bottle, in order the better to explain her idea. Another, standing in the midst of an assembly of Sampseans distributes, as a sacrament, the dust of her own sandals. Upon the rose-strewn bed of the Marcosians, two lovers embrace. The Circumcellionites slaughter one another; the Valesians utter the death-rattle; Bardesanes sings; Carpocras dances; Maximilla and Priscilla moan; and the false prophetess of Cappadocia, completely naked, leaning upon a lion, and brandishing three torches, shrieks the Terrible Invocation.

As you can see, this glorified list is more a goldmine for editors and annotators than any kind of pleasure for readers. Indeed, the Penguin edition has 47 pages of notes giving you fascinating facts on almost every one of the characters and places mentioned in the text. But if you read it as text alone, all these names quickly blur.

This long section about heretics makes clearer than ever the fact that Flaubert has the mentality of an encyclopedist, a compiler of dictionaries. He boasted to friends about the hundreds of history books he read as research for both Salammbô and Anthony and boy does it show.

Flaubert cuts and pastes together the results to produce scenes packed with exotic names, but almost always without any life or psychology and, as here, disappointingly uninformative. The controversies about the precise meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion which racked the early church are riveting because there was so much to play for; they were political as well as theological arguments, because different sects seized control of entire Roman provinces, Roman emperors disinherited their own children or fought opponents because they espoused divergent beliefs.

Flaubert manages to drain this exciting and complex historical and theological subject of all interest and turn it into a procession of cardboard mouthpieces, who all sound the same.

Following Arius, the chapter continues with a paragraph or so from: Sabellius, the Valentinians, the Sethians, the Theodotians, the Merinthians, the Apollinarists, Marcellus of Ancyra, Pope Calixtus, Methodius, Cerinthus, Paul of Samosata, Hermogenes, the Cerinthians, the Marcosians, the Encratites, the Cainites, the Old Ebionites, Eusebius of Caesarea, Marcellina…

The ceremony of the Orphites Anthony is then taken through a door into a dark shrine where he witnesses a ceremony of the Orphites, who worshipped the snake, the serpent in the Eden story, believing it to be the true saviour. Their chanting awakens a monstrously huge python which they handle and twine around themselves as they hold a blasphemous eucharist.

Christians being thrown to the lions Exhausted with horror at the sheer number of heresies, Anthony falls to the floor and is immediately back in the dust in front of his humble hut. Time passes and a new hallucination begins. He is in a dark room, a prison cell, among other wretches. Outside it is sunny, he hears the roar of a crowd, the sound of lions and has a vision of the arena, tier after tier of seats. He is among Christians about to be thrown to the lions.

Various characters explain why they’re there (interrupting pagan rites, burning down temples, refusing to worship pagan gods) and explore their plight: an Old Man lamenting he didn’t escape, a Young Man bewailing the lost years, a Consoler saying a miracle might happen. The idea (apparently) is to disillusion Anthony by showing him the mean motives, the backsliding and lack of faith of the so-called ‘martyrs’. The portcullis on the other side of the arena opens and out lope lazy lions, panthers, leopards, and then the martyrs’ door opens and the gaoler whips the weeping Christians out into the sand…

In the cemetery And Anthony awakes, dazed, looks around him, then.. falls into another dream. He is in a cemetery where he meets veiled women lamenting the deaths of their husbands, sons or how they themselves were condemned as Christians and persecuted, and then… as they bow and pray together, eat together, their robes slip open and their mouths join and.. I think they have an orgy – presumably the Devil’s intention is to show him the lack of faith and the easy lasciviousness of the widows of the faithful. This scene fades out and…

The Hindu sage Anthony is at the edge of a tropical forest, with parrots and lizards. On a pyre squats a shrivelled man wearing a necklace of shells and with a bird’s nest built in his long matted hair. He is ‘the Gymnosophist’, a Hindu sage. This wizened figure repeats basic Hindu teachings about reincarnation, about striving to reach purity so as not to fall into corruption. Then his pyre bursts into flames and he is burnt alive without a sound.

Simon Magus and Helen of Troy Anthony tramples out the flames and it is dark again. Then through a cleft in the rocks comes a voice followed by a white-haired old man leading a young girl with bite marks on her face and bruises on her arm. It emerges that he is Simon Magus, a magician of the first century mentioned in the Gospels. He claims to be the reincarnation of God and that the woman with him is his ‘First Thought’ or Ennoia, who has been reincarnated through the ages, at one point in the body of the legendary Helen of Troy, before he rescued from her work in a brothel in Tyre. Simon shakes the pot he’s carrying which has a live flame at the top, but the flame shivers and goes out and a great smoke or fog fills the stage.

Apollonius of Tyana Anthony stumbles though the fog to discover Simon and Helen are gone. Now through the fog come a pair of men, one tall and lordly like Christ, the other a short servant. It is Apollonius of Tyana, the sage or thaumaturge, and his servant Dimas. Apollonius declaims grandly. As so often with Flaubert, the reader gets the sense that the author is more interested, intoxicated even, by lists of grand, exotic-sounding and remote peoples and places – than by any kind of sense or logic. Thus Apollonius:

I have conversed with the Samaneans of the Ganges, with the astrologers of Chaldea, with the magi of Babylon, with the Gaulish Druids, with the priests of the negroes! I have ascended the fourteen Olympii; I have sounded the Scythian lakes; I have measured the breadth of the Desert!…

But first I had visited the Hyrcanian Sea; I made the tour of it; and descending by way of the country of the Baraomati, where Bucephalus is buried, I approached the city of Nineveh….

At Taxilla, the capital of five thousand fortresses, Phraortes, King of the Ganges, showed us his guard of black men, whose stature was five cubits, and under a pavilion of green brocade in his gardens, an enormous elephant, which the queens amused themselves by perfuming. It was the elephant of Porus which had taken flight after the death of Alexander….

Upon the shores of the sea we met with the milk-gorged Cynocephali, who were returning from their expedition to the Island Taprobana…

So we returned through the Region of Aromatics, by way of the country of the Gangarides, the promontory of Comaria, the country of the Sachalites, of the Adramites and of the Homerites; then, across the Cassanian mountains, the Red Sea, and the Island Topazos, we penetrated into Ethiopia through the country of the Pygmies…

I have penetrated into the cave of Trophonius, son of Apollo! I have kneaded for Syracusan women the cakes which they carry to the mountains. I have endured the eighty tests of Mithra! I have pressed to my heart the serpent of Sabasius! I have received the scarf of Kabiri! I have laved Cybele in the waters of the Campanian gulfs! and I have passed three moons in the caverns of Samothracia!

And so on. There is not a trace of drama, character, psychology, theology or philosophy in sight. This is quite transparently just a litany of resonant names. Apollonius and Dimas step backwards off a cliff and remain suspended in the air, like Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, before ascending slowly into the black night sky.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Félicien Rops (1878)

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Félicien Rops (1878)

Part five – the pagan gods and goddesses (42 pages)

Another long chapter in which Anthony meets what amounts to a list of all the pagan gods and goddesses, each of them given – as we’ve become used to – a few sentences or a paragraph in which to show off Flaubert’s erudition and wide reading, before handing on to the next one.

In fact it starts off with a parade of pre-pagan gods, the blocks of wood or stone which original humans worshipped. Anthony and Hilarion mock the stupidity of the men who worshiped these clods. Then detours (unexpectedly) to a quick review of the original Hindu gods and of the Buddha, who tells the story of his life. The purpose of this temptation is that, as each of these entities tells its story, Hilarion (like a mini-devil) chips in to point out that this or that aspect of their worship is really no different from Christian belief or practice; it is designed to erode Christianity’s claims to uniqueness.

We have appearances from the Buddha, Oanna (of the Chaldeans), the gods of ancient Babylon and their temple prostitutes, Ormuz god of the Persians, the Great Diana of Ephesus with her three rows of breasts.

Cybele’s priests sacrifice a sheep and spatter Anthony and Hilarion with the blood, Atys who in a frenzy castrates himself as do his priests, we see the funeral of Adonis, killed by the boar, and the lamentation of Persephone, Isis suckling her babe and lamenting the death and dismemberment of Osiris.

Anthony is racked with sadness that so many souls have been lost worshiping these false gods; but sly Hilarion points out that so many aspects of the gods or their worship echo the True Religion, seeking to undermine Anthony’s belief.

Now he and Anthony see a vast mountain with Olympus on its height and witness the pantheon of Greek gods, one by one lamenting their decline and fall: Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Hercules, Pluto, Neptune, Mars, Vulcan, one by one they lament the loss of their powers and the end of their worship, before going tumbling down into a black abyss.

The lament of Osiris for her lost lover, and the sorrow of the Greek gods are the only pages in the book which I found moving enough to reread and savour. In it we can hear the voice of Flaubert, who from his schooldays believed he lived in a fallen world of stupidity and vulgarity. Hence the words he puts into dying Jupiter’s mouth:

‘Eagle of apotheoses, what wind from Erebus has wafted thee to me? or, fleeing from the Campus Martins, dost thou bear me the soul of the last of the Emperors? – I no longer desire to receive those of men. Let the Earth keep them; and let them move upon the level of its baseness. Their hearts are now the hearts of slaves; – they forget injuries, forget their ancestors, forget their oaths – and everywhere the mob’s imbecility, the mediocrity of individuals, the hideousness of every race, hold sway!

Latterly go the household gods, those minor deities who gave grace and dignity to all aspects of daily life in ancient Rome, who laid the bride in her bed, tended at childbirth, at sickness, at feasts, during illness. All scorned, ignored and gone. Finally – surprisingly – a page is devoted to Jehovah, the god of the Old Testament, himself rejected and abused, his followers – the Jews – scorned and scattered over the earth.

It was a struggle to read the previous chapters, but these long laments of the dying pagan gods and the imaginative grace and nobility they brought to everyday life is, I think, genuinely moving. For the first time the text stirred, for me, as actual literature instead of a list of gaudy names.

Part six – the Devil (8 pages)

Hilarion gives way to the Devil himself who chucks Anthony onto his horns and carries him up, up and away, through the sky, into space, up to the moon, beyond the solar system, into the realm of the stars, all the time explaining a) that the universe is infinite, nothing like the earth-centred structure of the ancient Greeks or Jews b) while giving him a compelling lecture on theology (the only theology in the text), explaining in a dry logical, professorial manner the unbounded infinitude and one substance of God.

God has no imperfections, God has no passions, God doesn’t worry or fret about his creatures, he is vastly beyond the momentary whims of man, his is as extended, infinite and integral as the universe. BUT the corollary of this is that He doesn’t listen to prayers and hear the sobs and hopes of his countless creations. He is infinitely remote, completely Perfect, utterly indifferent. (According to the notes, this is a summary of the philosophical pantheism of Spinoza.)

The point is that the Devil’s fluent and vast philosophising leads up to the terrifyingly logical conclusion:

Adore me, then! – and curse the phantom thou callest God!

On some instinct Anthony, despite being overwhelmed by this vision of the universe and the Devil’s compelling logic, lifts his eyes as if to pray. The Devil drops him in disgust.

Part seven (20 pages)

Anthony regains consciousness by the cliff edge. It crosses his mind to end it all by simply rolling over it and falling to his death. This final chapter is in three parts:

1. He is approached by a wizened old woman and a nubile young woman. One argues the case for suicide, the other urges him to embrace life. Slowly it becomes clear they are Death and Lust, respectively. He dismisses them and is confronted by:

2. The Chimera and the Sphinx. The former attracts men towards pointless delusions, the latter devours seekers after God. They squabble and argue until the Sphinx sinks into the sand and the Chimaera goes swooping off in pointless circles.

3. Their argument morphs into the most genuinely surreal and hallucinatory section in the text, where Flaubert creates a parade of the strangest creatures or human-beasts he has come across in all his reading of myths and legends. These include:

  • the Astomi, humans who are completely transparent
  • the Nisnas, who have only one eye, one cheek, one hand, one leg, half a body, half a heart
  • the Blemmyes who have no head at all
  • the Pygmies
  • the Sciapods, who live with their heads and bodies in the earth, only the soles of their feet and legs showing
  • the Cynocephali, men with the heads of dogs who fly through trees in great forests,
  • the Sadhuzag, who has seventy-four antlers which the wind blows through to make beautiful sounds
  • the Martichoras, a gigantic red lion, with human face, and three rows of teeth
  • the Catoblepas, a black buffalo with a pig’s head, falling to the ground, and attached to his shoulders by a neck long, thin, and flaccid as an empty gut
  • the Basilisk, a great violet serpent, with trilobate crest, and two fangs, one above, one below
  • the Griffin, a lion with a vulture’s beak, and white wings, red paws and blue neck

And then there is a terrifying outpouring of Life in a profusion of forms:

And all manner of frightful creatures arise: – The Tragelaphus, half deer, half ox; the Myrmecoles, lion before and ant behind, whose genitals are set reversely; the python Askar, sixty cubits long, that terrified Moses; the huge weasel Pastinaca, that kills the trees with her odour; the Presteros, that makes those who touch it imbecile; the Mirag, a horned hare, that dwells in the islands of the sea. The leopard Phalmant bursts his belly by roaring; the triple-headed bear Senad tears her young by licking them with her tongue; the dog Cepus pours out the blue milk of her teats upon the rocks.

Mosquitoes begin to hum, toads commence to leap; serpents hiss. Lightnings flicker. Hail falls.
Then come gusts, bearing with them marvellous anatomies: – Heads of alligators with hoofs of deer; owls with serpent tails; swine with tiger-muzzles; goats with the crupper of an ass; frogs hairy as bears; chameleons huge as hippopotami; calves with two heads, one bellowing, the other weeping; winged bellies flitting hither and thither like gnats.

They rain from the sky, they rise from the earth, they pour from the rocks; everywhere eyes flame, mouths roar, breasts bulge, claws are extended, teeth gnash, flesh clacks against flesh. Some crouch; some devour each other at a mouthful.

Suffocating under their own numbers, multiplying by their own contact, they climb over one another; and move about Anthony with a surging motion as though the ground were the deck of a ship. He feels the trail of snails upon the calves of his legs, the chilliness of vipers upon his hands: – and spiders spinning about him enclose him within their network.

Finally, in this endless chain of evolutions and transformations, animals turn into insects, flowers turn into rocks, beasts turn to crystal, ice pullulates with life, it is a wild hallucination of the pantheistic vision of life in all things

And now the vegetables are no longer distinguishable from the animals. Polyparies that seem like trees, have arms upon their branches. Anthony thinks he sees a caterpillar between two leaves: it is a butterfly that takes flight. He is about to step on a pebble: a grey locust leaps away. One shrub is bedecked with insects that look like petals of roses; fragments of ephemerides form a snowy layer upon the soil.

And then the plants become confounded with the stones. Flints assume the likeness of brains; stalactites of breasts; the flower of iron resembles a figured tapestry.

He sees efflorescences in fragments of ice, imprints of shrubs and shells—yet so that one cannot detect whether they be imprints only, or the things themselves. Diamonds gleam like eyes; metals palpitate.

His vision narrows right down onto ants, onto the tiniest creatures, onto organisms no bigger than pinheads, furred with cilia and quivering with primordial life. Anthony has seen the origins of life and evolution in reverse, and he bursts out:

‘O joy! O bliss! I have beheld the birth of life! I have seen the beginning of motion! My pulses throb even to the point of bursting! I long to fly, to swim, to bark, to bellow, to howl! Would that I had wings, a carapace, a shell – that I could breathe out smoke, wield a trunk – make my body writhe – divide myself everywhere – be in everything – emanate with odours – develop myself like the plants – flow like water – vibrate like sound – shine like light, squatting upon all forms – penetrate each atom – descend to the very bottom of matter – be matter itself!

And then:

Day at last appears, and, like the raised curtains of a tabernacle, golden clouds furling into larger scrolls unveil the sky.

There in the middle, inside the very disk of the sun, radiates the face of Jesus Christ.

Anthony makes the sign of the cross and returns to his prayers.

Conclusion

Now, either Anthony has learned something definitive in the course of this long, busy night, and Flaubert intends this final outcry, apparently in praise of a kind of pantheistic materialism, as the climax and ‘message’ of the piece (which is very much how it feels when you read it)…

Or the ending has a more pessimistic meaning: namely that the return to his prayers signals a return to the same rut, the same wheel, and that the next night the whole thing will repeat itself all over again. I.e. he is caught like a Beckett character in an endless, pointless cycle of torment and fake wisdom.

I could see that both of these are possibilities but I am happy to leave my reading of the ending completely open because I was just so relieved to get to the end of this long, dense, almost unreadable fantasia of cuttings and notes transmuted into a bizarre sequence of sometimes unbearably tedious scenes.

The only moving part of the whole book is the Lament of the Pagan Gods – where the scenario of each of the gods in turn lamenting the decline of their worship and the end of their influence for once was adequate to the feeling of world sadness Flaubert is obviously aiming at.

Also, the final few pages, the almost hysterical hallucination of the very origins of life, are also head-spinningly delirious. But most if it felt like I was at the dentist having a filling.

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Salvador Dali (1946)

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Salvador Dali (1946)


Related links

Flaubert’s books

The Art of the Northern Renaissance by Craig Harbison (1995)

The period covered is 1400 to 1600.

‘Northern’ means north-west of the Alps, excluding Eastern Europe which had its own development, and Spain, ditto. So it includes the many different little German medieval states, France, but especially the northern part of the Duchy of Burgundy (modern-day Netherlands and Belgium). In these rich northern cities the wealth from the wool and textile trade created patrons who wanted paintings of themselves, decorations for their houses, but especially grand altarpieces for the big churches they built.

The Renaissance in Italy was closely linked to a rebirth of interest in classical statuary, architecture and literature, examples of which lay all around its Italian artists. This revival of learning led to new experiments in building in the pure classical style, to the introduction of mathematically precise perspective in painting, along with unprecedented anatomical accuracy in the human form. The paintings, like the architecture, were big, grand, monumental. At its peak, think of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Many Renaissance paintings are vast and use classical architectural features to emphasise their monumentality and to bring out the artist’s clever knowledge of perspective. I often find this art sterile.

By contrast, northern art is more continuous with the medieval art which preceded it. Curly Gothic architecture continues to provide its frame of reference and design. The figures often still have the elongated, willowy S-shape of medieval statuary rather than the new, muscular bodies being pioneered in Italy by the likes of Michelangelo et al. Harbison says that northern art of the 15th century is in many ways a transfer of late-medieval innovations in manuscript illustration to the public spaces of altarpieces, painted boards and frescos.

What I love northern art for is:

  1. its more flattened, less perspective-obsessed images allow for the surface of the work to be covered by gorgeous decorative schemes, particularly sumptuous fabrics and carpets
  2. it is always teeming with life – there are always tiny figures in the distance riding into a wood or firing a crossbow – every time you look you notice something else
  3. the faces – the people in northern art have much more rugged individuality than in Italian art – another way of saying this is that they are often plain and sometimes positively ugly in a way few Renaissance portraits are

As an example of gorgeousness of decorative design, I suggest Virgin among virgins in the rose garden by the unknown artist known from one of his other works as the Master of the St Lucy Legend.

There’s perspective of a sort, in that the wooden pergola covered with climbing roses creates a proscenium arch through which we can see an idealised version of the city of Bruges in the middle distance. But the overall affect of the foreground is more flat than in an Italian work. This brings out the wonderful detail of every leaf and petal of the dense rose hedge behind the characters; and emphasises the decorative layout of those figures, two on either side of the Virgin and in similar poses but with enough variation to please the eye. It allows the eye to rest on the sumptuous gold dress of St Ursula sitting left and contrast it with the plain white dress of St Cecilia sitting right. As to my ‘teeming with life’ point, I love the tiny figures of the two horse riders departing the city in the distance. In this work, I admit, the faces lack the individuality I mentioned, but I like this kind of demure medieval oval facial style.

Harbison contrasts this northern work with a contemporary Italian work, Madonna and child with saints by Domenico Veneziano (c.1445)

For me, all the human figures are dwarfed and subordinated to the ruthless application of the new knowledge of mathematical perspective. I find all those interlocking pillars and arches exhausting. And, ironically, somehow for me this does not give the image the desired depth of field but makes it appear flat and cluttered. The orange trees peeping up over the back wall don’t make up for the clinical sterility of the architectural setting. And although the human figures are obviously individualised and their clothes, the folds of their cloaks and gowns, are done with fine accuracy, these aren’t enough to overcome what I see as the overall flat, arid, washed-out and sterile effect.

As Harbison puts it:

In place of the clear, open, even and often symmetrical Italian representation, northerners envisioned subtly modulated, veiling and revealing light effects, intriguing nooks and crannies, enclosed worlds of privacy and preciousness. (p.35)

As an exemplar of this Harbison gives Rogier van der Weyden’s wonderful three-part St John Altarpiece (1450-60).

The dominant feature in all three scenes in this altarpiece is obviously the Gothic arch. (These repay study by themselves, with a different set of saints and small scenes depicted on each of the three arches.) The three main scenes depict, from left to right, the presentation of the newborn John the Baptist to his father; John the Baptist baptising Jesus; and then John’s head being chopped off and given to Salome.

The figures are given quite a lot of individuation, especially the balding executioner with his stockings half fallen down which gives a bizarrely homely touch. But the foreground scenes are really only part of the composition. Equal emphasis is given to the detailed backgrounds of all three. Perspective is used, but not ruthlessly – with enough poetic license to allow the backgrounds to be raised, tilted upwards, so we can see and savour them better.

In the left panel St Elizabeth being tucked into bed (a typically homely northern detail) is good, but better is the deep landscape behind Jesus in the central panel, with its church perched on cliffs on the right in the middle distance and city on a cliff in the remote distance left. But best of all is the right-hand panel, where our eye is drawn by the steps and tiled floors of King Herod’s palace, complete with a lounger staring out a window, a bored dog lying near the table where courtiers appear to be feasting.

And, as always, at the very bottom, in the corners, the humble, everyday, weedy flowers of northern Europe which I love so much.

The St John Altarpiece is a prime example of the richness of detail which characterises northern art and makes it – to me – so much more enjoyable, homely, decorative and domestic – funny, even, with its wealth of humanist touches.

The Art of the Northern Renaissance

The book is divided into four parts addressing different topics:

  1. Realism
  2. Physical production & original location
  3. Religious behaviour and ideals
  4. Italy and the North.

Within these there are 35 separate sections addressing issues like ‘artist and patron’, ‘manuscript illumination’, ‘the production of a panel painting’, ‘the pilgrimage’, ‘landscape imagery’, ‘the naked body’, and so on. From these sections we we learn lots of detail about specific areas of medieval life and their depiction, but nothing which affects the basic thesis that at the core of northern art is, as Harbison puts it, ‘a love of detailed description’.

It is as if one is always catching sight of something out of the corner of the eye. The ideal is not simple harmony but complex polyphony. (p.39)

Northern art is fragmentary, interested in detail. Italian art is more unified, classical and spare. Take this masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

For a start it was a north European convention to depict the Deposition within an architectural frame (cf. The descent from the cross by the Master of the Bartholomew altarpiece) which gives it a kind of continuity with the Gothic architecture of the church where it is located.

I love everything about this painting, the cleverness with which ten human figures are composed so as to make a polyphony without excessive artifice; the colour of the clothes e.g. the olive green and high cord of the woman holding the fainting Mary, the sumptuous fur-lined cloak of the rich burgher (Nicodemus) on the right. Harbison points out the detail of Christ’s pierced bloody hand hanging parallel to the Virgin’s long white hand, providing a powerful and moving real and symbolic contrast.

And, as always, I love the flowers in the foreground – is that yarrow at bottom left and herb bennet at bottom right? Harbison gives a detailed analysis of another northern masterpiece:

The detail of daily life, the sense of real people in an actual community, is what I love about this art: the unashamed flat-faced ugliness of the three shepherds, the (married?) couple standing by the gate in the background beside the shepherds; the wrinkled face and hands of old Joseph praying on the left.

As always, flowers in the foreground, here the highly symbolic lilies and irises (symbolising the passion), columbine (representing the Holy Spirit) and three small dark red carnations symbolising the nails of the cross.

Harbison makes the interesting point that the shadows of the two vases fall sharply to the right as if the floor of the stable (incongruously tiled) is almost flat; whereas, somehow behind the sheaf of wheat the floor suddenly tips upwards, presenting a much more flattened surface than strict perspective would suggest – which is then ‘decorated’ with the various figures. There are perspective points in it, but the painting ignores a strict rule of perspective in order to create a more effective, colourful and ‘rhythmic’ composition.

Top artists of the northern renaissance

If I summarised every one of Harbison’s analyses this post would be as long as the book. Instead here’s a quick overview of the key players and some major works:

Early Netherlands masters

The weird

From the generation following the deaths of these early fathers of Netherlands painting comes the one-off genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

  • Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) The religious triptych was the most common format of painting in this period, and Bosch produced at least sixteen, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments. The most famous is the weird and wonderful Garden of earthly delights. No one has adequately explained where his bizarre fantasies came from.

The Germans

I find the Germans a lot less pleasing than the Flemish or French painters of this period. They lack grace and delicacy. Their depictions of the human body, especially of the crucified Christ, seem to me unnecessarily brutal. Albrecht Dürer is meant to be the great genius but I like hardly anything that he did.

After the Reformation

The Reformation forms a watershed halfway through the period 1400 to 1600, usually dated with great specificness to 31 October 1517, when the monk Martin Luther sent 95 theses systematically attacking Roman Catholic theology to his superior, the archbishop of Mainz. His arguments became a rallying cry and focus of decades of growing discontent with the corruption and over-complex theology of the Catholic church. His ideas spread quickly and were taken up by other theologians, who were often protected by German princes who had their own secular reasons for rejecting Papal authority, until it had become an unstoppable theological and social movement.

In artistic terms the Reformation’s rejection of the grandeur of Roman Catholic theology and the authority of the super-rich Papacy played to the strengths of the northern artists, who already produced an art often characterised by its relative smallness and intimacy.

Harbison very usefully brings out the fact that fifteenth century art was so dominated by images of the Madonna seated holding the Christ child because such a static image encouraged silent devotion and meditation – in contrast with the more dynamic and emotionally upsetting images of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

He points out how the corruption of the official church had already alienated many Christians from public worship and created through the 15th century a cult of private devotion. It was onto this fertile ground that the anti-establishment teachings of Luther and his followers fell, and proved so fruitful.

Thus Reformation theology tended to foreground personal piety, meditation and reflection – moving away from bravura displays of big ostentatious public ritual. And so while the Counter-Reformation in Italy (the theological and artistic reaction against the northern Reformation) was marked by the increasing ornateness and vast, heavy, luxury of the Baroque in art and architecture, in northern Europe – although Christian subjects continued as ever – there was also a growth in depictions of ‘ordinary life’, in domestic portraits and still lifes.

It was during the post-Reformation 16th century that landscapes and still lifes came into existence as genres in their own right.

Quentin Matsys

A figure who straddles the pre- and post-Reformation era is Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) (also spelt Massys) founder of the Antwerp school of painting. His mature work dates from the period of the High Renaissance (1490s to 1527) but is the extreme opposite of the vast panoramas of human history being painted in the Vatican (the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Stanza). Instead, Massys typifies for me the virtues of northern painting, with its small-scale atmosphere of domesticity, its focus on real, living people – not the Prophets and Philosophers of Michelangelo and Raphael – and its portraits not of heroic archetypes, but of plain ordinary and, sometimes, ugly people.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

This increasing valuing of secular life is one way of explaining the rise of the genre of ‘peasant paintings’, which was, apparently, more or less founded by the teeming peasant panoramas of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Hans Holbein the younger

The northern Reformation was suspicious of religious imagery. In many places it was stripped out of churches and burned; in others merely covered up. Certainly the market for grand altarpieces collapsed, and the period saw a rise in other more specialised subjects. Critics from centuries later define these as genre paintings.

Portraits also became more secular and more frequent, a trend which produced one of the most wonderful portraitists of all time, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Technique

Harbison explains a lot about the technicality of northern Renaissance painting. Some of the most notable learnings for me were:

Panel painting Almost all northern renaissance artworks were painted on wooden panels, ‘panel paintings’ as they’re called. It wasn’t until the 17th century that prepared canvas became the surface of choice for artists. Some works were painted on linen but almost all of these have been lost. A small number were painted directly onto metal and some onto slate.

The rise of oil painting Most 15th century paintings were made with tempera. Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. But as the 1400s progressed, northern artists experimented with using oil as the binding material – first mixing colour pigment with oil then applying it to prepared surfaces.

Most of these new ‘oil’ paintings were built up from multiple layers. This required paintings to be put to one side for weeks at a time to fully dry before the next level could be done – a repetitive process which explains the incredibly deep, rich and luminous colours you see in these works.

Most Renaissance sources credited the northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the ‘invention’ of painting with oil media on wood panel supports (‘support’ is the technical term for the underlying backing of a painting). There is ongoing debate about where precisely it originated but it was definitely a northern invention which headed south into Italy.

Destruction and loss

The vast majority of European art has been lost.

  • Much of it was created for ephemeral purposes in the first place – for ceremonies, processions, pageants or plays – and thrown away once the occasion had passed.
  • Thus, much effort and creativity was expended painting on fabrics, such as linen or flags, on backdrops and sets and panels, which have rotted and disappeared.
  • Huge numbers of paintings in the churches of northern Europe were lost forever when they were painted over with whitewash during the Reformation. Outbreaks of popular or state-sanctioned iconoclasm also saw the systematic destruction of statues, wooden tracery and decorative features – all defaced or thrown out and burned in the decades after 1520.
  • Successive wars wreaked local havoc, destroying in particular castles which would have held collections of art sponsored by rich aristocrats. As an example, only ten paintings and thirty-five drawings survive of the entire life’s work of Matthias Grünewald – ‘many others were lost at sea in the Baltic on their way to Sweden as war booty’.
  • The destruction of the Great War – epitomised by the German army’s deliberate burning of the manuscript library at Louvain – was essentially localised to north-west Europe.
  • But the destruction of the second World War ranged all across Europe, deep into Russia and involved the destruction of countless churches, galleries, museums, libraries, stately homes, castles and chateaux where art works could be stored. Dresden. Hamburg. Monte Cassino. The loss was immense.

It’s always worth remembering that the comfortable lives we live now actually take place amid the ruins of an almost incomprehensibly destructive series of wars, religious spasms and conflagrations, and that the art we view in the hushed environments of art galleries is not an accurate reflection of what was painted and created in Europe, but are the scattered remnants and lucky survivors from a continent of incessant destruction and artistic holocaust.

Related links

Where to see some

You can see some masterpieces from this period for free in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (in London):

You can see the fabulous Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in room 1 of the Courtauld Gallery, off the Strand, which currently costs £7 admission price, but is worth it for the stunning collection of masterpieces from these medieval pieces through the French post-Impressionists.

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