Poetics of Loss: John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and British Fantasy in the 1920s

51Cljz3wlbL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_The close of the Great War saw an astonishing eruption of fantasy fiction written in English; above all fiction by women, or fiction by men about women, as if the appalling loss of male life in Flanders had thrown the other sex into a strong and strange new light. These include some of the greatest fantasies of the twentieth century: Stella Benson’s Living Alone (1919), which tells of witches defending London against a German air raid; David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox (1922), about a woman who spontaneously turns into a vixen and is hunted down by a pack of hounds; Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), about a community that decides its lord should marry an elfin bride, with drastic results; Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), about the uneasy relationship between the imaginary country of Dorimare and its nearest neighbour, Fairyland; Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926), about a put-upon spinster who abruptly moves to the country, meets the devil and becomes a witch; and most famously, perhaps, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), about a young man in the reign of Elizabeth I who unaccountably lives on for hundreds of years, becoming a woman in the process. In each of these books the strange, the magical, the incomprehensible manifests itself in an everyday environment, exposing the fact that the world is governed by laws unknown to governments or academies, and destabilizing that world by consequence, revolutionizing it, transforming it into a dream or work of art, breaking down habitual relationships between the sexes, opening up new possibilities of resistance to the expected and the controlled.

00037752-540x540It was in this context that John Masefield wrote what I think may be the finest children’s book in the English language, The Midnight Folk. It was published in 1927, after Lolly Willowes and Lud-in-the-Mist but before Orlando, and it seems to me to tell us a great deal about the impetus behind this eruption of postwar fantasy. All the books I’ve listed were written for adults, while Masefield’s was written for children; but it has a close familial tie to the loosely connected series of novels he started to publish after the war, and was first published in exactly the same format as the rest, so that it presents itself as equally available to readers of all ages. The hero, little Kay Harker, is clearly a relative of the titular hero of Masefield’s most successful adult novel, Sard Harker (1924), and the place he lives in is what Muriel Spark calls Masefield Country, a web of imaginary villages, towns and landmarks based on the Herefordshire where the poet grew up – a landscape that features in many of his books and poems. And The Midnight Folk also has close affinities with the fantasy novels I’ve listed. There’s a fox in it which recalls the fantastic-realist fox in Garnett’s novella, as well as Masefield’s own creation Reynard the Fox (1919); there’s an abundance of witches, as in Living Alone; there are haunting songs and half-buried memories, like the ones that disturb the burghers of Dorimare in Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist; the boundaries between the ‘real’ and the magical are permeable in it, as they are in The King of Elfland’s Daughter; and the chief antagonist of the novel, a governess who has a dual identity as the head of a coven of witches, has a name that simply must be meant to recall the best known writer on witchcraft in the 1920s, Sylvia Townsend Warner. The governess is called Sylvia Daisy Pouncer; and since the hero of the story is called Harker, it’s hard to imagine that Masefield hadn’t been listening or hearkening to the warning issued by a woman called Warner about devil-worshipping Pouncers in the English countryside. The Midnight Folk is an integral part of the landscape of postwar British fantasy fiction, and any observations we make about it may well throw light on the sparkling wave of magical texts on whose crest it rode.

01_boue_passPublished almost ten years after the end of the war, this nevertheless has the unmistakable air of a war book – a book born from a period of mass slaughter, which involves a quest for some sort of healing or recovery. It’s largely populated by women, children and animals, and many of the men in it are ghosts, afflicted by a profound melancholy brought on by their part in a calamitous loss – though here it’s the semi-symbolic loss of the treasure of Santa Barbara, otherwise known as the Harker treasure. There are ruins everywhere in Masefield’s narrative – ruined stables, sunken ships and towns, forgotten cellars – and all are haunted by memories of men who came to a premature end: smugglers, highwaymen, murderers, mutineers, Arthurian knights on hopeless missions. Kay, too, is a victim of loss, like Masefield himself: he has lost both parents, and the treasure he seeks throughout the narrative could be read as a metaphor for everything he lost with them. Among these things are his old toys known as the ‘Guards’ of his home, Seekings House. Thrown out by the governess because they might remind him of his dead parents, the Guards’ absence leaves the house open to noxious influences, notably witchcraft, and their sporadic appearances throughout the book – glimpsed by Kay in the course of other adventures – give them a mournful resemblance to the generation lost at Gallipoli and the Somme (places which Masefield visited in person). On one occasion, near the end of the book, the resemblance is striking: ‘They were going very slowly. Two of them carried lanterns, one of them had a coil of rope slung about his neck, all four were plastered with the rather pale clay of near the river’. When they sit down to rest, ‘one of them seemed to fall asleep at once’ while the others ‘were dazed stupid with tiredness and nodded forward as they sat’. It’s at this point that Kay recognizes his old toys Eduardo da Vinci and little Brown Bear, transformed by their labour into sappers left over from the work of digging trenches in Belgium – like the aged sappers encountered by the heroines of Eric Linklater’s The Wind on the Moon (1944), who have been steadily digging their way through Europe since 1914. Kay’s is a postwar world, and Masefield was intensely aware of the wounds that war inflicts on people and places, having served in the Red Cross as an orderly in 1915.

One of the most remarkable things about Masefield’s novel is its form. Like many of his novels it’s a work of continuous prose, not divided into chapters or even parts, which gives it something of the hallucinatory feeling of a consciousness drifting in and out of sleep. The lack of clear boundaries between blocks of prose (apart from the occasional gap to indicate a break in time) declares the book’s resistance to conventional social and literary categories. Like Kay, like Kay’s relative Sard Harker in the earlier novel, like Masefield himself, the book is interested in everything – all trades, all crafts, all modes of speech – and has little patience for class hierarchies, except insofar as these affect the language and behaviour of the astonishingly varied cast of people and animals that populate its pages. The story it tells is delivered through a range of different voices, from songs – the book is full of fine lyrics, as one would expect from a future poet laureate – to spoken utterances in different dialects: Sir Piney Trigger’s northernisms, his daughter’s piratical rhetoric, Abner Brown’s American English, the Rat’s sibilant, slavering discourse, Roper Bilges’s constant transformation of nouns into verbs – ‘I’ll rabbit them rabbits’ – and so on. Kay gathers clues to the whereabouts of the Harker treasure from Atlases, newspaper cuttings, notes scrawled in the back of a discarded book on gunnery, scratchings on the tin door of a broken lantern – objects he gathers from many sources in the course of his adventures. Each of these objects democratically contributes its share to the unfolding narrative, confirming Kay’s wisdom in seeking out knowledge by way of the pathways opened to him by his eclectic interests and wandering imaginings rather than through the drab routine of the school curriculum.

The book’s seamless weave also indicates its lack of interest in drawing clear distinctions between good and evil. Well, that’s not quite true; Kay and his friends in the book are well aware that they’re dealing with wicked people when they deal with Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, Abner Brown and the coven of witches. At one point Kay comes across a potion in Sylvia’s cupboard for turning little boys into Tom Tits, and fears this will be his fate as he continues to hunt the treasure which Sylvia Daisy is also tracking. But Kay and his friends are irresistibly drawn to wickedness; they find it charming, like Sylvia’s voice when she sings while playing the piano after Kay has gone to bed. When Nibbins the cat first wakes Kay at midnight and takes him to spy on the witches who have taken over his home, a song they sing nearly tempts the cat back to his former role as a witch’s familiar:

 Nibbins’s eyes gleamed with joy.

“I can’t resist this song,” he said, “I never could. It was this song, really, that got me into this way of life. […] it has nine times nine verses; but you ought to stay for some more Whoo-hoos. Doesn’t it give you the feel of the moon in the tree-tops: ‘Whoo-hoo-hoo, says the hook-eared owl?’ Come along quietly.”

6a014e5fb9e8aa970c01bb0871e7b1970dSoon afterwards Kay and Nibbins are mounted on broomsticks and heading for a witch’s meet at Wicked Hill, and later in the book Kay becomes wholly witch, stealing a hat and cloak and mask from Sylvia’s cupboard and getting vital information, thanks to his disguise, from an enchanted brazen head which she has engaged to find the treasure. Some of the objects employed by the witches in their spells are explicitly good ones: a wishing basket Kay also steals from Sylvia can only be used ‘for good things’, Nibbins tells him, which means that the coven don’t use it much. And even the witches’ wicked spells have some good results, in spite of their intentions. On one occasion they summon up a series of spirits in the hall of Seekings House to guide them to the treasure, and among these is a young woman on a flying horse who resists their orders angrily. Shortly afterwards she appears at the window of Kay’s bedroom and carries him off on her horse to visit a wicked old bedridden woman, the inimitable Miss Piney Trigger or Susan Pricker, who smokes and drinks champagne and sings piratical songs as she drifts towards her end. Despite her impenitent wickedness, Miss Trigger or Pricker becomes one of Kay’s allies, both before and after her death; and so does the fox, Rollicum Bitem Lightfoot, who is addicted to singing nasty songs about eating rabbits, in ‘a most unpleasant voice’, while hanging up the skins of his many victims. One of Kay’s helpers, the odious Rat, even swaps sides in the novel’s sequel, The Box of Delights (1935), to no one’s surprise; he is clearly only interested in getting rewards for the help he gives, and will sell his soul for a rotten haggis even in The Midnight Folk – Kay is simply lucky that (thanks to the wishing basket) he can get one for him, thus cementing his temporary friendship. The corollary of being interested in a great range of things is to have sympathy with a great range of outlooks; and like Kay, Masefield finds it easy to sympathize with criminals and other wanderers from the straight and narrow. The end of the book confirms the ouroboran links between good and evil by bringing Kay a new governess: the woman on the flying horse, who seems to have forgotten her supernatural origins but is nevertheless as bound up with enchantment and witchcraft as Sylvia Daisy. Seekings remains a house of magic long after the coven has been kicked out of its doors.

William_Blake_-_Jerusalem,_Plate_1,_Frontispiece_-_Google_Art_ProjectAs well as Chaucer – whose Canterbury Tales was the inspiration behind Reynard the Fox, and whose vibrant animal personalities in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale and the Parliament of Fowls lie behind Rollicum Bitem, Nibbins and the rest – Masefield was a huge admirer of the visionary poet William Blake, and wrote about him brilliantly. One of the things that fascinated him about Blake was his iconoclastic willingness to invert the moral structure of the Christian universe, making Satan the creator and abominating the adherents of inflexible moral systems. For Blake, Masefield tells us,

codes of all kinds, religious, moral or legal, tend to benefit all minds that are creeping and compliant and to repress the resolute independent thinker, the real free soul, who has worth and is Godlike. And from this, he came to the thought that the eighteenth-century codes, of religious morality and law as well as of art and science, were bent anywhere on repressing impulse, instinct and energy, and that this is exactly what Caiaphas and Pilate in all lands do. From this, being an immoderate thinker, as poets often are, he came to exalt energy, instinct and impulse wherever he found them and soon decided that Satan had many Christian qualities and that current Christianity was often devil worship. [Recent Prose (1924)]

MDF_13539429982Masefield’s Sard Harker features a villain who poses as a priest but worships the devil, and who binds the hero and heroine at the novel’s climax, enslaving them physically just as Blake said men and women of his time were mentally enslaved by the mind-forged manacles of industrialism. The leading villain in The Midnight Folk, Sylvia Daisy, isn’t objectionable to Kay because of her witchcraft – or indeed because of her appearance: ‘big, handsome and with something of a flaunting manner, which turned into a flounce when she was put out’. Her wickedness consists instead in her sadistic fondness for codes and strictures: for ‘loathsome’ Latin irregular adjectives like acer, and for punishing Kay when he gets his pyjamas and slippers wet on secret nocturnal expeditions. It consists, too, in her hypocrisy: she is the one who has eaten the food that’s been stolen from the Seekings House larder, a crime she promises to investigate. She also claims to have imprisoned Blinky the owl so as to return him to Lady Crowmarsh, from whose estate she snatched him in a foiled attempt to find out what he knew about the Harker treasure. Imprisonment, robbery and ruthless interrogation are her stock in trade, but her nastiness consists in her glib self-exculpation for these activities. Kay’s allies, on the other hand, are always setting him free and indulging his impulses: taking him to visit the weather cocks on the church tower, distracting him from his homework with tales of piracy on the high seas, inviting him to leave the safety of a diving bell to swim with mermaids, encouraging him to ride on the bowsprit of a sailing ship or fly with rooks in the shape of a bat. Each of these adventures is also instructive: he learns about sunken cities, nefarious dealings on sea and on land, the best way of chopping off a knight’s head and the story of the treasure, which is itself (besides being an emblem of the losses he and his family have sustained) the perfect metaphor for the complex way the world is constituted – the many meanings it contains, the multiple signifieds for which each sign or object in it can stand.

The Harker treasure means different things to different people. For the church in Santa Barbara from which it came, it is a symbol of devotion, of the church’s commitment to establishing God’s city on earth – a notion that fascinated Masefield throughout his life; indeed, in Sard Harker the South American city of Santa Barbara becomes, for the protagonist, an embodiment of the heavenly city on earth, Blake’s Jerusalem. For Captain Harker, to whose care it was entrusted by the church at a time of revolution, the treasure symbolizes a promise he made and broke: to keep the precious objects safe in his ship, the Plunderer, and return them when the fighting was over. For Abner Brown it stands for wealth: ‘If we find it,’ he tells the witches, ‘the share of each one of us will be some thirty-five thousand pounds’. For the mermaids who come across it when the Plunderer sinks, the golden images of the saints are beautiful people, worthy inhabitants of the drowned golden city they show to Kay when he swims among them. For the farmer Old Man John who digs it out of the mud it’s a symbol of Catholic heresy, ‘sin-and-heathen idols’, and needs to be kept out of circulation in his cellar to protect men from covetice. There is no single grand narrative that contains or limits the treasure; it slips from meaning to meaning as it gets transferred from hand to hand, and the central struggle of the narrative is to impose the meaning on it that one particular interest group subscribes to.

This, at least, is the central struggle from the point of view of the witches and the ghost of Captain Harker. The former want it for themselves, the latter wants to make good his broken promise by restoring it to the church. For Kay, by contrast, the value of the treasure is its story, which gets pieced together as he listens or hearkens, taking on new implications as it gets taken up by each new storyteller in his or her peculiar dialect. By the end of the book the treasure has been enriched by his imaginative engagement with this host of storytellers, and no one version of it has supplanted the rest; if he returns it to the church this is in order to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion rather than because the church’s reading of it means more to him than the other versions. Kay’s indifference to the official church perspective is confirmed by his attitude to the church building where he is taken every Sunday (another example of Sylvia Daisy’s rank hypocrisy). For the adults present, the church is a place of worship; for Kay, who is ‘much too young to understand or follow the service’, it’s a set of stories he weaves from the material objects around him. He spends much of the service puzzling over an image in a stained glass window, which from a distance looks like a ‘yellow, lop-eared rabbit’ which he calls Bunkin, but from up close seems disappointingly to be ‘a hat with spikes’. For him the irregular stones on the church walls contain pictures of Henry VIII and a sailing ship, ‘which filled in a lot of time’, while the ‘chief pleasure’ is provided by the ‘carved and painted figures arranged along the wall-pieces of the chancel-roof’, about whose identity even adult scholars are uncertain. The 32 figures are divided up by certain experts into twelve apostles, seven cardinal virtues, nine worthies, and four archangels, with proper reverence for the ancient traditions of the medieval church; but for Kay during dreary sermons they become ‘the Condicote and Muck Zennor Rugby football teams (with an umpire each)’, or the Australian cricket eleven of 1882 facing the team of Cambridge University, or the start of the 1839 Grand National ‘with Mr Mason on Lottery, and Mr Martin, in his pink sleeves, on Paulina’. The church, then, is a space to be appropriated by the dreams and desires of those who enter it; at one point even the coven visits it, to see if they can get some clue about the treasure from Captain Harker’s monument. And the same is true of all the other major spaces in the novel.

bf4a8b86b0945f4bb5011ad6c5d90018Seekings House, for instance, accommodates the treasure seekings of the witches as well as of the dead Captain Harker and his little great grandson. Captain Harker’s ship, The Plunderer, changes its affiliations several times, beginning as the Captain’s vessel, being seized by the gunner Roper Bilges and his confederates for the treasure she contains, snatched from Bilges’s command by Twiney Pricker the sailmaker, then from him by the rest of the crew, and finally embraced by the mermaids as an underwater pleasure garden after her sinking. The ship’s name, in fact, anticipates her capacity for being appropriated or plundered by successive owners – just as the name of Seekings House affirms its restlessness, its refusal to settle into architectural or moral stability. Even Kay takes command of the Plunderer at one stage, when a model of his ancestor’s vessel drifts away from the wall of his bedroom and takes him on a night-time voyage to the place where her original sank – becoming in the process the model ship of a boy’s dreams, crewed by mice and stocked with improbable delicacies. Objects, then, as well as buildings, vessels, and people, change their uses and associations as the book goes on. A lost toboggan becomes a stairway to Kay’s underground lair; magic broomsticks and witches’ costumes serve two masters, Sylvia Daisy and Kay; even the object of Kay’s adventures gets transformed at one point, from a hunt for the Harker treasure to a quest for the treasure of Benjamin the Highwayman, who used to live in the ruined stables of Seekings House. The alternative functions of objects fascinated Masefield. The ship, for instance, in his poem Dauber (1912), is both a workplace for the sailors and a subject for the youthful artist of the poem’s title. Neither reading of the ship is privileged in the poem over the other; the artist takes his berth as a sailor in order to paint the ship he sails on as a workplace viewed from inside, by a sailor who is also a painter, one who knows the craft he paints. By the end of the narrative, Dauber has been accepted as a member of the crew by his fellow sailors, at the cost of his life; when he falls from the masthead during a storm he thinks it is another sailor who has fallen, and the mistake shows how far his perspective on the ship has changed. The crew never likes his paintings, but the story of Dauber is his legacy, the poem standing in for the body of work the young man never completed. For Masefield, then, as for his hero Blake, a work of art is a manifestation of energy, and the reduction of any person, object or word to a single meaning, to a fixed place in an ordered code, to one perspective or function, is anathema, the death of creativity and imaginative freedom.

hilder4It’s for this reason, maybe, that so many of Masefield’s great poems are narrative poems, and so many of his best novels adventure stories, of the kind mockingly referred to in the title of his novel ODTAA (1926), which stands for One Damn Thing After Another. The headlong energy of The Midnight Folk is provided by the adventure of hunting; the hunting of treasure, of course, but also of animals and, more disturbingly, people. Hunter and hunted change places regularly as the book goes on – just as they did in Sard Harker, where the hero tracks a kidnapped woman through the hallucinogenic landscape of South America, where he finds himself hunted in his turn by bandits and killers. In The Midnight Folk, Rollicum Bitem the fox hunts rabbits at one point and is hunted by gamekeepers and the coven at another. Twiney Pricker, who becomes Piney Trigger, hunts the treasure and is then hunted to his death by Abner Brown’s grandfather. Kay the treasure hunter finds himself hunted by the coven, and riding for his life (appropriately enough) on the fox’s back. One centrepiece of the book is a manhunt for the highwayman Benjamin, who is one of Kay’s heroes; the passage where Benjamin’s mare falls and breaks her back, prompting her master to give ‘a little cry, like he’d been shot through the heart’, is one of the most moving Masefield wrote. Benjamin too is a kind of fox; the place where his mare falls is a ‘big foxes’ lie […] all full of scrub and stubbed stuff’, and it’s inevitably here that the highwayman is captured. He is tried and hanged; but his story, too, is finished by Kay, who finds the watch he stole from the local squire and returns it to the squire’s descendants. In doing so he heals another wound: Sir Hassle Gassle is said to have mourned the loss of his watch ‘to his dying day’, so his descendant is delighted to get it back. In any case the watch did the highwayman no good, since he could not sell it, and in the end it killed him; so that like the Harker treasure, Benjamin’s treasure stands for failure, as well as for the excitement of the chase: the chase that led to Benjamin’s death, the hunt for the watch that led to its restoration.

by William Strang, etching, 1912
by William Strang, etching, 1912

Masefield was fascinated throughout his life by failure, and above all by failures that lead to unexpected triumph. His favourite stories, to judge by the frequency with which he returned to them, were the story of Arthur – whose light burned brightly in the dark ages before being extinguished in combat, and who crops up in a gorgeous episode of Kay’s adventures – and the tale of Troy, another heavenly city whose fall produced the greatest narrative poem in any language. One of Masefield’s finest sea stories is called Victorious Troy (1935), and concerns a ship dismasted in a typhoon which is safely brought to harbour under the command of a teenage boy. This ship becomes a work of art as Masefield tells its story, exactly as Dauber the painter bequeathed an unexpected work of art to the world when he fell to his death: the poem about him. As early as 1910 Masefield wrote a fine novel called Lost Endeavour, about a treasure hunt that ends in disappointment; and the year before The Midnight Folk he published one of his best-known poems, ‘The Rider at the Gate’ (1926), whose chorus ends ‘The house is falling, / The beaten men come into their own’. The theme of triumph emerging from failure is at the heart of The Midnight Folk, and it’s given particular poignancy by the lost generations of the First World War that would have haunted the minds of its first readers. Young Kay, with his Arthurian name which also conjures up the notion of keys that unlock doors – the door to the future among them – affirms the continuing vitality of his homeland through his interaction with every aspect of its past and present, every class and kind of its inhabitants, living and dead. He also bequeathed a new kind of children’s fiction on the world, in a book that influenced his successors far more than it has been given credit for. If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to hunt it down.

[This was written for a Symposium in honour of Professor Marianne Thormählen of the University of Lund. I’m very grateful to Birgitta Berglund, Sara Håkansson and Kiki Lindell, who organised the Symposium, for inviting me to speak at it; and to Marianne for her friendship and support over many years.]

Possible Worlds

UNICORNWhen J99 opened the door to the headmaster’s study she was blinded by the light blazing in from the window behind his desk. She had to stand motionless for a while to let her eyes adjust to the glare; but she was damned if she was going to stand where he could watch her in her ugly new clothes, her raw new body. Shielded by the door, she screwed up her eyes and peered into the room to see if she could make out where he was lurking. Was that him, over by the shelves in the corner with a book in his hand? He had the ability to make himself almost transparent when he chose to, as if he was only ever partly present in any place where he happened to be.

‘Come in, J99, come in,’ he called in his quavering voice, and that too sounded somehow absent, as if the sound was coming from a great distance, from a place where he was terribly busy, though he could spare you a precious minute or two as long as you weren’t too demanding. ‘Won’t you take a seat? I’ve been looking forward to our little chat.’

J99 edged into the room and quickly sat in the huge leather armchair that faced the desk. Like everything else in the school it was worn almost to redundancy, and the deep impression in its seat had clearly been made by a backside much larger than hers; she had to sit forward on the hard ridge at the front of the chair to prevent herself sliding backwards into the smooth bowl in the middle.

The headmaster shut the book he had been studying and placed it carefully back on the shelf. Then he shuffled to the desk and sat behind it, so that it formed a protective barrier between himself and his pupil.

He was a tall, stooped man with a mass of white hair which caught the sunbeams and burned as if on fire. His small round glasses flashed too, and she was dazzled again as she tried to meet his eyes. ‘So, J99. I’ve been reading your plan for a project, and I have to say I’m impressed. Most unusual, my dear. We’ve not had a plan like this in all my years at the school; and I can tell you I have been here for a very long time. A very long time indeed.’

‘Of course,’ he went on, leaning back in his own chair until his head must be nearly touching the window pane, ‘of course it’s quite impossible. It simply can’t be done. But to have thought of it shows an inventiveness, a real originality which deserves some credit. Well done, J99. Well done.’

This was unexpected. When she had shown the plan to her class teacher, Q3, the prim little woman had almost had a fit. ‘Are you quite mad, J99?’ She’d cried. ‘If this is your idea of a joke it’s in very poor taste. Good God, girl: we’ve given you the biggest opportunity you could wish for – the biggest opportunity anyone could wish for – and you throw it back in our teeth like… like rubbish. The headmaster shall hear of this. Now go and stand in the corridor for the rest of the lesson. Use the time to think about what you’ve done.’

Standing in the dimness of the corridor, listening to the soft murmur from the classrooms and shifting her weight from foot to foot as each got tired of bearing her weight, J99 had had plenty of time to think about what she’d done. She also had time to think about her school uniform and how she hated it. A new hole had appeared in her shirt where she’d caught it on the corner of her desk as she left the class: the fabric of shirt and skirt seemed to tear as easily as paper. In fact, they were probably made from paper, since paper seemed to be the one thing they had plenty of in this threadbare institution, and the clothes didn’t need to last long – in most cases, just a few weeks, till the pupils had had their plans approved and moved on. She wondered how long it would take for her plan to be approved. And she wondered what would happen if it was not. Nobody had ever told her what happened then.

Putting her finger through the rent in her shirt, the tip of it brushed her stomach and she jumped as she always did when something unexpectedly touched her flesh. She remembered this feeling from adolescence: the feeling that all your nerves were acutely sensitive, that your skin had been stretched to breaking-point by a recent spurt of growth, that all the defensive layers of your body were peeling off one by one…

She had hated being a teenager, hated it with a passion. When she woke in the sick room and found herself young again – smooth skin, soft hands and stick-thin legs – she had screamed and hit out in rage and horror, and the matron and under-matron had had to hold her down till she was calmer. How dare they do this to her, she shrieked? After all those years of struggle, all the marches, all the verbal fighting and the censorship; after childbirth, divorce, grief, old age, cancer and death; to find the laughter-lines and frown-lines erased, the stretch-marks smoothed away, the scars wiped off – it was as if the School Board had contrived to censor the whole of her past, to remove all trace of who she was in one triumphantly dismissive gesture. And to be subjected once again to the contempt of adults – to have lost even that grudging respect her enemies had given her when they found she would not capitulate, would not be bought… and to return to the state of utter powerlessness, of unfocused desires and seemingly endless frustration… For the first few days after waking she had thought she would go mad every time she met her own eyes in the sick-room mirror, or met the gently condescending eyes of the under-matron. Her disgust with her new young body was even more intense, in fact, than her disgust with her paper clothes.

So why was she behaving like this, she wondered? Why make things difficult for herself? Why not simply do as she was told and escape from this hell-hole as soon as she could?

The headmaster had come round to the front of the desk and was leaning against it, looking down at her with a benevolent smile. People were always looking down at her here. ‘Yes, you have an imagination to die for,’ he observed, and there was perhaps a hint of menace in his words. ‘Think of what you could do with it if you chose! Don’t waste it, J99. Why don’t you use it to put together a workable plan?’

She looked up at him curiously, conscious of the awkwardness of her position, wondering if she should stand up too, put herself closer to his level. Yes, there was menace in his words; but wasn’t there also something else? What was it? Could it be respect? Could it be… fear? ‘Thank you, sir,’ she said, ‘but I think the plan I have is workable. Why shouldn’t it be?’

He frowned and folded his arms. In one of his hands he held a silver pen, and now he tapped his mouth with it as if warning himself not to blurt out something rash. ‘I’m sorry, J99, but it really isn’t. You’ll have to take my word for it; I’ve had years of experience with this sort of thing. The plans we approve involve possible worlds, not impossible ones. Take the world you knew, tweak it a bit, improve it in one or two tiny ways – just to make your own life a little more comfortable, a little more fulfilled – and be content with that. What you propose is simply too extreme. Too – how shall I say? – Utopian.’

‘I don’t see why,’ she said. ‘The changes I suggested didn’t involve anything physical at all; just a change of attitude. Why shouldn’t that work? It’s happened before, on my world. Or so the historians tell us.’

‘Not just a change of attitude,’ the headmaster said solemnly, wagging his finger at her so that the silver pen danced before her eyes. ‘What you describe as a change of attitude is in fact a change of heart; a fundamental alteration of the composition of the human body and mind. Let me tell you a story, J99.’ And he settled himself more securely on the desk, placing the pen at his side and folding his hands around one of his knees in a calculated display of relaxation.

‘Not long ago – no more than a hundred years or so – another young woman was sent to me; a girl very much like yourself. Much the same age, and now that I come to think of it, her hair was a lovely auburn just like yours… She came to me with a plan which you might think even simpler and easier to execute than your own. She wanted a world where unicorns exist. That’s all. All her life, she said, she’d dreamed of meeting a unicorn; and now that she’d come to this place and found out she could in theory have her wish, nothing anyone said could put her off. Of course, other girls had dreamed the same thing; every little girl loves the thought of a unicorn, and it’s sometimes taken us weeks to explain to our pupils about the consequences of putting one into your plan; the effect it would have on the ecosystem, on the structure of belief systems, on human culture generally. An intelligent, long-lived mammal with a single very valuable and deadly horn and a predilection for – well – for unmarried women: think of the repercussions such a creature would have on the way people thought and acted throughout the world? Every other girl allowed herself to give up the dream at last, persuaded that a unicorn was not worth the damage it would do to their overall plan, the disruption it would cause in the organization of reality itself. Every other girl who has passed through our hands has finally seen reason.

‘This girl though – J52, her name was: this girl was different. Nothing would do but a world with unicorns, and nothing we said would change her mind. I was not very well at the time – not very alert, not very present; brought low, perhaps, by a fit of ennui, a bout of mild depression, a touch of flu. In the end I let myself be persuaded to approve her plan. It really was quite an ingenious one – as fully conceived as yours – and I thought, fool that I was, that it might be worth trying. We processed it, we had it evaluated, costed and sketched in all its details, then we sent her down to the workshops and waited till the recommended germination period was over. A week after the project was set in motion I sent one of the teachers to see how it was getting on. Shall I tell you what she found?’

J99 shifted in her seat, trying to get comfortable. ‘Wonderland?’ she said rudely.

‘No, J99. Not Wonderland. Not any land at all, in fact, nor any world, nor any thing, but a young girl lying on the floor of the workshop, a little putrid – a little smelly – with a round hole in the middle of her chest, just there – ’ and he leaned forward to poke J99 in the sternum, tearing another small hole in her shirt as he did so and almost pushing her backwards into the pit of her chair. ‘A hole just the circumference of an animal’s horn; say the horn of a narwhal.’ He smiled again, and took off his spectacles to wipe them with his handkerchief.

‘We could never use Workshop 7 again,’ he went on. ‘It was permanently damaged. You see, her plan wasn’t viable; her world didn’t work; and the whole school system was thrown off kilter as a result. The generators were drastically overloaded, several fuses blew, and the bio-units in the science lab dipped below optimum temperature for the first time in the school’s history. We only managed to get things back on track after seven years’ hard labour, which involved all the teachers and pupils in the school as well as all the technicians. And the loss of Workshop 7; well, it’s been a disaster. Our production rate has never regained its former levels, and the volume of wastage has increased fivefold. We can’t let it happen again. That’s why we’re so very careful now about the projects we approve. We can’t afford over-ambition. We can’t afford irrationality or self-indulgence. Tried and tested formulae are all we’ll allow. After all, you know the old saying: better the world you know and love…’

‘I never loved the world I came from,’ said J99 sullenly. ‘At least, I loved some parts of it. The trees, you know, and the sunshine,’ and she gestured at the window, beyond which she could now make out the sunbeams streaming between branches. ‘But the way people treated each other; the injustice and the cruelty. I hated that. I hated it almost as much as I hate this place.’

The headmaster clucked his tongue reprovingly. ‘Such negativity!’ he said. ‘You hated your world, you hate this school… And yet you propose to construct your own new personal world on the model of this building, and populate it with the people you’ve met here. Why?’

‘Because this is the place that needs changing,’ said J99. ‘If I made a new world, a perfect one, it wouldn’t need anything doing to it. I’d be perfectly happy, always. But I’d also remember every day my unhappiness in this place, and in the other place I lived in. The other place is too big to change – too big for me to change by myself, I mean. But this place; this is just the right size. I can imagine changing it completely, every inch of it, every atom. And I can imagine the way the people in it could be if it were just a little different. How Q3 and the other teachers could be if they weren’t so utterly miserable, if they weren’t so resentful of the children in their classrooms, of the happiness they’re capable of, of the dreams they’re brave enough to dream of making real. I can even imagine how you could be, if there were no such thing as headmasters.’

This time it was the headmaster who shifted uncomfortably on the desk, trying to maintain his look of casual but kindly disdain. He cleared his throat. ‘J99, I’m frankly disappointed in you,’ he said. ‘I had hoped we could have a lengthy heart-to-heart, a free and open discussion of the things you’ve already discussed with your teacher. But I can see such a thing would be quite useless. You have entrenched yourself in your position, and nothing I or anyone else can say will ever alter that. So I have just one more thing to ask you. Will you draw up a new plan, along the lines recommended by the School Board? Or will you stick to your current plan, even if it risks not being approved? I should tell you in all confidence,’ he added, ‘that there is no chance on earth – this one or any other – that it will proceed to project status. And I think you can guess what the consequences will be if it does not.’

J99 drew her legs up under her and got to her feet. She felt as unsteady as she had when she first woke in the sick room. ‘No, sir,’ she said. ‘I don’t think I can guess what the consequences will be. Won’t you tell me?’

The headmaster sprung to his feet with surprising agility and placed his hand on her shoulder. Outwardly, he seemed as casual and courteous as ever. But there was a stiffness and awkwardness about his movements that suggested that he was in an acute state of inner turmoil.

‘I’m sorry, J99,’ he said. ‘The School Board forbids us to disclose that information. You will have to make up your mind without possessing it. Well, what’s it to be? A new world, a perfect one, an exclusive heaven all for yourself; or – disapproval, nullity, rejection? I think you’ve experienced rejection many times in your former life. Do you really want to suffer that again?’

This was J99’s cue to smile. When she smiled, although she didn’t know it, her face looked much older than when it was still. She brushed a stray strand of hair from her cheek and relaxed for the first time since entering the headmaster’s study.

‘I’m used to it,’ she said. ‘I’ll stick with the plan I’ve got.’

The headmaster gave a deep sigh and rubbed his eyes under his round glasses. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

Leaning across his desk, he struck a brass bell with the palm of his hand. A clear, sweet sound rang out, the loveliest sound J99 had heard in this school full of muted voices and muffled yearnings.

The door opened and the energetic young teacher S26 put his head in. ‘Yes, headmaster?’

‘I’m sorry to say that J99 has made her decision. She will tell you what it is, and I would ask you to do the necessary for her. Well, J99,’ he concluded, holding out his hand for her to shake. ‘I’ve enjoyed our conversation, even if it hasn’t ended the way I’d hoped. I wish you all the best for the future, and if ever you find yourself in this part of the universe again, do look us up, won’t you? We like to stay in touch with our former pupils.’

To J99 it seemed that he had begun to disappear again, and when she put her hand in his she could hardly feel it: it might have been a gust of moist warm air brushing her fingers. As she turned to follow S26 she noticed that the headmaster was now between her and the window, and she fancied that she could see the windswept branches of the forest through the dusty folds of his scholar’s gown.

He stood looking out of the window for what seemed hours, until a sharp knock came at the study door and S26 put his head in again. ‘It’s done, headmaster,’ he chirped with his usual air of vacuous efficiency. ‘I’ve never known a pupil go under so quickly. Her heart seemed to have stopped before I’d pressed the plunger. Shame, I must say. She seemed like such a bright kid when she first woke up.’

‘Have T49 put her clothes in the incinerator,’ said the headmaster without turning round. ‘And her body had better go for recycling. It’s in excellent condition.’

He hardly heard the door close: he was concentrating too hard on controlling the pain he felt in his own throat, where a lump had formed as large and round as an apple. His vision, too, seemed to have gone all blurry; the sunlight really hurt his eyes. Once again he squeezed them under his glasses; squeezed them till coloured lights flashed in the retinas. When he took his fingers away he saw a white horse standing between the tree-trunks. It was hard to tell at this distance, but it looked as though there were something protruding from the middle of its forehead.

Claire North, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014) and Touch (2015)

20706317Last year I was lucky enough to be at the University of Kansas when Claire North, aka Kate Griffin, aka Cat Webb, won the John W Campbell Award for her novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. The award is for science fiction, and the novel has some SF elements – notably the quest for something called a ‘quantum mirror’, after a portal that permits travel between alternative universes in the TV series Stargate. But the central premise of Fifteen Lives is pure fantasy: the notion that there is a certain group of people in any given historical period who get reborn repeatedly – perhaps for ever – as themselves, at the same time and in the same location and community as in all their former lives. Crucially, with each rebirth they remember everything they’ve experienced in their accumulated pasts; in other words, for each of them it’s Groundhog Day with a life instead of a day as the unit of reiterated time. With each rebirth, too, they get to chart a different course through their historical period, and this gives them the opportunity to get to know it as nobody else could. They become increasingly encyclopedic chronicles of the years they live through, incorporating into their bodies, so to speak – though always with a certain inevitable bias – all the wars, alliances, achievements, disasters, financial and cultural exchanges that occur within the limited tract of time they are able to encompass. It’s a dazzling concept, and handled with dazzling skill, above all in the elegant control North exerts over the complex mesh of plots to which the premise must inevitably give rise. And remember, the book deals only with the first fifteen of what could potentially be an infinite number of parallel lives – in Borgesian terms, a biography of Babel. The mind reels at the thought of including any more of these simultaneous life stories.

For the duration of the book, the titular Harry August – who was always born in 1918 and usually died before the end of the century – becomes our guide to the epoch immediately before our own, an often detached but always perceptive and concerned observer of the times that shaped us, the community of twenty-first century readers. Since Harry is an enthusiastic traveller, the different paths he takes through each of his lifetimes give his story an unparalleled (so to speak) geographical sweep – by his fifteenth life there seems to be almost nowhere he hasn’t been – and involve him with almost everyone imaginable, so that in spite of his attempt at detachment he’s knit up with his time, involved in it as none of his readers could ever be, and learns from this uninvited and undesired intimacy how far we are each of us complicit with historical, social and political events over which at the same time we have no control.

618698KrJJL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_The notion of complicity, and of the increasing difficulty of determining which side you should take in any conflict, is beautifully summarised by the fact that Harry’s nemesis in most of his lives is also his best friend: a man whose company he enjoys and who he continues to seek out in life after life even after he has decided the man is something of a monster. If the quantum mirror is the central SF trope of the novel, a Stevensonian pair of mirrored characters is at its heart, and at times it’s easy to see these men as devoted lovers – except that the ouroborans (people reborn repeatedly as themselves) tend not to cultivate love much after their first few efforts at it, perhaps for obvious reasons.

You could see the book as a metaphor, if you wanted. A metaphor for art, for example – especially the art of the novelist, who discovers so many narratives using for the most part the material of her own lifetime. I think Fifteen Lives may be Cat Webb’s fifteenth novel (I’m relying here on Wikipedia), which would be a neat thing if it were true. It could be a metaphor, too, for the multiple lives each of us leads. We can divide these up chronologically: this was the period when we lived here and were doing this; this the period when we lived there and changed our profession, even our personality, quite radically. Or we can do it according to the different spheres we move in. Claire North/Cat Webb is a lighting designer in one part of her life, a novelist in another, and she speaks interestingly (as I found in Kansas) on the extent to which the two activities/personas tend to stay separate while occupying the same corporeal space.

Harry_AugustFifteen Lives could also be a metaphor for the way we protect ourselves from harm by taking control of our emotions as the years go by. How many close friendships can we cultivate in a lifetime? How much love are we prepared to give out? How do we choose which part of our experience to invest in, emotionally speaking? This too is something Claire/Cat spoke on very well in Kansas: the need for a writer not to invest too much in the finished artefact, the published novel, but to move on to a new project as soon as the last one has been completed. From the reactions to this statement at the John W Campbell conference I don’t think this is a universal practice among novelists, but it strikes me as excellent advice if you can manage it. And Harry works with astonishing commitment to detach his emotional reaction to his best friend’s monstrosity from the need to get physically close to him over several lives so as to thwart his plans. One of the triumphs of the novel, though, is the extent to which he remains emotionally close to the man, too, despite all his efforts to bring him down, despite all the appalling things his friend has done to him, despite all his intentions of staying distant. He is involved in him as much as in everyone else; like it or not, they are responsible for one another, joined at the head and tail like the symbol of the ouroboros after which their sort of being is named. Claire/Cat knows a great deal about the difficulty of the emotional detachment she recommends.

There’s another aspect of the novel she stressed at the conference: that it is also a metaphor (she didn’t use the phrase) for the disconnect between a person’s age and her abilities, between the way a young person (especially a woman) is addressed by her society and the often substantial knowledge and experience she is conscious of within herself. Cat published her first novel at 14, so must have been made acutely conscious of this disconnect; she displays an understandable weariness when people exclaim for the umpteenth time over her remarkable youth (after all, what does one mean by ‘youth’ exactly – and how long does it last?) and its seeming incompatibility with the brilliance of her prose and the sheer number of her accomplishments. From another perspective, she told us about being treated like a simpleton when she first worked as lighting technician for a major theatre company after graduating with excellent qualifications and plenty of practical experience from RADA – a treatment she probably received because she was a woman as well as a neophyte in the profession. I think everyone (especially every woman) will have experienced these things in their early years; I remember very clearly the frustrations of being sixteen, and of having everything to say (I thought) and no one willing to hear it. The ouroborans experience these frustrations in lifetime after lifetime, as six-year-olds, for instance, with the brains of individuals many centuries old, and have to find ingenious ways to circumvent the problem – by sticking together with others of their kind in ouroboran communities, or playing games with their less experienced adult carers, or conducting elaborate secret lives with every means at their disposal. Childhood and youth are nightmares to them, to be hurried through as quickly as possible in order to reach what their particular period considers to be the age of responsibility, the age for taking back some semblance of control over the current version of their multiple destinies.

The way the novel is written is a marvel. It’s not linear; blessed or cursed with an infallible memory, like Severian in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, Harry experiences all times as simultaneously present, and calls up relevant experiences from any of his lives as analogies for any given episode in his narrative. The effect is to explode any sense of linear progression as the dominant mode of the twentieth century, though clearly technological and scientific progress is to some extent linear, discovery building on discovery in a manner North describes with great skill. The point is, though, that these linear scientific discoveries don’t correspond to a linear development of the human psyche; each individual develops at a different rate, whatever is happening to the changing scientific landscape through which they move – and this disconnect, too, is exquisitely evoked by the novel’s unconventional form.

touchAt an event on the day after the John W. Campbell conference, North read an extract from her next book, Touch, and it was clear at once that this novel, too, would be concerned with the peculiarly twenty-first century experience of being everyone, of knowing everyone, of experiencing no degree of separation from anybody else in the world – or at least of living under that illusion, thanks to social media, reality TV, translation apps and cinema subtitles, the many manifestations of pseudo-democracy we experience from day to day. It was also clear that Touch could be seen as equally concerned with the novelist’s craft, and with that craft as a metaphor for the irrepressible human urge to inhabit another person’s skin. Here the central concept is that of the ghost – one of a small community of human beings who are gifted or cursed with the ability to transfer themselves from one body to another by the simple act of touching, however lightly, the smallest quantity of a person’s naked flesh. Once again, there are science fictional elements to this narrative: we learn of a research project that seeks to unveil the underlying scientific principles behind this mysterious power of transference. But we never learn these principles, never find out whether such principles could ever be discovered, so that the pure impossibility of the ghosts’ powers permits them to assume the status of metaphor, to be concentrated on for their philosophical ramifications rather than as a thought experiment in conjectural physics. Touching is what stories aim to do; they enable us to touch other lives, to inhabit other bodies, and they aim to touch us, to make us emotionally invest in the people whose skins we temporarily occupy. And this touching – like the ever more complex interweaving paths traced through time by the ouroboran Harry August – helps to remind us, by its sheer promiscuity – the sheer accumulating number of diverse bodies the protagonist enters in the course of the novel – how far we are part of each other, responsible for and complicit with one another’s thoughts and feelings and actions.

This is what novels are for, of course: to enable us to be other people, in the way we were when we were children being soldiers or queens or nurses or parents. The ghost who narrates Touch, who is known as Kepler, never loses the childish passion for this sort of role-playing. Each new person she encounters is like one of the planets discovered by the stargazer in Keats’s sonnet ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’: ‘Then felt I like some watcher of the skies, / When a new planet swims into his kin’ – hence perhaps the name she is known by.[1] She is fascinated by the possibilities that person represents, and above all by the kind of beauty which might be found in that particular life – and Kepler finds beauty in all kinds of lives, especially those of the disenfranchised, the social outcasts, emotional or intellectual misfits, perpetual wanderers. The beauty she finds in these people makes her ‘love’ them – that’s her word for it, though she is challenged for it on several occasions in the novel: aren’t you talking about your own idea of these people rather than the people themselves? Is love the right word for what you feel for them? – and as with Fifteen Lives, love is clearly one of the preoccupations of the novel (what does anyone mean by it? Isn’t it often as destructively selfish as it is gloriously self-denying – and sometimes both at once, as if the same concept held two opposite ideas in tension?). Her love for the people or bodies she inhabits – called by ghosts ‘skins’, as if to indicate how shallow their understanding of each vehicle must necessarily be – leads her to research their backgrounds assiduously before ‘becoming’ them, to assume their names and genders along with their bodies, and to resist the term by which she herself is known (‘don’t call me Kepler’, she tells people repeatedly, and corrects them when they give her the wrong gender for the body she currently occupies). If Kepler is a stand-in for the author, who usurps lives and professions not her own, then she would seem to be a responsible and sensitive example of the species.

51ZLLb9W+kL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_She certainly sees herself as a responsible ghost, always leaving the body she inhabits in better condition than she found it, with money, good clothes, a social position, perhaps a qualification that can take them places if they are able or willing to take advantage of it. Some of the skins are even willing vehicles, renting out their bodies to her under certain pre-agreed conditions, and afterwards, in some cases, going on to make a business of the practice, renting themselves out again and again to other ghosts for profit. But the relationship between herself and the skins remains problematic: the skins are always the powerless element in a game between two people in which one holds all the aces. At one point in Kepler’s life she acts as what she calls an estate agent, identifying and researching skins for ghosts to occupy, as if human beings could be treated as so much living space. One of her clients asks for a body to inhabit for a lifetime, and she complies with this request, with appalling consequences for the skin concerned: a young man who loses his youth, maturity and middle age as a result of a bargain for which his consent was never sought. Clearly such a situation sets Kepler’s kind apart from novelists; inventing a narrative doesn’t involve taking over an individual’s life at such appalling cost to that individual. But if we think of the situation in terms of writing novels it can help to draw out the extent to which novelists are colonists. They steal other people’s time away from them for hours and days, and appropriate unfamiliar cultures, sexes, age-groups, jobs and family relationships for their own purposes – an appropriation which, irresponsibly used, can lead to the perpetuation of ugly stereotypes and insidious prejudices. North brilliantly brings this problem home when she has Kepler inhabit, for a time, the body of a North African nurse about whom she knows nothing at all except his name. She has to guess at his language and nationality, and all her guesses turn out to be wrong; even a ghost who has spent so long researching and being other people will end up reproducing her own ingrained assumptions about a stranger she has not investigated properly prior to taking on his flesh.

zpage014Keats’s famous sonnet on Chapman’s Homer is helpful when considering the colonialism of creativity as well as its astronomical sweep and passion. In the sonnet, Keats compares his feelings on reading Homer’s work in Chapman’s translation to those of the conquistador Hernán Cortés gazing on the Pacific for the first time,

[…] when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Keats here describes himself discovering new poetic territories thanks to Chapman, but links the discovery, through the name of Cortés, with the violent overthrow of the Aztec Empire by Spain in 1519-20. As a result, the ‘realms of gold’ he mentions in the sonnet’s first line – by which he means the world of poetry – become tainted by association with the aggressive acquisitiveness of sixteenth-century seekers after the gold of Moctezuma. Reading becomes a colonial act, and so perhaps (by association) does Keats’s own verse, which further extends the ‘realms of gold’ into already occupied territories (he colonizes classical myth, for instance, in Endymion, the Old Testament in the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Homer’s epics in this sonnet, and so on). There are, then, two distinct processes of discovery at work in Keats’s poem: discovery as performed by astronomers, which involves observation only, with no effect on the thing observed; and discovery as performed by colonists, which involves destruction as well as observation of the thing found. Kepler thinks of herself as engaged in the former, but is clearly for much of her many lives involved in the latter too. Keats’s poetry is a two-faced creature, both professedly impartial in its observations and fiercely self-serving in the uses it makes of them, bountiful in its imaginative revelations and possessive in its desire to direct those revelations towards the advancement of the poet’s interests, the progress of his chosen narrative arc. The same is true of Kepler, who is both the benefactor of her skins and their exploiter. Like all her kind she is two-faced, a fact acknowledged by another ghost she meets who calls himself Janus, the literally two-faced Roman god of doors, ambiguity, Doppelgängers and difficult choices.

Kepler’s doubleness is exposed by the fact that she, like the ouroboran Harry August, has a double: a dark twin or abusive lover figure called Galileo, whom she chases through the pages of the novel just as Harry August chased his enemy/lover through the pages of Fifteen Lives. The beautiful intricacy of the novel’s plot, too, exposes Kepler’s doubleness. Like Harry August’s, her story is not told chronologically, and at first the endless jumping around between lives present and lives past comes across as a random, virtuosic demonstration of sheer delight in her many identities as a ghost, a delight shared by North herself, who clearly relishes the glorious diversity of the stories she has let herself get caught up in. The sense of randomness is magnificently encapsulated in one skin she inhabits, a stylish young woman who turns out to have a severed finger in the bottom of her purse; there is never any explanation for this finger, and it remains embedded in the text as an instance of the many loose ends to which a being like Kepler must of necessity be subjected. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that many of the threads of it are interconnected, and that the connections between Kepler’s many lives finally make her responsible for her evil double, Galileo. She is Galileo’s creator just as surely as Victor Frankenstein was the creator of his monster, both in the sense that he sewed him together from disparate elements and in the sense that he was responsible in loco parentis for souring his experience of being alive – for turning him monstrous. Kepler made Galileo, we learn, in an act that was intended to be one of parental affection but was in fact one of selfishness; an act she did not initiate but in which she was deeply complicit. Complicity, then, is a theme of this book as surely as it was of Fifteen Lives; and between them, the two books imply that it’s a universal theme of the globalized world we all inhabit, about which North’s two protagonists know so much, and about which we learn so much in our turn through the vicarious experience of occupying their multiple bodies.

The relationship between Kepler and Galileo also exposes the Janus-like double nature of love, the most intimate way we have of touching each other. Love is the favourite theme of novelists as it is of poets, and in this book it has a disconcerting habit of inverting itself; Kepler possesses the bodies of people who hate her on several occasions in her search for Galileo, and as is her nature she comes to love each of these formerly hating bodies, delighting in the evidence of past traumas etched into their flesh, in the problem of how to bring out the best in them and hand it on when she finally leaves their private space. Galileo both hates and loves Kepler, as does Janus – as does Kepler herself, whose transitional existence is both a joy to her and a hell of loneliness, since no body knows her, no body is her own. The reason hatred is so close to love is that it involves an obsessive focus on the person who is hated, an acknowledgement that they exist, that they have an identity like no other. It’s inevitable, then, that Kepler’s hunt for her nemesis will turn at its climax into a complicated act of love-making, in which life and death, affirmation and assassination are woven together like the self-devouring snake of North’s previous novel.

lossy-page1-220px-Scheherazade.tifMore explicit in Touch than in Fifteen Lives is the association between the novel form, as it’s practised in the twenty-first century, and the ultimate storytelling fable: that of the Thousand and One Nights. The tale of Scheherazade is of course a two-faced narrative, involving both protracted and vigorous life in the form of a collection of interwoven tales that have endured for centuries, and the fear of death, which is an ever-present fact throughout the collection (the storyteller tells her stories to avoid being executed by a tyrannous Sultan). Both Touch and Fifteen Lives are such a collection, made up of multiple interlaced stories fleeing from the threat of encroaching annihilation: a mysterious apocalypse in Fifteen Lives, which gets closer with each successive life Harry leads, and an organization called Aquarius in Touch, whose name invokes the dawn of a new Golden Age of peace and love – albeit one that involves the extermination of all ghosts without trial or mercy. Touch, however, includes the added Scheherazade-related touch that the ghosts are themselves generated from the passionate urge to defer the moment of death. Each new ghost is formed at a time of trauma, when some human being finds his or her life prematurely ended and proceeds to jump as she dies into a new body, as the only available means to avoid annihilation. The urge to survive is what finally drives all their subsequent jumps between body and body, despite all the various rationales given by ghosts for particular transitions. Writing, too, is a way of eluding death, generating texts which are a form of afterlife more readily understood in a secular age than the notions of heaven or reincarnation.

The connection between Kepler and Scheherazade is further developed by the way the story transforms itself from time to time into an orientalist fable. In one of her lives Kepler falls in love with a woman, Ayesha, who is the third and youngest wife of an Egyptian merchant. To consummate her love for this woman Kepler enters the body of her husband, and in this form she lives with Ayesha happily for several years, while the merchant she occupies continues to amass his fortune, thanks in large part to a profitable trade in slaves (so: more complicity). When the French take Cairo, Kepler is forced to flee the city in the merchant’s body, at his wife’s request, so as to save the life of Ayesha’s merchant husband. In her absence Ayesha bears the child they conceived together and dies in childbirth; but the ghost remembers her as a woman who loved her deeply, despite being fully aware of her identity as an errant spirit which usurped a life to which it had no right.

Many years later, in a Paris café, Kepler comes across a descendant of her child by Ayesha: a young Algerian artist who retells the story of Kepler’s relationship with her ancestor in the manner of Scheherazade herself. In this retelling, Kepler becomes a creature from the Thousand and One Nights, a jinn or genie:

Fire of the desert, the knife-wind, he comes, he comes riding the sands, and his name is a thousand eyes without expression, elf’ayyoun we’ain douna ta’beer, youharrik elqazb doun arreeh, and his voice is stirs-the-reeds-without-wind, and his sword is starlight, and his eyes are hot embers of a fallen sun.

As the Algerian storyteller ends her tale Kepler stares at ‘this child, who had come from the flesh of Ayesha bint Kamal and Abdul al-Mu’allim al-Ninowy; but also from my soul’. It’s a moving moment in which storytelling creates a link between past and present, between flesh and spirit, between woman and woman, between France and Egypt and Algeria; but it’s also a moment of appropriation, when an artist – North herself – ventriloquizes a narrative style that has been frequently appropriated by imperialists – most famously by the British adventurer Richard Burton. Burton, an atheist, not only translated the Thousand and One Nights unexpurgated into English but undertook the Hajj, despite his lack of faith; his interest in the sexual lives of the various peoples he encountered on his travels gave him a scandalous reputation in the nineteenth century. Kepler’s love for Ayesha, then, is rendered two-faced by the manner of its commemoration in a French café. It is an orientalist adventure, in which Kepler satisfied his lust by adopting a disguise, as Richard Burton was said to have done; and it is a moving tale of mutual affection consummated in spite of overwhelming odds. The story itself revives a forgotten love affair from the past – but it also fictionalizes it, omitting some if its darker features, such as the means by which the merchant husband, Abdul, got his living (the slave trade). The story’s authenticity as an oriental tale spoken by a North African is undermined by its presence in a novel by a British writer. The story encapsulates, in fact, the many perceptions about the two-faced trade of telling stories that North offers us in the course of her astounding novels.

But the connection with the Thousand and One Nights is present everywhere in the text, and above all when Kepler is jumping from skin to skin in flight or pursuit, as in this passage where she changes bodies on a crowded train:

I slipped from skin to skin, a bump, a shudder, a slowing-down and a speeding-up, a swaying of the carriage, a stepping on another’s foot, I am
a child dressed in school uniform
an old man bent double over his stick.
I bleed in the body of a woman on the first day of her period,
ache down to the soles of my tired builder’s feet.
I crave alcohol, my nose burst and swollen from too much of the same.
The doors open and I am young again, and beautiful, dressed for summer in a slinky dress and hoping that the goosebumps on my flesh will not detract from the glamour I seek to express.
I am hungry
and now I am full,
desperate to pee by the carriage window,
eating crisps in the seat by the door.
I wear silk.
I wear nylon.
I loosen my tie.
I hurt in leather shoes.
My motion is constant, my skins are stationary, but by the brush of a hand on the rush-hour train
I am everyone.
I am no one at all.

There has never, I think, been a better evocation of the skipping generation of the present, the rhythms of its exuberant motion, its delight in diversity, its constitutional incapacity to stay rooted in one place, its desire for closeness and fulfilment, its fear of committing itself to any one manifestation of either state. Of course it would be in a rush hour train that a being like Kepler would feel most at home; a train full of individuals crushed together, rushing through a tunnel to some destination in a vehicle over whose motion they have no control. Kepler and the book she appears in are a constellation of entities rather than a single entity, subject to gravitational pulls from their fellow entities while steering their own complex courses through many kinds of space. In this they share their nature with North’s readers, who go to her books hungry for novelties and find far more there than they bargained for.

May her hectic novels continue to weave their spells around us until – well, until she chooses to take another shape, another name, a new way of writing, a different style.

I suspect we’ll choose to follow her, wherever.


[1] I also wonder if North was thinking of another Kepler – one with two ps who specializes in writing about Doppelgängers: see C. F. Keppler, The Literature of the Second Self (University of Arizona Press, 1972). I’m grateful to Matteo Barbagallo for drawing my attention to Keppler’s work.