Saturday, March 14, 2009

Found Book Noted

One of the minor miracles of coincidence happened upon me today, though one that needs a bit of set-up to establish its (admittedly deeply subjective) level of astoundingness.

Among the many books, comics and writings of my own which have been archived in my personal Library of the Lost, there was one scifi novel I remember with great fondness from my early teens. Bought from SteppenWoolworths in Broughty Ferry for a derisory sum, it was a time travel adventure starring some special agent battling foes in far-back Mohenjo-Daro. It got swept away in one or another of my mother's clear-outs (following the dusty path to oblivion first trod by my infant companion, a panda, of which more later, and accompanied by many 'Commandos' and 'Astounding Stories'), and all I really remembered about its protecting-the-timelines shenanigans was that the lantern-jawed hero was accompanied by a symbiotic telepathic assistant made of jelly who disguised itself as his shoulderpads.

When the internet made it apparent that everything could be retrieved, reissued, or simply downloaded in a new format, I made a few desultory efforts to track it down, but, without title or author, it was never going to be easy. So an alternative scheme, roughly parallel to the theme of this blog, soon occurred to me: I would write it again. Or rather I would write a scifi novel of my own, based on what I could remember plus what I could fantasise about what I could remember.

Back in January, I was in Sofia after a series of translation sessions with Bulgarian friends and fellow poets, and myself and the poet VBV were strolling from his flat into town. We began chatting about the odd nature of the imaginative quest -- when some goal sets itself you instinctively feel is worth pursuing, and how different such quests are in the era of universal access. We realised we both employed a series of what I used to call (rather grandly) stochastic limitations -- basically self-imposed obstacles -- in order to allow the actual purpose of the quest, which is just contemplation of a theme associated with the goal or object of desire, to take place.

An example of this would be my search for the original seventies editions of the Gene Wolfe fantasy, Book of the New Sun, a book I've since bought in a current edition, but want with the Bruce Pennington covers, as I associate Pennington with Ashton Smith, Lovecraft, and that whole strain of Thirties US Wierd Horror I was so into in my quarantined-off-from-healthy-teenage-stock style youth. So far I have volumes 1 and 4, but I'm quite content to mooch around second-hand bookstalls in Tynemouth Station Market etc until the very thing crops up.

Vassil admitted to similar one-hand-behind-the-back contests with synchronicity, and talked about a project of his which was also to rewrite a novel he'd encountered years before about a fictional revolutionary figure. He knew he could probably pick up a copy through book traders (though at what expense?), but that wasn't really the point.

He mentioned a children's book he'd loved and how, when he'd got hold of it, he was amazed to see how little of what he remembered was actually written down. This, the teeming inner world of the young reader's engagement with even quite sparse text, as long as their imagination could inhabit, renovate and extend that text, was what I was after. (More on that walk elsewhere, later).

Then, only last weekend, I was in London for a couple of meetings, and caught up with old school pal, the novelist James Meek. Among many topics of conversation (bears, plus fours of Shoreditch, narcissism in Vietnamese restaurants, the name of Shakespeare's first theatre, marital contentment and dogs, narrative voice in nineteenth-century Russian fiction, slow reading), I thought I'd throw in the line that I'd finished the fantasy novel he'd told me to write.

In fact, a character in his last novel, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, begins such a trilogy but abandons it in self-disgust, but it was nonetheless worth it to see his reaction. Yes, I continued, it's a tetralogy, the working title is My Mid-life Genre Crisis, and I'm half-way through the western. None of which is is exactly true (I still have a scene to write of the fantasy one, and I'm no more than a third at the most through the western). But I realised that I'd talked the project a step closer to actuality. It had begun to have textual presence.

I'm followed around by lots of books, plays and poems I'd like to write if I had the time. Some of them are just ludicrously Not Me, some of them are just ludicrous, some of them are perfectly reasonable, and some of them will never happen simply because there is No Time. But they all exert a magnetic pull on my imagination, they all demand to be treated as though they were real texts. And there is a sense in which the concept of text is related more to this idea of presence than to the physical artefact which most people think they're dealing with.

Think, for instance, of that current chattering point, the book you claim to, but have not read. You nonetheless have a degree of awareness of it, you know something of it in synopsis, or through adaptation, or intertextual allusion -- and you feel a degree of guilt about it. You imagine it, perhaps even inhabit it or hear it or have ideas you know can't be terribly accurate about it. You are a kind of reader of your own confabulated version of it, and you have imagined this as though it were text.

That's how it is with my unwritten books, and that is also how it was with this long-lost pulp scifi novel. Because, as you've known from the start, because this was a narrative necessity, I found the book. To be more precise, I took my daughter and dropped her off at a cafe I didn't know, but guessed was probably near this bookshop I'd visited once with the novelist Laura Fish while we were killing time before a school visit. It's called Black Flame Books, and I highly recommend it to you, especially if you have any lost cause searches.

We'd had a cup of coffee in a branch of Boarders earlier, and I'd said to my daughter just to drag me out if I started looking at the books, given the entire bookcase I could fill with my unread purchases. So when I'd parked my car by Black Flame, I'd first of all smiled at the notion of having a browse, then, after a slight swither (was something calling in a high-pitched voice only literate dogs could hear?), in I went.

Almost the first thing I saw was Hemingway's Across the River and Under the Trees, the title of which comes from the dying words of Stonewall Jackson. He (Jackson) was shot by 'friendly fire' returning to his own lines after the Battle of Chancellorsville, but died a few days later not of his wounds but from pneumonia. In his final delirium, after issuing several orders to absent troops, he'd said, 'Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.'

The previous day I'd seen one of my PhDs, the very talented Tara Bergin, who'd shown me a poem on the death of Stonewall Jackson containing these lines, and, unrelated to this, we'd spoken as we have before about the role played by coincidence for writers, how it is often interpreted as reinforcing a creative decision, and how difficult it is for critics to acknowledge and indeed incorporate such an irrational methodology in their writing. As soon as I saw it I went to have a look at the scifi section, thinking my luck was perhaps in for another volume of the Gene Wolfe.

Soon I began coming across a familiar publisher, Star Books. Many of the Woollenworth vols had been from this publisher -- in fact I found one with their sticker for '9p' still on it, and I realised that there were a lot of books from the period of my missing vol. Still, I didn't quite believe I would, as I inevitably did, come upon not just it but another book in the same (presumably extensive) series. There it was, cover and title instantly familiar though I couldn't have described it seconds beforehand: The Emerald Elephant Gambit by Larry Maddock, 'starring' Agent of T.E.R.R.A. Hannibal Fortune (published by Ace Books in 1967).

The cover is the quickest sketch: a bald man in a sky-blue tunic, heavily armed with bow and quiver over one shoulder, curved sword and dagger dangling from his belt, is clutching the eponymous pachyderm. He is set against as though encased in a custard force field like a giant helmet against a background of vertical green streaks, which looks like it's raining snot. He advances up a gentle incline from left to right whilst looking back over his shoulder at a feathery boneless flying grey thing, limbs trailing, two saucer eyes staring out of the picture from its swirl of a head. Inside the book, it claims the cover is by 'Sergio Leone'. You can see at once why it might appeal to a fourteen year old boy.

I remember being tremendously excited by the setting: historically verifiable while fabulously distant. I was used to Robert Howard's pre-glacial Hyborian age, or Ashton's Smith's dying future Earth of Zothique. Somehow the idea that the author had done some research as well as invention was very appealing. The other volume, as it turns out, The Golden Goddess Gambit, simply ramped up the coincidometer to eleven by being set -- apparently, I haven't read it yet -- in Minoan Crete. Contemporary Crete, of course, is where I wrote my own equally trashy fantasy novel over the last two summers.

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