jack vance

Books – The Intellectuals and the Masses, The Dying Earth trilogy and Little, Big

I’ll share my thoughts and recommendations here of great books I’ve read.  Here are three I’ve read recently, I’ve not read a bad book in a while it seems ;)

The Intellectuals and the Masses – John Carey

“The tragedy of Mein Kampf is that it was not, in many respects, a deviant work but one firmly rooted in European intellectual orthodoxy.”

So, I’ve spoiled the ending, but this conclusion was persuasively argued by John Carey throughout his series of essays collected in this volume.

I didn’t realise, not having a degree in Eng.Lit., that the prevalence of a hatred for the ‘masses’, i.e. the uneducated working class, as well as the eradication of both our working class and large swathes of most of the rest of the earth via genocide, was shared, more or less, by thinkers from Nietzsche (predictably) through to H.G. Wells, D.H.Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf to name a few.  To wit:

“”Universal Education,” jeered Aldous Huxley, “has created an immense class of what I may call ‘The New Stupid’.””

“In India, North Africa, China and the Far East, (H.G.) Wells regretfully reports, “there goes on a rapid increase of low-grade population, undersized physically and mentally, and retarding the mechanical development of civilization.””

We won’t get started on what they thought of women getting an education….

In respect particularly of Wells and D.H.Lawrence, Carey carefully points out the contradictory nature of other writings of theirs, their fiction in particular, where they are keenly, beautifully aware of the uniqueness of individuals that they otherwise denude as the Masses.

It’s a razor-sharp, zippy read through the late 19th and early 20th Century intelligentsia’s thoughts and responses to the population explosion, emancipation and industrialisation of western societies.  The fact that they shared materially similar views to Hitler is horrifying, yet Carey quotes some thrillingly beautiful prose from various of these writers that show a liberal, almost spiritual view of the world; a perplexing riddle that’s coloured and altered my quite primitive awareness of these writers’ beliefs both present in as well as outside the literature of theirs I so admire.

The Dying Earth trilogy – Jack Vance

It’s rather late in the day for me to get to Jack Vance in terms of my enjoyment of the fantasy genre, given this is held up as part of its canon.

And lo, within twenty pages I could see where so many would-be fantasy writers I’ve come across on writing forums over the years were getting their inspiration from, when they weren’t getting it from Tolkien or Robert E. Howard!

Vance has a lot to answer for, but imitation etc. etc.  and heck, I’m not immune, I used to hand write passages of Paul Morel’s despair from Sons and Lovers to put up alongside my Pink Floyd posters back when I was seventeen.

Vance has an old-fashioned writing style and I was reminded of Dickens; the characters themselves, both major and minor, that are scattered throughout these books are as vivid and as occasionally cartoonish and tragic as many of Dickens’s own, both in terms of their names and their static, overtly simple natures.  Unlike Dickens however, he does lack, out of choice or ability I don’t know, a truly deep protagonist.  At first I thought the writing was a little overblown and florid, but as I warmed to the stories, it was a perfect, gothic sort of fit.

Cugel, a reprehensible charlatan; deceitful, lazy, lustful, opportunistic and selfish, takes centre stage in this suite of stories that describe life on earth as earth itself winds down, the world no longer full of raging seas and the violence of its life, a calm twilight home to societies as fragmented as they were during the Dark Ages.

He is an anti-hero for the ages.  A cross between Basil Fawlty and Machiavelli, his hilarious travails on his journey across the dying Earth illustrate how his attempts to bend an impervious world to his own ends frequently blows up in his face.  Yet a wrong has been done to him, of a sort, and Vance’s mastery is such that this quite awful man elicits the kind of grudging sympathy a distinctly un-Christian spectator might give to the Christian thrown into a Roman arena with a few lions.

This is a world beyond magic and science, the intimation being that the powerful, such as Rhialto the Marvellous, the titular protagonist of the final part of the trilogy, wield an understanding of mathematics beyond our current perception of either.  What lifts the books up to a standing on a par with the very best of the genre is an incredibly fertile imagination, not just in terms of his vividly realised and nuanced ‘world-building’ but in terms of his acute understanding of people and motivation, when placed in the riot of sub-cultures that he’s devised.  There are numerous subtle messages in the text, probably more than I picked up on, that Vance has no doubt used to portray his own views on the world he lived in; again, a very Dickensian obsession, albeit a step removed in this genre.

I recommend this to anyone who hasn’t got around to it in their reading of fantasy (though it’s the equivalent of admitting you haven’t yet seen Star Wars), because it works brilliantly as a rather tragic vision of our future shot through with a bleakly comic and vivid cast.

Little, Big – John Crowley

“Mother beside him dreamed her husband wasn’t in his study at all, but with her in the kitchen, where she drew tin cookie-sheets endlessly out of the oven; the baked things on them were brown and round, and when he asked her what they were, she said “Years.”

Hailed by some as an almost forgotten masterpiece in crossover fantasy, though it was only published in 1981, Little, Big seems initially to be about a ‘small’ man of no obvious distinction, Smoky Barnable, but soon enough becomes an ensemble piece centred around a place ‘not found on any map’ called Edgewood, and the impossible and gigantic mansion that his wife’s family, the Drinkwaters, live in; a place he then never leaves.

As I sank into the middle of the novel I felt that the multiple strands for the characters around him became languid, a pace suitable for this forgotten corner of America that seems to be on the edge of something magical, operating by different rules.  It might have been a typically saggy middle had Crowley not demonstrated a technical mastery as good as Ian McEwan or Annie Proulx.  Equally, had I not been taken into the heads and hearts of characters like Alice, Auberon and Sophie in particular, the very slow burn of events, as it heats up to a mysterious but powerful conclusion, would have lacked the emotional oomph that made it a compelling page turner but also would have destroyed the exquisitely woven texture of lives lived consciously in obeyance to Fate.

This is a brilliant late 20th century obituary and resurrection of our relationship with the land of Faery, its very real power both stunted and ignored by a world that has no need for it, a theme echoed strongly in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

I have to call out my other personal favourite in this space, as Little, Big so clearly reminded me of it; Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood joins Gaiman’s and Crowley’s books as another of my ‘must reads’ for anyone interested in crossover fantasy.