Wednesday, January 04, 2012

First, immanentise your Eschaton

I hear from Lexifab that this is the National Year of Reading.

I am not quite sure what the ‘National’ refers to and I am not going to look it up yet out of contrariness. The message retweeted by Lexifab exhorted me to read Australian books, so perhaps it is the Australian National Year of Reading. I don’t intend to go out of my way to read Australian books since I pretty much know what Australia is like and how Australians think - I am more interested in distant times and places and how the zany people over there thought/think. On the other hand, there is a certain nation which I will not name that tends to assume it is the only one, where people don’t put the international dialing code on their letterheads, and the ‘National’ might well refer to that nation.

The first book I finished reading this year was written in *a* nation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

In this book a practically unknown one-term United States senator with a charismatic personality and a magnetic speaking voice comes to power in 2008 and turns out to be the Antichrist. Honest.

Yes, this is basically the same plot as a book I was handed by a wild-eyed fellow outside Redfern station a decade ago. You may have been handed the same book. However, in this case: (1) it is the Protestants who cave immediately to join the Antichrist while the Catholics are the persecuted minority fighting him, and (2) the writing is really very good.

You should read this book for its prefigurements of the great 20th century dystopias. Before Our Ford’s T-Model, here is a London with the same Brave New World aesthetic, the euthanasia centres, the selfless meritocrats keeping the proles happy with bread and circuses. Before Mussolini’s march on Rome, here is Big Brother’s Cult of Personality, the Nuremburg-style crowds, the world eerily divided into three great blocs. In 1907, here is a dysfunctional European parliament, a thoroughly Godless Europe about to be overwhelmed by barbarism from the East, a London convulsed by mob violence. The book is like a chrysalis containing the whole terrible century that was to come. Of course science fiction is not about prediction: but this book, which doesn't claim to be science fiction, comes closer to predicting the real 2008 than anything else I've read from a similar distance in time.

Unless you are fond of the sort of things Charles Williams used to write, there is no real reason to read all the way to the end: after all, you know how it will turn out. I would suggest stopping after the passage of the Alps, except to flip ahead and look for the bits with Mabel in them. These are rather good, and also contain the basis for my assertion that the novel takes place in 2008. Oh, and the novel is full of Catholic jargon in a Morris West-like fashion, only more so. Those are my only caveats.

The book contains nothing to reassure Edwardian middle-class Protestants raised on tales of Catholic perfidy. The main characters are almost - almost - fanatical enough to be seen from the opposite direction as the bad guys in a Sheri S. Tepper novel. While the official position of the Church and of the heroes - who are all priests - is one of extreme in-your-face pacifism in response to persecution, there are other Catholics who do try to blow up Westminster Abbey, assassinate government officials, etc.: and the main characters never really condemn them, just worry about the possible blowback effects. Which are admittedly pretty bad.

I could never survive in a religion that required me to believe that this world was about to pass away. I am too fond of the bottlebrush tree outside the front door. All those millions of years of evolution to make such a beautiful thing, snuffed out all of a sudden, with all its kind, because it is just a minor non-player character in a story that is all about the humans? It is too painful to think about. And the beetles - I am inordinately fond of beetles. And the child of two who is just going about looking with wonder upon the bottlebrush trees and the beetles. And the man in Bechar who has an idea for a poem he wants to write this afternoon, but he can't, because the world is ending. I know all things must pass, and if they abide forever it is only in the mind of God - but this world is all so young and interesting. It would be like ending the Silmarillion in the middle of a sentence on page 14.


Lexifab said...

I believe the intention was to read Australian novels. That's how I intend to interpret it, at any rate, because any other interpretation is redundant.

One thing that I do plan to do this year is to track the books I read, just to see how much escapist dreck I am pouring into my brain. A lot, I shouldn't wonder.

(Today's word verification is 'imberabl', which shows a disgraceful decline in standards of spelling. I blame the Twitterz).

Dr Clam said...

Good to see you are still about! I intend to celebrate the occasion by tracking what I read and reporting it here. Tatatzep!

(That's the word verification, which also sounds like a good cheery word to close with)

Lexifab said...

I started reading Lord of the World via that link, but it rather lost me in the first couple of pages. I think perhaps my lazy read-brain has a limited capacity to tolerate old-fashioned prose, and my current immersion in the GK Chestertons and 'The Third Policemen' (both excellent thus far) have consumed my reserves of comprehension.

I may come back to it later, assuming the world has not come to an end.

Lexifab said...

(I was off on holidays, far from the madding crowd and any usable internet connection)

Dr Clam said... capacity to tolerate old-fashioned prose...

I keep meaning to say "that's strange", since once of the things that struck me at the beginning was how stylistically as well in terms of content it was like 'Brave New World', a world away from the 19th century novel. I suppose 20th century prose *is* old-fashioned, you Man of the Future you!