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Sunday, 10 August 2008

Written in granite: Power Of Five

There are a lot of books – of all genres – that I read once and enjoy enormously but know I'll probably never wish to reread. Then there are some that I think I might perhaps like to reread, although often I know it'll need to be at some reasonably remote future time when I've forgotten the plot and can enjoy it as though for the first time. Then there are the ones I know I'll want to read over and over again. Some of these are apparently less plot-oriented with Proust's A la recherché du temps passé and Joyce's Ulysses being two very obvious examples. However on the whole, when it comes down to it, I'm a story-lover. And actually Proust's novel is only apparently less story-driven; in reality it's got very Dickensian plotting (a stranger appears only for the Narrator to recognise him as someone he knew during his childhood, everyone knows everyone else, there's plenty of coincidence), it's Proust's level of detail that deceives people into thinking that ~nothing much happens". An awful lot happens, it's just that it 3000+ pages. Ulysses is also very tightly plotted: it's the story of a single day but with its tentacles reaching back into pasts known and unknown (there are plenty of references to Portrait and Dubliners, as well as real characters and events).

I'm currently nearing the end of my third reading of Charles Palliser's monumental The Quincunx. If ever there were a plot-driven book then this is the one. Another peculiarity of the book is that although it is ostensibly a little over 100 years behind its time, in a very real sense it was actually around 10 years ahead of its time. What I mean by that is that the book purports to be a Victorian novel in the style popularised by the likes of Dickens and Wilkie Collins and yet it is very clearly a product of the time when it was really written – it was published in 1989. Just a few years later we started to see a whole slew of faux Victorian novels many of which became big hits: Sarah Waters' first three, Tipping The Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith (itself deeply indebted to Collins), Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal And The White, Michael Cox's The Meaning Of Night, even that oddity Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, an alternative reality faux Victorian novel (see also Iain Mcleod's Light Ages and House Of Storms) and a number of others. The Quincunx wasn't the first novel of this kind, but it was the first I'm aware of to take on the Victorian format on its own scale. Indeed this is a truly huge novel. I've got two editions, an original US hardback which runs to almost 800 large format pages with fairly small type and then a Penguin UK paperback with larger type which is 1200 pages.

The novel is subtitled "The Inheritance of John Huffam". So... what's in a name? Quite a lot, as it happens, because these were Dickens' middle names. The two share more than that: both (probably; there's little one can say for sure about Huffam's birth, or indeed his name, he goes by several surnames during the course of the book – I've not counted but I'd not be surprised to learn that there are five, see below) born on the same day in 1812. Personally I've got a little theory that Palliser has attempted to work bits of plot or at least something from each of Dickens' novels into his book. For instance, John spends a few months at a Yorkshire school not at all dissimilar from Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby (see also Silas Clothier's resemblance to Ralph Nickleby in the same book). There's a long-running Chancery suit (like Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Bleak House), there are characters earning a living from digging through the mud and shit either of the river or the sewers (Our Mutual Friend), there are plenty of thieves and prostitutes and Barney Digweed, one of many characters with Dickensian names, is certainly reminiscent of Bill Sikes (Oliver Twist), characters end up in prison for debt (Little Dorrit)... Need I go on? I expect someone else has come up with a similar theory and documented it more fully than this. And, like Edwin Drood, nobody seems terribly sure what actually happens in the end (or, more to the point, at the beginning).

In case all this is putting you off then don't let it: above all The Quincunx is a thrilling read. Yes, it's very long but believe me, you won't want it to end. Perhaps Palliser's most extraordinary achievement is to pull off what so many of us attempt and yet so rarely manage in that the book genuinely works on several levels and can be enjoyed on any of them. The first time I read it I wasn't really aware of all the complexities of interpretation, I simply read and enjoyed it as I would've done a novel by Dickens or Collins, in thrall to the twisting and turning of the plot, the breathless pace kept up throughout and the beautiful writing. Then of course I read the Author's Afterword in the paperback edition which is careful merely to hint at some of the deeper layers without actually exposing them. So the second time I read it, probably 3-4 years later in the mid-nineties, I was on the alert and began to see what he meant about other ways of interpreting things. This third time I'm reading even more closely and, of course, I'm also reading in a world where we have the Internet making it possibly to check facts (and indeed fictions) quickly and easily. I really don't want to spoil anyone else's enjoyment – and believe me, for all the complexity under the surface, you can simply allow yourself to be entertained on a very lavish scale indeed, so I'm trying to rein myself in on details. There's also the fact that I myself have, over the past 2-3 years, been engaged in producing fictions which are designed to operate both on a surface and on a deeper level, and it's fascinating to observe the work of someone who has pulled this off to such an astonishing degree.

In his Afterword, Palliser says that essentially he decided to break the implicit contract between author and reader on which the Victorian novel reposed. This contract says that although the author is free to bamboozle the reader as much as s/he likes throughout the course of the novel, with red herrings, false leads and even actual falsehoods, s/he undertakes to provide a single satisfactory explanation to any matters arising by the end of the book. "All", the contract states, "will be revealed". Except that in this book not only is all not necessarily revealed, but, if we're reading anything at all below the surface (which, as I say, isn't necessary to enjoy the book immensely), we come to suspect that the things that are revealed are not necessarily to be trusted.

Another key aspect is the novel's structure. It is divided into five parts, each of them bearing the name of one of the five families involved in this most labyrinthine of plots, and each part is divided into five books, itself divided into 5 chapters. So there are 125 (5x5x5) chapters in all. Chapter 63 (the middle one) is one hell of a tease in that in it we find that the key (probably!) to the whole mystery is missing – through the device of a few pages being ripped out of John's mother's journal – did I mention that there are journals? Well of course there are. This is the Quincunx. However the Quincunx also appears in the plot as a lock behind which is kept a key document which will perhaps unlock justice. This is some of the most fiendish plotting ever devised.

The Afterword is a real tease, especially the first time you get to it. You think everything has just been explained in execution of that contract, at least, unless you've been reading very closely indeed, are an expert in the field or just of a particularly suspicious turn of mind... I suppose things are different nowadays but when I first read the book, which would've been not all that long after it was published, probably in the early nineties, there were no websites throwing out hints, everything I knew about the book was contained within its covers and, as is my wont, I began at the beginning and thus didn't get to the Afterword until I'd finished the novel. So, having just completed it, although still somewhat puzzled by the final sentence, I read what Mr Palliser had to say. And he seemed to be laughing at me because quite frankly I hadn't noticed most of the things he was talking about. Well, OK, I'd spotted some, and I knew that this wasn't a real Victorian novel written while that Queen was on the throne, but one published at a time when another was still brutalising us all, and I was a confirmed Dickens fan so I'd spotted a lot of those allusions but even so... Talking about that final sentence, Palliser alludes to difficulties faced by his Swedish translator who'd informed him that in that language there are different words for maternal and paternal grandfathers.

There's an excellent site discussing the book here – it was originally in French but there's a very well-translated English section. There are other sites around the Web as well but, if you're reading the book for the first time, my advice would be not to pay them too much heed. And if you're taken in then don't worry, you're not the first and even in these days of instant information you won't be the last and you'll have such fun being fooled.

As for me, well I've still got around 150 pages to go before I complete my third reading, I'm seeing so many things I missed on previous perusals, of course, but this is a book that reveals itself gradually. However I'd like to conclude by stressing once again that this is one of the most immensely enjoyable novels I've ever read, whether you engage with the author's teasing little games (well, they're quite big games, really...) or whether you take it completely at face value.
















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