May 3, 2009

Christopher Priest: The Affirmation

Posted in Priest Christopher at 8:00 am by John Self

From time to time (well okay, three times in over two years), authors post comments on this blog. Most memorable was Christopher Priest’s appearance to correct my misattribution of his opinion on John Wyndham. One effect of that was to make me investigate Priest’s work; I’d heard of him, and had a vague idea that he wrote the sort of books that straddled sci-fi and mainstream fiction. But he didn’t seem to be much talked about – or even consistently in print – despite being in the Granta 1983 list, which leads like a roll call of those most prominent in British lit fic since then (Amis, Barnes, Barker, Boyd, Ishiguro, McEwan, Rushdie and others). He has a fondness for definite article titles: The Glamour, The Extremes, The Separation, The Prestige (now a major motion picture). I opted for The Affirmation (1981), at random really, though I’ve since heard that it’s his best novel.

affirmation

The Affirmation is a book about memory: if our essence is in our memories, and memories are malleable, what does that say about our experience of reality? It sounds like a schoolboy syllogism, but Priest makes fascinating play with it, and more importantly, convinces even against the reader’s wishes.

Peter Sinclair is a man recovering from multiple blows: bereavement, break-up, redundancy, homelessness. “I felt like a man who had been knocked down, then trodden on before he could get up.” He retreats to a tumbledown cottage owned by a friend of his father – whom he meets again in unexplained circumstances – and he undertakes to decorate the building and render it habitable. However he becomes more and more obsessed with recording his life, for reasons which (intentionally, I think) strain plausibility:

I perceived my past life as an unordered, uncontrolled bedlam of events. Nothing made sense, nothing was consistent with anything else. It seemed important to me that I should try to impose some kind of order on my memories. It never occurred to me to question why I should do this. It was just extremely important.

As he works on his story, he finds himself deviating from the facts, seeking “a higher, better form of truth”. “If the deeper truth could only be told by falsehood – in other words, through metaphor – then to achieve total truth I must create total falsehood.” He creates “an imaginary place and an imaginary life.”

Chapters then switch between his real life and his imagined life, where his name remains but everything else is changed: London becomes ‘Jethra’, England ‘Faiandland’. At this point my heart sank, as yours may too. However here is where Sinclair’s narrative – previously somewhat charmless – becomes positively disarming, becomes in fact Priest’s narrative. It is a book about its subject where the subject becomes, in part, the book itself.

In Jethra, Sinclair is a winner of the ‘Lotterie’, where the prize is an unusual and dubious form of privilege. This raises certain surface, ethical issues, but more knotty ones too of the nature and purpose of human life. During the course of his alternate existence, for the purposes of fulfilling the Lotterie’s requirements, Sinclair has to write his autobiography, which turns out to be the first chapters of the book – the real world ones – which we have already read. So far so tricksy, but Priest writes so convincingly that the reader becomes acutely aware of the difficulty in choosing between the ‘true stories’ on offer.

There were now two realities, and each explained the other.

What The Affirmation does is to emphasise that there is no reason to believe more in the fictional ‘real world’ of the book than in its fictional invented world. We are in any event, after all, reading a work of fiction, within whose confines by definition, anything is possible.  (I was reminded of the Coen brothers and their bold statement at the beginning of Fargo, that everything that followed was true.) The Affirmation is, to quote Mary McCarthy on Nabokov’s Pale Fire, “a jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem.” But it is so without being sterile or seeming like an act of intellectual masturbation. More impressive yet is Priest’s willingness to have the courage of his convictions, and end the book in the only appropriate way.

And if this seems like a sudden ending, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

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32 Comments »

  1. Trevor said,

    I admire your own convictions, John. Despite Priest’s treatment of you, you give an excellent review where no rancor comes out! I respect you (not that I didn’t before) for making it about the book!

  2. John Self said,

    That’s OK Trevor – if I’d wanted to score points I would have mentioned that I picked up The Affirmation for £2 in Bargain Books. But I didn’t. ;-)

    The bottom line though is that Priest has written a good book. And I have his novel The Glamour on my TBR shelves too – and I see NYRB Classics recently reissued his Inverted World.

    • Janine said,

      I recently finished Inverted world -first Priest book I have read. I enjoyed the intrigue , curious physics and found after all was revealed, the ending sort of drifted away. Given that the characters were a means of explaining a world, maybe finally their function had ceased? Still I would try another by this author.

  3. Sam said,

    Wow. Just clicked through to the Wyndham review. I’m gunna steer clear of Christopher Priest. Horrible man. I mean, who’s he think he is? Naipaul?

  4. Wow he is a twerp. This brings up an interesting point. If you dislike an author due to his public persona do you still read him? I have the same issue with actors. I think Mel Gibson is an ignorant git and I won’t watch his films. So I am torn on this book.

  5. JRSM said,

    Another fine review. ‘The Affirmation’ is unusual, too, in sort of being its own sequel, if I remember correctly. ‘Inverted World’ is well worth a look: clever, mind-boggling ‘sense of wonder’ science-fiction, rather than “just” adventure-in-a-strange-world stuff like ‘Hothouse’, or adventure-in-a-horrible-world stuff like ‘Make Room! Make Room!’, to pick other SF you’ve reviewed.

    • Janine said,

      I am currently climbing through Hot House. Great imagery! While not a childs’ tale, the story is portrayed through the eyes of a group of very strange children adapted to their future world. Its an illustration of the wealth of older original writing out there.

      • John Self said,

        Thanks Janine. I did cover Hothouse on this blog, here.

  6. Isabel said,

    What a small world. I just finished blogging about The Inverted World.

    However, I need to re-read it, because I raced through it.

  7. Fascinating, I’m currently looking for an item from his back catalogue – Fugue from a Darkening Island, which is apparently one of the more hard hitting books on race relations of the past few decades. I read a fair bit by Priest when he was more of an sf writer, at the time I was a big sf fan and as he moved more into literary fiction he left me behind. I read literary fiction myself now of course, but never really caught up with Priest again.

    It sounds clever, but I have the Prestige at home unread and so should really read that first, I have to admit based on the description I wouldn’t read this one save that the review is so positive and I trust your judgement on the matter John, as you expected when one reads about the alternate life one’s heart does sink rather.

    Interesting question by Candy, personally I try to separate the work and the writer. Priest may not be the nicest of men, but the work is a thing in itself largely independent I think of the writer who created it.

  8. JRSM said,

    ‘Fugue’ is mostly pretty good, Priest’s version of a John Wyndham or John Christopher book, but surprisingly free of the multiple layers you can find in his other books.

  9. Tony S. said,

    I read Christopher Priest’s appearance on your blog. In a way, I think it reflects strongly on your blog. You have an “alive” blog where its not just pleasant nice trivialities about books, but you can make strong comments about writers, and others can take strong offense. That keeps the blog interesting. One must always worry about getting it right when one attributes an opinion or attitude to someone else

  10. nicole said,

    I read The Inverted World and The Prestige and have mostly good things to say about both. And I’ve got The Affirmation sitting unread on the shelf–bumping it a bit closer to the front of the line based on this. Your comment “more importantly, convinces even against the reader’s wishes” reminds me a bit of his other work.

  11. Sam said,

    the work is a thing in itself largely independent I think of the writer who created it.

    I know that’s what all the literary theorists in the eighties used to say, but I don’t see how the man can be separate from the work. I think writers are exactly like their works. For example, in every interview I’ve seen of Rushdie he is ebullient, digressive, capacious, whereas Coetzee is cool, spare and humourless – they are just like their books. And why wouldn’t it be so? The man who works in the factory brings his character flaws and blind-spots to his job; his prejudices and preconceptions affect precisely how well he completes his task. It’s tremendously arrogant for writers to suggest that this doesn’t apply to them, that they’re some sort of special case (though, of couse, this is probably what most writers do think, albeit secretly: after all, a major reason why they write in the first place is because they believe they have ‘something to say'; by which they mean that they have access to some priveleged insight, some deeper understanding of the way of things. Writers are arrogant! Who knew?)

  12. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    ‘The Affirmation’ is unusual, too, in sort of being its own sequel

    Very well put, JRSM. I might edit that into my post and make it look like you stole it from me. I mean, strange things can happen with time flow when there’s a Priest novel nearby.

    I’m glad to read of Isabel’s and Nicole’s praise of The Inverted World and others. I will definitely be reading more Priest, and I don’t mean angry emails from him.

    Re Sam’s last point. Yes and no. Writers may be exactly like their works in the sense that you can tell a lot about the man (or woman) from his work, and vice versa, but I don’t think that means their most notable qualities as a person must always be present. The obvious example is Larkin’s racism – though whether he was more racist than most people of his generation is doubtful – and general reputation as a miserable old bastard, while he was capable of producing poetry of lyricism, beauty, and even a sort of optimism. The other obvious example is Eliot, with his anti-semitism and Jews squatting on window-sills… – which nonetheless does not detract from ‘Prufrock’.

  13. My concern Sam in conflating writers and their work is we start looking to the writer to explain the work, and I tend to think a work should be capable of standing on its own merits.

    Looking at the writer starts taking us down the path of “what did they mean” rather than “what does the book say”, and the two may be (though may not be also of course) very different.

    It’s not so much that I’m saying the work may not reflect the writer, it likely will as you note, it’s that the work once created is now independent of the writer. It’s a thing in the world in its own right, and whatever the writer’s intent, whatever their own beliefs and personality, the work now exists separate to them. It has to make its own way, for better or worse.

    The alternative I fear is we start regarding works because we regard the writer, which takes us to McEwan and Rushdie and other talents whose recent books I suspect would be less well received with another name attached to them.

  14. Sam said,

    John – I agree that the most notable qualities of an author may not always be present in the work, but I don’t think that detracts from the point that a book’s texture – the book’s personality – reflects that of the writer. Of course a through-and-through anti-semite could write great characters, but they probably couldn’t write a great Jewish character. That’s what I meant when I said the flaws in the book are the flaws in the man. (And when a writer pops up on a public blog and is rude, then that shows a certain vanity and lack of empathy, and as I quite like reading writers who write empathetically, that’s why I said I’d be better of steering clear of Priest.)

    Max – that’s a great point. I’d say that it’s also up to the writer to do what they can to ensure that the demarcation between author and book is maintained, instead of allowing the line to be blurred by being rude on public blogs. If someone’s been rude to me I’d find it very difficult not to have that in mind while reading their work. To take an extreme example, could anyone read a novel by Hitler without making connections between the man and the book? Would we want to?

  15. Adr. said,

    I think that Priest is a very underrated writer – both inside and outside the SF community. His last novel – The Separation – was pretty much ignored by its original publisher and published without any fanfare whatsoever. It was a hard book to find for Priest fans. Then word of mouth started to spread. It was nominated for (and won) the Arthur C. Clarke award. Eventually it was picked up by Victor Gollancz and is readily available and has been highly praised.

    I can second (or third) the recommendation of Inverted World, a fascinating SF novel with a looping narritave so beloved of Priest. The Prestige is superb, even better than Christopher Nolan’s masterful film. It’s a book that, once you finish, you immediately want to read again just so you can see how it all hangs together.

    Max: Have you checked on amazon for Fugue for a Darkening Island? I picked it up there from one of the second-hand sellers for a few pence a year or so ago. It was part of an omnibus edition that featured Inverted World.

  16. ADR, I had forgotten there was a dual edition with Inverted World, thanks, I’ll check that out.

  17. John Self said,

    Thanks for your words of wisdom, Adr., which kind of got lost in the Recent Comments sidebar amid all the Ishiguro talk over the last day or two. I must admit I am a little distressed that nobody who is a fan of Priest has yet recommended The Glamour, which is the only other book of his I have.

  18. […] this suggests a book which plays with the reality of its world, as in Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation. But to limit Colony to a genre or type would do it a disservice, as this is a book – as […]

  19. Colette Jones said,

    I’m glad you liked Christopher Priest’s book, John.

    I’m not sure I can get past his self-righteous comment on your blog though. Everyone makes mistakes, and he made a mistake in the way he pointed out yours. I would guess he’s seen this as he obviously is straight onto anything written about him. Since he doesn’t seem to think an apology is necessary, I don’t think reading his book is necessary.

  20. John Self said,

    Thanks Colette. I think in light of your comments I have to disclose (which I didn’t intend to otherwise) that Christopher Priest has contacted me privately and apologised for his comment. I have accepted his apology, which I hadn’t expected or demanded: his complaint in the first place was appropriate (I had misrepresented his opinion on John Wyndham) even if the tone was regrettable. In any event I consider that an end to the matter.

    Incidentally this week I have been dipping into Priest’s recently published book of ‘occasional pieces’, “It” Came from Outer Space, which has a fascinating report on the Best of Young British Novelists thing I referred to at the start of my review above. I hadn’t realised, for example, that the promotion was a publisher-funded venture which had nothing to do with Granta magazine until it decided to publish an edition with work from the twenty writers in question. (Though I believe the 1993 and 2003 lists were initiated by Granta.) I don’t have the book to hand but in this piece, Priest is funny and enlightening about some of his fellow ‘winners’ (particularly the “obnoxious” Martin Amis).

    Also, in relation to The Affirmation, Priest reveals that Charles Monteith at Faber, who first published the book, contacted Priest before publication. Although he considered the book “perfect”, he wanted him to cut the length of the book (already quite short) by 25%, to reduce production costs otherwise the retail price of the book would need to be increased. My eyebrows rose and jaw dropped at this. Priest wisely refused.

  21. Robert Hanks said,

    Stumbling rather late into this matter: I interviewed Christopher Priest several years ago – I think it was for the publication of The Prestige, but that was pre-web and several computers ago and I can’t trace it at present. Anyway, for anybody who is still talking about not reading him because he is nasty, can I reassure you that he is both a gifted writer and a very nice man, one of the nicest I’ve interviewed. Please don’t go by one misjudged comment on a blog – it’s not as if misjudged comments are rare in blogland.

    John: if you’re still anxious, I’ll happily recommend The Glamour: very clever, slightly nasty and, for several reasons, thoroughly unnerving. BTW, the central conceit – which I won’t give away – has been borrowed by, among others, Alan Moore and Joss Whedon. I’d also recommend The Space Machine, a re-write of H. G. Wells – not big or clever, but fun.

    Oh, and a bit of self-advertisement: my Daily Telegraph review of The Separation is at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3609221/As-times-go-by.html

  22. John Self said,

    Thanks Robert – I do have The Glamour so by definition it is sure to be the next Priest novel I read (particularly so given that my current new books policy is not to buy any by authors who have unread books on my shelves).

    I enjoyed your review of The Separation – very clever!

  23. […] Some other reviews of The Affirmation: John Self at The Asylum; Matt Cheney at The Mumpsimus; David Auerbach at Waggish. Christopher Priest’s website […]

  24. Angela Li said,

    I have to say if I think an author or a movie star etc.. is a really horrible, obnoxious person with no major redeeming features, I won’t give their work the time of day. Slightly arrogant or opinionated fair enough, but beyond that why give them the benefit of the doubt, there are plenty more books/movies etc… in the sea, and it is important that as individuals we make a stand however small against unpleasant and destructive individuals.

    That said I just read the comment by Christopher Priest, and though the guy was obviously a bit upset about being mis-quoted, I’d have to see something worse than that before I wrote them off.

  25. […] with (my only experience of) his own work, the more controlled but equally disruptive novel The Affirmation, where, as here, reality is both clearly presented and ultimately unknowable. The coming […]

  26. […] didn’t seem like my thing. And then I clicked on a book John mentions in the review and found his review of  Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation. Priest is more widely known as the author of The […]

  27. Howard Male said,

    About 15 years ago, Priest wrote me a very nice letter answering several questions I’d asked about his work while also apologising for the delay in getting back to me. A couple of years ago I contacted hi again to asked if he’d read my unpublished novel ‘Etc Etc Amen’ if I sent him a copy. He happily agreed to take a look at it, but then a year later when I emailed to ask him if he’d made any progress, he replied that he’d changed his mind. Given that it had obviously been at the back of my mind that the great man was going to look at my novel, it was very disappointing to learn that he couldn’t imagine why he’d agreed to do so in the first place. Oh and there was also the time – via email – he bit my head off for using the term ‘sci-fi’. But this is the world of the eccentric artist and so I still have the utmost respect for the man. Never confuse the artist with their work otherwise you’ll miss out on an awful lot of excellent art.

  28. […] Christopher Priest landed in the literary spotlight recently when he had a go at the judges of this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award, and some of the shortlisted books, including those by China Miéville (“he does not work hard enough”), Charles Stross (“[an] appalling and incapable piece of juvenile work”) and Greg Bear (“The important words are in italics. Have we lived and fought in vain?”). In the event, the award was won by Jane Rogers for The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which for Priest was “the only [book on the shortlist] that I think is something we can be proud of.” (It was also longlisted for last year’s Booker Prize. Is this the first time this has happened?) But what interested me most in Priest’s essay was his assessment of his own work, which has since been removed from the piece as it sat alongside much-criticised remarks about a thriller writer. Priest said that this writer is “firmly embedded in [his] genre and digging deeper with every passing day, while I have spent the last forty years or so trying to understand and make sense of the orthodoxies that clearly define a genre but also dangerously undermine it.” This made me hungry to revisit him, after I was so pleased and impressed by his novel The Affirmation. […]

  29. […] have admired Christopher Priest’s early novels The Affirmation and The Glamour – both published around 30 years ago – so after seeing high praise for […]


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