May 3, 2009
Christopher Priest: The Affirmation
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.
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.