Posts Tagged ‘Stephen R Donaldson’

I read perhaps Conrad’s most famous novel, Heart of Darkness (upon which Apocalypse Now is based), a few years ago and it didn’t make too much of an impression on me. (I read it because it was a book Stephen R Donaldson recommended in his Gradual Interview.) I saw this book in a bookshop in Reykjavik and I wanted to buy a cheap book to supplement my travel reading matter. After I bought it, I realised I already had a copy somewhere amongst my possessions back in Britain; for which reason, I handed it on to my friend Botond once I’d finished it.

The novel has many similarities to Heart of Darkness – mainly that is narrated (mostly) by the character Marlow. However, it begins as a third person narrative about the youth of a young seaman made known to the reader only as Jim. Without introduction by the authorial voice, Marlow begins telling Jim’s story to a group of listeners one night. Jim is afflicted – to the core of his being – by being involved in some shameful episode on board a ship for which he served as first mate. The tale is Jim’s attempt to flee from this shame and redeem himself from it.

The first part of the book tells, in a very indirect way, what happened in this shameful incident – revealing one fact crucial to its understanding only two-fifths or more of the way through the novel. In the second part, Jim has taken up work as a trading representative in a native village, apparently somewhere in Indonesia. He is virtually the only white man the locals have ever seen and, when he gains their respect, they start to call him Tuan Jim – Lord Jim. This latter part of the book resembles a kind of benign version of Heart of Darkness. Marlow breaks off his nighttime narrative and only resumes the story in a letter addressed to one of his listeners who took an interest in it.

In some ways, the text is extremely tedious – although it never falls short of an evocative (if slightly prolix) pulchritude. The story is constantly related in a series of sub-stories regarding the other characters from whom Marlow has learned Jim’s story. Even the long interview he has with Jim himself after his appearance at an inquiry flits back and forth between Jim’s words and Marlow interpretation. This is, of course, a crucial part of the author’s intention. The whole story is a matter of hearsay and ambivalence. Even the very moment that Jim commits himself to his shame is related in a way that suggests he wasn’t responsible for his own actions, that his own memory is a narrative he doesn’t quite believe.

The second part of the book is a little more to the point and the dénouement is inevitable and both satisfying and unsatisfying. Given all his self-doubt and the slings and arrows that the world throws at him, Jim finds the only peace he can find. Jim is an unlikely protagonist for a novel Рhe is continually described as, and shown to be, ineloquent by the loquacious Marlow. He stumbles over his words, he jumps to conclusions only to be embarrassed by them, he is full of juvenile imagination. If he was presented in a happier scenario he would be a lovable character Рinstead he is desperately pathetic.

So, although it’s slow and verbose (though ultimately not too long), Lord Jim is a great book. It tells a complex, human story in a complex, human way. It reminds the reader that all stories are interpretations – even memories. I enjoyed it a lot, in the end. I’ll have to dig out my copy of Heart of Darkness and give it another go.

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Stephen R Donaldson in response to a questioner on his Gradual Interview requesting he eases off on the recondite lexemes:

But seriously: what’s wrong with encouraging you to expand your vocabulary? Words are the tools of thought. The more words you know, the more things you can think about.

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This is the third book in the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and the ninth – and penultimate – Thomas Covenant book overall. It follows on directly from Fatal Revenant, where – look away now if you don’t want to know the result – Thomas Covenant, having died ten years previously his real world and three millennia ago in the world of the Land and become part of the Arch of Time, was resurrected by his lover Linden Avery, thus rousing the Worm of the World’s End and dooming the world to destruction and ensuring Lord Foul the Despiser’s swift release from his imprisonment within the Arch of Time.

This climactic scene takes place within the numinous region of Andelain, where the dead are able to appear to advise their living friends, and continues into the next book – for five long chapters – as the assembled heroes of the Land’s past and future debate what to do. In addition to debating what to do, Covenant in the first chapter and Linden in the succeeding ones agonise over the consequences of their decisions and their inability to deal with them. This agonising is a huge feature of Donaldson’s work, especially in these Last Chronicles, and, while I love Donaldson’s work in general, has been a big stumbling block to my enjoyment of this book and the first in the series, The Runes of the Earth. It starts off tedious and doesn’t let up much.

Fortunately, once Linden makes up her mind what to do, there is also a fair amount of action. Strangely, though, given that the world is going to be destroyed in a few days as the Worm of the World’s End ravages its way across the Earth devouring Earthpower, the characters all acknowledge their inability to do anything about it and instead concentrate on rescuing Linden’s adopted son, Jeremiah, a boy without volition or speech but with the mysterious ability to construct, um, constructs that open portals to other places. Against All Things Ending is really his story – even though he isn’t present for a large portion of it, and is unable to do anything because of his mental state and other factors.

As with the other books in this series, the volume is divided into two parts, and each one is very similar in terms of pacing. Each begins with a long section of discussion and inner turmoil and ends with with some profoundly momentous questing and action. By the end of the book, although certain obvious things have been achieved, there are still the same potent dangers looming in the immediate future – this volume even adds another, as if the Worm, Lord Foul, Kastenessen and his skurj Roger Covenant (Thomas’s evil son), two ravers, a pack of semi-evil sandgorgons roaming the Land etc weren’t enough to be going on with. This means that there are an awful lot subplots to be drawn together in the last book – The Last Dark.

A another major feature of Donaldson’s writing is the near-purpleness of his prose, which relies on recondite verbiage and synaesthetic similes. It’s intense and stylistic, and a little annoying, bemusing, even amusing. The January edition of David Langford’s sf and fantasy newsletter, Ansible, had something of an Against All Things Ending special in its column Thog’s Masterclass (a selection of humorously badly written quotes from genre novels). Quotable (or, indeed, unquotable) quotes quoted therein include:

Infelice shed distress like damaged jewels.

Wreathed around her limbs, her bedizened garment resembled weeping woven of gemstones and recrimination.

At once, Infelice fled like a wail from the hollow.

Around Linden, the wan glitter of starlight lay like immanence on the friable crust.

Cold and scalding as congealed fire, the flat wilderland ached towards its illimitable horizons.

While I admire Donaldson’s determination to write something that is dense and difficult – qualities that are reflections of the density and difficulty of the characters, story and world they describe – his lexical tapestry in this series does verge on the ridiculous.

These two massively important elements of The Last Chronicles – the endless inner turmoil and torment of Covenant and especially Linden (who is the much more prominent character in the three books), and the complex and grandiloquent language – both tend to detract from the emotional impact of the work. And these books should have vast emotional impact: Linden is trying to rescue her son and, in doing so, in trying to follow cryptic advice from Covenant and others, in trying to balance the needs of her companions, she dooms the world to destruction. The inactivity of the characters for large portions of the book – in the face of imminent death – is also annoying.

Still, the uniqueness of the series and the author’s style of writing in the series are things that should be savoured. This is not literatures for juvenile minds, it’s not intended to be a happy jaunt through fantasy land, but is supposed to be difficult, harrowing, challenging. Instead of a plastic, superficial attractiveness, Donaldson is attempting to create something of lasting and genuine beauty. It’s just a shame that he seems to overdo it so much.

I still enjoyed Against All Things Ending, but it wasn’t as good as the preceeding installment; I found it on a par with The Runes of the Earth. Only three years to wait for the last ever Thomas Covenant book.

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Howard Jacobson just won the Man Booker Prize with his novel, The Finkler Question. The main talking point of this event is the fact that it’s the first comic novel to win the prize in its 42-year history.

When I think of comedy fiction, three writers come to mind – Robert Rankin, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. For me the first two – and I love Robert Rankin, and am on the positive side of indifferent to Terry Pratchett (it’s just been announced that Pratchett is a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award winner) – are fairly self-indulgent reads. People read Rankin and Pratchett because there’s something comforting about the worlds they’ve created and sustained in the five million novels they’ve written between them (five million is an approximate figure). They are full of wordplay, silliness and running gags. Douglas Adams, for me, is a much more serious writer. When I read the Hitchhiker books I get a sense of existential melancholy; that series explores the fundamental pointlessness of human existence. The answer to the question – the question, about life, the universe and things of that nature generally – is 42 – which is about as meaningful as any other answer people have come up with.

Jacobson’s thesis, from what I’ve read and heard in the past day, is that comic novels are not or should not be a minor sub-genre, but the totality of literature – all novels should make you laugh, he says.

Well, I would say that humour is a useful tool in any writer’s kit – any novel can have flashes of humour that arise from the characters or the situations. But comic writers also use a certain voice – an authorial voice that is itself humorous, witty, punning, observational – that doesn’t often sit well with literary quality. Of the three writers I mentioned, I would say Adams achieves it, but Rankin and Pratchett do not.

It would be nice to think that all writing and writers are published simply for their literary merits, but it seems like the reality is that many books are published because they fulfil(publishing companies’ perception of) market demand. Fantasy novels have to be about 8,000 pages long and tell the story of a young hero, or group of young heroes, in excrucating detail from childhood to confrontation with the ultimate evil that killed their parents. And comedy novels, clearly, can’t be serious literature – it would confuse people.

My favourite series of books is Stephen R Donaldson’s Gap series. It’s a gripping, brutal space opera – but it has one joke (if that’s the right word) that stood out for me. Introducing one character, Godsen Frik, the book says something along the lines of, ‘He had the fleshy smile of a pederast who’d just been made the head of a boys reform school.’ Appropriately dark, but in as much as it is funny (opinions may differ), it’s somehow out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the story.

I think, ultimately, that each book should just be good at was it does, whether it’s a comedy, a funny book with serious bits, a serious book with funny bits or a work of unleavened humourlessness.

I’ve never read any Howard Jacobson, although I’ve seen him in the media over the years and he’s always seemed plain-speaking and likeable. I should get a copy of one of his books at some point – maybe even The Finkler Question. You can read more about him and his shiny new 50,000 pound prize on the Independent website or over at the Telegraph – or any other news site (but you’ll have to search for them yourself).

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I asked Stephen R Donaldson this question:

You’ve answered a couple of questions lately about the cover art of the upcoming US edition of Against All Things Ending, but I was wondering what your thoughts on the UK edition were. It seems to me it’s not as mysterious as the previous two – it’s too clean – almost happy. But I do like the continuation of the elemental theme – forest, mountain, sea. And I much prefer the less representative, more oblique approach of the UK covers.

What do you think?

He answered:

In general, I prefer the UK approach rather than the US one. And in general, I don’t think that the UK “Against All Things Ending” is up to the standard of the previous two books. But have you seen the “revised” UK cover? I’m told that the unrevised version (before both my agent and I screamed) is still floating around on the web somewhere. It makes the book look like a box of laundry detergent. By *that* standard, the revised cover is a huge improvement.

I’d only seen one UK edition cover – the blue one:

I think the laundry detergent cover he referred to was this:

For comparison, the US edition looks like this:

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Stephen Donaldson answered another one of my questions recently. I asked:

You’ve answered lots of questions about the challenges of writing, but I don’t think you’ve ever said whether you actually enjoy writing. (I’ve just done a search for ‘enjoy’ and, although I didn’t read every answer, the closer I found was an answer to one of my earlier questions in which you said you didn’t enjoy rewriting.)

So – do you enjoy writing? And, of course, I mean enjoy in a broad sense – I don’t mean ‘Is it fun to write?’, but is it broadly a pleasurable experience? Are there certain things that are more enjoyable to write than others, or does it depend on your state of mind at the time?

I did creative writing at university and I remember one of my lecturers saying something along the lines that if writing is fun, you’re probably not very good. Is that something that rings a bell with you?

He replied:

“If writing is fun, you’re probably not very good.” I can’t speak for anyone else. And in any case, the assertion is too broad to be useful. But it sure rings a bell for me.

I would never use a word like “enjoy” to describe the experience of writing. I call it “wrestling with the Angel of the Lord”: it’s always arduous, painful, and frustrating. In fact, whenever I’m writing easily, I know I’m doing something wrong. Which explains, at least in part, why it takes me so &^#$% long to produce a book.

So why do I do it? Why do I bother? Well, this is the work I was born to do. I’m more consistently alive when I’m writing than I am under most other circumstances. Writing makes me–for lack of a better term–a bigger person than I could hope to be otherwise. So it’s hard. So what? Name something that you consider worth doing on a profound level; and if you think it’s easy–or even fun–I’ll be inclined to think that you aren’t putting your heart into it.

Source: Stephen R Donaldson Official Website.

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A little while ago I submitted the following question to Stephen R Donaldson via his website:

What made you decide to give each book of the Gap series two titles (or a title and a subtitle)? It’s quite unusual for novels to be subtitled like that – was there anything you drew inspiration from for that? And what was the attitude of your editor/publisher to it?


The Gap series is gripping space opera of five books:

  • The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story
  • The Gap into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge
  • The Gap into Power: A Dark and Hungry God Arises
  • The Gap into Madness: Chaos and Order
  • The Gap into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die

Stephen Donaldson just answered:

I did almost the same thing with the “Mordant’s Need” books. My intent was to let my readers know that there was more than one book to the story (without going through endless repetitions of Book One, Book Two, etc.). And in the case of the GAP books, I also wanted to suggest the progress of the themes from book to book. The technique is actually fairly common: for example, my edition of “Lord of the Rings” uses it. My editors/publishers had no objection–although my UK publishers have felt compelled to attach numbers to the paperbacks.

Source: Stephen R Donaldson Official Website.

Actually, I don’t quite get his answer. This is from the Wikipedia entry on The Lord of the Rings:

For publication, the book was divided into three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring (Books I, The Ring Sets Out, and II, The Ring Goes South,) The Two Towers (Books III, The Treason of Isengard, and IV, The Ring Goes East,), and The Return of the King (Books V, The War of the Ring, and VI, The End of the Third Age, plus six appendices).

Each subdivision (volume, book, chapter) of TLotR has a separate title, but my point was that each whole volume in the Gap sequence has two titles (I don’t count ‘Book I’ to be a meaningful title).

Oh, well. I have another couple of questions for Stephen Donaldson waiting to be answered. We’ll see what comes of them.

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