WHEN YOU OPEN Byzantium Endures, a bulge forms down the middle of the two-page frontispiece map, all the way from St. Petersburg in the north to Constantinople in the south. A handy fluke, because it's along the time-line of this vertical bulge that Michael Moorcock's anti-hero whizzes up and down, from Kiev in the dead center of the map to Odessa, due south, then up to St. Petersburg, after which he goes to Constantinople, which is old Byzantium. Like mercury in a fine tube, he measures the revolutionary climate in the first decades of our century; a twisted H.M. Stanley looking for the source of Russia's pain.
But he's more than that: self-engrossed and self-serving, he is an accomplished liar and an anti-Semitic Jew whose emotional life is a series of agonized twists. Determined not to be what life has made him, Maxim Arturovitch Pyatnitski only becomes more so: for supposedly hygienic reasons his father had him circumcised, and this obsesses "Pyat." In fact, he is nothing but obsession, although some of the things that haunt him are more interesting than remembrance of a prepuce past: his love of aeronautics, for instance, comes bewitchingly through. As a mere boy, he devised a manned flying machine and, partly to impress Esm,e his childhood sweetheart, jumped into the Babi Yar ravine, thus attaining premature fame as the Icarus of Kiev.
If you believe him, that is. A first-person narrative, Byzantium Endures has all the usual traps: no corroboration by witnesses, no interventions by an all-knowing authority whose mind is the novel's locus. Moorcock supplies an introduction which explains how Pyat's papers came into his hands, eventually to obsess him and drive him "half-mad." There is even a "a facsimile page from Pyat's manuscript" to thicken up the illusion, and Moorcock makes a tempting job of the preview, offering the image of old Pyat in London, his final retreat, tippling in favorite pubs with his mysterious mistress, a Mrs. Cornelius, who wafts through the book proper like some Cockney angel of mercy, rescuing him from trigger-happy Bolsheviks and spiriting him across the Black Sea in a double cabin aboard the Rio Cruz.
A game of mirrors is going on here, a game whose rules extend beyond the immediate concerns of Byzantium Endures. As Moorcock says, Pyat "knew that I had already . . . 'exploited' (Mrs. Cornelius) in some books," and there are the several Jerry Cornelius novels to prove it, as well as The Adventures of Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius in the Twentieth Century. And, if you jump ahead to the last page of Moorcock's recent fantasy novel, The War Hound and the World's Pain (Timescape, $12.95) you find a note saying that he "is working on an ambitious four-volume novel Some Reminiscences of Mrs. Cornelius Between the Wars, the first volume of which, Byzantium Endures, has already appeared."
Hence some of the huffing and puffing in the introduction, which is essentially a portait of the artist as an inheritor of materials. He resists the opportunistic Pyat's demand that he write the life of Mrs. Cornelius but, eventually succumbing to Pyat's spell, ploughs through 11 shoeboxes of papers and ends up with the present text (1900 to 1920) whereas the papers go all the way to 1940, with Pyat in a concentration camp. The reader has to work out whether or not, granted the constraint of editing, the entire novel should have been cast in the mode of the preface, with Pyat given not raw and unmediated, but planted in the living tissue of authorial speculation. I wonder, because Moorcock as himself, or impersonating himself, is a subtler teller than Moorcock impersonating Pyat, who limps and drones and fumbles, enlarging what an expert novelist would have trimmed, and vice versa. If the gain is a greater realism, the loss is in technique; a loss which perhaps the other three volumes will justify.
As it is, some of the book foams along. The disastrous parabola of Pyat's cocaine-heightened private life is undeniably vivid, and it survives the log-jams of data allowed in by the putative editor. An odd mix of picaro, Cartesian diver, and thwarted pilot who flies all the time in his mind's eye, Pyat is someone to remember: a warthog of the Ukraine, a flunked Prometheus convinced he never had the life he deserved; a fake, a snob, a lover of machinery ("the sight of a simple English bicycle" ravishes him), and a misfit who says to Winston Churchill "How are you, you old bugger?" He runs errands for wealthy women and watches the world go to hell while he acquires a special engineering diploma, dallies with homosexuals, invents a death-ray that fails, and ponders "A Thousand Books That Bored the World."
Rasputin stalks through these pages while Pyat lurches from high to high in white suit, boater, walking with his silver-headed cane into and out of aliases, leaving only the "liquid steel" of his sperm behind him. He struts along the rim of history and topples off, a man who might have ruled the world (or so he thinks), an H.G. Wells figment who ends up in real Wells-land, living over a second-hand clothes shop in Notting Hill, surrounded by bits of old bicycle "petrol engines, old spark plugs, electrical bric-Ma-brac." A new New Machiavelli in a white golfing hat, he has in his day been flogged by a commissar, crashed into the ocean in an obsolete seaplane, and remembered always that Odessa was named for Odysseus. Something gritty and nasty about him keeps him at a slight distance, at exactly the distance where personification thrives; so he easily becomes what he thinks himself--the spirit of the age, an Ancient Mariner who's read Nietzsche.
A memorable though greasy creation, he puzzles me only if I try to figure out when he wrote things down. The blurb says "told . . . during the Russian Revolution," but it all feels as if set down much later, in the later '30s, perhaps. It will be uncanny to have him presented by yet another first-person narrator: Mrs. Cornelius, to be sure.