MICHAEL MOORCOCK is, I have little doubt, one of the most exciting discoveries that I have been able to make in the contemporary English novel during the 40 or so years that I have been publishing my own novels and reviewing those of my contemporaries. Exciting for myself and, as is becoming increasingly clear with the appearance of each Moorcock book, for a legion of other readers.
The fusion of fantasy and realism is surely the main advance now being made in the English language novel. The paths of this convergence are many: human individuals molded by the esthetic demands of strict formal shape as in Henry Green; the interlocking paths and journeys of magic and everyday life as in John Cowper Powys; the excitements and revelations of metaphysical adventure and legend as in J.R.R. Tolkien. For English readers (certainly for me) these have been three of the most exciting fictional revelations of the last five decades. Yet, sad to say, the reputations of the first two of these authors have faded rather than triumphed -- although, of course, valuations based on "where is it at now" are of very doubtful value.
But here with Michael Moorcock we have a writer of early middle age whose first work, it seems, was published when he was 11 -- a writer who is emerging as one of the most serious literary lights of our time, but who made his name in the 1960s in the field of popular science fiction. For me his Jerry Cornelius quartet (beginning with The Final Programme) assured the durability of his reputation. But if, as now seems likely, his career will take in many more multi-volumed novels we have a long, packed and exciting journey to make with him -- and with such magic figures as Moorcock's beloved Mrs. Cornelius. For how can a novel go wrong with Mrs. Cornelius to meet again? That strange haunting mixture of Sairey Gamp (for laughter) and the Talmadge sisters (for beauty and sex). And The Laughter of Carthage has other characters that promise as much for the future as Mrs. Cornelius has done from the start.
Moorcock covers such such a wide field in The Laughter of Carthage (and its predecessor, Byzantium Endures). In this volume chronicling the life and adventures of the mythomaniac engineer Pyat or of Colonel Peterson or of Matt Pallenbury, the changes of name not only signal the hero's failure of scientific or mechanical invention (which makes his life one long pseudonym to avoid prosecution for fraud), but also establish Pyat's almost magical power to invent those new names and new personalities needed to sustain his absurd, childish life of imagined success.
Driven from his native Russia by the Revolution, The Laughter of Carthage takes Pyat on a voyage of escape from Odessa via Constantinople (and forcibly via Ankara) through Greek waters to Rome and Paris to search for the realization of his imagined, inventive genius in the United States (New York, Washington, Dixie, above all Memphis and Los Angeles, land of his chief hero, D.W. Griffith). Of course, all his hopes are dreams, and blighted dreams at that. He has to leave his wonderful little girl mistress from Canstantinople in Paris to avoid prosecution, although by tricks and cheats he is able to end the book in New York awaiting her arrival to make an idyllic life in L.A. The pictures of life in all these places are no doubt measured somewhat by the reader's familiarity with the locales. Yet I must confess that though I do not know Memphis, life there with the Ku Klux Klan comes over most successfully. Indeed, all this world of shady deals and high hopes, likeable ladies of all classes and of high sexuality, insecure hotel living, dope and meetings with movie stars makes for a series of wonderful fast-moving scenes.
It is lucky that it is so, for with the best will in the world, one may sympathize with the hero's eroticism and even his absurd high hopes, but it is quite impossible for me to swallow any of his loyalties and faiths. Admittedly I am an old-time liberal, but I fear that like many other readers I cannot accept Pyat's philosophy which not only demands the absolute acceptance of a white, Western world of values but utterly condemns Jews, people of color, Moslems, Socialists, indeed all liberals, I think.
Luckily one is able to trust the irony of Moorcock's story, for he openly declares his own dislike for his hero's beliefs. But there is a serious danger for an author who creates such a hero: that in bringing alive with sympathy the divine idiocy of his character, the devil's advocacy inherent in so many of his views may be insufficiently stressed. Moorcock's disclaimer is outside the text. In the novel itself I believe that he just avoids the danger.