26 thoughts on “The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again – M. John Harrison

  1. ONE
    1 & 2

    “By now he was used to partition walls and the noises you heard through them.”

    Books have partition walls, too. I hear a man with a later than middle life crisis called Shaw; how am I sure of his name,? Living in pages like flats near where I expect the University boat race to take place on the Thames, back in a time when there were dank coppery claw-footed communal bathrooms, and when you could reach forward into the future to use 1471 on the landline. He met a woman once, I hear, whose small talk was about fish people in South America. I think I know Shaw already without ever having seen him. Is it significant I’m also told that he owns a copy of Golding’s Pincher Martin? His senile mother whom he visits in a home, perhaps it was she who told me this. I cannot remember. I am too old to be a book reviewer, I guess.
    But, thinking about it, life is always on a new pair of starting blocks…

  2. 3

    “‘The bed’s a bit small,’ she said, looking at him brightly. Picking through his books, she found a John Fowles;…”

    …he who coined the name nemo as the necessary (if unwanted?) complement to the names id and ego… coined it yonks ago.
    Do the eating houses etc. near the Thames where Shaw lives have “greyish floorboards”? And does he meet the odd beddable woman of his acquaintance, one who gives him a (of silver, so greyish?) Peruvian fish, thus a silverfish, as a house warming gift, and a man he also meets by chance who sifts what I used to sift as seeming soil in the backwater where I lived as a boy. A man named Tim who later turns out coincidentally to live beyond one of the neighbouring partitions of Shaw’s bedsits or flats! Coincidence or intention? Nobody can really fathom the Intentional Fallacy in fiction, I guess. Nor the backstory of his life that Shaw gathers from a senile mother who confuses him. Confuses him, too, with someone else. Is this fiction at all? But some watery underbelly of the Jung? Reminds me so far of, inter alia, the chance encounters in an often watery book I recently reviewed here called “FEATHER: Tales of Isolation and Descent.”

  3. 4

    “Now he saw himself as only partially connected to the stream of events.”

    “Shaw ate the last piece of his sandwich. It was one of the corners, with no cheese or tomato in it.”

    The retail hell of near defunct shopping centres mixed with Haw’s sporadic sexual affair with one such retailer called Helen, while working from off sticky Virgin train journeys.

    “Shaw spent more time in this faded psychic landscape than he expected.”

    Somehow, reading about such a landscape within the crepitatingly evocative Harrison descriptions, seems to make it all seem worthwhile!
    Helen’s sleeptalking to some psychic co-vivid dream telephone, notwithstanding.

  4. 0A34044D-8212-4CE9-B896-11241EB755CB5

    “– as if the artist, in the attempt to kitschify the ethnic product of one culture, had stumbled on evidence of a completely different culture hidden inside it.”

    We get some clue when we are told Shaw spends some of his time in Tim’s office watching Netflix. Yet, I wallow here in his mother’s 60s and 70s family photos and her antipathy towards the Peruvian fish he gives her at the care home. 998F9408-2564-431C-97AE-EB1FB6901135 And the mention of cassettes that once pervaded my life, but not when I spent time in Hastings during the 1960s; I don’t think they were invented then. The essence of time and place in Shaw’s England is, for me, in mutual synergy with J.W. Böhm’s ‘Wounded Island’ HERE. Mention of netsuke reminds me of Rikki Ducornet HERE. Mention of a medium called Mrs Swann at the end of this chapter, summons Proust? The actual passing of remembered time….no, the passing of water down by the barge near the toiletless office. But when mentioned in court cases involving living things in real toilets I will hardly mention at all for fear of spoilers.

    “…she had made her life a history of the medium: tiny Kodak 127 prints, warped by their own glaze into subtle curves which reflected light away from their subject, gave way to 35mm transparencies the colour values of which had shifted dangerously to the red; then Polaroids with the muddy and furtive background tones of the late 1970s.”

  5. TWO
    6

    “This curious ruin – thrown up in the 1200s by Geoffrey de Lacy, one of Henry III’s lesser-known Savoyards, and pulled down not much more than a hundred years later during the Despenser War – featured a single triangular corner of masonry, fifty or sixty feet high and leaning fifteen degrees off the vertical, looking less like architecture than the bow of an unfinished ship: as if its founder had seen into some future of immense sea-level rises,…”

    Nyman or Norman, I wonder why this book is now majoring on Victoria, Shaw’s erstwhile beddable acquaintance, still in contact with him, despite having moved to the borders of Shropshire and nowhere. Or if not nowhere, the Severn ‘bore’. I feel delightfully, yet uncomfortably, disorientated by who I think she is, who SHE thinks she is, her backstory’s taken-for-granted person-connections here, perceived foetalities in street backwashes, a found copy of Kingsley’s Water Babies in her own or her mother’s boxes, and I just decided to gratuitously copy out (above) a bit of the text I’ve just read, just like she does with Kingsley for a distant Shaw. Baked beans and a stuck backdoor, notwithstanding. The blend of two gardens revealed by unsticking the latter, too. I am duly captivated by this duty tranche of the plot while still on its watch, a reader, if not reviewer, surveilling surreptitiously the narrative for false clues…

  6. 7

    “Some pools were graced with a pylon of their own, or with a couple of willows or cows;”

    Yet, somewhere here, Victoria states she hates water, when asked to go swimming by Pearl, who, similar to Tim earlier turning up unexpectedly as a neighbour to Shaw, is now discovered to live next door to Victoria … and Pearl once knew her mother. There is a stoical, almost absurdist, sense of destiny to this book, despite – or because of? – Victoria climbing ladders to deliver tea unspilt to a workman working on her house. A zoo of roses, too, at a house and gardens. She’s gone there with Pearl as she needs roses for the garden, I recall. And there is the coincidence I spot of another edition of the Water Babies turning up. I happened coincidentally to listen to appropriate Handel music on Spotify just now. And I, myself, always rewrite intended emails that I delete before sending them so that I can send them after all. I never delete or even edit my book review entries but often I regret what I have written as they show ignorance of what was later to transpire in the plot. Workmen compared to giant toddlers in dungarees seems something I should record here, however. I am, meanwhile entranced by this book without an easy way to exit it should my reading of it later turn ugly.

    “On a rainy afternoon the café seemed to talk to itself via eighties and nineties music set at a thoughtful volume,…”

  7. 8

    “She still heard ‘Moya!’ and ‘Voya!’ in the mornings when the soft mist in the back gardens was beginning to fill with sunshine:”

    Pale meadows, too. I think I must have been misled by co-vivid dreaming that Pearl lives next door to Victoria, as now she seems to live in a house in the wilds of the Gorge, or near it, and we learn more about the Severn (without mention of its ‘bore’!) and watery and tessellated geography over the cycles of time. About antique shops and places in the area; I went on my honeymoon to Clun, Shropshire in 1970; is that anywhere near here? I think it is. Pearl’s father, too, and his dog. Boot sale or dog fighting? And that house in the Gorge seems to pay host to many men, including the roofer who Victoria delivered tea to, or have I got it all wrong again? Pathological obesity, mentioned. All I can say is that the prose in this book has a textured bite, prose that is very satisfying to read but also it is somehow brain-reconfiguring. My big head, with this substance inside it, is becoming addicted to this book, it seems! Whether I fully understand it or not. Whether or not it fully understands ME.

  8. A319E635-3298-409C-A3A7-12A002D769F7 9

    “As soon as you entered the woods, a dozen footpaths,…”

    Her dreams were odd, but does ‘odd’ also add co-vivid, covidual, collucid…? I guess so, judging by what we know of Victoria, as she continues her journey of uncut but ungrowing nails (something to do with the relative hardness or softness of the water in this area?), involved with sorting her mother’s things, creating, with mainly oldish photos, a new gestalt-by-death of her mother’s consequent life, then being shown by feisty Pearl photos of nude “knowing“ children including herself when a child, teetering upon tits. Her father’s doing? If her father is called Ossie? Following Victoria’s earlier watching a thin youth (“something more like a special effect than a human being”), a boy sexless or unsexed or just coy diving for a swim in the watery locale, dream or not, I now can’t recall. Even more odd, reading this.

    “‘I don’t even know what I’m puzzled about,’ she wrote to Shaw. ‘It’s all quite non-specific.’ When she did sleep her dreams were odd.”

  9. 10

    “…the pure painterly values and eerie depth of the objects on a Virago book cover in 1982. […] The grey four-square walls were home to yellow lichens. Coughing could be heard from an upper room.”

    Victoria seems dependant on emails to Shaw, and texts to Pearl. But nude Pearl’s pylon pool incident at the end seems to make Victoria return to London to see Shaw…. this Harrison work constructively seems to be a semantically atonal apotheosis of Priest…

    “Moisture crept into everything.” This is ironic as I happen to be reading this in Clacton where today continues to be a heatwave, and the water supply is said to severely threatened.

    “The website and its videos resembling pornography from a culture with a drifted value for the term ‘sex’; the dish by the fan; the underwear discarded in a corner, the outer garments all over the carpet, each item with its arms or legs so tangled up in every other item that you had the sense of them continually separating and rejoining in some liquid medium when you weren’t looking:”

    Some astonishing passages in this book so far, and the above is only one example.

    B4EA16E4-9785-464C-A6D5-9C83957EF298
    Men due to communally eat fish and chips, those aforementioned chippies as carpenters and roofers, but especially they will be eating fish, it says in the Harrison text…
    To the right is another author’s passage that I serendipitously read only yesterday HERE from a story by Bilge Karasu, a passage that has somehow layered back into my mind while reading the Harrison today…

    ‘Jitties’ and ‘Korbut’…alleyways and a famous gymnast from my past, here sounding decidedly watery or fishy!

    The Water Babies as a new religion touted from street to street?

    This book has already hooked my gut.

  10. THREE
    11

    “By then a voracious reader, he was still failing seven times out of ten to correctly recite the alphabet.”

    This chapter is a tour de force, and you will read it, absorb its power wording, love its observations, call it a literature sublime, whatever, and you feel better for it, feel more worthwhile (even if also feeling embalmed in urban chiaroscuro), while having inspiring thoughts of living life or going missing, but overall as if you have seen yourself in a Hopper painting rather that as a man’s collectible toolery upon a B&Q wall.
    We are back with Shaw, reliving his childhood, slightly more simply-special than special-needs, thinking of Victoria (Nyman, not Norman) in her plot by the Severn and her communications about roofers and a cellar, and seeing his mother again, watching films with her, films that he takes with him to see. Each lengthy discrete encounter with senile dementia is a gestalt of brief encounters with someone else, but increasingly briefer ones with who they really once were. Yet the highlight of this chapter is his Tim-paid surveillance of Mrs Swann whose dress becomes disorderly when in the throes of her mediumship…. In Search of Lost Time, if not Tim?

    “I would never have to fake my own death, he found himself thinking. I’ve all but vanished already. Part of him welcomed that.”

  11. 12

    “But paths Shaw knew well in the afternoon seemed less amenable after dark,…”

    This book is like things that grow themselves into layers within drains? Or at least it has subtexts, thus. Reading aloud about such layers to one’s mother. Marcel wanted a goodnight kiss, Shaw I’m not sure what. Meanwhile, he seems to have a weak bladder, always wanting to piss near barges, and then seeing things pale and nude in the dark that suit this book somehow down to the ground. Ever since they were born in toilets? And his surveillance of the medium has also become self-serving for Shaw, both in person and at one remove by mobile. Her trances (acted or real) allow all manner of his sur-surveilling, I guess. And co-surveilling has been facilitated by electronic websites or water-closets of all phenomena that have, now in hindsight, led to today’s covideos, and layered facts and fake news. This book is a period piece that happened before 2020. No social distancing in it, other than those psychological springy firewalls between people that always existed throughout the history of mankind … all the way from mankind’s actual primeval emergence?

    “Truths and mysteries ran together, hardening into unconformable layers of time and data.”

  12. 13

    There seems to be a motley group of men at Annie Swann’s way with mass séances to match Victoria’s earlier sudden group of workmen gathered in a gorge house … and now gathered workmen with a JCB in Helen’s garden in the Midlands whereto I travel alongside Tim and Shaw amid cloud pareidolia viewed from the train and chance catches of words spoken by other travellers into their mobiles, chance memorising things in this book, too, making a map?…queuing at a fishmongers connected with what is later dredged clenching from Helen’s pool?… and that photo quote above about human-fish symbiosis?? Tim and Annie and Helen connected by more than just this plot’s marked map, I guess … now seen on my own wall at home! No spoilers here.

  13. 14

    “Mabel, her saggy, powdered features looking as if they were made of cloth or plastic (something, anyway,…”

    …and I remember my London East End Docking or South Wales Mining relatives on both sides of the family being like that in the1950s when I was a boy, remember them like looking at memories through the filter of today’s co-vivid dreaming as an old man. I also recall similar separate groups of men sporadically arising, like when I was watching Mods battling Rockers on Hastings beach in, I think, 1963. Or perhaps earlier. Shaw’s thoughts here vis a vis Tim, Annie, fish, river banks, the book’s map, et al, are all filtered, for me, through such implied co-vividness. Or through his Mum’s old photos, some airbrushed, others mounted askew with corner grips in the mind’s album.

  14. “; and there were shouts, and blows, and words which Tom recollected to have heard before; and he shuddered and turned sick at them now, for he felt somehow that they were strange, and ugly, and wrong, and horrible. And it all began to come back to him. They were men; and they were fighting; savage, desperate, up-and-down fighting, such as Tom had seen too many times before.
    And he stopped his little ears, and longed to swim away;”
    The Water Babies – Charles Kingsley

    15

    “Ippolito Caffi’s The Eclipse of the Sun in Venice, July 6, 1842”

    The skewwhiff post card pinned to the sky….
    Words we’ve heard so many times before. The other end of mobile conversations. Fights fought sporadically forever. Only water the only escape for a clockwork bath-toy… destinations forgotten, only come for another one night stand. The Peruvian fish mentioned. So much that accumulates like bubble memories in the brain, now social bubbles with babies. We bring our own periods to the period pieces we read, and this modern book is already a period piece that they will have to film in the ‘new-modern’ of our times with any actors social distancing: mœurs that didn’t exist when it was written. When it actually happened in real-time. Books, though, are immune to that virus. Words always have spaces between. Dickens had street sweepers. Kingsley child sweepers.

  15. FOUR
    16

    “There was always a lot of wet coughing outside the front window. Old men, exhausted and complaining as they exchanged the news, turned out to be young men when she looked.”

    Workmen often wear masks as well as ear defenders, I guess.
    People now working at home or at a distance for tontine money.
    Victoria with the fluid surname returns Salopside again, and Shaw still leaves her emails to him unanswered. Perhaps they get lost in the addressless ether? Where he lives alongside tawdry bathrooms under some attention’s radar…

    “The Gorge channelled the river, yet was in itself only a sponge, storing vast acquifers, drop by drop, in the decaying matrix of its own history.”

    “She was like everyone else now, revising their contacts book, making distress calls, looking for work they could do from home.”

    Pearl’s pylon pool – and Victoria gives up hope, as this book’s workmen turn the cafe where Pearl worked into a thankful something else….

    “…a kind of soft green-tinged shadow that seemed to have leaked into the shop from the tanks, Tommie and Brenda Jack sat behind the counter, a distance apart.”

  16. 17

    “Water shown flowing under water?”

    It is as if this whole novel was somehow written inspirationally, telepathically, before we had heard of co-vivid dreaming and everything that happens in any such dream as each event or encounter vagues in waves within it. It’s as if this has the sense of an ironic apologia for people who torture each other on Twitter, vote for Brexit, even Trump!

    I am so proud I mentioned that mere glimpse of those ungrowing fingernails earlier in this review, as they now seem to take on a new prominence…
    Victoria now selling her erstwhile mother’s house, proud of what she has had done to the roof. Overpriced, is one of its viewers as prospective buyer the same Helen whom Shaw happens to know! Coincidences seem to be a new phenomenon when inside this book. The New Coincidence as part of the viral pandemic with which all its readers are now imbued, if such readers never existed when it was first written?

    “These shifts of perspective had a fluid, organic, easily achieved quality, as if she had been given a new way of looking at things. At the same time they were as devastating and transformative as the easily achieved vomits and fevers of an illness.”

    That sort of sums things up, without spoilers. Gives you the feel of swimming through a dream, or an apotheosis, or an epiphany, or a co-vivid lawn decked with specially chosen roses. Or getting in and out of a Toyota without using one of its doors, like a diver trying to get into a locked down submarine. A toy-floater…

  17. 18

    “The downstairs room was full of outside air, which seemed to have been taken up by the carpets and soft furnishings.”

    “Inland cities”, but I was born in 1948 on the coast of Walton on the Naze, and later I called it Innsmouth.

    “More people are born on sea coasts than you imagine!”

    “; the land was the sea, the sea was the land.”

    A toilet is the ultimate lockdown, I feel.

    “…a forearm, with its hand lightly clenched. The fingers seemed to extend…”

  18. 19

    “Landward, the crows were working out happily above St Mary Magdalen, loosening up in twos and threes, doing air-pocket work, breathing into their stalls and sideslips,…”

    …which is not so much covid-19 as corvid…?
    We now learn of Shaw’s symphonic coda in “Brexitania”, the wounded land that prefigured Covidia.
    Life goes on. Connections try to reconnect. Not made easier by unreliable on-line connections, I guess.
    What I really felt about this novel must be inferred from what I have already said. Water on an old brain, notwithstanding.
    I cannot listen to Couperin interminably. Maybe Rameau, though?

    end

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