The city of Viriconium drifts around the internet like a ghost site, abandoned, glitched and malfunctioning, composed of failed attempts to turn it into one thing; to place it back in the genre it began to undo in 1966; or as imitations designed to repurpose it as the founding platform of a version of itself corrected for the fantasy market. In Japan, meanwhile, a version generated by the selection of one novel and five of the short stories is about to be published in real life.
Obviously I enjoy the accidental ironies of these revisions, attempted coups and counter revolutions: to a degree they’re in the spirit of the thing– which was conceived of from the start as impossible to bring into focus, shattered and drifting about in its own timeline; certainly they’re in the spirit of cities.
I was recently offered the opportunity to join in, via a de luxe hardback edition of the entire sequence. If that happens–and I should emphasise that it’s a big “if” at this early stage–I’ll probably make a new author-approved order, based on the Fantasy Masterworks edition (Gollancz, UK, 2000), in which the short stories were woven between the novels. I’ll write a preface to explain why I prefer it ordered like that, as opposed to the normalising, dull & above all inaccurate presentation of it as a trilogy and some related short stories; why it should be read as single volume (but not necessarily in a prescribed order); and probably why it was such a personal nightmare to find a place in that order for the final “final” story, “Jack O’ Mercy’s”. Possibly I’ll add some older material, and some wilfully non-canonical material…
I feel relieved that I won’t have to do the same with the Light trilogy, which was written & published in the order in which it needs to be read to make a single, solid unit, and which has already been published in one volume in Germany. Time someone caught up and did that in English.
Mind sharing the approved order, and where “Jack of Mercy’s” fits in it? Oh, and if I were to guess — is the Japanese edition “In Viriconium” and things like “Strange Great Sins” and “The Dancer from the Dance”? I always think that those are of a piece.
One more thing, and I hope you don’t mind my pointing this out. In “Jack of Mercy’s” (or is “O’Mercy’s” the correct title now?), in the first paragraph, you have the word “grisailles,” but from the context, I *think* you meant “grisettes”? A grisette is much more likely to be a part of Hardo Crome’s confused audience…
I know that it’s still a big “if” at this stage but it’s thrilling to hear that this is even a possibility, as I’ve long thought Viriconium more than deserves a deluxe hardback edition.
re: the order, out of some personal hangup about “chronological”/publication order, I first read Viriconium as “a trilogy and a handful of short stories” and I thought they were superb, but it wasn’t until I reread them in your Fantasy Masterworks sequencing that I fell in love: it illuminated so much that I hadn’t seen; added great richness and strangeness; each story sent ripples across all of the others; each story and chapter a shard of shattered stained glass. Even ‘Pastel City’, which had once seemed relatively straightforward, began to take on that strange ethereal shifting quality when placed immediately after ‘Viriconium Knights’; when tegeus-Cromis appears only after Ignace Retz. A wonderful, wonderful work.
Thanks for that, Andrei. How it escaped both me & the proofie, I don’t know. Obviously it was intended to be “grisette” & I’ll fix it in subsequent editions.
I don’t want to say too much about the arrangement of this possible volume because (a) it’s very far from being a project yet–it’s just something that’s been suggested to me recently; and (b) I’d like any changes to be a confusing suprise. “Jack O’ Mercy’s” doesn’t fit in: the rest of it fits into “Jack of Mercy’s”. It’s one of those reframing convulsions I so like. It changes the context, the way “A Young Man’s Journey” did, but using a different technique.
When I say “approved order”, I don’t mean much more than the one that amused the author today. I doubt it’ll be much different than the Gollancz edition, except for the addition of new/early material. It will come with the warning I’ve repeated over the years, that there isn’t any *actual* order, in the sense that sense can be made of the world or the chronology. It’s not a puzzle story, or the disconnected presentation of a connected set of events. All of that has to go out of the window when you read. It was designed to run counter to formalist & Hollywood Structuralist definitions & expectations. I guess some of the material might be said to cluster thematically, but I always try to undermine that when I spot it.
Jack of Mercy’s/Jack O’ Mercy’s: this kind of nominative drift is basic to Viriconium (indeed to lots of my stuff). There’s no point in expecting nominative clarity or continuity, any more than there is in expecting narrative clarity or continuity: that would be against the whole drive of the thing. Though the deliberateness of this genetic drift from story to story can be said to *be* the story, it’s always made it difficult for me to use concepts like “approved” and “order”. In this case the terms have to be read as a convenience, & would refer to order in a given volume, not order in the “world” of the book. There is no world in the book. There is no timeline. There is only the drift–and, more importantly, perhaps–the partial repetition–the hauntings of an apparent timeline by versions of itself–that was signposted in the early stories.
To be absolutely honest, if there was any way at all I could leave the word “grisaille” in there and have it make sense, I would, even though I intended “grisette”. Any signpost that appears to point in a “wrong” direction is pointing to Viriconium. Or Vriko as we know it now…
Hi Sean. I don’t think I could ask for a better response. & your reading method for the Fantasy Masterworks edition is perfect. Ripples of meaning, shifting & changing as you read a new element or read the elements in a new order; broken fragments; a “strange & shifting” quality. The swimming pool wasn’t built to be “solved” but to be swum in. That’s the effect I was after. Thanks very much.
To reassure you, I was not asking about the order because of some dream of having it make coherent, monophonic sense, some nice sense of SFF continuity… FWIW, I come at your work from the direction of, say, Pynchon, Markson, Perec, or William Gass (some of my other favorite writers), not from genre fantasy as such, most of which I find unreadable. So continuity and worldbuilding are very far from my concerns. And yes, what I’ve appreciated about Viriconium has been precisely that play of mirrored facets, of slow diegetic/linguistic morphing from story to story, the instability of the geography and of the names of places… I know the influence of T.S. Eliot on Viriconium has been mentioned, but the poetic voice I first heard in it, at the beginning of “A Storm of Wings,” I think, was that of Wallace Stevens*, with the way he has of letting the concrete sound of a word stand for the concreteness of the entity it supposedly designates, which entity however has no further reality behind its linguistic marker. Which reconnects to our previous discussion of the weird at — let me get technical here for a second so I can telegraph it — the level of the signified versus the level of the signifier, and how to negotiate between the two. (That was a conversation I very much wanted to get back to, but got pulled in other directions… And a stopgap post I wrote seems never to have gone through.)
Anyway, I don’t have the Gollancz volume, just the US novels-followed-by-stories one, so I wasn’t asking for any other reason than that I’d like to read it in that order. I *did* once read them in order of publication history, as I was able to figure it out from ISFDB (hey, I’ve told you I love your work), which did result in the short stories being interspersed between the novels…
* His “The Ordinary Women” especially seems to be set in Viriconium: https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/ordinary-women
(And in case you’ve never heard the Fibonaccis’ version of it: https://youtu.be/T6d4F1nBnMA )
See, I *love* the fact that Viriconium is undefined and exists in so many interesting variant versions…. That’s half the fun of reading about it!!
I remember a Viriconium excerpt from years ago that seemed to find its way into “The Crisis”. How did the one story become the other? Was it just a repurposing of material?
Hi Andrei. Reading in order of first publication must have been interesting. Close to order of writing, I guess. All I remember now is rewriting them in a kind of mad daze for the Viriconium Nights volume, then being told in print by an annoyed Scottish literary reviewer that though I had some talent I should stay away from Continental philosophy if I wanted a career.
I’m a bit stuck with Eliot & Imagism, although it’s a long life & I’ve been a lot of places. One of my pieces of advice for new writers is always, “Be careful who you namecheck at the beginning of your career, because you’ll have to live with them for the rest of it.”
Hi Ben. It appeared here, I think, as a fragment I thought of as a Viriconium story. But it didn’t in the end say anything to me, so I stripped it down, reoriented it & it became the set-up for “The Crisis”. It was repurposing, but not “just” repurposing. Material is material, and working with it like that until it finds its best use is a central part of my method.
Huh. Now, I’ll admit, I never noticed any Continental philosophy bits in Viriconium. And I’d think I would…
The satire, and therefore the enchantment of Viriconium (aided no doubt by your preferred order) lies in its subversion of the very premise of fantasy literature serving as a means to draw the reader into the secondary world, forging the deception of transporting them beyond the looking glass, the page, belief, or whatever realist signifiers the ‘world builder’ presumes to pacify. By instead, lowering the world carefully down to our level, disenchanting it progressively as it falls to meet us (and not vice versa) we see that the light filtering through is not – and was never – of some more fantastical place but only the stale, processed effusions of a world we already know too well, or not well enough.
As Vriko degenerates into cities familiar to us (A Young Man’s Journey to Cape Town… Pretoria…), we begin to inhabit the geography of the book in the fullest sense possible, which paradoxically, is the perfect attainment of the fantasy author’s design: escapism, placing the reader in a space ostensibly not their own. Viriconium allowed me to escape back into my own life, my own city and therefore it is as perfect a work of ‘fantasy’ as I have ever read.
(*I know I mentioned once that I was considering including The Course of the Heart, in my PhD research, but I decided ultimately to go with a single-author project. As my primary focus is French literature, Nerval seemed the the best choice. This does not of course rule out any future studies on the book!*)
They were easily confused in those days… But at least he welcomed its ambition. I’d finished with Viriconium by then, & folded away the person I needed to be to write it. I’d moved on to Climbers & The Course of the Heart. The Ice Monkey was already out.
Out of curiosity, Mike, have you read any of the art criticism of Adrian Stokes? I’ll explain why I’m asking in a bit. It connects to this conversation. And to “The Course of the Heart,” and “Signs of Life” too.
Hi Andrei. Sorry to take so long to answer. I don’t know Adrian Stokes, other than that he wanted the carver to see into life the object implied by the stone or wood? Which seems like a given to me. I came to that via the early documentary makers–shoot a million feet of film, and make the object you discover inside all those observations. TE Lawrence assembled The Mint in a similar way. Climbers was assembled consciously–in fact in a crusading spirit–in that way, from the shape of the object in the notes. Sorry this is a bit rushed: with a new book and a new project, things will be a bit vague here for the next month or so. But maybe we’ll find time to talk in the interstices.
Hi Mike — sorry in turn about the very delayed post. Here’s what I had in mind. Adrian Stokes in his late book, “The Invitation in Art,” describes this little scenario of looking at a harbor scape (“a gay bit of painting of a Mediterranean harbor”) hanging on the wall of a café. (This reminds me, by the way, of the painting on the café wall in “The Course of the Heart.”) Then he discusses the notion of the viewer wanting, somehow, to enter that represented scene — a scenario, by the way, that appears in countless fantasy stories (and even in a quick paragraph in “Signs of Life,” when China sees the paintings on the wall of the Boar’s Head pub), and which I take as paralleling somewhat the notion of escapism, escaping into a story or a book. Stokes describes the scene, then: “The aesthete [i.e., in Stokes’ lingo, the viewer who properly knows how to appreciate an artwork] attaches not the slightest merit to that: nothing he values can be read into the scene since, for the moment, he places no value on blue waters, slim boats, and pretty sails in themselves. Before he can estimate and relate these things, he wants to be induced to feel his way over the stones of the quay, bit by bit.” And, to shorten his much longer argument, the way the painting does that is through the way it “comment[s] upon space.” Stokes again: “We want to be certain that the matter has absorbed the artist and to identify with him; we want to feel volume, density, and the air it displaces, to recognize things perhaps in the manner of the half-blind; we demand to be drawn in among these volumes, almost as if they were extensions of ourselves, and we do not tire of this process, the incantatory process at work. It is at work only because the canvas face is, in fact, flat.” Etc etc.
(Let me post this, since I don’t know how long these comments are allowed to be, then continue.)
“The Invitation in Art” is, BTW, from 1965. I’m afraid that when commenting on blog posts, I’m more likely to fall into simplifications, for example here into a simple dichotomy of form versus content. Let me say first I know things are much more complex than that, but I don’t quite have the energy at this time to tease out the complexities, so I’ll do with the approximation of the simplification. Stokes’ point, as I see it (the simplified version of it, anyway), is that a) the subject matter by itself doesn’t matter, or can’t offer the invitation on its own. (And maybe when we talk of “escapism” we tend to see that effect as coming primarily from the content, not the form.) B: the “incantatory process” has to be instantiated by the work, through its form. So what one “escapes into” is not really the diegetic world of the content, but the pictorial effect (“we demand to be drawn in among these volumes”). Now, “volume” here is ambiguous: it doesn’t belong either to the flatness of the canvas, where you can see only 2D shapes, not volumes, nor to the represented world, which is filled with things (boats, water), not volumes as such, which is a pictorial abstraction of the things. So the incantatory process is at work in between the two, in between 2D and 3D, in between the represented and the act of representation. And yet, point C: the incantatory process “is at work only because the canvas face is, in fact, flat.”
I don’t think I need to elaborate further how this translates from painting to prose, right? (<– this, admittedly, is a rhetorical gesture to cut this comment short. But I’d be happy to keep going later…)
Speaking of Prefaces: if this edition does, as we all urgently hope, come to be, I do hope a place can be found in it for the one-page Author’s Notes that appeared in at least two of the old paperback editions (Viriconium Nights was one: I still hold on to the book just for that page, as I have the Gollancz edition).
Hi Eric. If I did an introduction, I’d perhaps incorporate that, or a part of it. At the time I saw it as a story in itself, rather than a reliable set of directions…