A neglected talent

Published by: RichardB on 13th May 2018 | View all blogs by RichardB
In 1983, on a commission from a Japanese publisher, the novelist and critic Anthony (A Clockwork Orange) Burgess wrote a book called Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939 – A Personal Choice. Why he chose 1939 as his starting point I don't know, but what emerged was a list of the seminal novels of the mid-twentieth century. Catch-22 is in there. So are A Farewell to ArmsSaturday Night and Sunday MorningThe French Lieutenant's WomanThe Catcher in the RyeBrideshead Revisited. Just about every mid-twentieth century author of any reputation puts in an appearance.
But there is one entry which must sorely puzzle many, even most, of the people who see that list. Pavane, by Keith Roberts. What book is this? Who is Keith Roberts? And if his book is so good, why is it so little-known?
A clue to one possible reason is that prominent among those who have praised it are Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett and George R R Martin. Roberts wrote mainly various forms of speculative fiction, and science-fiction has always been a bit of a poor relation. People don't take it seriously. It's the trainspotting of fiction genres. You probably don't need me to tell you that SF is about the commonest no-no on agents' lists of types of MS they won't consider.
Even so, there are one or two other works of SF on Burgess' list, but they are all better known than Pavane.
But not to me. I bought and read Pavane when it first came out in paperback. I fell in love straight away, and nearly half a century (My God!) later it remains one of my very favourite novels. I still have that first-ever paperback edition, yellowed with years, softened and worn by many re-readings, but still just about holding together in one piece.
So what is this overlooked gem?
First off, it's what is known in SF circles as a fix-up, a series of separate episodes linked together by characters and place. AndPavane isn't quite science-fiction as the term is usually understood. Like Robert Harris' much more recent bestseller Fatherland (which, however, has not been pigeonholed as SF), it is a tale of alternative history, a big what if...? Taking advantage of a nation riven by Catholic-Protestant civil war following the assassination of Elizabeth I, the Spanish Armada successfully invaded England, setting off a chain reaction in which Protestantism was wiped out all ever Europe and the whole continent came under the domination of the Catholic Church. Over the centuries since, it has kept its grip on the minds and souls of the people by suppressing or even reversing progress, both technological and social, and so we are presented with a twentieth century England in which something close to the feudal system has been reimposed, and where technology has not advanced beyond the steam age. Road haulage is by traction engine, castles and monasteries are still thriving, and communication is by semaphores on tall towers (the inspiration for Terry Pratchett's clacks: I'd lay money on it). There are still large tracts of wilderness, where wolves and wild cats survive. People still believe in the Old Ones, the Fairies, the People of the Heath. And with good reason.
Roberts' world building is a bit of a Marmite thing. Some readers find his loving detailing of obsolete and imaginary technologies tedious and complain that it gets in the way of the story; others, myself included, find the very same thing captivating, bringing the imagined world vividly to life, because he doesn't describe those technologies in a cold mechanical way but brings them alive by putting the reader right into the heads of those who use them – for example, writing of the screaming muscles of a trainee semaphore signaller after a hard test at the signal levers.
But Pavane isn't about technology, the strangeness of a re-imagined England or the politics of repression and rebellion. What it's really about, like any good novel in any genre, is people: their dreams, fears, passions, and tragedies. Its real strength is in the characters who step, living and breathing, off the page and into your heart: the road haulier whose heart is broken in love and by the inadvertent killing of his friend; the boy who dreams of becoming a signaller on the semaphore stations; the monk who, his mind turned by witnessing the horrors of the Inquisition, foments unrest by his heretical preaching; the noblewoman who provokes the first armed insurrection against Papal rule by refusing to pay an unfairly levied tax to the Church because it will cause hardship and starvation in her lands.
Its other strength is the power and grace of its prose. There are books, not many of them, that I will read and re-read, almost regardless of the content, for the sheer pleasure I get from the quality of the writing, and Pavane is one of that select few. Two brief examples, chosen more or less at random:
In the yard the puddles had crashed and tinkled under his boots, the skin of ice from the night before barely thinned.
On either side of the knoll the land stretched in long, speckled sweeps, paling in the frost smoke until until the outlines of distant hills blended with the curdled milk of the sky.
And Roberts deploys the power of that prose and of his fertile imagination in creating dramatic and moving scenes that stay with you long after you've closed the book. For my money, this is not just a great writer of science-fiction: this as a great writer, period. So why is Keith Roberts so obscure?
As if the handicap of working in a marginalised genre weren't enough, he was his own worst enemy, the archetypical difficult author. Sooner or later he'd pick a quarrel with everyone who published him, usually over royalties, and shower them with vitriolic, abusive letters, until no one would touch him except small presses run by enthusiasts of the genre and his writing. Even these ventures usually ended in tears. Until the advent of digital publishing, nearly everything he wrote was out of print and unobtainable except by scouring second-hand bookshops.
His private life seems to have followed much the same pattern. He lived alone ('in some squalor,' as someone who knew him once wrote) in a small rented flat, apparently unable to sustain lasting relationships of any kind. Particularly with women. Barmaids keep cropping up in his fiction, not only, I suspect, because he liked his beer but because the casual cameraderie of the bar-room and an arms-length chat with a girl over a bar counter were all that he could handle: friendship and romance from a safe distance. And no story of his is quite complete without a young, feisty heroine, a dream-girl conjured up from his imagination (inspired by some barmaid he'd encountered?) as a substitute for the real thing. It's a measure of Roberts' talent that he gets away with it: the results are not mawkish self-indulgence but vivid, breathing, believable characters.
And that's not all he got away with. In one of his other novels,Molly Zero, he took the huge risk of writing in present tense second person (It begins 'You're shivering inside your coat.'). I was doubtful until I started reading, when I was hooked instantly and stopped noticing within half-a-dozen pages. He even set two linked short stories in a public toilet. In Kaeti and Company, a set of linked short stories, he subverts the relationship between writer and characters, engaging in conversations with Kaeti, his heroine, between the stories, and recycling the same characters as if he were casting actors in a series of plays (hence the title).
Everything I've heard about Roberts points to him being a deeply troubled, unhappy man, but from that torment (if that's not too strong a word) emerged some wonderful writing. At least I think so. He never quite regained the heights of Pavane, which was his second published novel, but there are enough gems scattered through his works to make me eager to read anything he wrote.
Keith Roberts died in 2000 at the comparatively early age of 65, a victim of complications of MS.
Indulge me with a few minutes of your time while I leave you with a taster from Pavane. The scene is at the lowered portcullis of Corfe Castle, which in Roberts' alternative England is far from ruinous. 'This Isle' is the Isle of Purbeck.
She halted by the breach of the great gun, one hand resting on the iron. 'Well, My Lord,' she said in a low, clear voice. 'What will you have of us?'
Henry's rages were famous and spectacular; spittle flecked his beard, the standers-by heard him grind his teeth. 'Deliver me this place,' he shouted finally. And your ordnance, and yourselves. In the name of your ruler Pope John, through the authority vested in me as his lieutenant in these islands.'
She straightened her back, staring up at him through the gate. 'And in the name of Charles?' she asked cuttingly. 'For my liege ruler is my King. So it was with my father and so with me, My Lord; I took no vows before a foreign priest.'
He drew his sword, and pointed through the bars. 'That gun,' was all he could speak.
She still remained standing by the greatgun, fingers touching its breech and the wind moving in her hair. 'And if I refuse?'
He shouted again then, waving an arm; at the gesture a soldier spurred forward, lifting a bag from the pommel of his saddle. 'Then your liege-folk in this Isle pay with their homes and their property and their lives,' panted Henry, slashing at the cord that held the canvas closed. 'It'll be blood for iron, My Lady, blood for iron...' The string came free, the bag was shaken; and down before her dropped the tongues and other parts of men, cut away as was the custom of Henry's soldiers.
There was a silence that deepened. The colour drained slowly from Eleanor's face, leaving the skin chalk-pale as the fabric of her dress; indeed the more romantic of the watchers swore afterwards the blue leached from her very eyes, leaving them lambent and dead as the eyes of a corpse. She clenched her hands slowly, slowly relaxed them again; a long time she waited, leaning on the gun, while the rage blurred her sight, rose to a high mad shrilling that seemed to ring inside her brain, receded leaving her utterly cold. She swallowed; and when she spoke again every word seemed freshly chipped from ice. 'Why then,' she said, 'you must not leave us empty-handed, My Lord of Rye and Deal. Yet I fear my Growler will be a heavy load. Would not your task be lightened if his charge were sent before?' And before any of the people round her could guess her purpose or intervene she had snatched at the firing lanyard, and Growler leaped back pouring smoke while echoes clapped around the waiting hills.



  • Athelstone
    by Athelstone 2 months ago
    Fascinating blog, Richard. The bad news is that I now have YET ANOTHER book in the queue to read. The good news is that I think I'll enjoy it.
  • Janeshuff
    by Janeshuff 2 months ago
    Great blog, Richard. And thanks for introducing me to an author I think I'll enjoy.
  • Daedalus
    by Daedalus 2 months ago
    As you know Richard, I love this book too. I discovered it while browsing the SF Masterworks collection in a bookshop, a series that led me to Frederick Pohl and Alfred Bester and Joe Haldeman, but nothing I have loved so much as Pavane. I love it for all the reasons you outlined, and because it is so very English. It is a slightly odd, slightly alien England but unquestionably England. I was drawn right in from the first page. It’s a quite astonishing bit of worldbuilding, all the more remarkable because as you say, it is not done overtly, but through the way the characters experience and respond to the environment. I visited Maiden Castle for the first time last weekend, a place I’ve glanced at from the road as I drove past more times than I can count, but never been to properly. I expected to be put in mind of Thomas Hardy, and I was, a little, but instead of standing on those impossible, ancient ramparts and looking down on Hardy’s Casterbridge, it was Roberts’ Durnovarium I saw, imagining the road trains crawling across the plain below, the bands of Norman bandits prowling nearby. The whole of English history and prehistory seems to be written on the land, and Roberts’ writing reflects it beautifully
  • Squidge
    by Squidge 2 months ago
    Sound really good...I've read another recently, that is sci-fi/steampunk, where in current times, technology is no further advanced than the Victorian age... The Bullet Catcher's Daughter. Think I might therefore like Pavane, too...
  • Dolly
    by Dolly 2 months ago
    Hi Richard, thanks for bringing this to my attention. Like others I've never heard of this and will have to take a serious look at it. I'm very much taken with SF, although I write in humorous SF/Fantasy, so you can imagine I have difficulty in finding anyone willing to take me on. As for well written descriptive SF have you read any Larry Niven, and in particular Ringworld?
  • Mat
    by Mat 2 months ago
    Very beautifully written by Richard. That's my only problem, on first impression/or sweep of the eye, Richard being more accessible than Robert.

    Biography would be a good write? Thank you for the information, I'll go buy Pavane.
  • Daedalus
    by Daedalus 2 months ago
    A biography of Roberts would be a fascinating read, but I suspect not an easy one.

    Funnily enough, the term ‘steampunk’ never occurred to me in relation to Pavane. I suppose partly because it’s almost steampunk in reverse (steampunk tending to involve more advanced technology in the Victorian or Edwardian eras rather than the 1960s and beyond with Victorian-era tech) but also because the aesthetic and tone of Pavane are so completely different to those of steampunk. I find it hard to find works to compare with it because I’ve read nothing else remotely like it
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 2 months ago
    I've never read any steampunk, but from what I've heard of it the steam technology is about the only similarity. And Pavane is considerably older. I suppose it's possible that whoever started off the genre might have read Pavane, or maybe it's just a coincidence.

    Dolly, I'm not actually much of a science-fiction buff, and what I do like tends to be at the 'soft' end of the spectrum. My favourite SF author, along with Roberts, is Ursula K Le Guin.
  • Daedalus
    by Daedalus 2 months ago
    Steampunk has fallen a long way from its roots, as has SF in general to an extent, but steampunk is now far more an aesthetic than a serious branch of the genre. It was created by William Gibson (who also created cyberpunk) and Bruce Sterling with the novel 'The Difference Engine' in 1990. It was a 'what if' not unlike Pavane, but the central conceit was that Babbage completed his 'difference engine', a steam powered mechanical computer for calculating logarithms (that has been since proved to work - Babbage was somewhat defeated by the difficulty of precisely manufacturing the large number of gears that the machine would have needed, without any systems of standardisation or indexing then being in place). The novel isn't about Babbage's engine so much as the disruption to society and politics that its creation might have caused. So in many ways it is similar to Pavane but taking a 'what if' that accelerated technology rather than suppressing it.

    I do wonder if Gibson and Sterling had read Pavane. In fact I'd be rather surprised if they hadn't.
  • Jill
    by Jill 2 months ago
    Interesting and very well written blog, Richard. You have certainly done the author proud. I had not heard of him either, but then sci-fi is not something that has ever appealed to me. Pavane it appears from your description and extracts in a different league however.
  • stephenterry
    by stephenterry 2 months ago
    Ah, an alternative England, which rightly or wrongly, for better or for worst, is up coming with Brexit. Thanks for the blog, Richard, very apposite in its timeliness.
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 2 months ago
    I have to say that Brexit was the last thing on my mind when I wrote this blog.
  • Janeshuff
    by Janeshuff 2 months ago
    And mine when I read it!
  • Daedalus
    by Daedalus 2 months ago
    It’s a very different Europe in the novel too, of course. The ‘Brother John’ section is set in Rome, if I recall correctly. The whole thing seems so divorced from current politics I wouldn’t have made that connection myself. I must get myself another copy
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 2 months ago
    Wrong, Daeds. The sessions of the Inquisition are held in Dubris (Dover). The rest of the episode is set in (Where else?) Dorset.

    But yes, Pavane is a world away from current politics. Except, of course, that there's always repression, and rebellion against it, somewhere.
  • Woolleybeans
    by Woolleybeans 2 months ago
    Sounds like a really good read, Richard. I join the people who must now add it to my TBR pile!
  • Gerry
    by Gerry 2 months ago
    Great blog. I tried google-imaging the cover to see if I recognised it. I didn't. But there are some great images there. It's had quite a few covers.
  • Daedalus
    by Daedalus 2 months ago
    That settles it then Richard, I really must get another copy.

    Oh look, a 1968 paperback on ABE books...
  • Raine
    by Raine 2 months ago
    Taken me a while to come to this, Richard. But great blog. I'd heard of the book but never read it. I must confess I have to really be in the right mood for the dense, detailed ('telly'?) prose often found in older books. But if the story is strong enough then you get into the swing of it, don't you?

    It's interesting which books cement themselves into our lives, isn't it? And I wonder how they influence our world views as well as our later tastes in literature. I'm pretty sure reading the Russians at 11 had a stark affect on my worldly awareness, as well as giving me a lifelong (so far!) fascination with Russia.
  • Daedalus
    by Daedalus 2 months ago
    I suppose the prose might be slightly 'telly' by current standards but I wouldn't call it dense. There's a lyricism to it which I think you'd appreciate Raine
  • Raine
    by Raine 2 months ago
    Yeah, sorry, I was talking about the older 'classics' in general rather than this one in particular. And I agree, 'telly' doesnt preclude lyricism, in fact you could argue that the taught emphasis on brevity (less is more) gets in the way of a good bit of lyrical prose sometimes.
  • Daedalus
    by Daedalus 2 months ago
    Indeed. In fact, at the risk of derailing the discussion (a subject for another blog perhaps?) I often find that an excess of 'show' makes the prose far too bulky. Sometimes you can 'tell' something in just a few words that takes half a page to show. I had another look at the first few pages of Pavane in the Amazon 'look inside' page and I think Roberts has struck the balance just right. There's loads of sensory detail and you can feel the world around you, but it's done sparingly.
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 2 months ago
    Interesting comment, Raine. I've sometimes wondered if my youthful (twelve if I remember right) exposure to H P Lovecraft with his bleak world-view of us as insignificant motes in a vast uncaring cosmos, victims to forces beyond our control, helped to make me the pessimistic old sod that i am today.

    Daeds, Saint Emma does say there's a place for showing and a place for telling. 'Show not tell', like most 'rules' of writing, is too proscriptive. The trick is knowing when to use each, and getting the balance right.
  • Newbie
    by Newbie 2 months ago
    Having read some your blog, Richard (but not all) I've bought a 1970s version of Pavane off Amazon. Peering into the 'Look inside' of it made me want to read more. Hence the reason for not finishing your blog. Thank you for this, I'd not heard of it but am looking forward to settling down to an enjoyable read within the next few days.
  • poggle
    by poggle 2 months ago
    Pavane for a Dead Infanta is jolly nice, too.
  • mike
    by mike 2 months ago
    Dear Richard,
    Had you considered a career as a critic or literary biographer!

    These books are not so popular. I once ordered Penguin’s series of classic reprints in the genre - for a public library. None were borrowed. Perhaps there is a bigger sale over the Internet.
    I tried to get a seat for a stage version of a novel that was written during he second world war but not published until the 1980's. This is Valery Grossman's 'Life and Fate' ( The story of this book us some what similar to the publication of Dr Shivago) Seats are unobtainable as the Russian company is in London for less than two weeks. I got a seat for Uncle Vanya last night and the evening was a bit bizarre!
    I think Grossman's book would now be included in a list of 100 best books of the twentieth century but not until relatively recently.
  • mike
    by mike 2 months ago
    Dear Richard,
    I saw 'life and Fate; last night. It is a huge construction and viewed the second world war from the viewpoint of Jewish family in Moscow, Tolstoy does come to mind, I think many of the audience were Russian, I would certainly have been lost without the surtitles and my average knowledge of Russian history and literature, An SS officer is in the play and, in this conversation, communism and fascism are seen as mirror images.
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