Falarandru: Primitive Society

In which I finally get around to posting some notes on the society of the alien species whose biology I briefly described six months ago.

Falarandru in ‘a state of nature’, like many species, are unlike humans in lacking a monolithic social structure: falarandru in a given area will form groupings of two different kinds, neither set of which can be seen as a subordinate to the other.

One type of structure may be called a ‘den’. Dens are small, gynocentric, and remain in a single location so long as this is possible. A den may contain anywhere from a handful to two dozen adult falarandru, typically with slightly more females than males. The females form the core and definition of the den: ideally, there may be two or three young females ready for breeding, two or three slightly older females with young, two or three old, wise females, and perhaps a few more decrepit females. Alongside these females are males, who form three wholly distinct classes: alphas, betas, and gammas. In each den there is one alpha or resident, or sometimes two (brothers or very close friends) – dens with three alphas are exceptional, while those with four are rare, and those with five or more are mythical. Alphas have breeding rights to all the females in the den, and typically are, at least in theory, in control of the whole social grouping, although this is rarely an outright tyranny (males remain alphas until death or retirement, but upsetting all the females in a den is a good way to achieve the former rapidly – it is not the done thing for females to simply murder their alpha, but it is perfectly possible for them to recruit another male to do it for them). Beta males, or peripherals, do not live in the den itself, but nearby, and socialise extensively with den members; they assist with guard duties, food collection and so forth. In exchange for their services for the females and loyalty to the alpha, they are granted occasional breeding rights with the females. Gamma males, or transients, do live in the den, but only briefly, and are usually younger males. They are permitted to reside with in the den for a season or two before being forced out. They are the lowest-ranking members of the den group, but can exercise some breeding rights – these are usually not granted formally (the alpha can attack or eject a gamma found breeding with the alpha’s females), but are generally recognised through non-enforcement (alphas will typically ignore the activities of gammas, provided they are rare enough and secretive enough not to appear a direct challenge). Most breeding events occur between females and gammas, although due to the transience of the gamma position and their greater numbers, an individual male will breed more often as a beta or an alpha than as a gamma – additionally, gammas will be limited to breeding at less favourable times. [Female falarandru are sexually active throughout the year, but only give birth (in nature) in the spring; their bodies can store sperm for over a year to be used when they finally ovulate, but it reduces in volume over time through internal competition, and so it is more favourable to breed with a female when she is about to ovulate]

Most males are not alphas, nor even betas, and only briefly gammas. Most males, however, would like to be alphas. Male life is therefore defined by the desire (not universal, but general) to take over a den. This cannot be done by brute strength alone: males are larger than females, but not so large that they can dominate a den of females with force. Males must seduce a den through a combination of threats and gifts – and both of these require assistance. One male cannot do it all on his own. Unfortunately, falarandru are not naturally obedient, and it is difficult to sustain hierarchies among them: they must be constantly reinforced.

When males leave the den on reaching their juvenile stage, they join a ‘gang’. These gangs, unlike dens, are androcentric, large, and migratory – they occupy a large territory shared with many dens, and often with one or more ‘rival’ gangs, which compete for female attention and for resources, but which will typically ally with one another against any gangs arriving from elsewhere. The territories of rival gangs do not coincide, but rather overlap – the hostile neighbour of one gang will co-habit the first gang’s co-habitors – making large-scale conflicts difficult except in case of migration or resource shortfall. Gangs rarely migrate long distances, but their territories do gradually shift over time.

Gangs are oriented around the need to impress females. This produces hierarchies, with those at the top most attractive to dens, and those below working to increase the attractiveness of their superiors. These hierarchies in turn are established through two mechanisms: dominance and alliance.

Dominance establishes one male as superior to another. It may involve physical combat, although this is typically ritualised; it almost always includes sodomy, with the superior male penetrating the inferior. However, it is misleading to think of an absolute and unidirectional hierarchy of males established through sodomy – the question is not which male is dominant over the other, but where the balance of dominance lies between the two (typically measured by the relative frequency with which each male is the penetrator). Dominance must be continually reinforced to be applicable – as a result, falarandru have relatively fluid social structures – and hence the strength and clarity of any social bond is measured by the frequency of copulation. Consequently, falarandru males tend toward the obsessive in these matters – not only is sex enjoyable, but it is also essential in establishing their place in a social structure, and so sex is their default reaction to any changing situation, where time allows. This applies just as much for males of lower rank: not only have they evolved to find the experience of being penetrated somewhat pleasurable, there are also considerable advantages to acquiring powerful benefactors – it is better to be dominant than subordinate, but it is far better to be subordinate to powerful males than to be socially isolated.

Alongside this – at least theoretically – adversarial system of dominance is an equally important system of alliances. An individual male can establish relatively little by himself, and so the aid of others is essential. Networks of mutual assistance therefore develop, centred on close bonds between allies (often childhood den-mates). It is most often a male’s web of alliances that gives them the power that the dominance hierarchy formally recognises.

This is also part of the reason for the relative autonomy of the dens from the larger gangs. Because female falarandru are not discernable as female until they reach maturity, and spend their long juvenile period indistinguishable from males, females are not isolated from male power structures: they develop the same early bonds of friendship, enter into the same hierarchical structures within the gangs, develop the same benefactors and protégés, and take those connexions into their lives within the den. Once they have become visibly female, they cease to directly participate in gang power structures – for one thing, they lose their penis and hence their ability to partake in status-confrontations – but their existing social relationships do not simply disappear. A falarandru female is therefore not merely the sister or daughter of a male – she is also someone’s comrade, blood-brother or mentor. This makes any violent confrontation between the sexes both emotionally and politically more difficult. This existing political power is then supplemented by the power of sexual access (and indeed all social access – although male falarandru can have perfectly satisfactory sex lives among themselves without ever talking to a female, they nonetheless appear to be instinctually fascinated and a little awe-struck by the female sex, and will view any interaction with females as welcome and enjoyable, even if it does not lead to sexual opportunities).

Contrariwise, the pre-adult occlusion of females no doubt helps to ameliorate competition within the gangs. Although males seek dominant positions within the gangs from which to negotiate their way toward some access to females, they cannot be too ruthless in this competition – any rival deeply offended when both individuals are juveniles may well herself be revealed as female, and liable to spread her poor impression of the over-forceful social climber to her new den-mates.

It’s also worth making clear that the gang is not itself a monolithic hierarchical structure. Young members enter into a broad range of relationships with each other and with older members; but over time, different young gang members will gravitate into more closed sub-networks within the broader social structure. These sub-networks, or ‘factions’, typically develop a single leader-figure – gangs as a whole typically do not. Gangs are thus governed by consensus between internal factions, and if they have a notional leader this is likely to be a figurehead, or at most ‘bureaucratic’, position, subordinate to the individual faction-leaders. Nonetheless, the ‘faction’ is not always a conceptually pure division – the tendency for older and more senior gang-members to primarily socialise within their own faction is only a tendency, and almost all will have relationships across the gang as a whole, while factions may themselves have sub-factions, either as semi-permanent power structures or as transient vehicles for specific powerful individuals. The faction, likewise, is part personal power structure and part institution – they do not usually simply disappear when the faction-leader dies or leaves, but their exact character and extent and influence are to a degree shaped by the senior members. Factions can thus often be more temporary than gangs, and liable to dissolve if the next generation of leaders is uninspiring. On the other hand, factions can outlive gangs: if a faction is not contented with its place in a gang, it can simply leave en masse, either to found a new gang or to join a rival one. It is not unknown in some cases for a gang to entirely fragment into its constituent factions.

The dominant figures in a gang are therefore the faction leaders and their immediate subordinates, and some more consensual figures associated with co-ordination between factions. None of these males, however, are likely to become resident alphas. Maintaining dominance over an entire gang is simply too much effort, and these individuals must devote themselves to the gang – both egoistically to maintain their own power and altruistically for the good of their gang. Falarandru are almost always aware of their own power position and conscious of threats and opportunities, but they are not notably egoist – most will put the good of the community (in the abstract) and in particular of their friends and dependants (in specific) ahead of their own good, if ever a clear conflict between the two were to arise. Indeed, these two virtues – patriotism to the collective and paternalism toward client-inferiors – are among the most important assets for a falarandru seeking power and prestige. No male can achieve great power without self-centred ambition (which is indeed considered a desirable trait in moderation) – but nor will they be permitted to achieve it if that ambition does not appear balanced by virtue.

On the Genealogy of Morals, 11

Part of my ongoing commentary on On the Genealogy of Morals.

The First Essay is rather scattergun in its approach – one reason why my comments have been so long, since N. produces a constant stream of interesting remarks, often tangential to his purpose.

It’s fatuous to try to boil all of that down to a precis, and such a summary would necessary leave out (/leaves out) a lot and simplifying the rest. In essence, however, it is probably fair to perceive six main thrusts of what he is saying here:

  • it is wrong to look at accounts of mankind that see man as passive before impersonal forces – rather, history should be explained through active decisions and desires
  • in point of fact, originally, the rulers created language to impose their will and reflect their attitudes
  • the rulers were overthrown and their language distorted, creating new values
  • the values of the masters are founded on self-love; the values of the slaves are founded on other-hatred
  • specifically, the masters were dangerous and violent men, and the slaves are meek and praise passivity
  • the lack of danger in mankind breeds contempt for mankind and a turning against life
  • the ‘positive’ values of Christianity, democracy, liberalism, pacifism and so on are expressions of hatred

What can we make of these? Obviously, any answer would be (/is) presumptuous. But for what it’s worth, I think:

  • the idea of seeing man as commanding rather than commanded is wishful thinking on Nietzsche’s part, with no real reasons given to support it
  • Nietzsche’s attempts at history and etymology are flawed to the point of being ludicrous and thus it is not really viable to accept his account of history as in any way accurate in a literal sense
  • Nietzsche’s observation that values can be founded on perception of the self or on perception of the other is a very interesting one, but needs more exploration, particular in separating out this locus-of-value from the polarity of value issue (hate vs love)
  • Nietzsche is surely onto something when praising dangerous men – it’s the soul of every Western, for instane, most war films, plenty of crime and detection films, action films, and so on. There is no doubt something admirable about dangerous men. But is that admirable thing really enough to outweigh all that is repellent about them? There is something lost in the loss of glory and danger, but is what is lost greater than what has been gained? And Nietzsche is surely correct in saying that the passivisation of mankind has bred a sort of self-contempt, a tendency to regard people as interchangeable mechanisms… but surely there was also contempt among the Vikings and the Goths and the Romans, albeit of a different sort?
  • Nietzsche is accurate and clever in pointing out how ‘good’ people can sometimes have very ugly motivations for being ‘good’. But he is much less compelling in the suggestion that this is true of all ‘goodness’.

Nietzsche’s strength is certainly in challenging perceived certainties. He is much weaker in presenting a compelling vision of his own. And much of how we assess Nietzsche’s work may come down to what we think he was doing. What is a genealogy? As a history, it is frankly a failure. As an attempt to ‘subjugate the past’, it is little better – it is not robust enough to subjugate anything. Its greatest value, I think, is subversive: by showing how certain ideas could arise, how certain attitudes can sometimes be linked to certain other things, it encourages us to question our own preconceptions. Even if we exonerate ourselves on Nietzsche’s charges, the fact we have been led to put ourselves in the dock in the first place can be a powerful first step in its own right.

Unfortunately, though later ‘genealogists’ may perhaps have been content with metaphorical and hypothetical histories, Nietzsche really does seem to be trying to offer a genuine historical analysis. This analysis must be – and was – judged a failure by the standards and knowledge of his time, and a disaster by the standards of what we now know about history.

On the Genealogy of Morals (10)

Tenth part of my on-going commentary on On the Genealogy of Morals.

14.

Joy of joys: a dialogue. And we can all guess how this is going to go:

“…There’s no doubt about it—things are just as you said they were.”

Yes, it’s one of those hard-hitting dialogues. Anyway, the more important bit there is where the interlocutor says that ‘weakness is being falsified into something of merit’. It’s tempting to protest that Nietzsche has no grounds for saying that weakness is without merit, without presenting some clear grounds for his own value system. But that might be a little too hasty. If we accept that there are goods, and that things that help us obtain what is good have merit, then perhaps we can say that ‘weakness’, which prevents us from obtaining anything, is inherently without merit… without us having to make any definite claims about what things really are good. We don’t even need to believe in an objective good, or in an absolute good – even if ‘good’ is just a figment of our imagination, we can all agree, if we use the word ‘good’ appropriately, that it’s not good to be unable to obtain the good. And ‘weakness’ could indeed prevent us from (reliably) obtaining any good. Indeed, Nietzsche’s attempt to portray weakness as a form of violence undermines even the attempt to give weakness an inherent value of its own – its value would undermine itself (assuming we are debating against someone who is praising weakness for traditional ‘moral’, ‘Christian’ reasons).

No, the real problem here is that Nietzsche doesn’t adequately show that his notion of ‘weakness’ is really weak; without that, the attempt at an ad hominem attack on weakness fails entirely. Similarly, he is unconvincing in showing that it is violent or ugly.

“They are miserable—there’s no doubt about that—all these rumour-mongers and counterfeiters in the corners, although crouched down beside each other in the warmth—but they are telling me that their misery is God’s choice, His sign. One beats the dog one loves the most. Perhaps this misery may be a preparation, a test, an education, perhaps it is even more—something that will one day be rewarded and paid out with huge interest in gold, no, in happiness. They call that ‘blessedness’.”

Here Nietzsche gets a bit more specific, and seems a bit more convincing. People make the most of their situation by, like Stoics, revaluing it, by accepting it, by even taking ownership of it (‘that incapacity for revenge is called the lack of desire for revenge’). It’s hard to deny that for many people in many places, impotence in situation has lead to a religion that makes humility a virtue and shifts the deserved rewards into the afterlife. We start seeing some cracks when we ask about universality – is it true that every humble person is weak and impoverished? No, clearly not. They may even issue from among the powerful and the arrogant. The argument really falls down, though, when we look at the other side. Yes, the poor and the weak tell themselves they are blessed to assuage their own misery… and the strong and the rich and the powerful? Are they really joyous, free and unconcerned? Those blond beasts, those Goths and Romans, knights and samurai, were they happy? Or were they doing exactly the same thing – consoling themselves with the assurance that they were special, blessed, and with fantasies of triumph and heroism that never really reflected the lives of the ordinary chieftain? Let’s think again of the great and melancholy champions of the Gaels, of the dirges and laments of the Saxons, of the great mediaeval tragedies. The mighty have been just as prone to sadness and self-delusion as the weak.

“…What they hate is not their enemy. No! They hate ‘injustice,’ ‘godlessness.’ What they believe and hope is not a hope for revenge, the intoxication of sweet vengeance (something Homer has already called ‘sweeter than honey’), but the victory of God, the righteous God, over the godless…”

Just in passing, I’d like to point out the ‘phantasmagorical’ nature of Nietzsche’s own perception of history. He wants to see the Romans among his master races… but can anyone seriously suggest that Rome was not interested in ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’, as distinct from simple personal vengeance? Indeed, even the Germanic tribes – once upon a time, the ruler of their pantheon was Tyr, the god of both impartial justice and heroic glory…

 

15.

Now Nietzsche is in full ad hominem mode. He again accuses the meek and the humble:

There’s no doubt that these weak people—at some time or another they also want to be the strong people, some day their “kingdom” is to arrive—they call it simply “the kingdom of God,” as I mentioned. People are indeed so humble about everything! Only to experience that, one has to live a long time, beyond death—in fact, people must have an eternal life, so they can also win eternal recompense in the “kingdom of God” for that earthly life…

There’s no doubt Nietzsche is speaking truly of some religious people, who rejoice vicariously in the bullying they expect their god to perform on their behalf. And he has an interesting point in suggesting that some religious people, in aiming at an unknowable afterlife, make sacrifices in their real lives, and to some extent in the process devalue their own lives. Terry Pratchett puts this pithily, by the way (assuming it’s not from Chesterton), when he observes (Feet of Clay) that those who save up a little money for a rainy day, even if it’s pouring now, many times also put a little life by for a rainy eternity.

But is this really true of all religious people – let alone all humble and meek people in general? And after all, it’s not as though those two categories are the same. Many Christians who have rejoiced in the violence of the Lord have eagerly pre-empted Him in that regard: Nietzsche’s accusations of hidden hatred may seem very applicable to witchfinders, steel-caparisoned archbishops with maces in their hands, or to the Abbots of Cîteaux, but are these really exemplars of the lambs?

Nietzsche goes on to provide some concrete evidence: a brief quotation from Aquinas in which St Thomas says that those in heaven will be even happier because they can watch the evil being tortured, and then a very lengthy and bloodthirsty piece by Tertullian in which he rejoices in all the torture and destruction that will be visited on his enemies, and how even just the thought of how they will be tortured is much more enjoyable than the heathen pursuits (races, athletics, theatre) of the evil ones. But again, are these realistic representatives of ordinary ‘lambism’? Tertullian was enthusiastic about hell, but also enthusiastically condemnatory of theatre, sport, music, sex, women, the faces of virgins not being veiled, women wearing jewellery, usury, dice, eye-shadow, women again, remarriage, and actually more or less anything that didn’t involve fasting. He was so hardline that even the early church, itself fairly devout, felt that he went too far. I don’t think we can take one disturbing fantasy of his as representative of all modern civilisation. Aquinas is more troubling, given his stature, and his generally high level of sanity – but if the worst Nietzsche can do is find a brief subsidiary argument suggested by the Ninth Doctor, I find myself underwhelmed. Perhaps the angelic one was simply having a bad morning and his sinful neighbour had really irritated him – it’s hardly reasonable to take this passing remark as exposing the core of his entire personality and motivation, let alone, the entire soul and essence of Christianity and Nonbastardism.

 

16.

A bulky section, but only a conclusion, with little further forward motion of its own.

We could even say that in the intervening time the battle has been constantly drawn to greater heights and in the process to constantly greater depths and has become constantly more spiritual, so that nowadays there is perhaps no more decisive mark of a “higher nature,” a more spiritual nature, than that it is split in that sense and is truly still a battleground for those opposites. [sc. the opposing moral systems of good/bad and good/evil]

This is an interesting suggestion, but somewhat out of keeping with the rest. What Nietzsche really seems to admire is the victory of good/bad, rather than just the ‘battleground’ between them – when the master-morality was dominant, were Nietzsche’s sympathies with the slaves who challenged it, in whom there was a battleground between the old morality and the new? Hardly.

In Rome the Jew was considered “guilty of hatred against the entire human race.” And that view was correct, to the extent that we are right to link the health and the future of the human race to the unconditional rule of aristocratic values…

I have the strangest feeling there’s some sort of slight objection that might be made here, but I just can’t put my finger on where that weak point might be…

(Incidentally, we must not underestimate the deep consistency of the Christian instinct, when it ascribed this very book of hate [sc. Revelation] to the name of the disciple of love, the same man to whom it attributed that enthusiastic amorous gospel—: there is some truth to this, no matter how much literary counterfeiting may have been necessary for this purpose)

Incidentally incidentally, the deep consistency of the Christian instinct has been rather inconsistent, since it was considered debateable right from the beginning whether the John of the Revelation was indeed the same as the John of the Gospel and/or the Epistles, and to a lesser extent whether any of these were the same as the Apostle John. Nietzsche is as usual strawmanning somewhat here.

The Romans were indeed strong and noble men, stronger and nobler than any people who had lived on earth up until then or even than any people who had ever been dreamed up. Everything they left as remains, every inscription, is delightful…

OK Romans, fess up, which of you has been brainwashing Nietzsche to be your love-slave?

N. goes on to be bitter about the ‘three Jews and one Jewess’ who have taken over the world – in particular, he seems oddly offended by the idea that one of them, Paul, is only a ‘carpet maker’. [Nietzsche, incidentally, was the son of a retired local school teacher turned Lutheran pastor, and having found a place at an elite school on his personal merit spent the whole of the rest of his life in the company of his social superiors. It’s hard not to read a little Stockholm Syndrome into his adulation of an aristocracy who would have had near as much contempt for him as he had for the lowly carpet maker Paul]

He’s a big fan of the Renaissance, which he sees as the return of masterly morality, later stiffled by the Reformation. It’s a strange view: were the bustling young mercantile republics and experimental democracies of the renaissance city-states somehow less democratic, more masterly, than the sword-swinging warrior elites of mediaeval feudalism?

It’s interesting, incidentally, that Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde (who would have hated each other yet often seem to singing over the same continuo) both identify the role of the renaissance in this way, yet in opposite directions. For Nietszsche the renaissance is a recurrence of the dangerous, the noble, the strong; but Wilde laments (in De Profundis):

To me one of the things in history the most to be regretted is that the Christ’s own renaissance, which has produced the Cathedral at Chartres, the Arthurian cycle of legends, the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the art of Giotto, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, was not allowed to develop on its own lines, but was interrupted and spoiled by the dreary classical Renaissance that gave us Petrarch, and Raphael’s frescoes, and Palladian architecture, and formal French tragedy, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Pope’s poetry, and everything that is made from without and by dead rules, and does not spring from within through some spirit informing it.

Goes to show how the same things can be interpreted very differently by different observers, no matter how self-evident Nietzsche seems to consider his own narrative.

Anyway, Nietzsche closes the section by lamenting the fall of the Ancien Regime as the end of the great old nobility (which I think would more often conjure up words like ‘lazy’, ‘decadent’, ‘obese’, ‘vain’, and ‘gout-ridden’ than words like ‘dangerous’ and ‘healthy’; on the other hand, Robespierre does not strike me as a genuine ‘lamb’ of a bitter but inactive kind…), but admits that in the process there was a brief flaring of the older morality in the form of one man:

…in opposition to all that there rang out a fearsome and delightful counter-slogan about the rights of the very few! As a last signpost to a different road, Napoleon appeared, the most singular and late-born man there ever was, and in him the problem of the inherently noble ideal was made flesh—we should consider well what a problem that is: Napoleon, this synthesis of the inhuman and the superhuman. . . .

Dear lord, sometimes you really can almost physically hear the sound of Nietzsche ejaculating, still reverberating sycophantically down throughout the centuries!

 

17.

Nietzsche finally feigns to suggest that the debate between the two systems of morality is difficult and that readers will not come to a quick conclusion: but he rapidly goes on to admit that he does indeed believe what has been obvious all along, that he prefers the good/bad system and that ‘beyond good and evil’ does not mean ‘beyond good and bad’ (which should make clear the errors of those who take him at his word and see him as a critic of all morality).

 

Note.

Nietzsche recommends the establishment of an essay prize in the history of morality. Interesting idea. He suggests this question:

What suggestions does the scientific study of language, especially etymological research, provide for the history of the development of moral concepts?

This isn’t good for Nietzsche, as it’s returning the focus to the very weakest parts of his work. He goes on to call for contributions from physiologists and doctors, believing that the study of morality should begin with physiology before moving on to psychology. This is positive in being a tacit admission that he has jumped the gun himself – presumably he would admit that advances in the sciences might make his arguments obsolete. And indeed, he brings in one of his rare but important references to ‘future philosophers’ here. On the other hand, this Note, which is as it were written in a more plain and intimate way than the hyperbolic body of the text, does all emphasise that Nietzsche is not kidding when he says he’s trying to address morality from a historical point of view. His genealogy is not intended to be metaphorical or ironic, it really is how he sees history.

He ends by stepping back from the position he’s been taking all along, and identifying the underlying debate:

Something, for example, that would have an apparent value with respect to the longest possible capacity for survival of a race (or for an increase in its power to adapt to a certain climate or for the preservation of the greatest number) would have nothing like the same value, if the issue were one of developing a stronger type. The well-being of the majority and the well-being of the fewest are opposing viewpoints for values. We wish to leave it to the naivete of English biologists to take the first as already the one of inherently higher value… the philosopher’s task is to solve the problem of value, that he has to determine the rank order of values.

This is one of the rare times Nietzsche steps out of character and admits that there is a genuine decision to be made here between two conflicting values – most of the time, as seen above, the emphasis is in how wrong (and horrible) the advocates of one set of values are, the choice prejudged in favour of Nietzsche’s own position. But here the choice is put centre-stage. And that word ‘determine’ should be reflected on: the German, bestimmen, has apparently the same ambiguity as the English: so does Nietzsche mean ‘ascertain’, ‘designate’, or ‘fix’? The obvious answer is ‘ascertain’, that’s what philosophers are normally doing when they determine things; my old paperback translation offers me ‘fix’ instead, which seems rather dictatorial (that is, philosophers would be making the values unchanging, and I’m not sure that’s something Nietzsche’s too keen on). Instead, I think ‘designate’ or ‘decide’ would be a closer fit to the meaning. This echoes his comments in Beyond Good and Evil, where he says:

The real philosophers, however, are commanders and law-givers; they say: “thus SHALL it be!” They determine first the Whither and Why of mankind… they grasp at the future with a creative hand, and whatever is and was becomes for them a means, an instrument, a hammer. Their “knowing” is creating, their creating is a law-giving, their will to truth is will to power.

On the other hand, maybe I’m being too charitable. There’s also evidence from Beyond Good and Evil that ‘fix’ may be the more accurate interpretation, and a reminder that Nietzsche is not talking solely in metaphorical or intellectual terms:

New philosophers… who shall fix the constraints and fasten the knots which will compel the Millenium to take new paths. To teach man the future of humanity as his will… and to make preparation for vast hazardous enterprises… in rearing and educating, in order thereby to put an end to the frightful rule of folly and chance which has hereto gone by the name of “history” – for that purpose a new type of philosopher and commander will sometime or other be needed, at the very idea of which everything that has existed in the way of occult, terrible and benevolent beings might look pale and dwarfed.

Such ‘commanders’, or ‘Leaders’ must be merciless, their conscience should be steeled and… heart transformed into brass’ in order to impose will and order onto history by force, ‘subjugate the past’, and halt the ‘universal degeneracy of mankind’ (as revealed politically throught the plague of democracy and genetically through the intermingling of the Aryan race with lesser peoples, particularly the Jews).

Modern readers of Nietzsche would like very much to cut out the personal side of Nietzsche from the political side – as we have seen how people act when they try to adopt those political views – but in the original these two dimensions are very closely, perhaps inextricably, linked.

Feet of Clay, by Terry Pratchett

My on-going complete Discworld re-read goes on…

I was really eager to review this one the moment I finished it. Then I didn’t, because of Stuff. Now I have that frustrating feeling I get when I know there’s much more to say than I can actually remember right now…

I suppose we could start by noting that this book moves the ‘City Watch’ sequence firmly into series territory, effectively completing the trilogy begun in Guards! Guards! and continued in Men at Arms. Perhaps it’s worth pointing out here that in the first thirteen books (up to and including Small Gods), you can only really say that six of them continued sequences, and two of those are debateable (Equal Rites was about Esk, not Granny, and neither Lancre nor the other witches appeared, so Wyrd Sisters is only tangentially a follow-up; similarly, Mort was about Mort, with Death only a secondary character, so Reaper Man could be said not to be a follow-up – it’s actually got an almost better claim to be a sequel to Moving Pictures, but the Faculty are only a B-side plot in both of them). Of those 4-6 repeats, 3 of them were Rincewind books, and one wasn’t even intended to be part of the main sequence at the time. None of the books other than The Light Fantastic were outright sequels. In the next 13 books, however, eleven or twelve are follow-ups (you could use the same Mort/Reaper Man argument to say that Soul Music is an original, since both its lead characters are new), and even the one inarguable original (The Truth) began life as a Watch novel, repurposed to a debateable degree of sucess and featuring cameos from the Watch cast.

So we’re comfortably into a stage now where rather than expanding his world Pratchett is settling in. I think I’ve said before that I find this a big problem with later Discworld books… but it’s certainly not an issue here. Maskerade and Feet of Clay continue to deepen and explore their setting, which has not yet become ossified to the point of becoming restrictive and over-familiar. Instead we get the best of both worlds: a setting, and characters who are familiar and yet still have more to show. Both books may lack the sheer genius of Pratchett’s best entries (which in my opinion, so far in the series remain Small Gods and Lords and Ladies), but they have a really impressive solidity to them and a thoroughgoing fineness of quality.

Particularly worthy of mention in Feet of Clay (and again reminiscent of Maskerade) is the sophistication of the plot. The novel has to interweave four different plot threads – if you count major character arcs, it’s at least five and maybe six – all in the space of (in my hardback copy) less than 300 pages. The only thing more amazing than how tightly and proficiently Pratchett is able to do this is how much more tightly and proficiently Pratchett is able to appear to do this.

Because one problem with this book is that it doesn’t really work. It’s all set up as an intricate little plot, but really (as often in Pratchett) it’s a bunch of tangentially related stories that don’t, in the end, wrap up anywhere near as tightly as they should. One reason why Pratchett is a brilliant author, however, is that to a large extent he’s able to get away with this by making it seem as though everything fits together perfectly and isn’t entirely reliant on immense coincidences. It’s a sort of narrative legerdemain that almost takes the breath away just by itself. This is all one story… even if, when you try to get down to explaining, logically, how and why everything connects, it all seems a bit tenuous. I remember it as being brilliantly plotted, and once I forget the little details that crop up when you’re actually reading it, I’m going to go back to remembering it that way again in no time at all.

It’s hard to overstate how good a writer Pratchett is at this point. I was immediately struck by his brilliance when I opened the book: this, dear reader, is how you begin a novel. There are five scenes in the first twelve pages. In those five scenes, Pratchett establishes the tone of the book, establishes a complex setting both in general and in some of its parts (although of course the reader would benefit from having read earlier works, Pratchett does make sure to be accessible to first-time or forgetful readers – another reason for his commercial success), sets up what looks like the main plot, sets up two or three subplots while he’s at it, delivers a brilliantly effective character study of a lead character, sketches out efficiently and enjoyably two or three other important characters, gives us some distinctive vignettes of lesser characters, dazzles us with witty turns of phrase, inspires us with intriguing aphorisms… and is funny, too, and yet also menacing and serious.

Pratchett ought to be taught in class as an example of how to write. He may not perhaps be the world’s most literary author, either in his prose style or in his depth and originality of content, but he’s unimpeachably good at the raw business of telling a story well. That’s often overshadowed by how badly some of his stories go off the rails and out of all control… but while his early works seemed naive in their plotting, by this stage in the sequence his failures are all the fault of his own o’erweening ambition. The only thing standing in the way of him writing a brilliantly crafted story is his own need to push the boundaries of what’s possible in a book of this length and style. As a result, we get books (and this is by no means the worst of them, not in the slightest) that perch on the edge of working and rely to varying degrees on the goodwill of the reader not to quibble with them too much. Fortunately, Pratchett is extremely good at generating goodwill… (which is why I really like Reaper Man. Logically speaking, it’s an utter mess of a novel, a novel that could be taught in class as a demonstration of how not to tell a coherent story, and yet for me it works… in part, I have to recognise, just because I really want it to).

Like, for instance, those first five scenes. What I didn’t notice at the time is… they’ve got nothing to do with one another. There’s a seemingly random exchange between two people, which is intriguing but tells us nothing. There’s a little bit about nothing at all to do with anything, just a descriptive passage about the nature of the world – light-hearted but interesting. There’s a brief passage about a different person dying, which is obviously a Bad Thing, and played very earnestly (but strangely). There’s a whole run of pages about another man having his morning shave and reflecting on newfound matrimony – psychological and sombre, but ending with some menacing levity. There’s a nice man writing a letter to his mother while feeding his dog some sausages in a café – gentle mood, overtones of irony. After that it’s off for a dialogue between a murder victim and Death, which is mostly played for laughs but is obviously quite serious in content – and could be tied back to the earlier death scene, except that the tone is entirely different – and then some jokey scenes about job interviews and police work and so forth. This is a mess! This shouldn’t work!

At yet it does. If you’re not concentrating, you don’t notice that these scenes have nothing to do with one another in content or in style. Quite the contrary – it all feels as though it makes sense, like a grandmaster carefully setting out the pieces one by one.

In the end, I think he’s bluffing (if you’ll forgive my mixing my sporting metaphors). Pratchett does enough to sketch out his plot in its essentials, and he makes it all feels as though it makes sense, but… well, if any other author tried to present that as the solution to a police procedural, the reader would not be buying. But fortunately, trying to be critical of Pratchett novels is like trying not to buy one of Mr Dibbler’s famous meat pies. No matter how much your mind tries to tell you that there’s only one rational response to this, your body ends up eating a sausage-inna-bun and wearing a pink sombrero…

Another thing that struck me while reading this novel was the political ambiguity Pratchett indulges in. Now, Pratchett may be the world’s best example of an author with mass, cross-demographic appeal. He’s read by children; he’s read by academics. He’s read for a quick laugh and for a moving experience. He’s read by women and by men. He’s read, above all, by a really vast number of people. And this should immediately make people pay attention and ask what it is exactly about Pratchett that makes his appeal so broad. And there are a lot of parts to that answer, and some of them I don’t know; but here’s one that came to me when reading this book:

Politics need not be a problem for his readers. More than that, politics can be an asset for him in selling his books. Which politics? Any politics!

If, like me, you’re a liberal, you probably see Pratchett as a liberal. I mean, just look at him from a feminist point of view, for a start: he hasn’t just created some of the best female characters in fantasy, he’s written entire books with almost entirely female casts and nobody has even noticed because it feels so natural when he does it. His books are constantly embracing ethnic diversity, both in their casts and explicitly in their pages – Feet of Clay more so than most, with Vimes even delivering a scathing attack on the Sherlock Holmes school of deduction on grounds of bigotry, pointing out that any attempt to draw such rapid deductions about people from little evidence relies on a bigoted and close-minded assumption about the uniformity of life (in fact he calls the Holmes idea “an insult to the glorious variety of human life”, which is about as strong and direct as Pratchett’s writing gets). People are far too wonderfully varied to calculate.

And yet I wonder whether, if I were a conservative, I wouldn’t see Pratchett as a fellow traveller too. Take the occasional race-based humour, for instance: I find this a little awkward, particularly when it’s clearly based on real-world racial stereotypes, but I’m quick to defend him, as everybody is. That’s just a silly little throwaway joke – more a pastiche of racist humour than an actual jibe! That’s not a joke at all, it’s a parallel and a commentary on the history of race-relations that uses real-world stereotypes to set up an assumption that he can then challenge… That’s just a joke about some liberals taking themselves too seriously. I mean, clearly he’s one of us, look at all the good stuff he says!

But I do wonder how many Daily Mail readers might, for instance, read Pratchett’s skewering of anti-discrimination pressure groups (the Campaign for Equal Heights makes ridiculous claims of discrimination, but it’s OK since it’s made up entirely of local humans, with actual dwarfs largely ignoring it) as, well, a normal right-wing attack on Political Correctness Gone Mad, rather than, say, a passing swipe at the zealotry of a minority of liberal individuals who, as it were, believe more in the church of liberalism than in its faith. Do those readers view Vimes – who is, frankly, underlyingly a bigot, but who supports liberalism to some degree thanks to a combination of pragmatism, general empathy, and a bloody-minded desire to spite the rich and powerful that leads him to favour underdogs even if they are from some disliked minority – as an unproblematic hero, rather than the good but compromised, complicated hero of an out-of-date generation? Do they view Carrot, then, as a pleasant but naïve idealist? Do they take the way that Pratchett’s minorities, despite facing persecution and sometimes violence, almost always prefer to just grumble through by themselves without outside assistance, as a model for how real minorities ought to behave?

It’s one thing to engage in dog-whistle politics. Pratchett sometimes seems to be blowing dog whistles for both the right and the left… and I say that not so much to criticise him (although I did feel that the Jewishness of the golems was played up a little bit too much, given the importance of the only-care-about-money-and-contracts aspect of golemness to the plot), but rather to admire his dexterity. I don’t know if he does it intentionally or if he’s just that conflicted/complicated, but Pratchett manages effortless, almost unnoticeably, a display of saying-what-they-want-to-both-sides that most professional politicians couldn’t dream of emulating! He’s the Bill Clinton of fantasy authors… (err… talking there about Clinton’s broad appeal, ambiguity, and incredible charisma, rather than, you know, the other… stuff).

So anyway. Where does that all leave us with Feet of Clay?

In the heat of the moment, a little bit frustrated. It was so close to being genius, but very slightly wasn’t.

On the other hand: it’s so close to being genius. You get a mystery (several mysteries in one, I guess) that isn’t top-drawer but that is intriguing and generally satisfying (and I have to say, I was very impressed with Pratchett that I didn’t realise the solution to the poisining mystery until it was revealed, despite it being, in hindsight, really obvious). You get plenty of comedy. You get political and social issues (and despite what I’ve said above, this is perhaps the most overtly liberal of the Discworld novels). And you get a whole heap of character development stuff. There’s even good material for Sergeant Colon!

Adrenaline: 4/5. Not quite as explosive as some entries, but effectively tense throughout.

Emotion: 3/5. Not as high-stakes emotion-wise for the characters… but the characters are so strong, and so empathic, that you can’t but invest in their progress.

Thought: 4/5. Clever plotting, plus Issues. Not exactly ground-breaking, but a good thoughtful book.

Beauty: 4/5. Pratchett’s writing is a delight, and there are also some really striking scenes here.

Craft: 5/5. Seems strange giving top marks given that I think the plot is deeply flawed – but the details of the plotting, the prose, the composition, the direction of the attention, the humour, the character work, the descriptive vividity, the multilingual puns (Pratchett can drop jokes for the lowest common denominator and for those fluent in Latin with equal ease – or, in the case of Vetinari’s family motto, for those fluent in Latin and also familiar with mid-20th century American politics*). (Dear lord, how many people on earth are erudite enough to make that ‘Rats chamber’ joke?). Everything is just of such a high quality I can’t but give it full marks.

Endearingness: 5/5. Funny, likeable, fun, impressive. And plenty of time with really likeable character.

Originality: 4/5. The parts are, of course, taken from elsewhere, but it’s all put together in a really interesting and unique way.

Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD. Could almost have been brilliant, but I didn’t feel it was quite there. Nonetheless, it’s a seriously good book! Comparing this one with Maskerade, the two are very close in quality, imo – I think the difference comes down to whether you prefer a little more outright comedy, as in Maskerade, vs a little more complexity and character work in Feet of Clay. Personally I’m going for Feet of Clay, but I think it’s a toss-up. They’re both a small step behind Small Gods and Lords and Ladies, but it is only a small step.

*Rudolph Potts, baker: quod subigo farinam. That one still sets me giggling!

Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb

If anyone wants to know my thoughts on Hobb’s earlier novels, look over here.

Some people will read Fool’s Assassin and say: but there was no plot! 4/5ths of the book was pointless filler! We didn’t get to the real story until the end!

That makes sense, although I’m not sure how those readers made it through all the previous installments of Robin Hobb’s cycle, since she’s never exactly been known for all-out high-octane action novels.

But my reaction was in any case exactly the opposite: 4/5ths of the book was maybe my favourite book of all time, and then it all got shunted aside because the author or her publishers thought this new trilogy needed to prove it was still epic fantasy.

It’s hard to say too much about the plot. My principle is not only to try not to spoil the books I review, but also not to spoil previous installments in the series more than necessary. Since this is now Book 14 in the cycle construed broadly, and Book 7 in terms purely of the history of FitzChivalry Farseer, that’s a lot of plot to avoid mentioning! But I think it’s safe to say that the beginning of this trilogy – like the beginning of Tawny Man – finds our favourite assassin a little out of the loop, more concerned with domestic issues surrounding his country home than with grand affairs of court or with the fate of the world.

And I’m OK with that. Gosh darnit, I’ve read through six hefty tomes of Fitz constantly being distracted from the demands of his private life by the exigencies of world-saving, and now to be honest I’d be quite happy just reading three books of the man sitting around, hanging out, having tea with people, deciding which clothes to buy, whatever.

Of course, Robinh Hobb is not a bad plotter. She’s at worst an OK plotter, and at times an excellent one (much of The Liveship Traders, for instance, felt meticulously devised). But in all her work, it’s the characters who have interested me – the personal drama, and above all the relationship drama. The plot has been there to force the characters into action, to create that drama. But now, to be honest, I rather felt as though this time the plot was getting in the way of the drama: there’s more than enough real excitement in Fitz’s life now to do without the big picture for a bit. I’m not normally somebody who likes soap operas, but after six volumes, I think we all deserve a little bit of guilty pleasure. I know that Fitz sure as hell does…

But let’s not get too caught up with that. This is only the first book of the trilogy, assuming Hobb can keep it to a trilogy this time (the two volumes of The Rain Wild Chronicles each had to be split in two, and the final volume of Tawny Man before that was truly gargantuan, right up there at Jordan/Martin length; no disrespect to Hobb, who does a lot better at this than many other fantasy writers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this somehow bulged out to four books rather than three). Two books from now perhaps I’ll be wowed by this new plot, and look back at the calm times of Fool’s Assassin as more than sufficient wallowing-in-life for one trilogy. But being torn away from that… right now, that hurts a little.

And it’s not just my taste in tone at issue here. I also think there are elements of the Big Picture that don’t so far look like they work that well. Most importantly, this new series seems to be challenging the whole mythology of the cycle to this point. Don’t get me wrong: I loved how Tawny Man challenged The Farseer Trilogy thematically. I was excited by how The Liveship Traders challenged Farseer mythologically, and… well, contented enough more or less with the mythological additions in Tawny Man. But I worried that The Rain Wild Chronicles was making Fitz’s story and its mythology obsolete, and now again everything changes in this new trilogy, it would appear. Change is good, of course, but we also need stability in order for things to matter to us: turn things on their head too many times and we lose our sense of which way is up and which is down and start to just get seasick. It also wearies the mind and diverts the attention to the mechanisms behind the machine: plot twists, when too frequent, start to seem exploitative, manipulative. The thrill of revolution yields to the monotony of mere rotation.

The other big problem with the book – and in places connected to my issues with the Big Plot – is that several characters, particularly Fitz, are required to be utter idiots.

Now, Fitz has never been the sharpest man around. Part of the charm of his story has always been that between common sense, good luck, good friends and hard work, he’s managed to win out despite not being some perfect hero, and that includes not always being the smartest guy around. Hobb usually does very well at depicting this – it can be hard to write a character who’s less intelligent than much of the audience without making him look like a buffoon. And I should be clear that for the most part she still succeeds at that here. Indeed, age has made Fitz wiser, and experience has honed his thought and observation. He’s actually capable of some pretty keen deductions. In fact, in this book he’s quite smart.

Which makes it even more clunking when there are four or five things that Fitz must be able to realise, or at least consider the possibility of, yet remains clueless of for plot reasons. Sure, you could argue that in some of these cases he’s not so much stupid as willfully ignorant, refusing to consider certain things – but I don’t think Hobb does a great job of showing him refusing to consider them, making it instead look as though he just never for a moment imagines them. It’s not the sort of boneheaded stupidity that ruins the plot – which would progress in a very similar way even if he were a bit smarter – and it is just about conceivably within the limits of Fitz’s demonstrated ability to overlook things. But it does feel like something of a blemish.

But let’s not get too carried away. Much of the rest was sheer brilliance. The early parts of the book convey a clear sense of how Fitz has grown up as a result of his prior experience – a maturity that will no doubt frustrate many readers who long for the younger, more impulsive version – and deliver a pay-off that justifies, in my mind, the controversial ending to the prior trilogy. Seeing Fitz in a calmer, more domestic setting rounds out his character in a new and satisfying way. And yet the book is far from uneventful or serene. Quite the contrary. Although there is little formal plot for the majority of the book, a great deal of incident occurs, displaying how Fitz has changed, the nature of his relationships, and perhaps most impressively the changing world around him. The Six Duchies are no longer the place where Fitz grew up – Hobb skillfully conveys the extent of the social changes in the wider world in a subtle way, without blinding us with improbably rapid and attention-grabbing shifts.

And then there’s the emotion. For one thing, there are elements of happiness here, perhaps even contentment, that are moving in their own right and that magnify the impact of the things that go wrong (oh, things go wrong – this is a Fitz novel, remember?). Underneath the happiness, however, Fitz remains deeply scarred by his past experiences, and particularly by two big changes that occured in the last trilogy (it’s particularly effective how those scars have changed his opinions on one topic, without him even noticing, in a way that would have been anathema to the younger Fitz); later wounds re-open those old injuries and push him to the very brink. Fool’s Assassin is a powerful depiction of a man attempting to hold himself together, to not let the poison within him damage the good things that he has – and like all internal battles there is a certain narcissism to this, a naïve assumption that the world will wait passively for him to deal with his own issues – if, indeed, he accepts that those issues even need to be dealt with at all. Even when everything is going well, Fitz is a man predisposed to melancholy, and in this book the series finally begins to consider that Fitz may not not just be a battered unfortunate tossed around by fate, but may also (in part as a response, in part perhaps by nature) have serious issues with depression. There is a strong feeling that even when Fitz is calm and happy, he is having to work hard at being calm and happy. He continues to be prone to melancholy reflection, he continues to have a strong vein of (often justified) paranoia – a paranoia that he has to work against so hard that he at times becomes wilfully naïve – and above all he continues to have serious issues with trust and intimacy. The happy place in which he begins the book is not the secure happiness of a man floating in calm water, but the desparate happiness of a man holding with all his strength onto a lifeboat. Fitz has not so much dealt with his demons as assembled an array of shields and flotation devices around him. Inevitably, some elements of that defence are going to be threatened by the end of the book, and he is not going to respond well to this. The problem is, how can a half-drowning man react to the loss of part of what supports him without dragging the rest of his support down into the water with him?

It’s nuanced, brave, and powerful writing. There were multiple occasions when my eyes misted up, and at least one when I cried – but the emotion is not all negative, either. There’s both darkness and light in this book, tragedy and triumph. By the end, Fitz has been put into a very interesting – and very dangerous – place, and I think that he’s probably more unpredictable going into the next two books than he’s been at any time in the sequence (except possibly at the end of Royal Assassin). This could all end well; this could all end very badly.

Unfortunately, while I understand what Hobb was trying to do, the point where Fitz’s personal plot intersects the big-P Plot at the end of the book just didn’t seem believable to me. I don’t know why, exactly, but it didn’t. Suffice to say that Fitz acts impulsively (shock spoiler!) in a way that intellectually makes sense in hindsight, given his trajectory over the book, but that did not quite ring true to me in the moment.

One final problem with the book – a problem that may disappear retrospectively, depending on what happens next – is that many of the characters built up around Fitz in the Tawny Man books are absent here, or at least so invisible as to be virtually absent. I don’t mind this conceptually – after all, the whole point of Hobb’s cycle is perhaps the inevitability of change – but it did feel like a wasted opportunity at times. Hopefully, however, Fitz’s being thrust back into the world of Big Plots by the end of the novel will let us see some more of those characters, and how they too have changed over time.

In their place, however, we have other relationships for Fitz, both positive and negative. I think it’s a fair trade, as in many ways these are more important and more interesting relationships. One, in particular, is in my opinion the most important and interesting of all Fitz’s connections, particularly in the later parts of the book; meanwhile, new characters are introduced and set up what could potentially be very intriguing relationships in the following volumes.

A big part of what makes this book so good, though, is that I really don’t know what’s coming next (it seems strange to me to even imagine that this story is going to take only two more books! We’re still the equivalent of about 300 pages into Fool’s Errand, and the plot ahead of us looks much, much larger). Hobb here, particularly before the Big Plot arrives, has reached a point of utter disregard for the clichés of the genre, and thus it is impossible to predict what happens. There are so many red herrings here – or perhaps there are none, and everything will matter in the end. The point is, I still can’t tell. It’s impressively true to life: we don’t always know “this is a person who will be important”, “that backstory will be relevant”, “I should make note of this for later!” and so on. So Hobb gives us a forest of potential plot threads, some of which will doubtlessly go nowhere. But because the narrative focus is so tightly focussed on Fitz as a character, this is not frustrating: it’s not a waste of time, because we get to spend time with Fitz. How Fitz reacts to things is the story, is the point of the things that go on around him – at least, that’s the point right now.

Hobb has always been a character-focused, and in particular a relationship-focused writer; Fool’s Assassin, for the first four-fifths of it at least, is the most Hobbish book yet in that regard. It’s her most literary book. And I think that’s why I got frustrated when some slightly-silly-sounding epic fantasy business burst in toward the end. Can’t we just get all this over with quickly and go back to what matters?

That, I suppose, is her point. I want to get back to what matters – but the plot is going to change everything. And that hurts, because every change is a loss. But then if there hadn’t been this sort of change before, we’d never have gotten the status quo that I want to investigate more fully… it’s been an increasing theme of Hobb in recent books that we never get the change to stop the ride, and to some extent it feels like this whole book is a demonstration of that. Most obviously, the book itself does not stop in one place for long: this single book probably lasts longer, in internal chronology, than either of the two preceding trilogies (if you exclude the very early childhood chapters of Assassin’s Apprentice). We keep waiting for it to settle on the one time-period that ‘counts’, that ‘matters’ – but they all do!

The greatest triumph of the book, however, may be the most shocking – so shocking I have some reservations about mentioning at all, even though it’s not a spoiler in the traditional sense. And that is: it’s not all about Fitz. More, it’s not all by Fitz. Fitz remains the primary POV character, but we also, particularly later in the book, begin to get chapters from a second POV. This will no doubt enrage some Fitz fans, but I felt it worked exceptionally well. Indeed, I think perhaps it worked too well – by the end, I was actually getting a little frustrated with having to go back to Fitz chapters… I can only hope we see a lot more of this character’s POV in the next two books. The introduction of this POV also makes me wonder what Hobb’s long-term plans are: is she signalling that stories can continue in Fitz’s part of the world even without Fitz in them, perhaps beyond the point where Fitz is forced to retire? More worryingly, we must surely consider the possibility that this new POV will allow Fitz to be killed off at the end of the trilogy… or even partway through it. Given how powerfully moved I’ve been by other losses throughout these books, I’m really not sure how well I could cope with that.

So, I guess I’ve run out of things to say. The bulk of this book is probably my favourite and almost certainly the best of Hobb’s novels (though it would feel staggeringly pointless to a new reader – it makes Tawny Man seem standalone by comparison), thanks to its generous pace, fine prose, psychological complexity and power, and unpredictability. Then some stuff happens. I’m almost entirely convinced that that stuff happening makes this a worse book than it would otherwise be; on the other hand, Fool’s Assassin is not a standalone psychological novel, it’s the first volume of an epic fantasy trilogy, and what happens nearer the end is essential to setting up the plot of the remaining two books. It’s just a shame that, in the moment, it feels so incongruous. I hope, however, that in hindsight it all make sense.

That’s the hope that everyone will have to have, I think. Hobb said before this book came out that she was writing the story she felt needed to be told, not the story that her fans necessarily wanted – and boy does it look like that might end up being true. Of all the modern authors I can think of, Hobb perhaps comes closest to that ideal of writing without pandering to her fans, and to a large extent she’s been rewarded for that courage with the loyalty of those very fans, who have accepted and admired her independence. I suspect that this new trilogy will be challenging to many, however. I can only hope that fans – myself included – continue to give her the benefit of the doubt that she has so richly earned. Either way, despite the gentle pacing of this first installment, it’s very clear by the end of this book that, whatever exactly is coming next, we all need to hold on to our hats.

 

 

 

Adrenaline: 4/5. Gripping. Docked a point for its length and slow pace: I loved it, but I know that many more impatient readers will find it too much of a challenge in this regard. You really need to get into the right mindset for one of these later Hobb novels.

Emotion: 5/5. Well obviously. Incredibly powerful, at least after you’ve spent 15 years with this character. For context, this is only the second book I’ve given a top mark to in this category (after The God of Small Things).

Thought: 4/5. Not that much abstract rumination, but a tricksy plot and some important themes mean you’ll need to engage your brain fully.

Beauty: 5/5. Career-high prose supports a beautiful depiction of the good and the bad in life, with many exquisite moments along the way.

Craft: 4/5. As suggested above, there are a few minor clunky issues around the edges. But overall it’s wonderfully skilfull in plot, in prose, in character, in scene composition, in everything.

Endearingness: 5/5. Yes, I ended a bit frustrated. But to be fair, that’s because the frustrating bits were at the end. Now that the memory of that frustration has faded just a little, what I loved about the book has risen back to the top of my memory, and my word there was so much that I loved. Does this topple Golden Fool as probably my most-loved book? Not for now – but maybe only because I need to wait a while and read again before I feel comfortable saying that.

Originality: 5/5. At the end, we get some suggestions of a more traditional epic plot, and I worry that this may end up feeling too much like a re-run of past books – but for now that’s a worry for the future. As it is, there’s no way you could ever confuse this book with any other – it’s even distinctive among Hobb’s Fitz novels.

Overall: 7/7. BRILLIANT. OK, yes, despite my reservations around the ending, I still can’t avoid saying that this is Hobb’s best book yet. It’s a true masterpiece, and its flaws are only visible to me because the rest of it is so superb. There’s a quote on the front cover (and incidentally, what a beautiful front cover it is! The gloriously shiny UK cover that is, not the US one with the Fantasy Guy In Cape on it) by George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame: “Fantasy as it ought to be written”. I honestly can’t disagree. If more fantasy was written like this, the genre would not be so deprecated by those outside it; I’m encouraged to see this recognised by reviewers – the Telegraph, for instance, calls it ‘high art’ that ‘transcends the fantasy genre’. Again, no disagreement here.

The Rider, by Tim Krabbé

Only when there are arguments for something can there be arguments against it.

 

Cyclists are strange people. They say things like “The Rider is a book about cycling”, or “I guess maybe you can’t fully appreciate The Rider if you’re not a cyclist”.

Nonsense. The Rider is not about cycling. The Rider has got nothing to do with cycling.

What is it about? You could say, “it’s about obsession”, “it’s about insanity”, or “it’s about religion”. Those descriptions would all be accurate, but also pointless, as they’re all pretty much synonymous with being about cycling.

More informative would be to say that The Rider is about about the human condition. This would also be true, but it would also be missing the point. This is about something more important than life or death, being and time, meaning and identity. This is about the most important thing of all: cycling.

No, not ‘cycling’, that suggests something abstract, general, a worldwide practice, a pastime, an industry, a culture. This is a book about a person riding a bicycle.

There are a lot of ways to approach this book. If you don’t know anything about professional road cycling, for instance, this book tells you a lot about it – not just about the technicalities and the famous names, but about the soul of the sport. The soul the sport wants to have, at least – but then, that’s the soul of the sport, wanting to have a soul. This is the sort of book that might baffle outsiders, might send them away in confusion or horror; it’s also the sort of book that might seduce them, might convert them, might make them fall in love, or discover that they are in love with something they didn’t think they cared about at all.

But I think the more important thing is this: this is a book about a human being attempting an endeavour. It’s an endeavour that in one way is easy enough that the story is not all about the impossibility of the task. If your endeavour is to fly a spaceship to the moon, for instance, or be the first man to climb the Eiger, or to keep all your crew alive and escape from Antarctica in three small open rowing boats with little food and no means of navigation, then your story, while fascinating, is not really a story about you. It’s a story about something impossible, and all the ways it’s impossible, and how it was done nonetheless, and you are little more than a mirror of that impossibility, your despair and your triumph reflections of the awe-inspiring impossibility of the world. Your task is to be implacable, to be the immovable object that the world cannot distort, the irresistable force the world cannot resist. There’s little room for human foibles in a story like that.

The Rider isn’t a book like that. The Rider is a book about a high-level amateur bicycle race in the south of France in the 1970s. In it, the protagonist, in the course of a number of hours, must ride a bicycle relatively quickly over some small hills. At one point, it begins to rain. This is all far from being impossible.

On the other hand, if your endeavour is too simple, too easy to achieve, or even just too momentary in its achievement, there is little to talk about. Your story becomes not the story of what you did, but the story of why you did it, how you prepared to do it, what you felt about it afterwards.

This isn’t a book like that either. A bicycle race of this kind shows us man at the very limit of what he can do, pushing himself right to the edge, to the far extremities of the potential of his body and the last redoubts of his faculties of mind.

The Rider is a book about limits. Neither the calm, sleepy waters within the limit, nor the impossible, inhuman void beyond the limit, but a book about the limit itself, a book about the borderlands. It’s about the man – and about the absence of man.

It’s a book about a bike race.

Rider1

To get right down to the prosaic business of the facts, The Rider is a book about an amateur cyclist, Tim Krabbé, who has taken up racing late in life (at 29, and the book is set some years later) but discovered considerable talent for it. Enough talent, at least, to be able to compete in some major amateur races, and not purely as a hanger-on.

This is the story of the biggest race of his year, the fictional Tour de Mont Aigoual, in the Cévennes. It begins shortly before the race, and ends shortly after the race. We follow the experiences of Krabbé through the race.

That’s what it’s about. But it’s also about more than that. Krabbé talks to us about his thoughts – sometimes primitive, reactive images and barely formulable impulses at the limits of thoughts, other times more loquacious rumination about life, the universe, everything, and also cycling. Along the way, he provides illustrations from his own past, his own thoughts, and from cycling history.

So it’s a fun read about a sporting event – it’s not a personal test, it’s an actual race that he wants to win (and wants others to lose), and so narrative tension is present automatically. Will Krabbé win? If not, who will? It’s a basic and effective structure. It’s also a book about cycling, as Krabbé explains elements of road racing to us in case we don’t understand what’s going on, and illustrates them with famous anecdotes from history, particularly from the Tour de France. And on some level it’s also a book about the beautiful yet uninviting, peculiar, landscape of the Cévennes.

And yet it’s so much more than that.

This book could be literature. It could be literary fiction. Certainly, it should hold its head up high in at any dinner reception it attends with literary novels. It has its share of tricksiness: Krabbé, for instance, is a fictional narrator invented by the author, the amateur cyclist Tim Krabbé, and is not an entirely reliable narrator (something he comments on himself). It’s charged, in an easy and unposturing way, with continental concepts of postmodernity and semiotics, absurdism and situationism – although it never uses those terms. It has no shortage of reflection on the nature of human existence and the foibles of the mind.

Only I don’t think it wants to be literature. “Literature,” says the narrator, “is baloney”. This is about something much more important than literature: bicycle racing.

At its heart, this is a novel of irreconcilable dualities and the moments when they are reconciled – it is the literary equivalent of pushing two magnets together like-to-like, against the field.

It is about reality, human reality, lived human experience – about authenticity, real life stripped away of myths and fantasies. In the race, there is no time for fantasy, no energy for myth. Everything else in life, all the worry, the happiness, the intellectualisation, becomes stripped away into moments of raw physical being, into moments of will. “I am transformed into my body”, we are told at one point.

And yet it is also how precisely these moments of reality are most surrounded by fiction. Everything about cycling is a fiction. Krabbé’s fantasies and daydreams, from childhood through to now; all those myths of the Tour and the Giro – true, false, unsubstantiated, confused (and the most completely true story of the lot and verified by all records and witnesses is the one story that is outright impossible). Better than true, perhaps; myths more true than reality. The magical thinking – Anquetil moving his bidon (water bottle) from his bike to his back pocket because he thinks that reducing the weight of his bike will make him go faster. The riders, Krabbé tells us, are minds, and bodies and bikes are just the tools they use – and these minds are strange, irrational creatures who must be pushed on by mythologies of their own invention.

Fiction and truth, together in the same place at the same time.

Body and mind. Never are the body and the mind more divided: the mind wills and the body refuses. And yet precisely in the division, the unity becomes clear. The mind thinks what the body feels, and the body does what the mind wills: the unbreakable linkage between the two is never more clear than now. The mind is not free because it is one with the body; the body is not allowed to be free, because it is one with the mind. Dualism and monism, together at the same border-point.

Honour and violence. Riding, Krabbé tells us, is like humanity without the degrading influence of civilisation. It is brutal, it is merciless. In road racing, when you see your enemy on his back, you kick him to death. It is ruthless, it is calculating; it is professional.

And yet all that matters is honour. All that matters is passion. Sometimes all that matters is hatred. There is winning, and there is winning with honour, and only one of them matters, and everyone knows which one: both of them. Krabbé gives us the story of Coppi and Bartali riding each other out of the World Championship:

Kübler and Clemens left the peloton: Coppi and Bartali looked at each other. Dupont, Ricci and Schotte left the peloton: Coppi and Bartali looked at each other. Caput, Teissière and Lazaridès left the peloton: Coppi and Bartali looked at each other. Schulte and Ockers left the peloton: Coppi and Bartali looked at each other.

When the peloton at last consisted only of Coppi and Bartali, they looked at each other and climbed off, both of them satisfied, we might assume, with a success sweeter than the sweetest second place.

Krabbé doesn’t give us the other half of the story, six months later at the Tour de France, when Coppi’s bike broke and Bartali waited with him for a replacement before helping him chase – and then on stage 16, on the road to Briançon, Coppi and Bartali attacked together on the Izoard, and when Bartali puncture, Coppi waited for him, and when they came into Briançon together, Coppi let the older rider win the stage, because it was his birthday. Krabbé doesn’t give us that particular story, but that side of the sport is not left out either.

How can a sport that prides itself on its amoral, obsessive ruthlessness be so proud also of its irrational codes of honour, its moments of pointless self-sacrifice?

It turns out I’m not the first to talk about this. Here’s Roland Barthes in his essay on the mythology of the Tour de France:

The Tour possesses an ambiguous ethic: certain knightly imperatives constantly mingle with the brutal demands of the pure spirit of success. It is an ethic which cannot or will not choose between the commendation of devotion and the necessities of empiricism.

Do you know the story of why Coppi was still in that race? He hated Bartali so much that their team (the Tour having national teams in those days) was almost falling apart, and their manager, the great cyclist Binda, could barely keep them both together. Coppi had already given up quarter of an hour of race time as the result of a sulk. Eventually, on that stage where Coppi needed a new bike, it boiled over. Why wasn’t Binda right behind Coppi with a spare? Binda was surely favouring Bartali, who had won the Tour the year before. Coppi would not compete unless he were the absolute master of his team. Binda desparately explained that he was not being partial, indeed that he was really on Coppi’s side, and he had only been absent at that moment through bad luck. Coppi would not, could not, accept that argument. Coppi was going to quit.

At that moment, a blind man walked into the room with a dog. Nobody knew who he was, and he made no introduction, but spoke directly to the two men who had been arguing alone, as though he knew who they were, and what they were doing there. The blind man said that he had bought a dog and had named it Fausto (Fausto being Coppi’s name, although at that time he was really ‘Il Campionissimo’, ‘the Champion of Champions’). The blind man further swore that he would never betray his dog, and proclaimed that he knew that the dog could never betray him.

The omen delivered, the blind man walked out of the room. Coppi accepted Binda’s apology and stayed in the race. And that’s why they rode together on the road to Briançon, and why Coppi let Bartali win.

The day after that, on the 17th stage, they rode together again. Again, Bartali had a puncture. Again Coppi waited. Again Bartali punctured. This time Coppi did not wait. This time, Coppi instead chose to win the Tour de France. He attacked his fallen teammate, the defending champion, his teammate who was ahead in the ranking and who was going to win the Tour if Coppi only stayed with him. Coppi didn’t stay with him; instead, he won the Tour himself.

Coppi and Bartali, the two halves of the soul of Italy. Faustino and Il Pio – the little devil and the holy one. Coppi the rationalist, the modernist, the atheist, the adulterer, the pioneer in doping, the ruthless winner-at-all-costs, except when he wasn’t; Bartali who prayed as he rode, who was blessed personally by three Popes and had taught one to ride (his wedding was celebrated by a Cardinal and was also blessed by a Pope), Bartali declared Righteous Among Nations for risking his life to save Jews from the Holocaust, Bartali over whom the local priests brought out the children to sing canticles as the Tour rode past, Bartali the clean and fair and honourable rider. Bartali the narcissist, the braggart, the paranoid obsessive. The angels on each shoulder of cycling, and both of them insane.

Krabbé doesn’t tell that story either. But he does tell others.

Life and death. When he gets on his bike, Krabbé takes his life in his hands – and then throws it into the hands of chance. Storming down mountainsides into oncoming traffic at over 60kph… it doesn’t take one mistake, it takes one piece of bad luck. Even on the flat, injury and even death are only a moment away. The rider cannot ride unless he accepts that he might die: before the race, Krabbé throws his street clothes onto the back seat of his car and thinks that they will remain as they have fallen until he picks them up again, or until the authorities pick them up if he has died. The rider must ride without fear, without any regard for his own life. And yet at the same time, this is when his life is most precious to him. He prizes his life and his desparation to live is all that keeps him from dying – the rider who isn’t concerned with safety may be a great rider, but not for very long. So once again the book is about the limit – riding both terrified and fearless, without caution and without recklessness.

There’s a saying in the bible: If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. In the original context, this is Jesus talking, but in the context of the novel it could just as well be cycling. In this way the book is indeed also a book about obsession, or insanity.

Except it’s not really insanity. Krabbé is not mad. He does things that other people might consider mad, even things that even he considers mad, out of love for his sport, but we’re in his head and he’s not irrational. He’s articulate and insightful. It is simply that he is living in a world slightly at an angle from ours: his language, his gestures, do not make sense to us, nor ours to him. The famous first paragraph of the novel:

Meyrueis, Lozère, June 26, 1977. Hot and overcast. I take my gear out of the car and put my bike together. Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafés. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.

[Note, incidentally, the vital use of determiners right from the beginning - the car, but my bike. Swap those two determiners around and you change nothing about the economics, but everything about the psychology.]

He does not understand us; we do not understand him. The Rider is therefore a portrait of a form of life; one reason it is such a great book is that by the end, some of us will understand what he means by that – even those of us who aren’t cyclists.

[Another word there: 'shocks'. I know it's unwise to rest too much on a word that is, after all, translated, but I'm going to anyway. One non-cyclist reaction to The Rider is that it is an arrogant book that says that non-cyclists are inferior. But read that sentence again. He does not say 'those lives seem appallingly empty', or 'the emptiness of those lives disgusts me', but 'the emptiness of those lives shocks me'. I think that we should not read this as defending Krabbé's arrogance, or even necessarily as imputing any sort of conscious arrogance, but rather as an attempt to get across the isolation of an obsessive pursuit. To Krabbé, it is self-evident that lives without cycling are empty, not self-evident intellectually, but a truth embedded in his faculty of sight. He sees them as as empty. But at the same time that sight shocks him. A truly arrogant man would not be shocked by the emptiness of the lives of others - he would take it for granted. 'Of course everyone else has an empty life compared to mine - I mean just look at me, compared to them!'. But Krabbé expects himself to be like others, and others to be like him: it comes as a shock that the lives of others are empty, that they have allowed them to be so empty. So he is a man not comfortably superior but trapped uneasily between two worldviews that he cannot abandon and cannot reconcile: on the one hand the ordinary human conviction that we are all alike in some fundamental way, and on the other hand the clear evidence that other people, non-racers, are living lives that he cannot but regard as empty, and as inconceivable and shocking for having been chosen despite their emptiness. In a way, I think perhaps that being shocked by the Other is the only truly respectful response to difference. Disgust, hatred, rejection; or harmony, negotiation, solidarity, equanimity; or even emulation and praise: these all presuppose an integration of the Other into our own worldview, they are all ways in which we find a place for the Other, judge the Other, and whether we find it inferior, our equal, or even our superior, all these require on a prior level that we consider all these things commensurable with ourselves. We cannot do anything with our encounter with the Other until we resolve our impressions of the Other into something that is commensurable with the Self. Which, of course, in many ways they usually are, since, well, we are all human and we do share an astonishing amount with one another. But the true Other, perceived truly as Other, must begin by provoking an existential surprise, an incomprehension, a visceral shock, that things could be in such-and-such a way: and then we recover our breath and say 'of course, this does make sense if we only realise that these are primitive people who lack our sophistication', or perhaps 'of course, this all makes sense when you realise that compared to them we are backward and foolish!', or still again on occasion 'of course, we must understand that despite their differences they can still be dealt with as equals, once their differences have been taken account of, because we share much and the existence of superficial differences does not refute that fundamental family tie, nor imply a moral inferiority or superiority' - but Krabbé's rider instead remains simply trapped within an inescapable condition of shock, a shock that cannot be resolved: he does not claim to understand how other people can live without racing, nor why he cannot. And why does Krabbé say this at all? Because he too wishes to provoke in us this condition of shock. And some readers recover from their shock, resolve their shock, and say "what a wonderful and important life this life-of-the-racer must be! Of course our lives seem empty to him!"; and others say "how dare he say such a thing? What a flawed character he must have, how blinkered, how narcissistic!" and in this way respond to him in exactly the way they believe he is responding to them. He says that they are full of emptiness, and so they say that he is full of nothing but hot air. But I think the desired reaction is simply: shock. He does not understand us; we do not understand him. We are, after all, living within different forms of life. Remember Wittgenstein's insight that it is only when there is a shared form of life that there can be a shared language, a shared understanding: when the way of life differs sufficiently, our words become incommensurable. Krabbé is the lion that speaks, that we do not understand, and the shock of that encounter is only amplified because that lion is not a lion but an intelligent, ordinary, middle-aged Dutchman with a harmless weekend hobby, who the rest of the week is able to live among humans probably without anybody noticing that he is different. After all, perhaps he may be obsessed, but it is a sociable and unremarkable sort of obsession, the sort of obession that is private and that allows its bearer to 'pass' in mixed company. Indeed, a part of the power of the novel is from the suggestion that the Wittgensteinian lion is not merely unremarkably human, but may in fact be a part of, or an interpretation of, a great many people. I think it's important to note that Krabbé is not unaware of how his Other is experienced by others, both professional cyclists and the general public - how some idolise him by imposing their own meaning his actions, while others disregard him. Others try to put meaning onto what he does, just as he tries and fails to explain their lives to himself - and indeed, it is far from clear that Krabbé as a man is entirely able to explain to himself the nature and reasons of Krabbé the rider. But these attempts at imposing meaning are doomed to failure - what gives meaning has no meaning in itself.]

I’m not a cyclist, but I am a fan of professional road racing. It would be nice to think that if I’d read The Rider ten years ago I might have become a cyclist myself – certainly it’s a book that could be life-changing for some, and not only in such superficial ways. But I know that wouldn’t have happened. Ten years ago I despised all forms of physical activity, particular anything involving endurance. My memories of compulsory cross-country running are enough of a data-point for me to know just how badly I’d have done if I’d taken up the bike.

But I am, I suppose you might say, a voyeur of interesting madness. I feel the same way, for instance, about religion: I’m not a religious man, but I find religion interesting precisely because of the way it can get perfectly rational, perfectly intelligent people to act in a way that simply does not make sense to an outsider. The Rider is in this way a book about a religion, complete with its own mythologies, dogmas, authorities, episcopacies, rituals, its own paraphernalia.

                And nothing is better for a firm and solid faith than being in the wrong.

And perhaps the most important borderline is the line between self and nothingness. There is a pervading sense throughout The Rider that for Krabbé cycling is a kind of death, longed for in a way without any depression, but rather in the mystical way that some religious welcome death, welcome death as a liberation from the bounds of self, a unity with God. The rider dissolves into the ride, the mind into the body, the self into the whole, consciousness into the divine goddess that is suffering. It is, in a literal sense, a kind of ecstasy, and as unsettling as all forms of ecstasy are for observers.

And yet even as the self sinks away, the self rises to new heights. It is precisely in and around this ecstatic liberation from the self that the entire world is subsumed into the self, that the self is raised up above the world, above itself, becomes limitless. In more prosaic terms: just as Krabbés connection with the real is also an entrapment within layers of mythology, so too his self-abnegation is an act of hubris. Krabbé is hubristic, he is narcissistic, he is selfish, he is self-obsessed, both his ruthlessness and his grandiloquent flights of fantasy speaking to a sense of self that is freed from all bounds in a way we suspect he cannot replicate in any other part of life. Self and selflessness – not only co-existing, bu co-dependent. It’s hard not to think here of Schopenhauer’s dictum that the will to cease to will is itself a willing, and that in the case of the suicide that will not to will is the strongest and most powerful will of all, a will so strong it can out-will all other will, even itself. So too Krabbé’s implicit will to escape himself is itself the strongest and most unconstrained expression of his self – it is, after all, he who wishes to escape. The paradox lends the enterprise a tantalising desparation, an existential frustration, that is only matched by the serenity that it simultaneously generates.

I view my wrists, stretched out in front of me to the bars, straight as ramrods. They’ve become so tanned, almost black in the wrinkles. The little hairs lie next to each other in wet rows, pointing away from me. I find my wrists incredibly beautiful.

But this isn’t a literary novel. There’s not a single middle-aged college professor and literary novel writer contemplating having an affair. Instead, there’s a bike race. And that’s a big and important difference, because on the one hand, a bike race is inherently dramatic in a way that sitting around thinking about stuff is not, and because, on the other, a bike race does not allow itself to be be second in an author’s affections. This is not a novel about human existence illuminated by a bike race. This is a novel about a bike race, in which human existence is fuel to be taken up and spent, human existence is the turbulence, the epiphenomenal excresence, of the spinning of the wheels. All there really is is the race.

To return to practicalities – and despite the vagaries of the above, this is a practical book – The Rider is a short novel (probably a novella, in truth), told in a series of mostly short, disconnected paragraphs. Many begin with a distance, the location in the race:

                Kilometre 111-112. A cold, wet forest is growing up around me.

For the most part, the story is told in terse, clipped, simplistic sentences. Sometimes fragments of sentences. It take a little while to get into, I found, because it doesn’t seem very sophisticated. It seems hard to believe these brusque reports of distances and terrain, gear-changes and muscle pains, can possibly sustain the interest. They more than do. As the race goes on and we get closer to the finish line, the methodical staccato of the words becomes gripping, even engrossing. It is, first and foremost, a good fun read.

I should of course also give some space to the negative. This is difficult in this case, as for the most part the only things it fails to excel in are things it does not really attempt. The one thing I will say is that sometimes, a few times, a sentence seems inelegant, as though it’s gotten caught in the spokes and stretched out a little further than it can spring back. It’s never confusing, but now and then it is a little rough. It’s also the case that throughout there isn’t quite enough poetry in the language, the sentences do not sing as they should – as the thoughts contained in them demand. It’s a little like hearing a symphony through a thin wall, the melodies all there but everything somehow dampened down. Part of this may be the intentionally straightforward style, that rarely allows for purples excess, but mostly I think that it’s a problem of the translation.

The Rider, you see, is actually De Renner, a novel in Dutch. For the first 24 years, you had to learn Dutch to read it (or only 18 years if you were Danish); this didn’t preclude its becoming a cult novel, and a national classic (the Dutch Foundation for Literature says it “is to Dutch literature what Paris-Roubaix is to bicycle road-racing: a royal classic… the definitive abc of sports, an encyclopedia, a literary masterpiece, an adventure novel and bicycling odyssey all rolled into one”… a “little miracle”), but may perhaps explain why it is not yet universally known in the English-speaking world.

The translation to English was finally made by Sam Garrett and published in 2002. Garrett does not write poorly, and in any case not knowing Dutch I can’t tell you what is Garrett and what is Krabbé; indeed, this is a prize-winning translation, and that must have taken some doing, since I suspect that this sort of writing is deceptively difficult to translate well. However, while no doubt Garrett is an excellent writer for a freelance journalist, he’s not as renowned a writer in English as Krabbé is in Dutch, and there are times when it feels as though maybe the original might have had a little more sparkle than the perfectly serviceable translation does, and, as I say, there are a handful of sentences in the book that seem just slightly inelegant to me. That said, it should be noted that the translation is appropriately sensitive to the subject matter: cycling is a subculture rich in jargon, which Garrett translates where appropriate and leaves untranslated where appropriate.

[Incidentally, if you’re looking for a book to read while learning Dutch, I suspect this may be a good one to try: rich enough to be rewarding, yet simple enough to probably not be too hard to understand]

The only other thing I might say is that the book has no doping in it. I’m not someone who insists that every story about bicycles should wear a scarlett letter on its forehead, but this is actually a story where some mention of doping would have been appropriate to its themes. It’s believable to me that nobody in a high-level amateur race like the Tour de Mont Aigoual (or is it an extremely low-level professional race? I guess the race is professional, in that there’s prize money, but the riders are amateurs, in that the prize money is woefully inadequate and they all need day jobs) would be popping pills in the seventies… but I find it difficult to believe that nobody would have talked about them, tried them, heard someone say something about them. This was, of course, more than a decade before the miracle of EPO, and probably before blood-doping was being widely used – certainly before it was outlawed – but it was in an era of steroids and corticosteroids, and many of the legends Krabbé tells us were from the era of rampant amphetamine use. Top riders were sanctioned, there were protests by riders against testing, some riders (most prominently Anquetil) publically argued for doping. People had been using horse-pills, snake-oil and magical coloured water since the bicycle was invented, and surely in a peloton of enthusiasts like this there would be some rumours about it all. But there is no mention of it. There is no mention of it in the legends either, even the legends that are all about doping – he treats The Fall of Rivière as a story about a fall, for instance, and omits the whole ‘so high he lost the ability to squeeze his own brake levers’ element of the tale. Even Simpson isn’t treated as an opportunity to discuss drugs. The one reference to Merckx’s multiple positive tests is oblique, dainty, almost as though he found the idea of mentioning doping explicitly, even when everyone knew about it, somehow distasteful.

It’s a shame not because it detracts from the book, but because it detracts from the discussion around doping. So often debates on doping are polarised into two extreme positions: ‘all doping is cheating, anything done by a cheater is invalid and worthless’; ‘doping is just a part of the sport (of all sports) and doesn’t really matter, in fact it should probably be legalised’. The Rider feels like a book that could have found a place for doping somewhere between those extremes – or, more in keeping with the book, found a place for it at both incompatible extremes simultaneously. Of course we can’t blame Krabbé, writing in 1978, for not addressing the hot topics of 2014, and nor could we expect an unflinching exposé of drug-taking in sport that took on and exposed the big names of the era. But it is, and was, a shadow at the edges of the sport, and it seems a shame that a book all about the edges could not have at least hinted at its existence.

 

That’s all I can think of to say against it. Other than that, it’s a fantastic book, it really is. A literary masterpiece that will be read for the next hundred years, as a review-blurb on that Dutch Foundation website says – and I know that blurbs come cheap, but that’s a blurb so golden that even if it’s taken at half-price it’s still worth something. In fact, whimsy leads me to revisit that description of it as the Roubaix of Dutch literature – Paris-Roubaix is indeed known as ‘The Queen of Classics’, and perhaps that’s going too far for The Rider. But in cycling, the greatest and most historic races are known as the Classics, and the five Classics traditionally considered the greatest among them – the long, fast, early Milan-San Remo (‘La Primavera’), the vicious cobbled hills of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (often known simply as ‘De Ronde’, the Flemish equivalent La Tour), the murderous and ancient Ardennes hills of Liège-Bastogne-Liège (‘La Doyenne’), the exhausted late-season Italian heights of the Giro di Lombardia (‘La Classica delle Foglie Morte’), and of course Paris-Roubaix itself (‘L’Enfer du Nord’, the hell of the North) – are known by a different name: the Monuments. I’m not sure I’d call The Rider the Queen of all the Classics, but I’d be happy to call it a Monument. Like many monuments, it’s become a little overgrown, a little hard to find, most tourists pass it by, and it is tended only by a relatively small club of devotees – at least in the English-speaking world. But it will be around for a long time, and it’s well-worth the detour.

If nothing else, the whole thing comes in at under 150 pages…

 

Adrenaline: 5/5. No, this isn’t a flawless, heart-bursting thriller. But I don’t think I could expect more excitement from a book: over 150 pages, and 150 kilometres, Krabbé gradually builds up one of the greatest depictions of the tension of great sport, and never lets his philosophical side distract him from telling a good story.

Emotion: 3/5. I suppose if there’s a flaw, it might be that, being so in the moment, there is relatively little time for emotional response. The passions are running high enough that this isn’t a real defect, but we aren’t given the space to wallow in them that might make the book extraordinary in this dimension.

Thought: 5/5. You may accurately object that this isn’t the most sophisticated philosophical treatise on the nature of being, the paradoxical dichotomies of existence, and the characteristics of the postmodern life. This would be true. It is, however, as good a treatise on these subjects as you could expect from a novel. Endlessly quotable, and I suspect endlessly re-readable.

Beauty: 4/5. Stunning landscapes, both of the Earth and of the soul, and some appealing turns of phrase. Docked a point because the prose itself is not actually that exceptional, stylistically.

Craft: 5/5. I could dock that point again here – the prose isn’t perfectly constructed, at least in translation. But I think there’s enough brilliance here to let me ignore that for a moment. The prose is good, the images and expressions remarkable, the development of character impressive. What perhaps is most striking, however, is the way that Krabbé is able to intermingle fact and fiction, the moment of the race with the legends of the sport and Krabbé’s own biography, along with a sizeable dose of outright fantasy, and yet still have something that fits together perfectly, never feeling scattered or at odds with itself.

Endearingness: 5/5. It’s a cult classic. The ‘cult’ part of that should suggest the depth of adoration this book has provoked in so many people. I’m not sure I do outright adore it, but I’m a bit in awe of it, and the only reason I won’t continually be re-reading it is for fear of wearing it out. This may not exactly be what I normally think of as comfort reading – it’s not very comfortable, for one thing – but there are many times when I’m feeling down and it’s pouring rain that I might want to remind myself of this novel.

Originality: 5/5. It’s not just the best novel about cycling, it’s the novel about cycling. Nothing else comes close (or such at least is the general opinion), and you can see why. It’s a novel that is utterly and essentially about cycling and could not be about anything else, but that is at the same time about something entirely different – and it does what it does in a way both universal and yet utterly specific and unique.

Echo: 1/2. I don’t normally give a score for this, so people may have forgotten what I mean; this is OK, as I’ve never really known. This is the score for the way that some books make you feel when you’re not reading them. Oddly, this is perhaps the opposite of most of these ‘echoey’ books. Most of them drive you to your knees with this great incomprehensible void, the absence the book has made, a numbness to the world; The Rider is more a call to action, a stirring of the soul, a trumpet-noise where other great books engender a great silence.

Overall: 7/7. BRILLIANT.
Adding up those numbers makes The Rider the best book I’ve ever reviewed. Is it? I’m not sure. Let’s put it this way: I wouldn’t stake much of value on this really being the best book I’ve read in the last five or six years. But on the other hand, confronted with the proposition “this is the best book you’ve read in the last five or six years, isn’t it?”… well, it’s hard to really find a way to argue with that suggestion. Perhaps I am being too generous. Perhaps my little impulse to maybe for the first time award something 8/7 is just a madness of the moment. But even if all that’s true, I can’t avoid thinking that this is, at minimum, a brilliant book, and at a minimum one of the best books I’ve ever read.

And just to remind you all: it’s 150 small pages and take only a few hours to read. And maybe this review should have all been a lot shorter and more to the point: if you haven’t read The Rider, go read The Rider, right now. Some of you will love it, some of you will just be baffled by it, but whoever you are and whatever you read you haven’t read The Rider until you’ve read The Rider.

That, in the end, is why De Renner has been a cult classic since 1978. It’s not because it’s a brilliant book, although it is, but because it’s the only De Renner. It’s a solitary monument to a certain way of life, a way of being, and in being that it is ensured a place in the cannon of literary significance. Many books are other books, their virtues coming from being better at being that book than any of the other books that also try to be that book. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some of the greatest books are like that. But there is always an element of interchangeability about them. De Renner, I suspect (not having read all other books ever written), is not interchangeable with anything else. It is, by itself, one (small, perhaps, and strange, maybe) part of the nature of humanity.

Or, more to the point: there is no excuse for not having read The Rider other than not having heard of it. You have now heard of it. Go read it.

 

Discworld Re-Read Update

A housekeeping issue here…

I’m reading through the entire Discworld cycle in order. At least, that’s the theory. Right now, however, a couple of complications have arisen.

First, there’s Interesting Times. I can’t read this, because I can’t find it. This is galling. I know where it was six months ago (because I had to find it) and  I know I moved it to somewhere it wouldn’t get lost when the time came to read it. Inevitably, this has resulted in it getting lost now that it’s time to read it. This is… galling. I know it’s around here somewhere, but I’ve also looked everywhere it could be, and it isn’t anywhere of them. Bah humbug.

So I skipped that, temporarily and read Maskerade, and I’ve just finished Feet of Clay. What’s next?

Well, technically, Hogfather. Now, second complication: I read Hogfather the year before I started this re-read, and I already have a review up on my blog. I’m not sure I want to reread it again so soon. Maybe I do? I don’t know. Right now I’m thinking I don’t.

If not, that means the next book is Jingo. But I don’t want to read Jingo now, because I’ve just read Feet of Clay! Two Watch books in succession might be a little much, I think. So that means it’s on to The Last Continent… but I don’t want to read a Rincewind book when I haven’t yet read Interesting Times. It’s one thing to go a little out of order when the books are unrelated, but it doesn’t feel right to fail to read chronologically even within a single ‘sub-series’. So does that mean I’m reading Carpe Jugulum next, then?

That would make sense. But that would mean skipping three books in a row, in addition to Interesting Times… that doesn’t seem right!

So. Not sure what to do right now. This could all be solved if I could just find that darned copy of Interesting Times…