The Curmudgeon


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Peter Van Greenaway

My first encounter with the work of Peter Van Greenaway - and probably yours too, if you've heard of him at all - was via Jack Gold's fine film of The Medusa Touch. Released in 1978 and starring Richard Burton, Lino Ventura, Lee Remick and a superb array of British character actors from Harry Andrews through Michael Hordern to Philip Stone, the adaptation is commendably faithful despite changing the gender of Remick's character and the nationality of Ventura's at the command of its international backers. The story concerns a middle-aged English novelist, John Morlar, who has, in his publisher's words, a "convincing knack of dissecting evil genius and showing what it's capable of", and who "somehow knew too much about what goes on under stones, behind the wainscot, under the carpets of the corridors of power". But literature is not Morlar's only talent; he also has a powerful and highly destructive gift of telekinesis, which has left a trail of more or less deserving victims through his entire life.

In the book, this trail is uncovered by one Inspector Cherry of Scotland Yard, whose investigation of Morlar's near-murder leads him to a certain sneaking sympathy with the writer's generously targeted irritation. Inspector Cherry went on to become one of that largely unfortunate species, the series character; a particularly unfortunate decision in this case. My personal prejudice against series aside, given the development of Cherry's attitude in The Medusa Touch and the apocalyptic implications of the ending, his reappearance as the representative of law and order (I forget in which book) is thoroughly unconvincing, intervening nervous breakdown or none. In any case, owing to the aforesaid prejudice I have read no other books featuring the character, although I may get around to them one day. Happily, there are plenty of other Van Greenaway novels to be going on with.

Van Greenaway's first novel, which appeared in the early 1960s, was The Crucified City, a fable set in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war. The martyred city is London, where a motley collection of survivors undertakes a final pilgrimage to Aldermaston, dying one by one along the way. They are accompanied by a mysterious mute, and also by Richard Creston, the protagonist, whose eloquently expressed views on humanity and the world are fully as optimistic as John Morlar's. Van Greenaway returned to the theme of nuclear holocaust in his late novel Graffiti, another peculiar parable about a man who roams the devastated country writing his testament on those few walls which remain upright. Given what is known about the probable effects of a major nuclear war, the new society which emerges from the ruins may appear naïvely utopian; but there is, of course, a twist.

Some of Van Greenaway's books deal explicitly with political themes: Take the War to Washington is about renegade Vietnam War veterans, and the charmingly titled Suffer! Little Children is about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Still better titled is The Man Who Held the Queen to Ransom and Sent Parliament Packing, in which a group of British army officers stage a coup and do exactly that. The book came out in 1968; the name of the deposed Prime Minister is Wrigley, presumably a snipe at Wilson. The speech by Captain Wyatt, the coup's leader, as he dismisses the House of Commons is about as dated as one would imagine:

"I'm not going to take up too much of your time - or mine. For many years it has been increasingly obvious to more people than you or the opinion polls seem aware of that this country's affairs have been passed from one set of incompetents to another. There's no doubt that the system has benefited property speculators, building tycoons, bookmakers and organised crime; there's no doubt that under the system both parties have succeeded in running the country into the ground with the gay abandon of two frustrated spinsters daring their all in a cosy game of Monopoly.

"That you act with a cynical disregard for those you represent is the measure of your dishonesty. That you assume public apathy to your actions is total shows a blindness to reality suggesting outright stupidity.

"I am here to tell you that the country refuses to be led by the nose from the Right, by the hand from the Left. It is prepared to march forward in step with the times with whoever is prepared to give effective leadership. The House is no longer an effective instrument of government. Consequently it is my pleasurable duty to inform you that from this moment you no longer exist. You are free to leave."

True to his anathema on Right and Left alike, Wyatt's policies during his brief period in power are not easy for doctrinaires to label (beyond Wrigley's inevitable cries of "treason!"). A murderer is sentenced to "public exposure" - three days on display naked in a cage, for deglamorisation purposes - followed by exile to a Scottish island with a number of other criminals. Building and educational facilities are to be supplied, according to Wyatt, and the exiles will be permitted to return to mainland society once they have shown themselves capable of social behaviour.

There is, as may be gathered from The Medusa Touch alone, a strong vein of satire in Van Greenaway. In the science fiction novel Manrissa Man scientists breed an ape which can think and speak, with predictably unflattering results for the dominant species; in the horror novel Mutants catastrophe strikes in the form of a highly intelligent, razor-toothed and murderous species of mouse. The satire is abetted by Van Greenaway's narrative voice: rich in wordplay, delightfully if sometimes obtrusively sarcastic, as distinctive in its own way as the style of Ramsey Campbell or Ambrose Bierce. He deserves a lot better than his present obscurity.

Update Michael Greenwell reviews The Man Who Held the Queen to Ransom and Sent Parliament Packing.


  • At 8:49 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Thanks so much for the run down on Greenaway. I really appreciate your great writing.

    As my Aussie friends would say "Good on you, mate".

    M.D. in S.F. CA

  • At 2:34 am , Anonymous Colin said...

    Glad to see Peter van Greenaway getting some publicity, a much neglected writer who deserves better.

  • At 5:53 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I've read the Medusa Touch more than once (I loved its use of language), and much later read Suffer Little Children, which is an astonishing mixture of idealism and misery. I remember being appalled by the ending - it was so sudden, bleak, and shocking, though the idea that some people have a vested interest in continued conflict is more than borne out by history. Cherry and Morlar are both journal writers, and almost certainly van Greenaway was too. His style sometimes became over-preachy and epigrammatic.


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