Beginning in Mr. Moorcock’s New Worlds days, he began producing formalist pranks and serious high-modern pieces that eventually combined into one continuing work, the Jerry Cornelius books (if I have my history right). All four were recently reissued in the book A Cornelius Quartet, and from a formal perspective they are the trickiest of Moorcock’s work. He went on to use the chops first seen in the Cornelius books in the related works Mother London, King of the City, and in the ongoing Colonel Pyat books, of which there will be four, mirroring the Cornelius series.
Three of the Pyat books have been published: The Laughter of Carthage, Byzantium Endures, and The Century. The final book, Jerusalem Commands, was completed to a first draft stage earlier in 2003.
UPDATE: I have no idea how that got by. The next paragraph is an accurate rewrite.
Three of the Pyat books have been published: The Laughter of Carthage, Byzantium Endures, and Jerusalem Commands. The final book, The Vengeance of Rome, was completed to a first draft stage earlier in 2003.
The Pyat books follow an anti-semitic Russian exile, Colonel Pyat, through the course of his life from his birth in Czarist Russia to his eventual resting point in Moorcock’s London. Pyat is the prototypical unreliable narrator, and underlying his anti-semitism is the clear fact that he his himself a Jew, something that he goes to great lengths to deny to himself throughout his life.
In addition to his wildly embellished life story, recounted in the first person, it seems probable that the Colonel may also be crazy, as he clearly afflicted by a recurrent delusional paranoia in which he’s stalked by a revolutionary commissar, long dead on the steppes of central Russia.
The Pyat books are in some ways the most ambitious work of Mr. Moorcock’s long career, and offer peculiar rewards, in that the narrator, although charming in a roguish way, is also a deeply flawed creation, and spending psychic time with the character is emotionally trying. I’m always up for a challenge, though, and am looking forward to reading Jerusalem Commands in turn when it is published.
Can you tell us about the just-completed
Jerusalem Commands The Vengeance of Rome?
Well, all four books were supposed to investigate the origins, our complicity in, the Nazi Holocaust. They are black comedies about a Jew-hating Jew who makes friends with the top Nazis and winds up in Dachau.
Where did the idea for the Colonel come from?
A neighbour in Notting Hill.
Did you ever know a specific, factually extant Russian exile similar in background and attitude to the Colonel?
Yes, that neighbour. Who was actually Polish.
In your opinion, did your Colonel factually serve with Cossacks, or might he have stumbled upon a copy of Babel’s Red Cavalry?
Sharp observation. Actually Babel’s influence was more from his Benya Krik stories, about the Jewish crook in Odessa. He did ride, against his will, however, with Hrihorieff’s so-called Cossacks, who were active during the Russian civil war.
[Ed. – Mother London, at the moment, is my favorite of Moorcock’s works. It tells the story of three people, Londoners, from the time of the blitz up through the early 1970’s. One of the characters is mentally ill, and believes that he can hear the collective voices of the city in his head; as the novel progresses, it’s less clear whether this hallucination is simply that, or if perhaps it’s a true fact of the character’s life. The book is a love letter to Moorcock’s hometown, and has a lyric tone throughout.]
This struck me as your most personal novel. How autobiographical is it?
Very. Much of the boyhood of Mummery stuff is based on my own life and much of the Joseph Kiss material is based on mine, though I never climbed a palm tree in Kew’s Tropical House.
Which character do you identify most with?
In Mother London, Joseph Kiss. In my overall work, Mrs Cornelius, the rather blowsy old mum with a lot of common sense in the Pyat and Cornelius stories.
Were you consciously thinking of either Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or of Alan Moore’s From Hell as you wrote this book?
No. I’d read neither at that time. Have you read either?
[Ed. – Yes. We then had a private email exchange on the subject. The geography of London is central to all three books, expressing itself with the force of a character in each book.]
King of the City
[Ed. – King of the City is a companion volume to Mother London, picking up the story in early 1970’s London and moving up to near the present day. The main character is a rock musician and tabloid photojournalist, and Moorcock’s language changes to reflect this man’s aesthetic sensibilities, which I would characterize as punkish. Again, and as he usually does, three characters and their life-long relationship is the center of the story.]
In this book, you adopted a very distinct voice, very different from the rest of your work.
I always try to get the ‘tune’ right first in a book. The tone is the most important thing for me. Once I have the cadences, I can also begin on the form. I wanted a brash, aggressive, masculine, subjective voice for King.
How difficult was it to get the short sharp voice in hand?
Not hard. He’s angry, as I am, at social injustice and so on. He hates the encroachments of consumerism, as I do. Not hard at all!
What other works do you relate this book most to from your oeuvre?
The Jerry Cornelius stories. The hero of King is a sort of matured or at least more realistic Cornelius.
[Next: Broad themes in Mr. Moorcock’s work are explored.]