Phoenix In Kensington

by Arthur B

Listen: Karl Glogauer has come unstuck in time.
Although Michael Moorcock's tenure as editor of New Worlds was marked by controversy - the publication of Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron led to questions being asked in Parliament - controversy was not necessarily what the New Worlds crowd were seeking. (Though, especially through countercultural efforts like the Jerry Cornelius stories, Moorcock was not afraid to court it.) What Spinrad, Moorcock, Aldiss, Ballard and the rest were trying to achieve was not just a redefinition of science fiction away from the pulp parameters imposed by the likes of Hugo Gernsback, but a rehabilitation of it that would present works which would stand both as compelling SF and as valid literary fiction.

Jerry Cornelius was one of those attempts, and he eventually won the Guardian Fiction Prize for his creator, but it took him ten years to do so. More immediate acclaim was garnered by Behold the Man, which in its original novella form won the Nebula award before being expanded into a well-regarded full-length novel. Behold and its sequel, 1971's Breakfast In the Ruins, has a less colourful and more realistic protagonist than Jerry; they star Karl Glogauer, who like Moorcock is a Londoner who grew up in the Ladbroke Grove area with the Blitz as the backdrop to the earliest years of his childhood. Moorcock admits to seeding Karl's background with semiautobiographical elements, but not too many; this is perhaps inevitable since Karl's life story is far from consistent. In fact, the two Karls of the different novels are most likely separate renditions of the same premise rather than one individual with a coherent life story.

Oh, and to add a little delicious controversy to proceedings Karl might be Jesus Christ.

Behold the Man

Behold the Man introduces us to Karl as he arrives in the Holy Land of A.D. 28 in a time machine which promptly breaks on arrival, stranding him in the time period he has elected to visit (with the intent of meeting Jesus and witnessing the Crucifixion). Taken in by the Essenes and interrogated by John the Baptist, he soon convinces the community he is some sort of wonder-worker, perhaps a magus from Egypt or something of that kind. John wants Karl (who goes by the pseudonym of "Emmanuel") to do some magic tricks in order to help him stir up a revolt against the Romans; Karl is dubious about the plan but agrees to it, but a sudden migraine attack during his baptism ceremony prompts him to run off alone into the desert to have a nervous breakdown.

Determined to track down Jesus, as he planned to all along when he came here, Karl makes his way to Nazareth, and by the time he gets there he's a wild-eyed, emaciated wreck. He does, in fact, find Joseph, Mary, and Jesus living there... only to discover that Jesus has incredibly severe physical and cognitive impairments, to the point where it is quite clear that he could not possibly be the mystic, teacher and messiah of the Bible. It is at this point that Karl knows what he must do in order to bring about the events he came to witness. He doesn't have a Bible handy, so he'll have to improvise some of the sermons from memory... but he's sure Matthew, Mark, Luke and John will iron out the details between themselves.

The novel-length version of Behold the Man was expanded somewhat in 1969 from the already substantial novella version, first published in 1966 via New Worlds. As far as I can determine, the main point of this expansion is to provide more context for Glogauer's life back in the 20th Century, and on that level I think it's very, very successful. The son of a Jewish refugee from Austria who ended up abandoning young Karl and Mrs Glogauer, Karl is brought up a Christian and is a fervent believer; moreover, he's a romantic who feels out of place in the secular, cynical, pragmatic post-War world. A couple of abusive incidents in childhood and adolescence and a string of failed romantic relationships, coupled with a bisexuality he tries not to acknowledge, leave him with a plentiful supply of sexual hangups; moreover, he is rootless and struggles to find success, eventually taking over management of the Mandala Bookshop formerly owned by his father by default rather than by a conscious decision on his part.

More or less the only interest or pursuit Karl persists with in his 20th Century life is his passionate interest in Jungian psychology, which may explain why he's open to stepping into Jesus's shoes and fulfilling the archetype that the Jesus he encounters cannot. Of course, this is not the only reason. It's amply demonstrated over the course of the book that Karl is a self-destructive sort, with a martyr/messiah complex and a tendency to act out. If the story of Jesus told in Behold the Man is squalid and neurotic, that is perhaps a reflection of the fact that Karl, himself, is pretty squalid and neurotic himself, in which case he gets the messiah he deserves. It's not impossible, in fact, that Karl's journey through time is simply an extended break from reality, the onset of some horrible psychosis which divorces him from the real world he's been spending most of his life rejecting anyway.

The structure of the novel, which shuffles Karl's reminiscences about his old life with the narrative, supports this possibility far better than many stories which offer a "oh, perhaps they're just nuts" option; in particular, Karl regularly has powerful flashbacks to arguments and debates with Monica, one of his lovers, a psychiatric social worker who refuses to put up with his bullshit, and her interventions seem intended to harsh Karl's Biblical buzz. As he's dying on the cross, Karl hears Monica telling him that "Martyrdom is a conceit"; the downbeat ending of the novel, in which Moorcock dashes any hopes the reader might have had to see Karl rise after three days, is just one instance in which cynicism seems to win out after Monica's voice is heard.

Of the various characters Karl meets in the 20th Century, Monica is the one who gets the most attention, and for my money she's my favourite character in the book. Partially because she's the designated sceptic, so her views are the closest to my own, but also because Moorcock does a really good job of creating a character who calls Karl on his bullshit whilst refraining from portraying her to the reader as a shrew or a big meanie. I think the key part here is that Moorcock doesn't buy into Karl's bullshit either, though I don't think he's as fully cynical as Monica is, and so is able to present their arguments with some semblance of neutrality; this is a big step above many authors, who when they throw in a character to argue with their protagonists usually turn said doubters into spouters of strawman arguments that the hero can brush past with ease. This is a great example of what sets Moorcock apart from so many other SF and fantasy authors - whilst many writers are really, really into the idea of heroism, Moorcock has an absolute distrust of the concept, allowing him to create genuinely flawed protagonists and champions, rather than heroes whose "flaws" only serve to make them look cooler.

Whichever version of Behold the Man you choose to obtain, I heartily and wholeheartedly recommend it, unless blasphemy makes you queasy. Personally, there's nothing I like better than a sustained, carefully thought through, audacious and iconoclastic heresy, but your mileage may vary.

Multiverse bollocks: None to speak of.

Breakfast In the Ruins

The second Karl Glogauer story is a sequel to Behold the Man not in terms of the plot - which appears to be entirely unconnected, to the point where Karl's own background is entirely different from his life story in Behold - so much as in structure: it takes the approach of Behold the Man and expands and complicates it. Once again, we have an interweaving of Karl's interactions in the present day and Karl's lives in other times - however, this time around the cross-temporal elements of the novel resemble a series of vignettes rather than a single, coherent story.

The Karl of the present day (well, present day at the time the novel was written, so 1971) is a struggling illustrator and painter who collects juvenile novels and wargame miniatures, and we catch up with him on a visit to the Kensington Roof Gardens, where he likes to sit around and have some alone time. A fairly staid and conservative middle-class sort who wants to just be left alone and live his life, he is surprised when a mysterious man claiming to be a wealthy Nigerian visitor in London for business approaches him and strikes up a conversation. He then surprises himself by agreeing to accompany the man back to his hotel room, where they spend a night indulging in various flavours of debauchery.

Over the course of the night, which is mostly narrated through short snippets at the beginning and end of chapters, their sexual escapades seem to take on another dimension; there's a bleeding of identities between Karl and the stranger, to the point where partway through the night they actually exchange ethnicities. Karl is also subjected on some level, conscious or unconscious, to flashes of alternate existences he might have led, had he been a small child caught up in the crushing of the Paris Commune... or a "Cape Coloured" boy working as a servant for white masters in South Africa between the two Boer Wars... or a GI fighting in Vietnam... or one of the few survivors scrambling for sustenance in the wreckage of London in the post-apocalyptic year of 1990.

In short, each chapter (aside from the opening chapter and the concluding one) is essentially a short story profiling an alternate Glogauer and capturing them in an important moment in their lives. A certain progression can be discern; these alternates are experienced in chronological order both in terms of calendar year (so the Paris Commune chapter is first and the Fallout chapter is last) and in terms of Glogauer's age (so he's seven in 1871 and 51 in 1990). In early chapters, the child Glogauer alternatingly falls victim of inhumane acts and carries out brave little defiances of the very same; in later chapters, he is progressively more jaded and amoral, and carries out progressively more extreme acts as a result, until eventually with the collapse of society after a nuclear war all moral thought ceases and he just plain gives up on even pretending to have understandable motivations. But even then, he periodically ends up the victim anyway; whether he's an idealist or a pragmatist, it seems that suffering sooner or later catches up with him.

Whilst most of the chapters are quite brief - sometimes extremely brief - one significantly more substantial story stands out as the lynchpin of the book. The Glogauer of this chapter is a son of Jewish refugees who have come to London after fleeing a pogrom in Poland, and who work in a miserable sweatshop in the East End. Here, young Karl finds himself being cajoled into being the errand-boy for two Russian dissidents of a Communist flavour, who are trying to make contact with each other without letting the Tsarist assassins on their tail discover where the secret press that prints their underground newspaper is being kept. Ignorant of revolutionary politics and not particularly caring to get particularly educated on the subject, Karl just wants these well-heeled individuals to give him as much money for his services as messenger as guide as he can squeeze out of them; when disaster strikes, Karl thinks nothing of killing off the surviving revolutionary (who, to be fair, was horribly wounded) and robbing him of all his cash, an act which seems heartbreakingly naive as opposed to shockingly callous when one considers that he's doing all this for the sake of getting him and his parents out of the sweatshops.

This change in emphasis in Karl's morality from adhering to some idealistic standard of right and wrong to doing what needs to be done to secure the interests of himself and his family seems to denote a tipping point from abstract idealism to pragmatism, which eventually leads to the utter nihilism of the final chapters. The disintegration of belief and adherence to an externally-imposed morality is something which appears to be encouraged by Karl's mystery sex partner in the present day narrative, who seems to have some sort of esoteric interest in promoting the multiplication of possibilities and undermining the idea of an objective standard of ethics. (In other words, he's pretty clearly some kind of agent of Chaos).

This point seems to be underscored by the "What Would You Do?" segments between the chapters, which present ethical dilemmas of the sort usually rolled out as an easy debate topic in school. Moorcock proves himself with these to be a complete fiend for creating situations which are, on the one hand, completely believable as something which could realistically happen (and may not even be that uncommon in some locations or time periods), and yet at the same time leave you in an impossible position where more or less anything you do could be condemned by one quarter or another. These interludes are not just Moorcock dicking around for the hell of it, but seem to specifically designed to point out that under an extreme enough situation any system of morality breaks down, whether it's one you've personally formulated or one you've been taught; the overall intent seems to be to stop the reader simply condemning particular Glogauer-incarnations outright, since if you've decided in a particular thought experiment that you might do something shameful it's harder to be tough on Karl when he does something shameful in the very next chapter.

Aside from the bit that takes place in the future, Moorcock does not deviate from real-world chronology, making this a comparative rarity in his early bibliography; by and large, he seems to have done enough research to give the reader a feel for the settings of the different chapters but seems disinclined to go into long lectures about history, leaving it down to the reader to inform themselves why there's Japanese people enforcing the law in Shanghai in 1932 (to pick an example at random). The sole deviation from realism is Karl's relationship with the mystery stranger, who on some level or another seems to be deliberately inducing these flashbacks (flash-sideways?) in Karl in order to awaken him to a multiversal perspective on things - their exchange of race over the course of the night being a taster of his powers. If this is the case, then Karl rejects this enlightenment, just as he rejects the overtly stated offer to come travelling with the stranger to share in his wealth and power. At the end of the novel, the rejected stranger bemoans the fact that, having been offered empires, Karl has settled for a "cabbage patch"; like so many middle-class kids who dabbled in the counterculture during the 1960s, Karl has had his eyes opened to other ways of looking at the world - and wants nothing to do with them, a failure to integrate the lessons of his alternate lives just as damning as his attention-seeking messiah complex in Behold the Man. On balance, Breakfast's major departure from the rest of Moorcock's fiction lies in the fact that it isn't the story of a flawed hero, but the story of someone who could have been a flawed hero but failed to take up the opportunity to be even that.

Multiverse bollocks: The Kensington Roof Gardens are, of course, where both The Chinese Agent and A Cure for Cancer kick off. The latter is the more significant one; the "Nigerian" (whose Nigerian accent is quickly revealed to be a sham) regularly and often displays traits that seem intended to remind the reader of Jerry Cornelius. He speaks like Jerry, at one point Karl says "What's the time? My watch has stopped" - a line from The Final Programme that is often quoted by various characters across the Cornelius series as a subtle indication of the creeping influence of entropy, and the stranger's devotion to the unfolding of infinite possibilities is very much like Jerry's.

Furthermore, his meddling with Karl's basic identity - whether Karl wants to be tampered with or not - is reminiscent of the "transmog" treatments Jerry forces on his victims in A Cure For Cancer, although without the violence and floatation tanks. One reading of the novel could be that the stranger is Jerry - or, at least, a member of Jerry's terrorist network of transmog fiends - out to awaken Karl to his identity as an extension of the Eternal Champion... only Karl is too narcissistic and unimaginative to think of anything except an unending series of Karls, none of whom flower to their full potential.

The Picky Buyer's Guide

Both of these books are by far the most highbrow of Moorcock's early output - they're more like literary fiction with SF devices than full-on SF. On the whole, Breakfast In the Ruins is not quite as punch-to-the-gut forceful as Behold the Man, which I do mildly prefer, but it is an engrossing character study and meditation on the erosion of idealism and personal morality over time. It's also, like its predecessor, admirably short; the two books together come to barely over 300 pages, and when some of Moorcock's series run to thousands of pages I suppose we should be grateful for that.

It's interesting that Moorcock hasn't returned to Karl Glogauer as a character except for the occasional reference since Breakfast came out. A version of Karl, like a bunch of other incarnations of the Eternal Champion, does get roped into working at the Time Centre for the Guild of Temporal Adventurers; though he doesn't make any particularly important interventions in Moorcock stories featuring the Guild, he does have a cameo in The End of All Songs (the third book of The Dancers At the End of Time), and in the Jerry Cornelius short story The Murderer's Song Karl gets racial slurs thrown at him by Oswald Bastable of The Nomad of Time series. Aside from that, Moorcock has left Karl to his own devices and been comparatively careful to avoid overexposure of the character. For this we ought to be thankful; Behold the Man and Breakfast In the Ruins are too good to be tarnished by association with, say, a limp sequel where Karl goes back in time and becomes Hitler or something.

The full buyer's guide, updated:

     The Stealer of Souls [1]
     Stormbringer (post-1977 edition) [1]
     The Eternal Champion (the novel, not the omnibus)
Clovis Marca:
     The Shores of Death (AKA The Twilight Man) [2]
Michael Kane:
     City of the Beast (AKA Warriors of Mars) [3]
     Lord of the Spiders (AKA Blades of Mars) [3]
     Masters of the Pit (AKA Barbarians of Mars) [3]
Alan Powys:
     The Winds of Limbo (AKA The Fireclown) [2]
Jerry Cornelius:
     The Final Programme [4]
     A Cure For Cancer [4]
     The English Assassin [4]
     The Condition of Muzak [4]
     Gold Diggers of 1977 (AKA The Great Rock ‘n' Roll Swindle)
Professor Faustaff:
     The Rituals of Infinity (AKA The Wrecks of Time) [2]
Karl Glogauer:
     Behold the Man
     Breakfast In the Ruins

[1] Collected in Elric or the Del Rey edition of Elric: the Stealer of Souls.

[2] Collected in The Roads Between the Worlds.

[3] Collected in Warrior of Mars or Kane of Old Mars.

[4] Collected in The Cornelius Quartet or The Cornelius Chronicles (2-volume UK edition, or 1st volume of the US version).

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Comments (go to latest)
valse de la lune at 07:04 on 2011-08-11
I must have Breakfast in the Ruins.

say, a limp sequel where Karl goes back in time and becomes Hitler or something.

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