The Background of the Collected Moorcock
John Clute Introduces the Collected Moorcock
He is now over 70, enough time for most careers to start and end in, enough time to fit in an occasional half-decade or so of silence to mark off the big years. Silence happens. I don't think I know an author who doesn't fear silence like the plague; most of us, if we live long enough, can remember a bad blank year or so, or more. Not Michael Moorcock. Except for some worrying surgery on his toes in recent years, he seems not to have taken time off to breathe the air of peace and panic. There has been no time to spare. The nearly 60 years of his active career seems to have been too short to fit everything in: the teenage comics; the editing jobs; the pulp fiction; the reinvented heroic fantasies; the Eternal Champion; the deep Jerry Cornelius riffs; New Worlds; the 1970s/1980s flow of stories and novels, dozens upon dozens of them in every category of modern fantastika; the tales of the dying Earth and the possessing of Jesus; the exercises in postmodernism that turned the world inside out before most of us had begun to guess we were living on the wrong side of things; the invention (more or less) of steampunk; the alternate histories; the Mitteleuropean tales of sexual terror; the deep-city London riffs: the turns and changes and returns and reconfigurations to which he has subjected his oeuvre over the years (he expects this new Collected Edition will fix these transformations in place for good); the late tales where he has been remodelling the intersecting worlds he created in the 1960s in terms of twenty-first century physics: for starters. If you can't take the heat, I guess, stay out of the Multiverse.
His life has been full and complicated, a life he has exposed and hidden (like many other prolific authors) throughout his work. In Mother London (1988), though, a nonfantastic novel published at what is now something like the midpoint of his career, it may be possible to find the key to all the other selves who made the 100 books. There are three protagonists in the tale, which is set from about 1940 to about 1988 in the suburbs and inner runnels of the vast metropolis of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. The oldest of these protagonists is Joseph Kiss, a flamboyant self-advertising fin-de-siècle figure of substantial girth and a fantasticating relationship to the world: he is Michael Moorcock, seen with genial bite as a kind of G K Chesterton without the wearying punch-line paradoxes. The youngest of the three is David Mummery, a haunted introspective half-insane denizen of a secret London of trials and runes and codes and magic: he too is Michael Moorcock, seen through a glass, darkly. And there is Mary Gasalee, a kind of holy-innocent and survivor, blessed with a luminous clarity of insight, so that in all her apparent ignorance of the onrushing secular world she is more deeply wise than other folk: she is also Michael Moorcock, Moorcock when young as viewed from the wry middle years of 1988. When we read the book, we are reading a book of instructions for the assembly of a London writer. The Moorcock we put together from this choice of portraits is amused and bemused at the vision of himself; he is a phenomenon of flamboyance and introspection, a poseur and a solitary, a dreamer and a doer, a multitude and a singleton. But only the three Moorcocks in this book, working together, could have written all the other books.
It all began -- as it does for David Mummery in Mother London -- in South London, in a subtopian stretch of villas called Mitcham, in 1939. In early childhood, he experienced the Blitz, and never forgot the extraordinariness of being a participant -- however minute -- in the great drama; all around him, as though the world were being dismantled nightly, darkness and blackout would descend, bombs fall, buildings and streets disappear; and in the morning, as though a new universe had taken over from the old one and the world had become portals, the sun would rise on glinting rubble, abandoned tricycles, men and women going about their daily tasks as though nothing had happened, strange shards of ruin poking into altered air. From a very early age, Michael Moorcock's security reposed in a sense that everything might change, in the blinking of an eye, and be rejourneyed the next day (or the next book). Though as a writer he has certainly elucidated the fears and alarums of life in Aftermath Britain, it does seem that his very early years were marked by the epiphanies of war, rather than the inflictions of despair and beclouding amnesia most adults necessarily experienced. After the war ended, his parents separated, and the young Moorcock began to attend a pretty wide variety of schools, several of which he seems to have been expelled from, and as soon as he could legally do so he began to work full time, up north in London's heart, which he only left when he moved to Texas (with intervals in Paris) in the early 1990s, from where (to jump briefly up the decades) he continues to cast a Martian eye: as with most exiles, Moorcock's intensest anatomies of his homeland date from after his cunning departure.
But back again to the beginning (just as though we were rimming a Multiverse). Starting in the 1950s there was the comics and pulp work for Fleetway Publications; there was the first book (Caribbean Crisis, 1962) as by Desmond Reid, co-written with his early friend the artist James Cawthorn (1929-2008); there was marriage, with the writer Hilary Bailey (they divorced in 1978), three children, a heated existence in the Ladbroke Grove/Notting Hill Gate region of London he was later to populate with Jerry Cornelius and his vast family; there was the editing of New Worlds, which began in 1964 and became the heartbeat of the British New Wave two years later as writers like Brian W Aldiss and J G Ballard, reaching their early prime, made it into a tympanum, as young American writers like Thomas M Disch, John T Sladek, Norman Spinrad and Pamela Zoline found a home in London for material they could not publish in America, and new British writers like M John Harrison and Charles Platt began their careers in its pages; but before that there was Elric. With The Stealer of Souls (1963) and Stormbringer (1965), the Multiverse began to flicker into view, and the Eternal Champion (whom Elric parodied and embodied) began properly to ransack the worlds in his fight against a greater Chaos than the great dance could sustain. There was also the first SF novel, The Sundered Worlds (1965), but in the 1960s SF was a difficult nut to demolish for Moorcock: he would bide his time.
We come to the heart of the matter. Jerry Cornelius, who first appears in The Final Programme (1968) -- which assembles and coordinates material first published a few years earlier in New Worlds -- is a deliberate solarisation of the albino Elric, who was himself a mocking solarisation of Robert E Howard's Conan, or rather of the mighty-thew-headed Conan created for profit by Howard epigones: Moorcock rarely mocks the true quill. Cornelius, who reaches his first and most telling apotheosis in the four novels comprising The Cornelius Quartet, remains his most distinctive and perhaps most original single creation: a wide boy, an agent, a flaneur, a bad musician, a shopper, a shapechanger, a trans, a spy in the house of London: a toxic palimpsest on whom and through whom the zeitgeist inscribes surreal conjugations of "message". Jerry Cornelius gives head to Elric.
The life continued apace. By 1970, with New Worlds on its last legs, Multiverse fantasies and experimental novels poured forth; Moorcock and Hilary Bailey began to live separately, though he moved, in fact, only around the corner, where he set up house with Jill Riches, who would become his second wife; there was a second home in Yorkshire, but London remained his central base. The Condition of Muzak (1977), which is the fourth Cornelius novel, and Gloriana; Or, the Unfulfill'd Queen (1978), which transfigures the first Elizabeth into a kinked Astraea, marked perhaps the high point of his career as a writer of fiction whose font lay in genre or its mutations -- marked perhaps the furthest bournes he could transgress while remaining within the perimeters of fantasy (though within those bournes vast stretches of territory remained and would, continually, be explored). During these years he sometimes wore a leather jacket constructed out of numerous patches of varicoloured material, and it sometimes seemed perfectly fitting that he bore the semblance, as his jacket flickered and fuzzed from across a room or road, of an illustrated man, a map, a thing of shreds and patches, a student fleshed from dreams. Like the stories he told, he seemed to be more than one thing. To use a term frequently applied (by me at least) to twenty-first century fiction, he seemed equipoisal: which is to say that, through all his genre-hopping and genre-mixing and genre-transcending and genre-loyal returnings to old pitches, he was never still, because "equipoise" is all about making stories move. As with his stories, he cannot be pinned down, because he is not in one place. In person and in his work, it has always been sink or swim: like a shark, or a dancer, or an equilibrist. . . .
The marriage with Jill Riches came to an end. He married Linda Steele in 1983; they remain married. The Colonel Pyat books, Byzantium Endures (1981), The Laughter of Carthage (1984), Jerusalem Commands (1992) and The Vengeance of Rome (2006), dominated these years, along with Mother London. As these books, which are non-fantastic, are not included in the current Collected Moorcock, it might be worth noting here that, in their insistence on the irreducible difficulty of gaining anything like true sight, they represent Moorcock's mature modernist take on what one might call the rag-and-bone shop of the world itself; and that the huge ornate postmodern edifice of his Multiverse loosens us from that world, gives us room to breathe, to juggle our strategies for living -- allows us ultimately to escape from prison (to use a phrase from a writer he does not respect, J R R Tolkien, for whom the twentieth century was a prison train bound for hell). What Moorcock may best be remembered for in the end is the (perhaps unique) interplay between modernism and postmodernism in his work. (But a plethora of discordant understandings makes these terms hard to use; so enough of them.) In the end, one might just say that Moorcock's work as a whole represents an extraordinarily multifarious execution of the fantasist's main task: which is to get us out of here.
Recent decades saw a continuation of the multifarious, but with a more intensely applied methodology. The late volumes of the long Elric saga, and the Second Ether sequence of meta-fantasies -- Blood: a Southern Fantasy (1995), Fabulous Harbours (1995) and The War Amongst the Angels: an Autobiographical Story (1996) -- brood on the real world and the Multiverse through the lens of Chaos Theory: the closer you get to the world, the less you describe it. The Metatemporal Detective (2007) -- a narrative in the Steampunk mode Moorcock had previewed as long ago as The Warlord of the Air (1971) and The Land Leviathan (1974) -- continues the process, sometimes dizzyingly: as though the reader inhabited the eye of a camera increasing its focus on a closely observed reality while its bogey simultaneously wheels it backwards from the desired rapport: an old Kurasawa trick here amplified into a tool of conspectus, fantasy eyed and (once again) rejourneyed, this time through the lens of sf.
We reach the second decade of the twenty-first century, time still to make things new, but also time to sort. There are dozens of titles in The Collected Moorcock that have not been listed in this short space, much less trawled for tidbits. The various avatars of the Eternal Champion -- Elric, Kane of Old Mars, Hawkmoon, Count Brass, Corum, Von Bek -- differ vastly from one another. Hawkmoon is a bit of a berk; Corum is a steely solitary at the End of Time: the joys and doleurs of the interplays amongst them can only be experienced through immersion. And the Dancers at the End of Time books, and the Nomad of the Time Stream books, and the Karl Glogauer books, and all the others. They are here now, a 100 books that make up one book. They have been fixed for reading. It is time to enter the Multiverse and see the world.