Monday, May 14, 2018


Wiktor Gorka: Cabaret (1972)

My initially tepid interest in Christopher Isherwood started off as a by-product of a far more serious Auden obsession. Isherwood was a close friend (indeed occasional lover) and collaborator of Auden's, who also wrote a lot about him, therefore - I needed to collect all of his books.

Howard Coster: Auden & Isherwood (1937)

That is, in a nutshell, pretty much how a bibliophile's mind works. You start off collecting one thing, but then you have to start a series of sub-collections to flesh out the context of your object of desire (whatever it may be: poetry, military history, the 1001 Nights ...).

The result, twenty or thirty years later, is a living space stuffed to the gills with books and pictures and boxfiles of papers. Freud had a name for it, I'm afraid: the anal-retentive personality. Speaks for itself, really. But it does make for interesting times when you actually get around to reading some of the results of this fixation.

In this particular case, I've just finished reading through Isherwood's immense diary, published in four volumes between 1996 and 2012, in an edition scrupulously edited by Auden scholar Katherine Bucknell.

Of course, the picture above reveals just why Isherwood is really famous: because his Berlin stories inspired John Van Druten's play "I am a Camera," which, in its turn, morphed into the smash-hit Broadway musical turned multiple Oscar-winning film Cabaret. In other words, he's most celebrated for two things he didn't write himself, and didn't even particularly approve of (though he was happy to cash the cheques they earned him).

Christopher Isherwood: Goodbye to Berlin (1939)

A rather more accurate portrait of Isherwood was provided by Tom Ford's 2009 film A Single Man. This is at least as autobiographical as the Berlin stories - which is to say, not very - but succeeds in giving an impression (at least) of where he ended up: a gay man stuck in a repressed, heterosexual world which he will never be allowed to fit into. (You'll notice that I had to go pretty far afield to find a version of the film poster which didn't imply that it concerned some kind of 'straight' romance between Colin Firth and Julianne Moore).

Tom Ford, dir. A Single Man (2009)

There were a number of ways in which Isherwood was outrageous, of course. Not just the homosexuality, which he grew increasingly outspoken about as he grew older (and the threat of imprisonment receded); there was also his alleged 'cowardice' in 1939, when he and Auden chose to go and settle in America rather than staying to face the music in beleaguered Britain. Vast amounts of ink were spilt at the time condemning - and justifying - this decision. Auden subsequently explained it by saying that he did it precisely to avoid writing any more poems like "September 1, 1939" or "Spain 1937" - anthemic calls to action of a kind which he subsequently regarded as dishonest and untruthful.

Isherwood, by contrast, was no stranger to running away. He'd had himself sent down from Cambridge when he felt he was at risk of acclimatising to its stuffy attitudes by composing the answers to his exams as concealed limericks. He'd subsequently left for Berlin, Greece, and a series of other refuges from the upper-class English background he feared being swallowed up by. California was intended as just one more bolthole, but it was there he got religion and found love (in that order), and where, therefore, he settled for what turned out to be the rest of his life.

Here are the various volumes of his diary, as edited by Auden scholar Katherine Bucknell. They're all enjoyable. The posthumously published memoir Lost Years, in which Isherwood tried to reconstruct a particularly interesting part of his life, shortly after his relocation to America, is in many ways the best. It's extremely frank about (in particular) his sex life - the other volumes were more or less censored since he seems to have meant them for eventual publication.

  1. Isherwood, Christopher. Diaries. Volume One: 1939-1960. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. 1996. Vintage Books. London: Random House, 2011.

  2. Isherwood, Christopher. Lost Years: A Memoir, 1945–1951. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. 2000. Vintage Books. London: Random House, 2001.

  3. Isherwood, Christopher. The Sixties: Diaries Volume Two, 1960-1969. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. Foreword by Christopher Hitchens. 2010. Harper Perennial. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011.

  4. Isherwood, Christopher. Liberation: Diaries Volume Three, 1970-1983. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. Preface by Edmund White. 2012. Vintage Books. London: Random House, 2013.

Basically, Isherwood appears to have met everyone who was there to be met during this immense space of time, from the 1940's to the 1980's. He was banned from Charlie Chaplin's house after his host alleged that he'd pissed on his couch whilst in his cups (Isherwood maintained otherwise, but given he was drunk at the time, it's hard to see how he'd know).

Who else? Stravinsky, Charles Laughton, Brecht, Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, David Hockney, to name just a few, as well as an endless line of eminent Hollywood actors and actresses, walked in and out of his life. The true theme of these diaries is marriage, though: his very complicated longterm relationship with the artist Don Bachardy. This began a little like one of the seduction scenes in A Single Man. Don was the gawky younger brother of one of Isherwood's casual conquests from the beach. He grew up into an immensely talented draftsman, portraitist and painter - each stage painstakingly documented here - as well as a valued collaborator on all of Isherwood's later work as scriptwriter for stage and screen.

Bachardy, in fact, turned out to be something of a phenomenon - so gifted in his own right that the initial push he got from being Isherwood's partner eventually became more of a liability. Their marriage was very volatile - with arguments, infidelities, breaks, non-exclusive arrangements at various points - but, finally, durable. It's not easy to warm to the earlier Herr Issyvoo of the Berlin stories, but Don Bachardy's older partner Dobbin is a far more likeable and protean creature.

One can see how Isherwood's obsession with documenting and recording his own life baffled many readers at the time, who saw it as an increasingly boring quest - especially after his apparent surrender to Lala Land after those fascinating chronicles of Germany and China in the turbulent thirties. Now, though, I think it can be seen as something hugely rewarding: an honest record of a way of life which will retain its interest not just as an historical vignette, but as a comfort to those whose own lives may seem (at times) as chaotic as his.

And, while he may have seen his greatest success in character portrayal as the "Christopher" of the Berlin novels and later memoirs, one would have to add that the Don Bachardy of the Diaries turns out, in the end, to be far more beguiling. How many completely believable portrayals of true love can you think of? Not many, that's for sure. The Isherwood-Bachardy partnership is certainly a strong contender for inclusion among them, though.

Don Bachardy: Isherwood (1937)

Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood


  1. Isherwood, Christopher. All the Conspirators. 1928. Foreword by the Author. 1957. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.

  2. Isherwood, Christopher. The Memorial: Portrait of a Family. 1932. London: The Hogarth Press Ltd., 1952.

  3. Isherwood, Christopher. Mr. Norris Changes Trains. 1935. Auckland: Penguin NZ, 1944.

  4. Isherwood, Christopher. Goodbye to Berlin. 1939. Penguin Books 504. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1945.

  5. Isherwood, Christopher. The Berlin of Sally Bowles: Mr. Norris Changes Trains / Goodbye to Berlin. 1935 & 1939. London: Book Club Associates / The Hogarth Press Ltd., 1975.

  6. Isherwood, Christopher. Prater Violet. 1945. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

  7. Isherwood, Christopher. The World in the Evening. 1954. Penguin Book 2399. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

  8. Isherwood, Christopher. Down There on a Visit. 1959. A Bard Book. New York: Avo Books, 1978.

  9. Isherwood, Christopher. A Single Man. 1964. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

  10. Isherwood, Christopher. A Meeting by the River. 1967. Magnum Books. London: Methuen Paperbacks Ltd., 1982.

  11. Autobiography:

  12. Isherwood, Christopher. Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties. 1938. Magnum Books. London: Methuen Paperbacks Ltd., 1979.

  13. Isherwood, Christopher. Kathleen and Frank. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1971.

  14. Isherwood, Christopher. Christopher and His Kind, 1929-1939. 1976. Magnum Books. London: Methuen Paperbacks Ltd., 1978.

  15. Isherwood, Christopher. My Guru and His Disciple. London: Eyre Methuen Ltd., 1980.

  16. Biography:

  17. Isherwood, Christopher. Ramakrishna and His Disciples. 1965. A Touchstone Book. New York: Simon and Schuster, n.d.

  18. Travel:

  19. Isherwood, Christopher. The Condor and the Cows. Illustrated from photos by William Caskey. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1949.

  20. Miscellaneous:

  21. Isherwood, Christopher. Exhumations: Stories / Articles / Verses. 1966. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

  22. Edited:

  23. Isherwood, Christopher, ed. Vedanta for the Western World. 1948. Unwin Books. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1963.

  24. Letters:

  25. Bucknell, Katherine, ed. The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

  26. Secondary:

  27. Parker, Peter. Isherwood: A Life. 2004. Picador. London: Pan Macmillan Ltd., 2005.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Yoknapatawpha Blues

I guess that's a bit of a test, actually. What do the words "Yoknapatawpha County" mean to you? If the answer is not a lot, I suspect you're not alone.

What they should mean, of course, is ground zero for William Faulkner's fictional universe of decaying Southern Colonels and pushy rednecks in the fever-drenched woods and swamps of Old Dixie.

I've just finished reading Joseph Blotner's immense, two-volume life of Faulkner, which seems at times to aspire to chronicle every day of his life in full detail.

Joseph Blotner: Faulkner: A Biography (1974)

Blotner does his best to soften Faulkner's reputation as a hopeless drunk and ne'er-do-well ("Count No 'Count," as some of the locals used to call him), and points out the immense industry and craftsmanship that enabled him to churn out 19 novels, 2 poetry collections, 5 collections of short stories, and 125-odd short stories in forty years of writing.

Nevertheless, Faulkner was definitely a bit of a wild card - prone to sitting for hours in complete silence, suspicious of strangers to an almost paranoid degree, and generally "not a tame lion" (as people keep on remarking of Aslan in C. S. Lewis's Narnia books).

Blotner, vol. I: flyleaf
photos: Bronwyn Lloyd

My own copy of Blotner, bought second-hand sometime in the 1980s, is clean and unannotated apart from a few interesting inscriptions on the fly-leaf. I thought I might share these with you in the hope of further elucidation of just what "P. L. Nairn [?: Nairne? Napier?]" may have meant by them.

Blotner, vol. I: halftitle

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money"
- Samuel Johnson
That one seems pretty self-explanatory. One constant theme in Faulkner's letters and daily life is the endless need for money. Selling short stories, selling movie scripts, selling anything that moved in order to maintain his beleaguered Southern Mansion Rowan Oak is a constant theme. This tails off a bit after the award of the Nobel Prize (most of which he actually ended up putting in trust to help other writers: particularly African American ones - which goes some way to giving the lie to his alleged racism), but by then the royalties on his books had begun to grow more substantial, in any case.

Blotner, vol. I: back of halftitle

What interests me most about this motto, however, is the fact that it's written on a separate piece of paper which has been pasted in over another inscription. One can just dimly make it out if the page is held up to the light:
To be read at Twilight ...
- The Faulknerian time of day.

Blotner, vol. I: back flyleaf

It's not till he gets to the back of the book that he really lets himself go, however:
"Six Years with the Texas Rangers" J. B. Gillett
Towards the end of 1925, Faulkner's friend Phil Stone lent him a number of books (listed on p.489 of Blotner's biography): "As a change of diet from poetry, perhaps, he lent his friend James B. Gillett's Six Years with the Texas Rangers." Interesting? Not to me. It clearly was to P. L. Nairne, however.
Eccentricity [?] of Faulkner's writing "The Sound & The Fury"
Roughly 35 pages (pp. 564-98) of Blotner's biography are devoted to the ins and outs of composing The Sound and the Fury, universally agreed to be Faulkner's most dizzyingly experimental piece of work, and regarded by most (myself included) as his masterpiece. Perhaps this is a reference to that strange ordeal.
p. 675: "son of a shopgirl and [a] syphilitic strike-breaker, grandson of a pyromaniac, he was stunted in childhood, impotent and deformed in adulthood. He died on [a] gallows, ironically, for a murder he did not commit."
This is a quotation from Blotner's summing-up of the character Popeye in Faulkner's 1931 novel Sanctuary. While perfectly accurate in context, it does sound a little bizarre taken by itself.
"Dostoevsky's shadow in the deep south"
This is the title of one of the reviews of Sanctuary, mentioned on p. 685 of Blotner, along with the following quote from Henry Seidel Canby's article about the book in the Saturday Review of Literature:
"I have chosen Mr. Faulkner as a prime example of American sadism: H. S. Canby [SANCTUARY]
And so we come to:
"I was born in 1826 of a negro slave and an alligator - both named Gladys Rock."
This is a straight quote from an interview Faukner gave to a reporter called Marshall J. Smith in 1931 (Blotner, 694). He went on: "I have two brothers. One is Dr. Walter E. Traprock and the other is Eaglerock - an airplane." Walter E. Traprock, as it turns out, is the pseudonym under which George Shepard Chappell published a series of parody travel books: The Cruise of the Kawa: Wanderings in the South Seas (1921), My Northern Exposure: the Kawa at the Pole (1922), and Sarah of the Sahara: a Romance of Nomads Land (1923) among them. Faulkner was in fact the eldest of three brothers. The youngest, Dean Swift Falkner (the "u" came later), was killed in an airplane crash in 1935. His eldest brother Bill had bought him the plane, as well as teaching him to fly it. Connections! Connections everywhere, from what I can see.
Twilight: The Faulknerian time of the day.
- A miscegenation of Day and night.
This appears to be another version of the obscured quotation at the front of the book, tidied up a little and with the addition of the "miscegenation of day and night" conceit. I'm not sure that it's a particularly happy one.

Interestingly enough, it's the Dostoevsky quote, above, which seems to lead in the most promising directions, witness the following passage on p.716 of Blotner's first volume:
When the [student] reporter [from College Topics, at the University of Virginia, who knocked him up in his hotel room at midnight in late 1931] raised the question of technique, Faulkner talked about Dostoevsky. He could have cut The Brothers Karamazov by two thirds if he had let the brothers tell their stories without authorial exposition, he said. Eventually all straight exposition would be replaced by soliloquies in different coloured inks.
It's a well-known fact that Faulkner believed that Benjy's monologue at the beginning of The Sound and the Fury - literally the tale referred in Macbeth's famous soliloquoy as: "told by an idiot" and "signifying nothing" - could be straightened out most easily by the judicious use of coloured inks.

He was eventually persuaded (reluctantly), that this was beyond the printing technology of the time, but he never stopped hankering after it. The proposal of a limited édition de luxe in 1931 brought the idea to life again, and he sent in a complex scheme of three coloured inks to the printers, who had to abandon the notion, unfortunately, due to the damage to the book trade caused by the Great Depression.

William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury (Folio Society)

You can't keep a good idea down, though, and in 2012 the Folio Society in London actually published such a book: with a full commentary on the text and a complex battery of no fewer than fourteen different coloured inks!

William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury (Folio Society)

There's a great deal more to be said about Faulkner, some of which I aspire to include on this blog at some point: his immense influence on such Latin American "Boom" novelists as Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez, for instance.

For the moment, though, I'll simply note here the recent completion of the Library of America's five-volume edition of Faulkner's complete novels, all in their revised and "corrected" texts:

William Faulkner: Complete Novels (Library of America)

  1. Faulkner, William. Novels 1926-1929: Soldiers’ Pay / Mosquitoes / Flags in the Dust (Sartoris) / The Sound and the Fury. 1926, 1927, 1929 & 1929. Ed. Joseph Blotner & Noel Polk. The Library of America, 164. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2006.

  2. Faulkner, William. Novels 1930-1935: As I Lay Dying / Sanctuary / Light in August / Pylon. 1930, 1931, 1932 & 1935. Ed. Joseph Blotner & Noel Polk. The Library of America, 25. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1985.

  3. Faulkner, William. Novels 1936-1940: Absalom, Absalom! / The Unvanquished / If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (The Wild Palms) / The Hamlet. 1936, 1938, 1939 & 1940. Ed. Joseph Blotner & Noel Polk. The Library of America, 48. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1990.

  4. Faulkner, William. Novels 1942-1954: Go Down, Moses / Intruder in the Dust / Requiem for a Nun / A Fable. 1942, 1948, 1951 & 1954. Ed. Joseph Blotner & Noel Polk. The Library of America, 73. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1994.

  5. Faulkner, William. Novels 1957-1962: The Town / The Mansion / The Reivers. 1957, 1959 & 1962. Ed. Joseph Blotner & Noel Polk. The Library of America, 112. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1999.

If you add a copy of his Collected Stories (1951) - along with Joeph Blotner's supplementary volume of Uncollected Stories (1979) - you'll have pretty much the whole story laid out in front of you in one convenient canvas.

Here's a listing of my own Faulkner collection. Not complete, certainly, but with most of the books that any but the most abject collector would consider to be indispensable to a close knowledge of the subject. Enjoy!

William Faulkner: Sanctuary (1931)

William Cuthbert Falkner [Faulkner]


  1. Faulkner, William. The Marble Faun and A Green Bough. 1924 & 1933. New York: Random House, Inc., n.d.

  2. Fiction:

  3. Faulkner, William. Soldiers' Pay. 1926. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin / London: Chatto and Windus, 1976.

  4. Faulkner, William. Mosquitoes: A Novel. 1927. Introduction by Richard Hughes. London: Chatto & Windus Ltd., 1964.

  5. Faulkner, William. Sartoris. 1929. Foreword by Robert Cantwell. 1953. Afterword by Lawrance Thompson. A Signet Classic. New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1964.

  6. Faulkner, William. Flags in the Dust. 1929. Ed. Douglas Day. 1973. Vintage Books. New York: Random House, Inc., 1974.

  7. Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. 1929. Introduction by Richard Hughes. 1954. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin / London: Chatto and Windus, 1970.

  8. Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury: An Authoritative Text / Backgrounds and Contexts / Criticism. 1929. Ed. David Minter. 1984. Second edition. A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994.

  9. Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. 1929. Ed. Noel Polk & Stephen M. Ross. 2012. London: The Folio Society, 2016.

  10. Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. 1930. Vintage International. New York: Random House, Inc., 1985.

  11. Faulkner, William. Sanctuary. 1931. Penguin Books 899. Harmondsworth: Penguin / London: Chatto and Windus, 1953.

  12. Faulkner, William. Sanctuary: The Original Text. 1931. Ed. Noel Polk. London: Chatto and Windus Ltd., 1981.

  13. Faulkner, William. Light in August. 1932. London: Chatto and Windus Ltd., 1952.

  14. Faulkner, William. Pylon. 1935. London: Chatto and Windus Ltd., 1955.

  15. Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! 1936. Modern Library College Editions. New York: Random House, Inc., 1964.

  16. Faulkner, William. The Unvanquished. 1938. Penguin Books 1058. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955.

  17. Faulkner, William. The Wild Palms. 1939. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin / London: Chatto and Windus, 1970.

  18. Faulkner, William. The Hamlet: A Novel. 1940. London: Chatto and Windus Ltd., 1958.

  19. Faulkner, William. Go Down, Moses and Other Stories. 1942. Penguin Books 1434. Harmondsworth: Penguin / London: Chatto and Windus, 1967.

  20. Faulkner, William. Intruder in the Dust. 1948. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin / London: Chatto and Windus, 1970.

  21. Faulkner, William. Knight’s Gambit: Six Stories. London: Chatto and Windus Ltd., 1951.

  22. Faulkner, William. The Penguin Collected Stories of William Faulkner. 1951. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

  23. Faulkner, William. Collected Stories. 1951. Vintage. London: Random House, 1995.

  24. Faulkner, William. Requiem for a Nun. 1951. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin / London: Chatto and Windus, 1973.

  25. Faulkner, William. A Fable. 1954. London: Chatto and Windus Ltd., 1955.

  26. Faulkner, William. Big Woods: The Hunting Stories. Drawings by Edward Shenton. New York: Random House, 1955.

  27. Faulkner, William. The Town. 1957. A Vintage Book. New York: Random House, Inc. / Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., n.d.

  28. Faulkner, William. The Mansion. 1959. World Books. London: The Reprint Society Ltd. / Chatto and Windus Ltd., 1962.

  29. Faulkner, William. The Reivers: A Reminiscence. 1962. Penguin Books 899. Harmondsworth: Penguin / London: Chatto and Windus, 1970.

  30. Blotner, Joseph. Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner. 1979. London: Chatto & Windus Ltd., 1980.

  31. Miscellaneous:

  32. Cowley, Malcolm, ed. The Essential Faulkner: The Saga of Yoknapatawpha County, 1820-1950. 1946. A Chatto & Windus Paperback CWP 14. London: Chatto & Windus Ltd., 1967.

  33. Faulkner, William, ed. The Best of Faulkner. London: The Reprint Society Ltd. / Chatto & Windus Ltd., 1955.

  34. Faulkner, William. New Orleans Sketches. Ed. Carvel Collins. 1958. London: Chatto & Windus Ltd., 1967.

  35. Faulkner, William. Essays, Speeches and Public Letters. Ed. James B. Meriwether. 1965. London: Chatto & Windus Ltd., 1967.

  36. Secondary Texts:

  37. Blotner, Joseph, ed. Selected Letters of William Faulkner. New York: Random House, Inc., 1977.

  38. Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. William Faulkner’s Life and Work: Over 100 Illustrations; Photographs, Drawings, Facsimiles; Notes and Index; Chronology and Genealogy. 2 vols. London: Chatto & Windus Ltd., 1974.

  39. Cowley, Malcolm. The Faulkner-Cowley File: Letters and Memories, 1944-1962. 1966. New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1967.

William Faulkner: Snopes (1940, 1957 & 1959)

Friday, April 06, 2018

Why Stanislaw Lem?

Wojciech Druszcz: Stanisław Lem

What is it about Stanislaw Lem that sets him apart from other SF writers? Because there is something that puts him in a category of his own, somewhere between J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick, though with powers of pure intellect quite different from their more sensitive, aesthetic approach to what Lem himself once called (in his essay "Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans"):
the whole threadbare lot of telepaths, cosmic wars, parallel worlds, and time travel ...

Stanisław Lem: Solaris (1961)

Ever since I first chanced on a copy of Solaris in the local second-hand shop in Mairangi Bay, I've been trying to come to terms with his work. I wasn't even aware then that there was a film - let alone one as beguiling and magical as Tarkovsky's - so the book made its impact on me without any other visual aids.

The long account of the science of "Solaristics" in the middle chapters of Lem's story function as a satire on Academia in general: its tendency to lurch from one one-sided theory to another, but it also shows a faith in the basic seriousness of his readers which transcended any of the more conventional slam-bang American or British Sci-fi I'd grown up on.

Stanislaw Lem: The Invincible (1964)

The other book of his I read at this time was The Invincible. Wow, what a contrast! This grim story of a thwarted attempt at planetary colonisation would have been almost unimaginable in English-language SF at the time. No boosterism - no Campbell-era "man plus" thinking. Lem was a serious dude, and his books clearly repaid study rather than providing instant gratification.

The Mind's Eye, ed. Douglas R. Hofstadter & Daniel C. Dennett (1981)

It's a little difficult now to account for the excitement surrounding Douglas R. Hofstadter's book Gödel, Escher, Bach in the late 1970s. Everyone I knew - in my own little circle of secondary school 'intellectuals,' that is - made some attempt to read it. I got about halfway through. Perhaps some of the others, cleverer at Maths, were actually able to get to the end. This anthology of pieces, co-edited by him and Daniel C. Dennett, appeared a couple of years later, and introduced me to a whole species of thinking about Artificial Intelligence and other cool subjects I knew virtually (pun intended) nothing about.

I'd already read Borges, but meeting him in this new company made me see that his work was the beginning rather than the end of a particular train of thought. And there were pieces in there by Stanislaw Lem, too: strange, non-naturalistic tales of computer derring-do which called all conventional genre-categories into question. I began to realise that the basically realistic settings of Solaris and The Invincible were only a small part of his work. I started to wonder, in fact, if they were simply intended as cynical strategies to lure the unwary into the seamless web of his "deeper" works.

And so my quest began: to explore the strange galaxies of Stanislaw Lem, to attempt to understand just why he was the "most widely read SF writer in the world" (as all his blurbs proclaimed). Was it simply because he had a virtual monopoly on the field in the entire Eastern bloc, or was there more to it than that? Did he offer something better than those "threadbare" themes, mentioned above?

Stanislaw Lem: Solaris / The Chain of Chance / A Perfect Vacuum (1961, 1975 & 1971)

As so often in those days, Penguin books came to the rescue. These two wonderful King Penguins from 1981 reprinted the two novels I'd already read alongside a series of strange mock-reviews of imaginary books (A Perfect Vacuum); a bizarrely circumstantial account of a particular 'coincidental' set of events (The Chain of Chance); a completely convincing - because almost completely incomprehensible - account of the future world encountered by a returning astronaut (Return from the Stars); as well as some strangely subversive tales of space-travel by the eponymous Pirx the Pilot.

It was, in retrospect, a pretty good sample of Lem's wares: the faux-essays, the off-narratives, the weird attempts at surreal humour - his basic preoccupation with the functional impossibility of human-to-human, let alone human-to-alien, communication.

Stanislaw Lem: His Master's Voice (1968)

This latter theme comes to a head in His Master's Voice, a book which reads (in part) like a bitter parody of the sunnier visions provided by Carl Sagan's Contact or even the slightly more hardheaded The Black Cloud, by Astronomer Royal Fred Hoyle.

[Warning: plot spoilers ahead]: A book of random numbers is returned to its publishers by various disgruntled users, who point out that it starts to repeat on a certain page. The numbers, it turns out, were generated from the random static produced by a particular frequency band in a radio telescope. They must, therefore (it is reasoned) constitute some kind of message from the stars, given that they do repeat after a certain interval.

The rest of the book is largely consumed by philosophical discussions around the implications of all this. The complete failure of the scientists to decode the message beyond a few basic steps is, finally, reasoned to be proof of the validity of the message. It could only be decoded by civilisations fit to receive it, which ours (manifestly) is not. Our failure constitutes the message's success.
As you can imagine, such austerity of narrative discipline can lead to a certain reduction in one's potential fan base. Luckily, his new books continued to attract enough interest in America to be translated into English there. They became harder and harder to locate in these parts, however.

This is my own (partial) list of his works - though I don't own copies of any of the titles in bold:

Stanislaw Lem

Stanisław Herman Lem

  1. Hospital of the Transfiguration. [‘Czas nieutracony: Szpital przemienienia’, 1955]. Trans. William Brand. A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1988.

  2. The Star Diaries: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy (1). [‘Dzienniki gwiazdowe’, 1957-71]. Trans. Michael Kandel. Illustrated by the Author. 1976. An Orbit Book. London: Futura, 1978.

  3. Memoirs of a Space Traveller: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy. [‘Dzienniki gwiazdowe’, 1957-71]. Trans. Joel Stern & Maria Swiecicka-Ziemianek. Illustrated by the Author. 1982. A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.

  4. Eden. [‘Eden’, 1959]. Trans. Marc E. Heine. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.

  5. The Investigation. ['Śledztwo', 1959]. Trans. Adele Milch. New York: The Seabury Press, 1974.

  6. Mortal Engines. [‘Bajki robotów’, 1961]. Trans. Michael Kandel. 1977. A Bard Book. New York: Avon Books, 1982.

  7. Return from the Stars. [‘Powrót z gwiazd’, 1961]. Trans. Barbara Marszal & Frank Simpson. 1980. King Penguin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

  8. Solaris. [‘Solaris’, 1961]. Trans. Joanna Kilmartin & Steve Cox. 1971. London: Arrow Books, 1973.

  9. Memoirs Found in a Bathtub: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy (2). [‘Pamiętnik znaleziony w wannie’, 1961]. Trans. Michael Kandel & Christine Rose. 1973. A Harvest / HBJ Book. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

  10. The Invincible. [‘Niezwyciężony’, 1964]. Trans. Wendayne Ackerman. 1973. Penguin Science Fiction. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

  11. Summa Technologiae (Electronic Mediations). [‘Summa Technologiae’, 1964]. Trans. Joanna Zylinska. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2013.

  12. The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age. [‘Cyberiada’, 1967]. Trans. Michael Kandel. Illustrated by Daniel Mroz. 1974. An Orbit Book. London: Futura, 1977.

  13. His Master's Voice. [‘Głos pana’, 1968]. Trans. Michael Kandel. 1983. London: Mandarin, 1990.

  14. Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy. [‘Fantastyka i futurologia’, 1970]. Ed. Franz Rottensteiner. 1984. London: Secker & Warburg, 1985.

  15. A Perfect Vacuum. [‘Doskonała próżnia’, 1971]. Trans. Michael Kandel. 1979. King Penguin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

  16. The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy (3). [‘Ze wspomnień Ijona Tichego; Kongres futurologiczny’, 1971]. Trans. Michael Kandel. 1974. An Orbit Book. London: Futura, 1977.

  17. Tales of Pirx the Pilot. [‘Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie’, 1973]. Trans. Louis Iribarne. 1979. King Penguin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

  18. More Tales of Pirx the Pilot. [‘Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie’, 1973]. Trans. Louis Iribarne with Magdalena Majcherczyk & Michael Kandel. 1982. London: Mandarin, 1990.

  19. Imaginary Magnitude. [‘Wielkość urojona’, 1973]. Trans. Marc E. Heine. 1984. London: Mandarin, 1991.

  20. The Chain of Chance. [‘Katar’, 1975]. Trans. Louis Iribarne. 1978. King Penguin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

  21. Highcastle: A Remembrance. ['Wysoki zamek', 1975]. Trans. Michael Kandel. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995.

  22. The Cosmic Carnival of Stanisław Lem: An Anthology of Entertaining Stories by the Modern Master of Science Fiction. Ed. Michael Kandel. New York: Continuum, 1981.

  23. One Human Minute. ['Biblioteka XXI wieku', 1986]. Trans. Catherine S. Leach. 1986. London: Mandarin, 1991.

  24. Fiasco. [‘Fiasko’, 1986]. Trans. Michael Kandel. 1987. London: Futura, 1989.

  25. Peace on Earth: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy (4). ['Pokój na Ziemi', 1987]. Trans. Michael Kandel & Elinor Ford. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994.

  26. A Stanislaw Lem Reader (Rethinking Theory). Ed. Peter Swirsky. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1997.

Agnieszka Gajewska: Zagłada i Gwiazdy (2016)

There is, however, another aspect to the life (and works) of Stanislaw Lem. Philip K. Dick famously proclaimed him to be not so much a man as a communist committee (mainly, it appears, out of pique at not being able to collect royalties on Lem's Polish translation of Ubik - a situation completely beyond Lem's control).

For a long time I was hesitant to learn too much about his background, in fact, lest it have the unfortunate effect of souring me on his work. He did, after all, prosper greatly under the communist regime in Poland. Just what compromises might that fact conceal?

The truth, it appears, is stranger, much stranger than that. A recent article entitled "Stanisław Lem: Did the Holocaust Shape His Sci-Fi World? by Polish critic Mikołaj Gliński reveals a whole hidden world under the slick, space-age surface of Lem's most disturbing fictions:
Perhaps the most direct case of encrypting personal experiences in Lem’s sci-fi work comes in his 1968 novel His Master’s Voice. In it, Hogarth the protagonist ... relates a wartime story of his friend Professor Rappaport ...

The story ... includes terrifying scenes of a street execution taking place in the yard of the prison, in his hometown, in 1942. Rapaport spent a couple of hours lined up against the wall waiting his turn before the unexpected arrival of a film crew saved his life. During this time he witnesses a grotesque scene where a Jewish man tries to persuade Germans that he too is German, only he is saying this in Yiddish, a scene which to Rappaport, in his current state of mind, appears to be infinitely funny. Then awaiting his turn in front of the firing squad, he decides to turn his thoughts to reincarnation.

Only many years later, in a private letter to his American translator Michael Kandel from 1972, did Lem for the first time admit that Rappaport’s story ... is in fact his own.
Lem's Jewish heritage was something he seldom discussed, and in fact claimed to have only discovered during the war as a result of the Nazi Nuremberg laws. In her 2016 book Zagłada i Gwiazdy [Holocaust and Stars] Lem scholar Agnieszka Gajewska argues otherwise.

The "happy, almost idyllic, childhood, surrounded by loving parents and a whole entourage of cousins, aunts and uncles" Lem describes in his memoir Highcastle (1975) is a characteristically selective account of his past:

Almost all the members of his extended family – the anonymous uncles and aunts from Highcastle – died in the Holocaust, murdered in Lviv and Bełżec. The last of Lem’s relatives were killed after the war in the Kielce pogrom.
Far from a communist hireling or a state-sanctioned apologist, then, Lem was a Holocaust survivor, with - as Gliński and Gajewska's analysis of his published work reveals - possibly more than his fair share of survivor's guilt. Like other Jewish writers such as Paul Celan and Georges Perec, Lem shied away from direct representations of the events themselves, instead preferring to code them into the aporia of his increasingly strange stories.

As in the case of Celan's "Todesfuge" [Death Fugue], though, this came after earlier attempts at a more direct approach:
Wartime reality appears quite directly in Lem’s first novel. The Hospital of the Transfiguration is a realist novel set during a war in an unidentified mental institution where doctors prepare for the Nazis' imminent appearance. Lem’s protagonist, Polish doctor Stefan Trzyniecki, is the same age as Lem at the time of writing the novel. One of the recurring themes is that whenever he doesn’t shave, he starts to look Jewish.

... Gajewska argues that in this encrypted way, Lem’s novel becomes not only a depiction of the wartime tragedy of the patients of a mental institution but also a tale of the Jewish inhabitants of Lviv. At the same time, as Gajewska points out, this was also part of the complicated game with the communist-imposed censorship in postwar Poland.
Celan grew to hate "Todesfuge" after he learned that it was being taught in the Secondary School curriculum in Postwar Germany as an exemplar of "forgiveness" for the brutal realities of the Final Solution. His later, more austere work was harder to adapt to such phony, lying ends (or so he hoped).

Lem's battles with censorship may have been more directly influential on the content of his books: Highcastle, for instance, may have taken its present form for reasons quite outside its author's control.

Whether deliberate or unconscious, it seems impossible to deny the presence of these unassimilated memories in the midst of Lem's most cerebral and otherwordly offerings. The result, I would hope, should be to give him a new currency as one of the twentieth century's greatest and most influential writers.

Stanisław Lem: A Bibod