Philip Pullman spent some time as a child in Southern Rhodesia (as was) and Australia, and his teenage years in North Wales. He read English at Oxford and then worked as a school teacher for 12 years. He has published 20 or so books, including the acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy: Northern Lights (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000). These books won several prizes, including the Carnegie Medal, and the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 2001 (The Amber Spyglass). In this essay, Philip introduces the work of MacDonald Harris.
Philip Pullman on the novels of MacDonald Harris
This is a work in progress: an interim report. I have not read all of MacDonald Harris's novels, though I intend to, and then I intend to write about them at length. I have been reading him for 29 years, but slowly.
I first became aware of MacDonald Harris in 1977. In that year, Victor Gollancz published a novel of mine called Galatea in a short-lived series called the Gollancz Fantasy Collection. I didn't think Galatea was a fantasy, but they offered to publish it, so I didn't argue. Long ago, I'm glad to say, that novel sank out of sight; though people occasionally bring me copies to sign, and there are professors of literature in the USA who are keen on it. Well, there are two, anyway.
Victor Gollancz gave my novel a jacket of stupefying ugliness, which was particularly galling since almost simultaneously they published an American novel called The Balloonist by someone I had never heard of - the aforementioned MacDonald Harris - which had a very handsome jacket indeed. I knew nothing of MacDonald Harris, but I wished him ill, particularly since his novel picked up a series of excellent reviews and mine didn't. I think it had won a prize in the United States. I read The Balloonist in order to grind my teeth with envy and resentment, but soon found myself reading more slowly in order to admire it. It was considerably better than my book, and deserved all the praise it was getting. It was an adventure story, told in the first person, about an expedition by balloon to the North Pole in 1897. It was leisurely, it was subtle and reflective, it was funny, it was accurate – as far as I could tell – about the technical business of flying balloons and meteorology and the mysteries of early radio, there was a love story that was tender, sexy and ridiculous all at once, there were characters who were firmly conceived and rounded and surprising; and most of all there was that sensation that comes rarely, but is always as welcome as a cool breeze on a hot day – the sense that here is a subtle and intelligent mind that knows how to tell a story.
The Balloonist was, I think, Harris's biggest popular success. Time went past. He published several more books, but when he died in 1993 there were few readers in this country who knew his name at all.
But I hadn't forgotten the impression The Balloonist had made on me, and recently I began to acquire second-hand copies of all his books in order to remind myself of what I'd enjoyed. These days you don't even need to go to Hay-on-Wye: abebooks.com is the place to find anything. So I now have a complete set of the sixteen novels he wrote, and I'm reading my way through them, slowly and with great enjoyment.
MacDonald Harris was born in California in 1921. His real name was Donald Heiney. He was keen on engineering as a boy - his interest in how things are made and put together shows up in several novels – and spent the Second World War as an officer in the US Navy. After the war he turned to the academic study of literature, ending up as Professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and publishing studies and translations of Rilke and Italo Calvino among others.
And he wrote novels. The first was Private Demons, in 1961, and the last was A Portrait of My Desire, in the year of his death, 1993. He also wrote several short stories and a book about long-distance sailing.
From the literary career point of view, MacDonald Harris's record is dismal. Each of his first five novels was issued by a different US publisher, which must say something about their lack of success. General readers don't care so much who publishes a novel they like, but if they find a writer to their taste, they tend to like it when his next book is similar to the one they enjoyed in the first place; and Harris fell down here as well. His novels are so different from one another that he might as well have been starting a new career afresh with each one.
But there is a consistency despite the huge variety in setting and subject matter, and that lies in the intelligence, the quietness, the subtle astringency of manner; in a sensibility and temperament that is experienced rather than innocent, ironic rather than emotional, sceptical rather than credulous; if I wanted to be mischievous, I might say European rather than American. And there is a constant preoccupation with the mystery of identity.
His second novel Mortal Leap (1964), for instance, tells the story of a young man from a Mormon family who drifts around the world as a naval engineer. It's told in the first person, in the voice of an observer, an uncommitted and intelligent watcher of life rather than a participant. His only friend is an old and cynical sailor called Victor. During an action in the Pacific his ship is blown up. He comes to in a naval hospital, his face and fingerprints unidentifiable. He accepts this with a sort of tranquil passivity and pretends to be amnesiac. All his life he's been looking for non-identity and now he's found it.
Then a young woman appears and claims to be his wife. Slightly to his own surprise, he goes along with this, too. His name becomes Ben Davenant, and she takes him back to California, where they live in comfortable circumstances on the fringes of the movie world. Her family and friends are liberal, cultured, intelligent people. Neither Ary nor Ben mentions what they both know to be the case, that he is not her husband; but they get along well enough, and eventually she becomes pregnant and has a son. He becomes interested in making electrical equipment, starts making money, turns to importing foreign goods, makes more.
Finally he throws away the shoes Ary brought with her to the hospital: they have never fitted. This prompts a conversation in which they both confront the truth, and decide to live with things as they are. She says that she knew at once; and so did her father, though he has said nothing. Clearly they prefer this Ben to the previous one.
Shortly afterwards a visitor arrives: Victor. He knows the truth. He and Ben talk, he leaves, Ben goes back to the house, evidently to live the rest of his life in this identity.
The tone is calm, intelligent, rational, beautifully observed, especially in the relations between Ben and Ary. We're never quite sure what she's up to. And Ben's detachment, instead of being irritating, is full of tension.
The result is a novel of mystery that isn't resolved, and doesn't need to be. The world is a mysterious place.
Pandora's Galley, of 1979, could hardly be more different. Within a framing narrative in which a present-day author, researching in the archives of Venice, discovers a reference to an otherwise unknown American called Malcolm Langrish who fought on the Venetian side against Napoleon, this is the explicitly imagined story of Langrish himself in 1797, just as the French overcome the last resistance of Venice.
Langrish's story opens with a brilliant chapter describing the slow progress through the lagoon of his vessel Pandora, on a calm sunny morning. Outside the Lido a French vessel is also making for the Porto. As both vessels reach it, the fort opens fire on the French, and the Pandora joins in, soon capturing the French vessel and its crew. One of them dives into the water and Langrish rescues him, only to discover that the midshipman is a young woman, who is carrying an oilskin packet of papers, which Langrish takes.
The young woman is Winifred, an unconventional (but conventionally Romantic, for the period) English girl who has been coming to join her French fiancé, Jean-Marie. Jean-Marie is a spy, though she doesn't know this, and the story focuses in turn on him, on Winifred, on Langrish, and on various other characters including an elderly Venetian senator and his political nephew who are involved in negotiations with the French.
The descriptions of Venice are sumptuous and leisurely; perhaps there's too much precise itinerary-tracing; but the evocations of the work in the Arsenale, of a seedy ridotto, of the islands in the lagoon, and of the dirt and smells of the canals and the narrow streets of the city are vivid and intensely realized. In the end the political secret-agent-and-betrayal stuff is not as gripping as the descriptions of character - Langrish, the stern New Englander in the grip of the Odyssey and then, without his realizing it, of love for Winifred; and of Winifred herself, this doughty, cheerful, courageous, slightly embarrassing and slightly horse-faced girl who is not at all put out by her more-than-a-little dangerous situation. Harris is extremely good at love between difficult people, and good at the difficult people. The narrator's consciousness flows between all these points like the pearly air of the lagoon on a summer morning.
But different, you see. Not like anything else. Not like anything else in MacDonald Harris. Each of his novels tackles the world anew: Bull Fire (1973) is a reworking of the Minotaur myth as if in the world of La Dolce Vita; Yukiko (1977) deals with the sexual bewilderment and enthralment of an American sailor in Japan just after the war; Herma (1981) with the world of opera in the America of the early twentieth century, and with the puzzle of identity again. Enrico Caruso and Marcel Proust figure among the characters; the evocation of that lost world is richly flavoured and densely textured; it's extremely sexy.
And always there's an ease and a grace and an intelligence in the prose that makes it a pleasure to read. Harris had perfect timing; it's not surprising to learn that he was a fine musician, who could have become a professional jazz pianist. He wasn't perfect: he had a mid-period phase of writing in the present tense, which I always find an irritating affectation. But he was always profoundly interesting.
As I say, this is an interim report. I'm glad I have so many of his novels yet to read; I don't expect to be disappointed. I'm astonished, really, that such a clever and interesting writer should have vanished so completely: I've spoken of him to several well-read people, and none of them has heard of him. Perhaps he lacked some vital ingredient, that mysterious mana that brings commercial and critical success to many writers nowhere near as good. Perhaps it was just that he was too interested in too many kinds of life, and didn't stick to one sort of book. Perhaps he never quite managed a single undeniable masterpiece, whose gravitational field would have pulled his other work into prominence. Besides, none of his novels has been filmed.
Buy him while you can, is my advice. Here is a full list of his novels:
Private Demons (1961); Mortal Leap (1964); Trepleff (1968); Bull Fire (1973); The Balloonist (1976); Yukiko (1977); Pandora's Galley (1979); The Treasure of Sainte Foy (1980); Herma (1981); Screenplay (1982); Tenth (1984); The Little People (1986); Glowstone (1987); Hemingway's Suitcase (1990); Glad Rags (1991); A Portrait of My Desire (1993).If you Google his name, you'll find a short and interesting website about his life and work.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]