In 2013 I was invited to write an introduction to Saturn Over the Water, a late novel by J. B. Priestley, reissued by the admirably enterprising Valancourt Books in the United States. Valancourt do well what British publishers hardly do at all, or do badly - they republish first-rate but neglected 20th century fiction in beautiful editions, with the original cover designs and new introductions, You'll find a link to their website at the end of this blog.
What follows is an edited extract from my introduction.
What follows is an edited extract from my introduction.
Why is John Boynton Priestley, once among the most widely-read and critically-acclaimed writers in the English-speaking world, so neglected today? One reason is that he is an unashamedly middlebrow writer, and a middlebrow readership has long since transferred its loyalty to such lesser talents as Dan Brown, John Grisham, Robert Ludlum and E. L. James. This is unfortunate, as Priestley at his best (which was all the time) writes rings around them all.
Priestley is a modern writer but he's certainly no modernist. His prose is simple, straightforward and unaffected, like the author himself, who was a bluff, no-nonsense, hard-headed Yorkshireman. His values were largely those of his middle class Edwardian upbringing, not least in his attitude towards women, homosexuals, sinister foreigners and the fading glories of the British Empire. At the same time he was a progressive left-wing technocrat with a belief in centralised government and the meliorist benefits of Socialism, prompting one commentator to compare him (unkindly but memorably) with one of the pigs in Orwell's Animal Farm. George Orwell, it should be noted, secretly and rather shamefully passed Priestley's name to the Foreign Office to blacklist as too pro-communist.
Yet while Orwell now commands a huge international readership Priestley is in danger of becoming a forgotten figure, despite regular revivals of his two most celebrated plays An Inspector Calls and When We are Married. This is an injustice because Priestley is unquestionably the outstanding prose realist writer of his generation, a popular author who knows how to write a good sentence, build a good paragraph and make the reader turn the page. This requires skill and talent, both of which are plentifully evident in Saturn Over the Water (1961). It's a very strange book indeed, and one that defies easy summary or analysis. Writing to a correspondent in 1969 Priestley claimed equivocally that this novel was 'entirely imaginary (but what is "imaginary")?'
'Entirely imaginary' is, if anything, a poker-faced understatement. Saturn Over the Water is an incredible novel, by which I mean that Priestley deliberately set out to write a book that is quite impossible to believe, an exercise in creative mendacity in which the author conscientiously spoofs every rule of narrative fiction, flouts convention and has great fun doing so.
The elaborate sub-title of Saturn Over the Water is worth setting out in full:
An account of his adventures in London, South America and Australia by Tim Bedford, painter; edited - with some preliminary and concluding remarks - by Henry Sulgrave; and here presented to the reading public by J. B. Priestley.
This approach - embedding a story within parentheses explaining how the manuscript came into the author's possession - harks back to an earlier time, and the title itself is a sleight-of-hand reminiscent of 19th century fiction. Priestley places himself at two removes from the narrative and becomes merely an intermediary. Sulgrave, an anonymous 'social historian', earns his keep in the brief Epilogue as Bradford's manuscript comes to a sudden stop in a thick tangle of loose ends.
Prompted by his cousin Isabel's dying wish, the painter Tim Bradford sets out to find her missing husband, a Cambridge bio-chemist called Joe Farne, who has disappeared after leaving his job at the mysterious Arnaldos institute in South America. Bradford has one clue - a slip of paper in Farne's handwriting containing a cryptic list of names and places:
Gen. Giddings - V. Melnikov - von Emmerick - Steglitz - Something-Smith - Old Astrologer on the mountain? Ospara and Emerald L. - Charoke -Vic.? - Blue Mtns? - high back Brisbane? - Semple, Rother, Barsac? - fig. 8 above wavy I. - Why Sat.?
This is all that's needed to launch Bradford out of Cambridge and, via London and New York, to Peru, Southern Chile and Australia. The headlong pace, the confidently slapdash plotting, the international settings and the jet-age glamour all have a cinematic feel, and it's in cinema that we find a parallel to Priestley's method.
Alfred Hitchcock favoured a narrative driver he dubbed a McGuffin, a term he clarified in a 1966 interview with François Truffaut by relating a well-honed story 'about two men in a train. One man says "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?", and the other answers, "Oh, that's a McGuffin". The first one asks "What's a McGuffin?" "Well", the other man says, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands". The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands", and the other one answers, "Well, then that's no McGuffin!"'
'So you see,' added Hitchcock lugubriously, 'a McGuffin is nothing at all.'
Well, not quite. A McGuffin is, in the right hands, a liberation - an essential but deliberately undeveloped device that serves to move the plot forward. It's usually a goal of some kind, something of great importance (at least to the protagonist), usually with little or no explanation as to why it matters. The ideal MacGuffin is unimportant - in the case of Hitchcock's North by Northwest it's nothing more specific than some vague 'secrets' that must be prevented from falling into the hands of an unspecified foreign power. In the right hands it offers no end of opportunity because the author has virtually unlimited freedom to go where he pleases, free from the constraints of logic, coherence or credibility. Priestley pulls it off repeatedly and audaciously, as for instance when he introduces a clairvoyante late in the story to keep things moving, followed by the appearance of one Pat Dailey, "somebody enormous and quite incomprehensible" who may be a prophet, a shaman, a hypnotist, a shabby drunk or even an alien deity but who is enlisted to deliver some essential exposition which all seems to make sense at the time.
The forward momentum never slackens. Far from suffering conventional setbacks in his search for Joe Farme, Bradford is from the outset seemingly incapable of avoiding an encounter with the names on the list. As a footloose artist he enjoys a degree of freedom and social mobility allowing him to mix easily with the likes of Sir Reginald Merlan-Smith, the dubious Chilean Communist 'Mr Jones' and the nonagenarian Peruvian millionaire Arnaldos. These encounters come thick and fast - all Bradford has to do is navigate a fast-flowing stream of happenstance.
Bradford is a thinly-sketched and unconvincing character, although this in no way compromises his effectiveness as a device. An artist in his thirties, he is as a pipe-smoking, whisky-guzzling, Wodehouse-quoting figure and a barely-disguised version of the author, despite constant professional references to purple madder, magenta, mauve and violet alizarin. Most of the other characters make brief appearances and are either are never seen again or conveniently reappear when the plot requires it. All are equally implausible, although there are some marvellous throwaway descriptions that lodge in the reader's memory, such as Bradford's view that Sir Reginald Merlan-Smith "gave me the impression […] that he kept a kind of pleasant emptiness, for you to play around in, well in front of what he really was, the hard place."
The relentless accumulation of implausible coincidences are presented casually and with little dramatic emphasis. It is this laconic offhandedness that, paradoxically, makes the most outrageous twists and turns plausible as part of a self-contained world of intimately connected cause and effect. Priestley mischievously wrong foots us at the outset by joking about a succession of 'non-coincidences' that have to be negotiated before the story can really get under way. Once these are dealt with Bradford - without the slightest effort on his part - engages with all the key protagonists in swift succession, accompanied by this kind of dialogue:
'How did you know Semple was one of Dr Magorious's patients, Bedford?'
'Semple's brother is a member of my club.'
And that's it. Even within the tight-knit community of a rich and powerful cosmopolitan elite this is so implausible that it becomes, as I say, oddly believable and we are no more inclined to question such audacious artlessness than we would complain about the ingredients of a well-mixed martini.
Bradford eventually tracks down Joe Farne who is drugged and working as a waiter at a sinister pharmaceutical plant in Southern Chile. Farne is whisked away and Bradford, after a half-hearted interrogation, escapes with a sympathetic doctor named Rother, who is shot and later dies from his wounds. On the strength of a phone call Bradford next boards a cargo ship to Australia in pursuit of Rosalita (inevitably bumping into other key figures on board). One feels that in moving the action to Australia Priestley had a shrewd eye on Neville Shute's hugely popular 1957 novel On the Beach, in which a group of Melbourne folk await the arrival of a deadly radiation cloud, the aftermath of a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere. Shute's harrowing account shows how each person deals with their impending death and there is an explicit reference to such a situation in Saturn Over the Water. Both novels are period pieces, intriguing Cold War fables reflecting a time of technological advance, heady consumer confidence and unbridled paranoia.
At the hollow heart of Priestley's novel is a world conspiracy that barely withstands summary, let alone analysis. It involves a plan by some shadowy organisation to destroy civilisation north of the equator and build human society again from scratch in South America, Africa and Australia. In the weakest part of the story, Priestley resorts (via the shabby mystic Pat Dailey) to some opaque metaphysical mumbo-jumbo:
Here there's a difference, a conflict, between what we'll call thrones, principalities, powers, dominions, between spirits and disembodied intelligences, between men - for they're still men - invisible and free of time, men visible and in time. Masters and servants, in sphere within sphere, level below level, give and take commands. One great design clashes with another.
And again that's pretty much it. I defy any reader to make sense of Pat Dailey's 'Age of Aquarius' ramblings, with its baffling references to Saturnians and Uranians. The episode offers the opposite of exposition or clarification, although it's typical of Priestley's use of an ambiguous and omniscient figure, such as the all-knowing Goole in An Inspector Calls.
Valancourt are to be congratulated on this re-issue alongside The Thirty-First of June, Salt is Leaving (all three novels originally published in 1961), The Magicians (1954) and his excellent 1953 collection of short stories entitled The Other Place. Saturn Over the Water is no masterpiece - but who wants to read only masterpieces? It's a marvellously eccentric jeu d'esprit but with an undertow of atomic age fatalism. You may read better books this year, but you're unlikely to read anything as entertaining.
Order Saturn Over the Water and other fine novels in beautiful editions from the publishers Valancourt.