Michael Moorcock at 80
Today is the 80th birthday of British writer Michael Moorcock, and it seems right to write a post about him and his books and the pleasure, insight and fun, and inspiration they have provided me these last 40 years.
This will not be a critical assessment or whatever, but just a personal patchwork of strange memories. I’ll also list a few of my favorite books of his, but no more than a dozen.
When I was a kid trying to read all the available fantasy and science fiction I could lay my hands on, there were two authors that had a consistently horrible press in my country: Michael Moorcock and Tanith Lee.
It is probably telling that today these are two of my all-time favorite writers.
The reasons why the critics seemed to be unanimous in condemning the work of these authors were rather fuzzy – I remember reading an article (this was probably 1981) in which Moorcock and Lee were dissed for basically “not being as good as Tolkien”.
To further pique my curiosity, Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories, collected in two volumes, were a very hard to find collector’s item, and commanded prices way out of range for a kid of fourteen’s pockets.
But I did find the four DAW volumes of the Hawkmoon series, and I read those, and found them lots of fun. I also retrieved a battered copy of Stormbringer, that seemed to promise much further wonders.
Then, I found the two Elric volumes in the library, but because I was not the only one interested in them, I was able to loan first the second volume, and then the first. This sort of spoiled the fun for me – because the stories were great, colorful and charged with wild imagery, but knowing how the series would end rather sapped my enthusiasm when I came to read the first episodes.
Only one thing was certain for me at the end of that weird experience – the critics were wrong. So I looked for more Moorcock, and got me a copy of the Birthgrave in English – if the critics had been so wrong on Moorcock, I reasoned, they were probably off mark on Lee too. They were.
Finding more Moorcock to read was one of the main reasons why I started reading in English – something that my schoolmates thought was a way to try and score extra points with the teachers.
It was not – it was the need to be able to read more from Michael Moorcock.
More Eternal Champion, more Jerry Cornelius, more wonder and adventure.
On a second-hand book stand I found the Italian editions of the three Corum novels in the Swords cycle, and a battered copy of Behold the Man.
A scattering of other titles followed.
Then, as I related a few days back, I landed in London, feverish and with one year to spend in the UK, and on my way to my first dinner, I bought the first half of the Cornelius Quartet, and Mother London. One month later, I used Mother London as a conversation piece with one of the most fascinating women I ever met, and basically monopolized her for a whole evening – because good literature is cool.
Moorcock, as I said, is one of my favorite writers, and is also one that has been with me throughout my life as a reader. If possible, I grew with his writing – so that my younger self binged on the Eternal Champion, while as I grew older I was able to appreciate the later, more complex and literary works of the author. It is sort of fitting that the latest things I read were the Pyat novels, and The Whispering Swarm.
And yes, I still hear people in my country dissing Michael Moorcock for what he writes, and how he writes it – and yet much of this hostility is based on hearsay, and on very little direct knowledge. The Elric books are the only work by Moorcock that’s readily available in my native language, and only this year a proper translation’s been published.
And talking about translations, I have my very own Michael Moorcock anecdote: back in 2003, I got in touch with Michael Moorcock to ask for translation rights for a short story of his. Forcing myself to avoid any form of fanboy-ish behavior, I prepared a very polite and oformal email, which opened with “Dear Dr Moorcock…”
The reply came in a few days, and said “Considering I left school at fifteen, I find it amusing to be called doctor…”
I died a little, but from there on it was a lot easier.
On to the books, now.
I am not an Elric fan. While I recognize the power of the character, the subversive approach to a genre – sword & sorcery – that too often can become by-the-numbers formula writing, I find the Albino, in the long run, a whiner.
There are other books I like best.
The War Hound and the World Pain is one of the books I usually suggest to friends that are not into fantasy, or that think fantasy means hobbits and bad Elven poetry. A slim novel, with a historical setting and an interesting philosophical premise, The War Hound is a great example of what fantasy can achieve, by being both highly entertaining and intellectually satisfactory.
Gloriana, or the Unfulfilled Queen is probably where my personal obsession for the Elizabethan era started. Once again, Moorcock mixes fantastic imagery with an investigation of some unconventional issues (especially unconventional in fantasy). My edition had a cover featuring a naked-breasted lady (strangely I can’t find an image online) that caused me no end of problems with my high-school teachers.
While singling out a title as my all-time favorite would be quite difficult, the Dancers at the End of Time series is probably my first stop when it comes to naming a Moorcock book I have loved and re-read frequently. Science fictional, satirical, wildly imaginative, this is a book I’ll carry with me for a long time.
In fact, the first “proper SF novel” I tried to write was heavily influenced by Dancers.
I still have it here, and one day I’ll re-write it, as a collaboration between myself at 18 and myself at 50-odd.
The New Nature of the Catastrophe is not just a Moorcock book, because it features the Jerry Cornelius short stories written by Moorcock and by many others. The Cornelius books are certainly the most mind-bending work by the author, and to me, Cornelius is always been at his best in the short stories. The novels can be daunting. The short stories are always sharp and amazing.
This is a book from which one could learn a lot about writing, with a little patience.
But what about Una Persson and Jerry’s sister?
The Adventures of Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius in the 20th Century is probably my favorite “other” Cornelius book in the series. It’s a very satisfactory read, and also quite racy – and again it’s a book whose cover gave me no end of problems in school.
But by that time everybody was convinced I was reading smut anyway. And truth to be told, I did not really care.
Next up, I will mention in the same breath Wizardry and Wild Romance, Moorcock’s essay on the language of fantasy, and the beautiful Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle, this being a lengthy interview conducted by Colin Greenland.
I also throw in my favorite “minor” Moorcock book – the Mervyn Peake-esque The Golden Barge, another book that really impressed me as a teenager, and made me go “this! This is something I’d like to write!”
Time is running out, and this post is too long already, so it’s time to mention my favorite incarnation of the Eternal Champion, with the two series of novels featuring Corum, a more human and at the same time equally alien counterpart to Elric.
And this is it. Oswald Bastabble and Kane of Old Mars will have to take the backseat, because I’ve already mentioned too many titles – and I am sure I’ll realize I forgot something just as I press “Publish”.
Michael Moorcock is 80 today, and he has a catalog of – reportedly – 100 titles. I have listed the ones I love the most, but it would be hard, for me, to find something in Moorcock’s opus that has not, in one way or another, left a deep, lasting impression in me.
There is no way in which I can express how grateful I am to him.
PS: my goodness, I forgot about Letters from Hollywood!
How could I possibly have forgotten about Letters from Hollywood?!