No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, April 20, 2007

#8: Hav -- Jan Morris

I own a Penguin 60 that collects a few of the chapters from the first part of this novel, Letters from Hav. I recall being struck by the anecdotal, richly referential voice: though Hav is an invented place, Morris weaves it into the tapestry of European culture with visits from Tolstoy, rumours about Hitler, references to Hemingway's cats.

Rereading those first Letters as part of the original Letters from Hav, which in turn now forms part of Hav (2006), I'm struck by the lack of events. As standalone 'letters', snapshots and observations, they are perhaps more effective than as chapters of a novel -- a form which is popularly expected to have a beginning, a middle and an end. These letters do describe things that happen to the narrator (a fictional 'Jan Morris') but they all seem trivial, unconnected, inconsequential. Only gradually did I begin to realise that the events of Hav happen elsewhere, out of sight: in the margins, between the chapters and most of all between Letters from Hav and the second half of the novel.

Hav seems to me to be a mature writer's novel: there's no sensationalism, no sex or violence, simply small events magnified by precise and evocative language, and a distinctive voice. I did find myself craving explanation and expansion, though: those fleeting teasing references to Cathars, the black jets that herald intervention (but by whom?), and the constant low-level paranoia that seems the only sensible reaction to the attitudes encountered by the narrator.

I enjoyed Hav, but I've several criticisms. The Letters, in particular, have no sense of a recipient. They are not letters to anyone, and there is seldom much sense of who they're from, either. There's very little personal detail, very little (if anything) that comes from outside Hav. The world outside may as well have imploded.

Hav has an afterword -- and though it did help me make sense of the book, and its two halves (one steeped in history, one in a post-historical post-9/11 world), I don't feel that a novel should require an afterword. Is that lack in me, for not making that comparison more consciously? for not drawing that conclusion without being told?

Finally, pettily but vexingly: poor proof-reading. Souvenir hops? "We walked as we strolled"? 'Fauna' when discussing indigenous vegetation? Each of these errors jarred, and Hav is an illusion that benefits from immersion.

This novel's on the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and I confess my confusion. Is an invented setting sufficient to qualify a book as SF? Is it the post-historical perspective, of which there's plenty around? And, given that part of the book was published nearly 20 years ago, is the ACCA nomination based entirely on the new section?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:15 pm

    Came across your fine review after writing my own (not-so-fine) crit, but I have to say I largely agree with your niggles and criticisms, particularly over proof-reading. I've mostly concentrated on the resonances for me, and if you're interested it's here: