Somewhere in the sixties (the number, not the decade) I lose count of how many Michael Moorcock novels I’ve read. Most of them I consumed at a gluttonous rate in my early teens, when DAW books was reissuing his novels in paperback editions. I recall most of them in a blur – sword & sorcery epics, alternate histories, fantasy books that thought very hard about “big” issues, a very little bit of hard SF – their prose qualities mercifully repressed. Once upon a time, I would read two or three Moorcocks in a week; I would later learn that MM hadn’t spent much more time than that writing them.
Out of the many novel series and interrelated threads of his fiction, one made a real impact beyond filling my adolescent head with heroic phantasmagoria and proto-Goth angst: the Cornelius Chronicles, four novels featuring the superlatively hip Jerry Cornelius, who pursued his adventures in an urban landscape that was a cross betweeen Austin Powers’s swinging ‘60s London & a post-apocalyptic nightmare. I think I got my first taste of prose postmodernism in the later volumes of the Cornelius books, a fractured, modular storytelling that privileged mosaic juxtaposition over narrative continuity – & which, as I discovered last year, remains eminently readable (as opposed to his “fantasy” novels, which are as embarassing as the songs one danced to in 1984).
The Brothel in Rosenstrasse (1982), which followed Moorcock’s Elizabethan fantasy Gloriana; or, The Unfulfill’d Queen, is the beginning of MM’s (still-continuing) bid to become a “serious” author. It’s part historical novel – tho the central European principality & city in which it’s set, Wäldenstein & Mirenburg, are a fantasized combination of Vienna & Prague – part feverish war memoir, & part erotic/pornographic fantasy. It’s frankly a pretty good read, tho I was always conscious while reading of what put me off of the book the 2 or 3 times I’d started it before: the texture of MM’s writing, of his prose. His descriptive prose is occasionally lyrical, sometimes awkward, & usually readable but no better. His dialogue is sometimes okay, but all too often wooden, sententious, barely believeable.
Over the last 20 years or so Moorcock has been dispensing advice to young fantasy writers that always begins with the caveat, Stop reading fantasy all the time! Read Dickens, read Kafka, read Joyce, read novelists more concerned with the quality of their prose than with the dimensions of their protagonists’ weapons or the precise effects of their wizards’ spells. But I fear that Moorcock’s own apprenticeship, churning out “Elric” & “Hawkmoon” & “Corum” novels at the rate sometimes of one every two weeks, has had the effect of so blunting his own self-critical eye for prose that he may never be able to write the truly fine work to which he aspires.
We’ll see. Next up on the summer reading list is MM’s Whitbread-shortlisted Mother London, then his recent King of the City. Moorcock wants to be reckoned in the same league as JG Ballard, Peter Ackroyd, and Iain Sinclair, rather than Robert E. Howard & Lin Carter. On the evidence of The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, he’s got a ways to go, but he’s started in the right direction.