Friday, April 1, 2011

Adventure classics -- A fine kettle of April fish

A Fish Dinner in Memison
by E.R. Eddison
Usually when I’m faced with writing about a series by the same author, I pick the first book.  But when the subject of the series is Time – possibly Eternity, as Irish poet James Stephens declared in his introduction to E.R. Eddison’s A Fish Dinner in Memison, the problem becomes how to define “first.”  I’ll just say Memison is probably the easiest to read and my personal favorite work of Eddison’s weird genius.  It’s less well-known than his first fantasy, The Worm Ouroboros, with which it shares characters and some degree of setting.  It was his second-written work in what he ended up calling the Zimiamvian Trilogy, although preceding the first in the chronology of its story.  But “follows” and “precedes” are imprecise terms to describe the ways in which Eddison uses time.  As Stephens points out, “The personages of this book are living, at the one moment, in several dimensions of time. . . .  They are in love and in hate simultaneously in these several dimensions, and will continue to be so for ever. . . .”

I hope that doesn’t scare you away from reading Memison.  Eddison’s characters, including his women, are stupendous.  Stephens’s description of the women could apply as well to the men – “greedy, and treacherous, and imperturbable, . . and all that is high or low or even obscene.”  (I’ll note here that the “obscene” part refers to the characters’ enjoyment of their sexuality, not to anything modern readers would find pornographic.)

Like J.R.R. Tolkien, who admired his writing but not his strange philosophy, Eddison invented his own version of English to describe the alternative world these characters inhabit.  He has been criticized for wasting his descriptive powers, especially in the earlier books, on over-decorated palaces.  He still loves palaces in Memison, but also secret assignations, dinner party conversation, and beauty whether in art, landscapes or human beings.

If I tried to reduce this richness to a simple plot summary, I’d say that Memison is the story of parallel loves.  The first is that of Edward Lessingham for his wife Mary, both of whom exist in a recognizably real twentieth century.  The second is the love of Barganax, Duke of Zayana, who exists in the alternate world of Zimiamvia, for Fiorinda.  Fiorinda herself moves happily between both worlds.  In Eddison’s words “in a dozen paces after Lessingham’s far-drawn gaze had lost her, (she) stepped from natural present April into natural present June – from that night-life of Verona out by a colonnade of cool purple sandstone onto a daisied lawn, under the reverberant white splendour of midsummer noonday.”  Long live Zimiamvia.

After I lost my college-era copy of Memison, I searched many a used bookstore in pre-Internet days to find another.  However, now it and the rest of Eddison’s works are readily available through and  Probably other sources as well.

(I plan to showcase adventure stories in a variety of genres, but even I may flounder without reader suggestions.  Share your favorites!  After today’s April Fool offering, the month will turn mysterious.  Next week:  Australian writer Arthur Upfield’s The Sands of Windee and the copycat murder case it inspired.)

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