The Novels of John Fraser
One of the most extraordinary publishing events of the past four years has been the rapid, indeed insistent, appearance of the novels of John Fraser. Extraordinary in two ways, I think: there are few parallels in literary history to this almost simultaneous and largely belated appearance of a mature œuvre, sprung like Athena from Zeus’s forehead; and the novels in themselves are extraordinary.
Fraser is an English novelist, poet and university teacher who has lived in Rome since 1982 (see the biographical and bibliographical summary below). Born in 1939, he belongs to a generation of writers who became active in the late 1950s when many of the important post-war socio-cultural adjustments had already been made, and new directions had to be taken. In an interesting anthology of 1960 he appeared in the company of such young writers as Michael Frayn, Dennis Potter, and Ted Hughes, with a brilliant story about European diplomacy which reads as though Dickens had somehow survived to try his hand at the most elegant manifestations of French surréalisme. He also published a story in John Lehmann’s London Magazine. But then, for nearly fifty years, there was not much else that was not academic political theory.
The strange occlusion of such a talent bears some resemblance to the career of Edward Upward. But unlike Upward, whose work is also semi-surrealist, the flavour of Fraser’s work is international and not merely English. The earliest of the novels recently published, An Illusion of Sun, is a leisurely quasi-Jamesian skirmish of class and cultural interests, set in a city much like Venice. It ought to be the point de départ for new readers, since its mode of operation is more conventional than later work (though in its sparkling inventiveness it is far from conventional).
Thereafter the international setting is gradually replaced by the global. Fraser is interested in world politics and in the rich hopes and analysed regrets of failed revolutionary activity. His settings become more and more fantastic and apocalyptic. In his next novel, The Observatory, which is one of my favourites, the limbo of putative activity and endless self-analysis that his characters arrive at is, in a paradoxical way, wonderfully absorbing and exciting. I can think of nothing much like it in fiction. Fraser maintains a masterfully ironic distance from the extreme conditions in which his characters find themselves. There are strikingly beautiful descriptions, veiled allusions to rooted traditions, unlikely events half-glimpsed, abrupted narratives, surreal but somehow apposite social customs. And deeply within the flow of the narrative, sustaining its onward march, are all the involved textures of the invented societal life, the colours, the animals, the architecture, richly delineated, very strange but always crazily believable.
The Observatory is perhaps the first work of Fraser’s which sets out the habitual matrix and structure of his work (the uncertain hero and his associates, the failed quest, the tentative but practical relationship with women, the way in which all adventure seems to become a convenient backdrop to philosophical and political discussion). It is found here in a purer form than in the later works, but if you enjoy this book, the later ones will read like evermore rococo variations on an important theme. Fraser is following a conversational tradition in the philosophical novel that stretches back through Huxley and Peacock to Rasselas, but there is remodelling in terms of popular culture. As he has himself written: ‘It’s not Conrad (maybe “Beyond the heart of darkness”) and I know the limits are those of my pen and what drives it. . . . I think the whole stretch of writings is certainly a tale of snakes and ladders, but I see them, the tales, stretching on like chewing-gum, like strips, Rupert Bear, Garfield, Jane, Desperate Dan—with an occasional hi-tech pratfall.’
Fraser’s work is conceived on a heroic scale in terms both of its ideas and its situational metaphors. If he were to be filmed, it would need the combined talents of a Bunuel, a Gilliam, a Cameron. It is not my business here to write about all the books, but I can see an arc of argument and progress which delivers in The Storm, one of his most recent, both a fresher dry wit and a direct speed of narrative which makes it indeed something like a written version of a graphic novel. And it is quite up-to-date, offering as it does a cynical take on the last of old Europe and the growing hegemony of Asia. Like Thomas Pynchon, whom in some ways he resembles, Fraser is a deep and serious fantasist, wildly inventive. The reader rides as on a switchback or luge of impetuous attention, with effects flashing by at virtuoso speeds. The characters seem to be unwitting agents of chaos, however much wise reflection the author bestows upon them. They move with shrugging self-assurance through circumstances as richly-detailed and as without reliable compass-points as a Chinese scroll.
Fraser's Animal Tales has convinced me that he is the most original novelist of our time. His work has become an internal dialogue of intuitions and counter-intuitions that just happens to take the form of conversations between his inscrutable characters. But really it is a rich texture of poetic perceptions, frequently reaching for the aphoristic, but rooted in sidelong debate and weird analogies. When I return to his books it is like finding the rare fruit spirit in the drinks cupboard and realising that it wasn't just for special occasions, but is at all times superior to Pilsener or Merlot. I now class him as a latter-day surrealist. The things I like about his work are always rooted in wit ('Mongolians . . . are the Turks who stayed behind'; '[Animals] have had their day . . . .Or if they haven't, they must try a little harder'). And of course the pure invention, the nanospillikins, the collection of genitals. What has struck me recently is how toughly he writes. Not, of course, like the butch Hemingway, but with the talking directness of someone with a secure vision.
John Fuller, Oxford
About John Fraser
John Fraser was born in London on 16 March 1939 and educated at St Paul's School (London), Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and King's College, London. He taught History in 1961-66 at the Cambridgeshire College of Arts & Technology, Cambridge, then Politics at the University of Leicester (1967-68). From 1968–1971 he was Assistant Professor, then Acting Chairman, Department of Political Science, Laurentian University, Ontario, Canada. From 1971–1984 he was Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Between 1978 and 2001 he had several contract professorships at the University of Rome and University of Ferrara; and from 1986-2003 he was Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Reading.
During his academic career, Fraser wrote on and taught social and political theory (especially Marxism). His academic publications include An Introduction to the Thought of Galvano della Volpe, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1977 (transl. into Italian as: Il Pensiero di Galvano della Volpe, Liguori, Napoli, 1979).
Since 2009 Fraser's literary work (novels, novellas, short stories and poetry) has been published by AESOP Publications under the AESOP Modern imprint, including Black Masks (short stories and poetry), The Magnificent Wurlitzer, Medusa, The Observatory, The Other Shore, The Red Tank, Runners, Blue Light, Hard Places, An Illusion of Sun, Soft Landing, Military Roads and The Storm. Forthcoming works from the same publisher include Wayfaring and The Case.
Fraser is also a natural horn soloist, and between 1997 and 2012 has appeared at venues in London, Cardiff and Rome.
Gianicolo/Ianiculum (Lupo, Roma, 1983)
Black Masks (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 2009)
Animal Tales (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 2014)
Black Masks (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 1984; 2009)
Blue Light (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 2011)
The Case (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 2012)
Down from the Stars (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 2013)
Enterprising Women (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 2013)
Hard Places (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 2011)
An Illusion of Sun (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 1958; 2012)
The Magnificent Wurlitzer (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 1990; 2009)
Medusa (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 2010)
Military Roads (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 2012)
The Observatory (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 1967; 2010)
The Other Shore (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 1971; 2010)
The Red Tank (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 2010)
Runners (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 2010)
Soft Landing (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 2011)
The Storm (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 2012)
Three Beauties (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 2015)
Wayfaring (AESOP Modern, Oxford, 1985, 1987; 2012)
An Introduction to the Thought of Galvano della Volpe (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1977)
L'Intellettuale Amministrativo nella Politica del PCI (Liguori, Napoli, 1977)
Italy: Society in Crisis / Society in Transformation (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1981)
PCI e Intellettuali a Bologna (con un'Introduzione di Franco Ferrarotti) (Liguori, Napoli, 1982)
Comunità contro Società? Il Ritorno alla Comunità e la Ricerca dei Fondamenti della Socialità (La Goliardica, Roma, 1987)
Il tempo dei giovani (with A. Zanotti and U. Wienand) (Comune di Ferrara, 1991)
Rousseau and Marx (Galvano della Volpe) (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1978)
Gramsci and the Party: The Prison Years (Paolo Spriano) (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1979)
Max Weber and the Destiny of Reason (Franco Ferrarotti) (M.E. Sharpe, New York, 1982)