Pursuing Christopher Priest: The Separation


I have long been ambivalent about The Separation, which was first published in 2002. I have never entirely understood its ending, which has never seemed like a true ending, but rather a stopping, leaving more than just the usual mysteries that are a hallmark of Christopher Priest’s work, that are the necessary, and indeed right, concomitance of a writer whose work is founded so deeply in Unreality.
Like almost all of Priest’s fiction, The Separation concerns itself with at least two different versions of events, the opposition of which and the lingering uncertainty as to which, if either, is Real and which is Divergent. Usually, there is a dominant version, corresponding to either everyday ‘reality’ or else a near future version of the same that is discernible in the same terms. Usually, the story starts in the dominant reality.
That seems to be the case in The Separation, which opens with popular historian writer Stuart Goddard attending an unsuccessful signing session in a Buxton bookshop on a rainy afternoon. Goddard writes historical accounts of recent history based almost entirely of the collected oral testimony of participants. This session is attended by a woman who is responding to his appeal for information about a Second World War RAF Flight Lieutenant, J L Sawyer, who appears briefly in Churchill’s memoirs, and about whom there seems to be a mystery, or rather an obscurity.
The woman presents him with an envelope containing copies of her late father’s memoirs: he may be the relevant Sawyer. Gratton, already busy on other things, takes the manuscript back home, though he doesn’t read it immediately.
So far, so (beguilingly) mundane. But there are already a couple of off-key references: a Sino-American War, an address in Antananarivo, Republic of Masada, massive economic stagnation in an even more paranoid, near-Third World United States. Priest does not waste much time in showing his hand: Gratton was born on 10 May 1941, and his first success was a book about that very day, about what people were doing on the day the Second World War ended.
It’s a dramatic change of direction for Priest, to begin a story set indisputably in what his readership will define as Unreality. As things develop, the story takes on a structure similar to that of The Prestige: two, relatively short sections are set contemporarily in 1999, centred upon Gratton, but each serves to introduced longer sections set in the War itself, dealing with the events of that time in two completely incompatible worlds: Gratton’s War of 1939-41 that is confined to Europe and ends in a negotiated peace and the deposal of both Hitler and Churchill, and the 1939-45 World War with which we are familiar.
Is this latter reality Real? It’s tempting to think so, but this time Priest has thoroughly undermined the reality of either history. There are contradictions and almost parallels everywhere, not just between the separate accounts but within them, and both versions contain one common incident that, in itself, signals that history is doubling upon itself and dividing in each version.
The book centres upon J L Sawyer, Flight Lieutenant and Registered Conscientious Objector in one person. Or rather two persons, for Sawyer is identical twins (another echo of The Prestige), Joe and Jack, each given confusingly converging names and identical initials.
For all that they are twins, the brothers are very different, as evidenced by their War service: Jack, usually known as JL, is the RAF Bomber pilot, Joe the CO and Red Cross Ambulance Driver. At first, they’re united as sportsmen, 1936 Olympic Bronze medallists in the coxless pairs, but from that point their differences drive them very much apart.
JL’s memories come first. They begin with his plane being shot down on May 10, 1941, in an attack on Hamburg: JL is badly injured in his left leg and head, the rest of his crew is killed except for navigator Sam Levy. JL gets the plane as far back to England as he can before it crashes: he and Levy are later rescued from a dinghy.
This early account is told, somewhat repetitively, in alternating chapters to JL’s recollection of Munich 1936, his worldly naivete in thinking only of sport, being presented with his medal by Rudolf Hess, (who later propositions him), rescuing the lovely Birgit from persecution as a Jew, worshipping her but finding Joe has acted whilst he mooned, and their separation being marked by Joe and Birgit’s marriage.
But JL’s account is directly contradictory of Gratton’s 1939-41 reality: Joe is dead, killed in the Blitz in London, and JL goes on to a brief but fascinating attachment to Churchill’s staff, asked to question the prisoner ‘Jonathan’ – in reality the newly captive Hess, who has flown to England to propose peace.
There is another internal parallel: JL has already seen enough of Churchill to have decided that there are two of him, virtual twins, the one who goes out in public, in morale boosting visits to Blitzed areas, with his homburg and his cigar, being a near identical double: slightly taller, slightly slimmer, but otherwise a duplicate.
And JL’s primary conclusion about prisoner ‘Jonathan’ is that he is also not Hess, but a very nearly identical duplicate (a theory that was raised in real life, although it has little authoritative support).
After this, the rest of JL’s account is relatively perfunctory. The War continues, he spends two and a half years in a German Prison Camp, emigrates to Australia on finding that Birgit has remarried, and generally fades away, his remaining history of no import.
JL’s memoirs are, of course, directly contradictory of Stuart Gratton’s reality. Needless to say, he starts pursuing the originals immediately. But JL’s daughter has vanished, her name can’t be traced, her address is non-existant. And a parcel arrives from Masada, the homeland created after the War for the Jews, who were not going to be allowed into Palestine and, in keeping with a proposition genuinely made, have instead been settled upon, and displaced the native population of Madagascar.
The parcel is from Sam Levy, JL’s navigator on that fateful raid, now long and happily settled in Masada. His statement is the fourth and shortest section of the story, the final section being comprised by ‘research’ materials Levy has gleaned, including many many pages from Joe’s diary. There is an immediate collision of realities: JL died in the bomber crash on 10 May 1941, Joe survived the bombing raid in London.
This final section sets out the reality that pertains to Stuart Gratton’s world. It is told primarily but not exclusively from Joe’s viewpoint. But it is undercut, and thus so is the entire book, by a troubling syndrome that develops after Joe’s head injury in the Blitz.
Joe becomes prey to hallucinatory fugues, complete real and realistic periods of existence that continue for differing lengths of time, that lead in one way or another, to confrontation with JL. But JL’s presence curtails the fugue, sending Joe back to the point at which it begins, after which the future envelops in a manner that is similar, but far from identical to Joe’s illusion.
Joe grows steadily more concerned at the recurrence of these fugues. His marriage is crumbling. He discovers JL has been visiting Birgit behind his back, exactly as in JL’s story. He suspects JL s his baby’s father, not himself. He grows ever more disturbed by Birgit’s reliance on her elderly neighbour, Mrs Gratton (yes), and her strange, middle-aged son Harry (Stuart Gratton’s adopted father’s name is…). What is real? Is any of what he is living real, or is he in a fugue that may, at any moment, unravel?
And, as a Red Cross representative, Joe finds himself drawn, as a fluent German speaker, into participant in a completely unofficial, but ultimately successful Peace Conference, headed on the German side by Hess and on the English side by the King’s younger brother, George, Duke of Kent.
And Joe makes two crucial interventions in the peace talks, one in private conversation with Hess, the other to Churchill, who is refusing to even contemplate peace, as a result of which the accord is signed, the War ends, both Hess and Churchill offer Joe jobs in Berlin, and he sets off whom to his wife and the baby due to be born soon. The only drawback is that, on return to England, Joe learns that JL is dead, in the last British bombing raid of the War.
But when he arrives at his home, it is to a series of shocks: the Grattons have moved in, the baby is born, a son, that the Grattons have already decided, with Birgit’s full compliance, to call Stuart. And sat in an armchair, his presence not revealed at first, is JL, in his RAF uniform.
It has been a fugue, a very long fugue, covering six moths, and all of the fugues we have already seen, and Joe’s life unwinds all the way back to the Red Cross ambulance bearing him back to Manchester with his Blitz-induced injuries.
And the book ends.
And it’s that ending that undermines everything. The Separation has already proved itself to be a thing of uncertainty, every moment, every step on ground that is not firm, that is as stable as shifting sand, liable at any moment to turn into something else. But whilst we are clued in late to the unreality of much of what Joe is recording, as his successes grow ever more grandiose and compelling, his unyielding views persuading everyone, the disappearance of all reality casts everything into doubt.
Who is Stuart Gratton? Is he the son of J L Sawyer (one of them, at any rate)? Does his version exist at all? How does JL’s memoirs, diametrically opposed to Gratton’s world, exist in it? Is there anything in this book in which we can truly believe?
Has the story ended or, as I said above, has it merely stopped?
I can’t give you any answers because I don’t know any. The Separation is, for someone like myself, who needs some form of anchor in fiction, both unfulfilling and thought-provoking. It is, either way, a book that demands to be read.
I should also say that I found the idea that Britain would have compromised in 1941, would have cooperated, or at least adopted a position of benevolent neutrality towards Nazi Germany – even with Hess replacing Hitler as Fuhrer – extremely difficult to swallow. I look on such things with hindsight – I was not born until ten years after the war ended – and see the Nazis as an evil that had to be defeated, come what may, and the argument that Britain would have stood down from War to enable Germany to crush Bolshevism is plausible only in a theoretical sense.
Otherwise, my one overall criticism of the book is that, for large portions, especially in its later stages, it ceases to e a story and becomes an alternate history. Priest shows he knows how to construct a believable alternate world, but in places it becomes too interested in itself, to the detriment of the narrative.
Nevertheless, this is an extraordinary book, without the shape of a resolution that would make it a work of genius.

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