Pursuing Christopher Priest: Uncollected Thoughts on ‘The Gradual’

Two years ago, I completed an initial review of Christopher Priest’s novels (excluding most of the earlier, primarily SF books) by looking at his latest novel, 2013’s The Adjacent, a magnificent book then still only on hardback. It brought together so many aspects of Priest’s body of work, immersed itself so thoroughly in his central theme of Unreality, that I said then that I would not be surprised if it were his final novel, so completely did it seem to sum up everything.
I’m more than happy to have been wrong about that, as this week Priest published yet another novel – his third in five years, which is positively prolific for him – set firmly in his increasingly dominant Dream Archipelago. The Gradual, which I have only read once and already look forward to re-reading, makes that world even more real.
For those unfamiliar with the Dream Archipelago, this concept originated as a psychological landscape, a background to a small number of Seventies’ short stories, before becoming an intrinsic, but potentially unreal setting for The Affirmation, the 1979 novel that drew attention from the literary world to Priest.
The world of the Archipelago is an Earth, a planet (though it is still very difficult to think of it in such concrete, limited terms) consisting of two continental land-masses, one in each hemisphere, separated by the broad, equatorial Midway Sea, which contains hundreds of islands of differing sizes, shapes, cultures, geographies and histories, more even than Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea.
The northern continent is divided between two nations, Faianland and Glaund, existing in a state of perpetual War, hundreds of years old, for reasons long since lost. The fighting, when the war is physical, takes place on the bare, frozen, uninhabited southern continent. The Dream Archipelago, lying between, is Neutral, by external imposition, by internal choice, by custom, preference, tradition and a strict insistence.
In The Gradual, which is in many ways the most straightforward, single-minded story Priest has ever set in this unusual existence, he introduces two new elements that form the basis of the story. The novel is narrated by Alessandro Sussken, a composer and musician and, for the first time, a native of Glaund. All previous stories have either featured natives of Faianland, exploring the Archipelago, or those native to its Neutrality.
The second element, the gradual itself, is a concept that Priest retrofits into the Archipelago, an aspect of time that has previously gone unremarked upon. What this is, as in The Adjacent, is never explained in plain words, though the reader quickly learns the shape of it when it comes to the forefront of the story, in its latter stages.
Sussken is the younger son of professional musicians, resident in Errest, a town in Glaund. He has a brother, Jacj, four years older, who is vital to the story though he is absent from it for almost its whole length. Glaund is a cold, forbidding, enclosed, wintry country, reflecting its political structure. It is a repressed, repressive country, fascist in form, though communistic in its deprivation. Midway through the story, we understand that it is ruled by a military junta that overthrew a ‘corrupt’ civilian government around the time Alessandro is born.
Life in Glaund is so repressed that Sussken is seven before he discovers the existence of the islands, and even then he can only see three dim outlines: he must build up the islands and their life out of his own imagination. Not coincidentally, given that he lives for music, they are the spark for his earliest compositions. He grows into a well-respected, and gradually well-known composer, and a successful session musician.
Indeed, Sandro falls in love with, and marries Alynna, a talented pianist.
All goes well for several years, well into Sussken’s forties. His only concern is the discovery that a minor Archipelago musician, going by the name of And Ante, is plagiarising him pretty comprehensively, converting Sandro’s music into crude guitar-based rock.
But throughout this period, Sandro’s narrative keeps foreshadowing an end to his good times, the collapse of his life, which becomes when he is invited to participate in a cultural tour of the Archipelago, with a full orchestra, singers, composers etc.
The sixteen week tour is a splendid success, though Sandro returns with a sense of guilt for sleeping with the pianist ho so beautifully interpreted his Piano Concerto on the final night of the tour. This is but a minor shadow, and one that pales against the situation he discovers when he returns. His parents are dead, his wife has vanished, he is in horrendous debt, his home and possessions about to be seized. And if this is not bad enough of itself, this situation has arisen because, though Sandro can account for every day of his sixteen weeks away, nineteen months have elapsed in Glaund.
His wife, believing herself cruelly abandoned, has found another man, and even though Sussken rebuilds his financial probity, she suspects him of things he cannot explain, unless he can explain why time has betrayed him in this fashion.
Over time, Sandro’s abilities and his reputation only grow. And Ante has turned to jazz, and is no longer plagiarising him. His main concern is with his long-missing brother, Jacj, who conscriptive duty was supposed to be for only four years but who has been gone decades. Sussken starts to search for him, by such limited means as are available to him (the internet and e-mail have reached this world but Social Networking was stomped out by Glaund before it ever got going).
When he hears that a regiment, whose number is not too far away from that of his missing brother, is due to return, Sandro heads for the docks. However, he is intercepted by mysterious officials and given a very-Kafkaesque ride that brings him to, of all things, a ceremony presided over by Glaund’s female Generalissimo, honouring him in the highest words.
Unfortunately it also brings with it a commission to write a new piece of national music, entirely of Sussken’s free composition, except, that is, for all the national and patriotic requirements that will ensure Sandro will never be taken seriously as a composer again. Despite his instant, loathing hatred of the Dictator, Sussken can’t actually refuse, so he does the next best thing: he pockets the extraordinarily generous compensation and flees to the islands.
Sandro has harboured dreams of settling there since his earlier visit, with his preferred destination the distant island of Terrill, ironically the home of And Ante(as well as Cel, the pianist he slept with). Within the confines of island bureaucracy, and the risk of pursuit, it seems a very simple thing, but it is here that Priest introduces the gradual itself, which grows to become a very complex influence on Sussken’s life entirely.
In The Islanders and The Adjacent, Priest introduced the concept of a kind of Vortex, constantly circling the Archipelago, making time travel a practical reality. Now, he draws this down from the macro to the micro level. To Travel among the islands is to not merely travel in space but in time: each island exists in some kind of subjective time that differs in relation to each other island, and travellers move up and down the gradual, or gradient.
Neither Priest nor we are interested in the mechanics of how that works. It is the explanation for the length of Sussken’s concert tour, but everywhere he goes it affects him by strange and unpredictable increments.
He is fortunate, or perhaps not, to fall under the guidance of adepts, who appear and disappear, taking him on strange diversions that correct his gradual, as measured by the strange wooden shaft all Archipelagans and visitors must carry, known as a stave. In some strange manner, the stave records and measures its holder’s temporal divergence from what seems to be Absolute Time, howsoever that is measured and wheresoever it actually exists.
By the time Sussken reaches Terrill, his personal time is back in balance. The island is no longer what he remembers, especially not as a home to musicians, and though he is reunited with Cea (and back to bed with her) she is now a jazz pianist to survive. For a moment, he questions his future, but decisions are put into suspense by massive eruptions from the island’s volcano, that spur a miraculous and unique experience as Sandro conceives and creates a tremendous musical work, out of nothing.
He also undergoes an incredible physical restoration, turned back to his late twenties bodily.
Unfortunately, Sandro discovers he is not alone in this. Cea demands he meet her father, Ormand Hall, who is equally improbably young. He is also the former rock musician And Ante. But he, like Sandro, is attuned to the beat of the island, the musical impulse. Both read it, both understand it. It is not Sandro’s creation after all. And nor is he now acceptable to Cea: she has had enough of it from her father not to take it in a lover.
Sussken’s realisation prompts the end of his life as a musician. He slips away to join the adepts, learning quickly from them how to manage people’s individual times. As he masters the gradual, he becomes uprooted in time, using it to his own purpose, going wherever he wishes, whenever he wishes, by balancing the gradual.
Until he calculates a date with great precision, a time outside the Archipelago, back in Glaund. It is the day Jacj returns and, unexpectedly, the day the Generalissimo is assassinated. When this is in time, if absolute time can be said to exist, Priest leaves unexplained. Perhaps things will become clearer on re-reading. Perhaps time is now in flux, with Sandro able to alter it at will. For Jacj is still young, and his and Sandro’s parents live. Even Jacj’s cat lives.
As I said, this is a first reading, and there will be more to come. There is more to get my head round. But Priest remains as strong and thoughtful a writer as ever. Another book will be most welcome. The Dream Archipelago remains a fascinating place to think upon.
But I’m no longer sure I would want to go there…

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