The Gradual by Christopher Priest review – a haunting journey in time travel
A composer’s tour of a Dream Archipelago explores themes of time, memory and the petty frustrations of travel
Critics sometimes talk of an artist’s “late style”. Shakespeare’s last plays have a distinct flavour all their own, as do Beethoven’s late quartets, or Henry James’s densely fluid later novels. To pick a more contemporary example, we can ponder both the continuities and the differences between early David Bowie and his last album Blackstar. Edward Said has written well on this topic: how certain artists use a lifetime’s wisdom and technical maturity to do something both recognisably their own and also new, even contradictory, “a form of exile from their own milieu”.
Such thoughts are provoked by reading Christopher Priest’s new novel, since Priest, now in his 70s, has moved into a potent late phase of his art. He has always deployed unostentatious prose to tell elegantly complex stories about alienation and loss; about twins, conjuration, displacement and strangeness. His most recent fiction still does all this, but it feels somehow different: cooler, more austere, balancing his perennial fascination with mortality against a new sense of the possibilities of restitution.
Priest has been writing about his imaginary Dream Archipelago, a world of varied, unmappable islands in an endless sea, since the 1970s. Back then the archipelago tended to feature in short stories, and the islands themselves had a sunny-skies, blue-seas Mediterranean flavour. After a time writing novels set in our world, including The Prestige, which was well filmed by Christopher Nolan, Priest has returned to his islands with 2012’s The Islanders and 2013’s The Adjacent. And now The Gradual, in which the islands have a greyer, more northern vibe to them.
Alessandro Sussken is a brilliant musician and composer living in the iron-curtain-ish Republic of Glaund. Glaund is fighting an Orwellian never-ending war with another island called Faiandland, and although all the actual fighting happens on a distant southern continent, the privations of war touch every aspect of island life. Sussken’s older brother is conscripted to fight, but Sussken’s burgeoning musical reputation means he instead joins a concert tour of the archipelago. During his travels he discovers that time seems to slip in unpredictable ways from one island to the next. A journey that lasts a few months for him corresponds to many years passing on Glaund. When he returns home his parents have died, while his wife has given up on him and left.
During a second tour Sussken encounters certain “adepts” who promise they can eliminate this pernicious time slippage – the “gradual” of the book’s title – by adding notches and lines to certain wand-like “staves” travellers must carry with them. The adepts haunt the docks and unloading areas, and fleece travellers for large sums of money before leading them on bizarre walks or random car journeys to compensate for the “temporal detriment”. Anybody who has faced airport touts and hawkers will recognise the type; but these adepts have something uncanny about them. The paths they lead travellers on reminded me very much of Tarkovsky’s Stalker – that baffling, brilliant film, which was surely an influence on this powerfully disorienting and equally brilliant novel.
Priest is straightforward about what happens to Sussken – which islands he goes to in which order, which musical pieces he composes where – but to summarise the plot would be pointless. Most of this book is about the longueurs and petty frustrations of travel, of passport offices (called, here, “Shelterate offices”) and jobsworth officials, of unsatisfactory hotels and cheap restaurants. It captures all that very well. But the plot is not Sussken travelling from place to place; rather, it is the intermittencies of time itself, the way the slow drip of aging throws up sudden startlements overnight. Into this basic experiential truth Priest works a series of meditations on memory and inspiration, on the relationship between place and art.
The Gradual is a time travel story, but one unlike any other I have read. Most examples of time-travel science fiction embody a simple formal pattern, most commonly a loop or circle shape, occasionally a branching-tree structure. The Gradual carefully constructs a much more filigree, intricate structure to embody its temporal slippage, and it is very much to Priest’s credit as a writer that this always feels coherent. It is expressive of the way the complications of time are full of curlicues and baroque folds as well as larger branches and trunks: the way time fractalises at the same time as it sweeps us along its strong currents. The result is amazing, haunting, eloquently baffling and clever.