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Charles Palliser Biography

Charles Palliser comments:

Nationality: American and Irish. Born: the United States in December 1947. Education: Exeter College, Oxford, 1967-70, B.A. (honors) in English 1970; Wolfson College, Oxford, 1971-75, B. Litt. 1975. Career: Lecturer, Huddersfield Polytechnic, Yorkshire, 1972-74, and University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, 1974-90; visiting teacher in creative writing, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1986. Awards: American Academy award, 1991. Agent: Giles Gordon, Sheil and Associates, 43 Doughty Street, London WC2N 2LF, England; or, Diane Cleaver, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, 55 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10003, U.S.A.



The Quincunx. Edinburgh, Canongate, 1989; New York, Ballantine, 1990.

The Sensationist. London, Cape, 1991.

Betrayals. New York, Ballantine, 1995.

The Unburied. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.


On the evidence of my first two novels I would suggest that what motivates me as a novelist is the idea of surprising the reader into a new perception of something. So The Quincunx at first appeals to the expectations the reader derives from his or her knowledge of Victorian fiction and social history, but then gradually undermines these expectations with its distinctively modernist elements—the irony, the moral neutrality, and the final impossibility of ever knowing the truth for sure. Much more straightforwardly, The Sensationist fragments and "defamiliarizes" the everyday experiences of living in a big modern city, using jump-cuts, elisions, and highly metaphorical language to stress the strangeness of so much that we take for granted. In terms of subject matter, I seem to be interested in people in extreme situations—a young boy starving in the streets of London in the 1820s or a young man under pressure and at the edge of a breakdown in the 1980s.

I suppose I'm reacting against the idea of the novel as an unproblematical reflection of shared experience. Instead I see it as a tool for making discoveries—not just on the part of the reader, but also myself. For one of the strongest motives that drives me to write is out of curiosity, and I write in order to find things out. In the most obvious sense, writing lets me research things I don't know about already. (I sometimes think it's no more than an excuse to read the books and visit the places and meet the people I am already interested in.) But in another sense, writing enables me—or, rather, requires me—to find out things I already know. It's a way of forcing myself to think hard about difficult issues, to try to go beyond the evasions and half-truths that I'm satisfied with in my own life but which are ruthlessly exposed within a novel.

Writing fiction, moreover, is one of the few occupations in which you never have to repeat yourself. Every challenge is new and so the solution to it is unprecedented. And unlike most other pursuits, the challenge is the one that you've created for yourself. There's an interesting paradox there, and I often think of Houdini having himself elaborately manacled, coffined, and then dropped into a river. Like Houdini, you have to want to go on taking risks and making things difficult for yourself. Otherwise there's no point in doing it.

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Rarely has a first novel achieved the instant acclaim and the high sales enjoyed by Charles Palliser's The Quincunx. A big novel in the true sense of the word—it is over 800 pages long—it lacked the modesty and restricted ambition usually found in a writer's first offering. Instead, it appeared to aspire to the loftiness and the magnitude of a novel by Dickens or Wilkie Collins, both writers who are much admired by Palliser. The comparison is not fanciful for Palliser seems deliberately to have set out to write a Victorian-style novel, or at the very least a historical novel set in the 19th century, the great age of historical fiction. Certainly, his descriptions of the London underworld and of the moneymaking and industrialization that was overtaking London in the Victorian period are as vivid as anything to be found in Bleak House or The Woman in White. And like both Dickens and Collins, Palliser has a penchant for creating an intricate, even tortuous, plot which meanders through the narrative as ceaselessly as the main characters wander through the alleyways of London in search of hidden family secrets and lost inheritances.

At the heart of the novel is young John Huffman who is found living with his mother under the assumed name of Mellamphy. The small family is in hiding, but no reason is given for this state of affairs and attempts by John to unravel the secret are met with silence or obfuscation. Into this uneasy existence a sense of danger intrudes and John and his mother are forced to flee to London where poverty soon beckons. What follows is a tale of misunderstandings, criminal folly and corruption as mother and son attempt to enforce the codicil which will bring John into his rightful inheritance. A gallery of colorful characters is introduced into their lives, some for good, others for evil, and hope follows disaster until all the disparate elements in this rambling novel are disentangled in the final chapter. Throughout the novel Palliser holds the structure together in masterly fashion and his firm command of narrative allows the plot to unfold without ever running ahead of itself, no mean feat in a such an ambitious novel. A good example of his technique can be found in the episodes where his mother dies, and in the lunatic asylum where John comes face to face with his long-lost father.

Given the novel's range and scope and the author's unself-conscious use of Victorian literary themes it was hardly surprising that some critics dismissed The Quincunx as mere pastiche, an enjoyable read but one which only reproduced the big Victorian novel for a modern readership. There is some truth in the accusation but Palliser's ability to recreate scenes from Victorian life and his knowing awareness of the foibles of human behavior give this novel an existence of its own. By any reckoning it is an admirable achievement.

Palliser's second novel, The Sensationist, also broke most of the rules about what a novel should or should not be. Spare, intensely bleak and devoid of emotion, the prose has none of the literary embellishment and color which suffuses The Quincunx. Indeed, the casual reader would have been forgiven for thinking that the two novels had been written by different authors. Whereas John Huffman is painfully human in his reactions to life and suffers and celebrates accordingly, David, the "sensationist" of the title, is a man without heart, seemingly devoid of any recognizable human feeling. Here is a man who does not engage in life or even experience it; instead he moves through his existence without ever touching it or even being a part of it. A university lecturer in a hideously depicted Glasgow—all overbearing buildings and wasteland parks—he proceeds through a history of casual sexual couplings, all graphically described, yet all clearly depressing and meaningless, until, suddenly, he falls in love. The unexpected choice is Lucy, a painter with a young child, who resists his advances, thereby only adding strength to his attraction to her. With the roles reversed—David has always enjoyed easy sexual conquests—he is left mystified and tormented. Ultimately the relationship ends as unexpectedly as it began and David's last words mirror the sense of emptiness and withdrawal that dominates the novel: "I don't know anything about that. You'll have to ask someone else."

The appearance of both novels in quick succession introduced Palliser as a disturbing and quirky voice in modern fiction. In The Sensationist in particular he shows himself to be capable of capturing the artificiality of a life without roots, in which people are disfigured by their inability to make contact with their fellow human beings. It is as if he is saying that the sensationist, for all his easy conquests and his success in the academic field, is at heart an empty vessel, devoid of emotion or even the ability to nurture them.

Trevor Royle

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