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Colin (Gerald Dryden) Thubron Biography

Colin Thubron comments:

Nationality: British. Born: London, 1939. Education: Eton College, Berkshire, 1953-57. Career: Editorial assistant, Hutchinson, publishers, London, 1959-62; production editor, Macmillan, publishers, New York, 1964-65; since 1965 freelance documentary filmmaker and writer. Awards: PEN award, 1985; Thomas Cook award, for travel book, 1988; Hawthornden prize, 1989. Agent: Gillon Aitken and Stone, 29 Fernshaw Road, London SW10 0TG.



The God in the Mountain. London, Heinemann, and New York, Norton, 1977.

Emperor. London, Heinemann, 1978.

A Cruel Madness. London, Heinemann, 1984; New York, AtlanticMonthly Press, 1985.

Falling. London, Heinemann, 1989; New York, Atlantic MonthlyPress, 1990.

Turning Back the Sun. London, Heinemann, 1991; New York, HarperPerennial, 1994.

Distance. London, Heinemann, 1996.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Nothing Has Changed," in Firebird 4, edited by R. Robertson. London, Penguin, 1985.

"The Ear," in Foreign Exchange, edited by Julian Evans. London, Sphere, 1985.


Radio Plays:

Emperor, from his own novel, 1989; A Cruel Madness, from his own novel, 1991.


Mirror to Damascus. London, Heinemann, 1967; Boston, LittleBrown, 1968.

The Hills of Adonis: A Quest in Lebanon. London, Heinemann, 1968;Boston, Little Brown, 1969.

Jerusalem, photographs by Alistair Duncan. London, Heinemann, and Boston, Little Brown, 1969.

Journey into Cyprus. London, Heinemann, 1975.

Istanbul, with others. Amsterdam, Time-Life, 1978.

The Venetians, with others. Alexandria, Virginia, Time-Life, 1980.

The Ancient Mariners, with others. Alexandria, Virginia, Time-Life, 1981.

The Royal Opera House Covent Garden, photographs by CliveBoursnell. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1982.

Among the Russians. London, Heinemann, 1983; as Where the Nights Are Longest: Travels by Car Through Western Russia. New York, Random House, 1984.

Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China. London, Heinemann, 1987; New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988.

The Silk Road China: Beyond the Celestial Kingdom. London, Pyramid, 1989.

The Lost Heart of Asia. London, Heinemann, and New York, HarperCollins, 1994.

In Siberia. New York, HarperCollins, 1999.


My work as a novelist arises less from a fascination with plot or even character, than with the exploration of areas of experience which are distressing or (to me) unresolved. Hence the novels revolve around loss of religious faith, pain of love, enigma of memory; the gulf between ideal and reality.

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Colin Thubron is well known as a travel writer but enjoys a growing reputation as a novelist. Thubron himself has stressed the distinction between his travel books, which focus away from himself on exterior landscapes, and the novels, which explore the strange interior landscape of the self. However, the novels are also intense love stories mainly ending in death. In three of them, the male protagonist kills the woman he loves most, though in widely differing circumstances. Part of the movement of the second novel, Emperor (it is set on a journey) is the Empress Fausta's realization that her husband will kill her and we are told in a postscript that this eventually happens. In A Cruel Madness, the man kills literally to touch his lover's heart, and Falling meditates about the mercy killing of a paralysed trapeze artist, Clara, by her lover, Mark.

Thubron claims retarded adolescence for his passive male heroes. The most deranged of the three, Daniel of A Cruel Madness, says he gives "a plausible imitation of masculinity," and even Constantine, the Emperor, conquers while feeling unable to control his wife, his emotions, and his religion. This so called "immaturity" is Thubron's Romanticism, predominant in both his fiction and travel writing—a quest for something he says he knows intellectually is not there.

In the novels, the quest is contained within a love affair, pursuing a woman who tends to be idealized and who has an inaccessible part: a region the male hero cannot enter. The resulting frustration is most evidently dangerous in A Cruel Madness, set in a mental hospital. We become increasingly aware of the narrator's fantasy world, blamed on the shadowy Sophia, who closed herself to him. The same motif occurs in a simpler form in The God in the Mountain: Julian missed the early passionate surrender of Ekaterina because he was too immature to give himself to their relationship. Returning after many years, he finds her unhappily married, with that part of her closed to him, and unable to give herself fully now that he is ready. Fausta, in Emperor, is remote and cannot love her husband, perhaps through damage in childhood. A profound and continuing dependence is demonstrated between them, even though she realizes it will end in her death. Falling is a study in loving two women, and Mark the narrator finds parts of both unreachable. He comes to need most the independent Clara, who is culturally furthest from him (in the circus) and who chooses to leave him (in death): "She acknowledged a human separateness which I never deeply accepted."

Thubron's novels exhibit a tension between an intellectual unbeliever and a romantic quest for perfect fulfillment in love or in God. This duality influences the novel's structure as the plots increase the tension to a moment of tragic action (Julian goes to the mountain, Clara falls, Daniel strikes, Constantine has a vision) and then a release at the end, usually in death, where Romantic and "realist" are resolved. Thubron experiments with narrative forms, notably in Emperor with multiple narration from the journals, diaries, and letters of the major characters. Some accounts are omitted, ostensibly "lost," "damaged by rain" etc., so what we have is an artful selection by the author disguised as historical chance.

This carefully arranged yet apparently wandering text is reinterpreted in A Cruel Madness and Falling. The former is narrated by a wandering mind but the novel is effectively organised to release significant information to the reader. Falling is similar, except that Mark is not mad but remembering in prison, and there is also the governing metaphor of the Fall. Clara, the swallow, falls literally, and disastrously because she won't use a safety net. Katherine makes a stained glass window of the Fall from heaven and all three fall in love, unsafely. Turning Back the Sun may offer hope in the romantic quest in sexual terms if not in the encounter with other cultures. Set in an unnamed colonial country, Rayner, a doctor, is exiled to a frontier town where "savages" roam, dangerous but also vulnerable. Romantically longing for his childhood home, "the Capital," he loves Zoe, another of Thubron's heroines desired for their separateness, their intense selves. Rayner, unusually, avoids tragedy when he treats the demonized savages but cannot cure a mysterious skin disease blackening the white colonists. After repression and torture, a massacre of savages is averted when Rayner's army patrol witness their religious attempt to "turn back the sun" to restore an Eden before sin and death. Rayner is able to stay with Zoe but the novel's colonial themes are tentatively mapped rather than thoroughly explored. Yet this novel is characteristic of Thubron's work in its longing for intensity, beyond the well-trodden margins of safety.

—S.A. Rowland

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