Sunday, 13 June 2004

A Blog at Bedtime

Posted by Hello
I've had Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian on my To Read shelf for the best part of two years. When I got round to reading it - and I expect to do that Real Soon Now - I would, I'm sure, have let you know what a fine book it is.

But I just got an email from the Frootbat, who can do it so much better than I:

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian is one of the strangest, cruelest, most downright majestic books I have ever read and I urge you all to read it now. It is a genuine masterpiece, the sort of book one feels privileged to have read.

John Banville in his original review (the book is nearly 20 years old) said that it reads "like a conflation of the Inferno, The Iliad and Moby Dick' and other reviewers mentioned Hieronymous Bosch, Edgar Allan Poe, the Marquis de Sade and even Milton - and there is no question in my mind (John Banville will be much relieved to hear) that it truly belongs in that exalted company.

Someone reviewing another of McCarthy's books talked of the true hero - 'as always in McCarthy's books' - being the language, and in Blood Meridian I found myself stopping continually to reread sentences, paragraphs and whole pages for the sheer pleasure - and marking them to go back to. But McCarthy is no mere stylist - it's more as if he imagines every element of his narrative in detail and savours it for all its nuances before committing himself to the words to describe it.

Time after time scenes seems to flash into real life in the mind because of the clarity and poetic power with which he describes them; for example, the way a fire behaves in wind, or the effects on shallow water of the passage of men and horses. And the story never flags, not once.

The fact that it is set in the 1840s in the Tex/Mex borderlands and based on historical events makes it sound like a kind of Western historical novel. It's not.

From what I can make out on this first reading, it's about the only true knowledge of oneself and the world being gained from descending into utter lawlessness. No justice, no loyalty, no morality - just violence, torture, pain and death. The character whose life begins and ends the novel - the kid - attains some kind of humanity during his passage from loveless childhood to violent death at 45, but it's only relative - in any more conventional novel he'd be a cold, dysfunctional villain. His triumph comes from holding back from immersing himself completely in anarchy, unlike his nemesis, The Judge, who is a very strange, almost mutant, human being, but may also be an immortal force of Chaos itself.

The only novels I can think of that have anything in common with Blood Meridian are Russell Hoban's Pilgermann and Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird. That is only because they have something of the apocalyptic violence in a world that is not quite ours, but is Blood Meridian's almost entire being.

It's a gruelling but strangely exhilarating - and somehow, despite its horrors, uplifting - read, but certainly not for the faint-hearted. If any of you are still interested after all of this, but reluctant to jump straight into something so strange and violent, I'd recommend you start with the Border Trilogy, especially All The Pretty Horses. This, too, is a masterpiece (and I assure you - I don't use that word lightly); after reading it you too will be strangely willing to have Cormac McCarthy's babies. Should he honour you by suggesting it.

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