Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, September 28, 2018

FORGOTTEN BOOK: THE BRIGHTFOUNT DIARIES

The Brightfount Diaries by Brian W. Aldiss (1955)


The author (1925-2017) was one of the most respected and innovative writers in the science fiction field.  Not content with just one hat, Brian W. Aldiss was also a poet, essayist, artist, editor, and critic.  Aldiss was never one to sit on his laurels.  Throughout his career he kept pushing the boundaries of language and themes, often revisiting literary and genre classics and putting a new twist on them.  His "Hothouse" series imagined a future where Earth and its moon were connected by giant plants.  Report on Probability A is credited as the first science fiction "anti-novel" (and a damned good one it is).  Barefoot in the Head envisions a Europe that has been hit by a "hallucinogenic bomb" and was touted as a prime example of the British "New Wave."  The Malacia Tapestry is a dense, baroque look at an alternate Venice.  The Hellicona Trilogy is a modern classic of world building.  The Squire Quartet and the Horatio Stubbs Trilogy are sly excursions into the literary novel.  Frankenstein Unbound, Moreau's Other Island, and Dracula Unbound are riffs on the classic horror novels, just as Jocasta is a riff on the tragedies of Sophocles.  "The Saliva Tree" is a homage to H. G. Wells by way of H. P. Lovecraft.  "Supertoys Last All Summer Long" was to be adapted by Stanley Kubrick as a film; the project was then taken on by Stephen Spielberg and filmed as A.I.  Aldiss' Brothers of the Head gives us a Siamese twin rock star (stars?) who have a third dormant head that is beginning to awake.  And so on and so on...

His work as a critic and editor is just as impressive.

Aldiss won two Hugo awards, one Nebula Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.  He was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.  He was awarded an OBE for his services to literature.  Aldiss co-founded the first journal of science fiction criticism and was vice-president of the international H. G. Wells Society, as well as co-president of the Birmingham Science Fiction Group.  Aldiss served as literary editor for the Oxford Mail for many years.

As for The Brightfound Diaries (you knew I would get to this sooner or later), It is based on a series of sketches about life in a fictional book store which were published in the trade magazine The Bookseller.  (Aldiss himself worked in such a bookstore from 1947 until the middle Fifties.)  The bookstore is old and rambling, constantly undergoing renovation, and is plagued by mice.  The staff cower in fear of the occasional visit from the owner's wife.  For a while, one of the wife's cousins comes in to assist the store when one of the employees had to take time off for a medical emergency; the cousin was useless on the floor and all were relieved when she began using her wiorking hours to carry on an affair with one of the managers.  One of the employees is an intelligent woman whose biting sarcasm often goes over the customers' heads.  Another is a free spirit who is apt to say or do almost anything.  And then there's the narrator.

His name is Peter and his last name may or may not be Aldiss.  He's young and has been working in the bookstore for four years.  He has a complicated love life and an even more complicated family life, especially with his eccentric Uncle Leo and Leo's equally eccentric wife.  The book is told through Peter's diary entries from late June to Christmas day -- perhaps equally divided between Peter's work life and family life.  The dairy is full of comments by and observations about the store's customers and employees.  There's the author, celebrated in his own mind, who plans "to prune Proust -- cut it by two-thirds -- knock it into proper chronological order, etc., etc."  and there's the inevitable customer who is looking for a "recent book on sex whose title he had forgotten, but the blurb said 'Will appeal alike to the specialist and the general reader'"  In the end he paid four pounds for Howard's Early English Drug Jars.  And the customer who sold a large books about birds to the store, saying, "I'm glad to get rid of it -- it's very dull."  To which he was told, "Ah, Yawnithology!"

Aldiss's gentle and warm approach, as well as his spot-on observations, soon made his sketches the most popular part of The Bookman and brought them to the attention of publisher Charles Faber, who asked Aldiss to put them into book form.  The success of The Brightfount Diaries led Faber to ask Aldiss if he had anything else and led to the publication of his first collection, Space, Time and Nathaniel.  Thus an authorial career was born and thus a bookselling career was dropped.

The Brightfount Diaries is a quiet and witty book, reminiscent of Robertson Davies' magnificent The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks.

Highly recommended.

5 comments:

  1. I've enjoyed Brian Aldiss's work for decades. His science fiction is brilliant and innovative. I've also admired Aldiss's anthologies. Aldiss's history of SF is also required reading for any serious science fiction reader. I'll have to track down a copy of THE BRIGHTFOUND DIARIES. Nice review!

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  2. One I've meant to read for some time...ever read his autobiographical novels?

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