The Gradual is a novel about longeurs, about the invisible passage of time—the way a moment can stretch or contract to contain a lot or a little, the way a year or a decade might seem to pass too quickly or never to end. In this sense, it is likely deliberate that The Gradual is also by some margin the quietest of Christopher Priest’s novels, that it more or less lacks the twists and turns he is known for, and replaces plot for plod. If The Gradual reads like a short story pulled taut across the broader frame of a novel, that is part of Priest’s project: like its narrator’s life, The Gradual proceeds in fits and starts, slipping between periods of busy activity and passages of poetic bathos.
As I finished the novel, news broke that William Trevor, that Irish prose stylist par excellence, had died. Trevor’s short stories were spiky but also sanguine, everyday and extraordinary. In their focus on lost loves and vague regrets, they share an awful lot with The Gradual, which at its heart is a novel about an old man wondering where the years went—and wishing them all away again. In a 1989 interview with the Paris Review, Trevor observed of the short story:
I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.
The Glimpse is surely the title of a lost Christopher Priest novel, all the more so because his art proceeds in much the way Trevor maps out—Priestian narrators are never in full ownership of the facts, are always blind to the systems and laws which truly govern their world. In The Gradual, these are the relativistic laws of time; in Priest as in Trevor, life is lived through memory, inhabited in its reliving. As a writer of science fiction, Priest simply renders the metaphorical as the actual.
The novel comfortably occupies the literary space Priest has most recently carved out for himself. In his own review of The Gradual, Adam Roberts has remarked that Priest has entered a late style marked by coolness and austerity, and this novel certainly takes the spare prose of The Islanders (2011) or The Adjacent (2013) to new extremes—and, indeed, new heights, should it be the sort of style that works for you, should you like angular art in which every word seems somehow selected for its knottiness.
Both those earlier novels of Priest’s featured the Dream Archipelago, a mysterious selection of islands scattered across a planet not quite—but perhaps connected to—our own, which have featured in stories throughout his career. It appears now to be the natural home and expression of Priest’s late style, however: a geography of shifting landscapes and hazy boundaries, in which reflection and re-formation occur as a matter of course. Where The Islanders was a gazetteer of the archipelago and The Adjacent a set of incursions into it, however, The Gradual takes place entirely within its world.
The composer Alessandro Sussken lives in Glaund, a fascistic state engaged in an endless, faceless war with the other continental landmass of the Dream Archipelago. In his youth, Sussken stares across the ocean, squinting to perceive the shapes of the closest of the islands. He begins to write music about them—"The discovery of these islands was like hearing a great symphony for the first time," Sussken remembers (p. 22)—even as their existence is denied by Glaund. When relations thaw, he tours many of the islands with an orchestra, discovering on his return that time does not work in the islands as it does on the mainland—the gradual of the title is the opaque process by which travel between and amongst the islands leeches time away from the traveller, and all days, months, and years become truly relative.
This single tour ruins Sussken’s life, and yet only stokes his enthusiasm for the Archipelago, to which he returns in order to escape a Shostakovich-like commission from the Generalissima, Glaund’s feared and fearful dictator. The Archipelago is less a location for Sussken and more a source of inspiration, a literal fountain of youth, where, because time runs more slowly and even on occasion backwards ("Five years had passed—I had reached the age of, what?" [p. 118]), he can recapture not just the spirit of his early years—the enthusiasms and emotions of his formative works, the energies unleashed by composition—but its actuality, its physical reality: "Absolute age, travel through the gradual: the difference led to personal rejuvenation gained" (p. 253).
Not that Sussken is quite aware of his own urges and motivations, however ("I was always strong on impressions, weak on practical details," he admits [p. 73]). He reveals his world to us only (ho, ho), gradually, and—in another novel a fatal sin, this—often only when the details become important to the plot. But, the novel’s plot being the lived life of its protagonist, this conceit, rather than feeling merely convenient, in fact presented (to this reader at least) as authentic: high politics being a thing often done to a person rather than by them or through them. That is, we only learn about the Generalissima, the feared dictator of Glaund, a page before Sussken meets her ("I tried never to speak of her. She was anathema to my life" [p. 130]); we only learn about the political structures she has co-opted and corrupted when they reassert themselves in the wake of her eventual—and unheralded, almost comically sudden—fall ("There’s been a coup! The bitch is dead!" [p. 343]). Sussken is a musician, almost monomaniacally fixated on composition; politics impinges upon his consciousness only when it disrupts his work.
Not only that, but it is Sussken’s tragedy not to notice, to let time slip away. When he returns from his first tour and time has proceeded much quicker in Glaund than it has on the islands he visited, he is faced with losing all that he knew and took for granted, as if he’d had it for only a moment. We don’t know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone. Similarly, his brief fling in the Archipelago with a gifted musician, Cea, is over after just a night—but haunts Sussken for years. "I had not personified it directly to Cea," he reflects upon their eventual reunion, "but now that we were together again I realised that I had been burying, suppressing, a long-held wish to be with her again" (p. 285). All things are relative because our attention wavers; we observe inconsistently.
The novel’s theme, then, is regret and lost time. The only constant through Sussken’s life is his elder brother, Jacj, who is conscripted when Sussken is barely older than a boy and simply never returns. As the novel goes on, of course, we realise why—Jacj’s tour of duty is of an acceptable length in the Archipelago, but seems to last a lifetime from the perspective of Glaund. Sussken’s obsession with the islands is at least in part an obsession with finding Jacj, and this mission becomes in some ways Sussken’s purpose for living ("Jacj was […] all I had of the past life, the growing up that had made me what I have become" [p. 236]). The jealousy he experiences when his compositions appear to be stolen by a second-rate pop composer in the Archipelago, his terror at the Generalissima’s commission, his grief at losing his parents … all pale in comparison with the sense of loss he carries with him over Jacj. One of Priest’s previous novels, of course, was entitled The Separation (2002). Had he not already used it up, that is a title Priest might have justifiably plastered on the cover of this newer novel, also about two brothers peeled away from each other by war. The way in which time divides Sussken both from himself and Jacj is the novel’s immutable tragedy.
Oddly, then, The Gradual may be Priest’s most optimistic novel. He is an author not entirely unfairly associated with fatalism, but this latest entry in his oeuvre ends like a Shakespearean comedy, tied up in bonhomie almost too easily, in a way we distrust without any indications within the text itself that we should feel any unease at all. I’m not sure Priest or Sussken quite earn their happy ending—there is an uncharacteristic note of wish fulfilment here that doesn't quite match the rest of the novel’s vision of time as erratically forward-flowing ("Time does not matter as it elapses. But those few hours are permanent" [p. 192]); on the other hand, The Gradual is as much a novel about Sussken’s art—its costs and its boons—as it is his life, and in this sense it is his music and its improbable alchemy which triumphs over time (whilst also untethering itself from its creator).
Throughout The Gradual, Sussken hears the music of the islands, of the gradual—but so does his rival, the distant pop composer. Time is the medium through which art travels, across which it communicates, of course; but it’s also the source of all anxiety of influence. At the novel’s end, Sussken, however, finds a new muse: "I had an idea for a new composition, inspirational, arising not from […] the imperceptible advance of time, but from my own reality, the life I knew" (p. 346). This late blooming gives the novel’s happy ending a bittersweet note, a sense again of opportunities lost before we perceive they were present. The Gradual can sometimes read like a kind of artist’s prayer.
There is a structural strain that proceeds from depicting time and tedium. Whole passages of The Gradual seep by, deliberately so but no less drearily. They are lifted, of course, by the eloquent economy of Priest’s late style; but for large stretches this is a novel about not a lot happening, about waste and waiting. Prepare yourself for a novel unlike The Adjacent—there are no meaty subplots, no military compounds or switches in mode. There is only passage, from one port to the next. But such is life—notice it, record it, and recite it, while it’s here.