Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
Like almost everything Ian MacLeod has written, The Summer Isles starts after the fact. The fact, in this case, is a fascist revolution in 1930s England which the narrator, Griffin Brooke, looks back on from the vantage of 1940 and his own sixty years. Like almost every Macleod protagonist—and unlike almost every SF protagonist—Brooke is a self-confessed second-rater, a failure. He knows from the start that as an Oxford History tutor he's an impostor: "I've always had this gossipy view of my subject … All the rest is a pretence of knowing the unknowable, or downright lies." (p.47) He knows, in particular, that it's too late to change anything about himself. At one point, half-jokingly, he tries to change history; he fails abjectly, and history changes anyway. This is, in short, a book embodying oldness. (It's also a book that can only be reviewed by going deep into spoiler territory; the alternative would be to stop writing after about 200 words.)
If there aren't many old protagonists in stories in general—and in SF and fantasy in particular—there are reasons for that. Stories, let's say very generally, are about change: change for the protagonist and, typically in the fantastic, change in the world too. Change requires a protagonist with the ability to build the rocket or lead the army—and it's also a matter of moral agency, of them choosing to do so, choice being the core of most stories. But it's much easier to envisage a young protagonist choosing to change themselves or others, because they're less trapped by all that they've lived through. Magic exists, but only as past magic. MacLeod protagonists rarely act very much at all in the stories they pass through. They do, however, spend a lot of time looking back at what fixed them into their final shape. Some of them, the lucky ones, do achieve peace of mind or at least a degree of self-knowledge about the ironies that bind them.
The first few chapters of The Summer Isles are almost word-perfect in setting out the ironies of Griffin Brooke's life. He is a closeted homosexual: he could hardly be uncloseted in this kind of fascist state. Yet his limited fame stems from having taught John Arthur, Britain's totalitarian leader, and (so Arthur testifies) having inspired him. He loathes Arthur's regime yet realises that his existence helps in a small way to legitimise it. (One remembers that the word "fascism" comes from the Latin fasces, the bundle of twigs bound together that symbolised the state's greater strength than the individuals comprising it.) And he has just been diagnosed with cancer. The subversive in the fascist state; the cancer in the healthy body; the homosexual in almost any society: these metaphors play off each other, and Griffin is too intelligent not to see them or have his self-perception shaped by them.
Perhaps the most central is Griffin's homosexuality: certainly, it's the most consistently present through the book. He had a formative affair with a young soldier named Francis Eveleigh in 1914, when he was 34 and Eveleigh was 19. Eveleigh departed from him in 1916 and since then, we understand, Griffin has led a life embracing a good deal of anonymous furtive sex and very little love. His sense of his sexuality is on the one hand entirely free of self-recrimination. On the other hand, though, it's uncomfortably full of the language of violence and dirtiness: even recalling his idyll with Francis, he recalls a kiss that tasted of "a sour mixture of mud and shit." (p. 86) To spend a few moments theorising, there are two very distinct strands in the depiction of male homosexuality in British literature over the last century and a bit. There's the strand that sees it as something forbidden, often with Edens of desire in the (schoolboy or undergraduate) past and subsequent lives crippled by the failure to take the impossible chance. The root work here is A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad (1896), with Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1945) a later (and odder) entry in the canon. Alan Bennett's recent play The History Boys (2004) is virtually an anthology of the energies and poignancy of these works. On the other hand, there's a strand which is celebratory and progressively more open: that of Auden's poetry and more recently of novelists like David Leavitt and Alan Hollinghurst, with Oscar Wilde as their patron saint. And once in a while you can see one of these schools critiquing the other, as in Auden's devastating poem on Housman ("Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust / Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer; / Food was his public love, his private lust / Something to do with violence and the poor."). Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love (1998), with its afterlife meeting between Housman and Wilde, puts the argument (the mutual incomprehension) in definitive form.
Griffin's world, then, is of the first kind with no countervailing voice from the second. If there's a problem with the way it's set out in the first half of the book, it's that the metaphors line up almost too exactly, chime too perfectly. You feel that a character like Griffin, at the confluence of so much in his world, is too close to being a device: The Summer Isles feels like a novel, not like life. And then, almost exactly at the half-way point of the book, Griffin remembers a night in an East End pub in the 1920s when he saw John Arthur in the flesh for the first time:
His face looked pale and his hands were stained with mud or blood, yet he managed to keep an easy dignity as he balanced there with the dusty rows of glasses stacked behind him. He raised his arms and smiled as he looked down, stilling us. Although he had changed in the fifteen years since I had seen him, it was that smile that finally made me certain. I was sure that this man—this John Arthur they were calling for—was my Francis Eveleigh.
But this wasn't my Francis. I knew that about him straight away, too. He'd changed in all the ways that men do as they get older (although he still looked achingly young). There were fine lines around his eyes. His mouth was thinner. Grey was already frosting his hair. But he'd changed more fundamentally—it was as if something about him had been lost, or perhaps added or replaced. To this day, I'm not sure what it is. (p. 134)
The rest of the novel is devoted to exploring the implications of this revelation. John Arthur is indeed Francis Eveleigh (he swapped identities in the chaos of the trenches of World War I). He and Griffin meet and talk for one last time on "Arthur's" birthday; a calamity occurs, and we last see Griffin heading off into exile. And while there's no denying the poignancy that MacLeod manages to impart to the scenes between the two of them, I simply found these sections unbelievable. Not that I have a problem with imagining that a fascist leader could be a repressed homosexual, but I do have a problem with imagining that he could ascend to the leadership of his country—showing, we are told, considerable steel—without doing anything to silence the one man who knows the most central facts of his life. Homosexuals are regularly shipped off for "treatment" in Arthur's state: are we really to believe that only scruple prevented him from doing the same to Griffin? There's a huge discontinuity between the Francis Eveleigh we see in the flashbacks and the John Arthur of 1940, in a way that there isn't between the Hitler of 1914 and the dictator of 1940. MacLeod's point, I think, is that World War I so totally destroyed the old certainties of history that Eveleigh's rebirth can stand for that of the modern world. But you also have to ask whether Griffin's account is entirely accurate, and whether he isn't romanticising Eveleigh.
(It should be said that there are at least a few uncertainties in the timeline. The bulk of the novel is set in 1940; Griffin says (p. 155) that the night he saw John Arthur/Francis Eveleigh in that East End pub was "exactly fifteen years [ago]"; in his account of that night (p. 134), he says that he had last seen Francis fifteen years before. But thirty years before 1940 is 1910, and we know that their affair took place in 1914. I'll be benign and assume these inconsistencies—and a few others—aren't glitches but a deliberate attempt to flag for the reader that Griffin isn't a reliable narrator. But I don't see where his unreliability gets us, aesthetically. If, say, Francis was more exploitative and openly intolerant in his views in 1914, it actually lessens the charge of nostalgia that Griffin's narrative is supposed to carry. Perhaps MacLeod is hinting that nostalgia of the Griffin/Housman kind is self-deceit of the kind that Arthur exploits.)
Anyway, romanticising the past, as Housman does with his blue remembered hills, is what Griffin very self-consciously does. In 1940, he takes a train-trip to the remote parts of Scotland where he and Francis first travelled during World War I; he finds there a tattered holiday poster with the slogan "Relocate to the Summer Isles." "The Summer Isles" was the name given to the Northwestern Scottish Isles when Griffin and Francis first went there. But, as he says in 1940, "They're not on the new map I was given from the Automobile Association. It's just blue sea as if they'd sunk or something." (94) At this point, and in one relatively brief interrogation sequence towards the end of the book, Griffin's narrative is closest to that of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) and its implication that totalitarianism can (has to) rewrite reality.
MacLeod is far less interested than Orwell in the abstract, almost epistemological, issues that form the bedrock arguments of Nineteen Eighty-four; he's more preoccupied with how fascism could happen in England and what its roots would be. One of them, he suggests, would be William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890) with its Marxist-influenced vision of a perfected England. Arthur's fascists, it's clear, have savagely misprisioned Morris and used his work as a pretext for playing on some old intolerances. Early on in the book, Griffin visits the home of a friend to find, from a neighbour, that he and his whole family have been "disappeared" because the wife was Jewish. There's a superb short scene between Griffin and the neighbour (pp. 43-45) which shows how easily English not-in-my-back-yard-ism could become a vehicle for the willed blindness that intolerance thrives on. It's only one of many occasions when you realise how closely imagined is John Arthur's England, and how finely balanced is Griffin's voice.
In the end, some shifts do occur in Griffin's world, partly providing an answer to a dilemma which has bothered him throughout the book. It's an old historical debate: does change occur because of individuals or social and historical forces? Any alternate history inevitably places its bets on one side or other. The Summer Isles seems to argue, in tune with Griffin's "gossipy" view of history, that individuals are what matters: John Arthur's emergence is the most significant difference between its history and ours. But Griffin seems at the end to suggest that some events would have happened anyway, and Arthur was surely in the right place at the right time. For a book which MacLeod surely intends in part as a warning against the easiness of intolerance, The Summer Isles takes a pretty agnostic view about the worth of individuals. Novels of change have to assign some worth to moral agency: The Summer Isles half-believes in change, and half-believes in agency. What it most pledges allegiance to is inwardness, Griffin's self and voice, however trapped they may be by their author. For all my reservations—about the novel's excessive symmetry and the author's too-obvious shaping hand—this is still an enormously suggestive and hugely readable novel, one of the two or three best works of SF published last year. If only, you say to yourself, MacLeod could trust the world more and grip the story less.