June books 4) Roger Zelazny

4) Roger Zelazny by Jane Lindskold

There’s quite a back-story to this literary biography. It was written in 1990-92; published in 1993; in 1994 the author moved to New Mexico to live with Zelazny; but he was already ill and died in 1995 (on 14 June, almost exactly 9 years ago).

Zelazny’s always been a favourite author of mine, and part of the attraction of reading this, and also Theodore Krulik’s earlier literary biography, published in 1986, which I read last year is simply the fun of sharing an enthusiasm with the author. Lindskold’s is very definitely the better book. She throws aside all attempts at literary theory and basically identifies the main influences on Zelazny, with examples from all his published works, including some I had forgotten and, to my surprise, one or two I hadn’t known about and must now try and get hold of.

An aside on the literary analysis of sf. When it’s done well, as by John Clute and most of his co-authors in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction or indeed by and most of her collaborators in Reading the Vampire Slayer, I find it very much worth reading. I can’t understand people like the Amazon reviewer who wrote of Clute’s “pseudo-academic gibberish designed to appease Harold Bloom and his cronies which keeps you flipping back to the glossary as his burdensome tome clefts large cavities in your thighs” – especially since this was in a review of the woeful Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. But when it’s done badly, as with Krulik’s volume on Zelazny and I’m afraid one or two of the essays in the books mentioned above (and in Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature) then it’s just embarrassing. There are deep and meaningful things to be said about science fiction, but not everyone is equipped to say them and I think it’s to Lindskold’s credit that she went for a more biographical than theoretical approach to her subject.

When I read a book like this I want the pieces to fit together in my mind better than they did before – and her description of Zelazny’s attraction to the visual arts, to particular well-loved places, and to poetry, and the way that this worked out in his fiction, did make a lot of sense to me. I also want one or two insights that I hadn’t spotted before, and she duly supplied them by pointing out how several of Zelazny’s stories echo the Faust legend, and also how the descent into hell is also revisited several times. She even managed to make me feel I should reread the second Chronicles of Amber again, pointing out various things that rather redeem the five volumes (which I have always tended to feel are rather inferior in comparison with the first five).

She also makes a good defence of Zelazny’s treatment of women characters, which shifts from cliche and stereotype in his early work to a rather more mature approach later on. Though I have to say that the pneumatic busts on the women in Gray Morrow’s contribution to The Illustrated Roger Zelazny (1978) are a throwback to the earlier period. She gives Krulik’s earlier biography credit for spotting the psychological reverberations throughout his writing of a 1964 car crash in which Zelazny’s then fiancee was badly injured (notably He Who Shapes/The Dream Master, first published the following year).

The one gaping hole in her analysis is any treatment of religion as such. Sure, there is lots and lots about the mythologies of different cultures, which of course were used with verve in Zelazny’s early masterpieces (Lord of Light, Creatures of Light and Darkness, …And Call Me Conrad/This Immortal), but somehow these seem to be treated as literary images rather than actual belief systems. We are told that Zelazny’s family was Polish (well, obviously) and Irish. But the word “Catholic” doesn’t appear in the book. I’d be very unsurprised to discover that Zelazny was not a believer in any organised religion (though he certainly seems to have found considerable spiritual value in the martial arts). However Lindskold’s failure to ask the question (or perhaps to record the answer) weakens the book and particularly weakens her extended analysis of Zelazny’s hero-figures.

Finally, a couple of personal reflections. Lindskold was obviously more than a little in love with the subject of her book at the time of writing, and valiantly tries to defend him against the oft-made charge that he wrote a lot of potboilers for commercial reasons. She’s not 100% successful in this. As I said above, she does rehabilitate the second Amber series for me a little bit, but it’s absolutely clear that Zelazny’s heart was in his short fiction, not just because it won more awards, but from the obvious fact that it is much better (the pre-1968 novels, and perhaps the high points of the Amber series, apart). Does this demonstrate a slightly cynical approach to his readership? Well, he explained it to himself in terms of his obligations to his family. I can’t really judge, but Lindskold, having raised the issue, didn’t really settle it for me.

My other reflection is more positive. Apparently Zelazny actually set himself a reading programme, specifically to fill in gaps in his knowledge; he would always have an sf book, a history book, a biography or autobiography, and a non-sf novel at least on the go. My own approach to book buying tends to be based on impulse with occasional bursts of order (see posts about Hugo and other awards). But it could actually be rather cool to try and plan it a bit more, especially in terms of filling out embarrassing gaps in my knowledge of Great Literature. About this time last year I read Paddy Ashdown’s diaries, and decided to take up his habit of writing a memo to myself every six months of what I hope to achieve in the next six months. From what I’ve been posting to livejournal I now have a fairly good record of my own reading habits, and it should be fairly easy to add this as well. Well, it’s worth a try anyway.

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