Greybeard by Brian W. Aldiss

After watching the film of Children of Men*, I didn't go back to P.D. James's originating novel, which I've never read, but farther back, to Brian Aldiss's Greybeard, first published in 1964, a novel I last read somewhere between ten and fifteen years ago.

I went back to Greybeard because other than remembering that it is about a future Earth where humans are infertile, I had no memory of its incidents or characters, only a vague recollection of the book's tone and affect, which I remembered as being like a soft, pastoral requiem -- immensely lyrical, unbearably and unrelievedly sad.

That is somewhat accurate -- it is a sad book, indeed -- but it's not as lushly lyrical as I remembered, not as devoid of incident, not as rich, and not as bleak. Worst of all, I remembered a tragic ending, which is inaccurate. The ending is not one that is full of hope or affirmation, but it's hardly King Lear. (Would I have preferred it to be more tragic? No. More elegiacal, perhaps.)

Though there were disappointments for me in rereading Greybeard there were also rewards. It is a story of apocalypse, but the handling of the story is particularly thoughtful in some rare ways. Where Children of Men takes place while there are still relatively young people around, the central action of Greybeard happens fifty years after the nuclear explosions in space that irradiated the planet and caused mass infertility. Thus, everyone is old. The title character's nickname is somewhat amusing, then, because he's one of the youngest people around, being only in his fifties, and he and his wife, Martha, don't really remember what life in a world with children is like. As Aldiss's characters inch toward not only their own extinction, but the extinction of their species, he lets the novel rise toward metaphysical concerns, and does so, usually, with a light, deft, and complex touch:
"Perhaps that's our bit of consolation or whatever -- each other. Martha, have you ever thought..." He paused, and then went on, screwing his face into a frown of concentration. "Have you ever thought that that ghastly catastrophe of fifty years ago was, well, was lucky for us? I know it sounds blasphemous; but mightn't it be that we've led more interesting lives than the perhaps rather pointless existence we would otherwise have been brought up to accept as life? We can see now that the values of the twentieth century were invalid; otherwise they wouldn't have wrecked the world. Don't you think the Accident has made us more appreciative of the vital things, like life itself, and like each other?"

"No," Martha said steadily. "No, I don't. We would have had children and grandchildren by now, but for the Accident, and nothing can ever make up for that."
Aldiss lets the novel be, among other things, a meditation on the attractions of catastrophe in narrative. This dialogue is only the most explicit expression of an idea that lingers through the entire book -- a questioning of the meaning-giving power of apocalypse. Various characters respond to the situations of their lives in different ways, from the knowing perpetuation of faith-based fraud to stoic pragmatism to nature mysticism to flat-out insanity, and Aldiss doesn't really privilege any of it too much. Nor does he fetishize disaster as so many of the other writers of his time did -- Greybeard could be seen in some ways as a response to all the stories and books that tried to find transcendent meaning in the end of the world. Within the world of Greybeard, meaning does not flow from The Accident, but desire inscribes meanings onto it, and survival requires all the characters to read the inscriptions and make of them what they will.

My memory of the novel was that it was incredibly slow, with hardly any events, and though that isn't at all true, nonetheless, for a book about human extinction, remarkably little actually happens, and few things conclude. There are no maudlin scenes of prolonged death and misery. Though humans are shown to have become more openly brutal and sometimes insanely violent, most of this is done through indirect means, through recollection and suggestion, rather than straightforward depiction. What makes the apocalypse of Greybeard so affecting is how understated is the horror of it all, as if Aldiss had started out writing a pleasant little novel of ordinary people in the British countryside and ended up getting side-tracked by the end of civilization and the slow death of humanity.

The presentation of time and memory is one of the strengths of Greybeard (though I can't help but wish that Aldiss had played around a bit more with the characters' memories, their desires to remember, their inability to, their confusions of memory). The chapters alternate, with odd-numbered chapters telling the story of Greybeard and Martha as they trek down the Thames for reasons that they're never entirely clear about; and even-numbered chapters each moving farther and farther into Greybeard's past, until the last presents some moments of his childhood. The best writing in the book is generally in the river chapters, because here the focus is tightest, and Aldiss admirably holds back from cramming in a bunch of action sequences or cliff-hangers or incidents of planetary consequence -- he trusts his story, his characters, and his audience enough to allow the chapters to serve mostly to show us how it feels to live in this nearly-familiar, immensely strange world. The even-numbered chapters are generally less satisfying because they are more crammed with incident, seemingly trying to justify their presence more, but their effect remains powerful, because each time we return to the river, we have gained, as readers, memories that Greybeard and the other characters take for granted. There is both pleasure and power in moving back deeper and deeper into the past, closer and closer to The Accident, while at the same time moving forward, slowly, toward inevitable death.

Though Greybeard still reads well, it does show signs of its age (beyond locating The Accident in the early 1980s). The relations between the male and female characters are all embarrassingly patriarchal -- Martha's character has some spunk, but she is nonetheless clearly more Greybeard's Wife than her own self, and all of the characters with any authority in the book are men; the women are, basically, decorations, slaves, and whores -- and, left so unquestioned throughout the book, this all seems to be not for any reasons of the particular society the characters are a part of, but rather because such a structure is inherent in Nature. The presentation of The Accident, too, is unsatisfying (though less annoying than the sexism) because it is so carefully explained, so unambiguous that all its potential metaphorical or metonymical power is stripped away and it just sits there, a big, lunky, distracting, awkward bit of background detail, a Thing that could have been, instead, an evocation.

Greybeard seems to have been out of print in the U.S. for a long time, which is a shame, because despite its flaws, it remains a rewarding read and a book that other writers could learn a lot from. Aldiss has had a long and varied career, and I wish more of his books were readily available in the U.S. (Just as I picked up my old copy of Greybeard to reread, I received an advanced copy of Aldiss's new novel, HARM, which is being published over here by Del Rey, so I'm glad to see that Aldiss not only continues to write, but that he still has access to U.S. publishers.)

*I don't really have anything to say about the film beyond what's already been said, but I liked it, was impressed by many elements of it, and though immediately afterward I felt like it was a bit less meaty than it needed to be, its details remained vivid in my memory, a few scenes continued to haunt me, and the overall skill of the filmmaking kept me thinking about the whole in a way I haven't thought about very many other movies recently.