Putting the Twinkle back into the Cosmos
Paul Newman on Terry Pratchett
With its black holes, fire-spitting suns and ageless galaxies, the universe is a lonely place. Besides that, physicists reduce all matter, including one’s wife, newborn baby and shawl-knitting granny, to masses of rotating particles - that hardly makes anyone happier. Nor for that matter do those rumours of a rogue comet that will pulverise the earth. Or the thought that another ice age might descend and change us into crystal statuary. So, to put a twinkle back in the eye of the cosmos, why not try the latest Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent, set in a vast area that’s vaguely Australian and featuring Rincewind, “the inept wizard who can’t even spell wizard...”
Thousands have already devoured this racy, frenetic yarn as they
have the previous twenty-one titles in the most seriously shoplifted
series in Britain. The bio on the jacket might tell us Pratchett is fifty,
lives behind a keyboard in Wiltshire, breeds carnivorous plants and
answers fanmail in a desperate attempt to find time to write. But don’t
be taken in by the comic weariness or attention-grabbing self-deprecation.
You might size him up and think, “Ah, here’s a quiet, self-effacing
scribe” – but you would be wrong. As a talker and performer, he is
superb. Literally he springs alive like a jumping jack, showering verbal
sparks in all directions. You realise then that the flamboyant black-hatted
figure of the publicity blurb is not mere façade. It is the introverted
author turned inside out.
First he spoke of the theatrical adaptation of his hilarious romp Mort. The plot is excellent. Death goes on holiday, leaving an incompetent apprentice, Mort, in charge, who is too kind to harvest all the souls scheduled to depart. The result is that decompositional things – flies, maggots, skeletons – breed and multiply with a vengeance. It is all rather like a comic account of the plague years. In dealing with this bizarre scenario, American producers showed a slightly heavy-footed tact. Of course, they absolutely loved the story, found it desperately funny apart from this one reservation. “It’s this Death angle we don’t feel too happy about…” Pratchett added: “By contrast, European producers are charming, sophisticated, prepared to make all sorts of artistic allowances. The only drawback is that their offer will just about secure you a coffee and jam doughnut in a British Rail canteen.”
Oddly enough, Death proved one of his most popular creations. His
fans, apparently, loved Death - an indication of their extreme
youthfulness. After all, surely one doesn’t joke much about Death after
fifty. But Pratchett pointed out that he had letters from patients in
hospices saying how much they relished Death. Even he admitted to being
disturbed by that particular pun.
His first book The Carpet People was brought out by the small publisher Colin Smythe and dealt with an exodus of tiny creatures who occupied a sadly worn patch of carpet and decided to load up their wagons and trek to regions where the plush was thicker. Since then, his books have become increasingly popular, reaching a multi-million market, and Pratchett has travelled around the world for signing and launching sessions. But as his sightseeing depends largely on being whipped from aeroplane to bookshop and back to aeroplane, his travelogues tend to be scant on exotic detail. “Los Angeles was dark,” he assured us. As for the ancient glories of Crete, he saw “a flash of yellow sand and the gleam of some hotel window – five thousand years of history down the spout!”
Crawling up the Wall
As a young man, he wanted to be a writer, but that was hardly a feasible way of supporting his family. So he applied for a job as a PR man with the Central Electricity Generating Board. He did not especially want the job – he would have not been the slightest bit disappointed if he had been rejected. “Of course, I got it,” he recalled. “Things always happen in inverse proportion to one’s needs. If I’d been starving and desperate, they’d have thrown me out by the ear!”
It was while working for the CEGB in the Bath area that he began his Discworld saga, based on the splendidly plausible myth that the universe is supported on the back of a giant turtle. With his accretive, grasshopperish intelligence, not only did he absorb literature, he was also devoted to technology and purchased an early Sinclair computer and a printer that used paper resembling aluminium foil. Thus equipped, he started composing, by day releasing teeth-grittingly tedious technicalities about the power lines and pylons, while by night he whirled through a self-created realm of hyperactive skeletons, incompetent wizards and manic myths.
This hectic obsessive double life convinced him that he would soon lose his job – after all, what boss wants an employee who is normal by day but crawling up the wall by night? And, eventually, the boss did ask to see him. Pratchett braced himself – “When I went in, he looked up from his desk and took up a pile of my books and plonked them down, and then in the nicest manner possible explained that his son was one of my greatest fans, and would I be kind enough to sign them for him.”
of being Kevin
He did not say what the name of his boss’s son was – but ‘Kevins’ is the name Pratchett’s wife reserves for fans. This title came after a morning mail in which Pratchett received four enthusiastic letters from young men of that designation. He did not mention his wife much, only to say that his writing was liable to cause an occasional strain, particularly if he was asked politely to leave his computer and purchase a bottle of milk: “It is very difficult to explain you are working when you actually seem to be enjoying yourself. Women seem to believe that, in a proper job, there should always be this element of pain, of aching tedium. If you have the effrontery to actually enjoy what you’re doing and earn a great deal along the way, well that’s taking things a bit far.”
Pratchett was early catching on to science fiction comics from the USA. While his peers were simmering through puberty and devouring titles like ‘Girlies, Giggles and Garters’, he was rifling the bottom shelf of the newsagents, picking his way amid the ray-guns and blob-shaped monsters from Saturn. A committed escapist, he dislikes the snooty tendency of critics who denounce science fiction as ‘formulaic’ or as an inferior genre. “When any of their ilk writes fantasy or science fiction,” he remarked, “they refuse to admit to it and slap on a fancy label like metafiction or magic realism.”
Explaining the genesis of
characters like Granny Weatherwax, the canny old witch of Discworld, he
spoke of the grizzled matriarchs of his hometown – untameable dames who
blundered about oblivious to laws and statutes. Without looking left or
right, they’d stride down the street, flourishing their walking sticks
like sabres and juggernaut across the street. If they happened to drive,
they’d park their vehicles on any site that approximated their
destination – on lawns, flowerbeds, traffic islands, people! An added
problem was many of these craggy matrons were former teachers, and when
the local constable called, he was confronted with a fearsome dominatrix
from his past. Instead of clarifying points of the highway code, a
flashback of juvenile jitters would sweep over him and the six-foot PC
would dwindle to a snivelling infant crying for the toilet.
Earnings from Pratchett's books are now enormous but they were not initially spectacular. “With my first novel,” he recalled, “I was given an advance that enabled me to buy a medium-sized greenhouse. The next year my second book came out, and with that I was able to buy another medium-sized greenhouse. By the time my third book was published, I wondered whether I might not ask the publisher to send me a greenhouse direct and not bother about the advance.”
When his royalties began to outstrip his horticultural ambitions,
Pratchett told his agent that he was considering taking up full-time
writing. His agent propositioned publishers and eventually one of them
phoned Pratchett and made an offer. It was a very large sum and he put
down the phone absolutely speechless. Ten minutes later, the same
publisher rang again and this time upped the original offer by ten percent
– apparently Pratchett’s gobsmacked silence had been misidentified as
steely reserve at not being offered enough!
Because Discworld contains lightly
handled themes of sorcery, Pratchett was asked about ‘hidden
significances’ in his work and whether the magician Aleister Crowley had
made any impression on his oeuvre. He showed impatience with this line of
enquiry. “From what I know of Aleister Crowley,” he replied sharply,
“he was a bore, a windbag, a liar and a bad poet – Granny Weatherwax
knew more about magic than him!” Like other industrious weavers of
fantasy, he is hard-nosed and restrained in his personal convictions.
Magic he regards as ‘enjoyable tosh’ and one can see that too much
dark lore would oppress his crackling wafery prose.
Metaphysics and Mirth
What interested me was the quantity of serious reading he must have absorbed. Flippancy is parasitic upon seriousness and much of Pratchett’s prose translates quite stiffish current thought into one-liners and throwaway gags. His language - a lively mix of the arcane and the accessible – is designed to keep the reader alert and smiling. From browsing through The Last Continent, I picked up elliptic allusions to Stephen Hawking, Joseph Campbell and Rupert Sheldrake. Discworld is not only upheld by a turtle but by a broad scaffold of myth, psychology, history, serious and speculative science and free-floating trivia.
The story revolves around the Unseen University, Discworld’s premier college of magic, and features characters like the Senior Wrangler and the Lecturer in Recent Runes. The plot is the usual larky quest. Rincewind, attempting to restore rain to a dried-out continent, encounters problems and pratfalls but finally succeeds. However, what is more important are the many jokes found strewn along the journey.
We have the resounding truism
It is often said about desert environments that there is in fact a lot of nutritious food around, if only you know what to look for.
Rincewind mused on this as he pulled a plate of chocolate-covered
sponge cakes from their burrow.
was familiar with the concept of the eternal, ever-renewed hero, the
champion with a thousand faces. He’d refrained from commenting. He met
heroes frequently, generally surrounded by, and this was important, the
dead bodies of very nearly all their enemies and saying, ‘Vot the hell
shust happened? But he pondered whether, if this creature did exist, it
was somehow balanced by the eternal coward. The hero with a thousand
retreating backs, perhaps.
Thirdly, we have dialogue wherein the style is pontifically assured but
the content asinine:
He looked at their faces.
“Er…I think I might perhaps have got them confused with wolves,” he mumbled. “I have, haven’t I?”
They nodded in unison.
Pratchett’s love of paradox
and ebullient muddle recall G.K. Chesterton who also combined metaphysics
and mirth. But Pratchett does not share Chesterton’s optimism or
religious leanings. Certainly he nurtures no New Age ideas about salvation
or the balancing of yin and yan. “If everyone was to start worshipping
the Cosmic Mother, it might go all right for about a month, until the
tribe over the hill found another goddess and started a fight over the
The appeal of Discworld is not difficult to define. It is a friendly universe, mildly perverse and irascible, but basically human, all-too human. Even Death gets tired and bored with all the work at his disposal. Rincewind, the wizard, loses his hat and ruefully reflects that he looks like any elderly eccentric without his power symbol. Granny Weatherwax has the ailments appropriate to her time of life. All the demi-gods are cut down to size, exposed in their vanities and failings. It is an old joke that the loftiest immortal needs to sneeze or visit the lavatory from time to time and Pratchett employs it ceaselessly, gleefully, remorsefully. An English teacher might say that he writes “mock-heroic prose” – but that hardly conveys the racy philosophical brew that sizzles in this cauldron. Or the way that he can kickstart an old homily until it sparks again.
range - from about eight to eighty - of Pratchett’s fans proves that
time does not wither one’s sense of the whimsical and absurd. His blend
of fun and wonder made A.S. Byatt concede
“an intelligent wit and a truly grim and comic grasp of the
nature of things” - furthermore his “amazing Technicolor
imagination” was saluted by the Sunday Express. “The most breathtaking display of comic invention
since P.G. Wodehouse,” echoed The
Times and The Guardian added
that Pratchett was “like reading Tolkien but with gags.”
A Gag-Strewn Universe
Others take a cooler view. Appraising one of Pratchett’s novels,Tom Paulin commented on the richness of the vocabulary, saying any novel that used interesting words like ‘drumlin’ could not be all that bad, but after examining it closely he was overwhelmed. “It’s like picking up a stone,” he said, “and seeing millions of insects crawling in all directions – all you can do is put it back and leave them to it.”
This is the type of put-down one might expect from an admirer of William Hazlitt. Paulin requires slowness, focus, density, tonal variation, a layered seriousness of presentation while Pratchett seems to be constantly reiterating, “Isn’t this a topsy-turvy rollicking nuthouse of a universe!” Anyone coming to Pratchett cold might have a problem in that his characters are introduced with the flippancy and bravura of a Disney cartoon. Almost impertinently, they demand to be recognised and liked, their authority having been established by some twenty or more previous volumes. Thus anyone dipping into Discworld mid-sequence, in a serious frame of mind, might be put off by its lack of classical focus, its airy irresponsibility, like a total stranger who persists in sniggering and nudging your elbow, inviting you to share a joke for which you are not in the mood.
But criticism does not strike me as important when readers outnumber critics by a million to one. If the public love Pratchett, it is because he is a nimble stylist, a swagger storyteller and a spot-on parodist. With a sleight of imagination, he has forged a teeming, interactive, self-feeding, gag-strewn carnival of a universe, and millions of people are happy to live in it for as long as Mort allows.