PAVANE by Keith Roberts

Novel (1966)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Like many self-indulgent writers, Roberts’ main problem is self-indulgence. Unlike many self-indulgent writers, however, that’s also the draw here. Five pages in, and I’m barely resisting the urge to scrap this purple bridge to nowhere. Go for twenty more and he’s rambled off sentence after sentence of inane imagery, tedious psychologizing, and over-worked technical mechanics of the world [the opening train running salvo; and the workings of the semaphores (although, maybe if I knew something more than nothing about either, there would have been some novel angle within the descriptions, but I don’t think so)]. Yet, five pages after that, and there we are, inexorably pulled into the world, or we might say lulled into it, by that same self-indulgence, which drops over you until you hardly realize that a real person, with a really tangible sense of social position and relation, has started to slowly emerge fully formed out of the dross (I’m thinking here of the semaphore operator).

Otherwise, it’s become clear that it’s never a good sign when my “thoughts” about a work quickly become abstract, the work provoking general rather than work-specific questions. Here, namely: alternate history’s reflexive inclusion within science fictional categories makes absolutely no sense [not to say that the ‘playing out’ of the post-jonbar turn can’t be sf, just that the initial assumption that it invariably is is incorrect], especially as, if it needs a genre outside of itself, it should obviously be fantasy. And, at that, the toying around with the “Old Ones” and pagan history of England seemed laughable and a forced inclusion of what seems to have been a mid-to-late-century English neo-pagan-revivalist obsessions. If the turn is a truncated Reformation, then pining for lost religion that skips over the most recent seems far-fetched.

That said, even considering PAVANE as alternate history seems a stretch–as if we don’t need actual proof of the playing out of the hinge in the text itself, just his explicit reassurance that it’s happened and played out this way. Absent the preface, would anyone be able to surmise any of that sixteenth-century history from the subsequent chapters? More bluntly, how exactly does Elizabeth’s assassination in 1588 engender literally any of the twentieth-century consequences we see on display here? Where the fuck are the Spanish,? A more concerned reader might be sidestruck by the old school English anti-Popery on display here [whether refracted through contemporary Mertonian filters or not], but, given the lack of an authorial voice at all, outside of the stifling loquaciousness of setting and minute movement description, I found the bias seeping through on these points as at least a quaint sign of life. One realizes halfway through, as well, that we’re dealing with a fix-up novel–and one only haphazardly fixed-up at that.

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20 thoughts on “PAVANE by Keith Roberts

  1. I struggled with this novel — but for entirely different reasons.

    I see this novel, perhaps incorrectly so feel free to push back on this point, as a reinvented medievalism (but of course, detached from the medieval period). Roberts, in distinctly English Protestant terms, sees anything adjacent to Catholicism as pseudo-medieval. I cannot but read the story as plagued by a 60/70s anti-Catholic strain.

    Is that in itself a problem? Not necessarily. I found myself, as a medievalist by profession, to wrapped up in understanding his medievalism to appreciate the story (which I remember having moments of beauty and touching humanity).

    It has similarities with Richard Cowper’s less successful novel (a far future retelling of the “medieval era” – https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2019/04/01/book-review-the-road-to-corlay-richard-cowper-1978/

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    1. I snarked a bit about both authors in the Cowper review: “As with Keith Roberts’ grittier Catholic Church controls all alt-history Pavane (1968), Cowper posits a theocratic rural dystopia redolent with ersatz-medieval stylings of the brutally oppressive sort but without all the religious universities, hospitals, and fostering of scientific study. Cowper studied at Oxford as an Anglo-Saxonist, which strikes me as humorous as his inspiration appears to be more the broad strokes of medieval cliché than the texts and specific context of his training.”

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      1. A wonderfully insightful juxtaposition there between Roberts and the Cowper (although that description, maybe perversely, makes me now want to read the work!).

        Your observation reminds me a bit of my take on Ada Palmer’s recent quite-but-quietly-lauded TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING [ https://fictionsreview.wordpress.com/2020/08/28/too-like-the-lightning-by-ada-palmer/ ]. An intellectual historian of the Renaissance by training and profession, her work struck me as plagued by the inverse of the Cowper problem. Rather than jettison all she knows she knows about the past, the novel seemed (to me) suffocatingly infused by the reflexive assumptions of her academic background. Thinking of both Cowper and Palmer, however, does make me wonder a bit more broadly about sf by academically trained historians (or their equivalents). Might make an interesting series, although, judging by Cowper’s seeming disregard for the thing, the commonalities between any of them might be rather minimal. If you know of any others, pass them along!

        Otherwise, regarding the Roberts, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. “Roberts, in distinctly English Protestant terms, sees anything adjacent to Catholicism as pseudo-medieval.” There it is. In trying to understand the nature of the “present” in the book, I got fixated on what I saw as careless causality between the Jonbar point and that present. Instead, it was exactly as you said — not sloppy history, but a type of theological determinism. From that English Protestant perspective, there was no possibility of the alternate reality being anything but pseudo-medieval, given its connection to Catholicism. Precisely. Never send a Germanist to do a medievalist’s job. All the same, I came to a similar conclusion as you. There most definitely were moments of beauty and “touching humanity” in the stories (some more than others), I just couldn’t concentrate on them for all the other issues we’ve just discussed!

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  2. I agree there is quite a bit of beauty in the book that my reflection overlooks (esp. if one is not hung up on the historical implications, as were Joachim and I!). More impressively, there really is a lived-in-ness to some of the characters and their social surroundings that many fantasies don’t well pull off. For sure one that would benefit from a re-read, I’d think.

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  3. I think it’s an astonishingly beautiful novel. I agree about the anti-Popery etc. … as one raised Catholic, who did not drift from the Church because of abuse or anything like that but simply because of reason, I do occasionally bristle at that sort of thing but I can accept it as a sort of premise.

    The comparison with THE ROAD TO CORLAY is intriguing. I haven’t reread that novel in forever, though. The more obvious comparison novel is THE ALTERATION, by Kingsley Amis — have either you or Joachim read that?

    Also, thinking of trains and medieval sort of imagery bring’s John M. Ford’s wonderful poem “Winter Solstic, Camelot Station” to mind. Here’s a link to it: http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com/2006/12/winter-solstice-camelot-station.html

    I love poetry, and am generally disappointed by SF/F poetry, but that poem really hits. It may not have much to do with PAVANE, though!

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    1. Rich,

      Thank you for the thoughtful addition. I happily yield to your take on the aesthetics of the book! As noted above, I largely allowed extra-textual considerations to overwhelm my appreciation of the novel AS novel. And, in retrospect, what stands out most are precisely those impressions I mentioned responding to James — the evocation of a real place with real people existing in (most importantly!) real social hierarchies. That’s the trick. To bring up the Palmer, again, it was only halfway through the work that I realized we’d been dealing with the upper crust of the upper crust. The world was flat. It is not here.

      My quibbles with the intermittent prose flourishes might have been a bit over-blown, as well! The problem might have been that I quite love poetry, as well, and am likewise very regularly disappointed in the sf/f variety. I often wonder whether sf/f poetry is even a useful category, although not out loud, as my wife has actually had several (quite lovely!) pieces published in online fantasy zines. Nonetheless, my taste in poetic styling tends toward the demotic and, as such, I too often read those preferences into prose works, which started me off on the wrong foot with Roberts, I’m sure. Glancing at the Ford poem, though, it looks like something that I would be very into. I’m looking forward to the read! Feel free to toss any other favorites my way!

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      1. Re-The Alteration — NYRB sent me a review copy years ago. I have since stopped accepting them as I don’t like deadlines for a hobby! haha. All seriousness aside, I can’t imagine that I’d enjoy it if I didn’t super care for this one? (Didn’t care, in this instance, still means I’d give it a “Good” rating due to its manifest qualities).

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      2. Regarding suffering for us through CYBERNAUT, I salute your service, although I regret to say that some of the excerpts you cited made me interested nonetheless! (‘unsparking sparks’!)

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      3. Well, speaking of SF poetry, how about ANIARA, by Nobel Prize winner Harry Martinson? (Like all Scandinavian Nobelists, I regard his Prize with skepticism.) I read the Avon trade paperback from the 1970s and I thought it was fairly awful, but I am told by Scandinavian friends that it’s actually pretty good in the original, and also I think there have been later, better, English translations. Or, maybe, at age 16 or so I just wasn’t ready for it! I understand there has been a recent movie, fairly well received.

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      4. Joachim — THE ALTERATION is a very different novel from PAVANE, it just shares a similar jonbar point (not identical) and is also set in a 20th Century under Catholic domination. It’s about a boy soprano who the Church authorities want to castrate to preserve his marvelous voice (for the glory of God, of course!) He, not surprisingly, is not in favor! It’s much more than that, to be sure. Amis’s reputation as a comic novelist notwithstanding, this is a pretty serious novel on the whole. I think it’s Amis’ best SF work (though THE GREEN MAN may be a better Fantasy). (The title is of course a fairly obvious pun.)

        I like it a lot, but as noted I am a fan of Amis in general. (As a writer. As a person, well, he was far from perfect! But then, so are we all.)

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      5. Yes! I seem to remember reading about some especially egregious extra-marital dalliances of his in an excerpt from the biography of some mid-century English writer or other. Regardless, PAVANE only barely beat out THE ALTERATION for next read — I had just been a bit underwhelmed by LUCKY JIM years back. Your description, however, is tempting.

        Any thoughts, speaking of sf-adjacent Amises, on his son’s works? I’ve likewise nearly cracked TIME’S ARROW open several times without success.

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      6. I like some of Martin’s work, absolutely hate others. (DEAD BABIES, which is marginally SF, is one of those I hate.) I did like TIME’S ARROW. The central conceit is fantastical of course, and it’s treated fairly deadpan, but it works as more of a Holocaust novel than an SF novel. I understand that LONDON FIELDS, with MONEY (which I didn’t like) probably his best-regarded novel, is SF too (near future setting) but I’ve not read it.

        Both Amis’s have done some of their most SFnal work at shorter lengths, actually. I like the short work by both of them a fair bit, but I would say each is better known as, and more natural as, a novelist.

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      1. Wow. I checked too, and found the same thing. I’m shocked, really — for one thing, Nobel Prize winner! Recent film! Why isn’t there an English edition? And I’d have thought that 1970s paperback would have sold enough copies to be available for resale!

        There was a 1963 translation (the one I have) and a 1999 translation. (Into English, I mean.) Sturgeon reviewed the 1963 version, favorably. I really do think I should reread it — I may have been too callow a reader back then.

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      2. I’m not sure why there are so few for sale or why it’s so pricey. I’ve had it on my watch list for years waiting for the price to drop (I have an Amazon list with 400 books that I periodically skim for deals — to create lists pre-Covid when I used to go to used stores).

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