Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Novels of Robert Lipscombe, reviewed by Dennis Hamley

I don't think there can be many novelists who are more emotionally and intellectually focussed, have as fierce and consistent a moral outlook, possess a greater ability to handle big themes and demonstrate the eloquence to do them justice as Robert Lipscombe. Hailed at the outset of his writing career as an outstanding new novelist whose first novel was compared with John Fowles and The Magus, his subsequent career has illustrated perfectly the plight of the writer who dares to attempt more than his publishers are prepared to allow. He has started the process of publishing all his novels rejected by commercial publishers and two, reviewed below, have appeared already. However, this process has lately metamorphosed into a form which harks back to an earlier mode of publication which Dickens might have approved of - the novel as newspaper.


A novel in a Newspaper. Latest incarnation of The English Project

Lipscombe's  first novel appeared in 1991. Entitled The Salamander Tree, it was published by Hamish Hamilton. It does indeed deserve its comparison with The Magus.  The novel commences as the second world war is still in progress. A secret agent, Captain Dennis Jackson, codenamed 'Salamander' is parachuted into Germany and thus starts a sequence of events, which will have profound consequences.

Robert Lipscombe THE SALAMANDER TREE Hamish Hamilton h/c 1990 1st

After the war, an author, Robert Clare, is invited by 'Interested Parties' to explore the writing of a man as yet unnamed.   Clare embarks on a quest which leads him out from Canterbury to Berlin and far beyond. He stumbles on secrets, frightening, occult, which lead him into strange areas and bring him at last into a metaphysical enlightenment of self-knowledge and infinite possibility. And he finds a guide, a companion, a sort of Everyman figure, Hugo Thayer. He is a character of great importance in Lipscombe's moral universe and appears again in The English Project.

This is an ambitious, sometimes difficult book, dramatic and page-turning and leading us into areas beyond normal reality to places of metaphysical discussion and insight. In those qualities, it is a precursor to Lipscombe's other presently available books.

Cometh The Day

Cometh the Day, his second novel, takes us to Russia in 1991. The August Putsch has failed, the Soviet Union is falling apart and gangsterism is thriving.  Two party apparatchiks, Irene P and Mstivlav Dimitriev, have to look elsewhere if they are to survive in this uncharted new world. They devise a plan to raid the Tomb of Authors, an archive of purged Russian writers and use them in a great scam.  But though the writers are dead and their manuscripts can be burned, their work lives on, with revelations which can kill. 

Dimitriev comes to England where more characters become involved, including some we have met before, notably Hugo Thayer. Once again, the story involves a debate about conduct, morality and worth, possible more teasingly that in the other novels, but there is also a narrative to be worked out and desperate revelations to follow.

The English Project is undoubtedly his most ambitious and perhaps most deeply felt novel to date, with an excoriating view of the society we live in. This time, Hugo Thayer is present at the start. He is in court and a harsh judge is depriving him of custody of his son. And more: this judge, along with the evil pair Pisle and Gisle, is pushing Thayer to even more savage extremes, depriving him of a voice, of any rights, leaving him a vestige of a human being and despatching him to everlasting frustration. This is indeed a vision of Hell. But the judge is absorbed into The College, a skewed (or is it?) view of a suffocating Establishment, an ever-present conspiracy, and Hugo becomes his case study. But the judge has changed: he wants to absorb Thayer himself in to The College. He offers a sort of Faustian pact. Now begins a stunning debate, treading many paths and exploring many levels. 

                                                    Photo: ..the new e-book cover by Edward Mirza                                                                          Cover for Kindle edition of The English Project

The books are not for skimming. Lipscombe can work  at rarefied levels. But you must persevere. You'll be made to think. But you'll also be well rewarded.  Very soon you'll find yourself swept along by his depiction of memorable characters, profound and urgent themes, a unique, resonant style and, underlying everything, fierce sincerity and clear, unclouded intellect.

The Salamander Tree will appear later on Kindle. It can be bought secondhand through Amazon Marketplace. Cometh the Hour and The English Project are available on Kindle.

To buy the novel, go to Facebook: Robert Lipscombe newspaper novel.