Five by Five Books #9: “Gog” (1967) by Andrew Sinclair

(Note: After a lengthy hiatus, I am returning to an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? This immense novel opens with a naked, seven-foot man washing ashore on a beach between two cliffs in Scotland. He has no knowledge of his identity, nor any memory of his past, and the only clues available to him in unraveling those mysteries are the words GOG and MAGOG tattooed across the back of his knuckles. The giant experiences an overwhelming compulsion to reach London, some four hundred miles to the south, and after a brief stay in the hospital where his rescuers carry him, he stuffs stolen bread into the pockets of a stolen uniform and sets off on his quest, not knowing why he wants to go, nor what he expects to find when he arrives. Gog describes the giant’s journey in glorious detail, down the full vertical span of Britain, mostly by foot, his unfolding story tangling knotted ropes of past, present and future as recurring allies and nemeses (it is often hard to tell which are which) assist or dog him along the way. While he relearns, recreates and/or revisits his own stories, Gog (as the giant eventually identifies himself) also uncovers the ancient narratives and mythologies of Great Britain and how they shape the narrative of modern England and its people.

Who wrote it? Andrew Sinclair (1935 – 2019) was an English novelist, historian, biographer, critic, and filmmaker. After earning a Ph.D. in American History from Cambridge, he pursued an academic career in the United States and England, publishing his first novels in 1959, and his first nonfiction works in 1962. Gog, published in 1967, is his best known novel (it eventually spawned two sequels — Magog in 1972 and King Ludd in 1988 — forming what Sinclair called his “Albion Trilogy”), while his nonfiction work has included books about the American Prohibition Era, the emancipation of American women, Che Guevara, Jack London, Francis Bacon, 20th Century European Aristocracy, Dylan Thomas, and many other subjects. In the early 1970s, he wrote the screenplays for and directed a trio of films, most notably Under Milk Wood, based on Dylan Thomas’ play, and starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole. He was honored during his lifetime as both a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

When and where did I read it? I first picked it up in a public library during my high school junior year in Newport, Rhode Island, sometime soon after I had read The Flounder by Günter Grass. It was one of those books that I had to hide while reading at home, as the title alone (referencing the twin nations that would ally with Satan in his final battle with Christ and His Saints) would have been enough to set off alarms with my highly-religious parents, never mind the earthy, bawdy horrors and hoots they would have found had they opened its covers. I got maybe a third of the way through the book before I had to return it to the library in advance of our family’s move to Jacksonville, North Carolina — and then I don’t think I ever saw the novel again, anywhere, for decades, despite looking for it every now and again in libraries or used book stores over the years. Those occasional searches finally paid off when Valancourt 20th Century Classics reissued Gog in 2015, and I acquired and devoured it on my Kindle, mostly in our condo in Chicago. In the glow of finally completing this monumental and inspirational work, I did track down used print copies of Gog‘s two sequels, though they remain unread as of this writing; the original novel was such an epic totality in its own right for me that the early goings of Magog undermined the original in my estimation, rather than enhancing it, so I set both sequels aside, have not returned to them, and may never do so.

Why do I like it? This one pretty much hits on all cylinders and pushes all buttons when it comes to the things that move me in literature. It tells an immense story through both macro (e.g. the history of the people of Britain) and micro (e.g. the grittiest, grimiest, grossest details of Gog’s travails southward toward London) lenses, and it deploys all of Sinclair’s formidable skills as novelist, researcher, journalist, and screenwriter as it unfolds, with chapters whipsawing between formats and styles, each suited to its own particular theme or topic, like some shaggy modern-day fellow traveler of James Joyce’s more-urbane Ulysses. The book’s recurring characters are all archetypal, though they hide their true selves from the reader, and from each other, and from Gog (the character), until they don’t, but unlike most literary archetypes, Gog (the novel)’s dramatis personae are not stereotypes, nor are they even internally or externally consistent from scene to scene and chapter to chapter, even though they always are what they are, except when they’re not. While Britain (real) and Britain (ideal) are certainly documented and documentable, and Gog certainly touches upon centuries of story-telling and history-making in placing its rollicking narrative within both of those Britains, the specific literary megacosm through which our giant protagonist strides ultimately represents a masterful piece of world-building, where the reader is rarely sure whether he/she is experiencing Gog’s delusional interpretations of a factual world, or Gog’s factual interpretations of a delusional world. I enjoy few things more than a fully-realized surrealist universe that feels like something we could all live in, somehow, somewhere, sometime, despite its hallucinatory fantasias and suspensions of natural law and logic, and Gog is simply nonpareil on this front.

A five sentence sample text: “Beyond Innerleithen, the first attempt is made to kill Gog. He has walked through the bruised border town with its hopeful crest of a tame bear and bridled horse, supporting a shield, which shows St. Ronan calming the troubled waters that rear up a full inch high above the mottos Live and Let Live and Watch and Pray, as though these words had ever been the least defense against the boiling Border barons, who made the local ballads bloodier than anything since the Old Testament.  And Gog has passed the old graveyard in the town where a weathered anchor is carved on a sailor’s tomb with the pious expectation, SOON LOST BUT NOT TOO SOON FOR GLORY. And Gog has passed Traquair House, standing among its trees in tall granite and freestone rubble, with its windows slit against arrows and crows. And he has sweated up the steep slope of his first real hill, the track towards Minch Moor on the short cut to Yarrow, with flies teeming about his burning face to drive him mad.”

Click the link to score your own copy of this epic masterwork.

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

 

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