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

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

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)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)

 

 

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

    • Thanks for making the leap from the FOF to here, by the by. I’ve been over there for a long, long time, but this place has been around much longer. Most of the FOF folks (dear friends, many of them) view this as a self-indulgence, so not many of them show up here in my comment section . . . .

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hey, no problem, it means a lot to me that you took the time to thank me, to be perfectly honest! Things like that really do count for a lot in my book!
        And, not to “blow smoke up yer ass” as I believe the colloquialism would have it, but you certainly have a way with words and “sel”l your passions–whatever they may be–SO bloody infectiously! It is quite literally catching!
        I certainly don’t view your blog as an “indulgence”. You get to practice your craft (maybe “hone” is a better word, my apologies!), spread some love around and turn people on to stuff they haven’t read/heard or seen–case in point “Annette” with those incredible Sparks songs! (I was so happy when Ron Mael not only “liked” one of my tweets, but replied to it as well–I asked if “Fear Of A Black Planet” was still his favourite album, as it is definitely in my top five–I see you’re a fan yourself!)
        One thing, though-I was wondering what you prefer to be called-“J”? “J.Eric”? “Deus Erac”? Or none/all of the above?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks for most kind words, much appreciated. I do love to write, and it has always been nice to have a place to write whatever I want to, instead of what I need to for professional stuff.

          In re name, I generally go by Eric in real life conversations, but some people call me J. Eric if they knew me first via my byline first, and that’s fine too. Deus Erac is an old nickname from the early 1980s (long story!) . . . I’ve been using it in various places as an online handle since the early 90s.

          And, yeah, “Fear . . .” is a timeless masterpiece. I riffed on its title song’s central premise is an article I wrote in New York some years back . . . .

          https://jericsmith.com/2007/10/06/fear-of-white-radio-from-the-archives/

          Liked by 1 person

          • I enjoyed that piece. I’ve never really listened to rock/pop radio, though I religiously caught the 1FM Rap Show when Tim Westwood moved from Capital FM to Radio 1 in….1993? And John Peel later on. There are some good music programs on Radio 2 and Radio 4, everything from modern classical to experimental/avant-garde rock or electronic music….
            Can’t say I hate The Beasties…Ill Communication was EVERYWHERE that year (I never dug License To Ill until later) though I can totally understand your criticism. Weirdly, the first Hip-Hop album I witnessed being embraced by almost EVERY metal fan I knew was the first Gravediggaz LP. A few liked Black Sunday by Cypress Hill but the former was pretty much universally accepted!
            I was fortunate enough to see Public Enemy in 1991, Brixton Academy…what a gig! I saw The Gravediggaz too a couple of years after but minus Rza, not that that diminished my enjoyment at all! I was a BIIIIG Hip-Hop Backpacker Kid for years (after selling my not inconsiderable The Who collection and using the proceeds to buy Hip-Hop vinyl), then in the mid-nineties I met two friends with very catholic taste and great record collections and was introduced to all the greats–The Fall, Beefheart, Can, The Mothers, The Velvets, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Miles, Stereolab and many, many others…stopped listening to contemporary Hip-Hop roughly when I started collecting vinyl from the aforementioned artists (I still followed Big Dada records in general and EL-P specifically–Company Flow at Sankey’s Soap Manchester in 1998 was another incredible gig!). I love RTJ and The Mello Music roster, especially Jean Grae/Quelle Chris (solo and together!) but that’s really all the contemporary Hip-Hop I eff with tbh.
            But Fear Of A Black Planet…that record blew my mind, more than Yo! Bum Rush The Show; even more than …A Nation Of Millions! It’s basically a perfect album. I come from a strong Labour family but P.E radicalised me, I’d hear them mention Huey Newton and Malcolm X; read anything I could find by/on them; read about anti-colonialism and Pan-Africanist movements, Fanon and Sankara led me to Marx, Lenin and Trotsky…eventually led to Kropotkin, Bakunin, Goldman, De Cleyre, Chomsky, Bookchin and Stirner et. al!
            And for that I am eternally grateful!

            Liked by 1 person

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