The Whitbread Award winner and Booker Prize nominee John Fuller describes him as the most original author of our time. So why isn’t John Fraser a household name?
John Fraser, the British-born novelist, is on the cusp of publishing his 27th book in little more than a decade. By 2021, when The Ends of the Earth is released, his prodigious bibliography of celebrated novels, novellas and short-story collections, will have exceeded 30.
To his loyal fanbase, Fraser’s work is an intellectual oasis in a literary desert of dry whodunnits and indistinguishable, Hollywood-inspired thrillers. And to his peers, including the Booker Prize nominee John Fuller, his books are ‘extraordinary’.
How, then, can it be that Fraser, who now lives near Rome, Italy, is comparatively unknown in his homeland? He avoids social media and seldom makes public appearances – Fraser turns 80 next year – but his work should by any measure speak for itself. That comparatively so few know his name is a sad but accurate reflection on a society that increasingly judges a book not by its quality (or even its cover) but by its author’s Twitter feed.
His astonishing output is down in no small part to the support of his long-term publisher, Aesop Publications. Unlike more commercially-driven houses, it openly embraces free-thinking and rarely makes demands on its authors to homogenise their work. Fraser’s books are notable for their challenging themes and for examining weighty issues like war, belonging, the march of time and man’s inhumanity to man.
Fuller, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and whose 1983 novel Flying to Nowhere won the Whitbread First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction, sums-up Fraser’s achievements. ‘One of the most extraordinary publishing events of past few years has been the rapid, indeed insistent, appearance of the novels of John Fraser,” he writes. “There are few parallels in literary history to this almost simultaneous and largely belated appearance of a mature oeuvre, sprung like Athena from Zeus’s forehead; and the novels themselves are extraordinary.’ The characters in Fraser’s books 'move with shrugging self-assurance through circumstances as richly detailed and as without reliable compass-points as a Chinese scroll.’
Fraser’s 2018 novel ‘S’ serves as an excellent testament to his mastery of philosophical literary fiction, containing, as it does, many of the author’s intellectual and stylistic hallmarks in their finest expression.
It is, also, an important work of literature in these turbulent times. With an on-going refugee crisis, consumer-led–gentrification and a growing disparity between the old and young, many people around the world feel a sense of detachment, and disconnect from their past. Although there is a void of identity that has affected generations of people, few authors have captured these changes so profoundly as Fraser.
In his typical, surrealist way, he embodies all these contemporary issues in the character of Gary, a man with no origin. He comes from the town ‘S’, although he does not know its full name, nor where it is. All he remembers concerning the place is a cabbage truck and low houses, something that suggests it could be both everywhere and nowhere at once. Indeed his very ethnicity is a mystery: at one point he is told he could be a Russian, and at other times a Kurd. He is a ‘refugee, an emigrant and nomad’ but does not identity with any of these labels. Like his unknown hometown, he’s concurrently all of these and none of these, infuriating and intriguing everyone around him.
Gary himself appears to be contemptuous of his lack of identity; however, he undertakes a journey to find his roots in order to satisfy these insistent characters. They encourage him to find his own place in society, by finding his roots, not to help Gary but instead to benefit themselves. Fraser’s ambiguity in describing Gary, and deliberate lack of physical description, allows the other characters in the book to project their self-purpose onto him.
We as the reader have very faint clues as to what Gary looks like, so we too project an image of him in order to satisfy our own needs. Fraser plays with the sense of detachment many of us have with people from war-torn or poverty ravaged countries, although we may feign some affinity. For us, it is hypothetical, simply an issue that needs a solution, whilst for everyone else it is their stark reality.
While much as the novel is about characters and identity, it is also about civilisation and most importantly, cities. Gary’s mysterious hometown of ‘S’ is his only way of finding a sufficient identity for others to see him by. We are taken through several, wildly different environments and cities that reflect the philosophies of the people living there. From the post-revolutionary, and intensely philosophical setting where he begins, to the murky and underground world of the Dark City. Fraser brilliantly uses these settings as a backdrop to his own observations. In one poignant line, the character Franco (deliberately in reference to the dictator?) claims ‘All civilisations bring the freedom and new ways of enslaving you’, and a few lines earlier, ‘If you have cash spend it all at once, it clears your head.’ This conversation takes place in the first setting, an obvious correlation to the hyper-consumer society we are currently in, that insists on people finding their place through buying things. We recognise our own Western world in the first setting, whilst the Dark City is more reminiscent of a bygone era or poverty stricken region. Both highlight the issues faced within each context: the never-ending manipulative chase to find one’s place in Western civilisation, and the precarious means of survival in past and poor civilisations.
In a more subversive message, Fraser is also having a dig at globalisation and the urban monoculture that has become dominant across the globe. He indicates that ‘S’ no longer exists, instead being engulfed by a larger city. Thus Gary’s task is an impossible one, his odyssey futile. As with many of the philosophical questions posed to him by the inhabitants of each civilisation, there is no satisfactory answer.
Reading ‘S’ is very similar to looking at a work of abstract art. Fraser will not go down the obvious literary route. Instead, he uses profound conversations between characters, and surreal metaphors to create his point. He cleverly builds the imagery of cities, not through physical description itself, but rather through the actions and conversations of fantastic characters, completely unique to Fraser’s universe. His usual wit leaves us simultaneously laughing and discerning. Crucially, Fraser offers us a piece of literature that is freely open to interpretation, allowing the reader to engage in a dialogue with themselves, and come to terms with the meanings of the questions his characters posit.
A companion piece, of sorts, is Fraser’s 2012 novel The Storm, which is the embodiment of surrealism done well. We are thrown into an abstract world from the very first page, meeting three of the protagonists in an existential environment. Each character comes from a separate country, and they act as physical representations of their own countries culture and identity.
In the first part of the novel, they are watching global politics play out before them, mirroring a theatrical performance and bringing to life the phrase ‘the word stage’. The characters provide a running commentary on everything they see before them, allowing Fraser to channel notions about society, class, culture, race, and politics, from a unique perspective.
The setting isn’t important, and as with ‘S’, Fraser rarely provides us with a satisfactory definitive of where exactly the characters are, instead playing on the reader’s confusion to draw us closer to the questions the novel is asking. He focuses on issues surrounding identity in an ever-changing world, dominated by constantly varying empires. One such great example is in the character Goran, who embodies the complex ethnography of the Balkans, brilliant put when he says “They still quarrel over who we are, we Macedonians. Greeks, slaves, primitives. At times I feel I’m Turkish – or Bulgarian.” It’s a fantastic line that references all the countries that have laid claim to Macedonia, and the resulting impact that each empire has had on the identity of the Macedonian people. Fraser brilliantly captures the lasting echoes that fallen empires leave on their conquered countries. His writing itself borrows elements from Ancient Greek literature, as well as Nordic, both arguably the founding figures of European society, whilst Fraser himself resides in Rome, the bastion of European imperialism.
Yet, whilst Fraser is influenced by the past, the message of The Storm is very much about looking towards the future. The characters are seemingly trying to find a solution in the face of a deteriorating world. Through Fraser’s amalgamation of classical and post-modern surrealism, he provides a commentary on the impossible challenge that we, as a post-imperial, interconnected society, have. He also begs the reader to question the affect the depleting state of the current Western dominated empire will have on our society. Will we too end up like Goran, with a lost identity?
It is certainly a unique and profoundly fascinating book that encourages deep reflection. It will take a few pages to adapt to the surrealism, however once you ease into the mentality, it is an engrossing novel to read.
Whereas ‘S’ and The Storm typify Fraser’s abstract approach to comment on human philosophy, his first novel, ‘An Illusion of Sun’, is perhaps his most straightforward. That is not to say the work isn’t any less poignant, but instead offers us an insight into Fraser’s full descriptive capability.
He builds up a world around us that we can fully immerse ourselves into, rather than his distinctive surrealism that requires the reader to think more conceptually. The vivid descriptions of a disturbed Italian town build a dark atmospheric setting. At one point The Director, one of the novel's antagonists observes the scene; ‘a few late pigeons were kicking through the gutter paper- or could they be tiny, bent, scavenging men?’ The sense of desperations filters through the novel’s pages. Fraser even successfully turns a carnival into a scene of disgust and horror. Typically a trope used to induce a sense of frivolity and joy, this carnival is a place where ‘children were being lost or abandoned, and were reacting to their distress in all the unpleasant ways they could imagine.’ We become fully immersed in this horrific celebration, grimacing at every vile description. Every sense is accounted for, as we see, hear, smell and taste everything described to us on the pages we read.
Yet whilst this setting is reminiscent of a familiar place — at one point we are given the clue that it is ‘another Venice’ providing some subtle comparison — there is still unease throughout. Instead of an exact timeframe and location, Fraser’s narrative implies an ambiguity that doesn’t satisfy us with a definitive answer. It could be set fifty years ago, or one hundred and fifty. The dialogue between characters is profound enough to transcend any timeframe. Whilst he goes into great detail about certain aspects of the town, Fraser still restricts general, obvious description, which results in a timeless space that simultaneously exists and doesn’t. It provides the ideal backdrop for a novel that comments on ever-relevant class relations through the young protagonists. The affluent Piernienna, has wealth but is lonely, forced into a time wherein a woman is secondary to man and thus restricted by her sex. Whilst her friend and admirer, Torgano, is helplessly in love, but with a failing antiques shop is held back financially. Both are, like the town, trapped by their worst traits.
It is worth mentioning that Fraser wrote the novel in 1958, a few years after a visit to post-fascist Italy. In this vandalized, rubbish strewn town, we have The Director of Public Monuments. A man both ‘despicable’ and ‘accessible.’ He reflects the sordid environment around him that he is supposed to be caring for, embodying a form of persuasive fascism. He portrays himself in an appealing way so as to appear democratic, hiding behind public interest, abusing his position. Fraser describes how he ‘talked too much to be able to like people, everyone was silent or tried constantly to interrupt.’
As above, this is a novel about fascism without being a fascist novel. Like all of his work, it’s deeply intriguing and reveals a strong mastering of language, even from the start of his writing career. It’s an excellent introduction to Fraser that, as always, leaves the reader in a state of contemplation.
While this overview can only hope to scratch the surface of Fraser’s fascinating back catalogue, mention should also be made to his next novel, Tomorrow the Victory, which is set for general release in April. In characteristic fashion, it follows a more abstracted protagonist, Mack, on a journey through an unspecified land where he joins a committee whose role is to judge the actions and morality of others, and to dole out fitting punishments when required.
Torn by moral, philosophical, political and emotional conundrums, Mack leaves the committee and continues his quest for something more meaningful. Questioning those who claim their revolution has already been won, he comes to believe that ‘true’ victory always lies at some obscure later date. The novel has all the Fraserian hallmarks: trenchant dialogue, dissections of political ideology , and an existential interpretation of the real meaning of victory and revolution.
As Fraser notes in his Q&A interview, below, “I didn’t come late to publishing – publishing came late to me! I’ve always had difficulty in being read, even more in being published. ‘Brilliantly written but absolutely unsaleable’ was the first judgement from a celebrated literary agency.” That verdict was delivered a very long time ago and now, remarkably, it seems that it is about to be overturned: for John Fraser, a writer for the 21st century, his time has finally come...
Books by John Fraser are all available from Aesop Modern and Amazon UK, each priced £14.99 in hardback, £8.99 in paperback and £5.99 in Kindle edition. Tomorrow the Victory, Fraser’s latest novel, will be published in April 2019. For further information about John Fraser’s work, visit www.johnfraserfiction.com.
MUST READ OF THE WEEK: JOHN FRASER
John Fraser may not be a household name, but he has been described as “the most original novelist of our time” by none other than Whitbread Award-winning writer and Booker Prize nominee, John Fuller.
As Fuller notes in a personal essay about his fellow author, what is all the more remarkable is that Fraser’s literary output began late, and already fully formed. Within the space of just one decade he has published over 25 critically acclaimed novels and anthologies, each noted for their extraordinary vision and individuality.
Born in London in 1939, Fraser was a precocious child who excelled at school and in exams.
While at St Paul’s School in Hammersmith he enjoyed writing essays and reading French literature, and his early academic achievements secured him a Major Open Scholarship at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, reading History. Though he found the cloistered courtyards of Cambridge to be somewhat provincial and archaic compared to the artistic pulse of London, Fraser – who played the French horn – engaged with the university’s many music groups and joined Cambridge University Music Society Orchestra. He also wrote poetry and became active in politics, attending the Labour Club and organising a boycott in his college against South Africa, which in the late 1950s was operating under the system of apartheid.
Following a BA Hons in History and English Literature, and then a Postgraduate Certificate in Education at King’s College, Cambridge, Fraser pursued a teaching career in history at the Cambridge College of Arts & Technology, while at the same time undertaking a PhD in Politics at the University of Leicester. His academic areas of interest would, in time, find their way into his novels and novellas but enjoyed an early, and brief, literary expression at the start of the 1960s. Fraser contributed a short story (a brilliant fantasy which reads as though Dickens had somehow survived to try his hand at the most elegant manifestations of French surréalisme) to the anthology Light Blue, Dark Blue, which featured writings from esteemed Oxbridge alumni including a young Ted Hughes, Dennis Potter and Sylvia Plath. Aside from the choice of subject, the story is notable for displaying the author’s signature sharp and socially aware humour, and surrealistic streak, in embryonic form.
Sadly, this, and a contribution to John Lehmann’s London Magazine at around the same time, essentially seemed to sum up Fraser’s literary offerings for the next five decades, as he appeared to be concentrating instead on his academic career. However, from the late 1950s to early 1970s he wrote three novels, An Illusion of Sun, The Observatory and The Other Shore, which were not to be published until the next century. They reflect the turbulent international politics of the late 60s/early 70s which have returned in recent years and which inform all his work in their examination of the restless and unsupported lives that have given rise then and now to political action. There was also a self-published bilingual book of poetry and prose, Janiculum, and in the 1990s he worked on one of his largest and most ambitious novels, The Magnificent Wurlitzer.
Fraser admits that the world of academia never “fitted well” with him owing to a deep scepticism about the institutions he was working in. Yet, despite these misgivings, his time at the University of Leicester in the late 1960s, where he served in the Department of Political Science, gave him a taste for more radical political expression (albeit clandestine and largely postponed as the radical movement was student-driven), and enabled Fraser to research his interests in Marxism and Communism. From 1968 to 1971, he was Assistant Professor, then Acting Chairman, in the Department of Political Science, Laurentian University, Ontario, Canada, and then moved to the University of Waterloo, also in Ontario, where he remained until 1984, rising to Associate Professor. Though he recalls the latter university as not being appreciative of radical politics, Laurentian University was more than sympathetic and both universities afforded Fraser the opportunity to travel extensively throughout Eastern Europe, the former USSR, France, and Italy to observe and write about their political systems in situ. Academic publications penned during this time include An Introduction to the Thought of Galvano Della Volpe and Italy: Society in Crisis / Society in Transformation.
In the 1980s John moved, both intellectually and geographically, towards Italy, where he held various contract professorships until 2001 at the University of Rome and University of Ferrara. He was also a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Reading from 1986 to 2003 but would ultimately settle in Italy, where he now resides in a small village close to Rome.
Although the works he published in the 1980s and ’90s were academic, Fraser was still actively investing his time in writing literature, though his self-assessment of his work was “brilliant but unsaleable”. It was not until his retirement that Fraser finally found a publisher who would be sympathetic to his highly intellectual and fiercely individualistic style, and who would commit to issuing his novels: AESOP PUBLICATIONS. Through their AESOP Modern imprint, this independent publisher has released all of Fraser’s works to date, including early, and hitherto unpublished, novels including An Illusion of Sun (1958), The Observatory (1968), The Other Shore (1970) and The Magnificent Wurlitzer (1989), the latter of which was selected as one of the first titles to be published under the AESOP Modern banner, in 2009.
A decade on and there are now 26 works by Fraser available in print, with his next, Tomorrow The Victory, set to come out this April. This prodigious output spans novels, novellas, short stories and poems and has been described by John Fuller, Fraser’s unswerving champion, as one of the “most extraordinary publishing events” of recent years. In his essay on Fraser, Fuller recommends An Illusion of Sun as a good starting point for new readers. However the oeuvre is approached, the books are all connected by the author’s particular political interests and a bent for philosophical and speculative examination of the big questions in life – be that the nature of reality; the definitions and boundaries of the human experience; or the meaning of identity and society. Later offerings become more apocalyptic in their descriptions of confusion and rootlessness, but are balanced by an ironic humour and flair for the fantastic.
The author, himself, recognises that his writings do not in the main constitute easy reads, and suggests trying to add a visual or musical dimension. This should come as no surprise as music has been a lifelong passion for Fraser and he has been a natural horn soloist in numerous chamber orchestras and groups in Canada and Italy, and has performed at venues in London, Cardiff and Rome. In his words, “If someone finds the books hard to enter, they should try to add a visual dimension, and try to catch the speech rhythms - two of them have been turned into opera librettos, and another a film treatment. Film and voice may supplement the slight attention paid to physical descriptions, though the books are primarily literary – language – inventions.”
Now aged 79, Fraser shows no signs of slowing down and those prepared to enter fully into his writings will find an author of staggering intellectual depth and breadth whose work has been compared to that of Thomas Pynchon. To poet and novelist John Fuller, Fraser is a “latter-day surrealist” but like the most original, and too often unsung, writers, his opus should be judged upon its own terms.
Q&A with John Fraser
We sit down with the acclaimed novelist John Fraser to find out more about his life, work, politics and prodigious bibliography.
Q: You have had an extraordinary literary outpouring of work in recent years, and yet you came quite late to publishing your fiction. What first prompted you to begin writing
literary fiction, how did you maintain this while also pursuing your academic career, and why did you not publish sooner?
A: I started writing poetry and stories at school, writing the first novel at university in 1958 [published as An Illusion of Sun, 2011]. I have always written, and when not producing fictions have concentrated on my academic writing career and music. They make you write at school – and I never stopped. The first three novels were inspired by foreign travels – Italy for An Illusion of Sun; Central Asia for The Observatory, and the USSR for The Other Shore. I have always avoided the conventions of a firm, fixed geographical setting, depicting characters as if they’re real people, and my narrators hop in and out of the telling as they fancy.
I didn’t come late to publishing – publishing came late to me! I’ve always had difficulty in being read, even more in being published. ‘Brilliantly written but absolutely unsaleable’ was the first judgement from a celebrated literary agency. As a friend told me long ago, my work seems intimidating, and publishers are a ‘timid breed’. At last I have found a publisher. I don’t think my work is on the outer edge of difficulty – it ignores conventions, is allusive, and deals with serious themes; it requires an ordinary concentration and is largely sugar-free. The delay, in short, is not mine: I was always industrious but never picked a winner among the publishers – until my whole backlist, and ongoing list, was taken up by Aesop.
Why do it? I felt I was good at it, and persisted even when no one shared my opinion.
Q: How would you summarise your writing career to date? To those unfamiliar with your work, how would you best describe your style and what you are trying to achieve as a novelist?
A: I think what I am trying to achieve is the novels themselves. Each is complete, has messages and judgements galore, and a cast of bright, pleasant and unpleasant characters you’d love to meet, if they weren’t my fantasies.
My writing career to date has been a marathon through thick tar.
My style is unforced and unpondered. I just write what the text entails.
Q: Which writers or novels have been a great influence on you, and in which ways?
A: One reads and forgets a lot. When asked about influences, I always say the Malcolm Lowry of Under the Volcano; Ronald Firbank for the dialogue; and The Human Age by Wyndham Lewis for the sweep and derring-do.
Q: How have you managed to produce such a body of accomplished works at such speed? What habits have you adopted to facilitate this and what advice would you give to other writers in this regard?
I write regularly, short ‘contes’, novellas, but I always feel I have something to say and to do so without bottling it up for decades. I do believe that one day we all die, and if you don’t do whatever during your life… that’s it, too bad. Daily practice is essential for an instrumentalist; the same goes for a writer.
Q: What has been your proudest moment to date as an author, and is there anything that you would still like to achieve?
A: I would like to have a readership and in some ways to engage with it, but probably in silence.
My proudest moment was in 1959 when John Lehmann and the London Magazine took a story I’d now like to forget – it was fool’s gold. It gave me illusions that it took decades to approach again – as illusions.
Q: Your field as an academic was politics, but how important are your political leanings to the plots and themes of your books? What is your assessment of the current political environment in the UK, and how do you feel about this?
A: I have always been on the left in politics – hard and soft, libertarian and tankie. For many years I was close to the Italian Communist Party, which was a loose overcoat, and I wrote a book on one of their intellectuals, Galvano Della Volpe. That party is no more, nor is the USSR, nor socialist Yugoslavia; all those gave me inspiration and frustration while they were going concerns. I’d say my personal political contribution to anything has been zero, but politics is always present in my books.
Any opinions on British politics I’ll keep to myself, given the three precedents cited.
Q: Your characters are all great travellers. How have you drawn on your own extensive
travels for inspiration? Do you think travelling has been essentially in order for you to write?
A: Travel has been essential for me: it’s the staying in one place that’s a drag. This is a paradox – to stay somewhere, you have to travel to it.
Q: Do you feel that writing, rather than teaching, has been your great calling in life? Or have you been equally passionate about, and found equally rewarding, both pursuits?
A: I had a strong ideological commitment to comprehensive education in my twenties. Unfortunately, I don’t accommodate to young people, so I have taken my undistinguished teaching to even older pupils. I have probably been a stimulus to those who sought wisdom through reading lots of books.
Q: Your characters are great thinkers, but also quick to take action. Is that true of
yourself as well? In other words, how much of John Fraser the author goes into your protagonists?
A: The link between thought – compulsion, instinct, philosophy – and action has always seemed a central passage in the life of the human species. That’s banal, but it is a fascinating nexus, especially when one sees the disconnect between what you think and what you do, and the even greater one between what you think and what – by some criterion I don’t follow – you think you have achieved.
Q: Aside from the titles discussed (and reviewed) above, which of your books are you most proud of, and why? If you could choose one title for a reader unfamiliar of your work, which would this be, and why?
A: I think kindly of The Other Shore, The Magnificent Wurlitzer and The Case – the first and third for the steadfast and creative female characters. Males in my books are always weak and wordy – most of the novels are tributes to the female characters, Wurlitzer celebrated my fixation with Brazil, the onset of a new devil-may-care authorial voice, and its global coverage.
A new reader should start with the latest book, gain sustenance from reading all – or some of – the previous and live in anticipation of the next.
Q: You are an accomplished musician. How has music informed, or otherwise played a role, in your literature?
A: Playing an instrument is like doing advanced mathematics – as someone said, the mathematics is like balancing a basket of eels on one’s head. Playing can be the highest point of intimacy, understanding and enjoyment – of oneself, the piece, and everyone else. Usually there’s a blur and a blot. Writing is easier because you can go back and correct.
Q: You have a number of forthcoming novels announced for this and next year. What are your plans for the future, both with literature and music, and do you think there will come a point when you will slow down or retire from writing?
A: I find the more one writes, the more there is to write and be written about. I didn’t have a set of themes to work through; I didn’t want to be better, to sell more, be more respected than anybody else by writing. The books are totally absorbing to write. I hope they’ll keep on coming, and that readers will be absorbed reading them. I expect no glory or cash from them. I’ll defend them if I can, but writing’s not so difficult – it’s being read… It doesn’t change a thing: the text is fixed, but when they’re written, sharing them to a small extent is all that can be done.