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The Twinkling of an Eye, or, My Life as an Englishman
Brian W. Aldiss
St. Martin's Press, 496 pages

The Twinkling of an Eye, or, My Life as an Englishman
Brian W. Aldiss
Brian W. Aldiss was born in 1925 in the UK. He grew up in rural Norfolk and Devon, the son of a department store owner. He served 3 years in Burma and Asia with the Forgotten Army. This part of the world was later to become quite influential on his work. Having played a seminal role in SF's New Wave in the 60s, he is now considered by many to be the elder statesman of UK SF.

Brian W. Aldiss Website
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A review by Rich Horton

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It seems to me that the practice of the literary memoir is more prevalent in England than in the United States. At any rate, few distinguished English writers seem to escape autobiography. For me, the memoirs of writers I admire hold great interest, despite the usually somewhat mundane everyday lives of authors. There's something compelling about tracing the roots of a writer's imagination, and I also take gossipy interest in the accounts of meetings with other well-known writers that these books usually contain. And, to be sure, famous writers are usually good writers, and their memoirs are more likely to be well-written. The Twinkling of an Eye delivers on all counts: it is a very enjoyable literary autobiography. (It is also Aldiss' second book of memoirs; the earlier Bury My Heart at W.H. Smith's seems to be more focused on Aldiss' literary interests than on his personal life.)

Brian W. Aldiss is a giant in the Science Fiction field. His major contributions are of course as a writer of the stuff. He's a winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula, and among his SF books are Hothouse, The Malacia Tapestry, and the Helliconia series. He's also made significant contributions as a critic/historian of the field. His controversial Billion Year Spree (later updated as Trillion Year Spree with David Wingrove) is his most famous work in this area.

But Aldiss has always also been part of the mainstream of post-War British writing. His first book, The Brightfount Diaries, a comic account of working in a bookstore, was certainly not SF, but it was very successful. He worked for many years as Literary Editor of the Oxford Mail. And he achieved great success, both commercial and literary, with his novels The Hand-Reared Boy and A Soldier Erect, somewhat ribald accounts of a man growing up in this century in England, and fighting during World War II in Burma. His later series of contemporary novels, The Squire Quartet, are perhaps more successful in literary terms, but less so financially. (Aldiss writes in these pages, about the third book of The Squire Quartet, Remembrance Day: "I could tell my writing was improving: my sales figures kept getting worse.")

Aldiss' career illustrates clearly the dual path which seems to have been more possible for English SF writers than for Americans. This path has been shared to one degree or another by writers like Doris Lessing, Kingsley Amis, J.G. Ballard, and Iain Banks, a path which allows the writer to publish true SF and mainstream fiction, and not necessarily have his mainstream fiction disregarded because of his SF links. (Which is not to say that the mainstream literary world will treat a writer's SF with full respect, as Aldiss also shows in this book.)

The Twinkling of an Eye opens with Aldiss heading off to Burma, to join the XIV Army, the "Forgotten Army," in driving the Japanese from that country toward the end of World War II. This sets a topic to be returned to throughout the book: Aldiss' wide-ranging travels. Aldiss follows with a series of chapters, ordered somewhat impressionistically, which tell of his young life, his less than idyllic experience in public schools, and of his somewhat difficult relationship with his parents.

Aldiss continues with a description of his years in the Army, mopping up the Japanese in Burma, then spending a couple of years in India just prior to independence, and in Sumatra. After leaving the Army, Aldiss moved to Oxford, and worked in a couple of bookshops. At this time he got married, sold his first stories, started writing the sketches which became The Brightfount Diaries, and had his first son.

The rest of the book is a bit more episodic. The sections concerning his first marriage, and especially its breakup, are very moving, even as Aldiss is still understandably reticent about the details. The pain and sense of failure he felt, and the agony of losing his children, especially his newborn daughter, are keenly portrayed. This dovetails into a period of depression and poverty, coupled with increasing artistic success in his fiction. It seems that Aldiss' marriage to Margaret Manson largely brought him out of his funk. Just as he keenly portrayed his depression over the failure of his first marriage, he is able to convey quite wonderfully his love for Margaret, and the happiness she brought him. Later, a rocky patch in their marriage, coinciding with Aldiss' contracting Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or, as he prefers, Post-Viral Fatigue Syndrome (PVFS), is described with bitter honesty.

A life is not a story, really. Thus Aldiss does not tell this book in a linear fashion, nor does he hew to a narrative structure. The later chapters are mini-essays, covering various aspects of his later life: travels to places like Yugoslavia and Denmark; the United States and China; his feelings about Science Fiction, its history, and worth, and its treatment by mainstream critics; a look back at a critical year spent in Sumatra, and his later return to that island; the writing of a select few of his books, most notably the Helliconia trilogy; his experiences with acting and movie-making, including time spent working on a (never completed) project with Stanley Kubrick; his relationships with his wife and children and sister; some brief comments on political matters; and finally a fascinating account of his visit to Turkmenistan, which occurred only after he had written a book set there.

I was quite absorbed by this book, and quite moved. I found it fascinating reading throughout. Aldiss has always been a bit of a peripheral figure in my reading: I've read several of his books, but not by any means most of them; I certainly admire his writing but he's never made my list of favourites. This book will spur me to try more. But quite aside from that, if you don't read his fiction at all, I think this is a very worthwhile account of the life of a man in this century. Definitely recommended.

Copyright © 1999 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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