Life as a Burning House

Granville Davies/ Writer Pictures
Colin Thubron, London, 2008

Toward the close of Night of Fire, Colin Thubron’s first novel in fifteen years, and surely his finest, an old Tibetan monk, having denied the existence of the self, remarks merrily that in the view of Buddhists, “life is a burning house.” The same might be said, figuratively if not literally, of Thubron’s novel. It is set at the New Year, in a shabby late-Victorian apartment house in a run-down English seaside town. Just after midnight, the unnamed landlord, an amateur astronomer, is in his homemade observatory on the roof, with his telescope and his notebook and his muffler and padded jacket, awaiting the appearance of the Quadrantids, an annual meteor shower that occurs in early January in the constellation of Boötes. Although he does not know it yet, the house beneath him is on fire—“Somewhere in the bowels of the building, behind a damp wall, a kink in a carbonised wire had become a tiny furnace”—and before long he and his ailing wife, and his six tenants, will be dead.

As the foregoing indicates, any brief sketch—or indeed, any extended description—of this remarkable book may seem daunting to the reader or to the reviewer, faced with the task of conveying some sense of the intellectual excitement Thubron manages to generate despite the grim story he has chosen. Few novelists nowadays would risk venturing upon the great questions of being and self and world that Thubron addresses, and fewer still would in the process produce a work of art that is as thrilling as it is profound.

Night of Fire is old-fashioned in the very best sense of being both unfashionable and timeless. The main flaw is that it is written for the most part in the kind of no-nonsense prose suited to the usual straightforward novel of manners; Thubron’s ambitions are high, and it is a pity he could not have achieved an intensity of style to match them. That is by no means a fatal defect, but it is one that tends to blur both the aims and the achievements of the book.

This is not to say that there are not moments of magnificence and transcendent striving. Here is the landlord telling how in photographs he captured images of those immensities of infinite space that so terrified Pascal:

Most spectacularly his camera yielded crimson images that burst and spilled out like intestines on the blackness. He could not look at them without the illusion of some celestial wound. Whole seams of stardust—a hundred thousand light years across—undulated like arteries in space, or blistered up from nowhere. And the constellations shone so dense that scarcely a gap of night showed between.

The entire passage is reminiscent of Marlowe’s Faust urging us to “see, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!” while that “celestial wound”…

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