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” raises early on the numinous theme that threads its way—yes, like an artery—throughout the narrative. This is a novel steeped in religion, but religion understood, if religion can be understood, in the broadest sense of a striving toward comprehension of, and even communion with, the generative force at the heart of things that human beings long ago willed into existence, and that we still call the Creator. Night of Fire is a God-tormented work, although the God it pursues seems to be the Deus absconditus, the one who is no longer there, if he ever was.
Appropriately, then, after an opening chapter of half a dozen italicized pages devoted to the landlord at his awed interrogation of the heavens, there comes an extended section—it could stand alone as a novella—entitled “Priest,” in which Stephen, the first of the tenants we encounter, is lying in bed sleepless and recalling his days as a seminarian training to be an Anglican priest. We are given to understand that at some point in his life Stephen lost his religion and now, in solitary old age, professes to nothing stronger than a vague and troubled agnosticism. On the morning of the night before the fire he had chanced upon a yellowed photograph of himself and his fellow ordinands at the seminary, a less than adroit device by which the author is allowed to send his character off on a long and meandering yet passionate journey of remembrance.
Or two journeys, in fact, for Stephen’s stream of recollection is broken—apt word—into a pair of narratives that do not fit together entirely happily. The first set of memories concerns a holiday trip to Greece that Stephen undertook along with three of his seminarian friends, Vincent, Ross, and the deceptively cheerful Julian. The latter is one of those muscular Christians who insist, vehemently but quixotically, on maintaining a rational approach to their faith—“I believe Christ died to take away our sins, not our minds”—but Vincent too is briskly practical when it comes to the business of applying the tenets of religion to the realities of life, declaring at one point that “it’s time we were out in the world, doing God’s work.”
In Greece, the four young men visit the legendary monastery on Mount Athos, and it is here that Ross, the weakest and most unstable of the quartet, falls into a fatal error, when in a rush of eroticized religiosity, and in the presence of Stephen and Julian, he makes a clumsy pass at Vincent, which is icily rebuffed. Back at the seminary, Ross, in his anguish and shame, hangs himself.
The image of the hanged man recurs throughout the book, as powerful and terrifying a symbol as it was for T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land. The novel, in fact, is a tapestry of interwoven images, themes, and even names—each of the six tenants of the house, one of them a woman, is called by a variant of the name Stephen, the first Christian martyr. This deliberate patterning, along with the fact that the star-gazing landlord aloft in his observatory seems not only to have known but to have been all of the significant characters in the book—except his wife, who is dying of emphysema—gives rise to the suspicion that in fact there is only one consciousness at work here, a single voice speaking in numerous guises into silence and imminent extinction, as in the middle-period novels of Samuel Beckett.
What are we to make of this business of the names, and other enigmas that occur and recur throughout the narrative? It is only when we come to the penultimate section of the book, “Traveller”—the title inevitably reminds us that Colin Thubron is best known for his travel writing—and the clues to a possible meaning, or at least design, accumulate thickly, that we begin to feel we might be able to see our way out of the maze the author has fashioned for us to lose ourselves in. Of course in art it is the mystery, not the meaning, that is of true significance. Yet readers are ever tormented by the itch to make sense of a narrative, to have a story told that is clear and unequivocal—“O, rocks!” Molly Bloom exclaims, “tell us in plain words”—and it is in the spirit of Molly that one seizes upon passages such as this, which comes shortly after Steven the “Traveller” recalls “the friend who hanged himself decades ago”:
Sometimes, fantastically, [Steven] even imagined there might have been another self, who had known and experienced things more intensely than he, someone of whom he was only a belated refraction.
It is this Steven who muses that “the brain was either the receiver or the creator of divinity”—an observation which is not as profound as it may at first seem—and it is the brain, in its function, its make-up, and its impenetrable strangeness that is the subject of the novel’s third section, “Neurosurgeon.” A very great deal of research, on theology, cosmology, lepidoptery, brain surgery, and much else, went into the making of this book—Thubron shows himself to be not only an exhaustive reader but an excellent learner—and this is one of the sections or chapters in which his labors pay the richest dividends.
The eponymous surgeon, Steven Walford, is reminiscent of Henry Perowne, the protagonist of Ian McEwan’s Saturday, in that he is the personification of the physician as technician—of Walford we are told: “Colleagues thought him cold, and he took it as praise. Coldness was competence.” Naturally, he finds the brain endlessly fascinating, considering it to be “the incarnate self,” although later on, in contrary fashion, he agrees with Steven the Traveller’s Buddhists that “the self is an illusion.”
The greatest illusion of all. It emerges only from the raw material of our speech and perceptions. We are, in a sense, these materials: the product of electro-chemical tumult.
We find him dealing with, and performing surgery on, two patients, Claudia Greene and Roy Peters. The former has a tumor lodged deep in her brain that is the cause of her severe epilepsy; the procedure to remove it is relatively straightforward, although it could be fatal and, less dramatically but just as devastatingly, it might cause her to be deprived of a portion of her store of memories: “What I would expect you to lose is part of your so-called ‘autonoetic consciousness,’ the ability to travel back into the past and recall it in detail,” the surgeon warns her.
With this hazard in view, Mrs. Greene—she has a crassly overbearing husband—gives the surgeon a parcel of letters and a photograph, which together constitute the record of an adulterous affair, the most precious emotional experience of her life, and begs him to show them to her after the operation, so that, if she has indeed lost part of her “autonoetic consciousness,” the physical evidence of the love affair might be a sufficiently strong jolt to her memory for her to recall her lost love.
The second patient, Peters, is in the throes of ecstatic religious mania, caused by a lesion of the brain that, if cured, will probably drive him out of Heaven and land him back on ordinary, unconsecrated ground with a tragic bump. The surgeon, of course, is absorbed by the dilemma:
The hippocampus still preoccupied and amazed him. It received a meteor shower [!] of sensory information every second, processed the information, arranged it in sequence, coloured it from a vast palette of emotions, then filed it away in the cortex for the demands of instant memory. To resect the hippocampus or amygdala was, in its way, to reorder nature.
Yes, you might cut out God with a knife.
Stephanie, the central character in the next section, “Naturalist,” is also enthralled by the intricacies of her discipline. She is a lepidopterist who after an unhappy childhood is encouraged toward her true calling by an elderly cousin, a professional scientist and a world-renowned expert on butterflies and moths. “Naturalist” is the most impressively written of the book’s eight sections; if the research he did was his first experience of lepidoptery, then Thubron was obviously captivated by the subject, for he writes about it with passion and delicacy, and there are stretches in which his prose soars far above the workaday. A description of a common cabbage white butterfly breaking from its chrysalis—“Out of the slit emerged ridges of green hair followed by a staring opaline eye”—is at once exquisite and appalling, just like nature itself, although the passage ends with what seems a supranatural resurrection: “the winged angel risen from a worm.”
“Naturalist” is fraught with a desperate sensuousness; the life of the butterfly is a kind of fleeting Liebestod, a gorgeous and febrile blundering through the glare of a single day into the velvet darkness of oblivion. Stephanie likewise undergoes a birth and blossoming of the senses, recalling a night in “a hotel somewhere” when she was a girl and underwent her “young epiphany,” emerging from the chrysalis of childhood:
Her hands travelled down herself tentatively, in nascent exploration, holding the small, new breasts a little wonderingly, as if estranged from her own flesh…. She kneaded her thighs, touched her nipples. Submissively she spread out her arms, still feeling…the emergence of her own beauty, beautiful not because some other felt her so, but from a sensation more intimate, as if she had become her own lover.
Stephanie, like the astronomer, indeed like all of the main characters in the book, stands in fearful wonderment before the mystery of creation, thinking at one point of “the whole universe dispersing into nowhere after the Big Bang. Everything thinning into the dark, like a ghastly mistake: a final refutation of God.” In the following section, or chapter—one hardly knows which designation applies, given the radical separation between the eight parts of the book—the god who rules, or misrules, is Eros. Steve, the young photographer in whose basement flat the fire starts, is a womanizer of a somewhat creepy variety who stalks and traps in his net various specimens of unremarkable young women whom he transfigures by the force of his desire, spiritual as well as sexual, into the Other.
One of them, a not very successful actress, fascinates and almost frightens him by the condition of mutability imposed on her by her profession; even offstage, she becomes the parts she plays. The most significant of her roles, for Steve, is that of “a mature woman in love with a dreamy girl.” The woman’s name is Samantha, and from this and some other delicately planted clues we gather that the play she is acting in is somehow the story of the love affair between Stephanie the Naturalist and the older woman who was the cause of her coming to realize her true sexuality. Here again the intricate weave of the book’s tapestry shows through, as Steve succumbs to his lover’s “changed lovemaking” in her role as the stage lesbian that she continues to play when she is in bed with him:
Beneath the new strength of her arms, he sometimes felt himself diffusing, as if his body’s limits were not longer his…. He dreamt he opened to her like a woman.
In the sixth section of the book, “Schoolboy,” the oldest tenant in the house resurrects his lonely childhood and the years he spent in England at Springdown school, “less like a boarding school than a run-down country house,” to which he has been consigned by his expatriate parents, who live in Cyprus. “Squit,” as he is nicknamed, makes the mistake of pretending that he is an orphan: his mother and father “were two thousand miles away, and it was easier to imagine them no longer living.” His deception is brought shamingly to light when one day his older brother comes to play cricket at Springdown, and of course the little boy suffers the consequences of his lies.
Squit is a member of a secret band of his fellows, called the Serpent Society, that meets clandestinely by night in a nearby wood, and that is lorded over by Tansley the Wizard:
He found it hard, even now, to realise how crude it all was: that the Wizard’s throne was only a wobbly scaffold of sticks tied together with frayed string, and the sacred fire no more than a foot-high pyramid of smouldering twigs.
All the same, these primitive childhood mysteries are a pre-echo of the bravura passage in the penultimate section, when Steven the Traveller comes to the sacred Indian city of Varanasi and visits a Hindu sanctuary where among other nightmarish figures he encounters a dancer in the part of Kali, “the goddess of destruction,” whose eyes “swerve up like scimitars in her head, sloping back almost to her tiara,” a feature that recurs again and again in the narrative—Steve the Photographer even finds himself trawling the Internet in search of sites featuring women with upward-curving eyes, like those of Kali. Everything in this book, it would seem, leads toward the one end, which is death.
Death, and what may or may not follow death. In the second of the two narrative strands in the early section, “Priest,” Stephen and his fellow seminarian Vincent travel to Tanzania, after the suicide of their friend Ross, to work with the Pentecostal Church of Good Tidings, which tends to the various and desperate needs of a camp of Tutsi refugees from nearby Rwanda, driven out by their rivals, the Hutu—the period is thirty years before the Rwandan genocide in 1994, in which some 800,000 of the Tutsi tribe were slaughtered by the Hutu majority, but the makings of the coming catastrophe are already in place. Stephen falls in love with a Tutsi woman, who acts as a translator for him in his dealings with her people.
The relationship, such as it is, between the would-be priest and the young and beautiful Chantal—her real name is Nishyimimana—is exquisitely limned, although we feel the inevitability of the tragedy in which it will end, just as Stephen dimly sees a foreshadowing of the genocide that will occur decades later. When a force of Hutu militia bears down on the camp, intent on slaughter, Stephen attempts to rescue Chantal and her mother, but fails, through infirmity of purpose as much as anything else, and runs away to save himself. It is a primal sin, the guilt of which will be with him for all his life, and for which, perhaps we are to understand, he is at the end pitched into perdition: “When the fire at last burst through the floor, it opened up below a roaring furnace whose flames leapt ten feet into the room.”
Night of Fire is not an easy book. A sense of numinous foreboding weighs upon the narrative—after all, we know from the start that the house and everyone in it is doomed—and the general tone of brooding religiosity is at times hard to accept. Yet the scale of its ambition, and the author’s unremitting interrogation of the Heideggerian mystery of Dasein, of “there-being,” gives it the semblance of something like a masterpiece.