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A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight

I'm far from sure I will ever read all of the fifteen books in A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. Even Burgess writes that [t]he work has to be recommended as a whole, but no reader who ignores the second half can be wholly blamed. Actually, Burgess doesn't seem to have been very enthusiastic about the book at all. When he writes:

/.../ This is at times almost unbearably poignant. In the later volumes a pro-Fascist tone prevails, highly disturbing, and an almost manic bitterness which is far from acceptable.
he doesn't make me very interested.

Well, at last I did read all fifteen books, albeit in a rather quick way at the end.

I wrote the paragraph above about six seven months ago, but now I have read all fifteen books in the series. To be honest I read the books from after the First World War very quickly, just to have read them. I read some parts very carefully, and some parts hardly at all. So, even if I haven't read every word, I think I have read the series as a whole.

About reading A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight: pros.

About reading A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight: cons.

There are a few special qualities you get with very long novels (or romans-fleuve). As I mention on the page about Strangers and Brothers you have the feeling to really get to know the characters. It's probably necessary to have a vast amount of text to pull it off, which can be sort of tedious. Marcel Proust almost managed to do it, C. P. Snow didn't, and Henry Williamson is somewhere in-between. Sometimes the text is more or less a list with conjunctions, but other-times it's very good.

However, I bought all the books in the series many years ago, and over the Christmas holidays of 2008 I read the first book, The Dark Lantern. I found this book to be just about worth reading. At times I read very quickly due to the enormous amount of details. A short evening walk can take several pages of meticulous descriptions of more or less everything. I guess this is what Burgess calls: /.../ This is at times almost unbearably poignant. Other parts I read with great interest and concentration.

Donkey Boy, the second book in the series is better, I think. After about in third the focus shifts from Richard Maddison to the son Phillip Maddison. Richard and Phillip are just about the opposites of each-other. Richard is a conservative stick-in-the-mud, whereas Phillip is a very sensitive and emotional child. Richard is portrayed as a man who would like his entire family to share his ideas and beliefs, and seems to have just about no understanding for people not being proper, reasonable and decent. Phillip is a well-meaning child who's, alas, often doesn't think of the consequences of his actions, which, in turn, drives his father mad.

Richard Maddison is deeply dissatisfied with his life, and pours his resentment over his ever loving wife Hetty. It's something of a miracle that Hetty hasn't had a serious nervous breakdown, the way she is treated by her husband. At times it's hard to tell whether Henry Williamson really wanted Richard to be such an idiot as he is described, or if the description is a little bit over the top. A few times it is hinted that Richard realises that he should be more tolerant, but this theme is never developed.

The third book is even better than the previous two (at least the first half). Young Phillip Maddison deals mainly with the later childhood of Phillip, with a strong focus on the relationship between Phillip and his father. The parts dealing with Phillip's interest in the burgeoning Scout movement is told with great enthusiasm and a very fresh language.

The second half ends in Phillip applying for work at the Moon Insurance Company, where his father works. Before that happens we follow Phillip in school and on, mostly, solitary walks in forests on the outskirts of London. If you're not interested in British bird-life (I'm not) some quite long passages can only be described as rather boring. Sometimes I get the feeling Henry Williamson desperately wanted to add bulk to the books, as when he added a few pages of Medieval English from some (fictitious?) history book about Phillip's school. I must confessed I skipped those pages . . .

The fourth book, How Dear is Life, starts off in a nice and easy-going tone (for a change). Despite all odds Phillip rather enjoys working in the Wine Vault Lane branch office of the Moon Fire Insurance Office, and life in the city. The atmosphere in the office is surprisingly friendly, and Phillip's sometimes irresponsible behaviour doesn't get him in any serious trouble.

Then the First World War begins. Phillip joins something called The London Highlanders. I don't know the first thing about British regiments, so I'm not going to pretend that means something to me . . . which is unfortunate as I have the strong feeling this will make you appreciate these chapters much more.

In the end of the book it's written August 1953–February 1954, and I think you can tell that the book has been written in the high gear. The first half doesn't suffer from much this, but I think the episodes from the war and the trenches could probably have been improved by a more careful style. I sometimes found it hard to follow to story, and you never really get the feeling you get from All Quiet on the Western Front or Journey to the End of the Night.

The fifth book, A Fox Under My Cloak, is all about the First World War, and I probably had too high expectations, because I didn't really like it that much. The book starts with the Christmas Truce of 1914. As most other things in the book it's told in a matter-of-fact style, and I never got hooked. Again, I have the feeling Henry Williamson's astonishingly high tempo in writing these books really has negative effects on the quality. It's easy reading and quite pleasant from time to time, but they very seldom make me enthusiastic.

Shortly after the truce Phillip is sent home the England on sick leave. He then takes a course to be officer (or something like that — I don't always understand the more military things, and I haven't bothered to look them up), but he has, again, problems to fit in. Almost by mistake, he applies for a transfer back to the front, which is granted. At the front Phillip is set to be in charge of a new gassing equipment, which takes him away from the absolute front line. To make a long book short, in the last chapter Phillip returns to England.

On the back cover of my book I can read 'No on has described the First War so movingly.' daniel farson, The Oldie. My first thought was something like Wow, this sound promising. My second thought (i.e. after having read the book) was Hmmmm, what did he mean with 'movingly'. In hindsight, I think he might have used movingly as a euphemism for something not so kind. I mean movingly is not the word you use to describe a scenes from the First World War.

I'm usually a slow reader — I read a few lines, than I reread them and so on and so forth. This really doesn't work with these books. After the fifth book my patience with the slow tempo and detailed descriptions was over and I switched into speed reading. Basically I skip the paragraphs that seem to be boring. This is a bit risky and sometimes I have to jump back when I notice that I must have missed something important. This, however, didn't happen very often.

In this fashion I read the rest of the books on the First World War: The Golden Virgin, Love and the Loveless, and A Test to Destruction. Some parts of these books are very good — especially the very human view of the war, where both sides were fighting for the same reasons. As I mentioned before, these books are more like a historical review than a work of fiction. Indeed, many many pages are excerpts from Phillip's war diary, about movements, battles, and such. Again, it's easy reading, but not very enjoyable.

The Innocent Moon, the ninth book is worth a slightly lower tempo than the previous books. Phillip is back in London after the war, and trying to find out what to do with his life. He's trying to find a work, and he's trying to find a wife. He's not very successful with either, but far from unsuccessful. That's about it.

I read the rest of the books quite quickly and without much interest. All these books are concerned with Phillip Maddison's struggles with life, and farming in particular.

I use the codes [Y] for Yes, I have read this one and [N] for No, I haven't read it (yet).

Status   Title Year of pub.   Pages
[Y] The Dark Lantern (1951) 432
[Y] Donkey Boy (1952) 400
[Y] Young Phillip Maddison (1953) 416
[Y] How Dear is Life (1954) 335
[Y] A Fox Under My Cloak (1955) 415
[Y] The Golden Virgin (1957) 448
[Y] Love and the Loveless (1958) 384
[Y] A Test to Destruction (1960) 461
[Y] The Innocent Moon (1961) 415
[Y] It Was the Nightingale (1962) 357
[Y] The Power of the Dead (1963) 365
[Y] The Phoenix Generation    (1965) 384
[Y] A Solitary War (1966) 374
[Y] Lucifer Before Sunrise (1967) 515
[Y] The Gale of the World (1969) 364

From the Sutton Publishing editions I have the total page count is 5902. (I have subtracted the identical introduction of about ten page from each copy.) My fifteen books take a 45 centimetre shelf-space. You can see their uniform yellow backs very clearly on the pictures on my Burgess99 page.

Copyright © 2009 Peter Andrén