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Life in the West

Life in the West

by Brian W. Aldiss

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Thomas C. Squire, creator of the hit documentary series Frankenstein Among the Arts, one-time secret agent and founder of the Society for Popular aesthetics, is attending an international media symposium in Sicily. It is here that he becomes involved with lovely, but calculating Selina Ajdina. Alongside the drama of the conference is the story of Squire's private life


Thomas C. Squire, creator of the hit documentary series Frankenstein Among the Arts, one-time secret agent and founder of the Society for Popular aesthetics, is attending an international media symposium in Sicily. It is here that he becomes involved with lovely, but calculating Selina Ajdina. Alongside the drama of the conference is the story of Squire's private life - the tale of his infidelity, the horrifying circumstances surrounding his father's death and the threatened future of his ancestral home in England.

Selected by Anthony Burgess as one of the 99 best novels published since 1939.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
By an author generally considered on this side of the Atlantic a science fiction writer, this novel, originally published in Britain 10 years ago and cited by Anthony Burgess as one of the 99 best novels since 1939, is quite a discovery. One of those rarities, a novel of ideas that is also eminently readable, it centers on Tom Squire, a British cultural historian with a successful TV series on the significance of pop culture. Scenes alternate between Squire's private life, which is falling apart, and a brilliantly depicted cultural conference in Sicily in which he plays a leading role. Aldiss uses the conference to lampoon cultural and political clashes between East and West (somewhat outdated today but still entertainingly realized), and even throws in a superb set piece about the literary role of science fiction. There's a beautifully evoked and moving English country Christmas, some startling and bloody action in postwar Yugoslavia, a rueful romance, an abundance of wit and intelligence. Squire's personality remains slightly elusive, though he's always eloquently thoughtful, and his troubles with his wife are never entirely convincing; but these are the only blemishes on a virtuoso performance. It's difficult to believe that no one previously thought a potential U.S. readership existed for so unusual a book. (May)
Library Journal
Thomas Squire, media analyst, TV star, and reluctant member of the landed gentry, squares off with some odd types at an academic conference, while recalling the events of his marriage, which has failed primarily because he treats his wife, a successful businesswoman, as an appendage to his country estate. In the end, Squire refuses to help a Russian literary critic defect to the West; and condescendingly accepts his wife's return on his own terms while trying to make her surrender seem as palatable as possible to her. Why this ten-year-old British novel has been given its first American release is a mystery; it follows last year's Forgotten Life (LJ 5/15/89). Though noted sf writer Aldiss ( Helliconia Spring, Summer, Winter) is a master of description, the Cold War politics are dated and stilted in this age of glasnost, and his rather patronizing attitude toward ``women's libbers'' will alienate many readers.-- Marcia R. Hoffman, M . L . S . , Hoechst Celanese Corp . , Somerville, N.J.

Product Details

Avalon Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Life in the West

The Squire Quartet: Book One

By Brian W. Aldiss


Copyright © 1980 Brian W. Aldiss
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-0838-2


The International Congress

Ermalpa, September 1978

Two men were walking in Mediterranean sunlight only four blocks from their hotel.

An observer following behind them would have learnt much from their backs. One was a comparatively small-built man, with thick heels on his shoes to compensate for a lack of height. He was thin almost to the point of being emaciated, so that, as he talked, which he did with a wealth of gesture, his shoulder blades could be seen moving beneath his jacket like two ferrets working back and forth in a cage.

He wore a brown suit with a faint yellow stripe, a neat suit light enough in weight for the climate, but somewhat worn. It was shiny round the seat. It was an expressive suit, the jacket flapping slightly as its owner vigorously demonstrated a point, or looked up sharply laughing, to see if his companion was also enjoying the joke. This sideways glance would have enabled an observer to catch a glimpse of a thin yellowish cheek belonging to a man slightly on the shady side of forty, and a neat beard shot through with grey.

The feature that announced the man in most companies, however, was his flow of copper hair. As if to compensate for the meagreness of his stature, the colourlessness of his cheek, his hair blazed. He wore it amply, down to his collar. In the sixties, it had trailed considerably further down his backbone. Now as then, it showed no white hairs.

The hands, when they appeared, were small and sharp, more useful in debate than games. They were the chief illustrators of gesture, and scattered words rather than spreading them evenly.

Their possessor was a Frenchman by the name of Jacques d'Exiteuil, the chairman of the conference.

D'Exiteuil's companion was taller and more solidly built than he, and stooped slightly, although he was at present walking briskly and with relish, smiling and nodding his head in a genial manner at d'Exiteuil's remarks. The observer would not have seen a slight developing paunch, although he would certainly have noticed the bald spot below the crown of the head. The surrounding hair was decidedly sandy, with a crisp dry curl to it. The white hairs in it were no more plentiful than d'Exiteuil's, though the latter was the younger of the two men by some eight or nine years.

The taller man wore slacks of light brown colour and fashionable cut, with a neat Scandinavian canvas jacket patterned with vertical stripes of red, brown, and white. The jacket fitted smoothly across strong shoulders. This man also gesticulated as he spoke, but his gestures, like his walk, were looser than his companion's and less precisely aimed. When he turned his head, a powerful countenance was revealed, tanned of cheek, with heavy lines — not necessarily misanthropic — running from nose to chin, bracketing a full, square mouth.

He was guest of honour at the conference, and he signed his cheques Thomas Squire or, more impressively, Thomas C. Squire.

Although the scene and the city were strange to them, neither Squire nor d'Exiteuil paid much attention to their surroundings, beyond stepping out of the way of the occasional more aggressive pedestrian who refused to move out of their path. They were discussing the state of the world, each from his own point of view. Both had strong and opposed beliefs, and blunted some of the force of what they had to say in order to proceed without undue argument.

The first day's business of the conference was about to start. The two men worked in different disciplines. D'Exiteuil was primarily an academic, with a good position in the Humanities Faculty of the Sainte Boeuve University in Paris. He and his wife Séverine d'Exiteuil had made several experimental films. Squire was a small landowner, a director of a London insurance firm, and an exponent of popular aesthetics. He had become something of a national hero in the late sixties, when he planned and executed the Hyde Park Pop Expo in London. For that spectacular event, he had received the CBE. His more recent television work had reinforced his success.

The conference was d'Exiteuil's brainchild.

D'Exiteuil and Squire had known each other for many years. They corresponded irregularly and met occasionally — the previous New Year at Squire's publisher's home outside London, or at conferences or symposia, once in San Francisco, once in Stockholm, once in Poland, and twice in Paris.

Though they were in some respects enemies, they shared close common interests. The Frenchman recognized in the Englishman knowledge and wit; the Englishman recognized in the Frenchman integrity and application. All these qualities both admired. Because they could also be useful to each other, they had discovered a way to talk to each other which seemed, over the years, to function effectively.

The relationship, while not a friendship, had proved more durable than many friendships, and was valued by both men.

When they came to the bottom of the side street down which they had been progressing, they reached an entry to the harbour. Before them stood a low double wall, in the middle of which had been planted bedding plants and cacti. The two men stood by the wall, looking across at a desolate area which stretched between them and the water; it was given over mainly to cracked concrete, grass, and dull square concrete buildings left over from Cubist paintings. An old lorry moved slowly among cranes. In the distance were warehouses, wharves, warning notices. Then the sea, or a section of it, tamed by a confining wall which terminated in a lighthouse. Beyond that wall lay the Mediterranean.

'Looks promising,' Squire said.

'I don't mind sitting on a beach with a book,' d'Exiteuil said, 'but I can't bear going on or in the sea. Are you a yachtsman?'

'Not really, but I did once sail right round Sicily with a couple of friends. I wouldn't mind doing it again. Shall we go and stand at the water's edge?'

D'Exiteuil looked smartly at his wrist watch.

'We'd better go back to the hotel. It is fourteen minutes to nine o'clock. You and I have to set a good international example, Tom. On the first day, if not later.' His English was fluent and almost without accent.

'As you say.' A headland crowned with palm trees stretched out into the sea to one side of the harbour, and there a white sail could be seen.

As they turned away, a boy ran up carrying newspapers. D'Exiteuil bought a copy and scanned the front page.

'The Pope sends a message to the peoples of Poland.' He ran a finger further down the page. 'Scientists forecast 20,000 cool years ahead. The glaciers retreated to their present positions about 11,000 years ago, but now the cooling is beginning again. During the next 20,000 years, we can expect that considerable depths of ice will build up over the Northern Hemisphere. They could reach as far south as Milan. The cause is irregularities in the Earth's orbit.'

He looked up, grinning.

'So says Oggi in Ermalpa. It means the end of England.'

'Yes, and France. Not a political collapse but a geophysical one.'

They walked briskly up a side street, where men in aprons were sweeping shop fronts, brushing water into the gutter. The first side street they had tried was entirely blocked by parked Fiats, beached like whales on either pavement as well as down the centre of the roadway. The street they were traversing held a mixture of offices, apartments, shops, and a restaurant or two. Outside one of the restaurants, men in shirt-sleeves were unloading containers of fish from a cart. They paused to allow the two visitors to pass.

The top of the street formed an intersection with the broad Via Milano. The Via Milano divided its opposing traffic flows with narrow islands of green on which palm trees grew. Traffic was thick at this hour.

A short distance along on the other side of the road, the Grand Hotel Marittimo faced them. It had a heavy façade of lichenous stone, with a high portico imitating a grander structure. It was set back only slightly from the uproar of the road. Despite its name, it offered its guests no glimpse of the sea from its old-fashioned bedroom windows. Last century, perhaps, it had stood where it could command a splendid view of the sailing ships in the harbour. Since then, upstart lanes of banks, offices and shops had come between it and the water.

Above the entrance, a nylon banner hung. On it were the words:


Of the four doors of thick plate glass set inside its porch, only one opened. The two men bowed to each other and went through it.

The heat, light, and noise of the outside were replaced by a melancholy coolness.

The foyer of the Grand Hotel was extremely capacious. Its floors and balustrades gave an impression of marble, its reception desks of fumed oak. To either side, this effect tailed off into cloakrooms or petty chambers in which a man might wait for a mistress, or smoke a cigar, or pretend to write a letter. In one petty chamber stood a glass case offering Capodimonte pottery and other objects to the tourists' gaze. A similar case (both with curly bronze feet, betraying their age) displayed a number of silk ties.

Such subsidiary matters did not detract from the chief glory of the foyer, a centrally placed white marble of Paolo and Francesca in the Second Circle of Hell, by Canova. Squire had identified it as soon as he entered the hotel the previous evening, recalling involuntarily the volume of Dante's Inferno with Doré illustrations, which his father had bought, and the line where Dante comments on the fate of these lovers:

Alas! by what sweet thoughts, what fond desire,
Must they at length to that ill pass have reached!

When he had first read the passage, he had been too innocent to understand what the lovers had done to deserve such punishment. This morning at the hotel breakfast table, between pineapple juice and bacon and eggs, he had written a postcard to his daughters, referring to the statue jokingly as 'two undressed people retreating from something rather nasty'. Whilst writing, he had averted his mind from the actual situation of Ann and Jane, who were in the care of his sister Deirdre in Blakeney.

The postcard had come from a temporary stall set up on the threshold of the conference hall. The stall had extended itself this morning, and was staffed by smiling students, two girls, presumably from the faculty of Ermalpa University involved with the conference. Prominent on the bookstall among other titles were the English edition of Frankenstein Among the Arts, published by Webb Broadwell, and the new Italian translation of the same, Frankenstein a 'laBellaScuola' in its glowing orange jacket. Also on display was the American paperback edition of Squire's earlier book, a collection of essays entitled Against Barbarism. It was published when television had still to make him famous, and had not achieved an Italian translation.

Standing by the bookstall was a white board announcing that the television series had been captured on videotape and would be shown in its entirety over the four evenings of the conference, Wednesday to Saturday inclusive, at twenty-three hundred hours. In the small conference hall. No admission charge.

Delegates were crowding round the stall, which did brisk business. A number of other delegates stood about the main foyer, in groups or singly. The sight of them was enough to remind d'Exiteuil and Squire, if they needed reminding, that they were fragments of a greater whole, and they moved away from each other without a word of parting.

The polyglot d'Exiteuil appeared to know everyone here. He could have been observed at breakfast, making a courteous round of the tables, welcoming his guests. Squire, who spoke no Italian, knew few people. He moved politely among the delegates, smiling and nodding.

'Ah, Signor Squire. Good morning.'

Squire looked at the slender man who confronted him. He was fairly typical of what Squire regarded as the medium-young generation of Italians: born after the Second World War ended, but torn by the divisiveness of the peace. He had dark liquid eyes, which darted nervously about as if the foyer was full of enemies. He had a trim beard, kept his hair oiled and combed, wore a capuccino-coloured suit, and was remarkably tidy. His manners were polite; he had a certain style; and there were many men rather like him.

This man Squire could identify. His nervous eagerness was familiar.

'Carlo Morabito,' he said, holding out his hand. 'Animal Behaviour. You remember me? How nice to see you here, Signor Squire. I never dreamed you would be in Sicily. You have taken a walk already?'

This man Squire could identify. His nervous eagerness was familiar.

'Carlo Morabito,' he said, holding out his hand. 'Animal Behaviour. You remember me? How nice to see you here, Signor Squire. I never dreamed you would be in Sicily. You have taken a walk already?'

As they shook hands, Squire said, 'I was up early. I am a yoga freak.' Seeing the other's blank look, he said,' I practise yoga.'

'Oh, you practise yoga, eh? I now work at the University of Ermalpa. Before, I was at Milan, when we last met at your Norwich Symposium, three years away.'

At that, Squire's memory grudgingly yielded a few details. With help from the University of East Anglia, he had organized a symposium on Animals in the Popular Imagination, which had turned into a lot of fun for the local children, if nothing else. Morabito, already making his name in his field, had been invited to contribute, and had been almost as big a success as Desmond Morris.

'That was a good occasion.'

'You know, Signor Squire, best time for me was when we finished the symposium and you kindly drove me to your lovely house. We had tea on the lawn and your wife served it, helped by another lady. It was a perfect English place and I don't forget it.'

'I remember you achieved a perfect understanding with our Dalmatian, Nellie.'

'And with your pretty daughters.'

'Ann and Jane. Yes, they are lovely.'

The Italian sighed, cleared his throat, shuffled his feet. 'One day I get married also. I also would like two lovely daughters. Your wife told to me when I was at your house that every year you have a pop festival in your gardens, like Woodstock and Knebworth. Is it so?'

'They were only small festivals. Nothing grand, but great fun. We had The Who one year and they were fantastic. We've stopped doing it now, I'm afraid. It got too complicated and too expensive ... How do you like the university here?'

'I take you round for inspection, if you like, one evening.' Morabito looked anxious, fixing Squire with his luminous eyes. 'About the delegates to this conference, I have some doubts. Do you know many of them personally?'

'Only a few. You must know many more.'

Morabito made an expressive gesture and moved closer to Squire. 'I tell you, maybe I shouldn't tell this, but I think many are second-rate, and you will be disappointed. Another thing — they have here the Russians.'

'A couple of them. We're pretty safe — they're outnumbered. You have to invite them these days if you want to seem international.'

'For myself, I don't like the Russians and just having them here will not make a crowd of provincials seem at all international. You will see how these small men bow to the Russians. Excuse my saying so.'

Squire smiled. 'I'm glad of the information. Frankly, I'm a bit lost. Are you going into the conference hall now?'

'Yes, yes. It's time for the procedure to start.' He gestured Squire in ahead of him.

'We'll have a glass of wine together later.'

'I will buy you one, in return for that tea-time in your English garden.'

The conference room was situated at the rear of the hotel, through a marble gallery lined by busts interspersed with plants — an elegant place in which to saunter. Beyond the gallery, the chamber in which all sessions were to be held was walled by mirrors framed in gilt. Three large chandeliers glittered over the green baize hectares of the table. At the far end of the chamber behind arches, a small area was set apart for any members of the general public who might wish to attend. Above was a balcony, in which some members of the press were gathering.

In an adjoining chamber, reached by wide shallow steps, four glass booths had been built; inside the booths the interpreters sat waiting, ready to translate anything into, or out of, English, Italian, French, and Russian. Behind the glass, their expressions were apprehensive as they watched the delegates enter.

The delegates ambled round the table, looking for their places, pushing politely.

By each place was a name card, a microphone, a folder and pencil, a shining drinking glass with a sanitary paper lid, and a bottle of San Pellegrino mineral water still beaded from the refrigerator. Thomas Squire found his name looking up at him, and sat down, laying his briefcase before him. He was seated at the top of the table, with Jacques d'Exiteuil on his right and the secretary, Gianni Frenza, beyond d'Exiteuil. On Squire's left was a place for a delegate from the Soviet Union, Vasili Rugorsky.


Excerpted from Life in the West by Brian W. Aldiss. Copyright © 1980 Brian W. Aldiss. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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