Archive for October, 2012

October 29, 2012

P.G. Wodehouse, Leave it to Psmith

Look, on some days it is necessary to write about Psmith.



Among many people of my generation or older, there’s a sense of P.G Wodehouse as a tradition, as much as an author. Our copies of his books are inherited; when they have to be replaced (because our cruel parents have demanded them back, or because old age and ill-use have caused them to fall apart) we bemoan the passing of those far superior older editions with the nicer cover art. Wodehouse isn’t generally considered a children’s writer (though his excellent school stories are unfairly overlooked) but so many of us read him as children that he might as well be.

Earlier this week was Wodehouse’s 131st birth anniversary. 131 is not a particularly important milestone, but I chose to grab hold of it as an excuse and spent the evening reading Leave it to Psmith.

It is sometimes hard to keep track of what happens in which of the novels; after a point many of the plots blur into an amorphous mass of thefts (pigs, necklaces, cow creamers), imposters, broken engagements and undesirable articles of clothing. Occasionally one of these tropes appears in particularly elevated form – as when the titular character of Piccadilly Jim is forced to pretend to be himself. One doesn’t look to Wodehouse for originality of plot any more than one looks to him for social realism. What one does look for is happiness.

Everyone, presumably, has their favourite Wodehouse moment. For many it’s the speech that an inebriated Gussie Fink-Nottle gives to an auditorium full of schoolboys in Right Ho, Jeeves, and I’m willing to accept that this is among the finest scenes in all of English literature. But at a more holistic level the perfect Wodehouse novel must be Leave it to Psmith.

Leave it to Psmith is set in Blandings Castle; alas, before the arrival of its famous porcine resident. Lady Constance Keeble has invited two poets to stay at the castle. Unfortunately one of these poets is also a professional thief, and Lady Constance is in possession of a rather expensive necklace. Meanwhile, the enterprising Psmith has met and fallen in love with Eve Halliday, who has been hired to catalogue the Blandings library. Psmith comes to Blandings under false pretences and soon finds himself embroiled in a plot to steal the jewels as well. Everyone’s after the necklace, no one is who they say they are, and true love triumphs in the end.

On the surface, then, we have all the elements of the Wodehouse novel. Impostors, jewel-theft, young couples thwarted by their elders – Lady Constance does not approve of her step-daughter-in-law’s marriage). There are even memorable clothes. Emsworth’s secretary Baxter spends a significant portion of the novel in lemon yellow pyjamas.

Psmith himself (“The p, I should add for your guidance, is silent, as in pthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan”) was first introduced in Wodehouse’s school story, Mike and Psmith. He strolls into that novel, mocking the genre conventions of the school story even while living in them, and from that point on he always strikes the reader as being in control of the situation. In his speech he comes closer to the Wodehouse narrator than any other character, which only adds to the impression that he is in some way outside the story – and the only person in any situation who knows what’s really going on.

Wodehouse’s romantic heroes tend to be rather helpless. But Psmith is the sort of man who can be relied upon to steal an umbrella for his lady friend when one is required (surely there is no greater test of worth). Eve too is intelligent – and if necessary, criminal. Perhaps it’s the sheer novelty of seeing a Wodehousean romance take place between two competent people. Perhaps it’s the umbrella scene, or Psmith’s proposal in which he hopefully lists his skills at animal impersonation, card tricks and poetry recitation. Either way, Leave it to Psmith achieves a sort of perfection of form that is hard to resist.


[While on the subject, you should visit Psartorialist, the tumblr of my friend Paul Smith (P.Smith, see?) Paul is less likely than Psmith to steal your umbrella, but he is at least as well-dressed.]
October 28, 2012

M. G. Vassanji, The Magic of Saida

A very short review of this appeared in Saturday’s Hindustan Times. I’d read and enjoyed Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall a few years ago, as well as some of his non-fiction so I was particularly disappointed with how inconsequential The Magic of Saida felt. It wasn’t a terrible book (at his worst Vassanji’s unlikely ever to be a bad writer), but I’ve read bad books that had some direction or purpose or something.

Here’s a version of the review, anyway.


A publisher visiting a hospital in Dar es Salaam meets a recovering patient with a story to tell. This is Kamal Punja, a successful doctor from Canada who has returned to Tanzania to seek out his childhood friend and lover.

M.G. Vassanji is partially exploring his own roots with this latest work – he too is a resident of Canada with ties to India and Tanzania. The Magic of Saida sometimes treads dangerously close to being a book about immigrant identity. Martin Kigoma, the publisher to whom Kamal tells his story, muses that he “demonstrated how complicated a real life could be in our times, how painful the idea of belonging”. The young Kamal’s feeling of being torn between the two sides of his heritage, and the sense of disconnect that he later feels as an adult are all very well but they’re nothing we haven’t seen countless times before. It’s a tired genre and not one in which Vassanji (or, I suspect, anyone else) has much that is new to say.

Vassanji’s biggest strength here is the sheer vastness of his canvas. Into the histories of Saida and Kamal’s families is woven a much wider story of East Africa, its trade ties with India, the historical importance of Kilwa, and various anticolonialist movements and other major events of the twentieth century. There are some brilliant shifts in style here too – including an entire section in which the colonisation by German forces is given the form of a religious fable, and another in which the relationship between a poet and his brother is transformed into a version of the Cain and Abel story.

Yet none of this is enough to make up for the very real weaknesses of this book. Saida herself is something of a MacGuffin; while the search for her supposedly informs the whole plot, the truth is rather anti-climactic. She never appears as a person but is relegated to the status of mystical plot device. Kamal, who is swept along by other people’s decisions throughout, isn’t much of a character either.

Then there’s the publisher to whom this is all being told. Kigoma’s name is mentioned just once, at the beginning of the book, yet he shows more evidence of personality than either of its protagonists. Here his only function is to comment on how moving Kamal Punja’s story is. If only his enthusiasm could convince the reader; this is very far from Vassanji’s strongest work.


October 25, 2012

Thomas Ligotti, Stuart Moore, Ben Templesmith, Joe Harris, Ted McKeever,Colleen Doran, Michael Gaydos, The Nightmare Factory

The above is proof that this blog’s author comma title format is a bit flawed with certain sorts of books.

I’ve read the Ligotti originals of some of the stories in this collection before, and found most of them a lot more effective than these adaptations. I’m tempted to go back and reread now. Perhaps a Hallowe’en treat.



I’m only an occasional horror reader and so am less evangelical about great writers who work within that tradition than I would be otherwise. But one criminally underrated author in the genre is the American short story writer Thomas Ligotti.

In 2007 Fox Atomic Comics published The Nightmare Factory, a collection of graphic adaptations of four of Ligotti’s stories. Each piece was introduced with a short essay by Ligotti himself, and four different artists brought four very different styles to the author’s work.

“The Last Feast of Harlequin”, written by Stuart Moore and with art by Colleen Doran, was the first of these stories. An anthropologist with seasonal affective disorder travels to a remote town to learn about its strange midwinter rituals, and finds himself horrified by what he learns. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft might find this rather familiar, but then the story is dedicated to him. As Ligotti notes in his introduction it’s a staple of the Lovecraft story to have the protagonists go mad as a result of the horrors to which they have been exposed. But the focus of “The Last Feast of Harlequin” is on its narrator’s mental health from the start. It is this focus on the inside of his head that makes this story work so well; and some of his interior monologues have a lyrical power to them that is startling. Yet in a sense this is the weakest of the adaptations; its biggest strengths are all things it takes from the original story.

This might also be the case with the second story, “Dream of a Mannikin”, also written by Moore but with art by Ben Templesmith. This seems to be the one-sided correspondence between a psychiatrist and his lover, who has been doing some rather alarming psychological research of her own. Dreams form a large part of the story. Templesmith’s art, with its wonderful use of golden light, gives it an appropriately dreamlike feel. Yet “Dream of a Mannikin” only inspires admiration for its clever premise and beautiful artwork; there is no fear. Ligotti’s introduction is a meditation on the ways in which dolls, mannequins and other human-shaped, non-living objects are used to inspire horror. It’s clear that he understands how this works, so why doesn’t it work here? I’m not sure.

For me, as I expect is the case for many readers, the most effective horror is something sensed obliquely. However tired a sentiment this may seem, things depicted graphically tend to be less awful than those the imagination can provide. Doran’s art, in the first story of the book, comes the closest to realism – and serves its accompanying story the least. The opposite is true of Ted McKeever’s artwork for “Dr. Locrian’s Asylum”, written by Joe Harris. McKeever’s depiction of Ligotti’s haunted town is just this side of normal, but faces and buildings frequently slip over into the grotesque. This is perhaps the only case in which Ligotti’s original story is genuinely strengthened by the shift in form; the ghostly silhouettes are chilling.

“Teatro Grottesco”, also written by Harris, has art by Michael Gaydos. Gaydos’ watercolour figures are impressive; but once again this adaptation is more intellectually pleasing – though its hero might be too clever for his own good – than viscerally effective.

The Nightmare Factory has some clever adaptations and fine art, but on the whole it’s still a bit of a disappointment, when only one of the four stories really captures the power of Ligotti’s original work. The introductory essays by the author are in equal parts entertaining and frustrating. On the one hand, they reinforce the sense that this is genre writing that knows its tropes and works with them intelligently. On the other, it’s not always comfortable to have Ligotti’s voice informing the reader what each piece is really about. There’s the sense of someone standing behind one, reading over one’s shoulder. And if there’s one genre in which you don’t want to feel like someone has crept up behind you…


October 13, 2012

Jeff Noon, Channel Sk1n

It’s hard for me to explain quite how important Jeff Noon’s work was to my reading when I was younger. I was about fifteen when I discovered Needle in the Groove, and I fell in love very quickly. It’s been at least five years since I read a Noon book, and I was a little apprehensive about Channel Sk1n; it turns out however much I’ve changed in the last decade-and-a-bit Noon’s prose still works for me. The following (a version of last week’s Left of Cool column) is rather fangirly.


I was a teenager when I first discovered Jeff Noon. I found his Needle in the Groove (music, drugs, alternate Manchester) and Vurt (virtual reality, drugs, alternate Manchester) in a library and very quickly fell in love. This was before the arrival of the online bookstore and at the time the best I could do was to scour local bookshops and make pleading noises at friends and relatives travelling to the UK. It was a sort of global treasure hunt, and within a few years I’d almost collected the set. I read 2002’s Falling Out of Cars mere weeks after it had been published, and finally felt that I had caught up.

It took me a while to realise that Noon had also brought me back to science fiction. Because while all of his novels might be considered science fictional, that was never, for me, the point of them. The point was Noon’s prose, which broke and stuttered and fragmented itself into poetry.

So I was thrilled earlier this year to discover that the author had written another novel, his first in a decade. Channel Sk1n is a novel about the media, information and the idea of celebrity. Noon’s protagonist, Nola Blue, is a pop star of the most plastic, manufactured variety. So much is she a product of her industry and manager that she has trouble recognising herself. Yet her last song hasn’t done as well as it ought to have, and it appears that her days of celebrity are close to an end. Then Nola becomes infected with a strange virus that connects her with the television signals that play so big a part in the world in which she lives, so that her body begins to broadcast TV. Nola’s skin literally becomes the screen.

There’s another major character. The world of Channel Sk1n is one that is obsessed with reality television, and no programme is more popular than The Pleasure Dome. The Dome is a structure that holds one person, chosen from many competitors, in isolation for weeks at a time. The Dome picks up on each of their thoughts and displays them in constantly changing colours and shapes upon its surface. It is the ultimate form of voyeurism. In addition, other channels broadcast every movement of the person inside. When the book opens, the Dome’s inhabitant is Melissa Gold, daughter of Nola’s agent. Trapped in the Dome, it seems Melissa can do very little to influence matters outside; yet she achieves the impossible. It all culminates in a dreamlike, paradoxical climax that may be more powerful than anything Noon has ever written.

As with all of Jeff Noon’s work, it’s tempting to sit back and let the words flow over you. Channel Sk1n is more pared down than much of the author’s earlier work, but the blurring of lines between prose and poetry is a constant. Occasionally it bursts into static, pages filled with symbols that might easily be mistaken for a formatting error. This works particularly well in context because Channel Sk1n is only available as an ebook. It’s tempting to read into Nola’s loss of identity as a musician through her connection with the music industry some of the same impulses that may have led Noon to self-publish this book.

Noon’s move towards self-publishing means that his back catalogue will also soon be made available in electronic form. Some (notably Cobralingus, which always sat rather awkwardly within the confines of the traditional printed book) will even be enhanced by the new format. Readers who discover the writer through Channel Sk1n will not have to spend years hunting down his works.

We’ve reached a point as a culture where the reality-TV-dystopia is a genre in itself (and hopefully someone somewhere has coined a less clunky name for it). I’m not sure yet whether Channel Sk1n brings anything substantially new to the debate, but it’s a smart, strong piece of work.


October 11, 2012

Janice Pariat, Boats on Land

Janice Pariat’s book of short stories has been one of the bigger releases in Indian publishing this year. I thought the collection rather uneven, but it’s also clever, careful, and often excellent. My review was published in last weekend’s TSG, and is here on the paper’s website.



The first story in Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land begins with the power of the spoken word. “Ka ktien. The first, a short, sharp thrust of air from the back of the throat. The second, a lift of the tongue and a delicate tangle of tip and teeth”. It’s a reminder that language is made with the body and that its sounds are physical; the written word here is “feeble and carries little power”. It’s also a reminder that the Khasi language originally had no script, and that the region has had a strong oral culture.

Perhaps that’s why the telling of stories is such a prominent feature of this collection. Many of these are first person narratives, and there’s usually a sense that these tales are being told to an audience; whether it be a very specific audience in the title story, or a more general one in “Echo Words” or “Keeper of Souls”. Other stories, like “Embassy”and “Sky Graves”, feature storytelling as a part of their plots.

The fifteen stories that make up this collection are set mainly in and around Shillong. It’s possible to work out from the details Pariat lets drop that they are also arranged roughly chronologically. “A Waterfall of Horses”, the first story, is set in the 1850s, “Echo Words” soon after Independence, “Laitlum” in the 1990s, and so on. The city’s past and the changes it has undergone over time are reflected upon throughout the book. The narrator of “Hong Kong” feels “the weight of everyone’s history press down on me like relentless rain”. She’s not the only one of Pariat’s protagonists to feel that way. The titular character of “Keeper of Souls” is burdened by an ability to see the souls of the dead. But “that’s what pilgrimages are for, really. To think about the places and people you leave behind”, says an elderly shopkeeper in “Pilgrimage”.

This is not the only way in which the passing of time is central to Boats on Land. There’s also a sense that the perspectives through which these stories are told are aging through the book – the child narrator of “A Waterfall of Horses”, the awkward young women of “Secret Corridors” and “Laitlum”, the young lovers of “Embassy” and “Hong Kong” all lead up to the adult couples of “Aerial View” and “Keeper of Souls”.

And then there is the magic. Pariat begins her book with a quote from Alejo Carpentier, “I found the marvelous real with every step”. The line between the real and the marvellous is being constantly crossed through these stories, though even that changes over time. Magic is resorted to outright in early stories like “A Waterfall of Horses” and “Echo Words”; prophetic dreams are taken seriously in “At Kut Madan”. But by the end of “Dream of the Golden Mahseer” we see the young boy who believes that “only old people” believe in spirits; henceforth magic must leak into the stories in more subtle ways. And so we have the tailor of “19/87”, who interprets lottery numbers from dreams and the shape shifters of “Sky Graves” who are removed from us by one degree by being the subjects of someone else’s story. In the story “Embassy” young woman fighting off unwanted advances “became a waterfall”. Pariat allows that simple statement a glorious ambiguity; is this magic, metaphor, or merely the rambling of an unreliable drunken man?

Boats on Land gives us few neat plots or easy resolutions. Pariat is at her best when she is most restrained and this, fortunately, is often. Which is why it is disappointing when she occasionally crosses over and gives us too much information in the form of narrators who have no visible reason to believe that their audiences don’t know about the political stances of various student unions, or the decade in which the story is taking place. It’s possible, for example, that there are readers who won’t recognise the cover art of Nirvana’s Nevermind as it is described in “Laitlum”, but it’s still jarring when Pariat insists on telling us what it is.

Compare that to a moment in “19/87” in which a young man visiting a tailor named Suleiman picks up the scissors from the tailor’s worktable. The story has already established a growing intolerance against outsiders in the city and so the author sees no need to tell us that Suleiman might be wary, or why. Yet we share his unease until the scissors can be put away. Pariat’s prose is frequently gorgeous but it’s in unobtrusive moments like this, moments in which the reader is trusted to play along, that Boats on Land really shines.


October 6, 2012

Chris Haughton, A Bit Lost

In last week’s Left of Cool column I talked about owls, poo and children’s books as detective manuals. I adored A Bit Lost, and I think I’ll be collecting Haughton’s future work.


 I rarely buy children’s picture books. But in the past year and a half I have bought four copies of Chris Haughton’s A Bit Lost (published as Little Owl Lost in the USA), replacing my copy of the book each time I’ve spontaneously given it away. Haughton’s art is what makes A Bit Lost so special. It’s very simple, with big areas of empty space that allow the reader to focus on the (surprisingly expressive) animals themselves. The colours are vibrant and improbable – the sky is olive green, the ground is blue, the trees move from a medley of oranges and reds in the day to shadowy purples at sunset. The animals are bright pinks and purples and greens.

Haughton tells the story of a baby owl who falls out of its nest while its (we’re not given any clues as to the baby owl’s gender) mother is asleep. It lands with a bump on the forest floor, and immediately sets about the search for its mother, aided by a helpful squirrel. Unfortunately, the baby owl’s ability to describe its mummy is limited. On being told that she is very big, the squirrel leads the baby owl to a bear. Hearing that she has pointy ears it suggests a hare, and “big eyes” lead it to suggest a frog. Luckily the frog is a bit smarter than the squirrel and is able to reunite the little family. Everyone goes back to the nest and eats biscuits to celebrate.

Obviously there’s nothing particularly original about this story. P. D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother was published more than fifty years ago and that book also tells the story of a baby bird wandering from animal to animal (and in some cases to inanimate objects) trying to find its mother. But then this is a story that is always going to resonate with young readers – many of us still remember the sheer terror of being small and outside the house and separated from a parent.

But there’s another reason this story works. This column has in the past mentioned Terry Pratchett’s Where’s My Cow?, a book-within-a-book about a man searching for his missing cow. In that book the protagonist’s search consists of approaching various farm animals (and a hippopotamus, for some reason), hearing the noises they make, and concluding that they are not his cow. Pratchett’s policeman character Sam Vimes reads the book to his son, and while doing so alters it so that the search for the cow turns into his son’s search for his daddy, by interrogating and eliminating the men he encounters in the city’s streets. It’s appropriate that Vimes is a policeman; Where’s My Cow? is a sort of police procedural.

And then there’s The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business, by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch. This children’s book, first published in German in 1989, is about a mole who wakes up to find that someone has pooped on his head. His search for the culprit consists of approaching each of his suspects (horses, rabbits and the like) and comparing their faeces to what is on his head before declaring them innocent. Eventually the dog is found to be the guilty party, and the mole gets his revenge.

Deductive reasoning consists of slowly eliminating possibilities – as Sherlock Holmes would have it, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. A Bit Lost, like the other books I mention here, is all about eliminating possibilities. Can this be my mummy? Is that my cow? Can this animal have defaecated upon my head? And in a way all books for young children are a form of detective fiction because it is though deduction that we discover what things are not, and therefore what they are, and how they (and we) fit into our world.


October 5, 2012

September Reading

As ever, a list of the books I read last month.


Sarah Rees Brennan and Justine Larbalestier, Team Human: I wrote about this here. I’m not sure you can read Team Human outside the context of the debates within which it situates itself, and I’m not sure if that is a flaw. Within said context, it’s smart and engaging, and I enjoyed it.

Simon Armitage, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: One of the methods I employed to put off reading Boneland (see below) was to read things that seemed likely to be connected in some way to it. As Armitage explains in the introduction, he chose to focus on preserving the alliterative quality of the poem rather than a more literal translation. As a result, his version is a pleasure to read out loud – even when I was in places where this would have been alarming I was mouthing the words as I read them.

Alan Garner, The Stone Book Quartet, Red Shift, and Boneland: My continued project to procrastinate over reading Boneland – I reread The Stone Book Quartet and Red Shift instead. I wrote about Red Shift here, and at some point in the unspecified future I’d like to think through the failed relationships in this book and in The Owl Service. I was unprepared for how much more The Stone Book Quartet affected me this time than on my first read some years ago. As for Boneland, I’m rereading and trying to write about it, but. Imagine being as good at what you do as Alan Garner. I can’t imagine anything is going to be better than it this year.

Janice Pariat, Boats on Land: One of the more widely anticipated books to come out of Indian publishing this year. This is a collection of short stories, most of them set in and around Shillong. My review should be out this weekend; on the whole, I really enjoyed this.

Elsie J. Oxenham, The Abbey Girls Win Through – Rosamund’s Castle (books 17-27 in the Abbey Girls series): These were published over the decade immediately preceding the Second World War. I’ve read most of the Abbey books in the past – though I’m not a huge fan, I’m terribly susceptible to long series – but I’m working on a longer piece that made me curious as to how they deal with the war. They don’t, much. Perhaps the later books in the series (the last was published in 1959) might be of more help.

Anushka Ravishankar, Moin and the Monster and Moin the Monster Songster: Anushka’s a former colleague and she and my ex-boss Sayoni Basu have just started their own publishing company for children’s and YA fiction, called Duckbill. Anushka is also a well-known children’s author, and one of the books Duckbill are publishing is a reissue of her 2006 book Moin and the Monster along with a new sequel. I avoid reviewing people I know personally (though please know that these books are great fun) but I’ve interviewed Anushka for the Duckbill blog, and that ought to be up on their website soon. We are very erudite.

Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon, Pride of Baghdad: Reviewed here. I was disappointed in this; a bit too simplistic, some dodgy politics, and rape-as-character-development, all of which severely undermined the effect of Henrichon’s excellent art.

H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness: A work-related reread, and a welcome one. I’d forgotten how frequently Lovecraft compared the scenery to Roerich’s art – I tend to think of him as being all about the monsters. I’d also forgotten how much I also love Roerich’s Asian paintings.

Francis Spufford, I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination: Work-related again. Spufford is wonderful and this is such a lovely, intelligent book.

Nicholas Blake, The Worm of Death and The Case of the Abominable Snowman: Both very enjoyable, but not the best of the Strangeways books I’d read.

A pygmy goat

E. Lockhart, The Ruby Oliver series: About halfway through the month I turned into a teenaged girl. This is really the only explanation I can offer; that, and the fact that these books are adorable and funny and also pygmy goats.


October 2, 2012

Here be Myrmidons

On twitter earlier today I worried that my columns for the National Geographic Traveller seemed more likely to dissuade people from travel than otherwise – in the October issue (out now!) I discuss the usefulness of cruise ships to potential murderers, and November and December’s projected pieces aren’t particularly cheerful either. In last month’s column, of which a longer version is reproduced below, I go a step further and suggest that travel writing and travel writers themselves are inherently suspicious. I’m fortunate to have a tolerant editor.

The Hav books and The Islanders are glorious, complex things, and I’d love to write more about them free of time and wordcount constraints.  An earlier version of this piece contained a section on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities; in retrospect it’s probably a good thing that I left it out.



The publication of Jan Morris’ Last Letters from Hav caused some confusion among readers. Written in 1985, this travel narrative took the form of a series of dispatches from a historical city; twenty years later Morris would revisit the city with the publication of Hav of the Myrmidons. Ursula K. Le Guin explains in her introduction to my edition of Morris’ two Hav books that aspiring travellers were surprised by the difficulty of getting to Hav. Why anyone should have wanted to visit a place that was, according to Morris, in the throes of a violent revolution remains a mystery, but the real problem was that Hav had never existed.

To set a book in a fictional place is nothing new. Fantasy writers have been doing it for years, providing elaborate maps, family trees and histories for worlds that never existed. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, know that The Lord of the Rings was only a miniscule part of his universe. Tolkien’s Middle Earth has its own creation myth as well as multiple entire languages created by the author.

All this takes dedication (and a certain level of obsession). But to create a new city in our own world is something else entirely. For Hav to be plausible, Morris has to rewrite all of human history. She inserts the city into the Iliad and the Bible; she makes it an important point on the Silk Route, and the site of an historic meeting between the Attaturk and Lawrence of Arabia. Ibn Battuta writes of the city, as does Marco Polo.

Marco Polo is a useful clue here to the nature of Hav. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities has the Italian explorer describing to Kublai Khan a host of fictional cities, each a meditation on the words and signs we use to experience, think of and talk about other places.

The invocation of Marco Polo is not the only way in which Hav flaunts its fictionality. Morris rather cheekily has a character express indignation at the marginalisation of the city in the histories of the writer Braudel, and later has her narrator describe it as looking “like a city of pure fiction”.

It’s tempting to see the Hav books as straightforward imitations of travel writing, but of a place that doesn’t exist. But the “Jan Morris” who is the narrator of a travelogue is not the same as the Jan Morris who is the author of two works of fiction. Sometimes it seems clear that “Jan” is a creation of parody. Both books are full of genre-specific cliché – native bazaars, inefficient foreign bureaucracies, lost glories of the past, the inscrutability of Chinese immigrants. “Jan” is constantly attempting to write herself into this history; she strives to find historical affinities between her own  (Welsh) background and Hav’s early Kretev settlers, insists that she has inside knowledge that is unavailable to others, and shows contempt of other tourists whose experience of the city is less ‘authentic’ than her own. We know this character; we see her in travel literature all the time.

No reader, even one confused by Last Letters from Hav, would mistake Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago for a place on earth. The Dream Archipelago is the setting for many of Priest’s works, including 2011’s The Islanders, which presents itself as a kind of gazette. The introduction explains the geography of the planet, with large landmasses in the north and south and a belt of islands scattered across the tropical and temperate zones of its single ocean. This is followed by a series of short chapters, each about one of the islands. They are arranged in alphabetical order; each contains essential details about the island’s geographical peculiarities, its currency and its history. This seems comfortably factual, but we know from the beginning that things won’t be that easy. Chaster Kammeston, the supposed writer of this introduction, points out that the book simply cannot contain every island in the archipelago when experts cannot even be sure how many there are. There are also problems of islands with similar names and co-ordinates, of different forms of island patois that give the same name to different things (or different names to the same thing), so that it’s hard to be sure if one island is distinct from another.

Then too there are cartographical fictions that are made on purpose. We learn that the island of Tremm, off the south coast of Mequa, does not appear on any map. This island is a secret military base, and there’s no official record of its existence. Later we learn of the visual distortions caused by the planet’s winds, so that the aerial view of some places changes according to circumstances – an effect that calls every map into question. These details that undermine everything we can know about the islands are scattered across the book.

Most disconcerting of all are the hints that the book itself is not all it claims to be (and what sort of name for a gazette is The Islanders, anyway?). Kammeston, in the introduction, says that the book is well-meaning and “will do no harm”. Yet his introduction seems less and less likely as we read through the book and find that it implicates Kammeston himself in a murder, and later contains news of his death.

Though they both write travelogues of fictional places, Morris and Priest use very different strategies. Morris immerses us in the certainty of really knowing a place, then hits us with the revelation that our knowledge isn’t real. Priest adopts the most fact-centred of formats but undermines it constantly. Places cannot be known, both books suggest. All travel writing is a lie.