Alan Moore: "I've disproved the existence of death"

The comic book author talks about writing a 750,000 word prose novel about Northampton.

Alan Moore can't be accused of playing it safe. In his 40-year career, he has written a genre-busting superhero comic (Watchmen); a graphic novel in which the hero is a terrorist (V for Vendetta); and one of the most beautiful -- but scandalous -- pieces of pornography ever produced (Lost Girls).

Since 2008, he has been occupied largely with writing his second novel, Jerusalem, due for publication next year. It could easily be the oddest novel ever written. Ostensibly a history of Moore's home town, Northampton, it features his favoured technique of appropriating characters from other literary works; the author describes its middle section as being like a "savage, hallucinating Enid Blyton".

Its wider purpose, Moore says, is to "disprove the existence of death" -- but that is if he can get it into print at all: it will clock in at 750,000 words, making it longer (by far) than Vikram Seth's hefty A Suitable Boy and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. The book is so long that the only printers who might be able to tackle it are Bible-makers.

“It is a very big book -- but it's very readable," he assures me when I call to ask how it's going. "Apart from the Lucia Joyce chapter, which is completely incomprehensible." How so? "It's all written in a completely invented sub-Joycean text. I read it through again and I can actually understand most of it -- well, all of it. But it's the only way I could have written that stuff. It's an experiment."

Then there's chapter 29, composed in the form of a stage play by Samuel Beckett, based around one of the times the playwright visited Northampton to take part in a cricket match. (I'm not making this up: the 1925 and 1926 matches appear in Wisden, which records that Beckett was "a useful, left-arm, medium-pace bowler".) While his team-mates took off in the evenings to patronise the city's pubs and prostitutes, Beckett decided instead to go on a "church crawl". It is this event that Moore is restaging.

Apart from these literary jeux d'esprit, the main thrust of the book explores Moore's belief that time doesn't work the way we think it does. "I've come to think that the universe is a four-dimensional site in which nothing is changing and nothing is moving. The only thing that is moving along the time axis is our consciousness. The past is still there, the future has always been here. Every moment that has existed or will ever exist is all part of this giant hyper-moment of space-time."

Confused? Moore puts it this way. "If you think about a standard journey in three dimensions -- say, being in a car driving along a road, the houses you're passing are vanishing behind you, but you don't doubt that if you could reverse the car, the houses would still be there. Our consciousness is only moving one way through time but I believe physics tells us all those moments are still there -- and when we get to the end of our lives, there's nowhere for our consciousness to go, except back to the beginning. We have our lives over and over again."

Moore is friends with (and revered by) several leading physicists -- many of whom will gladly tell you there are probably more than three spatial dimensions. He is particularly taken with the pop-star-turned-TV-populariser of science Brian Cox, and asked him recently: "How do you square the second law of thermodynamics with your earlier assertion that 'Things Can Only Get Better?'" (This joke is very funny to only a very small number of people.)

Surely Moore must be worried that, in the age of Twitter and rolling news, no one will ever finish his super-sized masterpiece? "As long as I finish it," he says. "Although I have doubted that people will even be able to pick it up. I'm not averse to some kind of ebook, eventually -- as long as I get my huge, cripplingly heavy book to put on my shelf and gloat over, I'll be happy."

That said, he does worry that while his first prose novel, Voice of the Fire (published in the mid-1990s), took 300 pages to cover the county of Northamptonshire, Jerusalem uses 750,000 words to explore an area of Northampton about half a square mile across. "So the next one will be several million words and it'll just be about this end of the living room."

Moore says he hopes never to write anything as long as Jerusalem again but he won't countenance scaling it back. "Any editor worth their salt would tell me to cut two-thirds of this book but that's not going to happen. I doubt that Herman Melville had an editor -- if he had, that editor would have told him to get rid of all that boring stuff about whaling: 'Cut to the chase, Herman.'"

One question remains: how do you celebrate finishing a 750,000-word novel? Moore pauses. "I'll probably have a bit of a lie down."

The full Q&A with Alan Moore will be published tomorrow.

Helen Lewis-Hasteley is an assistant editor of the New Statesman. She tweets @helenlewis

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle