Monday, April 27, 2009

The Adventures of Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius in the 20th Century


The Adventures of Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius in the 20th Century begins with the titular pair having a holiday in a riverside country house in New England. The year is 1933, but neither woman belongs in that time period. They are inter-dimensional time travelers and they are recovering from some adventure which is never clearly explained. Soon they will become bored with the holiday and leave that time and place. It sounds like a slow way to start a book and yet, there is quite a bit of hovering tension and a sense of anticipation as the two women go through their day to day activities just because you know that they don't belong in that era. This is also where I was reminded of what a really good writer Michael Moorcock is because it's quite a trick to keep a reader interested when nothing is happening. Mike makes it look easy, exploring the relationship between the two, making the reader see them as people. Sometimes I had to remind myself that this was the same writer who gave us Elric of Melnibone and his cursed rune sword, Stormbringer.
In case you're not familiar with Una or Catherine, both are characters from other Moorcock series. Una Persson is a "temporal adventuress" who shows up in more than one of Mike's series. She's in the Warlord of the Air Trilogy, the End of Time series, The Jerry Cornelius series, and even pops up in one of the later Elric books and the alternate history novel Gloriana. She's also in a several of Mike's Seaton Begg short stories. Both she and Begg are members of the 'Guild of Temporal Adventurers.'
Catherine Cornelius is the sister of Jerry Cornelius, the protagonist of such Moorcock novels as A Cure for Cancer, The Condition of Muzak, and The English Assassin. Who's Jerry Cornelius? That would take a post all its own, but he's an avatar of the Eternal Champion which means that he is an alternate reality version of Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, etc, etc. Some reviewers have taken Mike to task for connecting almost all of his novels and short stories through his Multiverse concept, but I find that to be one of the most interesting aspects of his work. Characters show up in various incarnations throughout his books and you never know who you might meet
Once the two heroines leave their idyll in 1933, they separate and take different paths through a series of alternate histories. The two paths seem to be split by sex and violence as Catherine becomes involved in a series of affairs and Una travels through an increasingly unfamiliar war torn Europe. Here's where the book becomes episodic and confusing, but that's seldom accidental with Moorcock who has often experimented with non-linear structures. The method of time travel utilized by Una and Catherine causes gaps in their memories and sometimes they don't seem to be the same characters the book began with. Perhaps they're not, since some of the vignettes take place in various alternate timelines. We may be seeing alternate versions of the same characters, a favorite theme of Mike's.
Of the two path's I probably found Catherine's the more interesting, because she travels through late 1960s/early 1970s London, and I suspect through worlds very familiar to the author. A large amount of time is spent backstage at various rock and roll events and Moorcock wrote songs for and performed with several rock groups in that era (Blue Oyster Cult, Hawkwind, The Deep Fix). He knows of what he speaks. It's funny because Catherine is there because of her brother Jerry's involvement with a band, while at the same time, Una is running into an alternate version of Jerry who's something of a war profiteer.
Another highlight of Catherine's adventures is Jerry and Catherine's mum, the bombastic cockney Mrs. Cornelius, who almost steals the show as she barrels her way through the various vignettes.
Near the end, the two plot lines don't so much merge as collide as Una and Catherine end up in the same timeline just in time to abandon it for another holiday.
I was utterly fascinated by the book but I should warn potential readers, who only know Mike from his fantasy tales, that there is a considerable amount of sex in this novel, and while it's not what I'd call graphic, it is described in some detail if you take my meaning. Catherine and Una are bi-sexual and I don't think anyone is sure what Jerry is so the sex is often um... imaginative. The book is out of print and fairly expensive so it's not likely any young Elric fans will come across it, but you never know. Fair warning. This is a book for grown-ups.

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