Nicholas Lezard

M. John Harrison’s ‘anti-memoir’ is a masterpiece

Broad in scope and beautifully written, this unconventional autobiography contains some of the best advice struggling writers will ever receive

John M. Harrison. [Getty Images]

It would be hard to categorise M. John Harrison as a novelist, and that is just the way he would like it. He may definitely have a foot in the camps of science fiction and fantasy – with fans including Neil Gaiman and the late Iain Banks – but he is not one for being pinned down, whether he steps outside those genres or not. Of his 1989 novel Climbers, he said:

It isn’t about somebody who ‘finds himself’ through climbing, or who ‘becomes a climber’. It’s precisely the opposite of that: it’s about someone who in failing to become a climber also fails to find a self.

And so we have now the self-declared ‘anti-memoir’, Wish I Was Here, whose splendid title tells us we are not in the territory of conventional memoir. The writing confirms this. You will find more autobiographical detail in Harrison’s foreword to the 2019 collection of critical essays about him than here – although you can learn that he lives in Richmond, in west London, has a blind cat, was from the Midlands, and was once told by ‘two or three sweet old ladies’ in Lytham St Annes that, despite his protestations to the contrary, he believed in all the loopy flying saucer nonsense they believed in. ‘You just don’t know it yet,’ they said.

So which was it? Two or three? The point is that it doesn’t matter, since he is not under oath or making a witness statement – and besides, the vagueness has a deeper honesty to the truth. I am reminded of Samuel Beckett’s stage direction at the beginning of the second act of Godot: ‘The tree has four or five leaves.’ (Harrison read Beckett keenly as a teenager.)

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