Andrew Crumey


The Sunday Times. March 19, 1995

Rreinnstadt is ''a place which exists nowhere'' the conception of a 17th-century prince who devotes his time, and that of his subjects, to laying down on paper the architecture and street-plans of this great, yet illusory city. Its inhabitants must also be devised: artists and authors, their fictional lives and works, all concocted by different departments. When Schenck, a worker in the Cartography Office, discovers the ''existence'' of Pfitz, a manservant visiting Rreinnstadt, he sets about illicitly re-creating Pfitz's life. Crumey is a daring writer: using the stuff of fairy tales, he ponders the difference between fact and fiction, weaving together philosophy and fantasy to create a magical, witty novel (Dedalus Pounds 7.99). NM

Kenneth Wright. The Herald (Glasgow). April 8, 1995

IT MAY seem a hard thing to say about a good book that, ideally, it should never have been written. After all, had it never been written, no-one would ever know that it was any good. But Glasgow-born Andrew Crumey's mischievous metaphysical comedy about the relationship between stories, fiction, and (big word coming up) reality is so entirely taken up with things conceived but never made, people invented but never born, and stories made up never to be told, that the sheer existence of this physical lump of paperback on my desk seems almost self-contradictory, like Samuel Beckett's cheerful remark that "every word is like an unnecessary stain upon silence and nothingness".

But Beckett said those words. And Pfitz exists. So, throwing another contradiction on the fire, I might as well review it. Much exposition will, I fear, be necessary. Here goes.

An eighteenth-century prince falls in love with a girl called Margaret, who soon afterwards dies. Stricken with grief, he commands a new city to be built as her memorial. But so detailed and precise are the plans of Margaretenburg, and so determined is the prince that it shall bear no possible imperfection, that its planning soon engrosses the kingdom's whole wealth and manpower, and Margaretenburg can never be built.

But the project has given the prince a taste for conceptual cities, and after a few more prentice essays in the art, he conceives of the great metropolis of Rreinstadt, the City as Encyclopaedia. The great library of Rreinstadt will contain the knowledge of everything that can be known, including every detail of Rreinstadt and its inhabitants and of the library itself, a self-referential spiral to which there can be no end.

To fill the never-to-be-built library, cartographers are engaged to map Rreinstadt down to the interior of every room and the people in them on every day. Biographers create the people of Rreinstadt, complete with pasts and futures and in some cases literary careers, which involves the creation of more people with pasts and futures . . . and at this point my head exploded.

After running repairs had been carried out on my critical equipment, I was able to follow the story of Schenk, a map-maker who falls in love with a girl in the biography department. He discovers an obscure and overlooked servant called Pfitz among the dramatis personae of Rreinstadt and, for an excuse to talk to the girl in biography, begins to write Pfitz's own quite unauthorised story, that of a Sancho Panza-like valet to a stiff-necked nobleman. But this unauthorised intervention, especially as Pfitz has stories of his own to tell, disrupts the smooth narrative clockwork of the official version, and soon authors and characters and the authors of authors begin to interact in a complicated melodrama of jealousy, murder, and romantic intrigue.

Pfitz, as you can see, is not exactly a work of strict naturalism. Andrew Crumey is having himself some fun with the artifice of literary creation, cutting the strings that connect authors to their puppets and letting them run around on their own. Meta-fiction, as this class of caper is sometimes called, is however just as much an artifice -- all fiction is artificial -- as the convention of the Godlike author, and the small number of worthwhile books it has inspired in its long career (you can trace it back at least as far as M R James's terrifying story The Mezzotint) suggests that its limitations may actually be greater.

But that's not to say that it can't produce amusing and thought-provoking novels; and, jollied along as it is by casually interpolated shaggy-dog stories, irrelevant but imaginatively bizarre anecdotes, philosophical puzzles, and cosy chats between Crumey and the reader, this dense but brief fantasy is among that small but honourable band.

Jonathan Coe. Guardian. June 25, 1995

ONE OF the characters in Andrew Crumey's second novel complains: "I can't work out who this story is supposed to be about, or what happens, or why." Helpfully, his wife then goes on to explain: "It's about a group of people who get together to write a book, but then they all fall in love with the same woman and start to argue amongst themselves, and they decide to settle the matter with a duel."

That is as good a summary of Pfitz as you are likely to get, and one which tells you much about the novel and its author. A book about a group of people who get together to write a book -- now where have we heard that before? Hann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds? Crumey's novel shares a similarly elaborate structure, with its giddying spiral of stories-within-stories, and takes the same delight in the scope fiction provides for acts of violent revenge upon hapless characters.

Meanwhile, the fact that romantic differences are going to be settled by a duel alerts us to the oddly pleasing stiffness and formality which sets the emotional tone. Look elsewhere if you want graphic sex or raw displays of feeling: Crumey is more likely to give you clinically precise descriptions of the body ("that taut area of pale skin, and the threads of veins like some hypothetical system of roads, or rivers"), while the closest his hero comes to lust is ogling a woman and fantasising about "the warm promise of her bosom". If that diction barely seems to belong to this century, we should bear in mind that Pfitz is an 18th century novel, in two senses: not only is it set in the 18th century, it is also heavily indebted to the literature of that period, especially the jokey, quasi-philosophical jeu d'esprit of Diderot's Jacques Le Fataliste.

Crumey's central conceit is bookish and cerebral: a powerful monarch devotes all his energies, and the entire financial and intellectual resources of his state, to the creation of Rreinnstadt, an ideal city which exists only on paper. At first this means that maps have to be drawn. the plans of streets and parks have to be laid out, buildings have to be designed and illustrated down to the tiniest detail. But the task goes further: there are citizens to be created, with biographies to be imagined and written down -- even the novels they read for amusement have to be composed by somebody. A thriving bureaucracy is established, incorporating the Literature Division and its sub-groups, such as the Department of Anecdotes and the Office of Unreliable Information.

Crumey's witty plot device involves one Count Zelneck, a visitor to the imaginary city who is created by Estrella, one of the labourers in the Biography Department. Our hero, Schenck, is a cartographer who falls obsessively in love with Estrella and brings something disturbing to her attention: the possibility that her Count may or may not have a mysterious servant called Pfitz. who only appears on one of the city's maps and is never mentioned anywhere else.

Estrella is horrified by the thought that Pfitz might "exist" without her knowledge: if this is the case, "then everything will become inconsistent and we'll be lost." On one level, then, we are dealing with a love story, a simple fable about passion and its capacity to disrupt an orderly life. At the same time, a murder mystery starts shifting into gear: the rogue servant needs to be done away with if consistency is to be restored. Who is prepared to take on the task?

Even this account doesn't do justice to the strata of sub-plots, the complex games with fictionality Crumey crams into this (somewhat overcrowded) little volume. Pfitz manifests the same healthy disdain for realism that made his first novel, Music In A Foreign Language, such a pleasant surprise. His borrowings from Borges, Calvino and Pavic are here just as shameless. But at this rate Crumey may yet become a minor hero to fans of the postmodern Euro-novel who wonder why we Brits so seldom produce a homegrown variety.

Jonathan Coe. The Observer "Books of the Year". November 26, 1995

Three novels published this year stand out as having been misunderstood, neglected or undervalued. Kazuo Ishiguro's sweetly funny, but complex and demanding The Unconsoled (Faber pounds 15.99) set the reviewing establishment a challenge which " with a few honourable exceptions " it failed to meet. Less well known and hyped than his Scottish contemporaries, Andrew Crumey continued to plough his own distinctive furrow with Pfitz (Dedalus pounds 7.99), a well-crafted and ingenious box of postmodern tricks in the European mode. And Past Caring, by Suzannah Dunn (Flamingo pounds 5.99) has haunted me all year: a quizzical, unsettling story of suburban reincarnation, true to the form of a writer who scrutinises modern England with a curiosity about language and a subversive wit that few of her peers can match.

Kirkus Reviews. August 1, 1997

Philosopher-novelist Crumey follows his prize-winning debut (Music, In a Foreign Language, 1996) with an equally pithy and pleasing tale of love and intrigue among the state-sponsored designers of a wholly imaginary city.

In the 18th century, a dreamer of a prince decides that cities are far more interesting when they are completely fabricated, right down to the lives of their lowliest inhabitants, so he devotes his energy and the resources of his realm to the perfection of his ideal: a city that exists only on paper. The result, Rreinnstadt, is the creation of an army of specialized laborers, among them Cartographer Schenck and Biographer Estrella. Schenck is smitten when he first sets eyes on Estrella, and so to make her notice him he tells her of Pfitz, the servant of the mysterious Count Zelneck (whose biography Estrella has already prepared), a man whose name he found next to the count's on a map but about whom there is no official record. Presenting the story of the knave-savant Pfitz- -himself a devious yarnspinner -- in installments constructed feverishly in all-night sessions after work gains the biographer's full attention, but it also draws Schenck deeper into a potentially deadly mystery. Another name is beneath that of Pfitz on the map, partially erased; by doing research on it, the Cartographer discovers a real madman and a real murder, as well as doubts that the fair Estrella is being completely honest with him. In the end, he'll have to decide whether the Schenck he has always been is who he wants to remain, or whether he must reinvent himself in order to gain what he most desires.

Borrowing from Conan Doyle as much as from Wittgenstein, this is a heady concoction, deeply inventive, displaying an abundance of humor as well as a convincing celebration of the lusty enchantments of youth. A real treat.

Andrew Miller. New York Times. 19 October 1997

A German prince of the 18th century devotes his life to the creation of imaginary cities. The first, Margaretenburg, is a memorial to a lost sweetheart. Others follow, each more ambitious than the last, but existing only on the paper on which they have been drawn, more perfect, more beautiful than any actual city could ever be. The prince, however, remains dissatisfied. Looking back from the vantage of middle age, he suspects there is something frivolous in his creations, that his career has been ''a gradual process of dilution -- an almost imperceptible squandering of his talents.''

Maps are torn up; the prince is in a funk. Then, rousing himself, he embarks on one last great project, mobilizing the mental powers of the entire citizenry to create the city of Rreinnstadt, in which the ideals of the Enlightenment -- Rreinnstadt will be the city as encyclopedia -- and the Romantic Movement's championing of the Imagination will be yoked together by a fever of obsessive planning: ''Laying out the streets and designing the buildings was only the smallest part of the whole enterprise. Not only every edifice, but the interiors of these constructions also would have to be planned and illustrated; their furnishings and decorations, and moreover their occupants -- biographies, memoirs and reminiscences would have to be written.''

Rreinnstadt, quarried from the collective imagination of the prince's subjects, will shimmer like the City of God (as built by Germans), a place free from the subversions of reality, its maps, indexes and catalogues detailing what is in effect a highly organized falsehood -- rather like a novel. But reality, in the shape of a young cartographer called Schenck who falls in love with the beautiful Estrella, a worker in the Biography Division of the great planning, or building, institution, intrudes into the purity of the prince's vision like a virus into a computer program.

In the corridors of an increasingly deranged bureaucracy, chance and human passion make nonsense of an enterprise that relies on the discipline of its dreamers. Andrew Crumey, the author of this tale, ''Pfitz'' -- whose biographical note reveals him to have been a student of theoretical physics and nonlinear dynamics -- develops his story with admirable rigor, seizing on both the comic and the philosophical potential of a world in which the actual and the imagined have become fatally blurred. The style of the book is self-consciously that of the contes philosophique of Voltaire and Diderot. It shares their compactness, their irony, their high comedy and playfulness, though not the satire, unless it is creativity itself -- the way in which our productions defy us -- that is being lampooned. Above all it shares their ambition to treat the difficult and the serious with the lightest of touches.

The risk is that in such a speculative, such a fantastic world, nothing much matters. In ''Pfitz'' we have authors inventing authors. We have stories within stories, stories that go nowhere and seem at first mere whimsy. Creator and created exist together in a state of increasing unease, wrestling with problems of ontology and confronting each other in rococo dreams. Some, like Spontini, the product of a committee of writers the members of which have fallen out among themselves, are tormented by their doubts to the point of madness: ''I believe that I am remembering something, but this may be another trick which they are playing on me. I believe that I am about to act under my own volition, but I cannot be sure whose hand moves the pen, or my eyes and mind as I read. I know only that I am made manifest through many diverse voices which bear little relation each to the other. What I am is a collection -- an anthology -- of incomplete, disconnected ideas. Is any man more than this?''

Characters aware of themselves as characters, of living only within the covers of a book, have been the fodder of self-regarding fictions for 200 years. It is a game that many writers, seduced by the weirdness of what they are doing, find impossible to resist, and it drives many readers to distraction, like a certain kind of modern jazz where the musicians are having more fun than the audience. Yet for all this, ''Pfitz'' is a surprisingly warm and likable book, a combination of intellectual high-wire act and good traditional storytelling with a population of lovers and madmen we do care about, despite their advertised fictionality. Certainly Crumey's narrative gymnastics have not affected his ability to create strong, fleshy characters, and none more fleshy, more fleshly, than Frau Luppen, Schenck's middle-aged landlady, a great blown rose of a woman who expresses her affection for her lodger by feeding him bowls of inedible stew.

''Her husband had died many years earlier; some said of exhaustion, others suggested an accident involving the injudicious distribution of his wife's weight one night. Eating the stew of cabbage and pigflesh which was placed before him, Schenck considered other possibilities.

'' 'You're very pale these days, Herr Schenck, and you look like you're wasting away. You're not en amour are you?' When Frau Luppen giggled, the dimples creased and sank into the depths of her cheeks like lost islands.''

There is a good sprinkling of such pleasures in ''Pfitz.'' It makes for rewarding reading -- cerebral, adroit, not afraid to take chances but never allowing itself to be seduced by theory, by mere cleverness. Crumey's work -- this is his second novel; the first, ''Music, in a Foreign Language,'' was set in a postwar British police state -- has, predictably enough, attracted the description ''post-modernist'' and it seems likely he will get stuck with the tag and thus be accorded the honor of being respected and unread. This would be unfortunate, for though he has the discipline of the nouveaux romanciers he is far closer to the world of Italo Calvino, particularly the Calvino of ''The Baron in the Trees,'' ''If on a Winter's Night a Traveler'' and, of course, ''Invisible Cities.'' In both writers there is a joy in the freedoms of fiction, a love of games and paradoxes, of anecdote and fable.

''Pfitz'' would be an unlikely best seller and it will not, I think, find its way to Hollywood. Yet it slips neatly into a pocket, takes no more than a couple of hours to read and deserves many friends.