My rating: 9.5/10. Extremely hard to classify this book, but I found it completely engaging. The time theories near the end were completely over my head, but I appreciated Priestley’s enthusiasm nonetheless.
I had expected a travel book of sorts, and Midnight on the Desert could certainly fall under that classification, but it is also so very much more. An examination of what it means to be a writer and an artist; a critique of the state of the world in politics, religion, philosophy, architecture and the performing arts; an ode to nature; a manifesto for seeking the good in the world and overcoming adversity and “doing one’s part”; a record of observation by a keen and analytical observer.
I have been spinning out my reading of this marvelously unexpected gem, and have been racking my brains over how best to convey what this unique work is all about and why I found it so compelling. Words do not come easily to me, which is why I’m a reader and not a writer, aside from these attempts at distilling the essence of what I find on the printed page. Perhaps I will let Priestley speak for himself.
First, the “set-up”.
Let me begin with what I can remember quite clearly. It was the end of my stay on the ranch in Arizona, last winter…There was the usual accumulated litter of letters and odd papers to be gone through, and most of it to be destroyed. But that was not all. I had decided during the evening to burn certain chapters, many thousands of words, of the book I had been writing…Yes, thousands and thousands of words would have to go, along with the rubbish; good words, all arranged to make sound sense, and with a cash value in the market, and representing, too, something more than money – time, precious and priceless time, of which, they say, only so much is allotted to each of us. I dare not wait for morning. Midnight was the hour for such a deed.
The first chapter starts with an appreciation and evocation of a place dear to the author’s heart, a small writer’s hut at the edge of the desert on a guest ranch in the Mojave Desert, where Priestley had spent the better part of the winter. He describes the beauty and majesty of the still, clear desert night, and then branches of in a dozen different directions in a sort of free association of ideas – random – oh, yes! – but most clear and sensible – he never loses us in his side trips though we fetch up back at the beginning a mite breathless and dazed at the speed and scope of our journey.
The papers are not yet set alight, though the fire is lit and is roaring in the wood stove, but we are far away now from the desert, back in England, getting ready to set sail for America, at the beginning of this particular trip. The Atlantic is crossed, New York attained, and Priestley is off.
I told myself severely that for once I must take New York quietly, as just another city. I had some work to do – to produce my play – but I must do that work as calmly as if I were at home in London. (I overlooked the fact that it is quite impossible for me to produce a play calmly anywhere; for that mad old witch, the Theatre, tolerates no calmness…)
… All other cities … seem in retrospect like mere huddles of mud huts. Here .. be Babylon and Nineveh in steel and concrete, the island of shining towers, all the urban poetry of our time … I would hurry down these canyons and gulfs they call avenues, cry out as one magnificent vista of towers crowns another, hold my breath at nightfall to see the glittering palaces in the sky, and wonder how I can ever again endure the gloomy and stunted London …
… There is a deep inner excitement, like that of a famished lover waiting for his mistress, that I cannot account for – not when it outlasts the mere novelty of arrival, and goes on week after week … I would begin to feel empty inside. It would be impossible for me to sit still and be quiet. I must go somewhere, eat and drink with a crowd, see a show, make a noise. Time must not merely be killed, but savagely murdered in public. In this mood, which has never missed me yet in New York, I feel a strange apprehension, unknown to me in any other place. The city assumes a queer menacing aspect … I begin to fancy that perhaps it is waiting for some other kind of people – chromium-plated giants without dreams or tenderness – to come along and claim it …
.. I feel like a midget character moving in an early scene of some immense tragedy, as if I had had a glimpse in some dream, years ago, of the final desolation of this city, of sea-birds mewing and nesting in these ruined avenues. Familiar figures of the streets begin to move in some dance of death. That baker outside the Broadway burlesque show, whose voice has almost rusted away from inviting you day and night to step inside and see the girls, now seems a sad demon croaking in Hell. The traffic’s din sounds like the drums in the March to the Gallows of a Symphonie Fantastique infinitely greater, wilder, more despairing than Berlioz’. Yes, this is all very fanciful, of course, the literary mind playing with images; yet the mood behind it, that feeling of spiritual desolation, that deepening despair, are real enough…
That was the distillation of, let’s see, four pages or so, and the man can keep it up indefinitely. He turns the same sort of passionate stream-of-consciousness writing to everything he observes and experiences. Further along in the book we are treated to similar digressions on The Theatre and the experience of working as a novelist-dramatist taking the written word to the stage, and about the challenges of being an author in general, and the quest to both satisfy the inner urge to record and create, and to fulfill the ever-difficult goal of please one’s readers.
Give us, please, you cry, the real world, not some triviality taking place in a pretty-pretty imaginary world, no mere escape stuff. Certainly, madam; certainly, sir. Now what is happening in this real world? The Communists and Fascists are demonstrating and counter-demonstrating, preparing for a fight; the economic system of our fathers is breaking down; Europe is bristling with armaments and gigantic intolerances, Asia is stirring out of her ancient dream, America is bewildered and bitter; one kind of civilization is rapidly vanishing and God-knows-what is taking its place; some men are marching in column of fours, shouting slogans, and making ready to kill and be killed; some men – many of them in exile because their minds are honest and not without distinction - are arguing in a melancholy circle; other men are lining up in hope of finding a little bread, a little work, a little peace of mind.
And Priestley goes on:
But no, no, no, this will not do, you tell us: you want a novel, a fiction to take you out of yourselves, not a newspaper, a fat pamphlet, a slab of propaganda. After all, private life goes on; men still fall in love, women fall out of it; there are entertaining quarrels between the Smiths and the Robinsons; young men are suddenly promoted and girls are given fur coats and diamond bracelets; and there is still plenty of comic stuff about – oh, uproariously comic stuff. This being so, get on with your novel, and don’t give yourself airs, don’t come over the propagandist, the gloomy prophet, over us.
… You may be sure that whatever he [the author] decides, he will be blamed. He may succeed in displeasing everybody. Lucky enough in other respects, I have been unlucky in this. Some years ago, because I had long cherished the plan and was now in the mood to work it out, I wrote a long, comic, picaresque, a fairy-tale sort of novel, called The Good Companions. I am neither prouder nor more ashamed of having written it than I am of having written any of the other books and plays under my name. But it happened to achieve an astonishing popularity. Since then – and this s an exact statement – I do not think I have met or corresponded with five-and-twenty persons who have not blamed me, either for having written this particular novel, or for not having written a lot of other novels just like it. One party denounces me as a hearty, insensitive lowbrow. The other party asks what the devil I mean by turning myself into a gloomy highbrow … I am condemned - and for a long term, it seems – to offend all round … No wonder, then, my new novel needed some thinking out. I was not bored on those trains …
Travelling by train, observing every fellow human being he comes across, from baggage car attendant to well-preserved and painted elderly matron sharing the dining room, Priestley goes off on more tangents, such as the difficulties of being an American woman, never being allowed to drop your eyes from your goal of “keeping up” for a moment; then looking out the window, asit were, to the American landscape itself and the need for painters, writers and poets to develop to capture its unique quality – the processes of developing a regional form of the arts, true to the physical space which inspires the artists.
Odes to the great physical beauty of the American West are in this book – the deserts and mountains, the Grand Canyon, the stark glories of rock and sand and rivers carving out their otherworldly sculptures. Priestley is in love with this aspect of America, and he sings his praises most eloquently well.
What a fascinating book; what a full book. One to read right through without stopping; one to tackle in small bits, to digest and mull over and agree with and occasionally refute. Not all that much autobiography, despite the tag on the title, but many insights into what went on in the mind of this deeply creative and opinionated man.
An excellent read; a grand glimpse into the mind of a master writer.