Edward Whittemore's JERUSALEM QUARTET
by Jeff VanderMeer
Three writers, above all others, have served as touchstones for my own fiction. All three display stylistic mastery, contain hidden depths, and reward repeated re-reading. Of the three, Vladimir Nabokov achieved fame during his lifetime, Angela Carter achieved fame after her death, and the third, Edward Whittemore (1933-1995), remains largely unknown.
Until this month, Whittemore was out of print as well, Old Earth finally bringing all five of his books back from the dead: Quin's Shanghai Circus (1974)1 and the Jerusalem Quartet, Sinai Tapestry (1977), Jerusalem Poker (1978), Nile Shadows (1983), and Jericho Mosaic (1987). The Old Earth editions, handsome and colorful, come complete with introductions from writers such as John Nichols and forewords and afterwords from Whittemore's agent and his editors.2 The timing of Whittemore's resurrection could not be more fortuitous, although I cannot ignore a mingled sadness and irritation that for almost 20 years such remarkable books were unavailable to readers.
The timing is fortuitous because this year, for the first time ever, I have begun to feel that the idea of cross-genre fiction3 unclassifiable and yet with a clearly fabulist, nonrealistic bent has become a concrete entity, expressed in physical form in a number of truly wonderful works.4 Between 2000 and the present, we have witnessed the emergence of a number of great writers. In addition, writers who have always been producing this kind of work including Rikki Ducornet (perhaps the finest fantasist currently alive on the planet) have written some of their best fiction yet. Factor in the appearance this year of not one, not two, but four anthologies or magazine issues devoted to cross-genre short fiction Conjunctions 39, my own (co-edited) Leviathan 3, Angel Body (BBR, UK), and Polyphony 1; almost 1,800 pages of cross-pollination and a sea change seems in the air.
However, Whittemore, among others, got there a generation or two earlier5 and he remains one of the best because his ambition was so much greater than that of most writers. With his Jerusalem Quartet, Whittemore set out to do nothing less than map a secret history of the world, focusing on the Middle East, where a welter of religions converge, sometimes with tragic results. The novels are loosely related, in that several memorable protagonists appear in all four, slipping in and out of the narrative as walk-on, secondary, and main characters. Inasmuch as The Jerusalem Quartet tells one story, it follows the exploits of a man named Stern Strongbow, who hopes to create peace in the Middle East. It also covers the years 1900 through 1975, weaving together different times and places for a thematic resonance that far exceeds anything Thomas Pynchon accomplished in his excellent book V.6
In Jerusalem Poker, for example, Whittemore launches his novel with a typically audacious image, one of the great prologues in literature. The novel opens atop the Great Pyramid, where the sun rises on a summer day in 1914. A man named Cairo Martyr, at the time a male prostitute, has just helped a jaded, obese pair of Egyptian aristocrats achieve orgasm, when a triplane flies overhead:
Down, [Cairo] yelled. Down... But the delirious baron and baroness heard neither him nor the airplane. The great red ball on the horizon had hypnotized them with the heat it sent rushing through their aging bodies. Gaily the plane dipped its wings in salute to the most impressive monument ever reared by man, then gracefully rolled away and sped on south... Cairo Martyr got to his feet, not believing what he saw. The nearly invisible man and woman still stood on the summit with their arms outstretched, but now they were headless, cleanly decapitated by the slashing lowest wing of the triplane. The hulking bodies lingered a few seconds longer, then slowly toppled over and disappeared down the far side of the pyramid.
This image is followed by an even more audacious idea. On the last day of December 1921, the Moslem Cairo Martyr, the Christian O'Sullivan Beare, and the Jew Munk Szondi, who each control part of Jerusalem, begin a game of poker, with the holy city in the kitty. The poker game lasts 12 years and as it unfolds Whittemore tells the stories of all three players, almost incidentally telling the history of the Levant as well. The intertwined tapestry formed by the present interacting with the past is stunning in its complexity, but also in its ability to entertain us. To call Jerusalem Poker One Hundred Years of Solitude with spies would be entirely accurate. Nor can I overstate the way in which absurdity and the serious commingle in this novel. And, although all three main characters and the possibly 3,000-year-old owner of the antiquities shop in which the poker game takes place seem larger-than-life when the novel opens, Whittemore shows us that, in fact, they have lived extraordinary lives. They have earned their colorful eccentricities, often quite poignantly.
Whittemore also earned his extraordinary life. While the dual tragedy of Whittemore's life was the relative brevity of that life and the short half-life of his books on bookstore shelves, many of us would trade ours for his, I think. After attending Yale University, Whittemore served as a Marine officer in Japan and "spent 10 years as a CIA operative in the Far East, Europe, and the Middle East," as the biography on the back of the Old Earth editions reads. "Among his other occupations, he managed a newspaper in Greece, was employed by a shoe company in Italy, and worked in New York City's narcotics control office during the Lindsay administration." One is tempted to ask if Whittemore worked for the CIA while managing a newspaper in Greece and employed at a shoe company in Italy.
Regardless, Whittemore's CIA work, his first-hand experience in the Middle East, clearly informs the novels. It is what distinguishes them in many ways from other espionage fictions: a level of verisimilitude, the sense of someone who has peered beneath the surface leading you through the canyons and up the mountains of history.7
The character Stern Strongbow, a visionary and sometimes spy, who inhabits all of the Jerusalem Quartet in some guise, displays complexities to his character that only someone with Whittemore's background could have rendered properly. Stern, the son of Plantagenet Strongbow, an English adventurer, hopes to one day create a homeland shared in peace by Muslims, Jews, and Christians. That he never accomplishes this goal, that he descends into the irony of running guns between different groups, always still hoping for the peace that becomes more distant with each new mission, is one of the book's saddest statements about the Middle East.
The discovery of "the oldest Bible in the world" that "denies every religious truth ever held by anyone" in the first book of the Quartet, Sinai Tapestry, is yet another of Whittemore's statements. When I say "statement," I don't mean in any didactic sense Whittemore's books are anything but didactic. Instead, he gets his point across with such extended absurdities as a bible created by a madman or through the actions of characters whose ideals become diluted through time, experience, and disappointment.
In this sense, Sinai Tapestry could be termed the most hopeful of the novels, the most like an eccentric adventure or journey, at least at the beginning. It follows the exploits of Plantogenet Strongbow, "an English-born adventurer who becomes a Muslim holy man and finally, on the eve of World War I, the secret ruler of the Ottoman Empire." In this pre-World War I milieu, Whittemore seems to say that there exists more hope of an individual's actions leading to substantial results. That Strongbow's son Stern may fail in his goals does not seem assured. There is also the wonderful sense of humor Whittemore brings to Sinai Tapestry (as well as Jerusalem Poker and, to a lesser extent, the last two novels of the Quartet). Among Strongbow's exploits is his documentation, in 23 volumes, of Levantine sex:
Strongbow's study was the most exhaustive sexual exploration ever made. Without hesitations or allusions, with nothing in fact to calm the reader, he thoughtfully examined every sexual act that had ever taken place from Timbuktu to the Hindu Kush, from the slums of Damascus to the palaces of Baghdad, and in all the shifting Bedouin encampments along the way…All claims were substantiated at once. The evidence throughout was balanced in the Victorian manner. Yet the facts were still implacable, the sense and nonsense inescapable, the conclusions terminal.
However, despite these touches, Sinai Tapestry ends with the brutal intrusion of history. Some scenes, such as Whittemore's portrayal of the bloody genocide at Smyrna in 1922, shock as much as anything in literature.
If the final two volumes of the Quartet are more subdued and more thoughtful, then it may be due to the change in the time of the setting. Nile Shadows takes place mostly in 1942, in an Egypt threatened by Rommel, while Jericho Mosaic details the life and exploits of a deep cover agent between 1959 and the late 1970s. As the novels progress toward the present, they begin to take on more "reality" and shake off the veneer, the exotic gloss, of the earlier novels. In a sense, this makes them of less interest to fantasy readers, but I find it unlikely that anyone who has read Sinai Tapestry and Jerusalem Poker will be able to resist them.8 Further, the changes in Whittemore's work mean that in an odd way the books encompass the entire literary spectrum, from the fantastical to the realistic, while retaining their intra-book cohesion.
Nile Shadows may be the most dialogue-rich of Whittemore's novels, but it also has the most explosive opening pages. After a grenade is lobbed into a Cairo bar, British agents must investigate the identity and purpose of the only man killed by the explosion. The depiction of the initial intelligence gathering, and the event itself, is breathless and has the effect of a 360-degree camera sweep in a movie, with shifting points of view. As Publishers Weekly noted, Nile Shadows is "one of the most complex and ambitious espionage stories ever written…[that] plunges the reader into a hall-of-mirrors world."
In Jericho Mosaic, the world-spanning perspective becomes reduced in scope to that of a double agent active during the many Arab-Jewish conflicts. Whittemore's CIA experience is even more palpable in this book as we are initiated into the rituals and the dangers of such work. Others have said it before, but there's no harm in repetition: This may be the most haunting portrait of a spy in the history of literature. Every nuance, every description feels ultra-real. Of all the books, Jericho Mosaic, despite the discussions of three mystical men in a Jericho garden, has the least magic realism element. I have the sense, re-reading the Quartet, that the books were a kind of progression from the deep waters of a well, up into the light, with Jericho Mosaic the most personal book, from Whittemore's perspective.9 That he was finished writing about the Middle East is not certain, but he planned to set his next, unpublished novel in the United States.10
* * *
I remember that after I read Jerusalem Poker, I used to imagine Edward Whittemore sitting in a café in the holy city, working on his next novel. It did not occur to me, given the authority displayed by the text, that he lived anywhere but Jerusalem. I imagined that he was much like one of his characters setting down his thoughts in fiction form after having first led a life of great adventure.11 Some writers conjure such adventures out of a vivid inner life, but in Whittemore's case, I was convinced that he must have experienced, on some level, what he wrote about. Such is the way that a favorite book can convince us.
While it is difficult to tell you exactly how influential Whittemore has been on my work, or on me personally, I can tell you that I wrote three-fourths of a novel set in South America that attempted to replicate Whittemore's brand of decade-spanning fiction.12 I can also tell you that I still find myself, at some level, grasping for superlatives like "amazing" or "mind-bending" even while realizing that these words have been devalued by a glut of book reviews over decades.
In the end, all I can tell you is this: If you believe in fiction much as you would a religion, or if you think that great works of fiction contain insights and wisdom that can literally change your life, or if you have known books that took you on strange but wonderful journeys, then you should read Edward Whittemore. He will not disappoint you.
1 If I ignore Quin's Shanghai Circus in this article, it is only due to limitations of space and focus. Quin's Shanghai Circus is a stunning short novel, filled with indelible scenes of Shanghai during wartime, and featuring characters that you will rarely encounter again, in life or on the printed page.
2 I don't want this article to be about the man rather than the books, but I should point out that the Tom Wallace's introduction and Judy Karasik afterword (available in all five of Old Earth's reprints) present remarkably personal accounts of Whittemore as a person and as a writer. Tom Wallace was Whittemore's editor at Henry Holt and W.W. Norton, where the novels were first published between 1974 and 1987. Wallace subsequently became Whittemore's literary agent, and then his literary executor. Judy Karasik edited the last two novels of the Jerusalem Quartet.
3 "Cross-genre" is preferable to me as a term to "slipstream." Slipstream means nothing. It is nothing. The authors on the "slipstream" list would stare blankly at the word if shown it on a page.
4 Perhaps writers felt something similar during the New Wave, perhaps not.
5 Again, not to mention the New Wave, although the New Wave was often formally experimental.
6 Despite rumors to the contrary, fueled by reviewer comparisons, Whittemore does not write like Pynchon his themes sometimes dovetail with Pynchon's, but as a stylist, Pynchon and Whittemore are worlds apart. If, like me, you had difficulty with Gravity's Rainbow, you will have no such difficulty with Whittemore. This is not to suggest that Whittemore is a lesser stylist than Pynchon, just that such experimentation and floridness did not interest him. As a storyteller on a grand scale, he clearly did not want the narrative obscured by the way in which he told a tale. Ironically enough, Anthony Heilbut, wrote in The Nation when reviewing Sinai Tapestry, that "Whittemore is a deceptively lucid stylist. Were his syntax as cluttered as Pynchon's or as grand as Nabokov's... his virtually ignored recent novel might have received the attention it deserves, for his imagination of present and alternative worlds is comparable to theirs..." Could it be that Whittemore's deceptive lucidity has caused his obscurity up to now? It is certainly an interesting theory, and there's some merit in it, but it is more likely that Whittemore simply suffered from bad timing or bad luck.
7 That Whittemore's books can simultaneously be called "fantasies" and "espionage" novels may explain why his work, with its clear, unobtrusive style, has been so difficult for some reviewers to categorize. Such categorization is anathema to work like Whittemore's, but it does help sell books.
8 However, because of their lack of a fantastical element, relative to the first two books, my examination of the final two books is cursory in this review.
9 It is always a mistake to presume to know the author's mind, of course; nonetheless, mistakes can be interesting.
10 According to an informed source, this novel may be published sometime in the next few years.
11 Given the classified nature of his position in the CIA, we may never know just how much excitement Whittemore experienced first-hand.
12 And, in all candor, I stole a Whittemore technique by which he describes carnage perpetrated in Shanghai (from Quin's Shanghai Circus) for a similar scene in my novella "Dradin, In Love".