THE NOVELS of LOTHAR PREEN
originally issued as a special edition of Crunlop! : A Splendid Periodical in 2003
bewildered by cormorants (1950)
Just 99 pages long, Lothar Preen's first novel is slim, even throwaway, and was completely ignored by both reviewers and the reading public. It is a particularly hackneyed example of the "looking-for-cormorants" genre. The hero, Paler Hornet (an obvious anagram of the author), is a young explorer charged by his father with going in search of cormorants. In a series of supposed journal entries, Hornet describes his failure in prose that is listless, turgid, and littered with innumerable misuses of the prepositions by and with. Although he was characteristically contemptuous of his detractors, it is no surprise that Lothar Preen waited nearly two decades to publish again. But when he did, what a revelation!
bamboozled by curlews (1968)
Unleashed upon the world at the height of les evenements of May 1968, Preen's second novel casts a glowering eye upon bourgeois society. By turns caustic, pitiless & scathing - and superbly comic - Preen lashes out at sacred cows and shibboleths in a manner described by one critic at the time as "like something written by the idiot bastard offspring of Ford Madox Ford and Veronica Lake during the final gasps of Stalinism". At 1,844 pages, it is one of the longest novels of the 20th century. Cunningly - and Preen can be the most artful of writers - this matchless stream of invective is disguised as a series of letters home from a peripatetic ornithologist engaged in a study of the nesting habits of the curlew. Preen uses the narrator's witlessness, myopia, and inability to tell one bird from another as a metaphor for a society in chains. An abridged version for children, with four lovely colour plates by Preen's acolyte Marigold Chew, was issued in 1983.
perplexed by starlings (1970)
As if to confound those who saw him as a radical, Lothar Preen's next book was a delicate, miniaturist evocation of domesticity set in an idyllic barnyard. Full of countryside wisdom and bosky charm, it was condemned as trash, and rightly so.
befuddled by linnets (1974)
Loathsome! Ach, loathsome is the man whose flesh is the colour of spinach, whose hat stinks, who sharpens pencils by daylight and whose nights are beset by dreams of eerie albino hens… The opening lines of Preen's fourth novel have been quoted so widely & so often that it comes as a shock to learn that they are absent from all but the very final draft of this majestic tour de force which won the Groot, Pang, Fledgling, Gobbo & Musty Spillage awards, to name only a few, for if I were to list all the honours lavished on this mighty tome we would be here all day and even you, gentle reader, even you would begin to yawn and scratch your head, from which no doubt beetles would fall.
Wherein lies the peculiar genius of Befuddled By Linnets? At first glance it is a simple tale - indeed, the Korean critic Park No Lip dismissed it as "cretinous", although he later wrote a lengthy retraction before swallowing poison in the laundry room of a shabby hotel. (His widow was imprisoned & his children languished in an orphanage - a point to ponder for those who dared to cross Lothar Preen!)
The novel, divided into no less than four thousand short chapters, arranged alphabetically by opening lines, follows the progress of a would-be scientist named Pearl E. Thorn as she trudges through various patches of woodland listening out for the characteristic "chi chi chi chi" song of the linnet. But Thorn is no ornithologist - she is an oceanographer with a sideline in amateur map-making - and she is also hard of hearing. According to notes rescued from the charred shell of Preen's so-called "Potato Building", where he lived and worked for nearly thirty years before it burned down in 1989, the character was originally intended to be profoundly deaf (and, by the by, one-legged). Once again, Preen appears to have made an incredible number of changes to the final draft, restoring not only some hearing to his heroine - in her right ear: the left remains useless - but completely rewriting the long central section in which what appears to be a flock of cassowaries is yoked irreversibly to the heroine's dismal fate. It is a moot point whether flock is the correct noun of assemblage for the cassowary, but research must come to a stop somewhere and I have now got a headache, as you can imagine. You would too if you were to read all of Lothar Preen's books at one sitting. Be that as it may, there is an unbearable poignancy in Pearl E. Thorn's growing realisation that she is unable to distinguish between the exquisite song of the linnet and the raucousness of crows, corncrakes, and all those other birds that make such a gruesome racket.
Preen's adoption of a female narrative voice was much praised for its authenticity, although I have to say that, for me, it is woefully unconvincing. I side with the anonymous reviewer who disparaged the author's attempt to "join the Brothers Johnson in the Land of Ladies", an amusing reference to the American funk duo who had a measure of popularity in the 1970s. Preen, of course, despised funk, as evidenced by his ferocious essay Thunderous Execrations Of Things Both Abominable & Ripe For Obliteration Which I Would Willingly Tear To Smithereens With My Bare Hands, Cackling With Obscene Glee As I Did So (1977).
discombobulated by moorhens (1980)
Dismissed as worthless when published thirty years to the day after Preen's fictional debut, time has been kind to his fifth novel. Written in the form of an instructional manual for children, it has all the charm of a catechism mixed with the faintly sordid air of belle époque pornography. It is also Preen's only foray into science fiction, an unexpected departure to be sure, given that he clearly had no sympathy for, nor understanding of, the genre. Yet somehow the writing has a mischievousness which has made it Preen's most popular book. The moorhens of the title, incidentally, only look like moorhens, or at least what Preen fondly imagined moorhens to look like. They are in fact a race of super-ignorant beings from a dying planet in a distant galaxy. The author quotes freely from both Epictetus and Gerard Manley Hopkins, though not to any apparent purpose. Nevertheless, an entertaining enough romp and perfect holiday reading.
flummoxed by owls (1981)
Frankly indigestible, this monstrous work - at 1,748 pages only a little shorter than Bamboozled by Curlews - has divided its critics since that strange day at the end of March 1981 when it hit the bookshops just as the news was announced of the death of De Witt Wallace, founder of the Reader's Digest. Much blood has been spilled over the placing of that apostrophe, not least Lothar Preen's. Throughout his life, the novelist was a fanatical devotee of the magazine, regularly penning articles such as I Am John's Cardigan and It Pays To Incite Your Witch Doctor, none of which was ever published. Legend has it that there exists somewhere an archive of Wallace's letters to his indomitable - if unsolicited - contributor, from the early, polite rejections to the last, desperate pleas, insults and threats. Preen ignored all of them, firing off ill-written drivel to the magazine virtually every month for decades. We are perhaps fortunate that he kept copies of only a fraction of his output, and that the Reader's Digest consigned every last scrap of it to the bonfire.When he heard of Wallace's death, Preen locked himself in the Potato Building for a period of mourning, and refused to appear in public to promote his new novel, about which I shall say only this: there is a mildly amusing paragraph on page 16, a choice use of synecdoche on page 833, a superb neologism at the end of chapter 53, and a misprint in the very last line.
pastry of death (1983)
Having turned his hand to science fiction, Preen unwisely decided to have a bash at a crime novel. Surmising that all fictional detectives must have trademark idiosyncracies or foibles, he made his Captain "Ern" Plethora a retired Jesuit whaling ship's chaplain with a club foot and a tattoo of a star on his forehead, whose hobbies include pole-vaulting, testing for pH values, & repairing churns. In fact, so many pages are spent trying to elicit the reader's interest in this preposterous figure that Preen quite forgets about his plot, which begins in incoherence and peters out into what I have elsewhere dubbed "grandiloquent stupidity". I repeat this remark despite the fact that when it first appeared in print one of Preen's trained brutes abducted me and nearly drowned me in an ornamental pond somewhere near Blister Lane Gasworks.
dumbstruck by bitterns (1988)
By the late 1980s, as Lothar Preen the musician became ever more lauded - this was, lest we forget, the decade of the Sonatina & Variations: Homage à Ricardo Montalban - Preen the novelist was considered largely a spent force. Not one of his books was still in print, and no publisher of repute would touch him. Indeed, it was only through his criminal connections in the taverns of Marseilles that Dumbstruck by Bitterns ever saw the light of day. The Eternal Palace of Literature must forever be grateful to the grimy, hirsute matelot whose nefarious intrigues led to the meeting of Lothar Preen and F X Duggleby. It was Duggleby - deranged, revolting and crapulous, but also erudite, wealthy and given to wearing particularly decisive cravats - who became Preen's champion, setting up his Editions de Duggleby imprint to issue the by now monocular author's work. The first fruit of the partnership was this awe-inspiring roman à clef in which Preen creates an alternative history of 19th century Greenland. Those new to Preen are invariably astonished at the facility - the lightness! - with which a straightforward story about a team of bird-spotters on a futile expedition to find bitterns above the Arctic Circle is transformed into a multi-layered prose-fantasia of matchless genius. Vivid and towering, it remains Preen's greatest achievement, and it is somehow fitting that all royalties he earned from it were used to fund a string of gambling dens in iniquitous ports and grubby harbours.
confounded by guillemots (1990)
"To sail the sea is an occupation at once repulsive and attractive" wrote Hilaire Belloc. It is a sentiment with which Lothar Preen concurred. The maritime world was one which informed so much of his music, yet his fiction remained stubbornly land-locked - until the sudden, late glory of his ninth novel. Its conception we owe to Duggleby. The drink-crazed billionaire lured Preen on to his crumbling wooden yacht and headed for the middle of one of the oceans, I am not sure which one, refusing to let the ageing author ashore until he had written a "tale of the sea". For the first three weeks, Preen cursed and sulked by turns, until he collapsed with a fever brought on by proximity to bilgewater. Once recovered, he set to his task, sitting at a worm-eaten escritoire on the orlop deck, lashed by tropical storms or possibly icy gales, depending upon the geography. The result was this brief 102-page spine-tingler in which guillemots confound the spluttering, pneumonia-racked narrator.
unnerved by wrens (1996)
Lothar Preen's final work of fiction is unreadable. Self-consciously "experimental", it was written in the space of five hours on the upper deck of a bus plying the route between some god-forsaken village full of priests and imbeciles and the hot air balloon launch station at Mustard Parva. By now a cantankerous and bitter old man, Preen was estranged from Duggleby and his tough sailor pals. Even the loyal Marigold Chew (1955-1998) was fed up to the back teeth with him. In a previously unpublished letter written from her deathbed, Chew wrote:
"By then [i.e. the Year of Our Lord MCMXCVI] he was having constant pangs. His brow had become ignoble and his hair was often rife with breadcrumbs. He lacked dash. I would place pots of soup in front of his Cyclopean visage, only to discover him hours later wandering aimlessly around shops that sold or rented camping equipment. His blotchy flesh was blotchier still. He used to creak when he brushed those once-glistening teeth. I had thought them superb, long ago, those Preen-fangs. Must our gods be so frail? I suppose they must. And yet part of me wishes still to bless his cotton socks."
On St Mungo's Day 1997, on a glamorous morning bright with spangled sunbeams, Lothar Preen died. Like a dog.