Thursday, 22 January 2015

Families in Literature: The Corneliuses in The Cornelius Quartet by Michael Moorcock

From the 17th December 2014 to 9th January 2015, the Guardian ran a fantastic 'Families in Literature' series on their books blog, where various writers discussed their favourite fictional families. I sent them this unsolicited piece about the Corneliuses from Michael Moorcock's Cornelius books. They didn't publish it, so I have uploaded it here for fun.

For good and ill, our families hold such a large sway over us because they define our origins. While I've been fortunate enough to come from a nurturing and supportive background, many of fiction's most compelling families provide a much more dysfunctional environment. And the Corneliuses, from Michael Moorcock's Cornelius Quartet, are as dysfunctional as they come. Jerry Cornelius is an incarnation of Moorcock's Eternal Champion, a pansexual super suave super spy hipster, yet he is defined by his relationship to his family. The first Cornelius book, 'The Final Programme', sets the tone as Jerry leads a raid on his father's house to steal back his sister Catherine from his brother Frank. The incest love-triangle is just the start; Jerry accidentally murders Catherine and goes on a wild chase to get his revenge against Frank.
   The messy and tangled love-hate relationship between the Cornelius siblings allows Moorcock to throw both Jerry and Frank into stark relief in terms of their complementary characteristics and their symbolic nature. Jerry represents the forces of Chaos – he is an anarchic, destructive free spirit, as demonstrated by his psychedelic rock star flamboyance. Frank on the other hand, with his business suits and his neatly cut hair, represents the forces of Law – rigid, authoritarian and restrictive. Just as neither Law or Chaos are of themselves neither good nor evil, neither are Jerry or Frank; rather, they are two complimentary and opposing forces, each the other's shadow, one waxing as the other wanes, but neither can ultimately triumph over the other as they need each other to define themselves against. Moorcock casts the Cornelius brothers' obsessive and destructive sibling rivalry as the ever-shifting balance between the forces of Law and Chaos that define our interactions with ourselves and the world.
   Although Jerry's father, a great scientist and inventor, is defined only by his absence, in the third book in the sequence, 'The English Assassin', we meet Jerry's mum, Mrs. Cornelius. Mrs. Cornelius is larger than life, a lusty, foul-mouthed cockney woman who loves her food and her drink. Despite her crudeness and naivety, she genuinely loves and cares for her children, and her affection for Frank, Jerry and Catherine remains strong and sincere throughout all their violent feuds. She never judges and she never takes sides, and her death in 'The Condition Of Muzak' is one of the most affecting scenes in the series, all the more distressing for being the only death in the sequence to remain permanent.
   Throughout the Cornelius books, the Cornelius family is aided, abetted, attacked and hindered by its extended family, each of whom play their part in the symbolic tapestry of the books. There is Una Pearson, a suave female assassin and Jerry's and Catherine's on and off lover. There is Prinz Lobkowitz, who represents the fading European aristocracy, and Major Nye, a fusty old British gentleman who represents British Imperialism, and Mrs. Cornelius' lover, the miserable Russian Colonel Pyat. The later Cornelius books have an experimental structure, and feature these characters struggling, feuding and fighting with each other, forming and breaking alliances, all whilst desperately trying to out play each other. In writing the Cornelius books, Moorcock was influenced by the comedia dell'arte, with Jerry playing the role of Pierrot, the sad clown, while Catherine is Colombine, the lover he is always destined to lose to Una, who plays the part of the trickster Harlequin. The books follow the characters across alternate universes, as they play their complicated games of assassination, betrayal and murder, allowing the characters' symbolism to recombine and reconfigure in enlightening and seemingly infinitely possible arrays.
   Their shifting alliances and endless petty squabbling makes the extended Cornelius troop act and behave like a large, dysfunctional family, but this is also shown in their dependence on each other. Whatever we feel about our families, they are where we come from, and that will always be a part of who we are. Wherever Jerry, his family and his friends go in the multiverse, they always wind up recapitulating the same interactions and the same situations with the same people – each other. In 'The Condition Of Muzak', Jerry questions his own nature by exploring his place within the cast of characters. He spends much of the time in the book in a fugue, returning again to key moments from the previous books, or flitting about behind the scenes in the narrative dead space as various characters wait for the action to start. For all Jerry's supernatural charisma and sixties psychedelic coolness, he is only able to recapture his spark and enthusiasm, and achieve self-knowledge by discovering and accepting his place in his family.

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