(John) Rayner Heppenstall Neil Hepburn - Essay

Neil Hepburn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The two moons of Rayner Heppenstall's title [Two Moons] are not the astronomical bodies that might imply a descent into Anglo-Vonnegutism, but those more familiar as patronising approximations of 'savage' speech—the periods of time that we call lunar months or lunations. The two in question are consecutive, those of August and September 1972; their phases frame the events of this extraordinary novel without restricting its temporal scope, which easily accommodates 50-year-old memories, as well as a 'writing present' about a year after the main events.

These events are not in themselves outstandingly strange or momentous. They concern the consequences of an accident—a fall in Croydon—to Lewis Atha…. [There is] a parallel personal tragedy, in which a young bellringer is killed travelling from work.

The method—presenting in close focus a series of fictional events against a background of real ones in long focus—is not new. Dos Passos's USA provides a precedent if not a provenance. What I think is new, in English fiction, is the way Mr Heppenstall has used this method to overcome the problems of representing in literary form Bergson's idea that 'the past is continually organised with the present'. To say that the two moons are consecutive is misleading: in Two Moons, they are concurrent, and represented as such by running the narrative and apparatus of the first lunation only on the left-hand pages of the book, and those of the second only on the right-hand pages, with the intention that they should be read in parallel. By reading, first, all-left, and then, all-right, you can frustrate this intention and produce a conventionally linear story.

The results are astonishingly successful. The contexting of Lewis's tragedy within a pattern of mundane violence produces a continually changing perspective on both; and this is again modified by the bringing into focus of the young bellringer's death, by the contingent interest developed by Harold Atha in campanology and by the detailed descriptions of astrological configurations at crucial points in the narratives. The apprehension of the interdependence, if not the simultaneity, of past, present and future is overwhelming. (p. 254)

Neil Hepburn, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1977; reprinted by permission of Neil Hepburn), August 25, 1977.