Breakfast in the Ruins (novel)

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The second Karl Glogauer novel.

Publishing History (UK)

  • Hardcover, New English Library, 175pp., ISBN: 0-450-01196-8, 1972
  • Mass Market Paperback, New English Library, 175pp., ISBN: 0-450-02401-6, Mar 1973
  • Mass Market Paperback, New English Library, 175pp., ISBN: 0-450-04152-2, 1978, Cover by Joe Petagno

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Omnibus Publication (UK)

Publishing History (US)

  • Hardcover, Random House, ISBN: 0-394-49068-1, 1974
  • Mass Market Paperback, Avon, ISBN: 0-380-49148-6, 1980
  • Mass Market Paperback, Avon, ISBN: 0-380-49148-6, c.1987
  • Hardcover, Buccaneer Books, ISBN: 1-56849-086-0, January 1991 [unverified]

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The narrative structure that links the scenes and vignettes presented in Breakfast In The Ruins (also published under the title Breakfast In The Ruins: A Novel of Inhumanity in the UK) is unconventional, and some aspects of its form and content radically diverged from the mainstream conventions of post-WWII English-language novels prior to the date of its publication. While formulaic elements common to conventional novels — e.g., the tripartite plot structure (featuring segments of introduction, development, and conclusion) and the concepts of character and setting—are built into in the structure of the novel, such elements are often disguised or mutated. Simply put, it’s a taboo breaker.

The first and last chapters of this 19-chapter novel differ structurally from the 17 chapters that constitute the core of the book: the introductory and conclusive chapters are presented in a second-person narrative set in London in the year 1971 and describe a series of scenes in a linear, chronological order that proceed forward in time as the chapters progress toward their ends. These chapters are headed with newspaper excerpts that are presumably contemporaneous with the events described during the course of each chapter: the excerpt heading Chapter 1 is dated June 25th, and the excerpt heading Chapter 19 is dated June 26-27, 1971. This suggests that the events described within the entire novel all occur over one weekend of conventional time (see, e.g., a June 1971 calendar). However, the relationship between the chapter heads and the chapter narratives—like most aspects of Breakfast—is open to interpretation, and it should be recalled that the first edition of Breakfast published a famously fake notice about the death of its author that was undersigned by one of Mr. Moorcock’s pseudonyms, James Colvin.

Chapters 2 through 18 comprise the developmental portion of the novel; each chapter is itself composed of 4 sections.

  • Like chapters 1 and 19, each developmental chapter features a chapter head that is an apparently non-fictional prose quotation that is attributed to a source other than the author himself. However, the developmental chapter headings do not describe events that occurred in London in June 1971.
  • Also like chapters 1 and 19, each developmental chapter features a section devoted to Karl’s experiences in London in June 1971; in this portion of the novel, however, the 1971 sections are bifurcated within each chapter, and appear after the chapter head and before the “What Would You Do?” section that ends each of these chapters (see below).
  • The 1971 sections, which seem to progress along a chronological, linear (albeit fragmented) timeline from June 25 to June 27, cabin and contrast with the dreamtime travel sections that supply the core and title of each chapter. The dreamtime travel sections contain the lion’s share of both the novel’s narrative text and symbolic content, and their contents have been summarized and organized into the table that appears below.
  • The fourth section is the “What Would You Do?” (WWYD) question that ends each of the developmental chapters. The WWYD questions pose a “Morton’s fork” set of choices to the reader by projecting the reader into a melodramatic scene—i.e., between a rock and a hard place—in which he or she is the principal actor and must choose a single course of action from among a small set of highly unpleasant alternative courses of conduct. The scenes presented in the WWYD queries appear designed to challenge moral sensibilities that are likely to be held by the novel’s readers. Mr. Moorcock has noted that the WWYD sections in Breakfast are modeled upon WWYD queries that he had previously written (along with author Barrington Bayley) for the British magazine Boys’ World [1]. The WWYD inquiries depict scenarios separate and apart from those presented in the chapters in which they are found and do not feature characters found elsewhere in the novel. Rather, they are satires of the types of questions typically found at the ends of chapters in school textbooks that demand the direct participation of the reader and are designed to ensure that he or she has understood—and can recall—important concepts introduced by the preceding text.


The June 1971 narrative

On one of his routine, daydreaming afternoons in the Derry and Toms Roof Gardens, Karl Glogauer meets The Black Man who immediately commences his seduction of the Londoner, a man who evidently has never before been seduced by another man. As The Black Man gradually increases his verbal and physical contact with Karl as they share tea in The Gardens, Karl feels waves of a “not unpleasant sensation of weakness” (p. 18) sweep through him, until “(a)t last he understood the nature of the trap” (p. 19), and he voluntarily—if at first tentatively—engages in his first homosexual relationship.

As the Black Man begins making love to him in a hotel bedroom, Karl’s mind is transported to Paris during the Siege of 1871, where he assumes the role of a 7-year-old boy being raised by a 25-year-old mother, his father “probably killed fighting the Prussians at San Quentin” (p. 23). This transposition may have been made during a daydream, a full-sleep dream, a psychotic break, or a period of drug hallucination; the literal cause of this transposition—and the transpositions that occur over the next day or two—is never explained (for convenience, these transpositions are described as dreamtime travels throughout in this summary because the transition between Karl’s “Vietnam” self and his London 1971 self in Chapter 17 is explicitly a transition from a dreamlike state to a waking state). Regardless, Karl’s character is swept away to 17 flashpoints of social unrest and conflict between the years 1871 and 1990. With each dreamtime episode, Karl’s new character is older and more mature than his character in the previous episode; as noted above, the first dreamtime self that is described in Breakfast is age 7, and the last described therein (at Chapter 18) is 51. From the June 1971 narrative perspective, Karl dreams himself first backward, then forward in age and time during the course of his short relationship with The Black Man. “We protect ourselves in so many foolish ways,” says The Black Man to Karl, “...let the defenses drop and we discover that we are much happier” (p. 117).

For Karl, that relationship proves therapeutic: as it progresses from the sexual to the emotional, and as he dreams himself through time, Karl becomes more self-aware and increasingly able to recall the origins of the guilty conscience that has kept him from happiness, confidence and success. For example, after his second dream (of Brunswick, 1883), Karl recalls “the time I found the air-raid warden in bed with my mother. I remember her explaining it to my father. My father was a patient man.” (p. 39). For The Black Man, however, the relationship does damage to his sense of self and saps his spirit; as his time with Karl passes, the successful gallant diminishes in stature and self-possession until he is finally reduced to pleading with Karl to continue their affair. It is as if the weight of Karl’s psychological burdens are transferred to The Black Man even as The Black Man gives something of his best self to Karl, until it is shown to each—literally and metaphorically—that he is in shared possession of psychological and physical parts of the other.

Early in their weekend sex romp, The Black Man gives Karl a henna bath to give Glogauer's skin a brown hue (pp. 41-42, 45-46, see also As the hours pass, Karl notices that The Black Man has begun to use English-style slang, that The Black Man's skin is paler than it had first appeared, and that his companion has blue eyes and stained teeth. Thus, as the two men become more intimate, Karl becomes brown and comes to perceive The Black Man as something other than a “black” man. At one point, Karl notes that his hennaed skin is darker than that of his companion’s (p. 158). The suggestion here is that intimacy helps to remove veils of (fear-based) misperceptions held by Karl about his companion’s appearance and persona. Further, as Karl becomes darker, he acquires confidence and power. “Forget your guilts and your fears and you will be fulfilled”, The Black Man says to Karl, “…you could be anything you wanted to be” (p. 130).

At the end of Chapter 18, after Karl’s dreams have projected him into the future and provided him with a vision of the cosmic balance and his eternal nature, he has his “breakfast in the ruins.” Fresh from a dream of London 1990, where he has seen himself as a cannibal who, dying in his home, “will lie like a lizard, unmoving on the flat table, his rifle forgotten beside him” and who “will stare out at the ruins as if he has known them all his life, as if they, like him, are eternal” (p. 170), Karl awakens and breakfasts with The Black Man, who begs Karl to remain with him as his lover. His process of self-awakening accomplished, it is clear that Karl will choose to part ways with The Black Man. In the final chapter, Karl is depicted as a different man from the Glogauer of Chapter 1, a confident, outgoing and sociable man who is fully engaged in the contemporary world, running a “slender brown finger” (p. 173) down the racing page while handicapping a horse, then turning his mind to his plans for a new suit.

The dreamtime travel narratives

As noted above and below, chapters 2 through 18 feature scenes, stories and characters that are experienced by alternate Karls with lifetimes throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Each is a short story or vignette in itself. The most serviceable rationale for explaining why Karl is described as the protagonist of the stories and how the stories fit into the June 1971 narrative is that Karl perceives the alternate Karl stories during periods of dreaming sleep (however brief) during his hotel stay with The Black Man.

However, rationales addressing the placement of the stories into the overarching narrative are of lesser importance than is a consideration of the contents of the dreamtime travel narratives as individual stories and as a set of tales. As the settings of the stories advance through linear time, Karl’s protagonistic roles in the stories shifts from those of the victims, the oppressed, the conquered, and the servant classes to those of the victors, the oppressors, the conquerors, and the colonial masters. Roughly, the dreamtime narratives found in Chapters 2 through 5 depict Karl in the role of victim, while in Chapters 6 through 13 the various Karls learn survival techniques and how to become a victor rather than a victim, and in Chapters 14 through 18 Karl repeatedly adopts the role of oppressor.

As the dreamtime travel narratives progress, Karl’s other selves gain confidence strength, and ultimately a peace of mind, as his June 1971 self learns though waking experience to cultivate the same traits. As Chapters 18 and 19 show, however, the self-aware Karl of 1971 or 1990—possessed of vampiric or cannibalistic tendencies—is not a character likely to be described as a “good man” by conventional late 20th century/early 21st century standards. “Imagination is man’s greatest strength and yet it’s also his central weakness”, Karl tells The Black Man. “Imagination was a survival trait at first, but when it becomes overdeveloped it destroys him, like the tusks of a mammoth growing into its own eyes” (p. 126).

Following is a summary table of the dreamtime travel narratives.

Dream Site Dream Year Dream Age Dream Family Dream Summary Notes
Paris 1871 7 Mom 25; Dad 31 (missing) Karl, the son of a Communist, innocently causes the death of his mother, who is slain by loyalists in Karl's presence.
Brunswick 1883 8 Mom 31; Dad 40 Karl embarrasses his mother by conveying gossip told to him by his father to one of his mother's haughty acquaintances.
Capetown 1892 9 Mom age ?; Dad unknown Karl, a black African, has his butterfly collection destroyed by a drunken white man.
Havana 1898 10 Mom dead; Dad 51 Karl's father is a cigar manufacturer during the civil war against the Spanish government. Karl's brother, an insurgent, is tortured by the police, causing young Karl to enlist in the cause of the rebels.
London 1905 11 Mom 30; Dad 35 Karl's family are Jewish emigres to England, having escaped a pogrom in Poland; in London, the family works in a sewing sweatshop. Karl becomes embroiled in a conspiracy amongst immigrant Communists, including Kovrin and Pesotsky, and when the plot is discovered by undercover Russian security agents, the sweatshop is bombed, an even which blinds Karl's mother. Karl then kills Pesotsky, loots the corpse for gold and recommends to his father that the family flee to the US.
Calcutta 1911 12 Mom & Dad dead Karl is an early-adolescent, black-market middleman who facilitates a wide variety of criminal activities. A sailor named Mr Marsden tries to steal hemp from Karl and is made to suffer for the attempt.
Thann 1918 13 Mom 29; Dad dead (WWI) Karl "is now the provider for his mother and his aunt. The war continues…While it continues, Karl will survive" (p. 96). Karl spends his days with a found rifle, sniping animals for food and men for loot.
Kiev 1920 14 Mom & Dad dead (terrorism) Karl has joined the army of Nestor Makhno (Feodor von Bek in the Phoenix Omnibus version), the anarchist, which has provided him a machine gun. He accompanies Makhno's crew of nihilists on its destructive cavort across Russia.
NYC 1929 15 Mom 40; Dad 42 Karl's father is president of a large US investment trust shortly before the great stock market crash; he gives Karl a Ford Coupe for the boy's 15th birthday. On the date that ends his virginity, Karl encounters his father at a speakeasy while his on a date with a young woman who is not Karl's mother.
Shanghai 1932 16 Mom 42; Dad 50 Karl is German by birth; his family relocated to Shanghai in 1930. Riding in a Rolls Royce Phantom while on a shopping trip during a riot, Karl and his mother witness Japanese police brutalize a Chinese man in the open street.
Ethiopia 1935 17 Mom & Dad "gone" Karl, a Jew who has escaped Nazi Berlin and lives in Italy under a Christian surname, has been conscripted into Mussolini's army. In combat in Ethiopia, he is mortally speared and reflects upon his former, better life in Germany as he dies.
Auschwitz 1944 18 Mom dead & Dad probably dead Karl, a Jew, tries to survive the infamous death camp by playing violin in the prisoners' orchestra.
Tel-Aviv 1947 19 Mom & Dad dead (death camps) Karl, along with his uncle, has snuck out of Europe and into Palestine illegally, and joined the Irgun Tsva'I Leumi, "pledged to drive the British out of Palestine…It was time the Jews turned. There would never be another pogrom against the Jews that was not answered in kind. It was the only way" (p. 138). Alongside his friend David, he grenades a British jeep patrol and informs the only survivor of the blast of their intention to hang him and thereby send a message from the Jews to the Britons.
Budapest 1956 20 Mom & Dad dead (pogroms) Following WWII, Karl became a Communist party member and an informant for the Hungarian government's secret police service. A pragmatist, Karl breaks with the party, secretly, and tries to escape into Austria once the Russians invade his country. He is shot to death during his escape attempt.
Kenya 1959 21 Mom 45; Dad 47 Karl's family is Jewish; they emigrated to London prior to WWII and Anglicized their surname to Gower. Karl is in the 5th year of a 7-year tour of duty in the English army, and in his 2nd year of station in Kenya during the Mau-Mau uprising. He is on assignment to a "special Intelligence team working with the Kenya police" (p. 151). A working-class bigot, Karl keeps an Indian girlfriend in Nairobi and spends his working hours as an interrogator--i.e., torturer--of African natives who are suspected to possess useful information.
Vietnam 1968 22 Mom & Dad 45 Karl is in the US Army and has been stationed in Vietnam for 5 months. On a mission to clear Viet Cong out of Son Lon, his platoon berserks and rapes, pillages and massacres the entire village. Karl is a wilful participant in the chaos, which he comes to regret immediately afterward. He is then reprimanded by Sergeant Grossman for his unmanly display of emotion.
London 1990 51 Mom & Dad dead In a post-apocalyptic cityscape, Karl is unemployed and has been on the hunt for human flesh after his return home from military and mercenary service abroad. Dying of hunger and disease, he comes to realize the eternal nature of himself and the ruins around him.

Interpretive notes

  • Breakfast is a provocative novel that substantively encourages the reader to disregard social conventions and taboos associated with conventional conduct and thought. It challenges literary conventions as well, and is clearly designed to cause readers to question conventional conceptualizations of (and conventional limits to the concepts of) character, race, sex, virtue, heroism, time, and self, among others. In this sense, the WWYD questions have a thematic, if not literal, relationship to the scenes and stories involving Karl and/or The Black Man. The WWYD questions are constructed in such a manner as to force the reader to consider difficult, crisis situations in which easy (i.e., lazy) morality will provide little to no guidance. The questions, then, serve to puncture balloons of false security and superiority with may be used by the reader to cushion and hide his or her real moral sensibilities; with such prophylactics deflated, the reader may more clearly consider the development of Karl’s sense of self-awareness, for better or for worse.
  • For some readers, it may be worth noting that if the timeframe for the June 1971 storyline were no more than a few days, then it would not be dissimilar from the typical time duration of an LSD trip. The dialogue between Karl and The Black Man in chapters 2 through 5 suggests to this note-taker that their brief relationship may have been covalent with a shared psychedelic drug experience.
  • Perhaps the linear narrative involving The Black Man is a trompe-l’oeil that provides structural departure points for vignettes, presented as daydreams, that depict and explore the yin-and-yang relationships between victors and the vanquished, torturers and the tortured, and masters and servants.
  • When considering the relationship of the dreamtime travel selves to the June 1971 Glogauer, readers may also note that the Glogauer of the full-length novel version of BTM experiences migraine stress attacks during which he has hallucinatory episodes wherein he imagines himself as other selves; it is suggested that such episodes may signal a mild schizoaffective disorder (as the psychotic breaks are experienced by a depressed person and are concurrent with acute episodes of anxiety) well in advance of the severe decompensation that that Karl experiences in the desert after he has traveled (or believes he has traveled) to the era of Jesus the Christ. Just as it is possible for the reader of the novel version of BTM to infer that Karl’s time travel is a migraine-induced hallucination from which Karl does not awaken, the reader of Breakfast could easily interpret Karl’s transpositions to occur during a psychotic break from which—by the novel’s end at least—he does not recover.
  • A description of some of the opinions of that Karl that are found on the wikipedia summary of BTM are also worth considering when interpreting the meaning of the Breakfast Karl’s transformative experiences in the London hotel room: Monica teased him about the mildly hallucinatory alternate-self episodes that he would experience during his migraines, but Karl—ever the narcissist—was not dissuaded from wondering “at the accretions of other people’s personalities on his own”; drunk in a pub, he once commented, as Monica dragged him out, “’(e)very man’s life diminishes mine’” (p. 74, BTM).
  • The process that allows Karl to acquire strength and self-possession from The Black Man may simply be a kind of love, but it may also be what The Black Man calls “transincarnation”, a “religious” concept that is briefly mentioned by him, but nowhere overtly defined (p. 46).
  • Like many of the other Eternal Champion figures, the Glogauer of Breakfast becomes aware of his extraordinary skills (e.g., dreamtime travel) after he betrays or rebels against a member, or members, of his biological family and his native social conventions because the family member has followed conventional mores and engaged in a course of conduct contrary to the individual moral code held by the EC himself. Here, young Karl “betrayed” his mother by bearing witness to her adultery and forcing her confession of the act to his father. A subsequent divorce—or at least the subsequent abandonment of the mother and child by the father—is suggested. Karl’s adult recollection of the apparently suppressed childhood memory is an epiphany that is key to the flowering of his self in June 1971.
  • Readers may note that at the end of Chapter 5 Karl’s dreamtime self is provided a gun, and by Chapter 6, a different alternative self is relying upon a gun for protection. Karl’s chronic dreamtime reliance upon guns as sources of security may illustrate the character’s need for psychological crutches of phallic forms (see, e.g., Ch. 6, 8, 9). There is some suggestion that this need was created by the absence of a father figure: “(w)hen Karl was thirteen he met a man who claimed to be his father. It was in a public lavatory somewhere in West London. ‘I’m your dad,’ the man had said. His stiff penis had been exposed. ‘Are you still at school, lad?’ Karl had mumbled something and run out of the lavatory. He regretted his decision later because the man could have been his father, after all” (p. 96).
  • The relationship between Karl and The Black Man at points echoes the relationship between Elric and Stormbringer, and is suggestive of Carl Jung’s conceptionalization of the relationship between the Self and its Shadow. But in keeping with the novel’s thematic depiction of the dynamic transformation of individuals (and peoples) from victim to victor (and also, perhaps, how the cycle of trans-generational violence is perpetuated), the character of neither man sustains metaphoric comparison to either Elric or Stormbringer from the start to the finish of Breakfast. Karl shares several traits with Elric at the outset of the 1971 narrative, for example, but at its finale, he is more readily comparable to Stormbringer.
  • If one seeks to literally reconcile the existences of 3 different Karl Glogauer protagonists, perhaps it may help to consider the Karl Glogauers described in the 2 versions of BTM as 2 alternative selves perceived in the dreams of the Karl Glogauer of Breakfast. Alternately, one could imagine the Karl of the BTM novel hallucinating the experiences of the Karl of Breakfast. Ay yi yi…

Textual Revisions

Nestor Makhno was renamed Feodor von Bek and Pyat changed from an old Georgian to a young Ukrainian Jew in the Behold the Man and Other Stories omnibus (1994).

Mike Says

"The worst time I was dead I was doing a gig in Liverpool and the crowd seemed to be shouting 'You're dead', which I took to be well-deserved criticism. It turned out they had thought I was dead. This was partly my own fault since I had announced my own death (of lung cancer in Birmingham) in Breakfast in the Ruins."[2]

"It was a crucial book for me at the time and I didn't expect anyone to take the statement literally. I had decided that one of the things I had to do by the time I was thirty was to face the fact of my own mortality...I had seen too many writers I admired somehow stop at thirty and become self-imitating. I didn't want to do that if I could possibly avoid it. And there were some realities I felt I needed to face in my work. Fiction can be as much an escape for the writer as the reader and while I certainly have nothing against the escapist element in fiction -- indeed I demand it -- I also think there should be something else, some facing of reality, as I say. Something which steadies us and helps us remain courageous in the face of an often terrifying world. So I try to do both. It was probably a naive and sensational way of doing it in Breakfast in the Ruins and I'm sorry now for any problems I caused or inappropriate emotions I aroused!"[3]


  • Page numbers refer to 1st US hardcover edition


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