Today’s sermon: Sex and death – an excavated fragment

Sex and death. Death and sex. Firstly, let us pick as our guide through this collection someone who has experienced both things. Who would ask a virgin about sex? So why ask anyone but a corpse about death? And no one too recently departed, either. The less familiar with the works considered, the more intriguing their commentary is likely to be. We live in a world where sex is a commonplace, death a social faux pas. Let us go back, back, to when death was public, and sex a more private affair.

I found this fragment on my computer, in the storage folder where I keep my book reviews and associated writing. I was searching for something else, and it popped up. The file is titled ‘Sex and death’. It is dated 13 October 2003. I’ve got no idea what it was intended for. What ‘collection’? A prose anthology? Poetry? Patricia Duncker’s story collection Seven Tales of Sex and Death was published in that year, but I don’t think I had read that then. And in any case the reference to ‘works considered’ implies it’s something other than this.

Memory is obsessive-selective self-narration. The rest is work for archaeologists.

Start with a death: Szabó and Murdoch and the death scene opener

I’m just reading Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad, which opens with a death: Vincent, father and husband, has cancer, and his last hours are spent drifting in and out of consciousness in a clinic in Budapest. He dies with the first chapter: peacefully, with his wife holding one hand and a nurse, pretending to be his daughter, the other. I haven’t yet read further – it seems that his death is the premise for the rest of the novel: how Ettie, his widow, chooses to go on with her life without him – but it’s an affecting opening for a novel.

And a dramatic one: opening a book with a death has a way of sitting the reader up straight, putting them on alert. Death and the changes it effects are not things to be worked towards, that will be visible on the horizon, as we approach; they are the cold lake we find ourselves pushed into the moment we open the first page.

It made me wonder about other books that open with deaths: not with the death that has just happened (cf The Outsider, “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.”), but one that must be faced. There must be others.

But the one that sprang immediately to mind was Iris Murdoch’s Nun and Soldiers, which has as its opening scene a dialogue between Guy, who is dying, him too, from cancer, and ‘the Count’ (not really a Count, but a Polish émigré, and a great friend, almost a disciple, of Guy). Here is the first page:


‘Yes?’ said the Count.

The dying man shifted on the bed, rolling his head rhythmically to and fro in a way that had become habitual only in the last few days. Pain?

The Count was standing at the window. He never sat down now in Guy’s presence. He had been more familiar once, though Guy had always been a sort of king in his life: his model, his teacher, his best friend, his standard, his judge; but most especially something royal. Now another and a greater king was present in the room.

‘He was a sort of amateur, really.’

‘Yes,’ said the Count. He was puzzled by Guy’s sudden desire to belittle a thinker whom he had formerly admired. Perhaps he needed to feel that Wittgenstein too would not survive.

‘A naive and touching belief in the power of pure thought. And that man imagined we would never reach the moon.’

‘Yes.’ The Count had often talked of abstract matters with Guy, but in the past they had talked of so much else, they had even gossiped. Now there were few topics left. Their conversation had become refined and chilled until nothing personal remained between them. Love? There could be no expression of it now, any gesture of affection would be a gross error of taste. It was a matter of behaving correctly until the end. The awful egoism of the dying.

Continue reading

Unspeakable behaviour, of the very best kind: Ten fictional artists

“Tell me this,” says a character in Don DeLillo’s novel, Falling Man: “What kind of painter is allowed to behave more unspeakably, figurative or abstract?”

It would be easy enough to rack up examples on both sides, from fiction, no less than from real life. Novelists love artists as characters, after all. If books furnish a room, then artists furnish a novel – with their artworks, and their antics. You might say they are the perfect writer’s avatar: analogue, clown and straw man rolled into one. Their created work is so much more describable than prose, their creative act too. And they get to have models, some of them, to go to bed with.

My novel, Randall, is, in intention, an satirical and elegiac alternative history of Young British Artists and art world in general, and while writing it I’ve naturally collected a menagerie of other fictional artists, sometimes badly behaved, sometimes not, but all exemplary in the way they dramatize an aspect of human nature that is, by definition, out there.

fictional artists crop

The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Carey Continue reading

‘Randall': Randall, Randall, Randall…

Well, it’s been launched, and now it’s in the shops. Here’s what Foyles say, and you couldn’t ask for a better sell that than, could you?


Also up today is Q&A I did with Female First website. And I wrote a guest post for The Literary Sofa on setting my book in the art world.

And reviews are starting to appear: this one from the profane and anonymous BookCunt (so I’ll never get to thank her!) and another, with a pleasingly thorough unpacking of the art world aspects of the book, at The Literateur.

Its first print review came in The Sunday Telegraph, where Toby Lictig called it “both absurd and eerily believable… Gibbs’s novel is more than mischief: as with all the best lampoons, it dissects things that really matter and have gone awry.” (read full review)


‘Randall': Launch and treasure hunt

In a wonderful and utterly meaningless synchronicity, I hit my 100th post on this blog just as I launch my debut novel, Randall, published by the indie darlings of the UK literary scene, Galley Beggar Press.

Photo by Kit Caless, Influx Press
Photo by Kit Caless, Influx Press

We launched the book on the Tamesis Dock, a delightful boat-pub on the Albert Embankment. The book’s not officially published until 19 June, but there was the small matter of a World Cup to avoid.

The evening was a blast – thank you to everyone who came – and I had a good opportunity to realise that it’s been nearly thirty years since I’ve seriously given my signature some serious practice.

I occupied myself during the day by laying a treasure trail of sorts around London, leaving specially inscribed copies of the book at auspicious spots, as in offering to the departed ghosts of the YBAs. Here they are: Continue reading

Today’s sermon: In praise of the fave writer’s least good book

I’ve been enjoying the #bookaday posts on Twitter – originated by The Borough Press, and good for them for coming up with a genuinely fun, community-spirited project that – important, this – has a natural life span, and so won’t get stale.

But I was surprised to find people actually shying away from the Day 4 Challenge: “Least favourite book by favourite author” , because I thought it was a brilliant question. One, because it’s teasingly cruel, delivering a slap and a kiss in the same breath, if that’s not a horrendously mixed metaphor (it is), but also because it might be a question you’ve never actually consciously asked yourself. I know I hadn’t.

We so often think about our favourite things – favourite author, favourite author’s best book – whereas negatives are more general and nebulous: don’t like, end of.

And picking a least favourite book by a favourite author is a very good way of establishing what it is about them that we actually do like and admire. It can teach us something not only about them as a writer, but about us as a reader. Looking through the #bookaday tweets for today, each entry tells me two things about the tweeter. That’s a very neat and efficient way of learning about someone, and of expressing yourself. I like it. Continue reading

Today’s sermon: Seeing with Poussin’s eyes

This may be one of the most embarrassingly obvious aesthetic observations every made, but it occurred to me, the other night, as I enjoyed a late viewing at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, that to stand in front of a painting of a certain type – of a certain size and scale – is to become intimate with the artist in a very particular way. It is, and I gawped at myself as I thought this, to see with their eyes.

The gallery was quiet, I was there to see the Hockney prints, but took advantage of the near-total absence of people (not least children, not least my own children) to wander rooms I knew well, but at my own pace, and without distraction.

I was looking at a Poussin – it doesn’t really matter which one – and it occurred to me that I was standing in relation to it exactly as he had stood to paint it. It felt like my gaze was caught in some spectral zone, that my eyes were haunted by his, commanded by his, and that I was seeing what he had seen, centuries ago.

Can I explain this thought? Or rather: can I explain the feeling that it was somehow important?

It wouldn’t happen with music. It wouldn’t happen with prose, or poetry, or drama, or film, or dance – or even, really, sculpture.

To create the painting, the artist would have had to stand in relation to the canvas exactly where I was standing. When he lifted the brush the first time, he was standing where I stood. To see what he had created, and decide it was finished, ditto. Continue reading

Today’s sermon: ‘English words are slippery…’

English words are slippery, leaning on each other and on unspoken presences, on ghosts, for their meanings. Latin is so tightly woven that it barely needs punctuation, the relationships between words so clear that the order in which they come doesn’t matter. Life would be easier if we spoke Latin.

Aubrey says that social life in Ancient Rome was at least as complicated as in nineteenth-century Manchester. He says that no language is proof against what is not said, that people lie and, more interestingly, keep silent, in every tongue on earth, including Greek which is even more highly inflected than Latin. Anyway, the ghosts in English are what makes it interesting, those Viking and Norman presences floating about in our sentences and our poetry.

from Bodies of Light (Granta), pg 104, which I’ve just read and reviewed for Fiction Uncovered.

“People life and, more interestingly, keep silent, in every tongue on earth.” I love that. I love the idea that silence is different in different languages, because what is absent is different – what is absent is the meanings of the words left unspoken. Of course, there are different types of silence, and you might say that some silences achieve a kind of trans- or superlingual equivalence or identity, but still… but, still.


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