Gordon Burn: various monsters

fullsizeoutput_db3Last night I went to the Lexington, Islington, for ‘Fullalove’, a celebration of the work of Gordon Burn, ten years after his death. Burn is an important writer for me – or rather, some of his books have been very important to me. The people up on stage to say the same thing, and prove it, were: Cosi Fanni Tutti, Adelle Stripe, David Keenan and Paul Pomerantsev. They were introduced by Burn’s former editor at Faber & Faber, Lee Brackstone, and followed by a soundscape-and-reading by none other than Andrew Weatherall.

The simple but effective set-up was that the four writers – all of whom have either been nominated for the Gordon Burn prize, or been a judge on it – were asked to read us an extract of one of their books, and another from one of Burn’s books, of their choice. They all read well, and chose interesting selections, but my reason for wanting to write this up on the blog was to record the thoughts that occurred to me, as I watched and listened, about Burn, violence and ‘true crime’.

When I say I’ve read Burn, what I mean is that I’ve read (most of) the novels: Alma CoganFullalove and Born Yesterday – plus some of the art writing, and the interview book with Damien Hirst. (For the bizarre relationship between Burn’s collaborations with Hirst and my debut novel, Randall or The Painted Grape, see here.)

What I haven’t read is the narrative non-fiction: neither the books about sport (Pocket Money and Best and Edwards) nor those about serial killers (Happy Like Murderers and Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son). This is for the very simple reason that I’m not that interested in either of those subjects – and in fact I have what might call a visceral antipathy towards the ‘true crime’ genre. I hate it. It makes me squirm. The idea of it makes me sick. The idea of the people who read that shit makes me sick. I don’t want any part of it, and I certainly don’t want to be like them.

Now, I know that Burn’s writing about Sutcliffe and the Wests is different to your average ‘Free binder with Part III’ lip-smacking, faux-appalled, entirely egregious example of the form, but still I haven’t read them, though Happy Like Murderers sits on my shelf. But what struck me, last night, which seems entirely to Burn’s credit, is that, of the writers on stage, it was the two women who chose to read from these books about the very worst kind of – absolutely, specifically – misogynistic murderers.

Tutti started the evening with a reading from her memoir Art Sex Music about her abusive relationship with Genesis P-Orridge, in which he kicks her in the crotch and throttles her when she tells him she’s leaving him. She then went straight on to read from Happy Like Murderers, telling how Fred West forced Rosemary to have sex with other men, watching, controlling and beating her. The similarities are obvious, such that, a day later, I’m not entirely sure which incidents were from which book. Tutti read calmly and clearly – almost placidly. It was the first time I’d heard her read, and it wasn’t at all what I expected: nothing ‘performance art’ about it, and a far cry from punk or Dada, but devastating nonetheless. Hirst in his interview with David Peace at the start of Sex & Violence, Death & Silence, talks again and again about Burn’s economy, and that’s certainly something Tutti shares with him.

The final reading of the evening was from Adelle Stripe, who read from and talked about Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, which she described as an incredibly important book for her (especially in writing her novel about Andrea Dunbar, Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile) but also for the cultural history of Yorkshire. Her Burn extract described Sutcliffe’s attack on Maureen Long, in July 1977, whom he left for dead, but who survived – and who was friends with Dunbar. Stripe then read a section from her own book in which the two women discuss the Ripper attacks.

The appeal of Burn’s books, to me, is not that they so deliberately stalk the dark parts of human life, but that they do so so humanely. The tape in Alma Cogan, the attacks in Fullalove – and, presumably, huge swathes of the non-fiction books – are grim almost beyond comprehension, but they are not there to titillate. There is no love of violence buried deep in Burn’s work, as there can be when people are writing about – ‘exploring’ – the dark, vicious, horrific side of life. Of course happiness writes white, and Milton was of the Devil’s party and did not know it, and we all love a monster, and to say that depicting violence breeds violence is facile in the extreme, but there is a point when interest in this stuff becomes pathological, or fetishistic.

When people are fascinated by violence, and serial killers, it’s hard not to wonder how much love is mixed up in the horror. If anything, what Burn is most interested in is the point where ones tips into the other. He is not interested in what is on the tape in Alma Cogan. He is interested in the man who collects it. He’s not interested in Myra Hindley, but in why we’re interested in her. He’s not interested in the darkness, but in our seeming need for the darkness, as a corollary to the bright light of celebrity, etc.

The third reader of the night was David Keenan, who read brilliantly from Pocket Money, then read equally brilliantly from his second novel, For the Good Times, set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. It was a passage in which the narrator witnesses a brutal, callous sectarian murder. It was well written and, as I say, well read, and while there are aspects of Keenan’s other novel (This is Memorial Device) that seem to me genuinely in the spirit of Burn, I don’t think this was. A quick online search on Keenan brings up an interview in which he says, “This is not a book specifically about the IRA and the Troubles. In a way that’s the backdrop. One of the big things I wanted to talk about is masculinity and violence, and how these cycles are perpetuated through fathers and sons.” Which is admirable, but the passage he read came across as at least as fascinated with the violence on display as with the sociology behind it.

I’m not quite sure what I’ve tried to reach for in this brief post. It was mostly that: that Tutti and Stripe read from Burn’s books about serial killers, and Keenan read a passage about a psychotic killer, and I’m pretty damn sure that Burn would never have written a scene like that.

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May/June Reading: Porter, Moshfegh, St Aubyn, Hudson, Hiraide, Tanizaki, Benedetti, Jemisin

fullsizeoutput_d81In truth I’m far too tired to write cogently about books, but the Conservative Party leadership election debate is on television and if I don’t sit and try to bash this out now, I’ll only sit following it on Twitter. So I have this pile of books next me – read during May and the first half of June – and Tiger Bay (Tapestry) playing on my laptop, and a small glass of leftover bourbon, and I’m going to see what comes up.

Lanny I read in sunny May, sitting on a slope above a football pitch, while my son trained ahead of a Sunday league final his team ultimately lost. I’d had the book sitting on the windowsill by my desk for a while. It hadn’t particularly grabbed me the few times I’d picked it up – not like Max Porter’s astonishing debut, Grief is the Thing With Feathers, which I remember reading in proof on a train journey from London to Norwich, tweeting as I went (this is just the start of a thread):

 

Dead Papa Toothwort didn’t grab me the way Crow did, nor did I particularly care for the curlicues of found or overheard text from the village that spiralled across the pages – spot on though they were in their surgical skewering of the worst of English parochialism. (It reminded me, too, of Will Eaves’s equally many-voiced, equally ventriloquistic The Absent Therapist.)

Things settled down though, once Lanny and his parents and good old Pete the scruffy, hip, half-retired, half-hermit artist elbowed their way into the narrative and Porter began to show what he’s really good at (apart from springing poetry live from the forehead of prose sentences: can we take that as a given?): the cool, drifting, seductive dynamics of middle-class family life.

So: the growing trusting friendship between Pete and the loveable oddball Lanny; the raw, touching concern of Lanny’s mother for her child, wanting to protect and nurture what is unique and characteristic about him, but fearing what price the world will extract from him because of it; the forgivable awfulness of Lanny’s dad; the almost flirtation between his mother and Pete, that really might just be a genuine mutual sympathy. But in a small village, in any small community, who can tell? Continue reading

April Reading: Brophy, O’Brien, Poschmann, Schweblin, Maarouf

Just as much of my reading in March was centred around Iris Murdoch, April was all about Brigid Brophy. I had given a paper at a conference a couple of years ago in which I considered her writing about sex in her 1962 novel Flesh, and now I had the opportunity to expand what I said (and firm it up) for a chapter in an academic book about Brophy.

This meant rereading Flesh, and going back to The Snow Ball, the 1964 novel that is the book of hers that I’ve read the most often – it gave the structural underpinning to my newest novel, The Lage Door. It also meant taking another look at Brophy’s non-fiction writing, both the brilliant, incisive journalism (collected in Don’t Never Forget, Baroque & Rolland the quasi-best-of Reads) and her frankly overwhelming standalone books, Black Ship to Hell and Prancing Novelist. It seems astonishing that, given the size of these books, that she managed to restrict or restrain herself when it came to fiction. Those novels are beautifully short. I have never tired of reading Brophy’s fiction, or at least the novels referred to above, and King of a Rainy Country. I urge them regularly on everyone I talk to about books, and don’t mind if it bores people.

Also read for the essay: The Country Girls, by Edna O’Brien, which I don’t think I’d ever read before. This was a delightful read, but it has already started to evaporate. Well, I read it quickly, and with half an eye on its use in my argument, but I’d happily carry on and read the other two books in the trilogy. I haven’t read any other O’Brien, although I saw her read from The Little Red Chairs a while back, which is also on my shelves, unopened.

I’ve also been reading some books from the Man Booker International Prize long- and short-list. I read the two story collections on the longlist – Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds and Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf – ahead of talking on the podcast to accompany the announcement of the shortlist. Both interesting, though I’m less taken with Schweblin’s stories than the longer Fever Dream, though that I found less effective the longer it went on. Books in translation, and books from foreign countries – some of them – need more context than the bare translation can give us. There is no shame, I think, in saying this. It comes down the Rumsfeldism of known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Jokes for the Gunmen is domestic and absurdist, and I cannot know to what that extent that absurdism lies in my lack of understanding of life in Beirut, where Maarouf grew up, or to what extent it is coming across truly.

Having previously read (and adored) Annie Ernaux’s The Years and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (which I didn’t), I also read Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands, translated by Jen Calleja. This is a quite wonderful novel, that I want to reread, more slowly. It is a poetic response, a European response, to traditional Japanese ideas of nature, death and permanence, in which a German academic flees home and his wife (who he is convinced, on the basis of a dream, has been unfaithful to him) to fly to Japan. He falls in with a suicidal young man and together they embark on a short, unlikely road trip, to explore whether Yosa should or should not kill himself, and where. Japan is where we (I, Poschmann’s Gilbert) locate our favourite paradoxes of modernity and classicism, ephemerality and permanence, and Poschmann plays with and against these brilliantly. It reminded me, for obvious reasons, of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s ‘Marie’ novels, though Gilbert is a more comical creation, and less cool. But I loved it and what to read it again. I have now started The Remainder, by Alia Trabucco Zerán.

2019 was supposed to be the year of reading Proust. I have finished two volumes and the third sits by my bed, but my head is not ready for it yet. It may have to wait for summer.

As always, there have been short stories, including Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior (now a Penguin Modern Classic), Tatyana Tolstaya (new to me) and David Means (not so). I’m not ready to write about these, I think. My brain is quite scattered at the moment. This month has seen the publication of my second novel, The Large Door, and I’ve just started writing something new, different and unexpected. And then there’s reading for my lecturing work. Possibly just now the strain of focusing on Murdoch, Brophy, my own writing and work has meant that I’m not able to fully dedicate myself to any book, no matter what it is.

Aetherial Worlds (Daunt), Instructions for a Funeral (Faber), Bad Behavior (Penguin) and The Pine Islands (Serpent’s Tail) come courtesy of the publishers. Thank you.

March Reading: Murdoch, basically

I read other things in March, but mostly these were rereads of books I’ve been teaching on the novel-writing MA at St Mary’s, Twickenham, and short stories picked up from A Personal Anthology.

Mostly, though, I was reading and rereading Iris Murdoch ahead of a panel discussion with Alex Clark and Catherine Taylor at the Cambridge Literary Festival this weekend. It was a lively and stimulating hour’s talk, and only solidified my sense that she was, above all, a hugely accomplished novelist.

After a somewhat shaky start, my recent run of Murdoch novels has been one of unalloyed reading joy. Here, then, are some comments worked up from notes I made ahead of the talk:

Crazy plotting – and lack of interest in M’s biography

I’ve not read any of John Bayley’s books about Murdoch and, while I’ve read (some of) Peter J. Conradi’s biography, I didn’t find it particularly illuminating, and didn’t finish it. (I prefer his critical book, The Saint and the Artist.) I certainly didn’t find much to treasure in the recently published book of letters, Living on Paper, very well edited though it was. (My review here.) Basically, I’ve never really found anything in Murdoch’s biography that deepened my understanding or increased my enjoyment of the novels. The novels are enough.

Perhaps the novels’ crazy, precipitate, highly compressed plotting –  usually taking place over a matter of days or weeks – is an attempt to make sense of the much bigger chaos of her life.

That’s all that art is, after all: an attempt to impose order on – or draw order out of – chaos.

An exchange from Stoppard’s Arcadia, that could be taken as explicatory:

HANNAH. The weather is fairly predictable in the Sahara.

VALENTINE. The scale is different but the graph goes up and down the same way. Six thousand years in the Sahara looks like six months in Manchester, I bet you.

The plotting in Murdoch is overtly theatrical: Shakespearean, or Restoration Comedic. She gathers a small-ish cast in a contained setting, or series of settings, and sends them bouncing around like molecules in an ever-tighter compression chamber.

How often in our lives do we have had someone knock on our door, unannounced, to deliver good or bad news, let alone tell us that they love us? It happens a lot in Murdoch’s novels. But, as I say, this shouldn’t be taken as a realistic reflection of everyday life, but as the compression of a life’s worth of living into a short, ecstatic and exemplary period.

Morality in a post-religious, post-Freudian age

Morality has many arenas in which it can play out, yet in Murdoch it plays out most usually in the arena of sexual relationships – through the questions of right love, adultery and faithfulness.

You can’t be true to God any more, since He doesn’t exist, but you can (or can not) be true to your wife, husband or lover. God is no longer the authority you must answer to, but Freud.

“The disappearance of God does not simply leave a void into which human reason can move. The death of God has set the angels free. And they are terrible.”

“The angels–?”

“There are principalities and powers. Angels are the thoughts of God. Now he had been dissolved into his thoughts which are beyond our conception in their nature and their multiplicity and the power. God was at least the name of something which we thought was good. Now even the name has gone and spiritual world has scattered. There is nothing any more to prevent the magnetism of many spirits.”

From The Time of the Angels, which I recently read for the first time. It is a stunning example of Murdoch’s process. It is also the darkest of her novels that I’ve read. No surprise that it was followed by The Nice and the Good, which is one of the lightest and most joyous, out-leavened only by The Sandcastle.

Sympathy for all her characters

We are all each other’s antagonists.

Even Carel, surely the blackest of all her characters, is presented sympathetically.

Addictive

The novels (the best of them) are so expertly constructed, deploying their elements and then entangling them and setting these in conflict with each other, that they at times seem like exercises in counterpoint. John Gardner talks about the novel as symphony. These are not that, but they at times seem like a miraculous two- or three-part invention. Chamber music, played at double speed – like something from Switched-on Bach.

Compulsively rather than carefully written

Someone (Conradi?) talks about Murdoch’s refusal to slow down her novel writing, even if that might have improved her work. (She wrote 26 novels over a period of 41 years – a novel every 18 months!)

No. She wanted to work through a particular problem. When she had done this, it no longer interested her. On to the next one.

Masculine considerations

Might it have been an aspect of her success, considering the times in which she lived and published, that she seemed happy to explore ‘universal’ human concerns through male protagonists?

Many of her protagonists are middle-aged men, or older, who seem to have no problem in having much younger women fall in love with them. Male writers get hauled over the coals for this. Murdoch, not so much.

(Obviously, she treated male homosexual characters seriously, when it was not usual to do so.)

Beautifully clear prose

The descriptions of buildings and houses, of woodland and landscape, of rivers and lakes and the sea. The descriptions of fog.

The insistence, too, on describing complex physical actions: the car slowly falling into the river in The Sandcastle; the rescue by putting a ladder out of a window, also in The Sandcastle; the lifting of the bell in The Bell; the adventure in the cave in The Nice and the Good.

The idea that these might be intended as analogues for the concrete descriptions of abstract mental states.

Tell don’t show

The lack of interest in the free indirect style/close third person.

If the contemporary literary novel is often interested above all in the nature of consciousness, and invested in the ability of prose to blur the lines between character and the perceptual world (a phenomenological aesthetics), then Murdoch has no interest in either of these things. She sees the world clearly. She sees the insides of her characters’ minds equally clearly. She keeps both separate.

Favourites

At the end of the session, Alex asked us all to name our favourite Murdoch. I was expecting Catherine to say The Black Prince, about which she had written a marvellous essay in the Brixton Review of Books. But she said The Flight from the Enchanter (which didn’t bowl me over; I need to revisit it). So I said The Black Prince, only for Alex to say that that was what she had been going to choose. So I chose A Severed Head instead, though kind of wishing that I could also have had The Nice and the Good.

Basically, of the Murdochs I’ve read, here are the ones that I feel are definite successes, perhaps in a kind of order:

  • The Sea, The Sea
  • The Black Prince
  • A Severed Head
  • The Nice and the Good
  • The Bell
  • The Time of the Angels
  • The Sandcastle

And these are the ones I’ve not been so impressed with:

  • Nuns and Soldiers
  • The Italian Girl
  • Under the Net
  • The Flight from the Enchanter
  • An Unofficial Rose

Late Murdoch?

(By the way, I popped into Kirkdale Books this afternoon, and asked Roland – who read all of Murdoch, in order, a year or two ago – how far through you could get before the novels starting getting, well, not very good.  He said that, of the late books, The Good Apprentice and The Book and the Brotherhood were certainly not to be dismissed. The three that came after – The Message to the Planet, The Green Knight and Jackson’s Dilemma – were all essentially flawed.)

Murdoch and me

So, many thanks for Alex and the Cambridge Literary Festival for inviting me. Oh, and why did they do so? Well, because of my recently published novel, The Large Door, which features epigrams from Murdoch and her friend, lover and sparring partner, Brigid Brophy, and a sort of joint dedication. Which epigrams did I choose? Well, you’ll have to buy the book to find out.

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February Reading: Proust, Beckett

fullsizeoutput_c14I finished In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower a couple of days into March, this being the second volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in the translation by James Grieve, which means I’m not quite reading a book a month. I’m also reading not much else. As I said in last month’s post, reading Proust at any time, but especially at bedtime, is slow going. Picking up an Iris Murdoch novel – I’m trying to tick another one or two off before taking part in a panel discussion at the Cambridge Literary Festival next month – I find that I zip through double or even triple the number of pages.

The other books in the photograph are by Samuel Beckett, whose abstruse essay on Proust I’ve been glancing at at work, more in hope of the odd brief flint-like spark of understanding than of any general illumination. I turned to ‘The End’, collected with ‘The Expelled’ and other “novellas”, following the introduction to this story by Daragh McCausland in his Personal Anthology. (If you don’t know this online project, run by me, then check it out here.)

Daragh called it “a masterpiece”, and I’m afraid it didn’t seem so to me. Perhaps I read it too quickly, but I found it unrewarding, dark and constipated, and not shot through with any lyricism to speak of. Which is not to contradict Daragh, who wrote wonderfully about Beckett’s favourite short fiction, but to note my unsureness when it comes to this writer.

The late, spare stuff – the bleached bones of thought – is great, but can scarcely be read: like koans, they are there to be looked at and contemplated, not imbibed and processed as we do with most prose. And the “early, funny” stuff is great in its own way, if you ignore Beckett’s self-immolating hermeneutic diversions, the bonfires he makes of his own intellectual vanity. But ‘The End’ seems to me to fall between those two stools. He has sloughed off the early, conflicted attempts at connecting with the reader, and is telling stories of disconnection instead, but hasn’t yet built that rejection into the form of the writing.

So I turned to Murphy, right in the middle of my Proust, wondering if I would still get from this what I have done in the past. It was a quick check-in: is this still good? Do I still get it?

(This is a permanent aspect of reading that doesn’t show up in these blog posts. We’re always glancing into previously read work, as well as those unread, those come newly into the house. This month, for instance, I read a few pages of the Patrick Melrose novels, after watching the first episode of the Cumberbatch-starring adaptation, which was very good, if you ask me. The novels, of course, are splendid, already part of the literary landscape, with a status of their own quite disconnected from their author. I must re-read them, I think, leaving the book on a surface, where it sits for days or weeks before being reluctantly reshelved.)

(February also featured a certain amount of reading for the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize, about which I hope to write another blog post.)

So Murphy. I picked it up to check, then thought: I can read this, now, if I read it quickly. It’s a book to go through you like a dose of salts. It is perhaps the prose work by Beckett that most taunts the reader with the idea of what he could have produced, had he been of a more amenable disposition, had he accepted the role of writer as, among other things, entertainer. Continue reading

January Reading: Proust, Holloway

fullsizeoutput_bdcMy Monthly Reading posts might start to look a bit same-y this year as, sometime between Christmas and New Year, I decided to read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I had taken a few stabs at the first volume in the past, but not successfully. It occurred to me that:

  1. I’d never actually read it unless I committed to it, and that a New Year’s Resolution is as good a way as any of forcing the issue
  2. the Christmas holidays was a good time to start, as I actually had large chunks of time to read, and the headspace to concentrate, both of which are basic prerequisites when it comes to Proust

I decided on two further tactics to strengthen my resolve: I would annotate my beautiful Penguin Allen Lane hardbacks* and I would keep a Twitter diary of the experience.

*An aside: Buying the lovely 2002 Allen Lane** edition hardbacks (picking them up for cheap as and when I saw them) was my previous best attempt at making myself read the novel. It failed.

**Another aside. I don’t really have the time or expertise to get into the Proust translations debate. I’ll note here that I also have the very, very lovely three-volume Penguin Classics hardback set of the unrevised Scott Moncrieff translation, but it’s not to hand just now.

The Twitter account @ProustDiary I’ve found useful and fun to do. There is a major practical problem I’ve run into, however, in that, once I got out of Christmas holidays into real life, my Proust reading has largely been relegated to bedtime, and I’m a strong believer in no phones at the bedside. It’s not just that you might get distracted by Twitter itself; it’s also that the process of translating vague readerly thoughts to brilliant 280-character apophthegms is one that does fundamental damage to the basic bedtime routine, that gentle slide towards sleep which books are so good at.

Which raises the interesting point of whether Proust is good to read at bedtime? Well, despite the pleasing echo it gives to both the content and composition of the novel, the answer has got to be No.

Or let’s think about that again. It’s a book that, in its syntactic extravagance and complexity, can act as an effective soporific. Those long, boring (yes, it’s true) paragraph-long sentences that never quite seem to want to end, enact the very process of the heading-towards-sleep brain, coiling down into the psychological depths where, strangely, in Proust, nothing actually seems to matter much, and it’s no great leap to give up on consciousness altogether.

In order to enjoy, or appreciate, the book, you need to be properly awake, and alert. I’ve found myself going back pages to pick up where I left off the previous night, as I simply had no idea what I’d been reading, dipping in and out of sleep, in and out of wakefulness.

***Another aside: I absolutely love that odd sensation you get sometimes when you’re dropping off, and switching (though that’s too abrupt) between wakefulness and a form of dream-state that isn’t fully dreaming, isn’t lucid dreaming, but where you have if not quite full control over your thoughts, then certainly a greater surface access to them . As it happens, last night I read Julio Cortázar’s clever, chilling story ‘The Night Face Up’, following its recommendation in Armel Dagorn’s Personal Anthology, and a brilliant evocation of this experience it is, too!

So I do encourage you to take a look at my @ProustDiary account. It has things in it like this:

and this:

and this: Continue reading

‘The Large Door’: where do you get your ideas?

My second novel, The Large Door, is published by Boiler House Press in April 2019. You can read more about it and sign up for updates here.

I remember exactly where I was when I had the idea for this book – or rather where the two ideas collided that made it possible. I was walking down the Mile End Road in Norwich after sitting in the library researching a conference paper on Brigid Brophy, a C20th British writer I had become a little obsessed by.

In the three years from 1962 to 1964 Brophy published three utterly brilliant short novels that I thought had rather slipped off the literary map: Flesh, The Finishing Touch and The Snow Ball. It was The Snow Ball that I was particularly enamoured of – a dark, sparkling and death-obsessed sex comedy set between midnight and dawn at a masked New Year’s Ball as close in spirit to C18th Vienna as Swinging London. It is unashamedly intelligent, psychologically acute and serious as hell about love and sex, all while whipping along the line of its narrative like a dancer in a drunken gavotte. Why didn’t anyone write books like that anymore, I thought, which naturally slipped far too quickly into the dangerous thought: hell, I will write a book like that!

And then, walking through the Norwich night, I realised I had the material to do it: a short story set over 24 hours at an academic conference, with an arch and unbiddable female protagonist very much in the vein of The Snow Ball‘s Anna. ‘Festschrift’ had been published by Susan Tomeselli in her excellent journal Gorse, and then picked by Nick Royle for one of his Salt Best British Short Stories anthologies, but expanding that 8,000-odd-word story to the length of a short novel shouldn’t be too much trouble, should it? The title, that had been lying around for about 20 years, and I also remember the moment when the decision to use it became absolutely fixed, when a particular sentence set itself down on the page.

During the time I’ve worked on the text, ripping it apart and building it back up, I’ve also been trying to read as much as possible of – and, in a way, to triangulate – three British writers who to my mind bestride the second half of the last century: Brophy, and the far better-known Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark. I’ve read most of Brophy, and about half of Spark’s novels, and a third of Murdoch, and I find that, together, they map a set of approaches to writing fiction that I find irresistible. How to dive headfirst into your characters’ moral quandaries, like Murdoch, and wallow in them? Or how to hold them at arm’s length, like the divinely ambivalent Spark. In a sense, Brophy splits their difference: as involved in her characters as Murdoch, but able to dismiss them with a Sparkish turn of the wrist when need be.

The Large Door, in a sense, is the result of that reading, and thinking. Of course there are plenty of other concerns in the book, thoughts that occurred to me on the journey and got Hoovered up: how to make use of text message communication in prose fiction; how to make the mechanics of an academic conference (keynote speech, panel, workshop) remotely interesting; the desire to find a way to punch through the page of the novel – break the fourth wall, in theatrical terms – without resorting to the usual tired postmodern gestures.

But in essence the book is a serious attempt to do what Brophy did, time and time again, and Murdoch and Spark, in their different ways: put serious characters at the heart of a comedy. They all three of them write tragic-comedies, I suppose – comedies in their structure, in the artifice of their narrative devices, but tragedies in their temperament, in the way that you feel an abyss would open up under the characters if only they once looked down. I fell in love with Brophy’s Anna, as much as I’ve ever fallen for a fictional character, and that’s the challenge I set myself: to write a character that, for all their foibles and – say it! – unlikeableness, other people might fall in love with in turn.

December reading: Murdoch, Sage, Kinch

img_1955I read three great books in December: The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch, Bad Blood by Lorna Sage and Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness by Simon Kinch. All three were picked up in charity shops, and although the Lorna Sage had probably been sitting on my shelves for a year or so, I’ve just spotted that I had another copy that had been there for far longer, equally unread. The other two sped quickly shop-to-read. This question of what gets read when, and why, is one that continues to preoccupy me.

I have little to say about the Sage. It is a great memoir, a great piece of writing that takes the form of a memoir. It is lucid in its evocation of an upbringing that seems to have been usefully awful, and surprisingly placid in its telling, all things considered. The monster at the centre is Sage’s grandfather, a philandering vicar, who, nevertheless, had a deep connection with his granddaughter. Perhaps it’s that recognition that leads to the placidity.

Nevertheless, like all memoirs this is at base an act of revenge, but like all great memoirs the past (and the narrator’s own person) is held at enough of a distance that we can read ourselves into it. And certainly the description of Sage’s teenage pregnancy made me think of someone I knew in our street who went through the same thing, and was ostracised in a similar fashion­.

Sage fashions a moving end to the story, though (memoirs, unlike novels and, obviously, biographies, can’t risk unhappy endings) in which she her young shotgun husband both make it to university with their daughter. On the way, the unmarried female teachers at Sage’s school (the Misses Macdonald, Heslop and Roberts) support her through her A Levels and university applications in the face of official disapproval, and her fellow pupils, who never much liked her when she was there, give her a huge round of applause as she goes up on stage to collect her leaver’s book token.

It does make me think, as a critic and teacher, about the tricksiness of memoir. It is the only literary form that comes with any kind of barrier to entry. Anyone can write a novel, a sonnet sequence, an essay… even a biography, if they do their homework. In order to write a memoir, on the other hand, you are generally expected to have experienced something extraordinary in your life. But how extraordinary? How much is enough? Equally clearly, the presence of extraordinary events alone is not sufficient. You also need to be able to write.

The greater the writer, you might think, the slimmer and sparser the incidents treated might be, but that still does leave us, as with Sage, trying and failing to unpick the two aspects (bluntly: form and content). It is harder to tell, when reading a good memoir, if it is the events that are affecting you, or the treatment of them, or both. When something doesn’t work, it’s usually easier to make the call. I was astonished how uncompelling I found Adam Mars-Jones’s memoir of his father, Kid Gloves. The prose was as good as ever (I’m a big fan of his slow-flowing, practically viscous roman fleuve), but I found the story he was telling entirely uninteresting.

Also: is Sage’s book better as a memoir than it would have been as a novel, with all the variance that may imply? If so, why? Because we ascribe more affect to it because it is ‘true’? (And, after all, we don’t know how much variance there is in the memoir itself; we take it on trust.) None of this is new. But certainly I enjoyed Bad Bloodvery much.

(Interestingly, Marina Warner’s introduction to Sage’s posthumous essay collection, Moments of Truth, mentions that she intended to write a book about the friction between life and art, based on the idea that “you can’t have the work without the life or, more pointedly, the life without the work, nor the work or the life without the art”, and to show that “the ‘heroism’ and representativeness of writers’ life-stories [are] aspects of the decay of classic literary realism”. Which, when you think about it, is precisely the work we need to read today, that would throw into relief the whole question of autofiction, not along moral lines, but practical, aesthetic ones. Sage died in 2001.)

The Sandcastle is the second thoroughly enjoyable Iris Murdoch I’ve read on the trot, following the superb and wonderful The Black Prince, discussed here. This was a relief, for in fact I have had problems with some of her novels: A Fairly Honourable Defeat, The Flight From the Enchanter and The Philosopher’s Pupil are all ones I’ve started and not finished at various times over the past few years. An Unofficial Rose I finished, but grudgingly, with dwindling pleasure; ditto Under the Net. (On the other hand, The Sea, The Sea, The Italian Girl, A Severed Head and Nuns and Soldiers were all read and enjoyed.) Continue reading

Books of the Year 2018

IMG_1914In going back through my Monthly Reading blog posts for the year I’ve identified 12 books published this year that I more than thoroughly enjoyed, that I think are great to brilliant examples of what they do, and that I feel will frame and influence my future reading. (A thirteenth, The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, is not pictured because I’ve loaned it to someone.)

A quick scan of the books shows me Faber have had an excellent year – four of the twelve – and it’s no surprise that Fitzcarraldo and CB Editions show up, both publishers very close to my heart. (It’s only fair to point out that those books were complimentary/review copies, as was the Heti and the Johnson. All others bought by me.) And a shout-out to Peninsula Press, whose £6 pocket essays are a welcome intervention to the literary scene. Eight women to four men writers. Only one BAME writer. Two books in translation. Two US writers.

I’m not going to write at length again about each book, but rather provide links to the original monthly blog posts or reviews, but I do want to take a moment again to think about Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which seems to stand out for me as a Book of the Year in a more than personal way. In a year that the “difficulty” or otherwise of Anna Burns’ Milkman (which I haven’t read, and very much want to) became a hot topic, I think it’s worth considering just how un-difficult Rooney’s book is, and how that absence of difficulty, that simplicity, that ease-of-reading – allied to the novel’s clear intelligence – is central to its success, both as a novel unto itself, and more widely. You can see precisely why an organisation like Waterstones would make it Book of the Year: it is utterly approachable; it finds an uncomplicated way of narrating complicated lives and issues.

I read Normal People in September, a borrowed copy, but bought it again recently, and was pleased to find that Marianne and Connell drifted back into my life without so much as a shrug. I think it’s a brilliant accomplishment, while I’m also very aware that this is a book aimed squarely at me: white, middle class, educated. I embrace it because it reflects my situation and concerns, and in addition romanticises and bolsters the generation I now find myself teaching at university. I want it to work, and it does, for me.

Yet I am astonished that it does so much with so little. Present tense, shifting close third person narration. Unpunctuated dialogue. A drifting narrative almost without plot, chopped into dated sections.

I wrote here about how I didn’t want to have to buy it in hardback (though I did) and I wrote here about how these anti-technical techniques made the book a potentially dangerous model for Creative Writing students – it looks like you can get away with Not Much – and it is true that Rooney’s book seems to throw a harsh light on some of the other books on my list, sitting with it in that stack. They seem to be trying so hard: Jessie Greengrass’s Sight is so unashamedly intelligent, Will Eaves’s Murmur so oblique and poetic, Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest so formally inventive (and in a number of different ways), Sheila Heti’s Motherhood so disingenuous in its informality, its seeming-naturalness. (I hope it’s clear that I love these books for the very aspects I seem to disparage.)

By contrast, Normal People seems written at what Roland Barthes called ‘writing degree zero’, by which he meant writing with no pretension to Literature – “a style of absence which is almost an ideal absence of style”. His model for this is Camus’ L’Étranger, and the comparison seems apt, except that L’Étranger is written in the first person. Everything extraneous is taken out. It’s interesting to note that David Szalay’s All That Man Is is written in a very similar way to Normal People, the only real difference being the use of single quote marks for dialogue. Yet they seem a world apart to me. Continue reading

November Reading: James, Simenon, Booth, Keenan

IMG_1886In a way I spent November getting over reading Christina Stead. For Love Alone is a big, old-fashioned novel that’s not afraid to move slowly, and be dense, all the better to throw up bright shards of insight. I can’t quite remember why I picked up PD James. It was one of those moments when a new book (a charity shop find) skips to the top of the to-be-read pile, ahead of other, possibly worthier, certainly more patient and long-suffering novels. So far as I tell, this is the first book of hers I’ve read. I’m not a massive reader of classic detective thrillers: Chandler, Ellroy, Hammett, Mankell, Rankin and Christie are probably the only authors I’ve read multiple books by – and Simenon of course, but we’ll get to him in a moment.

Teaching creative writing means thinking a lot about plot, and there is no genre more concerned with that aspect of the novel than the murder mystery. In November I also rewatched the Gary Oldman Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy and that led me, as with the last two watches, to pick back up the le Carré novel. It does open brilliantly, but once the plot proper gets going it seems to settle into a linear plod towards the truth, as Smiley heads across town, from encounter to encounter, picking up clue after clue, rather like a character in a dull 1980s text-based computer game. I put the book back down.

James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman avoids this through having the distinctly odd device of the protagonist, the young private detective Cordelia Gray, actually moving into the cottage where the murder took place, to live, while she investigates.

Continue reading