July reading: Blackburn, Ridgway

Some months go by and you look at the list of books you’ve read and wonder: how so short? How can I have read so little? The reasons are often dull, though sometimes they do come down to a lack of engagement with the books to hand, sometimes a lack of engagement with the idea itself of reading, or perhaps the idea of reading novels.

After finishing Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child (which I’ll get to below) I picked up and put down Christoph Simon’s Zbinden’s Progress (didn’t grab me at all), Richard Beard’s Lazarus is Dead (oh, I thought, after reading less than two pages, it’s Joseph Heller’s God Knows) and Thierry Jonquet’s Tarantula (as recommended by a detective in Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory… but, my god, the translation is appalling, and the “story of obsession and desire, or power and revenge” more or less the level of any other Sade knock-off). Perhaps I’m jaded. Perhaps I’m read out. Perhaps I’m waiting for August, and the chance to leave London and sit outside a tent or by a pool and really get into a ‘big’, ‘proper’ novel. I also read bits of Nicholson Baker’s U&I, and Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, and all of Charles Fernyhough’s memory book Pieces of Light, and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (no depth, no depth, how he gets away with his reputation I just don’t know).

One of the books I’ve most enjoyed reading this month is Thin Paths by Julia Blackburn, a sort of memoir, sort of portrait of place – that place being a little village in the mountains of northern Italy. I could get the book and try and find out where that is, but I don’t think it matters. The name of it would only advertise it, and the point of the book is about how Blackburn and her husband negotiated this unadvertised place, how they made that place home, and how they lived alongside the people who already called it home, and whose families had done so for generations. (It reminded me of Richard Bausch’s superb short novel Peace, set in the Italian mountains during a cold winter of the Second World War, but a quick glance at that tells me that it’s a different set of mountains altogether.)

Is this a specious kind of book? Is it just a newer version of the smug, down-the-nose familiarity of A Year in Provence, perhaps brought up to date with some of the stylistic tics of contemporary travel-writing, with its awareness of the obliquely-obliquey approach taken by those who have read Sebald, or Chatwin, or Deakin? Perhaps. Certainly one of the pleasures of reading it is that of what the French call récit: the most basic form of storytelling, here used by a ‘sophisticated’ British writer to retell the life stories of ‘simple’ Italian village people. But it’s not just that, not just the simplicity, but something more personal, more compelling – though perhaps this says more about me (or readers like me) than the writing itself:

We were away from the village for eight months. I used to long to be back on our terrace, to see the line of the mountains folding into each other until they reached the Mediterranean; to walk through the garden we had made and sit next to the water tank with its broken words and its celebrating frogs; to see how the new fruit trees were managing, and to hear the quarrelling dormice and the swifts cutting through the air like knives.

Of course, I long for all of that, too. Why shouldn’t I? It brings me a short deep feeling of peace to see swifts cutting the air above my suburban house, and to go pond-dipping with my children, and it is a balm, on some level, to think that someone out there has made this escape from the city so much more completely than those newspaper columnists who make a career of it, carving themselves a nook in a part of Europe that more or less successfully holds at bay everything that makes the swifts above my house the marker of difference, rather than the norm. And reading is about escapism, always, at some level. If there is a political dimension to this book – that Blackburn is somehow exploiting the Italian village people who ask her, she tells us, to write down their stories “otherwise it will all be lost”, then perhaps I am holding that a bay, too.

There is no such escapism to Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child, a novel that is about London now, or now-ish, and could be said to epitomise everything about life here that makes me wish I lived in the Italian mountains among the dormice and frogs.

Reading Hawthorn & Child was a problem. It was a problem because of the amount of – okay, not hype, not quite – that it had received in the particular strata of the digital/literary world that I inhabit. Lots of tweets saying how great it is. The kind of tweets that make you want to rush to read a book. When Hawthorn & Child is not the kind of book that anyone should want to rush to read. It’s a book about horror, about the horror of modern life that we all avoid, or pretend not to notice. (Think of Kerouac’s great line about Naked Lunch, that it describes the “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”.) But it has none of the bravado excess of Naked Lunch. It’s a book about our resignation in the face of that horror, our accommodation of it. The way we put that fork to our mouth, all the same, and chew and chew and chew.

In fact, each of the chapters, or stories, that make up this novel, could be another repulsive mastication of whatever it was that was on Burroughs’ fork. There’s a character in one of them who sets about trying to commit suicide, and can’t quite bring himself to do it. (There’s another who succeeds, and the book treats them with a kind of awed reverence, for the hideous callousness with which they treat their own body.) The book is an atomisation of the self-disgust of the failed suicide. It’s not a book I would wish on anyone.

All this might suggest it is a powerful book, and it is, but it is also something of a disappointment. If you want a book to make you feel deep self-disgust for the sad, pathetic fact of not just going right ahead and killing yourself, then you want that book to bludgeon its message into you, you want it to flay you alive, and Ridgway doesn’t quite reach that level of brutality. (Of course, this is all my reading of it – perhaps this isn’t what he’s about at all. I haven’t even read any other reviews of it, not that that would necessarily mean anything.) Nothing in it quite reaches the visceral, shuddering intensity of the first chapter of his previous novel, Animals.

Partly it’s the way that each story sort of peters out. (Perhaps I should have been warned, as I disliked this about the digital-only story The Spectacular, which, it turns out, was an off-cut of this novel.) Petering out is better than everything tying up neatly (which I disliked about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad), but in Hawthorn & Child it sometimes seems something of a gesture. All the way through reading it, my main thought was: I don’t know what the writer is trying to do here, but I do think I know how he’s doing it. The gesture towards incompleteness, towards silence (silence in the face of the horror of life) is just too familiar. The intercutting of anonymous sex and the violence of a clash between protesters and police is, though effective, familiar. That said, Ridgway’s vision of the world, and of the characters in the world, do have moments of more subtle brilliance – as when Hawthorn, one of the two police detectives of the title, searching the house of a shooting victim, pulls back the duvet and lies down in his bed. Or the book editor waiting, in shivering fear, outside a warehouse, to be discovered and punished, for he knows not what. (For the fact of existing.) Things and people that are in the wrong places, that make you think: everywhere is the wrong place. Why should my own bed be any more comfortable to me than yours, than any stranger’s?

Then there’s the fact that Hawthorn cries. He’s a crying policeman. Alone, at home, at the end of a long day, he weeps.

He went home. He wept in his bed, out of tiredness, he thought. Merely tiredness. That was fine. He fell asleep.

It’s even a “thing”.

–       How’s the thing?
–       What thing?
–       The crying.

In his dumbly circling dialogue, in his dangerous incongruities, in the danger he effortlessly inscribes in the mundane, Ridgway is like an inheritor of everything that Martin Amis once did, but crucially without the show-offy wordplay. In fact, you could all too easily imagine how Amis would have run with the crying “thing” if he’d thought of it. (He’d have loved to have thought of it, wouldn’t he? A policeman who cried alone at night would have fitted into London Fields brilliantly. The joke is that Amis used it not in London Fields, but in The Information, and that it wasn’t a policeman who cried alone at night, it was a writer. A writer.) Ridgway via Amis:

Child knew about Hawthorn’s crying thing, Hawthorn knew. But the crying thing didn’t worry Hawthorn. The crying thing wasn’t as bad as the ringing up Jennifer at four in the morning thing, or the sticking forks in the back of his hand thing, or the banging the head on the wall thing. Those were worse things. The thing about the crying thing, was that all it lost you was water.

And so on.

In fact, Ridgway gives a pointer in the book to the problem I have with it. It’s in Rothko Eggs, one of the best chapters – and in fact there are so many best chapters that my scratching away at what I didn’t like about the book seems increasingly small-minded, but scratch away I will. In it a teenage girl shares her liking for particular kinds of modern art, in a way that makes it sound a bit like a more general literary manifesto on the part of the author – and the fact that it is presented in a somewhat simplistic fashion could be an argument for this, or against it.

She didn’t like realism very much really, because usually there was no room in it. She would look at it, and everything was already there. But she liked abstract art because it was empty. Sometime it was only empty a tiny amount, and it was easy for her to see what the artist was trying to say or make her feel, and sometimes that was OK, but she usually liked the art that had lots of empty in it, where it was really hard to work out what the artist wanted, or whether the artist wanted anything at all, or was just, you know, trying to look like he had amazing ideas. But really good artists had lots of empty in their paintings or whatever they did. They left everything out, or most things anyway, but suggested something, so that she could take her own things into the painting (or the installation or the video or whatever) and the best art of all was when she didn’t really know what she was taking in with her, but it felt right, and when she looked at that art and took herself into it she felt amazing.

This is a great summation of what art can do, or rather of we want art to do, today, in this – *cough* – postmodern age, with its distrust of realism, for leaving the viewer/reader nothing to do (insert Barthes quote here), and its love of absence/marginality (Derrida quote) and silence (Beckett).

But. BUT. BUT. It’s become a gesture. A stance. We expect to find absence in our art, these days, and so artists go about putting absence into their paintings, and books, and their whatever. Some people do this nobly, seriously, assiduously (and I include Ridgway in that group), but some people do it out of habit, or fashion, consciously or unconsciously.

To quote James Fenton’s German Requiem, “It is not the houses. It is the spaces between the houses.” But that poem is about destruction and loss. The absence it evokes is a consequence of history, just as Rachel Whiteread’s empty spaces made solid are political and historical statements. Too often, when I come across absence or silence in art, it is not historically situated, it just is. It’s a fact of existence, man. It’s the problem of that Beckett quote. People are so in love with the idea of failure, where the ‘success’ – the plenitude – of realism is taken as the mark of its own particular, pathetic failure, that they start building failure into their projects.

I’m not saying Ridgway is doing that (or maybe I am, a bit) but I am saying that this kind of book is emblematic (or potentially emblematic) of the fashionable anti-realism that sees silence and absence and failure as things to aspire to, or not even to aspire to, to take as a given. As if we’ve inherited the struggle that Beckett went through in his career before he admitted that the only thing left for him to say was that he had nothing to say. Ever tried. Ever failed. Some people fail before they even try.


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