By the Same Author is a thin book by a thinner writer. The book itself is a collection of 39 paragraphs spread over 43 pages – plenty of white space; it doesn’t take much more than an hour to read, but that just means you’ll want to reread it – you’ll want there to be more of it. I intend to not lose sight of; it won’t get relegated to the alphabetised shelves, where – it’s so thin – it would end up being squished right out of existence by Marilynne Robinson and David Rose, neither of whom are particularly doorstops.
To call the author thinner still is a nod to those familiar with their Dashiell Hammett. The author biog tells us that Robinson has “also written as Jennie Walker… and Charles Boyle”, Boyle being the man behind CB Editions, which publishes this slip of a book, as well as all manner of interesting material. He is a publisher of the old type, unbeholden to anything but his own taste. The previous book by Robinson that I’ve read is Recessional (2009), a barely bigger scrapbook of rants and screeds against political austerity and our conservative country. I don’t like it half as much as this one.
In the first paragraph of By the Same Author we learn the title of a book, XXX, which the narrator (Robinson, for the sake of argument) has recommended to him (for the sake of argument) by a waiter after he, the waiter, runs up to return a different book by the same author which he, Robinson, had left on a café table. One of those moments of connection. (Eric turns up again, quite a lot. Expand By the Same Author along certain lines, and their relationship would end up something like that of Lars and W in the Spurious trilogy.)
Over the page, in the second paragraph, we learn the name of the writer: T.S. Nyman. The book, then, is about Nyman, and XXX, and Robinson’s relationship to her and it. There is no narrative, no development, just an accumulation of reflections on a writer and her oeuvre. For example: a coach trip to Cardiff where Robinson sits sat next a girl reading XXX, and they spend the entire journey excitedly reciting it to each other; watching Nyman give readings, terribly, on YouTube; a glance at her author biography; an event in Paris billed as an appearance by Nyman that turns out to be a terrible solo male contemporary dancer.
(It’s possible that XXX is intended to be the actual title of a single book, or that it simply stands in for various titles in Nyman’s back catalogue. It’s ambiguous. It’s also not important.)
It’s also possible that Nyman is supposed to represent Robinson’s thoughts about an actual writer – that this is a roman à clef – but that seems unlikely. Even if it were the case, it wouldn’t stop the reader imagining Nyman as a particular pet writer of their own. As I read it, I realised I was spontaneously casting Nyman as a particular writer close to my heart, and I realised it was teaching me about how I read her – not that I’m going to tell you who it was; it’s up to you to insert your own personal favourite.
This is the great joy of the book: that its true subject is what happens when we read – not this book or that book, not the newest new thing or the classic we’re finally catching up on… but a particular writer; what happens when a particular writer become ours.
Which is not to say By the Same Author is all dewy-eyed, tote-baggish booklovery. It’s suspicious of the ways we weave a particular writer into our sense of our identity, and it takes a mordant view of the places this leaves us – not least, at the end of that coach trip:
[dumped in] Cardiff at around two in the morning and this was in February, snow on the ground, and we looked at each other and blinked: we didn’t have anything left to say.
Or, at a poorly attended reading by Nyman:
About five minutes in, I was thinking, she is reading so badly it must be deliberate. The rest of the evening I was mostly staring up at the ceiling, the struts and beams, working out how it was held up.
Yes, we’ve all been there.
Which is not to say, either, that By The Same Author is all jeering and self-flagellation. I won’t quote any more of it – especially not my favourite bits – because there’s precious little enough of it to begin with, and as always it’s the discovery that is the point.
Read it because sometimes a love of reading, or a life spent reading, can inure you, or blind you, to what reading actually is, and what it is doing to you as a person. This book is a kind of portrait of the contemporary committed reader: oh, you think, reading it, is that what I’m like? Really? Well, good.