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.
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.
Two months of summer reading brought together because, you know, things. Only some of which are books. July started with a fresh attempt – my third, I think – at Richard Beard’s The Day That Went Missing, subtitled A Family Memoir. Why did it take me three goes to get into? Because, frankly, it is a fucking hard book to read. It’s a writer’s response to some ancient family history: the death, by drowning, on a family holiday, of Beard’s younger brother, Nicholas – made more devastating for Richard, eleven years old to Nicholas’s nine, by the fact that he was only the witness, only just managing to save himself from the same deceptive tides on a Cornish beach that swept Nicholas out of his depth.
And made more devastating, over the years, by the decision of Beard’s father to wipe the tragedy out of the family narrative. Over the next forty years Nicholas was barely spoken of, represented by a single photograph in the family home, his few belongings relegated to a box somewhere in the attic. If this sounds like English repression taken to psychotic lengths, try this for size: after returning to Swindon to bury Nicholas, the family drove back to the rented farm house in Cornwall to finish their holiday. It was booked and paid for, after all.
It’s not these awful aspects of the situation that make the book so hard to read, though. They are traits that can be analysed, contextualised, built out from. It is the insistence of Beard on returning again and again to the ‘primal scene’ of the drowning, trying to work out what happened, trying to investigate his own guilt: could he have saved him? If Beard’s father set out to deny this moment as a survival technique, then Beard insists on looking. He insists on us looking too. It’s that that makes the book at times excruciating to read. That and the way the surviving family members (not his father, he died: “I haven’t mourned him, and I didn’t cry at his funeral,” Beard writes… “A lesson he taught me himself”) are actually, eventually, willing to talk about Nicholas, and his death, now, forty years on. Perhaps, you think, all that denial was not needed. Clearly, this was a book that Beard had to write, in some sense (he talks about the dead little brothers that have cropped up in his fiction), but in another sense it was a book that didn’t have to be written at all, or wouldn’t have had to be written, if Beard’s father hadn’t been a particular kind of Englishman.
It’s all dreadfully sad, but am I glad I read it? I’m not sure. I happened to partially reread Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love at about the same time, for teaching, and it reinforced my general feeling about such memoirs: that I don’t like them, however well they’re written. Perhaps it’s because I have very little close experience of grief. I haven’t had the opportunity to see how mourning can become part of a person: I can’t see it in the people I know who have lost someone. I see only desperate desire to imbue the pages with the presence of the dead person. A desire that can only lead to failure. The specifics of the dead person can never be as meaningful to me as to it is to the writer. Grief memoir is the genre that is doomed to failure.
Following these books I had a few days of feeling really ill (some kind of bug, I can’t remember now) and every book I picked up seemed to hard, the language too complex, the insistence on plot and character too damned demanding. The only book I found I could bear to open was David Markson’s This is Not a Novel. Having read it and kind of enjoyed it, but then read and loved his earlier novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I had long wanted to look at again because of it. Continue reading
I wrote this for the TLS blog as a response to the Bad Sex Awards. (Includes a brief definition of Gibbs’s Law of Reversible Similes.)
It’s easy to sneer at the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award – sneering at the sneerers, as it were – but it’s no lie that writing well about sex is difficult, and perhaps more difficult in prose than in poetry. I think there are three main reasons for this. Read on…
Much as I love the question, Where do you get your ideas? I much prefer the more specific, Where do you get your books?
The ecology of bookbuying is of course a hotly contested one, and while I will fight with my wallet for the survival of bricks-and-mortar, ideally independent bookstores in the face of Amazon’s behemoth, I have been less actively staunch in my defence of secondhand bookshops, and more guilty, if guilt applies, of supporting their particular nemeses: charity shops.
I buy a lot of books from charity shops.
They’re cheap, they’re local (wherever you live, they’re local: there must be statistics on their relentless influx into high streets everywhere), they serve a – generally – good cause, and above all they are hazed about with an almost magical charm of serendipity. You never know what you’re going to find among the Fifty Shades and Karl Pilkingtons. What’s not to like? Unless you’re a secondhand bookseller. And I do feel bad about that. If I see a secondhand bookshop, I always go in, and I always buy something, but I don’t go out of my way to support them, the way I do mainstream/retail bookshops in their own particular battle.
All this to introduce a book that I could only have found in a charity or secondhand shop, because it’s not in print. Not only is it not in print in its English translation, it’s also not in print in its native French. And this a succes de scandale from the 1950s, easily rankable alongside Francoise Sagan, full of heady teenage passion and rebellion, a debut novel from a young translator and writer who killed herself before it was published. If it seems sad that it’s not available in this country other than to the chance encounter of the charity shop, it seems hugely depressing that it’s not being pored over and passed around by French teenagers. It should be their Spring Awakening.
The hero of I Will Not Serve is 17-year-old Sylvie, who at the start of the novel has been kicked out of the convent where she is being schooled, for writing impassioned love letters to one of the nun/teachers, Julienne. I haven’t read any Colette, I’m afraid, so I’m not sure how this sits alongside the Claudine books in terms of lesbian school fantasies (see also Brigid Brophy’s hilarious The Finishing Touch), but really there is very little that is titillating here, and nothing at all that is salacious. Continue reading
I haven’t been keeping a strict list of books read during 2014 so this won’t be a strict list of best books, but rather a recollection of the most memorable reading experiences. Which itself leads to an interesting question. How much does a book have to stay with you after finishing it for it to be a good book? I ended my TLS review of Mary Costello’s remarkable Academy Street with the observation that I wasn’t sure if Tess was “the kind of character to stay with the reader long after the book is closed, but during the reading of it she is an extraordinary companion.”
I was discussing the book with David Hayden of Reaktion Books, and the name Deirdre Madden sprung up, whose latest novel Time Present and Time Past I’d just read. I said that I’d hugely enjoyed her earlier book Molly Fox’s Birthday, and that although that judgment stood – that it was a good book – I honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything that happened in it at all.
What books have stayed with me, then? For new novels, Zoe Pilger’s helter-skelter semi-satire Eat My Heart Out and Emma Jane Unsworth’s more groundedly rambunctious Animals both offered up visions of contemporary Britain that I found winning and accurate, or appropriately overdone. Unsworth’s had the thing I thought Pilger’s lacked (though there was more at stake in Pilger) – a sense of where the character might be heading at the end of the dark trip of the narrative. Thinking back on Pilger’s book now, it occurs to me – and I wonder if it’s occurred to her– that Anne-Marie would make a superb recurring character. She’s great at showing where London is, a decade or so into the century. She’d be a useful guide to future moments, too.
The characters I spent the most time with over the year were Lila and Elena from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, aka My Brilliant Friend. I read the first volume early in the year, having been previously blown away by the gut punch/throat grab/face slap of The Days of Abandonment. I read the second and third Neapolitan volumes on holiday in the summer. I was reviewing it, so my proof copy is full of scribbles, but the scribble on the final page of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay says just: ‘Wow’. As has been said before, these books do so many things – European political history, female friendship, anatomisation of Italian society, child to adult growth and adult to child memory – but it does two things that I found particularly powerful. Continue reading
Last month the estimable Hesperus Press ran a competition to find an undiscovered classic, asking entrants to write a short introduction to a book unwarrantedly out-of-print. The winner was Michael Wynne, who suggested The Great Meadow by Elizabeth Madox Roberts. Congratulations to him, and to her. My entry was a pitch for Brigid Brophy’s Flesh, first published by Secker & Warburg, 1962, and since seen in editions from Corgi, 1965, and Cardinal, 1990. I wrote about my initial discovery of Brophy’s books in a previous post here, but here, for posterity, is my pitch for Flesh. I heartily recommend it to all, especially publishers of neglected classics, who are more than welcome to approach me for use of the following…
Both my editions of Brigid Brophy’s short novel Flesh have a woman on their cover, both naked, seemingly, but sultry and melancholy, undeniably. On 1990’s Cardinal edition – its last published appearance – she is Bill Brandt’s 1955 photograph Nude, which has also graced the covers of novels by Alexander Theroux and Don DeLillo. (The other woman, on the 1965 Corgi paperback, popped up again, bizarrely enough, on Creation Records’ seminal 1988 sampler LP Doing it for the Kids.)
Both images do the book a disservice. The flesh of the title, after all, isn’t simply a euphemism for sex, though sex features strongly in it; it is also a reference to that other appetite that religion treats as a sin, though Brophy doesn’t: gluttony. By the end of the book’s narrative, gauche, nervy Marcus has become, in the words of his wife Nancy, and thanks (to her surprise as much as his) to her excellent cooking, “disgustingly fat,” to which he chucklingly, approvingly replies, referring back to their art gallery visits, “I’ve become a Reubens woman.”
Flesh was first published in 1962, which makes it an early and definitive refutation of Larkin’s claim that sexual intercourse began the following year. Continue reading
My May reading was in part dominated by averagely interesting books, not chosen by me and read at speed, that other people seemed to have rated higher than I. David Park’s novel The Light of Amsterdam, is certainly well-written and full of fine features but, in retrospect, disappointingly homogenised in its view of life, and unlikely to be remembered fondly; and Alex Wheatle’s Brenton Brown, again fine on paper, in its various attributes, but in the head – where books truly exist – lacking the spark to turn honest decent credible characters into living, breathing getting-under-the-skin ones. What most sticks with me, these weeks after reading it, is the bewildering range of speech tags Wheatle uses (“argued”, “sighed”, “insisted” and the like) when, as I’ve blogged before, the consensus, among Creative Writing teachers at least, is that one should simply use “said”. Is it snobbish, or reactionary, of me to want to put a wiggly line next to most of these? Both books read for Fiction Uncovered.
No one asked me to read anything for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but I did anyway: Judith Hermann’s Alice, which basks in page after page of beautiful, expertly translated prose, is in the end rather defeated by its structure: five chapters, in each of which the titular Alice visits someone who is dying, and who then dies. Hermann is perceptive and connective about loss, and about the bloom of life that surrounds it, but the sheer doggedness of death’s reappearance (“Hello! It’s me!”) becomes self-defeating. It’s a bit like that thing about Agatha Christie mysteries: lovely as she, you really don’t want to invite Miss Marple to stay at your country house. She is a bad penny. The ability ofAlice (the book, or the character) to sublimate grief into art is, in the end, almost psychotic.
Dream of DingVillage by Yan Lianke I didn’t get into enough to let it get into me. It certainly opened my eyes to the harsh realities of life in China as imposed blood-harvesting spread Aids among the rural poor, but there was nothing in the novel, I felt, that I couldn’t have got from a well-written piece of reportage.
When I heard that the admirable Hesperus Press were holding a competition inviting people to write introductions to out-of-print classics, one book popped immediately into my mind: Hackenfeller’s Ape by Brigid Brophy. I didn’t end up writing it on that; I wrote it on another of her novels, Flesh, but we’ll come to that in another post. The reasons why Hackenfeller’s Ape suggested itself are twofold.
Firstly, and most properly, because it’s a book not many people have read, in my experience. She’s one of those writers I don’t expect to find when casing someone else’s bookshelves, no matter how well stocked, and would instinctively offer as a suggestion to someone who knows and likes, for instance, the somewhat similarly poised prose style of Muriel Spark.
The second reason is harder to couch in the objective critical terms you might – might – think people expect in an introduction to an out-of-print classic, and it’s to do with the manner of the book’s coming into my life. Continue reading