Category Archives: Writers

Story Shop 2012

In all the excitement I forgot that I still have a blog, and that it would probably be a good idea for me to update it now and then, whether I have anything useful and interesting to say or not. In this case, I actually do – I’ll be reading a sort-of extract from my novel ‘In Borderlands’ in the Spiegeltent at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Friday (24th August), as part of the daily Edinburgh City of Literature Story Shop event. It’s free also, so there’s no excuse not to come along. Unless live literature readings bore you, or unless you find it too excruciating to watch and listen to someone clearly about to have a stroke they’re so nervous at the prospect of reading their work in front of other people, because if God had meant man to listen to written work, he wouldn’t have given them eyes to read it instead, etc etc etc. In any case, I’ll write a blog entry once the whole thing is over and done to give my impressions of the experience. I’m actually beginning to look forward to it. Sort of. We’ll see.


Book review: ‘Lionel Asbo’ by Martin Amis

It’s strange to see a writer as talented and self-aware as Martin Amis with so little understanding of where his talent should be taking him. His memoir, 2000’s Experience, is the watershed title in his career. In the books that came before, including the unassailable classics Money and London Fields (I would also include Dead Babies, The Information and Time’s Arrow), Amis allied a moralist’s sensibility with a prose style of fervid and infectious originality, gleefully excoriating the worst excesses of his culture. Experience though was the refutation of Amis’ long-stressed aesthetic opinion that style itself was morality, and that style alone was enough to sustain a book: as if the depth of your engagement with the surface of things demonstrated the seriousness with which you looked at the world. The memoir showed a surprising (because so unexpected) tenderness, an emotional core that had previously been absent from his work. This is not to say that the earlier books lacked anything – where would emotion and human tenderness have fitted in a scabrous satire like Money? – but it was a welcome development. Experience seemed to point out the direction in which late-period Amis was heading, and it looked fascinating.

It’s because of this that Yellow Dog was so unsatisfying; if he had published it ten years earlier it would have passed without a murmur of dissent. In the context of his memoir though, it looked like a wholly retrograde step. And it’s from this delayed, frustrated sense of missed opportunity that every book Amis has published since is interrogated to see if it’s the elusive ‘return to form’ that it promises to be. It never is, of course, because the ‘return to form’ should be to the form of Experience, not Money.

There are signs that Amis is very slowly beginning to work this out. The Pregnant Widow was a marvellous book precisely because he was balancing the reliable vigour of his prose with the weight of a hard-earned forebearance and human understanding. Amis’s new novel Lionel Asbo, as the title might suggest, does not take this development any further, although it’s not quite the Yellow Dog-style regression you might expect. It’s a minor entry in the oeuvre, and the premise doesn’t quite justify the 276 pages he spends on it, but this is still one of the funniest books published so far this year, and in places contains some of Amis’ best writing on the Dickensian, riotous cityscape that is his exaggerated conception of London (‘the great world city’). In terms of plot, Lionel is a violent thug living in the dystopic London borough of Diston whose life is changed by winning £140 million on the Lottery. Living up to every underclass stereotype, he blows through the money at a staggering rate in a riot of bad behaviour. At the same time, his sensitive, intelligent nephew Desmond lives in terror that Lionel will discover his secret; that for a few months he ‘enjoyed’ a sexual relationship with his own grandmother, Lionel’s mum Grace. The plot is perfunctory, but it does allow a certain forward momentum, and injects real tension into the later scenes. Additionally, with the character of Desmond, Amis is able to focus the same emotional attention he demonstrated so effectively in The Pregnant Widow. Desmond is in many ways the core of the novel, and his development from gawky, scared teenager living in mordant fear of his violent uncle to a confident young man with a family and a decent job is very well handled. It’s his intellectual journey, running in parallel (and, as Amis suggests, one is very much responsible for the other) that seems most convincing. “ […] he communed with the whispers of his intelligence. Did everybody have one, an inner voice? An inner voice that was cleverer than they were?” I can’t think of a better description of burgeoning creative imagination than that. It’s a faculty that’s not absent from Lionel either; as Desmond speculates, you’d have to put a lot of thought into being as stupid as he is, and in the aftermath of Asbo’s grotesquely large lottery win, there are signs that the freedom of money is giving him the space to develop his own inner voice, to commune with the whispers of his own dormant intelligence.

Amis has stressed that this novel should be seen as a modern fairy tale – the life-changing, life-inverting sum of money gifted from nowhere; the ‘citadel’ of the Avalon Towers high-rise where Demond and Lionel live (and it’s no accident that name is so resonant); Lionel’s brutal pit-bulls like circling wolves … The fairy tale aspect excuses a general lack of depth, but in many ways what Amis needs to move away from are his earlier attempts to manufacture depth. The apocalyptic weather systems in London Fields, the cosmological nightmares of The Information and Night Train, even the background of the Holocaust in Time’s Arrow, are all the least interesting parts of those otherwise excellent novels. In Lionel Asbo, Amis is trusting more in those previously scorned aspects of the novel – character and plot. It may not be as essential as his earlier, more urgent works, and does not capitalise on the great leap forward of The Pregnant Widow, but Lionel Asbo is still a playful and engaging work, and worth far more than, say, Julian Barnes’ overrated Booker Prize winner The Sense of an Ending. It’s worth reading for the scene with the lobster alone.

(Thanks to Chloe and Kate at Random House for the review copy)

Golding, Ballard, Burgess

I watched an excellent Arena documentary about William Golding last night, (which can be seen on iPlayer here). Golding was an immensely complicated and conflicted person, and I have become increasingly interested in him since reading John Carey’s biography a couple of years ago. Ironically subtitled ‘The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies’, Carey’s book demonstrates just how varied and powerful was Golding’s achievement, and how, in a career that eventually gained him the Nobel Prize, he could still feel in some way overlooked or dismissed. The Arena documentary drew on Golding’s unpublished, million-word journals and dream diaries, and they revealed a man clearly tormented by his own sense of wickedness and by a wider understanding of human depravity and man’s capacity for evil. His dreams seem to have abounded with images of violence and torture, and although from a young age Golding was clearly an imaginative person, it is also clear that his terrible experiences in the Second World War dislocated him profoundly. ‘Lord of the Flies’ may remain his most famous exploration of mankind’s innate brutality and how fragile is the veneer of civilisation that keeps that brutality in check, but its fame has tended to obscure his other books, which offer an equally disturbing vision in a variety of stark and original forms. I remember reading ‘Darkness Visible’ and, after closing the book, feeling more or less ashamed to be a human being.

Golding was essentially a theological (rather than a religious) writer, and his theme was Original Sin. For Golding, this manifested itself in mankind’s limitless facility in pain and suffering, although it would be a mistake to dismiss him, as many did, as a fundamentally pessimistic writer. The act of writing those books was optimistic in itself, and Golding’s novels generally contain a redemptive figure who, although defeated, indicates the different paths available to the human animal. Another writer who dealt with a similar theme over a much more wayward career was Anthony Burgess. At the moment, I’m reading his longest and greatest novel, ‘Earthly Powers’, a panoramic view of the 20th century as experienced by one character, a mediocre and highly successful novelist called Kenneth Toomey (who is clearly based on W. Somerset Maugham). It would be wrong to call it subtext as it’s all up front in the narrative, but Burgess also addresses himself to theological concerns in this book, as Toomey’s path crosses again and again with his brother in law, Carlo Campanati, a man destined to become Pope. Burgess’s interest in original sin finds its clearest expression in the scenes set during the aftermath of the Holocaust, when mankind fell about as low as it could go. In a fascinating reversal though, Burgess, in this book and in others, sees original sin almost as a protective carapace for humanity; or, rather, that to dismiss it puts mankind on the even more dangerous path towards human perfectibility. Burgess roots this tendency in the Pelagian heresy of the 5th century AD. Pelagius, a monk who denied the transmission of original sin and believed that God’s grace was not necessary for the performance of good works, was eventually banished from Rome and denounced, but his ideas live on in many of our arguments for free will. For Burgess, one of those lapsed cradle Catholics who never lost the dialectical cut and thrust of a Jesuitical education, neo-Pelagianism was the most dangerous ideology in the world, and he saw its traces in Soviet and Maoist communism, in Nazism, and in any secular political ideology that thought it could coerce people into being better. Over about 300,000 words, with immense stylistic verve, ‘Earthly Powers’ parses these ideas down about as far as they can go.

This is all strong stuff, and makes the usual thematic and stylistic run of contemporary literature seem pretty thin. Crucially, as a reader you don’t actually have to buy into any of it; you do not need to share Golding’s or Burgess’s ideas on what makes a human being capable of evil or ‘sinful’ acts, but you do have to accept that this is one of the animating concerns of their fiction. This is what got them to the desk in the morning, and if there’s one thing I go to novels for, it’s to see the private idiosyncrasies and obsessions of a writer given free rein, in the freest artistic form there is.

Not long after I started writing this blog, I reviewed another documentary, about British novelists ‘in their own words’. I argued that the episode which concentrated on the immediate post-war novelists gave the lie to a common assumption that it was only when the Amis/McEwan/Barnes/Rushdie quartet imported the lessons of the big American post-war novelists (Bellow/Mailer/Roth/Updike) in the late 1970s and 1980s that English fiction moved away from a narrow concern with Hampstead dinner parties and the upper middle classes. The example of William Golding, Anthony Burgess and, in particular, JG Ballard, demonstrates how partial a reading that is of English literature in this period. Three more original writers could hardly be imagined, their concerns as far away from Hampstead dinner parties as could be conceived. (Who did write those Hampstead dinner party novels?) Their writing tried to dig up the very roots of what it meant to be human; if Golding and Burgess were haunted by mankind’s fall from the Garden of Eden, then Ballard was fascinated by what would have happened to the Garden after mankind was gone.

These three writers obviously have unassailable reputations and are in no way obscure, but Golding was right when he felt himself overlooked in some way, and Burgess felt a similar sense of rejection from the ‘literary establishment’ (whatever that is), even though he was a best-seller and critically respected. Because they fit into no easy narrative, and because they don’t belong to any definable or short-hand group or generation, it can be easy to forget how important their work is. Ballard is probably the more influential of the three, and has good claim to be the most important writer from Britain since 1945, but I would like to think that they all provide a slightly neglected model of what is possible in fiction, how it can bury itself in the visceral and spiritual essences of human life and nature, and how those mythical Hampstead dinner parties never had as many attendants as you thought.

New Writer Award

I am very pleased to announce that I’ve been given a New Writer Award by the Scottish Book Trust! I’ve been sitting on this for a week or so, as I didn’t want to mention it before it became official, but it’s up on their website now. Not only does this give me more time to write, it definitely feels like a professional validation, and I’ll keep this blog updated with as much insider info as I can manage. (Also, if anyone from the DWP is reading, I don’t have the cheque yet but will be sure to declare it as soon as it’s in my hand … )

Book review: ‘Zona’ by Geoff Dyer

Apart from his three novels, Geoff Dyer has written books on subjects as diverse as jazz, photography, and the First World War. He has written an entire book about his failure to write a book about DH Lawrence, and his essay collections are some of the greatest contemporary models of the form. Of course, the books about jazz, photography and the First World War are not just about jazz, photography and the First World War – they’re also about Geoff Dyer; or rather, they’re about the education of a sensibility, and about the development of Dyer’s particular interest in those subjects at that time. If something obsesses him, you sense the only way Dyer can exorcise that obsession is to write a book about it. At the same time, he is able to cloak that obsession in a style that is both perceptive and invigoratingly light. Although he is obviously very well-read and capable of acute and original insight, reading Dyer never feels in the least bit like hard work. ‘But Beautiful’, a matchless amalgamation of musical criticism, lyrical essay and fictionalised biography, is clearly the result of very hard thinking and meticulous work. Reading it though, you have the same feeling as when listening to a John Coltrane sax solo; you know there must be years and years of practice behind it, but its construction sounds effortless in the moment.

‘Zona’ is Dyer’s first book about film, and one film in particular – ‘Stalker’, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 masterpiece, a film that has obsessed him since he first saw it in 1981. What on first glance is a 200-page summary of the ‘action’ (a word that demands inverted commas in relation to Tarkovsky’s oeuvre), gradually reveals itself as Dyer’s off-beat disquisition on the nature of desire, the operation of time on the memory, and the way cinema can somehow encapsulate both within its own created space. ‘Stalker’ is science fiction of a sort; in a nameless country (which is clearly the Soviet Union), an unexplained event (possibly ‘a meteorite or alien visitation’ according to the first caption) has created something called the ‘Zone’, a mysterious, cordoned-off area of prohibited access, deserted and verdant. The main character, the ‘Stalker’ of the title, is a professional guide to the Zone, who is hired to smuggle two other characters, Professor and Writer, into the forbidden territory in search of the ‘Room’, a place where your deepest desires will be granted. Those two sentences more or less sum up the entire film. Dyer’s book is not therefore an attempt to boil a near-three hour film down to a handy synopsis. It is not even, or not specifically, an attempt to unpack or hypothesise on its possible meanings. Instead, Dyer partly uses his interrogation of ‘Stalker’, his focus on its use of time and space, to dredge up and interrogate some of his own memories and experiences, about his childhood, his cinematic education, his own wishes and desires (mainly for the chance to regain a beloved Freitag knapsack that he lost in Adelaide.) The book ‘is an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings, and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.’ Dyer achieves this through the formally risky move of splitting a great deal of the book into main text and footnotes. In Martin Amis’s memoir, his masterpiece ‘Experience’, footnotes take up a running, present-tense commentary on a narrative that is by definition looking backwards. In ‘Zona’, Dyer’s main text and his footnotes can be equally digressive, the footnotes often spreading over several pages and seeming to interlink with the narrative. This isn’t as confusing as it sounds, and it becomes clear that Dyer is using this technique to replicate or reflect the film’s seemingly untethered, premonitory force, its ability to comment on or allegorise events that hadn’t actually happened at the time the film was made. At the same time, and as he makes clear towards the end of the book, a film that is conditioning us to focus on the fulfillment of our deepest desires is conditioning us to focus on our own past, and what it is in that past that has most disappointed us. By moving forwards and backwards between the pages, by splitting the text into saying and said, Dyer is giving us clearer idea of how powerful he finds this film than if he had stated it directly. Which he does anyway.

Unafraid to alienate its audience with incredibly slow panning shots, its epic length, with scenes and imagery that defy and are given no explanation, ‘Stalker’ remains a provocatively unsettling film because it defies all the conventions of its genre and because it has somehow positioned itself outside of its own created space. The central conceit has all the force of an allegory to start with, and Tarkovsky’s  unhurried treatment of this theme, the originality of his staging, has given it, as Dyer says, ‘the quality of a prophecy.’ Most obviously, this prophecy is of the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the result of which was the creation of a large, 30 km uninhabited ‘Exclusion Zone’, or ‘Zone of Alienation’ around the power plant. Given over to an irradiated nature, the Zone has apparently thrived. ‘Stalker’ obsesses Dyer not just because he saw it at a formative time in his life, but because it seems more than just a film, or a work of art. Also, you suspect, because it is the only film he has ever seen which can take the load of having a book written about it by Geoff Dyer.

To review anything by Dyer is to measure it against the scale of his previous achievements. On first reading, ‘Zona’ might seem a slightly thinner offering than his previous non-fiction books. In many ways, it really is just a running commentary on a film that he happens to love and which, as he admits, few people will have seen. (Full disclosure – I’ve seen the first half. When the words ‘End of Disc One’ came up, I couldn’t find the energy to put on disc two. I will do someday though, particularly after reading ‘Zona.’) But, returning to it, skimming through it, I began to think that Dyer is expanding his range here, stepping out of what has become comfortable, if no less entertaining, territory. While the form is more experimental, the language is more relaxed and the tone more ruminative and autobiographical. There are familiar motifs – Rilke, Roland Barthes, John Berger, his father’s unwillingness to fork out money for a choc-ice – but rather than follow the trail of his interest in this film, Dyer uses it to push beyond the formative influence it may have had on him to the continuing influence it is having and will have on him. It’s as much about the nature of our formative influences and the way our relationship to them changes as it is about ‘Stalker’. It almost goes without saying that anything Dyer writes is going to be entertaining; passionate, never dry no matter how academic the subject, and very funny. Less immediately brilliant than ‘Out of Sheer Rage’ or his collections of essays perhaps, ‘Zona’ is a slow-burning and profound piece of work – much like Tarkovsky’s film itself.

(With thanks to Matt Oldfield at Canongate for the review copy.)

So, farewell then, Christopher Hitchens …

I was going to write something about the death of Christopher Hitchens earlier today, but  (appropriately enough) I was feeling a bit rough around the edges on account of the Johnnie Walker Black Label I’d been drinking the night before – my toast and one-man tribute. I’m not sure there’s much more I can add here to the wealth of obituaries, reminiscences, essays, editorials and think-pieces that have dominated the papers over the last couple of days, online and in print (I thought Christopher Buckley’s essay in the New Yorker was wonderful). In fact, I was very pleasantly surprised to see that Hitchens’ death has been literally front page news; there was even a lengthy tribute to him on the Today programme on Radio 4 yesterday. It’s rare that a writer, of any stripe, registers to that extent with the public, but Hitchens had over the last few years gone from being a respected and effortlessly talented essayist admired (or loathed) by the cognoscenti, to an internationally recognised figure admired (and loathed) by many. Most of this was down to his startlingly entertaining, if occassionally irregularly argued, polemic ‘god is Not Great’ and his dominance of what has been termed the ‘new’ atheism. Not the least of his talents was the ability to engage in robust, erudite and near-unanswerable debate with political and religious opponents, giving no quarter when challenged and more often than not demolishing them with embarrassing ease. Public speaking is an art form like any other, and Hitchens was a master of it; even a cursory YouTube search will reveal some gems.

In the end, I think Hitchens will be remembered not for a particular line that he took or position that he adopted. He will be remembered for inhabiting an intellectual stance that was based always on passionate independence, something remarkably rare, and to be cherished. There is simply no one now writing who can claim the same kind of space that Hitchens made his own. He will be greatly missed.

PG Wodehouse – more addictive than crack

After mainlining seven PG Wodehouse books in a fortnight, I’ve had to go cold turkey – this stuff is just too addictive. Wodehouse wrote over 90 books in a long, long career, and if I hadn’t tried to go clean now, I would simply have had to continue reading them until I’d completed the oeuvre. Gradually, I would have neglected health and hygiene. I would have become lost to friends and family. I would have started stealing to support my habit, and in the end I would have been found lean and shivering in the gutter, blissfully happy. Better to make the clean break now, and ease myself back into his work at a later date, under strictly supervised and controlled conditions.

I can’t think why it took me so long to get to Wodehouse. I’ve long been a fan of Christopher Hitchens, for example, who has extolled the man’s virtues in innumerable reviews and articles. Evelyn Waugh was a fan too – indeed, in many ways Waugh’s early style can be seen as an affectionate subversion of PGW’s. Regardless, it only took a quick fix of the first Jeeves and Wooster omnibus to get me on to the really hard stuff – the Blandings stories. Jeeves and Wooster are by far the most famous of Wodehouse’s creations, but I think the farces set around Blandings Castle and the Earl of Emsworth’s extended family is the real ageless stuff. The story ‘Company for Gertrude’ is without doubt the funniest thing I have ever read; the Rev. Rupert ‘Beefers’ Bingham’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the earl so he’ll allow his niece to marry him is an object lesson in precision comedy, where incident and language combine seamlessly to produce something truly sublime.

It’s at the level of language that Wodehouse transcends his billing as a mere ‘comic’ novelist. Few writers have taken such pains over the construction of an English sentence, and it has always fascinated me that real comedy comes from an exactness of style rather than from comic incident. What happens is of far less importance than the way it is written. If I was to say that, in the above-mentioned story, ‘Beefers’ Bingham thinks Lord Emsworth is drowning in the lake when he is actually just taking a swim, and that his ham-fisted attempt to rescue the earl provokes him to anger, you may raise a dry smile. If I was to quote the key passage though, I defy you not to laugh out loud:

“He raged with a sense of intolerable injury. Was it not enough that this porous plaster of a man should adhere to him on shore? Must he even pursue him out into the waste of waters and come fooling about and pawing at him when he was enjoying the best swim he had had that summer? In all their long and honourable history no member of his ancient family had ever so far forgotten the sacred obligations of hospitality as to plug a guest in the eye. But then they had never had guests like this.”

In fact, even just copying that out has nearly sent me back to the Amazon wish list. It vexes me that the phrase ‘style over substance’ is supposed to be a criticism. In Wodehouse, as in so many of our greatest writers, the style is the substance, and is not in the least to be scorned for that.