I’m incredibly pleased to have had a story published in the new issue of Interzone (#259). It’s a superb magazine that’s been going for over 30 years and has published some of the best science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction (for want of a better phrase) writers in that period, including JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Jeff Noon and many, many others. There’s a small part of me that feels vaguely like an interloper, an intruder moving across territory I wouldn’t normally cover, but if I say that my story is only nominally science fictional that isn’t in the least meant to be a slight on the genre. Ballard after all is one of the touchstone writers in my reading life, and there are many more purveyors of sci-fi and fantasy who have meant as much to me as a reader as more prominent or ‘respectable’ literary figures like VS Naipaul or William Golding (and dealing as he does with an anti-humanistic, quasi-theological worldview with an incredibly long perspective, what is Golding at heart but a fantasy writer of a kind?) The kind of fiction I’m interested in writing – non-realist, uninterested in contemporary society, yoked together more by image than narrative, set in unspecified locales with characters designed to illustrate tropes as much as personalities – could be seen as another kind of fantasy in itself. In which case, with this particular magazine, perhaps I should feel perfectly at home?
I recently finished Geoff Dyer’s superb ‘Out of Sheer Rage’, a book ostensibly about DH Lawrence, but in reality about Dyer’s inability to write a sober academic study of DH Lawrence. In a ranting, splenetic style inspired by Thomas Bernhard, Dyer circles around his subject, procrastinating, deliberately avoiding Lawrence’s major books, taking trips to Mexico and Italy in a supposed attempt to connect with his subject, but instead finding endless reasons not to get down to work. The digressions multiply into short routines about Dyer’s hatred of seafood, his hypochondria, his failure to settle anywhere or find anywhere he can comfortably call home. In this way, by exploring his discontent and the circling depression that finally comes over him in Italy (where he can’t even conjure up his usual reliable and entirely childish fury when the local bakery runs out of his favourite cornetti integrali), Dyer ends up producing what feels like a touching and poetically truthful picture of Lawrence. More than that, it’s a touching and poetically truthful picture of Geoff Dyer. ‘Out of Sheer Rage’ is literary criticism as memoir, as fiction, as satire, and as viciously barbed humour, and it is the emblematic text in Dyer’s career as a writer who knows the constraint of no genre, and who will happily and profitably mix up any and every form in his work.
Tangentially to reading Dyer’s book, I’ve been reading ‘Reality Hunger’ by David Shields. This caused a predictable ‘controversy’ when it was published last year, with its assertion of non-fiction’s supremacy over fiction, and of the fragmentary text, collage, or lyrical essay over the linear narrative as a more authentic way of exploring life. Every five minutes it seems that someone is moved to declare the novel ‘dead’, but Shields’ approach, through a Nietzschean sequence of short, numbered sections, is far more sophisticated than that. I have one major quibble with the thesis (life does actually have a narrative thrust, and tends to point inescapably in one direction; and why should art have to mirror life anyway? ), but I think ‘Reality Hunger’ underlines how much more interesting a certain fragmentary and formally experimental style of writing can be than straight narrative, and how fiction can often straitjacket writers, who have to couch a few insights and observations within a vast, usually boring, superstructure of prose. Geoff Dyer has said that while the novel is very far from being dead, and very good novels are certainly being written now, the idea of ‘the novel’ as the ultimate testing ground for a writer is beginning to collapse, and the long-form realist narrative as inherited from the 19th century should hopefully be replaced by some sort of cross-pollination between criticism, memoir, reportage and fiction. Examples to follow would be Fernando Pessoa, John Berger, Walter Benjamin’s notebooks, the VS Naipaul of ‘A Way in the World’, WG Sebald, later JM Coetzee, and no doubt many other writers who use double initials instead of first names, like, say, DH Lawrence …
The point of all this, I think, is not that one style or one approach has to replace the other (the kind of binary oppositional mode of debate that makes the religious/atheist argument so incredibly boring, for example), but that formal questions can be more important than questions of narrative, subject, or even style. (The real concern of course is that these questions are far more interesting for the writer than they are for the reader.)
I was thinking about this, and reading these two books in particular, because of a series of conversations, emails, texts, I’ve been having with my friend and co-editor on Free State, Martin MacInnes, who convinced me that Geoff Dyer is someone I really should read in the first place. Martin is insanely committed to writing, probably to the detriment of his sanity and health, and provided me (via VS Naipaul) with one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard. I was complaining that the solution I’d finally found to the novel I want to write next might be eminently satisfying to me as a writer, but would no doubt prove reader- and publisher-repellingly complicated. Why, I moaned, can’t I ever think of ideas which can be put forward in simple, realist, narratively compelling stories which people might actually want to read. Why must there always be complexity, allusion, this weird obsession with looping three-part structures? But as Naipaul says, “If you want to write serious books, you must be ready to break the forms, break the forms.” (This quote also appears as section 589 in ‘Reality Hunger’.) Martin is in the middle of doing precisely this, and is writing one of the most fascinating books that I’ve ever heard of. It’s not for me, here, to say what it’s about, but his approach has convinced me in a period of doubt to write the way the material demands to be written. In the end, fidelity to the material is more important than anything.
Here are a few links if anyone wants to read further about David Shields, Dyer, etc.
First, let me apologise for the atrocious pun in the title above. In mitigation, I’m not the first one to make it; when Waugh put out his 1935 travel/reportage book about the war in Abyssinia, his publishers (against his wishes) entitled it … yes, ‘Waugh in Abyssinia’.
But at last, then, my epic reading of Waugh’s oeuvre is complete. I have over the last three months or so read all of his fiction, and all of his non-fiction, with the exception of his diaries and letters, and the three biographies. Prior to this monomaniacal feat, I had only read Brideshead Revisited (which I re-read as well), reckoned by many to be his best book. Brideshead is certainly a great achievement, but to my mind his best novel is the Sword of Honour trilogy, revised into one volume by Waugh not long before his death. With expert balance it displays some of the best examples of his antic comedy, and mines deeper even than Brideshead the rich seam of Catholicism and decline that so obsessed his later years.
Anyone who likes Waugh seems obliged to make a prefatory defence of his character; the checklist is unchanging. He was a snob; he was virtually a fascist; he was personally cruel and unpleasant; he was an alcoholic. Character traits of course should have no effect on the work being considered, and when the writer in question is suitably distant in time, and suitably roguish in his proclivities, this never seems to apply. (Who now would feel the need to defend Byron before praising his poetry, for example?) Waugh was many of these things, (although the idea that he was a fascist is ludicrous), and in any case, none of them sully his genius or the extent of his achievement.
I remember reading an interview with Martin Amis where he was trying to place his late father in the scale of English letters. He decided that Kingsley would be seen as the best comic novelist of the 20th century, after Waugh. At the time I thought this reasonable, but after reading Waugh I realise how vast is the gulf that separates the two men, as men and as writers. There is something punishing and mortifying (in the Catholic sense of the word) about Waugh’s life, and his stylistic originality puts him well beyond Amis Snr as a novelist. For Waugh, comedy does not come just out of incident, but from an exactness of language as well. The target of his satire is the frivolous barbarity of his age, from the Bright Young Things of the 1920s, rich and empty, to the ‘Century of the Common Man’ which he saw inaugurated by the Second World War. His comedy can also be staggeringly cruel; the ending of A Handful of Dust had me laughing with shock as much as anything else.
Apart from the fiction, it is Waugh’s relentless travelling that marks him out as a writer of distinction. Certainly, he did not seem to do it for pleasure – his best travel book, Remote People, is interspersed with short sections entitled ‘First Nightmare’, ‘Second Nightmare’ and so on, and detail all the brutalities and boredom of prolonged absence from home. He was keenly alert to the cod-Romantic notion that travel broadens the mind, or that the traveller is the ultimate paragon of freedom. For Waugh, travel in difficult countries and across harsh terrain can be mind-numbingly dull and stressful. Picking the jiggers out of your foot in the Brazilian rainforest can be just as irritating as having to dress for dinner in high society. He did it, you think, to escape the sterility of his life in London, and to punish himself for what he must have seen as his shortcomings. He is also refreshingly clear in his travel books that some of his motives are purely literary – he needs to collect material for his novels. In a strange way, the writer he most reminds me of is VS Naipaul, someone who moved from the comic novel through a sequence of profound and original travel books, to a deeper and more coruscating model of fiction in his later years.
If you are at all interested in reading Waugh and don’t know where to begin, here are my personal recommendations:
You will not be disappointed.
I got the new VS Naipaul book this morning, “The Masque of Africa”, his first new title for about five years or so, and his first travel book since 1998’s “Beyond Belief”. Naipaul is one of my touchstone writers; I don’t think anyone would detect his influence in the way I write or what I write about, but he is immensely important to me and I’ve been reading him for years. This new book looks at the surviving traces of Africa’s native religious beliefs, and their uneasy cohabitation with the twin imperialist religions of Christianity and Islam.
Naipaul is an extremely controversial figure, both on the left and the right (when you can piss off left-wingers and conservatives, you must be doing something right), and his unforgiving gaze has produced some of the greatest writing of the 20th century. I’ve only just started the book, but in the stripped down, clinical prose, and in the unsentimental thrust of his observation, I can already tell that he hasn’t lost any of his force. To have travelled so extensively in such a demanding continent and to have produced something like this at the age of 78 is humbling. He’s an old man, but I hope this isn’t his last book.
I’ve been watching, and partially enjoying, the series “In Their Own Words: British Novelists” on BBC 4 over the last couple of weeks. The third and final episode is on Monday (30 August), and you can watch the previous two on iPlayer here and here. The first episode looked at British fiction between the wars, as the age of Empire collapsed into the age of ideology. The second episode looked at the post-war world from 1945 until the end of the 1960s, and how social and cultural change were addressed by a new generation of writers.
I’ll get to everything I thought was wrong with this series in a moment, but the main thing I took away from it was a realisation of how many interesting British writers there are who I’ve yet to read, and, I’m ashamed to say, how many of them are women. Margaret Drabble and AS Byatt are two major novelists who I have never even glanced at, and all I’ve read by Iris Murdoch is her first (and I thought terrible) novel “Under the Net”. Apart from that, it was fascinating to see writers I revere, like William Golding, strolling awkwardly about or pretending to type (in every archive piece there’s a scene where the writer has to sit and type, or stare out of the window and muse) while a cut-glass voiceover described his work, or to see Evelyn Waugh exercise his most vile persona when being interviewed about his books. It was broadly successful in trying to interrogate trends in literary history, and demonstrated well how much the background noise of history and society seeps into a writer’s consciousness, sometimes without them being aware of it. Postwar fiction has been dominated by big American novelists, who seem streets ahead in both style and substance, so it was a useful corrective to see how spiky and obdurate and odd so many British writers have been in this period. What American writers like Philip Roth and John Updike achieved through the scale of their ambition and the energy of their prose, British writers like Golding and JG Ballard made up with sheer weirdness and idiosyncrasy.
The series is let down by the format though, specifically by the clue in the title – that this is “in their own words”. Writers seem to be included in this programme purely on the basis of there being extant archive footage of them, so although the iPlayer frontispiece for the first episode is a brooding picture of him, and despite his vast importance in early 20th century British (and global) literature, there’s nothing here about DH Lawrence. Weirdly, there’s a good ten minutes about Barbara Cartland in the first episode, and although I enjoy the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, I don’t really see that JRR Tolkein is a “British novelist” in the same way Iris Murdoch, or Kingsley Amis, or Ballard, is. Even more ridiculously, while the second episode had an excellent archive interview with Sam Selvon, author of the immigrant classic “The Lonely Londoners”, there was absolutely nothing about VS Naipaul, the man who effectively invented postcolonial literature. Naipaul only featured in the first episode, in the section on Elizabeth Bowen.
Similarly, and given how quick Scottish commentators are to fly at any perceived slight I’d be amazed if I was the first person to point this out, for a series about British novelists, no Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish writers featured at all. I’m sure the final episode, taking us up to the present day, will have something about Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner, for example, but it seems an odd lacuna all the same. It’s probable the omission of writers like Alexander Trocchi, or Naomi Mitchison, to name just two Scottish writers working at this time, was because there was nothing in the BBC archives about them, and, if so, demonstrates the shortcomings of the whole series’ approach.
Despite all this, I love any documentary about writers and writing, and I’m glad I’ve been given the chance to see some rare footage of some extraordinary people (and Barbara Cartland … ) I remember in the 1990s there was a series called “Bookmark” which had some excellent hour-long documentaries about Albert Camus, Lawrence Durrell, and (my favourite) Martin Amis jetting off to Chicago to interview Saul Bellow. And these were peak-time programmes on BBC2. Although most people can get BBC4 on Freeview, or can watch on the internet, it says a lot for the cultural confidence of the broadcaster to put a series like “In Their Own Words” on the digital station. This is to say nothing of the archive programmes themselves, serious discussions with major novelists, broadcast (necessarily) on BBC1 at peak time. What this programme unintentionally illustrates more than anything is that serious writers were once newsworthy and were assumed to have something of importance to say, about culture, society and politics. It’s seems inescapable that novelists are no longer in the forefront of the culture, or at least not in the same way. When Lawrence Durrell admitted in the second episode that he didn’t believe women had souls, perhaps overall this could be seen as a good thing …
It’s interesting to think of novelists operating on the margins of culture though. Often, it’s on the margins where the most provocative work gets done.