Category Archives: Novels

The seventh of August, 2014: There isn’t, I’m afraid, a great deal to talk about…

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The actor Greg Page reads the opening of my novel, Wild Ink, which is now available to buy in paperback and e-book from Dead Ink Books.

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The third of October, 2012: Fitzgerald’s advanced

Sage advice from a character in Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (Vintage, 2003):

[Nagasawa] was a far more voracious reader than me, but he made it a rule never to touch a book by any author who had not been dead at least 30 years. “That’s the only kind of book I can trust,” he said.

“It’s not that I don’t believe in contemporary literature,” he added, “but I don’t want to waste valuable time reading any book that has not had the baptism of time. Life is too short…

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. That’s the world of hicks and slobs.”

I get the feeling that Murakami may have been unpopular at school.

He makes an exception, this Nagasawa, for The Great Gatsby, whose author, at the time at which this conversation takes place in the book, has been dead for only twenty-eight years. Nagasawa’s response: “So what? Two years? Fitzgerald’s advanced.”

Among the writers that, by Nagasawa’s lights, we can all start reading in 2013 are  Hideo KobayashiArthur KoestlerRebecca West,  Jerzy Andrzejewski – oh, and Hergé. Something to look forward to.

The thirteenth of September, 2012: I’d rather call old Thomas Hardy up

This is a gaunt waste in Thule:

(Photo from Sash Alexander)

These are some Alps:

(Photo by Sandro Vannini/Corbis)

And here are the sand-dunes of Scheveningen:

(Photo by pinktigger)

The connection? Well, they’re all listed in Thomas Hardy’s The Return Of The Native (1878) as instances of landscapes that mankind might, in future, value more highly than such conventionally scenic spots as Heidelberg, Baden, and “the vineyards and myrtle-gardens of South Europe”. These are landscapes that, like the fictional Egdon Heath, “appeal to a subtler and scarcer instinct, to a more recently learnt emotion, than that which responds to the sort of beauty called charming”.

Demonstrating, at the age of 38, a somehat adolescent predilection for morbidity, Hardy goes on:

Indeed, it is a question if the exclusive reign of this orthodox beauty is not approaching its last quarter… The time seems near, if it has not actually arrived, when the mournful sublimity of a moor, a sea or a mountain will be all of nature that is absolutely in keeping with the moods of the more thinking among mankind.

I can see why many people can’t bear Hardy (though I still think he’s great). In any event, I’m sure we can all agree with the critic Holden Caulfield when he says: “I like that Eustacia Vye.”

 

The eleventh of September, 2012: the last letter, and all the postmen

I started today with one of those moments of false déjà vu that occur when, in reading a book you haven’t read before, you come across a passage that is dimly familiar.

A man who has decided upon self-destruction is far removed from mundane affairs, and to sit down and write his will would be, at that moment, an act just as absurd as winding up his watch, since, together with the man, the whole world is destroyed; the last letter is instantly reduced to dust and, with it, all the postmen.

From Nabokov’s The Eye (Panther, 1968). This is such an exceptional piece of writing that it would have stood out even if I hadn’t come across it before – but I had, in Martin Amis’s memoir Experience (Cape, 2000), where Amis discusses the suicide of Lamorna, the mother of his daughter Delilah.

‘The writer is the opposite of suicide,’ Amis concludes. Of suicide, he says: ‘It’s not in me to pass any judgment on it. It escapes morality.’

The fourth of July, 2011: snatching up and snatching up

An optical phenomenon I’ve often remarked myself and long intended to put into writing (without ever getting round to it) appeared in two very unrelated items of my reading recently. Exhibit A:

‘And how wilt thou go?  It is a far cry to Delhi, and farther to Benares.’

‘By road and the trains. From Pathankot, having left the Hills, I came hither in a te-rain. It goes swiftly. At first I was amazed to see those tall poles by the side of the road snatching up and snatching up their threads,’ – he illustrated the stoop and whirl of a telegraph-pole flashing past the train. ‘But later, I was cramped and desired to walk, as I am used.’

I love that snatching up and snatching up. I’ll tell you who wrote that and where after you’ve obediently read Exhibit B:

The door of the compartment was open and I could see the corridor window, where the wires – six thin black wires – were doing their best to slant up, to ascend skywards, despite the lightning blows dealth them by one telegraph pole after another; but just as all six, in a triumphant swoop of pathetic elation, were about to reach the top of the window, a particularly vicious blow would bring them down, as low as they had ever been, and they would have to start all over again.

I like the impressions of frustrated flight in this one. In both I like the naïveté (the first is spoken by an unworldly lama, the second written by (or on behalf of) a child). The first is from Kipling’s heart-tremblingly vivid novel Kim (1901). The second is from Nabokov’s lambent memoir Speak, Memory (1951; revised, 1966).

Against most of my instincts, I declare Kipling the winner on points.

 

 

The fourth of April, 2011: a shameless exhibition

Having just spent a couple of hours thumbing through an unhelpful index, I was put in mind of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle (1963).

After reading through a (very Borgesian) index entry for ‘Aamons, Mona’ in a book by Philip Castle, Vonnegut’s narrator turns to his co-passengers.

I showed this index entry to the Mintons, asking if they didn’t think it was an enchanting biography in itself, a biography of a reluctant goddess of love. I got an unexpectedly expert answer, as one does sometimes. It appeared that Claire Minton, in her time, had been a professional indexer. I had never heard of such a profession before.

She said that indexing was a thing that only the most amateurish author undertook to do for his own book. I asked her what she thought of Philip Castle’s job.

‘Flattering to the author, insulting to the reader,’ she said. ‘In a hyphenated word,’ she observed, with the shrewd amiability of an expert, ‘”self-indulgent”. I’m always embarrassed when I see an index an author has made of his own work.’

‘Embarrassed?’

‘It’s a revealing thing, an author’s index of his own work,’ she informed me. ‘It’s a shameless exhibition – to the trained eye.’

‘She can read character from an index,’ said her husband.

I’d love to know if any known authors are self-indexers (the term sounds a bit unsavoury, when you phrase it like that). Indexes – indices, if you want – should have full credits appended.

The seventeenth of March, 2011: a too-ry-ay, for diddly-ay, a too-ry, oo-ry, oo-ry-ay

It’s Saint Patrick‘s day (“One of the world’s most popular saints” – Catholic Online). So I need to post something Irish, I suppose. I can’t post Joyce, because I’m saving him for Bloomsday. I posted the Pogues a few weeks back, for Australia Day. That’s two clichés ruled out.

So here’s a little bit about my favourite Irishman, Gurtuchrane-born Tom Crean (1877-1938), who travelled to the Antarctic with both Scott and Shackleton.

[W]hen Shackleton undertook a second, infinitely more perilous journey to South Georgia, over 800 miles away, Crean was in his crew of five. The James Caird endured sixteen days ‘of supreme strife amid heaving waters’ before making land on the uninhabited west coast of South Georgia on 10 May (Shackleton, 167). The memory of Crean singing at the tiller stayed with Shackleton always: ‘nobody ever discovered what the song was. It was devoid of tune and as monotonous as the chanting of a Buddhist monk at his prayers; yet somehow it was cheerful’ (ibid., 176). In moments of inspiration he would attempt ‘The Wearing of the Green’.

With Frank Worsley, Crean accompanied Shackleton on the epic trek over the previously unexplored interior of the island to the Norwegian whaling station at Stromness, 19–20 May, and when ‘the Boss’ finally returned to Elephant Island to rescue his men on 30 August 1916, Crean was at his side.

Like a retired footballer, Crean opened a pub when he returned to Ireland: the South Polar Inn.

Elsewhere in Irish trivia, here’s a nice line from The Departed (Scorsese, 2006):

I’m Irish. I’ll deal with something being wrong for the rest of my life.

Here’s a little passage from my novel Salt Pie Alley (I’m slightly Irish on my father’s side, so this counts):

In Stanley House Mrs Margaret Gillray sat up in bed propped by pillows and read Tender Is The Night. She’d read anything. A voracious appetite for the printed word.

America, she thought. A high old life they make it sound like. This feller Fitzgerald. An Irishman himself was he? Well there was no high life for some of Toby’s lot I understand. Tenements. Lord all the wickedness in the world, although not that there isn’t plenty of that over here never mind back home.

Wickedness, though: listen to yourself. Margaret you sound like a bloody reverend.

From the city station and across the Westgate rail bridge a late train clanked and lowed as it made its heavy way southward and Danny hearing it wondered where it was off to and why it was leaving.

More than a little bit pissed, truth be told.

“Toby, don’t go. Please I’m asking.”

“Too late now. It’s all booked and paid for.”

“I’ve changed my mind, Toby. I want you here.”

“No.”

“Please.”

“No, I’ll not. Mind. My train.”

Like a folk-song or summat. Oh, Toby, don’t go… But then listen to enough of the stuff and before you know it everything’s a folk-song. Oh, pull us a pint of the Best, please Joe

Balls to it.

The first English Gillray tapped out a little tune with his teeth as he turned into Charlotte Street and shambled on towards Stanley House. A light in the top-left window.

Ought to be proud of all these paddy generations, he thought. Four or five Gillrays American-born, too – brave emigrant experiment. But didn’t one or two of them Tobias said come to grief?

The old doctor the first to chance his arm across the Irish sea.

“Why d’you want to go there, for God’s sake Toby?” granny Gillray said to him. Tobias used to tell this story. Impersonating his old ma, stooped, a chin like a cow-catcher. He’d regale them with this convivial anecdote.

“Why d’you want to go there?” he’d say, in broadest Belfast jaw-ache.

Never said what his answer was, though.

Suppose it was self-evident to this doctor with his big house. Tobias, the last Irish Gillray. Would he have liked the title? Makes him a bit of a patriarch really. God, yes, he’d have liked that.

The wellmade lock on the front door rolled noisily open under Danny’s key.

“Shh.”

He shut the door behind him and eased the lock closed and rubbed his hands together and took off his jacket. He was careful going up the stairs to keep close to the wall or else the damn planks’d creak: oughtn’t to wake his ma.

He went into his bedroom and kicked off his shoes and fell on to the bed and gathered the blanket about himself and dropped off to sleep just like that.

Elsewhere in Tobias Gillray’s big house, through which draughts scampered on cold mouse’s feet, Mrs Margaret Gillray set down Tender Is The Night.

“Wouldn’t surprise me were he to be an Irishman,” she said to herself. “All the same.”

She turned off the lamp with a tug on the switch-cord and heard, in the next room, the sound of Danny snoring.

“Good lad Daniel.”

Before sleep she thought of the ramshackle Gillray diaspora. The ones Toby told her about: Patrick? Diarmaid? Siobhan and Conn? Maire and Colm and Seamus was it? All good names for the Gillrays.

That poem by the poofter. Tip of Mrs Margaret Gillray’s tongue.

We cannot go there now, my dear. We cannot go there now.

Preoccupied by the Gillray diaspora but in any case tired from reading Mrs Gillray fell asleep at two-fifteen, and then all the house was asleep. The snores of the two ruffled the feathers of the starlings in the attic.

And I’ll finish, because I feel like I ought, with a song (sung by an American, recorded for UK television: live with it). Happy Patrick’s day.