I loved Benjamin Myer’s The Gallows Pole almost as much as Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Yet superficially, at least, these two novels have almost nothing in common. The Gallow’s Pole is set in the late eighteenth century Yorkshire, its protagonists are the Cragg Valley Coiners, counterfeiters, they live in smokey stone houses, they stink, they swear. Olive Kitteridge is more or less a story of a late middle aged woman in a small town on the east coast of the USA, she’s blunt, sometimes brutal. Each chapter of Olive Kitteridge is almost stand alone, characters breeze in and out, but Olive is like a shadow passing through, she is grumpy, ungracious, flawed and fully human. She’s not particularly happy, just about OK. (Did Strout deliberately choose those initials? Of course she did!) Meanwhile David Hartley, self-styled king of the coiners, is a Robin Hood, a gangster, he is superstitious and dangerous, dispenses his own violent justice to those who cross him. Olive and David are difficult, unpleasant people. They are flawed, unpredictable, yet both have a quality that somehow makes you root for them. This quality, whatever it is, I cannot isolate nor define. Perhaps it is their honesty, their reluctance to comply with polite society, their intolerance of etiquette, their resistance to being nice. I wouldn’t invite either into my house, yet there I was, smuggling them in every day, eager to know what they were up to. Because David and Olive are in a war with life, their struggle is ours, David’s against injustice, poverty, the might of the state. Olive battles stupidity and sentimentality. And both are all too aware of the cold indifference of the universe. This is, perhaps, a clue, a key to their psyches. They have grown a tough skin but somewhere beneath is a soft heart. They are hard to like, but easy to love. Occasionally Strout peels Olive open and we hear something like this: ‘Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. For most, it was a sense of safety in the sea of terror that life increasingly became.’ Olive and David are like tiny children, who wake at night in impenetrable darkness, but who, instead of hiding under the duvet, yell out at the bogeymen, the invisible demons. They take on the universe, its meaninglessness, and somehow, in doing so, show us courage, and even when all seems lost, how to keep going.
Category Archives: writing
Four or five years ago I was wandering around Bristol when I saw someone who looked like Geoff Dyer walking up the street. I knew it couldn’t be Dyer because he lived in Los Angeles, but scurried up behind this lookalike, overtook him and walked by again, this time trying to get a closer look. It was him, of course.
He was there to promote his latest book White Sands – I soon discovered he’d be in Waterstones later that day giving a talk, so I went along. I’ve followed Dyer’s career for many years. I’d heard him on the radio reading from one of his earliest books, a novel, The Search. The book was disappointing, a bit flat, but nevertheless Dyer’s voice, his take on things had stayed with me, so when he started to find his feet as a non-fiction writer, I soon followed. And I loved what he wrote. Out of Sheer Rage is a sort of non-biography of DH Lawrence. Dyer is researching Lawrence, has an advance, a deadline, but he can’t get the book finished, so instead writes a book about not writing a book. Dyer is very good at not doing things. Hence the title of a later book Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It.
In the spirit of Dyer I didn’t buy a signed copy of White Sands and still don’t own a copy. It was serialised as Radio Four’s Book of the Week, I’d also picked it up several times in bookshops to flick through it. There’s a chapter on not seeing the Northern Lights. It was another book of nots. So I was not buying it.
Last week Dyer turned up in Bath to promote his new book The Last Days of Roger Federer which, as Dyer was keen to explain, is not a book about tennis. This is a book about endings, but not abrupt endings, but declines. How someone’s decline sets in long before things end completely. It’s a book about finitude. About ageing, and about time. The book is 86,400 words long, the same number as there are seconds in a day. Nietzsche, for example, lived long after his madness set in, and Bob Dylan, according to Dyer, still makes records long after he has since being any good at all.
So is Dyer in decline too? He admits to feeling a bit creaky: he plays tennis but his knee is messed up. He had a mild stroke some years ago (he mentioned it at the Bristol talk), but his mind seems still capable of pinpoint accuracy. He is extremely funny, most of his books are smart but some are hilarious too, and in Bath he talked for almost an hour and his performance was worthy of stand up. Certainly funnier than Ricky Gervais’ Supernature.
I bought a signed copy of The Last Days of Roger Federer but like many of my signed first editions, I won’t read it. I’ll keep it on my shelf, out of the sunlight, and it’ll stay there until my last days when my son or daughter will come and throw it in a box and take it to a charity shop.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s huge six volume series My Struggle concludes with a gigantic 1100 page bruiser of a book, aptly title The End. Knausgaard’s writing has been termed ‘auto-fiction’ – his books tell the story of his life, all characters are real people, but unlike a conventional biography, this is life in all its maddening, repetitive detail. I’d like to be able to compare it with minimalist music, but at least that can have some beauty. Knausgaard’s six novels are crudely written, dwell on his insecurities and are dense with endless, insignificant minutiae. He pours coffee, smokes cigarette after cigarette. He worries, makes tedious trips to the shops and the park, stares out of windows. And yet there is something else happening here. It’s as if we’re trawling through our own lives, but with an intensity of focus on all the trivia: cooking sausages, loading the dishwasher, remembering the colour and smell of children’s clothes, the feel of warm rooms in summer, of cold streets in winter. Knausgaard creates a vivid reality, he seems to have an acute visual memory, seems to hold details of moments from decades ago that the rest of us have forgotten. In this last book he attempts to rationalise his obsession with the banal: in a long digression on the power of language in the rise of the Nazis, Knausgaard rejects reaching beyond the quotidian, elevating the world to something more than it is. There is desire for what is authentic, for what matters, for the human world. This is why, he seems to be saying, I have filled five volumes with getting up, making breakfast, doing the laundry, and, in this last book, worrying what others he has written about will think of him. He has a hyper-vigilance, a tension, a constant anxiety. When it’s remembered that book one of the series describes his father’s death, stirring up Knausgaard’s hatred for the man he regards as a thug, then there is some explanation for this vigilance: since he can remember, Knausgaard was bullied and beaten by his father. Many passages recall him waiting to hear his father come home, terrified what mood he would be in. These are novels of fear, of a lifelong insecurity, and although there is love and laughter here too, there is an overwhelming sense of man battling to be free. This, then, is his struggle.
Graham Robb’s book ‘The Ancient Paths’ so confused and entertained me, my only response was not to attempt a critical review, but to create a series of improvisations.
The book suggests that the ancient Gauls created a road network which ran across what is now modern France, a network which was subsequently obliterated by the Romans. This in itself is contentious enough, but then Robb goes on to speculate that these roads ran in the direction of the rising and setting sun at the summer and winter solstices.
He pinpoints place names that reflect the location of ancient paths, for example any ‘middle hill’ – a station that would have been used to plot the roads, so, for example, we get Mediolanum, the Roman name for Milan.
Robb also describes the Nemetons, the Druidic temples, showing how none of them are perfectly rectangular, all slightly askew. These were based on the elliptic, the sun’s apparent journey around the zodiac. Of course!
The book verges on being so speculative it is a work of rich fantasy, but no less enjoyable for all that. So, as I said, I don’t really have the time to pick apart his arguments, even in this tenth week of Lockdown, so instead composed a series of short musical pieces.
And here they are:
James Joyce’s Ulysses is often referred to as the greatest novel of all time. Published in 1922, it was a revolution in literary form. From then on a novel could no longer just represent reality, whether naturalist or realist, fiction was on the run. Character, plot, setting, these were no longer enough. The novel had to examine itself, the history of how it came to be. So Ulysses, although representing one day in the life of Dublin, a young man’s search for meaning, an older man’s search for love, it is The Odyssey, all history, all humanity’s search for sense. Joyce’s next work, and his last, Finnegans Wake, took him 14 years to complete. If Ulysses is difficult, Finnegans Wake is impossible. If Ulysses is one day in the life of Dublin, Finnegans Wake is one night. There are characters – Earwicker, the dad, Anna Livia, mum, Shaun, Shem and Issy, the children. But the book is a dream, and it is written in dream language. There is a plot, settings, themes, but these are fluid, and everything is in flux. Earwicker dreams and is plagued by guilt. He has been accused of something. He is a hill, his wife is a river, they are the landscape of Dublin. Earwicker is Howth Head, his wife the River Liffey. At its densest, when the dreamers are in their deepest sleep, almost every word is some sort of amalgam, sentences seem to abide by syntactical rules, but then they spin off into chaos. But read it aloud and patterns, rhythms, sometimes songs emerge. It is like music. Themes emerge, disappear and reemerge like a log floating down a river. This is one of my favourite passages (and I warn you, one of the easiest).
‘Well, almost any photoist worth his chemicots will tip anyone
asking him the teaser that if a negative of a horse happens to melt
enough while drying, well, what you do get is, well, a positively
grotesquely distorted macromass of all sorts of horsehappy values
and masses of meltwhile horse. Well, this freely is what
must have occurred to our missive…’
A negative of a horse, if it melts during processing will produce a horse that is distorted, a monster, but a happy one. This is, I am sure, Joyce referring to his book, his missive. It is a happy mess. And, yes, it is very funny.
There are threads of themes, like streams, that run through the book: there are courtroom scenes, inquisitions, a letter offering evidence of guilt and innocence, meanwhile a hen pecks at litter. HC Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabelle mutate and reappear in hundreds of forms, as do their children, Shem the Penman, Shaun the Post and Issy, Chapelizod, a village within Dublin, as Isolde, and then there is Tristan and the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who often mutate into prosecutors, inquisitors.
The book is long and dense, and there is rarely any breathing space. The Wake does with fiction what Picasso did with figurative art. But whereas Picasso’s vision has been absorbed into contemporary painting, the book remains a curiosity, largely unread. And it has few successors. Anthony Burgess (who wrote a shorter version of Finnegans Wake) pays homage to Joyce in his use of language in A Clockwork Orange. Russell Hoban’s wonderful Riddley Walker probably owes a great deal to Joyce. But these novels are far less impenetrable and a much easier read that Finnegans Wake. Joyce’s last book is about everything: gods, heroes, humanity, world history, Irish history. Published in 1939, the year of the outbreak of World War Two, it almost marks the end of time, of recorded history. The book is a tip, a letter, litter, ‘scribbledehobble’. The hen picks at the litter, finds a letter, or letters, and somehow, humanity sees in this chaos its guilt. HC Earwicker’s nightmare: he is all of us, Here Comes Everybody.
Every Good Friday, when I was a child, friends and I used to walk the ten miles or so to the top of Twm Barlwm, a mountain dominating the reclaimed marshlands of south Wales. In my imagination, uncorrupted by historical detail, this is where the Celts stood fast, watching over the slow encroachment of Romans stationed in the fort of Caerleon, just below. It was a mountain of war, and later, in my teens, I witnessed real battles as gangs from nearby towns fought with chains and axes, as determined as the Celts and the Romans not to give an inch. I watched these events from the safety of the ferns, and sometime later, when the gangs had gone, returned with my dog to wander along the mountain’s spine, to the strange mound at its summit. From there, under the steel grey sky, it felt as if all of the world, and the future, was spread out before me.
Arthur Machen’s Hill of Dreams is a book based on his boyhood love of Twm Barlwm, and Machen’s later work, particularly his London Adventure is a hike through the demi-monde of Edwardian London. He was a flaneur who perfected the art of wandering. He wanders London as he wandered the Welsh hills. When, in my early twenties, I followed Machen’s footsteps and moved from south Wales to west London, I worked hard at being a flaneur. I loved strolling aimlessly through the leafy suburbs, and in the city I adored the river’s muddy allure. But I didn’t get to be a seriously good at it, I was Welsh boy in Dr Martens. I didn’t have the style.
After my own decade and a half of London adventure, I moved back to Wales, this time away from the industrial south and into the central wilderness. Here I crave nothing more than to be rambling in the mountains, getting closer to the clouds, and sometimes above them.
I tend to walk with a small bunch of serious hikers. These people have all the kit, the Nordic poles, heavy duty water bottles, stainless steel thermos flasks. They study maps. Some of them have beards. They are not wanderers, they are athletes. Usually these walks take six hours or so, and often cover twenty miles. We struggle up steep slopes and spill over and down them again.
We usually start in a car park and at some point manage to find a pub, often an ancient, hidden place, a few dating back to the thirteenth century, some even earlier. I’ve come upon remote hillside churches with eerie murals, like Death wielding a shovel, or St George slaying what I supposed was a dragon but which looked more like a giant, angry sparrow. I know the twisted spine of Cwmyoy, and the tumbling, secluded magic of Llanthony and Tintern.
Most of my fellow hikers have travelled this way before, and they know the stories. Up high in the mountains I’ve seen the wreck of a Wellington bomber that lost its way in the fog; the caves where the Chartists hid their weapons as they planned revolution. There’s the poet’s chair, and the grave of a famous racehorse. There are standing stones, remnants of Iron Age forts, terraced ramparts, a hermit’s cell. I’ve looked across the plains of Herefordshire and seen the blue remembered hills of Shropshire. Look south and there’s the Severn, glinting.
I like writers who are walkers: Rosseau, Wordsworth, Machen, Bruce Chatwin, WG Sebald. Wandering has a great pedigree. In their books one phrase reappears time after time: solvitur ambulando – you can solve it by walking. After hiking all day whatever problems you have disappear, and the simple pleasures of sandwiches, or a flask of tea, with the land spinning about you, miles and miles of it, on and on, never ending, whisk all worldly cares up into the clouds, to be lost forever in the vast ancient wilderness.
n.b. this originally appeared in the Awfully Big Adventure Blog.
It’s a limbo I’m sure all writers understand. The book is finished, and has been reduced to the essence of what it should be. I’ve always thought writing, or any creative activity, is like alchemy. The alchemist takes raw materials, or base matter, and subjects it to a process of reduction until there is nothing but a purified essence. This, perhaps, is the mysterious white stone. It is everything stripped down to all that matters. I forget who said that good design is the art of knowing when you’ve reached the point where no more can be added, and nothing can be taken away. Perhaps it’s the same for writing a book. I don’t want to add any more, and I dread taking anything else away. Meanwhile I am in limbo, waiting for my agent to reveal to me what she intends to do. Will she represent it? And if so, to whom? Will she be ambitious, cautious, or will every publisher in town get to see it? So I cook boiled eggs and eat toast. I read more. I fidget.
In June I went to see my agent, Catherine, who, along with Amy Waite, a new member of staff at the agency, sat with me and made some suggestions on what to do with the new book. At the moment it’s called Octopus Crush. I hope it stays that way, but you never can tell with publishers. It’ll probably end up being called Hairy Octopus or His Dank Tentacles.
Catherine wants cuts, and I can understand why. It’s because my book is far too long. One day, perhaps, I will assemble the cuts into Octopus Crush, the Author’s Cut, but it will be rambling and have too many scenes in which nothing happens.