Monthly Archives: June 2011

Look at the Harlequins

As a child of seven or eight, already harbouring the secrets of a confirmed madman, I seemed even to her (who also was far from normal) unusually sulky and indolent; actually of course, I kept daydreaming in a most outrageous fashion.

“Stop moping!” she would cry. “Look at the harlequins!”

“What harlequins? Where?”

“Oh, everywhere. All around you. Trees are harlequins, words are harlequins. So are situations and sums. Put two things together – jokes, images – and you get a triple harlequin. Come on! Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!”

(Look at the Harlequins Vladimir Nabokov 1974)

I love Nabokov’s final novel more and more, and on some days most of all. We now know that it was not meant as a farewell – VN was fully immersed in writing a new novel right up until the time of his death – but in its reinvented autobiography it has that elegiac feel. It also contains – as quoted above – one of the most beautiful and evocative descriptions I have ever come across of what precisely it means to be a writer.

I read Lila Azam Zanganeh’s The Enchanter and was enchanted by it. What I loved was its sincerity, its passion. I didn’t mind that occasionally her close and clever pastiching of VN’s (in truth) inimitable style left me wishing she would use her own voice with a little more confidence. I didn’t mind, because there will be time enough for her to learn to do that, and this was a book she clearly felt an urgent need to write. And having an urgent need to write is, perhaps, the one true prerequisite for becoming a writer in the first place.

Zanganeh ‘gets’ Nabokov in a way that far too few of the major critics and experts do. She taps straight into his first and really only subject, which is the way in which our human mortality is redeemed by art. I felt, quite simply, joy in her epiphany, and privileged to witness it in one with such a power of expression. Too many commentators, especially British and American ones, tend to see VN as a trickster, a caricaturist, a ‘master stylist’ whose arrogant self-satisfaction makes him interested only in displaying his own linguistic brilliance. They dismiss his tender and emotive characterisations as mere puppetry. There has even been latterly, I feel sad to report, some embarrassingly embarrassed attempts to suggest he might have shared – at least in his fantasies – some of the sexual abberations of his own Humbert Humbert.

There was a spate of programmes and features on Nabokov a year or so back, to commemorate the release of his unfinished novel The Original of Laura. One of the programmes featured a longish interview with Martin Amis, who for years has cited VN as his literary hero. You could say I’m not a huge Amis fan, but as a VN fan this was something I had to see. I was shocked to discover that Amis, by his own admission, had only actually read about half of Nabokov, that his ‘expert’ knowledge is largely based on VN’s early, satirical novels (Laughter in the Dark and King Queen Knave, those novels which in fact – if we can say such a thing – are closest to Amis’s own) and Lolita, and that Ada, arguably VN’s masterpiece, had thus far eluded him.

He’d tried to read it three times and each time failed. Not to be beaten, he set himself the task, specifically for this programme, of finally slogging through to the end. Not liking or not understanding what he read, he described it as ‘stillborn,’ VN’s failure to recapture the high ground he’d won in Lolita.

I’m using Amis’s experience as an example here not to have a go at Amis (although that might be fun, too) but to illustrate the misconceptions so many seem to have about Nabokov: that he is ‘difficult,’ or ‘precious’ or simply incomprehensible. These are misconceptions that Lila Zanganeh does not entertain even briefly. She shows, in a variety of delightful, original and audacious ways, how Nabokov is a writer to be read, not studied, a writer to get passionate over, to argue about late into the night, a writer who can inspire us on a daily basis.

The one thing she doesn’t get is the butterfly thing, which is a shame, because without any doubt ‘The Aurelian’ is my favourite VN story.

I finished the first draft of my new ‘Martin’ story today. To celebrate I went for a stroll along the Stade, a working fishing beach that is more or less unique to Hastings and one of its many delights.

It also features in the story, and I had the curious sensation while walking there that I was intruding on one of my own fictions.

Stonefield Road, Hastings


For some time now I’ve been hinting that I might have a new book in the offing. Well, I’m very happy to announce that I’ve recently signed a contract with Pete Crowther at PS Publishing for the publication of my book Stardust, which will appear in the autumn of 2012 as number 11 in the ‘PS Showcase’ series highlighting up and coming writers.

The question friends have asked me most frequently about Stardust is: is it a novel or a collection of short stories? The most honest answer I can give is that it is both. Although each of the ‘chapters’ in Stardust does work as a standalone story, they were written in sequence with continuing characters and references and were always meant to be published as a single unit. Two of the ‘chapters’ are substantial novellas. The work as a whole adds up to more than just the sum of its parts.

For these reasons and by virtue of my own gut instinct I prefer to call it simply a book.

For anyone curious to know what Stardust is about, I’ve written a ‘sort of’ synopsis, which appears below. I shall of course be posting updates on Stardust as and when, and would like to take this opportunity to thank Pete and the PS team for their support and appreciation of my work.


Michael Gomez is fifteen and he is a chess prodigy. He has never lost a game before, but he’s about to learn that troubles come in threes. As he leaves the sports hall where he has suffered his first serious defeat in a competitive tournament, he learns that his teacher and mentor is terminally ill with cancer. As he struggles to come to terms with what has happened, he finds himself drawn into a world he thought existed only in the movies.

The woman of his dreams is Ruby Castle, a charismatic beauty who became famous for her roles in horror films and then notorious for murdering her married lover in a jealous rage. Ruby’s glory days are long behind her, but for Michael her cinematic fantasy world is the only escape he knows from the world of chess.  As Michael is forced to decide if he is willing to make the sacrifices involved in becoming a professional champion, his reality begins to take on the dangerous glamour of a Ruby Castle film. Walking home across Blackheath Common he is apprehended by the Puppeteer, the evil genius of the film that made Castle famous. The man should not exist – and yet somehow he does.

The novel then takes us back to the world Ruby Castle grew up in, the isolate and sinister domain of the travelling carnival, and the story is taken up by Marek Platonov, a knife thrower with troubles of his own. Marek was Ruby’s childhood sweetheart. As her astrological twin he knew her better than anyone, but as they enter adolescence the two become estranged and Ruby starts to cherish dreams of becoming an actress and a future that does not include Marek. Castle runs away to London, where hard work and natural talent make her a household name, but a part of her is unsatisfied even by this. The films that make Castle famous do not have happy endings, and Ruby seems destined to suffer the fate of one of her own doomed heroines.

Castle’s story unfolds in a series of snapshots, of overheard conversations and fleeting glimpses, the myths repeated and reinvented by the people who in one way or another fell under her spell: an antiquarian bookseller with a passion for magical artefacts, the mistress of the poet who was once Castle’s lover, a young girl in a future Russia who dreams of escape. As the novel reaches its climax these worlds collide and the boundaries between the fantastic and the quotidian appear to break down completely.  Vernon Reade and Clarissa Goule, a middle-aged couple in the early stages of a new romance, go on holiday to the Canaries and narrowly escape being torn apart by a mythical spider god.  Strangely enough this is exactly what happened to the couple played by Castle and her lover in the film they made together just before Castle committed her crime of passion. Charlie and Vernon have a happy ending, the way all good Hollywood couples should – but is the ending we have been shown the true end of the story?

Ruby Castle is as much the sum of other people’s fantasies as she is a real person. In the end the world she lived in and the world that she created through her films become dangerously indistinguishable.

Stardust is the lure of fame, the fallout from a burning rocket, the evanescent glister of a vanished dream.

Unravelling the Thread….

There’s nothing more exciting than starting to write a new story. Or at least that’s how it feels before I begin. In fact it’s the before-writing that is the exciting part, those weeks or days when the idea is still fresh in my mind but when I haven’t started trying to set it down yet. When the story is in fact nothing more than a sense of itself, a couple of pages or paragraphs of scribbled notes.

My longhand script is messy. It’s become worse since I abandoned longhand drafts and began writing straight into the computer. This scares me a bit – if I’ve given up on longhand, passionate lover of navy Quink ink and Parker pens and wide feint spiral bound notebooks that I am, does this mean that handwriting, like its cousin the postage stamp, is ultimately doomed? But then again I know writers younger than myself who still do all their first drafts in longhand, so perhaps we’re still OK on that one.

The messy longhand notes are crucial, though. I don’t always look at them again, but the act of putting them on paper releases something. It brings the life of a story into being. At this point, writing is a delight. The possibilities seem endless, profuse as daisies. I feel confident and fully alive. The new story is going to be the best I’ve yet written.

With the setting down of that first paragraph everything changes. I realise, as I’ve realised on every previous occasion, that not only do I not know precisely where this story should start, I’m not entirely clear on what it’s about, either. It’s like diving into the sea. Suddenly I’m in a new element, new actions are expected of me. The gulf between the mind and the page feels unbridgeable. Everything is more immediate and more obscure.

When I wrote ‘The Muse of Copenhagen,’ the story that is to appear in the Solaris anthology House of Fear later this year, I moved quickly from a state of elation to one of gritted-teeth despair. I started the story four times, jettisoning about 5,000 words in the process, and feared I might never finish it. On the fifth attempt I got it. From that moment on there’s nothing I can do but write, nail down the first draft as quickly as I can in case it gets away from me again.

For me, the process of writing a first draft is like trying to untangle a ball of wool. Not a new ball of wool, but one of those odd remnants you find at the bottom of your grandmother’s knitting basket, one that has been there so long it has worked itself into a Gordian knot, a tangle so dense and so rigid it appears to be a single solid mass. The colour is so right though, nothing else will do for what I want to make. So what I have to do is start unpicking. I work a fingernail between the strands, tugging gently to find the place of least resistance. Sometimes when I pull the skein tightens still further, so I stop what I’m doing in a hurry and try somewhere else. After a lot of trial and error I might manage to work loose the thread end, and at that point I have something to go on. Finally the wool unravels, sliding between my fingers. It’s always an intoxicating moment.

Over the past few days I’ve been making notes for the final story in my ‘Martin’ series, a loosely linked collection of stories about a man who’s in love with timepieces. I’ve just reached that point where I have to start writing something. I’m both excited and apprehensive, as I imagine a fencing master must feel before a duel.

I like that image. I’ll probably use it. But not now.

The Enchanter

The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness Lila Azam Zanganeh/Allen Lane May 2011

I had expected to find enchanters and demons in Nabokov. Shuddering magic. The stuff of fairy tales, ‘noble iridescent creatures with translucent talons and mightily beating wings.’ The rest, in truth, was something akin to falling in love, a haunting feeling of native otherness.

(Lila Azam Zanganeh, foreword to The Enchanter)

I found out about this book a week or so ago. Today I purchased my copy and have just begun reading it. My reading pile grows more unwieldy by the day, but I found The Enchanter was a book I could not ignore. I first read Lolita when I was in my early twenties. It was a book I devoured in a single sitting. I was disturbed, upset, perplexed, thrilled and above all transported by the experience. Lolita was then (and perhaps still is now) what is sometimes referred to as a ‘notorious’ book, and of course I was curious about it. In the event I found that most of what I had already read about it was either completely wrongheaded or beside the point. More than anything I felt I had discovered a unique genius, a writer who spoke to me in ways I had never encountered before and who left me in a state of perpetual nostalgia for the world – both material and creative – that he invented. A genius who spoke uniquely to me.

Of all the writers I came to know during this crucial period of development and learning it is Nabokov who has remained a stalwart, a constant inspiration in my life and whose works seem as relevant and electric to me now as they did then.

So when I read about Lila Zanganeh’s attempt to chronicle her own literary love affair with Nabokov I was instantly both intrigued and on my guard. Intrigued because her feelings about Nabokov seemed to concur so closely with my own, on my guard because, well, she was trying to pull off something that was impossible. No one can compete with the master, or should even try, and yet here Zanganeh was, playing games with his style, having imaginary conversations with him – how was this ever going to work?

This girl clearly had some guts or some nerve. Either that or she was insane.

What unnerved me most of all though was some of the online tittle-tattle surrounding this book. I found numerous instances of hostility at the very idea that The Enchanter had been written, let alone published. Many of these comments were personal insults aimed at the writer. Most of them were written by people who had not, at least to date, read the book. Not exactly what you’d call informed debate.

I found this to be deeply distasteful. It seemed to me that Zanganeh had set out honestly to do something brave and original, and that this, of and for itself, should be applauded. (It’s what good writing is all about, surely?) The idea of fusing biography with memoir with fiction with literary criticism seemed to me beautiful and audacious, an idea I could get fond of myself. Whether or not I end up liking this book I’m glad it has been written.

And if Zanganeh’s work draws new disciples to the feet of the master that goes double.

Find out more about The Enchanter here, and here.