Monthly Archives: June 2015

Diary, 8.30 am

,,,red campion, fool’s parsley, hogweed, rough chervil, common evening primrose, foxglove (winding down now), convolvulus (first of the season), tufted vetch, meadow buttercup, leopard’s bane, broad-leaved willowherb…

These are all super-common native plant species of the kind most people call weeds, but for me there are few more thrilling avenues to explore in natural history than these widespread British wildflowers. Of course there are many more spectacular and scientifically interesting species found elsewhere in the world, but none that better define the landscapes I write about, the landscapes I grew up in and that trigger my most immediate, honest response as a writer and as a human being.

The sight of red campion in the hedgerow (at its peak, a couple of weeks ago, it was breathtaking in its profusion) can set my heart racing. The Devon hedgerows themselves, which this spring I’ve been able to watch daily as they’ve thickened and quickened, are so bounteous, so diverse in composition, so vast you could spend most of a day just looking at one small stretch of one, identifying, photographing and cataloguing the plants on display. These hedgerows and the fields beyond form what can rightly be called a Fowlesian landscape, a landscape that is somehow so deeply rooted in many of us Britons that it is instantly recognisable at a level that has more to do with the gut than with the eye, instantly home, even for those who live in the city.

On Tuesday I wandered down a lane that led to a bridleway that led to a meadow bursting with clover and singing with bees. SO many bees here, bees all around us, up first thing in the morning and already about their business.

In that same meadow a pheasant broke cover just yards from my feet. At the end of last week I spotted on one of our garden shrubs a bronze shield bug. Haven’t seen one in years. These things too I find thrilling.

Although my bookshelves contain an ever increasing number of books on natural history (bear in mind that this is someone who requested – and received – W. S. Bristowe’s The World of Spiders for her twelfth birthday and still has that same copy) and though I rejoice in the current upsurge in popularity of nature writing by the likes of Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald and Melissa Harrison, Marianne Taylor, Richard Kerridge, Patrick Barkham and Dave Goulson, I find it practically impossible to write about these landscapes except through fiction. The experience is too intimate, too revealing of self. There is the ever-present danger of slipping into a mode of expression that sounds like sentimentality, when what one wants to express is fierceness. Fierceness and passion and urgent necessity.Cow parsley 20 05 15

I’ve probably just inadvertently listed another ten reasons why I love Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border so much. I could say sorry for harping on this book all the time, but I’m not going to.

The tyranny of plot

“I’m certain autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts. Description, character – these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”

Rachel Cusk in an interview for The Guardian, August 2014.

For Levy, the line to tread lies between needing facts ‘to tune the reality levels of my books so I can do a deal with the reader and subvert that reality’, and veering away from ‘hyperintelligible, readable writing that has tragically died in the crib’… As a steely, soft-spoken critic of literary orthodoxy, Levy has a gift for languidly dismissive metaphors. Coherence is ‘the bloody, mauled fox’ of the writing process, while rigid narrative convention is ‘a sort of painkiller’ resulting all too often in the ‘sacrifice of poetry on the altar of plot’.

Laura Garmeson, reporting on a seminar given by Deborah Levy on Form and Content in the 21st-century Novel at Birkbeck College.

 

I recently read Rachel Cusk’s Baileys- and Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel Outline, in which a writer travels to Athens to teach a creative writing workshop. She describes the flight, the apartment in which she is staying and its immediate environs in unfussy yet precise, quietly harmonious prose. She recounts in detail her conversations with those she encounters – the businessman who happens to be sitting next to her on the plane, two writers she has dinner with, the students on the course – and her internalised thought processes relating to those conversations. Nothing at all happens, apart from what happens. There is nothing in this novel that might be analogous with ‘narrative tension’. There is no such thing as plot. The book is what it is. It makes no claims for itself. It has the feel and texture of a found document.

The eschewing of plot elements is a very deliberate decision on Cusk’s part, of course, and whether Outline is a thinly fictionalised work of autobiography is beside the point. What Cusk is doing here is something other than ‘telling a story’. She is replicating the fabric of lived experience through the incompatible medium of words.

Cusk’s prose is certainly flawless, an act of mimesis so perfect that as a writer it is almost impossible not to admire it. Such moment-by-moment evocation of ordinary occurrences is notoriously difficult to achieve, the kind of writing that can only succeed through, as Cusk describes it, an ‘annihilated perspective’, a willed invisibility on the part of the writer, style that moves beyond style and into a kind of verbal photo-realism.

But to paraphrase Jerry Leiber, is that all there is to a novel? This question has been preoccupying me ever since I reread Cusk’s interview in the context of having read Outline, and the article about Deborah Levy only added to my feelings of fascination and unease. The warning bell began ringing for me, I think, when I realised why my reaction to Outline was so divided: as a writer, I found the book admirable, an experiment in form and fiction well worth pursuing. As a reader, I couldn’t think of a single reason to continue the book to its end. As a reader, you can learn everything there is to know about Outline in fifty pages (or even fewer, if you feel like being callous about it). As a reader, once you have grasped Cusk’s take on the tyranny of plot, there is nothing here for you. You will exit the narrative in the same semi-passive, semi enervated state in which you entered it.

I find it ironic that in a novel which seeks to annihilate authorial perspective, what you end up with, finally, is a novel that is wholly, tirelessly, overbearingly about authorial perspective: this is how it feels to be a writer, this is how we see, this is what we do, this is how we never switch off because everything is work, everything is live meat, everything must be exterminated captured and descrrrribed. Yes, fine – as a writer I’m kind of down with that. But as a reader? God, it’s tiresome.

I’m aware even as I write this that I may no longer be properly qualified to speak as a reader, to offer my opinions on what a reader may desire or find provoking. One of the unspoken penalties of being a writer (I’m not going to do a Cusk here, I promise) is that you give up your reader privileges. Everything you read, you read as a writer: what is the author doing, how did they do it, do I like it/hate it/agree with it/find it relevant or irrelevant to what I, as a writer, am trying to do myself? Those moments when you’re completely swept away, when you find yourself so lost in the narrative and your reaction to it – the very feeling that made you want to be a writer in the first place – become vanishingly few. Far more often you find yourself distracted by that crushing sense of yes OK I get it, so what now?

Which makes it all the more rewarding when it does happen. If a novel can succeed in not bugging you, if you find you’ve read 200 pages and not thought once about the next book you absolutely have to read before the month is out, you know you’re on to something amazing.

Need I add that this did not happen for me with Rachel Cusk’s Outline. My two top reads of the year so far have been Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, which is pretty much all description and character (so much for them being dead, then) and Sara Taylor’s The Shore, an act of mimesis every bit as convincing as Cusk’s, yet combined with elements of mystery and speculation that gave that mimesis – yes! – a narrative engine, a sense of urgency and relevance that felt almost entirely lacking in Cusk’s novel.

In terms of its form, there is nothing in the slightest bit revolutionary about The Wolf Border – and yet the power and urgency of the writing, the conviction Hall brings to her narrative, together with a plot hook (the importance of conservation and rewilding) I’m passionate about and (YES, I ADMIT IT!) a protagonist I loved and was totally rooting for, makes this novel a keeper, the kind of book people will still be reading and loving decades from now. The Wolf Border feels like a book Sarah Hall really needed to write and perhaps that’s the entire point.

Sarah Taylor’s The Shore is fired with that same passion for communication, the same depth of resonance – with a landscape, with its people. The Shore is a fractured narrative (my favourite kind) a multiplicity of mini-narratives that build a greater whole. Taylor is not afraid of being elliptical, in other words, she is not afraid to dispense with the concept of linear, mimetic narrative in favour of something more wayward, that owes as much to the imagination as to the author’s inner documentary maker. Yet this is also a novel that feels comfortable with the idea of story, not only as a vehicle for self expression but equally as a necessary and vital component of human experience. It is almost impossible, as a writer, to not bring an element of autobiography into your work. What you bring to the page is yourself, after all – not just your opinions and passions, but the amalgamated sum of your personal experience. This is bound to seep out somehow, no matter what area of literature you choose to work in. And this investment of self in the unlikeliest of places and characters – this is what makes a novel feel true, even if it happens to be set three hundred years in the future (or in sixteenth century London).

I said in an interview recently that as a writer and as a reader I am mostly allergic to linear narrative. I love the idea of ‘the novel’, not simply as a words-on-paper version of a drama or narrative that might just as well be played out on TV (and perhaps more compellingly so) but as a construct, an abstract idea – a symbol of intimate communication between one human mind and another. The novels I enjoy most are novels that play with the idea of what a novel should be – in the characters and events they describe, but mostly in the way they are constructed. I like to be in dialogue with the writer I am reading – I like to feel I am a part of the process, in other words. It doesn’t bother me at all if I’m not always one hundred percent sure of what is going on, or if the novel has loose ends that are never tied up, or if the protagonist is an absolute arse. So long as I feel compelled to discover more about what the writer had in mind.

For the most part, this means there has to be a story, a mystery, a reason for reading. This does not mean eschewing autobiographical or non-fiction techniques – if in doubt, read Emmanuel Carrere or Gordon Burn. It certainly does not mean adhering rigidly to nineteenth century models of narrative realism. But to deliberately withhold all forms of narrative tension, to deny story its importance or its seriousness, seems not only self-aggrandising but also selfish. I’ve ploughed through ‘stories’ that seem so wilful in denying the reader anything approaching ‘hyperintelligible, readable writing’ to quote Levy – so clever, so self-aware, so pedagogic in their pursuit of obscurity they have made me want to go away and read – I don’t know, Jeffrey Archer in retaliation.

I suppose that what I am saying is that as a writer I happen to believe I owe the reader something in return for their investment of time and patience, not to mention money. A reason to go on reading, in other words. A story they can care about, or even love.

 

Thought for the day

“People don’t tend to believe me, but our default mode in the east was scepticism towards the government, especially among those who still believed that socialism deserved a better chance. When we read a newspaper, the first question was always “What does that really mean?”. It gave us a much better training, an alertness to potential manipulation. Sometimes I think that people in the west were much more streamlined, much more easily manipulated with their 100% faith in democracy while remaining largely unquestioning of the economic system.

“I do believe it is still a valid starting point to say that the means of production as we have them under capitalism, the fixation with growth, will eventually lead to the end of the world, perhaps in our own lifetime. Hope in a more human society, where people are treated fairly independent of race, gender or appearance – I still take that very seriously. And when we look at what is happening with refugee boats in the Mediterranean, we see that the west doesn’t always take these things as seriously as it should.”

Jenny Erpenbeck, winner of the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Read the whole of her marvellous interview with Philip Oltermann for The Guardian here.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Well, I loved it. Coming out of the cinema last night, I couldn’t stop laughing for at least ten minutes because I’d enjoyed myself so much. The last time I had that kind of very hyperactive physical reaction to a movie was when I saw Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell on its London opening night back in 2009. DMTH left me with the similar impulse to head right back inside the auditorium for an immediate second viewing, although I happen to think that Fury Road is infinitely the better, the more meaningful film, more lasting as art than the hugely entertaining but ultimately disposable DMTH will ever be.

A great deal of perceptiveinsightful, enthusiastic, original, and thought-provoking criticism of Fury Road has already been produced, with critics working hard to get inside the (generously distributed) meat and bones of this movie. That’s not what I want to do here – this is a personal reaction only – but just for the record, I do want to say that I loved what this movie did with male-female interaction in the context of the Hollywood action movie. In her truly excellent review, Abigail Nussbaum has some words of caution on this subject:

“A lot of what Fury Road does with regards to women–making the prime mover of the story a woman who is not sexualized or treated as the hero’s prize, featuring multiple female characters, not all of whom are young and beautiful, passing the Bechdel test–is not so much revolutionary as the very baseline of what we should expect from most movies–what we would expect, if we hadn’t become so accustomed to the toxic sludge of misogyny that Hollywood blockbusters have been serving up for twenty years.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more Fury Road seems not like a revolution, but like a throwback to the action films of the 80s, before the genre gained the respectability that comes from being Hollywood’s primary source of revenue, back when it was still possible to put women and people of color front and center, to be weird and grotesque, and not have to worry about courting an audience made up of thirteen-year-old boys.”

Whilst I applaud what Abigail is saying here and agree wholeheartedly, neither can I deny the sheer joy I did experience in seeing what we should be seeing up there on the screen… up there on the screen.  I loved the ‘passing the gun’ moment – because it was so understated, because it happened so naturally, and without even a flicker of resentment or attitude on Max’s part. I didn’t find anything male-gaze-y about the ‘women bathing’ scene. There is no hint of ogling in Max’s expression – just shock, incredulity at the sight of something so massively at odds with the horror and violence he’s just been experiencing. And the sight of water, of course – indeed, it’s almost as if he’s looking right past the women, at the water.  Neither did I feel that Furiosa’s autonomy was compromised by her reliance on Max. What I saw was Furiosa making deft use of the opportunities that came her way – Max turns up, he clearly shares some of our aims, let’s go with it. It’s not Max showing Furiosa what to do, getting her out of a tight spot – it’s two people, working together because they choose to and because it benefits them both.  What I saw was mutual respect, not timely rescue.

For those who felt that Max almost gets sidelined in the movie, I’d say no way does he. I felt my attention drawn by both characters equally. I think the difference here is that people are so used to seeing the action guy take the lead they don’t quite know where to look (the same as that thing you get when there are three women out of ten in a boardroom and the men start muttering about women ‘taking over’).

What I want to focus on mainly though – perhaps because in the main people have not talked so much about this aspect of Fury Road – is the movie’s supreme confidence, coherence and staggering beauty as a work of art. I don’t normally give a toss about special effects or CGI. If a film doesn’t have a good script to back it up, I’m just not interested. In Fury Road I have found my exception that proves the rule. I don’t think I have ever seen a movie in which the special effects were more exquisitely tailored to the action onscreen. People made a lot of noise about the visual spectacle of Gravity and Interstellar. I found the former to be completely empty – I can’t stand George Clooney anyway, and whilst watching the film I was never able to forget even for a second that Apollo 13 was far more exciting and much better written. The latter was a typical piece of ego-bigger-than-the-idea Hollywood bullshittery with a ludicrous script, heavily derivative storyline and not even as good in terms of its editing and cinematography as was inception. With Fury Road, on the other hand, I felt that perhaps in this instance the almost total lack of a script was a good thing. The power of the visual imagery told its own story, was demonstrative in a way that, dare I say it, opera or ballet is demonstrative. And what a relief to be spared the inane backchat, macho wisecracks and by-the-numbers, relentless wank that normally characterises what passes for the script of a Hollywood action movie. The worldbuilding, similarly, was superbly outrageous – never laboured, never explained, just there.

But simply as a piece of choreography, Fury Road is a stunningly beautiful thing, an exercise in skill and wild abandon that feels more like a piece of modern dance (by Pina Bausch, say) than anything else. The visual coherence, the gleeful relentlessness of pacing, the effortlessly logical segue from one set piece into another, the colours – the thing left me breathless with delight, not just at what was happening onscreen but at the obvious dedication, skill and commitment expended by those who put it there. In its visual audacity and visceral wantonness, Fury Road often reminded me of Jodorowski – only a lot less up itself and one hell of a lot more entertaining.

I never thought I’d be saying this, but Mad Max: Fury Road should win all the awards. It’s the kind of film I’d hesitate to watch again, in case that second viewing cast any kind of a backward shadow upon the heart-pounding, seat-jumping exhilaration of the unrepeatable first.

Slow Books

The piece I’m working on at the moment is a story about climate change. It’s part of a project I’ve been asked to contribute to, and it’s particularly interesting to me as a work in progress because I’ve chosen to approach it by revisiting characters that first appeared in a much earlier story. I like this kind of challenge, not only because it gives me the opportunity to answer at least part of a question I’m frequently faced with – what the hell happened next? – but also because extending a story in this way casts a fascinating backward light over the original piece. My two-part story ‘En Saga’ was built like this, so too, in a way, were my story cycles The Silver Wind and Stardust, although each of the chapters in these sequences was written in the knowledge of others to come.

I can’t say much about my own climate change story yet – the project it’s a part of is still under wraps – but I do want to talk about another climate change project that’s caught my attention recently. The writer Nicky Singer, perhaps best known for her YA novel Feather Boy, is currently running a Kickstarter to produce and launch a new novel, Island, an adaptation of her own play for young people originally staged at the Cottesloe in 2012. Island tells the story of Cameron, a young boy who travels with his mother to an island close to the Arctic Circle and his growing awareness of the calamity being wrought there by climate change. Nicky was inspired to turn her play into a novel after receiving enquiries from people who’d seen the play and who wanted to know what had happened to Island: was there a book? Would there be another play? How could they bring the story to a new and bigger audience?

Nicky has written the novel – but as she has discussed in a recent interview, her long-term publisher has turned it down on the grounds that it’s ‘too quiet’:

“In its previous incarnation, as a play at the National Theatre, it was quite a noisy thing. It played to sell-out audiences in the Cottesloe, did a thirty-school London tour and enjoyed a raft of four-star reviews…I liked the extra space in the book. My day-job is as a novelist. I believed I made a pretty good fist of the re-write. In fact, I rather thought the last 100 pages were some of the best I’d ever written.

My long-term publisher disagreed. ‘It’s too quiet,’ they said, ‘for the current market’.”

Well, I thought this was shameful, to be honest. Not only is there a desperate need for books like Island, an audience demand for this particular book has already been demonstrated. I could write a long screed – indeed I may already have written a few – about how publishers have been falling into the trap of underestimating their audiences. But suffice it to say that I feel almost as passionately about this as I do about the urgent necessity of confronting climate change. In a case like this, where the two matters are so intrinsically linked, it seems the most appropriate thing for me to add is please support this project, if you can, either by pledging or simply by passing on the information.

 

The production of the finished book will be overseen by Charles Boyle of CB Editions. If you needed another reason to support Island, there’s one right there. CB Editions are magic – one of the best indie presses currently on the scene (I bought their edition of Andrzej Bursa’s stories before I even knew they existed, if you see what I mean, and more recently they’ve put out books by Agota Kristof, Will Eaves, and May-Lan Tan, whose collection Things to Make and Break made the Guardian First Book Award shortlist in 2014. Charles’s blog is also fantastic).  You can read an extract from Island at Nicky’s Kickstarter page – I have, and it’s beautiful: sure, muscular, compelling writing that draws you instantly into the story and towards the characters. I know kids would love this book, would respond to it – and perhaps the most vital part of Nicky’s project is her aim of taking Island into schools, of talking to young people directly about the issues raised and getting them to think about and discuss what’s being done to our planet and what we can do about it.

I think this is the crux of it, really. One of the most insidious things about our current predicament is how powerless we, as ordinary citizens, feel with regard to effecting change. There are things we can do, though – we can talk, write, argue, discuss, refuse to be blindfolded. It seems to me that Nicky is reaching out to do all of these things, and that we should support her.

I’d also highly recommend you read the rest of Nicky’s interview here – it’s a brilliant piece, perceptive and enlightening in so many ways.