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Action Writing: Imagination and The Novel – Scottish Review of Books

Caroline's Bikini

Kirsty Gunn
Faber and Faber, 335 pp, £8.99
by Kirsty Gunn

Action Writing: Imagination and The Novel

June 6, 2019 | by Kirsty Gunn


The following is taken from a talk given by Kirsty Gunn at Mansfield College, Oxford, as part of the Oxford Literary festival. 

Last summer – in the midst of going through a mass of student work along with piles of novels that had been sent to me by publishers and agents, all with compelling covers and content that hummed with the buzzwords of contemporary publishing, novels that were  ‘relevant’ and ‘timely’ and ‘important’, either speaking to the issues of our day or unearthing past histories and biographies that were equally informative and pressing – I gave myself the great, great treat of re-reading Anna Karenin.

It was the old Penguin edition, translated by  Rosemary Edmonds, and in part my reading had been prompted by my husband’s coming to the novel for the first time earlier that year – not that I needed an excuse! – because he had had some thoughts about it, in the light of his having recently finished Madame Bovary, that had challenged my view of the great Russian story of romantic love and its place in the world. I was alone, my family were away; it was just me in Sutherland with the dogs and cats and the glorious summer weather that we had last year… I was middle aged and my daughters were growing up, and back I went, for the third time, into the novel I’d last read in my early thirties, before marriage, before children, before family life surrounded and held me, when I was, really, another person compared to the one who was reading now.

That – all of it… Is a separate talk. To talk about what happens to us when we read novels. ‘Corporeality’ the theorists call it. The heightened awareness of our bodies, our selves, as we go about our thinking and reading lives. ‘Embodied reading’ is another term I’ve come across. The way we feel when we read. Our awareness of our thinking as a series of sense responses as our eyes move across the page. Our physical circumstances at the time; our histories. So, my husband’s view of the novel became part of my own reactions this time around, the discussions we’d had also playing though the various scenes as they unspooled in the story. None of this changed what I thought of the novel – I loved it as much – more – as I ever had, but certainly the conversations about Anna Karenin and Emma Bovary were there in my reactions to what I was reading, along with my own emotional, instinctive responses. And yes, to talk about that – how novels change as we do, absorbing our ideas and those of others; how in a re–reading, the very pages seem to bear the imprints of our own past reading selves along with the current version of the story we are involved with now – would be interesting. To explore what happens to us in that private space and time of our reading afforded to us over the span of being immersed in long fiction, what our lives become like then, how we are affected, and how the interior rooms of our minds in which the novels are kept are different every time we go back into them, when we are older, more worn and knowing, and more grave, but also more careless… It is another subject, but I want to keep these ideas live – of the power of novels in our own autobiographies, of the place of them in our figuring of identity – as I talk today.

As I say, I didn’t need an excuse to re-read Anna Karenin. But I did – in addition to the discussions I was having with my husband about it – have a need. Whenever I am feeling gloomy about the state of the contemporary novel I go back and read great novels.  And I had been feeling pretty gloomy. I was reading all these latest versions of the genre – they were coming to me for review or a commendation or whatever. And I was also reading about the novels that everyone was reading, in the papers and the magazines, at the same time writing my own stories that seemed, increasingly, with each passing day, up there in the hills and light and sunshine, more and more unlike all this other really popular and generally loved and commended fiction. And so every night, after a day of working and walking with the dogs,  I would read Anna Karenin. I went right in there. In Sutherland, maybe, but also inside, absolutely within, the world of that text.

There’s no need to go into all that here, either. For me to describe the detail and wherewithal of that mighty novel, the characters who live there, and what they say, what they do…. We all know the delicious and multiple reasons for re-reading Anna Karenin.  But what struck me in this particular visit to Tolstoy’s imaginative world – along with the sheer pleasure of it, of course, the drama and the place and the people jumping off the page as though freshly written, both deeply familiar but also sharply surprising and vivid with the contingent and random nature of life – was that my experience of reading was just that: An experience. I wasn’t reading to passively take in a  story – forgetting who I was while I gave myself up to its entertainments… That wasn’t me at all. I was fully present. Like the narrator and the characters of it I was highly engaged in trying to find my way around Tolstoy’s imagined world. At every turn, questioning. Uncertain. Then back on sure footing. Delighted. Then doubtful. Intimately involved. Distanced. Fearful. Full of joy…  I couldn’t have been more tossed about, as far as staying on the managed narrative trajectory favoured by most novels was concerned. Instead I was experiencing the runaway contents, the dreams and reveries and insights, of Tolstoy’s imagination, emerging, piece by piece, page by page, in a novel that was as though the transcript of its writer’s thinking, changing, unpredictable mind

How personal the reading felt to me! How idiosyncratic and peculiar the book was in structure, in development of character and drama. How unfinished it seemed, given over in some places to slipping in scenes that seemed there for their own sake, in others intricately furnished with details of plot and such a sense of the infinitesimally small and varied consequences of each action that the descriptions seemed to match the second by second passing of time itself. The experience was to witness both a narrative spill of events and ideas and emotions alongside a novel in sustained monologue with itself about the nature of love and the value of living. It was both a story sketched out and filled in…The whole thing (‘thynge’ is the word’s origin, a medieval noun meaning an unfinished idea) so actively…written. Is the exact phrase for it, I think. As though  the text was not so much there to serve a function – to tell a story – as it was to allow the writer a physical means by which he could fully process his thinking and feeling about the narrative he had in mind. As though imagination had its amanuensis in the writing itself.

And how strange and thrilling this, in comparison to all those finely finished articles that had come for me in the post. How rough and crazy and exciting was this kind of novel, set alongside those other products so smoothly done, so sure of their intent and ‘relevance’ and all the rest of it and yet lacking, lacking, lacking lacking the gorgeous charge of something that had been rumbling around in someone’s imagination and come out of that, whole, to take its place as its own artefact in the world.

The use of that word ‘artefact’ is deliberate. It speaks to the title of a recent book by the scholar and writer Peter McDonald,Artefacts of Writing in which he describes how very challenging it is to uncouple literature from various forms of state controlled power and their ‘written constitutions’, as he puts it, whether produced by our universities and cultural institutions or by media and the market, that have an enormous effect on the kinds of books that are written and the way they are propagated. Novels, it seems to me, have never been more vulnerable to what is described as a kind of  ‘professionalism’, a writing that, by its very circumscripted role and function in our society, confines rather than lets loose the sort of imaginative action I am talking about here.

Peter McDonald’s important book reminds me, as a writer, how Anna Karenin, though no doubt a product of its author’s class and status and milieu, is also, in its wild lurching from one of Tolstoy’s interests to another – great tracts of  farming practice interspersed with hectic discussion about Russian politics; the more straightforward scenes and exposition mixed with moments of acute psychological insight – utterly unpredictable. It’s loosened whole, this novel, in its sheer idiosyncrasy, from the stranglehold of the status quo, a risky kind of project to be presenting in the marketplace along with all the other novels created to please a ‘readership’, whether that’s a leisured class with time on its hands or a new consumer base hungry for ‘content’ as many novels – ripe for being turned into movies or TV – are thought of today. The unpredictability skews Anna Karenin from being a novel ‘about’ something – romantic love, the power of physical attraction – to another kind of story that can’t be so easily summed up. Indeed, I can’t help wondering whether a publisher or agent would take on the book now. I can imagine the response: ‘Yes, Anna’s a great character, the love story’s tip top… But can we lose all the stuff about agriculture please? And the peasants? As we asked you to re-consider your other book, when there was too much detail about war and we asked you to cut it back because our readers, you know, prefer peace…’

Such novels that aren’t written with a view to speaking back to society in ways that society wants – whether that’s to be entertainment friendly or ‘on message’ or easy to understand or to be instructive – seem to me to be pretty unrepresented these days. To come upon a story that is powered, interestingly, compellingly, by the imagination, not by some governing theme or other… It’s exciting when it happens!  That’s because in these novels the writing itself is the site of the action – praxis, the Greeks called it, a practice, an active showing of examples, originally pertaining to classical Greek theatre, the amphitheatre of the drama, as it were – and so we the readers experience the present tense’ness of that, of being in the midst of the play of words: Logopoeia, as Ezra Pound had it, the interaction of words – of their sounds and images – in the mind.

This kind of writing – and the reading that goes along with it – fully imagining as it goes along, seeing what happens, following the line, as Katherine Mansfield talked about, to end up hatless and absurd in Piccadilly… Is what I mean by action writing. A transcription of a process – that can also, of course, be a jolly good story, time spent inside the lives of people we’ve been introduced to on the page, an account of human experience – and  not simply a series of pages written about something that the writer – and I might add, parsing ‘Artefacts of Writing’ , society, a predetermined political culture – is ready to show and tell.

Action Writing, I am suggesting here, is very different to the other coolly knowing business that is the stuff of so many novels today. Those beautifully researched stories that come out of months of research and thinking and note taking so that an ‘authentic’ product may be served up in due course; facts adumbrated with characters and a drama, a theme duly fleshed out into a story and plot – various contemporary obsessions rehearsed in black and white, or even, as is becoming increasingly popular, a writer’s life churned up into the stuff of fiction with a few artful additions. I’m not saying that none of this kind of writing, these novels, lack imagination – of course not. To sit down and write a book – whether a  science text book or a whodunnit – takes imagination. But that managed exercise, with its known outcome in mind, is very different to what Aristole described as energia – a good word for the sort of bringing to life in words – where words are ideas, as Muriel Spark said – the sort of imaginative reality I am describing here that’s about a process, not a product.  Energia – for  the fusing of a thought with its sensually apprehended expression. As those blobs and drips and drags of paint expressed by the action painter – the useful term I have used as the basis of this talk that was given to certain American painters at the height of the abstraction period of the 1950s, principally defined by the work of Jackson Pollock – demonstrate a making, an activity, that in turn becomes the painting. And we have the image of that painter, down on his knees, within his canvas, as it were, right there, part of its surface, frantically dripping and dragging and gesturing with a loaded brush at the kind of marks he might make, the paint taking him forward, his imagination embroiled in the gesture itself, witnessing the story of the painting coming into being as he makes it…

I love that image for the novelist.  Down there with the words and the page, flinging, and remembering and imagining and following the  sentences, one after the other…  Then making it better, and changing it and adjusting and editing it… Making , making, making…. Dripping, moving, scribbling out and over, changing, watching, doing, changing, improving… Letting the viewer inside the process to be part of its making, its thinking…The words that apply to action painting inspire me in the writing of books.

For the imagination, let loose, is always going to surprise us – and have its own relentless and exciting and dangerous logic. It can’t be contained by what society wants for it. It’s seductive, to be in thrall to the drip and drag and fascinating mark making, adjusting the contents of the canvas in the moment of painting it, to feel change occur in the way we read as a result. So we experience the unexpected – what I call in my novel Caroline’s Bikini the ‘ping’ factor… Something that comes for us and at us… That’s action writing, an energy that transforms the materials we have available to us – our literary ability, understanding, metaphors and vocabulary – and sets us to making a work that we ourselves are learning about and being altered by as we go along and make it.

Where will it go? And what will it, this kind of book? We never know, until we start to write it…and read it..

As I put it at the beginning of my latest novel, “Caroline’s Bikini”, ‘Alright, I said, I’ll try…’

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Caroline’s Bikini is out in paperback this month.


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