Monthly Archives: August 2018

image

METRE READINGS

The Poem is a daunting prospect. Some 732 pages long, published in hardback, with a sombre blue cover marked only by a bright orange triangle it both confers and threatens status and importance by its appearance as much as by its sheer weight. Inside there is a preface, then three sections, before finishing with Endnotes, a Bibliography and an Index.

Those who prefer to picture poetic creation as mystical, feminine and muse-like, and view these last three in particular as hindering ‘extras’ (there are footnotes, too), should look away now. It is doubtful Don Paterson would take them seriously, anyway. He may celebrate the business of writing poetry as a ‘messy’ one, and condemn those who ‘credit’ the poet with ‘the deliberate creation and brilliant timing of an effect that was achieved through a mixture of luck, intuition, accident, error or unconscious gesture’, but he is here to demystify a great deal of that messiness, and that demystification will involve diagrams, boxes, numbers, even matrices, for heaven’s sake. No more of this wind moving through the lyre nonsense. This is hard work.

He is also keen to slay some twentieth-century dragons of literary theory such as post-structuralism and New Criticism, which get short shrift for their downgrading of the importance of feeling. But if early twenty-first century poetry has tended to be characterized – and indeed, popularized – by nationwide poetry slams, with the stages of music festivals taken over by ‘street’ poets like Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish, their omission suggests Paterson is not too keen on them either. Perhaps that is not so – Kanye West’s rap, ‘Gold Digger’ is, after all, thoroughly and seriously treated (‘This, one feels, punching the air, is exactly what accentual metre should sound like: poetry dragged back into a musical, rawly temporal rhythmic frame, not noodling around with stresses one can barely hear’). But general accessibility is not what Paterson is after; indeed, he takes great care to warn laypersons off, especially from the third section on Metre, and in other places insists that readers skip some pages altogether, helpfully pointing out exactly which pages these are.

He is not being disingenuous in doing this. For all the colloquial directness of this pedagogical tome (‘so long as it ticks just enough of our core, dictionary-definition zebra-attributes to form a quorum, we’ll agree to call it a damn zebra; I should mention that while I’ll use the words “connotation” and “attribute” to mean roughly the same thing…’), it has a job to do and Paterson does not want to waste anyone’s time. His readers are lovers of poetry, yes, but they are also the next generation of poets – perhaps there is an element of a gathering of lecture notes that as professor of poetry at St Andrews University he would have accumulated for teaching that younger generation – and he doesn’t want them to get it wrong. Ultimately, poetry is about meaning, for the poet as well as the reader; repeatedly, he insists that ‘poets write to find out what they think, not to “commit a thought to poetry”.’

It is hard to think of another contemp-orary book on poetry being as important (not self-important, though some may see it this way), or as thorough, or as rigorous, both intellectually and psychologically, as this volume is. Nothing less, perhaps, should have been expected from a poet who has won every serious poetry award, some more than once; who has translated Machado and Rilke; who has published volumes of criticism and anthologies.

The breadth and depth of detail in these three sections, or essays, Lyric, Sign and Metre, is both remarkable and irresistible. In the first essay, Paterson extols poetry’s aims to ‘transcend the limitations of human memory’ and he does a beautiful job of proving his thesis. ‘To recall a poem is the poem’ captures with great succinctness the emotional investment we place in a particular poem and which we can recall with a snap of the fingers because, as he says, it is ‘part of your being’. He doesn’t like workshops where poets are encouraged to write to order because inspiration is not necessarily ‘jump-started’; but there is a lovely notion of the act of creation for a poet being ‘analogous to trying to remember a poem they have forgotten.’

It’s impossible to forget also, in this essay on the lyric, the influence of Wordsworth, his Lyrical Ballads, his ‘man speaking to men’, his embrace of prose in poetry to do so. The ‘ghosthood’ that Paterson speaks of at the beginning of this section – as human beings we are unique in understanding our own mortality – is also present in any discussion of poetry, those poets who have passed on after impressing upon us for ever. Paterson also explores the musical qualities of voice that contribute to this memorizing quality of poetry, discussing the qualities of ‘half-rhyme’ and dismissing the demands of ‘show-not-tell’ which, he believes, hamper the production of the interior voice.

When he moves on to the production of meaning itself in the second essay, ‘Sign’, he does so through stressing connection with the reader (‘that our feelings are engaged is the first thing the poem requests of the reader’), and those tropes which alternately undermine that connection or which are supposed to reinforce it. This section does become more technical as he seeks to expose ‘the myth of the four tropes’ (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony) as inadequate descriptions of the main ways in which we convey the meaning of a poem (his ‘own scheme’ prefers metaphor, metonymy, symbol and asymbol, the latter connecting to ‘aseme’, the anti-seme of arbitrary link’).

This second essay is undeniably tricky (and I speak as someone who once studied semiotics for a PhD). Paterson works hard to show what he means, but always through a sheer joy of the incredible variety of language, what it can do and how it does it (‘poets underestimate a sign’s ability to generate a great many secondary attributes’), and this gets the reader through the lists which start to appear, and then the tables, and then the diagrams. There is a little bit of fun with the ‘Improbability Translator’, through which he runs Shakespeare’s eighteenth sonnet ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ – the Improbability Translator ‘runs a text through every language in its database in alphabetical order, translating it into Afrikaans, back into English’ and so on, to produce alternative ‘translated’ first lines (‘It takes a day in summer?’; ‘This should be the summer?’; ‘It is hot?’; ‘This is hot’). It’s making an important point again about the conveyance of meaning being about feeling and experience, not hard facts. It is how to do it that this section excels in demonstrating, and would-be poets – those who are not daunted by it anyway – are going to find necessary wonders all through it.

The final essay is the longest of the three by far, and possibly the least accessible and most technical. Paterson begins by deploring the new critics’ effort to ‘remove messy intent and affect from the study of metre’, because, he argues, this has led to ‘a failure to read stress and rhythm as a sufficiently complex and subjective phe-nomenon.’ Not ‘sufficiently complex’ is your warning for what is to come: ‘insufficiently complex’ is not going to be a charge levelled at this section. But there are many delights for the layperson, too: a lovely brief examina-tion of stress in Emily Dickinson’s ‘I Started Early Took My Dog’ which has you reading it aloud in a completely different way, and an explanation of the importance of choice for longer or shorter words – choices that, of course, are not arbitrary but which have not necessarily been made for the reasons you might assume. I also liked the experiment Paterson suggests of imagining a particular poem is not the whole poem and seeing what that does to meaning (his example, ‘Dover Beach’, is perfect for this).

His aim with The Poem may not primarily be to wrestle poetry-reading and poetry creation from the hands of theorists; nor is it to discourage those poets and readers who do not know their Asemia from their Dysemia, although both these things may result from it. Rather, it is the work of a foremost poet of his generation imparting his considerable knowledge and, certainly, revelling in difficulty, though it is apparent throughout that he wants only for his readers also to relish that difficulty. It is perhaps then a contradictory work that seeks to teach as inclusively as possible, yet also at times feels quite out of reach because of its sheer weight of technical detail and its complexity. But there can be no doubt that it is a volume that deserves all the majesty a sombre cover can muster, and it is hard to imagine a volume having more impact on generations of poets to come than this one.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories

image

WHAT’S UP DOC?

One bright morning this summer, in a flower-filled garden in Govan, I sat with a 50 year old man – John – as he gave an eyewitness account of hell. His mother had died. That loss, coming on top of sedimentary layers of pressure and anxiety, some of it to do with money worries, had caused a pit to yawn open; and into this he fell.

‘There were five days when darkness was just comin’ aw aroon me,’ John said, his eyes fixed on the ground. ‘It’s like the only part of your body workin’ is a wee part of yer brain. It’s like some force has taken over you, and there’s nothin’ you can dae.’

The experience, as he described it, sounded more like demonic possession than what might be commonly understood by the medical and widely-used term ‘depression’, that bland and inadequate word. John had gone to see his doctor, who had referred him to a charity specializing in mental health counselling, and now, years later, he seemed in a not-bad place. He had a better house in a better part of town, had become interested in gardening, was planting roses. Still, one could see the shadow in his eyes as he talked, the pit reflected there.

I remembered John as I read The Human Kind: A Doctor’s Stories From The Heart Of Medicine, by Peter Dorward, a philosophical account of his work as a GP in Edinburgh and elsewhere. One chapter, When Darkness Falls, is named after something his mother would say when telling the story of her own depression: ‘It was as if, one day, suddenly, from nowhere, darkness fell.’

The chapter is typical of Dorward’s approach in that he presents two stories of ill health, in this case his mother, Joy, and the family of a young patient, Maddison, all of whom have mental health issues, and uses each case to reflect upon the other. He will start out telling one story, cut away to the other, circle back to the first, all the time piling up details, memorable phrases and ideas, as a way of trying for some wider truth about how we live, how we sicken, and how we live with that sickness. His surgery is society in microcosm.

‘On some days it can seem that every other patient that I see is complaining of unhappiness,’ he writes. ‘I try not to use the word “depression”, or at least I try not to be the first. Unhappiness is what we feel – from the most minor, delicate, grey-shaded garment that clings to our skin when we wake in the morning, the flimsy thing we shrug off like our night-clothes, all the way through to a muddy shroud that wraps and suffocates, the cold wet from its folds seeping through us so that we smell of its fabric.’

None of this cleverness is done to show Dorward as a heroic figure, swooping out from his consulting room, healing the sick, and then retiring to his study to write up his notes in elegant tranquility. He reveals himself, almost always, in a poor light: angry, fallible, fumbling. This book feels steeped in guilt. Maddison’s father makes an appointment with the doctor, admitting to a crime, saying he is depressed, hoping for pills to lift his mood and let him sleep; Dorward, a reluctant prescriber of anti-depressants and painkillers, does not help. Later, when the man takes his own life, the doctor is tasked by the police to certify that he is dead. ‘Why wasn’t I kinder?’ he asks himself, accusingly. During the examination, cold sweat from the body gets on his hands. Washing and washing he can still feel it there; he wakes in the night, sensing its clammy sheen. One thinks of Lady Macbeth and her phantom bloodstains.

That sort of literary allusion isn’t quite Dorward’s style. It’s more in Gavin Francis’s line. His Shapeshifters: On Medicine & Human Change is a feast of intertextuality. The Roman poet Ovid, in particular, is Francis’s companion throughout; Metamorphoses is a touchstone. ‘This book is a celebration of dynamism and transformation in human life,’ Francis writes in his opening chapter, ‘both as a way of thinking about the body, and as a universal truth… As a writer, I’m interested in change as a metaphor that has preoccupied poets, artists and thinkers for millennia, and as a doctor, I’m interested in the same theme because to practise medicine is to seek positive change, however modest, in the minds and the bodies of my patients.’

Like Dorward, Francis is a general practitioner. They are friends, their surgeries not far from one another, and Francis was the first person to read The Human Kind. They are very different writers, though interested in some of the same things. Francis’s description of medicine as ‘the alliance of science with kindness’ chimes with Dorward’s fretful explorations of how to be good when every circumstance – such as patients selling their prescription painkillers round the schemes – has the effect of eroding one’s capacity for empathy. ‘It’s a continual effort,’ Dorward tells a student, ‘to try to remember the humanity of the people that you’re interacting with, and imagine what it is that makes their lives what they are, and makes them do what they do, particularly if they’re being horrible to you. You’re lifting against gravity, all the time. This kind of caring: it’s effortful…’

Francis is the author of Adventures In Human Being, a series of essays on the organs and other parts of the body. Popular and well reviewed, it won the Saltire prize for non-fiction in 2015. Shapeshifters, at times, has the slightly padded-out feel of a book written in order to follow up on a success, not because of any urgent need to get ideas down on paper. Of its twenty-four chapters, most of them dedicated to a different sort of transformation – puberty, pregnancy, dementia, death – a few might have been cut, and the result would have been a book closer to its fighting weight.

He can write, though. A young woman, attending his surgery with nausea, is asked what she has had to eat in the last twenty-four hours. Intent on concealing her anorexia, she feels this question as dangerously exposing: ‘Her eyes looked trapped and frightened, like a stowaway under an opening hatch.’ He is perhaps even better when he keeps his sentences straight and scalpel-sharp, such as the chapter on psychosis, which begins: ‘I have a patient who believes her fingers are rotting.’ Elsewhere, his gifts for imagery and close observation come together beautifully. Here, he remembers the first time he delivered a baby: ‘She took her first gasps; to watch her body change from a pallid blue to pink was like seeing colour return to a landscape after an eclipse.’

It is a pity that Francis has decided to frame his own observations about the changing body by making frequent reference to other stories, other texts. It does sometimes work. While attending an old soldier with dementia who is suffering from delirium caused by a urine infection, he realizes that the nursing home is close by the former Craiglockhart Hospital, where Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were treated for shell-shock. He then quotes from Sassoon’s poem ‘The Rear-Guard’, hinting that to lose one’s memory – if those memories are traumatic – can be a sort of mercy.

Mostly, though, it feels as if Francis uses literary references as a way of adding lustre to his own writing, or, worse, to show off his reading. If his motivation is the former, it’s counterproductive. Whenever the book drifts too far from his own experience, it dulls. He is at his best when using precise language to describe the workings of the body (the mechanics of the human heart have their own poetry, and need none added) or simply observing life in his surgery. As he puts it, medical practice is ‘thick with daily revelations, so daily textured with intimacies and details of so many lives…’ This access is a gift. To work as a GP – or as a social worker, police officer, paramedic, perhaps even a teacher – is to be confronted, daily, with the realities of life in a way that few other professions are. If, as we are told, there is a staffing crisis in general practice in parts of Scotland, perhaps recruiters should consider targeting journalists and novelists, and asking them to retrain. Goodness knows, we could use the material.

Both Francis and Dorward are careful to declare that the confidences of their patients have been protected. Names have been changed, identities obscured. This restriction is, one suspects, actually an advantage, allowing for poetic licence. A chapter on tattooing, in Shapeshifters, introduces us to a prisoner, Mark – head full of anger, skin full of ink – who is released with a prescription for methadone; over the next few months, as he and Francis reduce his dose, Mark spends what little money he has on having his facial tattoos lasered off; as the teardrops and barbed wire fade, so, too, does his rage dissipate. This is, in effect, a gleaming little short story, complete with symbolism and epiphany.

The Human Kind, at its best, is similarly novelistic. Only rarely is Dorward direct in his opinions, such as his belief that doctors are too quick to prescribe painkillers: ‘I think that we are implicated in a medical and social disaster. I think that we are living through an epidemic of chronic pain and opiate misuse – I think the pain and the opiates feed one another. I think that the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry have fed both. I think that we are vectors in this epidemic.’ Whenever he allows a patient these drugs, in a case where he believes it is probably unnecessary or even, ultimately, harmful, he feels that his integrity has been undermined. Some days, though, it’s just easier to sign the form. The Human Kind might easily have been called Confessions Of A Scottish Opiate Prescriber.

The book has significant flaws. Dorward has a tendency towards the self-reflexive that an editor ought to have rooted out. A chapter on the nature of pain gets bogged down in his account of a conversation with a philosopher about how he planned to start a chapter on the nature of pain. It is painful – or at least annoying – to read. Elsewhere, he ties himself in semantic knots – ‘No one knows whether drugs can really make people happier, and how we would know, and what we really mean by “really” and “happier”.’

These are serious mis-steps in a book that is more often sure-footed. Dorward is, above all, a great noticer. There’s a scene early on: a man in his mid-sixties turns up at the surgery with his daughter. She’s worried her father has lung cancer. Jim, a recent widower, yearns for it. He asks for a moment alone with the doctor, without his daughter, as he puts it, yapping on. ‘Men do this often, I find, even decent men,’ Dorward writes. ‘The more vulnerable they are, the more disparagingly they speak of the women that love them and keep them alive.’ A fine observation, kind yet keen.

Gavin Francis, clearly, finds his patients – their lives and bodies and minds – fascinating. Peter Dorward gives the impression that he often finds his shaming. I finished The Human Kind on July 5th, the 70th anniversary of the NHS, and it was an odd sort of pleasure – on a day when the news was full of sentimental accounts of the health service – to read something so jaded and faded, so weary to its bones. To hear him say, in exasperation, to a confidant, ‘Fuck compassion’ – well, it felt, as with much in this book, like an uncomfortable truth.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories

image

SRB AT THE THEATRE: THÉÂTRE DES BOUFFES DU NORD

One of the most keenly awaited items on the Edinburgh International Festival programme is the ‘residency’ of the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, where the ‘north’ in question is a banlieue in Paris which has now a high immigrant population.

The suburbs colloquially designated banlieue rather than the more neutral faubourg are the subject of acrimonious or anxious comment any time there is unrest in the French capital, and the journey by metro is a revealing insight into the strata of life in Paris.

The stations in the city centre are an elegant vision of gleaming tiles, but the architecture deteriorates as one travels outwards to La Chapelle station which serves the theatre. It is no more than a rough and ready cement structure. On exiting, I was accosted by enthusiasts offering services of which fortune-telling was the most innocent, and on the way back I was pick-pocketed. The life of a critic is dangerous and demanding.

The theatre itself, situated inside one of those Victorian apartment and shop buildings from which Inspector Maigret might emerge at any moment, has no hoardings or neon lights. Marko Rankov, the amiable and dynamic Head of Production, agrees that it can be viewed as the ‘hidden theatre,’ situated far from Paris’ better-known venues. He snorted indignantly when I asked if they had any connection with the respectable Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens in the city centre. ‘None at all,’ he replied. The theatre in the north of the city has its own identity and vision.

There has been a theatre on the site since 1876, and it has had a chequered past. Once it had the grandeur of being the Théâtre Molière, and hosted work by such luminaries as Alexandre Dumas the Younger, but then it changed nature and name to become the more homely Théâtre Des Carrefours (Crossroads), a venue for popular theatre and music hall. Its history is something of a microcosm of French theatre. It suffered the general drop in audiences when television emerged as the main source of entertainment, and finally went dark in 1952. It was left to fall into a state of decay and disuse but was not demolished or transformed into offices or flats.

Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord: The theatre is more than a stage and stalls, but it has to avoid becoming a heritage institution.

Its modern history is associated with the figure and biography of Peter Brook, still active at the age of 93. With his volcanic imagination, his restless curiosity and creativity, his endless inventiveness and self-invention, he has revolutionized the role of the director. The playwrights he has produced are a Who’s Who of twentieth-century drama, including Sartre, Arthur Miller, Peter Weiss and Jean Genet among many others. His productions in London in the Sixties drew excesses of excited admiration or outraged execration. They include Weiss’s disquieting venture into theatre of cruelty, the Marat/Sade (1964), the polemical, anti-Vietnam war play US (1966), which he invited theatre-goers to pronounce as ‘Us’ or as ‘U.S.’ as they saw fit, or the lyrical Midsummer’s Night Dream (1970), a production which seemed to float towards ethereal regions but which still suggested both darker and erotic elements to the comedy. Some forty years later, he was invited to revive the production of Dream but declined. His thinking had moved on, and replays are not for him.

Although his career in London seemed in 1970 at the highest point possible, he was gnawed by doubt and dissatisfaction and it was at this moment that he left for Paris. His motives were varied. He was certainly seeking greater personal freedom, and was anxious to advance and deepen on an international scale his quest into the nature of theatre and of human culture. It is interesting that his various theoretical works have titles which suggest a struggle between creativity and the void – The Empty Space (1968), The Shifting Point (1988), The Open Door (1995) and Between Two Silences (1999). His interest was in the manner different peoples filled the silence that surrounded them, and how the empty space that was theatre contributed to that effort.

‘They had almost to crawl in, and found the spectre of a theatre which had been shut for decades…’

With his reputation, it might have been assumed that he would take over some well-established and well-funded venue in France, but initially he set up the International Centre for Theatre Research, a distinctly un-British title and venture. He travelled widely and observed theatre-making elsewhere. Some of the performers he met have worked with him for decades. However, he was in search of a base in Paris, and since no traditional theatre was likely to be adequate, he was guided to the disused and almost forgotten building in La Chapelle. There is a touch of beguiling myth in the account Rankov gives of Brook’s first encounter with the place.

‘They had almost to crawl in, and found the spectre of a theatre which had been shut for decades. It had an Italian-style proscenium stage, stalls and four tiers from the grand circle to the gods, all topped by a dome which may once have been magnificently brilliant but whose glory had departed. The only inhabitant was a homeless man, who invited the intruders to share a glass of wine with him. From under a blanket he produced a bottle of the finest of vintages, a Chateau Margaux, which they quaffed as they looked around.’

There is a pre-ordained force which brings together chosen individuals, and only them, with the appropriate opportunity or situation which allows them to flourish. Other directors, however imaginative, would have come, seen, expressed routine gratitude for the glass of wine and scuttled out of the building. Brook saw the empty space as the ideal site for the development of the kind of theatre he wanted to create. His work as director was never limited to collaboration with playwrights, and using the theatre as a set he later produced Walls Talk on the history and identity of the place. Rankov and I speculated on the nature of the ghosts which have been reliably reported as wandering harmlessly around in the corridors and wings.

The French Ministry of Culture was delighted with the capture of Brook and offered assistance in refurbishing the chosen site, but said that restructuring work would be costly and would take years, a time scale too long for Brook and his collaborators. The first work, Timon of Athens, was produced six months later. The theatre, with Brook as artistic director, was fully operational by 1974. As it happens, Brook proceeded the same way in Glasgow in 1990 when he searched the city for a site suitable for the Mahabharata, and settled on the then abandoned tram garage, still in use as the Tramway, a performance and exhibition space. He later brought to Glasgow a French-language version of The Tempest, and The Man Who… , an examination of the human psyche inspired by the writings of Oliver Sacks. Brook stepped down in 2008, but is still fully involved and one of the three productions, The Prisoner, being featured in the Edinburgh Festival is directed by him.

Any refurbishment of the revived Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord was minimal, so today it still has the original, now dingy, paint which covers but hardly embellishes the environment. The upper tier is given over to technical equipment, and the frontal of the other tiers is dull and faded. But the play’s the thing, and on this stage some of the most fêted productions seen anywhere in Europe have been premiered. The acting takes place in front of, not behind, the proscenium, with no gulf between performers and the front benches. The company is largely self-funding. It receives fifteen per cent of its annual turnover from the Ministry but raises the rest itself. There are small theatres which are more generously funded, Rankov says.

Some critics have laboured to identify a house-style, a futile exercise for a company which offers all manner of theatre experience – music, dance, concerts and plays from all ages – and has attempted to attract different audiences. They have a vibrant café and since it is in a working-class district, every effort has been made to get the local community to participate. There are sessions with schools and societies, and people in the neighbourhood are given free tickets for previews. In the view of Roy Luxley, Programming Director of the Edinburgh Festival, the invitation to take up a residency, rather than offer individual productions is intended to offer a greater opportunity ‘to further explore an artist’s work, and increase an audience’s chance to engage with them. And a residency means an artist is in the city for longer so increases the possibility for further exchange and discourse away from the performances’.

A scene from La Maladie de la Mort, adapted by Alice Birch from a novella by Marguerite Duras.

The company’s drama programme in Paris is varied, from avant-garde to classical, and the impression is that the policy is to give the director his/her head. The tradition has grown up of ending each season with a play from the classic repertoire, and the evening I was there the work on stage was the eighteenth-century comedy The Triumph of Love by Marivaux, directed by Denis Podalydès, an actor-director from the stately Comédie Française. There was nothing radical or experimental about the production, which fully respected the period setting and costumes. The design had clumps of grass spread around, a rustic hut, some pathways that the actors, who were superb, moved along. The storylines were made as clear as could be for a wickedly complex plot with cross-dressing and underhand deals and deception. Perhaps the play had been chosen to wink at current debates about transgendering, since the heroine first appeared in male dress and proceeded to make both the devious aristo and equally malignant sister fall in love with her, against all their inclinations.

This is not one of three works coming to Edinburgh, and I asked Luxford how the choice had been made. Were the shows chosen to bring acknowledged personalities like Peter Brook and Katie Mitchell to Edinburgh? He explained that ‘the season started as a series of approaches to artists that we wanted to present, rather than seeking specific productions. Gradually the idea to present all three, framed around Peter Brook’s Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, as a Festival residency took shape. Each of the works demonstrates the spirit of international theatrical exploration the theatre is famous for.’

The three works have different directors and promise different experiences. Seemingly Robert Carsen, director of The Beggar’s Opera (King’s Theatre, 16-19 August) has none of the compunction shown by Podalydès over updating and adapting the script, and has even introduced references to Brexit. John Gay’s work has enticed other writers, most famously Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill with The Threepenny Opera, to produce their own adaptation. This production too is described as a new version, but the reworking is done directly from the Gay original, not through the prism of Brecht/Weill. The production was rapturously received when it was performed at the Festival of the Two Worlds in Spoleto.

Peter Brook will return to the Festival for the first time in years with The Prisoner (Lyceum, 22-26 August), co-written and co-directed with Marie-Hélène Estienne, The cast is multi-national and the questions the play raises, on justice and guilt, on crime and power, cross all frontiers.

The programme is completed by La Maladie de la Mort (Lyceum, 16-19 August), adapted by Alice Birch from a novella by Marguerite Duras and directed by Katie Mitchell, who enjoys the equivocal position of being one of the most discussed and celebrated of contemporary British directors while working mainly abroad. Perhaps her brand of ‘director’s theatre’ is more appreciated in other countries. Her book The Director’s Craft is in some sense a manifesto, and her directorial vision of any work she engages with, invariably strong and personal, authorizes her to pull apart the script to release an energy she detects inside it. Marko Rankov said that while the core of Maladie is from Duras, Mitchell’s vision of it varies from the more common reading. The production is accompanied by a stern warning that it is not for children, and probably not for traditionalists either.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories

image

CANVAS PIONEERS

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that 1939 was not a good year to launch an art movement. But the members of the New Era Group, photographed by the Evening News in Edinburgh in June of that year, are full of optimism.

Pictured holding a painting – an ambitious modern take on the Crucifixion by one of the members, Tom Pow – they stand proudly outside their first (and, as it turned out, only) exhibition.

The five artists of the New Era Group also produced a manifesto, illustrating the depth and seriousness of their engagement with modern ideas: ‘We realize that expression today does not rely entirely upon conscious thought, but demands a more imaginative liberty,’ they wrote, with a kind of patient earnestness. ‘The artist creates a work from his total experience, conscious and subconscious, his ideas and sensations harmonized finally into a formal rhythmic unity.’

The group’s name was adopted by curator Alice Strang for her exhibition exploring Scottish modernism in the first half of the twentieth century, which opened at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in December 2017. Her book lays out the arguments in greater detail: that Scots were aware of developments in European art earlier than first thought and engaged with them more deeply, that they interpreted the ideas and styles in original and significant ways. Works by fifty-one artists, brought together for the first time, argued persuasively that, while Scots did not lead the movement, they were more than simply imitators of Continental pioneers.

The project is part of a series of exhibitions at National Galleries of Scotland which have reappraised aspects of recent art history. Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965 brought together a remarkable body of work by women artists, most of them little known, while True to Life celebrated the British realist painters of the 1920s and 1930s, artists overlooked by history simply because they did not follow a modernist trajectory.

The moment Strang chooses to begin her story of Scottish modernism is 1907, when J D Fergusson moved from Edinburgh to settle in Paris. There, he was particularly influenced by the Fauves – the group of artists around Matisse and Derain – and exhibited with them in the Salon d’Automne. In 1910, Fergusson painted an important series of bold and sensual nudes, of which the most daring was ‘Etude de Rhythm’, vibrant in colour, semi-abstract in style, full of movement and overtly sexual.

Scots-born painter Duncan Grant, who would later become a member of the Bloomsbury Circle and have a child with Vanessa Bell, was in Paris the year before Fergusson. In 1914, he painted ‘The White Jug’, one of the first entirely abstract works by a British artist – or it would have been, had he not returned to it four years later and added a jug and a lemon. This single painting is emblematic of the tensions at work on artists in this period: the pull of experimentation vying with the lure of the familiar; the comfort of working within a tradition which the Academy and the art market would accept.

Once the territory of pioneers, mavericks and outliers, modernism was becoming mainstream

S J Peploe spent time in Paris, too, and painted a series of still lifes inspired by Picasso, Braque and Van Gogh. He hoped to show them at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh in 1913, where he had exhibited before, but was met with a flat refusal from the director, McOmish Dott. As T J Honeyman would later write in his book on the Scottish Colourists: ‘the general view was that Peploe had run off the rails and that it was better to wait until he had run on again’. And he did, painting in a more traditional style for the rest of his life.

Another artist who dipped a toe in the waters of modernism was Stanley Cursiter, who made a series of striking paintings of Edinburgh in the style of the Futurists in 1913, after which he returned to a more formal, clas-sical style. However, Alice Strang argues that even these comparatively brief engagements with modern ideas were important, producing works of ‘lasting consequence’.

While World War I sounded the death-knell for Futurism – after the fields of Flanders, the machine age looked rather less positive – war also pushed some artists into greater engagement with modern styles. One such was Eric Robertson, who drew heavily on his experience serving in the Friends Ambulance Unit to paint ‘Shellburst’, in which he uses elements of Futurism and Vorticism to capture the power, horror and beauty of an explosion.

William McCance was another. Along with William Johnstone and Edward Baird, he drew close to Hugh MacDiarmid in the inter-war period, becoming part of MacDiarmid’s vision for a uniquely Scottish modernism in the Arts. MacDiarmid described McCance and his wife Agnes Miller Parker, a Scot who trained at Glasgow School of Art, as ‘unquestionably the most promising phenomena of contemporary Scotland with regard to art’.

Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, English art critic Herbert Read, appointed Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at the university at the beginning of the 1930s, was working on his own attempt to birth a Scottish Modernist movement inspired by developments in Scandinavian art. No such movement emerged; perhaps Scottish artists lacked the desire to be herded in a particular direction. Their engagement with modernism remained diverse, a factor which, Strang ultimately concludes, was a strength not a weakness.

However, in order to engage with modernism, they had to encounter the work, which was easier said than done. In the 1930s, even specialist journals rarely published pictures in colour. It is significant just how much European art was exhibited in Edinburgh in the 1930s, although no gallery, public or commercial, was prepared to touch it. The Society of Scottish Artists, in particular, played a key role, showing work by Munch (creating some consternation in the review columns of the Scotsman), Klee, Braque, Soutine, Dali and Picasso.

In a letter to his future wife in 1932, Herbert Read described a ‘happy triumvi-rate’ ready to stir things up in the Edinburgh art world: himself, Hubert Wellington, the new principal of Edinburgh College of Art, and Stanley Cursiter, the recently appointed director of the National Galleries of Scot-land. While Wellington was busy turning ECA into one of the most progressive art schools of its day, Cursiter was lobbying relentlessly for his own project: the foundation of a Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.

It’s hard to overstate just how radical an idea this was in the 1930s. There were few publicly funded museums anywhere in the world dedicated to modern and contemporary art. The first incarnation of MoMA in New York opened in 1929 and was seen as a pioneer. The National Galleries of Scotland had a policy to collect only works by artists dead for ten years or more. But Cursiter was determined. He had a site (opposite the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street), and had architect Alan Reiach design a Bauhaus-inspired building. Biscuit manufacturer and philanthropist Sir Alexander Grant agreed to put up the money. Had the Second World War not intervened, he might have achieved his aim. As it was, Edinburgh had to wait another twenty years for a gallery on a much more modest scale, in Inverleith House.

The outbreak of war ended Edinburgh’s brief moment as Scotland’s first city of the avant-garde. The focus was shifting west. A major exhibition of modern German art at the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow in 1939 was followed by a show of European Jewish art at the Jewish Institute in the Gorbals in 1942-3. In the early 1940s, artists such as Josef Hermann and Jankel Adler had important roles in the city’s art community. Meanwhile, Glasgow School of Art graduates Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde set off for London, where they were shown as part of international exhibitions in the 1940s there and in Paris and New York.

While A New Era brings together key modernist-inspired works, many of them striking and revelatory, one must consult the small print to understand the extent to
which the artists involved pursued a long-term engagement with modernism. Some, like William Crozier and Colin MacNaughton, died young, before their careers could flower. Circumstances seemed to prevent Eric Robertson and Cecile Walton, who were briefly married, fulfilling the promise their early work suggests. McCance and Miller Parker moved into print-making and illustration.

Edwin G Lucas, who experimented with surrealism at the end of 1930s, stopped painting for a time and fell beneath the radar of art history (he is now being rediscovered and will be the subject of an exhibition at the City Art Centre as part of this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival). Tom Pow served in the RAF during World War II, then found work as an art teacher; although he continued to paint, he rarely exhibited, and many of his works are now lost.

The late 1940s brought the emergence of a new generation of artists who would immerse themselves in modernism and engage with it over long careers. Eduardo Paolozzi, William Crosbie, William Turnbull and Wilhemina Barns-Graham embraced modernism in very different ways, but their ambition and achievements put modern Scottish art firmly on the map. In their lifetimes, the context would shift significantly. Once the territory of pioneers, mavericks and outliers, modernism was becoming mainstream.

During the Festival of Britain in 1951, sixty artists were commissioned to produce large-scale paintings for an exhibition, Sixty Paintings for ’51, at the Suffolk Galleries in London. Of the work shown, William Gear’s semi-abstract ‘Autumn Landscape’ was the most famous, causing public controversy when it was purchased by the Arts Council for £500. But he was not the only Scot represented. Also included were Colquhoun and MacBryde, Merlyn Evans, William Gillies, Duncan Grant and John Maxwell. As milestones go, it makes the point eloquently enough. Modern Scottish art was ready for the world stage. In the following decades, it would take its place on it.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories

image

SRB DIARY: IN SEARCH OF GERMAN ANCESTRY

Before I travelled to southern Germany earlier this year for a writing residency I was under the happy illusion that I was a half-decent hill walker, but here I am staying in Dilsberg, a tiny village perched on a hill so steep that I repeatedly have to lure myself up with promises of coffee and cake at the top.

Dilsberg is only about fifteen kilometres east of Heidelberg and yet I feel very remote from the rest of the world. This is partly because of the forest, a dense and dark mixture of oak, birch and pine trees which covers much of the land as far as I can see. Germany has about twice the forest cover of Scotland, this is not a landscape I’m used to. But my family would have been, in the past. My grandfather came from Offenbach am Main, not far from here, and one of the purposes of my residency is to visit that town and find out about his early life. I don’t know much more than he emigrated (or immigrated, depending on your viewpoint) to England in 1938 and after war broke out, he was interned on the Isle of Man (as were practically all male German refugees).

One of the other internees was the artist Kurt Schwitters. Before he was forced to leave his native Hanover, Schwitters came up with the idea of ‘Merz’, apparently deciding on this nonsense word when he saw a discarded scrap of paper with the words “Kommerz und Privatbank” on it. He tore the paper into pieces to create ‘Merz’ and used this to signify a piece of art that is also rubbish, a thing with two complementary, or contradictory, meanings. Schwitters’ rubbish-art feels like an apt precursor of post-war Germany, when the Trummerfrauen (rubble women) were ordered to sort through the chaotic remains of bombed cities and assemble piles of bricks and stones. (The men were largely absent, either dead or injured, or in POW camps.) This rubble was then used to help reconstruct the destroyed buildings. I wonder if this recreation of the past was a physical expression of a collective desire to wind the clock back to pre-1933. It certainly gives the oldest and most picturesque parts of many German cities an ersatz sensation, or even a slight uncanniness when you realise the ‘medieval’ townhall you’ve been admiring is actually constructed of debris glued together with decidedly twentieth-century concrete. But if we forget and allow ourselves to believe these buildings really are medieval, then the modern re-makers have done their job well and erased themselves entirely from their cityscapes.

Actually, Offenbach is somewhat different. The centre of the town is a modern pedestrianised centre that reminds me curiously of Inverness. I come here in an optimistic belief that I will be able to sense something of what my grandfather experienced, and more prosaically to see what has become of the family bank founded in 1832 by my grandfather’s grandfather, Sigmund Merzbach. I have an address for the bank, but when I get there I realize I am gazing at the sky where there should be bricks and mortar. The bank is now an empty lot, a wide gap between two shops in an otherwise busy high street with nothing at all to indicate what was once here. On my return to the station I discover a small hat shop, and propped up in its window is a handwritten sign advertising a knitted hat as having been made in ‘West Germany’. I am not sure if this sign is actually (at least) 28 years old, or if West Germany is still an ongoing state of mind for hat sellers and buyers in Offenbach.

It’s a relief to reach the forest surround-ing Dilsberg, where I have developed a habit of walking the same route every day in an attempt to make this place my home, no matter how temporary. I think I’m succeeding when I no longer need to check my map every few minutes. At least, I feel at home until I’m warned by the locals not to walk at night-time because of the wolves which are spreading into Germany from the east (this appears not to be a metaphor but an actual fact) and have – allegedly – been seen in people’s gardens. I rather like the idea of encountering a wolf, but am secretly glad this never happens.

Dilsberg has its own mini-Flodden wall. An old wall mended on a regular basis, but that nevertheless earns its right to be called old. It entirely circles the village apart from the house in which I live and work, which is named the Kommandantenthaus after an earlier tenant, the Commander Tilly, leader of the Catholic counter-reformation forces during the Thirty Years War. The house is large and breaches the wall. So, as I sit and write in my flat on its top floor, I am neither in nor outwith the village, but perhaps occupying a gap between these two physical states.

In March I visit the Leipzig book fair to take part in some readings and panel discussions. This fair is huge with thousands of exhibitors, publishers and visitors but everyone I meet assures me it’s much smaller and more intimate than Frankfurt’s. In one of the five halls (each as seemingly large as an aircraft hanger) is a clump of publishers, physically separated from all the others and surrounded by security guards. These are extreme right-wing publishers who have insisted on their legal right to be here. When I walk past to get a surreptitious look, the stands look disturbingly like the others elsewhere, they’re busy with people looking at the books and chatting with the publishers, and the guards are looking bored. It’s a crime in Germany to deny the historical truth of the Holocaust so the magazines they publish try to chip away at it obliquely by crawling over the facts in an attempt to find something they can claim is inconsistent or falsified. One publisher’s stand is covered in flattering pictures of Putin, it’s not hard to guess who might be bankrolling them.

The other publishers at Leipzig aren’t taking the inclusion of these rightwing press lying down. They’ve formed a movement called ‘Verlage gegen Rechts’ (publishers against the Right) and have organized a series of public panel discussions about the importance of protecting democratic rights and in particular the rights of minorities. I’ve been invited by this movement to take part in a discussion about physical memorials – particularly those of the Holocaust – their purpose and meaning in modern Germany, and the way they help Germans to remember the past. My inclusion on this panel is partly triggered by a statement made about the National Holocaust Memorial in Berlin by the director of Alternativ für Deutschland (the extreme right-wing party that since the 2017 federal election is now part of the opposition in the Parliament), that Germany is the only country which is required to have this ‘memorial to shame’ (sic) in its capital. I’ve visited the memorial in Berlin several times. The vast field of grave-sized blocks feels appropriately sombre and heavy and yet it’s also rather anonymous; actual information about the Holocaust is physically separate from the memorial, and it’s common to see weary tourists eating ice-cream while sitting on it. Nevertheless, a national memorial to the victims of genocide right in the heart of its capital and only metres from the Reichstag Building is a telling indication of how seriously Germany takes its responsibility to remember its past crimes. I tell the audience that it’s not a ‘memorial to shame’, but rather a memorial to historical truth that other countries such as the U.K. would do well to emulate.

Memorials here are deemed to be a collective response to a collective crime and our panel at Leipzig book fair is in agreement that they are necessary, but that separate voices should also be heard through the medium of literature, which is better suited to bearing the variety of individual testimonies. Too late after the event, I realize that our discussion assumed that the future people of Germany (whom we all agreed should continue to bear a responsibility to look after these memorials) will have a direct connection to the past. But of course many Germans are immigrants, or the children of immigrants. Should they feel any obligation to the victims of history?

All the hotels in Leipzig are full so we stay in Halle, a town about twenty kilometres away. Halle is famous for its ancient salt works (its name derives from halen, the Celtic word for ‘salt’) and the Roman saline is now a museum. Presumably this is a popular tourist attraction around these parts but the ‘beast from (even further) east’ has descended on us and the city is struggling under a sudden thick layer of snow. On one day the trains have stopped running and I can’t get to Leipzig so I try and do some sightseeing around Halle, before giving up and returning to my comfortable hotel in one of the most Soviet-era neighbourhoods I have ever seen in the ex-DDR. The expanses of snow and ice around the concrete housing projects only add to the Cold War atmosphere.

After all this I am keen to escape back to the present day. But I have my own personal memorial that is reinforced by the language here. In German, ‘Merz’ is a homonym of ‘März’, meaning March. Several years ago my mother died in the middle of the month. The days just before the anniversary of her death always feel like a gap in normal time, during which I find it difficult to concentrate on work. It seems like all I can do is hold my breath and wait for normal life to return. Every year as March approaches, I hope it will be a different experience and that the gap might have closed up, allowing me to live through the month as if it were like any other. But by now I have learnt that after a bereavement nothing ever goes back to what it was, and I spend these days walking and listening to birdsong in the forest, and keeping an eye out for the imaginary wolves.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories

image

HUMBOLDT’S GIFT

My grandfather had two intellectual heroes. One was Sir Humphry Davy; the other was Alexander von Humboldt. The connection was mining, and specifically the fact that both men developed improved miners’ lamps. To my grandfather, the safety of his men was a greater human good than a cure for cancer.

He owned a very early Davy lamp, which sat on a dresser, was promised to me, but mysteriously disappeared after his death. As did, a small steel engraving of Humboldt, based on the 1843 Joseph Stieler portrait. When eventually I saw the original, I was struck by how unreadable was Humboldt’s expression, which is somehow open and profoundly guarded at the same time.

The same impression flows from Maren Meinhardt’s fine biographical study, which offers new insights into the man without in any way extending the research done by previous biographers such as Lotte Kellner and Helmut De Terra. Her book concentrates very largely on his upbringing, early career and defining voyage to South America, which lasted from 1799 till 1804, and almost nothing at all on the next fifty-five years of his life, which saw the rise of an international reputation that amounts almost to a cult.

It is difficult to sum up Humboldt’s achievements. They were in the fields of mining engineering first, a non-obvious career for a man of his interests but crucial to his philosophy and methodology, but also plant science and botanical geography, metal currency, meteorology and even climate change, which he seems to have been the first to discuss as a global phenomenon. The name Humboldt is perhaps most commonly associated with the cold, low-salt Humboldt Current (a designation he never used or acknowledged) that runs up the West coast of South America, but he is also remembered in an Alaskan glacier, mountains in Venezuela, New Zealand, New Caledonia, the US and Antarctic, more than a dozen locations across the Americas, five universities (though the one in Berlin is co-named for his brother Wilhelm), an asteroid, a lunar ‘sea’ and a dozen species – including a penguin, a squid, an oak and a river dolphin – that were previously unknown to science. His intellectual contacts included Goethe and Thomas Jefferson. Louis Agassiz was his student. He inspired John Muir, Emerson and Thoreau, and Washington Irving. His influence on Darwin and Wallace was incalculable; the seven volumes of Humboldt’s Personal Narrative – an English version of his Relation historique du voyage aux regions équinoxiales du nouveau continent – went with Darwin on the Beagle. Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his strange prose poem Eureka to Humboldt. Simon Bolivár said that he was a greater man than Columbus, who is probably the only other non-divine person with so many memorials around the world.

And yet, we know almost nothing about Humboldt the man. If mentioning the abrupt cut-off of Maren Meinhardt’s account sounds like a quibble, it is not. Nor is pointing out that her book has no map or diagram of Humboldt’s journeys. But while A Longing For Wide and Unknown Things will send a curious reader many times to the atlas, the absence of an easily followed itinerary is also a strong reminder that Humboldt’s journeys were also inward ones, and involved not just mileage, but also depth.

It began with mining. To the Romantic imagination, going deep into the earth was a profound psychological experience, akin to but different from that of climbing high mountains. Humboldt combined the two when he produced a cut-away of the South American continent, made through the peaks of Chimborazo, which was then believed to be the highest in the world above sea level but which is still acknowledged as the farthest point from the earth’s centre. On the exposed face of the rock, Humboldt wrote the names of plant species that could be expected at different altitudes. As Meinhardt says, the effect is aesthetic rather than particularly useful, since the names are in the tiniest script.

This is somehow typical and telling. Humboldt does not seem to have been particularly interested in reputation or fame. He cheerfully ceded co-authorship of the great work of 1814 to 1825 to his travel companion Aimé Bonpland, even though the Frenchman only contributed one volume. It may be that Humboldt was so wedded to the Romantic preference for fragments and for the unattainable that he was a poor finisher. He didn’t complete a university degree, despite three starts, and all his great work was done on the foundation of a diploma from the Freiberg School of Mines. He struggled on the slopes of Chimborazo, but made no further attempt to complete the climb. His great work Kosmos – the work that inspired Poe and for which Humboldt is seen holding a cartoon or prospectus in the Stieler portrait – was never finished. It was to have been a project that unified the natural sciences, but as Humboldt himself said in a different context, ‘the seemingly unattainable holds a mysterious attraction’.

The use of ‘seemingly’ is important. It looks very much as if Humboldt’s characteristic response was to hold back. He certainly held back from people. He was outwardly gregarious, even passionate in his friendships, but denied any ‘sensual needs’. He may have been asexual, but there are rumours of visits to bawdy houses in Quito. He may very well have been gay. He was a favourite subject for early sexological researchers who wanted to reclaim him from the mythifiers who had bleached him clear and clean of all physical need or desire. His friendships with men have a peculiar intensity. He wrote love letters to Wilhelm Gabriel Wegener, a theology student. He then lived with a soldier Reinhardt von Haeften, and even proposed a ménage à trois when the young man became engaged. He lived cheek by jowl with Bonpland for five years, often in inhospitable places, and he later lived with Joseph Louis Gay Lussac and François Arago, the latter also married, but more crucially also a scientist.

It may very well be that Humboldt had found a way of not so much sublimating as expressing those ‘sensual needs’ through scientific activity. It seems improbable to us, who so readily accept homosexuality as a social norm that we look for it even where it is not present, or use terms like ‘married to his work’ for men who seem to have no time or inclination for a romantic life. The issue becomes clearer – and Meinhardt does very well in conveying this without making a specific point of it – that Humboldt seems to stand on the cusp of modern science, indeed as one of its founders, but with a foot planted very firmly in an older mystical/magickal understanding of science as a branch of the occult and esoteric.

When he spoke about his forerunner, the cartographer Charles Marie de la Condamine, he commented that the Frenchman ‘did not go beyond quantity’. This is an important distinction because it was central to Humboldt’s way of thinking that all the taxonomising in the world did not reveal ultimate answers, that all the carefully rescued samples did not add up to true knowledge. Time and again, he refers to understanding in terms of profound intuition, a process of sinking into the landscape (again the Romantic trope of mines and caves) and understanding its flora and fauna as part of a breathing, dynamic system. The poet and mystic known as Novalis – who also began his career working in the salt mines of Saxony – invented the symbol of the ‘blue flower’ in his novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen. It came to represent not just Romantic beauty, but also a search for the unattainable. One hardly needs to note that Humboldt didn’t just create floral metaphors; he botanized in the field, and could not just taxonomise any blue blossom he found but also point to its proper altitude, soil and wider ecology. Even so, that isn’t to caricature Humboldt as a scientific modernist. His approach to science is actually much closer to Novalis’s dream of ‘universal progressive poesy’.

This point heaves close in Meinhardt’s chapter on ‘The Compensations of Mining’ but is never quite stated. She does, however, show how the Ofterdingen miners are pulled in two directions, deeper into the earth, but also intensely peripatetic and restless. This had a resonance for my grandfather as well; as a 19-year-old, he climbed out of a West Lothian pit and went off to become a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. Meinhardt’s beautiful title – which I’ve already heard misquoted as ‘wild and unknown things’; the real version is important – suggests how deeply Wanderlust settled into the Romantic philosophy. Novalis, perhaps anticipating Tennyson’s Ulysses, writes ‘Come, friends, let us flee / The shackles Europe builds, / And go to unspoilt Tahiti’. It’s difficult to determine what shackles precisely held down Humboldt. He had no close connection to his mother, who seems as glacially remote and uninviting as the upper slopes of Chimborazo. To his brother Wilhelm, he is clearly the family oddity, viewed with affection but not much in the way of real understanding. He looks out at us from the Stieler portrait, almost pretty even in middle age, wrists crossed demurely in his lap, a globe at his side and Kosmos in his grasp. There are other portraits, by German and American artists, taken at different ages, but until now there has been nothing to match the Stieler canvas. A Longing For Wide and Unknown Things is that comparatively rare thing, a completely convincing biographical portrait of a highly complex individual, done in less than 250 pages. If it isn’t insensitive to say it, this is a book about a scientist that could only have been written by the widow of a poet, who’s revealed as a poet herself. Maren Meinhardt was married to Mick Imlah until his early death in 2009. We should note, in passing, that Imlah’s first book was called The Zoologist’s Bath and that, since the Poet Laureate’s Ulysses has been invoked, he was also a rare latter-day supporter of Tennyson, the poet who gave us our Novalis-like image of nature – ‘red in tooth and claw’ – as a predatory beast. It’s tempting to add an epigraph to Meinhardt’s lovely, profound book. The opening line of one of Imlah’s poems seems apposite here: ‘Where are you taking us, sir?

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories

image

OWN GOALS

He is not a theatrical knight but for services rendered to entertainment in Scotland Archie Macpherson can surely be granted the tinselled status of national treasure. So embedded is he in the culture that mention of his name almost invariably prompts colloquial references, like cries of ‘Woof!’, in comic tribute to his distinctive football commentary style, or ‘Weetabix Heid’ – a reference to the bouffant style of his ginger hair during his epochal stint as commentator and presenter on BBC Scotland’s Sportscene.

For many Scots of a certain age, Macpherson’s utterances are as redolent of time and place as Kenneth Wolstenholme’s legendary pronouncement – ‘Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over… it is now!’ – prompted by a fan invasion as Geoff Hurst scored England’s fourth goal at the end of their World Cup triumph over West Germany in 1966. A rather more sinister encroachment, at Hampden Park in 1980, when Old Firm fans battled on the pitch after Celtic beat Rangers in the Scottish Cup final, prompted Macpherson to declare: ‘It’s like a scene from Apocalypse Now!’ His most resonant commentary moment was, of course, devoted to Archie Gemmill’s unforgettable slalom through a clump of Dutch jerseys in Mendoza in 1978, to put Scotland within sight of a place in the knockout stages of the World Cup that had looked beyond hope after a farcical opening to the campaign. Touching distance proved to be as far as the Scots would get, but in 1996 Danny Boyle requested Macpherson to recreate his description for inclusion in a literally climactic scene in the first Trainspotting movie, as Renton has sex with his girlfriend while the goal replays on TV.

Macpherson began as a teacher and the pedagogic instinct surfaced frequently in broadcasts with the admonition, ‘Well, what did I tell you?’ The wheel turned full cycle when he was elected Rector of Edinburgh University in 1985. Adventures in the Golden Age is a memoir of his part in covering Scotland’s participation in six World Cup finals between 1974 and 1998. Its appearance is timely, inasmuch as this summer featured yet another World Cup unadorned by the presence of the Tartan Army, whose most recent muster for the later stages of the tournament occurred all of twenty years ago. A generation of supporters has reached adulthood since then and, although they yearn for the opportunity to travel as hopefully as their kilted predecessors, Macpherson’s account is a reminder that Scotland’s arrival usually featured a crash landing.

He sets the scene for his own era with a reminder that, had there been a trophy for the most obdurate and amateurish administrators, the Scottish Football Association would have been in contention from the start. In 1950, the SFA withdrew Scotland from the finals in Brazil because, in the last game prior to their scheduled departure, the Scots had lost 1-0 to England at Hampden and thus failed to retain their status as British champions. The Daily Record described the decision as ‘wicked narrow-mindedness’. Macpherson  was present as a 16-year-old on the Hampden terracings when Roy Bentley scored England’s goal and he saw a late shot from Willie Bauld of Hearts strike the crossbar from six yards out. Had that effort fallen on the right side of the goal line, Scotland would have gone to South America. Macpherson recollects his reaction to Bauld’s miss – in a fashion reminiscent of his classic commentary style – as being ‘like a stake driven through the heart of a boy who from that very moment began to doubt the existence of God’.

By the time Scotland qualified for the 1974 finals, he was a member of the media entourage and testifies to the drink culture of the time. Embarking upon their warm-up matches with a friendly against Belgium, the travelling party of officials, players and reporters was treated by the BA cabin crew to a bottle of bubbly apiece on the flight and another of the same as they left the aircraft. For a fixture with Norway, the accommodation in Oslo was a university dorm on campus. Incredibly, the SFA had not noticed that the facilities included a subsidized bar replete with ‘languid leggy blondes’. A curfew was slapped on the squad and duly ignored by Billy Bremner and Jimmy Johnstone, both of whom got drunk in front of an open-mouthed John Motson. At breakfast, the squad left the dining room armed with butter knives, with which they would rip the Adidas stripes from their boots because the SFA had rejected a more lucrative sponsorship offer from Tennent Caledonian Breweries.

By this stage, the recurrent fault lines were well established, one being habitually inadequate accommodation, which descended to near-slum standard in Argentina in 1978 and Mexico in 1986. Tacky financial opportunism was another, as when in 1974 a BBC Sports executive met Willie Ormond in a Glasgow restaurant and slipped the traditional brown envelope of cash beneath the table – via Macpherson – to the Scotland manager, in order to secure privileged access to the squad. Ormond’s successor, Ally MacLeod, spent more energy touting carpets than he did researching disdained opponents such as Peru and Iran, who duly torpedoed Scotland’s hopes in Argentina.

Adventures in the Golden Age evinces little sympathy for MacLeod, although Macpherson’s opinion is that the manager suffered from lack of a player with the leadership qualities of Bremner, who might have transformed fortunes on the pitch. He also denounces the savage backlash directed at MacLeod from sections of the media which had previously fuelled his bombast, as ‘disgusting denigration… more applicable to the Moors murderer, Ian Brady’. Much of this ground has been ploughed repeatedly. What Macpherson offers is the testimony of personal witness, as when, at a dinner hosted by the SFA after the draw for the qualifying groups of Mexico ’86, the association’s president, Tommy Younger, became inebriated and turned on Jock Stein with the words: ‘You know, Jock, you have a worse record than Willie Ormond and Ally MacLeod – and they got the sack.’ Macpherson writes: ‘It wasn’t so much the inaccuracy of what Younger said, it was the very temerity. I thought Stein would snap.’ The situation was soothed by the intervention of the SFA secretary, Ernie Walker, ‘before the table was upturned’.

Diplomacy was not as evident on other occasions, such as an encounter with Sean Connery at a hotel near his home on the Costa del Sol, for a TV interview during Spain ’82. ‘The topless German girl who lay sprawling at the poolside did not seem to mind that 007 was occasionally sneaking a glance at her. We all were,’ Macpherson admits. ‘Except that Sean Connery’s wife was sitting beside him as well, constantly feeding her poodle and muttering incessantly in French. It was as well the poodle was a distraction because we noted she was pointedly unaware of Sean eyeing the scenery. However, Sean became thoroughly browned off by the interruptions, put down his cutlery with a clatter and snapped, “Would you shut your effing mouth!” We carried on eating as if nothing had happened.’

Broadcasting can be as competitive an activity as any professional sport and Macpherson logs his struggles to maintain Scottish independence within the BBC when London big shots like David Coleman wanted to muscle in on Scotland’s turf. West Germany in 1974 was one such occasion. ‘I saw this figure marching through the lobby barking orders to some flunkey or two around him, as Coleman was wont to do,’ Macpherson recalls. ‘He was top dog. Nay, a demi god, if you listened to what was said about him in broadcasting circles. He was fully aware of that and acted accordingly, regarding all around him as Lilliputians set to bugger him up and, as a consequence, treated them like serfs.’ On one occasion the editor of Grandstand asked the Beeb’s favoured son to be available for a broadcast recording the following morning. ‘There are big pricks, there are small pricks, but you are the biggest small prick of all,’ Coleman informed his supposed boss.

Macpherson is good on the complexity of Jock Stein’s personality, in which compassion and callousness were mingled and he is supportive of Andy Roxburgh and Craig Brown, in charge of Scotland respectively in Italy in 1990 and France in 1998. Both, like him, were originally teachers.

The strange decline of the Scottish game is perplexing. The causes are multiple – the teachers’ strike of the 1980s, when football evaporated as an extra-curricular activity, the formation of the SPL in 1998 (when Scotland last appeared in a World Cup finals), the collapse of the USSR and Yugoslavia, which doubled the number of countries in Uefa, plus the influx of vast television revenues to England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. But the same conditions and population constraints apply to Iceland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Croatia, Denmark, Costa Rica, Panama and Uruguay, to name a clutch of Euro 2016 or Russia 2018 finalists (the Croatians, Danes and Icelanders qualified for both).

Stands Scotland where it did? Nope. The national parliament (established in 1999) has never been required to congratulate the national team. Murray and Hoy are the world beaters of our era. It is poignant to realize that, were we able to return to Archie Macpherson’s Golden Age and mention their names, the reply would be: ‘Which team do they play for?’

Woof!

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories

image

GET A LIFE

WATCHING England suffocate stuporous Sweden in the quarter finals of this year’s World Cup my contempt for jingoistic pundits reached a new level when one former footballer remarked that anyone who was not engrossed in the stultifying spectacle unfolding on the screen but was instead reading a book ought to ‘get a life’.

What the pundit failed to appreciate was that those of us who might prefer to read rather than watch a ninety-minute yawn are the ones who are indeed getting a life – in fact many lives – while the poor saps glued to the gogglebox have no life worth speaking of. As the growing number of ‘bibliomemoirs’ attest – Laura Freeman’s The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite, Rebecca Mead’s My Life and Middlemarch and Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading – the discovery of reading in childhood is a passport to worlds real and imaginable and without end. Bookish children have essentially the same story to tell, how they found succour from the banality of existence which, when not frightening or disturbing, was simply dull beyond words.

I was not a bookish boy, or I don’t believe I was. Every hour of the day and often well into a murky Scottish night, I played football, in the street, on patches of bare grass, in mud-clogged fields with jerseys for goalposts. I dreamt not of following in the footsteps of Wattie Scott or Bobby Stevenson but of emulating the likes of Willie Henderson, Jimmy Johnstone or, my hero among heroes, silky Jimmy Greaves. Musselburgh, the compact seaside town on Scotland’s east coast where I was born and grew up, did not boast of any examples of writers whose paths I might follow. There was a celebrated footballer, however, who did come from the place known as the Honest Toun. John White played for Scotland and, like Greaves, Tottenham Hotspur, whose fans knew him as ‘the ghost’ because of his ability to drift into the penalty box as if out of nowhere and score. I still remember the day he died. It was the summer of 1964 and I was delivering the Edinburgh Evening News when I read on its front page that he had been fatally struck by lightning while playing golf. He was just 27, his young life cut short just like that a year earlier of JFK, to whom he bore a passing resemblance.

What I and my football obsessed friends took from White’s story was that we too could make it if we had but talent enough. It was a possibility, albeit an unlikely one.

On the other hand, to want to be a writer was as alien to my peers as to have an ambition to be an astronaut. I knew no one in my family’s social circle who earned their living by writing. It just wasn’t a career option. Later, though, I learned that Musselburgh did have a literary heritage of sorts. A nineteenth-century poet, David Macbeth Moir, after whom streets were named, and who has lately had a Wetherspoons’ pub named in his honour (who needs an OBE?), was one of ours. I learned, too, from Alan Bold’s biography of Hugh MacDiarmid, that it was from my own dentist, a bibliophile and Scottish Nationalist, that the fiery poet had been given a free set of dentures.

Typical of most of the families in the council estate on which I lived, mine possessed few books. Comics were the gateway to literature. The route to books was through a box brought weekly into our primary school classroom. You would have thought it was a Christmas hamper given the rapaciousness with which we fell upon it. Thereafter I was introduced to the local library where floral-aproned female assistants crept around as if in slippers and hissed ‘shsssh’ if you sucked too loudly on a toffee. What drew me there in the first instance I have no memory. It may simply be that one day I ducked in out of the rain and fell in love with the atmosphere. In contrast to our home there was space, quiet and shelf upon shelf of books all carefully arranged as if one parade. I have often wondered what it must be like to be, say, a football pundit and have never known the embrace of a library and the sight of numberless books and the promise they contain. When I grew older and acquired my own library I often took consolation from the knowledge that I had books aplenty to keep me entertained and engrossed for as long as it was possible to live. The idea that I might find myself stuck in a lift or on a desert island used to fill me with horror. I never left the house – still never leave it – without a book in my bag. I know: I really ought to get a life.

It is chastening to realize that reading for pleasure is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first significant step towards it was taken by Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg who, in the 1450s in the German town of Mainz, as Keith Houston describes it in The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, ‘pulled and released the lever of a makeshift wine press, and everything changed’. By the invention of moveable type, Gutenberg made it possible to produce books quickly, cheaply and in increasing numbers. Without him, the modern world would be impossible to imagine. Of course it was several centuries before the ownership of books became the norm. Even in the nineteenth century, when industrialization, mass-produced paper and the introduction of mass education and with it the ability to read pushed down the cost of books, it was still too expensive for many people on the lower rungs of society to afford them. The reading public may have expanded exponentially but those with the wherewithal to own books remained largely in the minority. Public libraries, thanks in large part to the generosity of Andrew Carnegie, helped satisfy demand. In the main, however, they were conduits for information and education. Amusement was not a priority and local authorities, many of whom only reluctantly introduced libraries, did their best to discourage it. Their message was clear; read if you must but it had to be literature that was of an improving, elevating nature. If you were a fan of religious commentaries you were in heaven.

This attitude pertained well into the last century. In the early 1930s, when QD ‘Queenie’ Leavis produced her hugely influential and persistently snooty study, Fiction and the Reading Public, she could confidently assert that, ‘In twentieth-century England [she meant Britain, but we’ll let that pass] not only everyone can read but it is safe to add that everyone does read’. But it was what people read – newspapers in the main – that disturbed Leavis. ‘A Sunday morning walk through any residential district will reveal the head of the family “reading the newspaper” in each front window; in the poorest quarters the News of the World is read on the doorstep or in bed; the weekly perusal of the Observer or the Sunday Times, which give a large proportion of their contents to book-reviews and publishers’ advertisements, is in many cases the only time that even the best-intentioned businessman or schoolmaster can spare for literary education.’ Time then as now, it seems, was at a premium. Books, it was perceived, were voracious swallowers of it. If you were going to read one it had better be of the sort that was worth the effort. It was like having a diet exclusively of vegetables or fruit. Junk food, like junk fiction, was proscribed by the panjandrums who ran civic life. Surveying the fiction shelves of public libraries, Leavis noted the absence even of ‘the significant work in fiction’, such as the novels of DH Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, TF Powys and EM Forster. ‘Apart from the fact that three out of the five are held by the majority to be indecent, a fact suggestive in itself,’ reflected the imperious Leavis, ‘four out of the five would convey very little, if anything, to the merely literate. A librarian who has made the experiment of putting “good” fiction into his library will report that no one would take out South Wind or The Garden Party, whereas, if he were put two hundred more copies of Edgar Wallace’s detective stories on the shelves, they would all be gone the same day.’

What turned book borrowers into buyers, at least on these shores, was growing affluence and the advent in 1935 of Penguin Books. For the first time a book – a paperback that fitted snugly into a proper pocket – cost no more than a poke of chips. Now homes where there had been no books had a shelf or two filled with them. Then came the Second World War which, far from stunting the company’s growth, helped spur it on. While many readers recall with affection the first ten titles published by Penguin, which included novels not only by Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie but also by Compton Mackenzie and Eric Linklater, few are aware that it was also the publisher of bestselling manuals like Keeping Poultry, Rabbits on Scraps and Aircraft Recognition, which were designed to help fill empty bellies and bolster the war effort. Didactic such books may have been but they were books. For some it was the first step towards bibliomania.

Alberto Manguel’s Packing My Library and Edmund White’s The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading are the memoirs of hopeless addicts who will go to their graves with the shakes. Manguel’s publisher says he is ‘a lover of books’ but he is much more than that. Appointed the director of the National Library of Argentina – a post once held by Jorge Luis Borges, to whom Manguel used to read – he has written copiously on books and reading. In an earlier book, A Reader on Reading, he made an attempt – in fact many attempts – to define the ideal reader, the final one being: ‘Literature depends, not on ideal readers, but merely on good enough readers.’ To become a good enough reader rather sums up Manguel’s life. It has been his equivalent of reaching the South Pole or the source of the Amazon. One of his earliest memories, he recalls, was of a shelf full of books on the wall above his cot from which his nurse would take down one and read to him. The obvious comparison is with RLS and his nurse, Alison ‘Cummy’ Cunningham, who had no need for books because the stories with which she beguiled and terrified him were all in her head. The shelf above Manguel’s bed was his first library, the beginning of an inextinguishable obsession and a relationship, unlike the human kind, which will endure. ‘I remember arranging and rearranging my books according to secret rules that I invented for myself,’ he writes, ‘all the Golden Books series had to be grouped together, the fat collections of fairy tales were not allowed to touch the minuscule Beatrix Potters, stuffed animals could not sit on the same shelf as the books. I told myself that if these rules were upset, terrible things would happen. Superstition and the art of libraries are tightly entwined.’ Was Manguel, I wonder, who is 69, a few years older than me, ever the kind of boy who dreamed of becoming a Maradona?

Packing My Library is sub-titled ‘An Elegy and Ten Digressions’. The digressions seem almost to be diversions, leading readers away from Manguel’s own ‘elegy’. That is not say they lack interest; on the contrary they tell stories of writers and books which allow him to ponder on things that all readers must ask themselves from time to time, such as: does literature achieve anything in a society? Books are generally believed to be good for us, that they help us live better lives. Few books, for example, rejoice in the morally bad; baddies get their comeuppance, nice people – in general – succeed in the end. So what if not everyone lives happily ever after; in the main the current that runs through virtually all literature is positive and redemptive. ‘Of course,’ writes Manguel, ‘literature may not be able to save anyone from injustice, or from the temptations of greed or the miseries of power. But something about it must be perilously effective if every dictator, every totalitarian government, every threatened official tries to do away with it, by burning books, by banning books, by censoring books, by taxing books, by paying mere lip service to the cause of literacy, by insinuating that reading is an elitist activity.’

Manguel knows of what he speaks. The son of a book-loving Argentinian diplomat, he left his home country for Europe in 1969, shortly before it fell under military dictatorship. He lugged his library with him and wherever he went he added to it. Over the years it grew like giant knotweed until he had over 35,000 volumes. With his then partner, he settled in France, in the Loire Valley, where for fifteen years he housed his books in an ancient barn. The way he describes it, it seems idyllic, but like all idylls it was illusory and ephemeral. ‘I thought that once the books found their place, I would find mine. I was to be proved wrong,’ Manguel relates at the outset. What we never discover, however, is what it was that proved him wrong. Thus Packing My Library has an inherent sense of frustration, of the unsaid – or the unsayable? – of a reluctance to trust the reader, even a reader who may be just good enough.

What cannot be underestimated, though, is the loss of a library which, if arranged chronologically by date of acquisition, would be tantamount to an autobiography. Those of us who collect books know deep down that they are reminders of who we are and were and what we were doing at a particular time and place. For Edmund White they are as integral to his life as his family and friends. Some may quibble over him calling reading an ‘unpunished vice’ but coming from a writer who has survived the Aids pandemic it is surely excusable. He is a survivor and is thus in celebratory mood. Granted life when so many of his generation died, he spends much of his time reading, knowing full well that no matter how quickly he reads there will always be something he would like to read but can’t. We readers are like that; there is guilt inherent in the neglect of books unopened and unread. We know we ought to give them a chance, but when? White’s latest brush with death – he suffered a massive heart attack towards the end of 2014 – brought home to him the importance of reading in his life. When he woke up after he had been unconscious for three days he had lost the desire to read. ‘The letters remained stubbornly crisp and sharp and separate, isolated, resistant to flow. They didn’t resolve into words, nor words into paragraphs.’ Normal service was resumed when ‘a handsome young friend’ – it has never taken much to turn White on – brought him a copy of Sait Faik Abasiyanik’s A Useless Man. ‘I remember Ronald Firbank once said, upon entering a bookshop, something like, “Do you have anything in my line, you know, something dreamy and vague?” That was was precisely what I was looking for, and here it was.’

For 222 companionable pages White relives his peripatetic existence. He is chatty, incisive, opinionated – he was a judge of the Booker Prize the year it was won by Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, a decision he appears not wholly to have approved of – and in reminiscent mode. Reading The Unpunished Vice is like eavesdropping on a conversation, albeit not one between football pundits, and wishing you could join in. Who cannot warm to a man who insists, ‘I love research, and in my next life I want to be a librarian’? He writes about his mother and father, friends and lovers, writers he admires, about teaching creative writing, of living in Paris, of being gay and Buddhist, of falling under the influence of older men and women and reading whatever they recommended. ‘I never read the standard children’s classics,’ he confesses. ‘No Wind in the Willows. Only recently did I get round to Treasure Island.’ And, on almost every page, he champions books I felt I must read immediately: Daŝa Drndić’s ‘excellent novel’ Trieste, Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, to which White was guided by ‘the great Chinese-American novelist’ Yiyun Li, Yasunari Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain (‘my favourite novel by him’), Horseman on the Roof by Jean Giono, whose name to my shame was new to me, and countless others. It is a reminder that there are so many more lives yet to get.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories

image

THE SRB INTERVIEW: Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie was born in Karachi in 1973. She comes from a family of intellectuals. Her mother, Muneeza Shamsie, is a celebrated academic and journalist who has published anthologies on Pakistani writing in the English Language.

Her great aunt was the writer Attia Husain, and her grandfather studied Classics at Oxford University. From an early age, she was determined to be a writer. In her late teens, she attended university in America. At the age of twenty-one, she started writing her first novel.

That novel, In the City by the Sea, was published in 1998. It is about an eleven-year-old boy called Hasan living in Karachi at a time of political turbulence in Pakistan. As real life becomes more fraught with danger, Hasan escapes into the realm of the imagination, making friends with characters from Arthurian legends and Shakespeare. Shamsie’s next three novels followed in quick succession. Salt and Saffron (2000), Kartography (2002) and Broken Verses (2005) continued to explore the same five square miles of Karachi.

Burnt Shadows (2009), her fifth novel, signalled a departure in her geographical and historical scope. It tracked a family history through the ruptures of the late twentieth century, starting with the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki, moving through Pakistan in the 1980s, and ending in the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre. It is a novel that combined Shamsie’s formidable skill as a storyteller with a crystalline prose style that delved deep into the minds of her characters.

A God in Every Stone moved further back into the past. A few months before the outbreak of the First World War, Vivian Rose Spencer, a young English archaeologist, uncovers the Temple of Zeus in Turkey. A year later, Qayyum Gul is fighting for the British Indian Army at Ypres. When he loses an eye in battle, he returns to his home in Peshawar, Pakistan. On the train, he shares a carriage with Vivian, who is looking for a fabled circlet worn by the fifth century BCE explorer Scylax. Their very different lives cross paths again twenty years later on Peshawar’s famous Street of Storytellers.

Home Fire, her most accomplished work to date, won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction. It is a re-imagining of Sophocles’ Antigone that follows the lives of two Muslim families in contemporary Britain. Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz grow up knowing their jihadist father was killed on his way to Guantanamo Bay. Whilst Isma, the older sister and maternal presence, is studying at an American university, Parvaiz is recruited by a member of Islamic State and leaves for Syria. Then, the British Home Secretary’s son, Eamonn, falls in love with Aneeka. Both families become entrenched in a political war where love and family are pitted against the machinations of the state.

Nick Major met Shamsie in London, where she has lived since 2007. It was a July day of sticky, subcontinental heat. They sat in a corner of an airy café filled with Quakers and political aficionados a ten-minute walk from The British Library. Shamsie has dark hair and wore a light pink dress. She spoke for an hour and a half, pausing once to jump up and hold open a door for a lady struggling with a tray piled high with teapots and cups. On meeting her, it is immediately clear she possesses a lively intellect and an eloquent, confident voice. She is comfortable talking about any subject under the sun. The conversation ranged from her writerly childhood and growing up under military dictatorship, to the erosion of civil liberties in Britain and how to adapt an ancient Greek myth. It also touched briefly on her first work of literature: a book about dog heaven.

SRB: You’re not long back from holiday in the United States. You’ve lived there in the past. How long for?

Kamila Shamsie: Between 1991 to 2006, America was very much part of the rotation of my life. I was at university there from 1991 to 1998. I did my undergraduate degree at Hamilton College, then a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Then, between 2000 and 2006, I had a recurring position as a visiting teacher of creative writing at Hamilton. I really just know a tiny corner of America, on the east coast. This was my first time out west. Just after I won the Women’s Prize, my sister and I went on a road trip from Phoenix, Arizona, to Las Vegas via three Canyons (Grand, Bryce and Zion).

What was that like?

The thing you know in the abstract, but which you have to see, is the vastness of the place and how little relationship one side of it has to another. Mostly, the landscape is just unbelievably beautiful. You do a lot of looking and not that much thinking.

A friend of mine recently moved back to America. She said it was quite painful to live under Trump’s presidency.

I’ve been back a few times since Trump has been elected. I usually go to New York or Massachusetts. All my friends are in a state of trauma, grief and depression or some spirit of resistance. But this time I was on a holiday. We were just going from hotel to hotel. We had no idea what was going on anywhere. Out in these small towns you just have a [local] newspaper, where all that’s going on is some bake sale or something. It was only when I went on to the Guardian website one night that I realized Trump was having his summit with Kim [Jong-Un]. It might have been interesting to have conversations in those parts of America where there is a much larger Trump constituency. But I was on holiday and I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into those sorts of conversations.

You were born and grew up in Karachi. Your mother is a distinguished writer. What was your family life like?

In retrospect, it was odd. At the time it was just my childhood. I didn’t think twice about it. Pakistan, politically, was incredibly bleak. When I was four, in 1977, military rule came in and lasted until I was fifteen. There was a lot of pretend Islamisation. It was also the period of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan got involved and trained up jihadis. I would sit and listen to adults having conversations about the terrible path the country was on and the dangers of religious extremism. On the other hand, I had my family life, which was a happy place full of books. When I was growing up, my mother was doing feature pieces for newspapers, but her real interest was books. She would interview any writers who were coming through. She made sure she knew what was happening in the world of contemporary writing. Now you have very good bookshops in Karachi, but at that time it was hard to find literary fiction. She would always find out who had won the Booker Prize and she subscribed to Granta throughout the 1980s. Then, she would order books from London and you would wait tensely in case they got lost in the post. When I was thirteen or fourteen, she started to give me books by Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Anita Desai, and Peter Carey. It was a household in which people were always reading. My great aunt had been a writer. My grandmother was always reciting poetry. My grandfather studied the Classics at Oxford, so he would sit around the dinner table declaiming Greek onomatopoeia. When I talk about it, it sounds like a parody. But I did grow up in these two worlds: there was the world around me, and there was the world of the imagination. Apparently, I was nine years old when I announced I was going to be a writer, and eleven when my best friend and I wrote a book about dog heaven, to cope with the death of our pet dogs.

Were you bilingual from an early age?

I grew up talking, reading and dreaming in English. My schooling was in English, and my parents’ and grandfather’s primary language was English. My maternal grandmother’s first language was Urdu, but she was in a minority. So, regrettably, Urdu has always been a second language. I can speak it, but my grammar is bad and my vocabulary is limited.

Were there any expectations that you would become a writer?

When I was fourteen, my mother did say to me, ‘I hope you’re not doing this because you think…’ I said, ‘No, what else am I going to do? This is the thing I love.’ But, also, my mother’s career really took off when I was at university and she started to do more critical work and edit anthologies about Pakistani writing in English. My grandmother published a memoir in her eighties, but I already had three novels out. So, no, there was never any sense of expectation. It was almost the opposite. There just weren’t Pakistani writers working in English who were being published. I was lucky to be growing up in a generation where it had started to happen in India. So, I could at least read books that seemed close enough to home and I had an idea of what writing in the English language from the subcontinent might look like. But there was only one writer, Bapsi Sidhwa, from Pakistan who was being published. When you only have one, that one seems like the exception rather than the possibility you can follow. One part of my brain was always thinking, this doesn’t happen to people from here.

Did you study in America because you thought it would be easier to get published?

I wasn’t that forward thinking at seventeen. My school followed the English curriculum and has always sent its students out of the country. In an earlier generation, it was the UK. For my generation, it was America. It was almost taken for granted that most people would apply to American universities.

A God in Every Stone is partly set in Peshawar, where there is a Street of Storytellers. Your early novels draw on Pakistan’s rich culture of oral storytelling. Is that culture still alive?

The street still exists by name, but the storytellers have gone. I think first radio and then TV took over from them. Apparently, in the 1980s you could get cassette tapes with oral stories on them. Then they died out. It’s just a market now. But oral storytelling is still part of daily life. I was interviewing Michael Ondaatje a couple of weeks ago, and I asked him about early influences. He said the early influences weren’t books, it was sitting around the family table telling stories. That was something I grew up with too.

Are there any writers – Ondaatje, for example – that you return to again and again?

I return to Ondaatje and Toni Morrison probably more than anyone else. Their writing is so good. One of the greatest strokes of good fortune in my life came when I was eighteen. At Hamilton, a tiny American liberal arts college in a snow belt, on a hill, in the middle of nowhere, there was a poet there called Agha Shahid Ali, who was from Kashmir, a place that was very troubled. He was writing brilliant poetry about conflict, but he was very clear that a good writer never sacrifices the aesthetics of a line in order to make a political point. You have to work at the level of poetry first, and that will carry everything along. Ondaatje does that so well. He writes about wars and nation states and against all sorts of boundaries, subjects that could so easily become woolly. Yet he makes them real and hard and tough. He also has this eagle eye that sees in such a wide sense and another eye that has this zoom lens that will show you a speck of sand in the desert. Toni Morrison does something similar. And they both write at certain angles of history that aren’t always told.

Have they informed your writing in a technical sense or is it that their writing pushed you to be a better writer?

I hate to say they have been an influence because it feels like an act of hubris. But, I suppose they have set the bar for me, and that’s what I aim for. I don’t aim to write like them but to be technically as smart and sound as they are, and to have their imaginative reach.

Do you write every day?

Yes, when I’m writing, which is not now. It’s the only way I can do it. There is an interesting moment when it switches. In the beginning, I sit at my desk in the morning and often not very much happens. There is a point when I see the book, the characters and the voice more clearly. Then, I wake up and I just want to get back to the desk. I don’t have to exert self-discipline in the same way. In the early stages, the only way it is possible [to write] is if I recognize that writing is my job and I have to do it five days a week.

How long does it take to get to the stage where writing feels more instinctual?

It shifts a lot from book to book. With Home Fire, there are five sections. In each section, I had to start anew. I would get into my stride with one section and have it in my head, and then there was another beginning. It was a more stuttering kind of start. Although, it did get written much faster than I have written anything in a long time.

Do you know why?

A couple of reasons. I was writing about the contemporary world, and much of it – London, Karachi, Massachusetts – were places I knew, so I didn’t have to do all the work of research, where you have to stop all the time. I remember at one point with A God in Every Stone, I needed two characters to communicate with each other via telegram. So, I had to find out how telegrams work, how long a telegram would take, how much a telegram would cost, what the language of telegrams was. Also, Home Fire was the first book I have written since my very first novel where – broadly speaking – I set off knowing character, plot and structure. That came out of the fact that it comes out of Antigone. Usually, I start and I have a couple of images and vague ideas. I don’t know where I’m going. That’s a more exciting process because there is a sense of discovery, but it’s also more terrifying, and slower.

Why did you know what was going to happen in your first novel?

I had been writing a lot of short stories at university, but it was the first time I had sat down properly to write a novel. I didn’t think I could do it unless I had a clear sense of what was going to happen, a structure and a shape. It was a very streamlined novel: it was six weeks in the life of an eleven-year-old boy. When it came to the second book, I realized my brain was not able to do that. There were too many different storylines intersecting. Also, at some point, I had worked out that the act of writing engenders ideas.

A God in Every Stone is full of historical and archaeological detail. Whilst I was reading, I wondered if the book started purely imaginatively or with research.

It was both together. With A God in Every Stone I really went down a blind alley. At one point I had to delete ten months of work. At first, I didn’t know it was going to be a novel. I just knew I was interested in Peshawar. That was because I grew up without having an interest in it. If you live in Karachi, you’re aware of Lahore and Islamabad. But Peshawar, even though it’s one of the biggest cities, is considered the wild frontier. In 2009 or 2010, I was on a TV talk show in Karachi discussing my previous novel, Burnt Shadows, which starts in Nagasaki with the atom bomb. At the time, there was a lot of violence in Pakistan, and the Taliban had taken over some areas of territory. There were bombs going off in Peshawar a couple of times a week. [The show] went to a break and the TV anchor turned to me and said, ‘Here we are talking about a bomb in Nagasaki in 1945 and there are bombs going off in Peshawar every day.’ I thought, as a result of having written Burnt Shadows I know more about Nagasaki than I do about Peshawar. That just seemed wrong. As these bombs were going off, I realized I had no sense of the people or the place. As a matter of intellectual curiosity, I did some research. I have always loved ancient history and archaeology. I discovered [Peshawar has] this incredible archaeological heritage. It very quickly became clear that I was researching a novel.

Your characters are always struggling with history. For Hiroko, in Burnt Shadows, history seems an overwhelming burden. Vivian Rose Spencer, in A God in Every Stone, is almost addicted to uncovering it. Do you know why history is so central to your characters?

It has very much to do with where and when I grew up. At partition [between Pakistan and India], of my four grandparents, three left their homes and moved to Pakistan. Half their family was left in India. They thought they would be coming and going without any issue. My mother said that the first time she saw her mother cry was when my grandmother couldn’t get a visa to see her dying mother in India. When I was growing up, the government of Pakistan was telling me that India was the enemy. Then, I would go to my grandmother’s house and there was her brother, who was Indian. My other grandmother, who is German, married an Indian and moved to Delhi. Then World War Two happened. She never went back to Germany. Then partition happened and she moved from Delhi to Pakistan. She lived until 1998. One of my very earliest memories is of the 1977 election in Pakistan – my father showing me the black mark on his thumb, explaining indelible ink to me and saying this was so no-one could vote twice. I remember the military coup that happened that same year, when I was four years old. When I was six, the prime minister was hanged, and there was a boy in my school related to the prime minister, and I remember being taken out of school because they were worried about trouble in the city. So, history and politics were never separate from lived experience. There was never a point at which there was an abstract decision to use history [in the novels]. But, also, I lived under censorship where a lot of history, as it was unfolding, wasn’t being officially acknowledged and wasn’t in the newspapers, so stories became the carriers of history and politics. That was how you learnt about what was going on.

Your first four novels are set in Karachi. Why did you broaden your geographical range after that?

I always thought Karachi was my subject. It was my primary base and it was where I would go to write. I had written those novels without pause. When I finished the fourth one, Broken Verses, I felt wrung-out. I needed to stop. I gave myself six months, and that turned into eighteen months. I did have an idea about what the next book would be. It was going to be set in Karachi in the summer of 1998, when India and Pakistan tested their nuclear bombs. There was going to be a character whose grandmother or mother was a Japanese woman who had survived the bombing of Nagasaki. So, she would have this family history that was at odds with the very jubilant ‘look, we have the bomb’ hyper-nationalism going on. That was all I knew about it. During that eighteen months, I was judging the short-lived Orange Award for New Writing, a debut novel prize. I had to read something like seventy novels in six weeks. I started to get annoyed by a particular structure of storytelling: there would be someone living a fairly ordinary life, then some family secret would disrupt the present day. I kept thinking, why is everyone telling stories in this way? It took me a while to understand that I had done it in a couple of previous novels and I was about to do it again. I thought, well, I can’t do that. Then I started to think, who is this Japanese woman who ended up with family in Karachi? Maybe I should start with her? But that would mean starting with Nagasaki. I was teaching at the time. One of the things I kept blithely telling my students was that if you have an idea for something that scares you, you should at least try it. I thought, I’ll try it and it’ll be a disaster and then I’ll go back to writing about Karachi. It was a disaster, but that made me want to make it not a disaster. I recognized the pleasure and the challenge of writing about things I didn’t know that well. Once that happened, I became a different kind of writer.

In Burnt Shadows there is a scene set in Pakistan in the early 1980s, when there was a ‘growing fervour for a world of rigidity’. It depicts a group of young radicals pulling ‘unIslamic’ books off the shelves in a bookshop. How worried were you about that particular change in society whilst you were growing up?

It was a constant topic of conversation. Zia-ul-Haq was a military ruler who had no popular support so he tried to claim divine support. He brought in very misogynistic laws in the name of Islam. He insisted on more overt piety. Women newsreaders had to start covering their heads, which they had never done before. As a young girl running around in jeans, I was very aware of all that. Adults were incredibly worried about where this was going. I never witnessed a scene like that in the bookshops, but our newspapers would have comic strips, including Archie comics from America, which we all loved reading. Where there was depictions of girls in bikinis the censors would black-out the bodies. You noticed those things from very early on. It spread fast. There’s a line in Sara Suleri’s wonderful memoir Meatless Days: ‘religion left the homes and entered the streets’. I think that’s what happened.

Burnt Shadows touches on radical Islam. What made you want to write about it more intensely in Home Fire?

I didn’t want to write about it. But, at some point, I got quite interested in the subtlety and complexity with which Islamic State was doing their recruitment. As a result, the novel is talked about as if it is about the radicalization of a young boy, which was never my starting point. My starting point was how the British state is responding to radicalization. If you grew up in a dictatorship and your dreams were a democracy with civil liberties, one of the most distressing things to see is how, in the last seventeen years, those democracies have been giving up civil liberties, rule of law, equality of citizens, to fight this thing. You think, you are just eroding the best of yourselves. So that was actually my starting point. But then a novel becomes what a novel becomes.

Karamat Lone, the Home Secretary in the novel, is always using the idea of ‘Britishness’ to manipulate the population. You became a British citizen in 2013. Did that inform your ideas about how the British state defines British people.

I don’t know if that process did. Being Muslim in Britain during those years informed it, [and] the post-7/7 conversation about Britishness. An idea very quickly took hold about the 7/7 bombers that the problem is a lack of Britishness, whatever that is, and the way to fix things is to ensure everyone is properly British. But, really, you can want to not blow people up without being British. Theresa May really expanded the state’s ability to strip people of citizenship. It used to be, if you were a dual citizen [the state could take away your citizenship]. She expanded it to, if you are a dual citizen or if you can be shown to have the right to another citizenship, which is most children of migrants. So, you can be born and raised in Britain and never have lived anywhere else, but if your parents came from Pakistan, the state can strip you of your citizenship. It creates inequality in the way citizens are being treated.

Describe the process of adapting Antigone. Was it simply a case of reading the play and hoping it would find a way into what you were writing or was it more methodological than that?

In September 2014, a man called Jatinder Verma, who runs Tara Arts [Centre, in London] asked me to write a play, perhaps an adaptation of Antigone or The Oresteia. I said I’d at least go away and read Antigone. In August, the figure of Jihadi John, this Brit who was cutting people’s heads off in Syria, had come to people’s attention. Just after he became a figure on the scene, Theresa May had said this thing about stripping people of their citizenship. I was less than a year into being a citizen. I had been thinking of the families of those who had gone away, and their stories. The thing about Antigone is that – and I have this on good authority – it is right now the single most performed play in the world because it has, at its centre, the question, what is the relationship of state to citizen? That has always been a question for countries under military rule, but I think it’s a big question for America and some parts of Europe right now.

In the beginning, there are two sisters saying, our brother’s been a traitor and the state is responding in a way that doesn’t make sense. He’s dead, they’re punishing us. My first response was, I can’t do this, because at the centre of the play is a tyrant saying, this body will not be buried. That’s not going to happen in Britain. We have hygiene laws, if nothing else. It took a while to realize that when you’re saying this body cannot be buried, what you’re saying is that you have no claim to this land, you have no place here, living or dead. I thought, well, that’s kind of the same as saying you’re no longer a citizen. As soon as that opened up, I knew I was going to do it. Except I was pretending I was going to write a play. I knew that I had to be willing to discard what was not useful. It was actually a surprise how little I ended up discarding. It is such a distilled text. I had to get rid of Creon’s wife, who does nothing but kill herself, so I made his wife the Tiresias figure. I read about five or six translations. Then I put them away, and thought, now I’ve got the soil this is going to grow out of. We’ll see what happens. There are all kinds of places where I didn’t realize what I was doing. At one point, Isma says of her younger siblings, ‘I’m their sister, almost their mother,’ which of course comes right back to the incest story of the children of Oedipus, which was not a thing that was in the forefront of my brain at all

The Mohabbat Khan Mosque, Peshawar: In 2010, in Peshawar, bombs were going off every day, and the Taliban had taken over much territory.

Parvaiz, despite the fact that he is groomed by a member of Islamic State, is not a violent or particularly religious person. I think that runs counter to the sort of person many of us think would join IS.

I didn’t want to tell again the story which has become the story about young Muslims, which is: he’s angry so he becomes an extremist. In researching Islamic State propaganda and recruitment, I realized it was so much scarier than we think. Along with most other people, I had assumed, the people who went to Syria were the ones already filled with hatred and violence. But the story is much more complicated. The thing about Islamic State that makes it different to, for instance, Al Qaeda, is that they were actively trying to set up a state. That meant they needed doctors and engineers and media, the sorts of people who were not interested in violence. What was most influential in thinking about Parvaiz was a report by Charlie Winter I read on the BBC website. He looked at a couple of months of the Islamic State propaganda from the early days. He looked at the things they were using to appeal to people. Number one on the list was a sense of belonging. I thought, that’s interesting. That means you’re targeting people who are a little bit lost or alienated. Violence was pretty far down the list. There were other things, like state-building – you will be doing something important – and lack of racism. I saw a video – not one of the grisly ones – which was for the holy occasion of Eid. It was of all these good-looking, joyful young men speaking all different languages: English, Arabic, French. Someone is riding down the road on a horse, they are sitting around having a picnic or giving sweets to children. It is just idyllic, and a little bit homoerotic. There are no women there. But if you are a young man discontented in life, and here are these men who are saying, ‘come, brother’. Well, you can see how this could be powerful. It made me want to tell the story of someone who is not filled with hatred, but who has certain issues and vulnerabilities. In terms of Parvaiz not being very religious: there was a report by MI5 about Brits who had gone [to Syria]. It said it was impossible to find a profile of a typical person. There will be the seventeen-year-old boy who has dropped out of school, and there will be the older man who seems happily married with children and has a nice job. But the most common denominator was that, in most cases, they didn’t grow up in a religiously observant household. It made sense because Islamic State’s version of Islam is so out there that even if you grew up as fairly radical you would probably have to be absent of a religious education in order to be convinced that that is the version of Islam that you should be following.

Home Fire has just won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. How does winning something like that affect you?

The shift really happened when Burnt Shadows was shortlisted for what was then the Orange Prize. There was just a different level of visibility and a difference in the number of people reading my books. The bar does get raised for you. But, when you sit down to write you are back in that place of, here’s a blank screen how do I make a story out of it? One of the things that has always been true is that with every novel I have wanted to do something I haven’t done before. I always want to push myself further. Also, the first three books just came out of life, which, in retrospect, were relatively easy to write. So, it is harder work now. With prizes you have to remind yourself that it is an extremely lucky thing. And you have to expect it not to happen again.

It is your seventh novel. How do you think you have changed as a writer from your first novel to this one?

I started my first novel when I was twenty-one so I really look back and think of it as juvenilia. At a sentence level, I used to be much more interested in a lusher kind of writing. Now, I prefer language more pared down. My sentences say ‘look at what I’m saying’ rather than ‘look at me’. I think I have become more confident, which means I have taken on larger canvases and larger stories. I didn’t want to risk failure earlier on. Whereas now I recognize that if you’re not risking failure you’re getting too comfortable: the kind of books I was writing ten years ago I could now write very easily, and so I mustn’t.

You said you weren’t currently working on anything, but do you have any ideas about what might be next?

No, I’m back to having no thoughts in my head. Someone, please give me an idea. I need to reach a place of boredom where I am really quite desperate. I am not sufficiently bored yet.

Well, I hope you get sufficiently bored soon.

Thank you.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories

image

MORE BANG FOR YOUR BUCK

Could there be a more frivolous title? Emblazoned in pink on the cover, Caroline’s Bikini suggests that what lies within is a high-summer romance, a story whose happy, sexy ending is assured. As with its section headings – Ready, Steady, Go! – it hints that within these pages a reader in search of escape and wish-fulfilment will find all things bright, beautiful and boring.

On two of those counts you would be right. Kirsty Gunn’s playful and whimsical sixth novel is indeed a love story, albeit harking back to the origins of the genre. Following The Big Music, and earlier wors such as Rain, and The Boy and the Sea it takes its cue from the medieval tradition of courtly love, that formal expression of unconsummated and often unrequited adoration which inspired some of the greatest literature ever written, Caroline’s Bikini is a very knowing latter-day version of this evergreen theme. As Gunn writes in the copious pseudo-academic endnotes that append her novel, Courtly Love is ‘the entertainment about and for kings and queens and princesses and is still the basis for much of the literature that we give little girls in particular; at birthdays and Christmases, bound between the hard covers of a book of Fairy Tales and sprinkled liberally with glitter’. Caroline’s Bikini likewise provides glitter in abundance, but it is of the pyrotechnical kind, as Gunn displays virtuosic mastery of the novel form, while making the story sparkle at every turn. It is a dazzling performance.

The title might be marshmallow, but the heartache it describes is anything but sweet. Indeed, this novel is an achingly honest depiction of the suffering of those who dare not declare their passion to the object of their desire but, unless they are to go mad, must find an outlet for their feelings. At its centre are Evan Gordonston, a high-flying banker recently returned to London after many years in America, and Emily Stuart, his best friend from their Twickenham childhood days. Emily, also middle-aged and single, is a freelance writer who occasionally publishes short stories but pays her bills by writing copy for pet food ads. The pair have barely been in touch since the Gordonstons left, but their old bond remains and very soon Evan begins to unburden the torment of his new-found love.

His Beatrice or Laura is Caroline Beresford, she of the bikini which, we learn early on, is to make its appearance late in the novel, at a summer poolside party where the dress code is ‘swimwear’. The promise it holds out is dangled before the reader like a thong from a little finger, but before it fulfils its potentially titillating role much ground must first be covered.

Rejecting the prospect of a luxury flat paid for by his bank, Evan instead becomes a lodger in a large house with a sprawling garden, in Richmond. It is ‘at the end of the District line’, but the friend who suggests he would be happy there mentions the ‘fun scene’ that Caroline presides over, with her three young boys, and her intermittently present husband. A lawyer, Mr Beresford appears to have rejected career and home life for a monkish existence studying the classics while holed up in a rented flat in Bloomsbury.

Evan’s is not a slow-burn passion. From the moment Caroline opens the front door, he is smitten. ‘Hi, I’m Caroline,’ She’d said. And – BANG.’ Gunn’s footnote for BANG, reads: ‘See, if interested and later, the note for ‘Courtly Love’ for further information regarding that BANG, as well as other relevant material, notes on Petrarch and Dante, all of it.’

Such is the coup de foudre he experiences, Evan begs Emily to write an account of what he is going through. He wants her to become, in effect, his amanuensis. At first she is reluctant, never having attempted such a demanding and extended piece of prose. But since it would entail regular meetings, she agrees. What ensues are months of catch-ups in pubs and bars, where Evan apprises her of the latest developments.

At this point, readers should be warned that for the next couple of hundred pages not very much happens. Not, that is, in the traditional sense expected from novels. Often, the only change in gear is finding a new watering hole. At first, they meet in countryish pubs, such as The Cork and Bottle and The Walker’s Friend, where one can ask merely for a G&T, wear a Barbour, and pat labradors under the tables. Over time, they move steadily upmarket to establishments with names such as Ripeness is All, where the spirit comes in thimble-sized glasses, with outlandish tonics, no ice, and swizzle sticks made of rosemary. Hints of plot advancement can also be deduced from Evan’s growing dishevelment, his stained jerseys and ghastly ‘sweatpants’, his gradual loss of weight. Emily too is altering. She has begun turning down paid work in order to focus on Evan’s opus. ‘You have a mortgage to pay,’ one friend warns her, but she is too preoccupied to listen.

Doggedly, but not without flashes of spirit, Emily records what Evan is undergoing, filling in missing details which she must deduce herself, or inserting Evans’s own notes. When he suggests their joint project is perhaps not a report but a novel, she goes along with it, although she regularly chivvies him over the lack of narrative momentum, without which, she says, their readers will lose interest.

In Gunn’s hands, these meetings, and the hesitant love affair around which they revolve, gradually build into a remarkable piece of fiction. Endlessly circling over what has already been told, but always adding a fresh morsel to the mix, Caroline’s Bikini is like Jane Austen’s deceptively narrow territory, what she called her ‘two-inch bit of ivory’. The minuteness of the subject and the intensity of its telling might seem at first disproportionate. By the end, a teeming world, and countless worlds within it, have been revealed and dissected, all in a manner that is not just engrossing, but poignant, witty, and amusing. This, rather than Caroline’s home, is the ‘fun scene’. Only once, when Emily offers a reminder of events so far does the momentum stutter, these passages redundant given the recursive style of the whole. Thereafter, the pace, if that is the correct word, resumes.

The intellectual and literary heft of Caroline’s Bikini places it in the company of fine European modernists, such as the Spanish novelist Javier Marias. In particular it shares some of its technique with his trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, whose almost hypnotic looping stream of consciousness style, in which memory plays as big a part as new events, creates crescendo and tension in a similar way, and in so doing illuminates a far wider stage. In Marias’s case, the picture he draws is sinister. In Gunn’s, it is comic, and warm.

Gunn differs also from Marias in overtly and incessantly commenting upon, illuminating, subverting and, in so doing, honouring the art of writing fiction. ‘The story was proceeding, of that there was no doubt,’ writes Emily. ‘I had the pages to prove it, but I also had to admit that there was a sort of undoing about our activity at the same time; like knitting come undone.’ Far from disguising the method behind the words, Gunn wants readers to see the joins, the screws and nails, the very workings of the book they have in their hands. You might think this would destroy all illusion of fiction, but the reverse is true. Pointing out the artifice makes it, oddly, seem all the more real.

The subtlety and complexity of composition this requires is breathtaking. From a page of seemingly mundane reportage, as Emily drains another gin and listens to Evan’s never-ending ruminations, Gunn evokes not just the relationship between this pair, and the far-away homes and times in which they were raised, but also the society and milieu in which they now move. West London itself breathes upon them, first in the chill and dark of wintertime, where they meet, swaddled in scarves and gloves, then through spring and, eventually, summer in which the poolside party and its skimpy swimwear beckons.

At every turn, Gunn deploys the novelist’s most trusted tools and tricks: seasons are used to embellish emotions, to frame conversations and counterpoint feelings. The constantly changing backdrop of pubs and bars becomes her stage, each adding incidental depth and commentary. Crucial, too, is the dialogue, whether Emily’s cautiously English manner, Evan’s looser, Americanized voice, or the casual ebullience of Caroline: ‘Calling out from the car, through the open window, as she reversed down the drive, “I can’t wait to see you when you get home later! Can you and I have a drink together and one of our special talks?” ’

Also alluded to is the Scottishness that lies beneath the tale. In the endnotes, Gunn writes: ‘Caroline’s Bikini, the work of a Stuart about a Gordonston, arranged by a Gunn…was never to be a prose work belonging to anything other than the Scottish and modernist project, with roots in the early Renaissance tradition of Petrarchan love poetry by way of a long-standing debt to writing by Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.’

The nods to Mansfield and Woolf are evident. But is it possible to detect a Scottish voice in Emily’s writing, in the sentiments felt and expressed, or the tenor of the whole? It would take a closer reader than this one to discern that. Yet pinpointing the work’s provenance feels unnecessary to its appreciation, except perhaps to the academic sleuth. A Professor of Writing Practice and Study at Dundee University, Gunn appears to enjoy gently ridiculing, but also making good use of, academic conventions. These include letting the reader know that events have taken place, off-the-page, that Emily has not revealed. For all her seeming diligence, she is an unreliable narrator.

What purpose does the self-aware, self-referencing, ‘metatextual’ novel serve, when it refuses to let readers slump into a state of unthinking escapism? In the case of Caroline’s Bikini, you could say that it is to try to capture, through the palpably imaginary, the physical sense of the real; to evoke the texture, the taste, the humdrum chaos of being alive. Gunn’s notes under ‘Literary Background and Context’ sum up her ambition better than any review could hope to: ‘ “Make it new,” said the modernist poet Ezra Pound in his outline of the poetic project; well, then so might Caroline’s Bikini be, to paraphrase another poet, Wallace Stevens, no representation of an event, but the event itself, as Stevens put it: “The cry of its own creation.” ’

Gunn’s creation is entertainment of a high order. It is also a brilliant exercise in, and commentary upon, the imagination. From trying to understand the behaviour of people we are close to let alone those we have never met, it shows the huge part it plays in everybody’s life. Almost every hour of the day we are faced with facts and news that require an imaginative response. The extent to which we meet that demand influences the way we think and act. In this respect, readers of novels should be better equipped. They have long known that what they find in fiction feels more convincing, more tangible and more intensely felt, than the stuff that actually happens.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories