by SRB

Book Festival Despatch 4 – Wednesday 18 August

August 20, 2010 | by SRB

by Alan Taylor

Jon McGregor
Robert Sackville-West
Alasdair Gray

IF novelist Jon McGregor had his way he would be read and not seen. This, however, is not acceptable in an environment in which high street  bookshops may soon become as obsolete as onion johnnies. Hence McGregor’s  appearance to discuss his third novel, Even the Dogs, which is concerned with an alcoholic who is found dead in his flat. Unpromising, unappealing and depressing as this may sound, the manner in which its author talked about it made one want immediately to go and buy it. What interested him in Robert, the dead man, said McGregor, was the irony that  more attention was paid to him after he was dead than when he was alive.
Inverting the normal process, he described how he preferred to do his research after rather than before he switched on his laptop. He was impressed, he added, by how busy, resourceful, creative and imaginative are alcoholics and  addicts as they pursue their routine of getting money, buying drugs, using them  and coming down. If only all that energy could be channelled productively.

In contrast, in a bizarre programming juxtaposition, Robert Saville-West followed McGregor, his subject being Knole, the largest family house in England,  whose history he has written. Now owned by the National Trust, it is a “calendar” house because it has 365 rooms. Sackville-West, who is the latest  in a long line of male heirs to Knole, recently moved with his family into a  wing which he renovated by selling off a forgotten Italian painting for more  than £6 million. Illustrating his talk with slides, he said Knole was built to  induce awe and inspire, and does. His forebears were a motley bunch of lunatics, eccentrics and libertines,
who not infrequently moved their lovers into the house. One was the writer and  gardener Vita Sackville-West, his father’s first cousin, whose many lovers  included Virginia Woolf and the two bridesmaids at her wedding to Harold Nicolson. In her novel Orlando, which was dedicated to Vita, Woolf used Knole as  a backdrop, rendering perfectly in labyrinthine, over-wrought prose its enduring  magic.

From one national monument to another. Alasdair Gray, the Glaswegian polymath, came not to bury Goethe but to reinvent him, turning the German’s nineteenth-century play Faust into twenty-first century Fleck who, said Gray, was named after a Scottish footballer. Joined on stage by three actors  one male, who played God and Fleck, and two female (who, among other roles, were  required to play three angels)  Gray, who took the part of Auld Nick, masterminded a dramatic and rather wonderful reading of the first act of the  play. It was a bold gamble and it worked a treat with Gray, dressed devilishly in a red jumper with his trousers at half-mast, orchestrating proceedings in his inimitable fashion. At its end the author said the play had been rejected by seven London theatres and most of their Scottish counterparts. Which, when you  come to think of it, is nothing less than outrageous.

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