by Nick Major

The Edinburgh International Book Festival (On a Shoestring): Part II

August 21, 2018 | by Nick Major


Day Two: Saturday 18 August


Thank heavens for the simple bicycle. Walking from place to place is simply not an option during August in Edinburgh. It’s not only the crowds, it’s the show touts, waving their leaflets in your face. The only free way to avoid them is to jump on the bike. My rusty cycle got me safely from Gorgie to my second day at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

In a happy coincidence, the first talk began with more of the same. Graham Robb’s love of cycling played a role in the creation of his book The Debatable Land: The Lost World between England and Scotland. Robb, who is Scottish by parentage, moved north from Oxford in 2010. He now lives in a house that straddles Scotland’s border with Cumbria. One day, he was out cycling when he met a farmer who told him there were Border Reivers ‘harrowed under’ in his fields. By the time he reached home, he knew something had to be written about this neglected region where ‘nature and people had conspired to destroy the evidence of the past.’

The debatable land is 50 square mile area north of the Solway Firth. Part of Robb’s motivation for writing the book was to redress the story of the region. Despite its bloody reputation, before the mid-16th Century it was a peaceable area that belonged neither in Scotland nor England. Rather, it was a rural buffer zone between the two countries used for grazing cattle and twiddling thumbs. But in 1551, the powers in both countries decided the area was ‘an irritation’. A law was passed to extirpate the people. It declared that ‘within the area known as the debatable land everyone shall be free to rob, burn, murder, destroy and spoil without any regress to be made to the same’. The authorities hoped the clans would wipe each other out. When that didn’t work, the English deported them and the Scots sent in the Duke of Buccleuch, who liked hunting people as much as stags.

Robb might be familiar to some as an excellent writer of books about French lyric poetry and social history. His bibliography includes works on Arthur Rimbaud and Victor Hugo. Why the change of territory? He still loves France, he reassured us. He was there recently – on his bike, of course – and met not a few who considered the Auld Alliance still alive. He changed his subject matter for the same reason he didn’t want to become an academic. He has an antipathy to dullness. In academia he would end up writing about ‘the same subject year after year. I knew I’d become more and more boring’. On the basis of this hour, he made the right choice.

After a brief trip to the press yurt in search of food donations, I thought about what to do for the rest of the day. It has to be said that, for some of us, this has not been a stellar year for the Book Festival. Take the programme for that very evening. It was a Saturday, don’t forget, the day when one might expect to see a couple of literature’s greats. But, where the programme should have said – oh, I don’t know – Michael Ondaatje, for instance, there was ageing rocker Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden. Where it should have said Mario Vargas Llosa or Zadie Smith, there was DJ Semtex. So, what else could I do but jump back on the Muriel Spark celebratory bandwagon (this could become a recurring theme).

Early in the afternoon, I was told that of all her novels, The Driver’s Seat was Spark’s favourite. I had vague memories of reading it. But, truth be told, I couldn’t remember much, which says more about my memory than the novel. I decided to locate a copy. It wasn’t difficult. For those of us who think borrowing books has greater merit than buying them (and are too skint to think otherwise), the Festival Bookshop doubles as an excellent reference library. So, I grabbed a free coffee, found one of the new Polygon editions of The Driver’s Seat in the shop, secured a seat in a quiet corner and decided to have an ‘event’ of my own.

Now, I’ve been coming to the Festival for six years, and I have to say this was probably one of the best events I’ve ever attended. The host was sprightly, irreverent and never boring; the conversation clipped and witty; and the audience didn’t ask any stupid questions, either. I laughed uproariously through the whole thing. For those who don’t know, the story is about a woman called Lise who goes on holiday to orchestrate her own murder. From the outset, we are told she is going to die. It is the reason she becomes so irate when a sales assistant tries to sell her a ‘stainless’ dress. That we are in on the secret, means it makes it all the funnier when Lise turns to one of her fellow creatures on the plane and says, ‘You look like Red Riding-Hood’s Grandmother. Do you want to eat me up?’

One of the refreshing aspects of The Driver’s Seat is the lack of regard for the interior thoughts of characters. These days, it is difficult to find a contemporary novel that doesn’t immediately launch into what ‘he thought’ and what ‘she thought’. For Spark, characters’ actions and outward appearances are sufficient for her purpose. And this is a novel all about purpose, or motive. As Andrew O’Hagan points out, in his rather good introduction, Spark admired Georges Simenon and his skill in writing about the perpetrator of the ‘motiveless crime’.

It is interesting to think of The Driver’s Seat as a metaphysical joke. One of Spark’s early titles was ‘Predestination’. (And to think there was a time people thought Spark wasn’t a Scottish novelist. Fools.) Indeed, the novel is full of eerie, otherworldly laughter. At one point, a woman walks passed Lise, sees her garish dress, and starts laughing ‘without possibility of restraint, like a stream bound to descend whatever slope lies before it’. Spark doesn’t move into simile often so they are worth paying attention to. This one seemed a perfect way to encapsulate the inevitability of Lise’s decline.

The protagonist of Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Hotel Silence also takes it upon himself to end his life in an unusual way. He wants to commit suicide but spare his daughter the pain of finding his body. Naturally, he decides to travel from his native Iceland to a country riven by civil war. He hopes to become an unknown soldier. Ólafsdóttir, also an Icelander, was speaking in a small sparsely-peopled corner theatre late that night. 

I had actually gone to hear the man seated next to her, Shaun Prescott, talk about his debut novel, The Town. Ólafsdóttir, however, turned out to be more interesting. Prescott had a touch of the doomed emo about him, with his orange beard, blue eyes and checked shirt, and his feelings of anomie and alienation. I thought his novel – set in a ‘disappearing town’ in Australia where the people know nothing of their colonial history and whose actions have little consequence – was a wry existential farce. I’m not entirely sure he knew what he’d written. Poor chap.

Ólafsdóttir, on the other hand, had some firm ideas about her novel and her work. The writer’s job, she told us firmly, is ‘to make meaning out of chaos’. Hotel Silence is a bildungsroman, and, as a consequence ‘not very original’. One of the wellsprings of her own novel was an interview she had read with an American soldier who had recently returned from Afghanistan. ‘He said something like, “Ever since I was a little boy I wanted to kill someone. The only way to do it legally was to join the army.” I thought, could it be an existential need to want to kill someone? I have never met any man who had thought likewise. So, I thought of creating someone who wanted to be killed.’ Hotel Silence is about ‘man’s ability to regenerate’ after a period of trauma. But, she assured us, it is not a novel about ‘finding oneself’. The idea that we have a true self within is absurd. After all, ‘we live in a state of fluctuation. Also, when we find this supposed self, what are we supposed to do with it?’ Hear, hear.

I cycled home through the gloom and drizzle, weaving past the drunk, the disorderly, and the downright comatose. I decided that, despite all the talk of despair, suicide and existential crisis, I had had a pretty good day. I even thought I might look up Ólafsdóttir’s novel in my local library. Then, rounding the corner past Haymarket Station and on to the home stretch, one particularly sozzled woman swayed out in front of my bike. I slid to a stop. As we looked at each other with surprise, I thought of giving her some patronising tips on road safety. But, she was too far gone for logic. Instead, I asked her if her name was Lise. She just laughed at me and pranced off into the night.

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