by Nick Major

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

August 23, 2018 | by Nick Major

 

Day Three: Sunday 19 August

Why do so many readers want novels to be veiled autobiographies? If you want to see someone’s eyes shine with excitement, tell them the novel you’re reading is ‘based on the author’s life’. I do this often, even when it’s not true. Rarely does anyone counter with the questions, ‘Well, so what? Is it any good?’ Lisa Halliday, speaking at the Festival on Sunday morning, said her agent called her debut novel ‘autofiction’. She had never heard of the term.

The agent was referring to novels written by the likes of Karl Ove Knausgaard and his ilk, who use novel form to tell their life story. By the way, I wonder if readers of Knausgaard are actually interested in his skills, or lack of them, as a novelist. Or, do they simply want a cheap insight into his gloomy private life? If true, few would admit it. After all, people who read Lit-chrit-char don’t go in for that sort of thing. Do they?

I should admit now that one of my reasons for going to see Halliday was that I knew she might talk about Philip Roth. When Halliday was younger, she had a brief relationship with Roth. The first part of her debut novel Asymmetry is about a young editor and aspiring writer called Alice who begins a love affair with a much older Jewish novelist of international repute called Ezra Blazer. Understandably, many critics have seen shades of Roth in Ezra. The chair quoted a line from Ezra, who criticises people ‘caught up in those inane exercises of trying to separate truth from fiction, as if those boxes weren’t kicked aside by the novelist to begin with’.

Halliday, who had about her the air of an experienced public speaker, refused to be drawn on the Roth question. She maintained her line that novels should work internally, without any recourse to external references. Kudos to her. Asymmetry, by the way, is a super novel. It’s no Portnoy’s Complaint, of course, but it is one of the better novels I’ve read this last year. It’s playful, unexpected, and formally very clever. I’d pick her over Knausgaard, any day.

All this raises the question, why do people go to book festivals? Obviously, writers go to sell their books. But readers? Are books on their own not enough? It’s something Tim Parks, who is appearing on Sunday, explores in his essay collection Where I’m Reading From. ‘Most of the people who attend these events are regular readers,’ he writes, ‘and of course they have come to events before. They are not fools. They have long since understood that almost nothing of interest can really be said about books at an event. They know that a novel is too sprawling and too complicated and the meshing of minds that occurs when a novelist and reader meet on the page too intimate and elusive a process really to be tackled in forty public minutes with iffy microphones and occasional entries and departures.’ Parks suggests that readers attend ‘events’ in the hope for greater clarity about a novel, and that, eventually, in amongst the confusion, they do reach a higher ground of understanding. Maybe.

After Halliday’s talk, I started feeling decidedly odd and heavy-hearted. It could have been the sleep-deprivation, that I had only eaten a few free packets of Nairns oatcakes, the dreary weather, or the idea that I was taking part in some pointless publicity campaign for writers that was bereft of deeper meaning. Whatever the reason, by midday I was teetering on the happy side of depression. What I needed was some counselling. What luck then that former psychoanalyst and therapist Salley Vickers was talking about her new novel, The Librarian, in the Main Theatre that very afternoon.

Vickers cheered me up no end. She was intelligent, funny, unpretentious, and didn’t seem to give much of a hoot what people thought of her. The protagonist of her novel is called Sylvia Blackwell. She is a children’s librarian in a small market town in 1950s England. The story is about her influence on small set of local children. It all sounds rather predictable. But then I knew I would never read her novel, so it didn’t matter. Although, it did feel rather strange to be at Vickers’ talk in the knowledge that I wanted to hear more about her than her book.

Vickers grew up in the 1950s. She talked out the virtues of growing up in that era. Yes, there was a rigid class hierarchy. But there was also a great sense of community, societal optimism, properly resourced libraries, and bodies like the Workers’ Educational Association to help the intellectually curious. She was also excellent on the importance of children’s books, which ‘lay down an unconscious layer of knowledge and understanding’ and ‘inform you with ideas that you only catch up with when you grow up’.

Vickers’ parents were hardline atheists and communists. She rebelled by escaping to her local library to read God-abiding authors (each to her own). Her librarian introduced her to George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, the latter of which she praised for its vision but admitted was ‘very badly written’. Children’s books are often thinly-veiled morality tales, but this hasn’t rubbed off on Vickers. ‘I do not have a moral position on my characters,’ she said. 

It’s more than can be said for her publisher. In The Librarian, Sylvia has an affair with an older married man (why is it rarely the other way around?). Publishers, naturally, want to sell as many books as possible, said Vickers. ‘One of the ways to sell a lot of copies is to write within the mould of people’s expectations. So, if a man has a love affair with a young woman, and he’s married, in the contemporary climate…it appears necessary to strongly condemn the man. It was suggested to me that either the love affair should work and they should go off together, or there should be a stronger moral indignation on my part…and that’s absolutely not on as far I’m concerned.’ Vickers was strong-willed enough to resist her publisher’s ‘suggestions’. She also battled to save her book cover, which she helped design, but which her publisher took a dislike to, or rather Waterstones did. It does make one wonder how many other authors side with the imperatives of the imagination over those of commerce.

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was not written in the interests of commerce, but it did become her ‘milch cow’. One can’t help thinking that in staging a reading of Spark’s only stage play The Doctors of Philosophy, the Festival was hoping to milk Spark’s reputation for a few extra quid. If so, it worked. Forty-five minutes before show time, the queue was already enormous. The Spiegeltent was heaving. Everyone who is anyone was there. Scottish Makar Jackie Kay was there; Book Festival Director Nick Barley was there; Ali Smith was there; I was there; naturally, Lyceum Director David Greig was there; even Nicola Sturgeon was there.

Doctors of Philosophy is full of sharp wit and rambunctious energy. Set in the summer of 1962, in a middle-class London household, it is a farce about ‘the goings on between one scholar and another’ and how artifice of drama can invade our realities. Naturally, the couple of non-scholars, including the indefatigable cleaning lady Mrs S. (played by Elaine C. Smith – the standout performer), know more about books than the academics. The scholars are more concerned with money, sex, politics and their reputations. Sounds like realism to me. When one character assumes the household must be well-read, on account of the number of books on the shelves, Mrs S. replies, ‘they don’t use them for reading. They just refer to them’.

As far as a reading of a play can go, it was good enough. It was clearly difficult, however, for the actors to keep up with the pace the play in its current form demands. At two and a half hours, the thing is simply far too long. For the metatextual elements to work well, the play needs a proper set. It is not to say that Spark’s play shouldn’t be staged. There’s little doubt David Greig and director Marilyn Imrie will make a fine job of it, eventually. But this felt like more of a way for to gauge an audience response to the play than give them fully-formed entertainment (on the other hand, everyone did laugh, a lot).

Perhaps the play was a storming hit, and I was just anxious to leave the Festival. Actually, there was no doubt about it. Book festivals really do drain you of energy. It must be awfully tiring to work there, what with having to maintain your excitement about the appearance of yet another writer. And worse, to keep them content enough so they’ll come back next time. Also, come to think of it, spending hours listening to authors trying to explain their books is valuable time that could be spent reading. So, as soon as the play was over, I was on my bike. Next stop: the library.

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