Beckett Without Beckett

Here’s another double-take. Earlier this week, at Splice, I reviewed Sam Thompson’s new novel, Jott, which depicts a lightly fictionalised version of Samuel Beckett and even includes fragments of pastiche representing the fictionalised Beckett’s outpourings:

[But] Jott… is really a novel whose various elements — the characters and their situations, as well as styles of thought and expression — are assembled in an array of delicate equipoises and counterpositions. At its heart is the dynamic of antagonism and conciliation between two oppositional personalities. Arthur is a buttoned-down young man so polite and cerebral, so emotionally distant and contained, that he remains ashamed of himself for the secret he harbours: he is “two months from his thirtieth birthday” and he has never had “a sexual experience”. Louis, conversely, is puerile and lascivious, deflationary and iconoclastic, a provocateur “burning with conviction to the fingertips, living by a hunger that would not be satisfied, incapable of doing a dull or conventional thing”.

Then, later in the week, I spoke to Thompson about the place of this type of writing in the current literary landscape:

Were you conscious of contributing to a minor trend in contemporary literature? Jo Baker fictionalised Beckett in A Country Road, A Tree (2016), and a version of Beckett appeared again in Alex Pheby’s Lucia (2018). What’s your response to writing on a similar wavelength to these books?

You know all those ‘punk’ genres in SF — cyberpunk, steampunk, dieselpunk and so on? I like that terminology because it captures how fiction can take a certain setting, with its associated sensibility, paraphernalia and preoccupations, and work it up into an aesthetic which becomes an end in itself. Writing Jott felt that way to me. The whole business of writing á clef was really just an excuse to get inside an atmosphere and invent a world. So maybe that’s the nature of the kinship with A Country Road, A Tree and Lucia — I wasn’t conscious in advance of joining in a trend, but maybe Jott belongs to the micro-genre of Beckettpunk.

Only Language

Marc Nash’s Three Dreams in the Key of G is a difficult, demanding novel of absolutely virtuosic language. After David Hebblethwaite reviewed the novel for Splice, I put some questions to Nash about his creative ambitions and his process:

Let’s kick off with something notable about the title: the assonance, four rounds of “/e/”. This seems to be a signal to the reader, before page one, that Three Dreams will be a novel that relishes prosody and the possibilities it opens up: rhyme, wordplay, double entendre, and so on. How do these elements of style become part of your writing process?

I think about words a lot. Words that fail, that don’t quite convey the meaning I’m after (oh, for the German language’s facility for compound words); words that have more than one shade of meaning, and my attempting to suggest both meanings within a single usage in a sentence; and as you say, prosody, the sounds of words, puns, lexeme echoes and so on. I like using words in unexpected contexts, in sentences where you wouldn’t expect to find them. I like veering between high and low vocabulary, from scientific or words with august roots in ancient Greek or Latin, through to street slang or online speak. And when I say ‘like’, I mean that that tends to be my focus in the writing.

Because I’ve written a lot of flash fiction (fiction of 1000 words or fewer), I’ve written stories sometimes riffing off a single word. So a single word can prompt a whole chain of words in its wake. The words lead me. When I write, I don’t think about plot or character so much as voice and language. Character is fully contained within voice, so that takes care of that. And as for plot: again it comes back to the voice, what it’s saying and how it’s saying it.

Obsession and Repetition

At Splice, I’ve got a brief Q&A with the poet Katharine Kilalea, whose début novel OK, Mr Field is published this month by Faber:

You’ve written a novel that has all the basic ingredients for tension, suspense, mystery — a plot to be complicated and resolved — but the tone, and the things you focus on from scene to scene, don’t work to generate those sensations. Why take this route with your first novel? How did you settle on this idiosyncratic form?

What intrigued me was not what happened between Mr Field and Hannah Kallenbach so much as the intensity of his affection for her. Sometimes when I wondered about his feelings for her, I thought of K in The Castle. Why does K persist in his fruitless pursuit of the Castle? Why doesn’t he just give up on the whole business of wanting to be a land surveyor and go home? What makes someone (or something) so wonderful that they’re worth pursuing endlessly?

The problem with writing about a persistent feeling, like obsession, is that it seems structurally at odds with the form of a novel. A novel is built on the idea of progress — that one thing leads to another towards some kind of end or conclusion — whereas an infatuation is about someone stuck in a rut, doing or thinking or feeling the same thing over and over again. So the issue here was to find a way of writing a plot in which nothing really happened. Or rather, in which the same thing kept happening. And, when you think about it, why not? There’s an implied criticism in the idea that something is getting repetitive, as if progression, rather than repetition, were the correct order of things. But of course, if something gives me pleasure, I might say I want to do it all over again.

After the End of Point-of-View

Last week I went to an event in London organised by the people behind the White Review: a panel discussion featuring Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, and Lara Feigel, on the topic of “Writing Motherhood.” I was struck by most of the things said by Cusk, in particular, and especially one remark she made and prefaced with “We haven’t spoken about literary form yet,” so she could open the doors to a discussion of form. What she wanted to say was this: “Point-of-view fiction has led the novel into a carpark full of overflowing skips, or some such un-aesthetic place.” That’s a slight paraphrase, but the key words were actually spoken by Cusk: “point-of-view,” “carpark,” “skips,” “un-aesthetic” or “not very aesthetic.” Continue reading

Jon McGregor’s Pagan Omniscience

I’ve spent part of this year reading through the work of Jon McGregor, whose latest novel, Reservoir 13, has met with a lot of acclaim here in Britain. It has even become one of those rare beasts longlisted or shortlisted for the more conservative literary prizes (the Booker, the Costa) as well as the Goldsmiths Prize for “innovative fiction.” Now, on the occasion of its publication in America, James Wood has offered an especially perceptive take on the new book in the context of McGregor’s body of work.

“McGregor’s first novel received a lot of excited attention,” writes Wood,

\but in comparison with his later work it seems showy; it glistens with anxious youthful effort. The sentences are self-consciously lyrical, but not quite brilliant enough to earn their inflation. There are moments of subtlety, but they have to be dug out of the style. And the book is uneasily poised on the lip of a conceit: the street, we learn, is being described just before a climactic and terrible moment, withheld until the end of the book.

That was exactly my impression when I read it over the summer. Thankfully, McGregor has improved with age, and Reservoir 13 is his best work to date, establishing certain continuities with his earlier novels even as it breaks with them in its effects. Continue reading

The Songlines and the Songlines

It’s been thirty years since Bruce Chatwin published The Songlines. That’s the kind of anniversary that usually elicits either a renewed celebration and revival of a work or a fresh attempt to boot the author up the arse, a la Nicolas Rothwell upon the publication of Chatwin’s letters. Intriguingly, with consummate skill and nuance, Richard Cooke has taken a shot at doing both of those things simultaneously in a long reappraisal of The Songlines for the Australian magazine The Monthly. His essay is a model of what literary criticism can do when combined with cultural and biographical research, a deep sympathy for the writer’s intentions and accomplishments, an awareness for the writer’s shortcomings, and a keen eye for fine-grained textual details. What Cooke has essentially written is a paean to The Songlines as a remarkable, visionary book that was compromised from the outset by the limitations of its author’s vision, and that ended up offering a crippled representation of the very thing it aimed to praise. Continue reading

The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (3)

Continued from the previous post.

Seamus Heaney, "New Selected Poems 1966-1987"When placed in the company of Betjeman and Larkin, Heaney joins the conversation from a bit of a distance. Love is rarely a subject he sees fit for exploration. The embarrassments and frustrations of lust are not the concerns of his best-known work. More celebrated are poems like ‘Mid-Term Break’ (1966) and ‘Limbo’ (1972), both of which punctuate the quietude of life in rural Ireland with shocking irruptions of death. More compelling are the haunting ‘Follower’ (1966) and ‘District and Circle’ (2006), both of which detail Heaney’s disquieting relationship with his father. More eloquent are Heaney’s sporadic, almost impulsive disclosures of his mystical sentiments — disclosures like those made in section xxii of ‘Settings’ (1991) or in the oblique rhetorical question that appears as a non sequitur between two descriptions of a badger in ‘Badgers’ (1979): “How perilous is it to choose / not to love the life we’re shown?” Continue reading