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Kate Atkinson, Transcription – Spectator

10/10/2018

Transcription, Kate Atkinson’s eleventh novel, sees her returning to the detective fiction she honed in her series about Jackson Brodie, the haunted private eye who, after the murder of his young sister, chased the killers of girls. It also pursues some of the themes of her more recent fictions, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, which explored the ambiguities of war, and questions of chance and fate, with lives played out in multiple permutations. There is, however, no professional detective in Transcription. Instead it falls  to an ordinary young woman to fathom the meaning of her life and, by extension, what it means to be caught in the net of history.

This time around it’s not so much life after life, but aftermath and afterlife that Atkinson is concerned with, making the point that our lives are not tidily parcelled but extend beyond moments of drama into periods of consequence and reckoning. Bookended by two brief scenes in 1981, Transcription jumps between 1940 when a newly-orphaned, 18-year-old Juliet Armstrong is recruited as a typist into MI5, and a decade later when she’s working as a producer of children’s radio programmes for the BBC. In the later period she finds people long thought dead, abroad, in prison or simply gone from her life returning to haunt her. Is this her imagination running away with her – the thing Perry, her boss at MI5 repeatedly warned against. Or should the threatening notes she’s been receiving be taken seriously?

Contained in this predicament is the question Atkinson wants us to consider: what does it mean to be a good reader – of her book, of course, but also of the world? The transcriptions Juliet makes are of secretly recorded conversations between English fifth columnists – disaffected aristocrats, “frustrated housewives” – and Godfrey Toby, someone they believe to be a Gestapo agent, but who in fact works for MI5. These transcripts run throughout the book alerting the reader to the details we often miss and the information we misconstrue. Juliet is held to be proficient at her job precisely because she has an active imagination (despite his warnings, she casts Perry in the role of her romantic lead) and compared to other transcribers is good at filling in the gaps. But how accurate is her version of events, and indeed how accurately do we read Juliet? The job is made harder by the fact that at both MI5 and the BBC (organisations, Juliet notes, which swap personnel with remarkable ease), everyone seems to be a copy, whether playing versions of themselves, performing in the Great Game as a spy, or acting in the children’s radio histories she keeps re-writing, trying to enliven and ennoble them.

Juliet’s name suggests a predetermined role in life but – not wanting to end up like one of Brodie’s doomed girls – she tries to avoid the fate it predicts. Understanding how the game works is the first step to self-preservation so, refusing to be hunted, Juliet chooses the role of hunter. This, though, is not easy. Perry’s rules (“it’s in the details”, “don’t give too much away”) are useful in her apprentice as a spy and as a woman, yet even to him she rarely says what she means. Her undisclosed thoughts are bracketed like ghosts in the text, indicating an unspoken opposite that seems like English irony, but which also has a touch of a more continental dialectic.

The endless role-playing, however, makes it hard to detect which “side” anyone is on, and, therefore, who they are opposed to. Often the signs are ambiguous: M15’s rationale for killing people in the name of a “greater good” looks like fascist instrumentalism; the BBC’s pretence that there are no sides in history, broadcasting programmes with “Serfs galore (quite happy – most unlikely)”, resembles authoritarian propaganda. Even the record of fifth columnists that Juliet tries to recover is confusingly called The Red Book, and while the vileness of anti-Semitism is a given, it is not at all clear that the much vaunted “This England” – at least as an idea – is worth fighting for.

Amid all this Atkinson creates a contemporary version of a ripping good yarn (nudging us to the realisation with references to John Buchan and Erskine Childers). Her trick is to combine propulsive plot with a high degree of self-consciousness, and in Transcription the fiction comes with a skin so thin it is almost transparent. What she reveals of its inner working is a novel full of smoke and mirrors, of artifice and redirection in which all that is solid melts into air – quite literally in the case of Godfrey Toby: “the mist closed around him once more and he disappeared.” Toby, perhaps a double or even triple agent, turns out to be, like “This England”, an enigmatic construct. And Juliet lives long enough to understand that the red books of either side have more in common than we once imagined. As she lays dying she hopes her son will understand, “Nothing mattered, and this was a freedom, not a burden.” What matters are not the red books, strong-arming us into preordained plots, Atkinson seems to be suggesting, but how sceptically we read.

Nobody Knows My Name: Flann O’Brien’s Collected Letters – TLS

15/08/2018

In September 1952 Brian O’Nolan wrote to the Secretary of Ireland’s Department of Local Government. “I PROTEST TO YOU IN THE STRONGEST POSSIBLE TERMS AGAINST THE EXCLUSION OF MY NAME”, he fulminated in a long and detailed letter concerning his omission from a list of people recommended for promotion. It was an early shot in a battle which would eventually see him scuppering his career as a high-ranking civil servant. The question of names exercised O’Nolan all his life, as we can see in this new volume of Collected Letters, edited by Maebh Long. Now famed in his homeland as the last of Ireland’s literary trinity – the antic holy ghost, coming in third after James Joyce, the father of modernism, and Samuel Beckett, the son – elsewhere in the world O’Nolan’s reputation is more uncertain. Is It About a Bicycle? is the title of a recent collections of essays on Flann O’Brien, the pen name which he used primarily for fiction but which makes its first appearance here as the signatory of a series of mischief-making letters to the Irish Times, and is given to the volume as a whole. Other than the image of a bicycle, and the character of a policeman, which crop up repeatedly in his work, it is O’Nolan’s multiple names – their meaning and proliferation – for which he is perhaps best known.

Born Brian Ó Nualláin in 1911, to a Catholic, Gaelic-speaking family in Strabane, schooled at home with his siblings to avoid contamination by what his father considered an imperialist language and education, it was not until he was eleven years old, when he began attending school, that he spoke English on a regular basis. A brilliant student, he read German at University College Dublin and then, like his father, went on to the civil service. But the urban Gaelic he heard in Dublin was different from that which was spoken at home, and the English he learnt at his Christian Brotherhood school was different again from the “official” English spoken in the halls of government. The difficulty O’Nolan consequently had in finding a secure home in language, and his scepticism about its capacity to generate meaning or facilitate communication, are ever-present and alive in his writing, constituting a strong source of its ingenuity, as well as, at times, some obscurity.

O’Nolan’s noms de plume – or noms de guerre as he calls them in these spiky letters – were not merely, as many supposed, a means of separating his daily conforming work life from his dissident life as a writer. They were also an expression of this uncertainty as to where he stood in relation to language, and the problem, therefore, of identifying himself simply or singly. The refusal to limit himself, or to be put in his place, is apparent in his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), in which the narrator, a literature student, famously announces: “One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with”. The many beginnings and endings of a book, he goes on, may be entirely dissimilar, “inter-related only in the prescience of the author”. It is a telling phrase, raising the idea of gamesmanship, a kind of cat-and-mouse the reader must play in order to detect those ideas O’Nolan has in mind, which hold together multiplying narrative threads. That some meanings might remain ambiguous did not bother O’Nolan. In a letter to a publisher, worried about how comprehensible his work would be for an American audience, he rebukes him: “a measure of bewilderment is part of the job of literature”. This undermining of reality, and the doubt it builds in the reader, was not without purpose: in his writing O’Nolan is an exuberant iconoclast, ridiculing received ideas of Art (“misterpiece”, not masterpiece), pieties concerning the Irish language, and the tricks or lies perpetrated by powerful institutions such as the Catholic Church. Graham Greene, in the jacket blurb for to At Swim-Two-Birds, wrote that it incites in the reader “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on stage”. Formally, too, O’Nolan parodied and toyed with many genres, in the process exposing the power plays at work in them. These are some of the reasons why he has been called the godfather of postmodernism, why his work has proved so elusive, and why it has engendered a cult following of dedicated cognoscenti, John Banville, Jonathan Coe and the actor Brendan Gleeson among them.

In letters to colleagues in the civil service O’Nolan uses both the Gaelic Ó Nualláin and the anglicized version of his name (though at one point he denies that this is the case). These, together with Flann O’Brien, and the one he adopted for his journalism, Myles na cGopaleen (later, just na Gopaleen), make up his own (un)holy trinity of names. But there are many other denominations in his pantheon, among them: Brother Barnabas, Count O’Blather, An Broc, Lir O’Connor, the Sligo of Southpaw and George Knowall. In his second novel, The Third Policeman, written in 1939–40 but rejected by publishers, only coming into print posthumously in 1966, the protagonist has forgotten his name, leaving other characters to try and affix one to him so that he can be hanged for murder. A name will damn you, hang you, far better to have none or many. In his letters he is always on the alert for other people’s name changes, particularly where they indicate pretension or the wish to smuggle in covert meaning. One letter to the Irish Times takes the form of a poem in which he mocks contemporaries who have changed their names after falling victim to the “Celtic twilight”, outing Seán Ó Faoláin as “plain John Whelan”.

This is part of a batch of letters from the late 1930s in which O’Nolan, deploying a series of aliases, mocked with increasing brilliance and comic cunning the pretensions of O’Faolain, Frank O’Connor and others, by generating evidently bogus personas with anachronistic biographies and false memories. These farcical “characters” betray themselves at every turn, exposing their humbug while displaying O’Nolan’s considerable skewering skills. In one, he writes “‘Flann O’Brien’ – who is this hooligan skulking behind a pseudonym? Who Is Sylvia?”, then slyly alludes to O’Connor’s own modified appellation: “Mr. O’C.nnr . . . (who can rest easy that his name is safe with me)”; repeats to the point of redundancy the phrase “One more word and I have done”; and is “reminded of” a French walking tour with Yeats in the 1890s, the poet loftily and absurdly claiming that his address was simply “Dublin”, before signing off with his own address as Tintern Abbey. The Irish Times’s editor finally called a halt to this malarkey, but not before recruiting O’Nolan to write “Cruiskeen Lawn”, one of the most extraordinary and long-lived columns in newspaper history, in which O’Nolan continued to parade fake erudition, deflate grandiosity, decry cliché and comment on neologisms and street talk.

The year before his death, the matter of names was still exercising O’Nolan. In two scathing missives to the poet John Jordan, he attacked his drinking companion for violently contradicting him on the matter of George Bernard Shaw’s pen name: Corno di Bassetto. The reply from Jordan accusing him of libel elicits a withering request: “I beg you to stop using words you do not understand”, then lectures him on etymology: “LIBELIUS (dem of L., Liber) ‘A little book’”, and the clue it gives that libel must be published. He can send by closed post, O’Nolan adds threateningly, the “most derogatory appraisal of yourself and your behaviour, and there is no libel”. As with his Irish Times letters, O’Nolan is still intent on taking down a peg or two those he deems to have offended, but the boasting and excess, once deployed in the spirit of mockery and fun, of a game that gave pleasure to readers and which others joined in, now seems reduced to a nasty put-down. There was, however, perhaps a point to his pedantry: O’Nolan was an expert provocateur (“to be offensive . . . takes skill and practice”), and knew precisely the limits of his art.

Or so he imagined. Reading the letters today, the humour still burns brightly but among many laugh-out-loud moments and fascinating subversions there is one case of provocation that sticks in the craw. In The Dalkey Archive (1964), the last novel O’Nolan published in his lifetime, rehashing portions from the then unpublished The Third Policeman, there are two “feature” characters. One is James Joyce, who has faked his death and is living incognito as a barman in Skerries; the other is Saint Augustine. In letter after letter to friends and acquaintances, O’Nolan asks – and it is nearly always in capital letters – “WAS AUGUSTINE A NIGGER?” The only one of his correspondents who seems to have challenged him about this was the dramatist John Keyes Burn, who went by the name of Hugh Leonard, and who adaptedThe Dalkey Archive for the stage in 1965 as The Saints Go Cycling In. In a draft of the play, Leonard uses the word “black” to describe Augustine, but is overruled on the basis that this is a “neutral humbug term”.

O’Nolan’s delight in the frisson of the word and his “dead-set” insistence on using it, even against Leonard’s reminders of its “contemptuous meaning”, is deeply offensive, and it won’t do to excuse this as a matter of the times in which O’Nolan was living. As the letters show, like all serious journalists he was a voracious reader, often commenting on world events such as Kennedy’s assassination or the Cold War nuclear stand-off. He was aware, too, of the Civil Rights movement, making reference to Martin Luther King’s knowledge of the American Constitution, and calling the all-white South African rugby team who were visiting Ireland, cowardly “penny-boys of a fascist regime”. But his provocative impulse went further than bandying around an odious word: what the letters also suggest is that in his research on Augustine O’Nolan believed he had uncovered a little-known fact about the saint but was frustrated in his attempts to confirm it. “Don’t tell me in reply what you THINK”, he says to his recipients, “I know more about that man than does anybody on this earth but I still don’t know the colour of his skin.” In Augustine he felt that he had found a stick with which to “chide the church” (“not to jeer at God or religion”), and to expose its hypocrisy about who Augustine was. He brags in a letter to W. L. Webb (my father), then literary editor of the Guardian, that The Dalkey Archive is a book “so new, so bombastic and so disrespectful it will create holy murder”. It seems O’Nolan believed he was on the same track that later a very dif­ferent kind of iconoclast would take: in Black Athena (1987, 1991, 2006), Martin Bernal, too, argued that powerful institutions, in this case, universities, had denied the African roots of Western civilization.

Over the years O’Nolan’s two principal correspondents were his friend from uni­versity, the architectural writer and Joyce scholar Neil Montgomery; and, later, Timothy O’Keefe, the publisher to whom he owed the resurrection of his career when he brought At Swim-Two-Birds back into print in 1960. (There is surely a book to be written on literature’s saints of rescue – O’Keefe, Francis Wyndham, Diana Athill, Randall Jarrell, John Calder et al – who revived the careers of forgotten writers.) Montgomery was a lifelong supporter, apart from a brief moment in 1964 when, after starting his own newspaper column, he trod on Cruiskeen Lawn territory, and O’Nolan accused him of plagiarism. Montgomery withdrew the column and the men continued their habit of co-operative letter-writing in which they often annotated one another’s epistles before returning them. In one of these annotations, Long tells us, Montgomery identified O’Nolan’s use of “massive incomprehension” as part of his intellectual armament. And in other letters, O’Nolan displays a keen ear for the Irish propensity for refusal following centuries of domination by the British state and the Catholic Church. In one to O’Keefe, it is not the refusal to acknowledge but the refusal to believe that amuses him. At a party given by the crew filming Of Human Bondage, Brendan Behan’s father – “Stephan Behan (the da)” – is sceptical about the story of Christ on the cross. “But the nails, Myles, the NAILS!” “What nails Stephen?” “Sure there were no nails at all in them days. Dya folly me? Yer man was TIED to the cross!”

Many of O’Nolan’s letters concern money. There are fierce but fastidious compositions directed at banks, insurance companies, the police, the passport office, and the paymaster general, usually arguing that he has been left out of pocket, and challenging unyielding bureaucracy with his own equal intractability. The letters are reminders to any aspiring writer about the financial precariousness of most literary lives, as well as the amount of business that has to be contended with. A stream of documents detail his painstaking relations with editors, publishers, agents, book designers, adapters of his work, and translators from many countries. Frustrated by a system in which so many parties take a cut, reducing his income to pennies, O’Nolan mounts a successful campaign to force the Irish government into a tax agreement with West Germany. “Publishers tend to treat their authors as pimps their whores”, he protests. He had a reputation as a boozer, but O’Nolan was also extremely hard-working and resourceful: besides novels in English and Gaelic, a variety of newspaper columns, reviews and translations, he wrote plays (Faustus Kelly, for the Abbey Theatre) and a television series (O’Dea’s Your Man for RTE).

And he was a great getter-up of schemes, proposing elaborate ideas, often while touting for work, about how to promote or improve, for instance, Guinness, the Irish Hospital Sweepstake, or the Irish Tourist Board, as well as a host of literary magazines. Even towards the end of his life, he was still on the look-out for new avenues for his writing. When my father reviewed the newly republished At Swim-Two Birds, praising it, as Long observes in a footnote, as “one of the few experimental works of twentieth-century fiction which seem not to be sick at heart”, O’Nolan wrote to him. He said that after publication ofThe Dalkey Archive he might have to decamp to Mexico, though some snags had arisen in attempts to rent Trotsky’s former villa, but meanwhile might he make a “modest proposal” for a weekly news and advice column on Ireland: “I guarantee not to send you any rubbish”. He signed off with the legendary line: “I await your view on this proposal that I should have my agony in the GUARDIAN”.

In the next two years O’Nolan’s health deteriorated, following multiple (often alcohol-induced) accidents. Subjected to endless blood transfusions, he lay in his hospital bed suffering “sheer day and night pain”, without entirely understanding what ailed him: “some complicated glandular disorder insofar as anybody can say . . .”. But in his final letter he is still thinking of new ruses, hoping to be back “on active service again” and planning a lecture tour in Germany. Writing about his latest idea for a television series, he describes the character of one Policeman Pluck: “In addition to being the dumbest cluck imaginable, he is an amalgam of Frankenstein, Groucho Marx, the Little Flower and President Johnson . . . he transcends all his situations”. But for all his creative copiousness, death had his name and this was one “situation” he could not invent his way out of. Brian O’Nolan died a fortnight later, on April Fool’s Day in 1966.

This review of The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien, edited by Maebh Long, appeared in the TLS on 3.8.2018 as “A Measure of Bewilderment”.

Nell Dunn podcast – TLS

21/07/2018

A discussion with Thea Lenarduzzi and Lucy Dallas about Nell Dunn and her book of interviews from 1965, Talking to Women, now reissued by the Silver Press.

https://www.the-tls.co.uk/freedom-books-flowers-moon-july-19/

Nell Dunn, Talking to Women – TLS

20/07/2018

Interviews are the least praised, and least appraised, of literary forms, particularly those devoid of commentary. Perhaps this is because their intimate relationship with speech is thought to decrease their value as writing. In Talking to Women, however (originally published in 1965, and now re­issued by the Silver Press), the novelist and playwright Nell Dunn shows how stimulating the form can be, expertly steering her conversations to appear uninhibited and freewheeling. Consisting of nine interviews conducted in 1964 with female friends who range from society heiresses to factory workers (Dunn herself was both), the book provides a rare portrait of what happens when women get together to talk.

Nell Dunn by Snowden, 1982

You can read the rest of this review at the TLS website where it was posted on 17.7.2018 as “Something to Say For Herself”. The print version appeared in the 20.7.2018 issue.

Jeet Thayil, The Book of Chocolate Saints – TLS

01/06/2018

The Book of Chocolate Saints – Jeet Thayil’s second novel, following his successful debut, Narcopolis – begins with a poet on the verge of flight. Francis Xavier Newton is about to abandon his wife in Bombay. He is being drawn west again, a lure ever since his childhood in Goa, where he grew up precocious and taciturn, beguiled by Christian saints and English literature. The novel begins in medias res and circles around, coming at its subject from multiple angles – a polyphonous, polyglot approach that encourages the reader to question: “This is my take on the matter, of course. You don’t have to agree”. By this point in his life, Newton has already tried out bohemian enclaves in London, Paris and Milan. Now, with his new muse, Goody Lol, he’s running away to the corrupted place he calls “Amurka”. Like all poets, he’s both an outcast and an absconder, even from poetry itself. Having published when young two brilliant volumes of verse, the words have run dry, so he’s turned his hand to painting – which is easier to dash off, makes money (unlike the “poverty of poetry”), and slots him comfortably into New York’s art scene, with its pastiche and plagiarism, readily-available drugs and uninhibited women.

In New York, Newton encounters Dismas Bombai, a fellow émigré, who has happily swapped India’s caste marks for America’s brands, paying their exorbitant prices with wages from an expat newspaper, the Indian Angle. Bombai wangles an interview with Newton and goes on to become his friend, biographer, and betrayer. Both men witness the nasty racial turn of American politics (a phenomenon mirrored in India’s rising sectarianism) and the stories of men like Amrik, a Sikh attacked during 9/11 for wearing a turban, or Balbir Singh, murdered in Arizona, because to ignorant American eyes he looked like a Muslim terrorist. In The Book of Chocolate Saints, Amrik becomes Newton’s manager – just one of many indications that Thayil’s novel is, like the contemporary artworld, at home in its inauthenticity, mixing “real” people with fictional ones, who themselves are often predicated on the once-living. Newton, Thayil has said in interview, was patched together from the Indian poet, Dom Moraes, and the artist, Francis Newton Souza; Amrik Singh Bhopal shares his first two names, with Amrik Singh Bal, a man who was the victim of a racist attack in California in 2015. That there is a parasitic element to all this, Thayil acknowledges with nods to Frankenstein and vampires, which contribute to the book’s larger debate about fiction’s dual tendency to cannibalise and conjure, and the air of disreputability associated with certain kinds of writing: the name Dismas, Thayil tells us, pointedly, means thief.

Sridhar/Thayil

Eventually Newton returns to India; Dismas, hot on his coattails. Here the opportunist biographer interviews academics, journalists, art activists and other poetry camp followers for an oral history of Newton and the Hungry Realists – a “real” group of poets who surfaced in Bombay in the 1970s. To call them a group, however, is perhaps to miss the point. Because in Thayil’s knowledgable anatomy of poetry (the poems preceding each of his novel’s chapters come from his own Collected Poems, 2015), the Hungry Realists are presented as a clique of infighters, brought together by their common sense of exclusion, but revelling in their obscurity: “They took pride in not publishing and not writing. One book and then nothing for a decade.” The talk about poetry, however, is prolific. For many, Auden’s question about what poetry can or cannot make happen, is urgent once again in this new “time of rage”. Then there are arguments about linguistic authenticity, and the (for some, deplorable) use of the coloniser’s tongue. There is India’s lingering sense of cultural inferiority, exacerbated when western poets like Ginsberg display “orientalist” responses to Indian poetry – praising Tagore’s Bengali mysticism while disdaining Newton’s English-language modernism. There are the clamours of the unacknowledged poets (the untouchables, the women) among this already-marginalised group; and, most insidious of all, there is the romance of the self-destructive poet: alienated, intoxicated, and suicidal, “the suicide saints” whom Thayil taxonomises from Anna Akhmatova to Reetika Vazirani, “a partial list because a complete list would be endless”.

And the Indian angle here? What’s novel is that these debates take place through the prism of Indian poetry. We are now the emblematic poets, Thayil is telling his readers, and our concerns (including post-colonial anxiety, linguistic diversity, and a greater global awareness) have become cardinal. Part of what Thayil’s novel is doing is attempting to rebalance the books: the Chocolate Saints are those that have been largely missing from the picture, whitewashed or ignored, and the profound sense of absence this creates chimes in his novel with the roll-calls of poetry’s lost and martyred. There are further allusions to women’s historical invisibility in the sharp portrait of Goody Lol, a woman seeking sexual liberation, who late in life (as is often the case for women artists) has her own exhibition of portrait photography exploring, quite literally, the ties that bind.

Among the most compelling aspects of Thayil’s ambitious, wide-ranging and utterly contemporary novel are its reflections upon poetry and fiction. As he demonstrates amply here, one of the novel’s strengths as a genre is its sociability, its being in and of the world: magpie, multiple, dependent. Whereas the ideal poem, he suggests, might be more like one of Arun Kolatkar’s, the Maharashtra poet, a poem of the people which “used the demotic” yet was still “a poem that did not care what you thought of it, an untouchable poem that didn’t seek you approval or understanding”. Perhaps a secular (novelistic) reading of poetry’s “holiness” – a word used by Eric Gill in the epigraph to The Book of Chocolate Saints – would suggest that what poetry has to teach the novel is its non-compliance with the times, its utter inadequcy as a thing to be bought.

 

 

Matthew De Abaitua, Self & I – TLS

26/05/2018

It’s hard to know how to summarize Self & I, Matthew De Abaitua’s memoir of the critical period in his life during which he worked as an amanuensis for Will Self, falling under his influence. It is partly a hagiography with Self as the holy saint of literature: visionary, intoxicated and in possession of the keys to the magic kingdom – but it is also a study of working class ambition, an exegesis of the Self canon, a critique of masculinity, a window onto the last pre-digital moment, and a review of that bankrupt and hollow decade in which even the counter-culture was in hock to the establishment. Self & I begins as Tony Blair is elected leader of the Labour Party and ends three years later with the literati and the art crowd celebrating as the country follows suit; an Epilogue takes us to 2003 and Blair in Basra giving a motivational speech to the troops. “This was the true end of the Nineties: the party that became a war.”

In 1994 De Abaitua is a twenty-two year old student on the Creative Writing course at UEA when Self blows into town. Lately divorced, the writer hatches a plan to escape the scene of his marital breakdown in London by moving to a remote cottage in the Suffolk countryside. In order for him to write free from distraction, he employs De Abaitua as a sort of family stand-in, someone who can furnish the cottage and keep the “Will Self industry” ticking over. De Abaitua answers Self’s mail, transcribes his interviews (with Adam Phillips, Martin Amis, and Self’s elected “mentor”, J. G. Ballard), arranges trips to Brazil and Australia for him and waits like a lonely wife for his return. He is also a substitute son, a literary heir of sorts who Self takes it upon himself to mentor and correct: snorting whenever the babbling De Abaitua succumbs to cliché, encouraging him to use his dreams for surrealist experiments, and generally advising the working class lad on how to get ahead in literature: “Don’t be too chippy. People don’t like it”.

De Abaitua has no illusions about his role: “amanuensis…translates as slave-at-hand”, he notes; and unlike a family member he “must not – in any way – contribute to [Self’s] sense of guilt or obligation.” (Guilty memories get in the way of moving on, of creating new fictions.) Yet the twenty-two year old is thrilled by the idea of their intimacy, fancying himself a partner-in-crime: “We’ve staked too much on the virtues of vice to change course now.” They embark on long treks across an appropriately Ballardian hinterland – a nuclear power station looms over the sea into which Self plunges, taking the “Sizewell cure” for his scratched and infected face, lacerated during opiate nightmares. De Abaitua thinks of the two of them as a latter-day Withnail & I; Self’s cultural reach is more extensive: their posture, he smirks to a visiting journalist, is more akin to the Ladies of Langollen.

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To the young De Abaitua, part of Self’s mystique as a writer is his shamanic familiarity with transcendence (getting constantly off his head on whatever’s to hand: alcohol, mushrooms, Horlicks home-brewed with local poppies, “special cigarettes”), while maintaining a fastidious work ethic. He is at his desk every morning at nine, instructs his protégé on “the importance of clean work surfaces”, prohibits television, or reading and listening to music at the same time (“else we become inattentive”), and takes vigorous constitutionals.

During one of Self’s absences, De Abaitua’s parents visit the cottage and this opens up memories of the life he has left behind on the outskirts of Liverpool. Here, the role-models he had were an older brother who beat him to “toughen him up”, friends who jump on any sign of someone getting above themselves, a father whose “sense of how to behave in the world” is learned from his job in the police, and Terry, a dockworker he meets when temping during the student vacation: “Terry and I assume the role of bad mentor and unlikely pupil”. When he tries to talk to Terry about art and literature (De Abaitua is reading A. S. Byatt’s Possession) his co-worker man replies scornfully, “What’s the point of that?”, it has nothing to do with the hard reality of his life which he offers up as a cautionary tale. Against these men, Self seems the perfect mentor, introducing De Abaitua to a world of cerebral disobedience that offers a route away from Poverty Lane – the street where he played as a child. The eager student, now learning how to behave from Self, recites the writer’s catechism: “non-compliance is how we make ourselves attentive to the true social relations that control us.”

But as his time at the cottage comes to an end, and De Abaitua is left drifting at the edges of the literary world, we await the inevitable challenge to Self’s conception of the way things are. He does not openly rebuke his mentor, nor betray him: De Abaitua’s dedicated explication of Self’s writing displays the kind of attention born of love. (Rebuke he reserves for himself, with many self-lacerating references to his festering ambition, his failures as a “nearly-writer”). Yet when he comes to the subordinate story of his own life, “a footnote in history”, it is full of observations that reflect back on “Self Country”. For De Abaitua’s is another country altogether, in which ecstasy is not something you get from amyl nitrate but from the relief felt at the change of shift by manual workers bored out of their minds.

What’s interesting here is that having demonstrated his mastery of the Selfian mode, De Abaitua chooses not to represent himself in this vein. His own life story is told in resolutely realist fashion: no arcane vocabulary, “exploded metaphors”, or disproportion of scale, all beloved by Self and tactically deployed in his fictions. This tells us something about the class-bound nature of culture in Britain. Even later in life the fear of affectation does not leave De Abaitua. As a Creative Writing lecturer he still feels fraudulent, imagining his students thinking: “Does he know what he sounds like?” De Abaitua’s accessible style also hints at the luxury of Self’s outlawry, and at its loftiness. “Will doesn’t do small talk” the young man learns early on in their relationship; a manner De Abaitua tries to emulate but finds impossible to sustain among the coercive communality of Liverpool’s pubs and clubs.

Not that any of this is Self’s fault, he is his own man with his own demons and these old debates about the politics of literary aesthetic will not be resolved between the two of them. But for De Abaitua there is the question of where his initiation into Self Country leaves him. After a depressing period at the Idler, where an anti-work credo is extolled by upper-class entrepreneurs, De Abaitua meets up with Self again. The older man, sensing him at a loss, does what all good mentors do, telling De Abaitua to stop procrastinating and have his say: “You have to step up, Matthew”, because in the end for the writer there is only the work.

“I have not forgotten our white cottage”, the young De Abaitua reads from Les Fleurs du Mal in 1994, reclining on the sofa in the Suffolk cottage he is sharing with a remarkable and troubled writer. Baudelaire’s elegiac phrase seems to anticipate De Abaitua’s future self, looking back at this moment. Then he recalls his mentor’s lesson: “Forgetting . . . keeps us moving forward”. However, understanding the value of a lesson does not mean always having to obey it. Matthew De Abaitua did step up, publishing three novels. But perhaps his greatest achievement will be this compelling reminiscence of the time he spent with Will Self, which, however fraught with ambiguity, turned out to be a spur to the life he had always wanted.

Aminatta Forna, Happiness – Spectator

30/04/2018

In her keynote lecture for a conference on The Muse and the Market in 2015 Aminatta Forna mounted a powerful advocacy for the political novel, challenging the assumption that politics or ‘subject’ undermines literary aesthetic. “A political novel can fail as a work of art as much as any other novel”, she argued, “but the fact that it is political does not sentence it to failure.” Her own approach to fiction is something like Paul Klee’s approach to his art: where Klee talked of taking a line for a walk, she says, “when I write a novel it is like taking a thought for a walk”. In Happiness, Forna’s fourth novel, the thought up for consideration is that in the west many people’s lives are so sheltered they have become terrified of suffering, pathologising even ordinary loss or grief as trauma. Perhaps this desire for safety, she speculates, has also led to a fear of incomers – a fear expressed in blindness to the many migrants at work across the city, or in terror when confronted with wild creatures in urban territory, with the sudden “opalescent eye shine of an animal” in the road.

These fears are scrutinised, and countered, in Happiness by Attila, a debonair Ghanaian psychiatrist visiting London for a conference on PTSD, and Jean, an American wildlife biologist in the capital to study urban foxes. They are both adapting to life after recent losses: his incurred by the death of a beloved wife, hers by a divorce that has separated her from her son. The two collide on Waterloo Bridge one winter evening and then again in a nearby underpass when they intervene to stop a white beggar from being attacked. These collisions are followed by many more to the point where London, the novel’s third major character, is depicted as a place that continually puts one kind of person, or animal, in the path of another: a Bosnian street performer opens the door for a fox meandering through the National Theater; a Sierra Leonean traffic warden notices a boy loitering alone by the Thames; and a flock of parakeets make their home in Nunhead Cemetery, aggravating the local council but delighting the joggers and dog-walkers.

Not all encounters are welcome or convivial: one frightened woman crosses the road to avoid coming face to face with a recently-bereaved acquaintance. Against such antipathy, Forna proposes that rather than fencing off our lives in fantasy (“prelapsarian gardens”), the best hope for survival, and, indeed, for happiness, is to cultivate “a sense of something that goes beyond [our]selves”. Once worlds collide it takes curiosity, empathy and will to draw people together. When Attila tells Jean about his runaway nephew, caught up in an immigration sting, she realises she can help him, having knowledge of the city from tracking foxes. She also has access to a network of people who assist in monitoring the foxes’ movements: migrant road sweepers, traffic wardens and security guards, all with expertise in London’s street culture. And they volunteer to search for the boy. The reason they are willing to help is their sense of solidarity, something echoed in the silent nods of acknowledgment that pass between Attila and other black people as they make their way through the city.

Aminatta Forna

The correlation of Forna’s idea that some in the west have become insular and enclosed, is that those most exposed to suffering – having learnt from it – may have developed greater emotional resources. In her rather Nietzschean novel, which emphasises knowledge, tenacity and resilience over victimhood, this is demonstrated time and again. Which is not to say that Forna is an idealist. Happiness is an outward-looking book, yet in passages that punctuate the London story, set in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Iraq, the ravaged places where Attila has worked with civilian and combatant victims of war, there is no doubting the suffering that human beings inflict upon one another, and upon other species. Here, Forna thinks deeply about our responsibilities and how we can all get along. Attila tells Jean: “Some in my profession believe animal cruelty is an early indicator of worse to come”. While she points out that foxes have moved into cities not, as widely held, because we stopped hunting them in the country, but because fast food means “the sidewalks have turned into ‘all you can eat buffets'”. Where Jean is fascinated by the culture of the natural world and inter-species relationships, Attila responds to the horror he’s witnessed by cultivating his love of food, dance and language, conversing with a colleague in Esperanto, the dreamed-up speech of international fellowship.

The novel ends with Attila’s own conference keynote lecture in which he calls on the work of Frantz Fanon, R.D. Laing and the anti-psychiatry movement, to argue that “trauma does not equal destiny”. He also returns to his love of Robert Graves who went back to the trenches, deciding “he preferred the suffering of war to the insufferability of civilisation”. Goodbye to All That might well have provided an alternative title to Forna’s piercingly intelligent and interrogative novel which, like the earlier book, registers tectonic shifts taking place in the world and provokes us to think anew about war, and what we take for peace and happiness.

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