Archive for November, 2013

The Real Life of Nicholas Lezard

November 30, 2013 on in the month, the Aberdeen Press and Journal announced that it would no longer be accepting columns from freelance journalist Carly Fallon, after some people pointed out the strong similarity, with some passages almost verbatim, between Fallon’s pieces and other pieces written previously by national newspaper columnists. The articles themselves were of the high-end quotidian nature, everyday irritations and absurdities rendered in an over-the-top arch Radio 4 style, so that the humour is reliant on tone rather than content. From Lucy Mangan’s column on the arrival of winter, that Fallon ripped off: ‘Every day I add another jumper to my ensemble… By Christmas, I am nothing more than an ambulatory heap of knitwear. The children next door think I’m a Womble, even though, as I’ve pointed out to them on many occasions, Catford is technically farther away from Wimbledon than the sun.’ The story here is – and I’m surely not alone here – not that a regional columnist passed off national columns as her own work, but that national columnists increasingly write like mediocre regional hacks. I mean, who wants to produce this stuff, let alone to plagiarise it?

Nicholas Lezard at first glance is another of the metropolitan lifestyle writing elite. His columns for the New Statesman deal with daily life in the same wry conversational register. But there are differences. For one, Lezard’s life is actually worth writing about. He was a senior officer at British Telecom before walking out of his job to pursue a career in literary criticism (and appears to have achieved this, a startling feat in a country where there are few good literary critics and fewer still who can make a living from what Martin Amis called the ‘lowest and noblest art’.) Around the same time, his marriage deteriorated and he made an exit from the family home to a central London houseshare Lezard refers to as ‘The Hovel’. Lezard’s HMO is a character in itself, a midlife grotesque, described with loving care: the mice, the erratic plumbing, the power cuts, the inexplicable noises the house makes at night. Starting over in your mid forties must be a hell of a thing, and Lezard captures the disorientation and loneliness of his situation with unerring precision. In few other diary columns do you get a sense of writer as person. But reading Bitter Experience Has Taught Me feels like actually knowing Lezard: a literary gentleman of a certain age, small and self-deprecating and smoking constantly, a fan of women and books and the more cerebral kind of English sport. One of the book’s many highlights is a midnight game of drunken outdoor cricket with his housemate (a mysterious middle-aged exile known only as ‘Razors’) which becomes so raucous it draws the intervention of the police.

Lezard knows literature, and scatters his journal with numerous classical references, providing a sense of contrast that is never self dramatising. (He realises his depression is at its worst when he finds himself rereading Wodehouse and hoping, with tearful desperation, that the love affairs work out.) Lezard’s reviewers have tended to fall back on the Montaigne view that happiness writes white and that nothing is more interesting than misery. But in the book there’s a sense that Lezard is succeeding in love and life despite his travails. Perhaps it’s more that stability writes white and the world would be more interesting if only more people led chaotic lives.

The Laing Crossexamination: Why Writers Drink

November 4, 2013 decade or so into his career as a bestselling novelist, horror writer Stephen King ran into problems. He was drinking constantly and taking cocaine, banging out novels in his study with toilet tissue stuffed up his nose to stop the bleeding. He never went to bars, because ‘the only drunk asshole I could stand was myself’ and he also employed what he called ‘the Hemingway Defence’:

Although never clearly articulated (it would not be manly to do so) the Hemingway Defense goes something like this: as a writer, I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don’t give in to their sensitivities. Only sissy-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on, I can handle it. A real man always can.

In The Trip to Echo Spring, her psychogeographical study of alcoholic novelists, Olivia Laing mounts a pitiless crossexamination of this defence. Papa himself would be quaking in the dock and grassing up his best friends under Laing’s prosecutorial zeal. Laing lived out a chaotic childhood in a family of alcoholics, so she knows what life is like for the majority of substance abusers who do not have the literary and artistic gifts of Raymond Carver or F Scott Fitzgerald. She has also done her neurological homework. Booze, Laing writes, ‘works by interfering with the activity of neurotransmitters, the chemicals by which the central nervous system relays the information round the body… When alcohol is ingested, it interacts with the receptor sites of an inhibitory neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA, mimicking its effects. The result is sedative, reducing its activity in the brain… These sedative effects are what makes alcohol so adept at reducing tension and anxiety.’

This destresser element to alcohol is part of what motivated the novelist John Cheever. He was an outsider posing as an insider, a bisexual struggling under marriage and propriety, who wrote that: ‘It was my decision, early in life, to insinuate myself into the middle class, like a spy, so that I would have an advantageous position of attack, but I seem now and then to have forgotten my mission and to have taken my disguises too seriously.’ Part of the strategy was to ensure that his natural shyness did not overwhelm him at important social engagements. Prepping for a particular stressful occasion, he related afterwards that ‘I bought a bottle of gin and drank four fingers neat. The company was brilliant, chatty and urbane and so was I.’

Laing combines a clinical analysis with the novelist’s gifts of empathy. It may seem a stretch on the reader’s heartstrings, in mid-recession Britain, to sympathise with a bunch of hard-drinking blueblooded rich boys, but when she tells of the bullied childhood of John Cheever, or the terminal anxiety of Tennessee Williams, you can’t help but feel for them. As a young man, Williams suffered panic attacks in an age where such disorders were unlikely to be diagnosed, let alone accounted for. On a trip to Paris Williams ‘began abruptly to feel afraid of what he called the process of thought, and that over the weeks of travel this phobia grew so intense he came within ‘a hairsbreadth of going quite mad’.’ At a cathedral in Cologne, Williams had a transcendental experience: ‘He had the uncanny sense of being touched by a hand: ‘and at the instant of that touch the phobia was lifted away as lightly as a snowflake though it had weighed on my head like a skull-breaking block of iron.’ A religious boy, he was certain he’d experienced the hand of Christ.’ The benediction did not last: within a week, the attacks returned. Williams would fight them all his life. From Laing’s glimpse of the Bird’s later years:

On it went: up, then down, then down again. A loving phone call with Frank, from one European city to another. A panic attack in a cinema, stemmed when he staggered into a bar, pale and terrified, and knocked back two double Scotches in quick succession. A few weeks later, in Sicily, he sat in his friend Franco’s bar till closing time and then walked with him down the main street, reassured by the music drifting from a nearby club. But when he turned for home alone, the club had closed and panic rose in him as he strode faster and faster down a road that seemed to stretch on endlessly, his chest constricted and his breath coming in gasps.

The subtitle of Laing’s book is ‘Why Writers Drink’ but trawling through her catalogue of suicide, psychosis and broken homes, the reader is faced with a chicken-egg question: do people drink to excess because they are fucked up or are they fucked up because they drink to excess? The cruelty of alcohol’s relationship with mental illness is that drink offers short term relief while feeding greater demons. Those who have journeyed into the darker reaches of mental distress may be familiar with the term depersonalisation – literally, when you are so hammered by hungover anxiety, you actually doubt your own existence. Of Cheever, Laing writes that ‘Sometimes he’d feel he was being swamped by the past, and sometimes, frighteningly, that he’d lost his place in time altogether: ‘I am not in this world; I am merely falling, falling.’ Cheever captured this diassociatory feeling in his story ‘The Swimmer’ where the drunken surburbanite protagonist, fresh off a garden party in his neighbourhood, decides to walk home through the back gardens of his neighbours, taking a drink at every barbecue. When he finally reaches his house, he sees that the locks have been changed, the lights are off, no one lives there – and no one has lived there for a long time.

If Laing’s book has a fault it’s that she comes very much from the AA model of total abstinence, and fails to acknowledge that most people who drink do not develop problems with drink. Talent doesn’t come out of a bottle but I would argue that the delirium of the senses that alcohol provides, can help us develop the imaginative empathy and perspective required for telling stories and taking the reader to other worlds – which is the main job of a fiction writer. That said, addiction all but guarantees a shorter lifespan: just about every bad thing that can happen to the human body can happen through alcohol abuse and, if you want to write great novels, the first thing you need is a pulse. As Hunter S Thompson said, possibly not at his most sober, but certainly at his most reflective: ‘The Edge… there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.’

Donna Tartt’s Unfinished Symphony

November 3, 2013

In Brightness Falls, his novel about art and commerce, Jay McInerney introduces us to reclusive novelist Victor Propp. Propp made his name with a brilliant and acclaimed debut and his fans have waited twenty years for the great man’s second novel. An shrewd and eccentric author, twitching with petty vanities and jealousies, Propp capitalises on the anticipation, and has ‘outperformed every literary salesman in the business. In 1966, Propp had received a modest advance for this second novel. After five years, Corbin, Dern became impatient for delivery, at which point Propp published a piece of the novel in Esquire and let it be known to other publishers that he was available for lunch and dinner; under threat of losing the novelist, whose cult was growing, the young Harold Stone had revised the contract and enlarged the advance. This process had been repeated periodically over the years; to date Propp had collected nearly a quarter of a million dollars on the unfinished masterpiece.’

I have just finished Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It’s been twenty-one years since Tartt’s seminal The Secret History: twelve since her second novel The Little Friend. For a talented author, this low productivity seems odd, almost infuriating: Stephen King, who loved the new novel, told Emma Brockes that ‘Donna Tartt is an amazingly good writer. She’s dense, she’s allusive. She’s a gorgeous storyteller. But three books in 30 years? That makes me want to go to that person and grab her by the shoulders and look into her face and say, ‘Do you realise how little time you have in the scheme of things?” Others have been less impressed: Julie Myerson’s verdict in the Observer was ‘Remember the suicidally long, dope-fuelled follow-up novel that Grady Tripp is writing in Chabon’s Wonder Boys? Well, guys, here it is.’

Having just got to the end of The Goldfinch (without dropping it on my foot) I can understand both the raves and the hatchet jobs. Forget the length: people should be able to write long books if they have the nerve and skill to carry them off. Forget also the length between books. Tartt strikes me as a writer like E I Lonoff, who will happily spend an afternoon rewriting the same paragraph fifty times. What strikes you first is the presentation. For all its grandeur and allusion, The Secret History is a compulsive pulp novel. You can devour it in a day. Two decades on, Tartt is clearly taken more seriously. The Goldfinch comes with a laboured dust jacket, chapters in Roman numerals, spatterings of epigrams. It also has that compulsive quality, but in this case, you’re rushing on towards a conclusion that never in fact arrives.

The Goldfinch is both overwhelming and underwhelming. In terms of quality of prose, Tartt is magical. For all that today’s literati deride the midcentury American novelists as dead white drunk males, they still strive for the ability of Cheever and Bellow to capture the texture of life as lived – you feel that yearning in Zadie Smith’s epic novels, and in her essays, which engage without actually telling you anything. That Augie March thing – Tartt nails it. There’s not a dud or filler line in the book: every sentence is original and of the moment. One of The Secret History’s many strengths was that it was a great novel about the American class system. Tartt is a pitiless analyst of both the Yankee blueblood dynasties and the Vegas hustler lowlife, and her protagonist Theo’s adventures in both worlds throw up some delightful and hilarious suspects for Tartt’s rogues’ gallery – including a Bostonian socialite called ‘Mr. Abernathy – my dad’s age, with some ill-articulated scandal or disgrace in his past’.

There are other resonances. Too many. Theo Decker is basically a turbocharged Richard Papen: with his spiralling anxieties, his furtive opportunism, his chiselling and cutting of corners, his risky affinity for prescription drugs, his unrequited love, he is the epitome of the cliche ‘callow youth’. His best friend, manic Russian caper man Boris, is worth the hardback price alone, the Amsterdam and California scenes lush and marvellous and strange – but, bottom line, there’s no real story here. The Goldfinch is a sophisticated and beguiling electronica symphony from which no tune can be discerned. A party with all the beautiful people in which nothing much happens.

What conclusions there are, seem pat and forced. At the end of the novel, Theo laments in bildungsroman style: ‘Because – here’s the truth – life is catastrophe… For me – and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool.’ Well, up to a point, son. Also: ‘We don’t get to choose the people we are’ – but surely we do, to some extent, at least. ‘And as much as I’d like to believe there’s truth beyond illusion,’ Theo says, ‘I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion.’ In her strange way, Donna Tartt has written an entire novel to illustrate this assertion.

(Image: Telegraph)