Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Was it all worth it?

This was a couple of years ago, right?

The air had been turning autumnal all week and the light had already closed in letting an early darkness coil around the tiny garden.  Hanging from the tree were fairly lights, all silver and gold which she  told me they’d rescued from a Christmas tree found dying in a street before January, decorations discarded and all.   It had been a terrible festive season for someone.   She had been standing next to me, her head leaning on my shoulder as we escaped from the clinging heat inside .  Standing on the terrace, the open French doors allowed the music, something electronic, I can’t remember what, to follow us.  Suddenly, she’d straightened up and walked into the middle of the lawn.  She’d lit a menthol cigarette to cut through the thick wine head developing and then she twirled to the music through the smoke hanging in the air whilst the beat swelled and the dual slices of electric light cut into the grass.

From the block of flats behind a light was switched on and the back of the garden burned with fluorescence.  She stopped her half-dance and scowled.

‘I hate that,’ she said and sighed.  ‘I don’t like the idea anyone seeing me.  I’m almost too private, I guess.  I don’t need lots of friends, just a few people to be kept close.’  She took a step closer to me as well as a half drag on her cigarette before letting it fall into the grass, still smouldering.  ‘I’m not comfortable with everyone knowing everything about me.’

The next but one time we spoke I told her that I couldn’t see her again.  I felt bad - I didn’t handle it very well – but, amongst other reasons, if that was how she felt, at some point I would upset her, here, with words and I didn’t want to go through that again.  I upset my ex numerous times and if I could go back and change that then maybe I would.  There were times when she was looking for a fight, perhaps, and times when I helped make it easy.  I’m a little more subtle these days, and besides the format has changed from tale of the week to something more structured, but, still, even when it was on purpose it was never worth all the hassle. 

I’ve found that people react in different ways.  Not to having a blog – lots of people have lots of variously dorky, serious, specialist interest, broad scope blogs – but I have put a surprising amount of personal information on davidmarstonwrites and that usually gets some sort of reaction.  I’ve never hidden behind any layer of anonymity and maybe that’s a mistake.  I suspect it has cost me at least one job interview and one girl, a pretty girl I met over the internet.  I liked her. We saw each other several times arranging things through the website and then text message, but when we swapped email addresses and she got my surname I never saw her again.  That’s okay.  I understood, but the words were there.  In my head.  Waiting. 

 When I was a teenager I wrote a novel.  It was very much a fourteen year old boy’s novel.  There were wizards and elves and goblins and a pilgrimage.  It was the first part of a trilogy.  There probably wasn’t a decent sentence in it, but it was one hundred and thirty-four typed pages long and it took me months.  I wrote at least two, if not more, drafts.  I’d worked hard at it, almost certainly to the neglect of my schoolwork, and yet, I didn’t tell anyone.  I finally told my very first girlfriend as we lay on my single bed, our lips mildly chaffed and sticky. 

‘Can I read it?’ she asked.

‘Of course,’ I lied for I already knew both that it wasn’t, really, any good.  And that I was about to break up with her.

I’ve always been reluctant to let anything less than perfect be read by anyone, but slowly I’ve learnt that the words are never perfect.  They're never finished, but sometimes you just have to abandon them to their fate.  There’ll almost always be a failing somewhere and just because I can’t see it doesn’t mean I don’t know it’s there.  So nothing happened.  No-one read anything.  In which case, what was the point?

And eventually here we are.  One of the things I wanted to do with the blog was to overcome that hesitancy, to share.   It gives me a deadline, self-imposed of course, but none-the-less an expectation exists.   I like the immediacy, the imperfection of it.  I am happy that I make mistakes.  The purpose was to write and for the words to be read, not for anything to be perfect.  Then, suddenly five years have passed.  Five years.  Over two hundred posts.   Somewhere in the region of six hundred thousand words just about... Well, about me.

Me and the words.

I find myself reading back through those early entries.  My God, but they’re badly written.  At the very least they feel rushed.  They lack elegance.  There is, I think, a poorer sense of style than I employ now.  Of course, that too has always been a problem, as I suspect it is with most people:  I nearly always think that whatever I’ve worked on most recently is great and the further I get from anything the less I like it, the more it feels like someone else wrote it.  Which probably means it was never as good as I thought it was, just that I have a too strong attachment to the darling sentences I fight to give birth to.

I reread the first entry.  It was supposed to be a sort of declaration of intent from a boy of twenty-eight, still freshly salt and sand drenched from the Mediterranean whom I barely recognise now.  There’s something about careers which seems highly naive.  There’s something oddly predictive about my ex, who at the time wasn’t, which I’d completely forgotten about.  There’s some stuff about weather and space and the other background things I know I still put in for context, the scaffolding from which I can hang a point

 In retrospect, it was ridiculously optimistic.  I imagined, with the knowledge that it was something of a daydream, but still there was a real hope, almost an expectation there, that I would blog and complete a creative writing masters course and produce a novel, get an agent and then a publishing deal, write another novel and then... I don’t know what.  Spend a lot of time at my computer writing with someone paying me and translating all the words in my head into stories.   It was all going to be so fucking easy.

Life, huh?

Still, I guess that’s sort of what happened.  I’ve written, more or less, three novels.  One I reached the end of, but stopped redrafting when it no longer became something I wanted to tell.  Another I have finished but can’t sell.  A third I am currently redrafting.  I spend a lot of time at my computer, a lot of time in my head, but no-one pays me.

How, I asked five years ago, can I call myself a writer when I haven’t been published?”  And okay, I’ve had a couple of short stories published but not much and yet I egotistically think of myself as a writer.  Or, at the very least, someone who writes and maybe that’s the more important definition.  My name is David Marston, and I write. 

’There’s something else I should tell you about,’ I said a couple of years ago, as my then only just new girlfriend and I lay under a swooping tree in Hyde Park where the sun dappled in spots across us.  I had already confessed to not being able to ride a bicycle and she’d taken that pretty well so I thought I’d go for broke.  ’So I sort of write this blog thing.’

‘Oh, I know about that.  I googled you ages ago.’

She knew and it didn’t matter, despite the fact I was, at the time, writing Returning East, a travelogue about the east London line, the history of the areas it cut through and my personal relationship with them which was evolving chapter by chapter into something I hadn’t quite expected.  As, it appeared, was my life.

Whilst I was pleased that my girlfriend didn’t seem unduly concerned about me putting such personal information on the internet, for the world to see, and I think she quite liked the idea of dating a writer, I’m not too sure she realised quite what she was letting herself in for.  Words, you see, are, essentially, some bad shit.  They can be the devil.  They come spurting out and sometimes there’s no way to get them back in.  They tell lies as frequently as they tell the truth.  They’re powerful and difficult to control and they can whip up some crazy voodoo so that what’s made up threatens to boil over, off the screen and out into the world. 

We’re eating fried octopus balls at a Japanese place in Brixton Market on a Saturday evening.  The sun has been shining all day and it doesn’t get much better.  She always smiles prettily when she laughs and it always make me smile in turn. 

The waitress takes our plate and an empty bottle, breaking the conversation.

‘I saw a bit of your last blog, printed out, where you’d been editing it,’ she said changing the subject.  ‘It had some stuff about me in it.’

‘Yeah, you read that.’

‘I know, but I guess I didn’t really notice.  Something about a book that was unread.’

‘The Accidental, by Ali Smith.’

‘It’s second hand.  It must have been read.  I don’t want everyone to think I’m not literary.’

‘You read.  You have good taste,’ I reply.  ‘But you haven’t read it, have you?’

‘I tried, but I couldn’t get into it.’

‘It’s brilliant.  Absolutely amazing.’

‘It’s rubbish.  Nothing happens.’ 

I shrug. 

‘Anyway,’ she jokes, ‘I think you should publish a retraction in the next edition: the author wishes to correct the impression that his girlfriend doesn’t have good literary taste.  It’s not that she hasn’t read, whoever the women is, it’s just that she didn’t like it.’

‘Okay,’ I smile, compliantly.

‘Bet you don’t,’ she smiles back, but the thing is I already know I will and I know that this conversation will appear more or less how we held it and that I’ll be taking a liberty with her trust, but the problem is:  It’s the words.  Whilst I’d try to stop if she asked me, she won’t and so I have to deal with how addictive they are by myself.  They get at your gut, pull at you to use them, to write.  All the time.  In the depth of the night, on the train, when you’re supposed to be concentrating on something else they come and they whisper in your inner ear demanding to be told. 

At the end of the first davidmarstonwrites, I suggested that my decision to throw away my former career and embark on a creative writing course would either be the best decision I ever made or a complete and utter disaster.  "Either way, I thought it’d be fun to let you watch."  Unsurprisingly, it ended up being neither.  Instead, it helped me find who I really am.  Like a soap opera or a serialised drama it keeps going round and round in circles, stuff happens, jeopardy presents itself, there’s a girl or a dark moment of doubt, and then in the end the status quo reasserts itself:  I remain someone who writes.  I’m going to keep doing that and my self-mythologising, over-inflated sense ego means, my lovelies, that you get to keep reading.

Hold on tight now.


Tuesday, 4 September 2012

ReReading 5: Women (and rewriting)

It occurred to me, shortly after accusing Martin Amis ofmisogyny, that all the writers I’ve included in my rereading list are male.  They’re not all white, but, whilst I don’t know for sure, I suspect they’re all middle-class.  They all write in English as their first language.  Is this a problem?  It’s not wholly representative of my average reading habits and diversity in one’s choice of literature, much as it is in music, is important.  A record collection solely encompassing white boys with guitars makes for very dull listening, and so it is with reading.  If I were only to read what people like me had to say, then I’d never learn anything new.

All very noble, but then again, whilst I do own a wide array of music by people from all walks of life sung in a multitude of languages, there are, if I’m honest, a lot of white boys wearing jeans in four of five piece bands with guitars and drums.  As I typed this the first time round I listened to the Cure’s Pornography.   On the redraft it was It by Pulp.

So, perhaps subconsciously, I have picked out a group of writers most representative of my library.  Oh, dear  The intention was to try and explain how my reading habits, and therefore my writing habits, have changed over the years. 

These days I don’t approach novels, or authors rather, in the same way an obsessed teenager might do with music, or bands.  It is vaguely acceptable if one enjoys, say, a White Stripes album to investigate the rest of Jack White’s music with his other bands.  I once thought that novels could work the same – see Graham Swift, Martin Amis, Gore Vidal and Don DeLillio.  I was wrong.  Novels, more than music, reflect the person who you are at the time, not who you once or were or even who you might be.

The investiture one makes with a novel is so much greater both in time and emotion, for both the consumer and the artist.  An album can be trashed out in an afternoon, if you’re the Beatles in 1963, or at least a matter of months.  The bands that spend years intensely working on a record, Guns N Roses or the Stone Roses for example, are the exception.  And it’s usually rubbish when it finally turns up.   For the novelist it takes years of full time work to craft a fiction and then to recraft it.  One thousand words are, arguably, harder to come by than three minutes parts of which are repeated.  You’re not trying to capture a zeitgeist, but to be true to the voice that you’re dragging out from the depths - unless you’re, say Howard Jacobson, in which case you’re just using Howard Jacobson’s voice in every book.

Similarly, we consume music differently.  An album takes forty-five minutes to listen to and then, presuming that it’s any good, will be heard dozens of times in the same the year and beyond.  A novel takes as long as it takes to read.  I, probably, average just over one a week, but I’m odd.  For most people it’s more like a fortnight or three weeks and probably it will never be picked up again.  With that in mind the idea of consuming the entire works of someone is a little bit strange.  The author is probably trying to make each piece as distinct from their other books as possible, to make that investment of time worthwhile, to make something unique, possibly simply because they’ve changed.  Just because one enjoyed their first novel does not mean that the second or third will be to your taste.  You can read faster than they can write.

(There are exceptions, of course.  Evelyn Waugh claimed it took about seven weeks to write a novel. Quite what he spent the rest of his life doing is unclear.  Drinking, probably.)

So, the books I’ve been rereading are from another time, a time when I wanted to have an understanding of modern literature but didn’t really know where to start so just kept reading the same people.  Again and again.  And now, ten years or more later it feels as though sufficient time has passed to revisit and reassess the books that made me.  I got the occasionally nostalgic fuzz or the odd memory sparked by a sentence or a scene, but largely I found myself burying into the words, oblivious to everything else, looking for the screws which hold it all together.

But no women writers for some reason.  Who should I have included?  Who am I sufficiently au fait with to write about?  I know quite a lot about JeanRhys from my interest in writerly drunken fuck-ups, but I’ve only ever seen the television adaption of Wide Sargasso Sea so that doesn’t count.  E. Annie Proulx, whom I notice seems to have recently dropped the E?  I got slightly obsessed with her for a while but I’m not sure I can manage her landscape drenched metaphors anymore and besides that woe-is-me-I-have-a-massive-house memoir she wrote irritated from the reviews alone.  MJ Hyla Great writer with powerfully intense sentences, but I know nothing about her.  Margaret Atwood, been there before I think.  Ali Smith?  Brilliant, absolutely amazing writer full of wit and compassion and eloquence and gorgeous turns of phrase, but most of my copies of her books seem to have gone walkabout, probably in a box in a shed in Warwickshire, and whilst my girlfriend has a copy of the Accidental, ssh, it looks unread.

Nicola Barker, now there’s an author. Seemingly equally at home with short stories, short novels (Clear) and big sprawling epics (Behindlings, Darkman) she plays with language and the space on the page until it all falls apart then with a kiss of genius breathes a newer, better life into it.  Phenomenal.  At one point when I still retained hopes of You’ll Never Be Joe Strummer finding a publisher I had a tag line in my head of “like the bastard child of JG Ballard and Nicola Barker.”  I was trying to craft a dystopian punk novel with left-wing politics, broken hearts and an onomatopoeic conversation between the narrator and the reader at its heart, but that description was still somewhat over egging the metaphorical pudding, not to mention over-stating my own talent.

So, Nicola Barker.  Genius.  And whilst I think I will reread Behindlings next I’m not going to rewrite anything to make myself appear more gender inclusive.  What’s said is said and done is done.  Besides rewriting is what I’m spending most of my time doing at the moment.  I finished the opening draft of the novel about an architect who thinks he’s Phillip Marlow but finds himself stuck in Brideshead Revisted (that’s a tonal description by the way not the actual plot) back in May and have been editing and cutting and tweaking to get to a proper first draft ever since.  The blog is the only free form prose I’ve had the opportunity to bash out in months.  A fiddle here, a tweak there, move a sentence around, shift a semi-colon, change a full stop for a colon, that will by my writing life for the next year or so.  That and cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, rewrite, cut, cut, cut.  Rewriting is predominately destroying.  All the difficult births your darling sentences had, no matter how much you cherish its lyrical charm, is it doing enough?  No?  Get rid of the git.  Writing fresh words, making shit up as I like to put it, is so much easier.  Now I need to immerse myself inside it  all, hold the whole plot in my head, speak the voice, stick to the rules (except those consistently broken deliberately), be the whole damn thing. 
That’s why rereading is so important.  Read once and you’re enjoying the ride, thrilling at the plot, crying with the characters, wrapped up in the author’s arms for comfort (unless, obviously, it’s rubbish).  Read twice and more you can start to pull it apart, understand its anatomy, what really makes it work.  Hopefully by thinking about other people’s work in that way I can understand my own and par it down to the parts that it really needs, discarding the ones I think it would be nice for it to have.  If you’re looking for me over the next few months, I’ll be trapped inside my own words trying to break them and lovingly polishing the ones that survive

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

ReReading 4: Cat (and Martin Amis)

Recently my girlfriend and I acquired a cat from the local rescue centre on Lewisham Way.

“Trial Baby!” more than one of my friends has bellowed, hilariously, into my face and so I throw it out here early to get it out the way.  Let’s put it to one side and ignore it.  Whatevah.

The curious thing about cat ownership – and perhaps something I, true to form, had not fully appreciated – is not the way one starts talking to her as though she has an opinion on anything other than dinner, or the incredible stench of her poo, or the way cat hair can now be found in amongst the keys of my computer, but rather that it comes with a surprising amount of responsibility.  This should perhaps have been obvious when the rescue centre sent round someone to assess the flat for its suitability - and, presumably, our suitability to look after a cat.  Despite being overrun with strays, they don’t let any old fool take on a moggy.

During the assessment I did as instructed and kept my mouth shut.

We passed, evidently, but beyond the obvious of making sure she is fed, watered and has somewhere to sleep, I am surprised how much else I feel obliged to do for her.   Growing up we had cats, but I was always more fond of the dogs and understood their goofy reliance on me whilst the cats were more aloof, using us as advanced tin openers.  This one requires regular attention, laps to sit on available, being actively played with and extensive tutoring on how to use the cat-flap. 

I like taking a more involved role in her life, even if it does make me apprehensive.  She’s never used a cat-flap before and was reluctant to head-butt it open, so we taught her by leaving it open in increments using a clothes peg, the door handle and some string and sitting on the floor demonstrating how it could be opened with ones paw whilst she looked on, indifferent to process, but wanting to go outside.  It worked eventually, but I worried for some time afterwards, on my cycle home, that I would return to find her distressed at being stuck outside or in.  I would pedal harder and when I arrived all she’s interested in was dinner.  Taking a dead baby bird she had bought into the lounge as a play thing away from her, I felt a ridiculous urge to try and rationally explain the moral wrong committed.  The body was light in my hand, the face turned away, unknowingly twisted upwards trying to get away; the cat just looks at me and gives a little mewl of disappointment.  I feel I should be doing something more. 

She is something of a flirt too, endearing herself to either my girlfriend or me, but rarely both simultaneously.  She looks for cracks in our relationship to exploit in order to gain food or be let into the garden through an opened door avoiding that degrading semi-crawl through the hole.  She seeks to play us off each other as we vie for her affection.

Martin Amis is something of a flirt too, always threatening to deliver something interesting and exciting and more and more frequently it is just bluster and blunder.  Nowadays he is more famous for being Martin Amis than for his writing, but back in the eighties there was a moment when he almost had it.  London Fields, Money and Information are all fantastic novels of their time, albeit all definitely flawed, and from then on he drifted off up a blind alley.

No-one should have to read the Information more than once, despite the good bits, or at least not without a good decade’s pause so that still sits on the shelves with just the one read in it.  I watched the Nick Frost adaption of Money last year so that’s too fresh which just leaves London Fields on the viable reread list.

I first read London Fields shortly after moving to London, appropriately enough, and got a bit too swept up in it, to be honest.  Easily done.  It confused me, kept me continually off balance not least from being set nowhere near Hackney neighbouring London Fields in the East and instead stamping itself all over Notting Hill, Holland Park and Maida Vale in the West as though Amis felt permitted to juggle geography to his will.  Plus I found the odious Keith Talent strangely appealing.  That’s the real talent of the book, how such a repulsive character can still come across as eminently likable, provided you never had to endure more than about twenty minutes of his real company.  Just before moving to London I’d worked in a locals’ pub in Birmingham and Talent reminded me of an amalgamation of all the regulars’ bad bits.  The sort who turned up at midday and didn’t bugger off again until gone closing time.  The types who were at once funny, monotonous, faintly sinister, warm hearted, generous and miserly.  Hang around any pub long enough and a concoction of contradictions will be found lurking somewhere.

I now know, since my girlfriend was living in Maida Vale when we met, the area far better than I did in 2001 and so on the reread rather than being a collection of meaningless names and places the geography, which is so important not only to the plot but to the conviction of the book, made much more sense.  Keith’s local, the abysmal sounding Scarfell Arms was not too far from my girlfriend’s flat.  We dropped in a couple of times for a drink.  It was usually empty and despite its attempts to spruce itself up for the significantly more gentrified market than of London Field’s time, it seemed to be mourning the more psychotic crowd it had once, at least fictionally, played host to.  Eventually it closed up and reopened with a new name, not that anything really changed.  Pubs can’t change, not really.  It’s like their history is dyed into the bar.

Despite its worryingly misogynistic characterisation, shameless self-indulgent plotting and motivationally confused narrator, I thoroughly enjoyed London Fields on the reread.  I understood it a lot better than the first time and didn’t find the image of Keith on his knees in the lock-up, a bottle of knocked off Porno in each hand a cool image, but I also realised that perhaps it was time to stop.  Amis’ enfant terrible reputation, despite now being sixty, is based on the words in London Fields and Money.  They are important novels, of a sort, and can be hugely enjoyable but they also have a teenage brashness I possibly still misunderstood in my early twenties for reality, a lack of responsibility for what’s actually, really important.  Their depths are shallow and Amis has never really been able to cast as wide and vital opinions on society as I suspect he imagines he does; if anything his novels have always told us more about him than anyone or anything else.   It is a fallacy to suggest that novels should tell us something about ourselves.  The difficulty with this is that it invariably requires that ultimately tedious repeated trick of the sympathetic narrator or lead character when sometimes the story needs a shit to tell it.  However, writing which offers no reflection or magnification of anything other than the author suggests a self-indulgence that hasn’t grown up, has refused to take on any responsibility for the words on the page and after a certain age that only has a limited appeal.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

ReReading 3: Bikes (and Don DeLillo)

It’s raining.  Again.  The summer is trying to wash itself out.  When it isn’t raining a pervasive humidity hangs over every day drowning my head with damp muddling thoughts.  Either way it is wet.

We’re British.  This is what we’re used to.  We can take it.  Indeed, Lizzie Armistead, the road cyclist who took our first medal at the Olympics underneath a torrent, said something about preferring the rain for racing.  She’s from Yorkshire.  She trains in the wet.

I took a particular interest in the cycling at the Olympics.  Sub-consciously, no doubt, because it’s more fun to be cheering people who actually stand a chance of winning rather than perennial sporting losers, but also because it was something I could relate to.  I’m not an Olympic athlete by any stretch of the imagination, but I do ride a bike.  I don’t hurdle, hammer throw, jump, fire any sort of projectile or own a horse. 

Cycling is something relatively new in my life, as regular readers will be aware.  In recent months, after initial forays were curtailed by injury, I have started riding to work most days.  At first I resented it, feeling that it ate too much into the extra reading time I have on the train, but after a while I started to find other space to read, probably at the expense of my girlfriend (sorry), and began to be irritated if I couldn’t ride.  There are numerous reasons as to why I can’t commute by bike on certain days.  I work across more than one site and don’t have enough suits to stash one at every office (nor a permanent desk to do so); I frequently go direct to external meetings where it’s not appropriate to ask to get changed before getting down to business; I might have gone drinking the night before and I have insufficient a death-wish to face the Old Kent Road after eight pints of ale.  So sometimes I still take the train, but when I do I miss I miss that surge in my blood, the pulsing throb in my knees.

Is it odd to become devoted to exercise at my age?  I don’t have a particular need to lose weight, having shed my motorway induced excess a few years ago.  I’ve always been relatively fit, if occasionally a little fat.  Is it just another example of my OCD?  An inability to approach anything half-heartedly?  Where does it stop?  Twenty-three year old Lizzie Armstrong, according to the commentary during her race so who knows how accurate this is, had never owned a bike before she was sixteen.

“There you go,” I said to my girlfriend.  “At thirty-nine I could be winning Olympic medals.”

And yet just two years ago, I took my first furtive pedals, Google-Steve clinging to the saddle as I weaved my way across a Stratford, upon Avon not East London, campsite.  Moments later I crashed to ground.  To my surprise, I got up and tried again.  And again.  And again. 

Funny how far one will go to get out of a potentially embarrassing situation. 

Now, I cycle over a hundred miles most weeks.  Pretty damn fast too.  Okay, so nowhere near the fifty-plus miles an hour Bradley Wiggins averaged for the time-trial, but I’ve got my commute down to 33minutes on average, about seven minutes faster than the train.  Occasionally I have even broken the half hour barrier, despite being hindered by a cheap mountain bike which weighs about three times that of the slick road bikes I shoot past through Trinity Square.  And the up to thirty-seven bloody red traffic lights.

Not quite two years ago, when I’d finally got myself to be capable of moving in an almost straight line around Battersea Park, Google-Steve decided my graduation should be a twenty mile off road cycle around the Peak District.  As we thundered through the dreary rain banked paths, I thought, this is okay, but I’m probably not going to fall in love with it.

Funny how life works out.

Those twenty-odd miles were the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever undertaken.  Much tougher than the forty odd mile jaunty jog that is the Four Inns walk.  It felt as though the future rested on my success.  At the end I was utterly spent, unable to even wobble along to the finale without gravity’s aid.  A couple of weeks ago, a cohort of us rode from Birmingham to Oxford which, with a degree of faffing at either end, was somewhere in the region of ninety miles.  On tandems.  Sure, my knee hurt and my shoulders had cramped up – the bike was probably a bit too small for me – but I could have done more.  I was up for more. 

 I read something recently about cycling being the domain of white, middle-class men because they’re the ones who can afford all the gear.  To an extent it’s true.  Certainly they appears to be in the majority as we speed through Peckham, Camberwell, Southwark, Borough, Lambeth, Elephant and Castle, areas where one might expect them to otherwise be a minority.  It doesn’t have to be though.  My bike was eighty quid.  I have a helmet and some reflective stripes, otherwise I wear old shorts, t-shirts and a pair of trainers the soles of which started to fall off years ago.

Meanwhile, in other obsessions, I’ve been rereading DonDeLillo’s output in the same way I tackled Graham Swift’s – sequentially, interspersed with new books to prevent them blurring into to one endless narrative, a little like the Old Kent Road can be on a bad day.  This has worked quite well - brief diversions from my main consumption for, Underworld aside, DeLillo’s books are fairly slim, zippy affairs.  The 825 page behemoth, though, beckons next.

I got into DeLillo through Underworld, which was a gift.  I can’t remember who from, but despite talking a good literary fight in the late nineties I was so cut off from what was happening with words that I’d never even heard of it.  I probably smiled politely and put it aside.  It looked like an important book, even more so now that the cover image of the New York twin towers has added poignancy and the black page chapter breaks are almost a prediction of future mourning.

American literature has a bit of an obsession with the Great American Novel, the idea that a single book can make sense of the mish-mass, disconnected heritage of the nation.  British novelists seem less bothered.  It’s as though we recognise the fallacy in even trying and don’t agree that there is triumph in glorious failure.  DeLillo’s had a few cracks at it, indeed one could argue that the majority of his output is less about the characters and more about trying to understand a nation.  If Swift has spent a career encircling an archetype lurking in a specific corner of South West London, then DeLillo is constantly examining a cracked ideal.

Sometimes the Brits try the grand social novel.  John Lanchester’s current offering Capital, is a recent example.  Sebastian Faulks had a go not some long ago with A Week in December.  Even I’ve had a crack.  I wanted You’ll Never Be Joe Strummer to a state of affairs novel, to say something about the place we live in and the people we share it with, but then real life moved too quickly and it became about yesterday not today.  Maybe that’s why it’s so much more an American thing.  In all that wide open space they have, there are corners which are sufficiently static to overtake with words, whilst in this cramped, clustered isle we’re all tripping over the future before it’s even happened.

Thirteen years ago Underworld was too long for me.  There was too much nothingness happening in my life that I found it impossible to build up any serious reading time, instead snatching fragments here and there.  It went around Turkey in my backpack barely touched.  I’ve been meaning to reread it ever since, but never quite been brave enough.  Ensconced in London a year or so later and doing that thing where I acquired everything by a writer I’d actually heard of, I read his first novel Americana.  Again, I vaguely remember struggling my way through it, too many hours spent drunk, but I also recall reading the final hundred or so pages hung-over one wintery Sunday morning on a bench high over Greenwich Park and feeling like it had just whispered me a secret.  A secret which would next explain itself nor be repeated, but a secret, just for me, none the less.

I took my copy of Underworld off the shelf for the first time in years the other day.  The cover’s silhouetted image is smudged slightly with dust.  There is a post card inserted at page 789 as though someone gave up so close to the end.  I don’t think it was me, certainly I couldn’t do that anymore.  I don’t give up anymore.

I appear to think that I’ve read more DeLillo novels than I own.  Maybe the library helped, but I would have sworn I owned copies of The Names and Libra.  I google them to see if the plots seem familiar.  They don’t.  It’s like there’s a space in my consciousness just waiting for them to slot it.  It’s been waiting a long time.

DeLillo’s writing can be a challenge.  Eventually, I gave up on him sometime around 2008 when I first read Ratner’s Star, a bizarrely dialogue heavy, slow-paced non-drama set in an secret bunker contain a cabal of Nobel laureates interpreting signals from off world.  Nothing happens and DeLillo seems frustrated by formal narrative devices and so frequently decides to ignore them.  I was surprised on rereading it how much I enjoyed it, how funny it was (in less of a ridiculous way than the Satanic Verses), how much the dialogue bounced and the absurd scenarios were almost heartbreaking.  Mao II, about a hermit, alcoholic writer who ends up kidnapped by not-really Lebanese terrorists to a not conclusive ending, was similarly enriching in its refusal to be overt as to what it was really about.  This is mature fiction designed to make you work hard and as a more mature man than the first time around I’m relishing it (even they are, whisper it, slightly dated in places).

The more recent novels are almost too odd however, as though Underworld’s reinforcement of his reputation as a serious writer pushed too heavy a pressure down on his fingers to find significance when there needn’t be any.  Martin Amis once reviewed a DeLillo novel as “makes you want to read everything he’s ever written” and retracted it whilst being very Amisly scathing of a short story collection.  I never did read everything he ever wrote, there was too many of them, and am all the more pleased for it.  Like cycling in the rain, their complexity and the mildly irritating trick he has of making characters appear to be having utterly different conversations as though aware that they are mere furniture in a novel, are worth enduring for the sado-masochist pleasure of getting there through your own physical exertion.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

ReReading 2: Olympics (and Graham Swift)

“I had a great weekend,” I overheard someone around work enthuse.  “I sat on the sofa, drank beer, ate pizza and watched sport.”

Ah, yes.  The London Olympics had arrived, inspiring the nation to take up arms against inactivity and obesity by enthusiastically watching sports that at any other time they’d struggle to name. 

There are several reasons why I should have disliked the Olympics.

“Because you’re a grouch,” sighed my girlfriend as I grumbled about the opening ceremony a week before it had even taken place.  Which is true, but there are other reasons too.  I agree with Andrew Rawnsley thatall the peripheral benefits are nothing but smoke and mirrors.  Rejuvenation of urban rot, engagement with kids, tourism and the rest could all be achieved more effectively and more cheaply without a sodding great big international sporting event in the way.  Hackney needs jobs and decent housing, but not the temporary or luxurious sorts being offered by the Olympics.  Children need sustained engagement to take up judo else it just becomes this month’s fad.  The need to meet these should be separated from the games themselves, then they are less likely to be overshadowed and the Olympics can continue without this falsity, this political obsession with added bonus, hanging around its neck.

Similarly, I find the relentless and exclusive nature of commercial partnering repugnant.  “Proud to take only Visa” is, surely, illegal until competition and consumer laws.  Nothing demonstrates the spirit of the twenty-first century as well as suing people getting excited about a major national event because they didn’t seek permission or pay for the privilege to enjoy themselves.  It’s far more important that there waves of empty seats or that the policing is done as cheaply as possible. 

But it’s the uniting the nation drivel that really grates; the idea that a great sporting event will bring us all together with our arms wrapped around each other as Paul McCartney yodels out yet again Hey Jude with its nursery rhyme chorus, the once genius of which has been degraded by over-exposure, so that even the most inebriated can managed a few neh-neh-nahs roughly in key and on time.  It was not obligatory to want to watch the opening ceremony and I should not have risked being ostracised should I have chosen to not really giving a shit.

Meanwhile, back in my damp grouch cave, I’d been rereading Graham Swift.  Swift was a hugely important author for me as a late teenager, early-twenty-something as I tried to figure out exactly what fiction meant to me and why it seemed so important.  Novels like Last Orders and Waterland had a deep impact on my fertile imagination and sense of self.  Their stories of betrayed emotions yet deep rooted unspoken comradeship and communities bound together by beer and secrets seemed to me to be the very underlying core of Englishness, a bleaker world than the one outside my window but one that perhaps ignored naive optimism and told the truth.  With greed I devoured the rest of his somewhat melancholy output.

At that time I found the myriad book-piles of large Waterstone’s – the only bookseller I had access to - incomprehensible.  Everything looked so deliciously tempting, but how was one to know what was a quality book or not?  This was in the days before the internet where everything is reviewed at the click of a mouse; or at least before I’d realised that computer networks weren’t something made up for science-fiction.  The fear of buying something rubbish, or wasting my time with poor quality fiction kept me focussed around a relatively small cache of authors:  Don DeLillio (more of whom later), Gore Vidal, Martin Amis (more of him too), Graham Greene, Paul Auster, latterly JG Ballard and then suddenly I found the confidence to just randomly grab books from here or there. 

The problem with reading someone’s entire output in quick succession is that you begin to spot their tell-tale signs, the voice begins to feel false, the recurring motifs grate.  Swift and I feel out badly over this.  Much of the action set in South West London?  That’ll be the Sweet Shop Owner, Shuttlecock and The Light of Day.  Lead male protagonist has a difficult relationship with their father?  The Sweet Shop Owner, Shuttlecock, Waterland, Outof this World and Last Orders.  Complex relationship with some sort of “spoiled” (in the sexual sense) woman?  Again Shuttlecock, Waterland, Last Orders and the Light of Day.  Again and again the same images, only Tomorrow told from the viewpoint of a woman during one night seems to stand apart and that, as memory serves, was just generally weak.

Don’t get me wrong, at the time I found the repetitive nature of the themes endearing, as though Swift had something important to say about such issues, or Clapham, and was encircling the subject over the course of a controlled oeuvre.  It was only when I started thinking more about how one writes that I began to suspect they’re more like safety harnesses, the reliable scaffholding that he feels confident can deliver drama and so in they go to prop up the rest of the narrative.

As I reread his novels, in the chronological order (interspersed with roughly six to eight novels by other authors) I have been disappointed, not by the presence of his writerly ticks, I knew those were coming, but by how, ultimately light the collection is.  I remembered each as being heart wrenching, but instead they felt flat.  The Sweetshop Owner and Ever After seem to have vanished, which is odd, so I skipped those.  Shuttlecock and Out of this World had good moments, but not enough.  The latter felt too much like a trial run for Last Orders only with guns rather than pints.  The Light of Day I found intermittingly dull as I wanted to yell at the detective protagonist to pull his socks up and that twist, that moment of horror just made no sense.

I enjoyed Waterland, although not as much as I remembered.  Indeed only Last Orders seemed to retain sense of majesty and that is largely from the beautiful simplicity of the plot executed in such a masterful and ambitious fashion.  It is ridiculously hard to tell a non-linear narrative (trust me, I’m working on one at the moment) and have the plot facets revealed at exactly the right moment for it to click into place, but Swift does so perfectly.  He jogs up and down the timestream and the reader happily slots each section into their mental photo collection.  It’s much easier to do this with film where the characters look a certain age, the background is from a certain time, but with a novel it relies on just the right words or phrases to ground it.  Too much and the signposting is over cooked, too little and the reader is lost in the quantum. 

It is a majestic novel, a fine example of a writer building on the success of an earlier work and hitting the peak of his powers at exactly the right moment to secure the ultimate, or at least the Booker, prize.  In many ways it is an Olympian performance.  The ability to transcend expectations, to achieve when it truly matters, is universal to humanity.  Wherever it may be, it deserves to be admired, for the dramatic genius of life, if nothing else.  

 Perhaps that explains why, despite my expectations, I genuinely enjoyed the Olympics.  Okay, so the opening ceremony went on too long and David Bowie’s ‘Heroes?’ has speech marks and a question mark for a reason, but with every rendition of Chariots of Fire echoing in my ears the next following morning as I cycled up the Old Kent Road a nodding smile of pride and respect edged across my face.  Every implausibly scripted moment from Greg Rutherford whipping the crowds’ frenzy, Dai Green slumping dejected on the track, Andy Murray stumbling through the crowd to reach his Mum, the brotherly love tactics to secure the triathlon, Tom Daley’s groupie pool surge, Victoria Pendleton’s and Chris Hoy’s tears of difference, the sheer unbridled, disbelieving joy on Mo Farreh’s face, twice, and every horse, canoe, row, Jess, shot and judo flash as well made it something to truly enjoy and celebrate.  There are, after all, truths about us to be found in the light, as wellas the dark. 

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

ReReading 1: Festivals (and Salman Rushdie)

“Coming up, after the news on Radio 4,” the clipped, reserved tones sounded out over the torrential rain sweeping between the regular swooshing of the wiper-blades, “why nobody over thirty-five should go to a music festival.” I switched the radio off as I parked outside our flat.   I didn’t want to know the reasons why people of a certain age should be prevented from doing something they enjoy.  I am not over thirty-five, but it won’t be long now, and two days after the broadcast I was going to Latitude.

Latitude is hardly focussed on the young.  There’s a distinct lack of a decadent maelstrom encompassing whirling nudity, class A drugs, unscheduled performance art or a last night on earth mentality.  Its nickname of Latte-tude descirbes the middle-class, middle-aged Guardian reading kid friendly sensible music with a smattering of poetry and cabaret that fills its fields is well earned.  I saw toddlers wandering around calling for their lost companion (“Ed-waaaard”) and a couple of early-twenty somethings in the crowd concerned that Sebastian had wondered off on his own.  Again.  Donington Park it ain’t, instead the Southwold festival is all-ages friendly, upwards and downwards, giving people aged around thirty-five the opportunity to revisit their youth and to indoctrinate their youngsters, in a sanitised and safe environment, the pleasures of soggy camping whilst discovering random bands you’d never heard of before or getting lost amongst a city of identically battered tents looking for the skull and crossbones tied to the back of a jeep you originally pitched up next to.

I think, no matter the opinion of Radio 4, that it’s important to revisit one’s life as one advances through the years.  Your past is behind you, but it also helps to make who you are and re-evaluating the bands, the movies and the books which contribute to defining that psyche is an important form of self-awareness.  So it is for this reason, plus the pure enjoyment, that I re-read novels fairly frequently.

When we first moved in together, my girlfriend was somewhat staggered at the volume of books I owned.  Even more so when I revealed that there are – still - several more boxes worth in my Dad’s store space in the Warwickshire countryside.

“But are you actually going read any of them again?”

“Of course,” I replied, although even if it wasn’t true, I’d have fibbed.

“All of them?”

We then proceeded to examine the contents of a randomly chosen shelf, which, as it turned out held a surprisingly high quota of relatively poor books.  Still, I argued, reading and understanding rubbish books can be an important part of breaking apart literature, of figuring out how it works and for who.  Besides, it may well be that I’m just reading them at the wrong time for me.  I might yet grow into them.

After I refused to actually discard any novels, my girlfriend suggested an one-in, one-out policy.  Something I am currently succeeding in ignoring, but felt that a demonstration of my own commitment to retaining the books was necessary and have therefore spent much of the past year with my nose buried in old, yellowing, damp creased, ink smudged, fustily smelling books.

Rereading is an important part of truly getting inside a novel, it can also be intensely pleasurable in its own right.  Whilst the element of narrative surprise or the world-spinning exhilaration of the perfectly executed twist is lost, even if after many years small components parts have been forgotten to be remembered again as you make your way through the pages, this does leave the readers’ concentration free to focus on other nuances.  The balance of the sentence, the construction of a character, the pacing, the way little nuggets of repetition weave their way through the chapters.  And still there can be that heart-warming delight, the moment when you feel at one with the fictional constructs on the page that lifts literature out of the imagination and, for a fleeting moment, it is there, real, next to you on the sofa, in the bed, on the bus.

As a teenager, I used to reread all the time.  Partly, a limited book buying budget meant that I was restricted in what I could buy, but partly also because the hormone crazed human body is ripe for those moments of emotional wonderment.  We are primed to be sucked in, desperately looking anywhere for someone who truly understands us, since no-one who we see on a daily basis appears to do so.  When we find it, be it in a novel, a film or a song, we keep trying to repeat the experience, looking for that second hit.  Sometimes it comes, sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes it’s like a kiss so wrong it is gone forever, sometimes like hand held on a winter’s evening it lingers forever.  Of course, I’ve always been  a touch of obsessive and was less aware of how socially unacceptable it was to have such utter fixations at fifteen than I am now.

But it got to a point, especially with graphic novels because they were quicker to read and therefore to read again, that I could virtually recite bits of Alan Moore’s or Grant Morrison’s work.  In the way that some people know the lines of movies and sit there in the corner reciting it out loud about three seconds before the actor speaks, like a dubiously done lip-synch.  Or with songs where we know every lyric without consciously trying to remember them, but then it’s easier to absorb songs by osmosis.  You can’t really be running or cooking or driving, whist reading a book or watching a movie. 

The odd thing was that even knowing every faucet didn’t stop me enjoying it fresh again and again.  If anything, it enhanced the experience.

So, I found myself perusing the shelves wondering where to start when my fingers paused.  SalmanRushdie’s the Satanic Verses.  Aged twenty-one at the end of Sheffield, I’d loved this book.  I found a copy, an American import published when it was difficult to get a copy in a second hand shop.  It felt, in 1999, faintly seditious buying it.  Reading it’s reinterpretation of myth laced with humanity, mysterious diversions of cipheric supporting characters and a finale reminiscent of the grandest fantasy, I was bewitched.  I loved it and was utterly swept up in the narrative from the first morning, hung-over as per usual, that I propped myself up in the single bed, in the small dampish room, with the early summer breaking through the thin curtains, tea at hand, and read of men plummeting through the clouds.  At some point though I ran out of steam.  There were exams and then some serious drinking to be done and whilst I raced through the first four-fifths, or thereabouts, I didn’t finish it until sometime later, back in Birmingham, late one evening after completing a pub shift.  Maybe my mindset had shifted too far from the safe and light of university, thrust suddenly into the real world with no plan or direction or maybe I had simply forgotten everything that went before, but I remember the final fifty or so pages being intensely disappointing.  Re-reading it has been on my to-do list ever since, but only twelve years later do I finally get around to it.

Sufficient time has passed and reading those opening pages again for me to be filled with both a sense of familiarity, but not one overladen with nostalgia or a sense of merely recapping.  The plot was familiar, but the way it’s put together, the couplings of the words were not.

The first thing I noticed is how funny it is.  I think I must have presumed, as a younger man, that it must be a serious book.  After all, serious things had happened to its author.  It, surely, couldn’t be that a man’s life became so hunted for so long for the sake of a joke.  But now, when Rushdie is more a ridiculous than tragic figure (I’m thinking of the appearance in Bridget Jones, the girls, the dramatically plummeting quality of the literature) I find it, not so much a joke, but infused with a lyrical playfulness.  The language zings along with a sense of fun that makes the fatwa even more absurd. 

This time though, older as I am, when the horns start appearing on heads and the more faerie elements barge their way forwards I struggle to keep going.  I am not as in thrall to Neil Gaiman as I once was and so I find it wearisome.  Magic realism is, in many ways, a young man’s game.  The ability to suspend belief for the mystical, to just have faith that the bullet turn to butterflies because the fiction commands it, works less the more my naivety is chipped away at by life.  I want to understand why.  I am looking in fiction for the truth, perhaps.  Maybe I am still just looking for someone or something who understands me, maybe I have never grown up, or maybe that was only ever about looking for the truth I just didn’t realise it at the time.

Curiously, I got bogged down and distracted at more or less exactly the same point as before.  Whilst last time it was just post the big battle scene, this time I stalled just before and so while it is only a matter of days rather than months the result is the same.  When I came back to it I’d lost my care for the characters, the finale needs the reader to be gripped, to be rooting for someone, something, whilst I was merely mildly bored and grinding on so that I didn’t feel obliged to return and read it again for a couple of decades.

I’m still not letting my copy go though.

I never did listen as to why people over thirty-five shouldn’t be allowed to attend to festival, but I can take some guesses:  likely to stand no more than two thirds of the way into the crowd, arms folded nodding along appreciatively to the music, but not fully getting the wild abandon of it; likely to scowl at the ridiculous fancy dress parade trooping past, caked in mud; more likely to slope off to bed once the headliners have finished rather than get lost in some murky part of the encampment; likely to be worried about their possessions yet at the same time wandering around with bags of supplies, from wet wipes to ponchos, not just in a pair of shorts and flip-flops; alarmed at how youthful some of the other visitors look; declining of drugs in preference for the obscenely priced alcohol, too much of which will make them an embarrassment or on a permanent trip to the bathrooms; anxious about the toilets in general; anxious about the weather; anxious about where everyone else went; skirting around the mud slogs in a vain effort to keep clean; grouchy when it gets busy.  All these things are true, and despite my best efforts I saw it coming clearly.  At two in the morning, in a random dance tent amongst the Suffolk forest, I firstly didn’t know any of the tunes the kids whooed to when the drop kicked in, but I was also far more concerned about the swelling bulge caused by the deluge of rain.  The canvas looked as though it was about to burst as spurts of water broke through the seams in arcing, glistening curves.  In the end it held, those directly underneath got extremely wet and I was glad to be far enough away to escape unscathed. 

Like my reading of Rushdie, this is a perfect example of where I have had too much life, too much knowledge, to let myself go with the magic of it all.  An inevitable effect of age or just me being unconvinced by the word because it is told or wanting to get soaked through to the skin?

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Yesterday’s Americana without the sentimentality: Gore Vidal, 1925-2012.

Gore Vidal was, at times, a man effortlessly timeless, or at least able to convey times wider than those he lived through.  A man of many talents, author, playwright, screenwriter, man of letters, political commentator, so-almost a politician, liberal, right to be gay, if not necessarily gay rights, champion because there was nothing remotely abnormal about it, self-imposed American exile, satirist, wit, and national conscience when it appeared the United States had none, I wonder who could take his place on the America’s intellectual stage.

Vidal formed part of the cadre of writers, all American, all white, all male, who dominated the sixties and seventies literature scene being famous in themselves as much as for their words.  Vidal follows John Updike, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and all the others to the far side, leaving just Philip Roth still working, still writing, still being relevant in a way, for a certain sort of person.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Vidal recently, even before the news of his death.  I wanted to shoehorn him into an upcoming blog series about the pleasures of rereading, but also I’ve just read, for the first time Messiah, which I’d found a tatty paperback of for seventy pence.   A compelling almost science fiction drama about the power of the media and religion of the masses taking in notions of fleeting celebrity, it was, incredibly, published in 1958 not 2008.  He didn’t make the cut of the writers I wanted to discuss, partly because he was threatening to be yet another white male and I already had several of those, but also because the sheer unadulterated joy I’d experienced in rereading the entirety of the Narratives of Empire series in historical chronological order was no surprise and so doesn’t fit with the theme I’m exploring.

The Guardian makes a compelling case Vidal’s novels being irrelevant and lumpy when faced with his talents as an essayist, but with a career spanning sixty years, from Williwaw, in 1948, to the final Narratives instalment, the Golden Age, in 2008 it’s hard to ignore such a vast body of work.  It’s probably no surprise that he was destined for greatness, he came from that sort of family.  He learnt to read through reciting congressional records to his blind Grandfather, the senator TP Gore, whilst his father founded the airline TWA and was commerce secretary for Franklin Roosevelt and his mother got drunk.  Jackie Kennedy was his half sister through his mother’s remarriage which got him a front seat at the early-sixties Washington Camelot, although he later described John Kennedy as “the most charming man I ever met and by far the worst President.” 

As a writer he was utterly unafraid of saying what was right and true.  The City and the Pillar, his third novel at a time when it was normal to build up a catalogue before success came knocking, no one-novel wonder massive sales in the late forties, caused outrage for its sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality.  Shocking at the time, today rather than anything remotely graphic it instead reads as a tender paean to his love killed on the beaches of Iwo Jimo.  “There are no such things as homosexual or heterosexual people, merely homosexual or heterosexual acts,” he once said and whilst seemingly preferring men for most of his life there were times where he was distinctly unfussy as to his partner’s gender. 

The novel caused such controversy that he was forced into his first exile, escaping to Hollywood to write plays for television and films, including an unaccredited rewrite of Ben Hur.  When he eventually returned to the novel form with the superb Julian, a dramatised biography of the only non-Christian Emperor to ascend to the purple following Constantine’s conversion of Rome in 330AD, the book’s huge success may have indicated he was prepared to shy away from upsetting the conservatives.  Far from it.  The likes of Myra Beckenridge, a satire starring a trans-sexual feminist, the aborted involvement with the notoriously mildly pornographic film Caligula and the novel Live from Golgotha which had him appearing on Newsnight in the UK with irate theologians answering the charge that “there’s no historical evidence for St Paul being homosexual” with “there’s no historical evidence for St Paul existing” showed he never lost his nerve.

Somewhere along the way he managed to fall out with most of the literary and political establishment, or at least those who dared to disagree with him.  He spitefully declared Capote’s death to be a “good career move” and the argument with Mailer deteriorated so badly that at a party Mailer threw whisky over Vidal, head-butted him and then punched him to the ground.  Vidal responded with arguably the most biting insult to a writer:  “What’s the matter, Norman?  Lost for words again?” 

He argued with Bobby Kennedy so badly – for apparently touching Jackie in too intimate fashion of all things - that he was banished from Camelot.  It was hardly the man of letter’s most erudite moment, apparently descending into a “no, fuck you” row.  Despite his worldly, liberal, privileged image, meek he was not. 

In the twenty-first century he seemed to take the election of George W Bush as a personal affront, as though America had betrayed him (even though he was living on the Italian coast, self-exiled again, at the time) – but, then again, he was a relative of Al Gore.  Still, he used his position of authorly authority to go after “the junta”, as he referred to the administration, and was one of the first commentators to seriously suggest – and be taken seriously – that the wars in the Middle East were more about oil than any moral right for revenge.

Age was however catching up with him.  Shortly after his appearance at the Hay Literary festival in 2008 my friend Jonathan commented that he appeared less like a giant of literature and more like a tired old man who just wanted to be left alone.  And who, to be honest, would have wished to prevent his retirement after having done so much other than himself.

Despite all the above, and a lot more besides, it is the Narratives of Empire series for which I, personally, will remember him best.  An entire education in American political history for the uninitiated, ie me, Gabriel Garcia Marquez called them “historical novels or novelised histories” unable to tell apart the fictional bent and the repetition of fact.  For me, they are like an exceptional version of the West Wing with more heart, better jokes and real events against a backdrop of a society evolving at a pace never seen before. 

The series came about almost by accident.  Vidal took the maxim write what you know and crafted Washington DC as one of his comeback novels, essentially an account of the Roosevelt administration using the insider knowledge of his father and grandfather plus a thinly disguised Kennedy and dollops of gossipy scandal. The process seemed to awaken an urge in him to cement his country’s brief history into a fictional cannon.  And so followed Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire and Hollywood taking in, respectively, a Vice-President who killed a rival in a duel whilst in office, the civil war, a stolen Presidential election, American imperial expansionism through the domination of trashy media and the vanity of celebrity.  Who says that the lessons of the past aren’t laid out before us today to be ignored?

The novels told, mainly, through the eyes of a fictional family whose generations lurk around the corridors of power have a deep rooted affection for the country and the men who made it, but shirk away from sentimentality and the placing of people on a pedestal.  Everyone in history is human, everyone is fallible, heroes are just those who don’t get found out.  That’s what makes them real and interesting.  That’s what makes them just like us.

The Golden Age is an odd book, the final part of the Narratives series it is partially a rewrite of Washington DC, partly a companion piece, going further and beyond, with the same yet different characters and events, the writer’s camera turning left when its predecessor exited stage right.  Vidal himself even crops up towards the end as a legitimate cultural figure of the capitalist Empire.  It’s almost as though he drawing to a close a magnificent sequence of novels, America’s past and his own life on the page as his vanity demanded. 

“...the generations of men come and go and are in eternity no more than bacteria upon a luminous slide, and the fall of a republic or the rise of an empire – so significant to those involved – is not detectable upon the slide even were there an interested eye to behold that steadily proliferating species which would either end in time or, with luck, become something else since change is the nature of life, and its hope.”

The Golden Age? The light’s gone out now.