The Literary Salon with Damian Barr

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On 8th September I attended one of Damian Barr’s celebrated literary salons. The event was held in the Victorian splendour of the Ladies’ Smoking Room (!!) of the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. Ably hosted by the effervescent Damian , it is an opportunity for bookish people to come together, discuss literature and drink gin.

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Having completed a London to Brighton charity bike ride the day before, Damian professed himself to be both chuffed and chafed to be hosting the 6th Birthday event and possibly the last salon for which he will not require a passport to attend ( he is Scots ) !

We then met our guests in turn. I haven’t actually read any of the books under discussion so rather than a review I hope to give a flavour of the evening and the books presented to us.

First up was Alan Johnson, a union leader and former Home Secretary now turned memoir writer who had come to present his latest book Please Mr Postman , a follow up to This Boy, which will be published on 18t Sept.

Alan explained that this book takes up his life story at the age of 18 and just as he had joined the Post Office ( he was the leader of the postman’s union) in Barnes London SW13. His older colleagues were all of a generation that had fought in WW2, with fathers that had fought in WW1. There was much that was very militaristic about the post office then. Everything was done by hand with no mechanisation and, in terms of working practices, very little had changed since the First World War.

In This Boy, Alan detailed his deprived childhood in West London, abandoned by his father and blighted by the early death of his adored mother, Lily. As this new book opens, Alan is married to his first wife ,Jackie, becoming a step father to her child and a father in his own right. Damian remarked that this seemed like a lot to take on aged only 18.

Alan explained that he and Jackie were allocated a council house in Slough, which they loved, he had a job for life with a pension and a union to defend him. In many ways they were not facing the uncertainties that young couples face now.

He spoke movingly of his time in the postman’s union ( then called UPOW but now the CWU) most particularly of the educational opportunities it had given him.

He doesn’t miss his time in politics and is now very much enjoying his new life as a writer. His is unsure about his next project. He doesn’t want to write a political memoir and hinted that he may be working on a novel.

Next up was Esther Freud whose book Mr Mac And Me, already published, had not been on my radar , although it certainly is now.

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Set in 1914 in the Suffolk village of Walberswick, it narrated by 12 year old Thomas, son of the local publican and recounts the friendship that grows between him and Charles Rennie MacIntosh who is visiting .Esther read an extract from the book, which Damian described as spooky with the past echoing in the present.

The inspiration for the book came from Esther’s own house in Walberswick which had formerly been the village pub. The house had in fact been in her family since the 1940s and she bought it fully furnished. She immediately felt a ghostly presence at the back of the house. She knew this was a young boy and used to greet him whenever she became aware he was there.

She had originally started to write the story of the house with the ghost appearing in it. As a writer it is horrible to admit but sometimes you just have to accept your story isn’t working. Her narrative had become boring and she was bogged down by domestic detail . She started to give the ghost a voice and Thomas emerged, after that she just wanted to be with him.

MacIntosh had actually visited Walberswick in 1914, just before the outbreak of war.He was at a low point in his life . He had been a rising star in his youth and had won the commission for the Glasgow School Of Art for his firm.By the time he visited Walberswick however his life was in decline.

He had become known as difficult and a drinker. He was a perfectionist and difficult to work with. Although he was well regarded in Europe ( crucially in Germany and Austria) he was pretty much overlooked in Britain and very short of money.

He came to Walberswick at the invitation of Frances Newberry, Director of Glasgow School Of Art, who had a house there.Shortly after he arrived , war was declared and spymania took over. He was regarded with suspicion because of his foreign ( Scottish!) accent and had also written some letters in German ( to his benefactors there) and so was arrested. He was eventually freed after the intervention of his English and well connected wife but was banned from ever visiting Norfolk, Suffolk or Essex again.

Esther felt she had known the story of Thomas for a long time before writing it as he had been present in her home but she was surprised by the many parallels in his life and Mac’s as she researched for the story.

She was asked by a member of the audience how she managed to still her critical voice in order to work.The only way to do this is ‘ Just do it’ ! The only was to still the criticism is to continue to write.

Our final guest was David Mitchell, there to discuss his latest, Booker long listed novel The Bone Clocks.

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This is David’s 6th novel and ranges in time from 1984 to a near future dystopia. He read us three extracts , the first set in 1991 with a ‘West London posh kid’ ; the second an hilarious encounter between a celebrated writer and a would-be fan at Hay Festival in 2014 and the third narrated in 2025 by Marinus a character who also appeared in Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumn’s of Jacob de Zoet.

Damian asked him how he had conceived these six interconnecting novellas, did each come as a character?

David has come to realise that he is not actually a novelist.He can only write in small units and his optimum form is between 70 o 130 pages. He sees this as his getaway car in which to escape the tedium of writing a long novel.

Asked about his main character,Holly Sykes, David explained that a comprehensive school had been a very scary place for a bookish 13 year old. It had , however, provided him with much material as a novelist. Holly was based on some of the girls he remembered from school who he admired but felt scared of.

As a teenager, Holly starts to hear voices which might , of course, be the onset of schizophrenia but what if the voices are real? Her life is then turned on its head by the disappearance of her younger brother.

Damian asked  how he has constructed the novel. David replied that as a writer you sometimes find that what you are actually writing turns out to be the ‘wanky scaffolding’ on which a better piece can be constructed, rather as Esther had described earlier.

Originally this was going to be a series of short stories showing Holly throughout her life. He found that , novelistically anyway, children are not really interesting until the get to about aged 8.

He also had to accept that short stories read differently to a novel. They  are almost like poems, each word must be gleaned for significance and you can’t use literary devices such as foreshadowing or backstory. It is very difficult to sustain that over 600 pages – as a writer or as a reader.

Damian noted that many characters reappear from novel to novel. To what degree is that preplanned or does it just develop? David has been holding Marinus in his head for a while. He is acutely aware that our lifestyle now is funded by deals for which our children and grandchildren will have to pick up the tab.

He was then asked about Crispin Hershey who has been likened to Martin Amis. David denied that he was a caricature of Amis, he hasn’t got the time or energy for confrontational literary spats . He considers Amis to be a great writer. He doesn’t think about fandom and hero worship, which to some extent Crispin experiences. He is honoured that people will give him their time and money but does find it alarming that some people can be so devoted.

He enjoyed his experience of working on the opera librettos not least  because of the pleasure of working in a collaborative way. The work of a novelist is very lonely. He has no plans for any more however. He is rather in love with this big, baggy, gentle, vicious form the novel and wants to explore it some more.

He has been quoted as saying he has his next 4 or 5 books already inside his head. David explained that by this he means he knows enough about them to start hoarding research material. He can reveal that his next project is a short book.

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This was a magical evening which I enjoyed enormously. The kind of occasion at which you find you are standing next to David Mitchell and he is carrying a water-melon. The guest list was star studded – I saw Tracey Thorne, Ben Watt, David Nicholl and just tried to look nonchalant, like this was a pretty average night out for me.

Many thanks to Damian Barr for a fabulous soiree.

 

 

Book Review : The Zone Of Interest by Martin Amis

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I hadn’t intended to write a review of this book at all……in fact I hadn’t intended to read another Martin Amis book at all………but it has made such an impression on me that I felt I had to write a short piece about it.

I WAS a Martin Amis fan, up to round about Yellow Dog. I gave him another chance with The Pregnant Widow which I rated 1 star on Goodreads and then vowed I would never open a book of his again. A review of this latest novel on the Asylum Blog site made me think again.

In this Amis revisits territory he explored to some extent in Time’s Arrow. The title refers to the area surrounding a large , and unnamed in the book, concentration and death camp somewhere in the Eastern outreaches of the Nazi Empire.

It is also a metaphor for the aspect of human behaviour that Amis wants to explore in the novel. The central question posed here is that of Primo Levi, to whose memory the book is dedicated : Is This A Man?

Amis uses three very different narrators to guide us through The Zone.

Szmul is a member of the Sonderkommando, the prisoners who are detailed to take arrivals to the gas chambers and then collect together their belongings and dispose of the bodies. He is also, unbeknownst to his captors, keeping a written record of his time there to outlive his now shortened life span . As he says :

‘ I feel we are dealing with propositions and alternatives  that have never been discussed before, have never needed to be discussed before – I feel that if you knew every day, every hour , every minute of human history , you would find no exemplum, no model no precedent.

Martyrer, mucedni, martelaar, meczonnik, martyr, in every language I know the word comes from the Greek,martyr, meaning witness. We, the Sonders, or some of us, will bear witness. And this question , unlike every other question, appears to be free of ambiguity . Or so we thought.’

Szmul is the only hero in the book and Amis allows him to die a hero’s death….it is no spoiler, I think, to reveal that he does not outlive his gaolers.

Paul Doll. the camp leader, is a much more typical Amis creation. Brutal, sodden with alcohol , vain and deluded through Doll we explore the Orwellian language used by the Nazis to describe the ‘ final solution’ as well as the cumbersome noun construction of the German language itself. His already tenuous grip on reality deteriorates as the book goes on. Increasingly he is tortured by his wife’s disdain for him and  the logistics of what he has to achieve :

‘ And mind you, disposing of the young and the elderly requires other strengths and virtues – fanaticism, radicalism, severity, implacability, hardness, iciness, mercilessness, und so weiter. After all (as I often say to myself) somebody’s got to do it……’

In Golo Thomsen , nephew of Reichsleiter Martin Bormann, Amis poses the question how did a nation so cultivated and urbane perpetrate such an horrific crime against humanity?  Speer is mentioned many times by Thomsen in the course of his narrative. In fact as a character, Thomsen reminded me of Jonathan Littell’s narrator in Les Bienveillantes , Max Aue, although I read this weekend that Amis was not an admirer of that novel. Golo is the classic outsider, coldly observing the horror around him whilst taking advantage off what any situation can offer him :

‘It was time to introduce and emphasise my theme.Under the political system that here obtained, everyone had soon got used to the idea that where secrecy began, power began. Now, power corrupts : this was not a metaphor. But power attracts, luckily (for me).was not a metaphor either; and I had derived much sexual advantage to my proximity to power. I wartime, women especially felt the gravitational pull of it; they would be needing all their friend and admirers , all their protectors.’

The Zone Of Interest is a remarkable achievement . It is meticulously researched and movingly and respectfully told and a long-awaited return to form.

 

An Evening With Ian McEwan

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Today sees the UK publication of Ian McEwan’s latest novel, The Children Act. On 1st September I attended the Guardian Reader event at The Cadogan Hall at which Ian McEwan was interviewed by journalist and novelist, Jonathan Freedland.

I haven’t read The Children Act as yet . I only picked up my signed copy last night and so I can’t review it at all.  I also can’t say whether this little report of the evening contains any spoilers – I’m just recording some of the things discussed at the event.

McEwan began the evening with a reading from the very beginning of the book (pp1 -8). The main character of The Children Act  is Fiona May, a High Court Judge in the Family Division. At the opening of the book Fiona’s personal life is about to enter a crisis as Jack, her husband of many years, announces his intention to have an affair with ‘ A pretty statistician working on the diminishing probability of a man returning to an embittered wife.’

Jack makes it clear that he doesn’t want the marriage to end but, Fiona wryly reflects ‘ The moment to propose an open marriage was before the wedding, not thirty-five years later,’

Just as her private life goes into turmoil, her professional life becomes challenging when she is asked to preside over two very difficult cases, most particularly a case concerning a teenaged Jehovah’s Witness whose parents are withholding consent to life-saving treatment for him.

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Freedland opened the interview by pointing out the strange coincidence that this book is being published just as the sad news of Ayasha King and his family is all over our TVs and newspapers. McEwan was quick to point out that although that case did involve a Jehovah Witness family it did not , as far as he could tell, involve religion per se. Rather, he thought, it was best described as a ‘cascade of chaos’ .Terrible consequences have been unleashed by pushing bureaucratic buttons and now a poor child is languishing in a hospital without his family.

His novel concerns a rather different scenario of a teenager who knows his own mind and is refusing life saving treatment. The title of the book refers to actual legislation, The Children Act 1989, and the over-riding principle appears on its flyleaf – ‘ …the child’s welfare shall be the courts paramount consideration.’

Over the age of 18 one can refuse medical treatment but where that person is a child, the courts become involved in any dispute  and so we have the collision between the secular mind and sincerely held religious beliefs. We seem to be undergoing  a national period of soul searching concerning the welfare of children at a time in which it has become clear that terrible abuses have occurred .

Freedland pointed out that in the book McEwan seems to be very critical of the role of so called experts in such cases. McEwan agreed that he particularly wanted to highlight the role of Roy Meadows on whose say so more than one woman had been wrongly sent to prison. This was also a failing of the judiciary. Judges can be both brilliant and awful. Terrible miscarriages of justice do occur.

Freedland remarked that he seemed remarkably well disposed towards lawyers. McEwan agreed that lawyers had had a bad press since Shakespeare but he finds that on the whole they speak eloquently and write well. They enjoy jokes about lawyers and he would rather stand in a British court where the separation of powers offers protection against the perversity of whatever government is in power. This, of course, is not the case in many parts of the world.As a lawyer myself, I felt my admiration for him grow!

The language of the best judgements is, he has found, quite extraordinary. He mentioned particularly the judgements of Sir Alan Ward. The tone of these can be both witty and sceptical and the range of historical and philosophical references is vast. Rather like novelists, judges read and criticize  each others work…..and rather like novelists, they are toughest on those who are foolish enough to have left the conversation.

Freedland asked about the significance of Fiona’s childlessness to the novel. The absence of children is something McEwan has written about before and here he referred to A Child In Time where the absence of a particular child is harrowingly described. He feels we are all the owners of the children we once were and carry our own lost childhoods with us. In his view we are still that child to some extent. That was very much in his mind when he wrote A Child In Time.

Fiona has faced a dilemma that many women at work now face, she has delayed having children  and now finds herself without a family. The point of Fiona’s childlessness, though, is that in the boy she finds the hint of the child she never had. Fiona is very intelligent but she is not emotionally articulate.

Freedland then alluded to McEwan’s own brush with the family courts and wondered whether this had in anyway influenced his choice of subject. By way of explanation, McEwan went through a very bitter divorce and custody dispute with his first wife. McEwan found his own experience immensely painful and he doesn’t want to speak or write about it at all. There is a passage in the book where he talks about the ease with which adults persuade themselves that to divorce will be best for their children. He thinks there is an almost consumerist rush for a younger wife or a richer husband which he refers to as moral kitsch.

McEwan was asked about the significance of the world of work in his novels as several feature particular professions. He explained that the background is never the first inspiration for him , it is always the story but that he felt work was extremely important. Work went missing in the modern novel for which he blamed Henry James. James preferred his characters to have a private income so that he could explore the human condition without distraction.  McEwan is not persuaded by this. Work is often the key to our identity, it is where we meet our friends and often our lovers.

He revealed that the professions of airline pilot and architect particularly interest him.He had been thinking of William Golding’s The Spire whilst contemplating the Shard the other evening and wondering whether the building  was a triumph or a disaster ……..he had come to the conclusion that it was actually rather brilliant. Bermondsey needed something like that on its skyline!

He is more and more interested in a form of social realism in the novel, to look at where we are going now and , it seemed to him, work must be part of that. In the 70s he had flirted with the post modern , existentialist style . For example in The Cement Garden he deliberately didn’t say when or where it was……he can now reveal it was Stockwell in 1976! At this time he thinks there was a mistaken belief that  not specifying the time or place made the work more universal. That he now rejects, you only have to think of supremely regional novels such as Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary to see that that is not the case.

McEwan was then asked about the length of this novel, like several of his others it is short at 55 thousand words. Did he feel that a story is best told concisely? He joked that he resented the implication that he couldn’t write a long novel , it is almost as if we were discussing sexual prowess. At one time of course we didn’t know the word count of a piece of writing, now it is there at the bottom of the screen.

He finds it interesting to move between the space and patience of a longer novel and a shorter one ,where necessarily there is a paring down of sub plot.He thinks Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and James Joyce were masters of the art of the short novel. In fact  the close of this novel pays tribute to Joyce’s The Dead. He thinks this is the supreme example of a novella and he couldn’t end without acknowledging it.

The evening was then opened up to questions from the floor and I have chosen just a few of the ones I found most interesting as I am mindful of my own word count.

A member of the audience revealed that he had studied Enduring Love for A-Level and he wondered what McEwan felt about being a set text author and whether there were any of his books he felt were unsuitable for study in school.

He does have mixed feelings about being ‘forced ‘ to read a book and wonders whether any of those readers will ever come back to him. His own son had studied Enduring Love and he found it most disconcerting to find notes lying round the house starting ‘ McEwan thinks…. McEwan is trying to say…..’. He also told us that on one occasion he had given his son the benefit of his thoughts to help with an essay. His son had come home with a D grade !!

In his opinion,  his first two volumes of short stories and The Comfort Of Strangers are unsuitable to study in school. They are so dark and depressing and you have enough to contend with when you are sixteen. He is really not sure about being a ‘ set’ author, it makes him feel dead.

A female member of the audience asked him about his favourite female authors since often his protagonists are female but all the authors he had mentioned were male.

He is very fond o the writing of Rose Tremain. He is also re-kindling his affection for Virginia Woolf. He fell out with her in Atonement but recently visited Charleston and felt her presence. His disenchantment was caused by what he thought at that time was a lack of backbone in the narrative although he feels differently now. He particularly recommended her Diaries.

He was then asked about Will Self’s article in which Self accused George Orwell of being a mediocrity. McEwan hadn’t read the article so couldn’t comment on it specifically but felt that Orwell was just about as far away from being a mediocrity as it was possible to be. Orwell captured the sensible voice dealing with difficult issues. His ghost can be heard in the voices of James Fenton, Timothy Garton-Ash and his very dear friend Christopher Hitchens, all fine journalists . Orwell of course was the first to bring pop culture under scrutiny.

The evening then ended with some general musings on current affairs.He felt that this summer has seen the darkest news cycle that he can remember. It has turned him into a news junkie……he starts the day with the Today programme, moves through the news channels during the evening , ending with Newsnight. In between he reads all the broadsheets and the New York Times. He may never find the time to write another novel again.

His current project is a screen play, first conceived in 1991 with a neuroscientist friend. It deals with the subject of deep brain stimulation. At the time it was originally written, of course, we didn’t even carry mobile phones but it foresaw in some way Google and the impact of the internet. He wants to see if this can be revived and brought up to date.

This is just a flavour of the evening we also discussed the effect of trauma on the psyche, whether he had read The Goldfinch ( he hadn’t!) and Scottish Independence. It was a fabulous evening , McEwan is an intellectual dazzler and a gifetd raconteur  and was ably coaxed on by Freedland. I am really looking forward to reading The Children Act.

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