Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A novelist's confession...

A novelist confesses: I don’t often read novels these days.

That’s quite some confession. Of course I’m also a nonfiction writer and both my current projects are nonfiction. Maybe the very fact I am reading so much nonfiction meant I suddenly had a hunger for a novel. This hunger was quite acute. It was the sort of hunger you have for a particular kind of food that you realise is missing from your diet. This food delivers a singular high, its own exact satisfaction. I’d developed a craving.

A craving answered. 

The novel I chose was Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.

I did this on two grounds. I had read the plaudits in The New Yorker when it first came out. But then it said it was all about 9/11 and cricket, two of my least favourite subjects.  However when The Elegant Variation, a blog I trust, had the novel in its rather fascinating ‘Recommendedcolumn, I thought it would be a good novel to read.

(I’d already sampled another recommendation, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, dating from 1957, which I’d thoroughly enjoyed.)  

Happenstance and hurry.

Happenstance enters here: that happy concatenation of chance I’ve written about earlier - the way a book seems to present itself to you, almost magically, in the library. 

I was hurrying out of the Remuera Library when I spied a copy of Netherland on a table. It was a table set aside for books recommended by the librarians. I picked it up and did the classic inventory of a ‘do I want to read this book?’. (I looked at the plaudits on the back cover - “with echoes of The Great Gatsby...a resonant meditation on the American dream” (NY Times). I flicked it open. I read the first paragraph. I wouldn’t say I was drawn in completely. But then I wasn’t put off.

He had a body made for love making.

There is a whole thesis to be written on first lines. It took me three novels to realise you write the novel, then go back and rewrite the first part of the novel so it opens as you would like. I used to fret about this imponderable dilemma.

It wasn’t helped by a friend of mine  - from the 1970s, as it happens. He was gorgeous-looking, somewhere between Rudolf Nureyev and Jim Morrison of the Doors. He was also the person most likely, among all my friends, to write a great novel. He wore promise like an aureole. He was studying Wallace Stevens, which he did in-between taking mammoth amounts of acid. He was often beautifully half-naked and his body was lean, sinuous - made for lovemaking. He was a form of Dionysis, I see this now as I write.

But this friend spent the next twenty years refining, or trying to find, the perfect entrance to his novel. It was this, we finally understood, which   explained why he never produced the novel - the work of art - his whole life had been implicitly created to make.


It unsettled me, this search. I thought it was a very real thing, a kind of apprenticeship I, in my clumsy way, did not quite comprehend. It helped stall me - along with a thousand other insecurities peculiar to all people about to set off on a quest.

Walking round to the other side of a problem...

As it was, I became a novelist. And my friend, who I hardly see any more, never produced a book - a film - even a poem, as far as I am aware. 

He was right, of course. First lines, first paragraphs are incredibly important (thank you Tolstoy, thanks J Austen.) But it took me many years to comprehend how to get around this problem.

It seems to me, this is in the nature of all activities - learning to walk round to the other side of the problem, in order to seek a solution. It’s almost a matter of catching the problem unawares.

On retiring to bed early. 

I sank into the novel gratefully. I was staying with my aged mother so I could retire to bed in the evening and occupy what felt like vast plateaux of space and time. I was away from my partner too - so I did not have to negotiate the shared space, soundscape and magnetic fleshly attentions of a partner. I could luxuriate in - the strange phenomenon of little pieces of ink on paper luring me into a psychological landscape which was completely different, in its particularities, to any I was familiar with. And I could exult in the nicety of language.

This in particular struck me. O’Neill occasionally has a clumsy usage almost peculiar to non-English speakers - he was brought up in Holland. But more often, he has a Nabokiovian ability to refresh English usage, to shake it down, make it new.

It is a real blessing to read language like this. We live in such a brutalised epoch in terms of language. I am aware of the decay in my own use of grammar and syntax in speech. (I was made horrendously aware of this when an interview with me was recently transcribed and presented back to me to edit. I thought I had spoken well, with insight. Instead I perceived a slather, a mess, a pottage of hanging clauses, unfinished sentences which set off, like a camel train in search of some oasis - instead finding itself whited out by a storm of inconsequential side diversions. It was humiliating.)

A kind of blessing....

And since we all live in a digital ever-present, which even the past has trouble piercing, this kind of decay in language - in specificity - is all around us. Does it point to a decay in thought? Possibly. 

A fine sentence is a way of redressing the imbalance of the world. O’Neill’s insights into relationships, time, city life are often beautifully expressed. At times I felt the novel was unexpectedly jerky and uneven in its verbal textures: yet every so often a magnificent sentence hoved into view - with all the grandeur of a vast ocean-going liner, I felt, sliding into New York harbour - seeming to bring with it something eternal - a kind of blessing - a jubilation - an elation of the mind.

This is why I still read novels. 

In fact O’Neill mentioned in passing ‘reverie’s sacred space’. And I thought, yes, that’s what reading is all about. 


  1. I love the story about your 'most promising' friend who spent 20 years obsessing on his novel opening. It reminds me of Chabon's ' Wonder Boys '
    and the never ending novel. And it reminds me of myself, my endless, loving and obsessive nitpicking over my novel, how I can only write 2 pages before I HAVE to go back and relentlessly edit, rewrite the 2 pages until I realize I have in fact gone back to Chapter One and worked the entire thing over, sentence by sentence.

  2. I know that feeling absolutely. You have to set off in a determined way and believe it will work out. A novelist friend uses the cake metaphor. She believes something has to 'bake'. (ie be left alone to do its own work.) I think you have to separate from what you have written, to see it afresh.

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