Sunday, April 19, 2009

Authors what I like

This brief article was written for the blog of Norman Geras. You can see the piece in its natural habitat here

Having come somewhat late to fiction (until the age of sixteen I had eyes only for factual books and graphic novels), I am a fickle and somewhat promiscuous reader, tending to have several titles on the go at once. I hope never to lose the daunted excitement, bordering on greed, with which I contemplate my own and other people’s bookshelves. Against this literary flightiness stands my completist tendency: if I develop an enthusiasm for an author, I will try to lay my hand on everything he or she wrote, including the late jottings and every scrap of juvenilia (it was to escape readers like me that Kafka urged Max Brod to light his literary bonfire). My habits, then, may be those of a browser – prone to diffusion, distraction and caprice - yet there are certain key authors to whom I find myself returning again and again.

A tendency towards earnestness in my own writing may be attributed, at least in part, to an adolescent enthusiasm for Camus, whom, since I am half-French, I read in the original. Camus led me to the Absurdists (a love of theatre predates my more sedentary habits) and of these Beckett was clearly the most intriguing. The poetic cadences of Waiting for Godot retain their fascination for me, yet the plays have paled in comparison to Beckett’s early and middle (or, as he might have put it, ‘middling’) prose. I still recall the excitement of my first encounter with such stories as ‘The End’, ‘The Calmative’ and ‘First Love’. They were unlike anything I had read: a thrillingly grim antidote to the realism which had, until then, seemed to me the normal mode of ‘literary’ fiction. Beckett may have written himself into a cul-de-sac, but I found his prose liberating: it showed me what could be done with the most unprepossessing material.

Martin Amis (yes, like most literary young men I went through an obsessive Amis phase) writes in his memoir, Experience, about his loathing for Beckett’s prose. His own literary masters are, famously, Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov. I admire Bellow, but it is Nabokov whom I consider the greatest stylist (that I’ve read) of the last century. Nabokov is famously unrivalled as a descriptive writer: the almost ecstatic precision of his best prose is both a challenge and a warning to other writers to make the reader’s imagination sing. Beckett, by contrast, is not a visual writer. The compelling quality of his prose is musical; it is the music, composed of echoes and repetition, which makes even his bleakest imaginings weirdly consoling. It may seem incongruous to declare Nabokov and Beckett my literary heroes: they appear to be polar opposites, the former all visual splendour, defiantly and aristocratically optimistic (life, for all its pain and bafflement, is for Nabokov a great gift), the latter negative, obsessive, teetering on the edge of despair and extinction. Yet it is this very opposition that I find instructive. They are the bookends – so to speak – of my tastes and values as a reader.

For all that I love to read, I do so very slowly. I hear the text in my head and this, along with good pitch and my training, long ago, as an actor, have left me with a preference for ‘aural’ writers: those who have a true ear for dialogue and compose fluid, musically calibrated prose. Anthony Burgess – unsurprisingly, given his musical talent – had a good ear; Doris Lessing does not. Bellow, Updike, Roth and many other modern Americans, whose prose is so inflected with demotic speech, all have excellent ears. Their writing demands to be read aloud; and this perhaps more than anything explains their influence on the post-war British generation of novelists against which my generation measures itself.

Most values contain a degree of contradiction. J.G. Ballard is in many ways cloth-eared – certainly when it comes to characterisation. Yet I declare myself an avid Ballardian, captivated especially by his earlier visions of drowned, desiccated or otherwise terminally transformed Earths. Ballard is a brilliant and obsessive cartographer of imaginary worlds; a younger novelist who has a comparable talent (and a more varied prose style) is Jim Crace, every one of whose novels carves out new and strange territory. There is neither religious nor, very often, temporal consolation to be found in Ballard or Crace. I find their works bracing: disturbing yet also perversely jaunty. Then again, I listen to The Smiths to cheer myself up.

As I hinted at the beginning of this very brief reader’s profile, I am prone to strong but movable enthusiasms. For this reason I would like to flag up some authors who have recently excited me: Maggie Gee, in The Flood, and Sarah Hall with The Carhullan Army, have both engaged vividly with the consequences of climate change. Alasdair Gray and Russell Hoban are intermittently great visionaries and always intriguingly eccentric. David Mitchell and Andrew Miller – two authors with whom until recently I shared an editor – are major talents whose every work my partner and I must possess. I have long admired the Czech writers Milan Kundera and Bohumil Hrabal. Lastly, I collect a few contemporary French writers who remain virtually unknown in translation: the miniaturist and stylist Pierre Michon, Eric Chevillard (a playful descendent of Beckett, Pinget and Raymond Queneau) and Pierre Bergounioux, whose remarkable essay ‘B-17 G’ I hope one day to translate and persuade, say, Granta to publish.


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