At Monk’s House …

Virginia, that is, not Thelonious. I’ve showed these photos on the blog before, but seeing Patti Smith’s black and white photographs of Monk’s House at Dulwich Picture Gallery yesterday, along with others – Sylvia Plath’s grave in Heptonstall, for instance – which she took in the course of a literary tour, or tours, of the country, I was prompted to post them again.

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling
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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

 

 

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

Reading Week …

… well, more Reading Fortnight, to be accurate. It was intended to have much the same function as I guess it does during university terms: a chance to take a breather, stand back from ongoing work and take stock – and actually read a book or two.

I’d reached somewhere around the 40,000 word mark in the manuscript I’m working on, a first draft of the new Frank Elder novel, Body & Soul, and needed some space in which to step away from what I’d done and consider what was to come. A chance also for a few trusted others – my agent, my partner and our daughter – to read through the existing pages and tell me what they think. Plus point out some basic errors, such as the  incorrect spelling of ‘vicious’. My other trusted and much-respected reader is, of course, my publisher, but her opinion is SO important, I have to get things in better shape before passing them before her well-honed eagle eye.

So, given the time, what was I going to read? A visit to Nottingham’s Bromley House Library provided me with Sarah Baume’s A Line Made By Walking and Eimar McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians; Waterstones’ hip Tottenham Court Road branch was the source of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Speedboat by Renata Adler and Lee Child’s Night School.

All of which I read [well, almost all] and some of which can be dealt with quite swiftly. Although I’d found the Joycean language of McBride’s first novel, the prize-winning A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, difficult, its intensity lived with me in a positive yet disturbing way; by the time I’d reached page 77 of The Lesser Bohemians, however, I realised that I was finding the detailed accounts of her young drama student protagonist’s drinking, smoking and sex life of less interest than my recognition of the many north London street names that were frequently mentioned. Time to stop and move on.

I chose Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel, because I’d enjoyed – and admired – many of his short stories so much. The first few pages of the novel are pretty good, too. After which it becomes simply irritating, any attempt at narrative flow being cast aside in favour of a succession of brief extracts from the presumably fictional works of memoirists and biographers, so that, in reading, you find yourself stepping awkwardly down page after page as if participating in some half-arsed attempt to show there is no such thing in fiction as one true point of view. Really? I never would have realised. Back to the short stories, George.

Heavens, you must be thinking, you must have enjoyed something?

Well, yes. And I didn’t think I was going to like A Line Made By Walking at all [even though I do like very much the piece of land art by Richard Long from which the title is taken] and had, in fact, borrowed it so that my partner could read it. I mean, the story, told in the first person, of a former history of art student who retreats to her late grandmother’s country cottage because she’s finding urban life too difficult – and then takes pictures of dead animals which are reproduced here and there in the text – Come on!

Reader, I loved it! Well, okay, liked it a great deal. Without having the same off-the-wall, up-yours humour, it kept reminding me of Claire Louise-Bennett’s Pond, which, as anyone familiar with this blog will know, was my favourite novel of the past twelve months or so. Another book about a young woman who chooses solitude and writes about it. That aside, I’m hard-pressed to say why I enjoyed A Line Made By Walking as much as I did. It’s something to do with the clarity of the prose, the direct description of experience; something to do with the slow unveiling of her feelings; a great deal, I imagine, to do with the fact that inside me there beats the slow but strong desire to follow in Baume’s protagonist’s footsteps and hie myself off to an otherwise empty cottage in the middle of nowhere [the Penwith Peninsula and the North York Moors come to mind] and do nothing much more than tramp around and generally indulge myself in a greater degree of self-absorbed thought than is usually the case. [isn’t that why writers become writers anyway?]

As if to prove I don’t only respond well to books that are clearly written, relatively straightforward and non-experimental, I also very much enjoyed Renata Adler’s Speedboat. [Not to mention, in the past, and more than once – or twice – the novels of Virginia Woolf, clear, direct and, in their day, experimental.]

Like the later Pitch Dark, Speedboat comes close to not being a novel at all [or, at least, a novel as E. M. Forster or Walter Allen would have understood it]. Ostensibly following the jagged progress of a journalist across the United States, it does so by way of a series of not always clearly connected observations and anecdotes that ricochet off one another. A mode of writing that might seem to be in danger of falling into the same trap which swallowed up Saunders in his stilted peregrinations around Lincoln. But the writing is too sharp for that, the observations too brilliant, too funny, too savage.

In his Afterword, Guy Trebay refers to the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud, who said that the dominant cultural figure of our time is the deejay (DJ?), an suggestion Adler apparently responded to positively. “It is easy to miss the point,” Trebay says.”that Speedboat got there well before e-mails or Facebook or Twitter. … Speedboat is a book without suspense or anything like a distinct plot, a novel whose protagonist is one whose telephone conversations often sound like dialogue from Beckett … a book in which time and tense are unstable, event is compressed, morality subject to constant revision … ”

Adler herself said ” “I wanted to write the kind of book I like to read – which is narrative, thrillers, with plots, suspense, and dialogue, with characters and things going on, things which you wish to happen and things you do not. I found I didn’t seem to be doing that. I thought, ‘Well, now what do I do?'”

What she did, it seems to me, was to create a style more or less all her own, and, in Speedboat and Pitch Dark, two distinctive books that repay re-reading.

What she might have liked to have written, if her remarks are to be taken at face value, could well be something like the Jack Reacher novels of Lee Childs, of which Night School is the most recent and the twenty first. “I know I say this every year … ” Karin Slaughter is quoted on the cover … “But. Best. Reacher. Ever.” Her caps, not mine, and sadly, far from true.

I’ve read almost all the Reacher books and enjoyed them a great deal; you know what you’re going to get and what you get is pretty damn good. [For interest’s sake and since you’re bound to ask, my personal favourite is The Hard Way.] But Night School just doesn’t do it for me. Set mostly in Berlin in the mid-1990s, there’s a sub-LeCarre espionage plot that doesn’t quite convince and too many conflicting layers of US secret service and security from the West Wing on down than are usefully necessary. I appreciate the need Childs must feel to find new territories and different situations for his hero, but this takes Jack Reacher too far out of his comfort zone and somehow it doesn’t really work. Which won’t stop me reading number twenty two, the first chapters of which are conveniently packaged in the back of the paperback edition of Night School, and show Reacher back on more familiar ground.

Finally, since I’ve mentioned packaging, let me point to the New York Review Books editions of the two Adler novels, both featuring details from Helen Frankenthaler paintings. Beautiful, just beautiful.

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Brilliant Corners

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“Jazz Night at the Bedlam Bar” Thomas Van Stein, 2004

Brilliant Corners, a journal, as it says, of jazz and literature, is published by Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA 17701, USA, and edited by Sascha Feinstein. Poetry, prose, in-depth interviews.

The current issue includes poems by Billy Collins and Barry Wallenstein (whose gig at the Vortex with the Mike Hobart Band is still a vivid memory) and a lengthy – 20 pages – interview Sascha Feinstein conducted with me here in London  last October.

Starting with my early experiences of listening to jazz and the heady days in which I played tea chest bass in what might just have been the world’s worst skiffle band, Sascha goes on to explore the connections between Resnick and jazz, both as a character trait and as an influence on the books themselves. There’s some discussion about the fairly frequent occurrence of jazz in my short fiction – stories like Now’s the Time and Minor Key – and the importance of jazz in the work of other writers such as Bill Moody and Michael Connelly.

Around the time of the interview, I’d just come back from a short tour of Nottinghamshire Libraries, reading some of my more jazz-based poetry, plus a Resnick extract or two, with the band, Blue Territory, so, inevitably, we talked about Poetry and Jazz, its beginnings, and why it can be so rewarding to perform. (See Wallenstein & Hobart above.)

For any students out there searching for a research topic in the area of jazz and crime fiction, this interview, taken together with Age Hedley Peterson’s Jazz i crime literature – Resnick and all that jazz, published in the April/May/June 2016 issue of the Danish magazine Jazz Special, and reprinted in translation herewould be a pretty good place to start.

 

 

On Reading … & Walking …

Ever since I learned to read, I’ve had a book on the go – one after another – an unbroken chain from Winnie-the-Poo to Salman Rushdie. There are so many left behind here in my grandmother’s bungalow; publication dates to span her entire life. Every evening after I’ve eaten, I make myself open one and read, for a while, and then lay the book down spine up on the sofa cushions at the page where I stopped.
The trick to keeping going is break going into bursts: to stop, and otherwise occupy my brain for a spell, and then start going again. Nowadays I apply this to my whole day long. Each is a succession of shallow occupations, enforced intervals. Even my sleep is only ankle deep, interrupted.
Sarah Baume : A Line Made by Walking, William Heinemann 2017

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Richard Long : A Line Made By Walking, 1967

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Darkness Across the Channel …

One of the distinct and, thankfully, long-lasting pleasures, not to say sources of pride, in my writing life has been being published in France by François Guérif in Rivages/Noir, the collection that he founded and continues to direct for Éditions Payot & Rivages, and which includes such writers as James Lee Burke, Robin Cook, James Elroy, David Goodis, George V. Higgins, Tony Hillerman, Bill James, Elmore Leonard, William McIlvanney, Ross Thomas, Jim Thompson, Donald Westlake and Daniel Woodrell. Who would not be proud to be a part of such a list?

Beginning with Lonely Hearts [Coeurs Solitaires] in 1993, François has accorded me the honour of publishing all of my crime fiction written since that time in the Rivages/Noir series – looking at my shelves, some 22 books in all – in addition to the short story, Billie’s Blues, which was published as a slim volume in 2002.

Written expressly for François and Rivages/Noir, and published originally in a French translation by Jean-Paul Gratias, Billie’s Blues is a Resnick story which opens with the discovery of a body on the Forest, the broad area of inner city parkland which hosts the annual Goose Fair. This is how it begins …

Angels, that was what he thought. The way she lay on her back, arms spread wide, as if making angels in the snow. The front of her coat tugged aside, feet bare, the centre of her dress stained dark, fingers curled.  A few listless flakes settled momentarily on her face and hair. Porcelain skin. In those temperatures she could have been dead for hours or days. The pathologist would know.

Straightening, Resnick glanced at his watch. Three forty-five. Little over half an hour since the call had come through. Soon there would be arc lights, a generator, yellow tape, officers in coveralls searching the ground on hands and knees. As Anil Khan, crouching, shot off the first of many Polaroids, Resnick stepped aside. The broad expanse of the Forest rose behind them, broken by a ragged line of trees. The city’s orange glow.

Billie’s Blues can be found in two Arrow paperbacks, Now’s The Time and A Darker Shade of Blue, as well as, if you’re fortunate to find a copy, Minor Key, a limited edition hardback from Nottingham’s Five Leaves Publications.

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The twelfth and final Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness, partly set during the Miners’ Strike of 1984/5, was first published in France as Ténèbres, Ténèbres in a large format paperback in the Rivage/Thriller series in 2015, and is now being republished in the smaller Rivages/Noir format.

“Ténèbres, Ténèbres est de bout en bout passionnant, émouvant et réaliste.”
Bernard Poirette, RTL

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Art Chronicles: America After the Fall

The excellent little exhibition of American painting now showing upstairs at the Royal Academy in The Sackler Wing begins, chronologically, in 1929, the year of the stock market crash and ends in 1941, the year that Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the United States entered the war. From the beginning of the Great Depression to what would lead, at the war’s end, to a period of relatively wide-spread prosperity. Nothing like a good war, as the US was discovering, to perk up the economy.

Not surprisingly, it was a period of great upheaval, marked on one hand by the devastation of the Dust Bowl and the consequent western migration and on the other by the opening of the Empire State Building and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. The art on display – much of it emanating from the Art Institute of Chicago – echoes this disparity, riven between nostalgia for the past and visions of the future that are themselves divided between optimism and dread, between realism and modernism.

If only for the presence here – liberated from Chicago for the first time – of his famously enigmatic American Gothic (the stoicism of the rural past admired or ironised?), Grant Wood is a key figure here, the rolling golden hills of plenty of his early work giving way to the impending disaster of Death on the Ridge Road, where the telegraph poles evoke not only Christian cross but, to my mind at least, the use to which such crosses were put by the Ku Klux Klan, and the devastating portrait of conservative white supremacism evoked so chillingly in his Daughters of Revolution.

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“Death on the Ridge Road” Grant Wood

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“Daughters of Revolution” Grant Wood

Hopper is represented here, of course, and – though only in one example – Georgia O’Keefe, and there are markers laid down for the explosion of Abstract Expressionism that was to follow the war’s end: both Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston with paintings that were clearly inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, which had been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, the museum itself having opened ten years earlier.

Of all the works on display there were four that excited me most and which have engraved themselves most strongly into my memory. William H. Johnson’s vibrant Street Life, Harlem, with, for me, pre-echoes of Spike Lee and friend strutting his stuff in the latter’s Malcolm X.

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Charles Demuth’s … And the Home of the Brave, which seems to take one of Charles Sheeler’s architecturally correct representational images and flatten it against the picture plane – my eye being drawn back constantly to the top left hand corner.

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And finally, thrillingly, two works by an artist I was sadly ignorant of before, Arthur Dove, one of which can be seen below: Abstract Expression here we come.

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“Swing Music (Louis Armstrong)” Arthur Dove

 

 

Top 50 Books of the Century (so far …)

 

DruryLike all lists, this is biased, of course; partial, of necessity; it’s intended to be something to argue over, disagree with vehemently, send you to your local bookstore or the library shelves – or on line if you must: these are the books – fiction and non-fiction but not poetry – that have given me the most pleasure in the past sixteen (almost) years; the ones I could most look forward to rereading – and, in some cases, already have.

Hunts in Dreams : Tom Drury (2000)
Assorted Fire Events : David Means (2000)
Mystic River : Dennis Lehane (2001)
The Lovely Bones : Alice Sebold (2002)
That They May Face the Rising Sun : John McGahern (2002)
Sons of Mississippi : Paul Hendrickson (2003)
The Master : Colm Toibin (2004)
Runaway : Alice Munro (2004)
Eventide : Kent Haruf (2004)
Gilead : Marilynne Robinson (2004)
The Ongoing Moment : Geoff Dyer (2005)
The Broken Shore : Peter Temple (2005)
The Year of Magical Thinking : Joan Didion (2005)
The Lay of the Land : Richard Ford (2006)
Watch Me Disappear : Jill Dawson (2006)
This Book Will Save Your Life : A M Homes (2006)
Winter’s Bone : Daniel Woodrell (2007)
So Many Ways to Begin : Jon McGregor (2007)
Home : Marilynne Robinson (2008)
Red Dog, Red Dog : Patrick Lane (2008)
American Rust : Philipp Mayer (2009)
The Children’s Book : A S Byatt (2009)
Truth : Peter Temple (2009)
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It : Maile Meloy (2009)
The Good Soldiers : David Finkel (2009)
Even the Dogs : Jon McGregor (2010)
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter : Tom Franklin (2010)
How to Paint a Dead Man : Sarah Hall (2010)
The Summer Without Men : Siri Hustvedt (2011)
Hemingway’s Boat : Paul Hendrickson (2011)
The Forgotten Waltz : Anne Enright (2011)
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You : Jon McGregor (2012)
May We Be Forgiven : A M Homes(2012)
N-W : Zadie Smith (2012)
The Testament of Mary : Colm Toibin (2012)
Dare Me : Megan Abbott (2012)
Benediction : Kent Haruf (2013)
10th December : George Saunders (2013)
Thank You For Your Service : David Finkel (2013)
Lila : Marilynne Robinson (2014)
Fourth of July Creek : Smith Henderson (2014)
The Blazing World : Siri Hustvedt (2014)
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing : Eimear McBride (2014)
Another Great Day at Sea : Geoff Dyer (2014)
Our Souls at Night : Kent Haruf (2015)
Between the World & Me : Ta-Nehisi Cotes (2015)
Manual for Cleaning Women : Lucia Berlin (2015)
The Argonauts : Maggie Nelson (2015)
Willnot : James Sallis (2016)
Pond : Claire-Louise Bennett (2016)

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A Day in the Life …

Now my days alone have a certain shape to them  – I wake about nine, turn on the symphony and have juice, fruit and a pot of black coffee. Read a bit (still Gide’s Journal), talk on the phone – to Richard [Miller], or Frank [O’Hara] – sometimes Mike [Goldberg], or others. The three or four, sometimes five hours on this canvas – it hasn’t begun to come yet, but I keep thinking of things to do.
Then a few d0mestic chores for myself, a cold shower, a cold hard boiled egg and one or two rums with Rose’s lime, more reading, more records. Tonight I meet Frank at the Cedar for dinner, then to the late showing of “East of Eden”.

The Journals of Grace Hartigan, July 1st 1955

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Grace Hartigan at the Five Spot, sitting opposite Frank O’Hara, with Larry Rivers to her right.

Howard Hodgkin 1932 – 2017

I first became really aware of Hodgkin’s work towards the end of 1995, the beginning of 1996, when I was able make several visits to a major retrospective of his paintings, first at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and then at the Hayward Gallery in London. It was difficult – nigh on impossible – not to be dazzled, delighted, impressed – the richness of colour, the seductive brilliance, all those glorious swirls of paint – echoes of other favourite painters, Bonnard, Vuillard.

It was only when visiting a late exhibition, at Oxford in 2010, that some doubts arrived, not about the earlier work, which I still loved, but the more recent. Had there, with age, been some kind of falling off, and if so, was that not perhaps inevitable? It’s a  question I asked myself about my own work at the time, and which I ask myself now, seven years later, seven years older, and some 20,000 words into a new novel. Is it, can it be, as good as the best of what’s gone before?

Early readers [we’re talking strictly family here] have noted what they see as a possible change of style towards something tighter, more propulsive, faster moving – anxious to get it finished, perhaps, while I still can.

Here’s the piece I wrote back in 2010, after visiting the exhibition in Oxford …

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Having walked round the Hodgkin exhibition at the Gagosian with my youngest daughter a couple of years back, I asked her what she thought. “Okay, but not as good as his early stuff.” She was all of 10. Challenged, she dragged me out to the foyer and a copy of the book we’ve got at home showing work from the early to mid-1990s. She had a point.

I remembered this standing in one of the upper rooms of Modern Art Oxford, which is hosting Time & Place, an exhibition of new Hodgkin paintings, dating from 2001 to 2010. Uncertain of my initial responses, I wondered aloud to my companion about the perils of continuing to work into the latter year’s of ones life and producing work that was less good than what had gone before, thus risking the sullying of one’s reputation.

It seems to me, she said, somewhat wisely, that you’re talking about yourself, not Hodgkin.

And she’s right. There have been times in the past – even before, in my mind at least, the age thing became an issue – when, having written something I thought pretty good – not great, but about as good as I could manage – I was cautious of moving on to something else for fear it wouldn’t be as good. I felt it after writing the first of the Resnick books, Lonely Hearts, aided on that occasion by my then editor telling me, in so many words, it had turned out rather better than he’d dared hope.

I’ve also felt, an analogous feeling, that I’d written (and worse, had published) something so poor that the next thing had to be bloody good in order to take the taste, as it were, out of my – and my readers’ – mouth(s).

But back to Mr H0dgkin. In the catalogue essay, which I read on the train home, Sam Smiles writes interestingly about the notion of ‘late work’. Vasari, he notes, having visited the elderly Titian in his studio, deprecated the fact that Titian had carried on working, harming his reputation as his creative powers “inevitably waned”. This, Smiles asserts, is not necessarily the case (check out Beethoven’s late quartets, Picasso, de Kooning et cetera, et cetera). What you can find – and what Smiles finds in Hodgkin – instead of ‘late work’ is a ‘late style’. And yes, these paintings are, on the whole, less busy, less baroque, less full, less likely to confound and astonish the eye; what you have instead is something simpler, more direct, more content with a simplicity of image, of stroke, of colour, of line. Marks that have the appearance of being quickly, urgently made. The single, supple swirl of “Leaf”; the fierce bands of light and cloud in “Yellow Sky”; the force and gravity of “Spring Rain”, a brisk and sudden downpour of oil of wood.

Late work, good work. Work that gives the heart a lift.

And here- for the second time on this blog, but hey, I like it! – is my poem based on one of Hodgkin’s paintings, After Corot

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After Corot

‘After Corot’ 1979-1982 by Howard Hodgkin

the train turning into the bay
enough to bring tears to your eyes

sleeping, your skin ivory
reach & fall of your breathing

your hand

in the painting everything is
at a distance: cliff, harbour,
sea, sky

tight within a frame
within a frame

only wait
and the light breaks white
on the horizon, mastheads etch
contours green beyond the wall’s bulk
and as a small boat painted red hoves into view
the land slips another foot into the sea

you throw up your arm

untrammelled
blue seeps under the edges of the frame
refusing to be bound

the rocking of the train
as it rounds the slow curve

your waking breath

the sea

Going Down Slow …

A while ago, 2009 to be precise, Nottingham-based small press publisher, Five Leaves, brought out a snazzy-looking hardback collection of my stories and poems in a limited edition. Minor Key, by name. The good news is they are going to follow it up, this November, with a similarly sized book, also a limited edition, bringing together seven stories which have not previously appeared together in any collection.

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Going Down Slow & Other Stories will include two Charlie Resnick stories, three featuring my North London-based private detective, Jack Kiley, and two others.

Of the Resnicks, “Going Down Slow” was first published as an ebook by Random House in 2014, and then reprinted in the same year in a special Arrow paperback edition of Darkness, Darkness for exclusive sale at Sainsbury’s.“Not Tommy Johnson”was first published in OxCrimes, edited by Mark Ellingham & Peter Florence for Profile Books, also in 2014.

The first of the Jack Kileys, “Fedora” was first published in 2013 in Deadly Pleasures, edited by Martin Edwards for Severn House and was the winner of the CWA Short Story Dagger in 2014. “Second Chance” was first published in 2014 in Guilty Parties, again edited by Martin Edwards for Severn House.The most recent of the three, “Dead Dames Don’t Sing”- more a novella, I like to think, than a short story – was first published as No.32 in the Bibliomystery Series, edited by Otto Penzler for the Mysterious Bookshop in New York in 2016.

Which leaves two strays: “Handy Man”, which was published in Ambit magazine, No 204, in the Spring of 2011, and “Ask Me Now” , which was published in 2015 in These Seven, edited by Ross Bradshaw for Notingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop, in association with Bromley House Library and Nottingham Writers’ Studio.

Take all this as an early warning; there will be more details, including how and where to order copies, at a later date.