Stranded with Colm Toibin

There’s usually a moment or two, at least, of interest or emotion to be garnered from Desert Island Discs, but, for me, the recent edition featuring Colm Toibin was riveting pretty much from start to finish.

How refreshing it was, for instance, to hear him say – when Kirsty Young raised the issue of his being short listed three times for the Booker Prize, but never winning – that on the first occasion he hadn’t minded, but when The Master, his novel about Henry James, didn’t win in 2004, he was both dazed and surprised. Clearly, he thought it should have won, for he would have been aware of the momentous challenge he had set himself in writing about – inhabiting – James in the way that he did; aware even, I suspect, that with The Master he had written what might yet prove to be his own masterwork, the fullest and most complete of his novels.

As it was, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty won the prize.

Either side of that confession of disappointment, if that’s what it was – honesty, certainly, rather than false modesty – Toibin said more that was useful about the business of writing during thirty or so minutes than might be gained from one of those lengthy and expensive courses you see advertised.

You need a lot of silence and time on your own. Things happen of their own accord but only if you give them, I suppose, peace.

But if you’re a novelist [rather than worrying over a philosophy of life] well, you just think, tell the story, get on with the business of what he did next, what did she think then, who did she see coming in the door? You’re always working with small images, small details, where the bottle was on the table the second she sipped water, or almost did. So it’s almost as if you’re making drawings or storyboards all the time, trying to see things.

And the book Colm Toibin would most like to take to his desert island? Why, James’ The Portrait of a Lady, of course.

 

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March Reading

  • Memory Wall : Anthony Doerr
  • When The Light Goes : Larry McMurtry
  • The Illuminations : Andrew O’Hagen
  • The End of Vandalism : Tom Drury
  • Complications : Atul Gawande
  • Clothes Music Boys: A Memoir : Viv Albertine
  • Selected Poems : James Schuyler

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Plus, of course, more David Kynaston – currently around 1952.

Oh, and the marvellous portrait of Schuyler reproduced on the cover of his Selected Poems is by Fairfield Porter.

Serving Two Masters

I was back at Goldsmiths College in New Cross on Wednesday evening, there to talk some of the students enrolled on the current Creative Writing MA programme, taught by Maura Dooley and Blake Morrison. Under the banner, My Life as a Jobbing Writer, I glossed through my forty years as a professional author, from my chancy beginnings as Thom Ryder, fictional chronicler of Britain’s Hells Angels, through almost 50 westerns and on, via some classy dramatic adaptations for radio and television, to my latter life as crime writer and sometime poet. It was fun to do – I think, of interest – and I tell you what – doesn’t that old pulp artwork look good blown up on the big screen!

A number of the questions revolved around the twin poles of artistic integrity and commercial imperatives, and I only wish I’d had the following, from Colm Toibin’s essay on Henry James, The Lessons of the Master, on hand to help with my answer.

All of his life as a writer James worried about both the purity of his work and the making of money. It was as though he himself were a married couple. One part of him cared for the fullness of art and the other part for the fullness of the cupboard.

 

Killing Them Softly …

“I’ve a bone to pick with you,” S. said. We hadn’t had time even to settle in our seats, shuck off our coats, never mind order the first glasses of prosecco. “Lynn Kellogg,” she said, “killing her off like that. How could you?”

She was not the first and quite possibly, as long as there’s an appetite for the Resnick books, of which Cold in Hand, in which I perform that unspeakable, inexplicable act, is the eleventh, she will not be the last.

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I hadn’t written a novel featuring Charlie Resnick for ten years; had imagined that number ten in the series, Last Rites, would be, well, Charlie’s goodbye. But then circumstances suggested I might write something in which I explored, to some degree, the experience of grief. Three good friends of mine, people with whom I had socialised and worked, to whom, over a period of years, I had become close, had died: Angus Wells, in tandem with whom I had written numerous pulp westerns – the Hawk and Peacemaker series under the pen name of William S. Brady, The Gringos as J. D. Sandon and The Lawmen as J.B. Dancer – and who had latterly come to live in Nottingham; David Kresh, the American poet, who was one of the American editors of Slow Dancer magazine, and who introduced me to areas of jazz – David Murray, The World Saxophone Quartet – I might otherwise have shied away from; and Charles Gregory, whom I first met when he was a visiting lecturer on the American Studies MA course I was following, and with whom I shared many conversations about movies, crime fiction and music – that of John Stewart and Richard Thompson especially – the best of them while sitting up to the bar behind shots of bourbon with water backs. In addition, I had recently read and been strongly affected by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she writes about the sudden death of her husband and the near death of her daughter.

Hence, a return to Resnick, the fictional character I knew best and the best through which to channel and explore those feelings, and, in order to do that, poor Lynn had to die.

“How could you?”

Quite deliberately, constructing the story line for the maximum effect. Centre the opening chapter around Lynn, making it clear her importance as a character, and in that chapter place her in mortal danger, a danger from which she escapes. Whew! That’s all right then.

Maintain that centrality, make the case she’s investigating more important than Resnick’s (This is the beginning, perhaps, of easing Resnick into the background, the role of observer which is largely his in the final novel, Darkness, Darkness.) And then, more or less midway through the novel – and out of the blue – actually the dark of night – throw in a sudden warning. Resnick has been sitting around at home, waiting for Lynn to return from London, passing the time sipping whisky, listening to Bob Brookmeyer – four minutes and twenty seconds of ‘There Will Never Be Another You’.

Through the music he heard the sound of a cab approaching along the narrow, poorly made-up road that led towards the house and a smile came to his face. In his mind’s eye, he saw Lynn leaning forward to pay the driver, exchanging, perhaps, a few words, before getting out and, as the cab drew away again, crossing towards the house. In a moment he would hear the faint clicking of the gate. The cat jumped down from his lap as he rose and moved towards the door.

At first he thought what he heard as he stepped into the hall was the sound of a car backfiring, then knew, in the same breath that it was not.

End of Part One. Title Page: Part Two. Which begins with chapter 22, in which I take us off to a new character, another police officer, Karen Shields, waking, slightly hungover, a hundred or more miles away in North London, close by the Essex Road. It isn’t until chapter 23 that we return to that night in Nottingham, moving backwards in time to find Resnick kneeling beside Lynn Kellogg’s body in the front garden of the house they had shared.

All designed to have the maximum effect on the reader. [What did Henry James call it? The architecture of the novel?] So that when someone says, as did S., still affected by it some six or seven years later, “How could you?”, I know.

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Portraits of a Lady

One way or another, quite a lot of my time last year was spent with Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady – time well, if sometimes frustratingly spent. Why, for instance – and for those of you who don’t know the story, spoiler warning ahead – having sent Isobel, the lady in question, off to Europe in search of a broader, deeper experience of life and landed her in Florence in the machiavellian arms of her suitor, Gilbert Osmond, does he then jump the story forward several years, depriving us of the crucial early days of their marriage, the loss of a child and Isobel’s realisation that she has made a serious misjudgement?

Is it because he feared that to write about those things would draw him, unavoidably, into melodrama and sensationalism?

As a gay and, by all accounts, mostly celibate man, did he find himself lacking the experience and understanding that would enable him to write about such matters with conviction?

Or was it something to do with the architecture of the novel as James conceived it, two halves arranged around a centre that the reader is left to fill in retrospect, using what he tells of Isobel’s feelings about the trap she has walked into, the contrast between before and after being all the more shocking for it being presented to us so suddenly?

But when, as the months elapsed, she followed him further and further and he led her into the mansion of his own habitation, then, then she had seen where she really was. She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation. Osmond’s beautiful mind gave it neither light nor air…

I thought of this again a week ago, rewatching Jane Campion’s film version of the novel for the first time in a number of years. Like James, she leaves those early married years unseen, the changes in Isobel’s fortunes evident in the manner of Nicole Kidman’s playing, her physical appearance, the suppression of hope or spirit. A life without life or air, indeed.

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Kidman is, I think, excellent, unlike, for my taste, John Malkovich, whose Gilbert Osmond is, in voice and affectation, far too reptilian, too lacking in charm, far too obviously an embodiment of evil for Isobel not to have seen through him sooner.

Campion and her screenwriter, Laura Jones, do make changes and additions … none more extreme, or faintly ludicrous, than the early scene in which Isobel fantasises about being groped by three of her suitors and potential lovers at the same time. And Isobel’s sexuality, repressed if not by personal inclination then by the mores and morals of the time, is allowed freer expression throughout. It only takes Osmond’s touch to send poor Isobel to the edges of hysteria way beyond James’ “she felt her heart throb with a kind of delicious pain”. But then this is, or was, 1996 and no longer 1881.

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The end of the novel, like a great deal of James, is ambiguous. Having returned to England on account of her cousin’s fatal illness, Isobel is confronted again by her American suitor, Caspar Goodwood, who has been pursuing her since before page one. Aware of the mistaken tragedy of her marriage, he urges her not to return, but she makes clear that, like it or not, her duty is to go back to her husband and that duty she will fulfil. ‘”As you love me, as you pity me,” she pleads, “leave me alone!”‘ Goodwood does no such thing.

He glared at her a moment through the dusk, and the next instant she felt his arms about her, and his lips on her own lips. His kiss was a flash of lightning; when it was dark again she was free.

If the implications were not sufficiently clear, James himself made these additions in his 1908 revision of the novel …

His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession. So had she heard oƒ those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when the darkness returned she was free.

Additions which, had it been in existence at the time, might have given James a shot at that year’s Bad Sex Award.

But ‘free’ … what does that mean? Free from her obligations to her husband and thus free to take up with Goodwood? Free from the thrall of sexual passion, which, now experienced, she can turn her back on and resume a life of duty? The darkness, after all, is what she associates with Osmond.

She walks away from Goodwood – they have been in the garden – and back towards the house.

In an extraordinarily short time – for the distance was considerable – she had moved through the darkness (for she saw nothing) and reached the door. Here only she paused. She looked all about her; she listened a little; then she put her hand on the latch. She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.

In the novel there is one further short scene: Goodwood follows Isobel to her friend Henrietta’s lodgings in London and is told she has started out that morning for Rome; when he turns away in disappointment, Henrietta seizes his arm and urges patience (as if the poor man has not been waiting long enough) a patience that James himself suggests in a 1908 rewrite, has, on the spot, added thirty years to his life.

Campion ends her film at the moment of Isobel’s pausing at the door; she may well know where she is heading, the decision she is making; Campion leaves it for us to decide what that decision will be.

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