In an earlier post (4/7/2020) I explained how my first novel came to be, the individuals I’d met or encountered whose physical attributes, and the interior lives and circumstances I imagined for them, became the characters and story line for Strays.
In a book on writing published ten years ago which I’ve only just come across, Colm Tóibín explains how the last great novel Henry James wrote, The Golden Bowl, was conceived. Five years after The Portrait of a Lady was published, one of the two people whose villa in Florence inspired that novel got married. James then wrote to the father, introducing him to Constance Fenimore Woolson, who was on her way to Florence. His purpose was to have these four people—the younger married couple, and the older pair of new acquaintance—living in proximity, to stimulate his imagination. As Tóibín puts it in All a Novelist Needs (2010):
“In other words, James in London could contemplate the four of them in Florence—the father severed from his only daughter, to whom he was devoted, by her marriage, and the arrival of the outsider to offer comfort or provide company for the father. All four living in close proximity.”
It would be another seventeen years until James even started writing the book that was the product of all this rumination, and his notes written in journals down all the years. But the book is not about those real-life characters; it’s the product of contemplation, about their plight as they go about their lives in close proximity. Tóibín continues:
“This is all a novelist needs, nothing exact or precise, no character to be based on an actual person, but a configuration, something distant that can be mulled over, guessed at, dreamed about, imagined, a set of shadowy relations that the writer can begin to put substance on. Changing details, adding shape, but using always something, often from years back, that had captured the imagination, or mattered somehow to the hidden self, however fleetingly or mysteriously.”
More recently, in conversation on stage with Richard Ford (https://vimeo.com/192459241)
Tóibín says more about these early stages of the writing:
"A novelist's job is almost to be as stupid as possible, except in the cunning moment when you need to structure something, when you need to be very intelligent indeed.”
That structuring will come later, Tóibín says, but for now:
“[Y]ou need almost an empty mind, where you can let any image in, follow it along, and allow an emotional charge, almost the way actors and singers can work.”
One needs to sit and watch and listen, he says, to the characters as they interact with each other and meet situations some of which they hadn’t counted on; and to those around them who want something else, something inconsistent perhaps with what your main characters want. For this work, you clear your mind and go on instinct, not intelligence.
“The more instinct you have as a novelist the better."
At least until that “cunning moment.”
It’s been said that the The Lay of the Land, the final book in Richard Ford’s Ralph Bascombe trilogy, was “less successful” than the others. I don’t subscribe to that theory; in my view, it’s the most successful . . . except for the end. Which is a big exception. The climax felt incongruously violent and unnecessary, not unlike Richard Russo’s to Empire Falls. Both felt contrived for Hollywood or something, unworthy of either writer or either work, detracting from the elegant realism that hums through both these great pieces of American literature.
This is a novel, centered around the 75-day performance piece titled The Artist is Present by Marina Abramović at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, with fictional protagonists and others drawn to and affected by that extraordinary exhibition.
At the fictional and emotional center of the story here is Arky Levin, whose wife Lydia has a stroke and decides to recover from it, or not, in a nursing home in East Hampton rather than burden him with her care. Arky is a composer and pianist, whose career has had highs and lows and may be petering out; Lydia is an even more accomplished architect. They’ve just sold their walkup in Manhattan and bought their dream home—a New York apartment overlooking Washington Square—and Lydia has arranged the move down to the last labeled box and a squadron of movers. When she’s stricken at the airport on returning from work on a distant project, Arky is left to babysit the move-in.
The central conflict in their story is whether Arky is a schmuck for going along with Lydia’s expressed desire that he stay away from the nursing home and attend to his own work. Readers struggle with this question, just as Arky and his adult daughter do. He thinks this an unfair request, but he succumbs to it because Lydia is a formidable being . . . and, probably, because he has work to do on a project that could reinvigorate his career, and a life to live though he likes it a whole lot less than before Lydia’s stroke. We get a lot more about how all this feels to Arky than to Lydia, because Lydia is essentially incapacitated. Whatever messages they send to each other are carried by their adult daughter, who urges her father to overrule her mother’s wishes and get as involved at the nursing home as she is.
An almost-equally central storyline in the novel is the exhibition going on at the Modern. In a several-story atrium, Abramović sits in one of two facing straight-chairs for hours on end. She doesn’t get up to pee, she doesn’t look away, she just stares into the eyes of members of the public who line up in the wee hours of every morning to get a good seat, either in the chair facing Abramović—where it is first-come-first-serve-and-stay-as-long-as-you-don’t-look-away—or in the spectator seats surrounding all this in the atrium. Arky goes nearly every day to watch, befriending others who are doing the same, some of whom have sat and maybe will again, some of whom—like Arky—think they will at some point but aren’t quite sure.
The most interesting part of the story of the exhibition, for me, was learning about Abramović’s performance art and career. We’re given all this backstory because in a floor above the sitting exhibition is a retrospective of Abramović’s career doing crazy things, like walking from one end of the Great Wall of China toward the center, where she will meet her long-time partner and paramour before they separate for good. Or an exhibition where the two of them stood naked facing each other in a doorway, and attending the exhibition entailed passing through the door; it’s recreated upstairs with others performing. Arky, and the many people he meets and befriends, have all gone upstairs sooner or later and been educated about performance art and Abramović’s oeuvre. It’s an amazing thing, this performance art. Reading these passages reminded me of the research I’ve done into Abstract Expressionism (for Strays and another novel in the works) into Abstract Expressionism. Talk about “abstract”—nothing could be more abstract than Abramović’s brand of performance art. “What does it mean?” has no more purchase in a conversation about The Artist is Present than it had at a Rothko exhibition on 57th Street in the Forties.
An equally compelling aspect of the novel is its depiction of what goes on inside the head of a composer and pianist. Arky loves his work, is born to it you might say, and the passages where we’re brought inside his head—as the music moves through his whole being—are wonderfully rendered.
I will say that New York itself seemed underdone a bit, at least to me. We do get a feel for the lovely apartment overlooking Washington Square Park. But there’s so much more to New York than that park, the sidewalk outside MoMA and its central space in which The Artist is Present was staged.
What can I say here (without spoilers) about the ending to the Levins’ story?
Well, that it makes no sense at all . . . and all the sense in the world. No fairy tale ending, this. A sober, clear-eyed manifesto is more like it. Bravo.
(Note: A 2012 documentary about The Artist is Present is widely available on cable television.)
Colm Tóibín is one of a handful of contemporary writers whose new novels I begin waiting for as soon as I’ve finished their last. This has been true since I first encountered The Master, in the spring of 2005,on a table out front of a bookstore in Dublin off St. Stephen’s Green. I was intrigued by the writing as I paged through, but I’d never been a fan of Henry James (the central figure in The Master). So I wandered inside, and looked through the fiction section but found nothing. So I hailed one of the booksellers passing by. “I can’t find the books by this writer anywhere.”
The man looked at what I had in hand, said, “Well, he’s an Irish writer,” and bid me to follow him. We crossed into another area entirely, a much larger space, with a long wall of books crowned by grand letters: THE IRISH WRITERS.
There I found Tóibín’s The Heather Blazing. It began:
“Eamon Redmond stood at the window looking down at the river which was deep brown after days of rain. He watched the colour, the mixture of mud and water, and the small currents and pockets of movement within the flow. It was a Friday morning at the end of July; the traffic was heavy on the quays. Later, when the court had finished its sitting he would come back and look out once more at the watery grey light over the houses across the river and wait for the stillness, when the cars and lorries had disappeared and Dublin was quiet.”
In alternating chapters, The Heather Blazing tells the story of the aging Judge Redmond, who lives with his wife, Carmel, in Dublin and returns each summer to his family home in the south by the sea; and of young Eamon Redmond the motherless child, who grew up there in Enniscorthy with his father and uncle, who were both Fianna Fáiland deeply involved in the struggles. When his father, a schoolteacher, has a stroke, young Eamon is taken by his uncle to live with some even-more-distant cousins in an even-more-rural setting; it’s a very long time before they are reunited, and his father struggles to speak and teach with his enduring handicap. In the midst of all this, a wonderful and convincing tale of reaching puberty, and struggling with the faith of an altar boy. And another, later, of meeting Carmel at a campaign rally in which young Eamon has been asked to give a speech.
Years later, Eamon and Carmel have two children, a daughter who goes ahead with having a baby rather than an illegal abortion knowing the father won’t return; and a son who seems to struggle under the weight of his father’s stature. Carmel minds the baby, Eamon builds a career in law that puts him on the bench, and in the office looking down on the Liffey.
The parallels between Tóibín’s novels, especially the early ones, are striking: Families marked by love and loss, absent parents, children bearing the weight of it all and growing into adults marked by it. The Blackwater Lightship was short-listed for the Booker Prize, as were two of his later novels, The Masterin 2004 and Brooklynin 2009.
It would be some time before I read The Master, though I now regard it as perhaps Tóibín’s greatest work. I look forward to reviewing it in a future post.
So I ask, how did you find one of your favorite authors? I found Kevin Barry, subject of my recent post on Night Boat to Tangier, by way of a short story published in The New Yorkerin 2010 called “Fjord of Killary”. I first read Richard Ford after hearing him speak at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference in 2002. Why not click on “Comments”, call yourself whatever you like (within reason), and let us know one or more of your favorite writers and how you found them.
Finally,click on the link below to see Colm Toibin and Richard Ford reading from their then-recent books a few years ago at Columbia University, where both taught at the time.
No one writes like Kevin Barry. If Bukowski had been born fifty years later, in the tumbledown backalleys of County Kerry or Sligo instead of the Port of San Pedro, maybe. All the daring, all the guile. Make it all up as if tossed out as you go, say it all in the half-made-up language of the drug dens of Cork and midnights in the Port of Algeciras, fashion within it the loves and lives and heartbreaks of losers you’re pulling for far more than they deserve, and have everyone with any grip on the page in tears by the end.
They stayed a sleepless night in a guesthouse in Crouch End. The night aged slowly as a decade. Maurice was as old now as he’d ever been, but yes, there was Dilly, who was silent and gorgeous and yes, definitely, he was in love with her. It was time to go back to Ireland."
""Night Boat to Tangier", Barry’s latest novel after the award-winning City of Bohane and Beatlebone, is about two old men and one woman, their shared backstory unspooling in alternating chapters from the mouth of an omniscient narrator who talks like they do. Indeed, the likeness among them all is strengthened by Barry’s eschewing quotation marks throughout. Here, Maurice and Cynthia are being tailed by rival drug-runners"
They’re out of the van, Maurice!
And two big fucking Spanish heads on them.
Shoulders the breadth of Madrid.
They leaned back against the van and smoked fervently—they looked down towards the house with calm.
Is the third line something Cynthia has said to Maurice, or is it the voice of the novel in Barry’s third-person-close narration? Either way—indeed the very ambiguity in it—is brilliant. We couldn’t be any closer to the action, more alive in the world they inhabit. You see their world as they see it, want and fear everything in it as they do, feel the slings and arrows of those around them—Maurice’s partner-in-crime, Charlie, and Maurice and Cynthia’s spawn, Dilly—as they do.
"The story opens with Maurice and Charlie watching for Dilly in the Port of Algeciras. We take her for a homeless itinerant crossing borders with hordes of others like her—a perroflauta, a “crusty” as one of the women puts it—after everything that has happened to them all. The chapters alternate between their watching for her in the port while retracing the sorry tales of their lives, and the twenty years or so that preceded this night and brought them all here."
The backstory of Maurice and Cynthia is one of successful drug-running, shared heroin addictions, and a cursed attempt to get clean by building a crescent of homes on a charming knoll in the west of Ireland. Bad money begets bad luck, when Maurice learns why the price of the land was so reasonable, and has finally told Cynthia the news.
The men won’t build on a site we’ve paid four hundred and eighty-five thousand pounds for because they think there’s a fairy fort up there. And you felt this was beyond remark?
Fairy fort is stretching it, he said. It’s just these superstitions you get locally. About places. It’s the moundy bit on the far side. Apparently it has all the characteristics of a fairy fort.
And since when the fuck, Maurice, would you know the characteristics of a fairy fort?
There’s such a thing as the fucken internet, he said.
There follows, for Maurice, a time of wandering in the desert after leaving Cynthia and little Dilly. Beautiful scenes made of the maladies that happen to all of us, told with an Irish knack for finding the lyrical in everyday lives that can buckle your knees.
Eventually, the backstory chapters catch up to the present, we learn why two old men are searching for a young woman in the Port of Algeciras, what they’ve all lost along the way and why she’s not making it easy for them. I’ll say no more.
Kevin Barry is an Irish novelist like no other, and an International treasure. With his City of Bohane and Beatlebone, two short story collections and now Night Boat to Tangier, he takes his place among the top Irish and British literary fiction writers of our time—Colm Toibin, John Banville, Anne Enright, Edna O’Brien, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and now Kevin Barry.
You’ll read more about all these writers, and their American counterparts—Richard Ford, Claire Messud, Richard Russo and James Salter—in these pages. More, too, about Jenny Erpenbeck and Nick Hornby, Patrick Modiano and Amor Towles, Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler, Brian Morton and Tom Barbash and many more.
I didn’t start with a short story. I’m not sure I’ve ever written a short story that didn’t come out of a longer work. MFA folks will recognize in this that I never learned to write fiction in school. I learned it reading fiction, and writing the true story first. To get it out of the way, one might say now, though I surely didn’t know it then. All that taught me how to carry a pocket moleskin, and refine one morning’s work while thinking about the next’s.
One day, while we were vacationing in Connecticut, our son wanted to play golf. He went online and found a municipal course among all the country club listings, called and learned he’d get on soon enough if he just showed up and waited for a three-some. He jotted down the name and address. But this was before map-apps, and in time we were in the vicinity but lost as could be. I pulled into the fifth or sixth course we passed that wasn’t the one we were looking for—another country club it was—just to ask directions. I slowed to a stop in the parking lot, where a man was reaching into his trunk for his clubs.
I’m not sure he rolled his eyes at me when he saw us, but he knew we were lost. And he gave off a distinct I’m-better-than-you-in-so-many-ways vibe. He instantly reminded me of all the lawyers I’d worked with and against over the years, and didn’t like. Oh, there were plenty I did like, whether partners or opponents, but there were far too many who thought far more of themselves than they deserved. This fellow kind of rolled his eyes, watched the shotgun-side window roll down, and did what he could to get us on our way without catching something.
That character—a very “flat” character as writing teachers would say—became Chase Pendleton, one of the two protagonists in my first novel, Strays. He had the look, and the money and other circumstances to support the unsavory hidden life I just knew was behind it all. And I wanted to find out why. I scribbled and jotted in my moleskin until morning, and started writing about him, what I thought was behind this little scene that was or might be of interest.
A few days later, on the way to the airport, a stewardess boarded the bus and came down the aisle. It was her. Not the wife but the paramour who populated Chase’s hidden life. She was pretty, and had the kind of job that would have her around now and then but not always. And she had the look of someone who could play a role in that sort of life, at least while looking for another. She became the second of the three characters I thought the story would be about. In the end—or I should say in short order—she had played her role by the end of the first chapter, and the story would unspool from there over the course of the next year or so until the first draft was finished.
My second novel, Atlantic View, didn’t start with a character, but with a house. It was one of several one-hundred-year-old Victorians on the street above the café where I was writing in the days after Strays was finished. And it had a dormer window that looked out on the sea. Somebody would be writing up there, it seemed to me. About something he’d found up there after the family that had lived there—his family—were all gone.
To Be Continued
With her Booker Prize winning The Gathering and later The Green Road, Anne Enright has long since established her position among the best of contemporary Irish writers. Her latest novel begins with a party scene in the house the theater career built or bought, an elegant old place on Dublin’s Dartmouth Square. Norah takes us through a party there, populated by lecherous characters some of whom are her mother’s theater friends, acting out now that Norah’s turned twenty-one. All in good fun, of course, sort of.
From there Norah takes us through her mother’s successes and failures and ultimate downfall, puzzled by much of it, all the while looking back on her own life and its many twists and turns. The chapters on “The Troubles” and the night the crowd burned down the British Embassy put me in mind of the Watts Riots of my own youth in Los Angeles—mayhem so close, one really did wonder how far the surging crowd and violence might reach. O’Dell is rumored to have been active in the IRA, and takes her lumps in the press for that and more. All this is told in non-linear fashion; not chronologically, but as one’s memory works—snippets from adulthood preceding tales of her grandparents’ house—all the while looking for causes or reasons for Katherine’s choices and misbehaviors, and Nora’s own before she met the “you” she’s addressing now and then.
Eventually it becomes clear that her mother’s life held more secrets than even Norah knew. The result is an astonishing portrait of how one famous life hid secrets and atrocities not all of Katherine’s own doing.
Actress is something of a more difficult read, in places, than some of Enright’s others. But the ending is not to be missed, or given away in any review.
I’m not one for experimental form in fiction, but this one won me over early on. It’s a novel of ideas—political ideas, mainly—laced with sympathetic insights into the plight of African refugees in today’s Berlin
center of the novel is Richard, a classics professor whose retirement seems to have been forced in some way. One day he happens by Alexanderplatz, the large public square in East Berlin, and encounters the unsettling sight of dark-skinned immigrants encamped. After observing them over the course of several days, he passes again and they are gone. He becomes interested in their plight in a way he might not have a few years earlier, for he’s the widower of an imperfect marriage, all of which has left a hole in him. When he learns the refugees have been moved to a vacant, now-repurposed government building, he seeks them out, and begins eventually to talk to them, and even interview a few.
He meets one after another in the cramped, sparsely furnished quarters the government provides. A boy who looks like Apollo says he is a Tuareg from Niger, and he answers Richard’s questions in a string of European languages. Awad is a man born in Ghana who’s come here from Libya; Richard thinks of him as Tristan when he learns his mother died giving birth to him.
Rashid, who was born into a sprawling, well-to-do Muslim family in Nigeria, tells of a string of catastrophies that follow being run out of one place after another, losing family members every step of the way. Horrific tales take him through Libya, where he is forced onto a boat with his two children; they become marooned with hundreds of others, and he is one of the relative few saved after days without power or water, most of whom die when it capsizes with the relief effort. “Paradise is beneath your mother’s feet,” Rashid says at the end of it all. Richard takes to wandering through his house in the middle of the night, affected by all he is hearing from “the thunderbolt-hurler.” On another visit, after learning Rashid made his living as a metalworker somewhere along his way, Richard asks Rashid to draw a picture of the best work he’d ever done. Rashid obliges with both relish and ennui. “If you could see me doing my work, you would see a completely other Rashid,” he says. “For me working is as natural as breathing.” In and around Alexanderplatz, he may die of asphyxiation, for the refugees have no work. Indeed, they are not allowed to work.
Before you know it—before even he knows it—Richard has become an activist in their cause. He pays for doctor visits for those who’ve taken ill, whose papers are unsurprisingly not in order given all the rules and limitations and the niggardly approach of the white German state. He helps buy a small property in a village in Ghana, for one who cares more about the fate of his mother and family than his own. The amounts at issue are not insignificant but doable, and the transaction is accomplished by a Ghanaian exchange that looks perilous by the standards of our escrow system, a high-wire act seemingly based entirely on trust. The waiting is similar, but the paperwork is different—there isn’t any—and the whole thing is over in hours rather than months.
Richard researches immigration law and learns the refugees are not allowed to work. They are not allowed to come back when they leave, and are allowed to stay only if they jump through hoops laid out in arcane and impenetrable administrative titles, all designed to appear to be welcoming while casting a net that will frustrate their aims. Germany, like so many western countries, only appears to give a damn if we’re talking about the law as applied to immigrants. They all dearly want to work—even when on stipend they’d rather work—but legal and bureaucratic obstacles to anyone employing them are baked into the system.
The book closes as it opened, with a party at Richard’s house. But instead of his old friends from academia and such, the refugees are the only ones in attendance. While Richard cooks, the refugees find tools in the backyard shed and clean up the garden and the grounds, chatting back and forth in good cheer as they work.
Another reviewer found Richard not fully realized—“flat” one might say—as a character. Perhaps this comes with the territory in such a political novel. But anyone untouched by the plight of these refugees, and the grace with which Richard reaches out to them—as any of us could, if only we tried—would be a puzzle to me.