Sunday, January 28, 2007

On the nature of Roland, and matters chivalric

Last week, I had two discussions with two different people revolving around the same issue: the sexual nature of the knight Roland in The Book of Lost Things. For those who have not read the book, Roland is a character encountered by the boy David in the strange land into which David passes following the death of his mother. Roland is trying to discover the truth of what has happened to his companion, Raphael, a portrait of whom he keeps in a locket around his neck.

And so, twice last week, the issue arose of whether or not Roland was gay. The first time it occurred was in reference to an online review that someone had read, in which I was apparently castigated for being immoral, promoting homosexuality, and all of the usual charges that are levelled by narrowminded individuals in these instances. The second time it arose was in the course of a newspaper interview, although it was far less confrontational and intolerant in tone, and the question was asked out of a sense of curiosity rather than anything more sinister: why did I make Roland gay?

The answer is, quite simply, that I didn't, but if you want to read him that way, then that's fine. One of the themes of The Book of Lost Things is that there is the potential for every reader to read a book differently according to the elements of his or her personal experiences that are brought to the act of reading. At no point in The Book of Lost Things is Roland described as being gay. The Crooked Man, in an effort to undermine David's relationship with Roland, implies that there was something more to Roland's relationship with Raphael than Roland is prepared to admit, but the Crooked Man equates Roland's feelings not with homosexuality, but with paedophilia, which is not the same thing at all. The Crooked Man acts out of a sense of malice, and nothing he says can be trusted or taken at face value.

In part, too, this is a reflection of David's own fears as a young man set adrift in a strange world and forced to trust men that he does not know (and always with the memory of the death of Billy Golding in his mind, a young boy of David's acquaintance whose naked body is found by railway tracks and who, it is suggested, has fallen prey to the worst kind of killer). It is also a reflection of a less enlightened time, perhaps, for it would be unfair to expect a child born in the 1930s to have the same understanding of such matters as a child born near the end of the 20th century.

Yet when I was writing the character of Roland, I left all such matters deliberately ambiguous, and to interpret Roland as gay is, while perfectly legitimate, also to ignore a type of affection between men that recurs frequently in a great deal of ancient and chivalric literature, and is picked up on in the work of later writers as well. In the work of Walt Whitman, for example, there is a strong belief in "manly attachment" and "the high towering love of comrades", an aspect of the kind of bond that arises between men who fight side by side but also the kind of affection that exists between close male friends. To quote Whitman, Roland views Raphael as the "sharer of my roving life", and the private details of such a relationship can be left to the sense and inclinations of the individuals involved. In other words, while it does not rule out a physical aspect, neither does it necessitate one.

Clearly, Whitman is harking back to a theme of early Greek chivalry, and much of the "Calamus" section of 'Leaves of Grass' is given over to comradeship between men. The legends of Achilles and Patroclus, and David and Jonathan, may well be touchstones. Ambiguities arise, almost inevitably. In Crete and Sparta, Dorian comradeship, or "masculine love" as it was termed, was a social institution, regulated by the state. Its roots lay in the promotion of a martial spirit, binding the men together with bonds of mutual affection. Mythical/historical figures such as Damon and Pythias and Oresetes and Pylades were comrades in arms and faithful to each other unto death, united in this tradition. The younger party would traditionally be known as the "hearer" or "admired", the older as the "inspirer" or "lover". The physical aspect, therefore, can't simply be ignored.

But Whitman was generally keen to reject what he once described as "morbid inferences". In The Book of Lost Things, Roland suspects that Raphael is dead, and he sets out not only to confirm this fact, but, I think, to observe the proper services for his beloved comrade. Again, to return to Whitman:

Vigil for comrade swiftly slain - vigil I will never forget, how as day brightened,
I rose from the chill ground, and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
And buried him where he fell.

To take a story perhaps better known to many, the adventures of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, it seems to me that something of this ideal survives in the relationship between Arthur and Lancelot. Lancelot's betrayal of Arthur through his feelings for Guinevere is complicated by his love for the King, a love that goes beyond simply the loyalty and affection that duty requires him to feel for his ruler. (Even Christ in the Bible acknowledges the reality of a non-physical bond of affection between men, as again and again we are reminded that John is the disciple that he loves above all others.)

What I am trying to say is that there is a complex historical and mythological underpinning for the character of Roland, but one that is not laboured in The Book of Lost Things. To simply label Roland as "gay" and to decide that his relationship with Raphael is a physical one is to oversimplify it. In the end, Roland is whatever the reader decides that he is. His purpose in the book is to demonstrate a depth of feeling that, although noble and admirable, is ultimately self-destructive. Just as David spends much of the novel seeking his dead mother, only to ultimately realise that he must come to terms with the loss of her if he is to survive and rebuild his life, so too Roland seeks Raphael, but appears resigned to his own fate as much as to his comrade's.

This week John read

Restless by William Boyd
Cold Skin by Albert Sanchez Pinol
Achtung Schweinehund by Harry Pearson

and listened to
Mosaic by Woven Hand
All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone by Explosions In The Sky
Yo-Yo Ma plays the Music of Ennio Morricone by Yo-Yo Ma and Ennio Morricone

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Unquiet

Last week, I sent off the revised page proofs for The Unquiet, the Parker novel due to be published in May. It's always interesting to receive the proofs, as it's the first time that I get to see the book as it will look to the public, i.e. typeset, and no longer simply my manuscript. At that point, a transformation occurs in the way I view it. It is not just something that I rustled up on my computer. It's a book, and I judge it in a different way. I notice elements that perhaps I did not recognise before. I become more conscious of themes running through it, and I become aware, for want of a better word, of the 'feel' of the book.

What struck me most about The Unquiet upon reading it in this form was how angry it was about a range of perceived injustices. It touches on the treatment of prisoners in Maine, for example, particularly in the Supermax facility that houses the state's highest security prisoners, but also contains some of its most disturbed inmates. In part, this was a consequence of reading some of the Portland Phoenix's excellent, prize-winning reportage on the way in which prisoners are treated there, and this in turn connected into the larger themes of the book. More than any other novel that I've written, The Unquiet seems to be influenced by current events. It's not hermetically sealed in its own universe, as perhaps The Black Angel was.

In turn, the evil in it is very real, and very human. In a way, I think it's a reaction to The Black Angel, an attempt to do something very different after that massive, sprawling book. I live in fear of repeating myself, of falling into a pattern. Inevitably, all writers do to some degree. We have our index of interests, our themes and our causes. The challenge lies in finding new ways to approach them, so that with every book they are displayed in a different light. This gets harder and harder to do as time goes on, and the number of books with our name upon it starts to build.

As I sit writing this column, I can see a file in the corner of my screen marked The Reapers. There are six chapters of the book, which focuses on the characters of Angel and Louis, done, at least in draft form. Its mood is different again: lighter, I think, in part due to the fact that it is written in the third person, and the narrative voice is a little arch and ironic.

If completed, it will be my tenth book. I am moving into double figures, which I find bewildering, for it does not seem so very long ago that I was trying to finish the first novel. Yet there is a list of books with my name on them beside the onscreen window in which I'm writing. Somebody must have written them, and it's a fair guess that it was me. Some are better than others, but each was an attempt to do something slightly different from what went before it. If there is any pattern to be perceived, then that is it.

Anyway, the time is approaching when The Unquiet will be placed before readers, and another book will be open for judgement. Advance reading copies go out this month, and the novel proper will follow in the first week of May. In the meantime, the prologue will be placed on the website, probably by the end of this week, and I will go back to working on The Reapers.

Ten books. How odd. How very, very odd.

This week John read

The Sound of Laughter by Peter Kay

and listened to

Pet Grief by The Radio Dept.
Politics by Sebastian Tellier

Thursday, January 04, 2007

On Being (Relatively) Prolific

I recently had a conversation with an Irish writer, one whose work I admire a lot, and the subject of being prolific came up. This writer calculated that, at her current rate of progress, she might manage to get nine books written in her lifetime. She liked to take her time, to mull over her work, and couldn't imagine writing at a faster rate, however much she might like to. That was fine, I thought. She's a very fine writer, and if it takes three years to produce work of such quality, then that's how long it takes.

Mind you, I did feel a bit embarrassed. Even if I'm struck down by a bolt of lightning tomorrow, my ninth book will be published this year. Compared to her, I was knocking them out at quite a rate. I wondered if I should be writing at a slower pace. Then again, it wasn't like I was writing tens of thousands of words each day. As it happens, I do write quite slowly, but I write a little almost every day. I also do lots of other things, like drink coffee, read books, watch DVDs (I have, I must confess, watched an entire series of Battlestar Galactica this week. It was a gift, and I was a bit dubious about it when I received it but, frankly, I'm hooked. My bad.), annoy those dear to me, and generally live a full, if sometimes dull, life. If I were to write any more slowly, I wouldn't be doing anything at all.

The issue seems pertinent in light of Thomas Harris's Hannibal Rising. I had to review it for The Irish Times, and was rather looking forward to it. After all, it was Harris, it had taken years to write, and I was one of that rare breed who was willing to mount a fairly reasoned defence of the much maligned Hannibal.

Hannibal Rising is a very peculiar book, and appeared seven years after Hannibal. I suspect, from reading reviews, that it didn't live up to expectations, mine included. Had Harris really spent seven years writing this book, and did that, in some way, work against him? Were expectations too high? After all, it does seem to me that there is sometimes a tendency to judge a book by the length of time that it took to write, as if there were some direct correllation between time and quality. Had Hannibal Rising appeared a year after Hannibal, would the critical knives used upon it have been quite so sharp?

(Perhaps, too, such matters eventually reach a kind of critical mass in certain cases, so that the time spent on the production of a work actually mitigates against a favorable reception. Why would J.D. Salinger even bother to publish now even if he has, as some suggest, been writing away for all these years and locking the results in a safe. No matter what he produces, it will never be good enough to justify decades of non-publication.)

I recall reading Donna Tartt's The Secret History and, like most of those who read it, I loved it. A decade later came The Little Friend and, while it was impressive in parts, it didn't seem to me that there was a decade of progress in the writing. To be honest, I don't think it's as good a book as her debut, although there is much to admire in it. The same could be said about Hannibal, which is also separated from its predecessor, The Silence of the Lambs, by a decade or thereabouts. What, the reader might legitimately wonder, was Harris doing for that period? Was he slowly, painstakingly, creating Hannibal, and did he follow it with another seven years of toil on Hannibal Rising? Perhaps so, but the effort does not seem to me to have been matched by the quality of the finished book in either case. Hannibal has fewer flaws than Hannibal Rising, but after seventeen years such judgements seem rather relative.

Charles Dickens would have been appalled by such a workrate. Between 1837 and 1841, which included a period of two years during which he edited Bentley's Miscellany, he published Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Barnaby Rudge, and The Old Curiosity Shop in monthly installments. These are not small books. He wrote to put bread on the table, to satisfy the demands of his readers and, one imagines, because he rather liked writing.

Dickens was unusually productive, even for his time, and I doubt that there will never be another writer like him, one capable of combining quantity with a quality touched by genius, but there is something to be said for taking his application to his craft as a model. I suspect that Dickens learned, not just from writing, but from the act of publishing, of writing with a publication deadline in mind that forced him not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Human beings, after all, learn not just from the tasks that they carry out, but the tasks that they complete. Only then can success or failure be judged, and a lesson learned from the process.

Looking back, I spent the best part of five years working on my first book before it was published. In theory, I could still be working on it now, making changes and improvements to the manuscript, yet I doubt that the book would be significantly better for them. I took what I had learned, and applied it to the book that followed, and I think I have been doing that ever since. Whether readers notice or not is another matter, but I notice. With each book that I complete, I learn something new and so, slowly, I progress.

I suppose this is a mild attempt to defend the prolific, or the relatively prolific. In the end, what matters is that a writer produces his or her best work in whatever time it takes to write it, whether that is one year or ten years. We all work at different paces, and if, at the end, a book emerges with which the author can be content, then the pace has been appropriate. When I look at the little shelf of books that bear my name, I feel reasonably happy with what I have achieved. When each was handed over to my publishers, it represented the best that I could do at that time, and I don't think any of them would have been significantly better for another five or ten years of labor. I don't think that even one would have made much difference.

I guess, when it comes down to it, I'm just not a ten year kind of guy.

Recently John has read

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett
Perfume by Patrick Suskind
A Spy by Nature by Charles Cumming
Next by Michael Crichton
The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke

and has listened to

Mend by De Rosa
Holy Heathens and The Old Green Man by Watterson-Carthy
Ys by Joanna Newsom
Coins & Crosses by Ryan Teague