Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 27 July 2017



(for Cilla)

Was it with words or a kiss
we tossed it away,
that part inside us both
that's gone for good?

Or did they rob us?

You know where I am of course:
I'm apart from you.
But what is it you see
when our eyes do meet?

What do they reflect?

I have a present for you,
there's not much left,
call it "love" if you will;
it's just a word.

But it might be enough.

9 October 1994

Poems #748, #749 and #751 and unique in my oeuvre in that they were written to order. This is not something I usually do and for good reason but there was a guy where I was living at the time—I use the term “living” loosely—who learned I wrote poetry and asked me if I’d rattle off one for his girlfriend, Cilla, a woman I’d never met, would never meet and know the barest details about. He, like me, was far from home and by choice although I never asked for the gory details. That’s the thing about bedsits and dosshouses and the like: everyone’s got a story and mostly they’re stories they don’t want to tell you and you don’t want to hear. In the end I wound up producing three poems in a very short time and let him pick. Maybe he sent her all three; I don’t know. I don’t remember anything about him to be honest, not even his name or what he looked like but clearly he didn’t have much going for him. It was easy to put myself in his shoes. 

It’s an okay poem but far from being a masterpiece. I’m sure it served its purpose.

Sunday, 23 July 2017


The Visitor

(for J.)

He said he was a ‘visitor.’
She didn’t know the expression
but then there was no one to ask:
her world was empty.

It seemed he had come
a long way to see her.

He called himself ‘Love’
and had strange ways
but there was only the past
to compare him with.

He looked out of place
like truth in a bedroom.

Then he spoke of things
called ‘loyalty’ and ‘trust’
and strange rites of passage
but couldn’t stay long.

Her world way dying;
it was time to go.

15 July 1994

This is the last poem for J. for now. She broke off contact and it would be two years before we reconnected. (For the record she phoned me.) In 1996 I wrote her another four poems plus she provided the inspiration for my short story ‘The Pooh Brooch’ and then we parted for good although, as I mentioned in an earlier post, we did run into each other at my mother’s funeral—briefly, very briefly. It was an odd relationship by anyone’s standards and yet it was an important one. I would be exaggerating if I said she saved my life or I saved hers but we provided necessary distraction at a time it was needed. It had the chance of becoming something else but she had a choice to make and she made it. She didn’t pick me and I do think that was the right decision; it certainly worked out for the best. I found her on Facebook a couple of years back and was pleased to see she’s happily married—the same guy, I assume—with grandkids and seems to be living up north, Aberdeen way. I’ve been with Carrie for twenty years and I’m certain we’re far better suited that J. and I would ever have been but I do think it would’ve been interesting for a while.

‘The Pooh Brooch’ incorporates a letter, a lightly-edited copy of the last letter I sent J. The names, of course, have been changed. In the story Jack sends Jill a brooch of Winnie the Pooh hanging from a balloon. In reality it was a cat clinging to a branch.
Dear Jill
It’s hard holding onto things in this life. There’s always something pulling you down. The same can be said of letting go. It’s just as hard to know when to let go or how. You have to decide. You can hang onto what you have and see where the winds of change carry you or you can let go and hope there’s someone there to catch you. If what you have just now is precious then hang on with everything you’ve got but, if you have any doubts, then let go before this thing carries you too far away. I’m still here. Just be sure. 
Love, Jack
You can read the whole story here.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The Anatomy Lesson

The burden isn’t that everything has to be a book. It’s that everything can be a book. And doesn’t count as life until it is. – Philip Roth, The Anatomy Lesson
The Anatomy Lesson is about the imprisonment of self-absorption, of inscribing the guilt in the flesh; it is also about hurting fathers and needing their blessings.” So wrote Alan Cooper in Philip Roth and the Jews. He’s not wrong but it’s about much more and being Jewish at the end of the twentieth century is certainly a focal point (Roth may not be the quintessential Jewish writer but he’s certainly never managed to escape his Jewishness); it’s about self-identity (and especially loss of self-esteem), grief, remorse, celebrity (which isn’t quite the same as either fame or infamy), sensitivity, purposelessness and, according to Roth himself writing in Reading Myself and Other Stories, “physical pain and the havoc it wrecks on one’s human credentials.” For me, however, the book is quite simply about that cliché of all clichés: a novelist with writer’s block. It’s a subject I address in my own novel, The More Things Change, where my protagonist complains, “Someone should invent a new word, wroter, past tense of writer, one who once wrote but no longer writes.” That sentence could be slipped seamlessly into The Anatomy Lesson.
Roth puts it baldly: “[Zuckerman] had nothing left to write, and with nothing to write, no reason to be.” If you’re not a writer what are you? Many people aren’t writers and get by just fine. Most people aren’t writers but writing’s like sex—and Roth’s had a lot to say on the subject over the years—once you’ve had a taste you can’t claim your virginity back:
[W]hat became colossal was the next page. He thought he had chosen life but what he had chosen was the next page. Stealing time to write stories, he never thought to wonder what time might be stealing from him. Only gradually did the perfecting of a writer’s iron will begin to feel like the evasion of experience, and the means to imaginative release, to the exposure, revelation, and invention of life, like the sternest form of incarceration. He thought he’d chosen the intensification of everything and he’d chosen monasticism and retreat instead. Inherent in this choice was a paradox that he had never foreseen. When, some years later, he went to see a production of Waiting for Godot, he said afterwards to the woman who was then his lonely wife, “What’s so harrowing? It’s any writer’s ordinary day. Except you don’t get Pozzo and Lucky.”
Again, it’s as I wrote in The More Things Change: “Writers don’t have lives. They have on-going research” or as Terence Davies has Emily Dickinson tell her sister-in-law in A Quiet Passion: “You have a life, I have a routine.”
Nathan Zuckerman’s routine, at the start of The Anatomy Lesson, is nothing less than stultifying:
When he could no longer bear sitting up, he stretched supine upon the playmat, his head supported by Roget’s Thesaurus. He’d come to conduct most of the business of his waking life on the playmat. From there, no longer laden with an upper torso or saddled with fifteen pounds of head, he made phone calls, received visitors, and followed Watergate on TV.
Writing the last page of a book was as close as he’d ever come to sublimity, and that hadn’t happened in four years. He couldn’t remember when he’d written a readable page.
Zuckerman has been in pain for eighteen months. Why he’s been unable to write for the previous thirty months is another matter particularly since he’d had no problem writing for the twenty years prior to that. In fact most people would’ve described him as a successful novelist especially following the furore that accompanied publication of his latest and best-known novel, Carnovsky.
As everyone knows (or assumes) Roth is Zuckerman and Carnovsky is Portnoy's Complaint, the novel that turned Roth into an overnight celebrity, sparking a storm of controversy over its explicit and candid treatment of sexuality—containing detailed depictions of masturbation using various props including an empty milk bottle, a sock, a baseball mitt and, famously, a piece of liver—coupled with its irreverent portrait of Jewish identity (at one point he famously screams at his therapist: “LET'S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID!”) but as Roth was quick to remind the journalist Daniel Sandstrom, “Whoever looks for the writer’s thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction. Seeking out a writer’s ‘thoughts’ violates the richness of the mixture that is the very hallmark of the novel.”
In the real world Portnoy’s Complaint, despite having its fans, was not, as you can well imagine, universally praised. Far from it. On 31 March 1969 the National Literature Board of Review deemed it “‘obscene,’ ‘filthy’, and entirely inappropriate for Australian readers” [their punctuation] and it was classified as a prohibited import. Even reviews of the book were targeted by the censor. Private imports of the book were also confiscated. In The Anatomy Lesson we learn that Carnovsky has received its harshest review from the critic Milton Appel:
Appel had unleashed an attack upon Zuckerman’s career that made Macduff’s assault upon Macbeth look almost lackadaisical. Zuckerman should have been so lucky as to come away with decapitation. A head wasn’t enough for Appel; he tore you limb from limb.
Zuckerman never quite recovers from the assault and since he can’t work on fiction finds himself obsessing over Appel:
[L]ong after the reasonable quarter hour had passed, he remained shocked and outraged and hurt, not so much by Appel’s reconsidered judgment as by the polemical overkill, the exhaustive reprimand that just asked for a fight. This set Zuckerman’s teeth on edge. It couldn’t miss.
What brings things to a head is an offhand remark made by Appel in a letter to Zuckerman’s friend Ivan Felt:
Why don’t you ask your friend Nate Zuckerman to write something on behalf of Israel for the Times Op Ed page? He could surely get in there. If I come out in support of Israel there, that’s not exactly news; it’s expected. But if Zuckerman came out with a forthright statement, that would be news of a kind, since he has prestige with segments of the public that don’t care for the rest of us. Maybe he has spoken up on this but if so I haven’t seen it. Or does he still feel that, as his Carnovsky says, the Jews can stick their historical suffering up their ass? (And yes, I know that there’s a difference between characters and authors; but I also know that grown-ups should not pretend that it’s quite the difference they tell their students it is.) Anyway, brushing aside my evident hostility to his view on these matters, which is neither here nor there, I honestly believe that if he were to come out publicly, it would be of some interest. I think we’re at the point where the whole world is getting ready to screw the Jews. At such points even the most independent of souls might find it worth saying a word.
Unwisely Felt forwards a copy of the letter to Zuckerman and this proves to be something of a tipping point. From then until the end of the book Zuckerman goes into free-fall. All writers struggle with self-doubt—as Zuckerman puts it, “[D]oubt is half a writer’s life. Two-thirds. Nine-tenths. Another day, another doubt. The only thing I never doubted was the doubt”—and one day we’re all convinced it’ll win. Zuckerman decides to give up on writing and, at the late age of forty and with no talent for (or interest in) science, to go to medical school (his father who died in the previous novel, Zuckerman Unbound, had been an obstetrician):
A year’s grind as an undergraduate, four of medical studies, three of residency and at forty-eight he’d be ready to open an office. That would give him twenty-five years in practice—if he could depend on his health. It was the change of professions that would restore his health. The pain would just dwindle away…
While he’s waiting on the dwindling beginning pain killers, vodka and marijuana would have to suffice:
Percodan was to Zuckerman what sucking stones were to Molloy—without ’em he couldn’t go on.
No sooner has the suggestion been made, though, than we readers know he’s going to fail and fail dismally. The real question is: Will he ever write again? As the actor in Roth’s 2009 novel The Humbling (who has a similar problem (he’s lost his “magic”)) notes, “The reconstruction of a life ha[s] to begin somewhere.” That somewhere is usually rock bottom and Zuckerman hits it face first and I’m not being metaphorical.
Interestingly, Roth writes, again in Reading Myself and Others, that he included the character of Milton Appel in the book “not … because I was once demolished in print by Irving Howe [but] because half of being a writer is being indignant. And being right. […] Show me a writer who isn’t furious about being misrepresented, misread, or unread, and who isn’t sure he’s right.” I get where he’s coming from—I would be lying if I said I didn’t—but most of us suffer the slaps and bite our tongues. Were it not for the pain and his attempts to self-medicate no doubt Zuckerman would’ve done so too—seethe for, as he puts it, “fifteen minutes” and then get on with the next book. 1969’s Portnoy’s Complaint was followed in quick succession by Our Gang (1971), The Breast (1972) and The Great American Novel (1972) so, yes, there are autobiographical elements to this book but only as a springboard, nothing more. Zuckerman is “an act.” As Roth explains, “Céline pretended to be a rather indifferent, even irresponsible physician when he seems in fact to have worked hard at his practice and to have been conscientious about his patients. But that wasn’t interesting.”
If he hadn’t decided to name the book The Anatomy Lesson a good title would’ve been Referred Pain. The epigraph to the novel, taken from the Textbook of Orthopaedic Medicine by James Cyriax, M.D., states: “The chief obstacle to correct diagnosis in painful conditions is the fact that the symptom is often felt at a distance from its source.” It’s a good choice because although it’s undeniable that Zuckerman is in pain the source of that pain proves elusive:
Since the pains had begun in earnest eighteen months before, he’d waited his tum in the offices of three orthopaedists, two neurologists, a physiotherapist, a rheumatologist, a radiologist, an osteopath, a vitamin doctor, an acupuncturist, and now the analyst.
Oh, and a decent old dolorologist he bumps into whilst waiting in line to cash a cheque.
The pain stops him in his tracks and forces him to look at himself and in particular at the validity of his chosen profession. Why do we write? I suspect all writers fall into two camps, the storytellers and the answer seekers. I’m firmly one of the latter and I suspect Roth is, too, from what he says at the start of his Paris Review interview given shortly after publishing The Anatomy Lesson. He writes it out and in doing so (hopefully) the true source of the pain or the itch or the niggle or whatever the hell’s bugging him comes to light and can be exorcised. “Fluency can be a sign that nothing is happening;” he says in the interview, “fluency can actually be my signal to stop, while being in the dark from sentence to sentence is what convinces me to go on.” The Anatomy Lesson is certainly not a kneejerk response to the mixed reviews Portnoy’s Complaint got—fourteen years separate the two books—but when reading this I was reminded of Eric Morecombe who kept a newspaper clipping from 1954 in his wallet that read: “Definition of the week:- TV Set: The box they buried Morecambe and Wise in.” Things like that don’t go away:
Everybody wants to make pain interesting—first the religions, then the poets, then, not to be left behind, even the doctors getting in on the act with their psychosomatic obsession. They want to give it significance. What does it mean? What are you hiding? What are you showing? It's impossible to suffer just the pain, you have to suffer its meaning. But it's not interesting and it has no meaning—it's just plain stupid pain, it’s the opposite of interesting…
I related very strongly to this book. Not to all of it. But most of it. You don’t have to be a writer to get it. The fundamental fear the book tackles is one everyone can understand (e.g. when someone is diagnosed with some form of dementia): what if you can no longer be you?
This is my tenth Roth and my fifth Zuckerman novel. Oddly enough I’ve never read Portnoy’s Complaint although I did locate a copy of the 1972 film adaptation featuring Richard Benjamin which I didn’t think much of and did nothing to encourage me to check out the source material. I will, however, keep plodding my way through the remaining Zuckerman novels.
And just as an aside (for those few who might’ve read my novel The More Things Change) when Jim notices the copy of The Anatomy Lesson on his bookshelf it is not the Roth novel despite the fact Jim is also a forty-year-old writer who can’t write. When I wrote the first draft of the novel I hadn’t read anything by Philip Roth. What I’m actually referencing is the Saga of the Swamp Thing comic by Alan Moore.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017


The Secret Place

(for J.)

Though not too far
it is difficult to reach.

I sent my eyes
but they misread the signs.

And then my tears
though they broke down on the way.

Now it's just me
and I'm not going away

till you let me in from the cold.

15 July 1994
J. never opened up about everything. She told me stuff she’d told nobody—or at least not many bodies—before but not all. It’s a mistake we often make. We learn something shocking about someone (or at least something that shocks us) and assume that’s it; lightning doesn’t strike twice and all that guff. I pressed J. to reveal more because I could tell there was more but whatever had happened to her or she’d done wouldn’t say. Did I need to know? No. Would it have helped me understand her better? Maybe but probably not because even what I’d learned only told me so much. None of us really understand each other and the bare facts don’t help. Because we weren’t there. 

Let me give tell you a secret. When I was at the academy a thing started: two boys set upon a third and, for no good reason, gave him a beating. Afterwards the third joined their gang which sought out a fourth to initiate. At the time I was the fastest boy in the school so by the time they came looking for me it was a mob and until you’ve had what felt like the whole school chase you intent on beating you to a pulp you can’t possibly understand how I felt fleeing for my life. They never caught me—the second-fastest led the chase but I outran him—and the whole thing simply went away after that; they never tried a second time. Does it help knowing that about me? Sure, it’s an interesting anecdote but it really had no great effect on me in the long-term.

Sunday, 9 July 2017


Holding On

(for J.)

She cradled the receiver
like an extension of him
hanging onto the moment

and wrapped her arms around herself –
a surrogate embrace –
while his gentle words warmed her.

Someone out there loved her.

10 July 1994
Mobile phones existed in 1994. The Nokia 2110 was available then and the Ericsson EH237 but I never had one. I didn’t even have a landline where I was staying; I had to use a public telephone. Kids nowadays won’t understand what that was like. It sounds horrible but I have some fond (and not so fond) memories of standing in call boxes, frozen stiff and fast running out of change. It took effort to make a call. You had to go out of your way. I’m not saying mobiles phones are necessarily a bad thing—it’s not as cut and dried as that—but not all change is for the better. 

This poem’s showing its age. Much like Blondie’s ‘Hanging on the Telephone’. You could cradle a receiver back then. It had a comforting shape. I can’t feel the same about modern designs. They’re functional but that’s about it.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017


Moment of Truth

(for J.)

She found herself
alone with the truth;
it was an awkward moment –
they'd not been introduced.

They'd seen each other
over the years, of course,
a nodding acquaintance
in a small town.

He wasn't what she'd imagined –
quite a gentle man –
but then neither was she
what she purported to be.

He wanted to talk first.
No – he never said, "first:"
he just wanted to talk
and she was confused.

Until he explained
how it was meant to be,
the nature of their universe
and this thing called love.

10 July 1994
Two years from now I’ll write a poem entitled ‘The Impossibility of Crows’ (#792). It was for and about J. and no one else will get it but it wasn’t for anyone else. In our letters and our phone calls (but especially in the letters) we revealed ourselves to each other. Taking off your clothes is easy. Baring your soul is another thing entirely. What I learned about J. surprised and saddened me and I came to see her in a completely different light. We think we know people because we are people but that’s like a glass of lukewarm water imagining it can understand an ice floe or a fog bank. I had no idea who J. was, not the slightest clue. Mostly because she didn’t want people to know or was trying to convince herself she was no longer that person. A bit of both most likely.

Why “first”? Because when you’ve spent a lifetime seeing one thing in the mirror it’s hard to see anything else. A victim only ever sees a victim, a sinner only ever sees a sinner, a lost cause only ever sees a lost cause. It’s not for me to tell J.’s story. I still have her letters, all of them, apart from the pages she asked me to destroy after I’d read them. But I remember them. All of them.

Sunday, 2 July 2017



(for J.)

It seemed such an appropriate place
to begin a journey
that would never end:

a beach that went on forever
beside a sea that wrapped
itself around the globe;

the symbolism had not
escaped him, nor her,
as she reached for his hand.

The future has to begin somewhere.

10 July 1994
How we got here’s not important. At least not as important as the fact we are here. You can’t change the past. I’m not even sure you can learn that much from it since it never repeats itself. It’s the old you-can’t-step-in-the-same-river-twice catch. J. wasn’t B. who wasn’t F. who wasn’t M. who wasn’t the other F. who wasn’t the other J. who wasn’t A and would not be C. And there’re lots of lowercase letters in there who never got poems dedicated to or written about them. 

I’d no idea what was going to happen between J. and me. Okay, I had a pretty good idea. We might not have had much of a past but the future was wide open. That said what promises could I possibly make? We never strolled hand in hand on a beach. We held hands, once—twice, if you count my mother’s funeral—and we kissed just the once; not sure how many times we hugged but not many. At the time I didn’t know how little time we were going to have but that’s true of every day of every life. There’re some promises we should never make.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017


A Voice to Need

(for J.)

I lay on my bed last night,
grafted your face
on a past we could never have

and filled it with memories –
only good ones –
where all the rows ended in love.

But the images were stills,
just photographs
of a dream waiting to happen.

I miss you so much.

10 July 1994
How did we get here? I could’ve asked that question more than once over the years. Mostly I wouldn’t have been able to answer it though. I don’t think you can put it down to not paying attention. I don’t think that’s it. I just think it’s hard to isolate the key moments that lead up to whatever “here” we’re on about. I have no idea how J. became so important to me. She was always… well, not “always” but for a long time… there in the background, on the periphery of my life but when did she take centre stage? When I can answer. It was 1994. How’s not so easy. Even with the gift of hindsight it’s hard to answer. We were just suddenly there for each other. When I think about who she was to me prior to 1994 “stills” is as good an expression as any to describe it. She didn’t have an active part in my life. I can picture her there—“picture” as in “photograph”—but that’s it. 

I find the choice of tense in the third line interesting. I don’t write of a past we never had but of a past we could never have suggesting that the present we were experiencing would never turn into that kind of past and, in truth, it never did.

Sunday, 25 June 2017



(for J.)

Words can be filled
with all sorts of things:
meanings and feelings
and secrets and lies.

I found some of yours
in a sentence today
hiding in a letter
packed full of truths.

I wasn't sure what
they meant at first;
it scared me,
but I want you too.

26 June 1994

“‘I want’ doesn’t get.” My parents never said that to me. It’s the kind of thing they would’ve said had the expression been one they were familiar with. Instead I was told not to be covetous. I’ve always thought that an odd word to come out of my parents’ mouths—they both used it but I can only hear my mother saying it—because they were plain speakers the rest of the time. I don’t think I was an especially greedy child—except when it came to chocolate biscuits—and they did tell me my eyes were bigger than my belly on more than one occasion but they reserved ‘covetous’ for the times I took something off my little brother simply because I wanted it. It is the tenth commandment after all: “Thou shalt not covet.” I was never told growing up that wanting was bad per se but it wasn’t encouraged. Didn’t all the world’s problems begin with Eve wanting something that wasn’t hers? Which led to covetousness. Which led to theft. Which led to enticement. Which led to death. 

I had a dream a couple of nights ago. I don’t normally remember my dreams for long after waking and am seriously jealous of those who do but because I grabbed pencil and paper as soon as I woke up I have a clear record of one particular scene. I was in a car with Sean and two girls and we were each trying to tell the girls something. By “girls” I mean young women. I agreed to relocate and the next thing I know I’m out of the car and in bed—fully clothed—with my girl (who turned out to be B. but I don’t think that’s especially important; think of her more as a place-holder) and I was trying to explain how I felt about her. This is what I wrote down on waking: 
I need to clarify how I feel about you. It's not enough that I love you or want you—it's not enough that I possess you or dote on you—I want to be with you; I want to expand my notion of existence to encompass you so that when I think about going home at night I'm going home to you and when I think of getting up in the morning I'm getting up with you. I know this is probably the least romantic declaration of affection you'll ever hear but it will be the most honest. 
There was more but the above was all I got down. 

Had I written ‘Messages’ a few years earlier I would’ve written ‘love’ and not ‘want’ and not batted an eye but I wasn’t convinced what I felt for J. was love, at least not romantic love; I was on the rebound and didn’t trust my own feelings and this was all happening so quickly. The reason I chose ‘want’ rather than ‘love’ in the end—I do remember swithering—was because of the Bob Dylan song; the guy who ran off with my first wife was a big Dylan fan and one night explained to me why ‘want’ was more powerful than ‘love’.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017



(for J.)

Excuse me, I don't know this place;
we're not where we were.
I'm sure we've moved on.
Mind if I join you?

Guess I must've dozed off.

Where're you headed friend?
No; don't tell me.
Just let me sit awhile:
we don't have to talk much.

Could sure use the company.

All journeys end
or so they say –
I read a poem once –
but I'm not convinced.

Suppose we'll know if we get there.

20 June 1994

The idea for this one came from reading a poem although I don’t remember reading much poetry around this time. The only books I can recall definitely finishing were Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, John le Carré’s first two novels. I also reread Catcher in the Rye and wasn’t nearly as impressed the second time round. In my head the poem was by a Canadian. Why that stuck I’ve no idea. So I thought I’d try and track it down. 

Cohen was the obvious first choice but I can’t find anything. Margaret Atwood wrote, “He'll find out somehow, because journeys end in lovers meeting,” but that’s from The Blind Assassin, so not a poem. Just a quick scan of the rest of the list was enough to make me think I was on a hiding to nothing. So I expanded my search parameters. 

It’s a popular phrase “all journeys end” and it wasn’t hard to come up with a few contenders:
As in interims all journeys end
in three steps
with a mirrored door, beyond it a closet
and a closet wall. 
So wrote the poet Jim Harrison in his poem ‘In Interims: Outlyer’ but I don’t think he’s the poet being referenced here.
A trellis rose-like souls can climb and grow –
And a pledge that one day all journeys end
As mind has now I stand in sun, and know
That was Nicholas Hagger in his poem ‘Among Laughton's Sacred Houses’ but it’s not that one either. Nor is it “Long ago, didn’t we read how all journeys end?” from Richard Hugo’s ‘Bay of Resolve’.
                The hillside wind

turbines were bleached oars
sunk to mark all journeys’ end. 
In his fist was a bolus of twine. 
That excerpt is from ‘Nausicaa’ by Tim MacGabhann but it doesn’t feel right.
All journeys end upon her lips and hair;
All roads lead to her eyes; all joys and pain
Up to her breast; all paths to where she sleeps;
Just why, he doesn't know and doesn't care. 
From ‘The Future – If We Win’ by Edwin Curran. It doesn’t ring any bells. It’s not from ‘Dream Poem – at fifty’ by Peter Boyle either.

The poem it turns out I’m referencing is by Rod McKuen and if you’d asked me this morning if I’d read anything by him I would’ve sworn blind I hadn’t. I would’ve been wrong. It’s called ‘Passengers for J. S. A.’ in which he writes: 
Passengers we are
traveling these same tracks
carried along by this same ribbon
                     of boardwalk.
All journeys end
or so we are told they should.  
The destination looms,
is nearly in our sights.
Can you see it, feel it? 
And for the record McKuen was born in a Salvation Army hostel in Oakland, California in 1933. Christ knows why I was so convinced the poet was from Canada.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Strange Recital

I went to a short story reading at the weekend. It’s not something I do very often, go out, but I made the effort because I knew two of the guys reading and wanted to be supportive. I’d no expectations but the event went pretty much the way these things usually go for me; I’m not the world’s best socialiser, far from it, but the readings themselves were interesting. I didn’t regret not being up there with them, not for a second. I do understand why people arrange events like this but just because you write readable stories doesn’t mean you should read them yourself. And this is especially true if your story is in the first person. People would laugh if I got up on a stage and started to read ‘Disintegration’ or ‘Monsters’. Despite having lived all my life in Scotland I do a lousy Scottish accent and an even worse New York one. So I was wary when my friend Brent Robison dropped me an e-mail a few months back asking permission to include my story ‘Tomorrowscape’ in his podcast, The Strange Recital. I’d no problems with him using it—hell, we writers pounce on any opportunity to promote our writing—I just didn’t think I could do the story justice. Not a problem as it happens. Brent had access to a stable of actors. “So, yes, fine, knock yourself out,” I said, or words to that effect. I told him a bit about the voice I heard in my head when I read the story but other than that I left him to interpret the thing as he saw fit. After a while he wrote back. “I’ve had an idea. Why don’t we have a woman read the story?” Now I’ve got nothing about women—love ’em to bits actually—but although nowhere in the story is the sex of the narrator mentioned in my head it was definitely a male born in 1924 in Syracuse, New York, to a Jewish family. Just saying. But why not a woman? I wrote back: 
I think this is an interesting proposition, Brent. I’m just sitting here waiting to see who gets cast as the next Doctor Who and will it be a woman (they’ve hinted as much) or, if they’re going to be super politically-correct, a black lesbian? Beckett had strong opinions on the subject and refused, for example, to sanction an all-female version of Waiting for Godot. When asked why not by Linda Ben-Zvi his answer was simply, “Women don’t have prostrates” and it’s a fair point but that only cancels out Vladimir; they also don’t get erections and that would excuse both men. I’ve never seen women play Didi and Gogo but I did see a female Lucky once and wasn’t impressed. Not so much because she was female but because she was a bad Lucky. Of course there’s nothing in my story to suggest the narrator’s a male although to be fair I’d never thought about it before. I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work and I’d be interested to see what it might add if the actress gets the tone right. To that end you have my blessing. If I was directing her my main concern would be that her delivery doesn’t suggest any sympathy for the wife or antipathy for the husband. The narrator is reporting the facts as if they’d already happened. 
And so it came to pass. Brent sent me a short demo which I approved and the full version—with appropriate sound effects—went live about a week ago. And I have to say I was impressed. It’s not the way I would’ve read it but I only see that as a good thing and all credit to Erin Stanley for her understated performance. 

You can listen to the whole show here. There’s also a Q+A afterwards. The answers are mine but the voice isn’t.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The Meursault Investigation

[T]he absurdity of my condition … consisted in pushing a corpse to the top of a hill before it rolled back down, endlessly. – Kamel Daoud, The Meursault Investigation

I was probably eighteen the first time I read The Outsider. Knowing me I picked it up because it was a slim volume—that and I related to the title (could never quite get used to Americans calling it The Stranger but if you’ve ever wondered why the difference you might want to check out this Guardian article). I’ve read it since—twice, I think—and unlike some of the books I relished in my teens, like Catcher in the Rye, it’s a book I found I grew into rather than away from, but even on a first read I knew this one was a bit special and so dashed out and bought The Myth of Sisyphus, The Plague, The Fall and Exile and the Kingdom (books were a lot cheaper back then)—they’ve all got something but I can see why for most people The Outsider stands out although I do have a soft spot for The Plague.
As soon as I heard about The Meursault Investigation I knew I wanted to read it but expected to be disappointed. I’m delighted to report I wasn’t; far from it in fact. Of course it’s been done before—to my mind most notably in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead but also in Wild Sargasso Sea, Mary Reilly and Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West—minor characters are given a voice but few authors have had as little to work with as Kamel Daoud. His novel focuses on “the Arab”, the man Meursault shoots on the beach in The Outsider. What do we know about him for sure? That he wore blue dungarees; that he had a friend who played “a reed,” that he owned a knife and on at least one occasion in his life lounged on a beach. Not much. Even calling him “the Arab” isn’t especially helpful. It would be like a soldier in the British Raj talking about “the Indian” because at the time of the shooting this was French Algeria, one of France's longest-held overseas territories, and it continued as such until 1962. As Daoud points out:
Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighbourhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period.
In even the poorest crime novel we generally find out something about the victim. Who he or she was matters. It goes to motive. Detectives do like to arrest criminals but I suspect solving a crime involves more than identifying the guilty party. It’s not enough to know who and how but in Meursault’s case the why ends up focusing on his character and in particular his relationship—or lack thereof—with his recently-deceased mother. It almost feels as if that is why he ends up being condemned to death and the murder of the Arab is evidence of that. Much has been written about this and I’m not going to add to the screeds out there.
When I first read about Daoud’s book I assumed we were going to go back in time and get the Arab’s story up to the point where he gets shot. Not so. The narrator is his brother who was seven at the time; now he’s in his eighties. An investigator—or reporter or student (it’s never quite clear)—tracks him down in Oran where he lives and over the course of several days (and many glasses of wine) listens to his story. At first I was ready to be disappointed until I could see where Daoud was going with this. Our narrator—who we learn is called Harun (Aaron)—has in many respects taken on the mantle of his dead brother, Musa (Moses), or at least become custodian of the dead man’s memory. (In the Bible Aaron acts as spokesman for his brother.) No, ‘taken on’ is too weak. He’s been forced by his grief-stricken mother to become his brother for all intents and purposes—“my mother imposed on me a strict duty of reincarnation”—although the more we get to know him, the ‘him’ Harun describes for us—the more we realise he actually comes to have in common with Meursault:
I was looking for traces of my brother in the book, and what I found there instead was my own reflection, I discovered I was practically the murderer’s double.
The book he’s referring to is a novel entitled The Other although who exactly the author is is unclear. At one point it seems to be Meursault who must’ve been either pardoned or jailed because the brother says, “When the murderer leaves prison, he writes a book that becomes famous, in which he recounts how he stood up to God, a priest, and the absurd” but that contradicts what he says elsewhere: “Why the murderer was so relaxed after being sentenced to death and even after his execution…” [italics mine] Maybe ‘Meursault’ is a non de plume.
Clearly, though, Harun is an unreliable narrator and concedes as much when he talks about his relationship with the student Meriem (the girl from Constantine who, in 1963, first introduces him to the book), which he admits to elaborating—“[I]t’s a big fib. From beginning to end. The scene’s too perfect; I made it all up,” later adding:
Do you find my story suitable? It’s all I can offer you. It’s my word. I’m Musa’s brother or nobody’s. Just a compulsive liar you met with so you could fill up your notebooks … It’s your choice, my friend.
That’s the problem with eyewitness testimony. It’s so easy to cast doubt on it. And the more you think about it the less you can trust the “facts” but, of course, neither he nor his mother were eyewitnesses and so all they’re left with are their imaginings. “As a child, I was allowed to hear only one story at night,” he recounts, “one deceptively wonderful tale. It was the story of Musa, my murdered brother, who took a different form every time, according to my mother’s mood.” His mother keeps newspaper clippings “religiously folded in her bosom” and, once her son has learned to read French, insists he read and reread them to her:
“Here, take another look, see if they don’t say something else, something you didn’t understand before.” That went on for almost ten years, that routine.
With two paragraphs, I had to find a body, some alibis, and some accusations. It was a way of continuing Mama’s investigations, her search for Zujj [Zoudj is Algerian Arabic for two], my twin. That led to a strange book—which I perhaps should have written out, as a matter of fact, if I’d had your hero’s gift—a counter-investigation. I crammed everything I could between the lines of those two brief newspaper items, I swelled their volume until I made them a cosmos. And so Mama got a complete imaginary reconstruction of the crime, including the colour of the sky, the circumstances, the words exchanged between the victim and his murderer, the atmosphere in the courtroom, the policemen’s theories, the cunning of the pimp and the other witnesses, the lawyers’ pleas … Well, I can talk about it like that now, but at the time it was an incredibly disordered jumble, a kind of Thousand and One Nights of lies and infamy. Sometimes I felt guilty about it, but most often I was proud. I was giving my mother what she’d searched for in vain in the cemeteries and European neighbourhoods of Algiers. That production — an imaginary book for an old woman who had no words—lasted a long time.
So this is where the confabulation begins. Needless to say when he learns of the existence of the novel Harun says nothing to his mother. By then she’s quit pestering him with the clippings. She may even have finally thrown them away. Why stir her up needlessly? Because it’s only a novel. Yes, only a novel. Not the truth. At least not the whole truth.
And here, we come to an interesting twist in literary reception of both The Stranger and The Meursault Investigation: it’s important to note that, when the Algerian audience discusses The Stranger, Meursault and Camus are often seen as one and the same. As noted at the recent Contemporary French Civilization at 40 conference, in Algeria, The Stranger is understood to be a roman à clef if not outright confessional memoir. – Jennifer Solheim, ‘The Art of Making Ghosts Live: on The Meursault Investigation, Fiction Writer’s Review
Memoirs passed off as novels are not unknown and semiautobiographical novels are downright commonplace. Is it possible, is it just possible, that Camus shot a man on a beach in Algiers and got away with it? Imagine if that were true and you were the victim’s brother. Wouldn’t you want to understand how he could’ve done it? And what would be the best way to do that? To do the same? Surely no one would go out of his way to gun down a total stranger simply to get some kind of closure:
These days, I’m so old that I often tell myself, on nights when multitudes of stars are sparkling in the sky, there must necessarily be something to be discovered from living so long. Living, what an effort! At the end, there must necessarily be, there has to be, some sort of essential revelation. It shocks me, this disproportion between my insignificance and the vastness of the cosmos. I often think there must be something all the same, something in the middle between my triviality and the universe!
But often enough I backslide, I start roaming the beach with a pistol in my fist, scouting around for the first Arab who looks like me so I can kill him.
Well that’s not what happens; something else does; one day, the very next day after the Algerian War of Independence ends, he gets his chance to fill Meursault’s shoes. What would you do? This book may well have started off as one thing but it soon becomes its own thing and it doesn’t matter if you’ve never read The Outsider or seen the 1967 film version (which I recall being quite good) or even heard of Camus; it stands on its own feet. Granted its fragmented and sometimes repetitive approach to storytelling may not be to everyone’s tastes but it’s appropriate to the subject matter.
One of the major themes in The Outsider is Meursault’s take on God. These days we accept atheism as a norm—I’m always a bit sceptical when I read that two-thirds of the UK population identifies as Christian and wonder where they’re all hiding—but in 1942 things were quite different. In The Outsider Meursault is interrogated by the examining magistrate in his office:
[B]efore I could get the words out, he had drawn himself up to his full height and was asking me very earnestly if I believed in God. When I said, “No,” he plumped down into his chair indignantly.
That was unthinkable, he said; all men believe in God, even those who reject Him. Of this he was absolutely sure; if ever he came to doubt it, his life would lose all meaning. “Do you wish,” he asked indignantly, “my life to have no meaning?” Really I couldn't see how my wishes came into it, and I told him as much.
You can’t really imagine a conversation like that taking place nowadays. But what if these were Muslims? In The Meursault Investigation we discover that Harun has also come to question the faith into which he was born:
Sometimes I’m tempted to climb up that prayer tower, reach the level where the loudspeakers are hung, lock myself in, and belt out my widest assortment of invective and sacrilege. I long to list my impieties in detail. To bellow that I don’t pray, I don’t do my ablutions, I don’t fast, I will never go on any pilgrimage, and I drink wine—and what’s more, the air that makes it better. To cry out that I’m free, and that God is a question, not an answer, and that I want to meet him alone, at my death as at my birth.
As you might appreciate lines like that did not sit well with some and a Facebook fatwa (issued by Abdelfatah Hamadache, a radical Islamist preacher in Algeria who leads an obscure Salafist group known as the Islamic Awakening Front) resulted. After filing a criminal complaint against the imam the man backed down but, as you can well imagine, the kerfuffle did nothing to harm the book’s sales. Hamadache was eventually sentenced to six months imprisonment by a court in Oran and fined 50,000 dinars ($460).
Some have suggested that The Meursault Investigation will become essential reading for students studying The Outsider. I can see that. It goes a long way to making Camus relevant in today’s increasingly absurd world and, of course, it continues Algeria’s story into the present giving not only “the Arab” but all “Arabs” a voice.
You can read an extract from the book here.
Kamel Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oran, where he writes for the Quotidien d’Oran—the third largest French-language Algerian newspaper. His articles have appeared in Libération, Le Monde and Courrier International and are regularly reprinted around the world.

A finalist for the prix Goncourt, The Meursault Investigation won the prix François Mauriac and the prix des cinq-continents de la Francophonie. International rights to the novel have been sold in twenty countries and a film adaptation is supposedly slated for release later this year but I can find no details online.

Sunday, 11 June 2017


The Power of Love

(for J.)

Love is a straight line –
it gets right to the heart of things.

Love squared is expansive –
it covers a multitude of sins.

Love to the power of three is deep –
it takes time to explore.

Give me your hand
and don't be afraid.

12 June 1994
The geometry of love. That would’ve made a decent title too. A one-dimensional straight line grows to become a two-dimensional flat plane which expands to become a three-dimensional cube. This is a love poem but what kind of love I can’t say. Not a simple love; that much is true. Interestingly I don’t use the ‘in’ word in this poem. I don’t talk about diving into the deep. I do think of it as a dark place and darkness can be scary. Yet what does it take to reduce that fear to a tolerable level? a spark? a reassuring voice? or maybe a hand to hold? By this time in my life I’d been infatuated with, had crushes on, lusted after, doted on, adored, loved and been in love with more than a few women. And now here was one more desperately needing to be cared for. The last thing in the world I was looking for was another woman. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t wary.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017


"Behind the Wood"

(for J.)

How did love find its way in here?
What's it doing in a place like this?

It knows it'll die –
there's nothing to keep it alive –
and yet it came.

Somehow I knew it would
but I was still unprepared.

How do you prepare to lose something
before you've really found it?

10 June 1994
Why do people meet behind the wood and not in the wood? Surely the trees would provide cover? Don’t you have to pass through the wood to get behind it? Maybe that’s the point. Maybe this kind of meeting warrants effort. For months J. and I had kept our distance. The only time I made any effort was once when we ran into each other in the bank and I asked her if she’d like to go for a coffee but she declined and it was probably for the best. What if we’d been seen? People talk even when there’s nothing to talk about and there was nothing to talk about. 

My dad asked me if J. and I were in a relationship. It’s an annoying little preposition. It’s not enough for us to love someone, we have to be in love with them. Both J. and I were going through our respective somethings in 1994. We were both very much in our individual woods. So I think I’m being presumptuous here in assuming either one of us had made it to the clearing beyond it. I don’t know. I don’t know what I was thinking. 

Why the title’s in quotes I couldn’t tell you. I can find several people who’ve used the expression—Shakespeare, Tennyson, Turgenev—but none of them ring a bell.

Sunday, 4 June 2017


The Spark

(for J.)

She didn't see it at first
because the world was full of lights.

Then the lights went out
and the sky was filled with stars.

But when the stars fell down
and all was dark and cold
then she noticed it,
alone and unsure,
in a universe of darkness.

And it was for her.

7 June 1994

Every now and then someone turns up in our life and we can’t quite remember a) when they arrived and b) how they became important to us. That’s how it was with J. I don’t recall meeting her for the first time. I do know there was a time when she wasn’t a part of my life but the window in which she appeared is a wide one, anywhere between 1983 and 1988 at a rough guess. One day she wasn’t there, the next she was. She became a friend of the family but she wasn’t part of our inner circle and I can only remember her being at our house once only I’m not sure she came in the house; I remember her in the back garden (I think she was dropping something off) but that’s it. I was never inside her house and only once knocked on her door to drop off a book but she was out so I gave it to her eldest son. And yet after the disastrous years that led up to 1994 she was the only person from my past—apart from my parents (and by that I mean mainly my dad)—whom I kept in touch with. I wrote to her, she replied and we corresponded and talked occasionally on the phone for a few months. In the years to come I met her in person only twice; the last time was at my mother’s funeral.

When my dad learned about J. he asked if I had a relationship with her and I remember being confused by the question because I honestly hadn’t thought about it. For a man who prides himself on his knowledge of words my misunderstanding is a surprising one. We were friends and I loved her but that was all I could be sure about. To this day I couldn’t tell you if I fell in love with her but we did cling to each other for a while and that can muddy the waters. She was also going through a bad time—she’d come home to find her husband had hung himself leaving her with three boys to raise on her own—and was also very much alone having been abandoned by almost everyone. (Not as a direct consequence of the suicide but I don’t want to elaborate.)

I didn’t have much to give her but somehow a bond developed between us—even before I moved away—and it helped a little. I am the spark in the poem. And she became my spark too. Not bright enough to see anything bar and certainly not hot enough to warm us but enough to know we weren’t completely alone.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017


My Pain (to be read out loud)

(for J.)

What do I say?
What do I say to the pain,
“Pain, go away”?

You are my pain;
you define what I am.
What would I do without you?

We have been together so long
like a wartime couple who married too young
and stayed together for the sake of the kids.

But this is the nineteen-nineties –
I don't need to take this. (Did I say that?)
Yes; go away. Go away now!
It won't be the same
but then
it never should have been.

5 June 1994
Three years is a long time to go without writing poetry. Prose helps but it’s not the same. Not by a long chalk. A lot's happened since I wrote ‘Pillow Fight’ in August 1991. F. and I are no longer together, I’ve quit my job, moved away, lost almost all my friends and am in the middle of my second major depression. I’d like to say this is the lowest point in my life but I’m not sure it was. I suppose for some people there’s a day where they hit rock bottom and the only way is up but, for me, it took a long time to bottom out, months in fact. This isn’t a particularly good poem but I can’t really skip it because of its significance. Saying you’re going to stop drinking or taking drugs is one thing and I’m not saying it’s easy but saying you’re not going to hurt any more is another thing completely. Rodman Philbrick said, “Pain is just a state of mind. You can think your way out of everything, even pain.” Well, this is me starting this process and it took about eighteen months before it dawned on me I was no longer depressed.
As for who J. was, I’ll come back to her. Yes, it’s a her. You knew it was going to be another her. Where would my life be without all the hers in it?

Sunday, 28 May 2017


Pillow Fight

"It's all right," William said (talking to my chest),
"When it's not all right I scream into my pillow.

"It's full of breasts you see –
I rip them out of magazines and papers
(we're not allowed scissors).

"They're like sponges, (I read it in a book) –
you must see – they soak up the pain."

16 August 1991
On the surface I can see how people might assume this poem is a natural follow-on to ‘Grief at Parting’ (#734) and I’m not saying there’s not a connection but William had already expressed an interest in women’s breasts in ‘The Lady Doctor’(#620). When I came to write my first novel (around November 1993) I decided to make Jonathan a mastrophile and the same is true of Joe, the dead father in my new novel Left, but before you tar me as a latter day Russ Meyer can I just state for the record that I’m not obsessed with breasts. I mean I like them—what red-blooded male doesn’t?—but from a writer’s point of view I’m far more interested in them because of the symbolism that goes with them. I had originally intended Jonathan to be a bum man but it was much simpler with boobs. It’s lazy writing on one level, to go with the obvious, but why make things hard for our readers? Men are hard-wired to be drawn to breasts. We don’t shake our heads when we learn this. We might not be proud to announce to the world that our dad has a complete collection of Juggs in his wardrobe but better that than Heavy Rubber Fetish Magazine.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017


Grief at Parting

I let the moment go.
I left your lap and your breasts, my sister's breasts,
to rest my weary head on dreams and colder memories
not strong enough to be weak or honest enough to want
and afraid to ask as I wasn't sure.

What am I supposed to do with all these feelings?

4 August 1991
I only vaguely remember the event that triggered this poem but not what it’s about. I know it takes its title from a painting by Giorgio de Chirico, ‘The Melancholy of Departure’ but I’m not sure why. And I’m not even sure if it’s the 1914 painting (‘Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure)’) or the 1916 painting (‘The Melancholy of Departure’); I suspect the former and that’s the image I’ve used. The date puzzles me too. I remember being with my sister but not in 1991.

I was upset. I don’t know why I was upset—so many things to choose from—but we were on the couch in her flat only it couldn’t have been the couch because the couch was against the wall. Had she rearranged the room? So how exactly did this work? Was my head in her lap? I was crying (I think I was crying) and she went to comfort me. Was my head on her shoulder or in her lap? The shoulder makes more sense. After a time she either lifted or lowered my head so that it rested on her right breast. It wasn’t her simply shifting because she was uncomfortable; it was a deliberate action. I never understood why she did that—there’s nothing remotely maternal about my sister—but it’s a gesture that’s always touched me. We’ve never talked about it but I doubt she’d have any answers. It clearly felt right at the time. It wasn’t sexual and it was an awkward position (she didn’t have much of a bust to rest anything on) which is probably why I moved. Is that how my head ended in her lap? You would think I’d remember something like this with crystal clarity but far from it.
This is the first original poem in over a year. I wrote one more on 16 August and then nothing—no poetry at least—for three years. This was the start of my second major depression.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017


The Insides of Words

I gave her some hollow words to fill and she asked what with.
I suggested the truth but the romantic in her wasn't too keen.
So she left them empty on a shelf.
She said they meant something to her.

One day a spider made a web in them to catch flies.

6 April 1991
Hollow words. Empty words. Beats me why so many people struggle with poetry. “Your words don’t ring true.” Words don’t ring. And yet we know exactly what that means. I’ve written poems for people for decades and yet few of the recipients have ever got them. I’m not talking about pearls before swine—I would never be that condescending—but most of them would’ve been just as happy (more so even) with a card from Clintons and a bar of Dairy Milk.

Sunday, 14 May 2017


Birth befalls me
Life occupies me
Death completes me
– Édouard Levé,

‘The Death of the Author’ is a 1967 essay by the French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes. It has nothing to say about dead authors or even suicidal authors. So why bring it up? Barthes’ essay argues against traditional literary criticism's practice of incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of a text, and instead argues that writing and creator are unrelated. He has a point up to a point and I couldn’t help thinking of him when I read these lines addressed to a man who has recently killed himself:
The way in which you quit it rewrote the story of your life in a negative form. Those who knew you reread each of your acts in the light of your last. Henceforth, the shadow of this tall black tree hides the forest that was your life. When you are spoken of, it begins with recounting your death, before going back to explain it. Isn’t it peculiar how this final gesture inverts your biography?
Silvia Plath, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, Anne Sexton: the list is not short and yet it’s impossible once you realise the author of the book you have in your hands has killed himself not to look for clues. In 2013, for example, an article appeared in The Telegraph talking about how the notes for Plath’s last poem ‘Sheep in Fog’ “show the poet's increasing fragility as she approached the date she took her own life.” The LitHub article The Suicide Note as Literary Genre is also worth a read. Why the fascination? Because life’s precious and people go to extraordinary lengths to stay alive—e.g. Aron Ralston, who amputated his own right forearm with a dull pocketknife in order to extricate himself from a dislodged boulder—and yet others for no good reason—no good reason we can see—give it all up. Some we can understand—Arthur Koestler committed suicide when he was seventy-seven on discovering he had terminal leukaemia—but it’s the young, those who have, as the cliché goes, so much to live for that bemuse and confuse us.
I’ve never seriously contemplated suicide. I’ve thought about it because I’m a writer and writers—well this writer—thinks about all sort of shit but just because I’ve thought about something doesn’t mean I’m going to do it or even write about it. As it happens one of my characters is a suicide. The protagonist in my novella Exit Interview has killed himself and the book has him sitting down with Saint Peter who conducts a pretty bog standard exit interview with him. It was never intended to be a treatise on the meaningfulness and the wonderfulness of life but, obviously, a few pertinent questions get asked and the nice thing about it being a work of fiction is that I can have my suicide answer these as best he can. That doesn’t happen in the real world and it certainly doesn’t happen in Édouard Levé’s novel.
The book opens with the following paragraph:
One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife. In the middle of the garden you point out to her that you’ve forgotten your racket in the house. You go back to look for it, but instead of making your way toward the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement. Your wife doesn’t notice this. She stays outside. The weather is fine. She’s making the most of the sun. A few moments later she hears a gunshot. She rushes into the house, cries out your name, notices that the door to the stairway leading to the basement is open, goes down, and finds you there. You’ve put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared. On the table, you left a comic book open to a double-page spread. In the heat of the moment, your wife leans on the table; the book falls closed before she understands that this was your final message.
We never learn the name of the man who’s taken his own life nor do we ever learn who’s telling us his story. No one’s named in the book apart from, oddly, the narrator’s brother. We only know the suicide as “you” and it takes a while to get used to the narration in the second person especially since we know he’s a) talking to a dead man and b) describing things he cannot possibly have been be privy to. There’s less dialogue than in an Anita Brookner novel but it works. There’s no suicide note or at least what was to pass for one is lost and so the only words we have that offer any clue are the handful of short poems discovered after his friend’s death that the narrator sees fit to include after he’s finished his story; almost every line ends with the word “me”. And this is where we need to remember Barthes and not read into the poems but how can you not?
Why did he do it? Let’s just say for a minute he could answer that question: what would he be able to say that would make us go, “Yeah, I get that. I’d have done the same”? Do you remember the scene in Educating Rita where Trish, Rita’s Mahler-loving flatmate, attempts suicide and when asked why all she can offer up is a weak, “Darling, why not?” No doubt after hours and hours of therapy—and thousands upon thousands of words—we might get something that makes some sort of sense out of her actions and that’s what this book is really attempting to do. The narrator puts himself in his friend’s place and explains his friend to his friend albeit in absentia. The odd thing is who’s decided to do this investigation. We don’t learn a great deal about the narrator but this is a start:
I haven’t seen your wife since. I hardly knew her. I met her four or five times. When the two of you got married, you and I stopped seeing each other. I see her face again now. It has remained unchanged for twenty years. I’ve retained a fixed image of her from the last time I saw her. Memory, like photographs, freezes recollections.
The first time I saw you, you were in your bedroom. You were seventeen years old.
As the suicide is twenty-five when he dies this means our narrator has barely seen his friend over the last five—and presumably critical—years and only knew him for the three before that. He doesn’t seem especially qualified to start out on a task like this but who are we to deny him? When I learned that my first girlfriend had died I immediately sat down and wrote a poem for her even though we hadn’t spoken in over twenty years. You can’t help how you feel.
If you were still alive, would we be friends? I was more attached to other boys. But time has seen me drift apart from them without my even noticing. All that would be needed to renew the bond would be a telephone call, but none of us are willing to risk the disillusionment of a reunion. […] But you, who used to be so far-off, distant, mysterious, now seem quite close to me. When I am in doubt, I solicit your advice. Your responses satisfy me better than those the others could give me. You accompany me faithfully wherever I may be. It is they who have disappeared. You are the present.
You are a book that speaks to me whenever I need it. Your death has written your life.
Some of the things the narrator tells “you” are things the man would’ve been well aware of—they’re there for us in just the same way detectives in cop shows spell things out just a little too thoroughly—and mostly he dwells on the time his friend was alive but at the start of the book he does share some details concerning how people reacted to his death, like the young man’s father:
Your wife only remembered later that before falling from the table, the comic book you had left there was open. Your father bought dozens of copies, which he gave to everyone. He came to know the text and the images of this book by heart; this was not at all like him, but he ended up identifying with the comic. He is looking for the page, and on the page for the sentence, that you had chosen. He keeps a record of his reflections in a file, which is always on his desk and on which is written “Suicide Hypotheses.” If you open the cupboard to the left of his desk, you’ll find ten identical folders filled with handwritten pages bearing the same label. He cites the captions of the comic book as if they were prophecies.
I can see me doing that. Edwin Shneidman, “a father of contemporary suicidology”, wrote, “Suicide notes are cryptic maps of ill-advised journeys.” Where does the suicide think he’s going? Journeys feature quite a bit in Suicide. How many of them are accurate or even took place who can tell? At one point the narrator describes in detail his friend wandering round Bordeaux and then the next day…
You went back out, and set off at random into the town. But your steps spontaneously led you to the same locations that you had strolled through the day before. You paid less attention to what you were looking at; the places no longer had the attraction of novelty. You then decided to walk taking the first street on the right, the second street on the left, the first street on the right and so on, without deviating from this method, so as to not let yourself be guided by the appeal of whatever turned up. You passed the day in this way, looking on your map from time to time at where chance was leading you.
He stops to eat and then…
Rather than resuming your random walk, you returned by the shortest route to the city centre. When you got close to your hotel, it was still too early for dinner. You decided to take the same route as the day before, to verify if what you had seen was now anchored in your memory. You didn’t look at the map, you didn’t hesitate once over changes in direction.
Did any of this happen? Unlikely. Our narrator’s trying to imagine the kind of man his onetime friend was becoming:
When you travelled, it was to taste the pleasures of being a stranger in a strange town. You were a spectator and not an actor: mobile voyeur, silent listener, accidental tourist.
Is this how suicides feel, out of place? I found an article online with one of the usual ponderous titles that academics see fit to give their works but this one included the wonderful expression “thwarted belongingness;” I suspect its author was a frustrated poet. But it’s a good expression especially for the kind of person we find described within these pages. He doesn’t belong. Others are a struggle. We learn this right at the start when our narrator is granted access to his friend’s bedroom; no one was allowed in his room up until then.
A ruin is an accidental aesthetic object. If it becomes beautiful, this was certainly not the intention. A ruin is not constructed or maintained. The tendency of a ruin is to crumble down into a heap. The most beautiful parts remain standing despite their wear and tear. The memory of you is what stays up, your body what subsides. Your ghost remains upright in my memory, while your skeleton is decomposing in the earth.
The man we see described in this book is not the man he once was. He was never that man. The man we see described is part-ideal and part-enigma. His friend’s filled in the blanks imaginatively. He’s begun the task of mythologizing him. Sylvia Plath is now a myth according to The Herald several dozen other online sources and yet I found this sentence on the ironically short-lived site The Myth of Sylvia Plath interesting:
[H]er tabloid-worthy life and tragic end can not and should not define her: a deeper look into her work and those who read and study it show a constantly morphing poet who defies categorization.
They’re right. Her death shouldn’t define her and there will be a few lucky individuals who’ll encounter her poetry and not know anything about her but once they do it’ll be hard not to reassess what they’ve read; the need to look at it again with different eyes will be hard.
Which brings me to Édouard Levé. In the Afterword Jan Steyn, the book’s English translator, writes:
Édouard Levé committed suicide on October 15, 2007. Ten days earlier he had given a manuscript to his editor; it was a novel entitled Suicide, the same you hold in your hands.
Suicide’s reception in France has been deeply influenced by the circumstances of the author’s death. Although it is a fictional work, written in the second person about a friend of the narrator’s who had committed suicide twenty years earlier, its title and subject matter ensure that, despite reports that Levé did leave a suicide note, the present text is taken as a sort of literary explanation of his decision to die.
Levé was forty-two when he died and every line of Suicide makes us wonder why.
Your suicide has become the foundational act…Your final second changed your life in the eyes of others. You are like the actor who, at the end of the play, with a final word, reveals that he is a different character than the one he appeared to be playing.
I was lucky. I’d forgotten all about Levé’s suicide by the time I got round to reading the book. I never thought for a second that the author of the book I was reading might be dead due to anything other than misfortune or natural causes. Now I see it all in a very different light but rather than looking for a reason—which may or may not be there—I was struck by his awareness of how others would react to his death:
Your mother cried for you when she learned of your death. She cried for you every day until your burial. She cried for you alone, in her husband’s arms, in the arms of your brother and your sister, in the arms of her mother and your wife. She cried for you during the ceremony, following your coffin to the cemetery, and during your inhumation. When friends, many of them, came to present their condolences, she cried for you. With every hand that she shook, with every kiss she received, she again saw fragments of your past, of the days she believed you to be happy. Faced with your death, scenarios of what you could have lived or experienced with these people, gave them a feeling of immense loss: you had, by your suicide, saddened your past and abolished your future. Your mother cried for you in the days following your funeral, and she cried for you again, alone, whenever she thought of you. Years later, there are many, like her, whose tears flow whenever they think of you.
One of the things they say to potential suicides is, “Think of others.” That might be a spouse or a parent or a sibling or even work or classmates. Well, clearly, even if Suicide is not Levé’s actual suicide note it does show that he was aware of the potential—dare I say inevitable?—consequences of his actions. Another thing people say—although they don’t usually get to say it to the person they’d most like to—is that suicide is a selfish act. It is on one level but the real question is: Is selfishness necessarily a bad thing? That’s one I’ve struggled with my whole life. Here’s what the narrator thinks his friend’s thoughts might have been on the matter:
This selfishness of your suicide displeased you. But, all things considered, the lull of death won out over life’s painful commotion.
No one would suggest for a moment that suicide is an ideal solution to life’s problems. It’s a desperate measure. Here are twenty-seven thoughts culled from Reddit on a very divisive subject.
As far as books go Suicide doesn’t sound like it’d be much fun to read and it was never going to win Comedic Novel of the Year 2008 but it’s not all doom and gloom. It focuses mostly on a life lived and what it’s like to be different. And the extrapolated/imaginary “you” we get to know is most definitely different and interesting and puzzling. In The Rules of Attraction Bret Easton Ellis wrote: “What does that mean know me, know me, nobody ever knows anybody else, ever! You will never know me.” This is why we don’t get why most people kill themselves. Because we’re not in their heads. Because we could never be in their heads. There are no answers in Suicide. The real questions we should be asking are, perhaps, a little clearer though.
The Afterword is particularly helpful if you’ve not read anything else by Levé (which most of us won’t have although Autoportrait and Works have since been translated) because it helps us understand the kind of man he was and how all his prose works are interlinked—Autoportrait, for example, includes the opening scene of Suicide—and probably could/should be read as a single text. Not that I expect it would make things much clearer. To illustrate: Levé was also a photographer and might even be better known for that than for his writing. He produced a series called Pornography in which his models position themselves in the kinds of poses you’d expect from a work called Pornography with one exception—they’re all fully clothed. He did a similar thing with the series Rugby (a photo from which was used for the Folio edition of Suicide). Another series called Homonyms consists of neutral frontal portraits of “ordinary” people who happen to share a name with someone famous. Expectation thwarted seems to be a thing with Levé. Amérique, published in 2006, comprised of images of arbitrary parts of obscure American towns named after grander world cities like Florence, Berlin, Amsterdam or Paris.
For the record Levé didn’t shoot himself in a basement. He hung himself in his Paris apartment after receiving confirmation that Suicide was going to be published.
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