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Sunday, 25 November 2012


Music is the soundtrack of your life. – Dick Clark

As a writer it’s generally taken for granted that I would be passionate about books and I am but if you asked me if I had to live without words or music I would have to stop and think about it—seriously. I have another passion that I mention occasionally—it goes on my CV as a hobby but I’ve never much liked the word—and that’s the cinema. In Scotland we talk about going to the pictures rather than going to the movies or even going to see a film. The first film I ever went to see at the George in 1962 was a live action Disney film, The Legend of Lobo. I howled—no, not like a wolf, like a three-year-old boy who’d seen the most tragic thing he’d ever seen. How could they do this kind of thing to wee kids? Seriously, the film had a real effect on me. In my mind through it’s always been called Lobo, the Lonely Wolf, and it wasn’t until I looked it up on the Internet that I discovered the proper title.

There was no dialogue in the film; the only interpretation is through a story-song composed and sung by the Sons of the Pioneers, and narrated by Rex Allen. I don’t recall any of that I’m afraid. And that has so often been the case when it comes to the films I saw growing up. Oh, a name would appear in the credits: Elmer Bernstein, Dimitri Tiomkin, Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rozsa, but none of these really meant anything to me; I was too engrossed in the stories and the only time I really paid attention to the music was during the titles. And that probably continued until the early seventies when A Fistful of Dollars was first shown on TV in the UK. It was made in 1964 but there was no way I was going to get to see a film like that when I was five. This was a landmark film for me and for the Italian composer Ennio Morricone.

As budget strictures limited Morricone's access to a full orchestra, he used gunshots, cracking whips, whistle, voices, guimbarde (jaw harp), trumpets, and the new Fender electric guitar, instead of orchestral arrangements of Western standards à la John Ford. Morricone used his special effects to punctuate and comically tweak the action—cluing in the audience to the taciturn man's ironic stance. Though sonically bizarre for a movie score, Morricone's music was viscerally true to Leone's vision. – Wikipedia

I have no idea how many times I have seen this and the other two films in the Dollars Trilogy—many, many times—but the one thing I never tire of it the music in fact it was listening to the soundtrack to A Fistful of Dollars that reminded me to write this post. I always have music playing. In the last article I talked about some of the classical music I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy; in this article I’m going to focus on soundtracks and Morricone is a good place to start. He has written music to accompany some 500 films and television series in a career lasting over 50 years. Here’s the title music to For a Few Dollars More:

Seriously this makes my hair stand on end and being as hirsute as I am you can imagine how that feels. For many, though, their awareness of Morricone begins and ends with spaghetti westerns—he ended up composing scores for over forty westerns—but that’s only a fraction of his output. The next piece by him that struck me was the title music for a TV series called An Englishman's Castle first broadcast in 1978. The story was set in an alternate timeline in which Nazi Germany has won World War II and occupied Britain. This wasn’t the first time the music has been used and it was used again only a few years later as the title music for The Life and Times of David Lloyd George when it was released as a single and reached No.2 in the UK charts.

One of my favourite scores by him is for The Legend of 1900 about a man born onboard a ship and who lives out his entire life there while also managing to become an outstanding pianist. Haunting. And a damn good film, too, by the way.

And if you think that is good just listen to the same tune with Roger Waters doing the vocals. This is not music to write over. But indulge me:

I’m not sure that Morricone was the first film composer I heard being talked about. I probably heard the name and promptly forgot it. The first composer I heard people talking about was actually John Williams who has been on the go just as long as Morricone; the Italian is only four years older. The thing they were talking about—it was probably on TV—was Williams’ reintroduction of the concept of leitmotif. I knew about that from studying music at school. Now, it’s his trademark. Richard Wagner is the composer most often associated with leitmotifs. His cycle of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen uses dozens of them, often related to specific characters, things, or situations. It’s not new even in terms of films—just think of ‘Lara’s Theme’ from Doctor Zhivago—but Williams made it his own in Jaws: the shark’s theme was integral to the power of the film. It’s not music I’d stick on to write over, mind, although I have a fair number of soundtracks by him that I’m happy to listen to while I write. Of course I was aware of his work before Jaws being a great fan of Irwin Allen's shows Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants on which he worked, nodding frequently to composers of Golden Age Hollywood like Herrmann, Steiner, Korngold and Waxman and you can see their influence in his score for Star Wars although I have grown a little tired of it, personally. I much preferred his score to Superman:

I once heard a local brass band play the titles at the mouth of a shopping mall and I was seriously impressed. Had a look online and there are a few covers but mostly they murder the piece.

He tends to be associated with big tunes; blockbusters and there is no doubt the man can write a good tune but, for me, one of his finest scores has to be Schindler's List. I, as often is the case, heard the score before getting round to seeing the film—I only saw it sometime later on TV—and so I’ve never associated the music with the film; it stands, as all truly great music should, on its own. I have several great albums to quite mediocre films. Anyway I defy anyone to hear this and not be moved:

Another contemporary of these two great composers is Jerry Goldsmith who also started off writing incidental music for shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Twilight Zone. To my mind Goldman—much like the younger composer Danny Elfman who I’ll come back to—is at his best when writing powerhouse scores like Alien, Total Recall and the original Planet of the Apes film. Not always the easiest stuff to work over but I regularly listen to all of his Star Trek scores; Star Trek: First Contact is probably my favourite though and here is a nice excerpt. The main theme makes my hair stand on end every time I hear it. String writing of the finest order.

On the whole, though, while writing I’m looking for work that doesn’t overpower or distract me so I tend to shy away from soundtracks to action or horror films, although I could recommend quite a few. For the rest of this article I’m going to focus on composers of gentler soundtracks. At the moment, for example, I’m listening to Sylvia by Gabriel Yared. Yared is a Lebanese composer who I first became aware of when I saw the film Betty Blue but I’ll always jump at a chance to listen to a new piece by him. He’s probably best known for his scores to An English Patient and Cold Mountain but here’s a nice short suite based on what I’m listening to just now:

Composers and directors often find themselves working together over and over again if their early collaborations are successful. Anthony Minghella sought out Yared after hearing his work on Betty Blue and they did several films together. The same is true of Tim Burton; his composer of choice is Danny Elfman. Elfman is another prolific film composer best known for, of all things, the theme tune to The Simpsons. That aside, it’s not hard to see the influences of Nino Rota and Bernard Herrmann in his work although, on the classical side, he’s definitely indebted to the Russians. He does a lot of action and science fiction work, things like Batman, the remake of Planet of the Apes, Spider-Man and Hulk, work that goes well along with the images but isn’t always that memorable after the show’s over but, again, it’s his gentler work that works best to write to like his scores to Sommersby, Black Beauty and Big Fish. Here is the main theme from Dolores Claiborne. The person who posted this added a note: “Enjoy. Remember...close your eyes and turn it up.”

M. Night Shyamalan’s go-to composer is James Newton Howard and the first three films they worked on together are—arguably—the best work that either of them did. I’m talking about The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs. Of the three, if I had to pick, I’d probably go with Unbreakable but it would be a hard call. Again the odds are he is probably better known for writing the title music to the TV series ER than anything else. He’s another composer whose work I would buy purely based on the name irrespective of the quality of the film it supported. The example I’m going to leave you with is from The Village which I actually liked as a film. It probably marked the turning point for M. Night Shyamalan as a director but the soundtrack stands up well on its own:

Alexandre Desplat is a composer whose work I know well. Like all those listed above he has been in the business for years and has tackled movies of all kinds from gentle films like Birth and Tamara Drew up to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts I and II. It’s a fairly recent score that has jumped into my current list of favourite scores and is a good example of how a great score can be hidden under a mediocre film. That film was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and I’ve heard little to recommend it but the soundtrack is wonderful. It wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar this year but then (criminally) neither were his scores to The Ides of March or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II. The clip I’m going to leave you with is 'The Candidate' from The Ides of March.

Thomas Newman will be known forever (by me at least) as the composer of the theme tune to Six Feet Under. He’s been nominated for Oscars a few times but always seems to get pipped to the post. He’s not a composer I jump to hear—I find his work a little samey and I don’t just mean ‘instantly recognisable’ in the same way as you can usually tell a symphony by Beethoven after a few bars—but he has produced a few scores that I would recommend: Meet Joe Black, The Horse Whisperer and In the Bedroom for example. Here’s an example from Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events:

Someone left a note under this piece in YouTube, “Just brilliant. I would say his music is just as good as Hans Zimmer's or John Williams.” It’s an opinion. I’m not sure I agree with it but whoever said that has reminded me that I haven’t mentioned Zimmer yet. I expect these days he’s best known for his soundtracks to The Lion King and Gladiator. I actually remember him first for his brief stint in the pop group The Buggles. (You can catch a quick glimpse of him in the music video for their 1979 single ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’.)

A lot of the time he collaborates these days or splits the work. For example the credits to The Dark Knight lists both Zimmer and Newton Howard and he credits Lisa Gerrard on Gladiator because, as he says, “[E]ven though she didn't write the main theme, her presence and contributions were very influential. She was more than just a soloist.” Once again I’m going to highlight one of his gentler scores, Driving Miss Daisy:

Which brings me to women. Where are all the women, Jim? Well, the sad fact is that, as is the case with the classical music world, the male of the species dominates but just as there are up and coming female directors, there are a number of women out there who are holding their own. There is a list on Wikipedia but, as you’ll see, it only mentions a handful, thirty-six when I counted, but if you’d asked me to list all the female composers who are working today that I could think of these are the only ones I would have come up with off the top of my head: Rachel Portman, Debbie Wiseman, Anne Dudley, Jocelyn Pook and Lisa Gerrard and I have something by all five of them.

Rachel Portman was the first female composer to win an Academy Award in the category of Best Original Score (for Emma in 1996). Anne Dudley won in 1997 for The Full Monty. These were awards, however, for the best musical or comedy scores; no woman has yet won the award for the best dramatic score. (I know Nicola Piovani won for Life is Beautiful in 1998, but he’s an Italian male in spite of the name.) These are the only two wins to date although Portman has been nominated a couple of times since for The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. She is another one of those composers whose work I would buy purely based on her name. Here is a lovely suite from the film Grey Gardens although I have no idea what the photo of the dancer is all about; it has nothing to do with the film:

Debbie Wiseman still does a great deal of TV work—the list on her website just goes on and on—and I think it’s sad that often so much of this work never makes it to disc. A perfect example of this was the music written by Mark Snow for The X-Files and Millennium of which very little was ever released commercially. (I got a bootleg from someplace—don’t ask.) The work I’d like to share though is from the film Flood featuring vocals by Hayley Westenra. Normally I avoid vocal music but this isn’t so intrusive you find yourself listening to the lyrics:

One person whose lyrics you’ll never have a problem with is Lisa Gerrard. She is the most unique lyricist comparable to Sigur Rós or The Cocteau Twins with maybe a touch of Enya in there. She makes up words to go with her melodies and although at first you think she’s improvising, as a scat singer might using nonsensical meaningless non-morphemic syllables to imitate the sound of instruments, it’s not until you see her in rehearsals to realise that she is repeating the same sounds every time; fascinating to watch. Like many soundtrack composers she began life in a band—in her case Dead Can Dance—where she developed her idioglossic style; essentially she sings in a made-up language. The first album I bought (knowing nothing about her at the time) was Whale Rider; as it happens this was the first soundtrack that consisted purely of solo material and I was hooked right there and then and started to look for more. The films I found her attached to, considering her haunting style (there’s no other word to describe it), are diverse: Ali, Man on Fire, Constantine, Priest although she usually only contributes; Whale Rider is an exception. Actually the first time I heard her was as a singer: she does those amazing vocals that accompany the Farscape TV show. A track from Whale Rider:

You know it’s not until you start work on an article like this that you begin to realise just what an impossible task you’ve set yourself. Here I am about 3000 words into it and I’ve talked about less than a dozen composers and there are so many others I would like to mention. I know, I know, I could spread this article over several posts but really what I’m wanting to do here is set you off to discover your own soundtracks. In many cases when you’re watching a film you’ll be pretty oblivious to the music although there are some exceptions. Top of my list there would have to be The Hours where Philip Glass’ music, for me anyway, dominates the film; it is probably my all time favourite soundtrack. Glass is an oddity in that he manages to straddle the worlds of classical composing and film soundtrack composing like no other composer out there. Oh there are plenty of dabblers on both sides of the fence but no one like Glass. When I went to buy the separates that would make up my music system I took along a few CDs to test the quality. To test the bass I played the opening track to the film Koyaanisqatsi, a wonderful piece. The entire soundtrack is maybe not the best to work over—it can get a bit hectic a times—but this is just one superb piece of music. Here's the finale:

This is the first of a trilogy of films by Ron Fricke all of which have soundtracks by Glass; the other two are Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi. I have a huge collection of his music and, hence, most of his soundtracks and there’s not a dud in the lot apart from the version of The Thin Blue Line with all the dialogue. (Who does that?) Kundun got him an Oscar nomination; The Truman Show won him one. If I found a new soundtrack by him I would pick it up without reservation; he never disappoints although can also feel as if he’s repeating himself especially since the same tracks keep getting slipped into films; e.g. two tracks from Koyaanisqatsi ended up in Watchmen which also included two other Glass pieces: ‘Something She Has To Do’ (from The Hours) and ‘Protest (Act II Scene 3)’ (from his opera Satyagraha).

A lot of people have odd ideas about classical music and yet they watch films with orchestral scores without batting a eye. I wonder how many kids have watched all the Harry Potter films and subsequently listened to several hours of symphony orchestras and yet have never heard a symphony by Beethoven or Mozart or Bach? For a long time I steered clear of many of the most well known names in the classical music scene, not because I’d not heard all of Beethoven’s symphonies (I’d done that by nineteen) but because I’d convinced myself that new music was so much better. It’s not but I had to grow in my appreciation for it so perhaps I should have posted this article first before the one I wrote on my love of classical music. It doesn’t matter. There is so much stuff out there to listen to. I’m always looking to broaden my range of experiences and the whole point of articles like this is to encourage you to do so too. Let me leave you with a little list of some of my favourite soundtracks to write to, in no particular order. All the links are to videos on YouTube. Enjoy.

You do realise I could have written this entire post using a completely different set of composers.

And if all this isn’t enough you might want to work your way through 150 Masterpieces of Films' Soundtracks.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Journey to the End of the Night

Journey to the End of the Night

The usual thing. Always getting shoved out into the night like this, I said to myself, I'm bound to end up somewhere. – Céline, Journey to the End of the Night

A bald summary of Céline's first novel is enough to put anyone off and yet from its very first page through to the last, some 180,000 words later, I was thoroughly entertained. The new release from Alma at just over 400 pages is misleading and if you struggle to read type that is too close together then you might want, as I did, to opt for the ebook. Normally spaced type would have been 700 pages during which the narrator has very little good to say about anything, beginning with himself and the French in general:

What you call a race is nothing but a collection of riffraff like me, bleary-eyed, flea-bitten, chilled to the bone. They came from the four corners of the earth, driven by hunger, plague, tumours, and the cold, and stopped here. They couldn't go any further because of the ocean. That's France, that's the French people.

He's just about the most pass-remarkable character I have ever encountered, combining the nihilism and loquacity of Samuel Beckett's Molloy with the acerbic wit and fatalism, despite his best efforts to wangle his way out of his own, of Captain Edmund Blackadder.

Little happens throughout the book and most of what does is due to the protagonist's inability to avoid things happening to him. He's the kind of man who side-steps a mucky puddle only to put his foot in a fresh cow pat. If you enjoy black humour then this is worth considering.

When asked if her own first novel was autobiographical Jeanette Winterson had this to say:

Yes and no. All writers draw on their experience but experience isn't what makes a good book. As the stand-up comics say, 'It's the way you tell 'em'. Oranges is written in the first person, it's direct and uninhibited, but it isn't autobiography in the real sense.[1]

Céline could say much the same. When you look at the life of Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches (Céline was a penname, the first name of his grandmother) it's obvious that the character of Ferdinand Bardamu has more than a little in common with his creator. On a whim a twenty-year-old Bardamu enlists, is wounded during the war for which he receives the médaille militaire for assumed bravery ("[l]uckily, when it comes to heroism, people are willing to believe anything"), wastes some time in colonial Africa (where he contracts malaria and dysentery), travels through post-World War I America (where he works on the production line of the Ford Motor Company), before returning to France, where he becomes a medical doctor and establishes a practice in a poor Paris suburb, the fictional Garenne-Rancy, which he quits when the going gets tough and after drifting through a few odd jobs ends the book managing an asylum. Destouches joined the French army two years before the start of the first World War in what he describes as an act of rebellion against his parents, had a moderately successful war—he was also awarded the médaille militaire for actual bravery—worked (although not very successfully) in French Cameroons as a representative of the Sangha-Oubangui company; after contracting malaria and dysentery he returned home, became a doctor, married, abandoned his family to move to America where, amongst other things, he studied the conditions of the workers at the Ford Motor Company before returning to France where he set up a short-lived practice in in Montmartre, in the north end of Paris, specialising in obstetrics which he subsequently left due to financial pressures to take up a position in nearby clinic and later a commercial laboratory.

Destouches was—and appears to have remained throughout his life—an anti-Semite. There is only one brief mention of Jews in this book which is more funny than upsetting—he mentions at one point a "Negro-Judeo-Saxon band"—but I can imagine those who are sensitive boycotting his entire oeuvre on general principles. The irony, of course, is that the protagonist of his first novel is cast very much in the mould of the wandering Jew. As he had been a vocal supporter of Hitler, Destouches was forced to flee France after the end of the war. Named a collaborator, he was convicted in absentia and held on Death Row in a Copenhagen prison before being sentenced to one year of imprisonment, having half his property seized and being declared a national disgrace. He was subsequently granted amnesty and returned to France in 1951. He died in 1961 at the age of sixty-seven. Before you're too quick to judge him consider this:

Céline’s practice was a financial shambles but this did not prevent him from publishing pamphlets about the sanitary conditions endured by poor working families, savagely criticizing the public health policies that bore little relation to the social reality that he saw each day.[2]

Céline served most of his life as a general practitioner in the working class suburbs of Paris where he cared for the sick and the penniless. Not accepting any payment from patients with little or no money and paying for the medicine for paupers from his own pocket, docteur Destouches was especially renowned for his gentle care with children and the elderly. The literary figure Céline may have been portrayed as a nihilist and a monstrous being, but docteur Destouches served his community.[3]

WillSelf_webWhen I first heard about the book I assumed I was going to be reading a war novel, a French All Quiet on the Western Front, but in reality only about a twelfth of the book deals directly with the conflict although what happens there is important because it changes the protagonist's world view. Talking about the book in an article for The New York Times, Will Self—who in the article admits that that Journey to the End of the Night "is the novel, perhaps more than any other, that inspired me to write fiction"—writes:

Céline’s war is not the familiar, muddy charnel house sketched by Remarque or the British war poets but a free-form affair, characterized by delirious mobility, the garish illumination of burning villages and chance encounters between renegade and cowardly combatants. It is a Goya etching animated in the style of a Tom and Jerry cartoon.[4]

I think this must be where I first imagined Bardamu as some sort of Gallic Blackadder. Take this bit:

Down the road, way in the distance, as far as we could see, there were two black dots, plunk in the middle like us, but they were two Germans and they'd been busy shooting for the last fifteen or twenty minutes.

Maybe our colonel knew why they were shooting, maybe the Germans knew, but I, so help me, hadn't the vaguest idea. As far back as I could search my memory, I hadn't done a thing to the Germans, I'd always treated them friendly and polite. I knew the Germans pretty well, I'd even gone to school in their country when I was little, near Hanover. I'd spoken their language. A bunch of loudmouthed little halfwits, that's what they were, with pale, furtive eyes like wolves; we'd go out to the woods together after school to feel the girls up, or we'd fire popguns or pistols you could buy for four marks. And we drank sugary beer together. But from that to shooting at us right in the middle of the road, without so much as a word of introduction, was a long way, a very long way. If you asked me, they were going too far. This war, in fact, made no sense at all. It couldn't go on. Had something weird got into these people? Something I didn't feel at all? I suppose I hadn't noticed it . . . Anyway, my feelings toward them hadn't changed. In spite of everything. I'd have liked to understand their brutality, but what I wanted still more, enormously, with all my heart, was to get out of there, because suddenly the whole business looked to me like a great big mistake.

This early section has a light and flippant tone but as the sections move on—there are no formal chapters to the book merely section breaks—we see a level of paranoia set in that never quite leaves Bardamu. As he puts it:

There are different ways of being condemned to death. Oh! What wouldn't I have given to be in jail instead of here! What a fool I'd been! If only I had had a little foresight and stolen something or other when it would have been so easy and there was still time. I never think of anything. You come out of jail alive, out of a war you don't! The rest is blarney.

Bardamu's war really doesn't last too long which is perhaps fortunate because Bardamu is not a brave man:

Any possibility of cowardice becomes a glowing hope if you're not a fool. That's my opinion. Never be picky and choosy about means of escaping disembowelment, or waste your time trying to find reasons for the persecution you're a victim of. Escape is good enough for the wise.

He dreams about going AWOL and had circumstances not got in the way before the opportunity to desert had presented itself he likely would have. As it happens he is wounded, sent to Paris to recuperate and it becomes clear very quickly that he is in no rush to get back to "the flaming graveyards of no man's land". He meets Lola, a sexually attractive but deeply stupid American who had "come to help [them] save France … to the best of her humble ability but with all her heart!" It is she who first makes Bardamu curious about the States, although Fate and finances dictate he take a circuitous route to get there.

Invalided out of the army he decides—on a whim one must imagine because he seems to make all his major life decisions that way—to head for Africa where he is set "to become a minor employee of Compagnie Pordurière (one might translate this as Pshit & Co.)"[5] That or the decision is made for him and he has no strong opinions either way because he writes, "[t]hey shoved me on board in the hope that I'd recuperate in the colonies." Either way he doesn't possess sufficient funds to be able to head straight for America. He boards a ship "so old that jonah.overboardthe copper plate with its birth date had been removed from the upper deck; the date was such ancient history it had inspired the passengers with fear and witticisms. … If it kept afloat on those tepid seas, it was only thanks to its [many coats of] paint." He is lucky to survive the voyage. For some reason some of the crew and passengers take a dislike to him, treat him like the ship's Jonah

I learned from one of the stewards that my fellow passengers, by common accord, thought me affected, not to say insolent . . . that they suspected me of being a pimp and a pederast . . . something of a cocaine addict on the side . . . but only on the side . . . Then the suspicion made its way around that I must have left France to escape the consequences of certain heinous crimes. But I was only at the beginning of my troubles.

so he spends much of the trip skulking in his room and doing his business out of a porthole. But survive he does. His expectations do not. What he imagined he would be experiencing was

…the real, grandiose Africa of impenetrable forests, fetid swamps, inviolate wildernesses, where black tyrants wallowed in sloth and cruelty on the banks of never-ending rivers. I would barter a pack of "Pilett" razor blades for big long elephant's tusks, gaudy-coloured birds, and juvenile slaves. Guaranteed. That would be life! Nothing in common with the emasculated Africa of travel agencies and monuments, of railways and candy bars. Certainly not! We'd be seeing Africa in the raw, the real Africa!

That is a far cry from what greets him. Just as he had marched off to join the army without really knowing what he was getting into, the same could be said for his experience of the colony of Bambola-Bragamance.

Understandably, a life spent waiting for the thermometer to go down made everybody more and more cantankerous. The consequence was private and collective quarrels, preposterous and interminable, between the military and the administration, between the administration and the traders, between these two in temporary alliance and the military, between the whole lot of them and the black population, and finally between blacks and blacks. The little energy that hadn't been sapped by malaria, thirst, and the heat was consumed by hatred so fierce and deep seated that it wasn't uncommon for these colonials to drop dead on the spot, poisoned by themselves like scorpions.


You've got to watch out. It's not just the people who are hysterical down there, objects are the same way. Life only becomes tolerable at nightfall, but then almost immediately the darkness is taken over by swarms of mosquitoes. Not one or two or a hundred, but billions of them. Survival under those conditions is quite an achievement. A carnival by day, a colander by night, a quiet war.

He learns that "[t]he director of the Compagnie Pordurière du Petit Congo … [is] looking for an inexperienced man to take charge of one of the trading posts in the bush" and so he applies; it looks like light work. The man he finds out he has to replace is one Leon Robinson a soldier he had encountered in Flanders during the war, a man cut from the same cloth as he (his doppelgänger if you will); they had planned to surrender to the Germans together … if only they could have located some Germans; that particular night none were abroad and the two were forced to go back to their respective regiments. He had run across him once in Paris, too, so we know Robinson survived the war and the simple fact is that Fate/God/unforeseen circumstance keeps arranging for these two to cross paths if not swords; they meet again in Detroit, in Paris and in Toulouse. "Céline once confided to his secretary, 'Bardamu? He's not me, he's my double. But so is Robinson.'"[6]

The relationship between Bardamu and Robinson is the key structural device employed, and it is through contemplating the actions of Robinson that Bardamu attains a kind of acceptance of his destiny.[7]

They are each journeying—as are we all—toward the end of night. Like Molloy (and numerous other characters in Beckett's novels and stories) these are basically indolent men. Of course life won't permit them to be completely idle but neither has any real get-up-and-go. The irritating thing—from their perspective—is that they both exhibit a restlessness and so, albeit often without a backwards glance, every few years (sometimes only months) they find they can no longer fight the urge to shuffle along. Bardamu realises that movement brings only temporary relief—even Beckett's bedridden Malone shifts position from time to time—he nevertheless has come "to regard moving as his only defence against destiny."[8] There are differences: Robinson has at least some degree of ambition and a greater fondness for money (and the comfort it affords); Bardamu is the more sentimental and guilt-ridden of the two. He never quite manages to shake of the idealism we see in that young man marching off to war and revelling in the attention from those waving him on his way. War has opened his eyes and he sees everything that bit clearer on his return but the death of a young boy from typhoid fever can still get to him. At one point he takes a stroll around the old neighbourhood where he used to practice medicine:

Passing the house where Bébert's aunt had been the concierge, I'd have liked to go in and see who was living now in the lodge where I'd taken care of Bébert and where he had died. Maybe his schoolboy picture was still hanging over the bed . . . But it was too late to be waking people up. I went on without showing myself . . .

Bébert is the young boy he went to extraordinary lengths to try to save. Bardamu says:

I was much more interested in preventing Bébert from dying than if he had been an adult. You never mind very much when an adult passes on. If nothing else, you say to yourself, it's one less stinker on earth, but with a child you can never be so sure. There's always the future.

He can't save him and ends up simply putting on a show for the mother's sake:

"Camomile!" Bébert murmured faintly, an echo submerged in his fever. Why try to tell her different? I'd go through the two or three professional motions she expected of me, and then I'd go and face the night, not at all pleased with myself, because, like my mother, I could never feel entirely innocent of any horrible thing that happened.

He meets an old woman near the Saint-Georges Métro station.

[She] was wailing about her granddaughter in the hospital, stricken with meningitis, so she said.


With that as an excuse, she was taking up a collection. With me she was out of luck. All I could give her was words. I told her about little Bébert and also about a little girl I'd taken care of in Paris, who had died of meningitis while I was in medical school. It had taken her three weeks to die, and her mother in the bed next to hers was so unhappy she couldn't sleep, so she masturbated the whole three weeks, and even when it was all over there was no way of stopping her.

Which goes to show that we can't do without our pleasures for so much as a second, and that it's very hard to be really unhappy. Life is like that.

For all Bardamu looks down on humanity it is not from a great height. He is well aware of what he is. The only difference he might argue is level of clarity; he doesn't pretend to be what he is not except perhaps in job interviews where the less said the better: caveat emptor. If the war has taught him one thing it's that people will do galleywhatever is necessary to survive and so when things don't go his way—for example when he gets sold into slavery after abandoning his post in Africa (probably a fantasy provoked by fever)—he is nothing if not philosophical about his plight and might have stayed in that state longer had the galley (an honest to goodness Spanish slave galley) not taken him exactly (and a little conveniently) where he wanted to go: America. He hasn't even left Ellis Island when he's fallen into a job as a flea counter, something he has developed a talent for:

One two three I reeled off the little spiel I had prepared. "I believe in the enumeration of fleas! It's a civilizing factor, because enumeration is the basis of the most invaluable statistical data! ... A progressive country must know the number of its fleas, broken down according to sex, age group, year and season . . .”

It is a job he excels at and his successes earn his immediate boss a promotion which means Bardamu can step into his boss's shoes—it's the American way—but what does he do? He indulges his "mania for running away from everywhere in search of God knows what" and never looks back. This whole episode is farcical and that is typical of the book, the way it provides 'light' relief from all the doom and gloom. After he has fled Ellis Island he's concerned that he might attract the unwanted attention of the authorities. To avoid a cop he slips into what turns out to be a public convenience:

It so happened that just to one side of my bench there was a big hole in the sidewalk, something like the Metro at home. That hole seemed propitious, so vast, with a stairway all of pink marble inside it. I'd seen quite a few people from the street disappear into it and come out again. It was in that underground vault that they answered the call of nature. I caught on right away. The hall where the business was done was likewise of marble. A kind of swimming pool, but drained of all its water, a fetid swimming pool, filled only with filtered, moribund light, which fell on the forms of unbuttoned men surrounded by their smells, red in the face from the effect of expelling their stinking faeces with barbarous noises in front of everybody.

Men among men, all free and easy, they laughed and joked and cheered one another on, it made me think of a football game. The first thing you did when you got there was to take off your jacket, as if in preparation for strenuous exercise. This was a rite and shirtsleeves were the uniform.

In that state of undress, belching and worse, gesticulating like lunatics, they settled down in the faecal grotto. The new arrivals were assailed with a thousand revolting jokes while descending the stairs from the street, but they all seemed delighted.

The morose aloofness of the men on the street above was equalled only by the air of liberation and rejoicing that came over them at the prospect of emptying their bowels in tumultuous company.

The splotched and spotted doors to the cabins hung loose, wrenched from their hinges. Some customers went from one cell to another for a little chat, those waiting for an empty seat smoked heavy cigars and slapped the backs of the obstinately toiling occupants, who sat there straining with their heads between their hands. Some groaned like wounded men or women in labour. The constipated were threatened with ingenious tortures.

When a gush of water announced a vacancy, the clamour around the free compartment redoubled, and as often as not a coin would be tossed for its possession. No sooner read, newspapers, though as thick as pillows, were dismembered by the horde of rectal toilers. The smoke made it hard to distinguish faces, and the smells deterred me from going too close.

To a foreigner the contrast was disconcerting. Such free-and-easy intimacy, such extraordinary intestinal familiarity, and up on the street such perfect restraint. It left me stunned.

I returned to the light of day by the same stairway and went back to the same bench to rest.

This is characteristic of the uncompromising and graphic way in which Bardamu perceives things. At the start of the book his colonel is killed right in front of him and this is how he describes it:

As for the colonel, I didn't wish him any hard luck. But he was dead too. At first I didn't see him. The blast had carried him up the embankment and laid him down on his side, right in the arms of the dismounted cavalryman, the courier, who was finished too. They were embracing each other for the moment and for all eternity, but the cavalryman's head was gone, all he had was an opening at the top of the neck, with blood in it bubbling and glugging like jam in a kettle. The colonel's belly was wide open, and he was making a nasty face about it. It must have hurt when it happened. Tough shit for him! If he'd beat it when the shooting started, it wouldn't have happened.

I'm not going to tell you what happens to Bardamu in the end other than to say that were it not for the continual reappearance of Robinson and the trouble that follows him around like a lost puppy, there really wouldn't be much of a story and, to be honest, there isn't much of a story. He trudges from A to B to C to D and on, through mud, through jungle, along congested streets by day and down empty streets by night. Once he's used a place up he moves on. He's not exactly running from or to anything. He simply can't sit still. I guess he imagines it'll be harder for Fate to hit a moving target.

It's hard to see looking back just how radical this book was—not so much in its sentiment (everyone was in the throes of existential angst back then) but its style. He presents an "extraordinary linguistic mélange"[9] that, at its most extreme, reminds one of the stream of consciousness writings of Joyce. "Style," as defined by Proust, "is not an embellishment as certain people think, it is not even a master of technique, it is—like the colours with painters—a quality of vision, the revelation of the private universe that each one of us can see and which others cannot see"[10] and Céline writes with great style. In addition to an exceedingly casual use of language—"Me, I've slipped the spoken word into print. In one sole shot,"[11] he boasted in interview—he probably uses ellipses more than any other writer, although, from all accounts, he uses them even more in later books:

This stylistic trait, which Celine would later designate as the "ties' of his "métro emotif," gives Céline's writing its particular pulsating rhythm. Dislocated phrases, the connective tissue between them having been replaced by ellipsis points, are meant to bombard the reader with almost explosive verbal energy.[12]

nauseaIf you like Beckett (the trilogy and the novellas), Sartre (Nausea), Malraux (Man's Fate), Bukowski (Post Office) and Camus (The Outsider, The Plague) then this is a book you will very likely enjoy. Not sure 'enjoy' is the right word but it'll do for now. "Céline raises his negative feelings to the level of art, and makes it easy for us to admire the virtuosity of their expression. If he hoped to lower our spirits, by bringing us to share his own gloomy philosophy of life, then he failed … its effect is the opposite."[13]

Finally a word on the translation. To this end I defer to the Amazon commenter H Tuco who writes:

Some people swear by the newer Manheim translations as the absolute best, but I for one, found them a little too willing to please 'hip' American audiences by using certain more popular forms of speech, at the expense of a stronger but more restrictively high-brow literary quality. That's why I say, read the Manheim versions but don't ignore the older translations available in the libraries , some of them are brilliant and turn Céline into a much more refined writer than Manheim, even if the curse words are toned down and euphemised. Of course, most French people will tell you that it's absolutely ridiculous to read Céline in anything but French!

And in response Chad W. Post over at Three Percent:

The two translations [John Marks’s and Ralph Manheim’s translation of Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night] are so different, line by line, word by word, that it is obviously extremely difficult, requiring much ingenuity, judgement and (presumably) compromise, to render Céline’s language into English. More interestingly, though, the distinctive lineaments of Céline’s creation emerge so unmistakably from both translations that, though made of words, they seem impervious to words. The ideas are too cool not to make it across. (Within limits, obviously; they are immune to the fluctuations of skilled translators doing their level best by the work.) This, and not premature senility or recollected mania, was why I’d felt such ennui reading Manheim’s new translation: I was expecting a revelation, but I’d already had it. Manheim’s new version was more smoothly readable while more sharply particular, grittier, earthier, an improvement in most (not all) ways over Marks’s fifty-year-old, and now a little fusty and clunky by comparison, original. But —


Personally, the Manheim is the one I prefer. Possibly because that’s the one I’m familiar with, the Céline I know, but I think it goes beyond that. Manheim is more direct, vulgar, and vivid. His translation leaps and crackles in a jangly, almost out-of-control way that I find captivating . . .[14]

Having only read Manheim's I really can't say but I agree with Post's description. You can read an extract from the book on Alma's site here. Judge for yourself.

One last thing: the title of this book is Journey to the End of the Night not A Long Day's Journey into Night which is a play by Eugene O'Neill. Ask me in a week's time what the book's title was and I bet I get it wrong.


P.S. For the record, after my wife had edited this, she asked me what the name of the book was and I did indeed get it wrong.


[1] Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit,

[2] Andrew Irving, 'Journey to the End of the Night: Disillusion and Derangement among the Senses', Journeys, Volume 9, Issue 2, p.142

[3] Alexander Styhre, 'Céline and the aesthetics of hyperbole: Style, points, parataxis and other literary devices' in ephemera vol.11(3), p.260

[4] Will Self, 'Céline’s Dark Journey', The New York Times, 10 September 2006

[5] Merlin Thomas, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, p.49

[6] J. H. Matthews, The Inner Self: Céline as Novelist, p.50

[7] Merlin Thomas, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, p.44

[8] J. H. Matthews, The Inner Self: Céline as Novelist, p.51

[9] Alexander Styhre, 'Céline and the aesthetics of hyperbole: Style, points, parataxis and other literary devices' in ephemera vol.11(3), p.262

[10] Marcel Proust, Days of Reading, trans. J. Sturrock, p.119

[11] 'Louis-Ferdinand Céline, The Art of Fiction No. 33', The Paris Review, Winter-Spring 1964, No. 31

[12] Philip H. Solomon, Night Voyager: A Reading of Céline, p.4

[13] John Sturrock, Céline: Journey to the End of the Night, p.1

[14] Chad W Post, 'CNQ: The Translation Issue', Three Percent, 17 July 2008

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Monkeys with Typewriters


Writing is a thinking job, not a typing job. – Scarlett Thomas

Of the millions of drivers on the road I wonder how many are qualified lawyer-mechanic-physicists? To be honest I wonder if anyone out there has professional qualifications as a lawyer, a car mechanic and a physicist? There will be kids out there driving tractors around their parents’ farms who likely don’t know their left from their right. Driving really isn’t that difficult. Once you’ve grasped a few basics you’re off. Still, if you want to become a skilful driver you need practice and to pass tests; driving is about more than knowing how to change gear and remembering to take the handbrake off before you release the clutch. Driving is all about natural laws and human rules. There is technique to being able to drive well.

I have an O-Level in Applied Mechanics—I came top of my year—and yet my dad had to remind me to check my car’s oil and water levels as well as the tread and air pressure of the tyres. I had drawn diagrams of the 2-, 3- and 4-stroke engines (I really loved the design of the 3-stroke) but I couldn't relate any of that to driving a car. I had a head crammed full of formulae talking about force and energy and velocity and all that stuff (now long gone) but what had that to do with driving? Actually quite a bit.

There are rules you need to obey when you drive—in the UK you drive on the left-hand side of the road—and there are laws: the safe stopping distance in feet (in dry conditions) is speed2 ÷ 20 + speed assuming a reasonably good co-efficient of friction of about .75; better is .8 or higher while conditions or tire quality might yield a worse factor of .7 or lower. There are so many variables to take account of and we’ve not even got round to reaction speed of the driver if he’s hung over or on the phone to his wife. Most of us just slam on the brakes and pray. And most of the time that’s all we need to do.

So what has all this to do with writing? Everything. Just as thousands of people get in their cars every day and (somehow) end up where they set out to go without dinging someone else’s car, thousands of others will start writing novels which they will (somehow) get to the end of and actually manage to say what they set out to say without wrecking the English language in the process. In the majority of cases their goals will be reached in the most unspectacular of fashion: no wheelies, doughnuts, flying off ramps, cadence braking or the literary equivalents.

The title of Scarlett Thomas’s new book, Monkeys with Typewriters, relates to something called the infinite monkey theorem which states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. Writers, however, are not random word generators and as much as we’d like to take complete ownership of a novel once we start to read it, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that there was a human behind these words. That the book could have come about by pure chance is neither here nor there: it didn’t. Writers are important and we love them.

A machine can easily be programmed to say, “She was very sad”. But a machine can’t create an original image that explores sadness.

But can you teach writing? It’s a question that has long polarised opinions. When, during her first year of teaching, one of her senior colleagues had found out that Scarlett was teaching her creative writing students literary theory she wasn’t at all happy about it:

“What do you think you’re doing?” she said, after a group of them had tried to “borrow” a sofa they needed for their seminar presentation on structuralism. “Just teach them the difference between first person and third person and let them write, for God’s sake.”

roland-barthesIt was at this point in her career as a lecturer that she had been using Barthes's essay The Death of the Author in her coursework—which she hoped to simplify by introducing her class to typewriting simians—when she realised that it was as, if not more, important to teach her students what to do before they sat down to write than it was enough to provide them with the basic tools—pen, paper, knowledge of grammatical persons—and let them muddle their way through. This book has taken a while to evolve but it set out to fill a gap:

No one, it seemed, had written a contemporary writing book that covered everything. There were plenty of books out there, though. Some focused on ‘giving yourself permission to write’. Some suggested automatic writing. Some had exercises in perspective and general technique. Some of them were very good. I encouraged all my students to read On Writing by Stephen King, How Fiction Works by James Wood and Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. But there was no single book I could give my students to read that covered everything I thought they should know.

She began “giving lectures, which was a very unusual thing to do on a creative writing programme”, she “analysed pop culture alongside classics not just to make the lectures more accessible, but because [she] wanted the students to get used to seeing plot, structure and writing techniques in the world around them.” Seven years later she had … I suppose ‘amassed’ would be the right word here … this book, all 480 pages of it, including the 80 pages of notes and appendices.

Did she manage to produce a single text that contains everything? Sadly, no. But that doesn’t mean this is not a worthy addition to those other three required texts she mentioned above. And she really does try very hard not to say, “This is the way you have to do things.” She speaks from experience and her experience is limited but that’s the case with everyone who authors a textbook, which is why I think aiming to write a single book that would meet every new author’s needs was setting the bar a tad too high. If indeed that ever truly was her plan.

But can you teach writing? On her blog, Shannon, who describes herself as a “[r]ecent graduate from UCSD with a B.A. in Literature-writing” has this to say:

You can’t teach writing. So why even bother going for a degree in it, or to any workshops or conferences at all?

Because you can’t teach writing to people who don’t love it, who don’t have any talent for it, who don’t want to lose themselves in it every time they set a pencil to paper. And for those talented writers willing to live and die by their pen, you can refine them, shape them, mould them, guide them. I’m going to use the super-cliché “diamond in the rough”. Because that’s what you do in writing courses–you help those with potential reach a fuller potential.

I think Scarlett would agree with her because a number of times in the book she basically asks her readers/students: How serious are you about writing?

I used to tell people off for wanting to write novels simply to make money (very difficult) or for the sake of vanity (futile). I also used to give slightly haughty lectures about the novel being an art form, not a place to show off for the sake of it, or string a lot of clichés together for a few quid. Then I realised that if the people sitting in front of me wanted to make money above all else, they’d be doing business studies, not creative writing.

Signing up for one of her classes or buying this book only indicates a certain level of seriousness. Towards the end of the book she raises an important question:

It’s worth asking yourself at every stage how much you do care if your novel is lost in a fire, or in a computer accident. I always ask my students the following question: If the only copy of your novel was stuck at the top of a mountain would you go up and rescue it? I tell them if the answer is ‘no’ then they need to rethink what they are doing.

Like me Scarlett believes that anyone is capable of writing a novel. Whether it will be a saleable novel is another thing entirely but that’s something every one of us has to ask once we’ve completed a book: Will anyone else want to read this? She reckons that if you’re writing the kind of novel that you would be willing to climb to the top of a mountain to rescue, that is a measure of “how important it is likely to be to other people.” And, up to a point, she’s right; we all have ideal readers.

Supernanny_cover_tinyOne of those clichéd bits of advice that newbie writers often receive is: Show, don’t tell. (Even Scarlett can’t resist slipping that one in, although worded a little differently.) In this book she doesn’t tell you how to write, rather she demonstrates by example. If you’ve been a fan of hers and read all her novels you will be at a definite advantage, although she includes plenty of other touchstones from Hamlet through to Supernanny. I approve wholeheartedly of her decision to reference films and television shows. So much can be learned from them, even the bad ones.

The book is split into two sections, Theory and Practice, each containing five chapters. The first five chapters—almost half the book—focus on plots. That feels like a lot. Okay she deals with the two, the three, the five, the seven and the eight basic plots depending on who you’re reading and I have to say I personally found this a bit hard going because a) none of it was especially new to me and b) I’m not a plotter. This does not mean my books don’t have plots but they arise naturally in the course of writing and none of them align neatly with most of the ‘classic’ plotlines: in Living with the Truth a stranger comes to town takes Jonathan on a veiled quest which results in his (albeit late in life) coming of age. In essence what these first five chapters deal with is the question: How do stories work? All of us will have seen so much TV that we will know … instinctively, it seems, but it’s really learned… how stories will pan out even if we can’t break down what we’ve just watched and turn it into an equation. The Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp does this in his book The Morphology of the Folktale which Scarlett discusses at length in the fourth chapter. This section reminded me of my O-Level in Applied Mechanics. These equations form the bedrock of our lives and when we drive our cars there are dozens of variables at play: speed, velocity, centre of gravity, inclination, time, acceleration, mass, energy, power. We know all these words but the majority of us couldn’t define even one of them except in layman’s terms and the same goes for most literary terms; tragedy, for example, is not simply a sad story.

The second part covers the following:

  • How to Have Ideas
  • Styles of Narration
  • Characterisation
  • Writing a Good Sentence
  • Beginning to Write a Novel

For my money the best chapter was the first. Again she said nothing I’ve not come to realise myself after writing five novels but I would have loved to have known about some of this stuff right back at the start. I could only find one use of the word ‘inspiration’ in this book and she uses it to mean a goal rather than a brilliant idea or some kind of muse. She writes:

It turns out that our imaginations are very good at doing new things with specific material we give them. But they are not so good at coming up with new material on their own.

We could sit around waiting on ‘inspiration’ striking or we could take the initiative. We have to trick our brains to get good ideas. If we ask ourselves a question our brain will take the easiest route and provide us with the quickest answer that will be predictable at best and probably clichéd, too. Our brain, like a sat nav, is designed to provide us with the most direct route. Only if we put obstacles in its way will it consider the scenic route. What we need to do is magic up a writing prompt and she provides a handy matrix (downloadable as a docx file from her website), which has proved to be successful for herself and with her classes, and explains how to use it. The objective here is to jump start the imagination. Once—to use another of those physics words—momentum has been achieved then you’re on your way.

Again, at the end of this chapter, she underlines:

If writing feels to you like a job or a chore, then your idea isn’t good enough. It’s as simple as that. If you are not in love with your idea now, then you never will be. So dump it and find a new one.

Writing your first novel will in many ways be easier than any other book you will ever attempt, from one perspective at least: there will be things that you are still passionate about. As we age our passions tend to go off the boil a bit. That’s why I’m struggling with my own book at the moment. I’m still at the thinking stage. At that’s fine. As Scarlett says in the final chapter it takes her about a year of preparatory work before she starts writing proper—she then explains at length what she does during that time (a mixture of gathering, sorting and thinking (she describes three kinds))—and I think that’s an important thing for new writers to appreciate. She also brings up three things in this chapter which I found very interesting and hadn’t seen anywhere before:

  • Narrative question (you’ll actually need several of these, but the main one)
  • Thematic question
  • Seed word

Narrative questions will intrigue your reader and keep him reading. Will Cinderella go to the ball? Will Hamlet kill Claudius? Will Odysseus get home? Will Dorothy get home? Will E.T. get home?


Your thematic question is an important question that you will never answer. It is important how you frame this; it should be a universal, open question (‘What is power?’) rather than a personal, limited question (‘Should I be kind to my horse?’).


Why do you need a seed word if you already have a thematic question? The two are closely connected, after all. Well, when you find the correct seed word for your project it will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. While constructing a thematic question gives you focus and purpose, finding the correct seed word is quite magical.

These are not easy questions to answer even after one has completed a book but I do get where she’s coming from here and I think keeping these three points in your head as you write will be of great help. It wasn’t until I came up with the word ‘left’ that my last novel came sharply into focus for me. I realised I was exploring leftness—that was my seed word, a neologism would you believe it—and after that, even though I didn’t know how it would all end I did know what the book was about. ELDoctorowFor me I need to have been writing for a few thousand words before I know where I’m going which is why Scarlett opens that final chapter with this quote from E.L. Doctorow:

It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Driving home in the dark I’m always on the lookout for some familiar sign. It’ll be too dark probably for landmarks but a building, a sign or a tree will catch my eye and I’ll know where I am and there’s always a moment of relief at that point. I need to hit that point in a novel before I feel safe, even if I know it’s going to take me months to actually finish the damn thing. That point in Milligan and Murphy was when I wrote the line, “There are no reasons for unreasonable things.” At that point I knew what the book was about.

Scarlett is keen to point out that there is no right way to write a book and she provides many examples of books that go against the grain and work, but no one will know what kind of writer they are until they start writing. She admits that her first novel was not very good—she began her career writing formulaic crime novels (her first three books feature Lily Pascale, an English literature lecturer who solves murder mysteries)—and that it actually took her some time to find her personal style.

I’ve talked a lot about driving in this article and the thing about driving is that the only way you’re going to learn is to get behind the wheel of a vehicle weighing over a ton that’s capable of demolishing a brick wall and heading off into the unknown. There is little in this book that will make the experience of writing your first any easier. It doesn’t matter how she breaks down the numbers (which she does in a variety of ways) or how much you know about how to write, writing is still hard work:

Writing a novel, like running a marathon, is both absurdly easy and absurdly hard. On one level it’s just putting words on a page or putting one foot in front of the other. It’s doable. It’s even somehow natural. But it requires great strength and determination to keep going, especially when it gets tough.

If you have never attempted writing a book and want to there is a lot of useful information here. You may not know what’s she’s on about when she’s referencing Oedipus the King or The Republic but who hasn’t seen Toy Story or an episode or two of Frasier? There are novels you will likely want to read after going through this book if you’ve not come across them already (The Bell Jar for one) and plays you’ll want to see (Hamlet gets touched on a lot) and even old films that you might want to rent again (like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes which I honestly cannot remember ever having seen) but I think you’ll probably be surprised by how prepared you actually are. Reading this book might help you realise that.

You can read an excerpt here where she talks about how she decided on eight basic plots.

GIVE AWAY: Due to an administrative cock-up at Canongate I got sent two copies of this book so if you’ve waded through the above and would like me to send you a copy drop me an e-mail. I won’t send it to the first person who asks (unless they’re the only person to ask) but I’d like to see it go to a good home so if you’ve written half a dozen novels already but still fancy a copy then go buy your own.


ScarlettThomasScarlett Thomas has taught English Literature at the University of Kent since 2004, and has previously taught at Dartmouth Community College, South East Essex College and the University of East London. She reviews books for the Literary Review, the Independent on Sunday, and Scotland on Sunday. She has written eight novels (discounting the crime novels), including The End of Mr. Y and PopCo. You can read my review of Our Tragic Universe here.

In 2001 she was named by The Independent as one of 20 Best Young Writers. In 2002 she won Best New Writer in the Elle Style Awards, and also featured as an author in New Puritans, a project led by the novelists Matt Thorne and Nicholas Blincoe.

She is currently studying for an MSc in ethnobotany, and working on her ninth novel, The Seed Collectors.

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