Truth is the new fiction

51maejxEQlL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_   double

Writers such as Philip Roth and more recently Will Self have predicted the death of the novel and have written its obituary notice with Roth declaring that he “was finished with fiction” and that in a few decades the novel will be as irrelevant as Latin poetry. In a recent Guardian piece Self writes that “the omnipresent and deadly threat to the novel has been imminent now for a long time.”

There is a trend over the last few years for a new type of fiction, a genre that molds memoir with biography to form a literature that feels fresh and hyperreal, a type of reality fiction for the modern reader. Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk are the disciples of this new strain of writing which channels the stream of consciousness of the post-moderns with a fiction of the everyday in depicting quotidian reality. The subjects described can often be banal but with these writer’s talent and skill the writing outshines its often plot and artifice driven competitors.  David Shields presaged this new trend when in his 2010 “manifesto” called Reality Hunger he advocates a return to the “real” in literature and he rails against conventional plot-driven fiction in favour of the lyric essay and the memoir.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s opus Min Kamp or My Struggle, which has been one of the publishing sensations of the last few years, is a perfect example of the fusion of memoir with essayistic discourse. Frustrated by the confines of the novel to write about his father’s death from alcoholism he decided to write a real account which was unconcerned with literary niceties such as structure and plot and he invented his own language “the banality of the everyday.  ”Part of what makes My Struggle so thrilling and hypnotizing is the evocation of the everyday such as diaper-changing, washing the dishes or going for a hair cut in a flat, almost conversational tone. This poetry of the prosaic is exemplified in Karl’s writing and no subject is deemed too secret to divulge. This truthful selling of his soul is very liberating for the reader, almost as if the baring of his secrets to us frees us from the shame of some of our own.

Rachel Cusk’s new novel Outline is narrated by an English writer who has flown to Athens to teach a writing workshop and writes of her encounters on the plane, in the classroom and observations made during evening meals with other writers. It is essentially plotless and imbued with greatness through Cusk’s ability to conjure up these vignettes with her characteristic stylish prose. She said in a recent Guardian interview that “autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts” and that description and character are “dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”

Zadie Smith wrote that she awaited the next instalment of Karl’s volume with all the longings and cravings of a crack addict. The modern reader clearly has a hunger for depictions of reality unsullied by the filters of fiction.  The lure of such work is evidently potent and perhaps truth will become more popular that fiction.

Autumn Reading

GIRL WITH BOOK

Now that the last of the summer wine has been quaffed and the first bruised cloud has appeared on the horizon, it’s time to concede the arrival of Autumn, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. It is always the busiest time of year for the publishing industry, just in time for the Christmas market.  This Autumn sees the publication of new novels from the heavy hitters in both British and Irish publishing. Of all years the harvest this Autumn is particularly bountiful with a succession of serious novels vying for readers attention. Some of my favourite authors have new novels out or just  coming out in the next few days and short of taking a permanent duvet day, I wonder how I will read them all over the next few weeks.

US

1.  The Dog by Joseph O’Neill – am disappointed that this fine novel didn’t make the Booker shortlist. It’s a great read for any fan of Netherland, again the themes of alienation and dislocation are explored, this time the protagonist has fled the U.S. for the glittering shores of Dubai. It’s an interesting immersion for any reader curious about the soulless civic life of Dubai, the truth behind the facade of this city in the desert sands.

2.  The Zone Of Interest by Martin Amis – Fans of Amis will enjoy his latest offering, his second novel exploring the Holocaust, this time Amis moves among multiple narrators to show the seemingly normal daily lives of those involved in the horror of Auschwitz. With his usual style and élan Amis creates a darkly comedic world peopled by grotesques and allows the reader to glimpse the outline of that which is beyond words.

3.  The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell – More entertainment from Mitchell and like the acclaimed “Cloud Atlas” interweaves large, related narratives, stretching from 1984 to 2043 and brings a variety of characters alive from Holly Sykes to Crispin Hershey, a successful English writer with just a whiff of the Martin Amis about him. Read it and enjoy.

4.  The Children’s Act by Ian McEwan – Read this for a peek inside the mind of Fiona Maye,a high court judge confronting both private and work-related dilemmas; a marriage crisis and a delicate legal situation involving a teenage Jehovah Witness refusing a blood transfusion to treat leukaemia.   What complicates matters is that the boy is no child and is about to turn eighteen. A must read for McEwan fans.

5.  Outline by Rachel Cusk – This novel which was serialised in the Paris Review is a new departure for Cusk. The narrator is a writer, a divorced mother of two boys who goes to Athens to teach a writing course and plunges straight into a very descriptive account of her first class, in which she asks each student to talk about something they noticed en route. Their anecdotes reveal the complexity of the emotional reality of their lives and the novel continues with descriptions of encounters with other people throughout the stay in Athens. There is no major plot development , no political axe to grind. Instead “Outline”, just as the narrator is rejecting a certain way of being in the world, is a new type of fiction reminiscent of the instrospecive brilliance of Virginia Woolf fused with the modern memoiristic canons by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sheila Heti.

6.  Shark by Will Self – A sort of a sequel to “Umbrella”, fans of Self’s stream of consciousness and modernist style will delight in this novel peopled by a cast several dozen strong. Again a vehicle to show Self’s interest in the psychopathology of everyday life, the work is dense and a must read for any Jungian or Freudian scholars.

7.  Nora Webster by Colm Toibin – Lovers of Brooklyn will love this new novel by Toibin as he returns to Ireland in the late 60’s and follows the trials and triumphs of Nora Webster and her four children in the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death. Character and place take precedence over plot in this quiet and atmospheric novel.

8.   Funny Girl by Nick Hornby – From 1960’s Ireland to 1960’s London Hornby brings us on an adventure with the intrepid Sophie Straw as she transforms from a provincial ingenue to a television starlet where behind the scenes the cast and crew are having the time of their lives.  Due for publication in early November 2014 this latest novel from Hornby is predicted to be a big seller.

9. Us by David Nicholls – I was a huge fan of “One Day” and can only imagine how difficult it was for Nicholls to write the follow up. The publication of “Us” has been eagerly awaited by readers and I have just got my copy today. This novel takes us on a European tour with a mismatched couple. This is a picaresque and poignant tale of a marriage under strain, where the biochemist anti-hero Douglas Petersen undertakes an InterRailing trip across Europe with his wife Connie and teenage son Albie. The holiday becomes Doug’s last chance to win back the affections of his wife and son, a story told with affection and humour by  Nicholls whose skill as a writer helps to engage the reader’s empathy with all the characters. I expect it will be top of the list at all Book Clubs this year.

Literary Bad Girls- Part 3

IMG_1130

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)

This author of the seminal feminist tome The Second Sex was an academic, philosopher, feminist and journalist, she was a trail blazer who rejected the bourgeois concept of marraige and after graduating from the Sorbonne met the existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. He and de Beauvoir maintained one of the most revolutionary relationships of their time, the couple never cohabited, but remained lovers and confidantes until his death five decades later. The couple dated other people and even formed three-way relationships one of which was with a student named Olga. Simone fictionalised this experience in  1943 in the novel “L’invitee “which explore the complexity of relationships and existential ideals. Above is a picture of her derriere taken by an American photographer in Chicago in 1950. This adds to her Bad Girl appeal! Life wasn’t all coffee and philosophy and heated discussions at the famous Cafe De Flore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, she also had a tremendous capacity for fun. Jean-Paul and Simone remained inseparable in death and share a grave in the Montparnasse Cemetry, Paris.

IMG_1133

 

Cafe De Flore

Cafe De Flore

De Beauvoir has always been a poster girl for poets and musicians, listen here to a very cherubic and beautiful LLoyd Cole sing the line- “she reads Simone de Beauvoir in her American circumstance.

Rachel Cusk

IMG_1139

Rachel Cusk was born in Canada in 1967 and spent most of her childhood in Los Angeles and after convent school in England went to New College,Oxford to study English. I first became aware of Cusk’s work when I happened across her novel “Saving Agnes’, in 1993, and I felt like I’d found a friend. The character of Agnes seemed to speak to me as it mirrored some of life’s frustrations at that time, and the prose was elegant and witty and lush with metaphor and allusions. I was hooked and bought all her subsequent work.

IMG_1135

Rachel wrote her book, ‘ A life’s Work : On Becoming a Mother,”in 2001 which was a powerful and often funny account of pregnancy, childbirth and mothering that doesn’t gloss over the pain, mystery and confusion of the process. She was as she is always, brutally honest. Literary reviewers loved it and one wrote that it was as compulsive a read as a thriller. However many women hated it and she became vilified by the mumsnet brigade who accused her of child-hating, of postnatal depression, of shameless greed and most often of being too intellectual.

This literary Bad Girl was, as ever, unabashed by the critisism and went on to write another memoir”Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation,” a truthful account of the collapse of her marriage written with characteristic Cuskian wry humour and honesty. The critics again had a field day that someone would plough the minutae of their own life and betray confidences and relationships for Art’s sake. However this is precisely what Karl Ove Knausgaard did in his epic memoir “My Struggle”, which was unflinching in its portrayal of his marriages, his father’s descent into alcoholism and his conflicted views on fatherhood. The man was described as a literary sensation, which of course he is, in exactly the same way as Rachel is. I was privileged to have had her as a lecturer and sat rapt as she spoke. With looks reminisent of Chrissie Hynde and the intellectual agility of Virginia Wolff she is one literary Bad Girl.

Commencement – London in January

This blog was supposed to begin life in early January but had stiff competition from other time consuming pursuits namely those related to work and to the annual early January obsession with gyms and aspirational new life styles. There was an added note of urgency to the reigning in of my hedonistic passions this year as I wanted to attempt to look a little younger at my graduation ceremony on the 23rd January in the Rose Theatre, Kingston. It was to be the culmination of two years of part time study and travel between Kerry and Kingston, enduring the claustrophobic confines of Ryan Air and late night angst as the dissertation deadline loomed.

It was also a triumph of folly over reason, of spirit over reality. The first two weeks of the new me were difficult but were showing results. I had waved a fond farewell to the Chablis and Sancerre in the early hours of January 1st aided hugely by aversion therapy after massive overindulgence over the season. I promptly turned up at my local gym BTS fitness and was put through my paces by the very fabulous Silvia, whose toned physique and boundless energy got this devotee of lounging to spend a few hours a week hauling kettle bells and donning boxing gloves. I had also given up the consolations of consulate, the menthol friends that have been a constant in my life.

Naturally, by all the laws of nature , I was a little lighter and a lot fresher as I boarded the flight to London Luton accompanied by my mother an the afternoon before graduation. Despite gloomy predictions of snow blizzards and arctic conditions from weather reports and of course Sky News, we arrived with ease to a bitterly cold but snow-free Ebury Street, Victoria. This is a great location for a sojourn in London and I can’t recommend the Lime Tree Hotel enough, located as it is next to a fabulous bistro, The Ebury Wine Bar and on the doorstep of Elizabeth Street with its designer shops and rarefied village appeal. The Hotel is a little gem with really helpful staff, a taste of Made In Chelsea for those of us without trust-funds, ideal for myself as I do like the champagne lifestyle on a beer budget.

When my sisters flew in from Dublin that evening and arrived at eleven to the hotel, I allowed my hedonistic self to re- emerge and nourish herself after the gulag of the previous few weeks. There was nothing for it but to run around the corner to Boisdales Of Belgravia, one of my finds over the course of my studies. A couple of cocktails later and I was singing along with the jazz band and even worried in the manner of a stray dog’s effect on sheep, a young musician from Queens New York. I kept repeating that I knew the area well, as if I was google earth in human form, albeit that very delectable form that I feel after one too many hendricks. It came to pass that my vision of waking on the graduation day- performing a few sun salutes, then meditating for twenty minutes on the meaning of Art in life, then dressing and resembling Dita Von Teese -didn’t come to pass.

Instead I found myself in Clapham Junction wearing snow boots with my new body-con dress, also accessorised with a camel hair polo neck and a very loud leopard print coat. The rest of my gear was carried in a black holdall, not unlike a kit bag. The dream of floating effortlessly to Kingston in my high heels and a clutch bag was not to be. Instead I shuffled through the cold station with the swagger of a blubbery inuit on the frozen Alaskan plains. After queuing for caps and gowns and other discombobulating stuff in the JG building, I was plucked from the misery of walking to the town for lunch by Dominic Bury, one of the young boys from my class. This dapper poet transported me in his mini-cooper to the restaurant where I was meeting one of my tutors for lunch. Climbing out of the mini and waving goodbye to the bespectacled hipster definitely made me feel a lot younger.

After a glass of bubbly with Rachel Cusk, combined with interesting discussion, I emerged to take my place at graduation. It was a really special day and I really enjoyed the upbeat and positive talk given by Wendy Perriam who received an honorary doctorate that day. Graduation speeches are extremely important and set the right note and are always remembered by the graduates afterwards. My all time favourite commencement address is by the inimitable David Foster Wallace in ‘This is Water’.

IMG_1542

IMG_1481