What We Talk About When We Talk About Books
I did have a plan to run 50 miles on my 50th birthday last year but a cycling injury to my calf - like Murakami, I also do triathlon - grounded me. Now, also like him, my running is accompanied by constant worries about aging, reflected in ever slower times.
He is in a different class to me, as runner and novelist, and throughout he gives the sense that he cannot be one without being the other. He has done 25 marathons and written 11 novels. I have done one marathon and written two novels . . .
And so, and so on, in a clumsy and mix of competitive envy and vain-glorious boasting. Pooter lives.
Meanwhile, in the same pages, M. John Harrison shows you how it’s done, framing the territory the book in question appears to inhabit, before getting under its hood and finding out what it’s really made of:
The post-disaster story has a deep ambivalence about the worth of that which has been lost. Its traditional purpose is to defamiliarise the world we know, and express our two worst fears: that the built environment will collapse, leaving us without material support; or - worse - that it won’t, saddling us in perpetuity with everything we hate about it, from office work to shampoo ads. Its purpose is to deliver a little frisson. So it’s clear from the off, then, that Thomas Glavinic’s Night Work, though it appears to take place in the same querulous psychic space as, say, I am Legend or Survivors, isn’t a post-disaster story at all.
I confess to having a blind spot for Julian Barnes’s novels, but his introduction to a collection of Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters is very fine indeed, from the opening self-deprecatory anecdote about his first encounter with Fitzgerald, to his sharp observations of how novels and novelists work, and the special qualities of Fitzgerald’s writing:
Many writers start by inventing away from their lives, and then, when the material runs out, turn back to more familiar sources. Fitzgerald did the opposite, and by writing away from her own life liberated herself into greatness.
[Fitzgerald] didn’t like to offend: on one occasion she went to vote, and as she left the polling station, ‘to my disgust the Conservative lady outside snatched away my card, saying - I’m only taking ours, dear - I didn’t like to say I was Liberal for fear of hurting her feelings - she had put a nice green hat on and everything - I often see her in church.’
That ‘nice green hat’ is a pure writer’s touch...
I have to say that I think the condescending ‘dear’ is a nicely vivid stab at fixing a character, too. And thanks to Harrison and Barnes, I have more books to add to my reading list . . .