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Proof of Pudding


What discerning judges have said about The Coffee Story

'It's been a while since I read a first novel that felt as universally accomplished as Peter Salmon's The Coffee Story' - Toby Litt

'I was constantly intoxicated by a sense of desire & loss' - Jake Arnott

'Wild and raucous... an extraordinarily accomplished debut' - Niall Griffiths

'Reminiscent of Phillip Roth's Everyman. But it's much, much funnier' - Sydney Morning Herald

'An exceptional debut' - Martyn Bedford

Hard Sell

Vale E L Doctorow

doctorowWriters are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book your composition of yourself is at stake. – E L Doctorow.

I was very sad to hear of the passing of my literary hero, E L Doctorow, couple of weeks ago. As I write this I have a battered copy of The Book of Daniel on my desk. I’m not sure what copy number it is – I have bought it so many times over the years, and given copies away to so many people. But I always need one on my desk. It is, for me, the point of reference when I try to write. It is my touchstone.

For me, The Book of Daniel was a revelation – it was the book that taught me that you can do anything with the novel. One didn’t have to sound like ‘a novelist’, whatever that means, whatever I though that that meant. Your job as a writer was to incorporate everything you needed to tell the story. Flaubert writes that style is a ‘mode of thinking’ – and thus the novel is a method of investigation which incorporates – and is governed by – a way of ‘going on’ as Wittgenstein would say. A way, crudely ,of putting words together to create a new world.

For Doctorow, one of the fundamental categories of ‘everything’ to be incorporated was politics. I have never believed in the notion, try as I might,  that one can write successfully to further a political stance – good fiction is, I believe, too complicated for that, as I’m sure Doctorow would agree. But a fundamental lesson from his work is, for me, that one cannot create a work of art without considering the political implications, the position of the characters qua society, and the form of the art work in terms of its position in the culture. It may be that, having done so, none of these imperatives affect the creation of the art work, but to ignore them is an act of bad faith (as it is, of course, in any critique – all criticism should strive to identify an political aporias in a work.) We live in a time where politicians are attempting to divorce people from their circumstances, by which I mean their political context. Writers should, I believe, not only not fall for this, but not help. Art has the power to return true complexity to human and political relationships. It must, as Henry James said, swim against the tide.

Notably, most obituaries concentrated on Doctorow’s other books – Ragtime, Billy Bathgate – political in their own way, but without the white-hot radicalism of The Book of Daniel. Forty years after its publication, it evades the easy neutering that popularity brings. As I said. for me, it is still the touchstone against which I judge anything I write. It is the greatest book I have read. Go and read it now.

 

 

 

St Etheldreda’s Church

St Etheldreda's Church, Ely Place.

St Etheldreda’s Church, Ely Place.

Great fun yesterday – those who follow me on twitter will know that I have been celebrating the feast days of various saints, as they are prescribed in Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints, about which I am writing a study. Yesterday was the feast day of St Etheldreda, and I happened to be in Holborn so I was able to visit the church in Ely Place which bears her name.

St Etheldreda was born in 630, and was a prominent member of the ruling family of the Kingdom of East Anglia. She wanted to be a nun, but was married off to Tondberct, chief or prince of the South Gyrwe (the Fens) and, on his death, to King Ecgfrith of Northumbria. Both marriages were approved on the condition that her husband would respect her vow of perpetual chastity. When King Ecgfrith attempted to consummate the marriage, Etheldreda fled back to Ely. The King followed, but Etheldreda evaded capture when God either made the tide rise around her, or hid her under an ash tree grown miraculously from a staff she placed in the ground. Free from her marriage, she established a religious community in Ely, later destroyed by the Danes.

The church that bears her name was the town chapel of the bishops of Ely from 1250 to 1570, when bishops were required to come to London to attend Parliament and is the oldest Catholic church in England, and the only building in London surviving from the reign of Edward I. Despite it’s Popery, it felt like a thoroughly Holborn church – situated on the last privately owned street in London, and hemmed in by grand houses. Book-ended by two huge windows, it is a two-tiered church, with a magnificent upper chamber, possibly the bishop’s private chapel, and a crypt downstairs, which may have been used for services for the locals. Along the walls of the upper church run statues (now made of polystyrene!) of locals who died for the faith during the reformation – these are simple memorials, eschewing grandeur and showing the martyrs in, as it were, their civvies. The simplicity somehow makes it moving.

This is, of course, one of the joys of London – the way that history leaks around corners, and pools in places where you least expect it. I’ve walked past Ely Place many times (usually on my way to Ye Olde Mitre pub, an equally fascinating place of worship!) with no idea the church was hidden away three doors up. So here’s to St Etheldreda and her vow… Today’s feast day is John the Baptist, which may be a little harder to commune with. Thanks for nothing, Salome…

The Flanders Road by Claude Simon

Claude Simon likes a laugh

Claude Simon likes a laugh

Time. It’s a bastard, pace Proust, pace Wagner. How do you capture its mercurial, telescoping, objective, subjective, historical, anti-historical sense when making art, by which I mean a novel? Should one cling resolutely to the subjective time of the main character , the imaginary objective time of the omniscient narrator etc etc? Each ambit is, of course, false – we live in a simultaneous present which – a nod to Heidegger (hi Marty, thanks for joining) – contains the past, the present, the future. How to capture that in linear language, without boredom, without the repetition of thought which (in fact) is most of consciousness? (Stream of consciousness being, of course, a trope like any other – true stream of consciousness writing would, of course, be not only impossible, but anti-art).

I’m currently reading – as I tend to do when I am approaching a challenging writing task, The Flanders Road, by Claude Simon – a writer who seems to have been more or less forgotten (all he did was win the Nobel Prize!). Simon takes up the challenge of time through what I think of as the device of conflation – in order to represent ‘lived time’ as it is/can be represented in art, he imposes on the narrative voice the challenge of simultaneity – he forces it (through ellipses, parenthesis, run on sentences etc) to acknowledge, and battle with, its own temporality. No statement is allowed that doesn’t acknowledge its contingency, no event is narrated that doesn’t acknowledge its partiality.

Simon is questioning both consciousness (the job of a novel) and novels (the job of consciousness). By creating a knot of parallax narrative strands he challenges the reader – and as my ‘go to’ book whenever I’m feeling glib – he challenges me to not accept the simple appeal of a strong authorial voice – as this is a fiction, like any other.

Anyway, what he reckons about stuff is here.