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Pensive Peter Salmon

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

My Bedside Table

One of my most detested phrases in all of literature – scrap that – in all of everything – is Magical Realism. I can understand that it has a certain explanatory force when indicating the literature of a particular movement or era, but as a broader term denoting a ‘style’ of writing it brings out for me all that is most muddle-headed in literary criticism, suggesting as it does that, on the one hand, non-magical or ‘actual’ realism and, on the other, that any literature that allows itsef to be inclusive of developments in plot or character that are, if you’ll excuse the term non-quotidian (non-prosaic? Non-demonstrable? I am attempting to name a thing I don’t believe exists).

There is, of course, no such thing as ‘realism’ – realism is, itself a trope, a conceit. Stories are made up things, edited, subject to ellipses, coincidence and synecdoche. A man walking across a room in a socialist realist novel is as manufactured, illusory and – dare I say – magical as a man walking across a room in Marquez. The book itself may show greater or lesser awareness of its contingency, but for a reader – let alone a critic – to be fully ignorant of it is not possible.

Simply, if my narrative requires a six headed beast to walk into the room, or fish to swim in air, or the protagonist to grow ever younger, that is not ‘doing magical realism’ – it is following the truth (hopefully) of what the narrative demands.

I was reminded of this while reading The Little Prince which, to my shame, I had never read before. What a wonderful, evasive little novel this is. While the actions never cease to be fantastic,  a little prince from another planet, worlds as small as rooms, talking foxes and flowers, the tale is told without any gestures to the magical. It manages, therefore to capture life at its most ambiguous, most open to possibility, which is, surely, the greatest that one can ask of a novel.

And, as an aside, it might be, for me, the novel that comes closest to Proust in its description of the desperate nature of unrequited love – Proust in seven volumes, Saint-Expury in 91 pages. Word, Antoine.


Hadrian the Seventh by Fr. Rolfe

Delighted to find a NYRB edition of Hadrian the Seventh by Fr Rolfe in my local charity shop – a glittering jewel amongst various airport novels and crime thrillers. Without doubt the maddest book I have ever read, outside perhaps of Judge Schreber’s Memoirs of My Mental Illness, which I shall no doubt come to at some stage.

For those unfamiliar… The novel tells the story of George Arthur Rose, an old chain-smoker whose only companion is a cat and who, like the author, failed in his election to the priesthood. Unlike the author he is granted his wish for ordination when he is visited in his flat by two Cardinals, who, seeing him as their only saviour, ordain him there and then. He is then whisked to Rome where the Conclave to elect the new Pope has reached deadlock. Rose is duly elected, and becomes Hadrian the Seventh. Hadrian then sets about rewarding friends, punishing enemies, and reshaping the world in his image, as though it was the thirteenth century and the Papacy reigned supreme over the world.

It is both mad and deeply serious, and it is this seriousness which makes the book truly great. I am fascinated by novels that challenge conventional moral standpoints, and particularly those that challenge conventional moral standpoints generally held by lovers of literature. There does seem to be, sometimes, a clubby moral position held by those who read – the ethos we want questioned is not our own. Hadrian is deeply Catholic; hates the Irish, the Welsh, the Scots; believes, of course, in the Absolute Supremacy of God; and speaks with complete confidence in the language of the Church without heightening his statements or resorting to irony. God exists, the Church is all, unbelievers will burn. These are not, necessarily, the views that modern literature tends to preach.

I am reminded of that terrifying, enigmatic moment in Sukorov’s Russian Ark. A young man stands before El Greco’s painting of Paul and Peter. The protagonist approaches him and asks if he is a Catholic, and whether he is deep in thought because of that. The young man admits that he is not, but admires the painting because one day ‘all people will be like that’. The protagonist rounds on him, backs him into a corner, and asks how he will know what all people will be like, as he does not know the scriptures. How does he know what to feel about the painting, as he does not know the Gospels? It is an unsettling moment – the character whose point of view is our own speaks in a way that makes us – most of us – uncomfortable. Hadrian the Seventh has a similar affect.

A final note about the book – I hadn’t realised how the ending fed into the way I ended The Coffee Story (I thought I’d stolen the last line of my book from Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius). But here’s the end of Hadrian –

“So died Hadrian the Seventh, Bishop, Servant of the servants of God, and (some say) Martyr. So died Peter in the arms of Caesar.

The world sobbed, sighed, wiped its mouth; and experienced extreme relief.

The college of Cardinals summed him up with the brilliant epigram of Tactius – He would have been an ideal ruler if He had not ruled.

Religious people said that He was an incomprehensible creature. And the man on the motor said the pace certainly had been rather rapid.

Pray for the repose of his soul. He was so tired”



The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs by Jack Gantos

I have, as many of you will be aware having attended parties at which I’ve expounded my provocative theories, long felt that there are too many books aimed at teenagers which concentrate on ‘issues’ that the ‘teenagers’ must ‘confront’ in order to ‘find’ ‘themselves’. What the world was crying out for in the realm of teenage fiction was, I argued, a simple novel, featuring, perhaps, two identical twins who, on the death of their mother, have her stuffed and placed in the basement, her taxidermed head available to two different detachable bodies so that the twins could spend alternate nights in her presence. The story would be told from the point of view of their bastard daughter, to whom the curse of their mother love had been passed on, such that she would, herself, develop a passion for taxidermy, eugenics (the twins having been separated briefly in order to be experimented on by an acolyte of Joseph Mengele) and her own mother, whom she would like to clone and give birth to, as an expression of her own desperate mother love, the curse she has inherited from the twin who is her father.

And finally it is here! The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs by Jack Gantos is a marvellously strange book which I found by that wonderful and dying method of procuring books – browsing. It tells the story of Ivy who, at the age of nine, discovers in the basement of the pharmacy run by two ageing Rumbaugh twins, Ab and Dolph, the taxidermed body of their mother (also, of course, Ivy). From that point on she is drawn into the love curse of the Rumbaughs – excessive mother love that manifests itself in an inability to let go of the object of one’s affections. Even after death.

Gantos tells the tale matter-of-factly, the genre, perhaps, requiring some restraint (although if the sex scene can be regarded as ‘restrained’ for today’s teenager then things have definitely moved on since my science teacher Mr Dodd had the temerity to slip a condom over a cucumber to illustrate how one should avoid AIDS). Can Ivy escape the curse? Does she want to? All is reveled in a final chapter that touches admirably lightly on the theme of human dismemberment and incest. If you’re a fan of either, then this is definitely the book for you.


Dirt by David Vann

Jesus! There’s Galen and his mum and his auntie and his cousin, and she’s Jennifer, and there’s the panties and the cunnulingus and then they hate each other and the others do too, and then the grandmother with dementia and then there’s fighting and the mother says it’s rape and then there’s the shed and the starving and the spade and the crushed hand and the dying and the piss and the bit where he puts mud all over himself and gets in her bed and the screaming and the hitting and maybe it’s a satire but holy fuck maybe it’s not, anyway, this is the most disturbing book since Blood Meridian, so I finally get to use the sentence ‘does for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance what Cormac McCarthy did for Shane‘. David Vann, who also wrote my favourite read of last year, Legend of a Suicide, may well be a genius. And he must be stopped.

It’s out in the UK on June 7.




The Pyramid by Ismail Kadare

I’ve just finished reading the remarkable and – if the internet is anything to go by – just about forgotten novel The Pyramid by the remarkable, and again, according to the internet, all too forgotten Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, inaugural winner of the first ever Man Booker International Prize.

This was a book that came at me out of nowhere – how it ended up on my bookshelves I have no idea, but it feels fitting that an air of mystery surrounds it, because it is a mysterious and unsettling work. Written for the most part in a plain, quotidian style, it carries in every sentence a double meaning – while Kadare is, ostensibly, telling the story of the construction of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, he is also presenting a parable of sorts on the duplicity and doublethink of any monolithic dictatorship, where the will of the state imposes itself on the populace with an almost casual disregard for the individuals involved.

I found the work particularly piquant as I watch The Shard grow ever taller on the London skyline from my sometime vantage point of Alexandra Palace. I have a deep, almost intimate love of The Shard which I find hard to reconcile with my general annoyance at most such obvious displays of hubris. But there is something pathetic – in the old meaning – about The Shard that appeals. It is, at present, wonderfully useless – it’s meaning is, simply, its height, and only the prospect of it actually becoming a functioning home for the frantic commerce of our age spoils it. It should be left to enjoy the triumph of it’s height, coaxing it’s first suicidees up with its quiet hubris.

Even better, once finished, it could be completely filled in with concrete, and poor people could be guided to the to by gentle gendarmes, in order to jump off to their doom. The meaning of the pyramid of Cheops is, of course. in the deaths of those who constructed it. One could follow the money and find whose bones already lie beneath The Shard, but let us be more open. Let’s watch them fall. The Shard will, of course, never topple.


I Hate Martin Amis by Peter Barry

I approached this book with some trepidation. The central premise – a frustrated writer takes his revenge on the publishing industry for failing to recognise the genius of his manuscript – meant that if the book was rubbish, it would reallybe rubbish . But, dear God, it’s an astonishing novel.

The protagonist, Milan Zorec, is a ‘failed novelist’. His last rejection carries the handwritten note ‘Scarcely original. Feel I’ve read this before’. Outraged, he decides to tell a story that is utterly original. He will – literally – become a sniper for Milosevic in Sarajevo and describe the experience. He will do so unflinchingly, and if the book was simply this story and no other then the manuscript would be powerful enough. But Barry interweaves this experience with Zorec’s revenge fantasies about not being able to get published. Again, this could have lapsed into self-indulgence, but doesn’t. I kept listening for Barry’s own voice to sneak through, but it never does – the character he has created is complete. And truly horrible.

Barry’s skill is to let us watch this character at his worst, and never fall into the trap of allowing us to sympathise with him, so that, as a reader, we are left in complete doubt as to whether his grievances are in any way justified. There is considerable restraint in this – the book could either have become a rant, or could have given Zorec a moment that sentimentalises him. It never does. The narraative voice holds absolutely, and at no point are we given the easy option of cheering Zorec on. It takes great courage and skill to write a character this tight. It makes for a truly thought-provoking, truly unsettling novel.



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