Monday, August 14, 2017

Glen Duncan

Saul Black is a pseudonym for Glen Duncan, the author of By Blood We Live, I, Lucifer, and many other books. He was chosen by both Arena and The Times Literary Supplement (London) as one of Britain's best young novelists.

His new novel is LoveMurder.

Recently I asked Duncan about what he was reading. His reply:
It’s a relief to be able to write this post. Or at least to be able to write it honestly. About four years ago I lost the ability to read. Nothing wrong with my eyes, nothing wrong with my brain. But something very wrong somewhere, in some embarrassingly ethereal region of my being. Heart? Mind? Psyche? Spirit?

All Catholics, whether they describe themselves as ex-Catholics or failed Catholics or lapsed Catholics (or as I suspect is my own case closet Catholics) remain Dualists, deep down. Therefore I’m thrown back on the language of the allegedly non-material: Something was wrong with my (imagine the next word uttered in a trembling and shameful whisper) soul.

Allow the drama-queenliness for a moment, gentle reader. I assure you it’s looked back on now with an indulgent smile of fond superiority, as would be childhood misdemeanour. But in the grip of his grand crisis your author enjoyed no smiles, indulgent or otherwise. For reasons too personal to enumerate here he was Not Happy. Worse, he was Not Happy With Himself.

The antecedents, I repeat, will remain grandly in shadow. All you need to know is that I was incapable of an imaginative life. Of which the obvious corollary was that I was incapable of a reading life.

I tried. Many times. My efforts culminated, spectacularly, in an attempt to re-read Don Quixote. I got almost to the bottom of the first page before rushing to the bathroom to vomit. After that I gave up. I took to watching television. Not good television, either. In fact, the badder the television the better. I became a devotee of The Millionaire Matchmaker and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I gorged on Come Dine With Me and basked in the warmth of A Place in the Sun. Some hilarious and perhaps satirical vestige of character kept me from Made in Chelsea and The Only Way is Essex, but these two exceptions only added the charge of hypocrisy to the long roll of my shortcomings.

It was a dreary four years, and the truth is I have no idea why it ended, only a few months ago. But end it did. Inexplicably, one day, I found myself picking up The Odyssey. I say ‘found myself’ very deliberately. I wasn’t aware of deciding to pick it up or intending to pick it up or forlornly mulling over the pointlessness of picking it up. There was, as far as I can tell, zero premeditation. One minute I was deep in Dinner Date Simon’s difficulties with his crème brûlée, the next I was switching the television off and picking up Homer.

When I think of that moment now I think of it as a rogue neural twitch in a corpse—with the difference that in this case the corpse turned out to be alive after all. I began reading. Water. Fire. Blood. Stone. Iron. Fire. Meat. The nouns held the atoms of their original objects. The verbs were clean engines. In the old story language was curiously nude and unencumbered. Here was a tale (poem, rather) that gave solace by conceding that the world has no solace to give. Love and death presided over by gods with genitals and hangovers, no better than ourselves. I had read The Odyssey before, but only under the germy blanket of academic obligation. This time around I read it in a state of laughable bliss. I did laugh—not just at the narrative’s lighter moments (when its characters aren’t busy fornicating or getting their guts run through) but at its casually accomplished miracle of word by word rebooting language. Even its stock epithets felt fresh and alluring. Aphrodite of the curling lashes. Yes please.

There was no stopping me after that. I raced deliriously through The Iliad, The Aeneid, Metamorphoses, Theogony, Works and Days, The Argonautica. The Classical authors opened the door back into literature’s house of many mansions, yes, but it wasn’t long before I was getting twitchy for racier existential company. I lurched off into The Nineteenth Century French: Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Balzac’s Cousin Bette, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, all of which are complex, sexy, ambiguous novels that make many of their English counterparts of the period look like shuffling fuddy-duddies.

Obviously books afford effortless time-travel and promiscuous internationalism. I left the French and started reading Twentieth Century Americans, filling in some reprehensible gaps the aforementioned germy blanket had left uncovered. Three masterpieces. Firstly, Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, in which a likably unambitious grocery store clerk is confronted with an opportunity to bend his ethics and make some real cash. It doesn’t sound much of a premise. But in the old days (gone, now) writers didn’t win the Nobel for nothing; under Steinbeck’s casually omniscient gaze this simple dilemma exposes the whole dirty marriage of money and morality.

Secondly, Faulkner’s two related novels, Sanctuary and Requiem for a Nun. The first is the most obliquely beguiling novel of sexual assault I’ve ever read. (And yes, I am aware that ‘beguiling’ sits ill with ‘sexual assault’, but do read it before dashing off the hate mail.) Simultaneously claustrophobic and vertiginously expansive, these two novels (although the latter is rendered partly as a stage drama) centre around the extraordinary character of Temple Drake, ambivalent rape-victim in Sanctuary, possible murderess in Requiem. Any summary of the plots, which are, by current ADHD standards, thin, would be redundant. It’s not much of a sell these days to say that these books do maddening godlike justice to both psychological depth and moral complexity, but that’s my strapline, take it or leave it.

I regard the Twentieth Century Americans as Phase Three of my reading recovery. I read a lot more Faulkner and a lot more Steinbeck (along with most of Hemingway—among its many gifts For Whom the Bell Tolls greatly expanded my swearing repertoire) but after them I was no longer in fear of a relapse into bibliophobia. I was, once again, a happy slut of the written word, polyamorous, ever-ready to whip on my specs and curl up on the couch without so much as a how-do-you-do.

Most recently - and to get around to fulfilling the blog’s brief at long last - I have just read Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini, translated by Alane Salierno Mason. It’s billed as ‘a novel’, and indeed it is, but such is its lyricism and disregard for traditional narrative parameters (for example, the boundary between the real and the imagined, though it is not, thank God, ‘magical realism’) that it has more the quality of a long poem or visionary dream. Again, the nuts and bolts are minimal: The narrator, Silvestro, living in an unnamed Italian city and suffering from a sort of depression or spiritual malaise, receives a letter from his father (a) telling him that he (the father) has left Silverstro’s mother after many years of marriage and (b) suggesting that in the light of this she might appreciate a visit from her son. Over three days and nights Silvestro travels back to his home village in rural Sicily, has a chat with his mum, visits various local residents (to whom his mother acts as a kind of pharmacist/nurse), attends the naked and ostensibly medical ‘examinations’ of one or two ladies, gets drunk with some villagers, wanders around in the night, has some strange visions of a dead soldier who might or might not be his brother, falls asleep, wakes up back at his mother’s house to find her washing the feet of an old man who might or might not be his father. Silvestro leaves without speaking to the old man and heads back to the city where the novel begins.

Sounds insane, granted. But here’s what Hemingway had to say of Elio Vittorini in the foreword to Conversations in Sicily: ‘To a good writer, needing to bring the dry country alive so that it will not be a desert […] such a writer finds rain to be made of knowledge, experience, wine, bread, oil, salt, vinegar, bed, early mornings, nights, days, the sea, men, women, dogs, beloved motor cars, bicycles, hills and valleys, the appearance and disappearance of trains on straight and curved tracks, love, honor and disobey, music, chamber music and chamber pots, negative and positive Wassermanns, the arrival and non-arrival of expected munitions and/or reinforcements, replacements or your brother. All these are part of rain to a good writer along with your hated or beloved mother, my she rest in peace or pieces, porcupine quills, cock grouse drumming on a bass-wood log, the smell of sweet-grass and fresh smoked leather and Sicily… In this book the rain you get is Sicily […] I care very much about his ability to bring rain with him when he comes if the earth is dry and that is what you need.’

There’s no point trying to add to that, except with an emphatic gasp of agreement. All I can say is that having read Conversations once, I know I’ll read it again, several times. Now that I am reading again, I can only marvel that I made it through four years without killing myself.
Visit Glen Duncan/Saul Black's website.

--Marshal Zeringue