Thursday, 10 December 2009

Writing From Exile In One's Own Home

Disregarding teenage poetry and angsty lyrics, I started writing in College because I was disillusioned with the higher education system I was being meat-ground through. I wrote stage plays as there were lots of wannabe thesps and wannabe directors to match up with wannabe playwrights like me. Of course we were the fewest on the ground of the three proto-professions. My first play was about football violence, set behind a wire fence (this was just pre-Hillsborough days) and enabled er me, as the lead character, to scale it and hanging just by the crook of my armpit, to hurl abuse at the audience from a height. Heady days. Flushed with confidence, I then wrote 2 plays in about 6 weeks to take up to the Edinburgh Festival. I spent Live Aid composing the upcoming programme notes or my plays; a furious diatribe against the nature of mass entertainment and the perversity of a gig in the name of famine relief, with all those bloated lifestyles on show in the hospitality tent backstage (and a no-doubt more inconspicuous tent for scoring their drugs). My cast refused to let me give out the programme for our shows and they were probably right.

I left college and ridiculously imagined playwriting would be better than a desk job to earn a crust. The first two plays I wrote were both in American idiom, I had been very influenced by David Mamet's approach character through dialogue. As much as I had been alienated by the untheatrical diatribes of British playwrights like Brenton, Edgar and Hare; better suited to dinner party discussion than being staged. Or perhaps to theatre programmes that your cast refuse to be associated with. One of these 'American' plays was about male conception of space; a sort of if it's not me or mine, then either I will appropriate it, or I will destroy it if I can't have it. The other was about a female concept of space, where boundaries were muddied by the experience of pregnancy, of having something 'other' inside your body. The female one got produced, the male one didn't. Both were effectively monologues played by multiple actors.

I wrote several other plays, moving more and more towards explorations of movement, space and dance - you may be picking up a theme of perversity on my part by now - and away from dialogues and speech. In the end I fell between two stools; the conventional theatre wouldn't touch my stuff as being too leftfield and the physical theatre brigade couldn't see the need for a writer. Exit me stage left.

And entry into the world of prose writing. I hadn't forgotten everything learned from the theatre, I just chose to ignore it. I can do dialogue, but I don't see it as working terribly well in novels, when you have to keep helping the reader see who is speaking. Also, having started writing 'American' plays, I was now determined to write a novel free of American cultural and linguistic influence; much like the band XTC had tried to make an album free of American rock and roll influences in a vain quest to find a British music pastoralism that wasn't folky. (Though I'm all about the British urban rather than pastoralism). I just want to interject here that my quest to write a novel free of American influence was simply in order to explore the possibilities and the ramifications within our global culture. .The overwhelming majority of my favourite contemporary authors are American - Delilo, Baker, Selby Jnr, Lutz, Cleveneger. Foer, while with honourable exceptions Winterson, Peace and Mitchell - the latter two who wrote from exile in Japan - UK authors leave me cold; Amis, Barnes, Swift I find as intellectual and dry as the marxist playwrights of old.

So I write this novel "A,B&E" as a journey into the modern British soul. Stripped out from its contamination by mass culture of films and TV. And a very wrinkled, shrivelled walnut of a soul it is too. One of the things I throw into the pot is an expansive language (that old perversity thing). Language as a living, mutating beast, plunging from highbrow to the lowest slang, but defiantly British as against Mid-Atlantic. Grappling to make language stand up ramrod straight and salute; trying to pin down and communicate precise meaning, instead of slipping away out of our grasps, leaving only the sebaceous candle tallow to mould, instead of the limpid flame from the wick. But the British don't seem to approve of having to work a bit for their meaning. We take our language for granted, like we expect the rest of the world to know what we mean, because they should speak English damn it! A legacy of our imperialist past, when to know what being British meant in terms of identity, our forefathers would merely unfurl a map of the world smeared in British pink and tap the areas for their answer. Well those pink areas of the globe have gone now, but the attitudes haven't been replaced by any reflective notions on identity. We still colonise, this time as tourists relatively flush with currency and imposing Little islands of cultural Britain in far flung holiday resorts. The caesura between this and the lack of self-knowledge as to who we really think we are forms the spine of my novel.

Okay, so I've done the American thing in plays. Attempted to quarry a British literature for the current century and that seems to have split opinion down the middle too. I appear to be struggling with my own opaque presumption of identity, as the psyche I wrote about in the novel. But then I was Twitter steered to a wonderful transcript of the Nobel Laureate for Literature's Nobel lecture and I feel reinvigorated. I have to admit I have never read any Herta Muller - the German-speaking ethnic Rumanian - but to judge from her Nobel lecture I will soon be putting that straight. She expounds on what she calls the "Every word knows something of a vicious circle", of words that inform other words, or serve to leach their power. She was persecuted by the Communist forces of repression, and gives examples of how they emptied words and symbols of meaning and invested other words and symbols with frightening new resonances. Her lecture offers wordplay and words within words. She slides effortlessly between different languages and the links between word roots. She indicates the possible power relationships that lie behind all words, whether originating 2000 years ago, or refurbished in recent history. I will be intrigued to see which has the greater primacy in her novels, story, character, voice or language.

But finally I feel I could just be coming home. I may be British and have an unending appetite for the language of my birth, but seems I may have a European sensibility. My formative reading was Camus, Beckett, Genet and Kafka, I even read Sartre novels to the end, although I prefer Houellebeq's fencing with large, philosophical ideas that the French have never shied away from, unlike the scepticism of the British. I may not even have to go into exile like Peace and Mitchell, who presumably both found intimate resonances within their souls while located in Japan. If I feel a bit more rooted, then maybe I won't feel the need for kicking against the pricks quite so much.

But there again, maybe not.

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