I’ve long been meaning to post about some fabulous and intriguing books I’ve read recently. First in line is Robert Edric’s The London Satyr.
From the cover:
1891. London is simmering in the oppressive summer heat, the air thick with sexual repression. But a wave of morality is about to rock the capital as the puritans of the London Vigilance Committee seek out perversion and aberrant behaviour in all its forms.
Charles Webster, an impoverished photographer working at the Lyceum Theatre, has been sucked into a shadowy demi-monde which exists beneath the surface of civilized society. It is a world of pornographers and prostitutes, orchestrated by master manipulator Marlow, for whom Webster illicitly provides theatrical costumes for pornographic shoots.
But knowledge of this enterprise has somehow reached the Lyceum’s upright theatre manager, Bram Stoker, who suspects Webster’s involvement. As the net tightens around Marlow and his cohorts and public outrage sweeps the city, a member of the aristocracy is accused of killing a child prostitute…
After reading his PS Publishing novella, The Mermaids, in 2012 I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Edric. (Part 1 of the inteview is posted here. I intend to transcribe the rest of it as time allows.) The London Satyr was very different but no less pleasing to read than The Mermaids. The plot layers within The London Satyr allowed me to get lost in the corners of its streets and backstage world, but this novel can’t and won’t be boiled down to that. Edric’s prose–his sentences–are little gifts in themselves. As Webster walks through this perilous situation, I felt I was walking with him through London, always considering things, interpreting glances and shadows, always on guard, falling into more and more danger alongside him. Thrilling, to say the least.
In his sentences, Edric does beautiful and hypnotic things with repetition. One of the currents within this novel is Webster’s grief over his seven-year-old daughter Caroline, who, many years before the story is set, had died. Without spoiling anything (because I do hope you will read the novel) I’ll say there’s a passage near the end of the novel which keeps haunting me, so I am indulging in the pleasure of typing it:
“When Caroline had been alive, she had often waited for me at the corner of the street, a few doors from our own, looking out for me as I climbed the gentle slope. And upon seeing me, seeing me wave to her and then crouch down and hold out my arms to her, she would run towards me at a gaterhing pace, stopped only by her collision into me, whereupon, having steadied myself, I would rise and lift her into the air and spin her, holding her against my chest and over my shoulder until all of her sudden energy and momentum was lost, absorbed into my body and then passing in a tremor through me into the solid ground beneath us. I would feel this happen, feel her small and fragile body and all its vital forces absorbed into my own.
There were days when I had set off home already looking forward to this meeting, always disappointed when something kept her from the corner. She would hang laughing uncontrollably over my shoulder and then babble her day’s news into my ear. News of the things she had done, the people she had seen, what she had eaten, what she had worn, what her mother had said to her, what her sister had said, what she had said to them. A whole day in those few spinning seconds.
And later, these stories would resume at bedtime, when I would sit with her as she fell asleep. Sometimes, I would go on spinning these tales long after her eyes had closed, lowering my voice to a whisper for the simple pleasure of sitting with my child and watching her sleep, secure in the knowledge that she was happy and well and safe, and secure too in my own fierce conviction of the endless future and what it held for us both.
For a year after her death, I could not turn that corner except with the hopeless expectation of seeing her there again, running towards me with her arms out. And when she did not come, when that one small miracle did not occur, I could not help but also feel the sudden blade of sadness which pierced me again and again, and nor could I stop the tears which filled my eyes as I continued home to that cold and lifeless house.”
It’s when I read passages like this that I know something in my bones: reading makes us more human.
Here’s the first installment transcribed. I will post more as time allows.
This spring, I’m teaching a creative writing course, and looking at a examples of well-written fiction and nonfiction, approaching reading as painters look at brushstrokes, to understand how the thing was made. I’m assigning The Mermaids because I love it, because of its economy, and its unity of place and action. I think it’s a great text to focus on.
With regards to the actual writing itself, it was one of those books that actually got smaller and smaller and smaller. I wrote it in a week, twelve years ago, when we’d just moved house, and I didn’t have anywhere to work. And every autumn, I get the urge to write a book again, and so I sat down, and I wrote three novellas, of which The Mermaids was one. I originally spent a fortnight, I only ever work for a few hours in the morning, and I spent a fortnight writing it, and then I typed it up, which takes a very long time for me, and I put it away. And I didn’t look at it again for three or four years, because…I don’t know what happens in America, but in England, novellas, short novels, were just a no-no for publishers, and I had another book on the stocks, and I put these three novellas to one side, thinking they would make a nice trilogy eventually. With The Mermaids, I much enjoyed writing it because as you may have guessed, that kind of language over anything much longer than that length isn’t sustainable. It’s very unreal language… it’s loquacious and it’s poetic…it hovers between language of the real world, and language of dreams. The book itself is posited on the notion of the existence of mermaids, of course, and we all know they don’t exist. So you have to take out of the equation, instantly, the reader’s suspension of disbelief. You can’t depend on your reader thinking, “Oh, I believe in mermaids, so I’ll read this,” or, “I don’t believe in them, so I won’t.” The language somehow has to reflect that lack of the concrete… the language itself isn’t concrete because the facts aren’t concrete, because the reality of the situation is that it all exists inside a girl’s head. She’s fifteen, just about to be sixteen which sort of turns her into a woman in the eyes of them all, so the language is the language of thought, and dream, and fantasy, as opposed to the language of the real world. Nowhere in the book is there a suggestion of time, and place. I know where it’s set, and the timing is about the mid 1930s. There’s a very tiny reference to a major war having been fought fifteen years earlier. And the language somehow has to be as timeless as the notion of mermaids, which is why the language is as it is, which is a consequence of the book having been revised and revised and revised downward. My manuscripts are invariably twice the size of the finished product because of the way I work. I work very organically. I know this sounds a little precious but I sit down, and I write for about two hours, and I produce 6000 or 7000 or 8000 words, usually a whole chapter, in the case of The Mermaids, five or six chapters, five or six pieces rather, and then I literally leave it a year, having written for two or three months, and then go back to see what’s there. I’m not a planner. I don’t work things out, I don’t know what happens the day after and the day after and the day after. I write and write and write until I’m exhausted, and don’t want to do it anymore, and then I go back to create some kind of order out of that particular chaos, and I create the form of the book out of what I’ve written, as opposed to worrying about what’s missing or what should be there. I see what I’ve written, and then I work out how to best structure it. And so the language, I suppose, is all there in the very beginning but you need then to create the spaces in the language. And I’m very conscious of the fact that it’s the most poetic thing that I’ve written. I’ve written crime novels where the language is completely different. But I’m also a writer who’s very aware of language. I love reading well-constructed sentences. I love finding out how meaning has come into being through language. One of the important things a lot of reviewers and critics never seem to want to know about, never want to talk about, is how something was actually created. It always concerns me that there’s a kind of belief that the thing was there, and what the writer’s done is give it some kind of meaning and structure. You scream at them and say, “No, it’s all been made up! It’s all come from my head, it’s all come from my imagination!” But it’s an intangible. It’s one of the things that they don’t know. And they don’t know about fine writing. You never see in a review, “Well, this is beautifully written,” well, they’ll say it as a throw-away, it’s like calling a meal “well-cooked.” It’s very edible. Well of course it should be! And writing should be clear and simple and straightforward. It should do what the writer wants it to do, and most importantly of all, for me, the writing should reflect the nature of the story being told. And that brings us back to the idea of this being fantasy, dream… it’s a kind of vaporous language, the language in The Mermaids. It’s very suggestive, and you can disagree with practically everything that’s written about the mermaids from the girl’s perspective. The counterpoint for that, of course, are the three men who are questioning the girl. And their language, and the writing which reflects and represents them, is very very different.
I’d like to pick up on several things you said, but I’d like to start with some very heartfelt praise about what you’re talking about in the language, because I’m very concerned with sentences and phrases. You have so many watery images and words and so much, I would say, hypnosis, within the sentences, that I felt the sentences and phrases were often mimicking the movement of waves on the shore. And it just thrills me when words are so beautifully steeped in the essence of the book.
Thank you for that. Do you know something, one of the greatest things for me in writing is being able to do that. It somehow doesn’t matter that the reader doesn’t pick up on it–it’s always nice when it happens–but it doesn’t matter, because the ability to put things in is more important than the ability to take them out at the end. And I’m a great fan of something called euphony where words simply look right, the tone… I mean I’m one of these ridiculous writers. I think James Joyce used to do it. I read a sentence and instinctively I know if it’s right or wrong. And if it’s wrong, and I don’t know why it’s wrong, I work out the number of syllables, and it’s a ridiculous way of structuring a sentence, but sometimes it is simply the number of syllables in a sentence which is wrong. And it’s not something you pick up, it’s instinctive, like walking or running, you know how to do the thing you do well, but it goes wrong sometimes and if you were that good at doing it, why does it keep going wrong? And yes, you’re right, there’s an incredible amount of watery imagery in The Mermaids, and there’s a lot of reflection, there’s a lot of looking glass, there’s a lot of surface of water, there’s a lot of the tide rising and falling, just as the tide rises and falls through the little village. And there are a lot of people changing direction just as the tide comes and goes, and there are lots of people being believed and disbelieved in equal measure. And I live at the seaside, I walk my dog on the beach once or twice a day, and I know what a difference living by the sea makes. I don’t suspect you get that there.
I sure don’t! Sadly.
It’s interesting about sound–it’s such an intimate connection with words and sound and how things look and sound. I remember being at a seminar that Cathy Smith Bowers, an American poet, was giving, and she handed out this chart of vowel sounds and the feelings that we get from different vowel sounds, and I realize that I hear that and I experience it intuitively, but looking at it now, on later drafts, I can see, “Oh, I have lots of o sounds here, what’s going on with that,” and then make more of it. In The Mermaids, there is a passage on p. 41 where you have such beautiful repetition: “She herself had told no one except the photographer, and had told no one else of what she had told and shown to him–told no one that he and she had gone back to the cave together before the sea had returned and filled it again…” and the repetition of “had told” was somehow very luscious. And the vowel sounds supposedly cause, in the reader, feelings of sorrow, awe, dread, gloom, heaviness, but also of calm and soothing, so it’s an interesting and very complicated way to look at sentences but it’s a poet’s look at sentences, I guess, and I love seeing that in prose.
Most writers who’ve served their proper apprenticeship–I mean, I’ve published, God knows, 20, 22 books now–and so I daresay that intuitively, you do pick up these things without being told what you’re doing. It almost seems preposterous to tell a creative writing student that there are too many i’s or too many o’s and why do you use the word “told” four times in two sentences? Well, one answer for that is it’s like a bell being tolled, and if you’re telling someone, you’re not simply whispering or speaking or saying or remarking or answering or suggesting, telling someone is a different thing entirely. I love deciding which words work best. And I think with things like The Mermaids, it is an allegory, and most allegories depend on a very very simple language… not childlike, but a language a child would easily understand. My first instinct on writing The Mermaids was to make it so a ten-year-old could read that book. And there’s not a word in it that they wouldn’t understand. I know it has a few dark shadows in the book which children wouldn’t appreciate, and I know it’s about puberty and adolescence, which a lot of people don’t want to sort of face up to, from either side of it, so to speak, but the language of the book is–I hesitate to use the word “biblical”–but biblical language is incredibly straightforward. If somebody’s saying something, it is “I said” “he said” “I said” “he said” and I think that that’s great. People worry about this; people worry in creative writing, they say, “Oh, you’ve used ‘he said/she said/he said/she said’” and I normally say to that, “Well, if we know who’s speaking, there’s no need to tell it, but by telling who said it, you’re making another point. It’s a bit like the old cliché about Raymond Carver, “Oh, God, he overdoes it,” but he doesn’t. “What’s the weather like?” he said, “It’s raining,” she said. “Is it?” he said. “Yes,” she said. It’s the “he saids” and “she saids” in that sentence that make it the desperate little conversation it is. And I don’t know how you can tell people that that’s a good thing or the right thing or the proper way to do it, but it is. Like most writers, you do intuitively know it.
And it becomes a metronome, sort of.
It does. And part of euphony, part of words looking and sounding right is of course the rhythm. I love the rhythm of words. I love words that somehow look to be doing the job they’re doing. In a very simple way, “he said/she said” does, but then you can describe the flow of water, the flow of seaweed, the flow of air, the flow of time, the flow of a narrative, the flow of a dress, the flow of anything. You can describe words using the same one, you can describe events using the same few words. Short stories, and novels, have to have some kind of cumulative effect. The nice thing about The Mermaids, from my side, is that, with it being only eighty pages long, I can control that flow from beginning to end. I would love that book to be read in a single sitting because there will be echoes and reflections throughout it which depend upon each other. You read the first ten pages of a novel, and by the time you get to page 400, there are meant to be echoes and reflections of 400 pages ago, so you might be two or three months away from that first page, whereas with something like The Mermaids, you’re very close to the first page still. It is, in a sense, like writing a piece of music.