Like Tin Cans Tied to a Tricycle

The quote is from a review by Adam Mars-Jones of Michael Cunningham’s novel By Nightfall. You can find the reference in this autumn’s edition of The Author, the journal of The Society of Authors. The critic wasn’t happy about too many references to The Great Gatsby in a novel about something else. But I’d like to defend writers from at least flirting with the great names and titles while they’re working on fictions of their own.

When I was writing my first novel, Girl in a Garden, there was a huge temptation to mention two novels, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. My editor of the time suppressed it, surely rightly. Novels should stand alone, without explanations of their contents. They shouldn’t be full of awkward references to other books and writers. All the same, the impulse to refer to big names and books is not a desire to bask in reflected glory. It’s much more of an instinctive desire to shelve your own modest offering in Borges’s vast library of everything ever written. I felt I had written a novel that was about how cruel children can be, temporarily cut off from civilization, and a novel about a powerful, disturbing mother figure Rhys evidently knew about. She herself linked Wide Sargasso Sea to Jane Eyre, via the figure of Rochester’s mad wife in the attic.

When I finished my second novel, Anyone’s Game, earlier this year, two European classics immediately sprang to mind, Gide’s The Immoralist and Camus’s The Outsider. If my protagonist Sophie Asmus was misunderstood, they would help to shine a light on her. Otherwise six well-known novels and essays seemed to hang over the life I created for this woman born in Russia in 1900, and who spent time in Scotland, London, Moscow, Cambridge and Paris. No one wrote about a woman like her then, in a world dominated by men, and male writers, and which was a bourgeois order of things that had difficulty welcoming in outsiders. I had the feeling that I wanted to intrude her retrospectively into familiar worlds created by writers as far apart as John Buchan, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, because she was there all the time, only existing unacknowledged, in the shadows, and in the margins of what got written down. She had a room in London, but it wasn’t at all like Woolf’s. She had experienced first-hand a brave new Russia that Huxley feared but knew almost nothing about. There are a couple of direct references to books and writers in Anyone’s Game but I hope they are unobtrusive occurrences in the difficult life of Sophie Asmus. If they rattle like tins cans at least you’ll know why they’re there.

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