The Guardian Interview

by Anita Sethi

For The Guardian: Full article here.

When Edward Docx was 13 years old, his grandmother lay on her deathbed at the family home in Greater Manchester and made a startling revelation to his mother, Lila – they weren’t related by blood.

Docx’s mum was dumbfounded but, as if that were not enough, there was another bombshell – Lila’s grandfather was in fact her biological father.

The woman Docx knew as his grandmother, Manwar, nicknamed “Mano”, explained to Lila that her real mother – now dead – had been a Russian chorus dancer with whom Lila’s real father, Ralph Partridge Snr, had had a short relationship.

Ralph Snr gave the child born from the brief affair to his grownup son by his first marriage, Ralph Jnr, who was already married to Mano. They brought up Lila as their own.

These sesimic revelations took place behind closed doors, and Docx only gradually found out the truth. So, why does he think Lila’s biological father decided to give her away?

“Her real father lied because he had an affair and Lila was the child of that affair – simple as that. But he also took responsibility in a way by making sure that my mother was brought up well and went to university – my mother had a really good education as a biochemist, which was paid for by her real father. That created loads of weird cross-currents and semi-dysfunctional relationships.

“But lots of things remain unclear, and me and my brothers and sisters talk about it all the time to this day. I would have loved to have talked to her [Manwar] about all this.”

The woman Docx thought of as his grandmother had her own complex story, one that began in India and ended in England.

“She was born in Hyderabad, the 13th child of a Brahmin family. She left her family for Ralph Jnr without their blessing and, when she married him, she was cut off by her family.”

He pauses. “So that was who I thought was my grandmother …”

The gulf between who we think we are and who we turn out to be was at the heart of Docx’s novel Self-Help, which was longlisted for the Man Booker prize, and is a subject in his powerful new book, Let Go My Hand.

“My mum thought she was half-Indian and that was my inheritance until I was 13. It raises a very interesting question about nature versus nurture. Whatever the truth of my DNA, I had a major cultural reversal. Presumably, my DNA is a quarter Russian. But I didn’t think that at all. I thought I was a quarter Indian and loved being a quarter Indian and dreamed of going to India when I was growing up and finding my grandma’s house and even going to see her relatives and saying: ‘I know you fell out, but here I am.’ I got to the age of 13 thinking all these things …”
How did the family deal with having their identity so suddenly rocked to the core? “Looking back, my mum handled it with an exuberance – she started dressing in long Russian dresses and bought all these Russian icons and put them all over the house, she bought maps of the Soviet Union, and we had to listen to endless romantic Russian composers.”

She also searched for traces of her real mother, scouring libraries for any references or photographs of her.

“She embraced her Russian heritage, and I sort of embraced it because my mum did. I started to go to Russia to learn more. I read all of the Russians – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Bulgakov – long before I could really understand them. I realise now I did that in boyish support of my mum.”

The oldest of seven children, Docx grew up in an “eccentric, bohemian” family who lived in a ramshackle house, “slightly on the edge but never quite – no carpets, no curtains, ragged furniture, prehistoric plumbing, everything threadbare and ancient and cobwebbed and broken-down. You don’t realise as a kid what’s going on, but later in life you look back and realise: ‘Wow, that was quite odd.’”
Now a father of four, Docx has long challenged concepts of what constitutes a “normal family”. Initially, the discovery of long-buried secret identities in his family made him question everything about himself, but now he is at peace with it.

“A lot of people feel trapped in an identity. When I thought my mum was part-Indian and she was actually part-Russian, it made me feel less hidebound or delineated. A surprising number of writers sit obliquely to the cultures that they write about.”

Was it liberating? “Totally – now I never feel trapped by identity.”

Lila has also found peace, he says. “My mother has stopped her questing and settled into a happy retirement with my father. They drive around Europe all year attending the concerts of their friends and visiting vineyards and places of historical interest. They are seldom home now.”

Docx has been aware of the power of stories from an early age – both those that we are told and those that we tell ourselves. Manwar was a great storyteller, he says.

“I used to sit with her when I was little and listen to stories of India – amazing stories of running away from tigers and being bitten by a snake and her childhood in the 20s and 30s – incredibly rich and exciting stories. I would listen to her for hours. I don’t even know if she made them up; I have no idea.”

Q and A

Q&A with author Edward Docx
‘What does it mean to be a writer? To give precise and enduring expression to the human experience’
Small Talk – Books

Full article here for the FT.

Edward Docx was born in England in 1972. He is the eldest of seven children. He read English Literature at Cambridge. His work has won the Geoffrey Faber Prize and been longlisted for the Man Booker. He lives in south London.

Who is your perfect reader?
In my experience, readers of fiction tend to be intelligent and insightful people.

What books are currently on your bedside table?
The Radetzky March (Roth), Libra (DeLillo), The Brothers Karamazov(Dostoyevsky), Paw Patrol 1000 Stickers.
Who would you most like to sit next to at a dinner party?
Between Sauron and Emmanuelle Béart.

Where do you write best?
In conversation with other people about writing.

What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?
Contribute.

What is your current favourite word?
Diaphanous.

If you could own any painting, what would it be?
“The Cardsharps” by Caravaggio. I love the vitality of the narrative; it’s a scene caught in the midst of a very human drama — almost as if that single painting is an entire film.

How do you relax?
Go-Karting with my brothers and sisters. Making paella.

When do you feel most free?
In conversation with people who are not.

What book do you wish you’d written?
Of recent times — Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth. Of previous times — Anna Karenina. Of ancient times — Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Where is your favourite place in the world?
The Isle of Skye.

What does it mean to be a writer?
To give precise and enduring expression to the human experience.

Do you have a writing routine?
Greet-the-dawn yoga. Swim. Jogging. Spinach smoothie. Meditation. Write three words. Reiki. Pilates. Ayahuasca. Three more words. Triathlon. Lunch (legumes). Aikido. Decathlon. Six-word afternoon writing-sprint. Intense tantric healing. Dinner.

Edward Docx’s ‘Let Go My Hand’ is published by Picador

Q & A

 

This Q & A first appeared here in The Guardian:

 

How did you come to write The Devil’s Garden?
Some years ago, I stayed on a river station on the Amazon with some very odd people. Later, in one of the river towns, a woman told me a story about an anthropologist who disappeared in terrifying circumstances. I fused these experiences into the novel.

 

What was most difficult about it?
Writing the love story because, in this case, it was so intimate and unspoken and beneath the surface.

 

What did you most enjoy?
Writing a human being who is trying to make himself the embodiment of calm and reason and good intentions, but who is tender and wounded and emotionally volatile inside. Writing about religion and science, about the ancient and the modern, and about the clash between the individual and the powerful opposing forces that seek to determine our future. Writing about what lies hidden in the human heart.

 

How long did it take?
From first thought to finished manuscript: three years.

 

What has changed for you since it was first published?
I am now feted by heads of state. Leading designers petition me to endorse their fragrances. I no longer queue. I dine only where the Michelin stars are displayed. My phone is heavy with requests for political advice. World champions seek my counsel on matters of psychology. I am often lost to sexual exhaustion.

 

Who’s your favourite writer?
Austen for elegance and emotional choreography. Philip Roth for sheer visceral energy. Zola for character. Coetzee for resonance and the human animal. Nabokov for style. Henry James for technical excellence. Martin Amis for his sentences. Donne and Pope for wit. Yeats and Auden for poetry. Steinbeck for compassion. Franzen, Hollinghurst and Munro for how to do it in a contemporary context. A page or two of De Sade to banish the sanctimonious. Tolstoy and Dickens again and again for all the above and everything else. Shakespeare.

 

What are your other inspirations?
Bob Dylan. Paul Scholes. JS Bach. Gilles Villeneuve. Eleanor of Aquitaine. Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Schubert’s chamber music. Jungpana Darjeeling tea. The Greek philosophers. Caravaggio. Darwin. South Park. Murray Perahia. The Isle of Skye, Trastevere in Rome and St Petersburg in Russia. Mozart’s writing for the human voice. Jane Campion. Burgundy wine. Queen Elizabeth I. Stephen Isserlis. My brothers and sisters. Tom Waits. Anything cosmological. Lucian Freud and the NHS.

 

Give us a writing tip
Assume your readers to be intelligent and insightful people.

 

What, if anything, would you do differently if you were starting the book again?
Arrange to be paid by the hour.

 

What are you working on now?
A heartwarming Scandinavian thriller about a boy wizard/vampire who meets the same woman over and over again but cannot declare his love because he must remain disguised as a warhorse.

Five-Minute Memoir

 

Written for The Independent:

I remember that we had left our backpacks at Zoo Station and that we were going to save our Deutschmarks by staying out all night. I remember, too, when at last we came into the crumbling old courtyard, that the music was extraordinarily loud – a wall of sound made out of euphoria and ecstasy, the herald of a new world order.

Or so it seemed. It was 1991, we were at an impromptu party in newly-opened East Berlin and I had finished school – forever. Day-by-day, throughout the long summer, the old republics of the Soviet Union had been declaring their independence while, in Moscow, Yeltsin was standing on a tank.

She was standing in a corridor. I’d split up with a girl from home after three years – so I felt naïve, out of practice, but also careless because recently hurt.

She had turquoise eyes that danced alternately with intelligence and shyness, with gentle mockery and sudden candour. I can’t remember what I said – it didn’t matter – because she spoke no English and I spoke no German and the house music made it impossible to hear.

But some mysterious male-female magic held us. And I bought her something to drink. And we stood together without speaking for what may have been an hour.

Eventually, we kissed. But too soon she made a sign to say she had to go – and I made a sign to say we should meet again and we both shrugged and I took out a pen and a little notebook because I wanted to be a writer and I suggested Zoo Station because it was all that I knew and she nodded and wrote down three o’clock, platform one, and that Saturday’s date. And she kissed me again and I held her closer this time. And then she was gone.

A Simple Love Story

 

For The Times on Bob Dylan’s 65th birthday:

 

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You can see it that way – like a train track. Or maybe a journey on a train track. I guess it does make a certain sort of sense.’ He shrugged. ‘Or at least we could see it that way for a while … And, if it doesn’t work out, well … only we are ever going to know.’

She rested her chin on his chest and motioned her empty glass lazily in the direction of the wine. He reached out for the bottle and poured – the angles awkward since neither of them could be bothered to sit up straight on the bed.

‘So presumably,’ she said, gently mocking him, ‘you want me to agree that … that it’s the most beautiful train track being laid down by anyone in the world today.’

‘I believe that to be the case.’ He hid his smile behind a face of pretend seriousness. ‘There have been one or two others in the past. But, yes, it’s the number one train track being made in the world today.’

‘And do we know where this amazing track is going?’

READ MORE>

How to write a novel in 40 words

 

In 2012, Picador celebrated its 40th birthday with the publication of The Picador Book of Forty, a collection of essays and stories by Picador authors on the theme of the number forty. In this essay, Edward Docx, author of Self Help and The Devil’s Garden, sums up his favourite novels in a mere forty words. 

1. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Beautiful people were everywhere visible in the lighted windows of the great house beyond – dancing, drinking, damned.

“Gee, I bet you’re not really from Oxford,” Nick drawled.

“Am so,” said Gatsby, affecting a grandeur that did not quite ring true.

2. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, had I been a painter, you would have seen a dolorous nymph asleep in her flame-flowered arbour, wearing a single sock, while callipygian cherubim climbed columns of onyx and birds of paradise gently wept.

3. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

After the talk with the man from the ministry, Tomas fell into a deep depression. Unsure about Beethoven, Dionysius or kitsch, he visited Sabina. She put on a bowler hat and then stripped to her underwear. This cheered him up.

4. Middlemarch, George Eliot

“I married because I was intellectually infatuated,” asserted Dorothea Brooke, somewhat stubbornly.

“I married because I was physically infatuated,” replied Dr Lydgate, somewhat regretfully.

“Well, such is English provincial life and you’re both very immature,” concluded George Eliot, somewhat chidingly.

5. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

After heavy deliberation, Raskolnikov, a much conflicted student, stole into an old lady’s apartment and there murdered her with an axe. Though undetected, he was rather shaken and fell into a fever during which he sought the company of policemen.

6. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

“Cathy, I know that my eyebrows meet but you must marry me instead of Edgar,” Heathcliff cried out, like a beast wrenched in agony from its life-long mate.

“Let me alone,” Cathy sighed with a petulance she would later regret.

7. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway

The Spanish sun was hot. I’m going to blow that bridge if it kills me, Robert thought. The Spanish sun was still hot. But Robert crawled towards the bridge under fire. And blew it up. And it did kill him.

8. Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka

Painfully, he waited in the room without anything decisive happening. His father was unhappy. His mother was hysterical. His sister was adamant he must be got rid of. There was nothing to be done. He sank his head and died.

9. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

“Let me tell you how I went up the Congo looking for a man named Kurtz,” said Marlow.

“Why?” asked everyone else.

The solemn sky grew darker until the light was extinguished and only the sound of the river remained.

10. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

“Your expectations will be answered,” she said, her colour heightening despite the most resolute composure of countenance. “But I implore patience. Though the truth may indeed be universally acknowledged in advance, we are nonetheless required to arrive there by increment.”

11. The History of Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

Tom awoke in a strange bed beside a young lady of his most recent acquaintance . . . But here, dear reader, we must break away to the bosom of Sophia Western where, at this very moment, calamity pressed hard its exertions.

12. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Anna shared a train carriage to Moscow with Vronsky. It was intense. The same again on the overnight home. It was even more intense. And now – uh oh – she finds her husband repulsive because his ears press against his hat.

READ MORE OVER AT PICADOR

Weather Anxiety

Written For Prospect Magazine:

 

I was powering along the French autoroute in my truly awful car wishing I had gone into mining precious metals or something when my travelling companion piped up from the passenger seat: “Why are you driving so fast?”

It was a good question. We were heading to a small town called Beaune. There was no rush. We weren’t late. We hadn’t even booked anywhere to stay. Nobody was expecting us. The world was even more indifferent to our progress than usual.

“I don’t know,” I replied, backing off a little.

“At least it’s not raining anymore.”

“That’s it,” I said, turning to her. “That’s it.”

“What’s what?” she frowned. “Keep your eyes on the road, you idiot.”

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Q & A at Hay

 

1. How did you research the Devil’s Garden? Do you feel that visiting a place you are writing about is crucial for an author?

Personally, I find that there is no substitute for going to a place if you want to write about it. The word ‘author’ is quite close to the word ‘authenticity’ – and the more you know a place, the more time you can spend there, the more authentic your writing will become. Or at least that’s my experience. Other writers write well from maps and the imagination and so on. But I found that going to Russia for my second novel and going to the Amazon for this last one, really helped. And, well, it seems to me fairly obvious that more things will occur to you if you go: the story will flourish when it is more familiar with its setting. Plus … what’s not to like about traveling to write?!

2. You must have learned calligraphy in order to write about it. are you a calligrapher now too?

No, I was lucky – I travelled up to Yorkshire to see someone who was a professional calligrapher – he ran the Society of Scribes and Illuminators – and he taught me everything I needed to know. Afterwards, I was able to call him and ask him further details. Then I went back to check everything with him – when that novel was in final draft. It was a fascinating experience. I later found out that the SSi had fallen out with some other society of calligraphers and that there were schisms and tensions and splits. It reminded me of the python scene where John Clease shouts ‘splitters’. But, of course, in finding out about all this, I did start to have a different relationship with letters – a bit like Jasper in the novel does…

How has your life changed now that you’re full-time writer?

Yes, these days, I go to the artist’s enclave at the Hay Festival and do these Q and A’s whereas before I would tended not to get in and there would be security and fighting and tears and I’d often get thrown out and then when I used to tunnel back in they’d get mad and I’d be arrested and have to wrest control of the steering wheel in the police van and knock out the police officers and steal their uniforms and come back in by pretending to be security – it was exhausting and pretty dangerous at times.

READ MORE >

A conversation: Ten Questions with Edward Docx

In Conversation with Picador:

 

1. Can you summarise The Devil’s Garden in fifty words?

It is about love and corruption and ancient tribes and violence and grief and sex and science and religion and ants and anthropology and the clash between the individual and the big opposing forces of the twenty-first century. Most of all it’s about what lies hidden in the human heart.

2. What inspired you to write a novel set in the jungle? 

In a place called Puerto Maldonado in Peru, a woman told me a story about a scientist who disappeared in terrifying circumstances and that got me thinking…

3. How did you research this novel?

I went to the Amazon a couple of times. The first trip was with a friend and fellow writer. We met up in Lima and – after variously ill-advised diversions – we put ourselves in a small boat heading upriver. I remember I was suffering from a combination of sunstroke, dodgy malaria tablets and altitude sickness. Plus, I had been out until six in the morning. So I just lay in the bottom of the boat with my skin covered in this death-white sun block and a cheap leather hat over my face. When we got to the river station, there were these two German postgraduate students busy doing ant research right in the middle of all the bad stuff that was going on with the drugs and the logging and the tribes.

For the first day, I didn’t really see the jungle so much as hear it since I was lying in the dark. But even later, when I was able to explore with our guide, I had no idea that some kind of novel was forming in my subconscious. So, four years after that, when I began to write what became The Devil’s Garden, I knew I would have to go back and make some proper notes. The book eventually became a combination of the mildly hallucinogenic memories I had from the first trip and the detailed observations I took on the second – that time in Brazil.

As for the science, I began by reading the journals and various papers. Then I got in contact with the myrmecologists (ant-studying scientists) who are actually doing the work I describe in the book. I interviewed them and then stayed in touch so that we could speak or email as the writing progressed. A friend from Cambridge – also a myrmecologist – helped whenever I got stuck on things like reproduction.

4. Were there any stand-out moments?

Sleeping in the jungle in a hammock and watching the darkness turn slowly to the bluish-grey light of dawn in the canopy above me. Being left alone in the forest and trying unsuccessfully not to be afraid.

5. What was the hardest thing to write in The Devil’s Garden?

Love because, in this case, it was so intimate and so unspoken and beneath the surface and yet the subject is the most generally written about in all of history.

6. Would you call Forle [the main character in The Devil’s Garden] a hero?

I don’t know. That term is pretty hard to pin down these days. (I blame the literary theorists…) I suppose I wanted to mine that British tradition where the main guy has got it all going on unspoken beneath the surface. I wanted to get away – for a while at least – from the American vogue for forensic explanation and (what I think of as) photographic fiction. In different moods, I love and admire that stuff – and Self Help was emotionally exact and overt in that way. But its not the only thing that a novel can do – indeed, it may not even be what the novel is best at. I’m not sure. It’s important to think about these big questions some times. But it’s also important not to…

7. Like Sole, there are a lot of strong women in your books – where do they come from?

My mother is a strong woman. She had seven children and runs her own small classical music business. I have three sisters and we’re close. And then there are the few women whom I have loved in the past and the one I love most of all and with whom I share my life. None of them take any shit. I sometimes wish they did.

8. What do you read?

I read anything and everything – although I try to champion good writing as much as possible since the schlock already gets plenty of notice and there’s nothing wrong with sticking up the stuff that is well written.

I love a good memoir like Alexandra Fuller or Daniel Mendelsohn, or good genre like Stephen King or Martin Cruz Smith. Randomly, I listen to C J Sansom in the car because I like Anton Lesser’s reading voice. I just finished Even The Dogs by Jon Macgregor which someone sent me and which I admired greatly. And – actually – I’m interested in the blockbusters too – though mainly if I’m honest because I want to know what it is about those books that works so well in order that I can learn from it and get better myself.

I see myself as a student who is lucky enough to have a thousand of teachers instantly available on my shelf. And so it’s important to read the Browns and the Larssons and try to understand them. Indeed, I think the importance of reading can’t be overstated – any sort of reading. I think they should hand out novels for free at train stations since reading is surely the mark of a civilized mind and a civilized society – particularly the novel. The novel doesn’t rant at you or hector you or bother you or make you feel you should be like this, or like that, or go there, or come back, or act now, or stop acting now, or get this, or lose that, or be quicker or slimmer or happier or better or more connected, it doesn’t shout or scream or flash like a magazine or an app or an ad or so much that’s on the Internet, rather the novel offers you a conversation – a conversation with other generations, other places, other peoples and a conversation that respects your intelligence and admits of the most interesting and central subjects of existence: human psychology, human sensibility, human morality, human relationships, human truth. Nothing replaces that. And no other art form does it better.

9. OK, so name your five best modern novels…

Now we’re getting down to it. OK, so, it changes all the time, of course. But as of today and in no particular order I would say: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which is a breathtaking technical masterpiece as well as being a triumph of the imagination in all the ways so justly celebrated. Alan Holinghurt’s Line of Beauty – for me he is the most elegant and all-round accomplished novelist in the UK and his last book had not a single slip of style or substance. Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre, which is truly staggering in terms of the sheer visceral energy and power of the writing and its great giddying Shakespearean reach; JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, which is, similarly, a novel of extraordinary force and resonance although achieved with a plain-song style so completely opposite to Roth that together they seem to me to represent the twin poles of what’s possible. Then I’d have to say Martin Amis’s London Fields because whether or not you like his novels, there is nobody writing in the English language who can turn a better sentence. Actually, I would have to include The Corrections, too, and The Shipping News. How many is that?

10.  The staff at the Amazon website in the US listed Self Help as one of their top books of the year and said that it was ‘the equal of better-known peers like Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen?’ Do you think that being well known is a major factor in success these days? How will you measure success with regard to The Devil’s Garden?

That’s a very complex question. But again the short answer is that a novel can be successful artistically (in that it’s well written and coheres) and/or it can be successful commercially (in that it is popular and sells). I always aim for the first, which I can control, and I hope for the second, which I can’t. As to the comparisons, I have never read any of Zadie Smith’s novels so I can’t really say about that – though I like the spirit in her essays whenever I come across them. And in my view, The Corrections was more or less a masterpiece, so I’m very happy and honoured and delighted by such things – though I’m not at all sure that they are justified. In any case, I hear Jamie Oliver is the biggest selling author in the UK. I met him once and we went to McDonalds together. Thirty minute meals – now that’s successful fiction.

 

Top 10 Deranged Characters

 

This first appeared in The Guardian:

Edward Docx’s first novel, The Calligrapher, was published to widespread acclaim in 2003 and has now been translated into eight languages. His second novel, Self Help, published in 2007, was longlisted for the Man Booker prize and went on to win The Geoffrey Faber prize. In 2003 and then again in 2007, Docx travelled in South America as part of the research for his third novel, The Devil’s Garden, which is published this week.

“I have always preferred reading in the insightful company of lunatics. Sometimes, it’s a gradual Nabokovian thing – the unassuming reader and the engaging protagonist set off together and only gradually does the former begin to realise that the latter is a madman. And sometimes, as with Burgess, it’s all abundantly clear from the off.

Either way, the reason that there is such a great tradition of madness in literature is that it provides the author with a way to tell the terrible truth about the world while opening up a gap between what is superficially being narrated and what is really going on – adding depth, in other words. Of course, these characters encompass the same spectrum – from benign to dangerous – as the rest of humanity. But I love to read those apparently blank-faced and emotionally-cauterised protagonists – Camus, Greene – who seem to have to stand extra still in the narrative in case they accidentally detonate the fearsome rage of their true feelings. And fairly early on in the writing of The Devil’s Garden, I knew that my own protagonist wouldn’t make it to the end without ripping up the false floors that I had built to fireproof him from what burned below …”

1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
All the greatest mad protagonists in modern western literature are descended either from Quixote or Hamlet. Undaunted by reality, Quixote is determined to believe the world is exactly as he declares it to be. He is not a delusional codger but a young chivalric knight, his lady is not the unwitting farm girl but the beautiful Dulcinea del Toboso and all those windmills are giants.

2. Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth
“Stop it! Stop it, please, being a maniac!” So begs the lover of our hero, Mickey Sabbath, on page 21. Epic, vital, savage, relentless, insane, existentially incandescent, horrifying, excruciating, not funny, very funny, this is the great tragicomic howl of a madman at full Shakespearean tilt. One of the greatest novels written in my lifetime.

3. L’Etranger by Albert Camus
If sentiment and schmaltz were truly the twin tyrants of our age, then this book would no longer sell. A cold, emotionless man remains throughout utterly uninterested in his own life story – his mother’s death, his neighbour’s violent misogyny, his girlfriend, the murder he commits, his trial for that murder, the possibility of redemption or even his own humanity. And yet, from JM Coetzee to Brett Easton Ellis, Camus’s hero has become the modern archetype for the ostensibly distant protagonist who has it all going on beneath the surface.

4. Diary of a Madman by Nikolai Gogol
A masterclass in the authorial management of derangement. Having locked himself in the padded cell of the first-person diary form (as written by a lowly clerk) Gogol simultaneously manages to allow the reader to peer through the jailer’s hatch and observe why his protagonist is mad and how the madness is worsening.

5. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis
People hate this book. But, from the point of view of insane protagonists and formal invention, it is endlessly fascinating. It tells the story – backwards – of Odilo Unverdorben, a doctor whom we meet at the end of his life in America but who once worked in the concentration camps in Germany. Everything is in reverse: people become younger and smaller until they eventually squeeze back their mothers’ wombs where they finally cease to exist. Doctors cause injuries and blows heal. Pimps give money to hookers and lead them out of prostitution. A totally crazy book in every dimension.

6. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
All that is necessary here is to remind ourselves of the opening line: “When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” I can’t read the original German – “unruhigen” – but I love the translation into that word “uneasy”.

7. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson
I know, I know: it’s the drugs. But you’d have to be mad to take that many at once and, anyway, the writing is irresistible: “I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive . . .’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: ‘Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?'”

8. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov is the undisputed king of the charming, demented narrator. In Pale Fire, Charles Kinbote is ostensibly an academic ostensibly commentating on what is ostensibly his best friend’s poem. But it becomes slowly apparent that Kinbote actually believes himself to be Charles the Beloved, the exiled king of Zembla, a fairytale kingdom. And yet, Kinbote may not be Kinbote at all but an alter-ego of the insane Professor V Botkin, to whose delusions the ostensible poet, Shade, and his campus colleagues apparently pander.

9. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
If ever there was An English Psycho then this is it – to my mind one of the most original novels ever written. Young Alex and his droogs (friends) go in for random and terrifying drug-fuelled rape, theft and murder to the soundtrack of Beethoven – “lovely lovely Ludwig Van”.  So disturbingly gleeful, too.

10. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Not strictly a novel, I realise, but along with Quixote, the prince of Denmark is the other great figure whose ghost beckons all subsequent protagonists over the dreadful cliff. Is he but mad north-north-west? And when the wind is southerly does he know a hawk from a handsaw? We must forever be deciding. But how many other protagonists leap into open graves to grab their ex-jester’s skull and reminisce about the kisses they once shared?

From Russia With Love

 

Written for The Guardian:

 

In the weeks before our lives changed for ever, my grandfather disappeared and my grandmother became seriously ill. We drove the length of the country through snow and ice to fetch her. Already much reduced by arthritis, she could walk only with great difficulty. She would be staying in the room we called the music room, because she could not negotiate the stairs and because there was a log fire by which she could sit.

My grandmother was perpetually cold. It was the task of the children to fetch fresh wood from the log pile and then to keep her company through the endless winter evenings, talking of tigers, of elephants and the Raj. I was 13, my brothers and sisters all younger; we did not realise that she had come to our Cheshire home to die.

As a child, you consider your world to be the only possible world; and as we understood things then, my mother’s family story was interesting, though without secrets. My grandfather – a man who had given his entire life to building a fine career in the army: the subcontinent, the second world war, Berlin, Africa, Hong Kong – had met my grandmother in India. My grandfather’s family was an old English one – soldiers all, and proud of it.

My grandmother, meanwhile, was a Brahmin, a wealthy and high-caste Indian (also proud of it) from near Hyderabad. She had fallen in love with her soldier and married him against the wishes of her family. When they left India for postwar Germany, she was cut off. She carried with her only her multicoloured saris and her jewellery. She never returned.

Death bed confession is inspiration for new Edward Docx novel

Taken from The Ham and High:

A death bed confession about his origins led author Edward Docx to the idea for his new novel, Bridget Galton writes

Edward Docx didn’t know his publishers were entering him for the Booker Prize until the longlist was announced.

Now, the 34-year-old’s second novel, Self Help, is rubbing literary shoulders with a Booker “dozen”, including four debut novelists and established writers Ian McEwan and AN Wilson.

On the morning we meet at Troika in Primrose Hill, his phone has been ringing constantly with friends offering congratulations and journalists seeking quotes.

Considerately (and unegotistically), he switches it off to spend a couple of hours talking about writing, family, Heath swimming and… book prizes.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s more than nice, it’s amazing,” says the former arts editor, from Belsize Park Gardens. “It’s way beyond anything I had hoped for. If I was lucky I expected to get reviews.

“The problem is these prizes are so arbitrary. All 13 books are on the list because they are good novels. Once you get to a certain level it’s a test of whether people like it.”

Each publishing house submits two novels by an author from the British Isles or Commonwealth for the annual prize. This year, judges had to whittle down 110 books to a longlist of 13, reduced to six by September 6.

Docx (pronounced dox) has the surprised air of a man emerging from three years living in his own head, to find the rest of the world shouting in his ear.

How I write

Written for Time Out Magazine in 2007

Imagine you are the best prison guard in the world. Undisputed number one. Entertained by the Blairs, the Beckhams and Antonio Banderas alike; a chess grand master, a boxer – ex-pro (three belts); kind as the mistletoe fairy, mean as a yoga teacher on the make, dignified as a Mandella diary; plus you’ve got ninety first class degrees in psychology from Harvard where you slept with everyone in the entire faculty (and their partners) and they all loved it and begged you to tour the world fundraising thereafter. Imagine you’re that good at guarding prisoners.

OK, now imagine that one day you get the call from the UN: they want you to deal with the number one prisoner in the world.

Be in no doubt: this guy is the most difficult inmate of all time. Home Secretaries slice off their ears at the mention of his name. Prime Ministers wet their tartans. Terrorists turn right around and head back up the M1. This guy can take down the entire socio-historical architecture of penal reform and then reassemble it as a troupe of pink flashing dildos right in front of your eyes. There is no mind game that he cannot win. He escapes on whim. He’s been know to break out just to tell Natasha Bedingfield to stop – and then break back in before his guards have even finished their fruit smoothies. This guy is the best.

So, henceforth, it is going to be you versus him. Real lonely. Just the two of you. Toughing it out on the maximum security wing.

Preparatory months of forensic study reveal little you didn’t already know. This guy has a better imagination than you – more talent, more intelligence, more everything. Fine; you can concede all this. (Such concessions are your strength.) But then, suddenly you see it, right there in the file, the paragraph that everyone else must have missed: the madman’s big secret, his one weakness, the way to beat him. Big Mr Badass Escape-Boy wants to be a novelist.

Son-of-a-bitch! All you have to do is convince him that you can get his work out there! That you know an agent, a publisher, an editor! You’ll take the booze, the drugs, the fighting, the abuse, even the odd sex crime, just so long as he writes a few hours a day. He can dirty protest, he can hunger strike, he can break anything he wants. Because if the bastard can be made to start writing, then he can also be made to stay and finish – and not just one book. Only one rule will be needed: if ever he escapes, he must not tell anyone and he must be back within 48 hours. Otherwise, your deal is over. No publication. No publicity. And then you’ll hunt him down and kill him. And make it look like suicide.

That’s pretty much how I write.

To Whom It May Concern

For The Telegraph

There are some novelists who will tell you that it’s the characters or the plot that cause all the trouble, or the research, or the pacing, or managing point of view, or controlling tone; but you would do better not to believe them. All of these are exasperating. But the thing that really screws you up is the dedication.
The book may be good, bad or both, but once it is finished you can dodge it, stand by it, disown it, move on, say you did or didn’t mean it, point out that you made it up, insist that it has nothing to do with you or anything that has happened in the past. The dedication, on the other hand, is where you have to say exactly what you mean. The dedication is where you can balls up the rest of your life.
To whom, then? And how do you say it? It’s an almost impossible choice for, aside from the chosen one, every person you hold dear is going to be disappointed. Put it another way: writing a dedication to a novel is a bit like composing an email to your closest friends and family, explaining that you don’t like them as much as you have been pretending, hitting “send all” and cc-ing the rest of the world. Where to start?
There’s your mother – the first choice, you might think. But what about your father? Maybe both: “To my parents?” Sounds somehow adolescent, though. Better to write another book and split them up. What about your partner? Your wife, husband, boyfriend or girlfriend? Surely she (in this case) deserves the dedication over family members – after all, you didn’t write the book when locked in your childhood bedroom.
Hang on, though: which partner? Because, of course, you were with someone else before your current partner and for much longer – when you began the book, now you come to think of it, and your previous partner definitely helped on those early stages. She is going to be really pissed off if you dedicate it to her usurper. Though that is as nothing compared to what said usurper might feel if you dedicate it to the bitch you used to go out with.

Forget lovers, what about one of your brothers or your sisters? But which one? All of them together? Too weak, too smug. (How many books are you going to have to write in order to keep everyone happy?) Let’s sideline all family members, partners and bedfellows past or present.

What about your best friend? Not bad, but nobody is that much “better” a friend than the others – not really; different people fit into different parts of your life. How about your friends taken all together? Too general. So just mention a few by name. But who do you not mention?

How about going for something non-personal. A school or university? Teachers in general, or one teacher in particular, or maybe a regiment, or a pet, or a country, or a special place, or the queen, or the pope, or the bank manager (that bastard), or the publishers, or the booksellers or … potential readers? Yes, why not? After all, they are the ones you really want to thank. But it’s hardly very personal is it? What about future partners? Monica Bellucci?

The history of dedications is as long as the history of writing (Horace’s odes and Virgil’s Georgics were dedicated to Maecenas, a wealthy patron) and all of the above dedicatees have been tried at one time or another. What is interesting is the amount of information that there is to be gleaned about the author from his or her decision. Because – be in no doubt – he or she was careful in the deciding.

This is Geoffrey Chaucer’s curiously touching dedication to his son from A Treatise on the Astrolabe (1391): “To Litel Lowis my sone…. purpose to teche thee a certayn nombre of conclusions pertayning to this same instrument.”

Here is J D Salinger dedicating Franny and Zooey (1961) to his friend and editor: “As nearly as possible in the spirit of Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean, I urge my editor, mentor and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn… lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant… to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book.”

One way to deal with the “which woman” problem is to take a cue from Norman Mailer, who dedicated The Presidential Papers (1963) to “some ladies who have aided and impeded the author in his composition”. (Another solution is to dedicate your work to your pipe – as Jerome K Jerome did in Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, 1886.)

The more a person writes, the greater the opportunity for flexibility: Agatha Christie dedicated her first novel to her mother, her second, “To all those who lead monotonous lives”, and her third to two friends “with apologies for using their swimming pool as the scene of a murder”.

In the past, however, the dedicatee was more likely to be a monarch or a patron. The dedication to the patron, in particular, is responsible for some of the most oleaginous writing ever committed to paper. You may have come across the kind of thing: “To the most Luminous, Beautiful, and Accomplished Lady Purse-Strings, Meritoriously Dignified with all the titles Religion, Vertue, Honour, Beautie might bestow, without Worthinesse on the part of the Author, the following few unfit Lines are offered.” Men whose lives were devoted to the refinement of words were reduced to unctuous panegyric.

This was as nothing compared to the dedications to kings and queens. As ever, it took Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding to rescue us: “To His Royal Highness Prince Posterity” is the dedicatee of A Tale of a Tub (1704), while Tom Jones (1749) is dedicated to George Lyttleton Esquire “notwithstanding” his “constant refusal” to accept the dedication.

Meanwhile, there is the long tradition of beloved pets. Colonel Buchanan dedicated Sahara (1926) to “Feri n’Gashi, Only a camel, But steel true and Great of Heart”. And here’s Larry McMurtry – grappling with split loyalties perhaps – “For Leslie, for the use of her goat.” (The Desert Rose, 1983).

These examples illustrate another problem: should a dedication be “for” or “to”? “For” implies the work was undertaken specifically as a gift for the dedicatee; while “to” implies the work is being addressed to the dedicatee – much as you might traditionally address a letter or a poem. Modern writers might consider that “dedicate” derives not from the Latin dare (“to give”, with dedi as past tense), but from a form of dicere – “to speak”.

The dedication – in exceptional circumstances – can also cause public ructions. Probably the most famous dedication of all is that inscribed by Thomas Thorpe, the publisher of Shakespeare’s sonnets: “TO. THE. ONLIE. BEGETTER. OF. THESE. INSUING. SONNETS, MR. W.H.” Was Mr W H the “fair young man” of the sonnets? William Herbert, perhaps, who became the Earl of Pembroke, or Henry Wriothesley to whom Shakespeare wrote dedicatory letters? Was Shakespeare gay? Or was Mr W H the “begetter” merely the “getter”, the man who procured the sonnets for Thorpe’s publication – one of Thorpe’s mates?

A respectable second in the ructions stakes is the dedication to William Thackeray, which appeared in the second edition of Jane Eyre (1847). Charlotte Brontë must have been the only person in literary England who did not know that Thackeray (like her fictional Mr Rochester) was married to a woman who had gone insane. This wasn’t helped when it came to light that Thackeray had just published a novel in which a scheming governess attempts to seduce her employer. Needless to say, sections of the press were not slow in imagining that “Currer Bell” had worked for Thackeray and the two were lovers.

Those determined to avoid lovers, family, pets or patrons usually find themselves turning to the reader. Ben Jonson, sick of the persistent idiocy of critics, dedicated his play The New Inn (1629) to his audience. In more modern times, Robert Beckman has updated the spirit of this approach with his excellent “to those persons whose actions are deflected by thought along with the few remaining people of intelligence who are still able to read and who do sometimes purchase books”.

The dedication which negotiates the whole thing most eloquently is that written by William Hogarth in 1753. It took him so long that he never finished the work for which it was intended: “The No-Dedication, not dedicated to any prince in Christendom, for fear it might be thought an idle piece of arrogance, nor dedicated to any man of quality for fear that it might be thought too assuming, not dedicated to any learned body of men, as either of the Universities or the Royal Society, for fear that it might be thought an uncommon piece of vanity, not dedicated to any one particular friend, for fear of offending another; therefore dedicated to nobody; but if for once we may suppose nobody to be everybody, as everybody is often said to be nobody, then this work is dedicated to everybody. By their humble and devoted, William Hogarth.”

Booker Prize: Edward Docx – a Lothario to love

 

 

From The Telegraph:

At 35, Edward Docx is the youngest hopeful on the Man Booker longlist. He tells Cassandra Jardine about the family secret that inspired his novel 

On her deathbed, Edward Docx’s Indian grandmother made a shattering confession. Propped up on pillows at the family’s home in Cheshire, she began talking about the past to her daughter Lila, Edward’s mother. Many of the tales of tigers and elephants were familiar, as were the stories of her peripatetic life as the wife of a British Army officer.

But the narrative became increasingly strange as she drew towards her conclusion: “And so I am not really your mother,” she said. “You are not my daughter. And you are not half-Indian. You are half-Russian.”
Edward is explaining the impact this had on his family to me, leaning urgently forward in a Russian café in north London. “More or less everything my mother assumed to be true about herself – her roots, her heritage, her very nature – turned out not to be true,” he says, taking another sip from his cup of tea.
“My mother’s ‘grandfather’ was her real father. He had conducted a short relationship with a Russian woman, then asked his son to bring up their child. So the man whom my mother thought of as her father was in fact her half-brother.”

Aside from their explosive effect on his mother, the revelations had a huge impact on Edward, who was 13 at the time. “It started me questioning whether you can ever rely upon anything being true.” Thus began years of soul-searching. But, right now, he has reason to be grateful to his grandmother for undermining his trust in apparent reality.

Taking a similar parent-child revelation scene as his starting point, he wrote his second novel, Self Help, about an Anglo/Russian family. It has made him, at 35, the youngest of the 13 novelists on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize.

It has meant an instant sales hike. Before the list was announced, reviewers had likened Docx to Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and even Charles Dickens. That was heady enough to guarantee him a continued income from writing, but this is far better. Inevitably, however, it comes with a sprinkling of envy from other writers who yearn to be considered for any prize, let alone the Big One.