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?’

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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.

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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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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?

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.”