To have made the Man Booker Prize longlist is impressive. To have been included at the first attempt is quite incredible, yet that is the achievement of Sam Thompson with his debut Communion Town in 2012.
And the Belfast writer is back with his much-anticipated second book, Jott, this week.
Jott is the story about 'friendship, madness and modernism' set in the grounds of a London Mental Hospital in 1935. Arthur Bourne, a junior psychiatrist, is about to jeopardise his future in order to help his closest friend, an aspiring writer called Louis Molyneux.
Arthur has been overshadowed since childhood by his brilliant, troubled friend. But after years of playing the unassuming companion, he is learning that loyalty has its costs: that old friendship may thwart new love, and perhaps even blur distinctions between the sane and the mad.
Ambitious, haunting and a beautifully written, Jott is inspired by Sam's grandfather's friendship with Samuel Beckett during their time at Trinity College in Dublin and afterwards in London in the 1930s. This story will be historical fiction of the highest order!
Sam was kind enough to take time out ahead of Jott's publication to have a go at my literature-inspired interview using quotes lifted entirely from books and essays I have read during his classes at Queen's University in Belfast this year.
"A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?" George Orwell
Orwell codified a certain idea of what good writing looks like. In his essay ‘Why I Write’ he says ‘good prose is like a windowpane’, which presumably means that good prose draws no attention to itself. It’s a transparent substance that does not interfere or distort, but simply shows the reader what the writer is ‘trying to say’. ‘Never use a long word where a short one will do’; ‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out’ — Orwell’s rules for clear, plain English must have helped generations of apprentice writers to write better, and they seem so sensible they almost go without saying.
So it’s fun when the Orwellian style-guide catches backlash. Will Self called Orwell a ‘supreme mediocrity’ whose disciples are ‘old-fashioned authoritarian elitists’: ‘Orwell and his supporters may say they’re objecting to jargon and pretension, but underlying this are good old-fashioned prejudices against difference itself’. In a similar vein, here’s some advice on style from the literary/political journal Salvage: ‘We are open to well-wrought writing of any kind, and abjure the Anglophone Left’s endless knee-jerk rote recitation of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, and their concomitant – and grossly elitist – anxieties over “pretentiousness”.’
The point is not that there’s anything wrong with Orwell’s notion of style, but that any set of prescriptions becomes tyrannical if unchallenged. If we all accept one particular definition of good writing, we trap ourselves without noticing. And as for the phrase ‘good prose is like a windowpane’ — what a baroque metaphor! A sequence of words on a page is very much not like a sheet of glass. Words aren’t transparent. We can’t open the curtains and look out at meaning as if it’s a street or a landscape. You might want your reader to experience your prose as a kind of windowpane, a clear medium that gives a neutral view of the truth — but if that happens it’s not because your style is actually transparent. It’s because you’ve created a rather sneaky rhetorical effect of transparency.
"Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories." Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith’s essay ‘That Crafty Feeling’ is the most accurate description I know of what it’s like to write a novel. In it, she mentions how useful it can be for the writer to pin up one or two quotations that guide her into the sensibility of the book she’s trying to write. She talks about how, in writing one novel, she pinned up a Pynchon quote which implied that the purpose of fiction was to reveal all secrets and shine searchlights on all that was hidden, and how, later, this idea stopped being helpful and instead she pinned up a line from Derrida that said exactly the opposite — that characters have to be allowed to keep some of their privacy.
Smith’s line about how every moment has two different histories was not pinned on my wall while I was writing the novel I’ve recently finished, but it could have been. The book (which is called Jott) is about the friendship between a young psychiatrist and an aspiring modernist writer in 1930s London. Both characters are shy and introverted types, and as a result a lot of the book’s action happens in the gap between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ of each given moment — it’s on the inside, invisibly, that the characters live their most vivid lives. The idea of the two different histories is a good summary of how I hope the novel works: taking the small moments that make up ordinary days, and opening them to show how much larger they are on the inside.
"It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase." David Foster Wallace
That’s a quintessential David Foster Wallace line — a neat, ironical analysis of the mechanism of postmodern capitalism with an undertow of melancholy for the effects of that mechanism on the human heart.
I had a distinct DFW phase, which included what I imagine are all the usual symptoms. I was fascinated by the ambition, the powers of perception and insight, the breadth of comedy, the depth of feeling occasionally glimpsed under all the cleverness. Also by the contemporaneity, the sense that this writer was revealing the texture of my generation’s moment. Wallace could convince you that he was inventing ordinary human decency for the first time — as if, in his fiction, the practice of imagining how other people might feel was a radical new technology that he had created to help us survive in the wasteland of millennial culture. I did my best not to imitate Wallace’s infectious style in my own sentences; I was won over by the charm of the long essays (the non-fiction being far more accessible than the fiction — A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again might be the best place to start with Wallace); I was absorbed but finally unsatisfied by Infinite Jest, and thoroughly unsettled by Brief Interviews with Hideous Men; I discovered one of my favourite short stories in ‘Good Old Neon’, in which tricksy metafiction is a route into startling emotional honesty.
After a while I drifted away from Wallace’s writing. To me he’s one of those writers who seems essential and all-encompassing when you’re reading him a lot, as if his voice is the only one you need. When I wasn’t reading him so much, I came to see him as a more flawed, more idiosyncratic writer, and also a more tragic and loveable one. I used to be very wary of seeing his mental illness and early death as linked with his work, and I still think it’s all too easy to romanticise this. But at the same time, the work and the illness must have been aspects of the same struggle in the end. I haven’t tried to read The Pale King yet.
Wallace liked to say that the purpose of fiction is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. He makes me wonder which of those categories I belong in as a reader. Reading him, I’m both disturbed and comforted.
"No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself." Virginia Woolf
What good advice for the writer struggling at the desk. It’s similar to Hemingway’s guidance for when you don’t know how to proceed: ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ But Woolf’s is even more useful and reassuring, I think, because she pinpoints several of the specific dangers facing the panic-stricken writer. The exhausting and pointless sense of urgency that tells you the book you’ve barely started needs to be finished *right now*; the paralysing feeling that you have to come up with something brilliant or it’s not worth writing anything down at all; the awful suspicion that you’re just not interesting enough, so you’d better try and pretend to be someone altogether more intriguing on the page. Woolf reminds you that these anxieties are irrelevant when you sit down to write. You can shut the door on them and concentrate on writing something you feel to be true.
"Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love." Jane Austen
Friendship often plays second fiddle in fiction. In Austen the problems of friendship are overshadowed by those of courtship — Emma, say, breaks and mends her friendships with Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax, but only as subplot on the way to marrying Mr Knightley. Horatio is mostly there at Elsinore to support Hamlet in avenging his father; the Holmes-Watson friendship is only the background to the great detective’s cases; Leopold Bloom’s friendship with Stephen Dedalus is incidental to his journey back to Molly; and Bertie Wooster never really notices that the great relationship of his life is with Jeeves.
But friendship can have its own drama, as intense in its way as disappointed love. This was something else I found myself exploring in Jott. My modernist-writer character is partly modelled on Samuel Beckett, and the friendship at the centre of the book is based, loosely, on the real friendship between Beckett and a psychiatrist called Geoffrey Thompson. Geoffrey was my grandfather, and this family connection is what got me interested in the story in the first place — but the novel went to different places in the end. My two protagonists resemble their real-life models in that they meet at school, go to university together in 1920s Dublin and stay close through early adulthood in London, but the style and tone of their friendship in the book is pure invention. That’s where it really came alive as fiction for me: in imagining the intimacy of this long friendship, how each friend helps the other understand himself, how this can involve envy and resentment as well as admiration and loyalty, and how nevertheless the friendship is a choice they keep on making.
"Well I wouldn’t have said it was and I wouldn’t have said it wasn’t." Flannery O’Connor
This line is oddly familiar to me, because it’s from a short story I used to read with students in English Lit classes. It’s in the first paragraph of O’Connor’s story ‘Good Country People’, where we are introduced to a woman called Mrs Freeman:
…it was not often necessary for her to retract a statement, but when she did, her face came to a complete stop, there was an almost imperceptible movement of her black eyes, during which they seemed to be receding, and then the observer would see that Mrs. Freeman, though she might stand there as real as several grain sacks thrown on top of each other, was no longer there in spirit. … Mrs. Freeman could never be brought to admit herself wrong on any point. She would stand there and if she could be brought to say anything, it was something like, “Well, I wouldn’t of said it was and I wouldn’t of said it wasn’t”, or, letting her gaze range over the top kitchen shelf where there was an assortment of dusty bottles, she might remark, “I see you ain’t ate many of them figs you put up last summer.”
Mrs Freeman, who will never admit to a mistake or allow a point of view other than her own, is a strong and stubborn personality, frustrating to argue with. In this respect she reminds me of Flannery O’Connor: I mean, my experience of reading O’Connor. I find her a difficult writer because I love her stories, but I always feel at odds with them somehow. In stories like ‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’ or ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’ or ‘A Late Encounter With The Enemy’ or ‘Revelation’, I’m drawn in by the strangeness of O’Connor’s world, with its atmosphere of oppressive mystery and inscrutable fate. But I always end up feeling that the story hasn’t been quite straight with me — that it’s been teaching me a lesson without quite admitting that it’s doing so. I ask ‘Was this a sermon?’ and the story, standing in front of me like Mrs Freeman, replies ‘I wouldn’t have said it was and I wouldn’t have said it wasn’t’.
That I find this frustrating is probably due to intolerance on my part. O’Connor’s writing is governed by a particular set of religious convictions that I don’t happen to share, and perhaps my response just goes to show how trapped I am inside my own secularist mindset. One of the bracing things about reading O’Connor is that she confronts me with that kind of question. But I don’t think it’s purely a case of a secular-minded reader encountering a devoutly religious writer (sticking with Catholics, I have a similar reaction to G. K. Chesterton, but not to Muriel Spark or Graham Greene). I think it’s subtler, to do with the small meshings and frictions that happen between any reader and any writer — more to do with temperament and language than with doctrines.
Still, when I read O’Connor I think about a word the critic James Wood once used to
describe Chekhov: ‘unhostaged’. Wood wrote that ‘it might be argued that literature has only very rarely represented character. Even the greatest novelists, such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, resort to stock caricature, didactic speaking over characters, repetitive leitmotifs, and so on. The truly unhostaged writer, such as Chekhov, is rare.’ What he means by ‘unhostaged’ is that Chekhov is dedicated to letting his characters be themselves on their own terms, unhampered by larger ideas of any kind. In Wood’s way of looking at things, Flannery O’Connor is very much a ‘hostaged’ writer, but I don’t think she would see this as a failing. She was not interested in discovering the free inner lives of her characters, because she believed that all human souls really were hostages — in hock to something larger and less explicable than themselves. Her world is alien to me, but I go back to it.
"To be ill adjusted to a deranged world is not a breakdown." Jeanette Winterson
The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has suggested that people with mental illnesses — ‘those people referred to (however loosely) as mad’ — are ‘people who, by not playing the game, make us wonder what the game is. And indeed why the rest of us have consented to play it.’ Phillips and Winterson are thinking along the same lines, to do with how mental illness (or having a breakdown, or being ill adjusted) isn’t something that happens to an individual in isolation — it has to have implications for the social world in which the ill person is living. What a person may experience as a breakdown is also a symptom of the brokenness of the world, the world’s derangement.
I’ve been thinking about this in the course of writing Jott. The book is a kind of response to Samuel Beckett’s first novel Murphy. As I’ve said, I began with the friendship between a writer and a psychiatrist, but the more specific seed for the story was an incident in Beckett’s own life in which he visited the wards of the Bethlem psychiatric hospital in south London. (Beckett wrote that he went round the wards ‘with scarcely any sense of horror, though I saw everything, from mild depression to profound dementia’.) Meeting patients at the Bethlem apparently helped Beckett to write Murphy, and that novel takes a view of mental illness that has some sympathy with Winterson’s line. Beckett’s protagonist Murphy is a solipsist who wishes that he could disconnect himself from the outside world and live entirely in his own mind. When he gets a job as a psychiatric nurse, he admires and envies his schizophrenic patients because he thinks they have achieved the ideal to which he aspires: he wishes he could be mad like them. I don’t know if the young Beckett shared his hero’s point of view. He certainly saw that the patients at the Bethlem were often enduring terrible suffering, but when you read Murphy it’s clear that he was also fascinated by the way their suffering offered a challenge to the edifice of rules and conventions that is the world of the sane. What is this game, he wanted to ask, and why have we consented to play it?
The cultural critic Mark Fisher wrote that ‘the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism’. In other words, the idea that mental illness is a purely private medical matter, a problem of individual biology and therefore apolitical, is an idea that serves the purposes of the political status quo. It makes it impossible to ask seriously enough about the social causes that may lead to a person being ‘ill adjusted’ or having a ‘breakdown’. And those are the questions we’d need to ask before we could try to imagine a world in which it would not be the norm, the unremarkable and unchallenged structural reality, for a large proportion of people to be in chronic mental anguish.
Sam Thompson Website