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Tag: Henry Miller Books

Nicholas Royle: Gripping, innovative and fluent

First Novel by Nicholas Royle

Nicholas Royle’s First Novel is a bit of a misnomer because in fact it is his seventh. The title, however, is integral to the book whose protagonist Paul Kinder is obsessed with literary debuts. This is something he shares with Royle who says he’s also “very interested in first novels”. And that’s not the only similarity between the two men. Royle like Kinder is a novelist and a lecturer, albeit a more successful one than his fictional counterpart. He has several novellas and six other novels to his name while Kinder is a one book wonder, striving to complete his second undertaking in between teaching, dogging, housebreaking, petty pilfering and uncovering a connection between his former wife Veronica, his neighbour Lewis and a man called Trevor. In truth, Kinder’s literary aspirations are secondary to the plot unlike his fascination with first novels, especially those that “have been lost or supressed or never followed up”. Kinder’s pathological interest in the subject is a projection of his own predicament, of his own failure to follow up his debut and his subsequent exploration of the psychologies of singular authors. “Why do we hear no more from these very talented writers,” he says to one of his students, “while others, far less talented, continue to write book after book after book?” It is a question that is never really answered, except to say “that first novels are important because it’s the first thing an author says about the world”. This notion is fundamental to the plot, which twists toward a startling and wholly unexpected revelation divulged by way of someone else’s first book.

Kinder is an idiosyncratic man. We know he’s idiosyncratic because he’s probably the only “Mancunian in his forties who doesn’t like the Smiths” and is into pyramids, straight lines and fucking to the sonic onslaught of a 747. He’s also quite a compelling man, whose inner thoughts and ruminations keep the reader intrigued throughout. Royle’s prose and his plot amuse and surprise, challenging the reader’s powers of anticipation at every other turn. The tone of First Novel is expertly set in the opening chapter, when in an impromptu bout of Luddite revolt Kinder dismantles a Kindle. “I pick up the waste-paper bin and return to my side of the desk,” he says having taken the device apart, “I hold the bin under the edge of the desk and use my other hand to sweep all the various part and pieces of the Kindle into it.” A Kindle doesn’t smell of anything, Kinder tells us, unlike its print equivalents, which contain within them infinite possibilities and just as many scents. Trampled grass, funfairs, futility, life are but to name a few. As the novel progresses we discover that Kinder is actually a bit of a shit and yet quite likable, despite his calculated womanising, passive but pervasive egotism and anti-social behaviour.  All of which has been exacerbated by the loss of his wife and two children, following revelations about his philandering.  There is little indication of just how acute Kinder’s separation anxiety from his family is until toward the end of the book, which given the conclusion perhaps demanded a little more focus on the subject all the way through. “I kept up appearance, but when I was alone I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I couldn’t read or write,” Kinder tells us with a sense of overwhelming defeat in regard to losing his twins, “There was a chance or so I believed at that stage, before the case reached the courts, that I’d get visitation rights. A good chance. But I felt that chance receding once the case began and Veronica’s lawyer, predictably, went to town on the dogging angle.”

There’s another story that runs in tandem with Kinder’s, that of a former RAF pilot turned poet called Ray and his son Nicholas. The stories appear completely unconnected until the last chapter, and while in theory the idea is brilliant in practice Ray’s tale just doesn’t grip the reader in the same way as Kinder’s. Royle’s technique and delivery is innovative and fluent, although occasionally inconsistent. It nevertheless puts his work into a category entirely its own. The book is written in episodic vignettes, which skip back and forth in time. “Everything is either or,” says Kinder at one point, “and inside each either or is another either or, like Russian dolls”. This is essentially the principal upon which First Novel operates, because there’s always something lurking beneath the surface of the narrative, something offering nebulous clues if one is discerning enough. In many ways, First Novel is a book about the chaos of modern day life, upon which, according to Henry Miller, “reality is written”.  This chaos is presented in First Novel through the overabundance of choices we face every day and the ensuing confusion that can lead our lives into disarray. “Sometime I will look at the taps on a wash basin,” Kinder says while contemplating this predicament, “even ones affixed with a blue or red spot, and I don’t know which one to turn. Like on and off. Televisions have become so complicated, having so many external devices. Standby, remote, on/off, hard switch off. Sometimes I don’t know whether it’s on or off. Life and death is another.”  In Kinder’s case, this confusion is also indicative of his general mental health, which is more unbalanced than idiosyncratic as we eventually learn.

“Nothing is beautiful. Nothing makes me feel anything,” he confesses candidly, “Everything either exists or it doesn’t. Everything either has a physical presence or it doesn’t. Everything – everyone – is either alive or dead. And that’s about all I can say.” It is at this point that the reader is alerted to the fact that Kinder may be undergoing some sort of existentialist crisis, which Royle builds up slowly, adding momentum, to the climax which reveals the second one of the two major twists. First Novel defies categorisation, albeit Vintage publisher Dan Franklin had a point when he said it was combination of “a murder mystery, a campus novel, [and] a meditation on identity”. All these elements are certainly present and blend together quite well into a unique book. The genre hoping is no surprise when one discovers Royle’s key literary influences are Derek Marlowe and M John Harrison, both of whom are known to “flit in and out of genres”. There are also other influences or perhaps unwitting likenesses, between Royle’s protagonist and others of his ilk. There is definitely something of Chris Duffy of Palace Pier by Keith Waterhouse, about Kinder in his fixation with the literary world and his personal lack of success, his diffidence and arrogance, substance and blatherskite. And there is undeniably something of Malcolm Bradbury’s Stuart Treece about him, especially when it comes to his commentary on campus life and all the bureaucratic hoops one is expected to jump through.

Reading First Novel, one also wonder about the similarities between Kinder and Royle, who teaches creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, while working as an editor (Salt) and a publisher (Nightjar Press). One certainly  wonder whether some of Kinder’s views about the industry (“Few are interested in articles about untranslated foreign-language novels that are not set to become the latest publishing sensation,”) and his fiction (“It was overwritten, it was too weird, it was unlikely to gain a mass audience,”) may also belong to Royle. But it is difficult to say, at least without speaking to the author, and yet one thing’s for sure Royle is a writer’s writer. Unlike Kinder who wouldn’t recommend writing as a career to anyone, Royle spends a great deal of his time mentoring, whether through “editing anthologies or publishing stories with Nightjar Press, or novels at Salt or teaching creative writing, or even doing actual professional mentoring”. In fact, Royle says he loves it. “I find it exciting,” he explains, “and satisfying to work with people who I can see – and you do see it straight away, in the first paragraph, the first line sometimes – are really, really good, but maybe their talent has rough edges, their craft needs a little work, and all you have to do is encourage them and help them to see what works and what doesn’t.” This is undoubtedly the mark of a true teacher and more importantly a true writer, whose latest book is a great addition to his already large and varied oeuvre.

Negative Press | Nicholas Royle 

Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Publication Date: January 2013
Hardback: 304 pages
ISBN: 9780224096980

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Seminal Lines

 

“My policy has always been to burn my bridges behind me. My face is always set toward the future. If I make a mistake, it is fatal. When I am flung back I fall all the way back – to the very bottom. My one safeguard is my resiliency.”

Sexus – Henry Miller

Henry Miller: The generous, pliant, forgiving, tolerant, tender scatologist

It is no mean feat to take-away from a book an erudition. Reading Henry Miller’s work schooled me into realising that there really is “only one great adventure and that is inward towards the self”. And, more importantly that inveterate boozing and smoking, carousing, quixotic philandering and riding life out “on the wind of the wing of madness” like one has “iron in the backbone and sulphur in the blood” is elementary in the success of that adventure; and the manumitting of oneself from the ne plus ultra drudgery of life.  And for that, and the fact that his writing always remained “true, sincere” and “on the side of life” and he an old roué throughout, I love him: earnestly, completely. I read Tropic of Cancer, and subsequently the Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy, some years ago, and thus was ecstatic to find Miller in my favourite Oxfam. One of the things I discovered, by sheer coincidence, prior to reading Tropic of Capricorn was that both the aforementioned and Tropic of Cancer were Miller’s choice sobriquets for his second wife June Mansfield Smith’s breasts. And for that I love him also.

Tropic of Capricorn opens with a pronunciamento that, “Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos”, a line of thought, that denotes the perspicuous resignation of the disillusioned. And Miller’s voice gets even more intractably dour a jot or two down the page when he confesses that, “Even as a child, when I lacked for nothing, I wanted to die: I wanted to surrender because I saw no sense in struggling. I felt that nothing would be proved, substantiated, added or subtracted by continuing an existence which I had not asked for.” The realisation about the innate lack of purpose and “the stupidity and futility of everything” reverberates throughout as Miller expounds at length about working dead-end jobs inimical to his creative freedom, being a myrmidon to his superiors at the redoubtable Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America – a “hideous farce against a backdrop of sweat  and misery… a waste of  men, material and  effort” – and ploughing against the  “whole  rotten system of American labour” while sitting behind his work-desk “hiring and firing like a demon”.

Chronically impecunious despite full time employment with the Western Union and feeling no fealty to anyone or anything, Miller chronicles this time in his life, spent mostly with a retinue of factotums and waybills – all trapped in a system that was so rotten, so inhuman, so lousy, so hopelessly corrupt and complicated, that it would have taken a genius to put any sense or order into it, to say nothing of human kindness or consideration – with both animus and amity. Forced by his superiors to be “be firm, be hard!” instead of having “too big a heart”, Miller sticks it to the avaricious panjandrums and vows to be “be generous, pliant, forgiving, tolerant, tender”. Everything in Tropic of Capricorn is perched on a pedantically balanced scale, just as Miller’s prose, which jumps from fatalistic cynicism to Panglossian mirth, the sagacious to the fecund, the overzealous to the insouciant, the recidivistic to the enterprising, thereby mirroring his life which consists of nothing but “ups and downs…long stretches of gloom and melancholy followed by extravagant bursts of gayety, of trancelike inspiration.” And it is precisely this deft linguistic ability, albeit occasionally blemished by overindulgence in periphrasis and even unabashed flummery, to relay his variegated reminiscences so graphically and candidly that incites a sense of grandstand awe.

Above all other subjects, however, Miller spends a lot of time lamenting and lambasting his homeland, the “monstrous death machine” where “nobody knows how to sit on his ass and be content”. His avid hatred of the US is documented with effusive graphic proclivity and an unapologetic conviction, for as he sees it he had never anywhere “felt so degraded and humiliated as in America”. Miller expectorates vehemently about the country he calls a “cesspool” where “everything is sucked down and drained away to everlasting shit”, before asserting that everything he had “endured was in the nature of a preparation for that moment when, putting on my hat one evening, I walked out of the office, out of my hitherto private life, and sought the woman who was to liberate me from a living death”. The woman sought was Miller’s second wife, June Mansfield Smith, the great nostrum who turned into an obsession leading to his emotional labefaction. June was the one who convinced Miller to jack-in his job and take up writing full time while she machinated a variety of schemes to support them financially, whether parading around dance halls, running a speakeasy or collecting money from services rendered. Writing of her elsewhere, Miller once noted: “I’m in love with a monster, the most gorgeous monster imaginable.” And, she was a monster. Or to be more precise “a monstrous lying machine” one with a striking bloodless face, rouged lips, a penchant for Dostoyevsky and indiscriminate fucking. Intrepid, perfidious, prone to theatrical exaggeration and acidulous lies June became the archetypal femme fatal in Miller’s literary endeavours.

Their connubial life was marked by volatility, mutual jealousies, June’s mercurial vagaries, and eventually their great big love was reduced to something like a “soft prick slipping out of an overheated cunt.” When the two first met, however, they were as one like, “Siamese twins whom love had joined and whom death alone could separate.” But it was not to be. The inchoate despair comes to the surface in Tropic of Capricorn when Miller begins to realise that June is prone to “transformation; almost as quick and subtle she was as the devil himself”, later likening her to the “queen mother of all the slippery Babylonian whores,” for she was just as inconstant. Their love was intense, both in a spiritual and physical sense, with Miller once describing her in copulation like a wild creature “radiant, jubilant, an ultra-black jubilation streaming from her like a steady flow of sperm from the Mithraic Bull. She was double-barrelled, like a shot-gun, a female bull with an acetylene torch in her womb. In heat she focussed on the grand cosmocrator, her eyes rolled back to the whites, her lips a-saliva. In the blind hole of sex she waltzed like a trained mouse, her jaws unhinged like a snake’s, her skin horripilating in barbed plumes. She had the insatiable lust of a unicorn,” but one he couldn’t tame.  In turn, he became “possessed like a full blooded schizerino” while she taunted him by launching her powers “toward the fabrication of [herself as] a mythical creature” and whoring like a nymphomaniac on day release from AA because she simply didn’t “give a fuck about anything”. The two split eventually, and the ruptures in the relationship are documented toward the end of the book with melancholic retrospection, and thereafter in Miller’s later works. June remained a permanent fixture throughout Miller’s early years, indelibly looming over his life and his literature.

Her spectre is firmly entrenched in the Tropic of Capricorn, but mostly the book is about Miller himself – the scatologist who is transfixed by shit, vermin, booze, fucking and disease, albeit one who has an inexorable knack for finding poetry in the grotesque. And he does, without fail, in “people’s stories, the banal tragedies of poverty and distress, of love and death, of yearning and disillusionment”.  Miller is not frugal with the scope of his subject matter either. He writes about everything from eating meat balls to eating pussy by way of St Thomas Aquinas, who omitted from his opus “hamburger sandwiches, collar buttons, poodle dogs, slot machines, grey bowlers, typewriter ribbons, oranges sticks, free toilets, sanitary napkins, mint jujubes, billiard balls, chopped onions, crinkled doilies, manholes, chewing gum, sidecars and sour-balls, cellophane, cord tyres, magnetos, horse liniment, cough drops, feenamint, and that feline opacity of the hysterically endowed eunuch who marches to the soda fountain with a sawed off shotgun between his legs”. Not to mention the strip-teasers with nothing more than “a little patch to cover their twinkling little cunts”. And his turn of phrase remains truly unique with asides and observations such as: “The chaff of the empty soul rising like monkey chatter in the topmost branches of the trees,” and “…music is a diarrhoea, a lake of gasoline, stagnant with cockroaches and stale horse piss,” or “the black frenzied nothingness of the hollow of absence leaves a gloomy feeling of saturated despondency not unlike the topmost tip of desperation which is only the gay juvenile maggot of death’s exquisite rupture with life,” and “We are of one flesh, but separated like stars” and “Look at your heart and gizzard – the brain is in the heart.” Gems like these stud his stream-of-consciousness prose from start to finish. You might scowl or snigger as he wrestles with the salacious and the sad, but you will not be unaffected.

As a follow up to Tropic of Cancer, Capricorn ruminates over the same old grounds, “speaking about what is unmentionable” and according to Miller “what is unmentionable is pure fuck and pure cunt” and must not be mentioned “otherwise the world will fall apart”. But of course sex is not the only unmentionable subject that Miller mentions, in fact, he pontificates on every topic that springs to mind while “rubbing elbows with humanity”, realising “truth is not enough,” watching men “scurrying through a cunty deft of a street called Broadway”, and claiming that “heartbreaks and abortions and busted romances,” are nothing in comparison to “lousy” coffee; and the result is this sagacious irreverent hulk of a picaresque. But I think Miller’s work is summarised best by the thought that in any great book, “Each page must explode with the profoundly serious and heavy, the whirlwind, dizziness, the new, the eternal, with the overwhelming hoax, with an enthusiasm for principles or with the mode of typography.” Henry Miller’s work certainly does.

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