L’Esprit Featured Writer || Issue Two
A conversation with our first-ever ‘L’Écrivain de L’Esprit’. Author and professor Dr. Michael Nath speaks with us about his new novel, Talbot & The Fall: A Comedy (With Support), and a few other things long the way. Read an extract of Talbot & The Fall here, and find Michael’s essay on Modernism and Creative Writing in our 2023 Winter Quarterly.
L’Esprit Literary Review: How did your piece come to be, and what do you want our readers to know about your work? Is there any context you would like to provide to either the extract specifically or the novel in general?
Michael Nath: I’d written novels about love, character, revenge; it was time to try one on death (the manner to be fairly high-spirited). I’d just finished The Treatment; all the literary agents of Britain having disappeared into their bins like the old couple in Endgame, I wouldn’t be getting that book out in a hurry, so rather than begin a new one there and then, I made some notes and sketches, and tried a short story, ‘Talbot & the Many’; this was based on a medical procedure I’d just experienced, and deals with an ordinary fellow’s contemplation of mortality as he waits for the results of a similar procedure; ‘the many’ alluding to the Latin ad plures ire (‘to go among the many’ = to die). How many people have died already? The figure (supposedly 108 billion) occupied his imagination.
The story (which was pretty dense) became the entrance to a novel about mortality, art, education, faith, love, ordinary life, this being Talbot & The Fall: A Comedy (With Support). It deals mainly with John Talbot (a Welshman, and tube-driver on the London Underground) and his daughter Charlie (a creative-writing student). The action takes place over one week in which Charlie is away at a writing retreat with a suitcase full of booze, and Talbot himself, waiting for the pathology result, is reflecting on life and death. In this extract, Talbot considers himself morally; considers his being in time: as readers will notice, he gets into a fair tangle over these matters – and who doesn’t?
LLR: What is your creative process like? When you sit down to write, how do you approach your work? More specifically, can you speak to the journey of working on this novel?
MN: I’m not sure I know what it’s like. Writers who give tidy answers to the question, they’re surely talking about the process from well above? I think Saul Bellow told the Paris Review about his ‘inner prompter’. To lodge a daimon of that kind would make life easier. I know my powers of concentration are not very good; attention, getting among it, is the vital thing. This comes about. But how? You could compare the decision to enter cold sea (ha ha – I just checked Californian sea temps); except it’s not a decision of ego, mind, active will. Could it be passive will, suspension of self, that brings one where the energy is?
A favourite of mine, and touchstone, is the passage in Nietzsche – you know it? ‘Regarding all aesthetic values I now avail myself of this main distinction: I ask in every instance, “is it hunger or superabundance [Der Überfluß] that has here become creative?”’ [The Gay Science, Sec 370]
I’m unfamiliar with superabundance, in person, in process. (You get an excellent sense of what Nietzsche meant by it in Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe.) But in the style, there’s evidence of it. Readers notice the energy, the exuberance of the writing, the madness, strangeness, vulgarity, humour; and the voice, or voices. How voice rises in, directs or commands the writing, is a mystery. I’ll try and say more about this below (in your questions about influence and ancestry). Philosophy and theory have tried to rationalize the Holy Spirit; I fancy writers may be subject to an earlier manifestation.
The human voice itself is mysterious: a while ago, I said to the students, Why is it that we don’t mind our photograph, but are troubled when we hear our speech recorded?
Readers refer also to density. Are they complaining? Density is first a measurement of mass in relation to volume – that’s physics. No one complains about the density of neutron stars or water, or the density of lead (five times that of aluminium). The German dicht (= ‘dense’) is also part of their word for ‘poet’, Dichter. I take it what readers mean by ‘dense’ is that the lines are loaded, skim-resistant. If they were dense (or cluttered) to the point of congestion, a creative fault. But the density is energized.
An epigraph for the new novel: THIS WORK DREW ON ENERGY SOURCES U KNOW UNDER THE LOOSE HEADING: DENSITY [James Merrill, The Changing Light at Sandover]
Let’s say that a considerable psycho-physical negativity produced that density. Allow then that style is both the personality of the writing, and the wished-for personality of the writer; wished for to replace a personality that developed under dull skies and excess memory, in a bog of its own, unsure of its voice or its belonging; the bells are ringing, it’s a 70s Sunday. So, style functions as a hot vent; as apology for inertia, or want of bright feeling; as defiance, and fight-back. Its viscosity, roll, ebullience, is self-compensation, second self, second nature. Here at last is life.
You asked as well about the journey of working on this novel. – I’ve referred to this in part in answer to your first question. Though just now looking through some notebooks, I see I’ve covered 466 pages (so far). I’d better spare you the bulk of this, but an entry from p.1 is interesting enough: the day after the medical procedure (referred to above), it records seeing a man in blue in a ploughed field near my mother’s, hot afternoon in April. The man is studying clods, taking pictures with his phone. In the background, a country church. The whole like a figure from an emblem book. Your clod connoisseur appears towards the end of the novel. Enough.
At any rate, I began mid-2019 and by mid-2020, had a reasonably hefty (100K) first draft, still called Talbot & The Many, which had expanded into a four-lane (or ‘fugal’) novel: along with John Talbot and daughter Charlie, figures of our time, you had Richard Thorndyke, a lad at Oxford University in the early C17th, and the infamous Oskar Dirlewanger (PhD). The theme was education. I’d been working at some pace, since I was dealing with pre-publication matters for The Treatment, and trying to convert all my university work for online teaching (owing to the pandemic). After three or four more drafts, someone urged me to concentrate on the father-daughter-Fall element; so I rewrote the book, consigning Thorndyke and Dirlewanger to their own stories (a novella and a ‘novelette’), preserving just John and Charlie Talbot. Along with the Talbot novel, I’m trying to publish Among the Many: The Education of Richard Thorndyke; and The Education of Dr Dirlewanger, with Conference of Spirits, to Comfort Us in our Fear.
That’s the journey so far. Interesting to speculate whether it’s harder to get unusual work published than it was a century ago. What d’you reckon?
LLR: In short, consentimus.
How do you go about revision, on both a practical and a theoretical level?
MN: There’s a kind of writer who doesn’t need much revision, from what I’ve heard; I think Zadie Smith calls them ‘micro-planners’. To introduce a dignified distinction, I’d propose the writer of that kind is classically-minded; meanwhile, the kind of writer who has to go through quite a few drafts, as I do, is baroque-minded: the Überfluß doesn’t conduce to exactness, tidiness, order – the still world. When I refer to the baroque, I’m inclined to regard modernism as its ongoing form; to put it another way, a similar spirit expresses itself in both these attitudes. The dilemma to which this can lead is that once alive to the distinction, you may ask yourself who or what you are revising for. Any tidying or bringing into narrative conformity of the work, you may feel is simply obedience to an alien rationalizing command at the heart of our culture – and publishing industry. On the other hand, a mere yielding to wildness, overgrowth, what can’t be explained – this simply won’t do; it declines into the childish randomness of Dada, the vacancy of ‘Why isn’t this art?’ Is this what Adorno was on about?
One may entertain a few practical principles, with regard to revision.
Staying true to your material is one, though you still need to be (actively) responsive to its metaphysical potential – and even ready to take the initiative here. I’ve tussled with Dennis Donoghue’s strongly-argued book, The Ordinary Universe, on this issue.
Another principle: what you spend (too) much time explaining, or justifying – this is what revision has to expel. Very good. But when we remember how much explanatory, justifying, theoretical work attended the primary productions of modernism, we may find that mediation between expulsion and explanation is something we can’t dodge.
A third, and useful axiom, comes from the conscience: if you’re asking yourself, ‘Will they (the readers) notice?’, then you’re taking a liberty, or up to something, that is not true to the material, or keeping faith with the reader. Then it has to go, hasn’t it?
My own habit is to test with the ear: I can hear when it’s all in order. I think. Also, the quality of woodiness in the finished work, that is what I’m going for; lapidariness, I dislike – it is death in the writing.
LLR: Which books, writers, and movements do you cite as your principal influences, aesthetic or otherwise, to your work?
MN: Well, here could be three principal influences, who appeared at roughly the same period.
So, mid-1982, the BBC showed a season of films by Orson Welles. That certainly affected me, particularly the two Shakespeare films screened (Chimes at Midnight/Falstaff and Othello), along with Touch of Evil. What impressed me about Welles was a creative attitude which I eventually learned a word for from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, hilaritas. In the novel British Story, I resurrected Falstaff as the character Arthur Mountain.
By that time, I was acquiring what has become a lasting attachment to The Fall, and this too may be attributed to a recognition of hilaritas in Mark E Smith (who died 5 years ago yesterday – as I write these words). In Talbot, you can hear Smith: lyrics are quoted; he’s also part of the narrative chorus. (If readers don’t know The Fall, I’d invite you to listen to the following https://youtu.be/y3VGHBpcnws.)
A similar collaboration of style and attitude attracted me in Wyndham Lewis, whom I studied for some years; though when I began writing fiction, I was unfavourably influenced by Lewis’s style, and it took me a while to shake off a degree of mannerism.
That’s declaring three influences, though I wonder if it’s getting anywhere near the source where voice is concerned? This is why your question about ‘ancestry’ (below) is important.
For the time being, I’ll take up Welles again if I may. I don’t know if this is passing over into the issue of ancestry, but the encounter with Welles’s Falstaff might have been working on an affinity with the late C16th. As a youth reading Shakespeare, I felt at home with a language that alienated many other young people, or simply amused them. And the period has been kind to me – using ‘period’ liberally to include Nashe, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Webster, Bacon, Rabelais (in Urquhart’s translation), Hobbes, John Aubrey, and others, as teachers and models. Where TS Eliot ventured that Shakespeare is also our greatest prose stylist, I can’t remember; at any rate, I fancy it’s from the woodiness and density of such writers that my style has grown, as well as from the modernists. Something I should add is that the voice and idiom of that time come readily to me; as in the Richard Thorndyke novella, which is set in the 1620s.
LLR: At L’Esprit we like to talk about literary ancestry, a concept somewhat removed from influences that encompasses the work that, much like genealogical ancestry, finds its way into one’s writing—intentionally or otherwise. Are there writers or works that you might see as your literary ancestors, as a writer generally and/or with regards towards this project?
MN: As a schoolboy, I enjoyed learning Latin and German. I wonder how these languages have affected reading, taste, writing, on the ‘old salt is best packing’ principle.I like Chaucer and the Middle-English voice, and as mentioned, the sound of the C16th/17th is familiar.
Or consider this, if you would. I first read Kafka’s The Trial around 198o – and not again till 2011. In 2008, I had a dream of considerable staying power; this I wrote down as a short story (‘A Modern Adventure’, published a year or two after). When I finally re-read The Trial (it happened to be a class text), coming to Josef K’s visit to the painter Titorelli (Ch7), I realized the dream source. This seems to me a remarkable instance of a novel’s alighting on an inner shelf, closing the door.
From Kakfa, by the way, one may learn how to improvise.
I should also acknowledge here writers and novels that I’ve read again and again over many years, such as Emma (Austen), Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë – a book that helps us understand the word ‘genius’), Ulysses (Joyce), Herzog (Saul Bellow); then I think of the strong impression made by Musil, Cervantes, Faulkner, Moby Dick (I read it twice in my first autumn at university), In Parenthesis (David Jones), USA (Dos Passos), numbers of others coming to mind; and really, the ancestry is so prolific, oneself so dependent, that it’s others who may be better able to spot the (genealogical) return. It only adds to the mystery when someone says, ‘Ah, your writing reminds me of Nabokov/David Markson/John Barth’, before you’ve read these novelists …
That’s still not enough.
These answers would refine experience without acknowledging an earlier phase that was raw, uncritical, and maybe the more valuable for it. What I’m on about is the mass of reading I did as a boy or youth: a comic called The Victor; Warwick the Kingmaker; histories of General Custer, the American Civil War, the charge of the Light Brigade; a fantastically-illustrated book about Siegfried; in the junior-school library were abridged novels of Walter Scott, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens; The Devil of Bruges, Keep the Pot Boiling, The Cave; chemistry books; astronomy books; Bevis, the Story of a Boy; Weird Tales;30 novels at least by Agatha Christie (whom I still recommend to students); chess books, chess mags; all of Ian Fleming; Alison Morgan; Sven Hassell; Malice Aforethought; Payment Deferred; Ted Lewis; all the Flashman novels; Crash; MR James; May Sinclair; Run Down (‘The violent world of Alan Brett – a man who cannot be stopped’); Suedehead; The Godfather; The Rats; The Amyitville Horror; Hammond Innes; Alistair MacLean; Emanuel Litvinoff; Julius Caesar; Macbeth;Bernard Malamud; Laurie Lee; Emily Brontë …
… the reading of that time, who can measure its effect? Voice in the mass; perhaps the life-world itself. The invitation to join this crew, issued in a ‘take it or leave it’ manner, I accepted – for want of other design.
LLR: The Custer reference, not to give it all away, at the close of La Rochelle we quite liked. Readers are encouraged to hunt down your excellent debut.
A question somewhat related to that of ancestry: Which novels, stories, literary movements, traditions, or ideas do you see this novel as being in conversation with?
MN: With the tradition of death books, passages, pictures, I fancy it’s in conversation, along with the time tradition: The Phaedo and death of Socrates; King David’s last days (Samuel & 1 Kings); the great crowd of shades in Virgil (Aeneid 6); Augustine’s Confessions (Book 12); the death of Falstaff (Henry V); Hamlet among the graves (5.1); the Danse Macabre (Holbein and Lützelberger); time in Troilus & Cressida; ‘The Masque of the Red Death’; The Death of Ivan Ilych; The Dead (Joyce); the last party, among other things, in Proust (Time Regained); the London Bridge passage in The Waste Land (I think it was Christopher Ricks who said that the reader was here caused to wonder at the number of all who’ve already died?); a recent novel such as Andrew O’Hagan’s Mayflies …
What ends in earth begins there. When Prince Hamlet went among the graves, Shakespeare wrote one of the most high-spirited scenes in world literature. Remember how he picks out the court jester’s skull and cracks jokes? Why does this scene have such energy? Here’s why. It knows death as fertility, change without end, tonic challenge; as the jester who’d have us better his gags.
LLR: I knew him, Horatio!
Obviously, music is a major element in your work. How would you describe the intersection of music and your writing, be it thematically, within your own creative process, and/or how it influences your characters and their lives?
MN: The Fall (group) are important in the life of one principal character, John Talbot, who’s never been to university, but has received a sort of alternative education from the words, music, spirit of The Fall (especially Mark E Smith, referred to as ‘the Captain’ in this work). To the other principal character, his daughter Charlie, Talbot is passing on ‘the way of The Fall’; it changes her world, and her power. For example, I’ve invented an interview with the Captain (read by Charlie online) on the subject of the track ‘Wings’ (https://youtu.be/aD4ojd0x-Og) and time; this dispenses with the hackneyed theme of time travel; Charlie discovers that what the artist needs above all is a standpoint within her culture, not to be always aflow. When Charlie directs her friends in a Danse Macabre, it’s to the Fall’s ‘YFOC: Slippy Floor’ (https://youtu.be/tYvOjr9oOzg). From The Fall, she learns the value of repetition – it may save us from fear of death. Mark E Smith died 3 months before the period of the novel. Significant: his spirit’s hanging around.
Music’s important generally because I tend to write with the ear, rather than the eye: rhythm, beat, tempo, phrasing, voice, are paramount for me. And music may remind us that a novel implies a body, as song, dance, theatre, certainly do.
Proust trained himself by writing parodies of other authors; once he had their tune, he had their style.
LLR: Your essay, Some Notes on Modernism and Creative Writing, was published in the L’Esprit Winter Quarterly in January 2023. Can you talk a little about your relationship with Modernism and the Modernist literary tradition, both in this work and generally?
MN: I wrote a doctoral thesis on Wyndham Lewis; I’ve published some academic work on Lewis and modernism; and still teach classes on modernism. I’m concerned with modernism as spirit, or shaping force, rather than recognizable technique. Technical attention to modernism has the effect of caging it; this was something noticed long ago by Lionel Trilling: his students weren’t fazed in their exam papers by books that should have astounded them. A while ago, there was talk among the reviewers of a return of modernism in writers such as Zadie Smith, Will Self, Tom McCarthy; what the reviewers were recognizing was a caged, even rococo manifestation – not the spirit or force itself. I take modernism as a force that commits one to one’s own way, regardless of the fantastic laziness and dishonesty of culture/the market in general, its middlebrow tyranny, cowardice against the mob, ‘trained screeners’, pretence that we’re getting something new, terror of rough seas.
So, the modernism of Talbot, is in part the confidence to write something that you know you’ll have a hell of a problem publishing. One has to think of oneself as besieging with meagre forces, and broken supply lines, a very well-fortified city. At the level of line and page, its modernism is a matter of speaking, rather than spokenness, of language alive and embodied, not simply written; this distinction was brought to my attention by Francesca Bonafede, a student of mine who last year completed the most brilliant PhD on Wyndham Lewis (the distinction itself is from Merleau-Ponty).
I don’t think I’m a difficult writer, though the trouble getting work represented or published suggests the habit of the time is against me. ‘Live with your century, but do not be its creature,’ said Schiller; verily; – and don’t bellyache when all the agents run away.
I daresay L’Esprit are familiar with Paul Valéry’s account of listening to Mallarmé recite ‘A Dice Throw’ (in a rather flat voice, behind a screen in his apartment)? Valéry went on to say that it was with difficult writing that literature entered the domain of ethics. I suppose he meant that the difficult writer forgoes material reward and success in pursuit of that which cannot be represented otherwise; and further that the reader benefits from difficulty, when it causes them to see or hear the world afresh.
LLR: Whether they’d like to or not, perhaps, the benefitting. Well said.
That essay further serves as an enlightening discussion of the nexus between teaching and praxis, how theory can intersect with and (be) inform(ed by) creative work. Can you speak to this, vis-a-vis your own experience?
MN: As an undergraduate, I was introduced to theory (post-structuralism was then in vogue, and not long after, forms of left historicism and cultural materialism began to thrive in the academies); I was, to use Empson’s word, fairly ‘disgusted’ by it all. The problem was that its exponents were more interested in what they were doing, than in the art-work as a whole; to their shining eyes, I took a dislike. Moreover, theory of this or that kind began to colonise literature, on the ‘we know better’ principle: an undertaking that was both arrogant and ignorant.
I’d say that theory must always pass the test of embodiment. When it does seem to speak to us, we have to use the art-work and our practice to help us understand its concrete or life-world value. Nietzsche, an art-minded philosopher, is a case in point. I’ve already declared a Nietzschean touchstone (the Gay Science passage); to a degree, my own work is now persuaded by, and responsive to, that particular formulation of his. Maybe I’ll grow out of it.
Something I’m concerned with in the essay you were good enough to publish is the idiom of creative-writing studies. We need a way of talking about what we’re doing that derives from practice across the arts, but is also capable of judgement and discrimination, admiration, diagnosis. We need as well to accommodate within that idiom our ordinary ways of talking; this, for example, is why the question, ‘What’s he up to?’, is valuable when you’re asking students to study Proust’s character work in that scene where the Baron de Charlus first appears. The question takes down theoretical and highbrow cordons, discards the red rope.
With the phenomenological themes of embodied subjectivity, practical understanding, inner time, the life-world, I am in sympathy; and grateful for the solidarity of this branch of philosophy with literature. I like as well those critics of the left (Timpanaro, Raymond Williams, Peter Fuller) who stress what is culturally (and biologically) enduring, and recognize the importance of the atypical art-work.
My favourite critic is the Shakespearean, A.D. Nuttall, who knew that Shakespeare is intellectually uncontainable. You can enjoy reading Nuttall as much as any novelist – there’s a speakingness about his prose. His ‘soft- formalist’ method admits the world of art to our reality: we can without silliness talk of characters as if they were among us; he wasn’t embarrassed to claim he’d seen the same twilight as Shakespeare’s carriers in 1 Henry IV.
LLR: What was the last book, story, poem, or work of art that moved you?
MN: I teach Jane Eyre in the autumn term at Westminster; this novel moves me.
LLR: Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
MN: I’d say that I’m grateful to Dan White and Jessica Denzer for founding this review. I’d been looking in vain for one that recognizes the chronic vigour of modernism, and sails beyond the shallows. Once we had The Egoist, The Little Review, many others; at last, L’Esprit!I hope readers and contributors will support L’Esprit. I wish it gusto, and a long life.
Michael Nath is a British author and academic. His first novel, La Rochelle (Route, 2010), was shortlisted for the James Tait Prize (2011). His second British Story (Route, 2014) divided the Man Booker judges (longlist phase). His third novel, The Treatment, was published by Quercus (Riverrun) in 2020 – please see website below for reviews, etc. Nath’s fiction and articles have also appeared in Stand, New Welsh Review, Critical Quarterly, and anthologies. Extracts from British Story were translated into Spanish (Argonauta 3, 2016). As an academic, he specializes in Creative Writing, Modernism, Shakespeare, and the Renaissance. http://michaelnath.wordpress.com @MichaelNath11
Photo Credit: Sidharth Singh on Unsplash
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