Jack Reacher / Superman / Maigret

You can usually rely on The New Yorker for some fancy critical action, and this piece, by UK writer John Lanchester about the American thriller writer Lee Child, is no exception. Here we are, about half way through:

According to Graham Greene, Henry James once said that “a young woman with sufficient talent need only pass the mess-room windows of a Guards’ barracks and look inside in order to write a novel about the Brigade.” The Reacher novels often have that feeling, of being constructed around half-longing insights into the lives of others.

The writer whom Child most recalls, in this respect, is Georges Simenon, whose Maigret novels are the work of a man who travelled around France observing strangers and their mysterious routines. Simenon spent a lot of time in the kinds of places where travellers spend time. As a result, he set entire novels in cafés and bars, in fuggy interiors populated by secretive regulars, where the detective is an intruder. Readers find it easy to identify with this perspective: we ourselves are outsiders peeking into another world, like Reacher or Maigret.

Graham Greene and Henry James may hardly be names you’d tend to throw about alongside that of Child, author of the bestselling Jack Reacher novels, but then neither is Simenon, the writer behind the wonderfully glum and mundane detective Inspector Maigret, who features in a incredible 76 detective novels – which sounds like a lot until you realise the French writer’s bibliography runs to over 350 novels and novellas.

It’s an interesting comparison, because Maigret is as unremarkable – plump, a bit glum – as Reacher is extraordinary – a “six-foot-five-inch former military policeman” with a keen facility for violence. Lanchester suggests that Reacher is not far from Superman in his human abilities. But what links them is their (or their creators’) ability to make ordinary, mundane detail count, on the page, or in their investigations.

As Lanchester points out, the greatest creation of Lee Child is not Jack Reacher, but Lee Child himself. The author was born Jim Grant, in Coventry, in England. He had a good career in television before being made redundant, only then turning to writing novels as “the purest form of entertainment”.  As Lanchester has it:

On September 1, 1995, he went out and bought three notepads and a pencil, and used them to work on the book that was to become “Killing Floor”—and he has begun work on a new novel on the anniversary of that day every year since.

There’s the real mystery. Not the who, but – as with Simenon’s superhuman productivity – the how.

Jonathan Gibbs

Lessons on writing from Elena Ferrante

frantumagliaLast week I attended the London launch of the latest book by the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. Frantumaglia (a ‘family word’ of Ferrante’s mother meaning ‘jumble of fragments’) is a collection of occasional writings – mostly correspondence with her publishers and written interviews – ranging from 1992, when she published her first novel, Troubling Love, to 2015.

Its arrival comes hot on the heels of the unmasking of the ‘real’ Ferrante, who has always written under a pseudonym and kept her identity private, by an Italian journalist, and naturally this issue dominated some parts of the evening, in which I joined Rosie Goldsmith, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Kate Young and Robin Lustig to read from and discuss Ferrante’s books.

Having the read the new book, however, in preparation for the event, I was struck by how much of it was not about the particular personality of Ferrante, or whoever she might be, but about writing in general. It is full of insights into how she approaches fiction writing – although to be fair these are often filtered through a discussion of her books, so would be most useful to anyone who has read them.

Here are some of my favourite excerpts:

Q: Do you write down your dreams?

Ferrante: The rare times that I seem to remember them, yes. I’ve done so since I was a girl. It’s an exercise that I would recommend to everyone. To subject a dream experience to the logic of the waking state is an extreme test of writing. A dream has the virtue of showing us clearly that reproducing something exactly is always a losing battle.

Which is not to say, I would guess, that dream sequences in fiction are a good thing. They very rarely work. I’ve often wondered why that is? I assume it’s because prose fiction is already akin to a dream. Writing a character’s dream may be going deeper in terms of their psychology, but in terms of the reading experience, it’s duplication, redundant.

Q: You have been praised for your spare, muscular prose. There are no pyrotechnics, the language never draws attention to itself, and the effect is powerful. Do you start in this more spare and dialled-back register, or is the work in earlier drafts messier and more emotional?

Ferrante: I tell stories about middle-class women who are cultivated and capable of governing themselves. They have the tools to reflect on themselves. The slow, detached language I use is theirs. Then something breaks and these women’s boundaries dissolve, and the language with which they are attempting to say something about themselves also is loosed, unbounded. From that moment, the problem – a problem that is, above all, mine, as I write – becomes how to rediscover, step by step, the measured language they started with and, with it, the kind of self-governing ability that stops the characters from falling into depression, into self-degeneration, or into dangerous feelings of revenge, aimed at themselves or at others.

This is particularly true for the first three Ferrante novels: Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter, all of which feature protagonists who are women not on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but fully inside it.

Q: Do you think that fiction writing always involves some sense of guilt.

Ferrante: Absolutely yes. Writing – and not only fiction – is always an illicit appropriation. Our singularity as authors is a small note in the margin. The rest we take from the repository of those who have written before us, from the lives, from the most intimate feelings of others. Without the authorization of anything or anyone.

This is one of the hardest things to teach, I find, especially at undergraduate level: the confidence to appropriate experience, your own and other people’s. If you’re a good writer then by the time you’re finished with it, it will probably be unrecognisable to the person you stole it from – and hopefully scarily familiar to plenty of others with no connection to it at all.

Jonathan Gibbs