Novel Delights

'"You can't write a novel," she said. But, at last, I have' - Craig Raine details the lengthy birth pains of his fiction debut

Poet-novelists or novelist-poets? And does it matter? 

“You can’t write a novel. You’re a poet. You’re not a novelist.” 

It was some time in the early 1990s or late ’80s. I was having supper at the Groucho Club with Julian Barnes and his wife, the much-missed, much-loved Pat Kavanagh. We had just dutifully attended (and escaped) the presentation of the Arthur Koestler Awards (for creative convicts) in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields. I mentioned I was contemplating a novel in the near future. Pat’s reaction was pitched somewhere between puzzled and withering. And it was all in incredulous italics: you can’t write a novel. Worth it, of course, to watch her lithe eyebrow lift like a snake about to strike.

Blake Morrison, a client of Pat’s, told me recently that she said the same thing to him. I think it’s true to say that he is now better known as a novelist and memoirist than he is as a poet. Pat’s agency has taken ten per cent of the apparently unthinkable three times now. 

I was genuinely perplexed. As I was also puzzled by a recent email from Martin Amis, informing me that I was now in a very select group of poet-novelists. After all, there is no shortage of poet-novelists. Think of Hardy, Meredith, William Morris, Kipling. Think of Adam Thorpe, John Wain, Kingsley Amis, Larkin, Simon Armitage, Updike.

Updike? Kipling? Updike’s prose is closer to poetry than his poetry — closer in its care and precision, in its riskiness, in its reach and ambition, in its cadences. The poetry is verse. The two sides of the equation — poet-novelist — are not equal. Kipling is another case in point. There are three novels, Kim, Captains Courageous and The Light that Failed — I discount The Naulakha, co-authored with Wolcott Balestier, his brother-in-law — but Kipling is, if anything, a different hybrid, a poet-short-story-writer. T. S. Eliot thought Kipling’s poetry was verse, in any case. I disagree. Eliot has been misled by Kipling’s radical use of the music hall and dialect-demotic forms whose popularity perhaps conceals Kipling’s perfect ear for prosody, pitch and mimicry, his gift for imagery. The consensus, however, would be that Kipling is a great short story writer and a talented versifier. Even I think the stories are superior to the poetry, the equal of Chekhov and better than Maupassant.

Think of those tennis players flexing lopsided limbs, the playing arm practically prosthetic, a grotesque transplant from some Gog or Magog — those déformations professionelles, tumescent forearms wooden with workouts. 

Ideally, we want the perfectly ambidextrous. Like Hardy. Usually, though, one of the arms is a little atrophied. Is Kingsley Amis’s poetry the equal of his novels? Do we think of William Morris as a novelist? Only once upon a time. News from Nowhere is nowhere to be seen in the canon of great novels. It is a curio. Primarily, he’s remembered as a poet — the author of “Sir Peter Harpdon’s End” and the incomparable “The Haystack in the Floods”. 

And sometimes both the arms are atrophied: John Wain. The body of his work now looks increasingly like a seed potato with curt thalidomide paddles.

Even Hardy isn’t clear-cut. The Oxford English syllabus has the novels in the Nineteenth Century and the poetry in the Twentieth. The novels are indisputably a significant body of work. Would anyone deny the staying power of The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure? The poetry is more problematic. It shares the flaws of the prose — maladroit lapses and complacent irony — without any compensating narrative compulsion. And Hardy’s greatest sequence, the dark 1912-13 poems in memory of his first wife, isn’t without its verbal blemishes and ineptitudes (wan wistlessness rhyming desperately with listlessness).

Maybe the genuine poet-novelist is rarer than we think.

In principle, in theory, I have to say why not both? After all, in addition to poetry, I’ve written critical prose, libretti and plays (two in verse, one in prose). On the other hand, I wouldn’t claim ambidexterity as a poet-playwright. I’d leave that to Tony Harrison, simply because he’s been more successful in getting his work staged and filmed. But shouldn’t a writer be able to write anything?

Then you think of James Joyce, a lord of language who could do anything with words, who never committed a sentence to paper without a reason, without re-rehearsing the sequence of syllables. In his memoir, James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses (Grayson), Frank Budgen recalls how Joyce recited one sentence, a sentence of only nine words from “Lestrygonians”, as his full day’s work. It was: “With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore.” You see, said Joyce, how many different ways that sentence could be arranged. In other words, a boast of verbal attentiveness, of Flaubertian commitment to le mot juste. Ezra Pound famously said that poetry should be at least as well written as prose. The implication of the Joyce anecdote is that prose should be at least as well written as poetry — defined by Coleridge as “the best words in the best possible order”. Joyce’s finicking with his nine words remind us of Marianne Moore’s dismissive encapsulation of poetry as “all this fiddle”.

Two awkward considerations present themselves — the failure of Joyce’s poetry, which Pound justly told him to keep in the family Bible, and that nine-word sentence, arranged with advertised care but to no great end. Were that sentence all to survive of Joyce, we wouldn’t be rushing to read him. Joyce isn’t a great poet-novelist. Like Updike, he is mesmerised by the cruder differences between poetry and prose — rhyme and metre. In poetry, both these great prose writers are deeply traditionalist, complacently copying poetry’s ersatz externals. 

It was almost a decade after that Groucho dinner before I attempted a novel. My notebooks, meanwhile, were full of potential material, things that seemed intrinsically novelistic — mainly, perhaps, because I couldn’t see a way of using them as poetry. Now I believe that the compulsion to make poetry out of the recalcitrant, the prosaic, the unpoetic, is the best way — not the easiest way — to write original poetry. In fact, I would say that difficulty is essential to the creative process. I was drawn to the novel as a form because it was more difficult than poetry. I knew how to write poetry. I didn’t know how to write a novel.

I had a year’s sabbatical in which to write. Almost six months went by. I edited a couple of issues of my magazine, Areté. I pursued my academic research. I wrote a talk for a Stephen Spender conference. I spent a lot of my time in the cinema during daylight hours. I had no idea how to deal with the disparate materials I had accumulated. I was demoralised. I went skiing on my own in Canezei. The hotel I stayed in was so spartan that the tiny tablet of soap provided disappeared in a couple of days — and a replacement was refused by the management. Four days into the holiday, I experienced an epiphany. I thought of a title that would magnetise the heterogeneous raw materials I had haphazardly gathered. I had been foraging for firewood for over ten years. Now I had a match — a single match, but it was enough to start a blaze. And I didn’t even need to strike it. It was more like spontaneous combustion.

I began to write as soon as I returned from Italy — March until mid-June. The pleasures of prose. When you have an idea for a poem, the time between conception and creation can be a couple of hours. Sometimes less. A long poem might take a week. The poet is like an actor performing a play that folds after the first performance. You spend a lot of time “resting”. Writing a novel is like being an actor in a long run. It’s a proper job. You go to the desk every day. You quickly decide on a quota that is natural to you — in my case, about 500 or 600 words a day. Fewer than 100 words an hour. They quickly pile up.

There were other rules, too. I didn’t want to write a typical poet’s novel — short on sex and long on description. I wanted plot and I wanted narrative speed. I didn’t want fine writing for its own sake. My anti-model was the great Nabokov at his median. In a novel like The Gift, all the satisfaction is in the sumptuous sentences, the clever conceits, while the narrative sulks, becalmed somewhere in the margins. You couldn’t care less what happens next, because nothing happens next. Except maybe next month. I thought I could learn from the thriller — without actually reading one, of course. 

So, I wrote slowly and got through a mass of material. Occasionally, I thought of Virginia Woolf on Dickens: “Dickens made his books blaze by throwing another handful of people upon the fire.”

Then I had to edit another issue of Areté. Then term and teaching started again. And the novel became a postponed project for my retirement. I envisioned something the size of Ulysses that would keep me out of mischief and see me into the grave. I did nothing to the novel for seven or eight years. Now and again, I would call up the text on my laptop and read a few pages — easily impressed and quietly confident, even complacent, like a man with a pension, until one day, after a longish interlude, I couldn’t remember the end of one of my two major plot lines. I felt like a man who has hidden his insurance policy from himself. Then the novel definitely became a retirement project.  (It’s curious how important it is to many novelists to know how their books will end. William Boyd plans his novels — all of them brilliantly plotted — for two years before the actual writing. He says he changes very little. My novel, as it happened, went on after its intended conclusion, like a multiple orgasm, partly because I couldn’t resist the pleasures of plot.)

I was in Venice for the summer, rereading William Golding for a lecture I had to give at the University of Exeter. For some reason, though I am a great admirer of Golding, I needed a break. In any case, the lecture wasn’t to be delivered for six months. I wrote a couple of poems. Then I thought, why not finish the novel? I invented a new ending to replace the one I had mislaid and I set to work. If you live next to a canal in Venice, as I do, it is like living next to the M25. From 6 am, barges are delivering castles of yoghurt to the sailors at the Arsenale. So it’s early to bed and up betimes. 

I was at the desk by 6.30, writing till 11.30, breaking for lunch, having a siesta, then writing again from 4 till 7.

There are satisfactions peculiar to the novel. It shares with poetry the pleasure of exactness — capturing a mood, a facial expression, the way something looks, the qualia of experience. It also shares the beauty of getting the language to sing. Your ear doesn’t go deaf just because it’s prose. Think of the opening sentences of Lolita. A little scale of musical syllables created from the name, Lo-li-ta. Poetry, however, isn’t anything like so close to fantasy. I think the novelist taps into childhood play, the frame of mind that says, “I’m a policeman, you’re the baddy.” Kids take it from there. They improvise with their imaginations. Novelists are equally primitive, equally sophisticated, when they pretend. All adults know this pleasure, actually, and practise it in sexual fantasy. We know how absorbing that can be. Novelists are releasing the same endorphins. Fiction is a recreational drug. But highly addictive. I’ve written two novels now and I’m planning a third.

My novelist friends have all been sent proofs of my forthcoming novel. Not my idea. I think Advance Praise is unhelpful. Reviewers like to make up their own minds and resent being coerced. So I discouraged them. So far, only Ian McEwan has responded. I’m not sure what this means. Most likely, the silence is polite and Pat Kavanagh was right after all. I haven’t written a novel. I only think I’ve written a novel.

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