My Favourite British Novel

My favourite British novel? That’s a tough one. Of course, I’ve made it easier on myself by saying “British,” thus bypassing the Irish and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Many literary historians consider Joseph Andrews (1742) by Henry Fielding the first British novel. However, there is vociferous debate. Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) by Thomas Malory sometimes gets the nod. But that doesn’t matter to me. This isn’t a dissertation. It’s my personal choice.

My favourite British novel is …. London Fields by Martin Amis, published in 1989.

You’re kidding me?” I know, many people might not have London Fields on their radar, let alone as their favourite. They favour Nobel-prize winners like William Golding (Lord of the Flies) or Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day). They extoll novels by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, or Zadie Smith. That’s quite a list, but give me Martin Amis and London Fields. {I’m not claiming it’s the best. It’s simply my favourite.}

Give me the sheer exuberance of Amis’ prose. Will he go off on tangents about pubs, sex, or the sky over London? You bet he will. If it’s not your cup of British novel, you’ll know within pages. Me, I knew within a page that I’d keep reading. And that I’d laugh and chortle.

Some find London Fields an acquired taste. It’s not politically-correct. It’s misogynistic. Others compare London Fields to Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s inventive and discursive. Like Ulysses, it’s been called crass and pornographic. Regardless of labels, London Fields gets under your skin. It’s part noir, part berk realism, part literary fiction. Like a certain beer brewed in Nova Scotia (an IPA), those who like it like it a lot. I’m one of them.

Amis delivers an extended amusement park ride, a rollercoaster of pathos and poignancy. The capers are simultaneously low-brow and high-brow. Think Monty Python on the page. {Not a Python fan? Give London Fields a pass.}

When I want twists, over-the-top characters, and zaniness, I re-read London Fields. I don’t only read it for the singularly inventive prose (no one writes like Martin Amis), but also for the plot itself. It’s a black comic murder mystery, a Brit noir par excellence. Right up my alley.

From the opening of London Fields: “This is the story of a murder. It hasn’t happened yet. But it will. (It had better.) I know the murderer, I know the murderee. I know the time, I know the place. I know the motive (her motive) and I know the means. I know who will be the foil, the fool, the poor foal, also utterly destroyed. And I couldn’t stop them, I don’t think, even if I wanted to.”

NB: This passage was written in 1989: “America was going insane. In her own way. And why not? Countries go insane like people go insane …. All over the world countries reclined on couches or sat in darkened rooms chewing dihydrocodeine and Temazepam or lay in boiling baths or twisted in straightjackets or stood banging their heads against padded walls. Some had been insane all the lives, and some had gone insane and then got better again and then gone insane again …. America had had her neuroses before, like when she tried giving up drink, like when she started finding enemies within, like when she thought she could rule the world …. In a way she was never like everywhere else. Most places just are something, but America had to mean something too, hence her vulnerability – to make-believe, to false memory, false destiny.”

PS: Sound familiar in 2019?

The heroine, the murderee, on the death of love: [The earth] seemed to have eternal youth but now she’s ageing fast, like an addict …. We used to live and die without any sense of the planet getting older, of mother earth getting older, living and dying. We used to live outside history. But now we’re all coterminous. We’re inside history now, on its leading edge, with the wind ripping past our ears. Hard to love, when you’re bracing yourself for impact.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Fields_(novel)

The Best English-Canadian Novel of All Time

What’s the best English-Canadian novel of all time? Admittedly, when speaking of Canadian novels, all time isn’t a very long time, less than 250 years. {BTW, I’m not including French-Canadian novels. I don’t know them well enough.}

The History of Emily Montague (1769) is usually considered the first Canadian novel. Although there were dozens of novels published in the 19th century, CanLit didn’t really get off the ground until the 20th century. But I digress. This isn’t a history lesson.

The best English-Canadian novel is … drumroll please … The Englishman’s Boy, by Guy Vanderhaeghe, published in 1996.

I can hear dissent. I don’t mind. When it comes to books, I’m opinionated. As for the dissent, I’ll address some of it. “What about Nobel-prize winner Alice Munro?” Well, Munro wrote one book published as a novel, which is actually a collection of inter-linked short stories, albeit an excellent collection. “What about an Atwood or Lawrence novel?” Worthy of consideration, but I vote for The Englishman’s Boy. “What about novels by Hugh McClelland, Michael Ondaatje, Rudy Wiebe, Lisa Moore, or Miriam Toews?” Again, all worthy, but give me The Englishman’s Boy.

Here’s why. In a nutshell, The Englishman’s Boy delivers the best combination of prose and plot. A literary double play. The writing is masterful. Vanderhaeghe’s painterly descriptions and perfect sentences are somehow direct and poetic at the same time. The storyline is just as masterful. You get a captivating page-turner that spans generations. I won’t elaborate on the plot. Suffice to say that it pulls you in and doesn’t let you go.

I’m not the only person who thinks Vanderhaeghe is a master. He’s won three Governor-General’s Awards for Fiction (one was for The Englishman’s Boy). His prose has been lauded by many. For example, Rick Salutin extolled its virtues in the ‘Globe and Mail,’ claiming that Vanderhaeghe’s sentences were works of art (I’m paraphrasing Salutin). The Englishman’s Boy was turned into a mini-series (which was almost as good as the novel). That is a tribute to the plot, and is a rare thing in itself – see: Are Movies Better Than Books?

When I want to read a Canadian classic that delivers both excellent prose and plotting, I open the The Englishman’s Boy.

Style AND Substance: Steven Heighton’s The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep

The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep by Steven Heighton. Hamish Hamilton. 2017.

Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.

It’s worth revisiting the cliché all style and no substance. It refers to an overstated buildup that proves to be unwarranted. Steven Heighton’s fourth novel is anything but. The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep builds organically, to a multi-faceted and authentic climax.

Heighton is a Governor General Award-winning poet, a word master par excellence, yet his prose style doesn’t eclipse the storyline. On the contrary, it serves it.

The setting is exotic – an abandoned no-man’s land in contemporary Cyprus – without being distant in space and time. The storyline is compelling. Elias, a Greek-Canadian soldier suffering from PTSD after a tour in Afghanistan, appears to have found a home in a ruined demilitarized zone, a locale frozen in time since 1974. The DMZ is not empty. It hosts a band of outliers as fascinating as any found in CanLit, including The English Patient or A Discovery of Strangers.

The DMZ is a fecund setting, pregnant with promise yet also loss – in a sense, a Garden of Eden. Dislocation and the threat of eviction coexist with human warmth and beautifully simple food. Despite the temptations, the garden does not hold Elias. Or, rather, circumstances do not allow him to be held. He must depart. His gift – and the reader’s boon – is what transpires between his arrival and departure. At novel’s end, he is a changed man, occasionally conflicted, but able to move forward.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Heighton

A few descriptive excerpts from The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep

He wakes in the dark. He could be anywhere, or nowhere. Then he spies through a gap in the curtains a row of three clear stars, Orion’s belt.

The moon, a few days beyond full, is blistering up out of the sea.

Voice Appropriation – Then and Now

Introductory Note: I wrote the following book review in 1995. Why am I republishing it (with a few edits)? What does it have to do with writing fiction? Two words: Voice Appropriation. If you’re not into book reviews, feel free to skip to the bottom of the post.

A Discovery of Strangers by Rudy Wiebe. Knopf Canada. 1994. {Review first published by A.M. Potter. ® 1995}

Rudy Wiebe won the 1973 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction (Canada) for The Temptations of Big Bear. Long before the advent of movies like Dances with Wolves, Wiebe’s indigenous characters took centre stage. He appropriated a multitude of historical voices, regardless of ethnicity or station in life, and allowed each to tell their own version of events.

Wiebe’s second G-G award-winning novel, A Discovery of Strangers, follows the same general format. The reader views the 1820-21 Franklin Expedition through the eyes of not only the English explorers, but also the Canadian voyagers and Yellowknife natives who made it possible. Much of the story is told from the point-of-view of a young indigenous woman called Greenstockings. Wiebe could be accused of double voice appropriation. He’s a white male who wrote as a female, not to mention an indigenous female.

A Discovery of Strangers is as much a love story as a retelling of history. The beautiful Greenstockings is a man-magnet. One of Franklin’s junior officers, Robert Hood, is besotted by her. Wiebe’s account of their deepening attraction – which finally erupts inside her father’s lodge – is as tender and tragic as a troubadour tale.

A reader cannot help noting the stylistic affinities of Wiebe’s two award-winning novels. Both use similar narrative devices – flashbacks, visionary dreams, multiple points-of-view – as well as similar prose styles. It’s almost as if the author said to himself, Hmm, that worked before. I’ll do it again.

Wiebe’s descriptive passages perfectly capture the sub-Arctic terrain, largely harsh and unforgiving in the eyes of the whites, no less harsh in the eyes of the Yellowknife, yet also pregnant with life and joy. We read of eerie ice caves, the fickle migrations of the caribou, and the endless threat of starvation. We enter the past. It may be long-lost but, in Wiebe’s hands, it is also eternally-present.

Postscript, 2019

When A Discovery of Strangers was published (1994), some people weren’t happy with Wiebe’s double voice appropriation, that is, writing from the point-of-view (POV) of both an indigenous person and a female. It’s no easy task for a male to write convincingly as a female, let alone for a white male to write as an indigenous female. However, Wiebe succeeded. Stylistically.

As to being politically correct, in 2019 many more people challenge Wiebe’s voice appropriation than twenty-five years ago. For the most part today, voice appropriation is frowned upon. A white male like me shouldn’t write from the POV of an indigenous person. I also shouldn’t write from the POV of a female. But I do. The protagonist and sole narrator of my North Noir detective series is a female, Eva Naslund, a Swedish-Scottish Canadian.

Why do I use a female narrator? The answer is not simple. I understand that, for some people, it’s not politically correct. I understand that I can’t think or feel exactly like a female. {Incidentally, it seems to be OK for females to use male POVs. For example, in the mystery genre, Louise Penny’s protagonist is Armand Gamache, and then there’s Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot.} Despite the recent voice appropriation furor, I persist. While I’m a supposedly honorable person (according to friends, and I don’t even pay them), I’m not always politically correct. I don’t think anyone is. I also persist because I write fiction. Works of imagination. Say no more.

My final spiel: I don’t care what narrative voice(s) you use. Write as a Purple Martian who’s in love with non-gender-specific star dust. If your POV is convincing, I’ll read it.

Post-Postscript:

See Rudy Wiebe on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudy_Wiebe.