By the way …

prodigal cover… my latest novel, Prodigal, was published yesterday and is now available from all the usual outlets, on and off-line. You can see what I have to say about it, and about loss and love, here. It’s been described as dark, and comic, and insightful, and alluring, and, er, uncomfortable. And if that isn’t enough to entice you to read it, I really don’t know what is.

Here’s a picture of the cover so that you’ll know what to look for.

 

 

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Concrete and steel

mak towerThe apartment we’re renting in the Landstrasse district of Vienna is more or less halfway between an immense drum-like tower and the Wittgenstein House. The tower forms part of a reinforced concrete fortress, which we can see looking left from the entrance to our building. It rises in a small park behind a block of social housing that bridges the road and bears the name Kurt-Steyrer-Hof. I thought Kurt Steyrer might be the architect but he turns out to have been a minister of health (with, unusually in these expert-wary days, an actual degree in medicine) and the unsuccessful rival in the presidential elections of 1986 of Kurt Waldheim; he survived Waldheim by a month, dying in 2007, although the building appears to predate this by several decades. The fortress itself, I discover when I walk under the arch of the K-S-H and into the park to look at it more closely, is an almost windowless rectangular building, 187 feet square, unadorned by graffiti, with not one but four round, squat drums rising from a jutting-out tray-like structure to tower above the surrounding trees to a height of 137 feet. It’s the kind of thing an unimaginative child might erect on a beach for the pleasure of seeing it later washed away.

The fortress was built, I discover (on the Internet – there is zero information at the site) by the Nazis as one of six flak towers in the city. Flak is short for Fliegerabwehrkanone, and means anti-aircraft gun, although the purpose of this building and the other five like it was surely not to protect the city so much as to intimidate its people and to instil the fear required by an occupying force. It’s a mixture of brutalism, and not just in terms of an architectural volumes, but as a way of coercing the space around it, and some hellish castle Mervyn Peake or George Martin might have imagined, as the place where all hopes go to die. You imagine birds avoiding it, swerving in flight. One quarter of it, I read, has recently been restyled as an exhibition space, MAK Tower, but is currently closed for repair. Restyled or not, repaired or not, it can’t be removed; it’s too large to be demolished by explosives in the confined spaces of the residential district around it. It’s simply there. A reminder, as Kurt Waldheim was a reminder.

 

wittgensteinhausWe visit Haus Wittgenstein three days after our arrival, after a generous Frühstückof eggs and cheese, seated outside a café in the unrelenting heat. TripAdvisor, while including the house in its list of Things to do in Vienna, is unenthusiastic, with a handful of (actually four) ‘average’ reviews that are less about the house itself than about its current role as home to the Cultural Department of the Bulgarian Embassy. The house is surrounded, and partly concealed, by a high white wall. We come to an ironwork gate, with a Bulgarian flag above it, which is open, and walk through, and then up some steps until we reach a closed door. There is nothing to indicate that the building before us actually is the building part-designed by Wittgenstein, little more than a dozen years before Hitler, his classmate in Vienna, ordered the construction of the flak towers. No sign, no plaque; the place as anonymous in its way as the looming fortress just half a mile to our backs. But where that is grey and seems to absorb what light there is, this is brilliant in the sun, a game of shadows and glass. There is a small bell, which we ring.

We’re ready to leave when the door opens onto a large hall, at the far end of which is what looks like a galley kitchen, where a middle-aged man in a singlet, his hair just-out-of-beddish, is eating a plate of pasta. He jumps up in a confused way, as though he’s been caught out, grins wildly and waves his fork towards a thin woman approaching from the right. I ask her, in English, if this is the Wittgenstein house and, assuming it is, if we can visit it. She nods – a surly nod, if such a thing is possible – and silently produces a small tin cashbox from a drawer in the only piece of furniture in the room. Five euros and forty cents, each, she says and detaches two tickets from a paper-clipped wad. When I give her a twenty euro note, she shakes her head. We manage to find the correct amount. No photographs allowed inside, she says. Information there, she says, and points to a rack with some photocopied sheets of information and a faded ground plan. Can we just walk round wherever we want? I ask. She shrugs, slides the money into a small plastic envelope, locks the cashbox and puts it back in the drawer. Thank you, I say, but she has already moved away, only to stop at the door into the kitchen, with the still-grinning man behind her, from which point she turns to watch us as we start to explore.

The spaces are large, as perfectly proportioned as one would expect from a philosopher-architect, a series of interlocking volumes filled with light, freed of such fripperies as skirting or cornice. The double doors between each room are engineered from steel and glass; they seem to have been made for giants, or the gods Wittgenstein’s sister once remarked were the only suitable occupants of the house. Their handles, like the handles of the windows, are minimalist works of art, although some of them, I notice, are missing. Giuseppe is enchanted by the radiators, which Wittgenstein apparently spent a year designing. We move from room to room, the woman following us at a distance. We go upstairs and find a sloping glass roof creating a sort of greenhouse to one side of the first floor landing, with some straggling houseplants beneath it. There is a library, with no one in it, the shelves filled with the sort of books one might find in a rundown second-hand bookshop, but in Bulgarian, battered and spineless, dusty, reeking of neglect. A woman’s handbag lies open on the desk and I wonder if the ticket-seller-cum-surveillance operative also moonlights as librarian, or vice versa, and there she is suddenly, at the door, her expression unchanged. We smile and move past her into another room, and then another. Apart from the library, only one room is furnished – a long table, a second woman at one end of it, keying into a laptop, ignoring us as we look at the paintings that decorate the walls. Outside, a terrace with the inner wall almost hidden by stacked boxes that held, or still hold, bananas. Wittgenstein once said “I am not interested in constructing a building, so much as in having a perspicuous view of the foundations of possible buildings.” He didn’t much like the house in any case, accusing it of lacking ‘primordial life’, but I think he’d have ordered its demolition if he could have seen it as it is now, uncared for, abandoned, with its travesty of a library, in the hands of Bulgaria’s equivalent of the Stasi.

And I’d love to know what happened to the missing door handles.

 

whiteread viennaWe’re wandering around the centre when we find ourselves in Judenplatz, Rachel Whiteread’s memorial to the Holocaust at the far end of it. It’s one of those works of art with no aesthetic merit to speak of that, once understood, say something that can be said in no other form, and are therefore art. All works of art require context, memorials perhaps more than any other, and the context of this, both external and intrinsic, is relentlessly to the purpose. It’s a concrete block, as closed to the world as the windowless flak towers, as luminous and contained in the August sun as the Wittgenstein House. Approaching it, the evenly rippled surface of the concrete reveals itself as hundreds, maybe thousands of books turned inwards, and therefore unreadable. More than that, unidentifiable, untitled, unauthored – a library as lost as the library that might have graced the philosopher’s house if it hadn’t also, in its way, been condemned to silence, a library of ruthlessly organised shelves in which the philosopher himself, three-quarters Jewish and gay, might easily have been included. Each nameless book the monument contains, without which it could not exist, is both text and person, story and object, each text is both unique and of equal, inestimable worth, each text and what it might tell us is closed to us and will remain so, for ever. The library has doors, or what look like doors, but here they are handleless by design; there are no windows. The monument, like the other two monuments we’ve seen, is made of those archetypically twentieth century materials, concrete and steel, the latter the source of the immense wealth of the Wittgenstein family.

 

 

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Prodigal

My new novel Prodigal is published on 23 August. If you’d like to read the first chapter, learn a little more about the book or listen to me talking about it, try clicking here.

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Promotion

occasioni di morteTwo years ago I was at the Mantova Literary Festival to promote the Italian translation of The View from the Tower (Occasioni di Morte, published by Voland). I was talking with Marcello Fois, the Sardinian novelist and journalist Carlo Annese, and I was struck, as ever, by the gap between writing a book and having to talk about it or, even worse, talk about issues that relate in some distant way to the perceived themes of the book. You have a female narrator? So what’s your view on women in modern society generally? Part of the book deals with the Red Brigades? So what do you think about the threat of Daesh? And so on. At the end of the event, the audience was told that copies of our latest books were on sale and that both authors would be delighted to sign them. A line immediately formed in front of Marcello Fois, a considerably shorter one in front of me. When I’d finished signing and Marcello still had a score or so to deal with, a woman detached herself from his line and came across to me. She told me how much she’d enjoyed the evening and then gave me a copy of Marcello’s latest novel. ‘Could you sign this for me?’ she asked. ‘But it isn’t my book,’ I told her. She looked across at Marcello’s line and shrugged. ‘That’s all right,’ she said. ‘You’re a writer too, aren’t you?’ Reader, I signed it.

TheViewFromTheTower-72dpiEncouraging people to actually buy your work is a funny business. At Mantova I was promoting a book I’d written in another language some eight or nine years earlier.  I’ve written four or five other novels since then, a dozen or so short stories, a memoir, all of them fresher in my mind than The View from the Tower, but none of that had to appear to matter. I revised the novel beforehand as though I were about to be examined on it, as, in a way, I was. And, as with exams, there’s always a moment at events like this when a crucial bit of information simply refuses to make itself available. The brain shuts down around it like a startled clam and refuses to open up. Christopher Isherwood talks about a university exam in which he had to write an essay about the dissolution of the monasteries and, terrifyingly, couldn’t remember who was on the throne at the time. Resourcefully, he opted for ‘the monarch’. I had a similar problem with the husband of my protagonist until Carlo, an exceptional host and an all-round good guy, slipped me the name in a question.

Other events are less nerve-wracking, because all that is generally required of me is to read a paragraph or two, stay sober and not write utter nonsense in the copies people ask me to sign. I generally manage to do this, although I remember a Picador event in the Charing Cross Waterstone’s some years ago at which a young man called Felix gave me a copy of my first novel Little Monsters to sign. IMPACI burbled on for a bit – no, I was completely sober – about how much I liked the name Felix, and the etymology of it and how Faustus also meant ‘happy’ and then wrote, and I blush to admit this, To Felix, I hope you have lots of it. He looked at the dedication, perplexed. I mean, er, happiness, I said. I hope you have lots of happiness. Thank you, he said, and moved off rapidly. If you’re reading this, Felix, I apologise with all my heart.

Usually though, I keep myself in check with two simple rules. Drink no alcohol until the signing is over and keep the dedication simple. Although I sat next to Ben Okri at a signing table a couple of years ago and felt utterly humbled as he dedicated books with the kind of creativity and enthusiasm that can’t be learned or imitated, that’s just part of the man. Chapeau, Ben.

My favourite launches are the ones that take place in bookshops because, in my experience, they work in the same way as previews at art galleries. thechildrenshomePeople take a rapid glance at the pictures and books that are being offered to the world, to justify their presence, and then get down to the serious business of networking and drinking. The author, whose aims are identical, relaxes and only occasionally glances across to the pile of copies near the till as – he hopes – it shrinks to nothing. In Rome, I’m lucky enough to have the Almost Corner Bookshop, a genuine haven. In London, I’ve been hosted by the Travel Bookshop in Notting Hill (yes, that bookshop) and, more recently, by Belgravia Books, also the home to Gallic Books and Aardvark Bureau and the publishers of my last novel, The Children’s Home, and my new book, out in October, called Two Dark Tales.

jack squat

The book contains, as the title would suggest, not one but two creepy novella-length tales and should liven up your Halloween experience no end. It’s what is known as a tête-bêche edition, which means that you’ll find one story at the front and the other at the back, so to speak, by flipping the book and turning it upside down. Or vice versa. Fittingly, for a beast that has neither beginning nor end, it’s a format that’s often used for fantasy and horror, so it couldn’t be more suited to these two stories. Jack Squat is the title of one, as you can see here, and yes, there is a snake involved. The other story is called The Niche and if you want to see the cover of that one, if only to see what you’re letting yourself in for, you may just have to buy the book.

Now that’s what I call promotion!

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Interview with Charles Lambert on ‘The Children’s Home’

I did this interview about The Children’s Home last year, but I’d forgotten all about it. Time for a second look!

Typewritered

thechildrenshome

Today I’m welcoming the lovely Charles Lambert to Typewritered to talk about his novel ‘The Children’s Home’, published by Gallic Books. Here is the blurb:

A beguiling and disarming novel about a mysterious group of children who appear to a disfigured recluse and his country doctor.
Morgan Fletcher, the disfigured heir to a fortune of mysterious origins, lives on a sprawling estate, cut off from a threatening world. One day, his housekeeper, Engel, discovers a baby left on the doorstep. Soon more children arrive, among them stern, watchful David. With the help of Engel and town physician Doctor Crane, Morgan takes the children in, allowing them to explore the mansion … and to begin to uncover the strange and disturbing secrets it holds.

Cloaked in eerie atmosphere, this distorted fairy tale and the unsettling questions it raises will stay with the reader long after the final page.

Thanks so much…

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I’ve got a (literary) crush on….

af85788f8d5f5167147f3bfe6636b93bBOOKish asked a bunch of writers if we had any literary crushes we were prepared to talk about. Well, it’s St Valentine’s Day tomorrow and I was feeling expansive so I decided to share mine. You can find it here. And no, it isn’t Mary Renault. Honestly. Although it might have been.

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My Life as an Animal by Laurie Stone

my-life-as-an-animalLaurie Stone’s My Life as an Animal is a joy. It’s been described as a book of linked, comic stories, and it’s that, but not just that. It’s comic when it needs to be, which is often, and the comic effects are produced with an unerringly sure hand, an ear for the absurdity of what we say about ourselves, and of what we believe to be true about our lives, an extraordinary capacity for metaphor that is both startlingly unexpected and immediately right, a use of metaphor that uncovers ‘something familiar you have never seen before’, as the narrator remarks of a yard sale in the first story. But it’s also hard, and brutal, and honest, and bright as new paint, and painful with self-knowledge. It’s a book about the stories people keep ‘because it’s what they have’, about mothers and daughters, and lovers, and how stories are shared and not shared, a source of constant antagonism, about the ‘tender, excited regard’ that people seek, and that is one of the strongest qualities of these stories. They’re filled with an intelligence that no sooner possesses something than it’s distrusted, both the intelligence and the thing possessed. There are numerous references to space, as something that unites two things or people or holds them apart, and as something those people, despite everything, require to live. The space between bodies, the space in which someone is wanted. The space someone fills, or doesn’t fill. The space made by people who relate to your body as if it were ‘a surface to leave drinks on’. It’s about belonging – New York, Arizona, England – and wanting to belong in a world of tenancy agreements and tenure, but also about liking where you don’t belong, and maybe wanting that more. In a story called I Like Talking to You, the narrator remarks: ‘There is something about language that hurts the thing it describes’, and this book is full of that hurt, and the wry courage needed to deal with it, a book where the narrator’s mother can search ‘for a nectarine that won’t break her heart’.

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