It’s been far too long since I wrote anything here and I apologise to anyone who might have been wondering what I’ve been up to in the past year and a half. Briefly, like that of most people, my life has been shaped (misshaped?) by Covid-19. Living in Italy, I was among the first to feel the practical effects of the pandemic, with a lockdown that began on 8 March. You can read about my reactions to the first month or so here. My mood then was stoical, as you can see, a little too stoical for one friend who rather snippily said that I should try living in a real jail, etc. Hmm. It has remained so, although the conditions since then have changed. After four months in Rome we moved back to our house further south, a move that meant leaving our Rome flat, along with all the objects we’d managed to accumulate in the previous four years of officially temporary part-time residence there (see photo). During those four months, in which I taught online and edited reports, and watched television until 3 am and read, and read, and thanked God for Kindle, I’d failed to write a single word. As soon as I was back in my own home, with teaching behind me and a physical space that simply hadn’t been available to me in Rome, I revised a novel that I’d been working on for more than two years and, in a burst of creative energy that still leaves me gasping, wrote another novel in just under six weeks. I hope to be able to tell you more about both of these before too long.
But the relative freedom brought with it a sense of frustration that many other people have felt, I’ve since discovered, as though the more the restrictions were relaxed the more we were obliged to replace them with our own sense of what was required, and to apply that sense. Will power, in other words, took the place of external coercion, and will power is both a more flexible and a more forgiving master, or so we like to think until the final reckoning is made. Choice is a gift, and a hard gift to manage and a choice that protects others at the cost of one’s own pleasure isn’t always as straightforward as it ought to be. In Sardinia, where we went for ten days in the false security of post-lockdown August, we found deserted beaches but teeming streets, intermittently worn masks and variable social distancing as tourists edged their way along crowded alleys in the Marina district of Cagliari. There was a kind of devil-may-care euphoria and an underlying, constant buzz of anxiety and suspicion that none of this should really be happening. A suspicion that turned out to be well-founded. We left the island on one of the last ferries before a second lockdown was imposed. We left, and remain, unscathed by Covid-19. We were careful, and we were lucky, and we know it.
So what have I been reading? I’ve had a whale of a time (forgive me) re-reading Moby Dick after fifty years, reading Pinocchio in Italian, I’m ashamed to say for the first time, and finding a stranger and more wonderful book than I’d ever have imagined. And this was preparation for Edward Carey’s extraordinary novel, both addendum and homage to the Pinocchio story, The Swallowed Man. I discovered, thanks to that always reliable book blog …His Futile Preoccupations, the three Tom Aragon novels of the classic crime writer Margaret Millar, unjustly overshadowed by her husband, Ross MacDonald. I was moved beyond measure by James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Jenny Offill’s deeply prescient Weather was eagerly awaited and didn’t disappoint. At the time I wrote “funny, dark, hopeless and then not hopeless, profoundly human” and I stand by that three months later. I re-read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (still creepy as ever) and a lot of Conan Doyle (for reasons that may become clearer when I share news about my latest work) with far more pleasure than I’d expected, although I shouldn’t have been surprised, I know. I greatly enjoyed Smoked Meat and its cast of artists, would-be artists and piss artists, set in a totally convincing bohemian Montreal, by Rowena MacDonald. I was blown away by the wit and the rawness of the first three novels in Chester Himes’ Harlem Cycle, and I sincerely hope that Canongate bring the other novels back into print forthwith. Other novels I’ve greatly enjoyed include Whiplash River by Lou Berney, Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor, The Fall Guy by James Lasdun, A Long Way Off by a favourite of mine, Pascal Garnier, I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal by Charlie Hill, Mordew by Alex Pheby, Soul Tourists by Bernardine Evaristo and The Ghost Rider by Ismail Kadare.
And here we are at the start of a new year, so I’ll leave you with this suitably disastrous but perversely optimistic image, because we all know that Tintin (and, of course, Milou) will survive whatever adverse fate can throw at them, as it so often does, in bucketfuls.