Reading Matters: Andrew Coburn

I remember, it could be as long as twenty years ago (in the way that most things seem now to have happened twenty years ago unless they were the day before yesterday) I was meeting a group of other writers for lunch somewhere in Soho – Sarah Dunant would have been there, Frances Fyfield, Lisa Coda – is that possible?- , Michael Dibdin maybe, Mike Lewin? – and bursting in, excited over the book I’d just been reading, but annoyed also, because it’s opening chapter, opening paragraph were so damned good that after reading them I’d sent the first pages of the novel that I’d started writing caterwauling down into the trash. Not good enough.

That book was Voices in the Dark by Andrew Coburn.

Formerly a journalist, Coburn has written a dozen novels, one of which – Goldilocks – was nominated for an Edgar, and three of which have been made into movies (all, I think, in France).  His work has been translated into fourteen languages and it may just be that he is one of those writers who are more honoured outside their own country’s borders than at home. Which, if it were the case, would be a shame. And US readers’ loss.

When I was compiling stories for a anthology called Men From Boys, Coburn came up with, not a short story, but a novella, My Father’s Daughter, which begins thus …

Hank West, womaniser, inveterate gambler and father of two, died as he had lived. On the edge. A razor passed so smoothly across his throat that he had no idea he’d been murdered.

Now Stark House Press have published Spouses & Other Crimes, a collection of Coburn’s short fiction, eleven stories ranging from early work in Transatlantic Review to the present. These are not crime stories, not in the usually accepted understanding of the term, though, here and there, crimes may occur; these are stories about mainly small-town characters leading – or leaving – small-town lives. These are stories to be set alongside those of American writers like Mona Simpson or Lorrie Moore. In language that is at once precise yet tricky, Coburn can give you two characters’ lives in a half-heard conversation in a diner forty minutes off closing. He can lead you on to solid ground and then, just when you think you know where things are heading,  pull the floor out from beneath you in a single sentence and send you spinning.

There’s a wonderful humour to a story like “A Woolf in Vita’s Clothing” (with that title, there’d have to be); a nicely critical astringency behind the manoeuvrings, financial and social, at play in “George W. Bush”. Both stories feature female protagonists out to improve on the hand life has dealt them.  This is the opening paragraph of “A Woolf in Vita’s Clothing.”

Ten years ago a man named Benson married her and took her to North Dakota, where gigantic skies diminished her, winds haunted her, and winters oppressed her. Her only means of escape was a Greyhound bus. People on the town called it “riding the dog”.  She rode the dog to Chicago, arriving with forty-four dollars in her bag, which was a weight because much of it was in coin.

“Jocelyn”, another story with a female protagonist, and, at this particular moment, my favourite in the collection, gives you the whole of one woman’s life, from the age of eleven, when she leads two boys, running naked, through the grounds of Kenwood Academy, into middle-age, in just glorious 15 pages.

As the author and noir expert, Woody Haut says of the stories in his recent review in the Los Angeles Review of Books

The stories that comprise “Spouses & Other Crimes” are acerbic and creepy, with envy, anxiety, and voyeurism the order of the day. Imbued with an undercurrent of class antagonism, Coburn populates his short tales with damaged and obsessed individuals who desire what they can or can’t have, and, in doing so, are fated to suffer the insufferable.

If you’re at all interested in reading further, please do check out Haut’s fine piece, in which, as well as giving details of Coburn’s background and setting his work in context, he talks about the stories themselves in detail. You can find it here …


Quittin’ Time

Artie Shaw quit blowing his horn, said he had blown enough. And Van Gogh produced 200 works in two years, an almost hysterical output; then he shot himself. … And Gerard Manley Hopkins could produce only nineteen poems in his last nine years – “time’s eunuch,” he said of himself, “never to beget.” And Hammett quit writing mysteries and never explained.”

Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Wolcott. Paul Hendrickson.

Art Chronicles: Malevich at Tate Modern



In a not dissimilar way to Tate Modern’s Arshile Gorky retrospective in 2010, its current (till October 26th) – and, it seems to me, if you have any interest in 20th century art, unmissable – Malevich exhibition shows him moving through a range of early influences as he searches for a style of his own. So, as with Gorky, there are brushes with the Post-Impressionism of Cezanne and then the early Cubism of Picasso and Braque, as he moves towards a personal form of abstraction which takes him in a very different direction, leading to his famous, or infamous, Black Square, which seemed to block out/black out all that had gone before: an iconic full stop that would propel him towards the splendour of colour and form that he was to call Suprematism.


To stand in Room 7, at the pivotal centre of this exhibition, is to be surrounded by a glorious and controlled outpouring of image and ideas that was to dissolve only a few years later in the wake of Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.


Painting died, Malevich said, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it.

He taught, and, when his work resumed it signalled a return, under the increasing strictures of Stalinism and Socialist Realism, to landscape, figuration and portraiture. With his death in 1935, his work all but disappeared from view, only re-emerging, in part, in the 1950s; it was not until the 1980s that his Black Square painting would be displayed again.



Old School Fashion Man

So there I was, striking what someone called my Old School Fashion Man pose down in the South of France at Villeneuve Lez Avignon (see here) …

… and here are some of the results, from the lens of Icelandic photographer, Nanna Dis …

France 2014 © Nanna Dis 2014

France 2014 © Nanna Dis 2014


France 2014 © Nanna Dis 2014

France 2014 © Nanna Dis 2014

Considering what she had to work with, pretty impressive you might agree. Please take the time to check out Nanna’s web site

Reading Matters: Colm Toibin

Something occurs to me and then I don’t write it. I might write a paragraph of it and then I leave it. And then the work begins, so that almost every day, without meaning to, I put some thought into it and some more happens so by the time I do write I have all that worked out, so even if I write a sentence like “She came in at the door”, I will have the room in full and the ‘she’ and what’s in the emotional moment. I will have all of that not only worked out, but I will have sort of lived it.

Colm Toibin

Toibin started writing Nora Webster in the year 2000, fourteen years before it’s eventual publication. He didn’t continue with it immediately, he suggests, because he couldn’t yet find the way to tell the story, which is of a woman in middle age coming to terms with the death of her husband. It felt too personal, too much like autobiography, Toibin having grown up observing his own mother in similar circumstances; he needed find a shape, to know from whose point of view the story might best be told. Would it be told, perhaps, through the eyes of the bookish younger son – Toibin himself – or those of the mother?

While he was thinking over those issues – writing a little here, a little there – working in his head as he says, Toibin wrote, plentiful non-fiction aside, three other novels. The Master, about Henry James’ later life within the confines of his sexuality, and The Testament of Mary, Jesus’s mother’s thoughts after the crucifixion of her son – the former purposely Jamesian in complexity and style, as striking for what it doesn’t say as what it does; the latter brief, bitterly angry, outspoken yet controlled – each, it seems to me, quite brilliant in its own way. And in between those came Brooklyn, Toibin’s most popular novel to date and to me, the closest to disappointing. Meticulous, restrained, shying way (is this James again?) from any great emotional release or confrontation, the result is almost – dare I say  it? – tedious. Not boring, the story of Eilis Lacey’s emigration to America in the 50s and her return to Ireland, her two loves, but never bracing. Not challenging. No wonder so many readers liked it.


For a long time, a good many chapters, I feared Nora Webster would suffer from what were, to me, though clearly not to many others, the same faultsI had found in Brooklyn. In writing this novel, Toibin has said, he wanted to explore the experience of grief, the processes through which it passes. [At one point he says he wanted to write it because there was no other novel he'd found that looked at grief in that way, while at another he refers to a large number of other works dealing with the subject – all right, not all novels, though some are  – including Mary Lavin's short stories and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.] And, also, I assume – it’s part and parcel – he wanted to write about his own boyhood experience of growing up in a home that was to a large extent, if not wholly, dominated by grief and absence. But here reimagined through his (fictional) mother’s eyes.

The problem – a problem – is that having chosen to tell the story exclusively through the eyes of Nora, the mother, Toibin seems to have boxed himself into a corner; for she is not the most articulate of people, not used to expressing her thoughts nor willing to confront her feelings; she wants – this is clear from the first page – to have done with the traipse and trappings of mourning, to live a life in which her dead husband is honoured, but which centres round her more-or-less grown up daughters and her two younger sons. Looking inwards rather than out. There are decisions to be made, financial issues to be confronted, but all within as closed a world as possible. Nora, unless provoked, is shy with people outside her immediate circle and family; if walls are closed about her, more so now that her husband has gone, so be it.

But then – what is it? half way through the book? no, further – Nora is cajoled first into joining the town’s Gramophone Society, at which classical recordings are listened to with due reverence and the music begins to open something in her she had been previously unaware of, and, secondly, talked into taking singing lessons with a mildly eccentric teacher, and here both Nora and the novel are transformed. And, of course, I see it now, if the novel had not begun as it had, if Nora had not been as she was, this transformation would have been less striking, less, well, almost miraculous.

It was only after a month, when she had had four or five lessons, that she realised that the music was leading her away from Maurice, away from her life with him, and her life with the children. But it was not merely that Maurice had no ear for music, and that music was something they had never shared. It was the intensity of her time here; she was alone with herself in a place where he would never have followed her, even in death.

As Nora moves away from her given role as mourning widow, she takes an increasing interest in the world around her, from her son’s education to the local union politics at her place of work and the larger political upheavals that come to her through the prism of her politically active student daughter. There is a new life to live, one in which she is no longer part of a couple, married to Maurice, a wife, however fine and right that might have been, for that was then and this is now.

It was the way things were; it was the way things had worked out.


Colm Toibin writes about the Literature of Grief here …

And talks about writing Nora Webster in this video …


Strike the Pose!

In a world before selfies, it took a little adjustment to get used to having one’s photograph taken in public places, but, having, some time ago, accepted that it is now part and parcel of a writer’s daily grind [well, okay, daily is somewhat of an exaggeration] I can relax and almost enjoy it …

… rarely as much, though, as at last weekend’s Festival du Polar in Villeneuve lez Avignon, when, in the grounds of the beautiful Carthusian monastery, La Chartreuse, I found myself being asked to ‘look away then look down the lens’ by two highly professional photographers at the same time.


Identities of said photographers, plus, hopefully a sneak look at the results of the shoot will follow.

[Has this man lost any shred of modesty he might once have had?]

Festival Time

It takes a couple of days to recover from an event like the Festival du Polar at Villeneuve lez Avignon, in part because – in the way of similar French festivals – it is pretty all-consuming, occupying most of your attention from what some might consider early morning until approaching midnight. Just as well, then, that this festival, the 10th, was as well-organised and friendly as it was.


Held, largely, in the huge and beautiful Carthusian monastery, La Chartreuse, which has been partly redesigned and modernised for use in projects developed by the National Centre for Dramatic Writing, the surroundings (and the excellent espresso from the ‘in house’ café) leant the proceedings a special atmosphere, not to say grandeur.rsz_p1020036

The theme of this year’s festival was Arts et Polar, allying crime fiction with other arts practices, in this case cinema, photography and bandes dessinées – graphic novels. So on the first evening there was a screening of Hitchcock’s The Lodger with orchestral accompaniment by l’Orchestre Régional Avignon Provence, and  there were two excellent photographic exhibitions: Scènes de Crime, by Hermance Triay, a series of atmospheric, disturbing but evocatively beautiful images shot largely in the United States and Canada; and Police, a startling collection of black and white photographs by Sébastien Van Malleghem, stemming from time spent out on the streets with the Belgian police force.


Triay’s Scènes de Crime photos have been published in a book of the same name (see her web site), together with accompanying short stories by the author (and jazz enthusiast) Marc Villard, who gave two successful readings of his pieces while the images were projected alongside, while Van Malleghem showed a short film he had made which – come on, test your French – plunge le spectator dans la réalité dune unit de patrouille.

Some of the images in striking monochrome from Van Malleghem’s later project on Prisons can be found on his website.

Amongst the artists and illustrators present was Miles Hyman, whose design for the festival poster was much admired and on display everywhere – even on the labels of the special bottles of Cotes de Rhone waiting in the authors’ rooms on their arrival. (Other festivals, please note.) Fatales, an exhibition showing his illustrations of women – vénéneuses et dangereuses ou fragiles et innocentes – was on display throughout the exhibition, and more of his work can be seen to good effect on his web site.

[On a strictly personal level, let it be said that, for me, one of Hyman's greatest achievements was, through the medium of the graphic novel, to make the work of that king of ultra-noir and self-aggrandisement, James Ellroy, close to endurable. I know, I know, my myopia, my loss ... ]

In addition to meeting the three artists mentioned above and getting to know their work, it was a privilege also to become acquainted with the Polish writer, Zygmunt Miloszewski, whose novel, Les Impliqués had been short-listed for the Festival’s Prix des Lecteurs, and the Icelandic writer, Stefan Mani, whose novel, Présages, came away with the prize.


On the first morning of the Festival, I took part, along with three other authors, in a discussion about the visual arts and crime fiction, chaired – immaculately as ever – by the journalist, Michel Abescat, who focussed on my novel, In a True Light (Couleur Franche, as they say over there), reading aloud a passage in which the artist, Jane Graham, is described working on a painting and making it sound not only apposite but quite beautiful. As I said at the time, it sounds so much better in French.

2.In a True Light

Much of the rest of the weekend (when I wasn’t doubling up on Crème Brulée) was spent in the Salon des Dédicaces, seated behind slowly diminishing piles of my books, and struggling with my very limited French as I tried to explain which was the first in this series, the first in that, which were my own favourites, which might I not, in all honesty, wholeheartedly recommend. How thankful I was that Hermance Triay was sitting, much of the time, on my immediate right, and ready – in between showing me pictures and little videos of her new baby on her iPhone – to offer assistance.