Novels Archive

A western with a difference

On the Twitter feed of The Paris Review, I found mention of a new novel of the American West in which it seems that setting plays a large part. It sounds like the kind of novel that might make a contender for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, for “a work which evokes the spirit of a place” — except that the writer, not being British or Irish or a UK resident, probably wouldn’t be eligible. It was partly his own rootlessness, indeed, that prompted him to write the book. The novel, In the Distance, is by Hernán Diaz, and published in the United States by Coffee House. Publishers Weekly, which includes it in a roundup of new fiction, says:

The novel is the set in the 19th century and concerns a young Swedish immigrant to California, Håkan Söderström, who travels eastward across the United States in the hope of finding his brother. His journey, a kind of Manifest Destiny in reverse, leads him to encounter a range of characters—to quote the publisher, “naturalists, criminals, religious fanatics, swindlers, Indians, and lawmen”—who call to mind myriad American myths and stereotypes.

Diaz is 43 and lives in New York, where he is the associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University and the managing editor of the scholarly journal Revista Hispánica Moderna. He says he began to think about writing In the Distance while reading “desert” books (works set in “desolate expanses”—not only deserts but also steppes, plains, the Pampas) and asking himself questions about the relationship between foreignness and physical isolation. “Does nationality matter if one is stranded in a void?” he wondered. “I’ve been a foreigner all my life,” he says. “I was born in Argentina, left for Sweden when I was two, went back to Argentina briefly, then moved to London, and now I’ve been in New York for the last 20 years. So it’s something I care a lot about.”

Diaz may have staked out his desert landscape in the American West, but he isn’t particularly interested in the western per se. “There are no gunslingers or saloon brawls or stagecoaches being chased in the book,” he says. For him, the desertlike atmosphere of the West carries its own truth about life in America. “The vaster the desert, the more claustrophobic the confinement,” he says.

Chatwin, in Patagonia and down under

Susannah Clapp is currently theatre critic of The Observer. Forty years ago, she was Bruce Chatwin’s editor, so, with an anniversary edition of In Patagonia on the way, she can offer a singular perspective on the man and the work:

I had written the reader’s report on the book. It had dazzled and worried me. It was exceptional – but it was enormous and it didn’t flow. I became his editor, with the task of making the book speed along. Over the next few weeks, we went through every line of the manuscript, reading it aloud in the Regent’s Park flat of the art dealer John Kasmin. Every night, the author went home merrily to hack away his stuff: he loved chucking out adjectives and anything that looked like a moody reaction shot. Every morning, he arrived having cut – but often having also added another episode; stories kept spilling out of him. 

In Australia, the 30th anniversary of Chatwin’s The Songlines — inspired by the way in which Indigenous Australians map geography and preserve history and culture — is of greater interest. In a fascinating piece in the Monthly, Richard Cooke writes: 

It is an imperfect book, and the fete surrounding its publication has moved on, but The Songlines did force the white world to gauge the depth of Indigenous culture. And it is partly imperfect because Chatwin too was overwhelmed by his subject. As he tried to make sense of what he had seen in Alice Springs and its surrounds over a total of nine weeks in the early 1980s, he wrote that songlines were on “such a colossal scale, intellectually, that they make the Pyramids seem like sand castles. But how to write about them – without spending 20 years here?”

Scaling these intellectual monuments, even tracing their outlines, is almost impossible. Songlines are not just sung poems. They are also legal documents, genealogical records, maps and the legends of maps, documentations of flora and fauna, systems of navigation, religious rites, spells, history books, memory palaces, and endless other combinations of ceremony, knowledge and philosophy that cannot be readily analogised into another culture. Anthropologists have dedicated their lives to obtaining only the most peripheral glimpses of them. Some have resisted further insights, knowing they are bought through a system of law, obligation and initiation that is not entered into lightly. Compared to the accumulation and expanse of millennia of living traditions, writing itself can seem like an almost futile explanatory tool. And Chatwin had only a few weeks.

Thubron on his addiction to travel

In his new novel, Night of Fire, Colin Thubron writes of one of his characters, “Travel was his vice, his addiction, or else he was trying to escape something.” John Preston, in an interview published in The Daily Telegraph at the weekend, asked Thubron how true that was of himself. “Travel has always been a kind of addiction for me,” he answered, “but I’ve never thought of it as an escape… if anything, I think I’m confronting the world when I travel. For me, staying at home has much more to do with escape.”

Thubron, travelling novelist

In an interview with Erica Wagner in The Observer recently, Colin Thubron remarked that people who liked his novels were “indifferent to the travel books, and the people who love the travel books don’t even know I’m a novelist”. I did know he was a novelist, and a much-praised one, but though I’ve got half a dozen of his travel books on the shelves behind my desk I’ve never ready any of the novels. Maybe it’s time I caught up.

His latest, the eighth, Night of Fire, weaves together the stories of six tenants of a seaside boarding house that’s been turned into flats. Reviewing it in The Times last weekend, Melissa Katsoulis noted that Thubron’s novels and travelogues “do not seem to spring from disparate parts of the imagination but rather enjoy a symbiotic relationship that, as he matures [he’s 77], results in increasingly fascinating work”.

Thubron himself, writing a piece for The Guardian — in the travel section — revealed that his only venture to sub-Saharan Africa had been made while he was researching the novel. It was to Malawi, to a refugee camp. “I had planned to spend a week here, but this voyeurism disturbed me, and I managed only three days. I could never have understood the detail and feel of the camp — its brutally cramped quarters, its heart-breaking permanence — from reading or the internet. Mentally and emotionally, it was vital to be there.”