Scenes From The Island

I started this blog to defend a particular point. An oblique point, perhaps, and one which I more or less discovered as I went along. In part, I wanted to preserve some old published and unpublished writing, and find a space to think aloud about books and writing. All of that led me to grapple with something else: the background, the influences and ideas, which informed an unpublished novel of mine, Scenes From The Island.

I conceived of, and wrote the book, during a rather odd time in my life. My first novel (I still call it that, despite the fact that it is my only published novel to date) had focused on the lives of a group of edge of society who take refuge in a grand building on the Welsh border. Scenes From the Island was intended to be the mainstream counterpoint to that idea: a group of people who, either through choice or circumstance, had gathered in an apartment block on the coast. I swapped vegans and heroin addicts for land developers and white collar criminals. Oh yes, and a trainee clown.

In those days, I would wake at 6am to take a train from a coastal town into London. I’d write the book on a small laptop, in between bouts of staring out at the landscape. The journey got under my skin. Something about the preserved sense of time, the hurtling bubble of train life. It got to the stage that I never wanted to leave or arrive from either of my destinations. The sense of distance and slowness which you might find in it, is all intentional. It was there at the outset, and never could be rubbed out. I’ve written elsewhere about the ideas of genre I had at the time, the ideal novel. All of that informed Scenes From the Island, along with my continued regard for those two great novels of buildings, Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. The key to the problem with the book lies in these last two, I expect: the grand plans which never work out. Perhaps, I’d reached a crisis; perhaps it was an exercise in bad faith. You could argue that most writing is down to bad faith, really, but let’s leave that.

Over the years, I’ve sent the book out to numerous publishers and agents, and the responses were always strangely apologetic. One agent wrote the longest such response I’ve ever received, almost agonized as he washed his hands of it. One editor told me to up the body count, while another asked me to leave out the crime. Doubtless, there is further work I could do, the way all books can go on being written and re-written, like John Wieners making notes in the printed edition of his poems until the day he died. Part of me thinks that it is a problem that will never be solved, though: that it is a work so perfectly aimed at the crack between genres that it is destined to vanish between them. Maybe it would have been published with a few more murders. It wouldn’t be the book, however. Besides, I’ve reached the stage where I want to move on, with my life and my writing. I still write novels, but I don’t write novels like this one. Maybe the book just isn’t very good.

If I was a more moral author, I’d leave the book in a drawer, to be discovered after I’ve made my exit, for a couple of people to flip through in a bemused way. What was he thinking? I’m not really a moral author, though. The book is as complete as it will ever be, at least in the conception I always had for it. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, then Kindle is the last refuge of the failed novel. So here it is: Scenes From The Island.

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