Graham Swift, “Here We Are”

I forgot how much I love Graham Swift. His new novel Here We Are reminded me of his genius at creating a richly imagined world in a short novel (he also wrote Mothering Sunday), this one just 144 pages.

The main characters are a trio of performers in a variety show in Brighton in 1959: Jack, the smooth-talking compere (or emcee) of the show; Ronnie (aka The Great Pablo), the show’s magician; and Evie, the leggy magician’s assistant.

They’re captured at a moment in time, post-War, just before television dulled the public appetite for such live entertainment. Ronnie is the novel’s true center. As a child he was evacuated from a bleak homelife in London to a dream-come-true, loving family in a (to him) posh house in Oxford. There he learned the magician’s art from his new “father,” a skill that sets the course of his life.

The story, told from Evie’s point of view, is of a love triangle, but really about abandonment and attachment, guilt and love, and, over all, the power, mystery and illusive quality of life.

I’m not sure how Graham accomplishes a book of such resonant power in so few pages. Maybe we should just chalk it up to magic.

Writer friends share personal joys and professional pains

My October 6, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

There’s an (unwritten) rule that writers often choose other writers as friends. ¶ It makes perfect sense: Who better to bounce off ideas or share the excruciating experience of writer’s block? ¶ There are many examples of famous author friendships, none perhaps more documented than the bond between Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the 2001 biography “Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship,” author Scott Donaldson describes how Fitzgerald helped the young Hemingway, acting as his agent and advocate and performing some crucial editing on ”The Sun Also Rises.” Alas, Hemingway repaid Fitzgerald by belittling him to mutual friends and creating a snide, condescending portrait of him in Hemingway’s memoir ”A Moveable Feast.” Ernest equals “bad friend.”

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Readers offer superb book recommendations

My September 22, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

I’m so lucky to write this column, not only because I get to read and write and think about books, my lifeblood. I also get amazing feedback from you, my readers, and often learn about books I might never have read and encounter books I haven’t thought about in many years. ¶ A recent column about Irish writers brought a number of letters with recommendations, fond memories of trips to Ireland and vivid reminiscences of experiences in San Francisco’s fine Irish pubs, one of which ended in a wedding!

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For novelists, the first time is often the best

My June 2, 2020 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Jane Eyre.” “To Kill A Mockingbird.” “The Catcher in the Rye.” “Catch-22.” “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” “Things Fall Apart.” “The Bluest Eye.” “Lord of the Flies.” ¶ Hazard a guess about what all these novels have in common. ¶ It’s probably a surprise to learn that all are debut novels. And despite the fact there is no shortage of stellar evidence, debut novels have an image problem.

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