Tuesday, 9 December 2008
CHARLES LAMBERT: SOMETHING RICH AND STRANGE
It is a real privilege to host the next stop on the Cyclone tour of Charles Lambert's stunning collection, The Scent of Cinnamon. (Salt Publishing, 2008)
Charles and I had a quick natter, and decided to concentrate on two stories, Air and Moving the Needle Towards the Thread.
Hi Charles. I am interested but not surprised to see that you had chosen to set both these wonderful stories on islands. That works on so many levels. There is a deep and resonant sense of loneliness, of 'something fracturing, separating', of displacement arising from the setting, and from the characters,. In Air, an important layer of the theme being explored here seems to be voiced by the man met in the bar. Am I right? Can you talk about this? The choice of island for setting for example... was it a deliberate thing? Did it appear as a 'surprise' to you, the writer, from some part of the creative spirit that allows preoccupations to surface in this way... see what I mean?
Well, the two stories came from different places, creatively speaking. Moving the Needle towards the Thread was triggered by one of those what if? things I spoke about with Elizabeth: in this case, the idea of the compromising photograph and the circumstances in which it was taken and found. After which I had to do some work on who and where. I’d just come back from a holiday on Cephalonia, where I’d come across the wonderful, and awful, concept of the pharmacos, essentially a scapegoat but with the idea of healing so firmly implanted in the word, and I know that fed into my choice of setting. This is one of those stories that I wrote and re-wrote (my patient Zoetrope reviewers may remember this!) and I only got it right when I realized it was her story, not theirs, and turned it round to first person. But the fact that it’s set on an island obviously isn’t casual. The story deals with isolation, of the individual and of the couple, and how this both protects us and renders us vulnerable.
Islands, like holidays, are experimental conditions in a way; there’s no escape. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the holiday sensation - I hope short-lived - of being trapped within a relationship and of having nothing else to fall back on because you’re stuck in some place that isn’t yours, with the one person who should be everything and suddenly, disastrously, isn’t. Moving the Needle towards the Thread carries this to extremes. The island I drew on for some of the details, by the way, isn’t Greek, but Italian. It’s Ponza, just off the coast from where I live.
The second story, Air, is also the result of an island holiday, this time on Rhodes, and most of the details in the story are drawn from our experiences. We really did go to the island with the half-baked idea of buying a bar and settling, and so on, and anyone who’s entertained similar thoughts may be able to corroborate the whole Greek business of buying the ‘air’ in order to take a place over. The bar we went to may still exist, and I’m sure the aquarium is just as depressing now as it was then.
So I had a bundle of scenes that felt like material for a story. What I didn’t have was a dynamic, until the final scene came back to me, much distorted, from another incident on another holiday some time before. Once again, the story focuses on a relationship and what happens to it under stress, but here the island becomes a metaphor not only for laboratory conditions, but also for escape. The contrast between the two characters – home-loving, stick-in-the-mud Julian and restless, ever-seeking David – is also, as you say, a contrast between normality and a sense of being special, and this is made explicit when David talks to Brian, the man they meet at the bar, who says: ‘Special? We’re two a bloody penny, we are. You want to know what’s special about us? I’ll tell you what’s special about us. We don’t belong here or there or anywhere else.” The story isn’t sure about this, about who’s right, about whether belonging and exile might be the same thing, and its uncertainty is what drives the narrative on.
Charles, reading at his launch party.
Thanks. Now... let's continue exploring your work from this perspective... "We don’t belong here or anywhere else." In the wonderful modern fairy story you read at your Borders launch, The Growing, a child and a parent who live miles away from the city wear masks to make a visit there. Seems to me this explores a similar thing... our need to fit in, to be part of the team. The dissonance that plagues us if we do not, or 'think' we don't. Do we as writers wear masks, in that we explore the world and our places in it through our fiction, our characters, who are invented things, but who still retain the essence of 'us', the writers?
Well, to misquote Frank O’Hara, I am the least introspective of men, so I’m not quite sure what to do with this question, which actually seems to me to be two questions, one about wanting to belong and one about what we’re up to when we write. As far as the first question goes, I’d certainly agree that one of the themes that occupies me is what it means to fit in, what fitting in involves and asks of us. What’s interesting about the girl in The Growing, though, is that she isn’t so much driven by a desire to belong as by a dissatisfaction with the world she’s being offered, and by the fact she’s expected to hide her true self - which she finds beautiful - in order to conform to it, as though fitting in weren’t really a need at all, but a failure of the will. David and Julian are also dissatisfied, in their different ways, by Brian’s analysis in the tavern, and I think they’re right.
Wanting to belong is often a way of saying that we’re prepared to settle for less, and neither of them is willing to do that, which is also, of course, why their relationship is bound to end. The story sides with Julian but I’d be inclined to stick up for David and his claim to be special, primarily because I also regard myself as special (which, I hasten to add, doesn’t mean ‘better’).
And this leads me, indirectly, to the second half of the question. My twin sense of myself as gay and as someone who identifies himself as a writer emerged at the age of eleven or twelve, under the benign influence of Kenneth Allott’s Penguin anthology of contemporary verse, from which I somehow learned that Auden was homosexual. My reading/writing and my sexual self-discovery went hand-in-hand from that point on. Later on, and I’m back to O’Hara, I came across the line, ‘It is the law of my own voice I shall investigate,’ and I think that what I try to do with my writing is not so much wear the various masks of fiction as use the various voices at my disposal to investigate what matters to me, and to make something unique from it. Which is, I’m now aware, pretty much what you’re saying, Vanessa, albeit in slightly different terms.
I think what I want to say is that I don’t see the writing of fiction as the wearing of a mask in the sense that I hide behind what I write; I’ve always seen writing as an opportunity to offer to others the open book of myself, in a cavalier rather than a confessional sense. I particularly like your framing of the question as ‘exploring the world and our places in it’, rather than ourselves, which has always struck me as a rather solipsistic and doomed enterprise, except as an inevitable collateral effect – of course what I write reveals something about me. How could it fail to? What good writing does, though, surely, is engage - through the writer - with what’s outside the writer. And that’s what’s interesting, finally. One of my favourite quotes comes from Ruskin, and I’ll use it to round this off: “A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel”.
Charles, you've given us a fantastic insight into your work. May I wish The Scent of Cinnamon every success... not that it will need it. The collection is superb. Many congratulations indeed.
And remember, chaps... Salt Publishing have a fantastically generous SALE on, just for you, for Christmas. This book would make a fab pressie for a discerning reader. SALT PUBLISHING...BUY The Scent of Cinnamon HERE!