Erik Martiny

Rick Gekoski on Darke Matter,
scepticism and reading for pleasure

Rick Gekoski awoke one morning from uneasy dreams and inexplicably found himself metamorphosed into a writer of fiction. He was seventy-three years old, a retired academic, former Booker prize judge and Chair, broadcaster, bibliographer, publisher, journalist and rare book dealer. He had never published a word of fiction. His novel, Darke (2017) was prompted by an insistent inward voice, and its author was called ‘a late-flowering genius of a novelist’ in The Times. This was followed by A Long Island Story, a fictionalised memoir of his childhood. Darke Matter, the sequel to his acclaimed breakthrough novel, was published this year. He has no intention of stopping there.

Howard Jacobson is the only writer I know who enjoys every part of the writing process. I personally find first drafts very trying, not to say dispiriting. And sequels are even more daunting. Did you feel the hugely successful shadow of Darke looming over you as you wrote Darke Matter?

Enjoyment can be surprisingly complex (think sex or even corned beef sandwiches) but is too thin a concept to apply to writing. What sort of satisfaction does that hold? I need the rhythm of writing every day, seeking the right words in the right order, letting myself go, reigning myself in, the processes of consideration and reconsideration. I love having written something that is as near as damnit the best I can do. This regularly happens with sentences, occasionally with paragraphs, rarely with a full page.

The term ‘first draft’ seems very pre-word processor, when writers wrote/typed out a version of something, puzzled, poked and reformulated, and began again. As in the three distinct drafts of Lady Chatterley. I begin by writing quickly, in the belief that spontaneity will provide something with which to work: it’s more important to get it down than to get it right. Quick, then slow. In that great formulation of Philip Roth’s, having written a sentence, I turn it round, then I turn it round again.

What I have gradually to provide is attention to the narrative arc, to architecture, which is not one of my intellectual virtues. So I take what I have first written, and move it here and there on the screen: excise words, sentences, whole sections, add new ones, insert new chapters or characters as they become necessary, take out extraneous ones. Then I make an episode chart, to see if they are in the best order. They almost never are, as the Darke books are basically associative. This is a messy and frustrating process, not enjoyable in the doing but satisfying in the having done, and I do it again and again, not until the work is finished, but until I am. At some point you have to let go, but if you allowed me to revisit anything I have published I’d revise it.

I began Darke when I was seventy, at which age I was no more a novelist than an aeronaut. One day I was footling about in my study when an internal voice announced portentously: ‘Dark, dark, dark, they all go into the dark.’ Well, old folks think such thoughts, and if we know our Milton and Eliot, they might well come out like that. But like a strident ear-worm, the voice persisted, until one day – it must have been two weeks later – it added ‘Fucking T. S. Eliot!’

This was an odd phenomenon, and my response to it was one of the defining moments of my life. I could have waited for it to go away, or tried to replace it with a Beatles tune, instead, out of curiosity and in an attempt to credit, or minimally to exorcise, this invasive presence, I sat down at the keyboard, hovered my fingers, and waited impatiently. You got something to say? So say it already! I gave him his head, and he gradually took over mine. James Darke. I regard the resulting work as collaborative.

I did not occur to me then, or for a couple of years after, that I had another Darke book in me. I assumed he’d had his say, and me mine. It had been a great experience, transforming my idea of myself. And then he was back, unbidden, yattering away. I knew the drill by then, got my fingers out, and started pecking.

When I did so, I was not inhibited by the good reception of Darke, I felt enabled by it. Various friends and critics had asked for more, but I thought there wasn’t any. I then wrote the novel A Long Island Story, in the least Darke-ish voice imaginable. Just to see if I could. And then: he was back, and I felt as if I were free, once again, to employ, or submit to, a voice that allows me to say more than I can as Rick Gekoski.

The result was Darke Matter. I hope there will be a third novel to complete the trilogy – novelists rarely stop at two (which is called a duology) – and I think it is called Darke Time. I feel anxious even saying this, as if it were simply up to me…

You seem to be saying that the mask of your persona is merging with you more than it initially did. What are the things you have in common with James Darke?

From the start I have insisted that James Darke is a fictional character, and though he’s like me in some respects, we’re not the same: he doesn’t travel, has few friends, hasn’t engaged with being a father, never eats sandwiches or pickles, dislikes sport, is uninterested in sex. But friends said cut the shit, he sounds just like you! To which I could only reply that of course he sounds like me, who’s he supposed to sound like, Julian Barnes?

James Darke and I did our doctorates in English at Oxbridge, and went on to teach. His voice allows me to indulge my distrust of the whole EngLit business, which is what it has become, with its insufficiently interrogated belief that exposure to literature is good for you, that there is wisdom therein: that reading teaches, improves, enlightens, consoles. Its virtues go on and on, like spinach. I read extensively and fervently for many years of my life, and thought I profited from it. I now think this is largely nonsense, or I would be a better person, and members of English Departments would be the best of people. Darke’s wife Suzy put this vehemently: the wisdom crowd are largely shitslingers. Au fond there is no incontrovertible wisdom, no consolation, no meaning. I have a warehouse of former beliefs, but only this remains: Be kind, be respectful. Not a lot with which to end my days, not even a moral imperative, but life is richer if you are.

Would you say that Darke’s cynical voice is in part a reaction to the politically correct spirit of our times?

Darke is often curmudgeonly, and he is certainly a contrarian. His later persona, as we encounter it after Suzy’s death, is hollowed out by grief, jagged, kinetic. He has, without being aware of it, formed and grounded himself in the love of his wife. And when she is gone so painfully and memorably, he flounders and is lost. His journal is not so much an account as a symptom of this. Darke Matter is a further staging post along the same road.

Paradoxically, though, the language associated with love, attachment, and affection is not natural to James, he expresses very little of such emotion to either Suzy or to their daughter Lucy, it never flows freely. His mind and feelings express themselves more buoyantly when he hates something, though the language of disdain and the objects dismissed, are largely a linguistic and emotional game, and distraction. He loves hating. A reader asked me, querulously, why James loathes pelicans? The reply – he doesn’t – was apparently incomprehensible. Pelicans (dogs, Dickens, God, the Irish, therapists, priests, politicians, poets) provide target practice for the bows and arrows of opposition. Occasionally James means what he says, but you can never be sure when. That’s part of the fun. He strikes attitudes, loves tossing words about, tossing them off. When he is interviewed by the Scottish police officer, and arrested for Suzy’s murder, he almost enjoys the experience because he has coined the term ‘flatulent haggis’ to describe Sir Walter Scott.

Is this panoptic dismissiveness a reason to dislike James Darke? Some reviewers and readers love him, others find him odious. Some do both. I regard this as a sign that I’ve got something right.

You’re both British and American. Would you say this semi-outsider perspective has influenced you? Do you see yourself as a satirist?

I renounced my USA citizenship last year, but it would be absurd to define myself simply as English. When I was a dual citizen, I described myself as equally ill at ease in both cultures, perennially an outsider, and viewed as such. This had, to my mind and spirit, many advantages. I would not like to be a stakeholder in either of these cultures, especially now. Whether this issues as satire, in the Darke books, is probably a matter of definition. I prefer to think of myself as instinctively but not intractably sceptical. If people took the humble trouble to distinguish an assertion from an argument, and a poor argument from a good one, we’d be in a better place.

Remember the Groucho Marx song: ‘Whatever it is, I’m against it’? He’s one of my role models. Bugs Bunny (who was based on Groucho) is another. And though both of them are wise guys and under-miners, people forgive them their in-your-face peskiness, because they are funny and bursting with life. If you don’t like these models, I have others (as Groucho remarked about his principles). However distrustful I am of my former influences, they abide: Beckett, Freud, Nabokov, Wittgenstein, and, yes, fucking T. S. Eliot. High seriousness? Yes and no, as needs must. They all loved, variously, jokes, puns, slapstick, music hall and pantomime, comic books – fooling around with words and images.

Would you say that the current emphasis on identifying with likeable characters has been detrimental to contemporary literature?

Few mature readers ‘identify’ with characters. Children do, that’s part of how such books work. When I was thirteen I identified with Holden Caulfield: what a bunch of phonies adults were! Yet many adult readers won’t engage with a text when they don’t like the character(s), as if they were seeking out possible friends. Some of the responses to Darke were of that kind. It was turned down by Cape because its protagonist was ‘unsympathetic’. Yet many of us love a well-presented misanthrope, bad boy or grouch, like Ignatius J Reilly and Mickey Sabbath. But behind this is a larger and more ominous question of identification: the mere fact that we are reading a story about someone makes that person imaginatively sympathetic. When Raskolnikov is hiding behind a door, having just murdered two women, and the police are trying to get in, we share his terror, and instinctively want him to avoid capture. He may be a murderer but he is the protagonist and as such the focus – and hero – of the story. When you come to reflect on this, the implications are rather disturbing.

Many reviews of Darke, especially those online and on Goodreads, focused on the likeable/dislikeable dichotomy. What a bore. Oscar Wilde said, never mind if a story is moral or immoral, ask whether it is well or badly written. Yet the great majority of readers want a ‘great read’, a ‘page-turner’, when what is really desirable is a demanding read, which makes you pause to reflect, reread a sentence, a paragraph, a page. The readers who loved Darke focused on the prose and thinking, rather than on whether they liked him.

Who are the contemporary writers you feel closest to these days?

What writer makes me want to read their new book the very day it is published? Only Lee Child. (Actually I read them before they are published, because I am lucky enough to get proofs, and then I lord it over my Reacher-friends). Which writers do I want to read within, say, a month of the publication of a new book? Kazuo Ishiguro, Rohinton Mistry, Anne Tyler, John Banville, Sebastian Barry, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Colm Tóibín, Howard Jacobson, Rachel Cusk… I’m not sure, though, that these are the writers I feel closest to. Philip Roth, bless him, is always near. And much of John Updike. But the more recent uber-novelists on the American scene are dealing with super-sized inner and outer landscapes that often feel provincial to me. And English literature doesn’t? OK, you got me there.

I spent many decades as a student, an academic, and later as a ‘serious reader’, adding to my store of erudition and wisdom. (A process about which James Darke is scathing). In 2009 I published Outside of a Dog (which coined the now fashionable term ‘Bibliomemoir’) in which I charted the formative effects of 25 titles that have ‘made me’. But the self that I was seeking to improve and to deepen seems recently to have put its feet up: these days I read largely for (simple) pleasure. I like revisiting old enthusiasms – over lockdown I reread all of Ira Levin and many Reacher titles. The advantage of advanced age is that I forget the plots, so an old book becomes a new one.

The more fiction I write, the less I read. There is no general truth lurking here – many novelists are omnivorous readers. Perhaps because I entered the fiction-fray late in life, and am commensurately unsteady on my feet, I abjure all novels when I am writing one. I don‘t want other voices getting into my head, I have enough problems understanding and marshalling my own. The same process occurs when I write memoirs – when I was writing Outside of a Dog I made the mistake of reading Obama’s wonderful Dreams from My Father, which brought me to a juddering halt. Too different, too good.

Would you say that your university teaching and your adjudicating of the Booker prize have had an effect on the way you write?

In 2005, when Martyn Goff, the late Administrator of the Booker Prize, asked if I would consent to be a judge, I asked him what the rules were. He laughed. ‘Choose the best book!’ he said. That’s crucial. He did not say choose the one you like the best, or even most admire. The best! Some books are better than others, and it was our job to find the best one. This is not a subjective process or a mere matter of taste. It involves study, argument, comparison, explication – opening the pages and pointing to this or to that, marshalling the arguments that pertain to excellence. Thus when various critics argued that our Booker winner, John Banville’s The Sea, was a bad book (Boyd Tonkin, Michiko Kakutani) my strong conviction was that they were wrong. They might not like it, as one may hate oysters, but I think no percipient and exacting reader could deny its quality.

As a former academic, this of course suited me very well, The English syllabus, and the grading of essays and granting of degrees is based firmly on the belief that some books, some essays, and some performances are demonstrably better than others. And these days such rigour is under threat: judgments are regarded as subjective, one opinion as good as another. It has led to the phenomenon of false news, and the abandonment of the common pursuit of true judgment.

I hope what I write meets the spirit of Martyn Goff’s instruction. Write the best book! This is a Platonic imperative, and dooms one to failure, if of a mitigated sort. Fail again, fail better. One of my ironic models is the character Grand, in Camus’ La Peste, who is forever rewriting a single sentence about a woman riding a horse in the Bois de Boulogne. If only one could get it right, perfect, unimprovable!

The problem, of course, is context. Because of my background, I have models of the highest sort in my modernist mentors and masters. I suspect my very late incarnation as a novelist might have something to do with this. But being daunted can wear out, why carry on, retracted and humble, when you don’t have long to continue yourself? Perhaps this unconsciously accounted for that life-changing decision, when first inhabited by the Darke voice, at the very least to write it down. And of course, however much I fiddle and faddle, my work is neither Beckett nor Joyce, it is worse than theirs. And better, for me: it is mine, it is me.

For more on Rick Gekoski and to buy Darke Matter, visit his website.

Interview by Erik Martiny.

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