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There are many ways to investigate the work of a writer one admires. We can read their books, discuss the work with friends, absorb critical material on them, follow their interviews, even, if we’re willing to indulge in a bit of stalkerdom, trace them to their place of residence and study their personal life at first hand. Then there are the published diaries to read through after their death, and the biographies that are often guarded when they are still alive, and resolutely guard-less and gossipy after their demise. I am sure all of the above have been avenues explored, but how often has someone investigated a writer through really no more than the extensive annotations they have scrawled on the copy of one particular book?

Like many people, I buy most of my books second-hand. What I generally look for are paperbacks in good condition, especially the sort of Penguins published in the late fifties and sixties, with their simple orange stripes down either side of the jacket, and a sketch in its centre, or the ones published in the late sixties and seventies, with a classic painting on the cover loosely capturing the contents of the book. Mainly I would pick them up in various second-hand book shops here in Edinburgh, or sometimes in the three bookshops I had found in Glasgow around the university area, or the grand, church bookshop in Inverness. But it was in a bookshop further afield, in a side street just off Paris’s Boulevard St Michel, and near the Seine, that I came across a book by a French writer whose work I’d read and admired for some years. It was an English edition of Marguerite Duras’s Practicalities, a collection of essays that were really transcriptions of a handful of conversations. Jerome Beaujour asked the questions, Duras answered, and the results were transcribed, then corrected. The edition I managed to pick up had been owned by a now well-known Scottish writer whom I also admired, a novelist who had lived in Paris in the early nineties, and who has become reasonably established only over the last five years, after his return to Scotland. I recalled reading an interview with him a couple of years ago where he talked about struggling in Paris, and how he’d even sold off a number of his books to a second-hand book shop to make a few pounds so he could stay in Paris for another month. Presumably this was one of those books.

I bought about eight books that day, but Practicalities was the only one with his name inside it, and with numerous annotations throughout. Usually of course annotated books are an irritant, and often if a book were heavily scrawled I would put it back on the shelf, assuming I could find a non-annotated edition somewhere else. But this felt like a little discovery of the sort that of course only second-hand book buying can provide.

I read the book and the annotations on the way back from Paris on the train. First on the Eurostar, and then on the train back up to Edinburgh, finishing the book just as we pulled out of Berwick-upon-Tweed. What were the annotations like? Often they were reactions or extensions to Duras’s observations. So when, in one short chapter on writers’ bodies, she says that the writer’s body is always involved in writing, the Scottish novelist agrees, saying, though, that maybe it is less the body than the nervous system. In tiny hand-writing down the margins he explains that for him writing is both the assuagement and the creation of a nervous condition. He writes to relax and yet creates tension in the process of writing. Duras writes that writers invite sexuality. But he thinks that in many ways, as a process, writing is the least sexy of activities. Down the margins he says something about athletes, lecturers and painters seeming to have sexuality in the process of the act, but writers, during the creative process, are all hunched up, introverted, and usually scruffily attired – halfway between bed-wear and day-wear.

When I got back home I wanted to show the book to a couple of friends but felt that somehow it wasn’t quite my right to share this writer’s thoughts freely with others, and so I kept the purchase to myself while wondering if I would contact him. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to offer to give the book back. Then again I thought maybe what I should do was put the book on sale in the charity bookshop in which I work. I could let somebody else read the observations of two writers: one whose books had always been personal, as if her works were damn near diary entries anyway, and another who has always struck me as quite guarded and careful, but whose comments in the margins were very much the opposite.

I decided that for a while I would just leave the book in my flat, and over the next few weeks, on a couple of my days off, I went to the National Library and tracked down the various interviews the writer, whom we’ll call John Owens, had given in national newspapers and small literary magazines. Now when I said that I admired the writer, I should say it was not for the same reasons that I respected Duras. Duras practised what one literary theorist called an aesthetic of awkwardness, where the halting difficulty of writing, of thinking, of speaking personally forced itself upon the page. At one stage, in Practicalities, Duras says that for fifteen years she threw her manuscripts away as soon as the books were published, saying she did it to tone down the indecency of the writing. In the Scottish writer’s work the writing always seemed thoroughly decent, veneered, varnished, with every sentence containing a protective layering, which he called literary creation. Part of me really respected that style, and when I would read him I suspected that my sense of identification was always with the writer rather than the character. As I read through the various interviews in the library, I noticed that he spoke like the first person narrative voices in his short stories and novels. “I wouldn’t like to suggest I am a writer of importance, how absurdly pompous, but I am, and this is perhaps equally pompous, a writer who believes writing is of immense importance.” Or “Certainly literature belongs to the real world, but we should not pretend there is only one real world upon which we must draw. The world I draw upon very much exists, even if, finally, it only really exists for me.”

What I realised reading through these interviews, and in re-reading some of the stories, and also flicking through his three novels, was that he allowed for no vulnerability at all. Yet here in the margins of Duras’s decidedly vulnerable book there was vulnerability aplenty. In one passage, Duras insists that we need to open up and allow for the impious to be seen, and reckons one of her problems with Roland Barthes was that he seemed to have moved directly from childhood to adulthood without passing through the dangers of adolescence. In the margins the Scottish writer has written that though his acne left no scars, did it not remove his adolescence and replace it with literature? “All those vicarious experiences with books,” he writes, “because I daren’t try and brush my suppurating skin against the soft flesh of the latest yearned for lovely.” “If I am so well-read,” he writes, “is it because I was for so long under-sexed?”

A couple of weeks later I came to a decision. I looked through the phone book. I found the name, or rather the names, for there were three of them, and decided to ring. His name was not common, and I was going to try the three numbers that shared the same name, but got him on the first try, or rather his answering machine: I knew it was his voice; I had heard it on the radio. I left a message explaining how I had come across a book of his in a Paris bookshop that had some annotations in the margins. Would he be interested in doing an interview, taking into account some of the wonderful observations he’d made?

When he phoned back the following day he said he was intrigued and yet wary. I explained that I wasn’t a journalist myself, but a friend was, and I could ask this friend if he would write up the interview, though I would probably ask most of the questions.  He asked what I would do if he didn’t do the interview. I said that I didn’t plan to do anything at all, and just said that I thought there were very interesting observations in the annotations that didn’t seem to be in his fiction, nor in his interviews. He quoted Alasdair Gray saying that often writers feel the need to develop some rhino skin, some outer layer, a persona, to protect themselves. But he also said that he felt…and then he broke from his train of thought and said perhaps we should meet up first: then he would decide.

We arranged to meet at the weekend in a café in Stockbridge, the area of town in which he lived, and in a cosy little, recently opened place that resembled an American bagel bar, and where the proprietor seemed to play exclusively Jazz. In pictures, the writer gave little away: they were usually head shots with some books in the background, as if all the publicity pics were taken a few years ago in his study and that the same pictures were being endlessly recycled. So I wasn’t sure if I would recognize him if he were walking down the street, though obviously in a small café it shouldn’t be a problem. I arrived early and after about ten minutes sitting on a high chair, half reading a newspaper, half looking out the window, I saw a figure in his mid-forties preparing to cross the road. I could see it was him, and noticed immediately that he was a compact, slimmish figure who looked as if he took care of himself. I’ve always been fascinated by the difference I perceive in bodies that exercise and bodies that don’t, and for some reason I never suspected he would have been someone who did. But as he crossed the road on this warm, early summer’s day, wearing cords and a T-shirt, he looked like someone who probably ran or swam. So disembodied and disengaged did his writing style seem, that I had assumed, obviously wrongly, he was someone even disengaged and disembodied from himself.

About fifteen minutes into our conversation, just after my Earl Grey and his camomile tea arrived, I asked him about how important health was to a writer, and mentioned to him something Norman Mailer had said about getting into training for writing. He paused, thought about it for a moment, and said it was a good question, but that if he were to give it in an interview, a genuine interview, in other words a border-line dialogue, he would want to think the subject afresh, and not repeat himself with stale answers.

As we talked and I explained to him that I managed a nearby charity bookshop, he allowed an idea to formulate in his mind. He said to me that I might not be a journalist, but I seemed to know how to ask the right questions – rarer than I might think. Interviewers would often ask, he said, the questions they believed their readers wanted to know, which they often didn’t (I’d admitted I had never found his interviews very interesting), and so the whole process became metronymically predictable. He’d talked to other writers about this, and they found most interviewers’ questions equally dull. He thought that if I chose to interview writers in the shop, in a fairly informal basis, with no publication expected, nor recording devices used, quite a few writers, he was sure, would be interested. He himself had many an engaging conversation with fellow writers, but found almost all their interviews boring.

We arranged a date two weeks ahead, and he said he would be the first, and would ask other writers if they’d be interested. There would be no entrance fee for the talks, but donations would be welcome, with the proceeds going to the charity – “oh and maybe wine could be served.”

We stuck up just a few posters in the shop, but that was enough to guarantee that the thirty five chairs we could fit into the room were all filled. I explained to the audience that the purpose of these talks was to create a tone of intimacy, yet not especially the personal. If someone wanted to ask the writer a personal question it would be up to the writer to choose to answer it or not, but the aim would be to search out a more literary vulnerability. A few in the audience looked a bit doubtful as to this distinction, but I asked them to bear with me, and offered the first question, which concerned the writer’s habits, how much of his day went into, in one form or another, the process of writing. He explained that the writer is not so much a lazy person but a person who has to adjust to the constant laziness that hangs over his profession. He admitted to writing rarely more than three hours a day, and would often feel that he was more active late at night – not writing, which he tended to do in the late morning and early afternoon, but reading, and allowing his reading not to be dictated by the clock. So he would sometimes fall asleep at half three in the morning, but would then get up at half ten, which meant that he wouldn’t start working till after eleven. Sometimes he would feel lazy because of this late start, but then something in what he was reading late into the night seemed pertinent to what he would then write. And so a thought process that could have caused him to be stuck on a sentence and looking out of a window for hours, would immediately be freed by the previous night’s reading, and by the early afternoon he would often have written fifteen hundred words.

He also said that he never dreaded the laptop and the blank screen. Writing was always a friend, but sometimes a silent friend, and he had to accept that. Again, he said, this could be seen as laziness, procrastination or just excuse-making on his part, but he thought that absolutely central to a writer’s gift, however, big or small, was the gift of waiting. Now he said this didn’t then mean doing nothing, it just meant doing something else, and accepting that the something else might prove relevant to the work at a later stage. Someone asked him what things were allusively relevant. He laughed, saying that for each writer it is probably different, and even for him it was hard to say. He said that maybe it lay in a certain rhythm to his life, a certain set of habits that could be broken by a good day of writing, or be overly adhered to on a bad day – or broken altogether. So, he continued, if he would get up at nine and the work was going well, he’d work on till maybe two in the afternoon, and then go for a swim, then sit and read in a café for a while, pick up some shopping, go home and prepare his dinner. He would eat at about eight and then watch a film – he had no TV aerial so it was always a film – read for a little while at night in bed, and then sleep at about 1.30. On another day when nothing flowed he would maybe write for about forty minutes, accept nothing was coming, and then if it were sunny, he’d take out the bike and go for a long cycle, taking a packed lunch and a flask of tea.

The next question met with a round of laughter; someone asked if he felt like he was wasting his time, if he could be more constructive taking a normal job. He said the way he would do the normal job would probably remove any constructiveness from it. Someone then asked him how he constructed a character. He believed that most of the time a character came from a gesture, or from a situation that he witnessed rather than something directly from his own life. And then out of that gesture he would impose upon it, thoughts, feelings and hypothetical possibilities that would often be drawn if not from his own experiences, then at least from his own subjectivity.

What was interesting in the interview was that almost all the loosely technical answers came from the writer’s private self rather than from the impersonally formal. Afterwards, when the writer and I talked in the pub, I wondered whether this confessional aspect was down to him, the audience or me. He reckoned the type of questions I asked instigated it. He believed this was what made the interview seem fresh. Usually, he said, you get journalistic interviewers asking about your private life, and when he was invited to talk at universities people ask about technique. He then quoted Mailer himself, who once said he was very suspicious of this notion of craft, “There is a natural mystique in the novel which is more important than craft…I think of craft as being like a St Bernard dog with that little bottle of brandy under the neck. Whenever you get into real trouble what can save you is to have enough craft to be able to keep warm long enough to be rescued.”

A few months later, and after some half a dozen interviews with other writers, I invited a friend of John Owens along, a relatively well-known Scottish writer, and someone who had also lived for a while in Paris. His name was Mike Radcliffe. One of the first questions I asked him was in relation to the Mailer quote, and he argued quite differently from Mailer, insisting that craft was what allowed you to get up the mountain in the first place. Now perhaps if I hadn’t interviewed someone already I would have let this response go, but instead I interrogated the writer, saying that some people would argue that technique was merely the stock of clichés that a writer worked within, and that the ‘good’ writer had to create his own world, had to find his own way up the mountain. I quoted to him a French theorist called Jean-François Lyotard who said, perhaps rather obscurely “the madman, lover of singularities, be his name Proust, Sterne, Pascal, Nietzsche, Joyce, a madman, determined to judge a given swim as unexchangeable for any other.” I asked whether there were two things – the craft and the singular writer – and the ‘true’ writer was trying to escape from craft, the exchangeable, and to find his own mode.

I don’t think I would have pursued this question so strongly if I really believed that Radcliffe was only a writer of standard craft. I did feel that his two short story collections, which usually dealt with some sort of existential crisis, resolved the stories through a certain narrative slickness, the sort of slickness Mailer reckoned good craftsmen could always pull off to the detriment of the existential possibilities, but there were nevertheless these existential possibilities there in the first place. In one story, for example, the character tries to find purpose in his life through a woman fifteen years younger than he was, but feels the full weight of meaninglessness only when she leaves. The writer allows for a story twist to replace the enquiry when we find out, in a couple of brutal confessions, the woman offers to him at the end of the story, just how far from reality the central character happens to have gone towards the delusional. His fascination with the young woman hasn’t resolved the vacuum in his life, but just horribly exacerbated it, and the story ends not with some existential question, but an existential impasse that nevertheless allows for narrative completeness.

Yet, as I said, there was something very purposeful in the work. I then suggested that his stories really fascinated me, perhaps more than any other recent Scottish writer, but that there was this tug of war, I felt, between his sense of exploration and the necessity of craft, the need to tell a good story. Is it partly this professional sense that keeps the writer sane, gives him his boundaries, but that is also in danger of denying the greatness of the madman, taking into account Lyotard’s comments? At first I was worried I would get a facetious reply, but as I looked up I noticed on his face an expression that I could only describe as stricken. I suddenly almost hoped he would gather himself enough to offer facetiousness, worrying that the alternative might be nothing less than an emotional breakdown in front of the audience that of course I still hadn’t involved in the discussion. He simply said, however, that it was a very good question, a question he had been grappling with ever since he started writing fifteen years before, and one of the reasons why, in fact, he had left Britain and went off to Paris.

For two years, he said, he never wrote in any obvious sense of the term, he would just read constantly and annotate the many books he was reading. He said that he had some sort of dream project, a bit like Walter Benjamin’s idea of writing a book which contained nothing but other writer’s comments. Except in his case, what he wanted to do was somehow extract after several years all the annotated remarks and see if he could shape them into an ‘honest’ book, a book that would gain its shape from numerous observations rather than any story arc. He wanted to escape the expectations of literature by drawing so exclusively from it. I then asked, semi-disingenuously, what happened to that idea. Two things he said. By this stage he seemed to have forgotten there was an audience sitting only a few feet from us, and said, firstly that he was short of money, and secondly he was simply overcome by a certain type of fear. He felt he’d exposed himself in all these other writers’ books, and wanted to start again, start from the craft of literature, and not from his own chaos.

I decided to return to the issue of craft, feeling that I needed more time to think about whose annotated book I’d really bought, and so I wondered whether that was why he disagreed with the Mailer quote. Radcliffe replied, saying he reckoned Mailer was a writer who was perhaps always too healthy, too robust. He recalled V. S. Naipaul describing Mailer as “powerfully built” with “blue eyes twinkling”, and wondered whether a writer finally needed ill-health for greatness. Proust, Kafka and Fitzgerald came to his mind. That it wasn’t madness, he insisted, but a certain type of weakness. Maybe Mailer was mad – had he not stabbed his wife after all – but never really weak. Radcliffe believed that he wasn’t making great claims for himself, but he thought that if he hadn’t relied on craft, if he had allowed his vulnerability, his sense of weakness, to have taken precedence over creative bolstering, he wouldn’t have even had those two short story collections. That was what he meant by climbing the mountain. He really didn’t want the statement to come across as conservative, as a defence of technique for technique’s sake.

The audience then asked a few questions, but it was as if the conversation had become too much of a dialogue between Radcliffe and me for those sitting nearby, and we rounded it up after another fifteen minutes. As everybody streamed out of the shop, Radcliffe seemed equally keen to leave – even though we’d suggested before the talk that we would go for a drink afterwards. I let him go: I needed to be alone with my thoughts for a while. I felt sure that the annotations must have been Radcliffe’s and not Owens. I had even noticed under the harsh light in the shop that Radcliffe had a few acne scars; Owens’ skin was much smoother.

The next morning I phoned Owens and said that Radcliffe had talked of annotating the books he was reading in Paris. Why, I asked, did he insist that he had annotated them instead? That is a good question he answered, perhaps as good as any you’ve asked. I wondered if he had any free time to meet up and talk about it. We arranged to meet the next afternoon at the café in which we first met.

As we sat down, he started to explain what happened, though whether he offered the truth or not was difficult to say. After all, hadn’t he already lied to me once before? Let us suggest, he said, that there were two struggling writers in Paris several years ago. One, namely Owens, had published a handful of stories, book reviews, and worked on a couple of translations. He wasn’t well known, but he was on his way:  Owens was becoming established. The other, Radcliffe, had published nothing, though some who read his stories and essays, thought he could be a figure of some importance, but that none of us really believed he could establish himself with the work he was doing. For example his stories were always closely autobiographical, and his essays much more about his own feelings than the writer he was writing about. Now for two or three years he stopped writing. He would only read, and then annotate the texts, as if trying to find a way of engaging with other voices rather than his own, Owens suspected.  After a couple of years he started to write again, and found that he was writing with a far greater desire for the technical and the formal. It’s as if many of the asides which would litter his essays and his stories now would be found in the margins of others’ texts, and Radcliffe had no need for them anymore. It was at this point, as he was working on his first story collection, he said in some ways the most personal work he had ever done was annotating the work of others. Radcliffe didn’t want to keep the books, but he was reluctant to give them away. Would Owens take them, he asked, and so that is what Owens did. Shortly afterwards Radcliffe left Paris, and moved back to Edinburgh. Owens stayed in Paris for another year, but before leaving realized that what with his own belongings and his own books he no longer had the luggage space for Radcliffe’s books as well, so he decided to sell them on to a second hand book shop. But first, out of a respect for Radcliffe’s privacy, he had scribbled out Radcliffe’s name and put a sticker over all the books with his own name printed on it. Nobody need ever know that the personal passages in the books were those of Radcliffe, who no doubt would have been mortified to find other people leafing through his personal notes as they were reading, for example, Duras’s Practicalities.

Owens then asked me if I’d mentioned to Radcliffe that I’d  come across any books that he’d scribbled in, and I said that I hadn’t. He asked if I realized that I had the potential, no more he insisted than the potential, to make or break a writer. I laughed, saying all the power I had was to interview a handful of writers in a small charity shop in Stockbridge. He said that may be so, but the capacity to ask good questions is a dying art form, ask almost any writer who’s been interviewed by journalists in recent years – most of the journos have barely read the books. He said that actually Radcliffe had phoned him earlier that day and said he’d found the interview intriguing, had almost found himself fascinating for the first time in a long while.  Good questions, you see, allow one to be fascinating to oneself; bad questions, boring to oneself. Radcliffe was clearly not bored with himself as he answered the questions. And, Owens said, “I believe if he knew that you had come across some of his notes, and really responded to them, it might give him the strength, or as he would perhaps say, give him the weakness, to write more personally once again.”

As he spoke I of course wondered whether this was love and protectiveness Owens was offering (a rumour, though probably apocryphal, had it they’d been lovers in the past, though Radcliffe was now married). Then again, I could have surmised that he was jealous of Radcliffe’s capacity for personal revelation, or that he really believed the best work came out of a healthy distance from oneself. Owens left the café suggesting the sort of robust health Naipaul found in Mailer. As I looked on, I wondered whether I would talk to Radcliffe about the revelatory impact finding his annotated book had on me, whether I would continue doing the talks at the bookshop, or whether I would just put the whole experience down on paper and leave it at that.  But of course one thing troubled me, and after I got home I went to the Duras book to see whether I could tear off the sticker and make out the scribbled out name underneath.  As I opened the book and saw Owens’s name I then removed the sticker and sure enough underneath it somebody else’s was scribbled out, and I saw no reason to assume this wasn’t Radcliffe’s. I went into a draw, took out a small sticker from a pack, wrote my name on it and replaced Owens’ with my own. After all, wasn’t I now the owner of this very book and not Owens or Radcliffe?


©Tony McKibbin