Wednesday, January 28, 2009


The Warwick Prize for Writing shortlist was announced last week. On the dedicated site you can see footage from the event and interviews with three of the five judges. I'm pleased that Montano's Malady is there to represent the absence of fiction.

I would have also welcomed Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places on to the shortlist. While it probably doesn't well enough fit the prize's theme of Complexity, for me it addresses the same question posed by Vila-Matas' epigraph: What will we do to disappear?

There are also personal reasons. My own disappearances into the Sussex countryside were frequent until last January. A couple of weeks after I snapped this photo, and about a mile further down the same road, my bike was hit by a car. I was more fortunate than the fox I saw minutes before straddling the white line, one side of its body plump golden brown, the other flat mush. As I pedalled into the black future, I wondered about the fox's dream-like existence before it dashed across the tarmac; then death so fast.

I cannot cycle anymore but I can't forget the release of those hours on the back roads. No, the South Downs are not wilderness and I don't know whether I felt anything more than happy forgetfulness, but I did approach a certain distance from human time which is close to wilderness and also to what is given in writing. It might be why I am drawn to both.

Part of the success of The Wild Places is its resourcefulness in finding words for the elemental remove of the non-human world. On the Welsh island of Ynys Enlli, Macfarlane pauses to watch two seals "hauled out on the rocks". When he moves closer, "they began to toil off their perches" and later "sculled past ... gazing at me". While this seems to channel the prose of Seamus Heaney, it does so in order to attend to a unique experience. However, it is a particularly human experience, one charged with agency by the richness of the verbs. For a moment, the reader is there, and grateful to be so too. Yet this also troubles me. Isn't it really the experience not of watching seals in Wales but of Macfarlane remembering, working hard in his study to make the experience more than itself? If so, what would that mean for our sense of being there and, perhaps more significantly, for our own unique experiences to come?

Six years ago, Macfarlane criticised Peter Carey's novel My Life as a Fake for its "exhausting reflexivity". "The job of fiction" he wrote "must not be to give an account of its own workings"; instead "[t]he novel’s special mandate is to investigate the human". My response then (on the In Writing blog) is the same now: why separate the workings of the novel from "the human"? Macfarlane perhaps provides an answer in the same review by praising Carey's Dickensian misstep Oscar & Lucinda in which the author's intelligence "acted as a powerful magnet held invisibly beneath the page, pulling [the novel's] myriad stories into meaningful patterns". No wonder he think this is "by far his best book"; authorial mastery is withdrawn under a beautiful blanket of denial. The withdrawal is there - and we know it - but it is inadmissible.

Nowadays, instead of country paths and narrow mud-streaked roads, I trace the edge of the sea as it laps against pebbles and sea walls. Like Hawaiian priests in a sacred procession, I walk with the land on my right, the sea on the left. For them, the land represents life, the sea, death. But then I turn around and go in the opposite direction.


  1. I like to think of Macfarlane as similar to Manley-Hopkins: searching out and perfecting his wordhoard (horde) - at times it feels as if he's sculpting the words from the very land.

  2. I'm ashamed to admit I had never heard of Macfarlane until I read an introduction recently that he's written for a forthcoming Penguin
    reissue of John Christopher's pulpy eco-pocalypse novel The Death of Grass. Then someone mentioned him last week, in what context I can't
    recall, and now you're writing about him. That must be some sort of signal.

    The above post is a beautiful piece of writing, Steve, particularly the closing paragraph.

  3. I love this photo. When you first posted it a year ago, I recall a powerful urge to return to the Downs. My brother (another Steve) and I hiked over them years ago. Very happy time.

    Your fox recalls Ted Hughes':

    Through the window I see no star:
    Something more near
    Though deeper within darkness
    Is entering the loneliness.

    He too 'working hard in his study to make the experience more than itself'

    Thanks Steve. I concur with John.



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