George Orwell did not believe in ghosts. Any reader who respects his work could not possibly think that Orwell’s shade now haunts the remote farmhouse on the Isle of Jura where he wrote his final novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and spent his last days of relative health and happiness. (He died of tuberculosis in 1950, and was buried elsewhere, in an English churchyard, under his real name, Eric Blair.) Even so, I’m jittery.
MOST writers spend the better part of their days sitting alone in chairs, slouched over desks, occasionally staring out of windows. In his lifetime, even a beloved crowd-pleaser like Charles Dickens would probably have bored his fans to fits of Victorian weeping if they had to watch him work for more than five minutes. But after a great author dies, his or her property begins to take on a kind of mystic fascination. Over decades, or centuries, their chairs become artefacts, their rooms become museums, and their houses become holy to those readers and travellers who consider themselves “literary pilgrims”.
WE crossed from Argentina into Chile over the Andes. The bus was angled upward like a plane taking off, the narrow road rising to an altitude of almost 12,000 feet at the border checkpoint, in a high pass called Los Libertadores. The peaks loomed above us on all sides, with Acongagua in the distance – the tallest mountain outside of Asia, a factory for generating clouds. It was literally dizzying. My nose bled, and my girlfriend fainted in the long queue at the immigration desk.
ON October 11, 1996, a banquet was held in the Painted Hall of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich – a huge room designed by the astronomer-architect Sir Christopher Wren, its ceilings detailed with images of British maritime power. This was where Admiral Nelson’s body lay in state after it was shipped back from the… Read more »
DUBLIN is the one city where people know Roddy Doyle when they see him. It’s the only place he has ever lived, and up until his new novel Oh, Play That Thing!, it was the only place he ever set his stories. Today, he tells a true one from a few weeks ago. Doyle was waiting for a friend at Tara Street train station, and a bunch of little hoods were hanging around nearby. In Glasgow they would be neds, in Dublin they’re called gurriers. One of them broke off and came over to stare at him. “Are you Roddy Doyle?” he asked. “Yeah,” said Doyle. “So what?” said the kid, and walked away again.
CASTLE of Park is bright pink. It rises out of the Scottish countryside like a sudden blush on the green cheek of rural Aberdeenshire. Driving up through the grounds, I imagine that this place was custom built as a refuge for budding romantic novelists like myself, the colour acting as a kind of beacon to guide us over the hills in our heightened state of distraction.
WITH hindsight, I realise that I was naive when I set out to read all the novels on this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist in a single week. I accepted the assignment for reasons of intellectual vanity. Not even the great writer and critic Gore Vidal had ever pulled off such a wheeze, although he did once famously go through the top 10 American bestsellers and write a characteristically imperious essay about the experience. Now, it would be my turn to become a book group of one, a judging panel unto myself. I would read 17 novels in seven days. Starting the week as diligent as a librarian’s apprentice, I would end it halfblind, sad-faced and walking into walls, like a pit pony down a Chinese coal-mine.
Around the time that David Mitchell was writing his epic, polyphonic, pan-historical novel, Cloud Atlas, a 13-year-old Japanese boy named Naoki Higashida was working on a kind of memoir about his own autism. Naoki’s condition was severe enough that he could only do this by pointing to the relevant characters on a custom-made cardboard alphabet grid. With great effort and patient assistance, he compiled a list of answers to the most frequently asked questions about his behaviour. The resulting book was titled The Reason I Jump, and first published in Japan almost a decade ago. David Mitchell didn’t hear of it until years later, when his own young son was diagnosed with autism. “Before that, I had no reason to know anything about it,” says Mitchell.