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Nicholas Royle – An English Guide To Birdwatching

Book Cover

Things are about to get birdy, wordy, and full of critique.

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 334
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-43494-4
First Published: 25th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 23rd May 2017
Rating: 5/5

Silas Woodlock moves to Seaford with his wife, Ethel, leaving their undertaking business in the hands of their son. The couple find the town a bit too elderly for their tastes; in time Ethel proposes they join a local writing course as a way to keep busy. By the end of the course an initially reluctant Silas has written a short story about birds; by accident it’s left in the local pub, not to be found again… until Silas spots it in an anthology. He goes to confront the plagiarist, one Nicholas Royle. Meanwhile a minor literary critic, Stephen Osmer, is struggling to make his mark but gains a pinch of notoriety interrupting and later reporting on an event held by two writers of the same name, the novelist Nicholas Royle and the literary theorist Nicholas Royle.

An English Guide To Birdwatching is the highly meta second novel/non-fiction mash-up from literary theorist Nicholas Royle, not to be confused with the novelist Nicholas Royle, writer of In Camera and Salt Publishing’s short story anthologies, though both men are included on the page. On the surface and, in fact, in some ways once the surface is scratched, it’s as confusing as it has likely been so far in this review – expect a lot of commentary.

This is a novel of a sort not often seen. It’s a novel that pushes deep into and past what’s not often seen to become something incredibly literary, requiring all of the reader’s attention but to great reward. Many descriptions are possible; Robert Macfarlane’s thoughts, featured on the back cover, sum it up well: “a curiously compelling investigation of the nature of writing and the writing of nature”. Royle takes the concept of literary criticism, spins it around, scrunches it up and creates something new from it. There is a story included; it’s not the most important part, but then it’s not unimportant either.

Near the start of the novel we read a fictional report of a factual event, a conversation type evening in which the two writers named Nicholas Royle spoke of their discovery of the other. Speaking of real world happenings here, the novelist Nicholas Royle (published by Salt) sent for consideration to a literary magazine a short story. Literary theorist Nicholas Royle (author of the book you’re currently reading a review of) did the same. Both stories were rejected and both rejections sent to critic Nicholas – the editor of the magazine thought they were both novelist Nicholas. Theorist Nicolas contacted novelist Nicholas about the mix up and they have since become friends. One day fairly recently they spoke together at an event about their respective work, which is the event theorist Nicholas refers to in this book currently being reviewed. Theorist Nicholas is now also a novelist as evidenced by this and one previous book.

If you’re still with me, you may appreciate the following quotation, which is taken from a scene after the event in which the two Nicholas Royles are discussing the evening and which effectively describes the book you are currently reading a review of (ellipses mine):

I’d like to write a novel that would try to do justice to the reality of birds… but also to observe the novel itself, a kind of screened-off or embedded space within a novel in which it would be possible to explore the relations between birds and words, birdwatching and wordwatching… It wouldn’t be subtext, though. It’s not a matter of providing the real or underlying meaning… It wouldn’t be a commentary either… a new way of thinking about surveillance, including self-surveillance…

So Royle, theorist now novelist, who for the rest of this review will be referred to as the author, makes himself a major part of his work. As himself. As the author. As an idea. Through the fictional character of Stephen Osmer, the author has fun with his own success:

…not long ago published his tenth book of literary criticism, variously praised as ‘extraordinary’, ‘fascinating’ and exuberant’; as a ‘book that shows the way forward for literary studies’. I should straight away add that these accolades are, as so often, grossly exaggerated’.

He also plays with the idea of fact and fiction, for example by the inclusion of a sex scene that could be seen as an admission of something… interesting, if not for this:

He could think, at times, of no better way of describing it than that he was ‘living in the pages of a novel’.

It is through this scene and those related to it that are included later, that Royle looks back on his fictional Stephen Osmer, his own critic, his fiction-real-life troll, and looks at the idea of an author’s reaction to reactions of their work. It’s exaggerated for effect – both literal effect and in order to explain the literary concepts the author is going for – but achieves the whole looking-at-literature-and-the-theory-and-everything-surrounding-it that he’s going for. (On this note, which might be considered a spoiler but which in the circumstances seems appropriate to include, is the author’s rather boldly killing off his own self for both fictional hilarity and as another look at the nature of writing.)

In view of the absolute fiction of the novel – the story of Silas and his wife – this comes to an abrupt halt about two thirds of the way through. If you were particularly enjoying it for its fiction you may be disappointed but the halt does fit neatly alongside – same spoiler as above incoming – the occurrence of the author’s fictional death.

It comes to a halt so that the author can move on to something else – prioritising the ‘birdwatching’ aspect of the book which up to now has been prevalent but somewhat obscured. This section of the book is composed of a series of chapters labelled ‘Hide X’ (where X corresponds to its number in the proceedings). In these sections the author analyses the word and concept of ‘bird’ and ‘birdwatching’, looking meticulously at a vast variety of meanings and possibilities. Could some of it be considered over-thinking? Most definitely, but that appears to be part of the point. Illustrated by artist Natalia Gasson’s beautiful drawings, it effectively provides you with a guide to ideas, which just happens to involve information about said bird hides, different species, and habitations as well as birds in various mediums – Du Maurier and Hitchcock; Thomas Hardy; ornithologists; battery hens; the military and the relationship with novelist Nicholas Royle’s work; Twitter.

Included in this is the drip-by-drip explanation of what the author was looking to achieve some chapters back. It’s not written as such; it’s more a series of ‘ah ha!’ moments you will have – unless, perhaps, you have a good knowledge of birds, this is the time when you find out that some of the things you thought were included just for fun were in fact a big part of the literary exploration. This is where the genius of the work really shines, the superb summit of all the other summits so far experienced.

The book is mostly written in the third person, and the narrative looks at things both from a regular point of past view and a retelling of events long gone. As part of the studious, analytical, process, the author gives a nod to Dickens, and there afterwards you find yourself reading reams of streams of consciousness which, as with everything else, is for a specific reason.

To review this book is only to add to all of what has been discussed, to be meta in one’s own right; to use a word preferred by Stephen Osmer, it’s almost ‘absurd’, effectively tacking something onto the end of the book, becoming a tertiary source – a real life Stephen Osmer, just without the vitriol.

This is a book that will bring delight to anyone who likes the idea of a novel in a novel in a novel, studying the already studied, the extremely experimental. In terms of attention required it’s incredibly needy – not one for bedtime reading, and desirous of a certain mood.

An English Guide To Birdwatching is a fantastic work of literary fiction, non-fiction, and academia, breaking boundaries and fourth walls to become something unique and highly enjoyable, particularly on a literary level.

I received this book for review.

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A Book Launch, A Multi-Author Event, And A Visit To Southampton Old Cemetery

A photograph of Meike Ziervogel reading from her latest book

It’s been a very literary weekend.

Friday evening saw the launch of Meike Ziervogel’s fourth book, The Photographer, at Waterstones Piccadilly. Longer than her others, Meike is calling it a novel rather than a novella. The book was inspired by her grandparents, one set in particular, and their lives during the Second World War. It’s about the people of Germany – Meike was aware that she was of a generation that could write about that time; those prior could not.

There were a couple of readings and a general discussion with chair Rosie Goldsmith, and Stephanie Bird of University College London: thoughts on German documentaries and films regarding the War; literary fiction and the way that plot is important to Meike because actions speak louder than words; how the four of the books are connected, having written one to get to the next and so forth. I picked up a copy of the book – it’s only a tentative plan, but I’m hoping to review it soon. And I got it signed, which in regards to Meike’s work was a first for me.

A photograph of Choc Lit authors Evonne Wareham, Jan Brigden, Liv Thomas, and Laura E James

I spent Saturday afternoon attending the Southampton stop of publisher Choc Lit’s author tour. Choc Lit are visiting a few different cities and the authors at the events are those nearby; this time it was Evonne Wareham, Jan Brigden, Liv Thomas (one half of the writing duo published under the name Isabella Connor), and Laura E James, in the order they are sitting in the photograph. There were a number of us and the afternoon consisted of a good introduction and discussion by and between the authors, lots of time to talk to everyone there, and a quiz to finish. And a fair amount of chocolate, cake, and books. During the latter section there was an opportunity for the writers amongst us – those other than the four mentioned – to pitch their work.

A photograph of a tombstone and a monkey puzzle tree at Southampton Old Cemetery

Sunday was a free day. I read – little surprise there, I think – and decided to get out and enjoy the sunshine visiting the old cemetery we have in Southampton, an activity a lot more peaceful and positive than it might sound. Situated in the middle of Southampton Common, the cemetery was opened in 1846; nowadays the only burials are those added to existing plots, a few a year. Very tall statues abound and there’s even a small mausoleum. Most of the stones have corroded to the point of illegibility and some areas are so old and overgrown they look empty, but in the context of a historical space, there is a lot of beauty to be found in it… and there’s also a monkey puzzle tree, as you can see above. Here are more photographs:

A photograph of tombstones at Southampton Old Cemetery A photograph of tombstones at Southampton Old Cemetery A photograph of tombstones at Southampton Old Cemetery A photograph of tombstones at Southampton Old Cemetery A photograph of tombstones at Southampton Old Cemetery

How was your weekend and what was the last event, literary or otherwise, you attended?

 
Which Series Would You Have Liked To See Continued?

A photograph of various books from different series

What it says on the tin; looking at series that ended rather than any that may not have been actively finished, if that makes sense. (The photograph is just books from different series.) Most series I read are Young Adult, particularly fantasies, so that’s what my choices are. The series are His Dark Materials, The Hunger Games, and The Chronicles Of Narnia, one paragraph each, and thoughts include spoilers.

It’s kind of (hopefully?) happening now, but like many people I wanted to know if Lyra and Will of His Dark Materials would meet again. I wanted to find out if they were successful in their quest. Should a continuation happen? Whilst this is a mute point now, with the upcoming publication of The Book Of Dust, I’m not sure whether a continuation would work or not. I’ve written about my feelings for The Amber Spyglass; I wonder if Pullman had continued the series at that time, if it would have just got worse. Perhaps The Book of Dust will benefit from the years that have passed since the completion of the trilogy. But I don’t think the story can work without Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel. How a story would work without them I don’t know.

I’ve read many articles and reviews in which people say how much they loved The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, but disliked Mockingjay. I didn’t dislike the last book but I stand with general opinion that it was a poor finale to an otherwise strong series (albeit that I have my reservations due to the similarities with Battle Royale, a book I won’t lie in having read but know a bit about). I think the thing with the first two books is that although the Games are horrific, they are fun in that sort of can’t-stop-reading way, much like people think reality TV is awful but they’ll still watch it. The fast-paced action and also, I reckon, the element of knowing what you’re getting, combined, perhaps, with the shock of it all, made the first two books what they were. Without it, the third book couldn’t win. So I would have loved to have stayed in Collins’ world in terms of the no-holds-barred way she explored her subject but I wouldn’t want to read a continuation of the series as it stands. It wouldn’t make sense for another book to be included unless it had been a book slotted between the first two and the third, or if it was a spin-off. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of spin-offs, Xena excepted, so I’m not sure I would read one anyway. The story has been completed.

I think The Chronicles Of Narnia could have continued for many more books and people would have enjoyed it just as much – so long as it continued adding characters and new travels rather than looking at Heaven post-The Last Battle. It would be different – perhaps we’d emphasise new characters over Lucy; perhaps Susan could have returned and Lewis made her a more prominent character without the hate – but I think it would have still been just as good. Looking at how wonderful both The Magican’s Nephew and The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe are, as very separate parts of one whole, he could feasibly carried on without issue.

You?

 
A General Post On Discovering ‘New’ Classics: Persephone, Virago, And Apollo

I’m going to start with a couple of quotations because they sum up the whole idea and are just great to read:

“The criterion for inclusion in the Apollo list is that its editors have to feel passionately about the books, and that they should be, on the whole, forgotten or unread. There are novels on the list that have never been part of any canon, but deserve to be, and there are also respected authors like Christina Stead whose absence from lists of essential classics is astonishing to us.” — Neil Belton of Head Of Zeus imprint, Apollo.

“Founder Nicola Beauman’s original concept was to publish a handful of ‘lost’ or out-of-print books every year, most of them interwar novels by women… a grey Persephone cover is a guarantee of a good read. In fact, by far the most important criteria is that we only publish books that we completely, utterly love.” — Persephone’s website.

I’ve been reading quite a few classics lately (or at least what I’ve decided to term classics when it comes to my reading, because it really isn’t straightforward otherwise, as you all know). It’s kind of crept up on me; I had been aware for a long time that I hadn’t been reading many and that my Classics Club list wasn’t getting far (I recently changed the scope for that) and now suddenly I’m reading a lot of them.

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It begun a couple of months ago when looked at the numbers of books I’d read for different categories, but I’ve found myself carrying on choosing classics without much thought. Partly due to review copies and partly due to just being in the zone, it’s happening.

What helps is redefining ‘classic’ and working with books that have been forgotten. You know what I mean: Persephone, Virago. A bit of Pushkin, and now Apollo. Persephone introduced me to Julia Strachey and Marghanita Laski and a whole host of others I should have read by now. Virago – Thirkell. (I’ve also a few from their Du Maurier collection, but the author has never been forgotten; I expect she’ll be around for the foreseeable future!) Apollo is a new imprint from Head Of Zeus so they’ve just started out: Margaret Laurence, Josephine Johnson, and I have Christina Stead on my to-be-read, that book that was daunting but now no longer. [As I edit this post I realise it’s very focused on women. That wasn’t my intention but it does reflect my recent reading.]

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I’ve found something wonderful in reading classics and I’ve found even more wonder in reading forgotten books. It’s not the idea that you’re reading something few have, though that is reason for excitement, it’s that feeling that you are indeed reading a classic. There is just something about a great old book that you can ‘see’, that’s there to notice. Even if you don’t like the book, that reason for it being well-known, or ex-well-known, seeps from it. It’s like reading a wonderful book, that you’d never heard of before you saw it in the shop and bought it, magnified.

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I’m not sure exactly what it is about Thirkell, some sort of semblance to Gaskell, perhaps, and a feeling not dissimilar to the books my mother introduced me to, but with Josephine Johnson it was Little House In The Big Woods, and a feeling of the moors, like it could have been a forgotten Brontë if they’d written about the Southern States of America. Now In November won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935. It’s very of its time, lacking in what we would consider action, but just so good.

Of course its date is more modern classic – 1935, just a year before Margaret Mitchell’s publication – but it still felt good to have read it. It’s hovering just around being forgotten; it’s likely Apollo’s reprint will help it gain ground, particularly given the Prize. Was it forgotten because it was so relevant to a particular period in history, as the Prize might suggest?

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The story behind Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel fascinated me because it’s considered a Canadian classic and from what I’ve found out, it seems it’s still read in the country. It fascinates me because it’s on a topic that will likely never be irrelevant, unlike, perhaps, Johnson’s work – however much the life trappings have changed since, Laurence’s protagonist could be transplanted into a book from today, a person who is oblivious to why her son doesn’t want to look after her any more – we can see why and it’s all to do with her behaviour. Apollo have just published Laurence’s A Jest Of God and thinking it might be similar, I had a look. It is, from the other side of the story – the daughter of an overbearing mother. You can’t see it from the image I’ve used but there’s a quotation from Margaret Atwood who says it’s “An almost perfect book”.

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If judging a book by its cover then I’m very interested in Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, a ‘portrait of family life in the American South during the 1920s’. The focus is on a particularly mundane year which meant that ‘initial reception of the novel was chequered, with many reviewers challenging the absence of plot’1. Likely what we’d now call a character-driven novel, Apollo’s decision to publish it suggests it’s one to read. Another author who won the Pulitzer, though not for this book, Welty used technology as symbols in her work. Her home in Mississippi is now a museum. Like Kate Chopin’s house it was damaged by fire, but unlike that building there was enough remaining for it to be restored.

I’ll be reviewing Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck soon and as I featured it in my first lines post last week I won’t include it here except to say I’ve since found out it was loved by Angela Carter.

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In terms of other books I’ve not read but want to, Monica Dicken’s Mariana, published by Persephone, has been on my list since I first saw it. It was the cover that drew me mostly because , at the time, it was the first non-grey Persephone I’d seen. Finding out later that Dickens was a granddaughter of the Victorian novelist cemented it. Don’t ask me why I’ve not read it yet – I’ve no excuse.

With Virago, I hope to get to all of Barbara Comyn’s and Du Maurier’s books… if I can say that when particularly in the case of the latter it’s been a good few years since I read Rebecca and I have four other novels on my shelves waiting.

Which little-known books would you recommend, particularly those published no later than 1960? (Arbitrary decade, I know.)

1Wikipedia’s page on Eudora Welty, accessed 17th May 2017.

 
Classics In The Summer

A photograph of two sets of two classics resting on the grass in the sunshine

For a good few years now – at least three, I’d say – as the sun makes its way higher in the sky and the days warm up, I get a strong urge to read classics, particularly Victorian and late Georgian. It always happens around late April to May and sort of finishes in July at the time the sun’s decent becomes noticeable.

There are certain factors that come into play – the classics I feel most drawn to are ones that for one reason or another I relate to happy, sunny days. Austen gets a big look in; aside from Persuasion, which is full of windy strolls by the sea and which I first read when ill with a cold, all her books I associate with summer. I read Pride And Prejudice in February, but it was a sunny February and there is a lot of summer in the book. I read Sense And Sensibility in April of the same year; Sanditon in July.

Dickens gets a glance or two – usually, on further consideration, I don’t see it as appropriate. My thoughts of Great Expectations in relation to summer rest firmly in the fun chapter of rocking chairs and parental mishaps – I forget exactly what happens, I just know I loved it. But the book in general wouldn’t be a great choice.

Bronte… the windy moors, general trauma, and pathetic fallacy don’t make them good choices. Though for some reason Daphne Du Maurier appeals. I would approach another Hardy with trepidation but would approach it nonetheless.

A lot of it rests on the idea of re-reading; if I read a book I hadn’t read before, who’s to say it would fit the weather?

Actually, re-reading is another part of it – re-reading always seems a good idea come summer. Summer always feels like a holiday even if it isn’t, children off school for weeks being a reminder of your own childhood summer holidays; the possibilities, the feeling that you’ve lots of time during which you can do whatever you want. In terms of books, re-reading feels more of a holiday than reading new books, with less effort required and thus more relaxation promised.

But I’m yet to get round to reading classics or re-reading anything in the summer. A couple of years ago I made a point of sitting outside one early morning with a coffee and Elizabeth Bennett and it was lovely for the time it took to read two chapters. I never got round to carrying on. Last summer I spent early mornings in the garden reading new books. I think it’s the ‘another day’ problem; I can always do it another day. But that day hasn’t come yet.

Do you favour certain genres at certain times of the year?

 

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