Sunday, 4 May 2014

Richard Beard: Damascus

It is the first of November 1993, a significant date in Britain's history: we have just become part of the European Union. On this day, in a trope reminiscent of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, a boy and a girl are born to rather different but not untypical families. We are to follow their lives as they grow up, meet, drift apart and eventually become lovers. It's a state-of-the-nation novel, then, but if that genre suggests a tiresome earnestness, let me assure you that Beard's interpretation of it is every bit as unexpected as Rushdie's.

For a start, where is all this happening?

It is the first of November 1993 and somewhere in the Kingdom, in Quarndon or Northampton or Newry or York, in Kircaldy or Yeovil or Lincoln or Neath, a baby girl is born.
The phrase keeps coming back, a refrain which is never repeated as the place names change all the time: "in Harlow or Widnes or Swansea or Ayr, in Reading or Glentoran or Nantwich or Hull". Beard seems to be taking the idea of the state of the nation literally: this novel is so "typical" that the action happens all over the country simultaneously. The whole point of realist fiction, of course, is to depict lives that give the impression of being individual, but which map in some way on to everyone else's, but surely, not since the medieval morality play Everyman has a writer been so upfront about it.

If what Beard does to fictional place seems bizarre, his treatment of fictional time is stranger still. Hazel Burns and Spencer Kelly are, as we have seen, born simultaneously, on the first of November, 1993. We see them meet as children, becoming, first friends, then telephone friends. We see them struggling with school, puberty and first romantic encounters, with a tragedy in each of their families, and with the onset of adulthood, all the time keeping in touch by phone without actually meeting. In a parallel thread, we see them in their twenties, on the morning after their first night together, as they try to decide what future, if any, their relationship now has. And it is still the first of November, 1993. Throughout all these changes, Britain has just joined the EU, the Great Britain Rugby League team has just beaten New Zealand, Federico Fellini and River Phoenix have just died, and it is National Library Week.

It's hard to explain the dreamlike effect of this simple, but, as far as I know, unique device. Most of the time, surprisingly, we don't notice it at all. After all, we're used to the action of a novel taking place in a different historical period, and precise dates seldom play much of a part in a fictional plot anyway. Novelists sometimes commit accidental anachronisms, like Jane Austen describing apple blossom in July (Emma), and usually get away with it, because we're much more interested in other aspects of their story. But Beard's calculated, nonchalant defiance of chronology keeps coming back, like his place-name refrain, slapping us in the face. The death of the heart-throb River Phoenix becomes a running joke, reacted to in different ways according to the ages of the characters; it is always Hazel's and Spencer's birthdays, as well as the anniversary of the family tragedy each of them has suffered; they meet for the first time on the beach and the incongruity of taking a British seaside holiday in November becomes another joke; there is a flashback to the earlier life of an elderly man, and, yes, even all those years ago, it was still the first of November 1993; and the future of the nation on this momentous but somehow rather obscure historical occasion is meditated on by a varied cast of characters from all over the country, many of whom are the same two people at different ages.

A note following the end of the novel gives us an insight into this chronological structure:

All except twelve of the nouns in Damascus can also be found in The Times of 1 November 1993.
This method, which one would never have guessed without the note, was clearly influenced by OuLiPo, the avant-garde group whose members included Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, and which is associated with the idea of constraint as an aid to creativity: the classic example is Perec's La Disparition, translated into English by Gilbert Adair as A Void, an entire novel written without the letter E. Beard's constraint has been to take The Times for that particular day and generate his novel out of it, and the frozen chronology, though not a necessary consequence of that method, is a marker of it, the only such marker visible in the text. It is reminiscent of another Perec novel, La Vie Mode d'Emploi (Life A User's Manual), the action of which takes place simultaneously in various rooms of a Paris apartment building.

There seems to be quite a lot of interest in OuLiPo at the moment, and I've experimented with some of their methods myself, so I'm partisan. The obvious critique is that they're "artificial" (OuLiPo's adherents would ask how any art could avoid that), and make for brittle, superficial writing with no vision and no heart. Beard's novel refutes that view. I've had to spend so long explaining its oddities that I haven't given a sufficient idea of how joyfully funny it is; it is also, in places, very moving and, to use an unfashionable word that one does not normally associate with avant-garde literature, very wise. Ultimately, this is not so much a state-of-the-nation novel as a coming-of-age one, using its experimental techniques to bring freshness to the perennial themes of growing up and discovering love.

It's been a while since I wrote a blog entry about a contemporary British writer - in fact, I see now, Robert Irwin is the only one I have covered previously. Richard Beard has a website here; he is the author of five novels and several non-fiction books. Damascus was his second novel; the first, X20, the only other one I've read, is also excellent, and I've heard great things about his latest, Lazarus is Dead, which I really want to read. Meanwhile, why is a book as richly pleasurable as Damascus allowed to go out of print, when other, much duller novels are still in the shops? Like all the books I review on this site, it should be much better known.

Next time, an epic novel of theatrical life before the First World War, by a prolific writer now only remembered for two comic novels that received screen adaptations.

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