The Common Breath editor
Brian Hamill

Friday 20th December 2019

Q1) The book that was most influential for you as a young person

This is a tricky one for me to answer because I wasn’t really much of a reader at high school. I definitely talked a good game, parroting out names I knew every now and then to try and impress folk: “Aye, you should away and read yourself some Sartre – I think you’d see things a little differently if you did...” (while never having read a word of his work myself). That was me as a young person. The only books I remember loving before I went to uni were The Outsider by Camus and some Harold Pinter plays. My auntie gave me a collection of classic novels one Christmas and as The Outsider was the thinnest of them, that was the one I read. And I was absolutely shellshocked by how good it was. I spent the next couple of years spreading the word, rather than reading anything more. With Pinter, it was an old teacher of mine. He told me about this amazing dramatist, and gave me the name of his greatest play. I went into Glasgow on the train, into the John Smith Bookshop, up to the front desk and asked for a book of plays called ‘The Homecoming Of Henry Pinthers’. I was disgusted that they didn’t have it, nor even know it. Ten minutes later, the staff had realized I was a halfwit, my face was scarlet – but I did have a copy of The Homecoming by Harold Pinter safely in my bag. I’ll choose that as my most influential book. It was so much darker and funnier and more sophisticated than anything I’d read, and when I got round to reading Martin Esslin’s analysis of it, that gave it another dimension again. This was so crucial in really enflaming my interest in creating serious art through words and voices.

Q2) The book that gets you through hard times

Hmm, I don’t tend to read during hard times in life. I read when I’m feeling happy; for me it’s a practice associated with a happy, contented existence. When I’m embroiled in difficult circumstances, my mind can’t be brought to concentrate on pleasurable things, I need to abstain. In terms of a book that I really felt an emotional attachment to, one which did teach and help me, this would be A Disaffection by James Kelman. It’s about a 29 year old guy called Patrick and his unrequited love for a married fellow teacher. In my 20’s, I was often hopelessly fixated on a female who was painfully out of reach. Reading the perfect evocations of those feelings on the page was a truly beautiful way of growing up, growing older, and coming to a greater understanding about life and about people. Later, my friend Alan McMunnigall had us study the book in his creative writing class, and to go through it all again with Patrick in a class setting was just amazing.

Q3) The book that most disappointed you

I’m disappointed weekly by books. I do have a great respect for those folk who see the value in battling their way through to the end of a novel even if they aren’t enjoying it at all, and maybe if I didn’t have to work full-time I’d have that same persistence and discipline. However, as things stand, my reading-time is so limited and so precious that it’s illogical to allow it to drip away while I am actively disliking the thing I’m reading. There are so, so many books in this world, so many great ones, and not enough time on this earth to read them all as it is, so why give it all away on poor writers and shoddy books? Naw.
The main thing that disappoints me about books is what I call “porch-chairing” – a phrase adapted from a Charles Bukowski clip, which was featured in a Backlisted podcast episode, where old Hank is complaining about the novel Under The Volcano:

“…each line must be full of a delicious little juice, flavour, they must be full of power, they must make you like to turn a page, BIM BIM BIM!
What these guys do, they say: ‘Well then, blah blah blah, dah rah dah, there was a porch-chair, the flies were walking around…
You see, they’re too leisurely, they’re setting up the scene for the grand emotion…”

Page after page of flies walking around and porch-chairs being noticed, and the disappointment becomes too great, the boredom, and I return it to the shelf. The last book I can recall this happening with was Petersburg by Andrei Bely. It sounded to me like the kind of novel I’d love, but it was slow, semi-serious, inconsequential, it just didn’t engage me. A Russian porch-chair.

Q4) Name a book with either a brilliant opening or a brilliant ending

I think the start of a book is much more important than the end. There are endings that I love deeply – Rolling by Thomas Healy, A Disaffection, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, the concluding paragraph of This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan, and both the start and the end of Beckett’s Molloy are exquisite, while there is no other passage in literature that I’m aware of that can match the beauty of the closing lines of Lolita (“...pull him apart nerve by nerve”). But, by the end, the book has already earned your love or it hasn’t, and even a terrible ending can do nothing to detract from that. The tacked-on ending to The Trial is silly, hollow, inappropriate, but it doesn’t matter a jot really, because the story is the value of the book, and that story is a masterwork. The beginning strikes me as much more significant. Everything rides on whether you’re going to engage with this writer’s world, or not. I suppose an answer for this depends on what you think of when you think of a brilliant opening to a novel – first line? First paragraph? Page? Chapter? The book I am reading just now, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, has a stunning first page. No self-respecting Beckett fan can not love an opening line like this:

“I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the Night.”

The opening chapter of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Platform is odd and human and wonderful (although I don’t care much for the first page). Whereas from the very first line to the very last, Part One of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is artistic perfection – and that’s close to 90 pages. How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman is the greatest first few pages of any book I’ve read, but I’ve already written extensively about this, so I won’t take that easy option. I love a beginning where it feels like the story has already started before you look at the first page – where there’s this voice that’s been speaking and it’s only now that you’re tuning into it. No orientation, no introduction, no description of setting nor character, just thrown right in. The first chapter of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is spectacular, but it does contain some of that static, introductory frameworking at the outset. I’m rambling – my answer is The Trick Is To Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway, because you’re flung headfirst into Joy’s world as it is continuing to disintegrate around her. Honourable mention: the start of Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar is exceptional as well.

Q5) Your favourite character from a novel

The incarnation of Arturo Bandini that appears in John Fante’s novel Ask The Dust is a special character. Such a close, funny, recognizable, human representation of a young man’s mentality. Chapter 4, when he is first served by Camilla, that is a real person cast in words, a petty, vindictive, desirous, arrogant young soul. I love Anna from Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys, George Harvey Bone from Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, Georgie from Last Exit To Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr, of course Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Sammy from How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman, but I think my favourite character of all is the unnamed narrator of Hunger by Knut Hamsun. As a true character should be, he is a myriad of a person, experiencing every emotion, and showing the contrary, contradictory, and irrational aspects of our human psyche. That book is pure, unadulterated character, living freely on the page, and nothing more.

Q6) Next on your ‘to read’ pile is…

Under The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for multiple years. I wanted to read more 20th century English writers as I felt I didn’t know much about the modern English novel – for whatever reason, I’d always gravitated towards Scottish, Irish, European (mainly Russian), American, and then the rest of the world, while missing out our neighbours to the south. Under The Volcano seems like a (the?) major English novel of that century, so I bought it, but never actually got round to it. Then in the last year, I listened to an excellent Backlisted podcast episode about the book, learned that Bukowski hated it, and at the same time became aware that it’s the favourite novel of a writer whose work I admire very much, David Keenan – so after a few years in the wilderness, Lowry has finally fought his way atop the great pile.

Q7) Your favourite poem

I'm not really a great poetry enthusiast if I'm being honest. It just doesn't engage or excite me in the way that prose does. There are particular poems I love though. Tom Leonard obviously. I remember feeling very affected by the simple beauty of the question:

luvur day yi

Which is from his very short poem The Miracle of the Burd and the Fishes. His way of capturing phrases and sentiments and moments from language and life as you know it was very special indeed. And he was obviously a master of the political lampoon too - see The underfunder's utopia. It's a tiny slice of genius. My favourite of his poems is June the Second. Much like Message by Allen Ginsberg, it is a poem about the affinity between two people, their bodies and souls, and has a strange 'turn' in perspective at the end – both poems succeed in having an intense, beautiful and personal depth as they conclude, on account of this ‘turn’. Norman MacCaig's Incident too. I like him, and Edwin Morgan also (eg: Christmas Eve).

The mention of Ginsberg there makes me think of the great classic Howl, specifically Part II, where the poet rambles and shouts his way through a strange and awful creation of America known as 'Moloch'. There are phrases and images which stay lodged in your brain permanently after reading or hearing it - "Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!" "MONSTROUS BOMBS!" Just the way it moves and exclaims, and how it manages to end on hope and beauty. I'll say Part II of Howl by Allen Ginsberg is my favourite individual sequence of poetry: it's not just a poem, it's literary pyrotechnics, an aural experience.

Ginsberg's approach to writing the poem remains a beautiful mantra for any artist:

I thought I [would] just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and scribble magic lines from my real mind.

Q8) The greatest book you’ve ever read

I wrote and deleted a very long and turgid answer to this that mentioned many books. Instead, I’ll cite just seven – Hunger by Knut Hamsun, Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys, Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer, Last Exit To Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, and my Penguin Modern Classics edition of First Love and Other Novellas by Samuel Beckett. These were the serious contenders. Those four Beckett stories are as beautifully-written as anything else that has ever been. And I must give a thank you to the great writer & friend Alan Warner for recommending Good Morning, Midnight to me, to my mate Frankie Gault for pointing me in the direction of Last Exit To Brooklyn, as these books have come to mean so much to me. Hubert Selby has been especially important – I doubt I’d still write fiction so much if I hadn’t encountered his work and his own story, his rationale and his spirit. But the seventh book is my answer – unquestionably it has to be How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman. Simply put, there’s no other book operating on that same level of prose artistry, of emotion, of language, of the music of the human soul. ●

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