Oddly enough, I spent much of 2012 writing sonnets. At the time, the thought of writing a fourth novel left me cold. It seemed pointless. All these novels, I thought, this cacophony of inconsequential stories, what exactly was the point of them? If the form didn’t exist, would anyone now bother inventing it? The default medium for narrative was obviously audio-visual. If you wanted to tell a story to entertain and enlighten people, you talked to HBO; to try to do it with hundreds of pages of prose seemed antiquarian.
I did have things I wanted to express—a take on the world rather than any sort of story as such—and words were the only way I had to do so. Anyway, I was in the habit of writing. So I wrote sonnets. And a few villanelles. And the odd pantoum. And one sestina. The strict forms were important to me. The rules constituted a kind of game. And more than that, they instilled a discipline that seemed to impose itself beyond the realm of prosody. They forced concision on me, and directness, and clarity. I wanted to speak directly , to say exactly what I meant, to make statements with sharp edges, to try and pin things down. The themes that preoccupied me were time, and transience, and making things, and something I thought of as “the texture of existence,” the fundamental experience of being in time, of perceiving the world from moment to moment.
Not that the poems were much good. I was slightly in love with them at first, but with a little perspective—i.e., a year or two later—I was able to see that in fact they ranged from just about okay through mildly regrettable to dreck. Here, for the curious, is one of them:
What I like about month-long journeys Is that the point is not so much a destination (Which would be arbitrary anyways) As a process that patiently draws your attention, Through a sort of tedium, To the texture of time. The places you pass through and spend the night in (With a window overlooking a traffic-filled square, Or a stretch of smelly, kelp-strewn shore) Ask for a non-acquisitive approach – You don’t ‘do’ Logatec, El-Aaiún can’t be ‘done.’ Instead you are obliged simply to watch, Without expectation, whatever is there – People living lives quite like your own.
Okay, it’s not great. I still think it’s just about okay. Quite a few of them, I like to think, are just about okay. Really nothing special, but nothing to make me assume the fetal position in the middle of the night either. In the end, though, it was one of the ones firmly in the “dreck” pile that had the biggest future—it grew into a book.
This is what happened. In the summer of 2012, I was invited to submit some prose fiction to Granta , the London-based literary magazine, which was starting to put together its decennial list of the best young British novelists. This jerked me out of my sonnet-writing languor. And they only wanted (if I remember correctly) five thousand words. These were supposed to be excerpted from a larger work-in-progress, but since I didn’t have one of those, I sat down and wrote five thousand words for them, a fragment of narrative about some Hungarians visiting London. I sent it in and then more or less forgot about it. Until Granta got back to me six months later with the good news that they were going to include me on their list. At that point, I thought I should at least round out the piece I’d sent them, and I did more work on it to turn it into a longish short story of about thirty pages.
Still, I had no interest in trying to expand it into a full-length novel. That still seemed as futile as ever. What I did do was start thinking about how I might make a book out of a number of such stories—stories that would somehow interact with each other in a meaningful way. A meaningful way, that was the important thing. There followed months of head-scratching and staring at the wall with an empty coffee cup in my hands. Then, one day, as I was leafing idly through the poems I’d written more than a year earlier, I found myself lingering on one of the very worst of them. It started “Say we divide a man’s life into several stages . . . ” and it went on to do just that, suggesting at each stage a different priority to be pursued, perhaps summarizable as: sex, status, peace. It was technically execrable. As a poem, it was a total failure. But the idea it was trying to express—a variant on the Aristotelian notion of the three ages of man—had the unusual virtue of seeming universally true. Of course, baldly stated in a dud sonnet it felt a bit platitudinous, but what if it were used as the structural principle of a much larger work, a work that would have a surface of intense contemporary realism, so that it would only be by “standing back” from it that the governing idea would come into view, saved from the status of platitude by the mass of living detail that made up every part of it?
I put down my coffee cup.
It was all over, bar the writing.