Book Festival: Jane Gardam | John Burnside
Edinburgh International Book Festival Scotsman review: Ninian Dunnett reports from book festival events featuring Jane Gardam and John Burnside.
‘Out of the Ritz, there stepped a man, handsome beyond belief …” This is Jane Gardam talking about the long-ago genesis of a fictional character who has now occupied her for a trilogy of novels. Stepping out in front of her in the London streets in immaculate Edwardian dress and then vanishing, the stranger “never quite left me,” as she told her Book Festival audience. “I knew I’d write about it some day.”
Last Friends, the third volume to put flesh on the fleeting West End apparition, made a winning reading from the octogenarian author. Gardam is a droll, beguiling performer, recounting the progressive calamities of an elderly couple’s mistaken imprisonment in a freezing church with a digressive glee and precise timing which match the crafty construction of her comical fireworks.
She makes a more elusive interviewee, though, and it took some delicate coaxing from Clare Armistead to elicit a commentary on writing – but it was well worth the gleaning. Reflecting on the difficulty of retaining control of a cast of characters over several books, the author marvelled at the genius – and madness – of Anthony Trollope’s extended immersion in his own fictional milieu. Then, she added as an afterthought: “I’ve had a hard year in many ways. And it saved me, too, to have another world to step into.”
Negative thoughts certainly featured in the morning session with John Burnside, too. The local hero is not long past winning both the Forward and TS Eliot poetry prizes, but he described how his publishers had demurred at the relentlessly downbeat message of his new short story collection, Something Like Happy: “Isn’t it awful to be married, isn’t it awful to have siblings, isn’t it awful to have parents …”
Some adjustments to the story collection later, all seems to be well. But (illustrating his message with his dissatisfaction at his rural Fife community, Zsa Zsa Gabor’s marriages, people called “Stan” and romantic love in general), Burnside remained bullish: “We’re human beings, for God’s sake, we’re not supposed to be happy!”
The Scot, however downbeat, is a perky and voluble presence. But it took a reading from the new collection to remind us how his prose punches with a descriptive richness which sells his ideas persuasively. And drama, too: the story of Soul Night at the Raven and “a situation” caused by a girl called Caroline held its listeners from first word to last.
Originally published in The Scotsman