William Fiennes

William Fiennes’s The Snow Geese was published by Picador in 2002.

Nature made the house: Barry Topez

William Fiennes, 29 July 1999

Many of the 17 ‘essays’ in Barry Lopez’s About This Life are fragments of memoir: snapshots of the day of a mother’s death from cancer; early road trips up and down America; Jesuit prep school in Manhattan; childhood years in California; a tributary career in photography. The book begins with a series of travelogues. Lopez dives the coral reef off the island of Bonaire in the Dutch Antilles, finding the patterns and colours of reef life ‘displayed like Persian rugs in glycerin hues’. He describes a trip through Hokkaido, northernmost of the Japanese islands; an expedition to McMurdo Station in Antarctica and a voyage through the Galapagos Islands. His research into the human and physical geographies of these places, their flora and fauna, the stories of their colonisation, is assiduous. His observation is acute. Inspecting the frozen corpses of Antarctic seals, he notes that ‘the peculiar cheek teeth, ornate with tiny, interlocking cusps, stand out boldly in their highly evolved but useless efficiency.’ But these pieces remain examples of high reportage, lacking the concentration and burnish of essays.‘

Mortal on Hooch: Alan Warner

William Fiennes, 30 July 1998

Morvern Callar, the narrator of Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar (1995) and These Demented Lands (1997), reacts to the suicide of her boyfriend by lighting a Silk Cut, opening her Christmas presents and shaving her legs in a hot bath. The boyfriend is lying in a pool of blood but Morvern remains emotionally numb: ‘Trying to get in the oven to heat up the pizza. His body caused the usual hassles but I soon had it underway.’ When she buries his body parts in the nearby mountains, Morvern is alert only to the bracken whacking her thighs, the stain of peaty water on her forearms, the heads of moor cotton whipping against her ankles, the beads of dew hanging from the tips of ferns. Her sensibility is as exquisite as her conscience is rudimentary.‘

Jobs and Sprees and Sorrows

William Fiennes, 16 April 1998

Joseph Mitchell, who died on 24 May 1996, was a staff writer on the New Yorker for 58 years and belonged to the band of contributors who made the magazine’s reputation. His special subject was the sea: he shared Herman Melville’s vision of New York as a city of the sea, ‘your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted around by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs’. Mitchell was the laureate of the waters around New York. He recorded the arcana of the rivermen. He described the harbour’s abundance of shellfish and finfish – not just common finfish like flounder, alewife, sea bass and ling, but also the rarer strays from southern waters: lookdowns, hairtails, goggle-eyed shad. He loved Fulton Fish Market: ‘the smoky river-bank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell’. His stories are filled to the brim with seafood – with oysters and eels and sturgeon, and littleneck and cherrystone clams raked up from the mud of the Long Island bays.’‘

Mauve Monkeys

William Fiennes, 18 September 1997

The years between the death of Queen Victoria and the beginning of the First World War seem now to have been leisure’s golden age. Recalling the summers of 1913-14, Osbert Sitwell noted that ‘one band in a house was no longer enough, there must be two, three even.’ House parties were distinguished by an abundance of exotic flowers, and mounds of peaches, figs, nectarines and strawberries ripening in ‘steamy tents of glass’. Champagne bottles stood stacked on sideboards. Electric fans were positioned on huge blocks of ice, hidden by banks of hydrangeas. It’s hard to believe, but people were taking it in turns to recite Swinburne.

Lincoln, Illinois

William Fiennes, 6 March 1997

In America, William Maxwell is something of a Grand Old Man. He has been president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He has won the American Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award. For forty years, as a fiction editor on the New Yorker, he advised and goaded Nabokov, Eudora Welty, John Cheever and John Updike. Now, at nearly ninety, Maxwell’s face has a prairie gauntness, as if hollowed out by exposure to those bracing talents. But in Britain his name is almost unknown.

William Fiennes has a deep-seated sense of home and what it means to be distant from it. Birth-house, parents, migrant birds: these fuse in his passage on swifts, for example, which ‘come...

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