The Unpronounceable

Adam Mars-Jones

  • BuyWhat Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
    Picador, 194 pp, £12.99, April 2016, ISBN 978 1 4472 8051 4

The practice of modelling in negative space, making absent volume perform as part of the dynamism of the whole, is a standard technique in visual arts, in sculpture above all, but there is a parallel set of strategies available to writers, even if it doesn’t formally go by that name. When Rayner Heppenstall published Four Absentees, his version of an autobiography, for instance, he chose not to recount his life directly but to project a diffused self-portrait onto four well-known cultural figures who had been his friends (Dylan Thomas, George Orwell, Eric Gill and John Middleton Murry), evoking them first separately and then in some slightly dizzying comparisons:

I had seen Murry working, happily absorbed and with real skill, mending fences, sawing up logs (once, too absorbed), laying down barrels of Sauerkraut, cutting up the cabbages with me on a bread-slicing machine. I had seen Orwell in this state only when he was cooking. Dylan worked trance-like at his poems, but lacked, I think, any manual dexterity. Happy absorption had been Gill’s state most of his life, and, certainly, it was not the stresses of the machine age that killed him, but (or so one supposed) fine stone-dust irritating his lungs as he worked at one of his crafts, making things well.

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