Percival Everett, David Nicholls and Eugenio Montale

Diversion, disruption and distinction

Being memorable and sticky guarantees a novel a long and healthy life


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

What gives a novel prominence? By that I don’t mean distinction, as the two are different qualities. The Swiss writer Robert Walser summed up the difference in his story “The Walk”, when the narrator entered a bookshop and, contemplating a particular volume, had the following exchange with the assistant.

“Could you swear that this is the most widely distributed book of the year?” “Without a doubt!” “Could you insist that this is the book which one has to have read?” “Unconditionally.” “Is this book also definitely good?” “What an utterly superfluous and inadmissible question.”

Two of this month’s books are amongst the most prominent releases of the year — prominent because their authors have established a reputation over decades-long careers. Happily (to give satisfaction to Robert Walser’s narrator) they are also good, and unusually — in the sometimes self-important and sombre world of contemporary English literature — they are good in part because they are funny.

You Are Here, David Nicholls (Sceptre, £20)

David Nicholls is a writer so successful that each new book becomes an event. He is both popular and acclaimed — longlisted for the Booker Prize, winner of a National Book Award — and hungrily adapted: his best-known book One Day (2009) has been filmed not once but twice. 

His new novel You Are Here exhibits from the start a Nichollsian quality of a peculiarly English high-concept: where One Day was structured so that each chapter took place on St Swithin’s Day in consecutive years, so You Are Here follows the line of Alfred Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk across northern England. 

The central characters are two middle-aged people taking up the walk, one willingly, one kicking and screaming. Michael is a geography teacher trying (a little) to slough off the dullness that job implies, whilst Marnie is a copy editor who thinks she likes her solitary life and is “addicted to the buzz of the cancelled plan”. She has been set up, as part of a walking group, with a humourless pharmacist named Conrad, a man with a watch “the size of a pub ashtray”.

But as other members of the group drift away for narrative-forming reasons, Michael and Marnie are left together. They spark off one another pretty well — she is witty, he is, well, receptive — and we get stretches of dialogue which attest to Nicholls’ experience as a screenwriter. And the prose, too, is meticulously crafted, with a sentence-by-sentence care that matches any prose stylist you could name. With Nicholls the work is done often with an eye to absurdity, whether in descriptions — Marnie’s modest swimsuit is “a swimming costume you could wear to a funeral” — or characterisation: Marnie’s view that “the sooner we start, the sooner we finish” is, thinks Michael, “not the point of walking at all.”

This is both a love story and a book sold as a love story; the way it manages those expectations is akin to how M.R. James managed his ghost stories. There must be recognition of the form — there a solitary house, here a mismatched couple — but also disruption of the reader’s expectations. There is genuine antipathy in Marnie’s view of Michael during their unknowing courtship and surprises that run right to the end of the book.

As the story continues, we learn about the characters’ pasts — Michael and his “bit of a breakdown”, Marnie’s ex who was, bathetically, “the first man I ever saw eat sushi” — and see them undertake the hard work of replacing inertia with momentum. There is emotional directness that’s often absent from literary fiction and a skill in showing the knots our minds tie us in when we try to resist wanting what we really do. And all is delivered with a lightness of touch that is as hard to achieve as it is easy to read. You Are Here is where it’s at.

James, Percival Everett (Mantle, £20)

Percival Everett’s breakthrough (in the UK) novel The Trees was covered in this column when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2022. It was a very good book that made comedy from the darkest material — racist lynching — and took the view that satire and nonsense will bring the reader along for the ride more effectively than finger-wagging. Unfortunately Everett followed this with Dr No, a novel whose tincture of serious purpose was scarcely visible under its featherweight silliness.

But the thing about Everett is that it doesn’t matter if you don’t like one book, because there’ll be another one along in a minute. His new novel James is his fourth in five years and his 24th overall; it is one of his best. It takes up the well-established trope of telling an existing story from a different viewpoint. Everett’s conceit is to take the character of Jim, the slave in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and have him tell the story his own way.

From the title down, this is an immensely clever book: the title itself in one word establishes the dignity and ownership of himself that Jim — that is, James — demands. And the reviewer is freed from the necessity of plot summary because, for much of its length, James follows the story and characters of Huckleberry Finn: it’s just that we’re left with different characters on the page when others go offstage.

Or rather it’s not “just” anything. The premise — Huck and James escaping their respective predicaments by running off together down the Mississippi river — is supplemented by a different way of seeing and speaking. One running joke shows how the slaves speak in patois — “Why fo you be askin” me dat?” — only in the presence of their white masters, to simulate ignorance, because “the better they feel the safer we are”. The adult slaves teach their children “the correct incorrect grammar” whilst amongst themselves they discuss the finer details of proleptic irony versus dramatic irony.

Huck, although James’s friend, is as ignorant as the others about his abilities. He steals a pencil so James can write — “You can write? What else can you do? Can you fly?” — though the consequences of that theft ring through the book with a tragic end that emphasises this comic story’s serious underpinnings. The slaves, notes James, can be angry with one another, “but the real source of our rage had to go unaddressed, swallowed, repressed.” 

Like the original book, James is part-picaresque, part-quest. As is typical for Everett, it deals with race playfully as well as seriously, toying with tropes of racism (people want to touch James’ hair) and building to a long sequence where, in a group of minstrels, it’s not even clear to James exactly who is white in blackface and who is light-skinned black passing for white.

“Never had a situation felt so absurd, surreal and ridiculous,” concludes James. “And I had spent my life as a slave.” The entertainment makes this a more effective slave narrative than more solemn stories like Jesmyn Ward’s recent Let Us Descend. And Everett has plenty of traditional novelistic skills when it comes to driving a plot, facing the major characters off against one another, and explosive conclusions, so the pages turn with ease.

What really frightens the worst of the white masters in James is not that the slaves might turn on them, but that they can speak as they themselves do — and might therefore be equal in other respects too. “With my pencil,” says James, “I wrote myself into being” — via the good offices of Percival Everett. James may derive from another book, but it stands on its own merits. It is memorable. It is sticky. And that in itself guarantees it a long and healthy life. 

Butterfly of Dinard, Eugenio Montale (translated by Marla Moffa and Oonagh Stransky) (NYRB Classics, £15.99)

Much less prominent than these two novels but at least as good — and as funny — is Eugenio Montale’s Butterfly of Dinard, the first complete English translation of the great Italian poet’s sketches and stories. Set mostly in the 1930s and 40s, they work as a fictional autobiography in scattered scenes, full of the charm of pre-war Liguria and Florence, and the dark shadow of Fascism.

Each story is set up with impressive efficiency, establishing a contained world, such as the opener, “A Stranger’s Story”, where the narrator and his father bond over their amusement at seeing the same priest’s name (“Buganza!”) amongst the list of puzzle winners in the local newspaper each week. Yet this trivia provides not just a bond, but a tie that prevents change as the boy grows up — and the story, which can be read in ten minutes, is capped with a pleasing twist.

Elsewhere on “our infelicitous peninsula” we meet people obsessed with the busacca, a possibly imaginary bird of prey, an “uncatchable devil” which inspires a Wile E Coyote-style plan;a magazine editor looking for a “quintessentially feminine” short story (“We’re in Italy. The more quarrels the better”) and the narrator’s neighbour Mr Fuchs, a man who seems to acquire a new enemy every day.

The eccentrics, charmers and ne’er-do-wells that populate its pages are portrayed in consistently delightful, funny amuse-bouches which recall that other great Italian voice Italo Calvino — the easy-going Calvino, that is, of Marcovaldo rather than the knottier later work. And they contrast too with Montale’s own poetry, which is beautiful but often bordering on obscure. Butterfly of Dinard has empathy (“What makes you think I’m a poor devil?” “We all are,” ends one story), irony and joy amidst the darkness of its time. It is a perfect early-summer diversion.

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