Burnside John

John Burnside: A Summer of Drowning

Reading two books by one author in the same year is rare for me, but how many authors present so many different forms to us as John Burnside? A poet, novelist and memoirist, his acclaim in all three areas would be sickening if it weren’t so thrilling. As noted previously, I had given up on his fiction after the diminishing returns of his first three novels, but his first memoir A Lie About My Father had me agog a few months ago, and keen to read his recent stuff. The impulse was supported when I read that Burnside himself now regards the second and third novels which lost me as “disastrous”. Time to come right up to date then, with his latest.

A Summer of Drowning suffers, in my view, from a troublesome (hardback) cover. (The printed version is much darker than the image above.) Even as an interested party, I saw it and thought, what were they thinking? As it happens, my scepticism was unjustified: the cover shows the painting Fisherman’s Cottage by Harald Sohlberg, which is significant in the story. Indeed, as I became more and more delighted and disturbed by this exceptional novel, I took to contemplating the cover in wonder in between bursts of reading. But a cover which attracts only after the reader has begun the book could still look like an own goal.

It is narrated by Liv, a twenty-eight year old woman who lives with her mother on Kvaløya, a small island in the Arctic Circle. Liv tells us how ten years ago a local boy, Mats Sigfridsson, drowned off the island: “I like to think that the sea took pity on the puny child it had killed, and was in the process of carrying him home.” Not only that, Mats’ brother Harald died the same way ten days later, and a visitor to the island, Martin Crosbie, went missing shortly afterwards. Normally it would be blogging etiquette to emphasise that this is not a spoiler, and here you may be doubly reassured: not only does Liv tell us all this in the prologue, but the book doesn’t really go into much detail about the events when the narrative does catch up with them. This is one of those tricky volumes where the first task of the reader is to determine exactly what it’s about.

It’s about, at least in part, Liv and her mother, Angelika Rossdal. She is a painter who, having gained fame, appears to reject it by withdrawing to the frozen north. I say appears to because she continues to welcome journalists who want to interview her, and to hold court for a group of men Liv refers to as “the suitors” and whose interest, whatever form it in fact takes, her mother clearly finds satisfying. (Liv never knew her father, though she discovers that he was her mother’s opposite: a campaigner and ideologue who wanted to change the world by engaging people with it.) Liv has been in her mother’s shadow for so long that it is hard to tell who the thoughts belong to when she says something like this, concerning her mother’s withdrawal:

To turn away from the busy world is interesting, up to a point … but to refuse oneself is exemplary. To become nothing, to remove yourself from the frame – that is the highest form of art.

She is not just talking about an artist’s work. Mats and Harald Sigfridsson, in drowning, may have removed themselves from the frame, and become nothing. Liv herself, solitary and unclubbable, has refused herself in relation to many aspects of society in the ten years since the boys died. “I chose to become invisible. … I have remained in these meadows, where I have always been, and I have done nothing at all.” Her only significant human contact is Kyrre Opdahl, a man who has lived in the area for as long as anyone can remember, and who “was my own personal storyteller, someone who charmed and frightened me, in more or less equal measure, all the time I was growing up.” Kyrre rents out a cottage, or hytte, to tourists each summer, and tells Liv about the huldra, a wild spirit who takes the form of a beautiful girl and lures men to their doom. (“First she brought him a little happiness, then she killed him.”)

Liv’s mother has a great gift in her painting, which means that her lack of interest in people is accepted, even viewed as selfless: she had to remove herself from society to fulfil her potential. The reader may not be so convinced. The myth of Narcissus is related in the book, and referred to in an epigraph. It’s typically remembered as a simple warning against self-regard, but Liv is reminded by one of her mother’s suitors, Ryvold, that it goes deeper. Narcissus didn’t know to begin with that it was himself was seeing in the pool.

He had thought he was alone, looking at a world separate from him, a world of other things, and then, all of a sudden, he sees that he is in that world. […] And it’s only when he discovers the truth, and sees that his self is an object in a world, like all the other objects, that he becomes a painter. Because, for the first time, he is part of the world, and art is his way of confirming that. A way of saying that he is in the world, in the world and of it.

Angela Rossdal’s self-denial, her “gift for refusal,” is not so humble as it seems. And she has not prepared her daughter well for living in the world by allowing her to believe herself not to be a part of it. (One might say that this story of erasure is just one psychological drama after another.) Where Angela’s fame and talent get her far, Liv has no such collateral with the islanders to justify her own isolation. What must they think of her? That appears to be something else the book is about, though I wasn’t entirely satisfied by this aspect. From the start we get hints of Liv as being somewhat unusual, unreliable even (“I have very few memories that I would be prepared to call my own”) and as the story proceeds, the clues build up. She spies on Kyrre Opdahl’s guests in the hytte: “It was because I wanted them to be happy”. This may be her best attempt at matching her mother’s careful negotiation of observation and distance. She becomes obsessed with the notion that the demonic huldra is a local girl called Maia (the only other female we meet on Kvaløya: Liv and her mother are surrounded by men). Burnside wants the book to be ambiguous – “The Turn of the Screw, set in the Arctic Circle” – but it already is, and is also rich and sinister, even without making Liv such an obvious object of suspicion for the reader.

The thrill of A Summer of Drowning comes from being in the presence of a writer on form and attacking his subject from all angles. (The style of the book, like an oral telling, makes the reader’s awareness of the teller – whether Liv or Burnside – central.) A sense of excitement began to stalk me from around the halfway point, a suspicion of horror internalised and unacknowledgeable, perhaps even coming from the reader himself. It was connected to Liv’s inability to be in the world and to accept the others who exist in it: she dreams of “some inconceivable Before,” when people did not yet exist. “I regret that lost state.” To bring about this sort of engagement with a book – hard to put your finger on but impossible to stop thinking about, even when you’re not reading it – is a rare achievement. Liv, in a sense, is the most frightening character I’ve read in a book in years. When she speaks of another character’s “immense, dark calm” and how, after an awful event, “she had started to relax – but she was relaxing into something terrible, and she was going about the world in a state of complete indifference to whatever might come,” it’s ominously clear what she’s really talking about. “Stories are really about time,” Ryvold tells her. “They tell us that once, in a place that existed before we were born, something occurred – and we like to hear about that, because we know already that the story is over.”

John Burnside: A Lie About My Father

When I became a dad two years ago, in my usual way of interpreting existence through literature, I had the urge to read books about fatherhood. I had already done Philip Roth’s superb Patrimony, and stocked up on titles such as Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude and this, John Burnside’s first memoir (he has since published a sequel, Waking Up in Toytown). Burnside has been a busy literary practitioner anyway, with eleven collections of poetry and half a dozen novels in just over 20 years. Although I enjoyed his debut novel The Dumb House (“No one could say it was my choice to kill the twins,” it brashly begins), I found his next The Mercy Boys to be grim and depressing without providing much balancing literary thrill, and his third The Locust Room to be mostly dull (an achievement for a book about the Cambridge Rapist). For that reason I stopped reading him, until the clamour of praise for his more recent stuff became too insistent to ignore.

A Lie About My Father (2006) has the cover appearance almost of a misery memoir (an impression not aided by the additional blurb between title and author on my copy: A moving, unforgettable memoir of two lost men: a father and his child). What saves it is that title: odd, rhythmic – a marker of the author as a poet – perhaps like a hardened version of John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father. Misery memoirs, by contrast, have a sometimes comical aspect to them. Their lurid titles, like those of TV shows in the age of on-screen guides, must grab and describe immediately. Ma, He Sold Me For a Few Cigarettes. God’s Lapdancer. Daddy’s Tomato Ketchup. Burnside’s title, by contrast, has multiple meanings. The book begins with him travelling in America and picking up garrulous hitchhiker, Mike, who talks about his father, Martin, and then asks about Burnside’s. Burnside reflects on all he could have said, and for three pages gives us what turns out to be the most sustained depiction in the book of his father’s conduct. “I could have added that, before my father died, I hadn’t seen him in years, but I hadn’t been able to relax, quite, as long as he was still alive.”

Finally, however, and with some misgivings, I abandoned that idea and, as Mike wanted me to do, not just because his head was full of beautiful, simple scripts, but also because he was a certain kind of son, and because Martin was a certain kind of man, I told him a lie about my father.

What Burnside does next is unexpected. Rather than wade through more details of his father’s shortcomings, he softens the reader toward him by explaining his father’s early life. “He really was a nobody: a foundling, a throwaway,” abandoned by his biological mother as a young baby and taken in by – well, that was the problem. Not only did Burnside’s father not know who his ‘real’ parents were, he didn’t even know who had taken care of him at first. He “wasn’t chosen so much as passed on.” He had “no history he could talk about with others. Nobody reminisced with him about the old days.” No wonder then that he turned out as he did, and no wonder that his account of his origins, told in later life, varied depending on the occasion: “all that mattered was that he was somebody’s son.” The reader might think that the least he could do when he had children of his own was not to pass on his own dread, uncertainty and sense of loss. To do so would have required a strength of character that was, perhaps inevitably, beyond him.

Nonetheless, Burnside is kind to his father at this stage. “Nobody I have ever known was there to witness his abandonment, so I can imagine it as I like.” A cold day, “wet and windy, the blanket sodden”? No: “my father wouldn’t have liked that image.” Instead, “what I choose to imagine is a summer’s morning.” In this smallest act of kindness, creating an infinitesimally better start in life, Burnside might also be wondering how his father might have changed, and how his family’s life been improved, with such seemingly unimportant alterations to its beginning. And if we needed any reminder that man hands on misery to man, it is in Burnside’s reflections when he looks at his parents’ wedding photographs (“Did they really not have the least inkling of what was to come?”).

Every time I see a wedding, I wonder what the bride and groom expect from it all, and why none of the others there, the old ones, the long-married, do not step up and warn them about the enterprise.

The reader expecting vivid tales of violence and sexual abuse will (thankfully) be disappointed. Burnside’s father’s speciality was psychological abuse, “persistently eating away at my confidence, questioning my right even to occupy space in his world.” But the nagging had a perverse good intention to it. “What he wanted was to warn me against hope, against any expectation of someone from my background being treated as a human being in the big hard world. He wanted to kill off my finer – and so, weaker – self. Art. Music. Books. Imagination. Signs of weakness, all. A man was defined, in my father’s circles, by what he could bear, the pain he could shrug off, the warmth or comfort he could deny himself.”

Burnside’s father was a drinker (not to him and his ilk, felt Burnside, a pleasure or a vice, but “an act of self-abnegation”) and a gambler. He was “irrational,” and kept his family under a passive-aggressive control. His petty acts of vindictiveness continue to haunt Burnside’s dreams, forty years on. He was a product too of his time and place, “99 per cent act,” veiling his emotions so thoroughly that he himself no longer knew they were there, and “like most of the other men I encountered, seemed to like nothing at all.” Burnside’s mother was frustrated, thinking of a better life, but loyal and with a Scottish Catholic’s mid-20th century aversion to divorce. Ultimately, Burnside in his teens turned to LSD and other drugs, deciding not to fit in to a society that offered him nothing.

A Lie About My Father is like a closely argued essay, where the narrative moves unnoticeably from one subject to the next. It could be mistaken for one of those books which consists of one long sentence; or one long exhalation. When Burnside is at his most self-critical, we see a second meaning for the book’s title. He spends pages analysing and explaining his father. “I’m sure my father felt these things – but these are my words, and this is the real lie about my father. I cannot talk about him without talking about myself, just as I can never look at myself in the mirror without seeing his face.” Of course, Burnside does talk directly about himself too, at greater and greater length as the book goes on (“What a great pleasure it is to be lost“), and some of the scenes, had he known then that he would write a sequel, might have been better off there.

Near the beginning of the book, one of the things Burnside contemplates saying to hitcher Mike is “that I’d come to believe that, when a man becomes a father, he is – or he ought to be – transformed into something other than the man he had been until that moment. Every life is a more or less secret narrative, but when a man becomes a father, the story is lived, not for, but in the constant awareness of another, or others.” The problem for Burnside’s father was a failure to be transformed. “He was only really happy when he was alone.” The raw material with which he had to work was not well suited to happiness, or its propagation in others (“Happiness is hard work”), but he tried anyway, doomed as the effort was. What he created, apart from good raw material for his son’s literary work (and now I know where the depressing milieu of The Mercy Boys came from) was a murky whirlpool of hope, boredom, and fear – you know, all that traditional family stuff.