Lambert Charles

Charles Lambert: The Scent of Cinnamon

We’re always being told how hard it is to sell books of short stories, so a hardback collection from a small publisher and a debut novelist must be some sort of gold standard of a tough sell – a challenge for the next series of The Apprentice. Salt Publishing, however, have two valuable tools at their disposal. The first is their system of virtual book tours, Cyclone, whereby authors make guest appearances at blogs to get online airtime for their books. The second is Charles Lambert, author of the excellent novel Little Monsters which I enjoyed earlier this year. His collection of stories, I felt, must be worth a look.

The Scent of Cinnamon opens with the title story, which is easily the most attention-grabbing in the book, right from the opening paragraph:

Dear Mrs Payne

I have been given your name by the Reverend Ware, vicar of the English community here. I am a blunt man, and I shall come straight to the point. Ware tells me that you have recently lost your husband and are without means. He has suggested to me that you may be interested in marriage with a man who can provide you with the security and affection you require. He has indicated to me that I may be such a man.

It also cries out for a high-concept single-sentence description, though it’s impossible to do so without spoiling it. Others have suggested that ‘The Scent of Cinnamon’ is the best in the book. I’m not so sure of that – it is terrific, though I think there are others which may be even better – but it does set the tone for a book full of dissatisfied relationships, varied settings, and occasional sinisterness.

It was this last quality that pleased me most about Lambert’s stories. The likes of ‘Girlie’ and ‘Beacon’ or the coda-like closer ‘The Growing’ have an otherworldly creepiness to them where the truth is revealed to the reader gradually and then suddenly. It would be no insult to consider these deeper and richer counterparts to the underrated adult stories of Roald Dahl (though, ironically, the most powerful tend to be narrated by children). Yet, as with ‘Moving the Needle Towards the Thread’ – an unsettling account of the worst holiday with a Donald since Don’t Look Now – what makes them excel is Lambert’s understanding of the darkness that exists within the human heart, the horror that comes from within rather than from above or below.

For this reason I was disappointed by the more garish ‘The Number Worm’, which seemed too arbitrary, while a story like ‘Air’ showed that even in a straight(ish) story of a relationship, Lambert knows what he’s doing. My overall concern, however, is a perverse one: like Alvy Singer’s women who thought the food was terrible and the portions too small, I liked nearly all of the stories in The Scent of Cinnamon but thought it too long. 300 pages is a lot of stories, like one of those CDs that has 16 tracks and lasts an hour and a quarter. This may be why I felt the book to be ‘front-loaded’: I may not have given the later stories the same attention as the early ones. But for anyone without a mad completion impulse, who can read a story here or there with calmness aforethought, The Scent of Cinnamon is a very interesting, and even exciting, collection.

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I am delighted to be part of Charles Lambert’s virtual tour for The Scent of Cinnamon. My Q&A session with him is as follows.

Several of the stories in The Scent of Cinnamon have either ‘twist’ endings or withhold information from the reader so that by the end, early events are seen in a new light. Is this a conscious policy, and does it reflect your own taste in stories?

The first short story I ever wrote – I must have been about thirteen – described the arrival of a group of rather seedy, provincial types in a draughty room above a shop. They’re there to conduct a séance of some kind with the aim of summoning a spirit. They go through the usual rigmarole, not really expecting anything to happen, when, to their horror, they hear footsteps on the stairs outside the room. Except that they aren’t footsteps. What they hear is the sound of cloven hooves on wood…

I mention this to show that, while other people were reading Hemingway and would soon be moving onto Carver and all those dirty realists, I was devouring the Pan anthologies of horror stories, Saki and Somerset Maugham. It was a feature, I think, of horror stories in those more innocent days that they saved their nastiness for the end – now they’re more likely to have gore from page one on – and Saki’s stories, which I still love, exist purely to provide a context for the final twist. These clearly had a lasting influence on me.

The next short story writer to blow me away was Kafka, but I’d more or less stopped writing prose fiction by that time (I was fifteen and a full-blown poet!). Obviously, this doesn’t mean that a piece like ‘In the Penal Colony’, with its wickedly gradual horror, didn’t stay with me and make a difference to how I write stories, and much else besides. And then, as I’ve said before, there was M.R. James…

I think that this kind of background – along with the fact that I’ve never studied creative writing in a formal sense – made me fairly immune to the influence of stories I started to read much later on, stories I now find, as a reader, far more rewarding – I’m thinking of people like Alice Munro (obviously) and Tobias Wolff and Lorrie Moore. Margaret Atwood, though, showed me a kind of writing that seemed to bring together the neatness of the stories I used to admire and the rawer more authentic sense of life being lived that the other writers have, and I’d recognise her as someone who’s affected the way I approach writing a story.

I think that some of the stories in the book occupy a kind of middle ground between these two approaches. ‘Moving the Needle Towards the Thread’, for example, certainly has a twist and, in many ways, looks like the decayed heir to a Maugham-like heritage, but it also has an ending that is, I think, ambiguous in a very un-Maugham-like fashion. Soap is another story that plays with, and then against, the reader’s original impressions, but I hope it’s a long way from the glibness that twist-in-the-tail implies.

Some of the strongest stories in the collection are written from the viewpoint of a child – as (in a way) was your novel Little Monsters. At their best, these are combined with unsettling and threatening elements, as in ‘Girlie’, ‘Beacons’ or ‘The Growing’. Why does this approach appeal to you?

What’s interesting about this question, John, is that I wasn’t aware that these three stories – and, as you say, Little Monsters – shared an approach at all. Talk about the unexamined life! It wasn’t until you mentioned it, that I thought, well, yes, of course. How fascinating! I was aware that ‘Beacons’ and ‘All Gone’ were both written from the viewpoint of the same rather anxious, thoughtful, Stephen-Spenderish little boy because, well, he’s basically me, or I’m him, with all the provisos and sleights of hand that story-telling involves. But I hadn’t thought about the other two having anything in common with each other or with anything else I’d written.

Looking at them now, as a group, it’s clear that one of the things I’m doing when I choose to use children as the channel through which the narrative is seen is what Henry James did with Maisie; I’m exploiting their clear-sightedness and innocence. Children see everything, but don’t necessarily understand any of it. Whether they’re protagonists or witnesses, they tend to be one step behind – or to one side of – the attentive adult reader, which sets up an interesting narrative gap through which the unsettling elements can squeeze. In ‘Girlie’, for example, the real story is about the dead twin and how the survivor compensates, but the little boy doesn’t know this and probably never will. In ‘The Growing’, I’d expect a reader to start wondering about the nature of the mask long before the girl makes her doomed attempt to see what lies beneath. And so on.

I’d also say that having no children myself means that I’ve never fully grown up. I’m at the age where many of my friends are wondering why hostile, sulky delinquents from outer space have occupied their teenage children’s bodies. And what do I do? Easy, I side with the kids. I remind their mothers and fathers of compromising photographs from their own pasts. Basically, I can’t grasp the crisis from the parent’s viewpoint, however hard I try. So children are not only, as I’ve just said, unreliable narrators; they may also, paradoxically, be the ones I relate to – and trust – most.

Later stories in the book foreground gay relationships. Did you deliberately withhold these from the first half, to avoid being labelled a ‘gay writer’ – and to what extent do you define your work like that anyway?

Yes, I did hold them back, and I think it’s partly, as you say, because I didn’t want to be labelled, although what was uppermost in my mind was, first, to open the collection with the story I thought most likely to appeal to the largest number of readers and, second, not to scare off people who’d only read Little Monsters by plunging them into scenes of explicit gay sex before they’d had a chance to find their feet. As I said a couple of weeks ago, though, when I visited Jim at Jockohomo, I am uncomfortable about the label ‘gay writer’ in a general sense, and certainly when it’s applied to myself. Apart from issues of marginalisation, which can affect writers as different and as respected as, say, Alan Hollinghurst and Edmund White, I think this discomfort has to do with a more intangible personal sense of not really wanting to belong. As a gay man in a long-term relationship, I’m keenly aware of the need to fight for equality and I’m more than happy to stand up and be counted, and so on, and my blog is sometimes, I think, almost unhealthily obsessed with the homophobic ramblings of Ratzinger et al. But at the same time I’ve never had an authentic sense of extended gay community that wasn’t induced by drugs, alcohol and hi-energy dance music, nor sought it, and the unhappiest holiday of my life was spent on Mykonos, feeling that I wasn’t really up to scratch. This is part of my general resistance to groups; I cringe if I’m presumed to belong to a putative ex-pat community, and I don’t have much sympathy with the idea of writers’ communities either. This doesn’t mean I don’t have gay friends (as they say), but, as a writer at least, I think I see my sexuality as a resource to be drawn on rather than as something that defines what I do.

Charles Lambert Interview

Charles Lambert’s debut novel Little Monsters was published earlier this month, and when I wrote about it on this blog it struck me with its assurance and aplomb, and seemed to me quite the best debut I’d read since Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl (with which it has some other passing similarities). I decided I would like to ask him a few questions about the book and his writing generally, and I am pleased that he agreed to do so. Charles Lambert was born in England and lives in Italy, and has a blog of his own here.

Charles Lambert, by Patrizia Casamiira

I’ve already unkindly referred to your age in my review of Little Monsters. Is writing something you’ve come to relatively late, or have you stacks of unpublished novels on your hard drive? And do you think it’s harder for a middle-aged novelist to get a break with publishers than younger ones?

I didn’t see it as unkind at all, which just goes to show how wonderfully mature I am.

I wrote my first sonnet at thirteen (about John Calvin!) and my first completed novel as a student, well before hard drives were invented. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, although I saw myself primarily as a poet until the early 1980s, when I realised that my audience had dwindled to single figures. Since then, I’ve written dozens of short stories and six and a half novels, the fifth being Little Monsters; I’ve also had three agents, my current one being the wonderful Isobel Dixon, and a depressing (or – with hindsight – encouraging) number of very near misses.

As far as breaks with publishers go, I can only say that I was rejected, frequently, in my thirties and accepted, finally, in my fifties; I’m not sure what kind of general rule, if any, might be extrapolated from this. I’m certainly aware that age, like race and beauty and celebrity, can play its role in the purchase of a manuscript, but – perhaps naively – feel that a good book will find its editor on its own strengths. I probably wouldn’t feel this, of course, if Picador hadn’t made an offer. I would probably be bitter and have needles and a wax effigy of Wayne Rooney beside my bed.

Where did the first impulse for Little Monsters come from, and how much work was involved in getting it to its finished structure and shape?

The original impulse was the opening sentence, which came to me in bed one night and was scribbled down on my notepad (beside the Wayne Rooney effigy I don’t have. Honestly). The real work began the following day. I normally have some notion of a theme, or central idea, when I start to write, however often this might be thrown out as the work progresses; but this wasn’t the case with Little Monsters. It wasn’t until I’d written the first few chapters, though, and had some notion of who my narrating voice, Carol, really was (I hadn’t even realised to begin with that she was a woman) that the novel took off.

When I’d finished I had around 130,000 words, three distinct time threads and a decidedly top-heavy structure, back-stories, the lot. This was whittled down in an increasingly ruthless, and ultimately pleasurable, way and an awful lot of credit for the final draft goes to my editor at Picador, Sam Humphreys, whose suggestions were always pertinent, always tactful, and almost always right.

[Charles Lambert has written more about why he wrote Little Monsters on the Picador blog here.]

Aunt Margot in the novel is a great literary monster in her own way. Was it more enjoyable to write her than some of the more agreeable characters?

I certainly enjoyed it, and more than once had to stop myself from making her even more appalling than she is, though I also wanted a sense to break through every now and again that she wasn’t all bad – or that her behaviour was, at least partly, justified. But I have to say, rather cheesily, that I enjoyed writing all the characters, without exception; I hope that no one, in other words, is simply there for the exigencies of plot.

It’s actually far easier to portray monsters than saints, and getting Jozef, who is saintly in many ways, to ring true was also both a challenge and a joy. Even Nicholas, who wasn’t originally intended to be a major player at all, gave me great pleasure as his sorry tale unfolded.

Little Monsters

Without going into details, Carol’s relationship with Uncle Jozef is one of the remarkable features of Little Monsters, but we’re left to fill in the gaps ourselves. Is it difficult as a novelist to get the balance right of how much to tell the reader, and how much to leave out?

Well, the short answer is yes. As I’ve said, the earlier drafts of the novel were far longer and much of what’s been excised had to do with the relationship between Carol and Jozef. I think it was good for me to work all that out and write it all down, because the fact that I knew what had been going on meant that I could avoid anachronisms in terms of both character and plot, but I wasn’t finally convinced that the reader needed it; it slowed the whole narrative down, whatever its local interest. I also came to like the idea that the emotional diffidence of the two main characters – the separate product of their separate pasts – should be reflected by the gaps you mention, as though, like so much else, what had actually united them couldn’t be expressed. One of the books that played strongly into the writing of Little Monsters was The Good Listener, by Neil Belton, which talks, among other things, about the way trauma generates a sort of emotional autism, a gap in the narrative of the life.

And that’s the longer answer.

The book is set in England, in the past, and Italy, in the present – a reflection of your own life. Do you feel part of either literary tradition, both, or neither? Is there a sense of detachment when your novel is published in the UK and you’ve made your home elsewhere?

I absolutely feel part of an English language tradition, though not necessarily a mainstream one. This is partly a question of maintaining balance; I spend so much time in Italian, at work and in my private life, that my serious reading, particularly fiction, is almost entirely of English. I’m slightly ashamed of this, and make an effort to read Italian fiction every now and again, but I always feel – and I’m slightly ashamed of this as well – that I’m wasting valuable time I could spend on, say, Cormac McCarthy or Sybille Bedford. Objectively, and despite the recent success at home and elsewhere of writers like Ammaniti and Vinci, I’m not sure that Italian fiction is particularly florid at the moment; it’s certainly true that the Italian cultural scene, perhaps knee-jerkingly, worships McEwan and Auster and McGrath far more than it does any home-grown talent.

Having said this, I do read a lot of European writers in translation – both English and Italian – and novelists like, say, Marias, Saramago, Perec and Bernhard have had far more influence on me – in terms of showing me what fiction can do – than many English writers. It’s also true that the net, as you well know, blurs national barriers to the point of virtual obliteration, so I don’t feel that far away from anywhere, including the UK, where I continue, in any case, to spend a fair amount of time.

The corollary of all this is that the last thing I feel is detached. I feel desperately, twitchingly involved! But I also look forward very much to selling the Italian rights so that all my Italian friends, and primarily my partner, can read what I do. Take note, Feltrinelli!

The modern day sections of the book address the very topical issue (in Britain at least) of distrust of refugees or immigrants: though that might also be regarded as a universal, all-time issue. Was this something you consciously wanted to write about, or did it arise from the characters and story?

It was there as a central interest by the first chapter, even though the novel addresses the topic more obliquely in the section set in Britain in the 60s, so I’d answer yes to both questions. All three main characters are deprived of their homes and cultural contexts in one way or another and the main concern of the novel, finally, is to see what they do with this, how they react to a displacement that denies them much of what they are. The first version (and title) of the novel cited a line from one of the history plays: “We have the receipt of fern seed/We walk invisible”, and the idea of invisibility as both a secure place and a self-negating place was greatly in my mind as I wrote. I also wanted to contrast the Daily Mail attitude of scrounging foreigners with something more ambiguous, nuanced and, I hope, generous. One of the better aspects of life (and much of the media) in Italy is the widespread conviction that the people who arrive here as refugees are deserving of pity, although this doesn’t necessarily extend to offers of material assistance.

Loving Monsters

Finally the Desert Island Books question. If you could press copies of a favourite neglected book on every reader of this blog, which would it be and why?

Two books. The first is Loving Monsters by James Hamilton-Paterson, to my mind a writer who knocks many far more visible prize-winning novelists into a series of cocked hats. Quite apart from its title’s subliminal – and entirely unintentional – reference to my own novel, the book is thoughtful, playful, intriguing, beautifully written and even better than his shamefully out of print collection of stories, The View from Mount Dog. If you’ve only read his last two novels, seek these out. Take note, Faber!

The second is The White Bone, by Barbara Gowdy. Gowdy’s notorious for penetrating unlikely skins (necrophiliacs, deformed children, Siamese twins, etc.), but this time she manages to inhabit, and make utterly real, three generations of elephants. It’s a wonderful book, and needs to be read.

Charles Lambert: Little Monsters

Apologies to anyone who has spotted that some recent posts here have been about books not yet released. I’ve been lucky to pick up advance copies of a few titles, and if – surely we are agreed – a newly acquired book is much more enticing as a potential read than an old book, then a book which is so new it hasn’t even been published yet, must have double enticement, enticement squared. Anyway, I hope any frustration about not being able to buy these titles yet will be outweighed by the interest piqued in treats to come. I have only a couple left anyway, so normal service will be resumed. Plus, if I waited the month or so till publication before writing about them, I’d be scratching my head trying to remember what they were about again.

Little Monsters

Charles Lambert’s Little Monsters is a first novel which is more than just a ‘promising debut’; it breaks through promise and into solid achievement. Admittedly the author is not your traditional debutante, and when a new kid on the block is not a kick in the arse off Paul Torday’s late-starter age, we might expect good things. I was not disappointed. The book rings with an impressive assurance, and the aplomb with which Lambert handles his explicit themes put me in mind of Peter Ho Davies’s The Welsh Girl, one of my favourites of last year. It’s a traditional novel but knotty enough for modern sensibilities; and like Davies’s novel, it takes a girl as its central character and creates an affecting parable of belonging and escape.

Carol opens her story with an attention-grabbing line:

When I was thirteen, my father killed my mother.

and if that seems a touch showy, then be warned that Lambert does at times prefer to depict clearly what the reader might prefer to work out for themselves. Within these limitations, however, the characters are strongly drawn and smoothly defined. Carol goes to stay with her aunt Margot, who appears not to have felt any particular loss, to say the least, with the murder of her sister (“your mother was a whore”). She has a son, Nicholas, who is not much more welcoming than Margot is, and then there is Uncle Joey, who is not aunt Margot’s partner or lover but a Polish refugee called Jozef. They run a pub:

None of us had a home. We lived and ate and slept around the borders of a public space that influenced everything we did; our lives were peripheral to its needs, its hours. It always puzzles me to read about pubs or hotels with a family atmosphere. How do they manage it? What do they know what we didn’t? What we had was the opposite: a family with the atmosphere of a pub.

All this is being recalled in retrospect by Carol: now, fortysomething years later, she has made a life with Jozef, who is twenty years her senior. The frisson this knowledge gives us – what happened there exactly? – adds greatly to the atmosphere of darkness under the surface of the story. In the present day, Carol and Jozef are living in Italy and become involved with an Albanian refugee girl called Kakuna: her sullen violence seems to Carol a cry for help, she remembers her own difficulty in fitting in, and so the parallels between past and present are established.

This neatness and completeness is something which runs through Little Monsters: the title is echoed in several aspects, the themes of flight and family secrets, bullying and belonging, precisely set out on the page. Secondary characters like Carol’s schoolfriend Patricia are well drawn, and there are dramatic endings to both concurrent storylines. Only a last-page revelation by Jozef seemed to upset this, and to leave much more to be said. By then, however, I was satisfied, and looking forward to what Lambert does next. Just don’t wait another 54 years for us to find out, Mr L.