Fiction & Biography
After a series of frustrating experiences, RON BUTLIN was on the brink of never
writing another novel. But he tells Tim Abrahams that gritty resilience and a certain fellow Edinburgh scribe led to him imagining Mozart as a private investigator.
be last good thing that Irvine Welsh wrote was
an article in '/‘/I(' i'il/(lgr' Vuir't’. About two
years ago. he was asked to natnc a lost classic. His choice was The Sound oft/y l'oit't' by Ron Butlin. and he described it as one of the greatest pieces of fiction to come out of Britain in the l‘)t\’()s. ‘I anticipate that The Sound o/‘My l’oit't' will receive the recognition it deserves as a major novel.‘ the big man wrote. Although this event has yet to occur. Welsh‘s missive had a tnore important effect: it stopped an excellent writer who had been badly neglected from jacking in the whole novel writing game. Welsh interceded and a story that could have been a tragedy is now comic. White-haired. avuncular Butlin perches on a bar stool and chuckles at his own misfortune.
“l’lie Sound oft/y l’oit't' was ptit out in l‘)87 by ('anongate in the days before Jamie Byng took over. There was no marketing back then: actually there was negative marketing. I'd done a collection of stories with them and at one point. the Arts (‘ouncil had read the book and thought it was really good. They had to write to (‘anongate three times before they could get them to submit it for a book award. It was that desperate.’ Nor did it end there. While Butlin‘s poetry has been continually applauded and has had what passes for large print runs in verse. his novels have been bagged and bunged in the canal before they ever had a chance to scamper free.
Butlin describes the host of ways in which his
novels have been neglected. Night Visits. a novel of
death. sin and metaphysical depth set in an old people's borne in Iidinl‘iurgh. was rejected by several
98 THE LIST 2’31 .lai" 1’. .J:. 1".",‘-
‘THE PUBLISHERS WOULDN'T SEND our REVIEW COPIES BECAUSE THEY DIDN'T WANT TO WASTE MONEY ON THE POSTAGE'
publishers as being ‘too short‘. liventually. he got himself a deal. albeit a raw one. "l‘he publishers were appalling.’ he recalls. "I‘hey didn't send out review copies because they didn’t want to waste money on the postage.’ By then Welsh » who Butlin has only
jttst met -- had made his titnely remarks in the New
York publication but even then. his books were only sold in Scotland. He can laugh about it now but at the time it was clearly not very funny at all. ‘I actually decided I was going to give up on fiction altogether
and just concentrate on poetry: instead I fottnd tnyself
doing these stories.‘
These stories are the ones collected in his latest book. Vim/(Ii and the Number .i’. Less of a departure. more of a mass emigration. Butlin says that they were written ‘to cheer himself up'. In each talc. one of the great composers or philosophers is cut loose in time and space. Vivaldi walks through a contemporary battlefield. .‘VIahler‘s wife is trapped in a series of boxes. The tone seems flippant at first. bttt then as Mozart tries his hand at becoming a private eye. a sad. impenetrable logic takes over. Some people will find it all too much and hanker for the mythical microcosms of his lirst two novels.
Butlin says the effect of the stories was not intended to be cumulative: "I‘hey just came out that.’ And the sense of progression one senses through the stories‘.’ '1 just put the composers in alphabetical order.’ He is at a loss to explain their provenance stylistically but knows where they come frotn emotionally. ‘1 will always be very grateful to Irvine Welsh.‘ he adds by way of concluding a particularly tumultuous chapter.
Vivaldi and the Number 3 is published on Thu 1 Jul by Serpent’s Tail.
Debutants under the microscope. This issue Neil Bennun.
Who he? A young writer from Devon, he took a somewhat circuitous route to the pen and publishing house. Before embarking on a literary career. Bennun studied at the London Academy for Music and Drama, eventually becoming a BAFfA-nominated screenwriter. He lives and works between London and South Africa. where his parents have returned from exile.
His debut Broken String: The Last Words of an Extinct People tells the story of the ancient San ‘Bushmen' of South Africa, all but wiped out following the arrival of European colonists. Little would be known about this sophisticated people. their beliefs, language and customs were it not for the remarkable 12.000-page historical record put together by William Bleek and his sister-in-Iaw Lucy Lloyd in collaboration with six Bushmen who had been released from hard labour into the Prussian linguist‘s home. The verdict Furiously researched and stuffed solid with references to ancient rock art, myths. legends and examples of the extinct San language, Bennun's dense text can be heavy going. Yet. his passion for South Africa and for his subject is undeniable and he relates the attempt to preserve elements of this culture with an infectious sympathy That title It comes from a song Bennun found in an anthology of Southern African poetry. “Someone broke the string -- this happened here/Someone broke the string -- now the world will not ring like it did.“
First line test ‘At the confluence of the Senqu and the Qaqa in the highlands of Lesotho. two valleys meet to cancel each other in a broad. gravely flat where herders bring their cattle to drink in the summer.‘ (Allan Radcliffe)
I Broken String: The Last Words of an Extinct People is out now published by Viking.
Here comes your San