Darragh McKeon’s literary studies: a look at where he and his Russian heroes wrote

‘I’m fascinated by writers’ rooms. I’ve always considered them to be places where a certain kind of alchemy occurs’

Mon, Jun 23, 2014, 13:11

It was early summer when I moved into the room in which I became a writer, a high ceilinged warehouse space in an industrial park in north London. The long, narrow building was owned by a family of Hasidic Jews. After they’d partitioned each unit with hastily constructed breeze-block walls, their only other concession to luxury was to install a sink, a radiator and a cramped bathroom.

The basic conditions and cheap rent mostly attracted artists – a troupe of acrobats, photographers, a drag queen, a sculptor, a DJ – but not exclusively so. Next door was a surly Glaswegian paparazzo; on the ground floor, a Polish brothel set up for a few months; in an adjacent building a Chinese sweatshop worked through the night. I arrived on a bright day in May, dragging two suitcases. I closed my door, and settled down to write.

I’m fascinated by writers’ rooms. I’ve always considered them to be places where a certain kind of alchemy occurs. Step inside a painter’s or sculptor’s studio and you can observe the progress of a work in development: a canvas about to burst into colour or a roughly hewn clay model that will someday acquire a smooth, graceful form. But each writer’s room is as quietly contained as a frozen lake; everything happens slowly, under the surface.

When Virginia Woolf famously writes “it is necessary to have a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry,” she offers her statement as a snippet of practical advice, but also as a declaration of identity. Jane Austen, Woolf reminds us, was glad that the hinge creaked on her living room door so that she would have time to hide her discreditable manuscript Pride and Prejudice before anyone entered.

My breeze-block room had south-facing windows made from frosted glass and set into an arch of Victorian brickwork. They hinged open only by a couple of inches, making it practically impossible to see outside, but lit the room in a shimmering white glaze. They served to accentuate the feeling of living in a cocoon, transforming myself into something previously beyond my capabilities.

I was 29 when I stepped through the door. Four years beforehand I started researching and writing my debut novel, All That is Solid Melts Into Air. Of course, debut novel is a term that comes only with recognition and acceptance, an implication that there is more to come. All I had by then were a few drafts of uneven prose, copious amounts of notes and a laptop that took 10 minutes to crank itself into action every morning.

My novel began from an impulse to read about the lives of some children from Chernobyl that I had encountered as a teenager in Ireland. Quickly it expanded into a fascination regarding the fall of the Soviet Union. Almost by accident I found myself writing a large end-of-empire novel about a place I couldn’t afford to travel to; had little knowledge of; had no connection with; whose language I couldn’t speak and which was so politically repressive that few unofficial photographs existed from the era I was writing about. Even four years into my work I could only bring myself to mention my novel to a handful of people, I couldn’t face the litany of feeble answers I’d be obliged to give in response to the inevitable questions.

But working in calm isolation, I understood that a writer’s room as Woolf describes it, is not merely a physical space, it is an imaginative state that reclaims a freedom for the mind, a sanctuary where thought and expression are impervious to external pressures. Jane Austen, while battling against social mores of a rectory’s living room became an expert interpreter of social behavior. The writing makes a writer, the room does not.

Moscow surely has one of the world’s highest concentrations of literary-genius real estate. Though they didn’t all live there at the same time, Gorky, Gogol, Pushkin, Bulgakov and Chekhov all had apartments within a short walk of each other.

Stepping out of my industrial lodgings and finally arriving in the place of my imaginings, I stood in the rooms of several giants of Russian literature and saw how each negotiated the terrain between circumstance and subject matter.

Gorky’s house in the Arbat district is a dazzling confection of art nouveau swirls and undulating surfaces. Stepping into his lobby, you’re confronted by an imposing stairway made from white marble that has been so beautifully contorted it could easily be mistaken for melted wax. Stalin, on inviting Gorky back from exile, created this palatial home for the great chronicler of peasant life. Yet Gorky’s diligence was so steadfast that he remained unaffected by all the ostentation, he simply cleared a bare space to suit his sensibilities. His bedroom, tucked away at the back of the house, is fit for a monk. A plain wooden bed takes up most of the cramped space. Above it is a corner shelf upon which he stacked novels from younger writers who sought his support.

Chekhov’s “Red House” displays all the generosity of spirit and succinct clarity that underpins his prose. His small hallway runs directly into his beguilingly neat doctor’s surgery. Chekhov’s desk faces the wall, soaked in sunlight. From here he embraced both of his callings: medical and artistic. For Chekhov, at that point in his life, one complemented the other. Standing in the room, it’s easy to imagine a patient arriving and laying out all their foibles to the affable doctor while he recorded them in his notebook, in language as clear and precise as a case file.

Bulgakov placed his communal home directly at the centre of The Master and Margarita, naming it “The Evil Apartment”. A dark, winding corridor hides a multitude of doorways where families – unconnected by anything other than location – were squeezed together in conditions that inevitably brought great psychological strain. Working on a politically provocative text directly under the gaze of suspicious eyes, the constant fraying of Bulgakov’s nerves surely contributed to him throwing an early manuscript into his stove. And yet he began again, continuing his dangerous work without hope of recognition. “Manuscripts don’t burn,” he writes in the finished book.

“And writers write,” he could have added, “whatever their circumstances.”

Darragh McKeon’s debut novel, All That is Solid Melts Into Air, is published by Penguin at €14.99. He has worked as a director with theatre companies such as Rough Magic in Dublin, the Royal Court and Young Vic in London and Steppenwolf in Chicago. He lives in New York.

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