'My novel is made mostly out of lines from other works'
Jeremy Gavron’s novel Felix Culpa is made up of lines from his favourite books, a unique approach but the words ‘experimental novelist’ make him shudder, he insists
Jeremy Gavron: it was like making a new jigsaw puzzle out of pieces from a hundred other jigsaw puzzles. Photograph: David Katz Nelson
I didn’t set out to be an experimental novelist – and in fact that term makes me shudder slightly. It conjures images of an eccentric Frenchman disappearing down a cul de sac of his own making. I prefer to think of myself as a storyteller. We humans are narrative creatures. We tell stories to understand ourselves, to represent and illuminate the world around us and our place in it.
Only it seems to me that part of the meaning of stories – the reason we tell stories rather than simply write what we want to say in an essay – comes from the form, the way the story is told, as well as the content. And if that is true, then the conventional novel, a form hardly changed since Jane Austen and Balzac, is a rather old-fashioned way of exploring our rapidly changing modern world.
I read recently that each one of us is exposed in a single day to as much information as Shakespeare was in a lifetime. Even if that’s an exaggeration it’s something to think about. We work hard, with our narrative instinct, to make coherent stories out of our lives. But with every passing year our experience is more fragmented, more variegated; is richer, more exciting, more confusing.
When I sit down to write a novel I don’t have “experimental” in mind. But I try to be open to where the story I am telling wants to go, to how it might best, most truthfully, be expressed. When I set out on my latest novel, the story of a young man who falls through the cracks of society, of a writer who sets out to investigate the young man’s life and mysterious death, I had in mind a form like a modern fable or fairy tale. But I couldn’t make it work that way and it was only when the narrative began to break up that it came to life.
Something else also happened. The novel opens with a writer working in a prison, as I once did myself. I was trying to catch the experience of days spent talking to men who had, or so it seemed to me, lost the plot, the thread, of their own lives. As I did so a line from The Great Gatsby came into my mind: “Privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.” I wrote it down and liked how it looked.
Of their own accord
As I wrote on, other lines appeared almost of their own accord on the page in front of me. “And then there came both mist and snow and it grew wondrous cold,” from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. “Losing himself among unknown streets and hardly bothering in which direction he was going,” from Nineteen Eighty-Four. I liked the way these fitted into my own story. Liked the resonance they provided. Enjoyed also the challenge of making them cohere, both in meaning and language, with the lines I wrote myself.
Some lines I had to look up to check I had them right. Almost every time I did so, I realised, I was reaching for the shelves where I keep my favourite books – the ones that have shaped me as a writer, that I am always returning to. I became conscious of how the story I was writing was shaped by my own experiences, but also by these books, many of which were, as my novel was, about outsiders, journeys, searches. My story told of an actual journey, but it was also a journey around my bookshelves, across my own literary landscape.
I began re-reading these books with a red pen in my hand. It was thrilling to engage with these old favourites in a new way, to converse with them so actively. I found lines which said what I wanted to say, only in different ways. I found lines that said something I hadn’t thought of – that suggested new ways of thinking about my story, my characters, or new storylines. I found lines that were about one thing and used them for something else – a line about an animal that I used to describe a person, for example, or vice versa.
It was thrilling too to piece the novel together. The story starts mostly in my own voice, with my own lines, but as it goes on the borrowed lines take over – more than four-fifths of the lines are taken from what turned out by chance (honestly!) to be exactly 100 works of literature, including all of the last nine chapters.
There were technical challenges. The best way I can explain the process was that it was like making a new jigsaw puzzle out of pieces from a hundred other jigsaw puzzles. I made a rule early on that I couldn’t edit the lines I was using – that they would be word for word how they appeared in the original (though I did break this in a handful of cases where I changed a word or two) – but I could obviously pare them back and front, and also change the punctuation.
A single narrative voice
A major challenge was to make all these different voices, prose, poetry, modern, ancient, cohere into a single narrative voice. One technique was to remove pronouns at the start of many of the sentences or fragments, to cut to the quick of the line. I also had to be conscious of the rhythm of the lines, particularly where the first beat of each line fell. I had to learn from poetry.
As far as I know, no one has ever written a book quite like this – a whole novel, a narrative novel, made mostly out of lines from other works. The obvious response is that there’s probably a good reason why no one has done it. Another might be that no one will be foolish enough to do it again. All I can say is that it was as much fun as I’ve ever had doing something that might be called work.
Felix Culpa by Jeremy Gavron is published by Scribe at €15.99