Fragmenting Angles 14th October 2017 – Posted in: Interviews
David Rose and Tim Sykes Talk about their stories in The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings.
I loved your story Ariel, first of all for the wistful sincerity and vividness of the narrator’s recollections. Can you tell me something of the story’s background?
Ariel has had a long history, having been written in earlier form at the start of my writing life. It is a story I have always been fond of for purely personal, sentimental reasons: Keith did exist, and as I describe him. I altered details of the narrator’s life, to make it more general – it was in the Post Office, my first job after leaving school, that I met Keith, but I needed to distance myself to write the story, so drew on later experiences in an accounts department. And I never had a motor bike, typist, wife or maisonette. It remained unpublished, and my regard for it was only ever personal, not literary.
When Ashley invited me to take part in The End, I agreed – a little too hastily, for I had all but given up writing, partly because of the demands of caring for my mother, partly disenchantment with the literary world. So I didn’t bag a painting, preferring to see which one was left, to narrow my options and increase the spur to creativity. Looking at the painting I was given by default, I was reminded of Ariel, and a way opened up to fulfil my promise to Ashley without returning to writing; it just needed a few tweaks to fit the brief.
I also found Ariel very interesting in the context of The End. It consists in two over-lapping narratives. Keith’s story has ended, while the narrator’s is unfinished (or trailing one lap behind, as he puts it). The story dwells on the beginning but in its mainly retrospective point of view, it seems to me, the mood is largely coloured by a consciousness of endings.
It is a story about hero-worship, about finding one’s confidence in life by apprenticeship, but ultimately, yes, it was dictated by the ending – Keith’s end, which I only found out about many years later. I was aware that the theme was fairly general, and to some extent, stylistically that is drawn on to create more a folk tale than a specific narrative, although the details, I hope, are specific enough to make it a satisfying story.
There’s a sense in Ariel of life stories emulating familiar templates and having predictable endings. It strikes me that cyclical metaphors (such as your race track) and structures lend themselves to less optimistic views of human experience.
I wasn’t, as far as I can remember, thinking in terms of templates in life, or the limited number of such templates, other than the ‘romantic death’ template, which is less pessimistic than an attempt to turn death into some sort of redeeming myth. As for the race track, it wasn’t intended as metaphor, it was true, and showed up a side of Keith’s character – his insouciance – that I was trying to emulate. But I find your reading of it interesting, as there is always more in a story than the writer consciously puts in.
‘The End’ as a project, approaching its subject in both stories and Nicolas Ruston’s paintings, brings to mind Lessing’s dictum that literary art is bound in time, while visual art is bound in space. Being linear, a text has an end(-ing), whereas a static visual image might only depict an end-moment. On the other hand, these paintings, with their cinematic resonances, have implied narratives trailing behind them. What are your impressions of this confluence of media?
I have always been fascinated by circular, referential play between the arts – my favourite example is The Blue Guitar, which began as an early painting by Picasso, was later picked up by Wallace Stevens, in his poem The Man With The Blue Guitar, which metamorphosed again into a piece of music – for guitar – by Michael Tippett.
My own work often drew for inspiration on music and art. Cinema, though, stands out as an art form that links, bridges the linear with the static, literature and painting.
You mention Lessing, but it was you who put me onto the essay of Joseph Frank which argued that Modernist literature – both fiction and poetry – attempted a reversal of that dictum: capturing a moment, freezing it and examining it from fragmenting angles, bringing literature closer to cubist painting, for example.
That technical debate was also taking place in film, as Andre Barzin has argued: between on the one hand the use of the image, heightened by montage, jump-cuts etc. – a static, visual, Expressionist approach – and on the other, the exploitation of long takes, depth of view and slow panning – a linear, narrative, essentially Realist approach which allowed the film maker now to compete not with the artist but with the novelist.
In Ruston’s paintings, the circle is squared in that narrative films are again reduced to single frames, thus encapsulating that tension.
In the anthology I was struck by the range of responses to the concept – and the interplay between the idea of the end and formal treatments of narrative ending. Some texts were endings without beginnings; some imagined the stories that culminated in Nicolas Ruston’s final frame; many were preoccupied thematically with the end or End.
I was very interested in the way that tension provoked such a range of responses, as well as the theme itself of The End; the diversity of stories stimulated. I was particularly struck by your own story – The Sense of an Ending – as a response to the frame you chose, an almost Rayonist depiction that, in the light of your story, reminds me now of early Soviet propaganda in its exuberant, optimistic stage.
I was struck by your response to the stasis of the painting, by a similar narrative stasis, the parallel between Vanya’s crisis – which might be a pseudo-crisis – and the crisis of the stasis, the non-ending, of Russian history: the Mayday celebrations of the elderly believers repeating all past and future Maydays.
It is very cleverly constructed: we are never told exactly what Vanya’s thing is, it becomes very intriguing, so it functions structurally as an unresolved narrative arc in the absence of any historical narrative. And all the details contribute to this: his graphs and charts of self-diagnosis, the geometry homework of his students…
How much of this was consciously intended prior to writing the story?
Your reference to narrative stasis perhaps takes us back to Joseph Frank’s idea of the ‘spatial’ text, which has had a big influence on my thinking. I set out to write a story that was structurally relatively timeless. However, I was more consciously engaging with another Frank: the critic Frank Kermode, who accentuated a more ironic, sceptical impulse in the fragmented Modernist narrative. My story in fact borrows its title from Kermode’s book ‘The Sense of an Ending’, which explores the ways in which humanity has played with narrative endings – apocalyptic, literary – to think about our existential in media res predicament.
These ideas have a particular resonance in Russia, which is currently the focus of my fictional universe. Russian culture has at times been saturated in messianic myth, and the Revolution was viewed not just through the paradigm of a national historical crisis, but also as a cosmic, eschatological event. In my story I wanted to play ironically (in the spirit of Kermode) with the relationship between personal and ideological senses of ending. This led to the character of Vanya, and a conflation of perhaps hypochondriacal internal forebodings with apocalyptic-historical expectations. Of course, the religiously tinged Bolshevik rhetoric of imminent transformation has a hollow ring in the context of the 1990s, when the Soviet project lay in ruins and Americans were proclaiming the end of history. But I lived in St Petersburg at that time, and the old believers and festivity on Palace Square derive from authentic memories of 1st May 1997.
What part did Ruston’s frame play in the genesis of the story?
When I looked through Nicolas Ruston’s pictures one immediately stood out – showing what I took to be a diffusion of sunbeams. Soviet propaganda, putting back the apocalypse, often deployed the metaphor of dawn to speak of the ‘radiant future’. The painting therefore seemed to connect with both the Russia of my writing and a Russian symbol of fruition. As I worked on the story and rummaged in the contextual layers mentioned earlier, it occurred to me that the image equally evoked sunrise and sunset, and I found this consistent with the ambivalence of Vanya’s and Russia’s sense of ending.
Incidentally, you were right to detect in the painting a distant reflection of the Rayonism of Larionov and Goncharova. The parallel hadn’t occurred to me but I’m pleased to discover a further association between the image and my Russian milieu and concerns.
If you would like to read ‘Ariel’ by David Rose and ‘The Sense of the Ending’ by Tim Sykes, you can order a copy of The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings from the Unthank Books website.