In the Critics this week

Julia Copus on illness and creativity, John Gray on Jared Diamond, Kate Mossman on Nick Cave and Johnny Marr and Sheila Heti interviewed.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, poet Julia Copus writes about the link between physical illness and the creative life. Copus was diagnosed with endometriosis at the age of 26. “Hilary Mantel, a fellow endometriosis sufferer, believes the disease was at least partly responsible for her choice to become a writer,” she notes. “In some ancient cultures there is a deity for illness, which strikes me as refreshingly clear. If such a god existed for us today, I would be glad of the chance to offer up a prayer of thanks for the rich crop of art he has nurtured into being.”

In Books, the NS’s lead reviewer John Gray writes about The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies by American polymath Jared Diamond. “If we’d retained some of the constructive paranoia of traditional cultures,” Gray writes, “we might still not have able to prevent the neoliberal experiment; but we would have been better prepared for the fiasco that has ensued.”

Also in Books: Simon Heffer reviews Sorry!, Henry Hitchings’s books about the English and their manners (“Hitchings comes to the unhelpful conclusion that although everybody seems to think manners are getting worse, actually they are not. How does he know?”); Alexandra Coghlan on Alan Rusbridger’s memoir Play It Again (“Rusbridger follows the well-trodden path back to the instrument of his youth”); Heather Brooke reviews two books about Britain’s secret state, Cruel Britannia by Ian Cobain and Classified by Christopher Moran (“Cruel Britannia makes for deeply depressing reading. But to ignore its findings would be to grant impunity to actions that reveal the worst of human behaviour”); Sarah Churchwell on Alone in America, a study of the representation of loneliness in American literature by Robert A Ferguson (“Are Americans really more susceptible to estrangement than others?”); novelist Linda Grant reviews Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, by the Holocaust survivor and historian Otto Dov Kulka (“Nothing else I have read comes close to this profound examination of what the Holocaust means”).

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to Canadian writer Sheila Heti about her novel How Should a Person Be? “I think of it as a novel – but only because I can’t think of a better word … I love fiction … but when I was writing this I was asking myself: ‘Why am I doing this?’”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey is impressed by Zero Dark Thirty’s ambivalence about torture; Rachel Cooke is underwhelmed by a new BBC comedy, Bob Servant Independent; Antonia Quirke sings the praises of a Radio 4 Extra adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; Matt Trueman visits the London International Mime Festival; and Kate Mossman reviews new albums by veterans Nick Cave and Johnny Marr.

PLUS: Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

Guitar hero: Johnny Marr performing with Modest Mouse in 2008 (Photo: Getty Images)
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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism