Woman in the crime mask: J K Rowling, AKA Robert Galbraith
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Mark Lawson: J K Rowling and the chamber of secret names

Cuckoo’s Calling sold just a few hundred copies when thought to be by “Robert Galbraith”, then millions when its true author was revealed. But should the mask have stayed on longer?

Although Agatha Christie and Philip Roth may seem an improbable pairing, both authors dramatised the experience of literary celebrity through an alter ego: Christie’s fictional crime writer Ariadne Oliver and Roth’s invented Jewish-American author Nathan Zuckerman tantalise readers with an apparent dance of self-revelation that may in reality be steps of disguise. Other writers who have suffered serious fame have reacted in a similar way: “Mailer”, the third-person reference somehow more egotistical than “I”, is a frequent protagonist in the books of Norman Mailer, while John Updike had Henry Bech, an American author who wins the Nobel Prize in Literature, in presumably therapeutic compensation for Updike’s own failure to do so.

This literary subgenre seemed threatened by the fact that destabilising stardom is a decreasing risk for authors. But two current writers – Dan Brown and J K Rowling – have achieved a level of renown far beyond Byron’s reported shock at waking up to find himself famous; and this giddy prominence has filtered into their books. Brown’s take on fame is oblique: one of the loudest false chimes in his latest novel, Inferno, is that its hero, Robert Langdon, has a lifestyle (private jets, etc) and public name-recognition that fit a super-selling thriller writer rather better than they do a Harvard academic.

Rowling has responded more directly to the predicament of being a writer so well known that her intervention in the Scottish independence debate (urging a No vote and giving the negative campaign a million quid to encourage others) was more widely publicised than anything said on the subject by Cameron, Salmond or Obama.

The subject matter of The Silkworm, her second crime novel under the pseudonym “Robert Galbraith”, is the hunting of an author. Cormoran Strike – the one-legged private eye first met in The Cuckoo’s Calling, which sold a few hundred copies when thought to be by Robert Galbraith, then millions when its true author was revealed – is hired to find Owen Quine. This British horror-crime writer has vanished with the manuscript of a fiction called Bombyx Mori, an exposé of the literary world that includes defamatory versions of famous writers including Michael Fancourt, whose wife committed suicide after a parody of her writing in a satirical magazine.

Because Rowling’s first published works were a series of fantasies about adolescent necromancers and a sort of lacrosse played on broomsticks, the extent of autobiography and editorialising in her writing only belatedly became apparent. But, across the seven Harry Potters, her adult novel The Casual Vacancy and the two Galbraiths, personal preoccupations increasingly recur: single parenthood, press intrusion, class and racial prejudice.

Phone-hacking and fatherless children get another airing in The Silkworm and so there is an inevitable temptation to suspect that the viperous writers, slippery agents, duplicitous publishers and cruel critics who populate the book also represent heart-felt memories or observations. But Rowling is on record as saying that she had hoped her crime mask would stay in place for longer than it did. And I think it’s clear that The Silkworm was intended to be an even more elaborate tease than it now is.

Internal references (the News of the World still being published, Prince William’s engagement to Catherine Middleton) place the story in late 2010, an unusual time lag for contemporary crime fiction, which may lead some literary sleuths to wonder whether Rowling began it before, or possibly alongside, the first Galbraith novel. Strikingly, a major plot line turns on the true authorship of a novel and, if the pseudonymous ruse had endured, readers wondering whether Quine and Fancourt were caricatures of actual celebrated authors would have been dumbly unaware that the best-known British novelist of the age herself was hiding between the lines.

It’s a shame that the fun was spoiled. Even so, reading a Gal­braith while knowing that it’s a Rowling is still a pleasure. Surely, whatever happens in September’s referendum, her first specifically Scottish novel, under one name or another, cannot be far away.

 

Going it alone

Solo shows are popular with theatre accountants because only one actor has to be paid, and loved by performers because there is zero risk of being upstaged. Two recent productions, though, have confirmed that they can be a perfect form for audiences as well. Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of the American civil rights lawyer in David W Rintels’s Clarence Darrow and Fiona Shaw’s depiction of the mother of Christ in Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary will surely be contenders for this year’s theatre awards. Though working in huge theatres – the Old Vic and the Barbican – Spacey and Shaw made every phrase resonate, conjuring up not just the title character but dozens of others in the narrative. One-person performances can be the speech equivalent of an operatic aria: the ultimate test of vocal dexterity and stage presence. These two actors passed with singular success.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism