The writer and novelist Gordon Burn died last week at the age of 61. Few English writers have taken as seriously as Burn did Philip Roth’s famous observations about what the “culture” does to the novel. Contemplating “American reality” in 1960, Roth wrote that the novelist has “his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make [it] credible … It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”
Burn understood that this was the predicament of any novelist trying to anatomise English reality in the early twenty-first century. His solution was to turn the novel into news. In an interview given a little over a year ago, Burn described his last book Born Yesterday, in which he uses the two salient news stories of the summer of 2007 (the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and the resignation of Tony Blair) as foils to his imagination, as a kind of “found object”:
[T]he narrative was largely given, as were all of the main ‘characters’ – Blair, Brown, the McCanns, Kate Middleton, John Smeaton – other than the narrator. The imaginative challenge – and therefore what in my view makes Born Yesterday a novel – came in making connections that hadn’t previously been apparent. John Berger once said something that struck me very forcibly, and that I recalled continually in the writing of this book: ‘Imagination is not, as is sometimes thought, the ability to invent; it is the ability to disclose that which exists.’ So it was about looking; about sifting, and sitting still and thinking.
The judgement of his editor at Faber & Faber, Lee Brackstone, that this ability to “disclose that which exists” made Burn “as crucial to our understanding of ourselves as De Lillo is to American culture” doesn’t seem in the least hyperbolic.