There have been plenty of verse novels before Robin Robertson’s The Long Take – the form offers wonderful opportunities to those who can exploit its constraints and permissions. James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover was written using an ouija board, with WH Auden among those weighing in from the afterlife. Adam Foulds’s verse novella The Broken Word took the Mau Mau rising of the 1950s as its subject, while Philip Hancock’s Minding the Halo imagines the experiences of the young man assigned to look after Simon Templar’s car on the Côte d’Azur in 1978.
The Long Take is set in the US between 1946 and 1953, and above all in Los Angeles, at a time when the city’s downtown still offered some sort of refuge to marginal people. The hero, Walker, an ex-serviceman originally from Canada, makes friends with the otherwise friendless. This solidarity with the traumatised is the only intimacy he will allow himself, contaminated as he feels himself to be by cruelty, and not just other people’s. Robertson shows how much pain and ugliness a poetic line can absorb without the loss of technical control.
What impressed me and my fellow judges (Deborah Levy, Nick Lezard and Elif Shafak) was the sense that Robertson’s book not only tapped into a wide range of poetic forms, traditions and tones of voice, but also set itself to match the ambitious architecture and careful construction we’re accustomed to in a long prose narrative. The prize sets out to reward work that opens up new possibilities for the novel, which doesn’t mean novelty for its own sake – Robertson’s novel seemed to us admirably to take fresh possession of the form.
The book is a double and even a triple elegy, first for the lost beauties and sense of belonging of a Nova Scotia childhood, a place whose possibilities Walker has forfeited by the things he has seen and done; then for the generation of servicemen who lost their innocence and something of their humanity during the campaign to liberate Europe; and finally for the rough human community of Los Angeles before it was quietly purged when the city made itself over into something monstrous. LA is described as a place with no memory, constantly changing but knowing only a timeless present, which may be just what you need until the day it decides to forget you.
In The Long Take everything is specific. It’s not “LA” but a grid of named and numbered streets – there’s even a map provided so you can follow Walker’s movement. It’s not “the war”, when Walker’s memories surface at last with a terrible clarity, but specified units contesting named terrain. Robertson invokes film noir not as a vague atmosphere but through a mesh of references to particular films, locations, performances, lighting set-ups and camera angles. The Long Take is a reminder that it’s only second-rate writing, in verse or in prose, that is imprecise.
Robin Robertson will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in conversation with Elif Shafak and Tom Gatti, on 25 November
This article appears in the 14 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexiteers broke history