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9 November 2021

Claire-Louise Bennett: “The brink of adulthood is a very uncomfortable time”

The Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novelist on style, the problem with “promise”, and why Garibaldi biscuits are the best in the world.

By Leo Robson

In Claire-Louise Bennett’s extraordinary novel Checkout 19, her follow-up to the celebrated Pond, a nameless narrator, raised in England but now resident in Ireland, unfolds an unorthodox autobiography – a history of schooldays, university, and young adulthood told through reading, writing, and glancing moments of illumination. Throughout it all, ideas about what constitutes real experience are challenged. Discovering EM Forster is an experience, and so is looking at an aubergine. Family background emerges obliquely – via the enjoyment shared, for example, by the narrator and her mother for Alan Sillitoe’s A Start in Life. The only dependable thing is the singularity of Bennett’s voice – recursive, garrulous, associative, witty, and in the closing pages, slyly profound. 

The Goldsmiths Prize was established to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (or the writer) that a more conventional novel might not? Are there certain themes or states that demand what we might loosely group as experimental devices?

Reading a book by Ann Quin, say, or Anna Kavan, is a destabilising experience because they take nothing for granted. The usual factors that are conventionally seen to give life significance and purpose such as education, relationships, work, parenting, property, and which many mainstream novels revolve around, are absent, or else they loom on the periphery in a menacing sort of way. Increasingly people are realising that these putative benchmarks and milestones do not in fact give meaning or direction to their lives. What these sorts of works posit is a personally evolved epistemology and a different scale of existence. Engaging with them may well encourage the reader not to put so much emphasis on external circumstance and to challenge received ideas about what makes living worthwhile.   

Checkout 19 is classed as a novel whereas Pond was sometimes called a linked collection of stories. To a large degree these are just commercial labels, but was there a difference in the way you approached writing the two books?

When I write I’m not thinking about whether something is a novel or a short story. Some people describe Pond as a collection of stories, others say it’s a novel. That’s fine by me, I don’t feel especially pushed to settle the matter – though of course from a commercial point of view taxonomic ambiguity is deadly. Form and structure are elements of writing, however, that really excite me. Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium is a work of literary criticism like no other and I was immensely relieved to discover it, however many years ago. In these essays he discusses prose in a way that immediately made sense to me – he’s not concerned with identifying the characteristics of “the short story” and “the novel” etc, his understanding of form is much more sophisticated than that. He explores and riffs magnanimously upon particular qualities and dynamics such as “lightness”, “vagueness”, and “multiplicity”. For a long time I’d been thinking about writing and how I wanted to lay it out in almost geological terms, so this elemental lexicon and its emphasis on precision and fluidity was incredibly inspiring. It’s like everyone else is shuffling about in the kitchen drawer and Calvino is ensconced in a faceted snug observatory, casually floating through space.   

In the book, small moments, memories, and sensations receive great attention while basic information about the character comes briskly or indirectly. Were you intending to overturn the emphases of so-called conventional novels to create something closer in texture to how we generally reflect?

About 20 years ago I helped a Czech circus performer and violinist to erect a flat-pack house in County Clare. It took two days. When it was done I wanted to remain in Clare for a while longer and so I was invited to stay in a caravan nearby. There were some strange books in that caravan and I came across something in one of them that I wrote down on a yellow piece of paper. For years I couldn’t find that piece of paper and the memory of its yellowness and what it contained was enduring yet ultimately unsatisfactory. Then, recently, I moved. And while I was sorting through boxes of letters and cards and so on, I found it. This is what it said: “Very intensely passionate natures, however irritable they may show themselves about small things, however buried in their actions generally, when really touched to the heart are terribly silent, undemonstrative, and predetermined.”  That’s from a story called “La Girandola”, by Count Stanislaus Eric Stenbock, whose book, Of Kings And Things, arrived here in my new home on the first day of November.

One of the book’s projects seems to be a celebration of female writers, and in some cases defending them (Anaïs Nin) or bringing them to light for many readers (Ann Quin). Was this always a central element of the book?

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The narrator confesses to having deliberately read books written mostly by men when she was younger. She wanted to find out about men, men different from those she encountered day-to-day in her working class life. That’s understandable. At this point in her development she is intensely apprehensive about reading books by women because she is afraid of discovering what is really going on inside of them. The world of men is pretty much the visible world we all live out our days in where is the world of women? – “The way they managed to be practically omnipresent yet not really here at all was continually disquieting,” she observes.  And then it’s as if she sees through that visible world – her older female relatives are forever casting doubt upon its veracity, saying things like “there’s more to this than meets the eye” and so on, and she becomes curious about this alternate perspective, at the same time her emotions are becoming more distinct so she is able to engage with and absorb women’s stories without being completely subsumed by them. Simone de Beauvoir famously said, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” That state of becoming is terrifying and thrilling – you want so much to know what is ahead of you and you are impatient to get there, and yet sudden intimations of what’s in store make you want to run back to your rosebud-patterned duvet and take cover. 

Checkout 19 feels like a quest – it literally contains many questions – but it refuses to offer any simple conclusions or messages. Was it your intention that, as in the books that the narrator treasures, the novel as a whole, or the form of the novel, provides a kind of oblique answer?

I am pleased to hear it feels like a quest, it means it has some energy. There is something about asking questions that is incredibly invigorating and freeing. With each question I ask of myself, of others, about life, mine, theirs, now and in the past etc, a portcullis slides upwards, freeing up more space in my psyche, enabling me to take in more. That’s the point of questions – not to get answers, but to expand consciousness and generate courage in order to go further, further and further, into life.   

In one of the book’s most memorable moments, the narrator offers a biographical reading of the writer Ann Quin’s methods that has a strong class component. There’s also a wonderful line when the narrator says, in a more psychological vein, “I sometimes wonder if my inclination for abstruse ideas wasn’t in fact a form of passive-aggression.” I was wondering if you had a view on what factors played a strong role in forming your own style or sensibility?

The whole book is an exploration of the factors that contribute to style and sensibility. I was particularly interested in the idea of “promise”, and that time in life, on the brink of adulthood, when everything that is going on is geared towards assessing one’s potential. It’s a very uncomfortable time. Being measured up like that, for a future that is off-the-peg and paradoxically pre-dates you. You have your own private desires and dreams and peculiar gifts, which you keep secret probably, so then the self becomes divided and you start to guiltily play down essential aspects of yourself because they are precious to you, they are you really, yet they have no economic value and it’s horrible to experience them being openly and routinely denigrated. Realising you are going to have to earn a living without having any clue as to how you are going to do that on and on without having to undertake something you cannot stomach or see the point of is depressing and very frightening. 

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

For quite a while I wasn’t writing very well. I had been writing for a long time already when Pond came out and something about being recognised as a writer must have made me feel self-conscious, again and again I got in the way of myself. It’s like when the marmoset tells the millipede how many legs she has – the poor thing can’t move. I went to Madrid for a fortnight and one morning after two hours of writing drivel I went to the Reina Sofia to see an exhibition of Dorothea Tanning’s work. It was a retrospective so it was possible to identify the aspects of experience that obsessed her throughout her life as a woman and as an artist, and being a young girl on the cusp of womanhood was one of them. It was incredibly powerful to see the terror and thrill and potency of this transition made visible. I was also fascinated to see how she depicts fantasy and reality within the same frame, and how her approach to that changed as she got older – in the earlier canvases she juxtaposes them, later she conflates them. The relationship between fantasy and reality is something that has always interested me, and seeing Tanning’s paintings encouraged me to explore it in Checkout 19 by various methods. I think ultimately as you get older you realise they are not distinct from one another at all.  

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

Reading that question immediately reminded me of when I was a child and I wanted to win a year’s supply of Garibaldi biscuits and all I had to do to stand a chance of scooping the prize was explain in ten words why Garibaldi biscuits were the best thing in the world. The answer was self-evident and I got into quite a state trying to come up with something superlative – eventually I managed to calm myself down by murmuring quietly, “just because.”

[See also: Leone Ross: “Age is not a withering – it’s a revolution”]

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