Toby Litt’s great-great-great grandfather, William Litt, was a champion wrestler and a published author. Ever since Litt became a writer, publishing his first book in 1996, his father has wanted him to write William’s story. Instead, he has written just about everything but.
The 12 novels and short-story collections Litt has published to date range in style from pastiches of the Beats (Beatniks) and chick lit (Finding Myself), to psychological thrillers (Corpsing), science fiction (Journey into Space) and horror (Hospital). All his work, to some degree, operates within a metafictional framework, sometimes an elaborate one – he described Finding Myself, for example, as “a novel in kit form” – which reviewers have described variously as “dazzling”, “playfully arch”, “prankish” and “frustrating”.
Wrestliana, by contrast, beyond the intertextual flourish of sharing its title with one of great-great-great grandfather William’s books, is a disarmingly honest and at times extremely powerful work of memoir (although as a bit of reviewer’s insurance I should note the possibility, given Litt’s past form, that Wrestliana is in fact an ingenious fiction; in which case the book would be even more praiseworthy than it already is, albeit in a completely different way).
Litt begins investigating William’s life alongside his dad and some distant Cumbrian relatives. We see some Sebaldian photographs of Litt and his father, from 2009, standing beside a street sign bearing their name in Cleator Moor. At this early stage Litt conceives of the book as a historical novel but is daunted by the task (an interlude in the book that fictionalises William’s experience as a smuggler suggest his misgivings were spot on). It is only after the death of Litt’s mother in 2012, and the sense it inevitably gives him that time is running out for his father, too, that he begins thinking seriously about the project.
The fascination William holds for Litt is that he is someone who combined “athletic superiority and literary talent”: “Here was a man who was both a wrestler and a writer – who was both physical and intellectual.” That combination is something Litt had rejected since an episode of teenage bullying at boarding school, prior to which he had been sporty, much like his father. “I was going to be as unphysical as possible,” he decided then. Latterly, approaching 50 and father to two boys, he had begun to question the wisdom of that.
Litt divides Wrestliana into an account of William’s life, a description of the noble sport of Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling, and passages of unflinching self-analysis. If the history and the sport are diverting, it is when Litt is interrogating his own career that the book becomes remarkable. “Of all books,” Roberto Bolaño wrote in his essay “Memoirs”, “memoirs are the most deceitful because the pretence in which they engage often goes undetected and their authors are usually only looking to justify themselves. Ostentation and memoirs tend to go together. Lies and memoirs get along swimmingly.” By contrast, in certain passages of Wrestliana Litt appears determined to lay his writerly ego bare with zealous candour. This is to the book’s great advantage.
Litt describes the feeling of not being longlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize, “The losing hitting me right in the chest; somewhere in the middle, between the lungs. I feel like a great alien ball of burning iron has appeared there, sizzling away just to the right of my heart.” He describes getting dropped by Hamish Hamilton, in 2011: “My books no longer sold enough for my publisher – under great financial pressure – to continue to put them out.” He describes the various fates of the 20 writers chosen as Granta magazine’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. Some, such as Sarah Waters and David Mitchell, have become internationally successful. “Others are still there or thereabouts in the Premier League: AL Kennedy, David Peace. Others, like me, trog along in the Championship.”
“Let’s not be falsely OK with this,” he writes. “I wanted what they seemed to have, and I still want it.” “My ego,” he admits, “craves another chance to do its giddy little dance. Look at me, oh, look at me.” But there is a practical side to his ambition, too: “A couple of prize wins would allow me to have bits of my house that are falling apart put back together.”
It’s possible that I find Litt’s examination of his own writing career so fascinating because I am also a writer, and share his hopes and anxieties in very specific ways. But then I have no particular interest in wrestling, Cumberland, or revolutionary ferment in 1830s Canada, and for the most part he makes all of those vivid and fascinating as well. It is, rather, the particular quality of his examination that makes it so compelling: its plain-spokenness. Litt has written autobiographical non-fiction before – notably in the preface to his novel Ghost Story (the book that he concedes is perhaps the best he has written, and that he had so hoped to see on that Man Booker longlist) – and Wrestliana encourages the hope he will write more.
Chris Power’s short-story collection “Mothers” is published by Faber & Faber
Galley Beggar Press, 308pp, £9.99
This article appears in the 13 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?