G&Ts in London with Kirsty Gunn and Max Porter: a literary odyssey

Our man in London, Neil Young, meets Kiwi expat author Kirsty Gunn for a drink and a chat about her acclaimed new novel – and then wanders off for more drinks with Max Porter.

With notebook in hand, I meet Kirsty Gunn at The Burr on Russell Square, and we order G&Ts. Outside there’s a heatwave. All over the country it’s so hot that the parched earth is revealing ancient striations – the outlines of Bronze Age rooms, towers, long-tumbled ramparts.

To live in London and read Gunn’s new novel Caroline’s Bikini is to experience a feeling of double, treble exposure. Gunn’s characters meet for G&Ts in a skein of imaginary yet all too familiar pubs across the capital. Do I know these people? Have our paths crossed? I’m sure I’ve darkened the doors of these drinking establishments, along with Nim, the novel’s narrator, and her childhood friend, Evan. But why do they keep meeting? They’re meeting because Evan’s fallen for Caroline, hasn’t he. The poor fool’s been blasted by the blunderbuss of love. Evan’s out to lunch.

Caroline herself is blonde, languorous, yet ultimately unknowable, like the remains of a Roman woman excavated during London building works. An enigmatic skeleton with bangles of bronze, a little bell – or, in her case, a bikini. We detect her via a kind of literary echolocation. Evan fountain-pens interminable, obsessive notes about his feelings, which he hands to Nim, his amanuensis, down the pub. Nim knots everything together, adding her additional commentary. Atop this, an editor-who-might-be-Kirsty-Gunn appends footnotes and a series of essays, academic in nature, which meditate on the nature of Nim’s assemblage of words and Evan’s love for Caroline.

I have to admit, Evan, there were times when I wanted to tell you to pull yourself together. Dry your eyes, mate. I know it’s hard to take… you’ve got to walk away now. But Evan can’t let go, and neither can Nim, her life as a freelance copywriter unravelling as she meets Evan for yet more rounds of late-night G&Ts in yet another pub. Her text takes on a dilatory, tremulous quality, like an uncertain tourist pausing in front of a tube map as an infuriation of commuters pours around her. Those of us determinedly striding, seeking the decisive line, a clear home run, will find ourselves thwarted.

But this, it turns out, is Petrarchan love, i.e., unrequited. And indeed Evan, who’s returned to Britain after living in the US, seems to get lost on his way to first base. The editor draws our attention to the 12th century treatise on the nature of courtly love, De Amore, by Andreas Cappellanus. This is the “fundamental text upon which all other narratives — including this one — are fashioned”.

Does the text’s interruptive quality make you cross, asks Gunn. “Did you feel it was interfering with your reading?” This is entirely deliberate. “It causes you to pause in that flow. Don’t get into any mood here. Stay alert. Don’t go to sleep in the mood that I’m conjuring.

The whole thing began, she says, with Il Canzoniere, the multitudinous collection of poems by the Renaissance poet Petrarch, whose central theme was his love for Laura. Petrarch glimpsed Laura once as she was coming out of a church.

From Caroline’s Bikini: “His entire life thereafter was spent thinking about her, planning a future with her, imagining her and her impress upon him in all its detail. … Fully in love with someone he had never met, never even said hello to, and who he would never, in his long life, ever see again… This was Francesco Petrarch.”

In The Burr, Gunn says, “It’s that idea of making something real and tangible that didn’t exist before. And that you make the real and tangible thing out of something that in itself has no substance. So instead of writing about a love affair you make a thing to be the love affair.”

So, as she curates and crafts, Nim makes “a work of detail and imagination that effects reality: making into an object that could be held in one’s hands as a text or book a love that was otherwise unobserved and unrequited, that had no currency in the world.”

In this reading, Caroline is less of a person than a device, a love-engine, ticking over at the novel’s heart.

“I didn’t really have a bikini in my head at all,” Gunn explains. “What I had in my head was this little turning whirring machine—-something that was like a little wind-up clock that you might wind-wind-wind very hard and then you’d just let it go and… fhpfhpfhpfhp. Caroline’s bikini is this little gold whirring thing.”

I continue the conversation about love in another pub, with another G&T, with Max Porter, Gunn’s stablemate at Faber & Faber and author of the novel Grief is the thing with feathers. Gunn and Porter are speaking at an event that night at the London Review Bookshop. If Caroline’s Bikini is about love for someone who lives and breathes, someone who resides at the end of the District Line, Porter’s Grief is to do with the love that comes after, that usurps hope, suffusing the empty space left behind when someone dies.

Here again I have the eerie feeling of inhabiting a novel’s environs. This is another map of London that I recognise. For I’ve lived the life of the dad in Porter’s book, cracked in half by grief. Afterwards he was quieter. He was, for two or three years, by all accounts, very odd. My two are like his two, kids who lost their mum.

In the book, love-grief takes the form of an animal familiar, Crow, who bursts into the flat with a whoosh and a crack, and a sudden stench. Crow is an interloper from Ted Hughes’ epic book (”Phenomenal poet,” says Porter. “Monstrous man.”) But in my, our, case, the familiar was Wolf.

At night, Ted Hughes said, you could hear the wolves howling in the zoo in Regent’s Park, dragging up their long leashes of sound. But our Wolf was gentle. He only howled sometimes, for fun. Wolfie, his name was. Let’s have a Wolfie Story, you’d say. A really long one. Like, really long. When you are young, you like quiet, small stories. Wolfie has gone swimming with his friends but he’s forgotten his towel. He dries himself by running up and down a hill in Brockwell Park, the air ruffling his fur – a delightful feeling. Wolfie wants to make cheese on toast but he doesn’t have cheese. His friend does though; together, they make cheese on toast. Wolfie (who plays the trumpet with some aplomb) forms a musical duo with Hedgehog. What song should they play? They should make a song about a peaceful day, you say, when the birds are singing.

In the beer-gold light of evening (that’s one of Porter’s lines), the after-work crowd at the pub chortles and hurrahs. Porter, who has the eyes of a late-night reader, speaks to me tenderly. I can hardly bear to listen to the tape again.

“The line between poetry, prose, fable: when you come up to that line, that’s when stuff gets interesting,” Porter says. “I love that [in Caroline’s Bikini]. I also love how much it seems to disable the critical faculties of reviewers who refuse to get it.”

And it is a curious book. For those used to the flywheel of plot, it can be baffling. But I like how it slowly envelopes. It stays with you, Caroline’s Bikini.

In The Burr, Gunn tells me, “The book is full of love. It’s not just about unrequited love. Caroline herself is like a light that represents love.” And love has the capacity to make and remake the world: “Everything is an invention. A beautiful attempt.”

It reminds me of my kids tirelessly building in Minecraft, the computer game where you explore an untamed landscape made out of 3-D blocks, digging and making things out of the blocks.

Their Minecraft world is years-old now. Old structures are hidden here, up in the hills, while new ones rise in the foreground. I helped make some of them – woozy, incomplete, toppling over. Their mum, an architect, made some too.

There are wolves here.

I like it when it rains in Minecraft. The soft hiss of falling pixels. Soothing somehow. The earth soaks it up. I move up the ridge line, through the rain, into the woods.


Caroline’s Bikini by Kirsty Gunn (Faber & Faber, $32.99) is available at Unity Books.

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