Friday 23 July 2021


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The Other Jack by Charles Boyle     {Reviewed by THOMAS}
I take a seat at an outside table at this small café. I am a little early. I have bought myself a coffee to drink while I am waiting for Charles Boyle, whose book The Other Jack I have just finished reading. The book takes place, if that is the right way to put it, almost entirely at or in a series of cafés, where Charles meets, in the present tense, a young woman, Robyn, who may or may not exist and may or may not be called Robyn, to discuss all manner of things to do with books, in particular the relationship between a reader, such as Robyn (who insists she is not a writer), and an author, such as Charles (who, as with all good writers, is really more of a reader). Planning to meet Charles in a café seems to me therefore quite appropriate, as does the lingering uncertainty about how much of what I am writing is fiction and how much is true, wherever we might mean by that. This sort of uncertainty is very playfully handled in The Other Jack, both with regard to the narrative, so to call it, of the book itself and with regard to the more general, indeed universal, ‘problem’, so to call it, of all literature’s relationship to ‘reality’, a relationship that is always reciprocal, if often rather one-sided, and therefore always changing, even if a text itself does not change. Charles doesn’t make this ‘problem’, or any of the other ‘problems’ of literature any less insoluble, but rather reassures us that these so-called ‘problems’ are rather the reason for literature, literature’s motive force, if you like. In the book, which is largely about why books are written and otherwise about why they are read, Charles tells Robyn that he is thinking of writing a book about the conversations they are having. “When I say it’s a book about what we talk about when we talk about books, and then list a random number of subjects, some more obviously book-related than others, I mean that it’s about the talking as much as about what’s being talked about, so about misunderstandings, silences, evasions, forgetfulness, differences that we hope will be reconcilable ones but may not be and sudden unaccountable enthusiasms. Even if much of the time I am talking to myself.” The book presents as a wash of short wide-ranging passages on books, writing, publishing and reading, lightly written and deeply thoughtful, with a wonderful index of literary concerns. At the beginning of the book, Robyn has somehow identified Charles as the author, under his pseudonym Jack Robinson, of some of her favourite books, books that I incidentally also have enjoyed, and Charles’s relationship to this Jack, and his long history as a writer and as the germ and motor of CB Editions, one of the smallest and best publishers currently operating in Britain, is seamlessly conjoined both with his history as a reader and lover of books and with what we could call, for want of a better term, his social conscience. Charles seems to have an authenticity, despite or because of his duplicities, that I fear I will never attain, I think as I wait for him to arrive. All I have ever done is imitate and appropriate — perhaps all that all writers ever do is imitate and appropriate whether they know this or not — and anything that may have been mistaken by anyone for originality on my part has merely been the measure of the failures and shortcomings in my imitation and appropriation. It is little wonder then, as I have got better at writing — if indeed I have got better at writing — that I have appeared less and less original, and appearances, after all, are the measure of originality, I suppose. Perhaps originality isn’t the thing. On the basis of the conversations between Charles and Robyn in The Other Jack, I was looking forward to talking with Charles Boyle, but there is, I suppose, an unspoken limit on how long I can sit at this café waiting for him to turn up and it is hard to know how long I should continue to do so after it has become nothing less than certain that he isn’t going to appear. The mistake, I’m sure, must be mine. Also, it is beginning to rain, the tables inside are all full, and as I failed to mention arriving with an umbrella it would be inappropriate to produce one now when I need it (Chekhov’s gun ought to work backwards, too). I am half way home when I realise I have left my copy of The Other Jack on the café table. No-one came running after me with it as at the start of the book Robyn came running after Charles with the book he had left on his table. To continue writing would involve making stuff up.   

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