Branches of the Same Tree: Max Porter on the Literary Landscape
A Waterstones Book of the Year nominee and now the Waterstones Book of the Month for April, Max Porter's Lanny is a lyrical masterpiece from one of the country's very finest prose stylists. In this exclusive essay, Max examines literature's unique place in the cultural ecosystem and highlights some other authors and works which share his incredible visionary tone.
I think a book is alive in the world in the same way a tree is. It might stand alone, grow, flourish or wither uniquely, but it is part of a wider fabric, connected and interdependent. It draws on the same nutrients as a million other living things, breathes the same air, hosts and gives life as part of a community. There’s an amazing book coming out this year by Merlin Sheldrake called Entangled Life about the fungal ‘wood wide web’. It’s a book which alters the way we see the word, but it’s also changed how I think of books or films or works of art in the cultural ecosystem.
When I was writing Lanny I found out that a writer I know a bit, and admire a lot, Jon McGregor, had a new book coming out called Reservoir 13, about a missing child, and a village, told in a chorus of voices. I rang my agent and said I was binning my book, there was no way I was sending this weird little story into comparative combat with the mighty Jon McGregor. But actually it became apparent that the two books were profoundly different. They had different aims, different styles and came at the apparently similar subject in massively different ways. Jon emailed me to say that we might even celebrate the fact of our books being ‘branches of the same tree’.
Jealousy or rivalry are counter-productive emotions, especially for writers. I couldn’t write a Jon McGregor masterpiece if I tried. Only he can do that. I’d rather the more generative activity of comparing our very different approaches to a similar theme, asking what both books have to say about England, about community, about the missing child both literal and metaphorical. It’s a grim ecosystem if we can only have one of each plant.
So, for the Waterstones Blog I thought I might clamber about in the woods around Lanny and recommend some other books that seem to me entangled or related, or just breathing the same air.
Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood were working on Ness at the same time I was working on Lanny. Robert describes the two books as having been “burrowing towards one another unknowing”. Ness is like an apocalyptic fever dream feeding on English history, science and landscape. I like a book that can’t be categorised. Ness is a poem, a libretto, a script, a storybook, an organic slouching visionary thing unto itself. If Dead Papa Toothwort was stealing a book from the library, he’d be stealing Ness and really getting into it.
Daisy Johnson, who is one of the best writers in this country, has a terrifying new book out soon called Sisters about siblings and trauma and the architectural uncanny. The character of Jolie in Lanny is a writer, and she is writing crime, but if she were writing literary horror (and she was an astonishing stylist) then she might write a book like Sisters. I was most excited by the way Daisy Johnson plays with bodies in time, back and forth, with cuts and twists and layers of images. It’s a thumping good book, haunting, visceral and potent.
Lanny is above all about language. Overheard language, mythic or commonplace, filthy or clean, historical or contemporary; the language we use to describe ourselves and others creating a sort of composite polyphonic portrait. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what home is, what love is. The most profound book I read on this subject last year was Others, edited by Charles Fernyhough and featuring a great many excellent writers. It’s a genuinely essential collection of essays on identity and otherness, urgently needed here and now. It’s about the failure of imagination and empathy (and common sense) that comes from seeing the world as us and them, when there is only we.
I have a tendency towards despair, especially as regards politics and the behaviour of human beings towards one another and the planet. But I didn’t want despair to be the thing that defined, tonally let alone morally, the landscape of Lanny. And it was folklore, myth and the idea that the natural world is always listening to us that provided an alternative. Moving outside our own time-frame and our own preoccupations, letting history wash over us, zooming out, to see how we are growing, even if the answer is: badly.
And I hope my reading takes the same approach. I try and read in a way that is borderless (you can take away my right to work and travel in the EU but over my dead body will you stop me feeling and reading like a European, connected to and interested in the problems of the world, not cut off, not behind a drawbridge or a wall) and literature is the common language beyond any border or genre or classification. I read unfashionable books about druids and stone circles and ley lines; endless books about trees and woods; kids’ books, comics, out of print books about dead writers, poetry of all styles, books about medicine, the human body, the history of another country in another time, old fairytales from places which have since been renamed, I’m cramming all this into my head so I can grow. I want the nutrients. Some of it is delicious, some of it is poisonous, some of it is alarmingly tasteless. Life is short, and it’s a privilege to be briefly planted in this soil, and all this other stuff is growing right here next to me.
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