Also by this author
Quilt

An English Guide to Birdwatching

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An English Guide to Birdwatching is a daring novel, both wickedly playful and deeply touching.’ — Alison Moore

Silas and Ethel Woodlock have retired from the business of undertaking to spend their twilight years by the sea but things are not as easy as they’d hoped, and it’s all to do with herring gulls. Stephen Osmer and Lily Lynch are a glamorous young couple on the London literary scene. While Lily pursues an ambitious public art project about ‘cinematic intentions’, we encounter Osmer’s brilliance as an arts journalist, writing a dangerously provocative essay about social justice and the banking crisis, as well as a diatribe about two people called Nicholas Royle, one a novelist, the other a literary critic.

Nicholas Royle’s magnificent new novel combines a page-turning story about literary theft, adultery and ambition with a poetic and moving investigation into our relationship to birds and to the environment. It is exquisitely inventive and very funny, juxtaposing the stuff of scandalous gossip with scathing reports of how the world has gone to hell in a handcart. Playfully commenting on the main story are 17 interlinked ‘Hides’. Beautifully illustrated by artist Natalia Gasson, these short texts — primarily about birds, ornithology and films (including Hitchcock’s) — give us a different view of the themes that fly out of the novel: the messy business of being human, the fragility of the physical world we inhabit and the nature of writing itself. 

Compelling, audacious and dazzling in its linguistic playfulness and formal invention, An English Guide to Birdwatching explores the fertile hinterland between fact and fiction. In its focus on birds, climate change, the banking crisis, social justice and human migration, it is intensely relevant to wider political concerns; in its mischievous wit and wordplay, and post-modern (or ‘post-fiction’) sensibility, it pushes the boundaries of what a novel might be.

Big Issue

12 June 2017
An ambitious and far-reaching work that tackles many subjects… but most of all, it’s about language: how vocabulary, tone, emphasis, linguistic provenance, double meanings, even rhythm define the way we consume every aspect of life... It’s also sexy, funny and, in quieter moments, very touching. There is heartfelt writing here… we come to think about the nature of love, and about our taking for granted the world beyond language; the sea, the sky, and the birds. Marvellous.

Alex Preston, Financial Times

20 May 2017

In his 2010 debut novel Quilt, Nicholas Royle lambasted the literary world, railing against the “original, brilliant” novel that is garlanded with praise and prizes “so long as it passes through without making any real trouble in and with language.” Quilt was ostensibly about the death of the author’s father, but ended up a dense, sometimes impenetrable meditation on the failure of language to capture meaning. The book spiralled off on bizarre divagations, both linguistic — it’s a novel full of puns, parapraxes and word games — and thematic — the author, in his post-bereavement sorrow, becomes obsessed with fish, specifically rays.

Ornithologists who buy Royle’s new novel, An English Guide to Birdwatching, may be disappointed. Birds, gulls in particular, do appear in this gloriously bonkers tale, but they’re largely symbolic, part of the complex collage of images and associations that make this book as fascinating and flummoxing as its predecessor. This is a novel operating at the outer edges of the form, deep in the avant-garde. If you like that kind of thing (which I do), then there’s much to admire here. The novel opens in Seaford, an East Sussex town of golf-playing septuagenarians and steepling cliffs. The narrative is initially shared by Silas and Ethel Woodlock, their stolidly Dickensian name reflected in the workmanlike prose that the couple employ. Royle moves between the couple’s perspect­ives fluidly, enjoying the rhythms of their everyday language, the way Silas uses high-flown words like “repast” and “enunciated” alongside clunking clichés. It’s the same voice as that used in a short story, “Gulls”, which is reproduced halfway through the novel and which we discover (at least we think — everything in the novel has a not uncomplicated relationship with reality) that Silas wrote after attending a creative writing course. Royle appears to have stolen the story and published it under his own name. Silas, understandably, is peeved.

Intercut with this narrative are chapters from the short life of Stephen Osmer. We first meet him when he is dying — both the suddenness of the revelation and the lustrous prose in which it is rendered informing the reader that we are in new territory, a different linguistic world. Osmer is killed by “an access of pleasure . . . He skipped off his seat like the carriage on an old typewriter at the end of a line.” Then, in flashback, we move through Osmer’s recent life, read essays in which he slates the work of Nicholas Royle, follow him to a strange garden party at Royle’s house. Slowly we learn of the series of small catastrophes that led him towards his early end.

The final section of the book consists of a series of “Hides”, seemingly a work-in-progress by “Nicholas Royle” — the novel piles metafiction on metafiction until it feels like every name and noun needs quotation marks around it. Each “Hide” employs the image of the bird hide as a metaphor for literature, for the way writers occlude and obscure themselves in the text. There’s a long medit­ation on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, while another section is a mere sentence: “Counting is ghostly: the cuckoo knows this.” The last “Hide” returns to Stephen Osmer, suggesting that all of the early sections of the book might themselves have been “Hides”.

I first came across Royle when I congratulated another Nicholas Royle, also a novelist and academic, on a short story that I’d read in an anthology. He pointed out that it was his namesake who’d written the piece. Both the other Nicholas Royle and the story we were discussing — “Gulls” — appear in An English Guide to Birdwatching, the nomenclatural confusion delivering one of the many unheimlich shudders that reverberate through the novel. Royle’s career, before becoming a novelist, was as a literary theorist (he refers to himself as such in the novel), his most important work being a 2003 deconstructionist reading of Freud’s essay on the uncanny. Now, in his novels, he’s drawing upon a life of intensive engagement with theory, and particularly the writings of Jacques Derrida, to create fictions that are dense with meaning, highly allusive, both playful and profound.

This is not an easy read, nor a simple novel to describe. I was often reminded of Rachel Cusk’s recent books Outline and Transit, both of which play brilliantly in the fertile ground between fiction and memoir. An English Guide to Birdwatching is Cusk rewritten by Georges Bataille, full of strange sex, sudden violence and surreal twists. Illuminated throughout with gorgeous illustrations by Natalia Gasson, this is a novel that will charm, unsettle and baffle in equal measure.

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Booktime magazine

19 May 2017
   

‘Recalled to Life’ by Hélène Cixous

17 May 2017

Great books are still written, they just have to take place in Literature, the continent that never forgets. While reading An English Guide to Bird Watching, I travelled in all the time periods, places, countries of literature. It was more than an odyssey. At every stop you meet perpetual friends, they have never left us, Dickens still lives in London and continues to serve as our Virgil. Here’s a chapter where you’re relieved to find again T.S. Eliot, W. Stevens, Marx, Sylvia Plath, Hitchcock (an odd bird), Coetzee, and Company, and . . .

And during this whole prodigious journey, I never stopped laughing. But also working. What makes me burst out laughing are the tragicomic adventures of the three Nicholas Royles: Nicholas Royle ‘the older’, the one ‘who looks like a worn-out bulldog’, and Nicholas Royle ‘the younger’, a ‘diminutive fellow’. The dynamic Duo. And then Nicholas Royle the signatory, the scribe responsible for this Guide, who initiates us into the magical world of birds and their human neighbours. These three together act out the comedy the tragedy, extraordinary tales à la Poe, serious satire à la Swift, detective story, descent into the depths of the instant where Virginia Woolf still lives. And since everything takes place in illyrical England—that is, in Verifiction, that is, in the World-Theatre—one inhabits here both a familiar and a supernatural climate: the characters come and go, by bike or by train, from one end to the other of existence; it happens that they die suddenly, but no death takes more than a few pages, the Guide and its birds are there to call the dead back to life. Is not one Royle always more than one Royle?

Osmosis is the open sesame of all the trans: transients, trance-figurations, trans-ports, trans-frontiers, between states of mind, between acts, between memories, authors, sexes, night and day, languages, idioms, civilisations and English countryside, Greek rhetoric and Microsoftish semantics. Poets remember each other. Quotation does miracles. And since one is on board the world in perpetual resurrection, there is something for every kind and every taste; some of the first lines have the form of a classic novel, with Burgess stage-managing farcical death scenes, while Nicholas Royle Wordsworth recites his melancholias.

One can take pleasure in these sudden rebounds from the grandiosely, grandiloquently anxious point of view of Don Quixote the scholar. Or from the innocent and deconstructive point of view of Sancho Panza.

This Guide for extratemporal readers, who consequently have a vital sense of humour, got its inspiration in 1350 BCE in the head of that god, a mixture of baboonibis royle, who is known under the name of Thoth. He will reappear signed by one Royle or the other in 2350, judging by certain probabilities. For the past is always also future in Literature.

Translated by Peggy Kamuf

The Worm Hole

11 May 2017

Silas Woodlock moves to Seaford with his wife, Ethel, leaving their undertaking business in the hands of their son. The couple find the town a bit too elderly for their tastes; in time Ethel proposes they join a local writing course as a way to keep busy. By the end of the course an initially reluctant Silas has written a short story about birds; by accident it’s left in the local pub, not to be found again… until Silas spots it in an anthology. He goes to confront the plagiarist, one Nicholas Royle. Meanwhile a minor literary critic, Stephen Osmer, is struggling to make his mark but gains a pinch of notoriety interrupting and later reporting on an event held by two writers of the same name, the novelist Nicholas Royle and the literary theorist Nicholas Royle.

An English Guide To Birdwatching is the highly meta second novel/non-fiction mash-up from literary theorist Nicholas Royle, not to be confused with the novelist Nicholas Royle, writer of In Camera and Salt Publishing’s short story anthologies, though both men are included on the page. On the surface and, in fact, in some ways once the surface is scratched, it’s as confusing as it has likely been so far in this review – expect a lot of commentary.

This is a novel of a sort not often seen. It’s a novel that pushes deep into and past what’s not often seen to become something incredibly literary, requiring all of the reader’s attention but to great reward. Many descriptions are possible; Robert Macfarlane’s thoughts, featured on the back cover, sum it up well: “a curiously compelling investigation of the nature of writing and the writing of nature”. Royle takes the concept of literary criticism, spins it around, scrunches it up and creates something new from it. There is a story included; it’s not the most important part, but then it’s not unimportant either.

Near the start of the novel we read a fictional report of a factual event, a conversation type evening in which the two writers named Nicholas Royle spoke of their discovery of the other. Speaking of real world happenings here, the novelist Nicholas Royle (published by Salt) sent for consideration to a literary magazine a short story. Literary theorist Nicholas Royle (author of the book you’re currently reading a review of) did the same. Both stories were rejected and both rejections sent to critic Nicholas – the editor of the magazine thought they were both novelist Nicholas. Theorist Nicolas contacted novelist Nicholas about the mix up and they have since become friends. One day fairly recently they spoke together at an event about their respective work, which is the event theorist Nicholas refers to in this book currently being reviewed. Theorist Nicholas is now also a novelist as evidenced by this and one previous book.

If you’re still with me, you may appreciate the following quotation, which is taken from a scene after the event in which the two Nicholas Royles are discussing the evening and which effectively describes the book you are currently reading a review of (ellipses mine): ‘I’d like to write a novel that would try to do justice to the reality of birds… but also to observe the novel itself, a kind of screened-off or embedded space within a novel in which it would be possible to explore the relations between birds and words, birdwatching and wordwatching… It wouldn’t be subtext, though. It’s not a matter of providing the real or underlying meaning… It wouldn’t be a commentary either… a new way of thinking about surveillance, including self-surveillance…’

So Royle, theorist now novelist, who for the rest of this review will be referred to as the author, makes himself a major part of his work. As himself. As the author. As an idea. Through the fictional character of Stephen Osmer, the author has fun with his own success:

‘…not long ago published his tenth book of literary criticism, variously praised as “extraordinary’, “fascinating” and “exuberant”; as a “book that shows the way forward for literary studies”. I should straight away add that these accolades are, as so often, grossly exaggerated’.

He also plays with the idea of fact and fiction, for example by the inclusion of a sex scene that could be seen as an admission of something… interesting, if not for this:

‘He could think, at times, of no better way of describing it than that he was “living in the pages of a novel”.’

It is through this scene and those related to it that are included later, that Royle looks back on his fictional Stephen Osmer, his own critic, his fiction-real-life troll, and looks at the idea of an author’s reaction to reactions of their work. It’s exaggerated for effect – both literal effect and in order to explain the literary concepts the author is going for – but achieves the whole looking-at-literature-and-the-theory-and-everything-surrounding-it that he’s going for. (On this note, which might be considered a spoiler but which in the circumstances seems appropriate to include, is the author’s rather boldly killing off his own self for both fictional hilarity and as another look at the nature of writing.)

In view of the absolute fiction of the novel – the story of Silas and his wife – this comes to an abrupt halt about two thirds of the way through. If you were particularly enjoying it for its fiction you may be disappointed but the halt does fit neatly alongside – same spoiler as above incoming – the occurrence of the author’s fictional death.

It comes to a halt so that the author can move on to something else – prioritising the ‘birdwatching’ aspect of the book which up to now has been prevalent but somewhat obscured. This section of the book is composed of a series of chapters labelled ‘Hide X’ (where X corresponds to its number in the proceedings). In these sections the author analyses the word and concept of ‘bird’ and ‘birdwatching’, looking meticulously at a vast variety of meanings and possibilities. Could some of it be considered over-thinking? Most definitely, but that appears to be part of the point. Illustrated by artist Natalia Gasson’s beautiful drawings, it effectively provides you with a guide to ideas, which just happens to involve information about said bird hides, different species, and habitations as well as birds in various mediums – Du Maurier and Hitchcock; Thomas Hardy; ornithologists; battery hens; the military and the relationship with novelist Nicholas Royle’s work; Twitter.

Included in this is the drip-by-drip explanation of what the author was looking to achieve some chapters back. It’s not written as such; it’s more a series of ‘ah ha!’ moments you will have – unless, perhaps, you have a good knowledge of birds, this is the time when you find out that some of the things you thought were included just for fun were in fact a big part of the literary exploration. This is where the genius of the work really shines, the superb summit of all the other summits so far experienced.

The book is mostly written in the third person, and the narrative looks at things both from a regular point of past view and a retelling of events long gone. As part of the studious, analytical, process, the author gives a nod to Dickens, and there afterwards you find yourself reading reams of streams of consciousness which, as with everything else, is for a specific reason.

To review this book is only to add to all of what has been discussed, to be meta in one’s own right; to use a word preferred by Stephen Osmer, it’s almost ‘absurd’, effectively tacking something onto the end of the book, becoming a tertiary source – a real life Stephen Osmer, just without the vitriol.

This is a book that will bring delight to anyone who likes the idea of a novel in a novel in a novel, studying the already studied, the extremely experimental. In terms of attention required it’s incredibly needy – not one for bedtime reading, and desirous of a certain mood.

An English Guide To Birdwatching is a fantastic work of literary fiction, non-fiction, and academia, breaking boundaries and fourth walls to become something unique and highly enjoyable, particularly on a literary level.

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