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Leap of Imagination

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It is no accident that chain bookshops are piled high with the latest products of well-known writers and those with a ‘hook’ (drug addict/victim/celebrity/murderer). Such books sell themselves: a branch’s stock reflects corporate policy, publishers’ marketing initiatives and media exposure; a branch shopkeeper neither expects nor is expected to offer opinions of his own. As an independent bookseller, I am temperamentally inclined to push books that chain bookshops have missed. My customers probably don’t need to know what I think of the new Martin Amis or Anne Tyler before deciding whether to buy it, but if they haven’t already made up their minds then they may prefer to be directed elsewhere. But where?

Identifying which books to go dizzy about is often haphazard. It can’t be done for more than two or three books a year or you find yourself wallowing in superlatives and you’re no help to anyone. At John Sandoe’s, our main criterion is that we have liked a book, and that we know why. The qualification is important not only so that we can justify a recommendation but also so that we know who not to recommend the book to: responding to someone else’s taste is easier with some understanding of one’s own.

Sometimes books that we have sold strongly from the start have in due course become bestsellers. Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour is an example, likewise Salley Vickers’s Miss Garnet’s Angel.

Of course I am pleased when such a book, or author, starts being talked about by everyone else, but I must also admit to a ridiculous sense of possessiveness: I remain unreasonably fond of those that, so far as I am aware, have made no impact on the wider world. A few years ago there was Kalimantaan by C. S. Godshalk, a powerful and sinister novel about Rajah Brooke of Sarawak, written from his wife’s point of view. Petrie Harbouri’s The Brothers Carburi was another success: a subtle portrayal of the r

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It is no accident that chain bookshops are piled high with the latest products of well-known writers and those with a ‘hook’ (drug addict/victim/celebrity/murderer). Such books sell themselves: a branch’s stock reflects corporate policy, publishers’ marketing initiatives and media exposure; a branch shopkeeper neither expects nor is expected to offer opinions of his own. As an independent bookseller, I am temperamentally inclined to push books that chain bookshops have missed. My customers probably don’t need to know what I think of the new Martin Amis or Anne Tyler before deciding whether to buy it, but if they haven’t already made up their minds then they may prefer to be directed elsewhere. But where?

Identifying which books to go dizzy about is often haphazard. It can’t be done for more than two or three books a year or you find yourself wallowing in superlatives and you’re no help to anyone. At John Sandoe’s, our main criterion is that we have liked a book, and that we know why. The qualification is important not only so that we can justify a recommendation but also so that we know who not to recommend the book to: responding to someone else’s taste is easier with some understanding of one’s own. Sometimes books that we have sold strongly from the start have in due course become bestsellers. Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour is an example, likewise Salley Vickers’s Miss Garnet’s Angel. Of course I am pleased when such a book, or author, starts being talked about by everyone else, but I must also admit to a ridiculous sense of possessiveness: I remain unreasonably fond of those that, so far as I am aware, have made no impact on the wider world. A few years ago there was Kalimantaan by C. S. Godshalk, a powerful and sinister novel about Rajah Brooke of Sarawak, written from his wife’s point of view. Petrie Harbouri’s The Brothers Carburi was another success: a subtle portrayal of the relationships between three brothers from Cephalonia in the late eighteenth century, based on letters. One became physician to the King of France, one was a chemist in Padua, the third moved to St Petersburg where he became an engineer and was responsible for moving a colossal rock from the Finnish marshes to serve as the plinth for Falconet’s famous statue of Peter the Great. The book is held in perfect balance by the old mother in Cephalonia. And how would I feel if my two favourite English authors, Robert Edric and C.K. Stead (actually a New Zealander), became bestsellers? I would not stop trying to sell their books, but my meagre efforts would make more difference to someone else. No book has exposed my own double standard to me more clearly than Dancer by Colum McCann. A fictional portrait of Rudolf Nureyev, told from many angles in many different voices, it opens with one of the best short evocations of battle that I have ever read, as Russian soldiers return from the front at the end of the Second World War. The picture narrows to an industrial town in the remote hinterland where a boy watches the trains come in, waiting for his father. Then we see him being handed through a hospital window to perform folk dances for the wounded; he is a prodigy, who makes even the human wrecks drinking meths draw breath. McCann gives no preamble when he switches voice: a new section begins and the reader has to work out that the main character is the woman in the bathhouse, Rudi’s teacher Anna’s husband, his mother or his father. Even so, one gets the hang of it very quickly and the effect is to give the reader brilliant glimpses of Nureyev as he cuts across other people’s lives, never caught and always dazzling. In Leningrad we meet Anna’s daughter, who acts as a mentor but understands too that she is outstripped by her protégé; Rosa Maria, a Chilean dance student; his new dance teacher . . . And all of a sudden, just as he has become a star at the Kirov, he is gone. One of the strokes I admire most in this novel is an absence. No direct reference is made to Nureyev’s defection, his celebrated leap. It is simply not there. After a description of the dancer eyeing up men in a Leningrad street late at night, a new section begins in London, where he lives and moves just as rapidly. This has the prosaic effect of showing Nureyev’s lack of interest in politics, and the more important poetic effect of recreating the leap in a different medium – we could read about his politics in a biography, but a novel must go beyond that and give a sense of what it would feel like to be such a man. The individual characters are magnificently convincing. My favourites are Tom, the man who makes Nureyev’s shoes in London, who ‘by the sketches alone . . . intuits the life of this foot, raised in barefoot poverty’; and his antithesis, Victor, who takes us on a tour of New York on a night when he has arranged a party for Rudi. One reviewer remarked that you feel as if you need a bath after reading this section. It is filthy, and it is stupendously vivid. Here is Victor walking down the street, ‘making walking into a sort of dancing, beginning in the shoulders with a symmetrical roll not even the blacks have perfected, one oblong shrug of a shoulder and then the other, as if connected by synaptical cogs, first the left and then the right, but not just the shoulders, the roll moves down into his chest, into his ribcage, through the rest of his body, down to his toes – God made me so short so I can blow basketball players without ruining my knees! – then up again to rest for a moment in his hips, nothing flagrant, no need to bring attention, the walk alone pays homage to his crotch’. The prose is Victor’s walk. And while each of the many characters is vividly rendered through their particular voice, the cumulative effect on the reader of Colum McCann’s versatility, rigour and energy is to reflect Nureyev’s own genius. Now here is this more apparent than when McCann is writing about dance: his sensitivity to the discipline’s physical demands and the artistic standards shared by Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn generate a powerful sense of their relationship. Whatever his immediate subject – Rudi at school in Ufa or dancing, Tom making shoes, Victor in the baths in New York – McCann is passionate and exact in his commitment to detail; and the reader transfers this quality to Nureyev himself. It is partly that we appreciate something of Nureyev by seeing what he valued in other people, but also that the intensity of McCann’s gaze, his hunger for perfection and vitality, seems to have its source in Nureyev himself. It is this remarkable artistic trick that makes the novel such a striking portrait of an artist; and because it seems true, it is moving. We sold Dancer very well throughout 2003 and our enthusiasm was justified by our customers’ response to it. (A sister of mine who came to stay read it all night. When my mother was staying lately, I took her a cup of tea in the morning and found her in floods of tears, frantic to read as much as possible before going off to Gatwick.) More than with any book I can remember, I was mystified when Dancer did not appear on the Booker or Whitbread shortlists. Even now I wonder if there was some factor, unknown to me, that made it ineligible. I gather that it has generally done quite well and I am very pleased about that, because it ought. And yet – here is my double standard – I wonder if I would be cooler towards it if it had been rewarded by a big prize? The answer, I think, is that I would stop wanting to tell people about it because it would have become part of a publicity machine in which independent booksellers have no place. But I would not alter my belief that it is a masterpiece.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 3 © John de Falbe 2004


About the contributor

John de Falbe has sold books at John Sandoe’s in Chelsea for nearly twenty years. He is the author of two novels, The Glass Night and The Bequest. He also reviews books regularly for The Spectator.

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