“Beckettpunk”: Sam Thompson on Writing Jott

Olivia Laing, Crudo

Sam Thompson, Jott.
John Murray Originals. £12.99.
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Sam Thompson is the author of two novels, the Booker-longlisted Communion Town (2012) and, most recently, Jott (2018). Jott depicts a friendship between two men finding their places in the world, in the socially conservative Britain of the 1930s. One of them is a psychiatrist with his own deep anxieties; the other is a writer of highly stylised Modernist fiction. Intriguingly, both of them are based on real people: the psychiatrist, Arthur, is a version of Thompson’s own grandfather, Geoffrey, while the writer is a version of Geoffrey’s sometime friend, Samuel Beckett. As he explained in a blog post for the London Review of Books, Sam Thompson developed Jott out of a series of letters exchanged between Geoffrey and Beckett, and over the last month he generously set aside time to talk to Splice about his process and the end result.

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The friendship you depict in Jott has its genesis in your family history, as you wrote in the article you published on the London Review of Books blog. But what about the genesis of the novel itself, the beginning of the writing process? Were there family legends or anecdotes that you knew about before you read Beckett’s letters, which maybe gave you the sense that there was a book to be written here? Or did you not really become aware of the possibility until you had the letters in front of you?

It was both. I always knew about the Geoffrey-Beckett friendship, and I became interested in the story when I got into Beckett’s work after reading Waiting for Godot (1953) at school — though I had no notion of writing anything about it at that stage! Later I did have a hovering feeling that something was waiting to be written, but it was when I looked at the letters that I started to see a way of going about it. I think the intriguing thing was the gap between the story of Geoffrey and Sam as I knew it from the family, and the story that was implied by the fragments of information in the letters: there was a whole hidden space there to explore.

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In exploring this “hidden space”, why the decision to fictionalise the two men? Is it mostly a license to be speculative?

I never really decided to fictionalise the two men, because to me they were always fictional characters through and through. The book worked from real-life models, but I had no interest in being speculative, if that means speculating about what might have happened in anyone’s real life. The Geoffrey-Beckett story was the seed, but it wasn’t the point. In the writing of it, the book actually felt speculative more in the way SF is speculative: starting with something we recognise and extrapolating it to a fantastical place.

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Were you conscious of contributing to a minor trend in contemporary literature? Jo Baker fictionalised Beckett in A Country Road, A Tree (2016), and a version of Beckett appeared again in Alex Pheby’s Lucia (2018). What’s your response to writing on a similar wavelength to these books?

You know all those ‘punk’ genres in SF — cyberpunk, steampunk, dieselpunk and so on? I like that terminology because it captures how fiction can take a certain setting, with its associated sensibility, paraphernalia and preoccupations, and work it up into an aesthetic which becomes an end in itself. Writing Jott felt that way to me. The whole business of writing á clef was really just an excuse to get inside an atmosphere and invent a world. So maybe that’s the nature of the kinship with A Country Road, A Tree and Lucia — I wasn’t conscious in advance of joining in a trend, but maybe Jott belongs to the micro-genre of Beckettpunk.

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That’s an interesting idea, and thinking about Jott in this way gives it a new relationship to Communion Town. At first the two books seem quite distinct — Communion Town is built from a variety of styles and genres; Jott is comparatively more sober — but if Jott is read as an experiment in a fledgling genre like “Beckettpunk”, then there’s some more continuity between them. How did you feel yourself relating back to Communion Town as you wrote Jott? Breaking with the past? Building on it?

I think that’s just right about the continuity. The books look very different, but on the inside they have plenty in common. As you say, Communion Town is overtly a patchwork and an experiment, whereas Jott comes across as something more like straight-up lit-fic modernist-flavoured lyrical realism, but one thing I learned in writing the two books was how superficial distinctions like that are. The design of Jott looks more conventional at a glance, but inventing that structure was at least as difficult and as experimental as putting Communion Town together — and it was just as much a matter of playing with styles and genres, notwithstanding the fact that Jott is set in a less obviously fantastical world.

And then you also find that certain obsessions carry over from one story into another, whether you intend it or not. In Communion Town there’s this ghostly ‘flaneur’ figure who wanders around the city, and is a sinister presence because he embodies a kind of unknowable story, or a story that can’t ever be told. He came back in Jott in the shape of William Walker, a psychiatric patient whom the protagonist Arthur is trying and failing to psychoanalyse. Arthur is haunted by the fact that Walker’s reality is completely inaccessible — he is the story that can’t be told, and, as in Communion Town, he’s the dark space at the centre of the book.

So it seems to me, anyway — although this may all demonstrate how things that loom large for a writer don’t always match up with the reader’s experience!

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What were the challenges of “inventing the structure”, exactly? You mention positioning Walker as the “dark space” at the heart of Arthur’s story, and with that relationship in mind one can see more easily the very delicate, almost contrapuntal positioning of Arthur and Louis and their interactions. But many of the signifiers of structure (transitions, breaks, juxtapositions, etc.) are so quiet and unobtrusive, so graceful in their movement, that the whole thing gives the impression that its structure came along effortlessly. What labours are being obscured here?

I’m glad if it looks effortless! The tricky thing was making a smooth, simple surface with a lot of hidden movement going on underneath. The book comes in five acts, each one set over a few hours, the five of them spaced across about two years, each with many years of past time folded into the present. It took some experimenting to make that work, and I suspect I may have just ended up stealing Virginia Woolf’s method from Mrs. Dalloway (1925) — what she called her “tunnelling process”, of digging out her characters’ lives as if they were “beautiful caves” that finally emerge into the light of the day on which the story takes place. I thought about that idea a lot when working on the structure, anyway, and found it very useful and inspiring.

In a way this goes back to Communion Town, again. In that book various voices tell various stories, and the idea is that they’re mutually incompatible — they belong to different genre-worlds, and so the city forms itself from tales that exclude one another but nevertheless have to coexist. In Jott, everything is held inside Arthur’s perspective, but the idea of conflicting and contradictory stories was equally important — it was my way of thinking about how the characters struggled with one another, or found one another mysterious. So, for example, Louis has a bitter, contemptuous view of Arthur’s relationship with Sarah, and Arthur has to find a way to free himself of that story and make his own account of what his marriage is like. And Walker is at the heart of this, because he’s such a riddle, and because Arthur and Louis read his story in such different ways. For Arthur, Walker is very sick and needs to be cured, whereas Louis doesn’t see him as in need of help or pity — he admires him, and even envies him a little. So all these stories flow along under the surface of Arthur’s consciousness, and I hope that as they interfere with one another they create the hidden drama of the book.

Another aspect of this is that Louis is a writer of quasi-Beckettian, would-be-modernist fiction. So here was where genre and pastiche came in: threading Louis’s writing through the text, and showing his style evolving over time, was a nice way of working in some contrasts of style, but it’s also a way in which Louis imposes his version of things on Arthur. He takes his friend as a kind of raw material and tells a story that Arthur finds almost unrecognisable as an image of himself, but with which he somehow has to reckon.

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You describe the Beckettian prose in Jott as the product of pastiche, which it certainly is. What it isn’t is a parody of Beckett, though it easily could have been. How did the writing of these passages differ from the writing of the rest of the book? Did you have to rely heavily on Beckett’s work, or refer back to his texts, to make sure you were walking a straight line with it?

I did read and re-read Beckett a lot, especially Murphy (1938) and some of the shorter prose texts like First Love (1945) and The End (1960). As you say, the idea was never to write parody — Louis’ writing may be a travesty of Beckett’s, but it isn’t an exaggeration for comic effect. It was more that the pastiche was meant to create a sort of parallel-universe body of Beckettian writing, and by doing so get into an intimate conversation with Beckett’s work. You find out a lot about a book by pastiching it, and in a way Jott brings itself into being by arguing with aspects of Murphy — things to do with mental illness, or relations between women and men, or the attractions of solipsism. And in a simpler way, it draws a lot of its energy from Murphy’s bottomless well of bleak laughter. Jott is set as much in Murphy-world as in, say, “the 1930s” — though it’s not entirely set in either of those places.

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And how did it all end up in print through John Murray Originals? It has been reported the manuscript found its way to Christopher Priest, who acted as its agent. Can you say something about how that happened, what he saw in the book, and how the editorial process played out afterwards?

I got to know Christopher Priest after I sent him a copy of my first book back in 2012. Chris and his partner, the writer Nina Allan, are models of what’s sometimes called literary citizenship: deeply committed to the work of writing, deeply serious about the importance of fiction, deeply generous in their support for fellow writers. Although Chris has been a friend and mentor to me ever since Communion Town, I only learned that he has a sideline as a literary agent after I found myself in need of representation for Jott. He had read the book and believed in it, so he offered to take it on. That was one bit of very good fortune I had with Jott; the other was that Mark Richards, the excellent and adventurous editor who published Communion Town, wanted this book too.

I had thought the text was more or less finished when I sent it to Chris, but I ended up having important conversations about it with him — and with Nina, and, later on, with Mark — all of which helped it to reach its final state. At one stage I did consider (in the words of Grace Paley) enormous changes at the last minute! I came to feel that the book was so preoccupied with the difficulties of entering into other people’s points of view that it needed to follow through on that idea and break out of Arthur’s perspective — so, very late in the drafting, I added extra sections told in Walker’s voice. I briefly felt it was vital to do this, but when I looked at it with a cooler head I realized I was trying to make my story do too many different things at once, and those sections didn’t belong in Jott. No writing is ever really wasted, though: I made discoveries by writing in Walker’s voice, and I have a suspicion that those discarded sections may be the beginnings of a whole other book, sooner or later.