Charles Lambert’s Scent of Cinnamon: Tough Literary Queries Posed Here
For several months now, novelist and short-story writer Charles Lambert has been zooming around the internet, popping in suddenly here or there—just like Endora on Bewitched—to chat about one of the only things that are still worth talking about: writing.
Charles’ visit to VitaVagabonda marks the last stopover on his “Something Rich and Strange” tour (you can find links to Charles’ previous nine guest appearances at the bottom of this page), and was the occasion for us to discuss the reason we are all gathered here today: his remarkable short-story collection, The Scent of Cinnamon (Salt Publishing, 2008).
Much praise has already been heaped on The Scent of Cinnamon, whose title story was selected for inclusion in the 2007 O. Henry Prize Stories anthology; and other people have thought of almost all the nice things I might have said about it (one of the drawbacks of going last). I would just add (or, perhaps, repeat) the following: As a writer who writes short stories (and, especially, as a writer who reads a lot of them), I repeatedly see the short-story form being beaten about the head and shoulders, verbally abused, held against its will, hamstrung, evulsed, shackled, gagged, scuttled, keelhauled, made to dance like a trained monkey, trifled with, besmirched, deplumed, despised, defamed, dishonored, and debauched.
One of the best things I can say about The Scent of Cinnamon, then, is that it is the work of a writer who treats the short story with respect and awe, with grace and skill. As if, in other words, the short story were an art form.
Which is about as rare these days as going into a store and getting actual customer service from the person in the customer-service booth.
Charles was kind enough to chat with me about some of the aspects of The Scent of Cinnamon that I found most intriguing, and our conversation follows. (You can get your very own copy of his collection at fine bookstores everywhere or online in the UK or the US of A.)
WR: As a sort of experiment, and because I thought he needed a jolt, I assigned “The Scent of Cinnamon” to one of my advanced English students to read over the holiday break. I was interested in using it that way both because the story is full of words that he ought to learn and because there’s a fair amount of reading between the lines to do which, if a student can manage it, is a sign that he or she has moved beyond a literal understanding of English and into a metaphorical or lyrical one. I don’t even mean anything especially complicated by that, but just things like: what clues are there as to the time period in which the story takes place or where does Joseph Broderick live (for historical reasons, I decided it was New Zealand or Australia, but I’m not sure). If you were going to teach one of your stories, which one or ones would it be and what would you use the story (or stories) to illustrate?
CL: I’ve thought a lot about this recently, Wendell, because I’ve been asked to write a piece for a sort of manual designed to help people write short stories. It was suggested to me that I might want to do something on “twist in the tail” stories, as I seem to write them so often. I don’t want to spoil the anticipated pleasure of reading my piece by giving away all its secrets here (as befits its subject, I suppose), but I’m certainly intrigued by the way a story can open up to reveal a second story concealed within it. A really satisfactory twist should never feel like an afterthought; at the same time, if it weren’t there, the rest of the story should still feel complete without it, although it certainly wouldn’t be as good. All the information needed for the second reading to exist must somehow be embedded in the narrative, waiting to reveal itself as the real story, for which the other one acts as a sort of deceitful, protective mask. I think I’d choose this to talk about with students, ideally with the more detailed support of my finished piece for the manual (gulp! deadline, end of February).
The two stories in the collection that probably represent the method best—and the ones I’d choose if I wanted to teach it with my own work rather than that of someone who’s better at it, say, Saki—are the first and the last: “The Scent of Cinnamon” and “The Growing,” and it’s relevant, I think, that they both lean on genre forms to some extent. I’d hope that one of these stories would show how this sort of narrative works in a resonant, rather than banal, way. I should say, though, that it’s never my conscious intention to write this kind of story—when they come, they come. If I had an advanced writing class and felt like doing my own work with them, I’d also like them to help me work out to what extent, and by what means, “Soap” might be this kind of story.
By the way, Laura Furman, the editor of the O. Henry Prize, once told me that a historian colleague of hers had worked out where Joseph Broderick lived by seeing how long it took post to arrive from the UK at the turn of the last century. He established, as you guessed and I—fervently—hoped, that it was almost certainly somewhere in the Antipodes. I researched a lot for details of Dunkirk while I was writing “Something Rich and Strange,” but I must admit that I winged it for “The Scent of Cinnamon.”
WR: One of the things I realized, in reading The Scent of Cinnamon, is what a complicated relationship I have with British English (and, it naturally follows, with American English). Like a lot of American readers, perhaps, I’m fond of British writers because I tend to find among them a richer vocabulary and an elegant, more attentive use of language (I’m obviously excluding younger writers and most bloggers who, on both sides of the water, seem to express themselves with about the same 338 words). It’s not for nothing that I go back to Pepys or Woolf every now and then, just to “rinse my pen” (pace Manzoni) in an English that is not yet poisoned by such dubious innovations as MTV, hip hop, verbed nouns, mass advertising, and Judith Butler. (To be fair to my com-pats, there are any number of American writers who could fill the bill just as well as Woolf and Pepys, I just can’t think of one right now—maybe Walt Whitman’s prose, oddly enough or, of course, Henry James, though he always seems more European than American in sensibility.)
That said, it’s also true that I sometimes find myself out of patience with British writers for what strikes me as excessive phlegm and a sort of linguistic punctilio that borders on the sadistic. In other words, if American writers, especially many contemporary ones, seem to lack gravitas, British writers sometimes seem to be writing with an anvil strapped to their wrists. One of the things I admired about The Scent of Cinnamon, in fact, was that you combined a lovely and enviable use of language with a writer’s touch that always struck me as just right for the characters, the plot, the story. It’s British English but it’s got what I’d be so bold and shamelessly chauvinistic as to call an American inflection; it’s haimish. Now, in case you were wondering whether I actually had a question, here it is (and, in utter disrespect of the rules, it’s a two-parter): First, do you experience anything similarly visceral (knowing, as I do, that you read very widely) in your relationship with American writing/writers vs. British writing/writers? And second, what, if anything, would persuade you to write (or dissuade you from writing) characters who lived in and spoke American English; that is, how would AE affect characterization or the kind of stories you tell. (And obviously I’m thinking of what it would take for me to write a BE-speaking character convincingly….)
CL: Well, this is almost too flattering to require an answer and I think I’ll just bask in your generosity for a moment. OK, basking over, back to the job. The writers I admire are divided pretty equally between the two sides of the Atlantic, I think, but something they may have in common is that many of the Americans I love tend to write with a grammatical complexity and richness of language that often feels “European” (Brodkey, White), while the UK authors who most appeal to me have an edginess that doesn’t feel British English, and certainly comes from what Carver represents in the US tradition. Which is another way of saying that, like you, I’m probably most interested in writers who don’t work within national stylistic rigidities, if these exist—and, to be honest, I’m not convinced our shared intuition would bear too much examination. (Someone commented on an earlier leg of the tour—I think Kevin from Canada, which wouldn’t be surprising!—that quite a few of my favourite writers are, in fact, Canadian. This may be significant. Maybe writers like Munro, Arwood and Gowdy just naturally combine the two….) I should also say that I’m deeply bored by the increasingly dull pseudo-classical cadences of some British writers (OK, McEwan primarily, but there are others: I don’t, for example, think Hollinghurst is nearly as good a stylist as most people seem to, much as I enjoy his work, and think it valuable).
As far as my own work is concerned, I’m very wary about creating AE characters, and the only one in this collection is Janice in “Little Potato, Little Pea,” who just seemed to come to me whole and ready-made. I have, as apologists always say, many American friends, and I know how wonderfully inimitable they are, but I think I know enough of their speech patterns and mannerisms to produce something fairly convincing within a very narrow range, and I hope I’ve managed to do this in the story. The fact that she may be the most despicable person in the whole book (and I know there’s some serious competition) is, believe me, pure coincidence.
WR: This isn’t the question that I had intended to ask you on this topic, but I was inspired by a note I received recently from a friend, a performance artist, who wrote that she was about to attend a conference entitled “Performing Other: Constructing Race and Gender Onstage and Off.” When I lived in SF, I did theater criticism for about ten years and there was a lot of interest in those years in the idea of “performativity”—that is, in the way “performance” (sensu strictu) combined or contrasted with “performance” in the deconstructivist sense. It seems to me as though these interesting concepts haven’t been applied in quite the same way to writing or, at least, not as thoroughly. So let’s do.
The really entangled and entangling question I want to ask you has to do with the way you, as a writer, “perform” homosexuality for readers—your homosexuality or homosex as an abstract construct or homosex as a character feature or homosex as a plot point. That is: If you write a character who is queer, and if you want the audience to know that s/he is queer, you’re forced in some way to “perform” that fact. The easiest and least interesting way is just to use the words, but you’re still left with the issue of how the gay character you “perform” will be “read”—both by other LGBT readers and by readers who aren’t. Arguably, a gay or lesbian or tranny character is an “other” in any case, whether with respect to an audience that’s not exclusively homo or to a gay public that isn’t familiar with the time or milieu or social class of the character.
In your interview with Jockohomo, you mention the “otherness” of Selby, which nonetheless somehow resonated within you. For me, the “gay” of Selby (or John Rechy), Andrew Holleran, or leaping several decades, Augusten Burroughs is simultaneously familiar and unrecognizable, “other” and not. I thought a lot about this as I worked on Everything I Have Is Blue, where one of the criteria I used in selecting stories was the way in which the writer had his or her working-class character “perform” being working-class.
Anyway, before you answer, let me blather on a little more about this topic by saying that one of the most fascinating stories for me in your collection was “Moving the Needle Toward the Thread,” in which I was convinced that the main character was (or ought to have been) gay. Obviously, there are clear indications that the narrator is a woman in love with a man, but for me, the “performance” of certain elements that I identified as “homosexual” seemed clear. Plus, I couldn’t help but think of the death of Joe Orton. Of course, I don’t know if any of this was intended or whether I’ve made it all up. If, in your answer, you could also comment on Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which has struck many people (me included) as the performance of a homosexual relationship using heterosexual characters, I’d be much obliged. For 10 bonus points, throw in Foucault.
CL: Where to start? I wrote an essay some years back on the strategies a (male) gay poet might use to address the loved one without the gayness of the relationship being annulled by readers’ assumptions of heterosexuality, and this covers some of the ground you mention here (it’s still available in the excellent collection, Language and Desire, which, incidentally, also contains the full transcript of the notorious “tampax” conversation between Charles Windsor and Camilla Parker-Bowles). Fiction’s different from poetry, obviously, but readers still make assumptions, as they have every right to do, and these are based not only on the text, and on markers within it, but on extra-textual stuff, the cover illustration, the publisher, what we know of the writer, etc. No one, in other words, expects the narrator in a Dennis Cooper novel to be a girl. It hasn’t been a strategy of mine to make that unworkable with my writing, but the simple result of letting myself go where the whim takes me, and finding myself involved in narrative situations that don’t necessarily key with my own sexual identity, or my thoughts and beliefs as a gay man.
This doesn’t mean people don’t jump to conclusions, of course, and you aren’t the first (male, gay) reader—you’re actually the third—to feel that the narrator of “Thread” ought to be, or even ‘is’, a man. One of the reasons she hitches up her skirt in the first paragraph is to indicate that this isn’t likely to be the case. In a sense this indicates the story’s failure and, I hope, its success, because what I really wanted to do was to signal otherness by showing how foolish Claire is to believe that it doesn’t matter one jot whether, talking about love, we move the needle towards the thread or the thread towards the needle, because it does; after which I wanted to show, as her certainties dissolve that she might, after all, and despite ourselves, be right. That at a more basic level there is less otherness, and more oneness, than we think, and that our refusal to recognise what there is can act as a barrier to our overcoming it. Clearly, this is a lot for one story for to do.…
I’d like to talk more about the elements you identify as “homosexual” in the piece, because I wonder if they might not reflect ways in which gay men have internalised what they perceive to be feminine behaviour and whether that might not be a trap I’ve fallen into. But I really think we should discuss this over a bottle of wine… Who knows, I might even get my ten point bonus. And yes, I absolutely agree with you about Albee. That must be worth five, surely?
WR: You’ve lived in Italy a lot longer than I have, but I was struck that at least four of the stories in The Scent of Cinnamon are set in Italy: “Nipples,” “Entertaining Friends,” “Damage,” and “Little Potato, Little Pea.” (I don’t think I’ve missed one, have I?) I’ve written only one story set in Italy, and that one years ago, when I was still only visiting semi-annually. Since then, I’ve made many attempts but haven’t gotten far; instead, now that I don’t live there anymore, my stories tend to find themselves in Hawai’i or San Francisco. Perhaps I just see the past more clearly than the present and, thus, it’s more available to me. Italy may still be too “actual.” That said, Cornwall, London, and other locations in England show up in several of your stories, as does Greece, Normandy, and so on. In what ways has Italy changed for you or become available as the “location” not only of your (real) life but for your stories? What are the geographical places that you tend to be called toward as you write?
CL: It’s certainly true for me that I need distance in time to get a decent hold on something. The events that triggered the autobiographical stories in the collection, which include the four set in Italy (with the obvious proviso that I’m only in “Little Potato, Little Pea” as one of Janice’s unfortunate, and barely mentioned, lettore colleagues; and, yes, you did miss an Italian one, Wendell, though you can be forgiven, because the unidentified island I had in mind while writing “Moving the Needle towards the Thread” was actually Ponza, just off the Lazio coast), had all had time to mulch down before I began to work on them, and the same is obviously true of those stories set in England in which the central character is either a child or fresh out of university. I should say here that “Girlie” is not autobiographical, except, in a small way, psychologically. So the past is definitely another country, and more amenable to being written about. As far as the present goes, I think I’d find it very difficult to set a long piece of work, like a novel, entirely in contemporary Britain, particularly if it was dealing with adults.
Little Monsters (out in paperback on 6 February, by the way!) is divided, as I am, between a past in the UK and a present in Italy, and my imagination, to put it mildly, isn’t sparked by life “at home” in the way it is by that in Italy. This doesn’t mean I subscribe to the view that Italy is all bruschette and arancini (though I often wish it were if the alternative is Berlusconi and lavoro precariato), as you well know. If I did, I wouldn’t know what to say about the place that hasn’t been said, excruciatingly, by a dozen other people. I suppose I write about Italy because I find myself getting worked up about what goes on around me, as people do, and want to deal with it. Both my last novel and the one I’m writing at the moment are set entirely in Rome, although they each involve a mixture of Italian and non-Italian characters, and deal, at a narrative level, with lamentably typical Italian subjects: terrorism, political double-dealing, corruption—although what they’re really about, like Little Monsters, is guilt and loss and responsibility, my favourite themes. An earlier novel, as yet unpublished, has only Italian characters, and I didn’t feel that I was moving outside my territory in a way that I would have done if I’d tried to write a novel about rent-boys in London. (Go figure. Now that is AE!) I still haven’t written a single word of fiction about Fondi, where I’ve been living for almost seven years now (God!), but I’m looking forward to it.
Charles Lambert’s “Something Rich and Strange” Tour, November 2008-January 2009
11 November 2008: Elizabeth Baines
18 November 2008: Writing Neuroses
25 November 2008: Me and My Big Mouth
2 December 2008: Jockohomo
9 December 2008: Vanessa Gebbie’s News
16 December 2008: Asylum
6 January 2009: dovegreyreader scribbles
13 January 2009: Harkaway’s Occasionalities
20 January 2009: Topsyturvydom
About the author: Charles Lambert was born in Lichfield, the United Kingdom, in 1953. After going to eight different schools in the Midlands and Derbyshire, he won a scholarship to the University of Cambridge from 1972 to 1975. In 1976 he moved to Milan and, with brief interruptions in Ireland, Portugal and London, has lived and worked in Italy since then. Currently a university teacher, academic translator and freelance editor for international agencies, his occupations have included kitchen hand, shop assistant, medical journal editor, guidebook writer, receptionist, teacher of political science, and journalist with ANSA, the Italian news agency. He now lives in Fondi, exactly halfway between Rome and Naples, a stone’s throw from what was once the Appian Way.
Charles Lambert is also the author of the highly acclaimed novel, Little Monsters (Picador, 2008). He blogs at Charles Lambert’s Place for Everything That Doesn’t Fit Anywhere Else.