Monday, 28 January 2013

David Stacton: He did it his way

David Stacton 1923-1968

Last Saturday the Guardian Review kindly published a longish piece of mine about the late American novelist David Stacton, a swathe of whose novels I’ve recently reissued as Faber Finds. 

It’s always a pleasure to occupy the Guardian’s retrospective 'Re-Readings' slot (I was last there with this piece on Yukio Mishima’s The Seaof Fertility) and it's a good fit for for me since, for better or worse, I tend now to re-read rather more than I read...

David Stacton is a rare and strange and special case, and certainly the sort of writer about whom one wants to spread the word. As I say in the piece, his subjects included Akhenaten and Nefertiti, Lord Nelson and Ludwig of Bavaria, Cardinal Richlieu and Axel Oxenstierna, Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth. And I just don’t believe you can read that without getting at least a little bit curious.

In describing Stacton as an ‘ambitious’ novelist – in the creative rather than career sense – I want very much to stress the inspiring example he still offers to those who would write fiction. In an age of so much teaching of creative writing, so much focus on storytelling conventions, on shaping personal experience into 'pitching your book', bringing the story to market and building the author’s career/brand – the whole industry now devoted to realising the novels often thought to lie inside each one of us… it’s useful, now and then, to be reminded of a writer who set out to do grand and astounding and unconventional things on a page, beyond even his own ken, and without first asking anyone’s permission.

I certainly don't mean to say that writers don't benefit greatly from skilled tutelage and/or by extending themselves to the imagined reader - only that once in a while it's good to have someone around who makes it up pretty much all by themselves.

Stacton’s incredible productivity was such that you have to believe he loved writing (or felt bound to it) as much as any scribe who ever lived. Certainly it’s difficult to imagine there was any time when he wasn’t deeply immersed in writing a book or else researching it. Rewriting was probably as distressing for him as it is for most working novelists, but he brought it on himself: he had the exceedingly common writer’s self-delusion that his next project would be relatively ‘short’ and delivered on time, but his ambitions simply didn’t tend that way. 

As he wrote or edited he always kept one or more grand and enthralling project on his horizon simultaneously. When I sifted Stacton’s archived correspondence with his Faber editor, the great Charles Monteith - whom he was very fortunate to have as his champion - I laughed aloud to read Stacton mentioning almost off-handedly to Monteith, ‘I thought recently it would be fun to take the Popes on whole – a big book about their personal eccentricities...’ Big that certainly would have been. But had he lived longer he might have done it, you know. He did nearly everything else.

One last embroider on what I mention in the piece about Stacton’s mind being temperamentally inclined to bold patterns and designs – such that every novel had to form part of a trilogy on a theme, the trilogies themselves interlocking within the larger oeuvre... This is the mark of an artist who liked to set seals upon things. And in 1954, at the very outset of his relationship with Faber, Stacton sent the firm a ‘logotype’ he had drawn, an artful entwining of his initials, and asked that it be included as standard in the prelims of his novels (‘Can I be humoured about my colophon as a regular practice?’) 

A tad grand in one so young, perhaps - but Faber thought it worth obliging him, as have I with these new reissues, each of which bear the Stacton colophon as shown.

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