Essay: On writing The Known and Unknown Sea

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Essay: On writing The Known and Unknown Sea


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Novelist Alan Bilton gives us some insights behind his second novel The Known and Unknown Sea.


As a long time resident of Swansea, readers often ask me “Wherever did you come up with the idea of a rain-drenched, wind-swept Welsh town looking out across the bay into endless mist and fog?” To which the answer is, of course, the 1926 silent movie, Sunrise. The fantastical conceit of F.W. Murnau’s great classic, is that you can have two different worlds separated by a tiny channel of water; on one side lies a Gothic Bavarian village, straight out of a Grimm fairy tale, on the other, a futuristic art deco version of New York. To cross the water – which the characters do by rowing boat – is to ford time, space and even different kinds of reality. Sunrise is all about crossing over to the ‘other side’ – which is, in many ways, the key idea behind the novel.

Of course this notion of ‘the other side’ has other, more supernatural connotations as well. For Freud all dreams about journeys are really dreams about death, and the journey west, in particular, as always been seen as a metaphor for mortality. Here, for example, is the great Central European writer Danilo Kis discussing his strange vision of Ireland as

“the land on the other side of language, the last land to see the fading light of day … A realm of fog and darkness, the boundary of the known world. And on the other side, the dark sea in which the dead once again find their land of eternity – dreams without shores, without return”Danilo Kis

The ‘other side’ in my novel isn’t the after-life, but images of the spectral and otherworldly cling to it like cobwebs. Here/There, Home/Away, Known/Unknown: the demarcation between these lands is central to so many fairy tales, from The Wizard of Oz to Jack and the Beanstalk, and indeed forms one of the fundamental building blocks of literature. What stories did ancient hunters bring back to the cave with their kill? Why, stories of the land beyond, what lies outside the familiar and ordinary, yonder from the cave, images and pictures they daub upon the walls. The model of the journey is a fundamental component of art – a metaphor the passage of life, of course, as well as the shift from innocence to experience. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to conceive of the novel without it.

So: my novel would be about a family booking passage on a mysterious vessel to the other side. But whose story was this? seagull 1

I decided on Alex, the child-narrator of the book, whose voice remains sunny, optimistic and playful, no matter how strange or unsettling the things he comes across or the horrors he meets. Children can cope with the unfamiliar much better than adults – everything is unfamiliar to start with – and the naivety of his tone allowed me to play games with mood: like many unreliable narrators, Alex gets things comically wrong, even as the reader/adult can (I hope) discern the much more upsetting truth. Alex was thus my comic life buoy: he would always bob to the surface, no matter how terrible things became. The book is about the worst things that a child can imagine – being alone, being away from home, the loss of family and friends – but the mood is antic and pantomime, a slapstick comedy rather than the tragedy which the material suggests.

In this TKAUS is both a self-consciously comic novel and a kind of anxiety dream or nightmare – not unlike my first book, The Sleepwalkers’ Ball. The world Alex discovers is the world a child might create: messy, sticky, badly painted and only just glued together, a set knocked together in a primary school art lesson on a wet and windy afternoon. In this I’ve always been interested in Art as a thing rather than a mirror: a self-contained construction, which doesn’t really rely on the way things are. Alex’s little mitts are all over this world – clumsy, crude, messy, disorderly – and this is also my ideal: the novel as a distinct voice or creation, a thing as unique as your fingerprints. For me, literature is less to do with how things are then how they might be – the contingent, the provisional, even the impossible. In some ways, Art seems to me to be predicated on its distance from the real rather than its closeness – as Sergei Dovlatov writes “What would be the point of dreaming, if dreams came true?” Art transforms the world, re-enchants it, provides us with vitamins we can’t find in everyday life. In this the book’s credo is similar to that of Bohumil Hrabal – “The world is maddening beautiful – well, it isn’t really, but that’s how I choose to see it”. Freud knew that books come from day dreams and wish fulfilment – but, of course they van also come from anxiety dreams and nightmares too.

Like a tightrope walker, Alex’s blithe narration is suspended above a bottomless pit of unhappiness, disappointment, disquiet and misery: in this the book offers a kind of lightness, pleasure and beauty as an attempt to counter the tragic currents of life. Not that the void can be wholly ignored or discarded: rather Art’s beautiful lie must also acknowledge the ugly truth, the real world howling back at us down below. Freud saw the beauty of art as a bribe to try and win us over, Kurt Vonnegut saw it as the sugar coating of an unpleasant pill. I’m not sure that I agree with either of these – but the relationship between the real and the imaginary, the light and the heavy, the impossible and the mortal, is essential to the book.

“I am a writer, and as such I have not only the right, but also the duty to raise the level of reality, as I see it, to the very point where it threatens to tip over into the unbelievable” Gregor Von Rozzoni

Although TKAUS is some ways a dream book, the dreams have to matter, they have to have weight. Therefore, even the imaginary has to have consequences, to play a role in cause and effect. Dreams – central to Surrealism, Absurdism, and Magic Realism – need to be tangible and tactile if they’re to work in literature: you need mud as well as fog. They suggest the idea of stepping out of this world and into another: an idea I come back to again and again.

“And, as it often happened with him – though it was deeper this time – Fyodor suddenly felt, in this glassy darkness, the strangeness of life, the strangeness of its magic, as if a corner of it had been turned back for an instance and he had glimpsed its unusual lining”Nabakov, The Gift

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The idea of turning a corner into the impossible – finding a trap door, a portal, a means of passage – is inescapable in everything I’ve written so far. It’s an infantile idea, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. It’s linked to escapism, but not quite the same: the unknown doesn’t make any sense unless you compare it with the everyday. It’s the connection between Here and There, Home and Away, which is central: a connection I wanted to explore in the book.

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