Acclaimed essayist Chris Arthur tells David Robinson what keeps him devoted to a literary form that rarely gets the attention it deserves
Poets may moan about the difficulty of finding publishers for their slim volumes and short story writers may warn that their preferred form is on the verge of extinction, but compared to someone wanting to rush into print with a book of essays, they have it easy.
Or at least that’s the case on this side of the Atlantic. In America, where the essay remains a vibrant literary form, where commissioning editors don’t reach for the smelling salts when handed essays 10,000 words long, and where there is a plenitude of cultural quarterlies, weekly and monthly magazines in which the literary essay can still be found, they do things altogether differently. Here, though, there is an essay-sized gap in our literary culture. In the country of Orwell and Stevenson, Hazlitt and Lamb, the wonder is how few people seem to mind.
All of which is by way of introducing a writer of whom, I am fully aware, most people reading this will not have heard. He doesn’t trouble the bestseller charts, indeed nearly all of his books have been published only in America. Yet for over a decade now I have delighted in reading the essays – thought-provoking, reflective and so superbly crafted that they have won numerous awards – of Chris Arthur, an Ulster-born writer now living in St Andrews, whose latest collection has just been published.
From his books, I feel as though I know him – or at least his childhood, memories of which his essays often mine. If that makes them sound obsessively solipsistic, that couldn’t be further from the truth: every time he picks up a subject, he invariably opens it out, elegising the everyday, and emphasising, in the words of one of his essays, “how truly amazing, how worthy of wonder, of consecration, our world is”.
As an example of his methodology, take the essay that begins his new collection. It’s called “Chestnuts” and opens conventionally enough with him collecting fallen chestnuts with his daughter who, when he was bundling up his dead mother’s clothes to send to charity shops, took a shine to a particular tweed coat. Emptying its pockets, he came across something that had the same deep mahogany sheen of a chestnut but clearly wasn’t, as it was much flatter.
So he tries to find out what it is, looks up an old book his father bought years ago, and there it is, in an illustration of tropical drift seeds found on the Donegal coast: “Entada scadens, Donegal.” A monkey-ladder vine seed. More botany books, more history: Sloane’s two-volume Natural History of Jamaica (1707 and 1725); websites on sea beans; Linnaeus. Arthur imagines the seed falling from its split pod, researches the currents taking it to Ireland and how long it would have taken (about 400 days), and then in Ireland, on a beach, his mother seeing it and, charmed, pocketing it.
His mother suffered from claustrophobia. Maybe it was her fingers that had polished the sea heart “as if it were a kind of secret, therapeutic rosary”; maybe a neighbour gave it her – it’s the sort of detail that we lose from a life in death. And yet look again at the sea heart seed, at its own secrets, and there’s a parallel in the Chandogya Upanishads with the sage Uddalaka’s instruction to his disciple to break open the banyan seed – there is nothing in it, the disciple realises, yet everything too.
From Hindu metaphysics to 263 Prisengracht, Amsterdam, to Anne Frank looking at the chestnut tree that was almost all of nature that she could see from her hiding place, though even then the sea heart seeds were drifting west on the oceans, and by the time she died in Bergen-Belsen, “in Ireland my mother would have been thinking about marriage, her life falling into the shape that would catch me in its current, that would lead eventually to the moment when she found (or was given) the sea heart… ”
I’d quote the whole page here if I could, because its lyricism seems so unforced, and its lines of thought so precise. Because life’s meaning eludes us, Arthur says, because we’re not sure of any stories beyond the ones we weave, “we clutch at the things around us, put them in our pockets when we can take what comfort there is to be found in them, salvage what shreds of sense appear in the entangled savagery and sweetness of life’s unfolding”. And words, too, are like drift seeds: all the writer can do is hope that they will find landfall somewhere in someone else’s understanding.
Now this is, I must admit, a ludicrously blunt précis and one that shatters the subtlety of the original, stripping it back to the barest of bones. (The original essay is about 8,000 words long, enough to fill six of these pages). My excuse for even attempting such a crass summary is twofold: first because as Arthur admits, “even the word ‘essay’ is the kiss of death to most readers” and yet this is so evidently brimful of both thought and life; and secondly, because it exemplifies his attentiveness to the tiniest detail, drawing the reader out into the broader picture of life and chance.
Although this is prose, it has the concentrated thought of poetry: indeed one could readily imagine a whole series of poems just from that one seed of an essay: on the transgressive nature of emptying the pockets of his mother’s clothes, for example; on Sir Hans Sloane’s voyage to Jamaica (did he, Arthur parenthetically wonders, see the sea hearts drifting in the other direction?); on Anne Frank and his daughter gathering chestnuts; on the sheer randomness of the sea heart’s drift to a colder continent on which it could never grow. Those kind of thoughts themselves are prompted only by the essay’s own changes in direction: as Arthur points out, quoting American essayist Lydia Fakundiny: “If an essay doesn’t surprise the writer, it probably isn’t worth writing.” In the case of “Chestnuts”, “I had a sense of where it might be going, but in the bits of writing I’m most proud of, something happens in the process of composition, something you couldn’t have predicted when you started writing the piece and yet when you get to it, it seems like the obvious place you were always aiming for.”
Arthur’s career as an essayist began with the kind of small, accidental moment of realisation on which so many of his essays hinge. He was browsing in Waterstone’s in Edinburgh just before taking up a lectureship in religious studies at Lampeter, when he came across Best American Essays 1989. “It’s one of those things: why do you pick up one book and decide to buy it? The cover was drab and grey, there was nothing particularly appealing about it, yet it changed the direction of my life completely.”
Until then, he hadn’t thought of writing essays, but the book inspired him. He wrote an essay – “Ferrule” – about his father’s walking stick (although, like “Chestnuts” really about so much more), sent it off to The American Scholar, one of the magazines mentioned in Best American Essays (where his own work has also featured), and it was accepted. A literary agent got in touch, lots of people said lots of nice things, and he started writing in earnest. A small Colorado publisher took on his first three collections (Irish Nocturnes, Irish Willow and Irish Haiku), Palgrave Macmillan took over in 2009 for Irish Elegies (though sales weren’t helped by pricing a slender hardback at $80). Words of the Grey Wind came out the same year, from Blackstaff Press, the first time his essays had been published in his native land. The new book, On the Shoreline of Knowledge, is published by Sightline Books, an imprint of the University of Iowa, whose creative writing school is widely held to be the world’s best.
For all the Irish content of the essays, Arthur hasn’t lived there since he left to go to university in Edinburgh, where he got a First and a PhD in religious studies, before moving to St Andrews as its first Gifford research fellow and returning to Edinburgh for a post-doctoral fellowship.
“I sometimes wonder whether I could have written any of the essays if I hadn’t moved away from Ireland and then looked back. But Scotland feels like home to me, and always has, right from the first time I arrived here. I don’t understand how place speaks to people, but coastal Fife does to me.”
He moved back to St Andrews with his wife and two daughters in 2010 after two decades in Lampeter, where he was increasingly disillusioned by the university’s refusal to integrate essays into academic study. He would still love to teach creative non-fiction, but concedes that there are unlikely to be any openings to do so, given the way in which university creative writing courses in the UK seem to be biased in favour of other genres.
In the meanwhile, he carries on writing essays that – Kathleen Jamie apart – are unmatched by any other writer in Scotland. “I tend to write more from memory than from immediate experience. Quite often loss is an important theme too – that might make it sound pessimistic and in the past but I don’t think it is. I have a sense of wonder, of sheer stupefied amazement at the complexity of ordinary things, at the way you can take an ordinary thing – like Henry Petroski did in The Pencil or Jan Zalasiewicz in The Planet in a Pebble, both wonderful books – and make it a window into so much more.” Often, meditating on an object can provide a way into a subject that he wouldn’t otherwise be able to write about. In “Swan Song” (from Irish Haiku and collected in Words of the Grey Wind), he wrote an essay about the stillbirth of his son that I treasure for the way in which it studiedly avoids clichés, placing his own grief in a continuum of loss: he wouldn’t have been able to write it, he says, had he not come across a museum caption pointing out that in a Mesolithic grave in Denmark, archaeologists had found the remains of a young woman buried alongside an infant lying on a swan’s wing.
“I start with an idea or an object, something that fascinates me, that acts like a lens or a window. And I want to explain why I find it fascinating and significant and why it seems to cast light on other things. When I began writing the Chestnuts essay, I didn’t know anything about driftseeds, but the sea heart did remind me of a chestnut. See for yourself.”
He gets up, walks across his study, and places the seaheart from his mother’s tweed coat in my hand. “It’s like a giant Revel,” I say, looking down on it. “Like a normal Revel, but about ten times the size.”
“I never thought of that,” says Arthur. “But you’re right.”
• On The Shoreline of Knowledge by Chris Arthur is published by Sightline books, University of Iowa Press and is available on www.amazon.co.uk price £17.96. Further information can be found at his website, www.chrisarthur.org