Since starting the Literary Sofa blog in 2011, I read far more new fiction than I used to. And despite the endless stream of fantastic novels which find their way to me, I often get the feeling there are established notions of ‘what works’ in fiction or ‘what the reader wants/expects’ – notions I personally like to see challenged. So I was particularly intrigued to see what a debut author who happens to be a literary agent himself would come up with. Add to that a connection with my home town of Salisbury in the form of the cathedral spire, and skyscrapers, which I love; it’s fair to say that my expectations were high! But Alex Christofi had no trouble meeting them and he joins me today to discuss how an idea grew and grew… (my mini-review follows)
It was 2010 when I had the idea for my first novel, Glass. The recession had had time to trickle down to people of my standing, by then, and I was spending my Saturday taking a free stroll along the river, when I noticed a large concrete pillar poking up between all the glass buildings that squatted on the South Bank around the mayoral egg. This concrete pillar had a sign fixed to the top of it that said, THE SHARD, which didn’t seem like a particularly good name for what was essentially a blunt post. I took a photo of it on my phone, probably thinking I could get some mileage out of it on social media, and forgot about it.
The next day, I was again dodging the recession by lying on my bed. After I grew tired of looking out the window at the flats opposite, I began to look at the window itself. I hadn’t cleaned it, ever. In fact, I realised with a kind of dull horror, I’d never cleaned a single window in my life. Everywhere I went, windows must be quietly accruing dirt, rooms getting darker, more obscure.
In those days, I had a large mural across one of my walls, depicting a whole cityscape in silhouette. Looking at it made me think of that dirty pillar, the ‘Shard’. On googling it, I discovered that it was going to be the largest skyscraper in Europe, dubbed ‘a shard of glass through the heart of historic London’ by English Heritage as an insult and repurposed by the building’s developers as part of their branding.
These buildings were always started during a boom and completed during the bust, when their existence seemed like an insult. The Empire State Building had been completed during the Great Depression, with a mast designed for mooring rich people’s dirigibles. These great skyscrapers were the epitome of collaborative achievement, one of the great feats of the modern age, and yet their completion so often heralded divisive politics, with a swing towards the political right. It could be a fascinating setting for a story, I thought.
There were already a couple of great skyscraper stories: there was William Golding’s novel The Spire, about the building of the famous cathedral spire at Salisbury, and then there was the story of Babel, that ur-skyscraper (lol) after which all are modelled. It is a stranger story than most people seem to realise, raising more questions than it answers about God’s intervention in human affairs. God comes to see the tower; he realises that the people is one, that they have one language and they can do anything they imagine; he decides to scatter them and confound their language so they can’t understand one another. To me, it’s a story about how easily we might overcome our limitations if we were to act as a single body. The God depicted in the story seems fearful of human capability, and the scattering of humanity into rival factions who cannot understand one another is not righteous but melancholy. (It is like Aristophanes’ story, in The Symposium, in which the gods decide to split eight-limbed humans in half because they are too powerful – the reason, he says, why we spend our lives searching for our other half.)
Skyscrapers seemed to carry all this freight of interesting oppositions: corporate and personal, boom and bust, collaboration and divisiveness. And here was a skyscraper being completed in the heart of contemporary London, its design already iconic, not nestled among other skyscrapers but jutting improbably out of the low lying markets of Borough.
I built my novel over the next couple of years, watching the Shard grow and take shape before my eyes. The novel is set around the inauguration of the building in the spring of 2012, but at the time, I was writing into the near future, and that race with the building itself compelled me on to keep writing, to get my concrete in place, to clad it in glass and, finally, to assemble and perch the great spire – in my case, the climactic final scene, which takes place 70 floors up, dangling off a window cleaner’s cradle, with all of London spread out below. The hero of my book is a window cleaner, his mission modest but important: to confront the dirt and darkness, to seek clarity, to seek the light.
Author photo © Will Ablett
Thanks to Alex for this great piece. It’s always fascinating to hear where the idea for a novel originated.
IN BRIEF: My View of GLASS
In Günter Glass, Alex Christofi has created a real ‘character’ – one whose own complex blend of traits mirror the qualities of the book as a whole: he is both innocent and (for a 22-year-old) astonishingly wise, and for a novel that is so unusual, intelligent and at times overtly philosophical it is remarkably entertaining and free of pretension. It frequently made me laugh out loud yet it brought me close to tears more than once. I would have had to throw most books aside in the kind of crisis that erupted in my life halfway through reading this book, but it still spoke to me and I think that says a lot. There are certain drawbacks to the way Glass is narrated (which I can’t elaborate without doing the same myself) but overall this is a fresh and original work from a voice that masters heights and depth with equal assurance.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of being Kim Forrester’s Triple Choice Tuesday guest on her excellent blog, Reading Matters, talking about three memorable books.
Next week’s guest here will be Claire Fuller, author of stunning debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days, one of my Fiction Hot Picks 2015.
sounds like a very interesting read
I enjoyed reading Alex’s account of how he came to write this novel. I was reading it around the time you posted on going back to Salisbury, so I was wondering what you would think of a novel set there. I loved the character of Gunter, was less sure about the other aspect of the narration, and interested that you have decided not to name this in your mini review, so I won’t here either, although I did mention it in my review. But generally, I so agree it’s refreshing to read something so different.
Hi Anne, thanks for commenting. I went straight to your review, which was very interesting, as was the fact that our ‘issues’ with the narration were related but not identical. (Hoping not many people will be reading this reply, but they’d encounter it straight away – I would have enjoyed the story more not knowing how it was going to end. There seems a very strong trend for doing this at the moment and I’m not at all in favour!) if you haven’t read We are the Young Men by Rob Doyle which I nominated in Kim’s Triple Choice Tuesday (see link in postscript), I think you’d find it interesting after the two you just reviewed. Unless you’re done with young men!
Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll check that one out. Am I done with young men? Not sure, but I did like the way that Miranda July’s debut novel features are not-so-young woman with some of those quirky-young-man characteristics.
I also watched the Shard being built. I walk though London Bridge Street leading up it (or away) from it every Wednesday night, and close by at ground level the full scale of this building’s arrogance and environmental vandalism really hit you. It causes such strong up-draughts that it is always like walking though a wind tunnel used for the aerodynamic testing of aircraft. I have seen pint size glasses blown off outside tables by the wind. Such buildings can have very severe micro-climatic effects at ground level. They are put up because the political-economic elite has the power to do so. It feels like a foreign colonial power occupying our space. So I am intrigued by this novel and I am going to buy and read it.
Tom, I really think you will love it. Alex’s extraordinary range of literary/philosophical/cultural references reminds me of yours. All the more impressive for someone not yet 30! Your comments about the Shard are really interesting – there’s definitely something a bit sinister about it.
Yes, this is probably going off topic and I don’t know that much about English and Welsh history, but I am beginning “read” all those London financial towers like the castles the English built to subjugate the Welsh, or earlier still, the ones the Normans built to keep the Anglo-Saxons under control (like the Tower of London). We (including my nation) have been colonisers for so long and now we are in turn the ones who have alien rules and structures imposed on us, in the form of economic and philosophical neo-liberalism since the 1980s – a creed which did not set out to express itself in the form of buildings, but as a project of certain social and economic relationships and colonising our thoughts and language, but it couldn’t help itself but symbolising control through its buildings too. I have no idea about Christofi’s novel yet, of course, but I expect that the theme of what it feels to be colonised, as found in fiction in novels from other parts of the world, will eventually become articulated more explicitly in English fiction in English settings. Colonisation is never just a matter of external physical and administrative control but something which is also internalised by the colonised. The relationships between the coloniser and the colonised become ambiguous and contradictory and de-colonisation is not just a struggle against an external oppressor but also a struggle against something which has become part your own mind and personality. Excellent fodder for novelists of course, but it also explains why de-colonisation can be such a painful, and sometimes extremely violent and traumatic process. It is hard work, but worthwhile to become sometimes extremely self-conscious about the way your own language and thoughts have been infiltrated by the dominant external political and economic ideology. An obvious example: try to catch yourself out using transactional metaphors in the context of relations between people. You never know, de-colonisation could become the theme of internal British politics in the years to come.
Interesting perspective, Tom. Another building in this novel is, of course, Salisbury Cathedral and I suppose we could think about the magnificent churches that have dominated our cities over hundreds of years as a form of religious colonisation.
Exactly, just imagine the sheer size of those cathedrals surrounded by small scale medieval houses and primitive hovels beyond. They shout POWER at you. Anyway, will be in hospital next week and “Glass” has arrived, s in bed. so will be reading that in bed