Friday, 26 August 2011

'The Moment' by Douglas Kennedy

I went into a Waterstones bookshop a few weeks ago, and browsing through the fiction shelves I decided to 'check out' the Douglas Kennedy books, to find out if he had written a new novel. And hey presto - he had. Sitting there on the shelf (and in paperback!) was:

'The Moment', published by Hutchinson in 2011.

Wow - a must buy. I took it over excitedly to the counter and purchased it right away. This is very rare for me; to follow a fiction author and to buy all of their latest books. But with Douglas Kennedy nearly every single book turns out to be an absolute winner; real page-turners; with wonderful, exciting and meaningful plots. Yes, I am now a devoted Douglas Kennedy fan!

And yes, indeed, 'The Moment' (Kennedy's 10th best-selling novel) was another gripping read; another real page-turner; another book that it was impossible to put down. Yes, Douglas Kennedy does it again and again and again.

As well as being great reads, Kennedy's novels also make many important and insightful social and political points. 'The Moment' carried on with this tradition, and it also had a philosophical dimension.

The philosophical dimension revolved around the concept of 'The Moment': around issues such as whether or not one should live in and for 'the moment'. The main character, Thomas Nesbitt falls in love straight away, but then tragedy hits. Was this because he had been living in 'the moment' or was it down to some other outside factors?

Then, there is also the value or otherwise of being 'spontaneous' and/or 'impetuous' - a topic that I discussed recently with two of our sons, who were quite cynical about it all.

Now, for me it has always been important, indeed necessary, to be rational, sensible and level-headed for much of the time, but that on occasion there is a definite need to break out of this type of mentality, and do something spontaneous, irrational and/or impetuous - i.e. 'living in the moment'. Enjoying life in the particular instant; being carefree; being out of character, perhaps; putting ones concerns and responsibilities to one side for a while. I see 'spontaneity', in particular as being something very positive in this regard. And here, my thoughts turn to D. H. Lawrence - another one of my favourite fiction authors.

Being impetuous can, of course, be taken the wrong way - not making sound and considered judgements etc. Indeed, in what I saw as being in an 'impetuous moment' I decided to start up this blog. That was a good thing, mind. But I was actually going to call it 'Impetuous Moments' but upon discussing it with Graham Coult, the editor of 'Managing Information' (who is keen on blogging), he suggested that 'Serendipitous Moments' might be a better name, as that is clearly positive. I thought that was a sound idea, so took it on board. But being impetuous can also be a good thing. We need to break out of the rat race type of mentality sometimes, that's for sure.

Indeed, important decisions can sometimes be made in 'the moment'. And moments of genius thinking can suddenly appear; the inspiration in the moment; thinking outside of the box and outside of the confines and convention of society; such moments need to be cherished, and wherever possible, preserved. But of course, big mistakes can also be made in 'the moment'.

So, anyway, Douglas Kennedy discusses 'The Moment' in the opening pages of his book. There is a discussion between two of the characters (between Thomas Nesbitt and his father) and this is how it goes:

'Because I worry I'm a 'not now' sort of person.'

'Why do you say that?'

'I can't live in the moment, I can't let myself be happy with where I am.'


'The moment...' I said, as if trying out the word for the first time.'It's a very overrated place.'

'But its all we have, right? This night, this conversation, this moment. What else is there?'

'The past.'

'I knew you'd say that - because that's your obsession. It's in all your books. Why 'the past', Dad?'

'It always informs the present.' " (p.7)

And so on and so forth. There is so much that could be said. The importance of being able to 'let go' and live in 'the moment'.

But there surely has to be more than just 'the moment'; there is the long-term view; the hopes and aspirations.

There are also the sociological terms; 'immediate gratification' and 'deferred gratification'. 'Immediate gratification' - more working class; 'living in the moment'; living in the here and now; enjoying life and not planning much for the future. As opposed to 'deferred gratification', a more middle class concept - planning careers, buying houses and working towards creating a secure and happy life for oneself etc. etc. The latter is also very important, otherwise things can go badly wrong!

And at the end of the book Kennedy returns to 'the moment' again. That quote is at the end of this blog.

Anyway, let's move on for now. Is it a good idea to outline the main plot? Probably not - I might spoil it for potential readers. So, rather I will just say that the novel combines a love affair with writing and other creative outlets, politics and philosophy and that it is really something. Delicious; captivating; enticing; can't put downable.

But there are a couple of other particular themes in the book that I would like to discuss a little more.

The opening few pages starts off with Thomas as a child, and this quote amused me. Thomas Nesbitt says:

"I was always the last kid chosen for teams at school. I always had my head in a book." (p. 29)

Well, that one is so very like me, I must say, and I suspect that this might have applied to Douglas Kennedy himself - i.e. liking books over team sports as a child. I hated PE at school; I was always the last one to be chosen for the horrible team sports, such as netball and rounders. And as for hockey - well, that was even worse. Good job that I also had a sense of the importance of being healthy, otherwise I might be a couch potato by now, she says laughing!

Anyway, I digress.

Then, on p. 16 we have Thomas Nesbitt as a child, wanting to go off and escape (away from his parents) - and so he decides to go off to the local library. I certainly know what he means on that score and where he is coming from. I frequently escaped home and went off to the local library as a child, and got myself some delicious stories to read. I wonder if Douglas Kennedy also felt like that as a child? I suspect that he probably did. Much of fiction writing comes from our own experiences. 'The Moment' for example, is set in Maine and Berlin and these are some of the places where Kennedy currently lives. Nowadays, he divides his time between living in London, Maine, Paris and Berlin. Cool places, eh!

Then, I thought a quote about creative works was also very powerful; a quote about creative works remaining with the creator. One of the characters in the book, Alastair (someone that Thomas is sharing a flat with) is an artist; whilst Thomas himself is a writer. Yes, many of the characters in Kennedy's books are writers, editors, journalists, painters etc - i.e. creative people. Anyway, here is the quote about creative works, with Thomas reflecting:

"That's the great consolation lurking behind all art: the fact that, during the act of creation, you have power over things. Once the painting is in the hands of your gallery owner - or your manuscript with your editor - you no longer own it or possess command over its destiny. But when you are at work, it's still all yours. You own it." (p. 108)

Douglas Kennedy sums up my thoughts and feelings on this one very well. When one is in the process of creating it is all very much ones own work; but once it is 'out there' it becomes, in one sense, something completely different. It is a strange feeling. Writing, keeping it close to ones chest - very important. But when it eventually goes 'out there' it becomes something else. It becomes transformed into something else. One feels differently about ones writing once it is 'out there'. One thinks about how other people might be interpreting and seeing the work for one thing; one looks at it through various lenses.

One also feels less attached to it in one sense. One does not know quite what will happen to the work, or what will come about as a result of it all. Glenn, for example, was invited completely 'out of the blue' to speak in Dublin earlier this year, leading on from his book 'The Battle of Seattle', which was published 10 years ago now. Seattle clearly must have very much inspired the Dublin folk - all the group had read the book! So, one never quite knows: as Douglas Kennedy says, one does not have 'command over its destiny'. The work also takes on another kind of form; it becomes more important in one sense.

And one certainly knows that one works is not going to be confined to the dustbin, which obviously scrawls on paper and/or screen can end up as, if one is not careful. But the best thing surely is to get the writing published. That way ones work can be taken more seriously and hopefully will be read by a wider audience. And for an artist, it is to exhibit and sell etc.

But of course, writing can be kept 'closer to ones chest' than paintings can. A painting would have to be hidden in a locked door, if one wanted to try to make sure that non-one saw the work in progress, as it were.

Anyway, enough reflections - let's move on.

The political dimension in the book was also fascinating and very gripping. These political issues clearly occupy Kennedy's mind quite a lot - put simply these are issues largely around communism versus capitalism. It seems to me that Kennedy hates the extremities of both, and that he is probably on the soft left. These themes pervade many of his novels.

Quite a lot of 'The Moment' deals with the bad communist regime, the STASI that there was in East Germany, during the Cold War, and how terribly it treated the main heroine, Petra Dussmann, who Thomas falls in love with, in 'the moment'.

Glenn and I are, of course, against capitalism; we do not accept the 'There Is No Alternative' philosophy; but the communist regimes that have existed so far, are clearly not the answer. We must persevere; exercise some patience; and aim to think and work towards creating a better, fairer and a kinder world for ourselves.

And I thought this quote was really something as well; the power of writing and all that. Here are Thomas Nesbitt's thoughts on writing:

"When I write, the world proceeds as I would like it to proceed. There is an order to things. I can add and subtract what I want to the narrative. I can create any denouement I desire...When I write there is an order to things. I am in control." (p.25)

I very much feel this; that when I write I bring order to things; I am in control; I know where I am going; I can make sense of things. And writing can also be therapeutic, of course.

There are also elements of the book that might be autobiographical, I think. The main character, Thomas Nesbitt, becoming a novel writer; up to now, having just written one non-fiction book on Egypt. And Douglas Kennedy himself wrote a book about the pyramids.

In some of Kennedy's previous novels it said that he was married, had two children, and was living in London. But in 'The Moment' there is no mention of his wife. I wonder if the jet-setting, successful life has taken its toll? Also, there is a part of him that is clearly very American (the fast pace in the novels etc), but there is a part of him that it also very critical of the American way of life, I think. Which no doubt partly helps to explain why he is currently living in 4 different locations!

And then there are the similarities between Douglas Kennedy and myself - that also interests me. We are both about the same age (he was born just a year before me); we both have 3 non-fiction books published; we both enjoy writing; we are both married; we both have children; we are both interested in politics and, as I say, I suspect that Kennedy is on the left; we are both critical of both capitalism and communism (as constituted so far); we are both interested in writing novels about writers and creators; we are both keen to include some politics and philosophical issues in our fiction writing; we are both interested in exploring the minds of talented, educated and troubled people. The artist, Alastair, in 'The Moment' for example, is a wonderful artist, but has personal issues - he is a gay drug addict. And so on and so forth.

As I say, Kennedy wrote 3 non-fiction books and now this is his 10th best-selling novel. And as I also say I have 3 non-fiction novels published and am now venturing into fiction. I wonder if I can follow a similar path to Douglas Kennedy? That would sure be wonderful. But I am a heavier writer than him; that has to be said and acknowledged.

I do, indeed, often find myself identifying with certain and various creative people - whether they be alive or dead. But there is something very special about identifying with a living person; one can see how they develop and progress; one can relate to the period that they are writing about - the simple fact of sending emails that are in Kennedy's novels, for example. One can feel it all so much.

My thoughts turn, yet again, to Michael Jackson. Douglas Kennedy helps to fill the gap left by Michael Jackson for me to some extent. I am very fortunate in that regard. I can also compare it all to where I personally am at.

Douglas Kennedy does also have a certain advantage for me, because my discovery of his artistic talent was much more personal. I mean, the world knew Michael Jackson, even though I did appreciate his brilliance in quite a solitary way. But anyway, Kennedy is not in the same league exactly as Michael Jackson, when it comes to world fame of course. I simply discovered Kennedy's work on my own by being attracted to one of his book covers in W. H. Smith, where the book was on display (a few years ago now). So, in this way, it is more personal for me (although not in other ways).

One could also make some interesting comparisons with Jean-Paul Sartre's work - Sartre who dealt with many philosophical issues in his novels. Now, Douglas Kennedy is not in the same league as Sartre, when it comes to depth of philosophical thinking of course. But even so, he makes many insightful philosophical and political points. And perhaps, in the future, his work will become deeper. I like that idea - so that he goes down in history as not only being a best-selling novelist, but also as a really classical novelist - i.e. so that his place in history is secured.

Personally, I am approaching the novel from the opposite angle, I think. I seem to be going in at the deep end; with moments of lightness. The exploration of many philosophical issues are absolutely key and crucial for me. But perhaps, in the future, I will also write some more lighter reads; or at least, that the balance will change.

Although, let's also give credit where it is due. The 'Independent on Sunday' has this to say about 'The Moment':

`Kennedy, like William Boyd and Paul Watkins, has always managed to walk that precarious tight-rope of credibility between the twin towers of popular and literary fiction.'

Yes, Kennedy does indeed combine popular and literary styles in his novel writing - a real achievement. And the fast pace (no doubt influenced by his Manhattan upbringing) and fascinating plots makes his books really gripping; real page turners. I certainly would not want that feel and pace to be lost or lessened. But on the other hand, I think Kennedy's books could be made richer by exploring the political and philosophical issues in some more depth and where they play more centre stage in the books. A difficult artistic accomplishment, but one that I am sure Kennedy is very capable of achieving. As Christian House in 'The Independent' on 8th May 2011 said:

"The Moment remains a great read but I can't help thinking there are better things to come from this fine raconteur, if he can only eschew the demands of his publishers."

Yes, a very good point that, I think.

Anyway, I am very much aiming to do both; to lessen the great divide between fiction and non-fiction, and where one can feed off and benefit the other. But that is not something that all that many people try to do in any really meaningful way.

And the 'Irish Times' has this to say about 'The Moment':

`Douglas Kennedy's 10th novel, The Moment, a tome running to almost 500 pages, is weighty enough to crush any doubts about this prolific author's status as a stylish popular novelist and a classy purveyor of the gripping yarn... It is the quality of evaluation, this conscious appraisal of unforeseen loss, of gallant naivety, of the bullish youthful belief in the right to happiness, that sets Kennedy's work apart from that of many other popular novelists... It is a gripping read and an honest attempt to address human frailty while playing out our minor destinies in the face of great love and desperate loss.' --The Irish Times

Douglas Kennedy concludes his novel talking philosophically about 'The Moment' again, saying:

"The moment.

The moment that can change everything. The moment that can change nothing. The moment that lies to us. Or the moment that tells us who we are, what we search for, what we so want to unearth...and possibly never will.

Are we ever truly free of the moment?"

Yes, 'The Moment'.

I also wrote a long piece about Douglas Kennedy's novels in October 2009, that is both on this blog and on our 'Flow of Ideas' website. I wrote, in particular, about the amazing ability Kennedy has to get into the minds of educated but troubled women - writing in the first person as a woman. Re-reading these novels, and writing this piece, really helped me leading on from the death of my father-in-law, two and a half years ago now.

Here is the link to my article:

And now Kennedy's novels are starting to be transformed into films and on to the stage. One is a French film that is based on 'The Big Picture' (a great read) and the other is 'The Women in the Fifth' which is being performed in the theatre.

And finally, here is a picture of Douglas Kennedy - wow!