Curiously Dull

News of the swimmer reaches shore, Gregory O'Brien
[160pp, 18.99, Carcanet]

The back cover says this is 'At once a travel book, an autobiographical novel and free-floating meditation on Europe and the Antipodes' and if it was any one of these it would have to be brilliant to justify the price. The biographical information tells us the author is a poet, writer of fiction and non-fiction, while also a painter. Knowing nothing of him other than as he presents himself here - and 'presents himself' is how it is - I would say, before considering buying this book, sample a page or two. It seems to me curiously dull.

In the first six pages he uses twice, when once would have been too often, the expression 'wends his way', and there is about the whole style and discursiveness an ordinariness. I say 'curiously dull' because he claims for the distinctiveness of his travels the relevance of Manley Hopkins, Jaques Cousteau, Evelyn Waugh, Appolinaire, Matisse's Vence Chapel, the French bombing of Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour, Blaise Cendrars, Tate Modern and the London Eye, and so on and on; the book is a test case for what may or may not be achieved by naming names.

There is something dull about the prose and it is hard to pin down quite what this is. Perhaps the author is simply someone who has few original insights, while being, as the saying has it, well read - perhaps well read. Perhaps there's a flat jauntiness that amounts to mere note-making, so that further investigation and thought would produce the book proper. Perhaps the sentence-making is flat and that's all there is to it.

The inclusion of blurred black and white photos, along with reproductions of some of the author's paintings - as it were one-off comic-strip - perhaps suggests the template here is the work of W G Sebald, but if so the resemblance is superficial in the extreme. Sebald had insight, had a compulsive style, once with him on the journey it was - is -necessary to stay with him.

On page 61 we are told 'It was decided six months earlier that we would meet up [with the sixteen-year old son with whom he had never lived] on the far side of the world,' and so on, and really I'm not interested. Why should I be? As with the rest of the book, there is an assumption that the author's personal life, travels, bringing this or that famous name into the discussion, will be of striking interest. And it makes me curious why this might indeed be the case, and why it's a slight, dull read here. Lack of substance, of insight and of style, I suppose. Whereas Sebald suggested more than he said, opened the way to a mystery worth entering, this book is mere surface. Sorry: it has a nice cover.

         David Hart 2007