Alchemy, alephs and insomnia: origins of The Blue Tent


The Blue Tent is released by Parthian as an e-book next Tuesday (20th August). Since the novel has provoked quite a few questions from readers, I thought it might be helpful to publish the text of an email interview given to Jenny White, who incorporated some of my rather lengthy responses into her review article in the Western Mail on 13 July.

Reviews of the novel are also available at Nation Cymru and Wales Arts Review.

WM review of Blue Tent

JW: What inspired this book?

RG: I grew up in Crickhowell and to this day go on the same long walks with my own, now grown-up children that I first took with my father. I like the sense of continuity of landscape and family history – or family mythology. So the landscape of the Black Mountains was an inspiration, but reading Henry Vaughan was crucial. In one of Vaughan’s letters he tells of a lad, a ‘poor beggar boy’ who is tasked with looking after sheep on the hills, and who falls asleep and dreams of a beautiful young man. The young man carries a hawk on his fist, and the hawk flies into the boy’s mouth and into his guts, and he becomes possessed of the gift of poetry and comes to be the greatest bard in all the country. These kinds of stories of the magical or transcendental intruding upon everyday life have always fascinated me, and mid-way through writing the novel I came across Marina Warner’s study of The Thousand and One Nights, Stranger Magic, and in her book I found a quotation from Borges where he says “I think that the reader should enrich what he is reading. He should misunderstand the text; he should change it into something else.” This perfectly captures what I set out to do, to provide options for the reader, so that there is no fixed interpretation of what the story is about: is it a ghost story, a psychological drama being enacted inside the narrator’s insomniac head, or is it a story about the multiverse, a tale of parallel worlds? All these things are possible, and more; hopefully there are readings that have never occurred to me.

I knew that Henry Vaughan’s twin brother Thomas was one of the leading alchemists of his day. He was a priest at the little church in Llansantffraed near Talybont-on -Usk, only a few miles from Crickhowell, between about 1644 and 1650, before losing his parish because he was on the wrong side during the English Civil War. He died in mysterious circumstances in 1666, probably by setting fire to mercury and inhaling the fumes, but there were rumours that he hadn’t died, that he had in fact been a spy for the Royalist cause, and even that he faked his own death and reappeared in Amsterdam, where he continued to produce alchemical texts, but in Latin, rather than English. However, his brother, Henry, records in a letter to one John Aubrey that Thomas died “upon an employment for His Majesty.” Whatever happened, there is no record of Thomas Vaughan’s death and burial in Aylesbury, where he lived during those last years. Then, in one of those twists you couldn’t make up, I discovered that the people who ran the local chemist’s shop in Crickhowell when I was growing up, and had known all my life only by the husband’s surname, were Vaughans on the maternal side, descended from the same historical family as Henry and Thomas, and again I got that sense of connection and continuity, of the past haunting the present, which is another of those threads embedded in the story.

Finally, of course there is Borges: in his short story ‘The Aleph’, the narrator comes across a portal, or small magical device, on which he can ‘read’ not only the world around him, but all possible worlds, across time and space. The aleph is the final piece of the puzzle. Or the first, perhaps, Aleph being the first letter of the alphabet in Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and other ancient languages; as such it is a portal to language, and therefore to self-expression. I borrowed the concept of the aleph directly from Borges, but strangely, as one reader pointed out, having downloaded my book onto the kindle app on his phone, it occurred to him that he was reading a story about an aleph, on an aleph. The mobile phone is a kind of aleph for the 21st century, in which one can access information on just about anything that has ever happened – up to a point.

The idea of the tent as a vehicle for bringing my characters into play came to me out of the blue, as it were, and prompted me to start with that image, of the blue tent appearing unannounced at the end of the narrator’s garden.

 JW: Tell me a bit about the alchemical/mystical texts mentioned in it – how did you choose which ones to include, what sparked your interest in them and how did they drive the plot and undercurrents in the book?

RG: I was reading Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz as background research for the book, and becoming increasingly intrigued by the idea of alchemy as a route towards self-knowledge, which was its original intended goal, not only for Jung and his followers, but also for the ancient and the renaissance alchemists such as Thomas Vaughan and his contemporaries. Renaissance and seventeenth century Britain was abuzz with cranks and visionaries of this kind, John Dee – another Welshman, and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I – being the most famous. The titles of the obscure alchemical treatises my narrator reads were mostly taken from von Franz, although it might have been tempting to invent one or two of them. The truth is that a lot of those alchemical texts are completely unreadable, and I certainly wasn’t interested in writing pages of exposition about the alchemical process, which in any case I barely understand. And, not unrelatedly, the underlying quest for the Holy Grail, which pervades the Arthurian legends and, especially, the story of Parsifal, or Perceval – yet another Welshman – was certainly present in the background of my own creative process. Interestingly enough, Chrétien de Troyes, the first chronicler of the Arthurian tales, mentions that Parsifal ‘came out of Wales’, and Wales, of course, was seen as a backwater (and many still regard it as one). The implication is: ‘what good could ever come out of Wales?’ And yet Parsifal, as we know, found the Grail, or, in the language of alchemy, the philosopher’s stone, simply by asking the right questions. This is the aspect of alchemy that most intrigues me; to continually be asking questions, and never to accept facile or received explanations.

JW: How would you define or describe the process that the narrator goes through in this book? Is it alchemical? How is he changed by the experience?

RG: The traditional alchemical process involves four stages – allegedly the method for transforming base metals into gold – but this chemical transmutation was only a formula or trope, and the real, secret intention of alchemy was always one of self-discovery. The four stages are called nigredo, or blackening; albedo, or whitening; citrinitas, or yellowing, and rubedo, or reddening. I wanted the narrator to pass through these phases with each visit he makes to the tent, but without being too literal about it. I didn’t want to write a New Age mystical thriller any more than I wanted to get bogged down in the arcane details of alchemy. But I wanted to have some fun along the way, and there are moments when the narrator is well aware of the comic or absurdist potential of his quest, shut away in his aunt’s library with all those unreadable texts. I was, however, keen that the four phases represented by the colours of the process were included on the cover, and the designer, Marc Jennings, did a really fine job, I think.

In order to reflect the alchemical process at work, the narrator has to go through a kind of shift in personality with each phase, but again, I didn’t want to labour this aspect of the story. I don’t know to what extent that was successful. When you live with a book for such a long time, you start going a bit crazy and it’s difficult to get a clear perspective. Which is where the reader comes in. I like very much the idea that different readers will come away from the book with completely distinct responses, a completely different understanding of what they read.

JW: I loved the dream-like, shifting nature of the narrator’s world. What challenges did you face in depicting this? What did you enjoy about depicting this, and about writing the book in general?

RG: The book took me over twelve years to finish, and I abandoned it at least twice, and completed two other books in the meantime. I just couldn’t get the structure right. Originally it was going to be a much bigger novel, with three distinct storylines, one from the point of view of the narrator, another would have been Alice’s story, and a third that comprised extracts from Aunt Megan’s journals. But in the end I cut all the rest away, took away the scaffolding, and was left with only the bare story. It seemed better that way. The dream-like, shifting nature of the story came about naturally enough. Like the narrator, I am a chronic insomniac, and spend much of my life in a similar state of bewilderment at the passage from night to day and back again. I’ve written about this in my book The Vagabond’s Breakfast, where I say that insomniacs dismantle the familiar division of time into identifiable segments, so that night and day form a single seamless trajectory. Since one’s life is a continuum of sleeplessness, snatching rare hours here and there at random times of the day or night, yesterday seeps into tomorrow without allowing today to get a toehold.

And in The Blue Tent I refer to a ‘celebrated insomniac’ – in fact the Romanian-French philosopher E.M. Cioran – who ‘claimed that long periods without sleep amount to a tyranny of consciousness; that normal people, who sleep the prescribed number of hours, awake each day as though starting out on a new life, but that for the insomniac no such renewal can occur. Instead, the sleepless live in a continuum of consciousness, and while everyone else rushes toward the future, we insomniacs remain outside.’

In Marina Benjamin’s recent book, Insomnia, she makes some wonderfully astute observations about the insomniac life, and reflects on the paradox that while the insomniac wants to sleep, craves sleep, would give anything, at times, for some sleep, there is also a resignation – sometimes more than resignation, something approaching acceptance or even desire – to follow the imaginative threads provided by insomnia and use them creatively. This is summarised at the end of her book, when she writes: ‘I want to flip disruption and affliction into opportunity, and punctuate the darkness with stabs of light.’ You might say The Blue Tent is a book about insomnia, or a book for insomniacs, so thoroughly did its creation – and its story – centre on those long sleepless hours before dawn. In fact, for a spell, I would wake at 3.45 exactly. It was like a nervous tick. I’d usually get up and try to write, or just wander around the house doing the restless, pointless things insomniacs do. So I translated that into my story, and have the narrator awakened by Alice appearing in the library at 3.45 on, I think, three occasions.

 JW: How does this book compare to previous books you have written? Do you feel you have developed/moved on as a writer in creating this book? If so, tell me a bit about how…

RG: Every book presents a unique challenge, and the motivation behind my three novels to date has been different. I’m talking about fiction here, although my non-fiction shares many of the attributes of the novels and at times it’s difficult for me to discriminate between what actually happened and what I merely imagine having happened.

Nevertheless, my life has been influenced very much by place, and I always wanted to write a novel set in each of the three main locations in which I’ve lived my life: Cymru, Crete and Catalonia. The three C’s. My first novel, The Colour of a Dog Running Away, was set in Barcelona and the Pyrenees, where I have spent many years; the second novel, Deep Hanging Out, is set in Crete, where I lived during my mid-twenties, and which left a deep impact on me. It was inevitable that I would come around to a novel set in Wales. None of my books are concerned with social realism, or what people might consider the concerns of the everyday. In terms of literature and art in general, I don’t like being tied to the literal, or wish to describe people’s marriages or affairs or what it’s like to work in an office or go on holiday to the Maldives. I’m not a big fan of realism, which sometimes seems like the last resort of the desperate; the well-rounded fiction as a celebration of triumphant individualism operating within a neatly decipherable universe. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t care about real, marital, familial, social or political issues; I mean, there’s nothing else, is there? But I’m just not interested in writing about them directly in my fiction.

 JW: What writers or other factors have influenced/shaped you as a writer?

RG: Too many to name, but I must mention Jorge Luis Borges, of course, closely followed by Italo Calvino and the Greek poets C.F. Cavafy and Yannis Ritsos. These all helped shape my identity as an aspiring writer, and I wouldn’t be the same person without having read them. I currently read more fiction from places other than the US and the UK, especially from Spain and Latin America, and I read a lot of poetry, in Spanish and French, as well as English. But I am also a translator (from Spanish) – and this is probably the biggest single factor on the way I continue to evolve as a writer. By which I mean my work as a writer and as a translator, although quite separate, are intimately woven together at some subterranean level, and this probably has a huge influence on the way I think about language, and therefore about writing.

Among the English language writers I’ve most enjoyed in recent years – but would not count as influences – are Mavis Gallant, Paul Bowles, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Geoff Dyer and most recently Rebecca Solnit, Olivia Laing, Maggie Nelson and Sarah Manguso – all, apart from Gallant and Bowles, writers of so-called nonfiction, oddly enough. In recent years almost anything published by Fitzcarraldo. I would say that I’m also influenced by visual artists, notably the German Expressionists and the Surrealists, and film makers like Werner Herzog and David Lynch.

 JW: Tell me a bit about yourself, your background, how you became a writer and what drives/motivates you as a writer.

RG: You can read all this in The Vagabond’s Breakfast, which was written at the same time I was working on the first draft of The Blue Tent. I think I’ve probably always been a writer, even during the years when I wasn’t writing. I’m motivated by curiosity, rather than any innate talent or aptitude. I think we become the writers we are by trying to write the books we would like to read. The moment you lose your interior compass, try to be something that you are not, write to follow literary fashion or to gain fame and prestige, you’re probably in trouble as a writer.

 JW: What do you hope readers will get out of reading this book?

RG: Like I said when I cited Borges, it would please me if readers were able to enrich my text by intelligently misunderstanding it, and by changing it into something else. That way it would have as many interpretations as there are readers, which is as much as any writer can hope for.



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