Thursday, October 18, 2018

Anna Burns Wins The Booker Prize

The brilliant Anna Burns is the first writer from Belfast or indeed Northern Ireland to win the Booker Prize for her novel Milkman. Here (below) is my Irish Times review of Milkman from back in May and a video I made about Milkman from my 5 reasons to read series: Well done, Anna!

MILKMAN by Anna Burns
Faber and Faber
Adrian McKinty
There’s a moment about a third of the way through Anna Burns’s Milkman when the un-named narrator is in an adult education French class who rebel against the difficult novel their teacher has assigned as homework. The author had been describing the sky in French with a bevy of trying metaphors and finally the class mutinies. “Why all the fancy footwork when all he need say is that the sky is blue?” someone cries and a chant begins: “Le ciel est blue! Le ciel est blue!” until the teacher’s calm unnerves everyone and the chanting stops. She takes them to the window overlooking the city and demands that they look at the sky, really look at it, and tell her what they see. The amazed, bewildered, unsettled class discovers that the sky is pink, lemon, mauve and orange-red. “Don’t worry,” the teacher says. “Your unease, even your temporary unhingement in the face of this sunset is encouraging. It can only mean progress. It can only mean enlightenment.”
Burns is the teacher and we are the students. Milkman is a novel set in the Belfast of the uneasy 1990s but the city, like the lead protagonist, is never named. And Burns’s agenda is not to unpack the dreary tribal squabbles that so characterised Troubles-era Northern Ireland; rather she is working in an altogether more interesting milieu, seeking answers to the big questions about identity, love, enlightenment and the meaning of life for a young woman on the verge of adulthood. Our narrator-protagonist, known only known as “middle sister”, has just turned 18 and is kept busy working in the city, jogging with “third brother-in-law” and concealing her relationship with “nearly-boyfriend”.

Dangerous man

The book begins with the appearance of the mysterious Milkman in her life as she is walking home from work reading Ivanhoe. He offers her a lift in his sinister, white “shapeshifting” van which she declines. Milkman is a creepy 41-year-old married man who has a reputation as a groomer of young girls and as a player in the paramilitaries. He’s a dangerous man and when he encounters her jogging in the park and starts running along side her they are noticed together and tongues begin to wag in the small gossipy world of their street. Middle sister becomes “interesting” for the first time in her life – something she had never aspired to be. Better to fly under the radar than attract the attention of the paramilitary chieftains or the police.
The game Burns is playing here is psychological and sociological not historical. These people could be any people in any tight-knit community. Milkman reads like one of those Russian novels that begins “In those days, in our Province, in the town of Z-” and in its intricate domestic study of a disparate family there are agreeable echoes of Chekov, Tolstoy and Turgenev.
Middle sister has already begun to stick out from her older siblings by showing no interest in marriage and by this habit of reading Victorian novels as she walks down perfectly respectable streets. There is nothing between her and the Milkman but the gossips see logical connections. Of course the unmarried reading-while-walking weirdo will hook up with the paedo Milkman.

Names and identity

This is a book about names and identity. The wrong boy names with their hint of “over the water” can get you bashed, the wrong girl names will just get you dirty looks. Girls are lesser creatures and girls stories are lesser stories. Anna Burns is part of a movement of new and established female Belfast writers who are correcting that impression along with Lucy Caldwell, Roisín O’Donnell, Jan Carson and others.
Kenneth Tynan pointed out that a good critic perceived what was happening but a great critic also saw what was not happening. In Belfast for many years there was a lot of not happening. The men of violence who launched the city’s 30-year-long suicide attempt tried to silence the women who mocked them for their macho stupidity and faux intellectual posturing. The women were never silent but now thank goodness they are being published in increasing numbers.
Milkman is both a story of Belfast and its particular sins but it is also a story of anywhere. It reminded me of China Mieville’s The City and the City where identity, names and seeing the Other are contentious acts. Milkman shares this level of ambition; it is an impressive, wordy, often funny book and confirms Anna Burns as one of our rising literary stars.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

All The Books In The Duffyverse (updated)

Ok, so I'm FINALLY all done with Sean Duffy 7 The Detective Up Late and we're getting some pubdates together. Probably mid 2019 for Duffy 7 and possibly the last two Sean Duffy novels coming six months apart in 2020. I've written a standalone (more on that another time) and that may come out first before all of them!

I've figured out a way of tying in Fifty Grand into the Duffyverse in The Detective Up late so this is now the complete list of the Duffyverse books. However I'm more convinced than ever that the Alexander Lawson of Hidden River exists in not quite the same universe as the Alexander Lawson of the Sean Duffy novels, maybe one universe over...All the rest works fine. And yes Michael Forsythe and Killian will be appearing in the final trilogy...

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

How To Be Boring

Everybody knows the advice publishers and agents give to young writers: start in the middle and keep it fast, fast, fast to the very end! And that's still pretty good advice if you're all about story and turning pages. But what if you're not? What if you want people to focus on the words and take it easy and read your book slow? Well then you're probably living in the wrong age aren't you? We're the age of quick cuts and page turners and memes and vines. Why watch a whole movie when you can watch a youtube video telling you everything wrong with it in 15 minutes?
When I was a kid we read a lot of Thomas Hardy novels in school and I bloody hated them. One of them, Return of the Native I think, begins with a 15 page description of a heath: the heath in winter, the heath in spring, the heath in autumn and yup you guessed it, the heath in summer. Christ it was tedious. I'll never read anything so boring in my life I thought...until I went to law school. Reading all 5 judgements in a nineteenth century probate case, now that my friend is a whole new level of boring. 
And maybe it was the discipline of law school or maybe it was the time I struggled through bloody Les Miserables in French or maybe it was just a reaction against the begin-in-the-middle school of thought but in the last 5 years or so I've been hunting out authors who take it slow. Who don't begin the middle. Who don't cut to the chase (because usually there is no chase). I've found to my amazement that I quite like Thomas Hardy and Thomas Mann and Thomas Wolfe come to that - 3 Toms who are a little more leisurely about their story telling. 
Last year I finished Magnus Mills's The Forensic Record Society and I think its a work of genius but everyone I sent it to as a present hated it. More fool them. This is the story: a bunch of blokes meet up in a London pub to listen to records. Nothing much happens. It ends. It's brilliant. Like all of Magnus Mills's books. The comedy of Stewart Lee is similar - Lee is often deliberately boring and repetitive and I love him for it. It's the same thing too with the books of David Peace: repetitive, deliberately slow, amazing. We've got slow cooking and slow travel, how about some slow reading, eh? Less stress, more focus on the words, more pleasure...
Some of you will think I'm mad so feel free to ignore the below reading list of contemporary writers and a few oldies who, ahem, go at their own pace and are all the better because of it: 

Nicholson Baker
Magnus Mills
Charles Palliser
Thomas Mann
David Peace
Susanna Clark
Gertrude Stein
Marcel Proust
Anthony Powell
John Dos Passos
George Eliot
Virginia Woolf
Thomas Hardy
Hanya Yanagihara
Miguel de Cervantes
JA Baker
James Joyce
Herman Melville

Saturday, September 22, 2018

It Was A Wandering Daughter Job - Dashiell Hammett's Influence on The Big Lebowski

It's the 20th anniversary of the UK release of The Big Lebowski and it's being shown in limited release in a few UK cinemas. Here's a little nerdy essay on the Coens, Hammett & Chandler. 
Joel and Ethan Coen have said that the biggest literary influence on their cult stoner movie The Big Lebowski (1998) was Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. And from the title and structure of their film you can certainly see what they are talking about. Both works are classic visions of Los Angeles and both films follow similar trajectories: a foil gets involved with a disabled rich man, the rich man's daughter, and a runaway from his family who gets mixed up in pornography. Joel Coen has also said that he was influenced by Robert Altman's 1970's remake of Chandler's The Long Goodbye which gave us a slightly baked version of Marlowe played by Elliot Gould. So the Chandler influences are real and obvious but I want to argue that there's a deeper structure to The Big Lebowski which comes not from Raymond Chandler but from Dashiell Hammett.
Let's backtrack a little first. The Coen Brothers first foray into Hammett country came with Millers Crossing. This is a fairly explicit remake of Hammett's Red Harvest which the Coens apparently became of aware through Kurosawa's version Yojimbo (which later was remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars and again by Walter Hill as Last Man Standing). Miller's Crossing (and Red Harvest and the others) is a classic story of an outsider playing off two rival gangs for his own benefit, however the Coens not only appropriated Dashiell Hammett's plot-line but also his entire argot: "What's the rumpus?" "She's just a twist," "The high hat," "We're not muscle we don't bump guys" etc. The Coens don't seem to have read Hammett as much digested him, absorbing his street talk, his cadences, his slang, his American tough guy voice. (As an aside here I actually think their use of "What's the rumpus?" as "hello" in Millers Crossing is a misreading of Hammett's use of the phrase in Red Harvest.) The Coens of course are suburban college boys with little experience of the actual "streets" but Hammett was a Pinkerton Detective for nearly two decades investigating murders, robberies, insurance frauds with a little union busting thrown in for good measure. The Coens seem to have used Hammett as one of their touchstones for Americana and the more you read him the deeper you see his influence on their work: Blood Simple, Fargo, Miller's Crossing, No Country For Old Men sometimes read like undiscovered Hammett screenplays; but so also do the comedies Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski. Hammett and humour don't seem to go together but he could be very funny in both his private life and in his books - The Thin Man is as witty as any PG Wodehouse and here's an experiment: try re-reading The Maltese Falcon as a black comedy and you'll get exactly what I'm talking about. Chandler has those great lines about a blonde so beautiful she would make a bishop kick in a window but Hammett has those lines too and a dark, satirical edge as well. 
Yes the Coens used The Big Sleep as their skeleton for The Big Lebowski but the irony comes from Hammett: Donny's death, The Nihilists, The Porn King, The Malibu Sheriff - these seem like straight out of Dashiell's playbook not Ray's. The eccentricity and odd digressions are more like Hammett and of course the snap of the dialogue is more authentically Hammettian too. I think subconsciously the Coens knew this and they either gave us a Freudian hint or a deliberate clue late in the film when Jeff Bridges as The Dude encounters a private detective working for Bunny's parents, the Knutsons. "What are you following me for?" The Dude asks. The Private Dick played by Joe Polito (who also played one of the rival gang bosses in Miller's Crossing) shrugs and explains: "It was a wandering daughter job." And of course if you know your Hammett you'll recognise that as the opening line of the great Continental Op short story "Fly Paper". The Big Lebowski was a wandering daughter job all right and ultimately the daughter stays lost, an innocent guy dies and the bad guy keeps the money, but what else would you expect in Hammett's bleak, entropic and blackly comic universe?

The Chain

original demo by Stevie Nicks:
this blogpost is a clue...

Friday, September 21, 2018

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Handmaiden, The Handmaids Tale

The Handmaiden is a South Korean erotic thriller directed by Park Chan-wook based on the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters. Both works are about a pair of grifters (a man and woman) who attempt to con a naive young heiress out of her fortune by having her fall in love with the man and elope with him. The female con artist goes into the house as a maid to work the plan from the inside while the male conman poses as a drawing instructor. Part 2 of the plan is that after the elopement they consign the heiress to an insane asylum and split the dough. Fingersmith the novel has that set up too but it's also qot quite a lot of cool stuff about pickpocketing, the short con and the long con. Fingersmith has a famous end of the first act twist and then a great second act twist too. It is set in Victorian England and is maybe a little long but otherwise perfect as an erotic twisty thriller. The Handmaiden moves the action to Japanese occupied Korea which I thought was going to be awesome but it wasn't because they do absolutely nothing with this premise. I've never seen a movie that takes place in Occupied Korea and I was stoked for some kind cool resistance motifs or Japanese-Korean tensions but there's nothing like. I'm a fan of Park Chan-wook, though, I, like every other man in my forties, have watched the corridor hammer fight in Old Boy about 20 times. However I was expecting a bit more from him with this adaptation. Like I say, the setting is not really used much, the erotic elements are a bit too leery and male gazy (while railing against male gaze eroticism as subtext (a beautiful example of attempting to eat your cake and have it too)) and the torture scene at the end is completely unnecessary. I did like the movie but if you haven't read the book the twists will come as more of a surprise and the film will probably work better.  
The Handmaids Tale is a science fiction novel by Margaret Atwood about a future America run by a quasi Mormon religious right that I only read recently. It's a book that everybody should read both as a warning and as, you know, a great work of art. Atwood, building on the tradition of Ursula Le Guin, Angela Carter, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell etc. creates an entirely believable universe where a young Handmaiden must endure Winston Smith type suffering simply because she is a woman. The TV series adaptation is faithful and well made and stars Elisabeth Moss who just keeps making brilliant choice after brilliant choice in her career. The book is a must-read and the TV series while a little bit sexier (!) and safer (the implied genocide of blacks and Jews has been removed) is still pretty good although maybe like Fargo and True Detective did (and Stranger Things and Westworld didn't) wrapping everything up in one season might have been the artistically smarter choice. Some of those involved in the production have been running away from the word 'feminist' which is absurd because the Handmaids Tale is transparently a feminist masterpiece. As is the Handmaiden although maybe with a female director we might have avoided some of the creepy stuff. Anyway both are recommended from me. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

JG Ballard's Great Decade 1973-1983

According to historian Eric Hobsbawm the twentieth century really began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in his car in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914. It was a century dominated by assassinations, cars, aeroplanes, wars, mass production and American pop culture. For me the novelist who perhaps best captured the obsessions and imagery of the twentieth century was the Shanghai-born English novelist J G Ballard. Pigeon holed early as a science fiction writer, for a long time Ballard was not noticed by critics. He had his champions, of course, such as Martin Amis, but in general his books seldom broke through into the popular consciousness until the publication of Empire of the Sun in 1983.

Ballard’s early apocalyptic novels from the 1960's such as The Drowned World and The Crystal World cut against the mainstream science fiction of the time with their concern for the effects of disaster on the protagonists’ psychological states. In 1973 Ballard’s most remarkable period as a novelist began with the publication of Crash, a book famously rejected by one London publisher’s reader with the phrase “This author is beyond psychiatric help - DO NOT PUBLISH.” Crash is the story of Vaughan, a television psychologist who is fixated by the sexual power of the car crash and who wishes to die in an auto-erotic accident with Elizabeth Taylor’s limousine. A damning indictment of, and also a love letter to, American celebrity culture, Crash reads as fresh, subversive and lively today as it did forty years ago. It prefigures the deaths of Princess Diana and Grace Kelly and recapitulates the deaths of Franz Ferdinand, JFK and screen siren Jayne Mansfield who was reputedly (but not really) decapitated in the 1967 crash of her Buick Electra 225.

Ballard’s follow up to Crash was a retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story, Concrete Island (1974), about a man who crashes his car and is trapped in it at the junction of many motorway flyovers and sliproads, living desperately on his concrete island and finally dying unseen by the thousands of commuters passing by on their way to work. High Rise (1975) is a funny, perverse and oddly believable novel about the collapse of civilisation’s norms within an apartment building. Satires on the English sense of decorum seldom get this ribald or excoriating.

For me, though, the climax of this period in Ballard’s evolution is the willfully strange, surrealistic novel The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) about a man who hijacks a small plane and crashes it into the Thames in the sleepy suburb of Shepparton. It’s never clear whether the pilot died in the crash or not but certainly some kind of apotheosis takes place and throughout the novel London is transformed into a seething, primordial, tropical city (similar in many ways to the London of The Drowned World) rich with sexual and avian imagery. The Anglo-Saxon world has generally been uncomfortable with the erotic and surreal in serious fiction but Dream Company is a book which treats both these tropes with the gravity they deserve and it may be Ballard’s finest work. The short story collection Low Flying Aircraft (1976) highlights many of Ballard's obsessions: abandoned swimming pools, crashed planes, urban decay etc. and contains one of my favourite Ballard stories, My Dream Of Flying To Wake Island.

Empire of the Sun (1983/4) is a novelistic retelling of the young Jim Ballard’s imprisonment in a Japanese internment camp from 1942 - 1945. Although the story is told in conventional matter-of-fact prose the book throbs with Ballard’s usual obsessions: war, repressed sexual desire, cruelty, ruined cities, America, cars, flight. As a novel of people in extremis it is a psychological masterpiece as well as being probably the last great novel to come out of the direct experience of World War Two.

In the 1990's and early 2000's Ballard wrote more volumes of memoir and interesting novels about the growth of advertisement speak, business parks, motorways, urbanisation and the spread of pop culture into all walks of life. In 2009 Ballard died of prostate cancer and the British obituaries were respectful but somewhat restrained in their praise. Ballard had been hard to categorise and he was never completely embraced by the British establishment even after his success in Hollywood. It’s a shame because many of Ballard’s contemporaries have dated rather badly and their books read like peculiar period pieces, but Ballard has hardly dated at all. Like Philip K Dick his voice is that of the clear sighted Cassandra warning us of the perils and strange joys ahead. Ballard agreed with the poet Horace who famously said that “they change their skies but not their souls, those who run across the sea,” which is true even when the seas are black with pollution and the sky is a radioactive hell.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

How Many Different Irish Accents Are There?

I've thought long and hard about this. I think there are probably about 24 or 25 different Irish accents. I'm hoping that non Irish speakers can tell the difference between all the accents this guy in the video below does (my kids can't tell all of them apart and can't understand half of what he says (which is fortunate because a lot of it is in Irish street demotic which, naturally, includes a lot of swearing)). I think he does a brilliant job here with Republic of Ireland accents however he drops the ball a bit when he comes to Ulster. He only does 1 accent for all of Northern Ireland. By my reckoning there are at least 9 different Ulster/northern Irish accents that are quite distinctive: Derry, West Belfast, Camp West Belfast (Julian Simmons), North Belfast, South Belfast/North Down (the posh BBC accent), Ballymena, Newry, Tyrone/Fermanagh. Some day I'll make a video of me doing all 9 Northern Irish accents but for now here's Richie Stevens doing his 15 regional Irish accents:

Thursday, July 12, 2018


It's finally a thing....

The new Sean Duffy is in its final proofing stage and will coming out in the US and UK early next year. More details to follow.

This little bit from chapter 5 gives you a clue as to when its set and what its about:

Friday, July 6, 2018

Conquest of the Useless

I've been rereading Werner Herzog's Conquest of the Useless and its very enjoyable the second go round. (If you're into audiobooks I bet the audiobook of this is amazing.) 
Conquest of the Useless is the largely unedited journal Herzog kept during his time in the Peruvian jungle filming Fitzcarraldo. Fitzcarraldo is an Irish rubber baron who wants to bring high opera to the rain forest and to do so he attempts to move a steam ship between two river systems over a mountain. Herzog was ordered by the movie executives in California (a hilarious bit of the book where he was staying at Francis Ford Coppola's house) to move a model steam ship through the San Diego botanic gardens, but instead he chose to move a real steam ship through the real jungle because that's what his dream told him to do.
Even the initial canoe journey to the location shoot echoes The Heart of Darkness and Coppola's own Apocalypse Now. Everyone gets malaria and dysentery, Mick Jagger and Jason Robards quit the movie. Klaus Kinski loses his mind. Kittens are eaten alive by chickens. Wives are bought and sold for the price of a jar of poison (for darts). A mad soldier invades Ecuador with his platoon of men and advances 30 miles into Ecuadorian territory. A villager stabs a spear at Herzog's belly. The film crew's own translator is a pathological liar who incites the villagers against the director. People break legs and arms. Floods destroy the set. Wars break out. Poisonous snakes and spiders are everywhere. From all this chaos somehow a film is made. Fantastic stuff. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Inside The Whale

The one book I will never regret buying is The Complete Essays Of George Orwell which costs 30 bucks in the Everyman edition but for that 30 bucks you get 1400 pages of Orwell's best stuff. If you can't hack that then get the selected essays and if you can't hack that then please do yourself a favour and click the link and read one of my favourites Inside The Whale below. 
George Orwell's Inside The Whale (Henry Miller, Auden, Eliot, Louis MacNeice & co considered in the dark days of 1940).

& here's a little bit where he talks about Housman:

It is all more or less in the same tune. Everything comes unstuck. ‘Ned lies long in the churchyard and Tom lies long in jail’. And notice also the exquisite self-pity — the ‘nobody loves me’ feeling:

The diamond drops adorning
The low mound on the lea,
These arc the tears of morning,
That weeps, but not for thee.

Hard cheese, old chap! Such poems might have been written expressly for adolescents. And the unvarying sexual pessimism (the girl always dies or marries somebody else) seemed like wisdom to boys who were herded together in public schools and were half-inclined to think of women as something unattainable. Whether Housman ever had the same appeal for girls I doubt. In his poems the woman's point of view is not considered, she is merely the nymph, the siren, the treacherous half-human creature who leads you a little distance and then gives you the slip.

But Housman would not have appealed so deeply to the people who were young in 1920 if it had not been for another strain in him, and that was his blasphemous, antinomian, ‘cynical’ strain. The fight that always occurs between the generations was exceptionally bitter at the end of the Great War; this was partly due to the war itself, and partly it was an indirect result of the Russian Revolution, but an intellectual struggle was in any case due at about that date. Owing probably to the ease and security of life in England, which even the war hardly disturbed, many people whose ideas were formed in the eighties or earlier had carried them quite unmodified into the nineteen-twenties. Meanwhile, so far as the younger generation was concerned, the official beliefs were dissolving like sand-castles. The slump in religious belief, for instance, was spectacular. For several years the old-young antagonism took on a quality of real hatred. What was left of the war generation had crept out of the massacre to find their elders still bellowing the slogans of 1914, and a slightly younger generation of boys were writhing under dirty-minded celibate schoolmasters. It was to these that Housman appealed, with his implied sexual revolt and his personal grievance against God. He was patriotic, it was true, but in a harmless old-fashioned way, to the tune of red coats and ‘God save the Queen’ rather than steel helmets and ‘Hang the Kaiser’. And he was satisfyingly anti-Christian — he stood for a kind of bitter, defiant paganism, the conviction that life is short and the gods are against you, which exactly fitted the prevailing mood of the young; and all in charming fragile verse that was composed almost entirely of words of one syllable.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Kafka's Old Office

a LitHub piece from last November...
At the beginning of November I found myself in Prague with enough loyalty points at the Accor Chain to get myself a room in a fancy hotel way out of my usual league. There was one particular room in one particular hotel that I had been eyeing for years and much to my amazement I found that it was available.
The hotel was the Sofitel Century Old Town and the room was the Franz Kafka Suite. The Century Old Town occupied the former Austro-Hungarian Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute and a second floor office of this building was the place where Kafka had toiled as a lawyer from 1908 - 1922. This office and the room behind it had been converted into the Kafka Suite.
Kafka’s childhood home was long gone but for Kafka fans like me it was incredibly thrilling that for enough cash or Accor Reward Points you could spend the night in his old office.
I checked into the Century Old Town at two o’clock on a brisk November Tuesday in Prague to find that the room was not quite ready. Housekeeping was doing a quick final vacuuming I was told and I was given a voucher for a free beer at the bar which suited me just fine.
When the room was all set I walked up the wide, restored nineteenth century stair-case and found myself outside the Franz Kafka Suite where a little plaque confirmed me that this was indeed Kafka’s actual place of work. I put the key card in and opened the door.
The first thing that confronted me inside the room itself was pitch blackness. The outer door closed behind me and rather like – I fancied –Gregor Samsa I too was trapped in a bourgeoisie hell of the indoors.
“Aha!” I thought, you need to find the little slot to put your card in to get the lights to come on. I fumbled around and I did find the slot, but when I inserted my card the blackness remained.
I began to feel a little buzz of excitement. The Kafka Suite was deliciously Kafkaesque already. What fresh thrills and terrors lay ahead? The exhilaration began to dissipate when I turned my phone light on and realized that I wasn’t in a fiendishly difficult psychological maze partly of my own making, no, I was in an ordinary hallway and there was a problem with the electricity.
After a bit more fumbling I discovered the fuse box and although everything was in Czech it was pretty obvious which circuit had been blown by the vacuum cleaner. I flipped the switch and hey presto the lights came back on.
Out of the hallway I discovered that the Kafka Suite was gorgeous. The back room contained a generously proportioned bed, a huge bath, a luxurious shower and dual washbasins. But the front of the suite was definitely where the action was. The front room was an enormous light filled chamber with a sofa, a dining table and a writing desk that looked out onto the street.
This had been Kafka’s actual writing office. He had mostly prepared legal briefs here (the book to read on this is Franz Kafka: The Office Writings edited by Stanley Corngold) but you could imagine him working on short stories and letters in his lunch break or doodling away at ideas in the margins of his jotter.
The room was minimalist and contemporary, painted a bright umber with a portrait of Kafka himself lying against the wall in one corner. There was a bookcase containing mostly French hardbacks by second tier novelists of the first half of the twentieth century, but there were also a few modern paperbacks as well presumably left there by previous guests. I had no qualms at all about leaving a copy of my novel Rain Dogs on a high shelf where hopefully it will remain unnoticed for years.
I unpacked, showered and then made a beeline for the writing desk. I had been to Prague as a student backpacker years ago so I wasn’t that interested in sight-seeing, rather, I had come here to work.
The theory of literary osmosis is dubious at best but for a writer it is hard to resist the lure of attempting to compose something in the place where great literary icons did their thing.
 I have tried this game before and it hasn’t exactly worked out. In the old British Museum Reading Room I found what was allegedly Karl Marx’s seat while I was studying philosophy at University College London. The Marxian seat didn’t help me at all with my essays which were uninspired and generally terrible. A couple of years later at Oxford I frequented the Eagle and Child pub where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis used to read and write. The epic fantasy novel I began there mercifully disappeared into a crashed hard drive never to be retrieved. 
A few years after that in Paris I toiled as a plongeur during the day while spending my evenings at the Deux Magots café. I was trying to emulate Sartre, Camus and De Beauvoir’s philosophizing while drinking enormous bowls of coffee and attempting to smoke Gitanes; but all I got from that experience was a massive jittery headache and a hacking cough.  
My most notorious attempt at literary osmosis was in the piano bar of the Ambos Mundos hotel in Havana in 2008. For most of that year I’d had writer’s block and with a deadline looming I took the drastic step of flying to Havana via Mexico City so I could work in the place where Hemingway supposedly wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls. Maybe I too could write my magnum opus here I thought and initially things went quite well. I got a notepad and paper and the ideas flowed. Half a dozen mojitos later I was writing gibberish and after a couple more cuba libres and mojitos I was attempting to push the deft piano player off his stool so that I could give the well heeled clientele my version of All The Little Puffer Trains Down By The Station.
I wasn’t going to let that happen again. This time I was going to write at Kafka’s desk (sort of) in Kafka’s office over looking the bustling Na Porici Street.
The Kafka Suite had generously provided its visitors with paper, pens and a rather nice mechanical pencil.
I took out the pencil and a sheet of paper and stared at the blank page for a long, long time.
Then I did a little Kafka portrait in the corner of the page, then another little doodle of a cockroach. I did a pretty good drawing of myself scoring the winning goal in the World Cup Final. Then I went to the book shelf and tried to read Georges Bernanos’s Journal d'un curé de campagne for a bit but found it pretty hard to get into.
Back to the dreaded blank page. I wrote a couple of opening lines and crossed them out and got a fresh sheet of paper and stared at that for a while.
I looked through the window at the building opposite. This must have been Franz’s view when he was writing those bloody insurance reports. It was an attractive building and on the third floor there was a large, peculiar sheep bas relief highlighted in gold paint. If it was there back then Kafka must have stared at that sheep for hundreds of hours. He did in fact write one short story about a sheep: ‘A Crossbreed’ which is a story about an animal that is half-cat, half-sheep with odd eating habits and dietary restrictions. It’s not his best work if I’m honest.
The sheep did not inspire me. I wrote a spoof Raymond Chandler short story once set in Ireland called The Big Sheep. It wasn't a great story and The Big Sheep Part 2 didn’t seem like a very good idea.
Unlike a lot of fancy hotel rooms in the Kafka Suite it is possible to open the window and let the city smells and street noise come pouring in. I pulled a chair close to the window ledge and watched the trams, cars and tourists go by for a while. There were more tourists and cars than the Prague of a hundred years ago but I imagine the citizenry riding the #26 tram was much the same.
It began to get dark. I noticed a beer cellar across the street called La Republica. I found my laptop and Googled it and discovered that it served liter steins of Czech beer and pre war staples of Czech cuisine such as pork ribs, schnitzel and pretzels.
“Maybe I’ll just go over and have one stein and a pretzel and then I’ll come back and do some serious work,” I thought.
Unfortunately that decision put an end to the possibility of the McKinty Magnum Opus getting started in Kafka’s office, for La Republica was a very amenable beer cellar indeed. It was full of Irish people, one of whom, as is the way of such things, knew my sister.
I had a very good night with a bunch of new friends. The bar wasn’t that far away from the salon where Kafka, Max Brod and Albert Einstein used to hang out, booze and chat, so I think they would have approved. When I got back to the Kafka Suite I was in no fit state to write anything at all.
But eventually the room did stop spinning which was nice and I settled down in the enormous, ridiculously comfortable bed.

After a night of peculiar dreams I woke up next morning transformed into a middle aged bibliophile who had written nothing at all in Kafka’s room but who was maybe finally over his literary osmosis addiction and was sort of ok with that.