“At any given time, I have two things on my mind: a theme that interests me and a problem of verbal form, meter, diction, etc. The theme looks for the right form: the form looks for the right theme. When the two come together, I am able to start writing.” W.H. Auden
A member of the audience shares what Alan Massey has said of Alan Spence’s new novel Night Boat – it reads like a translation. Spence accepts it as a “huge compliment.” “This is the novel,” he says during the course of the session, “that I have been working towards writing for the last forty years.” While this powerful statement might not, by itself, be a reliable indicator of the quality of the work at hand, it certainly raises the audience’s expectations and shows how strongly Spence feels about his creative project
Night Boat is a fictional “autobiography” of an eighteenth century Japanese Zen master, Hakuin. The inspiration welled from the depth of Spence’s personal relationship with his own master, Sri Chinmoy, who passed away a few years ago. In discussion, Spence reveals that he considered crafting a legacy of his Guru, but the emotional immediacy of his theme obstructed his creative flow. He talks about how his first few publications after the death of Chinmoy all felt like “raw material”, and how the older he gets, the more he looks for form to justify matter.
So he turned to the legend of the celebrated but enigmatic Hakuin, and decided to write it from a first person perspective – giving form to his own inner world. The distance that writing fiction gave him proved a blessing, as the novel was completed in a single stretch. “It felt given,” he shares. When Spence reads, his voice is quiet, contemplative, and almost incantatory; it is clear that he has the same love for Hakuin that George Eliot held for Maggie Tulliver.
How then, are novel and protagonist to be saved from suffocation brought on by sentiment? In my opinion, it is through the minimalist aesthetics informing the work. The themes of spiritual beauty and intimacy might easily become overwrought and florid. But Spence invokes the exacting code of the American imagists – whether it be in the fundamental accuracy or the physicality of his observations. He quotes William Carlos Williams’ well-known tenet, “No ideas but in things” as a creative commandment, one he likes to pass on to his own students at the University of Aberdeen. His long practise of the haiku and the tanka seem to hold him in good stead. There is a precision, an economy of expression which balances the high idealism and the fantastical quality of the world of the novel. This creates a wonderful union of opposites, in the context of form and matter.
Spence also reconciles other contradictions in his novel: Eastern philosophy in a western form; philosophical richness with stylistic density. He does so with a genuine affection for his subject and commitment to his craft, along with a wealth of experience, all of which would make Night Boat seem well worth reading.
Read the DURA review of Night Boat here.