Nicholas Royle was born in London in 1957. His first novel, Quilt, a study of grief in which the news of a father’s death is delivered suddenly and brutally by telephone, was published in August.
“I’ve chosen 10 writers on the telephone, rather than 10 novels, stories or poems, because in a sense everything these authors have written is ‘on topic’. Their writings help us see in different and remarkable ways the extent to which literature and telephones are in cahoots. When the phone starts ringing in a novel or short story, the air is charged with magic and coincidence, superstition and death. The word telephone is literally ‘voice at a distance’. We can think of the literary work as a telephone call (the author or narrator addressing us), but also as a kind of telephone network (both in the form of dialogue and in the narrator ‘bugging’ different characters, recording what they say or think).”
1. Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Twain may well have been the first writer to name a character after a telephone operator. “Hello-Central” appears in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). But his funniest and most prescient work on the subject is “Mental Telegraphy” (1891), which argues that “the telegraph and telephone are going to become too slow and wordy for our needs” and proposes the invention of the phrenophone (or mind-phone) as a way of understanding the wild and bizarre nature of writing, coincidence and inspiration.
2. Marcel Proust (1871-1922)
Proust only comes to the telephone several years into In Search of Lost Time. In The Guermantes Way, the telephone evokes the painful powers of habituation and the strangeness of “lost time” itself: “And I would go down almost without thinking how extraordinary it was that I should be calling upon that mysterious Mme de Guermantes of my boyhood simply in order to make use of her for a practical purpose as one makes use of the telephone, a supernatural instrument before whose miracles we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought …”
3. Franz Kafka (1883-1924)
Kafka has the telephone play nightmarish roles in both The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926), as a machine that summons K. For sheer power and concision, however, “My Neighbour” (1931) is a dazzling one-page tale of telephony and paranoia, in which the narrator is convinced that all his business transactions on the phone are being exploited by his mysterious enemy Harras, listening in to his every word through the “wretchedly thin walls” of his rented office.
4. Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973)
Bowen wrote numerous great novels, including Friends and Relations (1931), The House in Paris (1935) and The Heat of the Day (1948), about how telephones have infiltrated our thinking and desires: waiting for a call, being interrupted by a call, not knowing what might be announced. The phone becomes a sort of crisis for rationality. As a character in The House in Paris demands: “Reason? You might as well say, what reason has one to answer the telephone?”
5. Raymond Chandler (1888-1959)
Perhaps more than any other writer, Chandler established the central importance of the telephone in modern detective stories. It is difficult, indeed, to think of a contemporary crime investigation narrative that doesn’t depend on telephones (this is true of TV too, of course: it’s the very raison d’être of The Wire). In The Little Sister (1949), Chandler’s melancholy loner detective Marlowe expresses a common feeling that has only proliferated in the era of mobile phones: “Let the telephone ring, please. Let there be somebody to call up and plug me into the human race again … “
6. Muriel Spark (1918-2006)
Spark is the author of perhaps the most macabre and unnerving telephone book, Memento Mori (1959). The phone rings, a voice says “Remember you must die” – and the character who’s picked up expires soon after. We never discover the caller’s identity. But as with other Spark novels, God seems to be lurking somewhere in this prophetic, eerily omniscient scenario.
7. JD Salinger (1919-2010)
Salinger has Holden Caulfield, narrator of The Catcher in the Rye (1951), express a deep truth: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Salinger is loved and admired for this single book. Famously reclusive, however, he was the last author in the world you could have called up whenever you felt like it.
8. Frank O’Hara (1926-66)
A sad, funny, deceptively straight-talking American poet who gives his pieces titles such as “Meditations in an Emergency” and “Having a Coke with You”, in 1959 O’Hara wrote a little manifesto called “Personism”, based on his realisation that, when writing a poem for someone, he “could use the telephone instead”. The solemnity of poetry would never be the same again.
9. Raymond Carver (1939-88)
Carver wrote many stories featuring telephones. “Put Yourself In My Shoes” (1971) starts in a characteristically banal, yet compelling, literally distracting, way: “The telephone rang while he was running the vacuum cleaner.” As Carver recalls in the wonderful essay “On Writing” (1981), when this sentence came into his head, he “knew a story was there and it wanted telling.” A later story, “A Small Good Thing” (1983), poignantly links together the death of a young boy, hit by a car on his eighth birthday, to a case of phone-rage, involving the baker whose specially-ordered birthday cake the parents had failed to pick up on that terrible day.
10. Hélène Cixous (1937-)
Cixous’s strange and marvellous fictional works all depend on a kind of literary telephony – a sense of many voices calling, singing, telepathically connecting. In one of her finest essays, “Writing Blind”, she observes: “I owe books and books to the telephone and I will give at least one back to it. May it be this very one.” One is left in a kind of magical suspension imagining what such a return call might be.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/oct/06/nicholas-royle-top-10-writers-telephone