Book Review: An English Guide to Birdwatching, Nicholas Royle

Literary critic Nicholas Royle’s second novel swoops audaciously between fiction and reality

I once spent 10 minutes having Martin Amis explain to me how crucial it is that a writer understands the history of every word he uses. As an example, he cited the Latin origins of ‘dilapidated’, which dictate that the word can only refer to stone structures. Hearing an eminent Oxbridge don refer to a dilap-idated hedge a few weeks later, I felt a brief shame for the poor uneducated chap. Amis’ lesson had left me vigilant. An English Guide to Birdwatching, the second novel from Sussex academic and literary critic Nicholas Royle, has a similar, equally gripping, effect.

Like Royle’s impressive debut Quilt, An English Guide is a far-reaching and ambitious work that tackles many subjects – professional jealousy, fraud, the experience of ageing, our relationship with nature. But most of all, it’s about language: how vocabulary, tone, emphasis, linguistic provenance, double meanings, even rhythm define the way we consume every aspect of life. Its forensic dissection of both verbal and behavioural semantics is so affecting that one begins to question the efficacy of every sentence, whether for publication, Twitter or dining-table chit-chat.

Royle takes his ideas and runs like the wind, cocking a snook at the likes of Philip Roth and Paul Auster along the way

The cast is large and diverse. Ethel and Silas have retired from their undertaker business to live by the sea but their winter is made intolerable by the menacing and constant presence of seagulls. Their chapters are easy reads, cosy in their use of friendly conversational cliches (“same difference”; “up-sticks and start anew”).

Alternatively, the peacocky, word-playing prose employed for the fiery critic Stephen Osmer reflects his obsession with accuracy and his need to eviscerate every ill-considered sub-clause he comes upon. It is also ingeniously appropriate for his attack on the chummy celebrity friendship between the prolific author Nicholas Royle and the academic (writer of this book) Nicholas Royle. (Both men exist in real life exactly as he describes them, though they would take exception to his withering views on their work.)

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Students of Lacan, Chomsky and Derrida (on whom Royle is an authority) are well aware of the notion of our being prisoners of language. It is hardly a revelation. Nor is Royle the first to go heavy meta with the notion of literary doppelgangers. But he takes these ideas and runs like the wind, cocking a snook at the likes of Philip Roth and Paul Auster along the way.

Lexical tomfoolery, reality versus fiction; it all sounds rather dry, doesn’t it? Not much fun at all. But that’s the strangest thing of all – with a few exceptions (the competitive smart-ass parley between academics and critics is testing) this is as enjoyable as it is edifying. It’s also sexy, funny and, in its quieter moments, very touching. There is heartfelt writing here, particularly effective in the case of anxious, sensitive old Ethel. And somehow, as we wade through the puns, quotes and cultural references, we come to think, and care, about the nature of love, and about our taking for granted the world beyond language; the sea, the sky, and the birds. Marvellous.

An English Guide to Birdwatching, Nicholas Royle, out now on Myriad Editions, £9.99