Written in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum when the UK voted to leave the EU, Robinson is essential and entertaining reading. By the end of the 19th century there were over 700 spin-off versions of Robinson Crusoe: the novel is brilliantly and succinctly revisited by Charles Boyle a.k.a. Jack Robinson in a modern-day setting.
Random thoughts from an offshore island
“James Joyce considered Robinson’s grandfather to be ‘the true prototype of the English colonist . . . The whole Anglo Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence; the unconscious cruelty; the persistence; the slow yet efficient intelligence; the sexual apathy; the practical, well-balanced religiousness; the calculating taciturnity.’ Crusoe – the eponymous hero of the book by Daniel Defoe that is often considered to be the first English novel.”
A shrewd survivor, the shipwrecked slave-trader farms, builds a stockade, and arms himself after spotting a man’s footprint on the beach likely to belong to one of the “savages” said to live in the region. Marooned and lonely on his island, Crusoe’s Robinson was a bourgeois disciplinarian administrator making rules and regulations to survive by.
What of the belief system – then and now – of this man who ends up making a fortune from the sale of his plantations during his two decades away? His insular, bellicose mindset is underpinned by a fear of the foreign and the unknown, and has obvious heirs among the political class operating in the UK today. This attitude is fostered in public schools, and by the way in which habits and customs become traditions and rules. “I remember reading somewhere in Auden that the purpose of education was to induce just so much stress as the individual can bear without actually breaking.” A self-made man, it is likely that, Crusoe’s Robinson today would have had “a ghosted newspaper column and would have received a knighthood.”
We meet Robinson in person with the author sitting in a West London café. “On a good day he can be charming but then a mood sets in.” We see him through the eyes of others: Kafka’s Amerika, Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law, Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, Chris Petit’s Robinson, Patrick Keiller’s trilogy of Robinson films, Muriel Spark, Jane Gardam, Coetzee, Fielding, Conrad, Henry James . . . and Rimbaud came up with the verb, “robinsonner.”
“A good part of this little book is actually about confusion: being told that the world works in one way but experiencing it in different ways.” Although the starting point for this novel – a kind of literary commonplace book – is dispiriting, I finished it laughing and uplifted by its lancing wit and surreal imaginings. Vignettes . . . aperçus . . . 18th century coffee houses . . . childhood boarding school memories . . . measuring life in teaspoons watched over by a suspicious waitress in a Shepherds Bush café . . . pithy parallel biographical sketches of Robinson vs. Defoe’s Robinson. There are no limits to what a good author can do: Boyle is a great disrupter.
“‘Robust’ is an overused word.”
“In a shop selling outdoor gear he tries on a puffy jacket and talks with a sales assistant about the difference between ‘waterproof’ and ‘weather-resistant’. Have you got any flares, he asks? Those things you light and send up high into the sky when you’re lost? Those things you light and send up high into the sky when you’re lost?”
A keen-minded compendium, An Overcoat conjures a vision of Henri Beyle a.k.a. Stendhal pottering about – the English equivalent of ‘flâner’ but with a wholly different atmosphere – modern-day London. Shifting names and identities, the lives of others running parallel with his: Boyle a.k.a. Robinson moves back and forth between his own life – the frustrations of writing, love and lust, loss and family irritations – to literary apercus and entertaining observations about the nonsense of modern life – Starbucks, jogging in fluorescent running shoes, chess, lingerie, cooking and puff, seasonal migration, filming in Venice, a drowned girl (shades of Ophelia) and a Roman holiday . . .
He relishes playing games with self and others. He is accompanied on his wanderings by a cast of oddballs from life and literature. Two of my favourites are Franco the tour guide who is enraged by being asked to “stick to the facts,” and Monsieur Bombet who “wears a beret both indoors and out” and writes film reviews for his local paper using “the Bombet scale [which] ranges from 10 for utter tosh to 1 for minor improbability”. His appreciation of Henri Beyle a.k.a. Stendhal, and his lost love and prison, is written in footnotes – an ingenious construction.
Boyle a.k.a. Robinson plays a seemingly flippant but deadly serious rhetorical game of literary hide-and-seek with the reader as he moves between the intimacy of his own life and the world around him, this life and the afterlife. The tone and style are unashamedly European; the references listed at the end are a useful reading list for the curious.
The author of both books is Charles Boyle, the founder of CB Editions. He is about as representative as you can get of the brilliant and mischievous spirit of experimentation and literary adventure that illuminates and drives the independent publishing community. His impressive erudition is worn as lightly as an overcoat.
A modern British master, I am surprised Boyle has not been picked up by one of the bigger independents. He deserves to reach a broad readership not only in the UK but in Europe where he would find many appreciative kindred spirits.
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