Michael Nath – British Story: A Romance (Route, 2014)
When I came across Michael Nath’s novel, British Story, at a book fair last month, I was hesitant to buy. It seemed like an interesting story, published by the small press Route, who I trust. My worry was more that, since 2016, anything with “British” or “English” or “England” in the title means Brexit.
And it doesn’t just mean Brexit. It means a Guardian reader’s Brexit. Veering wildly from sneering at the proles to trembling at jackboots within the space of moments. Brexit hasn’t even happened yet and it’s already ruined literature.
Which is why I was so pleased to discover in Nath’s novel an antidote to all of the post-Brexit ugliness. Where other novelists promised to find the “real Britain”, and “capture the spirit of a troubled nation”, only to end up embarrassing themselves, Nath has managed to say something meaningful.
His secret? He wrote the book in 2014.
Yes, I came to British Story a little late. But I feel like, perhaps, it was I who read the story at the correct time, and Nath who made the mistake of writing it too early.
The story follows Kennedy, an English Lit lecturer who, thankfully, is rather cynical about the over-intellectualised puff that is the bane of his subject area. Kennedy is old school. He understands that literature, or perhaps good literature, is all about character.
“But what is character?” his postmodernised colleagues ask. For them, it is a construct. For the blokes he meets down the pub it’s just something made up – made up stories. But characters are real, Kennedy knows. Not real as in physical. Not objects as such. But they exist and they exert power in the world.
He is studying Falstaff, the character of characters. Shakespeare’s trickster spirit who can charm the King, and who can make even gluttony and cowardice somehow heroic.
It is in the aftermath of an unsuccessful conference when Kennedy finally encounters a Falstaff of his own. The true character who emerges from the novel, overpowering Kennedy like Gatsby does Nick. He’s a Welshman: Arthur Mountain.
Once Arthur enters, the novel is impossible to put down. He is a compelling, dangerous character. A man of big passions and ancient beliefs. He drags Kennedy into a real world of character: underworld villains, football firms, a Mancunian dreamer called Ian Brown; it is a tour of the country’s big mythic heroes.
This is the beauty of Nath’s writing. He has brought to life a range of Brits who all bark and bite with equal ferocity, but love and dream as well. He is not a realist, but his characters linger on the border of reality. They are as real as feelings – the feelings of pride, shame, and frustration that led us to Brexit. Nath truly speaks to the heart of Britain in this book.
And so Arthur is revealed, in a battle with sword-drawing Michael Stone, to have been an Arthurian legend all along. But Arthur is Britain. He’s a hero so English that he was here before the English, and so is actually Welsh. If anything, his people were the enemies of the English. And you can’t get more English than that.
British Story is a novel for our time. Michael Nath knows how to write real literature, stuff with heart and character. He isn’t afraid to look life in the eye, despite all of its jagged edges and contradictions, and he knows how to take this and turn it into a story. A British story at that.
– Joe Darlington