Add to researchNiall Duthie
Niall Duthie was born on 15 May, 1947, in Aberdeen, Scotland, brought up there and in Ghana, England and Malaysia.
His school education began in Dyce and ended at Epsom College. His university education began at Manchester and ended at Essex.
For 30 years, he lived in Spain, mostly in Cadiz. He is the author of three acclaimed novels: The Duchess's Dragonfly (1993), a capuchin monkey's account of 42 etchings; Natterjack (1996), a human toad's recounting of Macbeth; and Lobster Moth (1999), a comedy on who says what.
He is currently working on at least four novels, three of which are portraits of women.
He is married, currently lives in Edinburgh and has a son and two daughters.
Niall Duthie’s first novel, The Duchess’s Dragonfly (1993), in which a Capuchin monkey recounts the tale of the composition of 42 copper engravings which have been destroyed in a fire, gives us an indication of what we can expect from this most singular of authors.
Easy, second-hand, throwaway fiction, this is not. Duthie is difficult, often remarkably original and always ambitious, and while his work will never find a place on the bestseller lists, it will at least provoke a reaction and divide opinion; there will be boredom and awe, indifference and amazement, frustration and enthusiasm. Duthie, who has written three novels in total but nothing for the last six years, has fashioned a whole new language in the telling of his curious tales; a language precise, proud, lyrical and elegant, all the time pushing at the boundaries of sense and meaning. Duthie produces prose poems rather than prose. Like his compatriot, Alice Thompson, we feel the force of his intellect throughout his novels; he is deserving of our attention, precisely because of his uniqueness. Duthie’s is a voice we have not encountered elsewhere.
The premise of his debut, which I have already outlined, is, to say the very least, a little on the bizarre side. The narrator, the monkey, who describes himself as 'witness and image', is not only the Duchess’s pet, but also the common thread to the engravings lost forever in the burnt-out attic of a Spanish palace. Even if he is reduced to shadows and corners and half-glimpsed tails, he appears in each and every engraving, and is then an authority on their composition and the particular circumstances that surround their production. He plays the role of court voyeur, cuddled and caressed and shouted at by those around him, a furry figure to be moved in and out of scenes according to the whim of the artist - the character of which was in part inspired by Goya - and the wishes of his mistress. The monkey reconstructs the metal plates for us in minute detail, plates which tell of an affair between the painter and the Duchess. We learn of the importance of their order, and how changes to this order affects the way the works are received. The Duchess’s Dragonfly concerns the nature of artistic creation, its accidents, its ambiguities, its unfathomable mysteries. As the novel progresses we have the sense of the monkey as a prisoner of this process, locked away in the imagination of the artist and the endearments and reproaches of those around him. He is also imprisoned within the engravings themselves; it is as if in offering up these mini-essays to us he is engaged in an act of liberation, claiming an existence for himself beyond these works of art, melted away to 'a cold green and black bubbled lump'.
Duthie’s second novel, Natterjack (1996), equals the ambition of his debut but succeeds not only in capturing our attention, but in retaining it. Duthie does not always succeed in The Duchess’s Dragonfly in remaking the pictures in words; the experience of the novel is, at times, rather like that of ploughing through a dry, scholarly art gallery catalogue. If The Duchess’s Dragonfly is about the riddles and enigmas at the centre of the process of making art, then Natterjack examines language, the struggle to define, to capture, to delineate through words. At times mesmeric, at times exceptionally confusing, Natterjack is a novel which exerts a weird, almost hypnotic pull that can be difficult to resist. Is it enjoyable? Not in any conventional sense of the word, no. But it is, none the less, a quite extraordinary feat of phrase-making; a virtuoso exercise in shaping a fictional universe which demands we look anew at what surrounds us. It is narrated by R.T. Shearer, who, from his room 'overlooking the slug-slick blue of the Mediterranean,' talks of his life at a Scottish boarding school, where he arrives one day as a foreigner, a comic outsider: 'We forget youth’s sly stupidities and hard knuckles. I could not swim well, then Moors, all Moors, could not swim well. The reader will know this kind of relentless elastic deduction in which insanity and wit rub along together.' At school, Shearer meets a boy who helps him survive. It is the relationship between Shearer and this boy which is at the heart of Natterjack. When they leave school, they go to university together. When they graduate, they both take up positions with an Edinburgh firm of fund managers. This friend is called Macbeth and although we can read Duthie’s novel in many ways, it is, nevertheless, a subtle remaking on Shakespeare’s play. The title of the novel refers to a type of toad, described by Shearer to one of his boarding school tormentors as 'small, with legs too short it must always run. Skin is cream with a network of bubbled chocolate. Has a pale, egg-custard line or streak down its back'. Inevitably, Shearer is nicknamed 'natterjack' by his persecutor and goes on to say how his tale is a 'portrait of the emotional anatomy of a human natterjack.' There are passages of sustained brilliance throughout the novel; in particular the moment when Shearer goes for an interview at the firm he will eventually work at, which is surreal, weirdly comic and absolutely compelling. Duthie’s novel investigates the 'link between description and definition' and all the spaces between, and proves the author’s startlingly original skill in bending the language to the force of his own creative will.
Lobster Moth (1999), is perhaps Duthie’s most accomplished novel. It crackles with the electric pulse of Duthie’s wit and erudition and manages to be more consistently entertaining than his first two books. It is the story of two men: one, a lepidopterist, Robert Gilmerton, who, after being wounded during combat in the first world war, is recovering in a convalescent home in Dorset where one can 'stir the air like gruel'; the other an art house actor, David Orr, who, almost 80 years on, is to play Gilmerton in a film called Almost a Hero. Gilmerton is writing a pillow book, 'designed to be read in ten-minute spells with a soft pillow behind the head.' Passages from this are interspersed with Orr’s investigations into how best to play Gilmerton. Beguiling, meditative and as unique a piece of work as any published in recent years, Lobster Moth discusses the nature of interpretation, metamorphosis and perception. It demonstrates Duthie’s interest in and astonishing knowledge of the natural world, his acuity and sensitivity to language, and his ability to create something wholly new. Throughout, the mood is one of quiet enchantment; this is a novel unafraid of ideas, quite prepared to stand alone. Amusing, tender and beautiful, this book reminds us of the possibilities of fiction.
There has been no new novel from Duthie for several years. We can only hope that he will produce more, for he is quite unlike else writing today.
Garan Holcombe, 2006
- Lobster Moth, Fourth Estate
- Natterjack, Faber and Faber
- The Duchess's Dragonfly, Phoenix House
I write because it is delightful to do. Literalist enough to think novels should be, I aim to give good value – that is, write books that can be read more than once – and agree with whoever said that we always talk of something being like something else, when what a writer wants is to write of something like nothing on earth - with the proviso that I am not fond of simile. I love the exploration of specifics, the range of points in words, and am awfully slow.