Peter Jacobs

‘My early life was a magic-lantern show. The hand rabbits were brothers and sisters, shadowy creatures who appeared to be in competition with me. I wondered what game we were playing, and what the house rules were.’ So begins Heavy Years, my introduction to Hogan as a writer and a man, in both respects a figure who has prospered with a studiously maintained disregard for the house rules, playing instead a game of his own devising.

When David Elliott, the former director of Quartet Books, now sadly departed, dropped the manuscript for this astonishing work of autofiction on my desk, I was absolutely delighted. Now here was the kind of project I had gotten into book editing for. Experimental, witty, propulsive, deeply idiosyncratic (in the best possible way) and yet anchored by a considerable weight of erudition and guided by ‘big ideas’, HY was a book I would be honoured to help bring into existence.

But it was at once an editor’s dream and anxiety-nightmare. With its dense layers of esoteric punning and allusion and its tricksy syntax, along with the occasional deliberately unresolved subordinate clause. And so, no little communication with its maker would be required to do my job. Lucky indeed that the humanity and playfulness so apparent in the book was no pretence, but a reflection of the mind that engendered it.

Working with James was, and has continued to be, an absolute pleasure. Always modest and receptive to my feedback, suggestions and finickity edits, he strikes a balance by robustly defending his art from the vandalism I occasionally unwittingly wreak upon it. And through this work, over the years I have come to possess a panorama of his life – or at least that of his alter-ego – from childhood, to his arrival in the London literary scene, to his career as a health worker and recent years as a flâneur à la retraite on the French-Spanish border. Throughout all this documented existence, James continues to grip the reader, not always through the events he relays – though he has lived a storied life – but by giving them the chance to see the world through his unique lens. Heavy Years was for a reason subtitled Inside the Head of a Health Worker.

And beyond our working relationship, James has also come to be a good friend, albeit one with whom communication is almost solely via the written word. How funny, that while working on James’s tremendous three-part Rilke saga, we came to build an epistolary friendship partially reminiscent of Letters to a Young Poet, with me naturally cast in the role of Franz Kappus, the young soldier upstart. Fortunately, I find James a far more agreeable and less-puffed-up correspondent than Rainer Maria, as much as I enjoy Rilke’s Letters.

While working together these last years, my personal life has been in somewhat of a tumult. I would like to thank him for his understanding and perfectly pitched kindness, and commend him for his impressively stoic attitude to all of life’s tribulations. As he turns eighty, here’s to many more years of the pipe-smoking cyclist and his inimitable observations.

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The Duras Press

The Duras Press