“Ian Fleming meets Rimbaud” is the touted buzzphrase being used by Little Island Press to direct attention towards Daniel Roy Connelly‘s new “genre-defying” (again, publisher’s phrase) memoir, Extravagant Stranger. It seems an odd – though eye-catching – comparison to make, and though it certainly got my attention (which isn’t a tough thing to do, tbh), a more accurate description of the book would’ve likewise done the same. Because this is the kind of book I love – loosely connected vignettes, text that floats in the gaps between prose and poetry, a narrative thread, geographic movement, literary noises, piques of excitement, and all constructed with care and attention. Extravagant Stranger shifts through many stages of a man’s life, from childhood through multiple careers and into parenthood, offering opinions and insights into literature, art, travel and politics.
Connelly is a former British diplomat who is now a literature professor. Extravagant Stranger is a slim book – 100ish pages – but it offers a thorough-seeming look into this non-unexceptional life. From birth to school to the death of parents to narrowly-avoided terrorist attacks to a return to education to fatherhood to the collapse of a relationship and then onward to a fantasised death, this is a “memoir” in both a fresh AND traditional sense – even though the writer is still alive and still writing, he maintains the cradle-to-grave narrative that autobiographic writing usually – by necessity – lacks. (See Christine Brooke-Rose’s Life, End Of as another example of a book attempting to write ones death while alive.)
The book, to me, felt more familiar than its description led me to expect, and I would comfortably slot it alongside other educated, literary, flaneur writers of the now such as Teju Cole and Ben Lerner, and I mean that as a compliment. Though both of these writers have their fair share of detractors, they’ve both won many plaudits and awards, and this inner-literary-male trope is something many people love. We slip in and out of Connelly’s life, into and out of his personal history and his present, and we learn lots about him, but we also learn lots about the world he sees. He speaks about Shakespeare at length, and there is also a gorgeous piece about Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, which I unexpectedly found deeply moving, and emphasised the comparison with Lerner (who writes a great deal about art, if you don’t know his work). That piece is called ‘Let’s go to Bernini for this one, 2010’. But is it a piece, is it a chapter, is it a poem? It’s difficult to know (like Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett).
Almost all of these pieces work on their own, without context – this could be a collection as well as a singular piece. Everything here is connected to a life, but due to the strange, international, twists and turns of Connelly’s existence, they could be taken from several. Most people don’t do as many things as Connelly has done in his life, and nor are most people as able to write as lyrically (within prose) on so many different topics. King Lear seeps into many pieces, as does Julius Caesar (especially in the parts set in Rome), but despite these recurring, weighty, references, at no point are we asked to read Connelly’s life as tragic.
- ‘To all the mothers who weren’t’ is a moving piece about being slapped by ones mother when an adult;
- ‘A Walk in the Park, 2012’ is a heartbreaking break-up piece (my repetition intended);
- ‘Dentro’ is a disgusting and hilarious piece about being a buy-to-let landlord taken for a ride.
These are prose poems about growing up then about growing old, they are about the pains of physical decline (including incontinence) and the joys of physical pleasure; there is gluttony and sex and adventure here, there is wit and sadness and avoidance and guilt. Extravagant Stranger is not a long book, but it is an intriguing and exciting memoir offering a window into the life of someone who has not lived a conventional life.
There are some absences if considering this as a memoir, chiefly how Connelly shifts from an ordinary lower middle class childhood to an international life of intellect, admin and travel, but I don’t suppose it matters much. This book isn’t being sold off the back of who Connelly is, but rather how he expresses what he has done. I have not come here to learn about a man, but to read an evocation of a life, and in that regard this collection of short, prose, pieces achieves everything it sets out to do. I laughed, I cried, I felt transported, I want to visit Rome (again) and India (never been), too. These travelogue snapshots are deeply evocative, and very exciting, and ignoring Connelly’s troublesome decision to self-identify as a “global scalliwag” (sic and vom), I’d be keen to read more of his work.
The comparisons with both Rimbaud and Ian Fleming make sense, though neither of these emphasise the point I inelegantly make above – Extravagant Stranger is a book that feels very contemporary, very now. It is between genres and styles and in a space where a lot of attention is being paid. Connelly has lived an interesting life, and evokes it in an interesting way. Worth a look.