London in 1935 is a world of dingy pubs and bedsits; of strange inventions like psychoanalysis, feminism and modern art; of fascism, communism and looming war; of asylums in which the mentally ill are subjected to cruel treatments. Arthur Bourne, a junior doctor in London’s oldest mental hospital, is about to jeopardise his future for the sake of his closest friend, Louis Molyneux.
Louis is an aspiring writer, as brilliant as he is neurotic, and since schooldays he has relied on Arthur’s steadying influence. Arthur only wants to make a life—to help his patients and pursue his career, to marry the woman he loves and start a family—but he is hindered by the demands of his troubled friend. Louis is convinced that one of Arthur’s patients can help him finish his novel, and with writer’s block pushing Louis towards a mental breakdown, Arthur sets aside ethical scruples and gives him what he wants.
As the consequences of the decision unfold, Arthur discovers that his old friendship is a threat to everything he would like to believe about himself; and as former certainties break down, he learns how easily even the distinction between sanity and madness can become blurred.
Jott is a story about friendship, madness and modernism, inspired by a real episode in the early life of Samuel Beckett.
Video by James Carney of Unseen Things.
How I came to write this book:
Jott was inspired by a story from my family’s past. My grandfather was a lifelong friend of Samuel Beckett: they met at boarding school, studied together at Trinity College, Dublin and moved to London as young men in the 1930s. As a junior psychiatrist my grandfather worked at the Bethlem psychiatric hospital in south London, and helped Beckett research his first novel Murphy by taking him onto the wards. I never met my grandfather, but I’ve always been intrigued by the story of his friendship with Beckett, and by the Murphy connection in particular. The idea of somehow writing about it had been in my mind for a long time, and at a certain point I felt ready to give it a try.
Here’s a short piece at the London Review of Books blog about the friendship and how it became the seed for the book.
Although I felt close to the story of Geoffrey and Sam, I also felt it wasn’t exactly my story to tell. So when I began to write this book, I found myself exploring the subject by indirect routes, not writing about the real people and events but inventing fictional versions in which the originals are mirrored, changed and contradicted. In that way Jott became an unreliable roman à clef, playing with the boundary between historical record and pure invention to create characters who sometimes resemble their originals and sometimes betray them—but in doing so gain new lives of their own. In other words, Jott is a story of imaginary people in a real situation: at least that’s how it feels to me.
For more background, here’s a note on the book’s sources and a bibliography.