Sweet Distractions

Ah yes: the inevitable essay collection – temporary resting place of the uninspired novelist. How to assuage a publisher barking for new material? Collect together a handful of articles from hither and thither; throw in two or three more, and the job, it seems, is done. What’s more, you appear to have widened your interests; to have shown your public another aspect of your talents. You thought I could only write fiction? Think again: I can also whip up nine thousand words on the art of growing tomatoes, my mother’s fondness for Wagner and Why I Have No Concrete Opinion on Fox-Hunting. That’s what I call multi-faceted.

Here comes Ivan Zech, wandering nonchalantly into the fray. He knows we’ve noticed that he hasn’t written much recently. How long has it been since his last great novel, With Apologies to his Sister’s Parrot? Too long. Aha, he says, but it’s not as if I haven’t been writing. Look here, he continues, look at all these essays I’ve amassed. So many essays! A whole book’s worth!

Well, indeed. A whole book’s worth. And not a bad book’s worth at that. Some of the pieces in Lollipop and Other Essays are first-rate. ‘Latvia, Nostalgia and the Films of Ingrid Brivek’ is a melancholy tour-de-force. The tirade against meerkats, meanwhile, is nothing if not hilarious. Even the title-piece, ‘Lollipop’ has its moments – though one wonders whether there was any real need for a detailed cultural (and frequently very personal) analysis of what Zech describes, at several points, as ‘nothing more than a sweet on a stick’.

Which leads us to the unsurprisingly disappointing aftertaste. Most of these essays are fine, in their own particular way – but what do they amount to? They serve as a reminder, merely, that Ivan Zech knows how to write; but that, just now, he lacks the ability to shape his ideas; to manage his thoughts into an appropriately fulsome form. These are not really essays: they are unwritten short-stories; notes for an unwritten novel: an admission, finally, of failure. Zech has served us with confectionary: what we need is a square meal.

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