Adam Mars-Jones

Writer - Fiction and Non-fiction

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Photograph: Rob Smart

Books

Associate: Seren Adams

Books

Adam Mars-Jones was born in 1954. He was educated at Westminster and Cambridge. His first collection of stories, LANTERN LECTURE, won a Somerset Maugham Award in 1982 and was followed by his first novel, PILCROW, in 2008 (Faber & Faber). His second novel, CEDILLA, was also published by Faber & Faber in 2011. Adam's latest non fiction work, NORIKO SMILING (Notting Hill Editions, 2011), focuses on Yasujiro Ozu, a master of Japanese cinema. He writes book reviews for the Observer and the LRB. His memoir, KID GLOVES, was published by Particular Books in August 2015.

BOX HILL, which won the Fitzcarraldo Novel Prize in 2019, was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (UK) and New Directions (US).

His new book, BATLAVA LAKE, will be published by Fitzcarraldo in summer 2021.  

Praise for BOX HILL (2020)

'Mars-Jones has never needed to write at great length to convince readers of his talent... [Box Hill] is a sliver of a novel that provides ample evidence of his prowess... it is a masterclass in authorial control. [...] The prose is fluid, confident and unhurried, benefiting from Mars-Jones's trademark technique of avoiding chapters and breaks, so that the whole novel becomes a continuous, meandering stream of insight which gradually reveals more than you expected... producing a portrait of its narrator and his relationship that is disquieting and oddly pure. [...] Despite its diminutive length, it is rich with detail and complexity, and has plenty to demonstrate Mars-Jones's well-deserved place on any list of our best.' Alex Nurnberg, The Times

'An exquisitely discomfiting tale of a submissive same-sex relationship. [...] Colin's chatty recollection in middle age masks the story's teeth, glinting between the lines of his undimmed worship of Ray, whose very sweat was "an elixir". [...] [Box Hill] is a very funny book partly because of its eye for physical comedy, recognisable from the Cromer novels... [but] mainly it's because of the remarkable high-wire act by which Adam Mars-Jones grants the narrator dignity even as he's being sent up. [...] If the first part of that makes us laugh, it's the second part that's key. Shock value, though it certainly exists, isn't the game here; ultimately, our interest in the book's twisted romance lies, instead, in how it raises intractable questions about the essential mystery of attachment between consenting adults.' Anthony Cummins, Guardian 'Book of the Day'

'A clever and subtle novel... [with] a stark cinematic quality.' Max Liu, Financial Times 

‘I very much enjoyed Box Hill. It is a characteristic Mars-Jones mixture of the shocking, the endearing, the funny and the sad, with an unforgettable narrator. The sociological detail is as ever acutely entertaining.’ Margaret Drabble

‘[A] subtle, biting novella... Although repressed boomers of Surrey are probably not the target audience of this intimate, stirring novel, they would probably enjoy this portrait of an impossibly lost age.’ Martin Chilton, Independent

‘If Tom Of Finland had grown up in deepest Surrey in the 1970s, his homoerotic sketches of muscly motorcyclists and police officers might’ve resembled the men depicted in this slim, smouldering novel ... A vividly realised coming-of-age tale, Mars-Jones – known for his elegant fiction as well as penetrating literary criticism – lets it all hang out in this quietly powerful exploration of sexuality, sadomasochism and the self.’ Buzz Magazine

Praise for KID GLOVES (2015)

‘In the first half of the book especially, it is the humour you really notice; I can’t remember reading anything so funny. The jokes are often paragraph length, so too long to quote here, but suffice it to say that the story ending with the line “thirty bob and a box of Black Magic ought to do the trick” had me unable to breathe properly for about five minutes… It is the underlying honesty – to his own, and to others’ selves – that makes this book not just funny, but wise as well. The comedy comes from perception and insight, and a meticulous attention to language and meaning. As for the style: to read the flow of his sentences is how I imagine a cat feels when it is stroked. To call him one of the best writers in the country seems a pointless equivocation, for, at the moment, I can’t think of anyone better.’ Nicholas Lezard, Guardian 

'Ingeniously constructed and full of insight' Leo Robson, TLS 'Books of the Year'

'Funny, tough, scrupulously fair... the overwhelming tone of the memoir is one of profound affection and forebearance' Elizabeth Lowry, TLS 'Books of the Year'

'Moving, lucid and frequently hilarious' Robert McCrum, Guardian

'[A] heartbreaking story of growing up in the shadow of a great man... The book brims with humour and each sentence is a delight to read... Above all, it is a celebration of language, a love shared by father and son alike' Independent

'Moving... Mars-Jones is a logic-chopping polymath whose writing sings with cleverness and wit' Telegraph

'A clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father' New Statesman

Praise for NORIKO SMILING (2011):

'Adam Mars-Jones's essay on Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu goes a long way to demystifying a master' Observer

Praise for CEDILLA (2011):

The most original novel of the year… The trilogy, when it is finished, will be a great novel about nothing much – and therefore everything.’ Craige Raine, TLS Books of the Year

Cedilla by Adam Mars-Jones [is] brilliant… it approache[s] David Foster Wallace-esque levels of syntactical elaboration in order to render the extraordinary consciousness of the cunning, crippled John Cromer.’ Telegraph Books of the Year

‘I thought [Pilcrow] should have won the Booker… I think this one should, too. I loved every crucial, funny, sharp-witted, occasionally wordy, word and would happily trail John Cromer’s aware and honest story until he is ninety.’ Lesley McDowell, Scotsman

‘We are clearly in the presence of a formidable talent operating at full strength… There isn’t a passage here that doesn’t sparkly with some well-phrased perception, neatly overturned cliché or freshly minted pun. And while it can be draining to read a book of this size in which most sentences prompt you to smile, laugh or revise an opinion, you couldn’t exactly call this a weakness… [Mars-Jones] has become over the course of three years one of the most industrious and accomplished novelists in Britain.’ Leo Robson, Daily Telegraph

‘[A] truly remarkable novel… Mars-Jones has Joyce’s talent for revealing the absurdity and tender spots of human experience, and a genius for empathy.’ Psychologies magazine

Cedilla is a big book about a big personality. The novel’s narrator, John Cromer, is gay, gifted, inquisitive, hilarious, wilful, manipulative and utterly maddening… Cedilla is an epic novel – not just in scale, but also in terms of its grand philosophical themes and dizzying array of characters –but it’s a subverted epic. John is a courageous hero of the spirit, rather than grandiose endeavour… Mars-Jones is undoubtedly a wonderful writer and in John he has created a fabulously idiosyncratic character.’ Melissa McClements, Financial Times

‘In one of the most brilliant fictional projects of recent years, Adam Mars-Jones’s trilogy which began with Pilcrow and continues this month with the exceptional CEDILLA, a withdrawn and immured narrator comments at great length on the reflections of experience which preoccupy him in his sickroom.’ Philip Hensher, Spectator

‘Mars-Jones sketches [his narrator’s] internal dilemmas… with terrific witCedilla is nudged along towards this vital life lesson on a tide of ideas, jokes, esoterica, wordplay and vignettes, and it has much to charm the reader besides John's uneven progress. It is also an affectionate portrayal of the period… Mars-Jones has an accurate ear for class pretension and anxiety, for brand names as social indicators, competitive housewifery and phrases such as "a rather Coronation Street thing to be doing"… Structured in short sections that give a feeling of barely recordable incremental progress, it is best approached as an immersive reading experience, at times curiously blank and unengaging, at others lightning sharp. Packed with incidental detail, oddities and blind alleys, it tells you far more than you really need to know and can sometimes make you feel as though you've been buttonholed at a party by someone who's determined to tell you their life story. Fortunately, the buttonholer turns out to be one of the most original comic creations in recent fiction. You won't regret going along for the ride.’ Alex Clark, Guardian

Cedilla is even longer and stranger than its predecessor, Pilcrow, and it is just as unsettling, disarming, and compellingly readable. Mars-Jones has created a narrative about disability that disables conventional critical vocabulary. It is a weird achievement, accomplished with panache, and forged in some region of the literary imagination that defies easy explanation. On one level, this novel is a cross between Proust and Nigel Slater, featuring sickly adolescence, inversion, ambiguous waiters and obsessively detailed retro recipes, but it moves beyond this well-explored domestic terrain to a gripping and perilous scene on a sacred Indian mountain featuring a holy cow. In literary terms, it is impossible for this scene to succeed, particularly for a reader uninterested in Hindu thought and the concept of the Dark Age of the 432,000 years of the Kali Yuga, in which, apparently, we live. It cannot work, but it does. I give up. I am disarmed and disabled.’ Margaret Drabble, Observer

Praise for PILCROW (2008):

‘A remarkable portrait of growing up disabled in 1950s Britain. John Cromer, the peculiar protagonist, is precocious, precious and ultimately captivating. He leaves you looking forward to the second and third parts of what promises to be a massive, impressive trilogy.’ Mark Sanderson, Evening Standard Books of the Year

‘Pilcrow is not only a fat gauntlet thrown down measuredly at our hurrying feet, but a subtle send-up of various genres: the family memoir, full as a biscuit tin with old brand names and sweet lost objects; the gay coming-of-age novel and memoir; and the English boarding-school novel… Mars-Jones’s prose is exceptionally nimble, dry, humorously restrained, very English, with a little Nabokovian velvet too. He can describe more or less anything and make it interesting… Pilcrow is a peculiar, original, utterly idiosyncratic book. It is admirably courageous, both in what it heaps on us, and in what it holds back.’ James Wood, London Review of Books

‘[Mars-Jones] has crafted something at once familiar and strange, a narrative where preoccupations which have exercised both his fiction and his journalism over two and a half decades are polished and revisited. It is an impressive piece of workPilcrow renders the interior voice of an exceptional being agilely and plausibly, and it does justice to a peculiar historical moment, both brutal and byzantine, bright with possibility yet thicketed with codes and conventions.’ Keith Miller, TLS

‘Remarkable… A gripping, tragicomic, Proustian tale, presenting a world at once wholly convincing and wholly surprising… I long to know what happens next to its brave and gallant narrator.’ Margaret Drabble, New Statesman

‘[A] singular coming of age novel... Mars-Jones inhabits this process with dark sensitivity and grim humour... In outline, Pilcrow might have threatened to become a Beckett talking head, a rambling, disembodied consciousness – but for all his concern with the surfaces of language, Mars-Jones would not be content with that. The book that most closely informs this one's ambition is, rather, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, with its embedded Freudian symbolism of emotional growth: bedwetting and muddy drains and the rest.’ Observer

Pilcrow is rigorously unsentimental, and there is an audacious and often extremely funny matter-of-factness about the way it describes the various incapacities of John and his fellows and how they manage them… Throughout the book there is a skilful use of double perspective, with John vibrantly present not only as the boy undergoing these experiences but also as the adult looking back on them. His narrative swoops effortlessly between playful elaboration and childlike simplicity… beautifully written and truly exhilarating.Sunday Times

‘Mars-Jones uses severe illness the way other writers use war or prison: as an extreme environment within which people behave in fresh and revealing ways. Laid out like this, the novel almost sounds like the latest addition to the annals of misery lit. But Pilcrow is no such thing. John is not a victim, but an explorer.’ Kasia Boddy, Telegraph

‘Intelligent, linguistically brilliant and… funny.’ Melissa McClements, Financial Times

‘A compulsive study of serious illness… with echoes of Joyce.’ Guardian

‘Mars-Jones has fashioned a kind of magnificently stunted Bildungsroman out of John’s predicament... It is the novel’s linguistic textures that are most striking... Mars-Jones is a virtuoso of voice, and to have sustained John’s internal monologue over more than 500 pages is some achievement.’ Time Out Book of the Week

Fiction

Publication DetailsNotes
2015

Particular Books

When his widowed father - once a high court judge and always a formidable figure - drifted into vagueness if not dementia, the writer Adam Mars-Jones took responsibility for his care. Intimately trapped in the London flat where the family had always lived, the two men entered an oblique new stage in their relationship.

In the aftermath of an unlooked-for intimacy, Mars-Jones has written a book devoted to particular emotions and events. Kid Gloves is a highly entertaining book about (among other things) families, the legal profession, and the vexed question of Welsh identity. It is necessarily also a book about the writer himself - and the implausible, long-delayed moment, some years before, when he told his sexually conservative father about his own orientation, taking the homophobic bull by the horns. The supporting cast includes Ian Fleming, the Moors Murderers, Jacqueline Bisset and Gilbert O'Sullivan, the singer-songwriter whose trademark look kept long shorts from their rightful place on the fashion pages for so many years.

2011

Faber & Faber

Cedilla takes up the narrative where PILCROW left off. John Cromer launches himself into the wider world of mainstream education, and comes upon deeper joys, subtler setbacks.

2008

Faber & Faber

Mars-Jones's first novel in fifteen years is a tender, dense and almost Proustian depiction of the difficult life of John Cromer, a precocious but brittle-boned and bedbound sufferer of a rare genetic disorder called Still's disease. Under the nom de plume 'Pilcrow', he evokes the experience of growing up disabled and gay in the 1950s - circumstances which force John from an early age to develop an intense and vivid internal world.

1993

Faber & Faber

William thought trust was a good idea; Terry needed a lover who would keep his little secret. But how does accidental monogamy survive in a world ruled by illness and denial?

1992

Faber & Faber

Nine short stories tackling the ethical implications of writing about AIDS, four of which previously appeared in THE DARKER PROOF.

1988

Faber

The Darker Proof, an anthology of stories about suffering with the HIV virus, was first published in 1987 to critical acclaim. This updated version, which includes stories by Adam Mars-Jones and Edmund White, was published in 1988.

1981

Faber & Faber

A collection of short stories for which the author was awarded the Somerset Maugham Award.

Non-Fiction

Publication DetailsNotes
2011

Notting Hill Editions

This remarkable essay in narrative reconstruction elicits a world of meaning on a master of Japanese cinema - Ozu. Adam Mars-Jones gives a virtuoso comeback performance as that lost figure from the early days of cinema: the film explainer.

1997

Chatto & Windus

Adam Mars-Jones shares his views on subjects as diverse as Gore Vidal; Martin Amis; Ian McEwan; gay fiction; queer politics; fear of the bomb; Marc Almond; and his mothers.