Cornelius Medvei: “We don’t take characters and develop them; we set ourselves writing puzzles and try to solve them”

The Making of Mr Bolsover is a novel which it is relatively easy to find critical words phrases to describe – mock-heroic, deadpan, quietly subversive – yet each leaves one with a sense of dissatisfaction. Ostensibly it is the political biography of a former civil servant who begins to live wild and embarks on a career in local politics. The narrator periodicaly references weighty biographies of the likes of Gladstone, Disraeli and Lord Salisbury The book is set in a recognisably contemporary world with references to email and mobile phones, but these are rather incidental to a more timeless depiction of suburbia and the wild places near suburbia that could be set any time in the last fifty or so years.

Medvei is a somewhat obscure figure – indeed, the first two Google results are for a different man entirely (his father?), a high powered legal professional. And while while this is the man (follow link), his bio doesn’t mention his novel. I get the sense Medvei may not be the world’s most assiduous self-promoter.


Cornelius Medvei‘s father lives near to the writer Alexander Masters (of “Stuart: A Life Lived Backwards) who wrote about him in the Spectator
(under the headline “There’s nothing wrong with plugging a friends book”

Cornelius Medvei, whose father lives in Sussex, a few fields away from me, has published three novels. They are fables that are witty, wry and thin (in terms of pages) and nobody except Susan Hill and I reads them. The latest one, The Making of Mr Bolsover, is about a local politician who becomes a prophet and ends up living in a wood, cooking rats. On the back cover is a review of Medvei’s first novel, Mr Thundermug. ‘Delightful, unforgettable and splendidly peculiar.’ That review is by me. ‘A book of genius,’ says another review — that’s by Susan Hill.

Cornelius writes ‘like nothing else I have ever read’, says Susan. I’ve met her only once, at a fundraising event for the Emmaus homeless community in Oxford. We instantly forgot about the homeless and talked about Cornelius. About how odd he is; how lanky; how his writing makes you feel he’s been
teleported from the 1920s, part-Kafka, part-John Collier; how at unlikelymparties you turn round and find him standing six inches behind you, quiet and steady as a post; and how he should be in every bookcase.

I’ve had Mr Bolsover on my desk for the past six months. I tore it open the instant it arrived, finished it in two hours, then shoved the book aside in despair. It is brilliant; and, again, it won’t sell

Masters takes on Medvei when walking together:

‘What is wrong with you?’ I demanded as we began our walk up onto the Downs. It was a drizzly day. ‘Why can’t you write a straightforward book that will give you a decent income?’

‘I don’t know,’ groaned Cornelius, bending himself into the wind. ‘I thought this one would do it. It is very funny, it has a strong plot.’

‘And it is full of obscure 19th-century
references to political theory. Why don’t you write about 21st-century issues?’

Mr Thundermug was about alienation,’ he protested.

‘The hero was a monkey who spends his time gazing at the sky and having
philosophical thoughts while his wife eats the bugs out of his fur.’

‘Bookshops often put it in the children’s section,’ admitted Cornelius. ‘They don’t know what to make of it.’

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‘Couldn’t you include a murder or a love interest — something that the reader can get his teeth into?’

‘My second book, Caroline, was a romantic novel.’

‘About a man who falls in love with a

‘I often find that one in crime,’ agreed Cornelius.

We get to read Medvei’s own justification for the detached, rather abstracted style of Mr Bolsover:

‘And then you have adopted this strange detached style for Mr Bolsover, a sort of arch remoteness, as though you’d attached your pen to the end of a long stick, like Matisse …you don’t try to get inside Mr Bolsover’s head, like another novelist would. You don’t explain why he changes from a councillor into a rat-eater.’ (actually in the novel he is a rat eater before a councillor – SS)

‘Precisely! Political biographies don’t. Why did Trotsky become an advocate of permanent revolution? In the biographies there’s a wan passage about him being an idealist, or driven by a sense of mission; but otherwise they pass over it. The motivations for change in these books are either not identified or are banal. In Mr Bolsover’s case, he was hit over the head by a library book.’

I could identify with a approach of Medvei’s to writing , setting him (and Masters) apart from the usual approach of so many creative writing seminars and so forth:


He paused at a hedge, pushed aside a strand of bramble to reveal a muddy
bridleway and stooped into it. ‘There are different reasons people write, and we’ve got ourselves caught in a wrong one. We don’t take characters and develop them; we set ourselves writing puzzles and try to
solve them. Do you know that story by Somerset Maugham that starts, “I wonder if I can do this?” No? Read it. He is another of us.’

This algebraic attitude to writing also explains why Cornelius’s books take so long. ‘I can see this scene or that twist, but I don’t know the answer overall. I just know the feeling I’m after. I’m always going on at my students about how they should spend more time planning essays before starting writing, but that’s never the way I do it. I just jump in, start writing, chasing this feeling that will be an answer to the puzzle, and get bogged down. It leads to endless points of despair.’

Masters’ semi-tongue in cheek point – that knowing an author gives their books a life and dimension beyond the supposedly detached critical review of a strange – is somewhat incident in this piece to a consideration of the sameness and rather formulaic nature of much contemporary writing.

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