March 24, 2022

Books

My small part in the making of ‘The Power of the Dog’

By Nicholas Shakespeare
Image: Detail of a painting by Max Watters. Image courtesy of Nicholas Shakespeare

Detail of a painting by Max Watters. Image courtesy of Nicholas Shakespeare

How a conversation about Patrick White led to the making of Jane Campion’s Oscar-nominated film

The Compasses Inn lies on the edge of an old straight track in a hollow that shelters it from the cold south-west wind. It’s in the hamlet of Chicksgrove, in south-west England. In the field below, you can still see the outline of an oppidum, where Romano-Britons mined for Chilmark stone, and somewhere up on the ridge is an ancient British fort that I’ve yet to investigate.

A thatched two-storey inn dating from the 14th century, The Compasses is hard to locate on a map, despite its name – although it was named not for marine navigation but after a stonemason’s tool for marking out curves and right angles.

It’s sheer luck that one of my favourite pubs is also my local.

I’ve tramped there on many a sunny evening: a 20-minute walk that meanders behind the Anglo-Saxon tower of the church where I was married, and my children christened, and then dips across cornfields on a path parallel to the narrow river where no less an angler than Arthur Ransome flicked out his line for small wild Nadder trout.

For 30 years, I have ducked my head and passed into the low-ceilinged, dark front room, and ordered a pint of Butcombe.

There is a wall to the left of the bar where I like to stand and sip my beer. My story begins eight years ago, opposite that wall, with a discussion about the eminent Australian novelist Patrick White. I was chatting to a local poet, Keith Musgrove, whose wife had recently died, and saying how forcibly she had reminded me of the heroine in White’s masterpiece, Voss, for which I had just written the Everyman edition’s introduction. One pleasure of reading a formidable writer is that they create characters who resonate through time and who live among you in your own village. Keith had not read Voss, but was now intrigued.

A fortnight later, we met on our usual patch of weathered, brown carpet, a few feet away from the wall, and clinked glasses. I was keen to know what Keith thought of Laura Trevelyan, and whether he also saw parallels with his late wife, Sara. He agreed that Laura had plenty in common with Sara, and that White’s novel was indisputably powerful, although by and by Keith went on to speak with equal fervour of another novel he had read.

A novel as powerful as Voss? I was thirsty to hear more.

Keith had come across it by accident. Recommended a thriller by his niece, he had logged on to Amazon, taken a glance at the opening page and rejected it ­– only to notice another novel with the same title. “There was a facility allowing you to have a look and the first page really grabbed me, so I bought it, and never put it down.”

“What’s it called?”

The Power of the Dog,” and he promised to drop it off the next day.

The author, Thomas Savage, was new to me, an American novelist from Salt Lake City, who had died in 2003 and whose 1967 novel had appeared only in an American edition.

With some hesitation, I opened the book and started to read. Like Keith, I did not stop.

The following week I was in London having lunch with my paperback publisher who had republished John Williams’s novel Stoner to considerable success. She was looking for more overlooked titles, and I didn’t hesitate to suggest The Power of the Dog. An exhilarating drama between two brothers set in 1920s Montana, it was better even than Stoner, I told her.

On November 6, 2014, she emailed:

“I bought a copy.

“I read it.

“I bought the rights!”

I rang Keith to tell him the glad news that Thomas Savage would now be gaining a posthumous new lease of life, all thanks to our conversation in The Compasses.

The Power of the Dog was published by Vintage in 2016; it sold many thousand copies, was judged by critics “entirely deserving of its Stoner comparison”, and then, three years later, on Friday, May 10, 2019, another email arrived.

“Some pretty incredible news – ELISABETH MOSS and BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH are to star in a film adaptation of The Power of the Dog and directed by Jane Campion! They go into pre-production at the end of the year. I owe you a lunch, Mr Shakespeare.” The director’s stepmother had read the novel in 2017 and recommended it to Campion.

In the meantime, The Compasses had changed hands.

The new owner turned out to be the son of my former publisher, Tom Maschler. Old hands at the bar watched with falcon eyes to see whether Ben would realign the décor, rip up the carpet, brighten the gloomy (to some) interior. But the only change I observed was an improvement: Ben took down from the wall opposite my habitual standing spot a soft-focused photograph of mist rising over the fields, and hung in its place a primitive oil painting of an Australian landscape that reminded me for some reason of Tasmania, an island which has long been part of my life, about which one traveller has written: “For Europeans, it represents the literal end of the world: if you travel any further you are on your way home again.”

One weekend, Tom Maschler came to visit, and during his stay I went to talk with him. He reminisced about the writers he’d published – Bruce Chatwin, Ian Fleming, Gabriel García Márquez, Ian McEwan. But there was one writer who had impressed him more than any of his authors. Patrick White.

“When he finished a book, he wanted me alone to come out to Sydney where he lived, and I would go to my hotel and read the manuscript and have dinner with him, and that became a ritual.”

Oh, he loved Patrick, in spite of the writer’s gnarliness.

It was invigorating to speak to someone who had known White, and I told Maschler of my own admiration for Australia and its prickly Nobel laureate, and the strange way this had led, first to the rediscovery of another author, and then to an Academy Award–nominated film, after a discussion in his son’s pub (although some years before Ben had bought it) that had kicked off with the subject of White and his great novel Voss.

My story jogged a memory. Maschler said, “Patrick gave me a painting that used to hang in his study at the period when he would have been writing Voss.

As I had written in my introduction to Voss: “White’s favourite painting was by Max Watters, showing ‘the country around Belltrees’. He was felled by that landscape which led him, as ever, back ‘to childhood, the source of creation, when perception is at its sharpest’. Ditto Voss. ‘It was the valley itself which drew Voss. Achhh! cried Voss upon seeing.’”

“Do you still have the painting?” I wanted to see it.

“I’ve given it to Ben. He’s hung it in The Compasses.”

“Really? Where?”

“It’s on the wall to the left of the bar.”

Nicholas Shakespeare
Nicholas Shakespeare is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His books include In Tasmania, Inheritance and The Dancer Upstairs, which was made into a film by John Malkovich.

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