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Part-time lover

Some descriptions mean the exact opposite of what they say.

A 'hopeless romantic' is almost invariably an optimist. John Burnside breaks the rule. He is, by his own sustained admission, a romantic without hope. His poetry habitually flirts with bleakness, but with a silver lining. His prose likewise. There is much of both, and if the shorthand, offhand characterisation of Burnside as an archetypally gloomy Scot has some justice in it - certainly in light of novels like The Dumb House, his scarifying debut - it is always balanced with something not altogether upbeat, but definitely and defiantly playful. As to romance, his view of love is rendered here as the kind of song "where the heart resembles nothing so much as a knob of lard tossed into a skillet and skittering around on the hot steel, squeaking and fizzing as it gradually diminishes to nothing". The paradox of desire is that it extinguishes the moment it achieves its object.

I Put A Spell On You is a jukebox narrative, triggered by remembered songs, but without a hint of Nick Hornby's blokey approach. And in the same way that songs carry messages and associations that go far beyond their usually misremembered words or even the most timeless melodies, so Burnside always seems to be working at a level where familiar enough situations, rites of passage, personal triumphs and losses, seem to collide with the limits of language itself. It is always intoxicating when he reaches such points in his poetry, where the abiding impression is not so much verbal cleverness as a use of language that seems resistant for a time and then dramatically gives way, like ice on a pond. The effect is even more sustained in his non-fiction, even when he writes discursively about the meaning of words.

A sequel of sorts to his first book of memoirs, A Lie About My Father, this one organises reminiscence round a personal mixtape of songs that shaped his childhood and adolescence; sometimes as the background to dancing and the strange, hopeless push and pull of male/female encounters; sometimes to memories of his mother, whose quiet domestic life and death is soundtracked by her murmured rendition of radio songs "with lyrics that, in any explicable world, would have stuck in her craw" (what exactly is a "many-splendored thing"?); sometimes, as in the arresting opening section, to something as violent and irruptive as a teenage murder, when one girl stabs another in a jealous fury. All of this is interwoven with the promised digressions, on the etymology of key words, the dark tradition of 'murder ballads', the power of voodoo and of hallucinogens, the inexpressible unpleasantness of insomnia, which another writer once described as the existential equivalent of eternity, but which for Burnside is a highly particular 'winter life'.

I Put A Spell On You takes Burnside from early childhood in Cowdenbeath to the linguistic enclave of Corby (more Scottish than Scotland, they say, a reverse Brigadoon), and from there to the intellectual enclave of Cambridge. There are moments of high writing and intellectual theorising, but these somehow weigh less importantly than the plainer stuff. Like a good musical, there is no awkward transition from speech to singing. In Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, favourite songs trigger laddish memories and a cheerfully self-deprecating style. If Burnside is aware of that precedent, he has toughened it up. The songs are those only a connoisseur would choose and only those that retain some strong element of ambiguity: The Doors, drawling Strange Days, Love Affair's Everlasting Love (but with a record collector's nod to the Robert Knight original), Pink Floyd's Welcome To The Machine, PJ Harvey's Good Fortune, and the title track Screamin' Jay Hawkins's I Put A Spell On You, peerlessly reimagined by Nina Simone. Out of these and out of various moments in his younger life, Burnside spins a meditation on what it means to be wild, beglamoured and thrawn, that last word delivering so many overlapping meanings it is truly untranslatable.

Burnside understands that 'glamour' always retains an element of fatality and that damaged people are glamorous in a special way. So he dredges up the memory of a brain-damaged boy at school who becomes part-butt, part-cult figure, and relates that to a photographic portrait by the ill-fated Diane Arbus, whose chosen subjects were often outsiders, people on the social margins. Interestingly, a lot of the people he describes remain curiously faceless and incomplete. Burnside admits to a touch of face-blindness - known as prosopagnosia to psychologists - particularly when it comes to men and boys rather than women and admits than often in chance encounters with half-remembered acquaintances and semi-strangers he feels a need to invent, to fill in awkward gaps in the conversation: which is a pretty fair definition of the writer's vocation.

There is a moment when he begins to discourse on the differences between "we" and "us" when we fear we might be in for a lecture by some dry linguistic philosopher, but as ever, Burnside pulls something rich and poetic out of the thought: "We is the whole story, the infinite game: us is just local chapter and verse. It's the same old song and I know we'll meet again. I know we'll meet again, but then life is bigger than you and you are not me, bigger than us and the mystery endlessly deepens and we part again, not having said what we want to say, not having done what we should have done, but any suspicion of futility that we may entertain here is both foolish and impudent." This brilliantly and quietly interleaves Vera Lynn in wartime, The Four Tops in 1965, and the appropriately-named REM of a later decade, a group whose lead singer and lyricist is himself a master of mishearing and of the awkward re-positioning of "we" and "us". (The particular song in question is called Losing My Religion. It isn't about the loss of faith, though it might be, but about going crazy, letting slip, not holding on.)

Just as most romantics are not really "hopeless" at all, so most narcissists are actually something else, more usually just vain and pleased with themselves. For Burnside, writing is the thin ice on the pond and the mirror in which we examine ourselves at different ages and in different costumes. True narcissism, as he shows in the most thoughtful and elegant of his digressions, is the origin of art.

The mother and separation from the mother is at the centre of this remarkable book, making it an increasingly obvious companion piece to A Lie About My Father. I once rather cynically and not at all sincerely said that the art of interviewing writers could be reduced to looking a visiting novelist in the eye and saying "It's a love story, isn't it?", in sure and certain hope that the answer would probably be a grateful "Yes". This one really is a love story, albeit of the toughest sort. It may pose as a series of disconnected 'singles' from the memory-bank but is in fact artfully and playfully constructed, a long-player that resonates long after the stylus has lifted.

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