Before I went to college, the Surrealists hadn't been a part of my world.
I left home to continue my education thinking I'd consumed quite a broad range of books, films and music. But in truth, I'd had quite a conservative upbringing in the cultural sphere. And I haven't yet forgiven my mother for force-feeding me Murder She Wrote on a Sunday night.
One of the subjects I studied at university was the History of Art. We travelled in time from the Dutch masters to the present day.
One lecture completely changed my views on art.
The previous week we'd finished with the impressionists. They were easy to digest. I was very comfortable with Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas. I'd seen them everywhere: in galleries, on posters, as tablecloths, and on biscuit tins.
But this particular week we were to be introduced to the Surrealists. I knew nothing about them. They hadn't touched my early life in any shape or form.
Without ceremony, without introduction, the lecturer started the film projector. I knew nothing but the title of the film Un Chien Andalou, that was about to appear in front of my eyes, a collaboration between filmmaker Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dali.
I stared in utter amazement. It was crazy. None of it made sense. But I loved it. It shook me from my comfortable world. It woke me up.
Now if you've never seen Un Chien Andalou, a warning. It contains some quite startling images: a couple of dead, and rotting, donkeys being dragged along on the back of pianos by priests, ants emerging from the palm of a hand, somebody's eye being cut. The effects are quite crude because the film was made in 1929, but it can cause people to wince.
But aside from the occasional shocking image, what struck me was that there was no discernible story. Things happened, lots of things happened, but for no apparent reason. I thought I would become restless, annoyed at the lack of what I could perceive as meaning. But it was the opposite, I sat forward in my seat. I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. And it was because I was never sure what would happen next.
When I thought about it afterwards, I realised that having read and watched lots of detective stories, thrillers, classics, my mind had become stale. I had become a little immune to classic storytelling.
Most detective stories, for instance, begin with a crime. The detective walks around talking to people, then chases and catches the bad man who did it. The journey may be more or less interesting, but the destination is never in doubt. I'd never realised it before, but I preferred journey in which the destination is not so clear.
For the first time in a long time for me, here was something fresh. I swore to find out all about Surrealism.
Surrealism began in the early twentieth century, but really caught on when a group of artists called the Dadaists took up the creed after World War One. Their art threw off the shackles of rational thought and what they called "bourgeoise values" (which they blamed for the outbreak of the war). It also leaned heavily on Sigmund Freud's analysis of dreams. It was crazy, wild, uninhibited — all very appealing to the young college student.
I devoured Surreal art. Dali, Man Ray, Magritte, Duchamp and Max Ernst all fired my imagination.
Encountering Surrealism for the first time is very liberating. Everything you ever knew seems staid, even boring. Great works of art that once appeared elegant can appear cautious, dull. After discovering the Surrealists I felt like spitting on a Renoir canvas — the effect of light on water lilies, indeed. How quaint, I'd think, sarcastically.
But the problem with enthusiasm for the purest form of Surrealism is that it can soon burn out. You see, the trouble with an artistic movement in which anything goes, is that... anything goes. You can make a piece of art, write a book, or make a film and if people don't understand it, it's too easy to call it Surrealism. One of the techniques Surrealist writers used was automatic writing. It's essentially writing without the interference of the conscious mind. The results can also be interpreted as jumbled nonsense.
In fact, the Surrealist movement itself did soon burn itself out. By the 1950s it was less dominant. And yet it has never really died. It has been diluted, but that has often been its strength. It has spread to the mainstream and nowadays is often merged with a more straightforward narrative.
The most popular practitioner of Surrealism is probably the filmmaker David Lynch. Even in his most logical narratives you can feel the influence of those Dadaists.
When I came to write Café Insomniac, I knew the Surrealists would be an influence, they've been itching to pour out of my bloodstream for a while. But I also wanted the story to be a cohesive narrative.
The story is based on an insomniac. I've suffered from insomnia, on and off, for a good number of years. And when you get almost no sleep at all, life can become like a Surrealist painting. So I gave my hero, Justin, the worst case of insomnia ever recorded. This leads to some crazy psychological stuff happening to him. But I levelled it out with a murder mystery that happened at the same time. To see how a murder can be connected to insomnia, I'm afraid you'll have to read the book.
But my general point is that I think Surrealism will continue to have an influence on artists of all kinds. It's such an enticing idea that anything can happen and that the only limits are the limits of an imagination.
But these days, Surrealism can be at its most potent when mixed with other techniques. In that way, the surprises that Surrealism can produce can still reinvigorate a work of art, without attracting accusations of self-indulgence and gratuitousness.
Surrealism is definitely here to stay.