Peter Ackroyd

by Patrick McGrath


Peter Ackroyd, ©1988 Miriam Berkley.

Peter Ackroyd is the author of several books of fiction, poetry, criticism and biography, including the acclaimed T.S. Eliot: A Life (1984) and the novels The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), Chatterton (1987), and Hawksmoor (1985), which won the Guardian Fiction Award and was named Whitbread Novel of the Year. He is chief book reviewer for The Times and is currently at work on a life of Dickens. Hawksmoor is his best fiction to date. It is a dark, complex novel narrated in part in perfect 17th-century prose by the architect who built the London churches attributed to Nicholas Hawksmoor, a man here called Dyer. In the modern sections of the novel, a series of murders echo (both in manner and siting) the bloody sanctification rites Dyer performs in the foundations of his churches in the 17th century. It is by means of these echoes that the book’s intricate pattern, and the ghastly secret at its heart, are slowly revealed. Of his nonfiction works, Ackroyd’s portrait of Eliot is outstanding. The poet, a fiercely private and anti-romantic character, emerges as a pale, gaunt, haunted and neurotic figure, a man who “took his wine flavored with guilt” and wrote verse of a “brooding grandeur and bleakness.” I found Peter Ackroyd at home in his elegant flat at the top of a comfortable house on a tranquil street in the Royal Borough of Kensington.

Patrick McGrath In Chatterton you use Harold Bloom’s phrase “the anxiety of influence.” Yet your own work would suggest that it’s not anxiety with which you regard the fact of literary influence, but rather a sort of gleeful exuberance. Is that fair?

Peter Ackroyd Well, I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it. Certainly other people’s writings often spark something off in me, but I don’t know if it goes any further than that. The only time it was ever really an influence was when I wrote a book supposedly to do with Oscar Wilde; that was the only time I attached myself to someone else’s style. But otherwise I tend to treat it as a sort of diving board.

PM Would you say, as did your character Stewart Merk, that you get more pleasure from mimesis than invention?

PA No. I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s any distinction between the two activities. On the whole they tend to become the same thing. You can’t have invention in a vacuum; it always has to spring from, or in large part depend upon, the way other people use the language. So invention is a form of mimesis. On the other hand, the idea of transcribing or copying the external world in itself is a form of invention.

PM Your Oscar Wilde says: “All the methods and conventions of art and life found their highest expression in parody.”

PA Yes, but that’s Oscar Wilde, not me. I don’t believe it, you see.

PM Chatterton is a book much occupied with questions of plagiarism and forgery, both in writing and in art. At one point your character Philip says that “if you trace anything backwards, trying to figure out cause and effect, or motive, or meaning, there is no real origin for anything.” Would you say that that idea is central to all your work?

PA I don’t think it is, no. Because that’s Philip talking, it’s not necessarily an idea I would subscribe to myself, in my working life. I think he’s probably wrong, but for the purposes of that particular narrative someone has to say it. So no, I don’t think it’s true. In fact, a novel I’ve just completed takes quite the opposite view—it’s concerned with the nature of origins in general.

PM So origins can be got at then?

PA Oh yes, they can be, if you use the kind of language which can find them, if you see what I mean.

PM But your work abounds in figures and stories in which there seems a total absence of origins, in which characters and events circle round each other, duplicating themselves endlessly.

PA I know. I don’t know why that should be so, it’s not something I arranged deliberately. I’ve never thought about it in those terms before; certainly I wouldn’t say that the concept you’ve just introduced is one I carry in my head, as a way of dealing with the world. I suppose there is some reason for its appearance, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you what it is.

PM You don’t take much interest then in those French philosophers and theorists for whom the absence of origins is a central issue?

PA You mean Derrida and so on? I wrote a book about them once, many years ago. It was the first book I ever wrote, it was a critical study, called Notes for a New Culture, and it was largely concerned with those people and certain Germans and Americans. So I was aware of them when I wrote that book, while I was at Yale University, 15 years ago; but I haven’t looked at them since.

PM Hasn’t it all stayed with you, though?

PA No it hasn’t, no.

PM In your work we find ghosts and doubles, shadows, madness, the ruined and the decaying, death as a regenerative process—

PA Yes that’s definitely there, I’ve noticed that.

PM —all motifs connected with the Gothic tradition. Is that something you’re conscious of?

PA No, not really. I know what you mean, I’ve always admired people like De Quincey and so on, but it’s not a tradition I’d have the nerve to associate myself with; it’s a very fine tradition in English writing, and I don’t think my own work would stand up to the best of it. As for those motifs—shadows, old stone, death, doubles, ghosts—they do seem to appear with alarming regularity, but they’re not things I meditate upon in my extracurricular hours. I’m not a very melancholy sort of person. So again, it’s rather a surprise to me when these things keep emerging in book after book after book. I suppose they must come from some hitherto unexplored recesses of my personality, but where, it would be hard to say. It’s like that character in Dickens who says, when she’s dying, “There’s a pain in the room but I’m not quite sure where it is.” I’ve always felt that that was rather an illuminating remark about the nature of perception—certainly mine.

PM The book, then, once embarked upon, demands its own particular motifs and ideas.

PA Yes, and they emerge as if by accident, although of course there’s no such thing as accident—but they certainly seem to emerge unimpeded. Characters appear and begin speaking without my actually wanting them to speak at that moment. There’s one character in Chatterton, Harriet Scrope, a rather ghastly elderly lady, and I tried to bar her from coming in, the way you bar people from pubs in England. But then she’d get in somehow, she’d sneak in without my knowing, and start talking; she was incorrigible. That’s a rather minor example, and I know that this is a very common way for novelists to talk about what they do, but it’s actually true. There’s no conscious effort.

PM What’s your relationship to a book when it’s done and finished?

PA I forget about it as much as possible, because the only thing I’m conscious of at the end of a book are the weaknesses in that book, the portions that are badly written or negligently constructed. They’re the only things I remember, although the process seems to wear off after about five years. For example, I had to pick up that novel about Oscar Wilde again recently, and I read it with interest; actually it made me cry, which it hadn’t at the time—quite the opposite. So I think there’s this laying-off period, when they’re too hot to handle. With Hawksmoor—I certainly haven’t looked at that again, I wouldn’t dare; I’m so aware of all the weaknesses in it, it’s an embarrassment.

PM What are its weaknesses?

PA The modern sections are weak, not in terms of language, but weak in terms of those old-fashioned characteristics of plot, action, character, story; they are rather sketches, or scenarios, and that rather disappoints me about it. But at the time I didn’t know anything about writing fiction, so I just went ahead and did it. It’s only recently I’ve come to realize you’re meant to have plots and stories and so on.

PM Nicholas Dyer’s voice is strong, though.

PA It’s strong, but in part it is a patchwork of other people’s voices as well as my own. Actually it’s not really strong at all—well, if you say it’s strong, it’s strong for you—but what it is, is an echo from about three hundred different books as well as my own. He doesn’t really exist as a character—he’s just a little patchwork figure, like his author.

PM I had a handle on him.

PA You did? Did you open the door?

PM Here we had a character who rejected the learning of his age—Descartes and Bacon and so on—and turned to an older faith, a primitive pre-Christian faith that demanded periodic ritual human sacrifices, and believed that it was the Devil who died on the Cross and that Christ was the Serpent who entered the Virgin’s womb—

PA I know. But I think that was largely because many of the books I read were of a religious nature, the texts I had to read to get started. That may be an accident.

PM So is Nicholas Dyer one man or three hundred?

PA Well, he’s three hundred; he doesn’t really exist as a character, he never did in my mind. You see, I was very young then and I didn’t realize that people had to have definite characters when they appeared in fiction. I saw it as a sort of linguistic exercise; it never occurred to me that they had to have a life beyond words. And I think certain novelists do actually recreate their characters in their minds, so that they do have a life beyond the words on the page. . . Some people say Hawksmoor is a frightening book, but it never struck me as frightening at all, I thought it was quite jolly—I did! But one of my editors at Hamish Hamilton wouldn’t have it in the house.

PM What is it then that makes the difference between a book that’s a linguistic exercise and one that’s got life?

PA I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’ve no idea.

PM But you’d know it if you saw it.

PA No, I wouldn’t even know it if I saw it.

PM So maybe they’re all linguistic exercises?

PA I wish they were! Some people are quite happy to write very sloppily, thinking there’s some reality out there that they’re describing.

PM Would you say you were aspiring to transcend mere linguistic surface?

PA I wouldn’t say so. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t think I’m aspiring to do anything actually. (laughter) I’m not!

PM Then why do you keep writing?

PA I don’t know, it just seems to happen. I just have to keep it up now. I enjoy it, I suppose, but I never thought I’d be a novelist. I never wanted to be a novelist. I can’t bear fiction. I hate it. It’s so untidy. When I was a young man I wanted to be a poet, then I wrote a critical book, and I don’t think I even read a novel till I was about 26 or 27. I didn’t know what they were all about.

PM But it’s clearly not painful for you to sit down and write novels.

PA How do you know? (laughter)

PM I assume so.

PA No, it’s absolute agony from morning to night. But I’m a martyr to it. I thought I might as well be a martyr to fiction as anything else.

PM It’s altruistic then?

PA It’s altruistic. If I didn’t get a penny for it I’d still do it.

PM That’s very praiseworthy. Are you like your character Harriet Scrope in that “the more she wrote, the less coherent her personality became”?

PA No. Quite the opposite. And that’s another thing, people always think you’re like the characters you write about. But as you can see I’m not like Harriet Scrope at all. Similarly with the Hawksmoor character, Nicholas Dyer. I’m quite a gentle person; I certainly wouldn’t go round murdering children—under normal circumstances. So there’s no sort of lifeline between me and these ghastly people—as I said, they just come crowding round. It’s like throwing a party, you invite these people and you can’t get away from them once they’re there. You just ply them with drinks and then they go crazy—that’s what happens in a book. They do! It just happens that way! But I suppose if there is a relationship at all, it would be between me and all of them, they might all be little bits of me, horrible though that sounds. I should think that’s the nearest one could get to any sort of author-character relationship.

PM Who among the three hundred who made up Nicholas Dyer was the predominant one?

PA Oh, I don’t think there was one predominant one. I can’t even remember the names of the books now—they were obscure texts I found in the British Library. They hadn’t been read for years—I don’t think they were actually read when they were written, and they certainly hadn’t been read in the past two hundred years. Texts about how to cure the gout, by a surgeon. Necromantic texts. I didn’t mind what it was as long as it was the right period. In fact the more arcane the book the more avidly I seized upon it, because that’s when you get the really good stuff, the real nitty-gritty. The major book was Johnson’s dictionary—that was invaluable. I borrowed it from the London Library, two big volumes. I brought them back and whenever I had to write a sentence about, say, someone looking out of the window, then I’d look up ‘window’ in Johnson, and there’d be all sorts of definitions, and phrases with the word in it, and these I also co-opted for the book. So it was a continual process of assimilation, all the way through. I’ve never admitted this before—I always went along with the tacit assumption that I’d made it all up. In fact I hadn’t. But there’s nothing wrong with that—it’s like a montage, similar process.

PM Living language, after all.

PA Exactly. I enjoy stealing things if I can. It’s quite pleasant to be able to lift something and then have nobody notice. A line from a film, for example, a sentence from television.

PM And then you’d be occupied in polishing it up, making it seamless.

PA That’s right. I’m rather like a collector of other people’s trifles, other people’s bits and pieces.

PM A rag-and-bone man?

PA That’s it, I’m a rag-and-bone man—though not a rag-and-bone man of the heart!

PM How is Dickens’s London emerging in your biography?

PA Well I don’t know, I won’t be able to know till I start to write it down. I don’t really keep these things in my head, but once I start writing, it will probably emerge in all its horror.

PM In Hawksmoor you refer to London as the "smoky grove of Moloch—”

PA Yes, I think that’s my phrase, actually! Or maybe I took it from a book. I don’t know.

PM —“stinking alleys and close-packed tenements which seemed to breed only monsters. Monsters of our own making."

PA That was probably me. Yes, that was me. All the novels so far have been centered around London, but that’s largely because I’ve always lived here, and I have a certain feeling for London, especially in its more grotesque aspects. But that’s not true of the new one—it’s set in Dorset.

PM Are you being pastoral in it?

PA Yes, it’s very pastoral. Extremely so. It’s almost quaint. Very green. Lots of Hardy, rustic peasants and so on. I suppose I could introduce Thomas Hardy too. But then that would prove that I’m doing the same thing again. That’s what they’ll say, they’ll say it’s a pastiche of Thomas Hardy. I bet you they do. I haven’t even read Thomas Hardy, well, I have a bit.

PM If you’re not reading Hardy, how can he creep in?

PA: Well, these things happen, you know. Even when you don’t think you’re doing it, you’re doing it. This is probably what got Professor Bloom. For example, in Hawksmoor, somebody said I was pastiching Eliot. The idea never crossed my mind! I completely forgot about Eliot as soon as I’d written that biography. Haven’t thought about him since. So these things can seep in without one’s being aware of it. And someone said that in Chatterton I was pastiching De Quincey! Of course it was the last thing in the world I was thinking of. But if they’re there, they’re there.

PM Did you go about constructing Chatterton’s voice in the same way you did Dyer’s in Hawksmoor?

PA, No. All I did was read his poetry, of which there’s a great deal, and read his letters; and I went to the manuscript department of the British Museum to see his papers. He used to draw heraldic devices in colored pencils when he was quite young. All that stuff is there, and they have sheets of his work in progress. But I didn’t make any particular effort to make it Chatterton’s voice.

PM You just—

PA Well, it was just an extension of Hawksmoor in a different time zone, same sort of thing. People think it’s very difficult to write 17th-century prose, but it’s much easier than writing modern prose. Once you know the knack of it, it’s a very simple trick to perform—which is why I’m never going to do it again. It’s too easy to do. But everyone thinks it must be hard work, with all those “esse’s” and “ique’s” at the ends of words. But it’s much simpler than writing modern prose.

PM Why is it simple?

PM Well, people who believe in reincarnation would say our cerebella—if that’s the plural—contain past modes of speech, somehow. And it certainly would seem like that on the surface, because you only have to touch a little bit of gray matter and it all starts pouring out. But I don’t think it’s reincarnation, I think it’s simply that the speech we use today contains or conceals previous levels of speech, from the most recent to the most ancient. They are as it were implicit in modern speech, modern writing, and it only takes a little effort to peel back the layers. Certainly it takes a little bit of mastery at the beginning, but after a while it becomes second nature. So I think even now if you asked me, I could sit down and write 17th-century prose. It’s just like swimming, it’s always there.

PM So it’s not so much that you learn to do it as you relearn to do it.

PM That may well be true. Although that sounds a little bit occult, and it’s not an occult thing, I think it’s simply a faculty that a lot of people have, if they choose to use it. Whether you can do it with other forms of prose I don’t know, I haven’t made the experiment; I should think it’s perfectly easy to write medieval prose—Chatterton certainly did it with a great deal of ease. And I don’t see why it shouldn’t be true of any other age of prose.

PM This business of language as a layered sort of affair, deeper levels buried beneath the surface—isn’t this structure one you frequently employ in your work? In Hawksmoor, for example, Dyer’s churches are erected on layer upon layer of early Christian and pre-Christian ruins.

PA I suppose you’re right. Possible.

PM There’s a bit in Hawksmoor I particularly enjoyed, which is when Dyer and Sir Christopher Wren take a trip to Stonehenge. That trip is very much a descent, and there’s one moment where Sir Christopher takes out his handkerchief and blows into it a blob—

PM —of jelly! I know! I got that from a book. It sounds horrible, doesn’t it?

PM It’s very good actually.

PA I can’t remember where I got that from.

PM And there’s a lot more bodily excretion as the pair “descend into Basingstoke.”

PA It hasn’t changed, you know.

PM So this whole business of descending, and the bits of bodily matter, dung and death, rotting away—

PA Really? Sounds horrible.

PM Well, the people buried beneath the churches are rotting away.

PA But we never actually see them.

PM No, although we do see several dissections being done.

PA No!

PM Sir Christopher dissects a drowned corpse, and there’s another in the modern section.

PA But it’s handled in the nicest possible way.

PM Well, I felt no disgust, no. (laughter)

PA Where were we?

PM Descending into Basingstoke.

PA Well, I was told that what that meant was that Dyer was interested in the physical reality of the world, and people like Wren were the rationalists, interested in the order of the world. But again, I think I put them in because it was useful, because I’d been reading all these 18th century books about the different parts of the body, and what could have been better than to arrange them as it were into a dissection? So I presume after that stage I then felt I needed a modern dissection. You see, if you think of these things as tasks to be accomplished, rather than as self-expression, you get a much better way of dealing with fiction.

PM So what were the tasks to be accomplished in Hawksmoor?

PA To make sense of my reading; then to duplicate it in the modern world; and then to write 18th-century prose as flawlessly as I could, so that the experts couldn’t tell the difference—which they couldn’t. Those were the tasks to be accomplished. Tasks with Chatterton —I just don’t remember what they were, but I’m sure there were some.

PM Who are you reading at the moment?

PA Oh, Charles Dickens. And I enjoy very much the work of Jackie Collins. She’s one of the greatest we have, actually.

PM Have you read Rock Star?

PA No, I haven’t read that one yet, I’m saving that one up—for my deathbed. No, I admire most English writers. You only have to name one and I’ll tell you how much I admire them. You see, I used to get into terrible trouble, you know what bitches people can be, so I decided to be very nice about everybody. I tend to love every book I come across now. Strange. I only wish I had time to read more of them.

PM What about Dickens, though?

PA: What about him?

PM Let’s see. In your Eliot biography, you spoke about the business of writing biography. You called it a “convenient fiction.” You said that it was “impossible to reach into the mystery of Eliot’s solitude.” Is the Dickens biography—are all biographies—similarly doomed to failure?

PA Yes, I think most of them certainly are. I don’t think of them as biographies, I just think of them as other novels. That’s what they are, my own, anyway—I don’t know about other people’s. The only difference is that more puritan readers like to think they’re being educated. They’re reading for instruction, they think. But of course most people read biographies for the same reason as they read fiction, which is for entertainment. And certainly from the other end of it, the actual writing of it, there’s no great difference between the two. In fact your skills as a novelist have to be more widely deployed in writing a biography than in writing a novel, what skills they are.

PM What differs in the working method?

PA It’s all the same.

PM You would do as much reading for each?

PA Sure. I read more for a biography, I suppose, but when I actually get down to it and start writing I do pretty much the same thing. You create characters, you create a setting, you create a sequence of events, you create a sense of the period, et cetera, et cetera. So in almost all instances it’s the same.

PM Presumably you have more constraints in the writing of biography, though.

PA No, you have more constraints in fiction, funnily enough.

PM Why is that?

PA I don’t know, but you do. You can let yourself go in biography and you can’t in fiction.

PM That’s surprising.

PA I know. Funny, isn’t it? It’s true. Of course most biographers won’t admit this, but then a lot of biographers are just failed novelists.

PM But in the novel you reach points where it’s entirely up to you where you go next.

PA No, the characters would always do that for me. There’s always some character who says, ‘Now it’s my turn to speak.’ That sort of thing. So it’s actually quite a relief to go to biography, quite liberating. Also, formally it’s much more difficult to write fiction. You see, when I write a novel I’m primarily interested in the formal shape of it, the way things are balanced against each other, and in biography, on the whole, you tend not to have the same formal restraints because you’re going from the beginning of a life to the end. You don’t need to perform as many conjuring tricks or balancing acts as you have to in fiction. Unless, that is, you decide that you’re going to write a good biography, in which case you’re going to have exactly the same forces at work. If I do this biography of Dickens properly, then it will read like a novel.

PM So you won’t follow a linear chronology?

PA There’s no reason why one should. Also, there’s no reason why one shouldn’t start parodying, or pastiching the person you’re writing about—do a chapter in Dickensian style, if you want to. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t stop talking about the man and start talking about something quite different, like what happened one day in 1860. There’s all sorts of things you could do in biography, things which one does in fiction, instead of just having these plain narratives.

PM Eliot emerged very vividly in your biography. He wore green face powder and went to parties dressed as Dr. Crippen.

PA Was that me?

PM You mention these facts—I presume they’re facts

PA But how do you know I didn’t make them up? You don’t, do you?

PM I don’t, no.

PA You see, nobody does. This is another thing about biography, how cruelly deceived most readers of biographies are—because on the whole, the most important things are made up by the biographer. They have to be. You have to link things up, and you find your own little ways to do this, and you create a character who bears no relation to any living person that ever was, and the poor reader of the biographer reads it and thinks, well, this must be right. But it never is. So of course I could have put that stuff in, just for a joke. It’s possible, isn’t it? I don’t think I gave any sources for any of it.

PM I seem to remember you did. It’s in somebody’s diary.

PA Well I probably made that up too.

PM It’s in Virginia Woolf’s diary! She said: “Tom Eliot turned up with green face powder on.”

PA Is that what I said? Well no one reads her diaries anyway. I probably made that up. Who’s ever got through a diary of Virginia Woolf’s? (laughter) But there’s no reason why you shouldn’t make things up like that. Because you’ve made up everything else, why not make up the details?

PM So what is the responsibility of the biographer?

PA I don’t think he has any at all. Except to entertain his putative audience, that’s all. He has no particular reason to educate them or instruct them.

PM Or to tell them the truth?

PA Or to tell them the truth, no. They went to school for that. And there is no truth to tell them, anyway. No, his business is simply to entertain. Rather like the novelist, you see.

PM What happens in your response to the subject of your biography? Did you come to love or hate Eliot?

PA Not really, no. In the end you neither love nor hate them, they’re simply there and you’ve got to make the best of them. I had no feelings about Eliot at the end, only about the Eliot I’d created, which I wanted to make coherent. So I wasn’t concerned with the real Eliot at any point, I was concerned with my recreation of an Eliot. So my feelings toward this second Eliot were the feelings of an author toward his character.

PM Was your goal to create a romantic portrait of an anti-romantic character?

PA No, I wasn’t trying to do that either. No, I was trying to create Eliot in a book that Eliot might have written. So by some strange association of ideas or styles I wrote the book in a sort of pastiche of Eliot’s style. So I suppose I was creating an image of Eliot which Eliot himself might have created. I think that’s what was going on.

PM This business of not creating the Eliot but an Eliot: is it the same with the Dickens life?

PA No, because Dickens was such a large figure, such an amorphous figure, he takes whatever shape you want him to take. Eliot wasn’t such a great genius as Dickens; he didn’t reflect so many things. So the problem with Dickens is what to leave out, not what to put in.

PM How long will it take you to write?

PA About a year. I want to write about a quarter of a million words. I want it to be a portrait as much of the period as of Dickens himself. In fact, it’s a very hackneyed thing to do, but I was going to begin with his death; but apparently it’s been done quite often. Maybe I’ll put it in the middle somewhere. But I’m not going to write another biography after Dickens—Dickens is my last.

PM Why’s that?

PA It’s so much easier to write fiction, as I said.

PM Actually you said biography was easier.

PA Oh yes, I did, didn’t I. Well, I take that back. It’s so much harder to write fiction, that’s why I want to do more of it. (laughter)

PM I’m glad we got that cleared up.

PA The reason I’m going to stick to fiction, in fact, is because it’s both harder and easier. This is the mystery of it. (laughter) And also because more people read fiction; it’s a bigger audience. Which is a polite way of saying you can earn more money from it. So needs must, or whatever the expression is.

PM Do you like the literary life?

PA I don’t have one. I don’t think I have any friends who are novelists. I meet them occasionally, and they’re all very good, I love them all, I wish I was more like them, but I wouldn’t say I lead a literary life; in fact I don’t lead any life at all. (laughter) I don’t! I’m not very sociable, I’m not very clubbable. I just sit here all day writing these bloody books.

PM Lovely place to do it.

PA Very clean, isn’t it? You could have an operation on that table it’s so clean.

PM You said two hours ago that you were too humble to associate yourself with the Gothic tradition—

PA I am too humble to associate myself with the Gothic tradition.

PM —even though you would associate yourself with Dickens, Collins, Sterne—(laughter)

PM No, you misunderstood me. I wasn’t associating myself with them. Well, I was. I was saying if there were a tradition I would want to be a part of, that would be it—magic realism. The gothic tradition is part of that same strain, it springs from the same native English genius, which is, despite appearances to the contrary, a genius for over-elaboration, for a combination of melancholy and a certain kind of surrealism. You see it everywhere. It’s in the painting, it’s in Samuel Palmer. It’s in Elgar. It’s a combination of melancholy, lyricism, and camp. All three of them intertwined. I think people think of the English as an effeminate race. Englishmen are always supposed to be effeminate—well, a lot of them actually are. But effeminacy, or camp, if you want to call it that, is a definite part of the English imagination. Similarly, so is melancholy, especially lyrical melancholy, and I presume that that is part of what I’m trying to do. And I don’t think many other contemporary novelists are working in that vein.

PM You mean pursuing the melancholy—

PA I mean that combination that seems to me peculiarly English. I’m not saying it’s a marvelous composite which other nations would do well to imitate, I’m just saying it happens to be the national genius.

PM But English literature tends to be associated with the moral life—responsible adult love and so on—Jane Austen.

PA That’s all done with what passes for a tongue in the cheek. There are very few tragedies in the English language apart from those of Shakespeare; tragedy slides off into excessive horror, or gothic; and there’s very little love either, it tends to become parody or sentimentality. No, that morality idea comes from the desire of the literary critic to find moral lessons in literature. That’s a great vice which the English and the Americans share, the belief that great works of art are available for moral purposes, for elucidation. But I never met anyone who became a better person for reading a novel. You may become a better writer but not a better person.

PM So it’s all about pleasure.

PA Yes, and so is biography, as I said to you before. But there are many people indoctrinated with this belief that somehow literature is a branch of ethics, or a branch of sociology. A deep fear of pleasure, of course, lies at the heart of the academic study of literature. Whereas all I want to do is give people a bit of pleasure, a bit of slap and tickle. It’s true! You don’t learn anything from a novel, your ethical responses aren’t sharpened, your moral relations with the world aren’t purified. Nothing of the kind. You can read all of Tolstoy three times over, you won’t be a better person. You’d probably be worse, you’d be so much more boring—you’d talk about it.

PM The pragmatic test is, that if a novel fails to amuse it will be abandoned.

PA There’s an even better test—have you ever met a novelist who was a nice person? Apart from me? They haven’t been improved. Actually novelists tend to be better behaved than poets, novelists have at least a sneaking interest in other people, so they can use them as material. Poets don’t even have that, not the ones I know. But on the whole, writers aren’t particularly nice people, as you know. I’m just the exception that proves the rule. I mean, have you ever had dinner with—no, I must stop. And what amazes me most of all is when novelists stand up to be counted in some fashionable political cause of the moment. Well, I’d rather hear the opinion of a butcher about politics than a novelist. A butcher has to deal with the real world. And when a novelist says, “I know about people, because I’m a novelist”—well, if there’s anything that debars you from understanding the motives or emotions of other people it’s being a novelist! This mystique that has been created around the novelist is entirely misplaced, in my opinion.

PM Because of the nature of the work?

PA Because of the nature of the work, and also because they haven’t mastered the vocabulary necessary for the understanding of social and economic reality. Have they read Malthus? No. Have they read Keynes? No. Read Ricardo? No. What have they read? Jane Eyre. It’s ridiculous. I don’t know why novelists are so liberal, either. They tend to be very left wing, some of them, you have lots of writers interested in the reject and the outcast because they themselves were rejected, bereft—that’s perfectly reasonable. But one would be hard put to go from there to an acceptance of any political position they might want to adopt as a result of it.

PM It’s a curious figure, the novelist who emerges from this conversation. He’s lonely, has no life, is embittered and self-centered—

PA I’m the exception.

PM His working processes are not what one would think. He cobbles things together, steals outrageously—

PA No, this is me. The others don’t.

PM Take no pride in their work. Forget what they’ve written as soon as it’s finished. Can’t look at it for five years. Might as well be writing biography because there’s no difference anyway.

PA Get more empty-headed as they get older. But I think it’s a perfectly fair description of most novelists, don’t you agree? But very loveable, too. Don’t forget the loveability. And very warm. Again, I’m the exception. But here I’ve told you all my secrets.   —Peter McGrath is a contributing editor of BOMB. He is author of Blood and Water and Other Tales (Poseidon, 1988), which will shortly come out in paperback from Ballantine. His novel The Grotesque will be published by Poseidon in May.  

Tags:
Melancholy
Magic realism
Fiction
Non-fiction
BOMB 26
Winter 1989
The cover of BOMB 26
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