INTERVIEW WITH A.S. BYATT
ASB: There are two kinds of memories, at least in my case: firstly, memories of things, about half a dozen things that are part of my very early childhood, which in a curious way seem to be part of me as a writer.
There was a cast iron stove with the brand name "Tiger Stove," which is something I've never spoken about before, I think because it is a metaphor. I could see that it wasn't a tiger, or a stove, and I know I remember it from under the age of three because it was in the house I was in before the war. I remember the staircase in the house we moved to immediately after the war began, because I stood on it and watched my father go off to join the Air Force, and the memory of that parting, and the very square shape of that staircase, often come back.
It's rather like George Eliot's memories of fishing with her brother. There was a certain walk we used to go on when we lived in Pontefract, which I remember with a pleasure which is verbal because my mother came with us. She wasn't terribly good at doing things with children, but she told me the name of every flower, both the Latin and the English, as we walked along this road, which as I've written somewhere ended at a sewage works--a beautiful, quiet, humming place. I remember that walk because of the names, so there's always something verbal behind my early memories which is more than a mnemonic, it's me being excited by language.
I spend a lot of my time wondering why human beings ever invented metaphor, and then I spend time trying to think why they bother to make works of art. You know, why don't they just get on with their lives? I think the answers to both questions are involved with each other. We get a kind of physiological excitement when two threads of the mind cross. Because the Tiger Stove wasn't a tiger or a stove it somehow caused a fizzing in my brain, and I think I make works of art to repeat that excitement.
JN & JF: In The Virgin in the Garden you look back at Elizabethan England through a series of flower metaphors.
ASB: I finished that book in Gladstone's library where I found a Victorian book of flower names and got excited by the metaphoric structure of the names of the grasses that Marcus was looking at, so I put them all in the novel. It's obviously a deep, human excitement, because every three or four years I get a letter saying, "By the way, I do like the metaphorical flower names."
JN & JF: Don't you also associate a direct, non-metaphorical relationship between word and thing with the Edenic state?
ASB: In my PhD thesis I wrote about a theory we then believed in called "the dissociation of sensibility," which was an imagined point in time when words ceased to be interwoven with things. Foucault wrote about it at vast length in the 1980s; but Anglo-Saxon critics were thinking it out in the 1950s, so felt he'd found something that had been found a long time ago!
John Beer, the Coleridge scholar, understood that Coleridge has this obsession with words which were things. I've been asked to give a lecture in New York about a work of art which affected me as an artist and I've chosen "The Ancient Mariner," which is, in a way, an answer to the questions we've so far discussed. I've been thinking how "ice mast-high went floating by, as green as emerald," which I associate with the transparent green boiled sweets my paternal grandfather used to make. When I read about the ice and the snow and the water and the sun and the moon in "The Ancient Mariner," it was like living in a mythic world; so I want to talk about how scholarship intensifies this excitement, rather than diminishing it.
JN & JF: That excitement could have led you to become a linguist or a philosopher. To have become a novelist and found ways of dramatising those ideas, you must have had a great interest in telling stories.
ASB: I used to think, like George Eliot, that I wasn't a born storyteller. When Eliot started writing, George Henry Lewes said his one doubt was whether she could tell a story. He knew she could do all the other things, but in those days nobody thought that the novel could do all those other things! I knew I ought to write a novel, but I grew up at the time when E. M. Forster said, "Oh, dear, yes, the novel tells a story." That was one thing we were being told not to do through most of my apprenticeship as a novelist. I thought it was a rather vulgar gift compared to Virginia Woolf's, or Wordsworth's or Coleridge's, and that it should be abolished or kept down if one had it. Then I realised that actually you owe people stories.
JN & JF: And there's the cussedness that makes you want to do what's difficult.
ASB: There's also a cussedness that makes you, if you get hold of one end of any stick, want to go right to the other end of it. You don't want to stop in the middle, or say, "Well, that will do now. I know enough about that." My first editor was Cecil Day-Lewis, and he used to talk most beautifully about Wordsworth's Highland girl singing, and say how important it was for Wordsworth to stop listening. Well, I can't ever stop. Cecil would stop when he found an image he could use. Then he could say, "I don't want to know any more." But I would go ferreting on and ferreting on. Usually it produced something much more interesting, but it was very tiring!
JN & JF: With Ignês Sodré, you speak about novels you read and study, and think and dream about: a way of reading a book which is almost a life's work. Is that the way you wish to be read?
ASB: I do want to be read like that, and feel that professional criticism over the last twenty years has made it harder, not easier, to read a book with the whole of yourself and the whole of your body, to be what I call a "greedy reader." I'm worried about the increasingly judgmental element teachers introduce into the reading process: we have these techniques which mean we know better than the writer does what the writer is doing. With highly complex French theorists this may be true with some of the writers they choose, but mostly I don't believe it.
Readers should be empowered to skip, which sounds simple but isn't really. They now read every word--at least in the world of literary studies--and feel they should always be forming a judgement; whereas I never review a book without reading it through first very fast. I will make a note of what strikes me but I won't expect to have a thought. You just read it to see if you can read it, and, of course, at this stage in my life if I can't read it, I don't.
If you don't see art as being profoundly related to the pleasure principle there's something wrong with you. Art is not there for making sociological observations or political decisions or, really, to be a substitute for psychoanalysis--though the great novelists are wiser than most politicians, most sociologists and most psychoanalysts, except the very great ones of all those. I think that, while Martin Amis feels it is required of the modern novelist to write something about the atom bomb, it probably isn't. We're all afraid of it and it will come in at the edges of whatever we write. What we in this country feel about war with Iraq is for a great journalist to take on, not for me as a novelist. What one offers the reader is a much more slow and complicated relationship with an individual habit of mind.
I want my readers to want to read and reread me, and if they don't quite understand, ask themselves, "Now why the hell is it snails she's interested in?" I get letters all the time, and particularly from America, saying, "I thought your Victorian poets were real, and I looked them up and found they didn't exist, but I did get out Tennyson and Browning, and, dear Mrs. Byatt, can I tell you what pleasure I got out of The Idylls of the King, which I was told I should never read because it's a very bad poem." I like to spark people on to reading another thing and another thing.
There's nothing wrong with being consumable on the surface, which I was taught there was. It was meant to be absolutely wonderful to be as difficult as Robbe-Grillet, because that was a sign of authenticity. I think Gabriel Jospovici still believes that a kind of resistance to easy reading is a guarantee of a novel's merit. But all sorts of great things have an aspect which is easily graspable.
You can read almost all my books as though they were just romantic novels. That's also true of George Eliot, Dickens and Dostoevsky, and even of Proust if you've got the staying power. It's true of Lawrence Norfolk, who is the best of the young novelists now writing.
I would like my readers to take me on trust, which is difficult in the present academic climate. If they don't understand something I would like them to keep reading, instead of saying, "Hey, I don't understand this, it isn't for me." I would like them to keep reading until they have a sense of how the novel fits together. It isn't what Coleridge meant by a suspension of disbelief, but I need them to suspend judgment until they've got into the book, and that's hard these days.
I have an image that Walter Jackson Bate used about Keats: the bird in the nest with its mouth open for more and then more and then more. There's a woman who says that every time she finishes one of my books she immediately starts again! That's what one wants, people who reread one's books.
At the moment I'm joyfully rereading Balzac. You can reread George Eliot; and it intrigues me how you can go on rereading Jane Austen in the way that you can. I knew her by heart before I was a teenager, and yet when I open one of her novels I read one sentence and then another. She didn't write in order to be against slavery, though I'm sure she was a good woman and like most intelligent English people at the time she was against it. But that isn't the point: the point is telling a story that is better than other people's stories, and more compulsive.
I started teaching in the Sixties, and by the time I left in the Eighties, criticism had become a way of the teacher having authority over the writer and the text and the student. You were taught certain ways of doing it professionally, and the students didn't like it any more because the pleasure principle had gone.
A few months ago during an evening on the nature of consciousness at the ICA, a very bright young scientist said that in the end he would be able to judge the Booker Prize entirely by neurological methods. I said, "Oh, good. How will this be done?" And he said, "We look at the reader and discover which areas of the brain get the most excitement the most persistently." I said, "But what about the writer?" And he said, "Before I took to neuroscience I read English at Cambridge and was taught to question the authority of the text," as though that was the complete answer. I said, "Why is the writer not interesting? Why?" He couldn't answer. And I thought, "If somebody's been taught English that way, something has gone very wrong."
JN & JF: And now those people are teaching others.
ASB: Well, they teach biography, because the moment the writer is not allowed any authority, he creeps in by the back door, so you can apply his biography to his novel.
JN & JF: Do you see yourself as a religious novelist?
ASB: I'm an agnostic, and always have been, and have had no experience that I would describe as religious as opposed to aesthetic. I had a strong religious upbringing, because I was sent to a Quaker school, and the Quakers have a religion which is accessible to irreligious people because it's a form of contemplative silence and real morality. I don't share the Christianity which informs most Quakers beyond contemplation and morality.
The other thing is that if you have read literature, you see that the world I grew up in was a Christian world. Even people who didn't think they were Christian had Christian points of reference and ways of expressing their morals. I don't think I knew anything about Judaism when I was young, but, insofar as Judaism is the Old Testament, it is subsumed. This is no longer true, and we don't know the source of our moral authority: I try to write religious novels about that.
The person who understood that was Iris Murdoch, but she would have liked Christianity to have been true if it could. I never believed it was true. If something isn't true, you should jettison it, even if you find yourself in a cold, dangerous, empty place.
On the other hand, in place of a religious framework, we have taken to using reality television and celebrity gossip, and a dreadfully exhausting interest in our own personality. Nobody has written a novel about that, because either they take it for granted or they are a kind of throwback to Christianity. So far we haven't got a climate in which novelists can see right round it all.
JN & JF: Do you see Freud as the source of that interest in the workings of our minds?
ASB: I'm talking about something much less beautiful than Freud, because he carries the whole of European culture with him: the classics, Judaism and Christianity. Iris Murdoch wrote an essay about how teenagers were simply interested in kindness and in making the world a better place. She obviously found them far too straightforward for her, but she felt they might have some clue as to how to live well that she didn't have. My daughter in America says that everybody there continually discusses how to do their journaling; and their journaling is what I call their "preening of their selves." I don't think it is at all like Freud; and I don't think it supposes a half-hypothesised thing called the id pushing you around. It 's just an interest in the personal because everything else has gone.
That was in a way emphasised by feminism saying the personal is political. You can say that in a very profound way or you can say it in a very slack way, which is the way it is mostly said.
Frankly I find it very boring as I get older when people discuss their personalities with me, because they do very much resemble each other! It must have been interesting to be a Father Confessor, because he had certain parameters. A sin you hadn't met would be fascinating. I do miss the cosmic dimension to the sense of what it is to be human. You can only get it back by thinking of yourself as a rather small animal, in ecological terms, that inhabits an incredibly beautiful planet that your species is in the process of destroying.
The only person I talk to a lot who has that morality together with a lot of knowledge is Steven Jones. A lot of the biologists have that moral vision which is a kind of religion; though they are all anti-religious. They have it automatically, a sense of, I hate the word "reverence," but...respect.
JN & JF: You make the point in A Whistling Woman that biologists unlike physicists, for example, are not religious.
ASB: Physicists find religion very easy. I remember sitting at high table with my friend, Professor Frances Ashcroft, to whom A Whistling Woman is half dedicated. We were having a really good Darwinian conversation about the impossibility of religion, and the man sitting opposite us, who was Tolkienish and large and bearded, leant forward and said, "I think that if you were a physicist and not a biologist, you would see that what you are saying is meaningless!" He obviously had a sense of mysteries which made him believe in God--that we being biological animals, didn't.
JN & JF: Is that because the language of physics is sometimes a metaphorical language?
ASB: I think it uses abstract words like "creation," which I don't like. I don't like to talk about creative writing, which is a vestigial religious tic in me. If anything is created, God does it. I don't. I make things--making is a nice word. But physicists like to talk about the origin of all things and they can talk about the cosmos because they mean a thing by it, as opposed to a concept.
JN & JF: At the end of A Whistling Woman Frederica has a vision of the world as rich and strange. Do you sometimes write as a mystic?
ASB: I am a mystic, and I don't want to be! When I was a girl it drove me mad. Marcus in The Virgin in the Garden is a self-portrait: somebody baffled by things being far too much and not fittable into any of the languages you were offered. I can recognise "The Ancient Mariner" for what it is: a cosmic poem of no religion. It's on the edge of Coleridge deciding for Christianity but, whatever he thought it was, it's not Christian. It's about strangeness.
A friend of mine on the telephone yesterday was discussing some terrible things that were happening in her life and she suddenly said, "Don't get me wrong, but this is absolutely beautiful," and she also is concerned with literature. I replied, "I know exactly what you mean: it's a dreadful pattern, and the pattern is beautiful."
JN & JF: When Possession was published in 1990 you were in the middle of a quartet. The Virgin in the Garden had appeared in 1978, and Still Life in 1985, but with Babel Tower (1996) and A Whistling Woman (2002) still to come, the quartet was taking you some time to complete.
ASB: Most of the gap was caused by the death of my son. I went to teach at University College simply to pay his school fees, and he got killed the week I accepted the job. I wouldn't have otherwise become a teacher, I wanted to become a writer. Added to which I was pregnant, so the slowness of the novels, given a full-time university job, a new baby and a dead child can be put as a flat, autobiographical narrative. Quite how I survived and went on thinking I don't know, but I instinctively made the right decision because I knew the students would keep me alive, as I couldn't at that stage keep myself alive.
Teaching them Coleridge and Milton and John Donne kept me going. Also, being in University College caused me to have the sort of thoughts I had in Possession which I otherwise might not have had. There were two things going on in my mind: one was that I knew that Babel Tower, the third in the quartet, ought to be a parodic novel in several voices, and I thought that I wasn't technically skilled enough. Also, I had planned to kill Stephanie before my son had died. I thought almost every day that I wouldn't go on with that, because it was too much. Nevertheless, it was unfinished business, so I did it.
JN & JF: Do you see Possession as a Rubicon in your career as a writer?
ASB: I see it as a comedy, although it makes people cry. That's nothing to do with me at all; it's about those primitive pleasures we were talking about, the tiger stove, and metaphor and language. I stopped teaching in 1984, and thought that if I started a novel just for pleasure I would learn how to write much faster and write the novel that I now wanted to write as opposed to one that I had planned twenty years ago. I thought, "I'll write the book I want to write, now, and not be held up by life." It liberated me, not just because it was a success but because the words fell into place.
JN & JF: You've talked about not being a poet, but in Possession you also liberated yourself into poetry.
ASB: Yes, and they all tried not to publish it. No American publisher would take it for ages, and the English publishers tried to make me take all the poetry out--and when they failed they pretended they never had! I was doubtful about it, because, as you know, I'm not a poet. And it was more than ventriloquism; it was a sort of a homage, really, to Browning and Tennyson, then Coleridge, and Milton far behind them. I was saying how much I loved them. I thought Ash's poem ought to be about Swammerdam, who comes in the Preface to the Comédie Humaine. I wrote down a few metaphors then just ran at it and wrote the poem instead of writing an essay on an imaginary poem, which is how I'd first conceived Possession--I'd thought there would be a lot of, as it were, spoof essays. Then I saw that the novel ought to be in what I think of now as C Major, in that there should be real poems. I thought about Christina Rossetti and decided that I really don't like her, so had a go at Emily Dickinson. I managed to combine them and make a whole new person.
JN & JF: Had you ever thought of weaving the narrative around real poems?
ASB: In The Lyre of Orpheus, Robertson Davies uses the poetry of Thomas Lovell Beddoes as a libretto to an imaginary opera, and I recognised where those rather beautiful lyrics had come from because I had a Beddoes obsession when I was a student at Cambridge. So, I said to Dennis Enright at a party, "I could take those poems of Ezra Pound where he is pretending to be Browning." And he said, "Antonia--you write your own!" So I went home and I wrote one of those little Emily Dickinson poems that evening, to see if I could. Dennis was my editor after Cecil Day-Lewis. Sometimes he'd say things like, "Did you mean to misquote Milton here?" And I always said, "Yes, of course!" although sometimes I don't think I did. But I owe him that one thing among many others: he gave me the courage to write the poems.
JN & JF: Do you see your own texts as gendered?
ASB: I've played with trying to understand what the word means, but use either "sex" or "men and women" instead, partly because the word gendered has caused a great many of my friends to write work that is bordering on not saying anything. I have always had a romantic idea that the writer or the artist was, as Coleridge and Virginia Woolf said, androgynous. The whole of The Virgin in the Garden quartet is about the desirability of an androgynous mind. I am too old for the women's movement in America or this country. I was fighting battles for the freedom of women, all by myself as I saw it, in the Fifties. I was partly amazed by the organised fight and partly appalled, because freedoms it had been hard for us to win--to be taken seriously by men as equal people to talk to--were suddenly thrown away by the idea that women should band together and talk to each other about each other, about women, and have Women's Studies in women's buildings.
I learnt never to write a list of my favourite painters or writers without women in, but equally I would never write one without men in. I don't think you can live in the world if the battle between the sexes is more important than communication between the sexes. It never was, to me--I like men. My father was one of the most important presences in my life and he was rational and sane and liked women.
What Hélène Cixous does is fine for Cixous but it doesn't get me very far. You can't play the kind of games that she and Lacan play in a language like English which isn't gendered in its ordinary nouns. The moon in French is female, in German masculine, in English neuter. We think about things as things, because we have a neuter. The interesting thing about French is that it is a language with only one source, which is Romance. I love the "mongrelness" of English.
JN & JF: I notice that the quartet which begins with The Virgin in the Garden is sometimes called The Frederica Quartet.
ASB: My paperback publisher, you will be glad to hear, is going to make it a boxed set, and it's just going to be called The Quartet. It isn't Frederica's book--though she's the sort of person who would muscle in and try to take it! I should never, in a way, have killed Stephanie. I only worked it out about three years ago, when I noticed--and I don't think I shall say much more about this--that all the people I kill are myself. If people die in my books I think on the whole it's better I kill myself. Stephanie is the nearest to me. I killed the elder sister in The Game as well.
JN & JF: We don't expect Stephanie to die. It's like the death of Gerald in E.M. Forster's The Longest Journey, where Chapter 5 begins, "Gerald died that afternoon."
ASB: That was one of my inspirations. And in a novel by Monica Dickens the whole of the first chapter is devoted to a pregnant woman putting the kettle on and waiting for her husband to come home: then the kettle explodes and kills her. Her husband is called Daniel, the name I gave my character. When I met Monica Dickens I told her I'd done this as a homage, not a theft, which she said was absolutely fine.
These are the two deepest thoughts I have about the art of the novel. The first is the thought about metaphor and why you get excited about two being one, and the second is about chance and order--going back to my friend saying, "this is very beautiful" while describing a series of disasters with an underlying pattern. All the way through his novels Balzac keeps saying, "chance which is order," "chance which is fate." If you can feel the novelist predicting a death, saying, "This character is doomed never to live," then you haven't got a representation of life. Few of us, if we're not born with a debilitating disease, are born to die, and yet we are all born to die. I wanted to put death in a novel.
I also wanted to disprove D.H. Lawrence, who said in Women in Love that nothing is accidental. I wanted, on the one hand, to prove that fate is fate from the moment it's happened, and, on the other, to prove that there really are accidents. It was very unfortunate that my son got killed in an accident, because it didn't feel like an accident, it felt like something I had caused by thinking about it. It was far too bad for that sort of thing to matter very much, but it didn't help, exactly.
Stephanie has a life wish. The accident through which she died, that accident happened to me. The bird was quivering under the fridge, and I had two small children sleeping upstairs, and I did think, "Help, I'm being electrocuted--what will happen to them?" I didn't bother about myself at all. That gave me an idea of what to do with Stephanie, who was brooding about what would happen to everybody else.
JN & JF: The bird in the novel flies out of the room afterwards. Was that true as well?
ASB: Oh, yes! The only thing I couldn't get in was that our window was under the altar wall of Durham Cathedral, and it was midnight. Buried in Durham Cathedral is the Venerable Bede, who made a bird flying through a lighted hall and into the night into an image of life's brevity.
JN & JF: You wrote in one of your essays that you take random events and make them significant.
ASB: It was around the time I wrote the stories in Sugar, a book nobody talks about much but which was immensely important to my development as a writer--that I began to see, partly because I was stopping teaching, that everything can be made into a story.
My ex-husband had the theory that it was to do with the death of both my parents. From then on the only person who had any expectations about what I might do was me, which was in a way a liberation. A lot of the stories in Sugar are for them, but they weren't going to read them. The title story was rather like that of the bird. It presented itself because of my finding--aha!--the metaphor of the sugar.
When my father was dying I talked to him about his father and realised that all that family was vanishing with him. I remembered my grandfather--who had a boiled-sweets factory--cooking the sugar and catching the air in the glass and making the twist of the dark and the white, and realised that the twist was a perfect metaphor for my mother always telling lies and my father always telling the truth, and both of them telling the right story, in a way. I had to write it because I'd found the right metaphor. I don't like autobiography, and didn't want to write it, but the shape required it, rather like the shape of the bird story required it. It's neither discovering an order nor creating an order; it's in between, and neither verb will do.
JN & JF: You call yourself a realist writer, albeit a self-conscious one, and have said that the realist novel allows its characters to be thinking people as well as feeling people.
ASB: When I first started thinking about that, what was exciting the world I lived in were the French nouveau roman and critics like Gabriel Jospovici saying, very loudly and very frequently and very elegantly, that realism was dead. I remember being moved in the Sixties when Frank Kermode said that we still haven't come to grips with the innovations introduced by Forster and Lawrence. It struck me that for writers there are all sorts of beautiful things in Forster and Lawrence, in their pacing, in the way they could move from an idea to an action to a sensation to a thought.
You can't do that anywhere near as easily if you are Robbe-Grillet. You are writing much more on one note. Re-reading Balzac recently, I saw things which even Proust's method has rather ironed out and stopped you from being able to do. There's loss as well as gain. Balzac is making an image of the cosmos in the shape of Paris, and it's the human comedy in the shape of the divine comedy. He's really thinking big.
JN & JF: You are not afraid of using an omniscient narrator.
ASB: Some of my best teaching experiences were with Middlemarch and also with Dostoevsky, who uses a completely different omniscient narrator to George Eliot's, because he plays with it as though it's a wonderful orchestra. Sometimes his omniscient narrator is inside people's heads and sometimes it is above, uttering judgements about the nature of the universe. The novel I'm obsessed with at the moment is Dostoevsky's The Demons or The Possessed, however we translate it, where the narrator sometimes is just the gossip from the town, which is very much what George Eliot does.
I get angry with critics who say that George Eliot was using the God's eye view because she was very dignified and thought she was God. She didn't. It was just that she wanted to say whatever she knew in whatever was the best style to say it in. And she orchestrated the styles.
I used to ask students to look at the times she uses the first person plural: "we all feel this." She does this to make a statement about a universal human trait. Sometimes she says, "You may think..." and she is actually addressing somebody she's not sure she agrees with. Sometimes she says, "He thought," and sometimes she almost suggests that she doesn't quite know what somebody thought, but that it was a bit like this. She can do all those things, because she's got a flexible instrument. If you choose a first person narrative you've thrown away every single one of those opportunities; but you may have an intensity that she doesn't have.
JN & JF: The term omniscient narrator seems almost pejorative now.
ASB: Yes, this has become a malady of our times. I was a student at Cambridge under Dr. Leavis, who was very proud of himself and sure that he was right and everybody else was wrong; but he was also sure that the writers were more right than he was; whereas now a perfectly legitimate attempt to question the authority of the text has skidded into a feeling that the text has no authority and its author doesn't understand anything. In which case you may as well give up studying literature and study Acts of Parliament, which are just as interesting.
I remember Richard Hoggart saying once, "I could write you an absolutely brilliant essay on the London phone book, but the one I'd write on Dostoevsky would be better." And that's because Dostoevsky is more interesting. Good authors have authority and I respect them.
JN & JF: The Virgin in the Garden is set mainly in Yorkshire, and in other novels you often take your characters there at some point. Do you see yourself as a provincial novelist?
ASB: I find it quite hard to do the earth if it's not Yorkshire earth. I'm beginning to be able to do the Cévennes, where I live in the summer, but that's not unlike Yorkshire. I have a kind of analogical hook. I don't like the kind of novel that's a disguised travel document. I like the feeling that for one thing I say there are twenty things I could have said. I can only really do that with Yorkshire, though the next novel has to be set in Kent or Surrey or round about there, so I persuade my husband to go out and research the earth every weekend in a car, and we have a lovely time.
When I started writing novels there was a completely wrong idea that the angry young men, the Wains and Braines, were writing the novel of the provinces which had never been written. Yet we'd already had Arnold Bennett and D.H. Lawrence who were both infinitely better novelists than any of them had any hope of being. It comes up in every generation: now there's a particularly angry Scottish version. Somehow, there is a belief that there is a breed of person called "the English metropolitan novelist" who is trying to do down the Scots. I feel that the Scots are rather like the women in Possession: they are in a position of power because they are grouped, and they have a big noise going for their group.
A novelist like me living in London isn't part of any group. Your world is your own world and you fight your own battles. There isn't a discussion in any paper in this country or anywhere else of the English metropolitan novelist. There will be a discussion of the English provincial novelists, and of the English woman novelist, but not of the lady novelist in Putney who tries to write books as large as she can push herself into.
JN & JF: Nevertheless, a sense of your roots helps you to perceive roots elsewhere.
ASB: Absolutely, in the way in which George Eliot understood English provincial life. Dickens didn't understand it at all, because he was an urban animal. Sir Leicester Deadlock is an extraordinary poetic creation, but he's not a vision of the provinces. Dickens knew what it was like to be in a country house, but not in the way he knew London inside out. As with Conrad, who wasn't English: I suddenly realised that in The Secret Agent he's writing about a place which is not his and which baffles him, not a place where he knows what will happen around the next corner.
JN & JF: Do you see yourself as a historical novelist?
ASB: Yes, rather to my surprise. I read historical novelists like Sir Walter Scott and Georgette Heyer all through my youth and I never wanted to write like any of them. I didn't understand until many years later that Scott was describing societal changes almost as though they were geological changes, or Darwinian changes, which is what Balzac knows he's doing.
The older you get, the more you see that you not only have your own past but the past of the society which formed you--by its limitations as well as its possibilities. For example, Hitler has become history and can be studied, whereas there's a sort of dip just behind you that you can't study at all, because it's too close.
The only time I’m not planning to write about is the time just before I was born, which was when my parents met each other. A lot of the young male novelists I wrote about in the essays in On Histories and Stories are interested in exactly that time: how their fathers were in the war; whereas I feel strongly that somehow that's a time that I can't get at yet: give me another ten years and I may do.
A Whistling Woman is partly a historical novel, because I had left so long between it and Still Life. It was written for an audience of people who were not born when the events in the novel were taking place.
JN & JF: Surely most great British novels are historical?
ASB: We don't understand that George Eliot was writing about her childhood or her father's childhood, because we haven't enough historical imagination. There's an article that's written every time the Booker Prize is judged which asks: where are the great novels about contemporary life? I remember Malcolm Bradbury saying, "The Berlin Wall went down six months ago. Where is the great novel about it?" The Germans are beginning to write great novels about it. But you can't write one straightaway.
JN & JF: There are many scenes in A Whistling Woman which suggest you were planning the end of the quartet from the very beginning.
ASB: I always knew who John Ottokar was, vaguely, but when I first thought of the beginning of The Virgin in the Garden I certainly had not invented Peacock. But there was room in the structure for that to happen. Frederica's marriage and divorce existed, though Leo didn't. I remember asking my friend Michael Worton, "Should Frederica have a child?" And he said, "Oh, no, that would really spoil her effect." So I went home and thought, "Yes, she shall have a child!" I feel she has a good relationship with Leo, rather to her surprise, and that was one of the things I thought through: what would she do if she found she had a child? She wouldn't realise how much she loved him until the scene where he followed her and got hold of her and kicked her.
JN & JF: When discussing Possession in Portraits in Fiction you say near the start that every reader will see a different Maud and that seems like a fault; but by the end you say it's a particular virtue of the novel as opposed to cinema and, presumably, radio.
ASB: I want viewers to come back to the word on the page, which has the glory of not only letting you skip, but letting you go back twenty pages to see what it was you might have missed. Your relationship with a novel is much more empowered than your relationship with a film, which is seducing you and also moves along at its speed not yours.
Even when you try to pin a character down, and say, "She had three little brown spots at regular intervals on the back of her hand," nobody will see the same hand. This seems part of the inexhaustibility of the novel: everybody sees a different woman. Equally, it's glorious that we all stare at the same painting and get something different from it. But it is the same painting, it doesn't change, it represents unchangingness. The thing about a novel is that you or I or anybody see different Fredericas on different readings: she doesn't stay stable. Whereas once you've got Gwyneth Paltrow as Maud it's hard to get your proper Maud back.
JN & JF: In an essay on his contemporaries Norman Mailer talks about "the glance round the room." When you glance round the room, which other novelists do you see?
ASB: I greatly admire Lawrence Norfolk, who is doing all sorts of things that I would never have thought of doing but seem to me to be akin to what I do in the sense that he makes huge mythical structures, and plays with levels of reality, and winds the whole culture of Europe into fantastic tales: he's an immensely ambitious writer. I like the same quality in Ghostwritten, the novel of a much younger writer called David Mitchell. It's a perfect example of the easily readable novel that nevertheless reveals more and more, a kind of international novel that hops between cultures and worlds with a great deal of confidence. Both those novelists are doing things I recognise from where I stand but are quite different from what I do.
I also liked Philip Hensher's Kitchen Venom. He observes very well, and is a morally generous man. I don't like people who pin their characters to the page and watch them squirm. Hensher does occasionally observe people suffer and occasionally mocks them but he has a kind of generosity and a curiosity about how people are going to behave, both in his little books and his big book. Again, he's stylistically ambitious; he's imitating nineteenth-century writing and good modern writing and Persian poetry. I like Ali Smith's Hotel World very much, and Helen de Witt's The Last Samurai: two extraordinarily inventive novels. I also like A. L. Kennedy, speaking of the theocratic Scots!
One of the good things about British writing at the moment is its immense variety. There are all sorts of people doing all sorts of things and it's only journalists talking about the Booker who say we ought to be writing more about what's going on in contemporary Britain. It's only the people who are trying to fulfil that prescription who bore me.
One of my daughters interviewed Zadie Smith in San Francisco and said she's very serious and very ambitious. I like that sense of energy, and very much admired White Teeth. Another journalistic commonplace is that all the energy is in the American novel and the British novel hasn't got any. I don't think those journalists ever read British novels, except Martin Amis, who certainly has energy and is wonderful too. But they sit there solemnly saying everybody isn't as good as Don DeLillo. Don DeLillo is very good but we have things just as interesting and in some ways more complicated than Don DeLillo's fiction.
I once said in the British Council in Paris, "I can name forty-two living writers in England who either have written a great novel or might write one." Somebody said, "All right, do it," so I wrote them all down on a piece of paper and missed Charles Palliser in the front row, because he was sitting there--who again has interesting, strange, complicated structures.
Look at Robert Irwin. His book about the Arabian Nights is wonderful; but he's written five or six novels, none of them resembling each other. Exquisite Corpse is a beautiful novel. It looks light and easy and has all sorts of depths. It's a study of surrealism and the nature of loss and love, and of the turning point at the beginning of the Second World War. In some countries he would be being taught as their major writer.
JN & JF: You often write about the effect of television and computers and the World Wide Web on reading.
ASB: Television has changed our imaginative world in ways I don't quite understand because I come from the reading world and live in the television world. There are many people who don't open books. I don't, however, think everybody has to read. Dr. Leavis believed that the university English department was the cultural centre of the world, and I never wanted to believe that. I thought that biologists were doing something that English Literature students had no idea about, which was actually very important; so were the philosophers and so, even, were the lawyers. But if you want to be moral, if you want to communicate, you have to use language. Novelists still do it better than anybody else, except for Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickinson.
JN & JF: So you feel there's no such thing as a moral painting or televisual image?
ASB: If you're going to argue about how to behave, you're going to need language. You can arouse people's anguish with Oxfam pictures, but you need to say it with words so that society can think out what to do. Language remains the element in which we move, rather like air, which means it will be quite hard to kill the novel. The novel is one person talking to another person at every single level in language.
I often feel that the theatre is the thing that's died, and not the novel. The theatre has been killed by film and television. My husband and I recently spent the whole day in the theatre seeing the Stoppard trilogy, and it was wonderful for exactly the reasons I've been giving. The characters were arguing out ideas in a human form. Theatrical emotions are much harder for an audience to get into than they used to be. It used to be like the kind of emotion you got in a church when you had a service or sang a hymn. It's much more closely connected to a religion which is dying, and to a presentation of life and language that goes with religion.
I can perfectly well imagine a world without the theatre, whereas I can't quite imagine a world without the novel, or film. The novel began, in a way, with agnosticism. It's an alternative story to the Bible even if sometimes it appears to be supporting the Bible. Dostoevsky will use paradigms of Christ, or his characters will stand against a wall with their arms out being crucified, but they're ordinary people in a secular world.
*A version of this interview will appear in Contemporary British and Irish Novelists: an Introduction through Interviews. Edited by Sharon Monteith, Jenny Newman & Pat Wheeler. London: Arnold, 2004.
Newman & James Friel 2003.