††††††††††††††††††††††† Essays on Peter Ackroyd in
LIDIA VIANU†††††††††††††††††† ,
British Literary Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium, ALL Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999;
The Desperado Age: British Literature at the Start of the Third Millennium,
Bucharest University Press, 2004;
The mind is the soul
Interview with PETER ACKROYD (born 1949), British novelist
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: A Desperado author is not happy until his reader gives in to the novel as to a trance. Your books move back and forth in time, between centuries, between minds, pushing the reader into the experience of a perpetual present, which includes all times, all thoughts, all sensibilities. The highly narrative style is mingled with a lyrical suspension of disbelief. Although full of suspense and palpitating stories, your novels are preeminently lyrical experiences. Are you a poet as well? Is poetry more important than prose, when you write?
PETER ACKROYD: I began my literary career as a poet, and for many years thought of nothing else. It is the case that, when I stopped writing poetry, I began almost immediately to write prose. I believe the same sensibility simply migrated into a different medium.
LV. Is it your intention to create a new literary genre, a hybrid of fiction, poetry and drama? Hybridization of literary genres was the discovery of the stream of consciousness, but its real feats have been accomplished between the 1950s and now. Do you resort to it deliberately or instinctively (writing as the novel comes, which is the more plausible answer, but, hopefully, not the only one)?
PA. I am not particularly concerned with generic matters Ė just as you cannot expect a composer to write only symphonies or only operas, so a writer must be free to explore every available form of writing. You mention the hybrid of poetry and drama and fiction, but I would also like to include historical narrative as part of that mingling, for example. I am interested in creating a form that includes those elements which have been generally classified as Ďfactí and Ďfictioní.
LV. You create your own reader, the sharing reader, who has to lend himself to the authorís expert hand, and this author is never satisfied till he reaches absolute communion. You almost lead the reader to the point where he becomes author himself. The reader partakes of a sacred rite, which is your imagination. There is in most authors a Desperado stiffness which claims that the reader is not meant to do anything special. Are you aware that your reader is a creative reader? Do you mean your books to go on in the readerís mind after creation and reading have had their say? Do you accept the readerís interference in your own creation?
PA. I am quite happy for the readers to enter and recreate the world to which I summon them. Part of the meaning of my work might be seen as an attempt to construct an alternative reality. Or, rather, a heightened reality in which the sacred forces of the world are as plain as any more familiar elements.
LV. You have written the most remarkable biography of T.S. Eliot, which is at the same time a novel and a critical initiation. You mix there fiction, literary history and literary criticism. I should say you are a new kind of critic, the commonsensical, well-informed critic, who despises scholarly digressions from clarity and sense. Are you a critic? Eliot used to say creation itself was a critical act, too. As an Eliot specialist, I owe most of my understanding of Eliot in all his hypostases Ė stream of consciousness poet, critic and dramatist, master of hybridization Ė to your book. Yet you place fiction before criticism, I should say. Would I be wrong? How important is literary criticism in the context of your creation?
PA. I do not believe that I am a critic in any familiar or conventional sense. In my biography of Eliot I attempted, for example, to reproduce the cadences of the man within the style of my prose Ė thus offering the alert reader a means of understanding the true nature of his writing.
LV. You have used Eliot as a source of inspiration. I cannot say he has influenced you, but I find echoes from him in Hawksmoor, English Music, Chatterton. Your mind uses echoes as a technique of rising above time, and this is your major strategy both as a craftsman of the novel and a lyrical sensibility, that willingly becomes an exile from reality. It is your gift to melt together, in the alchemy of your creation, the soul and the story. Which comes first, when you write? Do you start with a story or with a mood? Do you plan your narratives from at first?
PA. The story seems always to introduce itself first, but it cannot really be distinguished from the cadence and Ďmoodí which I am attempting to create.
LV. Death is a recurrent theme, which burdens all Desperado sensibilities, from Graham Swift (Last Orders), to Julian Barnes (Flaubertís Parrot), Doris Lessing (The Memoirs of a Survivor), Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient). You treat it like a sweet mystery. It is present in all your novels as a physical state, not as an incident. There is a life in death, a life after death, life and death are woven together. You make the reader see death as the courage to live beyond. Crossing the border, crossing all borders, is your lesson. Are you deliberately didactic, do you actually mean to convey a message, or does this lesson flow naturally from your sensibility on to the page, and from the page into the readerís own sensibility? Would you allow the readerís reading mood to float freely, without guiding it? How much are you aware of what you really do when you write, of the consequences of your books on other imaginations? What is your priority?
PA. There is no message as such Ė at least not one that can be identified except in the experience of reading the novels, which must of course differ from reader to reader. I never know the ending of the novels, for example, until the ending happens Ė it happens instinctively, almost by an act of chance or indirection.
LV. You are a great lover of narratives. Your pastime is to find new narrative modes. Hawksmoor ends one chapter and begins the next with the same sentence, in a new context. English Music plunges the main hero into trance chapters, going as far back as several centuries. You have a criticís mind, seeing everywhere hints to be decoded, and the soul of a novelist, the dreams of a poet. The three combined make us share the story. Your reader is never excluded, or an outsider. You urge us to witness creation from the inside, to appropriate the text. Do you like your reader to reinterpret the text freely, maybe get out of it something you never thought of putting there? Do you like critics who come up with fancy (mis)readings of your texts? What is the profile of your ideal critic?
PA. If the reader understands the mysteries of time, if he or she is willing to suspend belief in normal realities, if the reader is willing to cross that threshold where life and death are the same, then any further act of guidance on my part seems superfluous.
LV. Poetry opens for you the door into the out-of-time. Most Desperadoes are not that lucky. They are dry and refuse access to the beyond. You are a great lover of words, I should even say a slave to words (in the meaning in which Valťry was a Ďgalley-slave of nuancesí, as he put it himself). Your sentences are short poems. You are not so much direct as evocative of moods. You combine the love for striking, memorable words of your stream of consciousness predecessors with the matter-of-fact narrative of the Desperadoes. You are a hybrid of two authors: one who means to enslave the soul of the reader, the other one who sets the reader free to find his own way, and watches him enigmatically. How much of yourself are you willing to reveal in your writings? How autobiographical are you? Most of your novels are not. Is there any one novel more autobiographical than others?
PA. There cannot help but be autobiographical elements in the novels. After all, I am writing them. The ĎIí must reflect upon itself. The ĎIí must conjure forth its own particular meanings. There are straight elements of autobiography, in terms of location, in First Light. Otherwise not a significant ostensible element.
LV. You ruin chronology in a subtle way. If Lessing is bitter, Lodge and Bradbury humorous, Barnes bitingly witty, you are preeminently tender. Your sensibility ruins the line of the story, diving into islands of is and was at random. History swallows the chronology of the narrative, and whatever the moment, we only know we are still alive, ready to live more, willing to read more. What is your aim when you dive into the past? You said in another interview you wanted to sketch a history of London. I think you want far more than that. You want to outline all history, the sense of history, not only just London. Would it be wrong to say that you are a philosopher of history while being a novelist whose inspiration is the sweet mystery of the past?
PA. The phrase philosopher of history is perhaps a little portentous. I do wish to create a sense of history or, rather, a sense of time passing as a melody. I am interested, too, in the topographical imperative whereby a certain spot of earth can actively fashion or harbour certain patterns of sustained activity over many generations. It is the presence of past time which envelops me.
LV. Unlike most Desperadoes, you are incredibly quotable. Eliot used to say poetry could communicate before it was understood. Do you feel fiction can, too? Because reason is by no means enough for your reader. Your reader must reach beyond mere understanding. You are a striver for the limit of understanding, and your readers learn to accept more than can be logically explained, which brings lyricism back into the picture once again. How do you think you relate to Joyce and Woolf (who flooded fiction with poetry) on the one hand, and T.S. Eliot (who fictionalized poetry) on the other?
PA. I would prefer to put myself in the line of Cockney visionaries, who saw elements of the sacred and the symbolic in their local circumstances. Among them are Blake and Dickens and Turner. I suppose we might count Woolf and Eliot and Joyce as honorary companions of that order.
LV. Virginia Woolf claimed there should be no love interest attached to the novel. An age later, the interest of the Desperado novel moves from the couple (which still existed for the stream of consciousness) to the lonely individual facing life. The character rejects chronological causality: the present is no longer caused by the past, and it does not cause any future to happen. Life is an enticing mystery precisely because it loses the line of love and time. Your novel becomes a communion with the unspeakable. How would you define this unspeakable for a student of your work? If it is not love interest, what words could express your main theme, your major obsession?
PA. My major obsession is with the love of the past for the present, and the present for the past.
LV. I think that by building everyday parallelisms for past ages, you debunk history. Your characters are projected in lines of similar heroes, who melt into one another. Your narrative situations slide in endless lines of similarity. Chatterton, for instance, is a book of fakes. A poet fakes his own death, a painting fakes Chattertonís image by using another writer as a model, a painter fakes his master, a novelist fakes a good novel by copying the plot of another novelist, a humble librarian fakes family life by stealing it from his dead friend (whose death is probably the only real thing in the book, and the least appealing). Nothing is reliable any more. This love of interpretation as a perpetuum mobile is your way of showing humour. I do believe you have a strong sense of humour. Is that true? Where do you think your reader should look for that very Desperado irony, which no contemporary author can write without? Do you see yourself as sympathetic, detached, ironical, present or absent from your text on purpose?
PA. I do have a sense of humour, I hope, although it veers towards the pantomimic and the theatrical. I am not at all Ďdetachedí from the texts, or ironical Ė I am all too fervently attached to them to be anything other than fully engaged. I suppose there is even some humour to be found in that.
LV. You create a dreamy novel. You mix in your novels fiction, poetry, drama, history, music, thoughts and dialogue. Yet you hate sentimentality, in good Desperado tradition. Because of the refusal to dwell upon the major link in human existence which is love (and which is felt in the background but never exploited as a source of incidents), your narrative is unwilling, it advances against the grain, pushed ahead by a haunted mind. What comes first when you embark on a novel, the mind (swimming in echoes of many arts and ages) or the soul (besieged by irresistible tides of lyricism)?
PA. The mind is the soul.
October 5, 2001
Interviewing Peter Ackroyd
I briefly visited Peter Ackroyd when I was in London. When I left his flat, I had the feeling I had been talking to the room Ė the impressive walls covered in magnficent books Ė to the history of the building, to the roots of the city. Not many words were said. His shyness touch me deeply, but I could never put it into words, I could not say what it was that had made me fall silent, experience an absence of words I had never felt before.
Peter Ackroyd is a private man (and this is the understatement of the century). When I founded the MA Centre for Contemporary Literature in Translation at the English Department of Bucharest University and I started inviting British poets and novelists (David Lodge, Julian Barnes, Alasdair Gray, Ruth Fainlight, Elaine Feinstein, John Mole, Robert Hampson, Mimi Khalvati, Pascale Petit, Sean OíBrien, George Szirtes) to talk to the students who were attending my course on contemporary British fiction and who were also attempting to translate some of it into Romanian, I tried my luck with Peter, although I was not very hopeful. I knew he worked 14 hours a day. To my surprise, he did accept.
In my own interview with him (via email, since talking in person had been such a failure on my part; see http://lidiavianu.scriptmania.com ), I had barely elicited one-line answers. My expectations were at best grim as far as the videoconference was concerned. I coached my students (one of whom was actually writing a PhD on Peterís work) to keep asking at all costs. The videoconference began.
It felt as if a magic wand had touched the screen. Peter talked to the students telling them things I had never seen in print, in other interviews. It was certainly not the clever questions that set him going. The questions were as they were. I feel certain it was the youth and inexperience of the students. His answers exhaled tenderness. Was he talking to his own youth, I wonder?
The result was a genuinely affectionate, disarmingly open text. I learnt my lesson. When with Peter Ackroyd, do what Peter Ackroyd does: be tenderly silent and allow only literature itself to talk.
The MA Centre for Contemporary Literature in Translation founded by Prof. Dr. Lidia Vianu at the Bucharest University, interviewed the British writer PETER ACKROYD, in a videoconference with Lidia Vianuís students (PhD, MA, second year majors), organized at the BRITISH COUNCIL (Bucharest-London) on May 9, 2006.
I certainly donít subscribe to any modern literary theory
© Lidia Vianu, The Centre for Contemporary Literature in Translation, Bucharest University
STUDENT: I have noticed that most of your books are full of historical personalities: writers (Dickens, Milton, Chatterton, T.S. Eliot), architects (Hawksmoor) and philosophers (Plato). Is your passion for history the reason why you chose them?
PETER ACKROYD: I think it must be in part my passion for history, my interest in history. It has been my abiding interest, ever since I was a student at the university, but it was only in recent years that this interest became quick and enlightened by a specific focus on the people whom you mentioned. The choice of characters, some of whom you mentioned, was not an arbitrary one. In my opinion it was an instinctive or intuitive one, but not arbitrary. In the case of many of them, for example in the case of Dickens, Blake, Chaucer and Milton, I was trying to help to explore the concept of a ĎLondon sensibilityí. I was interested in the writing that came out from London, that emerged from the cities for many centuries, and which is touched by the same preoccupations and the same themes, images and interests. So, there was a sort of line that worked in many of my choices. In the cases of others, such as Nicholas Hawksmoor, whom you mentioned, and Dan Leno, I was more interested in discovering, how can I put it, the presence of the past, the way in which the historical presence of London still exists in a variety of forms. So there was a kind of logic to my choices of these people, yes.
S. Are there repeatable patterns of experience in The Great Fire of London?
PA. Yes, I believe that there are patterns, there are rhythms, there are clusters of significant experience, themes connected to time. Iíd tried to locate that in some of my books, with what I called the Ďtopographical imperativeí, by which I mean, there are certain neighbourhoods, certain streets, alleys, houses, which actively influence the lives and characters of people who live there. It is not a subject which is taught at the universities or in schools, but it is one that interested me profoundly. I was asked two or three years ago to wrote a London biography, which was a study of that aspect, in part a study of that aspect of Londonís presence, where the forces of the city, the earth, the soil on which the city is based seem to have an indirect effect upon the people who lived there. Whether in a pattern of habitation, whether in a pattern of activity or whether in a pattern of accidents, crimes and so forth. So that aspect of experiential patterns is one of great interest to me.
S. In The Great Fire of London the setting for Little Dorrit is set on fire. Would you suggest that actually these patterns and the past which holds them are at some point completely useless and should be destroyed because they become barriers for understanding?
PA. Yes, I see what you mean. I think that was just the ending of that particular novel, I donít think I would draw any great conclusions from it myself. That was actually the first novel I ever wrote. And in certain aspects itís slightly naÔve. I will only say in its defense it carries in it all the seeds of the later novels which Iíve written. Itís a novel preoccupied with the layers of times, you know, preoccupied with the nature of the city, whether invented by Dickens or whether invented by me. And those ideas, those attitudes, those preoccupations have continued ever since. For the ending of that novel, it was simply a convenient way of concluding the narrative. I wouldnít leap to any metaphysical speculations about its purpose.
S. I was wondering, if you were to draw a comparison between traditional, old literature and modernist and postmodernist literature, would you say that history, the past in general, had lost ground, or, on the contrary, that it had gained a certain profounder importance compared to the past?
PA. Ok, if I gather your question correctly, you are asking whether history is losing its importance in a postmodern climate?
S. Yes, exactly.
PA. Well, I donít think it is. I have never used the terms modernism or postmodernism because they mean very little to me as such, but in terms of historical consciousness history seems to be growing all the time. I donít want to speak personally, but when I wrote a book called Hawksmoor, in 1986, it was considered rather a joke to write a novel set both in the past and in the present. It was considered a conceit. But over the last twenty years there have been any number of historical fictions with one foot in the past and one foot in the present. Itís become actually a genre of its own, and there are some novelists who are specialized in it completely. And in fact that transitional writing, if I can put it that way, between past and present, has also slipped into non-fiction, and some historical narratives and biographical narratives now make use of this device, confronting or transposing past and present. So as for its being a dead issue or a fading issue, I think itís becoming much more prominent in the literature of England.
S. How did you start using this technique? Did you rely on theories of intertextuality or did you just start using it to see if it worked?
PA. I certainly didnít begin with theories in intertextuality because I know nothing about them. I began writing just because I enjoyed it. And I chose these things because I wanted to explore them, there was no ulterior motive, no theoretical purpose behind my writing. I donít think there is any to this day. It would be very difficult for me to locate or identify any theoretical or literary explanation for what I do. I can only explain it in terms of what I have just tried to explain to you, the idea of Ďcognate visioní, the idea of London. I indeed legitimate old literature. It may be a way of resurrecting for example Milton, Chaucer but I donít have any apologies for that. Iím only interested in doing that and nothing else.
S. All your novels are extremely sensitive. Between the lines I feel some kind of regret, not only for the present, but for everything, and this especially in English Music and in The House of Doctor Dee. Does this regret focus on anything in particular or is it just a mood to be conveyed?
PA. Well, I donít have any deep secrets to reveal, and certainly it was conceived in that spirit. It was written at a time, I suppose you might say, of mental torment in my life, or whatever phrase you want to use for it, so it might be that my state of mind enters the book in a subtle way. I was really interested in trying to draw the strange figure of Doctor Dee. Necromancy has always interested me ever since I was a student. He was one of the figures that always remain in the back of my mind, and sometimes in the front of my mind, as when I was writing it. So I also wanted to try to bring to life that particular London. Whatever the secret meaning, whatever the mood that book caused, of course, I have no control of it. My conscious effort was to recreate 16th century London, and 20th century London, and see them as mirror images of each other.
S. You say that when you try to write your novels you donít have a particular technique, literary technique in mind, you just try to write what you feel. My question is, have you ever been tempted to guide your work and your creation according to some technique used in modern literature?
PA. No, I never made that attempt. Iíve never relied upon theories, as I tried to explain before. And I certainly donít subscribe to any modern literary theory. I certainly wouldnít want to feel that my work embodied any modern literary theory. That would be far from my point. In terms of writing it just comes, it emerges from the pen and almost instinctively. I have very little conscious control of what Iím doing and, when Iím re-reading it, it often seems to me to be the work of someone else or something I donít remember doing. And that happens in both biography and fiction. I know the work is going well when that effect occurs, when the words seem to spring unimpeded from the words which came before them. So my role in the process is that of a person who allows reactions to take place. In that sense I donít have any control of what Iím doing, to such an extent that it is quite impossible for me to fulfil any theoretical expectation whatsoever.
S. When reading your novels, would you recommend that we should not take into account any literary technique we might identify in your work and just read and try to feel it, or should we look for a more technical side and try to capture some literary technique?
PA. Well, thatís entirely up to you. Any approach is reasonable, there are no laws about this, there are no laws about reading, just as there are no laws about writing. If itís more appropriate to you, and more fulfilling, to discover literary theory within it, thatís fine. Thereís no reason why it should not be there despite the fact I donít have anything to do with it. If the narrative is written in that way, thatís absolutely fine with me. Some readers just read them for the story, and thatís fine with me too. Other people read them just for the historical consciousness which they evoke, and thatís fine again. Any kind of reading is good as long as itís reading.
S. Some of your characters, such as Nicholas Dyer, appeal to occultism in order to communicate with the past, with the spirit of the dead. Does it come from any literary influence or is it a passion of yours for knowledge beyond reason, beyond logic?
PA. Yes, the hidden knowledge seems to be part of many of my novels. In real life, this does not concern me a great deal. But in my fiction it seems to concern me a lot. I donít have any explanation for that. I think it has to do with the sense that... let me put it this way: you can probably divide human kind into two categories, those who are secular and those who are religious. And I prefer to write religious or spiritual fiction rather than secular fiction. The means of doing that are various, of course. My own way is to illuminate the passage of time as it were, to celebrate the sacredness of time and the passage of time. So, in that sense, you are right to divine the presence of a knowledge of the dead within those books.
S. Your work seems to be very carefully worked. Does this come easily?
PA. Do the words come easily?
S. You convey messages between the lines, like a cry for beauty. You are trying to express everything in the most beautiful way possible. You use hyperbole a lot.
PA. Thatís certainly possible, I wouldnít put it that way myself, but Iím sure youíre right to draw those conclusions. I began life really as a poet. My first published volumes were all poetry. There were some three or four of them before I was in my thirties, so I think the aspirations of the poet, the dreams of the poet if you like, the knowledge of the poet, inform the fiction in ways I really canít begin to understand. Certainly I think of prose as a way of representing beauty. So, in a sense I donít think I ever left poetry behind. It sort of migrated into my prose.
S. How do you see the future of literature? Is the vision in The Plato Papers your own vision on the future of literature?
PA. No, not really. I canít remember what the vision was in The Plato Papers, but Iím sure it will survive. There were many prophecies, I think, at the end of last century that literature was dead, books were becoming dispensable; in fact the opposite seems to be the case. Now more books are being read; there are more bookshops in London now than in the past, many more readers of books. So I think, in terms of survival, the future of literature is very good, I canít see any diminished interest or enthusiasm for these pursuits.
S. Talking about todayís literature, are there any sides of it that you would change in order for it to become more valuable?
PA. Well, I donít read any contemporary literature, I have to admit. I donít read any fiction. I read occasionally biographies and histories, but I really donít have any judgment about those matters, because Iím completely ill informed about contemporary fiction. I havenít read a novel in ten, fifteen years.
S. In the novel The Plato Papers you show how past and present can deconstruct each other. Do you think that cultural epochs can carry out dialogues with one another or they are just deconstructing one another?
PA. Thatís a very difficult question to answer. I presume the dialogue is taking place. I canít remember the specific details of The Plato Papers now, but in general, in my books Iíve tried to say that there is a dialogue between past and present; sometimes they communicate with each other, sometimes they understand each other and sometimes they donít. There were times, for example, when history seemed to come to an end in some of the books, but Iíd call it dialogue rather than deconstruction, if that is what you meant.
S. In historical metafictions, do the books about the past have any claim to truth, even if it is a very limited truth?
PA. No, they have no claim to truth as such, but they might have in biographies or other studies. The concept of truth in this context is a very elusive one. I wouldnít claim my biographies of Blake, Dickens or More were true any more than the fictions about Hawksmoor and Milton are true. They are all fictive, they are made up of language, a language that lies, a language that is incapable of telling the truth. So, for example, thatís why I never see much difference myself between fiction and biography. Sometimes Iím asked which I prefer or which I think highly of, and in truth I donít see any real distinction between these activities. It is like asking a composer whether he prefers symphony to opus. Music is music, writing is writing, all forms of writing are similar. So for me the act of writing a novel is no different from the act of writing a biography or a historical study. The same principles apply and the same effects are engineered. To answer your question, the truth, whatever it is, doesnít really enter into it.
S. In reading The Plato Papers I found the glossary to be absolutely fascinating, and I was wondering if you ever considered turning it into a dictionary or perhaps writing a book for children, in which you could play upon words, something like Carrollís Alice in Wonderland. I found it absolutely fascinating and I wondered why you hadnít continued with it in the novel.
PA. I see what you mean. I didnít continue with it because I ran out of words I could use. I went to the Oxford English dictionary, the Concise version, not the twenty volumes, looking for words which could be used in that way, and I came to the end, thatís why I didnít do it any more. I donít think I would do a book as such, but it might be quite an interesting enterprise. It will be for children to analyze the matter.
S. When you write your novels, what is more important to you: the story, the characters you write about or the language you use and how you write every sentence?
PA. Well Iím interested in all those things. Thereís no priority given to plot or character. If there is any priority at all, it has to be given to language itself, the way it is written, the way it comes out. The language creates the characters and the language creates the plots. And that might sound very silly, but, in the case of many novels I written, I didnít know what was going to happen next until the language told me what was going to happen. There are cases of course where you sketch out important details of the plots just as a sort of vision in your head, but the actual chapter-by-chapter work, the narrative, is almost always decided by the flow of the language, and sometimes characters emerge almost by accident when you donít expect them to. A sudden turn of phrase or a sudden description will bring a character to life, and that character will enter the narrative and change the narrative, so you really do rely upon writing itself. I made that point earlier, that writing is writing, and the act of writing, the experience of writing is absolutely essential to the creation of any book, fiction or non- fiction.
S. You said earlier that sometimes you sketched out the plot in your head. Has it ever occurred to you might end up somewhere far away from what you originally hoped for? Does this ever occur?
PA. Oh, yes, that happens all the time. In fact I would say it happens continually. It wouldnít happen, of course, in biographies as such, where the character is real, so you canít mess around that much with it. But in fiction it continually happens: a change of pen, a change of character, a change in the scene will materially affect the course of the narrative and you can end up with quite a different book.
S. Earlier you said that words simply flowed from your pen, and, related to Hawksmoor, I have a question. Was it difficult to write in the language of the 18th century?
PA. No it wasnít difficult after a while, it required a certain amount of practice. What I did was sit down in the reading room of the British Library, which was then housed in the British Museum, and read every book I got my hands on from that period, which was roughly, I think, 1710-1720. It didnít matter what the book was. It could be a treaty of mushrooms, it could be a book about clothes, spells, I just had to soak in, soak out, I should say, the diction, the vocabulary, the rhythm of the words, the tone, and I had to do it to such an extent that I would be able to write 18th century English as fluently as I wrote 20th century English. And after some months that became possible, and then once again, as in so many other cases, the flow of words created the reality. I found it by far the best way, for example, to introduce the readers to the historical period, to the historical context, instead of starting, like some historical novels, from clothes, buildings etc. I began just with the language, and I found that, by recreating that language, I was able to recreate the period with which I was concerned so it had more authenticity, it had... Well, the reader was drawn into it in ways which are quite uncommon in historical fiction. So in that sense it was the same process as Iíve described before, the language coming first and leading everybody forward.
S. In the poem entitled among school children you speak in the form of a lesson about some of the obsessions of mankind, and I quote:
What do these words mean? (a) love-cries
(b) quantum (c) unemployed.
My question is: do you think that we are offered, even forced into the main coordinates of our experience? Are we subjected to these patterns of experience and these obsessions from an early age? Can they be communicated or should they be transgressed?
PA. I find it very difficult to answer that question. Youíre talking about a poem which was written many years ago and which I can hardly remember.
S. The poem discusses some of the main obsessions of mankind: love, quantic theory, unemployment, and some aspects of life. Do you think that these coordinates of experience, these obsessions are forced on us from an early age? Can they be communicated or should they be transgressed?
PA. Well, I just donít know the answer to that. Iím sure that they can be communicated. I donít know whether they should be transgressed or not. I never thought of it.
S. Is there a symbol, a particular symbol in your novels which you feel more attached to? I think London appears in all your novels as an incomprehensible symbol. Are there any other symbols ?
PA. I donít know if you could call London a symbol as such. It is the landscape of the fiction. A symbol, no, I donít think there is one symbol, you know, I canít think of any. In any one book there will be a sort of trail of images which are suitable only for that one book. Again, I canít really tell which is which. As for symbols, no, I donít believe so, but of course they may be there. It is for other people, not really for me, to pick them up. I probably wouldnít see them if they were put in front of me.
S. How about a message? Is there a particular message that you are trying to send us?
PA. No, there is no message as such. Only perhaps a mood, an aspiration, a susceptibility to the past, but no message. It would be wrong to impose a message on people. It would probably be misunderstood, and I donít see the point of messages. If you awake the consciousness of people, if you allow them to feel the presence of other forces around them, if you make them aware of their past, the past of their country, the past of their area, if you convince them of the ethics of the past times, and if you convince them of the persistence of past times, that in itself is probably enough for any writer to do.
Editor of the text: LIDIA VIANU
9 May 2006
British Council videoconference room, London-Bucharest
Each book is a different reason to exist
© Lidia Vianu, The Centre for Contemporary Literature in Translation, Bucharest University
S. Do you ever think of truth as a matter of free choice ? Some philosophers say there is no truth. Everything is interpretable: I see a blackboard which is obviously black, but you are absolutely free to see it green or any other colour. Is that so, in your opinion?
PA. Yes, I rather agree with that. Everything is interpretable, everything is there to be interpreted. As I said before, as far as I can see, there is no truth as such, only a series of interpretations, and some of them more convincing than others. I think I would agree with you but in terms of... Letís take the case of biography. There are lots of biographies around. Iíve just completed one about Shakespeare. There must be 2000 biographies of that man already written. And it is not a question of people saying you have discovered anything new. Of course I havenít discovered anything new, there is nothing new to be discovered. It is the nature of the writing which is important. The only biographies that survived were well written biographies, whether we are talking about Plato, or whether we are talking about anyone else. The same truth, the same criteria. So it doesnít matter whether anything is true or not. It just matters whether it is well written or not. And the better written a book, the more chance it has of survival. So I agree, it is simply the interpretation that matters.
S. You talked about the persistence of the past, and in reading Hawksmoor I had the impression that I could not catch the past. You yourself ended the novel by saying ĎI am a child again, begging on the threshold of eternity.í Isnít that a sort of frustration caused by an impossibility?
PA. Yes, I suppose it is really. I havenít thought about it like that, but I presume you are right. I suppose itís just a way of confessing the inability to make the permanent jump from past to present or from present to past. Itís the failure of the alchemist to make gold, I suppose. And the point of alchemy is you never make gold, but the alchemical pursuit continues, so I presume that was more or less what I meant.
S. Have you ever identified yourself with your characters or do you just write from a detached point of view ?
PA. I never identified myself with any of the characters, for one thing because they are too many to identify myself with. It would be like madness, I think. No, I havenít identified myself with any of them at all, neither with a fictional character nor with the biographical characters. Sometimes Iím asked which character I prefer. And in truth I donít prefer any of them. The effort is really not to enjoy their company or to like them, but to understand them. And, by understanding them, convey their reality to the reader. So my own likes and dislikes really donít enter into it at all.
S. Do you consider yourself an idealist?
PA. Do I consider myself an idealist? Well, I suppose... Whatís the alternative? Materialist ? I donít certainly consider myself a materialist, so I presume I must ask myself what that means. I really donít know.
S. From your point of view, does this imply erasing everything bad from your novels, everything obscene or everything which can be criticized?
PA. You mean, do I leave out obscenity ?
S. Yes, thatís what I mean.
PA. Well, I donít, not consciously, Just as I said before, it is a question of the way it happens, the way the lines go forward. I certainly wouldnít leave anything out. As I said, there are no laws, you can do whatever you want to do in the narrative form.
S. Whatís your idea of a well written book?
PA. My idea of a well written book is one that charges me with life and with enthusiasm, I suppose. A well written book has to be almost spotless. You shouldnít be able to see the tricks which have been performed for your benefit. A well written book also needs energy, needs animation, needs excitement, I think. You need to want to keep on reading it. Itís like a person: when I say about someone he is a genius, that some people have genius, like Newton, their one common quality is energy. And if I had to point to anything equivalent in writing, it could be the energy: the energy of the writing, the energy of the language.
S. You mentioned earlier that when you had written in the language of the 18th century, you had researched that language for a few months. What would you say the proper period for research was, in order to come out with a well written book? Do you think that long periods of research are necessary, or do some books just come without any research whatsoever ?
PA. Well itís a good question. It depends on the book. Obviously some books do require a lot of work. For example I mentioned the biography of Shakespeare: that obviously required a certain amount of work to make it possible. Similarly, the life of Dickens. Some novels require research too. Hawksmoor, which you mentioned before, required a great deal of research. Other novels, set partially or wholly in the past, also needed a lot of work, of reading books from the same period to get the language right, as I said before. Other books seem to come almost from the pen, without any prior research necessary. The Plato Papers is a book like that. Dan Leno is another book like that, where you just sit down and start, and you finish when you finish. But when books have a more solidly historical core, then obviously itís important for you to immerse yourself in that particular distinct culture before you undertake the task.
S. When you go into that particular period or place that you attempt to write about, do you approach it because you want to know it, or do you approach it because you want to live in it?
PA. I want to know it, yes, thatís one of the great pleasures of writing for me: the undertaking to understand different periods, first for knowledge, first for information. The need to understand a new period is for me one of the greatest imperatives. Then to live it... Well, you canít obviously live it, but you can inhabit it. To move around it is equally important, it is a form of virtual tourism, I suppose. It has its place in the writing of fiction and in the writing of biography, but the main imperative is to seek to understand. There are so many areas of human life and human history that I donít have any knowledge of at all, and which Iíve tried very hard to understand a little bit.
S. Have you ever written a novel just because you wanted to escape from this reality, because you felt disappointed in the life youíre living, not your own life but in general, the world you live in and the period you live in?
PA. Well, no, not necessarily I have never felt that. I do find it almost impossible to write about them. For reasons which escape me Ė Iím sure that someone will know the reasons Ė Iím incapable of that. I can paint other cultures, other civilizations, but I canít paint my own world. Itís a terrible injury, but itís one I have absolutely no way of remedying. I just find myself quite unable to write a novel set in 2006. Some of you may have the answer to that, there may be a literary theory for all I know, but the truth is that I can only begin writing properly when there is a distance of some 40-50-60 years between me and the period.
S. Why do you need this distance?
PA. I donít know, thatís what Iím trying to tell you. In fact I donít understand the reasons for it at all. Much greater practitioners than I had the same problem. Shakespeare, for example, could never write about his own century. Iím not comparing myself with Shakespeare, but he had the similar defect: he was only happy when he was writing about distant times and distant places. So itís not an uncommon problem, but it is certainly a problem.
S. Could it be because, as you said earlier, you canít identify yourself with any of the characters you write about? Could it be that, if you wrote about something that was placed in 2006, you would automatically have to try to identify yourself with one character or with one time?
PA. Yes, thatís probably the truth, that might be one of the reasons. I have this disinclination to look into myself. Iím not a self conscious person, and I suppose it would mean to identify myself with myself if I wrote in the present tense, and thatís something I donít want to do. Itís probably some psychological injury I have that I refuse to look into myself, so, since I avoid looking into myself, then I wonít look into the period which I live in. Thatís one explanation.
S. Donít you think that your literature helps you create a sort of bridge over this generation gap?
PA. Yes, I suppose it gives me a bridge to walk on, so I feel more comfortable on the other side. It certainly might be some sort of displacement mechanism. Itís very possible. But other people feel the same when they read my books, so there must be another explanation, too.
S. I know writers reject this idea of being grouped or being associated to a particular trend. What is your own opinion on postmodernism?
PA. As I said to you before, I donít know anything about it, I donít use the term, I donít feel the need to use the term. I assume it must apply to me because it must apply to all writers after a certain date, I suppose, theoretically at least, but it doesnít impinge upon my life, upon my writing or upon anything.
S. Do you feel that labeling a writer as a modernist, realist, or any other label, somehow orients the readerís attitude towards the work he is reading at the moment?
PA. Yes, it probably does, actually. It may have a harmful effect. I certainly think it would, in my case, but on the other hand it may have a beneficial effects on some authors who might not become comprehensible in any other way. So, it has advantages and disadvantages. I do wish other terms might be invented, which have a certain amount of subtlety.
S. What sort of literature do you enjoy, if you donít like modern fiction ?
PA. The sort of literature which I enjoy these days is the literature which I need to read for the sake of the next book, which sounds very overtly professional, but I hardly ever read a book these days without a pencil in my hand, so I can mark in the margin all I need to know. I donít really read books for pleasure much any more. I just donít have the time. If Iím working simultaneously on five or six projects at a time, I need a great deal of reading and obviously all my time is spent on reading the books I need to read.
S. What are your projects for the future in terms of writing?
PA. Well , let me think. A short biography of Isaac Newton has just appeared in England. This will be followed by a novel which comes out in September, called The Fall of Troy (which has nothing to do with ancient Troy, but with the discovery of Troy in the 19th century), then in the following years a biography of the Thames, which will be about the same length as the biography of London. Then there will appear a biography of Edgar Allan Poe and then another novel. So Iím working about three years ahead.
S. Do you miss the period when you read a novel just for the sake of it, just to have fun and enjoy yourself ?
PA. I do remember that period.
S. But do you miss it?
PA. Miss it? No, not really, I became more focussed as I got older, I became more involved in my work. When I retire, Iíll probably go back to that state of mind where I could pick up anything and read it for pleasure, but not for a few years yet.
S. How do you choose what to write about?
PA. It chooses me, I donít necessarily choose it. Sometimes the idea will come from someone else. Itís like the idea of writing the biography of the Thames, which came from my publisher. Sometimes, as in the case of Newton and Poe, itís been a long-standing interest of mine and then they just happen naturally. Sometimes, in the case of fiction, I just pick up a pen and I just begin without any definite plans. Each book has a different inception, each book is a different reason to exist.
S. Do you think that being a dreamer helps you find more symbols in a book than if you read it in a technical manner?
PA. Yes, thatís possible. I donít know. I got it into the habit of reading with a pen in my hand, and itís not one I will easily break. Itís a part of my routine now, I suppose. I missed your point about being a dreamer, I think.
S. I was saying that this technical way of reading a book might discourage you, forbid you to find symbols that readers usually look for...
PA. Oh, I see. Yes it probably does. Yes, youíre quite right about that, it probably defends me when entering in the spirit of the book, being conveyed to another place. I suppose that would definitely be true. I remember, when I was young, I could read the novels of Thomas Hardy or George Eliot and be transported to that world and love every minute of it. But Iím afraid now Iíd be more concerned about the use of dialect. I would be much more concerned with technical matters now.
S. Whatís the use of imagination, since in The Plato Papers we see enormous imaginative resources to virtually no end?
PA. I donít know the answer to that, Iím afraid. I donít even know what imagination is, frankly I have never understood what it is.
S. In your experience, which books are more appealing to the public and to the reader: those which are much researched or those where creativity has a greater importance and your sensibility just let the book flow?
PA. It doesnít seem to make much difference. As far I can tell, people donít know anyway what kind of research is done for the book, once itís produced. I really donít think it makes any difference to anybody as long as they enjoy the book. They donít care you spent ten years or ten months on it.
S. In Hawksmoor, how did you decide and why did you choose to give the architectís name to the 20th century detective?
PA. That was just a technical thing because I didnít want the churches to be completely identified with the real churches, the Hawksmoor churches. I wanted to make it slightly more ambiguous in the novel. Of course, as it turned out, everyone had seen they were the same churches, so I missed the point in a way, but it was just a way of keeping the fictional plot slightly more ambivalent, slightly more mysterious. Yet, as it turned out, it didnít make any difference.
S. Does the fact that you kept the name Nicholas for both characters have any special meaning ?
PA. No, I donít think so.
S. A theory of names says that last names represent something imposed on the self, while first names represent the true self. Did you take this theory into account when naming your characters?
PA. I never heard of that theory before, it doesnít make sense, I suppose, although of course there are some first names and last names that might cause difficulties. No, I think I called them both Nicholas because I thought it was a good idea at the time. I canít think of any other reasons for it.
S. What is in your opinion the difference between the real Plato and the character Plato?
PA. Oh, yes... They donít resemble each other, as far as Iím aware. I thought it was just a good name to give. Thereís no connection at all, except of course the form of Socratic dialogue, which I borrowed from Plato. That was the real point of entry to Plato, I suppose. So looking back at it, there is a connection, yes, youíre right. I thought of the form of the dialogue, I think, and then I gave the name of Plato. Actually it canít be a real connection between the two, they donít share anything in common as far I can tell, except for this dialogue.
S. Is there a book of yours you like more than the others or a book you are not so satisfied with?
PA. Yes, there are books which Iím not satisfied with. Most of them. The only book I really enjoy is the one I am actually writing at the time. The others... I can see all the shortcomings, all the faults, all the mistakes, so I never, never reread them. Only for some specific purpose will I reread anything I have ever written. It doesnít interest me, it just makes me aware of the failures. So I tend to keep them firmly closed once they are completed.
S. What are these failures? How would you explain them?
PA. Well, if I read them, I will be able to tell you. I just know they are there, failures of tone... Itís difficult for me to say, not having looked at them very carefully. Let me think Ė no I canít think of anything, because I donít have any real recollection of them. But I will know, there will be lots of failure in them.
S. If you reread one of your novels and you felt that you hadnít exploited the subject enough and you hadnít made your point the way you think you could have, would you sit down and write another novel starting from the same subject, even though you might not end up in the same place?
PA. I doubt that very much. It might be quite fun, actually, to rewrite the novel, to rewrite the same novel. I never thought of that before. That might be a good idea, but in fact it might hold a few problems, one being the fact the publisher would think it was a mistake to write the same book twice. But thatís another matter. In practice I donít think it would be like that, I would never do that. For one thing, you move on, the person who wrote The Great Fire of London isnít the person who wrote the last novel I wrote. You hopefully get better, your skills get better, youíre involved in a long journey, and you hopefully reach higher with each particular book, so thereís no pointing in revisiting your past in that sense.
Questions asked by: Stefania Tarbu (MA student), Simona Catanǎ (PhD student), Corina Nuţǎ, Elena Dumitraşcu, Adina Blotu, Lavinia Zainea, Ioana Dogaru, Ileana Motroc, Anda Cǎlin, Flavia Lihet, Suzana Perial (second year majors).
Editor of the text: LIDIA VIANU
9 May 2006
British Council videoconference room, London-Bucharest