Monday, April 24, 2017



By Erica Gonzalez
April 20, 2017

Earlier today, HBO surprised us with new photos from Game of Thrones' seventh season. It didn't take long for fans to analyze the pictures and string together some theories on the upcoming plot.
This picture of Jon Snow has specifically attracted a lot of attention (and no, not just because Kit Harington is easy on the eyes). If you look closely at the background, it seems he's standing in the crypts of Winterfell, as told by the dark lighting and enclosed stone arches behind him. The location is significant because Lyanna Stark, Ned's sister and Snow's biological mother (which was confirmed last season), is buried there. Hence, a new theory supposes that in this photo, Jon is looking at Lyanna's grave.
Does that mean he discovers his true patronage in Season 7? How does he find out? Who tells him? And what is his reaction like if/when he realizes he's not Ned Stark's son, but Lyanna's? More importantly, does he also find out that his father is Rhaegar Targaryen? According to another theory, a clue about Snow's real father lies in Lyanna's crypt.
What's certain is that it seems Jon has learned something in this scene. Maybe he really doesn't "know nothing" after all.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A life in writing / AS Byatt

 'There are worse things human beings can do than take themselves seriously' 
A life in writing / AS Byatt

Writing in terms of pleasure

In my work, writing is always so dangerous. It's very destructive. People who write books are destroyers

Interview by Sam Leith
Saturday 25 April 2009 00.01 BST

o you know what her children call her?" a mutual friend asked me when I said I was going to see AS Byatt. "You'll never guess. Not in a million years."

"Antonia? Mum?"
"No," he said, laughing. "They call her 'AS Byatt'."
Why is this funny? I think it's because it seems to play to a public idea of Byatt's austerity. It's a version of the joke that's told about the Cambridge poet Jeremy Prynne. Prynne is asked: "What's your wife's name." He replies: "Mrs Prynne." It identifies an anxiety by teasing it. In England, we're in awe of intellectuals, and scared of them, and Byatt - as novelist, critic, anthologist, essayist - is an unapologetic four-star intellectual.

In person, she's both formidable and friendly; her voice has a very slight quaver or tremor to it. Everyone does seem to call her something different. "Antonia", "Dame Antonia", "ASB", "AS", or just - with lugubrious reverence - "The Dame". Born Antonia Susan Drabble, she writes under Byatt (the name of her first husband) and signs her emails "ASD" (her second husband is Peter Duffy). Her email address presents her as "Arachne". And her grandchildren, running into the room waving plastic toys, do, as promised, call her "AS".
George Haight's biography of George Eliot describes a Mrs Shaw noticing the young Mary Anne Evans sitting to one side by herself at a children's party.
"My dear, you do not seem happy," she said. "Are you enjoying yourself?"
"No, I am not," said Mary Anne. "I don't like to play with children. I like to talk to grown-up people." George Eliot - along with Robert Browning - is one of the fixed stars by which Byatt navigates, and the story told of Eliot could as easily have been told of her disciple.
"I was a deeply unhappy child," she says. "I didn't like being one. It seemed a horrible thing to have to be."
Byatt grew up in York, the oldest of four children in a clever, competitive household (her sister is Margaret Drabble; they don't get on, and she's fed up of being asked about it - as I was twice warned before going to see her). Her father, John Drabble, was a county court judge and her mother was a scholar of Browning who felt trapped as a housewife. "My poor little mother," says Byatt, almost to herself. "She shouted and shouted and shouted." Antonia's adolescence coincided with her mother's most acute dissatisfaction, and she found her own escape in literature and, at Cambridge, in academic work.
One of the characters in her new novel, The Children's Book, she says, "represents my greatest terror which is simple domesticity." Greatest terror? She says, decisively: "Yes. I had this image of coming out from under and seeing the light for a bit and then being shut in a kitchen, which I think happened to women of my generation."
Though she has had four children, domesticity never swallowed her. She spent a little over a decade as an academic at University College London before giving it up to write full time. Her fiction, though admired, remained a specialist taste until she won the Booker prize in 1990 for Possession - a novel that transformed her reputation, brought her work to a mass audience (it went on to become a successful Hollywood film) and paid for the swimming pool at her house in France. Subtitled "A Romance", its parodies of Victorian verse are blended into a virtuosic exercise in genre writing. It also - like few books before or since - evoked what could be pleasurable and exciting about academic work.
"She's very unusual for an English person," her friend Philip Hensher says of her, "in that she's quite suspicious of comedy. With most people, sooner or later, every intellectual position comes down to a joke - it never does with her. This is where I think she fights with Kingsley Amis."
I read Possession years ago, I tell her, but a passage has stuck in my mind. One character makes a sneering remark about another "taking himself rather seriously". Their interlocutor replies briskly: "There are worse things human beings can do than take themselves seriously."

"Yes," she says. "I've been saying that all my life."
Byatt was educated at a Quaker school, and it has stayed with her: "I am not a Quaker, of course, because I'm anti-Christian and the Quakers are a form of Christianity but their religion is wonderful - you simply sat in silence and listened to the nature of things."
Her nature is not to mock or sneer. She might not think something is much good - but she'll think about it patiently, assess it fairly, and then judge it with a presbyterian directness. There was a great hoo-hah when she wrote a negative review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the New York Times. It was claimed that she was "just jealous". But she simply described, conscientiously if a little irritably, what she saw: "a secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children's literature". It was "infantile" - a word not meant as a sneer, but as a straightforward diagnosis.
Her new novel takes place at another time - the turn of the 20th century - when "it was seriously suggested that the great writing of the time was writing for children, which was also read by grown-ups". The Children's Book tells the story of two generations of a group of families living near each other in the country, the closest thing they have to a matriarch being Olive Wellwood, a successful published writer of children's stories.
"A book starts when two things you thought were different come together," she says. "I started with the idea that writing children's books isn't good for the writers' own children. There are some dreadful stories. Christopher Robin at least lived. Kenneth Grahame's son put himself across a railway line and waited for the train. Then there's JM Barrie. One of the boys that Barrie adopted almost certainly drowned himself. This struck me as something that needed investigating. And the second thing was, I was interested in the structure of E Nesbit's family - how they all seemed to be Fabians and fairy-story writers."
The Children's Book is on one level a work of careful social and psychological realism: dense with information, following with reportorial exactness the lives of interlinked households over decades. Byatt plots out her timelines on Excel spreadsheets so she can make sure her characters are the right age at any given time. You can learn a lot from it about the chemistry and history of pottery, about the politics and literature of the Fabian and suffragist movements, about the run-up to the first world war.
On another level, it is stuffed with the motifs of fairy stories: doubles, changelings, locked rooms, underground journeys, boys who refuse to grow up. Like Possession, it nests a story within a story. It plays deliberately with mythic motifs such as silver and gold, or the spinning of webs. "I can't say how important it was to me when Angela Carter said 'I grew up on fairy stories - they're much more important to me than realist narratives'. I hadn't had the nerve to think that until she said it, and I owe her a great deal."
It is also a disconcertingly centreless book. When at one point Byatt describes Olive as its heroine she corrects herself: "I heard myself say that word. But I think there isn't a main character ... Iris Murdoch once said the world has enormously more people in it than you can ever imagine. She said whenever she finished a novel she wanted to start again and write it from the point of view of all the minor characters. In a sense I felt I was able to do that, because the minor characters became major characters when the book turned its gaze on them."
If Possession is Byatt's Mill on the Floss, then this is her Middlemarch: the life not of a couple but of a community. It is an anxious, rather than a romantic book - it abounds with confusion, compromise, family dysfunction, thwarted love. Sex is pervasive, and threatening. The connection is there between childishness and child abuse (the manic-depressive master potter, Fludd, in certain aspects resembles Eric Gill).
The book touches, too, on what Byatt calls "one of the steady themes of my writing that I don't understand - as opposed to several that I do. I don't understand why, in my work, writing is always so dangerous. It's very destructive. People who write books are destroyers."

You might be tempted to assume that Olive, as the writer in the book, is a proxy for Byatt. If so, the relationship is intriguing. One of her friends "thinks I haven't written another character that I don't like, and he's extremely shrewd".
The first world war comes down on the end of The Children's Book like a guillotine. Unexpected in history, it was also unexpected by the author - "I started working on the 1890s without thinking it through that all these children would die in the war ... I keep trying to get people to take the word 'looming' out of the publicity material." Researching the novel, she made a discovery that seemed too good - or bad - to be true: soldiers named trenches and redoubts after children's books: "Peter Pan Trench", "Hook Copse", "Wendy Cottage" ...
Fairystories and utopian politics are entwined in the book. "I'm a naturally pessimistic animal and there's a sort of innocence in these people. They came after the high Victorians, whom I love in a way I don't love these people. I love Browning in a way I love nobody in the period this novel is set in, except perhaps Rodin. I love Tennyson too. I feel they understood that the world might be tragic whereas the Shaw, and even the Woolf generation ... "
She identifies the same soppy spirit in the second half of the century: "I don't like the 1960s either. The last big novel I wrote was called A Whistling Woman and it was about utopianism on the one hand and a dangerous sort of mystical romanticism on the other. I don't believe that human beings are basically good, so I think all utopian movements are doomed to fail, but I am interested in them."
Byatt may be serious, but I think it's a mistake to see her as humourless or intellectually snobbish. After our interview, she and her husband laugh about the wit of a football crowd - England fans chanting to the Belgian team: "You're French, and you know you are."
What distinguishes her is a sort of grounded curiosity. She has been a visible admirer and encourager of younger writers including Hensher, Lawrence Norfolk, David Mitchell, Adam Thirlwell and Ali Smith. Her advocacy is "not entirely disinterested, because I wish there to be a literary world in which people are not writing books only about people's feelings. If you notice, all the ones I like write also about ideas. You know, there's been that sort of clonking account of what was good about British writing which was McEwan, Amis, Graham Swift and Julian Barnes - but there's all sorts of other things going on. In fact I admire all four of those writers . . . and they don't only do people's feelings but nevertheless it's become ossified."
As a young writer herself, Byatt befriended Iris Murdoch, though "because I actually didn't want a mentor I found the friendship very difficult to handle ... she simply used you as material. She loved you very much but she would take you out to lunch and just fire questions at you like a clay pigeon shoot."
Was she taken aback by the memoir written by Murdoch's husband, John Bayley? "I think what he did was wicked and I don't mind you writing that. I knew her enough to know that she would have hated it ... it's had a horrible effect on how people feel about her and see her and think about her. She was a wonderful novelist and she was a novelist who didn't write about herself. Feelings were in her work but it wasn't restricted to feelings. There was thought in it. There was structure in it. An intelligent, complicated world ... I think what John did was unforgivable."
Byatt's hostility to the cult of "feelings" can, though, be easily misunderstood. The Children's Book is filled with emotion - and into it is woven, discreetly and obliquely, one of the central emotional facts of Byatt's own life, the loss of her son in a car accident when he was 11.

It's something she brings up, unexpectedly, when we're talking about her time as an academic. "This is two sentences, and that's the end of the story." She had wanted to write full-time, but "if I had a job we could send my son to a fee-paying school. My son got killed on Frank Kermode's doorstep, the day I accepted the job more or less - so there was no point in having the job except what else was I going to do." She did the job for "as long as he had lived, which was 11 years", at the end of which "it was like being released from a spell". A poem she wrote, "Dead Boys", described how after his death a child is perpetually present, at every age, to his mother. The same image appears in The Children's Book.
"I was watching David Cameron saying that people have been writing to him and saying that, after a time, you get to want to celebrate somebody's life. All I can say is no, you don't. It's just terrible. It stays like that."
She's dismissive, though, of the idea of writing as therapy or emotional exorcism. "I think of writing simply in terms of pleasure. It's the most important thing in my life, making things. Much as I love my husband and my children, I love them only because I am the person who makes these things."
I ask her to elaborate: "I," she says, "who I am, is the person that has the project of making a thing. Well, that's putting it pompously - but constructing. I do see it in sort of three-dimensional structures. And because that person does that all the time, that person is able to love all these people."

Byatt on Byatt

"The minds of stone lovers had colonised stones as lichens cling to them with golden or grey-green florid stains. The human world of stones is caught in organic metaphors like flies in amber. Words came from flesh and hair and plants. Reniform, mammilated, botryoidal, dendrite, haematite. Carnelian is from carnal, from flesh. Serpentine and lizardite are stone reptiles; phyllite is leafy-green. The earth itself is made in part of bones, shells and diatoms. Ines was returning to it in a form quite different from her mother's fiery ash and bonemeal. She preferred the parts of her body that were now volcanic glasses, not bony chalk. Chabazite, from the Greek for hailstones, obsidian, which, like analcime and garnet, has the perfect icositetrahedral shape."
This is from my story "A Stone Woman", a fairy tale about a woman who is turned into stone - or into many kinds of stone. The stone is a metaphor for grief and for ageing and stiffening. We are always being told language is inadequate to describe things. I think it is endlessly inventive if we pay it attention. I love all the buried metaphors in the stone-names. Thinking and writing are making connections. I once gave a reading in a university where a student said self-righteously "You used a word I didn't know in that reading. Don't you think that was elitist of you?" I replied that if I were her I should have rushed to the dictionary in glee and delight.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

A life in writing / Marilynne Robinson

'I'm dependent on the emergence of a voice. I can't make them'
Poster by T.A.
A life in writing: Marilynne Robinson
The Orange prize favourite explains why 'the small drama of conversation' is more interesting to her than adventures writers 'have read about in a brochure'
Interview by Emma Brockes
Saturday 30 May 2009 00.01 BST

he small town of Gilead, in which two of Marilynne Robinson's three novels are set, is "a dogged little outpost" in Iowa, where her characters live modestly and scorn themselves for staying put. They don't go anywhere, do anything, see anyone besides their neighbours, and the town itself doesn't change - an odd choice of set-up for a novelist, but one that permits her to make a suggestion: that it is people in their kitchens, devastating each other softly and for the most part without intent, that constitutes life at its most indivisible.

Robinson's sporadic output - three novels and two books of non-fiction in 28 years, with a 24-year gap between the first and second novels - is assumed to be a function of ambition, of her painstaking attempt to tell stories through thought and not action. But it's not that at all, she says. When she opens her door in Iowa City, a leafy college town where she teaches creative writing, the 65-year-old doesn't look agonised, or reclusive, or - an expectation raised by her enthusiasm for 18th-century theology and books with the word "Trinitarianism" in the title - in the Joyce Carol Oates school of brittle academics. She is robust, with a steady, amused gaze propped up on high cheekbones and a poodle fussing around her called Otis, so named, she says, because it didn't "seem very poodleish".
If Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, published in 1980, hadn't been such a huge hit, her reticence would be unremarkable. In light of it, her follow-ups seemed wilfully eccentric: a book about the British nuclear industry, researched while teaching for a year at the University of Kent, and, finally, a second novel, Gilead, told from the point of view of an ailing 76-year-old pastor, considering his mortal and spiritual life. The Reverend Ames is a perversely unmarketable hero - creaking, insular, tormented with unwanted salads left on his porch by the faithful - but Robinson wasn't consciously defying anything in her choice of subject, she says; it was a matter, rather, of not having the "concentration" to behave otherwise. She follows her will. When she writes, she writes quickly, but everything she tried after Housekeeping sounded too similar to interest her. "It might seem a strange thing for me to say, having written Home. But it has to have a central originality in my mind. I'm dependent on the emergence of a voice. I can't make them, they have to come to me. There's no point in my worrying about it."
Home, her third novel, revisits some of the peripheral characters of Gilead. They are not sequential, but companion pieces held together by the friendship of the Reverend Ames and his neighbour, the Reverend Boughton. Structurally, Home is the more conventional novel, the story of Jack, the black sheep of the Boughton family, on his return to his childhood home some 20 years after leaving. His agonising efforts to appease his dying father and establish a relationship with his sister, Glory, are so finely grained, so trembling with a sense of life unlived, and without the neat, redemptive ending of the previous novel, that it is a much stronger and more radical piece.
Robinson's brilliance is in seeing the gaps between words as forcefully as the words themselves; all those rapid calculations as people test an exchange for hidden content, condescension, disingenuousness beyond polite necessity. So few are the external references that it's a while before you realise when the novels are set - in the mid-1950s - and larger themes slowly emerge: civil rights, women's rights, faith and its failure. Gilead won the Pulitzer prize and Home is the favourite for the Orange, announced on Wednesday. "She is one of the most intellectually ambitious novelists in English," says Sarah Churchwell, a lecturer in American literature at the University of East Anglia and one of the Orange judges. "She trusts her readers to be able to think, to appreciate language for its own sake; and while she is morally serious, she is never humourless."
Still, it takes nerve to circumscribe the action of a novel so drastically, and one imagines Robinson reading Gilead back and, with a sudden plunge, thinking what does this amount to? Doesn't she worry at the lack of explosions? She laughs. "There's something in my temperament . . . I have a problem with explosions in the sense that many very fine books are written about things that do, in fact, explode. But if the explosion is something that's supposed to make the novel interesting as opposed to being something that it's essentially about, I think it's very much to be avoided."
It was only after Robinson had finished her PhD that she became aware of "the essential shallowness" of her education. "I would try to write something," she says, "and I would think: I don't know if I really believe that. I don't know what this language means." Before she could even think of attempting fiction, she went on a "very long and intentional" programme of reading, around the Origin of Species, the Decline of the West and the history of political thought. Typically, after reading Das Kapital, she ploughed through Marx's entire bibliography, because she "wanted to see how well he used his sources. And people were just aghast that I would somehow seem to question his authority. It was very odd." Her eyebrows rise in mock incredulity.
She wrote Housekeeping assuming it was too odd to be published, a "liberating" experience. At the time, she was working on a dissertation on Shakespeare's early history plays and would break off to scribble random images on scraps of paper. "I was interested in writing extended metaphors. And so I kept writing these little things and just putting them in a drawer." Somehow, the metaphors proliferated behind her back so that, when she went back to them, they suggested a novel to her; of three generations of women in a town called Fingerbone, grief-stricken, at constant risk of flooding and the resurgence of things long forgotten. "I took out this stack of things and they cohered. I could see what they implied, I could see where the voice was."
Housekeeping is now regarded as a classic. The novel is so disciplined, so full of suppressed longing, that a woman's name whispered under a bridge in the final pages is such a seismic breach of the surface tension that it breaks the reader's heart. Unlike a lot of self-consciously lyrical novels, it forfeits nothing in terms of humour or suspense, although no one goes anywhere in Housekeeping, either. "It seems to me that the small drama of conversation and thought and reflection, that is so much more individual, so much less clichéd than - I mean when people set out on an adventure, I think 90 times out of 100, they've read about it in a brochure. That's not the part of life that interests me." The novel wasn't an instant hit. "It got very good reviews - protective reviews. But the first edition was 3,500 copies and it finely straggled into paperback - there was one bidder. It could have expired."
Through word of mouth Housekeeping grew in popularity and then, in 1987, it was made into a film, directed by Bill Forsyth, with which Robinson was pleased. The novel's origins remain mysterious; the metaphors-in-a-drawer explanation is a hard one to swallow. She won't be more specific. "If I know where an idea's from, I don't use it. It means it has a synthetic quality, rather than something organic to my thinking." The most she will say is that, since the book was written at night while her two young sons slept (she and their father subsequently divorced), she supposes motherhood had some influence. "It changes your sense of life, your sense of yourself." Was it hard to combine the two jobs? "No. I really enjoyed my kids. They were good boys, you know, and interesting. And they didn't wear me out."
Fingerbone was based on the town where she grew up in Idaho, where her father was in the timber business. For the first few years of Robinson's life they lived in the wilds, a vastness of landscape that she is sure "had a huge religious implication for me". Her parents were conventionally religious, no more, and must have been surprised by their daughter's interest in theology. She bursts out laughing. "I think an interest in theology surprises most people. But it was just like a fish to water. It has always been so natural to me."
Robinson made her first attempt at Moby-Dick at the age of nine - people mocked her for carting it around and she finished it to spite them - and then "read my way down the shelf in the library". She did her degree at Brown University and graduate studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. Making a good living wasn't something that concerned her. "I've never aspired in the way people are supposed to aspire. Which is really an enormous help, if you want to write." She still talks to her mother five days a week, for an hour at a time. "She's articulate. She's very funny. She's taller than me. She always had a certain aura - these women who for one reason or another identify with glamour as their native dialect or something."
Robinson says she can't live in a place without knowing "the narrative" behind it, which was a problem when she came to Iowa, as people would say "it has no history. And, you know, you just can't have two or three people gathered together without generating history. So I started reading everything I could find. These little colleges that were founded by abolitionists are often unaware of their origins - that they were integrated schools before the civil war."
This was the basis for Gilead; the historical liberalism of these maligned small towns in the middle west (she eschews the "midwest" shortening, with its snobby baggage) and the casually despised people who live there. It's a fault of language, she suggests, that we allow definitions to take hold - of what constitutes progress, success, happiness - and judge everyone and ourselves by them accordingly. When Robinson talks about relevance, it is in the religious sense that no one person is inherently more valuable than another. She has, from time to time, preached at her Congregationalist church - unsuccessfully to her mind; she gets very nervous. She feels her church is more liberal than the culture around it. "They ordained their first woman in 1853. Before the supreme court decision [to allow gay marriage in Iowa] we blessed gay unions, which is typical of my denomination."
Her novels don't flatter the faithful. Boughton, a sweet man in most respects, whose hair puffs off his head like "the endless work of dreaming", has wholly the wrong opinions about civil rights. A character's childish sense of God as the person who "lived in the attic and paid for the groceries" can never be entirely dispelled, and Glory, Boughton's daughter, describes her faith touchingly in terms of interior decor: "For her, church was an airy white room with tall windows looking out on God's good world, with God's good sunlight pouring in through those windows and falling across the pulpit where her father stood, straight and strong, parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ. That was church." Meanwhile, Ames says, "for me, writing has always felt like praying".
The resurgent science versus religion debate is something Robinson finds absurdly simplistic. She has written on both subjects. Mother Country, her book about Sellafield, seemed like a bizarre change of genre, but she was always interested in the environment. She read a lot of science and economics texts - "the most eccentric passage of my life" - and the resulting polemic, about the dumping of nuclear waste, attracted some cranky reviews in the science press, although she says her findings were hardly startling. "I think they were embarrassed to have a novelist point it out."
In any case, she likes a good fight. Her review of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, in Harper's magazine, accuses him of, among other things, philistinism: "He has turned the full force of his intellect against religion, and all his verbal skills as well, and his humane learning, too, which is capacious enough to include some deeply minor poetry." As she told the Paris Review: "He acts as if the physical world that is manifest to us describes reality exhaustively."
Now she says: "I'm not impressed by the quality of Dawkins's writing, or of Christopher Hitchens's writing. If you are up to speed on subjects that they raise, questions come crashing to mind." The religionists haven't helped themselves, though; surely the new atheism is in part a reaction to the rise of, say, Islamic extremism? "Not just Islamic. A lot of Christian extremism has done a great deal to discredit religion; the main religious traditions have abandoned their own intellectual cultures so drastically that no one has any sense of it other than the fringe. These people that attack religion are not attacking any sort of informed cultural sense of religion. They're attacking the crudest." She has never had a live encounter with Dawkins. "I'm a little nervous about live encounters, because everything's a shouting match. I'm thinking of television of course [she doesn't own a television], but so much of it is who can bully, in effect. Not that I couldn't." She smiles dangerously.
She got rather cross with Simon Schama recently for what she saw, in his writings about early Dutch culture, as a faulty sense of Calvinism - "the dear old song of Renaissance Europe" as she calls it - and confronted him on a panel in New York for characterising Calvinists as a bunch of joyless busybodies. "I said, what did you mean by 'Calvinist orthodoxy'? And he said something like 'well I sort of hurried over that part'. You really can't expect everybody to be up to date on Calvin; but at the same time, if you're writing about the Dutch Republic, you ought." Was he embarrassed? "He was serene."

Her rigour is terrifying. In her book of essays, The Death of Adam, Robinson takes issue with the lack of mettle in modern women compared to their antecedents, all the forgotten heroines of the 19th century of whom only Harriet Beecher Stowe is really remembered. What, she says, of orators and abolitionists such as Lydia Maria Child, Lydia Sigourney and Angelina Grimke, all hugely revered and now forgotten? "These women who had so many strikes against them seemed to have so much more self-possession. People will trip over the smallest obstacle now." She continues: "People are enabled by a sense that there is a heritage of women orators. And somehow or other people conspire in erasing history that would be very valuable for them to have."
On a shelf in Robinson's living room is a large framed poster of a quote by President Obama: "For as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible." It is important to be aware of these things, she says. Look at Iowa, glibly characterised as reactionary but which "had all these splendid deep impulses in its legal system that just sort of got papered over". And on a national scale, too. "Look at major documents and the implications are very large and generous." To remember without over-explaining is the spirit of Robinson's art.

Robinson on Robinson

"If there had been snow I would have made a statue, a woman to stand along the path, among the trees. The children would have come close, to look at her. Lot's wife was salt and barren, because she was full of loss and mourning, and looked back. But here rare flowers would gleam in her hair, and on her breast, and in her hands, and there would be children all around her, to love and marvel at her for her beauty, and to laugh at her extravagant adornments, as if they had set the flowers in her hair and thrown down all the flowers at her feet, and they would forgive her, eagerly and lavishly, for turning away, though she never asked to be forgiven. Though her hands were ice and did not touch them, she would be more than mother to them, she so calm, so still, and they such wild and orphan things." 

From Housekeeping, published by Faber

It feels to me as though the image in Ruth's mind expresses her sense of the world, as I understand it, very closely. I'm interested in the figural quality of thought, its affinity to myth and dream, first of all in its emotional density and its indifference to time. In this instance the language did more than I intended or anticipated. When a passage carries the memory of this experience, especially vivid for someone relatively new to the writing of fiction, it never ceases to have a certain incandescence whatever its merits may be, objectively considered.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A life in writing / Andrea Camilleri

Andrea Camilleri
Poster by T.A.

Andrea Camilleri: a life in writing

'In many crime novels, the events seem detached from the context. I deliberately decided to smuggle in a critical commentary on my times'

Mark Lawson
Friday 6 July 2012 22.55 BST

When we talk about a writer being "famous", the term is often loosely used: many winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the stars of literary magazines would achieve little name recognition in high streets. But, in Italy, it rapidly becomes clear, Andrea Camilleri is seriously well-known.
In a café near the Vatican, preparing for our interview, I have on the table a stack of the English editions of his series of novels – most recently, The Potter's Field – about the Sicilian detective Salvo Montalbano. Customers and waiters, recognising the name on the covers but not the design or titles, swoop to pick up the books and whoop "Camilleri!" or "Montalbano!", wanting to know the reason for this immersion in one of Italy's most celebrated writers, who is also a media celebrity from his political punditry on television. He is so recognisable that a TV comedian, Fiorelli, does a popular impression of him. When I tell one woman that I have come to interview the author, she adopts a bad-news face and says: "Oh, no! Wrong place! He lives in Sicily!"
In fact, Camilleri comes from Sicily – he was born in Porto Empedocle in 1925 – and on the day we meet is about to go home for the summer, but he mainly lives and works in an apartment on a high floor of a mansion block in a wealthy section of Rome, close to the headquarters of RAI, the Italian broadcaster for whom he long worked and which now produces a top-rating Montalbano TV series (screened by BBC4 in Britain). This series has extended the renown of the character and his creator; the increasing impact of the books outside Italy was also recognised last week when Camilleri received the International Dagger, the highest foreign honour of the British Crime Writers Association.
The living room of his home in Rome has books neatly shelved from floor to ceiling. Lighting one of many cigarettes – the suppleness of his mind and body at 86 defy medical opinion on the risks of chain-smoking – Camilleri indicates a central bookshelf, explaining that this contains "my most important authors". Here are the complete works of James Joyce, Georges Simenon and two fellow Sicilians: Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989), a pioneer of Italian crime writing with books including The Day of the Owl, and Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), whose plays, including Six Characters in Search of an Author, Camilleri directed during a long career in theatre, and whose short stories influence his prose fiction.
Sciascia was a close friend and remains a posthumous inspiration. "I call him the electrician Sciascia. What I mean is that, when I feel like my batteries are low, I take up a book by Leonardo, I open it, I read two pages and my batteries are recharged." Pointing to the many volumes of Pirandello, the writer explains that there is a statue of the 1934 Nobel laureate in Porto Empedocle. Recently, the authorities decided to place nearby an image of Inspector Montalbano, as part of a tribute to Camilleri that also included the extraordinary step of officially adding to the town's name the word "Vigàta", the fictional location of his cop.
Laughing throatily, the writer explains: "Pirandello, in his statue, has his finger pointing like this …" – he makes his hand into a child's pretend gun. "And, because of where the Montalbano statue is, it's as if he's pointing and saying: 'What are you doing here?'"
Until he was almost 70, Camilleri was a minor historical novelist who was better known as a director of Pirandello. He was an author in search of a character, and that character turned out to be Montalbano. When a protagonist becomes a phenomenon, I am always interested in whether the novelist remembers the exact moment of conception. Camilleri does: "I know exactly when he arrived. In 1994, I was stuck on a historical novel called The Brewer of Preston. I couldn't organise it the way I wanted, I had not found the key to structure it, and then decided that the best solution was to set it aside and write something else. And then I said to myself: what can I write? The way I used to write novels was to start with the very first thing that struck me about a subject. It was not methodical: the first thing I wrote would never be the first chapter, maybe it would become the fourth or fifth chapter. Then I said: but you can write a novel from first to last chapter with a perfect order of logic. I saw the form of the thriller as a cage that does not allow you to escape. And so I began to write the first Montalbano novel –The Shape of Water."
Originally, the central detective was called simply The Commissioner, but Camilleri was conscious of being influenced by the Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who wrote a series about the investigator Pepe Carvalho, and so he baptised his new character in gratitude; serendipitously, Montalbano is a common Sicilian surname. Camilleri felt finished with the story after a second novel, The Terracotta Dog, but, he explains, "I kept receiving calls from my publisher bombarding me with 'Oh no, you must give me another Montalbano' – and that's how the story of Montalbano started."
Part of the success of the series has come from their popularity as summer reads, and the books may be responsible for boosting restaurant profits in holiday resorts because a signature characteristic of Montalbano is his love of food. Called to the discovery of a corpse in The Potter's Field, the policeman breaks off to ravish a picnic consisting of "a loaf, a whole tumazzo cheese and a flask of wine".
"I don't think of him as greedy," explains Camilleri. "It's the same in the books of Simenon where Maigret is a man who loves good food. I think it is a sort of unconscious revenge of vitality, an affirmation of being alive in the face of continuous death. Maybe eating subconsciously expresses the pleasure of feeling alive. A life-force."
One of the pleasures of the books for English language readers, since the sequence began to appear in 2005 in Stephen Sartarelli's elegant translations, is the way they chart Italian history over the last two decades: the transition from the lira to the euro, the fluctuations in the methods and impact of the mafia, the turbulent government of Silvio Berlusconi. Had Camilleri consciously set out to use the crime novel for social commentary? "Yes, that was always my aim. In many crime novels, the events seem completely detached from the economic, political and social context in which they occur. It brings me back to the example of Maigret again. There's very little sense of the history of France in the Maigret books. There is no social fact or an event that allows the story to be dated. In my books, I deliberately decided to smuggle into a detective novel a critical commentary on my times. This also allowed me to show the progression and evolution in the character of Montalbano."
In recent episodes, Montalbano has been dyspeptic about the Berlusconi years. InAugust Heat, he turns a Dante quote about Italy's being "a ship without a helmsman" into a reflection on the country's having, in the media magnate turned prime minister, "a helmsman it could do without". The Paper Mooncontains a paragraph-long rant about Berlusconi's rise.
When these sections are quoted, Camilleri responds: "Well, look … I am proud to be one of the first signatories of the manifesto written by the Italian philosopherNorberto Bobbio, when Berlusconi decided to get into politics. In that manifesto, we were imploring Italians not to vote for him. So my anti-Berlusconism is long-established, and unfortunately we were right. Because the damage Berlusconi did was not always visible during his office, but you can see it now. These are problems that the current government of technicians has gone some way to address." In another of the recent novels, the detective complains about the external influences on the Italian state: the nation serves two masters, he complains – America and the Roman Catholic Church.
"Ah. Be careful with the dates of the books," Camilleri warns. "Montalbano novels are often published two or three years after I have written the book. That particular novel was written at the time of President Bush calling on Italy to give a hand to help America in her wars; it was the time of Tony Blair. But that the church has enormous influence on politics and Italian life is indisputable. I mean to say that our state is secular, but often forgets to be."
Whereas Berlusconi and Bush have come and gone as targets in the books, the mafia has, like the Vatican, been a constant background presence. The Potter's Field opens with the detective suffering a nightmare that the mob has formed a government and is now running Italy officially rather than surreptitiously. Camilleri's determined opposition to Cosa Nostra is motivated partly by birthplace (Sicily is the motherland of the mobs) and partly by reading: his hero Sciascia wrote, in The Day of The Owl, the first anti-mafia novel, and the Montalbano books are dedicated to the same purpose.
"An amazing thing happens in Italy," Camilleri says. "That we have MPs and senators involved with the mafia. They continue to be called honourable when they are not at all. It's not far from that to taking over power. At least until some time ago – because things are fortunately changing – Montalbano's nightmare had a good chance of turning into reality. I went harder on this subject in the books than has been reflected in the TV adaptations. It was like giving a warning to my readers."
He is angered by what he sees as Hollywood's glamorisation and mythologising of the mafia – the books feature sarcastic asides about The Godfather – and aims to counter this with more realistic and critical depictions. So has he ever feared the reaction of the gangsters? "The mafia is not interested in the novels. The mafia's cultural attention extends to newspapers and TV – they are not interested in fiction. The mob gave no trouble to Sciascia when he wrote The Day of the Owl. They judge works of fantasy as irrelevant." During the next question, he grabs the arm of the interpreter, Carlo Catalogna, and says: "I also wanted to add that the mafia kills journalists and not novelists."
Apart from the mafia, another major Sicilian influence on the books is linguistic. In a manner that Sartarelli's English translations capture through use of cockney and other dialects, the Montalbano novels are written in a combination of traditional Italian and the Sicilian tongue.
"Yes," Camilleri explains, "I studied when Sicilians use the dialect and when the national language. The dialect is always confidential, a non-institutional relationship, intimate, a friendly atmosphere. The use of Italian language creates an immediate officialness, a distance. Italian is used to make law, to suggest intimidation, power, distance, emphasis."
In a telling illustration, he recalls the anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone conducting an interrogation of a mobster known as "Joe the tanner". When Falcone began to address him in Sicilian with the words "I would like to ask you …", the gangster stopped him and insisted on speaking only in Italian rather then their shared native language.
Camilleri's detective novels are notable for dealing, in a deceptively jokey and congenial tone, with dark concerns. "Humour is important to me," he acknowledges. "I don't use it only in crime novels but in my novels in other genres. The soldier who fights the battle does not know what is the strategy of the supreme command, but a writer must know the strategy of his novel. And humour and irony are part of my strategy."
Beneath the jokes, one of the recurrent concerns of the books is what it means to be a good Italian policeman. It is an assumption of British and American justice that cops remain politically neutral, supporting governments of whatever colour, but Montalbano worries that the political extremities in Italy – encompassing communist, fascist and Berlusconi administrations – may call for moral resistance and a questioning of orders.
He expands on this theme: "The elements of a good policeman in Italy today are, first: to be deaf to political pressures – this is a serious situation that is often a handicap to police operations. Second: sometimes refusing to obey an order is a virtue, not a sin. Third: loyalty to your vocation and to those virtues that made you a policemen."
It seemed to me that some Pirandellian techniques of theatre – such as games with structure and texts within texts – can be detected in the Montalbano books. "Yes. The theatre taught me a lot about dialogue. When I am writing a novel, if a new character enters, I first of all write the conversation he has with another character and then describe him physically. That certainly comes from my theatre experience. But it was my TV experience that taught me the art of writing a detective story. I was the producer for Italian TV of 30 episodes of Inspector Maigret and worked closely with Diego Fabbri, the screenwriter. Fabbri used to buy five copies of the same novel. And you know in a novel, there's storyline A that starts and stops, then storyline B that starts and stops, then C when the storyline picks up on A again. And so on. He tore the pages and put all the storylines in a row, then – as if playing cards – shuffled them into a different order and wrote new link scenes. Years later, when I was writing a mystery novel, all this came back to me."
In common with his creator, Montalbano is an avid reader of detective fiction. Developments in plots remind him of a particular detail in a Maigret story; in The Track of Sand, the cop interrupts an investigation to buy an armful of Swedish crime novels, including Henning Mankell's Wallander books. Looking around Camilleri's shelves as we talk, they seem to contain almost every major crime series, including a complete set of Ian Rankin's Rebus books in Italian translation.
Rankin, I mention, has recently announced that he is bringing back Rebus from retirement, having missed him, just as Conan Doyle had to save Sherlock Holmes from his watery death at the Reichenbach Falls, when readers protested at his demise. There have so far been 19 Montalbano novels, of which 13 have appeared in English to date. So has Camilleri given any thought to how and when the series might end?
"I finished him off five years ago. That's to say, the final novel in the series of Montalbano is already written and deposited at the publishing house. When I get fed up with him or am not able to write any more, I'll tell the publisher: publish that book. Sherlock Holmes was recovered …" – with his cigarette-free hand, he mimes the detective being pulled from the water – "but it will not be possible to recover Montalbano. In that last book, he's really finished."
 Andrea Camilleri won the 2012 CWA International Dagger (for translated crime) for The Potter's Field, translated by Stephen Sartarelli. Camilleri talks to Mark Lawson in Front Row, BBC Radio 4, Monday 9 July, 7.15pm.