The Affair by CP Snow

Whitaker put up the challenge here recently (comment 7):

Hands up those of you that have allowed a deeply held and cherished viewpoint to be changed by someone whose views are opposed to your own. Hands up those of you who have publicly contradicted someone whose political views closely align to your own on most occasions and did not end up paying a price for that. Ultimately, the majority of us are tribal.

It could scarcely have been more apposite to find myself at the time reading my first CP Snow The Affair which deals in a small closed world with just this situation. A scientist disliked by all in his Cambridge college is accused of and found guilty of fraud by the internal mechanisms of the college. Next, one of the very people who had first investigated the claims comes upon a piece of evidence that indicates there must be serious doubts as to the guilty verdict. To make it worse, not only would the College Seniors have to accept that they had been wrong, but overturning the verdict would by implication incriminate a now deceased scientist of impeccable credentials.

The book describes in minute detail the machinations that ensured, the motivations of the various players, the belief structures, both religious and political that inevitably have some sway, not to mention the notion of tradition and even what one thinks of so and so’s wife.

It is sort of like Twelve Angry Men but whereas that was a jury, and a diverse collection of individuals all strangers to one another, The Affair is a situation where everybody goes way back and the differences between people are much smaller, though they loom large in the story.

Both have at their heart data which looks one way to begin with, but which can be interpreted in quite another as the stories transpire. Both look at the efforts by some to change the minds of others. Some of those ‘others’ are good people who do see that they must change their minds, others are not. I went to see Twelve Angry Men last year and as we went into the theatre we were each given a number, that of one of the jurors. The idea was simply that you followed the play from that person’s point of view. Got under his skin. I enthusiastically took on that challenge, only to become increasingly uneasy as I discovered Ed, Juror 10, was a straightforward bigot. It wasn’t an altogether untimely exercise, as he seemed to be the sort of character we at least stereotype as the one who got Trump in.

There was no way Ed was going to change who I am. But – no, not even any buts. He just didn’t. Somebody, however, got under his skin. He hung out til almost the end, but despite his abhorrent, aggressively held opinions, he ungraciously conceded at some point.

The story is pretty much the same in The Affair but instead of a dowdy jurors’ room with no aircon on a sweaty sort of a day, here the scene is the fusty elegance of a Cambridge college, no matter that it is a made-up place, it is entirely to the point. No doubt that makes for some of the attraction of Snow’s novel. You know that every bit of it is true, the way the characters think and act, the importance of ritual and status. In the best scientific tradition, one of those who originally was certain of the culprit’s guilt, discovers new evidence and has no question at any point but that the original decision must be overturned. Not for one moment does his personal distaste for that man affect his conviction, nor the impact it will have on his relationships, already tenuous, with his colleagues. Others are not so high-minded. The consequence is a fascinating refined argy bargy with an ending leaving nobody happy.

It’s my first Snow, acquired by chance, and likely to be followed by more should I happen upon them. I’m curious to know if his use of French expressions reflects upon him as a writer – or his social class of writer, as I imagine he is part of one – or whether it is part of the makeup of his characters. It seemed to me to be old-fashioned, but then again, I picked up a Julian Barnes, as it happened, shortly thereafter and he is similarly afflicted. I would love opinions about this!

Confabulations by John Berger

Supposing writers and painters have their different ways of arriving at their understandings, in Berger we have both. One can expect a breadth and depth in his observations of the world, whether picture or text. He wrote this near the end of his long life and yet it is full of the artist’s curiosity and thoughtfulness about life. He is is a philosopher, but totally committed to being a politicised one. It is impossible to imagine otherwise with Berger. Politicised and energetic, oh to be as connected with the world at that age. It’s a slight work, but there should be more of those. It says a lot and enough.

He takes small things, the shape of a flower, deaf people signing on a train, and turns these into reflections of a grand scale, but most simply stated, about the world and our part in it. How we listen and act, use language, relate to music and God. And overarching all this, always there, the glue that connects everything in his understanding of the world, our position of slaves, the position of our masters.

So, he may write of the song:

A song, as distinct from the bodies it takes over, is unfixed in time and place. A song narrates a past experience. When it is being sung it fills the present. Stories do the same. But songs have another dimension which is uniquely theirs. A song while filling the present hopes to reach a listening ear in some future somewhere. It leans forward, further and further.

But at the same time, he has this limitless capacity to combine such observation of the world with political commentary which is ever strident, even though it can be elegant and moving as well.

…today, the ever expanding human poverty and the ongoing pillaging of the planet are justified in the name of a utopia to be guaranteed by Market Forces, when they are unregulated and allowed to operate freely, a utopia in which, in Milton Friedman’s words, ‘each man can vote for the colour of the tie he wants.’

In any utopian vision happiness is obligatory. This means that in reality it’s unobtainable. Within their utopian logic compassion is a weakness. Utopias despise the present. Utopias substitute Dogma for Hope. Dogmas are engraved; hopes flicker, by contrast, like the flame of a candle.

Immediately I wonder if this should inform my reading of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. To read any Berger is to be given new armoury with which to set out into the world, new measures against which to weigh the words of those who claim to be the makers of our fortune.

History is important. Yes, Berger, thank you for insisting upon that, and for explaining that much we think is new now and disconnected to the past, is not.

All this comes together  in his concluding piece called ‘How to Resist a State of Forgetfulness.’ It reads in part:

During the last week I’ve been drawing, mostly flowers, motivated by a curiosity which has little to do with either botany or aesthetics. I have been asking myself whether natural forms – a tree, a cloud, a river, a stone, a flower – can be looked at and perceived as messages. Messages – it goes without saying – which can never be verbalised, and are not particularly addressed to us. Is it possible to ‘read’ natural appearances as texts?

For me there is nothing mystical in this exercise. It is a gestural exercise, whose aim is to respond to different rhythms and forms of energy, which I like to imagine as texts from a language that has not been given to us to read. Yet as I trace the text I physically identify with the thing I’m drawing and with the limitless, unknown mother tongue in which it is written.

In the totalitarian global-order of financial speculative capitalism under which we are living, the media ceaselessly bombard us with information, yet this information is mostly a planned diversion, distracting our attention from what is true, essential and urgent.

Much of the information is about what was once called politics, but politics have been superseded by the global dictatorship of speculative capitalism with its traders and banking lobbies.

Politicians, of both Left and Right, continue to debate, to vote, to pass resolutions, as if this were not the case. And, as a result, their discourse refers to nothing and is inconsequential. The words and terms they repeatedly use – such as terrorism, democracy, flexibility – have been emptied of any meaning….

Another chapter of the information which which we are bombarded concentrates on the spectacular: on shocking, violent events wherever they occur across the world. Robberies, earthquakes, capsized boats, insurrections, massacres. Once shown, one spectacle is replaced by another, deprived of context, in numbing succession. They come as shocks not stories. They are reminders of the unpredictability of what can happen. They demonstrate the risk factors in life.

Add to this the language used by the media to present and classify the world. It is very close to the jargon and logic of management experts. It quantifies everything and seldom refers to substance or quality. It deals with percentages, shifts in opinion-polls, unemployment figures, growth rates, mounting debts, estimates of carbon dioxide, et cetera, et cetera. It is a voice at home with digits but not with living or suffering bodies. It does not speak of regrets or hopes.

And so what is being publicly said and the way it is being said promotes a kind of civic and historic amnesia. Experience is being wiped out. The horizons of past and future are being blurred. We are being conditioned to live an endless and uncertain present, reduced to being citizens in a state of forgetfulness.

Meanwhile, around us, the planet is over-heating. The wealth of the planet is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands; the majority are underfed, junk-fed or starving. More and more millions of people are being forced to emigrate with the slimmest hopes of survival. Working conditions are becoming more and more inhuman.

Those who are reading to protest against, and resist, what is happening today are legion, but the political means for doing so are for the moment unclear or absent. They need time to develop. So we have to wait. But how to wait in such circumstances? How to wait in this state of forgetfulness?

Let us recall that time, as Einstein and other physicists have explained, is not linear but circular. Our lives are not points on a line – a line which is today being amputated by the Instant Greed of the unprecedented global capitalist order. We are not points on a line; rather, we are the centre of circles.

The circles surround us with testaments addressed to us by our predecessors since the Stone Age, and by texts which are not addressed to us but which can be witnessed by us. Texts from nature, from the universe, and they remind us that symmetry co-exists with chaos, that ingenuities outflank fatalities, that what is desired is more reassuring than what is promised.

Then, sustained by what we have inherited from the past and what we witness, we will have the courage to resist and continue resisting in as yet unimaginable circumstances. We will learn how to wait in solidarity.

Just as we will continue indefinitely to praise, to swear and to curse in every language we know.

I hope he is right and that the circularity of the centre of a rose will save us, but I’m finding it increasingly hard to visualise. We have let evil men take over the world, in the large main the politicians of all types get fed enough scraps by their Masters to make them happy to be compliant. These evil men already own the natural resources of the world, we have even let them buy most of the world’s water. When Google and the rest of them have finished developing AI to an appropriate level, which must be just around the corner, most of us will be entirely redundant. A small number might exist as  the provider of organs for harvesting.

Are there enough good smart young people to work against the Dark Side? Does Google get them all? Do none of them have enough of a sense of morality to go another way?

I find it hard to believe that twenty years ago this would have been science fiction, but now it is just the version of the present we are most likely heading towards. Do we have time? I so hope that Berger is right.








The Photograph by Penelope Lively

Walking along the beach one day, my friend Paul told me that he’d saved a young man trying to kill himself there not so long ago. Upon engaging the distraught would be suicider, he discovered that the reason for his unhappiness with the world, or with himself, was his extreme beauty. It prevented normal relations with people, with the world.

This is a story of such a person – I imagine it’s impossible to understand unless one is in that position. We have no conception, after all, that one could be too beautiful. Too ugly maybe, too tall, too intelligent, but never too beautiful. Difficult as it may be to grasp to see the burden of it, to empathise with it, Lively delivers. She also manages to create a host of utterly ghastly characters without that being alienating. A neat trick. And the characters were all utterly clear to me in my mind’s eye, exactly the opposite of the Penelope Fitzgerald book I just finished. Checking her biography, it comes as no surprise that she is married to an academic – she knows the type too well. Memory, how we remember, and the impact that has upon the subjects of our memories as well as upon ourselves are of import to her and are the substance of the book. Of necessity this means the structure of the book consists of individual perspective, first one person’s and then another. It works well.

I’m embarrassed to say, having picked this up at breakfast, a few pages into it, I couldn’t put it down, it consumed my day, good intentions not so much set, as swept, aside. Highly recommend it.


Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

This is a sort of book that perplexes me, a gentle English style which I just can’t take to, and I don’t understand why. And so, despite the high regard in which it is held, it seems awfully written to me in every respect. As far as structure goes, I genuinely thought, when I turned the page at the end, that I was into part two, but it turned out that it was finished and that ‘part two’ was an entirely different  novel. It just stops in a way which makes the end of Alice Munro stories seem polished and careful. ‘Enough of this novel, be gone with you’!

I couldn’t believe the characters. Outstandingly Tilda, of course, who is six but has the vocabulary, context and maturity of a forty year old. I should be able to believe in that. I was charmed when my niece’s son at the age of two, said to me ‘Thank you, they were absolutely delicious’ big smile on his face. I wished I’d been there when, still aged two, he said to his grandmother who was running late ‘Shake your arse, grandma.’ At that age he would follow adult dinner conversation intently and ask you to slow down if he wasn’t quite with it. I watched my nephew besotted with Tom Lehrer at about six years old and at the same age reading The Odyssey (adult version) and clearly following every word as he regaled people with the story in great detail.

But I still don’t believe in Tilda or any of those around her. In my mind’s eye I can’t summon up the slightest hint of a picture of Richard. Or Nenna. Or her husband.

As I read it, I felt like it was written by someone who knew a lot about boats and living on the Thames. It turns out that’s because Fitzgerald did. And she had a life she could bring into this story, the kids are based on her own, the fictional (ex?)-husband has issues which came from her own marriage. The poverty and the damp and the lack of schooling for her kids. All true. How could it all leave me so unmoved then when turned into a story?

Well, I don’t know. I haven’t done with Penelope for good, I’m starting another right now. But it’s by Lively not Fitzgerald. And I’m afraid that my lovely Everyman Library copy of Offshore combined with another copy of small novels of hers, is on the pile for the English book stand at the market.

The Silent Angel by Heinrich Boll

I must make a few notes here before I forget all about this book, read soon after finishing After Romulus and then Romulus, My Father. These books are written about life after escaping from Europe after WWII. The Silent Angel is about the first days in Cologne after Germany gave in. The town was particularly devastated by the Allied bombings.

It was Boll’s first novel and he couldn’t find a publisher. It is easy to point at the subject matter for that. I gather he is known as Germany’s post-war conscience and it isn’t clear that Germany wanted to have one. As a huge number of Nazis, as well as sympathisers must have done well politically and economically in the reconstruction, one can see that the market for such a book would be uncertain at best. And yet, one can’t exactly say he gets stuck into his compatriots either. He portrays one wealthy bad man, bad before, during and after the war. But that’s it. Everybody else is okay. As if the odd bad man were enough to explain the whole appalling rise and spread of the Nazis. I hope his conscience took stronger hold at some point in his work.

I found it easy to read, but I skipped chunks of description and I am left feeling it reads like a first novel. He really struggles to communicate to the reader the horrors which are his subject. He wants to be poetic, he wants to be spiritual and he wants to be matter-of-fact: all the things that Gaita manages to perfection in his books. Both writers are talking of people who have nothing. Cologne was devastated by the Allied bombing, which meant uncertain or no electricity, most buildings in a state of ruin, food so short in supply that people are perpetually hungry, money that means nothing. Romulus and his son Raimond live in a raw shack with no electricity and a diet which reflects their poverty. But somehow the spiritual in Gaita is leaden in Boll and the matter-of-fact has a tedium that I imagine doesn’t have to be there. As for the poetic failing, given it’s in translation, maybe that’s the most forgivable failing.

All in all, I think Boll did the right thing by incorporating many bits of this novel into other works. One for the die-hard Boll fans and no doubt interesting for anybody reading about that immediately after the ceasefire period. But I hope others have done it better.

The ending is splendid. Carry on just to get there.

La tête d’un homme by George Simenon

I find it hard to believe that this is a B2 book, it seems easier than that to me. Maybe that’s because so much of Maigret is formulaic. You know the regular characters, you know there’s going to be a pipe and tobacco and smoke, cafés and boissons, a murder here, a suspect there. A chase. The Seine.  Maybe that’s why I found this B2 much easier than the last. Maybe I’m not really better at French, only at reading Maigret.

Remarkably good – I’m looking forward to reading the non-facile version when I spot a copy at the market. There are various cinematic productions of it, the earliest one from the 1930s looks like the most interesting, but as (more or less) no French movies have French subtitles, I’m not rushing out to get it.

You can see the introduction to the English Penguin edition here and it gives some interesting background:

When Simenon wrote La Tête d’un homme (originally translated as A Battle of Nerves) it was 1930, he was staying at a small hotel in Paris and he was at a turning point in his career. Over a period of five years, using eighteen different pseudonyms (notably ‘Georges Sim’) he had become one of the most successful authors of pulp fiction in France, publishing up to forty-four titles a year. But Simenon wanted much more than the fame and wealth he had won so quickly as a popular author. From now on he would write under his own name and he would aim for the Nobel Prize. Crime fiction was to be the first step on that road.

In September 1930 he had already completed four of the Maigret series, though none had been published. They were to be launched at a wild party thrown the following February at a nightclub in Montparnasse. Four hundred guests were joined by as many gatecrashers, the cost of the whisky and champagne exceeded Fayard’s entire publicity budget and Simenon had to cover the deficit. It was money well spent. Eleven Maigret titles had been published by the end of the year. He wrote four more in 1932, two in 1933 and then, after nineteen titles, sent Inspector Maigret into retirement, intending never to write another. Instead he would concentrate on his romans durs or ‘novels of destiny’. But it didn’t work out like that. After an interval of six years, with the outbreak of war and a young son to raise in uncertain times, worrying about his health (although he saw no military service), Simenon revived his most popular creation. Over the following thirty-three years he was to write a further fifty-seven Maigrets. And when in February 1972 he finally exhausted his creative impulse and wrote his last novel – the last of 193 ‘Simenons’ – it was a Maigret.

I’m glad Simenon thought a lot of his non-Maigret books too, believing myself that they are some of the most important literature of the mid-twentieth century. One should not be surprised, therefore, that he didn’t receive a Nobel prize. He was nominated seven times in the 1950s and 1960s. If only he’d written bad poetry and set it to music. He might’ve made more money and won the Nobel too.

Carry Me Down by MJ Hyland

An easy five stars for this one. I innocently picked it up to read over breakfast and my nose didn’t leave it until about nine in the evening. I couldn’t put it down, despite having too much to do. My perfect novel. It has a story line, and for bonus points starts at the beginning and ends at the end; economic of language, stylistically simple, characters that you can see in your mind’s eye and so, SO real, you’d swear it was autobiographical.

Which, it transpires is somewhat the case. The author comes from the world she describes. She lived in the social housing slum of Ballymun housing estate in which a substantial part of this book is set.

Rather than inadequately waxing lyrical about this book, I am going to reproduce an interview she did for Tin House, in which she reveals much about the writing process and her position in it. I do hope that you click here to see the original: Trojan Mules of Meaning: An Interview with M.J. Hyland. I’m only copying it here, because once burned and all that, I have so many links to wonderful things that become inaccessible.

She’s a profound thinker about the writing process and its practitioners.

Born in London to Irish parents in 1968, M.J. Hyland spent her childhood in London and Dublin—including two years in Dublin’s ill-fated Ballymun housing estate— before the family fell towards Melbourne. In Australia, Hyland took a degree in English and Law, and went on to work as a lawyer for seven years. Irish families can seem like incubation chambers for the emotionally diseased, and Hyland was reared in a more self-destructive world than most. But rather than voiding her past into deprivation diaries, this writer’s imagination allows her to mould her experiences into eviscerating fiction. Like a latter-day Flannery O’ Connor, Hyland fixes an intensely frank stare on her fellow creatures; an X-ray appraisal that can’t help but confide: “I’m wise to all our self-deluding ploys.”

This piercing honesty yields disquieting stories about mother-fixated boys who believe themselves to be ambulatory lie-detectors, or emotionally unformatted young men who commit apparently senseless murders. There are also subcurrents of psychological and philosophical insight in her work, along with shades of Stygian humour. However, this author refuses to supply a cosy sense of resolution.

Instead, M.J. Hyland’s work reads like novelised drama. It recalls the way Harold Pinter puts his characters in hothouse predicaments, and then watches them negotiate his emotional assault courses. Unusually, Hyland avoids the clear demarcation of time and place. In This Is How, she insists that the events should detonate in one of those Pirandellian/Beckettian, antechamber-to-eternity environments; an approach that tallies with her assertion that “if it couldn’t happen in a cave, I’m not keen on spending three years writing about it.”

What this author offers in her essays and fiction alike is a corrective to tawdry voyeurism. This may explain why Hilary Mantel wrote that, after reading Hyland, “other writers seem to lack integrity.”

In Money: A Suicide Note, Martin Amis’s John Self reflects: “…we don’t really go that far into other people…we hardly ever go in and bring them out. We just stand at the jaws of the cave, and strike a match, and quickly ask if anybody’s there.” M.J. Hyland steams into the gaff, engages the troglodyte, takes them out to see the sights, and then goes home to make compelling fiction from her notes. You can’t say fairer than that.

I contacted M.J. Hyland requesting an e-mail interview in early April, and she agreed to write “miniature essays” in response to her preferred questions. Between late May and early September, we virtually batted the piece back and forth, gradually knocking it into shape, until we were left with the following conversation.


David Gavan: For many reasons it’s clear your books aren’t driven solely by the desire to provide readers with diverting plots. Instead, your books are packed with philosophical contraband, like Trojan Mules of meaning.

M.J. Hyland: The idea of ‘Trojan Mules of Meaning’ is an astute and flattering way of describing what I’m trying to do, which is to write intelligent tragedies without showing-off. And to do this, I aim to hide the artifice and use simple, uninflected language: the one-dollar words of verbs and nouns and build a ‘simple’ story —on the surface —and stash ‘the thinking’ in the cargo hold. I use themes as depth-charges, which shouldn’t be conspicuous, or interfere with the simple surface story. And, when the book is done, I hope some of these depth-charges resonate (or detonate) sometimes, perhaps, without the reader knowing how or why, ‘so many small words’ have made them feel anything at all.

I bust my gut hiding the evidence of intense-crafting because I’m sure the best writer isn’t the one busy trying to ‘sound’ ‘writerly’, and I’m sure I stand a better chance of becoming a a stronger novelist if I hide the stagecraft; the signs of 30 drafts (sometimes more); the carving and cutting the Marrero marble until it’s made into a credible and compelling story. And, this is done with intent; to achieve strong emotional effect – usually by using slow and subtle accretion of plain and clear detail. Banishing the flourishes and avoiding similes and complex metaphors is part of the same sensibility. In this attempt to ditch authorial interference (hiding ‘the thinking’), the story’s grander purpose may be better capable of being felt by the reader without ruining the higher aim: Orwell’s call for a ‘clear pane of glass’.

DG: I’d like to come back to ‘the thinking’ a little later, but is this refusal to write ornate prose part of the reason you used the first-person?

MJH: Yes, again: I wanted both Carry Me Down (2006) and This Is How (2009) to seem not to have been written at all. Instead, stories that might have come from the cave: written in a single voice belonging to no fixed era, place, gender, or race. If this approach works, the voice should ring as a universal—perhaps timeless—voice; a truthful voice emptying its guts and giving up its woes. For this effect—the fullest truth a person can tell in fiction—only a good first-person P.O.V and a convincing voice can do the best job.

Knut Hamsun persuaded me that fiction which exposes the most, without being fancy, might be possible. His sublimely controlled novel, Hunger, about a man devoid of control, does what I hope to do. And, when I read that Hamsun said he wanted to reveal, and deal, in the ‘unconscious life of the mind…’, I wanted to try for the same.

DG: I have an idea what you mean by ‘the thinking’, but could you elaborate?

MJH: I hoped you’d forget about that, because there’s no good way to tell you without coming over as pompous. But for what it’s worth: Aristotle got under the skin of Carry Me Down and This Is How; so too did Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. But, when I’m asked to read from my novels at festivals, I can’t do it without a pen in my hand; without fixing what’s on the page, trying to make the words lock into their proper place: the all-important surface of the story.

DG: You said in the Guardian video interview about This Is How that writing didactically makes for bad novels, and I suspect you would agree with William Trevor’s suggestion that it’s unwise to get angry when you’re anatomising human behaviour. Early on in This Is How, I sensed a well-wrought, but real, anger: it felt as if I were letting a manicured cyclone into my brain. Also, the brutal economy of the prose—with verbs and nouns pared down, and the first person, present tense format—lends the book a spare efficiency, like novels by Beckett, Peter Handke, or an early Public Image Ltd song. Does writing novels afford you relief by allowing you to sculpt your anger and Kafkaesque insights?

MJH: Yes, a didactic tone in a work of fiction is often ponderous, or worse, imperious. When the writer has a message to push, it seems as though he’s either too arrogant, or too insecure (or both) to write pure fiction: that is, conjuring a satisfying drama with carefully controlled momentum using real and vivid scenes in which credible characters try to escape the trouble the author has dealt them. Memorable characters trump all else in good fiction, but too many novels are ill-disguised lectures and the ‘people’ who move through the drama are too-often ciphers. Novels with ‘important, grand themes—often couched in blunt and obvious terms, and which aren’t inherent or essential to the drama—these often seem written by authors hedging their bets; hoping that if the ‘simple’ pleasure of a story fails, then at least he will have shown how much he knows: how clever he is. I wonder if the reason so many novelists load their barrows with proof of their wit and big ideas is—in part—caused by the insistence that the writer should also be a public intellectual, and worse—that straight, linear and unfussy story-telling is inferior stuff.

As for the danger of my mood (and political anger) polluting the story with pontification, I had trouble controlling this urge when I wrote Carry Me Down, which was, in part, driven by a fascination with lying, fascism, the Oedipus complex and, of course, Sophocle’s perfect play. But more: the novel was written while the West was going to ‘war’ with Iraq, and in the cargo-hold there’s a theme, enacted in dramatic terms: an attack on absolutism—moral certainty; the arrogance of believing in total certainty. And I was reading Voltaire. But after all that ‘thinking’ what remains on the surface is a story written in ‘one-dollar words’ about a boy in love with his mother who’d do anything to keep her close and who wants his father out of the way and who uses his ‘gift’ for lie detection to deceive and to gain his goal.

DG: So, in using the first-person in your novels—having that simple bodywork concealing a substance-laden undercarriage—you are trying…

MJH: I’m trying, I suppose, to exploit a hybrid of fiction and the playwright’s confined ‘spaces’ which have limitless power to cause the reader to forget the ‘fiction’ by way of a zoomed-in, hyper-real effect. But, why use a single narrative voice? Perhaps because the first-person P.O.V makes the job of hiding the ‘thinking’ a little easier. And, if the single voice works, and the reader attaches to the ‘speaker’s’ fate, the technique should intensify the awful pleasure: ‘awful’ because, if I’m any good, readers should feel strong stuff.

Besides, the first person narrative stance has been a good friend to my imagination and forces me to ‘make it all up’. When the narrative voice is in pitch (and has nothing to do with my voice, or my way of speaking) the fictional cloning of a plausible and memorable person has a good chance of working. The simple surface of a lone and clear voice also masks the undertow of organising themes artifice, and trickery, and the two layers—the simple surface and complicated sub-structure—might reinforce and enrich the other.

As all writers know, however, the first-person is a high-risk strategy: the most limited P.O.V, and it poses several dangers, not least of all that the prose might be mistaken for artless ventriloquism; no more than an autobiographical outpouring. The first-person path is even more treacherous if the voice is unsympathetic (like Patrick Oxtoby’s), in which case, the job of writing becomes a high-wire act without a net: the writer has put all his eggs in one bastard.

DG: You have said the following during the aforementioned webcam interview with the Guardian:

“The dissonance between thought and action—that’s what all my books have at their core.”

In writing novels, are you trying —knowingly or subconsciously—to close the gap between thought and action, to “fix” life, as it were?

MJH: Not quite, but I understand why you ask. One of my keenest pre-occupations is the pain and strife caused by the dissonance between thought and action; the chasm between what we think (intend) and what we do. I have a bad dose of this dissonance and, like most writers, I presume that if I suffer from this affliction—my intentions finer than what comes out of mouth; my ideas smarter than my habitual self-sabotage —then the same affliction must surely be shared by many other people.

Too many characters in fiction (often in ‘smart’ novels) seem shaped without moral complexity; are drawn too simply, too glibly. And, as though by an authorial species of superiority, characters are treated as haplessly malleable. This treatment of characters as comprehensible types insulates the reader from the difficulties of ambiguity and most readers seem to prefer a soft-landing.

None of my fiction (so far) offers redemption or relief from the hurts inflicted and this might explain why my endings are categorically unpopular (and why my books don’t sell very well). If I had more more sense, I’d move closer to Tolstoy’s compassion and I’d aim to achieve a little more of Chekhov’s confident refusals: In Nabokov’s words: “…Turgenev is concerned with the trouser-crease of his phrase; he crosses his legs with an eye upon the colour of his socks. Chekhov does not mind…his temperament is quite foreign to verbal inventiveness…The variety of his moods, the flicker of his charming wit, the deeply artistic economy of characterisation, the vivid detail, and the fade-out of human life—all the peculiar Chekhovian features—are enhanced by being suffused and surrounded by a faintly iridescent verbal haziness.” I’d also work harder to achieve Flannery O’Connor’s knack for making the reader do the job of making sense of the mesmerising mess she makes for her characters without alienating the reader with elliptical or unresolved endings (such as mine).

There’s a habit, rampant in the press: a helpless urge to make and mark certain and reassuring sense of what people are, and why they do what they do. But the reason I write and the way I write are both borne of an instinct to do the opposite; to do what Nikolai Gogol did in The Overcoat, and what Kafka did in In the Penal Settlement and Dostoevsky in Notes from the Underground.

DG: As well as your ‘unpopular’ endings, I imagine that your books will strike admirers of traditional, well-wrought fiction as too jarringly real for comfort; and literary hipsters—who are randy for pomo tricksiness—may see your fiction as too straight, despite your work’s subversive undercurrents. Which writers forged your literary style?

MJH: The novels that taught me to write, the ones I still love to read, do more than merely describe life; they expose life, show it ‘on a slant’. And the books I most admire are usually tragedies made of everyday, quotidian terrors; written without self-consciousness and as though the writer was seized, couldn’t stall or stop or stagger or lean on easier or more ‘popular’ ground. I don’t read—and can’t write—in certain styles; such as the all-seeing epics with large-casts, or the countrywide gaze of 19th century novels, or the calculated and indifferent difficulty of some of the modernists, or the experiments of meta-fiction, which impress, but fail to feel. And I can’t stomach mucking about with form, especially when the insistence on ‘making it new’ refuses the linear tale; denies the highest pleasure of story-telling

There’s a contaminant of thought which seems to suggest that simple novels, ones which use unadorned prose and tell linear stories, are written by dopes. And worse, if the author uses the first-person and doesn’t play clever death-of-the author games, then that author is the very king of dopes. My preference has always been for the plain verity of clear, clean prose, such as in best short stories of James Salter or Richard Ford’s collection, A Multitude of Sins, and I’m still after the blood and guts of the playwrights who gave me the idea to write in the first place: Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds.

I have another imaginative ‘home’ and it’s European literature and some mid-20th century American writers and novels which tend to use ‘crank’ narrators: stories about madness, but which aren’t written madly, which don’t abandon clarity: tales of crisis and perversity at their centre of gravity such as Heinrich Böll’s The Bread of Those Early Years, Handke’s The Goalies Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Joseph Roth’s The Legend of the Holy Drinker, and Fante’s Ask the Dust.

There are some things only a novel is fit to reveal: the hidden, out-of-bounds workings of the mind and, if delivered by way of memorable and morally vexed characters, fiction is capable of rearranging us, sometimes even causing us to change our minds.

DG: You say that you’re not seeking to “fix” the world by the act of writing. If that’s the case, what provides your impetus? Are you settling for catharsis, in lieu of redemption?

MJH: I write because when I’m not writing, I can’t stand myself (or anybody else) and because I’m stuck on the idea that if I persist, I might yet write a great novel. And, I enjoy the infuriating, rotten and occasionally glorious enterprise of writing; the tough slog of re-writing: the ‘happiness of getting it down right’.

When I write, I often lose sense of time and when a scene turns out nicely, my temperature goes up, I forget my body, and the nuisance of its pains. When I’m writing, I don’t know or care who I am; don’t want to eat or sleep, and my brain is in equilibrium. Psychologists call this ineffable experience ‘flow’ but, long before this tag surfaced, I called this business: ‘going to the cave’ or ‘being above the world’, or ‘dreaming without waking’.

DG: Although it doesn’t drive you, the aforementioned “fixing”(or controlling) of life appears to be an important motivation for other novelists? (David Mitchell has said that his fabulation is driven by a megalomaniacal need “to get the world”, to set it up in his attic like a giant Hornby train-set, and to enjoy controlling it. This is akin to what Tom McCarthy’s protagonist does in Remainder, when he buys a block of flats and employs actors to re-enact quotidian patterns of behaviour.) Do you write stories because you feel compelled to depict life in all its soiled felicity?

MJH: I don’t want to fix anything and, in any case, the things I write about—the permanent failures and vexations of being alive; the flawed incurable habits of the self: folly, loneliness and fear—are the constants of human existence, and that stuff is, for my money, the only real fodder for art. If I can write about these troublesome things and aim for exemplary truth; make characters ‘real’, then I might, through these characters, embody with original vision, the pains and poignancy that none of us escape.

People rarely show who they are. We wear masks, have several versions of ourselves, and most of us are unknowable. The upshot is that we are alone. Not because we deceive or lie on average a dozen times a day, but because there’s no God and love is the best we can get, and we chase it down even when it’s bound to malfunction. If my novels ‘mean’anything, then that’s what my novels ‘mean’; though I wonder if meaning should matter at all.

Besides, the miserable facts of being are what make life simultaneously shitty and staggering: the bewildering, beautiful, awful, surprising, savage facts of living. When we see occasional proof of our capacity for elevated and magnificent acts of invention, and kindnesses—or when we bother to consider the mere fact of the cosmos (its dark matter and other as yet unknown ‘matters’) —then the curious have all they need to live a life of ecstatic incomprehension. It’s no wonder that even the most naturally melancholic thinkers don’t want to die (and, yes, I am one of these).

DG: You show strikingly in This Is How the way men sometimes look to women for an emotional sustenance they can’t offer; how men are apt to want women to offer a wonderland where they can escape the harshness of the workaday world. I’m thinking of Page 5, where Patrick thinks:

“I’ve only ever heard my father use the phrase ‘malicious damage’, and expect it from him because he’s a miserable foreman, always on the lookout for thievery and wrong doing. She’s too pretty to be saying it.”

While women elicit ungovernable desires in men that threaten the social order, women sometimes alienate men by taking the world on its own terms and conforming. If (indeed) this is the point that is being made here, you cover a lot of philosophical ground.

MJH: Both Patrick and John turn to women for succour, and more: they want women (the landlady and waitress and psychiatrist in This Is How and the mother in Carry Me Down) to cure their ills, give them solace, make them feel at ‘home’, and to function as saviour and to show them love, both physical and emotional.

But, there’s no deeper message in this. I didn’t set out to make any claims about femininity, or add more ammunition or falsehood to the infuriating tail-chasing g gender-divide debate. But perhaps I’ve done the opposite. In my failure (in both novels) to give female characters the kind of complexity and substance I give the lead man and lead boy, I’ve probably added to the rot: I might have done the very thing I refuse to do or say in life: I seem to have said: ‘Men are like X and Women are like Y’.

It’s a dire failing, perhaps, but I don’t know why I can’t cure it: I hit an imaginative brick-wall when I put women on the page. In my everyday encounters, on the other hand, I insist that men and women are not as different as we think, and I shrink from empty and unexamined guff about gender-difference; sometimes pretend I need to use the toilet when somebody at a dinner-party says, ‘Oh, that’s such a boy thing’or ‘Isn’t that typical of men’.

DG: You portray men more convincingly than many female novelists, and seem to have a natural sympathy for male travails. What lies behind this aspect of your work?

MJH: In my early twenties, my face was attacked by ‘late-onset acne vulgarise’ and one of the dermatologists I saw offered to write a prescription for high-dose oestrogen. I didn’t want the oestrogen, but I was happy:

—Does this mean I have higher than normal testosterone levels?

He pulled his chin down, and said: —I don’t know. That’s not quite how it works.

I was annoyed: —But couldn’t I be tested for male hormones, just in case? He frowned, and asked me why.

—I’ve always liked the idea of androgyny, and I understand men better than women, and I don’t care about the things my female friends care about, and I understand men much better.

He smiled: —You’re very young. You might change your mind one day.

I told him I wasn’t talking about having babies and that kind of thing. I said: —It’s bigger than that.

As for my natural affinity for male characters, I suppose I prefer to write them, and the kind of concerns I can give them in fiction. Around the time my imagination was settling in, I read many more novels and short stories with male central leads, and I still do. But, this preference goes back further.

When I was nine, I wrote my first ‘complete’ short story (I still have it): The story is about a farmer with only two oxen who kills another farmer’ who has dozens of oxen in a fit of jealous rage. I found this groove when I was very young, an inclination, and more than that, after ten years of writing, it turned out that my imagination finds a stronger pulse when men are walking round the empty rooms of my pages.

DG: The theme of how societies encourage conformity runs through all of your work, and I wonder if your sensitivity to social convention stems from having a flimsy sense of nationality and belonging (resulting from your peripatetic early life)?

MJH: Although I was born in London to Irish parents; and spent my childhood in Dublin, then lived in Australia for twenty-three years, I have no nationality. I’m not Irish, not English, and not Australian. But when I write a decent story or novel, Irish newspapers call me Irish, Australian papers call me Australian and British papers—and so on.

I’ve never voted in an election—not in any of the jurisdictions in which I’ve lived—and during the Olympics and the World Cup, I have no team. If there were such as thing as a blank or ‘universal’ passport—to which no flag was attached I’d be happy. The idea of owning and celebrating nationhood, or any of the other vagaries of our arbitrary birth-rights—such as where we happen to be born—treating these things as a matter of choice or special meaning is a dangerous waste of steam. And yet, of course, just like the instinct to believe in gods, I understand the obsession with nationhood and kin. I know too that the fervour of beliefs in nationhood and religion soften the blow of a short and often unpleasant life, bound to end in sickness and death.

And celebrating a claim on nationality often goes hand-in-hand with its twin fixation on race and ethnicity. The split-second arbitrariness of where we’re born, and, whether we’re born rich, lovely to look at, male, white, with a hare-lip or long legs, gay or straight—these outcomes of the lottery of happen-chance dumbly dominate the lion’s share of human conversation and conduct. We lay claim to class, race, nation, the colour of our faces and fineness of our intellects because the alternative holds no comfort and would mean admitting that we don’t choose the very things that seem to matter the most to the majority.

DG: In Carry Me Down, you capture a certain spiritual paralysis in Irish society with almost nauseating accuracy. (As you do Painteresque volatility in a ’60s British seaside town in This Is How.) How far would you concur with the idea that every culture provides its natives with shockingly limited identity kits, and people rarely improvise their own identities, through fear, philosophical dwarfism, laziness, and so on?

MJH: I have strong views on this; the moral strait-jackets stitched by social and cultural norms and I’ve got especially bad-tempered views on religious brainwashing. But I’ll stay silent. Many of the writers and thinkers I admire most have said what I might attempt to say, and they’ve said it best. If I have something new to say, I’d best say it in fiction. If I do my job well, I’ll say what I want to say about the crooked and broken world in the way of Miller’s Death of A Salesman, which captures American culture with more power than a thousand speeches.

DG: In all three of your novels, you appear to be an unusually acute auditor of the dark emotional economy where some chilling transactions are made. Have you ever felt guilty about noticing all the emotional counterfeiting, insider trading, short selling, etc., that goes on in our social dealings? (Louise Connor in How the Light Gets In(2004) feels guilty about realising how existentially anaemic people can be, and attempts to allay these feelings by writing them sentimental notes, whereas you (perhaps) alleviate any discomfort you might feel by writing unsentimental novels.)

Do you run “anti-bullshit”audits on yourself in order that your work remains tautly authentic? For instance, Louise Connor is clearly not idealised, and this helps you to avoid allowing her to become a cipher.

MJH: There’s no guilt in this: none at all. Not least of all because my swipes at characters—poking at psychological deformities, destructive habits and the failure think—these assaults are equally leveled at me and, if they weren’t, I couldn’t make them ‘true’ on the page. My books are, in small part, an account of my failings. When I was writing How the Light Gets In, I put a note at the head of the manuscript: “Make Lou Connor the kind of person who would hate a person like me.”And, she had to dislike both the who I was then and the persons I’d been before.

It’s true that I audit myself (all writers must) and so, my mistakes, my malfunctions, sometimes end up in fiction, but heavily doctored: transmogrified by craft. Three years for each book: the kind of artifice that aims to avoid the worst kind of fiction: badly botched and thinly-disguised memoir. And there are plenty of major character traits I give to characters which have nothing to do with me.

When I talk to other writers about Graham Greene’s idea that the writer ‘must have a splinter of ice in his soul’, I say: —Surely this is true, and most say: —Bullshit or —Not me. But I believe Greene’s idea; not because it means that a writer should live his ‘real’ life governed by detached and dissociative ‘ice’. What Greene’s idea means to me is that sooner or later a writer needs to be cruel to characters, put them in the hot water of tension and jeopardy. And it also means the writer should live—fall in love, go to dinner-parties—and do this living without wrecking what’s real but keep his ‘other’eye on the stuff nobody else can see, or isn’t in the business of seeing.

I talked to Peter Carey about this and he said, —You really think the writer at a dinner party isn’t experiencing the food and the pleasures of the company, but watching? Just looking in from the outside? We argued for a while and, among other things I said, — But, isn’t the writer both at the dinner party, inside the experience and simultaneously, with his extra gaze paying a special and keen attention, taking account of what’s being said, what choice of words, and why?

I didn’t mean that the writer lives a split life, but that a part of the imaginative gift must surely be the writer’s knack for being both inside experience and ‘recording’ the experience with the same kind of skills that might make him a good spook or psychiatrist? This vigilance does me no good in life, though. I know too much about when and how I’ve made a hash of things; why I behave like a professional idiot. And the post-mortems don’t make me a better person (far from it) and I don’t investigate my defects to be cured, or become a better writer; it’s a compulsion and it is a handy natural advantage—just as fast-twitch muscles are a natural and handy advantage for sprinters.

DG: Newspaper interviews often build journalistic ‘idea circuits’ of facile notions about people’s work and, structurally, they tend to have a leitmotif that’s raised near the beginning and picked up again at the end, where the piece is soldered shut neatly. Similarly, the idea of a “good” novel is dictated by middle class people who praise work that reflects their assumptions about life back to them. Perhaps this is why the work of writers like James Kelman and John Healy (whose memoir, The Grass Arena, you reference obliquely in This Is How on two occasions) is relatively unappreciated.

How far do you feel it is important for writers/artists to resist the creative conventions of their epoch, to have their eye on the long artistic game?

MJH: Great fiction follows nothing and nobody: does more than modify or imitate what’s gone before. It’s rarely popular fiction and amazes a small group of readers and baffles most critics. This fiction isn’t coy or self-conscious, and written as though the writer put ‘the right words in the right order’ without an audience in mind; no care for the circus of trends, and no fear of other writers—past or present.

The greatest fiction is written as though the writer faced an incurable emergency; and the words turn out charged with the bright burn of phosphenes that come round once or twice in a life-time.

Most of the books I admire have something like this in common: an unbidden and urgent telling. And, some of the books which I count as genius seem fuelled by compulsion, driven—not by a desire to please or win applause—but to transpose (or translate) a peculiar and distinct vision, a unique and unapologetic way of seeing.

This idea of great writing, which doesn’t consult with the expectations of critics, isn’t inconsistent with penning draft after careful draft; slogging it out for something fine. And not deferring to trends or taste isn’t inconsistent with writing that takes deliberate concern for good and lasting prose.

The best writers have the rarest gift: they write just what, and how, they want. And, in the years of re-writing, they don’t budge. No matter what the world thinks it wants, or needs, they stick—they don’t or can’t waver—and they happen to have the right kind of habit for rendering the fake as truth. The best of all also have a rare vision married with the skill to transform words so that metaphysical or virtual realities become as vivid as the ‘real’.

In the best fiction, pages of constructed ‘lies’ and imagined worlds enter the reader’s mind, and stick—and then, sometimes—it’s as though what we see and hear in the becomes as real as what we’ve lived; done and seen and heard. We remember the best fiction as though experienced, and we finish the greatest works with access to the inner-lives of the mind in a way life refuses us. Great fiction is, in this way, a form of extraordinary mind-reading and it cuts both ways.

M.J. Hyland is an ex-lawyer and the author of three multi-award-winning novels: How the Light Gets In (2004), Carry Me Down (2006) and This is How (2009). She is also a lecturer in Creative Writing in the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. She also writes for The Guardian, The Observer, The Financial Times, Lonely Planet, and The Lancet (publication pending) and her short fiction has been published in All Story: Zoetrope & elsewhere.

David Gavan is a recovering theatre critic.  He was educated in London and currently lives in Co. Meath, Ireland. He has written for, Time Out London, Record Collector Magazine, the Irish Examiner, AU Magazine, The Quietus, and gorse.

I wouldn’t want to lose these next quotes from an interview in The Australian:

Next up is the push to establish an Australian version of Britain’s Orange Prize for female writers amid claims the Miles Franklin is a “sausage fest”. Hyland hasn’t heard of this recent contretemps in Australian letters, but she has strong views on it nonetheless.

“I couldn’t give a flying bee’s dick about the whole topic,” she says. “I’m glad I don’t read newspapers or have a TV because then I would know about this debate and I would fall into a very deep sleep.

“To talk about it is a constant reminder that somehow we need special attention . . . it’s awful. Shut up, get on with it. Write.”

Before we leave the subject, Maria Joan Hyland is keen to correct any impression she decided to write as M. J. to avoid her works being judged on sexual lines.

“I can’t disguise the fact I was born with a c . . . t rather than a penis and I have tits and and I look like a girl so there’s no getting away from it,” she says.

“But Maria Hyland sounds like a florist; I wouldn’t read a book by somebody called Maria Hyland and I just thought M. J. Hyland sounded better.”


“The territory I write in is not light-hearted, that’s for sure, but I think the very best fiction is tragic,” she says, listing Albert Camus’s The Outsider, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar among her favourite works.

Indeed, she describes The Outsider as “the perfect book”, not surprising for someone whose own work is deeply interested in unpremeditated violence.

“I like to have real weight . . . for there to be a lot at stake for my characters . . . to write a good drama the character must be in conflict or crisis.”

Hyland admits she gets letters from readers who complain her novels are too dark, her characters hard to sympathise with, her conclusions lacking moral clarity.

“The same people probably wouldn’t like to read Brecht or King Lear or Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller or Cormac McCarthy so they can go screw themselves. I don’t know what they want,” she says.