A BBC interview with John
Fowles from October 1977
On October 23, 1977, John
Fowles was interviewed by Melvyn Bragg for the BBC Television
show "The Lively Arts." The following is a
John Fowles is one of the
handful of British authors treated with respect by the press
and with delight by a wide public. Only a few writers of
serious fiction sell tens of thousands of hardback books in
this country. Fewer still sell hundreds of thousands in
America. His new book is a novel called Daniel Martin.
It is his fourth novel and that too, according to the
publishers here and abroad, will scale the heights of
bestsellerdom and also claim top billing on the serious review
The Collector was John Fowles' first novel. It was made into a film
in which Terence Stamp played the young man whose obsession
for collecting butterflies was accompanied by an obsession to
collect and make a captive of a young girl from Hampstead.
Hampstead is the place John Fowles was living in at the time.
But the novel which made him
an international literary celebrity was The Magus. It
sold a staggering 4 million copies all over the world. He
wrote it several times over a period of nine or ten years
while he was in and around Hampstead in his 20s and 30s and it
is a story of the trials and torments inflicted on a young
schoolteacher on a Greek island in the 1950s. For reasons
which were increasingly mysterious he's subjected to an
immense series of ordeals and tricks and like all John Fowles'
novels the metaphysics and the reflections are laid on as
thickly as the dramatic plotting. Fowles is 51, he's married
and with his wife he lives in a beautiful house in Lyme Regis
overlooking the Cobb, which is where another of his novels, The
French Lieutenant's Woman had some notable scenes. His
garden reflects his passion for botany and his house is as
large and roomy as his books.
said yourself, I believe, that novelists are formed very young
indeed, whether they know it or not. Is it possible to be at
all precise about the way you were formed as a novelist?
meant that statement in general…what I feel about it would
apply to any novelist. What interests me about novelists as a
species is the obsessiveness of the activity, the fact that
novelists have to go on writing. I think that probably must
come from a sense of the irrecoverable. In every novelist's
life there is some more acute sense of loss than with other
people, and I suppose I must have felt that. I didn't realize
it, I suppose, till the last ten or fifteen years. In fact you
have to write novels to begin to understand this. There's a
kind of backwardness in the novel…an attempt to get back to
a lost world.
that that is shared, then what specifically in your case would
you say about your childhood that led or would lead a future
biographer to say: Oh, yes, already he was this, that or the
was brought up at Leigh on Sea, which is a suburban town, part
of Southend on Sea. I led the normal life of a suburban middle-class
child, but the snag was that standing in the way of a smooth
progression to a normal suburban middle-class adulthood was a
love of nature. I can remember even as a small child that I
always adored green things, I adored going out in the country.
I was fortunate. I had an uncle who was a natural historian,
and a cousin who was also a natural historian and those were
the highlights of my first ten years, going out to look for
butterflies or birdwatching, country walks. Then Hitler helped
me greatly because we were evacuated to Devon and I had five
years in a remote Devon village. That was a formative
experience for me. I was a lonely child, but my friend was
always nature, rather than being the company of other boys.
you say you were lonely, do you find, did you think that that
sort of solitude was enriching on the one hand, and on the
other hand good training for the solitary life of a novelist?
think solitude is a very, very good signal of the future
novelist, an inability ...
loneliness, which? Solitude or loneliness because you can be
lonely without being solitary ...?
you're quite right to make that distinction. I think a sense
of personal loneliness, yes, is a better definition of it. I
wasn't solitary in a sense, of course. I went to school and
all the rest of it, but I think now that if I was shown a
class of children and asked can you pick out the future
novelists, I would look for the ones who are actually probably
inarticulate. Above all, the ones who do not at any given
present contraction of events show up well, the people who
back down in an argument and who then walk away inventing a
new scenario for the argument that has happened. It's
important for a novelist to live in two worlds, and that I
would say is really the major predisposing factor…an
inability to live in reality, so you have to escape into
unreal worlds. I would say this is true of all art as a matter
of fact, but perhaps above all for the novelist.
is you now in 1977. Do you remember feeling this when you were
about 15 or 16?
not at all.
you were head boy at school, good at cricket, that sort of
thing, which would seem to be ...
yes. I was a split child, certainly, yes. I mean I was quite
good at cricket and I adored the game. I still adore it. I
mean you know when the test matches are on, no work gets done
in this house, but still. I also had a peak in my cricketing
career…I had Leary Constantine second ball once, for a duck.
I feel, you know, after that I couldn't really progress much.
That sort of public school, First Eleven cricket, where you
did during the war have a certain number of test cricketers
and county cricketers playing against you, that was lovely.
one picture not only of 20th century English
writers going through public school and hating it and
rebelling against it, and being, by their own account anyway,
unnecessarily victimized at it and not good at what public
school expects them to be good at. Did that in part or in
whole happen to you too?
was not happy for the first two years of public school. I went
through the stock experience, but then I suppose I joined the
system, because you know public schools are cunning at
brainwashing little boys. I was certainly brainwashed by this.
Public school head boys at that period had extraordinary
power. I was in fact responsible for the discipline of 600
boys and so every day I had to organise patrols…you know to
catch boys out after lock-up, and all the rest of it. Every
day I had a court in which I was both judge and executioner.
It's terrible now when you ... I hate meeting old boys from
that school because I keep on thinking, did I once beat them?
at the time you didn't feel guilty. You felt this was the way
joined the system. Then again the war helped me because I went
straight into the Royal Marines. From having been a little
gauleiter in school, I was right at the bottom in the Royal
Marines and I loathed that comprehensively. The Marines helped
me discover what I was, which was a profound hater of all
authority, all externally imposed discipline. I really think I
shook off the whole public school thing in those two years.
One doesn't shake off those things immediately, but fairly
soon afterwards, certainly by the time I'd finished at Oxford,
I felt I was a different person.
Oxford University, you read?
you start writing at Oxford, or had you started writing at
no, no, I did that late. I think possibly in my last year at
Oxford I was timidly trying to write poetry, at that time.
was really much more involved in a small set of friends at my
own college, cricket playing and drinking, botanising, doing a
little work, but I mean in those…you see we had three years
without any examination. You just had finals, with the result
that nobody really worked until the last six months of your
those three years at Oxford were sort of mulling around and
working out your own interests, were they?
You say that rather dismissively.
I don't, no I think it's very…
in fact they were valuable in discovering or getting a
slightly clearer focus on what you are. I was a much more
confused than diffused personality than I…
think actually, I must correct that, because I don't think
it's dismissive at all, if everybody's given the chance, which
I was too. I took the chance of three years' licensed
rumination, it's a marvellous way to spend those particular
what a nice way of saying it. This is what I hate about modern
Oxford, you know. I mean the pressure on you to achieve
destroys the great value of the Oxford and Cambridge
system…the drifting, the not knowing where you were going.
did you come out of Oxford, you'd landed in, in a sense, the
traditional…this isn't dismissive, but it is fairly
accurately descriptive…the traditional dumping ground of
Oxford graduates who didn't quite know what to do. They sort
of lumped themselves into some sort of teaching or other ...
went for a year and taught in a French university, which
sounds rather grand, but I was a kind of glorified assistant.
Which again was an interesting experience, and a lonely one,
but I had a year in a French provincial town.
and I made French friends. Another thing about my generation,
of course, is that because of the war, abroad hit us much
later than anyone else. That was a kind of love affair with
France which I've never got over, which I still have. And from
there, I could at one point have gone to Winchester and become
a public school master. I had one or two other quite
interesting jobs offered, but I took a peculiar one. This was
to teach in a Greek boarding school, the so-called Eton of
Greece, not because I wanted to teach there but because I
wanted to stay abroad longer. I had two years there.
was on the island of ...?
And again I had another love affair, with Greece, which was a
different country in those days.
again was that quite lonely and was there a lot of private
did a lot of reading. In the book I based on all that, The
Magus, there's only one Englishman at the school…there
were always two Englishmen in fact…and I made a good and
lifelong friend during my stay there. And you know one made
that did you feel that you wanted to push on somewhere else?
really was the thing that drove me to want to write. I was
writing a little there. I came back to England and I could say
now that I made one or two intelligent choices for a writer.
That is, I took bad jobs when I was offered better ones, but
again I think ...
do you think that's intelligent?
if you are going to become a novelist you've got to take a job
which doesn't take too much of you. Writing novels is a
time-consuming, psyche-consuming business. I mean I don't
think a good teacher actually would be likely to write good
novels. A bad teacher might because he wouldn't be giving too
much of himself in class and there's also the simple time
problem, you know. Teaching is useful of course, because it
does give you free time.
so which bad jobs did you take?
taught for a year in an adult education college in
Hertfordshire, Ashridge. Again, that was interesting because
they were doing courses then where management and trade union
officials met. This was the first time I'd really met
socialists and listened to the socialist line being properly
it educate you into politics? I mean did it change your
not a political being really. One of my theories is that the
problems facing the world at the moment cannot be dealt with
politically. I would much rather see a takeover by the
sociologists and biologists. I think we're facing a biological
crisis now and I don't think the terms of contemporary
politics really meet the situation at all.
crisis in terms of ...?
terms of overpopulation.
resources, pollution and all the rest of it.
don't think those are being brought under control?
don't think they're being brought under control. I don't see
how they can be, when the question is discussed nine-tenths of
the time, in terms of labour and capital and all Tories and
Labour party. The French have a new group. They call
themselves "les Verts". An analogy with "les
Rouges", the Reds. Now, if we had a Green Party in this
country I should join that at once. That is, an ecological and
a scientifically based country. I think only the scientists
can really run society now and make decisions about the
you think it's ever likely to come about that they'll be given
the chance to?
be kings? No, not until there's an appalling bloodbath and a
these jobs in England, were essentially teaching jobs that you
yes. I taught for many years in Hampstead, in a secretarial
college…foreign students…which I enjoyed much. But you
haven't really lived life until you've taught Siamese girls or
taken Siamese girls through Macbeth. I remember we did Romeo
and Juliet, and they could not understand what was tragic
about Romeo and Juliet because they'd disobeyed their parents,
so they deserved everything that was coming to them. But it
you said these jobs didn't take a great deal of your time,
though did they? They were ...
they did, they did in the sense I knew they were not really
what I wanted to be doing. They took time but I found I could
cut off fairly easily when I got home. I wrote The
Collector in the evenings really. In fact I wrote it in
one month during the holidays. The first draft of it. In a way
that pressure's good for a young…I know young writers think,
"Oh, if only I had more time" ... time to think. But
in a way I think that kind of pressure is good for a young
started writing then in your mid twenties, is that ...?
should ... yes, I should think it was about then.
it wasn't until you were almost in your mid or late thirties
that the first novel came out?
were those ten years like while you were writing but not being
published? Were you in a state of expectation or frustration
or both or what?
think mainly frustration, yes. It wasn't that I was submitting
novels and getting them rejected. I just knew they weren't
good enough. Partly I was also bound up with The Magus
during that period and I just knew it wasn't what it had to be
and again and again I would spend six months, nine months on
that, and again I'd know I was defeated and put it away. I
really wrote The Collector to try and get out of the
sort of quagmire I felt I was in over The Magus.
said you wrote that in a month?
wrote the first draft in a month, yes, and I revised it
considerably. I didn't take a month, you know, between my
starting and my completed work.
it snapped up instantly as a film?
can't remember the exact time lapse ... yes, fairly soon.
that enabled you to pack in teaching, did it?
I think I sold it for 5,000 which was I suppose a bargain, but
I never regretted getting that money. That did set me free
you give up teaching instantly and say: O.K. this is it, I'm
going to be a writer full time?
what did that entail? Did you rush off into the country or did
you stay ...?
we went on living in London for, I can't remember now, two or
three years. I then began to feel that as I don't like the
literary life and all the rest of it, I didn't like London any
more. Not because of London, but I don't like big cities any
more. I also felt an increasing draw towards the country, and
so simply one day we set out and started looking for a house.
It's not really because one or two of my ancestors are West
Country people. In as much as I feel I have a home province in
England, it's certainly the West of England. It's partly to do
with the fact that I spent those war years in Devon. My
father's ancestors came from the Somerset/Dorset border. I
have a Cornish grandmother. It's something to do with the
temperament of the West of England which has always appealed
you come here then principally for the landscape or did you
build much of a social life, an anti-literary life here, or
not at all. I've never needed other human beings really, I
suppose, which doesn't mean to say I don't enjoy meeting them
sometimes, but I need other people less than most. It's much
more to do with mysterious things like climate, the sort of
precocity of the West of England, that's something I've always
loved. The fact that spring starts here a little bit earlier
than it does up country, and I adore the sea. I don't think I
could live now out of sound of the sea. I'm one of those
mysterious people who loves coasts, beaches, shores, and if I
had to define a perfect place to live my one constituent would
always be that you go to sleep with the sound of the sea
The Magus there's a lot of…as in many of your novels,
most I think, but particularly marked in The Magus…there
are games always being played. The God Game was the
original title, or was a possible title for it ...?
the games are varied and ingenious…but they're all about the
same thing. Whether people are…whether this is truth or it's
lies, and whether the lies are nearer the truth, and what is
supposed to be the truth, and the difference between truth and
lies. And also the difference between or the comparisons
between truth and fiction?
way into the novel happens to lie there. I would not call this
a general recipe for the novel. It's just possibly because I
have been very attached to French culture…I have read a good
deal about the new novel theory…that perhaps I'm more aware
of the sort of fictionality of fiction than most English
writers. That doesn't mean that I think the truths that are
put across in the artifice of fiction are necessarily
artificial truths, they are just different from philosophical
propositions or scientific truths. Perhaps they are 'feeling'
truths. In a novel I've just written I use a phrase 'right
feeling'. In a way the novel is about how to feel right. I
think people are amenable to such truths. They may not analyse
it as much as the novelist himself does, but I don't think
they require of a truth that it is sort of arguably
verifiable. I think they are prepared to feel through a novel.
Most of the novelists I admire in fact do communicate mainly
through feeling… Lawrence, Hardy and so on.
do you want then to play so many games on your reader by
telling him something and then saying. 'No, that isn't true.'
In The Magus, Conchis is constantly saying ...
is true of The Magus, which was deliberately conceived
as a game novel, or a games novel, if you like, in its final
phase. I don't really consider that the games I played in The
French Lieutenant's Woman are games. You know, I gave two
endings or three endings possibly. I did at one point step out
of the sort of illusion of fiction, into another illusion. I
don't really feel that those are games. I think those are in
fact literary truths, which can be stated.
literary truths are to do with right feeling?
literary truths are about the nature of fiction. The ones I've
just mentioned in The French Lieutenant's Woman are in
my view truths about the artificial nature of fiction, but
that has nothing to do with other kinds of truths in the book,
which really are about feeling, and which of course do express
opinions about life. I would consider myself a socialist, but
I don't think the novel's really the right place for explicit
socialist propaganda. The right place for that is the essay or
the non-fiction book, or obviously the actual involvement in
you think your socialism comes through in your books despite
I do not know. I do not know, but I made a kind of resolution
many years ago that I would not put too many of my personal
political views into my novels. If they are put in they are
filtered in and ...
you put a lot of…I have the impression that you put a lot of
your own personal philosophical views into your novels.
I do, yes, yes.
is the novel therefore more capable of bearing philosophical
views than political views?
... I do that, but that is possibly wrong because I don't
think any serious philosophy can be established through a
novel. I don't see that that's possible. Opinions about how
life functions and the kind of stress you give on to various
modes of living and all the rest of it. That is the personal
opinion of the novelist. Of course, it's for the reader to
accept or reject.
you think of Jane Austen, there's really nothing of any
philosophical value in any of her work. But we all know that
she did feel her way to a certain central moral position,
which has been of great importance in English literature and,
I would argue, in English life. It's informed a lot of English
middle class life.
constantly referring to other writers, a lot of English
writers. Do you feel yourself very much part of a company and
a tradition of writers?
feel myself very much, although many reviewers would tell me
I'm not, but very much in the English tradition, although I've
been much more influenced than most English writers by French
culture. There are no modern schools of English novelists. I
think this is one of the troubles of the English novel. We all
live so far apart, we're disconnected. We also get absolutely
no backing from English universities. I don't think everything
is wrong, you know, about the backing that American
universities do give fiction and the problems of fiction. And
some of the American theoretical work on fiction is good. I
don't agree with it all, but at least it's alive and it's
being discussed. In this country you have to be dead for
anyone to take any serious notice of you. The English part of
me understands that. Perhaps it's a good principle to say, you
know, until a person's dead then forget him or push him down,
but it doesn't help the novel in general.
you feel although you live in Lyme Regis, do you feel yourself
to be an exile here?
many years I have felt in exile from English society, perhaps
particularly English middle class society. I've never felt an
exile from England itself, from its climate, its countryside,
its cities, its past, its art, but yes, yes, I do feel in
exile. I think this is a good thing for a novelist. If a
novelist isn't in exile I suspect he'd be in trouble.
I think if you're fully identified with society then you
probably would be in another career. You would be active in
society and I don't think you would get that essential
distance, the ability to judge and to criticize society,
because another important function of the novel as we all know
is to correct society, to criticize it.
you think that the novel still has the power to do that even
yes ... I'm sure. Whether the actual contemporary English
novel is doing it I don't know, but I'm sure it has the power
to do it, yes. I mean Solzhenitsyn has obviously done it
recently with Russia, I should have thought Bellow has done it
or did it in Herzog, in America. Joe Heller has done it
I think for America. I don't think it's beyond the capacity of
the novel. It may be beyond the capacity of the contemporary
you ever thought of moving abroad, then, feeling so much in
exile from Englishness? Have you ever considered going and
writing in ...?
because as I say I feel in exile from various aspects of
English society, but not from England. Yes like all successful
authors, in financial terms, I've wondered if I can take the
tax situation. But since I am a socialist, since I believe
that the rich should be heavily taxed anyway, I can see it
would be wrong. I also believe that novelists, of all artists,
should live in the culture where their dialect, where the
language is spoken. I don't think it helps the novelist at
all, except in one or two exceptional cases, to go into
literal physical exile from his society. To live in an
environment with another language, another culture, and all
the rest of it.
have said one of the themes of Daniel Martin, which is
the novel that's just out, is Englishness. What do you mean by
countless things, really. But I suppose principally
games-playing, rarely saying what you truly mean, a certain
greenness, a certain innocence however sophisticated we appear
to be, a certain bloody‑mindedness, whatever it is that
distinguishes us from the Welsh, the Scots, the Australians
and the Americans.
you said games playing did you mean playing of games like
I'm talking more or less about the middle-class English. No I
mean games-playing much more in the Stephen Potter sense, the
way that most middle-class conversation…people are really
not exactly scoring points, but English people are I think
chary of saying what they really feel and they really mean.
This I mean ...
say this is middle class?
detect traces of it elsewhere in the English class system, but
I think it's specifically a middle-class thing. For me this is
one thing which distinguishes us clearly from America. Every
Englishman who goes to America has problems with irony. There
are all kinds of ironic things which you can say to another
Englishman, which the American, even the intelligent American,
won't get. You have to say what you mean there to communicate.
you find that restrictive?
an odd way I both like and dislike it. For months in America
it's marvellous. People are actually saying what they mean,
they're frank, they're honest, they're straight, and then you
start longing for English deviousness and joking. I remember
having a rather grim three weeks in Hollywood once and I got
tired of this American directness. By chance somebody
introduced me to Peter Ustinov. I had an evening alone with
him and that was absolutely marvellous. It wasn't because he
was a funny man, a great storyteller, but it was meeting
another mind who knows all the facts about English
games-playing you know.
The Magus another point you bring out very strongly is
the belief inside the book, which might be your own or not, I
don't know, of the importance of hazard. That's the word you
keep using. You use it in The French Lieutenant's Woman
as well, quite freely ... but you use, let's stick to The
Magus, you use it a lot there. What do you mean by that?
suppose this comes from the natural history side of my life.
If you watch nature closely you cannot help noticing the part
that hazard plays in ordinary behaviourisms of the commonest
birds, animals and plants, and so on. I find in my own writing
that it is an enormously hazardous procedure and I don't mean
hazardous in quite the sense of risky or dangerous, but I mean
in a…hazard plays an enormous part in it. I don't know where
good ideas come from. I don't know why some mornings the words
come right and other mornings they won't come right. I don't
know why characters do not do what you plan for them. This
seems silly. You've invented a character. The character should
be absolutely your creature but as I'm sure you know there are
mysterious times when characters say, "I will not talk
like that. You may have planned this but I will not do
it." You overrule these situations, you deny their
existence at a great cost. For me, this is fundamentally a
matter of hazard. You know, there is a mystery there.
are you so keen to promote the idea that there should be a
cultivation of the notion of mystery?
enough, I don't think certainty makes for happiness in a human
being. I think one piece of strong evidence that people do
lack mystery is the enormous success of one literary genre,
that's the mystery story, detective story, the spy thriller.
As we all know, commercially they have been the most
successful type of literature of this century. I think that
has come about largely because of the illusion that science
has solved all our problems, when most people are in their
ordinary life, they consciously or unconsciously know that a
lot that happens just isn't explained. And I think all art
also is really bound up with (1), the idea of the unknown and
(2), the idea of the unknowable, the impossible.
do you ...?
for me has energy, you know absolutely fixed answers destroy
something, they're a kind of prison, although obviously there
are areas where you have to know the answer.
you say that Daniel Martin was a departure for you…is
it continuing? It's certainly continuing themes that have
interested you before, but in what ways would you say it was a
a tiny bit of a departure in that it deals with present times,
it's a little bit closer to myself than ... although I'm not
Daniel Martin, but it certainly is closer to a part of myself
and the style I suppose is more realistic. I'm not sure that I
will stick with this but I did want to ... a novel that's
always haunted me is Flaubert's Sentimental Education.
It was a little, it was slightly behind The French
Lieutenant's Woman and it's slightly behind this one
too…that is the sort of massive social documentary novel. I
mean the attempt to portray an age or aspects of an age.
such an age, then, in such an age where science is ... you've
said yourself that you think the only people who can solve the
problems of the world are scientists, where, crudely as it
were, does art fit in?
would start humbly, at entertainment. I've never seen anything
wrong in the notion of art as a kind of time-filler, a time
occupier. One thing that seems to me to have gone wrong with
the British novel and the American novel is this notion the
novelist has to write for an intellectual élite. What modern
novelists can only look back on with great sadness is the kind
of relationship the great Victorian novelists had with their
public. You know when the Victorian novelist says, "I am
writing for a wide audience." I want to attract a wide
audience and I think we've gone far too much along the road of
it being a kind of hermetic thing, you know. The novel is for
some kind of professional novel reader.
taken over that ambition to appeal to a wide audience.
yes, but that's no reason for the novel to say, all right then
I'm freed from that task, I can now turn in and look after my
own elite. I am as it so happens often tempted to write more
complicatedly and to use for the sake of a better word a more
avant garde style than I actually use, but I mean this is…I
regard a little bit of a socialist's duty in the writer, if
you do adhere to the principles of socialism, you should in
fact not try and cut yourself off from a wide audience. If you
can attract it, if you can write for it, then you ought to.
does the 'ought' come in? You've said that the writer was
somewhere between a preacher and a teacher. That statement
does sound rather…
course I cannot deny that I have things I'd like to teach
people. It may be only about feeling, but I am an opinionated
things would you say you wanted to teach people?
lack of a better word, humanism, yes, I think more humanist,
it's a difficult word to define, but I suppose I mean
something simple, like respect for other human beings. I
suppose largely the liberal tradition, or, to use an 18th
century word, the enlightened tradition in European life. I'm
fond of the literature of the enlightenment, the European
enlightenment. You know, whatever continues from that into our
you believe that it's important for people to…both people
and the characters in your books…to understand as much as
always like one character in my book in that situation,
because I find that gives the book a kind of onwardness. A
sort of archetypal image I have which I associate with the
novel is that of the voyage. This, the learning novel where
the central character or a main character has to learn
something, does give a kind of energy to narrative, and it
does catch out the reader because most readers also want to
learn something. So it's a kind of engine. I think it's an
engine in the book.
talked about narrative. Do you find that being a storyteller,
to put it at its most modest, is something that came naturally
to you or is it something that you work at and try to make the
I don't have to work at it, because it so happens that all
through my life, ever since I was a small boy, I've loved
story above everything else. Far more than the quality or the
feel, the style of writing. I've loved pure narrative. That's
why I've said several times that I regard my grandfather in
English fiction as Daniel Defoe, because I love that
extraordinary readability of Defoe, the way he pulls you on. I
don't know why I have a gift, if I have, for storytelling in
particular. I don't know why it attracts me. There are all
kinds of writers I can admire on intellectual grounds, George
Eliot, for instance, but I can never get on with them because
I feel the story element, except in Middlemarch,
somehow isn't strong enough. There are few writers who can
write well enough in other areas of writing, yet who fail in
story, who will interest me. Virginia Woolf…I can stand her
lack of narrative ability because she's such a superb writer
in other ways. Joyce, obviously, but there are not many. It
puts me out of touch with a great deal of modern writing, of
do you think that a great deal of modern writing has lost
interest and lost energy for narration…for narrative? We're
always talking about a division in modern writing which is
bridged by very few people, and you may well be one of them,
between, what is thought by a small group of literati in New
York and London to be very good, which is not at all widely
known, and what is widely known which is thought by this small
group to be not at all good. The good and the well-known, the
good and the popular…there is a sort of a chasm between the
two, isn't there?
think the intellectual literary creams of both London and New
York have really lost touch with what the function of
literature should be.
you think, is it London, or do you think it's more the
the academic…you see, the academic worlds have not helped
one bit by over-praising what to my mind is pseudo-intellectual,
it's not truly intellectual. It has a surface gloss of avant
gardism, experimentalism, intellectualism, what you want…and
I think that this is a treachery of the clerks. It's also to
my mind profoundly unsocialist. The great unknown literary
critic in my view of the last fifty years is George Lucaks,
the Hungarian. He had faults that we all know, but his message
has just not got across, I think, in the west. His message is
not fundamentally to my mind a Marxist one. It's much more a
would you describe it, his message?
I think that whatever his political views, the writer should
not be too swayed by intellectual fashion. There is a certain
kind of contract which we were talking about just now, between
the novelist and a reasonably wide audience. If the novelist
uses an experimentalist style, experimental techniques, all
right he's at perfect liberty to do that, but I think he ought
to ask himself the question of what good am I doing? In
general he's preaching to the converted, to the rest of avant
garde, but there are all those other people out there who
cannot appreciate that kind of writing. He's missing out on
them totally and that for me is not what socialism is about.
not what humanism is about. No, I tell you what I find
terrible is the association between avant garde art and a
certain branch of the New Left. You know, that iconoclastic
experimental art must automatically be left wing. This is for
me one of the great illusions of the age. I don't see how it
can be, you know, because it is, however anti-establishment it
may be, it is fundamentally highly élitist. It's hermetic,
and it's just like all those late nineteenth century
movements, symbolism and the rest.
think those…I agree with you there. I also think that the
academic tone in criticism and the academic caucus which
dominates many reviews in this country and in America looks
for things which they, which they, proven virtues of the past,
whether it's the 18th or the 19th century.
are shopkeepers. You know half the academics…critics in both
America and England…are shopkeepers. They have a little
trade in something, and they cling to that to a degree which I
think is ludicrous. We really need a new Voltaire to…
to write a Candide about them, yes.
you fancy doing it?
haven't alas got that kind of wit. We need a new George
Orwell, and he's not about, alas.
you left your job and became a full-time writer…is the
easiest way, did you find it a strain or did you find you
accommodated to it quite easily and happily?
very happily. I suppose there's something wicked and pagan in
me but I've never really admired work much. I've never seen
any great virtue in doing work which you don't enjoy. I don't
regard writing as work, you know. It's so pleasurable that
even when it's going badly, it's pleasurable. It's much more
work for me to get through life when I'm not writing.
do you go about a novel? Do you write every day when you start
I don't keep to any plan at all. I never write unless I feel
like it, except during one phase, which is the last one when
you're revising and you have to be a sort of schoolmaster to
yourself. But certainly in the first draft…I find it
difficult to describe. You just know that it will flow and
then I will work hard sometimes, for fourteen hours a day,
something like that, but normally I've no plans, no fixed
you have any pattern in your reading, or do you just read what
none, that's the same. I collect old books, not for their
value, not for first edition reasons, nothing like that. I
collect them because I love out-of-the-way novels,
out-of-the-way memoirs, out-of-the-way plays…the sort of
books that most other people have forgotten. I suppose I have
a good collection now of books that nobody in their
book-collecting senses would ever want to possess. What I like
about any kind of book is a kind of time machine thing. The
something which takes you back to the actual time in which it
was set, which is I'm fond of historical memoirs. I love the
feel of suddenly being alive again two hundred years ago. Old
trials, I'm fond of old murder trials. Of course they also
give you that feeling sometimes, you know of refilming in a
way, of existing in other people's minds in the past.
said you didn't particularly or you didn't at all like the
literary life in London. Do you not like any part of the
literary life at all? Or does it worry you, being a literary
in my private life I'm not a literary figure. None of my close
friends are literary people. It depends what you mean by
literary life. I do know one other writer quite well, but we
never discuss books or writing, or hardly at all. But the sort
of circuit of cocktail parties, publishers' parties and all
that business, no, absolutely not.
was just thinking of something Daniel Martin says in the book.
He says, "All art from the finest poetry to the sleaziest
strip show has the same clause written in. You will henceforth
put yourself on public show, and suffer all that
I think that's true.
what in your case is entailed by putting yourself on public
a problem of putting the truth, or something reasonably
truthful, on show. Because like all a novelists, during any
given conversation or course of events, I can also think of
alternative ones. I'm not a great conversationalist, largely
because I'm always constructing other conversations apart from
the one that is actually going on and taking part in.
conversation are you constructing at the moment, apart from
the one that's going on?
I'm not at the moment because in these conditions it's rather
difficult. I'm talking about more relaxed sort of private
situations. Because one is a writer you construct better truth
out of print which you can constantly revise and revise and
revise, than you can from the one time only of any
conversation. I mistrust spoken dialogue totally in the
ordinary…not in an artistic sense, but in the ordinary
context of a conversation. I don't think I could ever express
myself fully in ordinary conversation. That's partly because
constructing novels is as you know a rich complex experience
and it's impossible I think really in any space shorter than
the novel itself to fully convey it.
you thought, I mean, do you think of the novel in comparison
with poetry and plays? Do you think it can do things that
other art, that the other arts cannot do?
novel, yes, I think does have definite territories that the
other literary arts…
mean there is a very general boring sort of run, isn't there,
that the novel is dead because of television, the cinema and
so on ...?
that's nonsense, absolute nonsense.
is nonsense. Why do you think it is nonsense?
are all sorts of fairly obvious reasons. The fact that in a
novel you can analyse thoughts and the unconscious in a way
that cameras never can. There are various technical things. In
a novel you can change locations, times, as easily as
anything. That starts creating great problems when you have to
start photographing, but I think a much more vital reason is
that the word is not a precise image. If I say a sentence
like, "She walked across the road" ... if that is in
a film script and it is filmed, then all the viewer is going
to see is one she, one walking across one road. In a novel it
is the reader who actually has to contribute quite a lot. Each
reader will see that sentence "She walked across the
road" in a slightly different way, because he has to
create it out of his own memory stock. Take the most famous
novels, War and Peace, and Jane Austen, and of the
millions and millions and millions of readers of these novels,
no one has ever recreated it, no reader has ever recreated it
in quite the same way. Now this for me is a marvellous
richness which applies to poetry as well, about poetry and
prose, that this is extraordinary freedom of communion. It is
a kind of relationship between reader and writer. That has
disappeared in the visual arts. The camera is a fascist thing.
It says: this is the one image you're allowed to see and that
overstamps this freedom of imagination which words, verbal
signs, possess. That is why I'm absolutely sure that the novel
possibly may die but prose, the verbal sign, can never die,
poetry can never die.