A.N. Wilson was born in 1950 and educated at Rugby and New College, Oxford.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he holds a prominent position in the world of literature and journalism. He is an award-winning biographer, having written twenty-two non-fiction works, and a celebrated novelist, with over twenty novels already published, winning prizes for much of his work.
He still writes regularly for the Daily Mail, the Spectator, and lately, the Guardian, and has developed a concurrent career as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker for the BBC.
In October 1989 Quartet announced my forthcoming book Singular Encounters, to be published in the autumn of 1990. This time the subject was men. It was to consist of an exhaustive study of twenty-five of them. The interviews, designed to unlock the subjects’ innermost secrets, would cover their private and professional lives, their ambitions and aspirations, and would delve into areas that carried the warning ‘proceed at your own risk’.
‘It’s not going to be yet another book of interviews,’ I told the Evening Standard firmly. ‘I’m doing it for the challenge. My reputation as a writer will rise or fall on the book.’
The men I was seeking to engage were leaders in their respective fields and were unlikely to make any concessions to the fact that I was a novice in this journalistic medium.
When I approached A.N. Wilson, he had his reservations – though he soon relented, as he explained in a Diary piece in the Spectator.
My friend Naim Attallah…is compiling a volume of interviews with the thirty most important men in the world…I was flattered to be asked to be of their number. The company is so grand that it really feels better than being given the OM…I said no at first, because I was frightened that Naim would only want to ask me about sex, but in the event he twisted my arm by saying that if I did not consent there would be no young men in his book. In the event, he did not ask me about sex at all, having covered the subject exhaustingly with the others. I was glad to help him out by being the voice of youth.
In fact, I got him on the subject of sex through the back door, as readers can see for themselves in the interview below. I was chuffed, however, when he concluded his review of another of my collections with this sentence: ‘Naim Attallah is the best interviewer alive.’
You nicknamed your prep school the Gulag, but do you look back on your childhood as a time of happiness in other respects?
I don’t look back on it very much. It’s strange. I certainly hated going away to school, and I don’t now regard it as a time of happiness. I didn’t know until very recently that I was an impossible child – hyperactive, screaming all the time. I didn’t seem to have a happy temperament. I was moody, I cried and shouted a lot, and I’m sure I was spoilt. So it was a terrible wrench being sent away to that boarding school. It was called Hillstone, in Malden, and was a crummy, hateful little place.
You’ve described the fact of being too young to do National Service as a source of ‘wistful regret’. Did you have a romantic idea of yourself as an officer on the parade ground, or was there some other basis for regret?
My regret wasn’t very serious. It might have been fun, but I certainly didn’t think of myself as officer material. I imagine I’d never have risen through the ranks. People don’t regard me as a figure of authority and I have never accepted the idea of authority myself. I have been a rebel since early childhood. It probably has something to do with relations with my father. He was about fifty when I was born, and although I go on with him well, it was quite a distant relationship. He was a bit of a disciplinarian, my mother being much softer. I can confide in my mother now, though I never did as a child. It’s this awful boarding school thing that the English have: they sent their children away so a child doesn’t form a relationship with its parents. It’s a hopeless preparation for life.
Do you think that’s part of the problem later on in life, when Englishmen in general feel uncomfortable in the presence of women?
Yes, it must have to do with it – and with their being uncomfortable with the emotions generally.
You married when you were in your second year of Oxford. Did that have the effect of segregating you from your contemporaries or diluting the experience of being a student?
Why did you marry so young?
But did you want to settle down?
I don’t think so. No.
Are you prone to depression?
I have been in the past. And if you’ve known depression, you touch wood and hope it won’t come swirling back. I have known great waves of debilitating misery that have made it impossible for me to get out of bed or do anything, and where the world has seemed a very black place and sleep was impossible. But I think these times have passed for me. I’m not talking about unhappy circumstances, but about irrational descents of gloom. I’ve never had analysis, but I’ve undergone hypnosis and I found that helped. I was hypnotized because I couldn’t eat during one depression, and having become more or less anorexic and paralysed with hatred of food, I emerged ravenously hungry and happy as a bird.
To move straight on to your writing, have you felt flattered when reviewers have claimed to detect the influence of Evelyn Waugh in your novels?
I wrote a couple of early books that were pastiches of Evelyn Waugh, and very bad ones. I don’t like Evelyn Waugh’s novels, probably because I read them too much when I was young. I don’t mean that he isn’t a brilliant writer and a wonderful stylist, but I like the sort of novels that tell you what it’s like to be inside people, inside their minds or what it feels like to be them. You never get inside an Evelyn Waugh character. The only exception among his novels is The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which I love, and think is a wonderful book.
You have said that for a novel to work all the characters must come from an ‘unconscious source’. Surely the material has to be empirical in some sense? What exactly is this unconscious source?
If you know what you’re up to when you’re writing a novel, then it doesn’t work. I’ve tried dozens of novels written from the top bit of my brain – a surface thing – and they have never got beyond three or four chapters. At some stage – and in my case it’s sometimes before I even start to write – you’ve got to organize the material and you’ve got to use your mind and think what kind of shape it’s going to take. To what extent an empirical source exists, but if it doesn’t come from somewhere deep down, if you don’t feel you’ve got to write it, then it’s so much easier to write something else or not to write it at all. The whole thing with me is finished before I start to write, either in my head or in notebooks. Having said that, once you start you sometimes realize you’ve got it all wrong. Normally I take six months to write a novel, but the one I am on at the moment has taken eighteen months. I had to unpick it all in the middle and start again. It becomes a technical and rather boring process in some ways.
So you might create a whole character from your imagination?
Of course. Characters come from all kinds of sources. Some of mine do appear to have been invented. They are not all based on real anecdotes or incidents or combinations of people I know. Some really do seem to have come from nowhere, others are derived from my feelings about actual people, or they might be combinations of real people. That’s not to say they’re portraits, for if you try to do that then it doesn’t last beyond about four chapters but become dead wood in your hands. There are, however, some very good writers – Nancy Mitford being one – who can simply draw portraits of friends, or enemies, and do it completely successfully. But I think they’re rather rare.
So do you think novelists are right to use all the information and experience they accumulate, including their acquaintances?
That area is very interesting. If you haven’t ever written a novel, you tend to assume that the way to do it is simply to put all your friends in, and change the names and the colour of their hair, or something of the sort. In fact the whole process, except in a very few rare cases, isn’t like that at all. It’s to do with thinking of a group of people, some of whom might be loosely or even closely based on real life, others of whom wouldn’t be, and seeing the way the story and the whole situation takes shape. If you are contemplating real-life originals, which I’ve seldom done myself, they very quickly get transformed into something else anyway.
In terms of putting one’s own experience into books, I should think it was something to do rather sparingly. I’ve seen it happen, either in novelists I’ve read about or novelists I’ve known. I don’t know why it should be, but if you do it it’s a kind of death. For some reason, writing novels uses something up inside you. It’s terribly tiring. If I write a biography, I can work for eight hours a day and not feel tired at the end. If I do journalism, I don’t feel particularly tired. But after three hours of writing a novel I feel absolutely exhausted. Something or other is going out of you, I don’t know what. You have to learn not to use up your experience.
As a novelist, do you make a point of respecting confidences?
Obviously one tries to respect confidences, but I’m not at all sure I’ve received many confidences. Writing biographies is a different matter. If you are specifically talking to somebody about a biography you’re writing, then of course you don’t respect confidences because you are trying to find things out. Similarly, if I were doing a newspaper article about somebody, I wouldn’t be very scrupulous about what I included so long as it was all on the record. Novels are completely different. I don’t think I would mind appearing in someone else’s novel. If it were bad, it would probably sink without a trace, and if it were a good novel, I might feel rather flattered. Evelyn Waugh said that you could put anybody in a novel so long as you made them attractive to women. Probably true.
Your second novel, Unguarded Hours, is a wonderfully funny account of a young man preparing for the priesthood. How far was it based on your own experience in a seminary?
That was one of the Evelyn Waugh-style novels and I don’t like it very much. It was loosely based on the seminary I attended, yes, but, as always, when you put real life into books, you have to tone it down rather than the other way about. Nobody would believe what that place was like if I were to write it down accurately. It was a madhouse. It was the only time I’ve ever been in a wholly, or almost wholly, homosexual world. That was interesting and amusing, but it was a homosexual world of a particularly high-camp kind – a girls’ names and feather dusters sort of world. There were about forty men in this seminary, and there were five or so who were either like me, married and living out, or for some reason or other didn’t want to take part in it. The thirty-five others had all been to bed with each other. It was beyond belief.
Homosexuals do seem to be talented in the artistic sphere.
I think all that’s rubbish. The idea that poets or painters are predominantly gay just isn’t borne out by experience. I can think of refined homosexuals and lots of very coarse, boring homosexuals whom I know, who we are, as it were, chartered accountants or bank managers. There is a certain degree of self congratulation in certain quarters of the gay world – oh, look at me, I’m gay, therefore I must be talented. It just doesn’t follow.
Do you think of yourself first as novelist or biographer?
I think of myself primarily as a novelist, but I do find I get tremendously absorbed in the biographies I write, as I did particularly with the Tolstoy. There’s a point in that book where I mediate on what it is to be a novelist. Obviously I wasn’t writing about myself, but the two things overlapped tremendously. I probably get most satisfaction and pleasure from writing fiction, but in either case one is contemplating human character, so they’re not completely different exercises. It’s not as if I were writing novels on the one hand and, say, gardening books or books about horses on the other.
Your biography of Tolstoy in 1988 was well received and you were widely praised for your analysis. Tolstoy is well known to have been a mass of contradictions, obsessions and paradoxes, combined with an almost unrestrained ego. Was it because you to some extent share a similar make-up that you were able to write such a penetrating biography?
No. It’s a brilliant question, but I’m really very unlike him. It’s a lovely idea. If I thought it was true I’d grow a beard. But I’m not a very clever self-analyst and I don’t think I’m like Tolstoy.
You wrote of Tolstoy’s horror on discovering that marriage was the enemy of egoism and how angry he was to have his self become gradually eroded. Is that a common experience?
That’s my suspicion, but who can know about marriage? I suspect it’s true of any sort of love relationship; it does rather depend on a kind of losing of the self.
Your literary output is prolific by any standards. How do you manage to do so much in the time available?
The funny thing is, if I’ve taken on a great big book like Tolstoy, I tell myself that unless I work eight hours a day it’s never going to get finished and I make myself do it. But most of the time I don’t work very hard. Certainly not nowadays.
The word philistine occurs from time to time in your articles and reviews. Does it convey anything more than disapproval of a particular view or attitude?
I try to use it in a generally accepted sense of the term, that is, of somebody who either disapproves of the life of the mind or art, or who in some way or another is in a position where they might appreciate it, but don’t appreciate it or won’t appreciate it. It’s a pretty common phenomenon in English life. It’s hard to approve of philistine views, wouldn’t you say?
Doesn’t writing for the popular press promote philistinism?
Yes, probably. But it’s hard to be snobbish about the popular press. Why shouldn’t there be a popular press, and if there is one, why shouldn’t people write for it? I don’t know quite what Philip Howard meant when he wrote of my ‘fogeyish fulminations’, but I can think of instances where that criticism might be justified. The Daily Mail once asked me to rubbish Graham Greene, and for some reason I thought it would be an amusing thing to do, but I felt ashamed afterwards.
But why exactly do you write for the popular press?
Money. Just money.
Isn’t reviewing a bit incestuous in this country in the sense that you see the same author’s book reviewed over and over by the same sort of people?
If you’re a literary editor, which I was for a couple of years, you sit despondently by the telephone thinking, who can I get to review this book? You have a brilliant idea for breaking out of the boring old mould of sending it to the kind of reviewer people will expect, and decided to send it to somebody new. You ring them up. They don’t want to do it. You ring up some brilliant person. They don’t want to do it either. Eventually you find some new person who you know is brilliant, and they say they will do it, and you post the thing off; and, of course, since they aren’t professional reviewers, they lose the book or they ring you back in about two months and say they’ve read it but can’t think of anything to say about it. Literary editors, like anybody else, want an easy life, and you tend to send a book to the person you know will hand in their copy on time, do the right number of words and all that. I’m sure that’s partly why it happens. If you’re a literary editor, you develop a stable of well-loved reviewers – well-loved to you. It doesn’t matter if the readers like them or not.
You were reported in a review as thinking fairness boring and tolerance stodgy, but can such views bear serious examination, or is this just posturing on your part?
No. It is very difficult to devise any criterion by which to judge a good book. I was talking about fairness in a review. In the end, particularly in something like a review in a newspaper, where you’re not given thousands of words as you might be, say, in the New York Review of Books, you’ve just got to give your own impression. And if you’re bending over backwards to be fair, it’s bound to be boring, that’s all. I’m not an intolerant person, if we’re speaking of behaviour. I am intolerant of idiocy. When I hear people saying foolish things I always want to say that they’re foolish.
Does the idea of hurting people with trenchant reviews worry you?
Well, somebody said a gentleman was someone who never caused pain, except intentionally. Quite honestly, I used to mind. When you’re young, you write what you think, and you write what you hope might be funny. Then you discover somebody’s spent all night sobbing into the Kleenex because you haven’t liked their lousy book. After that, if you’re me, you feel awful and experience terrible guilt. I now think a bit differently about it because writers are such appalling egotists for the most part that it won’t do them very much harm to be told occasionally their book’s no bloody good. If you know somebody is going to be awfully annoyed by something you write, that’s obviously very satisfying, and if they howl with rage or cry, that’s honey.
You apologized publicly for calling Marina Warner ‘a charlatan and a bore’ in a waspish review, but, questioned subsequently, have always insisted that your review was fair. Exactly what were you therefore apologizing for?
I was apologizing for the fact, told to me by her godfather, that she had been snivelling into the Kleenex, and I didn’t want to think of an apparently nice person – though I didn’t know Maria Warner – crying because of something I’d said. I wasn’t suggesting that everything about her was boring. I simply found that particular book boring. Perhaps it was unkind of me to say so in public.
You explained at one point in relation to leaving The Spectator: ‘I’m very silly to think that my acts don’t have consequences.’ You made it sound as though acknowledging a fault is the proper alternative to avoiding it. Is it?
What a moral philosopher you are, Naim. It sounds like a question at some Jesuit confessional. In that particular case I think I was very naïve, and I’m much less naïve now. In my twenties I very often thought that anything was good for a laugh. Well, I still think that, but I didn’t realize then that not everybody would find it screamingly amusing. It wasn’t a sin.
Your view of the Established Church seems at best ambivalent. Are you an adherent?
Not a serious one. I don’t really take the Church seriously any longer.
What has changed your views?
Well, one changes. I find myself less religious as I grow older.
Isn’t there a case for saying that the sort of laxity in doctrine and organization you have complained of from time to time may actually represent perfectly honest attempts to make faith possible in the late twentieth century?
Where have I done all this complaining? I’m always reading in papers that I’ve complained about this and that, but the articles being referred to are nearly always written by Charles Moore or Gavin /stamp. I did a book with them which started out with ten contributors until seven dropped out. Because only three of us were left, it looked as though we were all thinking the same way. The others might have complained about laxity of doctrine, but I don’t remember doing so myself. The question is an interesting one, however, because obviously it is widely supposed among intelligent people that Christianity is frankly incredible, which it is now. There’s no particular scientific reason to suppose that the universe is a created thing, for example. People used to think it had to have an origin, but there’s now no logical reason to suppose it did. We also know much more than we used to about how the Bible came into being. There are many reasons why people might lose their belief in Christianity altogether, and I would have thought the only way you could sustain Christianity at all would be along the lines of a more liberal attitude; to try to accept these new modern scientific or philosophical developments and reconcile them to the old structures. But whether that can be done, or whether it wouldn’t in the end destroy the essence of the Christian religion, I don’t know.
Isn’t religion a force for good in our society?
Not necessarily. Not when it’s taken too seriously by stupid people. Religion has been a mixed blessing to the human race. It encourages stupidity, intolerance and cruelty. Look at the large portions of the world that are dominated by Islam and Roman Catholicism in different forms. I know you’re a Catholic, but you know what I mean. Yet can one live without faith? One can live without belief in organized religion certainly. Plenty of people do.
But don’t many people as they grow older become more serene because they believe they are going to have an afterlife?
The reason people become more serene has nothing to do with their views of the afterlife. Life for young people is very painful. Everything is potentially painful for a young person. Falling in love is never a pleasurable experience for a young person but always painful. Everything gets on your nerves, you’re worried all the time – but gradually those things change and one becomes blander and probably more boring; life becomes happier and you develop a capacity for enjoying things like food, and nature, and friendship. That’s why people are happier in their middle age. It’s not because they think they’re going to go to some imaginary place in the sky.
So what do you think will happen to you when you die?
It wouldn’t make sense to have a thought about that. By definition, we don’t know. We can’t possibly know what’s going to happen to us when we’re dead. Of course, I have thoughts about death, but they don’t involve the afterlife. They involve thoughts about being parted from people I love, of the timing of death and so on.
I’m still unclear on your own theological position. You say, for example, that there is no evidence in the New Testament to suggest that Christ claimed to be God, but it’s not clear whether or not you think that significant. Do you in fact believe that Christ was God?
‘If Christ be not risen, our faith is vain,’ St Paul said. But you seem equally unwilling to allow for the evidence of the New Testament on the question of the Resurrection. Is it just an elaborate way of saying that faith is all and that one must not look for truth?
Well, faith is all. Lots of other truths come to us by means other than thinking, and that’s how the ideas about Christ arose. It is a matter of empirical fact that there’s no historical evidence that Christ claimed to be God, but the Resurrection is a different question because there are documents. They’re all contradictory, so you have to make up your own mind about them. The creeds saying that Christ was the same person as Almighty God were formulated years after his death. But that’s not something you can make up your mind about without what we call faith.
Christianity seems on the whole to disapprove of sex. Some Eastern religions believe it to be a gift from God, to be enjoyed not just for the purpose of procreation.
Good for Eastern religions, if that’s what they’re saying. But why does it have to be a gift from anybody? Christianity came to us through a filter of Platonism and Plato, and his followers through that matter itself was wicked, and therefore anything to do with the flesh or matter was wrong. Then that great genius (but ghastly and tormented man) St Augustine invented the idea that the original sin actually came into the world through semen, so that any manifestation of sexuality was inextricable and unavoidably wicked. He had a good foundation to build on, since St Paul hated sex, as did all the other Christian writers in between. Only think of the pointless misery that it’s caused the human race to think that sex is wicked.
You mean suppression of sex itself can be very harmful?
That’s a different question. If everybody led an unbridled sexual life, there would be chaos, but the idea that one’s sexual feelings, quite apart from anything you do with them, are wicked – which is a fundamentally Christian idea – strikes me as disastrous.
Some puritans would argue that sex is addictive, and from addiction comes perversion.
I don’t know who they are, so it’s rather easy to knock down these Aunt Sallies, these puritans. Obviously, if you’re a healthy grown-up person, your sexual impulses go on, but that’s not the same as saying that something is addictive. To say that is like saying food is addictive, which it isn’t. The fact that you want to have it all the time doesn’t mean it’s addictive.
But wouldn’t it be true that if you suddenly had three or four women and you started having sex with them, you’d want to have more and more?
What an adventurous life you must have led, Naim. I’m not qualified to answer that question. What I disagree with the puritans about is that excess is somehow the same as perversion. There isn’t such a thing as too much or too little sex. If you don’t want to have sex, fine. Plenty of people don’t. If you want it and you’re not making a public nuisance of yourself and the person concerned wants it too, fine as well. I’m certainly not stopping anybody.
What do you think of the proposal to ordain women, bearing in mind some diocese in communion with the Church of England have already done so?
As I said, I’m less interested than I once was in the Church, but I’m very much in favour of ordaining women. There’s no logical or theological reason why they shouldn’t be ordained, especially if you’re thinking of the Christian Church as something more than the sum of its parts, something that influences the whole of society, which it still does in a marginal way. The Christian Church is where most of us in the West came from; it’s the origin, to a large degree, of Western civilization. And one of the ghastly legacies of old-fashioned Christianity is the suppression and degradation of women, which is not necessarily a truthful extrapolation from the New Testament. I think Christ was rather revolutionary in many ways. He talked to women who were strangers, and that was forbidden by the laws of his religion. There is a definite though very minor and much-suppressed feminist tradition buried in the New Testament. It would be a good thing if, in its latter stages Christianity could admit it and have a few women bishops and lots of women priests. St Paul wouldn’t have wanted it, but then St Paul wouldn’t have wanted a lot of things.
What are your views on feminism and the women’s movement? Do they extend beyond contraception and economic independence?
Those two things are jolly important, because without them it’s quite hard to keep the feminist thing going. I’m a through and through feminist and support the movement totally.
Even if the movement discourages family life?
Many good things have discouraged family life, or, at least, many supposedly good things have, like early Christianity or academic life. Until the nineteenth century all academics were celibates. In effect, all kinds of professions and areas of expertise discourage family life, as does the feminist movement occasionally, but only because women have had such a raw deal out of it. I know it’s a cliché, but take clever women like the Brontë sister who spent most of their lives making apple pies in a parsonage rather than being able to go to and be educated. It’s astonishing to think how long it’s taken women to rebel against the assumptions of a male-dominated world.
Of course we all believe in equal rights, we all believe in independence.
We don’t all believe. A lot of people pay lip service, but I don’t think they believe in equal rights and independence by any manner of means. Ask around the married couples you know, where both parties work, whether they actually take an equal share in shopping or cleaning the house or looking after the children. I know that’s rather basic stuff, but you’ll find they don’t. A lot of men say they believe in equal opportunities for women, but what they mean is they believe in having a double income and still expect their wives to iron their socks. We all know, if we’re honest, that women are better off without men in many respects. In an ideal set-up, men and women are complementary. But how many ideal set-ups are there? If I were a woman, I would hold out against falling in love with a man as long as I possibly could.
But you might be miserable in the process?
I might not be. Men aren’t the only thing in life.
But don’t women need men in the same way as men need women?
Well, obviously, and that’s how the whole problem arose in the first place. I support feminism in all its forms, with the obvious proviso that any political movement is complicated by human nature. You might fall in love with somebody or derive tremendous satisfaction from a personal relationship, and that obviously makes the whole business more complex. I have two daughters, and I would want them to have a completely independent life with all the opportunities they would have had if they had been men. But, of course, I wouldn’t want them to think that work is the be-all and end-all of life. And that’s where the trouble begins. Because, as a woman – partly because of the biological fact that you’re the one that carries the babies as they come along – if you’re not careful it’s going to be quietly assumed, not just by your man but by the other mums and all these other insidious and terrible groups, that you must put being a mother first. It’s very difficult from a practical point of view to lead a completely emotionally fulfilled life with a man and a child, and be responsible for a lot of the practical things, like running the household, and yet pursue your career.
Your novels don’t fall into the fashionable modes of magic realism or post-modernism or faction and so on. Have you ever felt an urge to experiment with the novel form?
My novels are fundamentally comic realist, and they haven’t been very adventurous. Without wishing to be boring about it, I’m changing slightly. The one I’m writing at the moment is a bit different. It’s a long novel, a sort of multi-volume approach, and the first volume starts off as a conventional comic tale and then, as you get deeper into this labyrinth, there is going to be something of what I suppose some people might think of as the experimental. If a novel is mainly designed as an entertainment, through, there is a limit to what you can do with it. Salman Rushdie may be very brilliant for all we know, but if you can’t read him, what’s the point in his being brilliant? That’s the trouble with some of these experiments. Look at James Joyce. He’s wonderful in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, wonderful in Ulysses, but far less wonderful in Finnegans Wake, which is full of gobbledegook that only Joyce scholars can read. That’s been the fundamental difficulty of so-called modernism ever since it was invented.
The narrator of Incline Our Hearts says: ‘Of all liars, the most arrogant are biographers.’ Is that a reflection of your own view?
No, he’s a different character from me, though we have things in common. That statement is meant to be within the context of that story, which involves a lying biographer. But I suppose what lies behind the remark is the knowledge, which comes to someone who has written biographies, that however truthful you try to be, you can’t tell something as finished and bald as the truth about a human life; that there’s no such thing. You have to interpret a life. However full it is and however serious it is, it is going to be a sort of caricature. That’s why writing novels is, in a sense, an easier way to the truth about human nature.
So you’d feel there’s something to be said for recent critical arguments that literature is superior to history or biography because, there being no way of establishing truth, whatever is clearly labelled ‘fiction’ is more honest than fictions labelled ‘history’ or ‘biography’.
I certainly think there is something to be said for that. Most history, so called, is only an interpretation of facts, and quite a lot of it is an interpretation of falsehoods, most historical facts not being, in fact, true at all. Take the storming of the Bastille. The storming happened, but Bastille held about six people; it wasn’t full of wailing starving prisoners, as in the first act of Fidelio. Almost everyone thinks that the French Revolution happened because there was a prison called the Bastille full of unhappy people. Most great historical events are myths. All of that’s true, and yet there is a bit of me which is a kind of English empiricist, commonsense character. You’d go mad if you took it too far, and a lot of these post-structuralist critics are certifiably insane, particularly the French ones. There has to be at least a convention that there is some reality outside ourselves, some reality that can be investigated. If we lose sight of that, then we’ve lost something terribly important. To say there’s a kind of creative truth in historical falsehood may be the great myth, the great opera, and although it is a boring thing to do, one has a duty to point this out. Lenin created a great myth, based on the Marxist myth and fleshed out by all kinds of stories that most Soviet citizens, until very recently, believed to be the same as a historical fact. Then it’s the patient task of a historian to sit down and say, ‘Well, it didn’t actually happen like that.’ It’s true that such a patient boring task doesn’t fire the imagination, but without it people can be led up the garden path.
Can there be any sort of objective standard in literature?
That’s quite deep stuff. We’ve got to say that there is a standard, I think. We’ve got to say that Jane Austen is, in some sense of the word, a better novelist than Barbara Cartland – in a world where no distinction is made between those two. Great as the merits of Barbara Cartland may be, there is something missing, something lost. On the other hand, once you enter into what it is that makes Jane Austen better than Barbara Cartland, you’ve entered a very nebulous area, and philosophers of aesthetics can never agree about anything. I would want to think it was possible, in a rough and ready way, to say, yes, there are things other than enjoyment or purely commercial considerations, but you have to be a very good critic to be able to put your finger on what they are. With most of us, it’s an irrational gut feeling.
As a nation, are we as literary as we claim to be?
I’d have thought we were very unliterary. In France, if you go on the arts programme Apostrophe, and say you’ve just written some rather highbrow novel, the next day you’ll see 80,000 copies. But in this country, if you write a rather clever highbrow novel and try to get on the Terry Wogan Show, let us say, they won’t even have you. A good example is Iris Murdoch, who was billed by her agent to go on the Terry Wogan Show. In the end it was decided that Terry Wogan wouldn’t have anything to say to her, so she was withdrawn from the programme. We’re a thunderingly philistine nation, but it’s also one of our saving graces, which is the paradox. If you value the things of the mind, it’s depressing to contemplate the fact that the English don’t take literature or, indeed, anything else very seriously. On the other hand, it means that they’re less likely to be interested in, and therefore hoodwinked by, ideologues. Historically that’s been the case. Thinking has always been the preserve of a tiny little minority of people in England. The generality of clever people in this country never think. They don’t dare to. They have jobs in the civil service or the universities, where thought is almost unknown.
What is most important to you in friendship?
I certainly can’t imagine having a very happy friendship with anybody who didn’t have a shared sense of humour. I can imagine other sorts of relationship. One could fall in love with somebody’s beauty or something of that kind, but I can’t imagine wanting to see a lot of somebody who didn’t laugh at the same things I did. You could take the view that sexual tension is there all the time in everything, and that if a man and a woman get together and make a friendship, sex therefore plays some part, even if it’s not a sexual relationship. But there are many, many cases where the sexual aspect is somehow minimalized. One can easily be friends with one’s love, but what I’m saying is that it may well be that in platonic friendships between men and women there is a sexual element, but the friendship will be spoilt if you pause to examine what or how strong the sexual element is. Once you get into bed together, you might stop being friends. It’s happened a lot in the history of the world, for all the usual old boring reasons. People have completely different expectations of a relationship once they’ve been to bed together, and the expectations usually become unequal. In a platonic relationship, the level of emotion between the two people may not be the same – one person may like the other to a greater or lesser extent – but it doesn’t really matter very much if all you’re doing is having lunch or playing cards. It suddenly starts to matter terribly once you go to bed with somebody. Or so I’ve read.
But seriously, your novels are champions of irony and paradox, so don’t you think that, while these elements may be amusing from time to time, their continual use is bound to undermine substantial response to both life and art, becoming so easily a way of avoiding serious reflection or commitment?
I’m tempted to say yes. The trouble with serious reflection and commitment is that they can so often be boring and wrong-headed. And irony and paradox aren’t necessarily false responses to so-called serious questions. So not necessarily yes.
David Sexton said in a review of your book Stray that the view of human beings as coarse, smelly, ugly creatures was pretty much the message of your previous nine novels.
Some human beings are, aren’t they? I’m not a misanthrope, but I so think the human race is a mixed blessing. I’d be happier if it was just the birds and the bees and the pussy cats. Obviously human beings are the most interesting creatures on the planet, but one hardly needs to labour the point that they are also vile, stupid and cruel.
But would you say that the fact that you fill your novels with people with contemptible habits, joyless marriages, physical imperfections and so on, is simply because it is difficult to make interest out of harmony, or because you aim at an honest attempt to portray the world as it is?
I think it’s the second. Complete harmony would obviously be difficult and perhaps not very interesting to write about. I don’t know, but I would say my books are meant to be comedies rather than anything else. Comedy doesn’t exactly thrive on human perfection and, anyway, where is human perfection? The genre is much more attuned to imperfection.
Some people I have spoken to, while acknowledging your considerable talent, have suggested that you are idiosyncratic almost to the point of madness.
I didn’t know that was a generally held view. I’d regard myself as one of the most luminously sane beings in the universe.
Is there anything you’ve regretted when you look back?
There are things I’ve regretted in my personal life, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to say what they are. Naturally one could have taken lots of different courses, but it wouldn’t necessarily have been any better.
How do you see the future for yourself? Are you ready for any change of direction?
One is changing all the time. ‘To live is to change,’ as Cardinal Newman says, and if you’re not changing to a certain extent, I think it’s a sign you’re dead, although there are many constants in my life. Looking back, I am aware of many changes in my attitude to life. I certainly feel I understand more about human nature and about my own nature, and I think I am much more tolerant as a result. I’ve become miles nicer, too.