“The mouth is a weird place. Not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between: dark, wet, admitting access to an interior most people would rather not contemplate–where cancer starts, where the heart is broken, where the soul might just fail to turn up.”

Paul O’Rourke is a successful, middle-aged dentist, a technophobe addicted to technology and an avowed atheist yearning for religious community. He has few passions; he was an avid fan of baseball, specifically the Boston Red Sox, but became disillusioned with the team when they won the 2004 World Series and lost their underdog status. His hobbies – golf, the gym, indoor lacrosse – are short-lived, principally because he can’t bear the thought of spending the rest of his life’s spare time on any one activity.

Then a website is set up for Paul’s dental practice that describes Paul as the follower of an ancient religion, Ulmism. Then comes a Facebook account, then a Twitter feed. ‘And what began as an outrageous violation of privacy,’ the book’s blurb reads, ‘soon became something far more soul-frightening: the possibility that the virtual ‘Paul’ might be a better version of the man in the flesh.’ The marketing tactic is evident: appeal to the heightened modern anxiety surrounding Internet identity theft; exploit the increasing tendency to define self-worth through obsessive comparison with others’ calculated online profiles. It prompts the potential reader to imagine that a false, virtual ‘you’ becomes more successful than the real you, and to recoil in horror: think Dostoevsky’s The Double for the Digital Age.


But the blurb’s summary of Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is intentionally misleading, or at least incomplete. The online ‘Paul’ is not a ‘better’ man, but rather a more devoutly religious one; the novel proves to be more about faith than technology, a fact that the UK cover (above) curiously seems to distance itself from (US cover below). Much of the novel consists of Paul reminiscing about two former loves: Sam Santacroce, a Catholic, and Connie Plotz (also Paul’s current office manager), a Jew. In each case, he fell for the family as much as the woman herself, wishing to surround himself with her relatives despite any religious differences. The only thing holding him back from conversion seems to be his inability to believe in a benign God.


Ulmism might be a suitable fit for Paul, then: it is a (fictional) religion, consisting of proven descendants of the Amalekites, for whom a central teaching is that they must doubt God’s existence. Ulmism has the potential to be used as a paradoxical, Vonnegutian tool with which faith can be wittily and revealingly examined – some might argue that Ferris does achieve this – but at its midpoint the novel takes a strange turn that undermines its success, not so much plot twist as register shift.

The novel plays out like a visit to the dentist’s: Ferris eases the reader in with a few jokes (however darkly comic) before getting down to serious business. And when the seriousness does come, so does an increasing number of tedious, faux-biblical passages from Ulm scripture and a plotline that never really finds its feet. To Rise Again originated as a detective story called The Third Bishop, started in 2004, but when Ferris returned to it in 2010, the novel retreated towards his more familiar territory of satirising modern society. As a result, it reads as if it were caught awkwardly somewhere between the two.

However much interest might wane for some readers during To Rise Again’s latter half, though, the vivacity of the novel’s first half certainly often impresses. And besides, the main draw of To Rise Again is not its plot but its protagonist: Paul is not a sympathetic character, but an entertaining and well-written one. A classic victim of male, middle-aged malaise, Paul’s morbid, contradictory mind is laid out highly effectively in the novel’s opening pages, which contains many of its best quotations. Alongside the opening paragraph at the head of this article, Ferris’s descriptions of open cavities as the ‘eyes stones of skulls’ and lone molars that ‘stand erect as tombstones’ are typically effective at tuning readers into Paul’s way of thinking.

Paul’s dialogue with older generations can be tellingly one-sided; during conversations with his fellow dentist-worker Betsy his speech is often strikingly absent from the narrative, leaving us only with Betsy’s insistent questions and the repeated phrase, ‘I told her, she said …’ The self-centered virtual communication of the Internet and phone, which Paul calls the ‘me machine’, is here mapped onto reality; the technology so often touted as aiding communication in fact leads to its disintegration.

It is perhaps not surprising that To Rise Again is being treated as the underdog for this year’s Man Booker Prize; Ferris’s novel made the shortlist ahead of stronger candidates including David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and Richard Powers’ Orfeo. That said, this year’s judges have already provided a few surprises, and, despite its top-heavy nature, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour remains an amusing and sporadically brilliant novel.

J. Wadsworth

‘To Rise Again at a Decent Hour’ is available from most bookstores, RRP £16.99. An excerpt is available from Joshua Ferris’s website.

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Charlie Henry is a multi-instrumentalist and singer, of Welsh roots but based in Oxford, who performed this week with cellist Barney Moss-Brown as part of Oxford Contemporary Music’s Warneford Chapel series. Her charming and engaging stage-presence was immediately apparent, and was very effective in the intimate location and generating a great rapport with the audience. Warneford Chapel itself is a tiny venue (incidentally, the chapel of Warneford hospital), which automatically generated a ‘chamber music’ atmosphere for the concert. Henry’s soft, warm and mellow voice and the complicated but gentle arrangements of her music complemented the place superbly.

The gig presented a varied set, starting with a trio of songs, simply arranged, on quite maudlin themes, making great use of voice – cello – baritone ukulele as a combination and making an evocative and effective opening to the evening. The first two, ‘Failures’ and ‘Lost and Found’, were written by the artist herself on the themes of love, survival, loneliness and self-doubt, with very moving and thought-provoking lyrics (‘You’re a long way … from feeling at home in your own bones’). The third song was introduced as a traditional song, entitled ‘The Yellow Rose’, concerning death and loss in wartime as seen by a dying soldier, with the refrain ‘Sent my mother a lock of my hair, send to my father the watch that he gave me, tell my brother to follow me if he dares, and send my love a sweet yellow rose’. This haunting piece struck a chord both with the situation in the Middle East and the Ukraine, but also with the current centennial of the Great War.

Charlie Henry

Charlie Henry

Musically, as the gig progressed, it became more experimental and complex, with Henry using a loop pedal to great effect to introduce intercutting refrains into a number of her songs. The wide variety of instruments and sounds used in the building of these refrains allowed a great range of moods to be developed, ranging from from a musical saw (the inherent comedy of which was duly nodded to) providing its eerie, piercing sound, through jangling keys and tent-pegs, to vocal imitations of a Sedge Warbler, which, as the saying goes ‘makes sense in context’. Many of these carefully-built background refrains were built to support raps and monologues as well as songs, from an eerie piece about watching a lighthouse on a dark night, to a funny, cheeky song about a songbird which had set up its nest near Henry’s houseboat that summer. This last, as well as another based on Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat, originally written for a shadow-puppet show, allowed Henry’s engaging enthusiasm and warm persona to come to the fore.

Whilst the last song You are my Sunshine was a charming conclusion for the evening, for me the highlight of the final songs (on a more traditional footing) was a self-penned folk-song about Welsh slate mining inspired by the National Slate Mining Museum in North Wales. With vocals backed by cello and accordion, the song fits into an eminently respectable ‘folk trope’ of grim, dangerous and dreary nineteenth-century industry, even if you mostly hear such songs being sung about the collieries. Henry provided a fantastic evening of entertainment, and with proceeds from the concert series going to the charity Artscape, I can only recommend the rest of the Warneford Chapel series.

K. Finn

The next concert in OCM’s series is on Thursday 18th September, featuring Folk-Jazz singer and double-bassist Susanna Starling. For more information about Charlie Henry, please visit her website.

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This is the first novel by Ali Smith that I have read, and before going in I was aware of her reputation as a writer whose work is a bit ‘modern’ and a bit ‘difficult’ to read. This is no bad thing and, having loved studying Modernism in my student days, I was intrigued. This book is also her third to be shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, which only recommends it more.

Of course, How To Be Both is all about contrasts and juxtapositions, and the many dualities that run through life – both remarkable and unremarkable. The book is divided into two sections, both entitled ‘One’. You can buy editions of the book with the sections either way round, something that I was not aware of until I had chosen my particular copy at random from the shelf at Blackwell’s. The two sections are set 600 years apart – in Renaissance Italy, and in modern day London – my copy has the Renaissance story first. The Renaissance section is narrated by the artist Francesco del Cossa and begins as a sort of freestyle poetry, an abstract stream of consciousness that slowly connects itself into sentences and paragraphs as Francesco remembers and tells us – well, not necessarily stories, but bits of stories, snippets from his mind.

Ali Smith image credit thequietus.com

Ali Smith image credit thequietus.com

The modern section works in much the same way, with one coherent story running through the middle but with other, smaller stories recounted along the way. The present day narrator, George, is mourning the loss of her mother and trying to negotiate teenage life. Initially the style is the only thing that seems to connect the two sections, before the themes raised by the novel’s title start to appear. After her mother’s death George goes to see the school counsellor, Mrs Rock:

How are you feeling? Mrs Rock said.
I’m okay, George said. I think it’s because I don’t think I am.
You’re okay because you don’t think you’re okay? Mrs Rock said.
Feeling, George said. I think I’m okay because I don’t think I’m feeling.
You don’t think you’re feeling? Mrs Rock said.
Well, if I am, it’s like it’s at a distance, George said.
If you’re feeling, it’s at a distance? Mrs Rock said.
Like always having the sound of someone drilling a hole in a wall, not your wall, but a wall like very close to you, George said. Like, say you wake up one morning to the noise of someone along the road having work done on his or her house and you don’t just hear the drilling happening, you feel it in your own house, though it’s actually happening several houses away. [...] It’s at a distance and it’s like the drilling thing.

For George personally there is also the uncomfortable duality of life continuing and her mother not being part of it. Similarly Francesco also has to live without his mother, and I’m sure this duality is felt, although it isn’t expressed as clearly as it is in George’s section. I say ‘his’ – but in fact the Francesco in How To Be Both is actually a girl masquerading as a boy, a trick recommended by her father in order to get work as an artist. This gives rise to the obvious duality in her life; deceit and secret-keeping, pretending to be something else.

Cause nobody knows us : except our mothers, and they hardly do (and also tend disappointingly to die before they ought). [...] 
Cause nobody’s the slightest idea who we are, or who we were, not even we ourselves. 
- except, that is, in the glimmer of a moment of fair business between strangers, or the nod of knowing and agreement between friends.

Here there are suggestions, snippets, of a deeper debate about the nature of the self, and of knowing one’s self and what that is. Francesco is a girl but seems to live quite happily as a boy, as an artist. She is at once a girl and an artist, at a time when this was still quite a new profession for a woman. At least, Francesco seems to encounter only male artists. But perhaps the point is that they all could be both, they could all be like Francesco – not necessarily physically, but in some psychological sense. It often said that all people contain elements of both genders, that men can be feminine and women can be masculine. Sexuality doesn’t seem to come into it here, so I think it is more to do with perception from different points of view. This, for me, is where Francesco and George’s stories connect – there is an outer and an inner self, two versions of the same person, living the same life, but not having quite the same experience.

The intelligence of How To Be Both impressed me, as did Smith’s ingenuity and bravery with her writing style. However, I found 83.Ali Smith-How to be both jacketthe style a little too affected. It created a distance between the characters and me, so it took me a while to connect with them and their stories. At times it was more like reading prose poetry than a novel. There is also the question of the two different sections – they are connected by their overarching themes, and the loss of a mother, but they have very different subject matter. The jump from one section to the other feels a little strange at first, but once I’d finished the book I thought they worked well together in the same way that short stories work well together when they share a theme; in this respect How To Be Both feels a bit like a miniature book of short stories.

I can see why Ali Smith is so widely praised, and why she has been shortlisted for the Man Booker. She is brave and creative, dynamic and modern, and yet her stories, like the ones in How To Be Both, seem to transcend time. How To Be Both is not an easy read, and at times I wasn’t sure I got it, but I kept reading and was glad of it. For me at least it was a book that worked for me the more and more I thought about it and actually worked to understand it. If you’re willing to put in the work, How To Be Both is definitely worth it.

L. Thomasson

How To Be Both is available from most bookstores, ISBN 9780241145210, RRP £16.99. More of Lizzi’s reviews are available on her website.

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Ian McEwan is not an author to shy away from tackling contentious subjects, as shown in Saturday and Solar. His latest novel, The Children Act, turns to High Court cases where a family’s religious beliefs are pitted against the secular court and its representatives. The narrative follows a High Court judge, Fiona, interweaving her court cases with her ailing marriage. As she comes to a decision regarding the fate of a teenager refusing a blood transfusion on religious grounds, her husband Jack demands the opportunity for one final chance at passion with a stranger before old age.

At the centre of the novel is a teenage leukaemia sufferer and Jehovah’s Witness, Adam, who refuses to accept the treatment that could save his life. Choosing such an obviously controversial target could easily descend into tastelessness, but McEwan is a better writer than most who would try to tackle this topic, and handles the interaction between religion and secularism masterfully. Anyone familiar with McEwan’s writing and standpoint upon religious belief will be unsurprised by the way in which events unfold, but the novel’s end remains pleasingly inconclusive. Fiona’s decisions, both in and outside the court, ultimately fail to safeguard Adam’s well being which the High Court ruling is bound to protect. Occasionally McEwan’s voice breaks through a little too forcefully (as when Adam states that ‘My parents’ religion was like a poison and you were the antidote… It was like a grown-up had come into a room full of kids’, and in the reactions of Adam’s parents to the ruling), but the courtroom scene where Adam’s parents are cross-examined at least allows for the opposing side of the debate to have a fair hearing.

71BL6-VNgqL._SL1500_What I found less convincing about this novel was the way in which research and imagination were balanced. The Children Act is clearly the fruit of meticulous research and consultation with professionals within the field (as the acknowledgments page will testify). While this means that Fiona’s perspective and voice are entirely believable when discussing her cases, it occasionally runs the risk (although to a lesser extent than Saturday) of reading like a research journal. Where research ends and McEwan enters into the fantasy of Fiona handling her marriage, I was disappointed by his characterisation of the female voice, running a little close to a caricature of the childless-female-professional. His descriptions of Fiona’s engagement with music also seem somewhat stilted; casting her as an amateur pianist allows for plenty of references to Bach and his logical fugues. Fiona, in her secular rationality, finds the construction of the pieces therapeutic as they chime with her desire for methodological rigour, which is nothing if not a well-worn parallel (and mildly ironic, given Bach’s profoundly held religious beliefs).

As a case study of the inner workings of Britain’s legal system, this short novel is exceptionally crafted, the prose style emulating the debate format of a courtroom. Unless you are hoping for McEwan to mount an unexpected and impassioned defence of religious belief, his treatment of the court case in question is captivating in its eloquence and sensitivity. The only element that seemed slightly unsatisfying was the parallel storyline of Fiona’s marriage. Fiona is characterised as such that she continually chooses not to address the problem of her marital strife, meaning that it is marginalised in favour of her work, but this is somewhat frustrating when her disagreement with Jack is so beautifully laid out as an important premise at the start of the novel. While The Children Act doesn’t reach the heady heights of Amsterdam and some of McEwan’s earlier offerings, it surpasses his more recent books in terms of both conception and execution. He raises questions about salvation and how we find meaning in life, and whether or not you agree with his answers, his explorations remain among the most thought-provoking in contemporary literature.

L. C. Broad

The Children Act is available to buy from most bookstores, RRP £16.99 ISBN 9780224101998.

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Gypsy Hill – “The Beast from nearby the Middle East” – proudly declare themselves to play ‘an intoxicating mix of balkan brass, mediterranean surf rock, ska and swing’. I’ve always been a bit suspicious of anything that smacks of ‘world beat’ or ‘global fusion pop’, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when the demo of the South London punsters’ latest album – even more hippyishly titled Our Routes – appeared in my inbox last week.

Good thing, then, that I was pleasantly surprised as soon as I plugged in my speakers, turned up the bass a couple of notches, and put on the first track. As unlikely as it sounds, the combination of Balkan brass, ska, and scratch turntables actually works. Perhaps it’s not actually so surprising after all: trumpet flourishes transplanted straight from Guča replace the standard stabs and shout choruses of the horn section, while the simultaneously super-tight but langorous trombone glissandi punctuating numbers such as ‘Afrita Hanem’ bring to mind Rico Rodriguez’s contributions to The Specials’ hits from the early ’80s. The Balkan-brass-plus-beats combo is pretty tried and tested as well: it’s just like Boban Markovic, O.M.F.O., or the whole Belgrade turbofolk scene, except that these guys have brought it back via Brixton and taken it a couple of steps further.

Just when you start to think the whole assemblage was running pretty smoothly but in danger of turning into (albeit superlatively good quality) party background music – a criticism I’ve always had about Ukranian/Dutch producer O.M.F.O.’s album Trans Balkan Express, which I’ve never been able to listen to with a completely straight face since I was first exposed to it as a teenager as the soundtrack to Borat – in comes something completely unexpected yet somehow never gratuitous or out-of-place. Take, for example, the folk singer interrupted by grungily overdriven solo guitar at the opening of ‘Pachupa’, the electroswing-esque walking bass (tuba) line which kicks off ‘Swing 78-81′, or ‘that’ vocal sample (“The music just turns me on…”) which nobody on earth can remember the source for.

Gypsy Hill

Gypsy Hill

So while I wasn’t completely won over by the album’s title or the accompanying blurb, and while I could quibble if I wanted to about the fact that the mix highlights the guitars and DJ samples a little too prominently at the expense of letting the brass bite through sufficiently, this has to be one of my best finds of the last year. If we’re being really pretentious, we could maybe describe Gypsy Hill’s style as something like ‘post-Balkan’ or ‘post-electroswing': the result of a new generation of musicians who’ve absorbed all the niche musical genres that have been floating around on the London music scene for the past ten years, and produced something which pays homage to them while being totally fresh and new. Perhaps more importantly, though, Our Routes is a brilliantly put-together album, intelligent and original, and riotously good fun while still managing to be more than that.

O. Hubbard

Anyone who’s in London later this week should definitely make it to the launch party at Passing Cloud in Dalston on Thursday 11th September (free entry); if you’re not able to make it, the album is available for download or to order on CD.

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‘You didn’t want my forgiveness. You spat on it. But I want yours! Forgive me!’

Thus speaks the protagonist of The Serious Game by Hjalmar Söderberg, who shot to fame with the publication of Förvillelser in 1897. He became one of Sweden’s most prominent modernist authors, more famous today for Doktor Glas, a story of murder and moral quandary (and the subject of a later blog post).

Published in 1912, The Serious Game was Söderberg’s most successful book, and tells the story of journalist Arvid Stjärnblom and his love affair with his childhood sweetheart Lydia Stille. Set in Stockholm at the turn of the century, Lydia and Arvid are swept into separate, unenthusiastic marriages, and from this starting point the novel explores the possibility of love and desire when free will is set against the forces of fate. Arvid’s fellow journalist Markel says to him ‘You do not choose your destiny … Just as you don’t choose your wife, your lover, or your children. You get them, and you have them, and possibly you lose them. But you do not choose them!’, and this idea recurs throughout the book, Lydia later writing that her affair ‘was also a desire to find out whether I could intervene in the fate of another.’ Interwoven with this attempt to escape predetermination is an anxiety about moral certainty and the human propensity to sacrifice duty to desire. After he commits adultery, Arvid reflects that ‘I have always believed – well, one knows oneself so poorly – but up to now I have always believed that I was an honest and straightforward person … Now I find myself in situation that make falsehood, trickery and lies almost daily necessities, and I realize to my surprise that I have talents in these realms, as well…’


There may be a somewhat autobiographical aspect about the story: Söderberg had an unhappy marriage, and from 1903-1912 he conducted an affair with a married woman, Maria von Platen, after she wrote him a letter of admiration concerning his earlier novel The Youth of Martin Birck. Whether Söderberg would approve of any autobiographical reading, however, is another matter; the relationship between writing and biography is a source of subtle humour throughout the book, the character Henrik Rissler expressing displeasure that Strindberg set a precedent for readers expecting the author’s life and personality to be poured onto the page, meaning that ‘the public … believe that no writer is capable today of thinking up enough lies to fill a book.’

This brings me to one of my favourite aspects of this book, which is the way that Söderberg draws you into early twentieth-century Sweden by weaving references to contemporaneous literature, politics, and musical culture into the narrative. The works of August Strindberg, Sweden’s most famous playwright and Söderberg’s approximate contemporary, make several appearances, as do Henrik Ibsen, Guy de Maupassant, and Emile Zola. (In fact, The Serious Game will appeal to fans of Zola and Maupassant, the newspaper office and attendant journalistic culture in which Arvid works reminding me distinctly of Bel-Ami.) These references place Söderberg within a dense modernist network that spread across Europe and Scandinavia, with authors, artists, actors, and musicians exchanging ideas across geographical borders, a far cry from the idea of Scandinavia as a mythical, idealised ‘North’ that is detached from the rest of the world.

Hjalmar Söderberg

Hjalmar Söderberg

Even for those with no interest whatsoever in early modernism and its political context, Söderberg does not disappoint. He paints captivating images of both rural and cosmopolitan Sweden in beautiful, lyrical prose; Lydia’s father is a painter, and Söderberg describes his work as follows:

He painted pine trees. They used to say that he had discovered the island pine, just as Edward Bergh had discovered the northern Swedish birch grove. He preferred his pines in sunshine after rain, with the trunks still wet and glistening. But he needed neither rain nor sunshine: he knew it all by heart. He also enjoyed painting the red reflections of the evening sun on the thin, pale-red bark at the tops of the trees and on the twisted, knotty branches.

His style bridges the gap between realism and impressionism, having none of the dense detail of Flaubert, instead striking at the core of a landscape through a glistening surface. He picks out salient details that capture the atmosphere and sense of locality perfectly, such as his description of Stockholm in April:

When you walked a short distance outside of the city, the roads were still edged by high banks of dirty snow – winter remained, ailing and dying. But inside the city the streets were clean and shining in the sun. The waters of the Norrström glittered, rushed and foamed, and in Kungsträdgården the first poor, swarthy little Italians were selling small red, blue and green balloons – it was almost as if spring had really come.

This extends not only to the setting, but to the characterisation as well, the initial description of the Baron Freutiger being such an example.

This book is so multi-faceted that it stands up to multiple readings, and each time you will take away something different. I rarely reread books (why return to words when there are so many new ones to explore!), but I find myself repeatedly revisiting The Serious Game and I feel that it has not yet exhausted its possibilities. I have read it as a meditation on love and deception; an exploration of the psychological impact of moral conflict; an extended comment upon fin-de-siècle Swedish politics and society; a feminist exposition in a similar vein to Ibsen’s Doll’s House where the final joke is on Arvid; a slightly chauvinistic piece in which women do not hold a place in modern society except to satisfy or deny male desires; and a tender eulogy to the delusion of passion. I look forward to whatever the next reading will bring.

L. C. Broad

The Serious Game is published by Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd., RRP £8.99, ISBN 9780714530611. My copy was bought from Foyles.

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Ian McEwan is one of Britain’s foremost contemporary writers, and is speaking in Oxford on the 4th September after the release of his new novel, ‘The Children Act’. He won the Man Booker Prize for ‘Amsterdam’ in 1998 and many of his books have been made into films, most recently ‘Atonement’. I spoke to him about his latest book, researching for novels, and literary audiences.

What is the premise of ‘The Children Act’, and how did you come to choose this topic?

More than one premise, in fact. Firstly, (much neglected by crime fiction), to investigate the character of the judge, and how that influences the course of a case.

Secondly, to explore an encounter between the courts, whose assumptions are generally secular, and deeply held religious belief. A stark example of this is the Jehovah’s Witness refusal for themselves and for their children, of blood transfusion.

Thirdly, I wanted to embark on a character study of a childless woman, professionally successful as a High Court judge, haunted by regrets as she comes to the end of her fifties and finds herself overwhelmed by marital conflict. The Children Act is, in part, a story about unspoken love.

How do you balance research and narrative – is it important for artists and writers to engage actively in scientific discourse?

I let the research shape the narrative. Sometimes they’re inseparable. Sometimes, I’m researching without knowing it. That is, I follow my own interests between novels and find myself being drawn into starting to make a fictional representation of what I’ve learned. As for science etc, the most important thing writers can do is engage in whatever interests them. I resist prescriptions for others. Science interests me, but obviously, it’s possible to describe a world (of intimate relations for example) without any reference to it.

Ian McEwan © Annalena McAfee

Ian McEwan © Annalena McAfee

You’ve said elsewhere that reading literary fiction is more widespread than previously – what defines ‘literary’ fiction for you?

I have no empirical evidence for my remark. Just a suspicion. Perhaps the extension of university education to almost 40% of the population is having an effect. I resist the ‘we’re-all-going-to-hell-in-a-handcart’ view of the world that’s so tempting for my generation. I was listening to a high-level ‘literary’ interview with Evelyn Waugh, recorded in 1953. The ignorance and stupidity of the questions would cure anyone of the view that the past was golden.

As for a definition of literary as opposed to pulp fiction – you know it when you encounter it. It’s more of an instinctive readerly recognition of a certain kind of seriousness of intent, pursuit of originality, awareness of literary precedents, (even it means rejecting them) and some hard-to-define spring in the prose, the invisible lever that moves the world.

You’ve said elsewhere that you’re ‘interested in how to represent … what it’s like to be thinking’. In which novel do you feel you achieved this most successfully?

Yes, capturing the flow of thought, however artificially, is endlessly interesting. I think it worked well enough in Atonement, where I tried to sustain a number of different points of view. I was also happy with the way it came out in Solar, which was related in a subjective third person. It’s not only scientists who stand on the shoulders of giants. Novelists have been the lucky beneficiaries of the sustained development since Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert of free indirect style – a liberating means of representing subjective states while also letting those states colour our shared world.

What are you currently reading?

I’ve just read my friend Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest – it’s superb. Now I’ll go back to John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing. In non-fiction I’m reading Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist. His book, Just Babies, is an attempt, and a very good one, to understand the origins of morality.

L. C. Broad

Ian McEwan will be discussing ‘The Children Act’ at the Sheldonian Theatre on 4th September, 7pm. Tickets can be purchased via the Waterstones website, priced £5. 

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