On Sex, Politics, Style, and Ping-Pong
Born in 1978, Adam Thirlwell read English at New College, Oxford, before taking up a Prize Fellowship at All Souls College in 1999. In 2003, Granta placed him on its list of Best Young British Novelists, even before his first novel, Politics, had come out in print. The book was published to international acclaim a few months later. It won a Betty Trask award and has been translated into thirty languages. Thirlwell’s second book, Miss Herbert (2007), which won a Somerset Maugham award, describes itself as “an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters”.
Thirlwell’s works turn people and ideas upside down and inside out, swivelling around characters and unravelling situations to show that things are rarely as simple as they seem. Politics is less about politics than it is about the emotional and sexual vagaries of a threesome of twenty-something Londoners. Miss Herbert is less about Miss Herbert—an English governess who may or may not have been Flaubert’s mistress, and may or may not have helped him translate Madame Bovary—than it is about style, translation, and the novel as an international art form.
For a number of years Thirlwell was assistant editor of Areté, an Oxford-based Arts magazine edited by Craig Raine. He has written for the Guardian, the Observer, Esquire, the Believer, the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, and Le Monde. His next book, The Escape, will be published in September 2009.
As the blurb on the paperback edition of Politics announces, your first book is about “a) a father and daughter b) a threesome”. It is also, in fact, about the relations between sex and morality, sex and politics, and the art of the novel. How did the idea for such an eclectic, unusual book take shape?
Very slowly, hesitantly, by thinking about this (to me) comical idea of three people who develop a sexual situation which is beyond them. Then even more slowly, rewriting, then more rewriting. Then deciding that all the psychology was too obscure, and so the narrative voice would have to open out the novel, and so I ended up with this story narrated by an exhibitionist narrator. But then as soon as this narrator had emerged, then it became natural and necessary for the narrator to develop his own personality, and so all the miniature essays on various moral and political topics emerged. And so in this way the problem of form returned to the problem of subject matter which I’d started with—because this question of liberty which had at first been just a problem of the characters became identical to the question of liberty which exercised the narrator in relation to the characters themselves. In other words, then: with no preconceived plan, no strategy, no forward planning.
How autobiographical is the novel? It is full of tantalizing references to the likes, dislikes, behaviour, and beliefs of its first-person narrator. “I love Milan Kundera”, he writes; “I can be very selfish”, he confesses; and “Me, I believe in generosity”, he asserts. Even statements which would deny the existence of a straightforward connection between the narrator and his characters abet suspicions that he is intimately related to them. “I am not a character”, he states, and “This is not my psychology”, he insists. But how much of yourself have you written into the book?
Me? I am everyone. That’s honestly the most precise answer I can give you.
The book was published when you were 24, and is in large part about the sex lives of three people in their mid-20s. It is, in these senses, a young persons’ book. It also feels fresh artistically—experimental and original. How far, if at all, did you have a young audience in mind for this book?
There was no forward planning, no strategy—and therefore no audience in mind. And I think that one should never think about an audience. The novelist’s duty is only towards the material. Maybe, when it’s finished, you can allow yourself an amused moment, thinking of people who might be appalled and upset by what you write. The anti-reader, the anti-audience. But that should only be a brief and extraneous pleasure.
At one point your narrator intervenes forcefully to “make this clear”: “This is not their sex life. That is not what you are reading about. You are reading about their feelings. You are reading about their ethics.” Yet there can be no denying that there is a lot of sex in Politics. Indeed, addressing the reader after the first few pages, your narrator anticipates this kind of response: “Maybe you even thought the writing was obscene.” Why the focus on sex? Were you motivated by the desire to shock?
No, not shock! If a novelist’s aim is to shock, I think, it implies a lack of self-confidence. So no, this focus on sex—it was more of a glee at the idea that there was so much material that hadn’t been treated in literature: so much ineptitude and lack of talent for sex. The characters were young because their sex life was very specific. The era of youth, after all, might seem to be the era of sex and abandon, but it is also the era of inexperience. And so it’s the era of awkwardness, sadness, discomfort, boredom… At which point, after all, sex becomes a real moral problem: a game between competing and tender egos. That was what I wanted to write about: this sad area of the comic. The way friendliness intrudes on the erotic…
Writing about sex is notoriously difficult—as evidenced by the inauguration, in 1993, of the yearly Bad Sex in Fiction Award, which was founded by Auberon Waugh “with the aim of gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels”. Politics is full of sex. But like your character, Nana, you “take your sex seriously”. How did you teach yourself to write about sex in ways which capture its strangeness and fumbling, touching, significant awkwardness?
The problem with sex in fiction—as with so many literary problems—is that readers are so emotional, so in thrall to covert neuroses. Look at that sentence from Auberon Waugh! So confused, and hurt, and contradictory. So intent on masking its prudishness. Like everything human, sex is a mixture of thinking and motor responses. And so, like everything human, if a novelist is true to this mixture then the writing will work. It just requires a calm and exposed honesty. But I think that in a way it’s easier to describe the kind of sex my poor characters had in Politics—earnest, hopeless, hesitant. It’s much more difficult, maybe, to be true to the moments of absolute lyrical and wordless sex.
Having made sex and relationships the motor of your plot and the anchoring point of many of your book’s central themes, why emphasize politics in the title?
For one very serious reason—to turn the novel upside down, to emphasise how this novel which functioned through sex scenes had never really been concerned with the sex: the sex was always part of a larger network of themes: moral, political—all the grand ideas which we are used to separating from our private lives. And also for a very flippant reason: to be a deliberately weightless title; to take this category which is seen as so important and then, in its flimsy relation to the novel’s subject matter, to imply that in fact politics was much more minute, with its awkward abstractions, than the infinite intricate problems of being in love. Or not in love.
In “The Cyrillic Alphabet”, the story published in the issue of Granta which named you as one of the Best Young British Novelists, you describe the relationship between a 41-year old woman and a 79-year old man through the details of their abortion of a child which they both, secretly, would have preferred to keep. Neither can say this, for fear of imposing, of being selfish. Both stifle this truth out of love. Selflessness backfires, as it does, also, in Politics. Whence this preoccupation with the dangers of selflessness?
A covert attempt to defend my own rebarbative egotism? A constant interest in finding irony and comedy where neither irony nor comedy should exist? Or maybe just a melancholy love of characters who try to create utopias, however small, and however much they might fail? Or maybe all of these are true.
In Politics, this concern with ethical matters becomes more explicit. Your narrator announces early on that “This book is not about sex. No. It is about goodness.” Later, the omniscient voice re-iterates that “In this book, my characters have sex, my characters do everything, for moral reasons.” Does the book have a moral message?
The narrator of Politics has a strong, recognizable, all-knowing first-person voice. Why this choice to return to what is, essentially, a nineteenth-century convention of narrative omniscience?
It’s a nineteenth-century convention, true—but I don’t think it emerged from the nineteenth-century: much more from the eighteenth century of Sterne and Diderot and Pushkin, and from the twentieth century of Musil and Kundera. And in a way I think that this idea of omniscience isn’t quite right: what I enjoyed in that voice was that it made everything more fragile—it was a way of trying to emphasise how much fiction was illusion, without wanting to destroy the illusion, at the same time. And the tone is very particular: there’s an intimacy and vulnerability to the narrator. If I ever reread it (rarely) it’s that which always surprises me. And it’s not something which a nineteenth-century novelist would ever have allowed.
As you say, there’s is much more to this narrative voice of yours than mere omniscience. Your “I” constantly draws attention to itself, commenting on the action in explicitly personal terms. In the second sentence of the book, for instance, your narrator asserts that “I think you are going to like Moshe. His girlfriend’s name is Nana. I think you will like her too.” How did this prominent “I”—a feature of all your writings—develop?
It was necessitated, I thought, by the material—the sad and awkward altruistic psychologies of the characters. And I decided to be unembarrassed of explication—to go against all my modernist principles that a novelist should show and not tell. But then I realised that it could be used to retrieve modernist principles as well: to allow formal invention, to include material not usually found in a novel. It allowed liberty.
This voice returns again, very clearly, in your second book, Miss Herbert. Miss Herbert is, as you describe it, “an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters” which is “about the art of the novel”. It has “no plot, no fiction, no finale”. It is, clearly, very different from Politics. But the voice remained. Why did you choose to stick with it from one work to the next?
I’m not entirely sure. Just as with Politics, the first draft of Miss Herbert was much more impersonal. But something felt wrong. And when the voice returned, once again it became easier to find the form I wanted—a juxtaposition of thematic units. I think I must feel that there are still possibilities to this way of writing which I haven’t exhausted yet. Or I’m deeply unimaginative (readers can delete as applicable).
At one point in Miss Herbert, you state that one mark of artistic originality is that “once a novelist has discovered a style (…) he or she has to learn how to repeat it. Once a novelist has a style, the only style left to imitate is itself.” Is the voice deployed in Politics and Miss Herbert your original style—a style you anticipate “imitating” in all your writings?
I don’t think I can answer that. I’ve no idea what I might do with this voice, or this style. And I don’t think my style exists only in that voice: it’s partly that, of course, but it’s also there in the slightly melancholic, vulnerable tone; or scenes where an idealist is comically reduced by circumstances; or a liking for collage-like structures. At the moment, all I feel is that something feels live for me as soon as I use the word ‘I': there seems to be more at stake. And I like that. The whole project feels more risky—something to do with the combination of this very fragile tone with very weighty subject matter.
The narrator refers to Miss Herbert as a novel throughout the book. Is it not more of a literary-critical treatise, a collection of Thirlwellian pensées on style, translation, literary history, and the novel?
Maybe, maybe. Obviously, the idea that it was a novel was a joke. But every joke is serious. And I think I wanted to see how much one could do with this idea of thematic juxtaposition and variation—how much it might be possible to make a novel out of other people’s novels. Where ideas would take the place of characters. And there IS a plot, in a way: a constant backwards and forwards movement between different ideas on style and translation, which reaches some kind of sad resolution at the end. Calling it a novel was perhaps a way of pointing to the fact that even without an overt and linear argument, a book about novels could still have a form. The most abstract novel possible, but still, in a way, a novel….
You write in Miss Herbert that the “The only duty, for a novelist, or a poet, or a novelist-poet, is to be interesting.” But you also write of your desire (shared with the likes of Witold Gombrowicz and Gustave Flaubert) “for an absolute aesthetic”. Then again you express doubts as to whether aesthetics can be separated from ethics. Do you have a final view on these questions?
But no: I should try to say something more. So, then.
More and more, I think that it might be that there should be an entirely different set of formal criteria for reading and for writing. I wonder if a lot of literary criticism suffers from category mistakes: that aesthetic principles which might be true of writing should have no place in the aesthetic principles required for reading. So that every novelist has to understand that style is ethical as well as aesthetic; but every reader should ignore this entirely. Readers should try to become as unethical as possible.
A very prominent theme in Miss Herbert concerns questions of influence and originality. You write that “Originality more often consists in the new combination of old things, than the new combination of new things”, and that “Reading ambitiously, a writer is on the lookout for techniques to adapt.” No anxiety of influence for you then?
I think anxiety of influence is just another form of the way in which the twentieth century—well the twentieth century as embodied in critics—tried to diminish writers, to ignore the real questions of form. Why should there be anxiety? Every good novelist knows that they possess a style. And there can never be any real repetition, not between two genuine stylists. That, after all, is the meaning of Borges’s story “Pierre Menard”, which I use in Miss Herbert. There can be no such thing as a precise copy. I think the idea of the anxiety of influence misses the joy of every homage – the delighted discovery of new ways of describing reality precisely. So no… No anxiety…
You are very interested indeed, in Miss Herbert, in the great prose writers of the nineteenth century and of the early- to mid-twentieth century. To which, of the many eminent authors you discuss (Flaubert, Joyce, Nabokov, Bellow, Pushkin—to name just a handful among dozens that you mention) do you feel most indebted? Which do you admire most?
But the two questions aren’t the same! I admire all the writers in Miss Herbert—and many more—but that doesn’t mean that I’m indebted to them. I feel in many ways, say, that a lot of my comic sense and narrative voice must be indebted to the amount of P. G. Wodehouse I read when I was a kid… And a debt can be so small—a way of constructing a sentence, or managing transitions between paragraphs—but may be momentous to the novelist in constructing a form. Or so massive—a way of looking at the world (Kundera’s idea of laughable love, for instance, for me) but have no material influence on the novels themselves.
What about contemporary authors? Which among their number to you respect, admire, plunder?
I’ve mentioned Kundera already. I’ve plundered him in some ways—but more as a sanction for my experiments with voice and form, than by way of any direct steals. I admire Pynchon very much. And Philip Roth. But I don’t feel any desire to plunder them. I think, in general, you should plunder the dead.
You quote the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s view of literary history as “a giant game of ping-pong,” where the talented players “hit smashes over the nets formed by the borders of States and nations”. You follow this up with a vision of your own: “A café where everyone’s playing ping-pong: that’s my new definition of literary history.” With whom are you playing ping-pong?
I’ve just finished a farcical novel about a character in a spa town—which I suppose was an extended game of ping-pong with Thomas Mann, and Saul Bellow. And maybe slightly with Hrabal himself. But your opponent might change at any moment, depending on what your subject is—or what your form is. There’s no need to keep playing the same opponents, after all. And it’s always good to play ping-pong while pretending to be playing something else…
Miss Herbert is much exercised with different conceptions of style. In the course of the book you re-define the word many times. “Styles are systems of operations on language for the contrivance of effects. They are like machines”; “No style is just a style: it is its subject matter as well.” And most crucially, “style”, as Marcel Proust first put it, and as you concur, is “a quality of vision” and “not identical to the language in which it takes form”. There is one, among the many definitions you offer, which is more cryptic than the rest. Style, you say, is “biological as much as a formal—in a person’s teeth, the arteries, the kidneys, in the left and right ventricles”. What do you mean by this?
I mean that it’s as inescapable as one’s breathing pattern, or what one likes to eat. You can’t help revealing it. That’s the deepest, and most mysterious aspect of style—because it’s where style becomes metaphysical. A demonstration of the self. And all the novelists I love, I think, are in love with this individual self. All writing is a celebration of uniqueness. But then, all celebrations, in the end, are celebrations of uniqueness. What else is there to celebrate?
Scarlett Baron received her DPhil from Christ Church, Oxford. The interviews editor for the Oxonian Review, she is currently a Prize Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford.
Interview conducted by email, January 2009.