September 18 1999 / The Times
Jim Crace writes in a converted garage in his semi-detached house in Moseley, Birmingham. From his desk, he says, he likes to sit “watching the world go by”. In truth, there’s not much world for him to see out there beyond a few trees, a quiet suburban street, a woman with her dog and an old man washing his car. But no matter, for Crace is the kind of writer - the rare kind - who can look out of his window and see anything he likes, whenever he likes, imaginatively speaking.
For instance, there’s a big old house at the top of his road where former mental patients receive so-called care in the community. The house has 40 small, cell-like rooms and the patients are attached to the world outside by no more than a frayed, tenuous thread. Yet this house was the inspiration for Crace’s most successful novel, Quarantine (1997), his fictional recreation of the 40 days Christ spent in the Judean desert.
“I was looking for a way of writing about that house, a way of dislocating its setting,” he explains, “when someone sent me a picture of the cliff in Judea where Jesus was supposed to have spent his 40 days, and there were 39 caves as well. They must have been there for a reason, I thought, and off I went.”
When Crace sets off on the adventure of writing a novel not even he, let alone his readers, know where he will end up. He is not the kind of writer who works out a beginning, middle and end and then merely fills in the gaps. Rather, he begins from an idea, a single sentence even, and then builds entire structures, brick by brick. Being Dead, his new novel, grew from the seed of only one sentence: “These are the ever-ending days of being dead.”
His work is among the most original in contemporary fiction. It is impossible to predict what he will write about next. An imaginary seventh continent (Continent, 1986), a Stone Age village (The Gift of Stones, 1988), the growth of a vibrant metropolis loosely based on Birmingham (Arcadia, 1992), a 19th-century Cornish fishing village (Signals of Distress, 1994). Crace always bends and stretches the form of the novel, always looks for a dislocating subject.
It is hard to think of a recent novel more hysterically imagined than Quarantine, which won the Whitbread award and was shortlisted for the Booker. Crace takes the fragments of a too familiar Biblical story and scatters them to create something strange, forbidding and hallucinatory. His Jesus, a pale, withered Galilean prone to ecstatic visions, dies of hunger during his self-imposed exile in the wilderness, his quarantine. But not before he has touched the lives of those around him, including Musa, a kind of macabre anti-Christ, whose role it becomes to spread the good news of the miraculous events he has witnessed. As always in Crace, there is an engaging current of irony: an evil man spreading the word of Christ. Good news indeed!
Just out, Being Dead offers a kind of metacommentary on the issues of belief, death and the search for transcendence so central to Quarantine. “It is the novel of the material I couldn’t include in Quarantine,” he says. Crace has turned the casual murder of a middle-aged couple, Joseph and Celice, on a deserted beach into a swirling symphonic celebration of the glory of the natural world. As the couple lay undiscovered on the beach for six days, their bodies embalmed by sand, the arm of the husband still holding on to his wife’s leg, moments from their lives are replayed like old family cine film. We see them together as students, making love for the first time amidst the very sand dunes of Baritone Bay where they are later to die, and we see how time and familiarity has dampened their ardour.
There is no meaning to life other than “to replicate and decompose” Celice, a zoologist, tells her students. And as the creatures emerge from the shadows to feast on their rotting corpses - the marine crickets and swagbeetles, all invented by Crace - the reader might be tempted to agree with Celice. And yet Crace describes their decomposition with such a heightened sense of rapture - his rhythmic prose reads more like blank verse - that he makes of death something grand and celebratory, the natural end to things.
In person, Crace is a kind of poetic apostle of Darwinian evolution, a fervent atheist who luxuriates in man’s isolation in the universe. Whereas, say, Richard Dawkins shrinks the world with his cold reductive scientism, gleefully emphasising man’s smallness, Crace enlarges it, praising man’s “bigness”, as he puts it. “Death for me becomes a greater mystery if you don’t believe in God,” he says. “Religion reduces everything, but if you are a scientific atheist you are obliged to recognise the depth of human mystery.”
Crace seeks mysticism and transcendence in secular worship of nature. “When people tell me that I’m a pessimistic writer or my books are depressing I’m surprised,” he says. “In life we don’t spend our time surrounded by people like Meryl Streep and Al Pacino, people who have all the great sentences, good butts, full heads of hair. The great optimism for me in the world is that we love blemished people; and they’re the kind of people I want to write about.” Crace certainly dwells on the blemishes of Celice and Joseph, their moles and mottled skin, their rheumatism and migraines. In one memorable sentence he writes of Celice smelling the “musty mushroom of his (her husband’s) scalp”.
Crace, 53, is a small, athletic man with receding blond hair and pale, intense eyes. He grew up in a working-class part of Enfield, north London. His father, who worked in various roles for the Co-op, including a stint as a milkman, was a radical socialist and atheist. Crace shares most of these political convictions, describing himself as a “dyed-in-the-wool North Korean atheist”. A lifelong member of the Labour Party, he is a political activist and campaigns for the abolition of grammar schools in his area, even though he is a product of Edmonton Grammar School. He sends his two teenage children to the local comprehensive.
Yet Crace is the kind of writer who commands substantial sixfigure advances, and his five-bedroom house and large garden reflect that status. How does he feel about money? “We have our schemes, my wife and I. We don’t have two houses, we don’t drive two cars and we lead” - he laughs - “a very puritanical life.”
Crace claims he missed the hedonism of the late Sixties by working in Africa, first on a VSO scheme in the Sudan, and then as a teacher in a remote village in Botswana. “As a young man I was a member of CND, the campaign for colonial freedom and the Young Socialists and my social life, my sex life, everything I did was politically associated.” On his return from Africa, he wrote educational programmes for the BBC, and then became a freelance journalist, contributing to The Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph among others. He met his wife, Pam, a teacher, in Birmingham, where he did his degree at the city’s College of Commerce (old boys include writers Patrick McGrath and Gordon Burn). You can almost predict the title of one of those obscure PhDs from an American University, which is already surely being prepared: “Jim Crace and the Hermeneutics of the Birmingham College of Commerce School of Fiction.”
Crace is vigorous and committed in argument. He is eager to debate issues of selectivity in education, as well as religion. When I suggest that the attraction of religion is its inexplicability, its irrational surrendering in the face of the unknowable, his tone becomes an agitated murmur of protest: “There is no God, there is no God.” He claims not to have spoken to a local Labour councillor, an old acquaintance, ever since the councillor sent his child to a grammar school. This is rather harsh, isn’t it? “This guy used to ring me up and say, ‘Come on, Jim, turn out for the left on this one’. And then, when the first test came, he sends his child to a grammar school. I couldn’t have anything to do with him after that. I take these things very seriously.” The seriousness of the remark, though, is undermined by his relaxed chuckle.
Yet Crace is certainly no unsmiling, po-faced dogmatist. He is an enormously engaging, wised-up conversationalist. Modest, too. He has an attractively balanced perspective on the role of the novelist in contemporary society - far from elevating fiction into a noble art, as so many novelists do, he concedes that “journalism is more important because it has the capacity to change hearts and minds by giving them actual information”.
Crace is scornful of those writers who retreat from active engagement in the world, who claim not to be interested in the sales or reviews. “That’s pure indulgence,” he says. “It pretends that writing is more important than it is. But there are many other ways you can ennoble yourself than by writing a novel; by fishing say, or gardening.”
When I first arrived at his house, and we were eating cheese on toast in his garden, Crace spoke of his pride at how he had managed to hold a marriage together for more than 20 years, at how he is committed to sport, to walking in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, and to a life away from his desk.
All this struck me as entirely sane. Jim Crace, for all his stern opinions and cold-eyed fanaticism, seems among the most humanly balanced of writers, rooted in the world but imaginatively estranged from it. He knows exactly what he wants to do, and how to do it. What he does next, of course, is anyone’s guess - but it will be worth waiting for, all the same.