Kate Forbes: The Rooted Nomad

December 6 2023 / The New Statesman

​Will the SNP’s Kate Forbes ultimately be forced to choose between politics and God?

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Wayne Barnes: sport, the courtroom and social media hate

December 1 2023 / The New Statesman

As an international rugby referee, the English lawyer has faced sustained abuse and death threats. Now he is fighting back against the negligence of the tech giants

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Carlos Alcaraz: the future of men's tennis is here, and now

July 15 2023 / The Sunday Times

The multidimensional Spanish player is a talent for the ages

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Rachel Reeves: The Reeves Doctrine

June 7 2023 / The New Statesman

She is ready to be Britain’s first female chancellor of the Exchequer.
But will Rachel Reeves’ caution stifle her creativity?

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Andy Murray: Unbreakable

January 21 2023 / The New Statesman

The Scottish tennis player has achieved a late-career grandeur

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Paul Johnson: from radical to reactionary

January 18 2023 / The New Statesman

​The former New Statesman editor who came to hate the Left

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Munira Mirza: out of Downing Street and into the world

November 9 2022 / The New Statesman

Munira Mirza, once known as “Boris Johnson’s brain”, is a liberal contrarian whose views have been widely condemned. But now in her new role she wants to avoid controversy and change the way we do politics

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Bryan Magee: Pensées

July 28 2021 / The New Statesman

The philosopher who never stopped asking ultimate questions

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James Hawes: The Shortest History of England

December 2 2020 / New Statesman

The long shadow of the Norman Conquest

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Patrick Hutchinson: Grace Under Pressure

November 25 2020 / New Statesman

​George Floyd, Black Lives Matter and Heroism

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Neil Ferguson: The Covid Modeller

July 30 2020 / New Statesman

​The so-called Professor Lockdown, a hate figure for the libertarian right, on epidemiology, saving lives during the coronavirus pandemic and his sudden resignation

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Mark Fisher: The intellectual leader of a generation

November 20 2019 / New Statesman

Haunted by a future that never happened

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Jeremy Hunt: The Last Cameroon

April 17 2019 / New Statesman

​The great survivor is on a mission to unite his fractured party - and the country

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Paul Collier: We are living a tragedy

November 29 2018 / New Statesman

​How to heal deep rifts in society

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John McDonnell: The Hard Man of the Left

September 5 2018 / New Statesman

From Marxist ideologue to shadow chancellor, Corbyn’s intellectual guru and closest ally has long been reviled. But now that power is in sight – and faced with a possible Labour split – his passion is turning to pragmatism

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Bryan Magee: The Restless Philosopher

April 5 2018 / New Statesman

One summer afternoon in 1997, on assignment for the Times, I visited Bryan Magee at his flat in Kensington, west London. I read philosophy at university in the late 1980s and my understanding of the subject was transformed through watching Magee’s BBC Two series The Great Philosophers (1987) and then reading the subsequent book adapted from it. He is unsurpassed in the postwar period in Britain as a populariser of philosophy, and I learned more from the 15 episodes of that series as well as the book than from any lecture or seminar I attended. It achieved, as the philosopher and biographer Ray Monk has written, the near-impossible feat of presenting to a mass audience the recondite issues of philosophy without the loss either of accessibility or intellectual integrity.

The format was extraordinarily simple. Magee sat alongside an eminent philosopher (“two boffins on a sofa” was how the Guardian’s witty TV critic Nancy Banks-Smith described the set-up in a favourable review) and together they interrogated the work of one of the greats: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, and so on. Magee asked the questions and clarified or summarised the replies. The series was revelatory – at least to me. So, this is how to read and talk about philosophy!

Magee and I chatted for a couple of hours that afternoon as bright sunshine streamed through the high windows of his sitting room. What I liked about his approach was his willingness to demystify philosophical problems by demonstrating that they were not theoretical but existential – about the nature of reality, encountered in the course of living. Yet as I prepared to leave that afternoon, Magee, who through choice lived alone having once been briefly married, said something that I’ve never forgotten. “I get the impression,” he said, “that you feel I am lonely and unfulfilled.”

There was some truth in this: he did seem unfulfilled, and not because he lived alone. There was something restless in his manner: an irritable reaching after fact and reason, as Keats wrote in a different context. He’d never committed himself fully to one discipline, preferring instead to occupy many different public roles as a broadcaster, politician, teacher, author and poet. And he told me – he was 67 at the time – that he believed himself still to be capable of “doing great things”. He used a German word to describe how he felt about his own potential, Machtgefühl. Macht = power, Gefühl = feeling or sense. So, in broad translation, Machtgefühl: a feeling of or having a sense of power. I have also seen the word translated as “feeling of superiority” (even though I haven’t seen macht translated as “superiority”).

As an impressionable younger man, I was pretty impressed by what Magee had achieved already. What more could he do or have done? Why even now such restlessness and vaulting ambition?

In his book, Confessions of a Philosopher (1997), which is a history of Western philosophy told through his own intellectual journey, Magee offers what could be a partial answer to these questions when he describes how in his late thirties, despite having a passionate attachment to life, he was driven to the edge of mental illness, even suicide, by metaphysical terror. He learned to control his terror, which, though he did not say so, recalled Blaise Pascal’s fear of “immensity of spaces which I know not and which know not me”, through reading the writings of others, notably Arthur Schopenhauer. “I think the feeling of meaninglessness is worst of all, worse than the fear of death itself,” Magee said. “The feeling that nothing matters, that there’s no point to anything. Certainly, I have experiences, in the forms of extreme existential terror, states of mind that bordered on the intolerable.”


Magee, who is 88, now lives in one room in a nursing hospital in Oxford. It was there that I went to see him. He’d re-entered my thoughts a couple of years earlier when he wrote a letter for publication in the New Statesman. Not long after that, he published a short, haunting book called Ultimate Questions, which would serve, he told me in another letter, as his final statement on philosophy while also being, he hoped, an original contribution to the subject. Then, in February, John Cleese tweeted: “One of my heroes, the philosopher Bryan Magee, has just written a new book. It’s called Ultimate Questions and I strongly recommend it.”

It was poignant encountering Magee in his hospital room after all this time. He cannot walk and sat with a blanket across his legs in an armchair directly opposite a television – he was watching the BBC news when I arrived, the sound turned up loud. He was wearing a pink open-necked business shirt and on a table before him were a telephone connected to a landline, a copy of that morning’s Times, a hardback of Ultimate Questions and several books of PG Wodehouse stories. Magee is still lucid and his voice is as warm and mellifluous as it ever was. He wears thick-framed glasses that magnify his eyes like marbles, just as they did back when he was performing as one of the boffins on the sofa.

Philosophy has been fundamental to his life for as long as he can remember. Even as a young boy he was absorbed by ultimate questions. The world and its mysteries perplexed and tormented him, from the nature of time (does it have a beginning?) to the riddle of why we sleep. He has described lying awake as a child for hours at night, longing to experience the moment at which he fell asleep, in “the same sort of way as people try to catch the light in a refrigerator going out” as its door closes. “An ever-present curiosity became for most of the time my strongest-felt emotion, sometimes the mode I lived in,” he wrote.

Even now, alone in his one room, late in life, he remains wonder-struck. “What the hell is it all about?” he asked. “What are we doing here? What’s going on? I feel the weight of these huge questions. And I know I can’t get the answers to them, and I find that oppressive.” In Ultimate Questions, Magee writes of being “driven to the view that total reality consists of some aspects that we are capable of apprehending and others that we are not”.

Philosophy is by its nature improvable: it is perpetually being revised as each generation makes its discoveries and re-evaluates the best of what has been thought and written. In this sense, with the exception of the permanent truths of mathematics and logic, human knowledge cannot be definitive. As Karl Popper argued, to demand certainty is to demand something you can never have. At best, all we can have is conjectural and provisional knowledge permanently open to improvement. For Magee, “There aren’t explanations for everything; indeed, there are no explanations for anything, and we should be far more agnostic in our way of living.”

Martin Amis, formerly an atheist, said something similar in a 2006 interview with Bill Moyers. Being an agnostic, he said, was “the only respectable position, simply because our ignorance of the universe is so vast… We’re about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe. Why is the universe so incredibly complicated? That makes me delay my vote on the existence of some intelligence.”

Magee was brought up in a working-class family in Hoxton, east London. Home was a men’s clothing shop, owned by his grandfather and worked in by his father, who was an anti-communist socialist, highly cultured, and ambitious for his son. Magee adored him but disliked his mother. “She was a loveless person who never loved anybody,” he told me. “She had no affection for her children, and she told us so – she told me and my sister.”

He grew up in the street, surrounded by groups of other children. “My mother would give me a meal in the morning and then she’d shut me out on to the street, and say, ‘I don’t want to see you again until it gets dark.’ All the time she was telling us that she didn’t love us, didn’t want us and that we were in the way.”

Magee was a clever boy and, at the age of 11 and encouraged by his father, he won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital in West Sussex, a traditional public school founded in 1552 which, because of its generous system of bursaries, attracted boys from all social classes (today it is a co-educational day and boarding school). There, he was educated “out of the class system”. “The way I spoke changed – I learned to speak like everyone around me, but not consciously. It just happened. I knew too that after I’d gone to Christ’s Hospital I could do anything I wanted to do. I could be a doctor, anything.”

During his national service, he served in the army and Intelligence Corps. Magee then went up to Oxford, where he became president of the union, was a committed socialist, and “took it for granted that sooner or later I’d be a member of parliament”. After a year of graduate research in the United States, he worked in television as a “backroom boy, scriptwriter and editor” and later as an on-screen reporter and presenter because he knew that he would not earn enough from writing to support the sophisticated lifestyle he desired. “I wanted to travel, to go to the theatre, to restaurants, to have a much more metropolitan life.”

During this period, he had many relationships – he describes sex as an “other-worldly” experience and likens its effects to that of great music, “the deepest we can penetrate into a world other than this world, the world beyond appearances” – but never came close to remarrying. (He has one daughter from his brief marriage, who lives in Sweden and has three children of her own.)

“What I wanted was complete freedom,” he told me. “It’s always been a dominating feeling with me. I wanted to get up in the morning and think, ‘I’ll go to Paris for the weekend.’ You can’t do that if you’re living with someone.”

In February 1974, he was elected Labour MP for Leyton in east London. He wanted and expected to achieve high office but he was distrusted by Harold Wilson and was never promoted. He believes Wilson would not forgive him for a television interview conducted by Magee in which he had exposed the contradictions in the Labour leader’s position on the abolition of grammar schools.

“After the programme he got up and shook hands with the other people in the studio, the floor manager, the cameramen and so on, he shook hands with everybody else, and he glared at me, and he walked out. He was positively anti-me when I was an MP. I’m virtually sure that was the reason.”

Magee left politics “enormously disillusioned” having defected to the SDP; he lost his seat at the 1983 general election. “I had completely adjusted psychologically to losing,” he said. “If I hadn’t lost, I might have stood down anyway.”


Through all this, Magee kept coming back to philosophy. He presented radio and television series on the subject and wrote books on Karl Popper and later on Schopenhauer. He also published a book of poetry while at Oxford but regrets having done so, and a novel in which he explored his existential terror, Facing Death (1977). Despite all this activity, he was frustrated by his own limitations as he identified them – limitations of intellect and of creative imagination.

“There’s nothing I wanted to do that I haven’t done,” he said. “But I’m frustrated that I wasn’t able to do it better. What’s been wrong with me in life is that I haven’t had that extra ability or belief in myself, I don’t know what it is, that [would have] made me go one step further.”

Later in our conversation, he said: “What disappoints me about my achievement is that I expected, when I was very young and more optimistic about myself and my future, to do better. I expected to write better things than I have, but I’ve done as well as I can. I’m not as able as I would like to be but there it is.”

He has met exceptional individuals. “I got to know Bertrand Russell in the last years of his life. I knew Karl Popper quite well, and they were a whole class above me in intelligence. It wasn’t that I was jealous, it was that I was trying to grapple with these problems with inadequate weaponry.”

Magee believes he lacked originality and, until Ultimate Questions, struggled to make an original contribution to philosophy. “Popper had this originality, Russell had it, and Einstein had it in spades. Einstein created a way of seeing things which transformed the way we see the world and the way we even understand such fundamental things as time and space. And I fundamentally understand that I could never do that, never. I wish I was in that class – not because I want to be a clever chap but because I want to do things that are at a much better level than I’ve done them.”

Not lonely, then, but still restless and unfulfilled.

But what of the original contribution he claims to have made in Ultimate Questions?

“Well, it is to say that we don’t know anything.”

You mean the permanent unknowability of total reality?

“Yes, the unknowability of everything that matters.”

Of which more later.


Magee follows the news and politics closely and considers the vote for Brexit to have been a “historic mistake”. More than that, it has dislocated him, as it has many others. “What this has made me understand is that I’ve lost my understanding of what’s going on. We must live with the consequences. But we will have serious problems long into the future, and the most serious problem is what you call ‘the elite being out of touch’ and being wrong about one huge thing after another. Society has changed, or is changing in ways we haven’t properly grasped.”

As a young man following the example of his beloved father, Magee was on the Bevanite left, but now calls himself a centrist. “I’m not a conservative and I don’t think I could ever be. But the old categorisations of socialism, or social democracy, and conservative have been left behind by events. The parties themselves are now out of touch with the realities of social change. Both our main parties are fundamentally responses to situations that no longer exist or have become very weak. They are responses to a society that isn’t there.”

The final paragraph of Ultimate Questions, in which Magee speculates on how he might feel at the point of death, is especially haunting. “I can only hope that,” he writes, “when it is my turn, my curiosity will overcome my fear – though I may then be in the position of a man whose candle goes out and plunges him into pitch darkness at the very instant when he thought he was about to find what he was looking for.”

Magee does not know what he is looking for because what he seeks – answers to the ultimate questions – is unavailable. He does not attempt to find consolation in religion, in abstract systems or in general philosophies that provide explanations for everything, but nor is he an atheist. He’s an agnostic troubled continuously by the unknowability, indeed the incomprehensibility, of total reality; of what lies beyond the world of appearances and can never be breached. “I do genuinely believe the possibility that death might be total extinction, but it’s only a possibility; something else might be the case, and I generally believe that too.”

What for him is “terminally inexplicable” is existence itself. “What I feel about this is a double sense of wonder that the inexplicable is actual,” he writes in Ultimate Questions.

After I turned the tape recorder off, Magee started to ask me questions – about where I grew up, where I went to school. He said he’d hoped my questions might have led him to some kind of revelation or renewed self-understanding. They had not. So, we talked instead about Harlow new town in Essex, where I was born, its origins and purpose. “This is interesting,” he said. “Now I’m learning something!”

He seemed reluctant for our conversation to end, so I stayed on to have a cup of tea and some lemon drizzle cake brought to us by a male nurse. Eventually I could see that he was tiring and I left him there, alone, holding a metaphorical candle as darkness fell.

Bryan Magee may now live in one room in Oxford and be unable to walk, but this remarkable man’s intellect is unbounded and his mind roams restlessly free. And just as he did as a child in Hoxton all those years ago, he cannot stop grappling with the human predicament. He is pursuing answers to questions he knows can never be answered, and yet will go on pursuing them for as long as he can, until the flickering flame of life is extinguished.

Nigel Farage: The arsonist in exile

December 7 2017 / New Statesman

​As the Brexiteers cry betrayal, will the former leader of Ukip settle for life as an alt-right shock jock or return as the head of a new English nationalist movement?

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David Brooks: A hesitant radical in the age of Trump

October 26 2017 / New Statesman

Politics is a competition between partial truths

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Theresa May: The May Doctrine

February 9 2017 / New Statesman

​The British Prime Minister on Brexit, Trump and the return of the state

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Jeremy Corbyn: The Last Comrade

December 14 2016 / New Statesman

​Labour wars and Brexit woes: the year of living dangerously

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Tony Blair: Out of exile

November 24 2016 / New Statesman

​Trump, Brexit and Blair’s new political mission

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Arsene Wenger: The first cosmopolitan

September 24 2016 / New Statesman

​The line of beauty

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Martin Jacques: The new New Times

September 22 2016 / New Statesman

Neoliberalism crashed with the financial crash

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​Michael Sandel: politics and morality

June 13 2016 / New Statesman

The energy of the Brexiteers and Donald Trump is born of the failure of elites

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Peregrine Worsthorne: The lost magic of England

February 11 2016 / The New Statesman

​The great conservative journalist reflects on a long life at the heart of the establishment

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George Osborne: The ascent of the submarine

September 9 2015 / New Statesman

George Osborne’s mission to capture and reshape the centre ground.

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Jeremy Corbyn: The Time of the Rebel

July 29 2015 / New Statesman

Is Jeremy Corbyn ready to lead the Labour party?

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Alex Salmond: The Scottish Question

March 24 2015 / New Statesman

The pursuit of power

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Nigel Farage: The Populist

November 12 2014 / New Statesman

What does the Ukip leader know?

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Alistair Darling: the Union's last stand

June 10 2014 / New Statesman

With just 100 days to save the Union, Alistair Darling fights back

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Alex Salmond: his mission to break up the United Kingdom

June 25 2013 / New Statesman

If Alex Salmond’s opponents in London are feeling confident, they shouldn’t be. He is deadly serious about Scottish independence and how he might achieve it

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Danny Dayan: "There is no solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict."

January 17 2013 / New Statesman

One morning late last year in Tel Aviv, I had coffee with Danny Dayan, the chairman of the Yesha Council and leader of Israel’s settler movement. It was warm and sunny and, because I had to catch a flight back to wintry London later that afternoon, I asked if we could sit outside on the café‘s terrace. He pulled up a chair and then, looking straight at me, said in English: “The settlements are a fait accompli.” There was no preamble or attempt at contextual explanation; it was as if, before our conversation could begin, he wanted there to be no doubt over just where he stood on the issue of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which the settlers refer to as the old Jewish lands of Judaea and Samaria.

Dayan is a resonant name in Israel. Danny is distantly related to Moshe Dayan (1915-81), one of Israel’s most uncompromising Sabra (native born) military leaders. Born in Argentina, he was 15 when he moved with his family to Israel in 1971. An economist and software entrepreneur, he likes to beguile, even to charm, sceptical reporters.

In manner and appearance he was not what I expected of an unyielding defender of the settler movement. Clean-shaven, urbane and wearing a casual, open-necked pale blue shirt, he seemed less like a religious or poli - tical zealot than a metropolitan intellectual who wouldn’t be out of place among the café cultural elite of Buenos Aires. His heroes were less surprising: the messianic “revisionist” Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, a leader of the militant Irgun and founder of Likud.

On 8 January, Dayan announced that he was resigning as chairman of the Yesha Council so that he could campaign for Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party during the election period. When we met, he described as “magnificent” Netanyahu’s expansion of settlement-building after a ten-month freeze but, unlike the prime minister, he does not profess to support a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine stalemate. A one-state solution was also obviously anathema to him – as it is to most liberal Jews, for whom an Israel with a majority Arab population would imply either the end of the democratic Jewish state or the emergence of a de facto apartheid state, with the Arab majority deprived of full citizenship and democratic rights.

“My conscience is clear on the settlements,” Dayan said that morning in Tel Aviv. “Before 1994, I would have nothing to do with South Africa . . . Israel is not like apartheid South Africa. [The war of] 1967 was an unforgivable act of aggression . . . [The Arabs] did not want us to exist. It’s their own fault there’s no Palestinian state.”

Home for Dayan is the hilltop settlement of Ma’ale Shomron, 20 miles from Tel Aviv, in the occupied West Bank, where he went to live in “an act of unity” during the first intifada. He hurried me through a brief history of the Israeli-Arab wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 and on into the present. His conversation was annotated and footnoted with references to various failed international initiatives: the 1937 Peel commission, the Arab League’s rejection of the 1947 UN partition plan for Palestine, and so on. The object was to demonstrate Arab intransigence.

When Ariel Sharon ordered the unilateral evacuation of the settlers from Gaza in 2005 (Israel had disbanded the settlements in Sinai after the peace accord with Egypt in 1979), 8,000 people were uprooted. But there are now as many as 600,000 Jews living in East Jerusalem and the occupied territories of the West Bank. Ever since Israel began building on the land seized from Egypt, Syria and Jordan during the 1967 “six-day” war, the remorseless logic of the carve-up and occupation of the West Bank has been that the settlements will harden into something permanent and immovable. As a result, the creation of a Palestinian state will become incrementally more difficult, until one day it is no longer viable.

Yet for Dayan, though he thinks there is “no solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the “status quo is also not acceptable”. He expects the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan to crumble from within like a rotten tooth or be toppled in an uprising before too long. Jordan will become an ethnic-Palestinian-majority controlled state and this, in his account, will change the dynamic of the conflict.

“That there is no solution is the bad news. But what we can do is improve the status quo. We must improve the human rights of the Palestinians and give them freedom of movement. The barrier [or security wall] is a disgrace and should be dismantled. Eventually we should try to reach agreement with Jordan on joint responsibility [for the West Bank], with the River Jordan as the dividing line of sovereignty. The solution will be peculiar because the conflict is so peculiar: there’s no other example of a people returning to their homeland after 2,000 years.” With that, he chuckled, shook my hand and was gone.

Ed Miliband: He’s not for turning

September 5 2012 / New Statesman

How will Ed Miliband remake capitalism when there is no money to spend?

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Lionel Messi: three days in Barcelona

June 23 2012 / The Times

How to describe and account for the brilliance of Lionel “Leo” Messi, the unassuming Argentine genius who is not only the world’s best footballer, but perhaps the greatest ever to play the global game? “With Leo,” says Thierry Henry, a former team-mate at FC Barcelona, “the best thing is not to talk about him. It is to watch him.”

Pep Guardiola, who, until he stepped down as coach at the end of May, was Messi’s mentor and protector at Barcelona, said something similar when asked to describe what made the little forward so great. “The superlatives ran out long ago. We have gone beyond words now. Don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him, watch him.”

So one recent evening I did just that, went to watch Messi in action against Málaga at his home stadium, the Nou Camp. It was Barça’s penultimate home game of what, compared with their recent triumphs under Guardiola, proved ultimately to be a disappointing 2011-12 season: they lost their league title to despised Castilian rivals Real Madrid and, as holders, were knocked out in the Champions League semi-finals by Chelsea, exponents of an ultra-defensive anti-football. For Messi, though, it was another long season of personal glory, in which he scored an astonishing 73 goals for Barça in all competitions (50 in La Liga), a new record for a European club season.

I’d seen him play – “play” being the operative word – twice before, against Arsenal in thrilling Champions League games at the Emirates Stadium in London. But it was a different experience altogether to be present among 88,000 Catalans in that vast open-air concrete bowl that is the Nou Camp during what were the last days of Guardiola’s reign as coach. What’s more, Messi, dressed in the famous maroon and blue striped shirt, scored a nonchalant hat-trick in a 4-1 win.

From my position high up in the stands, Messi seemed even smaller as he walked off at the end, the smallest man in a small side. He was delightedly holding the match ball, which in his hands became a basketball to be bounced, another object of play for the man who, as the Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano puts it, “plays for the pleasure of playing”. Three days later, against Espanyol in Barça’s final home game of the season, Messi scored four, as one does.

Simon Kuper, in his book The Football Men, calls Messi the classic Argentine pibe, the man-boy who is blessed with the freedom and imagination of a very young child, dribbling without inhibition, always taking players on and running incessantly at them with the ball at his feet, as if he were still back on the street. Football as pure play. Football as an expression of childlike joy and simplicity.

So are you the classic pibe, I ask Messi, when we meet the day after the Málaga game in central Barcelona, where on this warm, breezy afternoon many of the roads are closed as students are protesting about a meeting of the European Central Bank.

“A pibe!” Messi looks up and smiles. “That’s what I’m trying to do,” he says, through a translator. He speaks Spanish in a quiet voice and with a strong Argentine accent. “Football is a game. I’m trying to have fun on the pitch, always, just to play. That’s why I do it. The day I stop having fun is the day I retire… I never want to lose that spark, that passion. Today, teams are playing more statically, more for the final score than producing good football. For them, it’s more important to win than to play well. We need more players with passion coming up for the good of football.”

Are Chelsea one of the static teams, I ask, reminding Messi, as if he needs it, of the penalty he missed against them during the second leg of the Champions League semi-final at the Nou Camp in April. (Chelsea drew the game 2-2, winning the tie 3-2 on aggregate.) “I felt terrible,” he says of the miss, and lowers his head. “Angry at myself, because I knew at that moment the whole tie was in my hands. But I can’t do anything now. It’s past. But it was a very tough moment for me and I still think about it.”

In person, Messi, who is fair skinned, is unremarkable except for his height – he is 5ft 6.5in, and yet seems somehow smaller, because he hunches a little and looks often at his feet, as if searching for the ball he feels should be there and with which he would be more comfortable, juggling it, rolling it back and forth.

He has dark, alert eyes, flat, unstyled hair and, on the afternoon we meet at the launch of a limited-edition Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Leo Messi watch, scruffy, gingery-brown stubble. He is wearing bulky white Dolce & Gabbana trainers and a white T-shirt, jeans that are more shredded than ripped, and a waist-length black leather jacket. “He could have made more of an effort,” one of the sponsors whispers to me, perplexed that he should have shown up for the event as if dressed for the terraces.

I liked the way he was dressed. There’s something attractively modest about Messi, both as a player and in his mannerisms: the slight shuffle, the polite awkwardness. “Humble”, “honoured”, “proud” are key words in his lexicon. “If there is a player who plays with zero adornments, it is Leo,” Guardiola has said. “I’ve never seen a stepover from him… He is the ultimate in effectiveness.”

Messi smiles easily in conversation and looks you in the eye. He has none of the ostentatious, rock-star strut of Cristiano Ronaldo, his only serious rival to the accolade of world’s best player and a master of adornment and the redundant stepover. Or the narcissism of David Beckham, who, out of boredom or self-love, or perhaps both, has turned his fine body into a tattooist’s fantasy canvas, a site of inky desecration.

Messi has no piercings and no tattoos. From what I hear and from talking to those who are close to him or have worked with him on business and charitable projects, he lives cleanly and quietly, in the Catalonian coastal town of Castelldefels surrounded by family and his Argentine girlfriend – his childhood sweetheart, Antonella Roccuzzo – all of whom he’s brought over from his home town of Rosario. At the end of 2011, he told Argentine magazine Caras, “I dream of being a father,” setting off rumours that his girlfriend was pregnant. In April, Roccuzzo apparently tweeted that she was expecting and rumours intensified when, after scoring his 23rd goal for Argentina against Ecuador in a World Cup 2014 qualifying match earlier this month, Messi stuck the match ball under his shirt.


“Leo is not flashy,” says someone who works with him. “He has a Maserati and an Audi Q7, given to him by the club. He has a home cinema. He plays a lot of PlayStation. His life is quiet and it can be difficult. When he was in India and Bangladesh, playing an exhibition game, he couldn’t get out of the hotel because of all the fans waiting. It must be hard to live like that, with everything under scrutiny – what you can and can’t say, where you can go and when. He’s just a kid after all [he’s 24], who only wants to play football.”

Another business representative said to me: “Leo couldn’t look me in the eye when we met. It was as if he was embarrassed by the attention, ashamed to have such talent.”

I was told Messi earns £32 million a year, from Barcelona and from sponsorship and brand “ambassadorial” work. When I meet him he’s accompanied by his ever watchful agent, Pablo Negre, who inspected my digital recorder in a manner that suggested he expected it to explode, and his brother Rodrigo.

Everything he does in public is rigidly choreographed and his utterances are policed into blandness. My questions had been submitted weeks before to the agent; most had been rejected as “unsuitable”, including anything about the country of his birth – it’s said that Messi never plays as well for Argentina as he does for Barça and he will never be fully accepted as truly great by his compatriots until he consistently dominates international matches as Diego Maradona did. More than this, to be considered greater than Maradona, he will have to inspire Argentina to World Cup victory as Maradona did in 1986 in Mexico, when he played teams sometimes as if on his own.

It must be tough for Leo to live as he does, I say to his brother, everything controlled.

“It’s not so bad if you think of the alternative – that is, never to have been known at all, never to have had this happen.”

Still, and I put this directly to Messi, it must feel as if he lives in a kind of gilded prison, from which he escapes only to play football. “I try to live as normal a life as I can,” he says. “I try to go to the cinema, to shop in the centre, to go out to a restaurant, to take a stroll with my family – it’s the best thing for me to try to live like that. Fortunately, in the city of Barcelona people allow me to live as a normal person, like I am, and to enjoy my private life off the pitch. And my family helps so much. We don’t have many opportunities when the whole family can be together, nephews and cousins, aunts and uncles – these are very beautiful and important moments for me.”


Born on June 24, 1987, in the industrial town of Rosario, in the Santa Fe province of Argentina, Lionel Messi arrived with his father, a steel worker, in Barcelona as a diminutive 13-year-old (he was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency at the age of 11). He was only 4ft 7in, his legs were thin and spindly, and he required intensive hormone therapy to accelerate his growth, which no club in Argentina could afford, or at least was prepared to fund. But he performed brilliantly in a trial game and Barcelona were impressed enough to take him on.

Back home he was considered, for all his technical gifts and natural speed, to be simply too small to succeed as a professional footballer, but at Barcelona, with medical assistance, he grew taller and rose rapidly through the ranks. By the time he was in his late teens he was a first-team regular and already being spoken of as a talent for all the ages. His legs had strengthened, he had a low centre of gravity, preternatural balance and poise and he could run faster than any other player while keeping the ball under tight control at his feet. “Nobody was so wonderful [as Messi] at 19 years, neither Pelé nor Maradona,” says Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the former Germany striker turned chief executive of Bayern Munich.

Now, Messi is considered to be Barça’s greatest player, greater even than Johan Cruyff, who did so much, first as a player, from 1973-78, and then as coach, from 1988-96, to create the modern Barça style of “tika-taka” football: the relentless, fast-paced and intricate passing game that has conquered the world. (The Spain national team, with its many Barça players, won the 2008 European Championship and 2010 World Cup playing a version of tika-taka.)

Messi could have played for Spain under residency rules but instead chose Argentina, yet he is accepted by Catalans as one of their own: a boy formed by and schooled at the La Masia, the stone farmhouse built in 1702 that is part of the Nou Camp complex. It is home to the club’s celebrated youth academy, which has produced players of extraordinary discipline and technical ability: Guardiola himself from an earlier generation; Xavi; Andres Iniesta; Gerard Piqué; Cesc Fabregas; Sergio Busquets; and so it goes on.

“Everything was new to me when I arrived there,” Messi says of his early months living in a dormitory at La Masia. “Everything seemed suddenly complicated. I had part of my family still in Argentina, I had my friends there. What helped was that I was living there with other young boys from Spain and from all over the world – being there all together made everything a lot easier for me.”


How must it feel being Lionel Messi? How must it feel to wake each morning to the sound of the world’s applause, to know that you are not just exceptional, but the very best, and at football, the dominant cultural form of our time? What does this knowledge do to your motivation? How great is the desire to keep getting better, especially when you have as much money as you can ever need?

Such questions, Messi says, are “very complicated”. He prefers to play rather than to reflect and introspect. “I am playing for one of the best teams in history. I’m very grateful for everything life has given me so far, for everything I’ve been able to achieve, for the family I have, for the people who surround me. But I always believe better things will come. I want to grow and mature as a person. I still have so much to learn. I am the way I am at every moment. I am not playing a role. It makes it easier to be myself. I don’t have to watch what I do, I just do what I do. And remember: I am only 24 years old.”

Alastair Cook: The Slow Man

April 23 2011 / The Times

1. The art of slowness

“Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?” Milan Kundera

In an age addicted to haste, Alastair Cook is cricket’s slow man. He does not play 50-over or Twenty20 cricket for England and was left out of the recent World Cup squad, even though, following his extraordinary successes in Australia last winter during the Ashes series, when he batted for 36 hours and 11 minutes and scored 766 runs at an average of 127.6, he is our premier batsman and the closest thing we now have to an English sporting hero. He specialises in the five-day Test match, the purest and most demanding form of the game, and his defining qualities are those from another, slower era: patience, concentration, stamina, endurance.

It was a winter of two halves for Cook. He left these islands in November relatively unknown and considered to be the weak link in England’s batting. He returned in January as a very famous man indeed, having inspired England to their first series win Down Under since 1986-87. The Aussies were not just beaten, they were humiliated. By the end of the series, the Australian media, usually so jingoistic and belligerently partisan, had turned on their players, as if the nation that finds confidence and self-definition through sport was having a collective panic attack.

Because captain Andrew Strauss and the rest of the squad stayed on in Australia until February to contest a protracted and largely meaningless one-day series, and then went straight off to India for the World Cup, it was left to Cook alone to enjoy the spoils and attention of an Ashes victory in Australia.

“I feel sorry for the lads,” he says when we meet at the Kentish Town studio of the photographer Rankin. “I’ve been pretty much the only one who’s been able to play and to enjoy the experience of winning because of the schedule. The schedule has to change before it all becomes meaningless. As players we don’t have much power. We keep on saying that we play too much cricket. I’ve been saying this since I was 18 and I’m now 26, and we just cram more and more games in. We can go on strike, which is not recommended, [but] at some stage it’ll have to change.”

Life is changing fast for Cook. He is recognised often now. “People keep coming up to me in pubs, shops and restaurants to say, ‘Well done.’” I was told by someone close to the England set-up that he is known for being, if not aloof, then “guarded” and “defensive”. He does not tweet. He has no presence on Facebook. He is not, though, a technophobe. He says he’s often online, sending e-mails. Indeed, this interview is taking place thanks to a sponsorship deal with Samsung to promote its first premium notebook, the Series 9.

2. Failing better

“Where have the heroes gone?” Milan Kundera

In the run-up to and during the recent World Cup on the Indian sub-continent, England stumbled around to find someone to open the batting alongside Strauss. They tried two different wicketkeepers in the role as well as Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell. No one succeeded or quite convinced. Meanwhile, the man who should have been opening, would that the selectors had the eyes to see it, the man who had been ignored, was at home in Bedfordshire, spending long, satisfying days working on the farms of his partner, Alice Hunt. Cook (whose nickname is “Chef”; better than a cook) should have been in India, but his batting was considered to be too stately, too slow for the one-day jamboree.

Cook excels in the art of accumulation: of crease occupation, of wearing down his opponents, of simply being there. He attempts to eliminate risk from his game; there’s nothing flashy or exhibitionist in his shot selection. He doesn’t hit over the top or in the air. He’s no cavalier. And yet there’s something heroic about his sheer persistence, about the way he faces up to the new-ball challenge and goes about his business, slowly, relentlessly.

“As an opener, your responsibility is to the team; you’re the first line of defence,” he tells me. “That’s what opening the batting is; it’s all about trying to protect your mates, to get the bowlers into that second or third spell, to tire them.” Peter Roebuck, Australia’s best cricket writer, said of Cook as he was making his inexorable way towards a century in the second Test at Adelaide last December: “There seems to be no stress or pressure about his batting. He just seems able to live out there.”

This observation seemed just right to me – I was at that match and marvelling at Cook’s poise and control – because it captured well the apparent serenity of his batting throughout the Ashes series, especially when contrasted with the jittery way he’d played a few months earlier against Pakistan during the English summer. “Calmness or serenity,” Cook says now, “whatever you want to call it, I’m not a flamboyant batter; crash, bang, wallop and stuff. I kind of just grind away. When you’re in some form, you don’t notice. I’ve got a very unfussy game. Everyone knows where I’m going to try to score but they can’t always stop me. It’s all about risk management.”

One of the secrets of Cook’s success and the calm he can exhibit at the crease could be this: he doesn’t sweat. Is this true? Surely you sweat? “I don’t sweat when I’m batting. Some guys take off their helmets and water pours out. After two minutes their hands, their back, are drenched. I’m as dry as a whistle.

“I pride myself on my physical fitness. Like today, when I knew I would be doing this” – he gestures at the bustle around him in the studio – “I made sure that I got up at six and went for a run. I’ve learnt from Goochie [Graham Gooch, the former England captain who is now an Essex and England coach and Cook’s mentor]. He likes a glass of red wine, a bottle of red wine, but he always makes sure he’s up at six the next morning going for a run. If he eats a biscuit, he goes to the gym.”

Before the Ashes series began last November, Cook was being caricatured in the Australian media as a soft touch. “The Aussies didn’t rate me,” he says. Privately educated (Bedford School) and a former chorister (St Paul’s Cathedral Choir School), tall and handsome, he seemed like the kind of privileged Pom that Aussie hardmen delight in tormenting. With his thick black hair and dark eyes, he has very quickly become cricket’s first pin-up.

Ian Botham and Freddie Flintoff were better known, but neither had Cook’s ease in front of a camera. “He’s the most photogenic cricketer I’ve ever seen,” swoons one of Rankin’s assistants. Rankin and his entourage of retouchers, technicians and processors swagger and swarm around Cook. “I don’t like cricket,” Rankin tells me. “But my wife does. She knows all about Cook. For me, he’s a natural in front of a camera. Look at him: a good-looking guy.” In certain poses, with his black shirt buttoned at the neck, he looks as if he’s wandered off the set of Another Country or Brideshead Revisited. In others, he resembles a young John Taylor from Duran Duran.

Like Strauss, who went to Radley and Durham University, Cook has, in the vernacular, poshed down over the years, perhaps because of the pressures to conform and of the group-think of the modern sports dressing room, with its ethos of anti-intellectualism and suspicion of amateurism. When, for instance, I move off sport to ask Cook if all cricketers, as it is often said, vote Conservative, he seems astounded. “I dunno, you’re going to have to ask. We’ve got quite a few northerners, so they might be more into Labour, I suppose.” How does he vote? “I don’t vote. Actually, I think I voted once, but I always forget to fill in the online form.”

Former Australian captain Steve Waugh used to employ, particularly against England and South Africa, what he called a strategy of “psychological disintegration”. He urged his players to sledge opponents remorselessly: traduce, abuse and ridicule them. The plan was always to expose not only technical but mental weakness. Very few Poms had a touch of the “mongrel” in them, as Aussies like to say. In other words, they were feeble, too easily put off their game, and so easily beaten.

This winter, the plan for the Australian bowlers was to target Cook, to abuse him into uselessness. After all, he was opening the innings, leading from the front. Get him early, when the ball is still hard, and you have a chance of knocking over England cheaply, as in previous series. And in some ways, Cook had already psychologically disintegrated – during the English summer of 2010, when he suffered a catastrophic loss of form and confidence against Pakistan’s bowlers.

“I watched Paul Collingwood against the Australians [in the Ashes series] and he was so out of touch,” Cook says. “You know what he’s going through, but still you can’t feel his pain. You feel for him, and you offer as much advice as you can, but there’s only one person in cricket who can drag you through that, and that’s you. It’s horrible watching someone going through it… When you’re out of form as a batter, it’s probably the worst job because you fail so often, so quickly, and you sit around waiting for such a long period of time.”

During that long summer of struggle, Alice encouraged and consoled him. “Yeah, we’ve been together since childhood. She’s seen most of it, unfortunately. She’s been exceptional. She is just a really good girl, and the fact that she does the farming bit, and is not scared to get her hands dirty, then dolls herself up when she needs to – it’s quite a nice balance as well.”

He escapes from cricket by working on the farm. “The farms are sheep, turkeys and arable,” he says, his voice quickening. “I’ve learnt so much: how to pull a lamb out, spot illnesses and deal with them. It’s physically demanding in that you’re on your feet pretty much all day. I’d like to spend more time on the farm, but it’s not possible. Am I teased about it? Well, Jimmy and Swanny bought me a flat cap for my birthday. But again, it’s so different. You score a Test hundred and the next day you’re mucking out sheep.”

Fame doesn’t interest him. What he wants is to continue playing cricket for Essex and England, work on the farm and “retain my low-keyness”. He adds: “Over the past few months, it’s been harder to be that low-key. Opportunities have come up and I’d be foolish not to take them. I don’t mind people coming up to me. When I was a boy, I once saw Mike Gatting at the Science Museum. I don’t know if it was really him but it looked like him and I was genuinely excited. So I understand. Of course, when I go for a night out, or when I go to watch the darts or the rugby, suddenly it becomes a bit more difficult to do stuff that I used to do all the time. But I still try to do it.”

3. Back to the beginning

“There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, speed and forgetting.” Milan Kundera

After the miseries of the Pakistan series, Cook moved forward by going back to the beginning. He stopped meddling and resorted to how he used to play as a very young cricketer.

Like a golfer who remodels a pure, natural swing only to find that, instead of improving, his game deteriorates, Cook originally began tinkering with his technique because he wanted to get even better.

“It was my idea to change it,” he says. “I changed my foot triggers and my back foot movements. I’d had a decent career, played in a few Ashes series, but hadn’t done as well as I’d have liked against the best sides. I thought changing my technique might help. In some aspects, it did. I scored three Test hundreds [with the new technique] and some runs in one-day cricket, so it can’t have been all bad.” Until the Pakistan series, that is. “Now I’ve gone back to what I did originally,” he says. “It was a battle to always think about technique. No matter how often you try to change, it takes a long time to get it in your memory.”

On arriving in Australia, in November, England played their first warm-up game against Western Australia in Perth. Cook failed in both innings, to the delight of his Australian disparagers. “I thought: ‘Oh, no, here we go again.’?” Then, in the second warm-up game, in Adelaide, he found some form. His feet began to move just as he would have wished and it was as if the burdens of the summer were no longer quite so heavy. “We could dream about beating Australia, but I don’t think it was made reality until we had played those first couple of warm-up games,” he says. “We played some really good cricket and managed to dominate state sides, which hadn’t been done for a while. That gave us confidence. I felt I was hitting the ball really well. The method, the form and the method; if I could carry on doing that, I thought I had a chance of getting a few runs in the Tests.”

And yet, even now, Cook still fears failure. “What happened to me in Australia was a wonderful experience. Can I do it again? For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to play for England, but you never think you’re good enough, even when you’re breaking records at schoolboy level. Even when you score your first 200, you think: ‘Well, I haven’t got a cap.’ You never think you’ve achieved what you can, because of all those people ahead of you.”

He made his England debut at the age of 20 against India in Nagpur, and scored a century. “Even then,” he says, “you think: ‘Yeah, I’ve made a Test hundred on debut, but can I make another one?’ That’s how it goes on. Some sportsmen are driven by success, but I’m driven by the memory and fear of failure. I’ve been there. I know how it feels.”

Cook is a slow, deliberative cricketer in a fast-changing game. He understands, as Milan Kundera wrote, that there is a secret bond between slowness and memory. He broods on the memories of failure. He knows how it feels not to be in control. What he seeks above all else are those rare periods of control, of grace, when time seems to slow and he enters into a state of enraptured concentration, when he is able to live out there at the crease as he grinds his slow, remorseless way towards another match-winning century and to becoming an unlikely sporting hero of our impatient times.

Ed Miliband: The Insurgent

July 22 2010 / New Statesman

Will he topple his brother David and win the Labour leadership?

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Gordon Brown's last stand

May 9 2010 / New Statesman

There is a pathos to the struggles of Gordon Brown. Friends “mourn” for him, but the Prime Minister himself was fighting on to the last.

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David Miliband: The Man Who Would be King

February 19 2009 / The New Statesman

Jason Cowley accompanied the Foreign Secretary on what turned out to be a troubling and contentious four-day trip to India

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Thomas Harris: creator of a monstrous hit

November 19 2006 / The Observer

The reclusive author’s acclaimed novels about the evil Hannibal Lecter have sold in their millions and inspired influential movies. A fourth book on the iconic villain’s early days is due soon. But will it spoil the essential mystery?

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Ian McEwan: Britain's national novelist

July 18 2005 / New Statesman

The attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, so extreme and audacious, left many of us speechless: the monumentality of what had happened seemed to lie on the other side of language, beyond rational articulation. These events were “unimaginable” and “unspeakable”. They were nothing of the kind. In fact, the novelist Ian McEwan, writing on 12 September in the Guardian, offered an immediate and articulate narrative response to this world-historical moment, free from the cliches of mere horror and outrage. Three days later, he was back, haunted by how the passengers on the hijacked airliners, confronted by the certainty of their own deaths, had from high in the sky used their mobile phones to call their loved ones far below. “A new technology has shown us an ancient, human universal . . . There was really only one thing for her to say, those three words that all the terrible art, the worst pop songs and movies, the most seductive lies, can somehow never cheapen. I love you . . . There is only love, and then oblivion. Love was all they had to set against the hatred of their murderers.”

He wrote of how one of the chief crimes of the hi-jackers was a failure of imagination: to imagine how it must have felt to be a prisoner on one of those doomed planes. “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity,” he wrote. “It is the essence of compassion, and it is the begin- ning of morality.”

On Friday 8 July, the morning after the terrorist outrages on London, McEwan could be found once more in the Guardian, this time reporting from the bomb-shaken streets of the city in and around Bloomsbury. He wrote with clarity and imagination and empathy. What we are witnessing here is the emergence of McEwan as the closest thing this country has to a national novelist. He is the literary novelist-as-bestseller: the writer who, because of his continuous, imaginative engagement with the shifting complexities of the present, brings news and can speak to and for the nation at times of crisis and shock.

How has this happened? How has Ian McEwan come to occupy such an exalted position of public influence? It has been a long journey.

One June evening in 1988, as the high tide of Thatcherism swept across the country, a group of writers and media intellectuals gathered at Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser’s grand house in Campden Hill Square, Holland Park, west London. They wanted to discuss how best to respond to the hegemony of the Thatcher government. The response to the creation of this “informal discussion group” was derisive, notably from Andrew Neil’s neoliberal Sunday Times: what did this preposterous group of bien-pensants liberals know about politics and the state of the world?

Among those present at Pinter’s house that evening was the young McEwan, in the process of remaking himself as a writer. Since the publication of his first book of stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975), he had seemed to be more a chronicler of personal obsession than a writer of public engagement: the disturbed, isolated, amoral protagonists of his early fictions pursued their fantasies with vigour: killing, maiming, bullying, masturbating.

The early McEwan was no pornographer: he already wrote too well, his intentions were too serious, and his fictions, despite their splatter effects, were really about the disturbed imagination and about power - the power parents have over children, a brother has over a sister, a man over a woman, and the state has over the individual. Many of them, which he wrote under the guidance of Malcolm Bradbury as the first student of creative writing at the University of East Anglia, were experiments in form: the interior monologue, the fractured confession. Yet those stories, with their insistent linking of sex with death, were mostly cold - love was always absent from them, as if their very coldness were an expression of an entire, bleakly despairing world-view.

Born in Aldershot in 1948, the son of a remote middle-ranking Scottish soldier, McEwan grew up in North Africa and Singapore, where his father was posted. He later attended a state-run military boarding school in Ipswich where, as he has said, he felt cold, hungry and alone. From there, he went to Sussex University and then, after following the hippie trail in North Africa, he moved to Norwich to work with Bradbury at UEA. “I arrived in this lovely foreign town [Norwich], took a room and had a meeting every three or four weeks with Malcolm,” McEwan once told me over breakfast in a quiet upstairs room of a pub in north London. “He offered no strictures and showed no shock at the content of my stories. He was remarkably tolerant. It was a great piece of luck; having a reader with no egotistical wish to shape me to some preconceived end meant that I was free to find my own voice.”

Today McEwan lives in London with his wife, the journalist Annalena McAfee, and his children from an earlier marriage, in a fine house near Regent’s Park, having lived for many years in Oxford. They are well connected and sociable. “They are great foodies and love to entertain,” says one of their close friends. “At their dinner parties you may encounter Martin Amis, Timothy Garton Ash, Julian Barnes or Salman Rushdie, as well as assorted newspaper editors, literary agents and celebrity academics.”

Yet for all his metropolitan wealth, influence and the comforts of hardened achievement, McEwan shows little willingness to retreat from the defining issues of his time. He is never complacent. Shortly before the American-led invasion of Iraq, he wrote an article for the openDemocracy website in which he expressed his ambivalence about the threatened conflict. Compared to the often strident and bellicose certainties of those arguing either for or against the war, his commentary was a model of restraint and uncertainty. “The hawks,” he wrote, “have my head, the doves my heart. At a push I count myself - just - in the camp of the latter. And yet my ambivalence remains . . . One can only hope now for the best outcome: that the regime, like all dictatorships, rootless in the affections of its people, will crumble like a rotten tooth; that the federal, democratic Iraq that the Iraqi National Congress committed itself to at its conference can be helped into existence by the UN, and that the US, in the flush of victory, will find in its oilman’s heart the energy and optimism to begin to address the Palestinian issue. These are fragile hopes. As things stand, it is easier to conceive of innumerable darker possibilities.”

In January this year McEwan published his fictional response to the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the wars that followed: Saturday, perhaps the most discussed and debated literary novel of recent times. It is set on a single day - 15 February 2003, when more than two million people marched in London in opposition to war in Iraq - and is told entirely from the point of view of one man, Henry Perowne, a 48-year-old neurosurgeon. So the novel, as well as being a political text, is a dramatic study in consciousness, in showing over a single day what Virginia Woolf called “the quick of the mind”.

Perowne, like McEwan, lives affluently in central London. He loves his wife and is the father of two well-adjusted young adults, one a published poet (by Faber, no less), the other a promising blues musician. There the similarities end: Perowne, though intelligent, is resolutely unliterary. He cannot understand the impulses of the artistic imagination: he is a scientific reductionist. He strips and reduces human behaviour to its biological essentials. “There is much in human affairs that can be accounted for at the level of the complex molecule,” he suggests.

Yet out on the inner-city streets and beyond in our interconnected, globalised world are true dangers and little control: not everyone is as calm and rational as Perowne, or thinks as he does. He encounters one such person when, on his way to play squash, his car collides with another driven by an aggressive thug called Baxter. There follows a menacing confrontation. Baxter, who Perowne immediately understands has a degenerative brain disorder, feels that he has been humiliated. Later, Baxter returns, violently, to confront Perowne at home, where he is preparing for a family dinner, with brutal and then surprising consequences.

McEwan has spent most of his writing life conceiving of darker possibilities - perhaps the darkest in contemporary fiction. Long before 11 September 2001, he would create entire novels out of randomness and a single, terrifying chance occurrence: the disappearance of a child from a supermarket (The Child in Time, 1987), which pre-echoed the Bulger case in Liverpool; a balloon crash-landing in a field (Enduring Love, 1997); or the malicious allegations of a little girl, in an England suspended between two world wars, that condemn an innocent man to imprisonment and perpetual separation from the woman he loves (Atonement, 2001).

Yet Saturday is his most fearful novel so far, perhaps because it is also his fullest expression of the times in which we live. It is a novel suffused with anxiety - about the coming conflict in Iraq and its likely aftershocks - but is also suffused with a sense of the new vulnerability of life in our terrorist-threatened cities, where bombs can explode at any moment and anywhere . . . and do. To read this novel - indeed, to read most of Ian McEwan’s fiction as well as his recent journalism - is to discover, as Shakespeare wrote of Hamlet, a writer who seeks “to show . . . the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”. In doing this, at least in Britain, he has no peer. He is our national novelist.

David Sylvian: escaping Planet Pop

April 10 2005 / The Observer

How David Sylvian and his misunderstood but influential band, Japan, gave a sense of identity to a generation of disaffected suburban teens

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Rian Malan: this traitor's heart

March 14 2005 / New Statesman

On a recent visit to South Africa, I asked friends—academics, writers, journalists—to recommend one book, if one existed, that attempts to tell the truth about how it feels as a privileged white South African to have lived through the apartheid years and the anguished transition to democracy. As it happens, I had already read the book that they all, without exception, recommended: My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan. First published in 1990, but many years in the writing, it is the story of South Africa as told through the tortured history of Malan’s own family.

The first Malan, Jacques, a Huguenot fleeing persecution in Catholic France, arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1688. “Jacques tamed the Cape and planted vineyards,” Malan writes. “His sons built gracious gabled homesteads in the lee of Table Mountain.” In time, the Malans became one of the most distinguished and influential of all Afrikaner families—Daniel Francois Malan, the country’s first nationalist prime minister, was one of the architects of apartheid.

Rian Malan, who was born in 1954, grew up in revolt against his ancestral inheritance. An enraged, restless sensualist as well as an instinctive liberal, he felt part of South Africa yet drastically estranged from it. He longed to empathise with the persecuted black majority, yet remained disturbed by the violence, chauvinism and superstition he encountered whenever he left the family home, with its black servants living in the basement, and travelled into the townships.

In the late 1970s, reluctant to be drafted into the South African army, he moved to America where, knowing no one, he struggled to remake himself through journalism. “I ran away,” he writes, “because I was scared of the coming changes, and scared of the consequences of not changing. I ran because I wouldn’t carry a gun for apartheid, and because I wouldn’t carry a gun against it. I ran away because I was an Afrikaner and loved blacks. I ran away because I was an Afrikaner and feared blacks. You could say, I suppose, that I ran from the paradox.”

In 1985, he returned to South Africa, took a job as a crime reporter in Johannesburg and embraced the turmoil of a country that seemed to be moving inexorably towards civil war. Much of what Malan witnessed as a reporter, described so urgently in the book, was horrific: the torture and murder of blacks by white supremacists; the murder of whites in their heavily fortified homes by a lone black man, whom the newspapers delighted in calling the Hammerman; the murder of poor blacks by other poor blacks in the townships and homelands. The killing seldom stops, nor does the self-questioning: Malan, this hard-drinking, dope-smoking, self-divided Afrikaner adrift in a land of flames, asks himself again and again what it means to write from a position of such absurd privilege.

On further investigation by Malan, the story of the Hammerman, whose name was Simon Mpungose, turns out to be exceptionally poignant. A Zulu cursed from birth because of a crime committed by one of his forefathers, Mpungose was illiterate, his mother died young and he was tormented by spirit voices reminding him of his fate. In desperation, he turned to violent crime as a means of escaping his doomed inheritance. Malan was present at the trial where Mpungose was convicted of four counts of murder and sentenced to hang.

“The remorseless exercise of a reporter’s anguished conscience gives us a South Africa we thought we knew about: but we knew nothing,” wrote John le Carre of My Traitor’s Heart. “Here is truth-telling at its most exemplary and courageous.” Le Carre was not alone among major writers in admiring Malan’s book: Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo were also thrilled by its anger, idealism, bitterness and candour. “A great swirling devil of a book,” wrote DeLillo, “and it is equal in every way to its vast subject—the black and white country of the heart.”

Malan never published another book. But he is still out there, a working journalist, and occasionally you read something worthwhile by him in one of the glossy supplements. In South Africa, I met several people who knew him well. They smiled knowingly when I asked about him, like members of a secret society. He is now living near Cape Town, in the bohemian coastal town of Kalk Bay. He has become, it was suggested, something of a monomaniac, convinced that the truth about sub-Saharan Africa’s Aids pandemic has been wildly exaggerated. Certainly the last article of any length by him that I read was on this very subject. “Perhaps he’s been smoking too much zol [dope],” one acquaintance joked.

Whatever he has been doing, and even if he never writes another book, Malan has made a contribution. The remarkable My Traitor’s Heart will continue to be read and remembered by anyone interested in attempting to understand the European colonial encounter with Africa, why it failed, and why its legacy remains so bitter for so many.

Kate Bush: breaking the silence

February 7 2005 / New Statesman

When I mentioned at a recent New Statesman editorial conference that I wanted to write about Kate Bush, who is preparing to release her first album for 12 years, colleagues responded with a mixture of incredulity and awe. The incredulous still associated her with a single song, “Wuthering Heights”, her first. Inspired by her teenage reading of Emily Bronte’s great and rather sinister novel about unfulfilled love, “Wuthering Heights” must be one of the strangest songs ever to reach number one, as it did in 1978. Nobody who has heard Bush’s wailing falsetto on that song, and its chorus of “Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy/I’ve come home”, is likely to forget it. Nor is it any easier to forget her eccentric rendering of the song on Top of the Pops: with her thick, hennaed hair flowing wildly, as if she were running straight into a wind machine, she performed in a kind of rapture. Bush was 19 at the time and, a former student of dance and mime, desperately sincere.

The awed among my colleagues, who were all women, knew Bush for the complex and remarkable artist that she is, perhaps the most singular and talented female singer-songwriter and composer of her generation (she is now 46). There is no one quite like her. Without Kate Bush, there could have been no Madonna or Bjork, certainly in the guises—tough, independent, eccentric, committed, daring—that we know them.

Bush’s career began one afternoon in the mid-1970s when David Gilmour of Pink Floyd received a demo tape from a young girl. He liked what he heard, but thought the recording quality of the songs was poor. “The demo was not saleable,” Gilmour told me when we spoke. “The songs were too idiosyncratic: just Kate, this little schoolgirl who was maybe 15, singing away over a piano. You needed decent ears to hear the potential and I didn’t think there were many people with those working in record companies. But I was convinced from the beginning that this girl had remarkable talent.” Gilmour invited Bush to a recording studio and helped to record some more demos, which were produced by his friend Andrew Powell. They selected three songs, one of which was “The Man With the Child in His Eyes”, and took them to EMI. “They signed her up,” he says. She was on her way.

As an artist—and certainly as the interval between each new album lengthens exponentially—Bush occupies an ambiguous space between pop and the avant-garde, simultaneously working within and against the constraints of the pop song. She writes songs with choruses and tight, melodic structures while never abandoning her will to experiment: with form, with sampling technology, with unexpected instruments—a didgeridoo, uillean pipes, a mandolin—or with the texture and tone of her own voice, which can be at once a deep and disconcertingly powerful force and something far softer and more graceful.

As a songwriter, she can be opaque; her songs are often expressions of mood and feeling, often sexual feeling. She can write small, self-contained narratives, capsule stories such as “Babooshka” (about a husband who begins to receive seductive letters from an anonymous woman whom he discovers too late is his wife) or “Deeper Understanding” (about a lonely man who becomes addicted to his computer). She writes well about childhood and memory, but she can also be fey and hippyishly winsome: the titles alone of songs such as “The Big Sky”, “Wow” and “Big Stripey Lie” offer a flavour of her “hey, man” sensibility. She draws inspiration from Irish folk music, from literature (“The Sensual World”, with its ecstatic whispered cry of “Yes”, is based on Molly Bloom’s long, flowing soliloquy that ends Ulysses) and from film (the title track of The Red Shoes, not one of her best albums, was inspired by the Powell and Pressburger movie of the same name). And she sometimes even writes genuine protest songs—“Breathing” is about the nuclear threat, “Army Dreamers” is a fine anti-war song, and “Dreaming” is about the white settlers’ murderous exploitation of Aborigines and their land.

What has Kate Bush been doing since the release of The Red Shoes in 1993? What does she do when she is not working obsessively in the studio? What is she like? The mystery of Kate Bush is her essential unknowability—to outside observers, at least. Many years ago, she retreated into semi-reclusivity, reluctant to be interviewed or appear on television, never touring. There were rumours of her exhaustion and her hurt. Too much that was wounding had been written about her; she had been gossiped about and teased too much. For a period from the late Seventies to the early Eighties, there was scarcely a television comedian, from Kenny Everett to the foolish Eddie Large, who did not hesitate to ridicule Bush, especially her near-hysterical performance of “Wuthering Heights” on Top of the Pops.

I recall watching her being interviewed on BBC2’s Old Grey Whistle Test, one evening in 1985, I think, some time after the release of her best album, Hounds of Love. Her interviewers were sympathetic and evidently admired her, but it was still excruciating to watch as this then young, tentative woman, with her quiet, slightly lisping voice, who was so powerful and controlling in the studio yet so vulnerable away from it, submitted to a process that she clearly found intensely uncomfortable. It was increasingly clear that she wished only to speak through and be known by her work.

This was the beginning of her long period of withdrawal, during which she released only the disappointing Red Shoes. Her obsessive fans, the energetically self-styled Love-Hounds (log on to www.gaffa.org), became more and more restless for news about her. “I think creative control is so incredibly important,” she has said. “I’ve always been tenacious when it comes to my work and I became quickly aware of the outside pressures of being famous affecting my work. It seemed ironic that I was expected to do interviews and television which took me away from my work. It was no longer relevant that I wrote songs.”

Born in Kent in 1958, Kate Bush is the daughter of an English doctor father and an Irish mother. She grew up in a musical family: her mother sang, her father played piano and her elder brothers were both musicians (one of them, Paddy Bush, is among her most trusted collaborators). She began writing and recording songs as a young teenager, and by the time she met Gilmour she knew exactly what she wanted to do and how to do it. “When I first met Kate, she was this shy little schoolgirl, but very quickly you could see that she would have arguments with producers if they did not do things the way she wanted them to,” Gilmour recalls.

When her first single reached number one—much to the delighted surprise of EMI—Bush was liberated into privilege, and she has long had the kind of creative freedom to write and produce her own material that few recording artists are allowed. “Kate is a complete one-off,” Gilmour says. “I can’t think of anyone like her. Joni Mitchell was also a one-off, an original, but Kate is nothing like that. We need more people like her, especially as so much music amounts to little more than formulaic copying of genres. Those who have followed in her shadow are but pale imitations.”

Today Kate Bush lives with her partner, the musician Danny McIntosh, in what her friends like to call the “countryside”, but which is in fact a semi-rural location somewhere near Reading, where she has a home studio. She is a mother—her son, Bertie, was born in 1999—and, after many years of preparation, she is very close to completing her as yet untitled new album. But not even EMI knows exactly when or exactly what she will deliver. “It’s coming soon,” was all that I was told.

In a recent novel called Waiting for Kate Bush, John Mendelssohn wrote wittily about her mystery and allure—and of how that mystery has only been exacerbated as the wait for each new album has grown longer and longer. The wait is almost over.

Dan Brown: The Conspiracy Theorist

December 13 2004 / New Statesman

The lists of books of the year are often as instructive for what is left out as for what our assorted literary celebrities choose to include in their pre-Christmas recommendations. We know from their recommendations this year that most of our cultural opinion formers have, on the whole, little or no interest in the bestseller lists and in the books most people are reading. If they do mention a bestselling novel, it is invariably to disparage or ridicule it, as Clive James ridiculed Dan Brown’s concept thriller The Da Vinci Code while bestowing his end-of-term favours in the Sunday Telegraph.

But at least he had taken the trouble to read and mention a novel that was the significant omission from all other books-of-the-year lists. For The Da Vinci Code is surely the book of 2004: bought, read, recommended, loaned and discussed by hundreds of thousands of people in this and many other countries. First published in spring 2003, it is at present the number one bestselling novel in both Britain and the United States. It has already sold more than eight million copies worldwide, which makes it the fastest-selling adult novel of all time. It has been bought, in a multimillion-dollar deal, by Sony Pictures and will soon become a major Hollywood film.

Books are being written and scholarly articles published to refute its more outlandish claims and theological speculations. The author’s previous three novels—Deception Point, Angels and Demons, Digital Fortress—are, as I write, second, third and fourth on the UK paperback fiction bestseller lists as well as being in the top ten in the US.

Clearly, something significant is happening here, and yet our cultural elite seem largely uninterested in the phenomenon of Dan Brown and his novel The Da Vinci Code, even though many of the most urgent political themes of our time—religious extremism, the idea that history itself is a vast conspiracy, the power of secret networks and societies over our lives, the global reach of the internet, the omnipresence of satellite surveillance and other new technologies—are present in the book.

The Da Vinci Code begins in Paris, thrillingly, with the shooting of the curator of the Louvre, Jacques Sauniere. It is night-time at the Louvre and Sauniere, in the shadow of so many masterpieces, knows that he has been fatally wounded by religious militants. In the final moments of his life, he strips naked, as you would, and uses his own blood to draw a pentacle on his chest and write symbols on the floor, before arranging his body in the form of the Vitruvian Man, from one of Leonardo da Vinci’s most celebrated sketches.

Why has he done this? It is swiftly revealed (nothing happens slowly in this novel) that Sauniere is a member of a secret society, the Priory of Sion, whose members included Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, da Vinci and David Icke (oh, all right, I made that last one up). He is the sole possessor of a secret that has the power to change the course of history. Unless he acts, his secret will die with him. The only man who can decode the mystery of why, though dying, he would choose to communicate so cryptically is a Harvard professor of symbology called Robert Langdon who this very night just happens to be in Paris. Langdon is awakened in his hotel room, taken by police to the murder scene and questioned as if he himself were the murderer (he and Sauniere were due to meet the following day). The police are convinced that Sauniere, at the end of his life, was trying to leave clues as to the identity of his killer. If so, and this never occurs to the good officers of the French constabulary investigating the case, why then did he not simply write down the name of the assassin?

As a career symbologist, Langdon understands the power and the allure of the arcane, the cryptic and the hidden. He knows that too often we do not know what we think we know: that we are ignorant of the essential truths—religious and political—of history. Or at least these “truths” have been deliberately kept from us by institutions such as the Catholic Church. And so begins Langdon’s quest to solve the riddle of the Da Vinci code, in which he is supported by Sophie Neveu, granddaughter of the murdered curator. Their quest leads not only to the discovery of what really became of the Holy Grail but also to the revelation of Christ’s fallen humanity: in Brown’s rewriting of church history, Christ married Mary Magdalene and together they had a child whose bloodline extends even into the present day. The Catholic Church has always known, but conspired to suppress the truth, about the tarnished divinity of Christ: his wife and the kid.

The novel, consistent with the genre, moves at a startling pace: characterisation is reduced to a perfunctory minimum, dialogue is thick with information, the blunt, staccato language is subordinate to the supercharged engine of the plot, the paragraphs are short, consciousness is represented, if at all, as a series of italicised self-interrogations, there is no ready-made formulation that Brown will not use, and each chapter ends on a moment of supreme suspense. This paragraph is characteristic: “When Aringaros switched off the phone, his heart was pounding. He gazed once again into the void of night, feeling dwarfed by events he had put into motion.”

So why are people buying The Da Vinci Code, if not for its literary refinements? The obvious answer is that, like the Harry Potterbooks that are so popular with adults, it is a hugely accomplished escapist narrative. Brown knows exactly what he is doing, what he wants to say and how to say it. Beyond its huge generic accomplishment and obvious readability, The Da Vinci Code has something else to offer: it is a fascinating political text, underscored by an intense eschatological anxiety. In the aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001 and the invasion of Iraq, in a world where a mysterious and opaque global network of religious terrorists called al-Qaeda threatens the west as well as, it is believed, communicating via encoded messages, a novel such as The Da Vinci Code carries a powerful political charge. This parable of extreme belief is about how modernity is being compromised by rivalrous pre-modern belief systems purporting to offer the absolute truth. It is also about different interpretations of the narrative of Christ: who he was, and what he meant. It explores the idea that to be modern is also to be superstitious. On another level it can be read, too, as an indictment of the secretive, opulent and corrupt Catholic Church.

“The Da Vinci Code is certainly riding the wave of revulsion against corruption in the Catholic Church,” says Richard Wightman Fox, author of Jesus in America. “What Brown’s novel taps into above all is a persistent American desire to recapture the true, original Jesus.”

Dan Brown, who is 39, was born into a comfortable middleclass family in Exeter, southern New Hampshire, where he still lives with his wife, Blythe, an art historian with whom he researches his fiction. He attended Amherst College, taught English for a period, spent several years in Los Angeles as a struggling singer-songwriter and then lived in Seville, where he studied art history. His first three thrillers were modestly received. There was nothing to suggest that his next book would be the sensation that it became; but on receiving the finished manuscript of The Da Vinci Code, his publishers, Doubleday, knew immediately that they had something special: unusually for a work by a minor novelist, more than 10,000 proof copies were sent out to booksellers. The booksellers were impressed; advance orders for The Da Vinci Code began to accumulate. Momentum was building; the rush was about to begin.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Tipping Point, suggests that the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves, or the transformation of relatively unknown books into bestsellers, is to think of them as epidemics. “Ideas and products and messages and behaviours spread just like viruses,” he writes. So people contaminate one another with preferences and recommendations. The “tipping point” is the moment at which a social epidemic becomes contagious and crosses a threshold to reach critical mass, the point at which nothing can stop it catching on and spreading.

Dan Brown reached his tipping point when, six months after first publication, he appeared on the peak-time ABC show Good Morning America to talk about some of the issues raised in The Da Vinci Code. That day there was a surge in sales of the novel that has never really slowed down.

Today Brown seldom gives interviews, certainly never to newspapers or magazines, preferring instead to communicate via his website (www.danbrown.com). “He works every day in a writing loft,” says his New York-based agent, Heide Lange. “There’s no phone, no e-mail; he’s definitely cocooned. But he knows what’s going on in the world and could definitely hold his own in a dinner-party conversation. Yet he spends most of the time in the world of his books.”

What a strange world it is: a world of encoded artwork, anagrams, cryptic communication, astrological speculation, conspiracy theory, illuminati and symbology. Brown, this mythmaker of false reality, is a kind of benign David Icke. He evidently believes in much of what he writes about and is prepared to concede that even history itself is a conspiracy. “I began the research for The Da Vinci Code as a sceptic,” he has said. “I entirely expected, as I researched the book, to disprove this theory [of Christ’s wife and child]. And after numerous trips to Europe, about two years of research, I really became a believer. And it’s important to remember that this is a novel about a theory that has been out there for a long time ...”

The Da Vinci Codeopens with a brief mission statement. Under the single-word heading “Fact”, Brown states that the “Priory of Sion is ... a real organisation”; that Opus Dei is a “deeply devout Catholic sect that ... has just completed construction of a $47m headquarters in New York” and that “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate”. He wants us to know, then, that this is not merely a work of fantasy; it is a truthful novel, built from the bricks of fact. He also wants us to accept his scholarship: his mini-essays on the artworks in the Louvre and his pithy histories of religious sects have the smooth professionalism of a well-used travel guide and are distributed throughout the novel at well-paced intervals.

How seriously should one take Dan Brown and his often preposterous novel? We should take him very seriously indeed, not least because eight million people have bought The Da Vinci Code in less than 18 months and many millions more will do so in the months ahead. Many of these readers will enjoy the book and think no more of it; some will throw it across the room in derision. But others, judging by the number of dedicated websites it has spawned, will believe it just as some believe the astrological guides that are published each morning in the newspaper. They will believe that it is historically true. This is troubling because some of what Brown claims is true in the book—that the New Testament was a forgery, that Christ never claimed to be divine, that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1950s—is, in fact, false. Art historians and theologians continue to delight in tripping him up and in exposing his flawed scholarship.

Dan Brown is not, as some of his more trenchant Catholic critics would have it, a dangerous fraud, a cynical corrupter of biblical truths. What he is, rather, is a literary opportunist. He understands the underlying reasons for our eschatological anxieties and uses them in the service of a good story. And what is the reason for our present eschatological anxiety? It is, I think, this: as thinking animals we are hard-wired to seek meaning in a world that ultimately resists our attempts to explain it. Our Christian heritage and our post-Enlightenment Messianic political narratives have taught us that history has direction and purpose, that there is an end to history and a correct path to the Truth—if only, as we wander through this confusing forest of signs that is the world, we could find that path. With its pseudo-scholarship, religious zeal and conspiracy theories, The Da Vinci Code occupies the ambiguous space of all our “if onlys” while offering us its own stairway to heaven. Not a bad combination, then; in fact, a sure-fire winner.

William Shawcross: An Apologist for Power

December 15 2003 / New Statesman

Once a model progressive, he is now the royal choice to write the Queen Mother’s life and proselytises for the Iraq War

Read more

Daniel Libeskind: Before Ground Zero

February 2003 / Prospect, Issue 83

One afternoon, when the architect Daniel Libeskind was working in his Berlin studio, he placed a spherical teapot into a plastic bag and dropped it out of the window. He watched as it smashed in the courtyard four floors below. He then collected the fragments and began slowly, with great difficulty, to reassemble the shattered teapot.

“I wanted to see how it might look once all the pieces were put back together,” Libeskind explains. “When you’re designing a building, the experience is kinetic. You cannot always put something into words; otherwise you will simply produce a verbal diagram. You must feel your way towards your finished design. It’s not until much later that you’re fully aware of what you’re doing.”

The smashed-teapot experiment eventually formed the basis of Libeskind’s design for the Imperial War Museum North, which opened in Manchester’s Salford Quays in July 2002. A fissured globe that suggests the interconnecting shards of a world broken by war, the building confirmed his reputation as one of the most provocative and artistically ambitious architects in the world today.

From the outside, the museum-a centre-piece of Manchester’s recent revival-has a metallic impregnability, as if there were no natural point of entry. It seeks to unsettle you, forcing you to address the purpose and nature of a museum of war. Its aluminium-clad roof is constructed over a concrete base. Yet when the light falls on the curved, grey-blue shards of its exterior, the effect is surprisingly soft. Inside, that effect changes. You are made to feel uneasy-as you are when you first enter Libeskind’s career-making Jewish Museum in Berlin-by the curvature of the floor, the echoing spaces of the main exhibition hall and the vertiginous elevator shaft that carries you up to a viewing platform to look down at your fellow visitors 100 feet below, or out across a bleak cityscape. You feel, at times, as if you are being bullied by the building’s hard, confrontational geometry. This is a museum of war all right-the exhibits represent all aspects of warfare from primitive weaponry to the high-tech virtual conflicts of today-and Libeskind never allows you to forget that.

“It’s not that I want to bully people,” he told me. “It’s more that I don’t want them to be anaesthetised. I want them to be immediately aware that they’re entering a condition of tension.”

In the months preceding the opening of the Manchester museum, Libeskind had prepared himself for another awkward encounter with those of his British critics who, in 1996, had denounced his spiral-shaped design for an extension to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Because of the projected cost and internal problems at the V&A, the extension may never be built, although it received planning permission from the usually conservative borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Back then he was accused, by William Rees-Mogg amongst others, of being a ruthless experimentalist intent on destroying the traditions of British architecture. But to the V&A trustees, and many architecture critics, the self-supporting “spiral” designed by Libeskind would provide a spectacular sculptural presence arrestingly out of sync with the surrounding Victorian grandeur of South Kensington. For now, the design seems destined to remain little more than a gesture of bold intent.

The Manchester museum, by contrast, has been generally well received but, as with the Jewish Museum in Berlin, one of the chief criticisms was that it succeeds less as a museum than as work of sculpture, that its conceptual strangeness and monumentality overwhelms the often mediocre exhibits themselves. But, according to the architect Richard Rogers, Libeskind’s work isn’t just formally arresting-it is intimidatingly smart. “There are comparisons of course with Frank Gehry, in that they both favour very dramatic, sculptural forms,” he told me. “But Daniel, I think, has a greater analytic ability. When you first look at one of his designs, you often think that this cannot be built, this is an impossibility. But he has this knack of ... making the whole thing work. With someone like Daniel, so energetic and full of ideas, there’s always likely to be the shock of the new, which explains the reaction to the spiral design. But that’s a feature of the history of architecture-Christopher Wren’s design for the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, for example, was turned down three times before it was given the go-ahead. Daniel is in the big league now. We’re going to get used to his style.”

The latest project on which Libeskind has been working is his design for the rebuilding of the World Trade Centre in New York. After a first round of six proposals were rejected as insufficiently ambitious last July, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) invited seven architectural teams to submit more daring proposals, both for dramatic new buildings to replace the twin towers and for regeneration of the entire urban space. Libeskind was asked to submit his proposal by the LMDC’s head of planning, Alex Garvin, following a private meeting at last autumn’s Architecture Biennale in Venice.

After much secrecy and speculation, his design is currently on display, at the Winter Garden of the World Financial Centre in New York, along with designs from the six other teams, which include some of the world’s most renowned architects: Norman Foster, Richard Meier and Peter Eisenman. At the public unveiling of the designs in December, Libeskind proved himself characteristically adept at telling his audience what it wanted to hear.

“I arrived by ship to New York as a teenager, an immigrant,” he said during his presentation. “My first sight was the Statue of Liberty and the amazing skyline of Manhattan. I have never forgotten what that sight stands for. This is what this project is all about.” Many of the great buildings of New York-the Chrysler, the Empire State-belong not to the street but to the sky. The intention of the Libeskind design, which he calls “Memory Foundations,” is that, against this trend and to a greater degree than any of the rival proposals, its emphasis is on both the street and the sky, the future and the past. In fact, it goes beneath the street, taking the visitor deep into Ground Zero, to the original foundations of the excavated site. There is also a proposal for one 1,776-foot tower at the northwest corner of the site, a symbolic structure, containing a series of landscapes within its open trusswork. Commercial and cultural buildings would be placed to the east while, at ground level, Libeskind proposes putting a marker in the pavement for each of the rescue organisations that responded on 11th September, making the site what the New Yorker described as “a latticework of commemoration.”

Libeskind is not, in fact, part of a conventional architectural competition, although it must feel like one because of the covert jostling for position and simmering rivalries. The LMDC had initially planned to pick and choose between the invited architects, absorbing the best of each into a new composite design. It is now acknowledged that this is unrealistic but there remains disquiet both within the LMDC and more generally amongst some New Yorkers that Ground Zero is in the process of being transformed into an atrocity exhibition, a playground for advanced architectural taste. Yet a single commanding architect is likely to emerge and Libeskind has a serious chance.

He is undaunted by such a task. “The site no longer really belongs only to local planners,” he says, “it is now a part of an emblematic reading… of the world as it is developing into the future. The design and the rebuilding of the World Trade Centre site has to be a spiritual process, not only an architectural one. It’s not only about finding the visible angles, but the angles in the soul.”

A former academic, Libeskind is often mocked for his abstruse thinking and grand abstractions. His architecture is saturated in arcane references and his prose can be wilfully opaque. In person, he is an engaging, if erratic, conversationalist, operating in a swirl of great names, half-remembered quotes and excited allusion. As we walked one afternoon down a busy street near the V&A, I asked how he settled on the concept of a spiral for the museum extension. “I didn’t start with the notion of a spiral; it’s just that you suddenly realise what you’re trying to do and you name it,” he says. “Once you realise it’s a spiral-or a globe, as with the Manchester project-you have a clear guideline for what you’re doing, whereas before it was just undefined patterns. That’s why the broken-teapot experiment helped me so much: the world really has been damaged by war, not just physically but metaphorically, too, and I wanted people, through my design, to feel something of that damage.”

Before Daniel Libeskind, 56, won the competition to design the Jewish Museum in 1989, he had never built anything at all. He had spent most of his career as a theorist, restlessly moving from one country to another. According to the architecture critic, Charles Jencks, those were his “wilderness years,” when “Daniel was putting messages into bottles and sending them out to sea, but no one was picking them up.” In truth, Libeskind refused to build anything until he had found an opportunity equal to his ambition, perhaps an indication that he is more calculating than he appears.

Part of his initial problem in finding the right commission was the complexity and obscurity of much of his thinking. Libeskind, says Jencks, “was too hermeneutical in the wrong way-esoteric, private, hermetic. Many people thought he was a phoney. And then, miraculously, he won the competition for the Jewish Museum. It almost never happens in architecture that the right man wins the right competition at the right time.”

When he won the Berlin competition, Libeskind, his wife Nina and their three children were living in Milan, where Daniel was teaching at the Architecture Intermundium. In architecture, to win a competition is hard enough; to have your design then turned into a finished building can often prove impossible. Libeskind knew that if the museum was ever to be actually built, he and his family would have to move to a city and country about which, as Jews, they felt ambivalent. They arrived in Berlin on 4th July 1989, four months before the collapse of the wall.

“It required an enormous leap of faith as a family to cancel all future projects on the spur of the moment, to come to Berlin,” he says now. “But I felt that I had to do it. It felt like a mission.”

From the outside, the Jewish Museum resembles a huge concrete pillbox, fortified, like the Manchester museum, with mere prison cell-like slits for windows. Again, there is no easy point of entry-you go in through the adjoining baroque building, the original site of the old Berlin Museum, from where an underground tunnel leads you, in near-darkness, into the actual museum, which is structured as a zig-zag, a kind of stretched and unravelled Star of David. Running through the museum is a series of empty spaces that Libeskind calls the “embodiment of absence.” The most startling of these is the enclosed concrete of the “Holocaust tower,” which is neither heated in winter nor cooled in summer, and which on one wall has a symbolic ladder, a potential route of escape leading nowhere. The tower is claustrophobic and oppressive. The architecture critic Martin Filler described it in the New Republic as the “most affecting memorial chamber of modern times.”

There is no question about Libeskind’s personal investment in the project. More than 80 members of his extended family were murdered by the Nazis, which perhaps explains why he is so drawn to architectural works of public mourning. “I grew up with no aunts or uncles, no cousins and grandparents,” he says. “You recover, but you cannot forget.” His parents, Polish Jews, survived the war only by fleeing east into Russia, where they were interned and sent to Soviet central Asia. At the end of the war, they returned to Poland. Daniel was born in Lodz in 1946, a devastated city around which communism was tightening oppressively. The family emigrated to Israel when Daniel was 11; two years later, they moved again, this time to New York.

The Jewish Museum first opened to the public, without exhibits, in 1999, and such was its immediate impact that there was an expectation that it should remain permanently empty, a statement of historical discontinuity. But Libeskind says he never intended to construct “a bare building as a sculpture. Through being empty for so long, the building became too fixated on the extinguishing of Jewish culture.” Instead, he was determined that the building should embody hope as well as loss. “I wanted to show that Germans and Jews were part of one culture,” he says. The museum does, indeed, convey a feeling for the joint German-Jewish inheritance; but it is the sense of rupture which dominates.

Libeskind makes various claims for allegorical references and allusions contained in the museum. “Among the influences on the building are Walter Benjamin’s book One Way Street and Schönberg’s opera Moses and Aaron, as well as cabbalistic rituals,” he says warily, as if reluctant to expand or explain. How do these ideas manifest themselves? “Well, never explicitly. The best works of architecture have many layers; they’re not just about surfaces… It’s the same with, say, the mirror fugues in Bach’s Toccata in D minor. This piece of music has the most complex mathematics; the main theme is a meditation on the composer’s own name-B A C H. It’s ingenious, because that’s his signature, as it were. But most people are oblivious to this: they just listen to the music.”

Libeskind’s Bach allusion is not a casual one. Music is important to him and not simply because of the old cliché of architecture being frozen music. He listens to everything from classical to rap. Indeed, music is the reason his family moved to New York; at 15, the young Daniel won the America-Israel Cultural Foundation Scholarship for the study of music. A peer of Daniel Barenboim, he was a virtuoso concert pianist, who performed several times at Carnegie Hall. “I earned more money as a teenage pianist than I do now as an established architect,” he says, laughing. Strangely, however, Libeskind abruptly stopped playing in his late teens. He has never satisfactorily explained why.

“For me playing music was an interpretative event, the interpretation of something that was not mine,” he says. Perhaps the truth is that he has no idea why today he refuses even to own a piano. He did, however, offer one oblique clue to his thinking when he mentioned to me, in passing, that one of his favourite novels was The Loser by the great Austrian nihilist Thomas Bernhard. The Loser tells the story of a talented young student pianist named Wertheimer who one day happens to see Glenn Gould performing the Goldberg Variations in Salzburg. Wertheimer is crushed by the experience because he knows he will never be as great as Gould and that, if he cannot be great, he would rather be nothing. In despair, he commits suicide.

Perhaps Libeskind knew that, like Wertheimer, he would never fulfil the promise of his exceptional childhood and, as a self-styled optimist, embraced the theme of the book by renouncing performance, while at the same time ensuring that his own personal story had a different ending. Either that, or he was playing with me when he mentioned Bernhard’s novel-the kind of allusion-filled game that seems to inspire much of his work.

In his Berlin studio, Libeskind oversees a growing empire. He now employs a multinational staff of 60. During my time there, his staff was working in separate teams on a variety of competition-winning designs and commissions, including one for an extension to the Denver Art Museum, which is projected to open in 2005; a shopping and residential complex near Bern in Switzerland; the V&A spiral; a $200m design for a glass-walled extension to the existing stone of the H-shaped Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and a graduate school for the University of North London (now called the London Metropolitan University) that Libeskind surprisingly described as one of his most challenging projects, precisely because the budget, at a little over £1m, is so small.

“Architects with big reputations are expected only to take on the lavish, attention-seeking projects,” he says. “But I think it’s very important to do smaller, more modest projects, especially those that are socially and culturally significant.”

The London Metropolitan University is located on the Holloway Road. It is a polluted urban landscape of ill-conceived concrete high-rise and low-rise buildings. Perhaps its very ugliness was what attracted Libeskind in the first place. “When I visited the university, one student told me how on seeing the place for the first time she couldn’t stop crying at the thought of having to spend three years there,” he says. “And yet it’s an excellent school. So the challenge for me is to create a building-for gallery space, seminar rooms and a café-that can help to transform the atmosphere of this section of the Holloway Road.”

He begins rendering an impromptu sketch of the Holloway extension-all curves and difficult angles-before being distracted by one of his staff entering the room, from whom he requests a cappucino. Observing him at work, discussing ideas for the Denver extension and other projects, it is hard not to be impressed by the boisterous democracy of his studio. There is a constant exchange of ideas between Libeskind and his team of young, jauntily-dressed architects: all gelled quiffs, bespoke specs and eccentric shoes. Even the youngest of them seems relaxed about sharing his opinion on the latest designs and projects. Neither Daniel nor Nina his wife (who handles most of his business affairs) has a fixed office; they share a desk with two secretaries.

There is an otherworldly edge to Daniel Libeskind’s voice, as though he were speaking through a vocoder. If you close your eyes, you could almost be listening to the synthesised voice of Stephen Hawking, only at treble speed. Nina says he is unwilling to engage with the usual details of the architect’s routine, such as speaking on the telephone-which he never does. “Most big architects do a sketch and then hand it over,” she says. “But Daniel doesn’t work like that: he’s interested in the process of building, in every detail right down to the smallest door handle.”

He is also, of course, a conveyor of ideas. Consider his first finished building, the Felix Nussbaum Haus, which opened in July 1998 in the northern German city of OsnabrÜck. Nussbaum was a German-Jewish painter who spent the early years of the war hiding in various houses. As the Jews were first ghettoised and then began to disappear, Nussbaum withdrew even further into anxious seclusion, retreating into smaller and ever more confined spaces. He was eventually betrayed by a neighbour and died in Auschwitz. As you walk through the Nussbaum Haus, the rooms reflect the narrative of the artist’s life: the further in you go, the smaller and more claustrophobic they become. The paintings are hung at increasingly more difficult and peculiar angles; sometimes you have to crouch to look at them.

“At times, he was hiding in what were no more than cupboard-sized rooms, his face pressed to the wall, but he still continued to paint.” Libeskind had characteristically high ambitions for his building: “I wanted the building to be about memory and loss, but also about the future and a spirit of optimism.”

It is hard to share his optimism when you visit the Nussbaum Haus or the Jewish Museum: the sense of loss is too great. And yet you believe Libeskind when he speaks of his belief in the future. In the act of creation he is seeking to transcend loss. “For this reason, I wouldn’t call him an elegist,” says Rogers. “The sculptural quality of his work and his background may suggest that he is building epitaphs. But he’s not looking for that association.”

The success of the Jewish Museum has liberated Daniel Libeskind. He now has the public profile and audience he once feared he would never find while he laboured in academic obscurity, and the means and support to turn his ideas and concepts into buildings. Will he be compromised by the fame and wealth that will inevitably follow? What will happen to him if he is commissioned to build on the World Trade Centre site, presently the greatest prize in contemporary architecture?

When I was with him in Berlin, he listened patiently as I outlined the familiar criticisms of his work: that he has too many conflicting ideas; that his virtuosity irritates as much as it enlightens; that the star system in his profession can lead to ever more ludicrous and ostentatious forms of public display; that his extreme shape-making appeals only to those interested in postmodern theories of architecture.

“I completely reject the notion that there are too many ideas in my work,” he said. “Architecture is nothing if it is not about ideas. As for the star system and the desire to shock, I’m not part of that game.”

There is a danger, perhaps, that Libeskind’s reputation has peaked (he is already widely imitated, for example by Peter Eisenman’s austere, and unfinished, Holocaust memorial in Berlin, or Melbourne’s Federation Square, a cultural space reminiscent of the Jewish Museum) and that he will start to take on too much, as if trying to make up for the lost period when his projects had no chance of being built. Some well-wishers fear that he will enter too many competitions and end up exhausted by his schedule of meetings and travel, and by the grim compromise of modern architecture, the trade-off that is required between the architect, his collaborators and the assorted local politicians, financiers and town planners if a building is to be completed. One wonders, too, if the architectural language that was so appropriate for the Jewish Museum is equally applicable to Libeskind’s Swiss shopping mall.

“There are many problems with architecture, not least those with costs,” Libeskind says. “But if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I believe in public projects and I believe that there is an ultimate meaning to history. We die, yes, but tradition and culture are immortal. I work within a great tradition. I believe that to build something is to believe in the potential for a better future. So, for me, architecture is the most optimistic of all professions.”

A couple of days after my last meeting with Libeskind in London, I received a phone call from his Berlin office. “I have Daniel on the line,” a voice said.

“But I thought he didn’t make phone calls,” I said.

“Well, he’s on the line.”

I had asked him about a recent invitation he received last year to propose ideas for a memorial to the 1994 Rwandan massacre. In the light of this, the Jewish Museum and the World Trade Centre competition, I wanted to know if he was concerned that he might end up becoming caricatured as the architect who memorialises death and genocide.

“I have been thinking about what you asked me the other day,” he said. “I think I have an answer. So long as you are always doing something new, something different, always experimenting, no matter what you’re designing-be it a shopping centre, museum or memorial-then you can never allow yourself to be caricatured or stereotyped in any way. At least, I hope not. The Rwandan project is very challenging because I don’t want to design a conventional memorial. I’m visiting Rwanda soon, and hope I will return with some ideas that will enable me to do something entirely new, something true to the local culture. I have no wish simply to build a mausoleum.” With that I heard a small, anxious laugh, and he was gone.

“Despite what happened to his family, Daniel believes in the power and creativity of humanity,” his wife, Nina, told me over lunch at the Jewish Museum. She and Daniel met for the first time in late adolescence at a summer camp in upstate New York for the children of Holocaust survivors. Nina is, like most of her family, tough, political and determined-her father, David Lewis, led the New Democratic Party in Canada, and her niece is Naomi Klein, author of the anti-globalisation polemic No Logo-but she is also candid and likeable. “I’m always amazed by how positive my husband is about even those issues that would depress most people,” she said, as we returned to the studio.

Daniel Libeskind, I realised, is a religious artist; not a believer in any conventional sense, but an architect with a singular eschatology all the same. He has his own sense of sin and salvation. He would agree, I think, with Milan Kundera that the struggle of the individual against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting-and in that struggle lies his optimism. The danger of his being caricatured as an elegist, as little more than a specialist in memorials to suffering, may yet also lead to his greatest opportunity. For what does Ground Zero require, if not a specialist in architectural memorial?

Barbara Cassani: The Innovator

July 28 2002 / The Observer

When easyJet buys out BA’s low-cost airline later this week, Go’s high-flying founder will make a personal fortune. Barbara Cassani reveals how she found big thrills in the world of no-frills flying

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Mario Vargas Llosa: between politics and fiction

April 2002 / The Daily Telegraph

To read Mario Vargas Llosa is to encounter a writer engaged in a complicated process of remaking the modern world in fiction. He is an undeviatingly serious writer, a visionary, whose novels are steeped in the darkness, the violence and the obsessions of his native Latin America. He speaks of the “passionate irrationalism of the Latin tradition” and of how fiction appeals to base instinct, to “the madness within”, to “the most remote and uncontrollable part of the personality”. His new novel, The Feast of the Goat, a fictional recreation of the last days of Rafael Trujillo, the despised dictator of the Dominican Republic who was murdered in a CIA plot in 1961, features some of the most harrowing torture scenes in contemporary fiction. It can be read more generally as a parable of the traumas of nation building throughout Latin America, with its dictatorships and disappearances, its fractured glamour and its passion.

All this may lead those who have not met Vargas Llosa, who is 66, to imagine that he is a kind of Nietzschean extremist, relentless, anti-social, solitary. He is nothing of the kind. In person, he is charming and urbane, an elegant, witty host, a candid anecdotist, and generous interviewee who - unusually for a major writer and one, at that, who ran for the presidency of Peru - is not a monolith of ego. He troubles to ask you questions about your own life and does not profess an omnipotence of knowledge. The writer and broadcaster Nicholas Shakespeare has known the Peruvian since 1981. “Maybe it’s because of the country he’s from that the boundary between public and private occurs in his life and that is the very thing observers remark on - how different the private Mario is from the public Mario,” he told me. “He’s highly amusing, well-informed, courteous and always his own man. I recall that once when Martha Gellhorn came to dinner with him at my flat in London, she expected to meet a Dostoevsky, a man of violence with a strong odour of madness: what she found was ‘a perfectly controlled, well-mannered, civilised man’ who ‘could be mistaken for almost anything except a writer’.”

For all his charm, however, Vargas Llosa arouses strong passions and even dislike among some of those who have known him, particularly in Latin America. In the sixties he was a vocal leftist, a leader of a communist cell at the university of San Marco in Lima, and a passionate supporter of Castro and the Cuban revolution. He became, like all leading Latin American writers, a political figure, a believer, as he still is, in the old 19th century notion of the writer as conscience of the nation. But his enthusiasm for Castro curdled into disappointment and then into violent revulsion: he became a man of the Right, an advocate of pluralism, free markets and social liberalism. He broke publicly with many of his old friends, including the Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, about whom he once wrote a book but whose support of Castro he condemned. Is it true he once punched Marquez? “What can I say about that?” he laughs. “We fell out not over literature, but over politics. In Latin America it’s difficult to separate political and personal differences, especially when politics is so often a matter of life and death.”

By 1990 Vargas Llosa was running for the presidency of Peru on a Thatcherite programme of privatization and free markets. I was warned in advance, by those who had been with Vargas Llosa during the election in Peru (which he lost in the second round to the then little-known, Japanese-Peruvian outsider Alberto Fujimori), that he would profess to having learnt much about himself and about politics and that he did not regret his defeat. “But he desperately wanted to win,” one of his friends told me. He certainly campaigned hard, travelling throughout Peru - rather than relying on the convenient reach of televised broadcasts - and often venturing into remote, guerilla-controlled territory at a time when the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) Maoist revolutionaries were at their most dangerous. “It was a mistake,” Vargas Llosa says, “The whole thing was a mistake, but an understandable mistake considering the state of Peru at the time. People came to me to ask me to run, it was an instinctive decision, but it was wrong of me. But I learnt a lot about myself, about Peru and about politics.” Ah, as good as the word of his friends, then.

We are sitting in his high-ceilinged, split-level Knightsbridge flat, from the windows of which you can see the vulgar shimmer of Harrods. Vargas Llosa is dressed in an immaculate open-necked yellow shirt and dark green cords. His thick grey hair is parted and brushed back from his smooth, tanned forehead. His accent is curious, not exactly Manuel from Fawlty Towers but certainly comic in its timbre and Hispanic extravagance. There is a wonderful hauteur about him, a superb worldliness, and indeed he describes himself not so much as a rootless cosmopolitan - as some do, disparagingly - but as a “citizen of the world”. He has homes in London, Madrid and Lima and an office in Washington, where he has a stipend from Georgetown University, teaching Hispano-American literature. “Mario loves to travel,” says Matthew Evans, chairman of Faber & Faber, which has published Vargas Llosa since 1984. “It suits his temperament, which is very smooth and urbane, but serious too. He moves in quite a social set, I think: you know, he’s the novelist to have to dinner if royalty are coming.”

Perhaps his very urbanity and worldliness contributed to his election defeat - because Vargas Llosa failed to reach the cholos the poor and dispossessed majority of Lima who live in shanty towns in the outer suburbs of a city that remains one of the most divided and dangerous in the world. “Mario looked like what he is, the privileged child of the Conquistador elite,” says one friend. “While, to be frank, Fujimori looked like an Inca. He appealed to the cholos.”

Vargas Llosa is thought to be close to the new president, Alejandro Toledo, whom he praises as a “democrat and reformer”. He has recently returned from a three-month stay in Lima, where he refused to return throughout most of Fujimori’s 10-year presidency. “Fujimori was a dictator,” he says, by way of explanation for his absence and for his decision to adopt Spanish nationality, which dismayed many Peruvians. “I was being attacked fiercely by the official media. It’s true that Fujimori reached out to the poor sectors of the electorate. He was also very clever in that he was prepared to lie. I wasn’t. I said exactly what I wanted to do: that my reforms would cost the nation but that we needed them if democracy was to flourish.”

Inside Peru attitudes towards Vargas Llosa remain mixed. “The consensus here is that Mario’s reaction to his defeat was all ego,” says the Lima-based entrepreneur Marisol Mosquera. “He was hurt and did nothing else for the next ten years but tarnish Peru’s image overseas. That triggered great resentment among the elite and the middle classes, including many people who had voted for him including myself. We felt betrayed by our leading international figure at a time when we needed international support more than ever. Vargas Llosa insulted the Peruvian nation by giving up his citizenship and saying that, if he dared to return, he would be put in prison and persecuted. This, of course, didn’t happen. He came several times for family reasons and moved freely.”

All of this is a long way from the Peru into which Vargas Llosa was born. In his essay “The Country of a Thousand Faces” he wrote nostalgically, even elegiacally, about his early childhood in the provincial city of Arequipa, in the southern Andean valley, where he was born and of the years he spent living as a pampered child in Cochabama, Bolivia, before returning at the age of 10 to Peru and to an adolescence isolated from the truth about the disturbed impoverishment of his polyglot, multi-ethnic homeland.

What he does not mention in that essay is how he grew up for a long time believing that his father was dead. In fact, his parents were divorced which, he thinks, explains the decision to move to Bolivia. “My maternal family was very traditional, Catholic. Divorce was a source of great shame: that’s why my mother would rather have said that my father was dead.” His parents later remarried; but Vargas Llosa never quite recovered from the shock of their reconciliation, nor ever felt any real affection or love for his father, whom he describes as a remote, authoritarian figure, a prototype of the more public dictators who feature so prominently in Latin American fiction. “My father was a self-made man and hostile to the idea of my becoming a writer,” he says, without rancour. “That’s why he sent me to a military school, to knock this nonsense out of me.”

Life at the military school was, however, broadly beneficial, because it was a microcosm of the real Peru, an institution where all classes and races mixed. It was there, too, that Vargas Llosa knew that he must continue to write, in defiance of his father. So literature became a refuge, a place of escape, fantasy and secrets, an instrument of resistance. “Looking back, my hatred of authoritarianism comes from my hatred of life under my father’s authority. You know, years later, when I was successful as a writer, my father wanted to establish a friendly relationship, but I was very reluctant ...” His voice trails away.

Perhaps because of the early influence of his mother, Vargas Llosa has always surrounded himself with strong, independent women. His second wife, Patricia, with whom he has three children, is described by a friend as “very tough and the one who keeps him on the straight and narrow”. His diminutive agent, Carmen Balcells is one of the most feared in the business. “She’s the Andrew Wylie of the Iberian peninsular, a ferocious advocate of her authors who sends a cold shiver down the spine of any respectable publisher,” says the writer and editor Robert McCrum.

When he was only 18, Vargas Llosa married another willful, independent woman. Julia, was 14 years his senior, and the sister of one of his uncles. The relationship informed his delightful and erotic semi-autobiographical comic novel, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which was about a young man’s secret affair with his aunt. Why did he marry so young? “Because I was in love,” he says, throwing his arms open with characteristic relish. “To have an affair with an older woman was very exciting. It was a wonderful experience and I learnt so much, not least because I had to grow up very quickly, to order my life in a certain way so as to find time for my writing.”

That may be so but surely early marriage was inimical to the bohemian life about which he has written so well: the longing for discovery and sexual adventure? “The bohemian life is not all that original. These things, these erotic experiences, they exist in the imagination.” He does not exactly wink after saying this, but merely chuckles conspiratorially - a kind of confession?

Vargas Llosa is a complex, unpredictable figure who enjoys dividing people. His new novel - full of violence, suffering and cruelty - offers a convincing portrait of the autocratic personality, in all its monstrosity and poignancy. It is told from three interconnecting points of view: that of the conspirators, whose initial exuberance at the assassination of Trujillo soon turns to terror and despair as they are tortured to the edge of lunacy; of the increasingly paranoid dictator himself; and of the 49-year-old New-York based lawyer, Urania Cabral, who returns to the Dominican Republic after a long absence to confront the truth about her mute, disabled father, a former Trujillo loyalist, and her own past as a teenage victim of the dictator’s lust for virgins. Vargos Llosa’s Trujillo is a barbarian but he is also capable of compassion and moments of unexpected self-revelation, never more so than when confronting his own bodily decay, his impotence and incontinence. He is, like his creator, at once beguiling and unforgettable. “What strikes me most about Mario is the stubbornness and courage with which he holds his opinions, sometimes in the face of all opposition, fashion and self-interest,” says Nicholas Shakespeare. “For much longer than was the case for anyone else, he thought Mrs Thatcher a marvel, for instance.”

Today Vargas Llosa has switched position again. He is a self-declared admirer of Tony Blair, whom he considers a good European and tireless internationalist. His old hero, Margaret Thatcher, disappointed him when she publicly supported General Pinochet after his arrest in Britain. “That was too much for me,” he says. “Thatcher now strikes me as a very bitter person, nationalistic in the worse sense and defensive. I find her affection for Pinochet intolerable.”

As ever, with Vargas Llosa, his hatred for authoritarianism and dictatorship remains the one true constant in his life, a source of broken friendships and tarnished reputations, and the inspiration for what may be his best novel. The authoritarian father who came back from the dead and opposed his son’s commitment to the writing life continues to inspire Vargas Llosa in ways he would never have understand.

Tom Clancy: Patriot games

September 24 2001 / New Statesman

Long before the devastating attacks on New York and Washington, America seemed haunted by a strange and persistent melancholy, even in the midst of spectacular superabundance. Searching for secular redemption, modern Americans long to become engines of their own self-creation, freed from any taint of the past. But Americans are prisoners of their own achievement, never able to reach the limits of their ever-proliferating desires. What remains is hideous boredom.

Modern America, for all its professed religiosity, is in thrall to a peculiar nihilism; it is essentially an entertainment culture, addicted to narratives of catastrophe. American video games, disaster movies and concept thrillers have long been sustained by eschatological anxiety. From an early age, children are taught to fear the end of America itself, the destruction by malign forces of all that is held most true. Once, these forces came from outer space, later, from behind the Iron Curtain, carrying an atheistic date stamp. Today, they come from the Islamic world - and they have never been more threatening.

No one exploits American fears of, and unconscious longing for, catastrophe more expertly than the concept-thriller writer Tom Clancy, said to be the highest-paid author in the world (his recent two-book deal is worth a reported $45m). Clancy is a cultural phenomenon: arguably the most popular novelist on earth, with more than 30 million of his books in print, an unreconstructed Republican hawk and a close friend of the Reagan family and Oliver North. “If you don’t like driving a tank, there’s something wrong with you,” Clancy once said. His work is saturated with research and hard detail; his descriptions of nuclear submarines and fighter jets have a startling authenticity—the boffin porn of the teenage defence electronics fanatic. “A lot of what I know about warfare I learnt from reading Tom,” said Colin Powell, the US secretary of state and former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

To read Clancy, then, is to understand why so many Americans wish to withdraw behind a virtual defensive shield, leaving themselves free to wander overlit shopping malls of limitless mediocrity, in isolation from a crazy world. In Clancy’s books, the world is always close to or at war and the US is threatened with extinction. “Is this the promised end?” asks Kent in King Lear. “Or,” replies Edgar, “image of that horror?” Through reading Clancy, Americans have lived vicariously with a sense of an ending, simultaneously embracing what they most fear and perhaps most desire - the ruin of cities, the collapse of nations, the vanquishing of alien peoples. Clancy may not yet have shown them the promised end (though he has come close), but he has repeatedly shown them images of that horror: assassination and the collapse of skyscrapers; battles at sea, on land and in the sky; perpetual conflict in the Middle East; and, most poignantly, the hijacking by Arab militants of civilian planes so that they may be used as le thal weapons against the American people (The Sum of All Fears, 1991). These images of horror have been replicated endlessly in Hollywood movies and in computer games, so that it is no exaggeration to describe Clancy as the novelist who comes closest to understanding and animating the modern American psyche: paranoid, deluded, isolated and aggressively confrontational.

Clancy has become his own global brand. He has franchised out his name to a team of ghost-writers who produce, under the “Op-Center” consortium, books that are bestsellers but have none of the lustre or huge narrative momentum of his own techno-thrillers. Hollywood agents scramble to buy the multimillion-dollar film rights to his books, including Patriot Games, which was about a plot by the IRA to murder the British royal family and starred Harrison Ford as Clancy’s all-action hero Jack Ryan; and The Hunt for Red October, which featured Sean Connery in a story about a rogue Soviet nuclear submarine. Clancy also owns Red Storm Entertainment, a software company that creates video games from the material of his fiction and which, he believes, will enable him to create a “new art form”. “Instead of telling them to people as you do if you’re a playwright or an author, we present the reader with stories in which he can participate.”

They have right on their side, and if you are not for them, you are against them. This is a fictional world of simple and incisive oppositions, a binary realm of good and bad, black and white, right and wrong.

Acute myopia prevented Clancy from joining the armed forces. The wound still fester s and perhaps explains why he is often photographed in military clothing and why he parked a tank on the front lawn of his 80-acre Maryland estate. “I wanted to serve my couple of years as a lieutenant,” he said. “I just thought I owed that to my country. But they didn’t want me; that’s the name of the game.” The heroes of his novels are men (they are always men) of action, monoliths of courage and self-affirmation.

The son of a postman from Baltimore, Clancy was working as a door-to-door insurance salesman when he began work on his first novel. It was not published until 1985, when he was 38, and then only quietly, without marketing or advertising. Yet its analysis of cold-war geopolitics and portrayal of nuclear sub marine technology was so accurate as to prompt accusations that he had seen classified documents. Within a year, he was a millionaire, delivering lectures to the US National War College and meeting regularly at the White House with Ronald Reagan, still described by Clancy as “America’s greatest president”.

In person, Clancy is big, swaggering, deep-voiced and straight-backed—the John Wayne of fiction. He speaks in rapid, staccato sentences, studded with aphorisms and gnomic utterances. With his thick, dark, steel-framed spectacles, he resembles a highway cop, or perhaps a hitman. The blue smoke from his constant cigarette spirals and curls.

I first met him at the National Liberal Club in Whitehall, when he was visiting London to address the monthly forum of senior naval staff at the Ministry of Defence. Dressed in their lounge suits, the men from the Royal Navy filed sombrely into the club, huddling together beneath a bust of Lloyd George. It was a perfectly English occasion, whisperingly conspiratorial and clubbable. Then Clancy strode into the room, accompanied by an alarmingly tall blonde woman whose big, buoyant hair had all the elaborate intricacy of a wasp’s nest (Clancy had recently separated from his wife of more than 20 years). The mood was transformed. Captain Peter Hoare, the head of defence studies in the Royal Navy, introduced Clancy by saying that he needed “no introduction”. Clancy nodded approvingly, stubbed out his cigarette and, to the accompaniment of polite laughter, said: “I’ve never been in a liberal club before. I’m a conservative.”

From there, speaking without notes, he delivered his theory of warfare, steeped in anti-communist and anti-Islamic sentiment. He roamed restlessly across centuries and offered potted histories of the great battles in an engaging, wised-up vernacular. It was an aggressive, bravura performance that left much of his audience shifting with patrician unease. Although the forum was private and nothing was to be reported, a worried Captain Hoare rang me the next day. He wanted to reiterate that nothing Clancy had said was “official naval policy; I thought he was going to talk about how his thrillers have enhanced the reputation of the US military”.

After his talk, Clancy and I met for a drink, during which he launched more assaults on liberals, the French, Hollywood (“giving your book to Hollywood is like turning your daughter over to a pimp”), the CIA, Islamic fundamentalists, Marxist-Leninists and Bill Clinton. He told me about what he called the “Ryan doctrine” of warfare, named after the hero of his novels. “The Ryan doctrine is about taking out the principal enemy. What you do is drop four or five SAS-style guys into, say, Iraq, guys who can disappear in an instant, speak the language, have the moustaches and funny gear—you know, the hats and clothes. What they do is use ground laser designators to track and locate Saddam. Then bang, you strike from the air. The good guys win again.”

It all sounded so simple. Some, no doubt, will say that Clancy speaks with the robust common sense of the ordinary American, of which President Bush is undoubtedly one (except for the good fortune of his birth). Listening to Bush struggling to articulate the nature of his hurt, humiliation and outrage, and his stumbling attempts to offer sympathy and leadership to a traumatised nation, I have thought often of Clancy and his Ryan doctrine of warfare. “To me, the Ryan doctrine is the logical extension of military technology,” Clancy told me. “Killing people doesn’t worry me so long as you have a good enough reason. The Ryan doctrine gives you a reason.” As do irrational messianic fervour (Bin Laden) and wounded indignation (George Bush).

To Clancy, war is the “ultimate blood sport”: to deny its necessity is to deny the truth. His career as a writer may have been one long, extended patriot game, but as his country prepares to strike against a nameless and opaque enemy, he must be horrified at how adeptly Islamic terrorists appropriated the destructive impulses of American entertainment culture, making of a nation’s apocalyptic fantasies a terrifying actuality, as if they were attempting to speak to Americans in their own language. In so doing, the terrorists created instantly replicable images of catastrophe that will haunt our imaginings for ever, not least those of Tom Clancy himself, who for so long has animated our anxieties, dramatised our disasters and savoured our last moments. Except that even he could not have been prepared for what happened next—for apocalypse here and now, in New York.

Ian Curtis: what he left behind

May 17 2000 / The Times

Joy Division could scarcely play their instruments when they started out. They made only two albums - Unknown Pleasures (1979) and Closer (1980). They disbanded almost exactly 20 years ago. And yet they remain deeply remembered. George Michael described Closer as his favourite album, and anyone from Bono to the Cure to the Gallagher brothers cites Joy Division as formative influences.

Nothing ever sounded like Closer, before or since. Its nine songs have, at times, an almost cathedral hush; they may be bass and drums-led and punctuated by moments of extreme dissonance, but the fragility of the performances and the melancholy of frontman Ian Curtis’s untrained voice take your breath away. This is music, as critic Paul Morley wrote in the NME, “filled with the horror of our times”.

Much of the originality of that music - and the continued aura of fascination surrounding the band - derives from the dysfunctional personality of Curtis, as songwriter and manic performer (his frenzied stage presence was likened by the rock journalist Dave Simpson to “a demented marionette or a man in flames”). An epileptic and morbid introspective, Curtis committed suicide on May 18, 1980. He was 23.

Many rock stars play at nihilism and despair; Curtis meant it. He lived much of his life in a kind of perpetual rage. As a teenager, he was fascinated by a romantic idea of doomed youth, by figures such as James Dean and Jim Morrison who had died violently young.

His widow Deborah Curtis, in her fine memoir, Touching From a Distance, discusses her husband’s “unhealthy obsession with mental and physical pain”, his youthful experiments with drugs and hardened feelings of alienation.

Joy Division were products of the post-punk explosion of bands inspired by the Sex Pistols. Curtis and the rest of the band - bassist Peter Hook, guitarist Bernard Sumner, drummer Steven Morris - were all in the audience when the Pistols played the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976. They were electrified.

But Joy Division weren’t strictly a punk band, even in the early days when their music was hard-edged and raw. There was a complexity and lyrical sophistication to their sound that was quite unlike any other band at the time. Curtis was an extraordinarily literate man, his songwriting informed by his reading of J. G. Ballard, William Burroughs, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Sartre. Some of his song titles - The Atrocity Exhibition, Dead Souls - were taken from the novels he admired most, just as I have borrowed one of his album titles for my own forthcoming first novel, Unknown Pleasures.

As Joy Division became more successful, so Curtis began to hurtle further out of control. The last year of his life, even as he improved and matured as a songwriter, was one of intense misery. His epilepsy, for which he was prescribed barbiturates, was deteriorating, to the extent that he was having regular fits onstage. His marriage had all but ended and he was locked into a destructive affair with another woman, Annik Honore.

After his first suicide attempt, he went back home to live with his parents. For a time, his condition seemed to stabilise, and he was preparing for the first Joy Division tour of America. Curtis had everything he wanted, it seemed, and yet he remained desperately unhappy, a helpless prisoner of the self. He eventually hanged himself in the kitchen of Deborah’s house. On his tombstone are inscribed the words “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, after one of his most popular songs.

What is left, in the end, is the music. And what music! No band, perhaps with the exception of Nirvana, has captured so completely that ambivalent dreamtime of early adulthood, when our lives appear hazily suspended between boundless opportunity and the putative world of work and responsibility waiting to engage us; and when youthful intoxication is followed, as it was for Curtis, by a bitter fall into experience, into a sad accommodation with the ways of the world and its often imprisoning events.

Curtis, at the age of 23, had already achieved everything he wanted (he told Deborah, once Unknown Pleasures was released, that his life’s ambition was complete). There was nowhere else to go.

Victor Pelevin: anatomist of the new Russia

March 2000 / New York Times Magazine

Returning to Moscow from a stay in a Buddhist monastery in South Korea, the Russian novelist Victor Pelevin received an unexpected telephone call from a priest. Why, the patriarch wanted to know, had Pelevin-unlike the great Solzhenitsyn and the even greater Tolstoy-neglected his Christianity? “I told him I hadn’t neglected my Christianity,” Pelevin says. “I grew up in an atheist country-I never had any belief in the first place. He was unconvinced. He told me that because I was a writer and popular with the young, I had a responsibility to set an example. I was polite to the old man but his expectations of me were ridiculous. I’m a writer. I have a responsibility to no one.”

Almost anywhere else, this remark would seem like a harmless expression of artistic self-assertion. But no country is more haunted by the spirit of its dead writers than Russia; even today, writers occupy an emblematic position in a society rendered radically unstable by the bandit capitalism of the post-Soviet period. Like Russian history, the country’s literary legacy is always being tugged in different directions. No writer, at present, is being tugged in more directions than Victor Pelevin, 38, a laconic, shaven-headed semi-recluse with a fashionable interest in Zen meditation and an attachment to dark glasses.

Even in a society where pulp fiction has never been more popular and where literary fiction is now seldom read by more than a tiny elite, Pelevin has emerged as that unusual thing: a genuinely popular serious writer. His most committed readers-who post his novels on the internet, and swap his books at nightclubs as if they were samizdat-are the disaffected young, who must see something of the surrealism of their own post-Soviet lives reflected in the mirror of his cool, glazed, ironic prose. “Pelevin has become a kind of spokesman for our generation,” says Katya Loktova, a 19-year-old student at Moscow State University. “He’s the only writer who seems to be writing about the way we live today, with all its problems, absurdities and heartaches.” Pelevin smiles when I ask him about his young readers. “You know,” he says, “they ask me the strangest questions. Mr Pelevin, they say, have you ever made love while on Ecstasy? Other writers are asked what they think about Yeltsin, or Nato’s intervention in Yugoslavia-but I’m asked about sex and Ecstasy.”

Such enthusiasm is translating into hard sales. Generation P, Pelevin’s new novel about the adventures of a young advertising copywriter adrift in a corrupt Moscow, was a summer success in Russia, selling more than 200,000 copies (in April, Faber & Faber will publish it as Babylon). The book tracks the adventures of Babylen Tartarsky, a young sceptical intellectual who in the last years of the Soviet period establishes a quiet (if circumscribed) life for himself as a translator. But then, Tartarsky jokes, the Soviets “decided to renew and improve the USSR. It improved so much that it ceased to exist.” Tartarsky eventually becomes a kopiraiter and spends his days devising Russian versions of western slogans: “Gucci for Men: Be a European”; “Nike: Do it Better, Motherfucker.”

The title is an arch reference to America’s jaded Generation X, but what does the P mean? “It could mean any one of three things,” Pelevin says. “It could stand for Pepsi, or Pelevin, or pizdets, or all three of these at once.” Pizdets is the most brutal of Russian expletives: it loosely means “absolute catastrophe” and has something of the offensiveness of the word “cunt.” Pelevin’s generation of liberal freedoms and designer excesses is also the generation of criminality, corruption and despair. “I feel disgusted by everything about my country,” he says. “In Soviet times you could escape from the evil of the state by withdrawing into the private spaces of your head; but now the evil seems to diffuse everywhere. We are all tainted by it.”

The popularity of Generation P followed on from Chapaev i pustota (Chapaev and Emptiness, 1997), which sold more than 250,000 copies and was published in Britain as The Clay Machine-Gun (Faber). To sell so many books is a cultural feat, especially in a country where a publishing industry, in any recognisable western sense, scarcely exists, and where the readership for serious fiction has all but disappeared in the past ten years. Most literary novels are still published in “thick journals” such as Novy Mir and Znamya, which recall in style, if not in content, the great literary periodicals of the 19th century in which Tolstoy and many of the great dead authors first appeared. These journals enjoyed a popularity during the euphoria of high perestroika, when people were eager to read material long hidden under the blankets of censorship. Collective sales rose to more than 1m, but have since fallen to 30,000. The urge to be serious, it seems, collapsed with the Wall.

One of the problems for the Russian writer is that, as Igor Shaitanov, professor of comparative literature at Moscow State University, puts it, “freedom has overwhelmed us.” When people were writing against the system and there was the underground, intellectuals had a rallying point of opposition; a dream of freedom to nurture. Today, writers are stumbling around in the shadowy spaces where culture used to be, seeking the ghost traces of a lost readership. As in the west, the influence of glossy magazines is all-pervasive, and this in a country whose people were once steeped in the Russian canon (perhaps because they were prevented from reading anything else). Even today, it is not unusual to meet middle-aged, working-class Russians who are able to talk fluently about Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol, and above all Pushkin (but not, significantly, Dostoevsky, whose urban extremism and Orthodox mysticism were deemed subversive and hence banned in schools). But no other literary figure unifies the Russians like Pushkin. During his bicentennial celebration last summer there was a frenzy in the air; shopkeepers were even fined for failing to display Pushkiniana in their windows. It’s hard to imagine this happening anywhere else, and shows a lingering commitment to the literature of the past.

The collapse of the state-supported literary culture and the rise of a mass market for popular fiction is epitomised by the story of Alexey Birger. A gentle, pale, warily crouched man, Birger has, for more than a decade, been working on a huge, sprawling, historical novel-an attempt, like Gogol, to build a palace of “colossal dimensions” in which the “untold riches of the Russian soul” would be revealed. He also translates Auden and TS Eliot. Because he earns very little from his translations and is unlikely to receive an advance for his novel-if indeed he ever finds a publisher-Birger writes formulaic detective novels, sometimes taking less than two weeks to complete one. These books sell; one is being filmed. “There has been a complete collapse of cultural confidence in Russia,” Birger says. “If people read at all they read cheap airport thrillers or generic crime novels. Still, I’m happy to play the game if it means that I can continue with my translations.”

Even at the more rarefied literary end, the dominant mood is retrospective, not experimental; nostalgic, not speculative. It is a time for literary archivists. Long-hidden manuscripts are being discovered, such as the work of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, who published nothing in his lifetime; translations of great books from other cultures are proliferating; and a reassessment of the Russian 20th-century canon has begun, stressing its continuity: the great poets (Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak); the dissidents (Solzhenitsyn, Bulgakov); the émigrés (Nabokov, Brodsky, Makine); the war writers (Grossman, Bykov); the Stalin-fanciers (Gorky); and the rediscovered (Platonov, Mariengof, Krzhizhanovsky). Despite communism, it is argued, there was no interruption in the literary process.

But what about now? “Our fiction is in great disgrace at the moment,” says Natasha Perova, co-editor of the English-language journal Glas, which introduces new Russian writing to international readers. “Hardly anyone is doing anything new.” There is, she complains, no Gogol or Dostoevsky to document the country’s current extremity, no chronicler of the new Russia.

Certainly it is literature of the past which is winning the prizes. Someone Else’s Letters by Alexander Morozov, the 1998 winner of the Russian Booker prize, was actually written in the late 1960s and shares the preoccupations of a period now derided as the “great stagnation.” That the novel eventually found its public place is testament to Morozov’s stoical determination: in 1968 his work was twice set in type in Novy Mir, only to be ripped out after KGB intervention. The 1997 Booker winner, The Cage, by 71-year-old Anatoli Azolsky, also had a thwarted gestation. Set even further back, in the era of Stalinist tyranny, the narrative tells of a dissident scientist attempting to forge an autonomous identity and a sense of inner freedom in a time of terrible repression; it was, as Pelevin coolly notes, another novel “feeding on Stalin’s corpse.” Writers such as Azolsky exist in a kind of cultural vacuum-oppressed as much by what has been, by painful memories of the old grey monolithic Soviet world of secrecy and fear, than by what is happening around them. And writers such as Azolsky, and indeed Morozov, continue to pull out long-neglected manuscripts from dusty drawers, manuscripts written without any expectation of being published, when Russians wrote simply “to the table,” as the saying goes, but which now have nothing but the musty appeal of an old newspaper. Period curiosities, at best. Small wonder, then, that Victor Pelevin has emerged as such an exciting, galvanising figure.

but spend any time in Moscow and you soon discover that no other writer polarises opinion like Pelevin. To the critic Andrei Nemzer, he is an “infantile writer producing books for an infantile society.” To Igor Shaitanov, he is a “phoney” whose fiction has a “dangerous emptiness.” Yet Natasha Perova, who discovered him, calls Pelevin “the voice of a generation, who is taking the Russian novel in new directions… his achievement is real: he has captured the inertia and confusion of several generations of people. That is why he is an idol, which is unusual for such a cerebral writer.”

We are eating a lunch of fried potato cakes and cucumber in the sitting room of her cramped flat in a sombre Brezhnev-era highrise in the northern Moscow suburbs. To reach her apartment you take a crowded mini-bus with busted shocks which bumps along the rutted highways at terrifying speed. On arrival, you take a dark, rancid-smelling lift up to the tenth floor and then pass along a narrow corridor. Wires from broken light fittings hang down from the ceiling like vines. It’s a curiously hostile environment in which to find such a cultured, elegant woman; but Perova, who was sacked from the Progress publishing house in the early 1970s for supporting Solzhenitsyn, is again struggling to survive. Since the financial crisis of 17th August 1998, the average wage for the ordinary Russian has fallen to an estimated $55 a month. “You only have to walk around central Moscow,” Perova says, “to realise what a cruel city this is. When critics say that they don’t like Pelevin, what they mean, I think, is that they don’t like the picture he paints-they don’t like the reflection they see of themselves.” Pelevin’s Russia is certainly a country suspended uneasily between the corrupt certainty of the changelessness of the old order, and the corrupt uncertainties of the present.

The disjunction between those who think Pelevin is a fraud and those who see him as the chronicler of the new Russia was dramatised strikingly when his third novel, Chapaev and Emptiness, was excluded from the 1997 Russian Booker shortlist. Igor Shaitanov, chairman of the judges that year, defended his jury’s unpopular decision by likening the novel-a hallucinatory recasting of the life of Vasily Chapaev, a mythical Bolshevik hero-to a computer virus. “It’s just too dangerous to support or transmit this kind of cultural image,” Shaitanov said. “Works like this act like a cultural virus-they destroy the cultural memory.”

In Russia there are few more resonant names than Vasily Ivanovich Chapaev, who was killed in the civil war following the 1917 revolution. Not much is known about the actual Chapaev, yet he floated free of his historical moorings to become celebrated in a Soviet realist novel, Chapaev (1923), by Dimitry Furmanov, and in a 1934 film of the same name. He is also the subject of a series of national in-jokes. The mythical Chapaev embodies the archetypal Soviet man, the “field commander” distinguishing himself in battle and in the cause of the revolution.

Pelevin’s Chapaev is nothing like this. For a start, he exists entirely in the imagination of Void, the inmate of a contemporary Moscow psychiatric hospital, who re-imagines Chapaev as a kind of Zen Buddhist master who delivers long, hallucinatory monologues on the illusory nature of surrounding reality. The narrative has an anarchic formlessness; the reader moves fluidly in and out of the minds of Void and the other inmates. The novel is long, opaque, intermittently unfathomable, but you receive a sense of how Pelevin ironically attempts to reconfigure and parody the myths of the Soviet past, just as in his debut novel, Omon Ra, he reduced the heroic age of Soviet space exploration to the status of black farce.

When I met Igor Shaitanov in Moscow, in an expensive French-style patisserie, he remained trenchantly opposed to Pelevin and his fiction. “My students say to me, professor, why do you speak so badly of Pelevin? Well, I tell them I’ve never thought much of literature that’s saturated in the idiom of the street. Pelevin is an example of a mind deprived of its linguistic roots-all those colloquial witticisms he uses, they’re very bad. He’s attractive to the young because they think that this is what literature should be like; it should be ironic and exist entirely in quotation marks. People in the west like him because they think his work represents Russian society. Let me tell them that it doesn’t. Pelevin is a phoney.”

Pelevin is unconcerned when I mention Shaitanov’s comments. He has heard it all before-and anyway, he holds critics in low regard, once describing them, to the British critic Sally Laird, as “incredibly stupid, mean, venomous.” He scorns, too, what he calls the “literary process”-by which he means the looking-glass world of academics, career novelists, reviewers and journalists, who gather at Moscow parties and events to gossip and scheme.

Pelevin himself never reviews books, reads very few of his peers and cites as influences Mikhail Bulgakov, whose The Master and Margarita, with its combination of political satire, fabulism and fantastic flights of fancy, seems the prototypical Pelevin novel; Kafka, another writer prone to metamorphic fantasies; and, unfashionably, Herman Hesse and Robert M Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

“I want no part of any literary world,” Pelevin tells me. “I’m simply not interested. The only thing that matters to me is trying to produce something that’s true to my vision and that people want to read.” In his own country, at least, Pelevin never gives interviews, refuses to be photographed or to appear on television or radio. Very few people even know what he looks like. What he desires most-or so he claims-is to be ignored, to be left alone in peace to write and dream. “Part of the attraction of Buddhism for me is that it enables me to empty my head of all the junk of modern living,” he says. “I really hate all the attention. It stops me getting on with my work. I can only begin writing again once I know that people have forgotten about me.”

Pelevin’s withdrawal from celebrity culture has only heightened his allure. Who is this reclusive Buddhist in the dark glasses who writes such strange, penetrating novels? Is he for real? Russian Vogue was so eager to secure an interview with him last summer that a senior editor invited him for lunch and then secretly recorded their entire conversation. She only confessed her subterfuge at the end of their lunch. “By then,” Pelevin says, “I was too drunk to care.”

Pelevin and I are chatting in a sushi bar on the old Arbat, the main tourist drag of the city. After a late summer heatwave, during which temperatures climbed into the low nineties, the bitter cold has returned. The extremity of the weather finds an echo in the extremity of daily life in the city itself: there is war again in the Caucasus and unease on the streets following a terrorist bombing campaign. Moscow seems to be passing inexorably through its Weimar phase-an intoxicating, dangerous place, where taxes and wages go mostly unpaid, where there is hyperinflation and anti-Semitism, where voracious prostitutes, their lips swelled by collagen injections, patrol the corridors of the international hotels, and where everyone’s second job-if indeed they have one-is taxi driving.

Pelevin remains exhilarated and repelled by this anarchy. Last September, he packed up again, first spending two months in Germany before returning to South Korea, where he planned “to avoid the millennium hype” by spending the winter months deep in meditation among Buddhist monks. “When I’m away in Korea, spending all day meditating, everything in the world seems to disappear into silence,” he says. “I stop smoking, I’m disciplined and I can concentrate on what’s important. Living in Russia drains you if you’re an intelligent person. We have no civil society and people have no protection from corrupt rule. Ordinary people are much worse off than they were under communism; you cannot survive on your pension or money from the state.” Pelevin himself is fortunate: he now earns around $50,000 a year from his writings, making him wealthy by typical Russian standards and allowing him to escape the country for months at a time.

Unusually for a Russian writer, he did not grow up surrounded by writers, intellectuals and dissidents. His parents were part of the Soviet nomenclature: his father was a military officer, his mother an economist from the Russian enclave of the former Soviet central Asian republic of Kazakhstan. He has spoken of the long summers of his boyhood, spent on a Moscow army base. “I really loved the place. It was like a big playground full of soldiers, a great place to excite the imagination.”

Memories from this period informed his lyrical first novel, Oman Ra (1992). As a child, Oman Ra is fascinated by flight and deep space, and dreams of becoming a cosmonaut, a heroic Soviet man in the model of Uri Gagarin. In his late teens, he enrols as a cadet at the Zaraisk flying school and begins a gruelling training programme. His aptitude and diligence impress the authorities and soon he is selected to be the sole pilot on a one-way, supposedly “unmanned,” mission to the dark side of the moon. Oman Ra realises that such a journey would mean certain death-his death. But he has no choice, and he sets off for the moon; only to discover, at the end of the novel, that he never really left the ground, that the entire Soviet space programme is a fake, part of a larger ideological conspiracy, the meaning of which will always remain somehow inexplicable, like the origins of the universe. Pelevin’s satire, written in the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism and scornful of the mock-heroic bombast of the past, has all the swaggering hauteur of a young man’s debut.

Pelevin studied engineering at the Moscow Institute of Aviation. He did not begin writing fiction until his mid-20s, and even then he was slow to find a readership. After college he worked as a journalist, as a copywriter in advertising, and later as an interpreter (echoes of Generation P). He wrote stories in stolen moments. That Oman Ra was published at all owed everything to the acuity of Natasha Perova, who read Pelevin’s first published story, The Blue Lantern, in an obscure journal called The Humanitarian Foundation, and was excited to see more. “I asked if he had written anything else,” she told me. “When we met up he handed me the manuscript of Oman Ra. I could see immediately that he was a born writer, with his own voice and style.”

The Blue Lantern is a magical evocation of childhood wonder: a group of boys on a summer camp spend the night wondering if their lives are only a dream and the world around them, to which they have grown accustomed since babyhood, a chimera. Perhaps they are dead; perhaps they never lived at all. As with much of Pelevin’s early fiction-for example, The Yellow Arrow, about a group of passengers trapped on a runaway train-the story ends on a note of transcendence, with one of the boys lost in a kind of rapture as he peers at the blue lantern burning outside his window, his consciousness teetering on the edge of dissolution, on the very edge of silence.

Pelevin’s longing to find moments of repose and reflection such as these may have inspired his interest in Zen Buddhism. Even while in Moscow he spends many hours each week in deep meditation, and he has experimented with drugs to intensify his imaginative conceits. His early fiction, in particular, often seems to follow the trajectory of a drug trip: luminous, allusive, hallucinatory-and utterly illogical. Although drugs no longer play a significant part in his life, he has not abandoned them completely. When, for example, I rang him to say I’d arrived in Moscow, he said: “Good, I’ll take you to Gorky Park to smoke some excellent hash.” In the event we ended up wandering Moscow, at first searching without luck for his favourite Cuban cigars, and then dropping in at several bars, during which time Pelevin steadily drank me to a bewildered standstill. By mid-evening I was ready for bed and he was revving up for a big night.

Yet Pelevin still lives with his aged mother. She leaves him in peace, he says, and “because I know where she is I don’t have to worry about her.” Pelevin has a longtime girlfriend, Nina, who works in advertising and wants to marry him. But he is stalled by indecision. “Do you think I should get married?” he asks me, glancing at my wedding ring.

“Well, if you love Nina, why not?” I say.

“It’s not such a good idea bringing up children in a country like Russia, and, anyway, I’m preparing to go away for the rest of the year.”

“What does Nina think about that?”

“She thinks I’m an arsehole.”

how serious, then, is Victor Pelevin? Having spent some time with him in Moscow and London there is something genuine, I think, in his retreat from fashionable society. At the same time, he seems to have worked hard at the aura of intrigue surrounding him. A Buddhist ascetic who enjoys the excesses of modern life, the drugs and alcohol, the computer games and consumer frenzies; a semi-recluse who despises the Russian media yet welcomes the attention of foreign journalists; a writer who is rooted in the world yet imaginatively estranged from it; an author of artful quasi-philosophical satires who claims that his fiction has “no underlying ideas behind it: they just come out of an absolute void.” All these careful contradictions have made Pelevin the most gossiped about, if not admired, writer in Russia. “He very much enjoys all the attention,” Perova says.

Like countless writers before him, Pelevin provides his own record of Russia’s inconceivable history. He does so as a leading member of a generation which is old enough to remember the Soviet period but which came to maturity during the febrile optimism of perestroika, and whose best work has been done during the slow slide to disillusionment under Yeltsin. A sense of stasis, of a nation peering into a void, pervades his fiction. Oman Ra, Chapaev, Babylen Tartarsky, all embark on journeys for which there never seems to be any point of arrival. Demystification leads to a greater mystification.

If his books are about anything, they are about willed alienation and the inward freedom of prayer and meditation. “To survive in the old Soviet times and to an extent even today, many people lived in this state of inner exile,” he says, “particularly if they didn’t want to be dissidents and go to prison. They took jobs as, say, janitors… they acted in the world, but it was a pretence. They really lived in a world inside their own heads.”

Pelevin’s journey appears scarcely to have begun. The writing life stretches before him like a turbulent ocean of discovery. Like Gogol, whom he sometimes recalls, he is enraptured by the fantastic nature of Russian reality. Unlike his fellow novelists, he would never be content to feed on Stalin’s corpse, so rich is the fiction potential of the society in which he finds himself. That is, unless he decides to follow the path of Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov and Brodsky into becoming a writer in exile. “My dream,” he says, “is always to be on the move. If I had enough money, that’s how I would live. I would leave Russia and simply keep travelling, never settling anywhere for long. I hate being connected to one place; it blisters the mind.”

So will he leave Russia for a life of self-savouring romantic wandering? My feeling is that he won’t. Russia, he knows, is both the inspiration for and engine of his fiction; it is his tarnished muse. In permanent exile, you suspect, Pelevin would wither into aimlessness as a writer. No: better to stay, to engage with what is happening in the culture around him, to continue holding up a mirror to a sick society, even if he sometimes dislikes what he sees in the cracked mirror of his own prose.

JM Coetzee: The literature of disgrace

October 25 1999 / New Statesman

The pleasure of the annual Booker prize jamboree is its seemingly endless capacity for surprise. If the leaks and gossip from inside the judges’ camp were to be believed, then this was to have been the year that Salman Rushdie became the first author to win the prize twice; if not him then his compatriot Vikram Seth, or Roddy Doyle, or some other “big name”, in the tiresome argot, on whom a story of instant journalistic convenience could be hung. In the event, another former winner, JM Coetzee, emerged as the most likely recipient of the 31st and final Booker of the century. This would be appropriate recognition for a writer of the highest creative intelligence, for whom the absurd, labyrinthine politics of postwar South Africa have inspired a body of work of almost unrivalled complexity and fascination.

That Coetzee will not even be at the Guildhall on Monday 25 October to accept his award - if indeed he wins, as he surely should - is entirely in keeping with the little that is known about him. For he is a writer who, like Beckett before him, spurns literary celebrity, living quietly in Cape Town, where he is professor of general literature at the main university, seldom if ever giving interviews, and adhering to an austere working routine. In person, the slight, silver-bearded Coetzee is reticent, wary. Friends speak of his “devotion to privacy”, his minimal conversation, his untrusting gaze. He is divorced and has one adult child (a son was killed in an accident at the age of 23); he is keen on rugby and cricket and on vegetarian cooking.

“Coetzee,” says the writer Rian Malan, “is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week. A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.”

So clearly, the work is the thing for Coetzee, and nothing but the work. And what work. The Booker-shortlisted Disgrace (Secker & Warburg, £14.99) is his eighth and arguably best novel. A parable of the new South Africa, it is written in prose stripped of all superfluous ornamentation and offers a portrait of a society terminally wounded by the sins of the past and of the present. David Lurie teaches communications at the Cape Town Technical University. He is twice divorced, jaded and fatigued by post-apartheid South Africa, with its double-think, violence and affirmative action projects. In his spare time, Lurie uses prostitutes and works on the libretto for an opera about Byron.

When the prostitute with whom he enjoys weekly sex quits the game, Lurie stumbles with the certainty of a sleepwalker into an affair with one of his pretty dark-haired students. The affair goes wrong; Lurie is reported to the authorities at the university, called before a disciplinary committee and dismissed when he refuses to apologise publicly. From there he travels out to the Eastern Cape to visit his daughter, Lucy, on her isolated homestead, where she keeps a kennel of dogs and struggles to survive in hostile terrain. One afternoon, three black men raid the homestead. They attack Lurie, setting him alight, kill the dogs and gang-rape Lucy, who then angers her father by refusing to report the violation to the police. In her own mind, what has occurred is bound up with the wider historical guilt of whites in South Africa; this is her burden as a white woman.

Lurie is a misanthrope and pessimist. Even after the attack on his daughter, even after the father of the student whom he has abused confronts him, Lurie continues to use prostitutes. He is a man, you realise, who has learnt to live without the possibility of delight, a man alone. He himself accepts that his pleasure in living has been snuffed out: “Like a leaf on a stream, like a puffball on a breeze, he has begun to float towards his end. He sees it quite clearly, and it fills him with (the word will not go away) despair.”

Disgrace is an extraordinarily bleak novel, but one of terrific power. Coetzee’s spare prose is superbly readable and Lurie’s fall into self-knowledge has a raw truth. Anyone who has recently visited South Africa, as I have, will also respond to his uncompromising portrait of that country. For all the talk of renewal and opportunity and the abolition of the race laws, for all the supposed cathartic work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the rhetoric of the “rainbow nation”, South Africa is not a nation at ease with itself. How can it be at ease when whites, moaning bitterly about the deleterious effect of affirmative action, lock themselves away in their gated communities, with “armed response” signs slapped to the front of their houses like estate agents’ banners; when the coloureds I met complained of once not being white enough and now not black enough to progress; when most blacks themselves are poor and illiterate and live in shanty towns, smouldering with resentment; when the ANC seems set to become nothing but an elected dictatorship? Coetzee captures this pervading unease and much more. He is, in every sense, the ideal chronicler of the new South Africa: clear-eyed, hard-headed and a scourge of sentimentality.

John Michael Coetzee was born in 1940, the son of mixed Afrikaner and German parentage, and one suspects he has long felt like an exile in his own land. He grew up in Cape Town, speaking two languages, English and Afrikaans, but came from a resolutely Anglophile family that felt estranged from the supremacy of Afrikaner culture.

When Coetzee was eight, his father - after losing his government job because of his “progressive” views - moved the family to the oppressive provincial town of Worcester, and he has spoken of a “time of gritting teeth and enduring”. In his memoir, Boyhood: scenes from provincial life, Coetzee, writing about himself with characteristic reticence in the third person, as if his younger self were one of his own creations, describes his sense of alienation from fellow Afrikaners and from the laws that separate the people around him into racial sub-groups, when so many of them, palpably, are anything but pure. In fact, they are what Breyten Breytenbach, the Afrikaner poet and political rebel, famously called “bastards” - racial hybrids, formed by generations of migration and wandering.

Coetzee was a talented student, particularly in mathematics and linguistics. He lived and worked for a period in England, in the 1960s, before he took his PhD in literature at the University of Texas at Austin. He taught at Buffalo University before returning home, in 1972, to join the literature department of Cape Town University, where he has remained ever since. His first novel, Dusklands, an oblique commentary on the Vietnam war and on the arrival of Dutch settlers in Africa, was published in 1974.

Leading South African writers are becoming increasingly obsessed by the violence, the moral dislocation and wilful cruelty around them. “This has always been a violent country,” writes Breyten Breytenbach in Dog Heart (Faber), his account of his recent return from exile to travel in the Western Cape. Dog Heart burns with the anger of Afrikaans-speaking whites and “coloureds” who have been attacked, robbed and raped in the new lawless South Africa. Nadine Gordimer, too, in her most recent novel, The House Gun (Bloomsbury), has written astutely about post-apartheid violence in her parable of a white man who murders his lover and then is defended in court by a black lawyer.

JM Coetzee is a more subtle writer than the politically explicit Gordimer, preferring to work through allegory and parable, perfecting a kind of prison literature: his lonely characters (like the eponymous hero in Life and Times of Michael K, which won the 1983 Booker) operate in societies without any recognisable moral centre, often afflicted by a nameless menace, abused by functionaries of an impenetrable state, guilty of no sin except that of being alive. So life is a sort of prison sentence; birth is a crime.

In Michael K, Coetzee describes the bewildering journey that a young, simple-minded coloured undertakes with his ailing mother across the Cape. Michael K, like Kafka’s K on whom he is modelled, is a holy innocent whose inarticulacy mimics that of the wider inarticulacy of the once-oppressed majority in South Africa.

Coetzee has written about voicelessness before, in his novel Foe (1986), a smart rewriting of Robinson Crusoe, in which a woman called Susan Barton returns to London with a mute black man (his tongue has been cut out). She meets an irascibly famous writer, Daniel Defoe, to whom she tells her fabulous story of having been marooned on an island in the middle of the Atlantic with two men, Crusoe and Friday.

As a novelist who runs a dual career as an academic, Coetzee is intensely interested in narrative theory, and his fiction is deftly experimental, if at times mechanistic and overdetermined. In Foe, for instance, he intervenes in his role as the controlling narrative intelligence to speak on behalf of the mute Friday, to give him a voice and his own cherished story.

These metafictional devices are not always successful - the second part of Michael K consists partly of extracts from the diary of a camp doctor who meets K but who also offers an unnecessarily over-elaborate summary of his life and the themes of the novel, just in case the reader hasn’t already got it. In another work, The Master of Petersburg (1994), Coetzee even has Dostoevsky as a hero, reworking an episode from the writer’s life, as he did with Defoe, in which the murder of his stepson Pavel (which never actually happened) inspires the genesis of his great novel of political upheaval, The Possessed.

Coetzee has said of Robinson Crusoe that the idea of a man being marooned alone on an island is perhaps the “only story”; and certainly there is in his work a pervading sense of rootlessness, of inner exile, of shipwreck being embraced as an ontological condition.

So what is Coetzee’s vision of the future of South Africa? He has long resisted making public pronouncements, to reducing his work to a series of political or revolutionary slogans, either for or against the system. Unlike, say Breytenbach, who was imprisoned for seven years for working on clandestine missions for the ANC (an experience he wrote about in his great prison memoir, Confessions of an Albino Terrorist), Coetzee was never an overt activist. He has spoken, too, of how people living in the benign liberal democracies of the west will never acquire an understanding of the “intensity of life in certain critical situations”, its tragedy and horror. But in Disgrace, his most nakedly political book, there is a clue to his world view, and it is extraordinarily despairing. Lucy, contemplating the wreckage of her life after the rape, says that she is prepared to start again, “with no cards, no weapons, no property rights, no dignity”. “Like a dog,” Lurie says. “Yes, like a dog.”

The phrase returns us to Kafka, as so much of Coetzee does, and in particular to the dying Joseph K, in The Trial, who looks up as a knife is being thrust into his chest by an anonymous man.” ‘Like a dog!’ he said: it was as if he meant the shame of it to outlive him.”

South Africa is a country of deep shame, but no shame will ever attach itself to JM Coetzee. There is no more appropriate writer to become the first double winner of the Booker, even if he has decided to stay away from the Guildhall on what one hopes is his night of glory.

Iris Murdoch: a divine literary intelligence

February 12 1999 / New Statesman

Late in the summer of 1993, when I worked as a reporter on the Bookseller magazine, I was despatched to interview Iris Murdoch at her large, eccentrically dishevelled house in north Oxford. She had just published The Green Knight, her 25th novel, and I was amazed when my idle request for an interview was granted. As it turned out, it was to be one of the last she ever gave. Not four years away from being an undergraduate, I was gauche and clumsy in her presence, mumbling the word “Dame” several times when she opened the door and stumbling over books scattered across her narrow hallway. My first question, describing one of her characters as “imperiously innocent”, was greeted with a sympathetic smile and then a question of her own: “What exactly do you mean by that, young man?”

It was hard, listening to the tape of our conversation again this week, not to read into the gaps and omissions in her sentences - the stumbles and pauses, the memory lapses - early evidence of the Alzheimer’s disease that banished her, for the last 30 months of her life, to a twilight realm of memory loss and baffled wonder. That morning, her stomach gently rumbling, she spoke with powerful regret of what she saw as the hard secularism of the modern world. “I think people must make an effort to retain Christianity, but in a non-literal form, as it were - not having to believe in God as a person or that Christ was divine, but to believe in everything that Christ meant. This is something that mustn’t be lost . . . I believe it is quite possible to have a kind of teaching of religion which is not just meant for Christians. Some sort of teaching of morals should be present in schools. The problem with so many schools is that they remain under the influence of the free thinkers of 1968; they don’t bother about spelling and everyone is into free expression.”

Her fiction can be read as a kind of an extended elegy for that lost world of religious certainty of which she spoke, her characters stumbling unhappily in the spaces where God used to be. Her best novels are intricate moral parables, mini-quests on which her always educated creations embark to answer the question posed by Michael in The Bell: “What is the requirement of the good life?” A moral philosopher, Murdoch was genuinely troubled by this question, and she worried away at it, returning again and again to it, as she sought to refine and animate a secular morality. If her writing could be solemn, overdetermined and repetitive, it was also surprisingly sensual and hard to forget. Hard to forget because of its very strangeness and eerie rigour. She sounded like no other writer.

Murdoch famously never allowed her work to be edited. It began to show. As she grew older, her novels, particularly the sequence of five beginning with The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983) and ending in The Green Knight, became longer, more opaque and mannered: a great continuous symphony, with each work an instrument complementing and commenting on the one that went before. Late-phase Murdoch invariably featured a brilliant charismatic, a Wittgenstein-like figure who exerts a mesmeric hold over a group of people - Lucas or Peter in The Green Knight, Gerald Hernshaw in The Book and the Brotherhood, John Roberts in The Philosopher’s Pupil; the characters’ love relations are painfully intertwined; there are Shakespearean echoes; there is a mythic or visionary perspective; and death is always the intruder.

Peter Conradi, in his Guardian obituary this week, approvingly compared Murdoch to Dostoevsky. This is an important mistake. Murdoch may have grappled, like Dostoevsky, with moral and theological dilemmas, but there is none of the Russian’s urban mania in her fiction, little of his existential extremism or tortured interiority. Reading Dostoevsky you feel that anything might happen; that the author himself, like a racing driver pushing himself and his car to the limit, had no idea where his erratic talent might take him, or what form his novel would take. Murdoch, by contrast, knew absolutely everything about her characters and the form of her novel before she began writing. The hard work was in the thought and planning; there was little to surprise her in its execution. So hers was a controlling, almost divine literary intelligence.

Iris Murdoch’s own search for the good life was politically interesting; she metaphorically crossed the floor. Her journey from youthful illusion to disillusionment, from early support of the Communist Party to a kind of inchoate Thatcherism, was a model for her generation. By the time I met her a sad twilight had settled over her; she confessed to being “deeply disillusioned” by the contemporary world, by the cheapening of religion and the failure of progressive educational policies (she considered the comprehensive model a disastrous experiment in social engineering, more extreme than even the educational system of Soviet Russia).

“I became a Marxist at the time of the Spanish civil war: it was an emotional period as those who were against Franco were swept to the left,” she told me. “At that time, I read a lot of Lenin and was caught up with the notion of building a better world. But I became quickly disillusioned with Marxism; the ideals were OK but what was being done in its name was awful. I remained on the left for a long time, up until the emergence of Arthur Scargill, really. I don’t know where I am now - I feel very distressed by politics.”

As a young woman Murdoch met Sartre and was swayed by the radical self-liberation of existentialism; she moved on to embrace a kind of ethical Platonism through which to see the good is simply to see the world as it really is.

To the end, though, she was unable to make that final leap into faith: a theologian in search of a consoling eschatology. “God does not and cannot exist,” she wrote. “But what led us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured. That is, as an Idea, and also incarnate in knowledge and work and love.”

She and John Bayley, her devoted husband of more than 40 years, had no television. “At intervals,” she told me, chuckling, “we get notes from the local authorities saying, ‘We see that you have no television set, what is the reason for this?’ and I have to reply, ‘We don’t like television’. I very much agree with Whitehouse and others that indiscriminate television can be very damaging to children, even the very jokey things.”

The sadness is that Iris Murdoch, in her last, levelling years of illness, came to like television very much indeed, particularly Teletubbies, which she would watch in a kind of rapture each morning, one of the best minds of her generation entranced by the overlit, technicolour simplicities of La-La, Dipsy, Tinky-Winky and Po.

John le Carre: The Deceiver

February 5 1999 / New Statesman

How serious is John le Carre? There is a feeling among his many admirers that he is very serious indeed, not just an accomplished genre writer, but more than that: the natural heir of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, a writer whose worldliness, political acumen and commanding interest in the defining moments of contemporary history have resulted in a postwar body of work of unrivalled political complexity. But le Carre himself, you suspect, has long felt undervalued by what he calls the “literary bureaucracy” - by which he means the coteries of critics, career novelists, agents and publishers who gather at the same London parties and events. “If you move in these circles,” le Carre once said, “you trip over connections at every point . . . I don’t know the people who review me, I don’t go to their parties - I never will. I have the most profound contempt for the system - a total alienation from it.”

David Cornwell (le Carre was a pseudonym to preserve his diplomatic cover), now 67 years old, removed himself early in his writing life from this airless world, when the international success of his third (and wondrously plotted) novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), eased his departure from the British “intelligence” service into which he had stumbled as a student linguist. Since then he has lived for most of the time in Cornwall, while keeping a house in Hampstead, a self-styled outsider.

Yet, in many ways, le Carre, as a former diplomat and servant of MI5 and MI6, has been at the centre of conventional society; and indeed he can be a conventional writer, locking himself in the prison of the genre of the spy novel, no matter how much he attempts to stretch and bend the bars that too often constrain him. His new novel, Single & Single (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99), about the intrigues of the bandit capitalists of the new Russia, displays his obvious weaknesses: the flat, inexact dialogue, the unhappy flirtation with cliche (people drift down “memory lane”) the perfunctory description, the febrile, over-elaborate plotting, the inevitable certainty of closure.

And yet his books remain hard to forget long after you have finished them. This has something to do, I think, with his profound understanding of, and engagement with, the political world in which he grew up. From the beginning, he had an urgent subject - the cold war - and a compelling preoccupation - secrecy. As a novelist, le Carre is obsessed with secrecy, as Conrad was, secrecy as a way of life and as an extended metaphor through which to understand human motivation (public and personal betrayal are inextricably bound up in his novels, as the cuckold George Smiley realises whenever he contemplates the sadness of his marriage).

Le Carre understands that there is no one lonelier than the double agent: addicted to duplicity and loyal only to himself, he lives in a condition of acute watchfulness. His fiction, with its suspensions, narrative absences and aporias, leaves much unsaid. Even when his novels reach their inevitable resolution, as the genre demands, there is nevertheless a powerful sense of incompleteness, of uncertainty and confusion, as though the spooks themselves are unable to comprehend the events that have just passed, or indeed the value of what they are working for or against. So always in le Carre demystification leads to a greater mystification.

If le Carre is to be believed, he did not have to search long to find his subject; the secret condition, as he points out, “was imposed on me by birth, under the influence of that monstrous father. Then that brief passage through the secret world sort of institutionalised it.” That monstrous father is Ronnie Cornwell, an inveterate conman and recidivist who spent several terms in prison and about whom le Carre wrote so memorably in A Perfect Spy - described by Philip Roth as the most accomplished British novel since the war. Such a claim is not as absurd as it might sound. A Perfect Spy functions on many levels: as a thriller, as a complex family history, as a study in the unreliability of memory, as an exercise in multiple narratives and time shifts; and as a metaphysical quest narrative, where the actual search for a missing spy, Magnus Pym, is mimicked on a more local level by Pym’s own internal search for the deceitful father whom he thinks he hates but never really knew. In every way, it is exceptional.

There is something appealingly complex in le Carre’s withdrawal from fashionable society, in his fondness for casting himself in the role of elevated outsider. To meet him is to meet, on first impression, a lifelong member of the professional middle-upper classes, a tall, handsome, urbane member of the Oxbridge elite. It is a false impression. “I just think that it’s a part I put on,” he has said. “It never occurs to me that people could imagine I was well born, or that I was secure in the company of the British establishment, because it really isn’t so. I mean, I’ve shafted it for as long as I’ve been writing.”

So there you have it: le Carre as the loner attracted to labyrinthine institutions and secret conclaves yet paradoxically working at the same time to subvert them; the former Eton schoolmaster and MI6 officer who purports to loathe the social prejudices and class structures of English life; the multi-millionaire, hawkish cold war propagandist who claims to be a man of the left and to despise the “ever-growing gap between the very rich and very poor” in Britain. All these careful contradictions, along with his chaotic, itinerant childhood (Ronnie was always defaulting on his son’s school fees), have made le Carre one of the most gossiped-about writers in England. As a result, he has withdrawn even further.

“I don’t think David is secretive in a bad way,” says his former agent George Greenfield, through whom le Carre met his second wife, Jane. “I agree he is very elusive and doesn’t like to give anything away, particularly to interviewers; but there’s more of him in A Perfect Spy than in any other of his books. It’s all there.”

Yet, like the spook he once was, le Carre occasionally breaks cover to thwart unwanted interest into his private affairs. This happened when the journalist Graham Lord’s confidential synopsis of his proposed biography of le Carre, which had been circulated to publishers, was leaked. “I was served with a writ for libel by David,” Lord tells me. “It was a very uncomfortable experience to be pursued by a very rich man for libel, especially as at the time I was suing the Express for constructive dismissal and my ex-wife was demanding more alimony. I had too many lawyers after me. I concede that there was material in the synopsis that was defamatory and would have needed a great deal of checking; but it wasn’t meant for publication.” As part of the eventual settlement, Lord agreed not to write his unauthorised biography (Robert Harris is thought to be working on the authorised one).

Le Carre, too, is not averse to provocation. And he never forgets a slight, which may account for his feud with Salman Rushdie, which stretches back to the late 1980s, when Rushdie wrote a sneering review of The Russia House, le Carre’s novel about the early years of perestroika. “John le Carre,” he wrote, “wants his work to transcend the genre and be treated as Serious Literature . . . [But] much of the trouble is, I’m afraid, literary. There is something unavoidably stick-like about le Carre’s attempts at characterisation.”

Le Carre was later accused of being “unfeeling for Salman’s position” following the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the author of The Satanic Verses. What he had said was that someone of Rushdie’s background “made light of the Book at your peril . . . A peculiar justification used by Rushdie’s most vociferous defenders is that his novel has great literary merit - some insist it is a masterpiece . . . Are we to believe that those who write literature have a greater right to free speech than those who write pulp?” Most recently, in an exchange of letters in the Guardian last year, Rushdie called le Carre “an illiterate pompous ass”; and le Carre in turn ridiculed Rushdie as “a self-canonising, arrogant colonialist”.

What is interesting about the feud is not only what it reveals about le Carre’s motivation and sense of self-worth, but also how vividly it dramatises the disjunction in English fiction between the literary and popular novel, a disjunction originating in the mould-breaking modernism of Joyce, Eliot and Pound, and in their contempt for generic repetition and established forms.

But le Carre is not the literary barbarian that Rushdie and his supporters would have it. In The Secret Pilgrim (1990), his requiem for the cold war, an aged George Smiley warns, while addressing an audience of young recruits, that Russia can never be trusted. “For one reason, the Bear doesn’t trust himself. The Bear is threatened and the Bear is frightened and is falling apart . . . The Bear is broke, lazy, volatile, incompetent, slippery, dangerously armed . . . “

Conrad said that he wrote Under Western Eyes (1911), his great novel of espionage and betrayal set in pre-revolutionary Russia, “to render not so much the political style as the psychology of Russia itself”. Conrad’s Russia is a “monstrous blank page awaiting the record of an inconceivable history”. It is a country on the edge of complete moral anarchy. Le Carre has provided, too, a valuable psychological record of Russia’s inconceivable post-revolutionary history under communism. That is his considerable, fittingly contemporary achievement; and that is why I suspect his work will enjoy a long afterlife as future generations turn to him to discover how it was to live through the long, anxious years of the cold war. Through reading him, too, they will better understand something of the failure and complacency of the English elite that once sought to rule the world but ended up unable to preserve the unity of even the British union itself.

JG Ballard: The Seer of Suburbia

August 1998 / Prospect, Issue 33

The near future, JG Ballard once wrote, provides a better key to the present than does the past. For much of his career, certainly until the publication, in 1984, of Empire of the Sun, a fictionalised account of his childhood in a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai, Ballard was marginalised as a maverick science fiction specialist. He was seen as a writer trapped in a circle of generic obsession, a futurologist whose exotic preoccupations were out of step with the bland realism of the postwar period. He contributed to the hard-edged science fiction magazine New Worlds and organised exhibitions of crashed cars at the Arts Laboratory. He was, in short, not one of us; not strictly a literary writer; not someone really worth taking seriously. Yet he was not strictly a science fiction writer, either. He wasn’t interested in space travel or in the far future; rather, he explored inner space, a huge subterranean realm of unconscious motivation and psychic disturbance.

The twin engines driving so much of British contemporary fiction have long been a kind of enfeebled realism-with its class and social anxieties-and nostalgia. But Ballard operated outside this loop. The drowned worlds, scorched cities and overgrown jungles of his early fiction; his focus on the media landscape of global celebrity and stylised catastrophe; his exploration of the connections between sex, eroticism and death; his fetishism of motorways, highrises and car crashes-almost alone among contemporary British writers, Ballard wrote about the 20th century in its own idiom. As a result his work is exaggerated, pumped-up, often preposterous; a prose surrealist mining a strange, blurry, psychopathological landscape. It is hard to believe in his fictional world precisely because it is so invented, so radically imagined. Like the paintings of Dali, Max Ernst and de’ Chirico which he so admires, Ballard transports you into a fabulous realm, at once real and hysterically unreal.

You can read a Ballard novel without believing a word of what is written. Yet something lingers disturbingly in your imagination, something to do with his understanding of the inherent instability of the contemporary condition-as if we are all actors in our own self-referential drama, as if we are all trapped within a set of immense inverted commas.

“I’ve always thought that life was a kind of disaster area,” says Ransome, the disturbed narrator of his third novel, The Drought. For Ransome read Ballard: a writer addicted to disaster and urban extremity. The motifs in his work are abandoned runways, drained swimming pools, crashed cars, flooded lagoons, overlit motorways. His male heroes-doctors, architects, engineers-are last men, moving uneasily through a disintegrating world of diminished aspiration (in their impassive striving they recall the sad urban landscapes of Edward Hopper).

“I have always needed to pump up the pumice stone of the imagination more than other writers,” Ballard tells me. “Kingsley Amis was full of praise for my early stuff; but as with so many English novelists he was vaguely suspicious of the power of the imagination: it could be too much of a good thing. Yet surely the radical imagination is what we seek in a writer; when we read we want to encounter a very different world that will make sense of our own.”

Ballard constructs closed, artificial worlds-a tropical island, a fortress community, an apartment block, a seaside resort-then watches as they collapse under the strain of their own contradictions. In Concrete Island (1974)-the second of a trilogy, including Crash and High Rise, which explores the psychopathology of post-industrial society-a 35-year-old architect crashes on his way to work. He lands on a traffic island below three converging motorways. The days pass without anything happening: he is trapped on his island of “seething grass,” marooned in a sea of concrete and steel, living in a condition of ontological shipwreck.

The theme of urban alienation is developed in High Rise (1975), where the tenants of a luxury apartment block become warped by the synthetic perfection of their environment: the soporific hum of air conditioning, the artificial warmth, the soft sighs and wheezes of the elevator. As order breaks down, the tenants reveal their capacity for depravity. Most recently, in Cocaine Nights (1996) a group of British expats on the Costa del Sol become corrupted by a life of boundless leisure, listlessly sliding into a life of crime and debauchery amid the “memory-erasing white architecture.”

But it is in Crash where Ballard’s vision of the apocalyptic marriage of sex and technology is most fully realised, where his trademark cool, glazed prose is fully refined. It is hard to think of a more wilfully skewed book; the original editorial reader at Jonathan Cape, the publishers, was so disturbed by the subject that she wrote: “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.” Even Ballard himself was disconcerted when he read an early proof copy.

Crash is sinister and pornographic-as many discovered when they saw David Cronenberg’s faithful film adaptation. But it is also a compelling exploration of the disturbed psyche, of how we can become warped by living in a huge atrocity exhibition, thriving on a culture of violence and sensation. Crash, according to Ballard, is a cautionary tale, a critique of the dangerous emptiness of Hollywood films, with their simulated violence and moral vacuity. If you enjoy watching car crashes, he seems to say, this is what really happens, here are the wounds and injuries-and the sex between the maimed. You can question Ballard’s preoccupation with violence and deviance, but the hallucinatory quality of his prose is such that we derive a perverse pleasure from his narrative excesses even as we recoil at the comic awfulness of the characters’ plights.

The book’s central character is a scientist called Vaughan, “the nightmare angel of the highways.” He cruises the network of motorways which surround London airport, waiting to photograph the mutilated victims of road accidents. Suffering and atrocity inspire his fantasies. In one vision, the whole world is “dying in a simultaneous automobile disaster, millions of vehicles hurled together in a terminal congress of spurting loins and engine coolant.” When Vaughan meets the ironically named Ballard, a scarred survivor of an earlier accident, the two men form a charged, latently homosexual alliance. Sustained by dreams of catastrophe, they haunt the highways together, leading each other on to ever greater acts of obscenity, halted only by Vaughan’s spectacularly violent death.

One of Vaughan’s erotic obsessions is with the actress Elizabeth Taylor, whom he imagines dying in a gruesome accident, her mutilated body caught in a glare of exploding camera bulbs. One thinks, inevitably, of Princess Diana, speeding into a tunnel on her way from the Ritz, the most famous woman on the planet dying under the dazzle of the paparazzi’s flashlights. Here was an emblematically contemporary, Ballardian death, reminding us, if we needed it, of his second sense as a writer, his feel for the spirit of the age.

“In Crash, I explore the connections between sex, eroticism and death,” he says, pouring me a glass of wine. “We’re living in an entertainment culture where sex plays a huge role. I want to explore the subliminal connections between, say, the Marilyn Monroe figure on a giant billboard, one’s own personal life and sexual relationships, and the unconscious layers of sexual memory and desire stowed away in the cargo hold of one’s psyche. All this is creating a mix that is unique to the 20th century. Thanks to Freud, modern psychoanalysis and now the modern neurosciences and evolutionary psychology, we are aware that we aren’t simply social intelligences interacting with each other. We are layered creatures making our way through a storm of confusing signals, of which sex is probably the strongest.” Ballard speaks as he writes, in long metaphorical sentences full of synapses of insight and pungent observation. Tall and stout, his receding hair worn long at the sides, he is elaborately courteous-he could pass for an old-style military gent, or a retired diplomat home after a long spell in the east.

After a turbulent screening at Cannes (there were both jeers and cheers), a Daily Mail campaign blocked the film’s nationwide distribution in Britain. But it was belatedly released on video last month. Cronenberg is an uneven film-maker, his work veering between the meritricious (Videodrome) and the inspired (Dead Ringers). Ballard is a fan; he was delighted by the film and contemptuous of the timidity of the film’s distributors. “I thought Cronenberg caught the spirit of the book,” he says. “His film was very elegant and cool; it was wonderfully perverse without using any of the normal trappings of sexual perversity-which was exactly what I was trying to achieve. We both dispensed with any moral framework. This unnerves an audience, reduces the distance between them and what is going on… Reactions to Crash were intensely defensive, tied up with an exaggerated fear of the new. The Daily Mail plays on middle class and lower middle class anxieties.”

Crash, published in 1973, propelled Ballard towards cult status (it was a bestseller in France and Italy but a curious flop in the US, the world’s great motor culture). To a generation of younger readers, he was offering a bridge between the ephemera of popular culture and the avant-garde; an inspiration for disaffected youth, particularly among the long-coated, NME-reading brigade of the post-punk period. Ian Curtis, frontman of Joy Division, who later hanged himself, used to cite Ballard as an influence; several of his songs took their titles from Ballard stories.

What trauma lies behind Ballard’s unsettling visions? Or are they drug-induced hallucinations (Ballard did take LSD once, tripping badly), or the workings of a deranged mind? The explanation, belatedly provided by Empire of the Sun, was simpler: James Graham Ballard had a childhood as surreal as anything dreamed up in his fiction. As a detainee, between the ages of 12 and 15, in the Lunghua prison camp in Shanghai, he looked on as Chinese soldiers were decapitated by the occupying Japanese, as the teeming streets of Shanghai were bombed by low-flying aircraft and as his fellow internees were harassed and brutalised.

In Empire, as he calls it, he writes of returning to the International Settlement where his parents lived in affluent seclusion, to find the houses inexplicably deserted (“It was like coming home to this street in Shepperton and finding everyone gone”); and of watching the distant glow of the atom bomb explosion in Hiroshima, “that spectral mushroom cloud”-an eruption which reverberates across his oeuvre.

Ballard writes with the conviction of painful experience. His prose is calm, pared-down, his usual imaginative brio checked by a reporter’s eye for detail, as if he is seeking to preserve a whole world before it is buried under the rubble of history. There is a touching naïvety about many of his observations of camp life: Ballard writing as an adult, but trying to see the world as only a young boy can see it.

It was as if Ballard had reached a terminus in his life and work, the point beyond which he could only go forward by going backwards, by wading through the submerged stream of childhood memory which, in any event, had been rising to the surface of his more experimental fiction. Despite the realism of Empire, the chapter headings-“The Abandoned Aerodrome,” “The Terrible City,” “The Stranded Freighter”-echo his earlier obsessions, as if Lunghua camp was the original disaster from which all else sprang, more grotesque than any fantasy.

Why did he hold on to this material for so long, waiting until his middle 50s to write directly about his wartime experiences? “When people read Empire they were amazed that I had this story inside me. I had given little away about myself in my early fiction. Even my wife, to whom I was married for ten years, knew I was born and brought up there, but we hardly talked about it. The reason for this, I think, was that I was so bound up with the present. I was very interested in the 1960s: in this whole new world we lived in. The Kennedy assassination, which I saw as a catalyst for change in a tragic way, gave that decade a peculiar spin. The 1960s were an amazing time. The threat of nuclear war, the space race, the youth explosion, pop, drugs… Another reason for writing Empire when I did was that my children had grown up. While they were the same age as I was in the book, I couldn’t really begin to write about my younger self, whom I protectively saw as one of my own children. Once my children were adults, I felt free. I could face anything that happened to my younger self.”

We are in the sitting room of his cramped, dishevelled, semi-detached house in the Thames-side suburb of Shepperton, where he has lived for four decades and where he raised his three children alone. A huge surrealist canvas, a copy of a Paul Delvaux painting destroyed in the second world war, is propped against the wall, as if left behind by a burglar disturbed before he could complete his work. A layer of dust as thick as volcanic ash has settled over the room, largely unchanged since his wife died suddenly of pneumonia, in 1964, during a family holiday in Spain. She was 34.

Ballard’s elder daughter, Fay, once remarked that some objects in the house have not been moved for several decades. The house certainly has the feel of a mausoleum: as if he is waiting for someone who will never arrive. The baffling death of his wife, he says, recalled all the hurt and perplexity of his wartime experiences, and left him with a feeling of natural injustice, of the arbitrariness of fate. Her death reminded him, too, of the Kennedy assassination, which had taken place the previous year and had been televised endlessly; and of all the other meaningless deaths which were to follow: in Vietnam and the Congo, in car and aviation disasters, in the fall out from the counter-culture. “What I was trying to do was make sense of this meaninglessness. If I could give it some meaning, make sense of Kennedy’s death-all these other deaths-I could find a rationale for my wife’s death.”

So his writing life became a kind of search for lost meaning. “The experience of being a civilian in war-time is, in many ways, more moving, richer, more charged than if you are a combatant. As a trained soldier you have a goal: to attack the enemy, to defeat the enemy. And you have the whole esprit de corps of the military unit holding you together. As a civilian, by contrast, you are in constant confusion, nobody knows what’s going to happen, if you are going to be separated from your parents, for instance. A sense of dislocation can have a profound effect on a young imagination; it also leaves you with the sense that life is just a stage set: the whole cast and scenery can be cleared away at any moment. This gives a surrealist edge to existence, and leads you to think that there must be a truth to all of this. But where to find it?”

He returned with his parents to England in 1946, finding a country debilitated by exhaustion. He was nostalgic for the bright sparkle of his Americanised life in the International Settlement of Shanghai: the big cars, the nightclubs and bars, the street women, the terrorist bombings, the edge of danger. England seemed small and dismal. He remembers looking down from the troop ship which carried him into Southampton at strange moving objects which resembled nothing so much as coal scuttles. “These turned out to be British cars,” he says, throwing up his arms. “I never got over the shock of that, nor the shock of encountering these strange, strangulated people-my countrymen-with their weird class system.”

Ballard, a self-styled right-wing republican libertarian, describes the class system as an instrument of political control. “Institutional privilege is killing this country, squeezing the life out of it. I’d abolish the monarchy, hereditary titles, the public schools, too.”

For most of his 20s, Ballard wandered from job to job, never settling for long. His first important novel, The Drowned World, about a society rendered unstable by global warming, was published in 1962. “When I began to write, Britain was beginning to change. The supermarkets were arriving, motorways were being built, we had television for the first time, the first jet planes. We had the beginnings of a consumer culture. I became aware of these huge undercurrents flowing through our lives and wanted to reflect them.”

He wrote about the corrosive effect of mass advertising in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), his most experimental work and his first to redefine the boundaries of science fiction. It is a series of interconnecting collages, each comprising numbered paragraphs, drawing subliminal links between the Kennedy assassination, the rise of Ronald Reagan, the space race and the emerging media landscape. The work prefigured many of his later obsessions: the tyranny of the electronic image, the eroticism of car smashes, information overload, the cult of celebrity, the perversion of science. Not surprisingly, it offended nearly everyone who read it. The final collage, “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” was an exhibit in a 1968 obscenity trial.

Reading the book is a bit like being stuck in an elevator with a maniac on speed: you glimpse the occasional half-truths through a blizzard of rhetoric. “Powerful erotic fantasies of an anal sadistic character surrounded the image of the Presidential contender,” he writes of Reagan, with unintentional hilarity. “Subjects were required to construct the optimum auto-disaster victim by placing a replica of Reagan’s head on the unretouched photographs of crash fatalities. In 82 per cent of cases massive rear-end collisons were selected with a preference for expressed faecal matter and rectal haemorrhages.”

“It was obvious to me, in the late 1960s,” Ballard says of the novel, “that Reagan was going to become president, employing a new set of techniques from Hollywood. My novel is as much about the world that allows Reagan to become president as the man himself. My publishers should have put a health warning on the jacket: do not try to read this book from beginning to end. I wanted to produce something which worked through random connection.”

Nowadays Ballard reads little fiction, seldom mixes with writers and draws most inspiration from the visual arts and science-particularly medicine, which he studied for two years as an undergraduate at Cambridge, before dropping out to become a pilot in the RAF. He is anxious not to be characterised as what he calls a literary man. “Too many writers, I feel, have read English literature at university, which means they tend to think in terms of literary associations-of the mental library inside their head,” he says.

In A User’s Guide to the Millennium (1996), his collection of reviews and essays, he expresses his contempt for the “bourgeoisification” of the novel, for the shameless jamboree of career novelists “pontificating like game show hosts” at literary festivals. “Many writers I meet approach the career of writing in the same way as, say, solicitors, accountants and architects approach their careers,” he says. “They work towards establishing themselves as a successful literary professional; they accept the rules of the game and judge themselves by yardsticks laid down by their peers, fitting neatly into the world of publishing, reviewing, of literary conferences and festivals, of signings and committees. And it isn’t working. Judge the career novelists by their fruits, and the fact is that there’s not much written in the past 30 years that is worth reading.”

JG Ballard is an original, a literary outlaw. His fiction is driven by a restless quest to understand modernity. Where are we going? What are our deepest fears and motivations? He understands how the bourgeoisification of all aspects of life leaves layers of repression and desperation. But there is a paradox in his work: he is simultaneously enthralled and repelled by the alienated, technologised, post-industrial world of which he writes. He complains of the levelling threat of technology, of the “suburbanisation of the soul”; of how the whole world is “turning into a suburb of DÜsseldorf.” Yet Shepperton appeals to him precisely because of its suburban anonymity: its marina culture, its many concrete highways, its industrial and science parks, its proximity to Heathrow airport and the constant low whine of its low-flying aircraft. Shepperton, he feels, offers a glimpse into the near future.

“Shepperton is part of what I call the television suburbs; its culture is electronic, dominated by the television and the video recorder,” he says. “It’s also pretty classless around here: the people are well travelled, they lead very active lives devoted to leisure pursuits; they learn to fly, or take up abseiling, or buy a boat and keep it in a marina. I like that, I think that’s where the future is going: a suburban calm coexisting with terrific volatility, as when the local shopping centre is suddenly destroyed by a maniac with a mail-order Kalashnikov. After all, this kind of lifestyle is what I’ve been writing about all these years, it’s what I’ve been predicting would arrive.”

With that Ballard rises from his chair and peers out of the window before showing me out on to the quiet summer streets. He stands at his door, raises his arm in a gesture of farewell and then turns, a calm, inscrutable figure withdrawing into the shadows of his dusty house with a head full of the darkest imaginings.

Stephen Hawking: The Time Traveller

June 17 1998 / The Times

At a conference in Geneva 13 years ago, Professor Stephen Hawking was stricken with pneumonia. Despite emergency operations, his condition deteriorated. Soon he was close to death, comatose and on a life-support machine. Jane, his wife at the time, who had nursed him since he discovered in his early twenties that he had degenerative motor neurone disease, was asked if she wished the machine to be switched off, but she elected to give him the chance of life.

With the aid of a tracheostomy that removed his power of speech, he survived to write A Brief History of Time. This month he celebrates the tenth anniversary of the publication of the book, which has been translated into 40 languages, has sold one copy for every 750 men, women and children on earth, and has remained in the Sunday Times’s bestseller list for 237 weeks.

Critics have compared the book to the biblical Revelations, a text providing a path to a fuller understanding of the mystery of creation; others have mocked its arid impenetrability, suggesting that it is the century’s most unread book.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. Hawking himself jokes that, if you understood everything in the book, you would be ready to start a PhD in theoretical physics. What the book does successfully convey is the wonder of the Universe, of how revealed creation is stranger and more mysterious than anything dreamt up by even the wackiest New-Age occultist.

With the popularity of A Brief History, Hawking, now 56, became one of the icons of the age - a seer grappling with the fundamental questions of existence, a prophet unravelling the complexities of the cosmos, a friend of Hollywood, a television star, a role model for the disabled, a medical curiosity (no one has lived longer with his disease), a father and now a grandfather.

Yet, no matter how much you read about Stephen Hawking or how often you see him on television, nothing prepares you for the shock of actually meeting him. He sits in a high-tech, motorised wheelchair in his darkened office in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge. He is frail and motionless before a computer screen. His limbs are withered - he cannot weigh more than five stone -and his head lolls wearily to one side. His skin has the smoothness and pallor of a baby’s.

What little movement he has is restricted to two fingers of his left hand and to some facial muscles: he can raise his eyebrows and smile - radiantly at times. He is otherwise paralysed and requires constant nursing.

On one wall of his office there is a white screen covered in equations; against another there is a ceiling-high bookshelf. Around the room are photographs of Elaine, his second wife, his three children and his baby grandson. There is also a witty photomontage of him sitting at a table with Einstein, Newton, Marilyn Monroe and a less familiar figure, who turns out to be Data from Star Trek.

Communication is an endless difficulty. In the three hours I spent with him, Hawking answered only 11 questions. Each word of every sentence - sometimes even individual letters - is selected from an index on his computer monitor. He has a computerised speech synthesizer, through which he also communicates but, unless he is selecting pre-programmed phrases to be delivered in that familiar metallic American accent - yes, no, can I have some tea? - his responses are agonisingly slow.

Much has been written about the paradox of his condition, of a remarkable mind freely roaming the cosmos but imprisoned in a ruined body. Hawking does not recognise this description, nor does he believe that he is two separate entities, mind and body. “I have sometimes imagined myself as different people,” he says, patiently scrolling through his index of words. “I think we all do that. But I have never felt myself as a perfect soul living in an imperfect body.

“I don’t think there is a distinction between the body and soul. Which means that although I may take pride in my intelligence, I have to accept that the disability is also part of me and not something I can blame on a poor body I happened to pick up at an auction.”

This last comment is characteristic of Hawking’s mischievous sense of humour; his books are notable for their sardonic one-liners, and many of his remarks end in jokes.

He was born on January 8, 1942, coincidentally the 300th anniversary of the death of the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, one of his great intellectual heroes. His father, Frank, was a research scientist; his mother, Isobel, was bohemian and politically radical. Hawking, a gauche, introspective child, went to St Albans School, where he was a gifted if not outstanding pupil. Then to Oxford, where he was more assured, raffish and intellectually imperious. He took a First in physics and moved to Cambridge as a postgraduate student in cosmology.

Not long after arriving there, he noticed that his speech was becoming slurred and his movements shaky. A specialist diagnosed motor neurone disease and gave him two years to live. He was 21. For a few months he was lost, helplessly seeking refuge in music but not, as has been suggested, in alcohol. “The realisation I had an incurable disease that was likely to kill me in a few years was a shock,” he has said. “How could something like

this happen to me? Why should I be cut off like this?”

It is difficult to say what prevented his total collapse. His daughter, Lucy, speaks of his “indomitable will” and astonishing capacity for hard work. Others mention the selfless devotion of his first wife, whom he had known socially as an adolescent in St Albans and married after discovering he had the disease. “I wanted to find some purpose to my existence, and I suppose I found it in the idea of looking after Stephen,” Jane said.

Reflecting on the early years of his illness, Hawking says: “When I was first diagnosed I couldn’t see more than a year ahead. I didn’t expect to have children, let alone grandchildren.”

The couple separated in 1990. Hawking had fallen in love with Elaine Mason, one of his nurses and wife of David Mason, a computer engineer who designed a portable version of the voice synthesizer through which he communicates. The end of the marriage was messy and difficult, exacerbated by the usual gossip and constant intrusion. Jane Hawking, since happily remarried, refused to speak of her distress, although she once told reporters outside her house that she was weary of devoting her life to the “greater glory of Stephen Hawking”.

Of that period Hawking will only say: “There are aspects [of my celebrity] I don’t like, but it would be hypocritical to complain. I can generally ignore it by going off into 11 dimensions, but my wife finds it much more difficult. I didn’t take much notice [of the media gossip]. I thought it would die down and it has. I’m hardly the only person that has got divorced and remarried.”

Why should we expect Stephen Hawking to be different from the rest of us, to live in a state of elevated self sacrifice? Why shouldn’t he be afflicted by the same driven passions and confusions of the human muddle? “My image of myself has not really been affected by my condition,” he says. “Physical ability was never very important to me, so its loss was not a disaster. I don’t know how blindness affects people, but I expect it doesn’t remove their self-esteem. I feel like I have a handicap such as blindness or deafness, which is a nuisance but doesn’t affect my validity as a person.”

Perhaps the secret of Hawking’s remarkable longevity is his refusal to reflect on what might have been, reflect on the forlorn possibility of an alternative life lived free of illness. Rather, he insists on projecting forward, thinking only of discoveries still to come. His work, he says, is his relaxation - and, one suspects, his fickle mistress, too.

“I want to understand how it all works,” he says. “At the moment we have tantalising glimpses of the fundamental laws of the Universe. It is like pieces of a jigsaw. But we don’t know the total picture or even if there is one. I have already lived much longer than expected, and I would be disappointed if I didn’t live long enough to be sure that there was indeed a picture into which everything fitted.”

He allows himself a slight smile. One hopes time will not defeat Stephen Hawking before he finds the last piece of his immense metaphysical jigsaw—a jigsaw that, in truth, may be forever beyond the possibility of completion, by him or anyone else.

VS Naipaul: The Enigma of Arrival

June 1998 / Prospect, Issue 31

What is it about VS Naipaul that inspires such dispute? For much of the past four decades, he has lived peripatetically, returning, again and again, to the Caribbean, where he was born, to the Indian subcontinent, southeast Asia, Africa and the Americas, a restless traveller grappling with the post-colonial era. His work has a superb worldliness. Not since Conrad has a novelist so completely absorbed himself in the shifting complexities of his age, or written more sharply about the dark places of the world. Certainly no contemporary novelist shares his gift of watching, of noticing, or his willingness to travel to remote places to find a subject. Nor does anyone write more convincingly of displacement and exile, of the loneliness of the migrant.

Much of this comes from his own feelings of estrangement, of what the critic John King calls his “almost genetic sense of rootlessness, of shipwreck as an ontological condition.” His journey from the margins of a colonial upbringing among impoverished Hindi-speaking Indians in Trinidad to the centre of an influential literary life was painful. “When I talk about being an exile or a refugee I’m not just using a metaphor,” he once said. “I’m talking literally.”

In The Enigma of Arrival (1987), his sad pastoral describing the period when he lived in a cottage on the Wiltshire estate of the recluse Stephen Tennant, Naipaul describes watching the sun set over Stonehenge. The experience disorients him; he feels of the landscape yet apart from it, a “stranger here, with the nerves of a stranger.”

The novel moves with melancholic langour; Naipaul, a self-consciously alien presence in an emblematically English setting, monitors with eerie exactitude the slow decline of his aristocratic neighbour and the villagers around him. He watches the changes in the landscape, the movement of the seasons, with an innocent eye, seeing as a child might for the first time. He never allows you to forget that his presence in this haunted landscape is part of a larger historical process which has carried him from Trinidad to this remote corner of Wiltshire.

A sense of existential unease defines his work, the richest and most complex of any postwar British writer. In A Bend in the River, he writes about a young Indian living in a hostile, unnamed African republic. In a Free State is also concerned with people far from home, with strategies of survival in hostile territory, most memorably a British expatriate couple speeding across central Africa against a background of civil war. His books, occupying an ambiguous space between fiction and non-fiction, are haunted by solitude, disciplined by a need to understand the post-colonial world. He writes to provide discoveries about the nature of modern society, monitoring the collision between Islam and western enlightenment. Reading Naipaul can be desolating: he lifts the scab off the surface of decolonised societies and reveals festering wounds.

His judgements are merciless, haughty, sometimes cruel. He does not set out to challenge liberal orthodoxy on race or Islam for the thrill of it, rather he seems to reflect unselfconsciously the prejudices of his Hindu-Caribbean roots. But he is pitiless in his analysis of the anxiety of decolonised peoples. In The Middle Passage (1962), his journey through the Caribbean, he dismisses attempts by Afro-Caribbeans to understand their African antecedents as the “sentimental camaraderie of skin.” Later in the book he speaks of how colonialism distorts the identity of subject people. “The Negro in particular is bewildered and irritable. Racial equality and assimilation are attractive but only underline the loss, since to accept assimilation is in a way to accept permanent inferiority.”

There is a misanthropic zeal, a sexual disgust and rage in his work; but also a comedy, tenderness and generosity. This generosity was strikingly apparent when he travelled to the deep south of the US, a former plantation society reminding him of his native Trinidad. In A Turn in the South (1989), Naipaul elegises redneck culture. He finds pathos in the poor whites’ accounts of loss and betrayal, describing them as the “real victims” of shifts in race relations.

In the canon of recent British fiction he is without peer; VS Pritchett is his only serious rival. Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie: all display the anxiety of their influences. But Naipaul is perhaps the only writer today in whom there are no echoes of influence. He follows no formula-believing the novel is not a mould into which words are poured. Weary of the mechanics of fiction-plot, characterisation, suspense, the need to invent stories- he created his own form, a complex blending of autobiography, fiction, reportage and social commentary. There is nothing quite like it.

Two of his most important novels, In A Free State, winner of the Booker in 1971, and The Enigma of Arrival, begin and end with extracts from a personal journal, asking: Where is the writer? Who is the “I” inventing this fiction? It is as if Naipaul first has to identify who he is and why he sees as he does before he can lose himself in an imaginative realm. So the fiction floats on an autobiographical crust. “A writer after a time carries his world with him,” he says, “his own burden of experience, human experience, literary experience (one deepening the other)...”

vs naipaul is sitting, straight-backed, at a table in the drawing room of his smart, minimally furnished central London flat. His thinning hair is brushed back, revealing a smooth, pale forehead; his silver beard prospers wirily. Hard sunlight filters through a window, casting long shadows behind him. He often refers to himself as the “writer,” as if he were addressing someone outside the room. His speech is elaborate, ornate, rhythmic; he repeats the ends of certain phrases, a mannerism which the writer Stephen Schiff calls “the Naipaul bis,” from the musical term for a passage that repeats.

“I have arrived at this form slowly,” Naipaul says, explaining his technique. “Because of my background and the nature of my life, because I was not given knowledge of where I came from. I have had to learn about my background and the past. One learns about the history of the island from where one came, of slavery; the history of revolution and then going back, the history of India, the desolating history of India, all the way back to the Muslim invasion of AD 1000-the wrecking of a country. I’ve had to learn, slowly through my writing. So I’ve not been able to write like people from England, France and America. The writer [Naipaul] had to define himself.”

One of his more mischievous claims is that most of the important works of fiction were written in the 19th century, between 1830 and 1895. He dislikes the word “novel,” and is baffled as to why it is important to write or read invented stories. “I don’t see reading as an act of drugging oneself with a narrative. I don’t need that,” he has said. “There is so much reading, so much understanding of the world that I still have to do. We are, after all, living in an extraordinary age when so much knowledge is available that was not 100 years ago.

“There was a time when fiction provided discoveries about the nature of society, about states, which gave those works of fiction a validity over and above the narrative element. But the best novels have already been written.”

He believes that all forms have to be rethought. “Before the novel in Europe there was the essay, the narrative poem, theatre, the epic poem-all considered the principal forms at various times. There is no longer any need to consider the novel as the principal form… Readers have to be alert to the changes and not ask for more of what has gone before.”

In conversation, he is scathing about most contemporary Indian writing. Magic realism, he feels, is intrinsically dishonest, with its preposterousness of tone and careless disregard for reality. “I have no wish to use fantasy, or to write in a borrowed form,” Naipaul says. “The truth has to be found in other ways: in travel, history, in looking at monuments. If you read most Indian writers they are writing about the externals of things; they are borrowing the form, pretending that they are blind Irishmen or Latin Americans. The fantastic stands in place of enquiry, in place of facing reality. This whole thing makes me wonder about the Latin Americans, too, as if their writing isn’t, in fact, a great intellectual fudge: an avoidance of their calamitous history and of their corrupt rule since the Spaniards left.”

Yet his reluctance to exoticise underdeveloped societies, in the manner of Rushdie, Toni Morrison or Má∑±uez, has worked against him. As Pankaj Mishra, a writer and publisher based in New Delhi, points out: “One of the reasons why Naipaul’s achievement is not sufficiently valued is because of the commercial success of magic realism. First, there was Má∑±uez and those who borrowed from him, like Rushdie, who inspired droves of imitators into writing those rambling novels that come out almost every week and are mistakenly identified as Indian, Arab or African writing. Naipaul’s insistence on finding out the honest truth about individual lives, what makes or unmakes people in a particular society, their past, their aspirations and illusions; his unsparing psychological realism that enables him to make large statements about what he calls half-made societies has a limited appeal for a middle-class readership in the west. They just want to read romantic tales about the exotic east and can cope with the social-political stuff only in so far as it stays at the level of banal comment.”

Naipaul’s interview persona is curious, essentially an elaborate act. The subtext of his remark about magic realism carries an implicit rebuke of Salman Rushdie and his many young imitators. Rushdie has written disparagingly of the unearned melancholy and exhaustion in Naipaul’s later work, and has suggested that his celebrated formal daring signifies nothing more than a failure of imagination. “When the strength for fiction fails the writer, what remains is autobiography,” he wrote in a review of The Enigma of Arrival.

When I remind Naipaul of this, he laughs, saying of Rushdie, as of every other writer I mention: “I don’t know who you are talking about, I really don’t know at all.” In this wilful ignorance there is immense pride, arrogance even: I don’t read my contemporaries, he seems to say, I have nothing to learn from them. This, he wants you to think, is a writer without influence, operating outside time. Later he confirms my feeling by saying: “I am not aware of other styles of writing. I do my own, I write in my own way. I have no models. I always try to read very old writing, Elizabethan prose. The travellers are good, Haklyut’s Voyages. Words were then used with a freshness, they were not tainted. Today, words are overused.”

Edward Said, one of his most trenchant critics, is similarly dispatched into the outer-darkness of unknowing. “Who is he? I don’t know any of these people,” Naipaul says, with a chuckle that undermines the tone of lofty disapproval. “These names don’t matter. It is wrong of you to put their criticisms to me. I cannot comment on anything that is said about me. Do you know how much is said about me? It’s an open secret that what is coming out of the universities is rubbish. Everybody knows this.”

Perhaps Naipaul is wise to ignore his critics, for there are many of them. Valentine Cunningham, arch cultural inflator and a Booker judge this year, wrote an article in the Independent last December, excitedly celebrating the achievements of the contemporary British novel. Yet in his eagerness to bestow greatness on writers as ordinary as Julian Barnes, Michਬe Roberts, John Banville and, comically, Lawrence Durrell, he ignored the only living British writer worthy of such an epithet: Naipaul.

This oversight is echoed, again and again, throughout academe, where Naipaul’s unpredictable politics and transnational worldliness inspire violent debate. He has been called a “despicable lackey of neo-colonialism” (HB Singh); a “cold and sneering prophet” (Eric Roach); and a “restorer of the comforting myths of the white race” (Chinua Achebe).

Rob Nixon, a disciple of Edward Said and author of London Calling: VS Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin, mockingly describes him as the “metropole’s favourite interpreter of the third world” and accuses him of elevating himself above affiliation. Nixon is suspicious, too, of what he sees as Naipaul’s self-regarding attempt to portray himself as a refugee, his attempt to live in a condition of willed homelessness, his elevated solitude. He approvingly quotes the observation of the Afrikaaner writer Breyten Breytenbach that exile is a sterile, foreclosed category to be fitted into. “I reject the notion of exile because there is the immediate tendency when one mentions exile to self-dramatise or to self-pity.”

Edward Said goes further, accusing Naipaul of forming “orientalist” judgements, of programmatically representing the cultures of the east as primitive, barbaric and illiterate, the dark Other against which the enlightened west defines itself. Naipaul, he writes in his essay “The Intellectual in the Post-Colonial World,” immorally “allows himself quite consciously to be turned into a witness for the western persecution of the third world.” Said is, in one sense, accurate: Naipaul is indeed a witness, constructing narratives from innumerable small details of things seen, although not of persecution. His response to the corruption and degradation he encounters on his travels is more complex, less easily caricatured than that, his sense of history more idiosyncratic, deeper. He understands how imperialism can rob the colonised of a sense of history and identity.

In A House for Mr Biswas, his comic masterpiece based on the struggles of his father, Naipaul writes of the artificial nature of the colonial existence-of Biswas working late into the night to paint “Santa Clauses and holly and berries and snow-capped letters” on shops signs which “quickly blistered in the morning sun.” Biswas is oppressed by feelings of inauthenticity; he spends his entire life failing to make the smallest mark on history: as a writer, a father and an aspirant home-owner. He is trapped in a historical moment, a piece of straw caught up in the whirlwind of the Indian diaspora, helpless to alter his own destiny. He is oppressed, too, by an inexplicable sense of loss, “not of present loss, but of something missing in the past,” something bound up with the distant humiliations of India itself, the native land from where his father arrived in the Caribbean as indentured labour. There is something more, too: as he wanders through the fields of his home village, Biswas is half-aware of the spectral presence of the aboriginal peoples of Trinidad, the missing tribes of Amerindians, in whose footsteps he walks and whose calamitous extinction prefigured a fate worse even than slavery.

a sense of history as a kind of palimpsest-with successive arrivals of people erasing the influence of those who have gone before-is crucial to an understanding of Naipaul and, in particular, of his depiction of India as a country of “headless” people, mortally wounded by the rule of Islamic Mogul rulers. Beyond Belief: Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Little, Brown, ?20), his 23rd and most recent book, is based on a characteristically anti-Islamic Naipaulian premise: that Islam makes imperial demands. Because Islam is in its origins an Arab religion, every Muslim who is not an Arab is a convert. This can lead to entire peoples, such as those in Pakistan, the Muslim homeland of India, becoming estranged from their pasts and the older traditions which surround them.

One wonders if the same applies to Christianity, another religion of converts? Although Naipaul never asks this question, his answer, one suspects, would be that conversion, conquest and the rooting out of local culture are intrinsic to fundamentalist Islam, in a way that they are not to Christianity. As the poet Muhammad Iqbal, quoted by Naipaul and an early advocate of an Islamic state in India, says, Islam is radically different from Christianity. It comes with certain political and legal concepts. These concepts have “civic significance” and create a certain kind of social order. The “religious ideal” cannot be separated from the social order.

An intensely personal view of history, steeped in anti-Islamic sentiment, defines Naipaul’s every utterance about India. His critics accuse him of endorsing the ruling BJP’s reassertion of Hindu national identity and by extension the subcontinent’s frightening new arms race. But in his books he repeatedly returns to what he considers to be the tragedy of the Indian people, from the Islamic conquests to the expulsions from post-colonial east Africa.

When I begin to question Naipaul about India, he rises abruptly from his seat, walks across the room, and returns with a book. “Look at this,” he says, and shows me a photograph of the Temple of Lingaraja at Bhubaneshwar. He smoothes the open pages with delicate fingers. The photograph is old; the temple has an immense desolation. “The picture was taken less than 100 years ago. The temple is now cleaned up. But look at it, look at this enormously fine temple: abandoned, ruined, grass growing. What a ruin it was!”

He lifts his head, his eyes watering a little. “I carry this picture inside my head. There is something spectacular about the dereliction of India-it’s like the dereliction of no other country. Can you imagine the grandeur of the visions and the confidence of the country that created these things, a confidence you see in the epics and religious texts; and how the people themselves have lost touch with this idea of confidence? They don’t know what defeat really meant, or that they were made a headless people, as much as the Mexicans and Peruvians were made headless by the Spanish.”

But Naipaul does not condemn British imperialism: he considers it to have been largely beneficial in bringing about the unification of India in the late 19th century and in the institutions left behind. “I was taught never to blame someone outside, but to look inward for the sources of weakness. And we are weak. The Muslims just came in, again and again, ransacking and tearing up the place. Our people had no idea of country, what they had to defend. They couldn’t imagine a more organised world, with a uniting idea or focus. They allowed themselves to be enslaved by these invasions. This is where I have got to in my thinking. It is a very painful conclusion to arrive at, to explain this dereliction, these villagers reduced to slavery, these people serving an alien people. What we are witnessing now, starting with the British period, is a very slow rebirth. But what we are left with is a large group of headless people.”

Naipaul has written about headlessness before, but obliquely and in a different context: in In a Free State, where a human head literally explodes, and in The Enigma of Arrival, where the narrator speaks of a dream of an exploding head. The head is the base of intelligence, the seat of learning, and there is a powerful longing in Naipaul to be free from the burden of self-consciousness, to live spontaneously, without a sense of history. Those who consider his sense of cultural dislocation a pose have surely not met him. In person, you are aware of how he was marked by his early struggles to establish himself as a writer, by his feelings of difference. Talking to him you can almost sense the pressure building inside his own head, as he attempts to simplify his ideas.

“It has always been difficult for Naipaul,” says Mishra. “There are now flourishing rackets like multiculturalism and it doesn’t take much skill for an Indian writer to be published. It is hard to imagine the struggle someone like Naipaul would have had in the 1950s. So Mr Biswas, which is really the Ramayana of the 20th century colonial world, could arrive and not be recognised as great. People were then talking of Lucky Jim and Under the Net; now they talk of Midnight’s Children, Possession and Earthly Powers, ambitious books, but not possessed of the artistry and emotional power of Mr Biswas.”

The 1950s were the difficult, tormenting years of his career, when he was struggling to establish himself as a writer in London. Born in the village of Chaguanas, Trinidad, in August 1932, Naipaul grew up in an isolated, ritualised Hindu community, the descendants of Uttar Pradesh Brahmins. His father, Seepersad, about whom he wrote with such comic tenderness in his masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas, was a journalist on the Trinidad Guardian. He was also a frustrated writer, scribbling stories in stolen moments, in the noise and disorder of rural Trinidad.

From the age of 12, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul knew he had to escape from Trinidad, if he was to succeed. He was, like Seepersad, consumed by the dream of becoming a writer, something he perceived as a glorious, noble calling. In Finding the Centre, his memoir, he writes, “The wish to be a writer didn’t go with a wish or a need actually to write. It went only with the idea I had been given of the writer, a fantasy of nobility. It was something that lay ahead and outside the life I knew-far from family and clan, colony, the Trinidad Guardian and negroes.”

But nothing prepared him for the trauma and suffering writing involves, how it must always come first. Early in life, Naipaul knew he would never be a father: “Children would have come between me and the work.” Yet he felt compelled to go on, even when his first four novels, including Mr Biswas, were ignored, even when he felt that he had no talent. “I had no idea of what the outline of the career would be: how you would have to do another and another book and then you would come to a ditch; and how you would have to cross that ditch and how exhausted you would feel. If I had money, the work wouldn’t have been written. Yet I had to do it.

“I had since the age of 12 said that I was going to turn myself into a writer. I had got this scholarship to Oxford from the colonial government. This would have given me any kind of profession: medicine, the law, engineering. But I associated being a writer with my father, his private strength. I was full of the idea of the grandeur of the calling. Today it is not considered grand at all; it’s all about commerce.”

For most of the 1950s, while discovering his voice, he was dejected and gloomy. “I was destitute. I got no replies from job applications. The BBC laughed me out of court when I asked for a little job in the talks department. The idea of a man like me asking to write for the BBC-absurd! I’m not complaining, you understand. The writer shouldn’t complain.”

The 1950s were a period, too, of sexual yearning. Unknown to his first wife, Patricia Ann Hale, whom he married in 1955 after meeting her at Oxford, Naipaul was visiting prostitutes. Later, there was a mistress, an Anglo-Argentinian, an “immense passion” with whom he had perhaps the first fulfilling sex of his life. He thinks that Pat, who died in 1996, knew about his mistress but not the prostitutes until, in 1993, he made a reference to them in an interview in the New Yorker. “I was a very passionate man… There were many girls who were friendly and I didn’t know how to cope with it. I was untutored. I didn’t know about the physical act of seduction, you see… So I became a big prostitute man.”

He regrets the interview. “It was very bad, very bad of me to have done that; I don’t know why I did. It caused my wife an immense amount of pain. I did not want her to read the piece. I thought I would be able to keep it away from her… But the New Yorker sent out little trailers. My wife got to hear what I said and…” He breaks off, shakes his head. He seems utterly aghast, stunned. “Those little trailers travelled, how they travelled! They even got to India.”

Why did you mention the prostitutes in the interview? “I was overcome by a feeling that I should speak clearly, without ambiguity about things.”

He remembers talking to Pat about Allan Green, who in 1991, when he was the director of public prosecutions, was discovered kerb-crawling in King’s Cross; his wife, Eva, later killed herself. “I said to my wife, ‘I think it is wrong of the wife to overreact like this; his action isn’t a rebuke to her.’ Men and women, er, you know, there is a kind of tedium. But my wife disagreed. She thought it was awful. So I shouldn’t have spoken like this, it was a mistake.

“I’ve still not come to terms with my first wife’s death,” he says, dropping his head. “I gave her a hard time. I still have to come to terms with that. I used to be full of rage and anger. We were poor and young together; I had these great rages which made me ill. I raged at her; and she was very good. It’s something I have to deal with.”

Naipaul carries his suffering like stigmata-Saul Bellow speaks of his “eagle-on-crags-look”; Derek Walcott calls him VS Nightfall. He is now happily married to his second wife Nadira Khannum Alvi, who appears to accept and understand him. “We should not expect great writers to be normal,” she says, bringing us coffee. “I was reading yesterday about the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer and all his sexual peccadilloes; I was shocked, disappointed, but perhaps this is the human cost of the writing life.”

Nadira is a tall, handsome woman, animated in conversation and, like her husband, utterly charming. Before they met, she worked as a journalist in Lahore, writing political and cultural commentary; but now she is protector, amanuensis and keeper of the flame. Their coming together was extraordinary. Naipaul was in Lahore, researching Beyond Belief, when they met at a dinner party. “As I walked in,” Nadira recalls, “someone said that VS Naipaul was in the room. I was thrilled, and walked straight over and kissed him.”

Within three weeks of their meeting, during which they talked and talked about their past lives, Naipaul told Nadira that he loved her and hoped one day to marry her. “My kiss was not some silly, bimbo, fluff-headed thing,” she says, lighting a cigarette. “It was an act of reverence-I loved An Area of Darkness, one of his books on India. I also felt an immense pity for him. He looked so sad, had these terrible black marks on his face.”

since his second marriage, Naipaul has felt more settled. For the first time in many years, certainly since the early death of his beloved brother Shiva, in 1985, Naipaul seems at ease, happy even. His face, once a mask of suffering, still carries traces of his private torment-the scowl, the mournful eyes, the voluptuous, down-turned mouth-but his conversation is full of laughter and mischief. This is not just the slow resignation of old age; it is something more. “Something has happened,” he says. “I don’t know what, I really don’t. My feeling is that the people of England have changed. It’s rather marvellous for a people with such an imperial past to change, but they have. I don’t feel rejected anymore. I feel really quite welcome. Since planting a garden in the Avon Valley, I’ve become concerned with the land, flowers, the changing of the seasons.”

So what of this notion of exile? “No,” he says, “exile is too pretty a word. Can you reframe that?”


“No, that’s wrong-because I have a home.”

“Metaphorically speaking, I meant.”

“No. It’s very simple. It’s not exile, it’s more to do with not being absolutely connected to where I am.”

In An Area of Darkness, the first of three books about India, he writes of his surprise at arriving, for the first time, in his ancestral homeland and finding that he feels faceless, accepted, an unremarkable part of a swirling mass of humanity. In Trinidad and England he had always felt distinctive. “Now in Bombay I entered a shop or a restaurant and waited for a special quality of response. And there was nothing. It was like being denied part of my reality. Again and again I was caught. I was faceless.” The experience led to an acceptance of how much a recognition of his difference was necessary to him, the engine of his work.

VS Naipaul, 66, surveying a long, anguished writing life, feels that he is close to the end. “I have perhaps 60 months left,” he says with forgivable melodrama. He is relieved rather than proud to have pursued no other profession, never to have compromised his youthful vision of the grandeur of the writing life. There were many times when he felt unable to go on, when he was sure he had nothing more to say. But he went on-finding new ways of writing, stretching and breaking narrative boundaries, his prose always fastidious, precise, unadorned. Anyone reading his books is unlikely to forget them. They have an essential originality, a difference. His prejudices-against Islam or Afro-Caribbeans-his tone of wounded indignation and polemical obsessions can infuriate, but the work seldom fails to absorb.

“I’m calmer now, have accepted the transitoriness of one’s presence here,” he says, his voice little more than a shy murmur. “I’m glad I did the work, but not proud of it, no. Gauguin said a nice thing of the dying Vincent Van Gogh: that he was sitting up in bed, smoking his pipe, hating nobody and full of love for his art. That’s the way I feel: full of love for my art. And at ease, at peace, yes.” He allows himself a slight smile.

Toni Morrison: one day in New York

May 5 1998 / The Times

Serene, regal and comfortably afloat on a steady stream of achievement, Toni Morrison is unmistakable as she wanders through the leafy enclosures of Princeton University. She moves slowly, as though short of breath, and her silvery braids have the pallor and intricacy of a wasp’s nest. Students point at her, whispering as she passes. It is not just her blackness in this citadel of white privilege that is so striking; it is more that this granddaughter of an Alabama slave radiates an essential vitality, a difference.

There is no one quite like her in the US, no one rivalling her status as, to echo The New York Times , the “nearest thing America has to a national novelist”, no one who has done more to destabilise the literary hierarchies, while giving voice to the historically dispossessed. She is, in every sense, the new empress of the blues.

Today Morrison is accompanying Seamus Heaney, a fellow Nobel laureate, to a poetry reading; tomorrow Gabriel Garcia Marquez - invited by Morrison in her role as a teacher at Princeton - arrives on the campus for a week of seminars.

At times, Princeton seems like a club for famous writers - the Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe, a fourth laureate, is also on campus. But none is as famous as Morrison. Since the publication, in 1970, of The Bluest Eye , her fine first novel, she has, again and again, compelled Americans to confront that part of their history they would rather forget: slavery. In doing so, she invented her own idiom, found a new way of writing about her own culture in a style she proudly calls “indisputably black”.

Her prose is loose, colloquial, a lexical fusion of standard English and the vernacular, of lyric and street language, of the formal and folkloric. Critics speak of her singing voice, of the music of her dialogue.

Paradise (Chatto & Windus, £15.99), her seventh and most recent novel, is a study of a small all-black township, Ruby, founded by former slaves. It roams restlessly across the decades and its central event concerns the massacre of a group of women at a former convent on the fringes of the town.

American booksellers have ordered more than one million copies. This is an astounding figure, the result partly of Morrison’s iconic status and partly of an enthusiastic recommendation from Oprah Winfrey. When I met Morrison at her New York apartment, she spoke animatedly of her hour-long appearance on Oprah . “Oprah uses her show to promote books to the kind of people who might be intimidated by bookshops, the people I want to reach and am keen to address.”

Morrison’s large, open-plan apartment is on the top floor of a converted police station, a landmark turn-of-the-century building in downtown Manhattan. It is simply furnished: just a couple of bookshelves, a television, sofa and chairs. She has another house across town on the Hudson River and an apartment in Princeton.

In conversation, she is engaging and attentive, laughing often. She is open about most things apart from what she refers to, curiously, as her companion life. “You can’t be serious asking me that,” she says, responding to a question about whether she has a partner. “It’s none of your business. My sexual, my companion life, whether I walk around barefoot in my house - that’s mine, all mine. I fight tooth and nail to protect that.” She seems to relax only once the tape recorder is turned off, after which we talk for hours.

She began writing in the mid-1960s to “forestall melancholy” after the disintegration of her marriage to Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect with whom she had two sons. At first, she wrote tentatively, in stolen moments. “I was very startled by this compulsion to write. I didn’t know where it came from. My life in publishing (she was an editor at Random House) was very fulfilling. I didn’t need to add anything to it. Only when I completed The Bluest Eye did I realise that I needed to have this thing going. But I still didn’t think it would have a central role in my life, because I was completely focused on my children and job.”

She pauses, then offers this thought. “Can you name a great woman writer who was a mother?” We begin batting names back and forth across an invisible net. Virginia Woolf, the Brontes, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, George Eliot, Austen: all childless. She has a point. “But you see, I had children and a job. It was difficult. It’s always been different for men: they might have wives and families but they’ve been able to focus the central part of their lives on their work. Until recently, women couldn’t do that.”

The Bluest Eye was published into a vacuum; there was very little, if anything, to compare with it in contemporary fiction. If Morrison had a literary precursor, critics couldn’t name her. “My book appeared out of nowhere and went nowhere,” she says. Yet this account of the struggles of a young black girl who is abused by her father and who longs to have blue eyes has a fierce originality. It prefigures many of the concerns of her entire oeuvre: the burden of guilty memory, the corruption of American innocence, fractured identity (her characters fight to discover the truth of their African heritage), the unreliability of historical narrative.

Talking to Morrison, you realise how much she was hurt by the response to her first book. “What was so frustrating was that it was embraced as being representative of African-American life. No one reads Lolita as if it were typical of white girls. My book was about incest; it wasn’t a children’s book. Yet it was taught to children as offering a good look into the black family. I was horrified.

“The criteria for black writers were so different. We were seen as exotic or as revealing fundamental sociological truths about our community. But I wanted to write about race without being told that I was producing case studies. That took away the whole world for me.”

Toni Morrison (her real name is Chloe Wofford) was born in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, a gritty steel-mill town. Her father, a poor but determined welder, was deeply pessimistic about race relations. “He disliked most whites,” she says. “He thought they were genetically corrupt. But my mother was more hopeful. She believed in education and the potential of America.”

At 17, Morrison moved to Washington DC, where she attended Howard University, the distinguished black college. “I was eager to go,” she says. “I was successful at high school and wanted to be surrounded by people who knew where I was coming from. Or maybe I just wanted to be around young black men.” She is becoming dreamy, her voice soft and coy. “Hey, that side of things was fun, too, now I think about it. How quickly you forget those pleasures.”

After graduate work at Cornell, she returned to Howard as a teacher, moving into publishing in the 1960s. As she approaches 70, Toni Morrison is enjoying every moment of her celebrity. At her New York launch party, she sat alone at a table receiving a long line of admirers. “Is she still sitting on her throne?” joked David Dinkins, the former Mayor of New York, as he stooped to kiss her hand.

She hangs out at parties with Tom Cruise, and talks about her work with Marlon Brando on the phone. Hollywood producers bid, in expensive auctions, to buy the rights for her books. All this and the Nobel Prize, too. Surely it’s time to give up the day job?

“I’m a child of the Depression. I’m scared of doing nothing,” Morrison says. “My father taught me that unemployment was a bad thing. Give me a stipend, a little office and a little bit of health insurance - I’ll be fine. Writing is my work but not my job.”

Nadine Gordimer: African and White

February 17 1998 / The Times

As a young girl Nadine Gordimer was removed by her mother from the convent school where she was one of the few Jewish children. Isolated from her friends, she became, as she puts it, a “little old woman”, mooning around her local public library in Springs, the pioneering goldmining town 30 miles from Johannesburg. Her days were long and lonely. She was a talented mimic and amused herself by impersonating her mother’s friends, and by dreams of becoming a ballet dancer.

So much about South African society confused her. She could not understand why she had to stay at home, or why the black people who worked in the mines did not come to town. “I assumed black children didn’t want to read; my parents didn’t discourage this way of thinking or question why we had a racist Government,” Gordimer says.

Which was baffling: for her parents were part of the Jewish diaspora. Her father, a watchmaker, arrived in South Africa from Latvia, a victim of tsarist pogroms; and her maternal grandparents were East End Jews, who came to the mining town of Kimberley to prospect for diamonds.

But through her reading Gordimer began to understand the harsh absurdity of what was to become apartheid, and to take her first tentative steps as a writer. She found her voice, as Time magazine once said, as the representative of “South Africa’s restless white conscience”, and one of only seven women to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Crouching tinily on a chair in an hotel bedroom in Central London, she is still baffled by her mother’s action. “I don’t understand why she did this strange thing, taking me out of school. There was talk of my having a heart tremor. But I don’t think it was that.

“There are deep psychological reasons why parents cling to their children. It wasn’t that I was an only child (she had a sister who went to school). You see it the other way round with adult men who cannot leave home. They can’t get away from Mummy. And sometimes Mummy can’t let her child go.”

At the age of 74, Gordimer could easily be mistaken for a retired ballet dancer, with her silver hair scraped tightly back into a bun, and delicate, graceful movements. In conversation, she is vigorous, fierce and steely. Small talk is reduced to a polite minimum. Questions of which she does not approve are brushed aside disdainfully. Her response to my opening remark about how she arrived at the central idea of her new novel, The House Gun , is conversation-stoppingly abrupt. “You can’t ask me that; I’ve written 21 books. How your ideas come to you is a very slow, subconscious process.”

Today Gordimer complains of endless demands on her time. A euphemism, perhaps, for this interview. Since becoming a Nobel laureate she has erected a picket fence around her private life. “I will never write an autobiogra phy,” she says, challengingly. “My private life is exactly that: private.”

But it is well known that you read literary biography?

“Yes. But everything I want to reveal about myself is in my books.”

So what do we find in her books? Awarding her the Nobel Prize in 1991, the Swedish Academy of Letters praised the way Gordimer writes “with intense immediacy about the complicated personal and social relationships in her environment”. This willingness to grapple with the complexities of contemporary South Africa is her greatest virtue.

Many of her novels read like parables of the sickness of the apartheid years. There is always tension of a complicated political kind in her work. Her white characters are riven by internal conflict, torn by the desire to live in affluent seclusion, and by the rival claim of social responsibility. Many dream of escaping from South Africa.

But Gordimer never left, even though several of her novels were banned, and many of her friends were imprisoned without trial, tortured and even murdered. Though she never completely lost hope, there were moments of despair. A work like July’s People (1981), about a violent civil war which reduces the leafy white suburbs of Johannesburg to bomb-blackened ruins, is an unmitigated cry of rage.

“There were times when things were so bad,” she recalls. “But a kind of obstinacy made me stay: no matter how awful things became it was part of my inheritance, my destiny. If I’d left I would never have cared so much about what happened.”

Gordimer’s response to being a white South African, to being part of the oppressive minority, was “to throw my lot in with the black majority”. She joined the ANC, and remained a committed member even when the organisation was outlawed. She and her husband, the business man Reinhold Cassirer, sent their two children to school in neighbouring Swaziland, so as to avoid a segregated education. They remain close to Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki and other graduates of the self-styled Robben Island university.

How true are the stories that Mandela asked Gordimer to co-write his autobiography? “I would never ghost-write anyone’s autobiography,” she says. “But I was called in by Mandela when he was being besieged by publishers after coming out of prison. He said ‘I don’t know what to do, can you help?’ He’s a brilliant politician, but he didn’t know anything about publishing contracts. I was happy to advise him on what to do.”

Did she collect an agent’s fee? “No,” she says, laughing for the first time. “I was flattered to be asked.”

There has been speculation that in post-apartheid South Africa, Gordimer has nothing more to say; that peaceful transition to a new democratic order has deprived her of a defining subject. The House Gun ought to confound any sceptics. It is an absorbing account of the urban violence and tensions of the new country, filtered through the anxieties of a middle-class couple whose son, accused of murdering his former homosexual lover, is being represented by a black lawyer.

“When I won the Nobel Prize I didn’t want it to be seen as a wreath on my grave, as some sort of terminus,” Gordimer says. “I wanted to keep working, to make sense of what was happening around me. The end of apartheid isn’t the end of life; it’s the beginning of everything else.”

Mark Hollis: Out of Time

February 13 1998 / The Times

For a musician and singer, Mark Hollis is unusually interested in silence, in what could be described as the gaps and intervals between notes. To listen to Spirt of Eden (1988) and Laughing Stock (1991), the last two albums by Talk Talk, the band of which he was singer and principal songwriter for more than a decade, is to encounter a music of fragments and dissolution, his murmured vocals often simply fading away as a song does not so much end as expire. This music was not pop but nor was it anti-pop: Talk Talk’s journey from synthpop “New Romantics” - they shared a label with Duran Duran and toured with them – to ambient avant-gardists in less than a decade has perhaps no parallel.

I met Hollis for a pint one afternoon in an unremarkable pub in Wimbledon, close to where he lives. We were there to discuss his eponymous solo album, which comprises eight songs or pieces, each exploring his fascination with, as he explained enigmatically, the “geography of sound within which all the instruments exist”.

The new album has a cathedral hush. Listen carefully and you can hear another kind of music: the sound of a man sighing, the creak of a guitar stool, the hiss of tape and the shuffle of footsteps - the peripheral sounds of musicians working together attentively in a small studio. In the age of “Brit pop”, it’s hard to think of another contemporary album quite like it.

This minimalist work is entirely acoustic. There are long compositions for a woodwind ensemble, loose, jazz-inflected improvisations and skeletal piano, percussion, harmonica, harmonium and guitar. Listening to Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain was likened to the experience of walking on eggshells. It is something like this with Mark Hollis’s contemplative new album: there is something fragile and uncertain about its mood and atmosphere, a modesty even, which seems strikingly out of place with the swagger and triumphalism of Tony Blair’s popular cultural cult of Cool Britannia.

Hollis sings so quietly and with such trembling hesitancy that it’s as if he’s trying to invent his own idiom as he goes along, as if he’s pushing at the limits of what can and cannot be meaningfully expressed. Without a lyric sheet it would be impossible to know what he is singing about: to know that he is singing songs of loss and faith.

A shy, suspicious man, Hollis has a long fringe, a narrow face and sharp, pointed features. He was born in Tottenham in 1955 – he has a strong norff London accent – and was a reluctant pop star: he disliked interviews and promotional tours and found talking about his music awkward. The dilemma was this: how to discuss something that defies representation without collapsing into abstraction? Or pretension. In person, he is gently self-mocking, laughs often and responds to my attempts to explain the meaning of one of his songs with “Cor, or something like that.”

The motivation for the album, apart from fulfilling a contractual obligation with Polydor, was “to produce a piece of music so that it was impossible to know in which year it was recorded”. He continues: “I have a strong affinity with acoustic sound and with the natural characteristic of instruments. I wanted this to become part of the soundscape of the room. It was recorded very quietly. There were times when, vocally, I felt I could hardly make a sound.”

Mark Hollis is his first album since Talk Talk disbanded in 1991. There were three in the band (Paul Harris and Lee Webb were his collaborators) and their later musical development was smoothed by a fabulously lucrative advance from EMI, reward for a series of hit singles and albums on the Continent and in South-East Asia. But never in Britain.

Hollis was a bashful pop frontman. Touring bored him, and so did conventional song structures and the 4/4 pop format. But he is grateful for his early success because it liberated him into becoming the musician he longed to be. “Because we were successful in Europe, with the exception of England, we had absolute freedom in terms of our recording budgets and in retaining a degree of anonymity in this country.”

The split with EMI followed the release of Spirit of Eden, a shimmering, devout six-track composition of loose, fragmentary arrangements that prefigured many of the innovations on his solo album. The band had already signalled their severity of purpose with their third album, The Colour of Spring (1986). It was adventurous and the songs were richly textured yet they were still recognisably pop songs: they offered few clues as to what would come next. Like so much great art, Spirit of Eden assumed its own form in the very process of being created as Hollis and his co-writer Tim Friese-Jones (the band’s producer and de facto fourth member) experimented with ever more complex arrangements. They deconstructed the form of Talk Talk’s earlier pop songs, with their insistent, pulsing rhythms, pursuing more improvisational, free-form compositions.

Talk Talk’s paymasters at EMI were completely baffled by the finished album. After investing so much in the band something more commercial was expected, something that could be sold and marketed aggressively. “We had some kind of split,” Hollis told me. (In fact, Talk Talk and EMI ended up in protracted litigation over disputed contracts.) Later, he adds: “I think they wanted us to produce something along the lines of our earlier hits. But we felt strongly that we shouldn’t repeat ourselves, that we had to keep progressing.”

Mark Hollis does not listen to much pop music and cites as influences, among others, Ornette Colman, Messiaen, Debussy, Ravel and John Lee Hooker. He lives quietly with his wife, a teacher, and two children in Wimbledon, his life disciplined by a willingness to learn (he seemed most animated when speaking about his son’s music teacher at school). He never thinks about who, if anyone, might buy his records and does not know if he will continue to make and release music.

“I have enough money to live on, which is great,” he says. “In this sense, I feel a bit like a student whose grant allows him to spend his time creatively - reading, listening to and playing music, and getting a bit of sport in as well. Yeah, it’s a good life.”



Mark Hollis turned out to be Mark Hollis’s first and last solo album and mine was one of the last interviews he did (which is why I have included it here). Nor has he released any new music since 1998. Yet in the intervening years he has become ever more admired: Spirit of Eden is considered to be one of the best and most innovative albums of the 1990s and Hollis a pioneer of what became known as “post-rock”. Among the bands who cite Hollis as an influence are Guy Garvey’s Elbow. “Mark Hollis started from punk and by his own admission he had no musical ability. To go from only having the urge, to writing some of the most timeless, intricate and original music ever is as impressive as the moon landings for me,” Garvey has said of Hollis.

Charles Causley: The Cornish Balladeer

December 30 1997 / The Times

The life and work of Charles Causley have a remarkable rootedness. With the exception of his six years in the Navy during the Second World War, he has lived all his life in Launceston, the quiet market town in north Cornwall that provides the rural landscape and setting of many of his best poems. Reading Causley is a bit like listening to the long, withdrawing roar of the sea: his poetry has a sad music. He works in neglected forms: ballads, song, fable. He is, truly, the last balladeer in England, drawing on the earth mysterious and the folklore of his native Celtic Cornwall.

He didn’t plan it this way. As an adolescent Causley, whose Collected Poems have just been published, wanted to escape village life and the isolation of Cornwall and pursue his interest in poetry and left-wing politics in a distant, romanticised metropolis: London, Paris, New York. Launceston seemed closed and provincial, “not the kind of place for a writer”.

But he never left; instead, after the war, he became a teacher in the village school, living with his widowed mother about whom he writes with tenderness and comedy and whose stories of her impoverished childhood were sustenance for his verse. “When I was young,” he says, with soft Cornish vowels, “I used to think that you had to travel to find a subject. But my subject was right under my nose all the time. It took me so long to realise this.”

We are driving around Launceston in a hired car, and Causley is lost in reminiscence. His eyes water a little as he recalls the “soldier-father” he scarcely knew. Charles Causley Senior fought in the trenches of the Western Front, and died of a lung disease when his son was seven. In his later poetry Causley returns, again and again, to those brief, flickering years with his father, so that writing about him becomes, as it were, an act of reification.

But remembrance is hard: “I had not thought that it would be like this,” he writes at the end of Eden Rock, a meditation on his parents’ relationship. To My Father, about his father’s joy as he listened to his gifted son reading the morning newspaper, is less successful, its last lines - “I know that one day he must stop and turn/His face to me. Wait for me, father. Wait” - collapsing into what can be a danger for Causley, sentimentality.

“Turn left here,” Causley says abruptly as we drive out of town. “That’s the school where I used to teach. It’s strange how things can change and yet remain the same. When I returned from the war everything, from the fields around us to the town itself, appeared exactly as I had left it. But, of course, it wasn’t - because my experiences had changed the way I looked at the world, changed what I saw.”

This loss of innocence - or, more accurately, this fall into experience - is a constant preoccupation. Many of his poems, from ballads of Celtic lore to children’s verse, turn on moments of revelation when the world is seen with startling clarity, as when a veil is lifted or mist clears. One poem, about a sailor returning home after years at sea with gifts of children’s toys for a boy who has grown too old to appreciate them, is even called Nursery Rhyme of Innocence of Experience .

Causley has been rightly called a religious poet but his is an inchoate theology, in which redemption appears endlessly deferred, transcendence out of reach. So his narrators - dying infantrymen, lonely fishermen, disappointed lovers, solitary wanderers - turn away from present complexities, floating freely in memory.

At the age of 80, Charles Causley is frail, dreamy but intellectually alert. He walks shakily with the aid of a stick. His recollection of his father as a thin, bony man, “long-faced and large-eyed”, will do as a self-description. His conversation, punctuated by lines of half-remembered verse, swings between camp humour and nostalgia. He is prone to tears, and is shyly evasive about himself.

Yet ask him about his mother or about A.L. Rowse, the celebrated Cornish scholar from whom he received encouragement as a young man, and he becomes immediately animated. “I sent Rowse some poems after I got back from the war. He wrote back, saying: ‘You’ve definitely got it, boy. The important thing now is to keep going at it.’ This was tremendous advice. You see, if I’d gone to London, I wouldn’t have done any work. Rowse had a strong work ethic. Like me, he was from a working-class Cornish home but unlike me he managed to win a scholarship to Oxford. My mother respected education but was not an intellectual. I grew up thinking that university was not for me.”

His mother viewed her son’s work, even as he became established, with wry suspicion. “She tolerated my poetry, but never really asked me why I wrote.”

For all his modest reticence, Causley has a strong sense of his own worth. He bristles when I mention that another poet describes him as an “important local poet”, objecting to the pejorative use of the word “local”. So does he think his work will have a future readership? Trusham , a poem of raw self-accusation, offers a clue. Commenting on the fact that Causley never married and has no children (“I don’t know what your Dad would say”), an old man mocks him: “It seems to me/That when you’ve gone, the name will just go scat.”

To which the poet replies: “Useless to say that this particular flesh/Won’t scrape off, dry off, like the mud, the wet.” What Causley means, I think, is that his words, his particular flesh, are his gamble against death and will carry the family name into the future. It’s not hard to guess what his Dad would say about that.

Arundhati Roy: the goddess of small things

October 18 1997 / The Times

It is early summer in London and The New Yorker is gathering India’s leading novelists in one room for a monumental photograph. What is remarkable about the occasion, apart from the exclusion of any writer not working in English, is the prominence given to Arundhati Roy. She stands at the front of the group, squeezed between Vikram Chandra and Anita Desai, laughing playfully as Salman Rushdie rests a supportive hand on her shoulder. It is as if the older writer, who himself did so much in Midnight’s Children to redefine the boundaries of the Anglo-Indian novel, is bestowing a special favour on the younger Roy, marking her out. Long before her Booker triumph Roy, a minor screenwriter, has published no fiction. So why is she in the photograph? To call her one of India’s leading writers is surely a crass exaggeration, a triumph of marketing and media manipulation over literary substance. For she has nothing to declare except a spectacular advance for a novel which scarcely anyone has read, but which, according to Pankaj Mishra, the young Indian publisher who discovered Roy, is “the biggest thing since Midnight’s Children “. Certainly, there was unprecedented interest in The God Of Small Things ; the English literary agent David Godwin flew to India to sign up Roy within four days of receiving her manuscript. Can the book be that good?

Time moves on. Arundhati Roy, in London for the Booker Prize ceremony, greets me in the imperious entrance of St James’s Club, Piccadilly, with a shy smile. Four months have passed since The New Yorker photograph and she is just back from a promotional trip to Finland and Estonia. She is full of excitement and baffled delight at the success of her book. She is 37, but could be ten years younger.

In the listless heat of a Delhi afternoon Roy sometimes lies in her apartment listening to the mechanical thwack of a ceiling fan and thinking, as she puts it, about “the rest of the world at work”. For she has the fabulous luxury of never having to work again. Her novel has been sold to 30 countries, earning in excess of Pounds 1 million in advanced rights sales. It is high on the bestseller lists in the US, India, Australia and Britain. In Bombay, it is even being sold to motorists as they wait at traffic lights.

The God Of Small Things is set in Kerala, the southern Indian state where the world’s great faiths collide: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Marxism. The main action takes place over a fortnight and concerns the drowning of an Anglo-Indian girl, Sophie Mol, on holiday from England. Sophie, befriended by the twins, Estha and Rahael, through whom the narrative is refracted, spends her holiday in a rapture of discovery. She explores the hot, lush waterways and meadows of Kerala, and encounters Velutha, a despised Paravan, the lowest of the Untouchables, with whom the twins’ mother, Ammu, has a doomed affair.

Though the ending is flagged as early as page four, Roy allows events to emerge elliptically and out of chronological sequence. An atmosphere of foreboding hangs over the work. It is immensely absorbing.

Roy’s journey, in less than a year, from putative novelist to global literary phenomenon is almost as magical and unexpected as her fiction. She must have given many interviews - she says she is “hounded” in India - yet still speaks about her life-transforming experience with the vitality of a child.

And there is something childish about Roy. It is not that she is immature; it’s rather that she has a heightened capacity for wonder, seeing the world as a child might, not conventionally or habitually, but as if for the first time. This accounts for the defamiliarising quality of her prose, her metaphorical exactitude and striking similes: a moonlit river falling from a swimmer’s arms like “sleeves of silver”; the smell of shit hovering over a village “like a hat”; conversa tion “dipping like mountain streams”.

Where did it come from, this verbal exuberance? “My language is the one thing I’m least equipped to talk about,” she says, sitting at a round table in a room presumably used for business meetings - there are blotters, sharpened pencils, bottles of water and notepaper on the table. “My language,” she continues, “is entirely instinctive. It is the skin of my thought. I crafted and designed the book’s structure obsessively for four and a half years, but the language was natural. It came easily, even though I don’t know much grammar.” She teases, surely?

Roy is diminutive, not much more than 5ft, and her legs scarcely touch the ground. As she talks her face is never still. A small diamond gleams in one nostril, catching the light. Like the twins in the novel, Roy grew up in Kerala, the daughter of a Christian mother and Bengali Hindu father. Her parents separated when she was a young child. Her adolescence was difficult; she clashed continually with her mother, Mary, who worked as a teacher, testing her progressive ideas on her rebellious daughter. Roy was forced to leave home when she was 16; for six years she never spoke to her mother. Yet the novel is dedicated to Mary Roy, the mother who “loved me enough to let me go”.

After training to be an architect in Delhi, Roy became interested in film, working as a designer and on scripts. She met her husband, Krishen, who has two daughters from an earlier marriage “by accident, on the street”. They collaborated on a film, Electric Moon , commissioned by Channel 4 in 1992.

Reflecting on her restless years, she says: “Everything I did back then I did to be happy. After being turfed out of home I had to earn my own living, so I feel as if I am about to live my teenage years for the first time. What happened at home was traumatic and bad; it has left me terrified of conventional families.”

What is most admirable about The God Of Small Things is Roy’s attempt to invent her own idiom, to be first with a new way of writing about modern life. There is a powerful sense of language being mangled, stretched and distorted. She has an acute sensitivity to the natural world, filling her pages with smells and sounds, colour and light, with the “small things” of life that are so easily devoured by habitualism.

Reading her erratic, burnished prose you realise that here, at last, is a novel not in thrall to the past. John Updike is right when he likens her to Tiger Woods: there is something seriously freakish in her. Some thing Woodsian. “I was amused when Updike said that about Tiger Woods,” Roy says, laughing, “because I had no idea who Woods is. When people told me I was very flattered.”

Yet her novel has many enemies. The critic Peter Kemp, irritated by her inclusion on the Booker Prize shortlist, continually bemoans what he calls her “typographical tweeness” - archly capitalised phrases, coy mispellings, a liberal sprinkling of italics. Salman Rushdie, though praising her vevre and ambition, is disappointed by her refusal to describe India as exotic. And in India itself, she has been criticised for working in English and for having too much money, as well as being accused of obscenity for describing cross-caste erotic love between a Paravan and a Syrian Christian.

The question of money troubles her. “In India I have spent my whole life feeling so horribly guilty about how much more privileged I am than almost everyone else - and this when I had nothing except an education. So I find what has happened to me and the money I’ve got a kind of ghoulish reward. It’s very easy for people to say, ‘Okay, give it away’. But in India you can’t just go into a poor village and say, ‘Here’s some money’. You can screw things up like that. If you give money away you must do it properly, to ensure that it gets to the right people.”

For Rushdie, in unhappy exile in London, India is “vast, metamorphic…a non-stop assault on the senses, the emotions, the imagination and the spirit”. In short: an exotic land of magic and extremes. As a result, his work is resplendent with flying men, talking noses and the other gimmicks of magic realism. But for Roy, whose work is grounded in the actual, there is nothing remarkable about India. To her reality is magical.

She says: “When I was in America I went on a couple of TV shows with Rushdie. And he said, (she borrows the voice of an officious schoolmaster) ‘The trouble with Arundhati is that she insists that India is an ordinary place’. Well, I ask, ‘Why, the hell not?’ It is my ordinary life. The difference between me and Rushdie begins there.

“I don’t want Brownie points because I’m from India. My book doesn’t trade on the currency of cultural specificity, even though the details are right. That is why, I think, it has been bought in so many countries, and why Americans come up to me and say, ‘I’ve got an aunt like Baby Kochamma’ ” (a malign character, who schemes to destroy Ammu and the twins).

In June, shortly after the publication of The God of Small Things , Roy hinted that she might never write again. Exhausted by her striving, she had “nothing more to give”. Does she still feel that way? Her answer is oblique and surprising.

“Ever since I was quite young I have not believed in professions; I don’t want to say, ‘I’m a writer and so I’m going to write another book. I will only write another book if I feel I have one to write. People should respect that you are creatively exhausted after a novel. I get irritated if a publisher tries to get me to sign another contract.”

She is surely right. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect more from her than this one small wonder of style and compassion. She deserved to win.

Alan Maclean: The loneliness of the double agent

September 23 1997 / The Times

Ever since Alan Maclean was recalled as a young man from his diplomatic post in New York, walking, as he puts it, into a “world-class scandal”, he has lived under the shadow of treachery. Arriving at London Airport on a cold morning in 1951, he was hurried into a Daimler by anonymous bureaucrats and told that his brother, Donald Maclean, was suspected of being a Soviet spy and had disappeared with Guy Burgess. The pair later reappeared in Moscow, having escaped on a cross-Channel steamer from Southampton to St Malo, the beginning of their long journey into ignominy.

The event was the defining moment of Alan Maclean’s life. “I knew as soon as I was called home,” he says, “that any hope I had of a diplomatic career was over and that I would have to look for something else to do.”

Being bright and well-connected, he quickly found work in publishing, surprisingly un concerned at being deprived of his career of choice by a brother whose deceit and duplicity he refuses to condemn. “Why should I condemn him?” he asks, peaceably enough. “I’m not a political person, and if you love somebody it doesn’t matter what they do.” He pauses, sips iced water. “No, of course, it matters. What I meant is that you can’t stop loving someone just because they have done something absolutely frightful.”

Reclining in his chair, elegantly smoking a long, thin menthol cigarette, Maclean is the model of a certain type of a Englishman slowly disappearing from public life: the urbane amateur. The self-consciously preposterous title of his memoirs offers a flavour of the man. “Once,” he says, explaining the background, “when I was working at Macmillan publishers, we jokingly tried to think of the most boring title for an autobiography. I came up with No, I Tell a Lie, It Was the Tuesday , and made a private note to use it if I ever wrote my autobiography.”

His father, Sir Donald, was a distinguished solicitor and former Liberal Cabinet minister, and Alan’s early years were spent in affluent seclusion in north Cornwall. Donald, whom he adored, was 12 years his senior.

In his jaunty memoir, Maclean writes of Donald with wary tenderness, describing his brother as “glamorously distant”, a tall, athletic, non-conformist.

Donald’s political radicalism was apparent even during his time at Gresham’s School in Norfolk, where he read Marx and Hegel. “I think his headmaster, though pleased that Donald was bright and responsible enough to take his own political line, thought he would grow out of it.”

He never did, of course. At Cambridge, where he gained a starred first, and all through his years at the Foreign Office and at the British Embassy in Washington, Donald spun a web of elaborate deceit. As a diplomat, he was meticulous and conscientious, a rigid stickler for the Official Secrets Act. But he was also part of an intricate spy network, with branches in the United States, Canada and Britain, as well as being prone to night rages and drunkenness.

Reflecting on his brother’s betrayal, Maclean says: “I can’t help but look back at what he did with anything but detachment. I was absolutely devoted to him. He was terribly good to me when I was a child, especially when I was so miserable as a schoolboy at Stowe. I remember, in particular, Donald saying to me that if things ever got too bad at school, I should let him know and he would come and get me out.”

That expression of reassurance, he says, offered an “escape route” from a school, the dormitories of which were patrolled by a “bullying, alcoholic” housemaster.

Maclean’s childhood, blighted by the death of his father when he was seven, divides into the “happy years” of his Cornish idyll, and those spent in Kensington, where his mother opened a knitwear shop, and at Stowe. His London years were set against the political turmoil of the Civil War in Spain and the gathering clouds of another war - the years when many young Oxbridge intellectuals were drawn to the messianic socialism of Marx and Lenin. Maclean says: “In this respect, Donald was shaped by the attitudes and events of his time. He became more committed after Spain.”

Of the Cambridge spies, Maclean agrees that Kim Philby and the debauched Guy Burgess, driven by a reckless fear of boredom, derived pleasure from a life of treachery. He is less sure, however, about his brother. “Being a spy isn’t something my brother would have entered into lightly. It is a terrible way to live, just awful.” Maclean clearly understands that there is no one lonelier than the double agent. Addicted to secrecy and loyal only to himself, he lives in a condition of perpetual watchfulness.

After Donald defected to Moscow, Maclean feared that he would never hear from him again. Then, in 1956, five years after his disappearance and following Khrushchev’s famous denounciation of Stalin at the 20th Party Congress, he received a telegram. “It was brief. He said that he was well, and hoped that the family was well, too. He asked for the address of my mother, who had never lost faith in him. He expressed no regret, and had faith that the Soviet Union would get better.”

Harold Macmillan, under whom Alan worked briefly at the publishers Macmillan, famously described the patrician Donald as a “class traitor”. Discussing the Cambridge spies in the Commons, Macmillan said: “Our Foreign Office regards this case as a personal wound, as when something of the kind strikes at a family, or a ship, or a regiment.”

Maclean loyally defends his brother. “If Macmillan was implying that Donald had an obligation to his class rather than to what he thought to be politically and humanely fair, then he was wrong. The word traitor also implies that my brother felt, in some way, excluded or shut out, that he wanted to take revenge. What motivated him was a sense of injustice. He acted not for money or from hate, but from conviction. I would have preferred it if he hadn’t done what he did, but he was a political animal.”

One of the most vivid episodes in No, I Tell a Lie concerns Maclean’s journey to visit his brother in Moscow. It was January 1983 and proved to be their only meeting for more than 30 years - Donald died a month later. Frail, stooped and walking with a stick, Donald met his brother at the aiport, pulling him gently into an embrace. He expressed surprise at Alan’s grey hair, as though it had violated the image he carried of his brother in his head.

“Donald looked not too bad, a bit grey in the airport lights. We held hands rather shyly like children. It was going to be all right.” They talked “greedily” that night, but mostly about their childhoods. “Donald said very little about what had happened to him.”

No , I Tell a Lie is an unconventional memoir; Maclean delights in its idiosyncrasy, in what is left out. There is nothing, for instance, about his wife of 31 years, or their two sons, the younger of whom, Dan, died at the age of ten; nothing about his inner life or his convictions.

Repeatedly, he says that he has “no political beliefs”, as if he were deliberately positioning himself against the hard ideology of his brother. He is cannily interesting, though, on the treatment he received for alcoholism in the early 1960s.

There is something inscrutable about Maclean that is hard to account for. Intelligent, charming but shrewdly circumspect, he leaves much unsaid. His voice drops as he talks about his family, but is animated when discussing his public years in publishing. Ask him, for instance, about his elder son, Ben, 29, and he becomes vague. “I’m not quite sure what he does; I think he paints people’s houses and does a bit of research.”

Of his wife, Robin, whom he met at Macmillan, he is equally cryptic. “She used to work as my secretary. We had a whirlwind seven-year romance and then got married.” When the photographer arrives, Alan says: “Oh, look. Here comes the hangman.”

He begins to chuckle. “Look, I feel it’s much better to write and talk about those who are dead. You can’t hurt their feelings.” If so, he surely ought to have written about his late son in what is after all an autobiography? But no. “I felt I had nothing interesting to say about him,” he says, sighing. “Anything I said would have been as cliched as a 1930s B movie.”

You leave thinking that he would have made a perfect spy.

George Steiner: A traveller in the realm of the mind

September 22 1997 / The Times

As a young academic with two small children George Steiner faced a life-transforming decision: accept a lucrative post at an American university and help fulfil Hitler’s prophecy that, as he puts it, “no one called Steiner would ever live in Europe”, or remain at Cambridge where he had little chance of securing tenure. A polyglot and a maverick, Steiner, a founding fellow of Churchill College, did not fit comfortably into the closed, parochial world of the Cambridge English faculty of the mid-1960s.

He was too self-confident, too eclectic, not English enough.

His passion for work in other languages, his restless roaming across apparently incompatible disciplines and insistence on the Holocaust as the defining calamity of our century isolated him. He was offered a professorial salary, but denied the right to examine. Steiner, who as an extraordinary fellow of Churchill retains links with his college, says: “That would have been fatal: if you can’t examine, if you can’t join in the life of a faculty, your students suffer. I wouldn’t accept this.”

He was determined, though, to live in Europe, to honour the moral imperative of his father who sternly told him over lunch that if he went to America, “Hitler had won”.

“Later,” he says, “I phoned my wife and said, ‘Zara, I don’t know if I can enter industry or sell clothing, but I will do anything rather than face that moment of contempt from my father again’.” So Steiner, in his own self-description, became a “great wanderer”, a figure on the margins, working in universities but belonging to none. It was not until his appointment, in 1972, as Professor of Comparative Literature at Geneva University that he secured a settled position.

Now 68, he describes his wife Zara - a native New Yorker of Lithuanian Jewish extraction and a former vice-president of New Hall, Cambridge - as the love of his life. Their meeting was ordained: working in London in the early 1950s (he was then a writer on the Economist ; she on secondment at the Foreign Office ) they received separate postcards from former professors at Harvard, where they had both studied, urging them “to be a sport” and meet up. “The professors had had a bet…that we would get married if we ever met.”

Steiner ignored the first postcard, but soon afterwards another arrived. He phoned Zara and they met for afternoon tea, agreeing that “we would send our own postcard after the meeting, saying, ‘You lose the bet’.” But at the end of our afternoon together, he turned to Zara and said: “Perhaps we should send that postcard next time.”

Walking with Steiner through the grounds of Churchill College you are struck by the loneliness of his position and how his plight as an outsider has hurt him. His parents were elegant, cultured Viennese Jews, who, unsettled by the incipient anti-semitism in Austrian society, moved to Paris in 1924. “A systematic, doctrinal Jew-hatred seethed and stank below the glittering liberalities of Viennese culture,” he writes in his new book, Errata , a compelling semi-autobiographical meditation.

Steiner is a treasured, if trenchant and controversial, link to the central European Jewry from which sprang many of the commanding figures of our modernity - Wittgenstein, Marx, Freud, Einstein and Schoenberg. Many of his essays - a form he has made idiosyncratically his own - are elegies for that lost world. For Steiner the perplexity of our age is that the humanities did not humanise; that senior Nazis listened to Schumann and Bach and still organised the Final Solution; that great art may, in some way, encourage barbarism and tyranny; that to survive the levelling threat of assimilation the Jew may have to solicit disaster.

He feels he owes his existence to the fact that his father, a prosperous merchant banker, saw with “grim clairvoyance” the coming Nazi storm. He describes how his father continually warned relatives and friends of the danger of remaining in Vienna. “Nobody of your age,” he says, gripping my arm, “knows what it was to grow up with a father who knew that Hitler was coming but couldn’t get people to listen to him. As late as 1938, his cousins and sisters in Vienna and Prague were saying, ‘Oh, come off it. We are completely safe’.” Steiner pauses, lowers his head. “But, of course, 1938 was too late. They stayed and died.”

Steiner was born in Paris in 1929, with a withered right arm - an handicap, which though he does not say so, may have given him an instinctive sympathy for the outcast. He was precocious and gifted, studying the classics as a child. He was educated at home and in the elitist French lycee system, where he spoke French, German and English. In 1940 the family moved to America, where Steiner at tended the University of Chicago. A month after they left Paris the Nazis surged in. Of the many Jewish children in his school only two survived.

Steiner adored his parents. His mother, who often began a sentence in one language ending it in another, was, he says, a “typically delightful Viennese grand dame”. He gently begins to sing, as his mother once sang to him, a charming ditty: “I am bad/I could be better/But it doesn’t really matter.” He looks up, his eyes watering. “I loved my parents so much that it killed the creative artist in me.”

That is not strictly true: as well as criticism, Steiner has written fiction, including The Portage to San Cristobel of AH , in which a team of Nazi hunters discovers an aged Adolf Hitler living in exile in a Peruvian jungle. The novella was an international success; Steiner considered leaving academe and striking out as a novelist. He admires writers of extremes, solitary, unafraid individuals who step outside conventional society in search of radical self-expression. He quotes approvingly a line from I.A. Richards: “Leaping crevices in the dark/That is the way to live.”

He regrets that he himself has not lived on the edge, not leapt enough crevices in the dark, not been swayed by passions. “After the success of the Hitler novel in the mid-1970s, I thought about going it alone; my only defence for not doing so was that I loved teaching. That’s just an apologia.”

He recalls his father’s fascination with Disraeli and England. “For the eastern and central European Jewish intelligentsia, the career of Disraeli had assumed a mythical, talismanic aura.” Steiner also loves England, yet remains frustrated by its philistinism, mistrust of intellectuals and cultural fatigue. “When I was having trouble at Cambridge, people used to say it was because they didn’t want a Jew to teach English. But I don’t think it was that. England has a veneer of high society anti-semitism, yet it has given Jews a tolerance, protection and ironic indifference. . .

“In France, where they are passionate about abstract ideas, if you shoot a man for disagreeing with you about Hegel, then that is a tremendous compliment to the life of the mind. The English would say, ‘No, no, that is very silly’.”

Steiner considers what he calls “the blessed decency” of John Major to be emblematically English. “That he could hand over power with a courteous handshake and smile, and then go that same afternoon to a cricket match speaks well of the man. Robespierre would not have gone to a cricket match.”

Steiner speaks as he writes, long sentences of baroque grandeur. His English, with its massed adjectives and awkward syntax, but also its cloudbursts of insight, recalls Conrad. Critics are divided over his language and style, over his towering self-belief and range. Nabokov famously complained that one of his essays was “built on solid abstractions and opaque generalisations”; James Wood, writing in the New Republic , lamented his “laborious imprecisions and melodramas”.

Steiner remains stoical. “I have many detractors; I am conscious of overwriting. On the other hand, Borges, Nabokov, Wilde, Conrad - maybe it’s moving my way; maybe literature is becoming more polyglot.” It is this unshakeable belief in his work that irritates his critics.

His conversation is studded with allusions, half-remembered phrases, direct quotations. He is a remarkable orator, using rhetoric, repetition and canny theatrical pauses to hold and delight an audience. At Cambridge, his lectures were always full. “I had more people in my lectures and more research students than anyone else.”.

A current of sadness runs through Errata, sadness at what was destroyed in the Shoah, and at what Steiner has not done: the languages not learnt, the books unread, the risks (and drugs) not taken. In the final chapter, written in characteristic twilight mode, he grapples with his Judaism, with what he calls his “messianic agnosticism”. For Steiner wants to establish the boundaries of knowledge - that of which we can speak - in order to make way for faith in a transcendent as well as a materialist view of the world. “My Jewishness,” he says, reaching out to touch the Star of David on the cover of Errata, “is the badge I have worn my whole life, but not in humility or shame. If I had to wear it again, I would wear a big one and with pride.”

Bernard MacLaverty: Inside the Troubles

September 13 1997 / The Times

It is hard to believe that Bernard MacLaverty has not lived in his native Belfast for more than 20 years. As you walk with him through the eerie, ceasefire-calmed streets, dropping into pubs or looking at paintings in the recently opened Ormeau Baths Gallery, he seems to be forever encountering old friends. They gently chastise his perceived indolence (Grace Notes, tipped as a favourite for the 1997 Booker Prize shortlist, announced on Monday, is his first novel for 14 years), while swapping anecdotes about their shared Catholic boyhood. He seems so at ease in the city, so at home in the pubs and bars, that you wonder why he ever left. The answer, of course, is everywhere apparent.

The marching season is entering its long twilight, but the Union flags, tied to street lamps, draped from bedroom windows, crack provocatively in the breeze. Elsewhere, the green, white and gold Republican tricolour is hoisted above estates, marking out territory. In Cal, the book that brought him to international attention in 1983, the unhappy boy-hero observes that if the Union flags were flying long after July 12, then it was a dangerous sign that “the Loyalists were getting angry”. In Grace Notes, a young unmarried mother and composer called Catherine McKenna returns to Belfast for her father’s funeral after a guilty absence of five years, and finds that an IRA bomb has blown the heart out of her village. Repeatedly, a melancholy politics comes seething to the surface in MacLaverty’s work.

In Lamb, his exceptionally well-received 1980 debut, a priest is tortured by his love for a vulnerable boy, whom the man destroys rather than confront with his homoerotic obsession. Made into a film in 1985, featuring Liam Neeson as the priest, the book was a canny parable of a violent Republicanism that, says MacLaverty, “claims to love Ireland, but because it’s a misdirected love ends up destroying what it most loves”.

This vein of pessimism runs through all his work, rendering happy endings an impossibility. Even in the story of Cal, so full of tenderness, the end is appalling as Cal, defeated by his hopeless love for the woman whose Protestant husband he helped murder, is arrested by police, “grateful that at last someone was going to beat him to within an inch of his life”. Cal, the first of his novels to be turned into a film, starred the young John Lynch in the title role.

MacLaverty, 55, who now lives in Glasgow, says: “I get angry when people say my work is set against the Troubles, because it grows directly out of them. If I wrote a happy ending it would mean that the problems were solved; but it would be a skilfull politician that negotiated compromise in a situation where none can exist.”

Still, Grace Notes, written during the ceasefire that ended with the bombing on the Isle of Dogs in 1995, is his least pessimistic book. It is also that rare thing, a successful contemporary novel about classical music. The untranslatability of music means that it is almost impossible to render convincingly into words without collapsing into abstraction. The “meaning” of music, MacLaverty suggests, lies on the other side of languague; it does not represent anything in the empirical world, but carries you wordlessly beyond it. It is the voice of the metaphysical will.

Catherine understands this, and her struggles to compose music, while grappling with postnatal depression, a violent boyfriend and a rift with her parents, are a metaphor for the wider struggles of creativity. MacLaverty claims to work, slowly and his literature abounds with motifs of artistic paralysis: one of his short stories features a blind painter; another, a talented calligrapher who works despite having a crippled hand. In Grace Notes, Catherine likens herself to “the silent composer, the blind painter and dried up writer”.

“Losing that gift to create is a terrible thing,” MacLaverty says. “It feels a bit like receiving a camera as a present but having nothing to photograph. When you find yourself in this position you examine your own humanity, your problems and what drives you to anger. After this, things can loosen up a bit.”

MacLaverty left Belfast with his wife Madeleine, a civil servant, and their four children in 1974, moving to Edinburgh shortly after he qualified as an English teacher. “The Troubles were behind my going. Belfast was a frightening place in the early 1970s: bombs going off, doorstep murders and Catholics being picked up by Loyalist death squads. Once I qualified as a teacher I knew I could work anywhere; a job keeps you in a place. So I applied for jobs in Scotland and the north of England, ending up in Edinburgh, which appealed because of the festival.”

Arriving in Scotland, he already had a collection of stories - Secrets, issued by a small Belfast press, Blackstaff - but he felt that, “if I was ever to reach a wider audience I had to have a novel”. So he borrowed a beginner’s guide to writing fiction from a mobile library and began work on Lamb. This seems an astounding admission: but he insists he had little formal education and was “something of a dunce” at St Milligan’s, the Catholic grammar school he left at 18 to work as a laboratory technician at Queen’s University.

After the success of Lamb, he gave up teaching. “I have never regretted it, though those days when the words don’t come it can be an agony.” As an adolescent he had no wish to read or write, preferring to play football and, bewilderingly considering his roots in Catholic Belfast, cricket. He became interested in literature in his early twenties after being given a copy of The Brothers Karamazov - the text that, coincidentally, inspired Arthur Miller to become a writer. MacLaverty says: “This wonderful, strange book opened my eyes to a new world; it took me ages to read - I was at the stage where I still moved my lips - yet I was utterly transformed by it. In a small way, it led me to believe that I could be a writer, too.”

Though his memories of school are mostly bad, he has few regrets about his disrupted, inadequate education. “My school was okay, but it was of its time. Its purpose was to get boys into the civil service or the priesthood. The teaching staff was full of freaks and sadists; weird things happened, like being taught to memorise, in a Catholic school in Ireland, Milton’s sonnet, Cromwell our chief of men.”

MacLaverty looks up from his drink, his face crumpling into laughter. Despite the sombreness of his books, he is intensely animated, cheerful. Many of his sentences end on a note of incredulous laughter. He finds the dilemmas of contemporary Ulster blackly absurd, approvingly reciting the adage, “If you are not confused, then you don’t fully understand the situation”.

We are now in the Crown bar in central Belfast, and MacLaverty works the room impressively, telling jokes and translating the idiomatic speech of the girl who brings us drinks. With its gas lighting and preserved Victorian interior, the Crown provides the ornate setting for a scene of hilarious drunkenness in Grace Notes.

As a writer, MacLaverty is drawn to the local, to the vernacular; he is suspicious of the deadening tug of literary English, what he calls “Oxford English”, admiring writers such as James Kelman who speak authentically in their own voice. His favoured form is the short story and he shares with the masters of the medium, such as Chekhov and V.S. Pritchett, the conviction that the thoughts of so-called ordinary people have their mystical and poetical edges, and it remains “your highest duty as a writer” to brush up against those edges.

One of the best passages in Grace Notes concerns Catherine’s encounter with the dead body of her father. With exquisite precision, MacLaverty describes the old man’s face, his cavernous nostrils, blue-black lips and nose that “looked more hooked” in death. His own father, a commercial artist from whom he inherited his love of music, died when he was 12, casting a long shadow across his adolescence. Absent parents, disrupted families and unsettled children are recurring themes in his work. “The big blight,” he once said, “was that my father didn’t live long enough for me to talk to him except as a wee boy. I never had a conversation with him man to man.”

Before we part, he suggests one last drink in a pub called Katy Daly. Inside he runs into another school friend, now a civil servant.

With gentle humour his old pal teases him, calling him a “lazy bastard”. But MacLaverty is unconcerned. “Look,” he says, peering into his glass, “there has to be sufficient reason to write a novel, a certain necessariness. You ought not to write to order.”

In an era in which the bourgeois novel has triumphed and career novelists employ superagents to negotiate outlandish advances, his remark strikes a rare note of integrity.

Martin Amis: Emergency Speech

August 1997 / Prospect, Issue 22

How good is Martin Amis? As recently as the spring of 1995, before the farrago over him demanding (and receiving) a £500,000 advance for his poorly received novel about literary envy, The Information, he was considered very good indeed. “The most influential writer of his generation”-to adopt the argot of his publishing blurb. In the looking glass world of literary London, he was the man the new literary lads jostled to imitate. His mode of writing about low life in a high style, his combination of blokeishness and intellectualism and his ironic interest in porn and junk culture resonated with a generation for whom the book was becoming too slow a form. Will Self, Richard Rayner, Tibor Fischer, Hugh Barnes, DJ Taylor: all write with the irresistible beat of Amis’s prose ringing in their ears.

There is a reason for this homage: Amis is, as the critic James Wood points out, almost alone among his generation of English novelists in speaking with a voice which is authentically his own. It is a finger-clickingly contemporary voice: swaggering, arch, wry, exaggerated: as catchy as a good pop song. Amis plays an enormous register of notes lurching up and down the scale, depending on what or about whom he is writing, without any apparent incongruity. He distorts and parodies as reality is heightened and pulled out of shape by comedy. “I am a comic writer,” he says. “You have to submit to the huge power of the genre you are in. Genre really does twist and mangle things and determine outcomes.”

And yet there is a growing feeling among critics that he is a one-track stylist, a monovocal showman, the synthetic master of the dazzling phrase for whom the world will always be represented in caricature-distorted, leering. Certainly his journalism, the medium in which much of his best work is done, is all voice: laddish, boisterous, clever; as is his new novel, Night Train, a short, perplexing thriller, narrated by a female American cop, Mike Hoolihan (giving her a male name is a typical Amis wheeze). This is the first time he has written as a woman. It shows: she sounds disconcertingly like… well, Martin Amis. She shares his passion for stylised repetition, for waggish italics and his fascination with epistemology and science. There are mini-essays on cosmology, astronomy and linguistic puzzles: all set against a backdrop of dead babies being scooped out of trash cans and the discovery of murdered rent boys. In short: a typical Amis novel, but without the usual redeeming comedy.

Apart from his originality as a stylist, Amis’s great virtue is his eagerness to grapple with modernity. “Where were the new rhythms?” he asks in The Information. Unlike so many English writers who hanker after the past, tiresomely indulging their passion for ventriloquism and pastiche, Amis is not in flight from the contemporary. Learning from his American mentor and friend, Saul Bellow, he engages with how we live today. Amis revels in catastrophe and obscenity; he submerges himself in the violent discontinuities of the street. He has an ear for the rough imprecision and unintentional comedy of ordinary speech-its fragmentariness, its vigour. He listens hard. His big themes-Aids, the Holocaust, millennarian catastrophe, the nuclear threat-are played out in small settings: usually the dead end streets of his own west London (which he has now abandoned for north London). His vision of England, although fiendishly cynical, is an inclusive one: he leaves out little, from black culture to high culture. His conversation is, entertainingly, a similar mix of the high and low: idiomatic and ornate. He refers to his own oeuvre as his “stuff” while speaking in slow sentences of remarkable precision and grace.

George Walden, the former Conservative MP and cultural pessimist, admires Amis’s modernist daring. “Being so clever he is deeply resented. I know the arguments against him: that his work is superficial and there’s nothing inside,” Walden says. “But at least he tries to do the present when everyone else is doing the past. The other thing true of him is that, particularly in London Fields and The Information, he writes about ordinary people without any politically correct reverence-the same applies to blacks. He gives it to you straight. There are very few writers in this country who take something straight on; he’s learnt this from Saul Bellow.”

As a writer of scope and ambition, Amis is locked in a restless quest for novelty. He wants to invent his own idiom, to be first with a new way of writing about modern life. “I don’t want to write a sentence that any guy could have written,” he once told an interviewer-echoing Conrad’s declaration that any “work aspiring to the condition of art must carry its justification in every line.”

David Sexton, a literary editor, has written disparagingly of Amis’s desire to mark out his words as his alone. “Whatever their apparent subject, Martin Amis’s novels all revolve around a single question: who’s the writer here? Who’s in charge?” Amis, according to Sexton, “believes that’s how it should be, that ‘human interest’ is a fallacy, that only the author matters. But only books that live independently of their authors can live after them: if you don’t give life to your characters, they can’t give it back to you. Amis is trapped in his own book, its sole inhabitant.”

Adam Mars-Jones argues much the same thing in his pamphlet on Amis, Venus Envy. In particular, he complains of the aggressiveness of Amis’s style, of how he bullies the reader into finding his world impressive, of how every sentence must carry the stamp of a manufacturer’s logo. “Amis’s progress has been not so much a career as an escalation, the persona increasingly truculent, the style ever more bristling. His very method is overkill.”

Amis, Mars-Jones also suggests, cannot write convincingly about women; because he has no interest in narrative, psychology, motivation or agency his characters tend to be little more than cartoons. Objections such as these are thought to underpin his repeated failure to make the Booker prize shortlist (he has made it only once with his least characteristic novel Time’s Arrow). He was most notoriously excluded in 1989 when the feminist writers Maggie Gee and Helen McNeil organised a blockade of London Fields. They were especially offended by the character of Nicola Six, a vampish, sexually reckless young woman who organises her own murder.

George Walden, a Booker chairman in 1995, recalls the dispute. “What happened, I am told, is that the then chairman David Lodge, who liked London Fields, swung against Amis after being influenced by the women on the panel. The judges had been three to two in favour of the book until then, but Lodge went home and swung the other way. If this is true it does sound like the most appalling example of caving in to feminism. What made things worse was that the prize was then won by that vapid and vacuous book about butlers.” He is referring, of course, to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Remains of the Day.

Amis’s search for a new way of writing holds the key to understanding his aggressive competitiveness and his obsession with posterity. Few writers spend as much time musing on the value of their future stock. For Amis, envy among writers is “infinite, boundless.” But it is only after death that the worth of a writer is truly evaluated. So the writer is trapped in a cruel paradox: he can never know what matters most to him, namely, whether his work will outlive him. “I think all writers,” he once said, “if they mean business, if they’re ambitious, have got to think they’re the best. You haven’t got a chance of being the best unless you think you’re the best.” As I found when I visited him in July at the north London home he shares with the American writer Isabel Fonseca, Amis clearly thinks he is the best, not just the best of his generation, but better than that: a writer who will form an enduring part of the canon. This unshakeable belief in his own talent is what sustains him in times of famine. It is what enables him to shrug off (although they hurt) the ad hominem attacks on his character which intensify with each new book.

The Information, full of astronomical speculation, is his most autobiographical novel. Written while he was going through what he calls “my mid-life crisis” and the break-up of his marriage, it concerns two rivalrous novelists, one a worthless success, the other an obscure failure. At times it reads like a checklist of all the old Amis obsessions: male rivalry (the subject of his third novel, Success), the glamour and tug of dirty money (both Money, his satire of 1980s greed and consumerism, and his debut, The Rachel Papers), the unknowability of women (his entire backlist), the irreversibility of time (both Time’s Arrow, his time-reversing Holocaust narrative, and London Fields) and metaphysical terror (Other People; and everything he has written since he turned 40). The novel is a comedy of cosmic humiliation-the small struggles of the writers are set in the context of a pitilessly indifferent universe. You sense that the planet is on the edge of collapse.

There is, too, a sense of imminent apocalypse in London Fields (1989), his impressive work of millennial despair. The characters-satirical archetypes but none the less memorable for that-move in a degraded world of diminished aspiration and narrowed horizons. Time is out of joint: the weather has gone wrong, and London is a place of grotesque inversions. “So late in the century, so late in the goddamned day,” complains Samson Young, the American narrator, who is dying from an unnamed virus. His exhaustion mirrors that of the planet for which catastrophe looms. Again, in The Information there is a sense of lassitude, of used-upness; and its hero, Richard Tull, is a sexually impotent, blocked writer. What most disgusts the impecunious Tull, who schemes to ruin his more successful rival, Gwyn Barry, is the fear that Barry’s books might be read and thought worthy after his death. This, muses Tull, “could not happen, or else the universe was a joke.”

Martin Amis greets you at the door of his large house holding his baby daughter, Fernanda (with whom he was recently photographed in The Times: a final attempt to shed his reputation as a roué and literary bad boy?). Fit and tanned, he leads you into the huge open spaces of his drawing room, where he checks on the latest tennis action. It is Wimbledon fortnight and he is hawking articles on tennis to the highest bidder. His footsteps echo on the hard, stripped wooden floor of the room, with its high white walls and huge television. Later, reclining in a canvas chair in his study, Amis exudes an air of worldly assurance; the blue smoke from his permanent cigarette (he rolls his own) spirals and curls.

He listens patiently to criticism of his work: that his books are full of verbal pyrotechnics and surface glitter but lack substance and real human feeling; that in the words of the critic Peter Kemp, he “cannot structure a long novel and his lowlife characters are unconvincing,” little more than motiveless cyphers; that, as his father said, his books “sniff of the lamp,” by which he meant that they are too worked on; that his attraction to big themes compensates for the shallowness of his vision. Frank Kermode once wrote that a condition of thinking about the future was that one automatically assumed that one’s own time stood in an extraordinary relation to it: “We think of our own crisis as pre-eminent, more worrying, more interesting than other crises.” There is certainly a sense in Amis’s work of eschatological anxiety, of the pre-eminence of our present, with its impending sense of ecological catastrophe and apocalyptic weapons of destruction.

“The task of the novelist is to interpret the present and the near future, to ask where are we heading, how are we changing?” Amis says, through a haze of cigarette smoke. “I knew from an early age that I wanted to write about everyday life; that I wouldn’t write, say, westerns or historical works. I would have been surprised if I’d set anything in the past, unless, as I did in Time’s Arrow, I wanted to explain something about the present. Looking at Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, I ask myself can I read any more pastiche, can I get through another novel that has, as it were, f’s for s’s and spells always a-l-w-a-e-i-s.”

Each letter is recited with the immaculate precision of an actor delivering a favourite line of poetry. For a short man (he is not much more than 5ft 6ins) Amis has a remarkably big voice, a rich, timbrous, tobacco-scorched drawl. Its distinctive mid-Atlantic twang reminds you of his interaction with American culture and of the period he spent in New Jersey as a child while his late father, Kingsley Amis, was a visiting professor at Princeton University.

Andrew Marr, the editor of the Independent, is not a fan. He feels that the two Amises embody what he calls “the worst of England” and that Martin owes much of his success to the fact that we live in a culture of notoriety, in which certain writers become “commoditised and marketed like pop stars.” Amis, Marr says, is especially culpable: “He has willingly played up to his bad boy image by posing for all those moody, sneering photographs, doing exactly what his dad did 25 years earlier, so that he has become a kind of negative icon. I have wrestled with Amis’s work and feel there are many writers around who are doing much more interesting things but who are getting only a fraction of the attention. It’s fine to say he is a brilliant stylist, but you need to be more interested in other people than he is to become a great novelist. His books are all surface glitter. In any event, it’s not always the case that the figure most admired by his or her generation is the one who lasts. I think Will Self, for instance, has a lot going for him but won’t do anything interesting until he has fought his way out of the Amis influence.”

Marr has stumbled on a difficult truth. For Amis is treated differently from other writers-just how differently became apparent when he went in pursuit of the perfect publishing advance: a move which did nothing for his reputation and which is now seen as a parable of the ills of modern publishing. In the spring of 1995, shortly after completing his eighth novel, The Information, Amis instructed his then agent, Pat Kavanagh, wife of his old friend Julian Barnes, to extract an advance of £500,000 from Jonathan Cape, the imprint to which he had been attached for more than 20 years. “People kept saying that I was the most influential novelist of my generation or whatever, and so I wanted to see what I was worth,” Amis said at the time-an unexpected remark for a man who used to boast of never opening his bank statements. The amount was deemed unreasonable for an author who, although critically admired, was not a guaranteed bestseller. In the end, after much anguish and public vilification, Amis found himself a new agent, Andrew “the Jackal” Wylie, and a new publisher, HarperCollins, foolish enough to pay him his desired advance.

The Information was not the success that either Amis or HarperCollins had hoped. According to Stephe Butler of Bookwatch, which compiles the bestseller lists, it sold fewer than 40,000 copies in paperback; its highest placing on the bestseller list was eleventh. Since Bookwatch monitors sales manually, not electronically, the definitive figure remains elusive, although sources close to HarperCollins claim that the Bookwatch figure may be an over-estimation. “Part of the problem,” says the publishing analyst Christopher Gasson, “was that HarperCollins had no idea how to sell Amis. Martin Amis is a brand name, one of the few literary novelists that most people have heard of. And what did they do? They didn’t even put his name or the title of the book on the cover of the paperback. They simply had a small “i” on the cover. Ridiculous.” Late last year, Martin Amis returned to Jonathan Cape as part of a four-book contract thought to be worth more than £1m. Although he never said so, Amis was thought to be unhappy at the way HarperCollins had marketed The Information, though presumably not at what they had paid for it.

The literary agent Michael Sissons says there have been great efforts to disguise the reality of his return to Random House [parent company of Jonathan Cape]. “The whole Amis saga is an egregious mess,” he says. “Amis went to HarperCollins on a deal worth just short of £500,000. I know that at least £350,000 of that advance is unearned. If you are a publisher you look at these figures, you look at Amis’s track record, and you work out that his books are never going to earn more than £150,000. So what do you offer him for his next book? Well, if you are Random House you offer him exactly the same amount as HarperCollins. What better explains the unreality and the malaise in British publishing?”

Amis, now 47, professes to be weary of the endless speculation about his personal life (he famously said that, in the US, his advance would have merited no more than a business paragraph). He is mystified as to why people are so nasty about him, concluding that it must have something to do with his father. “We were the only father and son pair that had a body of work out there at the same time,” he says. “I now realise what a dreamy, sentimental guy I had been before all this stuff happened. I knew London, I knew the literary world; but what I didn’t know was what a skanky town it had become. There is a kind of mean-spiritedness of which I am the focus. I think it must be to do with my dad: I’ve exhausted all other possibilities. One of the things about being my father’s son is that it feels like I was born in 1922 and published my first book in 1954 [the year of his father’s debut, Lucky Jim]. We’ve been around for a long time. You outstay your welcome.”

In Amis’s Hobbesian universe of brutal competition and rivalrous striving, writers are playing poker for the highest stakes: nothing less than literary immortality, the dream that their work will have a luminous afterlife. “When we read the best 19th century and 20th century novelists,” writes Saul Bellow, explaining why some writers are read long after their death, “we soon realise that they are trying in a variety of ways to establish a definition of human nature.” Amis, in his own noisy way, is stumbling towards his own definition of human nature; but it is one steeped in cynicism and sterility, founded not on love, but on the impossibility of love; not in illusion, but in disillusionment. “Style can be a great indicator of morality,” he has said of Nabokov’s elegant paedophile Humbert Humbert. And clearly in his own work there is a nagging, insistent morality, the engine of which is a satirical disgust at the grotesque perversions and excesses of late 20th century capitalism: the greed, the squalor, the terminal boredom. Yet his books have none of the redemptive mysticism, the flights of fancy, the metaphysical verve that so characterises the novels of Bellow, who unfashionably believes in the soul and for whom empirical reality is all we can know but not all there is. This other reality, Bellow writes, is always sending us hints which, without art, we cannot receive.

Although Amis imaginatively roams the infinity of the cosmos, as he muses on the futility of ambition in the face of certain annihilation, his characters are resolutely earth-bound, poking around in dark places, never lifting their heads to look at the stars. For they are trapped in the genre of the comic novel, forever destined to be lost in the monotonous sublime of caricature, mere puppets controlled by a master in thrall to artifice and games, a master who never allows you to forget that you are in the grip of his controlling intelligence. Amis even has a walk on part in Money, a hilarious scene in which the drug-addled anti-hero, John Self, observes that his creator “wears his rug long” before drawing him into a conversation about his father.

Yet part of the appeal of his books is that Amis is half in love with the world he seeks to condemn. Money and vulgarity delight him. He writes of the gross infelicities of his characters-of Keith Talent masturbating as he wears a pair of women’s knickers on his head, of an ashen, exhausted planet-with a thrilled ardour. His achievement, as Adam Mars-Jones observes, has been “to separate beauty from the cause it traditionally served… to detach lyrical language from the lyrical impulse.” This is a considerable, fittingly contemporary achievement.

If future readers turn to him, as they surely must, it will be for his language and humour, for the skewed, neurotic insight he offers into what it is like to live in London at the end of the 20th century at a time of exponential scientific and technological advance. But for insight into the larger mysteries of existence and for an intricate understanding of the human heart (one of the traditional pleasures of fiction) they will surely look elsewhere. Perhaps even to his journalism-in particular, to his superb collection, The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America, where Amis writes of genuine people in a real society with all the style and invention that make his fiction such a verbal treat, but with an added economy and formal discipline absent from his more recent novels, and without the heartlessness and self-enthroning showmanship of his fiction.

Meanwhile, amis is hard at work on another novel, one which will require him to trawl his new neighbourhoods of Camden Town and Kentish Town as he once again goes in search of all the new rhythms. “Part of the purpose of literature is to offend your elders,” he says. “And that becomes harder with each new generation.” He defiantly believes his best work lies ahead of him like a huge turbulent sea of imagining. “It becomes a tauter challenge as you get older, your craft is much improved even though your music is sort of dying. My father is a great invisible cheerleader for me: he wrote his best book, The Old Devils, when he was in his late 60s, and another fine book, The Folks That Live on the Hill, when he was 70. No other novelist has ever been in the position to say, as I can, that my dad wrote a good novel at the age of 70…”

His voice trails away; it is late and the light is fading in his study. Amis lifts his head, peers towards the open window, his expression becoming momentarily lost and dreamy. He draws the fire from another roll-up. “I have achieved more than I thought I ever would,” he says. “I feel I’ve made a contribution. Of course, you’re disappointed that you’re not Joyce; but there’s still a chance you might do something. I feel full of beans and full of words.” The Germans have a word for this, MachtgefÜhl: the conviction that you have the power to do great things.

Amis is working out a strange literary destiny in the crowded streets of London. Tied by a quirk of birth to the writing life, he is unusually interested in being a novelist, of what it means to dare to cover the world in language. There is, though, a loneliness in his quest, the loneliness of the ambitious. So much of what he does and says is motivated by the same question: what am I worth? Such restlessness betrays an underlying insecurity. He may claim that he is still full of words, but he also concedes that the canon is “largely the work of writers in early middle age,” a period he is now passing out of. How ironic, then, if, to echo Samson Young, it was already too late in the century, too late in the goddamned day for Martin Amis; too late to turn his dreams of achievement into anything more than precisely that: dreams. We shall see.

Brian Evenson: The high priest's story

July 15 1997 / The Times

Brian Evenson is a writer of disconcerting power. His stories are full of atrocity and violence. There is no human exchange in his work that is not steeped in brutality. An affluent young couple hurl kittens out of the window of their speeding car, laughing as the cats screech like power saws when they hit the pavement. An aimless drifter travels across America randomly slaughtering young women on whose warm bodies he then carves commemorative stars. A farmer stumbles on the body of his dead daughter, but rather than tell his wife he inexplicably buries the girl in an isolated barn.

All this could easily be dismissed as the work of yet another neurotic literary outsider, were it not for the fact that Evenson, 30, writes so well and that he is a high priest in the Mormon Church, a happily married father of two young daughters and an unequivocal believer. To him, the Book of Mormon is a text of sacred revelation.

A religious conservative, he will this week celebrate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Brigham Young and the first Mormons in Salt Lake City. And yet, as Knopf, his New York publishers, acknowledge on the dustjacket of his collection of stories, Altmann’s Tongue , Evenson “appears, in every particular, to be the very destroyer of what he is instead the maker of”. In short, he imaginatively and, numerous critics say, gratuitously, violates what in daily life is most sacred to him: family life, faith and morality.

Not surprisingly, controversy has hit Evenson like a truck. He is reviled and scourged inside the Mormon community, where he is accused of putting himself on the side of evil. “There are people who wonder how somebody could speak in an evil person’s voice and not be affected by that voice,” he says.

If he continues writing fiction of experimental modernism, Evenson knows he will be excommunicated from the Church he has served in numerous roles. The prospect fills him with terror. For a fundamental tenet of Mormonism, one to which he is devoutly committed, is that marriage binds a couple to gether for eternity (polygamy, once rife among Mormons, has been outlawed for more than a century).

The only way they can part is if one of them is excommunicated. So Evenson is trapped in a cruel dilemma: if he remains true to the impulses of his art, however dark these may be, he faces what he calls the agony of “eternal separation from his wife and children”. But if he succumbs to authoritarianism and self-censorship he knows he will be miserable. “I feel good about my art,” he says. “I feel like it is part of my identity. I don’t want to have to make a choice between the Mormon Church and my work, but if I do I will be on the side of art, even though I still have my faith.”

This is painful, too painful: already cracks are appearing in the once smooth surface of his family life. His wife, Connie, comes from a doctrinally more austere Mormon family than Evenson’s, whose parents were the only Democrats in his neighbourhood while he was growing up in Provo, Utah. He and Connie married “when we were in our early twenties because we were brought up thinking that is what you did”. His eldest daughter Valerie is six, and his youngest, Sarah, is four.

In common with all Mormons, Connie believes that a “man’s heart is revealed in his art”. Evenson says: “She can’t understand why I write as I do. Though she has a French degree, she does not have the same kind of literary background as me. We are committed to each other, but what I am doing is causing her a lot of pain. We don’t argue, but we talk about it, we debate about what this means to us as Mormons. But she feels that if I continue doing a certain kind of art then, in essence, I am betraying her.”

Does he believe that? “I kind of do and I don’t,” he says, lowering his head. He is a big man, with huge hands and thick red hair worn in a ponytail. With his distressed jeans and wispy goatee beard he looks more like a farm labourer - or perhaps a roadie for a rock band - than the sophisticated literary intellectual that he is. At times, his voice scarcely rises above a whisper. It is hard to believe he is the author of work of such terrifying nihilism - work described as “morally absent”. But, of course, there is no such thing as moral absence: even amorality is a cannily ethical position.

Certainly that was the feeling among the hierarchy at Brigham Young, the Mormon university in Provo where Evenson taught literature and creative writing but from where he says he was “forced to leave” after a female student wrote an anonymous letter alerting the authorities to the extreme material in Altmann’s Tongue .

“This man has an obsession with murder,” she wrote. “There are descriptions of can nibalism, incest and serial murder…(reading the book) I feel like someone who has eaten something poisononus and is desperate to get rid of it. As Latter-Day Saints and disciples of Jesus Christ I believe we have a responsibility to use our gifts to bless the world with truth and hope - not to revel in darkness and degredation.”

In his defence, Evenson says he wishes not to glamorise, but to confront, violence. “When I was a boy growing up in Utah, I was disturbed that most of my peers felt that they could justify seeing an adult movie as long as it was ‘only violent’ rather than depicting sex. Violence, they thought, was somehow acceptable and entertaining but they had a real problem with sex. In Mormonism there is an emphasis on talking only about what is good in life. So you end up making a space where evil can occur unimpeded. I want to expose people to the darker side of life, to challenge them, to show that evil is part of this world.”

After much anguish and vilification, Evenson took a job last year at Oklahoma State University - because he felt “there was no place for me at Brigham Young; they wouldn’t support me in my work”. Appalled that fellow Mormons found his fiction unconscionable, he felt trapped and harassed in Provo. “I felt like an outcast in my own town. I would go into restaurants and people would look at me as if I was dangerous. It kind of got to me.”

The clash between Evenson’s literary sophistication and the uncompromising literalism of many Mormons has a compelling modernity. For Mormonism is one of the fastest growing religions in the world. There are almost ten million worldwide, half of whom are in the United States, clustering in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the Church has its headquarters.

The sect was founded, in 1830, by Joseph Smith as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Fayette, New York. Part of its appeal is its intense exoticism: Smith famously claimed that Moroni, an ancient American prophet, appeared to him revealing the existence of a hidden gospel engraved on golden plates and buried 1,000 years earlier on a hill near Palmyra. These were transcribed as the Book of Mormon, and together with the Christian Scriptures form the basis of the faith.

When Evenson was 19 he spent two years in France, Switzerland and Mexico doing the missionary work required of every young Mormon. “I remember knocking on doors wearing these dark suits. It made the religon seem terribly corporate. The thing about Mormonism is that the conversion process goes on even for the dead. It is very inclusive.”

Evenson is working out a complex literary destiny in the desert landscape of Utah. Tied through a quirk of birth to a religious community that grows ever more trenchantly confident with each new convert, he feels “lost and confused”. His next book, Father of Lies, explores another Mormon taboo: child abuse. Structured as a pyschoanalytic case study, it draws on actual, previously repressed cases of the abuse of young boys by Mormon lay clergy.

“Sometimes I wake up after a nightmare thinking I must be crazy to publish this book, because I know they will excommunicate me for doing so,” he says.

He approaches this prospect with lucidity and gloom. “In my more rational moments I’m not sure the Mormon authorities can dictate what happens to me after my death. The Church is at a point where it can become even more repressive, or embrace a new openness. I’ve thought about what I’m doing, I’ve prayed for guidance. If I get excommunicated, my hope is that they might take me back in at a later date.”

You know that he knows that this may be a forlorn hope indeed.

Jennifer Aniston: how Friends defined an era

July 3 1997 / The Times

Jennifer Aniston strides into the suite of her central London hotel, just visible behind the protective shield of her entourage. She pulls up a chair, pours herself a glass of sparkling water and is handed a cigarette which she never lights, preferring to roll it between her fingers like a draughtsman’s pencil. Her entourage - Warner Bros executives, Channel 4 publicists, her minder-manager Molly Madden - position themselves strategically around the room, monitoring her movements with fawning diligence. They chuckle as she makes a joke and nod gravely when she is serious. They have the spontaneity of canned laughter.

Aniston has just returned from a cycling holiday in the south of France and is deeply tanned. Her perfect American teeth sparkle brilliantly. Her trademark haircut, the “shag or just-got-out-of-bed-look” as she calls it, is shorter. The Haircut in haircut shock! She is wearing a tight white T-shirt and ripped designer jeans, and looks younger than her 28 years; she could pass for an affluent student, preparing for a summer in London, rather than the global icon she is rapidly becoming. She seems bewildered, but also delighted, by her good fortune.

Since landing, in 1994, the role of Rachel in Friends - the smart, sophisticated comedy set principally in two Manhattan apartments and a coffee house, Central Perk, where Rachel works - Aniston has ridden a magic carpet of renown. Though one of an ensemble cast of six, each claiming equal billing, she is the undoubted face of a show that earns Warner Bros $500 million in annual syndication rights and has a worldwide audience approaching 100 million. She has the hair and the burgeoning fan club - she recently pipped, in a survey, Liz Hurley and Nicole from the Renault Clio advertisements as the woman most British men would like to marry.

In three years, Aniston has gone from being a little-known actress - whose film debut was a slasher flick, Leprechaun, in which she was pursued by an axe-carrying midget - to demanding (and receiving) fees of $2 million for her latest movie, Perfect Picture , and the $60,000 per episode pay rise that she and the rest of the cast of Friends recently negotiated. “It’s a bizarre thing, but the rich really do just keep getting richer,” she smiles.

Her earnings are swelled by her apparent inability to stop endorsing products, from Microsoft software to L’Oreal shampoo. That she continues to promote shampoo baffles: she claims to be “fed up with all the hair stuff”. “I went to the same guy for years and he just cut my hair blunt. But then this one here made me go get a new haircut,” she says, gesturing towards Molly the Minder. “I went to this new guy and I was, like, in shock because he used a razor blade and cut it in the most bizarre style. There was nothing planned about it.”

Molly intervenes: “When you started the show with your old hair it was, like, she’s so pretty and cute but you can’t see her face. So we suggested she see this guy, Chris Mcmillan, who cut it around her personality. Do you agree he did that?” “Oh yeah, Molly, I definitely do,” she says, dutifully.

Aniston, unlike Rachel Green, the indolent, pampered princess she plays in Friends, had a rough and relatively impoverished childhood. Though born in Sherman Oaks, California, she grew up in New York City, where her Greek-American father, John Aniston, worked as a jobbing actor in minor television soaps. Her parents separated when she was young. Her memories of childhood are of “constantly being shunted” between her mother’s Manhattan apartment and her father’s place in New Jersey. “My father didn’t really work much when I was a kid. During my younger years we were pretty broke. It was tough for everyone.”

John Aniston was a difficult man. “I remember once he said: ‘Leave the table, you’ve got nothing to say.’ I was doing what young people do: listening and learning. I guess that’s the kind of man he is: demandingly blunt.”

He did nothing to encourage her ambitions after she enrolled as an adolescent at the High School of the Performing Arts in New York - the school that was the model for the egregious television show Fame. “He really didn’t want me to be an actress,” Aniston says. “He told me I’d never make any money, I’d starve and it would be awful. But that negative input made me want to succeed even more.”

After drama school, she took several small roles in off-Broadway plays while supporting herself as a waitress. When she turned 20, she moved to Los Angeles. She auditioned endlessly and won small, forgettable television roles, in Ferris Bueller, The Edge and Muddle Through - all failures. Then it dawned on her what was holding her back: she was the wrong shape. She had what she describes as a typical Greek figure: “Big breasts and big butt.” She says: “The disgusting thing of Hollywood is that I wasn’t getting jobs because I was too heavy.”

This disturbed her because she had never thought of herself as overweight. “Now I have to watch what I eat, I work out, but I’m not crazy about the whole thing. Really, it’s just a drag, something most women suffer from. The lucky ones are those with fast metabolisms. The rest of us have to work a bit harder.”

After eventually losing 30lbs, she was invited to audition for the pilot of a new show, Friends. The executive producer originally wanted her to play Monica, the freelance chef with whom Rachel shares an apartment, but Aniston was attracted to Rachel, because “she was quirkier and I connected to that”.

She knew from the beginning that the show was something different; that the scripts were sharp and stylish and true. “I think Friends captures that lost period in your twenties when you don’t know where you’re going, or what you’re doing or who you are.”

In recent months, the cast have been buffeted by abuse, prompted, in part, by stories that they threatened to strike over pay. There have been rumours of petty rivalries, strained relations and discord on set. Aniston’s supposedly rivalrous relationship with Courteney Cox (who plays Monica and whose latest film, The Scream , was one of the hits of the summer) is the subject of malign gossip. She was even accused of treating her long-time partner, actor Tate Donovan, “more like a poodle than a boyfriend”.

“You know, the worst thing about all this is that my anonymity doesn’t exist anymore,” Aniston says, declining to talk about specifics. “It’s a strange thing to be watched, talked about and have people making up stories about you. Some of what is written is really hurtful. The good thing is that as a cast we are very close and protective of each other. We’ve had each other to hold on to during this scary explosion.”

That the pay dispute became public angers her, although she denies that the cast threatened to strike. “Look, the show was a big hit and we were at the point in our contract where it was right to renegotiate.”

Molly chips in: “People turned against the kids. Their motivation came from a pure place.”

A pure place? “Yeah,” says Aniston on cue. “It came from a good place and it just became, like, this ugly thing. We felt beaten up. People say that’s what happens: you become a big celebrity, climb your way up and then they rip you down.”

The conversation meanders on for a few more minutes, with Aniston talking about the successful movie career she hopes to forge, before the woman from Warners interrupts: “Time’s up.” Aniston rises, smiles professionally and is led across the room, a small, dazzlingly pretty figure lost in the corporate entertainment machine that is closing around her.

Annie Proulx: Pioneer poet of the American wilderness

June 5 1997 / The Times

The life of E. Annie Proulx is almost as magical and exotic as her fiction. At an age when most people are settling for a slow retirement, she is engaged in a fever of activity: rising at 4am to write, skiing, hunting, canoeing, building and hiking. “Oh, and mountain-biking,” she cuts in, with no trace of irony. “I’ve recently taken up mountain-biking. It’s terrific fun.” It is worth pausing to remember that this is a woman soon to celebrate her 62nd birthday.

Proulx (pronounced to rhyme with Crewe) is accurately acclaimed as a pioneer spirit, a writer from the frontier for whom the great outdoors is a redemptive arena. She lives alone in a large, echoing house high up in the Rockies at Wyoming. The air is thin and bracing there; from her front porch she can see for miles. She loves the rugged terrain and the extremes of the climate. There is snow on the ground for at least eight months of the year, and for much of the time there is a big, dipping wind.

After three failed marriages and many restless years roaming across America, Proulx feels settled in Wyoming and is enjoying a period of remarkably sustained creativity. Her visit to London coincides with the appearance of her new novel , Accordion Crimes , which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. She strides into the foyer of her central London hotel with an intimidating vigour and purpose. Tall and big-boned, she carries herself like a man. Her handshake is firm.

Though it is a hot, humid afternoon, she is dressed entirely in black, down to the frames of her wire-rimmed spectacles. She has the pallor of Andy Warhol, her blonde eyebrows incongruous beneath her dark fringe. She has (unfairly) been tagged an awkward customer, one who unashamedly terminates interviews if asked a “banal or idiotic” question. Such as? “Oh, I don’t know,” she says. “Something like, ‘what is this book about?’ ” Oh dear, there goes my next question.

A woman of paradoxes, Proulx craves solitude but also surrounds herself with a close network of friends - people who share her exuberance and violent energy. “My friends are the kind of people who step over borders, move in and out of several languages easily,” she says.

“They are people who keep residence in gritty places and like music and food and cooking; people who have lots of boyfriends and girlfriends and are always entangled and in libellous situations. These are the kind of people I like, and this is the kind of life I have.”

Proulx speaks as she writes: in tumbling torrents of words. She is a writer in a hurry, haunted by lost time, the years she spent “doing things that I never wanted to do, things like getting married”. She feels the lost years like a burden. “I came to writing late and am racing to get everything down; my head is full of stories.”

Asked about her marriages, she becomes shy and evasive. “I always hated domestic situations. I don’t think I was a particularly good or diligent mother (she has four adult children). I grew up at a time when you were supposed to get married and I guess I was a slow learner. It took me a long time for the obvious to become obvious: I could not operate in a conventional family.

“When you are in a domestic situation, you can’t get up in the middle of the night, turn the music on and start writing; or go to bed in the middle of the afternoon. So it wasn’t until my last child left home - when I had no responsibilities beyond myself - that I began writing.”

As a result, her first novel, Postcards, was not published until she was 56. It is about a man who kills his girlfriend, buries her body on the family farm and then flees from his guilty secret. Like all of her books, it features a long, anguished journey across America. For Proulx, America remains a “vast continent of discovery”, a vessel of migration and new beginning.

Postcards, though full of good things, offered no hint of what was to come. For Proulx’s second book, The Shipping News, is one of those rare things: a narrative so fresh and unexpected that its author’s life is utterly transformed by it.

Abig, sprawling, exuberant treat of a book, it is set in Newfoundland and concerns the struggles of Quoyle, a bumbling journalist, as he brings up his children after his adulterous wife is killed in a car smash.

The real subject of the book, though, is Newfoundland, a wilderness of winds, ice and fog. Proulx’s descriptive writing has a disconcerting power; her book reads like an elegy to a vanished world. “The force of contemporary life is rushing in on Newfoundland,” she says. “The community and way of life I describe in the novel is already disappearing.”

The Shipping News won many major fiction prizes, including the Pulitzer, US National Book Award and the Irish Times Award. It was translated into 20 languages and sold about three million copies worldwide, a figure more usually associated with a pop record. Proulx is humbly flummoxed by its success. “People tell me that I have a global readership, but I just can’t explain why; I just don’t get it. I expected the book to sell no more than a thousand copies.”

The fortune she must have earned is invested in a trust fund for her children. “I am not a money person,” she says. “I pay myself a not very staggering salary and I live very modestly. So it’s there, but I don’t use it. It’s not my thing.”

Accordion Crimes spans 100 years and follows the fortunes of five generations of immigrants. They are linked by a green accordion, which serendipitously passes from hand to hand, across the country and down the years. The book is constructed on an epic scale, rather like America itself. There is music and dance, murder and mayhem.

It is exhausting to read - precisely because Proulx has inexhaustible energy. There is no risk that she will not take. No facet of life in which she is not interested. “The book is an examination of the American obsession with self-discovery, with self-invention,” she says. “In no other country is it given that you will reinvent yourself - and you can. I mean, you can change your face, your shape, your state, your name, even your relatives. I find this rather intriguing and wonder if the seminal point of departure for this whole attitude wasn’t the immigrant experience, where people were forced, as soon as they set foot on shore, to start reinventing themselves.”

Proulx knows all about self-reinvention. Born in August 1935, she grew up in rural Vermont. Her Quebecois father was a travelling textiles executive; her mother a resolute Yankee. Her early years were marked by constant upheaval and movement. She was the eldest of five sisters and her peripatetic childhood left her with an inability to put down roots. She dropped out of various colleges, had “terrible marriages”, drifted and travelled, brought up her children in poverty while all the time harbouring a “secret desire” to write.

Proulx refuses to acknowledge that there is a streak of obsessiveness in her character, despite the contradiction in her reply: “I’m not obsessed with writing,” she says. Then, in the next breath, she explains that she is simultaneously working on three books - a novel, a novella and a collection of stories - that she travels across the country compiling thousands of pages of research material for each book, and frequently becomes hooked on certain writers so that she “gorges on their work until I feel sick with excess”.

“You know, the best part of writing Accordion Crimes was that it gave me a chance to roam about America listening to music for a year or two,” she says.

“To get the background right for the Tex-Mex section, for instance, I hung out in Texas with my friend Pat Jasper. Together we went down to the nightclubs in Houston, San Antonio and Austin and we just went for it. I gathered so much material that I had to leave 90 per cent of it out of the book. I had a great time, though.”

After what she calls the “fabulous distraction” of her visit to London, Proulx is anxious to return to Wyoming and to her writing. Time spent away from her desk is wasted time, for E. Annie Proulx waited so long to become a writer that her greatest fear is that she will die before she can complete “all those books that I’ve got stacked up in my head”.

Kenzaburo Oe: Escaping the Emperor System

April 15 1997 / The Times

‘The time has come for Japan to apologise to the peoples of Asia.’

When the Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe was in his early twenties he thought constantly about killing himself. Although already a successful novelist and with a beautiful young wife, he felt that his life was without purpose and that his work was sterile, meaningless and stylistically conventional. In those dismal postwar years, Japan itself was still struggling to come to terms with its calamitous defeat, and Oe’s restlessness seemed somehow mimetic of a wider social and moral malaise. Certainly, the mood among the country’s established writers an extraordinary number of whom did, in fact, kill themselves was one of debilitating melancholy. The mood was tinged with a nostalgia for the lost certainties of the past, a past in which the Emperor, the embodiment of an obstinately hierarchical society, was a quasi-divine figure unburdened by mortal concerns. Oe describes the day that he heard Emperor Hirohito announce Japan’s unconditional surrender as one of the most bewildering of his life.

“Since the defeat”, wrote the novelist Yasunari Kawabata in 1947, “I have gone back into the sadness that has always been with us in Japan.” Drowning in his sadness, Kawabata went on to produce a series of elegiac masterpieces, exquisite miniatures revolving around the themes of loss, the perishability of beauty and the irretrievability of the past. He died by his own hand in 1972.

Another suicide was Osamu Dazai who, in 1948, threw himself into a river shortly after publishing The Setting Sun, his marvellous study of an aristocratic family in decline. Then much later, in 1970, Yukio Mishima spectacularly committed seppuku after failing in his preposterous attempt to lead a right-wing coup d’etat. “Mishima’s political, moral and aesthetic principles”, Oe says, “grew out of his regret that the Emperor was not a deity but a human being.” Oe says that he himself was saved from self-destruction when his son Hikari was born, in 1963, with a cerebral hernia, a lesion of the skull through which brain tissue bulged.

Oe is in Britain to lecture at the Brighton Festival and promote the first English translation of his early novel, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids. It was published shortly before Hikari’s birth, a period about which he talks with a sense of shame. “When my son was born I didn’t know what to do,” he says. “Every day I went to the hospital expecting the doctor to tell me that, after a brave struggle for life, he had died. I looked at my son and was completely confused. I had lost all sense of identity.”

Oe was told that if Hikari was to live an operation was required to close the cerebral hernia. The consequence would be that he would be left profoundly handicapped. Unable to face up to the responsibility of the decision, Oe fled to Hiroshima, where he discussed Hikari’s plight with a young doctor who had treated survivors of the atomic blast. It was the defining moment of his life: “I knew then that I had to accept responsibility, and help my son to live,” Oe says.

The operation was a success, and Hikari still lives with his parents in Tokyo. He seldom speaks, suffers from fits and seizures and yet, remarkably, is a talented composer, whose first recording has won prizes.

Oe has written about his relationship with Hikari, most memorably in A Personal Matter, in which a young teacher dreams of murdering his deformed baby boy: “There are only two honest alternatives to this fleeing from my monster of a baby: strangle him with my own hands, or take responsibility for bringing him up.” In the book, as in life, the speaker chose the second option.

Oe’s English is slow and hesitant but fabulously precise. His thick, silver-black hair stands up in alarmed tufts. He has a mournful face which intermittently folds into a brilliant smile. When he laughs which is often his huge ears curl and flap, like a bat’s. He is charming, courteous and serene.

But, for one who appears so still, he is remarkably full of anger. Born on the densely forested island of Shikoku in 1935, Oe has appalled many of his compatriots by saying that his Japanese identity is “something of only relative importance”. Shortly after winning the Nobel Prize last year, he provoked further antipathy by declining the Order of Merit an award bestowed by the Emperor because it was undemocratic. “Even today the Emperor is at the centre of Japan, and I was reluctant to accept a medal from the head of a system of which I don’t approve.”

His work, although not explicitly political, is dark, elliptical and austere. A keen student of European literature, Oe shuns the traditional limpid purity of Japanese prose, preferring long, experimental sentences. His novels are quite unlike those of any other Japanese writer. He seems unusually attached to the obscene, the bizarre and the obscure. Even the accessible Nip the Buds, which describes the struggles of a group of reformatory boys who find themselves isolated in a plague-stricken village as war rages around them, owes more to Camus, Celine or Dostoevsky than, say, Kawabata.

Oe feels that winning the Nobel Prize has provided him with a platform from which to condemn the inequities and absurdities of Japan’s imperial legacy and what he calls the Emperor-system. “I think, if Japan is to become truly democratic, that the time has come for the country to apologise to the peoples of Asia for the destruction we visited upon them in wars of aggression.”

When asked about the role of the writer in contemporary Japan, he sighs despondently. The young, he says, are not interested in literature or political engagement: their lives are ostentatiously empty. To this end, he plans to write no more fiction until he has evolved a new style, a new form “an amalgam of the novel, poem and play” which will also be accessible for children. “You have to catch them young if you want to create a new generation of readers.”

Fiona Shaw: The Silent World

April 15 1997 / The Times

As a young girl in Cork in the 1960s, actress Fiona Shaw was forbidden only one thing by her mother: to become a nun. The Ireland of her childhood was effectively a theocracy; the Roman Catholic Church exerted a mesmeric hold over the country. Shaw grew up with a solemn awareness that without a “sense of sin and guilt” there is no genuine religion.

She left Cork at the age of 21 to train at RADA, and all through her years of success at the RSC and the National Theatre she lived a resolutely secular life - the life, she says, of a “perfect bohemian”. If she was not being acclaimed as the next Maggie Smith or Vanessa Redgrave, she was moving with the smart set in Los Angeles, where she is rightly admired as a comedienne and quirky character actress. After she played a harassed English schoolmistress who was farcically infatuated with Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Little Lady, the big offers rolled in from Hollywood, including one for her own weekly sitcom.

Yet something was missing from her life, something she now describes as an absence of spiritual ritual. In interviews she sometimes spoke of her fascination with nuns and of how her talk, full of theological speculation, constantly bumped into Catholicism. “If we had parallel lives, there would be a bit of me that would be a nun,” she once said. “I admire contemplative lives. It’s a constructive way of opting out.”

In January this year Shaw, 38, finally opted out constructively when she spent two weeks with the Tyburns, an order of Benedictine nuns, at their convent on the Bayswater Road in London. The only rules laid down by the Mother General were that she had to wear something modest (she chose a long, brown woollen dress) and submit herself entirely to the discipline of the convent.

The nuns were of mixed nationality - English, Scottish, Australian, New Zealanders and Peruvian. The oldest was 96; the youngest in her 20s. Founded at the end of the last century, the Tyburn nuns - “adorers of the Sacred Heart” - are an enclosed, contemplative order whose lives are devoted to the perpetual adoration of Christ.

Waking at 5am each day, they are fiercely ascetic. It is, says Shaw in her spoken diary of her stay in the convent, as if the nuns are pursuing a kind of poetic suicide.

“In a real sense,” she says, “the nuns are dead already. Or rather, they are in a heightened sense of preparing to die. Most of them have deliberately lost touch with their families. They have let them go. They are simply clearing a pathway to God. The idea is that if there is a God and you empty your mind of the clutter of existence, then you might just catch Him.” What initially struck Shaw about the nuns was the monotony and repetitiveness of their routine. Each day is the same. There is no respite from the fervour of their adulation.

Their routine is structured around an austere ritual of prayer, song and worship. They rarely interact with each other or with the outside world. Recreation is limited to one hour of occasional indoor games - pool, Scrabble, snakes and ladders (Trivial Pursuit is deemed “too world ly”) - and walks in the garden. There is a small library of general books but the Bible remains everyone’s preferred reading. They have no television, CDs or records; the radio is permitted only when there is a major incident. “Like when there is a bomb?” Shaw asked the nuns. “Oh, no,” replied the Mother General. “Like when the Pope dies.”

The last time the nuns listened to the radio was in July 1981 - the day of the royal wedding.

Meals are regular but basic - there are no luxuries. “Chicken and pasta is about as good as it gets,” says Shaw. Each night dinner is interrupted by a bell, which prompts a moment of intense, silent contemplation. Indeed, the convent resounds to the sound of silence: the nuns are quiet for 22 hours a day.

On the third evening of her stay in the convent, Shaw “hit bad weather”. Watching the nuns at dinner she was struck by their apparent gloominess. “It isn’t natural,” she whispered into her tape recorder after retiring to her room. “I look at the nuns and I don’t see any great vision on their faces. They are bored, too. They are bored and they have a lifetime of this to face.”

Shaw’s diary raises provocative questions. The nuns, some of whom lived conventionally before joining the convent, are adamant that they are the brides of Christ. “But to be in love with Christ is to be open to Him physically,” she says. “One of the main experiences of falling in love is to have a heightened sexual awareness of the other. My experience of the convent was the absolute absence of the language of sex and sexuality.”

Later, she asks: “What happens to the sexual energy of the nuns, especially as they never exercise? Why do you never see any flesh or hair? I don’t know what happens if you have a sexual problem here; if you become obsessed with a workman or something.”

She speculates, too, on what drove them to enter holy orders, wondering if they are in some way damaged or depressed.

There are also some jewels of self-revelation, as Shaw fantasises about the nuns engaging in secret orgies with monks, confesses her inability to concentrate during prayer, regrets that she cannot leave with the workman who wanders around the convent carrying an enormous plank of wood behind which he hides, and dreams of diving into a pool of red wine.

But midway through her stay Shaw’s perception of the nuns began to turn. As they prayed, their faces “radiant with the joy of their love of God”, she felt that they were free in a way that she was not. “I swung from loathing their lifestyle to admiring it beyond measure. I am completely taken with their way of life. That power to yield yourself to something while at the same time retaining complete control of yourself is magical.”

After leaving the convent at the beginning of February, Shaw, who lives alone in a small flat in Primrose Hill, London, found that the experience stayed with her in unexpected ways. After an initial celebration, she began waking at 5.30am - describing it as if she could feel the prayers of the nuns on her. As well as giving up alcohol and being “dejected by the excesses” of consumer society, she is even questioning her profession.

“I now feel very ambivalent about what I do. I’m bemused at how much acting I’ve done. I’ve been doing it non-stop since I was 24. You become a sort of acting machine; it makes you wonder if you are wasting some of your best energy.

“I did The Taming of the Shrew for nearly two years and I can remember only four or five nights of that. I don’t want to sound Pollyanna-ish about this, but we have become such a cynical, prurient generation, so wrapped up in ourselves, that we have lost sight of what is important and true.”

She is moved by the great biblical paradoxes: that we are at our richest when we have nothing; that it is only in darkness that we finally learn to see. “A couple of years ago these nuns were burgled but the burglars took nothing - because they had nothing to take,” she says. “This joy of having nothing means, of course, that you have everything.” On the morning of her departure, Shaw told the Mother General that if she had two lives, one would be spent inside the convent. The old nun smiled benignly, reached out to touch the young actress and said: “Yes, Fiona, but you have only the one life.” Shaw says: “I knew at that moment that it was right for me to rejoin the world but that I would do so a changed person.”