Originally published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction 32, no. 3 (2013)
Jim Crace has just had a very close shave. ‘This time last year I abandoned a book. I’d sold it in America and in Britain, I’d spent the money, they’d want the money back. We’d lose the house. It was a really, really serious situation,’ he remembers. ‘You always think, don’t lose your nerve, persevere . . . And in the past it’s always worked.’ This time it didn’t. ‘I thought I’d lost my mojo. I thought, “I’ve got a copy date, I’ve got to deliver a book at Christmas. I haven’t got a book to write.” I was in deep shit. That was on the Tuesday. I started Harvest on the Friday.’ He mimes wiping sweat from his brow. ‘So I wrote that book in six months and I delivered it on the same day that I should have delivered the old one. Bloody hell, I thought, that was a narrow escape. I felt like some kid in a boy’s comic: “Phew! That was a close one.”’
In May, when we meet, sweating discreetly in the long garden of his Birmingham home on the hottest day of the year, he’s still in what he describes as ‘the bruised aftermath’. Harvest (due out in early 2013), is set in a feudal community during the farm enclosures that did away with traditional rights to common land. The novel is, as with almost all of his others, historically and geographically nonspecific. People can’t resist attempting to locate Crace (although it misses the point entirely); my hunch is Tudor-era and English. He is back in familiar unfamiliar territory here, after a sojourn in the (not quite) real world with his 2010 jazz novel, All That Follows.
This next book will be his last. ‘I’ve written eleven novels and that’s plenty. I know that the inevitable end of a career in writing is bitterness. You’ve written so many and people aren’t paying attention to you any longer. So I want to get out before that kicks in’. Although he’s still smarting, he thinks he’ll try drama next: ‘Big, blousy, highly-dramatised, National-Theatre-type things. Not Stoppardian dialogue-driven pieces, but spectacle-driven pieces . . . I want to try my hand at something more collaborative. Writing for the theatre, I’d have colleagues. All I see is people like you once in a while, and that’s no good.’
Crace would rather not pontificate about his art of fiction. On much of what we talk about when we talk about writing—influences, inspiration, practice and (especially this last one) autobiographical resonance—he flatly but amiably will not be drawn. He’ll talk at length about anything and everything, but when it comes to the writing life, he tends to rely on his patter. He apologises if I’ve heard it before.
Typically ingenuous, he describes what he does like this: ‘I embark on this thing and hope I’m going to lose my way and that what takes over and what becomes the guide of the book will somehow be good.’ When I venture my own take on Harvest, he thanks me; tells me, ‘that’s very useful’. I think, for a moment, that he’s being sarcastic. He’s not. He can be, he assures me, but he’s not here. ‘I very often don’t know what I’ve got on my hands,’ he admits, ‘I can’t really describe it until I read the critics, then I’ll have a spiel, and then I’ll be able to read it in public’.
Crace, famously, doesn’t do research. He claims no kith or kin amongst the great and the good of the British novel. ‘Never knew anybody, never wanted any part of that,’ he says, ‘I prefer to hang out with jazzmen’. Nowadays he reads non-fiction. And it should come as no surprise to readers familiar with the fictional milieu Adam Begley neatly christened “Craceland” that he is a keen natural historian who, generally, would much rather be walking, caving or twitching than writing novels.
His books have a kind of autonomous existence; Crace maintains that there are elements of his novels that he cannot account for. The occultish grammar of objects—beetles, stones, cracks in wood—by which his disparate oeuvre hangs together, for instance. ‘My books are very schematic. It’s almost as if the novels have decided there will be running threads through themselves. I really couldn’t explain except that the books want them’. He recently discovered that he has a fictional kink: ‘Why do so many women get their heads shaved in my books? I don’t know where it’s come from, or what it means.’ It might be the product of reading Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls as a teenager, he thinks, or perhaps of taking a fancy to Jean Seberg in Saint Joan and Breathless around the same time. ‘But that’s only me trying to make sense of why my books do that.’
‘None of that is being cute,’ Crace insists, ‘why would you want to spend so much time alone in the house—with your neighbours avoiding you because you’re the mad writer—staring at the screen if it didn’t provide you with some kind of magic and some kind of awe. Now, this sounds funny but I think that’s why I love writing novels, and why I’ve chosen not to research my novels, to leave them entirely to the imagination. Because I find what the imagination provides so thrilling.’
Critics suspect that all this is strategic obfuscation. That Crace is being tricksy. That he’s cunningly guarding both his own privacy, and that of his strange and beguiling novels, by constructing this laconic and maddeningly matter-of-fact public persona. They’re fascinated, belabouringly so, by the contrast between the uneven, uneasy modernity of the unnamed hinterlands that provide the settings for his books, and his quiet, conventional (or mundane, as the ever-self-effacing Crace would have it) life in the arty suburbs of Britain’s second city. Like J.G. Ballard, curtain-twitching on suburban psychosis in Shepperton, they’re convinced that Crace, too, must be up to something.
As a nation of readers, Brigid Brophy characterised the British as ill-at-ease and bashful about the fictiveness of their fictions, equating stories with daydreaming and daydreaming with masturbation, and ‘believing both to be bad for the eyesight’. Perhaps it’s this puritanical streak that accounts for our mistrust of this arch fabulator. The Devil’s Larder (2001) is composed of sixty-four slices of bizarrerie that riff upon Britain’s changing relationship with food and consumption in terms carnal and grotesque and of manners and mores. Reviewers were perplexed to note that Crace’s recipes were not intended to be followed. One food writer took particular umbrage at his suggestion as to what one might do with an aubergine. They were astounded, he recalls, that he had ‘simply made it up’.
Crace doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. ‘This business of simply making stuff up is with what the traditions of literature are concerned. There’s no such thing as a Minotaur, they’ve simply made it up. Simply making it up is an ancient tradition, more ancient than the conventions we labour under now,’ he explains. If happy families are all alike then who would want to read a fiction drawn from his? ‘I’m baffled by what the critics say. It’s not like I’m ducking and diving. It’s just the way things are. You wouldn’t want to read the story of my life because it’s too smug, it’s too lucky. Literature prefers divorce to long marriages; it prefers ill health to good health; it prefers war to peace’.
In 2005, The Scotsman made reference to Crace as ‘the cult American writer’. There is some accuracy in their misnomer. Perhaps he sits rather more comfortably in the yarn-spinning tradition of Barth, Pynchon and Gass than in our own more sensible, empirical one. The non-places of late modernity Crace’s novels inhabit might just as well be Sydney as Singapore as Sacramento. But the short story with which he made his name as a writer of fiction, ‘Annie, California Plates’, with its hep talk and hitchhiking, is pure Americana, an out-and-out homage to the Beat Generation Crace admired. Certainly, he admits, he enjoys a higher standing amongst readers and critics on the other side of the Atlantic. He was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award in 1999 for Being Dead; in 1992, the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts; and the GAP International Prize for Literature for The Gift of Stones in 1989. He’s taken on what he describes as a cushy gig teaching creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin. ‘The idea of going to Texas just seemed sexy and interesting . . . And it’s not really teaching is it? It’s half an afternoon a week chatting to talented novelists.’ Incidentally, he’s wholly in favour of the enterprise: ‘I think there’s something very elitist about denying that writing can be learned or at least that your skills can be honed.’
Still, at the end of a twenty-six-year, eleven-novel career in fiction, Crace’s writing life remains mysterious, apparently even to him. He’s a nine-to-five only writer; no burning of the midnight oil for Crace, he likes real life too much. But he claims what happens when he sits at his desk is, more or less, out of his hands. He calls it a ‘form of abandonment’ to a narrative impulse that is, he maintains, ‘hardwired’ into all of us. When pressed, he’ll claim a fluke genesis. His new novel, for example, is product of happenstance: the ridge-and-furrow fields of the English countryside he’s always loved, and an exhibition of 16th century watercolour landscapes he happened to attend.
He mentions an article by Jonathan Franzen published that week in the Guardian, in which Franzen addresses those perennial questions asked of novelists: ‘Who are your inspirations?’, for instance, ‘Is your fiction autobiographical?’. Franzen, with no less than Nabokov as his authority, disputes the idea that fiction has the ability to “take over”, to usurp the authority of its author. ‘I catch a whiff of self-aggrandisement,’ he writes, ‘the notion presupposes a loss of authorial will, an abdication of intent. The novelist’s primary responsibility is to create meaning, and if you could somehow leave this job to your characters you would necessarily be avoiding it yourself.’ Crace thinks this is all a bit rich, coming from Franzen: ‘Perhaps it’s true of him, but it’s not true of me. There really is an abandonment. There really is the belief that because fictional narrative is ancient it’s learnt a lot. It knows a lot, it’s wise and it’s generous and not to abandon yourself to that is a kind of arrogance as well. It’s a real friend to you.’
It’s ‘not a New Age thing,’ he’s quick to add, though at times it certainly sounds like one. On the contrary, it’s thoroughly and sensibly Darwinian: ‘All writers are doing is doing something formally, between hard covers, that all of us do informally as a necessary function of being human beings. We keep on imagining the future and reinventing the past . . . it’s a necessary function of human consciousness, to be a narrative person.’ Narrative, for Crace, is an evolutionary adaptation, ‘if it were not we wouldn’t still be storytellers,’ he insists. ‘People would be happier, and more sociable, and more attractive to the opposite sex, and have better relationships if only they could be more narrative . . . It’s how you get the girlfriend, it’s how you get the boyfriend, it’s being able to talk in pubs.’
The theory of narrative to which Crace subscribes—the idea the humans construct their own identities by writing and rewriting the stories of their experience—has, in recent decades, become fashionable, ubiquitous even, amongst fields as various as psychology, theology, sociology, philosophy, politics, medicine and indeed even finance. ‘We are all virtuoso novelists’, as cognitive scientist and philosopher, Dan Dennett, puts it, we ‘try to make all our material cohere into a single good story . . . that story is our autobiography’ and the ‘chief fictional character . . . of that autobiography is one’s self’. It is generally assumed that we self-tellers are, most of us, instinctive Realists; concerned with fidelity and veracity, with reason and probability. We might fib, exaggerate, misremember or gloss the detail but we do so in service of the unity and coherence of our own story.
For Crace, however, our narrative adaptation might just as equally be given to falsification, to confabulation, to all-out lies. He insists that to be a narrative person is not simply to make the fragments of contingent experience cohere, to graft on a beginning, middle and an ending. ‘The oil of the human imagination is fantastic,’ he insists. ‘The person who won’t embroider is the bore. The bullshit artist is the person we adore, as long as he doesn’t do any harm’.
The idea that we are all, by our very nature, tall-tale-tellers has proved rather troublesome for those proponents of the idea that crafting an autobiographical narrative is the key to the good life. Certainly, Crace is well aware that people are ill-at-ease with lies. ‘The kind of lying I do and always did was never to deceive you. It was to be amusing and entertaining and generous,’ he assures. ‘By nature I’m a liar. I was always a fibber. When I was a kid I would always tell stories. I could never understand why people didn’t like me telling stories. I thought that to take a little anecdote that happened and to add a few extra details was a generous act. I still don’t get why it isn’t.’
It is problematic, too, for literary critics, for whom this imaginative function is what makes literary narrative unique and valuable. I don’t think his insistence that we all share this capacity for fiction is just Cracian modesty. It’s an ethical thing, Crace’s bottom-up optimism about the world. And it’s political too. He’s deeply ambivalent about a British literary intelligentsia that he suggests—with apologies for being ‘a terrible Marxist’—remains peopled with ‘Oxbridge, white, heterosexual males’.
Crace comes clean: ‘I’ve got a class thing, you see. It’s ridiculous but I do believe in the class system, I do believe in class warfare, I do believe it’s a big issue.’ Crace is one of an increasingly lesser-spotted breed of Old Lefty. He was weaned on the (old) Labour Party, on trade unionism and social justice by his political activist, autodidact father. ‘I sound like a terrible Marxist, a Stalinist’—that caveat again—‘but I cling to things. I love my dad and I cling to the things that were important to him. That’s not a very good reason, that’s not a very intellectual reason for hanging onto prejudices, but it’s a good emotional one.’
He was a big reader as an earnest young man, of both the muscular, political novelists like Steinbeck, Tressell and Orwell that were deemed (almost) acceptable on the North London council estate where he grew up, and the Beat writers that weren’t. ‘I was a little squirt. If I’d come back talking about Jack Kerouac and Walt Whitman I’d have got a punch’, he recalls. ‘But politics and trade unionism and journalism were sort of acceptable and I think that was part of the inheritance I got from my dad. That that’s what I ought to do, if I was going to be a writer.’
Crace began his career as the “pet Lefty” at two British newspapers not exactly known for their progressive bias, The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Times. ‘I had integrity, I hope, and I was reliable but I wasn’t a big writer, I was never going to make big waves as a journalist,’ he says. ‘Now this sounds very po-faced—I’m quite puritanical actually, as well as not being very puritanical—but when I was a journalist, I would never tell a single lie. I wasn’t puritanical about the truth because I thought that the truth had to be adhered to but it wouldn’t serve your purposes. I always believed that the truth provides socialism. If you tell the absolute truth about circumstances, the truth is left-wing, I think.’
In the end, it was this integrity that precipitated his departure from journalism. In the mid-eighties, Crace was sent to report on the Broadwater Farm estate in North London, a year after the Tottenham Riots. The paper already had its angle: Broadwater was a “hellhole estate”, sunk in racial tensions, mob violence and social problems, and on the brink of revenge riots. He found the estate wasn’t such a hellhole after all. ‘I’m from North London, and I know to call somewhere a “hellhole of an estate” is nonsense. It was a working-class estate, full of very good people who weren’t earning much.’ Crace had found his own angle: ‘It wasn’t a hellhole! It was a scoop, a bloody scoop!’ The feature—all 7000 words of it—was pulled the day before the issue went to press. ‘So I walked away from journalism and that was it,’ he recalls. Crace downplays the heroics of the gesture: ‘I had to be principled. Fortunately, I had just sold Continent for a lot of money in the States, so I could afford to be principled.’
Although he migrated with ease from puritanical truth to not-so-puritanical lies, it’s clear that Crace is a somewhat reluctant storyteller. Always an inveterate yarn-spinner—‘I was great to smoke dope with,’ he tells me—Crace ‘never intended to become a writer of fiction. I was a lover of fiction, but it seemed bourgeois to me and still does. Particularly the kind of writing I’ve ended up doing,’ he admits. ‘I think that the puritanical side of me, if I’d even imagined aged seventeen the kind of writing I would do in the future, it would have been leafleteering. It would have been banner-waving writing, in which the politics were not timid or obscure, in which the message was quite clear. Whereas in the kind of writing I’ve ended up doing, it’s clear there’s politics in there, but my books aren’t placards. If anything they don’t close down on a slogan, they open out.’
His first novel, abandoned before Continent (1986), his debut proper, was an attempt at such a novel. It was about personal politics, Crace’s response to living through the “radical” seventies; a decade when, he suggests, so much of what purported to be political was actually about making the “right” lifestyle choice. ‘My wife is a feminist, of course, and I’m a fellow traveller. One of the things that we didn’t like about the feminist movement was that it was all about “getting my shit together”. And of course that’s important, but it can’t exclude the other things.’ The novel did not come easily, however: ‘I didn’t know what the next word was going to be, let alone the next chapter, or how it was going to end. It was like pushing a huge boulder up a very steep hill every day.’Then he was asked to review Gabriel García Márquez’s In Evil Hour. ‘I remember thinking, I can do that. I can do that in my sleep! And I started Continent. And I felt at home. I wasn’t being a puritanical journalist; I was just making stuff up—making up whole continents, making up languages, making up wildlife, inventing plants. That’s the mischievous side of me. I make the real seem unlikely, and the unlikely seem so convincing that you swallow it. That’s the trick I like to play.’
Even now, Crace seems to regret that he didn’t turn out to be a Steinbeck, an Orwell or a Tressell. He thinks his own novels tend to preach to the choir: ‘I’m not talking to people that don’t basically share the same attitudes as me,’ he says. ‘I think that if you’re a political person and if you want to contribute to agendas, then writing my kind of fiction is a waste of time . . . I know how my readers vote and I know their relationship to red meats. Basically, left-wing vegetarians of a certain age and attitude read my books.’ He often finds that his books don’t reflect his politics: ‘In many respects, my books are more reactionary than I am . . . If you allow the moment of abandonment to happen in principle, then you have to accept that it’s a real thing. The book can, very often, have an opinion of its own that won’t match yours.’
Continent, for instance, catches a neither-here-nor-there but startlingly familiar realm at the flashpoint of transition. Its seven stories are preoccupied with the struggle to reconcile the inheritance of a rural past that is felt to be more authentic and more cohesive, and yet stunted by quackery and superstition, with an encroaching modernity which promises an ambivalent sort of progress. ‘Continent always takes the side of the old ways of humankind rather than the new ways,’ he says. This “small c” conservatism is something intrinsic to the novel form for Crace: ‘Fiction tends to do that, fiction always prefers to wise old man to the come-uppity young man.’
Crace’s 1997 novel, Quarantine, a reimagining of the temptation of Christ, gained him an unlikely following (and one or two enemies) amongst America’s Christian Right. ‘It’s a much more religious book that you’d expect from a North Korean-style atheist as I am,’ he says. ‘I went on a Southern Baptist Radio show, and because I was a white, middle-class, chirpy chappy they were saying, “Jim, if I could get you back, Martha would cook you up some grits and we’d soon have you down in your own church home and you’d be a fuller human being, believe me, Jim,”’ he recalls. What raised hackles most, incidentally, was the novel’s uncapitalised “god”: ‘I used to get a letter once a month from America that would say, “Dear jim crace, now how do you like it, calling our saviour, the dear lord, ‘god’?” He thought this was really punishing me,’ Crace recalls. He didn’t keep this religious fanbase. I doubt very much that they were fooled by the retitling of his 2003 novel of sex and citizenship, Six, as Genesis in America. They would be long gone, after the wholly non-redemptive depiction of the “afterlife” in 1999’s Being Dead.
‘If I’d written Quarantine from my own viewpoint, it would have been an in-your-face, no-time-for-you, insulting-all-religions book. But what was interesting to me was that it wasn’t.’ If the fictions are more reactionary than their author, they are also less dogmatic, less sure of themselves—‘less bigoted’, as he puts it. ‘I wish I’d written those big, sloganeering novels that changed the hearts and minds of men and women—and there are novels that do that. Nevertheless, there’s something else that novels do that also matters. And that is to undermine thinking, to send you away. I hope the debate begins when you reach the last page of my novels.’ Narrative’s tight rope walk between the fictional and the empirical—its equivocation, its dissonance, its hybridity—‘reveals a whole raft of ambiguities and raises questions.’ He continues: ‘I think that the different kind of truth you find in fiction is also left-wing by nature, that’s what I feel. Narrative’s impulses are left-wing, is what I think.’
I hazard an attempt to pin Crace down: am I right in detecting the influence of another old Lefty, E.P. Thompson, in his novels? He, slippery as a fish, thinks he might have come across the British historian and socialist in his younger, more puritanical days. Is Crace, too, attempting to ‘rescue’ his protagonists from what Thompson called the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’? ‘It’s true. In my books existing narratives are confronted . . . Each of my books takes an existing narrative and tries to set the record straight . . . Working class people are not without blemish, but I try to make them the heroes and heroines, rather than the old heroes and heroines of history,’ he says. ‘One of the narratives about women that I hope my books confront is the Hollywood narrative that if you see a good-looking woman with flowing locks and a large bosom, she’s the heroine. And not only is she the heroine, but good things are going to happen to her, virtue will adhere to her. And of course that’s a lie: abandon all hope everyone else in the world that is not without blemish and is not entirely virtuous . . . The women in my books, I hope, are not seen as good-looking, because that’s a sort of irrelevancy, they’re seen as strong.’
Quite the opposite is true of Crace’s men, however. In Arcadia, protagonist Rook is described as a ‘firebrand turned to ashes’; such a description might apply across the board. The men of Craceland are reluctant protagonists, let alone heroes. Crace’s plots frequently draw to a dénouement that calls for direct action, but the men dither, they flap, they defer. They leave when they’d rather stay (Harvest), they stay when they want to leave (The Pesthouse). All That Follows’ jazz saxophonist, Lennie Lessing, is on sabbatical—and not only from music. This former political activist has, as his wife, Francine, taunts him: ‘gone decaf’. He pads around in a kind of domestic fug, niggled by his frozen shoulder, his off-the-boil marriage, his disappearing step-daughter, but never quite enough to anything about any of them. At length, his hand his forced by a hostage-taking involving a former comrade. Lessing is, finally, a protagonist—albeit an unwilling, and rather cack-handed one.
So, if the women are anti-heroines, the men are hand-wringers. By way of explanation, Crace offers me one of his spiels. It’s the writer’s prerogative, he says: ‘It’s probably because I’ve got no interest in the men . . . I’m sitting in a room with characters I’ve created. Now, to some extent, as a person who has never committed adultery, this is an adulterous relationship. I’m creating women that I love.’ But he does admit that there is more to it than that: ‘Part of the issue in my life—and in English life, actually—is the conflict between feeble weakness—which is polite, and has all the protocols, and doesn’t cause a stir, and doesn’t harm anyone—and flashy violence and suchlike. I like weak characters.’
These are not revisionary fairy tales that attest to the temerity of the human spirit, then. And neither are they consolatory fictions; Crace is a naturalist, after all. In novels like The Gift of Stones and Harvest his version of pastoral is sublime and awe-inspiring, but it is also brooding and sadistic or, worse, it simply is—impenetrable, indecipherable, and entirely beyond our reproach. Crace’s near-future urbanites, those of Six and of All That Follows, for example, take to flaxseed, yoga and unsuccessful attempts to give up smoking as insurance against the inevitable. Being Dead unfurls from a random act of violence which gives the lie to all of this. The novel begins with a lengthy description of the death and decomposition of Joseph and Celice, murdered in flagrante delicto. It’s delivered unflinchingly, and with biological precision. In these lives told backwards, structured according to an invented funeral ritual Crace calls ‘quivering’, there is redemption; but it’s resolutely of this world and not the next.
‘There was a reviewer who said I take a boyish delight in disgust and I couldn’t work that out,’ he remembers, ‘what she didn’t get was that I’m not disgusted by that.’ He explains: ‘The optimism you can get by telling yourself lies is so easily achieved . . . It’s so mawkish and it’s a kind of comfort, but it’s an optimism that is taken from a bright place, which is only inhabited by daffodils and tulips and rainbows. Whereas, my kind of optimism wants to find its place in the dark, in negative and difficult places, in dark corners of the universe.’
In Being Dead, Crace says he found his own ‘narrative of comfort’. But he admits that he, too, is susceptible to the stories we tell ourselves. ‘My father died in 1979 and he’s dead, he’s not anywhere. He was a walker and he was a birdwatcher and when I’m out walking I fantasise I meet him and we take a stroll together’. In fact it was this that was to be the subject of that final, abandoned book, Archipelago. Again, the novel was the product of unlikely coincidence: two old photographs of Crace and his wife with their now-dead parents at the seaside that made an impossible pair. ‘We both keep these pictures that seem to belong in the same landscape, we keep them in our diaries. I saw this and I thought I could invent somewhere, somewhere on the coast were you could find your mum and dad and it would be like Gulliver’s Travels. I’m excited even describing the book to you.’ It would have made a contrary swansong; an autobiographical novel with a spiritual hook from this fibbing atheist. ‘It was a case of real hubris, because I’m far too secretive a person to bring that novel off. I’m so secretive I couldn’t even tell my wife,’ he admits. It might reappear at some point, as an ‘80-page Borgesian novel’ (truth redacted, I presume), or as the natural history book his publishers want him to write next. Perhaps, for Crace, this is as fitting an ending as any. ‘I’ve got the opposite of closure . . . I’ve got the adventure I was looking for.’