I have been watching the series about British Novelists with great interest. I thought that the closest I would ever get to Virginia Woolf was to see her photograph and read the words that she wrote, not imagining that the BBC had footage of an interview with her buried deep in their archives.
As the series has progressed it has been more difficult to retain that feeling of wonder. I think the difficulty of having others analyse what you have written and being asked to dissect it to the ninth degree – often being asked to defend what you have written – under the glare of a camera can’t help but give the appearance of overinflated self-importance. And yet some of the authors under discussion – George Orwell and J G Ballard – did speak in almost prophetic voices. Some, such as Martin Amis, managed to captured the flavour of a particular decade. While some, such as Doris Lessing, (like Harper Lee before her) claimed that she was not making a political point, as was suggested, simply that she was writing about her own experiences of life.
There have been genuinely enlightening moments: the description of the novel as the ‘good mirror’ has provided me with much food for thought.
There was Salman Rushdie’s surprised reaction when he was invited to lunch with Mrs Thatcher in honour of Mrs Gandhi. Of how he thought it was a joke, saying that he thought it strange that, of all the people who should be invited to a lunch held in Mrs Gandhi’s honour, it should be someone who had just written a book that was very rude about her. The voice on the other end of the phone, he said, displayed symptoms of terminal panic. ‘Oh gosh, it was the Foreign Office who recommended you. You would have thought they would have read your book.’
And then there has been Ian McEwan: “What is going to compel me into writing fiction is not what is nice and pleasant, but somehow what is bad, difficult and unsettling. That’s the kind of tension I need to start writing and beyond that I suppose I’ve always been trying to assert some kind of slender optimism into my stories and I can’t really do that unless I can do that in a world that seems to be fundamentally threatening. So what I worry about is gratuitous optimism, not gratuitous violence.”
And all I had been worrying about was the words.