By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
The sex in Venice would be kind of pointless — in the larger scheme of the book — without the evaporation of the narrator’s sexual urges in part 2. There’s that brief reminder of sexual life in part 2 when he sees the amazing erotic carvings in that temple. And yes, you’re right again, there’s a link, in that during one of the sex scenes a few drops from Laura’s pussy fall into his mouth; in part 2 he gets a few drops of the Ganges in his mouth. I don’t know what this means, but it was certainly done deliberately. It’s difficult writing about sex, but once it was decided that Jeff’s relationship with Laura would be consummated — rather than having him just moping away Aschenbach-style — there was no choice but to follow them into the bedroom with a high-power lens.
You’ve said that a “comic novel” is the last thing you’d want to write — or, for that matter, to read. Yet your books are very funny and often flirt, even embrace, the “superficial.” Please explain.
I was ranting on at the Hay literary festival the other day about how I didn’t like comic novels. And then, at the end of the event this famous radio presenter came onstage and presented me with a huge bottle of champagne, part of a prize for the year’s best comic novel (another part of the prize is that you get a pig named after your novel!), so I then gave a little speech retracting everything, saying that I realized now that the comic novel was the highest form of literary expression! But no, I don’t like the monotony of the comic novel. I like things that are funny and have a lot else in them besides that — ideas, for example. For me a great joke is an idea expressed in extremely concentrated form.
You’re straight out of Oxbridge, yet you describe your working-class family as “poor.” Has this made a difference (for you and your work) in the land of Amis and Barnes? If so, can you (or we) spot the difference?
The “poor” bit isn’t the thing — the working-class part is enough. Practically everyone I know now is from a middle- or upper-middle-class background, and I no longer have the huge chip on my shoulder that I carried around for so many years. I’m not sure it comes out much in the work, but coming from this kind of background is absolutely central to my identity, to my sense of who I am. To anticipate your later questions, one of the things I love about America generally is that although there is of course a class system at work, there is not the class hatred, which is such an exhausting and enervating aspect of British life
Your books are so varied, and you seem to have devised a way to pursue your interests (photography, jazz, D.H. Lawrence, travel, tennis, etc.) without having to get a job like the rest of us. Should we be annoyed (even as we enjoy your books)? Or is there some downside you’ve been made to suffer?
There’s quite an interesting review of my new book in the LRB, where the writer goes on about exactly this thing. She talks about how this aspect of my writing has really bugged people over the years and continues to bug her now. It’s not a question of suffering but not having a job — the luxury of time and introspection — really exposes you to the big questions of your existence. Cioran says somewhere that a large amount of leisure is essential to any sense of metaphysics: If the Buddha had had a job, he’d have just been a moaner! What I like about the writing life is this: If you have a job, your sense of identity is inevitably tied up with that job. If you then get sacked or made redundant, then that sense of identity collapses and you’re plunged into crisis — even if that dismissal has nothing to do with your abilities, is purely a function of economic factors beyond your control. Whereas, as a writer, it’s entirely down to me. Can’t do it anymore? My fault, my decision and mine alone. Even if one gives up as a result of poor sales or critical derision — it’s still down to the individual concerned, in that it’s a failure of their ability to tough it out. I like that, the self-responsibility or self-determination of the whole process.
You’ve got the writer’s life in London, and yet you fancy California. Why in God’s name ...?
You’re wrong. I don’t fancy California. I love California. From the first time I went to San Francisco I remember thinking, “Ah, so this is what life is like, higher up the evolutionary ladder.” I love the daily interactions with the people, the landscape and the way that that general American urge — how can I make my life better? — receives its most extreme expression in California. A surprising number of people in Britain wake up and tacitly think: How can I slightly fuck up someone’s day, including my own? Plus, in California there’s the weather and the ready availability of tennis courts. At some level my life is a complete failure (see that question above) because I’ve ended up living in London and not California.
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