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Max Porter on the

Books That Shaped Him

Max Porter, author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers, on the books that have taken him from childhood to adulthood, the deepening shadow of nuclear war, and why he’ll always be on his knees in front of Emily Dickinson

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    1

    Angry Arthur
    by Hiawyn Oram and Satoshi Kitamura (illustrator)

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    2

    Riddley Walker
    by Russell Hoban

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    3

    The Odyssey
    by Homer

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    4

    The Pantheon Anthology of Russian Fairy Tales
    by A.N. Afanas'ev and N. Guterman (translator)

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    5

    Glass, Irony and God
    by Anne Carson

Max Porter

Max Porter is Editorial Director at Granta Books. His debut novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, was shortlisted for the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize as well as the Guardian First Book Award. The same novel won him the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award, the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Books Are My Bag fiction award. The novel has been translated into 25 languages.

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Max Porter

Max Porter is Editorial Director at Granta Books. His debut novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, was shortlisted for the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize as well as the Guardian First Book Award. The same novel won him the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award, the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Books Are My Bag fiction award. The novel has been translated into 25 languages.

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‘What are the books that shaped you?’ is quite a daunting question, isn’t it?

I’ve been asked a similar question a number of times and I always mention my first book, Angry Arthur, because it allows me to have conversations with people about brevity. In 200 words Angry Arthur does for me what The Tempest does in terms of nailing masculinity and anxiety. And for me, growing up, it was about the nuclear bomb—I mean, how could it not be an analogy for nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons are my main preoccupation in life; they’re why I’m so on edge at the moment: I just can’t believe we’re that close again! Do you know the Doomsday Clock is at three minutes to midnight right now? During the Cuban Missile Crisis it was at six minutes to midnight, and now it’s at three, for a combination of political and environmental reasons. [The day after this interview, the clock moved to two and a half minutes to midnight.]

Did you go to any of the inauguration day marches?

I didn’t, I couldn’t make it, and I felt sick not being there. It’s the first major march I’ve not been on. And I wanted my kids to be on it, too. Recently, I’ve been having these things where I’m like: ‘Where do you stop?’ You don’t want to tell kids everything, but my kids are pretty switched on, my eldest particularly, and he was saying he’d like to go on the march. The other day, he asked me: ‘Do the politicians listen?’ And you just think, ‘Well, no, I’m afraid not.’

Which sort of links in with Hiawyn Oram’s Angry Arthur (1982); Arthur is incapable of hearing. He’s so angry that nobody can get through to him. And, by the end, he can’t even remember what caused his anger.

Yes, the point is: you might press The Button for realpolitik reasons but then not even remember what those reasons were when you’re living in the wasteland that you have created.

You were about five when you first read the book?

Me and my brother loved it, and bonded over how much we loved it, because we were angry boys. There was something about Angry Arthur that just felt so spectacularly truthful and straightforward. And I love that about picture books now, too, that you can do so much in such a short space of time. My favourite page – probably in any book – is where Arthur causes a universe quake with his rage and you get ten fractured Arthurs. The illustrations, by Satoshi Kitamura, are just amazing. There are these wonderfully dated bits, too, where, for example, this cigarette packet gets blown off a billboard – out of the picture and into the street – and these cigarettes just start floating off around the place. I just thought that was so unfashionable and wonderful. And it felt like it joined all the picture books of my parents’ generation and my grandparents’ generation, like Curious George. It seems of the “Old World”, with all the tongue in cheek charm that those books had.

There are loads of in-jokes about the conventions of picture books, with things spilling out of the frame – there’s a whole meta-ness of picture books – like when the soldiers he’s supposed to be watching on TV end up as scattered toys on the floor in front of him. The membrane between his imagination and the seriousness of his anger and the conventions of the printed picture book are being played with, and it does that in such an unshowy way that is just about right for children – it’s not all for the adults.

“I have friends who think the Space Race is humankind’s greatest triumph, but to me the whole Elon Musk philosophy of escaping the planet is just disgusting”

I also felt there was such a clarity of purpose about it, particularly as a boy and around that particular time in my life – my dad had just died and me and my brother were very angry boys. The book is a kind of love letter to frustrated males, to when you get into one of those moods when you’re a kid and there’s just no turning back; it has its own internal logic and the more people try to get you out of it the more it becomes red hot. So, back then, I thought it was a really sympathetic book, but as I’ve grown up it’s stayed with me because of the economy of it – the ease with which it does so much with so little space. It just nails the futility of male rage beautifully, and you have this whole cast of other characters – like the grandma who floats past saying ‘Enough already, Arthur,’ – but for Arthur: ‘It’s not enough until I say it’s enough.’ Your rage is ring-fenced according to your own predetermined logic and no matter how many people sit you down and say ‘enough now,’ you’ve got to go further and further.

In the book, Arthur’s rage has cosmic dimensions – because kids are so interested in space – which now as an adult I see in terms of the space race. And I think all that is ludicrous and grotesque. I have friends who think the space race – which to me is basically the arms race – is humankind’s greatest triumph, but to me the whole Elon Musk philosophy of escaping the planet is just disgusting.

We’ve wrecked one planet so let’s move on to the next.

Exactly. And what is it about the technological elites? What is it about these men who are obsessed with the size of their dicks, these men – or these people – who since Icarus have been so ashamed by their bodies, so disgusted by the human condition that they feel they must escape it? It’s just gross.

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Arthur coasts straight up and breaks the whole thing – breaks space – with the sincerity of childish rage, and this is before his anger has become politicized, before it’s become adult anger, to do with sex or gender or whatever; it’s just pure boy rage, and I feel like that’s such a nifty thing for the book to have got so right. It feels like a beautiful piece of music. I’d love to make an opera of it.

For more than a month now you’ve had a pinned Tweet which quotes Susannah York’s speech in Trafalgar Square, in 1980, where she said: “I look into the air and find the spaces where our children’s children might be; among the rain and the sun and the leaves those bodies are realizable; and I feel with a terrible hope how lovely life is – and how unbearable is the thought that by our blindness, by our lack of memory and courage, by our slackness we could end it.”

That seems, not only to represent your general mood at the moment, but also to speak quite directly to your second book: Riddley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban. The novel is set about 2000 years after a nuclear war – started, presumably, by some unchecked angry Arthur – has more or less obliterated civilisation as we know it and returned us to a kind of Iron Age.

That Susannah York quote I found in a book called In A Dark Time, published by Faber in the late 1980s, edited by Robert Jay Lifton and Nicholas Humphrey. It’s about nuclear war and it’s got all these incredible things in it. It’s completely un-curated – it’s full of speeches and things from the Bible and essays from that time, like Ian McEwan’s extraordinary libretto, “In a Dark Time”, the epigram and refrain to which is “May we live in womanly times”.

I grew up knowing that I had been born just after this extraordinary confluence of feminism and pacifism and I’m now, effectively, watching that disappear – my generation seems completely uninterested in the nuclear threat, even though it’s greater than it has ever been. And it seems to be taken for granted that we need to be armed to the teeth but nobody can tell you why and so you can only conclude that it’s all down to this irrational terror of not being special anymore. Men will get angry and they will break the world in half. Every phenomenon that we’re looking at now – Brexit, Trump, etc – is directly related to male terror, male fear. And so I guess I’m just disappointed that it’s all become so literal; my golden age as teenager was steeped in this theory – of the sort in the Faber book – and now it’s all just slipping away and I realize that I just wasn’t paranoid enough.

Russell Hoban, like Anthony Burgess and J

 G Ballard, was part of a generation of writers who saw first hand, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what nuclear bombs could do.

Yes, and Hoban was American, too. He was an expatriate. Those images – of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – were incredibly prevalent at that time, they were unforgettable. I think people were writing in a context of ‘never again,’ which has now been lost.

The protagonist, Riddley Walker, is a writer, a chronicler of his times; do you read the novel as something of a manifesto, or job description? The modern writer should be, like Riddley, a ‘connexion man’ for the people; but while Riddley is charged with interpreting Church-state propaganda to force a sense of collective consciousness on the population, the free writer has to overthrow all narrative strictures and find his own way.

I think that’s all true, but Riddley Walker is one of those books I don’t remember those sorts of things about – all I remember is the horror. The horror of the language and the fires and the lost-ness and the violence. They run through it the whole time.

The violence is transmuted to the level of the language – words are exploded and fragmented, broken into their constituent parts (a favourite, the ‘

Computer Elite,’ which refers to people who lived before Armageddon, become the ‘Puter Leat’).

It opened a door for me, it showed that you can do whatever you want; if you do it well, you can go anywhere. For the first ten pages of reading Riddley Walker you think, “Oh Christ, I don’t know if I can do this”. It makes you work very hard for quite a long time – it’s very difficult to crack, even after a good 50 or 60 pages.

What are the merits of sticking with that kind of reading?

I think your brain undergoes a change and you shed certain lazinesses about language. It’s a bit like, with visual art, when you fully immerse yourself in an exhibition of abstract paintings, you leave representative thinking at the door. That takes longer with literature because the process of imbibing is slower. That’s why I slightly resent some of the gimmicks that come with the Russell Hoban fan club – I mean, lots of people have tried to do what he did but they’re still only using it as a trick to try to push through quite traditional narrative forms. The joy of Riddley Walker is that it’s a fully realized universe and it never lets up. It’s very, very difficult all the way through, and all of its vocabulary is difficult – the literal vocabulary on the page, but also its catalogue of imagery, its symbolism, is as complex and as unexpected.

“There’s no performance of an experimental text, it’s the real thing – like it’s just poured out”

Because Hoban is chucking bits of church and myth and English fables at you the whole time, with this slightly outsider horror vision, I think it’s the real thing. It’s a book that I could read every day forever and still be finding things. It’s so dense. It reminds me a bit of the 19th century painter Richard Dadd, who killed his dad and went to Bedlam; it has the authentic tangled complexity of a disturbed mind. There’s no performance of an experimental text, it’s the real thing – like it’s just poured out.

I read the book around the same time as seeing things like Spitting Image, and my dad showed us Rambo: First Blood when I was six, and then there was Street Fighter, Nightmare on Elm Street, and hip hop, with everybody wearing masks – it was all about the horror behind the mask. Riddley Walker became something I would pass around my friends like a sacred text; it was something that you just had to discover. I know a novelist who wallpapered his home with pages of Riddley Walker and Lanark by Alasdair Gray.

I met Russell Hoban a few years ago and found him to be a gorgeous ‘other’ type of man – he had this extraordinary belief in the old stories. He was sitting in his kitchen and he had all this costume jewellery around, bagged up. He used to go to car boot sales and collect and sell costume jewellery. And there was something in the ‘hoarder’ that I was so attracted to. It made so much sense. He was a collector of other people’s junk, and this turned into a bit of an obsession with crows for me, because they were all the time hopping around and picking up things and turning them over and seeing in someone else’s rubbish something peculiar and maybe beautiful. And there’s a cackle to it, a kind of mad humour behind it all, that I find immensely attractive and don’t see much. I got it from my mad Quaker Welsh grandmother, and from that whole generation of wonderful, drunk artists and playwrights. I think we’re all becoming very conservative now. If I were to go home and open Riddley Walker now it would feel like I was luxuriating in this kind of stuff that just isn’t really made anymore.

The sense of mourning for a world that once was, and the seemingly unending uprootedness as Riddley courses back and forth across a grim landscape, leads us neatly to your next book, the Odyssey. It’s a text that everyone cites but far fewer will have read in its entirety. When did you discover it?

I was in a play of the Odyssey, actually, but I guess I first read it as a kid – my granddad was really good at buying us books. I can’t quite remember but I assume it was one of those Roger Lancelyn Green volumes, his Tale of Troy. So I would’ve been familiar with the story pretty young, and then when I was a teenager I was in this play that went to Edinburgh [Festival] and it was probably the happiest time of my life; I guess because puberty was happening and it was all very romantic and full of charged encounters with girls and boys and we were all part of this crazy experimental music and theatre company.

I think what was happening was that I was falling in love with certain types of person, like the person who played Odysseus was a guy who later ended up having quite a hard time, but he was one of those electric light people – he had this gorgeous natural light flowing from him and, for me, that summer when we went to Edinburgh, when I was about 13, it was just a combination of admiring these older kids and having these revelatory moments. I remember falling in love with that kind of person who was just so unlike the shitty kids I was at school with, and the experience of putting on this play was so unlike the graded experience of school – of doing SATs and tucking shirts in. It was all very loose and free. And the fact that it was the Odyssey – which I learnt was just a membrane, this fluid thing that can be told anyway you want to tell it – was incredibly exciting.

It’s the perfect example of a text that you grow into. So now you’ll be far more attuned to the allegories and the moral dimensions of the text; its caution against hubris, for instance, or of how eating too much cheese and wine will make you feel like a pig, if not actually turn you into one.

That’s exactly right, and you have to realise that all those odysseys are valuable odysseys. I still have an image of Odysseus in my head from when I was a child: it’s like one of those Michael Foreman style watercolours that lots of children’s books used to have. He is still a part of my odyssey, in a sense – he’s very Anglo-Saxon and stubbly, he looks a bit like Michael Fassbender. As you grow up, all the different versions begin to coalesce and you realise that there’s this invitation to read the thing again as a grown up. I didn’t really do that until I was about 16 or 17 – I never did it at school, I never studied Classics – but then I had the satisfaction of reading the whole thing, and then, later still, came the satisfaction of reading it in verse, and discovering various translations.

“As a portrait of a manic ego that is as old as time itself, Odysseus just makes me giddy”

The poetry of the Odyssey is startling, astonishing. I started to get obsessed with people’s versions of it. In the last 10 to 15 years I’ve collected them, first as a bookseller and then as an editor. I’m increasingly preoccupied with versions and translations and the liberties you can take and how you can separate the text from the circumstances, and the questions you can ask. Why is, say, an Italian Odyssey different to an English one? How has masculinity been so differently approached? How does it work as a lens to understand how civilizations have ended up as they have? How do we share stories? And then there’s simply the pleasure of the thing – the sheer, unlimited joy of reading it, the fun of it. I still think it’s the most fun book to read. And Odysseus is just such a prick! As a representation of a bloke, he’s just the greatest hero there could ever be – he is such a monstrous twat.

His defining trait is a ‘cunning intelligence’ which is often cruel – sadistic, even.

Yeah, and each retelling of the story, of his character, has to reckon with what you do with the fact that he is such an arsehole and that, actually, when faced with a major moral challenge – like: do you cheat on your wife? – he says, basically, ‘Yes, absolutely, because I am a hero.’

For me, as a modern male, reckoning with the absence of my father and father figures, this is an important question. My book was originally going to be about Telemachus because I wanted him to be this figure who could move through time and who, as the good son, is always awaiting the return of his father. Even when the father comes back, figuratively there’s no dad. Dad is always hollow, he’s always a creation to work around or to interrogate or to be disappointed by. Dad becomes just one of the sea of squabbling men, and his heroism, his cunning, all the things that make him great, are just fantasy. So I guess, as I’ve grown up and I’ve becoming more interested in fantasy, it all seems like such a modern creation; Odysseus is still such an arsehole, and there’s the whole failure of the fraternal in him too. He loves all his comrades, he’s so dedicated to them, and yet he’ll also quite happily sacrifice them. As a portrait of a manic ego that is as old as time itself, it just makes me giddy.

I’m kind of letting you into my big secret here, which is that my next book is going to be about the Odyssey. It’s all part of my thinking about families and the constant role-playing nature of being in a family. And what do you do if you’re in a family but you’re also a character is a very famous book, possibly the most famous book of all time? How do you live with that? It’s a kind of postmodern reckoning of the significance of the self, of the Hero.

What kind of hero are we dealing with? Will he be like the characters in your next book, The Pantheon Anthology of Russian Fairy Tales, a collection of stories full of gratifyingly complex individuals – shape-shifters animated by good and bad at the same time.

These books are all linked! I should’ve put something like the Collins Guide to British Hedgerows in so that you could tease out the link for me.

I think what I said about my experience of the Odyssey and being in that play would apply to this book of fairy tales, too. There’s just the most gorgeous energy – the texts are just so fully charged.

Did you find them on your parents’ shelves or did you discover them for yourself? I mean, it’s a book that hasn’t been out of print since it was published in 1945, which suggests that it’s probably the ‘book of all time’ for a number of generations.

I came to them in my twenties when I had this totally surprising thirst for those sorts of stories. I just suddenly wanted to read nothing but fairy tales.

It brings to mind that line from C. S. Lewis: ‘Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.’

I didn’t know that quote – that’s excellent. Maybe that’s it. I was finally old enough. And I think I was struggling with the English national identity at that time, and it was when I discovered things like Rachel Carson and environmental writers like Annie Dillard. I think I was looking for a kind of pre-Shakespearean, or pre-Enlightenment English storytelling voice, so I was reading all those old Everyman anthologies of English fairy tales, and I found in them a kind of – I guess it’s kind of Homeric – but a kind of swagger to the portrayal of evil. Imagine if the British novel, for example, was just shed of all its 18th century bumf about who was eating what and who was hunting what, and all the comedy of manners and all the stuff that has built up and led us to Martin Amis, or whatever the British novel is these days. It was like going back to a medicine box of two-dimensional things that you can slide on and off, like Good Son and Bad Son. It felt like a cool drink of water after a lot of sawdust.

“It’s as though a nasty grandpa has selected these tales, and he’s chosen those that are most weird, most dark, most problematic ”

And then the Russian ones I landed on because I was reading my way around the world – so I’d done the African ones, the Norse ones, the Irish ones. I loved the Canadian ones. And then when I landed on the Russian ones, it coincided with an obsession with the Soviet era, and I just felt that, if you had to put one collection in a space capsule, you’d put those in, because they had this sickness, this real darkness to them. They offer up this sort of symbolic menu, and the whole has grown orally, handed around as if by some really fantastically nasty grandpa – like my grandpa who used to cut teeth out of orange peel and put them in and sneak outside the window to frighten us, and he’d tell us M R James ghost stories at night. It’s as though he has selected these Russian tales, and he’s chosen those that are most weird, most dark, most problematic – especially for us now, armed with all the political correctness and issues that we’re armed with. So, yeah, I found them tricky and funny, and also I really love that they have this kind of Monty Python feel about them – some of them end before they’re finished. They have a sort of buffoonish surrealism about them that is annoying for a modern reader. Some of them just stop dead; others you think have a highly developed conventional narrative where the prince has to go and free the princess but the king is getting in the way and so on – and then, out of nowhere, there’s a massive fire and they all die. I mean, what a way to end it!

There’s a certain looseness to them, too, which I find incredibly appealing, partly because there’s this sense that there’s a European tradition but that in England, somehow, it got lost. We became very mannered; there’s something slightly self-satisfied about our story-telling traditions to do with this sort of feedback loop of conversations about the English novel. And we therefore started to miss that older tradition. I think that’s why so many people in England seem to have fallen for Elena Ferrante – what they’re identifying with is a Mediterranean sensibility towards, for example, matriarchal familial relations or domesticity. I felt with those Russian fairy tales that there was something in them that I had been really needing; I’d been needing some of their Baltic sickness, I’d been needing some of their un-coy, straightforward violence.

It links back to Riddley Walker, doesn’t it? There are always these puppet shows rolling into town, and every week a new show comes but they’re all kind of the same. And then these ones come that are a little more surprising, a little darker. I think, if you’re always feeding your hunger as a reader, there are very few things that have satisfied me as the Russian tales did. And there are so many of them in this collection, so you can just read and read and read.

Do you go back to them regularly?

Oh yeah, they’re like a palate cleanser.

They wormed their way into your Crow character didn’t they? He seems to have flown straight out of that reading. ‘He had read too many Russian fairy tales,’ you say in fact. Crow is a ‘friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch’ – he chops and changes depending on what the grieving family he has moved in with need from him. They can read him every which way it suits them to.

Yeah, and he’s also self-conscious about being a character. He’s had all these roles – he’s been a play-thing for so many different peoples: in some cultures he’s a very serious trickster, in others he’s a rock ’n’ roll tattoo. With this huge amount of material to pick and choose from, what would he say was most crow-like? The thing with reading too many fairy tales is that you make yourself slightly sick and insensitive. And Crow, in the novel, has chosen this unique opportunity to do something different, something that interests him – i.e. look after motherless children – and he has to somehow wrangle with all these different versions of himself. So it’s like when he shits on the kid’s lego and the kid is like: ‘Hey! That’s rude!’ And Crow can only say: ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, it’s the Russian fairy tales that make me shit on your Lego…!’ It’s like he’s still drunk from all those Russian tales.

With your final book in sight, I’m quite surprised not to see any Ted Hughes, in part because it’s no secret that you’re an admirer, in part because his work combines so many of the things we’ve discussed in relation to other works – perhaps especially his knack for making clarity and complexity such ready bedfellows (not to mention his vast bestiary).

I think with Hughes it would be difficult. I could choose a book like Moortown Diary and have a perfectly nice chat with you about why it’s a really amazing book of British poetry, and we could talk about landscape and farming and class and man’s relationship to the land. But it’s not a book I’d take to my desert island. Whereas Hughes’s Letters I probably would. I find them revelatory.

But then again, why wouldn’t I have chosen Emily Dickinson? Because that’s a book I’ll never stop reading and I don’t feel I’ve ever read properly and I don’t think there’s any answer to. I can tell myself why I think someone like Russell Hoban is a brilliant writer and those explanations are contextual observations – because of what he did in relation to other writers of the time; because of what he did as an expat; because of his drawings, etc – but with Dickinson the landscape of the conversation would just be infinite. There’s no one more interesting to me. So in a way it wouldn’t be so good to talk about. I’m on my knees with Dickinson. I can’t handle how good she is; I can’t believe anyone has been able to do with the brain what she did. Maybe I should’ve chosen Dickinson….

Well, you did choose Anne Carson’s collection Glass, Irony and God (1995)?

That’s an interesting point actually, because Anne Carson is a stand-in for the revolution in feeling that occurred for me when I found Hughes and Dickinson. So she stands for Dickinson, she stands for Plath, she stands for Adrienne Rich, she stands for Jorie Graham and Sharon Olds and Karen Solie and Alice Oswald.

Let’s talk about the centrepiece of this collection: ‘The Glass Essay‘.

 

It’s a piece of perfection. I’ve never studied it and I know a lot of people have now, in America particularly where everyone is, like, ‘Oh, yeah, I wrote my thesis on it,’ or, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve got ‘The Glass Essay’ tattooed on my butt.’ I didn’t realise it was such a thing. I discovered Anne Carson about ten years ago, and was alone and desperately trying to get people to read her. And then suddenly she seems to have had this explosion.

“I remember reading a psychoanalytic study of Louise Bourgeois’s work and feeling like, Where’s the rubber? Where’s the smell? Where’s the shock of seeing a seven-foot phallus swinging at you when you walk into the gallery”

Now I find when I read Anne Carson I’m extremely disappointed – contemporary Anne Carson does nothing for me, it leaves me very cold. And I recognize that that’s partly my problem – I mean, the work is still good, I think, and interesting, but there was something about the timing of me reading ‘The Glass Essay’ that made it right. I was coming out of academia and had done all this stuff with psychoanalysis and feminism, and I felt that so much of the theory lacked a real engagement with the actually work it was being applied to. I remember reading a psychoanalytic study of Louise Bourgeois’s work and feeling like, ‘Where’s the rubber? Where’s the smell? Where’s the shock of seeing a seven-foot phallus swinging at you when you walk into the gallery?’ And then I read Anne Carson – particularly ‘The Glass Essay’ – and just thought, ‘That’s how to do it.’ It is the most astonishing piece of work – I thought it was the best novel I’ve ever read. I could read it 100 times and still not fully see how she’s done it.

You could write a checklist of what ‘The Glass Essay’ does: it’s an amazing piece of writing about the relationship between a mother and daughter. If you took those bits out of it, it would maybe only be about a dozen lines but it’s hugely complex. It’s a hugely complex relationship. It’s also an amazing book about dementia and about caring for a father. It’s probably the most interesting thing I’ve ever read about Emily Brontë. There’s a library full of stuff about Brontë, but that thing in Carson’s poem about her hanging the puppies – ‘She knows how to hang puppies, that Emily’ – makes it the most insightful and empathetic borrowing of Emily Brontë’s energies. It’s phenomenal.

It’s interesting that Carson doesn’t describe herself as a writer – she sees herself as ‘making’ rather than ‘writing’ (“I never did think of myself as a writer!”, she said, in an interview in Publishers Weekly, “… I know that I have to make things”.) You get this vision of her as a collagist who works with whatever materials she can lay her hands on and in whatever form.

I did an interview with her once where she described writing as climbing around in the branches of a tree. She said her interest in Classics particularly comes down to the idea that we have, in the Greek classics, a foundation. All you’re doing as a writer is leaping around and repurposing. Everything is translation and fiddling around. That’s a very Riddley Walker-ish comment: you have this vocabulary handed down to you and it’s just a question of the rules of collage.

But I think that so much work in that mould relies on a series of outside support structures, i.e. the reader’s understanding, or the reader’s academic engagement with the source texts, or in-jokes, or an erotic vocabulary, or whatever. The perfection of ‘The Glass Essay’ is that it is totally self-reinforcing, it props itself up all the time. The character that Carson has created there – with the erotic vocabulary that she brings into the story, and this enormous raging, flaming pain that is the centre of the text – is its own justification. It has its own engine, and the more you read it, the more it yields.

It’s precisely like Angry Arthur. The work needn’t be long. It’s something to do with the craftsmanship; it’s built in such a perfect way. ‘The Glass Essay’ need only be 20 pages or so long; it has to be as short as it is because otherwise we’ll walk into it and bring our own Emily Brontës with us. It feels surgical – as an act of textual analysis it has the precision of very stressful surgery.

What about the rest of the collection? I love the poem ‘God’s Justice’, where the vast scale of the creation of the universe sort of digresses into a detailed meditation of the beautiful minutiae of a dragonfly’s tail. The digression becomes the main event, a kind of justification of the whole.

The God sequence is amazing, and I love the TV Men poems, too, with Hector, and then with Artaud. And there’s that little poem at the end, where she talks about a TV interview with Sylvia Plath’s mum and how what she didn’t say was “JUNGLE! FEVER! PAIN!” And there’s that one – it’s called ‘Introduction,’ I think, and it’s in smaller text – that says something like: ‘I just woke up one morning and language was gone.’ And then at the end of the stanza it says: “You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough”. It’s just phenomenal; an astonishing manifesto of intent for language. It’s very Dickinsonian. I find Carson’s book really exciting still, after all these years. It’s miraculous.

I also wanted to talk about it as one of these five books because of the door it opened, the permission it gave me as a reader. I read academic books differently after Anne Carson. I read them as an invitation for play, whereas before I read them as a prism of misunderstanding – a bit like poetry, I suppose, where if you’re reading a poem, you’re probably reading it wrong and there’s a certain set of people – an elite – who can unlock the poem for you. What Anne Carson teaches you is that you can always be clever enough, you can always work harder, you can always train yourself to understand more. But more than that: reading is like an erotic encounter, you only need to be committed, you only need to give the thing your attention.

She also teaches you that you can do whatever you want in art, with other people’s art, with the past, with anything really – nothing is off limits. And it reminds me a bit – seeing as you mentioned her before – of Elena Ferrante and her notion of “The Third Text”, through which the work ceases to fully belong to the writer and becomes instead a composition guided by the reader – a collaborative process.

I think that’s right. I mean, am I, as a 21st century English person, inclined to look in the Odyssey for certain things rather than others? Yes, I probably am; and I recognise that my vision, my social and economic background, as well as all the baggage I carry around with me – good or bad – are affecting that. The way Carson approaches a text, and the past as a whole, I think, is a much more radical proposition. For her it’s all about reinvention or vandalism. Those things are the true mark of distinction for a reader, and, eventually, for a writer. The question is: ‘How well are you vandalising what you’re reading? How well are you keeping it alive?’

 

 

 

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

January 30, 2017

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