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The best books on Brothers

recommended by Tim Lott

The novelist, whose forthcoming book lays bare a dysfunctional relationship with his brother, tells us about love and rivalry among siblings – and the dark, even murderous, impulses that can be engendered

Tim Lott

Tim Lott is an author, broadcaster and journalist. His novels include White City Blue, which won the Whitbread First Novel award in 1999. He is one of the few living authors to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series, with his autobiography The Scent of Dried Roses. His latest novel, Under the Same Stars, is published on 29 March

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Tim Lott

Tim Lott is an author, broadcaster and journalist. His novels include White City Blue, which won the Whitbread First Novel award in 1999. He is one of the few living authors to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series, with his autobiography The Scent of Dried Roses. His latest novel, Under the Same Stars, is published on 29 March

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The theme of brothers is central in your latest novel, Under the Same Stars. Will you tell us more about it?

It’s based on a real life journey I took with my real life elder brother, Jeff. I was thinking of writing a non-fiction book about brothers back in 2008. In pursuit of that I drove across Texas and New Mexico with Jeff, with whom I have had quite a strained relationship over the years. It really didn’t work as a non-fiction book, so I used the journey as a foundation for a novel about sibling rivalries.

The seed of the idea lay within an obsession, or a kind of bugbear, that I had. I suffer from time to time from acute bouts of depression, and I’ve spent a lot of writing and personal time trying to work out why that is. One of the possibilities that I imagined it might be was my relationship with my brother. There’s quite a lot of psychotherapeutic literature now which suggests that sibling relationships are in fact more crucial even than parental relationships when it comes to developing your personality traits, and that it is how you relate to your brother or sister that do more than anything else to create certain kinks in your personality – usually in a negative way. Brothers tend to disidentify with each other, in other words they think: If you’re like that, I’ll be the opposite. People tend to try and not to be like their brother or sister in order to secure their own personal identity.

How much older is your brother?

There’s an interesting history here. He is 20 months older than me. But when I was born I was very ill – I was born with cancer. I was kept in hospital for three months with my mother. During that time my elder brother did not see his mother at all, and hardly saw his father either. He was taken out of our home and put in a relative’s house. Three months later – which is a lifetime for a 20-month-old child, psychologically speaking – his mother returned with this rather sickly and grotesque child. I had a hair lip and no skin on my upper lip. It’s my view that from that point he loathed me. I think any older brother is threatened by a younger, new arrival but in our situation it was particularly extreme. As a result, we had no relationship growing up other than indifference and bullying. Jeff, I have to say, remembers it completely differently. He thinks his relationship with me was fine – that we had a normal childhood and no problems – but I’m very aware of his indifference and hostility towards me. And this may have caused my depression.

So that’s the real life story. I took that idea and transferred it to these two fictional brothers for the book. One lives in London and one lives in America, like my real brother. I suggested they were fully estranged – although my brother and I are no longer estranged – and that they come together to look for their missing father in America, who deserted them 20 years before and has been out of sight ever since. They go on a road trip in order to find their father and get to know each other at the same time. The two characters are called Salinger and Carson – their father is a fan of American authors. The book is about their journey, what happens when they find their father and the discovery of a family secret that goes some way to explain why Salinger, the main protagonist, suffers from appalling spells of depression. So it’s about mental health but it’s also about a road trip, a rivalry between brothers and the way they remember the past very differently. That is true of me and my real brother, and true of Salinger and Carson too.

Did your own road trip improve your relationship with your brother?

It was very stressful while it was going on. There was a point when he wouldn’t talk to me. There was also a point when I thought he was actually going to throw me out of the car because I was so annoying, with my questions about why he was reluctant ever to show any vulnerability to me, and also about certain matters in our history which he was so reluctant to acknowledge. So it was very stressful at times, but in the long run I think it was good for us. We came out of it closer than we were when we started. I certainly felt better. I was suffering from depression when I went out on the trip and was feeling much better when I got back, so there was something therapeutic about it.

Is the relationship between brothers a common theme in literature?

I think it’s a hugely neglected subject. A straightforward story about brotherly rivalry is not really there. There are books where brothers feature to a lesser or greater extent, but even with the most sensually written prose on the theme of brothers – which is probably East of Eden or A River Runs Through It – it’s not a subject which is much engaged with, especially given the amount of sisterly narratives there are. Brotherly narratives appear in myths and legends and films quite a lot, but in novels it’s quite hard to track them down. There are books like [Fyodor Dostoevsky’s] The Brothers Karamazov, but while it features brothers it does not strike me as being about brothers. Brothers is the theme at the centre of my book’s narrative, and I think that’s very unusual. I haven’t really been able to find another writer who has really done it.

Why do you think the relationship between brothers is so neglected by writers?

I find it very mysterious. It has long been a trope that men tend to look at the wider picture for their literature and women tend to look at the intimate sphere – and to a certain extent that remains true. One could posit that men haven’t really examined these relationships because it’s too close to home, in the same way that they don’t really write about wives and children a great deal. The family is not their canvas, and although it has been more so in recent years, this particular element of family seems to have dropped off everybody’s map. I often find that the most obvious narratives are the ones which get missed out. Some things are so small that you can’t see them and some things are so big that you can’t see them. With male sibling rivalry, this seems to be the case.

The title of Steinbeck’s classic is taken from the story of Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis – a tale of fratricide that echoes strongly throughout this book.

East of Eden is set in Salinas, California – like so much of Steinbeck’s fiction – at the start of the 20th century. It’s a book with a number of narratives in it, starting off with [Irish immigrants] Samuel Hamilton and his wife Lisa, who raise nine children on a piece of very unprepossessing land in Salinas. Then Adam Trask, a wealthy stranger, purchases a nearby ranch. The main brother narrative within the story is that of Adam and Charles Trask. It’s not only about them, there are other families in the narrative as well, notably the Hamilton family, but I want to concentrate on the Trasks.

Steinbeck’s choice of names is significant. The names Charles and Adam start with C and A, like Cain and Abel. Adam’s sons are called Caleb and Aron, another C and A. Then there is the name of Adam’s wife, Cathy Ames.

It’s constantly referring back to the Cain and Abel story. The relationship between Charles and Adam Trask is very murderous. Interestingly, and I don’t quite understand why Steinbeck did it this way, Charles and Adam are not really true brothers. Adam is the older step brother, and Charles is the murderous younger one who wants to destroy him. I don’t know why Steinbeck made Charles the younger brother rather than the older one. The murderous impulse normally comes from the older brother – in classical psychology you are dethroned as an older brother when a younger one comes along.

Charles Trask is infuriated that his father didn’t want a pen knife that Charles saved up for ages to give him, while Adam gave his father a mongrel puppy that he didn’t even pay for and his father showered him with kisses and affection. Shortly after that, Charles picks up an axe and goes after Adam to kill him. He’s so furious that he was passed over by his father, rather in the way that Cain was passed over by God, that he plans to kill Adam – but Adam hides until he’s gone. Eventually Adam falls in love with Cathy Ames, who is probably one of the most evil characters in literature, and they have twin boys, Caleb and Aron. Interestingly, both Adam and Cathy carry a mark on their foreheads, like the mark of Cain.

Let me read you some quotes that I pulled out of the book, which I think are very important and go right to the heart of East of Eden. They are certainly very germane to my book, and inspired me as I was writing. First is the reflection by the character Samuel Hamilton when he’s talking to Lee, a wise Chinese servant of his, about the Trasks:

“Two stories that haunt us and follow us from our beginning,” says Samuel.  “We carry them along with us like invisible tales. This story of original sin and the story of Cain and Abel. I don’t understand them at all, but I feel them. Here we are, this oldest story. If it troubles us, it must be that we find the trouble in ourselves. Such a little story, to make so deep a wound.”

The Chinese character Lee then goes right to the heart of it:

“It is the single story of the human soul. It is everybody’s story. The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection, and with rejection comes anger and with the anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt and there is the story of mankind. If rejection could be amputated, the human would not be what he is. One child refused love kicks the cat and hides the secret guilt. Another steals, so that money will make him love. A third conquers the world and always the guilt and the revenge and the more guilt. Therefore this old and terrible story is important because it is a chart of the soul. A secret, rejected, guilty soul.”

There is such a deep truth in that. I think a huge number of people in this world – and I would not exclude myself – are driven by a sense of rejection. That rejection, for a lot of men, comes in the shape of their brothers. That’s why the Cain and Abel story is so very powerful. I can remember so desperately wanting the love of my brother, but he wanted nothing to do with me whatsoever. That continues to scar me today, to some extent. What interests me in East of Eden above all is the reference to Cain and Abel. That story is absolutely key to the relationship between Adam and Charles.

This autobiographical novella was one of three published by Norman Maclean in 1976, and is set in Montana in the 1930s. Can you tell us more?

This book is ostensibly about fly fishing, and the author’s relationship with his brother Paul. The story is about an older brother, who is never named, who talks about his brother, also called Paul – a genius fisherman who is very troubled. Paul gets arrested, gets drunk, goes with whores and ends up being murdered. The whole book is a tribute to his troubled younger brother whom he couldn’t help but felt immensely close to. He just adored his younger brother and wanted to protect him.

What really struck me about this book was the love between these two brothers. That is what I felt a relationship between brothers should and could be – that some people actually have, and which I missed out on. Of course, there has to be some rough and tumble. It’s quite interesting that when I was growing up, the idea of fighting with your brother was considered something that would knock the edges off, that was normal and healthy in a sense. I remember punching my brother in the face when I was 14, the first time in my life when I was big and strong enough to do it, and it felt great. Then I felt this terrible guilt.

Norman Maclean did love his younger brother deeply, but there was ultimately nothing he could do to save him. That was the tragedy of it.

He couldn’t save him because he didn’t and couldn’t know him. The unknowability of people runs right through this story. It’s the people we live with, love and should know who in the end elude us, says the narrator. I think that is very true – how elusive the people closest to us are. On the one hand these brothers love each other very deeply, and on the other they don’t know each other.

But what shocked me was the love between them – the open and adoring love of the older brother who wants to protect his younger brother from his flaws and damage. That’s the way I see it between me and my brother. I’m quite flawed and damaged. I was the bad guy, the one getting into trouble. He was mature and sensible, while I was the one who took drugs and misbehaved. He always really enjoyed me getting into trouble. Nothing made him happier than to see me fuck up. So what appealed to me about this book was the older brother wanting to protect his younger sibling.

Maclean said about himself in the book that “we are probably those referred to as ‘our brother’s keeper’” – again referring to the story of Cain and Abel.

Exactly right. The quote from Cain is: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”. And the answer was: No, I don’t give a fuck about my brother. I hate my fucking brother. That’s the other truth told to us in the Bible. But this is a book about someone who really is his brother’s keeper, and takes that role very seriously.

As you mention, there’s also a lot of fly fishing in the book, which Paul is extremely good at. There is a lovely contrast between his chaotic and often violent life and the almost poetic grace and beauty of his fishing.

That is why the book speaks to me so much. I’m a fairly useless, troubled person, or I certainly was as a teenager. But I could do one thing, and that was write. And Paul could do one thing, and that was fish. This is a fantasy book for me and for all tortured souls – I was one, but I’m not anymore – who imagine an early, tragic death when everyone is sorry for what they did, all the love finally goes in your direction and everyone agrees what a great and beautiful person you were.

Fratricide is clearly a theme in Hamlet. Tell us more.

Shakespeare was really good at brother rivalry. Apart from Hamlet you can also see it in Twelfth Night and King Lear. A constant theme of Shakespeare’s plays is the falling out and coming together of brothers. Clearly, it was a relationship he understood and mistrusted in many ways. He certainly recognised the deep divisions and rivalries between brothers, and Hamlet is a marvellous example of the murderous impulse that can exist between brothers. I love the speech when Hamlet’s uncle Claudius admits to being inflicted with “the primal eldest curse” for killing his brother, and begs on his knees for forgiveness for this ultimate violation of the law of nature.

The play also recognises jealousy, and what is a brother relationship without jealousy? You can’t get away from jealousy and rivalry when you’re brothers and that, taken to the extreme, is what happens in Hamlet. It’s about how brothers sometimes really fucking hate each other. I know there are times in my childhood when if I’d had a gun in my hand, I would have shot my brother dead. That dark impulse, although suppressed and effaced by what we want to believe about ourselves, is very deep and dark. That’s why I have included East of Eden and Hamlet – to acknowledge something that is not comfortable for us.

Both books take us back to the story of Cain and Abel.

Absolutely. In Hamlet it happens again in the death of Gonzago in the play-within-a-play. One reading of Hamlet is that the murder by Claudius of his brother is about ambition, about wanting to be king and his brother’s wife. But it may also be simple jealousy and hatred. In some ways that is the purest of emotions, and what brothers are reduced to when things go wrong.

Shakespeare is not scared to look at these dark impulses. The idea that you could do something so cold blooded, not even in rage, as poison your brother, says something about the coldness and hatred that can exist between brothers. So I don’t think Hamlet is purely about ambition and power, I think it’s about the hatred of a brother for a brother. The phrases that we use about brothers – “brotherly love”, “brotherhood of man” – and the idea that it’s a very close and tender bond are also shot through, I think, with veins of real hatred. And that’s something Shakespeare is very clear-eyed about.

Why have you chosen Michel Houellebecq’s novel Atomised?

The book tells the story of two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno. They both had appalling childhoods and are abandoned by their hippy mother, who spends her life in communes pursuing shallow, hedonistic relationships. The premise of the book, as the title suggests, is about the disconnection between people in the technological, scientific, post-modern world, where all relationships are mangled, damaged parodies.

Michel is a scientist who believes that love and family is essentially redundant given the advances of modern genetics, and that men in particular are redundant. Aldous Huxley’s nightmarish book Brave New World is the template he looks towards with actual anticipation. Michel is an ascetic who finds women repulsive on some level – he is afraid and confused by them. Bruno, on the other hand, is a sexually obsessed masturbator incapable of, or unwilling to, hold down a relationship with a woman.

At one point, Michel writes the words “blood is thicker than water” on a piece of paper. That’s perhaps the only recognition that his relationship with his half-brother, feeble and unsatisfying as it is, is superior to any artificial bond with a woman. Certainly, the brother relationship seems to be the only one in the book that involves any form of true communication, even if it is highly intellectual and unemotional. Michel and Bruno keep in touch, and reach out to each other in some tortured way.

These brothers are Houellebecq’s mouthpieces for his very French philosophising.  There may be love here, but it is suppressed to look more like desperation or habit. Atomised is an important book, if only for its determination to break taboos – the hatred of women of both Bruno and Michel is apparent – but it is not important for its portrayal of brotherhood. There, perhaps, it is typical. The brother relationship, as is so often the case in literature, is seen as relatively trivial if by necessity long-lived.

It’s their mother who is ultimately blamed for their dysfunctionality.

Absolutely. The book was apparently semi-autobiographical. There’s a great press quote from Houellebecq’s mother [Lucie Ceccaldi], who wrote an autobiography in rebuttal called The Innocent One, saying of her son: “If he has the misfortune of sticking my name on anything again, he will get my walking stick in his face and I’ll knock his teeth out.”

Moving onto your final choice, Arthur Miller’s famous play is set in 1940s America.

Two pairs of brothers feature in Death of a Salesman. There’s the main protagonist, Willy Loman, and his dead brother Ben who went into the African jungle at the age of 17 and came out at the age of 21 very rich. Then there are Biff and Happy, Willy’s two sons.

This is a story, on the one hand, of distorted idealism. Willy idealises his brother Ben, who represents everything he might have been, and everything his two sons – whom he considers losers – might have been. His obsession with his lost opportunity to go into business with his successful brother torments him, as does the fate of his two sons, who both appear to be in a state of arrested development. Even though they are in their thirties, Biff and Happy still try and get girls together, and talk of going into business together – but at first, at least, they are just as much fantasists as their father. They have failed to mature and in a sense held one another back, just as Ben, in a different way, holds Willy back.

Brothers are an appealing fantasy, but in the real world and in the long run they need to be transcended. Willy, Biff and Happy have failed on this front. Death of a Salesman is more about the relationship between fathers and sons than brothers, but the motif of maimed brother relationships runs in all directions. Just as Willy idealised Ben, Happy clearly thinks more of Biff than he ought to. We are taken into a world where brothers project their fantasies onto one another – a course that can only end badly.

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