The Gothenburg book-fair in Sweden, one of the biggest in Europe, celebrated its 20th anniversary in the last week of September with a focus on British literature. Though the book-fair is primarily a celebration of Swedish literature - with several hundred Swedish authors present - each year has a foreign literature theme as well. A sizeable contingent of British writers was present this year. In the upper floor of the book-fair hall where the seminars and readings took place, one spotted David Lodge walking into a Gore Vidal seminar (who, with Robert Bly, was one of the two American writers present as an exception to the British theme), Adam Thirlwell, the recent Granta discovery, gazing through glass walls at the crowds in the bookstalls below, and Margaret Drabble on the escalator wearing the same prim look that she had when acting as moderator on various panels, but one which is hard to connect with her novels.
Talking about writing - there is something both endlessly appealing and very exhausting about this. The British writers brought a special charge to it because their invented or interpreted worlds are greatly contiguous with the real one. They are able in whatever they speak about to at bottom speak about themselves.
Novelist Beryl Bainbridge, while in conversation with Michael Holroyd, actually forgot the names of one of her early novels (she’s written tons of them), but in the light of her remark that she "can’t make anything up" and that all her characters are based on real people, this didn’t seem more surprising than forgetting someone’s name.
The well-known travel writer, Jan Morris, one of the most engaging speakers at the fair, described her home in Wales, decorated with busts of herself and an English admiral, told us in a marvellously conversational way how these odd things had come to be there, and then went on to read from a 1950s travelogue in which she described a Sweden one recognised instantly - swanky yet made somewhat complacent by welfare. An elegant woman eating alone in a restaurant considers Morris’s attempt at conversation with "absolute confidence and no perceptible interest."
Yet the excerpt was as much about Morris herself - her sympathy, her irony, her views on culture and nationality ("I don’t believe in race and I’m beginning not to believe in nation"). Morris is seventy-eight and incredibly sharp, and there seems to be no place on earth where she hasn’t been and written about, including the other sex. She was James Morris till she underwent a sex change at the age of 46, has just published her last book, and her answer to the world’s conundrums - to poverty and puzzle of religion, to environmental chaos and gender riddles ("What are men for?") is ‘Be kind’. That talisman, again, is personal; it can only operate on the small scale and for that very reason it is as futile as it is necessary. And Morris clearly knows that.
The two poets I heard - Robin Robertson and John Burnside - appeared as concerned with finding personal meaning in things, even if their manner was more withdrawn (which could be because they were Scottish). They were quite openly determined to dodge questions of the book-fair audience variety. The poems themselves were extremely rich with evidence of an active engagement with the world - mythology, family, drink, sex, death and nature ("Justice depends on understanding the environment," said Burnside). The interesting thing was how their voices seemed to be in conversation with their own selves, as if the poems were written in lieu of the more public act of speaking.
Robertson seemed to corroborate this when he caustically told his interlocutor that all poets were dysfunctional because they could only speak through their work rather than being able to chat casually in front of a roomful of strangers. Burnside had a poem written in the voice of someone who is a neighbour to him and observes his ways, without ever speaking to him. He is continually obsessed with the Arctic circle, which is the only place where he really feels at home. Robertson’s poems were less eclectic than Burnside’s, but had a stronger poetic "I" in them, negotiating things with wit and unexplained sadness.
There is clearly still a very high value attached to the individual life and its moral concerns in British literature. David Lodge has written a new novel on Henry James. (Yes, yet another book on James. Apparently Colm Tóibín’s The Master is not the only other recent novel on him. Emma Tenant wrote one a few years ago, and Lodge revealed that there is a fourth writer who has written yet another novel on the novelist and cannot find a publisher!) Lodge didn’t know about the other books till he had started on his own, but now finds justification for his Author, Author in the fact that it deals with less familiar aspects of James’ life, the material aspects in every sense of that word.
As Margaret Drabble noted, Lodge’s is really quite a dark and sad novel about James’ sense of failure. To portray this he has uncovered the sorts of physical and everyday details about James’ life that James himself would probably never have wanted to make public - the kind of food he liked, and the fact that he had a dog, his possible sexual orientation and his dealing with the commercial side of writing.
It is curious how self-evidently good or at least acceptable it seems to want to write about these highly personal things. Ann Thwaite, who has written biographies of Emily Tennyson and A.A. Milne, declared in another session that biographies of writers are certainly not written to illuminate their work. This seemingly startling remark was made while arguing against the reductive tendency of reading off the work from the life, but it still said a great deal for how much pleasure and meaning British writers seem to derive from the personal narrative. Beryl Bainbridge has just written a novel based on the life on Samuel Johnson. "I tried reading his epic poems and found them too difficult", she said, when asked about the sort of research she had done for the novel. "And in any case", she added, "I was more interested in the man."
Marrying fiction with fact both as a stylistic device and by way of content is at least as old as the American New Journalism of the 1960s, though the interest in fictionalised biographies or novels based on real people (especially writers) is relatively more recent. Biographers like Ann Thwaite look upon this phenomenon with horror - it messes about with the truth and how dare one make things up. Surely one can’t do what Peter Ackroyd has done in his biography of Dickens, she asked in a pained voice. But there’s clearly no stopping this now, and the trend seems actually to derive from the British passion for biography, even if it eventually subverts the conventional notion of what a biography should be. The philosophical basis for this is still empiricism - the love for portraiture and detail, realism and individual experience. Fiction seems to figure here as an extension of biography, a way of continuing to write about people when the facts about them have been exhausted or do not suffice to create mythologies that satisfy the questions of the time.
Serious British writing at the start of the 21st century seems to be more about reinvention and recovery, then, and less about creating the entirely new, and perhaps this is why traditional genres are being challenged. Possibly the most interesting writer at the fair was a man called Iain Sinclair who writes books about London that combine travel writing, urban ethnography and folklore, memoir, fiction and documentation. His London Orbital is about walking the length of the M25 - the road that encircles London and which, in his imagination, becomes the reverie through which one grasps the city. This fascinating book is a critique of urban planning, of the grotesque visions of developers and politicians, but it is also a very tangible and visceral account of London - its alienating urban landscapes, enormous shopping malls, fake Alps, and roads that lead nowhere, people hooked on to cell-phones ‘locked away into an electronic otherness’, a city of intrusion and noise.
Sinclair spoke passionately about the other great London writers - Arthur Conan Doyle and RL Stevenson - who ‘understand the city as dream’. Both saw London as two cities stitched together. The door that is hidden from view in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde forms the symbolic passage between these two worlds - one of Gothic horror and the other of Baroque respectability. Sinclair is part of the same tradition of writers who mythologise London, but he does it retrospectively, he speaks of London as really a 19th century city and everything consequent to the 19th century as being posthumous. He is suspicious of memorialising and the tendency to seek out heritage from the past. The Thames is heritage because it is a dead river, no longer the life-line of the city but ‘a false memory, constantly referred to in terms of its back story [...]’.
Other recent books are concerned with the similar themes of urban life, memory and the engagement with the past. Novelist, Sarah Waters has written three novels set in Victorian England. In conversation with Michael Faber, whose latest novel, The Crimson Petal and the White is also set in that period, she pointed out how pornography and lesbianism existed at the margins of Victorian life and fiction, and how her interest has been in bringing them to the centre. She has taken the form of the 19th century novel, she said, and used it to tell tales of lesbian sexuality. Faber read an extract from a 19th century pornographic text called My Secret Life to illustrate a similar point. In their imagination, the Victorian era is a ‘hinged’ period, a time of emerging modernity. Interestingly, it is narratives concerning sexuality that they both employ to explore and reinvent Victorian England, and this seems to take the place of the classic 19th century themes like childhood.
Sexuality remains a concern in the more serious fiction coming out of Britain, but it looks like it’s no longer enough to just portray it in the David Lodge kind of sexual capers fashion or even the Martin Amis cynical, you’re bound to fail fashion, even as the ‘chick-lit’ genre obsessed by the happily-ever-after love story grows by leaps and bounds. Twenty-six year old Adam Thirlwell is someone to watch out for - his Politics is really about sex, and he has ironised it as skilfully (though not as compellingly) as Milan Kundera. This seems so very un-English, but Thirlwell doesn’t ‘like’ English novels, he says. What his novel seems to be implicitly looking for is a way into one possible type of future English novel. Are there any taboos left? Margaret Drabble wondered in a session on Women and Literature. Her colleagues seemed to think not. Thirlwell’s novel is a way out of this impasse. If there is no longer anything concerning sex that one cannot write about, if one’s creative energies can no longer be engaged, DH Lawrence style, in breaking taboos because there are none left to break, then the most interesting way out seems to be standing the idea of sexual liberation on its head and starting all over again.
Actually, Drabble and her colleagues did recognise a new taboo that writers face. You can use the f-word as much as you like in your writing but you can’t use the n-word, said Jenny Colgan. Drabble agreed. Her computer spell-check refuses to admit ‘nigger’ and "that can be a problem when quoting Mark Twain". Multiculturalism is the new taboo, said Drabble. There are no longer subjects that are considered off-limits for woman, but it’s not entirely acceptable to be a white person writing about a black one.
Sex and race and gender came together on the closing day of the Gothenburg book-fair in the performance of stand-up comedian Shazia Mirza - British, of Pakistani descent, the only known Muslim woman stand-up comedian who used to perform in a hijab but no longer does because - "I washed my hair". Mirza complained about being sensationalised by the media. Why are all these labels - British, Asian, Muslim, woman being constantly applied to me, she asked. You don’t say thirty-five year old white male Swedish writer every time you talk about one.
Yet Mirza’s entire repertoire, indeed her very persona, is based on a breath-taking objectification of herself. All her jokes are jokes about the familiar trials of a modern Asian British woman - her parents’ attempts to marry her off, marriage proposals from strange men in Pakistan (really on the lookout for a British passport), the experience of being molested in Mecca, the hypocrisy of Muslim men, the ludicrous aspects of Islam, the ludicrous behaviour of those who think every Muslim is a potential terrorist. "I don’t drink", said Mirza. "Because of my religion, you know. But I’ve taken Ecstasy. The Koran doesn’t say anything about Ecstasy." Which could be another way of saying - religion doesn’t say anything about identity. Or doesn’t say enough about it. Another signal for one of the directions in which British literature is going.
Anjum Hasan is a poet and programme officer at India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore