What first drew you to France? Why are so many of your books set there?
This answer transcribed from tape recorder, April 2008
The first time I went to France was when I was eight, on holiday with my family, and I remember driving in a Citroën DS, a very beautiful car, from the airport. And we stayed in Deauville, which was an old-fashioned resort in Normandy, in a boarding house. It was very much Monsieur Hulot country. Very nice food, rather formal and there was something, I suppose, about France, even then, that did seem to me attractive or different in some way.
But although I studied French at school and I did A-level in it, rather against my better judgement, I didn’t get to know it at all well until I went during my year after school before going to university. I spent three months in Paris and I had a room in a rather dull apartment in the 17th arrondissement. And I had one lecture each day at the Institut Catholique which is in the rue d’Assas on the Left Bank. And I learnt how to speak French then but I didn’t particularly enjoy Paris, I was quite lonely there. And I then also spent some time working in a campsite on the west coast of France as a student, in the Vendée region.
But I think it wasn’t until a bit later when I started visiting France in a car and just driving around – and this must have been in the late seventies, I suppose, late seventies, early eighties – that the country began to have some sort of effect on me. And it’s really rather difficult, in fact impossible, to describe exactly what that effect was, but there was something about the small towns of northern and central France, which intrigued me. I would drive all day with friends or on my own sometimes, and what would happen is that you’d go down the main roads, I never went on motorways, you’d go down the main roads and then you’d go off them into the minor roads, and then you’d go off those into even smaller roads. You’d end up staying the night in a run-down auberge and just have whatever dinner was on offer. And France was geographically a very beautiful country, I think, much more so it seemed, to my eye at least, than England; far less built over, far less built up. And every little village, every little town you came to had similarities, of course, in that there was this rather formulaic thing, these narrow streets with the boulangerie, the boucherie, the bar-tabac and so on, and then the hôtel de ville with the slate roof and the flag and so on and so forth. I liked something about the grey stone, the black slate roofs. I liked the sense in these small places, the fact that they were rather closed up and quite formal and in some ways really rather unfriendly, I suppose, difficult to get hold of, difficult to penetrate through this formal exterior. Yet at the same time one had a sense, or I had this sort of intimation, at least, that there was drama beneath the surface, and that there were secrets.
I think there was something about these places, you know, in northern France I’m talking about really, where these small towns and villages just excited in me a sense that the people who lived there had hidden lives, hidden passions, long, long untold secrets. And they gave me a desire to write. They intrigued me, that part of my brain which deals with creative things would suddenly light up. I would only sometimes have to drive for about 20 minutes out of Calais or Dieppe, and that whole part of my brain was sort of aflame really, very incoherently at this time, but aflame with a desire, with an impulse to write, to create — about these places, really.
And so that was the first thing, which I can only describe as an intuitive response, a visceral response — or you might even say a brain response, I mean, really a neural thing: that part of the brain which deals with creating stuff was turned on by being in this country, in these small towns and the more anonymous and unremarkable they were the better. And I’m not someone who’s interested in the Riviera or the obviously glamorous parts of France; although I like Provence very much and I’ve spent quite a lot of time there, it doesn’t really do anything for me creatively. But if you talk about the villages of the Auvergne, or if you talk about odd villages near Limoges or further north even, it’s the anonymity of these places. And that feeling grew, I suppose, over the years.
And, to be less mysterious, to be more obvious about it, I do like French culture. French painting has meant more to me than any other aspect of French culture. I remember as a student in Paris going day after day on my student pass to look at the paintings in the Jeu de Paume, which was where the Impressionist painters were housed, which was in the Tuileries Gardens, this was before the collection was expanded and moved to the Musée d’Orsay in about 1986. And in that time in Paris, when I was 17, I suppose, I did see an enormous amount of French art, mostly 19th Century, and before, Corot, Courbet, Millet, the plein air painters and so on. And that had, again, a deep, deep effect on me, in a way that’s difficult really for me to explain, but a sense of longing, a sense of anguish, a sense of lives that I wanted to participate in or to have been part of. I do believe in reincarnation, not in a literal sense, but in some sort of atomic sense at least and it was as though something that those men who painted had experienced or been through spoke very deeply to something that I felt I had experienced or could experience.
So the painting was very very important to me and the architecture, again the basic town hall architecture or small town architecture. I also liked certain villages, bits of Brittany and so on. The music too; I like Ravel and Fauré. And the literature really actually rather less so, I think, until I came to Proust whom I read, I must have started reading Proust in, I think, 1984. And that was before I’d actually begun to set a book of my own in France, but there’s no doubt that the domestic detail of Proust was, as well the whole theme of Proust’s novel, a catalyst for something in me. Luckily, by the time I read him, I was old enough to know that admiring someone was fine, but you shouldn’t let them influence your style. And I did, luckily, recognise that his style was so much his own that it would be mad to let it near me, though that’s not to say that there isn’t maybe a sentence or two sentences perhaps, in the first part of Birdsong, which are offered as a sort of modest homage to him.
Many reviewers and students have mentioned Flaubert when they’ve been writing about my novels, which I think is really largely because he’s the only French novelist that most English people have heard of. I suppose I did learn from Flaubert how to fasten on local detail at moments of heightened emotion. But although I admire Flaubert greatly and wouldn’t dream of criticizing him– in the same way that one wouldn’t dream of criticising Mozart – I don’t feel he’s someone to whom I have responded personally that strongly. The French writer to whom I have responded more personally would be Zola, although I recognise the misgivings people have about the sensational aspect of some of his writing, and these are misgivings which I share; Stendhal, in part, and Balzac, also. But none of these – I didn’t really hero-worship of any of these writers, apart from Proust maybe.
I admire and respect them, but I didn’t have an emotional surrender to the glamour or romance or skill of any of these people, with the possible exception of Proust. If I surrendered to any aspect of French culture it was to the painting.
But to go back now to what I was saying about visiting France in a car in the late seventies, early eighties, I ought perhaps to add that by this time I owned my own Citroën DS, white with red seats. And the use of the Michelin yellow maps was also very important to me; I was rather keen on those little maps. At the time all I knew was that I loved being in that country and that it filled me with strange feelings of nostalgia, it filled me with yearning, I had a sense of its beauty, but I didn’t know what I was going to write. But looking back now I think that – to be more analytical about it – what really appealed to me about France was not France itself, but was the fact that the past was so much more easily available in that country than in my own.
Southern England, even in the seventies, was really a series of ring roads and developments and high streets and it wasn’t an interesting culture and it wasn’t an interesting landscape. And what had once been there you could still see of course in agricultural land, places that hadn’t changed very much, but the past seemed a long way away. Whereas 15 minutes off the route nationale, anywhere in north-eastern France or north-western France, it was like going back into the 1930s or even into the 1920s. It was like driving back into the past and I do think, in retrospect, though this is with the benefit of hindsight, that it was that that really excited me about France. It was like every schoolboy’s dream, the ability to travel back in time. And not just a schoolboy’s dream, incidentally, but I think it’s a sort of adult fantasy, it’s certainly one that still appeals to me very much indeed.
So as I began to dare to write books set in France, I began to actually read about it and research French history because my own education had left me ignorant of pretty well all history, let alone French. And this intuition or hunch I’d had about the secrecy of the place was then – I began to understand why people were withdrawn or guarded in their attitudes. I think it’s partly just a national characteristic, French people are different from British people and one of the ways in which they are different is that they don’t, they don’t give much away actually. They’re very reserved and they’re pretty formal. We lived for a year in France in the 1990s and we didn’t really get to know any French people in the small village or the neighbouring town, because although they’re extremely polite and extremely cordial, very friendly — far more so than British people would have been in their place — they absolutely were not prepared to go beyond, the bonjour, merci bien, bonne journée, the sort of ritual formulae repeated a hundred times a day. But as far as, you know, ‘Come round to my house, let’s have a drink’, forget it.
But I – in 1984, after I’d read Proust and after my first novel, A Trick of the Light, had been published, I did decide to go the whole hog and actually set a book in France. And it did seem an audacious thing to do since I wasn’t French and also because I had chosen to set it back in time, back in a sort of imagined France that lay just beneath the surface of what I could see. And this book became The Girl at the Lion D’Or. And in the course of writing it I read quite a lot about French history of the 1930s. And the 1930s were an interesting period, of course, sandwiched between the trauma of the First World War in France and the trauma of the Occupation from 1940 to 1944. And reading books for that did give me an insight into what had really happened, not just some fanciful notion of the student/tourist, but, you know, what truly had happened in this country. The massive trauma of Verdun and the whole of the First World War. And then, as they were barely recovering from that, to be reinvaded, conquered again by – in the space of really only a few days – by Germany in 1940. And the way that that divided French society from top to bottom, so that by the time de Gaulle actually came to power in 1944, France was on the verge of civil war. And that’s perhaps something I’ll come back to a bit later on.
Another thing that was important to me about France is more technical and it partly springs from a negative thing, which is that I found it very difficult to locate books in England. Now this is part of a much bigger cultural problem which I am not the only English novelist to have had. It is, it has been, since the Second World War, very difficult for British novelists – no, let’s refine that, let’s say English novelists, because it’s different – it’s been very difficult for English novelists to write serious, realistic novels with big themes and ambitious, set in England. And I don’t really know why this is and I don’t think anybody really knows for sure why it is. But if one thinks of the most successful novelists, successful both critically and artistically and even commercially in that time, none of them have successfully tackled a novel in that way. There have been successful comic novelists, satirical novelists, campus novelists and surrealistic novelists – but not big realists. So, you know, one can think of Kingsley Amis, David Lodge, Iris Murdoch, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and so on, but none of them have really written the equivalent of John Updike’s Rabbit books or Philip Roth’s books, or indeed Saul Bellow’s books. What those American authors have in common is that they take for their subject what Updike calls ‘middling, troubled America’, and they work from that using quite vernacular prose sometimes and certainly quite sort of workaday materials, the sort of grit of daily life is very much under their fingernails and they will make something from that which is grand, thematically ambitious, linguistically artful and which resonates with seriousness which seems both boundless and beyond time, but also specifically very much of its day, of its culture and of society today. And this is what makes them satisfactory because I think most, most of us think that, to some extent, works of art need to reflect or grow from the circumstances in which they’re written. It hasn’t happened here and I was not the first person to struggle with this conundrum.
This is something I’ve said before, but if Saul Bellow had said that the main character of his new novel was going to be a university teacher in Chicago your heart would lift, you’d think this would be probably a Jewish émigré, possibly of Russian background, that the currents of 20th Century history would flow through him, that he would be a ‘citizen of eternity’ in Bellow’s phrase, and we would have a book of grandeur as well as of local application. If a British realistic novelist tells you that his main character is a teacher at the university in Stoke, you start to giggle, or yawn. And there is something self-satirising about British culture, certainly since the Second World War. You only have to say the place names then everyone starts sniggering. This isn’t really the time to go into how this got to be the case, but as far as it affected me it meant that I had to escape from this; I didn’t want to write comic novels, I didn’t want to write a surreal novel, didn’t want to write a campus novel, and I certainly didn’t want to write a magic realist novel; but by going to France I could write the kind of novel that I wanted.
And it turned out that The Girl at the Lion D’Or was not only set in France, but it was also the main character was female and it was also set in the past. And for me those three aspects of that novel were a complete liberation. I stopped really trying to come to terms with myself, my culture, my life, in any way at all, and I thought, Well, look I’ll write about someone else’s life, someone else’s culture, someone of a different sex and so on. And this was entirely liberating for me. So that was the second great thing that France gave me. This isn’t exactly an answer to the question, ‘what first drew you to France’ (because those are the words in which this frequently asked question is invariably couched), but it’s more an answer to the question, What did France do for you? That’s what it did for me: it enabled me to become a writer by getting me out of my own culture.
And very briefly, before leaving this, what was the other thing that made, that makes it so paralytically difficult to write about contemporary England? Is it a class thing? Well, I hate to think that it is because class is perhaps the most boring subject on the planet. But maybe it was a bit, maybe novelists struggling — if their characters were working class, they came with a sort of natural authority and self-righteousness and if they were posh they came with a sort of inbuilt dislikeability and if they were middle class they came with a given comedy aspect. And it was really tremendously liberating to get away from all that crap.
As for how France actually plays out in my books, the influence of French culture and so on, I mentioned before. There are tiny references, for instance, in Human Traces to Balzac, in the opening part and in the Paris boarding house, and in the first part of Birdsong, there are a couple of sentences which I just let run on for several lines which were just a sort of nod to those of my readers who’d also read and enjoyed Proust. And I thought it was only fair enough for me to say: you know, I do understand that I’m not the first person in the world to be writing about a stultifying bourgeois French family and a grandfather clock ticking in the background as this rather stilted dinner gets underway. But for people who haven’t read a great deal of French literature these small allusions or references really couldn’t matter less, you don’t miss anything from the book. One reviewer complained that at times, ooh, the sentences are far too long – and so much for my homage.
And I do detest, notwithstanding what I’ve just said, the habit of young filmmakers today whose films are simply a selection of quotations from other second-rate films. It’s called, in an aptly illiterate way, ‘referencing’. I really don’t know quite what they’re trying to say, I mean, ‘Look at me, I’ve been able to buy a five quid ticket to go to the pictures on more than one occasion’. Fine, well, congratulations, but, you know, a work of art requires more than five quid in your pocket and an ability to sit on your backside for two hours.
I’m also aware of Henry James, what Henry James said about French literature when he wrote about Flaubert, he wrote very brilliantly about Flaubert. And he talked about the hang-up of French novelists with their detestation of the bourgeoisie, which forms the main theme of a huge amount of French writing, of Flaubert, Maupassant and so on and so forth, which I found entirely delightful as a schoolboy because it seemed to me very anti-establishment, anti-bourgeois, anti-teacher, anti-parent and so on. But there are limits to this and it isn’t, in the end, necessarily all that interesting. And Henry James had a withering phrase for it, he called it, ‘the puerile dread of the grocer … which has sterilized a whole province of French literature’. And, again, I was aware of that and wanted to nod to it in the beginning of Birdsong and maybe elsewhere – but I also wanted to get away from it. And that’s one reason why I find the sort of the heroism, albeit sometimes sensational, of Zola, more attractive as I grew older, because I believe, I prefer books, ultimately, which are prepared to risk being idealistic than ones which prefer to stay on the safe ground of being critical. It seems a more daring and more interesting thing to do. Of course it’s a high-tariff dive, and you risk falling flat on your face and indeed opening yourself up to the sort of people who haven’t taken a step off the safe island, but there it is, these seem to be more worthwhile books to write.
And maybe that’s all I need to say about France except, yes, well what did I discover about France, about this country? I mean, my relationship started as an emotional, instinctive response of a student, travelling around in this old Citroën DS, just feeling very turned on in some weird literary creative way by what he was seeing. And 30 years later, having written the French trilogy and also having set various other scenes in France – and a large amount of Human Traces is also set in France – I do know something now about that country and it’s no longer an incoherent urge. Although I’m by no means a scholar or an expert in French history, I understand something of it.
And something of what I learned is incorporated, particularly into Charlotte Gray, which goes into very considerable detail about what happened between 1940 and 1944. And there is a great misapprehension, I think, among British people, that there were a small number of naughty people in France who collaborated with the Nazis and they were thoroughly shameful and we should all dislike them strongly, but that most of the French didn’t and then the Resistance was a large and magnificent force and then the Allies, along with the French Resistance, returned France to the status quo devoutly desired in 1944. And this is completely untrue.
France was conquered very rapidly by Germany in 1940 and the terms of the armistice agreed by Marshal Pétain with the Germans, which in a peace treaty with Hitler at Montoire were that Pétain believed he had got the best deal of any subject country and that, and as he put it, ‘j’entre dans la voie collaboration’ – ‘I am entering into the path of collaboration’ — we will work together. And collaboration was not a hole-in-the-corner thing of black marketeers and cowards and spivs. Collaboration was the stated and perfectly respectable central plank of French government policy.
Collaboration ultimately failed because the Germans were not interested in collaborating with the French. The problem with the deal that Pétain did with the Germans was that it was never pinned down properly, so initially the Germans occupied essentially the west coast and the north coast of France, going several miles inland, accounting for a substantial part of France, but the whole of the bottom right corner, stretching a long way towards the west coast and the north coast was so-called unoccupied or free France. And the deal was that the French would keep people in line there and the Germans wouldn’t therefore have to place a large number of troops in France and they just had to control the seaboards really. And in many ways this was a very tempting and very reasonable thing for the French to agree on. They believed it was a fait accompli since Germany had conquered France, which was after all the biggest power in Continental Europe, it was only a matter of time before the whole of Europe was subject to Nazi rule and that it made sense therefore for the French to bargain for the best position they could have in post-war Europe, which would involve a European Union with Germany at its head, France on its right hand and the lesser countries much further down the table. That was the Vichy France view of the future of Europe and they found the British desire to keep fighting, through the Battle of Britain and onwards, perverse and tremendously irritating.
The Germans were very pleased with the arrangement because it meant that they didn’t have to keep many troops in France and if ever there was any problem in the occupied territory they would take exemplary reprisals against the local population, so there was really very little appetite for resistance in France in the early years. But the French also volunteered to do a lot of the German police work for them. And this was really the problem: that what was at the start a very level-headed and utilitarian policy of collaboration or co-operation – it’s better perhaps to think of it as co-operation – became a little too enthusiastic on the part of the French government. The other thing was that a very large proportion of the French population actually quite believed in large aspects of the Nazi programme. France was a country which had great difficulties with immigration, with Jewish immigration, in particular. France has always had difficulties with immigration. And it was by no means therefore unwelcome for many more conservative Frenchmen to see the degree of discipline imposed on their country by the Vichy government with the Nazis. Especially since the Vichy government was headed by Marshal Pétain, the embodiment of France, the man who had saved it in 1916. He was to France in 1940 what Winston Churchill became to Britain, a man of unquestionable patriotism, an heroic national figure. What he said went.
But at some point, it’s very hard to say when, at some point the cooperation of the Vichy government with the Nazi occupier became over-enthusiastic. And one very clear way to point this out is the question of the deportation of Jews from France via the holding camp of Drancy, just outside Paris, and on to Auschwitz. And there was a section of the Vichy government which was for dealing with Jewish affairs, which was more enthusiastic even than the Nazi occupier in rounding up and exporting Jews. The lines of command became blurred, and as trials in the 1990s subsequently showed, the trial of Maurice Papon at Bordeaux and the trial of Klaus Barbie in Lyon, the French bureaucracy and civil service was, from top to bottom, complicit in this process. And Pierre Laval, the French Prime Minister, in order to, ostensibly, keep the whole programme of co-operation on track, began to volunteer not only Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, but also French Jewish citizens, and not only those from the German-occupied zone, but also from the French free zone. And then if there were not enough grown-ups he suggested taking the children as well. Now, at some point in this sort of dance with the devil a line has definitely been crossed. But the point about the French collaboration with Germany was that it was at the beginning a perfectly respectable and decent and reasonable thing to do and it was just step by step that it got out of hand. One of the reasons that the French didn’t twig earlier what was going wrong was that they didn’t understand the German contempt for them. It was inconceivable to the French that the Germans didn’t realise that they, the French, were great superior beings, the equals of the Germans ethnically, racially and culturally, but in fact, the Germans just treated them as Untermensch, on the same level as the Slavs and the Poles and treated them with utter disdain, and this was deeply hurtful to the French character. So they were in denial about it and hoped to ingratiate themselves by co-operating ever more eagerly and thus regain what they saw as their rightful, superior, place in German eyes.
Resistance in France was a minor affair. It was helped by SOE, Special Operations Executive, which was a British organisation started by Churchill — for which Charlotte Gray works, as it were, though it’s not stated as such, it’s almost, it’s that organisation in all but name. Resistance numbers began to increase in France when the German occupier suggested that all young French people should have to go and work in factories in Germany. And this was the single biggest recruiting sergeant for the French resistance, it meant that a lot of young French men disappeared from their towns and villages, went up into the hills, into the maquis, into the undergrowth, and began to form resistance units. However, when France was finally liberated in 1944, the French Resistance had contributed heroically, brilliantly, and one should never forget under what difficult circumstances many of these young men and women fought and how many of them died; but the fact is that France was really liberated by the American and British armies and numerically the help offered by the French Resistance was not particularly large, which is not to say that they didn’t do wonderful, daring heroic things. The most, in my opinion, the most significant thing that the French Resistance did was that they kept alive the honour of a democratic France and they kept alive the idea of France as a glorious and self-respecting country in a way that it was able to pick up, though it never really, in my opinion, came to terms with what had happened between 1940 and 1944.
When de Gaulle returned in 1944 the phrase, ‘four years that we must forget’, was a phrase adopted widely and they were indeed four years to forget because they were impossible to assimilate. In order to sell to the French people the story that France had liberated itself by force of arms, every single person who had helped with the resistance in any way was given a medal. This might be just if you’d let someone sleep the night in your barn, that was good enough, and quite rightly so. Right down to people who laid down their lives and were tortured or ran incredibly risky missions for the Resistance. But the total number of medals that were handed out for resistance amounted to about two per cent of the adult French population – to which you can add about 100,000 dead. But it’s not a large number. Robert Paxton, in his very detached book Vichy France, estimates that by 1944 the number of Frenchmen fighting for the Milice and other Vichy police and military units against the Resistance, to put down ‘disorder’, was almost exactly the same number as those fighting for the Resistance.
So it’s on that basis that historians talk with some authority about France being on the verge of a civil war in 1944. And quite a lot of the Resistance was Communist-inspired with goals beyond kicking out the Nazis. And that is, of course, why it took so, so long for anyone in France to dare to really write the story of what had happened at that time. It’s only really in the 21st Century, I think, that the full story has been told and I don’t think that France will ever reconcile itself to what happened, until everyone who lived at that time is dead.
I was once standing by Marshal Pétain’s grave on the Ile d’Yeu, which is a summer holiday resort. And as I stood there, a bouquet arrived for him from a 90-year-old loyalist, still ardent in 2005. Now that’s a country torn down the middle. I visited the room in the island where Pétain was imprisoned, having had his death sentence for treason commuted to exile. The hero of Verdun, the man who saved his country, in extreme old age exiled on this island, in this tiny room. Almost the whole of the 20th century seemed to be in that cell… It was interesting.
Yes, now I come to think of it, maybe that’s what ‘first drew me to France.’ It seemed interesting.
Is the character of Charlotte Gray based on a real-life Second World War agent?
No. no. no! I don’t do ‘based on’. I am a novelist. I make things. Here is an article I wrote for the Times when a real agent, Nancy Wake, died in 2011…
Nancy Wake, the SOE agent who has just died, was a formidable woman whose exploits in France were celebrated by French, British and American governments. She was a brave, cussed, outspoken, indomitable person. What she was not was the ‘model for’ my fictional character Charlotte Gray, nor, so far as I know, any other person in a novel.
It is hard to imagine two more dissimilar women. Nancy Wake was a hard-drinking, hard-swearing Kiwi of immense physical resource, trying to kick the Nazis out of France; Charlotte Gray ‘was’ a young Scotswoman trying to psychoanalyse a childhood trauma by projecting a version of her life on to the circumstances of an occupied country. Nancy Wake liked gin, Sten guns and roughing it; Charlotte liked Proust, sex and the piano works of Erik Satie.
Every time a female SOE agent dies – and there are sadly few now left – they are said to be the person Charlotte Gray was ‘based on’. None are. Charlotte was a figment of my imagination. I have all but given up trying to persuade people that novelists invent things. We are only ever asked one question these days: ‘What real experience is your book “based on”?’ It seems that the idea that a novelist invents – from a void – is just too hard to handle.
None of this really matters. What does matter is that the lives of women such as Nancy Wake, Eileen Nearne and Violette Szabo are recognized and celebrated for what they were – without the need of any spurious fictional connections. Special Operations Executive was the idea of Winston Churchill himself at a low point in the war, when the whole of Europe was under Nazi domination. Its battle cry was to ‘set Europe ablaze’. More informally its agents were told to ‘make a bloody nuisance’ of themselves wherever they could: by sabotage, assassination and, above all, liaison with indigenous resistance groups.
The prime requirement was the ability to speak the language. So poor was British language ability in general that even people who were hopeless at keeping secrets might be recruited if they were bilingual. A French-speaking woman called Noor Inayat Khan, an Indian princess, was recruited despite the fact she told her handlers she could never tell a lie. On a training exercise in Hampshire she was stopped by a policeman who asked her why she had a wireless set in her bicycle basket. ‘Because I’m training to be a spy,’ she said.
They sent her anyway. She joined the deeply compromised ‘Prosper’ circuit that had been betrayed from inside by a double agent called Henri Déricourt. Noor was sneaked on in Paris by a jealous Frenchwoman and tortured by the Gestapo in the Avenue Foch, but escaped over the rooftops. She was captured and re-interrogated; but after the war Hans Kieffer, head of the Gestapo, said he could get nothing from her. Although raised a pacifist Muslim, Noor was so ferocious a captive that the Gestapo kept her in chains. In September 1944 she was transported to Dachau concentration camp and murdered – shot from behind, it is said, by an SS officer.
This was the fate that women such as Nancy Wake were facing. Their covert status meant the Germans would not put them in a regular prisoner of war camp but sent them to Ravensbrück or Dachau instead. Violette Szabo (née Bushell), was a resourceful, intelligent operative who never blew her own or anyone else’s cover. Her only problem was that she was bad at remembering the lines of poetry that were meant to be her security identification. So Leo Marks, the SOE head of coding, wrote a poem specially for her : ‘The life that I have is all that I have…’
Szabo helped revitalise two Resistance networks and contributed to SOE’s major work in France, the delaying of German tank reinforcements as they attempted to travel north to Normandy in 1944. She was captured after a gun battle in the Limousin and was killed in Ravensbrück, though posthumously awarded the George Cross. She was 23 years old.
Being an SOE operative was a lonely business; sometimes the solitude would eat the soul. Many of them gave themselves away by being seen with one another in public places. The security procedures were frequently ignored by the head office in Baker Street, London. Captured agents who were transmitting under duress had agreed forms of words by which to alert HQ that this was what was going on; one such unfortunate agent, strictly following the procedure, received a message telling him to stop fooling about. The entire SOE network in Holland was captured through Baker Street’s failing to follow its own security procedures.
For women, the dangers were if anything greater. The numerous German security organisations seem to have been particularly stung by female SOE activity. Until late 1943, they received little support from French citizens, most of whom feared reprisals from the Germans. The official British intelligence service, SIS, was scornful of SOE, dismissing them as noisy amateurs. Yet still these extraordinary women kept on coming. Andrée Borrel, a charming and clever French woman, was a leading light in the doomed Physician and Prosper networks until her capture in 1944. She was killed at Natzweiler concentration camp in July 1944. Yvonne Rudelat was murdered in Belsen. Vera Leigh and Diana Rowden were killed at Natweiler; Eliane Plewman and Yolande Beekman at Dachau. One in four of SOE’s women agents was killed in action or in a Nazi camp.
Nancy Wake’s astonishing, almost reckless, courage brought her the George Cross, the US Medal of Freedom, and the Croix de Guerre with two palms. M.R.D. Foot’s history of SOE in France loses its customary detachment for a moment when it recalls: ‘Her irrepressible, infectious high spirits were a joy to everyone who worked with her.’ With Andrée Borrel and Madeleine Damerment, Nancy Wake was one of the best couriers F Section ever had; their PAT escape line carried more than 600 shot-down airmen out of France to fight again. Such great women need no fictional epigones; they need only our continuing respect and wonder.
Birdsong (1993) has become a classic of modern English literature. How important was your experience of reporting on the 70th anniversary of the Armistice – spending time with WWI veterans and seeing the battlefield cemeteries – in terms of galvanising you to write the novel?
That trip introduced me to men who had actually fought there. I met about six of them and talked to them about their experiences. It helped to bring the war out of an area marked ‘history’ and put it under the heading of life. Here we were in the actual field; and they were the same men. Over there, by that tree, was where his friend had died. As a fiction writer you are essentially telling lies and making things up; but if you are setting them in an historical reality you need to feel you have the authority to do so. This visit helped togive me confidence – though I still viewed the enterprise with trepidation.
The triple biography The Fatal Englishman (1996) is your only foray into non-fiction to date. What are your reservations about biography?
Most biographies are too long and most of them presume too much. You cannot know what your subject thought or felt most of the time and it is false to pretend you can. Facts can be interesting. For instance if you could find letters written by a young Hitler to his mother in which he outlined his thoughts on war and family and violence. But the type of literary biography in which the author tries to relate every line of the subject’s imaginative work back to a real-life event or person seems to me pointless, or worse. There are exceptions, of course. I admire Claire Tomalin’s books. And biogs that just tell you what the person did. It is the pseudo-psychology I don’t like.
Charlotte Gray (1997) and On Green Dolphin Street (2001) both feature strong female lead characters. Do you find that there is any difference when writing using a woman’s voice or perspective?
The sex of the character is seldom the most important quality in a scene. Age, past experience, nationality, temperament and circumstance usually weigh more heavily. I believe there are small generalised differences between the sexes, but not many, and seldom dramatically interesting. However, if you are a woman writer it is worth stopping at the end of every scene told through the eyes of a male characer and saying: Right, Joe’s done just what I want, but is there anything he has done or said that no man would ever do or say? Like a spell check: a bloke check. And of course the converse applies. I do do that after a woman’s pov scene.
Human Traces (2005) took five years to research and write. What fact about human consciousness most surprised you when you were doing your research for the book?
The single fact that most surprised me was to discover that schizophrenic patients don’t imagine that they hear voices; they do hear voices. Hard to get your head round. But much else besides. It is a fascinating area and this is my favourite of my books.
The eponymous main character of Engleby (2007) came to you in a dream. Have other characters or plot lines revealed themselves in this way?
No. But when I am in mid-book I always fall asleep thinking of my characters, or better still I fall asleep as one of them. I want them to live for eight hours in my unconscious so that they develop and grow and become more autonomous when I return to them the next day.
You have said of A Week In December (2009) that it didn’t quite turn out as the modern Dickensian novel you had intended. Do you still have plans to write that novel?
I think it turned out “Dickensian” OK, albeit in a rather shorter form, because I made it so by borrowing some of his structures. Obviously I am not saying it’s as good as Dickens, merely that it’s indebted to him. What it didn’t turn out was seriously realistic in the Bellow/Updike/Roth vein. It became satirical. The cultural and political world of contemporary Britain simply forced this satirical tone into it. I will probably try again one day to write the Herzog-Rabbit thing, but not sure that I can pull off what has eluded so many others.
You took just six weeks to write the one-off James Bond book, Devil May Care (2008). How easy was it to inhabit Ian Fleming’s particular journalistic style?
The style was quite easy to get. I analysed it in undergrad lit crit mode – number of concrete nouns, active verbs etc. Then I did a sort of Rory Bremner, trying to find the voice. But I didn’t want to get too close or it would have become a parody. I think a successful parody exaggerates the characteristic bits and omits the rest; it is the subject plus 20 per cent. With Bond, I tried to stop at about 80 per cent.
Could you tell us a little bit about your new novel, A Possible Life?
It is a novel in five parts. It is composed like a symphony in separate movements. The parts have different characters, settings and times. There are some circumstantial connections, but mostly the parts are bound by theme: they are all, in their different ways, about the same thing. Each part moves very fast, so it may be best to read it all twice. It’s not that long.
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Do you agree with E.L. Doctorow, or have you ever begun a novel with a shape of the whole?
It’s a nice image, but not my experience. I have an AA gazeteer, a sat nav, GPS and a route map. I wouldn’t dream of starting without. (Except Engleby, but that was different…)
Does the writing of a novel get any easier when certain things – structural details, for example – fall into place, or is it simply a question of luck?
Life is all luck, isn’t it? In the period of composition you have to be exceptionally open. Anything might feed in. The knack is knowing the difference between a disposable thought and a robust idea. You have to live in a rather vulnerable, open state, while at the same time making hard decisions. You are a like a valve that switches between active and passive all the time. This is what takes it out of you a bit.
You have incorporated filmic techniques in your writing. Are you ever influenced by other art forms, for example music or painting?
See above on A Possible Life. Almost everything I know about structure I learned from classical music. Most of what I know about narrative I took from cinema. I also think of oil painting quite a lot, particularly when I am trying to add layers, to thicken the texture.
You work from around 10am to 6pm every weekday. What is it like to spend your working day in an imagined world?
It is exhilarating, though occasionally I do wonder if 21 years in a solitary cell is good for anyone. I do also wonder what it must be like to have a proper job. I guess it is too late to find out now. I would like to have been a diplomat. Or a psychiatrist.
How do you deal with the ‘judge’, that internal critic that gets in the way of writing?
I encourage him – or is it her? He/she does not get in the way, s/he stops me writing rubbish, I hope.
What was the last book you read for pleasure, rather than research?
The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers; Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham..
Of all the heroes, lovers, snobs and villains that populate your four-part TV series Faulks on Fiction, who is your favourite character, and why?
Jeeves, I suppose. Though Mr Pooter from the Diary of a Nobody runs him close. And Merrick from Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet is rather magnificent.
What is the role of the returning bicylist whizzing down the pavement in A Week in December?
The bicyclist began as a simple observation. In London, bicyclists think they are immortal. They never observe any of the simple rules of the road. It is as though they think that, rather than being more vulnerable than cars, they are less so; they must believe their self-righteousness renders them impervious to harm.
They are a very characteristic phenomenon of modern-day London.
They also represent one of the main themes of the book: how people contrive to live in self-sufficient bubbles with no regard to reality or to the consequences of their isolation. In that way they are like bankers. The difference is that the cyclists’ wilful embrace of a virtual reality is harmful only to themselves; with bankers it is harmful to everyone except themselves.
Then I began to use the cyclist as a further way of linking the separate lives of the main characters. He shows that however much these people try to escape up themselves they are inextricably caught in one another’s lives. There is such a things as society; there are consequences to one’s actions. We must love one another or die (and die, in fact).
Thirdly the cyclist acts like a leitmotif in music — a repeated little phrase that alerts the listener that something is about to happen and — at a subliminal but pleasurable level — reminds him or her that all is connected.
That’s roughly it. Though given the number of times I have been asked this question I have to wonder whether my high ambitions for the the little fellow were really fufilled, let alone understood….
Maybe he is just a rude man in a hurry.
Who have been your biggest influences?
I think the biggest influence on my writing — incredible though it may sound — was DH Lawrence. I can hardly bear to read him now, but there was something about the tenderness he showed towards his characters that was almost religious in its profundity. There was a gentleness which moved me very deeply when I first read him as a teenager.
The biggest influence on my life was — I hope — my father, a man of exemplary modesty, humour and fair-mindedness.
You seem to favour the third person in your narratives? Why is this?
I like first-person narratives. When they work, they give an innocence and directness that a third person cannot match, eg The Catcher in the Rye.
But my books have many themes and often deal with the gradual changes that take place in thought and attitude inside four or five individuals and the limitations of first person are too great for this kind of novel — viz, you can only give the inner life of one person. But I only give one person’s point of view at a time (I don’t intercut between two people’s minds within a scene), and only the major characters are granted scenes through their eyes; so in a way I do impose a restriction but it is like four or five first person narratives, though grammatically, obviously, in the third.
(This answer was written before I wrote Engleby… Or A Possible Life).
What is your attitude towards language? Is it simply a tool with which to convey atmosphere, plot, dialogue etc or is something more?
The words themselves are the beginning and end. Even when the style is apparently plain it is so for a reason. And within plainness there a hundred choices for each sentence in rhtyhm and syntax and of course within each word. Think of Hemingway.
The vocabulary for feelings is extraordinarily small, even in English. I suppose there are no more than two or three dozen words for emotions. Yet most of what we feel are subtle compounds of numerous different primary emotions. So it is rather as though you had to describe the taste of every item in a huge banquet using only the words, bitter, sweet, sharp, sour. Crab mayonniase? Spinach souffle? Toast? Struggling, aren’t you?
So you don’t really try; you describe the circumstances in which the person finds him/herself and let the reader infer the texture and taste of the emotion.
Incidentally, there is a big difference between ‘style’ and ‘tone’ – which is the attitude of the author to the material. I deliberately keep a sense of detachment from highly charged events; I try to leave room for the reader. There is nothing less affecting than a writer telling you how powerful his story is — eg Embers by Sandor Marai.
What makes a book last?
Any book that lasts is likely to do so for journalistic reasons — they are just the best sources of what such-and-such a period was like. To understand 20th century totalitarianism you have to read Orwell. Or Graham Greene in 50s Saigon in The Quiet American, for instance — a limited novel, but a brilliant piece of reportage.
Prose alone can act as a sort of pickling agent. I think it’s interesting that most of the 20century English writers you would expect to “last” do not deal with serious themes. I guess Wodehouse and Waugh will last for the joy of their language alone.
But the whole thrust of literary education in my lifetime has been against the idea of merit, of one book being better than another. So the idea of a book lasting on the grounds that it is of superior quality is dead.
The internet further discourages real reading. I don’t believe people wh tell you they do all their reading on Kindle. It’s like those who say, ‘Oh, I get all my news off the Internet.” Five minutes with them shows they haven’t a clue about what’s going on.
I’m afraid the idea of ‘posterity’ is itself dead.
You are a very visual writer; are influenced by painting/photography/cinema at all?
I very much like looking at paintings and I suppose I have learned something from them about layering on effects in some places and leaving it thin in others. Also the magic of composition which can deeply satisfy (Vermeer, Chardin etc), though you can’t really take what works visually and translate it into language.
Cinema has given me certain narrative rather than visual tricks — jump-cuts, zooms etc.
Music on the other hand taught me a lot about construction, slow movements, variations, leitmotifs etc. and here I think the parallels do hold very well.
Why do you employ the parallel narrative in Birdsong? How successful do you think it is?
Initially the parallel narative was to help the modern reader who would be asking “What has all this got to do with me?” So Elizabeth asks for her. I also thought readers would need time to decompress from the intensity of the trenches.
But I saw straight away that the modern sections had to work in their own right.
When they began to work for me was when I saw that Elizabeth could actually speak to Gray and Brennan. It was like raising the dead. One of the themes of the book is redemption. My aim was in some way to redeem the pity of what these men went through by paying loving attention to it all these years later. I think it is a big moment when you finally get Gray’s voice — from another world, another time — down the telephone line to Elizabeth’s flat. Her raising the dead like this is symbolic of what I and the reader are doing for the entire generation of men. However, I accept that for some readers the modern sections were distracting.
Things have changed so much and there is much more interest in and knowledge of that period now than there was when I began more than 20 years ago. I would do it differently now.
Do you carefully plan your novels so that they explore particular themes or characters which is your initial concern?
Ideally, I start with the theme and setting, then a rough narrative arc including half a dozen big moments which are like the supports in a river over which the bridge spans; then the people are given to you because they are the ones capable of acting out what is required of the action to exemplify the theme. In fact it seldom comes in such an orderly way. You get a bit of theme and place, a bit of character you want to write about; then you have to do a lot of dealing and trading off and some characters just fall out altogether because they won’t work for the themes. Others grow on you. Gray grew on me a lot, as did Jeanne, who more or less came out of nowehere.
In On Green Dolphin Street I had the characters complete and the time and place but I didn’t know what it was about. Finally I saw that Mary’s mother’s death was the central event becuse the book is really about the immanence and the imminence of death; and about how Mary’s understanding of that colours everything she feels and thinks and does. Only then did I start to write.
What is your favourite food?
Indian. Modern American. Italian.
Though for my last dinner I would probably have rib of beef with broad beans and new potatoes from my father’s old garden.
Was Human Traces, a book much concerned with madness and psychiatry, inspired by personal experiences?
Are you mad?
What is your favourite of your novels and who is your favourite character?
Probably Human Traces. And probably Kitty. Because I wrote an entire mock-Freudian case history of her descrbing every aspect of her phsyiology, body, personal history, family and so on before I let her into the story. After months of this I had finally to set her free. I remember the day when I first asked her to speak. I didn’t know what she would say, but she just took flight. You always love characters who help you out.
What is the significance of birds and birdsong in Birdsong?
Birds and their song symbolise many things, but probably least of all the soldier’s sentimental belief that the persistence of natural life, rats, foxes, cats etc, suggested that all would be well in the end.
I think above all I was trying to suggest in the birds singing as the bombardment continued the sense in which the natural world was utterly indifferent to the stupidity and cruelty of human beings. Perhaps it is this indifference that Stephen has sensed as a child and has made him afraid of them. This ties in to a minor religious theme of the book. Are humans chosen by God or just another random species thrown up by natural selection — only more numerous and destructive than other primates?
The birds offer a jeering commentary on the human beings – human, as Philip Roth put it, in the worst sense of the word. They are certainly not meant to suggest that life goes on and all will be fine in the morning. Just the opposite.
So is Stephen already damaged?
I set out to make him flawed, maybe not instantly attractive, cold and so on. I began by avoiding the stereotype of the cheery private, pack up yet troubles type – or the blue-eyed officer hero.
Then he had to be someone who could get through the whole thing, because I needed a witness.
So, how and why would he get through? Tenacity, curiosity. He surprises a need in himself to be more serious, to almost quote Philip Larkin in ‘Church Going’.
Already you can see how the demands of the action had imposed the broad outline of him. Nothing is more off-putting for a reader than to have the writer always nudging him and saying, ‘Isn’t this man a splendid person?’, when the reader thinks actually on the whole Not. So I offered a lot of negative opinions from others as we go along.
He is certainly detached, quite cold (though not towards Isabelle). I would describe him as damaged, self-contained, quite hard, but forced first by his affair with Isabelle then by the war to confront the deeper truths within him and by extension within us all.
It might be worth imagining his life if a) he had not by chance been sent to Amiens and b) a minor medical defect had disqualified him form soldiering.
How he would he have made out as a middle manager in the textile business in London??
That might give a clue as to what he is ‘like’ really, at least at the start of the book.