CULTURE

‘Here we are, better off but less human, richer but poorer’

Novelist Andrew O’Hagan says good writers are like sharks – they must keep swimming in order to live. The hero of his latest book – «Be Near Me» first published by Faber & Faber in 2006, and now available from Polis in a Greek translation by Margarita Zahariadou – is a Catholic priest in a remote community in Scotland. Through that male character, O’Hagan reconstructs the channels of memory and imagination and links them with the persistent desire to live in the present and be aware of the people that surround one. O’Hagan uses language masterfully to trace the depths of a dark, mysterious story. His hero may be a priest in Scotland, but his story is universal. It deals with the need to remain one’s own person within a range of relationships, somewhere between the demands of desire and action, between one’s assigned role and the stripping away of that role. O’Hagan has a striking ability to penetrate the subconscious of his readers. In «Be Near Me,» which at first glance is so different from his previous book, «Personality,» he tells a story and reveals the human landscape of loneliness and desire that exists both within and around us. Born in Glasgow in 1968, Andrew O’Hagan has won a wider readership and numerous awards for his work, including the 2003 James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction) for his novel «Personality.» How would you describe David Anderton? For me, Father David is a modern European who finds it impossible to live up to the ideals of the 1960s. When you look at all our contemporary leaders, they all have a touch of Anderton about them: the old hopes that gave way to authoritarianism, or, like Tony Blair, the war-haters who came to be great warmongers. And beyond that, he is a character who is related to those classic outsiders in literature – to Mersault in Camus’s «The Outsider,» who almost relishes the idea of the crowd’s hatred, or to the main character in «Death in Venice,» who is imprisoned in a beautiful cell of forbidden desire – and I wanted to take all these elements and make a real, breathing man. David is so different from Maria in «Personality.» They are very different novels at first sight, but is there a common thread? Well, they are both novels about the price of performance. Maria and David each live a life that is dominated by the need to play a part – always at the expense of their actual needs and desires. Each book has a shape that suits its subject: The many voices in «Personality» perhaps accentuate little Maria’s voicelessness, while David tells his own story and it is a form of storytelling in which he can’t help letting the reader know more about him than he knows about himself. Basically, though, each book is a moral drama that asks readers to think. And they are universal dramas, in the end, not just British or Scottish – they tell stories that must apply to all of us and the lives we lead and the societies we build and the choices we make. That to me is a novelist’s function, to bring us entertainingly to that knowledge. Can we speak today of a contemporary literary scene in Scotland? Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin, Andrew O’Hagan: Apart from growing up in Scotland, are there any other shared traits? I think we all share a sense of humor. We are different in our Scottishness – some of the others are nationalists, for example – but we share a conviction, I think, that language is everything. And there is also a shared admiration for what we might call the poetry of everyday life: In Scotland people often have a rich experience of the connections between past and present, and that richness is reflected in language and landscape. The best of the country’s writers have a lasting sense of that fact. What do you remember of Glasgow in the 1970s? How has it changed? I remember Glasgow as a very dark and mysterious place in the 1970s. It seemed to have a lot of ghosts living there: famous people and family members who were no longer alive but were very much around. As a child, I thought the city smelled of vinegar; this was because of the number of chip shops we passed on our way to Central Station. The tallness of the buildings seemed to tell of a great, idealistic, ambitious strain in Glasgow’s character, which I was later to become familiar with and write about in my novels. I suppose the main difference between Glasgow then and now is that then it seemed isolated and very working class – it seemed like an East European city and full of ordinary folk. But I wouldn’t say that now – like every modern city it has become somewhat globalized and also the site for some crazy inequalities in terms of how people exist economically. I don’t know that you could call it a working class city anymore. Do you enjoy reviewing new fiction and why? Can you name a favorite writer? I don’t often review fiction. Just now and then I’ll take a look at a major writer and try to imagine a new understanding of their work. I love writing these essays and they have been important for my own development as a novelist. But I’m not in the reviewing game: All my pieces are for the London Review of Books or the New York Review – which publish long essays – and the summary assessment of my contemporaries is not my bag at all. Personal choices are a recurring theme in your prose. Also, change and loss. How do you relate personally to issues of death and decay? Death, as Saul Bellow once wrote, is the black backing on a mirror, which allows us to see anything at all. I have always felt the presence of loss in everything I write, and that’s been true since the beginning, since «The Missing.» I don’t see how a writer can fully grasp the vitality of life without seeing its opposite, and that means death. It lies as a destiny for all of us and is a coded truth in every sentence of mine. Do you believe that British fiction is in a phase of rejuvenation? I think it’s in pretty good shape. We probably publish too many books, but there is a lot of real quality finding its way into people’s hearts. We are still too slow in Britain to appreciate foreign talents, but the novel in Britain is a fierce instrument for change and for replenishment, and I applaud that. Europe is a place of democracy, stability and prosperity. Europe is a place of inequality, tension and a growing gap between poor and rich. Which statement is closer to your feelings and why? The second statement is indisputably the more true, and I think writers are asleep if they cannot respond to it. We have come into a period when we accept the disposability of certain peoples: that is always ingrained into our system of economics and our ethical universe, and I find it shocking. We have actually become quite medieval in some respects: This is a dark age for people who find themselves in any way disabled when it comes to taking part in the big race for success and survival. Our politics has dragged us back in some respects; an adoration of the market has coarsened us spiritually; and here we are, better off but less human, richer but poorer, and less inclined to think of ourselves as communities with responsibilities rather than as individuals with rights. We need fresh ethics to tackle this. The old politics has compromised too far in each of our states and made a fetish of the survival of the fittest. Darwin may have identified this trait, but I think it should be our task to oppose the savagery of inequality, not celebrate it. If we fail to do this, we have no right to call ourselves civilized, and no right – none! – to wage wars across the globe which claim to bring «civilization» to foreign lands. Do you have a personal idea of your ideal reader? My ideal reader has an oppositional mind and a sense of humor. It comes naturally to him or her to question received wisdom and piety, but also to seek the pulse of human effort in all things. My perfect reader is also quite good-looking, I find. You could probably identify a reader of mine just by looking at them as they walked down the street: They glow with health; they step out with style; and a sense of moral aliveness accompanies them on their way. That is my fantasy anyhow, but I have international evidence to prove it’s true. My readers are glorious: Bless them every one and may they continue to thrive, which I know they will, being so good-looking and everything. Desires Could you write historical fiction? I hope so. I would like to inhabit a certain period for the duration of an entire novel. I think that period would be the 1820s, a time of enormous change in Europe, not only in terms of history, but also in terms of what we might call human character. I have been developing a novel set in that period for over 10 years – collecting notes, making scenes – and I may begin to actually write it in another couple of years. Are you working on a new novel now? I’m actually doing this interview from Hollywood – I can see the Hollywood sign from where I am sitting – and I am working on a comic novel about the Cold War and the movie business. It is a new patch of water for me, but good writers are like sharks – they must swim in order to live. Novelists share that with painters and with musicians: We have our periods – our blue period, our charcoal phase – if we are any good, and the mark of our talent lies in our ability and determination truly to develop beyond the familiar. That is what I loved growing up, reading writers like Graham Greene, Muriel Spark or Norman Mailer: They never rested on their laurels; they swam out to discover the extent of their talents. Is there a novel that you wish you had written yourself? I would love to have written «The Great Gatsby.» I just love F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tenderness and his toughness too. He had such a feeling for the operation of grace in a human life and I wouldn’t change a single word in Gatsby.