What I’m reading: I’m reading Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday. And I’m reading it as a consequence of my insistence on sitting through any film right to the end of the credits. I can’t understand why anyone would think the film was over until they’d found out what the music was, where the film was shot, or who played the hero’s stunt-double. As the final credits of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel scrolled up (or is it down?) I discovered that the film had been inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig. I’m almost at the end of his amazing autobiography, The World of Yesterday, competed just a couple of weeks before he and his wife committed suicide. He writes of Europe twice on the brink of total war. What makes the account so effective is that rather than describe the horrors of two world wars, the horror is assumed, and instead Zweig portrays, lovingly and in detail, the two periods of peace that came before, periods that saw Europe at its seemingly most civilised. Yes, I’ve been saying to myself, it could all happen again.
What I’m listening to: I’m crazy about music, pretty much music of all kinds but mainly classical music. Finally, post-war music makes sense to me, or I suppose I mean I now feel it, it being hard to say what sense music ever makes: it just is. I‘ve been listening a lot to Henri Dutilleux, who wrote a small body of work and who recently died aged 97. I’ve just discovered the music of his student Gerard Grisey. I’m also listening to Xenakis, Toru Takemitsu, and George Benjamin. It all sounds impossibly high-brow, but if it were hard work I wouldn’t be listening.
What I’m watching: I’ve watched all the recent Scandanavian offerings. I’m looking forward to the next series of the French chiller The Returned (Les Revenants), a brilliant premise, though I’m curious to know where it’s going to go after the first series.
Favourite word: I’m a fan of Chambers dictionary. Hidden among its pages are some truly eccentric choices. ‘Mallemaroking’ is a favourite entry: defined as ‘carousing of seamen in ice-bound ships.’ Hard to know when, quite, one would drop that word into a conversation. And who could resist the rejected etymology of the worked ‘isabel’: ‘dingy yellowish-grey or drab… [Origin unknown: too early in use to be from Isabella, daughter of Philip II, who did not change her linen for three years until Ostend was taken.]’
Favourite song: I’m a fan of Martha Wainwright. The song Factory is a favourite. The best birthday present I had: a friend persuaded her to come and sing at my 50th birthday party.
Your hero – literary or otherwise: Tolstoy.
The book you wish you’d written: Cold Comfort Farm, a book I take down and re-read any time I’m feeling low; either that or the Pursuit of Love.
The book that everyone should read: Middlemarch is the greatest novel ever written. Discuss.
Which book would you like republished? With Kindle and print on demand it’s becoming harder and harder to nominate anything that isn’t available in some form or other. I was going to say the complete letters of Keats, but I see an edition was published in 2012. Even W N P Barbellion’s other books, besides The Journal of a Disappointed Man, are, I see, to be had. I’m reading Pepys’ Diary, slowly. I’m about half way through. It’s extraordinary to note, but the diary was only published unexpurgated in the 1970s. This first full edition runs to eleven volumes. I’ve recently come across a reference in it to a journal that Pepys wrote as an old man (he was in his late twenties and early thirties when he wrote the diaries). Pepys was sent by the Crown to close down and hand over the port of Tangier. It had been captured by the English some decades earlier in an attempt to wrest the Mediterranean from the control of corsairs, but the venture had been an expensive disaster. Pepys writes of a city run riot, of a population debauched and ungovernable: sounds great. I don’t know if the book is available, but sounds like it should certainly be better known.
Writing ritual: I promised myself that after 25 years in publishing I would relieve my days of any formal structure. My writing comes out of my reading. I like to read lying down, with a notebook by my side. I work best towards the end of the day. These days, and it feels like a great luxury, I start the day by having a go at the Guardian crossword.
Best advice ever received: Process doesn’t matter. Obviously you have to have some kind of process but it doesn’t matter what it is so long as it gets you there, eventually. Ivy Compton-Burnett’s process was this: she opened a notebook, wrote the novel’s first sentence, then the next, and the next, until she reached the end, making very few changes on the way. That isn’t how I do it. My own process is slow and laborious. First I fill up notebooks with thoughts and ideas. After a time I go through the notebooks and type up anything that seems to relate to whatever vague idea for a book I now have in mind. At this point I might also expand the notes and even join a few of them together. Next I print everything out. Then I cut the ‘manuscript’ into strips and make dozens of files, putting together in one file whatever seems to go together as a proto chapter. Then I pick a file and start again: typing out and joining up, and re-filing. It seems to work for me.
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? The world changes whether we like it or not. Most of us find it hard to bear the uncertainty of the world. The press panders to the idea that certainty is possible, but we may have to accept that sometimes a plane, say, might disappear never to be found, and for reasons we will never know. Wanting to know is a wonderful thing of course, and so is knowledge, but it seems to me that we are more in tune with how the world is when we accept that we don’t ever know much no matter how much we know.
What’s the most memorable sentence you’ve ever read? In the introduction to their translation of War and Peace, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky write of the novel’s shortest sentence, which comes in a section describing, if I remember correctly, the wounded Andrey lying in a stable at night listening to the rain falling outside. The sentence is the shortest sentence in the novel and is two words long. The Pevears point out that no other translation retains that sentence’s brevity. Their translation is ‘Drops dripped.’ I don’t know why quite, but I just love that sentence: ‘Drops dripped.’
What would you be doing if you weren’t writing? I’d be very happy fixing up some derelict building.