This interview first appeared in The Browser, as part of the FiveBooks series. Previous contributors include Paul Krugman, Woody Allen, and Ruth Reichl. For a daily selection of new article suggestions and FiveBooks interviews, check out The Browser or follow @TheBrowser on Twitter.
The five books that you’ve chosen to recommend here are all works of literary nonfiction—a hodgepodge of history, reportage, travelogue. Flicking through them I also thought one might apply the term “magic journalism” which was coined for Kapuściński, one of the authors you pick. You’ve framed them as five unusual histories. I guess the one thing that connects all five books is that none of them quite fit into a genre. Indeed, that’s something that your own work could be accused of. What is it about this kind of genre-defying nonfiction that appeals to you?
I guess what I have to start by saying is that I promise you I’m not choosing these books as a thinly veiled hustle for the kind of thing that I’m doing. But I find it really tricky when asked to come up with five books of something to think of a category, whereas as soon as I thought of books that didn’t fit into any category, I realized there was a lot that I could come up with. So I guess that’s the first thing to say, that there’s a lot of this uncategorisable stuff about. So much, in fact, that I think it’s now time for a whole category in a bookstore to be devoted to the hitherto uncategorizable.
Then I thought that there were so many things that come to mind in terms of uncategorizable books I had to make it a bit more manageable. So I thought history. Because typically, I guess, you read history books for the content—that sounds an unbelievably stupid comment—and you’re drawn to certain works of history rather than others because you’re interested in the period. You read Stalingrad by Antony Beevor because you’re interested in the Second World War, or Russia or whatever. Whereas it seemed to me that the thing about these books was that you might be interested in the subject, but it’s the way that the subject is dealt with that is the distinguishing feature of each one.
And how did you yourself end up writing this uncategorisable nonfiction?
I guess when I left university I liked the idea of being a writer, and I thought then that being a writer really meant that you were a novelist. But if one of the impulses for being a novelist is wanting to be a storyteller, I never had any urge to tell stories. But I did have an urge to create criticism that was more creative, or that wasn’t just to one side of and several steps down in importance from the original stuff, fiction. And then I started encountering writers like John Berger and Roland Barthes, who actually made such a thing seem viable.
Let’s begin on your book selection with Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which I know to you is one of your great core canon. Will you introduce the book for our readers, and tell us why it’s so important to you?
I guess it’s good that we’re starting with this, because it’s a seriously off-putting book. It’s close to 1,200 pages—a travelogue-history of Yugoslavia.
But it’s quite readable.
It’s incredibly readable. But it seems like such an enormous commitment, doesn’t it, to read a book in excess of a thousand pages. The opportunity- cost of committing to this book seems so huge when you could have got through six other books. So you have to be absolutely assured of its quality. And then there’s the thing of—we were talking about content before—why should you read this book if you’re not interested in Yugoslavia?
I know I had no particular interest in Yugoslavia until I was going to Serbia, Belgrade, for a British Council seminar and they mentioned this book that we might read, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, as preparation for that. As always happens when I’m going to a place, I didn’t read it. I didn’t do the homework. And again as happens when I’ve been to a place, I then became incredibly interested in it. This was, interestingly, during the Milosovic era and one of the wars—although I can’t remember which now. Anyway, I came back and wanted to learn much more about this place I’d been to. I started to read this book, because I’d been to the place it was about, and then I started to realise: My God, this is a major, huge literary masterpiece. It’s without question Rebecca West’s magnum opus.
It’s the account of her trips to Yugoslavia in 1936-38, so in the context of Nazism. What are some of the things that she witnesses and considers?
The first thing to say is that she very cleverly stitches together three trips she made, so the book reads as if it’s one continuous journey—with this character who’s only ever identified as “my husband,” The husband is doing and saying all sorts of things but he’s just “the husband”, and I think it’s great to sustain that for 1,100 pages. She meets a whole load of people—some of whom, in Rebecca West’s great way, she takes this virulent dislike to.
I should say that nothing particularly dramatic happens to her—she’s never caught up in major events in the same way that Kapuściński is—but what is really remarkable, first of all, is that her experiences become an excuse for these huge metaphysical digressions about anything and everything. And also the extraordinary thing is that she’s describing events that she’s seeing at this particular moment in history, yet the book has this incredibly prophetic quality to it. So all the stuff we’re reading that is going on in Bosnia or Serbia, fast forward 60 years and you’re seeing the same scenes being enacted. So she’s reporting about a particular moment, but also she’s tapping deep into some essential and timeless quality of the place.
Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow is more conventionally history in the sense that it looks back, but it’s also unconventional in the sense that it’s deconstructing [the First World War] into individual experience—he even describes it as “anti-history” in his foreword.
This is a very recent book—it came out towards the end of 2011. He has uncovered and found out about the lives of 20 different people from different parts of the world—some are combatants, one is a doctor, there’s this cast of characters—and he narrates the war chronologically through their experiences of particular days. This gives a real sense both of people being at the mercy of history—they’re not major actors in what’s going on—but they’re also completely shaping our view of what’s going on. I should say also that each person’s experiences are narrated with novelist-like techniques. The prose is very like that which we encounter in fiction. He also quotes a lot from their diaries.
But then quite an interesting thing happens. We have in our heads a pretty well-defined narrative of the First World War, and there are certain events that are obviously key. But one of the interesting things about this book, and perhaps one of its shortcomings, is that for us the absolutely key day of the First World War is the 1st of July 1916—the first day of the Somme, 60,000 casualties—and in the context of this narrative it never happens, because coincidentally none of the people he’s chosen are there. It reconfigures the history of the First World War—it’s subtitled An Intimate History—and we’re very much at the mercy of these people’s experiences, but I think there is this slight problem with it.
It reminds me of those documentaries called things like The Second World War in Colour. Let’s take a series like The World at War, where you have the argument and then people will find the footage to illustrate the argument, the narrative. But when you’re doing a program like The Second World War in Colour, the nature of the war is determined completely by what colour footage is available. Not surprisingly, therefore, since a lot of the Pacific war is filmed in color by the Americans, that gets rather more emphasis. And some events completely drop out of history, because they’re not in color.
He said that he wasn’t intending it to be a book about what World War I was, he was intending it to be a book about what World War I was like.
Indeed, that’s right. And there’s a lot of suspense to it as well, because we know the main narrative of the war—which is basically that Germany loses and Britain wins—but within that big narrative people’s individual experiences can often have no relation to it at all.
The book is structured with short chapters, turning the eye of the narrator between these 20 dramatis personae. And as you say, sometimes it feels like a novel in the way it’s written—it sort of exemplifies the tense historic present. Is that novelistic quality to it something which you admire?
I admire that aspect to it, but what I also admire is the way in which it’s not a novel. We can imagine that if it had been a novel, we’re quite familiar with this device where there are maybe six different narrative voices, they’re completely dispersed—one person is in Mesopotamia, the other is in the Arctic—and as the novel goes on we know that these disparate characters and different voices are all at some point going to converge. But that convergence never happens. They remain dispersed, disparate, separate people.
It seems to me that it’s not only a new way of doing history, it’s a new way of giving form to people’s lives without relying on the, I find, increasingly weary conventions of novelisation. But in terms of the prose, the visualisation of scenes and the imaginative rendering of documented events, it’s very novelistic.
The next book on your list is House of Exiles by Evelyn Juers, which is what she terms a “collective biography,” I suppose centering around Heinrich Mann, brother of the writer Thomas Mann. Introduce this book for us please.
This book was a real revelation to me. As you say it is described as a collective biography—subtitled War, Love and Literature, from Berlin to Los Angeles—and I thought it was going to be what it says on the cover, a collective biography of these people. What I didn’t realize was it was going to be so novelistic. I just love the conceit of these German avant-garde composers all living quite near each other in Los Angeles.
So that’s the end of the book, but the beginning is set in pre-World War II Germany, in the context of Nazism.
Indeed. She sets the scene for all these different people, who are aware of course of the looming threat and they respond to it in different ways. Some jump ship pretty quickly, others keep hanging on, some are more overtly political and involved than others. So it’s this array of different voices. I suppose, in a way, it’s somewhat like the Peter Englund book. We follow these different people to wherever their fates take them. They end up being dispersed all over Europe, and many of them end up in America and in particular in L.A. That’s where Thomas Mann ends up, of course. He leaves Germany but he would always have his desk with him, and his desk represents for him the real soul of Germany.
That’s something thematic I was hoping to ask you about. I feel the book is about these events in history, but it’s also about the writerly life and the reader’s life, and in a sense about escape from history by means of writing and reading.
That’s absolutely right. And as a result of reading this book I was reading Thomas Mann’s book The Genesis of a Novel, where he tells the story about how he wrote Doctor Faustus. It’s really remarkable that he’s engaged in this massive act of creative immersion—immersing himself very much in theories of music—and his neighbour in Los Angeles is Theodore Adorno, living around the corner, coming to help Mann with the musical theory bits of his book. At the same time he’s listening to the radio and following the course of the Second World War, and being increasingly involved in the discussion of what will become of Germany in the postwar period. So it’s this multilayered life that he’s leading. And it was this book, House of Exile, which first turned me onto reading Thomas Mann’s own account of what he was doing at that time.
As you say, it reads a little like a novel. I notice that on many occasions she begins sentences with “It’s easy to imagine that …” And while it’s perfectly plausible that a lot of what she writes she might have cobbled together from her various sources—letters, archived materials—there are other sections that one feels are pure imagination. For instance, Heinrich Mann’s young wife Nelly Kröger lying in a blue slip in bed with Heinrich listening to birdsong and Puccini outside. How valid is it to introduce these imaginations into a historical account?
This is a big point. I think the key word here is trust, actually. And I never felt that any of the invented or obviously imagined scenes were gratuitous. I never felt they were being done purely for literary effect. I know this is a dangerous thing to do, but I took what she was saying on trust. I felt I could trust the voice of the book. So even these scenes that if you were writing a conventional history you couldn’t put in, because there would be insufficient evidence and documentation, the things in them rang true. And let’s not forget that I’m not recommending history books here, I’m recommending books that are doing something new.
I suppose there is a point to make that the phrase “experimental fiction” trips very readily off the tongue, and we all know what to look for in experimental fiction.
Including Geoff Dyer.
Yeah. But sometimes experimental fiction isn’t very experimental, it’s almost a set thing. Whereas what we’re seeing here are experiments in history writing. And they seem to me entirely successful experiments.
To continue reading the interview with Geoff Dyer about unusual histories, visit The Browser.
Interview by Alec Ash