"I was particularly drawn to Berlin because of its literal, concrete division. Two halves making a whole, or two entities that were altered doubles of each other? Twins that had been separated and kept in neighbouring houses and raised according to different sets of rules as a social experiment?"
Jake Purbright interviews Nicholas Royle about his latest novel, Antwerp.
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3AM: Can I start by asking about your demonstrated commitment to short stories as a format?
NR: The short story feels like the most natural length for prose fiction, or certainly for the kind of ideas and situations I like to encounter. Which is not to say I only like naturalistic stories. I love short, fantastic stories that cast a spell over the reader, that transport you instantly to another place with another set of rules, somewhere imagined by someone else.
The rules may apply to the way the story is written. I love experimental writing, when it's good, and good examples are much more likely to be found in the short form. Sadly, though, any effort to theorise on this question, at least on my part, is doomed to failure. The best way to answer the question is probably just to explain that I encountered short stories at an early age and fell in love with them then. The Pan Books of Horror Stories introduced me to some excellent short story writers, chief among them being William Sansom. His short stories, several of which appeared in the series, towards the beginning, are wonderful. Lyrically written, betraying an inclination towards the weird, the unusual and the beautiful, they are completely addictive.
The short story is in a spot of trouble these days, even needing a campaign to keep it going. I was present at the original seminar that kicked off the campaign. I have been reviewing short stories in a quarterly column in Time Out for a decade. I have edited 12 anthologies. I've written over 100 short stories. You could say I'm obsessed with short stories. I think it's a crying shame that the annual New Writing anthology published by Picador and the British Council and edited each year by a different team (a duo or trio) of writers is so useless. It needs a kick up the arse. Better editors would be a start. People with a track record of editing anthologies, for example. For years it's been filled with over-familiar names, some contributors turning up time and time again. The editorial process could do with being more transparent. Some stories by unknowns are selected from submissions, and others by well-known writers are commissioned. It's all a bit cosy, a bit insidery. This year's forthcoming Volume 13 has fewer well-known names, but sadly the quality is disappointing.
Best Short Stories was a fine anthology series that reprinted work from little magazines and anthologies and collections. Edited by Giles Gordon and David Hughes, it helped generate a little awareness of magazines such as Ambit and The London Magazine, unknown by the reading public at large, but these are magazines that deserve to be read by more than just short-story writers looking for a market for their work. Best Short Stories was axed ten years ago. What the short story needs above all is for one of the big publishers to get an equivalent series up and running and to support it and promote it.
3AM: You seem fond of European settings, with your first book being set in 1989, something of a watershed year for Europe. Is there a conscious political angle here?
NR: My first two novels, Counterparts and Saxophone Dreams, reflected my interest in Europe, particularly the Cold War and the countries of Eastern Europe, including countries outside the Eastern Bloc such as Albania and Yugoslavia. I am interested in power and in the idea of one country exerting power over another. The Soviets took this to an extreme. The idea of a country that people were not allowed to leave -- unless it was to visit a neighbouring one run along similar lines -- was a very compelling one. I was particularly drawn to Berlin because of its literal, concrete division. Two halves making a whole, or two entities that were altered doubles of each other? Twins that had been separated and kept in neighbouring houses and raised according to different sets of rules as a social experiment? It was irresistible as a metaphor for division in the mind, for a split personality (Counterparts). I was interested in the ways that artists responded to totalitarianism -- the Czech Jazz Section, Romanian absurdist theatre, Brecht's alienation effect. The anything-goes, anarchic qualities of jazz and Surrealism seemed to offer a way to cross some of the forbidden frontiers of Eastern Europe (Saxophone Dreams).
3AM: Antwerp features Paul Delvaux as a central theme, as does your second novel: why is he such an enduring influence?
NR: His visions feel like my dreams. I respond to his images on a deeply personal level. I feel as if he painted them for me. Looking back, my first exposure to Delvaux -- seeing a detail from his painting Venus Asleep on the cover of the Bauhaus single "Dark Entries" -- was like opening a door to a previously-hidden wing of a house. I wrote to him while he was still alive, while I was writing Saxophone Dreams, and he sent me a postcard of a relatively recent painting, signed on the back. I treasure this, though the ink has faded to near-invisibility. When I saw that Bauhaus sleeve I was already a lover of Surrealism, having been seduced by Dali and Magritte and Tanguy and others, but Delvaux soon became the most important artist for me. I travelled to London to see the painting in the Tate, and not long after to Belgium to visit the Paul Delvaux Museum in St-Idesbald. He painted skeletons, trains, dressmakers' dummies and naked women -- all things that were already important to me when I first saw his work. Hence the feeling that he had been producing these paintings specially for me.
3AM: Antwerp is pretty remarkable for the amount of cinematic reference points, was there a point you were trying to get across here with this?
NR: Not really a point so much as a desire to convey my enthusiasm for the work of Belgian filmmaker Harry Kumel so that others, who might not be aware of it, might be tempted to go out of their way to see some of it. Not that that's an easy thing to do. I refer also to Alain Resnais' Providence and to Alain Robbe-Grillet's Trans-Europ-Express, since both have sequences shot in Antwerp. And Last Year in Marienbad, directed by Resnais and written by Robbe-Grillet, because of very specific similarities with Kumel's best-known film, Daughters of Darkness. You don't have to be a film buff to 'get' the book, though. But I am very excited by the interest currently being shown in the novel by film producers.
I'm not trying to write cinematic novels, but I have been told several times that my style is cinematic. It's not deliberate. That's all I can say.
3AM: Have you ever thought about writing a screenplay yourself?
NR: I've written a first draft of Director's Cut for Jeremy Thomas at the Recorded Picture Co. and am currently in the process of making revisions to it. No guarantees, of course, but it looks fairly promising. Well over fifteen years ago I co-wrote two original scripts on spec. Needless to say, they're gathering dust somewhere. I hope to do more in this area as it brings in more money than writing novels. More than my novels anyway.
3AM: Antwerp, to some extents, picks up where your last novel left off. Was this always your intention when you were writing that (The Director's Cut)?
NR: I didn't know while I was writing Director's Cut how it would end, so no, I certainly had no idea that I would write a novel that would be, in the very loosest terms, its sequel. I never know exactly where I'm going with a story, whether it's a short story or a novel. If I did I'd soon grow bored of it. The fun, for me, is in the finding out and the making sense of it.
3AM: You discuss many of the parallels, not only with the lives of the novel's characters but also generally, between New York and Belgium. Care to elucidate this?
NR: There's not much here, I don't think. Each has a district called Hoboken. A river separates New York from New Jersey just as a river keeps the left and right banks of Antwerp apart. That was all that was going on there, I think.
3AM: OK, but you pick up on the significant vote for the far right in Belgium -- do you think there's any correlation between this and the vague national identity there, being as it's moulded around two linguistic communities looking elsewhere.
NR: It's a no-brainer. Yes, Belgium is a country with a split personality. The South these days is the poorer part but no doubt feels closer to the capital, Brussels, despite the fact that Brussels is surrounded on all sides by Flemish-speaking Flanders. The Flemish have this disdain for the Walloons, a refusal to engage in French either with the Walloons or with foreigners. They'd much rather speak in English. So, they're very proud of their Flemish traditions and their language and their not-being-Francophone etc, and sadly this can be exploited by right-wing bastards like the Vlaams Blok, or Flemish Block, who are much like right-wing groups anywhere, cloaking themselves in ostensibly harmless patriotism while in fact supporting vicious race-hate policies directed at keeping out the Moroccans and the Turks and other minorities. It would perhaps be better all round if the Flemish merely found themselves drawn to the Dutch in the north, and the Walloons felt an affinity with the French, but sadly both the Dutch and the French regard their fellow language-speakers in Belgium as a joke. The Belgians tend to downplay the cultural divide issue, and the far-right issue, but there's a staggering degree of casual racism in Belgium, much worse than in the UK. Derogatory comments are made in the safe assumption that you will agree with them.
3AM: In the novel, the incompetence of the authorities is a recurring theme and you mention fragmented workings in the system as a possible reason for this. Again, do you think this is attached to the identity question?
NR: Without question. Until recently there were too many discrete police forces all working at loggerheads. There has been corruption in the Belgian civil service and at government level for decades. The Royal family do what they can to hold things together, and they don't do a bad job. Who knows what kind of a mess the country might be in without them? I gather that lessons have been learned since the Dutroux affair and that the police do a better job. They certainly needed to.
3AM: You gave guided tours of key locations of the book in Antwerp recently, was there a desire to go beyond what most authors are content to do and just leave the book on the shelf?
NR: I'll do anything to try and stimulate interest in the books. I offered to do a tightrope walk for Counterparts, although I balked at slicing my knob in half. I always have lots of zany ideas for promotional stuff as publication nears, such as last summer I was all set to declare myself "Writer in Residence of Cheadle Bleach Works (Disused)", as a stunt. Have my picture taken down there with a laptop and a hard hat. In the end I didn't do it. Maybe next time. I have no patience with up-themselves authors who complain about having to trail round a few bookshops signing stock. Who was it recently invented some machine that will enable her to sign a book from 5,000 miles away? Margaret Atwood. Get off your arse, love, and sign it in person. Publishers and circumstance made you a bestselling author. Give a little back.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Antwerp is published by Serpent's Tail and Nicholas Royle's website can be found here.