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A Greater Incompletion: An Interview with Will Eaves

Will Eaves interviewed by Oscar Mardell.

Will Eaves by John Cairns

3:AM: One of the interesting things about Broken Consort is its scope, the expanse of territory covered, with subjects ranging from Laura Riding to James Cameron, AI to arboriculture, Rameau to Aretha Franklin, the 1665 Plague to AIDS to Covid-19. Do you find that your selection is determined by any guiding principle? (To put it slightly differently, what is it about these seemingly disparate topics that makes you want to write about them?)

WE: Because I’m a slow reader and thinker, I’m not convinced by my fitness to write about anything in isolation, and reluctant to identify a field of expertise. Books, music, films and life itself often ask for more context than I can supply, so any essay, on any subject, seems to require the slingshot gravitational boost of something else alongside it, if it’s to get underway and take the reader on an enjoyable journey. I like the way one topic comes into focus in my peripheral vision even as I address a different problem or medium. Perhaps my “guiding principle” is a bit like navigation for birds, which is (so current research suggests) less object-focused and more movement-dependent than ornithologists once imagined. Avian curiosity and migratory purpose have a lot to recommend them: being adult means being circuitous, if you have feathers. You go around the houses, or indeed the continents, to know where you are.

There’s also the seriousness problem, isn’t there? You’re not serious if you have a go at different things. My craft, my specialism, my field: one hears that a lot, particularly in universities. I revere expertise, which means that I appreciate its close affinity with amateurism. Palaeontologists, horticulturalists, philosophers, musicians. First principles and the circle-of-fifths are universal. You don’t need a stupid hat to read Auden. Specialisation and the side-hustle are expressions of the same impulse to discover, as Montaigne so ably demonstrated. What is a professional writer, anyway?

3:AM: The pieces in Broken Consort were written over three decades and for more than a dozen outlets, and yet the collection succeeds in retaining a sense of unity. As you were working on individual pieces, did you ever feel like they were part of a larger work?

WE: Many of the pieces in the book were the ordinary sort of commission: “Would you like to review X?” “Yes, please.” If they speak to each other in the way you kindly suggest they do, that may reflect the fact that I treat reviews and essays-to-order exactly as I treat fiction and poetry: as work that tries to interest itself in getting done. Writing is a patient excavation of material half-glimpsed in the topsoil. I never know exactly what I’m going to find. All I have is an intimation of subject, argument, character, shape — shape, especially, which fascinates me, because it can’t be given in advance; it’s only revealed in retrospect. Perhaps that slightly archaeological approach is the key.

Art isn’t complete, is it? You finish a bit of work and a strange thing happens: as soon as it’s done, it becomes part of a greater incompletion. Better luck next time, and so on. We seem always to want to see things from a contextualising distance. Where does the small-scale achievement belong in the large scheme? One can see how this leads to compound forms — dance suites, stories in chapters, novels in sequence, verse epics, and so on. It’s how the whole idea of a meaningful story is built to begin with, from suggestive parts. But putting little shapes in bigger shapes, or sets, like Lego, is also a kind of melancholy infinite progress, another way of engaging with the incompleteness of life. We never get to say, after death, “that was it, my life, that thing over there”, because the person to whom this profound realisation might have occurred has died.

I love artists who seem to leave scale and significance behind, whose immense concentration is in the service of an open-ended interrelatedness. Mikhail Pletnev, the pianist, is one such. Listen to him play almost anything (but especially, I think, Tchaikovsky’s Eighteen Pieces, Op72, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition). It always feels as if he is picking up an original and very precious thread, weaving a magical tapestry, and then dropping it when he leaves the stage. He’s a medium.

3:AM: The unity of the collection also reflects your approach: erudite without being academic, politically engaged without being polemical, iconoclastic without being dismissive, introspective without being self-absorbed. Did this take a long time to develop?

WE: That’s extravagant praise — I don’t always walk the line so successfully — but thank you, anyway! Like everyone who tries to write, I’m mostly a reader with a pen. I’ve always looked for models in writing who speak in different accents and registers that belong together, that complement each other. Auden is my critical mentor: The Dyer’s Hand (1960) got me through a foggy time at university and remains a favourite collection of essays. Iago seen as a practical joker, Marianne Moore heard with the ears of Peter Rabbit, golden-age crime lit, the absurd pleasure of operatic tragedy — every piece in this crazily varied book argues the presence of a flawed but striving sensibility. It’s written to please no one except the reader, and it takes that pleasure seriously.

Auden helped me be honest and, I hope, fair. The most instructive artistic experiences of one’s life may not be on a reading list, which isn’t to say they don’t deserve close attention. Equally, criticism that wants to be taken seriously sometimes loses the reader along the way because the critic seems always to be barging into the room ahead of the declared subject. Clive James wrote superb TV reviews. Much of his literary criticism leaves me cold. Sometimes a single piece, by an author, has everything — lightness of touch, wit, controlled anger, frustration, vulnerability. Two examples spring to mind: Patricia Beer’s essay on her Devonian accent, first published in the (much missed) Listener, and Tony Kushner’s “A Socialism of the Skin”, his elegant demolition of conservative appeasement tactics in the age of AIDS, first published in The Nation.

In fiction, I can let rip. Fiction needs anger as well as compassion: it’s a dramatic practice. In criticism, I value consideration, because an essay needs to persuade. I want to say what I would be prepared to say to someone’s face; or, better, I want to find a way of saying “only” what needs to be said. You can do that without shouting.

3:AM: The decision to arrange the pieces in (mostly) chronological order allows the reader to trace your development as a critic and essayist. As Broken Consort progresses, it seems to become more personal, your tastes and experiences appearing to take an increasingly central role in the writing. Is this a fair assessment?

WE: If you’re lucky, being young is about growing skins — the exercise and development of body and mind, the demonstration of ability, the dream of potential. That doesn’t stop as you get older (though it slows down); but something else starts up in middle age, which is that, even as you get interested in new things, you shed a certain self-consciousness about what you might have done or might still be, and learn to look at what’s left. What’s left looks new: perhaps you weren’t looking honestly enough in the first place. There’s a limit to what one can do about the constraints of age, physical debility, and so on, and the plain view of the limit can be a liberation as well as a constraint. If you’re a writer, this has consequences. You feel it in your solar plexus (or, in my case, the spine). You see, you really see, that the constraints of, say, poetry — scale, verse structure, prosody, line — aren’t there to prevent expansion, but to deepen invention.

I’m not a Buddhist, or a Christian, for that matter, but I do appreciate the discipline (and the pleasure and challenge) of the retreat. The common misconception seems to be that such confinement, sometimes in a hut, though it could just as easily be on a bus, is an expression of ascetic misanthropy, or at least of disappointment with the world. It isn’t. It’s a shedding of skins, an accommodation with things as they are. To go back to my first answer, the navigational trick is to notice movement, to work with what happens.

Flaubert said all this more succinctly: anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough. As did the Buddhist monks of medieval Japan (Chomei: “Surely there is nothing that isn’t moving, in fact, depending on circumstance”), the Desert Fathers, the Stoics, and even the great civil-rights writers, like Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin.

Some people know more about constraint than others. The last great cookery TV programme in the UK was Ready, Steady, Cook! (1994–2010, revived 2020). Contestants gave other contestants “random” ingredients, and everyone had to work with what they were given. With enough basic ingredients, most people ended up making a good meal. Occasionally, the cooks had bad luck — some bastard gave them a bottle of crème-de-menthe and three carrots — and couldn’t get anywhere. Did their failure show a poverty of invention? No. It showed that some people start with an unfair advantage.

I’ve strayed from your original question. I should learn to sit still.

3:AM: It must be intimidating to approach, say, Homer, or Shakespeare — the commentary on whom far exceeds anything that anyone could ever hope to read within a single lifetime. How, as a critic, do you navigate the perils of terra familiaris?

WE: Well, the familiar is the strange. See Flaubert and Chomei, above.

The anxiety behind this question is something else. It’s a version of: “What will the neighbours think?” Now, I like my neighbours. They’re full of good advice and diverting gossip, and I’m very lucky to have them. But there comes a point at which I must shut the door and get on with things. Perhaps they’ve said something unintelligible (one of them is an enthusiastic mumbler). It isn’t that I don’t care what they think. I do. I just don’t mind the fact that their opinions aren’t mine.

Nor do I mind it when they turn out to be right. The box elder tree is too big for the street, and it is lifting the pavement, and I will have to do something about it. My plot is small. Homer and Shakespeare belong to everyone.

3:AM: Much of your recent work (Murmur, parts of The Absent Therapist) attempts to bridge the great divide between the Arts and the Sciences. On the face of it, Broken Consort doesn’t seem to discuss a great deal of the latter: do you hope that it will win the attention of those whose interests lie beyond the Arts?

WE: I suppose I take an old-fashioned Humanist view of this problem, which is that the Two Cultures divide is unnecessary, and a false corralling of curiosity. The essay I wrote for the Codex conference at the Royal Society (“What is ability?”) goes into this in more detail, but, loosely, I think one wants to stay suspicious of defined capacity (“skill sets”, the lure of completeness) and to harness — to learn from — experience. If you’re a mathematician, you accept Gödel’s idea that logic is incomplete and inconsistent. If you’re a writer, you’re involved in finding out that novels and plays aren’t objects in a row: they’re forms that await rediscovery. A form is something that recurs, gets made again.

On a personal, as well as practical, level, I value the opinion of scientists, because they ask questions I can’t answer. They’re good sifters. Two years ago, I started a podcast with Sophie Scott, from the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience, about the different ways in which literature and scientific enquiry tackle imponderables like “communication” and “consciousness”. Each episode of The Neuromantics (on Soho Radio and Apple podcasts) looks at a story or poem alongside a scientific paper. It started out with me making large claims for ghosts in epic poetry and the qualia of consciousness, while Sophie talked sensibly about jokes and primates. Since then I’ve calmed down and the show has got into its stride. It turns out that libraries are different kinds of laboratory, and vice versa, but good luck trying to convince the current administration of that fact.

Here is the cosmologist Carl Sagan, writing in 1981: “I think the health of our civilisation, the depth of our awareness of the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.”

3:AM: In the Author’s Note at the end of Broken Consort, you write that you couldn’t “find a thematic pattern”, but from the reader’s point of view, the opposite seems true. Every page contains some expression of sympathy — with the nuances of texts, the complexities of life, the mysteries of consciousness, the power of ideas; and for the dead, the suffering, the disenfranchised, the misaligned. In the book’s only interview piece, you say “my ethical responsibility is not to wear a uniform”, but I wonder: does Broken Consort have a more specific ethical agenda?

WE: I’m a cautious moralist, so the answer to that would have to be a non-prescriptive “no”. Doubtless everything I do emerges from conditioning of one sort or another, but not all conditioning is bad., and even the regrettable sort — snobbery, prejudice, inherited taste — can be changed. That said, it’s hard to resist the mold. On the page, as in life, much of who one tries to be, and what one appears to believe, is only half-intended. First, we imitate to learn, and then perhaps we imitate more than we learn, because it’s easier. (Have the scions of politicians, musicians, writers and scientists, who follow in their parents’ footsteps, really, meaningfully, chosen their own path?)

I do think it is important to resist one’s circumstances. To be a little discomfited. To do things that don’t come too easily. Because: some people don’t have the choice, or find themselves suddenly embarking on terrible journeys to escape war and disaster, and they die every day for want of our privilege, which is itself no certain inheritance.

In his preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, George Orwell takes the “English” Left to task for its failure to see through the Soviet myth. Part of the problem, he says, lies in our being “accustomed to comparative freedom and moderation in public life” [my italics]. And then, as a shadow falls over the page, he says something truly frightening: “Nevertheless [England] is a country in which people have lived together for several hundred years without major conflict, in which the laws are relatively just and official news and statistics can almost invariably be believed . . . in which to hold and to voice minority views does not involve any mortal danger.”

That has changed. Perhaps Orwell was wrong, even in the late 1940s, about the official news and statistics. The truth is often hard to get at. What matters is the honesty of the attempt to locate it, which has disappeared. We’re in a lot of trouble.

Will Eaves, August 25, 2020



Oscar Mardell

Oscar Mardell was born in London and raised in South Wales. He currently lives in an urban commune in Auckland, New Zealand where he brews beer and practices Aikido. He teaches in the English Department at St Mary’s College, and volunteers for English Language Partners NZ. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in War, Literature & the Arts, The Literary London Journal, and DIAGRAM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 9th, 2020.