I was not the first one to find the book. There were notes in the margins, stains on the pages, a rose pressed between leaves 186 and 187. There was a map of The Vatican, a telephone number scribbled down the blade of a sword, a letter, unopened.
The sub-title of this book is – A piece for three voices and a bawd. The three voices are Handel, a distinguished surgeon and one-time Catholic priest. Picasso, a young woman who wants to be a painter. Sappho, a poet, in 660 BC and now. The bawd in question is one Doll Sneerpiece, an eighteenth century whore.
The book is set in an imagined future where the State has almost total control and where individual values count for nothing. The action takes place in a single day as the three travel towards the coast by train. Narratives that are separate gradually come together until by the end of the book, all three destinies have combined.
All of my books manipulate time, in an effort to free the mind from the effects of gravity. The present has a weight to it – the weight of our lives, the weight of now. By imaginatively moving sideways, I try to let in more light and air. So in this book, Sappho both is and isn’t the ancient poet of antiquity. She is and isn’t a modern day beat poet living in a squat. She’s double. Her own double. Handel is the way into the book. Think of him as a Handle as well as a play on the composer. He’s old-fashioned, reserved, sensitive, afraid of the brave new world as well as being conscious of it being the logical product of men like himself. He’s not a hate figure though, he’s someone I wanted to understand.
Picasso. Well, take the most famous painter of the twentieth century and re-gender him. I was thinking of that Virginia Woolf passage in A Room of One’s Own, where she talks about Shakespeare’s sister and what an impossible life she would have had, even (or especially) with the same genius. The Picasso in this book is struggling with all the assumptions of gender and creativity and trying to avoid the three options open to women artists of all kinds – 1) failure. 2) a modest success (i.e. unthreatening to men), 3) madness.
Each of the voices has his or her own distinctive style and vocabulary, but Sappho’s is clearly a construct and removed from the kind of language we speak. I wanted this strangeness, – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. but it is sustained, and as an experiment in language it was worth doing, if only to question assumptions/expectations about how things should sound.
I guess sound is the key to this book. I always read my work out-loud when I’m writing it and I think of myself as a writer who is at best read out loud. This is probably because I come from an oral and not a literary tradition. It is also because I am more interested in poetry than prose. If my lines are difficult, try them out-loud, as you would with a poem. Then the sense is soon there.
You printed a section from Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier at the end of this book. Why?
It is the proper end to the book. I’m looking forward to an e-version of Art and Lies, so that readers can hear the music. Obviously the piece is for three voices, but it is also music of surrender and understanding – the point reached at the end of the book by Handel, Picasso and Sappho. If you can, please listen to it. I can’t, as yet, put it on the site for copyright reasons, but I’m working on it.
Some people find this book very difficult. What do you say to that?
Why should literature be easy? Sometimes you can do what you want to do in a simple, direct way that is absolutely right. Sometimes you can’t. Reading is not a passive act. Books are not TV. Art of all kinds is an interactive challenge. The person who makes the work and the person who comes to the work both have a job to do. I am never wilfully obscure, but I do ask for some effort. Certainly Art and Lies is my most closed piece of work. Perhaps it is hermeneutic, though no more so than plenty of books by plenty of guys .It was written at a time when I was looking inwards not outwards. It is thickly layered, concentrated and often dark. But it’s a book not a crime. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.
The pages were thick, more like napkins than paper, more like sheets than napkins, glazed yellow by time. The cut pages had tattered edges but not all of the pages had been cut. In spite of its past, this book had not been finished, but unfinished by whom? The reader or the writer?