Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The People’s Act of Love – Author James Meek in interview

TMO: One of the things that particularly impressed me with The People’s Act of Love was the fact that you used two elements, from history, the castration sect and cannibalism, that could easily have overwhelmed the story, and yet theyremain almost peripheral. They are important to the story, but they in themselves are not the story. Would you agree?

James Meek: It was a hope of mine that this would happen. They are important, but it is always difficult to confront horror full-on. You don’t want to be seento be avoiding unpleasantness, yet nor do you want to be simply grossingyour readers out, or scaring them, for the pure sake of making a stranger’s guts churn. The more extreme an action, the harder you have to work to contain it within a bigger narrative, the more you are likely to gain by subtlety and indirectness. So I did want to describe the act of castration,but simply, without excessive gore, and without toiling through too much biological detail about what it actually does to a man’s body to have his balls cut off, in terms of loss of  testosterone. I always admired the scene in Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov murders the pawnbroker and her sister. The actual murders, which are bloody, horrible, terrifying, are described in matter of fact terms. Immediately afterwards, with the corpses lying there, Raskolnikov sees that the door to the apartment is open. It is the sight of the open door, not the women which he has just killed, which is described as “a horror such as he had never, never experienced before.” Genius.

TMO: A number of critics have picked up on the language used in the book. George Walden, writing in the New Statesman, remarked, “Meek has a good ear for that peculiarly ethereal tone that can inflect ordinary Russian speech,so that grand notions can be expressed in unpretentious, sometimes earthy language”. Lesley Chamberlain wrote, in the Independent, “one has to admire a British writer who can write convincingly as a Russian. There were linguistically odd moments when I thought I was reading a less than perfect translation”. How important was setting the linguistic tone in the book?

James Meek: It was important. There is a degree of presumptiousness involved when a writer whose mother tongue is English writes a book in English in which none of the characters are English speakers. But I do speak and read Russian; I lived in the Russian-language world for eight years, a third of my adult life. Sometimes when I was writing it, I did hear the Russian words in my head, and I did translate them.

TMO: It seems a brave and unconventional choice, to stage the novel in a long forgotten war, in a part of the world that has rarely figured in English language literature. Most of the novels longlisted for the Man Booker prize, for example, are set either in completely fictional worlds, or in a setting that has a fairly direct connection with the author. As a writer,are you influenced by prevailing fashions, in the sense of avoiding them?

James Meek: I don’t believe in the idea of completely fictional worlds. You can never separate made-up milieux from the words you use to describe them, words which will, unavoidably, resonate in the readers’  heads with the not-made up milieux they have experienced. I read a lot of science fiction in my early teens and I recognised all the worlds there, every one. No matter how much alien geography and exotica you put in, you have to be ableto describe it in familiar words, otherwise it’s incomprehensible, and there have to be recognisable patterns of behaviour among the characters,otherwise it’s dull. Even Finnegan’s Wake and symbolist poetry don’t create a completely fictional world.

As for fashions – the books on the longlist, on the shortlist for that matter, seem quite diverse to me. The world of English language literature, encompassing as it does India and NorthAmerica and Africa and Australasia as well as all the British Isles, is too large, and the generational, ethnic and gender spread of working writers too great, for prevailing fashions. Experimental modernist fiction is out of  fashion, though, I grant you that.

TMO: As a reader, what are the elements that draw you to a novel? To put itanother way, what kind of novels do you enjoy the most?

James Meek: I like a wise author. One who is neither cynical nor idealistic, but has an observation about the world which is true. I loathe authors who use clichés as if they were words, authors for whom the texture of the sentence, its rhythm and structure, doesn’t matter. The sentences can be terse or elaborate; I don’t mind so long as I know the writer wants to and can fashion them well. There is nothing sweeter than a description which flies to the thing it describes and fits it, like a key hurled from ten feet slotting into its lock. I love to be surprised not so much by a twist of plot as a twist of characterisation. As soon as I read, in the very early pages of Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, the sentence “It was rumoured the director was homosexual, but in reality he was simply a drunk”, I knew Iwould read the book to the end. All that matters, all that great novelists have in common, is truth, and narrative. What it is that makes you believe,and what makes you keep turning the page. Finally, I don’t believe I’ve ever read a great book which didn’t make me laugh, or at least force a wry smile, at least once. And that includes such sombre works as If This Is AMan.

TMO: Irish novelist Dermot Bolger, talking about his latest novel The Family onParadise Pier, said “if you really want to understand the past, it means you do not have heroes and villains; you remember the complexities of a decade and try not to be wise after the event”. Is there a challenge for a novelist dealing with the weight of history, in dealing with his/hercharacters? Should literature be non-judgemental? Is The People’s Act ofLove non-judgemental? It’s interesting that while Mutz may be the most sympathetic character, he’s far from the most charismatic (Anna, after all,loves and hates both Balashov and Samarin, not the reasonable and heroic Mutz).

James Meek: Yes. Sad, isn’t it? And true, I think. Not I think: I know. You don’thave to be in a war for it to happen, either. When writing about the past,you have to avoid the temptation to irony or the application of retrospective morals. In my book that means no “I bumped into a funny little man in the western trenches, corporal by the name of Hitler” and no concealing the pervasive racism and anti-semitism of 1919, even among relatively sympathetic characters. What is important is that you, the writer, sympathise with each expression of each character at the moment they are making it. A novel free of any moral framework runs the risk of dullness. But there is a difference between making a sharp observation about your characters’ behaviour, or about the behaviour of people in general, and making a judgement about it. The observation is the writer’s; the judgement is the reader’s. Yet by making the observation, you are inviting the judgement.

The People’s Act of Love by James Meek is published in the UK by Canongate.

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