The other over-riding tone of Crace in interview is that of self-deprecation. It partly goes back to the fact that, before his first novel, he was a successful journalist. “Because that part of me – he reasons – that is ashamed of the type of books that I write is aware, and was aware when I was a journalist, that you can address big issues if you’re a journalist. It’s false of me as a writer to say that I’m changing the hearts and minds of people, because when I look at the audience at book readings etc. they’re clones of me. You can meet someone who’s a fan of my books, and they’ll be anti the Iraq invasion, careful that they don’t eat red meats etc. The kind of people who read me are like me. When I was working as a journalist that wasn’t the case. The last paper I worked for was The Sunday Times, where there was a possible audience of 7 million, most of which weren’t like me, so there was the possibility to address issues and perhaps change people’s points of view. As a political person that was something tremendously important and it’s something I can’t do now as a writer. I miss that – the sense of playing a part of things. It all feels a bit dilettante, what I do, to tell you the truth”.
This is all very well, but I point out to him that which he knows well, that the strength of his books lie precisely in the fact that they have enough subtlety and ambiguity to appeal to diverse audiences. As his fan mail for Quarantine alone shows. When pushed, he admits, “I might be exagerating a bit, when I say that all my readers are clones of me, but it’s better than the other exageration which is where writers overplay the significance of their work, where writers imagine that because they’ve written a novel the heavens are going to open. Those are the sort of writers who don’t have a political life, who don’t have a life outside literature, and who believe that literature is the answer to everything, and of course it’s not. It’s dangerous to pretend that it is. What’s important in people’s lives is that they have some form of transcendence, and we atheists don’t even have a proper set of words to express that, but it might be anything from carpentry through to playing the flute, but what is important is that people have an imaginative life and an imaginative world, because that’s rewarding. It’s not necessarily important that they read novels. It’s damaging to the big truth for writers to pretend that that is the case. More importantly it’s damaging for the book on the screen that you’re writing, if you tell yourself that it’s of immense value. It’s much better for you if you tell yourself that it’s worthless, because the impulse is there to improve. Part of my self-deprecation is just a strategy to make me a) not turn into a monster (which is tempting for all writers), and b) be disciplined about the stuff”.
Crace is immensely popular, not only in the UK, but also in America and Europe. Indeed, many critics reference European writers in particular when discussing his work. Is there a European influence in his work? “I don’t write out of other books, but I do feel European, and
I do read a lot of European writers. Gunther Grass is someone I admire greatly, along with Calvino and Primo Levi. Less so Kundera, more so the Latin American magical realists. The conventional English novel is not like my novels. It is realistic, it is autobiographical. It is largely ironic in tone. Irony is the great contribution of the English to literature, and also our default and distinguishing tone in all matters from Politics to giving dinner parties. Irony is the thing that enables us to be serious without seeming to be serious, because we’re very embarassed by seriousness. Intellectual is a term of abuse in the UK rather than approval. In my private life, I’m an ironic person, and I like the ironic tone, but my books are not ironic at all. They’re very moralistic”.
He talks further on the moral tone of his novels: “I’m very aware that no matter what I’ve said about my views on religion, there’s a deep ambiguity, in me and my books, that shows through about spirituality. There’s a spirituality that comes across in a very old fashioned and biblical way. But then I deny the existence of God. All I’m doing is replacing God with natural history. Arguing that the world is an inside job rather than an outside job, and then I behave like an old fashioned priest. There was a review where they referred to me as the Reverend Crace, which annoyed me for a moment, but then amused me because it’s spot on. I am moralistic and I do lecture in my books. There is that kind of ambiguity there”.
The Reverend Crace though has a strong sense of mischief employed in his narrative, most openly in the delightful collection of short stories The Devil’s Larder, where for example he prefaced the book with a quote from the book of Visitations – an apocryphal book of the Bible, authored by Crace. It fooled plenty. “I’m quite a mischievous person and that does show through. Some parts of your character do show through in the books, it’s inevitable. They’re bound to. I’m aware when I go to do readings, the kind of person that is expected. They’re expecting, as someone in Galway[Ireland] said when I was doing a reading there, a very grim faced, long haired, prophet type person, whom they’d imagined after reading Quarantine and Being Dead. Instead they said, ‘he showed up with his hands in his pockets, whistling, and could have been anybody’s Dad’ [Laughs]. The solemnity of the books though, the embarassed seriousness, is a hidden part of my character. You wouldn’t recognise it if you were to meet me”.
Whether it’s discussing a theme like town planning (Arcadia), the way food and eating are “stitched into our social fabric” (The Devil’s Larder), or religious belief and the lack of it (Quarantine and Being Dead, Crace’s work has always contained a complex mix of invention, detail, solemnity and mischief. In the course of the converstaion, when discussing his inventive deviousness, he says something that seems to sum up much of his drive, and is as good a place as any to finish: “I’m always baffled when people are angered or confused by the deceptions in the fiction, and they say ‘But you lied to us’, and it may be naiive, but to this day I think ‘No, I didn’t lie to you. I wasn’t misleading you, it wasn’t a lack of generosity. It was generosity in fact: I was telling you a story. I’ve tried to tell you a story that works, that you believe’”.