English Department, Ain Shams University, Cairo, Thursday, 5th December 1974
I first wrote a novel when I was 19, in six weeks, under the influence of Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence and H.E.B. – because I was a country boy and they wrote about country (or provincial) matters.
This first novel (which was never published) involved deliberate stretching of the imagination (namely, over violence and childbirth), unconscious motivation from the characters (such as a woman who kept losing her wedding ring), and a relationship with a ‘gentleman.’ It was a very bad novel, but, without knowing it, I was working in the English tradition – a desire to extend experience and put oneself into the minds of others; to find out what is really going on; to create a moral force through the exploration of class.
I think I am right to stress the element of moral concern in the English novel: it grew out of the Puritanical self-examination of 17th century writers. Distinctions between right and wrong are at the heart of the narrative interest of fiction. But there is another element too: play. This is aesthetic and amoral. A young writer, like a young reader, wants to stretch his imagination in the same way that a kitten plays, pretending that a shadow is a mouse. Play is fundamental.
When I write a novel now, it is only out of some excitement over a crux, a donnée, a paradox that I imperfectly understand. Some writers get excited over technicalities, for example Samuel Becket and the lights, or Tom Stoppard filling in the gaps behind Hamlet. For myself, the donnée would have to be, in the manner of Henry James, psychological. James dined out. My psychological inspirations tend to be self-generated.
To give an example: certain special qualities of being English have always interested me. The fact that so many Englishmen identify with their country becomes interesting once this particular idealism is upset, as with the Boer War. This thought led to Something To Answer For. Similarly, the idea that opposing political views do not rule out warm personal friendship led to The Picnic at Sakkara; and the fact that everyone is a bit madder than they pretend to be, and that morality is bound up with coming to terms with that madness and breaking through ‘reality’ and freedom from self deception, led to A Lot to Ask.
Once I have this psychological inspiration, I think of how to write it down. For me it is technically necessary to have the whole thing clearly in my mind and firmly planted in the past, as opposed to ‘improvising’ the events. The novelist who remembers and recreates an imaginary past (e.g. Dickens who wrote about a world 25 years earlier), is able to organise his or her material in a more interesting and effective way. The novelist who improvises and is following a story in a close time sequence may fall into difficulties and clumsiness – he has no choice but to build blindly in instalments of ‘seven years later,’ or whatever the time frame is.
Another advantage to the approach I use is that the imagination is working in a period where it is confident. For example, the novel I am currently writing: the original idea was for a novel set in Bombay (I’m drawn to explorations of relations between different races, in this case English and Indian), but I could not establish it clearly enough. This was because, firstly, I did not know enough about life in Bombay, and had no personal past I could fit it into. Secondly, although the central subject was interesting enough, it only existed in a vacuum: there was no sense of a larger history going on. The best I could do was something rather in the style of Somerset Maugham, a club story about strange goings on in foreign parts. I wanted something more inward. I thus transferred the whole setting to Egypt, 1941-2, before the battle of El Alamein: a location that I was far more confident with. It was so long ago that I could tease out the significance of the story in whatever order I liked; I did not need a straightforward chronological sequence. Cairo 1941-2 was also vividly present in my imagination.
Behind the contemporary literary impulse is a moral concern to be truthful, to avoid sham. There are two reasons for this: one, the English novel is 300 years old, has built up and discarded conventions, and there is a weight of literary achievement on our backs. One way to get rid of this is by an absolute insistence on personal voice. Secondly, there is a feeling that there are social strains which would be eased if the truth were spoken. This is the main reason for so much writing about sex, from D.H. Laurence onwards. This insistence on avoiding sham, clichés, false doctrines and feelings, is one of the main characteristics of English fiction nowadays.
It is a strength and it is also a weakness. The difficulty is that it argues against artifice and convention in the novel itself – and the novel depends on these two. The novelist is tempted to say, how can I know about other people? I am not God, how can I invent anything outside the range of my own experience? The only honest fiction must read like autobiography. Even then (to take my own case) it is credible that recreating the world of Cairo in 1941-2 I can remember the detail which has to be there if the fiction is to be convincing. Conscious of this, I say, ‘I have a vivid recollection of the experience and the detail must have been something like this.’ The detail is offered tentatively, speculatively, with the warning that it might be wrong.
There are of course other ways that people write: one might present fiction as researched journalism, or alternatively as a presentation of raw material that would allow the reader to make up his or her own novel. In fact, I sometimes think that the really typical late 20th century novel would be like a game with dive and counter where you move on a board calling on all modern science and knowledge. The winner would be the one who attained the fullest degree of self-awareness and freedom from the circumstances of his own culture and upbringing (when I mentioned this possibility to my own publisher, he looked nervous).
There are those who say that the novel is dead, that prose fiction is capable of describing the kind of world that brought it into existence and no longer exists itself. I believe the novel will renew itself by absorbing modern scientific insights and knowledge, and by addressing an intelligent public who want to give their imagination an opportunity to play. Literature is a matter of words and it is through the word that we are most fully human. If we are to continue to think and imagine, then thought and imagination will be expressed in verbal accounts of what is it to exist: in other words, in novels.
P.H. Newby, CBE: novelist, historian, and managing director of BBC Radio. First winner of the Booker Prize in 1969.
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