Nicholas Clee meets the acclaimed journalist and novelist who doesn't believe in providing his readers with easy reads.
Philip Hensher is not a novelist who has ever been associated with a single genre, or even with a particular style, and he will not surprise followers of his career by offering, after two novels in the English social realist tradition, something completely different. Indeed, if you removed the words ‘Philip Hensher’ and ‘novel’ from the jacket of Scenes from Early Life, you might pass off the book as a memoir. It takes the form of a man’s memories of childhood in an extended, well- to-do family in Bangladesh (the former East Pakistan) in the 1970s, at the time when the country fought for its independence from West Pakistan, and when it experienced famine and bloody factionalism. We know, because the blurb tells us, that the narrator is a real person: Hensher’s husband, Zaved Mahmood. So is this really a novel?
‘It’s definitely a novel,’ Hensher says. ‘There are strands of it that are more or less true, and strands that I’ve completely made up.’ Hearing this, I guess correctly that a touching thread in Scenes from Early Life, about the friendship across the Hindu/Muslim divide between two musicians, belongs in the latter category. Other sections of the novel may be closer to Zaved’s true experiences, but given novelistic shape. ‘The process of writing it was sheer pleasure,’ Hensher explains. ‘In the evening, over dinner, I’d say something like, “Tell me some more about your aunts”, and Zav would tell me a story, and the next morning I’d write it up.’ But anecdotes rarely have the shape or the atmosphere – the furniture in a room, the flora in the garden, the ingredients of a dinner – that novelists require, so Hensher would manufacture it, with help from Mahmood and from his own knowledge of Bangladesh.
Mahmood is perfectly happy about this appropriation, Hensher says. ‘He was never going to write the story himself. He’s a very busy, important person, and he wasn’t going to take time off to write his memoir.’ (Mahmood is a human rights lawyer working with the UN in Geneva.)
‘Whenever we’d go to a publishing party, Zav would come away saying, “Nicholas [Pearson, Hensher’s publisher] wants me to write my memoir.” After hearing this for a while, I thought, “Why shouldn’t I write it?” I love family stories, and particularly ones with aunts in them. [Among the several aunts in the book is one with the Wodehousian name of Dahlia.] And I also love stories where there’s something big in the background that intrudes on private lives.’ As in previous novels, Hensher maintains his focus on his characters, only providing the history that is necessary to explain what is happening to them. He shows us the tensions in neighbourhoods where children are warned against playing with boys and girls from families who took the opposing side in the civil war; the ravages of famine; the horrors of sectarian violence. But the novel is also comic, with a cast of distinctive characters; and it is a vivid evocation of what are, to the Western reader, exotic sights, noises, smells and tastes.
Given such material, a writer can easily fall into the trap of ‘orientalism’, patronising his subject with an overdose of exotic colour. The prose in Scenes from Early Life, though, is pared-down and straightforward – a contrast to the ironical style of Hensher’s previous novel, King of the Badgers. Knowledge of a country, he says, offered another guard against inauthenticity. ‘I wrote a novel about Afghanistan [the historical epic The Mulberry Empire] without going there, and I wrote my first novel, about Vienna [Other Lulus], before I had ever been to Vienna – which seems strange to me now. If you write about places you don’t know, the writing can have a fairy tale feel, and it was very important to me that this novel didn’t have that.’
Some writers – as contrasting as Martin Amis and Anita Brookner – have entirely distinctive prose styles, consistent from book to book. A Hensher style is much harder to identify, particularly after Scenes from Early Life (though a note of acidic satire is apparent in several of his books). He says that the voice of each book comes to him along with the subject matter: ‘Once you hear the voice, the book just seems to go ahead in a straightforward way. With this book, for obvious reasons, the voice was clear to me early on.’
‘Philip Hensher reviews his contemporaries
On Martin Amis, The Pregnant Widow: ‘Moving and humane, The Pregnant Widow also captivates by the accustomed wit and elegance of its style. Amis just writes so well and so freshly.’ (Telegraph)
On Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach: ‘Liberation, in this novel, happens somewhere else. But that can only be to the benefit of the humanity of this small but interesting novel. I like it much more than McEwan’s last six novels, at least.’ (Spectator)
On Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go: ‘It is an awful thing to say, but I believed so little in any of the people, their situation, or the way they spoke that I didn’t really care what happened to them. They could have been turned into tins of Pedigree Chum without raising much concern.’ (Spectator)
On Jane Smiley, Horse Heaven: ‘She is the most perfect vindication of the realist novel, of the speaking voice. In her sensuous responsiveness to the facts of the world, her cool, amused, analytical gaze, she has started to look like the best living American novelist.’ (Observer) .'
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Hensher grew up in Sheffield, and says that it is ‘fair enough’ to describe The Northern Clemency as autobiographical. ‘But the autobiographical bits don’t necessarily lie where the reader might think that they do,’ he adds. There is no single character whom one can associate with the author. The Northern Clemency may focus on two families, but has a large cast of characters. ‘As a reader, I like a crowded novel, rather than one with two characters and a cat. I think contemporary novelists underestimate the number of characters in the great novels. How many characters do you think there are in Emma?’ Twenty, I guess. ‘One hundred and twenty- four,’ he tells me. ‘There are 16 speaking parts [a figure that makes me feel better about the one I gave]. I’ve just written a piece about Dickens, and in an idle moment I counted the characters in Bleak House: 160 named or speaking characters. You get energy from a large cast. What’s wrong with so many neo-Victorian novels is that they’ll go for 100 pages with three characters. No Victorian writer would have done that.’
Hensher also describes The Northern Clemency as a political novel. But it is not political in the sense that many readers would understand the term: it is not primarily about the state of the nation in the Wilson/ Callaghan/Thatcher/Major years, or about significant events such as the miners’ strike. It has no agenda – or none that could be given a neat political definition. Rather, it is about how Hensher’s characters lived through those events. Bernie Sellers has a job in the electricity industry, and so works to continue to supply power during the strike. Tim Glover, first seen as an obsessive young boy, grows up to become an angry radical, and joins the picketing lines during the violent ‘Battle of Orgreave’.
‘There isn’t a way to write a novel about the miners’ strike: you can only write about individual men and women,’ Hensher says. ‘What some people mean when they use the term “political novel” is “a novel with politics I agree with”. I didn’t want to write a novel that people could agree with: I wanted people to disagree with it. And I wanted the novel to have its own politics, which weren’t necessarily my politics. Some quite naive people said, “It’s astonishing he doesn’t realise that this isn’t a very left-liberal sentiment”, as if I wouldn’t have been aware of that. Just because I’m a soggy liberal, doesn’t mean that my novels are.’
Some critics disliked the portrayal of Tim’s girlfriend Trudy, a leftist hardliner who disdains the bourgeois habit of washing. (Though they might not have objected to a similarly broad portrayal of, say, a Thatcherite politician.) ‘I knew a lot of people like appalling Trudy,’ Hensher insists. ‘They amused me a lot.
‘I guess what people found disconcerting is having these opinions being voiced and not knowing where they were supposed to raise their flag. I wasn’t sure where to raise my flag at any point. It was desperately sad that a whole industry came to an end, and that all these people who thought that was going to be their way of life and their children’s way of life suddenly found themselves in a world they didn’t understand.
‘But what was the alternative? I don’t think that there were any answers, just as there aren’t any obvious answers to what we face now. The novelist’s job is to reflect confusion, not to provide an easy answer, or to get the reader to arrive at the last page and say, “I agree.”’
‘I don’t believe that any writer can put in more than three hours’ imaginative work a day.
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FICTION AND LIFE
The Northern Clemency, as its name implied, had a benign tone. King of the Badgers is sharper, and more disturbing. As he was writing the novel, the trial took place of Karen Matthews, who was convicted of conspiracy in the kidnapping of her own daughter; he fictionalised the case, and used it to bookend his story. An upsetting section of the novel takes the reader into the kidnapper’s lair. ‘Some criminal cases are fascinating and traumatic in real life but not the subject for novels. [The Madeleine McCann case being one, he says.] But when there’s a question of sincerity, and people are lying their heads off – that’s a subject for me.’ While the investigation of the disappearance takes place, the dramas of the novel involve a cast including an overbearing university lecturer and her husband, who have been overspending their salaries; a cheese shop owner and his gay lover, whose hosting of a gay orgy provides one of the big set pieces of the novel; and another gay man, unhappy and overweight David, who visits Hanmer with a glamorous waiter who is not, an spite of the impression David wishes to create, his lover.
An episode that has not attracted much attention takes place early in the novel, as a character on board a train leaving Waterloo looks out of the window and sees a gunman firing at people on the platform. This atrocity barely impinges on the novel afterwards, except late on, when it indirectly advances the career of the character who witnessed it. I ask Hensher about the episode, and he laughs. ‘I’ve always fought as a novelist against the idea that events have their own intrinsic weight – that what seems incredibly important and tragic to one person must be tragic and important to everyone,’ he explains. ‘But these things might not matter to you at all, because they’re too far away.’ Why did he laugh? ‘Because it’s a great pleasure to me to put something like that in a novel.’
Certain reviewers have mentioned the title, but only in puzzlement. It comes from a 1960s children’s book, Uncle Cleans Up by JP Martin: ‘The King of the Badgers is one of uncle’s best friends and neighbours, but he was away arranging a loan from a foreign banker.’ Hensher explains, as if pointing out something obvious: ‘There are badgers, and they have a king. I don’t know what happened to the
badgers, but the king is not in the novel because he’s arranging a loan from a foreign banker.’ Ah.
Hensher’s next book will be a non-fiction work, Missing Ink, about handwriting – he reckons that he may be the only novelist of his generation to write his novels by hand. We do not know what his next novel will be, and we would be unwise to try to guess.
AN UNATTRACTIVE JOB
Not wedded to a single style, he does not entertain a sense of himself as a novelist that is separate from the books he writes. He never said to himself, ‘I want to be a novelist’, but has always found that there have been particular books that insisted on being written. ‘Writing is such an unattractive job,’ he asserts. ‘I tell students this all the time. Students – particularly not very good ones – say to me, “I want to be a writer.” I tell them that I have no idea why they should feel that way.’
He never entertained writing as an undefined ambition, even while labouring in his first job (after gaining his Cambridge PhD), as a House of Commons clerk. Nevertheless, he did contrive to get himself fired, by giving an indiscreet interview to a gay magazine.
At about this time, in the early 1990s, he began to gain a reputation as an outspoken critic, filing Guardian reviews that appeared with the note, ‘Philip Hensher is writing a novel about Alban Berg’. This novel, Other Lulus, appeared in 1994, and juxtaposed the story of the staging of Berg’s opera Lulu in Vienna in the 1930s with that of a crisis in a contemporary marriage. Kitchen Venom followed in 1996, and drew on Hensher’s experiences in Parliament. Pleasured (1998) was set in Berlin before the fall of the Wall, and The Bedroom of the Mister’s Wife (1999) was a collection of often acerbic short stories. With The Mulberry Empire (2002), he made a complete departure: it is an epic, in the 19th-century tradition, about Britain’s first, disastrous foray into Afghanistan in the 1830s and 1840s. He wrote it, he explained in an afterword, after his friend AS Byatt had told him ‘bluntly’ that he should tackle a long novel.
As if in reaction, Hensher produced next The Fit (2004), a 300-page novel about a man who contracts apparently incurable hiccups when his wife leaves him. But he returned to Victorian length with The Northern Clemency (2008), following the lives of two families, the Sellers and the Glovers, in Sheffield from 1974 to 1994. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
‘Once you hear the voice, the book just seems to go ahead in a straightforward way. With this book, for obvious reasons, the voice was clear to me early on.’
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Hensher gives rein to his own opinions, instead, in his columns and reviews. Some writers appear to regret that they have to expend energy on journalism rather than devote themselves full-time to books, and they cut back on their journalism as their authorial careers develop. Not Hensher. ‘I love journalism,’ he says. ‘I can’t imagine myself never writing for the newspapers. It’s good for a writer to engage with issues of the day, and I think it’s very bad for a writer not to read and review new books from time to time. If you’ve got no sense what people 20 years younger than you are writing, then I think you might as well give up, really.’ Is it not awkward, sometimes, to be criticising your peers? ‘It was a bit awkward bumping into Kazuo Ishiguro at a party last night, because I’ve loathed every one of his recent books,’ Hensher admits. ‘I don’t enjoy that kind of situation very much, but not to the point of saying that I like books that I don’t like, or giving up the useful reviewers’ fee.’
We meet on the day of publication of the Christmas issue of Private Eye, which names him log-rolling champion of the year for once again selecting a book by his friend AS Byatt in his books of the year recommendations. He explains his reviewing principles: ‘I don’t review books by people who have been to my house, or by people whose houses I have been in. But with recommendations at Christmas, it’s different.’ In any case, he argues, the review pages of newspapers are far more transparent in this respect than are literary blogs.
He writes fiction from seven to nine each morning. ‘Two hours a day is loads,’ he says. ‘I don’t believe
that any writer can put in more than three hours’ imaginative work a day. I’ve heard writers talk about doing six hours, but I just don’t understand it.’ He divides his time between South London, Geneva, and Topsham in Devon, from where he commutes to a teaching job in the creative writing department at Exeter University. He does not speak of this role, which occupies about three days a week during term time, with a great deal of enthusiasm. ‘I’m not convinced that these courses are the best environment for writers, and I’m not convinced that they offer the best way to become a writer.’
He had been living in Topsham for about two months when a stranger came up to him in the street and asked him whether he had enjoyed his dinner of wild duck the night before. The man had heard about the purchase from the local butcher. ‘We don’t really know what our neighbours in London are having for dinner, but it’s a matter for discussion in Topsham.’ Hensher began to formulate the idea for a novel set in such a community, where relationships are interconnected and where there is a good deal of intrusion into people’s lives. It became King of the Badgers, out in paperback this spring.
The Devon town in the novel is called Hanmer, and is stuffed with surveillance cameras thanks to the urgings of a shadowy Neighbourhood Watch branch run by a busybody called John Calvin. In his handling of this theme, Hensher does for once have an agenda. ‘I don’t know how or why we came to have so many cameras peering at us the whole time,’ he says. ‘I don’t know who asked us whether we wanted this, and I don’t know how we would get rid of it. David Cameron came in promising to cut down on the surveillance society, but he’s done absolutely nothing. I think it’s very depressing.’
‘POLYMATH n a person of great and varied learning [C17 from Greek polumathes having much knowledge] Collins English Dictionary
Truly, Philip Hensher fits the bill – as well as a not-quite-weekly column for The Independent on a wide variety of topical issues he reviews regularly for The Guardian. In the last six months his subjects have encompassed Samuel Beckett, Terence Rattigan, Max Hastings Charles Dickens and Paul Klee. And if that weren’t enough, as an Associate Professor at the University of Exeter his research interests are listed as
the Victorian novel;
the twentieth century novel;
the Edwardians and fiction in the Attlee administration;
relations between literature and painting the Indian novel in English.
My interests are rooted in the realist traditions, but extend to explorations of intertextuality, self-aware narrations, pastiche and disruptive techniques deriving from other art forms, particularly music. In addition, I’ve tried to import literary forms from other cultures, imitating German structures in Pleasured and subverting the prevailing Orientalist mode in The Mulberry Empire with literary forms taken from Arabic and Persian literature. The Fit was an attempt to subvert the traditional modes of the English comic novel with disjunctures of tone and mode. The Northern Clemency is a straightforward narrative of two families, told through the history of the energy industry, again flavoured by sharp disjunctions of tone and style.’ (Plus, he wrote the libretto for Thomas Adès’ scandalous 1995 opera Powder Her Face.) .
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King of the Badgers
by Philip Hensher
is published 29/03/2012
in paperback by
Scenes from Early Life
by Philip Hensher
is published 12/04/2012
in hardback by
‘“As a reader, I like a crowded novel, rather than one with two characters and a cat.”
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