by Sue Dickman
I caught up with Barbara Trapido by phone from Oxford after her return from a literary festival in Mauritius and before she submitted herself to a day of miserable dental work. Our conversation was long, free-flowing and always engaging. It is excerpted below.
Sue Dickman: I know that you worked on your first novel, Brother of the More Famous Jack, for many years before it was actually published. You put it away for a long time and then took it out again. Since writers who start writing later in life is the theme of Bloom and what all Bloom writers have in common, I wanted to ask you about your experience of coming to writing, to novel-writing, later in life.
Barbara Trapido: It’s something that happens much more with women. I’m thinking of my own life, of course. (I turned 71 last year.) You tend to spend the early part of your life preoccupied with family stuff and put your own things on hold, whether it’s music or art or whatever. A lot of women did that and then emerged after their children became more self-sufficient. It’s so hard to generalize because there are marvelous novels written by very young people. But I think if I had gone ahead and written my Jack story at the time, it would have been a very different book. Certainly having children changes you—you feel like you’ve been through the mill, rather. I think it may give you a more complex view on things. I don’t think my writing would have been as good if I’d started younger.
I’m sure it’s different to get that kind of attention earlier. I don’t know that it’s necessarily an advantage.
SD: I don’t know if it’s an advantage or not. Certainly here and probably there, there’s a lot of focus on the “young genius,” the person who gets discovered in her 20s and is seen as the voice of a generation.
BT: Yes, and often they’re kind of puffed beyond their actual abilities and can’t sustain it very much. I think that must be quite demoralizing for the person in question. And of course, you can be very photogenic when you’re young, and people love to take up sweet young things. But some people have an early career, and then they disappear and they reappear, which is interesting. I have a friend who wrote her first novel when she was about 17–a sweet young blond who got taken up everywhere, and then she married her school sweetheart early on, and she said, “We were just too poor to go to parties in London and network,” and everyone just forgot about her. But she kept on writing.
SD: And did she reappear when she was older?
BT: Yes, yes. I don’t think she’s ever been a huge sell, but she’s been on the Booker shortlist and is a respectable literary figure. She never made any money
SD: Unfortunately, not many people do.
BT: It’s quite arbitrary, isn’t it? Book prizes are a complete lottery. If you win one of the big prizes, your sales double or triple and you get talked about in quite a different way, but in the end, it’s a lottery.
SD: Can we talk a bit about your linked novels, the characters who are carried from one book to the next.
BT: Yes, I noticed you started your piece by saying that you liked books with linked characters and sequences and such.
What I’m playing around with doing now is writing a sequel to Brother of the More Famous Jack. I just started writing it one day in the back of a Jose Saramago novel. I didn’t have paper on me, so I just started scribbling in the back of this novel I was reading. I started writing about Jane Goldman’s 80th birthday party. Because I thought, “I wonder what all those guys are doing now, all those umpteen children they had.” And so I’m giving them all sections, and they’re all going to come together at this party. I think it might work. It’s certainly fun to do.
SD: The linked aspect of your work makes your books very satisfying to read because readers can come upon characters you’ve loved and find out what’s happened to them. Those four novels are separate but connected, so you get to see this ever-expanding fictional universe.
BT: I could see those three books, Temples of Delight, Juggling and The Travelling Hornplayer, as interlinked—they all have a rather similar, circular structure. I was surprised that people thought Brother of the More Famous Jack was part of that since it was so much earlier and so different. It was just that when I was writing The Travelling Hornplayer, and I thought who haven’t I explored, and it was those two little English school girls [Ellen and Lydia Dent, daughters of Roland Dent and introduced in Juggling.] that the French boy found so hilarious, with their school bags and whatnot. My mother had recently died and I think I’d gone all Teutonic. I was at this Lieder recital in the Sheldonian Theater in Oxford, and it wasn’t very good. The singer wasn’t any good, and my mind started wandering, looking at the lyrics that were printed on the page. You know, my parents used to play and sing those Schubert songs all the time, but I’d never really looked at the words before, and there was such a difference between the words and the music.
The music was so profound that it elevated these shallow lyrics. I sat there in the recital, and I was dreaming about Ellen and Lydia anyway, and I thought, “Oh my god, one of these girls is going to die,” because I was so taken up in this mood of love and death and German Romanticism. I thought it was Lydia who was going to die because she’s a bit younger and maybe she’s livelier, and she’s the one who makes Ellen lively. Without Lydia, Ellen will become much more somber. It broke my heart, really, to think she was going to die. The theme of the song cycle I was listening to is that the man dies because the girl is unfaithful. I somehow reversed that in my mind and thought, this is a story about a girl who dies because a man philanders.
And then into my mind leapt Jonathan Goldman. I thought, “My God, I know he would philander.” Because I always rather fancied him, I really relished the idea of bringing him back in a book. I thought, as far as I’m concerned, he’s a nice-ish sort of man, so he’s not going to have an affair with a school girl. She will die as a byproduct of an affair he’s having with some grown up person. A lot of my readers were terribly angry with him and much more puritanical about him having an affair than I ever thought to be. I thought I was quite hard on him, really. It’s not all that many people who end up with a dead girl on their conscience because they had an extra-marital fluffer.
SD: One review I read was angry about what happened to Katherine between the way she was in Brother of the More Famous Jack and The Travelling Hornplayer.
BT: Oh yes, I remember that. Louise Doughty wrote that review where she said Katherine was the liveliest heroine of the 1980’s, and now she’s turned into this passive creature. The interesting thing is I met Louise Doughty about two years ago, and she came up to me and said she still felt bad about writing that review because “I loved that book and I don’t know why I did that, and I just decided to stop reviewing after that.” I was quite touched by that actually. At the time, I just thought, she’s a lot younger than I am, Louise Doughty, and I thought, this is a person who has no idea how debilitating having a sick child can be.
In a way, though, that’s partly why I’m so pleased to be revisiting Katherine, among others. She does start resurrecting herself at the end of The Travelling Hornplayer. She starts writing stories for that grandchild she doesn’t see. It is rather a sad book, isn’t it.
SD: It was a sad book.
BT: But you can’t change what seems to be the integrity of the story. What I was going to say about The Travelling Hornplayer is that quite often at the end of a novel I keep writing. You have a sense of the shape of the book and what the appropriate ending is, but I quite often for my own satisfaction write on beyond that. And I did write on quite a lot about Stella. I thought, “She’s not just going to stay with her beautiful orange hair playing the cello in that house.” I was surprised. You throw a book out there, and readers can make of it what they like, but I thought it a rather sad and terrible story. But a lot of people said to me that they were pleased that Stella had married this lovely man and was having a nice life. I thought, she’s having a completely thwarted life. She’s like a princess in the tower, isn’t she? I couldn’t see that that would be a satisfactory life for her. I thought for a start she’d cut all her hair off.
SD: I wanted to ask you about whether you were planning to write more about South Africa. You didn’t write about it for a long time, between Noah’s Ark and Frankie and Stankie, almost 20 years, but your last two books were at least partly set there.
BT: No, I think I’ve done that now. I think what happened with Frankie and Stankie was that this was a subject that I’d sort of put in a box and not touched, partly because I was never all that comfortable with that sort of South African struggle writing, the way that white South African writers wrote, that sort of handwringing Nadine Gordimer style, focusing on the white liberal guilt and all of the black people are a kind of anonymous backdrop to the white guilt. I thought that was very tiresome. Or people did what a much better writer—namely Coetzee—does and escape into allegorizing. I just didn’t think that would suit me.
I was such a young person when I came to England, and I became a sort of English person, and I didn’t start writing until about 20 years later. It came quite naturally to me to write about the nuance of English society. It was only at the end of apartheid and the people of my parents’ generation were dying that I thought, when things start going extinct, you want to shore them up. My mother had just died, and in the couple of years before she died, she always told these stories about her life in Berlin and in the Schwartzvald and so on. I’d encouraged her to write it down, and she’d started, but then she had the first of many strokes, and she never did it. I think in a way I was wanting to do it for her. I thought I would like to write about that world but not in a handwringing, white liberal guilt way. I told myself quite firmly that this was just a kaleidoscope of small stories, of family stories and best friend stories and so on. But that I would try to run that concurrently against this darker newsreel background, intensifying apartheid and the madness and cruelty of that system. I think it was a kind of rejoicing at the end of apartheid, and it was cathartic to write that book.
It was still a bit with me when I wrote Sex and Stravinsky. One of the things that struck me about writing about my childhood in South Africa was that despite a rigorous white caste system, which confined us all, so I went to school with little white girls, but nonetheless, even within that constraint it was very multi-ethnic, a very immigrant community. Even though we were all being brought up to be little Englishmen over the seas, we still all had last names like D’Souza and Englebrest and Schnellenstein because people had Greek immigrant parents or Portuguese parents or German parents or whatever. Not only was it multi-ethnic, but what’s common in these new world societies is that people’s fortunes tend to rise and fall very dramatically and visibly.
It’s more dynamic but it’s more insecure, and I thought it would be fun to use that South African context because of that—it had all those possibilities. I was also attracted to the idea of engaging in a degree of romanticism about Africa—the boy who makes the journey through Mozambique and Tanzania and Senegal. That’s partly because my children have gotten very interested in Africa after having been brought up as little English school children. My daughter had a gap year in Cape Town, and it happened to be the year that Mandela got out of prison, and she got terribly involved. She defected from epidemiology into cordon bleu cookery and now writes foodie books in a slightly anthropological way. She wrote a very nice African diaspora story told through food. My son defected from Fine Arts and did a PhD on Congolese music. I think they made me feel positive and romantic about Africa.
I don’t think I’ll necessary write more about South Africa. But it has rained non-stop in England, literally all year. And I started squelching around on dog walks with the water coming over my wellington boots, and I thought, “Why aren’t I on a beach in Cape Town? What’s wrong with me?”
Click here to read Sue Dickman’s feature piece on Barbara Trapido.