Reader, I married literature and never divorced it. And now I have to introduce myself as a writer.
I’ve spent much of my life in the company of great German and Russian writers, when there weren’t nearly so many writers about.
The important thing is to set the bar high. What is a writer after all? Not the same as an author (which I have in my passport.)
Freud, himself a writer in a high bourgeois age, thought writers were egotists who’d found a clever way to disguise it. Well, up to a point, Herr Doktor. I was thinking about Freud’s relationship to writers, and writing, when I wrote my book The Secret Artist A Close Reading of Sigmund Freud in 2000. What’s clear is disguises aren’t required these days. All publishers want their writers to have a personal story to share with the media.
None of this is for me. I don’t share Freud’s genius nor his fear of being found out, and I’ve always been more interested in form than confession.
Early on I read too much of the German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955) who confessed that his whole career was a love affair with a bourgeoisie he couldn’t join. A thoughtful schoolboy who didn’t know how to place his emotions was one memorable character he created. Tonio Kröger became a key figure in Mann’s early fiction and must have been based on personal memories. I didn’t identify with Tonio Kröger but I was always fascinated by the way this writer in the making, this artist in the grand creative sense, found nature a problem. Nature in springtime was a metaphor for his own sexuality, though no one could have guessed it at the time. I think now writers try to make something out of being a bit different, for whatever reason.
Mann was essentially a philosophical, musical gay man who married, had six mostly troubled children and was a writer of genius. He virtually embodied the tormented soul of cultivated Germany through the period of two wars and his own forced emigration to America.
Aged 19 I spent six months in Munich as a waitress in honour of Thomas Mann, who introduced me to literature and philosophy and made me compare not only life in different countries, but the feeling of lives with different histories and languages.
The German literature I read at the time was tightly structured and formally self-conscious, like a musical score. Then Russia came along. Suddenly I was carrying Russian literature to term without knowing who the father was. A virgin intellectual birth, of sorts. As Henry James said, here was the land of literature’s ‘loose and baggy monsters’, but then James hadn’t read Pushkin, nor probably any Russian poetry. Nor did he know what a burden that still tormented, unkind and deeply artistic country puts on its writer-creators.
I got to know Russia well as a country, and a culture, when I was posted there as a foreign correspondent, ages ago now, at the height of the Cold War. I thought that job was about ‘writing and travelling’ without realising what those words meant.
In Moscow in 1979, I began to write in my own way: about the shape of people’s lives, about ambition juxtaposed with memory, about the interplay of different languages (German, Russian, English, French, Italian, Spanish); about place, and places, and about the history of ideas.
I’ve written twelve books now (besides a couple of money-spinners). All of them, fiction and non-fiction, take up these themes.
I’ve run my career on several tracks: food, ideas, travel, journalism, literature, but these tracks have often crossed. Writing about food was an early relaxation, a way of marking time for a would-be writer; but also a way of writing about travelling, and of learning that food too was a language.
My latest non-fiction title, A Shoe Story (Harbour Books, forthcoming) reflects, by way of German art theory from the 1930s and postmodern art today, how the intellectual world I came into 40 years ago has changed so vastly.
Otherwise I’m devoting this year to fiction. Of my second novel Anyone’s Game, published by Harbour Books in 2012, writer Jennie Erdal said in a review that ‘ this laudably unsentimental novel …allows the weight of history to be leavened with a sense of an extraordinary life being lived.’ Of course I would second that. It sounds like just what I didn’t realise I had set out to do.