South African-born, London-based novelist, journalist and television producer Justin Cartwright died recently at the age of seventy-five. I was saddened to read his obituary in the Guardian newspaper. I have met and interviewed many writers over the years but Justin stood out as being open and warm whenever I had contact with him. His parents had been journalists in South Africa and he had worked as a journalist too and there was no sense of superiority about him. We shared a perspective that comes from being born in the southern hemisphere, in countries that were regarded as a long way from the centre of the world, London, and we were from far-flung ends of the British Commonwealth. As Danuta Kean writes in the Guardian obituary:
Cartwright became a noted observer of the minutiae and absurdities of middle-class life, which he witnessed from the centre of the north London literary establishment. His acceptance was assured by a CV laden with awards, including the 1998 Whitbread best novel award for Leading the Cheers and the Hawthornden prize in 2005 for The Promise of Happiness.
Justin Cartwright was educated in the US and at Oxford University. His novels included Look at it This Way, Interior, Masai Dreaming, In Every Face I Meet (which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize), Leading the Cheers (which won the 1998 Whitbread Novel Award), Half in Love, and the acclaimed White Lightning, which brought, in 2002, his fifth short-listing for the Whitbread Novel Award.
His books were based in contemporary settings but he was able to suffuse them with the big questions that haunt us. Here are transcripts of two of our conversations, one from 2007 and one from 2003.
In 2007 I spoke to him by satellite to the ABC London studios about his novel The Song Before It is Sung, in which we meet struggling writer and former Oxford student of philosophy Conrad Senior. His marriage to his practical doctor wife Francine is in trouble. She wants him to get a proper job of some sort, and she doesn’t understand the point of the creative life if it doesn’t translate into some sort of tangible success. Conrad is the student of eminent Oxford philosopher, the Jewish refugee Elya Mendel, who leaves him a legacy of papers concerning his relationship with a German friend, Axel von Gottberg, a Prussian aristocrat. These two characters are based on a historical friendship between Isaiah Berlin and Adam von Trott, one of the failed assassins in the 20 July 1944 bomb plot to kill Hitler. And with his fellow plotters, von Trott was tried and then hanged from meat-hooks. And both the trial and the execution were filmed.
Conrad is trying to write about this intriguing friendship, which stalled before the war after the men had met in Oxford, and never regained its former strength. It’s a novel of ideas, exploring the complexities in human relationships. And of course it’s a riveting story.
Ramona Koval: Justin, this novel came to you after seeing a film of the trials of some of the bomb plotters. And it seems to me that you were intrigued with their heroism in the face of certain death. Could you begin by talking about the film, and what went through your mind when you saw it?
Justin Cartwright: It’s a film that does pop up occasionally on newsreels, and it’s a show trial conducted by the Hitler regime against the plotters, and the plotters were largely aristocrats. Some of them were spiritual leaders and church leaders. And I saw this film when Adam von Trott was up for trial. It was a show trial and there was no question, they’d already been sentenced. But the prosecutor, Roland Freissler was shouting at them and calling them Schweinhundt. It was the most extraordinary thing. And then Adam was standing in these assorted clothes the prisoners had been given, holding his trousers up, and seemed incredibly composed, as he knew he was about to be garrotted at any minute. And it just struck me as a fantastic thing, that this man had been hanged only 20 years before. I was in Oxford…a much shorter time between since I left Oxford and now. And it struck me that this was the basis of a novel, particularly as I’d been obsessed with, or interested in, Isaiah Berlin myself for many years.
Ramona Koval: What do you mean, obsessed with?
Justin Cartwright: Well it’s actually slightly to do with my South African background. There’s something in Isaiah Berlin that was very liberating when I read him in the 60s, for a South African. Because we were faced in a strange way with the same kind of choices as Berlin was faced with in the 30s. If you weren’t pro the regime, as I certainly wasn’t, in South Africa, you were expected to be a Trotzkyite or a Leninist. And I couldn’t believe that that was the way to go. And when I read Isaiah Berlin I realised liberalism, or what we broadly called liberalism, is a perfectly acceptable way of life. It’s not a cop-out. And I think that that intrigued me, the differences between these two bosom friends, they were both very young then—really founded on ideology. Von Trott believed in Hergelianism. I’m making it sound as though it’s some kind of treatise. It isn’t. It’s a novel first and foremost.
Ramona Koval: Yes, it is a novel first and foremost. But it is intriguing that Isaiah Berlin was such a good friend of von Trott, and…we’ll talk about your characters in a moment…did you know about that relationship before you saw that film, or did the film and your interest in von Trott lead you to that relationship?
Justin Cartwright: Well I was writing a long essay on Oxford and I heard about this bit of film. I knew about von Trott, I was interested in von Trott but I didn’t know an awful lot about him. I was interested in this relationship. And when I saw the film, at the Imperial War Museum, I was completely stunned. It was just astonishing. It seemed as though it had been filmed yesterday. It was beautifully lit, it was technically perfect, and there was this raging Hitlerian maniac shouting at the defendants. So that really got me going. From that moment on I became obsessed with the story myself.
Ramona Koval: What was the nature of von Trott’s friendship with Isaiah Berlin? They were almost dialectically opposed intellects, weren’t they, and one was a man of action and one was much more a man of the mind.
Justin Cartwright: That is one of the contrasts that I set up in the novel; even the title of the novel refers to that. But yes, they were great friends. Isaiah Berlin knew an awful lot of people. Even now I know lots of people who knew him well. He was incredibly sociable and amiable, gregarious, and a gossip. And von Trott was rather charismatic. Until recently there were a lot of elderly ladies in London and Oxford still sort of holding a candle for him. So they were close friends socially, but definitely ideologically they were poles apart.
Ramona Koval: And the moment in which Berlin’s trust in von Trott collapsed, tell us about that.
Justin Cartwright: Well, it collapsed pretty early on, because in ’33 when von Trott went back to Germany, his English friends couldn’t understand why he would be going back at this key moment. And then von Trott was really a nationalist, I think, primarily, and he got a bit fed up with the English being very smug about—smug or dismissive about what was happening in Germany. And he wrote a very ill-advised letter to what was then called the Manchester Guardian saying that he’d had conversations with Brownshirts and there was no discrimination against Jews in the area where he was then working as a lawyer. Well of course it was possibly literally true, but in the broader sense it was a very foolish thing to say because the anti-Jewish laws had already come in. And for Isaiah Berlin that was a turning-point. He said as much; he said, ‘At the moment…I’ve never relented…’ And indeed I’ve seen letters written in the ’70s, ’80s and even into the ’90s, where he still hasn’t relented in his view on von Trott.
Ramona Koval: So even after Berlin knew of von Trott’s death and how he died, he didn’t seem to recognise von Trott as a hero.
Justin Cartwright: No. There is actually a letter, which I found slightly shocking, where he says, ‘I can only say this about Adam, that he was no hero.’ Well it strikes me that he was a hero. I think he was a hero in the literal, you know, in what actually happened to him, the way he faced death. There’s no question he was heroic. And the risks he took trying to spread the word. But what Berlin thought was that primarily he was a high German nationalist and secondly he described him as having a taste for high-level intrigue. So I think Berlin’s judgment was that he was a sort of second-rater, like meddling, and that actually led him into trouble, rather than that he actually looked for a heroic role. But I must say, looking at the film, it strikes me that he thought he would have to sacrifice himself to demonstrate to the world that there was a better German and there was a better Germany.
Ramona Koval: It’s interesting, on the one hand you’ve got your passion for Isaiah Berlin and the fact that he delivered you your way of understanding your role in South Africa as a young man and the politics that you might want to follow; and on the other hand you see this film where you see a man who you think is as far as you can see doing a very heroic thing. And that must have set up a kind of tension in you. What side do you come down on? Is that the kind of thing you think about as you’re writing through this novel, what the answer is for yourself?
Justin Cartwright: I think that…not specifically. I think there’s no question in my mind that the sort of liberal politics that Isaiah Berlin aspires to are the only ones that make sense. The idea that history is going somewhere, which is behind Hegel and Marx, ultimately, and facism obviously, is complete nonsense, basically. But what I do in the novel is I simply…this is a background to a deep and in the end tragic friendship, and I’m fascinated to see how ideas can have effects on people. We tend to live in a consequence-free age where we don’t think there are consequences of ideas or ideologies. To me it was fascinating, that Berlin from that moment, when Adam wrote that letter…I won’t say repudiated him but would never again fully commune with him, which to Adam, and certainly to the character in my book, caused great distress. So to answer your question, I didn’t come down on either side. In the novel I think I just tried to be fair to what they thought they were doing. A lot of my novel’s about the sense of what people think they’re doing in the universe and whether they’re making progress, and how in a way they actually fix themselves in the universe with their knowledge of mortality. And of course in Adam’s case the mortality came very early.
Ramona Koval: In your book your characters Elya and Axel are opposites as I said; a man of action and a more contemplative man. And many other opposites too. Physically very different but also Axel was rooted in the landscape of his birth. Hundreds of years of connection with his place in Germany. And Elya was a refugee, a kind of rootless cosmopolitan, as it were, lost, not connected to his country, and taking on Englishness in the way that refugees do, but I don’t know that they ever really take it on properly. How do you see the connection to landscape in the book; landscape and people’s sense of themselves?
Justin Cartwright: I think this is a really interesting question. Isaiah Berlin arrived in Britain when he was nine, and in one of his obituaries he was described as the ‘perfect Englishman’. A Jewish-Russian-Latvian emigrant had become probably the perfect Englishman. He sort of embodied qualities of Englishness of reasonableness and tolerance. But I think he and his pals in Oxford slightly underestimated the sort of Prussian—actually von Trott was in fact from Hess, but nonetheless in the book I’ve made the character a Prussian—underestimated the Prussian attachment to the landscape. I think that we all know that landscape played a huge part in German nationalism and self-consciousness. And so that’s another thing, as you so rightly said, that I’ve contrasted the sort of rootlessness, in a way, of the Elya Mendel character and the deep attachment to landscape, going back five or six hundred years, of Axel von Gottberg, the other character.
Ramona Koval: You write a wonderful description of the German Wald, you know, the forest. And I wondered how you did that. What did you have to imagine to make the emotions real for you? What landscape did you imagine?
Justin Cartwright: Well, I actually did a bit of research, as you’ve probably guessed by now, and I went to Prussia and I went to some of the estates, in fact of some of the resistors themselves; estates they’d lost in 1945. And I also was given a couple of unpublished memoirs, one by one of the resistors’ sister, who described life between the wars in East Prussia—well, in Mecklenburg—and I drew on that quite heavily. It gave this sense of the deep forest and near-medieval life these Prussian aristos lived in. And as one of them says in the book, the serfs were only freed in 1838, and that was only a hundred years, or less. And they lived this extraordinary life attached to their lands. They had this deep sense of destiny. It gradually began to become apparent to me in some ways anyway how it was that the Germans began to think that they had a special destiny. And some, possibly like Axel von Gottberg, believed that Hitler would help this destiny initially. They didn’t necessarily like Hitler, in fact most of them loathed him from the beginning. But they had an idea that somehow Germany had a special destiny. It was attached to land and to landscape.
Ramona Koval: What about for you, Justin, though; when you try to write through the emotional attachment, apart from reading the memoir, is there a landscape that you’re attached to?
Justin Cartwright: I’ve lived in England for more than…a lot longer than I’ve lived in South Africa, but I’m still very attached to the landscape in South Africa. I think that there’s something—it’s probably a bit like chickens being exposed to hens when they’re very, very young—you become attached to something at an early age, and landscape’s one of those things. I don’t think it ever quite leaves you. I remember once talking to Doris Lessing, and she said she rings up Zimbabwe every day to find out what the weather’s like. I’m not quite that obsessive, but there is something about your native landscape which I think enters into you at some stage. I think the puzzle is what it really means. It might just be self-regarding, but nonetheless, we have that. So if you’re question is am I still attached to the African landscape, yes, very much so.
Ramona Koval: Well the story of Axel and Elya is entwined with the story of Conrad and Francine and their marriage difficulty. Can we talk about how you saw this modern story working with the historical one? You have a break-up of a friendship and you have a break-up of a marriage.
Justin Cartwright: I thought that…as you said, there are some contrasts, one of which is Conrad’s… First let me say I like characters in fiction who are not terribly well organised, and his lives are slightly chaotic, lots of them. They tend to be the characters I like best. And I like the idea of people striving heroically for the artistic or literary life. But I did set this up that one is…the one is a doctor, Francine is a doctor and she sees life in a very different way. At one point she says that life for a scientist is essentially just building blocks leading to a conclusion. Whereas I think the other point of the book is that there is no ultimate conclusion. What Isaiah Berlin called no incorrigible proposition. there is no such thing as an ultimate answer to anything. And so science, although I’m a great believer in rationalism, science I think is a partial answer to a lot of questions but it doesn’t answer the very, very biggest questions, the ones that preoccupy a lot of people.
Ramona Koval: Was it difficult to structure these two stories and intertwine them? There is a risk, isn’t there, that the gravity of the historical story will overwhelm the modern one.
Justin Cartwright: I think when I started I thought that was a possibility and it’ll be up to people like you to judge whether that’s the case. But the reason really was that I didn’t think that this was a historical novel. At one point I thought about writing the book in different styles, so we’d have a bit of a historical novel, a bit of a thriller, and have a bit of reportage and lots of letters. But I decided in the end to integrate Conrad. So essentially what you’re getting is Conrad is the fulcrum of the whole book, so everything is passed through his consciousness. He reads letters, he talks to people. And he has this ongoing problem with his wife, who’s decided that he’s rather a waste of space and wants to move on. And those things struck me…it struck me that those kinds of levels in novels are the things that I find interesting, and so that’s what I attempted.
Ramona Koval: Yes. It is a way in to a historical novel, isn’t it, to start in the present, too, a way to hold the door open for the reluctant reader of historical novels.
Justin Cartwright: Yes, I think that historical novels, I’ve always had a slight problem with them, that they tend to be a little schematic. You have…there’s always an indication that the 30 Years War is about to break out on page one, and then the characters are established and then… So I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as a contemporary novel, but looking backwards at another time, a time that had enormous significance for us. I think the thing about the war and why it’s always going to be significant is that different generations will take something different out of it. It may well be that the thriller kind of war novel is now dated. But as Eliot said about art, every generation takes from art what it needs. And I think that’s what’s going to happen, and is happening with the war. there’s a whole spate of war books, war novels at the moment.
Ramona Koval: There is. And I’m glad you brought that up, because it is intriguing to know why, why now, at the beginning of the 21st century, so many contemporary writers are looking back at that particular moment.
Justin Cartwright: There’s a spate at the moment, in Britain anyway, and then there’s the Norman Mailer. But I think it’s possibly that some of us are almost old enough to have been touched by the war and certainly our parents—in my case my parents, my father fought in the war. And I think there’s a sense that by doing this you’re not only understanding your society to some extent, but you’re understanding your parents’ generation and in that way, yourself. As you get older you’re quite fascinated with where you came from and how it worked and what the forces are in history and that is really how I looked at it. Conrad, in my book is looking at himself, his own family, his own personal stance on art and literature and history and understanding. And in that way, yes, I think he represents me. I am quite fascinated by those kinds of issues.
Ramona Koval: Yes, you use a lot of memoirs and letters in the text. And it’s funny to talk about authenticity in a novel because it’s made up, but is that what you wanted, that sort of flavour of that we were getting the real story from the real people?
Justin Cartwright: Yes. The way it happens in the book is that Conrad is floundering around a bit and then he meets an elderly lady who was one of von Gottberg’s lovers, and she produces more letters and papers and then he suddenly realises there’s a whole new dimension to this story that he hadn’t really understood. He hadn’t understood the sort of sexual jealousies, he hadn’t understood many aspects of the story. And he’s also in a way shocked and surprised to find that she’s still alive and speaking in a kind of 1930s clipped BBC way. And those are the sort of revelations that I like in a historical novel, where things appear—not necessarily pulled out of a hat by the author, but things that seem to evolve. And gradually you see him finding his way clearer—although he’s obsessed by the idea that the film of the execution of these people might cast light on it.
Ramona Koval: I wonder…there’s a letter towards the end of the book, the last letter from Axel to Elya which has been smuggled out of, I guess the prison where he was being held.
Justin Cartwright: The prison in Berlin, yes.
Ramona Koval: Now what was it like for you to write that letter?
Justin Cartwright: Well I’ve read a lot of the last letters of people who were executed. they were by and large able to smuggle out letters, or in some cases I think they were allowed to write a last letter. But there are a lot of them. They’re all incredibly moving. They’re really almost too much to read. And they were basically all saying look, we did this for Germany, don’t feel…to the families, don’t feel any sense of shame or disgrace. In time you will see that we were doing it for the world (in some cases, and some for Germany). A man called Henning von Treskow, who said from now on the world will look on us as with utter contempt and indifference, and he took a hand grenade and blew his head off. So there is a whole collection of these letters and they’re deeply moving and I’ve met—not a lot of the families but three or four of the families of the bomb plotters of July 1944, and their whole lives have been affected and shaped by that.
Ramona Koval: Was there ever a real letter from von Trott to Isaiah Berlin?
Justin Cartwright: There were some messages between the two of them and there is a letter from von Trott to his family. But yes, there were a lot of letters and right up the end, von Trott, in real life, was still hopeful that his chums at Oxford and in England would be able in some way to help him effect a kind of reconciliation between Germany and England. He in fact, in the plans that were finally discovered, he was going to be ambassador to London, had the coup succeeded. So I do, actually, as you know, recreate exactly, factually, exactly what happened on that day, that terrible day of July 20, 1944. So I start with all the known events pulled together from various sources. Not all of them published.
Ramona Koval: I suppose that I’m asking, when you write a fictional letter from the man who’s about to be killed and he declares his love for his friend—that must have been a pretty emotional moment for you, to write.
Justin Cartwright: It was, actually. Because I suspected in a way, well in the novel he is motivated by the desire to show his friends, who to some extent had not necessarily forgotten him but had sort of dismissed him, that he really did love them and he really did desperately want to prove that his motives were good. He knew, already that they suspected him of being a sort of covert Nazi in some way. the reason in real life that they began to suspect him was they couldn’t believe he could be going around so freely denouncing the Nazi regime. they thought it was some kind of plot. And there was a reason for that, too, in that all kinds of suspicious people had come to England up to 1939 pretending they were speaking for this or that organisation, but they were secretly Gestapo or SS.
Ramona Koval: In a sense Conrad goes through this whole experience of doing the research and putting together all these things and trying to understand what happened. And it was my impression that he makes a choice in the end, that he decides that Axel was a hero and Elya was somehow small-minded not to accept it. Is that what you thought, in the end?
Justin Cartwright: No, I don’t think so, to be honest. I think that he has a moment of revulsion against the task he’s been given to find out what really happened and there’s a sort of rant against Elya Mendel. But I think that he understood full well the sort of ideological differences. I think in the end he comes to the conclusion that you’ll never ultimately know the truth and he’s sort of reconciled to that by the end of the book. And as you know, the title of the book, The Song Before It’s Sung, is a quote from Alexander Herzen which Isaiah Berlin loved, and it said ‘Where is the song before it is sung?’ and Berlin said, exactly, it doesn’t exist until it’s written or sung. It’s like a life, it’s made day by day. This may sound a bit banal as a piece of advice for living, but somehow I think it’s true, to think we don’t have, as Isaiah Berlin said, any great libretto or script for life, we simply make pour lives day by day as best we can. And in a way I think it has resonances for our time. There are so many people who believe there’s a kind of fundamental text which we only have to adhere and everything will be explained. It’s becoming very dangerous. It always has been dangerous but I see it becoming dangerous again. It’s a terrible mistake. As Isaiah said, you’re seriously deluded if you believe there’s a script or a libretto to life. And I think it is dangerous. And one of things that appealed to me about Berlin and about writing this book is that very, very early on you understand that there is no absolute text by which to live your life.
Ramona Koval: Can I just ask you a couple of writerly questions now. Conrad lives above a bakery, and there’s always the smell of bread and savouries and cake wafting through. And flour and dustings here and there. It’s very mouth-watering, maybe because I was always hungry when I read your book. But what do think the smells and the bread is doing in the text?
Justin Cartwright: I don’t know, really, is the answer. I like…it’s quite a serious book, and to some extent the baker beneath his ramshackle flat provides some light relief. But he also demonstrates that there are other levels of human contact; Tony the baker and his Italian cockney family is extremely kind to him when he needs help. And I personally love the smell of bread. I don’t know many people who don’t. I’d always thought it would be nice to live above a bakery, so it’s pretty random, it doesn’t have, I’m afraid, a very deep significance in that sense.
Ramona Koval: But it really does knit the text together in a most delicious way. The other thing that I was interested in was—well when things are going not so well with the wife, Conrad finds a new girlfriend called Emily. And there’s a very physical relationship. Emily’s no genius, she’s no philosopher, and she’s no doctor, either. But there’s a great contrast between the physicality of that relationship and also the physicality of the description of the hanging of this conspirators. And I wondered about how you thought about placing those things together?
Justin Cartwright: You know, I think that I once read that writing a novel is a bit like working in a kebab shop. You chop large pieces off yourself. And then I did actually say that this metaphor’s not going anywhere. But nonetheless, I do think it is a bit like that. You sort of mine yourself. You sort of dig it out, you mulch it over (gardening metaphor there). But you sort of take bits of yourself. And I’m terribly interested in—I’m quite interested in the sort of new breed of people who take drugs and live a rather hedonistic life, and there is a distinct type in this country who’ve been to expensive schools but never learned anything, took a lot of drugs and sort of race around in a frenzy. And Emily’s one of those. But again, because we’re on the lookout here for human qualities—Emily has some. And Conrad, in his difficult circumstance, appreciates them.
Ramona Koval: Yes. And there are complexities of different combinations of people that you would be perhaps unlikely to find together, too. You are interested in these contrasts and the way friendships and relationships are made, of opposites.
Justin Cartwright: Yes. I’ve always been interested, too, in the way London life works. Quite a lot of my books have scenes from London life and it’s a landscape I know pretty well after all these years. I’m interested in…there seems to me superficial things that a good novelist can observe which indicate deeper changes. So I’ve always been on the lookout for those, and I think you asked me earlier how I could put those in the same novel as rather gruesome description of very slow hangings of these people. But that’s just how it is. That’s how I look at novels with contrasting scenes. It should congeal in some way to present a kind of plausible whole. that is the technique of novel-writing.
Ramona Koval: Finally, Justin, you describe…Axel was a very attractive character, the way you write him. Women are attracted to him and men respect him, even his opponents. Do you think character shines through from people, or do you think it’s determined when they are tested?
Justin Cartwright: I’m not sure about that. I think that there is a suggestion here in the book that—and I know that in real life Berlin regarded himself as slightly cowardly—but there is a suggestion here that there are certain kinds of temperament, and the two friends are completely opposed. One’s intellectual; the other’s in the long tradition of Prussian soldiers and administrators. And perhaps there was no choice for either of them, in a way. but no, I don’t think that—well, let me put it another way; when I had my own children I was astonished how different they were from day one. I’d sort of thought that nurture was more important than nature. I don’t think that’s true. I think children seem to come out perfectly formed. But, the other point, the contrasting point, something that anybody that’s brought up in south Africa is very aware of, that society can be distorted, that ideas, even very evil ideas can take a very firm hold and cause untold consequences. It’s something as I was saying earlier that we in the western world don’t really grasp at the moment. Although I think we’re beginning to see how important it is.
Ramona Koval: Well the book is called The Song Before It is Sung and it’s published by Bloomsbury. Justin Cartwright, thanks so much for being with us on the Book Show today.
Justin Cartwright: Thank you.
And three years earlier, in 2004 I had spoken to Justin at the Edinburgh International Book festival about his book, The Promise of Happiness. An English family, the Judds, prepare for the return of their daughter, Ju-ju, who’s been released from a federal prison in upstate New York for a conviction of art theft. We follow the family – mother, father, two sisters and a brother – as they think on their lives, preparing themselves for the big family reunion, and asking themselves what it’s all about, what it all means. He began our interview by reading a section from The Promise of Happiness.
Justin Cartwright: I’ll just quickly set the scene for this novel. I’ll just quickly tell you the bit I’m going to read. This is near the beginning of the book, and the five members of the Judd family are scouted because the daughter Juliet, known as Ju-ju, has been arrested in New York, and the novel opens on the day she’s about to be released from a state federal penitentiary in upstate New York. What this is about, as Ramona was suggesting, is a sort of upheaval in a typical family, so I tried to take a normal…you might even call it a Aga-saga I suppose…and turn it into a serious, modern, contemporary novel. So, at this point, Charles Judd has come from his daily walk and he catches sight of his wife, Daphne, and they have retired to Cornwall and they’re hoping, particularly Daphne’s hoping, that eventually the family will be reunited in Cornwall. Daphne’s struggling slightly with Rick Stein’s recipes because she feels that they should definitely eat a lot of fish now that they’ve retired.
[Reads from: Now he can see the light in the kitchen and the outline of Daphne moving about… to …a sort of barely controlled turbulence.]
Ramona Koval: A lot of it’s in the silences, isn’t it?
Justin Cartwright: As Harold Pinter said, yes.
Ramona Koval: And then he stopped, didn’t he? You start with a quotation from Thomas Hardy. Two quotations; Thomas Hardy and John Updike. One’s about the family and the other’s about happiness or writing about happiness. The family is supposed to be the site of happiness, isn’t it? I mean, we form families to that end. Is it a fiction though?
Justin Cartwright: I think it’s a necessary fiction, that you have to believe that the outcome of life is happiness, and I think there are many agencies for happiness but clearly that family is one of them. One of the things that intrigued me as I started to write this novel was I suddenly realised that we all have very different expectations. My own children are more or less grown up, and you realise that what they expect from family
isn’t what you expect from them any longer, and it’s quite a shock when you discover that they have their own opinions – and not always favourable.
Ramona Koval: What about the domestic canvas as a place for exploring the big questions? Because that’s what you do. I mean, on every page in this book there’s an explosion of sighs and questioning about what life is about. Tell us about using that domestic canvas.
Justin Cartwright: Well, I’ve always tried to write, to some extent, novels of ideas, and I do write about things that intrigue me. The only thing I would say…it’s a slight caveat, you know, I don’t necessarily remember what I said the previous…you know when I had my last big idea. I don’t necessarily remember it two years later. I took heart from an interview with Thomas Stoppard where somebody said to him, ‘You’re such a polymath,’ and he said, ‘Yes, for about three months.’ So, things do preoccupy me. At the moment, the thing that is the subject of novels is consciousness, and consciousness is obviously a very big and intractable subject, but I think it is the subject of modern novels. So I think any human endeavour obviously springs from consciousness and so that’s what I’ve attempted to treat in this book.
Ramona Koval: But also this, as you’ve referred to it, the Aga novel or the Aga-saga, or moving from a kind of domestic setting. But really, can all big questions about life be explored in such a domestic setting?
Justin Cartwright: I would think so, yes. What I thought about the so-called English middle-class novel is that I think it’s a very loose term, and probably meaningless, but I think we sort of know what we mean. Why I decided to do this, I just thought that English middle-class novels, the characters are either slightly ridiculous-that said, I’ve just read a bit where I have to admit they do sound slightly ridiculous-but I wanted to treat very seriously family and the relations between family members and their relation to the wider world. So I did, in a way…some critic said, ‘He’s taken the Aga-saga and sort of reinvented it,’ and I think I have, in a way.
Ramona Koval: Why do you place Hardy at the beginning of things?
Justin Cartwright: I just found that quote and it struck me as an interesting one, ‘the family face persists from generation to generation’, and there’s this question of one of the three children (ranging from 32 to 24 perhaps), and one of them is going to get married and there’s this worry that you’re going to bring in to the family some new genes, the family face will change. Hardy says it leaps from generation to generation.
Ramona Koval: The Judds have secret lives though. On the surface, things are ordered and somewhat conventional – the kids have grown up, the retired couple goes to live in Cornwall. She, as we see, is experimenting with cooking, he’s playing golf – and yet we discover that there are things they never say to each other.
Justin Cartwright; Yes, that’s obviously true in this book, but I think we all have secrets. The idea was to take the seven days from the moment Juliet is released from this prison in New York until she gets to Cornwall, and in those seven days have all five family members…and their secrets are gradually disclosed…they’re in a bit of an ethical crisis and they don’t really know what they believe. It’s rather what John Coetzee said recently, he put it in the mouths of another character but I take it to mean they were his views, he said, ‘I have beliefs but I don’t believe in them.’ Strange isn’t it?
Ramona Koval: I’ve written that down…
Justin Cartwright: Have you?
Ramona Koval: Because you’ve got that in the book…
Justin Cartwright: Oh have I? Oh okay. Well it was John Coetzee who said it first, ‘I have beliefs but I don’t believe in them.’ It’s a very strange thing. I think we do have, at a subconscious level, or just below conscious level, quite firm beliefs but we’re not able or willing to articulate them on ethical issues any more.
Ramona Koval: But how can you have beliefs but not believe in them, unless they’re received beliefs that other people tell you that you ought to have?
Justin Cartwright: You sort of know instinctively. I think people do instinctively know how to behave but they don’t like rules, there are no precepts, as certainly I was taught at school; people don’t accept that any longer, they simply feel it’s intuitive. I think people believe the only trustworthy unit of currency is the self. In other words, how I think about myself is really the only thing I’m ever going to believe in. We don’t believe doctors, science is obviously all trying to poison us, doctors are giving us the worse kinds of medicine, the government is always lying, this is…I find it quite strange, but people do believe these things, but they also believe that the only person you can rely on is yourself. And that is why I think we have this orgy of people saying, ‘I’ve learnt by this experience. This has been a great learning experience for me.’ And in the worst crisis that overtakes people, they try and draw comfort from it.
Ramona Koval: Now, Betjeman’s grave comes in for much discussion in the book. Charles finds that he pisses on the grave, on his special walks. He’s also gravely upset about his daughter’s incarceration and he hasn’t been able to go and see her, even though she’s been his favourite. He’s sort of a King Lear character, isn’t he? How does Betjeman and Englishness figure in this tragedy?
Justin Cartwright: Well, I do go to Trebetherick in Cornwall most summers and Betjeman’s buried in the graveyard there, and it’s always struck me that Betjeman represents a certain kind of Englishness…I’m not saying it’s exclusively Englishness, but it’s a sort of slightly fastidious, slightly snobbish…I mean, he was a talented person but in a curious way I think he stands for a slightly lost Britain, middle Britain if that ever existed, a sort of golden era, and his poetry’s always nostalgic and reflective. So what’s happening in the book is that the older generation, Charles and Daphne, are struggling with the change and the shift in values, and I think…although I am obviously naturalised, I am a South African, and I do think this is a real preoccupation of the British, I think you are very concerned…there’s a sort of great history but there’s also this idea that we don’t really know what we stand for any more. I’m not offering any post-colonial critique but in terms of the attribution of value, I don’t think the English and the British (I’m assuming it applies to the Scots) really know quite how to behave. For example, we don’t know how to dress. I mean, when I first came to Britain, people used to wear dinner jackets to the theatre. It struck me as very silly. If you go to the theatre now, nobody knows exactly what they should be wearing. It’s a rather trivial incident, but I think that’s quite an interesting problem, that all members of this family obviously are from different eras.
Ramona Koval: I think it’s Charlie, the son, says, ‘What I hate is Betjeman as part of the code, Betjaman in the sea, and bathing and the sand in the sandwiches, and looking at churches and not owning a television, and believing abroad is too hot and valuing ineptitude and playing cooking.’
Justin Cartwright: Yes, there is this sort of, ‘abroad is too hot’ and it’s much better for you to go to Cornwall and, you know, freeze in the sea, and so on. I actually strangely enough subscribe to it, in a way. I’m not absolutely against it.
Ramona Koval: But how does coming from South Africa…you know, just to take a little turn in this conversation…how does that affect your view of the English. Because, after all, you decided to go and live amongst them.
Justin Cartwright: Yes, but also I come from a slightly earlier time when we in South Africa thought we were really a branch of…not quite the empire but certainly of something bigger, so we were trying to be British. It’s odd. My mother was half Boer and my grandfather was an Australian. But it’s a common conceit amongst writers like me, that we have a slightly sharper take on what’s going than the people who are born and bred here. I don’t necessarily think it’s true but it is something that you’ll find. We do have this feeling that we have a slightly detached view of what’s going on.
Ramona Koval: This detached view – what does it tell you, then, about the English?
Justin Cartwright: I prefer to use the word ‘British’, particularly here as I’d like to not be stoned as we leave, but I think the British are fascinating, and there’s a very good book I’ve just read by Niall Ferguson called Empire which I think explains it very clearly, that actually the empire produced this great confidence and a can-do culture, and then when the empire vanished and contracted, we’re left with people whose energies aren’t necessarily being satisfied by the limited landscape in which they find themselves.
Ramona Koval: What about this, ‘valuing ineptitude’?
Justin Cartwright: Well, that’s a sort of slightly upper-class affectation, ‘I can’t do anything. Oh television – how does it work? Mobile phones…oh can’t find my glasses.’ You know…well I can’t find my glasses either, but you know what I mean? That sort of ineptitude. John Updike once said that the best response he ever had to an article was when he wrote about how difficult it is for older people to open packaging. All his art criticism, literature, came to nothing…opening packaging was the one that got the best response.
Ramona Koval: The Judds are very conscious of having made the move to the provinces, aren’t they? They’ve left London, they’ve gone to Cornwall…can we talk about the sense of meaning that landscapes give them and give us?
Justin Cartwright: I personally…all my books have a lot of landscape, and I think that White Lightning, my last book, was really a novel of landscape actually, although nobody seemed to spot that except me. But I think landscapes appear to have meaning. It’s probably a delusion, but landscapes clearly correspond to something in the way the brain works, and art is clearly a response to landscape, and the unities. So, the Cornish landscape, I think, is absolutely magnificent. The Judds do feel that they are slightly on the far tip of the known universe, you know, almost going to fall off if they go any further. And old Charles Judd, who was what used to be called a ‘big swinging dick’ in the city, now feels he’s been hopelessly diminished…
Ramona Koval: He was an accountant though after all…
Justin Cartwright: He was a bean counter, yes.
Ramona Koval: He feels diminished (sorry, I’ve interrupted you) and they’ve moved to this landscape…
Justin Cartwright: Yes, and I think the landscape is probably not providing the necessary return that they were expecting.
Ramona Koval: And she’s trying to bond with the fishes…
Justin Cartwright: She’s trying to bond with the fishes. But she turns out, in a way, to be the heroine of the novel because she has a much more coherent view of what family life is, and there is an ending, the end that she desired enormously, and she sees that as redemptive, that it will save the family in some way.
Ramona Koval: What about art? Is art a help?
Justin Cartwright: Well, art is redemptive, clearly. I think that Ju-ju, Juliet, believed in the redemptive power of art, that there was something in art that directed to the deeper truths. I personally think that’s true but it’s hard to justify it in a very logical way.
Ramona Koval: Although I think she says, ‘And so this is life. It is arbitrary. Its narrative is erratic. Andre Malraux said that art is a revolt against fate. That’s what I believed but somehow fate got me by the throat anyway. Art was no help.’
Justin Cartwright: Well, it was no help to her in jail, clearly. You know, she was in jail with people who were there for murdering their children, mainly drug smuggling. Most of the federal women’s prisons are crammed with people who’ve done drugs or smuggled drugs or been involved in drug smuggling. She suddenly realised that their idea of art was a picture of some flowers they’d cut out of a magazine or…they believed in a sort of fantasy, a comic fantasy, so her rather refined ideas of art seemed almost irrelevant to her fellow inmates.
Ramona Koval: And the whole justice system…the narrator says she now believes law is a kind of phoney order resting on a maelstrom of disorder.
Justin Cartwright: Yes, I think the people who make the law and take comfort from it are those, obviously, in a privileged position, and that’s a truism. You know, we’re all concerned that there should be law and order but, in a sense, it’s self-serving. I’m not saying it’s not necessary, it’s obviously necessary but it is slightly self-serving. And she thinks that the whole system-the way she was railroaded straight into jail in America-was almost meaningless at a deeper level, although she clearly was guilty in a way. The law just took over and she found herself locked up, even though she wasn’t even thinking about crime, she didn’t even really realise she was involved in a crime, to some extent.
Ramona Koval: Can we go back to the family? The idea that Ju-ju or Juliet…why is she called Ju-ju?
Justin Cartwright: Well, actually, I don’t know. Two critics have said they find it immensely irritating. I know somebody who calls their child Ju-ju, you know.
Ramona Koval: So Ju-ju is the golden child. This is the child that was clever and sweet and…
Justin Cartwright: St Paul’s, Oxford, you know, the absolute…drew the top prize in the lottery.
Ramona Koval: And such a disappointment to the parents who are trying to work out where they went wrong.
Justin Cartwright: Yes, I don’t think that’s quite true, to be fair. I don’t think she’s such a disappointment. I think what actually happens is that they feel belittled because they had invested so much hope in her, and they can’t understand, and one of the key things is neither of them totally accept she could have done anything wrong, even at this late stage.
Ramona Koval: But she’s the golden child, and it is an interesting thing about the relationships between parents and their children if you have several of them, and the different kinds of relationships you can have with them.
Justin Cartwright: I think that’s true and I think that children place themselves in a hierarchy. They always think the other one’s more favoured. My own experience is slightly different. My children, as I was saying, are grown up, or nearly…they are grown up, technically anyway. But I can see myself sliding down the hierarchy very fast. My son the doctor is clearly number one. My wife thinks he’s some kind of demi-god and I’m just the bloke in the study writing nonsense, you know. I’ve gone down; he’s doing a proper job. I can see myself going to three soon, as soon as the younger one gets a job.
Ramona Koval: And how’s it making you feel?
Justin Cartwright: To be honest, I quite enjoy it…I don’t care, as long as I’m left to write.
Ramona Koval: But then, the kids in this book are kind of juggling with this hierarchy because there is a camaraderie between the children.
Justin Cartwright: Yes, I mean, there is a camaraderie but they all are slightly different, that was the idea. The technical challenge for the budding writers amongst you is that I think it’s very hard to write five totally distinct voices, that’s what I deliberately tried to do. So that you have five members of the family but they’ve got to speak slightly differently and they’ve got to have a different take on…they all have a very different take, both on the daughter Ju-ju’s problems and, of course, on their parents, and they reach the point where the son is particularly critical of the father. The father’s always making what he takes to be rather fascist remarks, but the father is a bit Evelyn Waugh-ish; he does it deliberately, and I sort of recognise myself in that a bit.
Ramona Koval: Evelyn Waugh didn’t like to be interviewed.
Justin Cartwright: No.
Ramona Koval: What about this book Morality: An Introduction by Bernard Williams, which figures in the book? Because Charles is reading it, but doesn’t really want to read it.
Justin Cartwright: Well, he’s very worried about the moral crisis he’s found himself in, so he takes the book by Bernard Williams from the library and he hides it in the lawnmower shed where it gets suffused with slug pellets but the slug pellets…I shouldn’t give this away. The slug pellets do feature in the story as well, but he surreptitiously gets it out to try and see if there’s any ethical basis, and there’s a lovely story that Bernard Williams tells of a gringo in Mexico somewhere and he comes to a town square (this is about utilitarianism) and he finds that the local commandante is about to shoot 20 or 30 rebels from the jungle. So he says, ‘You’re an honoured foreigner,’ he said, ‘I’ll tell you what. You choose one to kill and I’ll just shoot him and I’ll let the others go free,’ And the gringo feels he can’t make that ethical choice because, even though 11 others are going to be spared, he cannot say, ‘I’m going to choose you.’ And Bernard Williams used this as a refutation of the whole idea of utilitarianism. It may be better for those 11 but it’s not better for the person who has to make the choice, and I just had a little (I hope) Stoppardian fun with these kinds of philosophic ideas. You know, can you use utilitarianism, which most governments think is the basis for all choice and all decisions? Is utilitarianism a legitimate basis for government or for any kind of choice? And I found Bernard Williams extremely interesting on the subject.
Ramona Koval: It’s funny, though, the way Charles tries not to read the book, but in the darkness of the night he sometimes reaches for it.
Justin Cartwright: Yes, when Daphne’s away in London doing her flower arranging course. By the way, I did a flower arranging course with Paula Pryke to prepare myself for this book, and I really enjoyed it.
Ramona Koval: How long was it?
Justin Cartwright: Four days.
Ramona Koval: And? What can you arrange?
Justin Cartwright: I can do pew ends. What would you like?
Ramona Koval: Pew ends?
Justin Cartwright: I can do pew ends…are they called circlets? Yes, that bridesmaids wear.
Ramona Koval: And who were your fellow arrangers?
Justin Cartwright: They were actually quite an interesting…I was expecting it to be people up from the country but there were one or two. There were a lot of Koreans and a lot of people about to set up florist shops. But anyway, my point is that I find I need to start with something, some sort of carpentry. In so far as anybody asks me, I usually suggest-write about something…’write about what you know’ is incredibly banal but, I mean, write about some basic incident that means something to you. That is my advice to people who want…but I want to make one other more general point-I think there’s a perception that realism is somehow not as imaginative as magic realism, and I think it’s absolute nonsense. I mean, anything you write is an act of imagination. How you marshal the facts…you know, somebody who’s writing about, say, the high Andes or even, say, The Life of Pi, a fine book, but it’s not more imaginative because it has these extremely surreal incidents. I think there’s a common feeling that realism is a slightly lesser form of writing.
Ramona Koval: This whole thing though…do you believe in happy endings?
Justin Cartwright: Not really, no. Do you?
Ramona Koval: Yes.
Justin Cartwright: Oh. No, I don’t. I mean, it’d be foolish to believe everything ends happily. It seems to me that it doesn’t end happily.
Ramona Koval: You have to redefine happiness sometimes though.
Justin Cartwright: Yes, I think we have to live by the belief that we’re heading towards some happiness and some ultimate conclusion, and obviously that’s why religion was invented, you know. I think religion is purely an explanation of death. I don’t think that that’s what it’s for. On that happy note…
Ramona Koval: Does it give you comfort though? Does it give you comfort at all in your life?
Justin Cartwright: I have no worries about nihilism or the glorious implacability of the universe, none of that worries me. I don’t lie awake thinking, ‘God, I’m going to join Betjeman under the turf one day in Trebetherick’-no.
Ramona Koval: Justin Cartwright, speaking to me in Edinburgh. His book, The Promise of Happiness, is published by Bloomsbury.