8 June 2011
Bill Hopkin's The Divine and the Decay
Editor's Note: The following is an interview with Bill Hopkins, conducted by Jonathan Bowden in the late 1990s. The interview appeared in a volume of collected writings published by Bloomsbury Forum in 1999, titled Standard Bearers, which includes pieces by Adrian Davies, Derek Turner, Michael Newland, Steve Smith, Peter Gibbs, Eddie Butler, Ralph Harrison, David Reynolds, Jeremiah Wilkes, Sam Swerling, and William King, about Henty, Penney, Buchan, Disraeli, Burke, Henry Wilson, Blatchford, Belloc, Carson, Joseph Chamberlain, Chesterton, Bax, Enoch Powell, William Morris, Samuel Johnson, Palmerston, Keynes, Salisbury, and, of course, Bill Hopkins. Jonathan Bowden also delivered a very amusing and interesting talk about Bill Hopkins in 2007, which can be heard here.
Were you an angry young man?
Very much. I think everybody was very angry and frustrated during the 1950s and from the end of the war onwards actually. The whole country was in a state of stagnation, everything was pointless and meaningless. It was as though someone had stuck a vast syringe into the arm of the nation and all the energy had been withdrawn from it. We were all in limbo. The whole country had come to a standstill in a way that’s very difficult for people who weren’t born then to recall. The war seemed pointless to all of us. There was no feeling that ‘we’d triumphed over evil’ at all. The evil was that England was bankrupt, lost, directionless, purposeless. The wrong people occupied all the positions of influence. And the wrong people were masquerading as left-wingers, which I found just as objectionable.
Can you talk more specifically about what you and your fellow ‘Angry Young Men’ were trying to achieve?
Well, The Divine and the Decay mustn’t be seen as an ordinary novel. It was written as an inflammatory document to inspire and act as a catalyst, and for a while I thought it was going to. I certainly didn’t write it as a normal novel. I meant it almost as a manifesto.
So you weren’t simply trying to change the view of literature but society in a political sense as well?
I was trying to change the reason for literature, the role and the gravitas of literature, into something nobler than it was at that time. You must remember that literature in the 1950s was dominated by very dormant figures who belonged really to the 1930s: Spender, Auden, Isherwood, Eliot. All relatively effete, degenerate and hopeless voices. But also literature like that was totally disconnected from all the engines of society politically. It was very dilettante. Society was static, so the novel was intended to fuse literature to society and to change both literature and society into something much more dynamic than it was. I wanted Britain to become great again.
I thought — and still do — that the British are the greatest people in history exceeding even the Greeks and that Britain is the cradle of most of the miracles that make the world today. And can become so again. It’s a very, very strange, unique and peerless people and I’m very proud to be a member of it.
Which writers did you admire?
Above all others, Dostoievsky. Shaw very much. Wilde, in another sense entirely. H. G. Wells as a determinist and a scientist. Conrad, of course. Kipling very, very much; I identified with his empire-building, his imperialism and his respect for other races. Those are the great lights of my time.
Reading the writers of the 1950s, there seems to be a great feeling of doom, a great urgency to change direction, discover a new politics, even a new religion. Was this a symptom of the times — a response, perhaps to the nuclear threat — or do you feel this remains the position today?
I think it was very much a symptom of that time. I think the nuclear threat was ever-present, on everyone’s mind. Is it very different from to-day? The difference today from then was that today the endwarfment of the individual is more complete, the sense of impotence and insignificance is more total. At that time there was a great deal of feeling that the individual could become significant again if he could acquire heroic independence. That was the big difference. To-day people are much more vanquished. They’re borne along on the flood much more today than they were then. It seems a paradox but there was more hope then than there is to-day.
It does seem a paradox.
Well, computerisation and robotisation and everything else has taken man, through technology, to a further crossroads, I think, and it’s accelerating. And society is becoming much more global. Don’t forget that in the 1950s nationalism was a view that we had from our birth. Hence the wars. To-day I think you’d find it very difficult to start a war without a very elaborate rationale that would be acceptable to a majority.
Do you think we’re moving away from nationalistic viewpoints?
I think we are becoming more rootless and we don’t know our place in the world any more and that’s contributing to a feeling of impotence and insignificance. People haven’t the limited view that was part of the blindness of the 1950s. But it also gave them a passion about their own place of birth and upbringing and culture which is disappearing. They’re two different worlds, so different that it seems scarcely conceivable that they’re only separated by fifty years.
You wrote in 1957 that a “writer’s duty is to urge forward society towards fuller responsibility, and that a writer must take upon himself the duties of the visionary, the evangelist, the social leader and the teacher in the absence of other candidates.” You wrote that a writer’s task is to discover the escape route to progress. Yet after The Divine and the Decay you ceased to write, or at least to publish.
I don’t think the public realise the extent of censorship in a so-called democracy — which of course is mythical. There’s never been a democracy in the world and it’s still the only word we use. But a propos my own situation, when The Divine and the Decay came out, it was seen widely by the left-wing as one of the most dangerous things. Here was a right-wing thinker — right-wing in the sense of not being left-wing — who is speaking to millions and that’s very dangerous. Don’t forget we had platforms in every major newspaper, on a daily basis. They were all reporting us, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Express, The Daily Mail, you name it. So we were very dangerous in the sense that hitherto in society you kept radicals, left or right, on Speakers’ Corner and suddenly a group of wild young people were attempting to destabilise society; and in that sense it was very dangerous because it had never happened in literature before. There was no precedent for it. What went on behind the scenes was this. I was recruited to MacGibbon & Kee by Tom Maschler, who after he got me on contract departed for Jonathan Cape. I was left on at MacGibbon & Kee, which was owned by Howard Samuel, one of the Samuel brothers who owned great tracts of the West End. Howard Samuel, my publisher, was the left wing one, and he supported The New Statesman, The Nation and, even more militantly, the magazine Tribune. These journals were all set to work attacking me ferociously as one of the authors of their owner and with his consent. MacGibbon & Kee found me an enormous threat and hated the book but under contract they had to publish it. But they limited the publication. They didn’t sell the translation rights to any other country in the world, they limited the circulation and they pulped. I know that because I had many hundreds of letters coming to me from people going into bookshops and finding that they couldn’t get a copy of The Divine and the Decay, nor was it being supplied. I couldn’t prove it, but I knew it had been pulped which of course makes it so rare today. It should have been printed in a minimum of at least 20,000 copies, but it wasn’t. The truth emerged when I went into the publishers and asked why they weren’t printing more and I was told that they thoroughly disapproved of the book politically. They wouldn’t release me from contract so I could go to another publisher and they would make great difficulties about publishing any more of my work. So in one fell stroke, I was made a prisoner. Held on contract, I couldn’t offer my work to anyone else, otherwise I’d be pursued and they wouldn’t release me. They would neither publish another book nor release me. They kept me hostage; and that was the left wing who were going on so much about the dangers of fascism. They exercised the most vicious, nastiest form of censorship that I have ever come across.
Presumably they don’t still hold you hostage?
No. I’m free. I’ve got my book back.
Why have you published nothing since, in the last 37 years?
Because it’s time to go that one or two steps further. Plays, much more than novels, because my sort of novel simply doesn’t go today.
Are you writing plays?
Yes. I’m working on a quartet of plays for theatre which is nearly complete. I can’t say any more about that at the moment. But, yes.
In your essay in Declarations in 1957, where you were talking about the writer’s viewpoint, you wrote: “I predict that within the next two or three decades we will see the end of pure rationalism as the foundation of our thinking.” Do you see any signs that this is happening?
Very much so. This huge upsurge of interest in mysticism, in the psychic, in the occult are all symptoms of the fact that rationality as we know it — and I illustrated it with 1+2=3, which is a syllogism, a fallacy, it’s 1+1+1=3 — that rationality encloses a domain that’s a very small fragment of what’s emerging as a continent of new data, of unrealised worlds. DNA for instance is already taking us into fields beyond rationality and we’re trying to find the fingerprints of so many things which we’ve loosely in the past called genetic. We’ve got to create hypotheses where there is no rationality to govern those hypotheses and we’ve got to, from those leaps through hypotheses, establish bridgeheads into terra incognita and link back to the rational. Otherwise we can’t go as fast as we could if we were to leap beyond rationality. When we say irrationalism, that rings of certain echoes which are emotional and spiritual and so forth, which are quite dubious. But rationality at the moment isn’t enough and we’ve got to use everything we can to break through to further realms of thinking. That’s what I really meant there. I can encapsulate it in the sense that what we know isn’t enough. We’ve got to know more, therefore we’ve got to take enormous risks in terms of intellectual courage by throwing our minds into domains which could well be called insane. And art brut as its called, Outsider Art, is a perfect example.
In The Divine and the Decay, the protagonist, Plowart, describes himself as the “greatest man of our time”, which I take in the sense of a Nietszchean superman or superhero, to whom normal rules don’t apply. But, following the analogy, if the ends justify the means — and Plowart commits murder in pursuit of his goal — how can we be sure that our actions will have the result that we intend? Doesn’t history rather show the opposite — that we know nothing of the future, that, as Shaw had it, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”?
We can’t look back to history as a reference to show that something is necessarily so. You can do that in law through precedents but that’s as artificial an invention as mathematics. If the right people commit acts or take a course of action, it surely will be determined by them having a diagrammatic understanding of what the outcome of that or those actions will be. They’re not actions which are haphazard or should be — or would be, I think. So, the ends justify the means. Well, I don’t quite know why that’s ever been in doubt. We don’t quibble if that method is used by someone like Pasteur, experimenting on himself, or the Curies, but we do in terms of the Lenins, the Stalins, and the Hitlers. So I would say that under laboratory conditions we endorse that principle. Outside the laboratory we say the wide world is a very different place and humanism dictates that we draw back from any other cruelty than cruelty to oneself. But all the world operates on natural cruelty so that’s a wonderful example of hypocrisy. As soon as anything matters, it becomes a combat — love, business, snobbery; everything is a form of mental cruelty. So I would say that if one governs and understands all this and comes out with the final law that we should all live and let live, that’s insufficient. There will always be people hurt.
Would you describe yourself as a humanist?
I believe in humanity. But I believe that human beings have to be warriors.
We have to soldier on. We have to understand that life is not fair. It’s not equitable. It’s not something that everyone can be happy with and what we’ve got to do is think in terms of the advancement of the species, that above all else.
In The Divine and the Decay, Plowart escapes from England to a small, socially incestuous island where magical or seemingly magical events occur. This echoes or anticipates some of the themes of John Fowles’s novel, The Magus. Was there something about Britain in the 1950s that made islands and events that, let us say, defied the prevailing orthodoxies of scientific materialism seem especially attractive to writers?
I can’t answer for Fowles. But for my own part it gave me a hermetically enclosed, magnifying, echoing chamber, which was a metaphor for the world, really. All the putrid decaying people on it were reflections of that. How degenerate they were, how trivial they were, how unabsorbed they were over the prospects of humanity as a species. All these things were, to me, perfect examples of what I could portray as the world. I mean, here was a man who didn’t belong, who was the ‘Outsider’, who was en passant.
Was there also, at the back of your mind, the idea that this might be a metaphor for the world after a nuclear holocaust?
No. Because I’ve always had a great belief that the nuclear war wouldn’t happen. I don’t know of any species that has a literal death wish. Even the lemmings don’t.
Do you, or did you, see yourself as an outsider?
Yes, in many ways I did. And yet I was more of an insider than any of the ‘Angry Young Men’.
When you speak of the ‘Angry Young Men’ which other writers come to mind?
John Osborne, Lindsay Anderson. His film If has been very undervalued. Kingsley Amis, in the sense that he was very subversive and mocking. You couldn’t call him an angry young man but you couldn’t certainly call him a peaceful young man either. John Wain was doing the same thing, and John Braine — how to raise yourself up the ladder, the social ladder, which was unfair. They all felt that they’d been deprived of social advantages and they had decided that they wanted a society where everyone had equal advantages, which of course, came from left-wing thinking and I suppose radical liberal thinking too. And even I believe that everyone should have equal education, equal chances. So does Colin Wilson. But of course, we believe you invent yourself and the others did see themselves as maimed or damaged by the system. Who else? You want more names? Most of them are gone. Alexander Trocchi killed himself with a syringe. There were quite a few that fell by the wayside.
So it would not be unreasonable to see the ‘Angry Young Men’ as almost a form of social protest, a protest by the non-privileged?
Well, it was a protest by most of them, but Colin and I were really affirming rallying calls and a positive advance for society, we weren’t too interested in the bad things that you protest against. We were simply calling on people who had extra energy and vitality to break through to a further point. But not, you know, kicking other people as it were. If you’re a fast runner you really don’t have to worry too much about the people you say are hogging the racetrack. You just run faster and surpass them.
Were there any concrete ways in which the ‘Angry Young Men’ were a group? Did you meet?
Yes. We all knew each other and I think we were trying most of all to re-energise society. We were all protesting against dead thinking, for the need to become much more vital. That’s what the ‘Angry Young Men’ were really for. They were trying to break the stagnation of that decade and, in doing so, I think that they completely changed communication. I don’t think the pop movement or the pop world could have happened without us; or most of the other big social explosions. We were the thin end of the wedge.
Do you see yourselves, with hindsight anyway, as precursors of the 1960s?
Very much so. Very much so.
John Lennon’s ‘working class hero’?
Yes. In the way that we changed novels, plays, cinema, singing, acting. Yes. Undoubtedly. Historically we did. We were the catalyst and we paid a dear price for it.
Can you amplify that?
Well, you only have to look at the history of John Osborne and Colin Wilson and Lindsay Anderson to see the damage that was done. All his life, after the ‘Angry Young Men’, Lindsay Anderson was trying to get finance for further films and never really managed it. John Osborne was attacked more and more venomously with each play, so he never emerged as a playwright that people looked at as a playwright. He was always someone you hated and was a demon figure, wasn’t he? And Colin Wilson too. That changed his career.
Do you feel that others reaped the rewards?
Oh yes. They always do. And I think that’s good.
The next literary generation, the Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie generation, weren’t trying to change society. They were writing in a way that one probably couldn’t have written in the 1950s without being regarded as a radical writer, but they certainly were not radical revolutionaries.
Yes absolutely. They were accepted. Society had changed and they were accepted and I think in that sense the ‘Angry Young Men’ were very necessary as catalysts, don’t you? I think we served our purpose.
You had an effect, certainly.
In ant colonies they have soldier ants and they rush forward to any danger and they’re killed in their thousands but they’ve stopped the threat and they’ve changed the direction of the ant colony. So we were used, I suppose, as warrior ants by the Zeitgeist. And certainly I think that if everyone had known what was going to happen, and we didn’t, I think most of them wouldn’t have gone in to battle. I think it certainly accounts for the fact that today half the ‘Angry Young Men’ are dead. It put a tremendous stress on them all.
Yes, it’s difficult to escape from such a very firm bracketing together. Perhaps no one really escaped from it. Perhaps Kingsley Amis?
Yes, he kept his distance. But then he did pay a terrible price with alcoholism; and he did move much further to the Right and moved into the Garrick and made that into his enclosed world. There were effects. John Braine became from a left winger a Tory, didn’t he? And a Catholic and an alcoholic — and that killed him. All showed signs of stress. Except me. But I walked away owing to the fact that my way was totally blocked
What did you do?
I built an empire in antiques and antiquities. I built an empire and made a fortune.
Do you regret the fact that your way was blocked?
No. I don’t think that you can regret anything in life. I think you have to accept what is. Don’t forget, my father was my precursor. He was famous and he was rendered destitute and he ended up dead with everything in ruins. So I knew that there were consequences. From the very beginning I knew. In fact I warned Colin Wilson that he was about to be assassinated before Religion and the Rebel and Ritual in the Dark came out. It was all so predictable and my feeling was if no-one will examine my case, what had happened to me in terms of my publishers and what I was faced with and no one defended me — even people like Iris Murdoch — to hell with literature. I’m now going to look after Bill Hopkins and make him self-sufficient. I’m never going to be dependent on people again; publishers, a public that doesn’t notice what’s going on and accepts what’s being given to them. I felt very scornful about the whole situation!
You mention Iris Murdoch. One very obvious element among the ‘Angry Young Men’ was that they were men. That was a line back to Nietszche with his Superman. There was also a line back to the idea of the outsider, started by Camus and developed by your friend Colin Wilson. It was a very male dominated literary and intellectual scene. Probably the greatest single intellectual change in the last 40 years has been the advent of feminism, the advance of feminine values and their effect on literature and the world of the intellect. Do you have any comment on that?
Well, of course, that had already started very much in the 1950s and earlier, with Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, Simone de Beauvoir in Paris, The Second Sex.
She was linked to Sartre.
Yes, but she was a very independent woman. I mean, Sartre was attacking me as a fascist and Simone de Beauvoir’s lover, Nelson Algren, was a great champion of my book. So her lover, Nelson Algren, was championing me and her regular man, Sartre, was attacking me as a fascist and her position was independent. She was an alternative voice. Simone de Beauvoir certainly wasn’t in thraldom to Sartre intellectually at all. In fact I think that she felt sorry for him in many ways. She pitied him in many respects and that came out very much in that goodbye, that last account of Sartre’s dying.
Nevertheless, at the end of The Divine and the Decay Plowart and Claremont are thrust into the sea and it’s the male who survives, seemingly miraculously yet not miraculously, through an effort of will.
And imagination. And vision.
And the female who perishes. The female who sacrifices herself.
Yes. Well, of course, Claremont was occupying a very, very wrong position. She was defending what is instead of powers that could be.
You wrote in Declarations of your disdain for “improbable love yarns closing upon chaste kisses” and the single sex scene in The Divine and the Decay presents sex as a perfunctory, loveless, almost utilitarian expression of carnal desire. Do you see sex as purely part of the instinct for survival?
Yes. The drive to copulation is so basic to us all, it dominates everything. We mask it by words like love but the fact of the matter is that true love emasculates the drive to copulation. There is a perception of women as whores or goddesses. The goddess principle which has been propagated in all the advertisements in films and television emasculates men. They can’t believe that they can rip the knickers off Audrey Hepburn and mate. They have to adore; by adoring they invoke the contempt of the woman who certainly doesn’t want to be adored. All she sets out to do is to attract those who will penetrate her and impregnate. So women, by overdoing the show business attractiveness with cosmetics and lingerie and what not, often complain that they attract men that they don’t want. They want barbarians. Part of the motivation of the ‘Angry Young Men’ was their sex famine, their anger.
The fact that they were sexually deprived. They all had the idea of blue stockings, of wonderful cool Lady Bretts – you know, of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises – Lady Bretts, who were cool sophisticated aristocrats. They would never drop their silken panties for them and that enraged them. I didn’t subscribe to that of course, because one knows it’s all show business. I never had any social anger nor sexual anger. I think, in that sense, when you said ‘Were you an outsider?’ I said ‘yes’, but also no; yes in the sense that society to me was full of such victims, needless victims, men and women, but no in the sense that I knew that there was no personal animus towards me and everyone was a ‘victim’ in their different ways. I mean old David Milford Haven, whom I knew well was a typical example, and David Astor, Jonathan Guinness — they were all ‘victims’. Everyone’s a victim in England. In America they’re not. In England if you’re not born with a title and with wealth, then you have an inferiority complex from the beginning. As soon as you’ve got a duke you’re inferior by definition. He’s a victim, despite being a duke, to the monarchy. The pyramid.
Is this something you’d like to see changed?
The monarchy is a victim of its succession. The whole thing always struck me as a kind of diddle and a doddle so I could never be passionate about any of that.
Would you like to see the class system abolished?
Very much, but I’m afraid it’s raised in people’s own minds. I’ll give you an example. John Braine, who wrote Room at the Top, was an absolute militant against the class system. It was something that enraged him enormously and he wrote splenetic articles in The New Statesman about it. But when I took him to meet David Milford Haven, he found out of course about his title and that he was the Queen’s best man. All of a sudden a terrible quivering and a shaking of his teacup on the saucer revealed exactly the class system of this country.
You’ve emphasised your Britishness, your belief in the superiority of the British race and stated that you’re very much a British writer. I would suggest however that you were the least British, the least parochial and most cosmopolitan of the ‘Angry Young Men’; the one most in tune with international ideas.
It’s only possible to become international when you have such firm ground under you. I don’t mean physical ground. I mean history. When I use the word compost that’s about it. It’s all the mess, the blood, the gore and the entrails of centuries.
There is a lot of ambivalence in your attitude towards England and Britain.
I’m showing the flag. The Britain I’m talking about is here as it is for all true British men and women.
Inside your head?
Yes. And it shouts at the real Britain, ‘Grow up, be this and how dare you be tardy’. So it’s always been my attitude that I’ve told the English what they should do in poetry, in journalism, in novels and now in plays and that’s what I’ll die doing. I’m both parochial and international, but I can only be international when I’m sure of my identity. And I’m not interested in Bill Hopkins. I’m interested in another representative for the British people. That’s all. I’m part of the compost. D’you see what I mean? Nietszche: “Not me, not me, the wind that blows through me”. That’s entirely my attitude in life. And I can’t see any other way of living. We’ve been put on the earth as kind of Manchurian candidates and if society is hostile then we’ve got to be more deterministic and do battle. It’s forced on us. We certainly don’t crumple like victims. So that’s my arrival as one of the ‘Angry Young Men’ and I would have been saying this to you exactly in my twenties. Never changed. All I’ve done has been to improve my thinking and facilitate my survival materially and live. You know, there won’t be many of us left soon, Jonathan. There won’t be many of us left.
You were instrumental, I understand, in the launch of Penthouse.
Yes, well that was very important. As the editor of the first number, I recruited Bertrand Russell, Julian Huxley and many others who were considered to be heavyweights by the establishment to subscribe to a magazine that was showing pubic hair for the first time. And although I didn’t believe in sex as titillation, I did know that it was necessary as another battering ram.
I think Penthouse can be seen as a battering ram, but also as something sleazy and unpleasant.
It wasn’t sleazy. We used the most beautiful girls.
It was an attack on hypocrisy! Penthouse penetrated to the foundations. Don’t forget the lavatory, the bedroom and the drawing room, traditionally in England, had been completely different worlds. Penthouse united them for the first time.
We still see this hypocrisy about sex that Penthouse supposedly ended. It seems to be livelier than ever today, with politicians.
Yes, but they’re all ending up at the Old Bailey. I mean, cheque book journalism has exposed the poor sods as they’ve never been exposed before.
But the hypocrisy still has to be deep rooted to allow it to happen.
Well, more and more it’s becoming the joke of the world isn’t it, really? Hilarious. But England has always been like that and Penthouse opened a lot of oubliettes that need to be opened up. I used to go to the Duchess of Westminster’s parties and people used to come up to me and say, ‘hey, you know, awful people, the press, always writing these lies’, and distancing themselves. What they didn’t realise is that I’d been on the news-desk taking their tips. If I’d really been an angry young man, I’d have written chapter and verse. I could have demolished most of them. They were all drawing money for feeding stories in about their friends. The magistrates were sending the prostitutes and the pimps and the perverts to prison and they were part of the active circle. There are a number of Englands, a number of Englands.
What interests me and I think what interests you, is the hypocrisy.
I’d go further, to pity.
The hypocrites. ‘In sunshine and shadow.’
You don’t seem angry at all.
I never was. I’m passionate, but not angry. I’m passionate about the need for change. I’m passionate about the need for understanding. I’m passionate about the need for vision.
Is there not a conflict between the views you’ve expressed and your own feelings?
I look at it detachedly, as I do with everything. It seems to me that you can’t theorise about violence without being perfectly in tune with using violence yourself. And one of my ideals has always been based on the cultured thug: the Byronic.
The Krays ?
Yes. Well, you know the Krays were very, very respectful to me and anyone else in the Arts. So was Rachman, who was my landlord. I owed him rent for months and he didn’t care. All he wanted was to sit in on conversations of mine. I think you have to accept the fact that unless you can fight you mustn’t just take an ivory tower position. And that’s one of the things about Plowart which I was very keen on representing. I mean Isherwood and Auden and Spender and Eliot were all whimpering and whingeing about being so highly sensitive and I view that with total contempt.
Yes. There is a very obvious contrast between the ‘Angry Young Men’ and the previous generation.
Yes. Mind you, I did sympathise with them. But I knew that when the war came, it had to be logical that Auden and Isherwood fled to New York. It was absolutely logical. And that Spender was a pacifist and was in the fire brigade. They all identified with death and themselves dying, you know, it was the menace to narcissism.
There’s the example of Firbank.
Yes. And all the fin de siècle boys. I mean, what finished poor Oscar Wilde was that he didn’t even imagine a world like that in jail. The poor butterfly just found it so horrible that he never wrote another word after. And I certainly didn’t want that to happen to intellectuals and writers. I thought that we had to go through the abattoirs. It was a necessary process. So Plowart, The Divine and the Decay was really that sort of manifesto.
Yet there’s this terrific irony that if Plowart really is going to survive, he’s going to survive because the hunchback has managed to save him. The man that he was trying to save from the ridicule of the other people on the island.
Plowart believed. His contempt for other people was based on the fact that he thought that they could all change. They could all invent themselves anew. That was part of his cruelty, to expect them to be able to change. That they couldn’t, like Claremont, was beyond his comprehension. Because he’d changed himself. Why couldn’t they? And that was the reason that he’d taken the side of this awful man who was to later drop him the life-belt at the beginning of the novel.
Do you think that he recognised the debt ?
No. I think it was an affinity, as I remember, an affinity unrealised. I think one of the inspirations for me on that was Goethe’s Elective Affinities. You know this business when you go into a crowded room and there’s only one or two people you can even glance at and you know they’re relevant to you. All the rest are irrelevant and you’ve never been able to explain in a satisfactory sense why this is so; what this mental compass means. But you know it infallibly and you talk to these one or two and you leave, there’s nothing else there. I think it was the same with that fellow, dropping his lifebelt. He couldn’t be Plowart but he would be if he could.
He was an ‘Outsider’?
There are an enormous number of encodements in that novel. To me it’s still not a novel, it’s a Bildungsroman, a novel of ideas and it works on so many different levels.
What do you think of the state of the novel today? Are there any contemporary writers you admire?
No, because cowardice is endemic with people. And it takes a great deal to be able to create without and in spite of an audience. Unless you can do that the audience will never respect you. You have to have the authority to be able to take them through the labyrinth to magic. And today all literature is bound up with domesticity, what’s credible, what people can identify with from their own experiences, which are very limited. So the novel is largely extinct. It’s lost its magic. It’s become, in embroidery terms, petit point. And if that’s so then we’re looking at the demise of literature in the form of the novel. Unless it’s got magic, unless you can open the cover and be swept up into something that’s totally unpredictable, that leads you to an unknown point, there’s no point in reading.
Have you read John Fowles’s miscegenatory novel The Magus?
Yes. I was very struck by its ambitions and by its successes; but more, ultimately, by its failure. I regard it as a failure. But it was a very splendid failure. I think he re-worked it too much so he lost the spontaneity and the drive. He didn’t have the courage to do it in a whoosh, as I did, which he should have done. But then, we were doing it from different positions.
He wrote The Collector in a ‘whoosh’.
And that was a much more accomplished novel, although it didn’t have the breadth and the span of The Magus. I’m certainly not ashamed to be a fellow writer of his. Certainly not. I wouldn’t say that of Rushdie or Martin Amis, or Kingsley Amis or John Wain. Even John Osborne, for whom I feel enormous contempt, though I salute his courage.
He was so full of bile and venom and blindness and smallness, pettiness, minginess, stinginess — all behind it all. A weird, weird mix to make a Fury. I don’t think I ever spoke to him before I fell into a position of patronising him, talking down, because he wouldn’t allow one to be an equal. I suppose you know that in one of his books he refers to me as an altar boy, do you?
Yes. No, I think Fowles stands out. To him I would apply the word ‘noble’. He’s a noble man. And when he dies I shall certainly doff my cap.
The greatest literary accomplishment in England since the war?
No. I think The Divine and the Decay will be rated by posterity much higher and rightly. For a number of reasons. The attack was loftier. It did break the boundaries with much more of a crack than did The Magus. He was an obliquist in that novel, if I can refer to his strategy and practice and I was really an over-the-top attacker from the front. That’s what makes me unique, I think. Frankly it’s a Bildungsroman which the Chinese, the Russians, the Germans, all the intellectual nations recognise. I don’t think they’ll recognise The Magus. But an enormous achievement within the confines of our society’s hypocrisy.
It’s very big in America.
Yes, Anglo-Saxon. But he would never be big in Russia, or China, or with the Germans because they’re much more cerebral, really. So I think he would be more successful — he’d be respected much more in England than I would be. I think — it’s always final judgements, you never know — but the fact that mine is expanding out to the world right now, forty years later, despite all the handicaps it was given — being pulped and being restricted and being ridiculed and demonised and everything else. I think that’s very interesting, in the sense that most novels are almost certainly dead, however much their ideas are lauded within a smaller and smaller time span.
I thought the only bad passage in The Divine and the Decay was the dream sequence on the boat, in the opening chapter. It made little sense.
Well, I had to occupy that and in theatre in Elizabethan times they used the soliloquy. You know, speeches like “to be or not to be” are nothing more than how to cover a time lapse. Now, I couldn’t use a soliloquy so I had to use the device of a dream and use the irrationality of the dream; but what I had to do was to keep the readers with me through this interval as I was going forward. It was all calculated and that was one of the cards I had to spin and that was a losing card, I knew that. So, you’re absolutely right. If the circumstances had been different, if I had been writing in another century I would have done another thing and that’s all I can comment about that. We’re all bound in some ways to the conventions of our time and those are the death knells because if you’re dated that’s where you date. As Les Girls was dated by the girls wearing cloche hats in the 1920s, so you’re dated by such devices.
It’s a novel that’s certainly dated less than most. I mean as long as French windows exist you won’t be seriously dated.
I’m not sure, I’m not sure. You see, it’s a funny position I’m in. I met a chap the other day, Alan Deitweiler; he was the boyfriend, ‘gay’, of Alan Reynolds. Have you ever heard of him? He conducted great intellectual cells of writers in the 1950s and he picked them up everywhere. He gathered a big salon of all the promising young men. He invited me to his Christmas party and I was the only one really who rejected him. I went to one of his parties and I thought it was quack humanism. I showed my contempt and never showed up again; while Colin Wilson and Stuart Holroyd both kept going every Sunday to his place. And Alan Deitweiler, when I met him recently for the first time under other circumstances, said, “Oh yes, you’re the only one Alan Reynolds said would ever last to posterity of all the ‘Angry Young Men’.” And I was very astonished considering that I would have thought he would have hated me in return and rubbished me. And Alan Deitweiler wouldn’t lie so that astonished me too. So I think he was an arch-humanist, Alan Reynolds, very famous in intellectual circles of the 1950s. You probably don’t know him because I don’t think he published. He was just a personality. He’s dead now, but everyone knew of him in the 1950s.
The book has a timeless quality.
I think you’ll outlive me Jonathan, so you’ll see for yourself whether it will last. I don’t know.
No-one ever knows.
No, you never know, you never know. That’s the whole thing about literature, you cast a message in a bottle on the water. I’m not sure that I really care about posterity. One half of me because I think it’s whether we can reinvent ourselves as a people and re-inherit our momentum. The other half of me, cast in nostalgia, in the past, I happily join The Divine and the Decay to all that. I’m quite proud to belong to that and the ‘Angry Young Men’. It’s history isn’t it?