POETENLADEN - neue Literatur im Netz - Home
Fiendishly Hard And Captivating Activities

Adam Thorpe: Interview with Bertram Reinecke
Adam Thorpe

© Thorpe

Adam Thorpe was born in 1956 in Paris and grew up in India, Cameroon and England. He was teaching English literature and dramatics in London and wrote lyric, dramas and radio dramas. In 1988 his first lyric-work „Mornings in the Baltic“ was published. In 1992 he debuted as novelist with „Ulverton“. In his newest novel („Hodd“ 2009) Thorpe is resurrecting the English Middleages.

„Ulverton“ is telling a story about a fictive place from 1650 to 1988 within twelf episodes, which are composed in the style of the particular epoche in which they play. So there are a homily, a screenplay-passage, an epistolary novel-part and a diary-passage as well. This work, which was compared to „Ulysses“ by its appeareance, won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize.
Adam Thorpe | Ulverton
Adam Thorpe
Roman, Deutsch
Claassen 1994
Bertram Reinecke: You grew up in India and Cameroon. Did your origin have any influence on the fact that you first came to literature through poetry?

Adam Thorpe: Not consciously, no. Between those years in India and Cameroon our home was in England, which period made up the bulk of my childhood, although I have a vivid memory of England's difference on first arrival in 1962 – the cold, the grey, the lack of ripe smells, the softness. My grandmother was an English teacher in London state schools and she helped to introduce me to poetry - Stevenson, Masefield, Walter de la Mare; these poets were already rather old-fashioned by the 1960s, but I loved them for their music. She also quoted Shakespeare rather frequently. In Cameroon we would bounce along the bush roads in our rusty car with Ted Hughes's The Hawk in the Rain in my teenage lap, inspiring me to try my hand at verse. I think the contrast between chilly England and humid Africa was stimulating as well as perplexing.

B. Reinecke: In how far has this foreign view alleviated your narrative approach to the somewhat unspectacular subject of an english small town in Ulverton?

A. Thorpe: [Not sure what you mean by alleviated.] I have always had a part of me that has looked at England with that small boy's slightly bewildered gaze. Also, the past is a foreign country. Even one's own past becomes so, oddly. Each of the novel's narrative fragments is both a broken-off portion but complete in itself, like a memory.

This conforms to my distant memories of Calcutta, recently vividly revived by a miniscule black-and-white snapshot found after my father died, showing me in our garden with my mother. The background beyond the garden – a strange and ruined building, trees, tall plumed reeds or grasses – surged over me and I realised that it had once represented everything that lay beyond, a sort of magic realm and very beautiful. Perhaps each small fragment of Ulverton serves as a kind of memory surge, even if the reader cannot ever have experienced that past.

B. Reinecke: Were you at first afraid to start such a large undertaking, and if so, how did you overcome that?

A. Thorpe: I conceived the whole idea while on a walk on the Berkshire downs, on a crisp February day, near the farm where I used to lend a hand in the holidays: I paused by an old gate on an ancient path and wondered about all the lost stories, happenings and people the field's entrance had seen.

At first, however, I thought the chapters would be written in a kind of lightly-historical contemporary style. When I began, I realised that each period could only be understood through its language, its particular pasture. I lost my nerve and abandoned the project, having written only the first chapter and the later one set in the First World War. I came back to it some six years later, with the folly of youth, intent on reproducing a kind of facsimile of each period's speak, whether written or oral. I wrote the novel quite quickly after many months of research and absorption, knowing beforehand what each narrative would be, a lot of stories having silted up in my head over the years.

B. Reinecke: Umberto Eco stated that he only dared to tell the story of his novel 'Name of the Rose' after he hid his narrative voice behind a dual narrator. Did you also understand the formal construction of your novel as such a protection?

A. Thorpe: Yes. It allowed me to detach myself and enjoy the challenge - as a painter enjoys the brushwork, the formal structure, the use of colour, the release into the material thisness of paint.

B. Reinecke: Despite the great awfulness in the depicted events, your novel is very poetic. (For instance, it contains very suggestive symbols.) Did you purposely try to tranfer lyrical methods into prose? What was your approach to the genre of prose which was new to you at that point?

A. Thorpe: I had never written – or rather finished – a novel before. The short story is closer to poetry, in its suggestiveness and allusiveness, than is the workaday novel. Ulverton is somewhere between a set of short stories and a novel, though technically the latter. Really, though, the symbols came naturally out of the subject-matter and period styles. I coaxed them into prominence, that's all.

For instance, the symbol of the bedwine or wild honeysuckle was there in two or three chapters, and I then realised it held a symbolic importance, so made sure it was woven into other chapters. The main aim was to avoid a decorative, over-purposeful feel, which a poem can absorb – but not a novel about chance and disjunction and randomness (as well as continuity).

B. Reinecke: Does the reception reflect this? Has the novel found comparatively more attention among readers of poetry?

A. Thorpe: I'm not sure. I think it's been appreciated by quite a sophisticated kind of reader, although a literary prize panel (one of many) rejected Ulverton (having probably not read it) as a nostalgic pastoral, when of course it's quite the opposite. One of my problems is that those readers not attuned to modernism, or less open to different, non-conventional ways of fictional practice, tend to react violently against my novels, as you can see on the ever-judging, ever opinionated court of assizes called Internet.

B. Reinecke: A lot of time has passed when the novel jumps from one chapter to another. Often the protagonists of the previous chapter are already dead. This adds another touch of vainness to the protagonists' strivings, which makes the novel somewhat melancholy as all ambitions become obsolete in the long-run. Is there a hidden narratological or philosophical agenda behind this?

A. Thorpe: I'm haunted by the possibility that both Hamlet and Macbeth were right: that life is just a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing; that man is the quintessence of dust. On the one hand, in terms of planetary time, this is absolutely accurate, that in a sense we've been taken hostage by our own brilliance; the dinosaurs, who were far more successful than we are in terms of endurance, never had the intelligence to reflect on that success, so hardly noticed their eventual failure.

On the other hand, Hamlet is suffering from melancholy and Macbeth from the worst sin - despair. This is a very dangerous state to be in. I hope that in all that awful loss in Ulverton there's a broader sense of confraternity with the past, a mingling of dusts (if nothing else) that is really a rather wonderful thing. We all have our turn in the sun, but also our responsibility to those who come after us as well as before. Why not see Nature as essentially good, that we belong to it as Jo Perry does, and must take care of it and celebrate life - instead of abusing Nature and thereby bringing only corruption and death to the generations to come? What will Ulverton be in 2100? I dread to think. We need to return to the long-term mind-set of the good peasant farmer. Anything but where we are now, trapped in oil.

B. Reinecke: In almost no other modern work of prose the conditions of past time are as noticeable as in your novel. How long did you research for the numerious details and which research methods and procedures did you apply?

A. Thorpe: I have always been interested in rural ways and history, so really I was building on knowledge already acquired. I spent months in the British Library, copying out obscure old texts such as carpenter's manuals or farmer's diaries: feeling the cloth, as it were. You have to remember that a novelist is not an academic: not every area has to be covered, not every point substantiated. I could narrow my subject right down and suggest I knew vastly more, when perhaps I didn't.
But I did use over a hundred books or manuscripts, as well as much personal observation (the shine of hay on a dawn road, for instance).

B. Reinecke: Did you have any models in mind for the composition of the novel or the style of individual chapters? And if so, which models would that be?

A. Thorpe: For the composition, I may have been influenced by linked story collections like Dubliners or the Just So Stories – except that my book was conceived as a novel. My models were the period texts I had looked at and studied. Each story's demands drove me to them, not vice-versa.

B. Reinecke: Social and technical innovations seem to find an early entrance in Ulverton. The great time of the sentimental letter in Germany did not begin until after 1743, photography is rather high-tech in 1859, and even the farmer of the third chapter appears rather up-to-date. Is this impression the consequence of a persistent prejudice that the old time has always been good and unagitated? (E.g. like it is almost impossible to imagine that Mendelssohn travelled to his concerts by train.) Or did you purposely want to creat a modern town? If so, which narrative reasons did you have?

A. Thorpe: I love the surprise of realising that the past seemed very new to the people present in it. Also, my characters are often quite dynamic, forward-looking. Photography seems an amazing thing to the unnamed woman in 1859, yet still not free of painterliness. So the reader feels both more advanced and at the same time caught out by the contemporary approach: photography should feel different, refreshed, after a reading of that chapter, instead being of the banal and ubiquitous visual noise it now mostly is. Each period is modern on its own terms.

B. Reinecke: In Germany, literature is often investigated through an 'either-or-scheme'. People either ask for realistic description or reject this call in favour of formal ambitions. You casually manage to undermine this contradiction. Generally, I am under the impression that the English speaking tradition handles such questions in a more relaxed fashion (e.g. Vonnegut). Did considerations of this subject influence the composition of your novel?

A. Thorpe: It's the same in France, I guess: you're either a formalist or a realist. A painter like David Hockney manages to be both, so why not a writer? I think there were two currents coming together in Ulverton: one was unmuddied by questions of theoretical validity; the formal aspects just seemed to happen. The other was influenced by my reading in literary theory for the purposes of my degree teaching in London. A lot of this stuff was highflown nonsense, but some of it was exciting. It limbered me up for the novel, gave me an intellectual basis for what was a natural outcome of my thinking about history, time, continuity and loss.

B. Reinecke: Even though the novel was released by a respected publishing house and despite the fact that a well-known translation prize called additional attention to the book, your debut in Germany went surprisingly unnoticed. Do you have an explanation for that?

Adam Thorpe | Hodd
Adam Thorpe
Roman, Englisch
Jonathan Cape 2009
A. Thorpe: It received a lot of very nice and serious reviews, including a two-page spread in Der Spiegel, but the book was an expensive hardback, and a buy-out of the publisher (Claassen) meant that no paperback was produced. All my books have had much the same trajectory, whatever the country (including the States): I am, in bookselling parlance, yet to break through. It keeps me writing, though - to pay the bills.

B. Reinecke: What are you working on at present time and which plans do you have for the future?

A. Thorpe: My new novel, Hodd, is about to come out: it's a reworking of the Robin Hood myth. I'm nervous about it, as it's a return to the Ulverton approach; a facsimile, as it were, of a medieval Latin document in a translation from the 1920s, it's so authentic (complete with footnotes) that it might make people cross. On the other hand, I hope it takes some readers into another and very foreign time. Meanwhile I am translating Madame Bovary, of all books, and writing poems. Both are fiendishly hard, and yet somehow captivating, activities. The future? A very faint notion is emerging of writing a novel about the eighteenth-century painter Thomas Gainsborough. I'm not at all sure why.

B. Reinecke: Thank you very much for the interview.

A. Thorpe: Thank you for asking me.
  Published in poet 7
       Ebenso lieferbar poet 6
poet nr. 7
poetenladen, Leipzig 2009
portofrei lieferbar
poet nr. 6
poetenladen, Leipzig 2009
portofrei lieferbar
Bertram Reinecke  02.09.2009   
Bertram Reinecke