Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.6 - Andrew Miller, novelist, reads from his latest novel 'Pure'


 Andrew Miller, novelist, being interviewed outside

Miller was interviewed by Lorna Bradbury, a literary journalist from the Telegraph, London. He has written many novels; Ingenious was his first, and the others are: Casanova, Oxygen, Pierrot, etc. The novel he read from and discussed was his latest, Pure.

Jean Baptiste is the hero. He is educated beyond his class, like a superior servant. But he can't belong to the class of people he works for. He asks Armand, the organist, whether he is of the party of the future or of the past? Must look like the future. Hence, he buys a new suit in green. He is a man fragile in his own identity. As author, Miller, was interested in that. Jean is a man of reason, an engineer. These props fall away and he is no longer supported by a “convincing sense of himself.” Cast around him are people on the edge of insanity. That is like Samuel Johnson himself, The epigraph of the novel quotes the Marquis de Condorcet, “One day the sun will only shine on Reason.”

Andrew Miller with KumKum at the Hay festival in TVM 2011

Miller began reading, “A girl was crossing the road … a little auburn-haired emissary of death … ” Lorna asked how much research he did, since the cemetery become almost like a character. Miller replied it is mostly smoke and mirrors, with a little research to ensure he had not made glaring errors in dates and geography and personages at that time.

Lorna asked if Miller's aim with prose is to create the quality of poetry. Miller said he liked the care and attention that poets bring to their work. “I like worked prose that delights in beautiful sentences,” he said.

Joe asked if people in those times really believed that Reason had the answer to all the problems of life – love, living, death, suffering, etc. Miller replied that little change for the great majority of people. But for a small elite, for the duration of a glass of wine, things changed.

Andrew Miller inscribes for KumKum

Miller said it was by writing six novels that he came into his own, and realised what his interests were. People have a difficulty to express their emotions and he didn't anticipate he would be interested in that. His writing became more sensual (what it smelled like, what it looked like, etc). Miller said he tries to have a strong sense of the physical. 

For a fuller account of the session, click below ...


Miller was interviewed by Lorna Bradbury, a literary journalist from the Telegraph, London. He has written many novels; Ingenious was his first, and the others are: Casanova, Oxygen, Pierrot, etc. The novel he read from and discussed was his latest, Pure.

What led to this novel was a book by Philip Aris, Funeral Customs in the West. It is set in a cemetery in the middle of Paris which is being cleared. It is en years before the Revolution and the Bastille storming. Clearing the cemetery is symbolic of getting rid of the past. It is the new thinking of the Revolution. There have been short-lived fantasies even in the recent past of getting rid of the past, such as Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia, and the Great Leap Forward of Mao Zedong.

Jean Baptiste is the hero. He is educated beyond his class, like a superior servant. But he can't belong to the class of people he works for. He asks Armand, the organist, whether he is of the party of the future or of the past? Must look like the future. Hence, he buys a new suit in green. He is a man fragile in his own identity. As author, Miller, was interested in that. Jean is a man of reason, an engineer. These props fall away and he is no longer supported by a “convincing sense of himself.” Cast around him are people on the edge of insanity. That is like Samuel Johnson himself, The epigraph of the novel quotes the Marquis de Condorcet, “The time will come when the sun will shine only on free men who have no master but Reason.”


There are scenes in which the physical becomes prominent, e.g., the people's breath becomes revolting. Miller read a bit to give the sense of the cemetery being the central plot and scene. It's like a film director creating vast sets – Miller liked that feeling. He began reading, “A girl was crossing the road … a little auburn-haired emissary of death … ”

Lorna asked how much research he did, since the cemetery become almost like a character. Miller replied it is mostly smoke and mirrors, with a little research to ensure he had not made glaring errors in dates and geography and personages at that time. There is little surviving history of the cemetery. Sometimes, it looks as f the writer has a vast body of knowledge below the surface of his writing. But often there is nothing below the tip of the visible iceberg.

Lorna asked what does historical fiction give that history does not? It is the ability to dream about the time and give access to the actual people who lived lives that had all the ordinary things, like eating and partying and dressing up and laughing and so on. It must be interesting and convincing. Simon Schama wrote Citizens about the French Revolution. The historian has to be faithful to the facts and the source material. The only responsibility for a novelist is: NOT TO BE DULL.

Was Miller's aim with prose is to create the quality of poetry? Miller said he liked the care and attention that poets bring to their work. “I like worked prose that delights in beautiful sentences,” he said. Each writer has his own sense of an ideal language. Recall that Baudelaire said he would not write a sentence like, “The chevalier left his home at 5 o'clock.” However, there is a certain amount of slack as well, so you need plain sentences as well.

Charles Baudelaire

Lorna inquired if Miller wrote in a trance. Miller replied that people imagine writing is a head activity, but it is also a whole body activity, and it is important to keep yourself well-grounded.

Joe asked if people in those times really believed that Reason had the answer to all the problems of life – love, living, death, suffering, etc. Miller replied that little change for the great majority of people. But for a small elite, for the duration of a glass of wine, things changed. It is wonderful to have instability, “Let shine this bright light onto all things.” Big ideas appear. The whole idea of Reason and so on is on the Web.

What about drafts of the book? Well, said Miller, the first draft is what came to you in a quietly receptive state. But all first drafts are embarrassing, very rough. Yet, there's a pulse there, and you cannot afford t lose the freshness. Words may change, sentences recast, but I want to stay in touch with the freshness of the first draft. D.H. Lawrence would write a first draft, and lay it aside and write a second draft – thus to preserve the freshness, but change the language.

Rukmini Bhaya Nair asked about madness. Miller remarked that madness comes about in people seeing every day the opposite of what they believe. The best of the French then were thinkers., who observed their own lives too. They hoped the light of reason would illuminate their own emotions. What we might be, versus what we are. Voltaire, Hume, etc. there wouldn't be any age or Reason, but you could come out ahead by applying your mind to any problem. Much of the struggle, was against the Church, against the priests, against the control they exercised over all areas of life.

Miller said it was by writing six novels that he came into his own, and realised what his interests were. People have a difficulty to express their emotions and he didn't anticipate he would be interested in that. His writing became more sensual (what it smelled like, what it looked like, etc) How alive the room was to the light of a candle which flickers and sways, unlike the steady light of an electric bulb. His books are full of “the common experience of living in the world,” but alive to its sensual possibilities. He made the remark: “The author's collected works are his or her truest biography.” Writers are not interested in themselves as people. Miller said he was not interested in being anybody, “But by writing I can be many bodies, including horses and dogs.” He said it is a mistake to think of oneself as a single unitary being. There are many writers in oneself, and accepting them conduces to sanity.

Are you partial to some characters, someone asked. Miller said even toward his unlikable characters he needed to have compassion. He thought to name his least favourite character after a Tory MP he disliked, but over time dwelling with the character, he grew to like him in he novel.

What about the intimate third person. Miller said he tries to have a strong sense of the physical. He wants his writing to have a balance weighted to the physical. “I like to hear them coming down the stairs.” The ordinary things of life presented in this way revivifies them.

Someone asked why did the British not allow the Revolution to make its way across the channel. Miller reminded the person that Britain had its own revolution during the time of Cromwell in the 1640s. It was quite revolting. The British heaved a great collective sigh of relief when the king came back. There is in Britain a deep-rooted respect for order. People took their complaints to Parliament, instead of taking up pikes and staves.

Why Joe asked are there no French words in the passage he read, for example,for the French word for small shopkeepers. Miller said his editor would have eliminated them, He had to avoid atmosphere channeled by French words and rely entirely on English.
 

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