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Lidia Vianu: Alan Brownjohn and the Desperado Age

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Literature is essential
Interview

LIDIA VIANU: Could you list a few features of the Post-Movement, which you feel you illustrate in your poetry, fiction, criticism?

ALAN BROWNJOHN: \'Post-Movement\' was a term coined by the poet and anthologist Edward Lucie-Smith to describe poetry subsequent to 1950s \'Movement\' verse but partly deriving from it. Precise definition is difficult. But Lucie-Smith appears to have been thinking of qualities like care, precision, formal tidiness and a pragmatic, non-rhetorical, non-mystical approach to writing poetry. He is a friend, but later reviewed some work of mine very negatively so I\'m glad he invented that useful category before that happened.

LV. What exactly did you mean by the title The Way You Tell Them?

AB. The novel revolves round the idea of joke-telling. It is said that the effectiveness of a joke depends on the way the teller delivers it: \'It\'s the way you tell them\' is an often-heard dictum. In using that title I also hoped to suggest that the \'hero\' of the novel had not found the right way to tell his enemies what he thought of them, had in fact been corrupted and assimilated by them. Critics who disliked the novel still thought the way I told the jokes in it was acceptable.

LV. Does the title To Clear the River mean anything special to you? What is its symbolic value?

AB. When I wrote the words which provide the title I was making an \'environmental\', \'ecological\' point about clearing away waste and pollution so that genuine \'life\' could flow freely. I had been influenced by architectural writers like Ian Nairn, who\'d invented the concept of Subtopia, i.e. making a Utopia of the Suburb.

LV. Who are the authors you think have influenced your poetry and fiction? Do you still see yourself as Post-Movement, in what you write now (year 2001)?

AB. Almost too many to name. I like to think that all of the great names have helped me, but it seems over-dignified (or just foolish) to start citing Shakespeare, Donne, etc, etc. Writers working in one\'s own time are likely to be the most influential, including persons of my own generation; though Philip Larkin was ten years my senior, as was a personal friend, Martin Bell, met in the mid-1950s.

LV. What authors would you name as your literary friends?

AB. Bell was one, then Oxford contemporaries (in 1950-53) like Anthony Thwaite and George MacBeth, and people met a little later than that: Peter Porter, Dannie Abse, other poets working in the London of my early manhood. Too many names, and I apologise to anyone who is a close a friend if I\'ve overlooked him/her. I might recall more names to add tomorrow.

LV. How much of your private life is included in what you write? You are not at all autobiographical, but you certainly rely on your experiences. Could you name a few, and the way they became poems or characters?

AB. Not a lot! It\'s all altered, modified, improved. Certainly \'observation\' experiences - things seen and heard and noted down - are important. I am a diligent carrier of notebooks. Any ordinary experience may be improved and transmuted in this way if I feel inclined to write about it, in poetry or fiction.

LV. What are your expectations as far as the future of mankind is concerned? Are they dystopic? Are you an optimist? Your work is not serene. Are you?

AB. I am not an optimist, but not dystopic. I believe that effort, and common sense, and - not easy to say in an indulgent \'consumerist\' age - contentment with less, in the material sense, will be necessary to save mankind, and that these energies and qualities are still possible to summon up. Not that enough people are trying very hard. No, I don\'t feel serene - I find most of life an effortful matter. But I think I experience the moments of serenity Yeats wrote wonderfully about in a late poem.

LV. What Romanian writers do you know and possibly appreciate? Has Romania been an essential experience or just a picturesque escape from western routine?

AB. An essential experience. I didn\'t expect that when I first visited the country, but it has become unexpectedly important. I\'m reluctant to name very many individual Romanian writers, and perhaps won\'t cite living ones. Among modern writers, Nichita Stănescu, whom I just missed meeting, and Marin Sorescu, whom I knew, awed and impressed me. My own country is not an \'escape\', so nor is Romania; emphatically not. There is \'stimulation\' in seeing a different set of problems in a foreign country, and interest in that, but certainly not the tourist pleasure which the word \'picturesque\' suggests.

LV. What is your favourite activity?

AB. Observing. As with \'thinking\' (Iris Murdoch says this somewhere) it\'s important not to let it turn into mere daydreaming.

LV. Do you write easily? Do you write much at once?

AB. No. Nice to think I could write a lot at once, but it\'s not so. It\'s a long, laborious process. I don\'t enjoy it - unless I\'ve really \'got going\' and feel things are going well.

LV. When you look back at your work, are you satisfied you have expressed what you wanted to? Is the result of creation what you expect before you begin writing? Are you at peace with your achievement as a writer?

AB. Not easily. And not really satisfied. I think I get the result I intended (I don\'t suffer from thinking \'Oh, that doesn\'t achieve what I wanted to\', which is more common when one is younger.) But is it a good enough result? And then ideas for better things occur... Being \'at peace\' with what one writes would sound like complacency.

LV. I see you as representative for Desperado literature. Do you feel representative for your age? In what way?

AB. My father\'s family was \'upper working class.\' I represent a generation that was enabled to go to the university for the first time in its family history, so I\'m representative in that sense: working-class boy that went to Oxford but maintained the political tradition of his family (democratic socialist), - though with a strong sense of the importance of \'high\' culture, which I had before setting foot in Oxford. I don\'t know what I would have been if I\'d never been there. Possibly some sort of writer anyway, but perhaps not a poet.

LV. What do you value most in your work? Are you more of a poet or a novelist? What is your secret literary ambition to be?

AB. I like to feel it might be seen as \'positive\', \'humanistic\', \'perceptive\' - it would be wonderful if critics saw all these things in it and also thought it was \'profound\', \'illuminating.\' But critics always fall crucially short in understanding these matters and praising one for them!

LV. Why are you so discreet in everything you write? Is it a mask or an impossibility of uttering directly what can be guessed?

AB. Because I prefer not to be crudely forthright. It\'s easy to win attention by being simplistic, in language, or in subject, or conclusions. I don\'t wish to be that. I would prefer not to have that kind of ignorant attention.

LV. Do you have a favourite critical approach? Your criticism is mainly thematic, I think. What do you think of the complicated dissection of a work? Does it make you angry or would you put up with anything, once the work is published?

AB. My approach is a somewhat \'watered-down\' practical criticism (the only kind possible in literary journalism, and even then it\'s hard to keep it up in an increasingly insensitive atmosphere). I was a product of the 1950s, an age in which, in Britain and the US, the practitioners of literary criticism made large claims for its intellectual weight. In the 19th century, Matthew Arnold wrote of poetry as \'a criticism of life\' and critics like I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis made literature a criticism of modern mass civilisation. I still try to apply some of their rules, which people like Orwell developed and diversified. I like \'complicated dissections\' as long as they say something; they are more likely to say something than \'theory\'. Personally, I put up with anything once a work is published - except actual inaccuracies and misinterpretations which determine a critic\'s judgements.

LV. What is your political orientation? What do you expect of politics? What do you think of the ex-communist countries? What is the future power that will order the world?

AB. \'Democratic socialist\' in the British Labour Party tradition (which is different from the \'New Labour\' formulations of Tony Blair. That man has been a tragic disappointment - tepid ideology, vacuous rhetoric). I don\'t know how else society can be organised except through politics, so I\'m not an anarchist. Won\'t the future struggle in the ex-Communist countries be the same as in non-ex-Communist countries? Against a world order (imposed by the World Trade Organisation, or the EU, or the American Treasury) based on a \'freedom\' which is really self-interest, rapacity, and a determination to sweep all opposition from its path?

LV. Are your very private experiences present in your poems in an encoded way? Could you point out a few significant instances?

AB. Sometimes, yes. But I\'d rather they were decoded by others and then \'generalised\', if they are sufficiently interesting for that treatment. What I experience privately will not be of interest because it happens to me, but because it can be experienced, or at least perceived, by others.

LV. Do you read much? What do you prefer to read, contemporary or earlier works, English or world literature? Are you a fast or slow reader?

AB. I am a slow reader of as much as I have time for, reading and re-reading classics and keeping up with as much recent writing as I can (too little).

LV. What do you expect from a novel? Do you like happy endings? Do you like endings at all? Should all novels be open, inconclusive? How did you mean yours to be?

AB. Representation of \'life\' (that is being very \'Leavisite\', but the notion governs my reading). I am not sure what a happy ending really is. Is it about lives appearing to be resolved, and stable, and secure? Not only about a kind of radiant, ongoing happiness (thus unreal)? If so, I like a great novel which can provide me with that. But which one can? My own novels (well, there are just three, or four if To Clear the River is included) all end ambivalently.

LV. Of what you have written, what book is the dearest to you? Why?

AB. I can\'t choose easily. Or at all. My first book of poems, The Railings, is such an agreeable memory - and its production was so good - that I\'d probably put that one first.

LV. Do you feel criticism has done justice to your work?

AB. Sometimes I\'m gratified by the tenacity and perception critics give my writing, but I\'d like them to catch the general drift a bit more: the social criticism, the things I\'m trying to do in the love poetry, the exact nature of the humour and irony I attempt. I don\'t say I succeed in doing any of this well, but I\'d like critics to understand the aim a little better.

LV. Is poetry writing a matter of mood or systematic work?

AB. Systematic work. Mood is only important to me in starting a poem.

LV. You knew Philip Larkin. How well? What could you say about him as a man? As a poet? As a friend?

AB. Few people knew Philip very well (his women friends probably knew him best). Some knew him well, others fairly well. Others \'fairly\'. I put myself in that last group. We would always speak, gossip, joke if we met, but we didn\'t have many arranged personal meetings. I met him in his library at Hull, also during and after numerous meetings of literary committees. I was in awe of Philip, knew he had a frightening wit and pertinacity and rather feared it if we were sitting (as we sometimes were) on those literary committees together. I value the letters we exchanged; though those were brief in my case, I could see, what Robert Conquest meant when he referred to Philip as \'a prince among letter-writers.\'

LV. Do you write by hand, type or use a computer? Is it important to you how you put down your thoughts? Does creation have a ritual for you?

AB. By hand, in notebooks, or large writing pads for prose fiction. A third draft of any prose goes onto a typewriter or word-processor, but with poems that stage isn\'t reached until near the end (tenth draft or thereabouts). We mustn\'t be bullied (this is an age of awful techno-bullies) into writing by methods which persons marketing the new technology prefer. I was delighted to learn recently that some well-known literary journalists were still sending in their \'copy\' in handwriting. A very famous journalist recently told me that he would not have e-mail since it generated too many hasty, thoughtless and sometimes insulting or threatening communications! I think W.H. Auden never learned to type. Some research into all this would be fascinating. Did Pasternak type?

LV. Why exactly did you become a writer? How did you write your first poem? Was that astonishing in any way? Are you happy you have followed this path?

AB. Growing up in a family (my father\'s) of printers, I wanted to see my name on the spines of the kind of books they produced, or heading the articles in their magazines. Such imagination as I have probably came from my mother\'s more chaotic (originally Irish) family, though my mother herself was one of its better-organised members. I started writing serious poems one night to leave something behind if I died of flu in my first winter at Oxford. That seemed likely to my nervous freshman imagination because I had literally the oldest (and what on that occasion seemed the coldest) room in Oxford, in Merton College.

LV. What are you working on now? What are your plans?

AB. I have ideas for a new novel, and the poems slowly go on. It\'s all very usual.

LV. What is literature to you, as a poet, novelist, critic, and reader?

AB. Essential, nothing less.


January 17, 2000




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