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Book of Kings

Speak Magazine Interview

SPEAK MAGAZINE San Francisco, 1999 History in the Making by Tomas Matza

The long-awaited release of James Thackara’s third novel, The Book of Kings, has all the necessary ingredients for a cliché drama about the world of literature. The dramatis personae include: The Novel—a sweeping epic some have called one of the century’s masterpieces; The Naysayers—a handful of editors and publishers who decided it was unpublishable in its manuscript form and generally not worth the effort; and finally, The Author--a self-possessed man struggling for over ten years against the publishing houses of the world. As Thackara recalls, he was “a black-listed author with a black-listed manuscript.”

Ironically, these hardships have also lifted James Thackara out of relative obscurity--thanks to a lengthy New Yorker piece on his trials (“A Legend of his Own Mind” 12.22.97), his unpublished manuscript received more attention than most finished novels ever do. To make matters more sensational, Thackara has been labeled as a megalomaniac who believes himself to be the next Homer and is wary of any edits that threaten the delicate structure of his work. Commenting that Thackara can certainly write, he just can’t rewrite, one of the novel’s first editors, Norman di Giovanni, told the New Yorker, “His idea of rewriting is changing the word ‘red’ to the word ‘crimson’.” With so much dramatic foregrounding, when the uncorrected proofs of the book arrived, the air was taut with expectation.

In fact, The Book of Kings, which takes its name from the Bible, does not bear the weight of this anticipation—few novels, if any, could. The dialogue, often used as a vehicle for philosophical exposition, is at times far-fetched. And the narrative shifts can be jarring, perhaps a reflection of Thackara having to cut the novel by a third. But the flaws seem miniscule in the shadow of the novel’s grandeur. Capturing the texture, personality and sensitivities of several different cultures, Thackara covers not just Hitler’s assault on Europe, but the Algerian rebellion against the French, post-war ventures in the Amazon, even a manhunt in Alaska.

The story is essentially about four men who meet as students as the Sorbonne in the 1930s, but focuses mostly on David von Sunda and Justin Lothaire. According to Thackara, these two, “separate out the tendencies”: David, a German baron with a family legacy he can’t seem to outrun, is the “Northerner” of the enlightened aristocracy; Justin, a brilliant Algerian scholarship student whose Arabic father was killed by his mother’s people (the French) is the salt-of-the-earth “Southerner” from the desert of the prophets. With the zeal of a chemist Thackara takes these characters, mixes them in Paris and watches as everyone is consumed by Hitler’s rise and fall.

The novel’s expansive battle scenes and interrogation of history are certainly reminiscent of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and its polished, elegant portrayal of the Mediterranean recalls Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. It makes perfect sense that this American-born author whose adolescence was rootless (and apparently unhappy), has spent most of his life either travelling or in Europe.

Aside from his eloquence and encyclopedic intellect, Thackara is nothing like his reputation suggests, He is amiable, his candor is magnetic, and the face of his latest accomplishment he is humble, commenting that he is not so much The Author as “just a human.” It’s clear that the The Book of Kings, a work which took nearly thirty years to complete, is still revealing itself to him.

As for the criticism, Thackara doesn’t seem bothered; he says he works for himself. More than anything, he seems relieved to have the book behind him: “Jesus,” he says ponderously, “I really did bleed my way through the writing of this book. I’m glad it’s over. I thought I would die when it was over. I thought I could not bear not to live in the book I loved it so much, but thank God it’s over.” He pauses. Then, brightening, he adds, “I’m halfway through another book.”

TM: When I was actually making my way through your novel, I was actually interrupted by your call to arrange a meeting place. It was quite an experience to be roused from the prose world of James Thackara by a phone call from the author himself.

JT: Well, it’s no less disconcerting for the author to be the author: I find it psychologically very difficult to be carrying this burden. I have only seen the reward in the last forty-eight hours, the first time that life has ever seemed easy. In Wu Ch’Eng-En’s Monkey, the seventeenth-century novel, a mythical monkey in search of wisdom is given the mystical name “aware of vacuity.” I think that’s a marvelous idea and I think of my childhood in this state. That level of emptiness was psychologically scarcely bearable for me. I knew that I wasn’t mad, but I knew there was something that had to be done. So when you say “the world of James Thackara,” having the voice call up, I have that exact sense of shock and disorientation when I realize that I am myself. The reader and the writer are almost the same person.

TM: Can you talk about the writing process for The Book of Kings?

JT: The writing of the book has really stumped me. It has this almost homogeneous quality. It’s hard to look back and remember the punishing amount of work involved in getting it to this stage. I don’t think I even really want to face what it was like because of the unevenness of it, the impossibility of getting all the cultures synched up, to be just, to create a symbiosis. [To take] all of these ancient warrior states, their cultures, their powerful vanity and sense of importance, and also their self-destructive impulses and to make all of this homogeneous. It had to be me doing it because I was the unhomogeneous child in the middle of this thing, and I had to succeed.

JT: It’s a dedication to my wife, and she probably hates me for putting her through my life, but the dedication is partly because there was a point when I launched three and a half million Germans into Russia with the psychological strain of doing it. It was so monumental that I physically broke down. I developed a serious case of mononucleosis and I was sick all the time. I said to my wife, “I hope to God I don’t have to rewrite it twenty times. If I don’t stop this right now it will destroy my life and at the end it will never be published.” The only thing I was wrong about was that it would never be published. It’s now been under contract twice and very distinguished publishers have said this will never be published. So there was also the feat of producing the business aspect, which I think is part of the vocation.

TM: It’s fascinating that you had a visceral response to what was coming out of the keys or the pen.

JT: I work longhand and if you were to see my manuscript pages you would be alarmed to be sitting here with me because they look terrible. They are like something produced by an orang-utan on speed. [Laughs]

JT: When Tolstoy was asked what it took to do this kind of work he talked about concentration. If there is one thing that distinguishes me from any other human being, it is that I have an inordinate level of concentration. I don’t know what concentration is. Nuel Davis, who wrote a good book on Lawrence and Oppenheimer, said that it was freedom from pressure on the id in my childhood because of not having a father around which I thought was a nice way of putting it. Gabriel García Márquez was brought up by maiden aunts or something and I’ve always identified with that. It’s a terrible misfortune or affliction if you were born with an aberration like that.

JT: I would agree that the numerous writers who have said that life is hard and art is easy, but I would also say the opposite, that imagination is the model of the world. It’s the thing we live in, the thing that people turn away from and the hardest to live in. If you can actually master and become the demiurge of your own psyche, then it unlocks amazing powers. Everyone has them. To discover them and function in them is disorienting. I was having to strip away so many layers of masks so quickly because you can’t just be a mask of a mask. I am so well-hidden, nobody knows who I am. My wife doesn’t know who I am, I don’t even know who I am. That is the only defense that one has against this stuff that starts coming out of one. A lot of it wasn’t fun.

TM: How did you deal with your work when the writing wasn’t going well?

JT: When it went badly it made me feel like I was going to disintegrate and I would have to stay up until I’d got it right. Very often that involved walking for miles until I’d get the key idea.

JT: If you create a scene like that you’re probably consciously working on several hundred levels at once, and subliminally on many hundreds of thousands. That sense of having all those things pull together into a crystalline moment is like Cape Canaveral. It’s really powerful. It’s like defying gravity at immense speed. But when it’s not going well, you literally disintegrate. I picked it up this morning to go through a few passages and whenever I do I remember what it was like writing the book. It causes a kind of exultation and stress at the same time. Whatever the book may be, if it has no universal importance at all, it’s an extraordinary privilege to have been the person to write it just in terms of where it took me.

TM: The privilege is in the experience of writing it?

JT: Yes. You don’t do it because you see the solution, you do it because you can’t see the solution. Imagine, the book was originally seventeen hundred pages long and every page of it was a revelation to me. That’s a long way to be seeing what you’ve never seen before. It seemed that this was a new land. I felt like Columbus.

TM: How do you feel about being compared to Tolstoy?

JT: I think it’s invidious and I find it annoying, but at the same time there are certain things I would say that are not only similar, but are influences. One of them is that I’ve always had a powerful allergy to history. [Laughs]

TM: What do you mean by that?
Ideas. What came to me from that concept was something quite different than what it means to Tolstoy. For me it was that I was spread over such a vast canvas and was exposed to so many violent wars and upheavals. I felt that I was spread out so large and felt all the forces of history, or what is called history, that I felt deeply offended and insulted.

JT: Probably the most obscure human being I can think of was me as a child. The story of the world was always told in terms of the story of the powerful, and that was really insulting. To me the most humble person at the bottom was actually where history lay. For me Tolstoy spoke to a larger, more clouded heritage. I had to follow that. In writing this book I wanted to tell that story of the most obscure and humble.

JT: But yes, Tolstoy does speak to me. You know that this man feels that you can save the world writing and there are not too many writers with that confidence. And he thought that moral law is the only law worth knowing about.

TM: You quote two lines of poetry about the drift of history. “Easy to see the drift of the times./Difficult to turn a single man from his way.” There is not a sense that one is a victim of history here. Instead there is a potential for empowerment.

JT: Are people victims of history? I don’t think I could characterize my feelings in quite those terms. I think that everything is history, but I would not want history to be afforded this primordial importance in terms of one’s fate. I think one’s fate is to die. It’s how you live your life and how you die that determines whether you are master of your fate. But I would not want the word history to intrude on that. History is a kind of model and I think people are moving away from the story of power.

TM: You could say that history is a kind of all-encompassing tide.

JT: Well, you could say history is God, history is fate, history is all sorts of things. But when people talk about history they are often talking about a great deal more than the economic effect of the civil war. They’re talking about something that is ineluctable and mysterious.

JT: There is one question that I have asked myself often and I hope that I will have answered in the next six months or a year. I would like a historian to come to me and say whether or not literature has succeeded in revealing, defining the true nature of the collective unconscious, the convulsions of the masses, better than history. Solzhenitsyn said that this was the ultimate form of finding the truth and, to me, this was an exploration. There is an historical analysis in the book, an attempt to render not the historical artefact in the sense of documentation, but the myth. It’s the myth when people say that history is God or fate or something larger than the documented fact. This is something which plays a lot in the Holocaust, actually. I hugely recommend the film Shoah if you’re interested in the movies. It is so much more important than any film that was ever made with the possible exception of The Gospel According to St Matthew, the Pasolini picture. It influenced Spielberg to get all the witnesses. Lanzmann (Shoah’s director) was a friend of Sartre’s and they worked out an approach to history. He found a way of interviewing the witnesses without any adornment or artifice. No documentary footage. No horror photographs. A kind of total candor which is silent and elegaic. He creates a sense of truth of historical events which is so intense. It was ten hours long and I didn’t go to the movies for about two years after that.

I have greater ambitions than that in this book because since the canon, if you are going back to Homer, one narrative viewpoint could embrace the totality. I was trying to find some other kind of analytic method, and in that sense there is a connection to Dostoevsky because he does a cross section not only of the entire European civilization, but also of what is accredited history during that period. I wanted to dissolve history with this narrative. I wanted to melt it down. I wanted to produce such mythological intensity that the structure would dissolve and become unimportant.

Some of the battle scenes are right down to the last hundred yards of the riverside where everything is in place. I’ve been in those places. It was a game I was playing where I wanted to come as close to history as possible, see how I felt about it, and translate that into certain kinds of congruencies with purely fictional characters so the thing comes in and out of focus. That is very important to this book and that’s why I’ll be very interested to hear how historians react to it. I expect there will be violent feelings. As well as being taken by it, people will be very angry with me for writing this book.

TM: Who will react angrily? The French?

JT: Not just the French. I think that this book is very provocative. I may be imagining. It may be quiet, subdued, boring and slip by into the winds. But I think it’s quite provocative in the sense of taking these people’s culture away from them and subjecting them to a larger shape.

It’s like Tito’s strict law, which Milosovich overrided to assume power. Tito’s strict rule said that within the whole aegis of Yugoslavia nobody should ever speak about nationalism because there were so many different nationalisms that hated each other. In a sense this book imposes such a law. It says we’re not going to talk about nationalisms, all the nationalisms are going to be brothers together. That is going to be very provocative to a lot of people, and I think particularly the French.

TM: You’ve mentioned the influences of other authors on our work. The scene where Justin witnesses a senseless beating of a donkey in the street recalls the dream that Raskolnikov has in Crime and Punishment of the beaten mare.

JT: That is taking my hat off to the master.

TM: But the difference is that Raskolnikov cannot intervene because he is restrained, but Justin is able to act. There is not such a sense of futility.

JT: That’s most astute. This is an argument that plays right through the book on action and inaction. And the thing that most distinguishes Justin from David, and distinguishes the old culture from the new, the prophetic from the aristocratic, is the distinction between action and inaction. I’ve asked myself a great deal about the question of action and inaction.

There are all these debates now about Hitler: was he a mediocrity or was he a genius? I think one thing you can say is this guy was really creative, bad creative. He was not without ideas about how to do things that had never been done before.Whether he was great or not, he certainly was able to influence events. In that sense he resembles Justin. Justin certainly thinks he resembles Hitler; he sees him as a direct rival. Those are things that seem to be truly history – history is character – and so if there is history in my book, it’s in the form of character. I still think about how I’ve rendered Hitler in the book.

TM: How do you think you’ve rendered him?

JT: Somebody commenting on Tolstoy once said that his reason for writing War and Peace was to debunk Napoleon as a figure larger than history. Napoleon in his time was considered the devil of them all and later on everyone started thinking, “Here is a man who changed Europe and is larger than history.” I certainly saw in Hitler a character who might get reevaluated. Many people have tried to, and that Hitler so obviously could be reevaluated is a lot why the whole Jewish community is so dedicated to keeping the reality alive – there are counter-monuments everywhere. You can go to the KKK, to Milosevich, Saddam Hussein, and Hitler is de facto their messiah.

Yes, the beating of the donkey scene is Dostoevsky, surely, and the question of David and whether he can pull a butter knife across Hitler’s throat certainly a reference to Pierre wandering around the streets of Moscow when Napoleon is there. That is an idea that fascinated me, the idea of a person faced with the thing of Hitler. At one time in my life I was faced with such a person. One of my daughter’s godmothers had spent several years in a Pinochet prison being tortured, she was torn to pieces by the secret police, and I was face to face with the man who was responsible for Allende’s overthrow. I did not pull a butter knife across his throat.

TM: Did you think of it?

JT: I sure did think of it and I nearly fainted. I was beside myself. I remember my agent asking me why David leaves the Bristol tearoom scene [after not taking the chance to kill Hitler] and I almost couldn’t express it to him. Sometimes you face something and it’s like, the horror, the horror. I am not a violent person. I’ve never harmed a flea, but I’m dangerous because in that I do believe in acting, and once or twice in my life I have acted. I can say that I despised the emotion that I felt afterward. I loathe violence, but there are situations where it is justified to resort to it. This is why Justin is impressive to me because he justifies certain kinds of action. The man of action doctrine has a lot in it. It’s very important that one knows what action is. A lot of people just don’t know what it is. They don’t act in their lives. They don’t even know they can engage with action.

TM: I think there is a tremendous sense of futility and sadness in this book, yet one knows that the tide will turn and Hitler and the Nazis will be squashed.

JT: Here we have a contradiction, and a most interesting one. It’s probably the contradiction of art and the thing that makes me sad about art. I wanted to capture the consciousness, I wanted to create an atmospheric tank, an artificial atmosphere is what it’s called in space. And I wanted to create there the actual living organism of evil so that you’d be inside it and you didn’t even have to see things happen, you would just know you were there. And yet, here’s the contradiction, you could only look into it because you were out of it.

TM: In terms of the narrative, I would reverse that theme of being on the outside looking in. I found myself within the situation, but capable of looking outside it for support.

JT: I could think about that for a long time. I suddenly feel that I’ve come close to something about why I wrote this book that I haven’t felt before. How disconcerting.

TM: Well, it should be alive in your mind as in anyone else’s.

JT: What part is alive?

TM: The book, and the author, and the book in the author’s mind.

JT: Oddly enough I think what is alive is neither the book or the author, but the actual aesthetics, the actual art. The thing that was so surprising about all of this was that it was driven by art. In the end, my ultimate impulse was vindicate aesthetics and classicism and the power of truth telling. It was a wager.

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