Janet van Eeden, Craig Higginson
| Janet van Eeden in conversation with Craig Higginson about his novel Last Summer
Title: Last Summer
Author: Craig Higginson
Publisher: Picador Africa
Click here to buy a copy from Kalahari.net.
Review by Janet van Eeden
Last Summer is one of the most entertaining reads I’ve had this year, as it’s the kind of novel that appeals to me on many levels. Firstly, the story deals with an author who is skilled enough to use solipsism and wit to engender his narrator with a charming ignorance. Secondly, it’s set in the birthplace of my most beloved writing hero of all time, William Shakespeare. And lastly, it deals with a cast of characters drawn mainly from the realms of my first love: the theatrical world. Add to this delicious mix of ingredients a story which glances reflexively across the seas from England to South Africa, and which explores tangled relationships between those most affected members of society - the acting community - and those who are the most artless, and you have a novel filled with some of my favourite things.
Craig Higginson has set his novel Last Summer in Stratford-upon-Avon. His narrator, Thomas Firth, lives in The Ferry House across the road from The Swan Theatre, where he works as an assistant to the famous Shakespearean director, Harry Greenberg. Fittingly Harry has just directed the company in the bard’s last play he ever wrote, The Tempest. In a very subtle parallel Harry, like Prospero in The Tempest, has ruled his kingdom with a gentle hand, but has reached the point where he can no longer see the importance of anything he has done. The self-effacing Harry, who lives alone with his beloved dog, seems to have reached an end point in his life. His energy seems to be ebbing away and, like Prospero, he can’t quite muster his enthusiasm towards his “art” anymore. Although the media and the acting world praise him highly, their words feel hollow to him. That is until a letter from his past in South Africa puts him in touch once again with the love of his former life, who has surprising news for him. For once, Harry feels there may be a reason to keep going on what was a previously lonely path.
Thomas, the unwitting omniscient narrator, tells us this tale of a long summer in Stratford as a slightly indiscreet confidante of sorts. He isn’t quite a parallel of Prospero’s airy servant Arial, but he does nudge the reader’s arm, telling her to observe characters in a certain way or another. He points us towards conclusions he has made, even when the readers know he is mistaken. Much of the time Thomas assumes he has all the facts at hand but, in fact, he often underestimates the actions of those closest to him. Most spectacularly, he misinterprets those of the object of his affection, the beautiful Lucy. The company’s leading young actress, Lucy is a luminescent beauty on stage, playing Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, with a tenderness that causes Thomas to fall deeply in love with her. He believes she is as pure as Shakespeare’s “admir’d Miranda”. But unfortunately Lucy is aware of only one person’s needs: her own. Thomas, however, observes Lucy from his misinformed distance, convinced she is in love with him too, only to find himself as fooled in the end as Twelfth Night’s Malvolia.
An innocent young river boy, Kim, stumbles into this cast of thespians. His artlessness is irresistible to Lucy, who believes she acts only with the best interests of others at heart. Unfortunately she leaves a trail of devastation in her wake, and Thomas is as stunned by her actions as he is by the violent epileptic fits he suffers with unfortunate regularity.
The events build to a suitably dramatic climax when Harry’s heart collapses. He travels to London to undergo bypass surgery and this is when the many plot lines reach their respective climaxes.
Craig Higginson has mastered the art of novel-writing. He writes with a tremendously creative intelligence. Thomas, his self-reflexive narrator, creates a post-modern self-consciousness as he talks directly to the reader about what he chooses to tell us. It’s a charming and very clever device and allows the reader to slip behind the narrator’s back and examine the facts for herself.
This is one of the most delightfully articulate novels I’ve read in some time. Higginson is an exceptionally gifted writer whose allusions to the full dramatic lexicon only heightened the enjoyment of this novel for me. There are a few serious issues which are touched on in the general flow of the novel and it’s clear the author has a solid grasp of the harshness of life. However, his skill at creating a page-turning read is paramount and the reader is left with a sense of great satisfaction at the end of this novel. This is how good novels should be written. I look forward to Higginson’s next novel very much.
Q and A with Craig Higginson
Craig, you’ve created a wonderful story using a British setting which you know very well. I read that you worked as an assistant director at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon yourself. So the question is this: Is your chief protagonist, Thomas Firth, who does the same job in the novel as you did in real life, a thinly disguised version of yourself? And if so, how much of the novel is based on your real-life experiences and how much is fiction?
Those who know me and have read the novel say they see quite a bit of me in the narrator. I wrote the book with a certain ironic detachment, and if Thomas contains elements of me then those are of a younger version of me. I think writers often start off with characters or situations from their own experience, but then these quickly become outdated as the book develops its own internal needs. Each character has to occupy a point of view within the magnetic field that is a work of fiction. They have a more specific and internally coherent meaning than people in everyday life do. Having said this, I also tried to show how “character” is deceptive. There’s never just one of anyone. We change through time and are perceived by ourselves and others in very diverse ways at any point in time. So no, Thomas isn’t me finally. I used that character, as I did others, to explore themes and ideas that interested me. I probably drew quite a bit from myself in writing him because I was using him to say what I wanted to say. But I didn’t identify with him in an absolute way.
You have said in the acknowledgements that Barney Simon, the renowned Market Theatre director, was an inspiration for this novel. You were lucky enough to be his assistant in the last year of his life. You obviously based your character Harry Greenberg, theatre director of the Swan, on him. Thomas is his assistant just as you were Barney’s in the year before his death. This is an intriguing fact for me as I can’t help wondering how much of the novel is fiction and how much is fact, as I said before. You’ve created an extremely tender portrait of this theatre director who doesn’t quite agree with society’s elevated opinion of him. You show him as a vulnerable and sometimes frail man who faces his mortality without the assurance that his life was worth living after all. Is Harry’s journey exactly that of Barney’s at the end of his life? I am interested in this question, especially as my first novel is also about a real person who was very important in my life. Where do you draw the line between fiction and fact when writing about a real person?
Barney Simon did provide an inspiration for Harry Greenberg. But I posed the question to myself: What would have happened to Barney had he left the country for political reasons? What would he have lost as both a man and a creative person? So Harry is more compromised than Barney was – he feels he sold out in a way Barney didn’t. This theme of exile had something to do with me directly too, as I was living in England then and wondering whether I’d made a mistake which would have long-term consequences I wasn’t yet aware of. Unlike Harry, though, I returned to South Africa – for better or worse. But the relationship between Harry and Thomas is pretty close to my relationship with Barney. In fact this is the only part of the plot that isn’t fictional. The other events are almost entirely made up. Harry has Barney’s bypass operation and final fate. He also has Barney’s dog, which Barney loved as much as anything. I think in order to write a work of fiction that draws from your own experience you really have to free yourself from the tyranny of what happened and write something that works as fiction. So draw from life, but don’t try to reproduce it. That is impossible to do anyway. We cannot write a “real person”. We are constructing a machine for meaning-making, and all the parts have to fit together and work towards the greater whole.
I loved your omniscient narrator, Thomas, who fairly self-consciously points out to the reader what he wants them to observe. He’s also keen to justify to the reader that he can make certain assumptions about the people he’s writing about as he privy to more information than most. It’s a very post-modern approach to writing and yet shares a tradition with the best literature. I think of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby specifically, where the narrator speaks of the people that surround him with an omniscience which can only just be justified. Your narrator, Thomas, is peripheral in some ways to the main characters’ lives just as the young narrator, Nick Carraway, is to the main protagonists’ lives in The Great Gatsby. Bearing this in mind, was your choice of narrator a deliberate choice as a narrative device, or did the narrative voice spring quite naturally out of your authorial voice?
When I first wrote the novel it was narrated in the third person, so Thomas was narrated as the other characters were. My task was to write something that stripped the narrative voice away altogether, so that readers had to make up their own minds about what happens. The result was something that felt under-invested emotionally. It became too detached. So when I rewrote the whole book (literally retyped it into my computer) a couple of years later, I used Thomas as the fallible and overly invested narrator. I thought this would give the novel more liveliness and humour, and allow for a certain irony between the author’s point of view and Thomas’s. Readers still have to decide what they think of everything, because Thomas is so unreliable. Yet they are given a more engaging voice to take them through the book. As you’ve pointed out, having a narrator who is often peripheral introduces interesting philosophical considerations; for example, how do we represent the lives of others cleanly? We are re-presenting. We are presenting them again. We are re-membering – dismembering and then putting the bits back together, like Dr Frankenstein’s monster. Yet we also live in the world and need to be able to make the best sense of it we can, so we have to take up the challenge of representing things, knowing that our perspective will be partial and incomplete, but the best we can manage at the time.
Forgive me, but once again I’m drawn to the theme of fact versus fiction! Your narrator suffers from epilepsy. Your descriptions of his epileptic attacks ring true, as I know an epileptic well and have been around when she’s had fits. Is there a creative reason you chose to make your character an epileptic or is it something you’ve drawn on from your own personal experience?
A close member of my family is epileptic, so I have had first-hand experience of it. Thomas’s epilepsy comes as a surprise to the reader: just when you think you have a grip on him, you realise there’s a feature of him that has remained almost entirely hidden. Those who have fits lose control. They can’t stop an attack. They can’t remember what happened afterwards. This is another level on which Thomas is partial as a narrator, as the memory-holder of that time in Stratford. I think it also gives him a vulnerability, a sense of being outside of things and hypersensitive. But the decision simply presented itself. It wasn’t as conscious as I’m making it sound. It made sense, when I wrote the book, that he would have something he felt secretive and a bit ashamed of, and which took him out of the realm of full health that he associates with a character like Kim. Thomas, rightly or wrongly, feels himself marked out and possessed of a darkness that he doesn’t fully comprehend.
You weave an elaborate story about Lucy and Kim, who are the most unlikely pair of lovers I’ve encountered in a long while. Your setting smacks of realism thanks to your time in Stratford-upon-Avon. Did you meet any people like Kim during your time working near the river? What made you decide to make him the love interest for the vain and rather self-absorbed Lucy?
Kim is the most made-up of all the characters. Yet he’s my favourite in the book. There was no one like that at Stratford, yet he has elements of a friend from school days and also of my half-brother Andrew, who lives in France and grew up next to the Sâone River. I suppose the relationship is as unlikely as the coupling of Bottom and Titania, and many relationships in Shakespeare’s comedies, between people of the court and those of the country. Kim represents everything Lucy lacks and she thinks she can change herself by burying herself in his reality. But instead all she does is ruin him – damage his innocence. The relationship may seem unlikely from the outside, but it is something we have all been drawn to: someone who is so far away from who we are that we think we can escape ourselves by being with them. Posh girls in England have also long been drawn to younger working-class men. Look at Lady Chatterley, for example.
Could you tell LitNet readers more about your experiences working in Stratford-Upon-Avon? How long were you there and what exactly were your duties? What were your highlights of your time there?
I worked at the RSC in a freelance way for about five years. I assisted the Literary department down in London, ran writers’ workshops, did a bit of education work, and was an assistant director when the RSC did the History plays in 2000-2001. I assisted Michael Attenborough on Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. I also had my own small production of Laughter in the Dark, an adaptation of Nabokov’s early novel, which I later turned into a radio play for BBC Radio 3. When I was living in Stratford for the summer, I kept a notebook and recorded everything that was happening on the river (like Thomas, I stayed in the old Ferry House), in the fields and so on, so when I came to write the first draft a year or so later, I had a wealth of detail. I knew when I was there that I would write a novel about it one day. The actual story, though, I made up later.
I loved the way you stretched your narrative arc across the seas to reflect back on your home country, South Africa. This is created by an old flame from Harry’s native South Africa getting in touch with him. You mention events in South Africa as mere passing comments, but those of us who live here know that they ring true. Did you pitch this novel mainly for British audiences or did you have your eye on the South African market too?
I wrote the first draft while still in England, so I suppose I had an English audience in mind. But I also wanted it to connect with South Africans – and the South African element that comes in through Harry is vital for the book. It gives it a wider resonance than the more pastoral Stratford scene might have given it. Picador Africa have only South African rights and my UK agent is busy looking for a UK publisher for it. There has been some interest, but we haven’t signed anything as yet. When you write a novel you want a broad range of people to read it, but primarily (as Philip Larkin said) you write the kind of book that you would want to read – although he was talking about poems.
I knew you first as a playwright and through your work at the Market Theatre. Your plays have received much praise and much success. This novel is rooted in drama, set as it is in the Shakespearean town of Stratford-Upon-Avon, with almost all of the characters involved in the theatre in some way. You also write very dramatically. You create a virtual play out of the prose with your clever writing style. How do your creative ideas come to you? Do you hear your characters’ voices or do you decide on an idea first? And when do you decide something will become a play or a novel?
Different ideas strike me almost from the outset as ideas for plays or ideas for novels. With novels I usually mull a thing over for a few years before I start writing it down. I make lots of notes and let things develop until the book feels as if it exists as a thing in itself but hasn’t yet been brought to life. So then I try to bring that imagined world to life. With a play, I write lots of drafts and do readings and so incorporate a wider range of perspectives into the whole. I think this is necessary for a play as it’s essentially a dialogic form, with the author’s point of view existing somewhere between the characters rather than being embedded in only one voice. I think I borrow from the theatre in my fiction. My dialogue is quite spare and allows for the reader’s interpretation, and I present scenes quite dramatically, with each episode always advancing the plot. But the places out of which I write a play or a novel are very different. My plays are more political, formally and stylistically provocative, whereas my novels are more private, and concerned with consciousness and language and a sense of place. I don’t really know how the ideas come. They pop into my head and won’t go away, and gather life until I have to start writing them. I do love writing, although it exhausts me. I feel completely alive when I’m doing it and know exactly who I am and what I’m here for. In life, I’m quieter and more private, and as I get older I’ve noted that I share myself less readily.
Do you have a favourite style of writing? If so, what is it and why?
I admire a wide range of writers with many different styles. I believe the old adage that form should follow content. Every time you start something new, you have a new set of challenges and have to come up with different formal solutions. It’s only when you look back at the different things you’ve done that you start to see continuities. But I don’t think of myself as a stylist nurturing a particular style in the way someone like Bruce Chatwin did. I try always to stretch myself, and never repeat myself, and keep growing into something fresh and new. Whether or not I am merely repeating myself is something I’ll probably know only at the end of my life. But I work with the illusion that I am writing out of the present, in the style that fits the present and the present story.
Please tell the readers of LitNet about the work you do at Wits University. In which subject do you lecture and do you find lecturing about writing has an effect on your own writing in any way?
I don’t really lecture on writing. What I tend to do is facilitate people’s writing processes, taking them through different drafts and trying to help them to write the play they want and need to write. Of course, we talk about other writers, and I give them a palette of ideas and terminology that enables discussion, but I am essentially practical and pragmatic, not overly theoretical. As with the writing, I try not to repeat myself, but respond to the needs of the people in the room and teach them accordingly. I like the time with the students as they are challenging and not terribly respectful. That’s good for anyone.
What is the next project you are working on? Can you tell us a bit about it?
I have a new novel coming out next year called The Landscape Painter. This is very exciting and I have great hopes for it. The novel moves between post-war London (1947/8) and England and South Africa leading up to and during the Anglo-Boer War (from about 1897 to 1900). But it is not a conventional historical epic. It’s far stranger and more idiosyncratic than that. It’s almost twice the length of Last Summer and represents for me a great leap forward in terms of craft. Next year I plan to start a new novel and a new play. The novel draws on my grandfather’s history (he came to Southern Rhodesia during the war) and the play is also set in the past. But I find it hard to talk about these as they’re still forming inside my head and aren’t yet fully formed.
| Respond: email@example.com