My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs
I had come to England, aged five, with my parents and sister…
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What this all amounted to was that as I was growing up, long before I’d ever thought to create fictional worlds in prose, I was busily constructing in my mind a richly detailed place called ‘Japan’ – a place to which I in some way belonged, and from which I drew a certain sense of my identity and my confidence. The fact that I’d never physically returned to Japan during that time only served to make my own vision of the country more vivid and personal.
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What I was doing was getting down on paper that world’s special colours, mores, etiquettes; its dignity, its shortcomings, everything I’d ever thought about the place; before they faded forever from my mind. It was my wish to re-build my Japan in fiction, to make it safe, so that I could thereafter point to a book and say: ‘Yes, there’s my Japan, inside there.’
The story I’d just finished was about an English butler…
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As I listened to Tom Waits, I realised what I’d still left to do. I’d unthinkingly made the decision, somewhere way back, that my English butler would maintain his emotional defences, that he’d manage to hide behind them, from himself and his reader, to the very end. Now I saw I had to reverse that decision. Just for one moment, towards the end of my story, a moment I’d have to choose carefully, I had to make his armour crack. I had to allow a vast and tragic yearning to be glimpsed underneath. I should say here that I have, on a number of other occasions, learned crucial lessons from the voices of singers. I refer here less to the lyrics being sung, and more to the actual singing. As we know, a human voice in song is capable of expressing an unfathomably complex blend of feelings. Over the years, specific aspects of my writing have been influenced by, among others, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Emmylou Harris, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, Gillian Welch and my friend and collaborator Stacey Kent. Catching something in their voices, I’ve said to myself: ‘Ah yes, that’s it. That’s what I need to capture in that scene. Something very close to that.’ Often it’s an emotion I can’t quite put into words, but there it is, in the singer’s voice, and now I’ve been given something to aim for.
In October 1999, I was invited by the German poet…
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up. At Birkenau, on a wet afternoon, I stood before the rubbled remains of the gas chambers – now strangely neglected and unattended – left much as the Germans had left them after blowing them up and fleeing the Red Army. They were now just damp, broken slabs, exposed to the harsh Polish climate, deteriorating year by year. My hosts talked about their dilemma. Should these remains be protected? Should Perspex domes be built to cover them over, to preserve them for the eyes of succeeding generations? Or should they be allowed, slowly and naturally, to rot away to nothing? It seemed to me a powerful metaphor for a larger dilemma. How were such memories to be preserved? Would the glass domes transform these relics of evil and suffering into tame museum exhibits? What should we choose to remember? When is it better to forget and move on?
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Did the burden of remembering fall to my own generation? We hadn’t experienced the war years, but we’d at least been brought up by parents whose lives had been indelibly shaped by them. Did I, now, as a public teller of stories, have a duty I’d hitherto been unaware of? A duty to pass on, as best I could, these memories and lessons from our parents’ generation to the one after our own?
One evening in early 2001, in the darkened front…
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As the train rattled farther west and John Barrymore became ever more hysterical, I thought about E. M. Forster’s famous distinction between three-dimensional and two-dimensional characters. A character in a story became three-dimensional, he’d said, by virtue of the fact that they ‘surprised us convincingly’. It was in so doing they became ‘rounded’. But what, I now wondered, if a character was three-dimensional, while all his or her relationships were not?
Important turning points in a writer’s career –
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are like these. Often, they are small, scruffy moments. They are quiet, private sparks of revelation. They don’t come often, and when they do, they may well come without fanfare, unendorsed by mentors or colleagues. They must often compete for attention with louder, seemingly more urgent demands. Sometimes what they reveal may go against the grain of prevailing wisdom. But when they come, it’s important to be able to recognise them for what they are. Or they’ll slip through your hands. I’ve been emphasising here the small and the private, because essentially that’s what my work is about. One person writing in a quiet room, trying to connect with another person, reading in another quiet – or maybe not so quiet – room. Stories can entertain, sometimes teach or argue a point. But for me the essential thing is that they communicate feelings. That they appeal to what we share as human beings across our borders and divides. There are large, glamorous industries around stories; the book industry, the movie industry, the television industry, the theatre industry. But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?
So we come to the present.
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If we are to play an important role in this uncertain future, if we are to get the best from the writers of today and tomorrow, I believe we must become more diverse. I mean this in two particular senses. Firstly, we must widen our common literary world to include many more voices from beyond our comfort zones of the elite first-world cultures. We must search more energetically to discover the gems from what remain today unknown literary cultures, whether the writers live in faraway countries or within our own communities. Second, we must take great care not to set too narrowly or conservatively our definitions of what constitutes good literature. The next generation will come with all sorts of new, sometimes bewildering ways to tell important and wonderful stories. We must keep our minds open to them, especially regarding genre and form, so that we can nurture and celebrate the best of them. In a time of dangerously increasing division, we must listen. Good writing and good reading will break down barriers. We may even find a new idea, a great humane vision, around which to rally.