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12.22.97), his unpublished manuscript received more attention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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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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