Interview by Jane Zwart
Do you feel, then, that using the first-person might be one way toward that?
One more question about the novel NW. In the essay "Speaking in Tongues," you refer to the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, which a lot of people will know by way of the musical My Fair Lady. You say that in that play, Eliza swaps one voice for another but that the play itself is still many-voiced. Which got me thinking about the character of Keisha/Natalie in NW. Part of that book is about her swapping—not even entirely successfully—one voice for another. But could it also be said that NW, like Pygmalion, is itself many-voiced?
It is many-voiced, although I know that as I get older, it will be harder for me to imitate the voices of my youth—and of youth generally, just because the way kids talk round my way changes so much so quickly. It becomes antique: all that slang, all the rest of it. But there's still a certain rhythm to North London speech that I recognize and enjoy. And I am picking up—I hope—new voices. Being in America, I hear a lot of new voices. And certainly in Swing Time, I can see American speech encroaching on my fictional world.
My first question about On Beauty is about one of its Americans, but she also happens to be one of that novel's most minor characters—as well as, for me, one of the most beloved: Katie Armstrong. In the middle of the book, Katie Armstrong shows up for about seven pages. She's this especially young undergrad at an Ivy League college, and she feels like she doesn't understand her art history class because it seems not to be about the art. You write about her struggling with that predicament but also about her loving a specific picture—Rembrandt's Seated Nude—in part because she feels some affinity with the woman in it.
I'm glad you can remind me of all this. I don't remember any of this happening in the book. [laughs]
Let's remind you a little more. Would you mind reading the marked passage?
The second picture, on the other hand, makes Katie cry. It is Seated Nude, an etching from 1631. In it a misshapen woman, naked, with tubby little breasts and a hugely distended belly, sits on a rock, eyeing Katie directly. Katie has read some famous commentaries on this etching. Everybody finds it technically good but visually disgusting. Many famous men are repulsed. A simple naked woman is apparently much more nauseating than Samson having his eye put out or Ganymede pissing everywhere. Is she really so grotesque? She was a shock, to Katie, at first—like a starkly lit, unforgiving photograph of oneself. But then Katie began to notice all the exterior, human information, not explicitly in the frame but implied by what we see there. Katie is moved by the crenulated marks of absent stockings on her legs, the muscles in her arms suggestive of manual labour. That loose belly that has known many babies, that still fresh face that has lured men in the past and may yet lure more. Katie—a stringbean, physically—can even see her own body contained in this body, as if Rembrandt were saying to her, and to all women: 'For you are of the earth, as my nude is, and you will come to this point too, and be blessed if you feel as little shame, as much joy, as she!' This is what a woman is: unadorned, after children and work and age, and experience—these are the marks of living. So Katie feels. And all this from crosshatching. (Katie makes her own comics and knows something of cross-hatching); all these intimations of mortality from an inkpot!
Quite good, isn't it?
[laughs] Thank you.
Of course. But let me ask about Katie. What is she as a character doing in the middle of this novel? And why is she there only so briefly?
I think I stole the idea from Dickens. I have a feeling it's in Bleak House that there's a chapter, self-contained, about a character not involved anywhere else in the novel. I must have thought that was an interesting idea.
I do remember I wanted to find a conduit for some of my experience when I was in college—because I came to university life so naïvely. I came from a family in which no one was educated to that level. I was the first to go, and I'd also read a lot of stuff about Bloomsbury, which gave me a very romantic idea of where I was headed. I was enthusiastic, too. So the first essay I wrote—about Oscar Wilde and Sylvia Plath—was kind of fictionalized. All these writers were talking in the essay, but as characters. I took a long time over it, and then my professor gave it back to me, and he marked underneath: "This is not an essay." And that was the beginning of my education at Cambridge. [laughs]