by SRB

The SRB Interview: Allan Massie

November 9, 2009 | by SRB

Allan Massie was born in Singapore on 19 October, 1938. He was educated in Scotland at Glenalmond, and later at Trinity College, Cambridge. He spent the Sixties teaching at Drumtochty Castle School, and the first half of the Seventies teaching English language classes in Rome. On returning to Britain, he began reviewing fiction for The Scotsman. Since then he has been a columnist for the Glasgow Herald, Sunday Times Scotland, Daily Mail and Telegraph, as well as contributing to the Sunday Telegraph, Prospect, and The Spectator. In addition to his journalism, Massie has written fiction prolifically. His first novel, Change And Decay In All Around I See, was published in 1978, followed by fictional explorations of terrorism, (The Death Of Men, 1981), Vichy France (A Question Of Loyalties, 1989), and Sir Walter Scott (The Ragged Lion, 1994), as well as an acclaimed series of novels about Ancient Rome, which began in 1986 with Augustus. His new novel, Charlemagne And Roland, is the third part of a Dark Ages trilogy, and tells the story of Europe’s first Emperor after the fall of the Roman Empire. Colin Waters spoke to Allan Massie about war, nationalism, and the dangers of idealism.

Scottish Review of Books: Charlemagne And Roland has a framing story, in which Michael Scott, tutor of the young Frederick the Great, illustrates the political points he wants to get across to his pupil using the lives of the book’s title characters. The framing story, I think, raises the issue of how storytellers use history for their own ends. Isn’t there something deeply antithetical about history and the demands of narrative, which tends to smooth away the elements from life that slow it down?

Allan Massie: If you write straight narrative history, if you try to keep fiction out of it, you’re still writing a version of history: what you decide to leave in, what you decide to leave out. With Charlemagne and Roland, you’re dealing as much with myth as with history. The Charlemagne in my novel bears little resemblance to the Charlemagne a historian making a study of the Carolinian age might depict. It is the figure of legend that appears in my book, of the Chanson de Roland, and I’m quite easy with that.

SRB: I have read you described, as a novelist, as a realist. Charlemagne And Roland though, in common with the two novels that precede it in the trilogy incorporates more folkloric elements than previously seen in your work.

AM: That’s true. I call these three novels of the Dark Ages trilogy ‘romances’. That’s based I suppose on Stevenson’s definition of the difference between romance and drama. Drama is the poetry of character, and romance is the poetry of circumstance. The characters in these novels, I hope they have some vitality but they are not examined as characters as they would in a realistic novel. They are emblematic figures if you like. The novels play with the point at which history and legend meet. One of the reasons for the Michael Scott framing story is to distance the events so that one is not even pretending that this is a real picture of what happened. It’s quite clear the story is being told 400 years later by someone with their own political agenda.

SRB: You mention emblems there. In the final section of Charlemagne And Roland, Charlemagne’s army invades Spain to attack the Muslim Saracens. Beforehand, Charlemagne is warned if he attacks, he’ll have to fight off wave after wave off insurgents on a jihad. The contemporary parallels there are impossible to ignore.

AM: The last part of the book, the Spanish part, which I think is the best part, all derives from the Chanson de Roland, while at certain points correcting it. As Michael Scott mentions, there’s no mention in that epic poem of the Basques, who actually destroyed the invading army. Anything you write about that sort of war is going to set up some resonances with Iraq, and there are probably one or two remarks in the novel that might be applicable there. Certainly it wasn’t prominent in my mind while writing.

SRB: Really?

AM: No, no. What is more prominent today is what Michael Scott has to say about Islam. He points out how close the religions are. Many people regarded Islam as a Christian heresy. Theological arguments raged around 1000 AD about whether Islam was a Christian heresy like Arianism, which it was close to it; Arianists denied Christ was God, they rejected the Trinity too.

SRB: Sure, but this isn’t the first time you’ve touched on the wisdom or otherwise of invading countries for supposedly noble reasons. In A Question Of Loyalties, you write, “It should now be a mission of civilisation, not of war, for the days when you could impose civilisation by war are long past”.

AM: Was that in A Question Of Loyalties? [AM laughs] Well, it’s very true. I would have thought it obvious nowadays, that you can’t, if you ever could, impose civilisation by making war.

SRB: You say it’s obvious but apparently not to the people who decided to launch the latest war in the Gulf.

AM: Perhaps they are more idealistic then me. It has occurred to me that the problem stems from a naive idealism. Not from wickedness. Bush and Blair believed they would knock over Saddam, the Iraqis would be delighted and engage in the making of a democracy.

SRB: Isn’t that one of the recurring themes in your novels, the dangers of idealism? It certainly is in A Question Of Loyalties.

AM: Absolutely. I do think idealism is very often dangerous.

SRB: Yes, but if you look at the run up to World War Two, for example, the realists in that situation were the appeasers. There, the idealists were correct.

AM: I think that’s true, an example of when the realists were proven wrong. What you can say about that is that while the idealists were correct to oppose Hitler, matters didn’t turn out as they expected either. I’ve been reading Peter Clark’s book about the last thousand days of the British Empire, and one sees very clearly there that, yes, we won the war, and we destroyed ourselves in the process.

SRB: In an age of broadband, mobiles and MTV, can we think ourselves back convincingly, can historical fiction be written in an authentic manner? Look at the generation gap. Surely it’s evidence of how hard it is for people to think sympathetically back one generation, never mind dozens.

AM: What I do is I start with an assumption that while manifestations of it change, human nature doesn’t change a great deal. I remember Graham Greene remarking that everything important for a novelist has happened to him before he was seven. That rather disheartened me as I couldn’t remember a great deal before I was seven. Then the more I thought about it I saw it was true. Before you’re seven you’ve probably experienced the biggest emotions – love, hatred, resentment, frustration, happiness – in a purer, stronger form than you do later, and a writer can tap into that. Obviously what we think is right and what is wrong changes from age to age. But what motivates people, their emotions, they don’t change, that’s the first thing. The second thing is one assumes, perhaps wrongly, there are a lot of people who are interested in the past. Some periods in history you can treat like that. Like the Roman Empire. Because the way the Romans thought, it wasn’t what we inherited, a lot of it, but is comprehensible. It would be quite beyond me to treat the Aztec Empire in the same way. There wouldn’t be enough understanding of it, while there is enough Roman literature, Latin literature that helps. There’s a big enough understanding of the Ancient World to write about it. The Dark Ages is different. Contemporary sources don’t actually exist. Arthur The King, which precedes Charlemagne And Roland, is about King Arthur and what is positively known about Arthur could be written in a paragraph. That’s partly why I call those books romances rather than historical novels, partly why I use the device of Michael Scott to filter the story through. Although I’ve always liked using narrators who some of the time stand outside the action of the novel.

SRB: I wanted to ask you about the device of the lost manuscript. Why does it appear so often in your fiction?

AM: In some ways I’m quite literally minded. When I read a novel particularly in the first person I often ask myself, When’s he writing this? In what period? How’s he telling the story? I remember once asking Anthony Powell about A Dance To The Music Of Time. I wanted to know at which point in time Jenkins was telling the story. At one point, I asked was Jenkins actually writing the novels. Powell was rather vague about it. He said, I imagine Jenkins sitting on a sofa of the drawing room reminiscing – which doesn’t make sense at all, the novels are far too structured for that. If you use the device of the manuscript it provides an easy way into the novel.

SRB: What about the anachronistic language you use in Charlemagne And Roland and earlier in your Roman cycle of novels. You introduce, unheralded, lines from writers not yet born. Shakespeare, for example. Are you not worried this will lift the reader out of the moment?

AM: If you’re writing about the past, the register in which you pitch your narrative is a decision you have to make at some point. How do you make your characters speak? I don’t think there is a single answer to it. When you’re writing it, you have to be able to hear the characters speak yourself. The Roman novels, in a sense that wasn’t too difficult because for the most part you could hear a vaguely Latinate prose. Then you assume this is a manuscript translated by me. Echoes of other writers – people say, gosh, that’s Shakespeare. That’s part of the game, of the book’s ludic dimension. It could irritate some readers but other people might like it.

SRB: Interestingly, writers who actually translate actual ancient texts into contemporary argot or who interpolate modern quotes are most often praised for it. I’m thinking of Christopher Logue’s version of The Iliad or Ciaran Carson’s use of Irish slang in his translation of Dante’s Inferno.

AM: To take an example there is a description in Antony of Cleopatra coming up the Nile in her barge which draws on Shakespeare, anyone who reads it will see that. But then Shakespeare’s description is itself a versification of Plutarch’s description. Plutarch provides many scenes in Shakespeare’s plays.

SRB: You write in The Thistle And The Rose that you’re “a typical Scot, a child of the British Empire”. But hasn’t your career been based partly on the fact that you’re not a typical Scot, that you’re a one nation Tory in a country that has for some time proven allergic to the Conservatives?

AM: If Scotland was a uniform culture, that would be true. But it isn’t. My journalism actually reflects what a great deal of people are thinking but which doesn’t very often get into the mainstream of the media. The dominant political line over the past twenty-five has been soft-left is you like, but an awful lot of people don’t subscribe to that. You come across their voices more in the letters to the editor than in the editorials.

SRB: You’ve certainly in the past stood outside what at least was the popular image of the Scottish writer – working class, urban, gritty. Someone like James Kelman, perhaps. It didn’t include William Boyd, Candia McWilliam, Ronald Frame – or yourself. Do you think we’re moving beyond that, to take a more inclusive view of what makes a Scottish writer?

AM: I think that’s probably true. On the other hand you have to remember I’m older than James Kelman. And I’m just a few years younger than William McIlvanney. And Willie began his career much younger than I did. He published his first novel when he was thirty, I was nearly forty. William Boyd published his first novel in the early Eighties. So all these authors from different backgrounds have been writing in parallel over different times, though more attention was paid to one strand, which perhaps was fair enough. The West of Scotland voice coming out of the working class at that time was very striking, mixing as it did pride and guilt. Pride in what had been a coherent working class culture; guilt at having moved away from it while still trying to retain validity. That was a very strong element in Scottish cultural life and one I wasn’t part of. Most of my novels haven’t been set in Scotland, but I never thought that should disqualify you as a Scottish writer. One’s own sensibility and intellect, these are formed by Scotland.

SRB: You wouldn’t be alone in having your literary pedigree challenged. Even Muriel Spark, who you wrote a critical study of, found her background challenged.

AM: It used to irritate me. It doesn’t now. When it did, I used to remark that Graham Greene set very few of his novels in England, but no one ever suggested he wasn’t an English novelist. Except me, when I suggested he might be just enough Scottish.

SRB: You went to Cambridge, partly as you have written because there was no question of one attending a Scottish university “unless you had failed to get into either Oxford or Cambridge”. Before further education, you were taught in public school that the country you were brought up in was second rate. In emphasising Britishness, your teachers denigrated Scotland, didn’t they?

AM: I don’t think that they taught that. That’s an exaggeration. There was an underlying assumption, not so much that Scotland was a second rate country but that because we were part of the United Kingdom, the place for a person of ambition was London.

SRB: Okay, it wasn’t timetabled, you know, Monday morning from nine to ten, Denigration Of The Homeland class, but –

AM: I don’t think so. It was just assumed. In the same way, people in the North of England went to London if they wanted to make a career in politics or the arts.

SRB: Scotland is a country though.

AM: Scotland is a country, quite true, but it was a country that was part of the United Kingdom. And it was an assumption only in the pretty small world of fee paying schools.

SRB: A small world, sure, but a lot of those people went onto run national institutions, so their influence wasn’t small.

AM: A lot of them of course came back. If you look at the senators in the college of justice of my generation, an awful lot of them went to Cambridge and Oxford and then came back to the Scottish bar, possibly with certain advantages as a result of it.

SRB: What’s interesting to note here then is how often the issue of loyalty appears in your novels given that your teachers didn’t exactly exert themselves to teach loyalty to Scotland. I mean, where did your loyalties lie? Were they to Scotland, to its people or institutions or was it to Britain? I’m not actually asking you to comment on that but on the fact the question existed, and that that had to have some effect on your fiction.

AM: The question does arise. And at the moment it’s clearly being answered in one way. And you accept that is the decision that has been made, which is the sensible thing to do, or you get into the last ditch. There has undoubtedly been a change. I mean, when I was young I really did think of the capital as London, not Edinburgh. But then if you go back to the Edinburgh of the Fifties, it was a very sleepy, provincial city with, outside of the Festival, not a lot going for it. Very nice to live in but a backwater. There were a few literary circles and so on but it was still a backwater. And if you wanted to write about the modern world, Scotland wasn’t the place to be doing it.

SRB: There was a quickening by the Seventies though.

AM: Partly because in the Seventies it became clear that the British state was in a bad way. Time magazine in 1974 had a cover asking whether there was going to be a British revolution. That’s what gave the real surge to Scottish Nationalism; maybe we’d do better on our own. We had been living in the limelight of WW2, at least until Suez. There had been the transformation in the Forties and Fifties to a welfare state which worked pretty well. And we had with considerable dignity disembarrassed ourselves of the Empire. A lot of nonsense is talked about the Empire. There was exploitation, but when I said I was a child of the Empire, I was thinking of my father. My father went out to Malaya in 1926 as a rubber planter. And he never had any doubt that what they were doing was developing a country that would one day be handed back to be governed by the Malays and Chinese.

SRB: Their ‘plans’ though were without an end date.

AM: Yes, he didn’t know when it would happen but it would happen. I remember in his old age he spoke very proudly of the company he worked for, which was small when he began. By the end of his life it was a conglomerate which as he said proudly had no European manager or director. He took that as a sign of the success of Empire.

SRB: In that light, I suppose you found the notion of Scotland as England’s last colony offensive?

AM: Oh yes, that’s nonsense. It’s much more true to say England is Scotland’s most successful colony. We’ve had at least as much influence on the English as they’ve had on us.

SRB: Your second book was a critical study of Muriel Spark. I wonder if by writing about Spark you weren’t laying the groundwork for your own literary career. Like Spark you worked as a literary journalist, you published your first novel later than most debuts, after which you too were incredibly prolific. You also didn’t often write about Scotland.

AM: I hadn’t thought of that. If you start quite late, you have a lot of material stored up. Evelyn Waugh said that no one has more than five novels stored up and everything else is professional trickery. There’s truth in that. Novels are made from observation, imagination, experience. Experience includes what you’ve read as well as what you’ve done. You get a lot of material insensibly as the years pass, you don’t realise you’re collecting it. Once you start writing, in a curious way, you stop experiencing, not absolutely but you experience in a different way. Also, the simple fact is writing is a time consuming activity. You sit alone in a room and you write and while doing so you have no time for anything else. You run out of experience unless you make a point of going out and getting more experience – which can be a dodgy thing in itself if you haven’t properly absorbed the experience by the time you start writing about it. It’s also something difficult to do unless you’re very successful. Again, Graham Greene is a good example here. Because Greene was successful he could take a couple months off writing and go to Indo-China and get what he needed for The Quiet American. Most writers can’t afford to do this, especially if they have a family. This is a good reason for writing historical novels. Experience goes into that too but of a different sort. My first or four novels draw upon my own experience in some form. Then to a lesser extent, I would say what I think of my best work, the three novels on mid-century Europe – A Question of Loyalties, Sins Of The Father, Shadows Of Empire – they draw on my own experience in a different way. The Roman novels and the Dark Ages ones, that’s literary experience as much as anything; but it is a way of going on writing when you’ve probably used up most of the experience you have for making a novel.

SRB: I wanted to ask you about your literary journalism.

AM: Well, first of all, I’m not a critic, I’m a reviewer.

SRB: What’s the difference?

AM: A reviewer gives snap judgement. You’re given a book to review and then you have to write about it right away. And given the space you have in which to write, it has to be impressionistic. As a reviewer you have certain duties imposed on you by the fact you’re writing for a newspaper or magazine. You’re telling people about a new book and you’re writing something people want to read casually. A critic, nowadays usually an academic, is writing at a distance. He’s far more analytic than a reviewer can possibly be. There are exceptions, if you’re writing for the LRB or SRB say. If you have 3000 words to fill, you can approach being a critic.

SRB: There has been a change in the status of the reviewer since you began, hasn’t there? The days when one esteemed reviewer could flag up a new writer and launch their career are over.

AM: I think so, yes. Literature and the novel have been to some extent dislodged. I can see the day coming when the literary novel is going to be rather like poetry today. They’re stocked in ever smaller numbers. It’s the way book shops are going. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. One shouldn’t exaggerate it. A number of authors we think of as the great writers actually published in very small editions. Conrad for example. I was reading Andre Gide’s Journal the other day and he mentions a book he published in the 1890s. When it was republished he included in the new edition a publisher’s statement; on the original publication, 500 copies were made and it took ten years to sell out. In those days because of the centrality of literature you could make a reputation amongst the people who counted on small print runs and very small sales. Gide of course had a private income so it didn’t matter to him; it mattered a hell of a lot to Conrad.

SRB: Was there a certain type of book you favoured? Was there ‘an Allan Massie sort of book’ you found editors posting out to you for review?

AM: There probably was. For the most part, rather conventional novels, which I tend to think better than the experimental. Experimental is a difficult word to use as almost all novelists think their new novel is an experiment of some kind.

SRB: What would you have made of Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, had you been around then reviewing?

AM: I hope I would have seen something in them. I think I probably would. Joyce and Woolf were both famous, literary celebrities. Woolf isn’t that experimental. How I would have reacted say if I’d been sent Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury. I might have got stuck on the first part.

SRB: Of your generation of writers, there is only really yourself and William McIlvanney still around. Do you think yours was an underperforming generation of writers?

AM: I’m trying to think who else belongs to it. I don’t know about that, about underperforming. I think it’s easy nowadays for writers to drop out because publishers are always looking for the new thing. The middle ranking novelist is always in danger of being pushed aside. Many give up, particularly if they go into journalism. It takes a great deal of persistence to go on. One novel I think is terribly good is The Business Of Loving by Godfrey Smith. He wrote half a dozen novels and then he worked for the Sunday Times – and he stopped writing novels. The Business Of Loving came out in the early Sixties and it’s very good but it’s been forgotten because Smith didn’t go on writing. I’ve always found it useful, not just financially, to do both journalism and fiction. Even if you’re doing journalism, you have to go to your desk. Whereas if I was only writing novels there would be periods when I wouldn’t be writing anything and would find it hard to start again.

SRB: Although you’ve often spoken out on matters Scottish, you haven’t based many novels in Scotland. Is that because Scotland doesn’t provide a big enough stage?

AM: For some of the things I wanted to write, it didn’t. I quite often quote Hugh MacDiarmid’s line about how the problem with Scotland is that there isn’t any one worth killing. I would have thought that was one of the good things about Scotland. But if want to write something like The Death Of Men which deals with urban terrorism, I couldn’t realistically set that in Scotland.

SRB: When writing your Roman novels, have you had Scottish concerns in mind?

AM: Yes, Scottish or British concerns. The contemporary elements of the Roman novels, or the timeless element I’d rather say, is the link between public life and private life, and the damage that is done to private lives and characters by engagement with public life. What you have to give up in order to be a success publicly – that’s what Augustus is about. It’s probably the most successful of those books though not my favourite.

SRB: The Romans were of course proto-globalisers. Something you said recently interested me. You said, “One reason for the rise of Twentieth century nationalism is not because Scotland and England are different from each other but because of the uniformity of the culture…The mass media contribute to making everything the same – a national village – so that every high street is the same. This simulates the desire to say we’re ‘this’ as well; we’re not just Tesco shoppers”.

AM: It’s a very different sort of nationalism today. To be honest I think it’s a rational form of nationalism. There’s nothing emotional about it – okay, there’s strong emotions involved on the fringes of the SNP. Most of the time though it’s a question of, Do you think we could organise the state better if there was more self-government in Scotland? I think there is going to be more self-government in Scotland. We’re moving to some loose sort of British Isles confederacy, especially if they can persuade the Republic of Ireland to contribute in some way. And I’m quite happy with that.

SRB: It’s a rather bloodless sounding form of nationalism.

AM: No, it’s not romantic but I think it’s quite healthy.

SRB: Isn’t there a worry though that this peaceful blending and blanding of cultures will, you know, be good for people’s psyches but terrible for art. I’m thinking of Harry Lime’s speech in The Third Man about five hundred years of democracy and all they produced was the cuckoo clock.

AM: A little unfair on Switzerland. The cuckoo clock is of course no bad thing to have invented. [AM laughs]


CHARLEMAGNE AND ROLAND
Allan Massie
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
pp256 ISBN 9780297850694

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