Harvest time for Jim Crace as he signs off with a final novel
Jim Crace is one of the finest English novelists of the past 20 years - so why has he written his final novel?
So what will he write about? “I’m very interested in natural history and there’s a lot of it about at the moment.” There is currently a strong generation of British natural-history writers yet Crace has been more drawn to the North American school, and reacts enthusiastically at the mention of John McPhee, Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard and Peter Matthiessen. Crace has always been interested in the natural world, and he evokes entire landscapes in his fiction, be it the Judaean desert, a sand dune or the open fields of Shakespeare’s England prior to the enclosures.
“The English nature writers cannot really write in that American style though,” he says with his characteristic certainty. “There is no comparison. The American landscape is so much more dangerous. They have real snakes, mountain lions, bears; we only have adders and they’re more frightened of us than we are of them. I’ve been in the landscape around Texas [his archive is in the University of San Antonio] and it’s dangerous, you must take precautions.”
Admittedly Matthiessen has travelled far beyond the US in his writings, but Crace is referring to an epic essence that somehow permeates the North American wild. “You can see it in the fiction as well, it is a huge landscape.”
Crace is working class, but there is no defiance, he doesn’t glamourise it. “My father looked after the grounds of a sports club. I didn’t go to university straight after school, I went at night.” If only one word could be used to describe him it is political: “I wanted to be a political journalist like Orwell.” Two of the most influential writers for the aspiring Crace were Orwell and John Steinbeck.
“I do see my fiction as political; I’ve wanted it to be. Arcadia is about a society, as is this new one. I am interested in how society works and how it doesn’t. That’s why I chose to live where I do, in the outskirts of a city like Birmingham, a place with many problems. If something is going to go wrong, and in that going wrong, change, or make a change, make something happen – it is far more likely to happen in a place like Birmingham than in leafy Oxford.”
His interest in change has always been present in his work. In his wonderful second book The Gift of Stones (1988), a community of flint-makers face the threat of a new material, bronze. Similarly in Arcadia (1992), another community, street traders, see impending disaster in the arrival of a shopping mall. Ideas drive his fiction.
“Yes that’s true, I get an idea and then I pursue it, for me, not future readers. My fiction is not plot-driven; it’s not character-driven, it is about ideas. Sometimes they work.”
He laughs at the mention of Six (2003), a knowingly sophisticated narrative about an actor who, despite his best efforts, impregnates any female with whom he sleeps. The irritating novel is less about the character of Felix Dern than the male impulse.