Michael Foley on killer quotations, flawed characters and the joy of Proust

‘Being a writer taught me that to be good at anything you have to devote your entire life to it, and that even this is no guarantee of success. Fortunately there was also another lesson – that process is more important than product so that the pleasure of writing is its own reward’


What was the first book to make an impression on you?

It was about a pig called Toby. I can see the book but not the exact title.

What was your favourite book as a child?

I loved the Biggles books, read all of them, many several times, and desperately wanted to be an honourable, aristocratic, monocled villain like Von Stalhein. Surely the monocle is due a return? If piano accordions and side partings can come back into fashion, anything is possible.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

I’m re-reading Moby-Dick and marvelling at the Shakespearean gorgeousness of the prose. “Forward through the sparkling sea shoots on the gay, embattled, bantering brow.” It’s that “bantering’ that really knocked a hole in me – a sensationally surprising word. There’s also lots of wonderfully weird stuff, for instance a scene where the narrator, Ishmael, gets wildly excited by squeezing the lumps out of whale sperm. Later, his fellow sailors make two armholes in a whale foreskin and wear it as a “cassock”. I’m also having fun imagining what a contemporary editor would do to the manuscript of Moby-Dick. “All this shit about whales is bad enough in a so-called adventure yarn, Herman. But a full chapter on the concept of whiteness? Are you kidding?”

What is your favourite quotation?

I love and collect killer quotations so my favourite keeps changing. In fact I have a Quote of the Week. This week it’s a description by Emerson of the kind of book he wanted, where “everything is admissible – philosophy, ethics, divinity, criticism, poetry, humor, fun, mimicry, anecdote, jokes, ventriloquism – all the breadth and versatility of the most liberal conversation, highest and lowest personal topics: all are permitted, and all may be combined into one speech”.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

I like deeply flawed characters who create their own terrible problems but are made sympathetic by the genius of the author. A good example is Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge, who does everything wrong but is loveable, whereas his young rival Donald Farfrae does everything right but is hateful. Shakespeare, of course, specialised in this kind of character. His Anthony is another useless tosser I can’t help loving. When I go out for an urban stroll with my wife, I quote Anthony: ‘Let’s walk together through the streets and note the qualities of people. Come, my queen.’

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

Anthony Cronin’s prose books are under-rated because the times do not value fastidious phrasing and long sentences full of subordinate clauses. I love the exactitude of his vocabulary and the rhythm of his sentences.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?

There’s a place for both. I love the physicality of print books – the ability to fondle, lift, heft, flip and sniff. But with an ereader you can take an entire library on holiday, which is hugely reassuring. Downloading free classics is also great fun, though it has reminded me of how quickly we take things for granted. Recently I was outraged at having to pay £0.77 for The Complete Works of William James.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

An American edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems. American hardbacks are the most beautiful books. I love the big, chunky print, the cream-coloured, rough, heavy paper, the uneven page sides that make flipping more interesting, and the unique fragrance. I’ve asked lots of people about the American fragrance but no one can identify it. Fragrance is a key element of book allure.

Where and how do you write?

I write most weekday mornings from 9.00 to 13.00 in a back bedroom. As for how – with delight, amazement and gratitude. I retired seven years ago and still can’t believe that I don’t have to go to work in the mornings.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

Proust’s novel was the great revelation. Before I read Proust I tried to obey the twentieth-century first commandment for fiction writers, “Present, don’t explain”. But Proust presents and explains, in fact explains everything constantly and in great detail and makes the explanations swing. This was incredibly liberating. “Jesus,” I said to myself, “it’s not just OK to explain things, explanation really rocks.”

What is the most research you have done for a book?

I’ve probably done most for the book I’m working on at the moment. It occurred to me that, since everything is connected to everything else, in order to understand anything it is necessary to understand everything. So the back story of the main character in the book is a history of the universe from the big bang to boutique hotels and Posthuman Studies.

What book influenced you the most?

Probably Proust’s novel. See above.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

I don’t believe that one book fits all so I would try to think of something suitable for the particular child. But if forced into a general recommendation it would have to be The Great Gatsby. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like this book. I even like it myself (though for the prose, not the ridiculous plot). What teenager could fail to love a character who is a handsome, charming war hero, yearns romantically for a beloved conveniently far out of reach, and is paid to model expensive clothes and throw lavish parties in a mansion with a pool by the sea? Then, under cover of the fantasy, Fitzgerald’s exquisite prose can be slipped in.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

I try not to fantasise about what I should have done in youth, though this is almost impossible to avoid. If I had my time again reading different books would not be a priority. Being less timorous with women would be top of the to-do list. It breaks my old heart to realise that some of the women and girls I knew would probably have let me.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

To be a writer it is first necessary to be a reader, to get the rhythm of sentences into your blood. So read everything and then write, write and write, trying not to obsess about publication and recognition, though this is difficult. Being interested in absolutely everything is also a good idea, so the reading should include not just literature but science, philosophy, religion and history, all the attempts to understand.

What weight do you give reviews?

Many writers claim to be loftily indifferent to reviews, even not to read them at all. This is bollocks. Every writer craves praise, winces at bad reviews and nurses lifelong murderous hatred for dismissive reviewers.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

I don’t believe in prediction and have no idea where anything is going.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

The fashion, in both fiction and non-fiction, is for a familiar, colloquial, chatty, unchallenging style that wants to cosy up and be your best friend. “Accessible” is the publishers’ cliche for this. The illusion is that short sentences and simple words are more sincere, but this plain style is just another trick. It is time for the return of passion, grandiloquence, amplitude, rhapsody.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

I used to wonder how I became a reader in the philistine environment of provincial Ireland in the 1950s, when everyone around me, parents, teachers and friends, regarded reading for pleasure as an effete waste of time. Finally it occurred to me that I became a reader as a form of rebellion, a way of rebelling without breaking the rules. My parents were both schoolteachers so they could hardly object to my six library books a week but they believed in education only as a means of social advancement and were baffled and annoyed by reading just for the hell of it.

The general lesson is that finding ways to rebel within rules is a useful life skill, a way of defying convention and maintaining independence without suffering too many consequences. Reading, one of the best of such ruses, offers a transgressive secret life – secret strength, secret wings. Reading is deviant, criminal, identity theft.

What has being a writer taught you?

That to be good at anything you have to devote your entire life to it, and that even this is no guarantee of success. Fortunately there was also another lesson – that process is more important than product so that the pleasure of writing is its own reward.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

I wouldn’t be stupid enough to invite writers into my home, much less cook for them – and certainly not Irish writers, the bitchiest of all. But I would be happy to hire a dining room and pay caterers if I could follow the proceedings via CCTV. It would be fun to throw together a mix of despisers and affirmers and let them slug it out – for the despisers Baudelaire and Flaubert (no one does contempt like the French) and for the affirmers Emerson and Whitman (no one does praise like the Americans). But probably no one would be speaking to anyone else after 10 minutes.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

The scene in The Third Policeman where Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen take the narrator on a visit to eternity, which is up a country lane and deep underground, accessible only by lift. There the narrator learns that he can have anything he wants and orders 50 cubes of gold, a bottle of whiskey, precious stones to the value of £200,000, some bananas, a fountain pen and writing materials and a serge suit of blue with silk linings, adding, in a cunning afterthought, a request for a weapon capable of exterminating any man or any million men but small enough to carry comfortably in a pocket. But then he discovers that he can’t take any of this away with him and weeps like a baby in the lift. By way of consolation MacCruiskeen offers a bag of sweets that have become stuck together from the heat of his pocket. This prompts the sergeant to go into a lyrical rhapsody about Carnival Assorted: “Now there was a sweet for you.”

What is your favourite word?

As with quotations, I couldn’t possibly settle for one and have a Word of the Week. Last week it was epiphenomena. This week it is fructify.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

I have always been contemptuous of historical novels and so, needless to say, have ended up writing one. It’s called Schrödinger in Dublin and is a fictional account of the 17 years the physicist Erwin Schrödinger (of Schrödinger’s-cat fame) spent at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies from 1939 to 1956. Schrödinger is a novelist’s dream, interested not just in quantum physics but also cosmology and biology (acknowledged as the founder of microbiology), eastern religion, philosophy, drama and poetry (he wrote poetry himself). And to balance all this heady intellectual life there is major sex interest. He arrived in Dublin with two women, a wife and a young mistress, and went on to have affairs with several Irish women, including a socialist actress. He also mixed in bohemian arty circles and knew Flann O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh, so they can be brought in as characters. With material as rich as this who could go wrong?

Michael Foley’s latest book, Life Lessons from Bergson (Macmillan 2013), is about Henri Bergson (1859-1941), the French philosopher whose ideas are everywhere in contemporary culture, though the man himself has been largely forgotten. His first non-fiction book, The Age of Absurdity (Simon & Schuster 2010), was a bestseller and has been translated into seven languages. His (very funny) novels include The Road to Notown and Getting Used to not Being Remarkable.

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