Why does the great Jim Crace insist his new novel is his last?
Despite having written several of the finest British novels of the past 20 years – including Arcadia , Signals of Distress , the Booker short-listed Quarantine and Being Dead – Jim Crace retains not so much a low profile, as his privacy. He smiles contentedly. This is the way he likes it; Crace has always been in control.
There are no autobiographical revelations, no personal drama, no public histrionics. He does not issue wild statements about banishing the elderly to death camp phone booths, nor does he deliver provocative opinions about plastic princesses. Compact and self-contained, Jim Crace is a practical, determinedly ordinary individual, who lives in an ordinary home on the outskirts of Birmingham. It’s not quite urban and not quite rural, of both and of neither: again, it’s just the way he likes it.
Crace participates in conversations, not interviews. These conversations are so informative and interesting that it is only later that the interviewer can fully marvel at how good naturedly he or she has been kept at a distance by a writer whose vision is both profound and moral, yet who refuses to take himself seriously. Or perhaps he is just good at concealing it? The confident, canny Crace is elusive, make no mistake about it.
There is nothing calm or predictable about his imagination, which resides in a vivid subversive place best described as Craceland – it must be so as he does not believe in researching facts. After all, if you are telling a story, why not make it all up, including the plants and the famous old poets?
It may be my vaguely military-like old overcoat with its weary hint of revolution that causes Crace to follow his greeting with: “Have you seen Les Mis ?” I could lie but I admit that I did, if only because of Russell Crowe, who is the best thing in it.
Crace smiles his calm smile: “He is very good. We [Crace and his wife] liked it all, it’s very good.” It is obvious that Crace will and probably has defended the movie to all comers. He is like that, engagingly resolute and used to getting his own way. There is a sense of self-belief about him that is utterly likeable. His 11th novel, Harvest , has just been published to excellent reviews. “I do read them, the reviews,” he says. Harvest is powerful, real and compelling. It is also his final novel, but not his last book.
“I’m not going to write any more novels, I don’t want to end up being one of these angry, bitter writers moaning that only three people are reading him. I don’t want that. I have had a very good life in publishing, but this is it.”
Even the way he says “life in publishing” is decidedly perverse, decidedly Crace. Why does he say “in publishing” instead of “writing fiction”? He laughs gleefully: “I’ve always said that. When people asked me what I did, I’d say ‘I work in publishing’, and when they then say: ‘What side of it?’, I say ‘supply’ – no doubt leaving them to think I drive the books around in a van and deliver them.”
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.
Equally, Being Dead , an unforgettable cautionary fable of sorts (1999) that won the 2001 National Book Critics Circle award in the US, its only major literary award open to a non-US citizen, explores the process of what happens to the body after death. A middle-aged couple, both marine biologists, are murdered while making love in sand dunes. Crace had no interest in their killer – it was a random crime – just what happened to the bodies.
All That Follows (2010) looks at the failure to take action. “I’ve always been aware of this need to stand and make a stance, but so often we fail, I’ve failed, to do so. I wanted to take an okay person who fails to act, and a not-so-good individual who does.”
Crace is a singular writer, an original who takes chances and has, at times, achieved an Englishness comparable to that of William Golding, yet he is no imitator.
It seems more than fitting that Crace’s final novel should be so masterful. “I see it as a Shakespeare book. I don’t mean for that to sound arrogant. But I am obsessed with Shakespeare; we are about, where I live, an hour from Stratford-upon-Avon. I’d like to see this as a Shakespeare book and yes, there are made-up words. But when Shakespeare used words, often it was the first time they were used. It was like he invented them.”
Crace is so good at making up words and the names of things that they always sound real. “Well a farmer is going to know the name of something, he’s not going to say ‘that thingy there’ – he’ll call it by its name.” Crace logic is always persuasive; he could win any argument.
Tense and atmospheric, sustained by a sense of change, of endings, the death of a way of life, Jim Crace’s final novel Harvest is just that, a reaping of a rich reward, his literary gift. He is delighted and grins, half-wickedly, “Good book to end with? Yes?” A very good one, one of his best, and that is saying something.
Harvest is published by Pan Macmillan