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Birnbaum v.

Robert McCrum

Few writers have all their books in print; extremely few have almost a hundred in circulation. A conversation with Robert McCrum about his recent definitive biography of P.G. Wodehouse and the difficulties in pinning down a man who liked to blend in.

British author Robert McCrum is a jack of all literary trades—editor, journalist, memoirist, novelist, and now biographer. He was editor in chief of the English publishing firm of Faber and Faber and is the author of My Year Off: Recovering Life After a Stroke and six novels: In the Secret State, A Loss of Heart, The Fabulous Englishman, Mainland, The Psychological Moment, and Suspicion. He also co-wrote The Story of English and has written two children’s books, The World is a Banana and The Brontosaurus Bumper Book. McCrum’s most recent opus is Wodehouse: A Life, which John le Carre has declared the “seminal work of reference” on acclaimed British novelist and humorist P.G. Wodehouse. McCrum is the literary editor of the Observer and lives in London with family.

Here’s Christopher Hitchens on Wodehouse and McCrum’s biography: “Indeed, if anything could ever put one off being a Wodehouse fan, it would be the somewhat cultish element among his admirers and biographers. Such people have a tendency to allude to him as ‘The Master’…Robert McCrum is by no means immune from the lure of all this, but his biography has a tendency to let in daylight upon the magic.” I would add that the great gift that McCrum’s life of Wodehouse bestows is his (McCrum’s) familiarity with the writer’s immense output, judiciously used to spice up the story of that life. And perhaps of most importance, insight into the life of a writer who has managed to keep nearly a hundred books in print.

Given the scope of Robert McCrum’s literary peregrinations, the talk below, though wide-ranging, seems only to have dipped a toe or two beneath the surface of contemporary culture. I expect to continue this dialogue with the inestimable Robert McCrum in the fullness of time. Hopefully you’ll also join us then—in the meantime, enjoy Part I of Parts Unknown.

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum

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Robert Birnbaum: Your name is Scottish, yes?
McCrum, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
Robert McCrum: It’s Scots-Irish. It’s hard to trace the family. The family myth is that we were involved with [what’s known as] the Great Rebellion, the Jacobite uprising. And that we were the ones who rowed the boat away from Skye [as Bonnie Prince Charlie fled Scotland after the defeat of the Jacobite Rebellion at the Battle of Culloden in 1746]. But I think it’s a family myth. The first time the McCrums show up in a recorded way is in [what is now] Northern Ireland, near Armagh. Near what you might call bandit country.

RB: What you might call bandit country.

RMcC: Well, what the locals, and the British army, would call bandit country. It’s a Protestant enclave surrounded by Roman Catholics. It’s a very interesting part of the world. And so my McCrum genes are Northern Ireland Protestant genes, if you like.

RB: At your suggestion I read your memoir, My Year Off

RMcC:—which does say quite a bit about my ancestry, in an abbreviated way.

RB: What I thought was remarkable, that stood out besides just this riveting story of a young man suffering this insult to the brain was that you recognized and made clear that your family and friends are perhaps as deeply affected. That this is a large difficulty and, in fact, you include your new wife’s diary in your book.

RMcC: A stroke is like an upheaval for everybody. It’s like an earthquake. And you’re the epicenter but the shocks reverberate around your near family in a very dramatic way. I think my mother, for example, still hasn’t got over it.

RB: She still deals with you with a sense of great worry?

RMcC: Yes, she does. I try to reassure her that I feel much better.

RB: As much as one can.

RMcC: It was a great shock for her.

RB: Also, I was very much fascinated—you were doing research for your last novel, Suspicion, and at the time you interviewed a doctor who was an expert in—

RMcC:—hospice care. Tim Hunter.

RB: And he had cared for over 5,000 people. I was struck by yet another defect of the biomedical machine that once a doctor thinks you are a goner, then they lose interest in you.

RMcC: Stroke is odd because you can’t really treat it. You can’t operate on it. You can’t really give it pills. All you can do is hope for the best, frankly. And some people recover and some people don’t. And I am very fortunate that I recovered. I feel very—

RB: And your left arm?

RMcC: It’s still a bit—I type with one hand. All my writing is with my right hand. And I write on a pad and then I rather laboriously type it with my right hand. So this book [Wodehouse], for example, was written in longhand and then typed.

RB: Have you tried voice-recognition applications?

RMcC: No, I haven’t, but I might do that, actually.

RB: You wrote My Year Off in ‘97, ‘98? Five or six years ago.

RMcC: Seven years ago.

RB: Have you looked at it since?

RMcC: No, I have never—

RB: Do you at all wonder if your immediate responses and recollections were the final record?

RMcC: I think if I were to read it now, it would bring back things. That was my account and that’s the account I will live by. I think it’s fairly accurate.

RB: It couldn’t be inaccurate. I am not suggesting that. You quoted William Maxwell to the effect that the remembering is frequently better than the living. If your recollection differed from what you wrote, that wouldn’t make it wrong.

RMcC: No, quite right. I gave a talk the other day in the hospital where I had been recovering, and that brought back a lot of memories, which I had overlooked. I was back in the same place. I was invited to go back to talk to the nurses about how I made it through and to give them some clues on how to handle stroke sufferers. And so I gave this talk for about 10 minutes and then in the question and answer session suddenly all kinds of stuff began to melt in my head.

RB: Meld or melt?

RMcC: “Melt.” Things began to unglue, and all kind of things—I found myself recalling things I hadn’t thought about for 10 years. Quite trivial things, actually. But the whole point of it was to bring down the subject to its nuts and bolts.

What I am saying is I have a lifelong interest in Wodehouse but if you are the kind of Englishman that I am, it would be very surprising if you hadn’t come across him.

RB: Early in the memoir you quote Wodehouse a number of times.

RMcC: Once. There is one passage, which I think I do quote.

RB: You quote him once but mention him a number of times.

RMcC: I say that Wodehouse was a writer who I found very helpful when I was recovering because he was someone who cheers you up. He says that there are two ways of writing a novel. You either do what he does, which is musical comedy without music. Or you can “go deep down into life not caring a damn.” And I said, in my introduction to My Year Off, there is not much musical comedy about having a stroke, but it’s more like a going deep down into life kind of a book. I still think that’s true.

RB: If he had written your story…

RMcC: There is a funny moment when the policeman rings up and asks whether there is a dead body.

RB: They thought you were Salman Rushdie.

RMcC: There was an angry exchange on the phone. There weren’t that many funny moments. There were things that I didn’t put in the book. I was in a ward next door to private ward where there were a lot of Arab boys who had crashed their cars in the desert. They were paraplegics and a lot of the patients were young men and they were very rich. And so the parents were paying in cash. Or, rather, as they would see it, in kind. There was one hilarious conversation with the consultant who was treating me and this other Arab boy. He was offered a herd of goats [both laugh] in payment of the service. That was truly farcical. But to have put that in would have been making fun of somebody who was suffering. It’s one of those funny stories that you can tell later but at the time wasn’t—

RB: Or you can put it in a novel.

RMcC: A novel, but you couldn’t really put it in a memoir.

RB: Are you still involved in the support group?

RMcC: Different Strokes? Not anymore, no. In those days it was just starting and I was one of the first to go to it. There were two or three chapters and now there are chapters all over England. It does a marvelous job because if you have had one of these things, the only people you can talk to about it are fellow sufferers. Only they can really relate—there are things that happen to you that you can’t discuss with anyone else.

RB: One of the reasons I brought up your citation of Wodehouse was that I wondered at what point you decided to write this voluminous biography.

RMcC: It was decided for me, actually. There is a kind of ghostly connection because after I had recovered—about a year after I had the illness I went back to my job [editor in chief] at Faber & Faber and I was very feeble and really not up to the job, but I was struggling along. And one day I was having lunch with Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, which owns the Observer, and he just leaned across the table and said, “Would you like to become the literary editor?” It had never crossed my mind to do that. And so, after a day or two of thought, I said yes. I was very sorry to leave Faber, but I felt—I had had this huge cataclysm and so it was time to do something different. And this seemed like a challenge, as indeed it was. And on the Observer, in an attempt to establish a different voice on the page, I began to write this column, “World of Books,” and in one of the earlier columns, when one is looking around for things to write about, Penguin had just reissued about six Wodehouses with bright new covers, and I wrote a column saying Wodehouse was a great writer and ended it by saying that it was a great shame that there wasn’t a proper biography.

RB: This in the face of there being five or six extant?

RMcC: Well, thereabouts, I but I thought they were inadequate in various ways. There are actually four but none of them is definitive, in my view. And the next thing I know the phone rings and its Penguin saying, would I be interested? So I didn’t chose it; it chose me.

RB: Was he a lifelong interest?

RMcC: Yes. But I have lifelong interest in Mark Twain, and I haven’t written his biography. What I am saying is I have a lifelong interest in Wodehouse but if you are the kind of Englishman that I am, it would be very surprising if you hadn’t come across him.

RB: A minor digression but does it seem to you that the British are more prone to have author societies? Trollope, Shakespeare—

RMcC: They certainly have them but whether there are more [in the U.K. than elsewhere], I don’t know. There is actually an American Wodehouse Society. And a Russian. I don’t know, but we happen to have a lot of famous writers.

RB: Here there would be an Emerson society. And a Poe.

RMcC: I bet you there is a Twain society. And I am sure there is a Faulkner society.

RB: Really?

RMcC: There must be. And I am sure there is a Hemingway society. Interesting isn’t it? The big ones in England are Austin, Trollope, Conan Doyle.

RB: Kipling?

RMcC: Yes there is one. There is a Houseman. But Austin, Trollope, and Conan Doyle are the big ones. And they are slightly peculiar.

RB: Tell me why you think Wodehouse is both an English and an American writer?

RMcC: Mainly if you do a calculation of the time he spent here in America and the time in Britain, France—Europe—he spent more time in America.

RB: But what he writes is so British.

RMcC: It’s very British but there is always an American strand to it. Once he discovered an American market, you find that he never neglected to include an American character—

RB: [laughs]

RMcC:—an American love interest. The degree to which he used American slang is very striking. Somewhere he says—in one of his letters, “I can’t wait to get back to New York and listen to the Americans again.” He just loved the vigor of vernacular.

RB: One of your recent columns was about fantasy literary dinner parties—who you would have around a table.

RMcC: Who you would invite to dinner.

RB: Right, and I was thinking [although the prize was a signed copy of the biography], it seems Wodehouse was conspicuously absent from your list and then I recalled that part of your description makes him to be a watcher and a listener. On the other hand, you do relate the experience of a young reporter, who talked about him as delightful company.

RMcC: It is strange, isn’t it? He was basically pretty shy. And he was a listener and a watcher as you say. When he felt confident in the company of somebody and he knew them as a friend, then he began to open up.

RB: It was very funny that he mentioned he had met Winston Churchill six or seven times and Churchill never remembered him. [laughs]

RMcC: He was colorless, in a way. He left no trace. He wouldn’t have enjoyed this process that I am undergoing now. Because he wouldn’t like questions.

RB: You did refer to him as a “master of evasion.”

RMcC: Yes, he’s elusive. People say that I have captured him—people who knew him well, but I still feel he is a bit of a mystery.

RB: In recent years there has been a trend toward the short biographical essay. Penguin inaugurated a series—

RMcC: Actually, it was my friend James Atlas who began the Short Lives.

RB: Tell me why, given the success of that, that the long, well-researched, intricately documented and detailed biography is still warranted?

RMcC: Well, mine is like in a halfway house. It’s full blown, full length. It’s long but not that long. It could easily have been twice as long. I worked very hard to keep it about 400 pages. The text is about 400 pages, there are 100 pages of notes if you want to follow things up. The actual text, the story, is 400 pages. I wanted to write a book which he himself would have enjoyed and could have read, probably, in two sittings. And I wanted it to appeal to the non-Wodehouse Society type—a general audience. And so it is neither a full-length one, nor is it a short biography. But as Auden said, “A shilling life will give you all the facts.”

RB: Or at least a good sense. The last time it was an issue for me, I had a chance to look at a large volume on Mao Tse Tung or Jonathan Spence’s 160-page version.

RMcC: I could probably write an even better 150-page version of the Wodehouse.

RB: Really?

RMcC: It would be very hard work. But essentially he lived a long and happy life. He made one terrible mistake, which he has been punished [for] ever since.

RB: Still.

RMcC: Still.

RB: You seem to have rehabilitated him.

RMcC: I think I have nailed that one. I think from now on you won’t have to say—you can throw the mud at him but it doesn’t have to stick. The trouble is that the damage has been done. My book will have its influence, but it will—

RB: Why was his Apologia never published?

RMcC: I don’t know. It’s fascinating. I found that in the New York Public Library. It’s really a wonderful document. And at one point I toyed with having it as a long appendix. But it’s quite long, about 100 pages.

RB: Is there a uniform edition of his collected works?

RMcC: No, there really ought to be. There is beginning to be because in England, Everyman is putting out these beautiful editions. They are really great.

RB: In the States, Overlook is publishing them. I find it’s funny how things accrete to you. I knew nothing about Wodehouse and then read [Anthony] Lane, who is a great champion [of him], and then it occurred to me that Glen Baxter is a living champion of Wodehouse.

RMcC: He’s one of them.

RB: I know of no one else who expresses the Wodehousian sensibility and is as funny as Baxter.

RMcC: Um, he is really funny. Actually, you do imitate him at your peril. He is inimitable. [laughs] Salman Rushdie is a big fan. Seamus Heaney is a big fan. [Glen] Baxter is a big fan—you can reel off names. John Updike, I know is a fan. And writers love his works and his writing. He’s a writer’s writer as well as being a very popular writer.

RB: He does seem hard to imitate.

RMcC: People try and they always come unstuck. They always make themselves look ridiculous because he had such a natural ear. It’s so perfect and it was his particular—

RB: Speaking of Glen Baxter, has he ever tried his hand at writing something?

RMcC: He’s really an artist. And an artist who uses words, very brilliantly. And he’s a friend.

RB: You do mention him in your acknowledgment.

RMcC: We trade Woosterisms. [Bertie] Wooster is interesting. Speaking of literature, I don’t know of any character, any hero in English or American fiction, who is wholly good. It’s very unusual [to have] someone as your main character who is completely good. There is no cynicism, or evil in him. He doesn’t do bad things. The worst he does is to puncture somebody’s hot-water bottle, stick it with a darning needle. Or to throw bread rolls or to steal someone’s helmet. He is a silly ass, but he is the hero. It’s an amazing achievement.

RB: Is that reflective of Wodehouse’s own character?
McCrum, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
RMcC: I think so, yes. He was very innocent. And I think he was a very good man. He was thoughtful about his fellow man and he was very attentive. He did something that contemporary authors would really flinch from. People used to write him with his books and they would say, “Dear Mr. Wodehouse, I am a great admirer of yours. I enclose,” and they would mention three or four titles. “Would you please sign them and send them back to me?” And he always would. There are plenty of stories I have come across where fans have still got letters where he writes back. “Dear Mr. Birnbaum, Here is your”—signed and dated and everything. Modern authors wouldn’t do that.

RB: Probably not. Although that reminds me that Graham Swift told me he loves to sign books (though this is not true any more) because they can’t be returned to the distributor once they are signed. I assume that Overlook’s reissuing Wodehouse means there is a market for him.

RMcC: You’d have to say that a writer who has 100 books in print must be doing OK. And he [Wodehouse] has 100 books in print. There is a market for them. And it’s modest, probably 2,000 or 3,000 copies a year. But it doesn’t go away. The famous ones, like The Inimitable Jeeves, they would sell probably 10,000 or 15,000 copies a year. But even the lesser ones sell.

RB: If you hold that certain writers are important, is Wodehouse important?

RMcC: Very much so. He is a minor figure but he is very, very important. One of the hidden agendas of my book is to try to establish him as a great stylist. He has always been written about as a humorist. Yes, sure he is very funny. But he is also is a great stylist.

RRB: Time after time when he was writing to someone about what he was working on, I don’t recall one instance where he said it wasn’t really good, it wasn’t going along well.

RMcC: He’s very pro-himself. He generally says, “It’s the best I’ve ever done,” “It’s a corker,” “It’s this, it’s that.” He was always very positive about his latest work.

RB: Other than Philip Roth, I am not familiar with anyone who was or is so dedicated to writing.

RMcC: And who did nothing else, really. He devoted his entire life to it. It’s a problem for the biographer because there is so much material. He just wrote so much. I can’t think of anyone who is quite so fanatical. [long pause] And who also in the middle of his career, in the ‘30s when he was in his fifties—it’s very unusual to write six or seven, eight books one after the other and they were all getting better and better.

RB: At that point he was still going back and forth from England to the U.S., and he was spending time in France—

RMcC: He was in France, he was in Hollywood—all over the place.

RB: Is there a writer or writers today that you think of who in any way reflect his style or influence?

RMcC: Not really. I think someone like Nick Hornby must be influenced, in a way, by Wodehouse. He’s the nearest and he’s not like Wodehouse at all. There is something Wodehousian about him. Very readable, light humor.

RB: Have you read Jonathan Ames’s book, the name of which I cannot now remember? [Wake Up, Sir!]

RMcC: No, I haven’t. I think I have heard of it.

RB: Too bad. It is a homage to Wodehouse with a Wooster character and Jeeves. Ah well. So this book took you five years?

RMcC: Four years roughly on the research, and then about a year writing, thereabouts.

RB: And you have had two children. And a weekly deadline with the Observer, which is a newspaper or a magazine?

RMcC: It has nothing to do with the Guardian, although we are in the same building and we are owned by the Guardian. And when you ring up the switch board they say, “Guardian-Observer.”

RB: I have never seen a hard copy.

RMcC: Well, it’s a Sunday paper and its entire raison d’être is that it comes out on Sunday and always has done. We say we are the original Sunday because we have been coming out on Sundays since 1791. A long time. So the paper has a long tradition. It’s quite Wodehousian in the sense that it appeals to a very mixed bag of readers. You can’t classify it as left or right. It’s independent in instinct and discretion. Vaguely libertarian. Vaguely left wing, at times. But equally quite capable of taking what you might think is a right-wing position. It was weirdly pro-Iraq [war].

RB: Where does it stand now?

RMcC: It’s modified its position a bit. It’s had a long tradition of literary journalism. Orwell worked for it. Cyril Connolly worked for it, Julian Barnes—it’s had some very good people over the years, and so it’s a place that one can feel very at home.

From the headline writing, newspaper point of view, there’s not much you can say about fiction unless you say it’s written by a man with three heads.

RB: And this [literary editorship] was something you never aspired to?

RMcC: Never even crossed my mind.

RB: Because?

RMcC: I was working at Fabers.

RB: But you were an editor of literary fiction. An acquisition editor?

RMcC: I was editor in chief, ultimately. I was acquiring writers like Peter Carey, [Kazuo] Ishiguro, Paul Auster, [Milan] Kundera and Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi. The Americans that I am particularly fond of who I brought to England are Lorrie Moore, Garrison Keillor. Auster, who is a really great friend.

RB: I remember reading James Sallis and in the interview he was asked what he thought of American literary press and he said, “What American literary press?”

RMcC: [snorts] That’s ridiculous. The American literary press is much more vigorous than it is in England. There is much more of it, first of all. Many more outlets. All kinds, from you, Grand Street, New York Review of Books. Kenyon Review. Lots of small magazines. Dave Eggers’s operation. All kinds of blogs, the New York Times. It’s not what it was in the great days of the short story in the ‘40s, say, but it’s still very vigorous. I think it’s very lively and far livelier than at home, to be honest. The grass always is a little bit greener, isn’t it?

RB: You seem to be more attuned to and attendant to American literature than I would expect for a British publication.

RMcC: Well, I suppose. I’m married to an American, Sara Lyall of the New York Times. And I have very many American friends.And I had a post-graduate fellowship to Penn at Philadelphia, and I’d really never read American writers apart from the obvious ones. And I had binge of reading American writers in my 19th and 20th years. And I’ve never looked back.

RB: So, if you’d gone to Paris for postgraduate work, you would have been more attentive to the French?

RMcC: Who knows? Maybe.

RB: One of the resonant complaints of my serious brothers [and sisters] in literature is that in America so little attention is paid to world literature and literature in translation.

RMcC: That’s a fashion. That’s also true of England. But then 10 years ago, that was absolutely not true. When I was at Faber we published lots of books in translation. And at some point we published more books in translation than in our own language, even. That fashion has now worked itself out and there is much less translation—I don’t think it’s anything more than temporary.

RB: Are the recent Nobel Prize winners as little respected and heralded in England as they seem to be here? [laughs]

RMcC: I have great a respect for them. I have to say that when this year’s one came out, Elfriede Jelinek, I was asked if I wanted to write a profile for the Observer. I said, “Well, give me a week or two while I go and read some of her work.” I was woefully ignorant; I’m afraid.

RB: The reaction seems to be, “If we hadn’t heard of or read them, how important could they be?”

RMcC: Every once in a while, the Nobel committee makes an inspired choice. They haven’t made one recently, but they do occasionally make an inspired choice and they lift somebody out of obscurity who deserves to be better known. [José] Saramago [who won in 1998 and whose most recent novel is The Double] would be a very good case in point.

RB: Did you follow the recent kerfluffle about the National Book Award winners?

RMcC: What was the controversy?

RB: That there were five obscure New York women authors nominated?

RMcC: Oh, yes, vaguely. There is always a controversy about prizes.

RB: Last year’s Booker winner, DBC Pierre [Australian author of Vernon God Little] seemed to also have a cloud around him. And it seemed not to be well received in America. This year’s winner, [Alan] Hollinghurst [author of The Line of Beauty], has seemingly generated stories that the Booker doesn’t assure one of sales.

RMcC: But it’s a really good book. It’s a classically fine bit of work.

RB: Apparently he has been ghettoized as being a gay writer.

RMcC: That was ridiculous. Really, “Gay Writer Wins Prize.” Absurd. There is a homosexual figure in the book. It’s really neither here nor there.

RB: I suspect the same has been done to Edmund White and Allan Gurganus here. Wonderful writers. Strange, still, in this day.

RMcC: Well from the headline writing, newspaper point of view, there’s not much you can say about fiction unless you say it’s written by a man with three heads.

RB: “Dead Writer Publishes New Work.” [laughs] You make mention of the aphorism, “The fact too—”

RMcC: “—good to check.”

RB: Apparently a staple of British journalism.

RMcC: Yes, there are always these facts which are swimming about in your mind and work their way into a narrative, and then you think, “Well is it true?” Then you think, “The hell with it. It’s just too good to check.”

RB: I recently wrote that I certainly read more than the 1.7 books average Americans are alleged to read in a year. And people wrote me to ask if that figure was true. I thought, “Well, it could be.”

RMcC: It’s probably about right. There’s another fact too good to check. People in England spend more on their lawns than on their bookshelves.

RB: Hmm. How do you like living in London?

RMcC: London’s a great city. And it’s a great place to be a writer. You can be completely lost in it. You can be anonymous and it’s full of stories even if you are not writing about London life, which I’m not. It is full of tales and it’s got everything. It’s got movies. People passing through it. Theaters.

RB: It’s talked of as being much more cosmopolitan than in the past.

RMcC: Britain has become much more multicultural.

RB: This is beyond the influence of the Empire or the Commonwealth—more Europeans are living there.

RMcC: That’s the great benefit of the EU. We are becoming more Europeanized.

RB: Do Britons refers to themselves as Europeans? [laughs]

RMcC: Nice point. Not really, no. We live on an island.

RB: I spoke with Martin Amis earlier this year and he is done with England.

RMcC: Yeah. Well, he’s had a hard time.

RB: That’s because he is scrutinized for any and everything.

RMcC: The press won’t leave him alone. He has no privacy.

RB: Why won’t they leave him alone?’

RMcC: He is somebody who creates headlines.

RB: Are you friends?
McCrum, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
RMcC: I’ve gotten to know Martin more in the last five years, partly we have matching children. We both have girls. I’ve got two girls, he has two girls, and they are exactly the same ages. And when you are a parent with young children you hang out with other parents of young children. And if they happen to be Martin Amis you hang out with them a lot, if you can. So we have seen quite a lot of him. Now that he has moved to Uruguay, sadly, we don’t see enough of him. I would count him as a friend.

RB: You made one unexpected career move in your life. Are you going to stay at the Observer indefinitely?

RMcC: I just do the Books pages but yes as long as they’ll have me. It’s very enjoyable job. I get to meet interesting people and interview the people I want to. I get all the books I want to read. I get paid to do this. It’s a wonderful thing.

RB: You have six novels under your belt?

RMcC: Six or seven. I forget now.

RB: Where are you with writing fiction?

RMcC: I want to get back to writing fiction but I am still too much in the world of Mr. Wodehouse. I am currently reading Proust as a way of trying to get my head somewhere else. He is very infectious.

RB: Proust?

RMcC: Wodehouse.

RB: So Proust is an antidote to Wodehouse?

RMcC: Yeah, for better or worse. I should say rereading. I’m going back.

RB: I’m trying to get my mind around your “trying to get back to fiction” but that you are stuck in a certain place.

RMcC: Also, I did work hard in the biography to keep my style, my narrative, very flat but not boring. Just clean. Cool. Because he is such a virtuoso you can’t—the mistake that some previous biographers made is that they try to outdo him. And you can’t outdo him. So I saw myself as providing a neutral background on which I could hang these brilliant images.

RB: What have you enjoyed reading of late?

RMcC: As I say, I have enjoyed reading Swann’s Way.

RB: How about contemporary?

RMcC: I’ve much enjoyed Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. Also Colm Toibin’s The Master. It’s a marvelous book. One of the curses of being a literary editor is you don’t read properly. You read bits of things. You read things to see what to do with them.

RB: And you don’t get to savor them.

RMcC: Not quite in the same or very rarely. If I do a bit of reading myself, it’s usually nonfiction. In this last year I have sampled a lot of fiction but I couldn’t say I have really read it—from start to finish.

RB: I am not sure what to do with the ongoing refrain that there is so much crap being published. Of the books that I have contact with every year, maybe I finish 80 or 90, start to finish—maybe a handful are not very good. Maybe I have degraded tastes?

RMcC: People are always going on as I’ve said in columns—if I had a fiver for every time some body said to me that there are too many books published I wouldn’t be in this job. [pause] There are a lot of books published but then there have always been lots of books published. There are more now then ever. It’s a phenomenal amount. In England, it’s 120,000 new titles and there is an awful lot of new fiction and a lot of it is not very good. But then a lot of it is very good. And that’s good enough. So I’m not pessimistic at all. The novel is in rude good health. Everyone wants to write a novel.

RB: You think so? Naipaul was quoted around the world as saying the novel is dead. [laughs]

RMcC: He’s entitled to say whatever he likes. He is the greatest living writer of English.

RB: You think?

RMcC: No question. He is supremely the greatest. I have no hesitation in saying he is above and beyond. So I think he has earned the right to say whatever he wants.

RB: [laughs]

RMcC: I know he causes trouble and is unpopular in certain quarters, but that’s absolutely fine.

RB: I’ve never heard anyone say that about him. Who else is in the pantheon?

RMcC: God, that’s a tough one. Well, Roth obviously—having a wonderful resurgence. Arthur Miller. Updike. Kundera is great. I must say I am a little resistant to this because you end up like playing fantasy football—putting together your dream team. It’s the wrong way to look at literature. That was what was wrong with my column about the dinner party. It’s a silly thing but it was fun.

RB: Yeah, we do have these guilty pleasures

RMcC: Yeah, why not?

RB: Not a bad thing to inject some levity into the prickly somber pursuit of—

RMcC: Last year we caused a tremendous amount of irritation, we did the Observer’s 100 best books of all time, [chuckles] which caused any amount of emails and aggravation.

RB: This last weekend the New York Times has their year’s 10 best. I wasn’t even interested in looking at it. I think it is such a discredited thing to do. What do you make of the attention literary people give the Times book coverage and the complaint that there is a diminished attention to fiction-—especially when the complainers are the least people to depend on the Times for information?

RMcC: It has to do with the Times’s being a very powerful newspaper and what it says does go. It has the power to make or break a book. Or a play or a film. And I think people worry about it. People get exercised by it in proportion to its power.

RB: I can understand the concern about how the Times affects a play or a restaurant something that is momentary, ephemeral, but I think books are forever.

RMcC: I think the Times book section is greatly improved. There’s a new regime and they are doing very well. Making it much more accessible. Bringing books to, talking about books as news for people who like to read about books. There are lots of those around.

RB: There seems to be some kind of conventional wisdom that the literary audience is dwindling.

RMcC: Very far from it. Five years ago, book clubs were almost unheard of. Now there are millions of people participating. That’s all good. And the fact that literature is finding new forms of expression doesn’t mean that old forms are necessarily dead. There are just new ways of expressing things.

RB: Has anything unusual or noteworthy occurred on your book tour?

RMcC: I’ve just been in studios. I’m at [Boston] Athenaeum tonight. There are always funny moments. In Washington, I was on the radio and someone rang who actually had known Wodehouse and told me things I didn’t know. Told me one thing that couldn’t be true, interestingly enough. [both laugh] I didn’t tell her that. So you get these nice little snippets. I suspect this subject will linger in my life for quite a while to come.

RB: I was struck by your remark that something—I hope I got this right—about Wodehouse’s genius as a great writer “was that he immune to the vexations of his age.” That he wasn’t affected.

RMcC: The classic case was the Second World War. He lived through the worst of it and you can’t find any trace of it in his books. So he was immune. It was an act of tremendous self will on his part but it worked. And you can blame him for it, but that’s the way he was made.

RB: Do you?

RMcC: Do I blame him? No, I don’t actually. People could do. Somebody like Orwell might say, “Couldn’t he be a little more political?” You feel sorry for him, in a way. Occasionally you feel like wanting to shake him, “For goodness, you fool, couldn’t you see what’s happening?” But he—as a true artist, he sacrificed everything to his art, [pause] in a way.

RB: Do you think he thought of it as art?

RMcC: No question. You’ve read the book—he refers to it as “my art” on many occasions. And I think he was right to. He is a great artist. Again, he is a very great minor figure.

RB: That’s an interesting characterization.

RMcC: It’s about right. He’s not Shakespeare. People have compared him to Shakespeare and Dickens and they are completely wrong. Then we are getting into this game of—

RB: No, no, I was thinking how impossible it is to quantify. It comes down to a gut feeling—it sounds right. He’s not Shakespeare. And he is not to be dismissed.

RMcC: And his style is incredibly influential. I mention Nick Hornby, but there are writers all over England and probably in America, too, who have in one way or another have been influenced by him.

RB: Well, Jonathan Ames’s Wake Up Sir! is certainly one. Thanks very much. I hope and expect we will meet four or five times in the rest of our lives—if we live long enough.

RMcC: [laughs] We will. Carry on from where we laid off, yeah. I could sit around and chat about this stuff all afternoon…


Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum