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When we meet at Dublin’s Brooks Hotel, he suggests that there is “a certain icy distance” to his novels, this on the basis that he is not an autobiographical writer, but in person he is warm and friendly. For a publishing veteran, he is also charmingly direct about the appeal of being a novelist.
“It’s such fun writing books,” he says. “And it’s a tremendous opportunity to be working in a form that is both mischievous and wise at the same time. I don’t want to sound New Age-y about it, but narrative knows a lot. Fiction has been around for thousands of years and it’s got all sorts of moves. As a writer, you shouldn’t resist them — you should listen out for them, because you can bet it’ll come up with better things than you can come up with.”
Crace, to be fair, has come up with his fair share. He invented a whole new landmass for his debut, Continent, which won three prizes straight out of the gate.
“I genuinely was naïve. When I brought out Continent, I thought the best that would happen was that my mum would like it, even if she didn’t read it, and that my cousins would buy it. And then, within about three weeks, it won three of the main prizes — the Guardian prize, the David Higham prize and the Whitbread.” He grins. “And I thought this was the most natural thing in the world.”
He very modestly credits luck with the best part of his success. “I was lucky in that my natural voice, my ‘singing’ voice as a writer, was a rare one. That’s not to boast about it — it just had this unusual tone. There were plenty of writers around who were just as good as me that didn’t do as well as me, because they were writing conventional books brilliantly, but there were plenty of them around. I was writing books that might have been okay, but they were of their own kind.”
Perversely, Crace seems much happier talking about the failings in his writing.
“I’ve always felt a little bit embarrassed that my books aren’t more autobiographical,” he says. “The reason they’re not, of course, is that I don’t have an autobiographical life. I’ve had a long marriage, a happy childhood, no ill health, and literature doesn’t like any of those things. Happiness writes white, to use that phrase. But I’ve always felt that somehow or another that this was a failing.”
If it is a failing, it’s of the Samuel Beckett variety, where the writer is urged to fail, fail again, fail better. Time and again Crace has offered us stories in which individuals rise to the challenge of adapting to periods of great change.
Harvest, narrated by one Walter Thirsk, is a story about how mediaeval English villagers react when their ancient commonage is threatened by the enclosures that represent the future of agriculture. It’s a story that’s ‘knitted into the fabric of English and Irish history’, he says, although it’s not without contemporary resonance. Witness the soya farmers, for example, thrown off their land to make way for cattle in South America.
“There’s this idea,” he says of his abiding theme, “that everything new worth having is paid for by the loss of something old worth keeping. There’s a lovely balance there, and of course, fiction likes that. So it suits me to set novels at a time of change, when things will be gained and things will be lost. The reason I’m interested in that is not because I know the answer, but because I want to find out what it is. So maybe with this book, or maybe with all the books — Pesthouse, Gift of Stones, Signals of Distress, Harvest — something new is on the scene which destroys the old ways of life. But people are always breasting the future at the end of the books, going out into the new world, of which they are fearful and hopeful. So I hope that at the end of this book, we feel fearful for the future of Walter Thirsk, but we also feel hopeful for him.”
Unusually, Harvest — as the title suggests — has a pastoral setting. It contrasts sharply with the bleak Stone Age setting of The Gift of Stones, the Judean desert of Quarantine or the post-apocalyptic nightmare of Pesthouse.
It’s a deceptively idyllic setting, however. No sooner has Crace sketched in Harvest’s lush fields and forests than he reveals the village’s hidden cruelties, its latent paganism. “We do, though, have our wooden cross,” Walter Thirsk tells us, “our neglected pillory, standing at the unbuilt gateway of our unbuilt church.”
The punishments inflicted on the unwary outsiders who wander into the village set in train a series of events that essentially mimic the fall of Eden, as the innocent Walter and his neighbours witness corruption, betrayal and eventually murder.
Beautifully detailed, the writing doubles as a paean to the natural world, as Crace precisely outlines a rural peasantry’s paradise lost.
The quality of the prose is of the standard we have come to expect from one of the contemporary masters of the English language, but what makes Harvest astonishing is that he wrote it in less than six months. The previous book, his first attempt at a ‘personal, autobiographical’ book, fell apart when he realised the voice was wrong. “I was a baritone trying to sing soprano,” he says ruefully.
With only six months to deliver a book which he had already been paid for, and with the advance long spent, Crace found inspiration in a train journey to London. Travelling through ridge-and-furrow fields of middle England had him wondering about the history of their commonage; when he visited the Tate Britain the following day, the first painting he saw was of an East Anglian ‘enclosure’.
“And there it was — I’d got the novel. People are saying, ‘Well, it’s been three years since his last book, we can see he’s worked hard on it.’ That’s crap. It just fell onto the page.
“Sometimes you do a bit of writing, and right from the word go until almost the finish it’s like pushing a great chunk of granite up a hill. But at some point, that piece of granite will turn into a helium-filled balloon. Normally, with a book of mine, that moment of loss-of-weight happens halfway through, or towards the end. With this book it happened on the first page. That book became full of hot air, very early on,” he laughs.
What gives Harvest’s elegiac tone an especially poignant air is that Crace has announced it will be his final novel. “I’ve had an unusual furrow to plough, and I’ve ploughed it until it doesn’t produce anything anymore,” he says. “I want to leave on a high, avoid bitterness, and I feel like I’ve written enough books already. Twelve is plenty for anybody. If you haven’t read all 12 of my books, there’s still some to read. If you’ve read all 12, read someone else.”
But won’t he miss the writing that has sustained him creatively for the past three decades?
“I’m still young, I’m still fit, and I’ve got things to do. And I don’t want to spend any more time on my own in front of a blank screen, getting anxious. I’ve been that soldier, I’ve littered the bookshops with enough corpses. So there’s nothing for anyone to feel sorry about. I’m going to have a ball.”
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