The cards are up in the air for Douglas, the protagonist of David Nicholls’s novel, Us. His wife, Connie, who he is devoted to, announces casually one night that she’s thinking of leaving him after 20 years or so of marriage. She’s run out of love for him. Their 17-year-old son, Albie, is about to flee the nest for a university campus. His imminent departure fills Connie with dread. “It’s the idea of you and me in each other’s pockets forever more,” she says. “It’s like a Beckett play.”
They are committed, however, to going on a grand tour of Europe’s art museums over the coming summer before Albie hits off for university. Although Douglas is worried the trip will be like “a funeral cortege”, he recognises it is also a last chance to salvage their marriage, which sets in train a funny, poignant family romp around some of Europe’s great cities.
It is something of a modern phenomenon that Nicholls, who will appear at next week’s West Cork Literary Festival, explores: How brittle long-lasting marriages can be.
“When I was a kid,” he says, “I was very much from a background where to get divorced or break up a marriage was shocking and rare. Now we live in an age where marriages [that] last for 30, 40, 50 years are not as common as they used to seem.
“Similarly, we have a different attitude to age. Again, when I was a kid, I thought people in their mid-fifties were close to retirement and on their way to being old. That’s no longer the case — 50 is no longer too late to start a new life, a new relationship, new adventures. That’s having an effect on long relationships as well. Things have become a little more fluid and uncertain.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a fantastic thing that perhaps marriages are more vulnerable and fragile than they used to be. Neither am I staunch and traditional about people staying together no matter what but I do think it is a concern. A lot of writers like me who wrote about thirtysomething complications and of the complexity of dating in your twenties have realised marriage isn’t the end of the story. A lot of interesting, difficult, funny, romantic stuff happens after the wedding ceremony. I wanted to explore that.”
There is much to recommend about Nicholls’s exploration. He captures the strain between Douglas and Connie, the way they “wilfully misinterpret each other’s jokes” since Connie’s threat of departure, and the pretentiousness that can lie at the heart of a museum visit, that unspoken “mental exhaustion of wondering what to say” when confronted by art from the Old Masters.
There is a marvellous portrait of Douglas’s father, a xenophobe who feared the Channel Tunnel “was like leaving your front door open” and was part of a male generation whose unchallenged, domestic power extended to shouting at the television from his armchair “without fear of contradiction”.
Nicholls also nails the surly, improbable confidence many 17-year-olds have about the world and their take on it, although he says he was nervous about writing the character because he doesn’t know any 17-year-olds intimately.
“Some of my friends have children that age but I don’t spend a great deal of time with them. You have to rely to a degree on your memories but I wasn’t particularly like Albie — I wasn’t that brazen and cocky and arrogant. I was a very meek, nervous 17-year-old so I couldn’t even draw on my own past except [like Albie] I had a tricky relationship with my father at that time.
“If I remember anything it is the sense that defining yourself as a grown-up, deciding who you wanted to be, and what your tastes were, what your politics were, declaring that was incredibly important. There is righteousness and a swagger that you have at 17 that you maybe lose later in life.”
Nicholls, 47 and married with two children, writes popular novels. His last effort, One Day, sold upwards of 5m copies, but his novels are also deft and well-received by highbrow critics. Us — which is his fourth novel — was long-listed for last year’s Man Booker Prize. In a previous life he worked as an actor. “When I watch really good actors,” he says, “they have an ease and grace. I know a lot of actors who are smart, well-read, intelligent, and can analyse the text, but I think there is something beyond that. The actors who I saw who I really admired didn’t overthink. That’s not to say they were shallow or foolish in their response to things but they were instinctive. They didn’t intellectualise. They just felt it. That was something I couldn’t do.
“I was in a production of The Seagull in the National Theatre around 1995. I was understudying Konstantin, which is a wonderful part. I never got to play it, but I did get to play a Russian peasant. I spent a lot of time with a broom standing around on stage watching Judi Dench and Bill Nighy. I watched them in rehearsals as well. They were so funny in a very easy, instinctive way, not in a forced performance.
“Little things they do — raising an eyebrow or a hand gesture or a slight change of intonation that would bring out something new. I used to sit every night and be amazed by it, and I’ve no idea how it’s done. When I tell a joke, sweat breaks out on my forehead. I stumble and get the emphasis in the wrong place. I can explain the mechanics of a joke much better than I could tell a joke.”
Yet Nicholls is a master at the difficult art form of comic writing. He also moonlights as a screenwriter. He was a pen for hire on ITV’s Cold Feet and adapted the screenplay for the 2011 film version of One Day, starring Anne Hathaway. The most recent time he visited a set was while working on his adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, which gave him an insight into the strange magic of film production.
“There is a scene where a flock of sheep are chased by a dog off a cliff. I got there very early and sat at the bottom of the cliff for hours watching people throw stuffed sheep in the air off this cliff. All these stuffed sheep were put in a van and driven back up to the top of a cliff and thrown off again. That went on for hours — what were clearly artificial sheep tumbling through the air. I watched it on the monitor and it looked pathetic, like someone was throwing stuffed toys around, so I got very depressed and anxious — this is going to be laughable.
“Then you find yourself in the screening room watching the finished version of the film and the shot lasts three seconds and it took maybe five hours to shoot and it looked incredible. It looked monstrous and really terrifying, the audience were gasping and clutching their seats. It worked. You have no idea on set whether it’s going to come off and I find that constantly fascinating and unnerving.”
David Nicholls will be at the Maritime Hotel, the Quay, Bantry, on Monday, July 13, as part of the West Cork Literary Festival. For more, go to westcorkliteraryfestival.ie