A touch of
Sue Wilson talks to Susan Minot, a hotly-tipped New York writer i
whose latest novel brings a
contemporary perspective to bear
on 19205 Boston.
For most writers, the greatest struggle early in their careers is arriving at a distinctive individual voice. Not so Susan Minot. a 37-year-old New Yorker whose three books have each displayed markedly different styles. Her ﬁrst novel. Monkeys. a series of understated but precisely sketched vignettes depicting a large Catholic fatnin growing up in New England, drew comparisons with Salinger for its immediacy of tone and quietly acute grasp of emotional undercurrents. Next came the short-story collection Lust, oblique in approach and ascetically terse in delivery. as Minot dissected modern romance through a sad litany of young women enmeshed in bad relationships. And now there‘s Folly (the single- word titles are one consistency), a measured. painstakingly wrought study of a woman’s life in Boston high society during the 20s and 30s. likened by many US critics to the work of Henry James or
‘I do like to feel that with each new book I‘m trying something different.‘ Minot says. ‘Obviously the subject matter panly dictates its own form, but as I‘m i writing, if I feel myself lapsing into a way I‘ve dealt
Susan Minot: ‘I think the drawn to firings that disturb me.’ ‘
_ with material before I will consciously try to steer myselfaway from it. It‘s something I‘d like to keep on doing, as far as I can — right now I‘m working on : two novellas, so that‘s a different form again.‘
The new novel‘s setting, a world of old money. gracious living, rigid conventions. servants and fur- clad skating parties which Minot — herself born in 5 Boston — readily admits is a decidedly rareﬁed milieu, derives in pan from her own background. though via a somewhat circuitous creative route. ‘lt‘s the world of one of my parental grandparents.‘ she explains, ‘so it wasn‘t one that I really grew up in. but one I sort of glimpsed from afar. It looked very stiﬂed and closed off, not really open to new ideas or ' aware of much outside itself. which was a real tum- off to me. So it was a kind of perversity that led me
j to write about it — I think I‘m drawn to things that disturb me. whether in a positive or negative way. There were many times during the writing that l despaired. thinking. who is going to care about tea- parties in Boston in I927? because partly I didn‘t care myself. But then I kept thinking. “well. why i don‘t I?“ And that‘s what kept me at it. the idea that there was life there. that people are people there. too; there‘s a kind of reverse snobbery about that world which I wanted to explore.‘
Minot stealthin inﬁltrates this historical setting 5 with a detached modem consciousness so that her ‘ tale — of a bright young woman whose brief youthful attachment to a charming but duplicitous man clouds and haunts her subsequent. outwardly contented marriage — becomes a sharply knowing dramatisation ofthe disparity between inner and outer lives. She clearly conveys the cloying. deadly dullness of upper-class female existence without being dull herself. the gulf between her protagonist‘s aspirations and her experience deepened by the invisible strait- jacket of convention which imprisons her. Her plight becomes increasingly identiﬁable as the novel - unfolds. representing the snares of responsibility. difﬁdcnce, domesticity and fear of censure which 3 stand between most people and their dreams at some point, ifnot all their lives.
‘There‘s a heavy strain of romanticism in her obsession with this man. but reality doesn‘t deliver. . and that‘s the tension l was exploring — I think the tension that most ﬁction explores. really — between desire and reality. how one is felt or expressed and
the other coped with.‘ Minot says. ‘I think there are
i places where they do intersect. and they can be the times when we feel most alive. The illusion is not the feeling, the illusion is maybe expecting something . more to come out of it. to be able to build a life
Folly is published by Heinenrann at f 9. 99; Monkeys , has just been reissued in Mandarin paperback at
:- Hello to Berlin
llnter den linden of Berlin walks Xavier March, straight out of the best tradition of hard-bitten, hard-drinking, workaholic detectives. A corpulent white body, decidedly dead and minus a foot, has lost been discovered In the Brunwald forest and March, the hero of Hebert Harrls’s first novel, Fatherland, ls about to uncover a terrible conspiracy stretching back to the second world war. But Fatherland, lust reissued in paperback, stands out from your average detective novel in one unique respect: it is April 1964, Kennedy is In the White House and Hitler in the Helchstag. The Halls won the war In Europe. llnter den Linden the Iackboots still march.
However, this Is far from being a revisionist tract. As Harris points out, the 1964 version of Berlin, based on the grandiose plans of Hitler’s
architect, Albert Speer, is hardly
utopian. ‘It was simply a way of looking at a whole period in a new way, in a different light, to answer the question which is important historically, and now indeed important politically in Germany and Europe, concerning the Holocaust and the evidence for it. It you take the Holocaust away from the Hazis and from Hitler, as people like David Irving want to do, you make the Hazis
Although this is Harris’s first foray into imaginative writing, the 36-year- old err-journalist has already written several non-fiction books, including an account of the Hitler Diaries fraud. It was while researching this, and particularly reading the Hazis’ plans for the Third Reich, that he-began to wonder whether their world could have survived. ‘In particular, could it have survived with the Holocaust at its heart?’ he asks. ‘That was the starting point for the book, and I took a long time to find the best way of bringing this to life. In the end I decided on the police procedural, simply because it is quite an effective way of taking a reader inside a whole society.
‘Personally that was what pleased me when I eventually hit on this idea, that I had this wild, ludicrous, gargantuan and extraordinary Imperial city of the imagination, Berlin, and then set against it a tightly controlled, almost prosaic detective story. I think it is the tension between the two that
makes the book work. The one playing off the other.’
And work the book certainly does, a powerful narrative drive giving it that vital page-turner thrill. The hardback of Fatherland topped bestseller lists around the world and Chris ‘Prime Suspect’ Menaul is set to film the mini-series for TV. ‘I like the idea of writing books that a lot of people read,’ says Harris. ‘You can do things with thrillers and detective stories and reach a lot of people. There’s an excitement to it, which is not to be mocked. There is a species of literature which is not pretentious, that you read on holiday or something, but that stays with you after you’ve read it. I think they are good books and I would like to write more of them.’ Hot surprisingly, Harris is more than a little chuffed with Fatherland’s success. ‘l’m quite overwhelmed,’ he says. ‘lt’s like casting out for a minnow and finding you’ve got a shark on the end of the line.’ (Thom Bibdin) Fatherland is published by Arrow at £4.99
The List 7'
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