Five Minutes with Robert Fraser
We sent some questions to our soon-to-be-released author, Robert Fraser, to which he kindly and comprehensively responded, to give his readers a better idea of what to expect with his new book.
‘Pascal’s Tears’ is a beautiful and moving ‘opened letter’ about ethical decisions, about life and death, and about dilemmas that more and more of us have had to face or may have to face in the future. The title will be available to pre-order very soon.
1. Robert, your career has certainly been impressive. What do you consider to be your greatest achievement in your career?
Variety has meant more to me, I’d say, than jockeying for position or recognition. Actually, I’ve wandered around a bit, both in terms of what I’ve written about, and of where I’ve lived and worked. So far I’ve taught and researched in London, Leeds, Cambridge and Milton Keynes, not to mention West Africa, the Gulf, Latin America, India and, more recently, Morocco and Thailand. Partly for that reason, I’m a great believer in bridge-building between places and people. I detest the fences that groups build around themselves, and rejoice in knocking them down. As I’ve worked abroad quite a bit, I really enjoy opening up the literature of other countries to the English and vice versa. I’m quite proud, for example, of my book of 1994 about Proust and the English. I have also lost no opportunity to take a fresh look at accepted subjects and approach them from a different angle. In 2004 I noticed that most accounts of what we call “Book History” – the study of the production, distribution and reception of texts – was narrowly focused on Europe. So I spent the next three years travelling in Asia and Africa to try to put that right. The result, in 2008, was a title called Book History Through Postcolonial Eyes: Re-Writing the Script. Afterwards, The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, an official guide to these matters, was kind enough to remark that I had overturned every single received idea in the field. When I read that, I thought “Well, at least I’ve got something right.”
2. You’ve written many biographies and histories and received great acclaim for them; explain for us how you came to the decision that now is the time to change your style and look inward and publish your own, very personal story.
I’m not convinced that there’s been a concerted plan. All I’ll say is that, coming up to my thirtieth birthday, I was running a workshop in the city of Kano in Northern Nigeria. As I was driving to the campus one morning I thought “Now, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?” I decided that I wanted to explore two objectives. The first was to make some sort of a contribution to my field; the second was to try to express what I had it in me to express, great or small. I like to think that I’ve now made a transition to the second of these stages. Of course, the first way of working is relatively impersonal, so I needed a jolt to force me out of it. My wife’s death in 2014 provided just such a shock, ghastly as it was at the time. You just think “Now I’m face-to-face with ultimate problems, ultimate things. There’s no avoiding them now.”
3. You style your new book “an opened letter”. Why is that?
Well, the letter is almost a threatened form isn’t it? We used to write one another quite long letters. I can remember in the 1970s writing letters to a girlfriend living in Paris thirty pages long once a week. Nowadays I’d skype her, or send her a string of texts. There’s something satisfyingly sustained about the letter form, and that is what I was attempting to defend and to re-create. Added to the fact that, since my wife and I lived together continuously for over thirty years, we seldom wrote to one another: we could simply chat in bed, or shout up the stairs. But when she fell ill and was in the equivalent of a coma, I couldn’t do this anymore. So I thought I’ll write her a long, episodic letter for a change, even if tragically she couldn’t answer it. The other thing about a letter that distinguishes from other literary forms, of course, is that large parts of it tend to be phrased in the second person singular – the “you” form – especially if it’s a love letter. This distinguishes it from biography, which by and large is couched in the third person – “he” or “she” – and from autobiography or memoir, both of which are expressed through the first person: the egotistical eye. But directing a whole text outwards – to a constantly envisaged “you” – seemed to me be an interesting challenge.
4. The title alludes to the seventeenth century French mathematician Blaise Pascal. What’s he doing there?
Pascal is in the title and on the cover for two reasons. The first is that he was what we would call a scientist – though the word did not exist at the time – who decided on strictly rational grounds to believe in God. Today this seems a little bizarre, but it still goes to the heart of contemporary debates about the nature of truth. The second is that, in making this choice, Pascal was relying on an early form of what we would term game theory. This still interests philosophers, and it certainly appeared relevant to me when I had to take some very difficult decisions about my wife’s treatment in circumstances where I couldn’t consult her. Owing to advances in medical science, the need to make these harrowing kinds of decision is growing more and more common. As a young man I was very much impressed and influenced by the school of thought known as Existentialism. My friend Sarah Bakewell has written a very good book about this called The Existentialist Café. It is a school of thought that stresses the necessity of taking personal responsibility for one’s decisions. Pascal was a forerunner of this point of view: another major proponent was Albert Camus, who also appears in the book. Essentially then, this is a book about decisions and their consequences. In that sense, it’s a reaction against the current tendency to watch everything go wrong, and then to blame everybody else.
5. There are many people who say that writing is cathartic, what do you think? And what advice might you have for people who are also considering writing their own, personal story?
A lot of life writing is certainly cathartic, but that does not necessarily mean that it’s all very good. The essential decision you have to take is whether you are writing principally for yourself, or also for other people. In the latter case, you have to make a pronounced effort to open the experience out so that others can relate to it. For two terms a year, I run a life-writing course in the City Lit in London. Several of the people who have attended it have some sort of disturbing trauma in their recent past. They wish to bear witness to their pain, which is very understandable. Then they ask me “Should I try to publish?” One trick seems to be to permit some part of yourself to stand outside your distress so as to approach it, not exactly coolly, but reflectively: compassionately as it were, rather than passionately (though you should never entirely get rid of the passion). The other trick is to provide your work with some sort of extra-personal framework, be it historical, geographic, philosophical or scientific. If you can bring together self-exploration, research, travel and a compelling sense of the society beyond, then you have the building blocks for something like Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes (2010), though that’s rather a lofty summit to reach. If in doubt, you could always attend my class!
6. When you are writing a book, what’s your process? Do you have a routine?
I set myself a weekly rather than a daily target. There are always some days on which you simply cannot write, or want to do something else. If working on a big book, I try to draft one ten-page chapter a week, and go on like that to the end. When I’ve finished one whole draft, then I can go back to the beginning and repeat the process at the same pace. I tend to write three entire drafts before handing something in. Early morning, when you are fresh, is by far the best time to work. Anthony Trollope wrote his stint before breakfast, and then went out and toiled for the Post Office. Fay Weldon used to write sitting by the fire before the children got up. Not bad role models, if very different authors.
7. Finally – what are three books you think everyone should read and why?
A hard one this, because so much is superb, but I’ll go for three books from successive centuries, each of which describes some kind of a journey:
Voltaire, Candide (1759):
Candide and Pangloss set off in search of “The Best of Possible Worlds”. What they discover instead is war, disease, fire and flood. And yet the text sparkles. Why? Because, like the people, the story keeps on moving. Candide is a miracle of pace.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in A Boat (1889):
Three bachelors row upriver from Kingston towards Oxford. They progress comically from one mishap to another. All of them find friendship, and one of them finds love. A picnic hamper of a book packed with everything you need – except a tin opener.
V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival (1987):
A stranger settles in the Wiltshire countryside, and learns to read it like a book. It is a patchwork of privacies. He is from a faraway island where life, and death, have been – for him – conducted almost too publicly. He hides, and he observes. What he discovers ultimately is the simple salvation, the patient sublimity, of work.