The quiet muse: Michel Faber on his latest novel

Author Michel Faber in his Edinburgh flat. Picture Robert Perry
Author Michel Faber in his Edinburgh flat. Picture Robert Perry
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WE WOULD expect the next novel by Michel Faber to be a one-off. Now the much-loved author explains why his latest will be his last

IN THE book-stuffed interior of Primrose Hill Bookshop Michel Faber is sitting behind the counter. It’s not really a counter, although this is where customers pay – or as I witness several times, add titles to their slate. It’s a desk covered in books, like every other surface in the shop. Standing in front of Faber, who is seated neatly, a black leather folder in his lap, is an older man in an anorak which doesn’t quite meet over his paunch.

He is quizzing Faber about his new novel, The Book Of Strange New Things. “I don’t know what to expect,” he says. “You see, I’ve never read any of your books.” I have to fight the urge to interrupt, to offer from where I am standing that even if he had, even if he had delighted in the Victorian romp that is The Crimson Petal And The White, or shivered at the eerie Highlands-set Under The Skin, or marvelled at The Fire Gospel, inspired by the myth of Prometheus, that wouldn’t help him in any way.

Each of his novels is unique

What distinguishes Faber as much as his imaginative brilliance and emotional capacity is that each of his novels is unique. In part, that’s the reason that The Book Of Strange New Things, his first novel in 12 years, is to be his last. Faber has performed the literary feat of creating something entirely new for the last time. He doesn’t believe that he could do it again, not to his satisfaction anyway. What he is after is to create a novel so distinct that it would be impossible for the reader to discern that it was written by the same writer as any of his others.

But there’s another reason too.

If Faber told the man what to expect from his novel, I didn’t hear. But he bought the book and Faber wrote a message on the title page. “Thank you,” the man said as he read it. “I’m very touched by that.” And that is an experience that is common to all who read Faber. I can’t think of another writer who packs more of an emotional punch. Faber is a truly singular literary voice and it’s impossible not to feel genuinely sad that this novel will be his last. But I can’t argue with his reasoning.

We squeeze into a tiny office crammed with new stock

Through a bead curtain, past a pile of flattened cardboard boxes, down a flight of stairs lined with books, we squeeze into a tiny office crammed with new stock yet to make it up into the shop. Faber leads the way and so ends up in the seat furthest from the door. He opens out a folding chair and puts a cushion on it for me, patting it into place. The space is so small that if we wanted to swap, we’d need to hold on to each other to avoid toppling. “If you’re claustrophobic, you can look out the window,” he says, gesturing to the glass behind his head. You might think being in such close proximity to someone I’ve just met would feel odd, yet Faber makes me feel quite at ease. The writer, who was born in Holland and educated in Australia, is often described as childlike. His mop of blond hair, his black joggers and khaki jacket with a Wile E Coyote t-shirt beneath, certainly make him seem ageless, belying his 54 years, but he also exudes a kind of intensity. His voice is redolent of that in his novels, utterly undramatic and yet somehow devastatingly moving.

In July, Faber’s wife, Eva, died of multiple myeloma, the incurable cancer with which she was diagnosed in 2008. In the last years of her life, Faber was her carer. In the final three months of her illness, he lived with her in the hospital where she died, sleeping on a camp bed beside her. “It was a privilege to have that time with her. Eva’s death was very gradual and obviously there are horrors associated with that, seeing the one you love deteriorate day by day, but on the other hand it meant we were able to say everything to each other that we needed to say. It was an astonishingly intimate time. I’m grateful we had that.”

The illness brought them close

It was not, as is sometimes the case, that the illness brought them close; they already had an intensely intimate relationship. Eva was usually present when Faber was interviewed, which allowed some to speculate that she was the driving force behind her socially reticent husband. In some ways that was true. She was the one who had encouraged him to submit his work for publication, which when he met her, he’d never have done, despite having been writing for decades. She edited his books with him. She was always the first to read them. She was, he says, “the interface” between him and the literary world. With Eva’s death, Faber has lost his life partner, but in his case this term seems more complex than for many people.

I had felt apprehensive about meeting him so soon after her death. But Faber seems to have found a kind of clarity in his grief and he is astonishingly open about his pain. Yet his eyes fill with tears only once as we speak, his voice cracking with emotion. He simply stops speaking and the moment passes. The kind of cancer that Eva had often kills within just a year of diagnosis. This meant that they were both already confronting her death from that terrible moment of discovery.

“We fought hard to keep her alive for as long as possible, but at another level we were already preparing to say to goodbye from 2008 onwards, so I’ve done a lot of grieving, even while Eva was alive. We both grieved – she grieved for the life she was about to lose and I grieved for her. And because the cancer really f**ked her over, in one sense it was a relief that she was able to let that body go because it had become such an inhospitable home for her, such a compromised vehicle.”

Faber stops speaking and I imagine his mind crowded with memories of the havoc that the cancer wrought on his wife’s body. Another comfort, he says, is that Eva was someone who didn’t postpone fulfilment; she lived life to the full so there were few regrets, few things she always promised herself she would do and then couldn’t. “That doesn’t mean that I’m not angry at what happened to her,” he says, “but she didn’t live a tragic life. She was an immensely positive person, very inspirational.”

There are moments as we speak, that I’m taken aback by what Faber says. His language is so precise, so heartfelt, it’s a lot to comprehend. Grieving is hard, he says, but as is so often the case, the difficulty is not as people predicted. “I like my own space, Eva liked her own space, so being in a house alone is not a body blow to me,” he says. “I’m not wandering around moaning that I’m alone here and there should be someone else, but whenever something good happens to me, whenever I have an interesting conversation with someone or I see a natural phenomenon that’s very beautiful, the immediate instinct is to share it with her, and then there’s pain. She’s not around to enjoy this, to meet this person, or to see this sunset. That is hard and it remains hard, it’s hard every day. And there’s nothing you can do about that.”

Almost unbearably poignant

It’s almost unbearably poignant to think that, while he was experiencing this most profound of loss, Faber wrote what is not only a fantastically inventive and imaginative narrative and an exploration of faith, but also a truly beautiful love story. The novel’s central characters, Peter and Beatrice, are lovers separated by a vast distance, their commitment to each other and to their faith tested by extraordinary circumstances. It is, I tell him, tremendously moving. “I’m glad,” he says. “And of course she knew; Eva knew that the book was also a goodbye to her.”

At one point, Faber lost faith that he would ever finish the novel. On one hand, reeling from Eva’s illness and acting as her carer, he struggled to find the headspace to write. But there was another reason. “It was almost a superstitious thing of not wanting to say goodbye to the book in case that might mean that Eva would then die. But she really wanted me to finish the book and it was at her insistence that I managed to do that. ‘Just write six lines a day,’ she said. ‘You can do that, just six lines.’” He did as she asked and for quite a while that’s all he did. At that rate, he never would have finished the novel, but it was enough to keep him going and eventually he gained momentum and it was complete.

Most importantly Faber finished it in his wife’s lifetime. “I also edited it in her lifetime and she was able to help me with the edit because she always helped me with the editing of the books. She didn’t get to see it published, but she did know it had been accepted and she did know that there was a buzz about the book amongst the people who’d seen it. That was the note she went out on.”

The Crimson Petal And The White

Eva feared that after her death he would disappear from view, holed up in a study somewhere, in the house they shared in the Highlands or in their Edinburgh flat, and basically withdraw from life. She feared, he says, that he would “return to type”, saying no to all experiences and offers as he did in the aftermath of the publication of The Crimson Petal And The White, which was an enormous success. “I thought the best way to honour her, to honour her influence on me would be to say yes to life, to go to places that she would have loved to go to and talk to people that she would have loved to have met and maintain relationships with special people that she didn’t get a chance to know for very long. Obviously there is pain associated with that because I’m seeing and enjoying things that I wish she were able to see and enjoy, but I also think it would have meant something to her to know that I was able to do that rather than disappearing into a burrow.”

When he speaks with such certainty, such life, it’s hard to believe that this novel will be his last. But he’s as clear about that as he is about what he wants to do with this new life that he didn’t choose, but that he must live. “My sharing of my work with other people was so much something that I did because of Eva and I’ve lost Eva,” he says. “I want to spend the coming years thinking very seriously about how to handle the things that she left behind.” He means the paintings, drawings and photographs that she made, many during her years of illness. She also, he says, left behind a lot of writing in various states of completion.

Faber looks in good health, younger than his age

“I’m thinking perhaps of collaborating with her on her short stories. I think the next few years are to be about her life. If I can figure out good things to do with the creative material that Eva left behind, if I can work on her short stories and perhaps write a few short stories of my own I’ll be doing well in the life that I have left.” Faber looks in good health, younger than his age. But men in his family tend not to be very long lived, he says. “They tend to die in their fifties so I don’t know how long I’ve got, but I don’t imagine that I’ll be a very old man. I think it’s a reasonable ambition to occupy myself with those things that Eva left behind.”

Given that Faber wrote for so many years with no intention of publishing his work, perhaps it’s not surprising that he can let go of writing novels in this way. He doesn’t say whether or not it’s easy, but he’s clear about what he wants to do. And maybe that too comes from Eva, and having experienced what becomes important when we know that life will end. “Most fiction disappears into the dustbin of history,” says Faber. “Almost all books written by anybody are not usually remembered, and that includes books which were incredibly famous in their day, which were well reviewed and won prizes.

“Total oblivion is the fate of almost everything in this world. I’m very likely to suffer that same fate, my work will probably not be remembered, and if any of it is, if any of those novels is fated to be one of those novels that is still being read 50 or 100 years after it was written, I’ve probably already written it. Writing more books isn’t going to make it any more likely that one will be remembered.”

The Book Of Strange New Things

I don’t know if The Book Of Strange New Things will be remembered. But I am sure that it could only have been written by a writer with both the deepest interest in humanity and a profound respect for his readers. Faber’s novel is full of literary and linguistic pyrotechnics, but all of it is in the service of the readers’ connection to the novel; our emotional and imaginative response. Faber is a deeply ethical writer. “I want to be trustworthy and accountable as an author because I take readers to some quite dark places and I want them to feel that it was worth going there with me. I feel that books which travel to unsettling places should ultimately nourish us in some way or give us consolation. It’s a tremendously sad book but I hope it’s not depressing. In the end, you realise this is a book about fundamentally good people. They’re all flawed but they’re just doing the best they can.”

Faber’s generosity towards his characters is striking. Nowhere more so than in relation to Peter and Bea, who are committed Christians. It’s not the first time that he’s turned his attention to matters of spirituality but, of course, it’s impossible not to make a connection to what he’s experienced in recent months and years. What is striking is that, as an atheist, he presents faith utterly without cynicism. It’s almost shocking in its rarity.

“There was a lady in the bookshop earlier who bought the book,” he says. “She was a Christian, she told me that. I was able to hand the book over in good faith, so to speak. So many books that have Christian characters but are written by atheists mercilessly pillory and mock and question the motives of people with faith. I’m past all that.”

The characters in Faber’s novel are decent, ordinary people – for the most part – trying to live and to love. But they are often caught up in their own limitations or, more often, the limitations of language. The problem of communication has interested Faber before; it’s why he often includes characters who speak different languages – sometimes alien languages. And yet this time I’m drawn to think about the influence of Eva, to wonder how someone who has known such happiness in his intimate relationships, like Faber, might use that in his fiction.

“I’d written so far sexual relationships were extremely flawed”

“Part of the reason I wrote this book was that I was getting uncomfortably aware that in all the books I’d written so far sexual relationships were extremely flawed. Couples like Sugar and William [in The Crimson Petal And The White] were just using each other, or attempting to use each other. I felt like it was time that I wrote about a relationship which was really sincere and where the people truly, deeply loved each other.” He looks at me directly. “I don’t want to falsify life on planet earth, I want to reflect what’s really out there and I felt that the implicit anti-maleness and the cynicism about whether relationships could be nurturing was in danger of making my works as a whole amount to a view of human life that is different to what I myself experienced as a person who loved and who was loved.” I sit, silent, taking in what he has said.

As we pick our way back upstairs into the shop, Faber explains the story of how he came to be so much a part of this bookshop. Like most of his stories, it centres on Eva. He’s barely finished when another customer spots him across the shop and announces loudly that he’s looking for Faber’s novel set in the Highlands. “Or is there more than one?” he asks, unabashed. No, Faber says, there’s just one – Under The Skin – set on the A9. He asks the man whether he’s seen the movie which stars Scarlett Johansson. He hasn’t. Faber tells him that by the time it came out, his wife was very ill but he managed to get her out of the hospital, into a minicab and into the BFI. The man stands stock still as he listens. Having seen an early script, Faber says, both he and Eva were apprehensive about what the film might be like. “About half way through, we turned to each other and said, ‘This is f**king amazing’.” He smiles and in that moment he looks genuinely happy.

Twitter: @scottiesays

The Book Of Strange New Things, published by Canongate, £18.99. Faber will be discussing the book in Edinburgh at The Assembly Roxy (2 Roxburgh Place, Edinburgh EH8 9SU) on Tuesday at 7pm, tickets available from Waterstones West End, £8 per ticket or £25 for ticket and a copy of the book, tel: 0131-226 2666