Imagine philosophy’s founding father in contemporary Britain. Samantha Harvey has – and she explains why to David Robinson
‘Influence of Home?” It’s the first question scribbled on my notepad as I start my interview with Samantha Harvey at her London publisher’s. And no, I don’t mean where she was born (Kent) or where she lives now (Bath) or what her parents mean to her, or her extended family, or the landscape she grew up amongst, or her first words, or best teacher and oldest childhood memory.
No, I mean Home, the novel by the great American writer Marilynne Robinson. The one that, when Samantha Harvey was shortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize, actually won (“It was a slam dunk,” one of the judges said at the time, which must have been a bit galling for the other shortlisted writers.) Really, though, I’m thinking of its even better prequel, Gilead, in which Robinson wrote about a patently good man, the septuagenarian Midwest preacher John Ames who, aware that he hasn’t got too much longer to live, tries to explain such wisdom as he has accumulated to his six-year-old son.
Ames can be sententious, but he radiates goodness. So too does William Deppling, the former lecturer and distinctly unworldly activist who is the central figure in Harvey’s new novel All Is Song. Convincing goodness – deep-down believable, not a few casually scattered adjectives – being as rare in fiction novels as convincing sex, surely Robinson must have been an influence?
Yes and no. “When I was shortlisted for the Orange, I read my way merrily through the shortlist and I was thinking ‘Maybe, Maybe …’ and then I read Home and I thought ‘Oh’.” She gives a mock sigh. “I gave up all hope of winning, and she won and it was absolutely right – and it was the best way to lose, to lose to someone like her.”
But the roots of her new novel go even deeper. Her publishers choose not to mention it on the book jacket, but All Is Song is a very loose, modernised interpretation of the life of Socrates. For the endlessly questioning Athenian, read William Deppling, relentless examiner of his own life – and those of others – in a way which puts him firmly at odds with modern society.
Harvey is too modest to point out that Wilderness, her unsentimental Orange-shortlisted debut novel about a man whose mind is fragmenting through Alzheimer’s, not only won the Betty Trask prize but also made the shortlist for virtually every other literary award too.
In some ways the new novel could hardly be more different: All Is Song is uncompromisingly a novel of ideas in which the drama is contained within philosophical debate. As such, it is a bit of a risk – but it is one she has been thinking about for a long time.
Harvey’s fascination with Socrates began while studying philosophy at York. In that brief scoot through the minds of the founding fathers of western thought, there was something about Socrates’s that stuck in hers. For the next 15 years, as she studied philosophy at a postgraduate level before studying, and then teaching creative writing, the idea of writing a novel about him refused to go away. If Socrates were alive today, she wondered, what would he do and what would we do to him?
“What I always liked about Socrates,” she says, “was his insistence on questioning things for the sake of reaching some sort of clarity – even if it is only clarity about the gaps in our knowledge. I think we often live at a surface level and that ends up with us in a lot of difficulty because we just function on assumptions and second-hand knowledge.
“Socrates just cuts through that lazy, fearful mindset, and makes us ask basic questions about what we really know. And that appeals to my heart as well, because I am also looking for ways to live more effectively and richly. So it seemed that of all the philosophers I studied, he was the one who had something practical to say to me.”
What kind of effects has that had on her own life? “Not one big thing, but lots of small things, mainly making me ask whether I have enough information to make a critical judgment. Suppose someone is driving erratically, you might think, ‘Why is that idiot on the road? However did they get their licence?’ At that point, thinking Socratically, you’d say, ‘What do I know? Do I have enough information about that driver to make judgments about them?’ And of course you’d realise that you don’t – and it makes you a much calmer and accepting person. Trust me – it works!
“But the real question behind my original question – ‘what would happen to Socrates if he were alive now?’ is: Are we any more open-minded or searching than we were in ancient Greek times? Or are we just as prone to lampooning someone whose beliefs we don’t like? It’s easy to look back on ancient Greece and think, ‘We don’t have capital punishment any more, we don’t make someone take hemlock,’ and assume that we are very different from them morally. So I guess the book is asking ‘Well, are we?’ And I think that the answer is no.”
The absence of capital punishment, however, means a modern recasting of the trial of Socrates can’t have a direct equivalent in 21st century Britain: the stakes can never be as high. To make readers care about the result of the trial that William has to face, Harvey had to make him the kind of person the reader would care about, even if, for example, he only had to face vilification in the tabloid press and a short spell in prison. “Yet I couldn’t make him a straightforwardly affable bloke either. Socrates, after all, could be an intensely annoying man, all the time questioning passers-by until they became exasperated.”
Without us seeing him through the eyes of his brother Leo, William would indeed appear odd. When their clergyman father falls ill, he doesn’t visit, when he dies, he doesn’t attend the funeral, when he hears about his inheritance, he couldn’t be more bored. He doesn’t, it seems, “do” convention. Perhaps he is mildly autistic. Certainly his father always worried about him; the way he never seemed bothered about making anything of his life, the way he quit being an ethics lecturer and raged against stultifying orthodoxies of thought.
And yet William never belittles anyone. He is never anything other than tender and loving. He has an informal group of followers in their twenties, former students and they might well get him into trouble, but he will never turn against them. “You have,” brother Leo tells him, “a beautiful mind”.
In the background swirl great issues of moral debate, the kind that rouse the tabloids to a frenzy: there have been riots, demos, and one of William’s former students acts out his mentor’s ideas to an appalling conclusion. Even before the police come knocking at William’s door the world seems too dark, too materialistic and certainly far too complicated for us to be able to work out our own place in it.
All of which, argues Harvey, is fertile territory for the novel. Earlier, she had told me that while she loved studying philosophy, she had come to realise that studying it academically would actually take her further away from it. “But one of the things the novel can do is address big questions in ways that are accessible to people. It’s not that I want to teach people, but these are the things that interest me and this is my medium for exploring ideas and I think the potential of novels to do that is massive.”
One of the ideas her novel explores seems completely off the scale of rational thought. Some vandals have, William is told, stomped on the necks of chickens in a nearby allotment. That’s as bad, he asserts, as genocide. “Oh come on”, as Jeremy Paxman would say.
“It’s hard, isn’t it?” says Harvey. “Yet that is indeed one of Socrates’ arguments – and he didn’t really have many. He tended to take other people’s arguments and show how they were flawed, but he rarely had his own arguments and this is one of them – that no one does wrong willingly. It means that you never do something you perceive to be bad – you always do something that you perceive to be beneficial to you. But because we don’t look hard enough at what would benefit us and what wouldn’t, we end up doing wrong. So essentially, that’s all due to a lack of self-knowledge. It’s not about evil or degrees of evil, but a lack of self-knowledge about what would most benefit us.
“Socrates believed that if you did something that harmed others, you would harm yourself, so if you committed genocide you would harm your own soul, and if you stamped on a chicken you would do the same amount of harm. It’s a controversial, difficult argument, but I happen to think it’s quite right. Yet it’s hard for people to accept, because it turns upside down everything we think about morals – which is that there are degrees of goodness and badness.”
This isn’t even the central theme of the book, yet already you can sense that Harvey is plying philosophical ideas with dexterity and the same cool intelligence she radiates in person. Now that she has finally rid herself of her 15-year impulse to update Socrates, I ask what she intends to write next.
“I’ve been knocking around with difficult cerebral themes for the last six years, so I want to write something that is going to be a bit more from the heart. I’ve just started writing another novel. I think it’s going to be a love story.”
• All Is Song is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £16.99.