Interview: Craig Raine, author

WHENEVER Craig Raine turns up in the papers, which is more often than you might think given that he's a poet, he never sees the story - indeed he claims not to have read any of his press for 20 years.

Just as well, I'm thinking as I knock on his door in Oxford, because they're likening his first novel to Jedward's attempts at singing.

First things first: Raine bears no resemblance to John and even less to his pop-fool twin Edward. He's short, bewhiskered - Philip Larkin called him "that bearded loony" - and 65. It's too hot for his trademark tweed jacket but, in his collarless shirt and tassled silk scarf, he's pretty much how you'd want a rascally Oxford don to look, and his book-lined, paper-strewn tip of an office fits the bill too.

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The source of the Jedwardian jibe is Terry Eagleton, Raine's fellow literary critic, whose scathing review of Heartbreak made it on to the news pages. It was only a novel, wrote Eagleton, "in the sense in which Eton is a school near Slough". Oh, I do love a literary spat! And so does Raine, despite claiming to ignore the papers.

"My wife keeps me up to speed," he says, "and regarding reviews we have four categories: intelligent good, stupid good, stupid bad and intelligent bad. It's the bad ones, intelligently argued, which tempt me most, of course, but truly, I'm completely addicted to not reading about myself. It's a very good way of staying sane.

"Regarding Eagleton, we've got some previous. But I'm afraid the significance of his insult is lost on me." Raine lets the last line hang, as if to sneer at the high-minded critic for referencing the high-haired anti-music chumps. He doesn't allow a TV in the house and recalls with pride the morning he happened upon his son Isaac engrossed in a book lodged behind the sink taps while he brushed his teeth. "He's a reader, as are all my children."

Two of the four are writers. "But did they go into poetry? Of course they didn't. They looked at their father's terrible career choice, looked at how much more successful Uncle Martin and Uncle Julian have been as non-poets, and became playwrights instead." He means Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, and Raine is part of that gang, along with James Fenton, so of course he turns up in Christopher Hitchens' recently published memoirs.

Hitchens writes that he can't remember who in the group reckoned that women were born with a design flaw - that breasts and buttocks should have been placed on the same side - but thinks it was Raine. "It was," he smirks. "I believe they're called 'Eureka!' moments.

And I think it was a bit cheeky of Martin to nick it for his last novel, although he did speculate on which way the legs should go, which was quite funny."

Raine is often chastised for dwelling overlong on the female form, shocking readers of his poetry with mention of his daughter's vagina and, in an elegy to a former lover who died of Aids, counting her nine nipple hairs. And he's at it again in the novel, an experimental piece examining the condition of heartbreak: "He found her body irritating. The big-boned ultra-pelvic Henry Moore torso and the midget Henry Moore head - that deliberate, synthetic pseudo-modernist mismatch. Moore irritated him too."

But on women, his research does seem to have been thorough. I read an old newspaper profile which likened him to "academia's shambolic answer to Dave Lee Travis... who frequently, allegedly, risks falling off his bicycle to stare at girls' bottoms". His chortle does resemble a denial. "That seems to be, here in Oxford where beauty and brains combine, one of life's great pleasures."

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Raine was "terrified" of writing a typical poet's novel, overstuffed with lyrical description. Heartbreak could not contain "sculptures of confectioner's custard posing in their prosing pouches, waiting to be admired". It's still a poet's novel, but in a good way. It's also, in a less good way, a literary critic's novel. He was determined that it should be both "filthy and funny", and while it's certainly the latter, there are ribald laughs.

Does he think fiction isn't filthy and funny enough? "Well, when you teach Lady Chatterley's Lover you can't shirk from all the sex. By 'filthy' I probably mean 'adult'. On Chesil Beach (by Ian McEwan, another friend] is about sex not working, and that seems where we need to be. John Updike put it best when he was challenged about the large amount of sex in his first novel. He said the reading experience was unique - one person talking in absolute privacy to another person - and it was incumbent on him to be as frank with the reader as he was with himself. In polite society you may not discuss sex but in literature you'd be wasting your time if you're not talking about it because it consumes such a large proportion of our consciousness."

The son of a fairground boxer who grew up in a "bookless" prefab in Co Durham, Raine first came to Oxford as a student "the year before everyone went on the Pill", and wrote his first poems to impress girls. Now he's getting off his bike and retiring from teaching. He says he'll miss all the bright young things and his "nice, very brainy" colleagues, one of whom hours earlier turned pure crimson when Raine spotted him reading the Eagleton review. "You'd think I'd caught him with some porn," he laughs. But he's looking forward to "becoming an Italian", joking that he's bought a mail-order medallion for the move with his wife to Venice. At least I think he's joking.

Another novel is already written but he says that if he could have his time again he'd be a competitive skier. "I love it. In a way it's like writing. If you're not completely concentrating it can end disastrously. And of course sex is the same." v

Heartbreak (Atlantic Books, 12.99) is published on Thursday

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday July 4, 2010..

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