‘The fate of our literary culture is sealed’

‘Let’s think about reading – about what it’s like to read. And after we’ve thought about reading for a while, let’s consider writing – and what it means to write. There are many ways of reading: we scan, we dip, we skip and we speed through texts we know to be intrinsically dull, searching out the nuggets of information we desire as a bent-backed prospector pans for gold. In contradistinction: we are lost, abandoned, absorbed – tossed from wave to wave of language as we relapse into the wordsea. All serious readers of serious literature have had this experience: time, space, and all the workaday contingencies of their identity – sex, age, class, heritage – are forgotten; the mind cleaves to the page, matching it point-for-point; the mind is the text, and in the act of reading it is you who are revealed to the impersonal writer, quite as much as her imaginings and inventions are rendered unto you. In the course of my literary career I’ve read various accounts of the reading process – ones that analyse it phenomenologically, neurologically and psychologically; ones that site it in a given social or cultural context – but none has captured the peculiar quiddity of reading as I experience it. In particular, no forensic or analytic account of reading can do justice to the strange interplay between levels of reality we apprehend when we read deeply. We don’t picture a woman in a red dress when we decipher the marks that mean “she wore a red dress” – and, by extension, we do not hold within our mind’s eye the floor plan of Mansfield Park or the street map of Dublin when we read the novels of Jane Austen and James Joyce, respectively.

On Crossrail

‘Far be it from me to come over all Freudian, but there has to be latent significance in the manifestation of a group of men boring through the ground inside a giant, phallic-shaped machine with a woman’s name. And not just one group of men: we’re talking eight, for eight phallic-shaped machines, all of which bear women’s names.

‘Jaws without the Shark’

‘A couple of years ago, when I was in the closing stages of working on my last novel, Umbrella, I began casting around for a new subject for the next one. I greatly admire WG Sebald’s The Emigrants, which tells the stories of six refugees from the Nazis without heavy-handedly describing the mechanics of the persecution that the regime visited on Jews, gay people and the politically suspect. Following this pattern, I conceived of writing a novel about some of the more interesting characters I had known during my two decades in the netherworld of drug addiction. I would fictionalise their stories, of course, but more importantly, I would never mention, or otherwise allude to, the reasons why these people lost jobs, experienced relationship-breakdown, moved abroad, and went to hospital or jail. Their addiction would remain a strange sort of absence, deforming the course of their lives but never emerging into the full light of day. My working rubric for the novel was “Jaws without the shark”.