Books: Under Western eyes

The Books Interview; The waspish wonder boy of English fiction has turned his gaze to the East. Philip Hensher talks to Daniel Britten about inspiration, depression and the inscrutable charm of East Germany
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Philip Hensher was never going to be an easy subject to interview. Almost the first thing he said in his south London flat was "I'm not very interested in human beings". Later, he explained that it was not people, but being interviewed that he really disliked. He described it bluntly as "being asked to jump through hoops". Throughout our time together he gnawed at his fingernails and fidgeted with an intensity that suggested a kinetic energy ill at ease with itself. His conversation mirrors his prose style, which he describes as a sort of "polished garrulity": a mixture of irony, rebuke, cajolement and exhortation.

Hensher first caught the public eye in 1995 with his second, highly acclaimed novel, Kitchen Venom. Critics were ecstatic over the wit and ingenuity of this macabre tale about behind-the-scenes goings-on at the Palace of Westminster. The book was lent added piquancy by the fact that its author was, at the time, employed as a Clerk (a much grander post than it sounds) of the House of Commons. It was then that his nervousness as an interviewee, which stemmed from chronic shyness in childhood, was compounded. He made some incautious remarks about the ugliness of MPs, among other things, and promptly got the sack.

It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for he loathed the job and was relieved to be free to pursue his vocation as a full-time writer. Since then he has come to be identified as one of the most distinctive novelists of his generation, and is also a prolific journalist: art critic for the Mail on Sunday, chief book reviewer for the Spectator and a columnist on this newspaper. At 33 he is the youngest Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the only young British writer included in AS Byatt's recent Oxford Book of English Short Stories.

Yet despite, or perhaps because of, his success, feelings of alienation seem to predominate in life as well as in his art. In all three of his novels, themes of family rivalry, sexual betrayal and the abuse of power serve to emphasise the fragility of relationships. Indeed, his characters are invariably deformed, self-obsessed creatures. Hensher's elegantly baroque style is vaguely reminiscent of Ivy Compton-Burnett, beautifully conveying a feeling of suppressed menace through abstract, often arbitrary dialogue.

In his new novel, Pleasured (Chatto & Windus, pounds 15.99), all the characters display the usual eccentricities. It is set in Germany in the year before the fall of the Wall, and its hero is Friedrich, a sales assistant in a Berlin bookshop, who is going home for Christmas. He accepts a lift with a mysterious fat Englishman called Peter Picker, and a sometime student activist with a vivid imagination, called Daphne.

Convinced that West Germany is superior to its Eastern counterpart, Peter plans to destabilise the East by distributing pleasure in the form of free ecstasy tablets. Friedrich responds by conning him out of 50,000 marks. Many moments of high comedy and melodrama ensue, some of which involve Daphne and her boyfriend Mario, an East German defector, in a sub-plot about terrorism and spying.

The one quality that all the characters seem to share is a sense of cynicism and disillusion. Daphne, for instance, recalls her childhood thus: "She remembered what people said about her. She always did. And everything that people said to her, about herself, she picked over for insults, for hidden rudeness, for a chance, when she got old enough, to revenge herself."

They also seem frustrated, almost unconsciously so, with the success- driven lifestyle of the West and its excessive emphasis on status. A central theme is the way in which the two halves of Germany tend to idealise each other.

Hensher, who has often visited Germany and speaks the language almost fluently, remembers the near-magical appeal of the DDR. "There was something warm and peaceful about it," he says. "Personal relations seemed very sincere. The kind of innocence which it seemed to embody was constructed by the West as much as anything else, but there was a genuine sense of a slower way of life."

In writing Pleasured, he admits to influences from three other meditations on the subject of West versus East: Virgil's Aeneid, Pope's Dunciad and John Donne's poem "Good Friday 1613: Riding Westward". However, he rejects any suggestion that the split might represent a metaphor for the human condition as a whole.

Pleasured is a less cohesive novel than either of Hensher's earlier books, possibly because it is more ambitious. Kitchen Venom, despite featuring hunchbacks, rent boys and murder, remained a delicately balanced chamber piece, distinguished by a brilliantly written sub-plot about the deposition of Margaret Thatcher.

In Pleasured, a bewildering set of coincidences and cross-references leaves the narrative muddied by its own contrivances. Although it lacks the emotional impact of its predecessors, there are still many enjoyable passages, however, not least those in which Hensher unleashes his unerring knack for psychological observation.

Perhaps one reason for this relative lack of focus lies in the fact that Hensher dislikes planning his work in any detail. He claims that an element of chaos is essential to all good fiction. "The great writers don't plan their work," he declares triumphantly. "They just switch off and work from the unconscious. Too many novelists write with one eye on what they think the public wants, rather than what they really believe in."

In fact, despite being a critic himself, he is reluctant to analyse his work in the way one might expect of a serious young novelist. Of his intention in Pleasured, all he will say is that "I wanted to write something very smart. Something people would be amused by, but that if they read it a second time they would notice all the pain and suffering."

This brings us to the subject of depression, from which Hensher has been suffering for several years. He has tried therapy but without much success. He is elusive about its origins, but mentions his nasty job at the House of Commons, and that a relationship of seven years broke up unexpectedly at around the same time.

Yet the themes of deception and abuse of power are prevalent in his first novel, Other Lulus, which he began writing as long ago as 1991. I wondered whether his disaffection was in any way connected with his sexuality - he has been openly gay from an early age, and Kitchen Venom features the senseless murder of a gay prostitute - but he insists that it has never been a problem.

More recently, the situation worsened when he suffered a traumatic experience in France. A car ploughed into a cafe where he had just been sitting and killed several people. Since then he has been unable to go to the theatre or attend any kind of public gathering.

He admits to no longer finding the same pleasure in music that he once did. (He is an accomplished pianist, wrote an opera libretto and was for a time the Mail on Sunday's opera critic.)

Hensher dismisses the idea that writing novels might in itself be the kind of therapy he needs, explaining that his lives as a novelist and as a human being are unconnected. He clearly relishes the cut-and-thrust of literary life, however, trashing some authors with cavalier certitude while heaping praise on others.

By the same token, he rejects the idea that his work can offer any redemption. "Novels don't have a function, or a purpose," he reproves. "I don't see my job as a novelist to give instructions on how to live one's life." The artist may have a subconscious agenda, but he insists that in all great art the intention is almost always irrelevant.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of this argument, perhaps Hensher is right to maintain that, by subjecting himself to too close an analysis, he is in danger of destroying his creative essence. It would certainly be a tragedy if that delicious sense of melancholy sweetness that makes his work so readable were to be lost on the psychoanalyst's couch.

Then again, perhaps he might benefit from the advice of one of his heroes. It was Henry James who said that the critic is "the real helper of the artist, a torchbearing outrider, the interpreter, the brother".

Philip Hensher, A Biography

PHILIP HENSHER was born in London, in 1965. From age 10 he grew up in Sheffield, where his father was a bank manager and his mother a librarian.

He gained a first in English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and completed half of a PhD in 18th-century satire at Cambridge before abandoning it to take up the position of a Clerk of the House of Commons, which provided the subject matter for his second novel, Kitchen Venom (published in 1996).

In addition he has published two other novels - Other Lulus (1994), and Pleasured (1998) - as well as writing the libretto for Thomas Ades's opera Powder Her Face, which was based on the life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.