All hail the 21st-century Socrates...

...or, rather, don't, says the novelist Samantha Harvey, in explaining to Danuta Kean why we prefer not to question our beliefs

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When I was a child I remember very clearly when books ceased to be illustrated.

I was eight and, for a moment, my nascent reading obsession teetered, unsure that my imagination could create images vivid enough to replace the loss. It was a secret bereavement, buried beneath the fear that it may be interpreted as stupidity. The memory popped into my head as the novelist Samantha Harvey and I discussed her new book, All is Song.

The book follows The Wilderness, her acclaimed debut, which was shortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize. It centres on the philosopher William Deppling, a man whose rigid dedication to questioning everything matches that of Socrates, as does his appeal to young students, who gather round him for informal seminars on ethics. Though no one forces hemlock down William's throat, his refusal to ditch his uncertainty principle and reject charges of complicity in arson has devastating consequences.

The resemblance to Socrates is deliberate, explains Harvey, who has a postgraduate degree in philosophy and now teaches creative writing in Bath. "I wanted to write a novel that would explore the question about what would happen to Socrates if he was alive now," she explains. "Socrates was famously executed for his philosophical and political beliefs. I wondered what would happen if you had a similar character, who was so relentlessly questioning of everything? In a modern society, would we be any more or any less tolerant of that kind of character?"

It seems not, if All is Song is an indication. But society is not entirely to blame. William, whom we encounter through his 51-year-old younger brother Leonard, is infuriatingly other- worldly. With the arrogance that only a guru to teenagers can assume, he questions every aspect of our judgement without offering a single answer. It is a trait that the 35-year-old author lifted from her ancient Greek inspiration: "That is so characteristic of Socrates. It is what is so frustrating about him. He had this method of bringing people through questions to a point of acceptance of their own ignorance – but he never came up with an answer to anything."

She speaks slowly, drawing breath to articulate each sentence. Over Christmas, a "general feeling of being unwell" escalated, she was rushed to hospital and into theatre. I feel guilty pushing questions on her when she is so clearly on the mend after a serious, if undisclosed, health problem. So it comes as a relief when she laughs at my aside that William's firm belief in questions is a direct contrast to the quicksilver of his answers. Her laughter animates a face framed by a froth of pony-tailed curls that betray a failed attempt to brush them into conformity.

As she looks about her sitting room, which is filled with boxes packed for an impending move across Bath, the laughter subsides. "There is something very unsatisfying and worrying about a person who could take away everything you think you know, and leave you with nothing to replace it," she says, and this is the moment when my mind is filled with the sense of loss I felt when pictures faded from my childhood reading.

All is Song offers no answers. When creating her central character, Harvey was aware of the difficulty of the task of creating a man both alien and sympathetic: "I was really struggling with how to represent the idea that relentless questioning is intolerable to us, without making William an intolerable character."

But Harvey appears to have never lacked confidence about writing. The Wilderness, which deals with Alzheimer's and the wider theme of memory, was an astonishing debut that garnered a clutch of accolades and led to Harvey being named as one of 12 best new novelists by BBC 2's The Culture Show. But glorious debuts are notoriously hard to follow. In fact, the critical reception that greeted The Wilderness would have paralysed less confident contemporaries with a kind of performance anxiety. But Harvey's outward fragility masks formidable mental discipline. "I made a decision when I started writing All is Song to take the compliments I had for The Wilderness and try to be confident and not overwhelmed by it." Any difficulties she had with the book were "the usual difficulties" she faces when writing: "Trying to find a way in, exploring ideas, that kind of thing."

As to the expectations of the literary establishment, Harvey appears to not give a damn. "I felt it would be what it was. If it didn't live up to the first novel or please people in the same way, then so be it. I felt quite strongly about that." Her voice is gentle, which masks the impact of a statement, the full force of which I only feel when I read through my notes later.

But Harvey has never lacked confidence about writing, which she began in earnest with an unpublished novel in her mid-twenties. She recalls picking up a leaflet about the Orange Prize, while working in a public library. "I remember thinking: 'One day I could do that.' " It was the kind of oblique thought lent prescience by subsequent events, and Harvey takes it as nothing more significant than a sign of her determination to succeed.

In fact, she would be willing to acknowledge that the memory may be flawed, bent by experience that adds significance rather than truth. As I try to push those pictureless books back into the mud of my id, she says she does not trust memory as an accurate record. But it has its uses, she adds: "The sense of one's past is so strong and forms our sense of self so strongly, it will always fascinate, elude and confuse me."

Danuta Kean is books editor of Mslexia

All is Song, By Samantha Harvey (Cape, £16.99)

"... Every age thought itself to be at the cusp and the breaking point, didn't it, and saw in itself a significance that didn't belong to the previous age? But theirs really was at the cusp in the sense at least that a new century had rolled into being under their feet and tipped them into a definite point in the future – the 21st century."