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

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."

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?