Jim Crace: Reasons to be cheerful

Jim Crace has written eight novels of entrancing strangeness. Boyd Tonkin finds the Borges of Brum as fascinating as his fiction
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The Independent Culture

Not long ago, an academic who plans to write a book about Jim Crace came to record an interview on the novelist's early life. The session lasted four hours and only reached the age of 22, even though Crace always stresses that the fabulous landscapes of his fiction have no private roots: "In order to get to those places, I have to abandon myself." A little later, the scholar rang in panic from the train. His tape was "completely blank".

"Deus ex machina," chuckles Crace, the author of eight defiantly original novels since Continent in 1986. These uncanny fusions of seductive (but imaginary) locations and spellbinding narrations have hoisted a personal flag over his own artistic land-mass. In Craceland, the ancient deity he calls "the goblin of storytelling" holds sway, not the blander modern angels of autobiography and confession. This goblin would have been the god that wrecked the prying don's machine.

Crace could audition as the goblin of storytelling himself. Compact, quick-witted and irreverent, he still (at 57) looks every inch the boy with the gift of the gab from the Enfield council flats, baffled when his friends mistook yarns for fibs. "Kids in the block couldn't realise that this little narrative whizz I went on wasn't a lie, but it also wasn't the truth," he remembers. "It was a story."

We sit in his well-tended garden on a changeable summer's day in Moseley, Birmingham. This has been Crace's tranquil home for more than a quarter-century. My tape-recorder (not jinxed today, thank Goblin) replaces a basket of freshly-harvested peas on the wooden patio table as bees dip languidly into surrounding flowers. Every profile of Crace labours the contrast between the mesmerising strangeness of his books and the suburban serenity of his life. "Parents who never argued; one marriage; no addictions; good health; nice children; no hardships ...": he ticks off the litany of blessings. He's in a pre-holiday mood, on the verge of visiting his beloved Scilly Isles, as he and his wife do every summer.

Trust the tale, he advises; forget the teller; and glory in the gift. "Isn't this wonderful? That narrative, which we've inherited over millennia and distinguishes us from all other creatures, operates in this inexplicable, instinctive way." Where life ends, stories begin: "All the uncontrollable and unpredictable parts of my life - from the actual creation to my emotional responses to the finished book - I've succeeded in banishing to the office. And I think I'm happier for it."

From that office issue marvels of invention and description with almost clockwork regularity. Six, published this week by Viking (£16.99), traces a feckless but fertile actor's life-history through six days of conception with five different women. It's set in a fictitious European city so intricately imagined that you itch to book a weekend break there soon. Sometimes, reality catches up with his imagination: recent visits to Budapest and Toulouse reminded Crace of aspects of the enchanting "City of Kisses" he had built from scratch. (Much as he adores his home turf, he admits that "These towns I describe are the way that I'd like Birmingham to be.")

In the past, Crace has reshaped the gospel tale of Jesus in the wilderness (in Quarantine); explored the Neolithic origins of narrative in The Gift of Stones; celebrated the pullulating life that mocks decay in Being Dead; and served up a delectable parable of our foodie obsessions in the 64 bite-sized chunks of The Devil's Larder. Each novel brings to birth its own peculiar planet in hauntingly rhythmic, almost prophetic, prose. Each flouts everyday "realism" to deliver enduring realities. Craceland has few natural allies, but critics might detect an alliance with the ideas-driven fabulation of William Golding, and the beguiling trickery of Italo Calvino. Or why not just dub him the Borges of Brum?

The gulf betwen man and work intrigues, and exercises, Crace. He recalls a presenter at the Galway Arts Festival voicing dismay that the begetter of that eerie Darwinian tract, Being Dead, should show up not with a white beard and scythe but whistling merrily, hands in his pockets: "Part of me feels that I'm letting people down by not being as interesting as my books."

He is deeply interesting, of course. Enfield estates are still far more likely to breed world-class footballers than world-class literary fabulists. His fiercely socialist and secularist father worked for the Co-op as an insurance agent and groundsman. After Enfield Grammar School, he studied English at Birmingham College of Commerce, where he met his wife Pam (a teacher). Fellow BCC alumini include novelists Gordon Burn and Patrick McGrath. The young radical, loyal then as now to his father's convictions, spent time as a VSO volunteer in Sudan and Botswana. Work as a scriptwriter for BBC Education led to freelance journalism: a trade he practised with panache until a rights deal for Continent released him into the discipline of imagination. At 40, Crace sprang, fully-armed and well-prepared, into the arena of fiction, sure of his voice and his fate: "I immediately knew what the next several novels were going to be."

The rest is mystery, as the militant left-winger found himself possessed by vatic tales that owed more to archetype than agitprop. "I'd dearly love to write a political book that changed the hearts and minds of men and women," he laments. "But it doesn't happen."

One message that does come across is the fervent unbeliever's reverence for natural processes and cycles. In Being Dead, the mucky miracles of decomposition and regeneration trump a purely human grief. Even Six itself, mostly an urbane tale of city folk, germinated from an evolutionary paradox. Crace conceived the actor Lix, who drifts passively from woman to woman, role to role, as a social failure endowed with mighty sperm: "What if we have someone who's only successful in the Darwinian sense: he's capable of handing on his gene pool, but nothing else?"

Then the story took command. Lix's tangled liaisons began to illuminate the emotional (perhaps biological) gulfs that separate men and women. "At its most reductive and cynical," Crace says, this division could mean that "for women, sex is the price they pay for love and children. And then there's the hollow, horrifying alternative: that for men, children and love is the price they pay for sex. I wanted to confront that, because it didn't ring true with my optimism about the world."

The optimism of Six gleams through the tender erotic comedy of Lix's affairs and marriages: his "history of love rebutted and love devalued". It shows in the memorable individuality of each woman who carries his seed - from patrician Alicja to bohemian Freda and unfathomable Mouetta, whose pregnancy brackets the plot. It climaxes in the joyful eruption at the close of the children that this likeable but deadbeat dad has half-ignored.

The goblin of storytelling judges Lix, teases him, but forgives the inconstant actor who sports a symbolic purple birthmark. "We're all blemished," Crace summarises, "Yet we do love, and are loved." The blind struggle to reproduce transfers here from the semi-mythical sea-shores and deserts of previous novels to the smoky, flirty purlieus of a Middle-European café society. It's a change of scene, but not a change of heart.

Crace worries that the anti-supernatural bias of his work strikes some readers as despairing. "Optimism is only worth having if you visit the dark corners of the universe," he counters. His next novel, entitled The Pest House, sounds especially dark. In this dystopian vison of America, begun well before 11 September, "the machine stops" and the planet's beacon of hi-tech modernity sinks into "a medieval future".

Talking about this grim scenario, he sounds (as ever) happily enthralled. Men and civilisations may die; stories and careers close; life will go on. Crace wonders if he should himself bow out of the Darwinian battle to publish once he hits 60, retiring to travel, garden and spend more time on political campaigns.

After all, in life's lottery, we have - to him - already triumphed. Crace the "transcendental atheist" exults in the "wonderful narratives" of perpetual change recounted by science. "There is tremendous comfort in this, and I'm sorry to sound preacherly myself," he says, warming to the theme: "that of all the sperm in the world, and all the years the universe has existed, and all the places that me and you could have ended up; that, out of all of those chances, we have won the lottery. Because it is here, and it is now, and it is us. That is a cause for great optimism and joy: that we have our threescore years and ten; and the world is awesome and beautiful." The bees buzz; the birds twitter. Nature breeds and blooms. And, somewhere over Birmingham, the goblin of storytelling decrees that it should now begin to rain.

Biography

Jim Crace, born in Hertfordshire in 1946, grew up in Enfield, Middlesex and went to grammar school there. He studied English at Birmingham College of Commerce, worked as a volunteer teacher in Sudan and Botswana, and went on to write scripts for BBC education programmes. The New Review published his first short story in 1974, but he then spent more than decade as a freelance journalist, mostly for The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph, before Continent, his first full-length fiction and winner of the Whitbread first-novel award, appeared in 1986. It was followed by The Gift of Stones (1988), Arcadia (1992), Signals of Distress (1994; winner of the Winifred Holtby award), Quarantine (1997; winner of the Whitbread fiction award and shortlisted for the Booker Prize); Being Dead (1999; winner of the US National Book Critics Circle award) and The Devil's Larder (2001). His eighth novel, Six, is published this week by Viking. Jim Crace, who is married with two children, lives in Moseley, Birmingham.

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