The past is another country

Hailed for his excavations of English history, Adam Thorpe has now turned his gaze towards France. He talks to Christina Patterson about memory, poetry and coming of age
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Adam Thorpe's first novel, Ulverton, received the kind of critical acclaim most writers would kill for. It was hailed as a masterpiece by Peter Kemp in The Sunday Times and garlanded with praise by the likes of Hilary Mantel, John Fowles and Jonathan Coe. More than a decade and five books later, the word "masterpiece" continues to appear in his reviews at regular intervals. He has, however, never won a literary prize.

Perhaps it is just as well that he lives far from London's literary circus – the parties, the puffs and the prizes – on a hillside in the Cévennes in southern France. He moved there 13 years ago, to a 500-year-old olive mill, to write a novel that spent 400 pages excavating 400 years of the hidden history of an English village, using a range of voices, dialect and pastiche. He now lives, with his wife and three children, in an even older house in Monoblet. Largely 17th-century, it is built on Roman foundations. For a writer obsessed with history and memory, it seems an ideal home.

We meet in Nîmes on the first day of summer. The light bounces off the honey-coloured stone of the Roman amphitheatre, still used for festivals and shows today, and the walls of the medieval buildings that line the narrow streets. We walk past the Roman temple in the main square, one of the best preserved in the world, past Norman Foster's stunning glass cube arts centre, opposite, and into the shady sanctuary of a hotel courtyard where the only sound is the gentle hiss of the fountain. It is clear that Adam Thorpe, whose pale skin and red hair remain a vivid reminder of his unGallic roots, will need to sit in the shade.

His new novel, like Nîmes itself, juxtaposes history and modernity and explores the interface between them. No Telling (Cape, £16.99) is the first of his novels to be set in France. It is set, in fact, in the Parisian suburbs in 1968, that key moment of modernity become history. Narrated by 12-year-old Gilles as he approaches his Solemn Communion, it is a coming-of-age novel in which he recounts the sequence of strange and tragic events that afflict his family and finds himself unexpectedly, and terrifyingly, caught up in the student riots. Shortly after his mother apparently gives birth to a severely brain-damaged baby, his rebellious older sister has a breakdown. In the mental hospital, she dances in the nude and, when not sufficiently sedated, says "wicked things" about the family. These are only gradually revealed as Gilles edges, falteringly, towards some kind of understanding of the true history of his family and, just as importantly, the impact of history on it.

It is a wonderful, clear-eyed portrayal of a child's bewildered negotiations with the adult world, shot through with evocative details of the workings of the child's imagination and of his fresh but fragmented perception. It is, however, a very far cry from Thorpe's original conception. "Originally, it was going to be set in 1870-71," he explains, sipping his minuscule espresso. "It was going to feature the Siege of Paris and a ballerina who was caught up in the Siege". But after more than a year's research, "something very odd happened". History and ballet continued to feature, but Thorpe realised that he needed "something to refract the history". The image that sprang to mind was of a boy who lived on the site of the battle of Bagneux, who soon started "occupying the canvas completely". Thorpe has learnt to give in to such things. "The whole historical side ... fell away," he confesses ruefully, "and became almost a subdued backdrop."

Those layers of history are still central to the novel and, arguably, more potent for being buried. "It's like a peat bog," Thorpe suggests. "The deepest and darkest layers are at the back, but they're still perfectly preserved, and that's what I felt I was trying to show – how nothing, essentially, is forgotten ... We're in permanent relation to history and sometimes in conflict with history, and the personal history and public history merge at some point." Like many children in literature, most recently in Michael Frayn's Whitbread-winning Spies, Gilles takes on the role of the detective on a quest for the truth. Thorpe clearly feels that Gilles's quest, much more than idle curiosity or a playful pastime, is a key part of the human and moral endeavour. "I think one has to mirror Gilles's activity in the novel," he announces, "to find what Susan Sontag called 'the genealogy of the event', to trace every stage back, to the origins, which don't exist, because it keeps on going back. The peat bog is bottomless ..."

Certainly, the events that Gilles uncovers are exceptionally traumatic, but the coping strategies that each member of the family adopts, with the exception of his sister, are not unusual. His family is described on the dust jacket as "dysfunctional", but it seemed, perhaps to my shame, perfectly normal to me. "Yes," Thorpe nods in agreement, "I think every family is dysfunctional in some way ... There's something very primitive about the family and very demanding. It's under siege all the time from the outer world and it's also part of that world." At one point, Gilles writes an imaginary letter to a radio agony aunt about his family and is horror-struck by the litany of embarrassing disasters it seems to embody. But then he writes a similar one for his friend Christophe and realises that his family situation is not much better. It is, says Thorpe, "one of the key moments for his understanding of the world, that the world itself is dysfunctional".

No Telling is beautifully written, extremely moving and, more unusually for Adam Thorpe, not merely readable, but gripping. Some of his more experimental forays into fiction have provoked a certain degree of impatience and irritation, to balance the eulogies from much of the lit crit establishment, but this one sheds pastiche and linguistic acrobatics for an engaging clarity. "What I wanted to play with originally was the differences between French and English culture," he explains. "I first conceived the novel as a translation from the French, and so it had to have this sort of clarity, almost this transparency." The fact that it's narrated by a 12-year-old added to the challenge. "I went through the novel, draft after draft," he admits, "cutting anything I felt was the novelist or the poet interfering with Gilles's youthful, naïve and Candide-like thought processes."

If the novel is more accessible than a number of his previous ones, it is certainly, at more than 500 pages, no shorter. This seems a strange publishing tic for a writer who first burst into print as a poet. "My intention each time is to write a short novel," Thorpe laments, with a smile. "Its original title was Promise and I kind of promised that this wouldn't be more than 280 pages." His promise about the length, however, proved as durable as the outline he originally sent to his editor at Cape. Luckily, his publishers are relaxed on both fronts, knowing that Thorpe's imagination works in a way, and on a scale, that is not to be dictated or curtailed.

His first collection of poems, published four years before Ulverton, garnered the kinds of reviews he was later to get for his fiction. "Mornings in the Baltic", said the poet Peter Levi, "is as good as the first books of most living poets, and better than Seamus Heaney's." Like his fiction, the poems range across time and space, from prehistoric Britain to post-war Tuscany or an egg-packing station in Wiltshire. Infused with wry intelligence and an elegiac lyricism, they are about history, landscape, community and work. They have a numinous quality not unlike the poetry of that other highly lauded poet-novelist, John Burnside. It is no surprise to discover that the two are good friends.

Thorpe has published two collections since then and, on the whole, prefers writing poetry to fiction. "I think they use different regions of my creative mind," he muses. "What's extraordinary about ballet, and I think the same is true of poetry, is that you have to learn the steps ... You do the exercises over and over again until your body screams with pain and then you have to infuse it with some other element to make it look effortless and lighter than air."

Thorpe loves the work of "just worrying away until you find what the poem's trying to say, carving away at the stone until you find, as Michelangelo said, the statue within it". There is, he says, the occasional miracle of "spontaneous creation", but some of his poems have taken 20 years to spring to life.

In his most recent collection, From the Neanderthal, there is a moving poem about birth. He describes the eyelids of his wife's new niece, "two pale leaves now open to infection" and adds: "this is what life is. Duress/ begins with the light, the looming faces./ We're all too delicate for this,/ this life, these jerks of some machine, this air." All of his work is steeped with a sense of bewilderment at the strange clash between the vulnerability of the human body and the strength of the human spirit. It is also infused with a strong sense of compassion.

This sensitive and talented writer is, in fact, a salutary reminder that the rewards of writing well are, largely, to continue writing. "Well, it is a need," Adam Thorpe admits, "but it's a need with its own built-in sacrifice. It is very isolated, often lonely, and I do go through various crises of isolation. That," he adds, a touch wistfully, "is the writer's lot."

Adam Thorpe biography

Adam Thorpe was born in Paris in 1956. His teenage years were split between terms at Marlborough and holidays following his father's postings to Cameroon, Beirut and Calcutta. Unhappiness at school drove him to the school library and he went on to read English at Oxford. He then became a teacher of theatre and mime and toured villages in Berkshire and Wiltshire as a sort of "wandering minstrel".

His first collection of poetry, Mornings in the Baltic, was published in 1988, followed by Meeting Montaigne (1990) and, after a nine-year gap, From the Neanderthal (1999). He has written four previous novels – Ulverton (1992), Still (1995), Pieces of Light (1998) and Nineteen Twenty-One (2001) – and a collection of short stories, Shifts (2000). A new collection of poems, Nine Lessons from the Dark, will be published in November.