Second Thought: Scandals spoken in whispers: Ronald Harwood on the inspiration for his novel, Home (Orion, pounds 4.99)

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The Independent Culture
THE IDEA for Home came to me almost exactly as I describe it coming to Harrison Wilde in the prologue of the novel. My wife, Natasha, and I were on a visit to the Soviet Union in 1987 to see the Russian premiere of my play The Dresser. We were guests of the Minister of Culture who arranged for us to visit Natasha's ancestral home, Bogoroditsk, about 300 kilometres south of Moscow. Walking around that magnificent house (an impression of which appears on the jacket of the paperback) I was struck by the irony that made our visit possible. After all, there I was, descended from Lithuanian Jews, and there Natasha, a direct descendant of Catherine the Great. I began asking the questions that prompted the novel: how did this curious state of affairs come about? Given the turmoil of this century, how was it that four families were so scattered and buffeted by events to make it possible for Natasha and me to meet, marry, have children and then, because of a play of mine, to visit the home where her mother was born?

On our return to England, I wrote about that experience in the Independent and received, to my surprise, many letters expressing interest. This encouraged me. After a good deal of uncertainty - I had not written a novel for some years - I finally took the dreaded plunge in 1985 and began to plot the destinies of the four families in Europe, South Africa, and finally England. The book became a sort of refuge. I would write, leave off and then return to it until in a final demonic outpouring it was completed in 1992.

I am now besieged by letters asking me what is true and what invented. Somebody reviewing the book in the TLS doubted the authenticity of the Russian episodes. Needless to say, these are the most authentic in the book, for I had access not only to living witnesses (Natasha's mother, for example, who still lives in Godalming) but also to diaries and notes left by Natasha's grandmother, Countess Vera Bobrinsky, whom I knew. The experiences of Natasha's father spring directly from what he told me and from family folklore, which is the chief source of the Jewish episodes - a tale remembered, an impression of an eccentric relative recalled, a scandal spoken of in whispers. But imagination also played a part. This is not now a faculty greatly admired but I can see no advantage in concealing the fact.