Who's a clever boy, then? Interview: Tibor Fischer

As a novelist, he's famous for two things: his linguistic brilliance and his unfeasibly large number of rejection letters
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Food Is important to Tibor Fischer. It looms large in his three novels, which feature, in turn, an eating contest, a bank robber inventing a getaway lunch (you rob a bank then head for the nearest restaurant), and a ceramic narrator who has frequently functioned as a receptacle for the stuff. And those strange herbs sprouting bravely under artificial daylight in his living room aren't what you'd expect an unshaven bloke in Brixton to be growing, but Hungarian paprika. The kind you get over here just isn't the same, apparently.

Fischer isn't actually Hungarian, although his parents are. They came here in 1956. "My father slipped over the border first and my mother planned to defect when the women's national basketball team - which she captained - toured Italy. Unluckily, the tour was cancelled, so she had to find another way out." Once in England, Tibor's father studied at Manchester University "because his Hungarian accountancy degree wasn't taken seriously", started work in the Hungarian section of the BBC and ended up as Radio Four's head of talks and documentaries. "People there enjoy impersonating him," says Fischer. "Although they didn't dare when he was running the department."

Born in Stockport 37 years ago, Tibor - an only child - grew up in Bromley, Kent, and was schooled at the local comp. "As suburbs go," he says, "Bromley's not bad. But as David Bowie and Hanif Kureishi have observed, you do want to get out of there quickly." He did, studying French and Latin at Cambridge, spending a year in France and then working as a freelance journalist, mostly in TV and mostly in Plymouth. "I never could get a proper job," he says.

Fischer is famous for three things. Writing clever, linguistically inventive books, being rejected by 56 publishers before getting his Booker Prize-short- listed first novel, Under The Frog, published - he keeps the rejection letters in a black ring-binder - and for hating interviews.

"I'm not interested in talking about myself or The Book," he says in capital letters. "The work should stand by itself, and my opinion doesn't matter. It's what the reader thinks that counts. Also, having been a journalist, I know they just make it all up." He grins. He agreed to do interviews for The Collector Collector because he thinks publishers are crap at publishing. "As an author, I realise, you're on your own. You have to do everything you can to help The Book. If I make sure people know it's out there, they can make up their own minds whether they want to read it."

Tibor started writing in 1990. "I couldn't get a job. I'd always wanted to write and realised if I didn't do it then, I never would." So he did. Then he sent The Book out. And it kept coming back. I tell him I could not imagine having the self-confidence to keep going through 56 rejections. "It was a pretty shitty part of my life," he says. "I was unemployed. I had no money. It was either send out the manuscript or sit at home, looking at the wallpaper. By the end, I didn't expect to get it published. I was just being bloody-minded."

The Collector Collector, his new book, narrated by a bowl and focusing on the unsatisfactory and distressingly realistic love life of Rosa, a twentysomething antiques authenticator, is very different from The Thought Gang, his second novel, the story of a disgraced Cambridge philosopher turned bank robber, which is very different from Under The Frog, the adventure of a Hungarian basketball team in the run up to the 1956 revolution. "I don't see the point of repeating yourself, unless you are offered lots of money. Maybe I'll sell out eventually and do The Thought Gang 2, but for now I am trying to maintain an artistic mission where you don't deliberately repeat yourself," he says, eating a chocolate biscuit.

Under The Frog is a documentary novel about Fifties Hungary. Based largely on the experiences of his basketball-playing father and godfather, almost everything in that book is true or, says Tibor, only mildly exaggerated. The only invention was Pataki's naked streak round the (Hungarian) White House. "Although," he muses, "as my sources were all Hungarian, there might be more fiction in it than I think."

Some reviewers criticised his second book, The Thought Gang, for being too clever for its - and its author's - own good. Fischer didn't mind. "It's the most intellectual book I'll ever write. And, in a way, it's nice to be recognised as clever. There's never been and never will be a book that everyone likes, so you're always going to get stick. That doesn't bother me. It's when people start having fun at your expense that you take note of the names... "

I express surprise that reviews of The Collector Collector have also focused on the book's cleverness and word play, ignoring the fact that it is, in fact, a romantic novel. "Maybe that's because most of the reviewers have been men," Fischer suggests. "Interestingly, the one female reviewer so far (Victoria Glendenning) talked about the moral aspect of it, which no one else has."

We head out for lunch at the Satay Gallery. Fischer moved to Brixton more than ten years ago. He enjoys the choice of eateries and the shopping, although the liveliness of the place is starting to pall. "I long for bourgeois affectation - cleanliness, order and people not shitting in your garden."

He escaped for several years at the end of the Eighties. "In winter '87, walking through a Budapest railway station, I noticed a man selling magazines. Then I saw they were colour magazines. Getting even closer, I saw they were sex magazines. One was open at the most graphic scene, so people would know exactly what they were buying. I thought, that's it. Private enterprise and sex. The Communist Party's finished. So I stayed to watch things fall apart."

While things were falling apart, Fischer was offered lots of journalistic work. "Because my name is Hungarian, everyone assumed I knew about Hungary. I didn't. They also assumed that if you knew about Hungary, you also knew about the rest of Eastern Europe."

So he worked for the Wall Street Journal and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, spent nine months as the Budapest correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, went to Poland and East Berlin and ended up in Bucharest, reporting on the Romanian revolution and stealing one of Ceausescu's ties. "His villa was under armed guard, but after requests from several Western journalists, they let us in. But first, they warned us not to touch or move anything. We all said yes, yes, of course. Then we stripped the building bare. There were a couple of ties in Ceausescu's bedroom. I got one. There were also some nice bathroom fittings, but I couldn't get them off."

Relaxed and expansive, Tibor goes coy only when he is questioned about his personal life. Divorced (currently single) and still friendly with his ex-wife, he refuses to talk about his marriage, partly out of respect for her, and partly, one senses, because he doesn't discuss that kind of thing much anyway. Caught off guard, he will admit to wanting children - "but only when I'm rich enough to afford a team of nannies".

What next? "I'd like to do something different for a while," he says, tucking into a bammgek ikam. "Any offers from leper colonies or oil rigs welcomed..."

The Collector Collector is published by Secker & Warburg (pounds 12.99)

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