Writers, like the characters they invent, can easily take up residence in other people's fantasies. Although just 31 this year, Adam Thirlwell has already endured a career's worth of projections. By the time he published his first novel Politics, in 2003, the 24-year-old had appeared on Granta's once-a-decade "Best of Young British" list, and taken up a prize fellowship at All Souls College in Oxford. What he says about All Souls, as we sit in the front room of the Georgian terraced house in Islington where he and his girlfriend have lived for the past year, might apply to his writing as a whole. "The only bad side is the problem of how it's perceived elsewhere." People either dumped their awestruck admiration onto these young shoulders, "thinking that you must be incredibly clever". Or else their envy and scorn, "thinking they have to prove that they're far cleverer than you."
Much-translated (into 30 languages), globally debated, Politics played mischievous grace notes on the erotic triangle of its three-way relationship between smart young Londoners. Its historical digressions and authorial asides, not to mention a no-holds-barred approach to sexual episodes, turned Thirlwell into a British "mini-Kundera" (his rueful phrase). Treated as a virtuoso set of cool variations on a plot from This Life, the novel met the critical fate that upfront sophistication about fiction and its games generally does in a culture with a puritan default setting.
Behind the far from unmixed praise, resentment and even spite grumbled away. The welcome accorded to this cosmopolitan golden boy, Wunderkind and enfant terrible carried a vernacular background hiss of "smartyboots". Was this tousle-haired imp of the perverse, schooled at the academic powerhouse of Haberdashers' Aske's in Hertfordshire and then taught at Oxford by the poet and take-no-prisoners critical arbiter Craig Raine (whose magazine Arete he helped to edit), just too clever by half for literary Britain?
Six years on, with Oxford left behind, Thirlwell still has an intellectual foot in Prague. He continues to salute the feline ironies and narrative gymnastics of Milan Kundera – whose endorsement appears on the cover of his second novel, The Escape (Jonathan Cape, £16.99). He does admit that the Czech master, whose wit rang inspirational rings around the inanities of a moribund Communism, "has lived a rather more serious life than I have so far". For Thirlwell, "there's a deep flippancy in Kundera that I really like, which almost verges on the misanthropic" – although, again, his fictional mentor "is deeply angry in a way that I'm not".
The oxymoronic lure of that "deep flippancy" seemed to attract and annoy readers of Politics in equal measure. Soon the irritant prodigy found himself a hothoused sage. Touring Europe and beyond, he was "being asked questions about the nature of the novel and reality by scary Austrian journalists, and I was thinking 'I've absolutely no idea'." So the Prize Fellow slowed down, "went back to school" and set to "working out where I wanted to come from".
The result proved just as elusive and divisive. Thirlwell's experimental grand tour of global fiction and its fortunes in translation, Miss Herbert, made a rambling, Tristram Shandy-esque shaggy-dog story out of the history of the novel. Digressive, eccentric and frivolous in the manner of the offbeat, off-message writers it celebrated – from Laurence Sterne to Kundera's great countryman Bohumil Hrabal – Miss Herbert played the cultural past for heretical laughs. This teasing enemy of "the sentimental, the romantic, the serious" seemed to commit himself only to an art of "immaturity". Unsurprisingly, some very mature-sounding critics took out their rhetorical canes and told Thirlwell Minor to grow up.
Yet the image of Thirlwell as a gilded gadfly never quite fitted the bill. Miss Herbert abounds with hosannahs for mischief-makers who bravely insisted on laughter in the dark. It speaks up for a pantheon of exiles and dissenters, profound jokers who shake the chains of a tyrannous history. The book's "immature" aesthetics resolve into an ethics "which teaches respect for the minor, the overlooked, the unsure". These underdogs laugh like hyenas.
The Escape will, again, fail to please the literary puritans, but the novel – and its protagonist – has a more visibly beating heart. Raphael Haffner, its late-seventies Jewish banker hero, comes from a snugly bourgeois London background, an enclave of peace and (for him) pleasure in a century of strife. He travels in the late 1990s to claim a villa that belonged to his late wife's Italian Jewish family from the stubborn authorities of a mountain spa town in a flaky post-Communist state.
We meet this doggedly frivolous philanderer as he spies on an encounter between his new squeeze, Zinka, and her boyfriend Niko. "Lustful, selfish, vain", Haffner just will not be serious – or so we assume from the buttonholing young narrator, a chronicler of the old man's fabulously self-indulgent life. The despair of his family (especially pious grandson Benji), Haffner loves "the women" above all, but also cricket, roses, the classic jazz of Ella Fitzgerald and Artie Shaw, West End shows and a nice fish supper at J Sheekey.
This "cossetted Londoner" refuses to "adopt the tragedies of people he never knew". But when does an escapee from tragedy, history or marital fidelity become a "deserter" from love, from destiny, from identity? "I was interested in creating a character who's evasive on absolutely every level," says Thirlwell. "If he ever thinks he's being asked to owe someone, he wants to run away. In a sense that's the real immaturity, and it's something that I have a huge amount of sympathy for." Haffner seems to have gone merrily, randily AWOL from the burdens of the 20th century. Has he dodged its pain?
Among the debts that light-travelling Haffner wants to repudiate (with crisp symbolism, the airline has just lost his baggage) is that owed to his Jewish heritage. "It's a cliché," says the banker's begetter, "but it's true that English Jewishness is a very evanescent thing. Within literature, there is no tradition as there is in America."
Haffner's bedrock Englishness is signified by his love of cricket. "That's just true of my family!" Thirlwell insists: he grew up in the Hertfordshire suburb of Bushey, son of a Jewish mother and gentile father. "My great-grandfather was a huge collector of cricketana. It must have been on some level a kind of over-compensation. But I also still love cricket – it's my genetic inheritance!"
From the depths of his bourgeois soul, Haffner "disliked the burden of a tragic heritage". In his erring lifetime of flings he has chosen, or fallen into, farce instead. "In some ways," comments Thirlwell, his lecherous, blundering non-hero "upends our idea of what a mature adult should be, and on the other hand he is laughable in his attempts not to be a mature adult."
Yet Haffner slowly emerges as less of a heedless "libertine" than we suppose. He served, with courage, in the war in Italy, braving the Nazi barrage at Anzio – as did Thirlwell's otherwise unconnected grandfather: "A lot of the war stories are my grandfather's, and they have become mythical in my family." And, in spite of his many bedroom desertions, Haffner never ceased to love his wife. "I was interested in the idea of marriage as this enclosed space ... At the core there was something that no one else will ever know." In fragments, the novel tells us what it was.
IfThe Escape whispers about married love and its secrets, it can sing about sex at the top of its voice. Thirlwell regrets that "There's still quite a resistance to what's called the sex scene in literature. The obvious reason why I find them interesting to write, or to read in Kundera or Philip Roth, is because they are very useful as accelerators of character." He looks on with bemusement at the Bad Sex Award, and all such efforts to lock the bedroom door. "That is purely British," he sighs.
Behind the bedroom farce, and the nararator's feints and ruses, a fairly traditional concept of character and action nonetheless takes shape. Sly, ludic and mercurial he may be, but as a writer Thirlwell feels a long, long way from any kind of prickly avant garde – the distance, perhaps, between Bushey and that Mittel-European "Bohemia" that Haffner can visit only as a cousin, never as a native. "I don't see any reason to choose between metafiction and old-fashioned realism," he says.
"It's a cliché when novelists say that 'this character took on a life of its own,'" he notes. All the same, "the real interest is in setting up the conditions that would allow the character to escape." The novel must both set its people free and engage readers in a shared quest for complex human truth. This cool, ironic scourge of preachy British realism chuckles at the ethical high ground Haffner has led him to occupy. "Deep down, I'm just a very moralistic writer – wanting the authentic. Terrible!"
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