Has your interest in violence skewed your audience at all, do you think?
I used to worry that I wasn’t attracting enough women readers. I felt that often in England, but I don’t feel it here. In the signing queue, after an event, there are at least as many girls as boys.
One of the things that pleased Hitchens most during his last months was how many young people were in the audience at that event run by Stephen Fry. It’s very heartening if you find yourself attracting the young. Because it means your stuff is going to live, at least one more generation.
In some of the essays in The Second Plane, you wrote about a kind of professional crisis of confidence—how does the novelist respond to events like 9/11? It does seem that the things that you’ve written since Experience, in 2000, are of a slightly different cast—a lot more nonfiction, much more political, and even those novels you have written have had a kind of enhanced documentary quality.
Norman Mailer put this very well, in his book The Spooky Art. He said one of the few demerits of the writer’s life—because it is a great life, I think, never happier than when settling down to work every day, except when it’s a rough bit—is that writers spend too much time among dead things. I thought that was profound and actually true, that you’re trying to pump life into something that is inanimate. You see what a sort of audacious thing it is to move these sort of imaginary people around in a very stylized and patterned world.
But you’ve also written quite a lot about nonimaginary people, and I wanted to ask especially about your essays on radical Islamism. Why was that so important to write about, and do you still feel like it’s the kind of imminent threat you felt it was?
I don’t think I do think that. My younger son has just done a second degree on the Muslim Brotherhood, and he speaks Arabic, and he’s been to travel quite a lot around there. And I was saying to him the other day, Don’t you feel it’s all in retreat? And he said, No. You know, their time has come. They’re close to power in Egypt, and elsewhere.
In the last essay in The Second Plane, I say there are certain figures, like Nasrallah in Hezbollah, who you feel are too clever to not see that the next stage is to become a politician, and not a radical and a fringe figure. To join the debate of the mainstream. Bernard Lewis said democracy and Islam can’t reconcile themselves to each other—he said the prognosis is, One man one vote, and no votes for women, once. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. The Islamic parties—Turkey is the model—become quite a viable alternative in very religious societies. Let’s not forget, the people are very religious. But the parties, in half a generation, seem to have made the journey to the argument of the mainstream. That virulence, which is all one was hearing about for several years after September 11, that literalism and virulence and commitment to slaughter—that just seems to have been a convulsion, and it’s steadied.
In The Pregnant Widow, you wrote about the sexual revolution as a kind of convulsion. What does it mean to you to have come of age at the center of that?
It’s manifestly the great convulsion of my generation, and I’m very grateful that I was just old enough to know what it was like before. The prerevolutionary time seems to me now so weird and distorted, but I did live through it, in my teens. They really weren’t having it, girls, you know—out of the question. Soon after I wrote that novel, I was teaching in Manchester. It was a great job, because all I did was teach my favorite novels. And we were looking at Lucky Jim, my father’s first novel. Which had lost none of its comic power. It’s full of rage. And you suddenly realize that every character in that novel, except the filthy painter Bertrand, is a virgin. They’re all in a rage because they’re sexually frustrated. It was written in the early fifties. You were very lucky if you’d had an affair before you got married. And as the hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning says, you’ve got to get a girl who’s married already, that was the only way. They got married, and then their sex lives began—not just with each other, but with other married people. And whatever its distortions and excesses, the sexual revolution and the postrevolutionary era was much healthier than that.