Rosalind Belben was born in 1941 in Dorset, and she lives in Dorset again now. Her father, a naval officer, fought in both world wars, and was killed in 1944 when HMS Penelope was torpedoed.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for your latest novel Our Horses in Egypt?
Rosalind Belben: When I was a child my mother used to talk about the horses left in Egypt after the First World War. So I’ve always known there was some story. I’ve always wanted to write it. I could never see how to do it. Then I met a bay mare – bigger than Philomena and better bred – whose odd personality was to give me the key I needed.
MT: Did you consciously set out to make people aware of the plight of horses in the Middle East?
RB: The Near East in those days. The Middle East started in Ottoman Mesopotamia … Horses today? No, although I’m glad to draw attention to the work of The Brooke Hospital for Animals. From 1915 until October 1918, our army horses endured extremes of thirst, hunger and exhaustion, they were worked while lame, they carried far too much weight, they were bombed and shelled; and, if not killed outright in action, if not put out of their misery, they died from terrible wounds. Necessity had demanded the sacrifice of the horses’ well-being at a time of war. Only logistical pragmatism (and the quarantine regulations of Australia and New Zealand) determined the fate of the 22,000 that were to be sold in Egypt. And then … if one weighs up necessities, the duty to family of the gharry-drivers, of the poor Egyptian labourers and fellahin, of what nature was that? Men or young boys without veterinary advice or books on animal management, in a traditional, handed-down culture. It’s easy for us now to be borne along by the gallant story of the yeomen, to identify with it and to be deceived by an elevated tone. I am interested in ambiguities … But I don’t think the yeomen and the mounted infantrymen were themselves deceived. They’d been heroically devoted to their horses. They hadn’t been responsible for orders. Their sense of outrage, when the horses were left behind, was searing.
MT: How much research do you have to do for such a historic novel? And how do you make sure your research doesn't bog down the novel's narrative?
RB: As to the latter, I don’t know. Perhaps, by accident, in doing the two concurrently. I didn’t expect to have to do so much original research. The few published accounts of the action at Agagiya – one of the last in which British cavalry charged so-called ‘uncivilised’ forces – are conflicting and leave a great deal unexplained. Published sources generally, even the official history, could be a headache. Without knowing reliably where the regiment was, I couldn’t construct a coherent fiction. I was continually correcting and rewriting. Of course I had to know vastly more than finds its way into the story, and feel my way into the intricacies of drill and manoeuvre. I had also to have some idea of what was happening in Egypt after the war. I had to picture Cairo as it was. Not in 1908 or 1930 but in 1922. So far as writing a novel, an English novel, set at that period … it sounds bizarre but I seem to think I’m only going back as far as my memory goes back.
MT: The same character appears in your last two novels – are you writing some sort of saga of rural England in the first part of the twentieth century?
RB: That would be frightful.
MT: Your style is unique among present-day novelists writing in English. How deliberate is it?
RB: It isn’t deliberate. I can’t help feeling delight, if my style has caused you to think it unique. I don’t suppose it is. When readers find it abrupt, or strange, I’m surprised. I reckon I write workmanlike prose nowadays! People single out the way the characters in Our Horses in Egypt speak. I’ve been listening to that sort of inconsequential, batty chatter for half my life. My last two aunts continued to talk like that together until quite recently – until they died. Besides, that pattern of speech wasn’t so uncommon in novels. And isn’t it all done by sleight of hand – how else would the ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ turn from a hindrance into a help?
MT: The majority of contemporary novels seem to me to be lacking in substance, style and intelligence. I find all these elements – in spades – in your work. But how do you view the literary landscape Rosalind? Am I right generally to be dispirited?
RB: For the past five years – or until Our Horses in Egypt went to press – I read almost nothing but what I needed to read. Military history, memoirs, background. Equine, veterinary, topographical stuff. Ages ago, when I used to read for publishers, I thought myself obliged to keep up with what was being written in fiction. Now I don’t feel any duty. I’ll drop everything to read new works by David Plante and Gabriel Josipovici.
MT: Which of your books is your own personal favourite?
RB: I don’t think I have a favourite. I tend to feel a dull, lasting dislike of certain jackets, or the ache of uncorrected literals and other infelicities. I disown the juvenilia -– the first two. I’m quite pleased for a few months with a finished novel. But I don’t look back with any great personal feeling of satisfaction. When people say nice things, I’m gratified. I look back thinking I could have achieved (i.e. written) more.
MT: One of my favourites is the novel Is Beauty Good which begins in Berlin. Perhaps you could say something about the German influence on your work, Rosalind, despite the apparent very English content of much of your writing.
RB: I remember that the writing of Is Beauty Good amused me. My pleasure in German literature was in full flood. I don’t know whether you noticed in the first chapter a small figure at the foot of the Berlin wall, like a small figure in a large painting? That is my only cameo appearance in my own fiction. In Dreaming of Dead People I’d done what painters had long been free to do – a study of the human figure – but which, in 1979 (superseded by the new edition, Serpent’s Tail 1989), still roused some readers to degrees of shock, disgust, or lasciviousness. Is Beauty Good was inspired by landscape. I’d lost my heart to the mountains of Südtirol – the Italian Alto Adige. The first part was written over a few weeks in summer, during my next visit to the then West Berlin, when the Literararisches Colloquium was kind enough to let me stay in the house with its garden at the edge of the Wannsee – Kleist had killed himself just up the road. The third part, in my subsidised flat in West Berlin in 1987: the DAAD Berliner Künstlerprogramm gave me a grant for a year. What must be detectable in Is Beauty Good is the mesmerising influence of Thomas Bernhard … from which I only just escaped. I’d been reading Beethoven’s conversation books. I’d heard Gabriel’s lecture A Bird was in the Room (see Writing and the Body, Gabriel Josipovici, Harvester Press 1982) about the resonance of the words Kafka, dying, with TB of the larynx, jotted down to communicate with visitors. In my childhood there had been an old lady for whom everything had to be scribbled out laboriously. So that third part takes the form of a deaf man’s ‘conversation book’, complete with abbreviations and ellipses. The concept has caused many readers to stumble. Yet I feel the book isn’t so very hermetic. What I regret is the use of the impersonal third person. I meant it to supply a distancing, detached feel to the narrative. As soon as I saw it in German translation I knew it had been a mistake, an affectation. In Choosing Spectacles it is reduced … perhaps not enough.
MT: It was difficult, in the course of reading Our Horses in Egypt, to see how you could end it in other than a sentimental way – whether Philomena was found or discovered to have died. In fact you end it triumphantly and in a way that is both profoundly moving and not at all sentimental. Did you have that ending in mind from the start? And how difficult was it to write?
RB: It doesn’t do, to be sentimental. I write about characters who don’t believe in ‘giving way’ to sentiment. They think of the animal and not of themselves. A stern code. I outlined, in 2002, this same ending to Penelope Hoare, my much-treasured editor at Chatto. In the event, having become very fond of Philomena, it was indeed hard to bring myself to write it. But everything the book is saying depends upon it. A huge difference, unluckily for me, between dealing with a situation in real life and wielding the metaphorical pen.
MT: How do you write Rosalind? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
RB: I keep in mind the printed page. I try to use the plastic shape of the writing to influence the way it is understood. I try to influence the reader’s take on the story … without actually getting as far in my head as considering that anyone is reading it. I don’t believe one can tell whether a published novel has been written in longhand or straight into a computer. Do you?
MT: What were the principal challenges in writing Our Horses in Egypt, and how did you overcome them?
RB: They were domestic. How did I overcome them? I didn’t. I won’t go into it... There were undoubtedly technical hurdles in the writing – in a narrative third person voice, for instance, that mustn’t drift far from any one character and has to stick close to whichever character, human or equine, is of the moment. The purpose of that is to leave myself with some narrative integrity despite the multiplicity of characters and conventions. But those difficulties would have been predictable. And then, for a year or more, with work on Our Horses in Egypt not finished, I had eye trouble which at the very least was hampering. As for my eyes, they were finally rescued by Jonathan Dowler, consultant ophthalmic surgeon at Moorfields Hospital, a brilliant and most unusual man. For a very long while, too long, I wasn’t sure I could bring the book off. I delivered it about two years late. Speaking of rescue, Penelope Hoare and my agent Anthony Sheil have between them rescued me from an eternity (before Hound Music) of blocks and choking.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
RB: You don’t mean a particular person, do you? That person’s reaction may be horridly disappointing. A hypothetical one? No, never. Hound Music may be relatively accommodating: the sentences are slightly souped up, romanticised … and one of the characters, in defiance of authorial diktat, manages to redeem herself. Speakers of German will pick up many allusions and topographical references in Is Beauty Good that must elude many anglophone readers. Choosing Spectacles speaks to pre-1989 East European exiles. There are moments, incidents, in Our Horses in Egypt which say something to people who know horses and horse management – and are lost on those who do not. I shouldn’t write like this. But I do.