Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder and Men in Space
Below is the third part of my week-long interview with Tom McCarthy:
Mark Thwaite: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your novels? Have you learned anything from them?
Tom McCarthy: I’m interested in people’s readings of the books. A novel doesn’t end when it’s written; in a way, that’s just the beginning: the ‘meaning’ isn’t enclosed within it but emerges from its meeting with other texts, other moments – all textbook deconstruction stuff, I know, but no less true for that. Having said that, some readings are much more productive than others. Ones that interpret Remainder, for example, as a straight allegory or ‘solve’ it by suggesting that the hero’s dead but doesn’t know it yet are interesting but limited. The critic Andrew Gibson, who’s just put out a book on Beckett and Badiou, told me that my work is about ‘the radical death of the world,’ adding that this is the theme of twenty-first century philosophy. I’m not sure I understand what he means but it sounds really good.
MT: Remainder is a very philosophical novel. What first drew you to Continental Philosophy, to Blanchot et al?
TM: It’s such great stuff. The English empirical tradition is just bean-counting; it’s got nothing to do with proper thought. Real philosophy throws us radically and dynamically into the world, into language and experience, through desire towards death and so on. That’s why Heidegger, Levinas, Blanchot, Derrida – and Badiou too – are real philosophers. What draws me also is the centrality of literature to this tradition. Heidegger develops half his ideas from the poetry of Hölderlin or Gottfried Benn, Derrida from exquisitely close and creative readings of Genet, Ponge and Baudelaire. Where does the ‘philosophy’ end and ‘literature’ begin? The Post Card is a love-poem to rival anything by John Donne – only it’s not a poem; so what is it? And how do we categorise Edmond Jabès’s work? Criticism? Prose-poetry? ‘Meta-writing’? In good philosophy, the question of literature is always ‘live’, and ditto the other way round.
MT: You've said that you think the novel is safer in the hands of artists than with writers -- what did you mean by that?
TM: I don’t think that’s always the case; it’s all contingent. But with mainstream UK publishing becoming just the middle-brow branch of the corporate entertainment industry, the writers promoted by the big houses tend to be ones who are using the format of the novel to serve up nicely-packaged but quite unambiguous ‘thoughts’, or pat liberal ‘questions’ that bring their own answers with them – in other words, purging literature of the slipperiness, recalcitrance, abjection and a million other things that make it literary. Conversely, art’s become an arena where these very things are valued, and artists (as I think I said in our last conversation) are becoming more and more literate – and even using text and narrative in their work. Things move in cycles; maybe in fifty years time art will be all dumb and corporate and publishing dynamic and subversive, who knows? But at the moment, yes, it’s art and its networks that are curating literature – ‘curating’ in the classical sense of keeping it safe, letting it develop.