Well, I’m pleased to say that my second novel, The Descent of the Lyre, is now published, and so I thought in honour of the occasion I would post the following interview that first saw the light of day over on Necessary Fiction.
The interview that follows was conducted by my one and only pseudonym (or perhaps my heteronym), Lupe Varos. I invented Varos back in 2006, when I was running a small literary magazine and, not having enough content, decided to publish one of my stories under a pseudonym. Back then, Varos was based in the Atlas mountains of Morocco, where he was working as an English teacher. Now, by an astonishing stroke of luck, I have tracked him down to where he is currently living, and it happens to be in the Rodopi mountains of Bulgaria, which is precisely where the Lyre is set. Where would the world of fiction be without such remarkable coincidences? And Varos has kindly offered to interview me. It’s all very postmodern, don’t you know…
The following interview was conducted by fax, as Varos does not use email. He’s funny that way. We faxed and refaxed drafts of the interview between Bulgaria and the UK until we were both happy with the text. It was an arduous process, but worth it in the end, I think.
LV: Your new novel is set in the Rodopi mountains, which happens to now be my home. What is the novel about, and why set a novel here?
WB: I think I first visited the Rhodopes in 2005—whilst you were in Morocco, if my memory serves me right—for a short break, and I was immediately struck by the rich relationship there is here between landscape, memory, myth and music. It’s an extraordinary part of the world. Whilst on that first trip, I visited Gela, which is said to be the home village of Orpheus, as well as the Devil’s Throat cave, where the ancient musician is said to have entered the underworld. I was intrigued enough to come back to Bulgaria the year after, and then the year after that.
LV: Three trips?
WB: Indeed. The first was a holiday although, as a writer, I don’t really think of holidays as holidays: I’m always on the lookout for new stories, thoughts and possibilities. The second was a short trip. I was attending a philosophy conference at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, and so I took a few extra days to travel in the country. Then the third trip was a more extended journey, in 2007, across Europe by train, which was specifically for the purposes of researching the book.
LV: Was it a conference about Bulgarian philosophy?
WB: No. French/Lithuanian. Emmanuel Levinas. It was the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. I remember lots of very long papers, simultaneously translated. It was a kind of asceticism.
LV: Let’s get back to Orpheus. You say that your novel The Descent of the Lyre is a reinvention of the myths of Orpheus. In what way?
WB: I am a classical guitarist, and so the Orpheus myth is one that has long had a resonance for me. What strikes me about the tale of Orpheus—and about the related Greek myths—is how it combines an extraordinary violence, a sense of loss and longing, a concern with religion, and a preoccupation with music as both that which is born out of violence, and that which might allow violence to be stilled. It seems to be a myth, in other words, that has what Lorca calls “duende”.
As a reinvention, these components are still there in the book, but shuffled around somewhat, so that the book touches on the myth repeatedly without following exactly the same kind of trajectory.
LV: We’re getting very abstract. How about stopping all that philosophy for a moment and telling me what the book is about?
WB: Well, you were the one who asked about philosophy… but, OK. Point taken. The book follows the fortunes of Ivan Gelski—Ivan of Gela—who leaves his village after the abduction of his bride-to-be and becomes a haidut.
LV: A bandit?
WB: Exactly. This is the early nineteenth century. Ivan Gelski takes to the hills, where he leads a small band of marauders, seeking revenge for his stolen bride. But things change when his companions abduct a Jewish guitarist, who plays extraordinary music that manages to still Ivan’s hunger for vengeance.
LV: Wait a minute—what’s a Jewish guitarist doing in the Rodopi mountains in the early nineteenth century?
WB: Well, it’s a complex story; but the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II was engaged at the time in the reform of Turkish music—there’s quite a long and intricate history of musical cross-fertilisation between the Ottoman empire and Europe, and all of this is touched on in the book, but perhaps it is a little too intricate to go into here. Anyway, this is why the guitarist, Solomon Kuretic, was heading to Constantinople. The rest is history. Or, perhaps, fiction.
LV: As the book proceeds, Ivan himself turns to the guitar.
WB: Yes. I don’t want to give the whole story away, but the encounter with Solomon is central to the whole novel. It is what precipitates Ivan on a course that leads to his fame and later to a strange kind of sainthood.
LV: Religion seems to be one of your preoccupations, not just here but in other things you have written as well…
WB: Yes. What can I say? As an atheist child of the clergy (there are lots of us out there), religion is inescapable for me.
LV: So you are a spiritual writer, or a writer concerned with the spiritual?
WB: Good heavens, no! I find the language of “spirituality” oddly enervating. I have no taste for it. Lots of people talk about being “spiritual but not religious.” If anything, I am the opposite: religious without being spiritual. That’s not to say that I have religious beliefs; but I am fascinated by religion. Religion, for me, is a matter of magnificent frocks and cassocks; it is the music of gongs, bells, guitars, choirs and so forth; it is strange rituals and wonderful buildings and peculiar societies of oddball individuals; it is a multitude of experiments in living, some relatively sensible, some utterly bizarre; and it is a huge and fertile mass of stories. Compared with all this stuff, the airy nothings of the “spiritual” seem unappealing to me.
LV: You talk about ‘stuff’: is this some kind of materialist view of religion?
WB: Yes, but with the qualification that stuff is wondrous and exciting and rich and strange, rather than heavy and lumpen and empty of meaning. Sometimes I think I’m not so much a materialist as a “thing-ist”. I like things.
LV: So how does this play out in the book?
WB: Well, in a few ways. For example, there’s a character called Bogdan who loves only those things he can touch, those things he can feel with his hands. I’m rather fond of Bogdan’s approach to things. In terms of the apparently “religious” dimensions of the book, the story begins with a curious evocation of a visit to a hillside chapel, and an encounter with a saint with a guitar and bandaged hands. This might seem as if it is setting the book up as somehow “spiritual”; however I think by the end it is clear that something else is going on. Nevertheless, this image of the saint becomes the guiding image for the book, although by the book’s end, despite all the miracles and strange happenings, I think I haven’t departed too far from the kind of “religious but not spiritual” thing-ism that interests me.
LV: Does the chapel exist? I’d like to visit it.
WB: Yes, it does. It’s not far from the monastery at Bachkovo. Just up the hill, in fact.
LV: Oh, that’s pretty close. I might go and visit when I have a spare moment. And what about the saint?
WB: So you mean does he exist? Well, he does now. Before I started to write the book, I decided to paint an icon of him, to give me a sense of what I was writing about. I’ll let you see the image, although I should warn you that—despite four years in art college—I’m far from being a decent artist.
LV: That’s a strange image.
WB: Indeed. Strange, and not very well-painted.
LV: What were you doing for those four years in art college if you were not learning to paint?
WB: That’s a very good question. I was mainly hiding away and reading books. It was a good education.
LV: OK. Let me get back to the question of stories and storytelling. You say that one of the reasons for your fascination with religion is that religion involves a seething mass of stories.
WB: Yes. I’m excessively preoccupied with stories. I work in both fiction and philosophy, and I like to think that what I do can be divided into two kinds of activity. On the one hand, I am concerned with story-like philosophies. And on the other hand, I write philosophical stories. This doesn’t mean that I shoehorn Kant into everything I write, of course (although jokes about Kant are always welcome in novels), but it does mean that everything I do seems to come from one or other—or both—of these directions.
LV: I’d like to hear more about your relationship with the guitar. You have been playing for—how long?
WB: About thirty years. On and off, of course. When I was at school, I used to get up early in the morning, around six, and practice for an hour or two. Every day, without fail. I was very committed. I did that for about seven years. Sometimes back then I thought I might become a professional guitarist. But I neither had the fingernails nor the determination. I play less these days, and I’m very rusty; but guitar music has been an important part of my life. It’s an extraordinarily intimate instrument, I think.
LV: In the book, one of your characters starts to write a history of the guitar, also called The Descent of the Lyre, which begins by making a link between the guitar and violence. What is this link?
WB: Well, it’s there in the myths of Hermes creating the lyre. It’s there in the tales of Orpheus. And it’s there in Lorca as well, of course: both in his poetry, and in his life as well, I think.
LV: In the book there are a number of recognisable historical characters: Fernando Sor the guitarist; Antoine Meissonnier the publisher and composer; Karl Toepfer the guitarist and philosopher; Félicité Hullin the dancer. How did you research the book?
WB: Fairly meticulously, I hope. There were the three trips to Bulgaria. I also spent time in Paris and Vienna. The UK Arts Council funded the final research trip, which was invaluable. I bought some very solid boots with a part of the grant, so that I could tramp over hillsides. They were excellent boots. That was five years ago, and I am still wearing them today. I did a fair amount of archival research as well, because it is important to get things right; but I didn’t need any special footwear for that bit.
For me, writing fiction is a kind of research. It is a testing out of ideas in relation to the wider world. It is a kind of exploration. If my writing stopped feeling exploratory, I’d stop writing, which is why my books are all rather different from each other. One of the biggest challenges with The Descent of the Lyre was making sure that the story I was telling was one that was in harmony with the actual historical events. I drew a lot of time-lines. But—no doubt—there will be mistakes. There are always mistakes.
Getting to grips, even ever so slightly, with the language certainly helped. Back in 2007, when I carried out much of the research, I spoke at least some Bulgarian, although it’s currently been pushed out of the way by the Chinese I am learning for another project, so I’ve forgotten most of it, or else when I remember it I stick bits of Chinese in, which leads to terrible confusion.
There were other kinds of research too. Painting the icon was a kind of research, as was the few days that I spent writing an imaginary lost musical work of Fernando Sor. The score for this piece actually appears in final version of the book (although I only realised after the last proofs had gone off that I had included the wrong draft of the score — something that will matter only to sharp-eyed musical purists…).
LV: The Descent of the Lyre is out now. Are you working on anything else at the moment?
WB: Well, there’s a philosophy book that is for enthusiasts only, called Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling. Then there’s my children’s book, The Snorgh and the Sailor which is just out, and seems to be doing well, so I’m wondering about working more in that particular world. I have a couple of projects in the area of children’s writing that I am following up on. And I’m also doing a book of stories – a ‘novel of sorts’, I am calling it – based around the Yijing or Chinese Book of Changes, hence the Chinese-learning. This has been fascinating, although it’s a curious hybrid of a book, so who knows who will publish it. In fact, it contains one of your stories.
LV: One of mine?
WB: Yes—that one about the apple pie and the old woman that I published back in 2006 or so.
LV: It would have been polite to ask permission first.
WB: Yes, I know. But you are very hard to track down.
LV: Fair enough. Let me finish by asking you about Bulgaria, which—as you know—is now my home. Are you planning to return any time soon?
WB: Is that an invite?
LV: You’d be welcome any time. Life here is good. At this very moment, I’m looking out over the hillside, a glass of rakiya in my hand, a shopska salata in front of me…
WB: Well, I’d love to, of course. It would be good to blow the cobwebs off my poor Bulgarian language, and I have friends in Bulgaria who it would be good to catch up with. Perhaps if the book is translated into Bulgarian, I can come over for a launch.
LV: If you do that, I will interview you in the flesh. No faxes.
WB: That would be wonderful!
LV: Well, let’s see what happens…