Interview about “The Examiner”
Martin Ruf spoke with Louis Marvick about his new book and also about some fundamental aspects of his work in general.
Let us begin with one of the most characteristic features of a Louis Marvick story, the importance of time and place. Some readers could even get the impression that the first line of a new work of yours is written by a particular historical period or a very specific locale itself. How would you answer such readers?
Anywhere but the present. We’ve been warned not to fall in love with the past, but why should we respect such warnings if we’re writing fiction? An air of times past confers a glamour even on mundane details like flopping on a bed or sitting in a café. But the farther into the past one goes, the harder it is to feel one’s way. ‘Black Wedding’ and ‘The Red Seed’ and ‘The Mirror of Don Ferrante’ all required research, and the challenge was to avoid conspicuous anachronism while still making the old material seem alive. I would say that time is not so definite as place in my stories. Unless something else is needed, I aim for a kind of pre-Great War tone in the setting and the telling because that is where I feel happiest.
Music seems almost as important to your work. Individual pieces of music, the lives of composers and critics (both real and fictitious), and, maybe as an aside, even the musical qualities of verses and of snippets of foreign languages. Could you try to say something about the ways you integrate music in your stories?
I was trained as a cellist and know the repertoire well, grew up on Brahms and Bruckner and Scriabin and Rachmaninoff and in later years have come to love Schubert. Viennese operetta (Kalmán and Lehár) and the Latin American bolero have meant a lot to me. The bolero figured in The ‘Star’ Ushak and Viennese operetta in ‘The Madman of Tosterglope’. I think music lends itself well to spooky intentions because it is immaterial, yet passionate. One can work up the atmosphere yet still be talking about nothing definite. That story about the music camp in Pirna owed a lot to my experience on a cello course at the Salzburg Mozarteum some years ago. In music as in painting and literature, I find I cannot venture very far into modernism.
Foreign languages are a problem. I spend summers in Germany and teach French for a living, but I am not a native speaker of German or French. The danger of memorialising a blunder of usage in a story is very present to me. One of the oddities in ‘Pockets of Emptiness’ came from Dutch place names, which a foreigner can easily confuse. As a precaution, I asked a friend of mine who knows Dutch well to check them. (She said they sounded like ‘funny Dutch names’.) My Spanish is primitive, but I find the lyrics of many boleros extraordinarily beautiful and could not resist the urge to use them in The ‘Star’ Ushak.
Multiple narrative layers; the refraction of the main events in the minds of minor characters; and possibly even the calm flow of your elegant sentences: these are, among others, the means you use to create a distance between the reader and the raw facts of a story. On the other hand you always achieve a great immediacy in what you have to narrate. Could you comment upon this paradox?
I’m glad to hear you say that the immediacy is there! Work that achieves wide popularity is usually written in plain style. The reader isn’t supposed to pay attention to the language, which the author tries to make transparent. I enjoy reading stories like that, but I can’t write that way. I work the verbal surface, and the result demands an effort from the reader. In my twenties I was very keen on Joseph Conrad, and I remember the tug of pleasure I felt when a critic remarked that his stories were ‘not so much told as glimpsed intermittently through a haze of sentences’. I can’t remember clearly what happens in any of his books. Can you? Even while reading them, I wasn’t sure what was going on. The same could be said of Thomas De Quincey: it doesn’t really matter what he’s writing about; the point of his writing is to be beautiful. There’s a similar profuseness about Maturin and Le Fanu, despite their intensity. All four of them seem by their example to give a little writer like me permission to expatiate.
Maybe this is the place to mention my basically conservative outlook. The constraint of conventions has been helpful to me. The ghost story particularly is a narrow genre which (in my view) doesn’t welcome radical innovation. When I was young, I tried to write fiction about ‘real life’, that is, fiction not conditioned by the requirements of a genre. I couldn’t do it. But the narrow aim of the ghost story freed me to be inventive within its constraints. In general, I think that the constraint of form is a good thing in the arts. So much premium is placed nowadays on being ‘creative’ at all costs, on producing something unlike everything else; and the impulse is often indulged where no sign of skill or talent can be found. Do I sound like a bitter old man? Then I’ll darken the picture still further. Goethe somewhere says that it would be best if most people simply resisted the urge to create, since all they produce by indulging it is rubbish. I realise this view is repressive and undemocratic, but I share it, especially when I hear somebody who is not Jimmy Page whacking away on his electric guitar.
Not all of your characters are loners, but many of them are isolated in one way or another, even if they are so for only a limited period of time. Obviously, this isolation makes them susceptible to rather unpleasant experiences. Does it create an openness towards different experiences as well? And what could they be? A related point: the ending of almost all of your stories invites in equal measure at least two different readings, the psychological and the supernatural. Could it be that you have a predilection for this particular kind of literary ambiguity?
I suppose the protagonists are mostly versions of myself. No wife, no children, getting older and with experience of depression (I’m all right now, though!). The difference between them and me must be in the location of the ‘unpleasant experiences’ you mention. In fiction, one is free to give a form outside one’s mind to persecuting forces that, in real life, are entirely internal. Surely that’s the principle of all the great ‘uncanny’ stories. In ‘Der Sandmann’, ‘The Turn of the Screw’ or ‘Green Tea’ one asks, Is the narrator mad or are these things really happening? So, if I tend to work this vein especially, it’s because it comes naturally to me. I find it harder to develop a story in which the menace is firmly posited outside the character’s mind.‘
Different experiences’—do you mean happier ones? I have tried to take a positive turn in the new story. I wanted there to be camaraderie and friendship among the investigators, including the wise old man, Diderot. To tell you the truth, the model I had in mind was the old Canadian television show, Friday the 13th: The Series. I just loved the rapport among the principals, Ryan, Micki and Jack, and the atmospheric production (‘Curious Goods’).
It cannot be helped, we have to talk about the darkest aspect of your work, violence, vendettas, cruelty, atrocities.
I write the cruel and ugly parts of my stories unwillingly. For example, I could hardly bring myself to finish ‘The Red Seed’. But the conventions of scary stories demand ugly moments; think of the ‘odious writhings’ of the wasp in M. R. James. For me, ugliness is a powerful spice to be used with discretion. The predominant tone of my work is meant to be beautiful; I want the reader to be happy reading it. It seems to me there is too much promiscuous violence and ugliness and cruelty about, that swamps every other effect like too much hot pepper in a dish.
But that is not really a satisfactory answer because it reduces ‘violence, cruelty, atrocities’ to a matter of taste. They are more than that. It is difficult to write about them without participating in their spirit, and that complicity is troubling. The truth may be that one has to have a streak of cruelty in one to write well about cruelty.
The first episodes of your new serial, ‘The Friendly Examiner’, add surprising aspects to your body of work. Could you describe some of them?
I love the eighteenth century, and it struck me that the rational tone of the age would make a good foil for uncanny goings-on. Why not have the hero be a rational investigator of apparently inexplicable events? Also, I thought it would be fun to write a pastiche of Augustan style, with consciously placed subordinate clauses, unnecessary amplifications and the like. In developing each episode, my aim was to emulate the pace and humour of Smollett while still tending towards the gloomier effects of the end of the century. (The title, by the way, is from Oliver Goldsmith: he planned to start a newspaper called ‘The Friendly Examiner’.) The learned footnotes are written tongue-in-cheek, of course, and sometimes work to undermine the verisimilitude of the story; but they also show its roots in real eighteenth-century sources and link it to my scholarly work. When my doctoral dissertation was published thirty years ago, one reviewer said it was ‘carelessly punctuated’. In fact, it was the opposite of that; it was over-punctuated, on purpose, on the model of Ann Radcliffe, whose measured style I admired back then.
The names of all my characters have a private significance. Sometimes I am taken with a name and the character grows out of it. The whole of The ‘Star’ Ushak grew out of the names of the principals, which the publisher later made me change: Pelikan Styles and Erwin Carstairs. The other great encouragement for me in that first effort was Sax Rohmer. I admired his dashing style, the way he draws his female characters and his trick of propelling the story by piling one coup de théâtre on another. Robert Aickman also showed me that a story does not have to be resolved in order to be effective. That was a liberating lesson, though I think the principle can be abused. I often begin a story with two or three unrelated themes in mind and an intention to combine them somehow, but with no sense of where the story will go; the ending only becomes clear to me as I approach it.
Another aim in ‘The Friendly Examiner’ was to present the heroine, Fabienne, as a physical and intellectual paragon. It amused me to have her impossible beauty and brilliance affect the action, which stops at times because the men around her are too stunned to carry on. I intended something similar with the character of Ilona Golmassian in The ‘Star’ Ushak. The model for her disruptive power was Isis Klaw in The Dream Detective, though Ilona Golmassian herself was drawn from a friend who looks just like her, a writer and singer in Las Vegas.
But nobody should deceive themselves: there also darker traits. At times not Smollett but Jonathan Swift came to my mind. Or am I spoiled by the more severe satirical parts of some earlier stories of yours?
I see what you mean about the ‘satirical parts’ of my earlier stories. They weren’t planned to be that way and I’m not sure they make the stories more effective. I was just following an impulse. At the Dublin Ghost Story Festival this year I asked the panel if humour interfered with the aim of frightening the reader. I think it does. ‘The Canterville Ghost’ isn’t scary, nor are Richard Middleton’s humorous ghost stories. I’m tempted to say that Le Fanu (the best of all) is humourless. (Is that true?) Poe had a kind of heavy-handed humour, but I don’t recall that he used it in his scary stories. The only exception I can think of is Bernard Capes. There’s a ferocious, angry humour in ‘The Green Bottle’ that adds to the reader’s agitation.
You’ve just mentioned the uncanny goings-on in your new novel. It might be useful to add at least one remark without giving too much away. You seriously should warn readers with arachnophobia, don’t you think?
Watch out, they’re coming for you!… The best preparation I can think of is to read Erckmann-Chatrian’s ‘L’Araignée crabe’ (1860), reprinted as ‘The Crab Spider’ in Hugh Lamb’s The Taste of Fear (1976). The bite of that story will inoculate you against the milder one of mine.
Louis Marvick, thank you very much for this interview.
It was my pleasure, Martin.