Moving into that GK Chesterton space

Image: (Agence France-Presse, 4 May 2020): “The 93-year-old, whose original name is Joseph Ratzinger, said in Benedict XVI – A Life he had fallen victim to a “malignant distortion of reality” in reactions to his interventions in theological debates.”

Nicholas Wroe interviewed Piers Paul Read for The Guardian of 3 Jul 2010:

“In Julian Barnes’s book meditating on death, Nothing to be Frightened Of, there is a lunch-party scene at which one of the guests, a writer identified only as P-, shocks a table of middle-aged agnostics with his concern that as a practising Catholic he was likely to be separated after death from his wife and four children, who were all unbelievers. “Yes, that was me worrying about my family going to hell,” smiles Piers Paul Read, looking remarkably sanguine in the Shepherd’s Bush home he shares with his wife of 43 years, Emily. “If you believe in Catholicism as I do, and a hell for unrepentant sinners, then you also have to believe that it could be your children in there. Not that it’s something I have to think about every day. Catholicism is sort of regarded as ‘Dad’s hobby’ within the family and the rest of them prefer not to talk about it too much. But even if it is more often a notional than an actual worry, it’s still a nasty thought”.

Read has always been an explicitly Catholic novelist and from the mid 1960s through to the mid 80s his books – repeatedly dealing with vexed moral choices, often pitting an individual against explicitly or tacitly malign social systems, often featuring generous dollops of sex – ensured he progressed smoothly from interesting new voice to respected literary figure to mainstream favourite via lavish TV adaptations of novels such as A Married Man and The Free Frenchman. And while his fiction was well reviewed and enjoyed healthy sales, his excursions into non-fiction made him both rich and internationally famous, with his account of Andes plane crash survivors resorting to cannibalism, Alive (1974), going on to become a hit movie.

But as the 1980s went on, Read seemed to become more the leading Catholic spokesman – of a very traditional type – who wrote books, rather than the leading novelist who happened to be Catholic. His social and religious conservatism fuelled “why-oh-why” columns in the Daily Mail denouncing homosexuality and feminism. He still had literary supporters, with DJ Taylor, Rachel Cusk and Anne Tyler all writing admiringly of his novels, but Read had become a more marginal artistic figure, and two years ago, after completing a new novel, the thrillerish The Death of a Pope, both his publisher and agent were concerned it was too Catholic and would not appeal to a wider readership. It was eventually published in America by the specialist Ignatius Press.

However, Read’s 16th and latest novel, The Misogynist, is published this month by the mainstream house Bloomsbury. He says the leading character, Jomier, is based “a bit on myself and a bit on some people I know. We both live the wrong side of Shepherd’s Bush, but the drains don’t back up in my house. He’s a divorced atheist and I’m a married Catholic. But we do share some views on modern life.”

The book was, loosely, inspired by 19th-century Brazilian writer Machado de Assis’s The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas. “It’s about a deeply disillusioned man,” Read says. “This disillusionment in worldly things is so profound that all the false gods are knocked down as vain and futile. In the end you are left with no room for anything but God, and I wondered how Bras Cubas would fare today. What would he make of morally relativistic modern Britain?”

Not that all the changes to British society Read has witnessed over the past half-century have been bad. “Things are less socially coercive now,” he concedes. “That’s a good thing. And while I do have some sympathy for the white British working class, and think that the liberal intolerance of anyone who suggests any kind of criticism of immigration is unfair, I do like the new multiracial Britain. Overall, immigration has been a force for good.” But as for feminism . . . “Quite apart from theology or dogma, I do think children are extraordinarily vulnerable and I think they are the victims of the triumph of feminism in that it is partly to blame for the huge statistics of the breakup of marriages and relationships of people who didn’t get married. I would argue that the nurturing of children is more important than anything else, and I think it is very hard for women to pursue a career and bring up children.”

While he says “up to a point” he enjoys enraging liberal opinion, “I don’t believe feminism has made women happy, and I think some younger women are now seeing things differently to the Germaine Greer generation. Of course, I did have a rather powerful, bullying and intense mother. So it’s possible that I’m projecting my complexes on to the situation. I don’t think that’s the case, but it is another reason to write fiction. From a money point of view, I should have gone on writing factual books. But novels are ultimately a more satisfying experience. You can deal with those things that really matter to you. And when it works, the novel that emerges comes from the very marrow of your bones.”

Read was born in 1941 and although baptised Piers, is variously called Jiminy or Jay by family and friends. His father was the writer, publisher, art historian and anarchist Sir Herbert Read. His mother was Margaret Ludwig, a Catholic convert of German, Irish, Scottish and Italian origins. Read says that while his father operated in louche artistic circles and had “ditched his first wife to be with my mother, slightly in the liberated spirit of Shelley or Gauguin”, he had been born and brought up in the 19th century and deep down had a “rather prudish” approach to life. His mother was the opposite. “On the surface she was Catholic and very strict, but she had run off with a married man and underneath had all these passions bubbling up.”

When Read was eight the family moved from Beaconsfield to North Yorkshire where his father had been brought up. Read was sent to the “Catholic Eton” of Ampleforth College and the family were plunged into the local gentry “where some of our neighbours changed for dinner, even when alone. It was quite traumatic. Not so much for my father who kept very aloof, but my mother was a bit edgy about English class attitudes. My novel The Upstart is based on my experiences of the snobbery of worrying about saying the wrong thing. It was almost a 19th-century society and I knew exactly what those social-climbing young men in Maupassant and Stendhal were talking about and would get frightfully excited myself about an invitation to the Duchess of Devonshire’s ball. But I gave it all up a long time ago. I sort of climbed up, looked over and then began climbing down again.”

In 1959 Read went to Cambridge to read history, where he came under the influence of the radical Catholic faction – as did Terry Eagleton at about the same time – clustered around the “sort of Catholic Marxist” magazine, Slant. He was still on the left in 1963 when he met Tom Stoppard on a Ford Foundation scholarship for young writers in Berlin. “He looked like a well-behaved English public schoolboy with smooth parted hair and a nice face,” says Stoppard. “In fact he today looks like a pleasantly ruined version of the boy he always was. But behind that nice face was a mind that was very critical. He had severe standards and was caustic about people in public life and the way things were run. But I did like him enormously.”

Read’s austere outlook has been variously characterised – by friends as much as anyone – as “snobbish”, “priggish” and “too obviously born to the purple”. But the journalist Alexander Chancellor, a friend since Cambridge, agrees with Stoppard that despite sometimes sounding “over censorious, he is actually incredibly warm hearted and very forgiving. And while this sense of morality shines through, he also doesn’t shy away from some fairly disgusting sex in the books.” Read says after having got over the hurdle of embarrassment at his mother reading his early books, he is now having to deal with the embarrassment of his grandchildren reading the sex scenes in the new books. After a “brief and hopeless” spell as a sub editor at the TLS, Read published his first novel, Game in Heaven with Tussy Marx, in 1966. Stoppard, with whom he shared a London flat after Berlin, says he read the books as they came out, “and I considered him one of the gang of really good novelists. And this commentator role he has assumed for himself is sort of admirable in that he writes with such confidence and conviction from a position that very few intellectual contemporaries would be able to take up. In other words absolute faith in God. And that’s the central fault line between him and many other people. Their view is that the here and now is all we’ve got. He says this is not all we’ve got.”

Read says when he began to write at least part of the motivation was “to show off. I was a shy, plump, spotty youth who had these turbulent emotions inside and it was a way of expressing them. And there was a little bit of attempting to sift and understand the world”. His 1968 novel, The Junkers, won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial prize and dealt with post-war Germany. “I wanted to know how had these people, with whom I shared blood, managed to perpetrate these appalling things during the war?” His novels Polonaiseand The Free Frenchman were also set in the context of the second world war. “I kept going back to it. The Holocaust really was a historically exceptional and appalling event.”

Any success with his novels, however, was dwarfed by the five million sales of Alive, with Read earning 25% of the royalties with the rest spilt between the 16 survivors. “It was wonderful to be so popular but it probably damaged my career as a literary author. I was a fashionable young novelist, but the fact that I wrote different sorts of books didn’t help. For instance Alive appealed to young men who liked true adventure stories, but my next book, Polonaise, was a novel about a sexually perverted Polish intellectual. Each book seemed to lose the market gained by the previous one. But at least Alive allowed me to live a comfortable life and raise four children.”

He was approached to write Alive because his faith was thought to be an advantage in the near confessional circumstances of getting the stories out of the survivors. He has also written about the great train robbery and Chernobyl, but other non-fiction books have had overt Catholic themes including a study of the Church itself, the Templars, and an authorised biography of Alec Guinness which revealed unexpected information about Guinness’s sexuality. Read is currently researching the tensions between Catholicism and Judaism as they related to the Dreyfus affair.

Although always a churchgoer, Read says it wasn’t until the 80s, when he was attending a church in Notting Hill with a radical liberation theologian priest, that he took sides in church debate. “I was very surprised at the things we were meant to believe. This was a social Christianity that played down the sacramental side of things.” Read fell out with close family friend Graham Greene over Greene’s support for liberation theology. “I thought the Jesuits had incited these wretched peasants to pick up Kalashnikovs and the result was that they got killed. Graham had great charm, but his attitude to women was very immature and his Catholicism doubtful. ‘Jesus died for sinners therefore we must sin to make his death worthwhile.’ That’s not at all my sort of thing.”

Long before Cardinal Ratzinger became pope, Read had admired him as “offering a lifeline. He made me realise that this alternative magisterium held by some English bishops and modern theologians was not the true faith”. The Catholic writer Mary Kenny says Read is “a genuinely countercultural figure in that a lot of Catholics would be embarrassed to sound so archaic. But he has a refreshingly deep belief and has sort of moved into that GK Chesterton space of being the wise elder with enough integrity to fly the traditional flag.” Read describes the sex scandals currently convulsing the church as “a terrible lurking virus” but says the attempts to pin the blame on the current pope “is just bad journalism. There were worse cases which the last pope simply wouldn’t believe. Ratzinger has attempted to crack down”.

By the mid 70s Read’s leftwing politics had migrated to mainstream Labour party allegiance, but he fell out with the party over Europe and was canvassing for the Liberals when he voted for Mrs Thatcher at the 1979 election. Although still on the right today, “my politics vacillate all over the place. For instance I think the difference between the rich and the poor in this country is appalling and it is extraordinary that the poor are so quiescent about it.”

He says his Daily Mail columns “probably didn’t help when it came to the way my novels were received. The Mail doesn’t like nuance and I came over as very reactionary and homophobic. That said, I recently had lunch with some Catholic writers and someone said we must all practise what we preach. I thought that was a very Protestant idea.” He says Catholic cultures are in practice often much more flexible than Protestant. “I do support church teaching, but in terms of pastoral care people can be much more easy-going. I have a gay friend who was at Ampleforth with me who completely agrees with both me and Cardinal Ratzinger about the morality of gay sex. Not for a minute does he think he is doing the right thing. But he has still had a rather wild life.”

But the change in moral values still dismays him. “In the 1950s we were still pretty much a Christian society. Now we are sort of an anti-Christian society. And the changes in sexual morality have led directly to the breakup of families and it is children who suffer the most. So I suppose The Misogynist is a Catholic novel in that it is meant to be an ironic indictment of the permissive society. Maybe it’s a little near the edge at times, but it’s meant to have a comic tone. I love irony and have used it a lot. I know that sometimes people don’t get it, but, despite evidence to the contrary, I really do think it’s better to laugh than to cry.”.”

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