Interviews

Joyce Cary, The Art of Fiction No. 7

Interviewed by John Burrows & Alex Hamilton

Joyce Cary, a sprightly man with an impish crown of gray hair set at a jaunty angle on the back of his head, lives in a high and rather gloomy house in North Oxford. Extremely animated, Mr. Cary’s movements are decisive, uncompromising, and retain some of the brisk alertness of his military career. His speech is overwhelming: voluminous and without hesitation or effort. His rather high voice commands attention, but is expressive and emphatic enough to be a little hard to follow. He is a compactly built, angular man with a keen, determined face, sharp, humorous eyes, and well-defined features. His quick and energetic expressions and bearing create the feeling that it is easier for him to move about than to sit still, and easier to talk than to be silent, even though, like most good talkers, he is a creative and intelligent listener.

His house, a Victorian building with pointed Gothic windows and dark prominent gables, stands opposite the University cricket ground, and just by Keble College. It is a characteristically North Oxford house, contriving to form part of a row without any appearance of being aware of its neighbors. It lies only a little back from the road, behind a small overgrown garden, thick with bushes. The house and garden have all the air of being obstinately “property,” self-contained and a little severe. So we weren’t really surprised at having to wait on the porch and ring away at the bell three or four times, or to learn, when Mr. Cary himself eventually opened the door, that his housekeeper was deaf. A very large grand piano half fills the comfortable room into which we were led. It has one lamp for the treble, another for the bass. The standard of comfort is that of a successful member of the professional class; the atmosphere a little Edwardian, solid, comfortable, unpretentious, with no obtrusive bric-a-brac. Along one wall is a group of representational paintings done by Cary himself in the past. He has, he says, no time for painting now. He is the kind of man who knows exactly what he has time for. So we got down to the questions right away.

 

INTERVIEWER

Have you by any chance been shown a copy of Barbara Hardy’s essay on your novels in the latest number of Essays in Criticism?

JOYCE CARY

On “Form.” Yes I saw it. Quite good, I thought.

INTERVIEWER

Well, setting the matter of form aside for the moment, we were interested in her attempt to relate you to the tradition of the family chronicle. Is it in fact your conscious intention to recreate what she calls the pseudo-saga?

CARY

Did she say that? Must have skipped that bit.

INTERVIEWER

Well, she didn’t say “consciously,” but we were interested to know whether this was your intention.

CARY

You mean, did I intend to follow up Galsworthy and Walpole? Oh, no, no, no. Family life, no. Family life just goes on. Toughest thing in the world. But of course it is also the microcosm of a world. You get everything there—birth, life, death, love and jealousy, conflict of wills, of authority and freedom, the new and the old. And I always choose the biggest stage possible for my theme.

INTERVIEWER

What about the eighteenth-century novelists? Someone vaguely suggested that you recaptured their spirit, or something of that kind.

CARY

Vaguely is the word. I don’t know who I’m like. I’ve been called a metaphysical novelist, and if that means I have a fairly clear and comprehensive idea of the world I’m writing about, I suppose that’s true.

INTERVIEWER

You mean an idea about the nature of the world that guides the actions of the characters you are creating?

CARY

Not so much the ideas as their background. I don’t care for philosophers in books. They are always bores. A novel should be an experience and convey an emotional truth rather than arguments.

INTERVIEWER

Background—you said background.

CARY

The whole setup—character—of the world as we know it. Roughly, for me, the principal fact of life is the free mind. For good and evil, man is a free creative spirit. This produces the very queer world we live in, a world in continuous creation and therefore continuous change and insecurity. A perpetually new and lively world, but a dangerous one, full of tragedy and injustice. A world in everlasting conflict between the new idea and the old allegiances, new arts and new inventions against the old establishment.

INTERVIEWER

Miss Hardy complains that the form shows too clearly in your novels.

CARY

Others complain that I don’t make the fundamental idea plain enough. This is every writer’s dilemma. Your form is your meaning, and your meaning dictates the form. But what you try to convey is reality—the fact plus the feeling, a total complex experience of a real world. If you make your scheme too explicit, the framework shows and the book dies. If you hide it too thoroughly, the book has no meaning and therefore no form. It is a mess.

INTERVIEWER

How does this problem apply in The Moonlight?

CARY

I was dealing there with the contrast between conventional systems in different centuries—systems created by man’s imagination to secure their lives and give them what they seek from life.

INTERVIEWER

Didn’t the critics call Rose a tyrant?

CARY

Oh, they were completely wrong about Rose. She was a Victorian accepting the religion and the conventions of her time and sacrificing her own happiness to carry them out. A fine woman. And no more of a tyrant than any parent who tries to guide a child in the right path. That religion, that system, has gone, but it was thoroughly good and efficient in its own time. I mean, it gave people good lives and probably all the happiness that can be achieved for anybody in this world.

INTERVIEWER

Are the political aspects of your work controlled by the same ideas?

CARY

Religion is organized to satisfy and guide the soul—politics does the same thing for the body. Of course they overlap—this is a very rough description. But the politician is responsible for law, for physical security, and in a world of tumult, of perpetual conflict, he has the alternatives, roughly again, of persuading people or shooting them. In the democracies, we persuade. And this gives great power to the spellbinder, the artist in words, the preacher, the demagogue, whatever you call him. Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy, these were great spellbinders—as well as Lacordaire. My Nimmo is a typical spellbinder. Bonser was a spellbinder in business, the man of imagination. He was also a crook, but so are many spellbinders. Poets have started most of the revolutions, especially nationalist revolutions. On the other hand, life would die without poets, and democracy must have its spellbinders.

INTERVIEWER

Roosevelt?

CARY

Yes, look what he did—and compare him with Wilson. Wilson was a good man, but he hadn’t the genius of the spellbinder—the art of getting at people and moving the crowd.

INTERVIEWER

Is Nimmo based on Roosevelt?

CARY

No, he belongs to the type of all of them—Juárez, Lloyd George, Bevan, Sankey and Moody, Billy Graham.

INTERVIEWER

Do you base your characters on people you know?

CARY

Never, you can’t. You may get single hints. But real people are too complex and too disorganized for books. They aren’t simple enough. Look at all the great heroes and heroines, Tom Jones, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Baron de Charlus, Catherine Linton: They are essentially characters from fable, and so they must be to take their place in a formal construction that is to have a meaning. A musician does not write music by trying to fit chords into his whole. The chords arise from the development of his motives.

INTERVIEWER

In one of your prefaces you said, didn’t you, that Jimson’s father came from life?

CARY

I met an old man, an artist who had been in the academy and a success, and was then ruined by the change of taste when the Impressionists created their new symbolic school. But I didn’t use him in my book, I don’t know anything about his character, only his tragedy. A very common one in this world. The French seem to take me for an existentialist in Sartre’s sense of the word. But I’m not. I am influenced by the solitude of men’s minds, but equally by the unity of their fundamental character and feelings, their sympathies, which bring them together. I believe that there is such a thing as unselfish love and beauty. I am obliged to believe in God as a person. I don’t suppose any church would accept me, but I believe in God and His grace with an absolute confidence. It is by His grace that we know beauty and love, that we have all that makes life worth living in a tough, dangerous, and unjust world. Without that belief I could not make sense of the world and I could not write. Of course, if you say I am an existentialist in the school of Kierkegaard, that is more reasonable. But existentialism without a god is nonsense—it atomizes a world that is plainly a unity. It produces merely frustration and defeat. How can one explain the existence of personal feelings, love and beauty, in nature, unless a person, God, is there? He’s there as much as hydrogen gas. He is a fact of experience. And one must not run away from experience. I don’t believe in miracles. I’m not talking here of faith cures—but some breach in the fundamental consistency of the world character that is absolutely impossible. I mean absolutely. God is a character, a real and consistent being, or He is nothing. If God did a miracle He would deny His own nature and the universe would simply blow up, vanish, become nothing. And we can’t even conceive nothingness. The world is a definite character. It is, and therefore it is something. And it can’t be any other thing. Aquinas tells you all the things that God can’t do without contradicting himself.

INTERVIEWER

But about existentialism.

CARY

Kierkegaard states the uniqueness of the individual and I stand by that.

INTERVIEWER

That’s what you meant, then, when you said that what makes men tick should be the main concern of the novelist? The character’s principle of unity?

CARY

And action, their beliefs. You’ve got to find out what people believe, what is pushing them on ... And of course it’s a matter, too, of the simpler emotional drives—like ambition and love. These are the real stuff of the novel, and you can’t have any sort of real form unless you’ve got an ordered attitude towards them.

INTERVIEWER

But the fundamental beliefs are not always the most apparent, or, it seems to us, the most successful of the achievements in the novel. We were expecting, for instance, a much closer analysis of the religious beliefs of Brown in To Be a Pilgrim. But we felt, in fact, that what came across most successfully were the emotional responses of people to people—compelling, for instance, Lucy to follow Brown.

CARY

The details were there once. That is, Brown’s arguments were there, and Lucy’s response. But Lucy was only one character, one motive in the symphony. And also I was up against the problem of explicit statement. I may have cut too much, but the book is long and packed already. The essence of Lucy was her deep faith. She wasn’t the kind of person who can float along from day to day like a piece of newspaper or a banana skin in the gutter. And in the book, I had her feelings expressed. But I cut them somewhere in the rewriting. I rewrite a great deal and I work over the whole book and cut out anything that does not belong to the emotional development, the texture of feeling. I left too much of the religious argument in Except the Lord and people criticize it as too explicit or dull.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find in those later stages that you’re primarily concerned with the more technical side of form? With, for example, managing the flashback? And do you think, incidentally, that you owe that particular trick to the films? I believe that you worked on a film in Africa.

CARY

No, I don’t really think it has anything to do with films. The flashback in my novels is not just a trick. In, for example, The Moonlight, I used it in order to make my theme possible. It was essential to compare two generations. You can’t do that without a flashback contrast; the chronological run-through by itself is no good.

INTERVIEWER

In the preface to Herself Surprised you mentioned a technical difficulty you found yourself in. You wanted to show everything through the eyes of Sara, but found that to make her see everything diluted her character. This was the soliloquy as flashback. This struck us as the same dilemma that James found himself in when writing What Maisie Knew. Is this a just parallel? Do you read James?

CARY

Yes, but James is not very remarkable technically. He’s one of our very greatest novelists, but you will not learn much by studying his technique. What Maisie Knew, that was one of the packed ones, wasn’t it? Almost too packed. I enjoyed its intense appreciation of the child’s nature, and the cruel imbecility of the world in which she was thrown about. But on the whole I prefer the beautifully clear atmosphere of a book like The Europeans or Daisy Miller—all James is in Daisy Miller.

INTERVIEWER

Have you read The Bostonians? There was the spellbinder.

CARY

No, I haven’t read that.

INTERVIEWER

The Princess Casamassima?

CARY

I’m afraid I haven’t read that either. Cecil is always telling me to read her and I must. But I read James a good deal. There are times you need James, just as there are times when you must have Proust—in his very different world of change. The essential thing about James is that he came into a different, a highly organized, a hieratic society, and for him it was not only a very good and highly civilized society, but static. It was the best the world could do. But it was already subject to corruption. This was the center of James’s moral idea—that everything good was, for that reason, especially liable to corruption. Any kind of goodness, integrity of character, exposed that person to ruin. And the whole civilization, because it was a real civilization, cultivated and sensitive, was fearfully exposed to frauds and go-getters, brutes and grabbers. This was his tragic theme. But my world is quite different—it is intensely dynamic, a world in creation. In this world, politics is like navigation in a sea without charts, and wise men live the lives of pilgrims.

INTERVIEWER

Have you sympathy with those who most uncompromisingly pursue their own free idea whatever the opposition?

CARY

I don’t put a premium on aggression. Oh, no, no, no. I’m no life-force man. Critics write about my vitality. What is vitality? As a principle it is a lot of balls. The life force is rubbish, an abstraction, an idea without character. Shaw’s tale of life force is either senseless rubbish or he really means Shaw—Shaw as God’s mind. The life force doesn’t exist. Show me some in a bottle. The life of the world is the nature of God, and God is as real as the trees.

INTERVIEWER

Which novelists do you think have most influenced you?

CARY

Influenced? Oh, lots. Hundreds. Conrad had a great deal at one point. I’ve got a novel upstairs I wrote forty years ago in Africa, under his influence. But I read very few novels nowadays. I read memoirs and history. And the classics. I’ve got them at my fingertips and I can turn up the points I want. I don’t read many modern novels, I haven’t time, but those I do read are often very good. There is plenty of good work being done, and in Britain the public for good work has enormously increased in my lifetime—especially in the last thirty years.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find, then, that conversation with the novelists of today helps?

CARY

Conversation?

INTERVIEWER

I mean apart from the personal stimulus, do you find that what they have to say helps to resolve technical problems?

CARY

Oh, no. Not particularly. We chatter. But you have to work problems out for yourself, on paper. Put the stuff down and read it—to see if it works. Construction is a complicated job—later I’ll show you my apparatus.

INTERVIEWER

Is there only one way to get a thing right? How closed is form?

CARY

That’s a difficult question. Often you have very little room to maneuver. See Proust’s letter to Mme. Schiff about Swann, saying he had to make Swann ridiculous. A novelist is often in Proust’s jam.

INTERVIEWER

You are a determinist—you think even novelists are pushed by circumstances?

CARY

Everyone but a lunatic has reason for what he does. Yes, in that sense I am a determinist. But I believe, with Kant, that the mind is self-determined. That is, I believe intensely in the creative freedom of the mind. That is indeed absolutely essential to man’s security in a chaotic world of change. He is faced all the time with unique complex problems. To sum them up for action is an act of creative imagination. He fits the different elements together in a coherent whole and invents a rational act to deal with it. He requires to be free, he requires his independence and solitude of mind, he requires his freedom of mind and imagination. Free will is another matter—it is a term, or rather a contradiction in terms, that leads to continual trouble. The will is never free—it is always attached to an object, a purpose. It is simply the engine in the car—it can’t steer. It is the mind, the reason, the imagination that steers.

Of course, anyone can deny the freedom of the mind. He can argue that our ideas are conditioned. But anyone who argues so must not stop there. He must deny all freedom and say that the world is simply an elaborate kind of clock. He must be a behaviorist. There is no alternative, in logic, between behaviorism, mechanism, and the personal God who is the soul of beauty, love, and truth. And if you believe in behaviorism, none of these things has any real existence. They are cogwheels in the clock, and you yourself do not exist as a person. You are a delusion. So take your choice. Either it is personal or it is a delusion—a delusion rather difficult to explain.

INTERVIEWER

How do you fit poetry into this? I once heard you describe it as “prose cut up into lines.” Would you stick to that?

CARY

Did I say that? I must have been annoying someone. No, I wouldn’t stick to it.

INTERVIEWER

Anyway, at what stage of your career did you decide to write novels rather than anything else?

CARY

What stage? Oh, I’ve been telling stories ever since I was very small. I’m telling stories now to the children of a friend of mine. I always tell stories. And I’ve been writing them from childhood. I told them to other children when I was a child. I told them at school. I told them to my own children and I tell them now to the children of a friend.

INTERVIEWER

Aissa Saved was the first one you published?

CARY

Yes, and that was not until I was over forty. I’d written many before, but I was never satisfied with them. They raised political and religious questions I found I could not answer. I have three or four of them up there in the attic, still in manuscript.

INTERVIEWER

Was this what made you feel that you needed a “new education”?

CARY

At twenty-six I’d knocked about the world a good bit and I thought I knew the answers, but I didn’t know. I couldn’t finish the novels. The best novel I ever wrote—at least it contained some of my best stuff—there’s about a million words of it upstairs, I couldn’t finish it. I found that I was faking things all the time, dodging issues and letting my characters dodge them.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us something about your working methods?

CARY

Well—I write the big scenes first, that is, the scenes that carry the meaning of the book, the emotional experience. The first scene in Prisoner of Grace was that one at the railway station, when Nimmo stops his wife from running away by purely moral pressure. That is, she became the prisoner of grace. When I have the big scenes sketched I have to devise a plot into which they’ll fit. Of course often they don’t quite fit. Sometimes I have to throw them out. But they have defined my meaning, given form to the book. Lastly I work over the whole surface.

INTERVIEWER

When does the process, the book, start?

CARY

Possibly years ago—in a note, a piece of dialogue. Often I don’t know the real origin. I had an odd experience lately, which gave me a glimpse of the process, something I hadn’t suspected. I was going round Manhattan—do you know it?

INTERVIEWER

Not yet.

CARY

It’s an island and I went round on a steamer with an American friend, Elizabeth Lawrence, of Harper and Brothers. And I noticed a girl sitting all by herself on the other side of the deck—a girl of about thirty, wearing a shabby skirt. She was enjoying herself. A nice expression, with a wrinkled forehead, a good many wrinkles. I said to my friend, “I could write about that girl—what do you think she is?” Elizabeth said that she might be a schoolteacher taking a holiday, and asked me why I wanted to write about her. I said I didn’t really know—I imagined her as sensitive and intelligent, and up against it. Having a hard life but making something of it, too. In such a case I often make a note. But I didn’t—and I forgot the whole episode. Then, about three weeks later, in San Francisco, I woke up one night at four—I am not so much a bad sleeper as a short sleeper—I woke up, I say, with a story in my head. I sketched the story at once—it was about an English girl in England, a purely English tale. Next day an appointment fell through and I had a whole day on my hands. I found my notes and wrote the story—that is, the chief scenes and some connecting tissue. Some days later, in a plane—ideal for writing—I began to work it over, clean it up, and I thought, Why all these wrinkles? That’s the third time they come in. And I suddenly realized that my English heroine was the girl on the Manhattan boat. Somehow she had gone down into my subconscious, and came up again with a full-sized story. And I imagine that has happened before. I notice some person because he or she exemplifies some part of my feeling about things. The Manhattan girl was a motive. And she brought up a little piece of counterpoint. But the wrinkles were the first crude impression—a note, but one that counted too much in the final writing.

INTERVIEWER

A note—

CARY

I was thinking in terms of music. My short stories are written with the same kind of economy—and no one would publish them. Some of them, now being published, are twenty years old. Because each note has to count and it must not be superfluous. A son of mine, a composer, wrote some music for the BBC lately. The orchestra was small, and the musicians’ union wouldn’t let him conduct. He heard one of the players ask the conductor what the stuff was like. The conductor, no doubt intending to warn the player, answered, “It’s good, but the trouble is that every note counts.” I suppose the editors who rejected me felt like that. They wanted a little more fluff.

INTERVIEWER

You can depend around here on practically everyone’s having read The Horse’s Mouth. Do you think that’s because it’s less philosophical? Or just because it’s a Penguin?

CARY

The Horse’s Mouth is a very heavy piece of metaphysical writing. No, they like it because it’s funny. The French have detected the metaphysics and are fussing about the title. I want Le Tuyau incrévable—the unbustable tip. They say this is unworthy of a philosophical work and too like a roman policier. I say tant mieux. But they are unconvinced.

INTERVIEWER

A metaphysical work—

CARY

A study of the creative imagination working in symbols. And symbols are highly uncertain—they also die.

INTERVIEWER

Gully’s picture on the wall then, which is demolished, is in its turn a symbol of the instability of the symbol?

CARY

That’s what Mrs. Hardy seems to think. But that would be allegory. I hate allegory. The trouble is that if your books mean anything, the critic is apt to work allegory in. The last scene of Gully is a real conflict, not an allegorical one. And it was necessary to cap the development. It was the catastrophe in a Greek sense.

INTERVIEWER

The Horse’s Mouth was part of a trilogy. You’re doing this again now, aren’t you, in Prisoner of Grace, Except the Lord, and the third yet to come?

CARY

I was dissatisfied with the first trilogy. I’ve set out this time with the intention of doing better. I think I am doing better. The contrasts between the different worlds are much sharper. When I’d finished Prisoner of Grace I planned a second book on political religion, but contemporary religion. And I found myself bored with the prospect. I nearly threw in the whole plan. Then one of my children urged me to go on. And I had the idea of writing Nimmo’s religion as a young man. This appeared to me as opening a new world of explanation, and also giving a strong contrast to the last book. So I got to work. And tried to get at the roots of left-wing English politics in evangelical religion.

INTERVIEWER

And the third?

CARY

It’s going to be called Not Honour More. In it, I deal with Jim—the lover in Prisoner of Grace. He is the man of honor, of duty, of service, reacting against the politician. But I’ll show it to you in its present state. Upstairs.

§

   We followed Mr. Cary upstairs two stories to his workshop. It was a room with a low ceiling. A window at the far end looked out onto trees. Where the walls downstairs had been covered with pictures, up here it was all bookcases, containing, it seemed, more files than books. Mr. Cary went straight to his desk, pulling out sheaves of paper from the shelves over it. They were, one instantly observed, meticulously organized. The sheaves were numbered and titled, each chapter in its own envelope. Mr. Cary explained that these were the “big scenes.” Clipped on the front of each envelope was a sheet of memoranda indicating what still remained to be done within the chapter, what would be required to give the finished scene a more convincing buildup. These were the chapters of the embryonic Not Honour More.

   Mr. Cary explained that he was now “plotting” the book. There was research yet to be done. Research, he explained, was sometimes a bore; but it was necessary for getting the political and social background of his work right. He had a secretary who did useful work for him in the Bodleian, the university library. He was at the moment, for example, wanting facts on the General Strike, and had given his secretary a list of questions to work on.

   We asked him if what we had heard was true—that often, as he worked, his writing would generate another unrelated idea and he would thus be led to write out a block of about twenty thousand words before returning to the work at hand. Mr. Cary confirmed this account; and it was confirmed too by the large bookcase containing nothing but files and boxes of unfinished work. It was an impressive proliferation of novels and short stories, with the titles on the spines, unfamiliar titles like The Facts of Life. One file contained “recent short stories.”

   The overall impression of the room in which he worked, as of the novelist himself, was of a man who, much as he himself might eschew the word, radiated vitality. He rose, he said, early, and was always at his desk by nine. We had already used up more than the period of time he had agreed to give us. As we went downstairs and made again for the sitting room, he looked anxiously at his watch; but we were there only to dig quickly among the deep cushions for the belongings that had spilled from our pockets as we lounged.