A Waterstones Exclusive Interview with Anthony Quinn
"It feels like the black taxi in 1945 against the red sports car in 1962. It has that kind of 'pop' of colour."
As BBC R4 presents its Love Henry James season, we offer a very different take on James as seen through the haze of the summer of 1967, the world of Anthony Quinn's latest novel, Eureka. Following screenwriter Nat Fane as he struggles to adapt a Henry James short story for the screen, Eureka offers a probing exploration of culture on the move and the darker side of creativity.
In an exclusive interview for Waterstones, we talk to Quinn about writing about writers, London’s swinging Sixties and how he found his way from black and white to technicolour.
Cover Image: Anthony Quinn by Mark Vessey (2015)
Effortlessly fast-paced, sharp-tongued and light on its feet, Anthony Quinn’s latest novel, Eureka, is step change from his last two novels; the Twist to their Foxtrot. Part heist, part mystery, part romp, altogether good fun, it’s a novel that manages to be both a mad-capped dash through fashionable, swinging London of 1967 and a compelling meditation on the mystery of art, the possessiveness of desire and the experience of time. A recent Guardian review gets it right, calling it ‘clever, certainly, but in just the right measure.’
Although Eureka marks a definite change of tone, fans of Quinn’s last two novels, Curtain Call and Freya, will be pleased to see familiar figures from those novels taking centre stage again; most notably Nat Fane - Quinn’s breezily narcissistic Tynanesque writer, foundering in the impossible task of adapting Henry James for film with a Sixties aesthetic – as well as journalist Freya Wiley, newly returned to London and drawn into investigating Nat’s enigmatic director Werther Kloss.
Reviewers have been quick to label Eureka as the culmination of a trilogy, something Anthony Quinn is keen to state was never his intention: “I’d never thought about it like that. I certainly didn’t intend it as a trilogy but it does seem as though certain characters – Freya, Nat and Stephen – have lasted through it.” If there is a correlation between these novels it is in how well they fit their skin, reflecting - without ever resorting to cliché – their place in time.
A painterly novelist with an ability to vividly realise scenes – his novels often feature works of art – Quinn’s Eureka feels drenched in colour, richly suffused with the energy and life of people finally shrugging off the asceticism of the previous era.
“That was one of the exciting things about writing Freya,” Quinn says, “to go from 1945 to 1962 - it’s only 17 years but it feels seismic. There’s a sort of greyness, everything seems to be in black and white, all those photographs of 1945 and VE Day and even though it was a joyous occasion you can feel that it came after so much exhaustion and effort and loss and heartache. When I was reading about the period immediately post-1945, things still seemed quite austere and grey: not much money around, food shortages, rations, clothes were still hard to come by. So when I was writing Freya, I had a sense that 1945 was going to look very different to 1962, I wanted to capture the feeling that colour was coming back around. Even though, of course, everyone was living in colour the whole time, it feels like the black taxi in 1945 against the red sports car in 1962. It has that kind of 'pop' of colour. It does feel like a little caesura that period in late '66, early '67, I wanted to get that sense of intense colouration.”
In Eureka, that contrast between austere monochrome and vibrant colour is also an echo of the novel’s interaction with film – specifically the central plot surrounding the filming of the titular ‘Eureka’, Nat’s screenplay of Henry James’s short story, 'The Figure in the Carpet'. The book both self-consciously echoes the aesthetic of Antonioni’s 1967 film Blow Up – eagle-eyed readers will spot the book’s cover as a joyful pastiche of the film’s poster – and plays with its more overblown sentiments. “It stands up.” Quinn says, “It’s a deeply strange film, it actually seems to be two films at once; there’s a thriller going on, and then there’s also this confused meditation on reality and illusion, but it’s great."
Eureka is itself a composite novel, containing Nat’s own screenplay neatly embedded within the novel’s central narrative and as the plot gives way to its own darker mystery, so art begins to mirror life.
“It’s a tricky thing,” Quinn notes, “to put a writer in a novel. We’ll never know what Casaubon’s key to all mythologies is – thank god! - and we’ll never know what Philip Roth’s Zuckerman novels are like. It’s quite a risk, I think, to have a novelist right at the centre of a book, because you just don’t know what their work is like; the reader just has to take the whole thing on trust, don’t they? Nat regards life as a contest, in love and in work, he makes himself unhappy with it, he can’t really help himself. That’s a very writerly thing, to be looking over your shoulder and thinking, ‘shouldn’t I be earning more?’, ‘why haven’t I got a prize?’ and it’s fun for me to slightly mock that, the way writers approach writing as if it’s like scaling Everest. Sometimes, yes, it’s a tough job, but it’s not that tough! It’s good to take your work seriously, I think, but not yourself.
“At the end of the first chapter, I thought, who cares that Nat’s writing a screenplay? And that led me to thinking about what would happen if I tried to write it as he’s writing it, to have this parallel narrative going on and to try to make it echo, in a very slight, glancing way what’s happening in the story.”
The mystery within 'The Figure in the Carpet' offers the tantalising promise of a nebulous key, unlocking a supposed secret within a writer's work. It’s an alluring possibility and through it, Quinn slyly pulls his readers into the very same search for the answer and so opens up the question of what it might endanger to lose oneself in that very mystery. It’s not for nothing that the epigraph to this novel is Georges Braque’s advice that, ‘mysteries have to be respected if they are to retain their power.’
“I read 'The Figure in the Carpet' a couple of years ago and I was so struck by it,” Quinn recalls. “What I loved about the story was that central mystery of this writer who reckons he’s shown his readership what his books are about and nobody has got it. I loved the idea of these critics just desperate to know what it is, and I’d like to think that people will feel that again from the screenplay.”
Eureka is a novel that dances on the edge of darkness without ever fully giving way to it, the sinister shaded, if never fully obscured, by a vibrant, manic energy.
“I based the character of the director on the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder,” Quinn explains, “who lived very fast and died pretty young and packed six lifetimes into his very young life – he died at 37 from an overdose. The biography I read of him, called Love is Colder than Death, was just so dark and oppressive. He had this great court in Germany of pimps and druggies and prostitutes and hangers-on and blackmailers, it was a very black life. So I took some of the details of Fassbinder’s life – where he was born, the fact he supported Bayern Munich - and I actually made him a composite of two other slightly crazed Germans but with rather sunnier dispositions. One was Werner Herzog and the other one was Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, who has that right sort of manic touch; I thought, that’s the kind of person I can stay with.”
The frenetic pace of this novel also seems to serve to emphasise the break between individual and shared cultural memory. There are pivotal communally experienced moments here - most notably an electric pause when the film’s crew first hear Sergeant Pepper - but Quinn wisely keeps these to a minimum. Instead he gives his readers fleeting snapshots filtered by personal experience; moments stolen from time.
“I get so much out of photographs,” he explains, “black and white photographs particularly, because there’s something about the way they’re ambered in time. I think, as a novelist, you have to avoid collective memory in some way, you have to show the reader something that says, ‘this is a way you’ve never thought of it before’. I read Revolution in the Head, by Ian MacDonald about The Beatles, and when Sergeant Pepper came out on the 1st June 1967, there was that sense of collective amazement. It’s very easy to reminisce but much harder to pin down something that may have been unique to people at the time. So you have to imagine people being there, maybe in somebody’s studio or somebody’s flat, listening to this stuff for the first time. Everyone knew what The Beatles were like, but nobody knew what this particular Beatles record was going to be like; it seemed to be like pollen in the air.”
Like Henry James’s elusive figure in the carpet, there’s a circular quality to this novel and a repeated return to the image of a endless circle in glancing references, from a spinning record to a twirling hula hoop. A fittingly oblique echo of James’s own famous assessment that, ‘really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw… the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.’ Quinn works best when he sets the scene and allows his characters to do the talking, letting his character’s perceptions and misconceptions of each other and the endless possibility for miscommunication and misdirection play out.
“It’s the really enjoyable thing for me,” he says. “John Everett Millais, when he was asked about painting, said ‘I really hate painting except for the bit when I put the white dot on the polished boot to make it look like it is gleaming’ and dialogue is like that for me. With fiction, I love the idea that you move it along with blocks of scenes and thread it together with dialogue. That’s what I’m doing, just putting you in the room with these people.”