Michel Faber : The Quiet Muse

By Black, Claire | Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland), October 26, 2014 | Go to article overview

Michel Faber : The Quiet Muse


Black, Claire, Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland)


IN THE book-stuffed interior of Primrose Hill Bookshop Michel Faber is sitting behind the counter. It's not really a counter, although this is where customers pay - or as I witness several times, add titles to their slate. It's a desk covered in books, like every other surface in the shop. Standing in front of Faber, who is seated neatly, a black leather folder in his lap, is an older man in an anorak which doesn't quite meet over his paunch.He is quizzing Faber about his new novel, The Book Of Strange New Things. "I don't know what to expect," he says. "You see, I've never read any of your books." I have to fight the urge to interrupt, to offer from where I am standing that even if he had, even if he had delighted in the Victorian romp that is The Crimson Petal And The White, or shivered at the eerie Highlands-set Under The Skin, or marvelled at The Fire Gospel, inspired by the myth of Prometheus, that wouldn't help him in any way.What distinguishes Faber as much as his imaginative brilliance and emotional capacity is that each of his novels is unique. In part, that's the reason that The Book Of Strange New Things, his first novel in 12 years, is to be his last. Faber has performed the literary feat of creating something entirely new for the last time. He doesn't believe that he could do it again, not to his satisfaction anyway. What he is after is to create a novel so distinct that it would be impossible for the reader to discern that it was written by the same writer as any of his others.But there's another reason too.If Faber told the man what to expect from his novel, I didn't hear. But he bought the book and Faber wrote a message on the title page. "Thank you," the man said as he read it. "I'm very touched by that." And that is an experience that is common to all who read Faber. I can't think of another writer who packs more of an emotional punch. Faber is a truly singular literary voice and it's impossible not to feel genuinely sad that this novel will be his last. But I can't argue with his reasoning.Through a bead curtain, past a pile of flattened cardboard boxes, down a flight of stairs lined with books, we squeeze into a tiny office crammed with new stock yet to make it up into the shop. Faber leads the way and so ends up in the seat furthest from the door. He opens out a folding chair and puts a cushion on it for me, patting it into place. The space is so small that if we wanted to swap, we'd need to hold on to each other to avoid toppling. "If you're claustrophobic, you can look out the window," he says, gesturing to the glass behind his head. You might think being in such close proximity to someone I've just met would feel odd, yet Faber makes me feel quite at ease. The writer, who was born in Holland and educated in Australia, is often described as childlike. His mop of blond hair, his black joggers and khaki jacket with a Wile E Coyote t-shirt beneath, certainly make him seem ageless, belying his 54 years, but he also exudes a kind of intensity. His voice is redolent of that in his novels, utterly undramatic and yet somehow devastatingly moving.In July, Faber's wife, Eva, died of multiple myeloma, the incurable cancer with which she was diagnosed in 2008. In the last years of her life, Faber was her carer. In the final three months of her illness, he lived with her in the hospital where she died, sleeping on a camp bed beside her. "It was a privilege to have that time with her. Eva's death was very gradual and obviously there are horrors associated with that, seeing the one you love deteriorate day by day, but on the other hand it meant we were able to say everything to each other that we needed to say. It was an astonishingly intimate time. I'm grateful we had that."It was not, as is sometimes the case, that the illness brought them close; they already had an intensely intimate relationship. Eva was usually present when Faber was interviewed, which allowed some to speculate that she was the driving force behind her socially reticent husband. …

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