imageA conversation with Piers Paul Read

Piers Paul Read is an award-winning English author who has produced an array of novels and nonfiction works, including histories and biographies.

This interview with Mr. Read was conducted by Karl Schmude, an Australian university librarian by profession and founding fellow of Australia’s only liberal arts college, Campion College, in Sydney. He has known Mr. Read for many years and written extensively about his works.

As an experienced novelist—with the first of your sixteen novels, Game in Heaven with Tussy Marx, published in 1966—what future do you see for the novel as a literary form?

The novel has proved remarkably resilient over my lifetime. In Britain, literary festivals and reading groups proliferate throughout the country. Crime fiction, romances, books for children, are all profitable for publishers and authors alike; and both film and television frequently depend on published books for their “source material.” Literary fiction too, if it receives the imprimatur of a major prize and becomes fashionable, brings fame and fortune to a small number of authors.

It is the authors of what publishers call “middle-market fiction” who struggle to make a living. With so many means of distraction and entertainment today—film, television, social media, etc.—the young writer of good novels is unlikely to make a living from his craft. I know a number of young authors who, after writing two or three excellent novels which are well received but sell few copies, give up and either write for film or television, or settle down to a profession. I have been able to live off my writing thanks to the success of some of my works of nonfiction, notably Alive and The Templars.

How would you characterize the typical reader of a Piers Paul Read novel? Has your readership changed significantly over the last half-century?

I have evidence of some younger admirers of my novels, but I suspect that the typical reader is middle-aged, even old, with a university education, and quite possibly a Roman Catholic. It is possible that the ratio of male to female readers is greaterthan the mean, which is a liability in commercial terms because most readers of novels are women. The reader is not necessarily “literary” but, to appreciate the irony found in many of my novels, a certain level of sophistication is required.

John Henry Newman suggested that it is “a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless literature of sinful man.” How have you balanced your faith as a Catholic with the portrayal of sin and evil, and the inclination to edify with the risk of scandal?

In depicting the dangers to the soul of the World, the Flesh and the Devil, all must be convincing, and the temptations of the flesh must embrace not just gourmandise but disordered sexual desire. I have been charged by some devout readers with being too graphic in my depiction of sexual encounters. My defense is that of Blessed John Henry Newman, which you quote in your question, and the level of candor should fit the times in which one lives. Henry James lived in the prim society of Victorian and Edwardian Britain and wrote elegant novels in which sexual encounters happen off-stage: in The Wings of a Dove it is difficult to discover whether Kate Croy and Merton Denscher have actually slept together. By contrast, Emile Zola, living in France’s lascivious Belle Epoque, did not shy away from the depiction of sexual encounters. I started writing novels in the 1960s, which saw, in parallel to a precipitous de-Christianization in Britain, a revolution in people’s attitudes to sexual relations outside marriage. I would hardly have been true to my calling if I had ignored this triumph of Baal. I like to think that nothing I have written is pornographic, in the sense that it was written to arouse desire in the reader; and, whether graphically described or not, I have always shown that invariably unhappiness results from the indulgence of disordered passions.

Several American authors have recently written on the apparent decline of a literature influenced by Christianity. Dana Gioia, for example, a former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has argued that “Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts,” including literature. Similarly, Paul Elie has suggested that fiction has lost its faith in our postmodern word, and that Christianity now hovers “as something between a dead language and a hangover.” Greg Wolfe has argued instead that the “loss of a Catholic presence in mainstream literary culture is not because we are suffering from a dearth of gifted Catholic writers but because ideological blinders have prevented religious and secular people alike from perceiving and engaging the work that is out there.” In your view, has the “novel of belief” diminished, or is it simply harder to find such works amid other, more prominent movements in a post-Christian age?

I do not have a sufficient familiarity with contemporary fiction—British or American, Catholic or otherwise—to be able to answer your question with any authority. However, it would seem that Vatican II had a profound influence on the Catholic imagination. I have written on the contrasting attitude to the Council of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene—the former baffled, the latter sympathetic and set in a new direction, eschewing the numinous and embracing a social Catholicism.

In Britain, novels written by Catholics since the Council (often from the Irish diaspora) are more likely to be about the losing of faith than conversion—for example, Jill Patton Walsh’s Lapsing. The doyen of Catholic novelists in Britain, David Lodge, now describes himself as “a Catholic agnostic”; Michèle Roberts writes critically of her convent education; Hilary Mantel, also educated in a convent, carries her animus against Catholicism into a historically inaccurate and slanderous portrayal of Saint Thomas More in her Wolf Hall. Such anti-Catholic themes are of course welcomed in Britain’s secular and increasingly anti-Catholic media. A novel with an overtly Catholic theme now finds it difficult to find a British publisher: the fine English Catholic novelist Lucy Beckett, having failed to find a publisher in the UK, has her work published by Ignatius Press in San Francisco. My own novel, The Death of a Pope, was published in the U.S. by Ignatius after I was advised by my agent that it was too Catholic in content to be submitted for publication in the UK.

Several of your novels are set in different countries and past eras—for example, in Poland (Polonaise, 1976), France (The Free Frenchman, 1986), and Russia (Alice in Exile, 2001). Have you found that the historical imagination opens up ground for exploring man’s relationship with God, and revealing the universality of religious beliefs and transcendental values in human affairs, in a way that is more difficult in a deeply secularized culture?

Both my mother’s parents were of German extraction and my first historical novel, The Junkers (1968), was an attempt to understand the horrors of what happened in Germany in the Nazi era. This curiosity about what is possibly the nadir in human inhumanity in those years also led to The Free Frenchman and Polonaise in which the working of God’s grace is seen through the conscience of the characters.

In today’s secular culture, any reference to a divine intervention in human affairs is problematic. Readers do not want a homily, let alone a work of Catholic apologetics. Despite leaving open the possibility of an alternative explanation for a divine intervention in human affairs—in Monk Dawson, say, or The MisogynistI have recently been described by a British critic as a Catholic determinist (D. J. Taylor, TLS, 8 May 2015).

You have written many works of fiction and nonfiction, including occasional journalism. Do you regard yourself primarily as a novelist, whose imaginative creations give you the greatest satisfaction, or as a general author in various spheres?

I enjoy writing nonfiction but take a greater pleasure in writing fiction. A work of reportage such as Alive, a work of history such as The Templars or The Dreyfus Affair, or a biography such as Alec Guinness, is a job of work that I like to do well; but the writing of a novel is more exhilarating because the characters take on a life of their own, and behave in ways I have not planned. Thus one has the feeling of bringing real people to life and, when the novel is finished, one sends it off the printer with a real sense of bereavement.

A number of your novels shed light on the nature of marriage and the importance of the family, such as The Professor’s Daughter (1971) and A Married Man (1979). Do you have concern for the future of the family?

I believe that a happy home endows a child with a sense of confidence and self-worth that will last a lifetime, and it baffles me that this is only feebly acknowledged by governments—afraid to alienate voters by appearing to condemn their disordered lifestyles. Of course, poverty is a social evil, and can itself lead to the breakup of homes, but the assumption of almost all governments that an increase in prosperity and effective social welfare will guarantee human well-being, denies the patent reality that even the poor can be happy if they are raised in a secure and happy home.

The tools used by the devil to destroy the family are many, among them the feminist insistence that a woman must seek fulfillment outside the home; the economy’s need for female labor; the psychoanalytic view that the individual should pursue fulfillment (“individuation”), whatever the cost to others. Today’s concept of progress, which its proponents believe will add to human happiness, in fact detracts from it; and paradoxically it is the children of parents deemed reactionary and old-fashioned that often flourish as a result of their stable family background.

You are now working on a new novel. When will it be published, and are you able to tell us anything about it?

A new novel, entitled Scarpia, will be published in the UK in November and in the US in the spring of 2016. Those familiar with Puccini’s opera, Tosca, will recognise the name Scarpia: he is the evil police chief in Rome in 1800 who barters with the opera singer Tosca—her surrender to his perverse passions in return for the life of her lover. The libretto was based on a play, La Tosca, written in the late nineteenth century by an anti-Catholic playwright, Victorien Sardou, and the action takes place in a dramatic period which has seen the pope, Pius VI, deposed and exiled by the French Revolutionaries, and Rome and the Papal States proclaimed a republic.

The idea for the novel came after reading a book by an American academic, Susan Vandiver Nicassio, published in 1999, entitled Tosca’s Rome: The Play and the Opera in Historical Perspective, in which she establishes just how inaccurate and partisan the opera is in its portrayal of the political realities of the time. Can one perpetuate an injustice on a historical character? Could I do something to redress the calumny of a French playwright, fillingthe gaps left by history with invention? This is what I set out to do in Scarpia.  

A conversation with novelist Piers Paul Read on his work, the state of the Catholic novel, the nature of the family, and more.