Gabriel Fielding Interview by Roy Newquist

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Roy Newquist Interview (1964) from Couterpoint-
published by Rand McNally & Company

 Newquist- Gabriel Fielding has become one of the best-known and respected novelists in the Western world. A case in point—and a very high point it is—The Birthday King. This novel was a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic, a critical success in the lasting sense of the word (by this I mean it was a book that reviewers and critics came back to cite again and again) and the winner of the British Commonwealth's most exalted literary prize. Amazingly, The Birthday King dealt with the Nazi-Jewish relationships that could easily have been "old hat" by the time Mr. Fielding's novel was released. The vigor of his approach and handling proved, to the contrary, that no subject matter is stale when it is treated creatively and conscientiously.
In talking with Mr. Fielding I would, of course, like to go back to the very beginning—to his growth as a person, his evolvement as a writer.

Fielding- To go all the way back I'd have to say that I can only remember my childhood as a beautiful golden blur. I remember things like silver birch trees, just as Robert Frost mentions them, and pools in the grass, and happiness with teeth. Then I remember a terrible separation when I was sent away at the age of eight to a snob preparatory school in the south of England, where everything and everyone, from the masters to the hens, seemed hostile. I think that this, in a sense, was the beginning of the pain out of which I write.
I do write out of pain—I believe most writers do. But from that experience onward I became extremely introspective, extremely frightened of life, particularly frightened of people. Whenever, as I grew older, I came across (in other people's books) the analysis of pain I was immediately interested. Perhaps it was in that early period that I decided that I would one day use my pain and the insight it gave me in a career as a writer. I decided that I was nothing if not a writer. I didn't want to be morbid about this, but pain, to me, was of surpassing interest, and its reconciliation with life the mainspring of writing.

Newquist- But first you became a doctor.

 Fielding- My parents were reluctant to let me undertake the risks of reading English at Oxford. I had two brothers there who didn't do terribly well, the money was running out, and they said to me, "Many doctors have become good writers. The practice of medicine is an ideal apprenticeship." They said this quite rightly. and I suppose the element of pain entered in again because they noticed that I was extremely sympathetic to anyone in pain of any sort, to anyone suffering from disease or injury.
For instance, there was one occasion when there was a terrible motorcycle accident. We were coming back from a picnic in the car when we saw three drunken figures coming down the road with great scarlet bibs of blood all over their chests. One man, whose eye was hanging out, turned out to be the local vicar, but all were staggering, in frightful condition, along the road. Well, everyone else in the car was ill, but I wasn't. I got out. I wanted to see, and see closely (not just morbidly), but I also wanted to know what I could do. I wanted to be involved. Since I did get close to the men, and it fascinated me and affected me, it became one of the examples my parents quoted (when I was older, of course) to convince me that medicine was a sympathetic career for me.
Thus, on the understanding that I was going into medicine as a preparation for writing, I went numbly, almost dumbly, through the medical course. It's taken me years to realize how little I liked it. Throughout the five or seven years of the course I went along like a hen with its beak on a chalk line, through the classes, two years of anatomy, and the traumatic experience of hospitals because it seemed that I had to do it. It didn't occur to me to feel that I could be brave enough to say to my parents, "This is not for me."
One of the things that kept me going during that time was the writing I was doing. I joined the Philosophical Society in Trinity College, Dublin. Oscar Wilde had been a member of it, as well as President Mahaffey, so I was able to satisfy that important side of myself through more appropriate interests. Medicine, to me, was the sentence I had to fulfill in order to be free to write; one might say it was like working seven years to get Rachel, then being landed with Leah, as in the Bible. By the time I emerged from medicine I had more or less succeeded in convincing myself that I was a doctor. I honestly didn't think the other dream, the vision of being a writer, could come true.
Quite honestly, I'm a pessimist; I don't expect much from life. I'm astonished when things go right. I'm astonished when words
like "open sesame" are spoken and a door opens, as it has opened for me—but to get back with the story.
I got through medicine, and I was a doctor, but through the stresses of practice I began to realize that I didn't want to be one. The yearning to be a writer opened up again; then I fell ill. The desire to write grew, the dream came back, enlarged. I was not a romantic, but I saw that I had my chance and I took it. I started writing. That was only twelve years ago; actually, all of my writing has been done in these twelve years, after my thirty-seventh birthday.

Newquist- One American critic has commented that writers should throw away everything they write prior to the age of forty, then start their professional career.

 Fielding- Possibly. Yet I go back to some of the things I wrote as a very young man, even as a child; they always attracted attention. But since these things were only extracurricular, it was a bit like having an enormous love affair with a woman who had been walled up in a tower. Occasionally she would drop a message from the tower, or you would get one to her, but most of the time she was locked away while you battled with the dragon.

Newquist- But when you did start writing as a career, and success came, how did you react?

Fielding- I think I could put it this way. As a doctor I know that we use only a fraction of our organs. We use about 30 per cent of our kidney surface, a small percentage of the lung. All the time I was unable to write due to the demands of medical training and practice I felt like a man who has a large lung which he is not using. I knew I had this lung, I was conscious of the ability to use it, but conscious that I was not using it.
Once I started writing seriously I had an extraordinary sensation of total use. I suppose it was euphoric and I don't think it's unusual for the writer to experience it. To use another metaphor, it was as though I was driving a car and suddenly discovered that the machine had a supercharger. Or it may have been what Aladdin felt when he first went into the cave with the old lamp. (I think I describe this in my novel about Dublin.)
Essentially, because of my experience, the variety and the pain of this experience, I felt that nothing had been wasted. I realized that what I'd stored up and had not so far used, formed a rich deposit. Once I started writing I could use this, not from a sense of morbidity or self-pity, but for some larger objective. I felt I'd gained insight into lust, into passion, into despair, into everything
by which men are wooed. Thus the very act of writing seemed to release the energy of those organic areas which before had been stored in unused reservoirs.
Perhaps all writers feel this release, this accomplishment, to some degree. I know that when I'm writing well I have a feeling of having come into my own, everything seems justified. Otherwise the act of writing, and its success, involves the expected satisfactions: vanity and the excitement of being in the limelight. When one has a product to sell, one wants it to be discussed.
Now, the other thing of enormous satisfaction—and this I've discussed with many other writers, including Muriel Spark—is the conviction that when one is writing one is about to discover something which has existed for a long, long time, but which has been hidden from knowledge. Writing to me is a voyage, an odyssey, a discovery, because I'm never certain of precisely what I will find. I don't know what will spring from my own memory, from five or ten years back, and will appear again with enormous illumination—with new and significant meaning—not only to me, but (if I serve and express it properly) to the reader. But on bad days, on days when things just don't come, I'm in worse shape than I was as a doctor. Then I can look at things I've written which are good, and think despairingly, "Where could it have come from? How could I have done it? Will I ever be able to do it again?"
Newquist-. To turn to The Birthday King. How did the theme of the novel, the actual plotting and writing of it, evolve?

Fielding- It evolved very slowly and from a very early stage of my life. I was a war child, born at the time of the First World War, and I grew up with the knowledge of death, of suffering, of pain, which very early in my life became associated with the Germans. We used to play Germans and English. My father's health was crippled by that war— he contracted sleeping sickness as a result of his service in Italy. One of my uncles was lost in the war, and my mother, who had a strong psychic sense, suffered more than did most women at home because she was so often aware of what was going on and what would happen.
I grew up with this idea that if man could become monstrous he would be a monster in German form. He would wear a gas mask and commit unspeakable atrocities and unleash clouds of poisonous gas.
Later, when I entered my own war, it became a private obsession not to incriminate the Germans for what they had obviously
done but, from my own sense of humanity, to explain and resolve it. I had, in other words, become more mature. We have to do this. We have to find a fear, identify it, and later resolve it. When I set out to do The Birthday King I felt that if I could explain all the involved issues with a pure and clinical detachment I might also succeed in resolving and exorcising the Germans for a great number of other people.
Now, it's very interesting that when the prize was awarded, the Germans who actually helped me with the book came over for the presentation and sat on the platform with my first publisher, Erica Marx, who is Jewish. The fact that I had the Germans and the Jews on the same platform with myself—that we could openly discuss the disease that had this particular nation in the presence of one of their victims—made my book something of a diagnosis, and also, perhaps in a very small sense, something of a healer.

Newquist- Is it true that your novels sell better in the United States than in England?

Fielding- Yes. To date they've sold a great deal better—I'm using this in the collective sense, because some have only sold slightly better whereas others have gone far ahead in America.

Newquist- Is this because our market is larger?

Fielding- I don't think it's just because of that. Of course, it’s a factor, but I think the real reasons are more subtle and harder to explain.
When I meet an American — and I suppose there are really two kinds, "open" and "closed" Americans—I find it easy to establish rapport, a sense of excitement. Perhaps I've met only the "open" Americans. Somehow the American maintains the permanent adolescence which I value so greatly, which I assume is intrinsic in my character. I think that this quality is essential to the creative artist his sense of wonder, his ability to speculate, his freshness and daring. I feel at ease with the Americans I've met; I can behave as I like, say what I like, explore any idea because nothing will be shocking, nothing will be a closed issue. The only unforgivable to an American is to be boring or bored.
In England things are quite different. If you want a real discussion, the kind I most enjoy, you've got to pick your man carefully. (Ninety per cent of them are not so much dead as so cautious they might as well be dead.) Even then, instead of rapport
you're apt to frighten the Englishman or fill him with distaste when you come up with anything beyond the conventional.
Now, the American loves to taste and explore and speculate about anything new. If this is immaturity, then I'm immature, but I think it's a wonderfully forgivable immaturity. Perhaps all this helps my books in America.

Newquist- I'd like to shift, now, to a still more speculative area. If you were to look at the literary world today, closely and critically, what elements, what work, would you most deplore and what would you admire, and again, what would you hope for?

Fielding- This is difficult. I've just been trying to sort out these ideas for an article for the Sunday Times, and I think I might repeat much of what I said.
I believe that the novel is presently in decline, and for a very paradoxical reason: the world is awakening to reading and to thinking. In other words, mass education, automation, the forty-hour week, and a neutral kind of leisure, is converting mass populations to reading, to watching television, to absorbing (or at least hearing and seeing) more. A surprisingly large segment of the audience convinces itself it can write too. Now, the reason that the novel is falling is because these people are turning out first novels—I know writers who are working on their sixth, numerically, but who are still writing their first. They're subjective novels, full of boredom, frustration, sexual fantasy. The new public I'm talking about has its own frustrations, its own sexual fantasies, and eventually feels damned if it's going to read about someone else's.
In other words I believe that until the novel returns to its original function—which was only' a bit lower than prophecy and poetry—it will not be read.
My past twelve years, both as far as reading and writing are concerned, have been devoted to what I call "the classical novel of obsession." I think that the writer who is most worthy to be published and read is the writer absolutely and totally obsessed with what he has to say. He's not writing from mere fantasy of fruitless frustration; he's working from obsession. This applies to James Joyce, who was an obsessed man, to Dickens, to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. Many contemporary novels are as satisfying as the copy on a cereal package (and perhaps should be as brief).
Now, I will only read the obsessional, but with this qualification: the energy must be so concentrated that the writer will achieve enormity out of the narrowness and perfection of his obsession. Until the novel gets itself off the psychiatric couch and away from the kitchen sink and down from the steps of the brothel it will be neither entertaining nor rewarding.

Newquist- You've partially answered the next question, which concerns your advice for the talented youngster who wants to make a career of fiction.
Fielding-  My advice would be to write—never to stop writing, to keep it up all the time, to be tremendously painstaking about it, to write until you begin to write. This is what I've had to do, so I may be speaking from a vantage point too close to personal experience. I've had to write so much in order to write so little.
The mere habit of writing, of constantly keeping at it, of never giving up, ultimately teaches you how to write. It's the practice of writing that makes you a writer. Yet if you should find, after a certain length of time, that you don't want to write, that the burden of it erases the joy of it, then give it up. I believe that all writers who make the grade do so because writing, and only writing, is absolutely essential to them. No amount of talent will do the job if it isn't backed with compulsion.

Newquist- To take compulsion one step further: What do you feel the writer's obligations are to the public he is writing for, on the one hand, and to the material he uses, on the other?

Fielding-  First of all, I think the writer must entertain. For example, Colette, whether she described a slice of tart with a bit of red currant jelly on it, and a wasp gently digging a little quarry in the jelly, or whether she described, as in The Cat, an effeminate young husband more in love with his cat and himself than with his bride, she gave you the true quality, the intrinsic quality, which made these things glow, brought Them to life. The same quality a great still-life artist gives an apple or a pear.
I think the first thing the writer must do is to illuminate whatever it is he is writing about. This is the poetic function of the writer.
The next duty that springs from the function, the exquisite function of his craft, is to instruct. The nicest compliment ever paid to me about my novels came when someone said, "I didn't like your books when I started reading them, but I find now that I have read them over the last ten years and they have altered a tiny fraction of the pattern of my thought regarding my own life. Now, when I read the classical obsessional novelist, I'm being instructed. I'm instructed by sympathy. One of the loveliest things about this is when you say or feel, "Ah, I, too, knew this. I knew it without knowing it, but now I know it." This is a marvellous thing, what Claudel called "the delicious pulp of words." In short the writer must reconcile himself and the reader to life.
The final function of the writer is, I believe, his insistence upon being a wise man—asking a wise question. Now, if ever I feel that I am not a wise man, that I am not continually progressing in my attitudes, in my knowledge, in my life, then I should be like Thomas Merton. I should plump for elected silence, but unlike Merton I would keep this silence. I do think these three things—the function of entertaining, with its accompanying poetic function; the function of instruction, and finally_, the function of wisdom, must distinguish the writer.
Of course, I take novel writing very seriously. At the moment I am writing a novel which is alarming me terribly, because every single one of the things I just said is totally violated. It's the study of lust, it's unedifying, it's light, it's vicious, it's horrible. I'm breaking all my rules, hut, somehow, I may ultimately observe them. I have a feeling that the reason I'm finding this novel so difficult is because I am breaking all my rules, yet I suspect that some magic will enable it to ultimately fulfill my canons. Yet, if I discover that I am not truly fulfilling my rules I simply shan't finish it.
I'm taking quite a risk with this novel, you see. I'm trying to explore the corruption in England at this moment. This is a dangerous thing, an almost sacrilegious thing, in light of my own principles. I'm exploring corruption by means of corruption, but there we are. And yet, if the magic doesn't happen. if it turns out to be only corruption, I shall have to abandon it.

Newquist- You've mentioned your own ideals as a novelist, and the problems you face in working beyond your rules. If we enlarge this to look at the world as a whole, what do you think the individual should do to live constructively with this world and in peace with himself?

Fielding- That's a difficult question to answer; it almost has to be divided into parts or sections. The first is "How is a man to live most profitably to himself and to others without any specific relationship with religious belief or philosophy?" and the other section would be based upon my particular convictions as a Christian. Yet in essence the' answer, my answer at least, has to be combined.
The most important part of living is loving. For me—as a man, a doctor, a neighbour, and a father, loving surmounts all. When I have been unable to accept other people, to care for them, to love them, I am somehow diminished.
As a doctor it isn't always possible to love a patient. As Eliot said, "The surgeon plies . . . the bleeding hands." The doctor is
treating himself when he's treating a patient. When sympathy is lacking, instinctive or intuitive sympathy, I must find some com-passion in myself, some pathos in the patient which relates to me and enables me to treat both of us.
Now much of the medical work over the past twelve years has been in a prison where I've had to deal with people suffering from enormous hatred, enormous sin, enormous crime. Yet I have, in dealing with these people, had to find a point where I could accept them. (Not for me to forgive them, of course, but somehow, imperatively, to accept them.)
Sybil Thorndike, the great actress, said that whenever she drives past Wormwood Scrubs, one of our big London prisons, she waves her fist and says, "You boys in there, not one of you has done anything that I haven't done on the stage or in my heart. In order to act my part I've had to do just about every crime and commit just about every sin under the sun. I have done them, too, with you."
In a way this is what I mean, what I was trying to do in The Birthday King, what I try to do in life. I try not to be isolated from people. I try by empathy, by empathic exercise (and it's a rather instant kind of exercise) to reconcile my fellows to myself and myself to my fellows so that we're all one and everything is understood and forgiven.
This is the first answer; insofar as the private individual has areas of fear and hatred inside him for any other creature, for any other man in particular, he is crippled. What I consciously try to do is to diminish my private areas of hatred and fear and prejudice. I hope, by the time I die, that they will have shrunk into very small areas, a minute part of the whole of me.
To put it into a cliché, I'm preaching tolerance, but I find that its counterpart, the positive aspect, love, is the most important part of life.
Now I come to the religious side of life, to ideas. Ideas are what make or kill philosophies. They make a man or they kill a man. For instance, a few years ago I had an opportunity to hear and meet Sir Oswald Mosley, a man whose every word and action as a thinking man has been abhorrent to me. That night a lot of people walked out; they refused to meet Mosley. But I was with a Catholic priest (Father Malachy Lynch), and I said to him, "I don't think I can face it. Father. I don't think I can meet this man." And he said, "Doctor. the first part of a fish to go rotten is its head. Let us see what is in his head."
Well, I listened to Mosley for two hours and everything that came out of that man's head was as stinkingly dead as old fish. It was revolting, and I felt myself at liberty to attack the man's ideas. In this sense I'm extremely intolerant. I'm like Mary McCarthy; ideas I think are wrong, that go against my central philosophy, I will attack with everything I've got. For example, I'm not against Communists, but I'm against communism. I feel myself at liberty to destroy the Communist idea; but not to destroy Communists, unless, of course, they're seeking to destroy me and force the matter to one of self-defence.
But coming back to religion. After about ten years in child-hood in which I was a Christian—because my parents were Christians—I endured a spell of twenty years when I was nothing. I was just the typical secular pagan of today. I got along with life, I found medicine had most of the answers for me in the philosophical sense, and I didn't worry about the supernatural. I didn't worry about religion. It was of very little interest to me, but gradually, after I had read a bit of Buddhism I became very "left-wing." For a time I thought all the world's evils were materialistic in origin. Then, gradually, I discovered that neither medicine nor materialism nor even the finer reaches of Buddhist mysticism explained my world, solved my problems. So I began seriously to investigate Christianity, just as I had seriously investigated communism when I was a medical student. I came to the astonishing conclusion that it might be true.
Now, this was a very strange time for me when I suddenly began to consider that possibly the whole of the central Christian message was true, namely, that God made the world, that He found it going wrong, that He therefore became man and that He suffered crucifixion and death at the hands of His own creatures in order to redeem them. When I got behind it, having begun to accept this simple story as possibly being historically, allegorically, and mystically true, it was a wonderful thing to investigate the subsequent happenings in Christianity as a product of this single event. This is what we call "revelation," and I was like Jacques Maritain, the French philosopher. Maritain was asked why he became a Catholic late in life and he replied, "I am a philosopher. If truth is in the dung hill, to the dung hill I must go." This was much of my attitude when, after reading and thinking and discussing at great length, it became apparent to me that if Christianity was true, then the truth of it still abides in the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
Now, you might say, "What difference does that make to you?" I can only reply in words that would paraphrase Dame Edith Sitwell. She was asked why she became a Catholic, and she said, "For three reasons. I wanted fire, I wanted discipline and I wanted authority." As Muriel Spark said to me, "I would always ask a man of his actions, 'What is your authority?'" She also became a Catholic, and so, of course, did Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene and many other intellectuals. (I loathe the word "intellectuals" because we're all intellectual; call us "professional" intellectuals if you like.)
You might ask, "Did it make any difference to you when you became a Catholic?" Well, I made my obedience to the Church of Rome and I did it wholeheartedly. For one thing, I had only two children, had had none for eight years and was ill; I didn't relish life very much. I had a lovely marriage, but outside of my marriage life seemed to me to be a jungle. When I became a Catholic I proved my sincerity because we had four more pregnancies in nine years. We lost one of these, but we did have another three children, and this year I adopted a sixth. This you might say is "basic."
You might also ask, "How does it work?" and I can say, arrogant as it may sound, that when I told Evelyn Waugh I was going to become a 'Catholic he congratulated me in a letter by suggesting that the Catholic Church was the beginning of intellectual and spiritual development. I thought this was extremely arrogant of him at the time; in fact, I think it delayed my conversion by a month. But I have to confess now that for me, as a person, it has proved true. My entry into the Catholic Church has resolved, for me, an enormous part of my personal difficulties.
I have found that insofar as I use my Church and the sacraments it gives me, I profit beyond all description. Insofar as I fail to use them I drift back into all kinds of moral and intellectual confusion.
Not everyone in God's province needs to become a Catholic. Faith is the gift of God, and God has His own dispositions. For me Catholicism was my gift of faith, but it does not mean that God fails to love non-Catholics, and that men and women cannot lip profitably without Catholicism. I can see many other people making good sense of their lives without becoming Catholics, but I have never seen a man make a success of his life without loving fellow creatures. Love, again, is the essence.
This is the most vicious and terrible thing about communist: that it destroys the idea of the mystery and holiness of the individual and puts the State in front of him. We must never do this in our own lives. We mustn't put our family in front of people, nor our income, nor our interests, nor our ambitions. We mustn't, you see, be "little Communists." This is why I say, "Cling to love and expand your personal affection for all people insofar as you can, every day that you can, and destroy the coldness within you that entertains fear, hatred, and disapproval."