Pain, Kindness, and Friendship

Myfanwy Cook

Andrew Miller’s skill as a novelist is unquestionable, and he has won a raft of prizes including the Costa Book of the Year, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Grinzane Cavour Prize. His latest novel Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (Sceptre, August, 2018) opens when the central character Captain John Lacroix has returned to Somerset, but is unable to come to terms with the sights he has witnessed during the Peninsular War.

Miller explains why he decided to set his novel during this period. “I write novels set in the 18th and 19th centuries for reasons I don’t entirely understand. I think I like the way a novel set back in time allows me to see things ‘in the round’. In this way I sometimes feel like a film director who has built an elaborate set – think of Fellini’s Roma at Cinecittà, or Carné’s Air of Paris on the lots at Billancourt. When I write fiction set in the ‘now’ (a now that is never quite now by the time the book is published) it’s more like wondering the streets with a hand-held camera. And I find it relatively easy to make an imaginative connection with the past. As a young boy – eight, nine, ten – I was obsessed with Ancient Rome and lived, hours at a go, in some nether land that embraced both the present moment and a time before the birth of Christ. It didn’t feel difficult to do. And what was imagined had a sensuous quality – that is, it felt real.”

Miller’s sense of realism may well have influenced his decision to use the retreat to Corunna as the catalyst for Lacroix’s disturbing memories. “The retreat to Corunna was a disastrous episode in British military history. It took place in the mountains of northern Spain in the middle of winter. The soldiers had no proper equipment, the roads were almost impassible, and Lieutenant-General Moore pushed them on at a pace the troops could not sustain.” Having pointed out that “Moore himself described the army’s conduct as ‘infamous beyond belief,’” Miller wanted, he says, for his “central character to have come out of this chaos. He survives it but carries it with him. It is his ‘secret’; it torments him. The question then is, can he get free of it? And if he cannot, what kind of life might still be possible for him? To that degree, it is – as with my novel The Optimists (Sceptre, 2005) – a story about aftermath. About what happens next.”

Much of the action in Miller’s novel takes place in the Hebrides, which he selected as a setting, he reveals, “because of their edge-of-the-world feeling. Also, of course, their beauty. I’ve sailed around them and walked across them. They are immensely seductive. And in the time the novel is set – 1809 – Britain (or perhaps I mean England) was ‘discovering’ the highlands and islands. People visited with their sketch books in search of the sublime. Britain of the Industrial Revolution was, I think, reaching for its own wild self. We would find (stepping out of our time machines) Regency England a rather empty and unspoilt place, but for contemporaries it was already a heavily settled, domesticated and human-shaped environment. For John Lacroix the Hebrides’ chief appeal is that it might be a very good place to hide. It turns out not to be!”

Period and place are vital ingredients in Miller’s writing, as is the emotional landscape of his characters. “Pain, suffering and rejection appear in the novels because they appear in in our lives. But I hope my novels are also about some of the other things in life! Kindness, for example. Kindness seems to me the principal human virtue. I like writing about characters who, in the midst of the rush and confusion of their own lives, and the human inclination to avoid getting tangled up in the problems of others, do – sometimes – manage to pay attention to the needs and suffering of another, perhaps in quite small ways, but ways that count nonetheless. And I think I write a lot about friendship which, in terms of a novel, might seem a lot less interesting than a love story, a romance (I write about them too), but which is, surely, the real emotional basis of most people’s lives, from childhood onwards. The other ‘principal human virtue’ (if I’m allowed two) is courage, and again, I like characters who have no extraordinary resource of it, are in no way exceptional, but who find it when they need to. I often think of the end of Beckett’s novel, The Unnamable: ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’”

About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook is an Associate Fellow at two British Universities and a creative writing workshop designer.


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