Thursday, 22 March 2012

Horatio Clare

I've just come back from a lecture to Myth and Creative Writing students by Horatio Clare, author of the excellent novel The Prince's Pen, part of Seren Books' series of modern retellings of Mabinogion stories by hip Welsh authors.

Most of them have chosen non-realist, often SF or fantasy-style genres - one of the discussions we had was whether there's any other way to reintroduce myth, and why realism has come to dominate English literature. In Clare's novel, the Lludd and Llyfelys story (royal brothers battle three plagues: (little people, an infertility curse and a resources crisis) is recast as a Britain in which the Welsh are Taliban-style religious absolutists battling an invading force of technologically-superior imperialists - it's clearly an Afghanistan novel, and part of the Welsh tradition of identifying with subaltern groups: I'm thinking of Wiliam Owen Roberts' Y Pla (Pestilence) and Meredith's Griffri - Clare added Minhinnick's new collection The Keys of Babylon to the Welsh internationalist canon.

As a speaker, Clare's one of the best who's been here: fluent, learned, funny, very good at taking his audience seriously. Aperçus flowed fast: 'myths are always true' he said - 'it's truth that's the problem'. This was his major point. As man of faith himself, he sees myth as a way of providing perspective on the world's complexity. I think this is related to the turn away from realism: we don't live in a realist world of cause and effect. Pretending we do is comfortable, but dishonest. Instead, Clare says, 'myth is a dance between fact and truth', and 'our fate is to be made by myths'.

I don't mean to make him sound ponderous. Clare was refreshingly direct about the process of writing. He talked about his heroes, quoted a surprisingly long and funny chunk of Moby Dick to explain why he's spent the past few months as writer-in-residence on container ships, and recommended Auden's writing method ('to write a poem, go for a walk and a pint'). Writing, said Clare, should be hard, but a compulsion, citing in support Beckett's 'fail again, fail better'. If you don't struggle and have self-doubt, he claimed, you're 'a hack'.

The questions from students and colleagues were excellent, and answered very openly. He accepted that women ended up second-best in his novel, though defended by claiming that Islamic women he'd taken as models tended to be officially inferior but actually very influential - not particularly progressive.

Clare was particularly moving when he discussed the recent death of his sister. Explaining that absence in some ways made her more present to him, he told us about visiting the Greek cave which is said to be the entrance to Hades: the space between the myth of Orpheus bringing Eurydice back through the cave into life and the explorer's assertion that the cave is impassable gave him some hope through uncertainty.

All in all, a stimulating and fascinating event. Time for lunch with the author.

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