Michael Nath talks to Seki Lynch about British Story

SEKI: More than anything, British Story is preoccupied with character, both with Arthur Mountain, the great character of the book, but also it seems concerned with the idea that one, namely Dr. Kennedy, may be able to acquire character, or reveal parts of his character which have remained dormant. There’s a lot to tackle just on this one subject, but firstly, what does character mean to you?

MICHAEL: I fancy that literary character is a magical effect which we still haven’t got too smart for. Our experience of character isn’t really distinguishable from our experience of each other, though it’s often more attentive. Clever people may tell us character is ‘only a matter of make-believe’, but practice hears a tremor in that phrase.

Baudelaire calls language skilfully managed sorcellerie évocatoire, and if you want some ‘evocative sorcery’, get you to Part VI of Yeats’s great poem, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, where a C14th Irish demon named Robert Artisson (who bears some resemblance to the Mayor of London) is called up. If this is marvellous, and terrifying, consider how much more marvellous is the appearance of character in the novel, where the effect has to be prolonged.

There’s a passage in Proust where the narrator says that everyday gestures of people are supernatural. I wonder what you think of that? Does he mean that it’s so remarkable that any of us are here at all, that we spend our lives not drawing attention to it – like bashful spirits? Then character is the expression of this condition of ours, here, and not here.

Note how often we use forms of the verb ‘to be’, when we refer to characters. This is not just a ‘convention’: we intuit their existence.

In answer to the other part of your question, let’s say that to acquire character is to become like someone in a book or drama, hard to forget, even time-proof …

‘When you’re a character, other characters check you out.’

You become a kind of perfume.

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