Author Paul Hoffman talks to us about his fascination with frauds, the role of contemporary fiction and the books that are currently on his mind.
What’s currently on your bedside table and why?
Viktor Frankl's Man’s Search for Meaning. Auschwitz survivor and psychologist Frankl was massively sympathetic to the abused of all kinds, and particularly generous to those who don’t have an obvious reason for unhappiness. But he was at odds with the contemporary views of suffering, rejecting the idea of victimhood while arguing that suffering has to be used as source of energy to drive the individual to discover a meaningful life.
The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova. My first novel, The Wisdom of Crocodiles (1999), (part of it later made into a terrible film with Jude Law), centres around my view that the new millennium would be the age of frauds of every kind, centred on a prediction that the world financial system would crash. The trouble is I’m fascinated by frauds as people who understand our heart’s desires. Konnikova smartly takes us through the black principles that underlie the con artist’s talents.
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. No one else has come close to revealing the peculiar nature of modern terrorism.
Sadly there’s no contemporary fiction on the bedside table. It takes a good 15 years for a new century to start revealing itself and only now are we beginning to see what strange times we’re living in. By and large, contemporary fiction is stuck in the past either through historical fiction or an outdated modernism (note to writers and critics: modernism ended in the 1930s).
The job of fiction isn’t to create the new it’s to understand the new. Experimental prose styles won’t explain Donald Trump or Jeremy Corbyn, AI, terrorism, identity politics, no platforming, pornography, or the death of old liberalism defending the right to disagree.
Which books would you recommend to your closest friend right now, and why?
Robert Silverberg’s Born with the Dead. Apparently a macabre science fiction novella (now out of print) about a time in the immediate future when the dead can be brought back to life—if they have the money. It’s also a brilliantly written love story, a truly imaginative metaphor for the horror of discovering that someone who once loved you deeply no longer cares about you at all.
The Flashman books George MacDonald Fraser. Pantomime cad Harry Flashman seems to be the star of what are generally considered comic novels but which really aren’t. The true purpose of the books is to bring to life an astonishing array of mostly forgotten characters of the 19th century, often in a uniquely concise way.
There are complex, brilliant thumb-nail sketches (far better than those by more critically admired writers) of everyone from Lincoln to Rajah Brooke and the mad queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar. Save yourself the cost of a creative writing degree and learn to write dialogue and create character from MacDonald Fraser.
Which book are you planning to take on your next journey, and why?
The Study Quran by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. This is a new translation and commentary. A daunting task, one I admit I may never finish.
Tell us about your latest book?
Scorn is a black comedy of sorts. I spent six years in a terrible Catholic boarding school—the usual story of brutality and (though not something I experienced) sexual abuse. But I wanted to go beyond this terrible but well-known narrative in two ways: to bring in to focus the fact that we were fighting for our souls and minds, if you like, in that we were constantly pressured, along with the absence of ordinary human kindness and decent food, to put aside reason and intellect in order to accept ideas that were completely absurd but which it was a sin to reject under pain of eternal torment.
Our one tool to strike back and preserve our sanity was mockery and scorn. We made up ridiculous sermons, developed our talent for mimicry, and drew abusive cartoons about our tormentors in the margins of books and carved into the desks. Nearly 50 years after leaving I wanted to celebrate this defiance.
The hero, physicist Aaron Gall, is suffering from a deepening depression caused by his Catholic upbringing who is transformed after an accident at work. Now full of joyous animal energy he turns to a radical new therapy to deal with his horrible upbringing: he talks to the priests who brutalised him and his friends, points out their intellectual dishonesty and the unchristian nature of their behaviour—and then eats them.
Aaron enjoys the process so much (along with taunting the police through a series of clever clues as to the identity of his next victim) he decides to extend his murderous conversation to include the Archbishop of Westminster, the recently converted Tony Blair, and finally the Pope himself.
But the Catholic Church hasn’t survived for 2000 years without knowing a trick or two. Aaron Gall is in for the greatest shock in the history of mankind.
Do you discuss your own work-in-progress with anyone?
I give my first draft to my wife—but the whole point is to have her experience the whole thing as a surprise. So, no discussions with anyone until it’s finished.
Which book made you want to write?
Catch-22. I read it when I was in boarding school. It made me realise that popular fiction (nobody thought it was a great literary work in those days) could come to grips with the world despite its absurdity and confusion. It’s not an anti-war novel, it’s an anti-system novel. I finally persuaded my wife to read it recently. Long-experienced in the NHS, she recognised all the characters and situations in the book at once.
If you weren’t writing you’d be...?
My writing draws heavily on my past and the more than 25 jobs I’ve had as an adult ranging from boardman in a betting shop, lift attendant, frozen food packer at ten below zero, teacher in one of the worst and best state schools in England, film censor, businessman, and screenwriter.
If I hadn’t gone through all this perhaps I’d be stuck writing streams of consciousness prose and finding new forms for the novel. I’ve done my stint at the work coalface. I love what I do so much that, to be honest, if I weren’t writing I’d be bereft.
Scorn by Paul Hoffman is published by Red Opera on September 7, price £18.99 hardback and £4.99 eBook
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