Acceptance speech

Your Majesties, your Royal Highness, Your Excellencies, distinguished members of the Erasmus Prize foundation, friends and family,

It is hard – indeed not really possible – to say how surprised and delighted I was to be told, completely unexpectedly, that I had won the Erasmus Prize. Erasmus is of course one of my heroes – a European who was a great writer, a great humanist, and a great scholar. The Erasmus Prize is given not for fiction nor for literature but for contributions to culture, society and social thought. When I looked through the previous winners I found many of my heroes, those who have profoundly changed the ways in which I think and work. There are the great painters Marc Chagall, Oskar Kokoschka, Sigmar Polke, the thinkers Claude Levi-Strauss, Claudio Magris, Ernst Gombrich, Simon Schaffer, Gabriel Marcel, and Isaiah Berlin. There are, I have to say, few women, but one of them is the Belgian-born novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, in whose company I am honoured to find myself. These are only a few of the powerful people on the prize list. It is indeed a shock – of an entirely splendid kind – to find that I have moved from being a reader, student and admirer to being in some way a companion. It is one of the happiest events of my life.

            Since this is not a literary prize I thought I would talk for a moment or two about the art of writing fiction. Storytelling is part of most people’s lives, almost from the moment we can understand language at all. Family tales, fairy stories, popular history, news and gossip are integral parts of human life. When I taught literature at University College in London University I was lucky enough to be invited to sit in the Senior Common Room Bar with the artists from the Slade School of Art. I started to think about the fact that they worked with concrete materials – clay, stone, paint, film – whereas what I work with is the language we also use to conduct our daily lives. Whilst I have been in Amsterdam I have had the great pleasure of talking with Edmund de Waal about how – and how early in his life – he understood that clay was what he would work with. Why do some of us need to make works of art? How do we choose what we work with? What effect does the shift from dailiness to art have on us as writers and readers?

            I remember – I am sure most of us remember – first noticing that the written word had a form that needed to be understood and thought about. Many of my generation of British children will have grown up with the series of school reading books, The Radiant Way, in which there was/is the unforgettable sequence of words:- “Pat can sing. Pat sing to Mother. Sing to Mother Pat. Mother sing to Pat.” And so on. We discover the “th”, the “ng” which are not part of the sounded out phrases we are first taught. We discover the written word as opposed to the spoken word. I think some writers become writers because they need stories, characters, other worlds. But there are those – and I have very slowly come to see that I am one of them – who think about words as painters think about paint. (Most writers have elements of both of course.) And yet, words retain their doubleness – their dailiness, their utilitarian ordinariness, and their work in poems and other works of art.

            It is interesting to read what writers have written about the inability to write. One of the most startling and imaginative descriptions of this state is Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s story, the Letter from Lord Chandos, written in 1902. In this story the imaginary Lord Chandos writes to his friend Francis Bacon to say that he has completely lost the ability to put ideas into written language. Chandos tells Bacon that he can no longer grasp the ideas of a tract he wrote at the age of twenty-three “as a familiar image made up of connected words, but now I can comprehend it only word by word…” Nevertheless he is able to tell Bacon of his experience of having given orders for rat poison to be strewn in the milk cellar of one of his farms. He is able to describe the “sharp sweet smell” of the poison, the screams and struggles of the rats, when he has lost the capacity to generalise – he does not use this word or write of it in this way. It is an extraordinary essay, making its readers rethink the very nature of the relation between language and the world of things.

            Ernst Gombrich, in his essay on Image and Word in Twentieth-Century Art touches on the gap between words and things from a different angle. He writes of paintings and sculptures where the artist has deliberately made a distance between words and things – Magritte, for instance, in The Key of Dreams, captioning a handbag as “le ciel”, a leaf as “la table” a pocket-knife as “l’oiseau” and then as Gombrich points out, dismissing us with laughter by simply calling a sponge a sponge. We can and do think without language – with simple or tough images or with feelings and passions – but the normal run of our consciousness is linguistic, and we almost automatically translate passion into words.

            What goes on in our minds when we think about using language? When we use language to write? I find I increasingly notice the language I am using as well as what I am trying to say or describe – Iris Murdoch in a different context spoke of the space between looking out of a window at the sky and the light and looking, at the same time, at the window itself, glass, dust, frame. When writing I switch from the emotion of the imagined world – curiosity, smells and sounds, spaces – to the forms of the words themselves. As a child, like many of my generation of British children, I read Beatrix Potter after having had her tales read to me. The stories were full of life – the puddle duck looking for somewhere to lay her eggs, the badger snoring and pretending to sleep, the little dog unintentionally ingesting a pie made of mouse. My agent Sam Edenborough doesn’t like these tales and it may be that they are now out of date. When I looked up Potter on Google I found, somewhat to my bemusement, a series of letters condemning her for cruelty and unpleasantness – as a child, and as a parent, I found her matter of fact sense of how things are, pain and difficulty and fear as well as satisfaction, both exciting and satisfying. I was a child in a war, in a world of danger and death, but Potter’s stories revealed cruelty and fear in a storytelling context. One of the glories of reading Potter – of having Potter read to me – was the discovering of unexpected and unknown words. I think my favourite was and is “soporific” from The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies – in which the author informs the reader that lettuce is soporific. Anyone who will want to be a writer will be excited by the juxtaposition of the words soporific and flopsy. There were sentences like “Mr Drake Puddleduck advanced in a slow sideways manner and picked up the various articles” or ‘“I am affronted” said Mrs Tabitha Twitchett.’ “Affronted” is a wonderful word to learn. I think that the shift in my childish attention from the story to the language may have been a beginning of my need to be a writer. Though that may be a story I retrospectively tell myself.

            As I have suggested writers may come only gradually and slowly to think about the medium in which they work. Words and language are the medium of our daily communication. Perhaps fortunately I only came gradually to be aware of, and to think about, the difficulty and the glory of the gap between words and things, the shifts we have to make as readers and writers between thinking about things, thinking about words and things, taking pleasure in the gap between words and things. I want to end with Shakespeare. He was a poet and much of what modern dramatists would now convey purely with movement and expressions he conveyed with words, as though he was an epic poet. (I am for that reason distressed when modern actors swallow his words for dramatic effect.)

            In the unforgettable scene in Macbeth where Macbeth and his wife meet after their murder of Duncan most of what they say to each other is practical and terrible. Their hands are bloody, there is a knocking at the gate. Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to “get on thy night gown” and look as though he has come from bed. Macbeth meditates on murder and produces one of the great metaphors in the English language, calling in the ocean to the bloody bedroom.

            “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
            Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
            The multitudinous seas incarnadine
            Making the green one red.”

This shows one of the glories and beauties of the English language – the juxtaposition of Latin and English words. “Multitudinous” and “incarnadine” are pure Latin and Shakespeare’s audience and readers I imagine almost all take a sensuous pleasure in their sound and rhythm, rather than “seeing” anything. “The green one red” is anglo-saxon, and appeals to the visual imagination inside our heads. We “see” green and red, all of us differently, more or less vividly, all of us more intensely because of the preceding ‘multitudinous’ and ‘incarnadine.’ We hear the music of the terrible words.

           I should like to end by thanking the Royal Family, the members of the Erasmus Prize foundation and the jury for the enormous honour you have done me by giving me this prize. I am also very happy to thank my publishers, agents, friends and family for being here with me on this special day.

           It is a prize for “life-writing” – a new and intriguing word for categorizing books and literature. As I have tried to say, the two – life and writing – are intricately entwined and yet also always distinguishable from each other. Here they come together – and thanks to your generosity my life and my writing have also come together, to my great delight. Thank you.