Interview with Tom Hubbard, author of Marie B
Tom Hubbard was the first librarian for the Scottish Poetry Library (which marked its 25th anniversary in 2009) and has also worked on the Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation. His foremost literary activity has been poetry, though he has taught literature throughout Europe for a quarter of a century. Marie B., his first novel, is available through www.midoil.co.uk
What is it about Marie Bashkirtseff that inspired you to tell this story? Is there a personal resonance, or were you simply struck by the aesthetic pleasure of her work?
It was her self-portrait that started it off. Towards the end of my 1993 stint at Grenoble University, where I’d been teaching Scottish and Victorian literature, I took a break in Nice and visited the art gallery. I’d hardly heard of Marie Bashkirtseff – she was little more than a name to me: I knew she’d corresponded with Guy de Maupassant and I’d assumed she was just a rich dilettante lionising the great. But I was suddenly drawn to that portrait, in a corner of its own, and I saw tragedy in the eyes. I looked at the label: she’d painted it within a year of her death at the age of 26.
Before leaving the gallery I checked to see if there was anything in the shop about her, maybe a postcard of the picture. There wasn’t. This was long before the internet, so I just had to retain the image in my mind’s eye. A year later, at the end of another visiting stint, this time at the University of Connecticut, I had time to do some research so I raided the library for anything on her and her work. It was then that I hit on the idea of attempting a biographical novel about her. Fifteen years from then, and sixteen since I saw the portrait in Nice, the novel is out with the picture reproduced on the cover. It’s come full circle.
We know that Marie was trying to emulate Zola, but were there particular Ukrainian or French influences in your own writing of the novel?
French, certainly, in terms of trying to produce a compact, shaped, piece of fiction. I didn’t want anything too Anglo-Saxon and bulky, though I do have my favourites among long, sprawling English and American novels. I’ve loved Flaubert since I first studied him at school and university, and I’ve a lot of time for his theory of impersonality, i.e. the author keeps himself out of the story. Sure, that’s an attitude parodied by James Joyce in the course of Stephen Dedalus’s posings in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but that doesn’t bother me. I don’t go along with all this death-of-the-author stuff, but I’m all for the absence of the author!
I found an interesting development of the impersonality theory in the Sicilian novelist Giovanni Verga. In his novels he’ll plunge you into a conversation between the characters, without any authorial intervention. As a reader you feel like you’re actually there, among it all.
I wish I knew more about specifically Ukrainian literature, but I’m working on that. Flaubert’s Russian friend, Turgenev, has meant a lot though – again, the shapeliness of his fictions, and a blend of humour and melancholy that would be inherited by Chekhov. Marie B. is a tragic tale, but I hope that’s offset by a gentle, bantering humour that can serve as foil to a sense of the transience of life. The Ukrainian influence is largely visual and aural, via paintings and music, together with memories of journeys to eastern Poland and Hungary – the sense of these panoramic landscapes, the steppes, rivers, lakes, forests.
Do you consider the story ultimately bleak or uplifting? There is always the knowledge throughout that any happiness Marie will experience will never sustain last – yet she is immortalised in her Self-Portrait.
This brings us back to humour and transience. Marie had her failures and her successes, as we all have; she had her attractive and unattractive qualities, as we all have. That she started out so spoiled and sheltered makes her triumphs, such as they are, all the more heroic – and of course time was running out for her.
Do you find literary theory part of your inspiration to write, or is it rejected?
Literary theory, at least of the academically-generated kind, has had no impact whatsoever. But I’ve learned from the statements of practising novelists. Better to get it from the inside, as it were.
This is your first novel. You have written poetry for years. Did you find the new creative process frightening, liberating?
Entirely liberating. I don’t have a single ‘voice’ in my poetry – I prefer to use different personas, masks if you like: in this respect Yeats has given me a lot to mull over. In undertaking a novel, I felt able to take this a lot further. When I return to writing poetry, I hope the experience will serve me well for a new phase.
The tale is told through third person narration, first person, hallucinations, speeches, chapters of dialogue, even memos and poems. What was it about Marie’s story that forced you to write with such polyvocality?
These varying personas I’ve just mentioned. Maybe it’s analogous to an actor inhabiting a diversity of parts and not wanting to be typecast. But I felt too that, if I deployed a range of narrative techniques, a more rounded picture of Marie would emerge, neither too much the plaster saint nor too much the obnoxious snob, but someone both admirable and exasperating.
This polyvocality even includes Russian characters speaking in Scottish dialects! You were the first librarian at the Scottish Poetry Library and have taught Scottish literature around Europe. How does this knowledge of Scottish cultural traditions influence the writing?
I was one of the people who created the Scottish Poetry Library, but there’s a sense in which the Scottish Poetry Library created me. My PhD wasn’t on Scottish literature but as soon as it was behind me, I took steps to improve my knowledge of my own country’s word-hoard. From my existing knowledge, back in 1984, the SPL’s collection took shape, but I was discovering many marvellous writers for the first time. I began to write my own poetry – in Scots – at the grand old age of 33.
Scots language came naturally to me because I spoke it as a kid in Fife. Like most languages, it has its dialects, and my years in Aberdeen exposed me to a Scots verbal music different from what we had further south. I’d have to admit, though, that it was only after I left the Granite City that I began to appreciate its unique literary culture. Aberdeenshire – or County Aberdeen as you’d probably call it! – is largely rural, and in Marie B. the characters of French peasant stock speak in the Scots dialect of that part of the country; it seemed to me the ideal equivalent. Marie’s friend Georgette is a working-class Parisian so she speaks an urban west-of-Scotland register, i.e. Glasgow and its broad hinterland. The ancient hag encountered by Marie in her native Ukraine – well, she speaks a kind of grotesque, ballad-like Fife dialect: she’s a figure from universal folklore and in our country we’d call her a spae-wife. That describes a witch-like fortune-teller who’d sit at the crossroads awaiting your custom. Marie’s background is posh, so all these folk are a revelation and an education to her.
We developed the Scottish Poetry Library – which celebrated its quarter-centenary in 2009 – as a repository of international as well as Scottish poetry, and indeed we invited mainland European poets to give readings during the Edinburgh Festival. During my period there, in the mid-late 1980s and early 1990s, I began to give talks and readings at continental festivals and universities, then from 1993 onwards, once I’d left the SPL, I spent longer periods at overseas universities, teaching courses in Scottish and other literatures. (I even taught American literature in America!) All the time I was absorbing the literary, musical and artistic cultures of the countries where I was based, especially, in Europe, of France and Hungary. I was interested in dialogues. Scottish language and literature don’t appeal to me in isolation: it’s the relationships with European analogues that absorb me, the intellectual and creative affinities (or, even better, the lack of such affinities).
I hope I’m writing Scottishly even when I’m not writing ‘about’ Scotland. In my poetry, the medieval Scottish ‘makar’ (maker, poet) Robert Henryson has influenced me deeply, also the greatest Scottish poet of the twentieth century, Hugh MacDiarmid. Both of them mean far more to me than Robert Burns. The Scottish ballads, too, I’ve loved from childhood: they’re completely without the sentimentality and cosiness that’s too much in evidence in Burns, for all his merits. At this point most of my compatriots will want to slaughter me. But for a poet who wants to take up narrative, the ballads are great models. There’s no messing about, you’re right there in the action, you have tragedy without getting all lachrymose about it. Think of the two crows – ‘The Twa Corbies’ – munching away on the new-dead knight: ‘O’er his white banes [bones] when they are bare / The wind sall blaw for evermair [shall blow for evermore]’.
As regards Marie B., the Scottish linguistic influences are obviously there, but not so much the literary ones, ballads apart. The mainland European influences on me are stronger. I’ve mentioned Flaubert and his pal Turgenev – between them they did so much to give the European novel a poise and a tautness that was missing in Anglophone work until Henry James took up where Flaubert and Turgenev left off. It helped that James was an expat American – he could dispense with a lot of Anglo-baggage. I believe that being part of the UK has provincialised us in Scotland; we badly need to acquire European sophistication, albeit as unselfconsciously as possible. We should stop fixating on what London thinks of us, if it bothers to think of us at all.
There are other specifically ‘Scottish’ aspects to Marie B. She has a teenage crush on the Duke of Hamilton, who was essentially an Anglo-Scottish toff who idled his way across Europe. Later on, after seeing him in a Paris boulevard she wonders what she saw in him and likens him to a pudding. But the Duke of Hamilton has stoked her romantic notion of Scotland as filled with ruined castles, kilted bravehearts and all. In this respect she was not untypical of mainland Europeans who had read their Walter Scott. I had done a lot of research on the European reception of Scott so I’m mocking my academic side. Likewise I’ve produced scholarly books on Robert Louis Stevenson, and when I was in America I told friends I’d get revenge on myself by allowing RLS to make a cameo appearance in the novel. He and Marie never actually met in real life but they were both on the French Mediterranean coast during the 1870s, so you never know, they could have passed each other on the street. The Americans would ask me: ‘So you’re going to have a liaison between Stevenson and Marie?’ As things turned out, it’s not a liaison exactly, more a frisson.
In books like Joseph Knight James Robertson has revived the Scottish tradition of the historical novel. His success encouraged me to keep going with Marie B. and its own French and Russian historical reference points. That James took his PhD in history rather than in English has, I suspect, helped his creativity. Significantly, his thesis was on Scott. In any case Scott’s impact on English literature matters less than his influence on French novelists such as Stendhal and Balzac and also on the Russians, above all Tolstoy, to whom Marie makes reference towards the end of my book.
Have you any advice for aspiring writers?
I can’t do better than pass on advice from Robert Louis Stevenson, who said that a work of fiction should aim for ‘significant simplicity’. You can get there not in spite of sophistication of technique and content, but because of it. As long as you don’t let the scaffolding detract from the building itself.
And don’t take as long as I did, if you can. Sixteen years is a long time to produce a novel of a hundred pages! So many practicalities intervened, such as living and working in different countries. Once I’d got past the half-way mark, though, progress accelerated – and there you have the psychology of the creative process, or at least of mine.