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Michael Bracewell

Michael Bracewell is a novelist and cultural critic. Born in London, Bracewell won early praise with his first two novellas The Crypto-Amnesia Club (1988) and Missing Margate (1988), both tinged with metropolitan angst and alienation, and written in lively, pyrotechnic prose. After a prolific decade of fiction writing with more novels including Divine Concepts of Physical Beauty (1989), The Conclave (1992), Saint Rachel (1995) and Perfect Tense (2001), Bracewell turned his attention to cultural commentary, predominantly on art and music, producing works including England is Mine (1997), The Nineties: When Surface Was Depth (2002) and The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art (2011). He has also contributed essays to the catalogues of major exhibitions by Bridget Riley and Richard Hamilton. After a two-decade break from fiction, Bracewell recently published a novel, Unfinished Business, which revisits the life of Martin Knight, an office lifer who first appeared in The Conclave, as he confronts what lies beyond the cosy banality of his bordered existence.

Interview by Matthew JanneyPortrait courtesy Michael Bracewell

MATTHEW JANNEY Unfinished Business is your first novel in 21 years. Why the break and why the return?
MICHAEL BRACEWELL I published my first two books when I was quite young, in 1988, and those had attracted quite a bit of attention within the very strange and febrile world of publishing in London at the end of the 1980s. Everybody was chasing around looking for the British Bret Easton Ellis or something; I clearly wasn’t that. My most recent work of fiction until now was a novella called Perfect Tense, published in 2001. I was pleased with it at the time and it got nice reviews and generous support. Then something just made me feel that it was time to take a break. There’s a fantastic line of John Betjeman at the start of “Summoned by Bells”, where he says, “The gap between my feelings and my skill / Was so immense I wonder I went on.” That was precisely how I felt, but rather than, “I wonder I went on”, I just decided not to go on. I didn’t think what I was doing was good enough and so off I went to earn my living as best I could. Then quite recently, a need came back. I don’t know if there’s any point trying to write a literary work unless you actually need to do it; quite liking doing it, or thinking it wouldn’t be a bad idea, doesn’t really get you very far – you’ve got to need to do it. The translation of an impulse into a form is phenomenally difficult – and I’m not saying for one moment that I think I’ve succeeded in it – but with Unfinished Business, I very strongly had the need to try to do it. That was why I started again.

MJ We’ve met Martin, the protagonist of Unfinished Business, before.
MB Martin first pops up in a book of mine called The Conclave, which novelist Gwendoline Riley said is not so much a novel as an itemising of the first 30 years of that character’s life. I wrote The Conclave between 1989 and 1990 and so I worked out how old the characters would all have been by 2017; I wanted to know what had become of those people. With my generation, who were born at the end of the 1950s, very early 1960s, the coalescent experience that our parents and grandparents had was world war. Our coalescent experience, however, was primarily pop and shopping. We grew up in step with pop and pop culture, in a fairly safe, at least in Britain, consumer technology boom. The people I write about tend to be unfashionably middle class like this. They could just carry on buying things and consuming things and following their affairs without interruption. What interests me is what lies beyond that experience. In Martin’s case, he’s done so many things that so many men of that generation and that type do: he had a stupid affair which ended his marriage; he’s done a relatively well-paid job that has no vocation of any sort; he’s become quite unhealthy in terms of compensatory pleasures, booze and stuff – and then something really terrible happens to him. I just wondered where that would leave someone like that, people who are drawn to romanticism and pop, who can blame it all on David Bowie. Where does that sit with old age when things really get tough? What do you do when just sitting and listening to Joy Division again isn’t going to help? You could argue that that’s a very decadent situation to be in. There are zillions of people who can’t stop to think like that because they’re just trying to survive, but these sorts of invisible men go right back to writers like Flaubert, Lermontov and then to people like Italo Svevo or Pessoa. It’s stories of anonymous city clerks to whom nothing is ever really going to happen, but who have these very vivid, internal lives and engagements with the world. I think of Martin as being in that lineage. He’s an office worker, middle class, but he has this interior life in which he really would like to be a poet, but he doesn’t have the ability; he has no outlet. I suppose the genre is “meetings with unremarkable men”.

MJ The generation who grew up in the Bowie era has a defined cultural and aesthetic language, a sense of belonging to a particular time. Reading the book, I was struck by the overwhelming sense that today’s present reality lacks that; it remains too chaotic and complex to parse. Is that Martin’s reading of the world around him or a comment on our more fragmented – you might say era-less – world we live in today?
MB I do think that in 1986, there was this historical moment when Amstrad, the first affordable home computer, hit the market and the City of London began to go digital. The politics at the time was obviously very bound up with that. The digital revolution, whose effects we now live in, was a very sharp break for a lot of people. The old city, which had been around since 1880, which was electrical and mechanical and service-based, began to recede. It became something else. I do think in the years that preceded this, with punk and with post-punk, there was this very short burst of incredibly intense energy, then this twilit mood occurred, an interesting mirror of early 20th century modernism I think. It was aggressively inventive, eclectic and slightly mad, capable of incredible poetry and beauty, but the overall feel was somehow that of a requiem. Then computers came along and everything changed. That idea pervades Unfinished Business, like when Martin’s daughter Chloe, for example, says to him, “When you talk about punk, you sound like your mother talking about the war.” I didn’t want to make Martin just a hopeless nostalgist, but he’s finding it very hard to find a purpose and in the contemporary world the past seems increasingly welcome to him. At the end of the book when he moves back to the suburbs, I was partly thinking of lines of W.H. Auden’s where he writes, “We never left the place where we were born … O here and now our endless journey starts.” You could read that as being slightly pessimistic or gloomy or you might read it as the start of some sort of acceptance. I tried to leave it open, but at least you know Martin seems to have found some means to continue after blows dealt to him.

MJ Has your writing style changed since your earlier works?
MB Yes, definitely, and that’s largely symptomatic of age. I was 28 when I wrote my first two books; I’m now 65. There’s something rather fabulous about early writing. Unless you happen to be a Rimbaud or Shakespeare, it’s normally overly flashy and full of autobiographical romanticism. There’s a noble tradition of being a bit pretentious like that and it can be a very good thing, but as you get older, it’s much harder to allow yourself that kind of self-satisfaction. I’m being asked now to republish early works and I’m very much in two minds about it to be honest. I reread Missing Margate the other day, and found myself biting my fist and throwing the book across the room. My wife read it and said, “Well, you know, it’s nothing if not a period piece.”

MJ Architecture and the role of light and shadow seems very important in your work. Indeed, Max de Winter, the protagonist of Missing Margate, is a successful architect, albeit one who wants to destroy all his creations. 
MB I’ve always been incredibly interested in and responsive to buildings, particularly in London. I had my first office job in the City in the 1970s and the buildings there seem to exist not just as themselves, but as sort of agents of earlier periods and of other places. It’s something Christopher Isherwood talks about in his autobiographical sketch, Lions and Shadows [1938]. He recounts being a young man in the 1920s and wandering around London, where you could look down a street and almost fancy that you were seeing Marseilles or Rome. That idea of buildings as portals into other places, other times and situations is something that has always interested me, particularly within the square mile of London. The architecture is so dense; I find it very compelling to try make sense of it.

MJ London is such an important contextual backdrop in your work and the opening image of Unfinished Business is this rather gloomy vignette of a shuttered sports bar in East London. Is this indicative of the general feeling that London – in the context of strikes, the cost-of-living crisis, the shuttering of spaces and institutions – is in decline?
MB There is a certain feeling in London now, and it was true at the time the book is set in 2017 and still is since the pandemic, that for a whole load of reasons, the “late capitalist party city” idea of London, which some people are still desperately trying to hang on to, really doesn’t feel right any more. There’s a sense in which anything that can’t survive the absolutely brutal economy of central London will just be swept away. I don’t think it’s just old age that makes one think that an awful lot of things that were once charming are no longer there, whether that’s shops, restaurants, bookshops or museums, all sorts of things. There is this sense it’s become a bit of a worn-out thoroughfare. Like all cities, it goes through changes and always will go through changes, but there’s a sort of exhausted meanness to the place now, which is coupled with this grotesque economy that it has. You could say exactly the same about Paris or even more so about New York. If you let capitalism run wild and consumerism dictate, then sooner or later you’re going to end up with this sclerotic, not very lively place. You can be in Soho or in the City or in East London on a Sunday evening and it feels like Blade Runner; you think, this is just acid rain and takeaways and too much traffic. It’s hard to see. Even the bits that used to be known as being rather elegant or posh seem to have become just expensive; they’re just expensive and not very nice. The only piece of it I’d want to live in now is the Barbican, and that’s maybe because it’s preserved forever in 1982. ◉