Czech Books Sarah Perry: in search of a Bohemian Gothic
When Sarah Perry’s first novel “After Me Comes the Flood” was published two years ago the reviews in the British press were superlative. Reviewers welcomed the book’s eerie and uncanny qualities, Gothic-smudged, as one critic put it. It is shortly to be followed by a second novel “The Essex Serpent” and now Sarah Perry is on a two-month residency in Prague, this time in search of a peculiarly Central European variant of the Gothic. In Czech Books she talks to David Vaughan.
Sarah Perry is the second writer-in-residence to come to Prague as part of the “Cities of Literature” scheme coordinated by UNESCO. She lives in eastern English city of Norwich, another of the partner cities in the project, and she has a very good reason for being here: she is researching a novel that will be set in Bohemia, drawing from the history, atmosphere and writing of Central Europe. She began our conversation by telling me about the qualities that drew her to the old streets of the Czech capital.
“I was particularly interested in a kind of Gothic atmosphere that you wouldn’t ordinarily encounter in the UK. There is a look here that is very different. The buildings are rather darker, more dense. There is a feeling of dark, massy structures, different from going into Canterbury Cathedral or one of the Gothic buildings in the UK. Also, I didn’t realize until I got here that a lot of them are gilded, which is very unlike any Gothic statuary or structures that you would get in England. So my writing is very preoccupied with a sense of place and I wanted to move away from the settings of my first two novels, which were dealing with a kind of Gothic sensibility that seems to me to be very English, and move onto something broader and stranger to me and more unusual. “
Tell us a bit more about what the “Gothic” means to you, because it is something that is very much present in both novels After Me Comes the Flood and The Essex Serpent. It’s also a subject that you have written about in articles and essays.
“I have. It’s something that’s very hard to pin down and I often describe it as being more a sensibility than a genre. So, some people who are relatively new to the idea of the Gothic will immediately think of a young lady in a nightgown running along a corridor, running away from a villain, maybe a vampire, and, while that is an element of the Gothic, true Gothic is something that is rather harder to pin down. It’s a feeling of eeriness, of strangeness and the uncanny, of being suspended somewhere between the existence of ghouls and monsters and revenants and your own madness and your own unease. I think that what Gothic does best is to allow people to access something quite dark and hidden in themselves that otherwise would remain concealed.”
You talk about wanting to move away from an English Gothic sensibility to something a bit more Central European. You haven’t been here all that long, but are you already beginning to pin down where the differences are?
“No! At the moment I’m mostly thinking about the environment around me as I write and how I might influence the characters that I create and the things that happen to them. For the first to novels I was very much preoccupied with matters relating to water. The first one is set in a place where there is a reservoir at the end of the garden in the middle of a heatwave and also out on the coast and my second novel is set in a fictional Essex village out on the marshland. And what I’m finding happening here as I walk around – I do quite a lot of walking around Prague at night, over the river – is that plot resolutions work themselves out quite differently, because I have a tendency to hurl people into the sea or into a reservoir as a novel conclusion and I think being away from that is making my imagination work slightly differently. Also, I’m accessing a history that feels very fresh to me, that feels very new. I think Central Europe’s role in the war was more conflicted and more difficult and more changeable than on that little island off to one side. We got bombed but our borders didn’t change. So I’m very interested in ideas of home and wandering and rootlessness and displacement, which is striking me more and more as I’m here.”
You’re beginning to put together the skeleton of a novel. I know you don’t want to talk too much about it, but can you give us a bit of an idea?
“Things have a tendency to change half way through, but in the novel at the moment there is a framing device, set in contemporary Prague and narrated by a writer, who, I suppose, to all intents and purposes, is me – the implied author. As part of the novel she is collating documents and stories to form an episodic novel, and the first story is set in Prague between 1933 and 1945. It’s been absolutely extraordinary to be here and to try to get to grips with the edges of this very complex and quite rich – and troubled – history of the last hundred years.”
It’s also quite a minefield…
“I’m very interested in the idea of history written by the victor and the question: who is the villain? I think in the Second World War it’s pretty clear who the villains were, but equally, on an individual level, things are never quite that simple. So, whilst you can look at nation states and their policies and very clearly pinpoint wickedness, once you dwindle it down to men and women like you and I who wake up in the morning and clean their teeth, it’s very hard to try to reconcile the two and say, ‘This individual was a very wicked woman or wicked man and did wicked things for a wicked side, whereas this was a very good person.’ If only things were that simple, but they’re not.”
People change – and that’s another thing you have in the Gothic novel, with people changing into very peculiar things. People change under different circumstances, when they’re put under extreme stress or when their lives are in danger, they behave differently and become someone different.
“That’s exactly right and I think that what is fascinating about the Czech Republic in particular is that one can almost think of it as being a character, as a person with characteristics and a personality. And it changed and changed and changed.”
You live in East Anglia, which is a part of Britain very famous for its wide open, flat landscape, and now you’ve come to Central Europe. You’ve done the exact opposite of what the German writer, W. G. Sebald, did. He came from Central Europe and moved to East Anglia. He wrote very vividly about the landscapes of eastern England.
“Sebald is a hero of mine and he’s been on my mind as I’ve been wandering round, because even in East Anglia he was still in Central Europe. He couldn’t ever escape it. It just strikes me again and again how profoundly a writer can be affected by the environment around them. Not always: I went to a Q&A session with Margaret Atwood once. She spends a lot of time writing in Norfolk. She likes Norfolk, although she lives in Canada normally. And I put my hand up and said with some trepidation, ‘I’m sure you find that while you’re in Norfolk you find yourself writing about these vast skies.’ And she went, ‘No!’ So it’s not the case for all writers, but for me the very words I use and the sentences I put together and the plot resolutions that come to me and the history that comes to mind are deeply affected by what I see when I wake up in the morning.”
I know that you grew up in a very Christian, and a very Protestant household, with the Bible as the main book in your childhood. That in a sense is also a passport to understanding this part of the world. In particular I’m thinking of the links between England and Bohemia at the time of the Reformation, when the Bible was first being translated into local vernacular languages.
“I agree and I think you’re right to mention the reformation as I think that’s where the strongest link is – for me at least – because in the family and the chapel where I spent most of my time – it seemed – in my youth, they were very, very interested in the Protestant Reformation, so I was very familiar with Luther, with Tyndale and with Wycliffe and with Jan Hus, and with the political importance, as I now also appreciate it, of having the Bible in your own language and what that means for parity down through the social strata – and liberty of conscience and thought. That’s when I came over here: I was thinking about Master Jan Hus and what I know about him. He had been martyred wearing a white hat with little devils dancing on it to indicate his apostasy.
“It’s a feeling of familiarity, I suppose, simply knowing that there is something in common between so many of the nations of Europe – that struggle to have the Bible in their own language and what that meant for the common people in particular, rather than constantly relying on their ‘superiors’ to tell them what to think and how to worship.”
Your writing has been heavily influenced by your very intimate knowledge of the James the First Bible, hasn’t it?
“Very much so. It’s inescapable and I’m very grateful for it. I’m particularly concerned with rhythm and I find myself trying to write a form of prose which is not too prolix, I hope, but which is very concerned with cadence and rhythm, which of course the King James Bible is very noted for. It was translated into English with the idea that even the ploughboy would be able to understand it. So actually it’s not representative of the way that people wrote and spoke at the time. It’s a different lexis, a different rhythm, designed to be memorized, and I memorized a lot of it when I was younger. It’s very much affected my prose style, I think.”
We can’t hear you read anything that you’ve written about Prague, because it’s still in your head, but let’s have a short extract from your book which is just coming out – in June this year – “The Essex Serpent”. I believe you’re going to read us something from the very beginning.
“Yes. This is the second beginning. There’s a prologue, which is rather creepy and disturbing, and then there’s this, which is ‘January’:
One o’clock on a dreary day and the time ball dropped at the Greenwich Observatory. There was ice on the prime meridian, and ice on the rigging of the broad-beamed barges down on the busy Thames. Skippers marked the time and tide, and set their oxblood sails against the northeast wind; a freight of iron was bound for Whitechapel foundry where bells tolled fifty against the anvil as if time were running out. Time was being served behind the walls of Newgate jail, and wasted by philosophers in cafes on the Strand; it was lost by those who wished the past were present, and loathed by those who wished the present past. Oranges and lemons rang the chimes of Saint Clement’s, and Westminster’s division bell was dumb.
Time was money in the Royal Exchange, where men passed the afternoon diminishing their hope of threading camels through a needle’s eye, and in the offices of Holborn Bar the long-toothed cog of a master clock caused an electric charge to set its dozen slave clocks chiming. All the clerks looked up from their ledgers, sighed, and looked down once more. On Charing Cross Road time exchanged its chariot for buses and cabs in urgent fleets, and in the wards of Barts and of the Royal Borough pain made hours of minutes. In Wesley’s chapel they sang The sands of time are sinking and wished they might sink faster, and yards away the ice was melting on the graves in Bunhill Fields.
I wonder what inspiration you’re going to find in Prague, where you don’t have the Thames and the estuary and the sense of the sea close by…
“There’s plenty there. I have to let it fester, which is the very unromantic word that I use, and then hopefully in a few weeks’ time I’ll wake up at three o’clock in the morning and grab my laptop and it will be ready to come out.”
You’re unusual today in the way you write. There’s such a richness of language, a density of language in a very Dickensian way.
“Thank you. I suppose I don’t really know. One of the extraordinary things with having a book come out – and I found it with my first book – is that you don’t really know what you write like. I don’t try to write in a particular way, it just fits itself to the subject matter. The style in The Essex Serpent is I think quite different from the writing style in After Me Comes the Flood. When After Me Comes the Flood came out, I was absolutely stunned at the number of people who found it very eerie, very unsettling, very sinister. And I thought I’d written a rather nice English country house mystery. That’s one of the exciting things about writing, I think. With each book the language shapes itself to the material. I don’t really know how it’s going to shape itself, but you have to trust that it will.”
You’re about half way through your stay in Prague. What are your plans for the rest of the stay?
“I’m very keen to go beyond Prague. I’m really looking forward to going to Karlovy Vary – and particularly to going on the journey from Prague to there and seeing the landscape change. My writing is always very preoccupied with nature, very preoccupied with the seedpods falling from the trees, with the oak shoots coming up in the spring. One of the things I found quite challenging about Prague is trying to find that connection with the seasons and with nature turning and one of the things I’ve really loved is going over Charles Bridge and feeding jackdaws – getting to know the jackdaws there – and seeing the trees come into bud. So, in the month that I’ve been here I can see the buds swelling at the end of the trees, which I think are linden trees. So I’m looking forward to doing a bit more travelling, partly for research for the book – I’m looking forward to seeing some Bohemian glass being made – but also I want to see the trees and the earth and the colour of the clay under the river, seeing what makes this country, not just in its history and in the city, but in the geology and the wildlife and the natural life here.”