The Books Interview: Adam Thirlwell

The possibility of escape is a pervasive theme in your new novel.
I had this farcical idea of a man in a wardrobe watching a couple have sex. What was he escaping from? Throughout, I became more interested in the inescapable: you can go to a different country, cut yourself off from the past, but the more [Haffner, the main character] escapes, the more he wants to stay within the bounds of his marriage.

Could you explain your use of allusion?
Part of the problem is having a good memory. In Politics, the deliberate references were metaphors, almost. With The Escape, Haffner is autodidactic. I think in terms of collage and juxtaposition.

There are a number of powerful juxtapositions in The Escape - mind and body, for instance.
The problem of the body is the problem of desire. By the end of The Escape, the body is revenging; the body is dying. I remember reading that Saint Augustine says the original sin is a man not being able to control his erections. The desire for art is quite similar to how people use their sex lives - to create something with formal and lasting beauty.

What are the attractions - and challenges - of writing about sex?
In Politics, the sex is often a terrifying mistake, but in this book it's about reciprocal desire. Kundera says in a sex scene a character reveals himself more fully. In real life, through sex, you can get to know someone more, but also weirdly not get to know them. It's difficult to write about sex without sounding kitsch. The theme of privacy is important: at what point should you allow access to someone else?

Another compelling juxtaposition in The Escape is the one between youth and age.
One of the bets of the book was that there's no real difference between being young and old. I was thinking, "I'm 30; am I allowed to write about a 78-year-old?" Haffner never grows up. Characters might be divided by 50 years but share the same moral choices.

Throughout, there's a yearning to effect the "final escape from the misery of politics".
I was interested in a character desperate not to let his history define him. There's something reprehensible about trying to hide yourself. But in some ways I admire Haffner. Why can't he be Haffnerian Haffner rather than a British Haffner or a Jewish Haffner? Jewishness in general interests me. What also links Haffner and Zinka is that they have suffered trauma through being in wars, but back in ordinary life, this becomes unspeakable. There are certain things you might never talk about that are central to your life. I'm interested in what's shown and not shown in the novel - and life.

You create characters that are repulsive but ultimately likeable.
It's really important in a novel to suspend ways of judging people, to have a character both reprehensible and not.

What are the roots of your own passion for literature?
Aged 13, on a summer holiday, I discovered poetry. In some terribly Freudian way, it was related to having my mother's attention. I discovered words could be so much fun without even understanding them. I've always been interested in words when they go a bit haywire and the sound and sense get dislocated. I was 18 and I'd gone to Prague and visited Kafka's house. I bought Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel. I'd never thought of the novel as a poetic form. What I've got from Kundera is that a novel can be as playful as a poem. More and more, I think of writing as a way of creating your own map of the world, discovering what is possible, and describing a reality that is most Adamish. You can impose your own patterns on what is lacking in pattern. One of the games of writing is that some repeats are fruitful. It's also a game of constant contradiction.

Speaking of games, cricket is important to you, isn't it?
It redefines what a victory might be; what you're used to thinking of as a defeat or a total humiliation might be the greatest moment of your life.

“The Escape" by Adam Thirlwell is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War