The Books Interview: Craig Raine

You are a poet first and a novelist second, but you have said that Heartbreak is not a "poet's novel". What do you mean by that?
I just mean that most poetry is kind of noble. And there are emotions that everyone knows about, but which don't get into poetry much. I think the novel is a freer space - there are fewer customs restrictions on what you can say. If you wanted to write about tattoos or haemorrhoids, you could do it in a novel rather more easily than you could in poetry.

You have said that you began the novel a decade ago. Had you never tried your hand at novel-writing before that?
No. I've got some short stories that I'm deeply ashamed of hidden away somewhere. They were terrible. They were written by Ernest Hemingway's dyslexic brother - they were awful. My idea was to have a novel that would be a project for my retirement. So, for about a decade, I kept notes. In 2000, I tried to put all these fragments together. I had no idea how to do it, but, in the end, I kind of solved it.

One of your heroes is John Updike. In this novel, you write very lyrically, as Updike has done, about a female character's pudenda.
Everyone says this about Updike. I have a letter somewhere from him - some critic or other had accused him of indulging in descriptions of vaginas - and in his letter to me he says: "As far as I know I've never described a vagina." He has described pubic hairs, but not the actual vulva, I think. When I wrote about that character, I wasn't thinking, "Hello, Updike": I was thinking, "Hello, mons pubis."

What do you think of Updike's poetry?
I don't think he's a great poet. It's always a matter of amazement to me that people think it's incredibly hard to rhyme, that sort of thing. Novelists are thinking: “He just said 'fork', and 'stork' and 'walk'. Bloody hell! His head must be on fire with genius." Obviously poets can do this standing on their heads.

Milan Kundera is another influence.
I think Kundera is a great writer. He's made discoveries that one can use - the mixture of fact and fiction, for instance. What I really learned from him is swiftness. In Kundera, you get what you need and there's no wastage. It's a very lean approach to fiction. I admire it enormously. As for those people who are writing conventional novels - like, say, D J Taylor, turning out another piece of reproduction furniture - no one says of them that they are copying the traditional novel. It seems to me that Kundera is a perfectly respectable antecedent; I think one would be crazy not
to follow him. The other writer who is a huge influence on me is Kipling, whose short stories I admire very, very much.

Didn't you say somewhere that you think Kipling's stories are a match for Chekhov's?
Yes. This is sometimes regarded as an eccentric position by people who haven't read much Chekhov. One of the things about Chekhov is that, although he's wonderful, he is unbelievably repetitive. He repeats himself all the time. You get his best things at least three times. There are no repeats in Kipling.

It seems that another of the tricks you have learned from Kundera is the fusion of novel and essay.
I think this is partly because one of the things I am is a critic. The essayistic parts of the novel are mostly literary criticism of a kind. Literary criticism is second nature to me.George Eliot used to be accused routinely of destroying the fabric of her fiction with her intrusive narration, in which she talks about her characters as though they are real people. In fact, it doesn't make the reality less, it makes it more. If you can move seamlessly from the fictional to the factual, people don't feel too uncomfortable about it; they've already grown to feel comfortable. Then it becomes a way of creating a more perfect illusion.

And one thinks of the digressive, intrusive mode that marks the beginnings of the English novel - Fielding and Sterne, for instance.
Yes, and that's obviously where Kundera comes from. Everything comes from something else; you give it your spin. You couldn't not give it your spin.

Heartbreak is published by Atlantic Books (£12.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals