Kevin Davey: “TS Eliot was far more than the sum of his prejudices”

The debut novelist on how he tackled the marital chaos and unsavoury opinions of a modernist poet in his Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel Playing Possum.

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This is the second in a series of interviews with the writers shortlisted for the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize, run in association with the New Statesman.

Kevin Davey has served as chair of the Socialist Society, been a teacher in further education colleges, edited the New Times, worked for pressure group Charter88 and helped found online publisher Open Democracy.

He is the author of English Imaginaries, a series of case studies on what the book's subtitle calls "Anglo-British Approaches to Modernity", and with Paul Anderson, of the historical study Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British Left. He has contributed to a number of publications, including the New Statesman, and written essays on figures ranging from Tony Blair to Herbert Read. 

The Goldsmiths Prize-nominated Playing Possum, a mixture of essay and thriller concerning a couple of days in the life of a poet and essayist called Tom Sterns, is his first novel.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader that a more conventional novel might not?

Novels that step beyond familiar genres and conventions can get closer to our experience of life as intertextual, mediated and often unpredictable, and perhaps shape new ways of thinking. In the simple act of catching a train we often recall rail journeys from films, paintings of trains, stories of rail journeys, accidents and strikes and chance meetings, and these often give meaning to our journey and shape how we behave and act.

How do you share and reflect on that? Moralising, realist and confessional novels don’t cut it when causation, character, meaning and closure are complex, or fragmenting, or fading from our lives. At the same time, risk-taking forms of writing can reconnect us directly with forgotten ways of reading and writing, lines which were closed, tradition and historical moments that can resonate in the present. Market-oriented genre novels, old and new, get in the way of that.

Can you recall the moment when you realised you were going to write a novel about a figure resembling TS Eliot fleeing a murder scene in 1922? 

Not really. I’d been writing segments of a text about Eliot, and another about events in Whitstable in the 1920s, and they kept connecting as I read and tapped away. I didn’t want to write traditional local history or literary criticism.

To write about Eliot I had to address modernist questions of form, his theology, philosophy and politics, collaboration with [Ezra] Pound, marital chaos and personal breakdown, the rise of cinema and decline of music hall, Bloomsbury, banking and popular culture.

When I remembered Eliot’s rules for the writing of detective novels I knew I had to break them. That’s when the two projects became one.

As I read it, the novel seems to have a number of agendas, biographical, cultural-historical, literary-critical. It's also an implicit rebuke to conventional fiction. Did you consciously approach the novel in these terms?

Yes, I was determined to engage with major questions about Eliot as a critic and poet in and beyond his time, and to take risks with form and montage and sequence, while remaining accessible to adventurous local readers who might know little about him other than Cats, one or two poems, or the fact that he had written part of The Waste Land further along the coast in Margate.

I do contextualise Eliot’s writing and thinking about literary tradition in the Europe and England of the 1920s, but I hope I don’t confine their significance to that moment. I certainly wanted to avoid any sense of a fixed historical time or unified character in the text, and unity of place wasn’t a priority either.

Quite a lot of the novel is in fact taken up by a train journey. I deliberately withheld the crutches of time, chronological sequence and unfolding depth of character from the reader to keep other concerns centre stage. I was more interested in ideas of simultaneity and eternity, the rhyming of ideas, and active reading, of connections and disappearances across time – and also the differences between Eliot and Pound who is a recurring voice in the text.

But it was extremely interesting to explore issues like the impact of cinema and filmmaking on popular culture in the 1920s, along with unemployment and the rise of the Labour Party, in a local context, in the library and pubs and locations around me in Whitstable.

It's not just an amazingly ambitious novel, but ambitious in various ways. Did you ever fear that you wouldn't be able to pull it off?

I knew it was going to work, for me at least, from the moment I combined the two texts. I had an interesting problem to solve, things to say, and a form to find. That fuelled the writing in a way that mere genre fiction or an easy mannerist nod towards modernism never could.

Whether it would work for a large number of readers didn’t concern me at all, although there were a few exacting readers and Eliot specialists that I hoped would get it. I had something I wanted to say, I was finding a way to say it and it was fun, so doubt didn’t get a look in really.

Could you talk about the relationship between Playing Possum and your previous work as a journalist and cultural historian?

The skills I picked up in journalism, editing, historical research and writing were probably preconditions for Playing Possum. Journalism schools you in clarity, brevity and evidence, along with scepticism and bite. Cultural and political history confronts you with events and cultural forms and disciplined ways of thinking about them. But there’s more risk and challenge, more fun to be had, different effects, if you redeploy them somewhere new.

In Playing Possum, I’ve engaged more deeply with modernism, Bolshevism, Englishness and other issues I’ve written about before, while setting out Eliot’s tensions and dilemmas in the early 1920s, than I would have with any other form of writing. 

Would you say that Eliot himself was an artistic influence on the book – and what other works of art, literature, music, film, or theory were important to you in the writing of this book?

The T S Eliot of 1922, about whom I write, is a thinker and writer in flux. He never writes again as he did then in The Waste Land, with some of the traits you describe, nor did he leave us a novel. So I don’t think his example or his prescriptions are particularly helpful for novelists today.

Eliot’s thinking, his theories and writing, are certainly the main focus of Playing Possum in terms of its shape, the action, the jokes, and the questions raised by the book. However, I know I was also nudged towards the solution by The Cantos of Ezra Pound, the films of Charlie Chaplin and Jean Luc Godard, the novels of Claude Simon, Berio’s Sinfonia and the Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes, a striking 17th century intertextual montage.

We're not allowed to forget that while Tom is not a cultural elitist, he is against democracy and a champion or follower of Action Francaise (as well as being a murderer). Politics are not absent from the book. Were you aware of entering debates about Eliot's prejudices? 

Eliot’s right-wing politics, antisemitism and racialised caricatures are all well known and have dominated much contemporary discussion of his work. In Playing Possum he puts his cultural politics on the record during a discussion with local businessmen in a Whitstable bar, as a noisy Labour protest against unemployment is broken up in the street outside. I deal with his antisemitism and racism in a different way. Eliot was far more than the sum of his prejudices and the “more” is the main subject of the book.

Was the novel enabled by any recent developments in Eliot scholarship?

Not directly. I went to primary sources, to the Criterion and the relevant volumes of Letters. I read all of the biographies of course. I was very pleased to come across David Chinitz’s The Cultural Divide, on Eliot and popular culture, which confirmed I wasn’t barking up the wrong tree. I haven’t been greatly impressed by attempts to appropriate Eliot as gay, or bisexual, or an ecological pioneer or New Age guru. He was a High Church Anglican cultural theorist. Recent developments probably gave something to push back against.

There's a lot of material in your novel for Eliot buffs. Were you conscious of making the details work on more than one level?

I don’t think I would have found writing on one level at all motivating. I don’t think I could do it. I’d like to think that Playing Possum can be read by people unfamiliar with Eliot but I hope it will encourage them to go to the next level. Those that know Eliot’s work well will find the text is saturated with games and allusions which I hope they will find entertaining, at the very least, perhaps a little instructive and suggestive too.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

One of the reasons I wrote Playing Possum was that I had run out of contemporary fiction worth reading. There’s so little out there. The Goldsmiths Prize has become a very reliable provider, once a year, of a loaf of must reads. 

Can you name a past British or Irish novel that deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize?

Amalgamemnon by Christine Brooke-Rose.

“Playing Possum” is published by Aaaargh! Press

Read the New Statesman's reviews of all six novels on the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist here

Will Self: The nostalgia of the “heritage novel” leaves me reaching for my gun. Read his Goldmsiths Prize Q&A interview here

Listen to The Back Half podcast’s special episode on the Goldsmiths Prize nominees, on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.