Hugo Hamilton, 68, grew up in Dublin. His childhood memoir The Speckled People (2003) is a genre classic. It tells the story of a confused young boy, the son of a German mother and an ardent nationalist father who forbade his children to speak English at home; only Irish and German were allowed. His new novel The Pages is published by Fourth Estate.
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass is a formative book in my imagination. I read it in German. It was like nothing else I had read before. I loved his approach to the Nazi period and his naughty magical realism he had. He was almost floating above all the darkness of time in that childhood voice – the little drummer boy who can’t grow up. It was such an amazing metaphor for a time in Germany that got completely stunted and didn’t progress. It always stays with me – one of those inventive novels that looks at history with a slight ironic touch.
There was a fiction crisis in Germany after the Nazi period when the German language had to be reinvented. There were some amazing writers; in particular, I found Thomas Bernhard very exciting. He adopted this middle-European way of doing fiction where there was no plot at all. It’s almost a lyrical approach where the language really matters. In his book The Lime Works, for example, a man and his wife are stuck in this building. Nothing really happens except he’s trying to write a book, but he never gets down to it because there are too many distractions. Just as he starts writing the book, someone starts chopping wood outside and it’s the end – another wasted day. It’s a very funny kind of book, a bit like Samuel Beckett.
Irish writers are wonderful because there is a tradition of storytelling in Ireland and also in the English speaking world. It’s like the American style where everything is a story. The characters have a purpose or a journey. Someone is trying to go somewhere. Someone has a problem. While very often in these crazy European books it is an intellectual problem. Like not being able to write a book because the central character was spending too much time at breakfast. That’s it, his day is wasted. He can’t work. This is the type of story that is very rare in Anglo-American literature. I hope I managed to do both in my fiction.
There is currently a wave of women writers in Ireland, fantastic writing going on from a whole new perspective. I especially liked Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation recently. It’s this wonderful take on sex and relationships from a woman. It’s almost like this character is using his own body as a site of revenge against her fake boyfriend. I really admire this novel. It is very well written. Only a woman could write it. This makes it all the more interesting.
Watch the Sons of Ulster Marching to the Summa by Frank McGuinness is one of those absolutely extraordinary pieces. He broke all the molds. It brought out a wonderful gay element in theater that was never there before. I remember going to see the first production at The Peacock. Even the style of directing was a revelation.
Tom Murphy was another great playwright. His female characters are very strong. All the disaster of Irish life he described. The Irish laugh at each other’s misfortune. People say, “I can laugh better than you. His ideas were so eccentric. He won me over because I consider myself a pretty eccentric writer. I like the danger in some of his writings. It is close to anarchy. It’s something that attracts me to writers.
The Lives of Others is one of the most remarkable movies I have seen. It’s about East Germany retreating and the people spying on this couple. It was such a cleverly designed movie. I love this voyeurism of state surveillance in the GDR and how such experts in human weakness they were. They recruited people because they were weak. It was a profound film about this period in history and how a man negotiates his way through it trying to cheat the security system from within.
One of the problems for novelists now is that TV shows are so good. I absolutely loved Peaky Blinders. I watched it three times. I thought maybe I should stop writing now because Peaky Blinders does everything a novelist can do. Cillian Murphy has to be one of the brightest actors of all time. These TV series took the novel to a different place. It’s a bit like the effect of photography on art. It allowed the art to do something different. This led to a period of abstract art. I think that’s what’s going to happen with the novels now. What’s the point of telling a story? Netflix can do it. Where the novel has the advantage is that you invite the reader inside the imagination. It is a more intellectual form.
I grew intellectually speaking with this German artist called Joseph Beuys. He came to Ireland at one point. He was an intriguing figure. He was a pilot. He was injured during the war. He was brought back to life on the outskirts of Europe – in a remote location – and kept alive with felt and grease. The felt became the center of his art. He made himself a felt suit. His exhibits included pieces of felt. When he came to Ireland he made a lump of butter – like a lump of sod, but it was made of butter. He was sort of a dissident artist from the 1960s.
The point is, when he came to Ireland, we paired him up for eccentricity. I don’t think he fully understood Ireland because we were too eccentric for him. He was very interested in nature and ecology. He even came up to try to solve the Northern problem in the 1970s. He drew the Northern Ireland solution on chalkboards. Very revealing, the blackboards have disappeared. Someone stole them. The problem of the North was therefore never solved.