Monday 25 April 2022

Special guest post: an interview with Graeme Fife about NO COMMON ASSASSIN, his novel of the French Revolution


"The story of Charlotte Corday transfixed me: her audacity, naivete, determination, innocence as well as the bare facts of what she did."
Graeme Fife is a regular reviewer here. He has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography, works of history and fiction. He says, 'I urge everyone to buy from their independent bookshop, if they're lucky enough - as I am - to have one nearby. If not, by any means possible to counter the sprawl of the online consumer graball.' 

Writers Review:  You published The Terror: the Shadow of the Guillotine almost twenty years ago, in 2003: " The most authoritative treatment we are likely to have for many years (William Doyle, The Independent)", for which you must have undertaken formidable amounts of research, much of it in French. What led to your decision to write a novel set during this period? Did that impetus come later?

Graeme Fife: That’s a review I never saw. Wow.

I had been fascinated by the revolution for a long time and had, before the novel, written two radio plays, a short theatre piece, an opera libretto and documentary woven out of translated speeches from the period based on that grim time in human affairs and the story of Charlotte Corday in particular transfixed me: her audacity, naivete, determination, innocence as well as the bare facts of what she did. An opponent of the excesses of the Terror in the crowd watching as the tumbril bearing her to the scaffold rumbled past, through the streets of Paris said: ‘I don’t agree with what she did but she is teaching us how to die.’ A grim legacy. Knowing how she finished her life, I wanted to explore what brought her to that fate. It's nowhere that I have found.

WR: Did your fascination with Charlotte Corday come from the research you did for The Terror? Were you able to read original documents written by or about her?

Graeme: The starting point was the curious incident of the frogs in the night – the estate men beating the marshes to keep the batrachian chorus quiet whilst the wife of the master was in labour. I’ve heard that marsh jazz in Mali and it’s bewitching but very loud. It’s such a bizarre story but was the triggering of the novel, without question, one of those gifts out of fact which stir the fiction.

Although I did extensive – and exhausting – research for the Terror book, in texts mostly in French and in the national archive in Paris, I read only small gobbets of Corday’s own utterances, as recorded from the trial and other incidents in her life before she ever went to Paris; the sources, largely secondary, have plenty of her reported words in French. The title itself is a slight twist on something she said to the Prosecutor in court, an angry expostulation that she had actually known full well how to wield the blade as if this was her very trade and she it was who gave me the title during a long walk which I’d dedicated to finding what to call the novel. Indeed, I felt so close to her that at one point, having to break off work on the novel to work on something else, I imagined her sitting alone in a room in the convent, hands folded in her lap waiting for the soft tap on the heavy oaken door which would announce my entry and request to resume our conversation. She was always most gracious and I wept when she wept.

WR: Was it clear from the beginning that your main viewpoint would be Charlotte's? Did you ever consider telling the story a different way? And did the decision to alternate between the past and the present of the story come before you started to write? What did you see as the advantages of that?

Graeme: My writing of the novel was dogged, from the start, by a severe impediment, that of writing history for which sticking to the facts rules out invention. For a long time I could not even contemplate writing something that I knew had not happened, a fatal misgiving. It was a dear friend, a considerable writer herself, who rescued me and said that I must find another pair of eyes through which to observe this lone country girl on her way to Paris bent on such a murderous exploit. I resisted the notion for a long time, because I knew of none, but I respect this friend's judgement so eventually, and to the redemption, I believe of the novel, acceded and invented the secret policeman, Paisac, whose name comes from a list of people who went to what they called ‘the sword of justice’. What a find, my saviour, another individual to whom I grew close, all thanks to the advice and encouragement of someone who knows how these things work and must work. Fiction. Making things up, using the imagination. Story not history, albeit in Greek they are the same thing. The truth behind the fact.

For example, I wasn’t thinking specifically about the infamous tricoteuses at any point but I don’t discount my powers of insight and instinct. The women plying the needles in the Convention - and at the foot of the scaffold? probably not; a Dickens invention in one of his books I find unreadable, A Tale of Two Cities, it’s tosh, though I am a big fan of the books in general. It struck me, however, that at a time when the revolutionary armies, composed largely of untrained volunteers, were marching out to guard the frontiers against professional royalist forces, many of them without shoes or boots, those women were doing something overtly patriotic: they were knitting socks and comforters for the fighting men and boys. I’ve not read that anywhere but I know it’s true, just know.

As for switching time zones, that did seem the obvious approach and I hardly questioned it; perhaps a failure of my roots in historical writing, but I think, hope, it works here. The alternative – which I employed in an earlier version of the book, is to make the whole story chronological and, because I deem that earlier version a failure, I feel no compunction about ditching the method.

WR:  As someone who'd written such a major historical account, did you find it more liberating or more daunting to turn to fiction?

Graeme:  A question that cuts to the very stump: oh, liberating and daunting in equal measure. Allowing myself to go anywhere I found so many avenues denied by the relentless onward drive of the imagined account or even by my own incompetence. There are those awful moments of sheer dismay at the amount of work that such and such a challenge is going to require. Before I agreed to The Terror, I asked a dear friend who knows me well and teaches French history at an American university whether she approved of my undertaking such a task and she asked me whether I wanted to ‘wade through all that blood’ again. A pertinent and necessary jolt. Knowing, even approximately, what Charlotte Corday was going to demand of me, I undertook to ‘find her’ so to speak with excitement and determination, both of which, in my view, she deserves.

WR:  Charlotte's Normandy upbringing and her education in the convent are portrayed in detail in your novel. Is this all based on reality or were there areas about which little is known?

Graeme: Tricky. By and large, I simply don’t know except that it does ring true and I think I have a good ear. I have spent quite a lot of time in a monastery so that certain aspects of the religious life are familiar and I have studied devotion and the nursing of the dedicated soul, to put it that way, a lot so I suppose that speaking of her time in the convent came more or less naturally to me. One thing does stand out: her take on guilt which may be surprising. She was known as a very forthright, no-nonsense speaker with the temperament of an angel [sic], a deeply caring young woman – her teaching of the little girls brings that out and I guess that passage, Miss and the littl’uns, springs from some remembered exchange, I cannot bring it specifically to mind, but, I repeat, I got to know her so well and she taught me much.

WR:  I'm impressed by your depictions of rural Normandy, the convent and its surroundings and the city scenes in Paris. I believe you have travelled widely in France, but nevertheless was it difficult to create 18th Century immediacy? For me this is one of the strengths of your novel and something I particularly enjoyed.

Graeme: From wide reading, personal observation and good luck, I think. I have done a lot of translation and the process of shifting from one language to another is not dissimilar to that of pillaging the imagination. For example, and here an extract from a longer piece on the subject:

‘The sanguinary work of the guillotine was a horror, justified by spurious legality, which transfixed the populace at large. The Abbé Siéyès, an early proponent of the reform promised by the revolution, an end to royal rapacity and corruption, asked what he had done during the revolution, replied: J’ai survécu which could (should?) be rendered, literally, and in the finite, ‘I survived’. However, the words have greater force, I suggest, by ‘I stayed alive’, a stronger sense of actuality, rooting the experience of not going to the scaffold in the day-to-day choking tensions of the time, the anxiety, waiting for the knock on the door at night, the grim routine sight of the tumbrils laden with victims rumbling through the city streets…’

I think, too, that if you dwell long enough on a subject in the context of its historical time, the atmosphere, smells, sounds of that epoch do float up in vibrant reality. The incident of Charlotte needing to get to a toilet before she can no longer contain the peristalsis - the outdoor privy, the dry grass to clean herself, the mephitic odours, the squalor…well, we’ve all been there, one way and another, and the incident simply offered, much as the physical and insistent urge hits us. The difference, for me, is that when so seemingly irrelevant a happening occurred, I greeted it as true, not one jot made up, a happening that, like the pebble in the pond, has many ripples of attached circumstance, all valuable.

WR:  Similarly I was struck by the detail you gave of the enbalming of Marat! How did you learn so much about the equipment and procedures?

Graeme: I researched the process and talked to a surgeon. The aromatic herbs to stifle the foul smells seemed obvious and I do have a copy of Culpeper.

WR:  Your admiration for Charlotte and her determination is clear. Now that you've writtenNo Common Assassin,has the Charlotte of your imagination become a slightly different person from the historical figure? (We asked the same question of Patrick Gale about his new novel Mother's Boy,about Charles Causley (another CC, as it happens!))

Graeme: I hope she remains the same in essence, that I have not projected too much onto her, something about which I would be embarrassed if not shamed. She deserves her own story and I hope this is, in part, anyway, her story, hers alone and that is her fictional self, set with sympathy and comprehension alongside what we may read of her historically. I believe there is not much difference in the two portraits. I had no desire to do her the disgrace of making her up, after all. I still admire her, find her deluded, am not shy of considering how difficult she must have been as a quarrelsome daughter, always ready to confront and question authority, any authority, a strong proponent of the revolution per se and utterly dumbfounded by the mad course it took in the hands of its idiot, sanguinary leaders. Of the men (of Republican Rome) and the woman – the biblical Judith – who inspired her with their nominally heroic actions of extreme personal risk, I know from my reading and musing upon self-sacrifice, the trappings of honour, heroism, patriotism, none of which entices me at all.

WR:  You must, I imagine, have entertained a what if? idea - what if Charlotte hadn't assassinated Jean-Paul Marat? How might events have unfolded differently?

Graeme: I haven’t speculated much on what might have been. I don’t think the murder changed anything significant. It did supply the slippery David with excuse for yet another unctuous, lionising portrait – here a study of the murdered man / martyr as a sort of Adonis, slain, in his bath. Who needs it? The arm of the corpse coming adrift is authentic; the manner of its detachment and its rescue in the road by the artiste himself is imagined.

WR:  Are you planning to write more historical fiction, set in this or any other period?

Graeme: Writing the Charlotte novel unlocked much and I can’t entirely explain just how but in its wake, I managed, finally, to complete a novel based on a true incident set in imperial Vienna during and after the First World War, moving to America, after the horror of Kristallnacht, a breath-taking escape from Occupied Europe, Memory’s Ransom, to be published by Conrad Press. My dear friend Rudolf, a German, met its protagonist, Felix, in the 1950s and told me the bare bones of the story over 20 years ago, assuming that I was the obvious person to tell it in larger form. Had he but known what anguish he had sown. I was simply not up to the job, technically inept, and it took years – of research, in the first instance, and endless contemplation, agonising and frustration but always a tenacity, too, no great help in some circumstances: it acts like a scourge to punish not shouldering this responsibility to tell the story – before I finally arrived at what I know is right, insofar as I can make it so, a cast of imagined characters, an imagined setting, a reconstructed pattern of events beginning with the Archduke Ferdinand lying ‘in a treason of blood’ on a road in Sarajevo, summer 1914 and concluding with another true incident – as related to me – a climactic and seemingly incredible end on a wave-lashed beach in Portugal some forty years later; a huge sweep of history given the full force and colour of imagination. With Charlotte’s help, again? Of course. But another novel?  There is another written, but not of historical fiction. 


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