Adam Thirlwell, the author who rewrites the past: ‘Monolingualism seems like a terrible and totalitarian idea to me’

The writer was one of the brightest stars of British literature when he debuted with ‘Politics’ at the age of 24. Converted to experimental prose, he returns with ‘The Future Future’, a historical novel that speaks of the present and searches for the roots of the #MeToo movement, the erosion of the patriarchy, and celebrity culture

Adam Thirwell
The British writer Adam Thirlwell, at his home in the London neighborhood of Camden last March.IONE SAIZAR
Álex Vicente

Twenty years after making his literary debut with Politics, which sparked a small phenomenon, Adam Thirlwell has written four astonishing, voluble and demanding novels, always teetering on the border of experimental literature. His latest, The Future Future, is set in 18th-century Paris during the French Revolution, where Celine, a lady in the court of the dauphin, is the victim of ridicule in a pornographic pamphlet, until she decides to regain control over her life story. A move similar to that taken by Kim Kardashian, who became famous for a sex tape and who, no doubt, is now having the last laugh. Thirlwell has written a historical novel that, in reality, speaks of the present (and the future, including a trip to the Moon), the #MeToo movement, the erosion of the patriarchy, and celebrity culture. The author, who is currently writing a book about his parents’ recent divorce, spoke to EL PAÍS from his home in the London borough of Camden.

Question. Zadie Smith, who for years has been opposed to a literature disconnected from the present, says that “the English are constitutionally mesmerized by the past,” which does not detract from the fact that she herself has just published her first historical novel, The Fraud.

Answer. It’s funny, because both Zadie and I have spent half our lives making fun of the British obsession with historical novels, the reverence for royalty and our past, and we both ended up writing one. I tried to write a different historical novel, influenced by Latin American tradition. For example, by Ricardo Piglia or Alejo Carpentier, who taught me that a writer can change the past and be playful with it. Or Zama, by Antonio di Benedetto, which is a contemporary novel about the 1960s, only set in the 18th century. I had the idea before Brexit, but it was obviously very influenced by everything that has happened since then. The book opposes the idea of the United Kingdom as an isolated island.

Q. With your book, it is hard not to think of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

A. It is the model that I had in the back of my mind, without being aware of it. I read it as a teenager and it made a big impression on me. Perhaps it is the freest historical novel of all. Realizing that I was following in Woolf’s footsteps, I reread it while writing my book and it was as if it gave me permission to go as crazy as I wanted to. It is a book that moves freely in time and space and stars a changing character. It is a sensual novel, delicious and interested — in an almost extravagant way — in clothes, food, sex and the body. Orlando is like my book’s grandfather or grandmother.

Q. In Dysphoria Mundi, Paul B. Preciado, another fan of Orlando, analyzes the three modern denialisms that govern us: the denial of climate change, colonization and gender. Does your novel reflect that same theory?

A. It’s curious that you mention it, because I read it when I finished the novel. When Preciado writes that modern society is built on these denials, I felt that we shared something fundamental. I wanted to write about a character who opposes the control of others and about the difficulty that this entails, especially for a woman. At its core, this is a book about the emancipation of women, about reconciliation with nature and about the philosophical origin of the current moment.

Q. Upon reaching the Moon, Celine encounters a liberated and egalitarian society, in which gender is fluid, monogamy is prohibited and knowledge is acquired by osmosis. It seems to suggest that progress — if we still believe in that word — will entail a paradigm shift that we are already beginning to witness.

A. Generally speaking, this is probably true. That trip to the Moon is a tribute to the 18th century. In the novels of that time, the narrator used lunar societies as hidden allegories of a better civilization, like Jules Verne or, before that, Cyrano de Bergerac. But the difference between an essay and a novel is that the latter is always more ambiguous. Its values often conflict and should not allow for binary readings. I wanted my book to be a little more contradictory: those very enlightened men around Celine allow women to participate in their lofty debates and, at the same time, they are extremely misogynistic.

Q. This is your first novel in eight years. Before that, you had only written three since your debut with Politics at age 24. Do you consider yourself a slow writer?

A. I usually write a book every five years, but this time I had some obstacles: I had a daughter I wanted to actively care for and I wrote a script based on my novel Lurid & Cute, which in the end was not filmed, in addition to other projects in the art world. In 2019, I sat down to write, but then the pandemic hit. A lot has happened in the last few years and I needed to find a way to include it that wasn’t direct or crass. For example, what has happened to those men who define themselves as progressive, but who are very little so in their sexual behavior, in their way of treating women. I could have written more quickly, but I took my time. Alejandro Zambra sent me a quote from Juan Ramón Ribeyro: “A novel is not like a flower that grows but rather like a cypress that is carved.” That’s how I feel about this book: it was like a wild forest that I had to put in order.

Q. French poet Charles Péguy said that the world changed more between 1880 and 1914 than since the Roman Empire. Are we going through something similar? Has the world changed more since 2016 than in the last century?

A. I can think of no other period in our lives in which there have been so many substantial changes. But I also believe that there is a great human need to believe that we are living in the most important time in human history. In all historical epochs there has been the same thinking. One of the issues addressed in the book is whether there really is actual change. To what extent does the old pattern survive? Having said that, there have been many transformations in Europe in this time. We have become more aware that everything has a political implication and that power is dismally distributed. If I had finished it in 2015, it would be a very different book.

The writer Adam Thirwell, pictured at his London home, last March.
The writer Adam Thirwell, pictured at his London home, last March.

Q. There are many anachronisms in your book: gas stations and highways, you use words like “fascism” avant la lettre and the names of places in modern-day New York. Why?

A. To write a historical novel that was a contemporary book and not just an exercise in nostalgia. Moreover, historical books are not forgiven even the slightest anachronism. They are considered failures of the author. I decided to multiply them so that no one could criticize me. Things have been identified as anachronisms that were not: for example, the protests against the French government’s deforestation policy in 1790, which were real, or the presence in the book of a transgender diplomat, Chevalier d’Eon, who existed in reality. Or many of the things I say about [Pierre] Beaumarchais as a secret agent of Louis XV, which is what he did before becoming famous with The Marriage of Figaro.

Q. In the book, there is another supposed anachronism that is not: celebrity culture, influencers and the forebears of social media. Was all that invented in the 18th century?

A. What happened to Kate Middleton already happened to Marie Antoinette: the monarch’s visibility was such that, when she disappeared, the rumors spiraled. A few years ago, I was asked to write a review of a book by Kim Kardashian, Me, which was a collection of all of her selfies. To my surprise, I found something very moving in it: the gradual transformation of a person into an image, and of a privacy that becomes public, which is not private at all. I wrote that review in 2017, so it must have had some influence on this project. Celebrity is always the transformation of a person, especially a woman, into an image. How does one get away, especially if one is a woman, from that objectification? And how do you sometimes use it for your own purposes? I was also fascinated by the workings of the French Revolution: someone who had been completely liberal was suddenly seen by someone more radical as insufferably conservative. And, therefore, brutally attacked and guillotined.

Q. Is that what we are seeing today, the symbolic execution of the defenders of the old paradigm?

A. Yes, and hence the feeling of anguish experienced by those who were once, so to speak, liberals, and who now wake up and discover that the world considers them reactionaries. It is a new version of the generational struggle, which has shifted towards the ethical and political. In the novel, everything can change: a character believes they are good, until they realize that we are all someone’s villain.

Q. There is also a fairly modern discourse in the book about identity, understood as something chosen and not imposed by genealogy.

A. Psychoanalytically, it must be related to the fact that I am half Jewish. I have always been between two different cultures, without being one or the other. For me, Judaism represented the writers I loved, those Central European novelists who lived in exile and spoke several languages. I don’t have the identity question completely answered...

Q. Do you have a conflictive relationship with your Judaism?

A. That would be a whole other interview… [laughs]. Judaism is very specific to each person. I grew up in a Jewish area of north London — far from the center, which produced a horror in me of the city outskirts — most of my friends were Jewish and I felt much closer to the Jewish half of my family. And, at the same time, we were not religious nor did I have a bar mitzvah. We were deeply assimilated. Non-Jews defined me as a Jew and, conversely, Jews told me that I was not a real Jew. Living on that border is always difficult; it creates permanent antagonism. And then there is the question of Israel, which adds even more complexity, even more so at this time. But Judaism is a fundamental aspect of my way of thinking. It is related to that intermediate space, to the idea of translation.

Q. The book also talks about the failure of language. Upon reaching the Moon, Celine discovers that translation is no longer necessary: everyone speaks all languages.

A. We can see it as good or bad. I’m an optimist about language, and the idea of translation as an inherent failure seems cliché to me. It is obviously false, our daily lives refute it. In reality, monolingualism seems like a terrible and totalitarian idea to me. The utopia would be for everyone to speak 456 languages. Even if it is imperfectly: the simple effort of building a bridge to others is enough. The more languages you speak, the more your mind opens. Speaking only one, on the other hand, closes it.

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