Granta’s Saskia Vogel spoke with Ben about his new take on the essay form, his love of Montaigne and whether his new book represents a manifesto.
SV: The essays in your collection, A Time for New Dreams, are redolent with stirring observations on poetry, childhood and other themes. How did you come to write this new book? Were you writing for a specific reader?
BO: I tend to write books of essays with a theme running through them. It takes a while for the theme to coalesce for me. It can sometimes be years before I know that certain pieces of writing resonate and belong together. But I am always listening.
My first collection of essays, A Way of Being Free, coalesced around the idea of freedom, but it was more an attitude, an orientation even. It was generously received and it took me a while to think I could say something beyond that. A Time For New Dreams is not a collection of essays in a normal sense. Essays are usually a full exploration of an idea and they give evidence and quotations along the way. That was too laborious for what I was trying to do in this book. I felt a need to bring about a marriage of forms and was interested in finding the place where poetry and the essay meet, which is why A Time For New Dreams is subtitled ‘poetic essays’. I sense that poetic essays, or what I tried to do in this book, should be an essay with the brevity and spring of poetry. The astonishing thing about poetry is that it leaps to place itself having already done all the thinking and imagining required, and gives you the fruit of that meditation. That is what I wanted with this collection.
I imagine a reader who, like me, is a bit exasperated with the accumulation of the follies of our times, someone ready for a new way of looking, thinking and being; someone who combines youth and experience, idealism and realism. Someone who isn’t afraid to dream but also is not afraid to roll up their sleeves and participate in the tough magic of life.
In many of the essays – ‘The Romance of Difficult Times’, for example – you number the paragraphs, some of which are as short as a single line. Other essays, such as ‘Photography and Immortality’, take a more standard prose form. How do you decide on the structure of your texts?
I find that the structure emerges from the idea itself. Sometimes an idea can almost become too luxuriant in its expression and you need a structure, not to tame it, but to arrive at what, for me, is the ideal in the form of the compressed essay. This gives an idea of expressiveness combined with restraint, power held back by form, intensity that’s not allowed to explode all over the place but to have a pouncing feel. And only the right form will do that.
Every piece ought to have something of the quality of a living thing – a slight quality of immeasurability – and only in its true form can it achieve this. Also, I like brevity of thought. There are few things more powerful in writing than a strong thought, whether a thesis or anti-thesis, expressed briefly. It is a paradox contained in a nutshell. I like powerful small units, so the aphorism threads its way through this volume.
There are these varied forms as the book is also structured round an idea of a suite, with a leading melody running through it – the melody of childhood. This is the foremost melody because, for most of us, childhood was a period of our most intense and furious dreaming. The title, A Time For New Dreams, is just a hint that it would be good to recover that dreaming in adulthood and to have that elasticity of imagination in our adult years. So the melody of childhood is the keynote, running against other melodies of politics and censorship.
I felt an echo of Milan Kundera’s Art of the Novel in your book. Do you feel A Time for New Dreams is in dialogue with certain other texts?
First of all, it is lovely that you felt Kundera’s presence and at least some sort of dialogue with The Art of the Novel. Kundera is also inclined towards the aphoristic and the clearer, most direct statement – rather than endless exposition.
I have always loved the essay form and it is one of the forms I fell in love with very early on as I read my way through my father’s library. I developed a real affection for great English essays of 18th century. But my chief affection has to be for the essays of Francis Bacon, which have an extraordinary combination of brevity and the highest thought. He is unmatched in the way in which he can say so much in such a short space. He boiled these essays down over years to such a point that people who read them at the time, his wife included, just couldn’t make out what he was saying. They were so gnomic. This is the impact of the poetic on the essay form. It is the fruit, the distillation, not the whole journey.
The complete opposite of Bacon, I also love the essays of Montaigne – who is more expository and fluid, as he takes his time and wanders through classical antiquity. He loves his Greek and Roman authors, and quotes liberally – and he always expresses more uncertainty.
Between Bacon and Montaigne is something of where my feelings lie. Although I quoted from other writers in my early years, I am not a big fan of citing other people too much. I now think that if you have something you have thought about and what to share with folks, you need to say it yourself and find the best way to say it. People can always go back and read the old masters themselves.
You write: ‘Beauty leads us all, finally, to the greatest questions of all, to the most significant quest of our lives’ This transports me back to the first essay, ‘Poetry and Life’. How do poetry and beauty mingle in their purposes, and in their effects on people?
Whenever we use the word beauty or we feel it, it comes from a sense of something indefinable. The mind can’t quite pin down what it was that created that emotion or feeling. It is intangible; a poignant and haunting feeling that reaches places in you that you can’t grasp or touch. It is as if some sleeping self wakes for a moment and expresses a note of wonder at something. It is that note of wonder that does it. Suddenly you become aware that you are more than what you thought you were. You feel a certain sweet inwardness, suddenly sense that the house has more rooms in it than you thought. That is what poetry does. That is what beauty does.
You write poetry, essays, short stories, novels . . . How do you choose how you will tell your stories?
Before a novel is born in the mind of the writer, it isn’t a novel. Before a short story is conceived, it isn’t a short story. A poem is often an incomplete swell of feeling, or maybe even just a beat that latches on to a wandering theme. The point I am trying to make is that, before they become what they are, all these forms are an insubstantial swirl of a mood inside us. How often has the mood or an idea of a short story become a novel? Or the mood or idea of a novel become a short story? It is all in its original, pre-creative state. This becomes the germ of an idea, and depending on its inner potential for drawing all sorts of related elements in one consciousness, it will take a certain form. Which form this is depends on the inner magnetism of the idea itself. So I stress the idea of listening – you hear an idea, but what is it? The form of a thing doesn’t reveal itself in the import of its creation, or even in the nature of its unfolding. Sometimes things are grown way beyond their destiny and sometimes things are under-nurtured and abbreviated. So I think one of the most difficult things in a writer’s life is knowing what a thing ought to be.
To what extent do you feel A Time for Dreams is a manifesto?
I don’t think it is. A manifesto is too definite, too deliberate. I am working with suggestiveness, with hints and orientations. In a way it is a cubist text because I am wandering round the different facets of this big subject – what it means to be where we are now, and how we are going to leap from this place to our new place with full consciousness and intelligence. It is more like a preparation for this new foundation – like cleaning our eyes so we can see clearly; like limbering up or toning the mind in preparation for the courage I feel we will need for these new times. We are at some kind of crossroads, and many, many of the old dreams are exhausted or are proving, one by one, to be moribund and severely limited in what they can give us. And we can’t go on carrying those old dreams.
Photograph by Damoon4all