Justin Cartwright Talking Books

Justin Cartwright

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I am in north London, home for many years for the South African


novelist, Justin Cartwright. All his novels dwell on the middle


class family dealing with betrayal, decepion and modern life. Justin


Cartwright has enjoyed enormous success. Yet he is not as well-


known as that success might suggest. His latest novel, Other People's


Money, is a satirical state of the nation tale focusing on the banking


Welcome to Talking Books. Thank you. Let's start with your latest novel,


Other People's Money, the story of an old private English bank and the


family that own it and how they deal with the speculative folly of


placing bad debts on behalf of their clients, casino banking. --


bad bets. Is it for you a state of the nation novel in light of the


banking crisis? Yes. I deliberately decided to write a state of the


nation novel. I think a lot of contemporary novels are a state of


the nation novels. I tried specifically to try to give a


snapshot of Britain at a certain time. Why did you want to do that?


You have tackled satire before. In Every Face I Meet, you could argue


was a state of the nation novel. read a piece in the newspaper


saying that there are only four people who could write a state of


the nation novel. They named me as one of them and I was flattered. I


could not help notice that two of the others were dead. Were you


aware of others who had written about the credit crunch? David


Hare's The Power Of Yes, the Enron play which did well here but not


well in the United States. Were you conscious of that? Yes. I had read


a few of them because I started in 2008. I saw that play. I was


thinking back to the 80s crisis. And also to Victorian novels. It is


true that at times of stress and crisis very good novels get written.


Or novels demand to be written. I try to rise to the challenge.


some respects it could be argued that you had a ready-made


readership for this sort of novel. Bankers are universally reviled.


There is huge antipathy towards them. You could have written any


sort of novel and cast the bankers as venal. When I talked to bankers


I discovered they were not hateful or corrupt. They'd just had a


cultural entitlement and they thought that they deserved it.


While the money was coming in, they did not question what they were


doing. It seemed to be justification for them. I was not


that hard on the bankers. I could have been worse. I tried to look at


it from the point of view of someone who is seduced by the


culture of the times and thinks these new instruments of finance


are going to be wonderful for producing money out of nothing.


That is how I treated the main protagonist. It struck me as ironic


that this book won the 2011 Spears Award. That is a magazine whose


readership is wealthy. Do you think they did not understand the satire?


No. Nobody thinks you are lampooning them. They always think


it is somebody else. I have written other satirical books. Even when


you say all lawyers are crooks, they think, not me! Nobody has


criticised it too heavily on moral grounds. They knew it was not


really right but they could not stop themselves. There is a moment


in there where you seem to be saying that the old way is the


better way, where the man, Julian's father who is dying, he questions


the whole notion of casino banking. Is that something you are conscious


of, looking back at a halcyon time is something you are interested in?


I do not think there ever was a halcyon time. A mythology arises


and it is generally believed... If ever there was a middle England it


was for a very short time. I do not think we would want to go back, if


you talk about these periods that are supposed to be idyllic. But


banking was simple. You lend money and you make a small profit. Then


they discovered they believed they could make money out of derivatives


and all kinds of things. They were deluded. Somebody said, you do not


know who has been swimming naked until the tide goes out. If the


recession had not happened nobody would have discovered people


stealing others' money. You write about a partout a partup of people.


You were on the right side of no judgement being made, although it


is clear these people did wrong. That is something you do a lot in


your writing. You don't want to be judgmental. You want to be


empathetic as well as showing up their foibles. Do you think that is


right? You should draw your own conclusions. One character says,


they buy art, but they don't make art. There are alternatives to


money. There is that moment when Fleur has lunch with her ex-husband,


Artair MacCleod. He is a fantastic creation. He is a director but also


a fantasist. He stands in front of a Cezanne painting and is truly


moved by it. You are on that side. You are saying there is a nobility


and heroism in the pursuit of art. Yes. Absolutely. It always strikes


me as absurd there could be that many people who deserve that amount


of money when down in the corners of the country people are trying to


make theatre or art and getting nothing. He stands for art. He


stands for the power of art, the transformative power of art. I


believe that art is very important. Art and culture is how we see


ourselves. The notion of material success and its potential failed


rewards is something that you look at time and again in your novels.


It seems to me it is to do with existentialism. Can you explain a


little bit of why you have used all of those ideas in so many of your


novels? I have always liked novels where characters are both worldly


and have higher thoughts. I do not look at reward as a specific theme


of many of my books but it strikes me as odd that there is a paper


thin divide between one life and one that you could have led.


Banking is such an empty business. The only way people justify it is


by earning so much money. They convince themselves that they must


be doing something wonderful because they're getting so much


money. It is a delusion. Even outside of banking, in your other


novels, so many of your characters engage in ruminations on a life and


work you describe as higher thoughts and this notion of


reflections. John Updike seems to be a massive influence on the way


in which you deal with human character. Yes, he was a big


influence and I also knew him. He said that by taking the ordinary


and by close examination making them extraordinary that was his job.


I think that is true. I think of myself as a realist writer. But I


don't make the distinction between imagined and realist writing.


Whatever you write comes from you in some way or another. John Updike


had an astonishing application and honesty which I have tried to


emulate. Focusing on family in particular seems to be something


that you want to do. It is not just middle class but it is middle class


families and the betrayals inherent in families. There is the core


relationships that are always to do with betrayal or deception or


secrets. Where does that come from? Do you think that gives you


material for your novels? Or is there something more deep-seated?


There is nothing particularly dark. But I think that most social


relations and family relations are shot through with problems. My


experience is that they are. I know people who have had terrible


problems, probably of their own making. It is strange that the


middle class is supposed to be stable and organised. They suffer


as much as anybody. Do you think that writing novels is an


optimistic act? I heard in an interview, you talked about sharing


Isaiah Berlin's view that life largely has no meaning. I wonder if


writing this novel was optimistic for you. What Berlin said, if


anybody believes life has a script they are deluded. He said you have


to make the best of it and live life day by day. I think that is


indisputable. It is a madness to believe there is something


directing us from somewhere else, in my view. I am aware that I might


be in the minority. But it seems crazy. Isaiah Berlin is a great


influence for other reasons. He was basically a liberal. It was a great


relief when I went to South Africa and you could be a liberal. They


were all Marxist. Or some other form of closed society. Tell me


about your childhood in South Africa. Your father was the editor


of a newspaper and because he was a liberal came across all sorts of


terrible experiences. Yes. He was the editor of the Rand Daily Mail.


That was the leading opposition paper. He was never in danger. They


were never going to hang him or anything. But I remember at one


time he had a dead dog delivered to his office. It was a liberal


newspaper and they exposed some It was a liberal newspaper and they


exposed some slavery on farms. As I said, I had a feeling the


alternative was not to pull the lines. It was not Marxist dogma.


your writing, Africa figures. But you're only novel based in Africa


was White Lightning. Why have you not written more extensively about


South Africa? I was forced up in the shadow of a Parkside writers --


apartheid. Although I revered all three or those writers in different


ways, I did not think the moral issues were that difficult. There


was a simple issue of injustice. So it did not strike me as ambivalence


or interesting enough and for me live is ambivalent and full of


compromises. I just did not want to rides and apartheid novel. -- to


write. I did write one thing but I felt queasy because it was


commissioned. Our White Lightning is a post apartheid novel? It is my


only apartheid novel. My mother used to say they were going to


throw us into the sea one day. And I have my protagonist swimming for


his life. Up our side is, on one level, very straightforward as an


injustice, and on the other level it was very complex -- apartheid.


The government exacerbated it deliberately. You mentioned one


writer and there are similarities between one of his novels and White


Lightning. There is an attempt to come to terms with a post apartheid


will force South Africans who are white. You are not as bleak as he


is in your outlook. No. What he was saying is that he was a lecturer


and a great expose on continental literature. He was saying that if


you believe in this source of culture, you better get out -- sort


of culture. It is not going to happen. I made a documentary when I


was talking to a director of the National Opera in Pretoria. It


dawned on him that they were going to lose their grant because the


government had decided it was not appropriate to pay white men in


tights to sing in Italian. In a sense, that is what John had seen


as a university lecturer. Our time was up. There is a debate about the


humanity of South Africa, your protagonist in white lining does


say there is no way that he can no the black African -- White


Lightning. The post apartheid black Afrikaner sensibility is one that


is still very ill at ease with their place in South Africa. They


have to atone for the sins of her past by your protagonist does not


seem to be going in that direction. He had been a motorcycle messenger


in London. John also said that his only loyalty was a group of rural


Afrikaner people. He understood the terrible things that had happened


under their name. Essentially that is what he felt loyal too. I did


not feel loyal to any particular group in South Africa. It is the


gun and our ability that is the theme in my books -- they lack of


knowing. It concerns me and I just think it is impossible these claims


by white people who call themselves Africans. They can call themselves


Africans if they like but they are not. It is a strange thing. I would


not claim to be an African because my influences have mainly been


European. I can speak about 50 words of Zulu, that is far as I got.


I sympathise with Africans in South Africa but I cannot share their


sensibility. That is a conceit. a love of the land? Are you drawn


to that? I know from a book I wrote that everybody sees that as it did


for me. The Maasai see it as a place where way you can bring up


cattle -- from a book I wrote that everybody sees it differently. They


see a load of huts and a very picturesque landscape. I am not


free of that. If I drove through that... I did a five-day walk and


it is magnificent. It is uplifting to be sold. I want to ask you about


your place as a writer in this country -- to the salt. You have


written 12 novels, many of which are admired usually. I get a sense


you are not so a rise of that's many people talk about a lot. --


not a writer. But people do seem to be talking about any more and more


over the last few years. -- talking about me more. Many people have


written saying very nice things about me. It is strange because I


am the same age as some of these people, like Ian McEwan, and I am


thought of as trailing behind them. Had a son he feel? Very bad. -- how


does that make you feel? Give me a little sense of what you mean by


very bad. You are very successful, you make a living out of being a


writer. Is there something more that you want? Note, just more of


the same -- no. Most of my books I have been happy with. That is the


best you can do. I have just been a judge for the Booker Prize. I found


some books very amazing and the other judges thought they were


terrible. And vice-versa. There has been no Booker Prize that has been


unanimous since 1969, since it started. You were only one of three


judges. It was mired in controversy because one judge decided to


distance herself from the wind. thought two of us were sitting high


up -- the winner. She had an idea of what the prize should be -- the


win. The other judge and I agreed. Do prices matter for you? Is a


parcel being a successful writer? It does mean that people out there


are missing -- is that part -- are listening. I have been listed twice


for the Booker Prize but I have never one. I have spoken to many


writers who say they do not mind about success, they just want to


make the work and be an artist. Is that part of the impulse behind


what you are saying? I do not think I could have much more recognition.


Two of my books are becoming film scripts at the moment. I have


achieved a fair amount. But I agree. As a writer, you have to be to see


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