Margaret Drabble

Posted by Sue Leonard on Friday 27th January 2017

“And I sort of, almost, did,” she says, just an hour later, when we meet in The Royal Marine Hotel. “I imagined Beckett walking there, and I felt quite close to him. It was a wonderful moment.”

There are several references to the playwright in her 19th novel, The Dark Flood Rises. Two of the characters attend a performance of Happy Days, and the actress, completing the run, decides to take her life, almost in defiance.

“When I was young, I used to find Beckett difficult and depressing,” says Drabble.

“I thought, what’s all this death wish?

“I now find him difficult and depressing but very great. I think you get in tune with him. He’s a fascinating figure. Such a handsome man and his plays are wonderful. This afternoon I’m hoping to go and see his birthplace in Foxrock.”

 “We just live too long. And it’s changed the whole demography and people are not being given the quality of life at the end. They are just being kept alive.” 

At 77, the author has been thinking a great deal about death; or about ageing, and its attendant difficulties. The new novel is steeped in it.

“The subject is all around me,” she says.

“Wherever I went, and whoever I met of my own age we were talking about the same problems. When you turn a certain age, there becomes an interest in just keeping going; doing what you are doing, and comparing notes with other people doing it. I thought, why not write a book about it?”

The novel centres on Fran, who, in her 70s, lives frenetically, because she’s afraid of becoming stuck. Living alone in a London tower block, she travels the country examining care homes for the charity she works with.

We meet Fran’s friends; Therese, dying painfully of cancer; and Jo, who lives comfortably in an expensive facility and is well until the end. Claude, Fran’s ex-husband, is far from well. He’s bedridden but content.

A retired surgeon, he enjoys flirting with his carer, and eating the meals Fran prepares for him. And if life should get tough, he knows he can end it as he has a magic pill. Does Drabble believe in the right to die?

“I’d like the possibility of it, certainly, though I don’t need it at the moment.” Her husband, the biographer, Michael Holroyd is the vice chairman of Dignity and Dying.

“He says the question people should be asking me is, if it came to it would I do him in? And the answer is, I would not want to. It’s a dilemma. I suppose I wouldn’t prevent him from seeking it,” she says

In spite of its subject, the book is suffused with humour; I loved being privy to Fran’s every thought. Contemplating a statistic that most of us can expect to live our last six years in some form of pain or ill health, she is infuriated.

“Longevity has fucked up our pensions, our work-life balance, our health services, our housing, our happiness. It’s fucked up old age itself.

“I do think it’s a real sociological problem,” says Drabble.

“We just live too long. And it’s changed the whole demography and people are not being given the quality of life at the end. They are just being kept alive.”

Drabble didn’t enjoy writing the book and was relieved to get rid of it, but she is pleased that she did it.

“People have responded favourably on the whole, and that has surprised me. I managed to find a tone that wasn’t depressing, that has a sort of comedy, and I’m pleased that I hit the right note.”

Since those early ’60s novels made such a splash — becoming the voice for a generation, Drabble has had a sterling career. Commercially successful, she’s won a string of prestigious awards.

She’s a dame of the British Empire; she won the 2011 Golden Pen Award for a Lifetime’s Distinguished Service to Literature.

Editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, she’s written biographies of Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson.

She’s been featured twice on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs.

“I was very chuffed to do that,” she says.

But I notice she’s not won the Man Booker Prize.

“I don’t put my books in for the Booker,” she says, a little sharply.

“I do not allow my name to go forward.” This confuses me.

“I hate the Booker,” she says.

“This was after the ’60s. There were three of us; Graham Greene, John Fowles and me. We all said we wouldn’t allow our books to go forward because we didn’t like the hype surrounding it. And we all felt we were doing fine, which we were. It’s a marketing ploy which in my view has backfired.

“When you die, all they say is that you didn’t win the Booker. I thought, ‘I won’t put mine in so they can’t say that.’”

Her sister, AS Byatt won the prize in 1990 — long after Drabble took her stand. The two novelists have famously clashed. Has that situation mellowed with age?

“No. I don’t see her at all. I made big efforts to be nice and I’ve given up now. What’s the point?”

I’ve always adored Drabble’s books. I read her early ones as I was going through the same experiences as the protagonists — and always marvelled at the author’s ability to put into words my thoughts and experiences of marriage and motherhood.

This new book mirrored many of my feelings as well as dredging old memories. I love the way the narrators share what they know with the reader.

“My view is the reader is participating in the writing of the novel. They are half of the experience. So the reader can say, ‘I think that’s what the person is doing.’ Neither of us really know, but we know enough for speculation.”

Drabble divides her time between the London house she shares with Michael, and her tiny getaway in Oxford near her son and grandchildren.

“I don’t like London as much as I used to,” she says, not sure if this is a sign of ageing, or of London having changed for the worse.

Embarking on another book, she spends a lot of time, these days, going on hospital visits.

“That’s how life goes,” she says. Prone to anxiety, Drabble is happier now than she was a decade ago.

“I have moments of great happiness, and they’re often to do with landscapes and views. I love watching clouds.” She’s not afraid of the act of dying.

“What I am afraid of is being kept alive in a lot of pain and of being a great inconvenience to myself and everyone else.”

She doesn’t believe in an afterlife, but has, occasionally had a sense of someone around.

“It’s ridiculous, but I used to see the ghost of a very dear cat who had just died as though something had moved in the corner of my eye. And I’ve had one or two very striking dreams and memories.

“One was connected with Jim (The writer JM) Farrell, who drowned. Jim was a very good friend of mine and I was shocked by his death.

“About a year after he died, I dreamed I was at this publishing party. Neither of us were great party goers, but we’d meet and suffer a bit and have a chat, and in the dream, there was Jim.

“He had a lovely white suit on, and he came and said, ‘It’s quite all right, you know.’ I woke up feeling at peace. And that he had spoken to me.”

The Dark Flood Rises: Canongate, €19.99; Kindle, €5.56

Published in The Irish Examiner, 21st January, 2017

© Sue Leonard. 2017


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