Authors: Hugh Fleetwood
Seda & Claude Schlup
On Beauty, and The Beast:
An Interview with Hugh Fleetwood
Hugh Fleetwood was born in Chichester, Sussex, in 1944. Aged twenty-one, he moved to Italy and lived there for fourteen years, during which time he exhibited his
and wrote a number of novels and story collections, originally published by Hamish Hamilton, beginning with
A Painter of Flowers (
His second novel
, The Girl Who Passed for Normal (
won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. His fifth,
The Order of Death (
was adapted into a 1983 film starring Harvey Keitel and John Lydon. In 1978 he published his first collection of short stories,
Subsequent collections have included
Fictional Lives (
The Man Who Went Down With His Ship (
lives in London, and continues to work both as writer and painter.
In this interview with Faber Finds editor Richard T. Kelly, recorded at the Faber offices in April 2013, Hugh Fleetwood discusses some of the key influences on his work, both from life and from art.
RICHARD T. KELLY
: Given the distinctive expatriate/Anglo-Italian dimension of your writing it does seem very significant that you moved away from England while still a young man. Was this a special ambition of yours?
: Yes, I found England parochial, I hated the whole class business, absolutely loathed it – I still do. When I was seven years old I was sent to boarding school in Worthing, and we had an English master there
who actually did say to us, ‘You know, you boys are
to grow up to run the empire …’ Even at that age, I thought, ‘You are
.’ Then at thirteen I went to a public school, Eastbourne, which I hated with a
– so much that it was the making of me, really. I was so determined to get away from the sorts of people I encountered there that I vowed I would leave the country as soon as I could.
There was a history teacher who loathed me – I don’t know if it was personal, but one of my forebears had been a general under Cromwell and one of the many signatories of Charles I’s death warrant. This teacher never forgave me for that. I remember writing in an
something to the effect that Gladstone was the first English statesman to try to incorporate Christian
into practical politics. He crossed this out and wrote,
‘What about King Alfred?’
Alfred hadn’t much figured in our syllabus, if he indeed existed. And at the bottom he added in red ink,
‘But what can you expect from the descendant of a regicide?’
: Weren’t there any teachers who encouraged you in a creative direction?
: I always painted, and there was one art teacher who thought I should go on to art school. But then he went off to America on an exchange, and his American
didn’t like me and I didn’t like him, which put me off. But that was probably fortuitous … The school did have a painting competition, and I did a large oil of a black woman, naked, full frontal. They had to give me the first prize, it was the best entry, but they were
embarrassed. I was awarded £25 and a book of my choice, so I picked
Les Fleurs du Mal
. I think the general reaction was ‘Typical Fleetwood’ …
: What about literary interests? Were you reading much early? Did you write?
: I started reading seriously, I suppose, when I was
about 14 – Ibsen and Strindberg, and other names I would claim to have read, and then had to catch up on very quickly … But by the time I was sixteen, seventeen, I loved German literature and music, I was fascinated by that culture. These were the post-war years, of course, and it often seemed that the Germans were blamed for every sin throughout history. Obviously they were guilty to an extent. But I also felt the English weren’t nearly so spotless as they purported to be. There was an awful lot of self-righteousness. I mean, history teaches us – we may be rich and civilised now, but we didn’t get to be so by being nice, did we? We did it basically by killing
who were less rich and less quote-unquote civilised. We all know that and we all accept that.
: As Ernest Jones said of the British Empire, ‘On its colonies the sun never sets but the blood never dries …’
: Yes, and all empires have been the same. I’m sure when the Romans invaded Britain they were hated. But a thousand years go by and the account becomes rather more sanitised …
When I was sixteen or seventeen I started writing short stories, too, and then a novel – I knew it ‘wouldn’t do’, but I did finish it. And as soon as I finished school I went to Paris for six months.
: Why Paris? Did you speak the language?
: Only a little, but I’d been there with my parents and liked it; I had family in Paris who agreed to put me up. And Paris seemed the nearest place that was ‘abroad’ – it was just that lure of getting away. And I loved it. I was passionate about film, and Paris was wonderful for the cinema. I would go three times a day, it only cost one franc, and I got my film education that way, saw every old Hitchcock, Ford, Renoir, Von Sternberg … Eventually my parents said to me, ‘Come back to England, go to university, at least until you’re
, and if you still want to live abroad then go.’ I
got on well with my parents – they both seemed very normal to me, and I suppose I must have seemed very un-normal to them, but they were extraordinarily tolerant. So I did as they asked. I started studying Law, detested it. All I remember is I sat in lectures next to Tim Rice. And the day after my twenty-first birthday I left the country and vowed never to return – a vow I didn’t quite manage to keep … But when I went my parents said, ‘It’s your life, you’re old enough to know what you want to do, we hope it works out.’
: How did you manage to arrange your escape?
: I was sharing a flat in Lambeth and a girl in the flat worked for OUP. She introduced me to a German
based in Munich who told me that if I went to Munich and learned some German he’d give me some sort of job. So I went, but I wasn’t happy – it was
, I could see my money running out in a fortnight, certainly before I’d learned enough German.
One day I went to the train station and saw there was a train leaving for Italy the following morning. I’d never been there, didn’t speak a word of Italian, but I thought, ‘What the hell, I can’t go back to England …’ The next morning – it was 8 a.m., 26 October 1965 – I got on that train. It was freezing cold, the taxi driver who drove me to the station was blowing on his fingers. But when I arrived in Florence at eight o’clock that evening it was still summer, and I’d never seen anything so beautiful. That was that …
I stayed in Florence for three months, learning Italian, but there were too many foreigners in Florence to teach English, and soon I was down to my last £1.50. So I
to Rome with an American girl I’d met. She had a ‘sort of’ boyfriend there, and she said if she slept with him then he would put us up for a week. So I urged her to sacrifice herself … In Rome I thought the only thing I could do was teach English so I called at a language school. They didn’t need anybody but they pointed me
to another place down the road, and there the directress essentially asked me when I’d like to start. I said ‘Now’, and she said, ‘I suppose you’ll need an advance …?’ She opened her handbag and gave me 80,000 lira, a month’s salary, me having just walked in off the street. But I did a training course, and an American who started the same day as me had a room in a
, so I moved in there.
: And in Rome did you feel you had found the place you’d been searching for?
: To begin with, I didn’t like Rome as much as Florence. But by the time I had enough money to leave I didn’t want to. Yes, I loved it. It was very easy as a foreigner, I had to get a
permesso di soggiorno
but the school did that for me. After that you paid no taxes, and there weren’t so many of us foreigners about, so you met people. I made friends, got an apartment of my own, was very happy. Also I just felt, perhaps naively, that there weren’t the same class divisions in Italy as in England. There were regional differences, people said they were from Tuscany or Naples or whatever, but not the stultifying class divisions you saw in England. As ‘a foreigner’, one was labelled to that degree, but not as any sort of class.
: Did the Rome of the mid-1960s still have the feel of la dolce vita?
: It was the tail end of that, yes. I’d been there a year when a friend drove to visit me, his first time in Italy, and these were the days when the Via Veneto was still the place to meet. So I arranged to see him at the Café de Paris, the centre of civilised life at the time. You had to fight to get a table, always, but I fought and won one for us – next to a table that had been reserved, oddly. My friend joined me and sat down and two minutes later Luchino Visconti, Anna Magnani, and Raf Vallone came and took that reserved table. So I felt I’d organised it perfectly …
After 1968 things changed, then the Red Brigades stuff started, which changed the atmosphere of the place to some extent – not altogether. You became conscious of it, of bombs going off. But then bombs were going off in London too.
: How were your literary tastes developing in this time?
: My great literary love at that time was Christopher Isherwood. When I went to Italy I couldn’t take much luggage but I did take
Goodbye to Berlin
, which I would read from cover and cover, and then start again. Patricia Highsmith I loved, too.
in particular I thought was wonderful. Like most people of that age I loved the Russians – Dostoyevsky, Chekhov’s stories, Lermontov. Then I read Pushkin’s
Queen of Spades
Laughter in the Dark. Queen of Spades
just struck me as a perfect story. There was an element of magic in it. And it wasn’t English … But both the Pushkin and the Nabokov made a huge impression on me, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do …’ I hadn’t written since school but I started writing more short stories.
I couldn’t see my way for a while, wasn’t sure what kind of novel I would write. But then, I knew an English girl in Rome – I’d known her before, and she had an
mother. This girl came out to Rome, her mother followed, and this mother was all pink and white,
genteel, and absolutely
. That gave me the basic materials for my first novel,
A Painter of Flowers
. The main character was an autobiographical element. But I suppose all my books have been autobiographical, to some extent. It’s not conscious, it just happens.
I’d been teaching for four years when I got the news that
A Painter of Flowers
would be published. So I went to the language school and informed them that I’d
do another honest day’s work in my life. And, touch wood, I never have … But they were very nice about it.
The directress actually bought the painting of mine that was on the jacket of the novel.
: You were still painting as keenly as before?
: Yes. I exhibited for the first time in 1970, in Spoleto, The Festival of Two Worlds. I knew a young American art dealer in Rome who liked my paintings. He called me, said, ‘I’m having a small exhibition of a Spanish painter, would you like to have a joint exhibition?’ I said, ‘Who’s the Spanish painter?’ He said, ‘Picasso.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I got a nice review in the
Tribune, from someone who’d presumably gone to see the Picassos … But for some time thereafter I really concentrated on the writing, still painting, but not so much.
I got the idea for my second novel through a friend of mine who was teaching a girl who had learning
– teaching her, more or less, ‘to be normal.’ And the girl she was teaching had a mother who washed her hair in eggs, which her daughter apparently hated. So that was the seed for
The Girl Who Passed For Normal
, and the rest of the story came to me somehow …
: Did you find the storytelling part of novel-writing came easily? Or was it a lot of work to make all the elements fit together?
: Plotting for me was always natural. It’s usually just a small incident that forms itself into a whole story – like the proverbial grain of sand in the oyster, where the pearl forms around it. I work out the story on the back of an envelope, as it were, but I try not to think about it too much or else I find it becomes contrived. I’ve begun books where I’ve tried to plot too much in advance and then had to abandon them, because they haven’t worked. I’ve tried never to analyse where the work comes from, because I’m afraid if I did then it would all disappear. The same with my painting – people ask me what a
means and I say, ‘I have no idea.’ Someone once suggested to me, when I was being more than usually
neurotic, that I should go see an analyst. I said, ‘No, that would destroy any talent that I’ve got …’
: Do you think you’re inclined by temperament toward ‘dark’ endings for your stories? Rather than, say, ‘redemptive’ ones?
: Oh, I think most of them are redemptive in a way. People get what they want … Like Barbara in
The Girl Who Passed For Normal
, or like Wilbur in
An Artist and a Magician
. Originally I wanted to call that book ‘A Tax On Added Value’ but I was advised it wasn’t a good title. Essentially, though, that is what the book is about. Value has been added to Wilbur’s life but he has to pay a moral tax on it. You could say the same of