McGrath Patrick

Patrick McGrath Interview

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I regard the novels of Patrick McGrath as probably my favourite body of work by any living writer. In 1995 I read his third novel Dr Haggard’s Disease, which made me do what reviewers often claim but rarely do: go back to the start and read it again almost immediately. McGrath writes tales of psychological maps distorted and shredded, of between-the-wars England and 1970s America, of doctors and patients and artists and lovers, where the greatest tension is between the story and the way it is being told. His new novel Trauma is out now in the US and will be published in July in the UK: you can read my thoughts on it here. Unusually for an English-language writer, the book was published first in Italy, where McGrath has the sort of popularity Ian McEwan enjoys here. He was born in England, and lives in New York.


Patrick McGrath by Marion Ettlinger

You’ve spoken before about how the initial impulse for your books often involves a reversal: in The Grotesque, “I love him” became “I hate him” became “he hates me”, and in Port Mungo, the sexes of Jack and Vera were swapped. Can you tell us something of where Trauma came from?

Reversals? Yes, in a way, with Trauma. I began with the idea of a New York woman badly traumatized by the events of 9/11 who flees to the Caribbean and moves into a seedy resort. A bit later her shrink comes down to see her. Then her shrink turned into her dad. So I had a NY trauma therapist who saves his daughter’s sanity after 9/11, after being estranged from her for many years. I became interested in this guy. As a young man he treated returning Vietnam vets, that’s where he learned about PTSD. Somehow, in the end, as you know, his story didn’t get as far as 9/11, nor did he get to the Caribbean.

Charlie Weir in Trauma has greater insight than many of your narrators: he knows there’s something wrong with him but he doesn’t know what. At the same time you have turned your attention to the family in this book as never before. Are these elements you were keen to explore from the outset, or did they arise as the story developed?

The family elements arose as the book developed. Key to this process was me being told by a NY shrink that most shrinks he knew were in the profession as a result of failing their mothers. That gave me a way into Charlie’s psyche, and I was able to create his family background, relationships with his parents, brother, etc. What he doesn’t know, of course, is what happened in the old Western Hotel when he was a small boy…

Trauma feels like a story which has been pared down to essentials from a larger mass of material, but remains rich in psychological detail and character. Can you tell us a little about the writing and editing process for the book?

Well, see question 1 for what got thrown away–a lot of stuff set in New York round 9/11, then in the Caribbean, plus a lot of stuff I wrote trying to find the ending of the story.

Your early novels were set entirely in Britain (mostly England), and then Martha Peake and Port Mungo straddled the Atlantic. Now with Trauma you have set a novel entirely in America for the first time. Does this reflect your own journey, and is it a conscious progression?

Yes, a conscious decision to move my stories to my country of adoption (some 30 years ago I got to the US–I began to write in NY), and then more specifically to set my work in New York. This was difficult, as I felt far more comfortable writing about England, despite having been away so long. But Trauma feels like a New York novel, at least to me.

You’re known for unreliable narrators, a strategy you have called “irresistible.” Do you agree with W.G. Sebald, who said that he found fiction “which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator … a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take”? In other words, is there something dishonest about an honest narrator? And does it become harder with each new book to remain one step ahead of the reader, when they are anticipating that the narrator is not telling them the whole truth?

Agree absolutely with Sebald on this. How could anyone’s account of a complicated set of circumstances and events be anything but partial, partisan, subjective, and to some degree informed by his or her own needs and biases? As regards expectations, I don’t think too much about them. It’s tough enough getting a novel to come out right to be worrying about its reception. That comes later, i.e. right about now, just pre-publication.

The label ‘Gothic’ seems to follow you around. At this stage does that feel like something that naturally arises from your writing style; does it feel like a tramline you are fixed on; or is a restriction you try to break free from?

More a restriction than anything, in that once the label starts getting bandied about people feel they don’t have to read you. They think they know what your stuff must be like. Only a couple of my books have been deliberately gothic, The Grotesque and Martha Peake. Others may have used gothic elements but had quite other objectives than to arouse dread and horror primarily. Old Main, for example, as a Victorian asylum does have a gothic tone to it, but I’d hate to see Trauma therefore classed as a gothic novel.

You’ve provided introductions to works with famous ‘monsters’ such as Frankenstein and Moby-Dick. Yet your only novel with a larger-than-life monster, Martha Peake, seems the least representative of your works. Would you like to return to more outlandish wilds in the future?

Good question. Not the sort of thing you can know in advance. If a story seemed to demand a monster then I’d do a monster. There’s usually a moral monster subtly skulking about in my books, but I’m not averse to something more on the nose.

Finally, the “if you ruled the world” question. If you could hand out to passers-by copies of one book you consider unjustly neglected, which would it be?

Darkness Falls from the Air, by Nigel Balchin. Probably out of print. Haunting story of a pair of extremely sophisticated Londoners during the Blitz, and the most perfect ending of any story I’ve ever read. Suggest a campaign to bring it back into print, spearheaded by you in your blog.

[Darkness Falls from the Air is indeed out of print, but was reissued a few years ago and is readily available on Amazon Marketplace. Click the image above for more information]

Patrick McGrath: Trauma

To say this is my most long-awaited book of the year would be an exaggeration – that’ll be Adam Mars-Jones’s Pilcrow, 15 years in the coming – but it’s certainly my most eagerly awaited. I’ve been reading and relishing Patrick McGrath’s novels since 1993’s Dr Haggard’s Disease, and each new book since then has been a source of untrammelled delight (the disappointing Martha Peake [2000] being the exception that etc). So it was inevitable that I wouldn’t wait for publication (April in the US, July in the UK) if I could possibly help it.

Trauma (US)

Admirers of McGrath’s work know what to expect from Trauma: an unreliable first person narrative with aspects of mental illness and sexual obsession. In this he delivers, and indeed some elements of the book are so familiar – the art world from Port Mungo (2004), psychiatrists from Asylum (1996) and the story ‘Ground Zero’ from Ghost Town (2005) – that on a reading of the blurb it might seem that McGrath is simply going through his hoops; or at least mopping up unused research. Also there is an inherent danger in having a trademark style where there is, if not a twist or revelation near the end, then a reversal in understanding by the reader: when this is anticipated, how does the author stay one step ahead?

McGrath has no hesitation in doling out juicy titbits literally from the beginning. Trauma begins:

My mother’s first depressive illness occurred when I was seven years old, and I felt it was my fault.

This is the voice of Charlie Weir, psychiatrist based in New York City. (McGrath’s first four novels were set in England; with his next two he combined Britain with his adopted home of the USA; with Trauma he has crossed the Atlantic completely.) McGrath knows the attuned reader will be awaiting ‘clues’ to the truth of Charlie’s world, and offers them up freely:

In those days we lived in shabby discomfort in a large apartment on West Eighty-Seventh Street, where my brother lives with his family today. I never contested Walt’s right to have it after Mom died, and have come to terms with the fact that she left me nothing. Indeed, it amuses me that she would throw this one last insult in my face from beyond the grave. It was more appropriate that Walt should have the apartment, given the size of his family, and me living alone, although Walt didn’t actually need the apartment. Walt was a wealthy man – Walter Weir, the painter? But I don’t resent this, although having said that, or rather, had I heard one of my patients say it, I would at once detect the anger behind the words. With consummate skill I would then extricate the truth, bring it up to the surface where we could both face it square: You hated your mother! You hate her still!

But Charlie loves his mother, he assures us, and looks after her when she’s alone (“Ah, Charlie. Always trying to help people who don’t want it”); it’s his father he can’t stand (referring to him as ‘Fred’ while mom remains ‘Mom’). Fred walked out on the family, Mom became a depressive, a drinker, and worst of all a novelist.

I was comforted by the sound of the typewriter. If she was typing then she wasn’t crying, although later she was able to do both at once.

This is a book of contradictions. We feel we know what Charlie thinks – he thinks he knows what he feels – yet we can’t resist hunting down meaning in every aside (“Mine is a profession that might appear on the surface to suit the passive personality. But don’t be too quick to assume we’re uninterested in power”). It has a complex time scheme and multiple well-detailed characters, but has the unity and force of a short story.

Trauma (UK)

The subject matter is families, and McGrath concentrates on “irregular” relationships within the home and how they reach out into our lives to create a spiderweb of dysfunction. Charlie broke up with his wife, Agnes, after her brother died; they got back together when his mother died. Like many of McGrath’s protagonists, he has an unhealthy interest in detailing the rise and fall of his, well, you know (“With stiffening penis I rose to greet her…”). All the decisions that Charlie makes, even when they’re hardly decisions at all, seem to make perfect sense, showing how well McGrath weaves us into his doubtful reasoning. All through there are suggestions that we might not be seeing the whole truth:

This falsification of memory – the adjustment, abbreviation, invention, even omission of experience – is common to us all, it is the business of psychic life, and I was never seriously upset about it. I know how very fickle the human mind is, and how malleable, when it has to accommodate belief, or deny the intolerable.

The story does lead to a dramatic conclusion – perhaps more obviously (dare one say cinematically?) dramatic than any of McGrath’s earlier novels – which at first seems too clear cut and suddenly obvious. On further reflection, the reader realises that there are layers to unpeel yet – does the book have more in common with Port Mungo than just the painterly details? – and an early revisit to this expertly told tale will not go amiss. So that’s why they’re publishing it at two different times.

Patrick McGrath: Dr Haggard’s Disease

If you believe that literature – as the narrator of Patrick McGrath’s 1993 novel Dr Haggard’s Disease says about love – “should not reassure, should not attempt to soothe, or give comfort, but should, rather, excite,” then this is the book for you. It’s certainly the book for me: I’ve read it four times before now, and my admiration for its artistry, strange beauty and creative brilliance only has me drumming my heels in merriment more each time.

(If you buy a copy now – second hand, of course, as shamefully it’s out of print – it might not look like the above, but I love this cover and now I’ve worked out how to use my scanner, there’s no stopping me.)

On the surface – the “roiling … churning” surface – Dr Haggard’s Disease is a story of love lost: a doctor in 1930s and 40s England recounts the story of his lost lover to her son.

I was in Elgin, upstairs in my study, gazing at the sea and reflecting, I remember, on a line of Goethe when Mrs Gregor tapped at the door that Saturday and said there was a young man in the surgery to see me, a pilot. You know how she talks. “A pilot, Mrs Gregor?” I murmured. I hate being disturbed on my Saturday afternoons, especially if Spike is playing up, as he was that day, but of course I limped out on to the landing and made my way downstairs. And you know what that looks like – pathetic bloody display that is, first the good leg, then the bad leg, then the stick, good leg, bad leg, stick, but down I came, down the stairs, old beyond my years and my skin a grey so cachectic it must have suggested even to you that I was in pain, chronic pain, but oh dear boy not pain like yours, just wait now and we’ll make it all – go – away –

But as always with McGrath, the story and the way the story is told are two different but linked elements. Already, in the opening paragraph above, there is much to tease us. Who or what is Spike? What’s with the bad leg? Why does he trail off so oddly? And as the pages pass, there are more ominous clues to the circumstances in which Haggard is telling us – or rather James, the son of his lover – his story (“Don’t move, darling boy. Don’t fight it”), and the story-behind-the-story which to begin with is only hinted at but sets our suspicions soaring (“dear boy you’ve undressed behind those screens yourself!”).

Early in the book, Haggard is told by another man, “Wife died ten years ago, never quite saw the point of things after that.” This concise appraisal reflects Haggard’s own preoccupation: he doesn’t see the point of things after losing his lover, but rather than dwindle and decline, he creates a sort of religion of his own overblown suffering, with fully biblical expression (his father was a rector and Haggard was expected to follow him into the church). We learn that no more than a year passed (1937-8) between his time of grand passion and his retirement to the south coast of England, where he chooses a grand gothic (but worn out) house, reflective of his “broken body and spirit” which nonetheless contains “the restlessness of a wild and changeful heart.” What can have happened in such a short time to account for such a change? That, and the terrible aftermath, is the essence of Dr Haggard’s disease.

McGrath’s handling of the air of wartime England and of the atmosphere between the principal players, is masterly. Here is the first flirtatious exchange between Haggard and his lover. (The names are positively Dickensian in McGrath’s novels. Here we have ravaged Haggard, overbearing husband Ratcliff, and the woman torn between them: Fanny. So he does jokes too.) Haggard has declared his intention to give himself over “to a life of pleasure.”

“I’d have thought pleasure was a worn-out idea, given the times, wouldn’t you?” …

“But tell me an idea that isn’t worn out.”

“Passion,” she said.

“Passion?” I was something of a stranger to that idea! “I should have thought that passion, at least, was about pleasure -?”

“Oh no,” she said quickly, “it’s not about pleasure at all. Passion is very serious. I know you take it lightly, but you’ll learn one day what a serious responsibility it is. It’s the best we’re capable of, civilized human beings.”

Civilized human beings. How strange I would find it, later, to recall a time before I heard her say those words, express that ideal – there seems a curious weightlessness to it now, as though all existence prior to your mother was just a form of floating, a fantastic, ethereal, childlike condition that did end, yes, with the gravity of the responsibility of passion – but all of that was yet to come. “The best?” I said.

“What better?”

“But passion always dies,” I said.

“Spoken like a medical man,” she said, as our plates were removed. “For you, passion is a disease. It causes suffering, comes to a crisis, and dies.”

The story is both creative and destructive as told by Haggard, whose mind “played tricks on me” even as it was able to “see the larger patterns, the higher truths.” Elgin, the house by the sea which he takes over, becomes an extension of himself, “something massive that has lain inert and dormant for years, being roused, shuffling to life again” and powered by “a huge monster heart, pumping and thumping through the shuddering, flickering structure in which I sat.”

The question that must be asked then is whether this soaringly perverse tale has any universality, or whether it’s art for art’s sake (and there’s nothing wrong with that). What it does is reflect normality through what Dr Haggard is not, as well as presenting moments where his humanity, in moments when he is not consumed by his own feelings, can show through: such as when he encounters an elderly patient who has her pain relieved with morphine:

I prepared a needle and asked the dying woman whether she wanted it now. “Yes,” she murmured, “yes I do. I won’t be going out just yet, Marjorie, I haven’t finished with the injections.”

On our way downstairs Marjorie Hale-Newton asked me what I thought her mother meant. I knew only too well. “She means,” I said, “that she’s at least getting pleasure from the morphia.”

“Oh I know she is,” said Marjorie. “She gets very impatient with me if I make her wait.”

“Don’t make her wait,” I said. “Let her have it when she wants it.”

But even this simple expression of humanity may have another explanation. And if only Dr Haggard could note his colleague’s advice, as a doctor, that “vast majority of people who’ll come to you, doctor, vast majority, have ailments that fall well within the scope of the body’s healing powers. Immense capacity to heal itself, the body, but it’s got to be persuaded.” Dr Haggard will not be persuaded that his dead love affair requires healing.

As you can see, I could talk about this book for hours (and almost have done). The only way to experience it, to complete the story, and to discover the terrible and brilliant ending, which remains for me one of the strongest and most grotesquely tender images I have ever read, is to read it yourself. It is a masterpiece that, although certain to disappoint after this introduction, is the richest and strangest thing I have seen all year, even fifth time around.