James Lasdun in his Woodstock home.Photo by Jennifer May.
James Lasdun packs a prodigious literary pedigree. The London-born author has published two acclaimed novels and three collections apiece of short stories and poems. Mary Gaitskill wrote of his first novel, “If you possess a spine, The Horned Man
will set it aflame”; Seven Lies
was long-listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize. Lasdun’s story “The Siege” was filmed by Bernardo Bertolucci (as Besieged). He’s won numerous major awards, and he isn’t quite sure what he does for a living.
“I don’t think of myself as a professional poet,” Lasdun demurs over coffee at new Woodstock eatery Oriole 9. “Right now, I’m trying to be a professional fiction writer.”
Most would say he’s succeeded, but Lasdun seems to carry an unusually pernicious strain of self-doubt. Dark and lean, with intelligent eyes and a faintly mournful aspect, he resembles The Crying Game
star Stephen Rea. When he laughs, which he does rather often, his face is transformed by an unfettered grin.
The author wears a zippered gray pullover, blue jeans, and boots that would look right at home in the vegetable garden he tends on a hilltop in Shady. Though he emigrated two decades ago, he’s retained a mellifluous English accent—at least to American ears. “My mother thinks I sound American,” he comments with some satisfaction.
Lasdun moved to New York in 1986, when editor Ted Solotaroff found teaching jobs for him at Columbia and Princeton. “I thought I’d stay one term, but the minute I arrived in New York City, I realized that I wanted to stay,” he asserts. The ’80s were “an exuberant time in New York. It was the Reagan era, a time of real extremes, and there was a feeling of life all around, in exciting, bizarre, and disturbing ways. I liked that.” He also liked being a foreigner.
“I never felt English,” he says. “It became clearer, once I moved here, how alienated I already felt. It was a relief to formalize my outsider status.” His father, eminent architect Sir Denys Lasdun, always told his children they weren’t English. The Lasduns were nonpracticing Jews, descended from Russian and Eastern European immigrants, and young James was acutely aware that his family was different. “When I was growing up, England was very homogenous, very Church of England. There was always a pull between belonging and not belonging.”
Themes of expatriation, exclusion, and self-reinvention run throughout Lasdun’s work. The narrators of both his novels are émigrés (The Horned Man’s is English; Seven Lies
’ East German) and the poetry collection Landscape with Chainsaw may set a record for use of the word “apostate” in title and verse. The prize-winning poem “Locals” concludes, “there were always locals, and they were never us.” In “Adam,” a chipmunk disdains a human intruder:
He’s not one of us; he’s
definitely not one of us
unstriped meat-breather pissing ammonia.
Lasdun, who’s buttering bits of croissant as we speak, absentmindedly dips his knife into my butter. Embarrassed, he mutters a hasty apology and puts his jam on my plate. “Poetry is rarely reviewed in America. There’s no serious critique or dialogue,” he says, noting that more people write poems than read them. “The place it occupies in American literary culture right now is not very dramatic. It feels like a vast, stagnant backwater.”
Lasdun started writing poetry at Bristol University, under the tutelage of poet Charles Tomlinson. As a teenager, he dreamed of becoming a playwright. He was thrust into the London theater scene when his father designed the new Royal National Theatre. Denys Lasdun’s stark, modernist vision drew both praise and controversy: Sir Laurence Olivier called him “possibly the most brilliant man in England,” while Prince Charles compared the concrete complex near Waterloo Bridge to a nuclear power station.
“The National Theatre was the backdrop of my teen years,” Lasdun says. His mother, a trained artist, worked on the interior design of her husband’s buildings and wrote books on social history. Lasdun’s brother became a sculptor; his sister, a musician. “It was a family with a very high premium on creativity,” he says, dryly.
’ Stefan Vogel describes his role in his mother’s aesthetic impostures: “As our artistic gatherings consolidated themselves into regular soirees and I heard my mother introduce me as our ‘literary man,’ our own ‘poet-intellectual,’ often adding, ‘He reads all the time. It’s impossible to drag him away from a book once he’s started; just like I was at his age,’ I felt it as one of those immemorial truths about oneself that are so well-established they are almost too boring to mention. It was as if she had said, He’s rather small for his age, or He’s always had a sweet tooth. The fact that I had never written a poem, and that I never read a book unless I had to for class, was neither here nor there.” In a corrupt Iron Curtain society, Vogel’s complicity leads to more corrosive deceptions. Even emigrating to New York under a new guise—dissident intellectual—can’t expunge his dark past.
Lasdun’s evocation of East Germany is pitch-perfect, from the texture of defective wall paint to the ominous chill in a theater about to be raided. It comes as a shock, then, to learn he has never been there. “I don’t like doing research, or novels that require a lot of research,” he avers, though he reads nonfiction and memoirs to get details right. But he felt an affinity for Vogel’s world. “I was sent to boarding school from 8 to 13, as one is in England, and that’s a sort of totalitarian state. It gave me a chance to write about those experiences not as autobiography or memoir, but the psychological dimensions, the bargains you make, or betrayals, in order to survive in that kind of fear-based community.”
The Horned Ma
n also has autobiographical elements, seen through a glass darkly. Lawrence Miller is an expatriate Englishman, living in Alphabet City (the author’s old neighborhood) and commuting by train to a college outside of New York City. In deceptively measured and rational prose, he describes a series of odd occurrences that send him into a spiral of paranoid nightmares. It’s a profoundly unsettling reading experience, a plunge down a mine shaft illumined by Lasdun’s glistening prose.
“It was going to be this little short story about a man who teaches creative writing and has writer’s block,” Lasdun explains. “I made one small change, making him a professor of gender studies, and it was like opening some weird box. It got stranger and stranger, and I just went with it. I wrote most of the book in six months.”
This outpouring came after 10 years of struggling with novels he couldn’t complete. At one point, Lasdun became so discouraged that he spent eight months as an organic farmhand at Orange County’s Blooming Hill Farm. In time, the mood he likened to Kafka’s “inner leprosy” lifted. He underwent psychoanalysis, became a father, and wrote with renewed vigor.
During the 1990s, Lasdun collaborated with director Jonathan Nossiter on two independent films, Sunday
and Signs & Wonder
s. (He wasn’t involved with adapting Besieged
, but he did visit the set, where Bertolucci greeted him with, “Here’s the writer, the superego of the film.”) Screenwriting was a bracing change of pace. “In a screenplay, time is money. Every page is a proportion of the budget. It speeds you up. You become very intolerant of anything that drags.”
Economy is also a hallmark of the short story, a form at which Lasdun excels. “In a way it’s more like a poem than a novel” he says, “It demands speed, economy, concentration, finding images that express an enormous amount of emotion. It’s an art of omission, where a novel is more about accumulation. But it’s a narrative art: everything counts, every word counts, like a poem. Every detail ought to be kind of luminous, as well as contributing to the whole.”
Last May, Lasdun’s story “The Anxious Man” won England’s inaugural National Story Prize, with a purse of 15,000 pounds. He bought a DVD projector to screen Netflix rentals on his farmhouse porch. “Prize money shouldn’t just go in the groceries, though most of it does, in the end,” he says, ruefully. He’s taught off and on for two decades, with increasing ambivalence about MFA writing programs. “All you need is to read books, live your life, and get in the habit of writing.”
And earn a living. “When you start out, it’s a straightforward, pure thing: You want to write great books. It’s not part of your ambition to support a family with it, but that reality creeps in and really complicates things.” Lasdun and wife Pia Davis have found a unique way to pay family bills without leaving the family behind. They updated their classic guidebook Walking & Eating in Tuscany & Umbria
in 2005. The research trip included the couple’s two children, now 7 and 11, as variously willing participants (“The youngest may have been a bit too young,” Lasdun concedes). In February, the whole family will go to Provence for four months to research a sequel; Lasdun looks forward to “doing something different from sitting in my room all day writing.”
He writes every day when he’s home, and keeps a notebook with him “at all times” to jot down stray thoughts and observations. “I try to catch them on the wing—things I see on the street, details of a story that come to me when I’m not pushing it.” He’s filled 45 notebooks since emigrating.
“You think it’s going to get easier as you go on, but every book is a new challenge,” he sighs. “I feel consumed by writing. I don’t want to do anything else. I would do nothing but write all the time if I could.” When I remind him that he just enthused about leaving his desk for Provence, James Lasdun breaks into a grin. “I’m conflicted about everything. Isn’t that obvious?”