“I am forbidden, so are my children and my children’s children, forbidden for ten generations male or female.” With this opening line, Markovits immediately draws the reader in to a family saga of faith and long-hidden secrets, set among the Hasidic Jews of eastern Europe and spanning four generations…. VERDICT A stunning novel, the author’s first in English; highly recommended.-
If you are interested in attending, please email me at email@example.com
This Week In Fiction: Ian McEwan
Your story in this week’s issue, “Hand on the Shoulder,” is about a twenty-one-year-old university student who is tapped for British secret intelligence by an older professor at Cambridge in 1972. What drew you to this subject?
It’s a very interesting period, I think—the Cold War—not only with respect to nuclear weapons and all the paranoia and suspicion in politics and the military but in the cultural sphere, too. It’s salutary to remember that the C.I.A. poured hundreds of millions into culture. For example, there was a festival of atonal music in Paris in 1950, entirely funded by the C.I.A. Can you imagine a less attractive festival? They paid for tours by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Abstract Expressionist art exhibitions. The aim was to persuade especially left-of-center European intellectuals that the United States was a powerhouse of culture, because there was a widespread assumption, so the C.I.A. believed, that Europeans thought America was just an empty-headed place of money and loudness, with no depth. So I wanted to try to construct a love story set against the background of this period—and the precise methods by which a young girl was drawn into the security service, MI5, were what fascinated me.
Were you aware of any inductions like this in your own university days?
I was not at Cambridge, and it tended, in those days, at least, to be at Oxford and Cambridge that the hand on the shoulder would happen. Actually, mostly, the hand on the shoulder would be for those who had been out of university for a few years. But I have many friends who were approached. Nearly everyone I know said no, but, of course, they’re the self-selecting group who will tell you.
The story is taken from your novel, “Sweet Tooth,” which is coming out in the fall, and which follows your character Serena through her career at MI5. Did you have to do a lot of research on what was happening at MI5 in those days? Is it possible to research that?
It is possible. The two intelligence services in Britain—MI6, which deals with foreign intelligence, and MI5, which has to do with domestic security—are more open than they used to be. They now recruit nationally on the Internet. In fact, I applied—as part of my research, I went online and applied to join MI5.
Using your own name?
Yes. I didn’t tell them my age. You had to answer a number of questions on a given passage—it was like being in school doing reading comprehension. The passages were quite complex and technical—ornithological pieces on the flight patterns of Canada geese, for instance—and then there was a set of questions, which were slightly to one side of what you would expect. It was very difficult to get what they were after. And, after an hour, I pressed the button on my submission, and within a tenth of a second I got my answer back. I had been refused.
Serena’s lover in the story, Tony Canning, is described as one of England’s “great and good”—a type that’s vaguely familiar to her, and presumably to you, too. What did you mean by that?
Oh, they are the establishment people, generally men, who have a strong public profile, who are considered sort of worthy and persona grata, and who sit on committees, and maybe have been in Parliament, or at the top ends of business, or on committees on public affairs. They might judge the Booker Prize, even. They are a sort of special caste, really, of people who are in the mainstream of political and cultural life.
And, in describing Tony, you talk about how he likes to gather porcini mushrooms and cook them with polenta and olive oil and pancetta, and how unusual this kind of hedonic pleasure was in Britain at the time. Do I sense a certain nostalgia for the days when that was unusual?
No! Absolutely the reverse! In 1972, British food was so terrible, and now we pride ourselves on it—we think we’re better than the French. In fact, there was a survey recently showing that the British cooked more than the French do. I mean, the French eat in restaurants; we eat a lot more at home. But our restaurant culture has exploded, rather like Manhattan’s, and so I’m very, very pleased to be eating now, not then. But I did learn to pick porcini while I was writing this novel. In fact, a good mycologist showed my wife and me where to go and how to pick them. The trouble is that we have had a huge immigration of Polish people, about a million Poles have come to live in England—
And they’re picking all the porcini?
Well, they’re much more expert. The further east you go across Europe toward Russia, the more expert ordinary people are about mushrooms.
Speaking of nostalgia, there’s a scene in the story where Serena, at twenty-one, is looking at Tony at fifty-four and discovering what age can do to a man’s body. I imagine it’s sort of excruciating to write from this side of the divide.
Well, it was based on a remark my mother made to me years ago, when we were talking about getting older, and she said, “I’d give anything to be forty-five again.” I must’ve been twenty-five at the time and I thought that was hilarious. Who would want to be forty-five? Now I see where she was coming from.
Tony gives Serena a kind of extended tutorial on British history as seen through quite a specific lens—Winston Churchill being one of only two people she’s told to read. Do you think that his education of her is very slanted? Is it one that anyone should undertake?
It would be deeply unfashionable now. It’s what used to be called the Whig form of history, where the past simply leads you into the glorious present. We now have a much broader sense of what our history is, which is more social, and tender toward the underprivileged. What he teaches her is the kind of history I was taught at school, mostly about kings and queens and great men, and very few great women. We are now very much a multi-cultural society, so that, too, would make Tony’s story fit awkwardly. But I think there’s something in it that’s worth recapturing, and it’s a shame to lose it entirely. It’s my own particular prejudice that the English Enlightenment was of far more important interest than the French. There was a brief period in the late seventeenth century when all the world’s science was locked between Cambridge, Oxford, and London—and, actually, Oxford only a little bit—a time of great experimentation. Strangely enough, it had generally all faded by the eighteenth century; there was far less great science then. So, yes, I have mixed feelings about Tony’s account, but it is, in his view, the version of English, rather than British, history that would get you accepted into MI5. It’s strongly patriotic, and certainly sees no great evil in empire.
At the end of the book, in a twist that I won’t give away, it becomes obvious why this story is told from Serena’s point of view. But how difficult was that for you—writing from the perspective of a very young woman?
Quite freeing. Paradoxically, it’s liberating to take on another voice. This being a spy novel, it plays some games with perspective and who’s owning the story, and I don’t want to divulge it, either, but inhabiting a young woman is not so much a challenge as a matter of just locking yourself into a sort of frame of mind. Once that’s done, at the beginning, it becomes sort of automatic or self-sustaining for me.
You find yourself becoming more girlish.
Yeah, and I’ve met some girls, so I think I know a little of what they think and say.