About The Author
Patrick McGrath is the author of two short story collections and nine novels, including the international bestseller, Asylum. He is also the author of Writing Madness, a collection of his short fiction and selected non-fiction. His novel Trauma was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and Spider was filmed by David Cronenberg from McGrath's adaptation. He co-edited an influential anthology of short fiction, The New Gothic, and recent non-fiction includes introductions to The Monk, Moby Dick and Barnaby Rudge. Patrick McGrath lives in Manhattan and London.
His new novel, The Wardrobe Mistress, is set in the cold, gloomy post-war winter of 1947. Joan is tormented by the sudden death of her actor husband, Charlie but accidentally discovers secrets that reveal his dark past, which causes her to reassess everything she thought she knew about him, herself and their marriage.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler talked to Patrick about giving voice to a community of old theatre ladies, the parallels between post-war fascism and today's political climate and his fascination with the idea of the dybbuk.
Questions & Answers
Your book is narrated in the first person plural, producing a chorus-like effect. Did you choose this device because it seemed suited to the theatre setting?
It occurred to me early in the writing of the novel that the narrative voice might be 1st person plural, a gossipy, disrespectful, saucy sort of a tone, and I soon realised I was giving voice to a community of old theatre ladies, who’d maybe died and gone to heaven, but remained very much aware of what was going on in a world they knew, below. I did a little research on the Greek chorus and found I was in good company, that is, in the use of a community which knows the actors and comments on the action, often in moral terms.
You are married to an actress, is that what inspired you to set your book in the theatre?
Yes. Rather cunningly I realised I wouldn’t have to go far to check my story for accuracy or plausibility, my wife Maria Aitken being a woman of the theatre. I did plenty of reading, and talked to many actors and directors, but most of the research was done at home, over the kitchen table, over wine.
Surprisingly little has been written in fiction about the revival of fascism in England immediately after the war. Why do you think that is?
Very few people know about it. This surprises me and I can’t explain it. In Michael Billington’s biography of Pinter we read about Harold and his friends as teenagers being set upon by anti-semitic yobs in the East End, but that aside, references are few and far between.
There is a suggestion that Joan knew what her husband was up to but had suppressed the knowledge. Do you think this might have actually been the case for some partners, friends and children of the British Union of Fascists?
Yes I do. I think the same is true when sexual abuse is occurring in a family. It is an understandable human weakness to deny to oneself that a wrong or shameful thing is happening, when acknowledging it would bring a sea of troubles down upon one’s head.
And how might Gricey himself have reconciled his fascist activities with having a Jewish wife and daughter?
Good question. His beliefs may not have been fully formed when he married Joan. He may have seen her as somehow an exception to his views on 'the Jews', as 'not like the others'. Also, she was the mother of his daughter.
Vera in turn suppresses the knowledge of her mother’s affair: ‘She remembered. She knew.’ Do you see a link between this contemporary remembering/knowing and Twelfth Night, in which Gricey was playing Malvolio when he died.
I didn’t, no. If anything, I saw the persecuted Malvolio as the type, ironically, of the Jews Gricey hated.
How conscious were you when writing the book of its connection to the rise of fascism currently being experienced in so many countries?
Very much so. The resurgence of fascism in Britain in 1946 seems to mirror the move to the right in much of Europe and of course in the US.
How easy was it to find out information about the real 43 Group of Jewish ex-servicemen who found themselves still having to fight fascism in England even though the war was over?
I was able fairly easily to track down a memoir of those days by a member of the 43 Group. An obscure left-wing bookshop in Liverpool had it. In more mainstream histories of the period it barely rates a mention.
As well as very vivid flesh and blood characters, there are also real ghosts and ghostliness in the book, not just the dead Gricey but also the ethereal chorus and even Gricey’s understudy, who acts as a strange and unsettling intermediary between the living and the dead. What is it about these different states that fascinates you?
Impossible question! I was given the collected stories of Poe for my 10th birthday. My father worked with the criminally insane. I have always had a strong gothic tendency, which I much enjoy indulging in my fiction. In this book, the idea of the dybbuk intrigued me —- a living body into which the spirit of another has entered. It is a staple of Jewish folklore, and I sensed a connection with the understudy, and his peculiar relationship to the actor, who is himself a shadowy replication of a 'real person'. I suppose at root it’s an impulse to worry at the question of identity, of the self. What is it? Does the word mean anything at all? I think to a writer, one who constructs selves out of words on the page, the ghostliness of it all is irresistible. To me anyway.
How did you set about re-creating the atmosphere of post-war London?
Research. History, photography, fiction. Robert Capa photographed London in this period, as did Bill Brandt. The idea that emerged most strongly was that in her moment of glorious victory over Nazi Germany, England was a spent force economically, and suffered the worst winters in living memory; and this affected what people ate, drank and wore -— everything very strictly rationed -— and London was in ruins. The one quote I came upon that summed it up best was: 'Oh yes, there was plenty of work. In demolition.'
Has the experience of writing the book changed your relationship to plays you have seen since?
Only in one respect. I have a new, deeper understanding of the work of the understudy. My friend Neil Bartlett explained all that to me.