Claire-Louise Bennett: ‘If there was a revolution, I’d be there’

A conversation with Claire-Louise Bennett is a dizzying experience: one minute as rowdy as a fairground, the next more like a reflective walk through woodland. She laughs a lot, and raucously, to the point where the ends of her sentences often disappear; and then she might pause for long enough for you to wonder whether the Zoom connection has failed. Our chat extends, but is not limited to, Beckett, suitable paint colours for bedrooms, the abolition of the monarchy, Heidegger, why theatre would be better in the morning than the evening, avant-garde writers Ann Quin and Annie Ernaux, writing on the dole and the difficulty of finding summer reading (“You can’t be reading Gombrowicz all the time”).

Oh, and banana bread, on which I intuit that Bennett had no fixed opinions until everyone started talking about it: “I’m not making any fucking banana bread ever now,” she says. “You’ve ruined it for me.” She isn’t opposed, though, to lockdown pastimes, at one point brandishing a terracotta pot that she has painted to look like a lion: “probably not very sophisticated, but I enjoyed it immensely”.

But her main achievement during the pandemic is Checkout 19, a fantastically various novel consisting of seven sections in which we loosely follow a narrator – sometimes an “I”, sometimes a “we”, at different ages and in different places – through an intricate collage of ideas, sensations and emotions. It runs to 224 pages, but at times feels like dozens of interwoven and overlapping stories. Included in them are a deep dive into the secret world of reading (“The books looked back at us and something inside of us stirred”) that juxtaposes EM Forster with Anaïs Nin, Clarice Lispector with Sidney Sheldon; the fable-like story of a man named Tarquin Superbus, a sort of aristocratic dilettante from an unspecified previous era who conjures up images of commedia dell’arte, Shakespeare’s Malvolio and a figure from a Goya painting; and the story of a woman from her schooldays to an ambivalent, rootless adulthood.

Checkout 19 follows Bennett’s acclaimed 2015 book of short stories, Pond, which presented the reader with 20 vignettes of a solitary woman’s life in a coastal town in Ireland (Bennett herself lives in Galway, and emigrated from the UK to Ireland two decades ago). Two years prior to Pond, she had won the inaugural White Review short story prize, after many years of what amounted to writing for herself; in her early 20s, she tells me, she decided that she wouldn’t try to get published for another 10 or 15 years, until she had figured out how to create and structure a piece of work that would produce “a meaningful and fulfilling and enjoyable reading encounter”.

It was, she thinks, her involvement in theatre that provided a breakthrough. She had worked on performance pieces and installations and had originally conceived of Pond as a theatre piece, but then “I realised that it actually could stay flat on the page and didn’t need to be performed. It sort of performed enough on the page.” The switch from one medium to another was tricky, she says, “because I was interested in theatre. But I hated plays, which is a bit weird. And I hated actors.” She roars with laughter. What did she hate? “Just this sort of thing that happens: you’re sitting in the audience, and then an actor comes stomping on and they start talking straight away, and you just think: ‘Shut up!’ It’s too much all at once, and it’s all very loud. And then someone else says something, and it’s all chat, chat, chat. And you just have to go with it.”

The exception is, she adds, Beckett, “probably the only person I can really think of who manages to subvert that very, very well”. She is drawn in particular to the way Beckett represents our physical selves: “You don’t get this whole thing just landing in on you; you might just get the mouth or them from the waist up. That’s a bit gentler, you’re kind of like: ‘OK, I can handle that.’ And then in other ways, he’s able to fragment or tap into a different frequency of being here.”

The frequency of being here is both what Bennett responds to in others – Quin’s work, she says, “doesn’t feel just like experimentation. That feels like someone really trying to get at what being alive at that moment feels like and is like” – and what she tries to represent in her own work. She’s been writing since Pond came out, she explains, but for a time – perhaps in part because of talking about the book so much in interviews and at events, and feeling herself pinned down by others’ descriptions of her work – she struggled to come up with something that felt like a book.

“Oh God, I wrote some awful shit. Really very bad! At least I’m able to tell, that’s something. But it’s a horrible feeling when you keep on doing it.” How did she know that it was no good? “I felt my flesh was all sort of crawly and grey. And I wanted to get away from myself, really. I remember being in Madrid and just writing, oh, it was such horseshit.” The answer, in Madrid, was unexpected: she went to see an exhibition of the surrealist Dorothea Tanning’s work, and found it so powerful that she wrote a short book about her, A Fish Out of Water, which was published last year by Milan-based Juxta Press.

Checkout 19

Lockdown also produced a more conducive atmosphere for writing, quietening down daily life and allowing Bennett to “stay still”. She began to incorporate pieces of writing she’d done nearly 20 years previously, and liked the different temporal textures that created, the different tones and registers and emotional intensities. She made few changes to those older pieces, and it becomes clear from talking to her that she dislikes things becoming too fixed, or perfected. She describes the experience of reading Beckett as giving her “a sense of space and a kind of an ease, almost; you know, I don’t know if there is any kind of meaning and I don’t like to get too attached to ideas anyhow. I’m quite able to sort of just hang in a way.”

Bennett identifies herself as a writer when she’s writing, and resists the label at other times; she is wary of the “they” that seems to crop up repeatedly in contemporary discourse, and alive to the idea that language itself has been shaped by the dominant classes throughout history, with particularly scorching effects for the working class and for women. Asked recently to write about a book that changed her life she says she realised that Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology, which she studied at A-level, had had a profound effect. “After that, I just thought: ‘Oh, my God, everything’s just made up. And it’s made up by the ruling class, and there isn’t such a thing as reality. It’s all just ideology, and it’s there to suit them, and we’re all a load of plebs. And I’m not. And they can shove it!’”

This is, she says now, a very concise and strong version of how she felt, but “that was the upshot”, and after that she felt the impulse to hoe her own row. She could well, she adds, have called Checkout 19 “I’m not going along with this”.

If Bennett appears wedded to artistic flexibility, she says she is more emphatic on a political level; she is firmly opposed to the systems of privilege that enable a monarchy, for example, or the election of “a complete buffoon” such as Boris Johnson. “There’s no ambiguity on that. If there was a revolution, I’d be there.” In Ireland, she praises the practical support offered to, among others, artists and writers; she received benefits when she was writing Pond, having explained to the authorities what she wanted to do, “and I just can’t imagine anything like that ever happening in a million years in the UK”. I don’t imagine she’d think of her books in such a transactional way, but it seems to me that the authorities have had a pretty good return on their investment.

Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett is published by Vintage (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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