What inspired you to write your debut novel Homo Conscius?
I guess that no one writes for a single reason. I had many motives. Above all, perhaps, to try and slow down, or even suspend, the passage of time. Writing a good, honest, true sentence, or paragraph, page, chapter, produces this inexplicable sense that you have somehow gained—even briefly—the upper hand in the struggle against your mortality. I wrote also to discover if I really did have a story to tell, as I had long thought and hoped. And, importantly, to establish some kind of narrative about the subjects that have preoccupied my thinking life, to see if they formed a reasonably coherent picture, even fictionalized. To leave some kind of trace? Undoubtedly. Is it not one of our greatest fears that we will disappear into the earth or into ashes as though we had never been here? A little vanity, also, perhaps, and the desire to convince others of the reality of what I perceive and believe. James—From Here To Eternity—Jones, the great American writer, who was asked a similar question, confessed that he wrote in part for the same motives as the strange men who suffer from a compulsion to rush out into the street and show their ‘things’ to passing strangers. I cannot deny that this is also at least part of my ‘inspiration’. I must say also that I have always had (I have no clue where it came from!) a passionate love for resistance and a profound admiration for those women and men who have sacrificed their comfort, their peace of mind, their families, and, even, their lives in the fight for justice, equality, their rights as humans, whatever their thoughts, ethnicity, their minority status. I have spent much of my working life in the company of dissidents of various kinds, people who have fought tenaciously against the ‘silent’ majority for their right to think and be different. In a modest way, I thus wanted this book also to stand up for and to defend the whole idea that one can think and act in a different way from the ‘crowd’.
How did Homo Conscius come about? And is it in any way autobiographical?
The catalyst for writing this—rather than another—novel was, in true keeping with my protagonist’s life, an article I came across in a newspaper one morning long ago about the extraordinary speaking abilities of various kinds of birds. I began to idly think about what one might actually teach a bird to say, and then couldn’t get the matter out of my head. One thing led to another. What can an honest person say even to him or herself that he or she believes is incontrovertibly and durably true? Without inflicting it on an innocent parrot who asked for nothing, but who will broadcast it on your behalf for the rest of his days. If my novel comes relatively late in my life, it is certainly because I couldn’t previously answer that question to my own satisfaction and couldn’t resolve the conflicts that life threw across my path. Only when I thought I had more or less gained a grasp on my existence did I feel that I could try and express the ideas that had troubled me for so long. Is Homo Conscius ‘in any way autobiographical’? Yes, of course. This voyage is my voyage, I cannot deny it, though the events are largely invented.
How did you decide on this unusual title?
The books that I personally enjoy most, have very strong, challenging, central ideas. I want the novels I read (and have now begun to write) to relentlessly pursue truths which are perhaps not commonly perceived, accepted or understood. For me, these are the most exciting works, which I often seek out in vain in my forays into bookstores. I assume, and this is not a calculation, that other readers might also want to explore largely uncharted waters concerning the human mind and spirit. This is not a vain hope. I see a truly incredible number of books, above all in America, which endeavor to teach people how and what and why they should think in order to have happy lives. I suspect that few of them are humorous and few entertaining, two obligations I gave myself for this novel. So, my title is the best and truest reflection I can think of to indicate the ambition and, well, seriousness, of the quest on which I, my ‘hero’ and, I hope, the reader are invited by life to embark.
Homo Conscius enjoins your readers to engage in sustained ethical reflection on a variety of philosophical, metaphysical, political and aesthetic themes and issues such as mass murder, love, hate, sex, God, truth, beauty, reality, crime and happiness. How did you go about interweaving the philosophical etc. and the narrative so as to achieve your novel’s singular level of ‘intellectual-spiritual suspense’?
To a greater or lesser extent, we all confront in one way or another many fundamental ethical and moral, existential, let’s even say philosophical, questions in our lives. They can hit us in a bar, at the post office, at the bank, at the hairdressers, in the supermarket, on the operating table—anywhere and at any time, if we are reasonably sentient beings. Whether we stare these questions in the face and try to deal with them, or ignore them and pass on to other matters, is another issue, of course. Whatever course we choose, we all actually do hate, love, are moved by beauty, are shocked by crime and murder, have political views, seek happiness and so on. This is the lot of any life. The whole issue is how honest we want to be, how honest we dare to be about them, since we do all have a fantastic capacity to hide from ourselves, as any lucid man or woman will admit. Personally, I cannot imagine for a moment disassociating the intellectual and the spiritual, which live in symbiosis in any complete, mature human being. I am interested in writing that encompasses and embraces both the intellectual challenge of understanding our lives and the spiritual journey that accompanies us while we are dealing with them. I have no ‘technical’ explanation about how, as you have kindly suggested, I may have achieved a level of suspense between the intellectual and the spiritual. And these are not matters for the classroom, as some seem to believe, not matters that simply evaporate when we go out into the street. I am passionately attached to the idea that these questions are, or should be, integral parts of our lives as conscious human beings. The major event of our times, a true watershed in history, something that has tortured me since I was a teenage boy—though it didn’t touch me personally in any way—was how Auschwitz (and, naturally, the other concentration camps), where the ‘industrial’ extermination of the innocent, predominantly Jews, took place, a tragic and horrific crime, could have possibly happened. Such events cause great spiritual grieving in the hearts of civilized men and women, but they must also and simultaneously be considered on an intellectual level—how and why could the Germans perpetrate their murders or passively let them happen? I am not Primo Levi, perhaps the greatest witness, in my eyes, of these abominations, but still … if succeeding generations do not take upon themselves the responsibility for understanding and in some small way helping to prevent the repetition of such mass evil, we might as well pack our bags and turn the lights out on humanity. It is almost beyond my imagination why intelligent men and women in our time are not all obsessed by such matters, against which we are not for an instant protected in our future lives or those of our children.
What would you say is the main—or most important—thought or insight of Homo Conscius?
I like to think that my novel is a rousing cri de coeur—and a compelling argument—for people to take upon themselves the entire responsibility for their own minds, their own thoughts and their own actions and to reject the charlatans, the well-meaning brain doctors, or even simply the lazy people, who deny that this is possible and give us the completely false idea that finally we are exempt from blame of any kind for our fate, forbidden the joys of existence and truth because of our origins, our upbringing, our ‘unconscious’ selves or God knows what, and, in short, are virtually castrated even before we seek to become a strong, self-sufficient and singular persons relying uniquely on our own judgments. The driving force of Homo Conscius is the conviction that we lie to ourselves (and thus the others) with such frequency, ease and complacency that as a species we are condemned to eternal misery and violence if we do not seriously change our ways. That truth and honesty are possible, whatever the enormous confusion that reigns in these matters in our time, and that change in the human intellect is indeed, as it must be, already well underway. That this change is vitally necessary and our only hope for our species to survive and prosper in peace and happiness. If all that sounds a little angelic or too hopeful, so be it. Personally, I have had my full of a century, at least, of literature describing how we are damned and set on an unchangeable course to destroy ourselves. Somewhere in this interview—and perhaps here is the right place—I would like to answer the unasked question of why I have portrayed such an entirely good man, which is perhaps rather unfashionable and whose existence, some believe, is extremely improbable. Is he ‘realistic’? Is he possible? Can he exist in our times? On this point, I would say that serious modern—and not only modern—literature has almost exclusively painted portraits of men (much more than women!) with dark, awful secrets and impulses, unspeakable weaknesses, aberrations and vile motives. Personally, I now have difficulty reading or even giving credence or my interest to these characters any longer. The bottom of the barrel about the wretchedness of man has been entirely scraped clean. Evil has become completely banal, as indeed it is. How much consequential literary fiction today addresses joy, happiness, the surmounting and dismissal of our miserable little problems, the search for higher ideas, ideals and ambitions, without, of course, recourse to religious fantasies? Authors who describe men on such missions are generally considered to be idiots. The idea of man as a far greater force than the piddling little conflicts with which he is engaged in his life is still little explored. With no return, of course, to 18th and 19th-century literary ideals of the ‘sublime and beautiful’. We simply have to move on, and I like to think that I have identified a few directions to allow us to do so.
What readership do you have ideally in mind for your novel? And how would you describe your novel’s differences in appeal for readers across the age spectrum?
I am tempted to say—that’s a lie; I have actually said—that my future readers will be people who love, have sex, want to be happy, and think. And, though the United Nations apparently keeps no statistics on this category of human being, I personally reckon that means a few billion people, both men and women, of all ethnicities and orientations. As far as age groups are concerned: on the whole, adolescents, young people, worry as much if not more about the meaning of their lives (or the lack of it) as the middle-aged and elderly. So, humbly, I would say, or at least hope, that the appeal of Homo Conscius is both universal and for all ages. Whether one is setting out on life, struggling with one’s ‘middle’ years, or looking back on it, the urge to understand what it is all about is equally compelling.
Do you have any favorite novelists, and if so, did you have any particular contemporaries or precursors at the back of your mind as you were writing Homo Conscius?
Various writers have been important and interesting to me at various times of my life. Some I go back to and read frequently, some not at all, though I owe them no less a debt in helping me to become a reasonably balanced and happy human being. To take the second category first, I greatly love Samuel Beckett, but I wouldn’t dream of reading him again now. Though his work taught me to tolerate and laugh at life, or at least my life, he stopped well short of evoking how one might live beyond derision, to live with joy. For that, I turned and still turn, to Henry Miller, for example, with his fantastic exuberance, jubilation, love of life, his poetry. Others for whom I have great affection and return to often include Thomas—not Tom—Wolfe and, on the edge of journalism and fiction, Hunter S. Thompson. But for me, the great master and ‘father’ of all modern writing remains Dostoevsky. Such wit, profundity, psychology, richness. The whole of life is in his works. When he graces your bookshelves, I feel it’s a little like having the literary equivalent of a cellar full of Château Latour. To neglect it and go and drink ordinary, supermarket wine would be simply perverse. Thus I feel about the respective merits of the greats and much of contemporary literature. Why waste my time with mediocre, obscure works, when The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, The Devils, and so many others, are crying out to be read again, and again and again? But no, I had no writers ‘in the back of my mind’ as I wrote. I can only believe that such a thing would be a handicap, an obstruction, to finding one’s own language and tone. With that said, once Homo Conscius was done and finished, I did find stylistic echoes (humbly) of Dostoevsky, of the genial Knut Hamsun, and, morally speaking, of Hermann Hesse or Albert Camus in my book. Lest anyone think that I live in a tomb with very dead writers, ‘modern’ authors whom I have greatly liked include, for example, Peter Handke, or his late Austrian compatriot Thomas Bernhard. It is they who have started, for me, if not new forms of literature, at least an honest, new approach to our lives as we live them now, in our own epoch and not in some completely imaginary world or in the past. I would like to think that I also write for now, firmly embedded in our modern reality. Their precursors that I have loved are, as often as not, also from German-language literature! Hermann Broch, Alfred Döblin, Thomas Mann, Max Frisch—his I’m Not Stiller is a masterpiece— Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Robert Musil, Kafka, of course, who also wrote in German. Anyone who can explain my profound affection for and interest in the ‘Germans’ is a better man than I.
Born in 1954 in London, Timothy Balding grew up on a British military base in Germany. He left school and his family at the age of sixteen to return alone to the United Kingdom, where he was hired as a reporter on local newspapers in Reading in the county of Berkshire. For the ensuing decade, he worked on local and regional titles and then at Press Association, the national news agency. He exiled himself to Paris, France, in 1980, and spent the next thirty years working for international, non-governmental organizations. For twenty-five of these, he was the CEO of the World Association of Newspapers. A Knight (First Class) in the Order of the White Rose of Finland, Timothy Balding currently lives between France and Spain and devotes himself to writing. Homo Conscius is his first novel.
‘Homo Conscius’, comes out on 25 April 2017. Visit Amazon to order in advance!