EESE 9/1997

"I'm very keen on tea and Shakespeare."
An Interview with Tibor Fischer

Gerd Bayer (Erlangen)

Photo by Rudolf Freiburg

Sound file available

Erlangen, 06.02.1997

GB: Mr. Fischer, could you tell me a little bit more about your educational and professional background?

TF: Well, my professional background is pretty thin. I did French and Latin at University, I was at Cambridge, and then I graduated and drifted into journalism - I suppose - because I couldn't find much else. But I never had any formal training in it. I just went after jobs. I had a long period unemployed, when I was trying to break into the profession and then I spent several years working in television doing all sorts of things, working on a wide variety of programmes - from children's television, where I was booking chimpanzees and magicians, to doing documentaries about eastern Europe. Because of my Hungarian background and my Hungarian Christian name people assumed I knew something about Hungary, although in fact I didn't really. But I got work out there and then once you've found your feet in a subject it's easy to get more.

GB: What are your links nowadays to Hungary?

TF: Well, apart from my parents, who live in London, the rest of my family is still in Budapest, so I have lots of aunts and uncles and cousins, and there are many free meals waiting for me in Budapest. I haven't been back much in the last few years because I spent a lot of the eighties working there and I actually lived in Budapest from 1988 to 1990. So I was there for the big changes, which obviously were very interesting, and after that, once the big story was over, after all Hungary is quite a small country, I felt I'd interviewed everyone three times and so I went back to London in 1990, which is when I started writing. That's when I started work on Under The Frog and since then I haven't been back a great deal. I've been back, I suppose, on average once a year for a few days just to have a look round. And I feel very comfortable there. I quite enjoy the place, but I don't think I'd go and live there again. Not because I have anything against Budapest, but simply because there are other places I am interested in seeing.

GB: Is there any biographical information that you think readers should know in order to be able to understand or have access to your books?

TF: No.

GB: What is your linguistic background? Is English your first language?

TF: Well, no. Technically, I am told that in fact my mother tongue is Hungarian. When I was very small I would speak Hungarian with my parents at home and then, when I went outside into the big wide world, I would speak English. But when I started going to school I dropped Hungarian [a helicopter crosses over the building noisily] ... as soon as you start doing an interview the aircraft and pneumatic drill start up... no, when I was small I would speak Hungarian with my parents and English outside, but then when I started going to school I dropped the Hungarian and my parents didn't think it was worth making a fuss over, because they left with the attitude that, you know, that chapter is finished, we're living in Britain now. Which is a pity in a way, because having any languages is very useful and worthwhile. And it's so easy to sort of absorb it as a small child. Having said that, you know, I am phenomenally stubborn, so if I hadn't wanted to learn it, it would have been very difficult for them to force me.

GB: The fact that authors like Joseph Conrad or Vladimir Nabokov are not first language English speakers influenced their attitude towards English. Do you see a similar...

TF: No, it is not the same thing, because I was born in England; I grew up there, I was educated there, so it's a completely different thing. I mean, it's possible that a Hungarian influence is lurking, or was lurking, there in my subconscious somewhere. No, I mean, I am sort of a native, a natural-born Briton, as it were. So you know, I am not in the same bracket. But it's possible that Hungarian has influenced me slightly and I had to sort of relearn Hungarian later on, to an extent, when I was working as a journalist. I think studying anything can have some influence on your outlook and writing, so it's possible that that coloured my work slightly, but it's not something I'm aware of, something I could consciously point out.

GB: Your second novel, The Thought Gang, how did it get started? I get the impression that you wrote lots of little notes in a notebook and then put them together, maybe.

TF: There was a bit of that. I mean, when The Thought Gang started off, I wanted to write a book for the millennium, so I wanted it to be about - oh, you haven't seen the Granta Best of British issue - I jokingly told them I wanted to write a short book about all human knowledge and experience. And that was the idea; to have, in a light and somewhat flippant way, to assess human civilisation, to sort of go through human civilisation for the millennium. And as I was thinking about that the idea came to me to have a philosopher as a central character because philosophy goes all the way back through history, the history of civilisation, and it seemed to me a good tool with which I could tackle the subject. So, I made Eddie the central character, and the rest flowed fairly easily from that. And I did have to do some research into philosophy, because I knew, and still know, very little about it. But I sat down and read, ploughed my way through most of the classics, which is quite interesting and good for my general education, I suppose, but it didn't help a great deal with the actual writing.

GB: The language in The Thought Gang is both very creative and sometimes very colloquial.

TF: Yeah, I mean, that's one of the things that I wanted to do again, because I was aiming to encompass everything and one of the things that appealed to me about having a Cambridge philosopher as the narrator of the book was that it was a device that offered you a wide range of vocabulary, because you could justify almost anything, every word that Eddie uses, because he's an intellectual, a very widely-read man and at the same time he is very down to earth in many ways, so I could get in a lot of slang and colloquial expressions.

GB: There's quite a large element of violence in The Thought Gang and also in Under The Frog, and it does not get offensive. Would you see Anthony Burgess, or Clockwork Orange as an influence there, because there you can deal with the violence.

TF: Well, it's. - One, it's not for me to say what people feel about it. I mean it's up to the reader to make up his or her mind about how they feel about it. The books are very different. I have read, I mean Clockwork Orange is one of my favourite books, but I think it's a different thing there. The trick with Clockwork Orange, the great trick in that book, is that Burgess succeeds in making evil very appealing and that's really the point of the book; that Burgess points out, or one of the main things in the book for me is that Burgess points out that these things actually can be quite appealing. And that's why they exist and carry on. And that's the great trick that I think most readers sympathise completely with Alex and his carryings-on. The Frog - I mean there's violence in The Frog, simply because it's a reflection of what went on. I mean, the book's set from 1944, when the Russians arrived in Hungary, towards the end of the Second World War, to the Revolution of 1956. And, you know, people died and though it's a comic novel you can't skirt around that. That's what happened so I had to reflect that to some extent. As for the violence in The Thought Gang, I don't think there's actually that much. I mean there's a lot of cruel, slapstick humour in it, I suppose, but it is meant to be humorous. And hardly anybody gets killed in the book, and also I don't think actually it's that violent. I just think that some of it maybe seems a little graphic. It's very much like Pulp Fiction. Actually, it's always amusing to me that people say that that's such a violent film, because in fact, compared with many other films, it isn't. It's just that the violence is presented in such a forceful way it feels more violent than in fact it is.

GB: Coming back to the language and the way you treat it. Do you think it's a large problem translating The Thought Gang?

TF: I have immense sympathy for my translators, because it is an extremely extravagant book and it took me a long time to write. And I really don't know how people can cope with it. It's very difficult, so I suppose all a translator can do, as Ulrich, my German translator has done here, is to sort of try and convey the spirit of it when he is not able to convey the letter.

GB: There's a glossary at the back of the English version and of the German version. Who wrote that and was that your idea?

TF: The glossary - I suppose it was in fact. I can't remember exactly, I think it probably was my idea. Because I was aware of the fact that a lot of the "Z"-words I came up with, for the running joke in The Thought Gang, were extremely obscure words and I had to spend hours in reference libraries digging up very obscure words beginning with the letter "Z". So I did think it was perhaps a little harsh on the reader, expecting the reader to track these things down. So the really obscure things are there, I hope. And the rest, I trust, will be found in most good dictionaries.

GB: The ending of The Thought Gang with the sentence that "the only good solution to a really difficult problem ... is to leave it" reminded me of Wittgenstein's ending in the Tractatus. Was that an influence?

TF: Well, I don't think it was, consciously. No, I don't think I was thinking of him specifically. But as you say it does fit in very well with his outlook. No, it's just - you have to end the book somewhere [laughs], there always comes a point when you have to stop, and it was just meant to be a sort of light-hearted way of suggesting - leaving a certain question mark at the end of the book, so the reader has to make up his or her own mind about what Eddie is going to do, and how serious Eddie is being when he says that.

GB: Do you have to see the whole corpus of philosophy as a subtext or an intertextual connection to The Thought Gang?

TF: Well, no, I don't think so. I hope the book works well for someone who knows nothing about philosophy or who doesn't care about philosophy at all. I mean, it is a novel. And I think the actual philosophical element is actually a fairly small part of it and I hope it's presented in a way that poses no problems to someone who doesn't really care about philosophy. Having said that- I mean, I did do quite a bit of homework - there are a number of allusions and jokes that someone who is versed in philosophy will be able to pick up, I hope.

GB: Yes, I thought so. Montaigne's essays seem to have helped you a bit with the structure, wandering off at certain parts and then returning, circling around.

TF: I studied Montaigne and he's one of my favourite authors and obviously he makes a sort of brief appearance at the beginning of The Thought Gang. But having said that, the more direct influence on the book was in fact a Hungarian novel by a gentleman called Ference Temesi (the title is Dust in English) which is a novel in the form of dictionary entries. He wrote this, I think, in the early eighties and I came across it in Hungary and though my Hungarian is very feeble I managed to read some of it. I was very impressed. I really enjoyed the way he just completely ripped up conventions of novel writing. Because, although there was a sort of straightforward story there, it was completely cut up. But it was done in a very entertaining and accessible way. I just thought I'd like to do something which wasn't terribly linear and straightforward, and although there is a linear and straightforward element to The Thought Gang, nevertheless there are these sort of digressions. But I sort of hoped that the digressions actually do feed back into the main story and entertain rather than confuse the reader.

GB: Did you get any reviews from "real" philosophers?

TF: I don't think so actually. I don't think anyone had the idea to send the book to a philosopher to review it. I can't think of one. A number of philosophers wrote to me and said that they liked it and certainly none wrote to me saying that they disliked it. But then people tend not to go to the trouble of writing to you if they don't like a book.

GB: You said earlier on that some of the idea in The Thought Gang was to go through the whole of human knowledge and that reminded me of Zapp Morris in Changing Places, who wants to write the definitive book on Jane Austen just in order to stop people from writing any more about her. Was that an idea?

TF: No, I just liked the idea of having a wide, huge canvas to work with. But having said that, I believe a novel should be there for fun, for entertainment, for pleasure. But there's nothing wrong with having a rich or intelligent entertainment.

GB: Do you see The Thought Gang in the tradition of the campus novel?

TF: erm- not really, I don't think so. I suppose there is some relation, the antihero aspect of Eddie, but it's not really - I mean, the campus does not really enter into it that much. It's more Eddie's grapplings with knowledge and philosophy. And those sort of questions can be dealt with anywhere, they're not really specific to a campus.

GB: Is it maybe an off-campus novel?

TF: Yes, I suppose so, yes.

GB: Are there any plans for turning it into a film?

TF: Well, lots of people are interested, but in the film business interest takes a long time to form into the shape of a cheque. And at the moment there's nothing concrete going on. I mean, there are people who are interested. My agent is negotiating with them. We'll see. I mean, it's a terrible lottery, the film business.

GB: Would you be interested in writing a screenplay yourself?

TF: No, no, I'm only interested in being the servant of one master, as it were. And I think novel writing is what I want to concentrate on.

GB: Let's go on to Under The Frog, your first novel. Would you see it as post-Marxist fiction, maybe along with Julian Barnes's The Porcupine and Jenny Diski's Monkey's Uncle?

TF: Not really, because I would've written it, I think, even if the system had continued on for another ten or twenty years or whatever. I mean it is a historical novel, it is set in a fixed period and, although I played around with things a little bit, it is essentially a documentary, a record of what happened. And my imagination was constrained by the real events, what happened. So I think I would have written it the way it is even if the system had managed to survive, to carry on.

GB: Is it maybe a comment on everyday life under a regime, or a socialist regime?

TF: Well, there's an element of that. Essentially, people are people, wherever they live and whatever political system they live under. And the staple of any novel or story is going to be human nature, which is pretty much the same everywhere. But obviously it's human nature under a rather absurd and pointless political system. [the phone rings and Mr Fischer talks to his agent, knocking over his glass of water] ...What a mess!

GB: It's only water.

TF: Are we back on?

GB: Yep.

TF: Sorry, what was I answering?

GB: Oh, that's fine. - Do you have a personal dislike of waterpolo players?

TF: No, no I can't remember how the waterpolo joke started. It's just that waterpolo players are usually very large and powerful and behave badly. Certainly some of the ones I've come across have behaved very badly, but that's it.

GB: I think one could see Under The Frog as a typical first novel, dealing with lots of autobiographical, biographical facts.

TF: I suppose Under The Frog is a typical first novel in the sense that it deals with my roots, as it were, but there isn't that much autobiography. I mean, obviously, when you're writing you can never escape from your own experience and personality, no matter how hard you try. But I don't think there's that much of my own direct experience in The Frog. Most of it was drawn from stories I heard from my father and my godfather, both of whom were in a basketball team, and then from people I met while I was working there as a journalist. The only thing that is directly taken from my experience is that, while I was working as a journalist in the late eighties in Budapest, you could still see or feel the reverberations from the fifties. There were still sort of ideological residual ways of behaving you could easily imagine taking place thirty years earlier. But it wasn't a sort of "Bildungsroman" in the traditional sense. Or at least I wasn't aware of that when I was writing it.

GB: The ending leaves a couple of things open. Were there any different endings when you wrote the novel, different endings you could have thought of?

TF: Well, I was thinking about taking it on a bit further to Vienna, because it's largely my father's own experiences to the point where they arrived in Britain. But when I was actually writing it it seemed to me neater to finish it when they crossed the border, because it really is one of the engines of the book that Gyuri is obsessed with getting out of Hungary, and he finally does on the last page.

GB: In both Under The Frog and in The Thought Gang I think there is an element of carnivalesque, for example the character Hube and all this scatological language, all that eating going on. Was that something you deliberately wanted to establish?

TF: Again, as I think I mentioned last night, finally I'm not sure that as a writer you have that much control over your material. Once you get an idea, you can shape it and direct it to a certain extent and you do need to have a certain technical ability. Any good writer should be able to write more or less anything competently. But ultimately, I think, probably the best stuff you do is the stuff that comes to you and you don't really know why it is you write it. The fact that both books turned out to be sort of comic novels and sort of slightly picaresque novels, I suppose, is just what happened. I mean, I didn't sit down specifically thinking now I must write a book with a lot of humour and people running around naked and lots of dirty jokes. That's just what came out. I mean, in the case of The Frog, I can justify it to an extent by saying I was trying to reflect the Hungarian outlook, mentality, attitudes, sense of humour and certainly I hadn't any complaints from Hungarians - and they're not an easy bunch to please.

GB: There's also an element of the grotesque. Were Rabelais and Cervantes influences?

TF: Certainly. I mean, I've read both of them and enjoyed them, so I'm sure, particularly Cervantes. Anyone who writes that sort of novel can't escape from his influence. Cervantes created arguably the first great European novel and it's also the first great novel with an anti-hero, I think. Perhaps I'm wrong on that, but I can't think of anyone else before. So it does all stem from him. But again, as I say, when you're writing, these things aren't there consciously, or they're not there for me consciously, but perhaps subconsciously, certainly. What you read does - some of it at least does - stay with you and affect you. In fact very often that's the problem; that you forget you've read something somewhere and you end up using it.

GB: Both Eddie Coffin and Hube, I mean the name Eddie "Coffin" and Hube as a character with all these missing parts to his body, they are not as alive as one would wish them to be, and the same goes for Faragó and Kurucz, who've both been shot and nevertheless carry on living. Are they representatives of the Life-In-Death topos?

TF: There seem to be a couple of questions nestling together there. - Well, I hope they're alive. I did my best to make them as lively as possible. It's true that Hubert and his bits and pieces are an extreme example, and his condition is meant to be partly a metaphor and all that, but I don't know.

GB: What's the idea behind Eddie Coffin?

TF: The name you mean?

GB: Yes.

TF: It's partly that Eddie is a figure who undergoes a lot of humiliation. And part of the humiliation that he undergoes is having a rather silly name. And it's part of the slapstick humour of the book.

GB: One of your short-stories, "Then They Say You're Drunk", comes across as very personal. Is that true?

TF: Well, that short-story is very personal because I live in Brixton and nearly everything in that story is something I've seen or experienced. Because I did actually work - one of the jobs I had when I was writing Under The Frog was for a friend, who is a solicitor. And I did go to court on a number of occasions, carrying the paperwork for the barristers. So nearly everything in it either happened to me or someone I knew or something I saw.

GB: There could be various readings to "Then They Say You're Drunk": one, it could be a gargantuan satire, with the Scotts and the way the police are treated again, or it could be an essay on the state of England or, another one could be a comment on Englishness.

TF: Well, yes, I think you're right. That's what I think a successful piece of writing should be; that you can look at it from different ways and it has a life of its own. It's up to the reader to decide what's going on.

GB: What's you're idea about feeling English or British?

TF: It is not something that usually preoccupies me. I mean, I am very British. You can't grow up in a country, go through the educational system and so on without having been affected by it. I'm very keen on tea and Shakespeare. But at the same time I suppose the family is a very important influence and both my parents came from Hungary. So, I suppose, in some senses that makes me a bit of an outsider. But, as I say, it's not something I think about. However great the influence is society has on you, every individual has his or her own outlook and development. And as I say, it's not something I think about really.

GB: Guy is a very angst-ridden character and there is this persecution mania, locking all his doors ...

TF: I don't know. [laughs] If you'd lived in Brixton you wouldn't necessarily think it's persecution mania.

GB: that the way you see the future or the next millennium?

TF: Well, I hope not. I do live in Brixton, and it's not the most agreeable part of London in many ways. And unfortunately that does seem to be the down side of living in a big city, that the anonymity breeds bad behaviour. And certainly London, I think, is becoming very dirty and overcrowded and unpleasant. But these things can be dealt with and sorted out. I don't think the future necessarily is bleak and black.

GB: So there is no fin de millennium angst?

TF: erm... I'm not sure. There may be a bit of angst in London, but I'm not sure it's necessarily got anything to do with the fin de millennium.

GB: What's your idea of yourself as a writer? Do you see yourself as a postmodern or a neo-humanist writer, or what's your understanding?

TF: I just don't think about things like that. I think that's something that, you know, English faculties tend to worry about. What I'm interested in is simply trying to produce good novels. And my worries are of a day-to-day nature, about telling a story, finding a story, things like that. And the labels anyway for me don't matter. Other people are concerned about things like that, but I'm not.

GB: Do you see any trends in contemporary writing in England?

TF: I'm not sure. I mean I read quite a lot and in fact I'm sitting on the jury for a prize at the moment, the John Llewellyan Rhys prize, so I'm reading a lot of books. There are all sorts of things going on and its hard to say what's going to survive and what isn't. I think it's true that - I suppose there are two observations which aren't particularly original - one is the Empire-Strikes-Back thing; a lot of the interesting writing that is going on at the moment in Britain is from people who have come from outside in one way or another, people whose parents are of foreign extraction or who have moved to Britain to work. And the other thing is that there aren't many writers who are dealing with the present day. A lot of the better younger British writers are more concerned with what's going on outside or in the past or in the future. There are very few people who really write about the here and now, although there are some, and some are doing it very successfully. Irvine Welsh is a good example of that. I suppose Roddy Doyle is Irish, but he is sort of an honorary Brit really in many ways. So, I can't see any overall trend. There are simply no self-declared schools or movements operating at the moment. But then the British have never been very keen on that. I think it's always been a much more continental thing to issue a manifesto and raise a flag and sort of join some ranks. Perhaps the fact that the British don't worry about these things so much, aren't so concerned about them, perhaps that's a good thing.

GB: Are there any particular authors you would list as influences, both English or foreign?

TF: Well, the Americans; I'm very keen on a lot of the Americans. Certainly J.D. Salinger, he's one of my favourite writers. I read the Americans a lot when I was younger. So in the seventies all my favourite authors were Americans: J.D. Salinger, Tom Wolfe, Malamute, Tom Robbins, people like that. Because I think there was a very dull period in British fiction in the early seventies until people like Amis and McEwan got things going again. So the Americans were a big influence and then the French, because I studied French literature at university. They've shaped me a lot. Montaigne, obviously, Flaubert I'm very keen on, and I'm very fond of a lot of the poets, the nineteenth-century poets. But I read a lot, I enjoy reading, so there are all sorts of things that perhaps have filtered in without my knowing about it.

GB: Have you written any poetry yourself?

TF: No, I sort of wrote some when I was an adolescent but it was quite awful and I'm glad that it's all been lost or burned.

GB: Your new book, The Collector Collector, is to be published in May this year, I think...

TF: March. March in Britain, it's May in America. Did you get an American catalogue?

GB: Right. As we have seen with The Thought Gang, you don't try to make a career out of one book by changing the title.

TF: Well, perhaps I do actually, I just disguise it very well [laughs].

GB: What is the disguise of the new book going to be like?

TF: The new book, The Collector Collector, is about a bowl, a ceramic object, a ceramic entity, which has a number of supernatural powers, the power to narrate a novel being one of them. And this ceramic entity is the narrator of the book, and it goes back a long way. It's not actually spelt out in the book how old it is, but it is very very old and it's been observing humans for a long time. The book is mostly set in present day South London in an area curiously reminiscent of Brixton. The bowl is in this flat in South London observing a woman who is a sort of psychic art expert, who's been asked to examine the bowl. It's really a sort of convoluted love story that the bowl observes. And because the bowl is very old it has a number of anecdotes from the past to offer the reader which are meant to illuminate the present. And that's it really.

GB: Some of your language sounds a bit Blackadderish. Are you a fan of Ben Elton?

TF: Yes - well, no, I'm a big fan of the TV series, so I suppose it's sort of crept in from there. Because, you know, there is a lot of word play and sharp humour in that. But it probably goes even further back. I mean it's hard to imagine Blackadder without, say, Monty Python, and that was certainly a big influence on me when I was growing up.

GB: Well, thank you Mr. Fischer, I'm looking forward to your new book.

TF: Thank you.


Works by Tibor Fischer


Under the Frog. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1992.

The Thought Gang. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1994.

The Collector Collector. London: Secker & Warburg, 1997.

short stories:

"Listed for Trial". In: Granta 43, Best of Young British Novelists (spring 1993), 49-65.

"Then They Say You're Drunk". In: New Writing 4, ed. by A.S. Byatt and Alan Hollinghurst. London: Vintage 1995, 269-88.


I would like to thank Prof. Dr. Rudolf Freiburg and the Erlangen Centre for Contemporary English Literature (ECCEL) for arranging this interview and for the recording equipment, and Howard Atkinson for proof-reading the text. A special "thank you" goes to Christoph Beyerlein and his Separate Sound Studio for digital editing the sound samples.
The copyright and all associated rights for this interview remain with Tibor Fischer.