The Rumpus Interview with Paul Kingsnorth
Paul Kingsnorth is a British journalist, essayist, protestor, editor, poet, and novelist; and roughly—chronologically, at least—in that order. His first book, One No, Many Yeses, is an exploratory travelogue recounting the growing anti-capitalist and anti-globalization movements around the word, published in 2003. In 2008, Kingsnorth took up this vein at home with Real England, “a journey through a nation being remade in the interests of big business,” which garnered the attention of Prime Minister David Cameron and the Archbishop of Canterbury, both of whom quoted from the book in political speeches. Still dissatisfied with his country’s arc toward homogeneity and social decay, he published a small manifesto in 2009, Uncivilisation, which quickly led to his founding of the Dark Mountain Project, “a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilization tells itself.” He is now the project’s editorial director, and continues to seek out writers willing to question the received thinking of our globalist culture. In 2011, Kingsnorth’s work took a seemingly sudden, but in fact quite natural, shift toward poetry. His debut collection, Kidland, turns its eye toward humanity’s relationship with nature, as well as our denial of the past and our ties with the earth.
Despite the breadth of his work, he reconciles his writing as “primarily about two things: connection and loss.” His first novel, The Wake, published in England in 2014 and in the United States earlier this year, rings true to his legacy. Set in 1066, the year of the French Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England, The Wake is a deeply absorbing, mythmaking novel narrated by a man who has lost not only his family and his homeland, but, inevitably, his very language and way of being. One of Kingsnorth’s greatest achievements is composing the entirety of the novel in an Anglo-Saxon “shadow tongue,” which takes its roots from Old English and rejects Latinate influence on our modern language, yet remains intelligible for the contemporary reader. As Geoff Dyer wrote in the Guardian: “At first the prospect seems unreadably off-putting; within twenty pages you get the hang of it; by thirty the suddenly fluent reader is immersed entirely in the mental and geographical contours of the era.” Violent, unforgiving, and sorrowfully evoking a world long destroyed, The Wake is a unique achievement in literature, a kind of English creation story to pair with America’s most chilling of myths: Blood Meridian.
Thus far, The Wake has won the 2014 Gordon Burn Prize and the Bookseller Book of the Year Award; was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Folio Prize, and the Desmond Elliott Prize; and was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. Ever the dynamic traveler, Kingsnorth was gracious enough to respond to our questions over e-mail.
The Rumpus: Buccmaster’s England is not only invaded and pillaged by Latinate language—the 11th Century French of the Norman conquerors—but by Latinate religion. Though many in Buccmaster’s England have already converted to Catholicism, Buccmaster criticizes anyone and everyone who follows Christ. Was it your intention to pair language and religion together this way?
Paul Kingsnorth: It’s always hard for an author to determine his own intentions, especially in retrospect. But I can say that Buccmaster’s resistance to Christianity, and his commitment to the old gods of the Germanic Saxon people, was a theme that evolved as I wrote the book, and as its story was told to me. Buccmaster’s is a story of loss, the story of what he clings to and will not let go of, and in his mind, the lost England that he feels he belongs to is intimately connected with the lost gods which Christianity pushed below the waters. The land, the people and the gods worshipped by the people are all the same thing to him, and all of them have been polluted.
Rumpus: That sense of pollution is strong, especially as a reader who knows, from history, that Buccmaster’s world is gone. Yet it’s impossible not to hope for him. What role did hope play for you while writing this novel?
Kingsnorth: It wasn’t clear to me for a long time how Buccmaster’s story was going to end, though it was clear enough that it wouldn’t end well. I’m not really interested in “hope”: most of the time it seems a distraction. What does interest me is how difficult my culture seems to find it to look the dark side of life directly in the eye. It seems to me that if we look back at mediaeval culture, for example, we see a society which faces the reality of death and pain and limitation, because it has to. Our society, which is progressive and technological and seems to have a slightly fanatical utopian edge to it, gets very uncomfortable when anybody highlights the dark side of humanity, or the world we have built, or what we are doing to the rest of life on Earth. I find that this obsession with “hope” is part of that problem. Hope, like despair, is something of a distraction: it gets in the way of a clear view of the horizon. Buccmaster doesn’t deal in hope. He doesn’t have the luxury.
Rumpus: In “The Poet,” Emerson notes how “the etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry.” While constructing The Wake’s “shadow tongue,” did you stumble across any etymological surprises?
Kingsnorth: Probably the greatest surprise was how many Old English words we still use today. I set myself a deliberately impossible task when I constructed the language: not to use any words which did not have an Old English root. I didn’t manage this, but I would say nevertheless that perhaps eighty or ninety percent of the vocabulary used in the book has Germanic or Norse roots. It was fascinating to see how much of our language is still created from the vocabulary of the conquered.
Rumpus: Do you find something poetic in that?
Kingsnorth: I hope that the book is a poem. I certainly wanted it to be. The dancing, sinuous rhythm of the language allowed me to do things with prose that I’ve not done before, and probably won’t be able to do again. I enjoyed it very much. I found it very difficult to write in conventional English again for quite some time afterwards.
Rumpus: As far as language and life are concerned, Buccmaster—understandably—wants nothing to change. He laments that the French will give the English forests and the trees French names. In this and many other ways, he seems obsessed with a kind of “purity.” In a novel where the history of language is inseparable from the narrative, English is not only dynamic and shapeshifting but utterly violent. With this in mind, how did it feel to write in this ostensibly “pure” English?
Kingsnorth: The creation of the language was not a literary experiment or creative writing exercise. It was something that seemed necessary to me in order to really explore this man’s mind. Buccmaster is conflicted and hypocritical and confused, and he attaches himself, sometimes far too strongly, to ideas and concepts which either have no basis in most peoples’ reality or simply cannot be relevant to the time he lives in. In other words, he is like most of us, much of the time. What I found when trying to convey his inner landscape in his own language was that landscape creates language, and vice versa. This is what I mean when I say I couldn’t have written this book in contemporary English. The man does not have a contemporary mind. Why would he?
Rumpus: How did the landscape of Buccmaster’s England create the language of The Wake?
Kingsnorth: One of my aims with The Wake—and it’s also my aim in the novel I’m writing at the moment, which is the second part of the trilogy it began—is to make the landscape of the book a character in the story. In most novels, the landscape, or the place, in which the story takes part is simply a backdrop to the human action. I wanted the Fens, in this case, to be more than that. I wanted them to be a living, breathing, perhaps conscious and intelligent, force in the story itself. That is certainly how Buccmaster sees them, and he would not be the man he is without the place he grew up in and feels so deeply attached to. When he leaves his village and the small area around it, he never feels comfortable: he spends his time wandering and muttering and feeling displaced, and he is only happy when he is back home in the Fens again. The land has created him as it has created the story and the language of the story. They are inseparable from each other.
Rumpus: Throughout the novel, Buccmaster espouses truth as a force of good, yet frequently bends or eschews it to achieve power or influence over others. Did you know this going into the novel?
Kingsnorth: I didn’t create Buccmaster: he colonized me, like a Norman, and demanded that I told his story. I didn’t know what kind of person he was until I started telling it. He is still out there somewhere. I’m not sure I’d have the strength to deal with him again. On the other hand, I rather miss him.
Rumpus: Now that he’s relinquished his power—keeping with the colonial metaphors—do you feel changed? What kind of damage or influence has he left behind?
Kingsnorth: Well, as I said, I certainly find contemporary English to be an increasingly inadequate and boring language to write in! It’s tricky to know what to do about that, especially as it’s the only language I speak. And I suppose he has left a residue in my writing and in my life. You can’t come into contact with somebody like that without being marked by it. Still, I am grateful to have met him.
Rumpus: The Wake has been called “a post apocalyptic novel set one thousand years in the past.” How do you interpret the subjectivity of a concept like apocalypse? Of the end of a world instead of the world? What does it mean for a world to end and go on?
Kingsnorth: I understand that the word apocalypse comes from the Greek, and that the original meaning of the word is revelation. We have come to use the word to denote a world-ending cataclysm, but there are other ways to use it. The Wake is as much about revelation as it is about collapse. Buccmaster’s world ends catastrophically, but that in itself is a never-ending story. The world we are in today is likely to end catastrophically, as many other human worlds have done before. Our outer world and inner world collapses, but the Earth continues to turn. We like to think that the fate of the Earth and the fate of human worlds are the same thing, but we’re not as important as that.
Rumpus: The apocalypse can definitely be an ego trip. Regarding our current ongoing catastrophes—climate change, colony collapse disorder, etc.—do you feel like our delusions of grandeur play a role in our lack of action?
Kingsnorth: Perhaps so. Certainly our cultural fallback position seems to be that our technologies will get us out of everything they have got us into. That looks like a magical thinking to me, but we don’t really have a better idea. We enjoy telling ourselves that we will soon be gods, masters of the planet, manipulating the genes of living creatures and rebuilding the world at a nano-level as we lie back in our hammocks, attended by our robot servants. I don’t believe a word of it, and I’m not sure many of us do. I think we are scared of the future, and understandably, because of what we have unleashed. But the box is open now, and we can’t close it again. I don’t have any answers to that problem. As Buccmaster says: the wind cares not for the hopes of men. Sum thing is cuman.
Rumpus: In an afterword to the novel, you mention the shift of England’s economy following the Norman invasion, going on to note that modern England still functions in much the same way: “The effects of Guillaume’s invasion are still with us. In 21st Century England, 70 percent of the land is still owned by less than 1 percent of the population.” Late in the novel, Buccmaster swears that he is “the lands law ofer mens… eorth not heafon leaf of treow not leaf of boc.” It’s hard not to read this, together, as a form of reckoning. Would you care to speculate on what Guillaume’s “legacy” means for England, not to mention the world in general?
Kingsnorth: I do think that the legacy of the Norman conquest is still strong in Britain. Our hereditary monarchy, our established church, our ancient county structures, though hollowed out in many ways, are a direct result of what happened in 1066. Perhaps we could say that our attitudes to social class, and our cynicism towards our elites, are a legacy too. It’s not so long ago that we abolished the legal notion of a husband “owning” his wife, and that’s a notion that didn’t exist before the Norman invasion. It lasted nearly 1,000 years. As for land ownership: all was not rosy in the Anglo-Saxon garden, but there’s no doubt at all that the Norman conquest led to the hugely concentrated land ownership patterns that we still see in Britain today. Some of Britain’s biggest landowners are still direct descendants of Norman barons. And given the impact that Britain has had on the world over the past few hundred years, you could perhaps say this was a global issue. History is always with us.
Rumpus: Yet we refuse its examples. Just as language can absorb a metaphor and kill it by creating a word (“breakfast,” maybe, or “slogan”), do you feel like history can over-familiarize certain narratives until they lose their meaning? Is it so commonplace in our stories for the rich to be aligned with oppression that, in our lives, we no longer make the historical connection?
Kingsnorth: I think we take the history we want to take in order to back up the stories we want to hear. Just over a century ago, the establishment of Victorian Britain was using the victory of the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred over the Vikings as a metaphor for their manifest imperial destiny. These days, the narrative has changed, and our new establishment likes to talk about the mingling of the Anglo-Saxons, the Celts, and the Vikings as a precursor to the “multicultural Britain” they are currently trying to promote. A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest. I think that kind of thing is an abuse of history. What I was trying to do with this novel was to see as clearly into the past as I possibly could, and to try to inhabit it as honestly as I was able, on its own terms. I failed, of course, because all attempts like that must fail, but perhaps I got a little way towards my aim before I fell.
Author photo © Jyoti Kingsnorth.