Piers Paul Read talks to Tom Teodorczuk about his new thriller
Twelve years ago the author Piers Paul Read, giving a lecture in Poland, predicted that the future “will almost certainly mean the end of the Catholic novel that flourished in Britain from Cardinal Newman to Graham Greene”.
It can’t have been too enjoyable an experience for the Catholic novelist and historian’s prediction to be borne out in relation to his own work. Read’s new book The Death of a Pope is his first novel, in a career spanning almost five decades, not to be published in Britain. Over in the less secular United States Ignatius Press snapped up the work and Read has just returned from a two-week American book tour.
We meet at a New York book fair prior to a signing. The Death of a Pope is not the outlandish papal potboiler suggested by its title. It’s a fast-paced, thoughtful story about the relationship between Uriarte, a Basque liberal Catholic aid worker, and Kate, an English journalist. Contrasting Uriarte’s desire for reform of the Church and a liberal pope, Kate’s uncle, Fr Luke is a traditionalist priest. The climax takes place during the election of Cardinal Ratzinger in April 2005.
Mr Read uses a fictional framework to examine many of the debates currently raging in the Church: orthodox versus liberal Catholicism, how to combat Aids in Africa and the legacy of Pope John Paul II. The novel has done a roaring trade in America where, much to Read’s satisfaction, Ignatius marketed it as a classy alternative to the film adaptation and tie-in paperback edition of Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons.
But even though the majority of Death of a Pope is set in London, Read’s agent Gillon Aitken deemed the ideas reverberating throughout the novel too uncommercial for British reading tastes. “It wasn’t that Gillon thought it was too orthodox,” Read says. “I think he thought it wouldn’t be of interest and therefore wouldn’t entertain a wider sector of the public.” Aitken enlisted the services of an external professional reader who advised Read to “make it into an al-Qaeda thriller”.
There was also a chilly reception closer to home. “My wife [Emily] didn’t like it much. Albert [the eldest of his four children, a general manager at magazine publishers Condé Nast] didn’t like it much. They don’t want to read about Catholics or characters talking about the Eucharist.” The Death of the Pope is Read’s most Catholicbased novel since 1969’s Monk Dawson, which depicted a priest going off the rails. Read’s defence of traditionalist Catholicism might be discernible throughout his new novel – the book starts with a quote by secular Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, whom he knew well in the 1960s, that “the Pope kills millions through his reckless spreading of Aids” – but it’s not dogmatically preaching to the converted.
“I didn’t want the characters to be simply mouthpieces for certain attitudes towards the Catholic Church,” Read says. “I gave Uriarte the best lines.” The enthusiastic reception of the book in America has reinforced the transatlantic religious divide in Read’s mind. “The difference between Britain and America is that Britain is a pretty antiCatholic country... a lot of Catholics here are Tabletreading liberals who would be unsympathetic to me as a Catholic writer whereas America has a very strong orthodox Catholic presence.” Read is regarded as a theological conservative – he was an early champion of Pope Benedict XVI when Cardinal Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Yet, as Read himself put it in an article for this newspaper in 1997, contained in his 2005 anthology Hell and Other Destinations, in his novels “the devil must be given his due”. Catholic faith is at the core of his shockingly underrated early novels The Junkers, The Upstart and The Professor’s Daughter, yet spirituality intermingles with sin. The protagonists have their cake and wind up receiving Communion. “If you’re going to write books that relate to the times you live in, you’ve got to deal with sex and these sorts of things but a lot of devout Catholics are rather shocked by anything to do with that. So what do you do? I don’t shy away.” Monk Dawson, which was in part based on his unhappy formative years at Ampleforth College, was banned from the boarding school and accordingly became something of a set text for young Catholic North Yorkshire-based rebels. A former Ampleforth headmaster once accosted Read at a party and “got red in the face and said, ‘it was never banned at Ampleforth’, but I heard otherwise”.
Edginess is essential to a novel, he argues, along with forgiveness, irony and humour.
It is his non-fiction that has proved far more lucrative for Read. “I once had a very wise editor at Random House who said: ‘Piers, the trouble is that Catholics who buy books aren’t your sort of Catholics and your sort of Catholics don’t buy books.” Read’s stand-out success is Alive, his 1974 account of the Uruguayan rugby team survivors of the 1972 plane crash in the Andes, which has sold five million copies. “It’s enabled me to live off my writing and educate four children,” he says. Other subjects have included the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the late actor Sir Alec Guinness and the Knights Templar.
Read has long been a prolific literary presence. Sarah Sands, Deputy Editor of the Evening Standard, once observed in an analysis of the publishing scene in the 1980s that “almost everything was written by Piers Paul Read”. The last few years have been difficult though. Discounting the anthology, The Death of a Pope is his first new work for six years.
“I had an uninspired period in my life. I wrote these two books which I thought weren’t going to be published.” The other book he is referring to is his memoirs that are gathering dust in his study. “I was advised again not to publish them,” he says. “I have to re-write them. The first half was about my parents and the second half was about my misspent youth. They didn’t quite fit together... my wife read it and said, ‘it would make you out to be even nastier than you are’.” He is now a very different person to the one misspending his youth in the memoir. “When I was young, I was pretty nasty and cynical,” he says. “I was tremendous as a social climber and my idea was charming a duchess’s daughter. The upstart – that’s me.” Read was a Left-wing Catholic during his twenties before becoming a social conservative and a prominent opponent to Catholic reformism but he doesn’t hide having been shaken by the recent child abuse scandals that have afflicted the Church.
“I think it’s been appalling. If the Catholic Church hadn’t been a divinely respected institution, it would have collapsed under the weight of the scandal because there’s nothing worse than that. To me it proves the genius of the devil.” Next year Read publishes his new novel The Misogynist. “It’s a humorous, satirical critique of the sexobsessed society,” he says. “It’s about a sexagenarian living on the wrong side of Shepherds Bush – geriatric obscenity from start to finish.” Both his family and his agent love it.
He is currently researching a history of the Dreyfus Affair that divided France in the 1890s. Contrary, it would appear, to the Catholic novel, this Catholic novelist is still alive and kicking.
The Death of a Pope is available in Britain from Amazon.co.uk, priced £17.96