Tessa Hadley is a gorgeous writer whose books are a multilayered pleasure — her stories and novels are intelligent, insightful, and written in clear, beautiful prose, and her rich, realistic characters are unforgettable in their psychological depth. Her latest novel, Late in the Day
, is the story of Christine and Alex and Lydia and Zachary, two couples who have been close friends for their entire adult lives. When Zachary dies suddenly, the trajectory of the others’ lives is irrevocably altered. In a starred review, Kirkus
raves, "Riveting....A four-person character study — here as always, Hadley is a master of interpersonal dynamics — the novel captures the complexity of loss." And Publishers Weekly
notes, "Perceptive, finely wrought....Hadley is a writer of the first order." We're excited to present Late in the Day
as our pick for Indispensable Volume 78
How did Late in the Day
begin? I was wondering if it began with any of the characters, or if there was more of a story.
It began with my idea that I would like to have two couples and follow them through time. I wanted to follow them through from their youth to their middle age, and explore the longevity of marriages and friendships and things.
I thought that episodic nature would need something sharp and acute and very dramatic. I loved the idea of them changing partners from time to time, whether visibly or invisibly. Then I thought, Of course, one of them dies.
And the moment I thought that, that actually had to be the beginning. I couldn't imagine writing the book forward, with everybody innocently interested in my two couples, and then suddenly delivering this blow three-quarters of the way through or something. That wouldn't have felt right.
So as soon as I thought of him dying, I thought that that's where the book starts. Then I had to think up that slightly complicated structure of falling back into the past and then coming into the present again.
Something that I have really loved about your work — this particular book, but your earlier work as well — is how well you write about friendships and relationships over long periods of time. I feel like adult friendships, particularly really long-lasting adult friendships, can be as intimate as romantic relationships, but they're written about far less.
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Yes. I probably feel the same as you that they can be as intimate, as changing, as mercurial, as romantic... I mean, there is romance in them.
One sort of falls in love with one's friends, and loves things about their unique selves in a way you might do in a sexual relationship, without the explicit sexual content. But I think one can be a little bit... You're attracted to your friends, usually. It's innocent, but it's got a charge in there.
I don't know. It's just another of the fascinating ways that people flicker across the space between us. Something flickers across the space between us in sexual love, or in marriage, or in friendship, or in the genetic relationships we can't avoid. We're making those electrical connections for better or for worse all the time.
Maybe you're right; there's a very good fit between romance and the novel, because right from its beginnings, actually, certainly in English, the novel has been about falling in love and courtship. And then separately there's another tradition that is about adultery.
But friendship is harder. Friendship doesn't have quite the same inevitable shape which fits so beautifully into the novel form. Maybe that's a reason why it's less written about. It doesn't have the same wonderful natural rise and fall. It doesn't come to a conclusion like a courtship does, or even, for that matter, like adultery does. Adultery in the 19th century usually conveniently ended novels with death. Anna Karenina throws herself under the train, and Emma Bovary swallows arsenic. Friendships tend to just muddle on.
Though not in my book, actually. Not in Late in the Day
. The friendship between Christine and Lydia has its dramatic conclusion, and the friendship between Alex and Zachary ends in death. Of course, there are friendships the other way too. There are friendships even between the couples who sleep together — well, they all sleep together in some combination, but they're friends too. They're friends as well as lovers. Certainly Zachary and Christine are friends.
I think that is one of the sweetest connections in the book, their friendship and pairing. It's not really innocent, but there's a real sweetness to that relationship.
There is something about women's not being in the world which has made them dreamers, thinkers, experiencers.
Good. I'm glad you think that. Yes. I wanted it to be there, that sweetness. That moment when they do actually end up in bed together, the second time around, where she's afraid of losing the other thing: “Will the friendship go if we do this? What will we do in the afternoons when you come around?" "We'll pretend this hasn't happened. We'll act as if it didn't happen, but it did." And she trusts that from him.
Speaking of the genetic relationships, I love both of the parent-adult child relationships in the book, and the friendship between Isobel and Grace is so wonderful.
Of course, I left that one out. Which begins and maybe ends with Isobel looking out for her spiky, audacious, risk-taking friend and fearful for her right from the time Grace is a little awkward child right through to, of course, her bereavement and the terrible grief and the things she does after it.
In the meantime, of course, Isobel hasn't got everything sorted out and has her own… Well, maybe she has by the end of the book. I'm hoping that it seems like a happy journey.
I felt she needed a good, strong antidote to her father. Which, first of all — I'm not against him. I know lots of readers won't like him. My lovely publisher, Jennifer, said, Oh, you've written one of those men again.
Apparently, I'm a pest for these kinds of men. [Laughter
I probably am. I think, to talk about Alex, it's a generational thing. I think the difference is we were so enthralled, as young women, to these handsome, radical, original men who were so free, in a way, and so unconventional, and yet sometimes also very tyrannical. "Tyrannical," that's a bit too much, but you know, they were not "new men."
I've got a feeling they don't make many men like that anymore; or, if men try to be like that, they get taught otherwise, which is completely a good thing. It's interesting. I am still enthralled. There's something exciting about the ferocity of those men, how they just carve out what they want without conforming easily.
I'm interested in the relationship between the women and the men and power in the book. In terms of the way you're talking about feeling about Alex, that seems to be how Christine feels about Alex, and not how she feels about Zachary.
It's just too easy, somehow, with Zachary.
Absolutely. Too sweet. Too close a friend. Even when they are briefly young lovers, it's one of those love affairs that doesn't make a shape or a form. How can I say it? I think I wrote this somewhere. I can't remember exactly what I wrote, but something like, "It doesn't wrench things into a new form." It isn't terrifying or life-altering. It's just comfortable and pleasant. What's wrong with that? [Laughter
Something women want, or wanted anyway, then, is to have a shape to put themselves against, to be overtaken by something that takes control. Now, once that's happened, they may well fight against it every year of their lives. And in fact, you watch Christine fighting Alex quite a lot, fighting in all kinds of subtle, quiet ways. Fighting back. In the end, sort of wanting to be free of him.
It's a really contradictory thing, that power game between women who want to be mastered, and then the minute they are mastered as they chose to be or semi-chose to be, they, quite rightly of course, resist and fight back. That's quite an exciting dynamic.
Early on, Christine is thinking about how she and Lydia consider themselves feminists, but they have chosen relationships with their husbands that are more dependent and sheltered, like their own mothers. You write: "they lived their secret lives inside the strong shell of their husbands' worldliness and competence. Now Lydia's shell had been broken open and she was exposed, alone."
I was interested in the idea that they're both living these secret lives and that their husbands, in particular Alex, maybe don't know them very well.
Yes. That's so interesting to me. First of all, again, it might be generational. That was kind of what not only I, but some friends did. But other friends didn't. They did what my young daughters-in-law do now. They have careers, public lives to match their men completely. In fact, usually to outdo them, if it's a competition, which it isn't.
I had an education — I could have done all sorts of things and I didn't. I was at home a long time with the family, not out of some kind of sentimental ideal of motherhood but because I wanted that. I wanted the privacy. It wasn't even something I decided with the top of my head.
It actually often felt a bit like failure, but I was not very good at that age, in my 20s and my 30s, at going out into the world. I wanted to dream and be by myself, or as it turned out, be with little children.
That's something else that interests me a lot about sexual politics at the moment and in the recent past. We shouldn't throw everything that women were away. It's no accident that so many great novelists of the 19th and the earlier 20th centuries made women their central, their core experiencing figures, because there is something about women's not being in the world which has made them dreamers, thinkers, experiencers.
Whereas men have been out there being defined by external formulae, if you like, or roles. What's the word I'm looking for? Descriptions. Women have had this secret life. That wasn't all good, not by any means, but it wasn't all bad either. It was its own potency. That interests me a lot, things like that.
My mother was a conventional stay-at-home mum, and she had power over my dad in ways that sometimes felt very thwarted and angry. She wouldn't say so; she would say she was glad she didn't have to go out to work.
Only a very, very few novels can get away with being both glum and page-turning.
That ties into the end of the book, when you're recounting the conversation Alex and Zachary had about art; Zachary says that women are still at the beginning of their time, since men have been the only ones who have been allowed to make public art for so long. They aren't feeling inhibited or belated yet, the way men like Alex might be. I thought that was a fascinating idea.
I'm so glad you picked that up because that really does intrigue me. It does sometimes feel, doesn't it, that so much 20th-century art — I can't generalize about the 21st. It's too much around us. I don't even quite know what it is yet — but so much masculine 20th-century art, the very, very best art in literature, but sometimes also painting and film, has been so despairing, and so despairing of art itself.
Perhaps it's a mid-century moment, in a way, and my goodness, there was plenty to be despairing about. It does feel to me as if some of that was belatedness. We've been writing novels for 200, 300 years now. We've been making poetry for millennia. Where to go? What's left?
There was a sort of savagery in that pessimistic modernism and postmodern moment, and really women — this isn't completely true of the novel form, of course, which has always been hugely written and read by women — but there's just a sense that women were late to the feast and therefore have this huge appetite: Wait, it's not over yet! We've only just started.
] We've got so much to tell, and I love that. I think that's a really interesting thing to say about what women bring in this new wonderful era we have, when they're out there telling stories and making art and thinking about form and technique and color and style and everything.
It just seems that that may have been very valuable to European literary culture, to have women coming into it and infusing it with new stories.
We talked in our last interview
about writing about children. You said:
It's a very interesting thing to write, motherhood. It's so difficult to write a very, very strong feeling and powerful love without just sounding sentimental. It's quite hard. It's hard to do, on the one hand, real justice to it — that overwhelming, strong loving feeling that mothers mostly have for their children — and to get that on the page without writing it as a kind of advertisement-type teariness.
I remember us talking about that, yes.
I was wondering if that was different, or easier, when writing about adult children.
Hmm. Interesting. Perhaps it strangely is, almost because it isn't a subject matter that's encrusted with so much sentimentality, is it? Whereas a mother with little children, it's so difficult to not be sentimental about the power of that feeling. And also, because it's a relationship between two adults, it's somehow more resistant to that.
It's harder to write a feeling for a little child because they are so cute and so sweet often. They're all the other things as well [laughter
], but to write sweetness, that's hard. Whereas when the subject is a mother loving her adult child… this adult bites back, and therefore it's easier to write it strongly.
There is one bit I did love — it's in Venice and Lydia and Christine are talking. Lydia wants to go on talking about men, and marriage, and feelings. It's almost as if Christine's a bit bored by that, and she says, "There is one person who I feel like that about," and it's Isobel. It's at the point where Isobel's about to go off to university, and Christine says something like, "The thought of not having her in the house is anguishing." She doesn't use that word, but that's very vivid to me, that kind of love.
That's another really good subject that probably doesn't get written about all that much, isn't it? People are writing all the time really, really well about grownups with older parents still alive, but to write about parents with adult children and their feelings, that's really a rich terrain I think.
Yes, absolutely. It was really a pleasure to read about it here.
You talked about knowing that Zachary dying needed to be the sharp point at the beginning of the book.
In that first scene, where Lydia calls Christine and Alex to tell them Zachary has died, they're listening to music together, not speaking. It's such an intimate scene (and then how they react to their initial grief, too), and it's very revealing of what kind of people they are. How did you choose those details? It's such gorgeous stage-setting for the book.
It's a funny thing. I think it was very vivid to me. As soon as I knew Zachary would die, and I knew the book had to begin there, then I just knew straight away — it was in a flat, which strangely is actually a bit like the flat we live in in London. They’re not at all like me and my husband [laughter
], but the actual rooms...
Not quite the layout, ours isn't as big as theirs, but something about that window and the copper beech outside, and the wide streets, that's where I live. I don't know why. I don't always do that, that was a funny thing to do, but I just knew it from the beginning. It's that bit of London and that big bay window.
This isn't at all helpful, and I'm not sure I can make the connection. I thought immediately of that Michael Haneke film, Amour
, a rather searing, terrifying, but wonderful film. Do you know it?
No, I haven't seen it.
Well, it's not really the same subject at all, so I don't know why the connection between them felt so intense — something about the atmospherics of that film, its mood of the elegant apartment and the cultured people, and then this terrible sadness intruding. I know I was drawing on that in a rather indirect way.
Very often I'm thinking of little bits of films that have meant a lot to me or moved me very much. That seems to be a powerful source. Obviously, often it's literature as well, but this time it was a film.
As for Alex’s and Christine’s reactions to Zachary’s death, I'm not sure I calculated it, but I suppose I wanted to put something between them or make it explicit that something's wrong. Is it wrong? I don't know, but something is dissonant between them, because that night, the night after the night after the death, he wants to make love to her and she won't, or can't.
He's right and she's right, and there they are. They're stuck with that. They can't meet. They're not unfriendly; they hold hands, they're close companions, there's nothing horrible between them, but sexually it's closed between them in some way that I don't make very explicit in the book but is fairly obvious.
And I don't think, either, that that need spell the end of everything. It's part of what's wrong between them, or part of what can't compete when the other thing comes along.
It isn't terrifying or life-altering. It's just comfortable and pleasant. What's wrong with that?
In that scene you just referenced, Christine knows that they're both right. She knows that it's a generous or a good gesture that Alex is making, but she also knows she can't get there.
She knows with her head and even her heart, but there are times when the body just... [Laughter
] I don't think there is any right or wrong in that. That moment isn't written against the man, not in the least. If anything, his generosity is bigger there, actually. There you are. That's how it is. She can't respond to it without... She could, of course. But she doesn't, that's not who she is.
On that very first night when Christine meets Lydia at the hospital, I was struck by how she realizes when she first arrives that she had been dreading the meeting because she thought Lydia would be even more domineering, and then she's ashamed because Lydia just seems lost.
I love how thoughtful the characters are, how self-aware they are about their own layered and complex feelings. I was wondering, do you think they're particularly self-aware people? They talk things out and try to give each other the benefit of the doubt. They try to look at things from the other perspective frequently. They're very articulate about their feelings and thoughts to themselves.
Particularly with this book, those people are my subject. They feel very familiar to me, like people I know intimately.
I don't know. Of course, everybody isn't that sensitive, or nuanced, or self-knowing. Yeah, they're a bit of a hyper-conscious group of people. Maybe the women carry that particularly acutely, as is often the case. Zachary's a smoother-over; he likes to make everybody happy.
Alex is more bristling, less sensitive to others. Christine in particular does a lot of that female work, doesn't she, of alertness to other people's feelings and sensitivity. She has her own blind spot — she's slightly mean to Grace. It doesn't matter, and I think Christine even knows it and feels slightly guilty about it. It’s something to do with work and Grace's art. Somehow she's jealous, fearful of the new girl coming up and of her fearlessness.
Yes, and her larger scale of things.
People are just sometimes very interesting, people who are almost inhibited by their hyper-consciousness. Although, sometimes it's brilliant to write the other ones, like in The Past
I have Pilar, the Argentinian woman who just cuts through the subtlety and chatty, gossipy analysis of the sisters with her indifference to it. Pilar’s sense is that the world is clear and clear-cut, and what one should do and be is obvious and inevitable. You have to do it properly.
It's very good to put those types of people together, but I haven't really in this book. I've focused on a particular crowd. I like those kinds of people who are a bit agonized. [Laughter
They’re all artists as well, so that may be connected.
Yes, sure. They've read too much and they think too much. [Laughter
] Then life, visceral life, comes and strikes them really. That's what happens.
Death, in fact, is what comes and strikes them and undoes them, and they don't know what to do with themselves.
Another thing that I love about the book is that it's a beautiful exploration of being struck by grief. Not just in Zachary's death, but in the betrayal and the loss of the friendship between Christine and Lydia.
There is a lot of vividness in your depictions of how loss and grief and absence can make people react, both in thought and in deed. But I agree with you that it's ultimately a hopeful book in the end. There is something about the forward motion of most of the characters that is optimistic.
I'm so glad. That was my greatest fear; I thought, Does he have to die? All the way through while I was writing it, my fear was that it would be a glum book. I had to fight with that a bit because it could have gone badly.
In the end, novels really aren't supposed to be glum, or only a very, very few novels can get away with being both glum and page-turning. Somewhere, one's got to go finding humor and just interest in what happens to people.
Of course, one of the things I've done is that in the sections that take place in the past, Zachary isn't dead; but for the reader, they read them in the light of the knowledge that he's going to go, which again, somehow fits much better in the beginning so that you can read all of those sections with your knowledge that he had a good life.
Nobody's dying tragically young. Nobody's dying at 20 or something unbearable. That would be a very different novel.
At the beginning of the book, Christine thinks, “Zachary was the one we couldn't afford to lose.” By the end of the book, I felt I understood what that meant intuitively, though I'm not sure how to describe it — it was something about his utter ability to be present. What do you think?
He's the sweetest one. It was nice to give that to a man, actually, because that's not completely obvious, but he was. It was something about his energy and childlikeness that was enabling for the other three of them in their three different ways. Then, it felt right to take it away, and that's just how it is, with the other three left behind.
It’s sad that he's gone, but the three left behind all refuse to let that be the end of their story, in scary ways that are very destabilizing and very painful, but nonetheless speak to the fact that there is more life.
At the very end, when Christine is at the art exhibit and she's a little disappointed in it, you write, "You had to be so vigilant if you banished all obvious meanings from the front of your art, that they didn't return unobserved by the back door." That, too, I thought was fascinating — has that happened to you? What does that mean to you?
It is something that I've thought and I share with Christine.
I'm talking about the novel form really, even though Christine’s talking about the paintings. There's been a wince of embarrassment about being too significant, too obvious, telling a straight story, or having full meaning in the last decade of the novel, a sense of, Oh, how could you be so crass?
That was all right then, but we've got to be cleverer than that now.
It's sort of me saying, But the danger is, if you're so clever and you banish significance of the big kind from the front of your art, watch out because sometimes it sneaks in by the back door. That's my own thought about art that's so careful to be dry and so careful to be ahead of the game and not make embarrassing false statements that sometimes it creates another kind of sentimentality. There are other kinds of sentiment. There's even a sentimentality of dryness, perhaps, and that's a little bit of what Christine is thinking when she looks at those paintings.
It's funny, because very early on I knew that she would end by going to that art exhibition, partly because I liked the comedy of her thinking, I'll go to this exhibition, and it will speak to me. It will be as if I'm speaking to Zachary and sort of making my farewells and it will be significant.
I know that feeling so well, when I'm braced to go to some artistic encounter, maybe a film or an art exhibition, and I'm so ready to be moved.
Then, within 15 minutes of the title scrolling, I'm thinking, I don't like this. It's not very good.
] I thought that would be funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but you know, comic. I also thought that sometimes those disappointments are a spur to work, where you actually feel, I can do it better than this. That's slightly shameful, but it's true. It happens.
Jill spoke with Tessa Hadley on Wednesday, December 12, 2018.