The idea that a book could tell its own story came to Hugo Hamilton when a relative handed him a copy of Joseph Roth’s novel Rebellion, which tells the story of a soldier turned street musician between the World Wars. The novel had been saved from the Nazi book burnings of the 1930s. “I held the book in my hand, and I thought of all the thumbprints, dead and alive, contained in that novel,” says the Irish-German writer, who turns 69 tomorrow.
The narrator of Hamilton’s new novel, The Pages, is a 1924 edition of Rebellion that tells the story of its own life since a professor rescued it from destruction in 1933. The Pages begins in the present day: “Here I am, stored inside a piece of hand language, being carried through the departure lounge at JFK airport.”
Inanimate objects have appeared as narrators before, such as the accordion in Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes or the Sumerian bowl in Tibor Fischer’s The Collector Collector, but The Pages is the first novel to be narrated by another novel. “I felt I was on safe ground there—like I was doing something new,” Hamilton says. “I have always thought that novels were living beings, that they have this human quality, like they tell our stories and hold memories.”
Hamilton uses the novel narrator in The Pages as a way of exploring Joseph Roth’s life and the timeless themes contained within Rebellion, such as the fickleness of fate, the erosion of identity, and the machinery that drives discrimination. “The book was written by this German-Austrian-Jewish author who spent his entire life on the run,” Hamilton says. “I think that aspect of Roth’s life is what I found so fascinating, because it chimes in so many ways with refugees living all over the world now.”
“I held the book in my hand, and I thought of all the thumbprints, dead and alive, contained in that novel.”
In The Pages, the novel’s adventures include being made part of an art installation and the subject of a book-club discussion. “I thought the idea of a book club was a perfect way of describing the situation in modern-day Berlin by effectively putting the book under psychoanalysis,” Hamilton says. Rebellion clearly enjoys the attention, and grows annoyed when it shifts to the snacks being served: “‘What is this foodie club?’ I wanted to ask.”
Published last year to glowing reviews in Britain and Ireland, The Pages is already being adapted into a film by the Irish writer and director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview with a Vampire) and will publish in the U.S. on February 1. Hamilton wrote the novel on spec and only discussed it with his publisher after he’d completed the book. “I thought it was possibly such a weird idea that a proposal mightn’t really work,” he says. “That’s the same way I wrote The Speckled People as a memoir of a German-Irish childhood in Dublin, that again I thought was going to be so weird that nobody would read it and no publisher would want to give me an advance on it.”
“I have always thought that novels were living beings, that they have this human quality, like they tell our stories and hold memories.”
Hamilton, who has written nine previous novels, is best known for The Speckled People (2003), his award-winning memoir. In it, he recounts how as a child his nationalistic Irish father forbade him from speaking any English—only Irish and German (his mother’s native tongue). He would hold imaginary conversations with the walls of his bedroom. Eventually, he ended up writing all of his books in English.
“I always had this interior voice mimicking the world around me and finding a way of communicating with the world without language,” he says. “It was this strange otherworldly experience as a child that I’m almost getting back to in [The Pages].”
Hamilton says that the voice of the novel narrator, which is by turns ironic, humorous, and occasionally exasperated, is more or less a stand-in for himself. There is a scene in the book where a thief has stolen a bag with Roth’s novel inside and discarded it in a park frequented by homeless people. The book describes the indignity of a rat running across its face and the ultimate joy of being rescued by a book-lover.
“There is a kind of tragic childhood irony that is at work in the background of all my novels,” Hamilton says. “It puts a sort of little ironic grin on my face whenever I write. The novel narrator of The Pages has all that in him: no matter how bad it gets, he’s still got to survive.”
The Pages will be available beginning February 1
Tobias Grey is a Gloucestershire-based writer and critic