Last week, I met one of my top five favourite authors, David Mitchell. He came to Zürich to promote Volker Oldenburg’s German translation of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. As well as giving me an exclusive interview for Words with JAM (more of which below), I attended his reading, moderated by Thomas Bodmer. It was a delight and here’s my account of the evening.
Readings: Mitchell relates Jacob’s first encounter with Orito Aibagawa in English. Animated and enthusiastic, he frequently interrupts himself to add background detail or insert entertaining asides, eliciting a warm response from the audience. The second meeting between these characters is read in German by actor Alexander Seibt, whose mellifluous voice and diction is so measured and clear that despite my limited linguistic skills, I actually enjoy it.
Then Mitchell announces that he and Seibt will perform a baroque hip-hop. As an advertisement for the beauty of the translation, they will each read the same piece, once in English, once in German. He reads the astoundingly poignant and poetic chapter where the Magistrate observes Nagasaki from the veranda. It ends with the words: “This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.” The rhymes, the imagery, the lyrical power of the words present a huge challenge, but one ably met by Oldenburg’s translation. Both renditions hold the audience rapt.
Onto questions. Mitchell was 24 when he went to Japan and got the idea for The Thousand Autumns while backpacking around the country. While in Nagasaki, he stumbled over the buildings of Deijima, the trade connection Japan maintained with the outside world. Europeans, for the closed country of Japan, were exotic extra-terrestrials. The Japanese held many myths about these strange foreigners; they didn’t have heels, they urinated like dogs and they didn’t have souls. Dejima was the catflap through which European influence slipped into Japan, and Japanese copper flowed out.
Bodmer asks about Jenny and Stanley Mitchell, two of the book’s illustrators and Mitchell acknowledges they are his parents. He refers to growing up in Worcestershire and his semi-autobiographical book, Black Swan Green. Many of the details are about his own childhood, he says, although he has transgendered his own brother into Jason’s sister. He talks about how the via the book, he ‘outed’ himself as a stammerer. (Mitchell is Patron of the British Stammering Association.) He used to learn complex lexical detours to avoid those words which caused him to stumble. It got him beaten up in school, thus he learned much about communication and register. He believes he owes his impediment a lot.
Learning the laws of language appropriacy has also proved really useful when writing dialogue, he says. He mentions the precision with which film director Mike Leigh uses register to illuminate his characters and their relationships. Writers can save themselves whole descriptions just by choosing the right words. He tells the audience he gets a primal, elemental high from writing a damn good sentence.
Lastly, I was intrigued to hear who my hero’s heroes might be. Ursula Le Guin has been with him all his life, he says, and always resonates. And for achieving so much both in life and literature, Chekov, a doctor whose primary colour was compassion.
No doubt about it, David Mitchell is good with words.
For more from David Mitchell on the cinematic adaptation of Cloud Atlas, the significance of language and music, redeeming literature and his theory of Transferrable Reality Concreteness, read my interview.