Delivered by the Public Orator, Professor Michael Butler, at the Degree Congregation held in the University of Birmingham on Friday, 13 December 2002.
Chancellor! Vice-Chancellor! Vice-Principal!
In the conventional copyright declaration, normally printed at the front of books of fiction, a new formulation has recently appeared, placed there presumably at the behest of sharp-tongued lawyers: ‘The author has asserted his moral rights.’ In the case of Jim Crace, the lawyers have unexpectedly put their finger on the central feature of his narrative world. For Jim Crace the writing of fiction is a decidedly moral business – not in the crude sense of telling his readers how to live their lives according to some preordained pattern of values. But in the more ambitious and more difficult task of convincing them of their own richness as finite human beings in a world deprived of transcendental consolation. His themes are those of all moralists: mortality, love and endurance.
In his study, Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster declared that the only method he understood in the creation of fiction was ‘the power of the writer to bounce the reader into accepting what he says’. As bouncers go, Jim Crace is pretty formidable. His books demonstrate a rigorously scientific attention to detail. Insects, fauna, birds and landscape are minutely observed. And practically all of them are pure invention. Budding entomologists will spend many fruitless hours if they seek to track down the natural history of the ‘marine cricket’, an insect that plays a crucial role in the novel, Being Dead (1999). Literal-minded readers who seek to find the real desert, so vividly described in Quarantine (1997) will tramp in vain throughout Judaea. And clever critics make fools of themselves by solemnly recognising the provenance of the wittily fabricated epigraphs attached to each novel. For Jim Crace’s realism is rooted in the imagination. Fantasy and humour enable him to create adventurous narrative structures through which he can pursue human idiosyncrasies into dark corners very few would normally go. These journeys along strange frontiers that separate belonging and dislocation, the desire to leave and the need to return, are conveyed with an extraordinary linguistic power. In his recent novel Being Dead, for example, a tragic love story, brutally truncated, is marked by distinctive cadences that reveal the basic genius of English: its natural tug towards blank verse. Here language achieves a poetic potency that raises the meaninglessness of random lives to the stature of memorable individuality.
Jim Crace studied at the Birmingham College of Commerce, where he read English as an external student of London University. From 1968-69 he was in the Sudan as a television assistant for Voluntary Service Overseas. On his return to the UK he wrote educational programmes for the BBC. For eleven years, he worked as a freelance journalist, principally for the Sunday Telegraph and the Sunday Times, a useful apprenticeship in an environment where words cost money and where precision was consequently prized. In 1986 he published his first major work, a collection of thematically linked stories, Continent. The book won a number of prestigious prizes, including the Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award. More importantly, its enormous financial success in the United States enabled Jim Crace to leave journalism and concentrate on writing fiction. Subsequent novels, The Gift of Stones (1988), Signals of Distress (1994), Being Dead (1996), Quarantine (1997) and most recently, The Devil’s Larder (2000) have attracted many national and international awards, including shortlistings for the Booker Prize. Two years ago Jim Crace was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Central England for ‘Distinguished Literary Achievements’, and most recently an honorary doctorate from Brown University in the States.
Jim Crace was born in London, but some twenty-five years’ residence in Birmingham has transformed him into a fiercely committed Brummie. He has been a staunch supporter of the Birmingham Writers’ Festival and was instrumental in bringing to the City the National Academy of Writing which is now securely based in the University of Central England. Backed by many of the country’s leading writers and journalists, the Academy aims to nurture creative talent wherever it can be found and to give individuals the opportunity to learn skills and perfect their craft. In other words, to convert promise into achievement.
It is entirely typical of Jim Crace to throw his energies into such an enterprise. The practical, unsentimental socialism he learnt principally from his father has always meant involvement in society and its problems. From his father too he learnt to detest injustice and prejudice wherever they are to be found. It is this proud inheritance that enables him to keep his writing in perspective. When he was once asked how important writing was to him, he cheerfully placed it in sixth place, some way after his family, the centre of his life, and his love of walking in the countryside. Something of the man’s temperament can be gauged from his answers to the daft questions frequently put to writers around this time of year. His two best buys? A Dawes Super Galaxy – not, as the uninitiated might think, a Harry Potter Quidditch broom, but a bicycle that cost a small fortune, and Shandy who was a snip at £8 from the local dog’s home. His favourite building? ‘Spaghetti Junction when the lupins are in flower.’ His greatest extravagance? ‘Take-away baltis.’ His greatest ambition? ‘To win a mountain stage of the Tour de France.’ (For which, it must be said, Moseley High Street is perhaps not the best preparation, even with Shandy snapping at his pedals.) His most powerful dream is one that even Billy Butlin never experienced: a vision of Birmingham-by-the Sea. In the face of dire warnings of global warming, Jim Crace for once sees the bright side: the Rotunda on a cliff-top overlooking Digbeth Beach.
In a post-modern world where many appear to have lost their moorings in a rip-tide of moral relativism, Jim Crace represents a refreshing return to the central concerns of literature. He is a teller of stories, the creator of moral fables set in a fictional world that is totally personal and original, but a world that sharply illuminates the social reality in which we all have to construct our lives. He recognises that literature cannot directly change that inadequate reality, but, as his work brilliantly demonstrates, literature can and does alter irrevocably our perception of it.
Chancellor! To you and to the University I present JIM CRACE, deemed worthy of the degree of DOCTOR OF LETTERS, honoris causa.
© Professor Michael Butler 2002