Labour Pains: Joanna Kavenna on maternity and her novel The Birth of Love

Joanna Kavenna, Photo by A.Michaelis.
Photo by A.Michaelis

She may be just three books into her career, but Joanna Kavenna is no stranger to esteem in the literary arena: the Oxbridge writer-in-residence commands a thriving repertoire that has earned her a slew of scholarly nods, several coveted award nominations, and a successful bid for the 2008 Orange Broadband Award for New Writers. Kavenna’s latest novel, The Birth of Love, has been long-listed for the 2011 Orange Prize for its dichotomous exploration of childbirth as both universal and fundamentally individualistic in nature. Careening between three distinct timeframes, the novel offers uncanny conjectures on the human condition and a striking look at the disparate forms of love evident in various mother-child relationships. Here, Kavenna tells The Literateur about the labour pains of creating a story around “the weirdest experience you could ever have…”

Interviewed by Sara Veale
Photography by A.Michaelis

There are a multitude of themes that permeate your novel, including procreation as an evolutionary impetus and ambiguity over ideas of unconditional love, that all revolve around the motif of childbirth. What inspired you to focus on this motif for a whole novel?

I like to look at things that render ordinary life unfamiliar. To me, life is very strange anyway: the fact that we’re babies, and then we’re children, then we’re adults, then we’re parents, then we’re old – so in certain aspects, certainly the physical, and something else besides, we change all the time. But there are moments when the change occurs very swiftly. When I was pregnant myself, I just found it to be one of those things that completely alters your perception of everyday reality. It’s quite insane: you’ve got a child growing in your body, and the whole process of birth is like a very weird dream, so I wanted to write a novel that very much focuses on that altered reality of someone in labour and giving birth. The whole novel is kind of the dream of a birthing woman, or I wanted it to be possible to read it that way. So one of the central characters, Brigid, is in labour throughout the novel, and finally gives birth at the end. I had an idea that everything else could simply be generated by that, or that the reality of the novel is entirely inflected by the altered concerns of a woman who is in labour. Certainly, I wanted the distinctions between reality and fantasy to be unclear at times.

If pregnancy was the impetus, are there any similarities that can be drawn between the writing process and pregnancy? For example, you hear about authors who describe finishing their books as a sort of post-partum depression. Were there any similar feelings of attachment with this novel, or with any of your others?

Yes, there’s the turn of phrase, the idea of being pregnant with a novel or a poem, and I was playing with that a little. I put a character in, an author called Michael Stone, and I put him through what you could call the labour pains of publishing a novel. Both processes – pregnancy and writing a novel – are somehow slightly uncanny, there’s something going on that you don’t really understand. Also, novels, like children, don’t always come out quite as you thought they would. However, inevitably, the way you feel about a novel is very different from the way you feel about your children. I’ve never felt unconditional, protective love for a novel. It’s hard to love your novels at all, by the time you’ve written and re-written them so many times. Though later on, years later, you find yourself feeling a bit fond of them, sometimes.

The novel spans three different centuries in its four story lines, including nineteenth century Vienna, contemporary London, and a dystopian vision of the 2100s. What kind of research was involved in creating these settings?

On one level I was trying to play with this idea of what’s real and what’s unreal: the weird dream of being in labour. Obviously giving birth is completely universal as an experience, very commonplace, and yet it’s beyond strange, as you go through it. I wanted to explore that, so I tried to create some so-called realistic narratives like Brigid’s as well as less conventionally realistic ones – there’s the sci-fi dystopian narrative, and the gothic Viennese narrative. The Viennese narrative focuses on a real-life obstetrician, a man called Ignaz Semmelweis, who realised in the 1840s that childbed fever, a deadly scourge at the time, could be prevented if doctors washed their hands before examining women in labour. For the most part, Semmelweis’s colleagues refused to listen to him. So he ended by accusing them of being ‘murderers of mothers,’ talking about a ‘massacre of women.’ He died in an asylum. I wanted to write about his last 24 hours, as I imagined them. I did quite a lot of research into Semmelweis’s life, though my account of him is entirely fictionalised. I also added in an entirely invented character, Robert von Lucius, who goes to visit Semmelweis in the asylum and then writes down his impressions of the man. In the futuristic narrative I wanted to portray a group of people who have hidden a woman while she births a child naturally, when natural birth is banned entirely by this dystopian technocratic society. The group has been rounded up and we see the members being interrogated.

For both the 19th century and the futuristic narrative I felt, well, who knows what it really felt like to live in the past, and, still more so, who knows what it will be like to live in the future? From the 19th century we have copious quantities of writing – diaries, letters, novels, etc. So it seemed inevitable to make that narrative a pastiche of particular literary style: 19th century gothic, I thought, suitable for an asylum scene. For the future, even more so, as the future only exists in so far as we imagine it. So again, I thought I would pastiche a few literary sci-fi conventions – the interrogation scene, the dystopian Socratic dialogue. Also, I wanted the reader to be slightly uncertain in this futuristic narrative who to believe, to have a sense of this narrative as disorienting, fantastical. And as I said I wanted the novel as a whole to mingle realism and fantasy, to merge so-called realistic styles of writing with styles that are regarded as fantasy writing – ie sci-fi – or to make conspicuous fantasy of the lives of actual historical figures such as Semmelweis, and so on.

The structure of your book – which sees a series of vignettes occurring in a single day across different time periods – has been compared favourably to Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. What bearing does this structure have on communicating the themes of your books? Does it paint a universal portrayal of emotions?

In terms of structure, I was responding to the postmodern tradition of fragmentation. I suppose some writers who find they resist standard literary realism veer immediately or naturally into postmodernism, so it’s a tradition that’s always interested me. For this book I was particularly interested in works such as Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet and Italo Calvino’s If on A Winter’s Night a Traveller as well as the bestselling novel it inspired, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and also as you mention Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. And of course the modernist tradition before this, Eliot’s Wasteland and Four Quartets and Joyce’s Ulysses and Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night and so on. Works that are highly structured, while often appearing not to be, and which refer to other literary works, both Ancient and Modern, using pastiche and irony and different styles of writing to try to convey something about the fragmentary, elusive nature of human experience. So I wanted also in turn to allude to these works but also look at how labour and birth change literary form. Firstly I knew I had to make the whole thing turn circles, because of this very vivid sense you get with birth that you are part of a grand cycle of birth and death, it’s really impossible to escape that feeling. So, the narratives go round in two big circles: Semmelweis, Brigid, Michael, Prisoners and then they start again, Semmelweis, Brigid, Michael, Prisoners, and then finally they sort of circle around each other. And though they’re all fragments, I wanted somehow to create a sense of everything merging at the moment of birth. I found birthing my own children such a moment of gory apotheosis, as if everything comes together at the point at which a new life begins: family history, the lives of ancestors, the coincidences that cause two people to meet and birth a child, reality, fantasy, dream and everyday life. So I wanted to write a quartet in which there are four narratives, four fragments of experience, and they all come together around this climactic moment when Brigid births her child. At the end, in the final section, Brigid is giving birth, while Michael Stone, Robert von Lucius and the central prisoner in the future all arrive at the climax of each of their narratives, as well. To me it was as if everything was happening at the same time. As if a wormhole has opened up, past, present, future, fantasy and reality have merged.

The idea of certainty versus ambiguity makes several appearances in the novel and is particularly well illustrated in the future storyline, in which scientists are eerily convinced that the extreme measures they’ve taken to preserve the species are absolutely justified. How did this theme arise and what did you hope to gain from exploring it?

I’m very glad you picked up on that. I always feel – and this is something I thought before I had children, and it’s become more and more acute – that one of the major struggles of life is simply to go your own way, to work out who you are and what you want to do. There are constantly people around you, telling you who you are, what you should want, and they often seem so incredibly sure of themselves, happy to extol their religion or their science or however they are defining their system of thought. I’ve always found that certainty quite inexplicable. And I found that was compounded by pregnancy, because you are bringing a child into this society, with its maxims for living and mores and competing ideologies. So, you’re not only trying to navigate yourself through the morass of other people’s ideas, but you are trying to help a child navigate it all as well. You don’t want to lead them too furiously, stringently. They have to, equally, go their own way in the end. But it’s also hard to watch them being buffeted by other people’s certainties. So I was writing a lot about ambiguity, as you say, the ambiguities of individual experience, and pitting this against various dogmatic ideologies and evangelists of competing creeds, whether they call themselves scientists or priests.

Your previous novel Inglorious, which won the 2008 Orange Broadband Award for New Writers, centred around one central protagonist, Rosa. How did you find the experience of juggling several main characters this time around?

I am quite sceptical about the omniscient narrator, skipping from one person’s consciousness to another, delving into their thoughts. Clearly life, real life, isn’t at all like that, so it’s a conceit, a great literary fantasy. We never know anyone’s thoughts at all, really. It’s a wonderful idea, but completely fabricated, in so far as we experience things. In Inglorious I had a third person narrative, but it was focused entirely on the consciousness of Rosa, as you say, so we saw everything from her perspective. We were locked into her thoughts. With The Birth of Love, I also kept myself as clear as I could of the omniscient narrator – so, the present day narratives are locked into the consciousnesses of two characters, Brigid and Michael Stone, and we see each narrative from their perspective alone, except for a few moments when we see Brigid’s husband observing her birth, worrying about how he can make things better. The 19th-century narrative takes the form of a letter from Robert von Lucius to another doctor, reporting his conversations with Semmelweis. So it’s a first-person narrative. And the futuristic narrative is a series of first-person testimonies.

I also had this germ of an idea, as I mentioned, that the whole thing is generated by the altered reality of Brigid in labour, that it’s a sort of wild dream of a woman in labour, or life as seen and recrafted through that peculiar perspective. So if there is any overall narrator, or prevailing consciousness bringing it altogether, then she’s a woman in a very strange state of mind.

Gender obviously enters the novel thematically because of the subject matter, but do you see The Birth of Love as a novel intended primarily for a female readership?

I always hope that my books will be of interest to both men and women. And I think birth is a subject that is as significant for men as for women. Men don’t of course give birth, but we are all brought into existence through the violence and beauty of birth. Also I think we’re all obsessed with our origins. Most religions, or worldviews, or sciences, have theories about the origin of everything – the Big Bang, the cosmic egg, Genesis, and so on. And the whole thing is mired in uncertainty. But for each of us, birth is our point of origin. It’s when we become ourselves, when the world begins, for each one of us. To me, it’s a vast subject, bound up with the subject of what it is to be a human, to be brought into your finite life, on this inexplicable planet, in this inexplicable vast universe. And so, I don’t see why that would be a ‘female’ subject. But of course, I understand about the realities of contemporary publishing, and how certain subjects are seen as women’s interest and others not. But I think this is just a completely different worldview from my own.

Throughout the novel, childbirth is largely regarded in an existential manner until the end, when the book culminates in a very graphic birthing scene. Did you find this a necessary part of conveying the epic experience of a woman giving birth to life?

I wanted the viscera. And pain, the effect that pain has on the mind. I wanted to try to describe the inner thoughts of a woman going through labour. How the pain, and the experience as a whole, affect her thoughts, her entire personality. How she is going through an initiation, really. I’m also in general very compelled by the extraordinary within the apparently ordinary. So with Brigid’s birth – she goes through a crazily painful, absorbing struggle. To her, it is a defining moment in her life. And yet, she’s just one among dozens of other women in the hospital on that day, just one among thousands of women giving birth at that moment. To me this is very moving, that everything we do is at one level commonplace and even at times generic and yet also deeply significant to each of us as individuals.

Lastly, in the novel, there are a lot of ambivalent relationships between mother and child – for example, Brigid’s endless but obviously taxing love for Calumn, Michael Stone’s confused feelings for his incapacitated mother. What are your conclusions after writing the novel as to the degree that love can be unconditional? Do we really birth it?

With Brigid I wanted to show a period of motherhood that I remember very well – when you have one child who’s incredibly small and dependent on you, and you’re heavily pregnant with another child. And your body is colonised by the needs of your unborn, and then you are bound up entirely with the well-being of your firstborn, and you’re overwhelmed with love and joy and exhaustion and a feeling you can’t go on. But then of course you do, anyway. So I wanted to portray that time when the mother is very overburdened emotionally, but she has to cope. And so Brigid is altruistic, and imperfect, and full of love, and self-blame and rage and kindness. With Michael, I wanted to look at somebody who has cut himself off from other people, in order to, he hopes, create perfect art. So, he has refused offers of friendship, or love, has judged his mother harshly, simply because she has been contradictory, foolish at times, simply because she has made mistakes. And gradually through the novel, he realises what he’s done, or in some sense realises. He starts to wonder, isn’t this ‘art’ that is created in a vacuum, in a tower, away from everyone else, a bit sterile in the end? Isn’t it a bit lacking in love? He’s so wrapped up in his creation, he’s very unforgiving of other people, and in a way he can’t quite cope with other people contradicting his book. So in the end, both narratives are about imperfection, I think, and how love dignifies imperfection.

I called the book ‘The Birth of Love’ – I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to use that title – because each birth of a child is the birth of a particular sort of love. And also because throughout life, you experience different forms of love: you’re loved as a child, you love your parents in a dependent way, you love your lovers, and then you experience a new sort of love for your own children. I thought for a long time about putting both “birth” and “love” into the title. ‘The Birth of Love’ is a quotation from Wordsworth as well. I think it’s important to re-enchant, to use Iain Sinclair’s phrase, to re-deploy old phrases, but transform their meanings.

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