Hisham Matar is the author of two previous novels: In the Country of Men, which was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Commonwealth First Book Award, and Anatomy of a Disappearance. Matar's latest book, The Return, recounts his journey to Libya, where his father had been prisoner for over 20 years, after the fall of dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Matar divides his time between New York and London.
Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through?
I have a commitment to our time that I don't have to any other. I care more deeply about now than any other time, and I want to live caring that deeply. And isn't it just amazing that we were born after Beethoven and Bach, Rembrandt and Vermeer, Shakespeare and Proust, and all the others?
What's the best romance in literature?
Perhaps it's a sign of my perverse taste, but I'm moved by the confused and, frankly, baffling love Bersyenev feels for Elena in Turgenev's On the Eve. He loves her and she loves him back, but in a moment of intimacy he begins to sell to her, almost subconsciously, the virtues of another man. It's a subtle shift that has devastating consequences.
Is there a book you consider a guilty pleasure?
Proust's endless novel. Particularly in C.K. Scott Moncrieff's translation. Certainly a pleasure. I am not sure that it's a guilty one. But I would be lying if I said I don't blush a little every time I admit that I have read it more than three times.
What's more important: The beginning of a book or the end?
The truth is there is no beginning or end. Prose is sewn together and every part of it begins and ends. But in working on a book there are phases: the first is fire, the middle is stone and the last is air. Each is different, and just as fascinating to me.
Why did you write your new book?
I have done many jobs: I studied and worked in architecture; I then trained as a stonemason; at one point I painted houses; I was a stage actor; I had a little business selling hand-bound books. I was as fickle as I was competent, and could have, I imagine, had a decent life in any of these. But writing is what I do best. It's also the most exhilarating and pleasurable and challenging thing I've done. It pushes me to the edges of myself. It's the home that has been waiting for me all along, without even me knowing it. Although I've always somehow sensed it. And the books that I write would never be written otherwise.