"Since you’ve come all the way from London, I’ll wash the cups,” says Patrick McGuinness, jumping up to grab two items of indeterminate filth from a tea-stained area of grey carpet in his study. The large room in St Anne’s, Oxford, where he is a professor of French and comparative literature, is governed by spillage: books peeking out from under each other like roughly shuffled cards, leaning from shelves and spreading across the table. Standing guard are two old dressmaker’s mannequins inherited from his Belgian grandmother, and in a corner, on what must at some archeological level be a sofa, is a pile of clothes McGuinness calls his “temporary wardrobe”.
McGuinness travels to Oxford every week from Caernarvon, where he lives with his partner and their two young children. He has constructed a life for himself of permanent productive exile – The Last Hundred Days, the novel longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Costa, was written in transit. “If I lived in a country where the trains ran on time,” he says, “I’d never get anything written.”
The novel, about corruption, decay and absurdity in the dying days of Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime in Romania, is one of the great literary success stories of 2011. A first novel published by the small Welsh house Seren, it has not only gained attention from prize givers but been picked up by Bloomsbury USA as part of a two-book deal.
In it, a colleague of the narrator’s is writing a book called “The City of Lost Walks”, a sort of guidebook to the Bucharest of recent memory, a travelogue that becomes an elegy as each monument described is razed.
The last section of McGuinness’s 2010 volume of poetry, Jilted City, is a set of poems also called “City of Lost Walks”, written, we are told, by the Romanian poet Liviu Campanu (1932-1994) and translated by McGuinness. According to a biographical introduction, Campanu was “a poet and university lecturer” persecuted by the Ceausescu regime for writing about the demolition of old Bucharest.
When I first noticed the link, I assumed the novel contained a buried tribute to a real poet named Campanu. But it transpires that Campanu is a fiction: a fully imagined other writer, known to McGuinness as “a late middle-aged heavy-smoking Romanian with big sad eyes and a penchant for reading Ovid”. Yet the guise of Campanu gives McGuinness “new ways to be myself”.
“It was never done as a hoax,” he explains. “It was done as an experiment in voice. Because actually, the things that he writes about are the things I’m interested in – much more than my more traditional McGuinness poems, which are often quite academic. Whereas this guy’s a slightly melancholy, fleshy person. As a poet, I spent quite a lot of time trying to be the kind of person I wasn’t – my poetry is quite serious and intellectual and formal, and I’m not. I’m messy and emotionally spillage-prone, and disorganised.”
“Really?” I say, looking round the room. He laughs.
McGuinness at rest is a continual reformulation of himself. He folds one leg under him, then the other; he curls and uncurls between the arms of an office chair. Born in Tunisia in 1968 of a Belgian mother and Newcastle Irish father, he grew up in Venezuela, Belgium and Iran, then taught English in Romania in his gap year. (In a poem called “Belgitude”, he writes: “Surveys showed that most Belgians questioned/ would have preferred to be from somewhere else”.) “I was always very happy not coming from anywhere,” he suggests.
One of his more orthodox methods of assuming other voices has been as a tireless presenter of other people’s work. He has put together editions of modernist and symbolist poetry, he is currently working on an anthology to be titled The Oxford Book of Protest, and before his own poems were published in book form, McGuinness translated a long unfinished work by the 19th-century French symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé, For Anatole’s Tomb – notes towards an elegy the poet wrote for his eight-year-old son, who died in 1879. “It’s a poem that’s a ruin,” McGuinness says now. “It’s both ruined and unfinished, and I like that.”
Once you’ve lighted on the idea of translation, it covers, in its broadest sense, almost all of McGuinness’s creative concerns. He does regularly translate from one language into another, but he also translates himself geographically, translates poetry into fiction (as in the invention of Liviu Campanu), translates life into death (he is preoccupied by the idea of decay) and the literal into the metaphorical (Romania standing for ruin).
And part of this is a delight in the short-circuiting of the translation machine. When he first met his partner, the novelist Angharad Price, she was teaching German at Cambridge. Thinking he’d narrowed down her accent, he asked what part of Austria she was from. “Caernarvon,” she said.
McGuinness plans to “translate” a whole volume by Campanu in the future. He senses that some previously unknown work by the Romanian may surface as part of a miraculous archival discovery.
“Let me just get this right,” I ask him. “You spent a single year in Romania, before you went to university, and you’ve never been back?” He nods. “And these few months have lasted almost 25 years, a novel and several poems?” McGuinness smiles and shrugs. “People tell me I should try writing about something else,” he says, “But… death, Romania, Belgium – what else is there?”