When Wes Anderson cast him in The Grand Budapest Hotel, which was based on the writing of Stefan Zweig, Law was stunned by Zweig’s merciless novel Beware of Pity, and the last book Zweig wrote before he killed himself, Chess Story.
Just now, Law is on a break from filming Knights of the Round Table: King Arthur. He has finished shooting Genius, Michael Grandage’s film debut about the great editor Maxwell Perkins, in which he plays the novelist Thomas Wolfe.
And he’s arrived, a little late, from a lunch at which he confirmed another literary role he’s not yet at liberty to announce. “If I tell you what I’m reading it’ll give it away,” he says with a grin.
So we begin chronologically, but there are jump cuts: Law’s enthusiasms branch out, one book he loved leading to another, books he read to his children, books he gave to his mother.
He announces that he is about to go on a book-buying excursion with a friend – whose gender, I am impressed to notice, he never even accidentally reveals (“It’s a doctor of psychology. I’m going to take them shopping,” he says).
At one point, once we have been through his teens and his 20s, Law goes briefly blank on his 30s. “My 30s were a blur,” he says, then panics at how that sounds: “Don’t write that down! They certainly aren’t.”
But with a game and boyish smile that suggests he knows what jokes one could make about him, he corrects himself.
“I had a lot of children in my 30s.” (Law has three children from his marriage to Sadie Frost, another from a brief relationship with Samantha Burke, and has just become a father for the fifth time.) That’s how we get on to The Hobbit.
“I like to ask people what they’re reading because it says a lot,” Law suggests.
But he also believes there can be books that are so dear to you, you don’t want to reveal them.
“It’s too personal,” he says. “Not a guilty confession, like Mills and Boon, but another kind of confession… 'Oh, that’s who you are’.”
Is there a book like that for him?
“I’m not going to tell you!” he replies, to loud claps of laughter.
In the beginning. . .
I grew up in a house of very extensive readers. My mum and dad read a lot. My sister read everything they read. And as the youngest, and also as a more physically driven member of the family, I didn’t seem to take to it as much.
But looking back, I actually read quite a lot. I just wasn’t reading as much in comparison.
I remember loving The Indian in the Cupboard [by Lynne Reid Banks]; I remember reading Fluke by James Herbert. Emil and the Detectives was a favourite of mine.
In my teens – perhaps this was just a romanticised and pretentious desire to be like them – but I got very into the Beats. I think it started with Ginsberg. And when I realised that this was a circle, a movement, there was this sense of discovery: that you could not just devour one author, but you could read who his friends were, and who had influenced him, and go backwards to Burroughs, and left and right to Ferlinghetti or Kerouac.
And that’s often how I research now, weirdly. So with Thomas Wolfe [who he is playing in the new film Genius], so much of it is autobiographical that you have to start there, but once you’ve done that, it was interesting to spread out and see who he was influenced by.
So you go back to someone like Joyce, or indeed the people that he didn’t want to be. You try to create a map, and see where it takes you, as opposed to going in a single direction.
An interesting journey I went on was when I did Cold Mountain [Anthony Minghella’s 2003 film of Charles Frazier’s book]. So there’s this extraordinary book, which became the 'bible’.
But then, from that you go to things like Whitman – or even, funnily enough, I remember buying the book of Bob Dylan’s lyrics. And Red Badge of Courage [Stephen Crane], because you just want to submerge yourself.
But also, one of the things that was a left-of-field influence at that time was The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. The idea of walking away from problems, that life is a constant journey – that, poetically, had a massive influence on Inman [his character in that film, an American Civil War deserter].
It was another colour – you wouldn’t necessarily say you’d end up with Chatwin in Australia when researching an American Civil War piece.
Existentialism changed my life
When I made Existenz with David Cronenberg [in 1999] I discovered existentialism. That completely changed my life. Because I’d always felt inspired by the idea of the responsibility of choice, and carrying the responsibility for your own decisions and conduct – each moment of life is a confrontation of your own responsibility. So to read Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky or Camus – to be confronted by this extraordinary, diverse group of like-minded writers is something I’ve carried quite closely in my own life.
If there’s an example of your work spilling into your life and changing the way you think, that was one.
Reading to my children
I read The Hobbitthree times – to each of the children. I read it to Raf, then to Rudy, then to Iris. They loved it. And they loved all of Alexander McCall Smith’s books for children, about a boy growing up in Africa – Akimbo and the Baboons, Akimbo and the Elephants, Akimbo and the Lions …
Those were wonderful. That was an interesting turn in my life – reading to my kids, because my dad read a lot to me. Salman Rushdie, who I’d read as an adult, I then read his two Haroun books to them.
You want to read good stuff to them, because they’re not a good audience if they don’t like what they’re hearing. They’re like: “This is really boring, Dad.” So that’s what I was doing in my 30s, I was reading kids’ books.
My daughter’s called Iris after Iris Murdoch. My mum turned me on to Iris Murdoch. I think she’s the only author I’ve read everything of – except for the letters. I do have the letters. I’ve avoided them because I loved her writing so much that… it’s like watching “the making of” your favourite film – you think: no, no, I don’t want to see that. I want to see the film, I don’t want to see how they did it.
There’s a beautiful collision in Murdoch between mundanity and almost-opera, in the emotional scenarios – the ability to create immense drama out of a world which, if you try to describe it, you think: it’s so normal. But of course, no one’s normal.
Inside our own head, we’re all our leading man or leading lady. She seemed to tap into that. And also, in some of them – I’m thinking of The Italian Girl – there’s a fantastical quality, a world of poetry, but all in the characters’ perception of their lives. They’re almost domestic scenarios that are whipped into fairy tales.
Someone recently gave me the re-editions of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, supposedly for the kids, but I was like: those are mine. They’re going in my library! When I was a kid, Americana was a vague flirtation, so you’d maybe watch Dallas or Starsky and Hutch.
There were very few things on television, and there was McDonald’s, if you were allowed to go. So Snoopy, in The Observer – I became obsessed by it. The obvious thing is the wit, and the irony, but there’s also a sort of spiritual simplicity in Woodstock and Snoopy, silent clowns who have the deepest thoughts about the human conundrum.
And the set-up of the boy who always underachieves and his dog who’s brilliant at everything – it’s hilarious. We all went to school with a Lucy, or a Linus, or a Pigpen.
Let’s not forget Shakespeare
Another perspective on reading and interpreting the written word is theatre. Shakespeare, in a way for me, was a real signal, as a schoolboy. I remember sitting in a class at 13 or 14, and we were reading The Merchant of Venice, and I found it easy – I just saw it.
He still – how predictable am I? – but he does still take my breath away. For someone who was such a great creator of characters, he’s also incredibly gentle in suggesting it’s you. Hamlet, in particular, is one.
When you play him, he leaves so much room for him to be you. Henry’s much more of a “character”. You’re given these very clear turning points: statesman, politician, man about town, warrior, lover… Hamlet: it’s much more delicate, it’s like he’s tattooed on you. [Law played Hamlet in London and on Broadway in 2009, and Henry V in 2013.]
Philip Larkin at the bedside
We haven’t even touched on poetry. “And the wave sings because it is moving” – that poem by Larkin – I had it on my fridge for a while, and then it was in a folded-up piece of paper by my bed for four years, because it moved me so much, and yet I couldn’t quite work out what it was about. Well, I think in the end it’s about death – but there’s more marrow in it.
It’s proof that you don’t always necessarily need to understand – if you feel, that’s almost enough.
Jude Law will be performing as part of Letters Live at 1pm on May 24; then at 7pm will read the role of Chris Barker in the WWII correspondence, My Dear Bessie
It was a trick she had learned 20 years before from her own Oxford philosophy tutor, Donald MacKinnon, who liked to teach from the floor, rolled up in his carpet and sucking a razor blade. MacKinnon was famous for stabbing himself with his pen in public lectures. The young Iris saw him as a Christ figure, with herself as Mary Magdalene (until Mrs. MacKinnon put a stop to their relations).
Murdoch was a natural storyteller and mythmaker, apparently in compensation for an uneventful and conspicuously happy childhood. Born in 1919 into a lower-middle-class Irish Protestant family in a run-down part of Dublin, she was the child of an unambitious government clerk and his equally unremarkable wife. The only interesting thing Peter J. Conradi can find to say about either of them is that (apart from the encounter that produced Iris) theirs was a mariage blanc.
Both adored their only daughter, and wept as copiously as she did when the time came to hand her over to a girls' boarding school. Here she was swiftly promoted as a star. She played field hockey for the school, won essay prizes and ended up as head girl, warmly applauded by a fearsome headmistress (''They would sit and discuss the Good''), who remained ever afterward a Murdoch role model.
Oxford contemporaries remembered Iris as dumpy, square-headed and yellow-haired, with the face of a young lioness. Actual or prospective boyfriends saw her as a knight in armor or alternatively a fairy princess. Few who met her could resist her. The marriage proposals she turned down were soon too many to list. She had her first serious love affair with a boy called Frank Thompson, who was later captured and shot as a British major in the Balkans in 1944. His memory haunted Iris all her life.
She was 24 when she took the first of what Conradi calls her demon lovers (he was the Hungarian economist Thomas Balogh, a future personal policy adviser to the prime minister). Based in Brussels after the war, she visited Paris, met Sartre and worked briefly in Central European camps for displaced persons. Refugees and exiles touched her heart (''Such persons are windows through which one looks into terrible worlds''). This was a period of intense sexual and worldly initiation. Rereading one of her diaries later, she said its endless giddy permutations between rival lovers made her feel quite tired.
Again and again, behind Conradi's bald, flat, studiously factual narrative, Murdoch fans will recognize the stuff of plots to come. She considered herself at the time to be in training ''for inclusion among the harlots of history.'' In fact, of course, she was making her preparations as a novelist. Already at 26, nine years before she published her first novel, she told an old friend she was beginning to feel she had invented him (''You're just . . . a character out of my unsuccessful novels'').
The love of her life was a Czech Jewish poet and polymath called Franz Steiner (he knew well over two dozen languages, according to Conradi), whose heart condition gave peculiar urgency to their rare lovemaking. ''Demented with grief,'' she recorded in her diary, when Franz died suddenly in November 1952. He died of a heart attack in her arms, according to his friend Elias Canetti, who sent for Iris just over a month later and promptly made her his mistress.
Canetti, a cruel and refined power adept, was the prince of demon lovers. He didn't so much disbelieve in God as take him for a hated rival. He believed he would succeed, where Christ had failed, in abolishing death. Meanwhile, he treated other people as his creatures and creations. He had a one-armed wife (people said her husband had almost certainly bitten off the missing arm) with whom he boasted that he never slept. She would open the door to Iris and, once the lovers had completed their strenuous business together, serve up a meal for the three of them.
Murdoch told Canetti he knew everything she wanted to know: ''And very much more!'' he rapped back smartly. ''Let us have none of this English modesty!'' He had already written his single novel (and would win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981). He claimed to have discovered Murdoch, and never forgave her for giving him the slip with a rival who accepted Canetti at his own valuation as Pluto, god of the underworld, ''wanting to whisk Iris off to Hades.''
THIS was John Bayley, then a junior Oxford lecturer, younger than Murdoch and still a virgin at 29. He pictured himself to her as a harmless fruit bat: ''small, and no trouble, and furry. . . . I could hang inconspicuously upside down in the corner of your ceiling while you did your work or entertained your lovers.'' The upshot was the resounding defeat of Canetti by Bayley, who not only married Murdoch in 1956 but presided triumphantly over her second incarnation as a novelist.
Between them they created the magical setting so lovingly described long afterward in Bayley's widely read books about Iris: the leaky, rat-ridden, dust-coated Oxfordshire manor house without heating or water mains where, over the next four decades, Murdoch transposed her astonishing powers as a fabulist from fact to fiction. Successful writers of popular romance have traditionally created in their books glamorous and exciting dream worlds they never inhabited in reality. The strange thing about Murdoch is that she exercised her gifts successively in the spheres of actuality and fantasy.
It explains both the slapdash, sentimental, self-indulgent side of her work and her brilliant imaginative originality. It makes this one of the strangest literary lives I have ever read. Conradi, a critic, a former professor of English and a friend of Murdoch's, plods through it with indefatigable industry. His exhaustive bibliography, nearly 1,800 footnotes and innumerable interviews make his book invaluable from a documentary point of view. Its almost total lack of humor, imagination or literary sensibility will send readers back with renewed relish to his subject's novels.Continue reading the main story