My first question to Charlotte Higgins, February’s Lewes Literary Society guest, who I’m speaking to down the phone, is a little unfair. I ask her to give me a nutshell description of her recently published book Red Thread – On Mazes and Labyrinths.
Charlotte is the Chief Culture Writer for the Guardian, and before our conversation I’ve been reading Red Thread, a beautifully sculpted and illustrated hardback which journeys into the culture of labyrinths, and the labyrinthine nature of culture. You might have heard extracts of it on Radio 4 – it was their Book of the Week in the first week of August.
It’s not something she can contain within one sentence – or even six, as it happens – but she does come up, in the middle of a response it later takes me ages to transcribe, with this: “It’s… an exploration of the way that the idea of mazes or labyrinths has been invoked as a metaphor; as a way for understanding and describing the world; as a way of understanding and describing the human psyche.”
It’s also something of a memoir. “The labyrinth resembles the human brain, doesn’t it?” she continues. “That coiled mass. So in effect it [the book] is the imprint of my brain… This labyrinthine book about labyrinths is in a way some kind of self-portrait. If that doesn’t sound too pretentious. Which I’m sure it does. But anyway…”
It won’t sound pretentious to anyone who has attempted to negotiate their way through the book, an ambitiously structured collection of culturally informed episodes, each thematically connecting to the next, with red herrings thrown in to divert from the ultimate message. There are guides along the way – some of whom prove helpful – including Virgil, Umberto Eco, Sigmund Freud, the archaeologist Arthur Evans, Stanley Kubrick, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
And, most importantly, a certain Sofia Grammataki, a Cretan classicist who took a pre-teen Higgins on a tour of Knossos (where Daedalus’ mythical labyrinth was sited) while she was on holiday with her parents. Many years later Higgins found a postcard given to her by Grammataki with the guide’s address on it, and – both being labyrinth enthusiasts – they became regular correspondents.
Or did they? Having not yet completed the book by the time we talk, I’m not entirely sure, as Higgins admits that Red Thread – even though it’s shoe-horned into the ‘non-fiction’ shelves of bookshops, does contain some consciously fashioned fictitious twists. “The mythical labyrinth was a trap, it was a place that was designed to baffle the person who went into it, so there was no way I could write a book without containing a little trap, otherwise that wouldn’t be a labyrinth, would it?”
All very intriguing, and I’m looking forward to more guidance when she comes to town on the 12th. Or returns, as it happens: she’s been to Lewes before. “I found its layout slightly confounding,” she admits. “I have a limited sense of direction when it comes to towns and cities.”
Photo by David Levene
Lewes Literary Society, All Saints, 12th Feb, 8pm. lewesliterarysociety.co.uk