Cliff Taylor gets a rare interview with the reclusive Tibor Fischer
The scene: a typically wintry Wednesday afternoon. Upstairs at The Lift in Brighton’s Queen Road, some whey-faced literary types are gathered around a table for a seminar of sorts. Their rapt attention is focused upon The Writer in their midst, a slightly grizzled 36 year old phenomenon dressed in a less-than-chic brown leather jacket, clown T-shirt and black jeans. His name is Tibor Fischer.
How To Get Ahead In The Writing Game. Lesson One: “Sleep with someone in publishing,” advises Fischer, sipping his tea. Failing this, his next tip is to stick to Lesson Two: never take no for an answer. “I’m an expert on rejection letters,” he imparts, referring to the 58 negative responses which almost buried alive his debut novel Under The Frog. “It’s a lottery,” he shrugs.
It seems scarcely believable now that the professional readers of all those imprints could have been so uniformly myopic when presented with a work as blindingly brilliant as Under The Frog, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993 and propelled Fischer into the contentious ranks of The Best Of Young British Novelists.
Which brings us to Lesson Three: “Most agents and publishers are shits.” The whey- faced literary types dutifully scribble “shits” on their notepads. But one can’t help thinking such tribulations must be past history for Fischer. After all, he is now the lionized litterateur invited down from London by Brighton’s Do Tongues spoken word club to read from his new novel The Thought Gang, which is currently leapfrogging into reprints and soon to be made into a film. These days Fischer gets advances and can afford to indulge in a little positive vengefulness against those faceless arbiters who are the hate figures of would-be authors.
But what is the secret? demand the gathered would-be authors. How can we too hitch a ride to planet Picador? Fischer shrugs again, looking so frustratingly ordinary. (He wears brand new Nike sneakers. He was born in Stockport! His mother was captain of the Hungarian women’s basketball team, but there’s no genetic evidence of that either.) He doesn’t give interviews and he’s too modest to say it, but the secret is unsharable anyway, locked securely inside that slightly balding, slightly greying skull. The eclecticism and depth of Fischer’s interests shows through in the subject matter of his books. Under The Frog is an achingly funny account of the horrors of Soviet-era Hungary. The Thought Gang gatecrashes the screaming spires and ivory towers of academia with an irreverent pisstake on “the biz” of philosophy. Meanwhile, his forthcoming novel attempts to navigate through the history of art. Fischer is one of those rare writers who can grapple with huge agenda without trivialising it.
“I like to give people a few mental lozenges to suck on, ” he says, half-jokingly. But Fischer’s comedy is often black and always honest. Under The Frog exposes Cold War insanity by drawing attention to its sheer absurdity. Absolute power turns some people into absolute pricks. Similarly, in The Thought Gang, he swipes at that other absurd god, Mammon. “Unquestionably, bank robbery is an illusion,” observes the bank robbing philosopher Eddie Coffin. “You take it out but where does it end up? In a bank. Like water, money is trapped in a cycle, it moves from bank to bank. We take it out for some fresh air.”
So what is the genesis of this prodigious comic talent? That rich vein of traditional Hungarian stand-ups? Fischer courts psychotic envy by claiming his humour comes quite naturally. He is effortlessly, flippantly hip. “The trouble with Nietzsche…” reflects the dissolute Coffin, “…is that you can never be sure when he’s doing some levity or not.”
Apres seminar The Lift fleshes out as the regular Do Tonguers arrive for the evening show. Fischer reads first from Under The Frog, a poignantly hilarious scene in which a dying Hungarian peasant is hauled out of bed and propped against a gate for the purposes of a Soviet propaganda film. Next, a bank robbery and one-sided Russian roulette incident from The Thought Gang. It’s a passage pitched somewhere between Hunter S. Thompson and Quentin Tarantino, but couched in Fischer’s inimitable vernacular: “…the risk with going forward was the bloodshed and the feel of zephyrs in the gutshangar. It was getting close, armpit wettingly close to chamber-clearing time and letting the ballistics sort things out, when we heard sirens, the sonic harbinger of the filth.”
Afterwards there is just time for the author to traffic a few thoughts. When asked what he’d be doing if that 59th letter hadn’t been a ‘yes’, Fischer replies, “Probably journalism. Or working in a leper colony.”